Why the 100-win Indians, Astros and Dodgers could be even better in 2018

With a strong pitching staff, Carlos Carrasco and the Indians should be among baseball's best once again. Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season was extraordinary for many reasons, including this one: The Dodgers, Indians and Astros all won 100 games -- 104, 102 and 101 to be exact. It was the first season with at least two 100-win teams since 2004 and the first with three since 2003. Since the divisional era in 1969, the only other seasons with three 100-win teams were 2002, 1998 and 1977.

What made those inflated win totals even more interesting, however, was that the Dodgers, Indians and Astros didn't take wins from the bottom of the league, but rather from the middle. No team lost 100 games in 2017; the Tigers and Giants led the way with 98. In 2016, for example, the Twins lost 103 games and there were eight 90-loss teams, just like 2017. In 2017, only four teams finished above .500 but failed to win 90 games; in 2016, there was one .500 team and nine that won between 84 and 89.

What makes our three powerhouses so scary to the rest of baseball is that all three could be even better in 2018. That probably won't happen -- when you win 100 games, a lot obviously goes right, which is why we haven't had a team win 100 games in consecutive seasons since the 2004-05 Cardinals. Plus, those teams in the middle are going to try to get better. It's much easier for a mediocre team to improve than for a great team to improve.

Still, it wouldn't surprise me if all three won 100 games or more again. Let's examine why.

Houston Astros (FanGraphs projected record: 98-64)

According to the numbers, the Astros were neither an old team nor a young team in 2017. According to Baseball Reference's average batting and pitching age -- which uses a formula based on playing time -- the Astros were essentially league average in both areas. Except the Astros weren't really that old. Carlos Beltran, 40, batted 509 times, wasn't very good and is now retired. Nori Aoki, 35, was the left fielder for part of the season. Brian McCann was 33 and had a solid season but isn't a key part of the lineup.

If the Astros get better production at DH -- easily possible with a low-cost free-agent signing like Yonder Alonso or Lucas Duda -- and improvement from Carlos Correa (23 in 2018) and Alex Bregman (24 in 2018 and coming off an excellent second half), their historically great offense could be even better.

Other than Marwin Gonzalez and maybe an aging McCann, there isn't an obvious regression candidate. Jose Altuve and George Springer should both be excellent, and Correa will be more valuable simply by playing 40 more games.

On the pitching side, a full season from Justin Verlander as opposed to one month will obviously help, but I think the bullpen can be better in 2018. That might seem like a strange thing to say after the way it performed in the postseason, but you have to separate what happened in those pressure situations versus what will happen next regular season. In 2017, Houston ranked 17th in the majors with a 4.27 ERA – but it ranked second to the Yankees in strikeout rate and 11th in wOBA.

There are lots of good arms down there, Joe Musgrove probably will be a reliever all season, and general manager Jeff Luhnow probably will sign a veteran free agent to add even more depth -- maybe lefty Mike Minor or righty Anthony Swarzak.

Cleveland Indians (Projected record: 95-67)

Let's start here: They led the majors in bullpen ERA and ranked second to the Dodgers in rotation ERA. There was nothing fluky about those numbers either as they ranked first in strikeout rate and lowest walk rate while allowing the second-lowest wOBA. The good news: Other than workhorse setup man Bryan Shaw, everyone is back.

Obviously, they'll need good health to have that kind of season again on the mound -- they basically used only six starting pitchers last season (No. 7 starter Ryan Merritt made only four starts), but Mike Clevinger's emergence behind Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer means Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin are the fifth and sixth starters, which speaks to the depth.

On offense, the Indians will have to replace free agent OBP machine Carlos Santana. They could move Edwin Encarnacion to first base and use guys such as Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis at DH, or maybe use the small amount of money they have to spend on a second-tier free-agent first baseman like Mitch Moreland, Danny Valencia or Adam Lind.

They also can hope for a bounce-back season from Kipnis and improved production from Bradley Zimmer in his second season.

Here's a primary reason the Indians can win 100 games again: The AL Central will be terrible. FanGraphs currently projects the White Sox, Royals and Tigers among the seven worst teams in baseball. Their pitching staffs ranks 30th (White Sox), 27th (Royals) and 26th (Tigers) in projected WAR. The Twins' pitching staff isn't much better.

The Indians finished third in the AL in runs and that can happen again with the all the bad pitching the Indians will face. (Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are pretty good as well.)

Los Angeles Dodgers (Projected record: 93-69)

The Dodgers have a few more obvious concerns than the Astros and Indians, in part because they had more surprise contributors -- particularly Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor -- which is why their projected win total at the moment is a little lower. On the other hand, FanGraphs also projects Bellinger and Taylor to be worth just 4.7 WAR after they combined for 9.0 in 2017. I'll take the 9.0 again over the 4.7.

The Dodgers also have a couple of youngsters who could make an impact in pitcher Walker Buehler and outfielder Alex Verdugo, although the roster is so deep that neither is guaranteed a starting position and both could open in Triple-A. Re-signing Brandon Morrow -- or another setup guy -- will be necessary.

Other than Yu Darvish and Morrow, however, all the key guys from 2017 are under contract -- and they get out from some big contracts including Carl Crawford ($21.8 million in 2017), Andre Ethier ($17.5 million) and Alex Guerrero ($7.5 million), which means they might have an estimated $40 million or so in payroll flexibility.

Yes, the Dodgers have talked about lowering the payroll, and with Buehler and Verdugo, they have the ability to add two more low-cost rookies to the roster, but come on: They finished one game short of glory. They're going to make a big addition in the offseason. Maybe it's Giancarlo Stanton -- although Andrew Friedman sounds as if he's reluctant to bring on that contract. Maybe it's Shohei Ohtani.

Maybe it's Eric Hosmer, with Bellinger moved to the outfield and Joc Pederson traded for some pitching depth. Or maybe it's a combination like Ohtani and Hosmer. No matter, you know the Dodgers aren't going to sit back and rest after 104 wins and a seven-game World Series defeat without doing something big.

So, the powerhouses should be powerful once again. Now let's see how the rest of the league reacts this offseason.