The way the past season unfolded stands to make the upcoming offseason really interesting. You can bet that every MLB owner who had his team miss the playoffs will remind his general manager of what Cleveland’s payroll was this year, and loudly wonder why his investment didn’t get a similar return. You can also bet that every general manager will go back to the owner, point at the Phillies, and say, “All we have to do is sneak into the playoffs, then anything can happen.”
How many MLB teams are looking at their rosters right now and saying, “Let’s be patient, next year is not our year.”
In the AL, possibly just Oakland and Detroit. In the NL, Washington, Pittsburgh, and maybe Cincinnati and Colorado. Everyone else is trying to convince themselves that they can hang around .500 until the middle of August, then get hot and see where they end up. It worked for Cleveland last year, and almost for Baltimore too. A lot of young teams like Kansas City, Arizona, and Miami might convince themselves that they are in the same place that Baltimore was a year ago (and, in Kansas City’s case, in a weaker division).
A couple of structural changes could introduce an element of uncertainty to the offseason. One is the balanced schedule that MLB has adopted. For the past few years, everyone played enough games within their own division that making the playoffs was generally a matter of owning those matchups. Cleveland and St. Louis, for example, were barely above .500 outside their respective divisions this season. With only 52 games within the division, though, it will be necessary to win outside the division, especially to gain a Wild Card berth.
The other major change will be the new rules against shifts. We can look at numbers such as BABIP to guess at which teams utilized the shifts most effectively, or which players which victimized most frequently by shifts. But what we don’t know is who will do the best job of adjusting. There’s a good chance, though, that someone will come out of nowhere and hit .320 next year, and the team that identifies guys like that will have a huge edge.
All of that doesn’t even account for the fact that there are a lot of good players on the market. Aaron Judge is probably the best free agent to come on the market since Albert Pujols. Somebody with big pockets could start next season with a rotation headed by Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom, who have five Cy Youngs between them (so far). Sure, most of the top free agents will end up with one of the same six or eight teams as always, but this class is deep enough at some positions (like shortstop) that some good players might end up signing for less than expected, which opens things up for other teams (like Minnesota did with Carlos Correa last year).
All told, there are at least 20 teams that can see a path to the postseason next year. That means the offseason will be wide open, and a lot of fun for fans.