6 teams facing a make-or-break season

February 8th, 2024

With the Dodgers and Padres playing the two-game Seoul Series in South Korea on March 20-21, the 2024 MLB regular season will be upon us before we know it. (Full Opening Day action is set for March 28). It’s so soon, in fact, that if we want to do a series of eight weekly season previews before all 30 teams throw their first pitches, we have to start right now. This series will break down major storylines from the perspective of all six divisions, and we kick things off today with a look at the team in each division with the most at stake in 2024.

Every baseball season, for each individual team, has to be taken in context. The Reds won as many games in 2023 (82) as the Yankees and the Padres, but while Reds fans (correctly) saw their 82 wins as a big step toward an exciting future, Yankees and Padres fans (also correctly) saw their 82 wins as a massive disappointment.

It all depends on the stakes and expectations heading into the season. And those stakes and expectations can make or break not just a season, but an entire organization.

Today, in our 2024 MLB Season Preview, we look at the team in each division that’s facing the most pivotal season. If these clubs win, it’ll be a vindication for the front office and roster. And if they lose, it could be the end of the line for many involved … and maybe time to embrace a new approach.

It’s a make-or-break season for these six teams. There’s so much, maybe too much, on the line. (Each club is listed with its 2023 record and 2024 projected record, per Baseball Prospectus’ just-released PECOTA standings.)

AL East: Yankees
2023 record: 82-80 | 2024 projection: 94-68

  • Missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
  • Had their worst winning percentage since 1992.
  • Finished outside the top three in the AL East for the second time since 1992.
  • Did not reach the World Series for the 14th consecutive season, their longest stretch since 1981-96. If they go three more seasons after this one without reaching the World Series, it will be the longest World Series drought in Yankees history.

Despite “a disaster” of a 2023 season (in the words of Brian Cashman), the Yankees brought back their head of baseball operations, their manager and most of their front office staff. If 2024 is anything at all like 2023, that may well not happen again.

The Yankees have done their part to gear up this offseason, adding Marcus Stroman, Alex Verdugo, Trent Grisham and a little outfielder you might have heard of named Juan Soto. Yet the team still looks like it’ll be counting on the health of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Rodón, just like it did last year. Oh, and the Orioles now have a new ace, Corbin Burnes, to go with their talented young lineup.

What bar do the Yankees have to clear this year? Obviously, they need to make the playoffs. Do they need to win the division? Do they need to reach the World Series? The Yankees are good, but they’re also relatively old. They have so much riding on this season. If it doesn’t work out, a whole bunch of people here this year could be gone next year … and that may well include Soto, a pending free agent. Fans have complained that the Yankees have not felt like they’ve been as “all in” in recent seasons as they were in the past. Well, this is precisely what “all in” looks like — for better or worse.

AL Central: Guardians
2023 record: 76-86 | 2024 projection: 83-79

I’m sorry to bring this back up, but it has to be said: Since Rajai Davis’ breathtaking homer (remember how excited LeBron James was?) off Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, things have gone downhill for this franchise. Sure, there have been plenty of positive moments, from that thrilling comeback, walk-off win over the Yankees in Game 3 of the 2022 AL Division Series to just about everything José Ramírez has done in that time.

But the Guardians, despite three division championships since that 2016 World Series appearance, are 0-for-4 in postseason series since 2017. They bottomed out in 2023, finishing with their lowest winning percentage (.469) since 2012. And now, despite a division that seems perpetually winnable, they look like they might be running out of time. There’s young talent surrounding Ramírez, but none of it is proven, and while the pitching tends to come through for Cleveland, that wasn’t really the case last year. This team has little power outside Ramírez, and its biggest addition this offseason has been veteran backup catcher Austin Hedges.

The Twins are the default favorite here, but the Tigers are bulking up, and the Royals have been aggressive this winter. The Guardians have tried simply to keep their heads above water since the 2016 season, but last year, they finally fell under. What happens if there is a repeat in 2024?

AL West: Angels
2023 record: 73-89 | 2024 projection: 75-87

After losing the best player on the planet to their Southern California neighbors on an earth-shaking contract, the Angels moved to fill the void left by Shohei Ohtani by signing … a bunch of bullpen arms! There are some good pitchers here — Robert Stephenson, Matt Moore, Luis Garcia, Adam Cimber—but, well, I hope they can also throw 130 innings with a 3.14 ERA and, oh yeah, maybe hit 44 homers while they’re at it.

The Angels, under new manager Ron Washington, are not in total shambles without Ohtani. Their rotation isn’t half-bad, they’ve got some intriguing young talent in the lineup and they have a fellow named Mike Trout who has earned himself some renown in the big leagues over the years. It’s not like the Angels have given up. But how is a team that lost 89 games last year supposed to get better minus Ohtani? Trout has been nothing but loyal to this franchise through eight consecutive losing seasons — and, famously, no postseason victories — but all it takes is one “Hey, it sure would be nice to make the playoffs someday” quote from him at any point to turn this entire franchise upside down.

The Angels could conceivably start out the season hot — they could be in first place on May 5, like they were in 2023 — and talk themselves into letting everything ride. But if they get off to a miserable start — if they play April and May like they did last August and September — big questions will emerge very quickly. Was losing Ohtani just the start?

NL East: Phillies
2023 record: 90-72 | 2024 projection: 84-78

Here’s the fundamental question for the Phillies and their fans: Is the 3-2 lead they lost to the D-backs in last year’s NLCS going to be forgotten in a year … or something that haunts them forever? (Remember, they had that lead going into Games 6 and 7 in front of a raucous, deafening Citizens Bank Park crowd pleading to send them to a second consecutive World Series.)

As veteran of a team as the Phillies are, as well-constructed as they have been, one-win-away-from-the-World-Series opportunities don’t come around all that often. The Phillies share a division with the juggernaut that is the Braves and share a league with the titanic Dodgers, who are even more desperate to get back to the World Series.

This team is old and getting older; it’s going to get tougher before it gets easier. If the Phillies take a step backward — and there’s nothing other than a World Series that isn’t “a step backward” — how much can you expect from this gaggle of 30-somethings moving forward? The vibes were immaculate in Philly last year. If they don’t make the World Series this year, or if the wheels come off entirely, the vibes in 2025 will be … less than immaculate.

NL Central: Cardinals
2023 record: 71-91 | 2024 projection: 86-76

OK, fine: A lot of things went sideways on them in 2023. The pitching staff imploded, some veterans regressed and some young players didn’t make the leap the way the Cardinals had hoped. A last-place season, the first for this franchise since 1990, has many fathers.

The Cardinals believe they solved their major issue, pitching, with the additions of Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn to the rotation and Andrew Kittredge, Keynan Middleton and Nick Robertson to the bullpen. (They didn’t add anyone to their lineup, though they did subtract Tyler O’Neill.) But everything was just a little bit off from the get-go in 2023 — remember the temporary removal of Willson Contreras from the catcher role, not to mention the verbal tussle between O’Neill and manager Oliver Marmol? — and that might be what needs fixing the most in St. Louis.

This front office has been in place for essentially two decades, and it has thrived by rarely making radical changes, instead tweaking at the edges and staying prudent. But it has never seen anything like last year. This is still a winnable division, and there are still two stars in Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt to build around. But this is not a fanbase that will stand for mediocrity. If the Cardinals can’t turn it around in 2024, Marmol could be in serious trouble … and he might not be the only one.

NL West: Padres
2023 record: 82-80 | 2024 projection: 80-82

When the Nationals traded Juan Soto to the Padres during the 2022 season, the best position players they had remaining on the roster were Victor Robles and Lane Thomas. The Padres, after trading Soto to the Yankees this offseason, still get to look at Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Xander Bogaerts in the dugout. So that helps. That’s to say, the Padres don’t look like they’re going to collapse, and considering how much bad luck, bad situational hitting and bad general mojo they had in 2023, you can see real bounce-back potential here.

And you better. Because if this team has those three stars and can’t get the job done — if the D-backs and Giants end up passing them permanently — you have to ask some serious questions about what is going to happen with this team and franchise in the wake of the death of owner Peter Seidler. Bogaerts and Machado are signed through 2033, and Tatis is signed through 2034. (Don’t forget Jake Cronenworth is signed through 2030, Joe Musgrove through 2027 and Yu Darvish through 2028.) Are the Padres going to have the stomach to hang on to all those guys, and all that payroll, if they fall even further in 2024? The Padres were built to win last year. What are they built for now?

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