The New Year gives us all a date to potentially make any upgrades. For MLB teams — even the best — that’s no different.
Each of the 10 playoff teams from 2018 has something about it that needs to be improved upon. In cases like the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers, that probably means adding at least one new player. Other teams, like the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees, have a resolution that, at least theoretically, could be achieved by the current players on the roster.
With an eye towards self improvement, these are the most pressing New Year’s resolutions for the 10 MLB playoff teams from the 2018 season.
Chicago Cubs: Find more power
Chicago’s lack of offense was apparent at the end of the 2018 season. The Cubs struggled offensively down the stretch. Then they scored a combined two runs in the NL Central tiebreaker against the Brewers and the NL Wild Card Game with the Rockies — both losses. Milwaukee also has one of the NL’s best offenses. Additionally, since the end of the season, the Cincinnati Reds have upgraded an already potent offense with Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. The St. Louis Cardinals added one of the best players in the game in Paul Goldschmidt. Chicago must counter.
Free agent second basemen like DJ LeMahieu and Jed Lowrie would serve as solid replacements for Daniel Murphy. An upgrade in the outfield with someone like Nick Markakis or even Adam Jones would also make some sense. Additionally, until he signs Bryce Harper looms as a possibility. There are different ways for Chicago to upgrade the offense. However it happens, Chicago’s offense needs some fresh faces in 2019.
Oakland Athletics: More innings from the starters
We’d love to see the A’s throw caution to the wind and trade for someone like Corey Kluber. But whether it’s doing something like that or just building a deeper rotation, Oakland can’t depend on its bullpen in 2019 as much as it did in 2018.
The success that teams like the A’s and Tampa Bay Rays had in 2018 may make starting pitching depth feel less relevant. But looking at starting pitching innings, tells a different story. Oakland, who ranked fourth-to-last in MLB, was the only team in the bottom-10 to make the playoffs. Tampa, who was dead last, was the only other winning team. So while might have worked okay for those two teams in 2018, depending too much on the bullpen isn’t necessarily sustainable. A team is relying too much on its bullpen will eventually have to rely on the depth of the bullpen in meaningful spots. That usually doesn’t end well.
Colorado Rockies: Make the bullpen stronger
In 2018, Colorado’s starters posted a 4.17 ERA. It may not look great, but it’s well within the curve that we have to grade on when we factor in Coors Field. The relievers on the other hand, had a 4.62 ERA. Even when we factor in the altitude, that’s bad. It’s even worse when we remember that Adam Ottavino — who posted a 2.43 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 13.0 K/9 rate, and dreams of striking out Babe Ruth in his spare time — is a free agent and may not return.
Overall, the Rockies certainly have a team that can return to the playoffs and compete for a World Series. But for that to happen, the bullpen must get much better. With Nolan Arenado looming as a pending free agent after the 2019 season, this is the year for Colorado to go big and splurge on upgrading the relievers.
New York Yankees: Fewer strikeouts
As a team that’s reached the playoffs in each of the last two years, the Yankees are clearly close. That only makes the expectations bigger. So, how does New York get to and win the World Series? Striking out less would be a good start. The strikeout is less stigmatized now than it’s been in previous eras. But the fact remains. Teams that win in October are ones that put the ball in play. Case in point, the Boston Red Sox struck out 1,253 times in 2018. Only four teams struck out less.
Now, there is precedent for a team striking out less without making wholesale changes. Prior to ascending to MLB’s elite, the Houston Astros were striking out at record rates. They eventually cut those down and won a World Series in 2017. The Yankees will have to do the same if they’re going to win it all in 2019.
Atlanta Braves: Cut down on the walks
While the season ended with a disappointing NLDS loss, 2018 was a smashing success for the Braves, who won the NL East. One drawback was how often Atlanta pitchers walked hitters. Only the Chicago White Sox — a 100-loss team — offered more free passes in 2018. That’s not exactly good company for a World Series contender to keep.
There’s a lot to like about Atlanta. The 2018 season felt like the beginning of what could be a nice, long run of success for the Braves. But especially in a time when teams are hitting home runs at record rates, pitchers must keep hitters off base as much as they can. That means that walks must be minimized.
Cleveland Indians: Take Corey Kluber off the block
We’ll give the Indians credit for this. While Kluber is on the block, they’re clearly not giving him away. That’s a good start. But as the calendar turns to 2019, Cleveland needs to take the next step and hang on to him. We’d understand a Kluber trade a little more if the American League Central was in better shape. While this is subject to change, it’s awfully hard to see any of the Indians division rivals competing with them over 162 games. Cleveland’s goal should be all about getting to and winning the World Series. That won’t happen in 2019 without Kluber on the roster.
Milwaukee Brewers: Land an ace
Milwaukee is similar to Oakland. The difference is that while the A’s need general starting rotation help, the Brewers have a relatively deep staff. What they need is a true top guy. If Cleveland really is serious about trading Kluber and/or Trevor Bauer, Milwaukee should be beating down the doors. The New York Mets probably have too invested into competing in 2019 to trade Jacob deGrom. But Noah Syndergaard seems to loom as an option. Other potential options include San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner or Arizona Diamondbacks No. 1, Zack Grienke.
It’s tricky. Small market teams tend to compete by stocking up a good farm system. These trades would definitely cut into what the Brewers have built. On the other hand, Milwaukee has a team that was nearly in the World Series in 2018 and will start 2019 on a short list of favorites — at least in the NL. The Brewers owe it to themselves to make the most of this current opportunity.
Houston Astros: Bring J.T. Realmuto to Space City
A look at Houston’s roster doesn’t show many weaknesses. One potential issue is the catcher position. The current options are Robinson Chirinos (.222/.338/.419, 18 home runs in 2018) and Max Stassi (.226/.316/.394, eight home runs in 2018). In truth, you can do worse from the catcher’s spot and offense isn’t everything at that position. With that understood, J.T. Realmuto (.277/.340/.484, 21 home runs in 2018) would be a sizable upgrade over both.
The drawback is that Realmuto is slated to be a free agent after the 2020 season. But many of the key Astros have similar timelines. We’re not going to say that Houston should just ignore the future beyond 2020. But extending the championship window beyond then will be tough. The goal now should be making the most out of the next two years. Landing a star catcher like Realmuto would be a huge step towards doing that.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Build a bullpen and keep building
Clayton Kershaw has received a good deal of blame for Los Angeles’ postseason struggles. Some of it was fair, some of it wasn’t. But with Walker Buehler slated to spend a full season in the majors, the Dodgers have a solid starting rotation behind Kershaw. Another star, closer Kenley Jansen, took his lumps in both the 2017 and 2018 World Series. But the reality is that Los Angeles’ bullpen in front of Jansen has been the consistent issue.
The Dodgers need to revamp the bullpen. When they think they’ve added enough quality relievers, they need to add at least one more. It’s physically impossible for a World Series contender to have too many good relief pitchers. A shaky bullpen has been a primary culprit in Los Angeles winning no championships despite winning the NL West in each of the last six years. That can’t happen to the Dodgers again in 2019. If it does, it can’t be for a lack of effort.
Boston Red Sox: Go for the throat
Houston followed a World Series win in 2017 by adding Gerrit Cole to an already formidable starting rotation. While the Astros didn’t repeat, they did make the ALCS, winning 103 regular season games in the process. Boston must have the same mindset. Why not add an ace to slot right behind Chris Sale? Heck, why not add another MVP candidate to have in the lineup with Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez? Baseball isn’t as conducive to super teams as other sports. But there’s no harm in trying.
The Red Sox won 108 regular season games and went 11-3 in the playoffs en route to a World Series win. Teams like that don’t generally have many flaws. Now, make no mistake, we’re not saying that Boston shouldn’t try to improve its biggest weakness, which is the bullpen. But it shouldn’t be confining the offseason to just that. Most teams are already well behind the Red Sox. Boston might as well make that gap even greater.