Opening Day is right around the corner, and with it comes all the excitement of making predictions and discussing expectations for the new season to come. Many of last year’s powerhouse teams have retooled and seem primed to succeed in the upcoming season.
However, parity is a critical element of sports, and Major League Baseball experiences its fair share of postseason turnover. Take last year as the perfect example, when only five of the 10 teams that reached the playoffs in 2016 were able to replicate their success in 2017.
Let’s look at several potential surprise contenders in 2018 — teams that did not reach the playoffs last season that could now be poised to make a deep postseason run.
I will begin in the NL East with the New York Mets, who did not reach the playoffs in 2017 after doing so in 2015 and 2016. The Mets’ success is contingent on health, especially in the starting rotation. While at full strength, the Mets boast a rotation that could match up with any other starting staff in baseball.
Homegrown talents Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler have all shown that they can pitch at a dominant level when they are injury-free. Free agent addition Jason Vargas, who was a first-time All-Star in 2017, also figures to be a valuable contribution to the rotation. It is unrealistic to think that all of these pitchers will stay healthy throughout the season. However, if a majority of them make upwards of 25 starts, the Mets figure to be in contention.
However, the health of New York’s position players was also an issue last season. Thankfully, the Mets addressed this depth issue in the offseason. They have added a number of quality veterans, most notably right fielder Jay Bruce (who they had traded to the Cleveland Indians last August), third baseman Todd Frazier and first basemen Adrián González.
The arrival of a fresh face in new manager Mickey Callaway should also bring some extra energy to the team. While the Washington Nationals may be too much for the Mets to handle within the division, look for New York to be in the mix for a wild card spot.
The St. Louis Cardinals look primed to rebound after two mediocre seasons. The team has built a strong core of youngsters and veterans in the last several years that are capable of reaching the playoffs.
The team’s big splash this winter was its acquisition of All-Star left fielder Marcell Ozuna, who was traded from the fire-selling Miami Marlins. Ozuna solidifies an elite outfield, which also includes center fielder Dexter Fowler and outfielder Tommy Pham. Pham is looking to build upon his breakout campaign from 2017 when he led the team with a 0.306 batting average and a 6.4 WAR.
Pitcher Luke Weaver figures to be to be the team’s most likely breakout player this season. The highly touted pitcher showed great potential after his call up last July and should be even more improved in his first full season in the big leagues. Pitcher Carlos Martinez and catcher Yadier Molina, who both represented the Cardinals in last season’s All-Star Game, should also be difference makers this season.
Much like the Cardinals, the San Francisco Giants have been a dominant team in the MLB for years. However, the 2017 season was certainly one of the exceptions, as the Giants finished in the cellar of the NL West with an abysmal 64-98 record. Still, I consider last season a fluke and not the new norm for what may potentially be the most accomplished baseball franchise of this decade.
San Francisco has a stable winning culture, a bolstered roster and the added optimism of this year being an even year. Manager Bruce Bochy, pitcher Madison Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey have all been with the Giants for their 2010, 2012 and 2014 championships. Their leadership will be critical for erasing last year’s debacle from the team’s memory and reestablishing a winning environment in the clubhouse.
Also, the addition of center fielder Austin Jackson, third baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder Andrew McCutchen should serve to illustrate that the organization believes they are still capable of contending for a World Series. Bounce-back seasons from shortstop Brandon Crawford and pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija will also be important if the Giants are to flip the script this coming season.
The Giants have more than enough talent on their roster to reverse their misfortunes from 2017. If they can put all of the pieces together, they will be right back in the thick of things in the ultra-competitive NL West.
Now let’s shift over to the American League, where the Texas Rangers are a good bet to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. First of all, this team has pop. The Rangers finished with 237 home runs in 2017, with nine players hitting at least 17 long balls. Although the team’s ability to hit for average was definitely a concern, nobody other than ageless third baseman Adrián Beltré hit over 0.300.
However, this leaves significant room for improvement. In particular, young sluggers Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor have shown tremendous upside. The two of them could become All-Star caliber players if they develop more consistency at the plate.
Texas also has a deep rotation. Pitcher Cole Hamels leads the way and exudes a strong veteran presence on the mound. However, other than Hamels, the Rangers lacked stability in their rotation last season. After a strong offseason, though, this no longer figures to be a concern. While the signings of fan favorites Bartolo Colón and Tim Lincecum may have caught headlines, it is the under-the-radar additions of Doug Fister, Mike Minor and Matt Moore that have truly solidified the Rangers’ pitching staff.
The Rangers have their work cut out for them in a division that includes the defending champions, the Houston Astros. However, even if they cannot hang with the Astros, they should be in contention for a wild card spot. The Minnesota Twins reached the playoffs at 85-78 last season and I see Texas matching, if not exceeding, that win total this year, which should put them right where they need to be to qualify for the playoffs.
The Mets, Cardinals, Giants and Rangers are all teams that have proven they can win in recent years and are looking to bounce back with strong 2018 campaigns. On the other hand, there are sometimes teams that come out of nowhere, such as last year’s Twins team that dramatically expedited its rebuilding process. If I had to pick one team to be this year’s breakout team, it would be the Oakland Athletics.
While the A’s might not have the names of the aforementioned teams, you can always expect owner Billy Beane to assemble a team with several hidden gems. They also have the criminally underrated slugger Khris Davis, who is coming off consecutive seasons of 42 and 43 home runs. Davis may not be in Oakland much longer, so the A’s need to capitalize on their time with one of baseball’s greatest power threats.
The start of the MLB season is now just three weeks away. It will be interesting to follow these teams’ developments throughout the rest of Spring Training and into the regular season. While they are not being mentioned among the World Series favorites, it is very possible for expectations to elevate significantly in the coming months.