A few days ago, we highlighted five teams who missed the 2022 postseason who we believe are now better positioned to be part of this year's tournament. With an introduction like that, you can only guess that this is a companion piece, focusing instead on the five playoff teams who could be left behind.
For the sake of working smarter, not harder, let's recall what we wrote in that first article that explains the premise in fine detail:
While the new playoff format is too nascent to draw conclusions about the average year-to-year turnover rate, we know from the past that it was common to see at least three and on average five teams fall from the bracket. There's no guarantee that will remain the case heading forward, but until we have more evidence we're going to continue to use that as our guideline.
Got it? Good. Now, you can continue on down the page to find our ranking of those five playoff teams who could be in danger. The teams are presented in order of perceived likelihood, along with a brief summary of what happened last year; why this year might deviate; and what the top projection systems (Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, FanGraphs' ZiPS and SportsLine) say of them.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
What happened in 2022: The Rays reached their fourth consecutive postseason, the longest streak in franchise history, by winning 86 games and claiming the final playoff spot in the American League.
Reason for pessimism in 2023: The Rays finished bottom-10 in runs scored and middle-of-the-pack in wRC+ (a park-adjusted catch-all offensive measure) last season, leading their front office to state a desire to add hitting talent over the offseason. They then failed to bring in a single batter from outside of the organization -- they actually subtracted a few, in Kevin Kiermaier and Ji-Man Choi -- meaning any improvements will have to be of the internal nature. Ace Tyler Glasnow is already injured, and some of their other key players -- Wander Franco and Zach Eflin included -- have dealt with durability problems of their own. Tampa Bay does have a few promising youngsters on the way, specifically infielder Curtis Mead and righty Taj Bradley, but runs could be tough to come by once again in St. Petersburg.
What projection systems say: Prepare for déjà vu, at least if PECOTA's forecast -- 87 wins and the final playoff spot in the AL -- comes to fruition. ZiPS has the Rays winning 88 games and SportsLine says 91. Each projection has them finishing third in the AL East, putting them in close quarters with the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, should either overperform expectations.
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2. Cleveland Guardians
What happened in 2022: The 92-win Guardians cruised to their first division crown since 2018, claiming the Central by 11 games.
Reason for pessimism in 2023: The Guardians relied a lot on young or otherwise unheralded players out-punting their projections. A key question for Cleveland is whether or not Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, Andrés Giménez, and company can repeat those performances. (We're not passing judgment here either way.) The Guardians did add some veteran talent to buttress their young core, splurging (a relative term) on first baseman Josh Bell and betting on a bounce-back effort from catcher Mike Zunino. Each has been prone to variability, so it's to be seen what they deliver. Speaking of fluctuations, the Guardians had one of the best records in both extra-inning and one-run games, as well as the fewest days lost to injury in the majors. Their shutdown bullpen and youth go a long way in explaining why, but extreme performance in either direction in those categories tends to regress.
What projection systems say: This should come as no surprise given that we had the Minnesota Twins as one of the featured teams last week, but the Guardians do not appear to have a firm grasp on the Central. PECOTA and ZiPS both have the Guardians and Twins separated by a game (SportsLine has Cleveland well ahead). The combination of the balanced schedule and the higher talent levels in the other divisions makes it hard to see the Central sending two teams to the playoffs this fall. We will note that "win the division or go home," almost guarantees a team will be represented in this piece.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
What happened in 2022: The Cardinals nailed down their fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs by winning the Central for the first time since 2019.
Reason for pessimism in 2023: The Cardinals' biggest offseason addition was catcher Willson Contreras, who, let's face it, lacks Yadier Molina's defensive reputation. That could end up having a cascading effect on St. Louis' pitching staff, including a rotation that already seems to be on shaky ground because of Adam Wainwright's reduced velocity and Jack Flaherty's physical volatility. Will Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, and Lars Nootbaar sustain last year's breakouts? Can the Cardinals again stay as healthy as they did last year, when they ranked fourth in days lost to injury? And moreover, what should we think about the Cardinals having a losing record last season against winning teams? The balanced schedule means they won't be able to fatten-up by pummeling the bottom of the NL Central. This being the Cardinals, they'll probably find a way. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we simply took it for granted.
What projection systems say: As with the Guardians, the Cardinals are expected to be in a tight division race with the Milwaukee Brewers by both PECOTA and ZiPS. (SportsLine, again, gives a healthy advantage to the incumbent.) It's hard to foresee the Central sending two teams to the dance, so St. Louis will likely need to claim another division crown to make it back to October.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
What happened in 2022: The Blue Jays won 92 games but nevertheless managed to disappoint, as the trendy preseason pick to become AL East champion finished seven games behind the New York Yankees.
Reason for pessimism in 2023: At the risk of reading like a copy-and-paste job, the Blue Jays had the season described above while ranking fifth in days lost to injury (in the good way), and while having the seventh-best record in one-run games. If their performance regresses in those areas, then what happens? Toronto tried to address that question by trading for Daulton Varsho and signing Chris Bassitt, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brandon Belt. Those last two additions may test the ability of Toronto's training staff. Elsewhere, the Blue Jays have to get more from José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi. We'll see if they prove up to the task.
What projection systems say: The Blue Jays are once again viewed as the second-best team in the East. Each of the three systems have them in that spot in the standings, though they differ on where they'll fall between 90 and 95 wins. The presence of the Rays and the possibility of either the Red Sox or Orioles outpacing their projected wins total lands the Blue Jays on here, even if we think they're likely to make a return trip to the postseason.
5. Seattle Mariners
What happened in 2022: Seattle snapped the longest playoff drought in baseball, making it to October for the first time since 2001.
Reason for pessimism in 2023: When you think about last season's Mariners, you probably think about Julio Rodríguez, young starting pitchers, and a shutdown bullpen. Rodríguez is a flowering star and Logan Gilbert and George Kirby are legit, but bullpen success is often fleeting. It's fair to wonder if the Mariners will be able to follow that same formula to the same ends in 2023. (To Jerry Dipoto's credit, he seems legitimately skilled at finding relief arms, so maybe this will prove to be a nonfactor.) The Mariners didn't make a big splash over the winter -- though they did retain Luis Castillo, whose acquisition last deadline qualifies -- and they instead gravitated to the likes of Kolten Wong and Teoscar Hernández. The former should provide defense, the latter offense. Perhaps the best argument for concern about the Mariners is that the AL West is a happening place. Beyond Seattle, there's the defending World Series champions and two teams, in the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who spent a lot of coin this winter to get better. (There's also the Oakland Athletics, who spent a little coin this winter to keep the MLBPA from filing a grievance.)
What projection systems say: Two of the three projection systems have the Mariners finishing second again in the West. The exception, PECOTA, has them finishing third, behind the Angels. We're open to the West sending three teams to the playoffs, and we think the Mariners are a safer pick than either the Angels or the Rangers. Nevertheless, we promised we'd highlight five at-risk teams; this is us delivering upon that promise.