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MLB: Teams waiting to pounce if the favorites falter

by Pat Opperman
by Pat Opperman

Each season, hundreds of prognosticators and millions of fans spend the off season predicting what will happen during the next MLB season.

Each season, some team falls flat on their face and another picks up the baton and runs to the playoffs.

Here’s a look at some teams lurking over the shoulders of the projected division winners.

AL East: Toronto?

The New York Yankees were all but declared the AL East division winner the day they traded for Giancarlo Stanton. It’s almost as if Boston isn’t the defending champ and isn’t also going to be better in 2018.

For what it’s worth, Boston will make it three division titles in a row. But what if either or both of the big two succumb to massive injuries? It’s more likely someone will highjack their team plane and hide them until the post-season.

Tampa Bay did some really… interesting things in the off-season, but Toronto comes into 2018 with real wild card aspirations. Remember that Toronto was in the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. Last season was a disastrous mix of under-performers and injuries.

The team made some less-than-splashy moves to correct last season’s deficiencies. They improved their outfield defense with Randall Grichuk and Curtis Anderson and added infield depth with Aledmys Diaz and Yangerte Solaris. There are several new names in the bullpen, as well.

They are as ready as ever to make a run at the title if the Yankees and Red Sox fall asleep.

AL Central: Minnesota Twins

Cleveland is expected to run away with the AL Central title, but the Twins don’t want to hear it. One season after a wild card appearance, Minnesota comes in with a better first baseman and a much better pitching staff.

The Indians wouldn’t have to miss their projected win total by much for the Twins to be a real threat. Not a surprising pick as the shadow lurker, but there isn’t another team in the AL Central with a prayer.

AL West: Seattle Mariners

Houston might already be printing 2018 World Series tickets the way everyone is talking. After winning the division by over 20 games last year, they made their team better by putting Gerrit Cole in their rotation.

But who steps up if a massive flu epidemic derails the Astros season? The Los Angeles Angels made some big moves to get better, but they still have a questionable pitching staff. That gives the Mariners the edge.

Seattle is not perfect. Their pitching goes downhill after James Paxton and Felix Hernandez. They will rely on some veteran players for offense, starting with DH Nelson Cruz. They did make some nice moves in the off-season to shore up their bench and pitching staff.

The team seems determined to get back to the playoffs this season. If Houston falls, they could zip right by.

NL East: New York Mets

Washington took advantage of a weak division and a disastrous slate of Mets injuries to run away with the NL East in 2017.

New York changed managers and coaches, added a few pieces to their bullpen and an innings-eater to their rotation. Jay Bruce returned as a free agent and Todd Frazier should provide consistent production from third base, an issue with the club last season.

New Pitching coach, Dave Eiland, already fixed a flaw in Matt Harvey’s delivery that has the pitcher dreaming of a comeback player of the year award, and Noah Syndergaard doesn’t seem capable of throwing a fastball under 100 mph.

Mickey Calloway’s interpersonal skills already raised the level of anticipation and camaraderie in the locker room. The Phillies are the most improved team in the division, but it’s the Mets who are built to win now.

NL Central: St Louis Cardinals

Include me in the crowd that believes the Brewers might have played a bit over their heads last season. That’s not to say they can't compete for a wild card after revamping their outfield. But looking at their starting rotation, it’s difficult to fathom they will finish with the fifth best ERA again. The Brewers believe, but the Cardinals are feeling pressure.

It has been 20 years since St Louis missed the playoffs three times in a row and they don’t plan on letting it happen again in 2018. After falling short for the second time, they took advantage of the Marlins’ purge and snagged Marcell Ozuna for a package of prospects. Ozuna is the first real thumper in the Cardinals’ lineup since the lost Albert Pujols.

The pitching rotation has some big questions and big potential. The bullpen will use a closer by committee approach because they can’t find a true closer. But if the pitching can hold it together, it will be the Cardinals, and not the Brewers, breathing down the Cubs’ necks.

NL West: Colorado Rockies

Pitching wins games. Colorado has pitching. In fact, they have young pitching with tremendous upside. The Rockies also remember how they faded last season and will work to keep arms fresh through September.

Colorado spent $100 million to bolster their bullpen after losing Greg Holland and Pat Neshak. It should work for them.

The Rockies are not as secure offensively as they are on the mound. Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon formed the top one-two batting punch in baseball last year and enter what could be their last season together as both enter their walk years. But after that…

The team probably improved their catching production by signing Chris Iannetta away from Arizona. Otherwise, they are hoping some disappointing players turn it around in 2018. Ian Desmond and Trevor Story are at the top of that list.

Despite the offensive concerns, the Rockies' pitching makes them the best bet to take advantage of any unexpected Dodgers disaster.