Which player will be the biggest x-factor for each MLB team this season?
The MLB regular season will be upon us before we know it, and the teams have been hard at work in Florida and Arizona preparing for the start of meaningful games. The Houston Astros return as the defending World Series champions, but will have a tough path back through the American League with a revamped New York Yankees lineup that now features Giancarlo Stanton.
Looking up and down each roster, there is at least one player on each team that is his squad’s x-factor — the player whose performance has the potential make or break the 2018 team for his club. Some of the players we will touch on are looking to bounce back from a down year in 2017, while others are young studs ready to take the next step and carry a bigger load.
From the obvious x-factors like Shohei Ohtani and Kyle Schwarber to veterans with something to prove like Masahiro Tanaka and Miguel Cabrera or the future All-Stars like Ronald Acuna, Yoan Moncada and Lance McCullers, this list of MLB stars will ultimately feature at least a few names that will help decide who is raising the trophy come November.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Yasmany Tomas
Signed out of Cuba for six years and $68.5 million, Yasmany Tomas was one of the final foreign free agents not covered by the new international bonus rules. The Arizona Diamondbacks thought they were getting a young outfielder with big power. Tomas effectively skipped the minor leagues and made his debut at the age of 24 during the 2015 season.
Tomas worked through an up-and-down rookie season before hitting .272/.313/.508 with 31 home runs and 83 RBI in 2016. Injuries limited him to only 47 games last season, and Tomas limped to a .241/.294/.464 line with eight home runs.
It is unclear how Tomas figures into the Diamondbacks plans for 2018 and beyond. Adding Jarrod Dyson and Steven Souza Jr. pushes Tomas down the depth chart or into a potential platoon role. His defense is also an issue, but the raw power is there. If Arizona can find a way to effectively deploy Tomas, he will help fill the void left by J.D. Martinez in what is already a very deep lineup.
Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna
The Atlanta Braves are still a year or two away from being ready to challenge for a playoff spot in the National League, but all signs are pointing towards a bright future. Even with the league sanctions from the disastrous end of John Coppolella’s tenure, the Braves have a loaded farm system.
Leading the charge for the next great wave of Braves stars will be 20-year-old outfield sensation Ronald Acuna. He is the most exciting prospect in baseball outside of Shohei Ohtani, and could end up spending most of the season with the Braves at the MLB level. The only reason for him to begin the year in the minor leagues is service-time manipulation.
The 2017 season was Acuna’s first full year in the minors after being brought along slowly in the short-season leagues for two years, and he did not disappoint. He reached Triple-A by the end of the year, and put together a .325/.374/.522 line with 31 doubles, eight triples, 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases across three levels. Acuna actually improved at each level, and there is not much left for him to prove in the minor leagues.
Acuna is the most exciting prospect for the Braves since Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones were rising through the system. He has been wildly impressive so far in Spring Training against the big leaguers. If Acuna does not head north as the starting left fielder for the Braves, he won’t last much longer than a month before exploding onto the scene for good.
Baltimore Orioles: Chris Tillman
For the first time since 2012, the Baltimore Orioles will enter a regular season coming off a losing record. It isn’t hard to find someone to take the blame for Baltimore’s 75-win effort in 2017. The Orioles had the worst starting rotation in the entire league with a 5.70 ERA. Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez were obviously to blame for most of the struggles, but former staff ace Chris Tillman was absolutely abysmal while trying to come back from a shoulder injury.
The writing was on the wall for Tillman and the Orioles after he was shelled in the minor leagues during his rehab assignment. The big right-hander had a 7.16 ERA in 16.1 innings while working back and gave up seven home runs. That was just a sign of things to come. Tillman went 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA in 93 innings while allowing 24 home runs and walking 4.9 per nine with only 6.1 strikeouts per nine.
With only two sure bets in their rotation — Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — the Orioles didn’t have much choice but to bring Tillman back on a one-year deal, hoping for the best. From 2012 to 2016, the 29-year-old was 65-33 with a 3.81 ERA and a trip to the All-Star Game in 2013.
Tillman has never had “ace” stuff, but he served as the ace for the Orioles before falling off a cliff. He is still young enough to make a recovery and salvage his career, but shoulder injuries are difficult to predict. If the Orioles get anything close to resembling the pitcher that led their staff for the better part of five seasons, their playoff hopes get a major boost this season.
Boston Red Sox: Hanley Ramirez
The most mercurial hitter in baseball, Hanley Ramirez, still has a job with the Boston Red Sox — for now. The addition of J.D. Martinez will push Ramirez back out into the field, where he will split time with Mitch Moreland. At his best, the 34-year-old does not need to be part of a platoon, but if his production does not tick back up, Ramirez may only hit against lefties.
Through three years of his four-year, $85-million deal with the Red Sox, Ramirez has hit only .260/.328/.456 with 72 home runs and 226 RBI. He posted an OPS+ over 100 in the 2016 season and ripped 30 home runs with 111 RBI. Ramirez was below average in the other two years he has spent in Boston, and also battled injuries on and off.
Ramirez has the Red Sox over a barrel this year. If he stays healthy and gets full-time at-bats the entire year, his vesting option for 2019 will trigger. As much as Boston would like to have another productive hitter in a lineup that struggled to hit for power last year, paying another $22 million to Ramirez in his age-35 season is the last thing the team wants to do.
In his entire 13-year career, Ramirez has never been a part-time player, and it is impossible to predict how he will react if demoted into a platoon with Moreland. Ramirez is scuffling so far in Spring Training but still has time to figure it out. Ultimately, it is best for the Red Sox to have a happy and productive Hanley for the entire season, while dealing with his vesting option later.
Chicago Cubs: Kyle Schwarber
There’s no way to put a positive spin on what Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber experienced in 2017. The World Series hero was trumpeted by baseball analysts far and wide as a potential MVP candidate and 40-homer threat after recovering from his ugly knee injury. The Cubs even tinkered with the idea of utilizing the slugger as their leadoff man.
Instead, Schwarber struggled mightily in his first full MLB season and even spent time at Triple-A. The lefty ended the year hitting .211/.315/.467 with 30 home runs and 59 RBI. He struck out 150 times in 129 games, but did walk 59 times. Many of the attributes that made Schwarber a dark horse MVP candidate — the raw power and patience at the plate — were on full display, but he became too pull-happy for long stretches.
The second half saw Schwarber rebound to hit .253 with 17 home runs on only 209 plate appearances as he split time with Ian Happ. Schwarber showed up to camp in phenomenal shape and has tried to bring a better approach to hitting this year.
"“Just trying to do too much,” Schwarber said, “because when you’re in that slump, you’re just wanting to get out of it so bad because you want to win, you want to help the team win and sometimes you just put too much pressure on yourself. “You just got to take a step away from that and be able to just take that breath, whatever it is, relax and go back in.”"
The Cubs are loaded up and down their lineup, but things go to another level if Schwarber is able to carry through the adjustments he made in the second half last year. The best is still yet to come for this behemoth.
Chicago White Sox: Yoan Moncada
It’s year two of the rebuild for the Chicago White Sox, and expectations for 2018 remain relatively low. Expectations, however, are not low for 22-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada. The five-tool prospect wowed at times during his first extended run in the big leagues last year, but still has more room to grow.
Moncada hit .231/.338/.412 in 54 games for the White Sox last year with eight doubles, eight home runs, 22 RBI and three steals. Especially worth noting is the fact that Moncada drew 29 walks and showed good plate discipline. Strikeouts did pile up, but he’s still young.
After hitting .197/.316/.364 in his first 37 games with the White Sox, Moncada managed to finish the year on a relative high note by hitting .299/.382/.507 with four home runs over the final 17 games of the season. Another full offseason of growth should allow Moncada to approach those numbers for a full season.
Baseball fans have become a bit spoiled over the past few years by top prospects who step right into MLB lineups and contend for MVP awards. Moncada was a bit more raw coming out of Cuba than the average prospect, but this should be the year things start clicking for him.
Cincinnati Reds: Homer Bailey
Starting pitcher Homer Bailey has the type of contract that can set a small-market team back a decade. When the Cincinnati Reds extended the right-hander for six years and $105 million, they were extending a 27-year-old who had already thrown two no-hitters and was coming off an 11-12 season with a 3.49 ERA.
Bailey made it through 23 starts in the first year of his contract, but was shut down at the end of the year with arm fatigue. He finished 9-5 with a 3.71 ERA but did not look dominant. The forearm fatigue continued into the next spring, and it was discovered in May that Bailey would need Tommy John surgery. He made only two starts and went 0-1 with a 5.56 ERA.
Fast forward another two years, and the former ace of the Reds has made a grand total of 49 starts through the first four years of his extension and has gone 17-18 with a 4.95 ERA. Cincinnati is not expected to contend in 2018, but there are pieces starting to fall into place.
In an ideal world, Bailey would return to pitch well for the 2018 season and set himself up to be traded for more prospects to help the Reds continue their rebuilding efforts. This will go down as one of the worst deals in MLB history, but there is still some room to salvage a little value.
Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley
It has now been two full years since Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley last played a full season. At the end of the 2015 season, the 30-year-old looked like an ascending superstar, having hit .319/.382/.494 with 90 doubles, 35 home runs, 181 RBI and 38 stolen bases over a two-year span, highlighted by a third-place finish in the 2014 AL MVP vote and a Silver Slugger.
Things began going downhill for the two-time All-Star at the end of 2015. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery and was not ready for Opening Day. Brantley rushed back ahead of schedule, and was back on the disabled list by the middle of May with inflammation in his surgically-repaired shoulder. The injury would limit him to only 11 games. Brantley returned from the lost year to make the All-Star team in 2017, but misfortune struck again in the form of an ankle injury.
For the second time in three years, Brantley is coming back from offseason surgery, but he will have the freedom to take his time this year. The Indians are the odds-on favorite to win the AL Central and can wait patiently for Brantley to reach 100 percent.
At his best, Brantley is a 20-20 threat with two 45-double seasons. The Indians already have a deep lineup, but a healthy Brantley gives them the added firepower to keep up with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros.
Colorado Rockies: Ian Desmond
The deal was a bad one before the ink even dried on Ian Desmond’s five-year, $70-million contract with the Colorado Rockies last winter. The Rockies signed Desmond, a career shortstop with one year of experience playing center field, to be their first baseman. The 32-year-old was injured to start the year and only played 22 games at first base.
Desmond played only 95 games in 2017 and had the worst year of his career on a ballpark-adjusted basis. He hit only .274/.326/.375 with seven home runs and 40 RBI, good for an OPS+ of 73. Desmond was a non-factor for the Rockies.
The Rockies plan to let Ryan McMahon fail at first base, which means Desmond will be back in left field to start the year. If he is able to approach the .285/.335/.446 line with 22 home runs and 21 stolen bases from 2016 with the Texas Rangers, the Rockies lineup gets that much more dynamic.
Another name to keep an eye on with the Rockies is young outfielder David Dahl. The 23-year-old hit .315/.359/.500 in 63 games as a rookie in 2016, but did not play in the major leagues last year while dealing with injuries. The former first-round pick is a dynamic talent when healthy, and if things go well for him this season, Dahl could actually push Desmond to the bench.
Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera
Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler are gone, leaving Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez as the lone veteran holdovers on the Detroit Tigers roster. The writing had been on the wall for a few years, but the Tigers were finally forced to accept their fate as a team destined for a rebuild at the trade deadline last year.
Age and an inability to balance MLB roster construction with a deep farm system finally did the Tigers in after over a decade spent in World Series contention. One player who had always seemed immune to the power of Father Time was 11-time All-Star Cabrera, who hit .316/393/.563 with 38 home runs and 108 RBI in his age-33 season to win his seventh Silver Slugger.
Cabrera fell off a cliff last year and had the worst season of his career, hitting .249/.329/.399 with only 16 home runs and 60 RBI in 130 games. The Tigers are pulling the plug for the next few years, but are on the hook for $184 million for Cabrera over the next six years. There is no way to spin this as money well spent, and Detroit may very well be the last team in MLB history to commit over $30 million to a player in his age-40 season.
For the Tigers to have any chance to shed some of the remaining money owed to their future Hall of Famer, they will need him to show flashes of his old form. They’ll have to eat a large portion of it, but some salary relief could be found if Cabrera bounces back. That’s the best-case scenario for the Tigers and their first baseman going forward.
Houston Astros: Lance McCullers
With the amount of depth the Houston Astros have accumulated all around the diamond and in their starting rotation, it is hard to pin down one specific name who could be an x-factor for their quest to repeat as World Series champions. The Astros are damn good, and still have the best team in baseball despite an aggressive winter by the New York Yankees.
All that being said, the Astros have yet to see the best from their most talented pitching prospect, Lance McCullers. Injuries and innings caps have kept the 24-year-old right-hander from making it through a full season in the big leagues. In the 58 starts he has made over parts of three seasons at the MLB level, McCullers has flashed ace potential. He is 19-16 with a 3.60 ERA and has struck out 10.2 per nine. His curveball has the potential to be one of the nastiest pitches in baseball.
Questions still linger about the best way for the Astros to utilize the talented right-hander. He threw his curveball nearly 50 percent of the time last year, and the violence with which he delivers the pitch does not bode well for his long-term viability as a starter. McCullers has also yet to master a changeup or slider, and opponents hit close to .300 against his sinker and fourseam fastball last year.
If McCullers is truly a two-pitch pitcher, then a move to the bullpen could be in store. Imagine him as a multi-inning reliever? He has not yet flamed out as a starting pitcher, and if he can make make strides as a starter this year, the trio of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and McCullers would give the Astros a dominant rotation capable of shutting down any lineup in the playoffs.
Kansas City Royals: Jorge Soler
Blessed with raw talent on par with any of the best players in Major League Baseball, Kansas City Royals outfielder/DH Jorge Soler has only managed to frustrate in his four years in the big leagues. He was supposed to join Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber in forming the core of World Series champions in Chicago. That never quite materialized, despite flashes of brilliance, and the Cubs shipped Soler to KC for All-Star closer Wade Davis.
Staying healthy and on the field has been the biggest problem for the 26-year-old Soler. The Cubs knew he was raw when they signed him out of Cuba, and his maturation was hampered by the fact that he played only 151 games in the minors over three seasons. Soler’s approach at the plate continues to stagnate, and he bottomed out with a .144/.245/.248 line for the Royals in 2017.
Soler spent most of his healthy time at Triple-A last season, and slugged 24 home runs in only 74 games. He admits to dealing with a lack of motivation in the minor leagues and with his bench role on the Royals. Soler has worked very hard over the offseason to lose weight and make adjustments to his swing, and the Royals are impressed so far.
"“I had an awful season,” said Soler, who’s listed by the Royals at 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds. “Things went fine in the minor leagues but not in the big leagues. Obviously there were things I was doing wrong. I needed to make adjustments. … I don’t know how it’ll translate to the field but in the cage there’s an incredible change. I’ve never felt this way.”"
As the Royals move forward into a new era without Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, they will need Jorge Soler to develop into a foundational piece to avoid a complete tumble down the standings. The tools are there, but will he ever find a way to put it all together?
Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani
Baseball’s greatest experiment since the DH or interleague play is set to begin in earnest this season in Anaheim. The Los Angeles Angels hit the jackpot and landed Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani. The 23-year-old who throws right-handed and bats from the left side has been adamant about making it work as a pitcher and a hitter.
The Angels haven’t fully revealed their plan to get Ohtani innings and at-bats. The hitting may come along more slowly as he adjusts to life as an MLB player. Los Angeles did trade first baseman/DH C.J. Cron, seemingly paving the way for Ohtani to DH between starts. It’s not likely that he will hit on days that he pitches so that the Angels can avoid having to work around the loss of the DH after he leaves the game. With Ohtani taking a partial share of the DH at-bats, that means Albert Pujols will be forced out into the field a few times a week.
Scouts are not so bullish on Ohtani’s chances to make a consistent impact as a hitter, and the Angels will have to determine how best to deploy him at the plate. The talent is there for Ohtani to be a legitimate power threat, but he needs the at-bats on a consistent basis, and it will be difficult to get them if he hits only three or four times a week.
By all accounts, Ohtani is set to dominate as a pitcher. If he can be the ace the Angels have been seeking for years, this is a playoff team. It’s that simple. The other moves the Angels front office made this winter are all strong and help to complete a roster around Mike Trout. Ohtani tops them all. He has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation type talent.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Walker Buehler
Drafted with the 24th pick of the first round in 2015, right-hander Walker Buehler immediately went under the knife for Tommy John. Since returning to the mound in 2016, the Los Angeles Dodgers have brought the 23-year-old along slowly, and rightfully so. Buehler has the potential to slot into the rotation next to Clayton Kershaw as a second ace.
Buehler threw only five innings in a brief return at the end of 2016 before making his full-season debut last year. His innings were carefully managed, and the Vanderbilt product logged only 88.2 innings in the minors and 9.1 more after making his MLB debut in September. Buehler struck out 12.7 per nine across three levels in the minor leagues and should be ready to spend a full season in the big leagues.
It remains unclear how the Dodgers will deploy Buehler when he is able to stick in the major leagues. The rotation is loaded with Kershaw, Alex Wood, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda at the top. The team has enough competent arms to cover the fifth spot without asking too much of Buehler right from the jump.
The Dodgers will continue keeping Buehler’s workload manageable. The rotation is good enough that he can be kept in the minor leagues or extended spring training until May. His biggest impact to this team may be as a stopper out of the bullpen in October. The rotation can wait until next year.
Miami Marlins: Lewis Brinson
The Miami Marlins are angling to be the worst team in baseball by a wide margin. That’s unavoidable when three All-Star outfielders are dealt away in an obvious attempt to slash payroll. Derek Jeter has his reasons for gutting the Marlins, and it will take several years before judgement can be passed on the latest rebuilding effort in Miami.
On the current roster, J.T. Realmuto, Justin Bour, Starlin Castro and Dan Straily will be playing out the year to raise their trade stock and hopefully find themselves on a contending team by the end of July. Once the roster is fully stripped down, the Marlins can begin evaluating the prospects and seeing who is part of the long-term plan.
Jeffrey Loria left the Marlins with an empty farm system, and the returns for Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich were largely lower-level prospects with upside. The only player coming back in the trades who can have an impact at the MLB level this year is center fielder Lewis Brinson.
Brinson is a five-tool prospect who has hit .287/.353/.502 with 89 home runs and 96 stolen bases in 545 games in the minors. He got an extended run at Triple-A for the first time last season and hit .331/.400/.562 with 13 home runs and 48 RBI in 76 games. Brinson is a special talent, and will form the core of the next competitive Marlins teams.
Milwaukee Brewers: Josh Hader
The Milwaukee Brewers have made it clear this winter that they are ready to challenge the Cubs for supremacy in the NL Central. The Brew Crew gave the World Series champs fits for most of last year before the Cubbies pulled away for good in the second half. Adding Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich has the Brewers much closer to toppling the Cubs.
The Brewers will have one of the best outfields in the National League, a dynamic infield led by Orlando Arcia and thump provided by Eric Thames and Travis Shaw (not to mention Domingo Santana and Ryan Braun). Pitching remains a question mark for Milwaukee, however, unless they are able to land Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb before the start of the season.
Losing Jimmy Nelson to shoulder surgery hurts a Brewers rotation that was surprisingly good at the top last season. The front office still has a good chance to land one of the three established starters left on the open market to join Chase Anderson and Zach Davies.
If the Brewers are unable to add another starter before the season starts, the bullpen will have to step up and carry a heavy load. Closer Corey Knebel has emerged as one of the best in the league, but he needs a setup man. Enter flame-throwing lefty Josh Hader. He made his debut at 23 last year and struck out 68 in only 47.2 innings while compiling a 2.08 ERA. Hader had been a starter in the minors, but his best role in the big leagues is out of the bullpen. He gives the Brewers a dominant multi-inning reliever to slam the door.
Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton
The offensive fireworks that Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton produced down the stretch last year were more than worth the wait. The 24-year-old’s final line — .253/.314/.413 — does not paint a true picture of Buxton’s production or worth to the Twins.
Buxton combined to hit .220/.274/.398 for his first two MLB seasons with 162 strikeouts in 138 games. He started 2017 on an even lower note, and was hitting below .200 on the Fourth of July. The light finally went on, and Buxton hit .314/.359/.553 with 12 home runs, 37 RBI and 14 stolen bases over the final 62 games of the year.
Whether that scorching-hot stretch can be duplicated remains to be seen for Buxton and the Twins. If his offense stays at those high levels, the Gold Glover will be an MVP candidate. His defensive prowess is unmatched, and hearkens back to the early days of Torii Hunter’s career with the Twins.
The Twins made the playoffs last year ahead of schedule, and have a very good chance of going again this year thanks to the weakness of their division. Getting a full season of the best version of their five-tool center fielder will go a long way to making a return trip to the postseason possible.
New York Mets: Matt Harvey
If they manage to stay healthy, the New York Mets know exactly what type of performance they can expect from Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. The same cannot be said of former staff ace Matt Harvey. Last seen pitching well in the 2015 World Series, Harvey is only 9-17 with a 5.78 ERA in 36 games over the past two seasons.
Thoracic outlet syndrome and subsequent surgery have robbed Harvey of a few miles on his fastball and command of his secondary offerings. The surgery, as with all shoulder surgeries, does not have a lengthy track record of success. Harvey has already recovered from Tommy John, but coming back from this second surgery is proving much more difficult.
Harvey has pitched well in two appearances to kick off Spring Training, but his cruising velocity is still noticeably lower than his best years. He will have to continue learning to pitch with his new limitations, but appears to have matured as a pitcher. New manager Mickey Callaway, one of the best pitching minds in baseball, should help.
The Mets can make it back to the playoffs this year with a healthy rotation, and Harvey will have to be a big part of that. He is still only 28, but may be pitching this year to keep his MLB career alive.
New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka
Given how slowly the market has developed for Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka definitely made the right decision not to opt out of the final three years and $67 million on his original MLB contract. The 29-year-old might have done better, but not by much.
After three solid seasons to start his MLB career, Tanaka faltered to a 13-12 record last season with a 4.74 ERA. He allowed nearly two home runs per nine and gave up over a hit an inning. On a more positive note, Tanaka did strike out 9.8 per nine and was much more effective in the second half.
Things finally came together for Tanaka in the Yankees run to the ALCS. He struck out 18 in 20.0 innings and allowed only two earned runs on 10 hits. This was the pitcher the Yankees thought they were getting for seven years and $155 million.
With Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, the Yankees figure to have one of the deadliest lineups in MLB history. The rotation is much more up in the air behind Luis Severino because Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia and Tanaka all come with question marks. Of those three, Tanaka is the most dominant at his best. To reach their full potential, the Yankees need the postseason of Tanaka back for a full season.
Oakland Athletics: Jonathan Lucroy
The Oakland A’s still have the worst team in the AL West, but they are trending in the direction of fielding a competitive ballclub. Matt Olson and Matt Chapman burst onto the scene with impressive raw power, and Stephen Piscotty should have a resurgent year back at home in the Bay Area. The front office also did well in the Sonny Gray trade last summer, with Dustin Fowler already slated to jump into the starting lineup.
Really, the only thing that was missing from this Oakland roster is one of Billy Beane’s classic veteran bounce-back candidates. The A’s filled that hole with All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who is looking to prove he has something left in the tank at the age of 31.
Lucroy has been up and down throughout his career, and could be due for a big year going by his patterns. He led MLB with 53 doubles in 2014, struggled with injuries in 2016 and rebounded to make his second All-Star Game in 2016 with 24 home runs and 81 RBI. Lucroy hit just .265/.345/.371 in 2017, but began finding his stroke after a trade to the Rockies.
Oakland will see a lift to their offense with Lucroy serving as the primary catcher, but he will also bring excellent defense to help mentor the young rotation. That’s nearly as important as anything he can do with the bat. The A’s will only begin taking the next step when their pitching prospects put things together at the MLB level.
Philadelphia Phillies: Maikel Franco
Hailed as a potential breakout candidate for the past two years, Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco may be running out of chances to keep his job as an MLB regular. The 25-year-old is not making progress with his swing, and hit just .230/.281/.409 last year with 24 home runs. It was a decidedly backward step for Franco, who had hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs in 80 games as a 22-year-old in 2015.
There are obvious holes in Franco’s swing, and he is only able to make solid contact when given a mistake to work with. Franco has not made changes to his approach at the plate and still struggles with the strike zone. He hits the ball on the ground too frequently, and does not make hard contact at a consistent rate.
Scouts have drooled over Franco’s raw tools for years, and the Phillies need him to harness his talents and take the next step as a hitter. If that does not happen, Franco could be looking for a new home in 2019 with the Phillies having plenty of free cash to throw at Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson next winter.
The Phillies may still be a year away from fielding a winner, but the lineup is shaping up to be a force with Rhys Hoskins leading the way. Philadelphia is heavily invested in Franco’s future, but they may be forced to cut their losses at some point in the near future.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Gregory Polanco
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the worst possible position as a franchise. They were forced to trade away icon Andrew McCutchen and ace Gerrit Cole this winter, and did not get much in return. The focus of the trades of two foundational pieces was getting cheap, controllable MLB talent. The Pirates aren’t so much rebuilding as trying to start over on the fly with lesser names who are already in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh’s front office will try to put a positive spin on swapping McCutchen and Cole for Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran, but until July rolls around, it will be hard to say how well the “plan” is working. In a division where the Cubs, Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are all playoff contenders, the Pirates can’t expect to piece things together and sneak into the postseason.
Starling Marte is still around to anchor the outfield, and will presumably not test positive for PEDs this year. Opposite Marte in one of the corners, Gregory Polanco will attempt to take a step forward after a disappointing year in 2017. Corey Dickerson and Austin Meadows will push him for playing time.
Polanco broke out in 2016 to hit 22 home runs and drive in 86 with 17 stolen bases and an OPS+ of 107. He also stole 27 bases in 2015. Polanco has five-tool potential, but he has put together only a modest .252/.315/.401 line in parts of four MLB seasons. If the Pirates are going to find a way to make this work, Polanco will have to have a big season.
San Diego Padres: Eric Hosmer
The San Diego Padres are paying Eric Hosmer to become their first true big-name star since Tony Gwynn retired. Wil Myers has not quite reached that level despite his 30-homer season in 2017. Hosmer will be the building block that the San Diego lineup and roster is built around for the next eight years.
There’s no denying that the Padres were forced to overpay to convince Hosmer to join a team that has one postseason win since 1998, has seven straight losing seasons and plays in one of the toughest divisions in the league. If the Padres are going to finally break through and field a consistent winner, they will need Hosmer to take his game to another level.
In seven years with the Royals, Hosmer was an All-Star once and won four Gold Gloves. He has never produced like an elite first baseman with the bat, but is a good all-around player. The Padres are paying for his intangibles and leadership as much as anything else he brings to a roster.
Hosmer has never slugged over .500 in the big leagues, and the value his glove provides at first base is minimal. Betting on him to significantly up his power is probably going to come up on the losing side, but the Padres are aware. The 28-year-old is being paid to give the franchise a face to build around and a proven winner to help carry the hot lava of prospect talent to the promised land.
San Francisco Giants: Johnny Cueto
Coming off a catastrophic last-place finish, the San Francisco Giants made big moves this winter to try and fix their myriad issues. Remaking a team that nearly lost 100 games is hard to do, especially when said team is already full of established stars. The Giants did what they could, and adding Andrew McCutchen and Evaan Longoria should make the offense significantly better in 2018.
It won’t be so easy for the Giants to fix their rotation, as they sunk over $220 million into Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija two years ago. Both pitched well enough in 2016, but struggled mightily last year. Cueto did not exercise his opt-out clause this winter, and the Giants will be on the hook for all six years of his deal.
The Giants shouldn’t hope for much out of Samardzija. He has never established himself as a consistent starter despite his obvious talents. Cueto, on the other hand, is a different story. He does have a track record as an ace, and won 18 games in his first year in San Francisco.
Cueto is still only 32, and can bounce back to serve as the sidekick to Madison Bumgarner. All the upgrades to the lineup will go for naught for the Giants if they cannot put together a rotation to shut down the dominant offenses of the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies.
Seattle Mariners: James Paxton
The sun is setting on Felix Hernandez’s time leading the Seattle Mariners starting rotation. King Felix may be able to string together a few strong starts in a row, but the Mariners cannot count on him to carry the workload of a staff ace at this point of his career. Seattle’s rotation was gutted by injuries all last season, and it ultimately cost them a shot at the playoffs.
For Seattle to break through and make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, James Paxton will have to make through the year in one piece. The big left-hander made a career-high 24 starts in 2017 and went 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA while striking out 10.3 per nine. Paxton had only started 46 games in the big leagues over the preceding three years, so this was a big step forward for him.
Paxton has to make it through at least 30 starts for Seattle to get over the hump in a highly-competitive division. The offense is strong, but it the likes of Ariel Miranda and Marco Gonzales are making too many starts, their playoff chances are next to none.
It’s impossible to pin down why Paxton has struggled so much with injuries in his career, but he has to put it all together this year. Time is running out on the core group for the Mariners, and making the postseason in the American League gets more difficult every year.
St. Louis Cardinals: Luke Weaver
Homegrown hitting and pitching has defined the St. Louis Cardinals machine, but the team has missed the playoffs two years in a row and has tried to dip into free agency to keep up with the Cubs. Results have been mixed so far on the big-ticket items like Dexter Fowler and Mike Leake. Fowler was inconsistent in his first year in St. Louis, while Leake pitched well enough but was moved last August.
Part of the reason it was possible for the Cardinals to move on from Leake, who had been signed just a year prior, was the emergence of Luke Weaver. The 24-year-old right-hander put together a six-start stretch in August and September last year where he went 6-0 with a 1.49 ERA and held opponents to a .215/.243/.296 line. Weaver did run out of gas and was shelled in his final two appearance, but still finished the year 7-2 with strong strikeout numbers.
The torch has been completely passed from Adam Wainwright to the next great Cardinals starters. This is Carlos Martinez’s rotation, but Weaver isn’t far behind and could pull equal this year. He has wicked stuff and has struck out 10.9 per nine in his early days in the big leagues.
Adding Marcell Ozuna will give the Cardinals the thump in the middle of the lineup they missed last year. A full season from Luke Weaver, however, could go farther to pushing this team back to the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Rays: Blake Snell
The Tampa Bay Rays have not come right out and admitted that they are prepping for a full-scale rebuild, but the writing is on the wall. Evan Longoria has been moved to the Giants and Jake Odorizzi was dealt to the Twins. Chris Archer was also heavily shopped, but the Rays do not have to rush to trade him while he is on a team-friendly contract.
For the Rays, a path back to contention in the AL East hinges on their ability to develop elite pitching prospects. Unfortunately, Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon are already down for the year with Tommy John. Blake Snell and Jacob Faria will have to step up behind Archer as the Rays experiment with a four-man rotation to start the year.
Snell has been heavily hyped since 2015 when he went 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA in nearly 150 innings in the minor leagues. The results at the MLB level have not been nearly as strong, as the young left-hander battles command issues.
The former first-round pick has started 43 games for the Rays over the past two seasons and is 11-15 with a 3.83 ERA. Snell has walked 4.5 per nine against 8.9 strikeouts per nine. Tampa Bay has managed Snell’s innings well, and he has been out after five innings most starts. It’s time for the future ace to be given a full workload in 2018.
Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor
With his .204/.252/.397 line, Rougned Odor delivered the Texas Rangers arguably the worst 30-homer season in MLB history. With 162 strikeouts to go against only 32 walks, Odor’s 30 home runs and 75 RBI combined to give him a season worth -0.2 WAR and an OPS+ of 65. It’s hard to get much worse than that.
Odor still swings at everything — over the past two years, he has swung at nearly 80 percent of all pitches thrown his way. The second baseman is still only 24, so there could be some room for growth as a hitter. He actually walked nearly five percent of the time in 2017, but continues to chase too many pitches out of the strike zone. Some bad luck was involved in sucking his batting average down near the Mendoza Line, but Odor wasted plenty of swings on bad pitches last year.
The Rangers have to hope that the signs of maturation Odor has shown at the plate in Spring Training can carry into the regular season. Odor is a famously fiery personality on the field, and that aggression colors his approach at the plate too much. One example for him to try and model his growth on would be Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who finally mastered the strike zone last year and made the All-Star Game.
No one expects Rougned Odor to begin walking 80 times a year. That will never be the type of player he is. He does not have to sacrifice his aggressiveness on pitches in the strike zone to be a better hitter. This is still a player with immense potential, and the Rangers need him to stay focused and have a big year.
Toronto Blue Jays: Aaron Sanchez
Armed with a bowling-ball sinker, young right-hander Aaron Sanchez led MLB in winning percentage and the American League in ERA in 2016 while going 15-2 with a 3.00 mark. The Toronto Blue Jays managed Sanchez’s innings very well in his age-23 season, and he looked poised for big things in 2017.
Instead, a series of recurring blisters limited Sanchez to only eight starts and 36 innings. He was unable to find any consistency between stints on the DL, and finished the year 1-3 with a 4.25 ERA while allowing 10.5 hits per nine. Sanchez also allowed 1.5 home runs per nine, which does not bode well for a pitcher who relies so heavily on his sinker.
The Blue Jays made the playoffs in 2015 on the backs of their sluggers, but the return trip in 2016 was largely fueled by a breakout from Sanchez and unexpected dominance from J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada. With all three pitchers struggling with injuries and effectiveness in 2017, the Jays were pulled into last place for most of the season.
The dominant offense is not coming back for the aging Toronto lineup, but the starting rotation can rebound this year and keep the team in playoff contention. The Jays will need a full season out of Sanchez, and the blister issues should not impact him for a second straight year.
Washington Nationals: Matt Wieters
The regular season is but an extended victory lap for the Washington Nationals in the NL East. The Phillies, Marlins and Braves remain mired in a rebuild, while the Mets can’t manage to keep more than a handful of players healthy at a time. The Nats aren’t going to see their string of division titles snapped any time soon.
The Nationals have built one of the most complete lineups in the National League around Bryce Harper. There is speed and power up and down the lineup, and a potential All-Star at nearly every position. The only identifiable weak spot is behind the plate, as Matt Wieters was awful in his first season in D.C.
The four-time All-Star (ok, catcher was a very weak position in the American League during his time with the Orioles) hit only .225/.288/.344 with 10 home runs and 52 RBI in 123 games. Wieters, always known for a strong throwing arm, threw out only 25 percent of base stealers, putting him below the MLB average for the first time in his career.
Wieters looked out of shape with the Nats last year, and it showed in his play. He reported to Spring Training in phenomenal shape and has been crushing the ball. If he is able to maintain his body, Wieters could be looking at a big year, and would make a dominant lineup even more impossible to pitch to.