If you go up to any general manager in baseball and ask, "What is your hope for 2018?" he will inevitably respond, "Stay healthy." That's always the grandest hope of GMs, because it is the one thing that they have so little control over.
A healthy year is often a magical one. Take the 2005 White Sox, for example. Nobody saw them coming. They had been a .500 or so team for years, they were relying on a lot of veterans and it did not seem like a winning mix.
But all those veterans stayed healthy. Five starting pitchers made 24 or more starts -- and the White Sox used only six starting pitchers all year. The lineup wasn't great, but it stayed intact, and Chicago bashed 200 home runs. The White Sox won 99 games, largely because of their mind-boggling 35-19 record in one-run games. They rolled through the playoffs and swept the World Series.
This is what can happen when a team stays healthy. So that's the first hope. Beyond that, though, each team has a silent hope for something to happen -- for a certain player to develop or bounce back after a rough year, for a good player to become great, for a new pitch or a new swing plane to alter someone's performance. Opening Day is here, and if each team could have its one silent hope come true, it might look a bit like this.
American League East
Blue Jays:Josh Donaldsonplays a full year and is again one of the best players in baseball
Toronto's pitching has a chance to be pretty good, but the lineup has to score runs. The Blue Jays finished 11th in the AL in runs scored last year. Donaldson missed substantial time with injuries, but he was his old self in the second half, posting a .992 OPS with 24 homers after the All-Star break. He's so important to this offense in so many ways.
Orioles: Somebody in the rotation -- anybody in the rotation -- gets outs
This is more of a wide-ranging hope … and it happens every year. The Orioles picked up Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman were once huge prospects. It's too specific to pick just one of them. Baltimore needs something good to happen here.
Rays: Their outfield defense plan helps their pitching staff overperform
The Rays have three center fielders -- well, three players who at one point in their careers excelled as center fielders. Kevin Kiermaier is a defensive savant. Carlos Gomez will play right, and while he has slowed, he was once a Gold Glove center fielder. Denard Span struggled a bit in center last year, but he too was a top-notch center fielder at his best. The hope is those three catch everything. They will need to, as Tampa Bay's pitching staff was hit with more bad injury news on Wednesday with the announcement that Nathan Eovaldi needs surgery and will likely be out for a while.
Red Sox:David Priceregains dominance
Boston's plan was to put together two utterly dominant left-handed starters in Price and Chris Sale and dominate lineups. Sale mostly fulfilled his role in 2017, but Price struggled with injuries. For the Red Sox to counter the Yankees' powerful lineup, they need Price to be at his best.
Yankees:Luis Severinotakes another step forward
The Yankees look pretty close to invulnerable with their powerful lineup and incredible bullpen. If there is a hole anywhere, it is in the rotation, where each starter except Severino has some obvious question mark. However, some wonder how he will respond to a season in which he threw more than 200 innings (including the postseason) after not exceeding 81 in either of his previous two seasons. Severino emerged as an ace in 2017. If he continues that arc, the Yanks will be tough for anyone to beat.
Indians:Yonder Alonsomakes everyone forget aboutCarlos Santana
Cleveland's pitching -- again, assuming health -- should be as good, or better, than any team in the Majors. The question that has jabbed Cleveland fans all offseason: Will the Tribe score enough runs? Alonso found his power stroke in 2017, crushing 28 homers after hitting 39 over seven seasons before that. Cleveland needs him to fill some of the void after Tribe icon Santana signed with Philadelphia.
Royals: A rebound to respectability forAlex Gordon
A lot of hopes have to come true for the Royals to contend in 2018, so let's settle on this one. Gordon is a lifelong Royal. The team brought him back for the largest contract in franchise history after winning the World Series in 2015. He has been dreadful at the plate since signing the deal (.649 OPS over the past two seasons), and it's heartbreaking for everyone involved. It is everyone's hope for Gordon, a class act in all ways, to find some of his previous form at the plate. And now, with the news that Salvador Perez will be out four to six weeks after sustaining a freak knee injury while carrying his luggage, Kansas City needs the old Gordon more than ever.
Tigers:Jordan Zimmermannlooks more like the pitcher he was in Washington
There's no way around it -- Zimmermann has been a disastrous signing for the Tigers. He's on a five-year, $110 million deal that doesn't end until after the 2020 season, and he has basically been a replacement-level pitcher. Zimmermann has never been a strikeout pitcher, but his strikeouts have tumbled since coming to Detroit (5.7 per nine innings over the past two seasons) and his walks have skyrocketed (from 1.7 per nine in 2015 to 2.5 last year).
Twins: Byron Buxton continues to be the player he was in the second half of 2017
From Independence Day to the end of the season, Buxton hit .314/.359/.553 with 12 homers and 15 stolen bases in just 62 games. Add in the absurdly wonderful center-field defense he plays, and that basically projects out to a Michael Trout season. The Twins' greatest hope -- and really, the hope for baseball fans everywhere -- is Buxton does that for a whole season and fulfills the promise that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 Draft.
White Sox: The young pitching begins to arrive in 2018
Most people around the White Sox suspect that this team is still at least a year away from contending, but you can see the pieces coming into place. The White Sox would love for their younger pitchers -- particularly Lucas Giolito and hard-throwing prospect Michael Kopech (the No. 3 right-handed pitching prospect in the Majors per MLB Pipeline) -- to begin to establish themselves as potential stars.
Angels:Garrett Richardsstays healthy and regains his top form
We have tried to avoid health hopes in here because they are ubiquitous in baseball, but this one is real. With Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart joining Trout and Justin Upton, the Angels figure to score a lot of runs in 2018. They obviously hope that rookie Shohei Ohtani makes a huge impact on the mound and at the plate. But realistically, for the Halos to compete, they need a healthy and effective Richards to anchor their starting staff. It has been three years since he has been healthy. Fingers are crossed in Anaheim.
Astros: "Nine misfortunes? I'd like to see that." --Mr. Burns, "The Simpsons"
The Astros are as set as a team can be entering a season. They have a nearly perfect roster with a great rotation, a deep bullpen and one of the best offenses in recent memory. They won it all last year despite injuries to three starters -- Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton -- and superstar shortstop Carlos Correa. They can overcome typical bad luck or even extreme bad luck. It would take Mr. Burns' nine misfortunes to really turn Houston.
A's: Starting pitchers come into their own
Oakland's offense was decent in 2017, but the pitching staff was a mess. The A's believe in left-hander Sean Manaea and righties Kendall Graveman and Daniel Mengden, all in their mid-20s. The club got brutal news this week when it was discovered that A.J. Puk, the No. 2 left-handed pitching prospect in the Majors per MLB Pipeline, needs Tommy John surgery. But Oakland hopes that it is right about Manaea, Graveman and Mengden. If the A's are right, they could surprise and take big steps forward.
Mariners: Something good for King Felix
It's hard to know if the Mariners believe that Felix Hernandez can be the dominant pitcher he was from 2009-15 -- he received AL Cy Young Award votes every year but one, and he won it in 2010. But at this point, they would love to get even a lesser version of that, a King Felix who gives them 200 innings again. A good Hernandez would make Seattle an interesting team.
Rangers: Someone takes hold of the ninth inning
The Rangers don't really know who will close games in 2018, and it's weighing on them -- even Adrian Beltre has been talking about it this spring. There are candidates galore, beginning with last year's closers, Alex Claudio and Matt Bush. Keone Kela has strikeout stuff and seems to project nicely as a closer. Newly acquired veteran Timothy Lincecum has some people dreaming when he overcomes his blister issues. Closer controversies tend to create a lot of tension, and Texas doesn't want that.
National League East
Braves:Ronald Acuna Jr.is the player he showed himself to be in Spring Training
There are numerous small hopes for the Braves that could make them surprisingly competitive in 2018, but I would imagine everyone is focused on the big hope: That Acuna -- MLB Pipeline's No. 2 overall prospect -- is an impact superstar right away. His .432/.519/.727 line in spring, along with four stolen bases, shows the promise. Acuna will begin the year at Triple-A Gwinnett, but the 20-year-old outfielder may make his Major League debut as soon as April 14, which is the earliest date Atlanta can add him to its roster and secure an extra season of contract control. Add a player like this to a team with numerous other young talents, and magic can happen.
Marlins: Lewis Brinson wins NL Rookie of the Year
The 23-year-old Fort Lauderdale native is the centerpiece of Miami's rebuild, the best player Derek Jeter got back when he traded away the Marlins' 2017 starting outfield, plus their leadoff hitter. Brinson, MLB Pipeline's No. 27 prospect, has All-Star potential and 20-20 ability -- perhaps as soon as this year.
Mets:Noah Syndergaardstays healthy and dominant all year
The original hope here was for the entire Mets rotation to stay healthy for once, but maybe we should keep the hopes realistic. If Syndergaard is healthy, he will be dominant. If he's dominant for an entire season, he's an NL Cy Young Award candidate and can make the Mets playoff contenders. If the Mets are playoff contenders … well, you can follow the path. Syndergaard is where the Mets' hopes begin.
Nationals:Bryce Harperstays healthy and dominant all year
Yes, another health hope -- but I think this one is true not just in Washington, but for baseball fans everywhere. There's really no telling what Harper can do if he's healthy for a full season. We saw it in 2015, and he put up one of the greatest offensive years in memory. With Harper -- who is set to be a free agent next offseason -- you get the feeling that he has something even greater in him. The Nationals can spread their hopes around, they are that good. But wouldn't we all want to see a healthy Harper?
Phillies: ForScott Kingeryto live up to the promise
Kingery has not played an inning in the big leagues, but he's already locked up for six years -- that's how much faith the Phillies have in him. He looks like a tremendous talent, and he's someone who can play multiple positions, so if he can deliver as a hitter and fielder, he could be extremely valuable to a young team looking to surprise.
Brewers:Jimmy Nelsonreturns on time and is a force again
The right-hander sustained a torn labrum back in September as a baserunner, and the Brewers do not expect him back until June. But they hope that when he does return, he will not miss a beat. Nelson was great in 2017, and with him at full strength, Milwaukee likes its rotation and its chances to challenge for the NL Central crown.
Cardinals:Marcell Ozunais the real deal
The Cardinals have not had a true slugger in their lineup since Jose Pujols went to the Angels after the 2011 season. Ozuna had flashed talent before, but last year, he emerged for Miami, hitting .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs. (Fun fact: In 2017, Ozuna had 13 homers of 430-plus feet, as measured by Statcast™, while the Cards had 14.) St. Louis will take that season again, thank you very much, to go along with a repeat year from fellow '17 breakout outfielder Tommy Pham.
Cubs: The bullpen comes together
The way president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Co. built the Cubs, forming the pitching staff will be a constant, yearly challenge. The Cubs will go with Brandon Morrow as their closer -- their fourth closer over the past three years -- and again count on Pedro Strop, C.J. Edwards and Brian Duensing to hold down the fort in the late innings and perhaps make a midseason trade if needed, like when they acquired Albertin Chapman in July 2016, before winning the World Series that fall.
Pirates: A big jump for starterJameson Taillon
Taillon has overcome more than most in his career -- Tommy John surgery, testicular cancer surgery, hernia surgery -- and now he's healthy and the most promising ace candidate in the rotation. He has good stuff, but was hit-unlucky in 2017 (.352 BABIP). The Pirates feel confident that this is the year the 26-year-old establishes himself. Nobody on the team is more respected.
Reds:Billy Hamiltonfigures out a way to get on base
Hamilton provides such a challenge for a team. He's obviously an extraordinary talent as a defender, and he's a whirlwind on the basepaths. Hamilton is so good on the basepaths that the Reds insist on leading him off. But his lifetime .298 on-base percentage means that Cincinnati gives up a lot of outs by doing that. If Hamilton could even get back to 2016 form, when he had a below-but-somewhat-close-to-average .321 on-base percentage, he can be hugely valuable and potentially be the first player to crack the 80-steal plateau since Rickey Henderson (93 steals) and Vince Coleman (81) did it in 1988.
D-backs: Paul Goldschmidtfinally wins the NL Most Valuable Player Award
Goldschmidt was third in the NL MVP Award balloting last year, and he has finished second two other years. If he's healthy, he will put up MVP numbers. If the D-backs are good, Goldschmidt will have an even better shot at winning the NL MVP Award. So this is a pretty good hope for Arizona, though it remains to be seen how the new humidor will affect offensive stats at Chase Field.
Dodgers: Everyone stays motivated coming off last year's disappointing finish
You can see the steady climb in L.A. Two years ago, the Dodgers lost to the Cubs in an NL Championship Series they think they could have won. Then, they beat the Cubs and lost in Game 7 of the World Series to the Astros, another series they think they could have won. One more win is the goal. The Dodgers are immensely talented, so the question will be health and everyone staying focused through the long season as they try to win their first Fall Classic since 1988.
Giants: 2017 was just a fluke season
Everything went wrong for the Giants last year. Everybody in the lineup had a down year. Madison Bumgarner had a crazy injury in a dirt-bike accident. The bullpen blew up often. This is how you lose 98 games. San Francisco made some big moves in the offseason, and obviously the club hopes the acquisitions of veterans Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria work out. But mostly, it seems the Giants just hope for the bad vibes of 2017 to go away. Injuries to Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija in Spring Training suggest they might not be gone just yet.
Padres:William Myersputs up a complete season
There are stretches of time when Myers looks incredible -- the first six weeks of 2017, for instance, he hit .301 and slugged .566. He then went into a terrible slump in which he hit .191 for three weeks, and he never came out of that tailspin. The same thing happened in '16. The Padres would love for Myers to stretch out his good run for a whole season. Bringing aboard Eric Hosmer -- his former teammate in the Royals' farm system -- could help.
Rockies: The starting rotation remains healthy
One more health hope, but this is a big one. The Rockies used just eight starters last year -- only the Pirates and Giants in the NL used fewer -- and that's a big deal, considering the challenges of Coors Field. The Rox have seven pitchers who started big league games last year, and the more games those seven can start, the better chance Colorado will have of returning to the postseason.