Postseason performances have outsize value in Major League Baseball, and this is why David Freese shares emotional space with Bob Gibson in St. Louis, why several generations of New Englanders can deftly imitate Carlton Fisk’s frantic wave of a baseball, and why Kirk Gibson is better known for a fist pump than for his lifetime average.
The executives who run front offices should divorce themselves from that romanticism of October and November results, and instead be wedded to the large sample size, before those nights when Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton were the best pitchers in baseball. And for the sake of ranking the best teams, we should probably do that too, giving greater weight to what was accomplished April through September.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 teams, based on the input of evaluators, with help from ESPN researchers Mark Simon, Paul Hembekides and Sarah Langs. It’s subject to change before the start of spring training, of course, with so many veteran free agents still unsigned.
It’s important to remember a couple things about the Indians:
(1) When the regular season ended, before anybody knew that Corey Kluber would pitch hurt against the Yankees, Cleveland was regarded as the favorite to roll through the postseason, after compiling a 22-game win streak that stretched over the better part of a month.
(2) Among all contending teams, the Indians again appear to have the easiest road into the playoffs because most of their division is rebuilding — the Tigers, the White Sox and the Royals.
So while it’s true the Indians lost really important bullpen pieces in Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith and solid hitters in Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce, Cleveland is still the safest bet to get to October — with Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Andrew Miller, et al. It’s a great team in a division that may be noncompetitive. The Indians have been relatively quiet this winter so far, but they’re still in the market for a right-handed hitting outfielder or super utility man — Eduardo Nunez might be the perfect fit — and a right-handed reliever.
From Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information: The Indians generated 33.3 WAR from their pitchers in 2017 — the second-highest total from any pitching staff ever (2011 Phillies, 37.3).
The Dodgers were baseball’s best team for most of last summer and came within one game of winning the World Series, and while the ghosts of 1988 — the Dodgers’ last championship team — still hover over the franchise, no one could rationally cast 2017 as a failure. The Dodgers got younger, with the ascendance of Cody Bellinger and the emergence of 27-year-old Chris Taylor, they got better, and they have the deepest roster in baseball. The great X-factor will continue to be the health of ace Clayton Kershaw, because their rotation looks very different without him.
A rival evaluator followed the Astros through most of October last year, preparing scouting reports for his own team, and he walked away believing that Houston’s lineup has more athleticism — more pure talent — than any lineup he has seen in the last decade.Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman could all be top-three talents at their respective positions, and the others around them are all solid, productive players.
Houston owner Jim Crane, a driving force behind the acquisition of Justin Verlander in August, told reporters earlier this week that his team is pushing for a frontline starting pitcher. They’ve talked with Yu Darvish, and as of Thursday, executives involved in the Gerrit Cole discussions still believe that Houston could be the front-runner to get the Pittsburgh right-hander — and he may really be needed. Dallas Keuchel is coming back from a foot injury, amid some uncertainty about his status. If he’s good to go, then a rotation of Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Cole, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton would be awesome; if not, Houston would still have a more than solid group of starters, in front of a good bullpen.
From Langs: The Astros racked up 39.8 WAR from position players in 2017; that’s the sixth-most ever by a World Series champ, and most since the 1976 Reds produced 43.7 WAR from position players.
The rotation is fronted by two of the best pitchers in baseball, and the dynamic lineup could be even better now that Adam Eaton is back from his season-ending knee injury and Trea Turner and Michael Taylor are a year older. Most importantly, the Nationals seem to have their bullpen in order — maybe the best group of relievers in Mike Rizzo’s time as general manager, with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Koda Glover, Shawn Kelley, et al.
The Yankees still need to identify starters at half of their infield spots, and general manager Brian Cashman acknowledged Thursday that his team remains in the running for Darvish — perhaps as a long shot, because of self-imposed payroll limitations. But even with those gaps in the roster, the Yankees still have the best and deepest bullpen in the majors, and they have a lineup with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez. The Yankees fell one win short of reaching the World Series last fall and have the firepower to take the next step.
6. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs seem well-positioned in the starting pitcher musical chairs and are involved in conversations for Darvish, free-agent Alex Cobb and others; they need one more veteran for their rotation, and they should get one. They’re betting on Brandon Morrow to take over at closer, after his powerful 2017 season for the Dodgers, and they’re bringing back just about everyone in their position-player group — including the slimmed-down Kyle Schwarber, and shortstop Addison Russell, who seems poised for a rebound from a rough season.
Their work is incomplete this winter, as they wait for J.D. Martinez to decide whether he’s going to become their No. 1 power source, but the Red Sox already have a lot of weapons, from Chris Sale to Craig Kimbrel to Mookie Betts. Their outfield defense is excellent, their bullpen should be pretty good, and Rafael Devers demonstrated, in his two-month audition process, that he has the skill to be an elite power hitter in the big leagues.
But the Red Sox missed David Ortiz more than they expected, and Martinez is needed.
Among the NL teams that failed to reach the postseason in 2017, the Cardinals may have done more problem-solving this offseason than any other. After St. Louis tried unsuccessfully to convince Giancarlo Stanton to accept a trade, they moved on and dealt for young slugger Marcell Ozuna. They added starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, who went 14-8 with a 2.25 ERA in 27 starts in Japan last season with the Yomiuri Giants. He last pitched in the majors in 2014 for the Texas Rangers, with a 6.44 ERA in 10 starts that season. They also added reliever Luke Gregerson and sorted through some of their outfield congestion, moving Tommy Pham to center and Dexter Fowler to right field.
Shohei Ohtani’s decision to pick the Angels seemed to spur the team into even more action, to help with the roster depth around Mike Trout. They traded for Ian Kinsler to play second, signed Zack Cozart to play third and added another excellent defensive catcher in Rene Rivera, a perfect complement to Martin Maldonado. Most importantly, their rotation could be better and deeper (and healthier) than it has been in years, with Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Ohtani and Matt Shoemaker among others.
The Diamondbacks took a big step forward last year, particularly lefty Robbie Ray, and any team stacked with Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb is going to be dangerous. But they’re coping with some really difficult choices to make in the next couple of years because of their payroll limitations: It looks like J.D. Martinez will move on, after he carried the team with an MVP-caliber performance down the stretch last year, and in the next two years, Pollock and then Goldschmidt will be free agents.
Best of the rest
• Seattle Mariners: Dee Gordon takes over in center field, and if he meets their expectations, the Mariners could have a dynamic offense. But as Seattle works to end its playoff drought, the health of James Paxton and Felix Hernandez could be most critical.
• Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers jumped to 86 wins last season and were on the cusp of a wild-card berth. They’ll have to overcome the loss of ace Jimmy Nelson to a shoulder injury for most (or all) of 2018, but they have padded their bullpen depth.
• Minnesota Twins: Like the Indians, they could take advantage of a weak division — with a young and talented group of position players.