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April powers: Which teams are set for hot starts?

March 24, 2017

Hope springs eternal for each of the 30 Major League teams during Spring Training, but with a slow start in April, hope can turn to worry in a flash.Just last year, the Astros were a consensus favorite to return to the postseason, but Houston stumbled out to a 7-17 record

Hope springs eternal for each of the 30 Major League teams during Spring Training, but with a slow start in April, hope can turn to worry in a flash.
Just last year, the Astros were a consensus favorite to return to the postseason, but Houston stumbled out to a 7-17 record (tied with the Twins for worst in the American League) and ultimately couldn't climb back, finishing five games shy of an AL Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the Cubs compiled a 17-5 record in the first month to propel them to a storybook season.
Of course, the season is long and a poor start doesn't always spell doom for a title contender. The 2015 Rangers went just 7-14 in April before recovering to win 88 games and the AL West. Still, a team would always prefer to start its season out front instead of playing from behind.
In an effort to forecast which teams have the best chances of doing just that, MLB.com has crunched the numbers with two models to find which teams have the easiest and toughest roads through April. The first model totaled up the final 2016 regular-season records of each team's April opponents, then ranked the clubs based upon those opponents' cumulative win percentages. (Note: We only counted each opponent once, even if the teams play multiple times in the first month.)
Here's a look at what teams are looking at with their April slates, based upon last year's performances:

A few takeaways from this model:
• San Francisco raced to baseball's best record at the All-Star break last year, and this model suggests it would be a decent bet to do it again. The Giants will get to feast on three National League West foes coming off losing records, plus a 2014 World Series rematch with a Royals club that went an even .500 last season.
Keep in mind, however, that the Giants finished last April at just 12-13 before heating up.
• The rich get richer in one sense: Three of the six division leaders at the end of April 2016 -- the Nationals, Rangers and Giants (who were co-leaders with the Dodgers) -- boast the three easiest April schedules this season based on this model.
• If past performance carries any weight, Houston has an excellent shot to atone for its awful start last year. The Astros will square off against four teams that finished .500 or worse in 2016.
The first model gave us some indication of what teams could face, but records across the league can vary significantly from year to year. That's why we've consulted a second set of data: the Depth Charts projections from FanGraphs, which lists 2017 win-loss record projections for each of the 30 clubs. Each team's final roster isn't final at this point, of course, but these projections give us a decent sense of this year's contenders and pretenders.
Here's that same table again, but with the cumulative win percentage of each team's April opponents based upon Depth Charts projections:

• The Rays should be better in 2017 after adding pieces like Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus and Mallex Smith this offseason, and hopefully getting back a healthy Kevin Kiermaier for the entire year. Both our models predict that Tampa Bay is facing the Majors' toughest April schedule, however, with series against six clubs (Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Houston, the Yankees and Toronto) that finished above .500 last year. Depth Charts predicts that all those teams except the Orioles will be above .500 again in '17, meaning a tough first few weeks for a Rays club that lost 94 games last season.

• Optimism is already high in Atlanta after a flurry of offseason moves and a new stadium set to open. Better yet, Depth Charts says the Braves' April slate is the easiest of any Major League club. That schedule includes series against the Brewers, Phillies and Padres -- three teams Depth Charts expects to languish in the bottom of their respective NL divisions.
• The rebuilding Twins caught the biggest break between how their April opponents did last year and how Depth Charts projects they'll do this year. They face the AL's second-hardest April slate going by past performance, but the league's third easiest judging by Depth Charts.
• Meanwhile, the perceived break the Astros caught in the first past-performance model was reversed by Depth Charts, which raised their April opponents' expected record by 23 points. That's the second-largest increase across baseball between the two models, right behind their Lone Star rivals, the Rangers, at 24 points. So which model better predicts what will shake out in April, and which teams will survive their first-month test? Stay tuned.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.