If the 2017 season taught us anything, it’s that preseason expectations that we level on these MLB teams can be taken seriously, but only to a point.
Sure, the six division winners went basically according to form. But three of the four wild card teams were coming off losing seasons. The other was expected to be in a rebuilding year and it ended up one game shy of the World Series. So, even if you’re cheering for a team with a generally pessimistic mood around it entering the 2018 season, the 2017 New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colorado Rockies should give reason to believe.
As we enter the 2018 MLB season, the question is simple. Who can be this year’s version of those teams? We’ve compiled some candidates.
A World Series matching up the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees would surprise nobody. But each team shares a city with a potential under the radar playoff contender. The Houston Astros are a juggernaut and the Los Angeles Angels enter the year with plenty of reasons for optimism. But two of their division mates have the tools to exceed expectations.
In trying to figure out who might be better than expected in 2018, these eight MLB teams deserve a hard look.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox lost 95 games in a 2017 season that was all about rebuilding. If you’re a fan of this team, we hope for your sake that you’ve remained patient with the Sox through the recent run of nine straight years with no playoff appearances and five straight losing seasons. Because if you did remain patient, you’re about to be rewarded.
You’re going to see Yoan Moncada for a full season. You’re likely going to see prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech for most of the season. Other key youngsters that the South Side will see a heavy dose of in 2018 include Lucas Giolito, Carson Fulmer, and Reynaldo Lopez. With good Minor League seasons, you might even see the likes of Alec Hansen, Dylan Cease, and Zack Collins by year’s end. These are some of the best prospects in one of baseball’s best regarded farm systems.
As we look at things now, the only American League Central team that we would definitively put ahead of the White Sox is the Cleveland Indians. The Minnesota Twins would probably check in slightly higher, as well. But we could certainly see Chicago topping Minnesota for second in the division. We expect that both teams will be at least relevant in the playoff race well into September.
It’s been a while since the White Sox have been good. But with a tremendous influx of youth and some solid veterans like Avisail Garcia and Jose Abreu, that figures to change in 2018.
Entering 2017, the Braves were a team filled with young players. Unfortunately, those young players (along with most of their veteran teammates) didn’t exactly click. As a result, Atlanta suffered through its fourth straight losing season.
But now, those young players like Dansby Swanson have a full year under their belts. Additionally, Atlanta has more reinforcements coming. Rookie of the Year candidate Ronald Acuna should spend a good portion of 2018 (if not all of it) with the Braves.
But behind him are other incoming rookies like Mike Soroka, Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard, and Max Fried. These are some of the highest-ranked players in Atlanta’s highly regarded farm system. That doesn’t even include guys like Kyle Wright, who could make his way to the majors at the end of the year if things go well.
It would be a sizable upset if any team other than the Washington Nationals won this division. But thanks to the Braves and another team we’ll get to shortly, this is not a one-team division.
Seattle last made the MLB playoffs in 2001. That’s the longest drought in baseball. In fact, with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills making the playoffs in 2017, the Mariners own the longest postseason drought in any of North America’s “big four” leagues.
But don’t let that fool you. This team is deep with talent. The lineup is fierce. The heart of it features Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Mike Zunino. That’s a formidable group. That quartet figures to have ample RBI opportunities, as well, with Jean Segura and the newly acquired Dee Gordon setting the table at the top of the order.
The pitching rotation is good. It can be great if Felix Hernandez can find some of his old form. We’ll probably never see the truly dominant King Felix again. But if he can generate an ERA at somewhere in the 3.50-3.75 range (or, of course, better), this rotation looks quite strong.
Winning the American League West would be a real shocker. The Astros are heavily favored, and over 162 games it’s awfully hard to imagine anyone in the AL West topping them. But Seattle is one of many Junior Circuit teams that should be in the mix for a wild card spot. When you haven’t made the playoffs in 17 years and occupy a division with the reigning World Series champs, that’s about all you can ask for.
From 2010-2013, the Reds made the playoffs three times. The subsequent seasons have been rough. But after four straight down years, Cincinnati’s car is pointing in the right direction.
Joey Votto is, of course, who will garner much of the attention. But the Reds’ lineup is far from a one-man show. Adam Duvall, Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, and Billy Hamilton are all quality Major League players. Jose Peraza has struggled at the MLB level. But he’s also not far removed from being one of baseball’s more highly touted prospects. Like the aforementioned Swanson, he’s gone through growing pains. But also like the Atlanta shortstop, it’s far too early to write Peraza off.
The pitching rotation is admittedly questionable. But by the same token, there’s a lot of promise in the arms of Anthony DeSclafani, Luis Castillo, Robert Stephenson, and Tyler Mahle. Granted, all of those pitchers probably need to exceed expectations for us to consider the Reds a playoff contender. That’s usually unrealistic with young arms. But we’re also not pegging Cincinnati as a postseason team.
We are pegging the Reds as a team that should be vastly improved from the one that’s lost 94 or more games in each of the last three seasons. The 2018 season should serve to give baseball fans a new sense of optimism for future seasons.
Here’s what we know about the A’s. They’ll hit.
Coming off of consecutive 40 home run seasons, Khris Davis is definitely the anchor of the lineup. But he’s complimented well by Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Matt Joyce, Stephen Piscotty, and Dustin Fowler.
Where Oakland has something of an outhouse or castle feel is in the pitching staff. Sean Manaea and especially Jharel Cotton both struggled in 2017. But that’s far from unique for young pitchers, especially in the American League. Both have a great deal of talent, as well. Paul Blackburn showed in 2017 that he can at least be a solid bottom of the rotation guy. Top prospect A.J. Puk will likely see a heavy dose of MLB action in 2018. That will not be a bad thing.
The A’s have the offense to simply outscore a lot of their opponents. That, in and of itself, isn’t quite enough to be competitive over a full season. But the thunderous offense mixed with unquestioned promise of Oakland’s young arms makes us think that this team can compete.
Like the Mariners, the A’s share a division with the 800-pound gorilla known as the Astros. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t field a competitive team and even compete for a wild card spot as we get deep into the summer.
San Diego Padres
It’s easy to fly under the radar when you haven’t had a winning season since 2010. It’s even easier when you share a division with three playoff teams and another that has won three championships in the decade. And make no mistake, we’re not here to tell you that the Padres are making the playoffs. We’re not even telling you that San Diego will finish out of the National League West cellar.
But much like the Reds, we are saying that the Padres will have a better than expected season. We also think that they’ll give San Diego baseball fans real hope for seasons going forward.
There’s real talent in this lineup. Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer are the real standouts. But Manuel Margot, Austin Hedges, and Hunter Renfroe provide reasons for optimism, as well.
Additionally, one of the benefits of losing for so long is that the Padres have drafted high and now have a highly regarded Minor League system. In 2018, we can see the likes of middle infielder Luis Urias and pitcher Cal Quantrill get called up. We could even conceivably see Fernando Tatis Jr. and Michael Baez.
The Padres are far from the National League West’s best team. But they are one of the reasons that the National League West should be considered baseball’s best overall division.
Toronto Blue Jays
The American League East is generally being hyped as a two-team division. It’s certainly understandable that the Red Sox and Yankees would receive the bulk of the attention. But overlooking the Blue Jays — a team that made consecutive ALCS appearances in 2015 and 2016 — feels like a mistake.
With Justin Smoak, Josh Donaldson, Curtis Granderson, and Kendrys Morales, the Toronto lineup includes four players with legitimate 30-plus home run potential. That doesn’t even include Troy Tulowitzki, who definitely has the adequate pop, but has issues staying healthy. But even without Tulo, those sluggers are complimented by very capable hitters such as Russell Martin, Randal Grichuk, and Kevin Pillar. It’s a lineup that will offer opposing pitchers no breaks.
Of course, that’s only part of the battle. An improved bullpen also backs up one of the American League’s best starting rotations. Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, and Jaime Garcia is a starting five that will match up quite well to just about anyone else on the Junior Circuit.
There’s no denying the talent of Boston or New York. The Red Sox have won each of the last two American League East titles and added J.D. Martinez. The Yankees pushed the Astros to a seven-game ALCS and added Giancarlo Stanton. They’re good teams and deserve the status as co-favorites in the division.
But the Blue Jays don’t feel like a team that’s going to get overrun by anyone.
New York Mets
Speaking to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen recently made a curious statement. Jansen was expression frustration with the slow free agent market. A player having those feelings isn’t exactly unexpected. But when sharing them, he lamented that “There’s one team competing for the title in the NL East!”
While he didn’t name names, there’s absolutely no doubt that Jansen was referring to the Nationals. But looking at the Mets, it’s hard to say this team isn’t competing.
Jansen should remember the Mets dancing on the field at Dodger Stadium at the end of the 2015 NLDS. But in case he doesn’t, here’s the reminder. The Mets were actually the National League champs that year. In 2016, New York overcame a myriad of injuries to host the National League Wild Card Game. The Mets certainly weren’t competitive in 2017 but again, they dealt with a consistent stream of injuries.
In the 2017-18 offseason, New York has actually been one of the few teams making significant moves. We agree that sometimes the Mets act like a small market team. But we can’t claim that a team signing Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, Adrian Gonzalez, and Jason Vargas in one offseason isn’t looking to compete.
With guys like Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Vargas, the Mets have one of the best starting rotations in baseball. Staying healthy is an issue. But if that happens, good luck finding a team that would want to face New York in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series.
The Mets are a team that should either make the playoffs, or remain in the race until the very end. They will likely fall short of the Nationals. But it won’t be because they’re a bad team, nor will it be for a lack of effort.