The 2018 MLB season is just one day away!
When the 2017 season ended, the Houston Astros were celebrating the first World Series title in franchise history. With all of their star players back and some big offseason additions, the Astros open 2018 as the unanimous No. 1 team in our rankings. But who is hot on their heels? Will the Yankees bash their way to a title? Can the Dodgers get one more win and bring the trophy back to L.A.?
For every team, we identified the best- and worst-case scenarios and the one player who could make or break the season. We also included projected records and division finishes from ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski using his ZiPS system.
(Editor's note: Because the rankings were voted on by a panel -- David Schoenfield, Eric Karabell, Tim Kurkjian, Bradford Doolittle and Sarah Langs -- they might not match Szymborski's projected finishes.)
2018 projected record: 95-67 (first in AL West)
World Series odds: 9-2 (Westgate)
Best case: Ace Justin Verlander not only picks up where he left off last season but also helps new Astro Gerrit Cole rediscover his inner-first-rounder. Carlos Correa keeps all his ligaments intact and gives teammate Jose Altuve a run for his money in trying to become just the second AL player this century to win back-to-back MVP titles. Houston becomes the first team since 2000 to repeat as World Series champs.
Worst case: Two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani goes 6-0 versus the Astros (including a perfect game), while hitting .573 with eight homers off Houston hurlers, helping the Angels become the first team ever to go 19-0 against a division rival. Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers miss time once again, and even worse, they infect Verlander with the injury bug. The Astros become the 10th squad since 2000 to miss the playoffs the season after winning it all.
Make-or-break player: The Stros went 81-39 when Correa was healthy (.675). During the six weeks he missed due to a thumb injury, they were 20-22 (.476). No wonder the 23-year-old shortstop finished 17th in the MVP voting, despite playing just 109 games. Crazy thing is, based on his 5.2 fWAR (seventh in AL), Correa should've finished even higher. -- Eddie Matz
2018 projected record: 95-67 (first in NL West)
World Series odds: 9-2
Best case: It's championship or bust for a Dodgers team that came one stinking win from taking it all in 2017. While no one in L.A. would admit it, what might aid that cause is if a couple of starters beyond Clayton Kershaw prove so adept at navigating beyond 18 batters that it convinces Dave Roberts to give them a little longer leash in the postseason. Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Walker Buehler -- whoever. Just two arms that can ease the burden of Roberts' postseason bullpen.
Worst case: There is so much redundancy built into the Dodgers' roster that it almost feels immune to worst-case scenarios. But they exist for everyone. All teams, even the Dodgers, rely on a certain bit of star power. If Justin Turner's wrist injury lingers and ruins his season, and if Corey Seager's elbow becomes a bigger problem, and if Cody Bellinger's strikeout-heavy cold stretches become a strikeout-heavy cold season, and if Kershaw's back problems resurface, and if Kenley Jansen's hamstring pops ... you get the picture. Still, a lot of things have to go wrong to keep the Dodgers from the ranks of the elite.
Make-or-break player: Seager is probably the closest thing to a make-or-break player that the Dodgers have. If his elbow keeps him out of the lineup or unable to make the requisite throws from shortstop -- and there has been no indication this spring that will be the case -- then it creates an unfortunate domino effect. L.A. is deep all over but less deep at shortstop than any other position. Chris Taylor can play there, as can Enrique Hernandez. But if Taylor is taken out of center field, it creates a defensive hole at that spot, and Hernandez is valuable as a utility guy but might not be able to start against righties, anyway. It would simplify matters if Seager's elbow stays sound. -- Bradford Doolittle
2018 projected record: 92-70 (first in AL East)
World Series odds: 6-1
Best case: A 28th World Series ring is well within the realm of possibility for the Yankees in 2018. With a well-developed farm system that's paying dividends and after a few shrewd offseason moves, their power arms and power bats have them well-positioned to win big this season. Last year's earlier-than-expected appearance in the ALCS ought to also help first-year manager Aaron Boone's young yet experienced club.
Worst case: Health is a concern for every team at this point, but it is especially so for a team as carefully constructed as the Yankees. Such concerns caused New York to focus this spring on building defensive depth and looking for versatility both within the lineup and out of the bullpen. If the Yanks' season goes unexpectedly sideways, it likely would be due to key injuries that were tougher to overcome than anticipated.
Make-or-break player: This superstar-laden 40-man roster won't have many "break" players this year. That's especially true in the lineup, where the effects of one slumping player shouldn't have a deleterious domino effect. In fact, certain players will benefit from this deep lineup. Catcher Gary Sanchez definitely should, and he could be the biggest breakout player. His offseason defensive tweaks also should directly impact the Yankees. -- Coley Harvey
2018 projected record: 94-68 (first in AL Central)
World Series odds: 7-1
Best case: The Indians are coming off a 102-win season, the fourth-best win percentage in franchise history, and given that almost everybody is back, it's World Series or bust for a team that hasn't won it all since 1948. In a dream scenario, Corey Kluber wins his third Cy Young Award, Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez wins the AL MVP, Francisco Mejia wins Rookie of the Year, and Cody Allen or Andrew Miller records the final out of the season.
Worst case: The rotation is too good to collapse unless there is a slew of injuries (and Danny Salazar is already fighting a sore shoulder), but maybe the offense falls apart, especially if Edwin Encarnacion suddenly gets old, Ramirez regresses to good rather than great, Bradley Zimmer doesn't hit, and Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis can't stay on the field.
Make-or-break player: It's no coincidence that the Indians lost in the ALDS to the Yankees when Kluber pitched through a back issue and was ineffective, getting shelled in Game 2 and failing to get past the fourth inning in Game 5. If the Indians are to win the World Series, they'll need a healthy and dominant Kluber in October. -- David Schoenfield
2018 projected record: 89-73 (first in NL East)
World Series odds: 8-1
Best case: Speedsters Adam Eaton and Trea Turner both play 150-plus games, wreaking havoc atop the Nats lineup and helping Bryce Harper go over 100 RBIs for the first time. Way over. In fact, Harper becomes the first NL player since Sammy Sosa to crack the 150-RBI mark as he wins his second MVP award. Stephen Strasburg makes 33 starts, plus another five in the playoffs, and the Nats -- who have never won a single playoff series -- win three this time.
Worst case: Daniel Murphy's knee issues linger longer than expected, Eaton's surgically repaired ACL falters, and Harper gets dinged up again and/or crumbles under the weight of walk-year pressure. On top of that, Washington loses a key player to a freak injury at precisely the wrong time for a third straight season (see: Wilson Ramos in '16, Harper in '17). If all that happens, the high-ceiling Nats will slip and fall on their high floor, making yet another early playoff exit.
Make-or-break player: Anthony Rendon. A versatile hitter who was one of only five big leaguers with more walks than whiffs last year, his steady glove work gets overlooked at a position that has been home to flashy fielders such as Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. On a loaded Washington roster, the 27-year-old third baseman might be the best of the bunch. He's certainly the most valuable -- at least he was last season, when his 6.9 fWAR was not only tops on the team but also best in the National League. -- Matz
6. Chicago Cubs
2018 projected record: 94-68 (first in NL Central)
World Series odds: 7-1
Best case: If the Cubs are as good on the playing field as they are on paper, then winning 100 games is not out of the question. They're talented and deep in most areas and had little drama in camp, as they boast established players all over the field. A not impossible scenario has seven position players hitting at least 20 home runs. Bottom line: The Cubs were good before they added Yu Darvish. Now? They could really be special again.
Worst case: It could take just one starting pitcher to go down for the Cubs to leak water in their boat, and if Brandon Morrow doesn't take to closing -- and/or several relievers aren't up to snuff -- then some demoralizing losses could follow. Like most bullpens on contending teams, the Cubs have a collection of good arms, but almost all have had their ups and downs or have been hurt in the past. Another thing to watch is how the offense fares against great pitching.
Make-or-break player: The offense is too deep to rely on one player, and the starting staff is top-heavy, so a smooth start to the year lands on Morrow's shoulders. The former starter has had his arm problems in the past, but the Cubs saw a dominant setup man all last season with the Dodgers and snared him to be their guy in the ninth inning. If he succeeds, the team is on easy street. If Joe Maddon has to go to Plan B, it could put the bullpen in a state of flux. -- Jesse Rogers
2018 projected record: 90-72 (second in AL East)
World Series odds: 10-1
Best case: J.D. Martinez lengthens -- and more significantly, strengthens -- the lineup that produced the fewest home runs in the American League last season, the top of the rotation remains healthy, and the many players who underperformed last year relative to their 2016 numbers bounce back in a big way. If all of those things happen, the Red Sox will have more than enough to three-peat as AL East champs and actually go deep in the postseason this time.
Worst case: Like any team, the Red Sox could be torpedoed by injuries to a cornerstone player or two. But attitude could derail them, too. In hindsight, several players admitted that last year's team was too tightly wound, weighed down by the daily pressures of winning in Boston. First-year manager Alex Cora was hired to bring a more positive atmosphere and to communicate more effectively with players than predecessor John Farrell. His ability to do those things will matter even more than his understanding of X's and O's.
Make-or-break player: The choice here could easily be first baseman/DH Hanley Ramirez, who ranked as one of the worst players in the majors last season by wins above replacement (minus-0.4, according to FanGraphs). But we'll go with $217 million lefty David Price. If healthy, Price will pair with Chris Sale to give the Sox a dominant one-two punch atop the rotation. But Price also must be a more positive influence in the clubhouse. His "us-against-the-world" act last season wore thin quickly. -- Scott Lauber
2018 projected record: 87-75 (second in NL Central)
World Series odds: 18-1
Best case: While hopes are high that Marcell Ozuna can boost the offense with the power bat it missed last season, the Cardinals' best chance to break into baseball's elite lies with its deep starting rotation. St. Louis needs runs to hang with the deep rosters of the Cubs, Dodgers and Nationals, but if the Cards break through with a surprise NL pennant, it'll be because they outpitched their chief rivals with more high-quality innings from their rotation than their opponents can muster.
Worst case: If Ozuna returns to his pre-2017 levels, it might lead to a worsened attack. That's not because the old version of Ozuna was a bad player. No, it's more because last year's Cardinals outfield was actually pretty good and needs the improved Ozuna to up its production. Meanwhile, for all that rotation depth we're emphasizing, the Cardinals are headed into the season without a clear-cut bullpen pecking order. Maybe it works, or maybe leads start disappearing en masse.
Make-or-break player: After missing the entire 2017 season, this much remains true of pitcher Alex Reyes: No one on the Redbirds' staff can match his upside. Reyes' role for the coming season remains unclear while the club tries to figure out the best way to leverage his immense talent while protecting him during his first season after elbow surgery. A healthy and resilient Reyes could be the ingredient that allows the St. Louis pitching staff to crystallize into something special. -- Doolittle
2018 projected record: 85-77 (second in AL West)
World Series odds: 25-1
Best case: The best player in baseball not only is the best player in baseball but also has his best season -- not unreasonable, given that Mike Trout set career highs in OBP and slugging last year (albeit in a year shortened by injury). Shohei Ohtani is the real deal on the mound and contributes at DH. The six-man rotation works. With Andrelton Simmons, Zack Cozart, Ian Kinsler and Martin Maldonado, the Angels are the best defensive team in the majors. They win 95 games and the AL West.
Worst case: Trout is great, and everyone else isn't. The Angels end up with the worst production in the league at first base and DH with Albert Pujols, Ohtani and friends. Ohtani struggles on the mound, and Garrett Richards makes just six starts for a third straight season. The Angels finish under .500, and once again, it's a Trout-free October.
Make-or-break player: It has to be Ohtani. The Angels are counting on him for 25 or so starts at a high level and, given that they jettisoned C.J. Cron, to serve as a semi-regular DH as well. Ohtani could end up the most exciting player in the league or an overhyped disappointment. -- Schoenfield
2018 projected record: 85-77 (third in NL Central)
World Series odds: 30-1
Best case: The Brewers needed help on offense after a dismal second half, so the additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain could be difference-makers. If the staff pitches like it did in 2017 and the offense takes a step up behind the two newcomers, watch out, because the Brewers' strength could be in their bullpen, at least at the back end. Closer Corey Knebel and flamethrower Josh Hader lead a solid group. Ninety or more wins is a possibility.
Worst case: The Brewers could be exposed in the back end of their rotation, as they did very little to improve in that important area. Chase Anderson and Zach Davies are solid, but the team will miss righty Jimmy Nelson while he recovers from shoulder surgery. There's no covering for holes in the starting staff unless the Brewers are willing to abuse Hader, who can pitch multiple innings out of the pen. The lack of starting depth could drop the Brewers' win total into the mid-to-low 80s.
Make-or-break player: Free-agent addition Jhoulys Chacin could be a key for the Brewers. The 30-year-old produced a nifty 1.84 ERA this spring after coming over from San Diego, where he made 32 starts last season. Considering the Brewers' lack of depth in the starting staff -- at least at the major league level -- they'll need that kind of durability out of Chacin to compete. If Nelson returns to form, it will take some pressure off the other starters, but for now, the newcomer on the staff has a spotlight on him. -- Rogers
11. Minnesota Twins
2018 projected record: 85-77 (second in AL Central)
World Series odds: 20-1
Best case: Don't tell the Twins that simply winning a wild card again will be enough. They could beat the Indians if the offense mashes like it did over the final two months. Logan Morrison, Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano could combine for 110 home runs, and maybe Byron Buxton becomes one of the best players in the league. If Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn post sub-4.00 ERAs, the rotation will be much better.
Worst case: The Twins went from 59 to 85 wins, so maybe their true talent level is somewhere in between. Odorizzi and Lynn could easily struggle, and the rotation could remain an issue. Fernando Rodney implodes as closer. Buxton is more first-half Buxton than second-half Buxton. The Royals, White Sox and Tigers aren't as awful as expected, and the Twins don't go 34-23 against them again.
Make-or-break player: Jose Berrios showed flashes of ace potential in going 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA, especially when that curveball is bending knees. If the changeup improves -- batters slugged .581 against it -- he'll be tougher against lefties, and he'll become the unquestioned No. 1 starter. -- Schoenfield
2018 projected record: 86-76 (second in NL West)
World Series odds: 30-1
Best case: With this rotation, the Diamondbacks can think big, like World Series big. Robbie Ray had a breakout 2017, and Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker could become household names in 2018. Paul Goldschmidt has two MVP runner-up finishes and was third last year. This is the year he wins it. The Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers to win the NL West and avoid that wild-card trickery.
Worst case: Zack Greinke's sore groin and diminished velocity are a sign of things to come. Godley and Walker regress rather than break out, and the lack of rotation depth behind the top five is exposed. Outside of Goldy, the offense isn't that good (Steven Souza Jr. is no J.D. Martinez), and even Goldy hits only 23 home runs because of the new humidor. Can you say 77 wins?
Make-or-break player: A lot is riding on Greinke, and while you never want to rely too much on spring training velocity numbers, there has to be concern that he topped out at 87 mph before the groin injury. There's a big difference between the 2.3 WAR Greinke of 2016 and the 6.1 WAR pitcher of 2017. -- Schoenfield
13. Colorado Rockies
2018 projected record: 82-80 (fourth in NL West)
World Series odds: 40-1
Best case: Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon finish 1-2 in the MVP voting. Carlos Gonzalez hits all season like he did last September (.377/.484/.766 ... wait, if he does that he'll win MVP). Ryan McMahon hits .300 and slugs over .500, and David Dahl takes over left field and mashes. Jon Gray makes 33 starts and wins 20 games. Bryan Shaw and Wade Davis are rock solid in the pen, and the Rockies win the NL West.
Worst case: Last year's surprise rookie starters are this year's sophomore disappointments. Gonzalez is again terrible for five months. McMahon's ZiPS projection of 0.7 WAR turns out to be accurate, Ian Desmond is a disaster, Davis' increasing walk rate becomes a problem, and Shaw burns out after years of heavy workloads.
Make-or-break player: McMahon. Outside of Blackmon and Arenado, the offense wasn't really any good last year. (Mark Reynolds was the only other player with a better-than-average OPS+). The Rockies are counting on McMahon to deliver big numbers at first base and provide some offense away from Coors Field. -- Schoenfield
14. Seattle Mariners
2018 projected record: 78-84 (third in AL West)
World Series odds: 50-1
Best case: The longest playoff drought in the majors ends after 16 seasons! Heck, Mariners fans will settle for a wild-card game on the road. For that, they'll need 60 starts from James Paxton and Felix Hernandez and for Marco Gonzales, who looked good in spring training, to be a big surprise. The offense is good enough, especially if Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager have better seasons and Mitch Haniger turns in a 5.0 WAR season (he was at 3.0 in 96 games as a rookie).
Worst case: Counting on Felix and now Ichiro? Is this 2008 or 2018? The Mariners are already banged up in spring training -- granted, mostly minor injuries, it seems -- but in a tough AL West, with rotation issues and potential age issues in the lineup, things could quickly fall apart as the Mariners plummet to the cellar and 95 losses.
Make-or-break player: They obviously need somebody to step up behind Paxton in the rotation, but Cano's Mariners career has been a yo-yo: 6.3 WAR, 3.4, 7.3, 3.4. He's entering his age-35 season. Does he have one more big season? That could mean an extra three or four wins. -- Schoenfield
15. New York Mets
2018 projected record: 80-82 (third in NL East)
World Series odds: 25-1
Best case: The story never changes for the Mets. If the starting pitchers stay healthy, New York will likely be in the running for the postseason. To put a number on it: If New York can get 900 innings from Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler and Jason Vargas, limiting Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo to long relief and spot duty, the Mets will remind us how they won the 2015 NL pennant. Admittedly, this is a target undermined by the realities of reality.
Worst case: If New York's disabled list again starts to resemble the Queens telephone directory, the Mets will again be headed for 90-plus losses. At that point, it might be time for the club to start in a different direction, one in which the foundation is built more on the certainty of position talent and less on the fickle nature of the high-ceiling pitching arm.
Make-or-break player: Syndergaard has looked dynamite this spring, and after some early back trouble, deGrom looks like he's back on target. That leaves it to a semi-rejuvenated Harvey to turn the Mets into a team no one would want to face in a short postseason series. The others -- Matz, Wheeler et al -- give Mickey Callaway plenty of options for piecing together the back end of a high-quality rotation. But Harvey is the one who could again make the Mets' staff extremely scary. -- Doolittle
2018 projected record: 81-81 (second in NL East)
World Series odds: 80-1
Best case: The Phillies' young nucleus has arrived en masse, and ownership bumped up the timetable with a $169 million investment in free agents Jake Arrieta, Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. Rhys Hoskins brought a jolt of energy to Citizens Bank Park with his late-season power binge, and the enthusiasm carries over into 2018 with the arrival of J.P. Crawford and newly minted multimillionaire Scott Kingery from the farm. The Phillies are probably a year away from taking down the Nationals in the NL East, but they could sneak into wild-card contention if a few things go right.
Worst case: The starting rotation is unproven after Arrieta and Aaron Nola, and the Phillies' young hitters are destined to endure some growing pains. Hunter and Neshek bring experience to the pen, but at a combined $34 million, they didn't come cheaply. New manager Gabe Kapler was a bold choice, but his unorthodox approach might come under some scrutiny from the media and the fan base if the Phillies get off to a shaky start.
Make-or-break player: The Phillies were counting on third baseman Maikel Franco to provide power and stability in the middle of the order, but he flopped in 2017. Franco's OPS dipped from .840 in 2015 to .690 last season. He needs to show more consistent focus in the field and at the plate and stop trying to yank everything into the seats. Franco is only 25, but he has more than 1,600 big league plate appearances on his résumé, and it's time for him to take a step forward and be a significant contributor this season. -- Jerry Crasnick
2018 projected record: 83-79 (third in NL West)
World Series odds: 50-1
Best case: They wake up and find that the 64-98 record of a year ago is just a bad dream. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria add professionalism and length to a lineup that ranked 29th in the majors with 639 runs last season, and Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt are energized by the addition of some new playmates. Manager Bruce Bochy is able to keep things together until Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija return from the disabled list, and the Giants enter September jockeying for position with the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies in a chaotic NL West race.
Worst case: Have we already seen it? The injuries to Bumgarner and Samardzija have put a major crimp into the Giants' rotation depth, and it's hard to blame the San Francisco players for suffering from a case of "here-we-go-again-itis.'' The NL West is loaded, and the Giants will have to lean hard on Ty Blach, Chris Stratton and Derek Holland if they don't want to fall into an early hole.
Make-or-break player: Bochy is a master of bullpen usage, but it was hard for the Giants to establish much consistency a year ago, when closer Mark Melancon was either ineffective or on the disabled list. If Melancon falters in his return from surgery related to the pronator muscle in his right forearm, it will only compound the fallout from the team's rash of starting pitching injuries, not to mention make his four-year, $62 million contract look like a really bad investment. -- Crasnick
18. Texas Rangers
2018 projected record: 75-87 (fifth in AL West)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: The Rangers' strikeout-laden lineup improves its contact skills at several lineup spots, and a rotation light on peripherals throws enough quality innings to allow Jeff Banister to mix and match with his bullpen in late innings. If those things happen, then Texas can squeeze into what figures to be a crowded race for the AL's second wild card.
Worst case: The offense is again a maddening mess of solo homers and prodigious whiffing, kneecapping a talented position group that needs to score runs to create value on top of what looks like a mediocre defense. As for that defense, with a staff that projects to be one of the majors' lowest in strikeout rate, the Rangers badly need their glovework to be more spiffy than iffy.
Make-or-break player: It seems impossible that Rougned Odor could finish a win below replacement during a season in which he hit 30 home runs as a middle infielder. Yet that's exactly what Odor did last season. The lesson for a player who struck out in one of every four plate appearances and five times for every walk: There is more to the game than swinging for the fences. Odor encapsulated what was wrong with the 2017 Rangers. If he can make strides, it might have more than symbolic meaning for the Texas offense. -- Doolittle
2018 projected record: 80-82 (third in AL East)
World Series odds: 40-1
Best case: Three years removed from scoring nearly 900 runs and slugging their way to a division crown and the ALCS, the Blue Jays will go as far as their pitching takes them. And they do have five starters with solid track records, two of whom (Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez) still possess top-of-the-rotation upside. If Stroman, Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Jaime Garcia stay healthy, there should be enough quality starts there to keep the Jays in wild-card contention.
Worst case: Edwin Encarnacion is long gone. Jose Bautista isn't walking through that door. Troy Tulowitzki is injured again. That leaves free-agent-to-be Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales to do the bulk of the damage. Nineteen of the first 61 games are against the Red Sox and Yankees, so if the Jays fall too far behind by the middle of the season, Donaldson could be on the move at the trade deadline rather than gearing up for one more playoff run in Toronto.
Make-or-break player: The Jays made a splash by acquiring Tulowitzki at the trade deadline in 2015, but his production in Toronto (.250/.313/.414, 24.9 at-bats/home run) has paled in comparison to what he did for a decade in Colorado (.299/.371/.513, 20.7 at-bats/home run). He's hobbled by a bone spur in his right heel and will open the season on the disabled list. Without a healthy and productive Tulowitzki, it could get ugly, especially considering he's owed $58 million through the end of the 2020 season. -- Lauber
2018 projected record: 77-85 (fourth in AL East)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: Buoyed by 11th-hour addition Alex Cobb, the rotation surprises; Kevin Gausman puts two solid halves together, Dylan Bundy lasts 200 innings, and Chris Tillman parties like it's 2014. Brad Brach and Mychal Givens hold down the back end until Zach Britton gets whole. Rookies Chance Sisco (C) and Austin Hays (OF) rake like it's autumn in Sherwood Forest, and Chris Davis produces like a guy earning $23 million. If all that happens, then maybe -- juuuust maybe -- a wild card isn't out of the question.
Worst case: Teetering around .500 coming out of the All-Star break, the O's decide to buy at the trade deadline (stop us if you've heard this before), thereby whiffing on the opportunity to deal impending free agents such as Britton, Brach, Adam Jones, and some guy named Machado. Oh, and then they proceed to fall off a cliff down the stretch.
Make-or-break player: Manny Machado. Not for what he does, but for what Baltimore does with him. The Manny decision won't make or break 2018 -- when the deadline rolls around, the Birds will already be made or broken -- but it could make or break the next few years for a franchise that's had trouble producing homegrown talent. Unless the Orioles find themselves at or near the top of the division in late July, they simply can't afford to let Machado walk away without getting prospects in return. -- Matz
2018 projected record: 75-87 (fourth in NL Central)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: One aftereffect of unloading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole over the winter is that the Pittsburgh roster now seems to lack the foundation pieces you associate with a contending team. For all the talk of tanking, the overall picture seems more milquetoast than anything. What could change that is if Starling Marte bounces back fully from his suspension-ruined 2017 season and Tyler Glasnow lives up to his formerly lofty prospect ranking and Jameson Taillon becomes a true ace. In other words, if Pirates fans can glimpse their next group of stars, then maybe winter wounds will start to heal.
Worst case: Well, let's say none of the above happens, and the players acquired from Houston and San Francisco (Colin Moran, Bryan Reynolds, Michael Feliz, Joe Musgrove and Kyle Crick) all generally flop. That would not be good. After this winter, the Pittsburgh franchise finds itself at surprising crossroads, especially considering the Pirates won 98 games just two years ago.
Make-or-break player: Sure, from a practical standpoint, it might be just as important for the Pirates that Gregory Polanco bounces back from a poor season, but Marte is the one with the star power. Pittsburgh needs him to find that power -- and soon -- or the fan base could be further alienated by the dealing of other favorites such as Josh Harrison and Taillon. -- Doolittle
22. Tampa Bay Rays
2018 projected record: 76-86 (fifth in AL East)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: It depends whom you ask. After they jettisoned franchise third baseman Evan Longoria, in addition to veteran outfielders Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. and right-hander Jake Odorizzi -- can ace Chris Archer be far behind? -- it's difficult to see the Rays competing for a playoff spot. But maybe that's the point. If the Rays bottom out now, perhaps they can accumulate enough high draft picks to keep stocking an already strong farm system in time to contend when their proposed new ballpark in Ybor City finally gets built.
Worst case: The Rays could really stink, especially if Archer and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier are the next players to go. What if the Rays stink so badly that apathy for the team reaches an all-time high? And what if that apathy dissuades Tampa-area politicians and corporate sponsors from partnering with the Rays on that new stadium?
Make-or-break player: We were all set to choose top prospect Brent Honeywell, whose debut would've been a must-see moment for the rebuilding Rays. But the 22-year-old's season ended before it began when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while throwing live batting practice and underwent Tommy John surgery. Archer still figures to be a pivotal piece for the Rays. Considering he is under contract -- for only $24.5 million -- through at least the end of 2020, he could be the most desirable name on the trade market in July. -- Lauber
2018 projected record: 76-86 (fourth in AL West)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: It's difficult to envision a scenario in which the A's edge the Astros, but a wild card isn't so crazy. FanGraphs projects the A's at 80-82, but Matt Olson and Matt Chapman could easily outperform their 2.4 and 3.0 WAR projections, Stephen Piscotty and Dustin Fowler will make the outfield better, and Jonathan Lucroy needs a bounce-back season. A.J. Puk could be an important midseason addition to the rotation.
Worst case: Olson, Chapman and Fowler all struggle to post .300 OBPs, Lucroy is washed up, Jed Lowrie regresses, and the defense -- aside from Chapman -- is again among the worst in the league. There's little upside to the rotation and a lot of downside if a couple guys don't deliver. The bullpen has a lot of hit-or-miss guys such as Blake Treinen, Chris Hatcher and Santiago Casilla. They could win 90 or lose 90 in a tough division.
Make-or-break player: Olson hit .259/.352/.651 in 59 games, signaling star potential. There's no doubt about the raw power, but the variance in his results is wide, from 45-homer masher with an above-average OBP to a guy who can't hit .230, doesn't get on base enough and slugs under .500. The A's need him to be a legit middle-of-the-order bat. -- Schoenfield
24. Cincinnati Reds
2018 projected record: 74-88 (fifth in NL Central)
World Series odds: 300-1
Best case: Joey Votto has another MVP-caliber season, Jesse Winker becomes another OBP machine and hits for power, Nick Senzel comes up sooner rather than later and plugs shortstop, Eugenio Suarez continues to improve, and the Reds have the best offense in the league. A couple of the young starters break through alongside Luis Castillo, and the Reds earn a surprise wild-card berth.
Worst case: Votto's age catches up to him, and he starts fading, Winker doesn't hit for power, Senzel can't handle shortstop defensively, and the offense is below average. The starting pitching is once again terrible, and Raisel Iglesias gets traded in July. The Reds lose 94 games and end up wasting the back end of Votto's peak.
Make-or-break player: RHP Tyler Mahle isn't a power guy, but he reached the majors in August at age 22 and is coming off a 2.06 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, in which he walked just 30 batters in 144.1 innings. He has passed guys such as Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson on the depth chart and could form a nice 1-2 combo with Castillo. -- Schoenfield
2018 projected record: 69-93 (third in AL Central)
World Series odds: 500-1
Best case: If you use your imagination, you can probably smell a .500 season: Think of Jorge Soler having a breakout season, Lucas Duda and Mike Moustakas both slamming 30-something home runs, Whit Merrifield continuing to improve, and the veteran starters all staying healthy and reasonably productive. Throw in a comeback season from Alex Gordon ... OK, let's not get too ridiculous here.
Worst case: Take a team that was outscored by 89 runs and subtract the two best position players (Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain), the best starter (Jason Vargas) and the two best relievers (Mike Minor, Joakim Soria), and it won't be pretty. The outfield of Soler, Gordon and Jon Jay could be the least productive in the league, and there aren't any impact young players. A hundred losses is possible.
Make-or-break player: Some of these guys are just placeholders, but the Royals really need Soler to cash in on his potential, given that the Royals' top outfield prospects are all a few years away and high-risk bets. Soler hit .144 in 35 games with the Royals but did slug .584 at Triple-A Omaha. -- Schoenfield
26. Atlanta Braves
2018 projected record: 79-83 (fourth in NL East)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: Freddie Freeman is always a candidate to finish in the top 10 in MVP balloting if he can stay healthy, and outfielder Ronald Acuna will become a Rookie of the Year contender the moment he arrives from the minors. If manager Brian Snitker can get some consistent innings from starters Julio Teheran, Brandon McCarthy, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, the Braves can hang with the Mets and Phillies and keep things interesting in the fight for second place behind the Nationals.
Worst case: The schedule provides an early test, with 16 divisional games against the Nationals, Phillies and Mets and road series at Coors Field and Wrigley Field right out of the chute. The Braves got off to a 22-30 start last year and were 11.5 games out of first place by the start of June. For the sake of clubhouse morale and Snitker's job security, they're hoping for something better this season.
Make-or-break player: Shortstop Dansby Swanson was a major disappointment as a rookie. He logged a .232/.312/.324 slash line and took a brief detour to Triple-A Gwinnett for a refresher course before showing signs of life in August. The Braves don't need Swanson to be a star. But if he can play reliable defense and contribute enough offensively as a situational hitter to stay in the lineup every day, he'll revive his career and be a significant part of the team's future. -- Crasnick
27. San Diego Padres
2018 projected record: 73-89 (fifth in NL West)
World Series odds: 300-1
Best case: The Padres finished 71-91, but other than adding Eric Hosmer, they didn't really do much in the offseason as they wait for the farm system to start churning out talent. Most of the impact talent is probably another year away, so they project about the same 71-91 level. That points to a .500 season as a real success, with the hope that Manuel Margot, Dinelson Lamet, Luis Perdomo and Austin Hedges make big strides.
Worst case: Given that most of the premium, young talent is still a year or two away -- though Luis Urias is one who should arrive at some point this season -- the Padres are still counting on an odd mix of players. They were last in the NL in runs last year and could finish last again this year. If a couple of starters falter, it could be a 95-loss season and back to the NL West cellar.
Make-or-break player: Hosmer. After signing the largest contract in Padres history, for $144 million, Hosmer had better perform at his 2017 level (4.1 WAR) as opposed to his 2016 (1.2 WAR). The Padres are banking on him to be a clubhouse leader, but it's going to be hard to lead if he isn't producing and is viewed as a salary albatross. -- Schoenfield
2018 projected record: 68-94 (T-fourth in AL Central)
World Series odds: 200-1
Best case: With young rosters comes high variability, and that's a good thing for a rebuilding club with low external expectations. So it is for the 2018 White Sox. Any surprise contention from Chicago would involve the accelerated development of a handful of key prospects, especially young starters Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez. Think the 2003 Marlins, who caught fire with the help of the young rotation triumvirate of Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis. The position group will hope for a breakout season from second baseman Yoan Moncada, continued improvement by shortstop Tim Anderson, and an in-season splash from powerful outfield prospect Eloy Jimenez. The 2018 path to contention is as narrow as a balance beam, but if these White Sox traverse it, it's bad news for the American League going forward because things are only going to get better for Chicago from here.
Worst case: Everything on Chicago's South Side revolves around the organization's cache of prospects, so if things go bad with the under-25 guys, then things go bad for the White Sox. Mostly this would involve a lot of development-stifling injuries, such as the ruptured Achilles tendon suffered by third baseman Jake Burger, Chicago's top pick in 2017, during spring training. Meanwhile, exciting Cuban outfielder Luis Robert injured his thumb and will miss the early part of the season in the minors. The collective development of a rebuilding team is rarely linear, but it's essential that the trendline keeps pointing upward for Chicago.
Make-or-break player: Moncada was the most big-league-ready of the prospects White Sox GM Rick Hahn imported via the trade market. He reached the majors for Boston during the 2016 season, then was called up for good by Chicago after the All-Star break last season. Through his first 41 career games, Moncada hit just .183/.310/.321 but then, over his last 21 games in 2017, he hit .299/.365/.517 with five of his eight career homers. The caveat with a breakdown like that is that the numbers were compiled against a September schedule. However, if Moncada can build on that late-season breakout, he'll become one of the better second basemen in the American League. Because Moncada was in the vanguard of Chicago's prospect influx, such an outcome could help light the way for the next era of White Sox baseball. -- Doolittle
29. Detroit Tigers
2018 projected record: 68-94 (T-fourth in AL Central)
World Series odds: 500-1
Best case: The projections have the Tigers around 68 to 70 wins, so given an error bar of eight wins, you can get the Tigers to the upper 70s. Beyond that? You have to dream on the rotation: Michael Fulmer as an ace, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris finally putting everything together, Jordan Zimmermann somehow finding his stuff again and Francisco Liriano being decent enough. Oh, and Miguel Cabrera finding the 250 points of OPS he lost in 2017.
Worst case: Even if Cabrera bounces back, this could be the worst offense in the league. You're subtracting Ian Kinsler, 125 games of Justin Upton and 57 games of J.D. Martinez from an offense that was just 10th in runs in the AL. This team won't lose 119 games like the 2003 team, but it could lose 100.
Make-or-break player: The Tigers desperately need Cabrera to prove that last year's numbers were a combination of bad luck and a bad back. He's under contract for at least six more seasons and $184 million, and the Tigers need to find out if he's a viable part of the future. -- Schoenfield
30. Miami Marlins
2018 projected record: 64-98 (fifth in NL East)
World Series odds: 500-1
Best case: It will take more than one season to ease the angst of long-embittered Marlins fans. That process could be considerably aided if some of the bounty from the team's sell-off shows that the latest rebuild might not be interminable. Lewis Brinson has a shot to become a fan favorite right from the start, and if Monte Harrison and Sandy Alcantara, among others, can join him during the season, it'll be a much-needed ray of hope for Miami.
Worst case: The Marlins don't necessarily have to be historically awful, but that potential outcome is there for a roster that has a lot of built-in volatility. That starts in the rotation, where Dan Straily is already ailing and depth options are few. Meanwhile, if the youngest members of the offense don't look ready and star catcher J.T. Realmuto forces his way into a trade, this winter might never end in South Florida.
Make-or-break player: Brinson, as a big-league-ready center fielder with exciting power and athleticism, is best positioned to become Miami's stopgap franchise player. Brinson has looked ready with big spring training numbers. However, in a 21-game debut for Milwaukee last season, he went 5-for-47. Still, Brinson has the ability to challenge for NL Rookie of the Year honors and win back a few of those doubting fans. It doesn't hurt that he's a Coral Springs product. -- Doolittle