The Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Boston Red Sox are expected to duel it out in the American League playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and Washington Nationals are expected to do the same in the National League.
But who’s to say those teams are definitely the ones doing so in October when, in fact, there are many ballclubs who possess the firepower to make a playoff push too? Here are five under-the-radar teams who could make a playoff push or give Major League Baseball’s best a run for its money.
No team had a more decisive offseason than the Minnesota Twins. Agreeing to terms with righty Lance Lynn, first baseman Logan Morrison, relievers Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney, and trading for Jake Odorizzi, management did a great job adding onto their 85-win 2017 roster. With the additions of Lynn (who has a 3.38 career ERA) and Odorizzi (who has a 3.83 career ERA) to a rotation that’s headlined by Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios, the Twins have established a top-ten rotation. And if veteran Phil Hughes can rebound, he’ll make their staff even more lethal.
In Reed and Rodney, the Twins add two much-needed proven commodities to their bullpen after their pen was its Achilles heel in 2017. And with the insertion of Morrison (who hit a career-high 38 home runs in 2017) into their order, manager Paul Molitor now has a middle-of-the-order power bat to round out his electric lineup which features Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Eduardo Escobar and Twins’ royalty Joe Mauer.
The Twins have improved every facet of their ballclub. After making a 26-game jump in 2017, the revamped Twins are a legitimate Wild Card and maybe even AL Central threat this season.
As crazy as it may sound at first thought, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Baltimore Orioles to be back in the Wild Card mix this season based on the sole premise that their rotation cannot be any worse than it was last season. With veterans’ Chris Tillman (7.84 ERA in 2017), Kevin Gausman (4.68 ERA in 2017) and Wade Miley (5.61 ERA in 2017) all pitching at disturbingly bad levels last season, it would be hard to envision them duplicating those epic woes in 2018. Tillman has showcased the ability in the past to be a reliable top of the rotation righty and Gausman has been a valuable middle of the rotation arm. Plus, Dylan Dundy will be looking to continue his development in becoming a dominant right-hander; management also signed Andrew Cashner to a two-year deal.
While not an overpowering threat on the rubber, Cashner has proved he can be a top of the rotation arm and get hitters to ground out. Recording a 3.40 ERA in 2017, the 31-year-old will likely be Baltimore’s ace from the get-go and, at the very least, relieve manager Buck Showalter a tad bit. And whenever you have a lineup that contains big names such as Manny Machado (who appears to be playing in Camden Yards through this season despite rumors of a potential departure all offseason), Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Chris Davis, Tim Beckham and Trey Mancini, being a competitive team is always feasible.
Beating out the Yankees and Red Sox in the division is likely a stretch but, barring injury and/or a duplication of last season’s pitching woes, the O’s can compete for the AL Wild Card.
After the Astros, there are no surefire playoff or divisional threats in the AL West, but the Seattle Mariners, if they can remain healthy, could challenge that narrative. With the acquisition of Dee Gordon (who will be utilized as the team’s starting center fielder), the Mariners added a spark plug to the top of their order to assist the likes of Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Ben Gamel.
Seattle will also be getting their ace, James Paxton, back from injury and his impact on their rotation speaks for itself. In the 24 games he started last season, Paxton recorded a 2.98 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 136 innings pitched. Now healthy, the righty should be able to return to pitching at an elite level. A Felix Hernandez resurgence can also never be ruled out.
The Mariners have a potent and underrated lineup in place and Paxton’s return will do wonders for their rotation. The M’s are a team to monitor for the second AL Wild Card.
San Diego Padres
The NL West is the most competitive division in baseball with the Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, and revamped San Francisco Giants. But the forgotten team in the division, the San Diego Padres, had a very successful offseason. Signing the best positional player on the free agent market, Eric Homser, to an eight-year deal, the Padres added a franchise cornerstone. While not a lockdown fielder, Hosmer does have a long range and is a contact hitter who doesn’t strikeout often. Hitting a career-high .318 in 2017, the first baseman will be looking to continue to excel at the plate in Petco Park.
In addition to Hosmer, the Padres added shortstop Freddy Galvis who committed just seven errors last season and also hits for contact. Inserting Hosmer and Galvis into the Padres’ order will add intrigue to a lineup featuring Wil Myers, Yangervis Solarte, Manuel Margot, and Hunter Renfroe.
While the Padres don’t have any top-tier arms in their rotation, they did receive a valiant effort from righty Jhoulys Chacin who recorded a 3.89 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 2017. With top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore on the rise, perhaps he gets the call to the Big Leagues midseason and the Padres begin to establish a reliable rotation around him and Chacin.
The Philadelphia Phillies were the most successful team in free agency when it came to landing premier players. Adding Indians’ first baseman Carlos Santana and former Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta, the Phillies got their feet wet on the free agent market in a big way for the first time in a while. Santana (who has hit 57 home runs over the last two seasons) provides manager Gabe Kapler with a power bat who can field his position well.
With the youthful upside that Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franko, Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph and Aaron Altherr provide, the addition of Santana adds a much-needed and welcome veteran presence to their lineup.
In Arrieta, Kapler gets a bonafide ace. While he struggled in the first half of the season, Arrieta bounced back after the All-Star break pitching like the ace the league is accustomed to. The former Cy Young Award winner can take the mound in the big game, catch hitters off-guard with his breaking pitches and is one of MLB’s best righties. With Aaron Nola looking to continue his development in becoming an ace of his own, as well as Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez aspiring to recover from their underwhelming 2017 campaigns and Ben Lively progressing into a reliable righty, the Phillies own one of baseball’s more intriguing pitching staffs. With their arms, young bats and offseason additions, the Phillies are going to be competing at the top of the NL East and maybe even for a Wild Card berth in 2018.