At long last, we’ve finally made it to February. Pitchers and catchers report to camps all across the league next week. The majority of teams are done making substantial additions to their rosters, and Spring Training games are set to kick off before long. It’s about that time when fans start to look ahead to the regular season and get overly excited about their favorite team’s chances for 2023. Not every team will meet or exceed expectations, but plenty of clubs are bound to do so. Here are the five teams that I am most confident will outperform their win projections for the 2023 season.
Win projection: 74.5
The Diamondbacks are in an interesting spot entering 2023. They were one of just three teams (joining the Orioles and Mets) to increase their win total from 2021 to 2022 by at least 20 games. Arizona now has an elite farm system set to produce players to supplement a roster that already has some studs. But a 74-win season would only equal their win total from last year. What gives?
Just before Christmas, the team dealt their 2022 fWAR leader (Daulton Varsho) to Toronto. In doing so, they acquired outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., an above-average hitter in each of his five MLB seasons, and catcher Gabriel Moreno, a consensus top-10 prospect entering last season. Other key additions include relievers Miguel Castro, Scott McGough, and Jeurys Familia, 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, and veteran Evan Longoria, who, despite his age (this will be his age-37 season), can definitely still hit. His 118 wRC+ since the start of the 2021 season is the same as that of Hunter Renfroe and J.T. Realmuto.
Carryovers from last season include Christian Walker, Ketel Marte, 2022 breakout Jake McCarthy, and Cy Young contender Zac Gallen, but Arizona’s ability to take the next step is heavily contingent upon the development of super prospect Corbin Carroll. A top-3 prospect according to most publications, Carroll appears to have the inside track for the D-backs’ starting center field job. He got his first taste of MLB action at the end of last season and slashed .260/.330/.500 in 115 plate appearances. Not only that, but he also comes with 80-grade speed and a potential 70-grade glove; his value alone might be enough to make up for the loss of Varsho. Between full seasons of Carroll and McCarthy, a hopefully fully healthy Marte, and a plethora of new faces in the lineup, this looks like more than a 74-win team.
Win projection: 84.5
After winning 101 games in 2019 and playing to a 97-win pace in 2020, the Twins collapsed to the tune of a 73-89 record in 2021. Minnesota then re-tooled their roster, shocked the world by signing Carlos Correa, and subsequently found themselves in first place in the AL Central at last year’s All-Star break. Unfortunately, they could not overcome the injury bug, slumping to a 28-40 second-half record, resulting in another sub-.500 campaign.
Minnesota made a few moves early, signing free agents Christian Vazquez and Joey Gallo and effectively swapping Gio Urshela for Cincinnati’s Kyle Farmer. Once the calendar turned to 2023, they were all business. They once again surprised everybody when they brought Correa back on a six-year deal (he, of course, had $300 million-plus agreements nixed by both the Giants and Mets). The Twins also traded for starter Pablo Lopez (parting with Luis Arraez) and Michael A. Taylor, who remains one of the game’s best outfield defenders.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the Twins without mentioning Byron Buxton, their uber-talented center fielder who is locked up through the 2028 season. He’s still a remarkable hitter – he homered in 7.3% of his plate appearances last year, a rate topped by only Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. Buxton also continued to receive elite marks for his defense, which earned him both a Gold Glove and a Rawlings Platinum Glove in 2017. However, his durability remains a legitimate concern. He has achieved a wRC+ of at least 112 in four consecutive seasons, but he failed to play in 100 games in any of those seasons (he barely reached that pace in the 60-game 2020 season) and still has only recorded just a single 100+ game season (2017). So he’s far from a guarantee to log a full season in 2023, but if he does, look out.
The pitching staff now appears to be a strength, with Lopez joining a rotation that received excellent 2022 campaigns from Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan and added Tyler Mahle at the deadline. The Twins also made a midseason trade for Orioles closer Jorge Lopez to add to a bullpen that featured rookie phenom Jhoan Duran, who posted a sparkling 1.86 ERA in 57 appearances and somehow can throw 101-mile-per-hour splitters.
It seemed all but certain that Carlos Correa would be playing elsewhere after he opted out of his contract in November, so being able to re-up him for six more years instantly made Minnesota one of the biggest winners of the offseason. With Cleveland still young and hard to predict, the White Sox not trending in the right direction, and Detroit and Kansas City still working their way back to contention, the Twins just might be primed to take over the AL Central in 2023.
Win projection: 67.5
2022 was another struggle for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They recorded another 100-loss season last year, having done so in every season under their new leadership (including their league-worst 19-41 record in 2020, a 111-loss pace). Despite duplicating that staggering record again in 2022, the Pirates showed plenty of reasons for their fans to remain hopeful and committed to improving the major league product in 2023 and beyond. I think it’s safe to say that the Pirates have graduated from awful to at least watchable, with an outside chance of being maybe kind of almost good.
Any conversation about the Pirates’ success in 2023 starts with Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes. I’ve already written in-depth about Cruz and Hayes and how high their ceilings are, but clearly, they both have some work to do to get there. Cruz has the hardest-hit ball ever recorded, the league’s strongest infield arm, and elite sprint speed. He had one of the league’s highest strikeout rates last year, but after transitioning to the leadoff spot on August 28th, recorded an .872 OPS and cut his strikeout rate by ten percent.
As for Hayes, he played all of 2021 with a wrist injury and all of 2022 with back, hip, and shoulder injuries. Despite that, his 40 defensive runs saved are the most in the league over that span, but his offensive production has taken a hit. He’s been among the league’s most consistent hitters in terms of hard-hit rate, but he also constantly hits the ball on the ground, which may be attributable to his health issues.
First base was a black hole for Pittsburgh in 2022, with ten different players combining for -3.0 fWAR, comfortably the lowest in the league. Not one player who logged even one appearance at the position is returning to the Pirates in 2023, and the team promptly traded for Ji-Man Choi and signed free agent Carlos Santana to help fill that void. GM Ben Cherington cited both guys as players who look primed to benefit from the banning of the shift. Those moves alone could result in a five or six-win improvement.
The Bucs brought in far more veteran help than just those two – the team also traded for former Pirates’ first-round pick Connor Joe and signed free agents Jarlin Garcia, Vince Velasquez, Austin Hedges, Rich Hill, and, of course, team legend and 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Bryan Reynolds remains a Pirate despite his public trade request, but the expectation as of now is that he will remain in Pittsburgh until the trade deadline and perhaps longer. He’s produced a wRC+ of at least 125 in every full season he’s played, so regardless of where he plays, he’s a shoo-in for a strong season.
In addition to the influx of veterans joining a roster including the likes of Cruz, Hayes, Reynolds, David Bednar, Mitch Keller, and Roansy Contreras, a significant crop of high-end prospects is expected to infiltrate the Pirates’ clubhouse at some point in the 2023 season. Headlining this group are catchers Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis, infielders Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero, and pitchers Quinn Priester, Luis Ortiz, and Mike Burrows. The Pirates look like the team with the best chance of being this year’s Baltimore Orioles, who came out of nowhere to win 83 games last year. The 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates probably won’t make the playoffs, and they probably won’t put together a .500 season, but this doesn’t look like a 90-loss team, much less a 94-95-loss team as is being projected.
San Diego Padres
Win projection: 93.5
A 93-win season would mark the third-best single-season winning percentage in Padres history. Only the 1998 NL champions and the COVID-year Padres posted better records. Predicting them to surpass that total may seem like a stretch, but these Padres aren’t the little brother of the NL West anymore. They went 5-14 against the Dodgers in the regular season last year, but since then, it’s been all Padres.
San Diego first signaled their intentions to push in all their chips when they traded for Josh Hader, Brandon Drury, Josh Bell, and Juan Soto at last year’s trade deadline. Then, despite being overwhelming underdogs against the powerhouse Dodgers in the NLDS, San Diego stunned them in four games before falling to the Phillies in the NLCS. While the Dodgers lost multiple key pieces and were only able to add names like Noah Syndergaard, J.D. Martinez, and Miguel Rojas, the Padres again amazed the entire baseball world by signing star shortstop Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year deal, slotting him in a lineup that already includes superstars Juan Soto and Manny Machado.
Oh yeah, and they get Fernando Tatis Jr. back in late April. Tatis Jr. remains a giant question mark, as he hasn’t suited up for an MLB game since October 3, 2021, and he is expected to move to the outfield full-time thanks to Bogaerts’ arrival. But his bat remains among the league’s most impactful. Since he debuted in 2019, his .596 slugging percentage trails only Mike Trout, and his 153 wRC+ trails Trout, Soto, Aaron Judge, and Yordan Alvarez.
FanGraphs projects five Padres (Tatis Jr., Soto, Machado, Bogaerts, and Jake Cronenworth) to produce at least 4.4 fWAR in 2023. In the integration era, only 20 teams have gotten at least 4.4 wins apiece from five different hitters. Those teams combined for a .614 winning percentage, which prorates to 99.5 wins across 162 games. 13 of those teams advanced to the World Series, with six of them (including last year’s Astros) winning the whole thing. Not all of those teams had four players with seven-WAR potential as the Padres do, nor did they all have a starting rotation anchored by the likes of Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Blake Snell. This could be a historically great San Diego squad.
Toronto Blue Jays
Win projection: 90.5
The Blue Jays are coming off consecutive 90-win seasons but have no playoff wins to show for it. Like the aforementioned Diamondbacks, Toronto used some of their MLB talent as trade bait to address holes throughout their roster, sending Teoscar Hernandez to Seattle for reliever Erik Swanson and being on the other end of Arizona’s trade of Daulton Varsho.
The additions of Varsho and long-time division rival Kevin Kiermaier signaled a clear intent by Toronto’s front office to improve their outfield defense. As pointed out by Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions, the Blue Jays were MLB’s best team last year in terms of ideal positioning of their outfielders but in the bottom ten based on actual defensive production in the outfield. Adding one of the league’s top defenders last year in Varsho and an all-time great center fielder in Kiermaier while moving George Springer back to right field (where the metrics loved him during his early Houston days) should more than suffice in that department.
In addition to the expected defensive improvements, this lineup is still absolutely stacked. ZiPS projects seven different Jays – Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Springer, Brandon Belt, Varsho, Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, and Alejandro Kirk – to produce a wRC+ of 125 or greater, with two more semi-regulars (Danny Jansen and Cavan Biggio) also above 100. This is partially due to the ballpark renovation at Rogers Centre that includes moving in the outfield wall in the left and right-center field gaps, but nonetheless, there is a ton of talent all throughout this Toronto lineup.
The Blue Jays also boast one of the league’s best rotations. It feels like Toronto’s addition of free agent Chris Bassitt has flown under the radar relative to the other big-money moves across the league this offseason. That being said, adding Bassitt to a staff that already featured young stud Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman (whose 2.38 FIP in 2022 trailed only Carlos Rodon among qualified starters), and rebound candidate Jose Berrios appears to be an excellent investment. This team looks more balanced than previous Toronto clubs but still possesses plenty of high-end talent on both sides of the ball. I expect greater than 90 wins and a deep playoff run from this group.
Win totals courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook, as of February 7th