Don't sleep on these 6 teams as playoff contenders

March 24th, 2022

Most of the top free agents are off the board, so we have a good sense of how each team is going to look when the regular season begins on April 7. Based on FanGraphs’ projected standings, a number of clubs are expected to be significantly better than they were a year ago.

Focusing strictly on teams that are projected to finish at .500 or better (sorry, Rangers), these are the squads that are expected to make the biggest leaps forward (in terms of wins added) in 2022 -- and perhaps even make some noise in postseason races.

Marlins: +15 wins
2021 record: 67-95 | Projected 2022 record: 82-80

After ranking 29th in the Majors in runs scored (623) last season, the Marlins spent the past several months making moves to bolster their lineup, signing free-agent outfielders and and making trades to acquire catcher Jacob Stallings from the Pirates and infielder  from the Rays. Those additions, combined with the continued development of youngsters such as Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Jesús Sánchez, could give Miami a much improved offense in 2022.

The club should once again have a solid rotation, with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, Trevor Rogers and Elieser Hernandez holding the top four spots and an array of former (Jesús Luzardo) and current (Edward Cabrera, Max Meyer) prospects providing enough depth to cover the absence of Sixto Sánchez, who has been shut down due to discomfort in his surgically repaired right shoulder. The National League East figures to be one of MLB’s most competitive divisions, but Miami at least has put itself in the postseason conversation.

Mets: +13 wins
2021 record: 77-85 | Projected 2022 record: 90-72

Wholesale changes were in order after the Mets finished eight games under .500 in Steve Cohen’s first season as owner. New York has a new manager in Buck Showalter and a new general manager in Billy Eppler, and the club’s roster looks markedly different than it did at the end of last season. Out are Michael Conforto, Marcus Stroman, Javier Báez, Rich Hill, Noah Syndergaard, Jonathan Villar, Kevin Pillar, Brad Hand, Jeurys Familia and Aaron Loup. In are Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Chris Bassitt, Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar and Adam Ottavino, giving the Mets one of the most expensive rosters in MLB.

The result? A team FanGraphs projects to post the third-best record in the NL, albeit two games worse than the defending World Series-champion Braves. Despite all of their additions, the Mets’ ability to overtake Atlanta may hinge on what they get from two of their returning stars, Jacob deGrom and Francisco Lindor. deGrom posted a sparkling 1.08 ERA last season, but he dealt with elbow problems and threw just 92 innings. Lindor, meanwhile, missed 37 games and was close to league average with the bat (101 OPS+).

Padres: +9 wins
2021 record: 79-83 | Projected 2022 record: 88-74

The Padres had lofty ambitions entering last season, and for much of the year, everything went according to plan. After defeating the Marlins on Aug. 10, San Diego was 67-49 and had a five-game lead in the race for the second NL Wild Card spot. However, the Friars went 12-34 the rest of the way and finished under .500 for the 12th time in the past 14 seasons, leading to the dismissal of manager Jayce Tingler and the hiring of Bob Melvin as his replacement.

San Diego had a quiet offseason and will spend the first two-plus months without superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who is recovering from surgery to repair a fractured left wrist, but FanGraphs is still projecting a nine-win improvement for the club in 2022. For that forecast to come to fruition, the Padres will likely need better seasons out of Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Trent Grisham, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, and for Mike Clevinger to make a healthy return from Tommy John surgery.

Twins: +8 wins
2021 record: 73-89 | Projected 2022 record: 81-81

Coming off consecutive AL Central titles, the Twins finished 16 games under .500 last season and seemed to be signaling an intention to rebuild when they dealt ace José Berríos to the Blue Jays and also entertained trades for center fielder Byron Buxton last July.

However, Minnesota signed Buxton to a seven-year, $100 million extension in November, traded for right-hander Sonny Gray and, after shedding all of Josh Donaldson’s remaining salary in a post-lockout trade with the Yankees, stunned the baseball world by signing superstar shortstop Carlos Correa to a three-year, $105.3 million deal with two opt-outs.

The pitching staff remains a question mark, but Correa and Buxton -- who went first and second overall in the 2012 MLB Draft -- have the potential to be one of the best position-player duos in the game.

Phillies: +6 wins
2021 record: 82-80 | Projected 2022 record: 88-74

While Bryce Harper won the NL MVP Award and Zack Wheeler finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2021, the Phillies went 82-80 and missed the postseason for the 10th straight season, the second-longest active drought in the Majors behind the Mariners’ 20-year playoff hiatus. With Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos joining the team for a combined $179 million, Philadelphia will try to end that drought via brute force.

An already poor defense hasn't gotten any better, but the Phils could have a juggernaut offense, and Wheeler and Aaron Nola give the club a strong one-two punch atop the rotation. Then there’s the bullpen, which has been overhauled again after another poor showing. Philadelphia had MLB’s worst bullpen ERA (7.06) in 2020 and the sixth-worst mark (4.60) last season. It remains to be seen if replacing Héctor Neris, Archie Bradley and Ian Kennedy with Corey Knebel, Hand and Familia will make a difference.

Angels: +5 wins
2021 record: 77-85 | Projected 2022 record: 82-80

The Angels have the reigning AL MVP in Shohei Ohtani. They have a three-time AL MVP in Mike Trout. And they have Anthony Rendon, a player who finished third in the NL MVP voting in 2019. The problem is, they’ve rarely had all of them together. Over the past two seasons, Ohtani, Trout and Rendon have all been in the starting lineup together in just 50 of a possible 222 games, including only 18 of 162 games in 2021, when the Halos missed the postseason for the seventh straight season.

Another problem? Los Angeles has consistently struggled to put together a dependable rotation. Dating back to 2016, just 11 pitchers have made 20-plus starts in a season for the Angels. None has done it more than once in that span. Most of the team’s moves to improve the starting staff haven’t gone well. (See Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill in 2019, Julio Teheran in '20 and José Quintana in '21.) This year, the club is trying to make it work with Syndergaard, who has thrown just two innings since the end of 2019, and Michael Lorenzen, who has made five starts since the beginning of '16. On the plus side, 25-year-old Patrick Sandoval and 24-year-old José Suarez both showed promise last season, and 22-year-old Reid Detmers (MLB’s No. 21 overall prospect) could be ready to take a step forward after a rocky debut in 2021 (7.40 ERA in 20 2/3 innings). The club also has built up its bullpen, re-signing Raisel Iglesias to a four-year deal and bringing in Ryan Tepera, Loup and Bradley.

But even if the Angels’ pitching staff doesn’t noticeably improve this season, their ability to roll out a lineup with Ohtani, Trout and Rendon makes them a threat. It’s just a matter of keeping those three stars healthy.