Which Team Will Surprise in 2018?

March 28, 2018
  
Every year since I’ve joined BJOL, I’ve tried to identify a team that will surprise us in the coming season. My criteria is simple enough: I’m looking for a losing team that has a chance to improve their record by twenty games. Sometimes I get it right. Most of the time I get it wrong.
 
The guiding principle of this exercise is to ignore the noise of the off-season and focus on a list of quantifiable criteria that focuses on what a team did, and what a team is, and see if any of the losing teams from 2017 have a chance of standing out in 2018.
 
To answer this, we ask questions:
 
-          Is the team young or old? Young teams tend to improve, while older teams tend to decline. Is the team relying on players likely to decline in the coming year, or do they have players who are making strides forward to their peaks?
 
-          How’re things on the farm? There are multiple ways to look at this, but the general gist of this criteria is whether or not a team has help on the way. Did the team have a strong record in Double- or Triple-A? How do they rank in the annual farm system reviews? Are there prospects coming up that figure to be impact players?
 
-          What doth Pythagoras say? Did a team’s record in 2017 reflect their actual ability, or did they under- or over-perform the record we’d expect based on their runs scored and runs allowed? Were they good but unlucky, or were they bad but lucky?
 
-          Did the team contend recently? All of our teams were losers last year, but some of them were pretty good in 2016. Actually, a lot of the losing teams in 2017 had good years in 2016: the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners, Ranger, Mets, and Giants were all in the thick of the pennant race two seasons ago. Sometimes it’s easier to climb back to respectability than it is to get there for the first time.
 
-           Did they show any evidence last year of being a better team than the standings suggest? Did they have a good record in September? Did they play .500 ball after the All-Star break? Did they have any good months, any months where they went on a sustained run of winning baseball?
 
Those are the grounding questions: that’s the frame that has informed this exercise for its duration. In years past I’ve done formulas based on those questions, but I’ve skipped the formulas this year. I’ll get to why in a second.
 
I think I’ve written this article ten times. I wasn’t planning to write it for the eleventh time, but a few very nice readers sent along e-mails saying that they were looking forward to it, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
 
I wasn’t planning to write the article this year because this is the first year, in recent memory, where it doesn’t seem likely that a surprise team will win a division. We’re in the middle of a weird moment in baseball, where there are a) several really strong teams, who are b) spread out evenly across all six divisions in baseball.
 
The heavy favorites in the NL divisions are the Nationals, the Cubs, and the Dodgers. Those are the teams that won their divisions in 2016 and 2017, and they are the heavy favorites to win in 2018. In the American League, the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros, two 100+ win teams, won their divisions by 17 and 21 games respectively. Only the AL East looks competitive, but it’s competitive for two teams: I would be very surprised if the division champ was anyone except Boston or New York.
 
We’re in an era of Super Teams, and that takes the air out of the sails for potential upstarts. One of the criteria I look for is a losing team that has a good month or two, but if you’re playing in a league with two or three really strong teams, it’s a little more difficult to go on a sustained run. There are fewer wins to spread around: the top teams are holding most of them.
 
So we don’t get a lot of ‘ticks’ in the criteria boxes. This dilutes the exercise somewhat.
 
The other thing that dilutes the exercise is the preponderance of losing teams. Eighteen teams had losing records last year, which means that there is a wider-than-expected number of teams to consider.
 
So we’re in a situation where:
 
1.       A surprise team is unlikely to win a Division,
2.       They are less likely to tick too many boxes on the criteria we’ve traditionally looked at, and
3.       There are a lot of teams to consider this year…a lot of losers. We’re taking a one-in-18 shot.
 
But we’re going to dive back into the breach. Let’s find a surprise team for 2018.
 
*             *             *
 
First note: it has been my policy, in years past, to not count losing teams that have made a sizeable splash in the free agent market. The Angels were a losing team in 2017 (80-82), but they weren’t that big a loser…they were a game under .500. They’ve added Shohei Otani, Ian Kinsler, and Zack Cosart during the offseason, and they can look forward to full years from Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Cam Bedrosian, and Garret Richards. Given all of that, it would be difficult to label the Angels a ‘surprise’ team, so I haven’t considered them for the purposes of this exercise. I think the Angels will be competitive in 2018.
 
There are a few teams that are not trying to be competitive. Pittsburg traded away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen during the offseason, and they seem to be a team that’s halfway between full ‘rebuild’ mode and ‘let’s see if we catch some breaks.’ Detroit shipped away a bunch of players named ‘Justin’ (and one named ‘Ian’) and are likely conceding the season. Kansas City retained Mike Moustakas for pennies, but they lost Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, their two best players from 2017, to free agency. Finally, the Marlins are slotting the home run sculpture at shortstop this season, on the expectation that the twirling swordfish will have more range at the position than the team’s new owner.
 
That leaves us with thirteen teams who a) lost in 2017, b) aren’t obviously quitting on 2018, and c) can probably be labelled as ‘surprise’ candidates. Those teams are:
 
AL: Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles, White Sox, Mariners, Rangers, A’s.
 
NL: Braves, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Padres, Giants
 
I won’t run through a litany of how all those teams’ rate by the criteria we’ve listed. I won’t do this because it doesn’t really matter: only two teams ticked more than a couple of the criteria listed above. One of those teams was the team I selected as last year’s Surprise Team: the Atlanta Braves.
 
The Braves have a lot going for them. In Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, they have two prospects who rates about as high as any pair of teammates I remember hitting the major leagues at the same time. I am a Red Sox fan, and I cannot help but compare them, in my mind, to Xander and Mookie.
 
Except that sort of undersells the Braves pair: Albies looks like a second-base version of Mookie Betts: he’s small and compact, but he seems to just know what to do on the field, and what to do at the plate. He seems to play within himself, in the same way that Betts plays within the range of his remarkable talents. For a nation that has seen just fifteen players reach the major leagues, Curacao has an impressive record of producing talent: Andruw Jones, Andrelton Simmons, Kenley Jansen, Jonathan Schoop, and Jair Jurrjens have all made All-Star teams, and I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Ozzie Albies joins them this year. He’s a terrific player.
 
And then there is Ronald Acuna, who seems to stretch prospect hyperbole past the breaking point every time he steals a base or clocks a dinger. If Albies’ projection peak is ‘Mookie Betts’ (a very good projection!), Acuna’s projection peak is something like ‘Bryce Harper with Speed.’ Or ‘Hank Aaron.’
 
Surrounding the twin suns are a bevy of young pitchers, perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman, and former first-overall prospect Dansby Swanson. That’s is an absolutely wonderful bedrock for a franchise to build on. There is a lot going right for the Braves, and they’d be a terrific choice for our 2018 surprise team.
 
But we chose them in 2017, and it would feel like cheating to just run Atlanta out again.
 
And more significantly, they didn’t tick the most criteria boxes in our exercise. They showed as the second-most likely to surprise in 2018.
 
So who is number one?
 
The Phillies, of course. The Philadelphia Phillies are our choice as the surprise team for 2018.
 
The last-in-the-offseason signing of Jake Arrieta makes the Phillies a little less under-the-radar than they were a month ago, but I still think they’d count as a surprise team. The positives in their favor:
 
-          The Phillies are an incredibly young team. Last year their hitters were the 2nd-youngest in the NL, while their pitchers were the youngest. They have a lot of players who will improve this season, and very few players who are expected to decline.
 
-          They weren’t too bad in the second-half. They had a record of 37-38, which is close enough to .500 to call them a .500 team.
 
-          They finished the season strong. The Phillies has a record of 16-13 in September. They were one of only two ‘loser’ teams to post a winning record in September.
 
-          Pythagoras says they were better than their record in 2017. According to runs scored/runs allowed, the Phillies should have had a 72-90 record. They finished six games under that mark, which means that a swing in the ‘luck’ pendulum could be coming.
 
-          They have one of the best farm systems in baseball. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked their system 5th overall, while Baseball America rated them 6th. Their Triple-A team (Iron Pigs) posted a winning percentage of .565, the third-best record in the International League. Their Double-A squad tied for the fourth-best record in the Eastern League.
 
We can add other elements that support the Phillies’ chances of making a run in 2018:
 
-          They have a lot of players who look like they could break out.  Rhys Hoskins already has broken out, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some contingent from the J.P. Crawford/Jorge Alfaro/Maikel Franco/Aaron Althier/Nick Williams group has a big year in 2018. On the pitching side of the coin, Aaron Nola is already about 90% of the way towards becoming a top starter, and Jered Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez have had some successes at the job. It’s not a shallow rotation, by any stretch, and Hector Neris has them covered at closer.
 
-          They made smart signing moves this off-season. I loved the Carlos Santana signing, and I really loved the Jake Arrieta grab: after struggling in the first-half last year, Arrieta posted an impressive 2.28 ERA during the second-half, before being shelves by an injury. Both players are talented veterans who have played on winning teams: while there is no metric available for leadership, I think there’s value in having experiences veterans contributing on young teams.
 
-          They have a good new manager. I really like that the Phillies gave the reigns of the team to Gabe Kapler. Kapler is young and motivated, and he understands both the player’s side of the game and the sabermetric considerations. I think Kapler will win a Manager of the Year award before his career is over.
 
-          They have money to spare. The Phillies committed payroll, coming into the year, is about $83 million dollars, which isn’t a lot for a team like the Phillies. They front-loaded the contract to Arrieta, which means that they can target the likes of Donaldson and Machado in mid-season, and at least floatthe possibility of extending them into the longer term. They have the flexibility to make mid-season moves to patch whatever areas look like glaring weaknesses, and a deep enough farm system to sell off some assets without ruining their chances going forward.
 
So the Phillies are my choice as the Surprise Team for 2018. Go Phillies!
 
*             *             *
 
We’ve discussed two teams from the NL East, so I wanted to ask (and answer) a couple of follow-up questions, just to wrap this up.
 
1.       Is there a chance a team can beat the Nationals?
 
I’ll put it this way: if I had to pick one of the Super Teams (counting the BOS/NY dyad as one team) to not win their division, I’d pick the Nationals. They’re a strong team, of course, but they don’t feel quite as strong as the other top dogs. They won 97 games last year, but that was 97 games in a lousy division: the Mets struggled out of the gate, and the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins all had their eyes on the future. The Nationals should have won the NL East: no one else was really trying.
 
I don’t know about anyone else, but the Nationals, as a team, have always felt a little mercurial to me. Partially, this is because many of their best players seem unpredictable: is Bryce Harper going to hit .319 like he did last year, or .243 like the year before? Is Strasburg going to duplicate last year’s 2.52 ERA, or will he slip back to the 3.50 range? Will we get the Ryan Zimmerman who posted a .930 OPS last year, or the one who was at .642 the year before? Which Anthony Rendon is going to show up? Which Daniel Murphy is going to show up? Which Gio Gonzalez is going to show up?
 
The Nationals have scads of talent, and they are looking to full seasons from Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. They have Max Scherzer, perhaps the steadiest ace in the game of baseball. They’re stupid good, and it wouldn’t shock me if they win 100 games and the World Series.
 
But it also wouldn’t shock me if they wobbled a bit. The Nationals are the presumptive favorites, but they’ve been the presumptive favorites before and lost their way (2015), and I’m more impressed with the challengers in the NL East in 2018 than I was in 2015. There’s a chance.
 
2.       How about an AL team? Just for kicks.
 
If I was going to pick a surprise team in the AL, I’d roll with the Oakland A’s. They’re a young team with up-and-coming players, and they’ve made some quietly solid acquisitions (I really like the Lucroy deal) and trades in the offseason. They were decent during the second-half (36-37), and they played their best baseball in September (a 17-12 W-L record). They have players who could make a jump to star-level production (Dustin Fowler, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Manaea, Boog Powell), and some talented players in Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, and Matt Joyce.
 
Oakland’s biggest challenge is that they can’t win the division: Houston is a monster team, and if they falter I’d expect the Angels to fill the gap. I think Seattle has a little more talent than Oakland, and the Rangers aren’t anyone’s idea of awful: it’s a tough division to make up ground.
 
So what do you think? Who are your picks to surprise us in 2018?
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveFleming
Yeah...Kapler's start in Philly has been...interesting?

One of interesting challenges that life can throw at us is being given the reins on a sleigh we're not quite ready to handle. The last time Kapler managed...the only time...was a year running the Single-A Greenville team for the Red Sox. That was a decade ago, and while it is certainly work, it is a different kind of work than managing a major league team looking to jump the queue towards contention.

That said, Kapler is a smart guy, and if I had to bet, I'd wager that he'll figure this out quickly. And some of his mistakes were only bad in retrospect: it's not a terrible idea, generally, to let your best starters ease into the season, and use the cold weeks to figure out what you have in the bullpen. The Phillies lost a game they should have won, but I think that there was useful information in that loss. Kapler's a smart enough guy to figure out what the lessons were, and use those lessons going forward.
11:37 AM Apr 3rd
 
thedanholmes
After Kapler's head-scratching start, do you still think the Phils will be a surprise team? Gabe may not make it out of May with his job.
11:49 PM Apr 2nd
 
OldBackstop
People forget that big money free agents have one thing in common....age. You have to be prepared to double down on the bench, I think, to really count on the 30 plusers, or be ready to keep shoring up the walls.
1:25 PM Mar 30th
 
FrankD
I would like to see all the big money spending teams lose. But its unlikely. The Twins have a chance to improve but probably not surprise - maybe getting to 92 wins or so. What team is going to be the biggest loser - based on money spent and inflated expectations? The Nats are a natural pick for this, been underachievers for a while (underachieving expectations). But I'm going with LA Dodgers being the most disappointing. May limp into the playoffs but then one and done ..... teams crash a lot faster than they climb the ladder ....
10:43 PM Mar 29th
 
OldBackstop
wovenstrap, the 2017 Mets were utterly decimated by injuries, you can't mock the people that had them in the playoffs in preseason forecasts, including 538. No team could withstand that. They sold off at the deadline and their win total is really irrelevant.

Just got back from the game and they look pretty damn good. But you take any team and sideline 5 of their top 7 starting pitchers, they are going to win 70 games tops.

10:11 PM Mar 29th
 
wovenstrap
Glad to see this article! I still miss the longer list of predictions, but there's only so much I can ask!

The Top 7 paradigm mentioned in the opening section .... I share the perception myself, but I'm pretty sure we will all discover sometime in May that the premise was largely untrue. Think of this: Last year at this time, a lot of well-informed people had the Mets winning the National League. They had been to the World Series two years earlier and had lost the wild-card play-in game the previous year and seemingly had young pitchers crawling out of the woodwork.

The Mets won 70 games last year.

The Orioles had 5 straight seasons of .500 or better ball going into 2017 -- they ended up with 75 wins. The Rangers reached the playoffs in '15 and '16 and also had the best record in the AL in 2016 -- the Rangers dropped to 78 wins last year.

This kind of thing is incredibly common, and I don't really see 2018 as being even slightly different. We're still assigning past results to future performance, in my opinion.

It seems reasonable to guess that that sort of thing is going to happen to maybe two teams out of the Top 7 this year. The Dodgers won 104 games last year but it's not a challenge to conjure a scenario where Rich Hill has an off year, Kershaw misses some time, and Yasiel Puig has a temper tantrum and they find it hard to get it in gear. As 104-win teams go, they seem quite insubstantial. I'm an Indians fan and I think they'll be fine, but the Indians lost more than they gained over the offseason, including their pitching coach, an incredibly important contributor in this instance. The Yankees' manager is untested and the hiring process that led to Boone should not give anyone confidence in what the Yanks are up to, and it's incredibly easy to imagine Judge having trouble getting his head on straight while the Yankees stumble to a 10-14 record in April or something. The Cubs had an off year last year and we shouldn't discount the palpable probability that the Brewers or the Cards or someone makes a tough run at them. The Astros don't seem like they're ready for post-title doldrums, but it could easily happen. And so on.

Just wanted to get that on record before Opening Day is over.
1:09 PM Mar 29th
 
DMBBHF
Terry,

Re: the Reds.....man, I sure hope you're right..... :)

Dave,

I like your choices of the Braves and Phillies.....they're definitely coming up with some nice, young talent.

Re: the Phils....in addition to the ones you already mentioned, another young name to keep an eye on is Scott Kingery, who just signed for reportedly the largest and longest contract ($24 million, 6 years) for a player yet to play his first Major League game, and he made the opening day roster since there are no longer any service time considerations (like there is with Acuna, which is why Atlanta will wait a couple of weeks before promoting him).

There isn't a specific position opening for Kingery yet, and reportedly they'll play him in a kind of super-utility role. I'm not sure that's the best way for a talented young player to get his feet wet in the Majors, but Kingery definitely has the goods. He could be something special.

Plus, he's on my fantasy team, so he has to be good, right? :)

Thanks,
Dan
8:08 AM Mar 29th
 
ventboys
This is always my favorite article of the year, Dave. And like last year, I agree with your choice. I have the Phils making the playoffs in the comments on your bold predictions piece (my second favorite article of the year).

I see two other teams who stand a decent chance of going +20: The Giants (64-98 last year) and the Reds (68-94). The Giants might be the most likely, but they need to stop losing pitchers like they are reliving the Clue movie. I can still see 85 wins or so, but it's more of a dead cat bounce effect than any geniune improvement.

I like the Reds more ... they have a LOT of young pitching talent, and you never know - once in awhile, all that talent just becomes a great pitching staff. And the offense ain't all that bad, either, though it's overrated because of the park. They will most likely fight with .500, but they have a puncher's chance at 88 wins.

Atlanta could do it too, I suppose, though I have a feeling they are still a year away from that level, and for some reason I don't totally hate the Padres like I did last year. They could improve to 75 wins :).

As always, thanks for the great article, Dave.
1:40 AM Mar 29th
 
OldBackstop
Great article.

I think the Nats four starting studs, all over 30, could disappoint. And I am scared of the Phillies.

What I can't find a metric for is what seems to be the biggest single factor....maybe you can make up a name for it, Dave. It seems to me, maybe because I'm a Mets fan who saw the Cespedes Effect in 2915 and The Great Selloff in 2017, but it all seems to me to be about the front office in July.

What teams are going to go all in when they are .500 and 7 games back in July? What GMs have to win now? What contenders are just bulging with prospects to go get pieces? Which deep pocket teams can take on monster salary dumps to put themself over the top? What franchise's fans will rebrl in a surrendered season? What team's aging cores and pending free agencies mean this is it?

Quantify that one and you got something, Dave.
10:03 PM Mar 28th
 
evanecurb
I meant to post this last year at this time, i.e. March 2017:

I'm picking the Twins to surprise this year. They're much better than you think, and after you get past the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros, they have as good a chance as anyone.

Just never hit the "send" button.

This year, I'm picking the
7:19 PM Mar 28th
 
chuck
Great that you are keeping this annual piece up and running.
I recently posted some things on teams that win or lose 20+ games. I found some commonalities among many teams that manage to win 20 more games than the previous season:
1) a new manager, either in his first or second full year with the team,
2) the emergence of a young star player,
3) a star joining the team, or re-joining after a hiatus
4) an improved bullpen
5) improved defense

Under #1 above we'd have the Phillies, Mets, Rockies, and White Sox (thank you to klamb819 for that). klamb819 also pointed to the Phils having emerging young stars, potential impact players joining the team, and improved defense at catcher, shortstop and 1st base.
I also see from BB-Reference splits that the Phillies staff posted an 8.8 SO/9 ratio in the 2nd half last season. Over a whole year, that would have put their staff a close 5th, behind L.A., Arizona, the Nationals and the Cubs.

6:37 PM Mar 28th
 
steve161
Oh, and by the way: Dave, I hope you'll be doing this column long after Mike Trout is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
4:40 PM Mar 28th
 
steve161
I could see either the Braves or the Phillies--or even both--improving by 20 games, but the problem is that they're in the same division, so they'll take wins from each other. Of course, they could both make up the deficit against the Marlins.

Likewise the A's: they'll surely be better, but so should the Angels. It might depend on the Mariners.
4:34 PM Mar 28th
 
 
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