For all the talk about how division races supposedly don’t matter as much as they used to -- and I can think of a couple No. 1 and No. 2 seeds who would very much disagree with you -- it still means something to be able to call yourself a champion. I guarantee you there are Guardians fans who have 2022 AL Central champs shirts. It might not be the ultimate prize, but winning a division matters. At the very least: It gets you in the dance.
When you look at all the playoff teams from last year, it sure looks like they all will be competitive in 2023 as well: Everyone’s trying to make it back. But there are six division champions from '22 who will be trying to wear the crown again. Who’s most likely to repeat? Here’s a ranking of the most likely to least likely.
1. Houston Astros
The defending champs lost Justin Verlander, which is, obviously, not nothing. But they’re still pretty stacked, and they’ve even added José Abreu, some veteran leadership on a team that is certainly not lacking for it. They also have an exciting young pitching staff, with a couple of guys in Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier who might just go out and win a Cy Young themselves. And more to our larger point here: As exciting as the Mariners might be, as spend-happy as the Rangers might be and as truly desperate as the Angels might be, none of those three teams seem particularly close to being in the Astros’ league right now. Winning another World Series will be a huge challenge. Winning another AL West will be decidedly less of one.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Look, we’re as excited about the Padres as you are. Xander Bogaerts, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Manny Machado -- holy cow. But the reason the Padres had to gear up as much as they have is because they know the Dodgers are the juggernaut of this division, albeit not the juggernaut of the NL Division Series, at least when they play the Padres. For all the talk of the Padres this offseason, they were still a whopping 22 games behind the Dodgers. Twenty-two games is a lot of games. San Diego looks a lot better than last year, and the Dodgers look a little bit worse. But not that much worse. Not nearly enough worse.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
There isn’t a Cardinals fan who didn’t want their team to do more this offseason. Willson Contreras is a terrific replacement for Yadier Molina -- he’s a lightyears better hitter, and more competent behind the plate, particularly over the past couple of years, than he is widely given credit for -- but there are still questions with this team, particularly with its outfield and (especially) its starting rotation. All that said, they still look like the best team in this division by a good margin, despite some additions from the Cubs and some savvy moves on the margins by the Brewers. (Then again, you never know when the Brewers will just up and trade one of their best players.) The Cardinals have an urgency to win right now that the rest of this division seems to lack. That should be enough to get it done again in 2023.
4. Atlanta Braves
A lot has happened since the Braves swept that late-season series to essentially clinch the NL East (and a first-round bye) over the Mets. The Phillies blitzed the Braves in the NLDS (and the Cardinals in the Wild Card round and the Padres in the NLCS), and the Mets made a number of splashes in free agency -- although their deal with Carlos Correa ultimately did not come to fruition. The Braves, meanwhile, just went about their business as always, saying goodbye to Dansby Swanson but bringing in Sean Murphy (and locking him up for years to come). The Braves have been smart, prudent and focused on the long-term for a few years now, and this is the stretch where it’s really going to start to pay off. That said, the Mets and Phillies are both legitimate threats to end Atlanta’s streak of division titles at five.
5. Cleveland Guardians
The Guardians, unlike every other team we’ve seen on this list so far, look a little bit better than they did in 2022, though only a little bit -- it may depend on how you feel about the addition of Josh Bell. But they still seem to be the best team in the AL Central. It’s difficult to see how the Twins are better than they were last year, even after bringing back Carlos Correa in the shock of all shocks this offseason. The Royals and the Tigers seem to have a lot of things to figure out before they’re anywhere that close to contending, though you can squint and see a faint hope for Kansas City, if you really try. The question here is how much you believe in the White Sox to, at last, put all their young (but getting less young by the day) talent together at the same time. The White Sox strike me as enough of a challenger to keep the Guardians down here in the fifth spot, and the Twins also are much more of a threat with Correa returning. But Cleveland has to be considered the favorite at this point.
6. New York Yankees
Even with Aaron Judge back, this has to be the pick, right? The Yankees should still be good, especially with Carlos Rodón in the rotation, but let’s not forget how much Judge had to carry this offense down the stretch last year. And you can’t expect Judge to do that again, can you? And the rest of the division looks tougher than ever. The Rays are the Rays, the Orioles are only going to get better and, in many ways, the Yankees were fortunate the Blue Jays underperformed a little last year … something that’s unlikely to repeat itself in 2023. (Oh, and now Rafael Devers isn’t leaving Boston either.) I would say the over-under on repeat division champs is, oh, four. I’m not sure there’s a better bet to not be one of them than the Yankees.