It’s tough to predict much of anything in baseball, but some forecasts are much murkier than others.
Heading into 2019, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which teams such as the Astros, Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees are not in the postseason mix. On the other hand, clubs such as the Marlins and Orioles are in full rebuilding mode.
In the middle, there is plenty of gray area. The teams in this range could experience a particularly wide range of outcomes, depending on their health, how their young players develop and how their older ones age.
Here is a look at the six most volatile teams in MLB -- one for each division.
American League East: Tampa Bay Rays
If the Yankees and division-champion Red Sox remain on top, with the Orioles in the basement, what happens in between? The Blue Jays have some upside thanks to their prospect crop, led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. But the Rays are the natural pick here, after jumping from 68 to 80 to 90 wins over the past three seasons.
Tampa Bay certainly has the potential to build on that 2018 success, but there aren’t many sure things on the roster. Of the 11 hitters with at least 200 plate appearances for last year’s Rays, six are now gone. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell could be hard pressed to repeat his 1.89 ERA, and the pitching staff once again will be a continuous science experiment (featuring the opener). Despite those question marks, Tampa Bay has enough intriguing prospects and players with upside (Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham) to take another step forward.
Best-case scenario: All of the moving parts come together, and they claim a postseason berth while challenging the division’s behemoths.
Worst-case scenario: Injuries strike a couple of key players (Pham, Charlie Morton), and the lack of a stable rotation burns them en route to a sub-.500 finish.
AL Central: Cleveland Indians
A quick look at the projections suggests Tribe fans have nothing to worry about. Steamer pegs the club for 92 wins and a 10-game cushion over the Twins, while PECOTA is even more optimistic (96 wins, 14-game cushion). But a lot of that is tied up in a small group of stars. Going by wins above replacement, Cleveland has two of the game’s top four position players (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez), as well as three of its top eight pitchers, and five of the top 35 (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber).
This is a top-heavy roster, and not much was done this offseason to bolster it, with the outfield and bullpen looking like potential problem areas. Much will hinge on the Indians’ stars continuing to perform like stars, and one or two serious injuries could become a massive problem. Lindor’s calf strain, while not projected to keep him out long, hints at that weakness.
Best-case scenario: The rotation stays healthy and dominates, Lindor comes back strong to form half of a dynamic one-two punch with Ramirez and Cleveland takes advantage of its division to win the most games in the AL.
Worst-case scenario: The upstart Twins leapfrog a club with too much time on the injured list, too little depth and a leaky bullpen.
AL West: Oakland Athletics
Volatility is nothing new for Bob Melvin’s club, and not just because of an ever-shifting roster. Over the past seven seasons, the A’s have experienced a 20-game change in the standings three times -- in 2012 (74 to 94 wins), ‘15 (88 to 68), and ‘18 (75 to 97). While last year’s A’s clearly had potential, nobody would have predicted such a stellar performance from a club whose pitching injuries led to Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Mike Fiers and Edwin Jackson making 63 starts.
It’s hard to know what to make of the 2019 A’s. A group of position players that ranked second in MLB in WAR last year is mostly back -- though Jurickson Profar replaces Jed Lowrie -- and it could be exciting to see more from the likes of Ramon Laureano and Franklin Barreto.
Most notably, the rotation looks like it could be a patchwork affair again, but top prospect Jesus Luzardo looms as a potential difference maker.
Best-case scenario: The lineup keeps raking and Luzardo helps lead a healthier rotation to a 2018 repeat.
Worst-case scenario: The pitching runs into more problems, the A’s can’t save it with another trip to the bargain bin and there’s a 20-game swing again -- this time in the wrong direction.
National League East: Washington Nationals
It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride in D.C. since the Nats won their first division title. The 2012, ‘14, ‘16 and ‘17 clubs all won at least 95 games and finished atop the National League East. In ‘13, ‘15 and ‘18, the Nats disappointed amid high expectations, with last year’s club finishing 82-80 under first-year manager Dave Martinez. Can Washington bounce back again in ‘19?
Yes, Bryce Harper is gone. But the Nats have another high-priced arm (Patrick Corbin), a new catching tandem (Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki), an exciting rookie outfielder (Victor Robles) and an accomplished second baseman (Brian Dozier). It’s a team with a lot of talent but a lot of questions, even aside from the skipper. Key players such as Adam Eaton, Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle have checkered injury histories, and the level of pitching depth is hardly ideal.
Best-case scenario: Corbin authors a worthy followup to his 2018 breakout, Robles gives the Nats another Rookie of the Year Award candidate and the club rides good health back to NL East supremacy.
Worst-case scenario: Injury problems resurface, especially on the pitching side, and the Nats’ plans to replace Harper go haywire, as the club winds up fourth in a strong division.
NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers
The projections speak to both Milwaukee’s volatility and the quality of the division competition. A year after the Brew Crew won 96 games -- the last a tiebreaker over the Cubs for the NL Central crown -- Steamer has them falling to 83 and third place. PECOTA, on the other hand, sees 88 victories and a two-game edge over the Cardinals.
The biggest question is a starting rotation short with options and little certainty. If Jimmy Nelson returns to his 2017 form after missing all of '18, that would go a long way for a group that also has some exciting young arms, such as Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff. There is also the fact that last year’s Brewers got not only an MVP campaign from Christian Yelich, but also a breakout from Jesus Aguilar and huge seasons by Lorenzo Cain and Josh Hader. Even if those players are productive again, matching those numbers will be tough.
Best-case scenario: Nelson and the young arms lead a solid pitching staff, and the signings of Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal help offset dropoffs elsewhere, as Milwaukee repeats.
Worst-case scenario: With last year’s stars taking steps back and the young pitching not progressing as hoped, the Cardinals and Cubs leave the Brewers behind.
NL West: San Diego Padres
San Diego has been extremely consistent in recent years -- but not in a good way. Since the club won 90 games in 2011, it has finished with between 66 and 77 victories in seven straight seasons. But that could be about to change, and not just because Manny Machado came to town.
The Padres also boast a plethora of premium prospects, giving them MLB’s top-ranked farm system. With several young promising players who already have cracked the Majors (such as slugger Franmil Reyes) and several more prospects knocking on the door (most notably pitcher Chris Paddack and shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.), the Padres are as loaded with upside as any team. The only question is whether that upside shows itself in 2019.
Best-case scenario: The kids develop ahead of schedule, combining with Machado and a rebounding Eric Hosmer to get the Padres back over .500 and into the Wild Card hunt.
Worst-case scenario: It’s a year of growing pains, particularly in an overmatched starting rotation, and San Diego surpasses the 90-loss mark again.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.