Ah, spring! New life, new possibilities. The snow melts and gives way to the green grass and pleasant temperatures that guide us by the hand into the six-month march of baseball season (or so I’ve been told; as a midwesterner, I’m taking other writers’ words for it).
Every ballclub, from Peoria to Bradenton, has players arriving in the best shape of their lives, pitchers with a new unhittable changeup, and a new hitting coach that’s sure to turn things around (did you see what his team did in [insert other city] in 2014???).
We know better, though. Time has made fools of us all. We’re weathered down and too sophisticated, too wise in the ways of the world to be fooled again. We stink.
The new right fielder is crushing the Cactus League. And it’s not like we’re fielding a college team out there! Our players are major leaguers, too! What if our rotation stays healthy? A little luck, and 1,000 innings from our starting five, and we could compete for a wild card. Then anything can happen in the playoffs!
To heck with it, let’s get ready to be heartbroken again. We’re all tied for first right now, so let’s examine the things that could (no, will!) go right for each team in the American League to win the World Series.
Fangraphs’ playoff odds have just a 0.6% chance of the A’s reaching the playoffs this year, and most projection systems have them losing more than 100 in 2023. It’s a tough case to make.
You never know, though. Perhaps there’s a “Major League” type situation that unfolds where the players start winning to stick it to the owner that’s looking/threatening to move the team!
The A’s were really high on new center fielder Esteury Ruiz (Willy Mays Hayes), who stole 86 bases across three levels of professional baseball in 2022. With the new pickoff rules and bigger bases, maybe Ruiz goes Rickey Henderson on the league?
On the pitching side, Shintaro Fujinami (“Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn) is the A’s newest starter, coming over from Japan and throwing over 100 miles per hour.
That’s to say, there are some interesting tools on the A’s and some role players that have been competent to quite good before (Jesús Aguilar, Ramón Laureano), so if the new acquisitions are better than expected and (more importantly) the A’s decide to push their chips in on a possible Wild Card rather than sell off whoever is playing well at the deadline, you never know!
A little easier to see is the Angels, and it’s not complicated from the offensive side of things. Trout and Ohtani are Trout and Ohtani; if Anthony Rendon is healthy and somewhere between his Nationals and Angels-thus-far output, and new additions Brandon Drury and Hunter Renfroe repeat their 2022 seasons, respectively, then they could be in business.
The problem is in the starting rotation. I’ll admit until just now I didn’t realize this about the Angels’ projected starters:
Did I miss a new rule that everyone has to hit from the left side? In all seriousness, I’m a big fan of what the Angels did to their lineup this season, and so if everything breaks right for them, maybe they can contend and add some front-end pitching depth in the stretch run. A top of the rotation running mate with Ohtani and what I think is a very good offense could be enough to make an October run.
Simply do the same thing they’ve done each of the past six seasons (where they’ve at least made the Championship Series and won the World Series twice). Staying healthy will certainly be key, and the first couple of months without José Altuve isn’t the ideal scenario for the defending champions. To win it all, they’ll need a step up from their still-very-good rotation without Verlander in the mix anymore, but the Astros are one of those teams you just always expect to be there anyway, whether you want them to or not.
The Astros’ division has suddenly become a lot more competitive, but they’re also going to be playing fewer division games than in previous seasons. Finding new angles on opposing catchers’ signals in unfamiliar ballparks and dugouts will be paramount (I kid).
I thought last year would be the Jays’ year in the AL East, and they have maybe done more to get better than any other team in that division. There’s a lot more that can go wrong this year for Toronto and it can still go right—the lineup could end up being the deepest in baseball one through nine. There just aren’t many holes offensively, but the pitching staff will need to show some consistency to win the World Series.
As steady as the lineup projects to be, the rotation seems to have a lot more variance. Would you be shocked if no one had an ERA below four, or if all of them did?
The good news is, all of the Jays’ pitchers are right in that range, so if just two of them perform at their higher ends, and the rest are close to their projections the offense should be enough to carry the rest of the team.
The theme with all of the AL Central teams will be that they’re in a very weak division, without a true can’t-miss favorite. That said, the Guardians are the favorite here after winning the division last year and not losing too much in the offseason.
Cleveland’s best shot at winning the World Series is first to get into the playoffs by fending off the White Sox (who are better than last year’s team showed) and the Twins. Down years again by those teams make this a much more manageable task for Cleveland.
Full health from Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie would make Cleveland a formidable opponent in a short playoff series, but the main upgrade in the lineup from a year ago was Josh Bell. Either he’ll need to have a big power year, or Cleveland can find a middle-of-the-order power bat at the trade deadline to make them stronger contenders.
Don’t pitch to Yordan Alvarez.
There’s a lot to like about this Mariners team, and their chances for a World Series run rest almost entirely on the kids maintaining what they did last year. Some small but meaningful upgrades to the lineup (Kolten Wong and Teoscar Hernandez) provide some insurance against regression, and the big upside of Jarred Kelenic should have Mariners fans swooning over the team’s October potential.
There’s probably no team with more World Series upside than the Mariners—the key will be for the young players (lineup, rotation, and bullpen) to unlock some of that potential without major steps backward.
Like the Mariners, the O’s season is going to be almost completely dependent on how their young lineup performs. Unlike the Mariners, the Orioles have neither the depth nor the pitching to absorb less than rookie-of-the-year and all-star performances from Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman if they’re going to contend.
If those two anchor the Baltimore lineup all spring and summer, and they get solid contributions from the rest of the top of their order, the Orioles could contend through the all-star break. Then, they’d need to go out and find some serious bullpen help. The AL East won’t make it easy on the Orioles to contend, so they’d also need some stumbles out of the gate from the division’s preseason favorites as well to put them in a position to add at the deadline.
Is there a team in baseball whose fortunes rely more on the health of their starting rotation? If the Rangers get 500 innings from DeGrom, Eovaldi, and Heaney, they’re going to be in contention.
From there, they could continue to rely on a starting rotation that gets hot in the playoffs and prevents runs just well enough to allow the middle part of their lineup to hit a few timely home runs and send them to the World Series.
The Rays can get back to the playoffs if they do Rays things, which is win 90-plus games through any means they can.
They’re solid all around as always, but what can push them into and over the World Series? Wander Franco.
You hate to put all that on one player, but if there’s one thing that the Rays have been missing, it has been an MVP-type player to anchor the lineup. They’ve had fantastic performances, but a dominant one could push the Rays into a better finish in the standings and ease their path once in the playoffs. No one on the Rays has that potential more than Franco, and they won’t win the World Series without him making the jump this season, good as he has been already.
It’s incredible that both things are probable: no one lost more in free agency than the Red Sox, and no team is more able to absorb those losses than the Red Sox. After the departures of Xander Bogaerts and JD Martinez, It’s still a potentially dangerous lineup in Boston, with high hopes for some additional thump and upside from Masataka Yoshida.
We’ve already mentioned teams like the Mariners and Orioles that will rely on taking steps forward to be true contenders, but the Red Sox pitching will rely heavily on former stars to regain that form. If Chris Sale can stay healthy and effective, and Kenley Jansen is the version of himself he’s been the past three seasons, the rest of the bullpen is good enough to be competitive in October right now.
The Red Sox’s path to postseason glory is more “everyone performs to expectations, then add some players to push you over the hump” than “develop new stars.”
…and the opposite is true for the Royals. If you’re looking for a sleeper to take the longest of shots on in Vegas, it might be Kansas City.
It’s really the perfect storm for an upset. Young players could all make the jump at the same time in an entirely winnable division. The Royals are basically a stars-and-scrubs lineup, except all the stars are prospects with sky-high potential.
I don’t gamble, but if I did I would pick two teams at 10,000:1 odds to make the World Series every year and lay $10 on it just for fun during the season. And if I did that, the Royals and Rockies would be my wager. If I gambled.
Oddly enough, the Tigers are sort of like the Royals but in reverse. There’s pitching potential in Detroit in the rotation, while not much happening on the offensive side. It feels like for years we’ve been waiting for the all-star breakouts from the Tigers’ pitching prospects, but that speaks more to our own impatience than anything wrong with the expected up-and-down but still serviceable performances they’ve provided at the Major League level so far.
So, like the Royals, the Tigers find themselves in a winnable division (the exact same one, in fact!) and potential for lightning to strike. For the Tigers to win the World Series, it’d take a big leap from Spencer Torkleson, probably Javier Báez to find something again, and to add another impact bat somewhere along the way.
The Twins find themselves in the middle of the morass that is the AL Central, and have both the opportunity and talent to come away with the division. For the best-case scenario, though, they’re going to need their best player—Byron Buxton—to stay healthy for the year. Add a rejuvenated Joey Gallo who no longer has to encounter a real shift, and you’re cooking.
If they do find themselves in the postseason, there may not be a better one-two punch in the bullpen than Jorge López and Jhoan Duran. When the rotation and innings shorten, we’ve seen teams ride lights-out bullpens in the playoffs before, and the Twins would be well-positioned to do so if their offense can hold up their end of the bargain.
Doing whatever they can to avoid the Yankees in the playoffs would help, too.
I think the White Sox are a better team than they showed in 2022. Though they aren’t the division favorite, the Sox lineup has more high-end potential outcomes than Cleveland’s if things break right, and it’s a solid if unspectacular starting rotation.
Hopefully, Liam Hendriks gets back to full health soon and if so, it bolsters the White Sox’s chances significantly.
Now that the White Sox are probably not going to intentionally walk hitters with two strikes on them, they’re already ahead of where they were last year at this point!
The starting rotation for the Yankees is probably the best top-to-bottom in baseball, so New York is probably already a bit ahead of the AL East here.
To win the World Series, two things will have to go right: Aaron Judge is Aaron Judge (reasonable), and the rest of the lineup will have to stave off decline. That second question injects a lot of uncertainty into the equation in the Bronx. Half of the hitters aside from Judge are over 33, and productive as Rizzo, Donaldson, Stanton, and Hicks have been (and may be!), one wonders how long they’ll remain so. If those players can maintain somewhere around their average recent performances, the Yankees might be the favorites in the American League to start the season.
Even if not, there are more ways the Yankees could succeed- namely with high-end prospects filling in, or using their considerable resources to bolster the bullpen at the trade deadline.
There are probably more ways for it to work in New York than any other American League city (save Houston), but that doesn’t mean 14 other teams don’t also have a chance (except probably the A’s).