As the Major League Baseball season approaches, the sport’s eyes fall on the seven teams that have seemingly distanced themselves from all competitors: The Astros, Dodgers, Indians, Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox and Nationals. All made the postseason last year, and all enter the spring as heavy favorites to get there again. All have the potential for greatness, for 100 wins, for a World Series title.
But these teams are not infallible. Far from it, in fact. All have notable flaws that could doom them before they reach October’s promised land. You already know about their strengths. Here, we dive into their weaknesses.
Greatest weakness: Bullpen
If the Astros had failed to push past the Yankees in the ALCS or the Dodgers in the World Series last fall, the team’s bullpen would have drawn much of the blame. Ken Giles posted a 11.74 postseason ERA and lost his closer’s role, while Chris Devenski, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris and others quickly pitched away manager A.J. Hinch’s trust as well. Clutch relief performances from Brad Peacock and Lance McCullers helped the Astros overcome their shaky ‘pen, but turning to semi-rested starters in the sixth inning obviously won’t be a sustainable strategy over a long season.
After all that happened in October, it’s easy to forget that the bullpen was somewhat of a strength for the 2017 Astros, with a 3.84 reliever ERA that ranked sixth in MLB. Giles was sturdy, Devenski, Harris and Joe Musgrove were strong in front of him, and others chipped in ably. This winter, the Astros brought back most of the same group (minus the traded Musgrove) and declined to sign a major free-agent reliever, apparently hoping these guys perform in 2018 the way they did from April to September, not the way they did in October. Even with Peacock joining the bullpen full-time, that’s a risky play.
Regardless, look for Houston to add a reliever or three (including some lefties) before next postseason rolls around.
Other weaknesses: Catcher, where Brian McCann might be on his last legs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Greatest weakness: Back of the rotation
If every Dodgers pitcher performs up to his potential, L.A. will have one of baseball’s best rotations. Clayton Kershaw is a perennial Cy Young candidate; Rich Hill can be unhittable at his best; Alex Wood broke out last year at age 26; Kenta Maeda finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting only two years ago, Hyun Jin Ryu boasts a career 3.41 ERA; and Walker Buehler, Ross Stripling, Tom Koehler and Brock Stewart are standing by for depth.
The problem is, almost every one of those pitchers carries significant injury or performance questions. Kershaw has missed time in two consecutive seasons, Hill is old and brittle, Wood fell off in the second half last year, Ryu has thrown only 131 1/3 innings innings over the past three years, etc. It’s unlikely that more than two or three L.A. starters make 25 starts in 2018, especially given how liberal the Dodgers are with the disabled list.
So the question is, do the Dodgers have enough dependable arms to withstand the inevitable injuries and regressions? And although it’s hard to say for sure without extended looks at Buehler and Stewart, L.A. fans seem to have reason for worry.
Other weaknesses: Second base, where Chase Utley and Logan Forsythe will reprise an underwhelming platoon; middle relief, where trusted options have been hard to come by for manager Dave Roberts.
Greatest weakness: Outfield
If there were any team in baseball that could have benefited from the deep pool of free-agent corner outfielders this winter, it was the Indians, whose depth chart currently features some potential but loads of question marks. Is 25-year-old Bradley Zimmer Major-League ready? Was Naquin’s strong 2016 rookie season a fluke? Will Brantley ever stay healthy? Is Greg Allen a starting-caliber player? Does Lonnie Chisenhall still deserve a role?
The Indians attempted to address their weak outfield last August, when they traded for Jay Bruce, and again in September, when they shifted Jason Kipnis to center. But now Bruce is gone, Kipnis is back at second base and Cleveland is again left with an underwhelming unit. Whether because they trust their young players, because their ownership won’t spend on top free agents or because they’re waiting for prices to come down or Carlos Gomez or Melky Cabrera, the otherwise impressive Indians have an outfield in desperate need of reinforcement.
Other weaknesses: Second base or third base (wherever Jose Ramirez doesn’t play); first base, where Yonder Alonso will try to replace Carlos Santana; back of the rotation, with Mike Clevinger attempting to repeat a surprising year.
Greatest weakness: Bullpen
The Cubs built a great lineup through drafting and developing young players. They built a strong starting rotation through free agency and trades. And as for the bullpen? They’re still trying to figure things out.
Chicago let incumbent closer Wade Davis leave in free agency, replacing him with Brandon Morrow — a hard-thrower who may very well repeat his 2017 brilliance (2.06 ERA in 43 2/3 innings) but also might crash back to his previous, less imposing level of performance. Setting up Morrow will be Pedro Strop and C.J. Edwards, good arms who will nonetheless rarely make opponents’ legs quiver. With Mike Montgomery likely to bounce between the rotation and the bullpen, the Cubs will need to get something out of fellow lefty Justin Wilson, who abruptly crashed after being traded to Chicago last July.
The good news for the Cubs (and other contenders with iffy bullpens) is that they’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve their relief corps before the playoffs arrive. How well they do so could determine their fate next October.
Other weaknesses: Centerfield, where several flawed players will compete for at-bats; top of the rotation, where there is no surefire ace.
New York Yankees
Greatest weakness: Second base/third base
At the bottom of a lineup loaded with All-Stars, the Yankees will lean on a pair of unproven rookies, who could make or break a promising season. At second base, they’ll use Gleyber Torres, a slick 21-year-old who ranks among baseball’s top prospect. And at third, they’ll call on Miguel Andujar, a 22-year-old with a big bat. The two possess only five career MLB plate appearances between them (all from Andujar).
Both Torres and Andjuar have star potential, and if they perform from the outset, they’ll add to an already-fearsome lineup. But rookies, no matter how talented, aren’t always ready. Relying on two of them, with only the newly acquired Brandon Drury around as insurance, is a massive risk for a Yankees team with World Series aspirations.
The Yankees trade for Drury probably ends their pursuit of free-agent third baseman Mike Moustakas, which could have been a useful signing. A one-year deal for Moustakas would have allowed the Yankees to proceed cautiously with Andujar, while sneaking one more veteran bat into the lineup. Instead, they’ll apparently give the youngster a serious chance to compete for playing time at the hot corner. The Yankees should be thrilled to have promising young players like Torres and Andujar, but they must also be careful about over-exposing the duo.
Other weaknesses: Starting rotation, which is full of pitchers (Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray) with ace potential but also serious question marks; first base, if Greg Bird again gets hurt or fails to produce.
Boston Red Sox
Greatest weakness: First base
Surprisingly, this might be the toughest team to pinpoint a glaring flaw for. With J.D. Martinez onboard, the Red Sox have the middle-of-the-lineup power hitter they sorely missed last year. What they don’t have, however, is a good answer at the position where big bats typically reside: first base.
After reaping mediocre production from Mitch Moreland in 2017 (.246/.326/.443), the Red Sox were expected to shop for a replacement in a deep first-base market. Instead, they re-signed Moreland for two more years. Moreland is ostensibly a bat-first player, but he has been only a league-average hitter over the past five seasons. Even with strong defense, he was worth only 2.0 wins above replacement last year (per Baseball-Reference), making him a borderline starting-caliber asset.
Moreland will likely split reps in 2018 with Hanley Ramirez, who loses his regular DH role upon Martinez’s arrival. Hanley’s once-fearsome bat has all but abandoned him at this point, and he’s coming off a year in which he hit only .242/.320/.429 while rarely playing the field and was worth -0.3 WAR. For him to be of much use, he’ll need to hit much, much better than he did a season ago and hold his own at first base.
Other weaknesses: Starting rotation, where David Price, Rick Porcello and others have a lot to prove; middle-relief, where getting the ball to Craig Kimbrel hasn’t always been easy.
Greatest weakness: Back of the rotation
Yet another team that could use an extra arm. Max Scherzer an Stephen Strasburg form arguably the best top-of-the-rotation duo in baseball, but after that things get dicey in D.C. Gio Gonzalez is coming off a surprising bounce-back year, but his 3.93 FIP suggests regression lies ahead. Tanner Roark, meanwhile, got hit hard last year and could go either way in 2018. With Joe Ross out, the rotation’s final spot will be filled by A.J. Cole, a 26-year-old non-prospect with a 4.52 career ERA.
And if anyone gets hurt? Washington can call on 24-year-old Erick Fedde and not much else. The Nationals’ best-case scenario is a redux of 2017, when Scherzer and Strasburg dominated, Gonzalez and Roark provided reliable innings and the hole at No. 5 starter never became a problem. Their worst-case scenario is that injuries and ineffectiveness expose a lack of pitching depth and the whole team suffers.
Other weaknesses: Catcher, where Matt Wieters comes off a disastrous season; bullpen, which could use another arm or two, even after last summer’s splurge.