What is next for the wild-card round losers?
The offseason came earlier than expected for the four clubs eliminated in the wild-card round. We take a look at where each team stands entering the offseason and what areas they might look to address to put themselves in a better position for a deeper run in 2023.
Blue Jays: A season that began with legitimate World Series aspirations ended with the team blowing one of the largest leads in playoff history. Make no mistake, this was a failed season for the club, and the winter should bring about numerous changes.
The immediate need is in the bullpen. This was on full display in the series-ending loss. Blue Jays relievers were fine over the regular season. But it was evident that the club lacked the hard-throwing strikeout arms needed to make a deep run in the playoffs. The team also relied too heavily on Jordan Romano at times. Adding another elite reliever at the back end will be a priority.
It'll be interesting to see how much payroll flexibility the front office will have. The organization already has roughly $125 million committed in salary to nine players. That's without factoring in considerable raises in arbitration for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Teoscar Hernandez, who's entering his final year of team control and was reportedly shopped last winter. Does the club approach either Bichette, Guerrero, Alek Manoah, or one of its other young players about a long-term extension or let things play out?
Interim manager John Schneider's first foray as a big-league skipper was mostly a success. Schneider helped right the ship after the club fired Charlie Montoyo, leading them to a 46-28 record and the top wild-card spot. However, Schneider's inexperience showed in the postseason as he made a few questionable decisions that hurt the Blue Jays in their Game 2 collapse. Despite the rough ending, Schneider is widely expected to have the interim tag removed.
The rotation also needs work. Kevin Gausman and Manoah are as good as a twosome as you can get, but things quickly fall off after that. The hope is Jose Berrios will bounce back considerably after posting the worst ERA in the majors among qualified starters. He still has $116 million owed. Yusei Kikuchi's future is also up in the air. Toronto relegated the left-hander to the bullpen, and it wouldn't be shocking if the club shopped him this winter. The Blue Jays could eat some of his contract or take another high-priced reclamation project back in return. Ross Stripling pitched well enough that Toronto should consider giving him a qualifying offer. He might hold out for a multi-year deal, but it would be a great start if the Blue Jays could bring him back for 2023. Toronto's minor-league pitching depth is also extremely thin.
There were no real holes for the team offensively, but there will be changes. Keeping George Springer healthy for a full season will be a priority but also a challenge due to his age and hard-nosed playing style. The Jays will also likely deal from its surplus of catchers for help in other areas. One of Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, or Gabriel Moreno will probably get dangled. Moving Jansen's salary makes the most sense if Toronto is concerned about payroll. However, Moreno would net the biggest return. After cleaning out the prospect cupboard in recent years, the team could be reluctant to move another significant piece like Moreno. It's also likely that Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Santiago Espinal, or Cavan Biggio will get packaged away.
The Blue Jays have a very good team with a solid young core. The big offseason challenge will be figuring out how to get this group to take the next step. The AL East will likely get stronger this winter, though a balanced schedule in 2023 is a blessing. There needs to be a real sense of urgency from the front office. We've seen how quickly a window can pass. The Cubs only won one World Series with their group. The Red Sox went from 2018 champions to trading Mookie Betts two years later. The window isn't closing in Toronto, but time in sports moves quicker than anywhere else.
Cardinals: St. Louis has always been good but never good enough to be considered a World Series contender. The organization has reached the postseason in four consecutive years. However, it's advanced beyond the wild-card round just once in that time. The Cardinals are now entering a bit of a franchise crossroads with Albert Pujols' and Yadier Molina's expected retirements and Adam Wainwright's uncertain future.
All eyes will be on All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado's opt-out decision. The NL MVP contender can choose to forego the final five years and $144 million of his eight-year, $260-million deal. Arenado has made no secret of his love for playing in St. Louis. If the 31-year-old chooses to test free agency, he'll instantly become the best third baseman available on the market. The most likely scenario is Arenado returning on a new long-term deal, but an opt out will undoubtedly create a stressful situation for the Cardinals and their fans.
The team needs a rebound from outfielder Tyler O'Neill. After breaking out with 34 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 2021, O'Neill struggled to stay on the field this season, appearing in just 96 games. The 27-year-old brings a unique combination of power and speed to the lineup. Without Pujols' surprisingly strong presence in the order, someone besides Goldschmidt and Arenado needs to step up in 2023 to compensate for losing the future Hall of Famer's bat.
If Wainwright doesn't return, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak will have to address a gaping hole in the rotation. Wainwright continues to fight off Father Time and remains undecided on returning for an 18th season. Regardless of Wainwright's future, St. Louis needs the return of a healthy and productive Jack Flaherty. The talented right-hander made just 23 starts over the past two campaigns as he battled a number of injuries. The 26-year-old is entering his final season of arbitration eligibility. Mozeliak could look to sign Flaherty to an extension, or he might be more inclined to let the pitcher try to prove he can stay healthy with free agency looming.
Mets: Despite winning 101 games and boasting an exorbitant payroll, the Mets losing their grip on the NL East title really cost them as they crashed out of the postseason much earlier than expected. There's no shortage of important decisions facing general manager Billy Eppler this offseason. If owner Steve Cohen looks to squeeze financial commitments in some form, it'll be hard for New York to field as talented of a roster in 2023.
The biggest potential domino is ace Jacob deGrom's status. After the Padres eliminated the Mets, deGrom said he had "no clue" what the future holds. The 34-year-old plans to opt out of the final two years of his contract this offseason. DeGrom made just 11 starts in 2022 and posted his highest ERA in a season since 2017. There are risks and concerns associated with pursuing deGrom, but he remains one of baseball's best starting pitchers. New York will surely look to retain him and be hard-pressed to replace his production in the rotation if he looks elsewhere. Alongside deGrom, the Mets must also address Chris Bassitt's future. The sides hold a mutual option for 2023. Although he's entering his age-34 campaign, Bassitt is coming off a strong season. It wouldn't be surprising if Eppler aggressively tried to keep Bassitt in the fold if the Mets can't reach a new agreement with deGrom.
New York has another pitching decision looming this offseason with pending free agent and dominant closer Edwin Diaz. Diaz is coming off one of the best seasons for a closer in recent memory. Realistically, he could fetch the first $100-million free-agent contract for a reliever. There are always risks associated with paying top dollar for relievers, but Diaz might be the exception. The 28-year-old has been electrifying outside of a strange 5.59 ERA in his first season with the Mets in 2019. He's recorded 14.81 K/9, 2.93 ERA, and 205 saves over his career. If New York balks at handing Diaz the contract he's likely to covet, the club will enter 2023 with nothing but question marks at a spot it never had to worry about this campaign.
One of the Mets' big concerns entering the postseason was whether their lineup could be productive enough to go on a deep run. New York slashed just .185/.283/.326 with three home runs and eight runs scored in their three-game wild-card loss to the Padres. Outside of Pete Alonso, there isn't a consistent power threat in the Mets' lineup. There are plenty of quality hitters like Francisco Lindor, Starling Marte, and Jeff McNeil. But New York should look hard at adding more thunder to the lineup after ranking 15th in home runs during the regular season. Might Cohen dip his toes in the Aaron Judge waters?
The biggest question mark among the position players is center fielder Brandon Nimmo's future. The 29-year-old became a consistent presence on both sides of the ball for manager Buck Showalter in 2022. Nimmo should have a robust market in free agency with plenty of clubs looking for a strong all-around outfielder. If the Mets don't reach a new deal with Nimmo, they'll have a challenge finding another center fielder in free agency who can replace his productivity.
Rays: Injuries decimated the club this season, and major credit goes to manager Kevin Cash and his group for even making the playoffs. But the organization needs to figure out a way to keep its players on the field and stop chewing through arms. It seems like every one of the team's pitchers either ends up getting Tommy John surgery or is dealing with some other ailment.
The Rays were a pedestrian offensive ball club all season, and it cost them dearly in their series with the Guardians. Tampa Bay mustered one run in 24 innings against Cleveland and posted a minuscule .333 OPS. The team has some building blocks in Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, and Brandon Lowe, but those players need to stay on the field and be more consistent. Can someone like Isaac Paredes build off a breakout campaign and provide Cash with another strong option in the lineup?
Despite the injury to Shane Baz, the Rays should return a formidable rotation in 2023 with Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs, and Drew Rasmussen. The bullpen is consistently a strong spot for Tampa Bay despite injuries. That should continue to be the case next season.
The Rays will struggle to improve in a meaningful way if they don't look to flex a bit more financial might. The club was a surprisingly serious suitor for Freddie Freeman last offseason and could always shock with another free-agent pursuit this winter. With the salary commitments of Corey Kluber, Mike Zunino, and Kevin Kiermaier likely off the books for 2023, Tampa Bay could have a few extra dollars to allocate toward improving the roster.