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At a crossroads: 5 teams with direction to pick

MLB.com @mike_petriello

If there's one thing that's changed in baseball over the past decade, it's that finishing last isn't actually the worst way a season can end. For many teams, the worst outcome is being adrift, stuck in the middle, neither good enough to contend, nor accepting a losing season as part of a purposeful rebuild toward a brighter future.

For most teams right now, the plan is clear. Last year's top playoff teams, like the Dodgers, Astros and Nationals, are expecting to be back in October. At the other end, there are teams in obvious rebuild modes, like the White Sox, Braves and Tigers. In the center, there are some mid-tier teams already doing anything they can to improve in 2018 -- think the Angels, Cardinals or Rockies, who have all added talent. 

If there's one thing that's changed in baseball over the past decade, it's that finishing last isn't actually the worst way a season can end. For many teams, the worst outcome is being adrift, stuck in the middle, neither good enough to contend, nor accepting a losing season as part of a purposeful rebuild toward a brighter future.

For most teams right now, the plan is clear. Last year's top playoff teams, like the Dodgers, Astros and Nationals, are expecting to be back in October. At the other end, there are teams in obvious rebuild modes, like the White Sox, Braves and Tigers. In the center, there are some mid-tier teams already doing anything they can to improve in 2018 -- think the Angels, Cardinals or Rockies, who have all added talent. 

But there are still a few teams who haven't seemed to have chosen a direction, those teams who are on the border between, "Let's go for it," especially with the slow free-agent market potentially leading to some pretty good deals, or, "Let's blow it up and invigorate our farm system via trade." Either choice is defensible, for the most part. What's important is that a choice be made. The only wrong decision is to plan for a .500 season, and have exactly that happen.

There's five of those teams we can talk about, but we'll lump the first three together, because the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays are all facing the same problem, which is the pair of beasts atop the American League East. The Yankees came within a game of the World Series in 2017, and now they have Giancarlo Stanton, too. The Red Sox are the two-time defending division champions, and everyone expects them to add a bat like J.D. Martinez. For the other teams, it's certainly not easier to contend in '18 than it was in '17. 

Blue Jays
Why? Because it's the last year of Josh Donaldson's contract.

Video: Jim Duquette on Cardinals' interest in Josh Donaldson

The Jays were 76-86 in 2017, and while part of that can be blamed on injuries, the fact is that the core of the offense from the 2015-16 teams that reached the AL Championship Series has been moving on and aging. Edwin Encarnacion is in Cleveland, Jose Bautista's tenure in Toronto is likely over and Russell Martin will be 35 in February. Team president Mark Shapiro understands the reality, telling local radio in December that, "If we were just running our team without fans and it was an intellectual exercise, we probably would've hit a reset over a year ago."

Shapiro's not wrong about the fans, though; the Blue Jays led the AL in attendance in 2017, drawing more than 3.2 million. There's still the core of a good pitching staff here, with Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna, and first baseman Justin Smoak is coming off a breakout year. Toronto is projected by FanGraphs to be an 83-win team, which means it can be squarely in the AL Wild Card mix with a few improvements, specifically to the outfield. (The Blue Jays have been connected to Lorenzo Cain and Jay Bruce, who would each help.)

That's the point, really. With Donaldson, and some help, this is a group that could make noise. And if not? There's merit to moving Donaldson to reload for a near-future crew led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette

Orioles
Why? Because it's the last year of Manny Machado's contract.

Video: Orioles' market for Machado may have stalled 

Take almost literally everything we said about the Blue Jays and apply it here, as the O's are also dealing with the Red Sox and Yankees, while facing the impending free agency of their stud third baseman (as well as Adam Jones and Zach Britton). It's a very similar issue.

The difference here is that the O's start from a weaker position, coming off a last-place finish and having already lost Britton for much of the season to an Achilles injury. Last year's rotation had a 5.70 ERA, the highest in the Majors, and Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy are the only two starters on their depth chart with any real experience.

The O's have a history of beating their projections, of course, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who just hit 32 homers with strong defense, is quietly one of the best players no one talks about. With Brad Brach, Darren O'Day and Mychal Givens, it's still a good bullpen, even without Britton, so if they can add a ton of pitching, trying to win while they have Machado could make sense. If they can't, keeping him (and Schoop, Jones and the relievers) on a path to .500 may not be ideal.

Rays
Why? Because this group hasn't reached its upside.

Video: After trading Longo, are Rays due for more trades?

Again, the Red Sox and Yankees loom, but this is different; to begin with, the Rays already traded their franchise third baseman, Evan Longoria, to San Francisco, and had relievers Tommy Hunter and Brad Boxberger depart. Plus, they've had four consecutive seasons below .500. It may seem like the rebuild has already begun.

MLB.com's Bill Chastain summed it up well in an Inbox last week, saying "I believe the Rays looked at how they went for it in 2017 and still came up short, then surmised that they'd be better off trying to build a solid foundation for a future run, rather than continue treading water in the talented American League East."

He's not wrong, though the Rays are in an interesting position. The team, as constituted today, probably isn't ready to get to 90 wins for the first time since 2013, but at the same time, top prospects such as right-hander Brent Honeywell (No. 1 on MLB Pipeline's Rays prospect rankings), shortstop Willy Adames (No. 2), infielder Christian Arroyo (No. 4), first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers (No. 6) and righty Jose De Leon (No. 7) are basically ready now.

Is it a better strategy to bring in help for those prospects immediately? Or to move Chris Archer and Alex Colome for big returns to better gear up for success in 2019 and beyond? You can make the case for either; just not for neither.

Pirates
Why? Because it might be time for a new core.

Video: Morosi on McCutchen potentially being on the move

Somewhat like the Jays, the Pirates are seeing the other side of a very successful run that saw them make the playoffs each year from 2013-15. Unfortunately, they've lost 83 and 87 games in the past two seasons, while the Cubs and Cardinals continue to look strong and the Brewers took a step forward in '17. Part of the issue here is that what once looked like baseball's best outfield hasn't produced that way, as Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have taken steps back.

This is why you keep hearing endless trade rumors about Andrew McCutchen, a free agent after 2018, Gerrit Cole, free after '19, and Josh Harrison, who has three years of team control. The Pirates have benefited from such trades in the past, as the 2016 deal that turned Mark Melancon into Felipe Rivero has worked out tremendously well. That said, general manager  Neal Huntington has stated Pittsburgh won't be "completely in or completely out."

Is that the right course? Perhaps. The issue here is that not only do the Pirates need to look at the contenders in their division, they need to think about the Rockies, D-backs and Mets as other NL Wild Card possibilities. If the Bucs trade one of their rumored stars, fans might prefer they do it all at once.

Mets
Why? Because there's too much talent here to stand still.

Video: Which infielders are available via trade for Mets?

The 2015 Mets went to the World Series, and the '16 Mets made it to the NL Wild Card Game. The 2017 Mets, decimated by injury, finished fourth in the NL East at 70-92. For many teams, that's a clear sign the end is nearing.

But the Mets haven't acted that way, probably correctly. They have a new manager in Mickey Callaway and a new pitching coach in Dave Eiland, who plan to use the staff smartly. They've revamped their training situation in an attempt to avoid a repeat of last year's health drama. They still have high-end talent in Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia, Yoenis Cespedes and (if he can rebound from shoulder surgery) Michael Conforto. They've added Anthony Swarzak as a good setup man; they have prospects Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith ready to go.

They have a lot, is the point, in a division with three rebuilding teams. They just don't have enough, not yet. They don't have a second baseman, or insurance policies for Rosario or Smith, and they could use another reliable starter. There's work to be done -- and opportunity to make it worthwhile. 

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

 

Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays