We're closing in on Opening Day, and so what better time to cue conversation and drum up debate with our annual look at the game's best lineups, rotations and bullpens, as well as the most flexible rosters?
Let's begin our annual invitation to hate mail with a look at my picks for the top 10 lineups entering 2018. As is the case each year, I tried to provide a bit of balance between American League and National League entries (even though the designated hitter spot gives AL clubs more opportunity to produce) and take contextual factors like home ballparks into account with this list. The Steamer projections available at FanGraphs are a huge help in thinking about what lies ahead rather than getting totally wrapped up in last year's results.
• Projected lineups for all 30 teams
Let's line up the lineups!
Even with would-be AL MVP Award candidate Carlos Correa limited to 109 games last season, the Astros scored at least 38 more runs than any other team in baseball. Even if Jose Altuve were to suffer slight regression from his electric 2017 (.346 average, .957 OPS), a full season of Correa and the continued maturation of Alex Bregman could allow Houston to reach yet another level.
Two X-factors here are the early Yuli Gurriel left hamate surgery and the uncertainty over what the Astros get out of left field (Marwin Gonzalez would be starting there if he weren't filling in for Gurriel). But a lineup that really began to take off when George Springer moved into the leadoff spot in May 2016 should again be one of baseball's best, if not the very best.
The number to note is 264 -- the all-time single-season home run record set by the 1997 Mariners and due to fall should the Yankees live up to the projections. It's not a given that the big-bodied Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge both hit north of 50 homers again (Stanton has four would-be full seasons where he's played 123 games or fewer, and Judge had a left shoulder injury last year), though the mixed-in DH days should help those guys. Carsten Sabathia's opinion that Gary Sanchez is actually this lineup's best hitter is one shared by quite a few evaluators. And it's exciting to think about what a healthy season from Greg Bird might look like, particularly when surrounded by so much talent.
The additions of Brandon Drury and Neil Walker add to the depth, versatility and power this lineup provides. The Yanks will have susceptibility to the strikeout (Steamer projects them to have five guys with a triple-digit total), which is why I'll stop short of putting them ahead of the defending champs. But this lineup will be baseball's surest spectacle, a traveling dinger derby.
The thought going into last season was that with Adam Eaton on board and speedster Trea Turner entering his first full season, the Nationals would have a dangerous one-two combo up top to set up RBI opportunities aplenty for Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. Well, Eaton tore his left ACL in his 23rd game, and Turner played through a right hamstring injury and then broke his right wrist midway through a frustrating year. Neither of those developments stopped the Nats from scoring the fifth-most runs in baseball (Anthony Rendon's NL MVP Award bid sure didn't hurt), and now we enter 2018 once again envisioning how potent this lineup can be if those two match their on-base ability.
Harper's health is the other big "if," of course, as it has prevented him from being an annual NL MVP Award candidate. But if everybody's body cooperates, the Nationals have six guys (Harper, Rendon, Murphy, Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Eaton) projected by Steamer to turn in weighted runs created plus marks at least 10 percent better than league average with at least 477 plate appearances apiece.
4. Red Sox
The Bronx Bombers deservedly got all the offseason love and will be appropriately ranked here. But the Red Sox are absolutely capable of outscoring their AL East rivals. Remember: The regular season is not Home Run Derby, so I'm not overly caught up in Boston's glaring lack of long balls last season, when it hit the fewest in the AL. The Red Sox still managed to score the 10th-most runs per game in MLB, and they did that despite Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland all falling somewhere south of projection.
If we go with the narrative that David Ortiz's departure made this group more pitchable, then we can probably buy into the idea that J.D. Martinez's arrival alters that dynamic (and the additional re-signing of Eduardo Nunez helps Boston overcome the early season absence of Dustin Pedroia). Even before Martinez arrived, there was reason to believe that a bounceback for Betts, a full season of Rafael Devers, heath for Bogaerts and maturation for Benintendi would improve the overall power production, anyway. Those four guys, as well as Martinez and Ramirez, are projected by Steamer to have wRC+ marks of at least 109 with at least 400 plate appearances.
The two key questions here: How much do they feel the loss of Carlos Santana, whose disciplined at-bats and switch-hitting skillset made him a stabilizing force? And what do they get out of Michael Brantley, who has logged just 101 games played over the past two seasons? Cleveland picked up Brantley's $12 million option and signed Yonder Alonso to a two-year, $16 million contract -- and those were actually major monetary commitments given the way the offseason wound up playing out at those positions.
Steamer's projections call for a 116 wRC+ mark for Brantley in 460 plate appearances and a 112 mark from Alonso in 559 trips to the plate. If the Indians get that production to support Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez (and toss in a bounceback year for Jason Kipnis), they'll again have one of the AL's best offenses (the Tribe had the highest expected weighted on-base average in baseball last season, per Statcast™), despite the free-agent losses of Santana and Jay Bruce.
William Fowler's departure proved to be a challenge for the Cubs in 2017, especially as Kyle Schwarber's struggles became pronounced. Still, it didn't stop them from scoring the fourth-most runs with the sixth-highest OPS in the game. The leadoff role is still in flux here, though Ian Happ's sensational spring makes him a candidate, Albert Almora Jr. might be ready to break out and Schwarber might rebound.
Bottom line: With Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo entrenched and Willson Contreras coming off a year in which he stepped forward with an .855 OPS, the Cubs have a sturdy enough middle of the order to generate runs, even if the leadoff questions continue. And if one of the kids asserts himself in the No. 1 spot, the Cubs are a threat to build off last year's 822 runs scored.
The Dodgers are built to absorb injuries, but losing Justin Turner for any length of time is probably the most substantial blow they can be dealt because of the impressive combo of power, presence and patience (56 strikeouts in 543 plate appearances) he provides. So the broken left wrist he suffered Monday night affected the Dodgers' rank on this list, and it will be interesting to see what, if any, lingering effects the injury has upon his return. There's also no guarantee that the Dodgers get a full season out of uber shortstop Corey Seager, as injuries have marked his career already at a young age.
Again, though, the Dodgers are built to absorb and endure. Beyond Turner and Seager, they've got four other guys (Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Austin Barnes) projected by Steamer to provide above-average production (via wRC+) with at least 300 plate appearances. Bonus points if a slimmed-down Matt Kemp actually turns back the clock.
Shortstop Jorge Polanco's 80-game suspension takes some of the steam out of the Twins' stride. He was a big reason why this club led the AL in runs after the All-Star break last season.
But keep in mind that Minnesota went on that run largely without Miguel Sano, who suffered a stress reaction in his left leg on Aug. 19. We don't know if MLB's investigation into an alleged assault by Sano will result in any discipline, but we do know Sano has a 125 OPS+ through his first 1,313 big league plate appearances. If he's on the field for 450-550 trips to the plate, he's going to make a big impact. And when you consider the strides made by Byron Buxton (.893 OPS in the second half) last season, the stability of James Dozier (.871 OPS over the past two seasons), the pop they've added with Logan Morrison, there's still a lot to like about the Twins even with Polanco on the shelf for half the season.
I know fans of the division-rival Brewers -- and possibly even some Cardinals fans -- will take issue with this placement. But take note that, despite a glaring season-long need for a true middle-of-the-order presence, the Cards managed to post a team wRC+ mark (100, or league average) identical to that of the Nationals last year while scoring a respectable 761 runs (29 more than the Brew Crew, for the record). So if Marcell Ozuna can come close to replicating the Silver Slugger season he had in cavernous Marlins Park (.312/.376/.548), that makes the Cardinals pretty dangerous, especially if the partial seasons they received from Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong are any indication of what those dudes can contribute in a full season.
Ozuna, Pham, Matt Carpenter and Fowler are forecast by Steamer to be at least 12 percent better than league average in the wRC+ department with a full complement of at-bats. There are AL clubs like the Rangers and Blue Jays that are likely to score more runs than the Cardinals -- and the Rockies definitely will, because they play half their games in Coors Field -- but, adjusting for context, the Cards belong here.
Definitely betting on spec here. But 'tis the season for such things. Boosted by the welcoming of Matts -- Matt Olson and Matt Chapman -- the A's scored 4.89 runs per game in the second half last season. Nobody's expecting either guy to extrapolate his second-half numbers over the course of the full 2018, but a full season from those two young men projects to give Oakland legit power in the corner infield.
Olson, Chapman and DH Khris Davis could very realistically combine for 100 homers. It's also realistic that the A's could have three other 20-homer guys in Matt Joyce, Marcus Semien and Stephen Piscotty. Of course, power alone might not be enough to move the needle, but the addition of a solid on-base presence in Jonathan Lucroy, and if rookie center fielder Dustin Fowler pans out, Oakland will have an injection of speed. Basically, I like the upside here better than that of, say, the division-rival Angels, whose offseason improvements might be inherently limited by the ages of some of their additions (Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, a full season of Justin Upton).