Before the season, my projection system forecasted nine teams to win fewer than 75 games. With three weeks left in the 2018 season, eight of those teams are on track to win fewer than 70 games. The ninth team is the Atlanta Braves.
For the non-Braves teams on the list, this is the harsh reality of the rebuilding cycle. You might hold out hopes for an Atlanta-like breakout, but those wonderful stories are exceptional because those teams are, well, the exceptions. For the others, you knew you were probably going to lose big, and now that you have, you turn your attention to next year, hoping to be 2019's version of the Braves, or perhaps the Oakland Athletics.
Let's run through the clubs that are rebuilding at least to some degree, entered the season as a rebuilder, or will exit the season with the specter of a rebuild looming. Seventeen of baseball's 30 teams fall under one of those descriptions. I've divided the teams into groups, but the ranking runs through all the categories, from best to worst. It's just that some groups are higher on the rebuild ladder than others. The overarching question is this: How well has the team leveraged the 2018 season to reach contention at some point in the (hopefully) near future?
Graduated and loving it
These teams entered the season thought to be still in rebuilding mode but turned the corner during the year. Not only did they contend, they behaved like a contender. That is, they added talent to fill roster holes rather than move talent for prospects or to free up payroll. These are the teams the other non-contenders want to be when they grow up.
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Neither the Braves nor the A's loaded up last winter in a fashion that would have foretold their respective breakouts. Nevertheless, the Braves have been a wire-to-wire contender, and the A's caught fire in June and have rarely let up since. Both look like sure things for October baseball at this point.
The Phillies have also hung around for most of the season. Their story is different in that Philly invested heavily in the offseason free-agent market, adding Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta. Then, during the season, the Phils have made numerous moves to fill roster holes with veteran acquisitions. Despite the aggressiveness, it now looks as if the Phillies peaked in May.
Still, once you've reached contention, by definition you have advanced beyond the rebuilding cycle, so that makes these three clubs the no-brainer picks for the top of these specialized rankings.
The Braves get the top spot because so much of their success has come from rookies, such as NL Rookie of the Year candidate Ronald Acuna Jr. Atlanta has under-25 regulars at both spots on the left side of the infield, and even if third baseman Johan Camargo ends up in a utility role, the Braves still have top prospect Austin Riley waiting in the wings to take over at third base. Meanwhile, the Braves have unleashed a flood of young arms on the National League, with more on the way. It's this combination of remaining minor league depth to go with the young stars we've already seen in Atlanta -- Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, et al. -- that gives the Braves the top spot.
Matt Chapman has turned into an AL MVP contender, and Matt Olson has become a premier power threat. Ramon Laureano looks like a toolsy marvel, and reliever Lou Trivino should earn some Rookie of the Year down-ballot votes. However, Oakland's success has also been driven by veterans having big seasons (Jed Lowrie, Khris Davis), along with the front office's ability to find value in unexpected places. Much of Oakland's pitching staff falls under this latter distinction.
When it comes to next season and beyond, Oakland will have to overcome some tough luck with pitching injuries, a big reason why the A's have had to get so creative with putting together a rotation. Prospect Jesus Luzardo had a great season, but the spring training loss of A.J. Puk was but one of a series of setbacks. Because of that, you can argue that the going-forward rankings should read Braves, Phillies and Athletics. But I'm giving the A's the nod because the playoffs are the playoffs.