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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Six MLB teams that could surprise in 2018

Jake Arrieta
With the start of Major League Baseball’s regular season less than a week away, many are looking hard at predictions and projections to see who will be good and who won’t be this season. Expectations are low for a lot of teams, while others are expecting, at worst, a playoff run.

Some teams may be a bit off in those projections, though. Some young rebuilding teams are being written off too easily, while some teams being looked at as contenders may fall short of those expectations. Here are six teams that could surprise in 2018 — either for the right or wrong reasons.

1) Chicago White Sox

Little is expected of the rebuilding White Sox in 2018, but the team has enough young talent to make them worth watching out for. Sure, a lot of this is based on the notion of their top prospects delivering, but players with the ability of Yoan Moncada are certainly capable of taking a step forward this season. Jose Abreu is still around, and Matt Davidson is a 20-home run hitter.

The pitching staff will really determine what Chicago’s season ends up looking like. Can Carson Fulmer and Lucas Giolito live up to their reputation as top prospects? Will we see Michael Kopech? If these players can hold their own, Chicago might surprise. Remember, the Tigers and Royals should be non-factors this year — a third-place minimum is plenty reasonable.

2) Atlanta Braves

The Braves are slowly inching toward contention. They showed signs of progress in the first half of 2017, going 42-45, but faded a bit down the stretch. There are reasons to believe that a more permanent step forward could be taken in 2018 thanks to some additions and maturing prospects.

The Braves actually hit alright in 2018. Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman are very good players, while Dansby Swanson may benefit from the experience he gained during an underwhelming 2017. Top prospect Ronald Acuna is the other key — he’s waiting in the wings and will be held down for service time reasons, but you should expect to see him soon. With a legitimate ace in Julio Teheran, the Braves may take a few people by surprise this year.

3) Philadelphia Phillies

The addition of Jake Arrieta was a clear sign that the Phillies are ready to move into the next phase of their rebuild. There were signs of it last year — Rhys Hoskins’ home run pace stands out — but there is reason to believe that .500 or better could be realistic in 2018.

Part of that is definitely due to the addition of Arrieta, a legitimate ace to pair with Aaron Nola. Vince Velasquez still has room to grow as well. iI those three can live up to expectations, then look out. Philadelphia’s pitching staff held them back last year, and a better performance would be huge for the team. The playoffs may be a step too far in 2018, but they could be a factor in the NL East, if nothing else.

4) Los Angeles Angels

The Angels are getting a lot of attention this spring after a very active offseason. They retained Justin Upton and added Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart to their offense. The headline-grabbing move was the addition of Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, who will primarily be entrusted to pitch.

There are already some signs that things aren’t working out as planned. After a rough spring, Ohtani’s spot on the club wasn’t even guaranteed, though he now appears set to be on the roster. The Angels’ rotation doesn’t have a ton of depth behind him, with Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker desperately in need of an injury-free season. If the rotation doesn’t hold up, it could be another long, disappointing season for the Angels. They need Ohtani to be what was advertised.

5) San Francisco Giants

The Giants made headlines by acquiring both Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen over the offseason, but those moves may look better on paper than they will in reality. McCutchen, for instance, rebounded in 2017, but looked like a spent force in 2016. Longoria is coming off a season in which he hit just 20 home runs with a .261 average. Moving to a somewhat unfriendly offensive park won’t help them.

Then there’s the pitching.

Madison Bumgarner’s health was the key entering the season, and he’s out now with a fracture on his pitching hand. They need more consistency from Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, which was an issue last year. Unfortunately, Samardzija appears to have a shoulder/lat issue. Yes, it’s an even year, and the Giants have some good luck in those, but they’re coming from a long way back and may not have made the necessary additions to meet expectations. When you factor in the Bumgarner and Samardzija injuries to begin the season, things are not looking great for San Francisco.

6) Toronto Blue Jays

Some still expect the Blue Jays to contend for a playoff spot, but those folks shouldn’t hold their breaths; a rebound from their 76-86 season looks a bit optimistic. Where will the offense come from? Justin Smoak must be good again, and Josh Donaldson must be healthy. Otherwise, this team is a long way away from the highly-touted lineup that powered them in 2015 and 2016.

And what of the pitching staff? Can Aaron Sanchez stay healthy? What about Marcus Stroman, who is already dealing with some shoulder issues? Do they have the necessary arms in the bullpen to get the ball to star closer Roberto Osuna? The Blue Jays may not even win 76 games again. This team looks like it’s getting worse, not better.

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