Baseball is unpredictable. Particularly for those of us who are bad at making predictions.
But when a new year dawns, it’s only natural to look at the landscape and speculate about what might happen in this ridiculous, beautiful and ridiculously beautiful sport.
So let’s take a look at some of the storylines on tap as 2023 arrives and take a guess as to how they’ll play out.
Will the Mets live up to the hype (i.e. win it all)?
First off, any discussion of the Mets’ roster as I write this is complicated by the unresolved Carlos Correa saga. Without Correa, I’m not convinced the Mets are the best team in the National League East on paper (that would still be the Braves, for me), no matter how much money they’ve spent this winter. Making the investments in Justin Verlander, Edwin Díaz, Brandon Nimmo, Kodai Senga and others arguably only maintained the lofty level the Mets had reached in 2022, rather than improving upon it.
Correa would change that -- again, on paper. Even then, though, the Mets would run the risk of joining a long list of teams who won the winter but ran into unforeseen issues with injuries or performance letdown. Their cohesiveness -- and their unusually old rotation (the 2023 Mets will try to become just the sixth team in history and the first in 21 years to get at least 20 starts apiece from five starters aged 30 or older) -- will be put to the test by a league that will be gunning for them every night of the 162-game schedule.
Granted, it’s not like we’re talking about, say, the 2012 Marlins, who were totally over their skis when they made multiple Hot Stove splashes. The Mets already had the nucleus of a great team and I’m not crazy enough to think they won’t make the postseason at all. But with the sheer size of this payroll, this is as much a “World Series or bust" situation as we’ve ever seen. So put me down for bust, only because baseball has conditioned me to be leery of the squads that make the big winter splash.
Will Aaron Judge repeat as the MLB home run champ?
No one in their right mind should be predicting Judge to totally repeat one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. His American League record of 62 home runs should be safe from … himself.
But repeating as MLB home run champ is a more modest goal. Judge wasn’t just the home run champ in 2022. He was the home run champ ... by 16 home runs! In a year of depressed power numbers, his output was extraordinary and picking against him in this particular category seems as foolish as leaving him a fastball over the middle.
A fresh season, however, is a fresh page. It’s not like Judge gets to begin the campaign with a 16-homer lead on the field. We are going to see the continuation of a trend in which we have not had a repeat MLB home run champ since José Bautista in 2010-11.
So who will outhomer the Yankees captain? A healthy Mike Trout could do it (he’s coming off a career-best 8 percent homer rate in a 2022 season shortened by injury). Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Schwarber, Pete Alonso … all good possibilities.
But I’m taking the 2021 MLB home run champ, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who wasn’t able to reach the high bar he set for himself this past season but who nevertheless was in the 96th percentile in average exit velocity, 99th in max exit velocity and 94th in hard-hit percentage. (Translation: He hits the ball -- and it goes boom.) Plus, he’s only 24 on Opening Day.
Will Shohei Ohtani be traded?
The other way to word this question is, “Will the Angels be contenders at the Trade Deadline?” My answer to that one -- surprising even myself -- is yes.
The Angels haven’t had a jaw-dropping winter, but they have exceeded most industry expectations for what they’d be able to accomplish while the team is up for sale. General manager Perry Minasian has done what he can to raise the floor of and improve the competition within a club that has been a massive disappointment despite fielding two of the game’s great superstars in Trout and Ohtani. All the Halos need to be viable -- besides health for that prominent pair -- is mere competence from the supporting cast. Their Ohtani-fronted rotation was better than most realized last season and now has Tyler Anderson. The lineup with Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Drury has more depth and power than it did at season’s end -- and top catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe could add to that equation.
I don’t think this is a surefire playoff team, but I think it’s a team that ought to be able to avoid falling off the face of the earth by the end of July. Only a clear mathematical mess should compel the Angels to trade Ohtani in-season, because getting proper value for baseball’s true unicorn in a trade is pretty much impossible, anyway.
Hey, maybe the next owner will even do something crazy like -- hear me out on this one -- extend Ohtani! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves ...
Will the Astros own the AL … again?!?
The Astros have reached six straight League Championship Series and won four of them. Even after losing Verlander, they will enter 2023 as the obvious favorites for the AL pennant, at a minimum. With the return of Michael Brantley and the addition of José Abreu, their lineup is as strong as ever. With Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier stepping into larger roles and Hunter Brown a breakout candidate, the starting staff could also be as strong as ever.
So the prevailing storyline in the AL is a bunch of teams trying to catch up to Houston. That’s the storyline within the division, where the aforementioned Angels will try to make the most of their final season of control of Ohtani, where the Rangers are spending gobs of money to rush their rebuild and where the Mariners are trying to build off their first October entry in a generation. And that’s the storyline elsewhere, especially with the Yankees and Blue Jays both fortifying their rotations in a bid to better their chances of advancement within October.
On paper, the Astros are still better than all of them. As a result, they are going to win the AL West. Again.
But you didn’t come here for bold predictions like, “The Astros are still good.” And this is another opportunity to take a contrarian stance. So here it is: After going a combined 18-5 in the ALDS the last six years, Houston will finally be humbled in a best-of-five. (I’ll let you know the winner in a minute.)
Have the Padres overtaken the Dodgers?
Prediction: Yes … sort of.
When AJ Preller became GM of the Padres prior to 2015, the Dodgers’ dominance of the NL West was in its infancy. It’s staggering to think about all the moves the Padres have made since then in an indefatigable bid to get on the Dodgers’ level -- including (but not limited to) the ill-fated acquisitions of Matt Kemp, James Shields, Justin Upton and others prior to 2015, the rebuild that followed (one accelerated by trading Shields for Fernando Tatis Jr.), the signings of Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado and the blockbuster trades for Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Josh Hader, Juan Soto and Josh Bell.
Alas, even while proving themselves as a playoff contender, the Padres went a combined 16-32 against the Dodgers in the regular season the last three years.
But finally, in the 2022 NLDS, the Padres slayed the giant -- on the heels of the Dodgers’ franchise-record 111-win season, no less.
Now, with Xander Bogaerts serving as the latest big-ticket addition of a Friars team coming off that big win in a best-of-five, the Padres could be a popular pick to overtake the Dodgers in a best-of-162, even though they finished 22 games behind them in 2022.
And it says here that, yes, the Padres will win the NL West. It’s time.
Where it will get goofy, though, is in October. The seeding will be such that the Padres will never even get the opportunity to face the Wild Card-winning Dodgers, because they’ll be taken out in the NLDS (again, I’ll let you know the winner shortly). Little, underdog L.A. will be the only NL West team still standing when the LCS begins.
Will a Central team finally reach the LCS?
The last three NLCS rounds have all been between teams from the East and West. It’s even worse in the AL, where the Central hasn’t been represented on the LCS stage since 2016. The six-year absence is the longest any division has gone without LCS advancement since the LCS was first contested under the three-division format in 1995.
An added wrinkle that Central clubs will have to overcome is the new, more balanced schedule. If recent history is any indication, that will negatively impact the win totals of the top Central squads -- perhaps relegating both Central Division champions to the Wild Card Series (again) while also decreasing the odds of Wild Card winners coming from the Central.
All of which is to say the odds seem to be stacked against the Central squads.
But we’re here to go out on limbs -- and go out on limbs we shall, by saying the Central skid dies here! Both reigning Central winners -- the Cardinals and Guardians -- have significantly improved their offenses this winter. And after successfully defending their division titles, they will both play in the LCS. The Guards will be the ones to take down the Astros, while the Cards will be the ones to put the Padres out to pasture.
Your 2023 LCS matchups will be: Cardinals vs. Dodgers and Guardians vs. Yankees.
So… who will win it all?
The Dodgers won 111 games last year but are somehow not the hot item on the menu. Because they typically come up short in October, because they lost important pieces in free agency while abstaining from the top end of the free-agent market, they will not be as popular a pick to win it all as they once were.
Their inaction creates opportunity -- and I’m taking it. Give me those underdog Dodgers to win it all, because -- news flash -- they’re still very good. Younger, perhaps, as prospects like Miguel Vargas, James Outman and Bobby Miller begin to step into big league roles, but very, very good. And with Walker Buehler perhaps inching toward a September return, they could enter October primed to overcome the heartbreak of postseasons past. In the World Series, they will defeat a Yankees team that finally gets over the ALCS hump.
Dodgers over Yankees. So it is written, so it shall be. (Er, maybe not.)