Early look at MLB power rankings

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball season is upon us. Camps are getting underway. We’re not far from seeing spring training games and not that far from the regular season. Of course, some teams have high expectations, while others look like they’re in for long summers. Our MLB power rankings will clue us in on which teams fit which category.

One thing that’s important to note. Power rankings are always subject to some change. But that’s a particularly relevant notice this year. Several of the year’s top free agents remain unsigned. Their potential signings can significantly sway our rankings.

With that noted, what can we expect? The Miami Marlins seemed to trade everyone but the hot dog vendors (hopefully that doesn’t give them any ideas). Certainly, that has a significant impact on where the Marlins find themselves. But on the other side, their old players like Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon, and of course, Giancarlo Stanton impact the placement of their new teams.

The 2017 season offered some surprises, as well. We’ll find out what to expect from teams like the Minnesota Twins, Colorado Rockies, and Arizona Diamondbacks. Of course, we’ll also see what to expect from 2017’s last two teams standing, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros.

30. Miami Marlins (2017: 77-85, 2nd place, NL East)

As we enter the 2018 season, MLB has a handful of teams that could lose 100 games. But it would be downright surprising if the Marlins didn’t. We can’t say that about anyone else. And honestly, we’re not sure that the new Marlins owners would have it any other way — at least as far as 2018 is concerned.

Miami has unloaded most of its top talent from 2017’s team (which wasn’t very good to begin with). We wouldn’t be surprised to see players like Justin Bour and especially J.T. Realmuto follow the likes of Stanton, Ozuna, Yelich, and Gordon out during the season, if not before.

29. Detroit Tigers (2017: 64-98, 5th place, AL Central)

The situation in Detroit is better than the one in Miami. But that’s about all we can say for the Tigers. Detroit entered a full rebuild in 2017, unloading players like J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander. Ian Kinsler was moved to the Los Angeles Angels in the offseason. While they both have no-trade protection, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see players like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez moved, as well.

The early years of a rebuild are tough, and that’s precisely what Detroit is going through. If these Tigers can find a way to 70-92, they deserve a parade.

28. Pittsburgh Pirates (2017: 75-87, 4th place, NL Central)

While not quite as drastic, the Pirates’ offseason was similar to the Marlins’. Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen were traded in moves that seemed more about clearing money than anything else. So, like Miami, Pittsburgh traded some of the best players from a team that wasn’t that good to begin with.

The fans of the Steel City still have the Steelers and Penguins competing for championships. We’re not sure that we’ll be able to say that about the baseball team for a while.

27. Tampa Bay Rays (2017: 80-82, 3rd place, AL East)

Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter

We like Tampa’s top pitchers reasonably well. Still, we can’t get past the lingering issue of the Rays’ offense. Where in the world are the runs going to come from? We can guess that Corey Dickerson will bat in the middle of the order. But it just feels like we can make up the rest of the order by drawing names from a hat.

That’s just not going to work in the modern game, especially in the offense heavy American League East. At this point, a fifth straight losing season seems in the works for the Rays.

26. San Diego Padres (2017: 71-91, 4th place, NL West)

We like Wil Myers at first base. We’re also optimistic about young outfielders like Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe. Unfortunately, that’s about where the optimism stops, at least as far as 2018 goes. San Diego’s bullpen is decent. The problem is that we can’t imagine the starting rotation handing those relievers many leads.

With the aforementioned youngsters already up and Fernando Tatis Jr. looming in the minors, we like San Diego’s future. Still, we expect to see an eighth straight losing season with ample room to spare.

25. Cincinnati Reds (2017: 68-94, 5th place, NL Central)

Over the last four seasons, Cincinnati has averaged a 69-93 record. The good news for the Reds is that we see them coming out of that hole in 2018. The bad news is that they’re still a long way from contention. Opposing pitchers will not enjoy facing a lineup with Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton, and Scooter Gennett. It only gets more formidable if Nick Senzel has a good camp and makes the team. Unfortunately, opposing hitters will be chomping at the bit to face Cincinnati’s pitchers.

The Reds might be fun to watch. Still, expect to see them somewhere in the 70-75 win range.

24. Baltimore Orioles (2017: 75-87, 5th place, AL East)

Here’s a prediction for 2018. More runs will be scored in games featuring the Orioles than any other team. Baltimore has a formidable offense. The problem is that to win games, you also must prevent runs from being scored. For this starting rotation, that’s going to be much easier said than done.

If the Orioles are  to contend, they’ll have to outslug their opponents. That’s plausible for a game, a series, or even an extended run of games. But over 162 games, that strategy is not going to pay off.

23. Philadelphia Phillies (2017: 66-96, 5th place, NL East)

Much like the aforementioned Reds, the Phillies are trending up after a rebuilding project. But while Philadelphia’s rebuild is slightly ahead of Cincinnati’s, this team has at least one more down year to go. Offensively, we like this team a lot. There are also some pieces that we like in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. But the Phillies still feel one good starting pitcher and at least two good relievers away from contending for the playoffs.

But even if 2018 yields a predictable losing record, it should still be a lot of fun for Philadelphia and its fans.

22. Kansas City Royals (2017: 80-82, 3rd place, AL Central)

In truth, we’re bumping the Royals up a little bit because we’re assuming that either Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas will return. But even if both go back to Kansas City, it’ll still be hard to justify ranking the Royals as a top-15 team. The starting rotation is mediocre and the offense just doesn’t have a lot of depth.

After winning the World Series in 1985, Kansas City underwent a series of rebuilding projects. One finally worked in the middle of this decade, when the Royals won a World Series. Unfortunately, it’s hard for small market teams to sustain that success. Now is really the time for another rebuild.

21. Atlanta Braves (2017: 72-90, 3rd place, NL East)

On the surface, the Braves look like the kind of team that could be 2018’s version of the 2017 Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks, or Colorado Rockies. But realistically, a lot needs to happen before this team is even contending for the playoffs.

Dansby Swanson looked lost in his rookie year. We need to see him bounce back. We love Ronald Acuna. But the fact remains that he’s unproven as a Major Leaguer. Julio Teheran has to show that he can pitch in SunTrust Park. He had a tough time pitching there in its inaugural season. Atlanta has talent, but this club still feels like a 78-84 club.

20. Texas Rangers (2017: 78-84, T-3rd place, AL West)

The Rangers are really the first team who we can see making the playoffs without multiple highly unlikely scenarios coming to fruition. There’s definite talent in Texas. The problem is that the Rangers are relying on a lot of players who have a lot to prove.

Rougned Odor needs to bounce back. Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo need to build off of what they did a season ago. Willie Calhoun needs to show that his extraordinary Minor League numbers will translate. Also, realistically, Texas should be seriously in on at least one of the remaining free agent starters. The potential is there, but a lot of questions need to be answered in the right way.

19. Oakland Athletics (2017: 75-87, 5th place, AL West)

While not as extreme, the A’s will be similar to the Orioles. With guys like Khris Davis, Matt Chapman, and Matt Olson hanging around in the middle of the order, this lineup is going to be quite formidable. But there’s a difference between being a fun offensive team and one that can compete for a playoff spot.

Oakland is firmly in the first group already. To get into the second group, Oakland’s pitching will need to get much better. That means starters like Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton, and presumed closer Blake Treinen, need to elevate their games. 

18. San Francisco Giants (2017: 64-98, 5th place, NL West)

The Giants should be much better in 2018 than they were in 2018. Madison Bumgarner being healthy will certainly buoy San Francisco’s chances, as will the additions of Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. But this team still has big holes in the bullpen and lacks real depth in the starting rotation.

We’re not thinking that the Giants are in line to lose 98 games again. But to really compete for a playoff spot in what should be a highly competitive National League West, those issues need to be fixed.

17. Seattle Mariners (2017: 78-84, T-3rd place, AL West)

A lot can go right in Seattle and if it does, the Mariners figure to be right around the top-10. But a lot can go wrong, which would put Seattle well into the bottom-10. While we can say that about any team, especially those at this part of the rankings, the Mariners are unique in that the two rather extreme possibilities seem similarly possible.

Felix Hernandez needs to bounce back. Dee Gordon needs to adjust well to center field play center field. Heck, we may even need to see prospect Kyle Lewis come in a bit ahead of schedule. Seattle really is the American League’s swing team of 2018.

16. Minnesota Twins (2017: 85-77, 2nd place, AL Central)

Looking at the positive, we like the upgrades Minnesota has given its bullpen. Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney figure to help the Twins at the end of games. But unfortunately, the negatives are prevalent. Ervin Santana’s injury leaves an already thin starting rotation reeling. Also, it’s certainly possible that Miguel Sano will be disciplined after some very serious allegations. Of course, the on field impact is secondary in terms of importance. But that’s certainly a step backwards for Minnesota.

The Twins went from 103 losses in 2016 to the playoffs in 2017. They’ll be fighting an uphill battle to make it two straight playoff appearances.

15. New York Mets (2017: 70-92, 4th place, NL East)

Noah Syndergaard

While Seattle was the American League’s swing team, New York holds that title in the Senior Circuit. It’s not hard to see the Mets making the playoffs. Heck, it’s not even that hard to see New York edging out the Washington Nationals in the National League East. But the pitching, which is what gives us that hope, also gives us doubt. Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Matt Harvey should be a formidable top three of the rotation. But all three have struggled with injuries in recent years. The same can be said about guys like Steven Matz, Seth Lugo, and Zack Wheeler.

This rotation needs to stay healthy. That will determine where this team goes in 2018.

14. Toronto Blue Jays (2017: 76-86, 4th place, AL East)

Did we overrate the Blue Jays, or severely underrate them? We can make compelling arguments either way. This lineup is formidable. Hitters like Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Justin Smoak will not make life especially fun on opposing pitchers. Additionally, we like the starting rotation, featuring Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, and Aaron Sanchez. On the other hand, this team finished with a losing record a season ago. It certainly can happen.

With all of that said, we can’t call Toronto one of the American League’s best anymore. But we do expect the Blue Jays to be in the Wild Card race for most of the season.

13. Chicago White Sox (2017: 67-95, 4th place, AL Central)

After the 2016 season, the White Sox went into a deep rebuild. In 2018, it’ll be time for the rebuilding project to result in wins on the field. Yoan Moncada will be up for the full season. Eloy Jimenez should be up for most of the season and the starting rotation should feature a heavy dose of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Michael Kopech.

Sure, jumping from 95 losses to the 13th best team in baseball is a massive leap. But the influx of talent in Chicago is also massive. We don’t quite have the White Sox as a playoff team, but they should be knocking on the door all year.

12. Milwaukee Brewers (2017: 86-76, 2nd place, NL Central)

We love Milwaukee on offense. Specifically, we love the outfield of Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, and Christian Yelich. This was one of baseball’s best outfields a season ago and it got an upgrade with the signing of Cain and the trade for Yelich. What we don’t love is the Brewers’ pitching. That said, we give the pitching more of an incomplete grade than anything else.

Coming off of a monster year, Domingo Santana is almost certain to be traded. Brett Phillips and Corey Ray, both outfielders close to the MLB level, are among two of Milwaukee’s top prospects who could be on the move as well. That should provide a significant upgrade to the pitching, making the Brewers real postseason contenders.

11. St. Louis Cardinals (2017: 83-79, 3rd place, NL Central)

The Brewers and Cardinals are similar teams. But St. Louis gets the slight edge for two reasons. One is that the Cardinals are essentially always relevant, making them easy to defer to. The other is that St. Louis is more of a finished product, at least as it relates to pitching.

Make no mistake, there are questions. We need to see that Adam Wainwright can start 30-plus times. He didn’t do that in 2017 and at 36, we can’t exactly take that for granted. We also need to see that Michael Wacha will not revert to his 2016 form. But with those two and Carlos Martinez fronting the rotation, the Cards have the arms needed to compete for a playoff spot.

10. Los Angeles Angels (2017: 80-82, 2nd place, AL West)

Offensively, the Halos should be formidable. Hopefully Mike Trout will be healthy for a full year. They’ll also have Justin Upton for a full season. Joining them will be offseason additions like Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler, revamping the Los Angeles infield. Shohei Ohtani is the other big addition. While he’ll provide some spark to the offense, his impact on the pitching rotation is what excites us.

The Angels have had baseball’s best player since 2012. But most of Mike Trout’s career has been spent playing for middling teams. In 2018, we expect to see Trout playing into the postseason for the second time in his career.

9. Arizona Diamondbacks (2017: 93-69, 2nd place, NL West)

With the likely loss of J.D. Martinez the offense may not be quite the potent unit that we saw at the end of 2017. But we can’t forget that this team was doing quite well before Martinez was acquired. Even if he signs elsewhere, we’re not expecting Arizona to fall into obscurity. Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke are leaders of the offense and pitching rotations, respectively. But neither unit is a one-man show. Goldschmidt is aided in the lineup by guys like Jake Lamb and A.J. Pollock, while Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, and Patrick Corbin are more than capable in backing up Greinke.

The Diamondbacks made a big offseason splash before the 2016 season. It did not pay immediate dividends. But to their credit, they kept the players largely intact. That paid off in 2017. It should pay off with another contending team in 2018.

8. Boston Red Sox (2017: 93-69, 1st place, AL East)

The bad news for the Red Sox is that they stayed fairly stagnant. Boston won its second straight division title in 2017, despite boasting a lineup with little power. In the ALDS, we saw how much the lack of power hurt them. The good news is that this is a similar team to the one that claimed division titles in 2016 and 2017. We wish that the Red Sox had a more active offseason. But the fact that they didn’t doesn’t preclude them from being a playoff team.

Boston certainly shouldn’t be favored to win the American League East, but it wouldn’t be a stunner if it happened. At the least, though, we should expect this team to be in the American League Wild Card Game. With a pitcher like Chris Sale, that’s not a terrible place to be.

7. Colorado Rockies (2017: 87-75, 3rd place, NL West)

The offense will always get the attention in Colorado. With MVP candidates like Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon leading the show, it’s easy to see why. But the Rockies showed in 2017 that they can pitch at Coors Field. That has kept Colorado’s teams from competing throughout most of its history. But while they didn’t remind anyone of the 1970’s Orioles, guys like Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and German Marquez showed that having a decent pitching staff at altitude is possible.

When a team comes out of nowhere to make the playoffs one year, there’s genuinely a skepticism heading into the next. The one team was good, but was it sustainably good? In the Rockies’ case, we’re saying yes.

6. Cleveland Indians (2017: 102-60, 1st place, AL Central)

We’re into the nitty gritty now. Not only do we expect these teams to make the playoffs, but any of these teams could certainly win the World Series without much imagination. So, why are the Indians the “worst” of our championship contenders?

The outfield definitely creates some questions, especially if Michael Brantley continues his injury plagued ways. Yonder Alonso is coming off of a good year. But he’s had issues putting good years together. He’ll need to do that if he’s going to adequately replace Carlos Santana. The bullpen has been this team’s strength. Will it continue to be with Bryan Shaw gone? The Indians are a team that should contend. But to turn a contender into a champion, those questions will need to be answered.

5. Washington Nationals (2017: 97-65, 1st place, NL East)

MLB, Aug 1, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (left) and pitcher Stephen Strasburg against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We know that the Nationals are as talented as anyone. But can they win in the playoffs? It’s not a new narrative, but Washington has found a way to keep it relevant. This year gives us even more urgency. After 2018, the Nats will be facing issues of free agency (Bryce Harper), age (Ryan Zimmerman), or both (Daniel Murphy).

Still, Washington should be considered heavy favorites in the National League East. Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy (assuming he’s healthy) lead an offense that includes younger guys like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg lead one of baseball’s best starting rotations. The bullpen may not be one of the league’s best, but it’s formidable. We’ll revisit our skepticism of the Nationals in October. But from April through September, this is easily one of the best teams in baseball.

4. New York Yankees (2017: 91-71, 2nd place, AL East)

While Orioles games will feature more combined runs than any other team, no one team will outscore the Yankees over the course of the season. This lineup was already lethal in 2017. Adding Giancarlo Stanton will leave a lot of pitchers discovering mysterious, three-day arm injuries ahead of series against New York. That said, there are some things that we can get picky about.

New York’s three best hitters — Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez — are guys who try to park the ball 500 feet in every at-bat. That’s fine. But the best pitchers, who generally make occupy the mounds in October, can find holes in those swings. We also don’t love the defensive outfield with Stanton and Judge on the corners. On balance, it will produce far more runs than it allows, but it’s something to notice. Finally, the starting rotation is good, but it feels like a series of No. 2 and No. 3 starters. We’re not sure there’s a true ace. None of that should keep New York from a great season, but this team has higher aspirations.

3. Chicago Cubs (2017: 92-70, 1st place, NL Central)

Chicago had its issues in the early portion of 2017. World Series hangovers are not rare and when it came to things like media responsibilities, the 2016 Cubs easily trumped any recent World Series champ. In hindsight, we should have seen that coming from a mile away. But after the All-Star Break, the Cubs were 49-25, which translates to 107-55 over 162 games. The hangover was cured. We’re not thinking 107-55 is in order for 2018, but we think Chicago will be much closer to that pace than the 43-45 one it suffered through in the first half.

Jake Arrieta is probably not going to return to the Cubs. But with a full season of Jose Quintana and now Yu Darvish, Chicago’s starting rotation is fine. The offense still has Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo leading the charge. That will keep it stable. If Kyle Schwarber bounces back and Willson Contreras continues to emerge, it will be better than stable. If nothing else, a fourth straight NLCS trip should be expected.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (2017: 104-58, 1st place, NL West)

An errant pick-off throw hitting an umpire. An uncharacteristic blown save from Kenley Jansen. Two disastrous Clayton Kershaw innings. If any one of those things goes differently, Los Angeles probably wins the World series in 2017. The good news for the Dodgers is that they’re in with a real chance to get back and take that last step in 2018.

Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger are certainly driving forces in the heart of the Los Angeles order. But the rest of the Dodgers don’t exactly offer a break to opposing pitchers. Kershaw has had some issues staying healthy in recent seasons. But he’s still the best starter in baseball. The Jansen anchored bullpen will not blow many late leads, either. This is a strong team up and down the roster. The difference between Los Angeles and our No. 1 team is not significant at all.

1. Houston Astros (2017: 101-61, 1st place, AL West)

The biggest difference between the Astros and Dodgers is simple. Los Angeles lost Darvish and Brandon Morrow. Not only did the Dodgers lose those players, but they lost them both to the Cubs, probably their biggest rivals in the National League. Houston, meanwhile, added Gerrit Cole. Cole, along with a full season from Justin Verlander should bolster an already strong rotation.

World Series hangovers stem from multiple things. One is the stress of playing an extra month. Another is the unusual media requests, which really do lead to a strange offseason. The Astros are vulnerable to those two. But World Series hangovers also come from teams holding too steady and not making improvements. Houston did not did do that. We’re not sure if that will lead to a repeat from the Astros. But it is enough to earn them our No. 1 spot.