We have officially entered the era of super teams in baseball. As front offices collectively come to the realization that there is no worse place to be than in the middle, the baseball landscape has grown increasingly polarized. In order to escape baseball purgatory, teams must make the decision whether to go all in or start the rebuilding process. As a result, we more or less know more than half of this year’s playoff field, even though the season has yet to start. The Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees, each of which won at least 91 games en route to playoff berths a season ago, are near locks to return to the postseason. However, as history has shown time and time again, there is a good chance that one of them will end up on their couches when October rolls around.
While I expect all of these teams to return to October next season (I predicted as much in my column yesterday), it would be the first time in major league history that seven teams all returned to the postseason from the year before. I hesitate to invoke the historical perspective because of the unique state that baseball is in right now, but it should at the very least be acknowledged. As baseball falls out of favor in the mainstream, one thing the league does have going for it is its parity. In fact, over the past 26 years, the rate of return for the previous year’s playoff teams is just 49%. The average repeat rate of division winners is just 45% and only twice have five different division winners all repeated.
The nature of baseball and the 162 game schedule is such that one of these seven teams will fall short of expectations and miss the playoffs in 2018, but which team is the most vulnerable? We will try to answer that question right now.
If you are an Astros fan, you should have no worries about your team missing the playoffs. Houston lost eight players from last season’s roster, all of which combined for less than one win above replacement. In the offseason, the club acquired potential ace Gerrit Cole, bolstered their bullpen with Joe Smith and Hector Rondon, and still possess several elite prospects in the top levels of the minor leagues. Add that to the fact that the club will get a full season of Justin Verlander and you have all the makings of a team that will win 100 games with ease. According to FanGraphs updated playoff projections, the club has over a 99% chance to make it to the playoffs this season and are twice as likely as any other team to make it to the World Series.
The Indians are the only team in the “Big Seven” to take a step backward this offseason. The Tribe lost first baseman Carlos Santana, right fielder Jay Bruce, and reliable reliever Bryan Shaw to free agency. They were able to replace Carlos Santana with Yonder Alonso on a 2 year, 16 million dollar pact, but even at Alonso’s best, he is unlikely to return the value that Santana brought to the club. The Indians have the advantage of playing 47 games against the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox, all of which will be vying for the first pick in the 2019 draft. This soft schedule combined with perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball elevates their floor and nearly guarantees them a playoff spot, even if they are slightly worse than they were a year ago.
The Nationals are similar to the Indians in that there is not really another team in their division that is likely to challenge them in their pursuit of a third straight division title. First and foremost, the Nationals combine the best 1-2 starting rotation punch in baseball with the National League’s best offense. The club also returns their leadoff hitter and left fielder Adam Eaton, who was on pace to score over 150 runs before he got injured last season. The resigning of utilityman Howie Kendrick will give the club vital depth at second base as well as both corner outfield spots and Matt Adams is as good a backup first baseman as any in major league baseball right now.
With a full season of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler, this is the best bullpen the Nats have had in the Mike Rizzo era. Not to mention that the Nats will be all-in on making midseason acquisitions in what may be Bryce Harper’s final season in Washington. It is difficult to imagine this club not running away with their division, even if the Mets rotation stays healthy or the young Phillies accelerate their timetable for contention.
The Cubs suffered from a World Series hangover last season but eventually regained their form down the stretch. Even in what was considered to be a down year by many, they reached the NLCS for a third straight year. In the offseason, they effectively swapped out Jake Arrieta for Yu Darvish and Wade Davis for Brandon Morrow. They added to their ridiculous rotation depth by adding Tyler Chatwood and deepened their bullpen by adding reliable middle reliever Steve Cishek. Similar to the Astros, they will get a full season from an ace they acquired near the deadline in Jose Quintana. Kyle Schwarber has dropped thirty pounds and looks to continue his second-half surge and Addison Russell should rebound nicely from a tough season, on and off the field.
The Cubs farm system is not what it once was, which will hinder their ability to make a midseason trade, but with one of the most complete rosters in the game, this shouldn’t be a worry unless they get hit by the injury bug. The Cubs chances of winning the division are probably slimmer than they were at this time last year with both the Cardinals and Brewers making big splashes in the offseason, but even still, they are as surefire as anyone to be one of the best five teams in the National League.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Despite winning 104 games a year ago, I have the Dodgers as the least likely team to return to the playoffs out of all the 2017 National League division winners. Of course, the Dodgers have won the division five years in a row, and have both the best starting pitcher and reliever in the game, but the depth in their rotation after Kershaw is worrisome. The Dodgers season largely hinges on the health of Kershaw’s back, which has broken down at some point in each of the last three seasons. If Kershaw is to go down, the “ace” of their rotation would be Rich Hill, who is a health concern himself. In the bullpen, the club has a crop of uninspiring options slated to bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and Kenley Jansen. If the Dodgers are plagued by injuries, they have more than enough prospects to get themselves out of any trouble they find themselves in, but there is no denying that the Dodgers are a little more top-heavy than they have been in years past.
New York Yankees
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox rank in the last two spots on this list, not because they are any less talented than the teams ahead of them, but because they have each other to contend with. The AL East is once again shaping up to be the most competitive division in baseball, without any true doormats that can help to boost the Yankees record. The American League Wild Card also looks to be a fiercely competitive race. The Angels added Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart to form the best defensive infield in baseball and bolstered their rotation with the addition of Shohei Ohtani. The Twins plucked Logan Morrisson, Addison Reed, Zach Duke, and Lance Lynn from the free agent bargain bin, supplementing a roster that made the playoffs a year ago. The Blue Jays, who are coming off an injury-riddled 2017 campaign, could surprise some people as well.
Of course, the Yankees brought in Giancarlo Stanton to hit behind Aaron Judge, forming one of the most fearsome power duos in MLB history. In fact, the club as a whole is projected to beat the home run recordset by the Seattle Mariners in 1997. While their elite offense coupled with the MLB’s best bullpen makes the Yankees intimidating on paper, the health and performance of their starting rotation is a real concern. C.C. Sabathia will turn 38 this year, Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow could give out at any moment, and Luis Severino and Sonny Gray have both had seasons in the last two years where they posted ERAs north of 4.74. The Yankees have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball and have just the 7th highest payroll in baseball this year (their lowest relative to the league since 1992) so they will have plenty of flexibility to trade for a starting pitcher at the deadline, making the club look more or less immune to catastrophe. The Red Sox and Blue Jays will be sure to do everything they can to ensure that the road to October is not a cakewalk for the Bronx Bombers, but it is hard to imagine this club not playing playoff baseball.
Boston Red Sox
The “Big Seven” team in the weakest position to return to the playoffs in 2018 is the Boston Red Sox. While the Bo’ Sox won the AL East a season ago, their BaseRuns record had them at just 88-74, suggesting they may have gotten a little lucky. The addition of J.D. Martinez will add some much-needed thump to a lineup that ranked last in the American League in home runs a season ago and the offense will get a full year out of phenom third baseman Rafael Devers. The club can also expect improvements at the plate from Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, and Xander Bogearts, all of whom weren’t bad in 2017 but fell short of expectations nonetheless. The Red Sox also return Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith to a relief corps that despite a myriad of injuries, finished first in bullpen ERA a season ago.
The most concerning aspect of the Boston Red Sox is the lack of depth in their rotation behind 2017 Cy Young runner-up Chris Sale. David Price is as good of a bet as anyone to bounce back from an injury-plagued season, and Rick Porcello’s true talent probably lies somewhere between his 2016 Cy Young-winning season and his abysmal 2017. After those three is Drew Pomeranz, who finished with a 17-6 record and a 3.32 ERA in 2017, but has had trouble staying healthy his whole career and is characteristically starting the season on the DL to start 2018. Joining him on the disabled list are Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright, who are both rehabbing knee injuries.
All seven of these teams are good bets to return to the postseason, but historically speaking, one of them likely won’t. Baseball is a game of parity with unlikely twists and turns that upend our expectations as the season unfolds. Which team do you think will fall short in 2018?