A talent-laden outfield. Almost too talent-laden, if that’s possible. Jake McCarthy and Daulton Varsho are established big leaguers, top prospect Corbin Carroll is set to assume an everyday role in 2023, and fellow top prospect Alek Thomas got his feet wet in 2022. There are more outfielders in the high minors too, so much so that the Diamondbacks are expected to trade one or two to address other roster needs this offseason. Point is, the D-Backs have an excellent young core in place in their outfield. It’s the kind of high-end talent contenders are made of.
The growing young core. Four years ago it was Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Max Fried. Now it’s Albies, Acuña, Fried, William Contreras, Vaughn Grissom, Michael Harris II, Austin Riley, Spencer Strider, Kyle Wright, etc. The young core is growing and most of those guys are signed to affordable long-term contracts, so they’ll be together for years to come. The Braves already won one World Series with this group. They’re set up well to add another title(s).
Signs of progress. The 2022 Orioles were the first team since the 1899 St. Louis Perfectos to post a winning record a year after losing 110 games. Adley Rutschman is already one of the best catchers in baseball, top prospect Gunnar Henderson wowed during his September call up, and top pitching Grayson Rodriguez is poised to make an impact in 2023. After a rebuild that took entirely too long, the O’s are finally a team on the rise.
A full season of Brayan Bello. The Red Sox have not had a homegrown starting pitcher — a player originally signed and drafted by the Red Sox — post even a 2-WAR season since Clay Buchholz in 2015. Bello is poised to end the drought in 2023. The club’s top pitching prospect debuted in July and impressed with his stuff more than his results. Still, he figures to be a member of the Opening Day rotation next year. Upper-90s sinkers and wipeout sliders will take you far in this game.
The pitching pipeline. Arguably the single biggest reason the 2016 Cubs were not the start of a dynasty was the failure to develop pitching. No arms came up through the system to bolster the rotation when Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester started to decline, or to fill out the bullpen. That is no longer the case. Lefty Justin Steele emerged as a keeper in 2022, righty Hayden Wesneski impressed in September, and righty Caleb Kilian should assume a larger role in 2023. The Cubs have gotten the hang of pitcher development now.
Dylan Cease’s breakout. Never short on stuff, Cease has successfully transitioned from “wild” to “effectively wild,” and over the last two seasons he is top five in strikeout rate (31.1 percent of batters faced) and swinging strike rate (14.9 percent). He is one of the game’s preeminent bat-missers, and with his 27th birthday a month away, Cease is entering what should be the most productive seasons of his career. He’s an ace through and through. He proved it in 2022.
Hunter Greene’s heater. In the pitch tracking era (since 2008), no starter has thrown more 100 mph pitches in a season than Greene’s 337 in 2022. It’s not even close either. Noah Syndergaard is the runner-up with 208 in 2016. There is more to life than fastball velocity, but throwing hard gives the pitcher is a pretty big advantage, and no starter throws harder than the Reds ‘ 23-year-old ace-in waiting.
Steven Kwan’s breakout season. Kwan has been a stathead favorite for years thanks to his extremely high minor league contact rates and they translated wonderfully to the big leagues in 2022. He slashed .298/.373/.400 with more walks (62) than strikeouts (60) and a microscopic 3.1 percent swinging strike rate as a rookie. Kwan was a 5.5 WAR player in 2022. The last Cleveland outfielder to post even a 2 WAR season was Michael Brantley in 2018 and the last with a 5 WAR season was Shin-Soo Choo in 2010.
Coors Field. The team on the field is lackluster and the front office is a throwback to the 1990s, when teams were bad and didn’t know why instead of being bad on purpose. Coors Field is an elite ballpark to take in the ballgame though. It has a very chill and welcoming atmosphere, so even if the team stinks, you’ll still enjoy your time at the stadium.
A new front office. It was long overdue. Longtime GM Al Avila was let go in August and the Tigers brought in Scott Harris, most recently of the Giants, to run their baseball operations. Harris brings a fresh, more modern perspective to a team that was a little behind the times under Avila. The 2022 season was a disappointing one in Detroit, a step backwards really, but the new front office is a reason to believe the Tigers are now heading in the right direction.
A World Series title. The second in franchise history and the first that is not tainted by a massive sign-stealing scandal. The Astros overcame boos on the road and overcame letting George Springer and Carlos Correa leave as free agents to field what might have been the most dominant team in franchise history in 2022. Jeremy Peña replaced Correa and won NLCS MVP and World Series MVP, and Yordan Alvarez is still hitting baseballs to the moon. The pitching staff is loaded too. The Astros are as good as ever.
A new manager. In the end, Mike Matheny reverted back to the same habits that cost him his job in St. Louis. He was too loyal to veterans at the expense of young players, he overused his top relievers, and reports indicate there was tension in the clubhouse. The Royals moved on from Matheny after the season and replaced him with Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro, who will bring a fresh voice to an organization that badly needs one.
The Shohei Show. And also that Mike Trout guy. He’s pretty great too. Shohei Ohtani is the best show in baseball and 2023 might be his last season (his last few months?) with the Angels, so enjoy him while you can, Angels fans. Ohtani was better in 2022 than he was in 2021, when he was the unanimous AL MVP. Can he be even better in 2023? I’m not going to get against him.
Another year of Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw appears to be taking things year by year at this point, but make no mistake, he is still very much an ace, posting a 2.28 ERA in 2022 and improving his career ERA+ to 157, the best ever among pitchers with more than 1,500 innings pitched. Kershaw’s closing in on 2,600 career innings too, so it’s not like he just crosses the threshold. I don’t know how many more years this all-time great will keep at it, but Kershaw has signed on for 2023, and that is a reason to be thankful. He is a treasure.
Sandy Alcantara. Fun fact: Alcantara threw 228 2/3 innings this season but he did not lead the majors in innings pitched. When you add in the postseason, Aaron Nola is the leader at 230 2/3 innings. Nola had to make five postseason starts and pitch an extra month to beat Alcantara’s workload. Crazy. Alcantara is the game’s preeminent workhorse and he’s not some mid-rotation guy either, chugging along with a 4.40 ERA. He’s a bonafide ace and was very deserving of the NL Cy Young award.
The Airbender. For my money, Brewers closer Devin Williams has the most aesthetically pleasing pitch in baseball in his changeup, aka The Airbender. The Brewers traded Josh Hader at the deadline, somewhat controversially, but Williams is a more than capable replacement closer. He and his Airbender are as dominant as any reliever in the game.
Luis Arraez’s wizardry. In an era of sky high strikeout totals, Arraez is a bat control magician. His 2.5 percent swinging strike rate wasn’t just the best in baseball in 2022, it was the best by a qualified hitter since Marco Scutaro in 2013 (1.6 percent). Arraez walked (50) more than he struck out (43) this season and he also socked eight home runs, two more than he hit from 2019-21 combined. Now all that contact comes with some power too.
The return of Edwin Díaz. The Mets took care of an important piece of offseason business very early this winter when they re-signed Díaz to a reliever record five-year, $102 million contract. Díaz had one of the greatest relief seasons in history in 2022, and of course his entrance is extremely cool. Baseball needs more cool closer entrances.
Aaron Judge’s 2022. I have no idea whether Judge will re-sign with the Yankees. I think he will, but what do I know? Either way, Yankees fans just witnessed one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Judge’s 62 homers are the seventh most ever and the American League record. His 211 OPS+ is a top-25 mark all-time and the eighth best in the Expansion Era (since 1961). He’s also one of only 27 players in history to post a 10-WAR season. A truly unforgettable season.
Ken Waldichuk’s invisiball. Things aren’t great for the Athletics right now and much of it is because ownership doesn’t want things to be great. It’s a shame. At least A’s fans can enjoy Waldichuk’s invisiball, a fastball that seemingly appears out of thin air thanks to the deception in his delivery and the pitch’s traits (spin, plane, etc.). Waldichuk had one of the highest swing-and-miss rates in the minors in 2022 and he got his feet wet in the big leagues in September. The lefty came over in the Frankie Montas trade and figures to be a rotation building block moving forward.
The surprise pennant run. The Phillies began 2022 with the NL’s longest postseason drought and ended it two wins short of a World Series title. Yeah, losing the World Series is a bummer, but what a fun ride the postseason was. The ninth-inning comeback in the Wild Card Series, dethroning the defending champs in the NLDS, Bryce Harper’s pennant-winning homer in the NLCS, on and on we could go. Phillies fans sat through a lot of bullpen meltdowns and defensive miscues the last few years waiting for a season as fun as this one. They earned it.
The tallstop. At 6-foot-7, Oneil Cruz is too tall to be called a shortstop, so he’s a tallstop. Cruz is a tools freak with massive power, a rocket arm, and blazing speed. Sure, he swings and misses a little too much, but he’s a young player and you have to give him time to find his footing at the MLB level. If you squint, you can kinda sorta begin to see the makings of the next contending Pirates team (Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, etc.) and Cruz is the centerpiece. He is the most fun player the Pirates have had since peak Andrew McCutchen, and I don’t think it’s all that close either.
Albert Pujols’ farewell tour. For the final two-and-a-half months of 2022, vintage Pujols returned and treated Cardinals fans to a .323/.388/.715 line with 18 homers in 56 games after the All-Star break. Among those 18 second half homers was his 700th career home run, making him only the fourth player in history to reach 700 homers. His return to St. Louis was so much more than fan service. He was a difference-maker on a division winner. What a fun farewell season.
A full season of Juan Soto. Baseball needs more AJ Prellers. The Padres GM is the ultimate big game hunter and he made the biggest splash of all when he (almost entirely) emptied the farm system to acquire Soto. Soto helped the Padres reach the NLCS and they’ll have him in 2023 and 2024. We’ve already seen Soto and Manny Machado in the same lineup. A few weeks into next season, Fernando Tatis Jr. will join them as well.
The promise of a big offseason. The Giants hosted Aaron Judge for a visit earlier this week and I would bet a pretty penny they invite Trea Turner and others in for a visit before long. San Francisco had a ton of money come off the books this offseason and they’re freeing up even more next offseason. They’re primed to be very active and do something very big this offseason. Maybe it’s Judge, maybe it’s Turner, maybe it’s Judge and Turner. Something is coming that will change the power structure in the NL West.
Baseball in October. The Mariners returned to the postseason this year for the first time since Ichiro’s rookie season in 2001. It was the longest postseason drought in the four major North American sports. It wasn’t a token appearance with a quick elimination either. The Wild Card Series sweep in Toronto brought postseason baseball back to the city of Seattle. Mariners fans have been starved for October baseball and the T-Mobile Park atmosphere was electric.
Wander Franco. Although he was a second-year player, Franco was the youngest player on an Opening Day roster in 2022, and the only player younger than him to get into a big league game this season was Mets prospect Francisco Alvarez, who played just five games as a late-season call up. Wander is younger than NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II and also younger than hotshot prospects Gunnar Henderson and Ezequiel Tovar, who debuted in September. Injuries hampered him a bit this season, but Franco was very good when healthy, and excellent relative to other players his age. A budding superstar and a foundational piece for Tampa.
Nate Lowe’s breakout. Do you know who finished seventh in the AL in batting average in 2023? Or sixth in total bases? Or eighth in OPS+? It was Lowe, who the Rangers stole from the Rays two offseasons ago and has since blossomed into a bona fide middle of the order thumper. Texas spent a lot of money on Marcus Semien and Corey Seager last offseason, and they’re likely to spend a lot of money to import a high-end starter this offseason. Ultimately, their return to contention will depend on the development of their young players ( Josh Jung, Leody Taveras, etc.), and Lowe is already a major win.
Taking the next step. The Blue Jays as a team didn’t really take that next step in 2022, but catcher Alejandro Kirk and ace Alek Manoah certainly did. Kirk was an All-Star who slugged 14 home runs had more walks (63) than strikeouts (58). Manoah finished third in the AL Cy Young voting. They emerged as foundational pieces for a Blue Jays team that already has Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette . Toronto’s young homegrown core is as impressive as any in the game.
Joey Meneses. Things aren’t great for the Nationals right now. The team lost 107 games in 2022 and they traded away Juan Soto at the deadline, something that seemed unthinkable a few months ago. It has been all downhill since the 2019 World Series win. Meneses, a 30-year-old rookie, came up after the Soto trade and starred down the stretch, hitting .324/.367/.563 with 13 homers in 56 games. Maybe he’s for real, maybe he’s just what Frank Schwindel was for the Cubs in 2021. Either way, Meneses is a great story and was a fun development in an otherwise miserable season in DC.