Baseball is back! And the 2018 MLB season promises to be filled with superteams, excessive amounts of dingers, and Thor’s luscious locks. Last season offered a variety of compelling players and story lines, from Aaron Judge’s ascent, to the Dodgers finally securing a pennant, to the Astros winning their first World Series in franchise history. How will 2018 stack up against all that? Well, Shohei Ohtani is finally in the league, the Corey Kluber–Chris Sale debate continues, and the bulked-up Yankees are back to being relevant. What more could you ask for?
World Series and Playoff Picks
The Ringer staff nearly swept its division-title picks last season — only Hot Take O’Hanlon broke up our perfect prediction game — and with the league looking as stratified as it does this season, I won’t be surprised if we come close again. That’s not so much a vote of confidence in our prognosticative powers as it is a reflection of the reality that [braces for someone to tweet this sentence at me six months from now] the tops of baseball’s divisions look pretty predictable. With the exception of the New York–Boston tussle in the AL East, where the Red Sox in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear, much of the uncertainty this year seems to be concentrated in the second wild-card spots. I went with the Twins and the Diamondbacks, but I could have easily been talked into the Angels, Blue Jays, Brewers, or Mets.
Barring some sort of bizarre collapse by a preseason favorite, I don’t think we’re going to get competitive division races this year, with the possible exception of the AL East. PECOTA has all six division favorites favored by at least six games — the Astros are out ahead of the AL West by 17 (SEVENTEEN!) games. I think Houston’s the best team in baseball, but the playoffs are a crapshoot and predicting a repeat champion is boring. So I’m going with the funniest outcome: In Bryce Harper’s walk year, the Nationals finally make it out of the first round. Not only that, they ride Max Scherzer all the way to the Fall Classic, where they upset the heavily favored Astros.
If Andrew Miller doesn’t allow a home run to a lefty, or if Corey Kluber isn’t maybe hurt and thus crushed in his two ALDS starts, or if Cleveland’s defense — which committed the majors’ second-fewest errors in the regular season — doesn’t have seven combined errors in games 4 and 5, Cleveland likely advances past the Yankees in the 2017 ALDS to pit its league-best pitching against Houston’s league-best hitting. Terry Francona’s roster, which led the majors in run differential last season by 56 runs, returns its top 13 pitchers by WAR and every important position player other than Carlos Santana. And playing in the easiest division in baseball means Cleveland is a near-lock to return to the playoffs. Two years after going to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series, Cleveland will snap its MLB-long championship drought.
The only thing worse than the Yankees triumphantly returning to glory by beating Bryce Harper in the World Series will be when the Yankees sign Bryce Harper after triumphantly returning to glory by beating him in the World Series. The one bit of solace in this desperately bleak baseball future? Boy, will this one be good for the ratings.
The Fly-Ball Revolution might offer a temporary reprieve, but it’s ultimately powerless in the face of the Fastball Establishment. Last year, the league-wide sum finally eclipsed 40,000. Despite the juiced ball, the number will be even higher this season, and the 2018 World Series will serve as a celebration. PECOTA projects the Indians (651) and Dodgers (640) as the only two teams in the majors to allow fewer than 660 runs this year.
As for the winner, I mean, it has to happen at some point, right? The Dodgers are too talented, too rich, and too savvy to not luck into a World Series win one of these seasons. They went 2–1 up on the Cubs two years ago and were within a Yu Darvish meltdown of taking down The Best Offense Since the ’27 Yankees in 2017. Pretty much everyone other than Darvish is back from a team that, even with a stretch that included 16 losses in 17 games, still logged 104 freaking wins last season. Things always go wrong across a 162-game campaign, and Los Angeles seems better positioned to absorb multiple crises than any other club in the Senior Circuit. Plus, per PECOTA, they’re projected to win six more games than the second-best National League team. You can try to sort through the Indians-Astros-Yankees-maybe–Red Sox dog fight; I’ll take the team with the massive payroll and the clearest path to the Fall Classic.
Forget what the 2017 World Series results may suggest: The Indians were the best team in baseball last year. They registered an amazing regular-season run differential and won 22 straight games from August 24 through September 14, a streak during which they trailed for just eight total innings. They featured the AL Cy Young Award winner (Corey Kluber), a top-three MVP finisher (José Ramírez), and a shortstop (Francisco Lindor) who’s one of the most exciting young players in the league. And they bring back all those pieces again in 2018, along with a manager (Francona) who’s a brilliant tactician and also sometimes wakes up to find peanut butter on his glasses.
For all of the focus on the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox this spring, Cleveland boasts the most complete roster in the bigs. The Tribe will earn another World Series showdown against the Cubs, and this time they’ll come away with the title. (As long as there’s no rain delay in Game 7.)
The 2018 Nationals are so, so good. The Nats have also been so, so good in many recent years, and they have yet to win a single playoff series. I think this is the year they snap that particular streak, but there ain’t no sports fatalism like Washington sports fatalism (RIP, Philly naysayers, we hardly knew ye). The Yankees will be a force to be reckoned with in the AL, but with the injury bug coming for them early with first baseman Greg Bird and some inevitable regression by Big Boy Aaron Judge, I’m not sure I see them topping the Astros, even with the addition of the Giancarlo Stanton.
Lindbergh: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels. Note to editors: Please paste this selection next to my name in all future installments of our preseason-prediction group posts. I will reevaluate whether Trout is still the default AL MVP pick either in 2024 or when he signs with or is traded to an NL team (whichever comes first). Thank you.
Baumann: Trout. He’s the best player in baseball and it isn’t close. Anyone who picks someone other than Trout for AL MVP is trying to scam you — don’t trust them.
Kram: Trout. Trout’s 2017 marked his best season as a hitter on a per-plate-appearance basis, as he walked more times than he struck out for the first time in his career and embraced the juiced ball, setting a new career high in isolated power. He’s the obvious MVP favorite as long as he doesn’t miss another six weeks due to a fluke thumb injury.
Rubin: Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles. Baseball gods: You’ve found it within you to grace me and my fellow Oriole die-hards with one season of Manny at shortstop, as was intended, before he leaves us forever. I implore you now to also give me, as the most precious of parting gifts, a season worthy of MVP honors. Dreaming is all I have left.
O’Hanlon: Trout. If you’re not picking Trout, you’re implicitly predicting that the best player since Barry Bonds will suffer a borderline-horrific injury this season. Just one follow-up question: Are you God?
Glicksman: Trout. Everything is coming up Trout recently. First, Japanese star Shohei Ohtani spurned the crosstown Dodgers to sign with the Angels in December. Then, Trout’s beloved Eagles won their first Super Bowl in February. Plus it’s an even year: Trout won MVP in 2014 and 2016; he was second and fourth in voting in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
McNear: Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees are going to steamroll most everything in their way this year; we might as well get used to it now.
Lindbergh: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals. Like Trout, Harper missed almost 50 days with an injury in the midst of what might have otherwise been another MVP campaign. I want the two of them to win the award once in the same year, so here’s hoping no Nationals outfielders run afoul of the first-base bag this season.
Baumann: Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers. I made really chalky picks for the other awards, so I’m going way off the menu here so that I don’t bore myself to death. I think the Brewers are going to get a lot of press as they return to the playoffs this year, and Cain, as the big free-agent signing and most exciting player on the team, is going to be the face of that rejuvenation. Would that outweigh a gigantic season from Bryce Harper or a 50-homer campaign from Cody Bellinger? Maybe not, but this is more fun to predict.
Kram: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs. The only player who’s produced more fWAR than Bryant since his 2015 call-up is Trout. The Cubs third baseman and 2016 MVP has improved his plate discipline every year, he’s always been an above-average fielder and runner, and even in a relatively down power year in 2017 — only 29 homers and a career-high ground-ball rate — he still finished as the NL’s sixth-best hitter and third-most-valuable player overall. He’s a star by traditional, advanced, counting, and rate stats, and even a modest power return will make him the obvious MVP candidate for an obvious playoff team in Wrigleyville.
Rubin: Harper. Maybe I’m too hung up on the likely effects of the 2019 free-agent class on the 2018 baseball season, but I can’t help but picture, their health permitting, Machado and Harper bashing 40 homers each before inking $400 million deals.
O’Hanlon: Harper. If I told you that the owner of the best non-Trout season this decade would experience something like a 6 percent uptick in performance this year with free agency looming, you’d pat Kris Bryant on his mysteriously hair-needy head and wish him better luck next time.
Glicksman: Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies. Chuck Nazty is MLB’s most routinely underappreciated star. Last year he led the NL in batting average (.331), hits (213), and total bases (387). He finished tied for third in home runs (37), eighth in RBIs (103), and 10th in Baseball-Reference WAR (6.0). And he somehow came in fifth in MVP voting, all while remaining anonymous to a slew of casual baseball fans. This season that’ll change, as Blackmon will join James Harden in making 2018 a banner year for athletes with extremely heavy beards.
McNear: Harper. Bryce is always wonderful, and now Bryce would like to increase his chances of being able to buy a private island after his 2019 free agency.
AL Cy Young
Lindbergh: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox. My maybe-unjustified snubbing of Corey Kluber continues! But the ERA gap between Kluber and Sale last season — which wasn’t especially large — likely overstates the gap in true-talent performance. Sale tailed off at the wrong time for award-voting purposes, but I’m still not sure that Kluber was better overall. Give me the guy who misses the most bats and throws the most innings.
Baumann: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians. Kluber and Sale are the two best pitchers in the American League. There are two ways one of these guys doesn’t win: injury or voter fatigue.
Kram: James Paxton, Seattle Mariners. One of these seasons, Paxton is going to stay healthy, dang it, and when he does, he’s going to contend for the Cy Young. Over the past two seasons, Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher with as many innings as Paxton and a lower FIP, and if anything, it’s not baseless to expect that Paxton could pitch even better than he has in a season without injury. The Mariners’ ace was at his best during his injury-free periods last season: He started the season with zero runs allowed in four of five starts in April before getting hurt, then amassed a 1.59 ERA in seven starts from July through early August before going to the DL again.
I picked Paxton as my breakout player last year, and he’s my Cy Young choice now. If the pattern holds, he’ll be my MVP selection in 2019.
Rubin: Sale. Sale was astonishing last season in his debut campaign with the Red Sox, leading the majors with 308 strikeouts and a 2.45 FIP across an MLB-best 214.1 innings. The only thing he wasn’t? Better than Cleveland’s Corey Kluber. Sale-Kluber is again a coin flip, but I’m siding with Sale because I think he can actually improve upon his 2017 campaign if he avoids a similar late-season slump, which he seems confident he can do by better managing his output early in the year. Just hide the scissors.
O’Hanlon: Sale. He’s the best American League pitcher of the decade, and it’s not particularly close. At 6-foot-6, 180 pounds, and with arms that are unofficially as long as the first-base line, Sale’s every pitch is a testament to the pliability of the human body. Part of his dominance surely comes from the concentrated body-horror of his wind-up; how can a batter focus when the guy on the mound looks like he’s going to launch both the ball and his entire arm toward home plate? Sale, somehow, still hasn’t won a Cy Young. That better happen soon.
Glicksman: Kluber. Sure, this is a boring pick. But Klubot wouldn’t have it any other way. His stats last year were ludicrous — 18–4 with a 2.25 ERA and 265 strikeouts against only 36 walks — and somehow they still didn’t fully convey his level of dominance. Look upon his curveball (slider?) (slurve?) (super impressive spinny thing?) and gasp.
Just had to make this Corey Kluber Curveball GIF again and I can't stop watching it pic.twitter.com/BcjMSGKdLc— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) February 19, 2018
McNear: Sale. Nothing about Chris Sale seems like it should work, but eight years in, it’s clear that something about his berserk-ing on the mound does the trick and, maybe weirdest of all, does it sustainably. He’s been a top-six Cy Young vote-getter in each of his past six years in the league and seemed like a front-runner for most of last year. If he can hold it together down the stretch, this could — should? — be his year.
NL Cy Young
Lindbergh: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers. A third straight season with back problems — or even one with diminished stuff and stats — and Kershaw will relinquish this spot. For now, old habits die hard.
Baumann: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals. If Clayton Kershaw pitches more than, oh, 200 innings, he’ll win. If he doesn’t, Scherzer will win. If Noah Syndergaard makes 30 starts, he could force his way into the discussion, as could his Mets teammate Jacob deGrom. I also expect strong seasons from Arizona’s Robbie Ray and Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola as dark-horse candidates, but this is probably going to be a two-horse race between Scherzer and Kershaw once again.
Kram: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals. Strasburg has watched teammate Max Scherzer win the past two NL Cy Young awards, and after compiling a 0.70 ERA with 98 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 76 2/3 innings after the All-Star break last season (counting playoffs), he’s ready for a trophy of his own. Strasburg had never been better than he was in 2017, and while he’s unlikely to be so stingy with home runs this season — no qualified starter allowed a lower rate of long balls last season — he’s a top contender with Kershaw liable to take his now-annual midseason DL vacation and Scherzer trying to defy the history of the award, as only two pitchers (Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson) have ever won three straight.
Rubin: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets. They say health is a skill. You know what else is a skill? Throwing north of 100 mph, training with snakes, and not weirding out the masses by opting to conduct your spring training interviews shirtless. Recent history for both Syndergaard in particular and Mets pitchers in general indicates that this pick is probably foolish … but so is ignoring this:
O’Hanlon: Syndergaard. Not picking Kershaw for Cy Young used to require the same kind of heretical hubris that still must compel one to ignore Trout for MVP. However, Matt Stafford’s High School Football Teammate hasn’t pitched more than 175 innings in either of the past two seasons. Good on him; extend your career and save up that arm for the inevitable postseason collapse campaign. Instead, here’s a bone, Mets fans: Thor stays healthy all year, he gets the award, and you can all shut up for a couple of months.
Glicksman: Syndergaard. Thor missed most of the 2017 season with a torn lat muscle, and his health is the single biggest single factor in determining the Mets’ 2018 fate. It’s safe to say he turned some heads, then, when came into spring training throwing gas.
Here are Noah Syndergaard's velocities in a perfect first inning:— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 26, 2018
It's his first outing of the year.
I am not entirely convinced that pumping out a bevy of 100 mph fastballs in a meaningless exhibition game is the best way to avoid another extended trip to the DL. But I am also sure as hell not betting against this guy.
McNear: Strasburg. A weird thing about Stras is that, in spite of being one of the best pitchers in the league over the past eight seasons, he often seems to be under some kind of cloud: the after-effects of his 2012 shutdown, maybe, or the bizarre Dusty Baker saga at the conclusion of the Nats’ 2017 campaign. But last season saw Strasburg put up some of the best numbers of his career, and heading into his age-29 season, there’s every reason to think we might be treated to a year of gems.
AL Rookie of the Year
Lindbergh: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels. If Ohtani gets it together, the .347 spring OPS and 27.00 spring ERA will only enhance his Rookie of the Year redemption narrative. I’m holding my stock in the two-way talent.
Baumann: Franklin Barreto, Oakland Athletics. I think there’s a real chance that Barreto is the best rookie in the AL but doesn’t move the needle because a lot of his impact comes on defense and the A’s are usually knocked out of the playoff race by Memorial Day. This is what happened to Barreto’s teammate Matt Chapman last year — not like he had a snowball’s chance in hell of catching Aaron Judge, but Chapman was second in bWAR among AL rookies last year and didn’t get so much as a single down-ballot vote.
I think someone like New York’s Gleyber Torres, Cleveland’s Francisco Mejia, or Houston’s Kyle Tucker would have a much bigger national profile if they get even two-thirds of a season’s worth of playing time — which is not a given for Barreto either, but the A’s aren’t so in love with Jed Lowrie that they’d let him hold Barreto back.
Kram: Ohtani. He could be the best pitcher (likely) and hitter (less likely, but still possible) in the AL’s rookie class. Next.
Rubin: Ohtani. The spring stats and ensuing narrative have dampened expectations for the prize of the offseason to an almost laughable degree: Why, exactly, do the only two options seem to be “Babe Ruth 2.0 from day one” or “historic bust who should probably just be in Double-A forever”? Even if Ohtani fails to immediately (or ever) match the unprecedented hype that his two-way Japanese stardom earned him when he inked with the Angels this offseason, he can still provide exceptional rookie value if he’s even competent when he takes the mound and hits.
O’Hanlon: Ohtani. Your mother-in-law’s attorney, Frank Schwindel, tied for the league lead in spring training home runs this year, and your childhood ski instructor, Chris Stratton, struck out more batters than Justin Verlander. To quote Britney Spears: I still believe.
Glicksman: Ohtani. Ohtani’s spring training has been … well … not what you want. As a pitcher, he’s surrendered eight earned runs over 2 2/3 innings; as a hitter, he’s gone a measly 4-for-32. Not exactly a sparkling impression from Japan’s answer to Babe Ruth. But I am not ready to press the panic button on a legitimate 10-tool player, and I am certainly not giving up on Ohtani so soon. I mean, look what he can do.
Shohei Ohtani's sweet Curveball pic.twitter.com/bj9Cfwxebf— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) February 24, 2018
McNear: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays. Nice of Vlad II to temper expectations in his last at-bat of the spring. He won’t do that every day after he finally gets his call-up from the Blue Jays, but the similarities to Vlad I are just absurd.
NL Rookie of the Year
Lindbergh: Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves. I bet on a Braves rookie last year, and he rewarded my faith with a replacement-level season. This year, I’m doubling down. The only snag is that to keep up his recent pattern of raising his OPS with each level he climbs …
ML Camp: 1.247
… Acuna would have to have a higher mark than any qualified major league hitter other than Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, or Ted Williams has ever recorded. Maybe that’s too much to ask of a guy who couldn’t even crack the Opening Day roster for what we’re all aware were exclusively baseball-related reasons, but he can at least make a run at rivaling Jason Heyward’s age-20 season.
Baumann: Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals. The easy money is on Acuna, who torched Double-A (.326/.374/.520 in 57 games) and Triple-A (.344/.393/.548 in 54 games) last season at age 19, then did the same to the Grapefruit League (.432/.519/.727) before the Braves decided to send him down to work on his … umm … well, something. But that’s also what I thought about Andrew Benintendi last year, and Benintendi was fine, but Judge turned out to be way better. I think the same thing happens this year to Acuna, and he puts up a respectable rookie season but finishes second to someone like Flaherty or Philadelphia’s Scott Kingery and Jorge Alfaro.
Kram: Acuna. Acuna won’t post a Ruthian stat line as a rookie — probably? that OPS jump is quite the trend! — but even as a good defender and runner with a special bat, Acuna should blow the rest of the rookie field away once the Braves have sufficiently mangled his service-time clock and decide to call him up in mid-April.
Rubin: Acuna. The Braves might be trash this year, but Acuna’s rare power-speed combo should be potent enough to overcome his team’s unspectacular play and The Ringer’s Braves NL Rookie of the Year Pick Curse alike.
O’Hanlon: Acuna. Let’s play a game. Guess who’s who:
Player A: .298/.444/.607
Player B: .342/.474/.690
Player C: .432/.519/.727
Player A is Barry Bonds, Player B is Babe Ruth, and Player C is Ronald Acuna. Yes, those are Bonds’s and Ruth’s career numbers and Acuna’s spring training stats. And sure, I just said that spring training doesn’t matter. But here’s the point: Acuna still hasn’t done anything to suggest that he isn’t by far the greatest baseball player of all time.
Glicksman: Acuna. I may not be going out on a limb by picking Baseball America’s no. 1 overall prospect in 2018, but I’m rolling with the guy who slashed .344/.393/.548 in 54 Triple-A games last year before ripping off a .432/.519/.727 line in spring training. Acuna has already been compared to Andruw Jones, Mike Trout, and even Roberto Clemente. Good enough for me!
McNear: Acuna. Acuna seems like he’s going to be a terror at the plate, and, well, it’s nice that the good people of the Atlanta suburbs will have some reason to go to the new Braves park this year.
Lindbergh: Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox: Moncada, who was one of the top two prospects in baseball at this time last year, made the majors to stay in mid-July. There, he held his own at a young 22, producing an above-average batting line and showcasing his top-20 sprint speed. Yes, he still strikes out a lot, but I like the look of this:
Moncada’s prospect pedigree makes him easy to be irrational about — FanGraphs’ readers have him projected for 4.0 WAR, while the most optimistic algorithmic projection system puts him at 2.4 — but the breakout is coming, whether it’s this year or the next.
Baumann: Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies. Nola was supposed to be the safe pick when the Phillies took him seventh overall out of LSU in 2014, but he took longer than expected to reach the big leagues and struggled in 2016. But Nola’s more than the command guy he was supposed to be: He struck out nearly 10 batters per nine innings last year in 27 starts thanks to a hellacious curveball and change-up. The best argument about this being his breakout season is that he actually broke out last year, when Baseball Prospectus’s WARP had him as the sixth-most valuable pitcher in all of baseball.
Kram: José Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals. Here were the top five batters in expected performance based on batted-ball data (exit speed and launch angle) last season (minimum 100 at-bats):
The Cardinals first baseman/corner outfielder has a history of robust slash lines: He hit .309/.379/.518 in a half-season’s worth of plate appearances in 2017; he’s hit .273/.344/.545 in spring training this year; he hit .324/.392/.483 across two seasons in Triple-A with the Royals and Cardinals.
After teammate Tommy Pham sat to start the 2017 season but then broke out, Martínez will follow that same pattern in 2018, hitting well enough to force himself into Mike Matheny’s everyday lineup and blossoming from there.
Rubin: Luke Weaver, St. Louis Cardinals. If the Cardinals return to the playoffs this year, it will likely be in large part because Weaver made the leap from prospect to budding ace in one season. The 24-year-old tore through the minors and looked more than capable in his stint with the big league club last season, and he won’t have an innings limit in his first full major league campaign. He’s not going to earn as many preseason mentions as young hurlers like Aaron Nola or José Berrios, but he might be as valuable to his team.
O’Hanlon: Willians Astudillo, Minnesota Twins. Forget about Jorge Alfaro and his sub-zero projected WAR. The only South American catcher who matters is this one:
The 26-year-old Astudillo, who’s 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds, has yet to play a major league game and is not currently on Minnesota’s roster, but here’s Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs on his appeal: “As a professional, Astudillo has 67 strikeouts in 2,154 plate appearances. Joey Gallo recorded his 67th major league strikeout in his 140th plate appearance.” Well, that, and the fact that he’s Boris Diaw in body armor.
Glicksman: Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs. In 53 at-bats during spring training, the 23-year-old had seven home runs and 19 strikeouts. Spring statistics are essentially meaningless, but I nonetheless would like to point out that those numbers project to roughly 73 homers and 197 strikeouts over the course of a 550-at-bat season, indisputably making the versatile Happ a blend of Ben Zobrist and Barry Bonds. “Intimidation factor” in the leadoff spot, indeed.
McNear: Trea Turner, Washington Nationals. My darling boy, my sweet, zippy child, will finally get his moment in the sun. He’s got speed — so much so that he cost Miguel Montero his job last year — and he’s got power.
Lindbergh: Los Angeles Angels. Because of what Zach called the “Temporary Superteam Era,” I’m having a hard time with this one. The seven or so teams that are widely believed to be good are too good for me to talk myself into shorting, and none of the others would truly qualify as a flop in my mind if it failed. I guess I’ll go with the Angels: They had the highest-profile offseason and enter Opening Day as the majors’ must-watch team, but I haven’t assigned them a playoff slot, largely out of concerns about rotation durability, first base, and Albert Pujols. Opting against the Angels is the decision that I most want to be wrong about, because I’d much rather watch Trout, Ohtani, and Andrelton Simmons in October than brag about my prescient group-post picks.
Baumann: Colorado Rockies. There’s a team with two starting pitchers I like, a good closer, and an MVP-caliber third baseman, but also a lot of holes in the lineup and a lot of guys who got old really quickly, and while top-tier minor league help is coming, it’s still a couple of years away. That describes both the Toronto Blue Jays — who are talking about tearing down and starting over — and the Colorado Rockies, who would probably be doing the same if they hadn’t made the playoffs last year.
Kram: San Francisco Giants. This pick would have been a lot more daring before Madison Bumgarner broke a finger in his pitching hand over the weekend, but that very injury exposes the problems with San Francisco’s “2013 All-Star team five years later” collection of talent. Once Brandon Belt turns 30 in April, Joe Panik will be the only starting position player in his 20s, and the pitching staff is a stars-and-scrubs group with injured or questionably effective stars. They won’t be as bad as last season’s 64–98 group, but in a competitive division with a roster in flux, they won’t last long in the playoff race, either.
Rubin: Giants. Is this cheating? The Giants have already suffered so many crushing injuries that it might be cheating, but my ability to Google Madison Bumgarner’s health status doesn’t change the fact that PECOTA projects San Fran to finish 82–80, which already seems close to impossible given Bum’s busted hand, additional injuries to starter Jeff Samardzija and closer Mark Melancon, and the strength of the division. There just aren’t a lot of extra wins to go around in the NL West, and acquiring Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria past their respective primes isn’t going to change that. Ty Blach is the Opening Day starter, for crying out loud (as Giants fans probably are). TY BLACH!
O’Hanlon: Philadelphia Phillies. Typically, a team exceeding the prior season’s win total by 10 games would not be worthy of “flop” status. That’s what FanGraphs projects for the Phillies, but after the team signed Jake Arrieta, and with everyone still high off lamp-post grease, expectations went wacky. So, I’m here to save Philadelphians from themselves. With the Eagles looking set to lead the NFL for the next couple of years and the Sixers on the verge of taking over the NBA’s Eastern Conference, let’s pump the breaks on the Phillies for a season or two. It seems inevitable that Philly soon becomes America’s dominant sports city, but why not wait a year before you guys turn into Boston fans, just with more confusing accents and inexplicable affection for gas-station sandwiches? This team won 66 games last year; unless they totally smash their projections and win 20-plus more games, they’re not making the playoffs.
Glicksman: Milwaukee Brewers. I commend Milwaukee for going for it during an offseason in which several small-market franchises simply gave up. I can’t see the Brew Crew’s moves paying off in a playoff berth, though, especially when Chase Anderson and Travis Shaw are prime regression candidates.
McNear: The Giants. Ha ha, just kidding, it’s impossible to flop when you’re already on the floor. There are so many teams rebuilding now that it’s hard to say, but my money is on the Mets finding new and more devastating ways to crush their followers than ever before. (Or at least since last year.)
Lindbergh: Oakland Athletics. If you ask me, the Phillies have forfeited their “surprise team” potential by signing famous free agents and being such a popular preseason surprise pick. If they win, I won’t be so surprised! So I’m taking the A’s, who outscored their opponents in the second half of last season, added underrated outfielder Stephen Piscotty in a winter trade, and get 2017 second-half studs Matt Chapman and Matt Olson for the full six-month schedule. Do I think they have enough pitching to win a wild card, after losing A.J. Puk (and Jharel Cotton) to Tommy John surgery? No, not really. In other words, I would be, well, surprised.
Baumann: San Diego Padres. This year’s up-and-coming teams — the Phillies, the Brewers, the Twins — aren’t exactly sneaking up on anyone, so I’m going with the Padres, who haven’t broken 80 wins since 2010 and are starting Clayton Richard on Opening Day. But if you look up and down this lineup, it’s not terrible. And “not terrible” is a big jump for the Padres compared to last year. I think their front office thinks they’ve got at least an outside chance of being competitive this year — otherwise, why make the Chase Headley and Freddy Galvis trades and sign Eric Hosmer? Those are moves to install competent big leaguers — maybe not stars, and maybe they only get up to around .500, but even that would probably be a surprise.
Kram: Athletics. The A’s boasted a top-five offense after the All-Star break last year, and their league-worst defense should improve in 2018 with a full season of Matt Chapman at third base and Khris Davis out of the outfield. All that’s left is to piece together a competent pitching staff, but even with a motley collection of arms last season, Oakland still outscored its opponents (albeit by a single run) in the second half. In a mediocre group of AL wild-card hopefuls, that’s good enough for contention, and if any Oakland player breaks out to join Chapman and Matt Olson — whether a pitcher like Sean Manaea or another hitter like prospects Dustin Fowler and Franklin Barreto — the A’s could play a meaningful September series for the first time since 2014.
Rubin: Milwaukee Brewers. I agonized over whether to choose the Cardinals or the Brewers for the second NL wild card, and I suspect I might spend the bulk of the season regretting my choice (when I’m not harping on Machado’s impending exit and wondering why I own Kelvin Herrera in three fantasy leagues, that is). The Brewers look fun as hell, with as potent a lineup as any in the bigs and a back end of the bullpen on par with any of those highfalutin superpens you keep hearing about. St. Louis’s rotation scares me just enough to give the Cards the edge in the wild-card race, but the Brewers might score enough runs to make everything else moot.
O’Hanlon: Texas Rangers. What this prediction presupposes is that the volatility of pitching projections extends in directions both negative and positive. Per PECOTA, the Rangers are projected to have the joint-highest OBP this year, along with the past two World Series champions. Meanwhile, their bullpen is bad because they moved Mike Minor, their best reliever, to the starting rotation, and their starting rotation is bad because it’s relying on a reliever to transform into a starting pitcher. But we know the offense will be among the best in baseball, and Ervin Santana had the 11th-best ERA in the league last season, so why can’t — er — Cole Hamels or — oh my God — Bartolo Colón do the same in 2018?
Glicksman: St. Louis Cardinals. The Marlins’ decision to trade Giancarlo Stanton away for a bag of chips garnered far more outrage, but their choice to give Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis for a mediocre return was nearly as bad. This is a player who, in case you forgot, hit .312 with 37 home runs and 124 RBIs last season. Add him to a roster that includes fellow ascendant talents in Tommy Pham, Luke Weaver, and Paul DeJong, and I expect the Cardinals to comfortably surpass their Vegas over-under win total of 85.5.
McNear: Philadelphia Phillies. Are the Phillies everyone’s surprise team? They might be, which I guess would make it not a surprise, but here we are. The Phils set about rebuilding years ago, then gave every indication that they were done, then lost a bunch more, and then kept on building. Sure, Rhys Hoskins might not be the silver bullet he seemed like he could be in 2017, and the just-signed Jake Arrieta may or may not have all that much left in the tank, but this is a fun, young team that might manage to get a sprinkle of that Eagles fairy dust.