These 7 teams could bounce back to win it all

November 19th, 2023

If you are a fan of a team that endured a disappointing 2023 season, the World Series matchup between the D-backs and Rangers should have made you look at your glass as half full.

Both pennant-winning clubs had lost 100-plus games just two seasons before. Both were still solidly under .500 in 2022. But fortunes can change quickly in Major League Baseball, especially with an expanded postseason opening the door to more up-and-comers.

With that in mind, we asked seven writers to draft the next rebound World Series team, choosing from the pool of 13 clubs that finished below .500 in 2023. Some of these are better comps for the D-backs and Rangers than others; some would clearly appear closer to contention.

But since the only given is that you can’t predict baseball, keep an open mind as you evaluate the following choices.

1. Mets
2023 record: 75-87 (.463)

What went wrong: The Mets experienced their first loss of the season weeks before it began as closer Edwin Díaz suffered a major right knee injury during a postgame celebration in the World Baseball Classic. The year effectively went downhill from there. The offense took a big step back. Starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander both spent time on the injured list before being sent away at the Trade Deadline. The Mets spent the majority 2023 under .500 after winning 101 games in ‘22.

How it can turn: Díaz’s return should stabilize New York’s bullpen, and the Mets still have a host of quality bats, including Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Brandon Nimmo. The Scherzer and Verlander trades helped replenish the farm system. But all of those positives kind of bury the lede: Owner Steve Cohen’s financial might should have the Mets in position to be consistently competitive and put them in the running to sign some of the best players available every offseason. For this offseason, that includes the top two free agents, Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The right big-ticket buys mixed with what’s already in the Mets’ clubhouse could lead to the 2023 season being just a blip.

-- Brian Murphy

2. Cardinals
2023 record: 71-91 (.438)

What went wrong: Everything? But mostly the pitching.

How it can turn: Everyone on the planet realizes that the Cardinals need starting pitchers -- at least two, preferably three -- and desperately require that those arms can miss bats. Meanwhile, the offense was OK (tied for 12th best by wRC+) and looks like it could be decent next year (projected ninth best). But the good news for St. Louis is that the market is tilted in its direction; while the Cards are hardly the only team who needs pitching, there’s a number of good arms available both via free agency and trade, while the position player market is, well, lacking.

There’s also the fact that the NL Central -- while perhaps improving in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati -- has a division champion in Milwaukee which is facing a crossroads of sorts, and may not resemble last year’s playoff team in a few months. The Cubs have a shiny new manager, but they could lose both Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman as free agents from a team that already didn’t make the playoffs, and it’s still unclear how they would replace them. As currently constructed, the Cardinals are by no means a juggernaut, but it’s not that hard to find them a path back to October, either.

-- Mike Petriello

3. Giants
2023 record: 79-83 (.488)

What went wrong: They missed out on Aaron Judge and their free-agent additions, including Mitch Haniger, Michael Conforto, Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea, were largely disappointing.

How it can turn: By following the same blueprint the Rangers just used to turn a losing team into a World Series champion in short order, enhancing a talent-deficient roster with bold acquisitions via free agency and the trade market. The Giants have been linked to just about every big name out there this offseason, including Shohei Ohtani, Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Blake Snell and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Of course, with the talent San Francisco currently has in house and its recent track record coming up short in its pursuit of marquee players, this pick requires a leap of faith that the Giants’ ambitious plan is actually going to bear fruit this time. But at least we know that this club has the financial resources -- and the motivation -- to pull it off.

-- Thomas Harrigan

4. Pirates
2023 record: 76-86 (.469)

What went wrong: They faded after a hot start. The Pirates were 20-9 and in first place at the end of April, but they just weren't ready yet in 2023.

How it can turn: If their breakout players keep it up, and their top prospects turn into rising stars. Let's focus on two key players in each category. First: Mitch Keller and Jack Suwinski. Keller had his first All-Star season in 2023, going 13-9 with a 4.21 ERA and 210 strikeouts in 194 1/3 innings. Now the 27-year-old just needs to take one more step and become a true ace. The 25-year-old Suwinski slugged 26 homers in his second season, with 13 steals, too, and a 115 OPS+. Maybe Suwinski's a 30-homer guy in 2024.

Next: Oneil Cruz and Paul Skenes. Cruz can be one of the top power-speed stars in the Majors. The 25-year-old shortstop just never got the chance to build on his excellent 2022 rookie year because a broken fibula ended his 2023 season in April. But 2024 could be the Year of Oneil. And Skenes? Get this kid to the Majors. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 Draft and MLB's No. 3 prospect has the generational stuff to fly through the Minors. If the 21-year-old can get a callup at some point in 2024, he and Cruz could accelerate the Pirates in a wide-open NL Central along the same prospect-driven path the Orioles took to contention.

-- David Adler

5. Guardians
2023 record: 76-86 (.469)

What went wrong: For starters, injuries limited 2022 co-aces Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie to 25 starts combined. A normally steady bullpen was inconsistent, even at the back end as Emmanuel Clase recorded an MLB-worst 12 blown saves. Offensively, Amed Rosario took a step back and wound up being traded, as did Josh Bell, their biggest addition to a lineup that needed him to provide punch. No wonder they finished last in homers and 27th in runs scored. (And let’s not bring up Nolan Jones, Yainer Diaz, Will Benson or Junior Caminero -- young bats dealt away in recent years.)

How it can turn: They’re young, play good defense, put the ball in play (MLB-best 18.7 percent K rate) and run the bases aggressively. That sounds a lot like … the D-backs! José Ramírez remains an in-his-prime star, while Andrés Giménez, Steven Kwan and Josh Naylor (and younger brother Bo) look like foundation pieces on both sides. The pitching persists with 2023 rookies Tanner Bibee (2.98 ERA), Gavin Williams (3.29) and Logan Allen (3.81), even if they deal Bieber.

The biggest X-factor is how a team that was the youngest in baseball again develops bats like Brayan Rocchio, Kyle Manzardo, George Valera, Tyler Freeman, Will Brennan, Gabriel Arias and Juan Brito -- all of whom are either in or on the cusp of The Show. If new skipper Stephen Vogt can coax production out of a few of those raw-but-talented position players, there’s plenty of potential. Last but not least? Don’t overlook the advantage of playing in the most winnable division.

-- Jason Catania

6. Red Sox
2023 record: 78-84 (.481)

What went wrong: The Red Sox are only two years removed from being two games away from the World Series, and five years removed from winning it all. But after back-to-back 78-84 campaigns, patience for a return to glory will be wearing thin in New England. The 2023 season was marred by poor starting pitching and an average offensive performance. Red Sox starters posted a 4.68 ERA (ranked 22nd in MLB), and only the Rockies, A’s and Giants got fewer innings from their starters than Boston’s 774 1/3.

How it can turn: The Sox have already made big changes this offseason, replacing chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom with former Boston reliever Craig Breslow. And rumors have already surfaced that Boston is in the mix for NPB star right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the prize of this year’s free agent class, Shohei Ohtani.

If the Red Sox can add Yamamoto and (in 2025) Ohtani to a rotation with (a hopefully healthy) Chris Sale and Brayan Bello, as well as insert Ohtani into a lineup featuring Rafael Devers, Trevor Story, Tristan Casas and Masataka Yoshida, they’ll be well on their way toward a fifth title this century.

-- Manny Randhawa

7. Tigers
2023 record: 78-84 (.481)

What went wrong: While 2023 was an improvement from ‘22 (66-96), it also stretched Detroit’s playoff drought to nine seasons, and the franchise’s .407 win percentage since 2017 ranks 29th in MLB. The Tigers’ rebuild has been slow to develop, hindered in part by injuries to young players such as Casey Mize, as well as major signings that have not panned out (Javier Báez).

How it can turn: You could start to see a young core forming this past season, with center fielder Riley Greene, first baseman Spencer Torkelson, right fielder Kerry Carpenter, lefty Tarik Skubal, and righties Matt Manning and Reese Olson all showing encouraging signs while playing at age 26 or younger. Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft, is due back, and third baseman Colt Keith (MLB Pipeline's No. 25 prospect) looks like a 2024 AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate.

There are more prospects on the way, too, and president of baseball operations Scott Harris -- entering his second offseason at the helm -- signaled an intent to bolster the lineup with an early acquisition of OBP machine Mark Canha. While there is no doubt that this roster still has a lot of needs (especially with top starter Eduardo Rodriguez opting out), the AL Central is a land of opportunity. With a little luck and accelerated prospect development, it’s not hard to see the Tigers making serious noise as soon as '24.

-- Andrew Simon