Predicting the 12 Biggest MLB Storylines in 2023
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AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, file
Happy New Year to everyone, and especially to anyone who’s eagerly anticipating the 2023 Major League Baseball season.
Do we know what the biggest stories will be this year? We do not. What we do have, though, are a dozen predictions for what they might be.
One might say these predictions are of the bold variety, but, hey, it’s not as if anyone is out there demanding boring predictions only. And if one is going to spin a yarn about what the future holds, they might as well use gaudy thread.
So, we went all out in tabbing players for various awards and performances, projecting big trades and picking teams for disappointing or excellent seasons. We thought about ranking the 12 storylines we settled on but opted for an unfolding narrative approach.
Let’s take it away.
The New Rules Initially Cause Chaos, Then Work as Intended
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A set of new rules is going to give baseball a different look, and you can rest assured that there will be a contentious adjustment period at the outset.
Maybe not so much with regard to the bigger bases and ban on defensive shifts, but there will surely be talk about the new regulations on pitchers. Humera Lodhi and Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight found that one in five hurlers didn’t stay within the parameters for the new pitch timer in 2022. That’s a lot of players who are about to be outside their comfort zones and presumably unhappily so.
Eventually, though, a new normal will settle in. And if it’s anything like the one that took hold as these rules were being tested in the minors, “hallelujah” will be the word of the day.
As it shortened games in the minors by an average of 26 minutes, the pitch timer should likewise dramatically quicken the pace of the action in the majors. As there’s evidence that working slower coincides with more velocity, the timer could also conspire with the shift ban to produce more balls in play and more hits.
In other words, the trend of MLB games taking longer to produce less action should finally reverse.
Factoring in the likelihood that the bigger bases and limits on throws to first base will lead to more stolen-base attempts, baseball should be more of an experience of Fun Things Happening in 2023 than it has been in recent years.
Spencer Strider’s Next Act: 300 K’s and the NL Cy Young Award
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Speaking of the pitch timer, can we agree that pitchers who already work quickly could have a competitive advantage?
We can? Good. Now let’s agree that this is all the more reason to believe that Spencer Strider is going to win the National League Cy Young Award.
Atlanta’s mustachioed right-hander took an average of 10.9 seconds between pitches with the bases empty in 2022, placing him well below the soon-to-be implemented 15-second limit. Yet this probably wasn’t the element of his tremendous rookie effort that most people noticed, as it was hard for anything to distract from his splendiferous fastball.
Strider, 24, landed in the 97th percentile for fastball velocity and the 76th percentile for spin rate with his four-seamer in 2022. By run value, it was the fifth-most effective four-seamer in the league.
Crucially, Strider was as dominant in 20 starts to finish out the year as he was in 11 relief appearances to begin it. Hence how he ended up with a 2.67 ERA and 202 strikeouts over just 131.2 innings. Not even 2001 Randy Johnson struck batters out at that rate.
At that same clip, Strider would have to hit only 200 innings to finish with 300 strikeouts. That’d be a roughly 70-inning leap from last year, which is perhaps a long shot. We’ll bet on it, though, and it’ll be hard to deny Strider the Cy Young if he does so.
Corey Seager Wins the AL MVP Award
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Elsewhere on the topic of how the new rules relate to certain players, it’s doubtful that anyone was happier than Corey Seager when MLB put the kibosh on the shift.
The first season of his 10-year, $325 million contract with the Texas Rangers was plenty good, as he hit to an above-average 119 OPS+ with 33 home runs. But it could have been so much better if teams hadn’t constantly been going all Lou Boudreau-on-Ted Williams against him.
Seager saw 2,268 pitches. The infield was shifted on him for 2,119 of them, good for an MLB-high rate of 93.4 percent. And it worked. Just as no left-handed batter pulled more balls with better than a 50 percent chance of becoming a hit, no lefty batter had as many turned into outs.
This one should have been a hit. And this one, too. And this one. And this one. And this one, this one and this one, ad infinitum.
Seager hit only .245, but Statcast put his expected average at .283. That was actually low by his standards, so we’re going to dare to think that 2023 will bring a higher average not just by way of fewer shifts but also positive regression as well.
If so, we’re talking about an everyday shortstop with an average north of .300 and 30-40 home runs. Sounds like an MVP. Could be an MVP. Screw it, will be the American League MVP.
Aaron Judge Doesn’t Even Make It Halfway to 62 Home Runs
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Chances are you finished that last slide and thought: “Yeah, right. Maybe if Shohei Ohtani leaves the American League and Aaron Judge’s home run production craters.”
Exactly, though we’ll get to Ohtani later.
If anything, it’s an easy call to make that Judge won’t match the AL-record 62 home runs he hit for the New York Yankees in 2022. Unless you’re Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire at the height of the steroid era, 60-homer seasons just don’t happen more than once.
This is not to knock the 6’7″, 282-pounder’s power, as Statcast suggests Judge hit exactly as many home runs as he should have in 2022 even despite (mostly) having to contend with the same deadened ball as everyone else. More improbable was the rate at which he missed when pitchers made mistakes, which was basically never. When pitchers missed up, he unloaded.
That’s due for a correction, if for no other reason than opposing pitchers’ location patterns against Judge were generally higher than they had been in 2019, 2020 and 2021. They’ll surely remember this year that down is the way to go. Even in 2022, he slugged .865 against pitches two-plus feet above home plate and .170 against pitches below two feet.
Something like 40 home runs seems reasonable for Judge. But for the sake of shock value, we’ll boldly claim he won’t even get the 31 he’ll need to so much as reach half of last year’s total.
The Orioles Keep Rising, Win the AL East
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How are you feeling right now, Yankees fans? Peeved? Sounds about right, and you’re not going to like this next one either.
Because even if they’re totally not favored to do so, the Baltimore Orioles are totally going to win the American League East.
A lot about this prediction doesn’t make sense. The Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays are elite-looking teams with luxury tax-sized payrolls, while the Tampa Bay Rays are a much thriftier yet always formidable opponent. The Orioles, meanwhile, are coming off a modest 83-win campaign and have had a quiet offseason.
Nonetheless, a team has to have a lot going for it to make a leap from 110 losses to 83 wins like the O’s did from 2021 and 2022. They have an exciting core coming together, particularly with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson in the lineup and Félix Bautista at the back end of the bullpen.
Rutschman alone had a monumental impact on the Orioles last year. He was one of only four American League hitters to tally 5-plus fWAR after his debut May 21, after which the Orioles went an impressive 67-54. Not bad, considering they had one of the toughest schedules of any AL team.
If the Orioles could do that just thanks to a steady hand behind the plate, just imagine what they could do with a full season of Henderson and additional contributions from top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and Colton Cowser. For our part, we’re imagining 95-plus wins and the franchise’s first division title since 2014.
The Red Sox Lose 100 Games for the First Time in a Long Time
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Nobody is necessarily owed anything here, but we’re feeling kinda-sorta bad for jabbing at the Yankees twice in a row. It’s therefore only fair that we extend not one but two olive branches.
The first: The Boston Red Sox are going to lose 100 games.
Franchises such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and, well, the Pittsburgh Pirates are used to such futility. But the Red Sox are not. They haven’t lost 100 games since 1965. To give you an idea how long ago that was, gas cost just $0.31 a gallon. Or 58 years, to be more specific.
As for whether things are actually looking that grim for the Red Sox, let’s first recall that they were mostly terrible in 2022. They did have a stretch from May 18 to June 26 when they went 28-9, but on either side of that they went 50-75.
Second, let’s recall that this has been a no good, very bad, terrible winter for the Red Sox. And not in a subtle way, as it’s hard to hide from scrutiny when you lose Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Nathan Eovaldi while making widely panned moves of your own.
The Red Sox are thus positioned to begin the year as the favorites to finish last in the AL East. And as bad as it’s going to be at the outset, it’s only going to get worse when Boston cuts its losses by cashing in Rafael Devers’ ample trade value.
The Cubs Will Land Rafael Devers and Win the NL Central
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As for where Rafael Devers will end up if Boston puts him out there, Matt Snyder of CBS Sports and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic have already envisioned a deal to the Chicago Cubs.
Works for us, though it’s but one of several reasons why we like the Cubs to mount a run at the National League Central title.
Another is that the Cubs were actually playing pretty good baseball while you may not have been looking in the second half of 2022. They won 40 of their last 71 games, mainly by way of pitching and defensive excellence that resulted in a 3.22 ERA.
This offseason, the Cubs have effectively doubled down on run prevention as their ticket back to the playoffs. Jameson Taillon is a quality pitcher, while Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger and Tucker Barnhart are Gold Glove Award-winning defenders.
For his part, Bellinger was also obviously an NL MVP-winning slugger for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019. Injuries and perhaps overly frequent mechanical adjustments subsequently sent his hitting prowess awry, but he’s healthy and seemingly out for vengeance.
If Bellinger can be the Bellinger of old for a team that figures to be very hard to score on, then the Cubs may already be in first place in the National League Central by the time Devers arrives on the North Side. The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers will be powerless to stop them.
The New York Mets Fail to Meet Expectations
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As promised, here’s olive branch No. 2 for Yankees fans: The New York Mets won’t be all they’re cracked up to be.
Heck, how can you not crack them up after the offseason they’ve had? Assuming the Carlos Correa deal goes through—and to hear it from Jon Heyman of the New York Post, it will—the Mets will have spent close to $1 billion of Steve Cohen’s money on free agents.
Jeff Passan @JeffPassan
Since free agency began, the Mets signed:<br><br>- Carlos Correa, $315M<br>- Brandon Nimmo, $162M<br>- Edwin Díaz, $102M<br>- Justin Verlander, $86.6M<br>- Kodai Senga, $75M<br>- Jose Quintana, $26M<br>- Omar Narvaez, $15M<br>- Adam Ottavino, $14.5M<br>- David Robertson, $10M<br><br>Total outlay: $806.1 million.
On paper, this is more than enough to make up for the losses of Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker. Which, in turn, indicates that the Mets stand to have an even better season than the one in which they won 101 games in 2022.
And yet the sheer volatility of the Amazins roster should need no introduction. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander may have six Cy Young Awards between them but also 77 years of life. There’s also Correa’s leg and what still might not be enough over-the-fence power after the Mets hit only 171 home runs last season.
There’s also the state of the National League East, which is…frankly terrifying. Atlanta was a better 101-win team than New York in ’22, and the rise that the Philadelphia Phillies began in earnest in June took them all the way to the World Series.
The Mets are thus looking at a season in which much could go wrong. And since we all know what Murphy’s Law says about that, we are going to go ahead and pencil them in for fewer than 90 wins and a mere wild-card spot.
The Astros Remain Great, Lose AL West Anyway
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The Houston Astros, meanwhile, should be fine. Because as much as it stings to lose a player such as Justin Verlander, it stings a little less after a 106-win season and World Series championship.
But what if “fine” isn’t good enough to secure the Astros another 100-win season, much less another American League West championship?
The Astros have been collecting such things consistently since 2017, but last year the Seattle Mariners arose as a formidable challenger in the division. They were 10 games under .500 as late as June 19, but they made the playoffs (thanks, Cal Raleigh) for the first time in 21 years on the strength of a 61-33 race to the finish.
That’s a 105-win pace over a full season, and it’s not out of the question that Seattle will stay on it.
It’ll help to have Luis Castillo and George Kirby from day one, as well as Teoscar Hernández’s power and Kolten Wong’s glove. Then there’s the possibility Jarred Kelenic will finally break out and form a dynamic outfield duo alongside reigning AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez.
The hard part for the Mariners will be getting over the Astros hump after Houson won 15 of the 22 games between the teams in 2022. But given that Seattle posted the AL’s third-best record against winning clubs last year, we feel obligated to point out that these Mariners aren’t unproven as a dragon slayer.
Shohei Ohtani Stays in Southern California*
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If the American League West race indeed comes down to Houston and Seattle, we might as well start the countdown to the inevitable Shohei Ohtani trade sweepstakes.
There was speculation that the Los Angeles Angels would trade MLB’s
best only two-way star last summer and again as recently as earlier this offseason. Nothing has come of it yet, but Ohtani doesn’t seem thrilled about the situation in Anaheim and is heading for his last season under club control before he reaches free agency.
This is to say that if the Angels do fall out of the race—which is entirely likely, given that they’re certainly not better than Houston or Seattle and may even be inferior to Texas—Ohtani will be as good as gone.
Presumably every contender would grab a spot in line if the Angels put Ohtani out there, but it should surprise nobody if the Dodgers push their way to the front of it. Though Ohtani isn’t even available yet, they sure are acting like he is.
Ah, but would Angels owner Arte Moreno allow such a prized asset to go to a team that he doesn’t seem to like? Probably not. It would be a good thing for the Dodgers, then, if he follows through on his desire to sell the team sooner rather than later.
Hence why we didn’t make the easy call on Ohtani as the favorite for the 2023 AL MVP Award. He’s going to end the season as a Dodger, folks. Book it.
Fernando Tatis Jr.’s Triumphant Return
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Not that the Dodgers need any more reasons to have Shohei Ohtani in their sights, but they’ll have another when the already dangerous-looking San Diego Padres get a boost from a player who didn’t suit up for them at all in 2022.
No, not Drew Pomeranz. The other guy. Fernando Tatis Jr.
Talk about a lot to come back from. Beyond the performance-enhancing drug suspension that ended his 2022 season and crushed his reputation, Tatis also went under the knife on three separate occasions. He had one surgery on his left shoulder and two on his left wrist.
Still, let’s remember that Tatis is only 23 years old and really was something else in his first three seasons with San Diego.
He became the fastest ever to 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases in 2021 and led the National League with 42 long balls that year even though he missed 32 games. He also has one of the strongest arms in MLB, which provides at least one reason to believe he can make a smooth transition to the outfield (probably in right) following San Diego’s deal with Xander Bogaerts.
Tatis isn’t eligible to return from his suspension until April 20, but that should still give him ample time to reassert himself as a game-changing force on the field. We’re thinking by way of his first, but almost certainly not last, 30-30 season. And since his speed and especially his arm strength are perfectly suited to right field, let’s throw a Gold Glove in there, too.
The Padres (Finally) Win the World Series
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Oh, and the Padres? They’re going to do something in 2023 that they’ve never done before: win the whole dang thing.
Honestly, this feels to us like the most lukewarm take we’ve offered so far. The Padres darn near made it to the Fall Classic in 2022, after all, and in impressive fashion as they dispatched the 101-win Mets and 111-win Dodgers en route to the National League Championship Series.
Even setting aside Tatis’ looming return, San Diego has positioned itself to get even better. It began the process in earnest by acquiring Juan Soto and Josh Hader at the trade deadline last summer and has built on it via deals with Xander Bogaerts and Matt Carpenter (who, just sayin’, had a higher OPS+ than Aaron Judge in ’22) this offseason.
As a result, it’s now hard to find flaws with the Padres roster.
With Manny Machado in the middle, the heart of their lineup is as good as any in the game. Ditto for the front three of the rotation in Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. And while Hader had his issues in 2022, by the end of the year he was what he had been pretty consistently from 2018 to 2021: the best relief pitcher in MLB.
That’s a championship-caliber team. Actually, scratch that. The championship-caliber team.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.