2018 Season Preview: Atlanta Braves

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record Runs Scored Runs Against
72-90 72-90 72-90 732

821

Despite losing 90 games, continuing a trend of four years without a playoff berth, 2017 was, by and large, a successful season for Atlanta as they are beginning to see more than a few fruits from a post-2014 rebuild. Top prospects Ozzie Albies, Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara, Lucas Sims, and Max Fried all made their MLB debuts, while Ronald Acuna, Kolby Allard, and Mike Soroka (among many others) reached the upper minors.

Not everything was sunshine and roses, however. Atlanta still needs to fill a multitude of holes at the big league level, and the league’s hammer came down perhaps harder than we’ve ever seen after allegations of bonus tampering were confirmed. Still, the Braves’ stockpile of young talent is so deep and varied it seems impossible to keep them out of contention by 2019 at the latest and (in a weak NL East) as soon as this season.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Alex Anthopoulos, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir

Anthopoulos took the GM position after former head John Coppollela was banned from baseball for his role in the Braves’ flagrant and repeated violation of international bonus rules. For sabr dorks like us, this is actually a significant upgrade, as Anthopolous immediately set about his business and traded Matt Kemp back to the Dodgers. Kazmir and McCarthy represent two useful starters to guide the youngsters while on the disabled list, and Kemp’s onerous contract is removed from the books.

Key Losses – Matt Kemp, Matt Adams, R.A. Dickey

Losing the lumbering left fielder is a net positive for Atlanta, seeing as how he’s been hanging around replacement level for three seasons and is only blocking further development of their youth. Moving up the spectrum, Adams was mostly useless as a lefty first baseman in an organization that employs Freddie Freeman. But Dickey’s 4.26 ERA and 1.6 WAR over 190 innings is something to mourn, as he provided rotation stability that Kazmir and McCarthy will not.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

72-90

72-90

76-86

“Mild continued improvement” has been the mantra for the Braves over the last three seasons, as their nosedive after 2014 has been followed up by steadily increasing wins. The Braves probably aren’t a very good team, but it’s difficult to call them abjectly bad, and a few surprises from their endless supply of youth could find them in contention in what might be baseball’s weakest division.

Key Players:

Current and future franchise icon Freddie Freeman is coming off a strange year in which he fractured his wrist and came back to play third base. Though his work at the hot corner was acceptable, he’s got more than enough bat to play first and set career bests in ISO, K%, and nearly BB%. At only 28, he might just be coming into his own alongside CF Ender Inciarte, quietly one of baseball’s best and most consistent performers, always hovering around three wins. Inciarte’s excellent glove and solid offense provide a strong foundation upon which Dansby Swanson needs to bloom after being the #1 pick in 2015 and fellow subject of the Miller Massacre; if his bat can catch up to his glove the Braves will have an enviable top of the order.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Consensus No. 1 overall prospect Ronald Acuna will be up in 2018 after his big league debut was held off despite a ridiculous .413 wOBA and brilliant center field defense at AAA. Atlanta will have a conundrum on their hands as Inciarte and Acuna are both more than capable center fielders, defense that will be appreciated by Luiz Gohara and Kyle Wright. the former shot up prospect lists and the latter somehow fell five picks. Wright could easily be pitching in the bigs by July and Gohara’s dominant stuff could be the harbinger of the Armpocalypse considering the ludicrous amount of pitching the Braves possess.

Future Outlook:

Few teams possess depth like the Braves, as they place between eight and ten prospects in most industry top 100 lists, mostly in the top 50 and many close to the majors. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them using guys who would be #2 starters in other organizations as middle relievers. Of course, the Braves’ last run of contention was built on arms, and after the ligaments settled, they hadn’t even made the NLCS. Questions at catcher, third, short, and left will not all be answered, and as they can’t use eight starters for five spots, the future may hinge on a couple big trades. Or they could just use their $100M in payroll space to sign Bryce Harper and Manny Machado next year.

2018 Season Preview: Los Angeles Angels

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

80-82

81-81

76-86

710

709

Another year, another legitimate MVP season from Mike Trout, another October fishing trip for the Angels. Star shortstop Andrelton Simmons took an offensive step forward that could radically change his standing among the game’s best players, but the rest of the average-or-better club in LA was comprised of just Kole Calhoun.

Things on the pitching side continue to be defined by injury, as rotation cornerstones Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker combined for just over 100 IP. The bullpen was a surprising success in 2017, behind the resurgent arms of Blake Parker, Yusmeiro Petit, and Bud Norris. But things are looking up…

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, Shohei Ohtani

There were two huge prized possessions this offseason in Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani, and the Angels were a surprise destination for the (all things considered) more attractive of the two. Ohtani’s upside as a starter is as good as any Japanese pitcher we’ve seen and he’s under team control for six seasons at outlet prices, an excellent addition to any team but particularly so for an Angels squad with a lot of questions in the rotation and a big Albert Pujols sized bill. Adding Kinsler and Cozart for very reasonable prices puts a lot more depth around anchors Trout, Simmons, Calhoun, and new DH Shohei Ohtani, which will be very confusing for manager Mike Scioscia as he’s got a starter by the same name. The Angels now project to receive above-average production at six of nine offensive positions and their first three starters, a far cry from the find-a-body mentality of 2017.

Key Losses – Yusmeiro Petit, Ricky Nolasco, Jesse Chavez

Hold on, don’t laugh quite yet. Petit was a godsend for the injury and suck-riddled Angels last year, throwing 91 ⅓ innings out of the bullpen and leading all Angels pitchers in WAR. After consecutive sub-replacement campaigns in 2015 and 2016, this resurgence looked a lot more like the guy who racked up 1.8 wins for the Giants in 2014, and while he isn’t likely to do nearly as well with the A’s, losing that production will hurt. Nolasco and Chavez weren’t helping so much as preventing forfeits, as they finished first and third in innings for a team that had to set up a macro adding “rehab setback” to all their tweets. Someone is going to have to replace that.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

86-76

84-78

80-82

Hold your nose cause here comes the cold water. PECOTA doesn’t think the Angels are any better than they were last year, and while Steamer sees some gains, there isn’t a way to pull a playoff team out of these projections without tweaking them. ZiPS is a tad more optimistic across the board, especially on the offensive gains from Zack Cozart carrying over, likely resulting in Trout getting another shot at winning his first playoff game. Man, that is a sad thing to write.

Key Players:

Let’s put it this way: if Mike Trout plays fewer than 150 games or *gasp* regresses in any meaningful fashion, the Angels are sunk. They’re already teetering on the edge of wild-card contention, and he’s the kind of player nobody could possibly replace. Except Los Angeles does now employ the only other guy who could compete for the title of “best player in the world” : Shohei Ohtani, who needs to prove that Japanese pitchers can do more than slightly underwhelm – though that may not be possible given the hype – and that a two-way player can succeed at the game’s highest level. Even if he’s worth no more than a win or two at the plate, that would be a significant win. New third baseman Zack Cozart is overqualified defensively at 3B (nobody’s displacing Simmons at short) and more than doubled his previous career best in WAR. If he takes to 3B and hits another 20 homers the Angels should be the favorites for a wild-card spot.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Last year LA sported not only the worst farm system in baseball, but one of the worst in many experts’ long careers, so an impact is not soon forthcoming. 2015 first-rounder Taylor Ward should see MLB time at some point next season considering C is the only position the Angels don’t have an entrenched starter, and with a good glove and strong K/BB rates could be a solid-average asset. Pitching depth will always be an issue as long as Richards and Shoemaker are counted on, so Jaime Barria’s wild ride will likely have him pitching in LA for a good portion of the year. Rule 5 selection Luke Bard looks to be the next surprisingly dominant Angels reliever after he used spin rate data to improve his pitch selection last year, striking out 99 in only 65 and ⅓ minor-league innings. No wonder the Twins didn’t put him on their 40 man roster…

Future Outlook:

The Angels have Mike Trout, and as long as that’s true they’ll never be terrible or boring. Now with Ohtani, they will definitely be a must watch on most nights. There’s no real guarantee of legitimate quality despite multiple upgrades this offseason, and they’re not going to be threatening the Astros’ dominance anytime soon. But if Ohtani is all he’s cracked up to be and they can keep their talented arms on the field, it might be enough to stay in contention until a revamped farm system can start churning out help.

2018 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

75-87

74-88

70-92

668

731

After three years of being over .500 and playing in October, the Pirates hoped a 78-83 stumble in 2016 was merely a blip. Alas, it seems the patience of Pittsburgh will be tested again after the Bucs came out twelve games under even in 2017 and have now gone half-Marlins.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Kyle Crick, Colin Moran

Two significant trades have more than defined the Pirates’ direction headed into 2018: technically, it’s baseball. Staff ace Gerrit Cole’s two seasons of team control were turned into a whopping fifteen from Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran, and that’s definitely a bigger number. Musgrove may be a mediocre starter or a good reliever, and Feliz has legitimate closer upside, though Moran will likely need to wait out incumbent David Freese to get a real shot in the bigs. Crick showed well in relief out of the Giants’ bullpen last year, and could be a cheap setup option if things work out.

Key Losses – Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen, Andrew McCutchen

Cole’s departure likely makes the Pirates a worse baseball team in 2018, though he was almost certain to depart soon, as agent Scott Boras will have his due. It’s the loss of McCutchen that really stings, as he’s coming off a bounce-back 2017, leading the team in WAR and just generally leading the team. At $14.5 million, it’s difficult to imagine Pittsburgh couldn’t keep him financially; considering his place as the representative of winning in Pittsburgh, and the fact that he’s objectively a wonderful person, this is one of the very few instances where it shouldn’t have mattered what the best value decision was.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

76-86

76-86

78-84

As is now their due, the Pirates seem to be stuck in Neutral Hell: not bad enough to get high picks that might turn into good players, and not good enough to warrant trying to make the postseason. Even worse, they have taken that philosophy and applied it to their entire lineup; only center field is projected to finish under 1 WAR or over 2 WAR. Things look generally better on the pitching side, where the rotation is on the good side of average, but in general a surprising success looks a lot like 82 wins.

Key Players:

Trading two stars means the Pirates better get something out of Joe Musgrove, otherwise, they’ll have a lot of ‘splainin to do. Ironically, starting pitching is the one thing they have plenty of, so while Musgrove will get a shot in the rotation, his 2017 excellence as a reliever may portend his future. We already know the fate of utilityman Josh Harrison, as he’s requested a trade and will certainly get one; as a consistent performer who can play multiple positions, Harrison should have value but may not get dealt until the deadline. The same may be true of starter Ivan Nova, who is still just 31 and has resurrected his career in Pittsburgh – a year and a half of control at reasonable prices could make the pitching-rich Pirates move on if he continues to eat innings efficiently.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Now that McCutchen’s spot in the outfield is open, persistent top prospect Austin Meadows should be the recipient of consistent MLB action and may resurrect a once-great Pirates OF troika. The left side of the infield should be remade as Colin Moran replaces David Freese – he’s probably not as good, but definitely cheaper! – and Kevin Newman takes over for Jordy Mercer. Newman’s contact-over-power approach will remind Pirates fans of one of the lights in the Dark Years, Jack Wilson, though it’s unlikely he’ll provide the same defensive value.

Future Outlook:

Optimism for the Pirates must always be curtailed by the fact that they’re the Pirates, a reality which is becoming less magical-sad (how do you not accidentally win 82 games even once?!) and is now just sad-sad. There are more than a few intriguing rotation options and a sufficiently competent lineup that might do some damage if given the proper help. Up against a powerhouse in Chicago, a dynasty in St. Louis, a youth bloom in Milwaukee, and something FDA-approved in Cincinnati, it’s difficult to see where the Pirates can squeeze through.

2018 Season Preview: Cincinnati Reds

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

68-94

70-92

72-90

753

869

With a third-straight last-place finish in 2017, and five years since their last playoff appearance, there is a stronger sense of urgency in Cincinnati to make good on the slow bleed of talent. But, in a division that already boasts two of the majors’ best young teams in the Cubs and Cardinals, plus an up-and-coming franchise in Milwaukee, it may be difficult to find an opening for a club whose best assets are still a few years away.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – David Hernandez, Kyle Crockett

A team without significant aspirations of contention in 2018 has unsurprisingly stayed quiet through the slow offseason, handing out only one MLB contract to Hernandez. He was rather forgettable from 2013-16, losing the 2014 season due to Tommy John, but has thrown 50+ innings in seven of nine big league seasons and was completely dominant in 2017 before a mid-season trade back to Arizona. Left-handed Crockett was claimed off waivers, normally not a notable transaction, but features a surprisingly good sinker/slider combo that could make him an effective and desirable low-cost addition.

Key Losses – Zack Cozart, Scott Feldman

Nearly all of the Reds’ 2017 squad is under contract for at least one more season, which could be taken one of two ways. Feldman finished second on the team in innings at 111, which is more significant than it sounds for a very young staff that ended up bottom-2 in ERA, FIP, and WAR. Former solid-regular Cozart blew up in 2017, doubling his career mark for wins in a single season; unfortunately, the Reds were unable to find a trade partner at the deadline and no qualifying offer means that door is closed.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

 70-92

74-88

74-88

No significant deviations are expected in Cincinnati, as the best they can really hope for, given the likely quality of play in the Central, is marginal improvement . With top prospects starting to arrive, a successful season for the Reds won’t necessarily be decided by their record. Instead, they’ll look to put themselves into the conversation for surprise contender in 2019 and solid threat by 2020.

Key Players:

It’s shocking we’ve gone all this time without talking about franchise icon Joey Votto, but here we are. Votto’s contract is certainly movable despite his age and defensive limitations, as he’s quietly one of the best hitters in the majors year in and year out, though the Reds don’t seem at all interested in cashing in that value. Relief ace Raisel Iglesias led the squad in pitching WAR and should definitely be on the move, hopefully returning far more talent than fellow Cuban Aroldis Chapman. Speaking of that highly questionable pitching staff, it will be led by Luis Castillo, coming off 90 very strong innings in 2017, who possesses the latent to do much more than eat innings.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

The Reds will need some explosions from the upper minors, and the driest powder comes from third baseman Nick Senzel, generally considered a top ten overall prospect and fresh off a huge debut season. Jesse Winker’s 2017 MLB debut featured far more power than he’s shown in the past, though his high-contact profile may still let him be an average regular in left field if the homers don’t stick. At some point, Cincinnati will need someone to pitch, and Tyler Mahle is likely more an innings-eating mid-rotation starter than the ace Castillo could be.

Future Outlook:

More than anything, the Reds are hard to trust. Trades of quality players including Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, and Brandon Phillips netted relatively little. Top prospects Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, Billy Hamilton, Brandon Finnegan, Amir Garrett, and Phil Ervin haven’t panned out; a trend that largely continued in 2017. In a highly competitive NL Central, against teams with deep pockets and well-regarded systems, it will be difficult for the Reds to find an opening in the next few years.

2018 Season Preview: Boston Red Sox

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

93-69

93-69

87-75

785

668

Dave Dombrowski continued to do what Dave Dombrowski does best: trade any prospect of value for an immediate big league gain. The Red Sox, after acquiring ace Chris Sale, came into the 2017 season with expectations of blowing away the division. They were able to do so, but unfortunately for the Red Sox, this gave them the privilege of facing off against an elite Houston Astros offense and quick elimination from the playoffs.

Missing David Ortiz, the Red Sox’ offense disappointed across the board in 2017. Without their pudgy team icon the Sox finished with a cumulative wRC+ of 92, finishing 22nd in baseball. Things were much better on the other side of the diamond, with the Red Sox finishing with the 3rd best team FIP behind elite seasons from Sale and Craig Kimbrel.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – J.D. Martinez, Eduardo Nunez

In an ode to former GM Jack Zduriencik, the Red Sox’ major free agent acquisition was a player without a real position given the current roster construction. The one thing Martinez should do is hit. Over the last four seasons, he has the 5th best wRC+ (148) in baseball, trailing only Trout, Votto, Stanton, and Harper. An early adopter of the fly-ball craze, Martinez should thrive in Boston, lifting balls over the Green Monster and poking them to right with ease. However new manager Alex Cora manages to get him in the lineup, Martinez should provide the Ortisian slugger that was missing last year. Nunez was brought in as a utility player capable of filling in at a number of positions. Slated to start at 2B for an injured Dustin Pedroia to begin the year, Nunez should bring average defense, good speed, and slightly above-average offense to the team in 2018.

Key Losses – Addison Reed, Doug Fister

With a quiet offseason, the Red Sox return most of 2017’s roster. Deadline pickup Addison Reed left in free agency, a hole that should be filled with healthy returns by Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg in the pen. With a great finish to the season last year, Fister will be missed rotation depth for an injury-riddled Boston staff. Still, neither of these losses should hamper the Red Sox in 2018.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

95-67

92-70

89-73

All three projection systems are in agreement that the Red Sox will remain among the elite teams in 2018. Where they finish in the division, however, depends on each set of projections; while Pecota sees the Yankees taking the East by a few games. ZiPS is particularly optimistic about Martinez, forseeing the best finish for the Sox this year at 95 wins.

Key Players:

Mookie Betts is still the nucleus of this Boston offense, with the only thing changing in between his 2016 and 2017 seasons was the addition of some bad luck last year. After finishing 2017 with a BABIP of only .268, look for a nice bounceback season for Betts. 2016’s 7.9 WAR might have been a career season, but if last year’s improvements in plate discipline remain, Betts could put up another MVP-caliber season. Unsurprisingly, Chris Sale thrived after leaving a team telling him to pitch to contact, with the new Red Sox seeing his career-best strikeout rate last year. Faltering a bit in September, Sale remained in the MVP conversation for much of 2017, finishing with a 2.45 FIP. At just 29 years old, Sale should continue as the trustworthy ace in 2018, anchoring a strong rotation. Xander Bogaerts took a step back in his age-24 season, showing a few worrying trends after solidifying himself as one of the better shortstops in the league in the years prior. At the very least, he should maintain solid defense and good speed, but a return in power would go a long way towards improving Boston’s offense.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

The Red Sox’ farm has dropped precipitously over the last few years, from both trades and graduations of players like Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers. Jay Groome, the Sox’ 2016 first-round pick, leads the pitching prospects. Injuries have hampered the 19-year-old’s early development, though he still has a mid-90s fastball and good curveball. Michael Chavis began tapping into his raw power in 2017, reaching AA at the young age of 21. Though Chavis will probably spend another year in the minors, Sam Travis looks ready to step-in this year should Mitch Moreland get hurt. Never quite doing as much as you’d like from a 1B prospect, Travis still possesses a good hit tool and above-average plate discipline.

Future Outlook:

The Red Sox continue to look like one of the best teams in baseball. There is some risk on the pitching side this year – both David Price and Drew Pomeranz have had elbow/forearm concerns in the last calendar year – but the Chris Sale-led staff will remain top-notch given good health. The caveat to this, of course, is that Dombrowski has traded away tons of key prospects over his short stint in Boston. Betts, Benintendi, and Devers are young enough to keep the team competitive for years, but, with a middling farm-system, the highs might not elevate to the mid-90 win seasons experienced from 2016 to 2018. The Red Sox should certainly be able to afford pitchers to augment this core, preventing a full rebuild or down period. If they quit handing out huge deals to Pablo Sandoval, that is.

2018 Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Actual Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

76-86

72-90

72-90

693

784

Following a strong 2016, the Blue Jays expected to compete for the AL East title. A number of injuries put a wrench in that plan, however, limiting them to just 76 wins. The team actually seems to have outperformed its record as well, looking several runs worse when considering Pythagorean and BaseRuns records. Injuries to core players Josh Donaldson and Aaron Sanchez led to a big drop in projected production, as did under-performances of Jose Bautista (-0.5 WAR) and Kendrys Morales (-0.6 WAR). The Jays made only a few minor trades at the deadline, electing to take one more attempt at contention in 2018 before the impending free agency of Donaldson.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Jaime Garcia, Yangervis Solarte, Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz

Looking to avoid repeating a 2017 season that included 22 players with negative WAR, the Blue Jays’ major focus this offseason was depth. Plugging holes across the board, Solarte, Grichuk, and Curtis Granderson should prevent another season where the Darwin Barneys of the world get 300 PA. Garcia was added on a cheap, one year contract in early February to complete a rotation that projects to be above-average.

Key Losses – Dominic Leone, Jose Bautista

Bautista’s storied career in Toronto looks to have reached its end in 2017, as the 37-year-old’s option was declined by the team. That’s likely a good thing for the Blue Jays, though, following an abysmal 2017 season where he accrued -0.5 WAR. Leone experienced a breakout season in 2017, eventually working his way to the back of the Blue Jays pen and accumulating 1.5 WAR. This production will be hard to replace, as Toronto doesn’t have any proven setup men outside of the recently signed Seung-hwan Oh. If Oh goes down to injury, which wouldn’t be surprising given the fact the Rangers just backed out of a deal with him, the Blue Jays will likely struggle to get to All-Star closer Roberto Osuna with a lead.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

87-74

84-78

80-82

The major projections vary on how Toronto will fare in 2018, with ZiPS projecting a wild-card berth and Pecota seeing a below-average team. While all of the systems see average contributions from most of the non-Donaldson offensive players, there is great variance seen in the pitchers. The pitching staff is home to many older players looking to bounce back from down years and younger players with significant injury risk.

Key Players:

Josh Donaldson is still one of the best players in the league when healthy, giving the Blue Jays their only real hopes at possessing an MVP candidate this year. While the 32-year-old no longer projects to be an elite defensive talent, he is still a complete hitter, combining elite plate discipline with above-average power and contact abilities. The Blue Jays’ playoff hopes ride on the health of Donaldson, a player who has averaged just over seven WAR over the last five seasons. An elite groundball pitcher, Marcus Stroman looks to once again shore up the pitching staff. While Stroman has a tantalizing pitch mix, including a 2-seam fastball he uses to induce grounders and a wipeout slider, he has never been to avoid the longball. He has managed to top 200 innings the last two years, averaging 3.5 WAR per season, but the former first-round pick still has plenty of room for growth in 2018. ZiPS is optimistic about his chances of doing so, predicting a career-high 4.5 WAR season for Stroman. Aaron Sanchez had a breakthrough 2016 campaign, finishing with a 3.55 FIP and 3.8 WAR as a 23-year-old. Last year was a mess, however, mixing injuries with 36 abysmal innings. A strong return from Sanchez this year would go a long way in improving the Blue Jays’ chance of securing a wild-card berth by forming a formidable 1-2 punch with Stroman.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are two of the more exciting prospects in baseball, providing the Blue Jays two pieces to build future teams around. While both are still just 19 years old, they each possess elite skillsets and raw talent, placing them in the top twenty of most prospect rankings. Sean Reid-Foley struggled at times in 2017 but sat in the mid-90s with two above-average breaking balls. Finishing last year in AA, Reid-Foley looks to prove himself in AAA and provide a potential arm down the stretch if the Blue Jays find themselves in contention.

Future Outlook:

After a disappointing 2017, the Blue Jays shored up the weaker areas of their roster, projecting to be league-average or better at most positions. The team’s current window of contention revolves around Donaldson, who can become a free agent following the 2018 season. Rebounds from Sanchez and Marco Estrada might lead to a wild-card berth, potentially convincing Donaldson to stick around in Toronto. Failure to do so, however, paints a bleaker picture, as top prospects Guerrero Jr. and Bichette are still years away from the majors.

 2018 Season Preview: Chicago White Sox

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

67-95

70-92

68-94

706

820

Finishing off their first season as a true rebuilding club, the White Sox unsurprisingly finished near the bottom in more than a few team-wide categories. Preseason trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, followed by deadline deals of Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, David Roberston, and Tommy Kahnle left the team with essentially no legitimate MLB talent save Jose Abreu and Avi Garcia’s BABIP.

By the end of the season, though, the flowers were already beginning to bloom. September saw regular playing time for top acquisitions Yoan Moncada, Reynaldo Lopez, and Lucas Giolito, and most of the players acquired through various trades finished the season at AA or higher.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Welington Castillo, Miguel Gonzalez, Various Relievers

The rebuilding Sox landed Castillo for two years and $15M, a surprising value considering he’s league-average at the dish and serviceable behind it. It’s fair to wonder if there’s something else at play considering he’s never been worse than useful and on multiple occasions turned in above-average seasons. Gonzalez will provide local restaurant tips to the incoming minor leaguers, returning to the South Side after five awful starts in Texas at the end of 2017. He’ll probably pitch a lot for what is likely baseball’s most questionable rotation, though he’s not going to stand in anyone’s way. The bullpen contains a number of fliers and likely trade candidates in Bruce Rondon, Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Jose Ruiz, Jeanmar Gomez, and Thyago Vieira – scoff all you want, but there are a lot of former closers and 100 MPH fastballs in that group, and nobody thought much of Tommy Kahnle and Anthony Swarzak last year either.

Key Losses – None

Nearly all the White Sox’ free agents were some combination of irrelevant and terrible in 2017; hitters with fifty below-replacement plate appearances, relievers with thirty strikeouts in fifty innings, that sort of thing. Keeping everyone from a 95-loss team may not be the best thing, but they certainly didn’t lose any future assets.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

 66-96

66-96

71-91

Record estimators liked the White Sox a little more than reality in 2017, and projections basically expect more of the same this season. With the exception of Abreu and Moncada, the entire Sox’ roster is projected to be below-average, but that’s mostly because it’s full of injured or below-average players. Chicago is likely a couple years away from legitimate contention, but there is enough raw talent on hand that a decent team could poke its head out and look around.

Key Players:

After years of being on just the wrong side of the stars-and-scrubs balance, the upcoming talent features more of the same; starter Carlos Rodon should be healthy for some of the 2018 season and will need to show he can provide a reliable mid-rotation arm to a staff that desperately needs it. The double-play combination of Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada slid back in 2017 as the former relies on incredible BABIPs and questionable defense while the latter combines loud tools that lack in refinement, but with Anderson’s extension and Moncada’s #1 overall prospect sheen neither will be going anywhere soon.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

With no rotation spots completely solidified, flamethrower Michael Kopech should be the proud owner of at least a half-season in the majors by the end of 2018, and the dominance of former Cub Eloy Jimenez in AA could mean balls are flying fast in both directions. Center fielder Charlie Tilson is another very fast object that should provide value in the field even if he doesn’t hit – which he likely won’t – and a healthy 2018 could make him a surprising starter.

Future Outlook:

The White Sox aren’t in an enviable position, but it’s clear to see how they could be soon. If nothing else, the future looks much brighter than it did after three years of wasting some of the best players in the game on 87-loss seasons; Chicago has a direction and they’ve committed to a plan. If things work out, they could end up with more than a few of the top twenty players in the game by 2020, beating up on mid-rebuild Detroit and Kansas City, a declining Indians team, and whatever the hell happens with the Twins. Or the avalanche of risk might bury them and their little dogs, too. The best outcome? A couple of their monster prospects pan out, the rest fail miserably, and they are exactly the team they just blew up.

2018 Season Preview: New York Mets

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

70-92

69-93

71-91

735

863

Could something have gone wrong for the Mets in 2017? Then it probably did. While the team actually slightly outperformed the playoff squad from 2016 on the position-player side, a drop of over 14 WAR from the pitching staff sunk the little brother of New York baseball. Nothing Jacob deGrom could do matztered as the wheelers came off with a rash of harvey-ble injuries, leaving only burnt syndergaarding the remains of the previous season’s top staff.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas, Anthony Swarzak

The Mets have been easily the most active team in free agency, signing – get this – more than one free agent to deals of multiple seasons! Crazy, right? Apparently enamored with Jay Bruce after his two half-seasons in New York, they snatched him up on a questionable three-year deal. Bruce could easily be worth the $39M, but New York has four 1B/OF incumbents in Michael Conforto, Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Nimmo, and Dom Smith. While Bruce is a fine insurance plan, the Mets might have been better served targeting another starter. The same could be said of the Vargas signing, as he is coming off 180 well-chewed innings, but doesn’t offer the upside of a Lance Lynn or below-market priced Jake Arrieta. Frazier ended up signing a bargain at two years and $17M, considering he’s been above-average for the last two years and the Mets have to think David Wright is never coming back. Also, Swarzak is fine (Swarzak was super good last year! -editor).

Key Losses – None

The Mets’ top losses after 2017 were likely Jon Niese and Desmond Jennings, neither of whom warrant more words than they’ve already gotten.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

 82-80

79-83

81-81

The Mets certainly aren’t a bad team, and they could easily be a good one. If they can get even half-seasons from arms like Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, or Zack Wheeler, they could reasonably threaten a playoff position. Steps forward among their just-graduating offensive core could make them buyers at the deadline.

Key Players:

More realistically, the Mets will end the season with Jacob deGrom as their WAR leader once again, as he’s led the staff in three of the last four years (finishing 2nd in 2016). If things go horribly, a trade could be on the horizon, but if Noah Syndergaard stays healthy then the Mets have to be considered dangerous. Even more so if Michael Conforto’s breakout season is for real; he could be the offensive linchpin the franchise has lacked since Wright and those times when Cespedes is healthy.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

If we get to stretch the definition of “minor league” a bit, first base prospect Dom Smith is one of the few who might put up an average higher than his ISO. After hitting .330 in AAA and not batting under .300 since A-ball in 2014, Smith faceplanted to a sub-.200 average in his MLB debut. Following every misstep closely was top prospect Amed Rosario, who doesn’t really need to hit given the opportunity for above-average defense at short, but should probably walk more than once per 16 strikeouts. Starter Corey Oswalt threw a career-high 134 dominant innings in his first taste of AA, which means he’ll be starting for the Mets by mid-May and out for the season by the end of June.

Future Outlook:

The Mets are definitely fine. Young outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Conforto would have been handed starting jobs by most other organizations by now, but the Mets. A staff of aces will likely be playing more poker than baseball in 2018, because the Mets. And in an offseason where a franchise that’s hampered by a Ponzi scheme settlement could pick up some half-priced free agents, Bruce and Vargas are the Mets. There is the potential for a good team hanging out in Queens, but it’s too difficult to see them realizing that in more ways than one.

2018 Season Preview: Minnesota Twins

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Allowed

85-77

84-78

81-81

815

788

The 2017 season was surprisingly successful for the Minnesota Twins, ending in a loss to the Yankees in the A.L. wildcard game. Entering the season with little in the way of playoff aspirations, the Twins rode a solid offense and improved defense to an 85-77 record. Some key young players took steps forward, with Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios finally living up to their prospect hype.

The position players as a whole thrived, with very few individuals putting up below-replacement performances. Avoiding these black holes in the lineup helped the team finish with a 102 wRC+, good for fifth in the league. For the most part, this offense came from steps forward from younger hitters like Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Miguel Sano. Brian Dozier put up another stellar season, finishing with 5.0 fWAR, proving his 2016 wasn’t a fluke. The Twins’ major weakness in 2017 was unequivocally the pitching staff, especially the starting pitching options. Small steps forward from Berrios and Kyle Gibson, as well as a luck-filled 3.28 ERA from Ervin Santana, managed to keep the team afloat. Outside of these options, however, was a mess of poor performances as the Twins gave almost 300 innings to players with 0.0 WAR or lower.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Michael Pineda, Jake Odorizzi, Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney

Content to stick with their incumbent offense, the Twins’ major moves revolved around improving their putrid pitching. Signing a back-loaded two year, $10 million deal, Michael Pineda looks to recover quickly from Tommy John surgery, potentially pitching for the team by August. Odorizzi was grabbed on the cheap in mid-February, with the Twins betting he can rebound from his 5.43 FIP/5.10 xFIP in 2017. Rodney and Reed were similarly grabbed for less than expected, with concerns over the former’s age and the latter’s August velocity dip scaring some teams off. The two look to solidify the 8th and 9th innings for the Twins, both having enough recent closers’ experience to warrant taking over the 9th inning duties.

Key Losses – Hector Santiago, Bartolo Colon

The few players leaving in free agency this offseason should improve the Twins in 2018, as Santiago, Colon, and Dillon Gee were quite terrible in 2017. The biggest potential impact to the team’s roster could come in the form of a suspension of Miguel Sano, following off-season sexual harassment claims leading the MLB to start an investigating into Sano’s past behavior. Sano recently had a discussion with the MLB, which should mean a decision on this misconduct should come soon.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

 83-79

81-81

80-82

Steamer and Pecota don’t fully buy the Twins’ improvements carrying over into 2018, projecting a 2nd place finish in the AL Central, well behind the Indians. Expected regression across the offense, especially from Buxton (3.8 sWAR) and Dozier (3.8 sWAR), offset the additions made to the pitching staff, as the depth and back-end options in both the rotation and bullpen look to hold the Twins back again.

Key Players:

Averaging 4.7 WAR over the last four seasons, Brian Dozier has improved almost every aspect of his game after debuting in the big leagues as a largely unheralded prospect. Dozier epitomizes the power surge seen across the league, transforming from a light-hitting SS prospect into one of the better power hitters in the AL. Byron Buxton finally began living up to his tantalizing skill set and athleticism last year. Most scenarios that involve another playoff appearance by the Twins revolve around Buxton finding some consistency at the plate to go with his great defense and speed. Taken 30 picks later in the 2012 draft, Jose Berrios has had a similarly uneven path to the pros. Possessing three good pitches in his fastball, curveball, and slider, Berrios has the best chance of becoming a top-of-the-rotation option for the Twins in 2018. Kyle Gibson is boring in every conceivable way, making him the most Twins pitcher since Nick Blackburn hung up his cleats in 2013.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Royce Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, looks to provide great speed and enough defense to stick at SS long-term. Nick Gordon showed improved power in 2017 and will eventually make a transition to 2B to create a formidable double-play combo with Lewis. Both players possess good speed and hope to hit enough to be above-average hitters in the majors. With the graduation of Berrios, Stephen Gonsalves becomes the best pitching prospect in the Twins system. While he doesn’t have the ceiling of Berrios, his good change-up and low 90s fastball lead many to project him as a solid mid-rotation starter.

Future Outlook:

After a surprising wild-card run in 2017, the Twins look primed for a setback in the coming season. While the pitching staff will most likely hold the team back again in 2018, the future looks bright. Buxton, Sano, and Berrios should be cornerstones for the next good Twins team, with lots of interesting role players stepping up alongside them in 2017. A second wave of prospects who are close to the majors, combined with lots of future payroll flexibility, should allow the Twins to build a team with a strong chance of competing for the AL Central in the coming years.

2018 Season Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record BaseRuns Record Runs Scored Runs Against
66-96 71-91 70-92 690

782

An electric debut for Rhys Hoskins, who nearly led the team in home runs despite playing only 50 games, overshadowed continued strong production from the up-the-middle duo of Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera, plus injury comebacks by Aaron Altherr and budding ace Aaron Nola. With some intriguing talent moving its way up the pipeline, and possibly the most payroll flexibility in the sport, 2018 looks like a platform year for a return to the spotlight.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek

Neshek is a bit of a retread, as he was dealt to the Rockies over the summer, but he and Hunter are strong additions to what is suddenly a formidable Philly bullpen. The Phillies had four relievers contribute at least 1 WAR in 2017 (including Neshek, who put up 1.5 WAR in just 40 innings). Meanwhile, Hunter has quietly been one of baseball’s most effective relievers since converting full-time in 2013; over that span, he’s thrown the 24th-most innings of any RP and put up a respectable 3.4 wins. The Santana signing is a bit more confusing, as Hoskins seemed entrenched at first and the NL-bound Phils can’t exactly use a DH, not to mention the loss of their second-round pick and $500K in international bonus money. $60M over three years is affordable for the Phillies, and Santana has been one of the most consistent and healthy performers in recent memory, but in retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine Philadelphia wouldn’t like a re-do.

Key Losses – Freddy Galvis

As is typical of a rebuilding club, the Phillies had few prominent free agents leave following the 2017 season. Swapping Galvis to the Padres removes a useful, but not irreplaceable component, as glove-first shortstops are not the most difficult to find (and they almost got away with Engelb Vielma, too). Top prospect J.P. Crawford turned in a fine season at Triple-A and will likely take over at short, making this a likely upgrade.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

 74-88

74-88

78-84

The projections see the Phillies as more of a bad team than a terrible one, befitting their position in the win cycle. It’s likely too much to hope for legitimate contention in 2018, though they should keep an eye out for unexpectedly rapid improvement, perhaps mirroring Milwaukee’s successful season last year. Hoskins’ debut should be proof that sometimes things work out a little better than you expect, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Phillies making some noise in a very weak NL East.

Key Players:

We’ve been dancing around him all night, and now it’s time to get down to business. Rhys Hoskins exploded onto the scene in 2017, with a late-season call-up resulting in 18 homers, a .359 ISO (third in MLB minimum 200 PA), and the hopes of Philly residents rising once again. He’ll have to adjust to left field in deference to Santana, but 85 dingers in two seasons should make everyone sit up and take notice. Future Cy Young winner (editor’s note… HA! Not this again!) Aaron Nola is coming off 168 innings and 4.3 WAR; he’s done nothing but pitch well since turning pro and could easily be a top 10 starter by next winter. Former rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera looked lost to start the season but hit .323/.378/.551 in the second half to actually out-produce Hoskins in nearly identical playing time.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Persistent top prospect J.P. Crawford finally debuted in 2017 after a solid run at the highest level. A combination of OBP and excellent glovework should make the shortstop an above-average contributor immediately. Future double-play partner Scott Kingery is mildly blocked by Herrera, but contributes on both sides of the ball and should force his way into the picture. The window is much wider for Jorge Alfaro if he can ever turn his incredible tools into production, as it’s hard to go wrong with lots of homers and great defense out of your catcher, and he’ll likely be given the job at some point no matter what.

Future Outlook:

The Phillies’ history of ineptitude returned with a vengeance in 2013, just a season removed from a franchise-record 102 wins, and credit to them, it would appear that the best is yet to come. After five seasons playing under .500, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for an increasingly talented Phillies team that may make a major play for one of 2019’s premium free agents.