Top lineup, rotation and 'pen sleepers for 2018

February 28th, 2018

When the Yankees added to what was already the second-most productive offense in baseball last season, we breathlessly began wondering if they'll set a new team home run record in 2018.
When the Astros traded for and the Cubs signed , it was pretty obvious those clubs would take resplendent rotations into Spring Training camp.
And when the Rockies committed a combined $106 million to , and Jake McGee, their attempts to build a super bullpen weren't especially subtle.
But some team's strengths sneak up on you. And it is in that spirit that we submit here one lineup, rotation and bullpen that we probably haven't given enough love in the lead up to Opening Day.
:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::
A's lineup
The A's left 2017 with a very different lineup than the one they took into the season, and while one of the changes involved the departure of their All-Star first baseman , the overall effect was a clear net positive. After averaging 4.29 runs per game before the All-Star break (12th in the American League), they averaged 4.89 runs after the break (fifth in the AL).
For one, Alonso was replaced by rookie , whose 24 homers and 1.003 OPS in just 216 plate appearances would have gotten a lot more attention if, you know, it didn't happen in Oakland. Don't count on Olson -- or any human -- to maintain that .721 slugging percentage, and much of the A's outlook might rely on how steep his regression really is. But Steamer projects Olson to a very-respectable 116 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) for 2018 (for reference, averaged a 118 wRC+ over the past three years and got a three-year, $60 million contract out of it).

The A's other rousing rookie from 2017 was third baseman , whose defense at the hot corner is a plus and who slugged .516 after returning from a left knee injury in July. The A's could get 60-70 homers from their corner infielders this year, which is a pretty good start, and that's before you include the power output of my All-Underrated Team's designated hitter (128 wRC+ last year) or outfielder Matt Joyce (116 wRC+). An X-factor is trade acquisition , who is only one season removed from a respectable .273/.343/.457 slash line with the Cardinals and will hopefully be, at the very least, in a more manageable situation now that he's closer to his ALS-stricken mother.
Oakland hit the fourth-most homers (234) in the AL last year, and there's reason to believe the A's can build off that total in 2018.
Blue Jays' rotation
This is actually pretty simple: If avoids the blister issues (or, obviously, any other major injury issues) that plagued him in 2017, I believe the Blue Jays can have one of the best rotations in baseball, and perhaps the best in the AL East.
If not, well, never mind.
Sanchez rates as a pretty big "if," considering the blister issue limited him to just 36 innings in 2017. But his absence made it deceptively easy for the casual fan to forget just how good this dude was in '16 (142 ERA+), when he finished seventh in the AL Cy Young Award voting. If he can remotely approximate that season and if can approximate his '17 season (149 ERA+), you've got a dramatic one-two punch atop Toronto's rotation (obviously this scenario involves Stroman's new bout with shoulder inflammation not becoming a major concern).

Beyond that, the Blue Jays have J.A. Happ (130 ERA+) and (92 ERA+ in 2017 but a 127 mark over 2015-16) returning, with added as an affordable innings eater in the No. 5 spot. Erstwhile reliever is a nice depth option who might begin the season getting stretched out as a starter at Triple-A Buffalo.
Toronto had the best starters' ERA in 2016 with much of the same cast (just replace R.A. Dickey and his 96 ERA+ with Garcia's expected impact this year), so it's not crazy to think it can rise up the ranks again. For now, FanGraphs projects the Blue Jays to be basically a middle-of-the-pack rotation, in terms of WAR, ranking 13th overall. That's with Sanchez at 1.9 WAR -- an understandably modest projection.
But again, if Sanchez more closely resembles his 2016 self (3.8 fWAR), the Blue Jays are dangerous.

Cardinals' bullpen
Wait, shouldn't we be using this space to advocate for the Cardinals to fork over big bucks for Greg Holland?
Well, maybe not.
FanGraphs projects the Cardinals' relief crew to have the eighth-best WAR tally in baseball this season -- a projection that likely comes as a surprise to all those Cards fans fretting over the current concoction of the bullpen. The fan angst is reasonable in light of the fact that the 'pen was not exactly a team strength in 2017 and St. Louis generally abstained from the top end of the relief market this offseason. Even manager Mike Matheny argued about the value of a "proven closer" over the offseason, and the Cardinals' most notable offseason acquisition -- Luke Gregerson -- might not qualify, considering he lost his job as the Astros' closer two months into '16.

The Cardinals, though, landed an attractive assest in 26-year-old right-hander , the trade acquisition who posted a 2.56 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 70 1/3 innings with Toronto last year. They also signed starter , whose arrival had the effect of ensuring (who has a 3.09 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 102 relief innings over the past two years) will remain in the bullpen mix as opposed to being stretched out as a starter. If , who had a mediocre first season with St. Louis, can become the hell-on-lefties weapon he was with Toronto for the better part of 2013-16 and if can post an '18 more reflective of his first half of '17 (2.23 ERA, .492 opponents' OPS) than his second (7.01, .874), the Cards will be just fine.
It's also notable that they've got the underrated strength that is an "optionable bullpen," meaning they have a fair number of arms (such as , , , and ) with Minor League options, allowing for the mixing and matching it often takes to survive a 162-game schedule. And of course, if returns from Tommy John surgery as a reliever, not a starter, there's a potentially big dose of upside.
The Cardinals are projected to get 3.6 WAR out of Gregerson, Cecil, Lyons and Leone, and they have a lot of recent organizational history of discovering closing options as seasons evolve. So holding off on Holland (or a trade candidate like Alex Colome) is defensible.
Team building
If you make a team out of the A's position-player group (17.8 projected WAR), the Blue Jays' starting group (13.6) and the Cardinals' relief group (4.0), you get the eighth-highest total projected WAR in baseball. We're October-bound, baby!