It’s Opening Day week in the MLB! As we embark upon the marathon that will be ever-present in our lives until early November, we have everything to look forward to and everything is certainly going to go according to plan. Our fantasy drafts done, we’ve already projected who is winning each division title over the next 162-game season, the elite teams will remain elite, and poverty-based franchises will round out the bottom of the divisions just as we all expected.

Except, baseball is so long and grueling of a season that it never goes that way.

We’re coming off a year where the Philadelphia Phillies went through a span of going through a horrid stretch, losing MVP Bryce Harper to injury, firing Joe Girardi, then getting hot at the right time and winning the World Series despite finishing third in their division. So many teams go through stretches of being left for dead only to defy everything that we know.

We should keep this in mind as we forecast the way the season is projected before the games are played; in 2022, the PECOTA projected standings only correctly predicted the standings of two of the divisions in baseball, the NL East and the NL West. The Guardians broke through and the White Sox fell off due to management and injuries. The Cardinals usurped the Brewers. The Mariners finally cracked the curse as the Angels underperformed with generational talent. The Red Sox caught the injury bug as the baby birds of Baltimore may have arrived.

Someone is going to underperform again and get passed up by a team that defies the odds. It’s up to us to figure out who those disruptors could be preseason. Here are 5 potential “disruptor” candidates heading into the year that could change the tide of the season and everything we know.

Texas Rangers

2022 Record: 68-94 (4th in AL West)

2023 Projected: 79-83 (4th in AL West)

The Rangers spent the 6th-most of any team in the MLB in free agency last offseason after investing a half a billion dollars on their infield of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. The original plan looked as if they were going to build around the duo with up-and-coming prospects like Josh Jung and Jack Leiter, but this offseason in which they signed Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, and brought back Martin Perez makes it appear that they’re all-in on winning now.

That immensely speeds up their timeline. The Rangers went from playing the long-game with developing talent to signing deGrom to a 5-year, $185 million deal to put them in a situation of urgency. deGrom may be the best pitcher in baseball when he’s on the field, but has made only 38 starts in the last three seasons as his body has broken down, and that contract will run until he’s nearly 40. The Rangers are banking on getting a full-season of the Cy Young-winner and that Josh Jung, Ezekiel Duran, and Bubba Thompson already play at big league-level within that window. They spent all of that money, and they’re still projected to finish behind the World Series Champion Houston Astros, the AL Wild Card and up-and-coming Seattle Mariners, and the team with both Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout.

But what if they break through? What if they DO get deGrom at his peak, he looks healthy, and the prospects they’ve been investing in go above expectations? Thompson, Duran, and Jung are all 25 and under, and while we are talking about the organization whose last “prized” prospects were Jurickson Profar, Nomar Mazara, and Joey Gallo, the Rangers selling themselves as a win-now team and having the mindset that they believe they can go out and win makes them one of the most intriguing volatile teams to monitor in the AL this year.

Tampa Bay Rays

2022 Record: 86-76

2023 Projected: 87-75

The Tampa Bay Rays signed their most-expensive free agent in franchise history this offseason!

That’s right. Zack Eflin.

The Rays have continuously been the low-spending, developmental team that wins with a computer, avoids spending big on stars, and always fails to lose a trade. Last year, in a loaded AL East, they fell prey to injury, with Tyler Glasnow missing the whole year and Wander Franco missing significant time, and they simply just had too little firepower to keep up with the Yankees and Blue Jays. We also always seem to underestimate the Rays development of young talent because they aren’t the big-name free agent signings, but in reality, this feels like it theoretically SHOULD be a new iteration of a Tampa team with players that could potentially be stars. Wander Franco is 22, a 5-tool player that has a 6.1 career WAR

Photo: Ivy Ceballo / Tampa Bay Times

when healthy, and could be the future of the league. Randy Arozarena, the man who stole the show in the World Series and just quite literally was at war with other nations wearing a sombrero in the World Baseball Classic, should be one of the faces of baseball; the only thing that could be stopping him is pure boredom of playing 81 games in a lifeless dome with just 6,000 Floridians. Their stardom is the opposite of one might expect from the Rays of old that win with a deep bullpen, limited innings from their starters, and a rotating cast of contributors that get on base.

The Rays didn’t necessarily lose anyone this offseason, they just got healthier with another year under their belt for their developing talent. Glasnow will be back after some missed time and Shane Baz will be back, and Shane McClanahan is going to be a Cy Young contender once again. The reality is that while we want to assume that Toronto and New York have the dominant stars that will run away with it with the faces of titanic Aaron Judge and our darling Vladimir Guerrero Jr., it would be an incredibly “Rays” thing for us to write them off as the third wheel in the East only to forget that they’re deep in every facet of the game.

Milwaukee Brewers

2022 Record: 86-76

2023 Projected: 87-75

It wasn’t too long ago that the Brewers had Christian Yelich winning an NL MVP as they took over the NL Central from the champion Chicago Cubs. While you trust organizations, Milwaukee is currently going through a transitional period. The reality is that the Cardinals have overtaken them in the division with the top two MVP candidates last year, Yelich has had to completely reevaluate his playstyle after getting the injury bug year after year and no longer has his power, and they straight up punted on contending for the NL Wild Card last year- while mulling in and out of the standings, they simply gave away their closer, Josh Hader, to the Padres. It also wasn’t the most encouraging offseason, as they openly alienated ace pitcher Corbin Burnes during his arbitration case by essentially telling him to his face that he wasn’t worth the money.

However, there’s still some room for optimism for the Brew Crew to surprise some people. You trust the manager, Craig Counsell, to always be able to figure it out. Maybe Corbin Burnes goes on a revenge tour to his own team before catching the bag, and they still have one of the deepest lineups in the NL rounding out with Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and Eric Lauer. Christian Yelich could also be a bat that benefits from the shift now that he’s had to change his game, and in a hitters’ ballpark, they added Jesse Winker looking for a bounce-back after a bad Seattle season and William Contreras as a power-hitting catcher. They’ve got more bats than one would think.

While everyone is talking themselves into the Cardinals’ exciting spring with the arrival of Jordan Walker, St. Louis is still not the favorite in the PECOTA standings at just 85 wins- this might have to do with St. Louis not having near as deep of a rotation and possible regression from Arenado and Goldschmidt, who might not be able to put up the absolutely absurd statistics that dominated the league last year. The NL Central is going to be a muck-fest given that they’ll be competing with the likes of the Cubs, Reds, and Pirates as well, but writing off the Brew Crew merely because of the Burnes situation this offseason would be foolish.

San Francisco Giants

2022 Record: 81-81

2023 Projected: 80-82

Remember in 2021 when the San Francisco Giants won 107 games to be the 1-seed in the NL over the monstrous Dodgers? That year they were projected to win 75 games by PECOTA and had a 0% chance to win the NL West before putting up one of the most-memorable seasons in franchise history. Were Buster Posey, Kevin Gausman, and Evan Longoria all that important? It feels like the coaching took all of their veteran pieces that were on tradeable deals and made magic happen.

This was an offseason of bad PR for the Giants, if anything. There was the Arson Judge dumpster fire viral moment. There was the Carlos Correa signing press conference that never happened after they found out he has a robotically-put-together ankle. They also lost Carlos Rodon to the Yanks. With context, it’s a bad-looking offseason.

On paper, it’s really not all that bad when you think about this team in comparison to the 2021 team! While they didn’t get the marquee name, they brought back Joc, they added Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea to the rotation, and the REAL Bay Area product came home. That’s right, Mitch Haniger.

The Giants fell short of what we expected of them this offseason, but it would be foolish to write off this team with one of the smartest coaching staffs in baseball, a budding superstar pitcher in Logan Webb, and veteran talent at or around the same level of production as that 2021 season team that won the most games in franchise history. It’ll be difficult to match up against the World Series-contending Padres and Dodgers in the division, but Gabe Kapler might go full power-hungry innovative manager by defying the projections once again to stick it to their flashy division rivals in California.

Minnesota Twins

2022 Record: 78-84

2023 Projected: 88-74

Speaking of Correa, we’re now approaching year two of the Minnesota chapter of the most attention-grabbing free agent in recent baseball history. After opting out of his first contract with Minnesota, failing a physical in San Francisco on a 13-year deal, then failing another physical with New York on a 12-year deal, it’s almost as if Minnesota got him again as a consolation prize..?

The Twins had a below .500 season in his debut last year after they had appeared to be going for it. With health concerns regarding their prize piece going forward, it’s only natural to feel down on the organization that failed to perform in a mediocre AL Central and will be having less games against that competition in the new format of the season.

It’s not necessarily all about Correa returning and performing at a discounted price that could allow them to shake up the American League. Byron Buxton practically plays like Mike Trout when he’s healthy, and we’re still waiting on a year of production out of the man who’s an unfortunate 5-tool player with glass bones in freak injuries. They were so deep with infield hitting that they traded away the 2022 hit king, Luis Arraez, to improve upon their area of need in starting pitching by dealing for Pablo Lopez, a serviceable arm with a sub-4.00 ERA the last 3 seasons at just 27. Christian Vasquez could also be an impactful catching bat, and they’ve even got a flier on Joey Gallo to bounce back in an environment without ferocious baseball media hounding him for being the poster-child of either striking out or hitting a moonshot. On top of their lineup additions, while there isn’t necessarily a true ace, Maeda, Mahle, Ryan, Gray, and Lopez are all more than capable of throwing 6 quality innings per game.

Within the division, the White Sox had a truly underwhelming offseason where they lost Jose Abreu and had a Mike Clevinger fiasco. The Guardians are the on-paper favorite, but just lost Tristan McKenzie out with a shoulder strain and are banking on the youngest roster in the MLB. The Twins look highly-motivated to play competitive baseball and could defy a lackluster first year in the Correa chapter.

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