Now that the not-so hot stove finally warmed up after what was often a long, cold and quiet winter, MLB’s Opening Day is just around the corner. As we look ahead to the 2018 season, we explore five teams that could be poised for better results on the diamond compared to last year.
Despite finishing 66-96 in 2017, the Phillies have become a trendy pick to compete for an NL Wild Card spot. Optimism was high even before the club added Jake Arrieta as their new ace.
Arrieta, one of the key cogs in the Cubs’ World Series rise, signed with the Phillies this spring following a strong five-year run in Chicago. The 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner was 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 168.1 innings across 30 starts last season. At 32, Arrieta brings veteran leadership to a young, promising starting rotation that featured standout Aaron Nola, as well as Jared Eickhoff, Vince Valesquez, Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively last season. He also became the second big-name newcomer in the Philadelphia clubhouse after free agent Carlos Santana signed to play first base earlier in the offseason.
With Santana on board, new manager Gabe Kapler is likely to pencil in Rhys Hoskins at left field for his first full major league season. Hoskins, who hit an incredible 18 home runs and drove in 48 in just 212 plate appearances across 50 games, has a chance to become the franchise cornerstone. Along with an established core of position players like Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco, along with along with up-and-comers Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery, the Phillies could make a push in the NL East as early as this season.
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout suffered the first major injury of his career in 2017, which sidelined the superstar for six weeks and broke his string of five straight top-two finishes in the AL MVP race (the two-time MVP finished fourth after hitting .306/.442/.629 with 33 home runs in 114 games). However, the Angels stayed competitive with Trout on the DL and added power to the lineup by trading for Justin Upton in August, which led to an 80-82 finish, five games out of the second AL Wild Card spot. The club re-signed Upton early in the offseason, and his presence offers important protection to Trout in the middle of the lineup.
Trout is still amazing, but the most interesting player on the roster is now Shohei Ohtani (above, right), who signed with the club out of Japan. Though the two-way star has struggled both on the mound (0-1, 27.00 ERA in 2.2 innings) and at the plate (.083/.214/.083 in 27 plate appearances) in limited action in Cactus League games, the 23-year-old has huge, unique upside. Ohtani is expected to join Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker to form a six-man starting rotation – a group that combined for just 41 big league starts a year ago. Keeping the unit healthy will be a major key to the season, and should help the team avoid finishing in the bottom five in starting pitcher WAR again. Angels’ starters posted a combined 5.5 fWAR last year. Only the Marlins (3.9), Reds (2.8) and White Sox (2.0) were worse.
Opinions differ as to what value Ohtani would bring to the lineup, though he has outstanding raw power that could make him an option to split time at DH with future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, who also will split time with Luis Valbuena at first base. The Angels signed All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart to play third base and added second baseman Ian Kinsler via trade. The pair should provide an immediate offensive upgrade at both positions, and joins forces with Andrelton Simmons in what could be the best defensive infield in the majors. With Kole Calhoun patrolling right field and Martin Maldonado behind the plate, the Angels might have the best overall defense in baseball.
New York Mets
Following back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015-16, optimism was high for Mets fans entering 2017. However, early injuries and ineffectiveness doomed the club’s chances of making three straight trips to the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Most importantly, Noah Syndergaard was limited to just seven starts, and he pitched a combined three innings after April 30. Syndergaard looks healthy this spring, which is a huge boost to the Mets’ postseason hopes, and if he can make 30 starts in 2018, the 25-year-old should be a Cy Young candidate alongside rotation stalwart Jacob deGrom. The team also hopes for bounce-back performances from Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz – all of whom failed to make 20 starts and posted ERAs of 6.70, 6.08 and 5.21, respectively, a year ago. The front office added veteran lefty Jason Vargas for depth. If the rotation is healthy, it could be one of the best in baseball, and the unit is capable of carrying the team back into contention in the NL. Unfortunately, Vargas suffered a broken bone in his non-throwing hand in spring training, so things aren’t necessarily off to a great start in that regard.
Offensively, the Mets added Todd Frazier to solidify third base because David Wright’s future remains in doubt. The club brought back Jay Bruce to play right field, and signed Adrian Gonzalez seemingly to keep first base warm until Dominic Smith is ready to take the job over on an everyday basis. Shortstop Amed Rosario finally had that opportunity in 2017, and hit .248/.271/.394 in 46 games as a rookie. Frazier and Bruce should offer some protection for superstar Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the lineup, though the team will miss Michael Conforto for at least the first month of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
San Diego Padres
Few franchises would be optimistic about a 71-91 record in any year, but for the 2017 San Diego Padres, that win total was a major overachievement. Most analysts pegged the Padres to post the worst record in baseball last season, but San Diego fared better than six other clubs and even avoided the basement in the NL West. The team’s Pythagorean won-loss record was 59-103, which could indicate the team was lucky to win as much as it did, but with the wealth of talent in the farm system, and a young core returning for 2018, there’s reason to be optimistic San Diego will build on last year’s results instead of regressing back to the mean – especially since the team added one of the biggest names on the free agent market.
Eric Hosmer hit .284/.342/.781 across seven seasons with the Kansas City Royals and has hit 25 home runs in each of the last two campaigns. His addition allows Wil Myers to move back to the outfield, and should provide more pop to a lineup that scored an MLB-worst 604 runs last season. There’s also hope Hosmer can turn his promising batted ball metrics into even greater production as he enters his age-28 season. Veteran newcomers Chase Headley (a familiar face) and Freddy Galvis are expected to join Hosmer in a new-look infield, and should provide leadership and production as the team awaits the arrivals of Luis Urias and Fernando Tatis Jr. in the coming years.
Occasionally, a strong finish to one season can be an indication of great things to come in the next. The A’s finished last in the AL West at 75-87, but posted a 17-7 record after Sept. 6. They also ranked fourth in the majors in team fWAR (5.4) over the final month of the season, thanks to the third-best team slugging percentage (.471), wOBA (.342) and ISO (.209) over that same period. Only the Yankees and Mariners hit more home runs than the A’s after Sept. 1, who hit 47 in their final 26 games.
Khris Davis led the team with 43 home runs and 110 RBIs and returns in the middle of the lineup. Matt Olson, Matt Chapman and Chad Pinder also are back after breaking through with a combined 53 homers in partial rookie seasons. Olson and Chapman are expected to man first base and third base, respectively, while the versatile Pinder can play middle infield and as a corner outfielder. The A’s also expect a full season from shortstop Marcus Semien, who appeared in just 85 games last year. Along with Jed Lowrie, who posted a 1.1 fWAR in September that ranked among the top 15 in baseball for the month, Oakland has a solid infield core. The outfield, which returns 25-homer man Matt Joyce in left, also should benefit from the addition of Stephen Piscotty, acquired from St. Louis during the offseason, and a healthy Dustin Fowler, who suffered a catastrophic injury in his big league debut in 2017.
If the pitching staff and defense improves (the A’s allowed 826 runs last season, the third most in the American League and fifth most in the majors), Oakland could be at least a .500 club with a chance to compete for a Wild Card spot.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.