There has, over the past several months, been plenty of conversation (and a few official rule changes) directed to answering the question of what baseball needs. Games need to be faster, or extra innings need to be spicier, or broadcasts need more mentions of launch angle. The spike in home runs is good, or maybe it’s bad. It’s all framed in the context of how to attract more fans—or, depending on who’s talking, on how to make more money, which is the same thing—but the underlying idea there is that of what makes baseball fun, and whether it needs to be made more so. Here, then, is a season preview based on fun.
Good baseball, obviously, is way more likely to be fun than is bad baseball. But not all great teams are equally enjoyable to watch, and not all bad teams are equally boring. There are other factors to consider here: how young the team is, how much they’ve changed from last season, how open the manager is to playing around with strategy, how sweet their home run celebrations are. Put all that together and you have the 2018 tiers of fun. Behold.
Every division except the AL East has one clear power team at the top. But just because there’s not a lot of clear competition doesn’t mean that these teams aren’t fun as hell to watch.
What’s new: Gerrit Cole—acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh—will beef up the rotation, and that’s about it.
Even the worst imaginable version of last year’s World Series winners would still be so damn good. That worst imaginable version would probably look something like the rotation getting torn up by injuries—starting pitching was the one area slightly weaker than the rest here last year, with weak being a relative term, and that was before adding Justin Verlander at the waiver deadline and now Gerrit Cole, anyway—and, yeah, that team would probably still have the best offense in baseball, with a strong bullpen, and they’d win the AL West easily. The real-life Astros will probably be better than that worst imaginable version, of course, and that’s a scary proposition for the rest of baseball indeed.
One fun thing: A new frontier for the shift. After playing around with it during the spring, the Astros will be using a four-man outfield this year in situations where the numbers back it up (i.e., lefty hitters who tend to pull the ball). That’s not a totally novel idea, but this sort of public commitment to it right out of the gate is.
New York Yankees
What’s new: A dinger machine.
After suffering through a brief period of mediocrity (the horror!), the Yankees burst back into contention with last year’s playoff run and, goddamnit, now they’re even better. Worse—they’re not just good, but good in a way that’s really hard to hate. Reigning Rookie of the Year and record-setting slugger Aaron Judge is more goofball than villain; so, too, is Gary Sanchez, who’s nicknamed “The Kraken” and has a real chance to develop into one of the best catchers in baseball. And then you have the prospects: infielder Gleyber Torres is stupidly talented and toolsy, third baseman Miguel Andujar should be in the majors very soon, and reliever Domingo Acevedo can hit triple-digits. All so exciting. It’s disgusting. The one real weakness here is starting pitching, but the team could very well be strong enough everywhere else to override that. It’ll be a tight race for the top of the AL East, but the Yankees have juuust enough to qualify as favorites over the Red Sox.
One fun thing: It’s been more than a year, but pictures of Judge (6-foot-7) next to Ronald Torreyes (5-foot-8) are still somehow very good.
Los Angeles Dodgers
What’s new: Other than the departure of Yu Darvish in free agency, nothing that really matters.
They’ve won the NL West five seasons years in a row, they’ve produced the two most recent NL Rookies of the Year, and their roster is fundamentally the same as it was last season—really damn good. There’s not much to debate here, unless you want to get really into the question of whether they’ll win 100 games, so here’s a thing: what does Clayton Kershaw look like this season? If it sounds stupid to wonder about how much a guy will “bounce back” after “a slightly out-of-character year” after he was still the best damn pitcher in baseball during that year, well, that’s because it is pretty stupid, if you’re thinking only in the context of what this means for L.A.’s win total or Kershaw’s ultimate legacy. But that’s the beauty of a guy like Kershaw; when someone’s this good, you can pick nits this tiny. Due to issues with his back, he’s logged fewer innings in each of the last two years than in any season since the beginning of his career; last year, he had his highest ERA since 2012, his highest FIP since 2010, and his worst home run rate ever. (To be clear: he was still ridiculously, ridiculously, ridiculously good.) A qualifier like “if fully healthy” is tricky with something like back problems that can be so difficult to get rid of completely, and, besides, 175 innings of last year’s Kershaw still beats 200 innings of just about anyone else. To that point, the Dodgers might try to intentionally cap his innings, anyway. But will this be a season that’s historically good in and of itself, or just, you know, one that’s stupidly good as part of a historic career?
One fun thing: Closer Kenley Jansen remains totally unfair. As good as he’d been heading into last season, he got even better, striking out 42 percent of batters (!) and walking less than 3 percent (!!), with no reason to expect him to slow down this year. And he’s still doing it all with pretty much just one pitch.
What’s new: One big-name starting pitcher departed in free agency (Jake Arrieta), and another came in (Yu Darvish); one reliever (Wade Davis) did the same, and two somewhat less impressive ones (Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek) came in.
Pitching changes above aside, the Cubs will be, more or less, the same as last year: a team with a talented and still-young core, a strong rotation, and a clear path to the top of the NL Central. Kris Bryant will be good! Anthony Rizzo will be good! Javier Baez will continue to be one of the sharpest young middle infielders in a game that’s full of them right now! Willson Contreras will be one of the best developing catchers in the game! Manager Joe Maddon will do some delightfully wacky shit! They’ll win 90-plus games for the fourth year in a row.
One fun thing: What weird technique will Maddon come up with to violate the new rule limiting managers to six mound visits per game, because you know there’s going to be something?
What’s new: Basically nothing.
Bryce Harper’s final year before hitting free agency is here, and if it ends with anything other than a trip to the World Series, the whole endeavor is going to feel like something of a failure. But that outcome isn’t necessarily out of reach, and the Nationals have surrounded Harper with pieces that ensure the team doesn’t have to fall off a cliff without him, either. There’s Anthony Rendon, coming off a career year that was near-MVP-caliber; shortstop Trea Turner, who can do a little bit of everything; a resurgent Ryan Zimmerman, who hit .303/.358/.573 at age 32 last year; and a rotation that can be downright terrifying. Leadoff hitter Adam Eaton—the big acquisition of last year’s offseason—will be back after missing most of his first season with Washington with a torn ACL. Without any significant challengers in the NL East, a repeat of last year’s 97-win season should be in reach. And maybe this time, they’ll finally be able to win a playoff series.
One fun thing: Top prospect Victor Robles is just 20, but he has the potential to be scary good. There’s just about nothing he can’t do—speedy, a great arm, a solid hitter—and he should get the call-up at some point this summer. An outfield with Robles, Eaton and Harper? Yeesh.
What’s new: Carlos Santana is gone and has been replaced by a lower-rent version at first base, in Yonder Alonso. Also gone in free agency is the reliable relief presence of Bryan Shaw, who’s certainly never been nearly as sexy as bullpen mates Andrew Miller or Cody Allen, but has logged more innings there than anyone over the past three seasons.
The above losses aren’t too big—in the grand scheme of this roster, which runs pretty deep, they’re hardly anything—but they’re enough to set Cleveland up as the only one of the American League playoff-locks that got worse this winter. Only barely so! By a tiny little bit! But the Yankees added Giancarlo Stanton, the Red Sox added J.D. Martinez, the Astros added Gerrit Cole, and the Indians… didn’t. That’s not stopping them from sewing up the AL Central or winning 90 games or having one of the best pitching staffs in baseball; they’re very probably going to do all of those things (again). There’s infielder Jose Ramirez, who followed up what seemed like a breakout in 2016 with a real breakout in 2017, and shortstop Francisco Lindor, who should continue to dazzle on just about everything, and Andrew Miller, who remains one of the scariest bullpen arms in baseball. It’s a lot to be excited about, before you even get to mentioning a guy like 22-year-old Francisco Mejia, who should get the call to the big leagues sometime soon as one of the most hyped catching prospects in a while. It’s just the same roster that was worth getting excited about last year, minus a very tiny bit.
One fun thing: There are very many great highlights to be had of Lindor’s smooth defense or the 33 home runs he hit last year (the most by any shortstop in baseball), but the best highlight reel for Lindor is one of his happiness. The 24-year-old is always so clearly excited to be on the field—always a guy who looks like he’s thrilled to be playing a game, rather than doing a job—and c’mon, look at that smile.
Boston Red Sox
What’s new: J.D. Martinez brings his dingers to Boston as the new DH.
The fact that this Red Sox team feels a little like an underdog for the AL East is a testament to just how stacked the Yankees are, because this Red Sox team is really quite good! It’s last year’s 93-win squad plus Martinez, who’s coming off 45 home runs in the best season of his career. You’ve got Chris Sale and David Price anchoring the rotation, Craig Kimbrel as closer, and the sweet pairing of Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi in the outfield. Former top prospect and third baseman Rafael Devers is no longer a rookie, but he’s finally old enough to drink. Christian Vazquez (catcher) and Jackie Bradley, Jr. (center field) both bring some exciting defensive flair. In many other years, this team could’ve handily taken the division; as is, they’re more than capable of, at the least, mounting a pretty damn strong challenge the Yankees.
One fun thing: Kimbrel came so, so, so close to striking out 50 percent of batters he faced last year: 49.6 percent. He became the first pitcher to cross that mark over a full season when he did it in 2012 (50.2 percent), and only one pitcher has done it since (Aroldis Chapman, who broke Kimbrel’s record by striking out 52.5 percent in 2014). But it’s not insane to think that could Kimbrel could strike out more than half of batters again this year and take that record back.
The Perfectly Fine Teams
Could be better, could be worse.
St. Louis Cardinals
What’s new: Starter Lance Lynn and closer Seung Hwan Oh left in free agency. The big addition of the winter is outfielder Marcell Ozuna, acquired in a trade with Miami.
They’re not strong enough to seriously challenge the Cubs at the top of the division, but they’re still a few steps ahead of the Brewers. The bullpen is a notable weak spot, but not disastrously so. Much of what’s interesting here comes from whether a few guys can live up to breakout performances from last season: there’s Ozuna and fellow outfielder Tommy Pham, who snuck his way into being among the best hitters in the NL last year. (.306/.411/.520—or just a bit better than some guys like Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rendon.) Then there’s starting pitcher Luke Weaver, who out-performed expectations by striking out more than 10 guys per nine innings in his rookie season last year and has followed it up with a sharp spring so far.
One fun thing: Top prospect Alex Reyes is still recovering from last year’s Tommy John surgery, but he should be back soon—with a triple-digit fastball, gorgeous curveball, and a solid changeup.
Also, new back-of-the-rotation guy Miles Mikolas ate a lizard one time.
What’s new: Last year’s slugging midseason savior J.D. Martinez left in free agency. Steven Souza and speedy Jarrod Dyson will shore up the outfield in his absence.
Paul Goldschmidt, once again, is unquestionably the best player here, having rebounded in 2017 from a down-for-him-but-still-quite-strong 2016. But A.J. Pollock is, for my money, the most interesting. This is his last year before hitting free agency, and so potentially his last chance in Arizona to see if he can live up to what he did in 2015. (Hitting .315/.367/.498, alongside his choice center-field defense, if you need a refresher.) Before he could repeat that, though, he spent almost all of 2016 sidelined by injury and a decent chunk of 2017 out, too. When healthy last year, he was fine-ish, but not nearly what he was before his injuries. This has the opportunity to be his first full season since his breakout, and if all goes well, he can be one of the more underrated outfield talents out there: a base-stealing threat with some power who’s fun to watch in center. Otherwise, with Robbie Ray and Zack Greinke leading the rotation, the D-Backs are a good bet to repeat as second in the NL West and contend for the wild card. They’re fine! Totally fine.
One fun thing: This isn’t so much fun as just worthy of note, but Arizona has a humidor now. It’s been a decade and a half since the Rockies started storing their baseballs in one, and now the Diamondbacks will join them. Of course, Arizona’s park isn’t anywhere near as dinger-crazy as Colorado’s ever was (at an elevation of 1,059 feet, compared to 5,211) but the dry desert air plays a role there, too, and it’s traditionally been one of the more hitter-friendly spaces in baseball. Now? Less so. Everyone knows the general outline of what this means—yay for pitchers, boo for hitters and home-run fans—but it should still be interesting to see just how much of an effect it’ll have.
What’s new: Mostly just the bullpen—Greg Holland is gone, but the additions of Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw make the change a net benefit.
Right now, this team is in decent-ish shape, probably at the back of the Wild Card race, and they might be just a few moves away—say, some more starting pitching—from being toward the front of the Wild Card race. After this year, things get decidedly bleaker. It’s Charlie Blackmon and D.J. LeMahieu’s last season before hitting free agency, with third baseman Nolan Arenado just a year behind them; that trio has been the team’s strongest three position players over the past four seasons. For now, though, forget that. Blackmon and LeMahieu and (most importantly) Arenado are all still in Colorado and fun to watch, and the Rockies should be at least perfectly adequate.
One fun thing: Arenado on defense. This highlight reel is just from one game, but he’s liable to do all of it on any given night:
Toronto Blue Jays
What’s new: Jose Bautista doesn’t have a new home—the 37-year-old free agent is still unsigned and is considering retirement—but the slugger is no longer a Blue Jay. In terms of additions, the most meaningful ones came from St. Louis: outfielder Randal Grichuk and shortstop Aledmys Diaz, who will ultimately back up Troy Tulowitzki but will start at the position for now while Tulo continues to recover from the ankle injury that ended his season last year. Meanwhile, former Cardinals closer Seung hwan Oh came over in free agency and will work out of the bullpen. (He’ll be a set-up man here, but hopefully he’ll keep the badass nickname “The Final Boss.”)
The Blue Jays are toward the bottom end of “perfectly fine,” but they still qualify. They should certainly be better than last year’s surprising trainwreck of a season, though the bar for that really isn’t too high. There’s a crop of prospects who could make this team very fun in a year or two—namely Vlad Guerrero, Jr., who takes after his dad and then some, and well-rounded shortstop Bo Bichette—but the Blue Jays aren’t necessarily sitting out the race while they’re waiting for those guys to get the call. Josh Donaldson is still somewhere in the neighborhood of MVP-caliber, and Roberto Osuna has quietly become one of the best closers in the game. The big question marks here involve guys trying to rebound from injury: Troy Tulowitzki, whose 2017 was cut short by an ankle problem but was going horribly before that, and Aaron Sanchez, who missed almost all of 2017 with blisters after a surprisingly successful 2016, when he led the AL in ERA in his first full year as a starter. If everything lines up for them? They’ll be a decent contender for a Wild Card spot. If not? Well, the kids will be here soon.
One fun thing: Utility infielder Gift Ngeope, who was one of the last players to make the club out of spring training, is a true delight and the first African-born player in the major leagues.
In The House Of Rising Fun
These teams should all be better in 2019 than in 2018, and considerably better in 2020. Right now, at least, they have the potential to be pretty damn exciting.
What’s new: Jake Arrieta leading the rotation! Carlos Santana at first! Philly was the only club to sign two top-10 free agents this winter.
The window for a fun, competitive Phillies team was juuuust about to open, but they decided to give it a little early push with this winter’s signings. Arrieta and Santana add some veteran production to what should be an exciting crew of youngsters. There’s last season’s slugging rookie darling Rhys Hoskins, who’s moving to the outfield to accommodate Santana; shortstop J.P. Crawford, who’s been at the top of the organization’s prospect list for years now; and starting pitcher Aaron Nola, who looks like he could be poised for a breakout with his nasty curveball. The Phillies aren’t yet near ready to challenge for the division, but they can maybe sneak into the Wild Card race—and while things should be looking pretty damn good for the team come 2020 or so, they don’t have to wait that long to start being worth watching.
One fun thing: Like the Astros, the Phillies have some plans for creative outfield alignments, but theirs isn’t a shift—it’s a positional swap. They’ve been trying this out all spring, having the left and right fielders change places depending on the batter, so the stronger fielder will be wherever the hitter’s most likely to drive the ball. That’s mostly to protect Hoskins, who’s new to the outfield and the weakest fielder in the set. Is repeated mid-inning jogging back and forth across the outfield worth dropping the likelihood of a hit just a little? To new manager Gabe Kapler, at least right now, yes!
What’s new: The pitching staff is beefed up, with Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn added to the rotation and Addison Reed, Zach Duke, and Fernando Rodney added to the bullpen.
The Twins pulled off an insane turnaround last year, going from winning just 59 games in 2016 to playing in the Wild Card game in 2017. They’re certainly not ready to challenge Cleveland for the division, but they should be able to comfortably take second place and push for a Wild Card spot once again. The main item on the winter to-do list was pitching, and the front office took care of business there; none of the additions above are especially sexy, but collectively, they’re more than enough to shore up the staff (the rotation, in particular) and make a difference. In terms of position players, meanwhile, there’s a slew of young talent. Byron Buxton is still figuring things out at the plate, but he’s an insanely talented center fielder with some serious speed. Miguel Sano can hit the snot out of the ball. Jorge Polanco handles himself more than capably at shortstop, though he’ll miss the first 80 games of the season after testing positive for PEDs. And they’re all 25 or younger.
One fun thing: The easy one here is Byron Buxton running, because look at him.
But another good one is Jose Berrios’s curveball. The best pitching prospect that the organization has had in ages, his 2016 rookie year didn’t go so well, but he made some necessary adjustments in 2017, and he only looks to get better in 2018.
What’s new: The outfield. In the space of a few hours last month, they traded for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain. Unfortunately, they did not do much about getting the starting pitching that they need.
Heading into this offseason, Milwaukee looked like a team building up the foundation for a window that would open in, say, 2020. They apparently weren’t content to wait, because they sped up the process a bit—bringing in Yelich and Cain, who, alongside Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana, should now make up one of the best outfields in the National League. This doesn’t mean that the Brewers are all the way up to where they want to be just yet; they aren’t, and the rotation is a particular area of concern there. But they have an exciting young shortstop in Orlando Arcia, a third baseman coming off a huge breakout year in Travis Shaw, a scary good closer in Corey Knebel, and a backup catcher named Jett Bandy, which isn’t important, but his (real, legal) name is Jett Bandy.
One fun thing: Reliever Josh Hader has a) sweet hair, and b) a killer slider.
Chicago White Sox
What’s new: Not really anything that matters, though former Oriole Welington Castillo and his good nickname—“Beef”—will take over at catcher.
Man, this team will be so good (so unblighted!) in two or so years. For now, though, they’re just young, with the potential to be pretty fun while they figure things out. A good chunk of the talent at the center of this rebuild is already up in the major leagues: guys like pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez and second baseman Yoan Moncada (notable for his massive arms, excellent sports baby, and love of Twinkies). There are more on the way, and this year’s big call-up will probably come in the form of top pitching prospect Michael Kopech. It’s a lot of potential talent, but most of it’s still raw at this point; a win total above the low-70s would be a feat, but when you’re not playing for this year, who cares?
One fun thing: YOU CAN PUT IT ON THE BOOOOOOARD YES it’s Hawk Harrelson’s last season!
What’s new: Nothing of consequence.
Okay, as of right now, this roster doesn’t have that much fun on it. (There’s energetic second baseman Ozzie Albies and Ender Inciarte makes for a good watch in center field with his speed, and Freddie Freeman’s still fun, I guess?) But by the end of the season, they could have quite a bit. The big one there is the ridiculously talented best-prospect-in-baseball Ronald Acuña, who’d already be in the big leagues in a just world without service time manipulation, but there’s also a set of young pitchers who should be on the way and could show up at the end of the year. This is, again, not a team that’s playing for this year, but the groundwork for an entertaining young major-league crew is being laid now.
One fun thing: Acuna’s hype has only spiked with the drama over when he’ll be called up, but the Venezuelan 20-year-old stands to live up to it. He exploded last year, tearing up first his introduction to High-A, then Double-A and finally Triple-A (hitting .344/.393/.548!) and now there’s nowhere for the toolsy outfielder to go but up.
The Blah Teams
What’s new: Not that much. Former Cardinals outfielder Stephen Piscotty is here, and Jonathan Lucroy will take over at catcher.
Of all the teams in this category, the A’s are the closest to being not-blah right now, and very well may be not-blah! A lot of that depends on three youngsters: power-hitting third baseman Matt Chapman, up-the-middle guy Franklin Barreto, and slugging first baseman Matt Olson. All three have high ceilings, but there’s plenty of space between there and the floor. Olson is pretty one-dimensional, but that one dimension broke the hell out last year: 24 home runs in 59 major-league games, which is plenty to be excited about, albeit alongside the question of just how much of that will be sustainable going forward. Chapman’s power wasn’t quite so overwhelming during his half-season in the majors last year, but it’s real; unfortunately, so are the concerns about his strikeout rate. (So, too, though, is a good glove at third—and a tendency to get riled up, whether it’s arguing about stealing signs or staring down a fan.) The 21-year-old Barreto, meanwhile, is the youngest of the trio with nice glovework of his own, though it’s not clear that he’ll stick at shortstop, and the ability to hit for some power, too. At this point, they’re all works in progress, but the odds are on them to be fairly solid ones in the long run. Other than those three, things are kinda bleak: there’s not much to be excited about in this rotation, and even less in the bullpen.
One fun thing: Please get familiar with reliever Daniel Mengden’s mustache, if you aren’t already.
San Diego Padres
What’s new: Eric Hosmer! Which, honestly, is still a little confusing, given where the team is right now—with an exciting farm system that should make for a fun club in a few years, but a decidedly uncompetitive major-league roster right now. The eight-year deal that Hosmer signed means that he’ll be around through this rebuild (and then some), but going after a free-agent splurge like this now, and at a position that the team already had covered for years to come, makes you wonder just when the Padres think their window is opening.
The Padres have one of baseball’s strongest farm systems; there’s real reason to believe that they’ll be downright frightening in a few seasons. (Though, you know, they had baseball’s best system in 2012 and had almost every single one of those prospects either get injured, flame out, or be traded away for peanuts, so…) There are worse choices that a fan could make than deciding to exclusively watch the minor league affiliates, rather than endure what will almost certainly be an eighth straight year with a win total of 77 games or fewer. What’s worth watching on the big-league level? The set of youngsters who have already arrived: Manny Margot, a base-stealing threat who flashed some power last year; Austin Hedges, a strong defensive catcher still trying to figure out his bat; and Hunter Renfroe, who hits for power, but not (at all) for average.
One fun thing: Dinelson Lamet will start his season on the disabled list because of elbow discomfort, but he made a splash in his rookie season last year with a strikeout rate of nearly 11 per nine innings, and his slider is a beauty.
What’s new: Basically nothing.
The Reds have ostensibly been rebuilding for several years now, and, uh, they’re still doing that. “Rebuilding” for them has been more like bulldozing different areas of the same construction lot and moving the dirt around and not really actually building up. (The dirt is almost-but-not-totally-busted pitching prospects.) The rotation will likely continue to be among the worst in baseball; the bats will continue to be a little better than that, though not enough to save them; Joey Votto will continue to be so damn good, even though he’s 34 now.
One fun thing: Ignore everything else about Billy Hamilton’s game and just watch this highlight reel of his 59 stolen bases last year:
Tampa Bay Rays
What’s new: Pitcher Alex Cobb and first baseman Logan Morrison left in free agency; franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria, outfielder Steven Souza, Jr., and 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson were all traded away. Replacements include Denard Span in the outfield and C.J. Cron at first base.
Almost all of the Rays’ offseason moves, like so many of the club’s moves, generally, were dedicated to cutting costs. The result is a team that has a few new faces, but the same general idea as last year’s .500-ish squad. They’re not playing for this year, and the guys who could have done the most to make this year somewhat fun to watch despite that—Longoria, Dickerson, and top pitching prospect Brent Honeywell, who tore his UCL—are now gone. Other than that: uh, wait for shortstop prospect Willy Adames to get called up? (How long you’ll be waiting mostly depends on how long the team is willing to sit on him to game his service-time clock.)
One fun thing: The Rays are planning to use a four-man rotation this year, with the fifth day treated as a bullpen game. It makes sense, kind of—they don’t have a whole ton of major-league quality starting pitching depth, and while this bullpen isn’t especially good, it’s deep enough to try pulling this off. But there’s a big difference between looking good on paper and working in real-life, say, at the end of a week where most of their starting pitchers clocked out after five and two-thirds.
What’s new: Dee Gordon and his trademark speed will be in centerfield. And Ichiro is back!
The longest ongoing playoff drought in the major pro sports—seriously, the Mariners are at 16 years now, edging out the Browns’ 15—will not be ending this season. The rotation was a mess here last year, with 13 different guys making more than one start and only one of them (Ariel Miranda) ending the season with more than 140 innings. Some of that was simple bad luck with injuries, but there still isn’t enough depth here for anyone to be confident about this pitching situation. There’s Nelson Cruz, who’s still a bona fide power-hitter at age 37, and Kyle Seager, whose reputation as a solid player in his own right will always be outshone by younger brother Corey, but these bright spots probably aren’t enough to redeem what might be lucky to be a .500-ish club.
One fun thing: Last year was Edwin Diaz’s first full season as Seattle’s closer, and he had a bit of a rough go of it. But he’s still capable of everything that he did in his electric 2016 rookie campaign—striking out more than 40 percent of batters he faced—with a triple-digit fastball and a killer slider.
What’s new: Dealing with what feels at this point like a chronic inability to develop pitching, they added Andrew Cashner and—much more crucially—Alex Cobb to the rotation.
The Orioles’ only hope of avoiding a repeat of last year’s last-place AL East finish is for the Rays to be worse than expected. Manny Machado can only do so much on his own—and this is the last year that he’ll have to, since he hits free agency this winter. Meanwhile, erstwhile bullpen wizard Zach Britton had surgery last month and will have to sit out a while before trying to rebound from last year’s struggles, and the moves that the team made to bolster the rotation aren’t enough to ensure success there.
One fun thing: Remember Tim Beckham, the number one overall pick in the 2008 draft who flamed out with the Rays? The infielder quietly started playing (something, kinda) like the prospect he once was after last year’s midsummer trade to Baltimore, and seeing whether he can hold onto the power surge of the second half of 2017 should be fun. Also: backup utility guy Engelb Stalin Vielma has a fantastic name and a lot of anagrams that come with it.
Teams who’ve passed their primes.
What’s new: Enough, I guess, but not that much that really matters. Most of the rotation comes from new names—Doug Fister, Matt Moore, Mike Minor—but none of them factor to be too exciting.
They won’t be terrible. But they probably won’t be good, and they’ll be very uninspired. Cole Hamels is still here, an ace fronting a rotation of all-new parts. (With “ace” being used a little generously there, in light of his shaky performance last year.) Adrian Beltre should be a delight, as always, and there are a few young guys to watch: 22-year-old Nomar Mazara already has two full big-league seasons under his belt, but maybe this will be the year that he finally taps into his power potential, and outfielder Willie Calhoun is a fun one to keep an eye on who should get the call-up from Triple-A soon. Otherwise? They’re mostly on the older side, not a trainwreck but not really going anywhere, and managing to repeat last year’s third-place finish in the AL West seems optimistic.
One fun thing: Joey Gallo smacking the snot out of the damn ball at every chance he gets.
What’s new: Gerrit Cole is gone, Andrew McCutchen is gone, this team isn’t competing anymore.
Pittsburgh traded away franchise player McCutchen and ace Cole this winter, but they didn’t go for a tear-down style remodel here. Instead of stocking up on high-ceiling prospects that could contribute in a few years, they largely got major-league-ready guys back in return. Which contributes to the fact that they won’t be terrible this season, just… uninspiring, probably to the tune of a few games below .500.
One fun thing: Felipe Rivero has a fastball that can touch triple digits and developed into a sneaky good reliever for a bit there last year when he took over as closer. Even more impressive than that fastball, though? His changeup:
What’s new: Hardly anything. Mike Fiers will add some rotation depth, and Leonys Martin will be in center field, and that’s about it.
Can they improve on last year’s last place finish in the AL Central? Uh, maybe if the Royals really bottom out. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are still here, just older. Michael Fulmer has recovered from last autumn’s surgery and should be ready to try repeating the performance that won him Rookie of the Year in 2016. Nick Castellanos could hit 30 home runs? That’s… it, pretty much.
One thing to watch: This bullpen isn’t good, but it’s got some great names. Warwick Saupold, Buck Farmer, Artie Lewicki, Daniel Stumpf…
Kansas City Royals
What’s new: As expected, two big pieces of the 2015 World Series team—Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer—departed in free agency. They managed to hold onto a far-less-sexy-but-still-meaningful set of free agents in Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, and they added Lucas Duda at first.
The Royals have been on a downward slide since winning the World Series three years ago, from a .500 team in 2016 to a just under .500 in 2017 to, uh, more than “just” under .500 team now. The departures of Hosmer and Cain will be felt hard, and in their place, they have… a meh lineup, some real weak-ass pitching, and no significant help coming from the farm any time soon.
One fun thing: Ace Danny Duffy struggled with keeping his fastball velocity up last year, but damn if his changeup—a pitch that he’s really only started working in more over the last two years, and has greatly improved from where it was before—can’t look gorgeous when it’s working.
A set of teams liable to exploding, good or bad, for various reasons.
San Francisco Giants
What’s new: Andrew McCutchen—not quite what he was in his peak, but still very solid—beefs up an outfield that collectively batted a miserable .253/.311/.374 last year, Evan Longoria will slot in at third base, and Tony Watson adds support to a shaky bullpen.
Heading into last season, the 2017 Giants weren’t exactly a lock for greatness, but they were expected to be competitive enough at least for the Wild Card race. Instead, they busted hard, with injuries and bad luck and down-years ultimately leaving them close to the worst team in baseball. (Just one loss away.) Now they’ve added some pieces that should protect against the problems that bombed last year’s season, and they should logically be able to trust that some of that bad luck won’t repeat itself: there’s no way that Brandon Belt and Mark Melancon and Hunter Pence and Johnny Cueto will all have terrible seasons again. At least, not possibly so terrible as last year. But the question of just how much each of them will be able to rebound is a big one, and meanwhile, some bad luck has started manifesting elsewhere in the team this year, as the rotation has been dealt a serious blow with both Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija already injured.
Will the Giants be better this year than last? For sure. Good enough to challenge for the Wild Card? That’s both very possible—Buster Posey’s still here, after all, and if Bumgarner and Samardzija return on schedule and just half of the players who sucked last year return to their career averages, they’ll have something good—and very not—um, that bullpen.
One fun thing: At 31, Buster Posey’s been around for a while now, and everyone’s gotten used to his particular brand of greatness, and there’s a crop of exciting young catchers out there in Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras, and so on. But Posey—for now, at least—is still the best of them all, and it’s not close.
New York Mets
What’s new: Most of the pieces that they needed! They got a third baseman (Todd Frazier), a reliever (Anthony Swarzak), and some starting pitching depth (Jason Vargas), plus the return of Jay Bruce. But while all of those are perfectly serviceable pieces, none is exactly awe-inspiring.
Once upon a time—like, three years ago—the Mets were in reach of what looked, then, like a dream rotation: Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz. While all five pitchers have spent their entire major-league careers with the team, they’ve never all been healthy at the same time. Until right now. But being healthy at the same time and healthy and good at the same time are different things, and before hopes could get too high there, Wheeler was demoted to Triple-A last week after a sad-ass spring performance, and the concerns about Harvey’s years-long decline remain. Still, though! There’s still a chance for the rotation to reach the potential that’s been out of reach for so long. Or, uh, injuries could wreck the set once again. (Get ready for more five-inning Robert Gsellman starts?)
As always, seemingly more than for any other club, health is weird and finicky here, and not just with pitchers. Maybe Michael Conforto is fully recovered from his freakish shoulder injury, maybe he’s not; maybe Yoenis Cespedes bounces back from last year’s spate of problems and into top form, maybe he doesn’t; maybe the tradition of no, no, everything’s fine, he’s day-to-day — ah, shit, his arm’s fallen off will disappear under a new manager, new coaches, and new training staff. Or maybe all this is somehow just inherently Metsian and new management isn’t enough to change it. Maybe!
One fun thing: If MLB’s Statcast system is to be trusted, the fastest shortstop in baseball is not the Nationals’ Trea Turner. It’s division-mate Amed Rosario, who got his first taste of the major leagues last year and is scary talented for a 22-year-old.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
What’s new: Well, they signed Zack Cozart. Also, this guy named Shohei Ohtani.
After several years of being aggressively mediocre despite having the best player in baseball, the Angels are finally interesting. They out-wooed everyone else for Ohtani and his two-way talents. Garrett Richards might finally be healthy again. Andrelton Simmons is coming off a season in which he deservedly picked up some MVP votes. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a hypothetical season where this team is just exciting as hell. Maybe Ohtani’s disappointing spring melts away and he becomes a pitching-designated-hitting phenom unlike anything we’ve ever seen, the rest of the rotation stays healthy and maxes out their potential, and, c’mon, you still have Mike Trout here. But it also doesn’t take too much imagination to picture the opposite. Maybe Ohtani pitches as a mid-rotation guy (or worse) and hits as someone who can’t justify his plate appearances, maybe Richards and Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs and the rest of this injury-prone rotation fall apart as they have in the past, maybe Justin Upton shows that last year’s career season isn’t something that he’s going to repeat.
A lot of the maybe in this feels centered on Ohtani, and that’s only fair: he’s the only true unknown here. Even after all of the scouting profiles, the analysis on how NPB players adjust to MLB, the detailed spring training reports that came every time Ohtani sneezed, there’s still no way to tell just how much he can (or can’t) live up to the hype. On his own, he can make a huge difference here. (See: Baseball Prospectus projects him for as many pitching wins above replacement as the rest of the rotation combined.) When one central player like that is so tricky to predict, the whole enterprise feels a little shaky. Also, yeah, look again at that rotation’s injury history.
One fun thing: Sure, yes, how Ohtani pans out and what happens with their use of a six-man rotation, but besides that. Even in a league so packed with exciting young shortstops, there’s still no real contest on who’s the most captivating on defense there. It’s Simmons. My God.
What’s new: Just about everyone worth watching (Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna) is gone.
Here’s a game: name from the Marlins’ active roster or from this list of past and present vice-chairs of the UN’s administrative and budgetary committee? Marcio Burity, Tomas Telis, Omar Solares, Brian Anderson, Miles Armitage, Garrett Cooper. Sure, you can probably play a semi-successful version of that game with the fifth starters and third catchers of any roster, but more than anyone else, the Marlins’ line-up is stuffed with guys you’ve likely never heard of and probably don’t want to.
In the first offseason under a new ownership group led by Bruce Sherman, with Derek Jeter installed as CEO, the team was stripped for parts this winter, and the result is... this. Outside a tiny handful of names (Starlin Castro and J.T. Realmuto, both of whom tried to get out of Miami this winter, plus Cameron Maybin and Martin Prado) there’s very little in the way of guys who have ever made a meaningful contribution to major league team. But there is something interesting here, in the way that any other man-made disaster can be interesting: just how bad can it actually get? The Marlins qualify as “combustible” not because they’re liable to explode, but because they already have. This team is not just going to be bad, of course, but deliberately set up to be so. The Marlins have fielded similarly constructed teams before (after the fire sales that immediately followed both of their World Series wins, plus the one in 2012) so there’s not anything new here, but could this edition stand a chance to be the worst of them all? With almost no starting pitching—hello, opening day starter Jose Urena—and a situation that’s not that much better elsewhere on the field? Well, probably not. But that’s only because the post-’97 fire sale team went 54-108. There’s still a lot of room for them to be awful, with not many guys who resemble major-leaguer players, in a way that no other club can rival.
One fun thing: How much further Jeter & co. manage to alienate fans over the stupidest shit—finally securing a way to remove the Dinger Machine? Will Marlins Man call Jeter a virgin again? (Actually: Lewis Brinson, the centerpiece of the Yelich trade, is an exciting young player who should see quite a bit of time in the majors and provides killer defense in center.)