Pitchers and Catchers Report Soon. Which Teams Stand a Chance in 2018?


PHILLIES After a few years of one-year investments in outside talent, the Phillies spent almost $95 million on multiyear deals for three free agents — Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. They won’t lift a 96-loss team to the playoffs, but after five losing seasons, the Phillies are subtly shifting their focus to the present. Their high-impact prospects are starting to arrive, and if he gets enough pitching, Gabe Kapler could make a strong debut as manager.

BRAVES The Braves introduced a new mascot last month, a furry, portly, beige creature with googly eyes and red streamers that shoot from his ears. His name is Blooper, and he replaces a Mr. Met knockoff named Homer. The Braves ranked 28th in the majors in homers last season, and with 89 losses, they also had their share of bloopers. But their young talent is ready to spark a turnaround.

BREWERS Before 2005, Milwaukee had endured 12 consecutive losing seasons. Mark Attanasio bought the team that year, and since then the Brewers’ longest streak of losing seasons has been two. After improving by 13 games last season, to 86-76, Attanasio invested $80 million in Lorenzo Cain and assumed the final five years of control on Christian Yelich’s affordable contract. General Manager David Stearns will keep hunting for pitching as the Brewers try to begin something new: a sustained string of winning records. They haven’t had more than two in a row since the early 1980s.

TWINS In the American League last season, you were either a losing team, a powerhouse … or the Twins. Every team besides Minnesota had a sub-.500 record or more than 90 wins. The Twins went 85-77 to earn a wild-card berth, so they’ve clearly started something. But they need more pitching depth for a real shot at ending their region’s 27-year title drought, the longest of all markets with teams in M.L.B., the N.F.L., the N.B.A. and the N.H.L.

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The Twins are on the rise. They went 85-77 last season and made it to the American League wild-card game, which they lost to the Yankees.

Credit
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

PADRES The Padres were outscored by 212 runs last season, the worst differential in the majors. So they’ve got plenty of work to do, but their moves show that they think they’re close to contending. The Padres traded for the veteran infielders Chase Headley and Freddy Galvis and have pursued Eric Hosmer in free agency. They won’t have the majors’ worst offense again, but their pitching will keep them from bolting out of the blocks.

In Stride

DODGERS After five consecutive division titles, the Dodgers show no signs of slowing. Their roster is deep, young and versatile, their front office is smart, wealthy and creative, and they just won 104 games, their most since 1953. They do need to address Clayton Kershaw’s future: He turns 30 in March and can opt out of the final two years of his contract after the season.

ROCKIES We’ll say they’re in stride, but after winning a wild card last year, the Rockies really need to get moving. Two of their best hitters, Charlie Blackmon and D. J. LeMahieu — the last two N.L. batting champs — are facing free agency after this season, and the sublime Nolan Arenado could follow after 2019. The Rockies just invested $106 million in three relievers (Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw) and will try to make consecutive playoff trips for the first time.

CUBS The N.L. pennant has now been clinched three years in a row at Wrigley Field, though twice by the visitors. The Cubs mostly return the same group of players, but they’re now supported by a new group of well-regarded coaches, including Chili Davis (hitting), Jim Hickey (pitching) and Brian Butterfield (infield). They should only help the Cubs as they try to reach the postseason for the fourth year in a row, something the franchise has never done.

CARDINALS In 2006, the Cardinals won 83 games in the regular season and won the World Series. Last year, they won 83 games in the regular season and went home. They drew 3 million fans for the 13th season in a row, and those fans expect more. But they also should realize how good they have it: the Cardinals are the only mid-market team that seems impervious to any kind of down cycle. They’ll be relevant again, with Marcell Ozuna bringing a presence to the lineup that’s been missing for years.

METS For the next three seasons, at least, the Mets retain control of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto and Amed Rosario. That’s a solid core, if only the Mets could build around it. For now, their rotation is too injury-prone and their infielders are too old. But this is their run, and the Mets will trust a new manager, Mickey Callaway, and several new coaches to lead it.

YANKEES After four seasons in a row without a playoff victory, the Yankees nearly stormed into the World Series. That will be the last time they exceed expectations for many years. After trading for Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees will do what they do best: command your attention and make you pick a side — love ’em or hate ’em. Either way, you can’t ignore them anymore.

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The Yankees reached the American League Championship Series last season, but fell short against the Astros.

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

RED SOX The Red Sox have won consecutive A.L. East titles for the first time. That’s good. They’ve also lost in the division series in consecutive seasons for the first time. That’s bad. Whatever you emphasize, the Red Sox are in the middle of another run, with five everyday players and four starting pitchers in their 20s. But the absence of power in the lineup, and the Yankees’ ascendance, make for an uneasy feeling on Yawkey Way.

INDIANS Their two best relievers, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, are facing free agency after the season, but the Indians retain control of nearly every other significant player through at least 2020. They’ve had winning records in each of the last five seasons, something only one other A.L. team, the Yankees, can match. The streak won’t end any time soon.

ASTROS Houston teams don’t win much — but when they do, they win big. When the Oilers won the first A.F.L. title, in 1960, they repeated the next year. The Rockets won the N.B.A. crown in 1994 and did it again the next June. The Comets of the W.N.B.A. captured four titles in a row from 1997 through 2000. Baseball hasn’t had a repeat champion since the turn-of-the-century Yankees, but the young and resourceful Astros should have a good chance.

Finish Line

ANGELS Things came a lot easier for the Angels with Vladimir Guerrero, who helped them reach the playoffs five times in six seasons on his way to the Hall of Fame. They’ve made it back just once in eight seasons since Guerrero left — but this is their run, such as it is. With just three more seasons before Mike Trout becomes a free agent, they’ve added Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart and Justin Upton since August in an effort to make something of it.

GIANTS It’s easy to look at the Giants’ roster and remember how great all those players once were. It’s harder to predict how much they have left. Except for Joe Panik, all of their projected everyday players will be older than 30 by the end of April, including the newcomers Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. Two of their top starters, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and closer Mark Melancon are also over 30, and all struggled last season as the Giants staggered to 98 losses. This group might have one last run in it; no one is too far removed from stardom. It may not be getting better all the time, as the song goes, but perhaps it can’t get no worse.

BLUE JAYS More than 3.2 million fans poured into Rogers Centre last year, giving the Blue Jays the highest attendance in the A.L. for the second year in a row. The team responded by sliding to 76-86 and has spent the winter adding complementary players like Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz and Curtis Granderson. That’s discouraging, but it underscores the trepidation of a front office that would probably love to rebuild, but it owes its fans an honest effort to win. The Blue Jays have a chance if their rotation is healthy — but only if they hit, and last year they scored only 693 runs, a 20-year low.

MARINERS When the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs last month, it meant that Seattle took over the dubious title of the team with the longest postseason drought in the four major sports. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001, and they’ve been trying hard to get back since signing Robinson Cano in December 2013. Yet in four seasons with Cano, they’re somehow just six games over .500. The Mariners are running, but they’re basically just running in place — and now Cano is 35, and Nelson Cruz will be 38 by the All-Star break.

RANGERS The Rangers allowed 816 runs last season, their most since 2008. They’ve made the playoffs five times since then, never winning it all but never failing to try. This winter, though, their efforts have been timid: They added the veteran starters Mike Minor, Matt Moore and Doug Fister. Minor was sharp in relief for the Royals last year, but has not started since 2014. Moore was 6-15 with a 5.52 E.R.A. for the Giants, and Fister was the very definition of replacement level: After the Red Sox picked him up off waivers, he made 15 starts with a 0.0 WAR.

ORIOLES The Orioles are shifting Manny Machado to shortstop, mostly because he asked. Machado will be a free agent next winter, and marketing himself as a do-it-all shortstop, rather than one of many slugging third basemen, could only raise his value. What’s in it for Baltimore? In theory, a happy and productive Machado can fetch plenty in a trade this summer. The Orioles have never solved their chronic rotation problems, so contention seems unlikely. But as long as they have Machado, they’re at least nominally going for it. The Orioles led the A.L. in wins from 2012 through 2016, but they never won a game beyond the division series.

NATIONALS There’s enough talent in Washington for the Nationals to contend for a while. And with their willingness to defer money, they just might find a way to retain Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy as free agents after this season. But Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman will be 34 by then, and if they do lose Harper and Murphy, the Nationals might have missed their best chance for a title.

DIAMONDBACKS The Diamondbacks have the most lopsided payroll in the majors; more than a third of it goes to Zack Greinke, the 34-year-old ace who averages more than $34 million per season. If they trade Greinke, they lose a top pitcher. If they don’t, they probably can’t afford much else. The slugger J. D. Martinez is a free agent now, with A. J. Pollock on deck next winter and Paul Goldschmidt after 2019. The time to win is now.

Correction: February 9, 2018

An earlier version of this preview misstated the number of seasons before Mike Trout becomes a free agent. It is three, not two.

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