It seems like just yesterday that Carlos Correa hijacked the Houston Astros’ World Series celebration with a ring ceremony of his own. But the 2018 MLB season is upon us, which means it’s time to determine which teams are best, before they set out to interrogate that very question on the field for seven months. The league is particularly stratified this year: While the Marlins lead a bumper crop of tanking teams, PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus’ projection system) has four teams on track to win at least 96 games. Sorting out those tiers and ordering clubs within them is a more complicated business than it looks at first blush, particularly with little more than conjecture to go on before we’ve even seen one game. But let’s get to it anyway.
1. Houston Astros
I don’t think there’s much of a spread between the top four teams in these rankings. But I’m taking the Astros at no. 1 because they brought back every key component of last year’s club, which might have been the best offense in baseball history. Last year the Astros had a team OPS+ of 127. Since the founding of the American League in 1901, only one other team has equaled that mark: the 1927 Yankees. So the Astros bring back their Pretty Much the 1927 Yankees Offense, get a full season of Justin Verlander, and add former Pirates workhorse Gerrit Cole and veteran reliever Joe Smith, whose track record of excellent relief work stretches back more than a decade now. The Astros opened as five-to-one favorites to win the AL West, with a league-high over-under of 96.5 wins. I’d take the over.
2. New York Yankees
The Astros’ lineup is deeper than the Yankees’, but New York’s is scarier through the middle. They have one of the best bullpens in baseball, and their rotation, anchored by Luis Severino, is better than its reputation. Severino had his breakout season last year, finishing third in AL Cy Young voting and sixth in MLB in strikeout rate, and he is as well positioned as anyone to take home the Cy Young this year if Corey Kluber and Chris Sale slip up.
But most importantly: This team’s going to hit roughly a million home runs, so the Yankees will probably win the division even if Severino doesn’t win the Cy Young.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
One of these days, the Dodgers’ plan of surrounding the best pitcher in baseball with the most expensive team in baseball is going to work. It has to eventually … right?
4. Cleveland Indians
Last year’s Indians were better than the team that took the Cubs to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. They had the best run differential in the league, the second-best record, and the best pitching staff. Remember how the Astros tied the 1927 Yankees for the best team OPS+ since 1901? Cleveland put up a team ERA+ of 138, which is the best performance by a team since the Philadelphia Athletics in 1926.
I wonder how Yonder Alonso will do as a replacement for Carlos Santana at first base, how second baseman Jason Kipnis will recover from an injury-plagued 2017 in which he hit just .232/.291/.414, and whether their interchangeable set of outfielders will be healthy enough to keep up with Houston. But superstars Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, along with that pitching staff, give them a lot of wiggle room.
5. Washington Nationals
This is the start of another three-team tier, with the Nats, Red Sox, and Cubs. PECOTA and ZiPS both have the Cubs ahead, but I rank the Nationals here on the hunch that Bryce Harper is going to have a gigantic walk year before free agency and that Washington will have better luck with injuries—Harper, Adam Eaton, and Max Scherzer were among those who spent time on the DL last year—and a bullpen that had to be written off and rebuilt on the fly.
6. Chicago Cubs
I want to know how Ian Happ, who slugged .514 in 413 plate appearances while playing for a team that’s on TV more than House Hunters, got a single, solitary third-place vote for Rookie of the Year. The Cubs have more position players than they can use at any one time, but Happ can play five different positions—second, third, and all three outfield spots—and is one of those guys people call “a hitter.” There isn’t really anything spectacular about Happ’s offensive game, but you’ll look up at the end of the season and he’s quietly hit .280/.350/.480. He’ll get more opportunities as Ben Zobrist gets old and Jason Heyward continues to struggle to hit, but Happ should be a bigger deal than he is.
7. Boston Red Sox
This team has a lot of upside, because even though they won 93 games last year, nobody hit. In 2016, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. posted 20-homer seasons and Mookie Betts delivered a legitimate MVP challenge in a Peak Mike Trout season. In 2017, all three took a step back and the Sox had a collective OPS+ of 92. They were worse offensively than the tanking White Sox and Tigers last year, which you wouldn’t expect from this set of names unless they all came down with mono and didn’t tell anyone. They have to hit better this year.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks
The second-best team ERA+ in baseball last year belonged to the Diamondbacks, who posted a 131, which is the 19th-best mark since 1901. Even with Shelby Miller going down with Tommy John surgery, the Diamondbacks had some injury luck that probably won’t happen again, as well as a Zack Godley breakout season (142 ERA+) that I wouldn’t count on him repeating. That said, the pitching staff is still going to be quite good. What’s keeping Arizona out of the Cubs–Red Sox–Nats tier is that they’re still a bat short, maybe two. Re-signing J.D. Martinez, who hit .302/.366/.741 in his 62 games in Arizona, would’ve done a lot to bring Arizona closer to the Dodgers in the NL West race. As it stands, they’re probably headed for the wild-card game again unless something goes badly in Los Angeles.
9. Milwaukee Brewers
Yeah, they still need a starting pitcher—probably multiple starting pitchers—but the Corey Knebel–Josh Hader back end of the bullpen is awesome, and the Brewers have enough good outfielders to field two teams. After they traded for Christian Yelich—and traded away outfield prospects Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison in the process—then signed Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee is giving Ryan Braun some looks at first base and had to send Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton to the minors. Phillips has been knocking on the door for what feels like years and hit .276/.351/.448 in 37 games last year, while 27-year-old Broxton, strikeout-prone though he may be, went 20-20 last year. Maybe they’ll reach into that surplus to make a trade to bolster their rotation, or maybe—in the age of the fly-ball revolution—the four-man outfield is the new market inefficiency.
10. Minnesota Twins
This is a team with three legitimate stars—Byron Buxton, Miguel Sanó, and Brian Dozier—a few athletic breakout candidates like outfielder Max Kepler, and not enough pitching. Signing Lance Lynn and trading for Jake Odorizzi will help a rotation that fell off big time last year once you got past Ervin Santana and José Berrios, but even with those reinforcements, they’d probably still be at a pitching disadvantage in every game of the American League playoffs. The Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, and Indians are all better at the top of the rotation and deeper at the back of the rotation, while the Twins lack the bullpen depth to cover for that deficiency.
Plus, that’s assuming they even make it to a best-of-five or best-of-seven series: The Twins are probably headed for a repeat of last season: a fun romp to a wild-card spot and a road loss in a slugfest against an AL East opponent.
11. Los Angeles Angels
I know it makes for great copy, but stop freaking out about Shohei Ohtani. I know a .107/.219/.107 batting line in 32 PA and a 27.00 ERA in 2 2/3 IP aren’t great, but they’re also minuscule sample sizes against spring training competition. Those numbers certainly don’t make him look like the Babe Ruth redux he was billed as, but it could not be less statistically relevant. If he’s got a double-digit ERA on Memorial Day, we’ll talk.
12. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cubs are heavy favorites in the NL Central, while the Brewers had a big breakout last year and made two noisy moves in the offseason. But the Cardinals, coming off an 83-79 campaign, are still pretty solid. I don’t know if I trust last year’s breakout seasons from left fielder Tommy Pham and shortstop Paul DeJong 100 percent, but St. Louis did swoop by the Marlins’ garage sale and pick up outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who was nearly a six-win player last year.
The Cardinals’ season hinges on four relatively inexperienced pitchers: Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Luke Weaver, and former global no. 1 prospect Alex Reyes when he returns from Tommy John surgery this summer. Those four pitchers have fewer than 260 big league innings between them, but they’ll be charged with eating up the 59 starts St. Louis got last year from Mike Leake (who was traded to Seattle) and Lance Lynn (who left for Minnesota in free agency). If they’re good, St. Louis should be right there in the wild-card race. If not, the Cardinals will be back around .500.
13. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners made some interesting offseason moves—the biggest was trading for Miami second baseman Dee Gordon and moving him to center field—but while they’ll score a lot of runs, the rotation is very shallow and there’s no help coming from the farm system anytime soon. They’ll finish within a few games of .500 again. I guess it’s not just Hollywood that only makes sequels anymore.
14. Philadelphia Phillies
They were a trendy wild-card pick, then they signed Jake Arrieta and got a little too trendy. It’s like that coffee shop that had great café de olla and power outlets for every table, but then they started hosting board game tournaments and now the place is full of college kids and 40-year-old men in gym shorts and there’s never any place to sit anymore.
The Phillies have three different players who could make a run at NL Rookie of the Year: shortstop J.P. Crawford, second baseman Scott Kingery (whom the Phillies just signed through his age-31 season before he played his first big league game), and catcher Jorge Alfaro. But—and stop me if you’ve heard this one before—they’re still a couple of starting pitchers short of contending for the division title. They’ve got more upside than any other team outside the top nine, but it took 87 wins to make the NL playoffs last year, and even getting there would represent a 21-game improvement on their 2017 record. It could absolutely happen, but the Phillies still have a lot to prove.
15. San Francisco Giants
Is it too soon to talk about Madison Bumgarner’s hand? Yes? OK, then. Moving on.
16. New York Mets
The Wilpons should be sending Marlins owner Bruce Sherman flowers every week because the way he’s running his team is taking attention away from the chemical spill that is the Wilpons’ stewardship of the Mets. David Wright’s pretty much a write-off, and Matt Harvey might be, too.
And yet, this isn’t a bad team. The Mets have not one but two starters—Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard—who could emerge as dark-horse Cy Young candidates. Shortstop Amed Rosario is going to be a superstar, and outfielder Michael Conforto may become one if the Mets ever stop finding reasons not to play him. And Yoenis Céspedes is still out there in left field, probably spit-roasting an alligator or something. PECOTA has the Mets penciled in at 80-82, and it’s hard to imagine them being much worse than that.
17. Colorado Rockies
Is this low for a team that made the wild-card game last year? Maybe, but the closer I look at the Rockies, the more I wonder where those 87 wins are going to come from this year. Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon are going to collect a bunch of MVP votes and I like right-hander Jon Gray, but apart from that, this just looks like the Mariners with a prettier ballpark and fewer good position players.
Carlos González and Ian Desmond got old. D.J. LeMahieu hits for about as empty a .310 average as you can find in the modern game. Apart from Gray and German Márquez, I worry about this rotation’s ability to strike out enough guys to stay ahead of the Coors Field effect for another season. The Rockies made back-to-back top-five picks in 2015 and 2016, but shortstop Brendan Rodgers is another year away (and might take the Arsenal job in the meantime), while fireballer Riley Pint is even farther away, walking 5.7 batters per nine innings in A-ball last year.
If the Rockies do get back to 87 wins, they’ll need help from some other youngsters: outfielder Raimel Tapia and first baseman Ryan McMahon, both of whom made brief appearances in the bigs last year. It could happen, but even a repeat of last year’s performance might not be enough in a crowded NL wild-card field.
18. Toronto Blue Jays
ZiPS has Toronto winning 86 games, but both Vegas (81.5) and PECOTA (80) are more pessimistic. While they could get back into the wild-card hunt with another MVP campaign from Josh Donaldson and a 2016-level campaign from their rotation, I wouldn’t bet on it. Even if this is a rough year for Toronto, it’s hard to look back at the 2015 and 2016 versions of this club and their back-to-back ALCS appearances with anything but fondness. In another year or two, Toronto will be penciling in two top-20 prospects in their infield: Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Vladito in particular has the potential to be special. The bad news is that we’re far enough into the future that Vladimir Guerrero and Dante Bichette are old enough to have sons who are themselves on the verge of becoming impact big league hitters. Time is one foe humanity cannot outrun.
19. Atlanta Braves
PECOTA projects that Atlanta will win 76 games this year, which is annoying because it means the horseshit service-time manipulation games the Braves are playing with no. 1 global prospect Ronald Acuna probably won’t be the reason they miss the playoffs.
20. Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay’s going to use a four-man rotation, with the fifth spot in the order turning into a bullpen game where relief pitchers go one or two innings at a time from the first inning to the final out. And one of their four starters is Nathan Eovaldi, who’s spent the past year and a half on the shelf after his second Tommy John surgery, which just makes me cringe. If Eovaldi—or even Chris Archer or Blake Snell—gets knocked out early and the pen has to make up for an entire starter’s worth of innings, Tampa Bay’s relief corps could be responsible for seven or eight more innings than the average bullpen each time through the rotation. That’s going to wear them down. I don’t care even a little if this plan is effective, I just hope it doesn’t end in an epidemic of shredded elbows and shoulders.
21. Chicago White Sox
We’re starting to see the fruits of Chicago’s 2016-17 fire sale. Former no. 1 overall prospect Yoan Moncada will have his first full year of big league action in 2018, as will pitchers Lucas Giolito (a consensus top-five prospect in 2016) and Reynaldo Lopez (top 30 in 2017). In the next 12 to 15 months, they ought to be followed by flamethrowers Michael Kopech and Alec Hansen and outfielders Blake Rutherford and Eloy Jimenez. This year’s White Sox are on track to be bad, but fun, and turn into a trendy wild-card pick in 2019.
22. Oakland Athletics
Last year, rookie Matt Chapman played just 84 games but hit 14 home runs and led all third basemen with 12.6 fielding runs above average. Am I saying that if he played on a better team in a more hitter-friendly ballpark, he’d pretty much be Nolan Arenado? No, but I’m also not not saying that.
23. Pittsburgh Pirates
Two months later, and it’s still a little puzzling how little the Pirates got in return for Gerrit Cole. Maybe Cole isn’t the ace he was supposed to be when the Pirates made him the first pick in a loaded 2011 draft or when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2015. But he threw 203 league-average innings last year and struck out nearly a batter per inning and the Pirates got Joe Musgrove—who I like, but who is probably a back-end starter or middle reliever—plus Colin Moran and Michael Feliz, both of whom are two years past their prospect sell-by dates.
The Pirates are one of maybe three or four franchises for which I buy the “we’re a small-market team that can’t spend to the tax” excuse, and as such it’s hard to compete. But it gets a lot harder when you make trades like that.
24. Baltimore Orioles
This year’s Orioles might break the single-season team home run record, currently held by the 1997 Mariners. They’re so loaded with power bats that they’re thinking about having Chris Davis bat leadoff. That’s two-time MLB home run leader Chris Davis who, until Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton came along last year, was the last player to hit 50 home runs in a season. Batting Davis leadoff would be a big statement about how much power this team has. But ZiPS projects the Orioles as a 78-84 team, while PECOTA has them at 71-91, which is an even bigger statement about the team’s deficiencies beyond its ability to put the ball in the seats.
25. San Diego Padres
You can see the wheels turning on this rebuild, finally, after close to a decade of the Padres doing God knows what for no particular reason. They’ve got a few exciting young players, but my favorite is 25-year-old catcher Austin Hedges. He got 417 plate appearances last year despite having an OBP of .262, bless his heart. But at the risk of invoking Nichols’s Law of Catcher Defense, Hedges is the absolute goods as a defender. Last year he led all catchers with 29.2 adjusted FRAA, which incorporates framing, and he has the throwing arm people thought the young Yadier Molina had.
26. Texas Rangers
Two years ago, Nomar Mazara had just turned 21 and was hitting .302/.348/.479 on May 31 of his first big league season. So, I went to Arlington to watch him for a weekend and write about him and was genuinely impressed by his patience, approach, demeanor, and physical tools. Now we’re looking at a corner outfielder who might be playing first base on a team with a different roster makeup, and he’s rocking a 92 career OPS+ through 1,184 career plate appearances. Even as I write this, I’m still trying to talk myself into Mazara, but I think it’d be better for everyone if I just admit I was wrong and walk away.
27. Cincinnati Reds
When I was a kid, the voice of baseball was the late Hall of Fame Phillies announcer Harry Kalas, who had a particular way of leaning into names he enjoyed saying: The exaggerated staccato first syllable of Chase Utley’s last name was one highlight, though I doubt anyone will beat his pronunciation of “AN-dres GA-LA-RAGGA,” which sounded like a Lynyrd Skynyrd drum fill.
I bet Harry Kalas would’ve absolutely adored Eugenio Suárez, who developed from an anonymous utilityman to somebody who could start on a playoff team because he stumbled into playing time on a team that was going nowhere. (Marwin González and José Bautista are prominent examples of this kind of player, and it’s a more common career path than you’d think.) Suárez, who came to Cincinnati from Detroit as a secondary piece in the 2014 Alfredo Simon trade, is now coming off back-to-back 20-homer seasons. Last year he hit .260/.367/.461 while playing pretty good third-base defense for the Reds, who felt compelled to offer Suárez a $66 million contract that will keep him in Cincinnati through the 2025 season. My only regret is we’ll never get a throaty “EH-you-HEH-NEE-oh suh-WARR-EZZZZZ” through the TV when the Reds are in Philadelphia next.
28. Kansas City Royals
You go through this lineup and think, “Hey, even after losing Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, there are a few good players here.” Then you get to the rotation and find that PECOTA’s highest projected WARP total among Royals pitchers belongs to Nate Karns, who is a 30-year-old on his fourth big league club after 310 2/3 career innings pitched and surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. It’s not great.
29. Detroit Tigers
Detroit’s best pitcher is Michael Fulmer, the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year. Fulmer is a broad-shouldered dude with a round face and eyes with a remarkable ability to convey sadness, and he sometimes lets his beard get a little out of control. The Tigers are coming off a 2017 campaign in which they won just 64 games, and traded their two best hitters (Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez) and best starting pitcher (Justin Verlander) midseason. I worry about the Tigers in 2018, particularly what it could do to Fulmer, who might end this season looking like a furrier version of Thomas Lea’s “The 2000 Yard Stare.”
30. Miami Marlins
Pass. If they’re not going to pretend to try, I don’t have to either.