Friday, March 31, 2023

2023 Pre-Season Profile: New York Yankees

The New York Yankees rode their AL MVP to the top of their division, but couldn't take that last step and compete in the World Series.  Will 2023 bring their first Fall Classic since 2009?

#13 - 3rd in AL East
MIH - Josh Donaldson
MIP - Luis Severino
PTW - Oswald Peraza

2022 Results
#3 - 99-63, 1st in AL East, lost in ALCS
Highest WAR (Position) - Aaron Judge
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Nestor Cortes
The New York Yankees are currently riding their longest drought without a World Series appearance in franchise history.  That may sound like a spoiled statement, but Yankees standards are higher.  It's World Series or bust every year.  With that said, it's hard to look at 2022 and say it was a complete failure.  They won the AL East, which was probably the toughest division in baseball.  They made it to the ALCS and lost to the eventual champs.  Individually, they had a surprise All Star season from starter Nestor Cortes.  With all that said, by far the biggest story of 2022 was Aaron Judge.  Right now, it takes a record-breaking season to pass both Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout to win the MVP.  Well, 62 home runs, 131 RBI's, .311 batting average, 211 OPS+, 10.6 WAR ... yeah, that'll do it.

Additions / Subtractions
Aaron Judge won the MVP in a record-breaking season in his contract year.  The Yankees had to bring him back, and they did (even though everyone thought for an afternoon he was going to be a Giant).  They also upgraded the rotation by signing Carlos Rodon to replace Jameson Taillon.  Outside of that, there wasn't much change in this roster.

Most Important Hitter
Gleyber Torres
Obviously, Aaron Judge and his health is vital to this lineup.  Keeping Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson on the field for a whole season is important.  However, the X-factor of this lineup that could make it elite is Gleyber Torres.  Torres burst on the scene with All Star appearances in his first two seasons.  Then, he followed it up with two disappointing seasons in 2020 and 2021 as the Yankees played with putting him at shortstop.  Last season was his best year since his All Star seasons, but he is still a big question mark entering the season, with even trade rumors surrounding his name this offseason and even entering the season.  He is still only entering his age 27 season with two more years of club control.  If Torres can build off a strong season in 2022 and get back to a borderline All Star level, this lineup will be scary.

Most Important Pitcher
Carlos Rodon
Carlos Rodon has had a bit of a roller coaster career so far.  He came up with the White Sox in 2015 with a lot of promise and showed that he could develop into something great.  Then he flatlined for a few seasons and never really improved.  Then came injuries, which derailed his 2019 and 2020 seasons.  In a contract year in 2021, he had the best season of his career, but no one was sure if it was sustainable.  After signing a one year deal with the Giants, he proved he had turned a corner.  Now he's a Yankee on a big free agent deal and is expected to pair with Gerrit Cole at the top of the rotation as co-aces of the staff.  Some are already nervous as he is starting the season on the IL.  If the Yankees are going to have a successful season, they need Carlos Rodon to earn his paycheck.

Prospect to Watch
Anthony Volpe
The Yankees sport a mid-level farm system, which is impressive considering how often they dip into it to make blockbuster trades.  The top of their system is the #5 overall prospect in all baseball, Anthony Volpe.  He is a highly-touted phenom drafted out of high school that has cheered for the Yankees his entire life that got the Opening Day start at shortstop for the Pinstripes.  Sound familiar?  Volpe does sport a different game than Derek Jeter had though.  He is a true five-tool player that can do it all.  This was shown in the minors when in 2021 he hit 27 homers, 35 doubles, and stole 33 bases.  He followed that up in 2022 with 21 homers, 35 doubles, and 50 steals.  He became the first 20/50 minor leaguer since Andruw Jones in 1995.  That's pretty good company too.  The Yankees may have another superstar on their hands at shortstop.

2023 Prediction
1st in AL East, lose World Series
The Yankees have been so close to getting back to the World Series recently.  One of these seasons, they are going to break through.  There were a lot of big names available in free agency, and they did bring in Rodon (which was a much needed addition).  However, I like it when teams decide to stay quiet and show confidence in the group they already have.  They are the Yankees so they may be a prime candidate for a big trade at some point, but the consistency of this roster might bode well and bring them an AL pennant.

Fearless Prediction
Aaron Judge will not lead his team in home runs in 2023.
He can't do it again, can he?  Aaron Judge played in 157 games in 2022, the most of his career and only the third full season of his career.  Most of those games were in centerfield.  An injury does tend to creep up on him from time to time.  I could also see the Yankees try to protect him and keep him fresh.  With all that said, this is less of a statement on Judge (he did homer yesterday on the second pitch he saw on Opening Day) and more a statement on Giancarlo Stanton.  I have always been a fan of Stanton, and his time in the Bronx has been perceived mostly as a disappointment.  However, he has stayed moderately healthy the last two seasons, hitting over 30 homers both years.  He has big seasons in him too, having hit 59 homers back in 2017 in his last season in Miami.  If he can stay healthy again, I could Stanton and Judge pull a Mantle and Maris in their home run competition.  It's not out of the question to see a total of over 100 home runs from just these two (last year they combined for 93).

Thursday, March 30, 2023

2023 Pre-Season Profile: New York Mets

The New York Mets continue to try and buy their way to championship.  Will winning the offseason result in winning in the postseason in 2023?

#4 - 1st in NL East, lose in NLCS
MIH - Francisco Lindor
MIP - Max Scherzer
PTW - Brett Baty

2022 Results
#9 - 101-61, 2nd in NL East, WILD CARD, lost in Wild Card Series
Highest WAR (Position) - Jeff McNiel
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Max Scherzer
This is how good the National League has been recently.  The New York Mets won 101 games in 2022.  Yeah, that was good for 2nd in the division.  They lost in the Wild Card Series to the Padres, who you can argue were the more talented (and maybe higher spending) team.  Then, the eventual NL champ was the 3rd place team from their own division.  With the type of overhaul the Mets had before the 2022 season, it sometimes takes a year or two for the team to come together and play well as a unit.  With that said, they still won 101 games.

Additions / Subtractions
Well, with new Mets owner Steve Cohen, since the Mets didn't win the World Series, it meant he didn't spend enough money.  So he opened up the pocket books again.  First, the Mets kept some of their own that were entering free agency by re-signing closer Edwin Diaz and outfielder Brandon Nimmo to huge deals.  Then, they signed a second 40 year old pitcher to a contract paying $40 million per year.  Last year it was Max Scherzer.  This year it was Justin Verlander.  They signed veteran Jose Quintana and Japanese import Kodai Senga to bolster the rotation even more.  Reliever and former closer David Robertson was signed to deepen the bullpen (and possibly close now that Diaz is out for the year).  Catcher Omar Narvaez was signed to be an offensive-minded catcher.  They also found themselves in the middle of the Carlos Correa saga as they jumped in and agreed to a deal with the superstar shortstop after the Giants questioned his medicals.  Then when the Mets questioned his medicals, both sides backed out of the deal, and he ended up back in Minnesota.  The only real significant subtractions were starters Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker, but they were more than adequately replaced.

Most Important Hitter
Brandon Nimmo
Brandon Nimmo had a career year in 2022, which just happened to be his contract year.  He cashed in to stay with the Mets, signing an 8 year $162 million deal.  However, it was only the second time in Nimmo's seven year career he has played in more than 100 games.  The production has always been decent when he is on the field.  The problem is he has to be on the field.  Was 2022 starting a new trend of health, or an anomaly in a career riddled with injuries?  The Mets have a potent middle of the order with the likes of Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso, but they are counting on Nimmo to be on base for them to drive in.

Most Important Pitcher
Kodai Senga
The Mets have a lot of money invested in their starting rotation.  The amount of money they are paying the comination of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander more than 9 teams' entire rosters.  However, most of the money invested in the rotation was spent on established older pitchers.  The one step they took to solidify part of their rotation passed this year and next was signing Kodai Senga.  The 30 year old Japanese star signed a 5 year $75 million deal with the Mets.  These Japanese players are definitely hit or miss.  Senga has some serious talent.  The question is ... will he be the next Masahiro Tanaka or the next Yusei Kikuchi?  If he is closer to Tanaka, then the Mets have an ace that will be around long after Scherzer and Verlander retire.

Prospect to Watch
Francisco Alvarez
On top of spending all this money, the Mets also boast a top ten caliber farm system, highlighted by one of the best prospects in all of baseball, 21 year old catcher Francisco Alvarez.  The reason the Mets signed a short term stop gap at catcher this offseason was to leave room for Alvarez to break out.  This kid showed all through the minors some elite pure power, slugging 24 homers in 2021 and 27 homers in 2022.  He got a taste of the big leagues at the end of last season, and although he is starting 2023 back in the minors, he will be brought up soon to be another centerpiece of the heart of the Mets batting order.

2023 Prediction
1st in NL East, lose in NLCS
Somehow, a 101 win team looks on paper to have greatly improved this offseason.  They should win the division, but the Braves and Phillies will definitely make it difficult on them.  Can they go all the way?  Absolutely.  I struggle to see a team with this much turnover again coming together in a way to go all the way.  There's a reason whenever the moniker of "best team money can buy" rarely produces a championship.

Fearless Prediction
A closer named Diaz will lead the Mets in saves in 2023.
It was heartbreaking to see such a moment of joy turn so fast in one fatal misstep as Edwin Diaz tore up his knee in the middle of a joyous celebration with his WBC teammates.  It left the Puerto Rico team dejected and the Mets without a closer for the season.  The Mets have announced they will use a closer by committee to start the season, but you know Steve Cohen won't be content with that.  A trade will be made for a closer, and one of the most likely candidates is Edwin's brother Alexis Diaz.  Currently the closer for the Reds, the younger Diaz was shedding tears on the field watching Edwin be carried off the field.  Wouldn't it be poetic if the Mets used some of their farm system depth to bring him in to fill in for his brother?  The Reds are always willing right now to get rid of established stars for prospect potential.  This seems like too good of a story for the Mets to pass up.

2023 Pre-Season Profile: Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners broke their 21 year postseason drought in 2022.  Can 2023 bring about another step towards winning a championship?

#8 - 3rd in AL West, WILD CARD, lose in ALDS
MIH - Jesse Winker
MIP - Logan Gilbert
PTW - Julio Rodriguez

2022 Results
#8 - 90-72, 2nd in AL West, WILD CARD, lost in ALDS
Highest WAR (Position) - Julio Rodriguez
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Logan Gilbert
The drought is over!  The Mariners made the playoffs in 2022 for the first time since their 116 win season in 2001.  They may not have done it the way it was expected though.  They rode the back of their young superstar Julio Rodriguez, who won Rookie of the Year and finished 7th in MVP voting.  Before the 2022 season started, everyone was talking about the impact Jesse Winker would have on the offense, but it was the forgotten part of that trade, Eugenio Suarez, that became a leader of the team.  A Trade Deadline deal, again with the Reds, that brought in starter Luis Castillo revamped the starting rotation and made them a dangerous team in the postseason.  Despite being swept in the ALDS, they were really the only team that gave the Astros any fits in the playoffs.

Additions / Subtractions
Even though Jerry DiPoto has garnered the reputation of being extremely active in roster tweaks, this offseason was comparatively somewhat quiet.  Two main trades defined the offseason for the Mariners.  They brought in outfielder Teoscar Hernandez from the Blue Jays for reliver Erik Swanson to replace the departing Mitch Haniger.  They also ended the Jesse Winker experiment by trading him and Abraham Toro to the Brewers for second baseman Kolten Wong to replace the departing Adam Frazier.  One free agent signing was bringing in veteran outfielder A.J. Pollock.

Most Important Hitter
Ty France
Although Julio was the headline grabber last season, in a lot of ways Ty France was the one that helped keep this lineup moving for the Mariners.  He is one of those players that just knows how to hit.  This earned him his first All Star appearance in 2022.  However, an elbow injury mid-season threw off his swing and timing the rest of the season, and France really struggled to have any production down the stretch.  If the Mariners are going to have a strong lineup, they need Ty France to hit the way he did before his injury.  If he is back to that level, this lineup will score runs.

Most Important Pitcher
Robbie Ray
The Mariners made a big free agency splash before the 2022 season by signing the reigning AL Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray, away from the Blue Jays.  In his first year in Seattle, Ray did not live up to the hype.  Still able to strike out a lot of batters, Ray's ERA+ fell from 157 in 2021 to league average 100 in 2022.  His standard ERA rose from 2.84 in 2021 to 3.71 in 2022.  His inconsistency forced the Mariners to trade for another ace mid-season, and he ended the season relegated to the bullpen in the ALDS and gave up a game-winning, back-breaking home run to Yordan Alvarez in Game 1.  It looks like he has made some changes in the offseason and is ready to have a better season.  The Mariners need him to be better to provide that right/left 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.

Prospect to Watch
Bryce Miller
The Mariners quickly went from one of the best farm systems in baseball to one of the worst thanks to guys like Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Jarred Kelenic graduating from the list, then trading away a bunch of their depth in a variety of trades.  Only two players remain for the Mariners in the Top 100, with Bryce Miller (#98 on Top 100) being ready to impact the big league roster this season.  Miller is a 24 year old right-handed starter that may have had a chance to be a part of the rotation on Opening Day if not for the tremendous pitching depth in Seattle.  He will get his chance at some point this season though, and when he does, he might be the next great young arm in Seattle's arsenal.

2023 Prediction
2nd in AL West, WILD CARD, lose in ALCS
I don't know if the Mariners are ready to dethrone the Astros at the top of the division, but they showed last season that they are ready to compete with anyone in the postseason.  They are built to compete in the playoffs and will be a dangerous team in October.  My slightly skeptical fandom might be the only thing keeping me from putting them in the World Series, but they are definitely good enough to get there.

Fearless Prediction
Julio Rodriguez finishes in the top 3 in the MVP voting.
This might not feel like that fearless of a prediction.  A fearless prediction would be picking Julio to win the MVP.  However, when you remember that the American League also includes so many people you have to vote for out of principle, like the unicorn Shohei Ohtani, the best player in baseball Mike Trout, and the reigning MVP Aaron Judge, cracking the top 3 in MVP voting would be quite a feat.  Give Julio 5 years, and he will be the best player in baseball.

2023 Pre-Season Profile: Houston Astros

The Houston Astros went all the way and won the World Series in 2022.  Will they be able to make it back despite losing the reigning Cy Young winner?

#7 - 2nd in AL West, WILD CARD, lose in ALDS
MIH - Kyle Tucker
MIP - Justin Verlander
PTW - Jeremy Pena

2022 Results
#1 - 106-56, 1st in AL West, won World Series
Highest WAR (Position) - Yordan Alvarez
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Justin Verlander
Here is exactly what I said about the Houston Astros before last season... "How many times can a team lose a superstar and not skip a beat?  After the 2019 season, Gerrit Cole (3rd in team WAR) sign with the Yankees.  After the 2020 season, George Springer (team leader in WAR) signs with the Blue Jays.  After the 2021 season, Carlos Correa (team leader in WAR) signs with the Twins.  Somehow they keep excelling.  They have to be coming to the end of this magical run though."  Well, apparently not.  Thanks to rookie Jeremy Pena and the emergence of Yordan Alvarez, the Astros didn't really miss Correa at all.  Their 2022 World Series win was validation after the sign stealing scandal somewhat tainted the 2017 championship.

Additions / Subtractions
So how many times can a team lose a superstar and not skip a beat?  This offseason it was reigning Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander who signed with the Mets.  The only other subtractions were first baseman Yuli Gurriel and role players Aledmys Diaz and Trey Mancini.  Coming in to Houston to replace Gurriel is former MVP Jose Abreu.  The other thing to note here is thanks to a HBP in the WBC, Jose Altuve will be sidelined for the first two months of the season.

Most Important Hitter
Jeremy Pena
Jeremy Pena became a superstar last postseason after winning ALCS MVP as well as World Series MVP; not bad for a rookie who was replacing a face of the franchise.  However, many forget that he wasn't that great during the regular season.  He did win the Gold Glove, but his OPS+ was at 101, which is pretty much league average.  The Astros are entering 2023 thinking they have a star at shortstop.  If that's the case, Pena needs to show he can be more productive throughout the entire season this year.

Most Important Pitcher
Framber Valdez
Framber Valdez has been quietly dominant for Houston since his debut in 2018.  In 2022, everyone started to notice him as he posted a 137 ERA+ and finished in 5th in the Cy Young voting.  Now, Valdez is the undisputed ace of the staff.  It's a lot easier to have success when no one is paying attention.  Now, with no Gerrit Cole or Zack Greinke or Justin Verlander or a healthy Lance McCullers Jr., Valdez is in the spotlight and expected to fill those shoes.  There has yet to be a challenge he hasn't been up for, but can he handle being the ace for an entire season?

Prospect to Watch
Hunter Brown
Ever since the Astros started this dominant run, their farm system has been pretty depleted through graduating top prospects and trades, however they always seem to have a guy ready each year to impact the big league team.  This year, that guy is Hunter Brown.  This right-handed starting pitcher is ranked #43 on the Top 100 and is the only player the Astros have in the Top 100.  One of the nice things about being a prospect in a successful system like the Astros is you get exposed to more sooner.  Brown got a chance to pitch in a few games at the end of last season, but he also made the postseason roster and pitched out of the bullpen in the ALDS and ALCS.  That experience should help him as he starts this season in the Astros rotation and appears ready to be their next mainstay.

2023 Prediction
1st in AL West, lose in ALDS
So how many times can a team lose a superstar and not skip a beat?  Well, the Astros are truly testing this theory again.  The players they have left have shown they know how to navigate the regular season and the postseason, but repeating is so difficult.  I see them winning the division again, but eventually everything catches up with them in the playoffs.  If this truly is what happens, it will be the first time since 2016 the Astros will not be appearing in the ALCS.  I don't see how that run could be repeated any time soon.

Fearless Prediction
Manager Dusty Baker retires at the end of the 2023 season.
Dusty Baker has been one of the best managers of the 21st century.  He has led the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals, and Astros over a 25 year managing career.  Last season, he finally got his World Series championship, a feat that had also eluded him during his playing career.  It would have made a lot of sense if he used that World Series victory to ride off into the sunset, but you get the temptation to see if you can do it again.  I could see coming up short in 2023 being a sign that it is time for the 73 year old to step away from the dugout and await his spot in Cooperstown.

2023 Pre-Season Profile: San Diego Padres

The San Diego Padres continued to spend more than almost any other team this offseason.  Will they get over the hump and win a World Series in 2023?

#6 - 2nd in NL West, WILD CARD, lose in NLDS
MIH - Manny Machado
MIP - Yu Darvish
PTW - C.J. Abrams

2022 Results
#4 - 89-73, 2nd in NL West, WILD CARD, lost in NLCS
Highest WAR (Position) - Manny Machado
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Yu Darvish
The 2022 San Diego Padres could be summed up with three players: one was one of the best in the league, one never showed up, and one showed up mid-season.  First, Manny Machado may have had his best season ever, earning a runner up finish in the MVP race.  Second, Fernando Tatis Jr. got hurt before the season started in a motorcycle accident, and right before he was ready to return, got suspended for PED's, potentially tainting an entire career of one of baseball's brightest young stars.  Third, the Padres showed they are willing to continue to double down by trading for one of the best hitters in the game Juan Soto at the Trade Deadline.  They rode the talent on the field to the NLCS, but no one was beating the Phillies in their run to the NL pennant.

Additions / Subtractions
Just when you think the Padres may have reached their limit in payroll, they doubled down again.  They seemed to be in on every big name free agent, finally landing shortstop Xander Bogaerts on (another) huge deal.  They signed Manny Machado to an extension that was (another) huge deal.  They solidified the rotation with Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha.  Then, as if they didn't have enough already, they went to the veteran market and picked up Nelson Cruz and Matt Carpenter.  There were a couple subtractions, like Jurickson Profar, Wil Myers, Sean Manaea, and Mike Clevinger, but I think the additions outweigh the subtractions.

Most Important Hitter
Fernando Tatis Jr.
One of the most fascinating storylines in all of baseball entering the 2023 season is what will happen with Fernando Tatis Jr.  The last time we saw him, he was an MVP candidate, leading the league in home runs, and earning every bit of his newly signed 14 year megadeal.  However, even then his durability and overall health were being questioned as he was starting to see some time in the outfield to protect the wear and tear on his body.  Then he gets hurt making a dumb decision.  Then he compounds that by getting caught for PED's.  Then the Padres go out and sign another shortstop to an 11 year deal.  Now Tatis will have to wait another month before he finally is allowed back from his suspension, and he essentially has lost his job.  He finished 2021 as possibly the face of baseball.  Now he is being looked at as, at best, the 4th best player on his team.  What will he be this year?  How much did PED's possibly impact his past performance, or was it another dumb decision during his injury recovery?  Who is this player???  He's only 23 year old too!  Does he go back to his MVP-caliber 2021 form?  If he does, the Padres will be special.  Is he put off by losing his job, switching positions, and still sitting out?  If so, he could be a negative influence in that locker room that destroys one of the most talented teams in the league.  No one knows!  Watching what happens with Tatis will be one of the biggest storylines of the entire season.

Most Important Pitcher
Blake Snell
The Padres will roll out possibly the best lineup in all of baseball in 2023, however their pitching staff has a lot more questions in it.  One of the players that could be an X-factor for the whole pitching staff in Blake Snell.  In 2018, Snell was on another planet for the Rays.  He had a 217 ERA+ that year and won the Cy Young.  Since then, he hasn't even sniffed that level of production.  His best season since was the COVID-shortened 2020 season with a 127 ERA+.  Last season was next best at 111 ERA+, but he only threw 128 innings.  Now he is entering his third season with the Padres, which is also his contract year at age 30.  If he can return to some level of dominance, it not only will solve a lot of possible questions with the Padres pitching staff, but it will also earn him one last big payday heading into free agency next offseason.

Prospect to Watch
Jay Groome
With all the big spending and blockbuster trades the Padres have done the last few seasons, it has completely depleted their farm system.  Ranked in the bottom third of MLB farm systems, the Padres only tout 2 prospects in the Top 100, with neither ready to contribute this season.  In fact, only 2 prospects in their top 10 even have a chance to play in the big leagues this season.  The more intriguing of these prospects in their 9th best prospect, Jay Groome.  When drafted in 2016, this 6'6" 262lb left-handed pitcher was thought to be one of the top prospects in the draft.  Then injuries and missed time completely derailed his development to the point that the Padres acquired him as an afterthought last season from the Red Sox in the Eric Hosmer trade.  He stuff isn't elite, but he still has pretty good makeup.  Look for him to get a chance to earn a rotation spot if the injury bug hits the Padres this season.

2023 Prediction
2nd in NL West, WILD CARD, lose in NLDS
It might be a hot take to have the Padres this low, but there are just way too many elite National League teams.  With that said, the Padres are probably the most talented team in the league.  They also feel like they could completely implode on themselves.  They do have one of the best managers around in Bob Melvin, and they have basically a player/coach at this point in Nelson Cruz.  So hopefully that stabilizes some of the volatility.  There are still a lot of questions with their rotation.  When they win the division and go on to win the World Series, this will look like a really bad take, but it's what I'm going with right now.

Fearless Prediction
One of the Padres superstars will not be on their roster at the start of the 2024 season.
The spending has to stop at some point, right?  Right?!?  They have paid out huge money to Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Yu Darvish.  However, they have yet to lock up Juan Soto beyond this season.  He might need the biggest contract of all of them.  I could see the Padres let him walk in free agency ... or maybe they sign him and trade Tatis ... or maybe they trade Soto mid-season to get something for him ... or maybe they just double down one more time and sign Soto and just keep it all.  They have to run out of money at some point though ... I think.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

2023 Pre-Season Profile: St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals had two of the top three finishers in NL MVP in 2022, but couldn't get out of the Wild Card Round.  Will 2023 see them make a deeper playoff run?

#16 - 2nd in NL Central
MIH - Nolan Arenado
MIP - Steven Matz
PTW - Matthew Liberatore

2022 Results
#10 - 93-69, 1st in NL Central, lost in Wild Card Series
Highest WAR (Position) - Nolan Arenado
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Ryan Helsley
It was hard to call the 2022 regular season anything but a success for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Paul Goldschmidt won the MVP, Nolan Arenado finished 3rd in the MVP voting.  Cardinal legends Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina were sent out with style, with Pujols entering the 700 home run club.  They won the division pretty handily and entered the playoffs as a possible title contender.  Then they run into the buzzsaw that was the Phillies.  Two home wild card games, and it was all over.  It was an anticlimactic ending to a season to remember.

Additions / Subtractions
Off goes Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina into retirement and eventually Cooperstown.  Those are the biggest departures, at least by name from the roster.  Mid-season acquisition Jose Quintana also moved on to the Mets.  The biggest question facing the Cardinals entering the offseason was how to replace Yadier behind the plate.  Enter Willson Contreras on a free agent deal from the Cubs.  Even with that big signing, there really was very little change to the roster this offseason.

Most Important Hitter
Nolan Arenado
Nolan Arenado has a chance to be an all-timer.  He has won the Gold Glove ever year he has been in the league, also winning the Platinum Glove 6 times.  He is also a 5 time Silver Slugger winner and a 7 time All Star.  He is coming off an 8 WAR season and a third place finish in MVP, his 6th time finishing the top 8.  There's just one problem: for as great as Arenado is, he has never been able to perform at the top of his game on the biggest stage.  In 8 postseason games over his career, he is batting just .152 with 1 home run.  He has struck out 9 times in 33 at bats.  This includes a 1-for-8 performance with 2 strikeouts in last year's Wild Card Series.  It is reaching a point that if Arenado wants to be remembered as one of the best to ever do it, he has to start showing he can be great when the lights are brightest.  He showed that he may be ready for the big stage in the WBC this year, hitting .385 over 7 games.  Now, can he do it in the playoffs?

Most Important Pitcher
Jack Flaherty
If the Cardinals had a weakness last season, it was their starting rotation.  It was such an issue that they made two Trade Deadline deals for starters, one even trading their starting centerfielder for a starter.  Adam Wainwright is still hanging around, but he is nowhere near the level he was in his prime.  They lack a true ace ... that is unless Jack Flaherty is healthy.  Flaherty burst on the scene in 2018 as a rookie, finishing 5th in the Rookie of the Year vote.  Then in 2019, he became a star, finishing 4th in Cy Young, 13th in MVP, a 152 ERA+, and leading the league in WHIP.  The 2020 season was weird for so many, and he had a bad year.  Then he got hurt in 2021.  Battling injuries for most of the last 2 seasons, he has only thrown 114 innings between the 2021 and 2022.  Now it appears he might be healthy, but how much wear and tear have the injuries taken on his body.  He is entering his age 27 season which is also his contract year.  He needs a big season, and the Cardinals need him to have a big season too.

Prospect to Watch
Jordan Walker
The Cardinals always seem to have a deep farm system, and this year is no different, ranking 9th according to and 3rd according to Bleacher Report.  The star of their system is the 4th best prospect in all of baseball, Jordan Walker.  Drafted out of high school in the 2020 draft, the 20 year old has done nothing but hit since reaching the minors.  This production includes Spring Training this season, where he opened enough eyes to make the Opening Day roster.  A natural third baseman, Walker is transitioning to the outfield due to Arenado having the hot corner locked down for the foreseeable future.  This kid has all the makings of being a special player, as if the Cardinals need another one.

2023 Prediction
1st in NL Central, lose in NLDS
Possibly the easiest prediction to make entering this season is that the Cardinals would be winning the NL Central.  No one in their division can touch their talent level.  The problem facing the Cardinals is the top of the National League is filled with these superteams that appear to be much more complete than the Cardinals.  I see them struggling to compete with the rest of the NL elites, but they will be right there in the NL final four.

Fearless Prediction
Jack Flaherty wins NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Call it wishful thinking, but I'm a fan of Jack Flaherty and really want to see him be healthy and show that he is back to his elite form.  If he is just a fraction of what he was in 2019, he should easily be the favorite for this award and help lead the Cardinals to the playoffs.