2023 MLB preview: American League forecast, power rankings and best-of
Every year, for what seems like most of our lifetimes, the American League conversation kicks off with praise for the East division, often considered the competitive gold standard, both for its spending and heated rivalries.
The missing part to that equation? Postseason success.
Maybe we’re jumping the gun a bit. This is March after all. But only the Red Sox have won a World Series over the past decade (in 2013, ’17) with the Rays making it at the end of the pandemic-shortened 60-game schedule in 2020 (losing to the Dodgers).
Notably absent from that conversation is the Yankees, an early October flameout since 2009, as Hal Steinbrenner keeps getting less bang for his buck. The cost of players may be rising with inflation, but the Commissioner’s Trophy still can’t be bought in a cash transaction, as hope springs eternal in the more frugal East enclaves like Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
Regardless, Steinbrenner & Co. remain the favorites in this division, as well as challenging the Astros for that label in the entire AL, based on the owner’s checkbook. The Yankees retooled by investing an MLB-high $537 million on free agents this winter, the largest chunks going to the newly-minted captain, Aaron Judge ($360M), and Carlos Rodon ($162M). Meanwhile, the Red Sox — their traditional partner in the East arm’s race — were getting booed at winter fanfests for being tighter with the payroll, and specifically letting homegrown shortstop Xander Bogaerts jump to the Padres.
The Sox did manage to dodge a full-out fan revolt by signing Rafael Devers to an 11-year, $331 million contract and also brought in Japanese slugger Masataka Yoshida ($90M). Beyond that, Boegarts replacement Trevor Story is likely out for the season due to elbow surgery, and Boston is piecing together a rotation headlined by the eternally fragile Chis Sale, who pitched five innings last season.
The Blue Jays did get to the playoffs a year ago, but ultimately were a disappointment based on sky-high expectations and firing manager Charlie Montoyo in July at least returned them to the right track. The lineup is still stacked, so Toronto shifted its focus to defense this winter by bringing in Kevin Kermaier and Daulton Varsho and shifting George Springer to rightfield. The Orioles perpetual rebuild continues, but with so many top-rated prospects now getting to the major-league level — namely catcher Adely Rutschman and future ace Grayson Rodriguez — they could start making some noise soon. The Rays welcome back Tyler Glasnow (Tommy John surgery) to lead another solid rotation (sound familiar?) and Wander Franco will be counted on as the offensive engine.
What is there to say about the Central, other than producing the October punching bag for whoever wins the East and West divisions? The Twins won the Carlos Correa sweepstakes this winter, bringing back the All-Star shortstop who opted-out of his previous Minny deal, but only by default when he flunked physicals on more lucrative offers from the Giants and Mets. How Correa’s ankle performs/survives is one of the more intriguing storylines in this division.
Speaking of Yankees’ cannon fodder, the Guardians seem to have built a foundation around perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, with former Mets Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario, along with Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez. But when your major offseason acquisition is Josh Bell (2 yrs, $33M), there’s only so much winter optimism that can be generated. The White Sox lured away Yankees’ target Andrew Benintendi on a five-year, $75 million contract, but former MVP Jose Abreu bolted for the Astros. Chicago’s other big signing, Mike Clevinger, got way too much unwanted attention this spring for domestic-abuse allegations before he was ultimately cleared by MLB. In case you forgot, Aroldis Chapman pitches for the Royals now. Can former No. 1 pick Spencer Torkelson rebound with the Tigers? Coming off a 66-win season, I’d question the attention span of even Detroit diehards.
Sometimes it feels like the West is best known as the place where Shohei Ohtani happens to play baseball. And with Ohtani entering his walk year, the division will now partly consumed by how much longer he stays with the Angels, who need to stay in contention to help their case — and the Los Angeles/Anaheim franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014 (the only time in the last 13 years). Obviously Mike Trout’s health is a big part of that, along with winter pickups Tyler Anderson, Gio Urshela, Hunter Renfroe and Carlos Estevez.
The Angels again have the two best players in the division, but the Astros are the defending world champs with another strong chance to repeat. Losing Justin Verlander in free agency to the Mets is no small thing, but Houston’s rotation is still fronted by a shutdown trio in Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Luis Garcia. The Astros also let Yuli Gurriel walk in favor of signing Abreu to a three-year, $58.5 million deal, to make their lineup even more dangerous.
The only way to keep track of who’s playing for the Mariners at any given moment is to keep refreshing your Twitter feed — GM turned president of baseball ops Jerry Dipoto suffers from a chronic case of roster shuffling. But Seattle did add some long-term stability by signing Julio Rodriguez to a 12-year, $210 million extension and capitalized on the Luis Castillo trade deadline coup by locking him up on a five-year, $108 million deal. The Mariners are looking to sustain the momentum of making the playoffs for the first time since Ichiro Suzuki’s rookie year (2001) but will probably be looking at another wild card.
Jacob deGrom pitches for the Rangers now. The only drama involving the A’s this season is the countdown to their presumptive move to Las Vegas.
American League power rankings to start 2023
3. Blue Jays
9. White Sox
11. Red Sox
All the best of the American League for 2023
1. Shohei Ohtani, Angels: It’s tough to wrest this spot away from Ohtani as long as he remains baseball’s only two-way player, and an All-Star at both jobs. He finished runner-up to Aaron Judge for the MVP, but what Ohtani does deserves its own special category, since no one else can hit 34 homers and pitch to a 2.33 ERA (28 starts).
2. Aaron Judge, Yankees: The newly-minted captain took a stratospheric leap among the baseball ranks last season, starting with passing Roger Maris with 62 home runs and leading topping MLB in every key offensive category. Also proved himself to be a solid centerfielder. Look for more improvement in the margins this year: base stealing, two-strike hits.
3. Mike Trout, Angels: The only thing that can slow the three-time MVP is failing health, and Trout was limited to 119 games last season with a chronic back condition that is likely to impact him to some degree going forward. He still finished with 40 homers and a .999 OPS.
4. Yordan Alvarez, Astros: Aside from Judge, Alvarez may be the scariest hitter in the AL, and he was right on the MVP’s heels last season, batting .306 with a 1.019 OPS. Finished third in the MVP voting, but there’s no one more important to the Astros’ chances of repeating as world champs.
5. Jose Ramirez, Guardians: A switch-hitting power threat that can play three positions? Yes please. Ramirez is primarily a third baseman now, and the four-time All-Star is finally getting more help in Cleveland’s lineup -- which is going to make him even more dangerous this season.
Best manager: Terry Francona, Guardians
Best GM: Erik Neander (president of baseball ops), Rays
Best leadoff hitter: Jose Altuve, Astros
Best power: Aaron Judge, Yankees
Best in the clutch: Andres Gimenez, Guardians
Best baserunner: Cedric Mullins II, Orioles
Most exciting: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
Best infielder: Alex Bregman, Astros
Best infield arm: Bobby Witt, Jr., Royals
Best outfielder: Daulton Varsho, Blue Jays
Best outfield arm: Nate Eaton, Royals
Best catcher: Jose Trevino, Yankees
Best catcher arm: Jorge Alfaro, Red Sox
Best starting pitcher: Jacob deGrom, Rangers
Best setup man: Wandy Peralta, Yankees
Best closer: Emmanuel Clase, Guardians
Rookie to watch: Anthony Volpe, Yankees
Best home uniforms: Tigers
Best stadium: T-Mobile Park, Mariners
Best mascot: Rally Monkey, Angels