GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It was a rite of spring when some members of the Reds gathered at a table in the center of their clubhouse here Thursday, mere minutes before the opening tip of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and drew team names out of a hat for their player
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It was a rite of spring when some members of the Reds gathered at a table in the center of their clubhouse here Thursday, mere minutes before the opening tip of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and drew team names out of a hat for their player pool. Each selection drew either a cheer or a groan, the celebration of landing a favorite or the frustration of having plopped down a few bucks only to get stuck with a stinker.
"Thanks for the donation" was a common refrain when a player would get a bad draw. But as we know, March Madness is often stock full of surprises, and maybe somebody lamenting their pool pick today will be relishing it by tournament's end.
It's a bit like that in baseball, too. The Wild Card era, in particular, has brought us many satisfying sleepers-turned-Cinderellas. While it's way too early to provide any picks to click within baseball's October "tournament," here are some regular-season scenarios that would kind of have the feel of 16 seeds upsetting No. 1s.
* For the record, these are not predictions, because while I have been known to eat crackers past their "best by" date, I'm nowhere brave enough to actually predict any of what's to follow. These are just scenarios perhaps more conceivable than they're given credit for.
The Twins overtake the Indians in the AL Central
When you beat a team by 17 games -- and that team is a playoff team -- you've had a pretty good season. So it was for the 102-win Indians in 2017, and they are a natural pick to win their third consecutive American League Central crown this season. FanGraphs projects the Tribe to win the Central with an 11-game edge on the Twins this year (93 wins for Cleveland, 82 for Minnesota).
The Indians, though, might have a bit more vulnerability this year than last, primarily because of the free-agent departures in their bullpen (Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith) but also because of the starting depth questions that would arise should Danny Salazar's current shoulder inflammation continue to hamper him and Ryan Merritt, who is out of options, leave the organization on a waiver claim this spring (the Tribe might put Merritt in the bullpen to avoid losing him, but that's far from guaranteed). It goes without saying that key injuries would affect a club's outlook, but the Indians used a Major League-low seven starters last season and got a higher percentage of innings pitched from their rotation than any club in baseball, so they might be due for some regression. They're definitely due for some regression from an all-time high in FanGraphs WAR from their pitching staff, they won't be winning 22 straight again and it remains to be seen if they'll take on dollars or part with prospects again midseason after splurging on Jay Bruce last year and falling flat in the first round.
The Twins, meanwhile, have had made an interesting series of moves in recent weeks (adding Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison and Jake Odorizzi) after replenishing their bullpen with Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney over the offseason. They've improved the stability of their starting staff and have some interesting depth pieces in Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero. Above all else, they've got a roster loaded with confident kids who won together in the Minors and mesh and mash (Minnesota scored more runs per game than any club in the second half last season) well.
"They were bludgeoning the ball at times [last year]," Tribe manager Terry Francona said. "They were hard to [match up with]. They had switch-hitters. They had speed. It was so impressive. They held their offense for the second half of the year. So, if they get some pitching, they get hard to play. And you can tell by the number of comeback and walk-off wins that they play nine innings. They don't quit playing."
The A's overtake the Angels and others in the Wild Card race
Discussing the A's as a serious threat to climb past the defending champs in the AL West feels like (more than) a step too far. But the understandable narrative in the AL West is that a much-improved Angels team has placed itself in the Wild Card conversation with its aggressive offseason moves. If the Halos enter the playoff picture, it would be hard to say they caught anybody off guard.
It would be easier to say that about an Oakland elevation. Hardly anybody paid attention to a club that averaged 4.89 runs per game after the All-Star break last season. Matt Olson (.721 slugging percentage in 216 plate appearances) was basically Rhys Hoskins with far less fanfare, and Matt Chapman (.516 slugging percentage after a July return from a knee injury) was excellent, as well. Those two guys and Khris Davis could combine for 100 homers in 2018, and Stephen Piscotty could be an impact trade acquisition.
Pair that potential power with what look to be some wily additions to the bullpen (Emilio Pagan, Ryan Buchter and Yusmeiro Petit all ranked in the top-37 in expected weighted on-base average last year), and you've got something interesting brewing. The make-or-break element of this team will be a very young and very unproven rotation, though perhaps the addition of respected veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy will help the assemblage of arms reach their potential.
FanGraphs pegs the A's for a five-win improvement, from 75 to 80, this year. That wouldn't be good enough to reach October, but the projections don't account for the impact these sharp new Kelly green alternate jerseys will provide:
The Phillies or Braves win an NL Wild Card spot
As with Oakland, discussing either of these clubs as realistic candidates to take down the Nationals feels overly ambitious, even in as optimistic an environment as Spring Training. And in the wake of the Jacob Arrieta signing, it's a lot less bold to discuss the Phillies' Wild Card chances than it was just a week ago.
But don't lose sight of what a dramatic upgrade that would be for Philadelphia. The Phillies won just 66 games last year and are projected to win 75 -- a substantial improvement but not enough to go Wild. Hoskins was amazing, but Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera were the only Phils to accrue at least 400 at-bats and post an OPS+ above league average. Aaron Nola showed breakout potential, but he was the only starter with an ERA+ above league average. The club underperformed its run differential by six wins.
A full season of Hoskins plus Carlos Santana plus Arrieta plus Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen starts to change the look a lot, and the Phillies might have an impact rookie if Scott Kingery comes as advertised in-season. Things would really get interesting if they splurged on Alex Cobb on what is currently an industry standard one-year deal.
Atlanta hasn't had anywhere near as engaging an offseason as Philadelphia has, but the Braves are also working off a better base of both 2017 wins (72) and, arguably, proven commodities (Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Ender Inciarte). Beware the incoming "ifs," but ifRonald Acuna Jr. comes as advertised, Dansby Swanson figures it out, Ozzie Albies builds on last year's exciting small sample and the load of young arms materialize, the Braves could make a 2017 Brewer-like surge ahead of schedule.
The Blue Jays win more games than either the Yankees or Red Sox
This would definitely qualify as an AL East upset special, because nobody seems to be expecting much out of the non-Boston and non-Bronx portion of the East program. The Blue Jays don't have the depth -- and, ergo, wiggle room -- of those two behemoths (though they are high on outfield prospect Anthony Alford right now), but that doesn't mean we should totally dismiss their playoff chances.
Scouts are raving about what they've seen from Aaron Sanchez this spring. He's just a season removed from getting AL Cy Young Award votes with a 142 ERA+ before the blister issues basically robbed him of a 2017, but Toronto currently appears to have corralled that frustrating finger issue. If Marcus Stroman comes back strong from shoulder inflammation, that's a dynamic one-two punch atop an underrated rotation.
OK, you probably noticed that "if," too. Hard not to. The Blue Jays have a lot of them, as Stroman, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Randal Grichuk have all encountered a variety of ailments already this spring. Toronto can't afford a run of poor health. Nor can it afford a slow start, because that could set the Donaldson trade talks in motion.
But the Blue Jays project to have the fifth-most productive offense in the Majors, per FanGraphs. If their rotation gets back to the level attained in 2016 (best starters' ERA in the AL, with basically the same cast), they've definitely got a pulse. If Giancarlo Stanton and/or J.D. Martinez, both of whom have dealt with their fair share of injuries, were to miss significant time, that certainly wouldn't hurt Toronto's cause.
The Cardinals or Brewers overtake the Cubs in the NL Central
If you want to go chalk, you go Cubs. Same as last year. The Cardinals added a big bat in Marcell Ozuna this offseason, and the Brewers elevated their outfield with Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. They will each get their share of Wild Card predictions, but it's hard to imagine anybody other than a hot-take artist picking those clubs to edge the Cubs, whose addition of Yu Darvish cemented their status as prohibitive favorites.
If you're rooting for the favorite to falter here, your best hope is that the Cubs' bullpen falls apart. It was a wild bunch last year (third-most walks per nine of any relief corps), and just because the Cubs addressed the 'pen doesn't necessarily mean they addressed it effectively (new closer Brandon Morrow famously pitched every game of the World Series, which could be a hangover waiting to happen).
Your guess is as good as mine how good the Cards and Brew Crew really are. But looking beyond the offseason acquisitions, the Cardinals have a lot of upside in their rotation, and their bullpen might be stronger than people think. The Brewers have as cohesive a clubhouse as any team in the game and a ton of talent in their system, which could help them build off last year's momentum. So maybe the Cinderella slipper rests in the Central.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.