The Houston Astros blitzed through their first four playoff games last October, including the opener of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park in Boston. Then they lost four in a row to the Red Sox, who went on to replace them as World Series champions.
George Springer, the most valuable player of the 2017 World Series, did not watch a moment of Boston’s triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was not despondent, though. He was simply taking time for himself after a largely satisfying season.
“A lot of people think when you lose you’re sitting at home all destroyed for a long time, but a lot has to go right to get where we got the previous year,” Springer said this spring at the Astros’ training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. “We just got beat. One of the things about this game is you’ve got to be able to accept failure. We didn’t have a bad year. We lost in the A.L.C.S. You move on.”
The Astros never expected to string together championships. General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who often makes blackjack analogies, understands that sometimes, the cards will not flip his way. But the Astros keep getting a seat at the table and tipping the odds in their favor.
They turned to the free-agent market to find an ideal fit for their lineup: Michael Brantley, the former Cleveland left fielder who signed a two-year, $ 32 million deal. Brantley is a lefty in a right-leaning lineup, and a premier contact hitter who accentuates what the Astros do best.
Houston ranked sixth in the majors in runs last season, and only the Indians’ hitters had fewer strikeouts. Brantley had 55 extra-base hits and the second-lowest strikeout percentage in the majors, trailing only the Los Angeles Angels’ Andrelton Simmons.
“Good things happen when you put the ball in play,” said Brantley, who struck out only 60 times in 631 plate appearances. “Rallies can start with an error or a miscommunication on a fly ball; you don’t know how. You look around this locker room, not too many guys strike out in this lineup. We put the ball in play hard and take our chances.”
Opponents could make up a bit more ground against Houston this season. The Astros’ pitchers led the majors in strikeouts, but the team subsequently lost Charlie Morton to free agency and Lance McCullers Jr. to Tommy John surgery; both averaged at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings. To fill those spots — and the one left by the unsigned free agent Dallas Keuchel — the Astros will use Collin McHugh, Wade Miley and Brad Peacock or Framber Valdez, with power arms waiting in the high minors.
“We’re a pretty complete team, and that sometimes brings questions,” Manager A.J. Hinch said. “I understand why they’re there, but they don’t necessarily have to be there. We have five really good starting pitching candidates and we have some youngsters that are coming fast. The rotation’s not keeping me up at night.”
Hinch can rest easy: There may be no clear favorite among the power teams in this league, but the Astros look like the safest bet to push through to the World Series.
They have far more depth than their rivals in the A.L. West. The Oakland Athletics, who won 97 games last season, are like the buddy in your fantasy league who loads up on some categories but ignores others. In this case, the A’s have lots of sluggers, relievers and star defenders, but no semblance of a rotation.
The A’s are good enough in those areas to at least contend, assuming a strong return by the Gold Glove-winning first baseman Matt Olson, who will miss six weeks after breaking a bone in his right hand on the team's trip to Japan. A rotator-cuff strain to Jesus Luzardo, their top pitching prospect, hurts their depth, but if the A’s have a chance, they will find a way to make shrewd additions. One thing is certain: Designated hitter Khris Davis — the majors’ home run leader since 2016 — will bat .247. It has been his precise average in each of the last four seasons.
The Los Angeles Angels have committed about $ 430 million to center fielder Mike Trout through 2030. That gives them plenty of time to find a way to finally win a playoff game with the game’s best player on their roster. They think it could happen this fall.
“We’re going to be a strong offensive club: We’re going to increase our on-base percentage, and our home runs are going to be there again this year,” General Manager Billy Eppler said. “As a lot of clubs can say, health is going to be very, very important to us. We’ve been the example of what can happen to a club when you don’t have good health. If we can get north of 26 starts out of our starters, we’re going to be in a really, really good position.”
For the Angels, that could be asking too much. Their starters have a dubious health history, and adding Matt Harvey as a free agent most likely won’t alter that trend. Andrew Heaney has had elbow inflammation in spring training, and Tyler Skaggs dealt with forearm fatigue. Shohei Ohtani will hit this season, but his recovery from Tommy John surgery will keep him off the mound.
The team that truly taunted the pitching gods, though, is the Texas Rangers. All four of their new starters — Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Drew Smyly and Edinson Volquez — have had Tommy John surgery in the last three and a half years.
“It helps, because we can lean on each other: ‘Hey, do you feel this, what do you do between starts?’” said Smyly, who spent the last two seasons with Seattle and the Chicago Cubs, yet never threw a pitch for either team. “But at the same time, I think all of us are over talking about it. We just want to put it behind us and go play again.”
The Rangers, likewise, are eager to bury their recent past; their 95 losses last season matched their most since 1985. Their hopes for improvement rest on young hitters like Joey Gallo, Ronald Guzman, Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor, who strike out too much but could break into stardom as the team prepares to move to a new Arlington ballpark — with a retractable roof — next season.
The Seattle Mariners made a noble effort to end baseball’s longest playoff drought (since 2001), but they should now replace the Rangers in the division cellar. They allowed 34 more runs than they scored last season but still finished 16 games over .500. Recognizing the anomaly, General Manager Jerry Dipoto spent the winter dumping Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino and others.
Some veterans, like Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion, came back as part of salary swaps. But Dipoto, baseball’s most active general manager, could trade them this summer in an effort to build a more stable foundation.
Encarnacion came to Seattle in a trade with the Cleveland Indians, who shed 10 of the 21 players who appeared in their three-game division series loss to the Astros. Those 10 players will earn more than $ 95 million for their new teams this season, and the Indians added few veteran replacements besides Carlos Santana and Carlos Gonzalez.
The Indians won’t win the division without major contributions from shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was slowed this spring by a calf injury, and third baseman Jose Ramirez, who hit .154 from last Aug. 15 through the end of the playoffs. But their rotation is so dominant that they should still have enough offense to get by.
Only 15 major leaguers worked 175 innings while recording 200 strikeouts last season, and four were Indians: Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger. With those starters and the All-Star closer Brad Hand, the Indians should win the Central for the fourth year in a row.
The Minnesota Twins, under new manager Rocco Baldelli, are the only team that could catch them. The Twins added the veterans Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop to their lineup, and a progressive new pitching coach — Wes Johnson, who came from the University of Arkansas — should help them get more from their staff.
To win, though, the Twins need more from their talented but erratic young core: Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano. All should be in their primes, and the Twins would like to stop guessing how good they can be.
“You can dream a lot on the potential upside of that group, and you see spurts of it,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president for baseball operations. “The key, in my mind, is how do you get all those guys firing together at the same time? Because if you do, that’s a really talented crew, and we haven’t quite seen the potential of that entire group all working at the same time.”
Even if they cannot catch Cleveland, the Twins could claim a wild card by feasting on the weak in the division. The bottom three teams each lost at least 98 games last season, and none have done much to improve.
While the Chicago White Sox flirted with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in free agency, they still have never given a free-agent contract richer than $ 68 million. They are deep in prospects, but some of the most promising ones from last spring — infielder Yoan Moncada and starter Lucas Giolito — were major disappointments in the summer. Eloy Jimenez, an electrifying rookie outfielder who signed a six-year, $ 43 million contract in late March, will try to change that.
The Kansas City Royals should at least be interesting in the way they deploy the speedsters Whit Merrifield, Billy Hamilton and Adalberto Mondesi, three of the 11 major leaguers with more than 30 stolen bases last year. This will be a painstaking rebuilding process, but the last one resulted in two pennants and the 2015 World Series title.
The Detroit Tigers owe Miguel Cabrera $ 162 million for the next five seasons, a staggering figure for a player who turns 36 in April and missed most of last season with a ruptured biceps tendon. He’s a future Hall of Famer, and a renaissance season — 35 home runs — would give Cabrera 500 for his career. But there’s not much else to draw interest.
The Tigers’ former architect, Dave Dombrowski, is now the president for baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox and in 2018, he earned the championship he could never quite get in Detroit. It’s fair to expect the Red Sox to repeat in the East, but no team has successfully defended a World Series title since the 2000 Yankees.
“There’s a lot of reasons behind that, but first and foremost it’s tough to win, period,” Dombrowski said. “You get a lot of breaks when you win. Even having a good club, you need a break here or there. Sometimes, you just don’t get as many.”
The Red Sox lost no significant players from the majors’ best offense, and re-signed the postseason star Nathan Eovaldi to keep their rotation intact. Starters Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez cannot double as relievers in the regular season as they did last October, but the offense and rotation should make up for an imperfect bullpen.
“On a nightly basis, the guy on the mound is going to go give us a chance to win the game,” Manager Alex Cora said. “They go six or seven, and we know offensively who we are. It’s a good feeling.”
Unless the Yankees reach the World Series this year, the 2010s will be their first decade since the 1910s without at least one A.L. pennant. Their last was in 2009, when they won their 27th title.
“It has flown by, man, but it’s been way too long,” said outfielder Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee. “From the front office to the ownership, they go out of their way to put the best possible team on the field every year and it’s been a disappointing 10 years.”
The Yankees very well could reach the World Series, but they might have to start by hosting the wild card game for the third year in a row. The volume of injuries this spring — Dellin Betances, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, C.C. Sabathia, Luis Severino — could be easier to handle because of a forgiving early schedule: The Yankees play 19 of their first 28 games against Baltimore, the White Sox, Detroit, Kansas City and San Francisco.
The Yankees’ lineup will be fearsome, and their bullpen, with Betances, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman, will lock down 95 victories or more. Expect a back-and-forth pennant race with Boston all summer.
Can the Tampa Bay Rays elbow into the chase? They won 90 games last season, partly by defying conventional pitching roles with their opener strategy, an innovation that sprang from a logical premise.
“The whole goal is, how can we maximize the talent of our players and how can we put them in a position to succeed — and put us in a position to win as much as possible?” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ senior vice president for baseball operations. “Our group in the clubhouse has really high expectations, and so do we.”
The Rays plan to use two openers every five days. They could follow the opener with a so-called “bulk guy” (one pitcher who works the bulk of the middle innings) or a parade of relievers. But they need their traditional starters — Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and the Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell — to produce.
“Reliable starters are the key to letting us do the opener,” Manager Kevin Cash said. “Not to put added pressure on them, but if we get good starting pitching, we can be a little bit more aggressive on the other days and mix and match a little bit more.”
Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays will start the season pining for third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and shortstop Bo Bichette, whose fathers combined to play nearly 4,000 games in the majors. Guerrero and Bichette — Dante’s son — have played none, but both are top-10 prospects on Baseball America’s list.
Guerrero, 20, was overweight at the start of spring training and then strained an oblique muscle. Bichette, 21, was hitting .417 in exhibition games when he was sent to minor league camp. When the new manager, Charlie Montoyo, can write both names on a lineup card in Toronto, this rebuild will accelerate.
The Baltimore Orioles also have a new manager, Brandon Hyde, and a new general manager, Mike Elias. Hyde came from the Chicago Cubs and Elias from the Astros, so both have seen the payoff from patient roster makeovers. They’ll need a lot of patience in Baltimore, where the Orioles just endured a franchise-record 115 losses. Elias understands the magnitude of the task.
“It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to, but we do have titans in our division year in and year out,” Elias said. “We’ve got two really good farm systems and front offices in Toronto and Tampa Bay, as well, so all four of our division competitors are mighty. We’re going to have to be very shrewd and draft and sign and develop very well.”