Charlie Blackmon and the Rockies may have a tough time matching last season's win total
Though a slow-moving free agent market dominated the offseason, and there’s been a significant increase in the number of MLB teams expected to take on rebuilding projects, optimism is still high in most clubhouses. However, as rosters take shape and with Opening Day just around the corner, there are a handful of clubs with the potential to disappoint fans in 2018.
The Brewers were one of baseball’s biggest surprises in 2017. They got off to a hot start and led NL Central for a large portion of the season before falling out of the playoff race in September. Despite coming up short in its postseason bid, Milwaukee finished with an 85-77 record, which raised expectations. While it is natural to be suspicious of such overachievement and expect some regression, signing free agent Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich has made Brewers fans even more optimistic the club will play meaningful October baseball for the first time since 2011. Nevertheless, there are still some concerns on the roster.
Starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson, who had a breakout performance in 2017, suffered a significant shoulder injury in September after he dove head-first back into first base after getting a hit, and will start the season on the disabled list. Though he is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, Nelson will not be available for Opening Day and his official return date is still in question. Milwaukee also failed to land a big-name free agent starter during the offseason after rumored interested in Yu Darvish, among others. Therefore, the Brewers will rely on Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, Brent Suter and Wade Miley in the early weeks of the season — a solid, though unspectacular group. Even with a healthy Nelson in the rotation, there doesn’t appear to be an ace-caliber pitcher on the roster. Furthermore, while the bullpen was a strength a year ago, and Corey Knebel emerged as an All-Star closer, relief pitching is notoriously volatile from year to year for any team. In other words, we can’t expect the pitching staff to thrive again in 2018.
Offensively, the Brewers scored 732 runs last year, which ranked 21st in the big leagues. The club should score more after adding the sweet-swinging Yelich to the lineup. Also, Cain — no easy out at the plate himself — should make a huge impact with his defense. Milwaukee ranked No. 24 overall in defensive metrics in 2017, according to FanGraphs, and 23rd in outfield defense. However, the team also ranked no higher than 20th at any infield position, and the front office failed to upgrade the infield defense over the winter. In fact, the additions in the outfield means Ryan Braun (above, right) could see plenty of time at first base, which could potentially make things worse.
Similarly, the Rockies made a surprising push to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009. Colorado had a similar team profile to the Brewers last season, including a decent, but far from elite starting pitching staff and a great bullpen. The Rockies posted a 4.51 team ERA last year (just slightly higher than the MLB average of 4.35), and allowed 757 runs (only four more than the average). The young rotation returns intact, and should benefit from a healthy Jon Gray and Chad Bettis, who combined for just 29 starts last season. Though the team lost closer Greg Holland, newcomer Wade Davis is arguably an upgrade. If Colorado can post similar numbers this season, the team will be well-positioned to compete again, but it’s difficult to trust any staff that pitches 81 games at Coors Field.
Elsewhere, the Rockies finished in the top 10 in the majors in defense, an effort led by Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado and second baseman DJ LeMahieu. The offense was potent as well, ranking third in baseball and tops in the National League with 824 runs scored. Colorado didn’t need the long ball (192 home runs, 21st) to score either, thanks to a lineup headline by Arenado, a perennial MVP candidate, and Charlie Blackmon, who finished fifth in the voting last year, one spot behind his teammate. But as potent as duo Arenado and Blackmon make, there are question marks elsewhere.
The Rockies re-signed Carlos Gonzalez this spring, and though CarGo was outstanding in September (he hit .377/.484/.766 with six home runs, a 204 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR during the final month), the veteran outfielder hit an ugly .228/.301/.338 the first four months of the season, struggled horribly against left-handed pitching and played poor defense in right field. Hotshot prospect Ryan McMahon is the favorite to take over for 30-homer man Mark Reynolds at first base, but the 23-year-old scuffled in a 25-game big league debut last season. Also, Colorado received nearly zero offensive output from the catcher position until trading for Jonathan Lucroy late in the summer. The Rockies signed Chris Iannetta, who turns 35 next month, to be their starter and he is coming off of a season in which he slugged a career-best .511 for Arizona.
Tampa Bay Rays
Expectations are more modest when it comes to the Rays, who have done a good job of remaining competitive in spite of being at a disadvantage when it comes to resources. And it was quite the active offseason for Tampa Bay – and not necessarily in a good way. Fans were disheartened when franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria was traded to San Francisco over the winter, and also bemoaned February deals that sent outfielders Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson (a 2017 All-Star) to Arizona and Pittsburgh, respectively. The club also let Logan Morrison walk via free agency. Those four players combined to hit 106 of Tampa Bay’s 228 home runs last year, and the expected replacements – Matt Duffy (who missed all of 2017 with an Achilles injury), Denard Span, Carlos Gomez and C.J. Cron – combined for just 45 in 2017.
Thanks in part to injuries that hit the pitching staff, the Rays are experimenting with a four-man starting rotation, and are therefore expected to rely more on their bullpen than the average MLB club. On one hand, a few extra starts for ace Chris Archer (assuming he isn’t traded this summer, as is often rumored) is a good thing. On the other, depth is a major issue. It’s also risky to rely so heavily on a bullpen that benefitted from a .280 BABIP in 2017, which ranked as the third lowest in the majors and is potentially a signal that the group was a bit lucky to produce such good numbers (including a 3.83 ERA that ranked fourth in the AL), last season.
The Rangers would have the best starting rotation in baseball if this were 2011. But after Cole Hamels and Martin Perez, Texas is expected to rely on Doug Fister, Matt Moore and Mike Minor for starts in 2018, while Tim Lincecum and Bartolo Colon also are in camp fighting for spots on the staff. Hamels, the 34-year-old lefty, posted the second-highest ERA of his 12-year career last season (4.20), and made just 24 starts – the fewest since his rookie year in 2006. Perez, who suffered a freak hand injury during the offseason but is expected to break camp with the club, posted a 4.82 ERA across 32 starts. Fister (4.88) and Moore (5.52) set career highs in ERA in Boston and San Francisco, respectively. Minor, though effective in a relief role in Kansas City last year, hasn’t been a major league starter since 2014 and missed two full seasons to injury. So it’s tough to know how many innings the Rangers will get out of him.
Texas has plenty of star power in the lineup, including beloved future Hall of Fame third baseman Adrian Beltre (right) and promising power hitters Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor, but it’s difficult to imagine the Rangers scoring enough to close the gap between what will likely be a well-below average pitching staff. Also, an interesting note according to recent FanGraphs projections, the Rangers have the toughest schedule in the American League in 2018.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants expected to compete for a postseason spot in 2017, but instead lost 98 games. The club suffered from injuries, most notably to Madison Bumgarner and Brandon Belt, while other notable players – Johnny Cueto and Brandon Crawford among them – took a big step back in production. The Giants also again suffered from a below-average bullpen, which ranked in the bottom half of the majors in ERA (4.34) and the bottom third in bullpen WAR (1.5 fWAR). In an effort to rejuvenate a lineup that hit .249/.309/.380 (ranking 29th in baseball in on-base percentage and dead last in slugging) with an MLB-worst 128 home runs last season, San Francisco acquired All-Stars Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen.
However, the Giants were already among the oldest teams in the majors, and Longoria and McCutchen are both now in their 30s. Both have seen their production decline offensively and defensively compared to their prime performances earlier in the decade, and it’s unlikely they, or new teammates like Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Jeff Samardzija or Austin Jackson show a significant improvement in 2018.
Oddsmakers set the Giants’ preseason win total at 81, and most projections have the club competing for a wild card spot. While San Francisco is likely to improve in the win column, an improvement of 25 victories or so, which would likely be necessary to get into the postseason, is similarly unlikely.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of @Rockies)