These 5 teams could surge up standings in '19
The turnaround team is a backbone of baseball, and that was certainly true in a 2018 season in which two sub-.500 squads from a year earlier (the Braves and A's) surprisingly reached the postseason, while a third (the Rays) was far more competitive than predicted.
Of the 14 teams that finished under .500 in 2018, these are the five most likely to turn things around in 2019 -- if (and only if) they get it right in this Hot Stove season.
2018 record: 80-82
Current 2019 projection (via FanGraphs): 78-84
The Phillies only qualify for this list because of an epic fade. They were 10 games over .500 going into September. Ten! And then, well ... let's not revisit that.
We've already seen the quotes in USA Today from Phillies owner John Middleton that this club might do some "stupid" spending this winter. They'll be bidders on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. If you add either one of those guys, that might be enough, based on the above projection, to make this a winning ballclub.
But to be a true contender in 2019, the Phillies need improvement at multiple positions, including their need for better production from young players like Scott Kingery, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Maikel Franco (depending on who's still getting at-bats once the free-agent and trade dust settles). The club would obviously benefit from -- and is indeed in search of -- another stabilizing arm in the rotation and a high-end bullpen piece.
• Morning Lineup Podcast: Teams on the rise in 2019
2018 record: 80-82
Current 2019 projection (via FanGraphs): 85-77
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Angels need to get some help for Michael Trout. The fact that Shohei Ohtani won't be available to pitch for the entirety of 2019 isn't helping matters, and this is a top-heavy roster that, as a result of certain contractual commitments, is not likely to make significant changes to the position-player group, with the exception of the catching position.
The Angels can and should do something about their pitching, though. After a rash of elbow injuries that felled not only Ohtani but Garrett Richards, Keynan Middleton, Blake Wood, John Lamb and JC Ramirez, perhaps they're due for some better luck. And there might be some upside in Andrew Heaney's second season post-Tommy John and Jaime Barria's second season, period. But that won't stop the Halos from pursuing options for their rotation and bullpen. Because of the specter of Trout's post-2020 free agency, however, they'll have to operate responsibly.
2018 record: 78-84
Current 2019 projection (via FanGraphs): 79-83
Maybe the White Sox should be the American League Central club listed here, considering all the hubbub about them being ready to spend. But they lost 98 games and their No. 1 pitching prospect (Michael Kopech) in 2018. Fixing everything overnight in free agency is a pretty tall task.
The Twins obviously need a more modest turnaround to get back over the .500 hump and perhaps into the AL Wild Card fray, and they have some newfound financial freedom that could work in their favor. Joe Mauer, James Dozier, Ervin Santana, Lance Lynn, Phil Hughes and Logan Morrison made a combined $76.2 million in 2018 while providing a combined 1.5 Wins Above Replacement to the Twins. That's ... not good.
With so much money off the books this winter (the most money any team cleared, in fact) and with zero financial commitments beyond 2019, the Twins are in a sneaky good spot to spend this offseason. They're going to make the bullpen an area of emphasis, and they're a potential landing spot for an impact DH like Nelson Cruz. Oh, and Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano could finally put it all together (we say this every year, just in case).
2018 record: 77-85
Current 2019 projection (via FanGraphs): 82-80
The Mets' 2018 hopes were built on the house of cards that is their talented-but-bedeviled rotation. Sure enough, Noah Syndergaard missed a month and a half with a finger injury, Matt Harvey was dealt to the Reds and Jacob deGrom's historic run-prevention largely went to waste. Meanwhile, the offseason efforts the Mets had made to support that group (namely, bringing back Jay Bruce and signing Todd Frazier and Adrian Gonzalez) were net negatives, and Yoenis Cespedes missed the bulk of the year.
We know better than to expect the Mets to wow us on the free-agent front this offseason (even though they're free of financial commitments beyond 2020), but a rotation fronted by deGrom and Syndergaard (with Zack Wheeler having seemingly figured some things out in a sensational second half) will continue to inspire a basis of belief.
From there, it's all about what agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen can do to improve a club that, encouragingly, went 38-30 after the All-Star break in 2018. Maybe that means moving Syndergaard in a blockbuster deal that weakens the rotation, but strengthens the overall team.
2018 record: 67-95
Current 2019 projection (via FanGraphs): 75-87
Maybe the Padres, who finished one game better than the Reds in 2018 and are projected to finish two games better in '19, will make a major foray in free agency or trade. Maybe the Blue Jays, who went 73-89 last year, get a huge boost from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and bounce-back seasons on their pitching staff (though they won't be spending much). Maybe I'm missing something I haven't even mentioned (this feels very likely).
But a Reds infield featuring Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez gives them the backbone for a solid offense, especially if they find a position for Nick Senzel, ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect by MLB Pipeline, and he turns out to be what we think he can be. And the Reds enter this offseason intent on propping up their pitching staff.
Though the Reds have to work around Votto's contract and the unfavorable Homer Bailey contract, they've got room to pad their payroll, and they also have the prospect depth to pull off an impact trade. There's also reason to suspect they will get more from the young arms of Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle than they did in 2018. So while I don't think top-end free-agent pitchers will be lining up to play in Great American Ball Park for an iffy team, the Reds do have potential for serious improvement.