Which 2016 Playoff Teams Will Be the Most Vulnerable in 2017?
A few weeks ago, we noted that generally, there is plenty of turnover when it comes to playoff teams. Each of the past three seasons, five new teams have reached the playoffs. Just last year, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Washington all played into October after taking at least a year off from postseason play.
We’ve already looked at the teams most likely to surge back into the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2016. However, for there to be teams that crash the dance, there have to be teams that fall off. Now, let’s take a look at the teams that are most likely to be making room for this year’s new postseason teams, starting with:
3. New York Mets
This is not at all to say the Mets are sure to miss the postseason after qualifying in consecutive years. Their lineup, if clumsily assembled with an excess of corner outfielders, still features enough juice in the form of players like Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto to stay afloat. And of course, their pitching talent is prodigious. Per FanGraphs, the Mets’ starting staff projects to be second in the majors, which comes as no surprise with Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz, and Matt Harvey on hand.
Of the teams on this list, the Mets are almost certainly the team with the best chance to beat expectations and win 95+ games. Their pitching staff has such potential for dominance that a triumphant return to the top of the NL East is a completely feasible scenario.
But it’s that same pitching staff that makes the Mets one of the more vulnerable playoff teams from last year. In 2016, we saw just how volatile their strategy could be. Harvey, three years removed from Tommy John, was struck by thoracic outlet syndrome, a scary shoulder ailment that threatens careers. Jacob deGrom is recovering from surgery on his ulnar nerve after being limited to 24 starts last year. Noah Syndegaard and Steven Matz, both electric talents, dealt with elbow issues at times last year. And the player that surprisingly picked up the slack, to the tune of 190 dependable innings, was Bartolo Colon, who skipped over to the division rival Braves.
The Mets have so much pitching talent that even if they do sustain injuries, they just might stay alive. But teams that are built on dominant staffs like the Mets are simply more open to risk. It wouldn’t be a shock if a great rotation carried the Mets back to the playoffs in 2017, but even so, it would be no surprise if one too many injuries kept the Mets from extending their playoff streak to three seasons.
2. Texas Rangers
The Rangers end up here almost through no fault of their own. Texas was fortunate to win 95 games last season, but they stood to benefit in 2017 from a full season from star acquisition Jonathan Lucroy. The Rangers also made some marginal moves this winter to boost the rotation, bringing in high-risk/high-reward starters like Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross.
The problem for the Rangers is the strength of the competition around them. The Astros have been among the most aggressive teams in baseball this offseason, adding Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Charlie Morton, and Nori Aoki in a flurry of activity. Adding those reinforcements to an already strong core of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Alex Bregman, among others, has the Astros looking like one of the American League’s best teams.
Not only that, but the Mariners and their hyper-active GM Jerry Dipoto also appear formidable. Most of the many moves Seattle made were close to lateral moves, but they all added up to a team that looks poised to compete for a playoff spot. The additions of Drew Smyly and Jarrod Dyson shored up their rotation and gave Seattle a premier outfield defense, and the Mariners already had a few stars in Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz. Not to mention, the Angels have the best roster-building head start in baseball in Mike Trout, and if Los Angeles gets lucky with some health in their rotation, the Halos have at least a chance to bother the top teams in the AL West.
Overall, a strengthened division and a modest offseason threaten to leave the Rangers on the outside looking in in 2017. After a disastrous 2014 season, the Rangers bounced back with surprising 2015 and 2016 playoff runs, but with Cole Hamels and Adrian Beltre getting a little older and Yu Darvish set to test free agency, the Rangers’ window might be closing. They must hope that teams like the Astros and Mariners don’t shut that window completely in 2017.
1. Baltimore Orioles
Orioles fans may scoff at this ranking. Pundits and projections have consistently discounted Baltimore’s chances in recent years, only for the Orioles to make the playoffs in three of the past five seasons, winning the most games in the AL over that span in the process.
And yet here we are again, pegging the Orioles to take a step back. Projections systems are, as per usual, noticeably pessimistic about the Orioles’ prospects in 2016. FanGraphs currently projects Baltimore for a 79-83 record, while Baseball Prospectus’ recently released PECOTA projections are harsh, forecasting the Orioles for 73 wins.
Perhaps those projections should be taken with a grain of salt, as they have swung and missed on the Orioles before. But looking up and down the Baltimore roster, a sub-.500 season does not seem outlandish. Last year the Orioles mashed their way to 89 wins, with their homer-happy offense papering over the sins of their faulty rotation. That rotation looks just as poor this season, and it’s hard to envision the Orioles dancing their way through another season in which they have trot out copious amounts of Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson.
Baltimore’s position players (and their strong bullpen led by ace closer Zach Britton) were able to carry the rotation in 2016, but can they be expected to do so again? Mark Trumbo could be due for regression after a 44-homer career year, and age-related decline might be on the cards for veterans like Adam Jones and Chris Davis. This might be less of a problem if the Orioles had a farm system ready to provide fortifications, but the Orioles cache of prospects has consistently ranked among the league’s worst.
Add in the fact that the AL East was the toughest division in baseball last year and likely to provide at least solid competition in 2017, and it just seems like it might be too much to ask Baltimore to continue bucking the trend. Maybe the Orioles will continue to prove the nay-sayers wrong, and will extend their lead in AL wins since 2012. But the smart money is probably on the Orioles to take a step back, and with Manny Machado’s free agency looming in 2018, if Baltimore misses the playoffs in 2017, their time to contend just might be running out.