There’s nothing like early-spring baseball. The days are getting longer, the weather is getting better, and most of all, there are good vibes in the air. It’s mathematically impossible to be eliminated from the postseason in the first month, meaning that even the most down-trodden of franchises believe they have a chance to take home a World Series trophy.
Yet while some teams hope to compete for a championship in 2023, there are others that need to have a successful season. Whether it be an aging roster, a lengthy championship drought, or an angry fanbase, the heat is on these five teams to meet expectations or face drastic consequences.
5. Toronto Blue Jays (2022 record: 92-70)
How have the Blue Jays not won a playoff game in the Vladimir Guerrero Jr. era? It’s a question that will surely stump historians and documentarians of future generations. The Jays have followed the same surefire plan that the Astros and Cubs executed so well: Build around young, controllable position players and supplement them with savvy free-agent additions. The plan was rolled into action in 2019 with the debuts of Guerrero and Bo Bichette, but the rest of the team wasn’t quite ready yet, and the team won just 67 games.
The 2020 pandemic season represented a significant step forward, as the offseason addition of Hyun-Jin Ryu stabilized the rotation, and breakout seasons from Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. led the Blue Jays to the expanded playoffs. They were quickly bounced by the Rays in the Wild Card series, but they proved they had the pieces in place to contend in the AL East, and 2021 looked to be the year they put it all together.
Over the last two seasons, so many things that the Blue Jays had envisioned came to fruition. Guerrero Jr. fulfilled his potential and became a bonafide MVP candidate. George Springer and Kevin Gausman were massive successes as free-agent signings. They even got some more help from the farm, as Alejandro Kirk, Alek Manoah, and Jordan Romano were integrated seamlessly and developed into All-Stars. Yet somehow, someway, the Jays barely missed the playoffs in 2021 and were embarrassed on their home diamond in the 2022 Wild Card series.
Like the previous two seasons, all the pieces are in place for the 2023 Blue Jays. They bring back most of their superstar talent from 2022, with the exception being slugging outfielder Teoscar Hernández, who was shipped to Seattle for reliever Erik Swanson. The rotation is still led by Cy-Young candidates Gausman and Manoah, while the lineup is more balanced with the additions of Kevin Kiermaier, Daulton Varsho, and Brandon Belt.
On paper, this is yet again one of the best teams in the league, yet something still doesn’t feel right. The offense has been raking, which is expected. But the pitching staff is 23rd in the league in ERA with Chris Bassitt, the recent recipient of a 3-year/$60 million deal, and José Berríos in particular getting rocked. The underachieving 2022 Blue Jays saw their manager get thrown under the bus. If the 2023 Jays follow the same fate, even more changes may come at the top.
4. Boston Red Sox (2022 record: 78-84)
No team had a more tumultuous offseason than the Boston Red Sox. On one hand, they revamped their bullpen with the additions of Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen, signed Masataka Yoshida, arguably the best hitter in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, and inked franchise cornerstone Rafael Devers to a 10-year extension.
On the other hand, they lost two-time champion Xander Bogaerts to the San Diego Padres which sparked a massive public outcry, and saw second baseman Trevor Story undergo surgery for an elbow that had bothered him for years. The final product is a roster filled with older players trying to prove they still got it, younger players trying to prove they can hang in the majors, and, other than Devers, not a lot of star talent.
It is against this backdrop that the Red Sox embark on what feels like a make-or-break season. Unlike other teams on this list, the Sox don’t have realistic expectations of a championship, but the pressure to have a competitive, playoff-caliber team is immense.
In the three years since Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom took over, the Red Sox have finished in last place twice, and it took a generational Game-162 performance by Rafael Devers to avoid missing the playoffs in that third year. In a city as sports-crazy as Boston, that just isn’t good enough.
To be fair to Bloom, he took over with the exception of building a sustainable winner after Dave Dombrowski bulldozed the Red Sox farm system with his win-now mentality, and he had made progress in that regard.
According to Fangraphs Farm System rankings, the Red Sox have jumped from 30th when Bloom took over to 8th at the beginning of the year. Marcelo Mayer and Miguel Bleis, both Bloom acquisitions, are among the best prospects in the game, while Garrett Whitlock, Brayan Bello, Triston Casas, and Tanner Houck, all developed under Bloom’s leadership, look like big league regulars with upside for more.
The problem for Bloom is that he hasn’t been nearly as successful at acquiring major-league talent as he is at identifying and developing minor-league talent. Whether you believe Mookie Betts didn’t want to commit long-term to the Red Sox or that Bogaerts was wildly overpaid by the Padres, the fact of the matter is that Bloom let two franchise cornerstones go while not getting nearly enough value in return.
Trading Hunter Renfroe for Jackie Bradley Jr. and prospects was a huge miss (although David Hamilton, who stole 70 bases in the minors last year, has the potential to change that), and a weak back-end of the roster was a huge reason why the 2022 Red Sox fell apart after a series of injuries. Being near the top of the farm system rankings is all good and dandy, but baseball, especially in Boston, is a results business, and Bloom simply hasn’t gotten enough.
For Bloom’s first three years, many of the cornerstones of the team were acquired by Dave Dombrowski or, in the case of Bogaerts and catcher Christian Vázquez, Theo Epstein. That is not the case this year. With the exception of Chris Sale, every player on the big league roster was either signed, extended, or developed by Bloom.
This is his team, through good and through bad, and he will be the one held most accountable for the results. A playoff appearance and perhaps a run could make the fans forgive all past missteps. Another last-place finish, however, could mark the end of the Bloom era in Boston.
3. San Diego Padres (2022 record: 89-73)
The mid-1990 Seattle Mariners were an absolute embarrassment of riches. Their generational lineup was led by Edgar Martinez, the best designated hitter of his era, Alex Rodriguez, the best shortstop of his generation, and Ken Griffey Jr., the best centerfielder of his era. Their pitcher staff was led by Randy Johnson, who is in the conversation of best starting pitcher of all time.
There has never been a team that has featured so much talent on the field at the same time, yet these Mariners did not go down in history as one of baseball’s great juggernauts but rather one of its greatest “What-Ifs.” In the four seasons this quartet of greatness played together, the Mariners managed just two playoff appearances and one series victory.
Nearly thirty years later, the San Diego Padres will trot out a collection of superstar talent that sparks memories of those Mariners teams. It all starts and ends with Juan Soto, the former Nationals superstar acquired at last year’s trade deadline who has evoked memories of Ted Williams with his power-patience combination. Protecting him in the order will be Manny Machado, the six-time All-Star who has averaged 30 home runs and 90 RBIs a season since 2015.
Not satisfied with just two future Hall-of-Famers, the Padres signed two-time champion shortstop Xander Bogaerts this offseason, who will bring his career .292 batting average and winning resume to California. Those three players are so great that you almost forget that the Padres will soon get back Fernando Tatis Jr., the controversial superstar who is just two years removed from hitting 42 home runs in just 130 games.
The argument can even be made that this Padres team is in a better position to win than those Mariners because, unlike Seattle, they will roster more than one good pitcher. Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, and Yu Darvish each posted a sub-3.50 ERA last season, and they will be supplemented by new additions Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo.
The bullpen will ride or die with the explosive Josh Hader, but Robert Suarez and swingman Nick Martinez are solid options as well. The Padres even added 42-year-old Nelson Cruz to serve as a mentor and righty platoon bat, yet the ageless one has already hit three home runs with a .351/.381/.750 slash line.
With Bogaerts, Tatis Jr., and Machado locked up for the next decade, the Padres will have many more chances to compete for a championship after 2023, but it’s uncertain whether they will have any better chances. Bogaerts and Machado are both on the wrong side of 30, Darvish is now in his age-36 season, and with a weakened farm system and ever-expanded payroll, it’s uncertain where future reinforcements are going to come from.
This is a team that is built to win this year, and anything less than the franchise’s first World Series championship will be a disappointment.
2. Los Angeles Angels (2022 record: 73-89)
We all know the story with the Angels. Blessed with the two best players of their generation, the Angels have been unable to adequately fill out the other 23 spots on the roster and have missed the playoffs every season since 2014.
Yet, this season has an added wrinkle to it: Shohei Ohtani, likely the greatest talent ever to step foot on a baseball field, will be a free agent at the end of the season. The Angels not only have to prove to their fans and media that they can build a winner, but also their own ace/designated hitter.
To their credit, the Angels have aggressively attempted to improve their depth this offseason. They traded for power-hitting outfielder Hunter Renfroe, signed utility infielder Brandon Drury and starting pitcher Tyler Anderson, and brought in former-number-one-prospect-turned-reliever, Matt Moore, to stabilize the bullpen. With a starting rotation that took a step forward in 2022 and a presumably-healthy Anthony Rendon, the Angels look to have one of their deepest rosters in years.
As Angels fans will tell you, however, preseason good vibes usually fade away pretty quickly in the Big A. Just in the first week and a half of the season, Rendon has gotten a five-game suspension for going after a fan in the crowd, 2021 breakout star Jared Walsh is expected to miss a month while recovering from headaches and insomnia, and the bullpen blew a 6-0 lead and a potential series victory over the Blue Jays.
Trout (254 OPS+) and Ohtani (182 OPS+) are doing Trout and Ohtani things, but most teams in contention are not giving regular at-bats to Jake Lamb and David Fletcher, and the pitching staff still has a significant drop-off after Ohtani and Patrick Sandoval.
The stakes for this rendition of the Angels could not be more clear. With Trout on the wrong side of 30 and a parade of suitors lining up for Ohtani’s services, this is their last, best shot at finally doing something with two inner-circle Hall of Famers. If not, they will go down as one of the greatest “What-Ifs” in sports history.
1. New York Mets (2022 record: 101-61)
There is no question which team was going to top these under-pressure rankings. The Mets enter the 2023 season with a payroll that has nearly broken baseball, the oldest roster in the sport, a ravenous fan base that always expects something to go wrong, and a 37-year championship drought. Another first-round exit would not just be a disappointment: It would likely spark a revolution in Queens, New York.
Let’s rewind a little bit because the Mets have not always been a team that was expected to field a functional team, let alone compete for a championship. For much of the 21st century, Fred Wilpon and his henchmen built clubs that epitomized mediocrity despite bloated payrolls. After a brief run of competency from 2006-2008 that nonetheless ended in heartbreak, the Mets won between 77 and 87 games in every year of the 2010s, with the one exception being a fluky 2015 World Series run that disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
It would be understandable if Mets fans were lulled to sleep with such aggressive levels of averageness, but they were quickly awakened in late 2020 when billionaire Steve Cohen wrestled control of the club away from the Wilpons. A lifelong Mets fan, Cohen started building the team much the way a fan would in MLB The Show when they turn off budget limitations.
His first big move was trading for Guardians shortstop Francisco Lindor prior to the 2021 season, but Lindor struggled to adjust to the New York spotlight. Lindor’s slow start coupled with injuries to Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, and Jacob deGrom led to the the Mets looking unchanged from the previous decade, finishing with a 77-85 record.
Undeterred, Cohen spent the following offseason using his checkbook to fight back, reconstructing the offense by signing Eduardo Escobar, Mark Canha, and Starling Marte, and adding future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer to join deGrom at the top of the Mets rotation.
For a while, it looked like it would all work. Edwin Diaz and Fransico Lindor had bounce-back campaigns, Pete Alonso led the majors in RBIs, and the Mets spent most of the season in first place. Yet a September injury to Starling Marte and some late-season pitching woes led to Atlanta overtaking them, and the Mets were promptly upset in the Wild-Card round at home after winning just one game.
Once again, Cohen spent this past offseason throwing cash at anyone and everyone on the free-agent market, bringing in Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, José Quintana, and David Robertson while re-signing Nimmo and Diaz to long-term deals. That list could have been longer, but concerns over superstar Carlos Correa’s leg led Cohen and co. to back out of a 12-year deal. Regardless, Correa would have been more of a luxury than a necessity, as the Mets still feature one of the best rosters in baseball that appears to have no real weakness.
Well … about that last point. The Mets’ season got off to a bad start before it even began, as Diaz will likely be lost for the season after a leg injury sustained during the World Baseball Classic. The injury will thrust the 38-year-old Robertson, who pitched just 18 innings from 2019-2021, into the closer’s role. Further, Verlander was put on the IL before he threw a pitch with a low grade teres major strain. For many of the famously pessimistic Mets fans, this is just another example of their cursed franchise.
What is even more worrisome, however, is the age of the rest of the roster. The Mets will depend heavily on Verlander and Scherzer, who combined are pushing nearly 80 in age, while the lineup will likely once again be the oldest in baseball. The Mets do have a collection of young position player prospects, but they have had trouble integrating them into the major league roster.
Simply put, while teams like the Padres will have their best chance to win a championship this season, this might be the Mets’ only chance to win it all with their current roster. Couple that with a ravenous fanbase and lengthy championship drought, and there’s no question that the Mets are the team under the most pressure this season.
Was wondering why you felt inclined to add a terrible Red Sox team, but then I saw your bio. They’d be LUCKY to not finish 5th.
I think you included the wrong Sox team.