The Ringer’s 2023 MLB Preseason Predictions
Happy Opening Day! To celebrate the return of baseball, we’re making predictions for the 2023 MLB season. Can the Houston Astros be the first repeat World Series winners since 2000? Who will challenge Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? And which team’s fans are in for a disappointing season? Read on for those predictions and more.
Zach Kram: Atlanta won 101 games last season without receiving full campaigns from Spencer Strider, Michael Harris II, or Raisel Iglesias; without Sean Murphy behind the plate; and without a healthy and fully functional Ronald Acuña Jr. Losing Dansby Swanson hurts, but Atlanta still boasts the most talented roster, top to bottom, in the league. Meanwhile, I’m still in on the Blue Jays even though I was a tad overenthusiastic last season—much like I overhyped the Padres in 2021, only to see them fulfill their potential a year later. I foresee a rematch of the 1992 World Series, with the opposite team winning this round.
Ben Lindbergh: MLB’s standings have been lopsided of late, leading to record numbers of teams with 100 wins or losses. However, the competitive picture has tightened at the top, a predictable by-product of the 12-team playoff format. If performance in the playoffs dictates perceptions of success, and playoff results are largely random, why keep pushing to improve once you’re good enough to get into the tournament?
The Dodgers, who recently relearned the hard way that regular-season dominance is easily overshadowed by an early exit in October, may have gone a bit overboard in letting last year’s contributors leave; there’s still something to be said for winning one’s division, which L.A. is no longer a lock (or even a favorite) to do. There aren’t a lot of locks around the rest of the league, either: No team has even a 60 percent chance to win its division, according to FanGraphs. The same site gives Atlanta the highest projected win total in the majors with a meager 93, and though some teams will easily outstrip their forecasts, I wouldn’t be shocked if, for the first time since 2013 (not including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season), no team wins more than 97 games. There’s just not a lot of daylight between contenders, so I saw toss-ups wherever I looked. I was probably an Edwin Díaz patellar tendon tear away from picking the Mets to win the NL East, a Luis Severino lat strain away from picking the Yankees to win the AL East, and a Triston McKenzie shoulder strain away from picking the Guardians to win the AL Central, and I wouldn’t blink if the Brewers, White Sox, Mariners, or Rangers sneaked into the playoff picture.
Without strong convictions about differences in true talent, I erred on the side of fun, at least when it came to my pennant picks. As for that third AL wild card: I’ve decided that the only thing worse than repeatedly picking the Angels to make the playoffs and being wrong would be picking the Angels to miss the playoffs and being wrong, especially in what will likely be Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani’s last season as teammates. It’s a textbook case of falling for the sunk-cost fallacy and throwing good predictions after bad, but aside from Arte Moreno opting not to sell the team, the Halos had a strong winter, and I can’t quit them now. I’m holding out hope that the riveting boss battle between Trout and Ohtani in the WBC final won’t be either player’s last big at bat of 2023.
Bobby Wagner: This is a delicious—perhaps the delicious—World Series matchup for those of us who like a cherry placed neatly on top of the narrative of our baseball season. The Padres have bluntly inserted themselves into the baseball conversation as many fans’ second-favorite team by, uh, actually trying. Meanwhile, the Astros have been the conversation piece that most every fan has been trying to force out for years. Juan Soto would have the chance to reprise his role as Astros foiler, while Houston would have the chance to be the first repeat World Series winner since the turn-of-the-millennium Yankees. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to shake the notion that Houston is our new Death Star, destined to destroy a few more planets before it’s felled again.
Kram: Ohtani, Angels. It took 62 homers to beat Ohtani last season. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that nobody will beat Aaron Judge’s new AL record in 2023.
Lindbergh: Ohtani. Were you expecting someone else? Last March, I dared to dream that Ohtani could be better than he was in 2021, despite the difficulty of improving on a unanimous MVP campaign. A superlative season by Judge prevented Ohtani from repeating as MVP, but he did indeed do better than he had the year before, especially on the pitching side. Although he raised the bar again, he only made me greedier, and I think he can vault over his ridiculous 2022 totals into double-digit WAR territory by coupling 2022-quality pitching with 2021-caliber batting. (Shift restrictions can’t hurt.) That WBC MVP award isn’t the only one he’ll win in 2023, and whoever tries to sign him next winter might as well hand him a signed check and leave the line next to “dollars” blank.
Wagner: Ohtani. Three years ago, it seemed sacrilegious to pick anyone other than Trout. Two years ago, it seemed like a recipe for looking silly. Last year, it seemed like a toss-up, and tie goes to the incumbent. This year? It’s Ohtani by a country mile. Life comes at you fast.
Kram: Mookie Betts, Dodgers. I’ve written in previous versions of this predictions post that I’ll keep picking Betts until he becomes the first player since Frank Robinson to win MVP in both leagues. Last season’s performance—when Betts finished fifth in NL MVP voting with a 6.6-fWAR season—gave me no reason to stop that streak.
Lindbergh: Soto, Padres. I can’t keep track of whether Soto excels or sucks in the field—his defensive stats seem to fluctuate wildly each year—but I know he’s a far better hitter than what he showed last season in San Diego. His full-season wRC+ of 145 was both 10th best in baseball and a disappointment, which speaks to how highly regarded his offensive skill is. Facing fewer shifts should help him a little, but based on his track record and quality of contact, a bounce back would be coming with or without favorable rule changes. The 24-year-old (lol) lacks the blistering speed and/or great glove that most of the other leading NL MVP candidates boast, which means he’d have to really rake to outproduce the likes of Betts, Nolan Arenado, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor, and Acuña, not to mention teammates Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. (Sidenote: With Soto, Machado, Tatis, and Xander Bogaerts, the Padres employ four of the NL’s projected top 13 WAR getters.) But it feels like it’s only a matter of time until Soto sustains a 2020-esque slash line over a full season, and that would definitely do it.
Wagner: Machado, Padres. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride for the sweet-swinging Padres third baseman, it seems. After nabbing the runner-up spot in 2022, Machado has now finished second, third, fourth, and fifth in MVP voting in his career. If he wins it this year, he’ll have the MVP ballot cycle! At age 30, heading into his 12th season (!!), Machado is still scorching the ball, ranking in the 91st percentile in MLB in hard-hit percentage, according to Baseball Savant. He walks 10 percent of the time, good for 70th percentile. And if his defense has slipped at all, neither the advanced stats nor the highlight reels have noticed. His Padres will be in the limelight all year. It’s his time.
AL Cy Young
Kram: Luis Castillo, Mariners. There are very few things in baseball that I love more than a star pitcher who carries his new team after a blockbuster midseason trade. While Castillo’s half season with Seattle didn’t quite match CC Sabathia’s legendary 2008 run, he was still so electric that I’ll take him out of a crowded field with no clear favorite.
Lindbergh: Ohtani. If you trust the average of the wins above replacement pitching metrics from Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus, Ohtani was the AL’s most valuable pitcher last year, when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He improved as the season went on, increasing his usage of a newly refined slider, debuting a nasty new sinker, and recording a 1.67 ERA and 2.03 FIP over his final 19 starts, a span of 118 2/3 innings. Throw in the fact that his workload is expected to increase, and I almost have to squint to see as strong a case for anyone else—which is, of course, an absurd thing to say about someone who is projected to be one of the league’s top 10 hitters, too. Ohtani won’t lead the league in innings pitched, but the gap between him and whoever does shouldn’t be huge, and he’s the best bet to turn in the most effective frames of anyone who qualifies for the ERA title.
Wagner: Framber Valdez, Astros. Valdez is a pitcher’s pitcher. He proved that last year when he ran a streak of consecutive quality starts all the way up to 25 games, falling one short of the mark of 26 held by Bob Gibson. Without the eye-popping velocity and physical intimidation of guys like Randy Johnson or Chris Sale, he skews more toward the prototype of the “crafty lefty,” with a sinker that induces weak contact. But then you watch him pitch against your favorite team or command the mound in the World Series, and suddenly, bam! You’re down 0-2 or 1-2, and he rips off a devilish curveball that has 90th-percentile spin rate and elite horizontal and vertical movement. Sure doesn’t feel all that “crafty” when you’re swinging at a pitch he spiked in the dirt.
NL Cy Young
Kram: Spencer Strider, Atlanta. Strider struck out 38.3 percent of opposing hitters last season, the third-highest single-season mark in MLB history (minimum 130 innings), behind only Chris Sale in 2018 and Gerrit Cole in 2019. Now, neither Sale nor Cole has ever won a Cy Young, so it’s not as if Strider’s a shoo-in even if he repeats his 2022 performance with a full season’s workload. But he’s so dynamic, on such a great team, that I think he’ll check off every statistical box to impress voters, from traditional stats like wins and earned run average to more advanced metrics like strikeout rate and FIP.
Lindbergh: Corbin Burnes, Brewers. Burnes was my Cy Young pick last season, and although he didn’t repeat, he didn’t do anything to make me think he can’t add a second Cy to his trophy case. If anything, he removed one obstacle to victory by demonstrating unprecedented durability en route to setting career highs in starts (33) and innings (202). Burnes may not be in Milwaukee much longer—he’s eligible for free agency after the 2024 season and could be traded before then—but for now, he’ll be trying his hardest to carry the Brewers back to October after his pride was dinged during a contentious arbitration case. I’m not saying that Sandy Alcantara can’t keep cruising or that one of the Mets’, Phillies’, or Braves’ pairs of aces won’t win—and hey, I like Logan Webb and Zac Gallen too!—but no pitcher in baseball has been better than Burnes over the past three years, or finished toward the top of Cy Young ballots as consistently.
Wagner: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers. There was a time not so long ago when Kershaw was a shoo-in for a top-three Cy Young finish. Kersh finished in the top five in Cy Young voting for seven straight years, winning three along the way. His career is undeniable, but injuries and longevity have worn him down from his once-untouchable greatness. Or … not?
In 2022, Kershaw posted a better ERA, FIP, WHIP, and walk rate than his career averages. Though sidelined for part of the year, he still ended up throwing 126.1 innings and amassing 3.8 fWAR. He’s as good as he’s ever been, he’s just doing it differently (lower velocity, more off-speed usage in early counts). And after he was denied participation in the World Baseball Classic over an insurance issue, of all things, I’m not lining up to get in his way once he’s actually out there on the mound this year. Kershaw will step in and anchor the Dodgers rotation, which has more questions than we’re accustomed to at this point in the season, because that’s what he does.
AL Rookie of the Year
Kram: Gunnar Henderson, Orioles. When in doubt, pick the top prospect who hit 25 percent better than average in limited playing time last season, and who can amass value at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths.
Lindbergh: Henderson. It’s as chalky as they come, but I’d need a great reason not to pick the player who was baseball’s top prospect before his debut, who posted a 125 wRC+ in his first taste of the majors, and who is projected to be one of the league’s top 25 players. Watching Masataka Yoshida produce a 1.258 OPS in the WBC made me waver, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anthony Volpe has a higher WAR than Derek Jeter did in his Rookie of the Year campaign, but I’ve still gotta go with Gunnar.
Wagner: Yoshida, Red Sox. Something weird happened with Yoshida this offseason. The informed (you could say hipster) baseball fan came into it hoping that their team might sign the coveted Japanese outfielder. He narrowed down his options. And then the Boston Red Sox, a team that has been making a lot of very avoidable, highly public mistakes, signed him to a contract that basically no one expected he’d command. All of a sudden, a 29-year-old star—whose career OPS in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league was more than 100 points higher than Ohtani’s—has lost some of his shine. And why? Because John Henry has to pay him more than you thought he would? Give me a break. Nothing is a sure thing in MLB. But you can be pretty confident in saying that Yoshida is as sure a bet as—or, for my money, surer than—any of the highly touted minor league prospects being promoted this year.
NL Rookie of the Year
Kram: Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks. When in doubt, pick the top prospect who hit 30 percent better than average in limited playing time last season, and who can amass value at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths.
Lindbergh: Carroll. Called up two days before Henderson last August, Carroll—who hit even better than Gunnar after making the majors—also retains his rookie eligibility and, thus, his status as the RotY favorite. As on the AL side, I shot lingering glances at another early-20s phenom (Jordan Walker) and an NPB import (Kodai Senga), but here I stuck with the one candidate who’s already inked a nine-figure deal.
Wagner: James Outman, Dodgers. At this juncture, I would like to play my annual “I don’t know, man, they’re the Dodgers … some prospect on their team will have a 4-WAR season” card. I really have to come up with a shorter name for it.
Kram: Hunter Greene, Reds. As Lindbergh knows, the secret to a successful breakout pick is identifying a player who’s actually already started to break out. This season, that philosophy applies to Greene, a former no. 2 pick and highly touted prospect, whose overall numbers (5-13 record, 4.44 ERA, 1.7 home runs per nine innings) were nothing special during his rookie campaign. But that overall mediocrity belies a strong second half, when Greene solved his control problems and posted a 1.02 ERA with 51 strikeouts versus just eight walks. Granted, that hot streak comprised only six games as Greene dealt with a shoulder injury, but he doesn’t need to maintain a 1.02 ERA to constitute a breakout in his sophomore year.
Lindbergh: Andrew Vaughn, White Sox. Nothing makes me saltier than reading about “breakout candidates” who have arguably already broken out (Lars Nootbaar, Jesús Luzardo, Justin Steele), are recent blue-chip prospects whose rookie seasons were spotty but promising (Oneil Cruz, Hunter Greene, Riley Greene) or very good but not great (Nick Lodolo, George Kirby, Seiya Suzuki), or are current top prospects or accomplished international stars on the verge of making their MLB debuts (Walker, Yoshida, Senga). In my mind, the platonic ideal of a breakout candidate is someone who’s truly obscure and who didn’t end the previous season playing at a level that would make them a star if it was sustained over a full season (see Bryan De La Cruz’s .388/.419/.718 September and October). Yes, anyone can get better, and better known, but no, you’re not a breakout candidate if you just made a dominant, hitless start in the World Series (Cristian Javier), are the current cover model for MLB The Show (Jazz Chisholm Jr.), or are the consensus top prospect who hasn’t been on a big-league roster before (Walker). (Sorry, rant over.)
Of course, it’s difficult to foresee truly surprising improvements—that’s why they’re so surprising!—and few prognosticators try. I’m not exactly going with a hipster pick myself: My guy was a third-overall draft pick and a top prospect, too. But he’s 1,000-plus plate appearances into his big-league career, he’s been a sub-replacement-level player (per FanGraphs), he’s about to turn 25, and he’s not among the projected top-100 position players, so him having a huge year isn’t a total gimme. Vaughn was rushed to the majors—he skipped Double- and Triple-A—and because he’s been blocked by José Abreu, the Sox have stuck him at a bunch of positions he never played in college or in the minors (mostly left and right field, plus a few games at second and third base). Even so, he’s hit decently, but learning on the fly has to have held his bat back. Last year, he hit a very high percentage of his batted balls (A) hard and (B) in the launch-angle sweet spot, and he made a lot of contact (though his swing decisions were so-so). Thanks to Abreu’s departure, he’s ensconced at first base, where he can focus on offense. That may mean it’s time for fireworks.
Wagner: Daulton Varsho, Blue Jays. If it weren’t for the Diamondbacks being a mess in 2022, I think Varsho might’ve already “broken out” last year. The 26-year-old part-time catcher, part-time outfielder will most likely spend a majority of his time in the outfield this season for the Blue Jays, who acquired Varsho after trading away Teoscar Hernández earlier in the offseason and who already roster two big-league catchers.
Varsho is such a good defender in the outfield that, despite just barely clearing league average at the plate, his 2022 was still good for 4.6 fWAR. His underlying profile at the plate isn’t showing much life at the moment, ranking in the middle of the pack or near the bottom in most Statcast measurables. But he’s just so versatile as a player that, now that he’s on an interesting team with designs on the playoffs, if he realizes even just a fraction of the offensive potential in his prospect profile, he’ll be extremely important in Toronto this year.
Kram: The White Sox finished 81-81 in 2022 after winning the division in 2021. They look like a candidate to contend once again in 2023, but their roster quality declined over the offseason. With the effective swap of Andrew Benintendi for Abreu, their lineup has a couple of gaping holes—especially if Yasmani Grandal and Yoán Moncada don’t rebound—and their rotation depth could prove disastrous if anyone from the starting five gets hurt. The AL Central is a two-team race between the Guardians and Twins, not a three teamer.
Lindbergh: Texas Rangers. Can a team flop if it’s not a favorite to begin with? Rangers owner Ray Davis seemed to think so when he fired Chris Woodward and Jon Daniels last August. The Rangers rewarded Davis’s pre-2022 splurge on Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray by climbing from 60 wins to 68 and from fifth place to fourth, which wasn’t the kind of ROI Davis had in mind. Now the expectations are even higher than they were a year ago, because after buying a middle infield in the 2021-22 free-agent market, the Rangers purchased a pricey rotation this past winter, re-signing Martín Pérez and signing Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, and Andrew Heaney to go along with Gray. That’s a tantalizing quintet, but also a scarily fragile one; the Rangers rotation is deep enough to withstand some attrition, but it’s easy to imagine a nightmare injury stack. It’s tough to assemble a strong team through free agency alone, and because they’re light on homegrown talent, the Rangers have holes in the lineup that could do them in even if their awful record in one-run games regresses and the pitchers’ health holds up. Davis didn’t spend big on those arms (and Bruce Bochy) to end up with another fourth-place team, but that’s where both BP and FanGraphs envision them finishing, which means that the Rangers could qualify as a flop even if they play up to some sources’ expectations.
Wagner: Rangers. They say you shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about your ex. Well, the person who said that didn’t have an ex who throws 102 with an un-hittable slider and strikes out nearly half the batters he faces.
DeGrom is no longer on the New York Mets, but it’s hard to say how much his presence—however sparse it may be, with his injury history—on the Texas Rangers will meaningfully fill the gaps in a roster that, in my view, isn’t quite ready to meet the expectations of its headline moves.
Even a healthy deGrom season can’t paper over the fact that their 2-5 starters (Eovaldi, Gray, Pérez, and Heaney) have been some combination of hurt, mediocre, or inconsistent in recent years. Pérez and Heaney had great 2022 seasons in otherwise perplexing careers. And, outside of Semien, Seager, and a handful of useful utility players, the lineup is lacking the punch to outpace a middling rotation. Cracking .500 may still be a year or two away for Texas.
Kram: Arizona Diamondbacks. My playoff picks are so boring that I need to venture outside those dozen teams to find a true surprise—and while I don’t think Arizona’s quite good enough yet to keep pace with the Dodgers and Padres, I think the Diamondbacks will be surprisingly fun and competitive this season. The lineup should be at least solid at every position, if not better with youngsters like Carroll and catcher Gabriel Moreno, and the rotation could match if prospects Brandon Pfaadt, Ryne Nelson, and Drey Jameson join Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. (Nelson’s already in the rotation, but one of the other two should probably replace Madison Bumgarner sooner rather than later.)
Lindbergh: White Sox. That the White Sox sank far enough last season to project as a third-place team in a middling division in 2023 is itself a surprise, but that’s where we are. The Sox are coming off a .500 finish and didn’t do much to upgrade their roster this winter—their biggest batter and pitcher additions were Benintendi and Mike Clevinger, respectively, which may not even make up for the departures of Abreu and Johnny Cueto—but they did make a managerial change, and in their case, that might make a real difference. So would better health for their core contributors, which seems like a near certainty. (Get well, Liam Hendriks.) It also seems like a necessity, since the Sox are once again devoid of depth. Still, the revamped outfield of Benintendi, Luis Robert Jr., and Oscar Colás should be much stronger defensively than last year’s unit, Vaughn and Eloy Jiménez could mash even more now that they won’t be playing the pastures, and the lineup looks formidable from top to bottom. The Twins—who led the Central for 108 days in 2022, despite losing an MLB-leading amount of production to injury—may be in line for their own rebound, and the Guardians are still good, but the vibes in Chicago already seem better than they ever did under Tony La Russa last year.
Wagner: Minnesota Twins. This is my fifth year of participating in Ringer staff predictions, which means this is my fifth year of not really understanding the site’s or my own criteria for determining what qualifies as a surprise. It wasn’t so long ago that the Twins were the overwhelming favorites in the AL Central, but lukewarm investment from ownership and a general lack of desire to improve on the part of the entire division dulled Minnesota. But the Twins had a great offseason! They retained one of the best players in baseball, Carlos Correa, in a totally normal way. They traded a very good position player, Luis Arraez, for a very good pitcher, Pablo López. They took a flier on Joey Gallo, whom I refuse to believe is bad because he is handsome and Italian and knows how to take walks. All in all, they have the makings of a very good team! With the way it felt like this division had been shaping up the past few years—talented young rosters in Chicago and Cleveland seemingly on the rise—that feels surprising enough to me.
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