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Top storyline for each team heading into 2018 MLB season

MLB stars Aaron Judge

By the time the 2018 MLB season is over, teams will have different ways of determining whether it was successful. In some cases, it’s essentially Word Series or bust. In others, it’s more about the progress of the team. But regardless of the goal, each team has one real focal point for the season.

What is the main storyline for each team?

In cases like the Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians, the main storylines are circled on star players in contract years. With teams like the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles, it’s more about how strongly they embrace a rebuild. While the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates have radically different expectations for the 2018, each’s main storyline revolves around a rookie looking to build off of a fantastic first year.

The storylines vary. The reasons for them vary. But whatever the reasons, these are the main storylines to follow for each MLB team during the 2018 MLB season.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper’s contract

It would be overly simplistic to say that the regular season doesn’t matter in Washington. But the fact remains that if the Nats win the NL East (which they’re the overwhelming favorites to do), the playoffs are what matter. After all, Mike Rizzo is running out of managers to fire.

Assuming things go according to plan in the regular season, Harper’s contract will be the big focal point. It is possible that an extension will be signed before the end of the season. But given that Harper is a free agent that could earn $500 million (and will almost assuredly earn $400 million), an extension would not be in agent Scott Boras’ M.O.. Washington and any team that may bid on Harper can only sit back and watch what he does to see how much money he’ll demand.

Minnesota Twins: Offensive development of Byron Buxton

While baseball has many tremendous outfielders, none are Buxton’s equal on defense. We’re not just blown away by how he chases down balls that seem sure to be extra bases. We’re also blown away by how he can consistently make difficult plays look exceptionally easy. The problem with Buxton has always been his offense.

He’s a career .237/.295/.406 hitter. In the second half of 2017, Buxton seemed to turn a corner. He slashed at .300/.347/.546 and hit 11 home runs — more than good enough for a centerfielder with his defensive prowess. But turning the corner and having a great second half is one thing. Doing it for a full season is another. If Buxton can do that, then this Minnesota team has a lineup that will be tough to deal with not just in 2018, but in future seasons as well.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Will the pitching hold up?

Even with the departure of J.D. Martinez, we can say with reasonable certainty that the Diamondbacks will score plenty of runs. A return trip to the playoffs will hinge on how well Arizona prevents those runs.

A season ago, the Diamondbacks were fantastic at run prevention. They had the third lowest staff ERA in baseball at 3.66. While Zack Greinke was the clear ace of the staff, that was also aided by pitchers like Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray, who both had career years. While Patrick Corbin didn’t have a career year, his 2017 ERA was more than a full point lower than 2016’s. For Arizona to compete in a strong National League (especially National League West), those gentlemen will all have to have similar — or even better — seasons.

Oakland Athletics: Development of Sean Manaea

We’re reasonably confident that Matt Olson will fall off of his pace from 2017. If he doesn’t, then he’ll challenge the single-season home run record. But even with that noted, the A’s are like the Diamondbacks. They’re going to score a lot of runs. Competing will depend on them preventing runs.

Entering spring, our focus was on Sean Manaea and Jharrel Cotton. With Cotton now on the shelf due to Tommy John Surgery, Manaea gets our attention. Manaea had some bright spots in 2017, but with a 4.37 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, there was room to improve. Thus far, he’s having a nice spring, posting a 2.53 ERA in Cactus League action. That’s the kind of step forward Oakland is going to need. Kendall Graveman is a nice pitcher, but he’s not an ace. If the Athletics are going to seriously compete this season (or really, in the near future), Manaea is going to have to take steps towards becoming that front line guy.

Milwaukee Brewers: The outfield shuffle

The Brewers enter 2018 with an interesting dilemma. Four guys — Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, and Domingo Santana — are not only starting outfielders, but potential All-Stars. Without the DH, the natural idea would be to give one of these guys playing time at first base. But truthfully, Eric Thames had too good of a year in 2017 to be displaced. So, how in the world is Craig Counsell going to manage this?

In the beginning of the year, look for a rotation. Yelich will likely play every day. But expect the others to be in a three day on, one day off (or something similar) type of rotation. If natural starters don’t emerge from that battle, then expect that the Brewers will be active on the trade market, likely with Santana. If you’re a team looking for an outfield jolt (especially if you have a starting pitcher that might be useful in Milwaukee), keep an eye on how the Brewers’ outfield situation unfolds in the early weeks of the season.

New York Yankees: Aaron Judge in Year 2

Judge set the world on fire as a rookie. He set a new rookie record with 52 home runs, won the American League Rookie of the Year, and finished second in MVP voting. Now he’s got to do it again. Judge has made it known that he’s not planning on being a one-year wonder. Ultimately, we believe that. But he wouldn’t be the first player to follow up a sterling rookie season with a mediocre second year. That wouldn’t necessarily be a sign of a one-year wonder, either. That would come if he’s still struggling in Year 3.

But if Judge continues to excel, then he and Giancarlo Stanton really can rank among MLB’s greatest teammates. Additionally, if Judge excels, then the Yankees are going to be an awfully hard team to beat — especially in October.

St. Louis Cardinals: Health of Alex Reyes

Alex Reyes

While it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals edging the Chicago Cubs over 162 games, St. Louis is one of many teams that should be in play for a National League wild card spot. It’s difficult to foresee that, though, without Reyes coming back strong.

Reyes, once one of the game’s top prospects, missed all of 2017 recovering from Tommy John Surgery. He should return sometime in the first half of 2018. A healthy Reyes will be vital towards the Cards contending in 2018. More importantly, he’ll be a key part of St. Louis’ future going forward. As such, while him pitching well in 2018 is certainly important, it’s more important that Mike Matheny and company use Reyes right during the year to ensure that he’ll be completely ready for 2019 and beyond.

Baltimore Orioles: Will they embrace the rebuild?

Anything can happen in baseball season. That said, it’s awfully difficult to imagine Baltimore hanging with either the Yankees or Boston Red Sox for 162 games. The O’s will score runs but they’ll allow even more. With looming free agents like Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Adam Jones, and especially Manny Machado, Baltimore has the pieces to sell to land quality prospects and young players. But while pending free agents make for natural trade targets, there’s also an obvious detriment in trading them. Teams are just not as likely to give up that much for a (likely) rental player.

If the Orioles act early enough, then teams may be a little more inclined to get a full year (or close to it) from such a strong player. If, however, the O’s wait until the trade deadline, then they’re limiting teams to only two months of the new players. More problematic is that, by the deadline, a number of teams are out of contention. Baltimore can really restock itself with good, young talent. But it has to really embrace a rebuild. And the sooner that happens, the better the Orioles will be in the long term.

Atlanta Braves: How well Dansby Swanson bounces back

In Ronald Acuna, the Braves have a Rookie of the Year favorite. But this isn’t exactly the first time we’ve been down this road. Dansby Swanson was a Rookie of the Year favorite heading into 2017, which didn’t work out too well.

Swanson, who looked so solid in his 2016 cameo, looked lost in 2017. He slashed at .232/.312/.312 and hit only six home runs in 488 at-bats. In 2018, he’ll have to shake that off. Swanson can’t win the Rookie of the Year anymore. But he can show why he was the No. 1 pick coming out of Vanderbilt in 2015. How well he does that will tell us a lot about how good the Braves can be in 2018 and beyond.

Kansas City Royals: Will Jorge Soler develop into a franchise cornerstone?

Once one of the game’s top prospects with the Cubs, Soler was Kansas City’s main haul in the Wade Davis deal. Soler had a nice year in Triple-A in 2017, hitting .267/.388/.564 with 24 home runs in 273 at-bats. But in 97 at-bats with the big club, he struggled to a .144/.245/.258 line with only two home runs. While 97 at-bats isn’t close to a full season, it’s enough of a sample size to get a little concerned.

Soler has alleviated some of those concerns with a strong spring training. But excelling in the Cactus League and excelling in the majors are two different things. The Royals aren’t likely to compete for a playoff spot in 2018. But if Soler can continue his strong hitting into the regular season, then the team’s outlook for future seasons will get infinitely brighter.

San Diego Padres: Will Hunter Renfroe develop into a more compete hitter?

The Padres are similar to the Royals in that it’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario where this team competes for a playoff spot. So, the 2018 season is really about seeing what you have for 2019 and beyond. How well Renfroe develops will be important for San Diego’s future. Renfroe showed some signs in 2017. He hit 26 home runs. Unfortunately, he slashed at a less impressive .231/.284/.467.

Now, there’s always a place for people like that in baseball. With a move towards a more power-driven game, Renfroe can put up numbers like that and comfortably find himself in some team’s starting lineup for the next decade. But if he wants to be franchise player, those slash numbers (notably the average and OBP) have to come up about 50 points. The 2018 season will be important. It will go a long way in telling the Padres if they have someone who’s simply nice to have in every lineup, or a potential franchise building block to go with Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, and top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr.

Los Angeles Angels: What kind of pitcher will Shohei Ohtani be?

As the Japanese Babe Ruth, Ohtani received a lot of attention as a two-way player. But while it’s nice to have a pitcher who can hit, that’s not really what the Angels need out of Ohtani. With guys like Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, and Zack Cozart in the lineup, the Halos are going to score runs. But to compete for a playoff spot, they’ll need to prevent them.

That’s where Ohtani’s real usefulness will lie. Can he come in and make a similar impact as other Japanese pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish? If he can, then Los Angeles becomes not only a contender for an American League Wild Card spot, but a real favorite. If Ohtani struggles, however, then the Angels are just one of many Junior Circuit teams that will be in the mix, hoping for the right breaks in September.

Cincinnati Reds: How well Luis Castillo builds off of his rookie year

The Reds are similar to a number of teams that we’ve already gone over. The offense in place should be formidable. Joey Votto leads what is a very capable group of hitters. But while Cincinnati is not likely to contend in 2018, how soon it gets back into contention will depend on the pitching. With that in mind, Castillo is our primary focus.

He was stellar in 2017. Castillo posted a 3.12 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and struck out 9.9 hitters per nine innings. He gets our focus for two reasons. One, as nice as that season was, he totaled only 15 starts. That’s roughly half of what he’d make over a full season. Two, as we’ve previously detailed, a nice rookie season does not mean a nice career. The league has now seen Castillo and knows what he does. He’ll have to adjust to that. If that happens, then the Reds likely have a nice ace going forward. That will tell us a lot about Cincinnati’s hopes in future years.

Toronto Blue Jays: Staying off of the DL

The Blue Jays have a team that can compete for a wild card spot. In fact, it’s not even too outrageous to think that Toronto can hang with New York and Boston in the American League East. But neither of those will happen if the Blue Jays have the same injury luck in 2018 that they had in 2017.

Josh Donaldson played in 113 games. Troy Tulowitzki played in only 66. J.A. Happ made 25 starts, while Aaron Sanchez made only eight. If healthy, Toronto has one of the more complete rosters in the American League. But the big guns can’t spend that much time on the shelf. If the Blue Jays are healthy, look for a third playoff appearance in four years. If they’re not, then we should expect another 76-86 season, or thereabouts.

San Francisco Giants: Can the new players lead to a strong start?

Under the current ownership group, the Giants have never fired a manager in season. On the surface, it seems crazy that Bruce Bochy — the skipper who’s led the franchise to its only three World Series titles since 1954 — would be the manager to break that trend. But reading between the lines, it’s highly probable.

The Giants did not go into rebuilding mode following a 98-loss season. In fact, they did quite the opposite, trading for Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. The expectation in San Francisco is clearly to contend in 2018. That puts pressure on the manager. So, what happens if the Giants suffer through another slow start? Well, it’s easier to change the manager than a roster of players. Look for that to happen. And if that doesn’t work, expect the Giants to be hard sellers at the trade deadline.

Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor trying to build on 2016

Rougned Odor

Like many teams in the American League, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rangers in the mix for a wild card spot. And like many of those same teams, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Texas lose 90 or so games. But no matter what happens, the development of Odor will be the most important element for the Rangers in 2018.

Odor had a nice season in 2016, hitting 33 home runs. The problem was that he had a weak OBP of .296. So, 2017 seemed like a good opportunity for Odor to step forward and become a more complete hitter. Odor did hit 30 homers, but slashed at .204/.252/.397 (down from .271/.296/.502). Now, as we detailed with Renfroe and the Padres, there’s always a place for those kind of players in baseball. The problem is that Texas already has a similar hitter in Joey Gallo. It’s awfully hard to have two of those hitters in a contending lineup. The Rangers’ best chance in 2018 and beyond hinges on Odor becoming less one-dimensional.

Philadelphia Phillies: Is Jake Arrieta still an ace?

Playing at Citizen’s Bank Park with solid hitters up and down the order, the Philadelphia offense will produce. But before this team signed Arrieta, the question about the Phillies revolved around the top of the rotation. With Arrieta on board, the question is still there.

Arrieta has been one of baseball’s best pitchers since 2014, posting a 2.67 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 9.1 K/9 rate over the last four seasons. But in 2014 and 2015, he was at a 2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 9.4 K/9 rate. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Arrieta posted a 3.30 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9 rate. Those are certainly still ace numbers, especially when we consider Arrieta’s playoff experience. But he’s noticeably going in the wrong direction. Philadelphia should be a much improved team in 2018. But given that it lost 96 games in 2017, that’s not saying much. For this team to get back into playoff contention, Arrieta will have to at least hold the form of his last two seasons and not continue to regress.

Chicago White Sox: Yoan Moncada playing to his hype

We’re bullish on the White Sox this year mostly because a wave of several of the game’s best prospects should begin to hit Chicago’s South Side in 2018. With that said, it’s important to remember that young players often struggle early on. As such, if you’re a White Sox fan and that happens, its important to not panic.

But one of those young players that we do need to see something out of in 2018 is Moncada. Moncada has struggled at the MLB level. Between 2016 with Boston and 2017 with Chicago, he’s slashed at .229/.331/.399 with eight home runs. More noticeable is that in 218 at-bats, Moncada has 86 strikeouts. That’s a high rate for anyone. For someone never known as an elite power hitter, it’s alarming. If nothing else happens for the White Sox in 2018, Moncada needs to show that he can handle MLB pitching. If that happens, we can worry about the rest of the youngsters at a later date.

New York Mets: Matt Harvey staying healthy and bouncing back

Truthfully, health is just a big issue for the Mets in general. In the two seasons since winning the National League pennant in 2015, New York the injury bug has bit New York and bit it hard. The Mets will have to stay healthy as a team. But the one guy who we’re really circling is Harvey. If Harvey stays healthy and pitches well, it gives New York three legitimate aces. Except for the Nationals and Houston Astros, no other team can come close to boasting that.

But over the last two seasons, Harvey has made only 36 combined appearances. Even worse is that in those appearances, he’s posted a 5.78 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and struck out fewer than seven hitters per nine innings. If that continues, then the Mets starting rotation features Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and a lot of questions. If it doesn’t, then New York has a rotation that can have this team competing for a championship. So while the last two seasons tell us that health is important for the whole team, Harvey is definitely Exhibit A.

Cleveland Indians: Contracts of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller

Like the Nationals, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the Indians don’t win their division. the American League Central has other good teams but at the end of the day, Cleveland is the best team by a significant margin. But given how important the Indians bullpen has been to the team’s recent success, two of its best pitchers in contract years will get our attention.

Cleveland has already lost one of its key relievers — Bryan Shaw — to the Colorado Rockies. Both Allen and Miller will hit free agency after 2018. So, it will be important to monitor to see if any progress is being made towards a contract extension for either. If not, the season will take on a different sense of urgency. While 2018 won’t quite have a “now or never” feeling for the Indians, it’s very possible that some of the key members of the recent run will be elsewhere come 2019. That makes finishing the job in 2018 all the more important.

Colorado Rockies: Will the young pitchers maintain their strong performances?

The Rockies are never going to have elite starting pitching. If that sounds fatalistic, we apologize. But it’s the reality of pitching at Coors Field. Colorado is just not going to win many of its games 3-2. Where the Rockies have gotten into trouble in the past is relying on the offense to win games 10-9. That’s not sustainable. But in 2017, the pitching was good enough to split the difference, keeping the games at a more respectable 6-5 range. That helped the Rockies make the playoffs in 2017. To make a return trip (or go deeper) in 2018, the pitching will have to be just as good.

The tricky part of that is so many of those pitchers — like German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, and Jon Gray — are young. As we’ve previously noted, young players often tend to struggle after the league sees what they have to offer. When you’re a pitcher at Coors Field, those struggles are even more heightened. The Rockies offense is good. But this team needs those pitchers to at least hold serve. Otherwise, Colorado will be a team that can score runs, but not prevent them. Those are fun teams to watch, but rarely are they especially successful.

Seattle Mariners: King Felix trying to find one more magical year

Feb 28, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) pitches in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit:

The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001. It’s not only the longest active drought in MLB, but also longer than any in the NFL, NBA, or NHL. More often than not, Seattle has been done in by a lack of offense. But as we look at this team now, the pitching is what grabs our attention. Namely Felix Hernandez.

We’re probably not going to see the King Felix who posted a 2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 8.8 K/9 rate from 2009-2014. The question is, will we get the 2015-2016 version (3.65 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.9 K/9), or the 2017 version (4.36 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 8.1 K/9)? If we get something close to the 2015-16 version, the Mariners will be at worst in the wild card race into the final weeks of the season. If we see the 2017 version, then things look a lot more bleak.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Josh Bell’s growth as a hitter

Rookies not named Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger largely went ignored in 2017. But Bell had a fantastic season himself. He hit 26 home runs, drove in 90, and slashed at .255/.344/.466. It will be fun to see how he does in Year 2.

In a lot of ways, the pressure is off of Bell’s shoulders. The Pirates aren’t contending in 2018. But if Bell can find a way to improve on an impressive rookie campaign, then Pittsburgh will have at least one foundational player set for its rebuild. With guys like Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, and even the newly acquired Corey Dickerson, the Pirates figure to be a revolving door in 2018. What Bell can do will tell us a lot about what this franchise can expect going forward. A bad season won’t necessarily mean a bad outlook. But a good one will almost certainly point to good things.

Boston Red Sox: J.D. Martinez’s impact on the lineup

In terms of how Martinez will impact the Red Sox, we’re looking at two things. One, how much power will be bring? Boston won the AL East in in 2017, but never had the power to hang with Houston in the ALDS. Martinez, who slugged 45 home runs in 2017, can certainly help change that.

The second thing is more what his signing will mean for the rest of the team. Will Martinez really play DH? If so, does that mean that Hanley Ramirez will play first? Or will the Red Sox try to move Hanley and his contract (which will be much easier said than done). Or, if Martinez plays the outfield, will Andrew Benintendi or Mookie Betts hit the trade? The fallout of Martinez’s signing can impact Boston in a number of ways. All of which are fascinating to speculate about.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Pitching behind Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw is among the best pitchers in the game. Can he pull it together for the NLCS?

Much like the Red Sox, there’s a lot of speculation to be had with the Dodgers. The outfield rotation could lead to some fairly big trades, especially if Alex Verdugo is called up. Like Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger has to prove that he can continue to be great now that he won’t be catching anyone off guard. But really, Los Angeles’ season is going to be judged based on whether the Dodgers win the World Series. That’s certainly possible. But it gets a lot more possible if a solid No. 2 emerges behind Kershaw.

Zack Greinke is long gone. Yu Darvish is now in Chicago. If the last five postseasons have taught us anything, it’s that Los Angeles can’t rely on Kershaw to win every game. The starters behind him have to come through. Alex Wood had a fantastic year in 2017. But it was also a career year. If he can do it again, he’s a true No. 2. If not, then the Dodgers will likely need to go shopping at the deadline, or risk another disappointing finish.

Detroit Tigers: Who’s next?

In 2017, the Tigers bade farewell to stalwarts like Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, and Justin Upton. While Detroit may not have the same number of potential trade chips as a team like the Orioles, the Tigers can significantly aid their rebuild by being active sellers in 2018.

That means that guys like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez should be moved. They both have 10-5 rights, so Detroit would have to convince them. But the Tigers’ front office has to try to make that happen. Michael Fulmer and Nicholas Castellanos are both younger so there is some value in keeping them. But Detroit can also bring in more by trading those players. The Tigers shouldn’t be looking for just any deal for these guys. But they should be aggressively pursuing the right one.

Miami Marlins: Will it all make sense?

The Marlins aren’t competing in 2018. We know this. If this team goes 63-99, it should consider running a completely non-ironic parade through the streets of Miami. The main storyline that will run through this team is this. Will the complete dismantling of the Marlins make sense at the end of 2018?

It’s not going to show up in the team’s record. Not in a big way, anyway. But in 2018, it will be important for guys like Lewis Brinson and Brian Anderson to show that they can hack it at the Major League level. Right now, Miami’s fan base — not exactly MLB’s biggest group to begin with — is upset. If the Marlins show that they’re at least pointing in the right direction at season’s end, some of those fears can be alleviated. But if not, this will be a potentially historically bad baseball team and it will leave plenty of upset fans in South Beach.

Tampa Bay Rays: Will Chris Archer be traded?

Archer’s name has been consistently bandied about in trade rumors for a while now. Thus far, it hasn’t happened. But the Rays haven’t made the playoffs or even experienced a winning season since 2013. It would be surprising to see either of those change in 2018.

The market for top tier starting pitchers is almost always a seller’s market. With a pitcher like Archer — who’s quite skilled and has a reasonable contract — the seller’s market will be even stronger. The Rays are rebuilding. But they’re not exactly a team with a strong future foundation. At least not yet. If Archer is moved, that can change. It can also impact the balance of power among 2018’s contending teams.

Chicago Cubs: Will the real Jon Lester please stand up?

In Lester’s first two years with the Cubs, he posted a 2.89 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and struck out 8.9 hitters per nine innings. In 2017, the strikeout total was fine (actually a little better), but the 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP were much worse. So, which version will the Cubs see in 2018?

Jake Arrieta is gone. Yu Darvish is there, but he also hasn’t put up true ace numbers in a few seasons. He’s more like an overqualified No. 2 starter. For this team to get back to the World Series, Lester will have to be an ace in both the regular season and playoffs. That may mean that he’ll have to find the fountain of youth. At the least, he’ll have to get back to what he was two years ago.

Houston Astros: Is the hunger still there?

The Astros have the talent to repeat. This is not especially debatable. But we’ve been able to say that about many reigning World Series champions over the last 18 years. Not a one of them has repeated.

For Houston, we’re asking the same question that we’ve asked of all of the other ones. Is the same urgency still there? Or, will winning the World Series in 2017 lead to just a little bit of complacency, opening the door for one of the other top teams in the game. The season is long. But the early portion of the season will tell us a lot about that. We think that the Astros will win. But if there’s any complacency that comes with winning the World Series, MLB will go another year without a repeat champ.

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