BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
2023 is a World Baseball Classic year, the first since the 2017 version that saw the United States win the tournament. The pandemic cancelled the 2020 edition, which means the US have been defending champions for the past six years. Superstars Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Pete Alonso, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt will anchor a lineup that figures to be among the strongest in the tournament, and will seek to become the first country to win back-to-back WBC titles. Franchise players from every country (Shohei Ohtani from Japan, Juan Soto from the Dominican Republic, Julio Urias from Mexico, Francisco Lindor from Puerto Rico, Jose Altuve from Venezuela and Xander Bogaerts from the Netherlands) are representing their countries in the international event with the championship game March 21st in Miami.
Those players aren’t in spring training with their Major League clubs, but will return in time for Opening Day. The Houston Astros will look to defend their World Series title and have been established as the betting favorites in Las Vegas. There hasn’t been a repeat champion in baseball this century. The New York Yankees were the last to do it, winning three straight from 1998-2000.
Which team will emerge to climb to the top of the pack in 2023?
This is the first of six MLB division previews in the lead-up to opening day on Thursday March 30th
The Guardians returned to the playoffs in 2022, the franchise’s fifth berth in the past seven seasons.
Manager Terry Francona expertly guided his young team to the AL Central title, and saw them advance to the ALDS after dispatching the Rays in the Wild Card round, where they were eliminated by the Yankees in five games. With a payroll that was 25th in baseball last season, Francona’s success in the dugout earned him the 2022 AL Manager of the Year Award, an honor he accepted for the third time, all with Cleveland. Aside from Jose Ramirez, who had 29 HRs and 126 RBIs, the Guardians had little pop in the lineup, finishing next-to-last in the majors in home runs. Despite that aspect of their attack, the Guardians put the ball in play, striking out the fewest times of any team in baseball, and managed to score enough to give leads to their excellent relief corps, led by Emmanuel Clase, whose 42 saves led the AL. If Francona’s group is going to repeat as division champs, they’ll need free agent slugger Josh Bell (2 years, $32 million) to help bolster the offense.
The Twins and Guardians were tied for the AL Central Division lead on Labor Day in 2022. Less than a month later, Minnesota was 14 games back of the Guardians and preparing to watch the playoffs on television instead of participate in them. While no single factor accounts for their collapse, injuries to star players Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco, both of whom missed the last month of the season with knee issues, didn’t help. Both players will be relied upon to restore the Twins to the top of the division. Minnesota managed to retain shortstop Carlos Correa despite having watched him agree to free agent deals with both the Giants and the Mets. Both of those deals were cancelled due to concerns over Correa’s physical, but the Twins welcomed their star back with a six-year $200 million contract. Minnesota then traded defending AL batting champ Luis Arraez to Miami for 27-year-old starter Pablo Lopez, who helps round out a strong and deep rotation. If Buxton, Correa and Polanco are all together on the field coming down the stretch, the Twins should give the Guardians a better challenge for the division title.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox finished second in the division last year, winning 81 games and missing the playoffs after back-to-back postseason efforts in 2020-21. Dylan Cease went 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA, finishing second in the AL Cy Young Award voting, but his excellence was not sufficient to overcome significant injuries to stars Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez and disastrous years from Yasmani Grandal and Yoan Moncada. Outfield prospect Oscar Colas and free agent addition Andrew Benintendi will try to make up for the loss of Jose Abreu, who left the White Sox after nine seasons to join the defending champion Astros. The South Siders are loaded with talent, and with returns to form from Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and their Cuban contingent, Chicago could well threaten to win the division in 2023.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals finished last in the AL Central in 2022, the fifth straight season they’ve been either last or second-to-last in the division. Despite their meager performance last year, Kansas City fans have reason for optimism. Bobby Witt, the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, dazzled as a rookie, finishing fourth in the AL in Rookie of the Year balloting after hitting 20 HRs and stealing 30 bases. Brady Singer emerged as the Royals best starter, going 10-5 with a 3.23 ERA, finally living up to his first round pedigree after struggling to produce in the majors. Young prospects MJ Melendez and Vinny Pasquantio both debuted with the Royals in 2022 and combined to hit 28 HRs in their rookie campaigns. Witt, Melendez and Pasquantino will be called upon to help support 32-year-old franchise stalwart Salvador Perez in the lineup, and provide some punch for a Royals team that has given their loyal partisans little to cheer about since winning the World Series in 2015.
The 2022 Detroit Tigers lineup did not strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Highly regarded prospects Spencer Torkelson (#1 overall pick in the 2020 draft) and Riley Greene (5th overall pick in 2019) joined free agent import Javier Baez and trade acquisition Austin Meadows in a Tigers attack that should have been dynamic and dangerous. It was neither of those things, however, as Detroit finished dead last in the majors in runs scored, HRs and walks. The rookies hit a combined .228 with 13 HRs and struck out 219 times, Baez had a .278 on-base percentage and Meadows missed all but 36 games with a myriad of injuries. Free agent prize Eduardo Rodriguez, who came to the Tigers on a 5-year, $77 million deal from Boston, missed half the season managing personal issues, and no Detroit starter had a winning record. Tigers fans can hope for better results from their developing stars, but their fortunes may not turn anytime soon.