New MLB season, new main characters: Spotting this year’s MVP breakthrough, surprise trade candidate and more

The Super Bowl comes, the Super Bowl goes. Then pitchers and catchers report, spring blooms, and the baseball cycle begins again.

MLB seasons take their own novel tracks, but many a path is followed year after year. The rebuilding team that bursts into contention. The star prospect who turns into a star. The under-the-radar prospect who also turns into a star.

With 2023 officially reigning as “this year,” it can be helpful — alongside the eminently reasonable but less-than-imaginative projections — to visualize which players and teams might become the main characters that distinguish one season from the last. Who could mimic 2022’s most surprising, most entertaining storylines? Who is this year’s … everything?

This year’s Julio Rodriguez: Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks outfielder

Let’s begin with hope. A gold-plated prospect, Julio Rodriguez made the Mariners' roster out of spring training in 2022 — a sensation in itself, thanks to the phenomenal video of manager Scott Servais delivering the news — raised eyebrows by playing center field and stealing bases, stole the show at the All-Star Game and helped end Seattle’s daunting playoff drought. Oh, and he signed an extension that will earn him somewhere between $209 million and $470 million. It was a big year.

Unbelievably, most of those absurd performances were necessary for Rodriguez to stay atop the heap of excellent rookies who reached the major-league stage last season. Over the previous decade, only 14 non-international players (we’re not counting Jose Abreu, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes for these purposes) had logged 4+ WAR as rookies. In 2022, five did it, with Rodriguez shining brightest of them all.

If you’re thinking, “Maybe that means there simply won’t be a J-Rod equivalent in 2023,” you might be right. But there are real contenders, and Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll stands out as an all-around talent who could make waves with his legs, his bat and his glove. He got a taste of the majors in 2022 but retains rookie eligibility for this season. If his total dominance of the minors is any sign, he could push for 20 homers and 20 steals — or more — while dazzling on defense.

This year’s Michael Harris II: Ceddanne Rafaela, Red Sox outfielder/shortstop

Another of the great 2022 rookies, Harris was not initially viewed as a contender for the NL Rookie of the Year Award that he won. To be fair, he wasn't toiling in obscurity — he ranked 58th overall on the Baseball Prospectus top 101 — but he wasn’t expected to see the big leagues until 2024. Instead, he made a quantum leap forward and ended the season as the clear center fielder in the Braves’ young core.

This is inherently a foolhardy prediction to attempt, but let’s try anyway. Rafaela, a 5-foot-8 defensive wizard in center field and the middle infield, has a few things going for him. One, he has the baseline of defensive excellence at a premium position that helped get Harris called up. That’s at least a big part of the battle. Two, Rafaela tapped into more power last season, popping 21 homers across two levels of the minors. Three, the Boston roster is a bit of a mess. Xander Bogaerts’ departure, Trevor Story’s injury and the uncertain health status of trade acquisition Adalberto Mondesi mean that unless the Sox have discovered a way to clone Enrique Hernandez, they are likely to have some playing time available up the middle.

It would be an unlikely leap for Rafaela — No. 73 on this season’s BP top 101, for the record — to really contribute before August, but that’s what we are looking for. And he might just have the opportunity to try.

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This year’s Orioles: the Pittsburgh Pirates

The 2022 Orioles rose up into a team more formidable and more fun than anyone could have seen coming. Adley Rutschman arrived as an award-worthy performer, several overlooked veterans continued playing well, and other youngsters held their own. Baltimore, a club that lost 110 games one year earlier and added virtually nothing of value in the offseason (unless you count Rougned Odor’s value to the tanking effort), played meaningful baseball in September and finished over .500.

Criteria for this year’s version: We are not simply looking for a team that might improve. We’re looking for an abjectly terrible team (run differential of -100 or worse) that could rocket to relevance. Among that motley crew, the most intriguing 2023 outlook might belong to the Pirates. It has been a bleak few years in Pittsburgh, adding to team owner Bob Nutting’s abysmal track record of cost-cutting and whatever the opposite of fan service is.

The past nine months haven’t exactly been the portrait of how you’d want a baseball team to run, either, but there are more blips of light than usual. Very tall, very powerful shortstop Oneil Cruz made it to the majors and showed real signs of improvement late last season. A fascinating catcher-slash-utility player named Endy Rodriguez was the minors’ hottest hitter in the second half and will likely join the Pittsburgh lineup early in 2023.

This winter, the front office held off on trading Bryan Reynolds while going after objectively useful and subjectively well-liked veteran help, bringing in Rich Hill, Carlos Santana, Ji-Man Choi, Austin Hedges and, most importantly, Andrew McCutchen. The best and most recognizable player from the only good Pirates teams in recent memory is back. Combine that infusion of major-league wisdom with growth from Cruz and other youngsters? Maybe relevance isn’t too much to ask.

(If you want a nominally rebuilding team ready to make noise, I’d take Carroll’s Diamondbacks, but they already made a leap almost as large as the Orioles’ last season.)

This year’s Paul Goldschmidt: Nolan Arenado, Cardinals third baseman

Who will finally get their flowers, as Goldschmidt did in 2022? The Cardinals’ esteemed first baseman had been proving his all-around excellence for years without quite landing a crowning achievement to someday headline a plaque in a certain upstate New York museum. Then in 2022, he soared to an NL MVP nod in his age-34 season.

The list of MLB’s elite 30-somethings without MVP awards amusingly doubles as a list of its best third basemen: Jose Ramirez, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado.

Looming just across the diamond from Goldschmidt, Arenado is the eldest of the third-base troika (by a smidge) and the best defender. At the plate, he has mastered a philosophy that Ramirez arguably nailed first involving relentless pull power and suppressed strikeout totals. He has logged four top-five MVP finishes, including last season, when he logged a career-best OPS+ freed of Coors Field.

Any of this Hall of Fame-track trio could realistically leap up and grab their moment, but Arenado looks like a solid choice while he retains his otherworldly prowess at the hot corner.

This year’s White Sox: the New York Yankees

If you forgot about the 2022 White Sox, the organization should send a fruit basket. It was a debacle of injuries, head-scratching managerial decisions and worrisome backslides. It was tough to envision them losing the weak AL Central — right up until they took the field and painted a vivid picture (more on that in a moment).

Most projected division winners aren’t about to step through a trap door. More likely, they stumble into a difficult wild-card berth or experience an injury-plagued 85-win season. Per the early ZiPS projections, the teams at division-winner status are the Yankees, Guardians, Astros, Braves and Mets (tied), Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres (also tied).

You can spot a potential squeaky wheel on any of these teams. The Mets’ rotation is reliant on two aging lions. The Cardinals’ rotation has no one in particular worth relying on. The Dodgers shed a lot of talent. The Padres lack depth behind their glitzy stars. But on the downside front, it’s difficult to find more room to fall than the Yankees.

It’s not that I think a collapse is going to happen — Brian Cashman’s Yankees have been almost perpetually good — but it’s easy to formulate how it could. For swaths of 2022, a mostly unchanged lineup disappeared around Aaron Judge, and basic probability tells you Judge isn’t likely to replicate his MVP-winning tour de force. Anxiety-inducing weeks were there even as the Yankees got relatively healthy seasons from Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson and the like. That’s far from a guarantee to happen again. Also, late-20s star turns from Nestor Cortes Jr. and Jose Trevino are more likely to wither than, say, the progress the Orioles’ young players made. And top prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza aren’t guaranteed to make seamless transitions.

Will it all go wrong? Probably not. Could some of the positives that propped up last year fail to reappear or shift enough to derail the Yankees' run to the top of the AL East? It’s possible.

This year’s Juan Soto: Dylan Cease, White Sox pitcher

About the White Sox: Moving on from Tony La Russa should help. But the rest of their offseason was categorically underwhelming. They let team leader and consistent top performer Jose Abreu walk. They signed Andrew Benintendi but left other lineup holes unaddressed. They signed Mike Clevinger despite an ongoing MLB investigation into domestic violence allegations. In other words, 2023 could go badly again.

That could mean a sell-off, and 2022 AL Cy Young runner-up Dylan Cease would be the top prize on the South Side. While it wouldn’t exactly match the name value of Juan Soto, a Cease trade would fire up plenty of contenders. Now 27, the right-hander leaned into a dominant slider and posted a 2.20 ERA across 32 starts. He’s set to make just $5.7 million in 2023 and won’t reach free agency until after the 2025 season. Cease, in the middle of his prime and with plenty of time remaining under team control, could be a momentous entry into the trade pool.

This year’s Phillies: the Los Angeles Angels

What, you thought that last one was going to be Shohei Ohtani? Nothing counts as a surprise anymore with team owner Arte Moreno still at the helm, so another disappointing Angels summer could well lead to a monster Ohtani trade in July.

However, this Angels team, long living in a parallel hell to the pre-2022 Phillies, star-studded and star-crossed, might have the pieces to replicate last season’s pennant-winning formula: Find just enough oomph to make the postseason, then take advantage of a top-heavy roster headlined by Ohtani and Mike Trout.

GM Perry Minasian used a winter of ownership uncertainty to make smart transactions a level or two below Moreno’s favored splashy-but-risky level. While the Angels could certainly use a good year from Anthony Rendon, what they've really needed for years is enough depth to avoid total disaster when one of their regulars goes down or hits a rough patch.

That said, this Angels roster has more stress release valves than any recent iteration. Hunter Renfroe and Gio Urshela aren’t world-beating talents, but they are solid major-league position players whom you feel good about contributing at the plate and in the field. Brandon Drury probably won’t replicate his 2022, but he can play a bunch of positions and sure beats the options the Angels rolled out last season. Tyler Anderson, a revelation in the Dodgers’ rotation, joined on a savvy-looking early deal. The Angels now have the arms to run a six-man rotation and feel confident in it.

Will it be enough to deliver Trout and Ohtani to the national audience they so richly deserve? It won’t be easy, but it's a trek worth trying, in full, one last time.

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