THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
MLB Season Preview 2018
To Have and to Have Not ...and nothing in between
Spring has sprung, and with it the shoots of a new Major League Baseball season. Jay B. Webster takes a look at the prospects of all 30 teams, from sea to shining sea.
The baseball landscape is decidedly tilted between the haves and the have-nots these days, with five of the six divisions headed by an odds on favourite.
Other teams are in various stages of rebuilding, and some (looking at you, Miami) don’t even seem to be trying.
With a mindset taking over the game that says you have to get very bad in order to stockpile young talent and eventually get good again (cynically known as tanking) there is bound to be a lot of bad around.
So who is where on the various stages of the rebuilding rollercoaster? Who is on top of the mountain, who is almost there, who is slaloming back to the bottom of the hill? Let’s have a look.
There are those who feel that the AL Central will be the only division with a real fight at the top, with the Yanks and Red Sox locked in their usual arms race.
In a season that saw the Yankees come one game away from playing in the World Series, only one player in baseball hit more home runs than Aaron Judge’s rookie record total of 52. That was reigning MVP Giancarlo Stanton with 59. So what did the Bronx Bombers do? Bring Stanton to New York from the rebuilding Marlins, of course.
The two now form the most dynamic home run slugging duo since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were in pinstripes. Those Hall of Famers are currently the only teammates ever to hit 50+ home runs in the same season, back in 1961, a feat that the Judge-Stanton duo could be set to repeat with some regularity over the next few years.
The Yanks will strike out a lot, but they are going to pepper the upper decks of Yankee Stadium with baseballs as well. While the starting rotation has some cracks with Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray’s injury history and CC Sabathia’s age, the Evil Empire looks to be back in full force under rookie skipper Aaron Boone.
Boston Red Sox
While all the hype has been focused on the Big Apple this off-season, it’s easy to forget that the Red Sox are the two-time defending division champions, and new manager Alex Cora will be looking to keep them on top of the pile.
While the BoSox return the core of a team that won 93 games a season ago, it was a struggle offensively at times last year. The team ranked dead last in the AL with 168 home runs, leading them to bring J.D. Martinez to Beantown, who clubbed a total of 45 dingers for the Tigers and D-backs in 2017.
The bullpen could be an area of concern in Boston, but regardless of whether they can keep pace with the Yanks, they’ll most likely be in the thick of the Wild Card hunt at a bare minimum come September.
Toronto Blue Jays
Could both wild card teams come from the AL East? The Blue Jays hope they can get third baseman Josh Donaldson healthy and back in MVP form, and parlay a strong starting rotation – headed up by Marcus Storman – into at least a wild card spot.
A shaky starting rotation will hamstring the O’s chances, and most of the talk in Baltimore seems to revolve around what the team can get in return for superstar shortstop Manny Machado, who is in the last year of his contract. If the Orioles aren’t able to contend, look for a fire sale to kick off come the trade deadline.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays traded away the cornerstone of the franchise by sending Evan Longoria to San Fran and officially entered rebuilding mode. With that in mind, can it be long before they start dangling ace Chris Archer in trade talks?
Things have been good in Cleveland the past few seasons, and the outlook continues to be rosy on the shores of Lake Erie.
After blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Yankees in the ALDS, the Tribe look to have a fairly clear path back to the post season behind right hander Corey Kluber and one of the stronger rotations in baseball. Francisco Lindor is one of the best young shortstops in the game, and he spearheads a lineup with the potential to put a lot of runs on the board and make a charge at another 100-win season.
The Twins became the first team in baseball history to follow up a 100-loss season with a playoff appearance when they rather unexpectedly snuck into the second wild card slot in 2017.
After scoring the most runs in baseball after August 1st last year, skipper Paul Molitor’s Twins will not sneak up on anyone this time around.
Center fielder Byron Buxton has been tagged as the Next Big Thing for several years now, and the folks in the Twin Cities will be looking for him to start fitting the bill.
The Achilles heel at Target Field looks to be the starting rotation, but if the Twins were to add one more quality arm, they could be right back in the thick of things.
Chicago White Sox
Fans on the South Side of Chi Town might finally start seeing the shoots of their rebuilding efforts, with a veritable cornucopia of young talent looking to break out.
Second baseman Yoan Moncada, first baseman Jose Abreu and right fielder Avisail Garcia lead a group of talented youngsters who may not quite be ready to contend, but who should be fun to watch.
The Tigers were one of the architects of the get really bad to get good strategy back in 2003 when they fielded a team that won just 43 games. Three years later they won the AL pennant, followed by a decade of relevance that saw them make four trips to the American League Championship Series.
However, the Tigers lost their roar last year, posting the worst record in baseball, and the team, once again, traded away every saleable asset (other than Miguel Cabrerra’s untradeable $184 million contract), including Justin Verlander and Justin Upton. There won’t be much to see in the Motor City this summer, at least not on the baseball field.
Kansas City Royals
Yet another team that rode their winning cycle as far as they could before the wheels fell off. The bad news is the Royals won’t be good this year. The good news might just be that General Manager Drayton Moore built a winner from nothing once. The fans in KC will be hoping he can work his magic once again.
The scariest thing – at least for the other 29 teams in baseball – about the defending World Series champions is that they are an even better team this year.
From shortstop and MVP candidate Carlos Correa down, the lineup is stacked. The starting rotation will get a full season out of Justin Verlander, acquired at the end of August last year, and should benefit from the addition of right hander Gerrit Cole.
Look for the ‘Stros to make a strong run at becoming the first repeat World Series champions since the 1999-2000 Yankees.
Los Angeles Angels
The Halos have the best player on the planet in center fielder Mike Trout, but they have not been able to build much of a team around him, reaching the playoffs just once in his career so far, and failing to win a playoff game in his time as a big leaguer.
By adding Justin Upton and second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Angels upgraded both an already outstanding defense, and an adequate offense.
They also imported the "Japanese Babe Ruth", Shohei Ohtani, a rare two-way threat who will both take the mound every fifth day as a starting pitcher, and slot in as the designated hitter on the other days.
And because Trout has played at such a high level for so long, it is sometimes easy to forget how good he is. Don’t. He may not always get the recognition he deserves playing on mediocre teams; but make no doubt, he’s not just the best player in baseball right now, he’s one of the best ever. So be sure to tune in to a few Angels games and enjoy the spectacle.
The Rangers have been slipping since coming painfully close to winning it all a few years ago. If they fall out of contention, look for the fire sale to begin in earnest come trade deadline time.
The Mariners currently own the longest post-season drought in baseball at 16 years and counting. There are a few decent pieces in place, including pitchers Felix Hernandez and James Paxton, but it looks likely that the drought will continue in Seattle.
Moneyball Man Billy Beane has quietly put together another very watchable team, if not a contender, with the likes of second baseman Jed Lowrie, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, third baseman Matt Chapman and designated hitter Kris Davis.
It’s starting to sound a bit like a broken record. Nationals cruise through the regular season, go into the Playoffs as favourites, and get dumped out unceremoniously. For the fourth time in four post season appearances, the Nationals crashed out in the opening round of the playoffs in 2017, this time after winning the division by nearly 20 games.
While the Phillies and Mets may have closed the gap somewhat this time around, it would be a shock if the Nats didn’t cruise to the division title once again. This time around, however, there is a lingering sense of urgency to translate regular season success into playoff results, as a good chunk of their core is creeping up on free agency at the end of the season, including franchise cornerstone Bryce Harper.
New York Mets
After a disappointing season in 2017, the Mets jettisoned Neil Walker, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson and Addison Reed and brought in Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas and Anthony Swarzak, who all figure to be upgrades.
What the Mets do have is pretty good starting pitching, led by Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. Any shot at the Nats, or the wild card for that matter, will hinge on their pitching arms, much as it did in their 2015 World Series run.
Fans in Philly haven’t sniffed a winning record since 2011, but that could be about to change as their rebuild starts to gain some momentum. This has come about both through home-grown talent (left fielder Rhys Hoskins, third baseman Maikel Franco, shortstop J.P. Crawford) and free agent spending (first baseman Carlos Santana and starting pitcher Jake Arrieta).
Realistically, the Phillies are probably at least a year away from contending, but they look to be moving in the right direction.
Another team looking to bridge the gap from stripped down haplessness to rebuilt respectability, but there is still some ways to go to get to the latter.
Keep an eye on super prospect Ronald Acuna, who absolutely tore it up in spring training and looks to be one of the best young prospects in the game.
Former Yankee great Derek Jeter now sits in the owners’ suite in Miami, and after lots of criticism levelled at former owner Jeffrey Loria, what did new ownership do as soon as they got the keys to the franchise? Blow it up. Giancarlo Stanton: gone. Dee Gordon: gone. Christian Yellich: gone. Marcell Ozuna: well, you get the picture. And the fire sale may not be over yet. The Marlins figure to be the worst team in baseball this year.
After three straight division titles, two straight NLCS appearances and a World Series title in 2016, the Cubbies are in the process of washing away more than a century of futility.
The core of the World Series winning team is still intact – Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Wilson Contreras, etc. – while Yu Darvish was brought in to shore up a rotation that lost Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.
This team is young and deep and getting better, so things should be looking up for some time to come on Chicago’s north side.
The Brew Crew surprised a lot of people last year by storming out of the gates and leading the division at the All Star break. They came back down to earth somewhat in the second half, but still only missed a wild card spot by one game.
That has raised expectations in Wisconsin, and those high hopes were not diminished by the off-season acquisitions of all-star outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. While the Crew can’t afford any regression from the likes of Travis Shaw, Eric Thames or Domingo Santana, and may be an arm short of troubling the Cubs, the Brewers should be in the thick of the wild card hunt.
St. Louis Cardinals
Two years without a playoff appearance practically counts as a drought for a team that has become used to success in recent years. There are still a lot of question marks surrounding this year’s Red Birds team, from the infield to the starting pitching. It may be hard to count the Cards out of a wild card run completely, but they’ll need a few breaks to fall their way.
The Bucs turned a page when they shipped perennial cornerstone Andrew McCutcheon to the Giants in the off season. Gone as well is ace Gerritt Cole. While veterans such as right fielder Gregory Polanco and center fielder Starling Marte remain, fans in Pittsburgh will be seeing a steady stream of young players, such as first baseman Josh Bell and third baseman Colin Moran, getting their chance to shine.
The Reds have been in the NL Central cellar for the last three years, and while things are starting to look up for stalwart Joey Votto and a cast of young but inexperienced talent, they aren’t quite ready for prime time yet.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers steamrolled through the regular season last year, with only a small hiccough or two along the way, then steamrolled right on into the World Series, before falling to the Astros in seven games. After five straight playoff appearances, things don’t figure to change on that front this season, but can they finally take home the big prize?
The Dodgers bring back virtually their entire roster from last season, including budding superstar shortstop Corey Seager and Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation. Not only that, but they have a wealth of young talent waiting in the wings for their shot. Things look to be good in Chavez Ravine for some time to come.
The D-backs surprised many last season by latching onto a wild card slot. A lineup anchored by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt should score a lot of runs, while Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray lead a capable rotation. The Diamondbacks won’t sneak up on anyone out in the desert this time around, but they could be dangerous yet.
The Rockies also nabbed a wild card berth, before falling to the D-Backs in the wild card game, and third baseman Nolan Arenado and center fielder Charlie Blackmon will be looking to lead the team back to the post season. And strange as it may sound when talking about pitching in Coors Field, both the starting rotation, led by right hander Jon Gray, and a revamped bullpen look to be pretty solid this year.
San Francisco Giants
Continuing with the no-tank theme of the NL West division, the Giants stayed out of rebuild mode, even after losing 98 games last year. Instead of throwing in the towel, they went out and nabbed established, if aging, stars in third baseman Evan Longoria and right fielder Andrew McCutchen. Giants fans hope that those additions and a bit better luck at keeping players healthy will lead to a wild card run.
San Diego Padres
And finally, the Padres are yet another team that fits under the bill of young talent in the pipeline, but not quite ready for prime time.
Regardless of who comes out on top, the 2018 MLB season should be quite a spectacle. So sit back and enjoy the show. Find out if any of the big guns are actually ready for a fall, or if any of the young and upcoming teams are ready to shock the world.