The one-year turnaround from loser to contender has become quite common during the wild-card era. The Twins, Rockies and Diamondbacks all pulled it off last season en route to the playoffs. Which teams can do it this season?
To answer that, let's look at four teams that weren't universally considered "playoff-ready" in late March but have gotten off to great starts. Yes, sample size issues and schedule quirks will work themselves out over 162 games, but the wins amassed so far are already in the bank. Below, we rank these clubs by likeliest to reach October. (All numbers current going into play Apr. 24.)
4. Mets — 14–6, +16 run differential
Case for: For years we've been wondering what it would be like if the Mets' dream rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler was able to stay healthy together. They're still intact through 20 games this season, with a 3.71 ERA, 10.32 K/9, and 2.0 fWAR (fourth-best among National League starting staffs) to show for it. Yes, Matz has struggled and Harvey is headed to the bullpen, but there's value in this team finally knowing exactly who's taking the mound everyday.
Case against: Would you really bet on this starting staff staying healthy for a full season? The Mets could also still use a bat or two to help a mostly middle-of-the-road lineup. New York will need more out of Yoenis Cespedes (.195/.258/.354), Michael Conforto (.213/.387/.340) and Jay Bruce (.194/.280/.328) to truly contend.
Verdict: It's hard to see the rotation keeping this up over a 162-game stretch. Likewise, Asdrubal Cabrera and Juan Lagares aren't going to anchor the lineup long-term and pick up the slack for the trio mentioned above. There's also the tall order of battling the Nationals, the surprising Braves and the upstart Phillies (more on them below) in the NL East and holding off the rest of the NL for a wild card spot. The Mets should remain competitive, but a playoff run looks like a bit of a tall order.
3. Angels — 15–8, +18 run differential
Case for: With Mike Trout doing his usual Mike Trout things and Shohei Ohtani living up to the hype, the Angels look like they may finally get back to the postseason. Their lineup hits plenty of homers (tied with the Yankees for an MLB-best 32) and rarely strikes out.
Case against: Six of their 15 wins have come in sweeps of the awful Rangers and Royals, and they were swept by the Red Sox. The bullpen’s solid 3.10 ERA is bound for regression at some point—Angels relievers have already handled 101.2 innings, four more than any other team in the majors.
Verdict: The 2018 Angels are turning out to be basically who we thought they'd be: the 2017 Angels plus a guy who reminds many of Babe Ruth. Is that enough to improve on last season’s 80–82 record? Probably. Is it enough to leapfrog one of the Yankees, Red Sox or Blue Jays if the Astros win the AL West? Probably not.
2. Blue Jays — 13–8, +28 run differential
Case for: Only the Red Sox, Yankees and A's have scored more runs this season than the Blue Jays. The production has come thanks in part to better-than-expected numbers from Teoscar Hernandez (.343/.395/.743), Yangervis Solarte (.250/.373/.515 with five home runs) and a throwback performance from Curtis Granderson (.294/.410/.490) while Josh Donaldson rehabs a shoulder injury. Toronto also boasts one the top bullpens in the American League, with its relievers’ 2.12 ERA leading the junior circuit.
Case against: Marcus Stroman (8.55 ERA, 6.30 BB/9) and Marco Estrada (5.32 ERA, six home runs allowed in 22 IP) have been dreadful in the rotation. The schedule has included bad teams like the White Sox, Orioles, Rangers and Royals. Their toughest opponent has been the Yankees, who have taken five of eight against them, including three of four this past weekend. A three-game set against the Red Sox this week will go a long way to determining whether Toronto's early-season strides are more than just a smoke screen.
Verdict: Coupling a dangerous lineup with a lights-out bullpen has worked for other clubs before, so the Jays have plenty of reason to be encouraged by this hot start, but having to face the Yankees and Red Sox a million times will make for rough waters, as will battling the AL West for a wild-card spot. That being said, Toronto appears to be in this thing for the long haul.
1. Phillies — 14-7, +33 run differential
Case for: Phillies pitchers rank in the top 10 in the majors in ERA, fewest home runs allowed, fewest walks per nine innings and fWAR. In the rotation, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez have made huge strides, and offseason acquisition Jake Arrieta is starting to look like his Cy Young-winning self from a few seasons ago.
Case against: Carlos Santana is not hitting at the level Philadelphia was hoping he would after handing him a $60 million contract over the winter (.151/.301/.288), putting a lot of pressure on the young Rhys Hoskins (.615 SLG and four home runs) to carry the load. The Phillies are 6-1 in one-run games, which could simply mean their bullpen and young players are prepared for high-leverage situations. Or it could also just be luck that will eventually run out.
Verdict: Out of the four clubs mentioned here, the Phillies have the tallest task in front of them in pulling off a one-year turnaround after going 66–96 last season, but we're putting them at the No. 1 spot in these rankings because we trust the rotation's significant improvements to hold up and for the offense's bad luck to end soon enough.