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Which Team Will Surprise in 2023?

March 15, 2023
Let’s start with last year.
Last year, I picked the Detroit Tigers as the team most likely to surprise us.
This didn’t happen. The Tigers actually lost ground, dropping from 77 wins to 66 wins in 2022.
Detroit had a snake-bite season, or a season with multiple snakebites:
-          Riley Green, touted as one of the top-ten prospects in baseball, broke his foot in spring training. He didn’t play until June.
-          Spencer Torkelson, the team’s other vaunted prospect, was given a long leash, but he couldn’t stay above the Mendoza line, and was eventually demoted to Triple-A.
-          Javier Baez, the team’s big offseason acquisition, was a complete bust. Baez is a player who has stretches where he looks like one of the best players on the planet, and longer stretches where he looks like a blind man trying to hit by hearing the hiss of a fastball. Last year, it was all blind-man-swinging-at-sounds.
-          Eduardo Rodriguez, the other big acquisition, sprained his ribcage in May and then left the team due to personal matters.
-          Casey Mize, the number two starter on the team, blew out his arm in early April, necessitating Tommy John surgery.
-          Tarik Skubal - the remaining starting pitcher with any previous success in the majors – made some terrific strides forward as a pitcher. Skubal was the only good story that came out of Detroit last year, so of course he went on the IL in August for arm fatigue. So it goes.
I think of last year’s Tigers, and I think of probabilities. If you started in March and ran that team through a whole-universe simulation, I don’t think there’d be many outcomes worse than last year. Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Things went wrong right from the outset, and then the wrong just kept piling on. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season.
I won’t pick the Tigers again, because a) they don’t light up any of the indicators I typically look at to consider a ‘surprise’ team, and b) it’s no fun to go back to the same well every year.
But I am rooting for Detroit: I think they unlucky last year, not foolish. I remain bullish on the careers of Riley Green and Spencer Torkelson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the turn around I imagined last year happens in 2023.
*            *            *
Here are the losing teams from 2022, AL and NL. I’m going to list them according to their chances of reaching the playoffs, according to FanGraphs:
2022 W-L
2023 FG Playoff %
Red Sox
According to the good folks at FanGraphs, four losing teams in the American League have a decent-to-good shot of reaching the playoffs in 2023. The Twins are a coin-flip to return to the playoffs, and have a 34.9% chance of winning their division, trailing the Guardians but ahead of the White Sox. The Angels have longer odds to win their division, but they still have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani for a season, which is better than any other team in baseball can boast.
The Rangers went out and purchased a rotation headed by Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi. The Red Sox, stuck in a strong division, are hoping for a rebound campaign from Chris Sale, and an impact season from Japanese star Masataka Yoshida.
The A’s, Royals, and Tigers are longer shots in the league.
The senior circuit:
2022 W-L
2023 FG Playoff %
No losing team from the National League shows as being nearly as strong a contender for the playoffs as the Twins, Angels, or Rangers. From the lot, the Marlins have the best chance according to FanGraphs, though like the Red Sox, a lot will have to go wrong in other organizations for Miami’s contact-and-pitching approach to net them a playoff slot.
Arizona improved a lot last year, and they have some talented prospects about to hit the majors in the next few years. But they’re in the same position as Miami and Boston: a tough division with big-spending teams.
The NL Central is softer, so the predictions market gives the Cubs, Pirates, and Reds each a puncher’s chances. The Nationals are rebuilding. I’m not convinced the Rockies organization understands what sport they’re trying to win.
So give the list a look, and then feel free to comment below. Which team will surprise us in 2023?
*            *            *
I had my answer almost immediately.
Typically, when I’ve done this exercise in the past, I look at a number of variables – or indicators – of future success. I check minor league team records, prospect rankings, a team’s record in the previous August and September, and over the second half. I check how old the hitters and pitchers of a team are, how the team performed in the season before last year. I even check their Pythagorean record, to check if there is some ‘luck’ element to their future forecast.   
This year, I didn’t have to go very far along in the process. This year, there was an easy choice, right at the outset.
The team that will surprise us in 2023 are the Chicago Cubs.
Let’s look, first, at the second-half performances of the teams from our losing list:
The Cubs were terrible during the first half of 2022…they were 35-57 at the All-Star break, a half-game out of the cellar in the division.
But they were terrific in the second half: they roared back, winning at a pace that would put them at 90 or 91 wins over a full season.
No one else comes close.
The Angels and Diamondbacks were decent teams during the second half: they each flirted with a .500 record, though they fell short. All the other loser teams were crummy. The Cubs were a strong team.
Moving along: I put a lot of value in how a team performs in August. Why?
Because teams are still trying in August. Come September, a lot of baseball teams have turned their attention towards the next season: they are trading off middle relievers and dragging up prospects. Some good teams have the fortune of spending September preparing for the playoff rush. September is a month of divergent goals. August is still baseball being played straight.
Aug. W-L
This chart removes Miami as a contender, at least for me.
I am rooting for Miami, who are being picked by a lot of people as a surprise team. I like the squad: I want a team of single-hitting speedsters to win in 2023.
But the Marlins were absolutely abysmal in August of last year, a month when they should’ve been showing that they could hang with the bigger boys in their division. Their August record is a big strike for me: I do not think the Marlins will be a strong team in 2023.
On the flip-side, this list gives a strong nod to Arizona as a legitimate contender to continue to surprise us. I wrote about Arizona’s chances to surprise us a little bit in this article, and I think they’re a compelling team to watch. I’m not picking them, but if you’re a fan of the Diamondbacks, you certainly have to like how they performed in August.
How about those mercurial September/October records?
Sept/Oct W-L
If their August W-L record removed Miami from consideration, this list makes me very skeptical of Minnesota (11-22) and Texas (10-23) as serious contenders to improve significantly.
Minnesota and Texas ARE being considered as contenders, or at least fringe contenders. I think most people who aren’t picking the Guardians to win the AL Central are picking Minnesota, and I think that a lot of people are expecting the Rangers to leap forward.
I’m a skeptic of the Rangers, and I am more bear-ish on the Twins than most of the projections and prognosticators are. If you have the same record as Washington and Oakland and Cincinnati had in a month – if you close out the year with those teams – you’re going in the wrong direction.
The Angels do well in both months, finishing .500 down the stretch. I think the Angels are a good selection for a surprise team: they have two demigods on their roster, and it is not hard to imagine a successful run if they can surround Ohtani and Trout with competent performers. They should be extra motivated, as another losing year will likely see Ohtani find a home somewhere else along the Pacific coastline.
I have no idea what to make of the Red Sox. I liked their offseason a great deal, and I think that they’ll be better than one or two teams in the AL East, but I don’t think they’ll be better than all of the teams in the division.
Lastly, the Tigers also had a fine close to the season. This bolsters my faith in them a little bit. I’m still a believer in their young players, still a believer that this is a franchise going in the right direction.
But the Cubbies laps everyone else: they were so strong through the second-half of last season, that they are the clear favorites to show a big improvement in 2023.
*            *            *
Getting under the hood of our surprise team a little:
The Cubs farm system is very much not like the Cubs farm system of the Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber era. That version was a farm system marked by elite prospects; the current Cubs system doesn’t have any high-ceiling prospects coming down the pike, but they have a lot ofgoodprospects who should be able to contribute to the major league team.
The team in the majors was similar: there is no ace pitcher or MVP-level bat on this roster, but the Cubs have competent performers across the positions, depth on the bench and in the rotation, and a strong bullpen. They lost Wilson Contreras to the Cardinals, but they have Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart as a platoon. The big acquisitions over the off-season were Dansby Swanson and Jameson Taillon: Swanson feels like a strong add, as he moves Nico Hoerner to second base. They also added Cody Bellinger to play centerfield, and Eric Hosmer to platoon at first. If nothing else, this should be a strong defensive team.
The Cubs are playing in a division that just doesn’t have a lot of competitive teams. The Cardinals are very good: they’re almost certainly going to win the NL Central this year. But there isn’t a lot of daylight between the Brewers and Cubs, and the Pirates and Reds aren’t likely to rise significantly in 2023.
The Cubs were a young hitting team: they were the fourth-youngest batting team in the NL last year, trailing Pittsburg, Arizona, and Atlanta. Their pitchers were older. I think it’s better to have young hitters and older pitchers than vice-versa, though that is only a personal prejudice, not a statement of anything more definitive.
And they are a good organization. The team, under manager David Ross and President Jed Hoyer, is led by people who have a decent grasp on the fundamentals of success. Their offseason moves were deliberate and reasoned, and you get the sense that this team will make appropriate adjustments as the season reveals where they stand.
So that’s it. I’d rate my surprise teams as:
1.       Chicago Cubs
2.       Los Angeles Ohtanis of Troutville
3.       Arizona Diamondbacks
4.       Boston Red Sox
5.       Detroit Tigers
Who ya got?
David Fleming is a writer living in southwestern Virginia. Not south-southwestern Virginia or southwest-western Virginia, but far enough from D.C. to make it a pain to get there. He welcomes comments and questions here and at

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

As a Tigers fan of over 50 years, I smell a "surprising but unimpressive" season at CoPa: by dint of sheer regression to the mean, Baez, Schoop and Torkelson will likely be collectively improved, and Rodriguez and Austin Meadows are likely to be average-level players. Even allowing a moderate sophomore slump by Riley Greene, he should still be ok.
So all of this put together wouldn't add up to dramatic improvement or playoff contention, but rather a moderate uptick to something in the neighborhood of .500.
Substantial improvements will have to wait until 2024 when they have several top level pitching prospects (Mize, Manning, Skubal) coming back from Tommy John (a couple may be available toward the end of this season but very unlikely in time to be much help).
10:06 PM Mar 28th
Wrong Chicago team. There is no way the White Sox or any major league team can have as many injuries and off years as the 2022 white Sox did,in addition to a manager who was in no condition to manage a major league team, and they still were a 500 team. They will win 90+ this year.
12:02 PM Mar 25th
Great article. Thanks for sharing Dave! I'm with 77 on this one. Our Royals should improve this year. Though I will disagree on the staff. I think we could have four real pitchers out there and one modern-day GutHRie.
1:32 PM Mar 20th
Thanks for that deep dive, hotstatrat. There have been a lot of 1-2 hitter picks busting in recent years, though Rutschman, Swanson, Correa, and Bryce have been solid.

I'm still an optimist: I think he'll turn out to be a hitter. He lost his junior college year to COVID, and then sprinted through the minors b/c Detroit was going all-in last year. I don't think he was quite ready to adjust THAT quickly from college-level pitching to the majors, but I think he will adjust.

I'm taking a flier on him this year.
9:30 AM Mar 17th
Thanks, Dave.

I haven't carefully analyzed it, but I'm pretty sure there has been a bit less team movement of late, no? That is, the best organizations keep coming back the strongest. Some teams have been mediocre for a good while and some teams have been pretty bad for awhile. But there are always a couple of surprises. I look forward to this feature every year.

Re: Spencer Torkelson
Torkelson was a first overall pick. At the same age, Crash Davis was drafted in the 50th round! The next year he moved up to the 35th round, then finally went pro after his 5th round draft. By age 22 he was batting over a 1.000 OPS in the PCL, .995 in the Texas League, and .880 in over 319 Plate Appearances for Baltimore.

Joey Bats was a 20th round pick. No one thought he had potential to be a star until he suddenly was one at 29.

Looking for comparable players following their age 22 season:

The top two picks of 2016 Mickey Moniak (Phillies) and Nick Senzel (Reds) were both struggling to be in the Majors at 22 and still are.

2017's top pick Royce Lewis missed his entire age 22 season, but finally just reached Minnesota the next season - last year, but was not up long enough to prove anything.

2018's no. 2 pick Joey Bart moved from A+ to AA at age 22, then moved between San Francisco and AAA at 23 and 24. Last year at 25, his progress appears to have stalled.

I understand players don't usually progress in a smooth line - just highlightening the most relevant facts to be taken for what they're worth. More recent drafts have had even less of a chance to prove anything, so let's go back in time:

Well, we have to go back to 2009 to find another top 2 overall position player pick who was struggling to be a Major Leaguer at age 22. Dustin Ackley (no. 2) had a decent rookie season for Seattle the next year - and that turned out to be the best season of his career.

The Tampa Bay Rays are a great organization, but their 2008 no. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham hit a mere .686 OPS for Durham (IL) at age 22. He's only had one season worth than about a half a win over replacement. He's now 30.

Mike Moustakas 2007's no. 2 wasn't as miserable as Torkelson at age 22, but he really didn't establish himself as a solid player until his age 26 season.

Alex Gordon another no. 2 over of the Royals (2005) was just playing his first full season as a pro at age 22 and he hit 1.016 at Omaha. Torkelson started his professional career a year earlier. Perhaps, he was rushed. I hope that's all it is. Gordon hit fine his first year, but struggled in the field. He didn't put it all together until he was 27.

Matt Bush drafted by the Padres 1st overall just ahead of Verlander (phshew) in 2004 was a complete flop as a hitter by age 22. He reverted to pitching.

The 2003 picks were better than Torkelson at age 22, but not solidly. Tampa Bay drafted Delmon Young first overall then traded him just after he turned 22 and saw him play in the Majors for over a year. He, too, only had one season worth more than 1 WAR.

The no. 2 pick that year Richie Weeks was a regular as a 22 year old rookie, but didn't put in a solid season until he was 24. He was suddenly worthless as a Major Leaguer by the age of 29.

Adrian Gonzalez - no.1 pick in 2000 was very much struggling at age 22 - his 5th year as a pro and second organization (Marlins & Rangers). He finally bloomed as a good player when he was traded to the Padres.

Summing it up: the odds are against Torkelson amounting to much, but twenty years earlier, there was an eventual success story (Gonzalez). Gordon and Moustakas also had good careers. Weeks was decent for a few. Each, however, was significantly ahead of Torkelson at this stage. Moniak, Senzel and as a hitter Matt Bush were complete busts. Ackley, Beckham, and Delmon Young could be called huge disappointments. As a consistent Scoresheet (fantasy league) champion for 30 straight years (I've stopped playing now), a player like Torkelson to me was trade bait.
5:51 PM Mar 16th
My crystal ball is showing me an all-Chicago World Series. Well, one of my user-name aliases IS Dreamsville.
1:09 PM Mar 16th
I wonder if Tork will be another Chris Davis: a sometimes great, sometimes infuriating power hitter.

Crash didn't really find his feet until he was 26 years old, already on another team. Jose Bautista, a better player than Crash, didn't find his feet until he was 29. Papi took a little time.

I think it's still early to call 'flop' on Torkelson, though the results haven't been great so far. And I'm just a massive fan of Riley Greene: I think he'll be a franchise player for the Tigers.
12:00 PM Mar 16th
Sounds about right, David.

Boston always seem to bounce back strongly from bad seasons.

However, as someone who has been married to the Tigers for the last 60 years, I am about to give up and ask for a divorce. I look at Spencer Torkelson's age 22 season and I see a sad bust. Al Avila took over as GM over 7 years ago, but the organization has made one bad trade after another and hasn't produced the talent they should have by now with so many losing seasons.

I could switch and put my full heart into the Blue Jays as Toronto has been my home for 40 years now, but they've pulled some doozies this off season that make me wonder what the heck they are thinking. I also didn't like they way they dumped Canada's own Alex Anthopoulus a few years ago and hired a bunch of suits from Cleveland. Now that looks even more disasterous. (Apologies for the personal digression - had to get it off my chest.)
10:07 AM Mar 16th
The team that I can't get out of my head...the team that makes me like the Cubs...are the Giants from 2021. That team had an outfield of Alex Dickerson, Steven Duggar, and Mike Yastrzemski, an infield where everyone was 33-35 years old, a pitching staff of Logan Webb and a bunch of guys on the wrong side of 30 who hadn't proven themselves in the majors, and a bullpen of guys who've had yo-yo careers, up and down careers.

And they won 107 games. Playing in a division with the Dodgers and Padres, two extremely strong teams.

I don't know how they did it: I didn't follow them during that season because I kept waiting for them to fall off.

But it made me think HARD about the value of just having competent players around the diamond, competent players everywhere.

The Angels last year had two superlative players, and a third good player in Taylor Ward. But they had black hole all through the lineup, getting nothing on offense from catcher, shortstop, or third base. Jared Walsh didn't do much at first. They had so many innings where their hitters would get three QUICK outs...three outs where the at-bats weren't competitive, where the hitters didn't seem focused in. It felt like the whole team was just waiting for Shohei or Trout to come through, and if they didn't...well, we'll just have to wait a couple minutes.

The Cubs aren't strong, but they don't have glaring weaknesses, and they won't let weaknesses linger the way that the Angels do. They'll find someone else to do the job.
10:06 AM Mar 16th
I’m with Dave; I was impressed with the Cubs’ second half. Mostly I’m just happy that the list of 2022 losers does not include the O’s.
9:57 AM Mar 16th
Kansas City.

They might actually have a 5-man pitching staff, staffed by real pitchers.

And the rookies they are going to be running out.

I don't expect them to make the playoffs. I do expect them to win 75 plus games and finish 3rd in their division. They'll start off strong, but won't fade badly. Just not keep up the strong start.
3:23 AM Mar 16th
When I saw the title I thought the Marlins and their stellar yoing pitching. Then I thought about how tough the NL East is, producing three playoff teams last year.

The I remembered the schedule isn't crazy weighted to the division anymore.

So I'll go with the Marlins.
12:53 AM Mar 16th
I love this article every spring, Dave! Great fun and well-turned as always.

I don't share your high hopes for the Cubs, but I do like a couple of their young players. Chris Morel plays like his hair is on fire, and he's fundamentally the new Javier Baez ... and Matt Mervis might be the best hitter in the organization, including the major leagues. We'll see if the Cubs find a spot for him; he has no speed or defensive value, so he'll have to push a slug out of the way.

I see the Cubs as a Chuck Tanner sort of team, a "we'll win if everybody has a good year" team. Bellinger is the obvious wild card, the guy who could Kirk Gibson the place.

I haven't done the AL yet and I am pretty sure the most likely 20+ improvement team will come from that league ... of the NL teams, the Cubs and D'Backs are the most likely to improve by my best guess, so we agree on that. The D'Backs are incredibly young but they have grade A and B prospects coming out their ears.

If I had to guess right now, I'd probably hold my nose and say the Rangers. But that's an even more Chuck Tanner-y team than the Cubs, so I don't like myself for saying it. The most likely 20+ in the AL might be the White Sox, who went 81-81 in 2022. Everyone on that team got hurt except Dylan Cease, and I doubt they'll miss Abreu that much given their own slugger prospects.
7:54 PM Mar 15th
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