Which division is best heading into 2023?
A lot of heavy lifting has happened across MLB the last couple weeks. That doesn’t mean we’re done with this Hot Stove season. Far from it. But it does mean we can begin to take a more defined look at the landscape and see where the intra-divisional intrigue lies.
Let’s dive into the six divisions and see what has changed since the conclusion of the 2022 season, ranking each one from most to least compelling.
1. NL East
FanGraphs’ projections do not yet include the Mets’ adding Japanese flamethrower Kodai Senga, so they are going to be refined between now and Spring Training -- and they obviously aren’t foolproof, anyway. But we would be remiss not to point out that, even with the Mets blowing past the MLB payroll record and on track to pay around $70 million in competitive balance tax, they still don’t have the top winning percentage projection in their own division.
Oh, and the defending NL champion Phillies aren’t projected at the top, either.
So that tells you all you need to know about what we’re ranking as the most dynamic division in baseball. While we’d feel even better about this ranking if the Marlins and Nationals had more to offer to the equation, the presence of three beasts in the Mets, Phillies and defending division champion Braves (the team projected by FanGraphs not only at the top of the NL East but the top of MLB) is enough to get by.
What’s fascinating about the Mets’ jaw-dropping spending spree is that it did not (or at least, to this point, has not) addressed arguably their most glaring need: a power bat. But retaining one of the game’s great closers in Edwin Díaz and rebuilding a rotation in which Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker all reached free agency didn’t figure to come cheap. And boy … it did not.
Despite a mammoth midseason lead, the Mets weren’t able to fend off the Braves last season, and, while Atlanta will face a bit of shortstop uncertainty, the Braves figure to benefit from the addition of Sean Murphy and with Ronald Acuña Jr. further distancing himself from knee surgery.
As for the Phils, what better way to build off the momentum of an unexpectedly deep October run than by adding one of the most dynamic players in the sport in Trea Turner and lengthening the rotation with Walker? The key to it all will be when and what the Phillies get from Bryce Harper following Tommy John surgery, but the Phillies have at least put themselves in position to keep pace in what ought to be an awesome race.
2. NL West
The Dodgers have won this division nine of 10 years. The only exception was 2021, when the Giants came out of nowhere to win 107 games and take the West by a single game. Last season was a return to normalcy as the Dodgers waltzed to another division title with a 22-game advantage on the Padres. We have been guilty multiple times in recent years of building up this division to be more interesting than it turned out to be. Generally speaking, the Dodgers have owned it.
But … let’s build it up again!
After advancing to the NLCS this past season, the Padres made yet another big splash with the Xander Bogaerts signing and could be substantially improved by a full season of Juan Soto and the eventual return of Fernando Tatis Jr.
The Giants still have a lot of questions to answer after last season’s dramatic drop, but they have addressed their need for a star with the Carlos Correa signing.
And while the Rockies and D-backs won’t be anybody’s pick in the West, Arizona is not to be totally ignored as a potential playoff-caliber club after making a 22-win improvement last year. They have a lot of interesting young talent, fronted by top prospect Corbin Carroll, who debuted last year.
Amid all this, the Dodgers have intentionally abstained from the top end of the free-agent market in order to get their payroll under the competitive balance tax threshold. Don’t take that as reason to expect the Dodgers to fall off the face of the Earth, because, even with the free-agent losses of Trea Turner and important rotation weapons Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney, they have stars and depth aplenty.
But with the Giants having edged the Dodgers for the division crown in 2021, the Padres having defeated them in the NLDS in '22 and both of those clubs exercising their financial muscle, the NL West is no cakewalk for L.A., no matter what last year’s standings say. In fact, for what it’s worth, the Padres are projected by FanGraphs for a .551 winning percentage to the Dodgers’ .524 mark.
3. AL East
On the one hand, the East had four teams finish above .500 last season, something no other division can claim. However, even after a second-half slide, the Yankees finished seven games up on the Blue Jays and have seemingly improved themselves after following up the retainment of Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo with the addition of Carlos Rodón (and will have playoff hero Harrison Bader for a full season). While there might still be concern about a club that won 99 games last year being a little too reliant on No. 99 in the lineup, the Yankees are cemented as the favorites.
But there’s a lot to like about the East, as a whole.
Though Toronto did not prove up to the task of vying for the division title last year, it’s still an inordinately talented team that has added Chris Bassitt to what ought to be a fantastic rotation.
With a deep pitching staff of their own, the Rays figure to again field their brand of financially frugal feistiness (their three-year, $40 million pact with Zach Eflin is a franchise record).
The Orioles have not and perhaps will not swing the kind of major additions we wanted to see from them this winter. But at least the O’s have picked themselves up off the mat and, with their best prospects having graduated to or on the verge of the big leagues, are on an organizational upswing after a long stretch of miserable summers.
Boston is the only one of these teams that has probably taken a step back this winter with the loss of Xander Bogaerts. But we’ll see if the Masataka Yoshida gamble pays off. Anyway, even if the Red Sox got worse, what’s the worst that could happen? They finish last? They already did that in 2022.
The East is the Yankees’ division to lose. Clearly. But it should be a deep division again.
4. AL West
The Astros won the West by 16 games, then proved themselves to be the best team in baseball by going 11-2 in the postseason. If any team can absorb the loss of a pitcher of the ilk of Justin Verlander, it’s this devastatingly deep Houston club. The Astros have added José Abreu to their lineup and will probably augment their outfield in a meaningful way before all is said and done.
So… can anybody close the gap on them?
Well, a few teams are certainly trying, which is all we can ask.
The Mariners will enter 2023 with that October monkey off their backs, will have a full season of Luis Castillo in a strong rotation and a more experienced Julio Rodríguez, and they added a really productive outfielder in Teoscar Hernández. Though they were swept by the ‘Stros in the ALDS, it was a hard-fought series that demonstrated that Seattle might not be as far off as that 16-game deficit would lead you to believe.
Rather than punt on Shohei Ohtani, the Angels are actively trying to salvage whatever is left of the Ohtani era, signing Tyler Anderson and Carlos Estévez and trading for Gio Urshela and Hunter Renfroe. It might not be enough, but, well, it’s a heck of a lot more encouraging than what’s going on in Oakland.
And then there are the Rangers, who have invested a staggering amount of money into their squad the last two winters. The signings of Marcus Semien and Corey Seager didn’t amount to much in 2022, but now, with an ace among aces in Jacob deGrom, added rotation depth in the form of Andrew Heaney and Jake Odorizzi and the experience Bruce Bochy brings to the equation, the arrow seems to be pointed up, if nothing else.
It's still, clearly, the Astros’ division to lose. But the West has a lot going for it and could move up in these rankings before long.
5. NL Central
The defending champion Cardinals added a big bat in Willson Contreras, no doubt. But it’s a steep defensive difference between Contreras and the retired Yadier Molina, and, in the course of storming to the top of the Central and never looking back, the Cards were certainly boosted in a big way by a surprisingly vintage Albert Pujols performance in the second half last season. No. 5 is gone.
Still, even with the retirement of two likely Hall of Famers, the Cards retain a nice blend of established stars and up-and-comers and are well positioned to repeat. What’s tricky is determining how prepared the Brewers and Cubs are to keep them honest.
The Cubs are actively trying to win again, adding Jameson Taillon to the rotation and betting on a Cody Bellinger bounceback. They could still land Dansby Swanson. For now, they are still projected as a sub-.500 squad.
Milwaukee, dating back to the Josh Hader trade, has made more of an effort to cut costs than to improve the big league roster. The Brewers traded Hunter Renfroe and Kolten Wong, who ranked first and second on the 2022 club in OPS. They likely salvaged some offense with the addition of William Contreras, and the possibility of Jesse Winker returning to All-Star-caliber production is not to be ignored. And with the retention of front-line starters Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, they’ll remain a tough matchup.
With the Cubs and Brewers no sure bets to push the Cards, and the Reds and Pirates very much in rebuild mode, the NL Central does not exactly rate as the center of the baseball universe right now. You don’t have to squint too hard to see St. Louis galloping past the competition. But at least this division does have two teams (Cardinals and Brewers) projected to finish above .500 – something we can’t say about the last division on the list.
6. AL Central
As late as Sept. 4, the Guardians, White Sox and Twins were all within two games of each other. Fun!
Except … none of the three, at that moment, was within four games of the final AL Wild Card team. Not so fun!
We know what happened from there. The Guardians went crazy and wound up winning the Central by 11 games (with an identical record as the top Wild Card club). So they’ll be the favorites to repeat, especially after addressing their glaring need for power (signing Josh Bell and Mike Zunino) without blocking any of the youth or sacrificing any of the pitching and defense that made them special.
Unless the Tigers or Royals shock the world, it will be up to the White Sox and Twins to make this division dynamic. The White Sox signed Mike Clevinger but lost Abreu and are generally hoping for better outcomes from the rest of their underperforming core, under new leadership in Pedro Grifol. The Twins lost Carlos Correa and, after a disappointing finish even with Correa in tow, seem to be in no-man’s land at the moment.
For now, there’s just not enough on-paper improvement in Chicago and Minnesota to move the AL Central up this particular list.
But hey, there’s a reason they play the games …