As winter has turned to spring and the new MLB season is upon us, we come to the yearly tradition of every fanbase being hopeful…even if it is not always rational. While every team’s hopes and goals are not created equal, winning the World Series is the ultimate prize, and thus the season starts with everyone believing there is a chance.
The National League as a whole appears to be crowded at the top but still quite deep in terms of quality, with at least half the senior circuit having a realistic pathway to the title. In any case, today we will go over how and why each team in the National League could win the Fall Classic in 2023. Some franchises may need a few more lucky breaks than others, stars to align and the baseball gods to be generous, but at this stage of the season, we are all entitled to dream.
They won the championship with an 88-win team in 2021, improved to 101 wins in 2022 only to fall short in the playoffs, and now enter 2023 with arguably the best roster in the National League. The Braves are essentially the best case for how playoff randomness can get the best of a team, but it is still commendable to see the front office building a deep contender that is able to battle it out in a strong division. After locking up most of their homegrown stars to friendly extensions, Atlanta will get year two of their newest additions, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider, while also adding a top-tier catcher in Sean Murphy.
The loss of Dansby Swanson may sting, but this squad is loaded top to bottom, well-managed, and with enough playoff experience to win it all again. At this point, it seems that only the bad karma from last year’s Freddie Freeman handling could keep them away from at least reaching the NLCS.
Since shockingly winning the World Series in 2003, the Marlins have only posted five winning seasons and a single playoff appearance (in the shortened 2020 campaign). At this point, it would seem foolish to think of a path to October glory, but Miami had at least an intriguing offseason that can give them a chance in their top-heavy division. Ace Sandy Alcantara is the headliner in a rotation that now includes Johnny Cueto, Jesús Luzardo, and Trevor Rogers, and the offense improved with established hitters. If Luis Arraez taps into the power displayed in the WBC, Jazz Chisholm Jr. adapts well to playing center field, and the bullpen remains strong, the Marlins can hover around 85-88 wins and battle for a Wild Card spot.
It will certainly be tough, considering their payroll is well below their division foes, but the Marlins will be better than people think.
Their payroll would make European soccer teams blush, and there is no indication that owner Steven Cohen will stop spending until the Mets raise their first title since 1986. This baseline gives the team one of the best opportunities to go all the way in 2023, as the roster improved at almost every stop, even considering the Carlos Correa fiasco and losing franchise icon Jacob deGrom. As long as their veteran-laden rotation remains healthy, New York should be favored in nearly 80% of their games and build on the excitement of last season. While having Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer on board grabbed most of the attention, the front office went ahead with low-key signings that should give the team more depth and avoid slumps, such as Adam Ottavino and Kodai Senga.
Despite the loss of Edwin Diaz (and his trumpets) to injury, the Mets are the odds-on favorite to win the NL East and will probably be willing to add talent at the deadline if things are not going as planned. There is nearly no such thing as buying a title in baseball – since 2001, only the ’09 Yankees and ’18 Red Sox won it all with the top payroll – but there has never been such an expensive squad as these Mets.
The Phillies stumbled to a Wild Card spot to reach the playoffs in 2022 and then rode a magical wave to the World Series, where they even held a 2-1 lead before crashing back to earth. This unexpected bout of success has to carry well into 2023, as the Phils are better than last year’s iteration—at least on paper. Adding Trea Turner on a massive free agent deal is the headliner, but they also bolstered their run prevention with solid pitchers, such as Taijuan Walker, Matt Strahm, and Gregory Soto. The new schedule format means that they get to face less of the Mets and Braves, which gives Philadelphia a high floor to at least repeat last year’s playoff appearance and see what happens from there. The potential loss of Rhys Hoskins for the season is a big blow, but Bryce Harper will return as probably the strongest mid-season addition a team could dream of, and we know GM Dave Dombrowski won’t be shy to add pieces at the trade deadline. The reigning NL champs are in a great spot to take the next step.
It is amazing to think that most of the Nationals’ turn-of-the-decade core is now part of other NL East teams, and it is even tougher to see how their current version could contend, let alone try to go back to the Fall Classic. However, it is likely that things cannot go as bad as they did in 2022 when the Nats lost 107 games. An extra season of experience for Josiah Gray could start to show the promise he displayed as a prospect, Joey Meneses can build on his dream half-season debut, while other youngsters are bound to get a long leash during this rebuild. If the top teams in the division get complacent and Washington can get off to a surprising start, with players reaching their 90-percentile projections, the Nationals could hang around the Wild Card race and sneak into the playoffs. It may be the longest of long shots in the NL, but never forget the power of Baby Shark is still hovering around DC.
The Cubs have been one of the most polarizing teams of the last half-decade; following their long-awaited title in 2016, they seemingly went on a PR mission to dismantle all goodwill and the core of their championship team. And yet, they enter 2023 with an intriguing roster that is almost certain to improve upon their last two showings of 70-something wins. Adding Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger to bolster the up-the-middle defense was an inspired move, while the rotation is full of solid pitchers with upside, headlined by Marcus Stroman. With the NL Central as probably the most unpredictable division in baseball, the Cubs can certainly make some noise and grind out a bunch of tight, low-scoring victories en route to a division title or at least be in contention for a Wild Card spot.
If Bellinger can reclaim his MVP form on offense, Seiya Suzuki has a year two leap, and the back-end of the rotation builds on the promise shown during Spring Training, the Cubs have a path to become a dark horse and become relevant in October.
If we made a small case for the Nationals, we need to consider the Reds, especially as they seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to NL rebuilding teams. Even with Joey Votto skewing the numbers, Cincinnati will be one of the league’s youngest squads and most outlets rank their farm system among the top five. While 2023 will start with veteran stopgaps such as Wil Myers, the Reds can start calling up their touted prospects like Elly de la Cruz and Noelvi Marte and give Votto a strong supporting cast as he plays what is likely to be his last season in the majors.
Cincinnati’s path back to relevance and contention falls on the rotation, headlined by the exciting Hunter Greene and the intriguing Nick Lodolo. It may appear impossible to bounce back from 100 losses to making the postseason, but we can’t discount a surprising swan-song season from everyone’s favorite Canadian, the development of some of the league’s best prospects, and the unpredictability of the NL Central. The Reds will be much better than you expect.
The Brewers had steadily become the NL’s most predictable team, with solid squads that made the playoffs but came up short in the end. 2022 was a step back from that model, as Milwaukee missed the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and traded franchise stalwart Josh Hader to the Padres. The outlook for this season still rests on two key names: Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, as they represent the biggest strength of the roster. If Freddy Peralta can reclaim his ace status, the Brewers would make a case as the clear best team in the Central and become a playoff favorite just by virtue of their rotation.
The addition of William Contreras represents a long-overdue upgrade at catcher, and now the offense is full of solid bats with upside and complemented by rookies that are bound to be X-factors for the Brewers. This high floor provides the squad a baseline hovering 80-plus wins, but any chance of going beyond a mere playoff participation probably lies on the bat of Christian Yelich, who has not been the same since his unfortunate knee injury in 2019. If Yelich can settle as the 800+ OPS player he used to be and the pitching holds their end of the bargain, Milwaukee and its mid-level payroll can finally get over the hump.
The Pirates have the lowest payroll in the National League, with an average of 98 losses over their last three full seasons and eight years removed from their last playoff appearance…but at least Andrew McCutchen is back? The past decade has been rough for Pirates fans, but 2023 could be the start of better times for the franchise, as they boast a top-10 farm system and have started graduating a few of their top prospects, most notably Oneil Cruz. The front office is trying to ease some of the transition toward the next contending Pittsburgh squad by bringing in solid veterans like Carlos Santana, Ji-Man Choi, and Rich Hill.
If the Pirates find a way to blend experience, harness the potential of Cruz and use McCutchen as more than a simple nostalgia boost, they have a similar profile to the Reds—albeit built with offense instead of run prevention. A strong start to the season will be essential to stave off any trade talks regarding Bryan Reynolds, and as long as they hover around .500, the Buccos could become 2023’s version of last year’s Orioles.
Good-to-great hitters that come out of nowhere, solid pitchers, and stellar defense – this is essentially the blueprint used by the Cardinals over the last 25 years and it should prove effective once again in 2023. Even as their transaction ledger is the smallest among all MLB teams, St. Louis had no real reason to tinker much with last year’s roster, except for replacing franchise icon Yadier Molina with division foe Willson Contreras. With an offense anchored by reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt and perennial All-Star Nolan Arenado, it is hard to envision the Cardinals not winning at least 90 games, even as they start the season without a bona fide ace to headline the rotation. The second Wild Card has basically assured that a franchise like St. Louis can become a yearly playoff squad, while playing in a weak division gives the Cardinals a strong chance of rounding out their team as the season goes along and be ready for the postseason.
It will not be as exciting as other teams, but the Cards will get the job done and have what it takes to go all the way.
Since 2012, Arizona has only made the postseason once while generally being an afterthought in the NL West. However, last year’s squad improved by 22 wins after 2021’s disaster season and now seems primed to reach another level. The D-backs have a roster that is mostly comprised of homegrown players, boast a top-five farm system, and will likely start MLB’s #2 prospect Corbin Carroll in left field on Opening Day. The excitement of this iteration of Arizona baseball is supported by an outfield that will turn most fly balls into outs, athletic players that will steal tons of bases, and veterans that can provide wisdom to a team that is coming of age. The top of the rotation will see Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly continue to develop into aces, but the key to Arizona ascending to the top of the standings will probably lie on Madison Bumgarner, almost a decade removed from his World Series hero days.
The Dbacks have the talent, payroll flexibility, and prospects to improve the team as the season goes along, which will be essential as they navigate a tough division.
The Rockies have a middling payroll, a middling farm system, lost 94 games last year, and are clearly the worst team by most metrics in the NL West. It is hard to be an optimist, but it is at least commendable that the front office has never intentionally tanked. Heading into 2023, Colorado needs to build on the few positive developments from last season, such as Sean Bouchard’s power, and hope that Germán Márquez can recoup his All-Star form. Kris Bryant had a forgettable debut season in Colorado, but his second half was respectable and mere regression suggests that he should hit at least 20 homers playing at Coors Field. Kyle Freeland looked sharp pitching for the US in the World Baseball Classic, and the arrival of top prospect Ezequiel Tovar provides hope for the first homegrown star since Nolan Arenado.
If the Rockies can harness the quirks of playing at altitude and the rest of the division is beating up on each other, there is a road to Wild Card contention, though their margin for error is quite slim.
For a team that has won at least 90 games in every full season since 2013, the Dodgers have somehow flown under the radar during this offseason. Maybe being underrated is what the franchise needs to overcome yet another tough playoff exit. Despite winning the World Series in 2020, that title has an asterisk in the minds of many fans. Even after losing key contributors like Cody Bellinger and the Turners (Justin and Trea), the Dodgers still have a top-tier lineup with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. As has been usual, Dave Roberts’s managerial style and the bullpen come with a lot of questions, but most of them will be rendered moot when you have Julio Urías headlining the rotation and Clayton Kershaw still finding ways to get hitters out. The rest of the rotation comes with question marks, with Dustin May and Noah Syndergaard trying to get back to their old selves.
If things start slow, LA can simply use their embarrassment of prospect riches (#2 farm system, according to MLB, with seven top-100 prospects) in major deals at the deadline or graduating them into the big club. The road to October should yet again be clear for this franchise, but winning it all requires some of the luck that has eluded the Dodgers for years.
On the other side of the NL West hype, the Padres will start the season with a payroll over $235 million, the product of signing or extending seemingly every available superstar on the planet. The opening-day lineup looks scary for any pitching staff, and it doesn’t even include Fernando Tatis Jr., who is primed to return sometime in late April. When your projected worst batter is the resurgent Matt Carpenter, you know that this is a team that will score runs in bunches. The rotation and bullpen have a plethora of high-variance pitchers, from veterans Yu Darvish and Michael Wacha to up-and-comers like Nick Martinez, but San Diego (or is it Slam Diego?) needs only competent pitching to stay in games and win consistently.
Even as recent past versions of the Padres have struggled to coalesce their multiple stars, last season’s NLCS appearance should provide a new perspective and climb that hurdle. These are not your dad’s Padres, as they appear to share the Mets’ mentality of spending until the World Series trophy is finally in their hands.
Among baseball circles, the Giants have become one of the few franchises that appear to be more defined by their front office than their players. Farhan Zaidi enters year five as president of baseball operations, as San Francisco is one of the toughest teams to project in 2023. The magical 2021 season was followed by 2022 mediocrity, and now Brandon Crawford stands as the lone holdover of the dynasty years. They missed out on Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa on very public free-agent negotiations, instead having to settle for store-brand options like Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto. And yet, the path to contention and a possible World Series run for the Giants is based on a simple premise: they don’t appear to have any bad players on the roster. While Logan Webb may be the only true star (possibly joined by ROY candidate Kyle Harrison after he gets called up), you would be hard-pressed to find any black holes on offense, the rotation, or the bullpen.
Better defense and injury luck will be essential for Gabe Kapler’s eternal quest to find favorable platoons and give starters longer outings, which was a stark difference between 2021 and 2022. Giants fans are certainly used to #torture as a way of life, but this team will certainly benefit from not facing the Dodgers and Padres as frequently and could start climbing up the rankings following a soft start to their schedule.