Ranking MLB's rebuilding teams: Success can take many shapes, so who failed the best in 2022?

The saying about a new baseball season holds that hope springs eternal. But we have come to know better in recent years. Or at least to better understand how distant that hope might be. Every April, a chunk of MLB’s teams take the field on opening day with little or no realistic expectations of making the playoffs.

They are the rebuilding teams. It’s not fun to acknowledge, and it would be better if it weren’t the case, but it is a reality. These teams’ priorities are different than those of a squad with October aspirations. They want to sift through unproven talent, mold wet clay and assemble a critical mass of players for some future spring, a spring when that hope can turn to a geyser.

As the 2022 season draws to a close, most of these clubs have long been “failures” by the conventional measures of competing for a division or even the playoffs. Many can tick off successes of a different sort, though. So as they prepare to turn the corner toward a new spring, a new hope, let’s rank the rebuilding clubs by how much hope they have earned with their 2022 seasons.

For reference, we tallied each team’s count of players in their first three seasons who accumulated at least 1 WAR in the majors, as well as the number of different players in the organization currently ranked as top 100 prospects by at least one of FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline (because we’re really just interested in the presence of visible potential, not the exact 100-player cutoff).

1. Baltimore Orioles

Early hitters: 4 | Early pitchers: 3 | Top 100 prospects: 7

The Orioles are on this list because of their intentions, but their season achieved liftoff and cleared the murky waters of rebuilding a while ago. Tellingly, they are the only team on this list still mathematically alive for a playoff berth.

Yes, they could have tried harder to bolster the team for that playoff push instead of sticking to their future-focused plan, but it’s hard not to feel excited about the impending era of baseball in Baltimore as they continue to play meaningful games on the cusp of October.

The Orioles have called up a franchise cornerstone in Adley Rutschman and at least one more potential star in third baseman Gunnar Henderson. Their work improving unheralded pitchers is promising, and there is a lot more acclaimed talent still working toward Camden Yards.

Success looks different for MLB's rebuilding teams. And the Arizona Diamondbacks appear to have had a successful 2022 season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Success looks different for MLB's rebuilding teams. And the Arizona Diamondbacks appear to have had a successful 2022 season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

2. Arizona Diamondbacks

Early hitters: 3 | Early pitchers: 0 | Top 100 prospects: 5

Mark it down now: The Diamondbacks are going to be dangerous in 2023, and potentially full-on good. Flashes of greatness have solidified into excellence for young ace Zac Gallen, who’s under team control through 2025. No. 2 starter Merrill Kelly, having his best season and throwing harder than ever at age 33, is also secured on a very affordable deal through at least 2024. Behind them, Arizona will have a bevy of emerging prospects to fill out the rotation.

The real jewel of this organization is a wealth of young hitting talent.

Unicorn catcher-slash-outfield extraordinaire Daulton Varsho and first baseman Christian Walker staked their claims as star-level talents in 2022, and more exciting players are getting their first tastes of big-league action. Outfielder Corbin Carroll was probably the best prospect in the minors when he was summoned. He’s a threat to hit .300 with some power and plenty of speed.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Early hitters: 2 | Early pitchers: 4 | Top 100 prospects: 5

The Reds partially redeemed a depressing offseason with a strong run of moves this summer. Their savvy trade deadline sale added valuable top-100 middle infield prospects Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo to the burgeoning potential superstar Elly De La Cruz and polished college bat Matt McLain. Up in the big leagues, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft look like solid long-term rotation arms. Former top draft pick Hunter Greene has taken his lumps, and needs to find a way to cut down on homers, but the abundant strikeouts signal a pitcher with serious potential.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

Early hitters: 4 | Early pitchers: 1 | Top 100 prospects: 6

Most of the Pirates’ potential still lies deep in the minor leagues, but two key figures have been making serious strides. Otherworldly 6-foot-7 shortstop Oneil Cruz started out flailing on offense, but has gained steam alongside experience — echoing a pattern of his in the minor leagues. Since the All-Star break, he has a 115 wRC+, meaning he has been 15% better than the league average hitter. Over the past month, he’s at a 147 wRC+, batting .275 with seven homers that often look effortless. The other notable evolution has come from Mitch Keller, the erstwhile top pitching prospect who seemed like he would never get it together. Since returning to the rotation on May 31, though, he looks to have figured it out by adding a sinker to his repertoire. He’s running a 3.26 ERA over his past 20 starts.

5. Chicago Cubs

Early hitters: 2 | Early pitchers: 4 | Top 100 prospects: 6

Building the base of a contending team isn’t all hotshot prospects and major trades. Sometimes it’s finding a couple pitchers who may stick, like Justin Steele. Sometimes it’s getting wins in revamping veterans for trade value (David Robertson) or to keep around (perhaps Drew Smyly). And sometimes it’s sitting back and letting the cream of the crop on the current roster emerge, like Nico Hoerner. That’s what the Cubs have done this year. A promising farm system built largely during last summer’s furious sell-off is still percolating, but the Cubs can count 2022 as a year spent checking some boxes for their next good team.

Bobby Witt Jr. is one of several exciting young Royals hitters, but can they assemble the pitching to make his prime count? (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Bobby Witt Jr. is one of several exciting young Royals hitters, but can they assemble the pitching to make his prime count? (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

6. Kansas City Royals

Early hitters: 2 | Early pitchers: 2 | Top 100 prospects: 1

We’ve now dipped into a tier of teams where the losing doesn’t seem to have come with enough purpose.

As it seems to go sometimes, the Royals plotted a rebuild focused on starting pitching … and wound up with a core more centered on hitters. Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino could form a solid start to a contending lineup, but there’s not a lot of reason to think the Royals currently have the talent or organizational know-how to field one around them. Just getting to this nascent state of promise took so long that World Series-winning executive Dayton Moore exhausted the patience of team owner John Sherman. The Royals relieved Moore of his duties this month and will let former deputy J.J. Picollo run the show. The first order of business is fixing a pitching development machine that simply hasn’t yielded nearly enough major-league quality arms.

7. Washington Nationals

Early hitters: 2 | Early pitchers: 0 | Top 100 prospects: 6

Well, they traded Juan Soto. Several promising players are now in their system thanks to the deal, perhaps even a supersized superstar in 6-foot-7 slugger James Wood. The players who are actually close to contributing at the MLB level have been less enticing.

Shortstop CJ Abrams continues to look overmatched against major-league pitching and injured pitcher MacKenzie Gore has yet to throw a pitch for the Nationals. Even if the stunning excellence of 30-year-old career minor leaguer Joey Meneses somehow continues, there are a lot of things that need to go right for this team to spend the next decade doing anything except ruing the decision to jettison one of the best young hitters in the history of the sport.

8. Oakland Athletics

Early hitters: 0 | Early pitchers: 2 | Top 100 prospects: 5

With the trade of Frankie Montas, the A’s — A for Anonymous — are down to one established good player. That’s catcher Sean Murphy, who will surely be discussed as a trade chip this offseason. If you sort through the fruits of their sell-off, the A’s at least seem to have a plan on the pitching side, with arms like Ken Waldichuk are already in the majors. But the hitting side looks questionable, to put it mildly. Center fielder Cristian Pache, one of the headliners in the Matt Olson deal, is the worst hitter in baseball who’s been allowed 200 or more plate appearances this year.

9. Detroit Tigers

Early hitters: 1 | Early pitchers: 1 | Top 100 prospects: 3

Preseason expectations can be like funhouse mirrors. Every year at least a team or two emerges from the dark to make those first glances look silly and out of proportion. Some, like the Orioles, look comically unrecognizable.

The Tigers, on the other hand, got one of those trick mirrors where they saw something much more flattering than everyone else. Nodding at a .500ish second half of 2021, they signed Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez and traded for Austin Meadows. But there was no step forward in store.

Top prospect Spencer Torkelson flailed at the big league level, batting .197/.282/.295 before the Tigers demoted him for almost two months. Pitcher Tarik Skubal was a bright spot until he got hurt. Casey Mize was just hurt. Riley Greene has held his own in the early going of his MLB career, and that’s pretty much where the list of impact talent ends.

Those winter moves have not worked out. Baez’s pinball act has accelerated since he signed the six-year, $140 million deal. He was one of the worst hitters in baseball in May and August, good in April and June, and just meh in July. The overall result is a disappointment for this year and a jittery sense of dread over the next five years of the deal. Rodriguez and Meadows were felled by unforeseeable potholes, but those are unfortunate anecdotes of a season gone awry, not places to point blame.

Ultimately, this was a front office that misunderstood its position on the win curve. The team fired GM Al Avila in August, but only after he ran another crucial MLB draft and stood mind-numbingly pat at the trade deadline. Maybe the Tigers didn’t see themselves as a rebuilding team in April. But they definitively are now, and it’s not looking pretty.