Predicting the five MLB teams most likely to improve in 2023


It’s that time of year: The projection systems for the 2023 MLB season have been released and baseball analysts are divulging their secret-sauce prophecies, so let’s dig into the five teams that are most likely to take a step forward and possibly emerge as playoff surprises in 2023.

And, yes, no matter how loaded the top teams look now, there will be a surprise team or two in the postseason come October. When making predictions, I tend to default too easily to the previous year’s standings even though the logical side of my brain that has studied these things understands that won’t happen. This is called the Law of Competitive Balance or the Plexiglass Principle: Teams that improve one season tend to decline the next — and vice versa.

It’s really just a fancy way of describing regression to the mean, which applies to players as well. Aaron Judge probably won’t hit 62 home runs again. Jarred Kelenic will likely hit better than .141. The Dodgers won’t win 111 games. The Nationals — well, the Nationals might lose 107 again. Projection systems follow this model. As a result, while they will be more accurate in the total than someone just eyeballing things and making guesses, they are also, by nature, more conservative than the actual results we might see.

The latest PECOTA projection at Baseball Prospectus, for example, sees the Yankees as the best team at 96.9 wins. In 2022, five teams beat that win total, including four with at least 101 wins — and three beat that figure in 2021 and six in 2019, so barring a drastic change in competitive balance across the league, we’ll likely see at least a couple of 100-win teams in 2023.

At the same time, every season we usually get at least one losing team from the previous season that makes the playoffs. There were three in 2022: the Mets went from 77 wins to 101; the Guardians went from 80 to 92; and the Padres went from 79 to 89 (and that doesn’t include the Orioles, who went from 52 wins to 83, one of the biggest single-season improvements in MLB history). The Mets and Padres weren’t necessarily big surprises since New York spent a lot of money in free agency and San Diego had been a strong team in 2020 (although it improved despite losing Fernando Tatis Jr. for the entire season). There were four such playoff teams in 2021, one in 2019 (we’ll skip 2020), two in 2018 and three in 2017. The last season without a losing team from the year before making the playoffs was 2016.

OK, let’s pick five sub-.500 teams that might break out in 2023 …

2022 record: 78-84

2023 PECOTA projection: 87-75

The Twins feel like an easy choice for several reasons: 1) They weren’t that far under .500 in 2022; 2) They play in a soft division and while the number of division games drops from 76 to 52 with the new schedule, if the Guardians take a step back the AL Central is wide open; 3) They’ve been good in the not-so-recent past, winning 101 games in 2019 and going 36-24 in 2020, so this isn’t some organization that has been wandering cluelessly in the wilderness; 4) They re-signed Carlos Correa.

That said, maybe the Twins aren’t such an obvious choice. They were also under .500 in 2021 and applying the Plexiglass Principle, they improved five games in 2022, so that would suggest a decline in 2023. While Correa fell into their laps after the Giants and Mets backed out after checking his medical records, Correa was on the Twins in 2022, so he isn’t a flashy new addition. Their other big moves were acquiring starter Pablo Lopez, but they gave up an equally good player in Luis Arraez to get him, and signing Joey Gallo, who has hit .160 over his past 184 games.

Still, the odds are the Twins will improve. Most losing teams get better the following season. There have been 75 teams that have finished with a losing record over the past five full back-to-back seasons (so, addressing the 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2021-22 season). Here’s how they did the following season:

Based on this simplistic model, that’s a 64% chance the Twins win more games. Those 48 teams that improved did so by an average of 9.9 wins — give the Twins 10 wins and they’re at 88 wins and probably in the playoffs (the Rays were the lowest seed in the American League last year with 86 wins). That’s right at that PECOTA projection.

Let’s dig a little deeper. I’m under the assumption that teams that finished closer to .500 are more likely to improve the following season. The way teams operate these days is when they’re in rebuilding mode they hope to build a strong foundation of young players and then make the bigger moves for that final push. Front offices don’t usually try to go from 68 wins to 90, but they do try to go from 78 to 90. So I checked the 24 teams in our study that won between 76 and 80 games. They improved an average of … 0.67 wins. Maybe it’s not so easy to win those extra 10 games.

Look at last season. The Mets, Guardians and Padres all fell into this win range and made the playoffs, but the Angels and Tigers won 77 games in 2021, made some moves they believed would improve the team and both got worse. The Twins look a lot like Cleveland and Detroit did at this point last season. The Guardians, however, added a key rookie in Steven Kwan while the Tigers fell apart. The Twins do have much better 40-man depth than the Tigers had and add Lopez and a healthy Kenta Maeda to the rotation. Now if Byron Buxton can give them 125 games …

2022 record: 68-94

2023 PECOTA projection: 79-83

The Rangers built a powerhouse team early last decade, reaching back-to-back World Series in 2010 and ’11 along with three other postseason appearances, but have now suffered six straight losing seasons. The wave of prospects following that World Series crew never developed, so the organization has turned to free agency in an attempt to rebuild respectability, signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien last year and this offseason adding nearly an entire rotation with Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney and re-signing Martin Perez (on top of signing Jon Gray last year).

That’s made the Rangers a trendy pick to at least make the playoffs, especially if you factor in that their Pythagorean record last year was 77-85, as they went just 15-35 in one-run games. Mix together a stellar high-priced middle infield, a new rotation with a legit No. 1 starter in deGrom, a three-time World Series-winning manager in Bruce Bochy and better results in one-run games, and you can envision a path to the playoffs.

With all the free agent additions, the Rangers’ projected payroll will climb from $160.5 million to $221.5 million. Is increasing payroll a good barometer for improvement? Sort of. It worked for the Mets last season, yes, as they increased their payroll some $92 million — not surprisingly, the largest year-to-year increase of the 75 losing teams in our study.

As it turns out, the 2021-22 Rockies, 2021-22 Rangers and 2021-22 Tigers had three of the other top five biggest increases, each between $48 and $55 million. The Rockies won six fewer games, the Rangers went from 60 to 68 wins, and the Tigers decreased by 11 wins. The other team in the top five was the 2018-19 Phillies (Bryce Harper was their big addition) with a $73 million payroll increase — and they went from 80 all the way to 81 wins. So spending big bucks is also no guarantee of success.

Let’s divide our 75 teams into three tiers of spending: those that increased the most, those in the middle and those who actually decreased payroll:

  • Top tier: Increased payroll an average of $32.4 million, improved an average of .2 wins;

  • Middle tier: Increased payroll an average of $2.5 million, improved 10.8 wins;

  • Bottom tier: Decreased payroll an average of $24.8 million, declined 3.1 wins.

Interesting. The middle-tier teams improved more than the big spenders. If you’re going to improve without spending, that suggests you need a strong core of young players — or you’re the Rays. The Rangers don’t really have that young core and they’re not the Rays, so that’s why they turned to free agents — which history suggests is hardly a sure fix. Just look at deGrom already facing some health concerns as a first warning sign.

2022 record: 74-88

2023 PECOTA projection: 74-88

On the “BBTN” podcast, Buster Olney recently asked me to name my surprise team for 2023. I went with the Diamondbacks. My theory: An impact group of rookies featuring outfielder Corbin Carroll and rotation candidates Brandon Pfaadt, Drey Jameson and Ryne Nelson, plus second-year outfielders Jake McCarthy and Alek Thomas and new catcher Gabriel Moreno. That’s an impressive collection of young talent that could coalesce quickly into a playoff team.

Let’s test the theory. I added up the rookie FanGraphs WAR totals for our 75 teams in both the losing season and the next season. The top five teams via this method:

(1) 2016-17 Rockies: 19.1 WAR (improved from 75 to 87 wins)

(2) 2017-18 Rays: 16.2 WAR (improved from 80 to 90 wins)

(3) 2017-18 Braves: 14.5 WAR (improved from 72 to 90 wins)

(4) 2015-16 Phillies: 13.7 WAR (improved from 63 to 71 wins)

(5) 2021-22 Orioles: 13.5 WAR (improved from 52 to 83 wins)

The next three teams improved as well and 15 of the top 17. OK, that makes sense; if your farm system churns out two quality rookie classes in a row, you’d better improve. What’s interesting is that of those five teams, the Rays and Braves were able to sustain that improvement into long-term success while the Rockies and Phillies did not.

As for the Diamondbacks, their 2022 rookie class was solid with 5.5 WAR — 4.5 from the hitters and 1.0 from pitchers (and Moreno produced another 0.7 with the Blue Jays). Carroll projects at 3 to 4 WAR for 2023 (I’ll take the over), so that leaves the pitchers to determine if their two-year rookie total jumps to past 10 WAR and into the territory that suggests big improvement is coming.

That’s probably asking a lot, especially since only one of them is likely to make the Opening Day rotation, as veterans Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner and Zach Davies appear to be locks. Given the Diamondbacks didn’t do much else other than the Moreno/Lourdes Gurriel Jr. trade and signing third baseman Evan Longoria and reliever Andrew Chafin, I’ve tempered my expectations a little bit. I’ll take the over on the 74 wins and I think they’ll be an exciting team to watch with their speed and defense, but I’m not sure they’re quite playoff-caliber. The season may turn on how Bumgarner and Davies perform — the projection systems are not optimistic — and if they don’t perform, how quickly and willing the Diamondbacks are to turn to their young starters. And whether they perform. Overall, I like the direction of the franchise, but I think the markers are more toward a 2024 run than 2023.

2022 record: 74-88

2023 PECOTA projection: 76-86

That projection is certainly a little disappointing given how active the Cubs were this offseason. Chicago added Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon, Cody Bellinger, Brad Boxberger, Michael Fulmer, Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer and Tucker Barnhart, among others. All that for a two-win improvement?

The Cubs are hoping that the sum of the parts is better than the individual projections — especially with their defense up the middle in a new shift-limited world. Swanson is coming off a terrific all-around season with the Braves, but he has earned his keep more with the glove than his bat during his career and won his first Gold Glove in 2022. Signing him allows the Cubs to move Nico Hoerner, a plus defender at shortstop, over to second base. Past MVP Bellinger’s bat is a question, but his defense in center is not, and Barnhart is a former Gold Glove winner at catcher.

Meanwhile, Taillon provides a sturdy innings eater alongside Marcus Stroman for a rotation that could be on the rise with 2022 breakout performer Justin Steele plus rookie Hayden Wesneski, who excelled in four late-season starts. Boxberger and Fulmer add depth to a bullpen that needed it and keep an eye on hard-throwing Ben Brown, who came over from the Phillies in the David Robertson trade last year and struck out 149 in 104 innings in the minors. If the Cubs move him into a relief role he could make an immediate impact.

Anyway, it’s clear the Cubs expect to prevent a lot more runs in 2023. It’s worth asking: Do our improving teams tend to improve more on offense or run prevention? I looked at the 21 teams in the study who improved at least 10 wins, which would put the Cubs at 84 victories — and close to the wild-card chase. For each team I compared the number of runs they scored or allowed above or below the league average in their losing seasons and then the following season:

So teams making the leap tend to improve more on defense than offense, which is exactly what the Cubs are aiming to do. The one clear issue: Who is the star in Chicago? There is no clear No. 1 starter, no clear All-Star position player. (Willson Contreras and Ian Happ were All-Stars last season, and Contreras now plays for the Cardinals, and Swanson made his first All-Star team). A rebounding Bellinger would be a huge surprise, a better season from Seiya Suzuki would be nice, and rookie first baseman Matt Mervis could supplant Hosmer at first base before long. Would that be enough?

2022 record: 73-89

2023 PECOTA projection: 86-76

Here’s a fun fact: The Angels haven’t finished in last place of their division since 1999. The Red Sox have five last-place finishes since just 2012 (they are the kings of the Plexiglass Principle). The only teams with a longer span since finishing last are the Dodgers (1992), Guardians (1991), Yankees and Cardinals (both 1990).

Not-so-fun fact: The Angels are now tied with the Tigers for the longest playoff drought (last making it in 2014). In fact, Los Angeles hasn’t even finished above .500 since 2015. It’s not for a lack of trying. The Angels haven’t tanked. They’ve run moderately high payrolls, ranking in the top 10 each season in that span except last season when they ranked 11th. They’ve had the two superstars in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, although the two haven’t always synced up their health and star production.

Still, something always goes wrong. For a long time, it was injuries and/or lack of depth among the starting pitchers. But last year they quietly had a solid rotation with Ohtani leading the way, ranking sixth in the majors in ERA and sixth in FanGraphs WAR. They’ve added Tyler Anderson — who is coming off a 2.57 ERA with the Dodgers after incorporating a new changeup into his arsenal — to give them another quality arm.

They’ve signed big-ticket free agents — see Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Anthony Rendon. This time they finally focused on depth, acquiring Hunter Renfroe, Gio Urshela and Brandon Drury to shore up the back end of the roster (a huge problem last season). The farm system remains weak, but catcher Logan O’Hoppe, acquired at the deadline for Brandon Marsh, should share the catching duties and Chase Silseth is a depth option for the rotation. Shortstop Zach Neto, the team’s first-round pick last year, already reached Double-A (and hit .320) and could debut later in the season. They added relievers Carlos Estevez and Matt Moore, so this should be their best bullpen in a long time.

Let’s run the Angels through some of the issues we’ve discussed.

  • Plexiglass Principle: The Angels declined last season, so they should improve in 2023.

  • The Angels actually do have a young core, although most of it is on the pitching side: Patrick Sandoval, Jose Suarez and Reid Detmers are all entering their age-26 season (or younger). Luis Rengifo is 26 and did hit 17 home runs last season, albeit with a subpar .294 OBP. Taylor Ward is a little older at 29, but just had a breakout season. All those players might improve. Not to mention that Ohtani is still just 28.

  • The 2022 rookie class didn’t produce much with just 2.5 WAR, but they could add O’Hoppe, Silseth and Neto in 2023.

  • Their payroll is going up about $33 million, although as mentioned above, that isn’t necessarily a positive. Relative to the league, however, the Angels are positioned around where they usually are at No. 8.

  • Defensively, the Angels weren’t anything special in 2022, and they didn’t make any big upgrades. Renfroe is a solid right fielder and Brett Phillips is a defensive wizard as the likely fourth outfielder, but it’s also not clear who will play shortstop.

Andrew Velazquez is the best defender, but David Fletcher and even Urshela could see action there. If there is improvement in run prevention, most of it will need to come from the pitching staff.

So the Angels don’t hit all our marks, but they hit enough of them. Mostly though, they have Trout and Ohtani. With Ohtani’s free agency hovering in the background, this may be the last chance for the Trout/Ohtani Angels to finally make the playoffs. I think it happens. The Angels are my best bet among last year’s losers to become this year’s winners.

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