- Of course the Astros hold the top spot in our offseason power rankings, but where do the rest of the teams fall?
Another baseball season has come and gone, and a first-time champion has been crowned. But for both the triumphant Astros and all 29 other teams, questions abound.
What lessons will each team learn from 2017? What are each team’s needs for the future? Who are the early favorites to win it all in 2018?
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We’ll answer all of that, and more, in this special edition of The 30—The Aftermath.
Rankings based on reverse order of standings for non-playoff teams, then length of postseason run for playoff teams.
It was bound to happen. Build a team around aging stars, throw ungodly sums of cash at big-name players in a frantic effort to win it all before the team’s determined and elderly owner runs out of time, and eventually your team will go from star-studded excitement to a retirement community full of despair.
The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists. Tigers General Manager Al Avila traded his most marketable commodity to Houston two minutes before the August 31 waiver deadline, landing some intriguing young talent in return even as Justin Verlander found his vintage form and led the Astros to glory. Expect Ian Kinsler to be next up on the block, with Miguel Cabrera untradable unless he discovers the fountain of youth and the Tigers pick up a huge chunk of his onerous contract.
You’ll notice two common themes at and near the bottom of this list. First, you’ll find teams in full rebuild mode, former contenders who stripped away parts and are now gearing up for what they hope will be major rebounds in the years to come. The second group of teams consists of former contenders who got really old, and now must deal with painful reckonings as they chart their future.
No team offers a clearer example of that latter predicament than the Giants. They ran out the oldest collection of position players in the National League this year, and it showed. Thirty-four-year-old Hunter Pence collapsed to a .260/.315/.385 showing. Thirty-year-old Brandon Crawford slipped to .253/.305/.403. Brandon Belt capped his 20s by missing 58 games due to injuries. And left field was a complete black hole. The top levels of the farm system sorely lack high-upside talent, meaning the Giants might need to spend heavily on 30-something free agents. That’s a move that could help short term, but make the team’s downfall even uglier, and its turnaround efforts that much tougher.
If any team should feel emboldened by the Astros’ success, it’s the Phillies. Like Houston, Philly enjoyed bursts of playoff glory last decade, only to buckle under the weight of heightened expectations and an old and bloated roster. Like Houston, Philly cleared out its old braintrust and ushered in a new era of analytically-based player evaluation and roster building. The question then becomes whether or not the Phillies can one day storm back from the cellar as convincingly as the Astros have.
The team’s impressive scouting and player development efforts could make that dream a reality. Twenty-four-year-old slugger Rhys Hoskins was an absolute terror in his first exposure to the Show. Twenty-four-year-old top outfield prospect Nick Williams is also here to stay. Twenty-two-year-old J.P. Crawford should be the team’s Opening Day shortstop, and 23-year-old second baseman Scott Kingery could join him before long. Robust efforts on the international market have yielded a passel of Latin American pitching prospects with upside, led by 19-year-old right-hander Sixto Sanchez. By the start of next decade, these Phillies might look a lot like the Howard-Utley-Rollins crew that started its ascent in the early-to-mid aughts.
No team has been more aggressive in the past year in changing its path. The Sox looked like they might be on the verge of contention as recently as 2015, only to fall short in those efforts due to a shortfall of talent. Rather than wallow in mediocrity, GM Rick Hahn identified the problem, and blew everything up.
Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Anthony Swarzak are all gone. Jose Abreu should soon follow. And the future will be entrusted to a new, young group of South Siders, led by Yoan Moncada, the consensus 2017 best prospect in baseball who held his own (.231/.338/.412) as a 22-year-old getting his first extended run of big league playing time this year.
Joey Votto has been the best hitter in the National League for nearly a decade, only to have those efforts mostly squandered by weak supporting casts. If he keeps posting MVP-caliber numbers, the next six seasons guaranteed at $25 million a pop will look like a spectacular bargain, even as he hits his 40th birthday at deal’s end. The Reds have shown no interest in trading their franchise player; you have to wonder how long that’ll last, given the annual scarcity of elite bats on the open market, and Cincinnati’s pressing need for young talent.
That talent dearth looks especially stark on the pitching side. Would-be top pitching prospects like Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed have thus far failed to make a dent at the major league level. The team’s surprise breakout star this year was Luis Castillo, the 24-year-old right-hander who fires a high-90s fastball that generates lots of whiffs and groundballs, and helped him net a stellar 98 strikeouts and a 3.12 ERA in 89 ⅓ innings in 2017. Even if Castillo translates those results into a full season’s worth of work, he’ll still need rotation running mates for the Reds to get off the mat. Top 2017 draft pick Hunter Greene is a rare talent who’s also probably three to five years away from making an impact at the highest level. After Greene, you’ve got intriguing mid-rotation-type prospects like right-hander Tyler Mahle, but not necessarily a stable of future aces, coming up through the system.
I mean...it can’t possibly get any worse than 2017, right? Right?!?!?
Even if Matt Harvey’s truly cooked, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zach Wheeler could bounce back after last season’s plague of injuries blew up the rotation. After that, you build the offense around Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto, give Amed Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, and Dom Smith every chance to play and develop, and see what happens. With the Yankees on the rise and the Mets window that looked wide open just two years ago now likely slammed shut, the tabloids likely won’t be kind to Queens’ finest for the foreseeable future.
Of the 17 Padres position players who saw the most playing time in 2017, 16 of them were 29 or younger, and 14 were 27 or younger. That’s exactly the kind of toss-spaghetti-against-the-wall approach you have to take when you’re a perpetually rebuilding franchise with five playoff berths in 39 seasons of existence, and none since 2006.
Of course, simply flooding the zone with young players doesn’t guarantee anything. Wil Myers is the nominal franchise player given his six-year contract, but he’d be a sixth or seventh banana on most of 2017’s loaded playoff teams. Toolsy 23-year-old outfielder Manuel Margot has lots of time to develop, after settling into an everyday major league role for the first time in 2017, following his acquisition from Boston two years earlier. Like a lot of bottoming-out teams, the Padres have a nearly bottomless list of pitching needs. Talented right-hander Cal Quantrill is the best in-house bet to become a top starter within the next three years, though his first cup of coffee at Double-A late last season garnered mixed reviews.
Every year, talent evaluators for each of the 30 teams retreat to their separate conference calls to dissect the international talent market, then figure out the best ways to skirt a set of rules more codified than they once were, but still subject to dodging and manipulation. The Braves just got the worst of it this time around, with an MLB investigation resulting in the ouster of General Manager John Coppolella last month.
Former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is the new head man in Atlanta, and he’s got some promising pieces at his disposal, thanks to the efforts of Coppolella and his scouting and player development staff. Dansby Swanson stumbled in his first long look at big league playing time, but he and 20-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies could be a fun double-play pairing for years to come. Ender Inciarte’s the Gold Glove-caliber center fielder heisted from the Diamondbacks in the same deal that netted Swanson. And Freddie Freeman’s the franchise player, a beast of a hitter who the Braves hope doesn’t get Votto’d due to lack of support.
The development of young arms like Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, and others will tell us a lot. Most exciting of all, Ronald Acuna is a five-tool terror with massive potential who’ll hopefully draw fans to Cobb County’s traffic-infested, parking-and-public-transit-deprived, taxpayer-funded boondoggle of a new park.
The A’s may have been the first team to jump on the flyball-heavy approach to lineup building, getting a jump on the home-run revolution that’s since become an epidemic in baseball. That approach worked like a charm from 2012 through 2014, when Oakland enjoyed a mini-version of its Moneyball heyday via three straight playoff berths.
Following three straight last-place finishes, that bash-and-mash approach might be the A’s best bet to get back to the winner’s circle. Matt Olson obliterated AL pitching in his truncated rookie season, smashing 24 home runs and slugging .651 in 59 games. Fellow rookie Matt Chapman combined extra-base pop with a slick glove at third base, and could be another building block. And that’s not even mentioning Khris Davis, whose 43 bombs ranked him second among all AL hitters, but whose advancing age (he turns 30 next month) makes him a likely trade candidate for an organization that’s long been hyper-aggressive about selling high on veterans and constantly striving to get younger.
The O’s have replaced the Giants as the archetype for #EvenYear superstition, alternating playoff berths in 2012, 2014, and 2016 with progressively uglier letdowns during the seasons in between. There are multiple reasons to doubt the every-other-year streak continuing, though.
For one thing, Baltimore’s expected win-loss record (determined by runs scored vs. runs allowed) was actually three games worse than the team’s actual 75-87, last-place flop. For another, this is a team that’s light on elite talent outside of Manny Machado (and maaaaybe 2017 breakout Jonathan Schoop), yet still paid at a top-10 level. Chris Davis’ $161 million in particular looks like a major problem after a flaccid .215/.309/.432 showing in his age-31 season; he only has five more years at $23 million a pop left on his albatross of a deal. The bigger problem is that, despite flashes of potential from Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, the Orioles haven’t developed an elite starting pitcher since Mike Mussina...and don’t seem to know what they have on the rare occasion when a top arm sits in their midst.
Prime candidates for a sneaky bounce back in 2018. The Buccos buckled last season, weighed down by everything from a half-season PED suspension (Starling Marte) to medical woes both frightening (Jameson Taillon, testicular cancer) and more conventional (Gregory Polanco, hamstring, ankle, etc.).
Taillon could be the team’s ace as soon as next season, while Tyler Glasnow and other young arms offer additional upside. Marte and Polanco back and at full strength could be worth an extra three or four wins alone, while Josh Bell gets to build on his 26-homer rookie campaign. Andrew McCutchen’s walk-year status lingers as we enter free agency. But whether the Pirates give him another extension, stand pat and see what happens from April to June, or trade him for lots of prospects, there’s enough here to foster some optimism, two straight losing seasons notwithstanding.
Few brain trusts face a more delicate challenge than Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins in Toronto. On one hand, you’ve got current franchise player Josh Donaldson staring down the barrel of free agency at the end of the 2018 season. On the other, you’ve got future franchise player Vladimir Guerrero Jr. tearing up the minors and closing in on his major league debut.
It’s in the vast space between those two that the details get muddled. The Jays made the ALCS two years in a row, only to tumble to an 86-loss season in 2017. Fielding the oldest group of position players in the majors bodes ill for near-term improvement, even as young pups like Teoscar Hernandez and Anthony Alford see more playing time, and older hands like Jose Bautista likely take off. Do the Jays try to build on two straight years of leading the AL in attendance, seeking short-term solutions in the hopes of keeping the revenue gravy train rolling? Or do they acknowledge that signing Donaldson well into his 30s might be a bad idea, that the Yankees and Red Sox are better equipped to make playoff runs this year, and that the sooner they make aggressive moves and start something close to a rebuild, the sooner they can field a consistent contender? Tough call.
The ink is barely dry on the transfer of power to new ownership, and new face of the franchise Derek Jeter has already botched the firings of four franchise icons—in that they never should have been fired in the first place, and Jeter made matters weirder by claiming he might re-hire them.
Lousy optics aside, the big task in front of Jeter and whoever he hires next will be to rebuild the team’s pitching staff. The untimely death of Jose Fernandez, combined with young pitching talent not developing as hoped, and acquisitions like Edinson Volquez and Wei-Yin Chen flopping, has left the Marlins without the kind of front-line arms they’ll need to battle the loaded Nationals and the rest of the NL. Daily headlines about the future of Giancarlo Stanton might be sexier. But whether Stanton stays or goes, the Fish need pitching help...and impact reinforcements from the farm are likely years away from arriving.
Rangers starters ranked 23rd in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching last season, and that was with Yu Darvish on the roster for much of the year. The good news is that Texas has more international-market money to spend than any other team. That, along with the Rangers’ aggressive track record when Darvish became available, make you wonder if Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani might be headed to Arlington this winter.
The addition of Ohtani, along with 30 starts from an effective Cole Hamels, could be enough to propel the Rangers back into contention. That’s because the offense features plenty of upside. Twenty-four-year-old Joey Gallo broke out with 41 homers last season, and could improve if he hones his batting eye. Talented outfielder Nomar Mazara will enter his third major league season at age 23, making him a prime candidate for a breakout. Twenty-five-year-old Delino DeShields Jr. showed solid plate discipline and blazing speed in part-time duty, and could become a viable source of on-base percentage and steals if the Rangers give him the chance to play every day.
Jerry Dipoto just made 72 trades in the time it took to write this sentence. One of those was the acquisition of Ryon Healy from the A’s on Wednesday. The 25-year-old first baseman swatted 25 homers and slugged .451, solid numbers for a player in his first full major league season, playing his home games in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. He needs to solve the holes in his game, including a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly seven-to-one last season, and his lackluster defense. Still, the M’s had a glaring need, and Dipoto moved quickly to fill it.
The question now becomes how Dipoto navigates the rest of the roster. Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager lead a potent offense, but Cruz is 37 and Cano’s 35, making you wonder how long they can keep hitting at elite levels. Meanwhile, the staff ace (James Paxton) is absurdly talented but also really injury prone, and Felix Hernandez is one of countless pitchers on the roster with back-of-the-rotation skills at this stage of their careers. Throw in the longest current playoff drought for any team, and the clock is ticking on the Mariners, in multiple ways.
They tried. By acquiring Lucas Duda and other reinforcements last summer, the Rays tried to parlay a hot start into a backdoor playoff berth. Those efforts failed in two days. First, Tampa Bay failed to even break .500 for the year. Second, the Rays’ most impactful trade was one that immediately backfired, and could haunt them for years to come: Flipping former number-one overall pick Tim Beckham to the Orioles for little return, then watching as Beckham started raking right away in Baltimore.
More reinforcements will surely be needed if the Rays hope to vie for a wild-card spot in 2018, with first base and left field looking particularly grim. One (ahem) ray of hope: Even with Alex Cobb likely leaving via free agency, Blake Snell and Jacob Faria offer lots of potential as mid-rotation starters who could harness their talent and take on bigger roles next season.
The end of an era has arrived. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar are all free agents, and it’s tough to imagine more than one of them returning to KC.
This could prove to be a feature, not a bug. Cain is entering his age-32 season, Hosmer wasn’t all that good (and vastly overrated) until his sudden 2017 outburst, Moustakas makes far too many outs at bat and not enough in the field, thus limiting the value of his substantial power, and Escobar was one of the worst hitters in the league last season. The Royals forged their successful run on the backs of younger, far less expensive players in their prime. Letting this foursome leave for greener pastures would allow KC to focus on developing a new crop of potential championship players.
This is the part of our program where we scheme for ways to get the two best hitters of this generation, Joey Votto and Mike Trout, into the World Series. Two monumental talents and future Hall of Famers are being wasted on lousy rosters, and it’s painful to watch.
One way to help would be to get a lot younger. Though the Angels’ franchise player is in his mid-20s, the team still ran out the second-oldest group of position players in the majors this year. Albert Pujols was the worst everyday player in the league by Wins Above Replacement, he’s about to turn 38, and he’s got four years and $114 million left on his nightmare of a contract. The former star’s deal is a reminder of what happens when impetuous, short-sighted owners like Arte Moreno take decisions out of smarter people’s hands.
Meanwhile, the starting rotation is packed with both injury and performance risks. Making matters worse is a thin farm system that has very few high-upside players above Single-A ball. Add it all up, and short of cloning Trout to play every position, you’re looking at a team that (barring multiple genius moves in free agency or on the trade market) will likely remain mediocre for the foreseeable future.