7 teams poised to improve by leaps and bounds

Each of these clubs could raise their win total by double digits in '24

January 18th, 2024

The calendar recently flipped to 2024, and with that comes a clean slate and a fresh opportunity for Major League teams. After all, even for those that struggled through a disappointing 2023, one year can make a ton of difference.

Here’s one piece of evidence: A year ago, nine clubs pulled off an improvement of at least 10 wins from 2022 (with two more finishing at plus-nine). That group of double-digit increases included a wide variety of teams:

  • Both World Series participants (Rangers and D-backs)
  • Three other playoff qualifiers (Orioles, Rays and Marlins)
  • Three more above or near .500 (Reds, Tigers and Pirates)
  • One last-place finisher (Nationals)

The most improved teams were coming off anywhere from 55 wins (Nationals) to 86 wins (Rays) and jumped to anywhere from 71 (Nats) to 101 (Orioles). The gains ranged from plus-10 (D-backs) to plus-22 (Rangers).

So who is most likely to follow that lead and raise their win total by double digits in 2024? It could be a good team ascending to greatness, a rebuilding club digging up from the basement or anywhere in between. (Though, obviously, the lower the 2023 win total, the greater the opportunity for improvement.)

We asked seven MLB.com writers to make their picks, and here are the results:

2023 record: 82-80

Why they’ll be better: Let’s start with the big reason: Aaron Judge played only 106 games last year … and he still hit 37 home runs. With a full, healthy season from Judge, we know the MVP-level numbers he’s capable of putting up. And with generational talent Juan Soto in tow, too? It should be quite an offensive output in the Bronx. To say this team will win at least 92 games feels quite fair, considering they won 82 last year despite numerous injuries. Carlos Rodón will be healthy, too, alongside reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole.

Biggest obstacle: There’s always a need for more pitching, even after the addition of Marcus Stroman. Depth would certainly help. And, of course, health is never a given. While the impact players who were injured in 2023 should be good to go, we unfortunately can’t know what will happen over the course of 162 games in ‘24. -- Sarah Langs

2023 record: 82-80

Why they’ll be better: This might be an ambitious pick, considering the Reds already improved by 20 wins from 2022 to ‘23, but have you seen all of the emerging young talent this team already has in the Majors? Position players Elly De La Cruz (22 years old), Matt McLain (24), Christian Encarnacion-Strand (24) and Noelvi Marte (22) each debuted last season, as did pitcher Andrew Abbott (24) -- and they all made significant contributions to Cincinnati’s turnaround. However, McLain was the only one of the five who appeared with the Reds before June, and even he played only 89 games last year.

With the continued development of all of those players at the big league level, plus healthier seasons from pitchers Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, it’s not hard to imagine the Reds making another leap in 2024. That’s before you even get into the under-the-radar moves the team has made on the free-agent market this offseason, signing Jeimer Candelario, Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez, Emilio Pagán and Brent Suter.

Biggest obstacle: Their starting pitching. The Reds’ rotation has plenty of potential, but the team doesn’t have a proven ace or anyone with a track record as a durable workhorse in the Majors. Of their top six projected starting options, Montas is the only one who has a 30-start season on his résumé, and he’s coming off a lost season following right shoulder surgery. Greene is perhaps the Cincinnati starter with the best chance of developing into a frontline arm, given his blazing fastball and plus slider, but he needs to show better command and durability. -- Thomas Harrigan

2023 record: 56-106

Why they’ll be better: This is an easy pick, just because there is so much room for improvement. But it’s not just that. Even last year, the Royals’ Pythagorean record – based on run differential – was eight games better than their actual record. Other estimates of true performance had it closer to 10 games better. So even without actually improving, the Royals could easily bounce back by that much, especially in an AL Central that’s not exactly bursting with powerhouse teams. Kansas City has made a real effort to bolster its roster, however, signing a group of veterans that includes right-handers Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, as well as outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Full seasons from left-hander Cole Ragans (acquired on June 30) and first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino (limited to 61 games by injury) would also help, as would the continued maturation of shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. into one of the game’s brightest stars.

Biggest obstacle: The Royals’ offseason moves have focused on solid contributors as opposed to standouts, and each of those veterans comes with his share of risk. If those new arrivals falter and the team’s 29th-ranked farm system isn’t providing high-impact reinforcements, there’s a chance things could once again go south in a hurry. -- Andrew Simon

2023 record: 71-91

Why they’ll be better: The Cardinals are a proud franchise coming off their worst season in nearly 30 years. Even before any upgrades were made this offseason, there was an expectation that there would be a move toward restoring St. Louis to contention. Then, the club bolstered its area of greatest need: pitching. Only four clubs had a higher ERA from their starters than the Cardinals’ 5.08 last season: the Rockies, A’s, Reds and Royals. St. Louis added veterans Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn. The Cards’ bullpen posted a 23rd-ranked 4.47 ERA, so they traded for relievers Andrew Kittredge and Nick Robertson to shore up the relief corps – and they might not be done adding.

At the plate last year, star sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado had subpar performances after the former won the 2022 NL MVP Award and the latter finished third in that MVP voting cycle. A bounceback to the mean for that duo would also go a long way toward lifting this club back to .500 and beyond in 2024.

Biggest obstacle: Age. This is of particular concern in the starting rotation -- Gray is 34, Gibson is 36, and Lynn will be 37 in May. With injury just a pitch away and the mileage reading on those arms, health could become a major issue. The lineup’s most dangerous hitters aren’t getting any younger, either. Goldschmidt is 36, while Arenado will be 33 in April. -- Manny Randhawa

2023 record: 75-87

Why they’ll be better: There’s nowhere to go but up, right? This time last year, another postseason run was the expectation in Flushing, and the position-player core of a team that won a whopping 101 games in 2022 -- namely Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and Starling Marte -- remains mostly intact. Sprinkle in some progress for young bats like Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty, along with the depth additions of Harrison Bader, Tyrone Taylor and Joey Wendle, plus the hope that DJ Stewart might be a late-blossoming piece, and it’s not hard to squint and see 85-plus wins. Especially when trumpets once again will be sounding in Queens with the return of elite closer Edwin Díaz after missing all of last season.

Biggest obstacle: In short, the pitching. Even with Díaz back, the bullpen lacks proven late-inning arms with David Robertson and Adam Ottavino gone. The rotation? Well, it no longer features stars Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer; and outside of last year’s rookie sensation Kodai Senga, the other members -- like holdover José Quintana and acquisitions Luis Severino, Sean Manaea and Adrian Houser -- have had issues with injuries and/or consistency. Additionally, most of the Mets’ best prospects are unlikely to make a big impact this coming campaign, including Ronny Mauricio, whose promising bat was in line for an opportunity before he tore the ACL in his right knee. -- Jason Catania

2023 record: 90-72

Why they’ll be better: The Phillies have had a relatively quiet offseason. They wasted no time bringing back Aaron Nola on a seven-year, $172 million deal -- but, as of right now, they will essentially be running it back in 2024 with mostly the same squad from ‘23. So why would they make a sizable 10-win jump into rare 100-win territory? Well, let’s not forget that Bryce Harper missed the first month last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and even when he returned -- far earlier than expected -- in May, it took a while before he looked like himself. Plus, Trea Turner’s debut season in Philadelphia was largely a disaster until he finally settled in later in the year. Despite all of that, the Phillies went 65-40 over their final 105 games – that’s a 100-win pace over a 162-game stretch. Only the Braves and Dodgers had a better record over that four-month stretch.

Biggest obstacle: Like pretty much every other team on this list: pitching. The Phillies will be bringing back essentially the same rotation from 2023, which is headlined by perennial Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler. But beyond him, the Phils will need a bounceback campaign from Nola, who is coming off a down year and turns 31 in June. Taijuan Walker was not used at all in the postseason after struggling in September (5.93 ERA), Ranger Suárez had multiple stints on the IL and while Cristopher Sánchez emerged as a potential breakout candidate down the stretch, he's made only 22 career starts. Plus, there’s always the bullpen, where the Phillies moved on from Craig Kimbrel following his disappointing postseason performance. Promising rookie Orion Kerkering could take this relief corps to another level if he reaches his potential, but Philadelphia hasn’t made any additions otherwise. -- Paul Casella

2023 record: 100-62

Why they’ll be better: Here are three reasons, and we're really digging deep for these. Reason No. 1: Shohei Ohtani. Reason No. 2: Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Reason No. 3: Tyler Glasnow.

The Dodgers win 100 games in their sleep, and now, they're building a superteam. An improvement of 10 wins in 2024 would mean a 110-win season, which is a lot of wins, but when you add Ohtani, Yamamoto and Glasnow to a team that already has Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman … 110 wins doesn't seem impossible at all. Remember, Los Angeles won 111 games in 2022, and that roster wasn't as star-studded as this one. And we haven't even gotten to the return of Walker Buehler, the always-under-the-radar star Will Smith, the throw-in signing of Teoscar Hernández and the rest of the 2024 Dodgers yet. We're looking at one of the most loaded teams in recent memory.

Biggest obstacle: Sky-high expectations. It's hard to win 100-plus games year after year, and now, the Dodgers somehow have to deal with even more pressure to win the World Series than they do in a "normal" season. If this team is anything less than historically great, it's a disappointment, and these guys will have to live up to that wild amount of hype every day. If Ohtani or Yamamoto or Glasnow or even Betts or Freeman falter a little … or if any of the superstars get hurt … or if the Dodgers don't erupt out of the gate, or they go through any surprise slumps … the weight of those expectations on this L.A. team will get even heavier, and fast. -- David Adler