2023 American League Silver Linings

Making the postseason isn't everything.

After Game 162, 18 teams are forced to admit defeat. Among them are the purposeful losers and the underachievers. For the former, the end of the season is hopefully one step closer to contention. For the latter, those teams with sky-high expectations that failed to touch the ceiling, missing the playoffs is a bitter pill. Here’s looking at the New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels, and St. Louis Cardinals.

Yet some teams can find more success in 2023’s failures than others. Whether it be the emergence of a young star or a resurgent campaign of stars past, the fan bases of three teams have reason to find joy and hope amidst a losing season.


Cleveland Guardians


With 16 fewer wins in 2023 than in 2022 and a drop to third place in the American League Central, most would disagree with the characterization that the Guardians had a successful season. Regression, roster selling, and injuries all affected this perception. All-Star second baseman Andres Giménez’s OPS decreased by .125 points, free-agent first baseman Josh Bell failed to pan out before a trade to the Miami Marlins, ace pitcher Shane Bieber missed 10 starts with elbow inflation, and pitcher Triston McKenzie made just four starts in an injury-plagued season.

This culmination led to a 76-86 record, Cleveland’s worst since 2012. For a franchise of stability and strength, 2023 was the furthest thing from the norm.

For most teams, the combination of injuries and regression might result in a record far worse than Cleveland’s. Winning 76 games despite these setbacks is a credit to the infrastructure Cleveland has built. The pitching pipeline Cleveland has manufactured through its farm system is perhaps the strongest part of that infrastructure. That pipeline once again struck oil in the form of rookie starter Tanner Bibee.

Bibee was nothing short of spectacular in his 25 starts with Cleveland. His 2.98 ERA, 140 ERA+, 1.175 WHIP, 3.53 FIP, 141 strikeouts, and 142 innings led all Guardians pitchers. The only pitcher on the staff to rival Bibee’s success was starter Aaron Civale, who the club shipped to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline.

In context with the rest of baseball, from Bibee’s April 26 debut until the end of the season, his 2.98 ERA was tied for fourth among all pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched. The three pitchers ahead of Bibee in the metric were NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell’s 1.78 ERA, Baltimore’s Kyle Bradish, whose 2.61 ERA during that span earned AL Cy Young votes, and New York Mets All-Star Kodai Senga’s 2.79 ERA. Tying Bibee for fourth on the list is AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole. It is an elite list comprised of pitchers either winning or receiving Cy Young votes, with Bibee, a rookie among them.

MLB ERA Leaders After April 26

Though Bibee’s rookie campaign ended prematurely with right hip inflammation, his success led to a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year race, only behind Baltimore’s shortstop Gunnar Henderson. For many teams, a young, controllable frontline starter like Bibee could qualify them as winners amidst a losing season. But Bibee is not Cleveland’s only rookie pitching phenom.

Like Bibee, starter Gavin Williams went from one of Cleveland’s brightest prospects in 2023 to one of their best pitchers. In his 16 starts, Williams compiled a 3.29 ERA, 127 ERA+. 1.256 WHIP, 4.06 WHIP, and 81 strikeouts in 82 innings.

Williams’ last nine starts were particularly impressive. In those starts, Williams allowed more than three runs once for a 3.25 ERA. That number, however, is admittedly suppressed by an Aug. 29 start where Williams pitched just one inning before departing with right knee soreness.

In addition, Williams’ inability to pitch deep into games, might have just as much to do with success down the stretch. Over those nine starts, Williams pitched into the sixth inning three times, with two of those outings being his last of the season. Likewise, Williams failed to eclipse 100 pitches in a game, not just in those final nine starts but during his entire rookie campaign.

While pitching deep into games may be an issue long-term, Williams posted a 1.8 bWAR and 1.1 fWAR, both more than respectable numbers in a debut season. The same could be said for Logan Allen, another rookie pitcher. Allen’s numbers don’t jump out in comparison to his teammates, a 3.81 ERA, 109 ERA+, 1.396 WHIP, 119 strikeouts, and a 4.19 FIP, but the southpaw made 24 starts on a Cleveland team bereft of options after the injuries to McKenzie and Bieber.

Even if Allen’s success hovers around these ranges, he can prove to be a cheap back end of the rotation pitcher Cleveland will happily trot out every fifth day.

As much as Cleveland’s young pitchers deserve praise, their upcoming wave of position players are just as impressive. Catcher Bo Naylor notched 1.5 bWAR and 2.4 fWAR with a .809 OPS in his rookie season. Top prospect Brayan Rocchio also debuted, as did outfield prospect George Valera. First base prospect Kyle Manzardo, acquired in the Civale trade, failed to join Rocchio and Valera in the majors. However, Manzardo finished second in the organization among MLB.com’s prospect rankings behind Rocchio. With Manzardo ending the season in Triple-A, he’ll likely debut sometime in 2024, another win for Cleveland’s long-term future.

Yet Cleveland’s biggest win of the 2023 season is, ironically, its 23-33 finish from August to October. This below-.500 stretch eliminated Cleveland from playoff contention and gave the team the ninth slot in the MLB Draft lottery. Luck sided with Cleveland despite its 2% odds and handed the Guardians the first overall pick, their first in franchise history.

With Bibee, Williams, Naylor, Rocchio, Manzardo, Valera, and a future No. 1 overall pick, Cleveland has a young core coming that fits its current needs while not compromising its financial future. For other clubs, this last point would not be paramount. But for Cleveland, a franchise whose Opening Day payroll has only gone above $100 million three times this century, financial flexibility is a must if the team is to succeed.

That success might come easy for a Cleveland team stuck in the AL Central. Despite the first-place Minnesota Twins‘ 2023 success, they’ve lost Cy Young candidate Sonny Gray to the St. Louis Cardinals, starter Kenta Maeda to the Detroit Tigers, reliever Emilio Pagán to the Cincinnati Reds, and soon outfielders Michael A. Taylor and Joey Gallo to free agency. For perspective, those five players accounted for a combined 10.2 bWAR and 10.2 fWAR. It is a colossal collective loss for the Twins that could deepen with reports that catcher Christian Vázquez could be traded at some point this offseason.

The Twins are not the only other AL Central team in a tailspin. While the Kansas City Royals have aggressively shored up holes this offseason, the team is still coming off a 106-loss season. Meanwhile, the Chicago White Sox are about to enter a teardown with reports that pitcher Dylan Cease could soon be shipped off. The regressions and rebuilds cementing the AL Central as baseball’s basement can make 2024 the start of a promising future in Cleveland and make the pain of 2023 a distant memory.


Boston Red Sox


Boston and the greater New England region expect greatness from its teams. After six Super Bowls, four World Series titles — the most in baseball this century, one NBA Championship, and one Stanley Cup since 2000, it’s easy to understand why. And it’s not as if the Red Sox fail to meet those expectations.

However, since their last title in 2018, the Red Sox are far from the consistent winner their city craves for. Nothing epitomizes that more than Boston’s three fifth-place finishes in the last four years. With its 2023 last-place finish and 78-84 record, it’s hard to understand what could constitute 2023 as a success in Boston or its fans.

That is where context is necessary. The Red Sox play in one of baseball’s best divisions. Three of its five teams, the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays, won 89 or more games. The Rays and their 99 wins would win every other division in baseball, excluding the NL East and West. Boston has to play teams in its powerhouse division a combined 52 times. A 78-84 record in the AL East is not an embarrassment.

That aside, what makes 2023 a success for Boston is the bevy of young talent bursting from the franchise’s seams at the major and minor league levels.

A cornerstone of that is rookie first baseman Triston Casas. Initially, Casas’ March-April .133/.283/.293 slash line suggested the slugger maintained the same struggles from 2022: An exceptional eye for the ball and feel for the strike zone while an extreme inability to make contact nullifies his potential offensive production.

But month by month, Casas showed signs of life. Things started with a May .257/.338/.429 slash line with a .766 OPS, with three home runs. Casas’ strikeout numbers also decreased despite an increase in playing time. That slash is far from the most impressive, but Casas became comfortable at the plate. From there, Casas soared.

In July, Casas’ best month, the rookie posted an astronomical .349/.442/.758 slash with a 1.200 OPS in 21 games. His July 1.200 OPS was the highest in all of baseball. And while Casas’ numbers cooled slightly over August and September, his 1.034 OPS post-All-Star is only bested by three players: Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson, and the Los Angeles AngelsShohei Ohtani. Casas kept that offensive company as a rookie hitter in baseball’s best division and en route to a third-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year race.

MLB OPS Leaders After the All-Star Break

Boston, like Cleveland, has more than one position player to point toward as a developmental success. Outfielder Jarren Duran displayed tremendous growth in his second season. In 2022, Duran showed the capabilities of being a good player, but he struggled to stay productive. For instance, from June 4 to July 6, 2022, Durran hit .329 with a .887 OPS. But from July 7 to Aug. 7, Duran hit .140 with a .431 OPS. These peaks and valleys culminated in a demotion to Triple-A on Aug. 27.

But in 2023, Duran found the consistency that turned his peaks and valleys into a flatland. Duran could now hit .396 in March and April, struggle in May, but regain his composure to rebound in June and July for a combined .336 average over those two months.

August’s .192 average could point to contradictory evidence, but Duran played 102 games this season, the second-most in his professional career. Whether it was the cause of an increased workload or the turf toe injury that ended Duran’s season, a level of doubt is justified. Yet Duran’s increased hard-hit rate (38% to 46.3%) and line-drive percentage (16.9% to 29.1%) should warrant enough evidence that the 27-year-old can become a stable hitter with defensive upside.

Pitcher Brayan Bello is another win for Boston’s player development. While his 4.24 ERA doesn’t point toward Bello as a future frontline starter like Bibee or Williams, further context is necessary. In his last two starts of the season, Bello allowed a combined 13 runs to the Rangers and Rays. They were among Bello’s worst starts of the season. If discounted, Bello’s season ERA is a much different 3.71. That 3.71 number would rank Bello first on the team in ERA among starting pitchers.

Given Boston’s lack of pitching talent, perhaps that doesn’t say much. Yet, Bello’s May to June stretch, where he posted a 2.37 ERA and a 3.31 FIP, indicates the second-year pitcher can blossom into an above-average big-league arm for Boston. The necessity of pitchers like this in Boston can’t be stressed enough. The team needed and will continue to need pitchers like Bello. Even with their signing of starter Lucas Giolito, their current rotation is suspect, and the team’s farm system offers few top-end reinforcements.

Of Boston’s top 10 prospects, according to MLB.com, Wikelman Gonzalez is their only pitching prospect. Of Boston’s top 15 prospects, Richard Fitts is the only other pitching prospect. It is an incredibly barren pitching pipeline for Beantown, a team that desperately needed Bello to emerge, regardless of his ultimate potential.

Despite the lack of pitching prospects, Boston’s jump to second in Fangraphs’ farm system rankings is another reason the franchise can count 2023 as a success. Though anchored by shortstop Marcelo Mayer, MLB.com’s 11th-best prospect, Boston’s overall farm oozes talent. Between outfielder Roman Anthony’s rise from an unranked prospect to second in the Sox’s system, utilityman Cedanne Rafaela’s promotion to the majors, 2023 first-round catcher Kyle Teel, and 2020 first-rounder second baseman Nick Yorke, Boston has an unbelievable amount of young talent.

Even more impressive is Mayer, Anthony, Teel, and Yorke will presumably start 2024 in Double-A. Should they play well, it’s plausible some, if not all, make their big-league debuts next season. If each player lives up to their billing, they could hand Boston long-term answers in the infield and the outfield. Or they offer Boston the flexibility to trade any among them to improve the big-league team, something new Red Sox chief baseball officer Craig Breslow has already hinted at.

Regardless, another last-place finish in the AL East is sobering for Boston. But between the development of Casas, Duran, Bello, and their top prospects, it could be their last time in the cellar for a long time, and 2024 might start to meet the city’s demand.


Detroit Tigers


Coming out of the 2021 season, the Tigers were a clear-cut winner of this exact award. They won 77 games, their most since 2016, drafted first baseman Spencer Torkelson first overall, succeeded in A.J. Hinch’s debut season as Tigers manager, and readied themselves to exit their rebuild. Heading into the offseason, the Tigers had a youthful core on the way with money to spend to supplement it.

Shortstop Javier Báez and starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, two streaky stars, were added to that core in the offseason. Though both were paid like stars, neither lived up to the billing in 2022. Baez ended the season with a below-league-average .671 OPS and 48.7% swing on pitches outside the strike zone, the highest percentage in the sport. Rodriguez, meanwhile, had a 4.38 ERA to start his Tigers tenure before missing the next two months due to personal matters. He returned on Aug. 21 to a 47-76 Detroit team 18.5 games back in the AL Central.

2022 was a disaster in other ways aside from free-agency failures. Top prospect and outfielder Riley Greene, primed to open the season in the majors after spring training, broke his foot before the season. Pitcher Casey Mize, another No. 1 overall pick, made only two starts until an elbow injury turned into season-ending Tommy John surgery. Torkelson’s debut season in the MLB went so poorly that a demotion to Triple-A became necessary.

The Tigers finished 2022 with a 66-96 record, fourth in the AL Central, and seemingly back aboard the train they thought they’d just exited.

2023, on the other hand, won’t be a year enshrined in the team’s history book, but Detroit seems to be nearing the exit that once seemed so close.

Carrying one of the torches to lead Detroit out is Torkelson. After a tough opening month, one would think the opposite would be true. Through March-April, the first baseman had a .206/.266/.309 slash line with a .575 OPS. Likewise, the power the Tigers drafted him for disappeared with just two home runs over these 26 games. Torkelson looked and played lost on a field he was drafted to dominate.

While the following months featured ups and downs, the former began to outweigh the latter. Over his next 133 games, Torkelson slashed .238/.322/.472 for a .793 OPS. In time, the slugger’s power manifested en route to 29 home runs, 30 doubles, and 83 RBIs. By season’s end, Torkelson led the team in the following: hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, total bases, walks, and strikeouts.

Torkelson’s 2022 vs. 2023

That said, Torkelson is not the perfect player, let alone the player the Tigers drafted with the first overall pick. His .233 batting average is far from the .340 number Torkelson averaged across his two seasons at Arizona State.

Two signs point toward that gap closing, however. Torkelson’s expected batting average was .253, according to Baseball Savant. The 20-point drop between his batting average and expected average was the 26th-highest in baseball. In other words, Torkelson was the recipient of bad luck more than he was a bad hitter.

What-if aside, another sign that Torkelson isn’t doomed to be a below-average hitter is his terrific plate discipline. His 67 walks led the team and were nearly double his 37 walks the year before. In addition, his 9.8% walk rate ranked second among all qualified Tigers hitters.

Detroit needed Torkelson to turn the corner. The organization couldn’t handle a bust or even the labeling of one coming off the 2022 season. For Torkelson to overcome a nightmarish rookie season and rebound into a team leader in most offensive categories is the development the Tigers need.

Finding a starting pitcher was another need the Tigers met due to Tarik Skubal. Despite his July 4 season debut, Skubal shined in his 15 starts with a 7-3 record, 2.80 ERA, 158 ERA+, 0.896 WHIP, and 102 strikeouts.

Skubal’s strikeouts deserve particular praise. Before 2023, Skubal’s career SO% was a serviceable 25.5%, while his K% ranked in the 66th percentile. In 2023, using more fastballs and changeups, the southpaw’s SO% rocketed to 32.9%, while his K% now ranked in the 96th percentile. For context, only 15 other pitchers were in a higher K% percentile, according to Baseball Savant. It is a mammoth leap for Skubal.

Accompanying that leap is a notable decline in the number of walks allowed. Skubal walked 7.2% of all hitters in previous seasons, but in 2023, that number dropped to 4.5%. Skubal’s BB% went from the 65th percentile to the 96th, per Baseball Savant.

The caveat to all of this improvement is that Skubal made just 15 starts in 2023. This small sample size doesn’t guarantee that Skubal will maintain or improve even further in 2024. Likewise, competition is another caveat. Of those 15 starts, Skubal pitched against the Oakland A’s, Kansas City Royals, and the Chicago White Sox twice. In other words, six of Skubal’s 15 starts were against teams with 100 or more losses, with the A’s and the Royals finishing 2023 with the worst records in baseball.

Whether Skubal is a back-end starter closer to his career averages or the frontline starter he looked like in 2023 is up for debate. But for a Tigers team without Rodriguez and starter Michael Lorenzen, and unsure what to expect from Mize in his return from Tommy John,  it’s a good debate for the Tigers to have.

One last notable player progression is that of Greene. The former fifth overall pick’s .288 average and .349 OBP led the Tigers. His .796 OPS and 117 OPS+ were second on the team. Greene might have finished the season with improved stats had he not missed parts of the season with a stress fracture in his fibula and then all of September with an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery.

Injuries are a concern for Greene’s future. Three injuries over the last two years have cost the outfielder 100 games. If his availability can improve, Greene can be another feather in Detroit’s cap.

Other feathers include outfielder Kerry Carpenter, a former  19th-round pick shining in his first season. In 118 games, Carpenter slashed .278/.340/.471 with a team-leading .811 OPS and 121 wRC+. Similarly, reliever Tyler Holton, an offseason waiver claim, was sensational. In his 85.1 innings, Holton’s 2.11 ERA was the 14th-best among all qualified relievers.

Between Torkelson, Skubal, Greene, Carpenter, Holton, and the team’s record, the Tigers reset expectations in 2023. They’re back where they need to be. Getting to average is the first step in escaping any rebuild. Any team can lose 100 games, secure high picks, and sign players. But can they make the right picks? Can they sign the right players? Can they turn years of tanking into something tangible?

2022 indicated the Tigers couldn’t. 2023 indicates they can.

Photos courtesy of Icon Sportswire

Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on X)

Josh Shaw

Josh Shaw graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2022 with a Journalism degree. He's written for The New Hampshire, Pro Sports Fanatics, and PitcherList.

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