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    Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins have the Philadelphia Phillies a bright future.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    A clear upper class has taken over MLB, which poses major problems for everyone else.

    From 2012 to 2014, no team won 100 or more games during the regular season. Before 2017, no year featured two 100-win squads since the St. Louis Cardinals (105) and New York Yankees (101) in 2004.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros all hit the century mark this season, fueled by young, home-grown talent. It would have taken an avalanche of bad luck to keep any of them out of the playoffs, and the same can be said for next year.

    The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals also have the star talent and financial resources to remain title contenders. Good luck to any other teams looking to climb back into contention.

    Everyone else should give thanks to the second wild-card spots. Under the old format, the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies would have packed their bags in September. Instead, they reached the playoffs with 85 and 87 victories, respectively, after finishing below .500 in 2016.

    For the highlighted teams who can improve next year, that’s the bar they’re aiming to reach. Simply vying for a .500 record would represent major progress and a moral victory for a couple of these organizations.

    The Nationals, who clinched the National League East with three weeks remaining, should expect an elevated level of competition.

    Because of rising young talent and/or cleared payroll space, these franchises are a couple of upgrades away from making noise in 2018.

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    Odubel Herrera rebounded from a slow start down the stretch.

    Odubel Herrera rebounded from a slow start down the stretch.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Phillies are not a frugal franchise. Three years ago, per Spotrac, they were responsible for MLB’s third-highest payroll behind the Dodgers and Yankees.

    They paid for their reckless spending. Following five straight playoff appearances, they have gone six seasons without a winning record. Yet they will enter the offseason with a clean slate.

    Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Jonathan Papelbon are off the books. Odubel Herrera, who will make $3 million in the second year of an extension with club options through 2022, is the only non-arbitration player under contract beyond 2017.

    Philadelphia could bide its time and wait for next offseason’s stacked free-agent crop. It probably needs the extra year to build a true threat anyway. A patient approach worked for the Houston Astros, who kept their ledgers clear until they could contend.

    The Phillies appear to have different plans. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal called them “a team in position to make a splash, maybe even multiple splashes this winter.” He said they remain interested in Miami Marlins outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, whom Rosenthal previous linked to the Phillies in July. 

    Even if that’s aiming too high, Philadelphia should improve on 2017’s 66-96 record by bringing aboard a few mid-tier free agents, particularly pitchers.

    The lineup will progress with a full season from Jorge Alfaro, J.P. Crawford, Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams and breakout star Rhys Hoskins. After the All-Star break, they ranked No. 13 in weighted on-base average. Hoskins led the way with 18 homers in 50 games, and Herrera rebounded from a discouraging first half to hit .323/.378/.551 in the second half.

    They could also welcome another promising prospect in second baseman Scott Kingery, who hit .304/.359/.530 with 26 homers and 29 steals in Double-A and Triple-A.

    An exciting blend of spending power and young talent makes the Phillies a team on the upswing.

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    Matt Olson gave the Oakland Athletics hope for 2018 with 20 second-half home runs.

    Matt Olson gave the Oakland Athletics hope for 2018 with 20 second-half home runs.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The Oakland Athletics don’t possess Philadelphia’s big budget, but they also watched a rookie slugger inspire hope with a late power barrage.

    Because of a dim first impression, Matt Olson received less attention than the other hulking newcomers. Yet the first baseman finished 2017 fiercely with 20 home runs in 43 second-half games and ended his debut season with a .411 wOBA and 1.003 OPS.

    He’s not the only reason Oakland is a 2018 sleeper. On the other side of the infield, fellow neophyte Matt Chapman posted 2.7 WAR in 84 games on account of his stellar glove. After finishing last in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and defensive WAR, the A’s must move past their aversion to fielding.

    Although once the case, defensively challenged sluggers are no longer a market inefficiency. If anything, they are a common commodity. 

    Olson and Chapman give their lineup a powerful punch alongside Khris Davis and Ryon Healy. Coming off a bounce-back campaign, Jed Lowrie is either a strong second baseman or a valuable trade asset with Franklin Barretto waiting for a full-time role. 

    Oakland needs a center fielder who can adequately man the demanding position. It might have its answer in Dustin Fowler, acquired from the Yankees in the Sonny Gray trade. Although he suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his MLB debut, the 22-year-old’s new team hopes he can compete for the starting gig in March, per Joe Stiglich of NBC Sports California.

    The Athletics, who won 17 of their final 24 games, have the lineup to assemble a sneaky wild-card contender with better pitching. That will be tough, but possible, after trading Gray, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Daniel Mengden closed 2017 with a 3.14 ERA in seven starts, but Jharel Cotton could be the key to assembling a solid rotation behind Sean Manaea.

    With no noteworthy veterans clogging the payroll, executive vice president Billy Beane can go bargain hunting for free-agent additions. He hit big on Yonder Alonso last winter.

    They are not AL West favorites by any stretch of the imagination. They very well could struggle again. Yet the A’s are an interesting team to watch.

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    Blake Snell showed immense upside down the stretch, ending 2017 with a 13-strikeout gem.

    Blake Snell showed immense upside down the stretch, ending 2017 with a 13-strikeout gem.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    A veritable wild-card candidate, the Tampa Bays stumbled to 80-82 this year. Having now gone four straight years without reaching .500, they need to make moves to contend or start from scratch.

    One thing is certain: They won’t—and probably can’t—change their spending habits to keep pace with the Red Sox and Yankees. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marc Topkin, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said he will “absolutely” reduce their payroll next season.

    “There’s no set number,” Sternberg said. “But being we’re so far above what we’ve spent ever before and way outside of what we can spend and should spend, the first move is down.”

    Entering 2017 with a payroll of around $70 million, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Rays added salary by acquiring Adeiny Hechavarria, Sergio Romo, Steve Cishek and Lucas Duda during the summer. All of them are free agents, and they will likely lose Alex Cobb and Logan Morrison to the open market.

    Despite those setbacks, they have the talent to pester their big-market AL East adversaries. If the Blake Snell who posted a 3.49 ERA, 74 strikeouts and 25 walks in 77.1 second-half innings sticks around throughout 2018, they will have a new No. 2 or 3 starter alongside Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.

    Jake Faria registered a 3.43 ERA in a rookie campaign interrupted by an abdominal strain. Brent Honeywell,’s No. 11 prospect, could earn an Opening Day spot after notching 172 strikeouts in 136.2 minor league innings. Most excited onlookers thought the hyped right-handed hurler would join the bigs this summer.

    They will have to replace Morrison and/or Duda, but the lineup will retain Evan Longoria, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson and defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier. Help may lie internally. Shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers should earn MLB promotions in 2018.

    If they hit on a couple of infielders and relievers, the Rays could ride a young and cheap rotation into the playoffs.

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    An early injury to Noah Syndergaard dashed the New York Mets' hopes of returning to the playoffs.

    An early injury to Noah Syndergaard dashed the New York Mets’ hopes of returning to the playoffs.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    After reaching the 2015 World Series and making the 2016 NL Wild Card Game, the New York Mets fell apart in 2017. Perhaps they can piece a broken team back together.

    It all depends on health. No team can withstand losing three of its biggest stars, so they need Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto back.

    After undergoing shoulder surgery last month, Conforto likely won’t be ready by Opening Day, per’s Abbey Mastracco.

    BUt Syndergaard and Cespedes combined for 9.6 WAR when they led another injury-depleted squad to the 2016 playoffs. 

    Along with getting healthier, the Mets must play better defense after finishing last in Defensive Runs Saved in 2017. A full year of Amed Rosario at shortstop marks an astronomical upgrade over Asdrubal Cabrera, who will instead play second or third if they pick up his club option. Offensive shortcomings aside, Juan Lagares’ glove warrants a featured role in center.

    Having traded Duda, Jay Bruce, Neil Walker, Curtis Granderson and Addison Reed before their contracts expired, the Mets also need to replace that lost production. If they’re serious about contending, they should consider bringing back Duda, Bruce or another short-term first baseman. Dominic Smith does not look ready for the starting gig after submitting minus-0.6 WAR in 49 games.  

    Flipping their 70-92 record may require Cy Young-caliber campaigns from both Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler not only struggled to stay healthy, but stunk when active. Although a durable veteran like CC Sabathia, John Lackey or Jason Vargas would help, they’re more likely to dive into a deep crop of available relievers to join Jerry Blevins, A.J. Ramos and Jeurys Familia.

    After health and defense, the biggest question is how much money management will spend. The Mets splurged on Cespedes to the surprise of many skeptics last winter, so perhaps they pay back the Kansas City Royals for their Fall Classic defeat by pursuing Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Lorenzo Cain.

    The Mets are in a seemingly never-ending state of turmoil not helped by bungling the end of Terry Collins’ managerial tenure. Yet they have the building blocks to turn things around with better conditioning and shrewd offseason moves. 

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    The Atlants Braves are holstering many more elite prospects waiting to join Ozzie Albies in the majors.

    The Atlants Braves are holstering many more elite prospects waiting to join Ozzie Albies in the majors.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    The Atlanta Braves will soon be dangerous. The only question is whether they need more time.

    Following MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline, the Braves ranked second in Bleacher Report’s farm rankings. They since opened the doors to Ozzie Albies, who hit .286/.354/.456 with 1.9 WAR in 57 games. He should spend 2018 atop the batting order alongside Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman.

    Dansby Swanson inspired similar optimism last year. The preseason Rookie of the Year favorite stumbled to a .232/.312/.324 slash line, but one subpar season is not enough to discard a highly regarded 23-year-old shortstop.

    Will Ronald Acuna be ready to join them? Although he’s only 19, he may quickly outgrow the minors after batting .325/.374/.522 with 21 homers and 44 steals in Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect anything from the outfielder next year, but he carries game-changing potential.

    The Braves can more reasonably expect contributions from young pitchers. Luiz Gohara garnered a 2.75 fielding independent pitching (FIP) in five major league starts. While control issues bothered Sean Newcomb, he also collected 108 strikeouts over 100 innings.

    Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, respectively’s No. 21 and 33 overall prospects, could earn midseason promotions after finding 2017 success in Double-A. A bounce-back campaign from Julio Teheran, who posted a 2.79 ERA in his final nine starts, would pay major dividends.

    With so much young talent waiting in the wings, the Braves won’t need to make any major offseason splashes. They might anyway.

    Rather than taking a typical rebuilding path, they have acquired the likes of Nick Markakis, Matt Kemp, R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips in recent years. Linked to Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray in July, they may resume their quest for a front-line starter.

    After progressing from 67 to 68 to 72 wins in the last three years, they could spend another season or two gradually improving before the prospects mature and Markakis and Kemp leave the payroll. Don’t be surprised if they seek a quicker path back to contention.


    All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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