Last year, the Astros won 101 games and their first World Series. They beat the second-place Angels by 21 games in the American League West, thanks in large part to one of the best offenses of all time, and now they're headed into 2018 with Gerrit Cole, Joe Smith, Hector Rondon, and a full season of Justin Verlander. They return every meaningful member of the 2017 roster except for Mike Fiers (who had a 5.22 ERA), and Carlos Beltran (who hit only .231/.283/.383 before retiring), as well as relievers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, who were traded for Cole.
There's a pretty strong argument that 2017's champions have made themselves a whole lot stronger this winter, and so it's something like the least surprising thing in the world that a month before camps open, they're very easily No. 1 in the current 2018 projected standings.
But how good are the Astros? Is anyone even on their level? Yes. And no.
Where do these numbers come from? It's a combination of the respected Steamer projection system and depth chart projections from FanGraphs. And why are they projecting slightly fewer wins for Houston? Because expecting 100 wins is a little like expecting Giancarlo Stanton to hit 59 homers: Sure, it can happen if everything goes right, but you probably wouldn't bet on it.
Projections, obviously, aren't perfect. They can't know about unexpected injuries, and no one can predict breakouts quite like Aaron Judge or Chris Taylor. But overall, they do a strong job; last year, they predicted all six division champs, and they accurately predicted the at-the-time-controversial claim that the Dodgers would outperform the defending-champion Cubs.
Right now, the projections show that there's seven teams with the talent to win 90 or more games. That sounds about right. After all, in 2017 there were eight teams to win 90 or more; in 2016, there were six; in 2015, there were seven. Again, it won't happen exactly like this; injuries, trades, breakouts, and good or poor fortune in clutch situations can affect all of this. We're simply talking about expected talent levels as of right now.
So, how close are these top seven teams? What's the best move they could still make? Due to the slow pace of the offseason, we know that there's many more free-agent signings to come.
1) Astros, 98 wins
Video: Jeff Luhnow on what to expect from Gerrit Cole
In addition to everything we talked about above, remember that Carlos Correa missed six weeks with a thumb injury and Alex Bregman's monster second half (.315/.367/.536, a 141 wRC+, after a decent .256/.338/.419, 105 wRC+ first half) may have suggested a breakout to come. Sure, a player like Marwin Gonzalez probably isn't going to repeat his unexpected career year, but this team has basically everything.
Best remaining upgrade: 1B/DH Lucas Duda (+2 projected WAR)
Evan Gattis is expected to be the primary DH, with Yuli Gurriel again at first, and both are perfectly fine in those spots. But they're each over 30 and right-handed, in a righty-leaning Houston lineup. A short deal for the underrated lefty Duda, who has hit exactly like Eric Hosmer over the last three years, could add valuable insurance.
2) Dodgers, 94 wins
Video: Seager to lead young Dodgers in 2018
The Dodgers have been very quiet this winter, only adding relievers Scott Alexander and Tom Koehler and swapping some contracts with Atlanta to (temporarily, most likely) bring Matt Kemp back to town. Surely that will change, but it's easy to see why they don't feel urgency. This is a team that's already won five straight division titles, and has a quintet of stars (Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger) that's the envy of any team -- along with considerable depth.
Best remaining upgrade: SP Yu Darvish (+4 projected WAR)
Last year's World Series troubles aside, Darvish was strong for the Dodgers down the stretch, and also in his first two playoff games (14/1 K/BB, two earned runs). For all the talent the Dodgers have, the projected rotation of Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu isn't known for durability. Another high-end arm would be welcome.
3) Indians, 93 wins
Video: Yonder Alonso talks joining the Indians
Cleveland swapped out Carlos Santana for Yonder Alonso and reportedly will shift Jason Kipnis back to second (and Jose Ramirez back to third), but otherwise returns most of one of baseball's most talented rosters. You remember that they won 22 straight games, right?
Best remaining upgrade: CF Lorenzo Cain (+3 projected WAR)
With Jay Bruce returning to the Mets, the Cleveland outfield has plenty of questions. Michael Brantley is always battling injuries, and Bradley Zimmer showed equal amounts of talent and inconsistency as a rookie. Right now, none of the top four outfielders (including Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer) are dependable everyday players. Why not add Cain, who would be an upgrade on both sides of the ball?
4) Cubs, 92 wins
Video: Cubs looking to round out final starting rotation
The Cubs have made some quiet moves, adding starter Tyler Chatwood and relievers Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. (Plus, obviously, they still have Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and Jose Quintana and Jon Lester and so much more.) But Lester is coming off a down year, and Jake Arrieta is a free agent, and there are not any ready-now starters in the system, which means ...
Best remaining upgrade: SP Darvish (+4 projected WAR)
... the best available free-agent starter would be the best fit here, too.
5) [tie] Yankees, 91 wins
Video: How will Judge, Stanton play together in 2018?
The Yankees made their big splash when they traded for Stanton, and they have what's expected to be baseball's best bullpen. (Perhaps ever.) But they still have holes in the infield, where second base and third base combine to project for only 2 WAR, with some combination of Ronald Torreyes, Tyler Wade and prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar.
Best remaining upgrade: 2B Neil Walker (+2 projected WAR)
The switch-hitting Walker has been an average or better hitter every year of his career, and he played first and third as well as second in 2017, important versatility for a team also counting on talented but unproven Greg Bird at first base.
5) [tie] Red Sox, 91 wins
Video: Heyman on Martinez, Red Sox playing 'waiting game'
Since it was the Yankees who made it to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, it's easy to forget that it was the Red Sox who actually won the AL East last year. In 2018, they're counting on a full season of Rafael Devers, as well as hoped-for improvements from Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. They could probably use another starter, but it's long been obvious they need a bat -- and we all know which one.
Best remaining upgrade: OF/DH J.D. Martinez (+3 projected WAR)
The signing of Mitch Moreland likely took the Sox out of the Hosmer market, and adding the best power bat on the market (especially if he primarily plays DH, pushing Hanley Ramirez into a job share at first base) would help revive a disappointing 2017 offense.
5) [tie] Nationals, 91 wins
Video: Nationals' rotation deep in fifth-starter options
Washington made minor moves for Matt Adams and Brandon Kintzler, but the best thing the Nats could possibly see in 2018 are full, healthy seasons from Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton. Otherwise, this is a team loaded with stars, including Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner.
Best remaining upgrade: C Jonathan Lucroy (+2 projected WAR)
The Nationals return Matt Wieters, last season's starter behind the plate, but he's not coming off a strong season (.225/.288/.344, a 62 wRC+), and he hasn't had a year of at least 300 plate appearances in which he's been a league-average hitter since 2012. Lucroy has been up and down himself, but he was above-average as recently as 2016, and he would represent a big boost at catcher.
Now: What about the Cardinals or Angels -- each projected at 88 wins after offseason upgrades for players such as Marcell Ozuna (St. Louis), Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, and Zack Cozart (Los Angeles) ? Or 2017 Wild Card teams such as the Rockies, D-backs, and Twins? You can almost guarantee at least one will get into the postseason in 2018. After all, the projections are very good. They're just not perfect -- and there's so many more offseason moves yet to come.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.