Baseball might be the most regionally oriented of the major North American sports, and it can be hard to track the ups and downs of all 30 franchises while following 162 of your own team’s games each year. After an offseason that was relatively laborious but featured bursts of activity, that feeling of national discombobulation might be especially pronounced.
It’s important to know the general lay of the land to hang in during discussions of the sport, though, so here is the casual fan’s guide to the 2018 baseball season, with one relevant fact or need-to-know story line about every team. This way, you’ll both have a better sense of how your favorite team’s opponents look and be able to better taunt your Tigers fan coworker—enjoy Miguel Cabrera’s remaining $192 million while your team tanks repeatedly!
Red Sox: Pretty much nobody hit last year, and they still won the division.
Eleven hitters recorded 200-plus plate appearances for Boston last year, and Rafael Devers had the best wRC+, with a park-adjusted slash line just 11 percent better than league average. For comparison, eight Astros bettered that mark, and four Yankees did. As a team, the Sox ranked 22nd in wRC+ and 25th when removing pitcher stats, but they won 93 games and the AL East for the second consecutive year. That’s a useful note to remember as they try to fend off the Yankees in 2018: While New York’s offense might improve with Giancarlo Stanton, the Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez, who’s just as proficient at the plate, and the rest of their lineup should regress in a positive direction.
Yankees: They led the majors in homers last season—and then added the individual home run champ.
Stanton, who won last season’s NL MVP and hit 59 homers, is a Yankee now, playing next to—and likely batting behind—Aaron Judge, who hit 52. If the Yankees, who homered 241 times last year, don’t break the single-season team record (264, from the 1997 Mariners), it would register as a mild disappointment.
Rays: They’re not rebuilding, but rather aggressively retooling.
Trading away Evan Longoria, Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza—the latter three in the span of a week in February—certainly made it seem like the Rays were giving up on this iteration of the team. But in exchange for Dickerson, they added reliever Daniel Hudson, whose salary is essentially the same as their former outfielder’s (even after cutting him on Wednesday, Tampa Bay will still pay most of his 2018 salary); they traded for C.J. Cron; and they signed Carlos Gómez to replace Souza for slightly more money than Souza would have made in 2018. Chris Archer is still pitching in Tampa Bay. Kevin Kiermaier is still fielding. The Rays aren’t done quite yet, and armed with a few new prospects from their offseason swaps, they’ll hope to reverse some of their rotten luck from recent seasons and return to the playoffs.
Blue Jays: They could be average or better at every position.
That sounds like damnation with faint praise, but it’s actually an achievement: No team managed it last season, with the Cubs—average or better at every spot other than left field—coming closest. Toronto has its star in Josh Donaldson and decent players surrounding him around the diamond, meaning the Jays exhibit no obvious weak links as they hope to make a playoff push.
Orioles: Manny Machado is a free agent after this season.
Baltimore’s best player could command a record-setting salary this winter—or, he would, if Bryce Harper weren’t also a free agent—as a perennial MVP candidate reaching the market at the age of 26. In the meantime, he’ll play as Baltimore’s everyday shortstop for the first time, and after making the playoffs three times in his first six seasons—compared to no times in the previous 14 years—the Orioles will hope that Jonathan Schoop maintains his 2017 gains, Austin Hays delivers at the MLB level, and Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman give the rotation some backbone as they position themselves for a likely Machado-less future.
Indians: Perhaps the best pitching staff in baseball history returned all its most important pieces.
By park- and league-adjusted ERA, Cleveland in 2017 had the best pitching staff since 1926. By park- and league-adjusted FIP, Cleveland in 2017 had the best pitching staff ever, and it wasn’t particularly close. Cleveland in 2018 returns the 13 most valuable members of that pitching staff. They’ll be rather good again.
Twins: They’re lucky enough to play in the AL Central.
By one measure, no AL team other than Cleveland benefits from an easier 2018 schedule than Minnesota. That makes sense, given that the Twins get to play a third of their games against the next three teams on this list, who are all squarely in the rebuilding phase, and they could reap huge dividends compared to their wild-card competition. The Twins project to win two more games than if they faced a neutral schedule; middling teams in the AL East and West project to win one to three fewer.
Royals: Hey, how ’bout that 2015 title winner!
Like their division mate in Detroit, Kansas City is in for a lengthy rebuild. Unlike the Tigers, the Royals won a World Series before cratering.
White Sox: The kids are either already here, or on their way.
Second baseman Yoan Moncada, Baseball America’s no. 2 prospect in 2017, will play his first full season in the majors. Starter Lucas Giolito (no. 5 in 2016) will, too. Possibly joining them in the majors by midseason are outfielder Eloy Jimenez (no. 4 this year) and starter Michael Kopech (no. 11 this year). Just one offseason after tearing down and trading Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and José Quintana, the White Sox might already be on the rise again.
Tigers: The tank is just beginning.
After trading Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila, and Justin Wilson last summer, the Tigers roared to the majors’ worst record—and, crucially, June’s no. 1 overall pick—by going 6-24 in September and October. Then they traded Ian Kinsler in December. Yet Detroit’s farm system is still a bottom-third outfit. This roster revamp has a long way to go.
Astros: Last year’s World Series winner might be even better in 2018.
The Astros amassed 58.7 positive wins above replacement last season, and players who accounted for 57.9 wins (99 percent of the total) are back in Houston’s organization in 2018. That’s a top-10 total in league history, and seven of the previous nine on that list won the World Series.
Angels: Shohei Ohtani will attempt to become the majors’ first real two-way player since Babe Ruth.
Let’s not overcomplicate it: Spring struggles aside, Ohtani remains the most fascinating MLB experiment for the 2018 season. Whether he’s a two-way star, a two-way flop, or anything in between—likely something in between—it’s going to be an adventure, and a captivating story line to watch unfold.
Mariners: Ichiro is back.
Six seasons after he left Seattle for the Bronx in a July trade, Ichiro Suzuki is back in his first stateside home, which could yield an awkward, strained scenario if 44-year-old outfielder, who hasn’t delivered an above-average season at the plate since 2010, struggles. At least Seattle fans have the warm memories of his first season in Safeco Field, when the Mariners won 116 games—although they haven’t made the playoffs since.
Rangers: Martín Pérez might be the most reliable member of their rotation.
This is damnation with faint praise. Pérez has a career ERA+ of exactly 100, meaning he’s been a perfectly average pitcher in his 676-inning career, but he’s also injured at the moment and wildly miscast as a no. 2 starter. Such is the state of Texas’s starting staff, though: Cole Hamels’s strikeout rate plummeted last season; Doug Fister is a bargain signing but certainly not a sure thing; Matt Moore is moving to a harder park after allowing the most earned runs in the NL in 2017; and Mike Minor hasn’t started a game since 2014. At least Bartolo Colón is hanging around for backup on a minor league contract.
Athletics: The A’s had a top-five offense after the All-Star break last year.
The Athletics boasted a top-five team wRC+ in the second half, joining four playoff teams in the Astros, Cubs, Indians, and Twins. Even after removing pitcher hitting to make AL-NL comparisons more fair, Oakland was still in the top five. Related: Third baseman Matt Chapman (108 wRC+ and elite defense) began playing every day on July 3, and first baseman Matt Olson (24 homers in 59 games) joined him as a regular on August 8.
Nationals: Bryce Harper is a free agent after this season and still hasn’t won a playoff series.
Since 2012, when Harper received his MLB promotion, only the Dodgers have won more regular-season games than the Nationals. Twelve clubs have won more playoff games, and 13 have won more playoff series than Washington’s zero. The Nats have lost three wild Game 5s—the Cardinals comeback, the Clayton Kershaw save, the Max Scherzer fiasco—and a four-game series that might as well have gone five because they lost one game in 18 innings. If Harper ends up leaving without any playoff advancement, let alone a title, the recent Nats will join the 2009-2013 Rangers, 1995-2001 Mariners, and others as the most talented and lively teams never to experience the postseason success they deserved.
Marlins: They just had the biggest offseason firesale in baseball history.
Not in terms of quantity, but quality of players traded: This offseason, new Miami majordomo Derek Jeter traded Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Dee Gordon in a blatant effort to slash payroll and do little else. Even the home run sculpture might be leaving.
Braves: Ronald Acuna is on the way.
This statistic has appeared in several Ringer articles already this month, but it’s astounding enough to bear repeating: Acuna, the best prospect in baseball not named Ohtani, has boosted his batting performance at every level he’s reached during the last year. In Single-A, he tallied an .814 OPS; in Double-A, .895; in Triple-A, .940; in the Arizona Fall League, 1.053; and in spring training, 1.247. Alas, he won’t be up in the majors to try to continue that pattern until his service-time clock is delayed long enough to give the Braves an extra year of team control, but he’s the year’s best bet to make a Judge- or Cody Bellinger–style impact as a rookie.
Mets: Once again, they need Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Michael Conforto, and Yoenis Céspedes to stay healthy.
They went 1-4 on that front last year, with only deGrom avoiding the disabled list, and he’s been dealing with back stiffness all spring. The Mets can’t match the Nationals in starpower but still boast plenty of wattage of their own, and they could return to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons if Conforto returns from injury soon and their other best players last the whole season. If not, last year’s 70-92 record looks like a realistic expectation rather than an anomaly.
Phillies: So many people think they’re a wild-card sleeper that their playoff chances are now overrated.
After signing Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta this winter—as well as Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek to bolster the bullpen—the Phillies are a popular candidate to go the 2017 Twins route by bouncing from last place to the playoffs. The Rhys Hoskins-led lineup is young and fun, Aaron Nola could receive down-ballot Cy Young consideration, and Gabe Kapler is enacting the “enthusiastic, experimental manager leads a turnaround” section from the Joe Maddon playbook. Sure, PECOTA pegs the Phillies as just the NL’s eighth-best team and FanGraphs pegs them as the 10th-best, but Philadelphia sports are unstoppable right now.
Cubs: If the Cubs win the Central again this year, it will be their first division three-peat since 1906-08.
Here’s the life cycle of a franchise with a championship drought: lovable losers; exciting group on an upswing; champions, finally; and then annoying juggernaut that is now one of the teams keeping the rest of the lovable losers down. The Cubs have entered that last phase, and neutral fans are already pulling for the underdog Brewers to unseat the big bad Cubs.
Brewers: They have six qualified outfielders for only three spots.
In trading for Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers fortified what was already the strongest part of their roster. Assuming the new additions will play every day, the trio of Domingo Santana, Ryan Braun, and first baseman Eric Thames will rotate into two spots in 2018, and two pre-arb players with upside—Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips—won’t receive much playing time at all. Depth is never a bad thing, especially with pinch-hitting opportunities in the NL, but it’s an imbalanced allocation of resources for a team with greater roster needs.
Cardinals: Miles Mikolas is the other starting pitcher coming over from Japan.
Any casual baseball fan will be able to recite at least one Ohtani fact; impress your friends instead with knowledge about Mikolas, whom the Cardinals signed for two years and $15.5 million this winter. The 29-year-old righty started 10 games and racked up a 6.44 ERA for the Rangers in 2014 before finding success in Japan, where he spread a 2.18 ERA and 5.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over three seasons. One projection system thinks Mikolas is better than Jake Arrieta, and even if that assessment is a bit inflated, he’s durable, throws strikes, and induces ground balls. In a rotation that’s already lost Adam Wainwright to injury and is hoping that Alex Reyes returns strong from Tommy John surgery, Mikolas should play a key role in determining St. Louis’s playoff fate in 2018.
Pirates: They traded their best pitcher and hitter of the past quarter-century.
In a span of three days in January, Pittsburgh sent Gerrit Cole to Houston for a light return and Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco for a modest pair of prospects. Neither player was as good in 2017 as he had been a few years earlier, but they also represented the recent era of Pittsburgh playoff teams—the first in 20 years—and leave behind a gaping popularity hole at PNC Park. The Pirates’ best-known players now are Starling Marte, who missed half of last season due to a PED suspension, and maybe Josh Harrison—who’s quite fun, but not a superstar in all senses of the word like McCutchen was in Pittsburgh.
Reds: Luis Castillo is the Reds’ newest young pitching hope.
Since giving a sturdy five-man group 161 combined starts in 2012, the Reds have searched for their next set of reliable pitchers, only for promising arms to fizzle soon after flashing their potential. In 18 starts in 2013, Tony Cingrani struck out 10 batters per 9 innings and collected a 2.77 ERA; he was a full-time reliever within two years and is now a Dodger. Alfredo Simón’s above-average ERA in 2014 jumped to 9.36 just two years later. Brandon Finnegan can’t stay healthy, nor can Anthony DeSclafani, who missed two months in 2016 with an oblique injury and all of last season with a UCL sprain, and he’s out for another month or two with more oblique pain to start this season. Enter Castillo, the newest option and possibly the best of the bunch: The then-24-year-old rookie amassed a 3.12 ERA with a healthy strikeout rate in 89 1/3 innings last season, and he was even better after unveiling a sinker midway through the season. The Reds’ 2018 season is about building for the future, and they certainly hope that Castillo proves he’s a part of it.
Dodgers: If the Dodgers win the NL West again, they’d become just the third club in MLB history to win six straight division titles.
The others were the 1991-2005 Braves (with 1994 excepted because of the strike) and 1998-2006 Yankees. The last time L.A. didn’t win the West, the following pitchers other than Clayton Kershaw started games: Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley, Joe Blanton, Nathan Eovaldi, Ted Lilly, Josh Beckett, and Stephen Fife. Matt Kemp played centerfield. Dee Gordon played shortstop. Bobby Abreu was on the team. Now, Abreu might appear on and then be voted off the Hall of Fame ballot before the Dodgers lose another division race.
Diamondbacks: Chase Field is adding a humidor this season.
Over the last three seasons, Chase Field is tied for the second-best hitters’ park in the majors, but the Diamondbacks are using a humidor—similar to the one installed in Coors Field in 2002—to store baseballs for home games for the first time this year. Early estimates project an across-the-board offensive decline, with home runs decreasing by as much as 25-50 percent. Buy your Robbie Ray stock while you still have time.
Rockies: They spent $106 million on relievers this winter.
They signed closer Wade Davis for three years and $52 million and setup men Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw for three years and $27 million each. No team outside the Bronx has been more intentional about its construction of a super-bullpen—and while Colorado’s pen isn’t populated with the caliber of pitchers that the Yankees’ is, manager Bud Black will be just fine with the best-projected bullpen in the NL.
Padres: They might have the best farm system in baseball.
MLB.com ranks the Padres no. 1, while both ESPN and Baseball America place them third, but once Acuna and Yankee prospect Gleyber Torres burn their rookie eligibility, the Padres will be the clear leader in minor-league talent. MacKenzie Gore, last year’s first-round pick, could be the top pitching prospect in baseball by midseason; Fernando Tatis Jr. “flashes occasional acrobatic brilliance at shortstop,” effuses FanGraphs; and the system is strong even beyond those two crown jewels. The Padres have finished with a winning record just once this decade; they won’t this year, but at least they have a way forward.
Giants: After Brandon Belt turns 30 in April, Joe Panik will be the only regular position player in his 20s.
With Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, and Austin Jackson joining a lineup featuring Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Hunter Pence, the 2018 Giants would have looked unstoppable in 2013. But with rotation stalwarts Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija already on the DL to open the year and some of their aged teammates presumably ready to join them there this season, the 2018 Giants look plenty stoppable in 2018.