Predicting Boom or Bust for Each MLB Playoff Hopeful in 2018

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2018

Predicting Boom or Bust for Each MLB Playoff Hopeful in 2018

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    The Angels have made just one MLB postseason with Mike Trout.
    The Angels have made just one MLB postseason with Mike Trout.Masterpress/Getty Images

    Not even a blank slate can deceive MLB teams into believing 2018 will open without a clear top tier.

    Only two 2014 playoff participants (the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers) made last year's postseason, so long-term parity exists. Yet a select few have established cozy real estate atop MLB's hierarchy. Making matters bleak for fringe contenders, youth buoys the aspiring superteams—the best way to avoid a quick fall from grace.

    Last season, each league's second wild-card spot gave hope to a handful of squads that otherwise may have checked out in late August. Six elite clubs will again play October baseball, barring a string of awful luck. A few rebuilding teams will need divine intervention, but that still leaves roughly half the league vying for four wild-card spots.

    Let's break down these candidates' playoff chances before Opening Day.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

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    Out of five Rays hitters who belted 15 or more home runs last year, only Kevin Kiermaier remains on the team.
    Out of five Rays hitters who belted 15 or more home runs last year, only Kevin Kiermaier remains on the team.Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Play out the season a hundred times, and each of these eight teams would eventually have everything break their way at least once. The perfect mix of breakouts and bouncebacks could coincide with a bevy of misfortunes for the opposition. After all, the Minnesota Twins made the 2017 playoffs after ending 2016 with MLB's worst record.

    Those scenarios, however, require too much favorable variance to predict in March. A playoff bid is possible but highly improbable for these squads: 

    Chicago White Sox

    Cincinnati Reds

    Detroit Tigers

    Kansas City Royals

    Miami Marlins

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    San Diego Padres

    Tampa Bay Rays

    While the Rays won 80 games in 2017, they lost 140 of last year's 228 home runs with Evan Longoria, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda and Tim Beckham all departing since July 2017. No offense to C.J. Cron, but he's not powering anyone to the playoffs.

    Perhaps it's unfair to place the Pirates in this tier. Although they moved Andrew McCutchen, they then acquired Dickerson at little cost. Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran didn't represent a flashy package for ace Gerrit Cole, but both players could blossom into solid major leaguers in full-time roles.

    While Pittsburgh has the best chance of these teams to reach .500, its ceiling doesn't extend much higher. A tough National League Central will leave it battling the Reds for fourth place. 

As Long as They're Healthy

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    Max Scherzer's Nationals are comfortable favorites to seize their third straight NL East crown.
    Max Scherzer's Nationals are comfortable favorites to seize their third straight NL East crown.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    There's no such thing as an MLB lock, but these stacked squads will return to the postseason barring an avalanche of injuries. FanGraphs pegs each of these six title contenders' playoff probabilities at 88 percent or higher, and most of them have the depth to overcome one or two major setbacks.


    Chicago Cubs

    The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers should again prevent the Cubs from cruising to an NL Central title. Then again, last year's 92-win campaign was disappointing for the 2016 champions, who now get a full season of Jose Quintana in addition to the arrivals of Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow. They could push 100 victories if any of Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Addison Russell become All-Stars alongside Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.


    Cleveland Indians

    Swap first basemen Carlos Santana and Yonder Alonso, and Cleveland is essentially running back last year's team that went 102-60 with a plus-254 run differential. This club might even be better.

    A healthy Jason Kipnis has smashed six spring homers, and Bradley Zimmer will provide excellent speed and center field defense during his first full season. The Indians will again boast baseball's premier rotation if Trevor Bauer (3.01 ERA) and Mike Clevinger (3.21 ERA) sustain their second-half breakouts.


    Houston Astros

    Some champions rest on their laurels. Not the Astros.

    Without losing any vital big league contributors, the defending champs acquired Cole from the Pirates to bolster a stacked rotation that now has no room for Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock. Pitching depth is an excellent problem for a contender to have.


    Los Angeles Dodgers

    The Dodgers suffered a major blow when third baseman Justin Turner broke his wrist March 19. And while they wield plenty of rotation options, each has struggled to stay healthy over a full year. Regression from Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor could put the NL West champions in the most jeopardy of faltering, but they're too deep (in the majors and minors) for a full-fledged collapse.

    They could underwhelm by dropping 11 wins from 104 to 93.


    New York Yankees

    Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez make the Yankees a pitcher's worst nightmare. But don't sleep on their pitching staff, which submitted MLB's fifth-best ERA (3.75) and third-most strikeouts per nine innings (9.69 K/9) last season.

    They enter Opening Day with Sonny Gray, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle in tow after midseason acquisitions, and Chance Adams is waiting if anyone in the rotation falters. Injuries to Greg Bird (ankle) and Brandon Drury (elbow) aren't significant hits with Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar ready to contribute.


    Washington Nationals

    None of these teams is more top-heavy than the Nationals, who will open the season without Daniel Murphy after he underwent October knee surgery. Their NL East stranglehold could be in peril if anything happens to Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, but they should fend off a burgeoning division and pursue in-season upgrades during Bryce Harper's contract year.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Zack Godley is part of a deep Diamondbacks rotation that will benefit from Chase Field's humidor.
    Zack Godley is part of a deep Diamondbacks rotation that will benefit from Chase Field's humidor.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Projections are not buying a full repeat from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who ran way with the NL's first wild-card spot at 93-69 last season. OddsShark gives them an over-under of 85.5 wins. Anyone heeding FanGraphs' forecast will take the under, as it estimates 80.5 victories.

    J.D. Martinez crushed 29 of his home runs in 62 games with the Diamondbacks, so his departure creates a seismic hole in their batting order. Yet they weren't bad without him, going 53-39 before his mid-July arrival.

    Arizona's offense will take a bigger hit from the humidor the team's installing in Chase Field. While it finished No. 8 in runs scored with help from the hitter's park, it ranked No. 17 with a 95 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), a metric that measures park-adjusted offense against an average of 100.

    An offensive decline is cause for concern but not panic. The Diamondbacks instead must rely on an unheralded pitching staff that posted MLB's second-best adjusted ERA behind Cleveland. Their hopes will take a major hit if Zack Greinke's groin injury means more than delaying his 2018 debut a few days, but a healthy rotation will challenge the Cubs and Dodgers as the NL's best grouping.

    With respective 2017 road ERAs of 1.86 and 2.92, Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker are especially poised to enjoy Chase Field's humidor. Having accompanied his 3.37 ERA with a 9.58 K/9 and 55.3 ground-ball percentage, Zack Godley is no one-year wonder.

    Pitching (and another MVP-caliber season from first baseman Paul Goldschmidt) will lead Arizona back into the NL Wild Card Game, but it may not host this year's winner-take-all clash.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Boom

Atlanta Braves

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    Rookie Ronald Acuna will make the Braves an intriguing team to watch in 2018.
    Rookie Ronald Acuna will make the Braves an intriguing team to watch in 2018.B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

    The Atlanta Braves probably don't need their own section, but they have a feasible roadmap to breaking out a year early. 

    That plan would require an MVP-caliber campaign from Freddie Freeman, who was hitting .341/.461/.748 before fracturing his wrist May 17. It also demands no patience for Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna.

    Albies teased star potential by batting .286/.354/.456 with 1.9 WAR in his first 57 career MLB games last year. Considering he previously sported a .285/.330/.440 slash line in Triple-A, it's dangerous to extrapolate his debut to a full season.

    Then there's Acuna, Baseball Prospectus' No. 1 prospect, who catapulted his way up to Triple-A by batting .325/.374/.522 with 21 homers and 44 steals in his age-19 season across three levels. Even though he collected 19 hits with four homers and four steals in spring training, the Braves will send him to the minors rather than start his arbitration clock.

    Scouts and fans alike are nevertheless drooling over his potential. Baseball America's Josh Norris called the "stupid good" Acuna "the best position player prospect I've ever seen during my career." If the Braves are playing the service-time game, they could promote the outfielder as soon as April 13.

    Atlanta would still need a bounce-back season from Julio Teheran and some rotation stability from erratic young hurlers Sean Newcomb, 24, and Mike Foltynewicz, 26. The team has the talent to make serious noise if everything breaks its way, but its collection of future studs likely needs at least one more year to develop.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Baltimore Orioles

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    The Orioles improved a dreadful rotation by signing free agent Alex Cobb last week.
    The Orioles improved a dreadful rotation by signing free agent Alex Cobb last week.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Signing Alex Cobb saved the Baltimore Orioles from getting tossed alongside the league's laggards. After posting an MLB-worst 5.70 ERA last season, the rotation desperately needed at least one more quality arm. 

    The late signing, however, is not significant enough to vault Baltimore into contention. While Cobb submitted a 3.66 ERA over a career-high 179.1 innings, he compiled just 128 strikeouts with a 6.7 swinging-strike percentage. Only Ty Blach and Cobb's new teammate, Andrew Cashner, induced fewer whiffs among qualified starters.

    The bullpen won't provide much relief without Zach Britton, who will open 2018 on the 60-day disabled list after rupturing his Achilles in December. That places too much pressure on a lineup that packs a mean power punch but also weaved MLB's fourth-worst on-base percentage (.312) and had fewer stolen bases (32) than Cameron Maybin last season (33).

    Baltimore should leapfrog Tampa Bay in the AL East standings, but don't expect it to accrue many more than last year's 75 wins without spectacular debuts from rookies Austin Hays and Chance Sisco.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Boston Red Sox

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    Xander Bogaerts should bounce back after playing through a wrist injury in 2017.
    Xander Bogaerts should bounce back after playing through a wrist injury in 2017.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    The 2017 OPS leaderboard begins with nine playoff teams. One must scroll down to No. 22 to find the Boston Red Sox, who scored eight runs in three American League Division Series losses to the Astros.

    Only the Braves, Pirates and San Francisco Giants tallied fewer home runs than Boston's 168. Mookie Betts' 24 led the club. The solution? Sign Martinez away from Arizona.

    The returning lineup should also improve around its new slugger. A career .292 hitter, Betts batted .264 despite posting contact (85.8), strikeout (11.1) and hard-hit percentages (35.7) all close to his norms. The only difference was a .268 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) that was noticeably lower than his .303 career clip.

    Xander Bogaerts was hitting .308/.363/.455 before getting hit on the hand July 6. He finished with a .273/.343/.403 slash line and since admitted to Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe that he should not have stayed on the field.

    "We thought it was going to get better, and it didn't, and then I played through the pain," Bogaerts said last December. "I know I made a mistake. I probably shouldn't have played, but this is who I am."

    Rising studs Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers will join that trio to make Boston's lineup formidable again. The Red Sox stand tall as a wild-card favorite and will challenge the Yankees for the AL title if a healthy David Price forms a lethal one-two punch alongside Chris Sale in the starting rotation.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Boom

Colorado Rockies

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    Jon Gray anchors an otherwise shaky Rockies rotation.
    Jon Gray anchors an otherwise shaky Rockies rotation.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The surprising Colorado Rockies earned a 2017 wild-card bid despite the bullpen's 4.40 ERA. They reshuffled but didn't upgrade the unit. After retaining Jake McGee, they replaced closer Greg Holland and setup man Pat Neshek with Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw, respectively.

    They also have to worry about whether the offense and starting pitching can live up to expectations.

    Even with Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon both filing MVP bids, the Rockies ranked No. 27 in wRC+ and hit .249/.312/.390 on the road. If they don't receive better results from Ian Desmond and Carlos Gonzalez, they shouldn't hesitate to insert Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia and/or David Dahl into the lineup.

    Jon Gray, who posted a 3.13 home ERA, could give them a legitimate ace capable of combating Coors Field. Now he needs to pitch more than 170 innings for the first time. After him and German Marquez, it's a usual guessing game over who can manage the high-altitude environment.

    The Rockies rearranged some parts but did little to improve on last year's 87-win squad. They will instead rely on better play from 2017 letdowns and reinforcements from the farm. Improved competition will leave them short and with a similar record.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Los Angeles Angels

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    Shohei Ohtani's rookie success could make or break the Angels' playoff chances.
    Shohei Ohtani's rookie success could make or break the Angels' playoff chances.Masterpress/Getty Images

    No one man can carry a squad into the postseason. Not even Mike Trout.

    The Los Angeles Angels are no longer a one-man team, though. Besides Trout, Justin Upton was the only Angel to record a slugging percentage above .440 in 2017. Now, the 30-year-old outfielder will give them another big-time producer for the entire season.

    Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart will improve the offense while forming a phenomenal defensive infield alongside Andrelton Simmons. A team sixth in defensive runs saved (DRS) last season could jump to first with two Gold Glove-caliber shortstops roaming the diamond's left side.

    A talented but volatile pitching staff will make or break their playoff chances. Garrett Richards, who boasts a 3.53 career ERA, has made six starts in each of the last two seasons. Health concerns aren't limited to their ace, however. JC Ramirez is the only member of their six-man rotation who worked over 85 innings in 2017.

    Their hopes hinge on Shohei Ohtani, whose sky-high hype has dwindled after he recorded a .107 batting average and 27.00 ERA in spring training. Maybe he's not Babe Ruth at the plate or on the mound, but 32 plate appearances and 2.2 innings in March don't make the 23-year-old a bust, either.

    Although the Angels have made the playoffs once in Trout's six brilliant seasons, they have averaged 85 wins per campaign in that stretch. Given their rotation's uncertainty, that's a fair projection, which should put them in the hunt for the AL's second wild-card bid. Ohtani and Richards can swing the outcome in their favor, but we have them falling just short.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

New York Mets

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    Michael Conforto will start 2018 on the disabled list, but he could return in April.
    Michael Conforto will start 2018 on the disabled list, but he could return in April.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The New York Mets have three keys to a playoff return: health, health and health. 

    Can Noah Syndergaard give them 25-30 starts after missing most of 2017 with a partially torn lat muscle? Can Yoenis Cespedes, who has already dealt with a sore wrist in March, overcome nagging injuries that sidelined him for parts of the past two seasons?

    Are the Mets welcoming back a healthy Jeurys Familia? Can Matt Harvey and/or Steven Matz fortify the rotation with decent innings? This may be getting too greedy, but it'd also be nice if catcher Travis d'Arnaud could last a full season.

    At least they received good news on the Michael Conforto front. Originally expected to miss all of April recovering from shoulder surgery, the star outfielder has offered encouragement for a speedier return by playing the outfield this spring. He will still open 2018 on the disabled list, but an April sighting is no longer far-fetched.

    With neutral luck, the Mets will see an uptick from last year's 70-92 record by at least 10 wins. A top-heavy NL, however, will require closer to 90 victories for a playoff berth. They're not guaranteed to reach that lofty mark even if everyone stays intact. 

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Brewers will struggle to field a strong rotation without the injured Jimmy Nelson.
    The Brewers will struggle to field a strong rotation without the injured Jimmy Nelson.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    The Brewers had the look of a legitimate contender after landing Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain in January. All they had to do was sign a significant starter and/or leverage their outfield surplus for a rotation upgrade.

    They left both of those boxes unchecked, instead settling for Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin. The former will miss the start of 2018 with a groin injury, and the latter logged a 6.53 ERA away from Petco Park last season.

    Until Jimmy Nelson returns from shoulder surgery sometime around the July All-Star break, they will rely on a makeshift rotation led by Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. They don't have enough room to play Domingo Santana, Eric Thames and Ryan Braun, which means the 2011 NL MVP might become MLB's highest-paid platoon player as an out-of-position first baseman against lefties.

    For all those pitfalls, they added two excellent outfielders who will each benefit from Miller Park's smaller dimensions. If the Brewers' season starts as well as it did in 2017, they should be the first team linked to any available starter. 

    For now, they lack the balance to challenge the Cubs.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Minnesota Twins

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    The Twins will need a huge season from Byron Buxton to return to the playoffs.
    The Twins will need a huge season from Byron Buxton to return to the playoffs.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    No team exploited the stalled free-agent market more than the Minnesota Twins. In hopes of repeating an unlikely wild-card appearance, they renovated their pitching staff with Lance Lynn, Addison Reed and closer Fernando Rodney. They also signed first baseman Logan Morrison, who crushed 38 home runs last year, in addition to acquiring starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi from the Rays.

    They could be better than last year's version if Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario sustain their late-season breakouts. The outfielders fueled their postseason surge by posting a 130 and 127 second-half wRC+, respectively. 

    Yet the team must give back some of those gains, as Ervin Santana is nursing a preseason finger injury and Jorge Polanco received an 80-game suspension for a failed performance-enhancing drug test. Eduardo Escobar's move to shortstop and Miguel Sano's exploits at third base will cost Minnesota some runs.

    Its bullpen also isn't that much better. While Reed offers needed late-inning stability, Rodney recorded a 4.23 ERA with his 39 saves last season.

    Don't mistake Minnesota's rapid rise as its first step to becoming a juggernaut. Barring superstar-caliber breakouts from Buxton and starting pitcher Jose Berrios, it will instead plateau around the mid-80-win range, which probably won't be enough to sneak into another AL Wild Card Game.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Oakland Athletics

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    Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman played exceptional defense during his MLB debut.
    Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman played exceptional defense during his MLB debut.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Looking for someone who could follow Minnesota's journey from last place to the AL Wild Card Game? Consider the Oakland Athletics.

    Last year, they built confidence for 2018 by posting a 36-37 post-All-Star-break record, buoyed by 16 September wins. First baseman Matt Olson will receive most of the credit for smashing 24 homers in 59 games, but third baseman Matt Chapman also announced his big league arrival with a 108 wRC+ and 19 DRS in 84 contests. 

    The A's made two characteristic buy-low offseason purchases by landing catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who combined for 7.4 WAR in 2016. They should also receive an in-house rebound from infielder Marcus Semien, who lost power to a wrist injury last season.

    Unfortunately, they must prevent opponents from scoring. That's a problem for a rotation that has already lost Jharel Cotton for the season to Tommy John surgery and will open with Kendall Graveman as its No. 1. The lineup will give the frugal franchise a great return on its investment, but it's not elite enough to overcome significant pitching woes.

    Merely giving Oakland its own section signifies expected improvement following three consecutive fifth-place AL West finishes. Still, a playoff berth isn't in the 2018 cards.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Rhys Hoskins has the Phillies firmly on the rise.
    Rhys Hoskins has the Phillies firmly on the rise.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Phillies, meanwhile, are poised to become this year's version of the 2017 Brewers.

    Another rising young squad that went 37-38 after the All-Star break made major renovations. Instead of waiting for next offseason's loaded free-agent class, they plucked first baseman Carlos Santana and starting pitcher Jake Arrieta off the market. They also brought back Neshek and added Tommy Hunter to a competitive bullpen.

    After their major moves, contention will come earlier than anticipated. In addition to welcoming Rhys Hoskins, Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford to their first Opening Days, they signed top prospect Scott Kingery to a six-year deal, allowing them to promote the second baseman without service-time concerns.

    Yet, like this year's Brewers, a lack of rotation depth may force them to settle for a moral victory. Jerad Eickhoff will start 2018 on the shelf with a strained lat muscle, and Vince Velasquez looks headed for a long-relief role. They will need major development from Nick Pivetta, who wielded a 9.47 K/9 but a ghastly 6.02 ERA. 

    A six-year playoff drought is unlikely to end, but they should at least surpass 73 wins for the first time since 2012. There's also a chance the better comparison is the 2015 Mets, who coalesced a year earlier than expected and benefited from Washington's bad breaks to win the NL East and NL pennant.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

San Francisco Giants

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    The Giants will start the season without Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija.
    The Giants will start the season without Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants' even-year magic couldn't last forever.

    That point was debatable last week. Following last year's disastrous 64-98 showing, the Giants regrouped by acquiring Longoria and McCutchen. With healthy returns from starting pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, they once again would've possessed the balance to at least vie for a wild-card spot.

    Now, not so much. Thursday, Jeff Samardzija suffered what was later diagnosed as a pectoral strain that will sideline him for three to four weeks. The following day, a comebacker fractured Bumgarner's pinky finger on his pitching hand. He's expected to miss at least four to six weeks.

    No team can comfortably withstand the loss of two front-line starters, but San Francisco is especially in peril without its anchors. Chris Stratton is now the No. 2 starter behind Cueto, with Ty Blach, Derek Holland and Tyler Beede likely to round out the rotation.

    As shown last year, the Giants don't have the depth to overcome significant injuries. With a depleted rotation and suspect bullpen, they will fall too far behind by the time Samardzija and Bumgarner return. 

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Seattle Mariners

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    The Mariners need a bounce-back season from Felix Hernandez.
    The Mariners need a bounce-back season from Felix Hernandez.Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    The clock is ticking on the Seattle Mariners.

    Robinson Cano is 35 and coming off his worst wRC+ (a still above-average 112) since 2008. While the 37-year-old Nelson Cruz remains an elite slugger, Father Time will eventually pay him a visit. That mythic figure has already struck Felix Hernandez, who registered his worst ERA (4.36) since 2006 in a season derailed by shoulder injuries.

    Those stars have failed to lead Seattle to its first postseason appearance since 2001's 116-win campaign. After coming close in 2016, pitching injuries pushed the M's back below .500 last year.

    At least Mike Leake will deliver rotation stability, but ostensible ace James Paxton set a personal high at 136 frames last year and has had trouble staying healthy. The bullpen took an early hit with David Phelps' expected Tommy John surgery, which will repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.

    Outfielder Dee Gordon will give the lineup an extra jolt, and full seasons of health from Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger could make Seattle's offense a quiet force. Then again, the same was true last year, when the Mariners finished fifth in wRC+ behind the Astros, Yankees, Indians and Dodgers.

    Without steadier pitching, they'll stay stuck in the middle as an 80-85 win squad.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

St. Louis Cardinals

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    Marcell Ozuna gives a deep Cardinals lineup a potent middle-of-the-order slugger.
    Marcell Ozuna gives a deep Cardinals lineup a potent middle-of-the-order slugger.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Last year, the 83-79 Cardinals were a good team with few great players. After barely missing the postseason despite brandishing MLB's 10th-best run differential (plus-56), they needed one more slugger to close the gap.

    They completed that mission with resounding success, obtaining Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins without sacrificing pitchers Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha or Jack Flaherty. A lineup with seven two-win players now has someone who belted 37 homers last year, a dozen more than 2017 leader Paul DeJong.

    Breakout star Tommy Pham was one of three players to submit a .300/.400/.500 slash line with at least 20 homers and 20 steals last season. The other two? Trout and Jose Altuve.

    Now that they also have Ozuna, the Cardinals won't require a full repeat from Pham. They also roster another late bloomer who could jump to stardom during his age-29 season in first baseman Jose Martinez, who batted .333/.425/.565 over his final 55 games. It's a splendid problem to have, but manager Mike Matheny must find room for him on a crowded lineup card.

    Let's not forget about the rotation. Weaver has amassed 117 strikeouts and 29 walks over 96.2 career major league innings. He gives them a potent young nucleus alongside Wacha and ace Carlos Martinez, who sports a career 3.42 ERA and 53.6 ground-ball percentage

    After leaving Nippon Professional Baseball with a 2.18 ERA, starting pitcher Miles Mikolas could have enough upside to guide them to a wild-card spot. Rather than rejoining the rotation after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, Reyes instead has the opportunity to flourish in the bullpen.

    Adam Wainwright will open 2018 on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, which may improve the rotation. It clears a spot for rookie Flaherty, who has opened eyes in spring training with 24 strikeouts over 15.2 innings.

    St. Louis now has an ideal assortment of high-level talent and bats to host the NL Wild Card Game. It may even give Chicago a fight for the division.

    Playoffs Boom or Bust: Boom

Texas Rangers

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    Cole Hamels contributed to the Rangers' rotation woes in 2017.
    Cole Hamels contributed to the Rangers' rotation woes in 2017.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Plenty of playoff contenders have pitching woes. None are as severe as the Texas Rangers'.

    Last year, their staff posted a 4.70 ERA and an MLB-worst 6.95 K/9. In an offseason with depressed free-agent prices, Doug Fister marked a major acquisition. They also acquired Matt Moore fresh off his 5.52 ERA, and they grabbed Mike Minor with plans of bringing the breakout reliever back into the rotation.

    Matt Bush will remain in the bullpen as a high-leverage arm, though he had his 2017 troubles while losing the closer's role. Former starter Tim Lincecum, who allowed a 9.16 ERA and 2.37 WHIP in his last MLB campaign in 2016, probably won't be much of a relief asset.

    One or two of these dart throws need to hit the bull's-eye. And Cole Hamels will have to reverse last year's alarming regression (4.20 ERA, 6.39 K/9) if Texas is to have any playoff hope.

    A lineup stockpiled with speed (Elvis Andrus and Delino DeShields), power (Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor), ageless wonders (Adrian Beltre, 38, and Shin-Soo Choo, 35) and youth (Nomar Mazara, 22, and eventually prospect Willie Calhoun, 23) will keep the Rangers competitive, but they needed to bring back Darvish or find another ace to get tabbed as a preseason playoff pick.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Bust

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson has one more year left on his contract.
    Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson has one more year left on his contract.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Anyone following along will realize there must be one more AL "Boom." There's also one team left to cover.

    The Toronto Blue Jays may seem like a curious choice. After making consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series in 2015 and 2016, they cratered to 76-86. Their 2017 lineup lost credibility without Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, and nobody would blame general manager Ross Atkins for shopping Josh Donaldson before his contract expires next winter.

    He instead has tried to reset with some small-scale rearrangements. Curtis Granderson hit .212 last year and turned 37 this month, but he still accrued 26 home runs with a .775 OPS and 2.1 WAR. The left-handed-batting veteran will make a perfect platoon partner for Steve Pearce, a career .261/.345/.491 hitter against southpaws.

    The Blue Jays added power with Randal Grichuk, a free-swinging pull hitter perfectly suited to deliver 30-plus homers while playing half of his games inside the Rogers Centre. Addressing Troy Tulowitzki's and Devon Travis' poor health histories, they insured their infield with Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte.

    There's enough pop to make their lineup interesting around Donaldson and 2017 breakout Justin Smoak, but starting pitching separates them from the pack. Over the last three seasons, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada have each posted an ERA below 4.00. Aaron Sanchez, whose 3.00 ERA led the AL in 2016, looks to recover from a blister that sabotaged his encore attempt. Some of their competitors likely wouldn't mind plugging Jaime Garcia into the fifth slot.

    The race for the AL's second wild-card spot is once again a crowded affair with no clear favorite. Led by a solid offense and top-10 rotation, the Blue Jays sneak ahead of the pack with 86-89 wins.

    Playoff Boom or Bust: Boom


    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.


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