Which Non-Playoff Teams Will Bounce Back in 2017?
In 2016, the Red Sox, Indians, Orioles, Nationals, and Giants made up half of MLB’s playoff teams. Each of those five teams did not make the playoffs in 2015. In 2015, the Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees, Mets, and Cubs all made the playoffs. Likewise, none of those clubs made the postseason bracket in 2014.
Baseball, duly noted as difficult to predict, generally keeps us on our toes as it cycles teams in and out of the playoffs. The best teams from last year might seem like the best bets to return to playoff glory the next year, but history shows that there will inevitably be a good chunk of turnover from season to season.
Ten teams made the playoffs last year, leaving twenty on the outside looking in. If recent precedent continues and a few teams from last year’s bracket fall out, which teams that were playing golf last October look most likely to ascend to the postseason?
2016 record: 86-76
Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has been the busiest man in baseball this winter. He unleashed a dizzying flurry of activity last week, flipping top prospect Luiz Gohara to Atlanta for reliever Shae Simmons and outfielder Mallex Smith, before swinging Smith to Tampa Bay for Drew Smyly. Dipoto also flipped Seth Smith for Yovani Gallardo, and brought in Jarrod Dyson in exchange for Nate Karns.
This is without even mentioning one of the offseason’s earliest blockbusters, the deal that sent Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte to Arizona in exchange for Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger. According to FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan, Dipoto and the Mariners have been involved in nearly a quarter of the league’s trades since Dipoto took the job late in 2015. Dipoto has been dealing like crazy, but did this spate of moves actually put the team in position to win?
The answer is a bit uncertain, but the Mariners do look like slightly better off now than they did a dozen moves ago. The left-handed Smyly profiles as a strong pickup for a rotation that has been weakened by the loss of Walker and the decline of Felix Hernandez. Smyly is coming off a trying year, one in which he set a career-high with 175.1 innings but struggled to a 4.89 ERA. Yet he still ran typically strong strikeout-to-walk numbers, and has a track record of impressive performance when on the field. If Smyly can stay relatively healthy again, he looks like a good candidate to bounce back as a mid-rotation starter for Seattle.
The addition of Dyson also moves the needle. Dyson received limited playing time in Kansas City, but still totaled over 10 fWAR across the past four seasons. A below average hitter, Dyson creates his value as an excellent outfielder and baserunner. He joins an outfield that includes the defensively gifted Haniger, as well as incumbent center fielder Leonys Martin. They might not hit much, but Dyson looks likely to contribute to an outfield defense nearly as excellent as the one he left in Kansas City.
Overall, Dipoto’s moves were enough to push Seattle to the fourth best projected record in the AL. He took a creative route to get there, but the trigger-happy GM looks to have given the Mariners a legitimate chance to secure a Wild Card in 2017.
St. Louis Cardinals
2016 Record: 86-76
It was a strange sight watching October baseball without the Cardinals last year. The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010 as they were eliminated from contention on the final day of the regular season. It’s hard to bet against them making a return to prominence in 2017.
For one, St. Louis may have been a tad unlucky in 2016. They won 86 games while outscoring their opponents by 67 runs, good for a 88-74 Pythagorean record, and their BaseRuns estimated record was an even better 90-72. Just based off their underlying numbers, the Cardinals were probably more talented last year than their final record gave them credit for.
Plus, the Cardinals added to their talent pool with a couple of dips into free agency. St. Louis looked potentially vulnerable in the outfield, with Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday reaching free agency. The Cardinals upgraded, signing Dexter Fowler to an $80 million deal. Fowler is coming off a career-best 129 wRC+ and looks like a strong addition to the top of the Cardinals’ lineup. It remains to be seen if Fowler’s fielding will suffer outside the defensive-haven of the Cubs’ outfield, but along with Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, he helps form one of the NL’s better outfields.
The Cardinals also moved to add left-handed reliever Brett Cecil, whom Steamer projects for a strong 2.89 ERA and 10.4 K/9. Cecil helps solidify what looks like an excellent bullpen, as he adds to Kevin Siegrest (2.77 ERA, 9.63 K/9 in 2016), and closer Seung Hwan Oh (1.92 ERA, 11.64 K/9 in 2016).
However, it’s the starting rotation that is the best reason to be optimistic about the Cardinals in 2017. St. Louis runs deep in the rotation, with Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Alex Reyes all looking capable of providing quality pitching. The Cardinals may have the luxury of employing a talented young arm like Reyes or Wacha in the bullpen, at least until injury forces a need among the starting staff. With such a deep rotation pacing a strong bullpen and balanced lineup, the Cardinals don’t look like the Cubs’ peer, but they do look like the class of the NL’s Wild Card contenders. It’d be a surprise if the heavens conspired to keep the Cardinals out of the playoffs in back-to-back years.
2016 Record: 84-78
The Astros had a disappointing 2016 campaign. After arriving a year early in 2015 to make a surprise Wild Card run, expectations were high for Houston in 2016. However, the team was dismal out of the gate, stumbling to a 17-28 record in late May that left them too deep a hole to dig out of.
Despite this, the Astros look like the best bet among 2016’s also-rans to surge back into World Series contention. It doesn’t take more than a glance at the Astros’ roster to see that a strong core has long been in place. Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and George Springer are the kind of young building blocks teams salivate over.
But Jeff Luhnow and the Astros moved aggressively this winter to make sure the core was appropriately complemented. First was the acquisition of Brian McCann from the Yankees to fill catching duties. Next were the signings of Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki to give Houston ample options in the corner outfield slots. Not done, the Astros signed Carlos Beltran to a one year deal, with Beltran coming off a strong 2016 in which he ran a 124 wRC+.
The Astros also added Yulieski Gurriel late last season, and he looks like a possible league-average position player going forward. The offseason additions, full seasons from Bregman and Gurriel, and potential bounce back campaigns from pitchers like Dallas Keuchel and Ken Giles, all combine to make the Astros one of the AL’s most scary teams in 2017.
Houston probably isn’t quite on the Red Sox and Indians’ level just yet, but they look to be knocking on the door. FanGraphs’ projections have the Astros clearly in the top three of the AL, projected to eclipse 90 wins and win the AL West. Most Houston fans hoped that 2016 was merely a blip, and bump in the road on the Astros’ long route from abject tanking to World Series contention. With the proactive moves of the front office adding to an already strong foundation, those fans might just be right.