Manager: A.J. Hinch (fourth season, 271-215, .558; overall, five years, 360-338, .516)
GM: Jeff Luhnow (seventh year)
2017: 101-61, .623, first in AL West; won ALDS over Red Sox, 3-1; won ALCS over Yankees, 4-3; won World Series over Dodgers, 4-3
Justin Verlander didn’t join the Astros until September of last season, but after helping Houston win its first World Series in the 57-year history of the franchise, his loyalty to the former Colt-45s is as solid as anyone’s on the defending champs. So we understood why Verlander took offense to the mere suggestion the Yankees are the team to beat in the American League this year, and as the ranking indicates, we agree with him. “All the players in this locker room know how it is — we won the World Series,” Verlander said after his first spring-training start. “It runs through us. That’s just the way it is. Everybody wants to talk about the Yankees, and deservedly so. They’ve got a great ballclub and the acquisition of Stanton is going to be huge for them. But we’re still the champions.” Bet on them to defend that title, too. Not only do the Astros get a full season of Verlander this year, they added Gerrit Cole in a January swap with the Pirates, a once-dominant starter who should benefit from a change in the competitive scenery. Of course, Houston’s success is built upon the young nucleus of AL MVP Jose Altuve, the World Series MVP George Springer and the uber-talented shortstop Carlos Correa. The list goes on, of course, with Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and super-utility star Marwin Gonzalez. Combine all that with a versatile bullpen, operated by one of the smartest managers in the game, A.J. Hinch, and the Astros are the total package, with the cash and willingness to make a midseason trade or two that should keep them atop the league again.
Manager: Aaron Boone (first season)
GM: Brian Cashman (20th year)
2017: 91-71, second in AL East; won Wild Card game over Twins; won ALDS over Indians, 3-2; Lost ALCS to Astros, 4-3
The Yankees completed what has to be the quickest rebuild in MLB history by going from a fire sale midway through the 2016 season to falling just one victory short of the World Series only 15 months later. Brian Cashman didn’t spend much time patting himself on the back, however. The GM shocked the baseball world by trading for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, creating what may be the most homer-happy lineup in franchise history with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird (once Bird returns from ankle surgery). The bullpen also should be airtight, as long as Aroldis Chapman avoids his ’17 hiccups, and Sonny Gray will be an immediate help as the rotation’s No. 3 right from Opening Week. But the person in pinstripes with the most to prove is rookie manager Aaron Boone, who comes down from the broadcast booth with no previous experience in the role. He’ll get little credit if the Yankees perform as expected, but face plenty of heat if they don’t.
Manager: Alex Cora (first season)
GM: Dave Dombrowski (third year)
2017: 93-69, .574, first in AL East; ALDS lost to Astros, 3-1
Despite winning the AL East, everyone in Red Sox Nation, from Portland to Providence, knew the Red Sox desperately needed another power bat to compete with the Yankees, and get deeper into October after two first-round playoff losses. So GM Dave Dombrowski did a four-month waltz with Scott Boras in an effort to land J.D. Martinez, the obvious candidate, that wasn’t resolved until after the team showed up at JetBlue Park for spring training. Give Dombrowski credit, though. The Sox got Martinez at their price, five years for $110 million, with the standard Boras opt-out features, but he’ll be a bargain if he performs at his recent levels. Over the past four seasons, Martinez has hit .300 with a .936 OPS while averaging 32 homers and 88 RBIs. The only downside? He’s played more than 123 games just once — 158 for the Tigers in 2015 — during that stretch and averaged 130.
Manager: Terry Francona (sixth season, 454-354, .562; overall, 17 seasons, 1,483-1,269, .539)
GM: Mike Chernoff (third year)
2017: 102-60, .630, first in AL Central; ALDS lost to Yankees, 3-2
The Indians have really perfected this tortured history thing they have going on. Against the backdrop of what is now a 69-year title drought, Cleveland blew a 3-1 advantage to the Cubs in 2016, then flushed a 2-0 Division Series lead to the Yankees last October, letting Joe Girardi off the hook (for a few weeks anyway) after his Game 2 brain lock. There’s no reason to think the Indians can’t be a serious October threat again, even after losing Carlos Santana to free agency — his replacement, Yonder Alonso, was Cleveland’s lone free-agent splurge on a two-year deal worth $16 million. In the process, the Indians also lost Jay Bruce and a big bullpen piece in Bryan Shaw to free agency so they’re relying on more Tito magic to spark what remains of a talented roster fronted by the Cy Young-caliber Corey Kluber and brilliant young shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Manager: Mike Scioscia (19th season, 1,570-1,346, .538)
GM: Billy Eppler (third year)
2017: 80-82, .494, second in AL West
Angels GM Billy Eppler is a former protege of Brian Cashman, so he’s not afraid of making bold moves. This could be the year a bunch of them — Shohei Otani, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler — pay off across the street from the Magic Kingdom. While Mike Trout remains the consensus best-player-on-the-planet, the two-time MVP has found himself in a teammate’s shadow this spring training after the Angels’ acquisition of Otani, who will split time between his rotation duties and turns at DH. How successful that experiment turns out to be remains to be seen. Eppler’s sales pitch to Otani included the opportunity to both hit and pitch, but what if Otani struggles at the plate? Scouts already have questioned his ability to adjust to major-league pitching, so it’s a situation that could put stress on the Angels as they push for their first playoff win since 2009.
Manager: Paul Molitor (fourth season, 227-259, .467)
GM: Thad Levine (first year)
2017: 85-77, .525, second in AL Central; Wild Card lost to Yankees
The Twins, losers of 100 games in 2016, pulled off the ultimate rope-a-dope last season by selling off pieces at the trade deadline, only to rally big in the second half and put a serious scare into the Yankees by taking a 3-0 lead against Luis Severino during the wild-card game in the Bronx. It was a historic rebirth for the Twin Cities — no team had bounced back from a 100-loss season to make the playoffs the following year — and GM Thad Levine worked furiously to capitalize on that momentum this winter by scooping up Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, Addison Reed, Logan Morrison and Fernando Rodney. The mid-March signing of Lynn was the real coup, securing him on a one-year, $12-million deal, and gives the Twins a much improved pitching arsenal to take on the Indians for AL Central supremacy.
Manager: Scott Servais (third season, 164-160, .506)
GM: Jerry Dipoto (third year)
2017: 78-84, .481, tie-third in AL West
Congrats, Seattle. Your Mariners now possess the longest active postseason drought in professional sports — 17 years and counting — thanks to the Buffalo Bills finally crashing the playoff party in January. How long ago was that? Well, the Mariners won 116 games in 2001 and still were eliminated by the Yankees that October. Their best player? Bret Boone, the brother of Yankees’ manager Aaron, who hit 37 homers with 141 RBIs. We provide the history lesson because these Mariners have a real shot at ending the misery, thanks to the tireless efforts of GM Jerry DiPoto, whose latest trades this winter netted Dee Gordon from the Marlins and Ryon Healey from the Athletics. With Robinson Cano already manning second base, Gordon moves to the outfield and Healey will take over first base full-time. Felix Hernandez had a serious scare in spring training when he took a line drive off his forearm, but luckily escaped severe injury.
Manager: John Gibbons (11th season, 720-700, .507)
GM: Ross Atkins (third year)
2017: 76-86, .469, fourth in AL East
Edwin Encarnacion is preparing for his second year in Cleveland. Jose Bautista has been jettisoned to free-agent limbo. The past glory of those Blue Jays’ teams is fading fast, and when the most baseball buzz in Toronto is generated by where Josh Donaldson ends up next year, that’s not an ideal scenario. Donaldson already has told Jays’ management he’s not interested in negotiating during the season, and the 2015 MVP figures to be a highly-coveted bat in the coming winter when he hits the market with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, among others. Based on his annual production, Donaldson doesn’t require any extra motivation. He’s batted .285 with a .946 OPS during his three seasons in Toronto, averaging 37 homers and 100 RBIs — firmly establishing himself as perhaps the worst baseball decision ever made by Billy Beane, the A’s vice president of baseball operations. Ace RHP Marcus Stroman (Patchogue-Medford HS), was slowed in spring training with a tender right shoulder.
Manager: Buck Showalter (ninth season, 622-569, .522; overall, 19 years, 1,504-1,402, .518)
GM: Dan Duquette (seventh year)
2017: 75-87, .463, fifth in AL East
The Orioles are tough to figure out. Midway through spring training, their big offseason move was getting Andrew Cashner on a two-year deal worth $16 million. Helpful, sure. But not enough to tame either the Yankees or Red Sox. Then the Orioles decide to make things a bit more interesting by signing Alex Cobb to a four-year contract worth $57 million, fortifying a rotation that also features Dylan Bundy. Still, the eternal question for Baltimore remains: can they put together a starting staff able to complement a lockdown bullpen and a fearsome lineup that boasts Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Chris Davis and Adam Jones? With Machado headed for free agency, grabbing Cobb may amount to a last hurrah for the Orioles, and a quick return by Zach Britton (rehab for Achilles repair) would help keep them around in the AL East race. The Orioles, on paper, still don’t have enough to topple either the Yankees or Red Sox. Then again, with Buck Showalter matching wits with two rookie managers, you never know.
10. TEXAS RANGERS
Manager: Jeff Banister (fourth season, 261-225, .537)
GM: Jon Daniels (13th year)
2017: 78-84, .481, tie-third in AL West
The Rangers took an unsettling stumble during last year’s 78-win campaign, a rare misstep for GM Jon Daniels, had who engineered back-to-back World Series (losing) appearances and three other shorter playoff berths before this new reality in Arlington. No wonder Texas seemed to be more on a nostalgic bender this winter by signing 44-year-old Bartolo Colon and a relief pitcher named Tim Lincecum, who won consecutive Cy Young awards a decade ago as the Giants ace. The cuddly Colon, a beloved figure around baseball, figured to be a novelty signing before the Rangers suggested midway through spring training that he might make the rotation. Meanwhile, Lincecum was ticketed early for the bullpen, and likely closer. Both are great stories, but we’re not sure if that’s a good thing for the Rangers, who will be relying on yet another ageless wonder — eventual Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre — to anchor a suspect lineup.
Manager: Ned Yost (ninth season, 629-632, .499; overall, 14 years, 1,086-1,134, .489)
GM: Dayton Moore (12th season)
2017: 80-82, 494, third in AL Central
OK, so we get the Lucas Duda signing. Even appreciate the irony (you don’t really need an explainer, do you?) But bringing back Mike Moustakas is kind of a head-scratcher. GM Dayton Moore had been preparing for this sad offseason, when it was time to say goodbye to the core players that brought Kansas City the 2015 title. Lorenzo Cain signed that five-year, $80-million contract with the Brewers. Eric Hosmer, in a process that dragged out much longer, went to the Padres on an eight-year, $144-million deal. The Royals had washed their hands of Moustakas, too, until nobody else wanted him. As in no offers, zero. So Moore got him back on a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $6.5 million, with some performance incentives and an option. Maybe that appeased some Moose fans on the cheap, but for a Royals’ team not expected to contend, there didn’t seem to be much of a point, other than selling a few tickets.
Manager: Bob Melvin (eighth season, 537-534, .501; overall, 14 seasons, 1,030-1,042, .497)
GM: David Forst (third year)
2017: 75-87, .463, fifth in AL West
Cheap free agents? Where do the A’s sign up for that? This market was made for a spendthrift club like Oakland — projected 2018 payroll: $60 million — and the A’s got lucky by waiting until early March for a crack at catcher Jonathon Lucroy, who agreed to a one-year, $6.5-million deal. The slugging A’s had power to spare last season, so they traded Ryon Healy to the Mariners in order to move Khris Davis to DH full-time. They also traded for Stephen Piscotty — a move that enabled the Bay Area native to be closer to his ALS stricken mother — in one of the more touching stories this offseason. On the field, the A’s are hoping their slugging lineup will support a rotation that is rounding into shape, led by Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea. Not a threat to the top of the AL West quite yet, but the A’s may be trending in the right direction.
13. TAMPA BAY RAYS
Manager: Kevin Cash (fourth season, 228-258, .469)
GM: Erik Neander (first year)
2017: 80-82, .494, third in AL East
The Rays have devolved into almost a perpetual state of rebuilding, except into shorter cycles than the successful period of the Alex Friedman-Joe Maddon era. And the team finally swallowed hard in trading Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise, back in December, choosing to shed the roughly $86 million left on his contract rather than keep him around for mostly ceremonial purposes in an AL East division that now has left the Rays behind. What’s left? Tampa Bay has a few talented pieces, with No. 1 Chris Archer heading a rotation that no longer boasts Jake Odorizzi (traded to Twins) and Kevin Kiermaier’s defensive wizardry worth watching in centerfield. But most of the attention in Tampa Bay area has shifted to the politics involved with building a sunnier alternative to Tropicana Field, a concrete block of a stadium that needs visits by the Yankees or Red Sox to move the turnstiles.
Manager: Rick Renteria (second season, 67-95, .414; overall, two years, 140-184, .432)
GM: Rick Hahn (sixth year)
2017: 67-95, .414, fourth in AL Central
One of these years, Chicago will be a two-team city again. But 2018 doesn’t shape up to be one of those years, as the White Sox plan to keep treading water waiting for their boatload of talented prospects to mature. This is what GM Rick Hahn wanted when he gutted the franchise during the previous 13 or so months, starting with the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades, then going full throttle on a fire sale at last year’s deadline. The only question remaining is whether or not Hahn is done yet. He still has two coveted players on the roster in Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia, so there’s an argument to be made that everything must go in the rebuilding effort. Hey, it worked for the Astros, right? In the meantime, enjoy the Yoan Moncada Show, South Siders.
15. DETROIT TIGERS
Manager: Ron Gardenhire (first season)
GM: Al Avila (third year)
2017: 70-92, .432, fifth in AL Central
The Tigers swapped digital for analog when they fired Brad Ausmus and replaced him with Ron Gardenhire for the manager’s job, the only offseason hire that featured a candidate with actual experience at the gig. Maybe they thought all those years with the Twins imbued Gardenhire with a patience he’s going to need in Detroit, where GM Al Avila has been in full-rebuild mode for a while. Standing amid all this construction is future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, whose bloated contract — guaranteed $184 million through 2023 — makes him an immovable object. That money looks even worse with Cabrera coming off a terrible season, hitting a career-low .249 with a .728 OPS, a personal rock bottom. Otherwise, Avila can look to trade a few more chips, like Michael Fulmer and Jose Iglesias, once he gauges the interest in the weeks leading up to the deadline. The best part of the Tigers’ season will come June 4, when they have the No. 1 pick in MLB’s first-year player draft.
With Opening Day right around the corner, Newsday baseball columnist David Lennon explains the 10 things he likes most about baseball. (Newsday/David Lennon; Photo credits: Newsday archives, AP, Getty Images).Newsday's 2018 baseball previewWith the excitement that arrives this time every year, the start of baseball season always ...