1 team in each division that will be better than last year

February 28th, 2024

With the Dodgers and Padres playing the two-game Seoul Series in South Korea on March 20-21, the 2024 MLB regular season will be upon us before we know it. (Full Opening Day action is set for March 28). So today, we continue our weekly series of season previews, breaking down major storylines from the perspective of all six divisions.

Previously: The must-watch player in every division this season
Today: The team in each division most likely to improve its win total

We can write all these words about which players are new to which teams, about projection systems, about what players are in the best shape of their lives. But in a way, it’s all overcomplicating a fundamental fact about baseball, and really, about life: We’re all just trying to get better.

You want to have a better year than you did last year; you want to leave the world a little better than how you found it. The goal is improvement. No matter how good you are, or were, there’s always more to do.

Thus, today in our weekly series of previews leading up to the start of the season, we take a look at the team in each division most likely to increase its win total from 2023 to 2024. You know how when things aren’t going well, fans always say, “Wait ‘til next year?” Well, it’s next year. This time, it might just be better.

AL East: Red Sox
The obvious, and probably consensus, answer here is the Yankees, and understandably so. They lost 80 games last year, and if they lose more than last year, well, there are going to be consequences felt throughout the organization. But we’ve picked the Yankees a lot in this series so far, and besides, the Red Sox were the only team in this division to finish under .500 last year.

To these eyes, in 2024 they look like a .500 team at least. Sure, Chris Sale is gone, and Lucas Giolito might not have the ceiling of Sale, but you have a much better idea of what you’ll be getting from Giolito week in and week out. The lineup looks like it has some growth potential with the additions of Tyler O’Neill and Vaughn Grissom, and Triston Casas looks like a breakout waiting to happen.

The AL East will be tough. Last year, one team won 101 games, another won 99 and another won 89. (And of course the fourth-place team still finished above .500.) But with some clarity in the front office (and the real possibility that there’s still a free-agent pitcher out there for them), the Red Sox could be well-positioned to scoop this up. Boston fans are sort of down on their team right now, but that never lasts for long. Get on the bandwagon early: The Red Sox are primed to surprise this year. Or at least finish over .500.

AL Central: Royals
This doesn’t seem particularly controversial: The Royals lost 106 games last year. That was tied for the most in franchise history, and Royals fans can tell you: They’ve seen some pretty rough teams in their time.

It’s difficult to imagine it’s going to be anything close to that bad in 2024, and you really don’t have to squint that hard to see a potential AL Central surprise team here. They fortified their rotation by bringing in Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo, they’ve completely overhauled their bullpen, they added some nifty bats in Hunter Renfroe, Adam Frazier and Garrett Hampson and, perhaps most important, they’re starting to see their young talent develop into legitimate Major League players.

They’ve got seven lineup pieces 27 years or younger, including a now-healthy Vinnie Pasquantino, an emerging MJ Melendez and, of course, Bobby Witt Jr., the now-extended superstar this whole thing is built around. It remains to be seen what the ceiling is for this Royals roster … but the floor is a lot higher than 106 losses, that’s for sure.

AL West: A’s
Well, the A’s lost six more games than the Royals in 2023, so clearly there is a lot of room for improvement. But if you’re going to lose 112 games in a season, at the very least you want to identify some young talent that will stick around long enough to play for a contending team.

The A’s found a few of these guys last year, starting with Zack Gelof, the sort of do-everything, hard-nosed player that every team would love to have. He’s also only 24 years old, which means he’s going to stick around for a while … and have some other intriguing young talents to grow up alongside. That includes catcher Shea Langeliers, only 26, who, it should be said, hit more homers than former A’s backstop Sean Murphy did last year. The entire projected starting lineup other than Seth Brown is under 30 -- the oldest player is Brent Rooker, Oakland’s All-Star and leading home run hitter last season -- and should have some real growth potential. (And don’t forget the center fielder who stole 67 bases last year.)

They also added two veteran rotation pieces in Ross Stripling and Alex Wood, who should at least settle things down a little. This team may not challenge the Astros or Rangers, but there’s no question they’ll be better than last year. Thus: Progress!

NL East: Mets
All right, so losing Kodai Senga, for however long the Mets have lost him, is not great. This rotation looks ominously thin right now, not to mention kind of old. But don’t let the disappointment that was 2023 get it twisted: This is still a team with a roster that is plenty talented.

There are a lot of contending clubs that would love to start their lineup with Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso. And the Mets have a trio of intriguing young players in Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty and Mark Vientos who should have every opportunity to play, and shine, this year. If those young players take the steps forward that their prospect pedigree would suggest, and the lineup mainstays remain healthy, the Mets will be able to outscore a lot of teams even if their rotation withers. (And their bullpen doesn’t look half bad.)

If the Marlins take a step backward, which looks like a real possibility, the Mets could very well benefit. This could be a .500 team, easily. And maybe better.

NL Central: Reds
Considering how much of a nightmare the 2023 season was in St. Louis, Cardinals fans certainly would love to see their team here. And if the Cards lose more than 91 games in 2024, goodness, the Birds on that Bat on their uniforms might fly away in shame.

But if there’s a team that looks ready to make a leap in this division, it’s without question the Reds. Few teams in the division made more surgical offseason additions than the Reds, targeting Jeimer Candelario, Frankie Montas, Emilio Pagán and Brent Suter to fill holes on the roster. But the real reason to buy in on the Reds is all the young talent that looks on the cusp of doing something special. You’ve got Noelvi Marte ready to establish himself as an everyday player. You’ve got Spencer Steer, Will Benson and TJ Friedl ready to take another step forward. You’ve got Matt McLain ready to be even better than he was last year -- and he was the best player on this team in 2023.

But more than anyone else, you’ve got Elly De La Cruz. Last year was not nearly as productive as we all thought it would be for De La Cruz, particularly in the second half, but, seriously, all you have to do is look at him and it’s obvious he can do things no one else can on a baseball field. With a year in the Majors under his belt, he’s primed to make a huge step forward. His team is going to make one right along with him.

NL West: Padres
That’s a neat trick: Lose Juan Soto and (probably) Blake Snell, and get better. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? The Padres ran into constant misfortune last year, losing so many games you knew they were supposed to win -- and missing out on so many key hits -- that it left their fans shaking their heads, wondering what in the world could possibly be happening.

That luck, or curse, or whatever you want to call it, has to lift somewhat this year: No team could be snakebit like that two years in a row. This is a team still loaded with MVP candidates -- it’s not unreasonable to think that Fernando Tatis Jr. could absolutely look similar to his old self this year -- and even with the (probable) loss of Snell, the Soto trade filled out a thin rotation with Michael King and Randy Vásquez.

The Padres also made some smart, savvy bullpen moves that should solve maybe their biggest issue of 2023. This team somehow lost 80 games last year, but that’s not happening again.