That being said…we have some pretty good ideas of where uncertainty might come in. For example, there’s a good chance that a team that struggled in 2017 will see their fortunes reverse in 2018. After all, since 2011, every season except one has seen at least one team go from last in their division to in the playoffs the next year. Some years, like 2015, see multiple teams turn it around (the Cubs and Astros serving as that year’s worst-to-first stories, a sign of the good things to come for both long-struggling franchises). The one year that didn’t was 2014, but of course, that year’s champion Giants had finished second-to-last in their division in 2013, so it was still pretty close.
Given all of that, it’s probably not accurate to say that we’re guaranteed a massive turnaround, but it’s at least something worth thinking about going forward. And if we do see a last place team progressing leaps and bounds this year, who would it be?
First, let’s look at how each of those teams did last year, for an idea of what each one has to build off of:
Baltimore Orioles & Oakland Athletics: 75-87
Cincinnati Reds: 68-94
Philadelphia Phillies: 66-96
Detroit Tigers & San Francisco Giants: 64-98
The O’s and the A’s are starting off with a slight advantage over the other four; all other things being equal, starting seven to eleven wins higher is a big advantage for teams trying to turn things around fast.
Of course, 2018 isn’t 2017, and these teams all look very different from last year. Of course, we don’t have any hard-and-fast records yet, but projections are another good starting point to look at. In this case, Fangraphs is projecting those six to finish thusly:
Only two of these teams are predicted to repeat as cellar-dwellers (the Reds and Orioles*), which is a good enough start. And even the Orioles aren’t being predicted to finish any worse than they were 2017, so it’s not all bad news for them.
*With the Alex Cobb signing, the Orioles are now predicted to be tied for fourth with the Rays.
Still, it seems fair to say that the Reds and Tigers are on a different level from the other four; they’re both still deep in the throes of rebuilding, and will need a few massive surprises to make a serious run at competitiveness this year. The biggest offseason move for either of them was trading away Ian Kinsler, and most of the pieces they’ve brought in have been bit parts and depth pickups, meant to fill out a lineup until the prospects are ready. 2018 is probably just too soon for either of them.
As for the other four, it’s worth noting that two of them (the Giants and Orioles) were in the playoffs just a year ago. Record-from-two-years-ago maybe not as good of an indicator as last year’s record, or projections for this season, but it’s also not nothing, and at the very least, it demonstrates how quickly a team’s fortunes can turn around.
If we were to break down the case for why or why not these four teams might make the playoffs in 2018, I imagine it would look something like this:
First of all, as mentioned, this is a team that was playing in the postseason as recently as the year before last, capping off a string of five straight seasons without a losing record, win totals as high as 96, and even an ALCS appearance. And not only that, but for whatever reason, the Orioles have made a habit of outperforming their projections, so it’s certainly plausible that they’re being underrated yet again.
Of course, what would be the most likely cause of the Orioles potentially overperforming their projections once again in 2018? Well, Manny Machado getting back into MVP-shape would be the biggest part. Tim Beckham playing like the former #1 overall pick that he is (basically, how he looked after coming over from Tampa Bay last year). Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones, Trey Mancini, and Colby Rasmus solidifying the lineup would be helpful, and doesn’t seem to be too crazy an ask. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo returning to form would be nice; they don’t need to be All-Star level, but last year was a disaster. Same with Chris Tillman in the rotation. Breakouts from younger names like Hunter Harvey, Chance Sisco, Dylan Bundy, and Kevin Gausman would be nice. The bullpen has always been reasonably strong, but an exceptionally good year would cover the rotation’s weaknesses. Of course, the rotation could wind up looking solid, thanks to bringing in Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner plus one of the aforementioned breakouts. It probably won’t be great, but if the lineup is good enough, it only needs to hold together. And of course, there’s always the chance of another late signing to shore up a hole, like Cobb (Greg Holland, maybe?). And really, even if they go into the season with these arms, they also made the playoffs regularly while starting Ubaldo Jimenez, so anything is possible.
All of that happening seems unlikely, but maybe they don’t need all of that. Maybe just 75% of it and some luck. I wouldn’t bet money on it, but it also wouldn’t be the strangest development in the last two or three years. Of course, playing in a division with two superteams in the Yankees and Red Sox complicates things, but given the second Wild Card, the O’s don’t necessarily have to top both of them over the entire season to make it to October.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are a lot like the Orioles, in that they’re a team that was recently very good (remember, they made the Division Series back in 2016), and that their path to the 2018 postseason requires a lot of veterans succeeding. Andrew McCutchn and Evan Longoria maybe aren’t the MVP favorites of their youth, but they can still play like All-Stars, and if both stay healthy, they’ll combine with Buster Posey and Brandon Belt to make a nice heart of the order. The rest of the lineup doesn’t seem too shabby at first glance, either; Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford are good hitters for middle infielders, and Hunter Pence and Austin Jackson can make for a solid outfield. The biggest problems will be keeping everyone healthy (which has been a problem in the past) and a thin roster-if someone struggles or gets injured, players like Pablo Sandoval and Gregor Blanco are next in line on the depth charts.
Pitching is a lot of the same. Madison Bumgarner is good, and if Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto are on, that’s a solid 1-2-3. Derek Holland can be a handy #4 to have around as well, and Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are a solid start to the bullpen (plus Will Smith, when he returns from surgery). But there’s not a lot after that, so they either need the stars to hit their ceilings or an unexpected arm or two to step in and fill in the holes. It helps that the Wild Card competition in the NL is a little weaker, with most of the early favorites having a bunch of question marks of their own.
Unlike the Orioles and Giants, the A’s making the playoffs would hinge on their young players stepping forward. Matt Olson and Matt Chapman had impressive late-2017 debuts at the corners, and if they can keep that up over a full season, that’s a good start to a lineup along with Khris Davis. Jed Lowrie is sneaky-good. Marcus Semien looked like an above-average major league shortstop last year in limited playing time. I like the Jonathan Lucroy and Stephen Piscotty pick-ups, and think they have bounce-back potential. Newbie Dustin Fowler has solid prospect pedigree and a chance to prove himself in center, and I’m hoping Chad Pinder can find success this year.
On the pitching side, there’s just a lot of young, raw arms that may or may not put it all together this year, like Sean Manaea (another one I’m rooting for), A.J. Puk, Daniel Mengden, and Kendall Graveman (although they’ll be without Jharel Cotton due to a UCL injury). A late offseason signing of one of the remaining starters would have bumped them a little higher in my mind by giving them a little more certainty, but there’s still a lot to like here. Especially given that most of their games will come against other AL West teams, and it’s not like the Angels, Rangers, and Mariners are without major flaws of their own.
They made some big waves of their own on the free agent market, between signing Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, and their own star who debuted late in 2017 in Rhys Hoskins (plus another former Cape Cod player I’ll be following, Andrew Knapp). Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera are also sneaky-good, but the rest of the lineup is pretty unproven.
But starting a rotation with Aaron Nola and Arrieta is a big advantage over the A’s’ situation. I’m not sure their 3-through-5 pitcher are any more stable, but 2 of 5 isn’t nothing. And like Oakland, the Phillies play in a pretty weak division filled with question marks, with the Marlins and Braves at various points in their own rebuilds and the Mets once again being the Mets.