It’s hard to tell what was most unusual about last season in the AL East.

Baltimore and Tampa Bay took the top two spots in the division, the first time that had ever happened. And the Yankees and Red Sox were the bottom two teams, which hadn’t occurred since before the start of divisional play.

The AL East has changed a lot from the days when the big-market behemoths would overpower the rest of the division. Tampa Bay has been a formidable operation for a while now, and the Orioles capped a swift rise from the depths of a rebuild, winning 101 games and a division title in 2023. Baltimore’s wealth of young, cost-controlled talent should make the Orioles a threat for years to come, and now they’ll take a shot at defending their AL East crown.

“We’ve proven it to ourselves that we can win a division and we can go to the playoffs, so I think you can just feel that in the atmosphere, how excited everyone is,” Baltimore outfielder Austin Hays said. “Nobody’s scared. Nobody’s nervous.”

The Yankees won 99 games and the division two seasons ago, so it’s not as though their situation is hopeless in the face of the low-spending Orioles and Rays. What’s different about the AL East these days is you can look at New York, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto — and none of them seems like much of an underdog.

1. New York Yankees. After barely finishing above .500 last year, the Yankees made a major offseason splash when they acquired three-time All-Star Juan Soto. A lineup with Soto, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres is powerful enough to lift New York back atop the division, but a lot will depend on the Yankees’ health after Judge’s troublesome toe was such a problem last year. The stakes are high. Soto and Torres are entering their final season of team control, and manager Aaron Boone is under pressure to produce after last year’s disappointment.

2. Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 1996-97. Now Baltimore has a chance to become a postseason mainstay. Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman could be among the best players in baseball at their positions, and manager Brandon Hyde should have all sorts of options when filling out the lineup. A recent trade for Corbin Burnes gave the Orioles an ace they can lean on. Whether Baltimore can repeat as division champions may come down to how it handles the absence of star closer Félix Bautista after Tommy John surgery. Duplicating last season’s 30-16 mark in one-run games will be a tall order.

3. Toronto Blue Jays. Other teams in the AL East could breathe a sigh of relief when Shohei Ohtani stayed out west instead of signing with Toronto. The Blue Jays remain a dangerous team, however, with Vladimir Guerrero, Bo Bichette and George Springer in the fold. Kevin Gausman leads all major league pitchers over the past two seasons in the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement. Toronto has made the postseason in three of the past four seasons but hasn’t won a pennant since 1993.

4. Tampa Bay Rays. Discount the Rays at your peril — by now that’s clear. Tampa Bay is coming off a 99-win season in which it nearly held on to win the AL East despite major injury problems down the stretch. But now the Rays start the season with similar concerns. Starting pitchers Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Spring are still recovering from injuries, and the Rays traded Tyler Glasnow during the offseason. Shortstop Wander Franco’s status remains uncertain. He hasn’t played since August, when MLB and authorities in the Dominican Republic began investigating accusations that he had an improper relationship with a minor.

5. Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox have finished last two straight seasons despite finishing with a not-that-terrible 78 wins each time. Such is life in the AL East. Boston has some punch in the lineup thanks to Rafael Devers and Triston Casas, but the starting rotation has plenty of questions even after Brayan Bello pitched well enough to earn a long-term deal. Boston hired ex-pitcher Craig Breslow as its new chief baseball officer following last season, but he has his work cut out for him in the short term.


As impressive as the AL East was in the regular season last year, none of its teams even won a playoff game. And some of them have been waiting a while for significant postseason success.

The Yankees haven’t won a pennant since 2009. You could call that a first-world problem, but it equals the franchise’s longest drought of the live ball era. Baltimore hasn’t been to a World Series since 1983 and has now lost eight straight postseason games.

Tampa Bay and Toronto have each dropped seven in a row.


Several of the division’s top pitchers begin the season with health concerns. Gerrit Cole of the Yankees was shut down with elbow soreness during spring training, Kyle Bradish of the Orioles will miss the start of the season because of an elbow sprain. Gausman has been dealing with shoulder fatigue, and McClanahan had Tommy John surgery in August.

Boston acquired Lucas Giolito this past offseason, and now he’s expected to miss the season following internal brace surgery on his arm.


Bruce Bochy doesn’t ever want the Texas Rangers to let go of those memories of their first World Series title.

“We just don’t want to lean on them,” said Bochy, whose first season with the Rangers ended with the first World Series championship for the 63-year-old franchise, and his fourth as a big league manager.

While Texas has the opportunity to be the first team in a quarter-century to win back-to-back world championships — the New York Yankees were the last, with three in a row from 1998-2000 — the Rangers aren’t even defending champs in their own division.

And they aren’t favored to win the AL West this season.

Houston is again the odds-on favorite in the division it has won each of the last six full MLB seasons since the Rangers finished on top in 2016. The Astros won their regular season finale last Oct. 1, matched Texas at 90-72 and won the AL West since they were 9-4 head-to-head.

The Astros have made the AL Championship Series the past seven seasons, even when not division champs in the 2020 season shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic. They made four trips to the Fall Classic and won two titles in that span.

Dusty Baker retired days after Houston lost ALCS Game 7 at home to the Rangers last fall, finishing with 2,183 wins over 26 seasons as a big league manager with five teams.

New Astros manager Joe Espada, their bench coach for six seasons, is certainly familiar with a lineup that has big hitters Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker, and a loaded starting rotation.

Espada isn’t the division’s only new manager. Ron Washington, who took the Rangers to their previous World Series in 2010 and 2011, was hired by the Angels, who still have Mike Trout but not two-way star Shohei Ohtani, now with the other team in Los Angeles.

Seattle again revamped its roster without big spending in free agency and hopes for a quicker return to the playoffs. The Mariners missed by one game last season, a year after its first postseason appearance since 2001.

And just like last year, the Athletics go into another season not knowing if it will be their last in Oakland.


1. Houston Astros. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, reacquired in a deadline trade last July, will start this season on the injured list. But the 41-year-old’s IL stint is expected to be a short one. The Astros still have lefty Framber Valdez (12-11, 2.45 ERA, 200 strikeouts and a no-hitter) and right-hander Cristian Javier. Eight-time All-Star second baseman Altuve signed a new $125 million, five-year contract that goes through 2029. But two-time All-Star third baseman Bregman, the only other position player to make all seven ALCS trips, is at the end of a $100 million deal.

2. Texas Rangers. After going from six losing seasons in a row to a World Series title, the Rangers should be playoff contenders again. They return ALCS MVP Adolis García and most of the lineup that hit 233 homers and scored an AL-high 5.4 runs per game. But World Series MVP and AL MVP runner-up shortstop Corey Seager (sports hernia), Gold Glove first baseman Nathaniel Lowe (oblique strain) and All-Star third baseman Josh Jung (calf) missed significant time in the spring. All-Star right-hander Nathan Eovaldi tops a rotation still missing injured multiple Cy Young Award winners Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

3. Seattle Mariners. The front office put together a roster that might be better than last year, but everybody has to stay healthy. Seattle should be better offensively with the additions of Mitch Garver, Mitch Haniger, Jorge Polanco and Luke Raley to go with young superstar Julio Rodriguez. If J.P. Crawford can replicate last season at the plate and Ty France returns to his 2021-22 form, the lineup will be deeper. Couple a better offense with one of the best rotations in baseball led by Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert, the Mariners should once again contend in the division.

4. Los Angeles Angels. They feel like they’re starting over yet again and still haven’t been to the playoffs since 2014. Ohtani left after six seasons for a record $700 million with the perennially contending Dodgers. The Halos added almost nothing in free agency, only revamping their bullpen again and taking low-cost flyers on Aaron Hicks and Miguel Sano. Trout and Anthony Rendon are back, and an open DH spot will allow them to rest their injury-prone bodies more regularly. Their rotation is last year’s group minus Ohtani. The 71-year-old Washington brings a unique blend of expertise and enthusiasm, which should benefit an exciting crop of young talent ready to break through in the majors.

5. Oakland Athletics. This could be the final season playing at the Coliseum with a lease set to expire. So the A’s are still trying to figure out where they will play beyond this year with a new ballpark and move to Las Vegas scheduled for 2028. Manager Mark Kotsay has been committed to keeping his team focused on what it can do to be better on the field after two years with a combined 214 losses (112 last season). The A’s acquired Ross Stripling from the San Francisco Giants and added Alex Wood to the rotation.


When the 74-year-old Baker retired, Bochy became the oldest manager in the majors. That lasted only a few weeks until the Angels hired Washington. Bochy will turn 69 on April 16, just 13 days before Washington turns 72. Bochy, with 2,093 wins going into his 27th season, is one of six managers with four World Series titles, his first three coming in San Francisco (2010, 2012 and 2014). Washington won a franchise-record 664 games in eight seasons with Texas from 2007-14. He was on Atlanta’s staff the past seven years, and part of the Braves’ 2021 World Series title.


Several new relievers are in the AL West, including hard-throwing lefty Josh Hader with the Astros, veteran right-hander David Robertson and former All-Star closer Kirby Yates in Texas, Gregory Santos and Ryne Stanek in Seattle and Robert Stephenson with the Angels.

Hader’s $95 million, five-year deal was the biggest after becoming a first-time free agent. The 29-year-old, once in the Astros’ minor league system, turned down a $20,325,000 qualifying offer from San Diego.


The AL Central doesn’t appear to be a great place to find baseball’s best teams.

Instead, it might be home to some of the most improved.

The division had a tough 2023, with the Twins running away with the title despite an 87-win season that wouldn’t have been good enough to win any other division in MLB. One year later, it’s still hard to look at the rosters and find an obvious 90-win squad in the bunch.

Minnesota once again appears to be the class of the division despite losing a pair of front-line starting pitchers in Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda.

But the real interest lies with teams like the Tigers and Royals, who are hoping for a big step forward. The Tigers haven’t had a winning season since 2016 and the pressure is on fourth-year manager A.J. Hinch to end that stretch.

The Royals won the World Series in 2015 and haven’t had a winning season since, but they made moves in the offseason to try and end that streak.


1. Minnesota Twins. After stopping their 18-game postseason losing streak that was the longest in the history of the major North American professional sports and winning a series for the first time in 21 years, the Twins have largely the same look in their quest to defend their division title. The notable exception is in the rotation, where losing Gray and Maeda could represent a setback. Pablo López remains the ace after an excellent debut season with the Twins and Joe Ryan has the potential to be a dominant sidekick. The wild card is Chris Paddack, who missed the 2023 regular season recovering from Tommy John surgery and chipped in from the bullpen for the playoffs. Health will likely be the pivotal factor for success at the plate this year, too, after shortstop Carlos Correa played through plantar fasciitis in his left foot and had the worst offensive season of his career and Byron Buxton’s right knee trouble limited him to designated hitter duty. Buxton has returned to center field and been thriving in spring training, as promising of a sign the Twins could hope for in camp.

2. Cleveland Guardians. Two years after a controversial name change, another new era begins in Cleveland as Stephen Vogt takes over for Terry Francona, the winningest manager in franchise history. A journeyman catcher, Vogt has never managed at any level and will break in with a Guardians team that has enough good pieces to contend for a division title. Shane Bieber looks to be recovered from arm issues that limited him in 2023 and he’ll be expected to anchor a rotation featuring Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams, who both showed major promise as rookies. Although Cleveland’s lineup lacks power, José Ramírez and Josh Naylor are each capable of hitting 30 homers and don’t be surprised if slugging prospect Kyle Manzardo arrives early to provide some needed pop. Closer Emmanuel Clase has to be more consistent after leading the majors with 12 blown saves.

3. Detroit Tigers. The franchise is more hopeful than recent years, feeling optimistic about what appears to be a plus pitching staff and some promising players, and could make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Left-hander Tarik Skubal won four straight games and gave up just three runs over his last five starts to end last season and will be followed by newly acquired right-handers Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty. The bullpen is led by righties Jason Foley and Alex Lange along with lefty Andrew Chafin. First baseman Spencer Torkelson, the top pick in 2022, has a chance to become a 40-homer hitter. Multi-talented outfielder Parker Meadows generates excitement at the plate and base paths. The franchise gave second baseman Colt Keith a guaranteed deal worth at least $28 million before he faced his first pitch in the majors, clearly excited about his upside, and plan to give him opportunities to prove he was worth the investment.

4.) Kansas City Royals: The Royals are hoping to go worst-to-first this season after losing 106 games a year ago, and there is reason to believe they could do it. For one thing, the AL Central is wide open. But the Royals also spent more than $100 million in free agency to fix their biggest problems, which began and ended with pitching. Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha were signed to join breakout star Cole Ragans, Brady Singer and Jordan Lyles in the rotation, and almost the entire bullpen is new with Will Smith taking over the closer job. The Royals also added slugger Hunter Renfroe and versatile Adam Frazier to the lineup and get power-hitting first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino back from shoulder surgery that wiped out almost his entire 2023 season. With the Royals eying a new downtown ballpark as the centerpiece of a $2 billion development funded in part by the extension of an existing sales tax, it would behoove them to show a weary fanbase that they are serious enough about winning to warrant the new digs.

5.) Chicago White Sox: It was a tough 2023 for the White Sox, who lost 101 games. It’s unclear if 2024 will be much better. Chicago was second-to-last in the majors in runs scored and gave up more runs than all but four teams. The team also ranked among the worst on defense. The White Sox hope that pitchers Chris Flexen and Erick Fedde can solidify the back end of the rotation while the offense has a handful of proven offensive players in outfielder Luis Robert Jr., first baseman Andrew Vaughn, outfielder/designated hitter Eloy Jiménez and third baseman Yoán Moncada. It appears that new general manager Chris Getz, starting his first full season, has plenty of work to do.


The White Sox signaled they’ll be continuing to rebuild when they dealt right-hander Dylan Cease to the San Diego Padres on Wednesday for a package of players, including reliever Steven Wilson.

Cease, who turned 28 in December, was second in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2022 after going 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA. He went 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA last year for a White Sox team that went 61-101.


The Royals signed young star Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year deal worth more than $288.7 million guaranteed in February, easily the longest and richest contract in club history. It includes a three-year, $89 million team option that would drive the value to more than $377 million and keep Witt with the Royals through the 2037 season.

The contract was a seismic shift for a notoriously frugal, small-market ballclub. It also shows that Kansas City’s ownership is serious about being more competitive in the division after several lean years.


NEW YORK (AP) — Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Atlanta Braves are ready for another crack at Philadelphia.

They won’t need to wait long: opening day, first pitch.

The reigning NL MVP and his Braves teammates begin their 2024 schedule right back at Citizens Bank Park, where last season ended with a painful playoff loss in Game 4 of a Division Series.

Just like the year before.

With six straight NL East titles and a 2021 World Series crown, the Braves are the class of the division. No arguing that. But the Phillies have owned them in October, reaching the past two NL Championship Series at Atlanta’s expense only to fall short of earning World Series rings.

“This is a window that we got to win in,” Philadelphia slugger Bryce Harper said at spring training in Florida. “Our ownership deserves that. Our fans deserve that.”

The recent power struggle between the teams has produced a budding rivalry. And while the surprising Marlins gave the NL East a third playoff qualifier last year, the top of the division shapes up as a two-team tussle this season.

At least on paper.

Never a big spender, Miami is minus 2022 NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara following Tommy John surgery last October.

The inconsistent New York Mets are pointing more toward 2025 after their high-priced flop last season led to a trade-deadline selloff of veteran players in exchange for prospects.

And the Washington Nationals are still rebuilding around youngsters.

So, here we go again.

Atlanta compiled the best record in baseball last year at 104-58, finishing 14 games ahead of the Phillies for the second consecutive season. After matching a major league record with 307 homers, the Braves added outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Adam Duvall to a powerful lineup that features Acuña, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna.

They also made a trade with Boston to acquire starting pitcher Chris Sale, a seven-time All-Star derailed by injuries in recent years.

“I’m excited to join this staff,” Sale said. “We can feed off each other and compete for another division title and hopefully a World Series championship.”

Philadelphia spent big to re-sign Aaron Nola ($172 million) and retain fellow ace Zack Wheeler from 2025-27 ($126 million).

Acuña figures to lead off the season opener March 28 against Wheeler. And maybe meet up again come fall.

“Playing in Citizens Bank in October, there’s nothing like it,” Wheeler said.


1. Atlanta Braves. The 2023 Braves led the majors in hits, homers, runs, RBIs and batting average (.276) — lapping the runner-up Texas Rangers’ mark of .263. They must replace left fielder Eddie Rosario’s 21 homers, so the spotlight is on the 24-year-old Kelenic, who showed promising power potential during last season’s strong start with Seattle. Atlanta also brought back Duvall in mid-March to platoon with Kelenic. Another hitter to watch is Michael Harris II, who will move up to sixth or seventh in the lineup after batting ninth most of last year. Harris, only 22, is flashing power this spring and could join the team’s list of 30-homer hitters that last season included Acuña, Olson, Ozuna, Riley and Albies. Four of them had at least 100 RBIs, while Riley finished with 97.

2. Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies made few significant roster changes in the offseason and instead decided to run it back. Philadelphia re-signed Nola and gave Wheeler an extension to keep the top of the rotation intact. The Phillies would like to become more of a contender in the NL East and give the perennial champion Braves a run at the division title. But making the playoffs as a wild card has worked out fine in Philly. Harper, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto are the heart of an offense that should help lead Philadelphia into a third straight postseason. Harper takes over full-time at first base after switching from the outfield.

3. Miami Marlins. Even without Alcantara, the young and athletic Marlins have a capable rotation led by talented left-hander Jesús Luzardo, who went 10-10 with a 3.58 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 2023. New president of baseball operations Peter Bendix didn’t add many flashy pieces during the offseason but did sign former AL batting champion Tim Anderson to a one-year contract. The Marlins made the postseason last year for the first time in a full season since 2003 thanks to the steady guidance of NL Manager of the Year Skip Schumaker and the sweet swing of big league batting champ Luis Arráez (.354). Both are back to build on that success.

4. New York Mets. After falling flat last season despite the biggest payroll in baseball history, this team is under new management. Mets owner Steve Cohen brought in new president of baseball operations David Stearns, who hired a rookie manager in Carlos Mendoza — the former Yankees bench coach. Star slugger Pete Alonso’s impending free agency next winter will put him under a microscope all year. A suspect rotation took a significant blow when Kodai Senga, runner-up for 2023 NL Rookie of the Year, went down early in spring training with a shoulder strain. He’s expected to be sidelined until at least late April or May. All-Star closer Edwin Díaz, who missed last season with a knee injury, returns to anchor a much deeper bullpen. The position-player nucleus from a 101-win playoff club in 2022 is still here, but this looks like a third- or fourth-place team.

5. Washington Nationals. The Nationals are still more about progress than win-loss record, counting on certain possible future cornerstones to continue making strides and move the team away from its four consecutive last-place finishes. Will 2023 NL All-Star Josiah Gray, CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz blossom? Could outfielders James Wood (obtained from San Diego in the Juan Soto trade) and Dylan Crews (the No. 2 pick in last year’s amateur draft) get some time in the majors? One thing no longer hanging over the franchise: The Lerner family has decided not to sell the club after nearly two years of looking for a buyer.


While the Braves and Phillies appear most likely to rule the division, it will be the Phillies and Mets who play a two-game series in London from June 8-9, the latest international showcase for Major League Baseball.


The dynamic Acuña posted an unprecedented combination of 41 homers and 73 stolen bases last season. Olson broke a Braves mark with 54 home runs. What can they do for an encore?

Acuña sat out two weeks in spring training because of soreness in his surgically repaired right knee, but returned to the lineup two weeks before opening day.


Dave Roberts is quickly learning all about the constant fanfare surrounding Shohei Ohtani and the increased attention he brings each day to the Los Angeles Dodgers from across the world in Japan.

The veteran manager let loose recently at spring training and breakdanced on the field during a practice, his moves caught on camera.

“Not my finest moment,” he said with a laughing emoji in a text message to The Associated Press.

Many far brighter moments to come, he certainly hopes, with two-way star Ohanti in the batting order and, eventually, back on the mound.

Ohtani’s arrival to Los Angeles is bringing all kinds of eyes to the storied franchise and perennial NL West power, which now has landed its latest megastar.

Roberts began the spring emphasizing all the things this club must do “to be great” and it will take some time to come together and build strong relationships.

“The focus, the message, was the Dodgers, the foundation of this organization, has always been pitching and defense,” Roberts said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have been here, a handful of guys that are new to the organization, a lot of guys who understand what we’re about, excited to be a Dodger and some guys that are curious.”

The 29-year-old Ohtani sporting Dodger Blue brings even more spotlight on a Los Angeles team that won the last two NL West crowns and 10 division titles in the last 11 years. The Dodgers only lost during that span in 2021, edged by the San Francisco Giants with a franchise-record 107 victories while the Dodgers won 106. They then beat their Bay Area rival in a thrilling five-game NL Division Series.

Now, the high-rolling, star-studded Dodgers just won the biggest offseason sweepstakes in recent memory by signing the Japanese two-way star to a record $700 million, 10-year contract in December.


1. Los Angeles Dodgers. Along with Ohtani not yet being ready to pitch, the Dodgers won’t have left-hander Clayton Kershaw or right-hander Walker Buehler in the rotation to start the season. Kershaw is recovering from left shoulder surgery and Buehler is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. But they added righties Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow, both of whom have had strong spring showings.

Also expected back later in the season is right-hander Tony Gonsolin. The Dodgers added Ohtani after he batted .304 with 44 home runs and 95 RBIs in 2023, but he won’t pitch until 2025 after undergoing a second elbow procedure. His first came in 2018 with Tommy John surgery.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks barely squeezed into the playoffs last season, but then proceeded to have an incredible postseason run, making the World Series for just the second time in franchise history before losing to the Texas Rangers in five games.

Most of the roster returns, including NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll, slugger Christian Walker and ace righty Zac Gallen. Arizona was also aggressive during the offseason, landing lefty Eduardo Rodríguez on an $80 million, four-year deal, trading for third baseman Eugenio Suárez and picking up power hitters Joc Pederson and Randal Grichuk. The D-backs face an uphill battle in a big-spending division, but their mix of speed, power and pitching should give them a solid chance to get back to the postseason.

3. San Francisco Giants. San Francisco again chased the prized free agents, but landing manager Bob Melvin wound up their biggest offseason move as he was hired away from the division rival San Diego Padres to replace Gabe Kapler following two seasons out of the playoffs.

Melvin returns home to the Bay Area ready to take over a club determined to get back to contending in the talented NL West the Giants won with a franchise-record 107 victories in 2021.

Giants’ president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi called San Francisco’s offer to Ohtani “very comparable if not identical.”

The Giants added some key faces even after spring training began, most notably third baseman Matt Chapman on a $54 million, three-year contract March 1. They also signed Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee to a $113 million, six-year deal in the offseason.

Beloved 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval is back for a third stint with the franchise, too, although it’s no lock that he’ll make the opening day roster.

4. San Diego Padres. Following last year’s flop with a high-priced lineup and the death of owner Peter Seidler, the Padres have shifted their focus from openly talking about World Series aspirations to quietly saving money and resetting their luxury tax.

They still have stars Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts, but traded Juan Soto to the New York Yankees for a haul of pitchers and lost NL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to free agency. Their rotation will be thin behind Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Michael King, although their bullpen appears loaded. SS/LF Jackson Merrill could break camp with the big league team and is among a handful of prospects expected to make their debuts this season. Manager Mike Shildt replaces Melvin, who sparred with GM A.J. Preller and left for his hometown Giants.

5. Colorado Rockies. Manager Bud Black and the Rockies could be staring at another 100-loss season given their young nucleus and a pitching staff missing some big names due to injuries. Their projected total is 59 1/2 wins, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Colorado hasn’t been to the postseason – or even turned in a winning record — since 2018.

Two of the Rockies’ top starting pitchers, Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela, are still working their way back from Tommy John surgery. Reliever Daniel Bard also is sidelined after recently undergoing knee surgery. That puts more pressure on the lefty Kyle Freeland to anchor the rotation. A Denver native, Freeland won 17 games in 2018 but has gone 27-47 since that breakout season. Colorado’s youthful nucleus includes outfielder Nolan Jones, who hit .297 with 20 homers as he finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The team also has Gold Glove outfielder Brenton Doyle. To break out of their funk, the Rockies desperately need more production out of first baseman Kris Bryant, the slugger who has 15 homers over two seasons with the club after signing a $182 million, seven-year contract in 2022.


CHICAGO (AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals signed Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. The Chicago Cubs added Shota Imanaga and Héctor Neris. Even the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates jumped into free agency.

There are no tanking teams in the NL Central right now, making for a wide-open landscape in a division that was captured by St. Louis or Milwaukee in five of the past six years.

It was Milwaukee’s turn in 2023, finishing nine games ahead of second-place Chicago. But the top of the Brewers’ rotation took a hit when Corbin Burnes was traded to Baltimore and Brandon Woodruff had shoulder surgery.

That problem belongs to Pat Murphy, who was promoted to manager after Craig Counsell departed for Chicago in a move that adds a little spice to one of the division’s best rivalries.

“Glad he’s on our side now,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said of his new skipper.

Cincinnati was in the mix for a playoff spot in 2023 before fading to an 82-80 record. The Reds then strengthened their pitching staff by signing Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagán.

Even Pittsburgh got into the act, adding reliever Aroldis Chapman and left-hander Martín Pérez, and bringing back Andrew McCutchen on a one-year contract.

The Reds last won the division in 2012. The Pirates have never won the NL Central; their last division title happened in the NL East in 1992.


1.) Chicago Cubs. With the additions of Counsell and Imanaga, along with the return of Cody Bellinger, it was a very good offseason for Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer. Imanaga is a Japanese left-hander with an impressive arsenal that should help ease his transition to the majors. He steps into a rotation fronted by Justin Steele, who went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA last year in a breakout performance. Bellinger is looking to prove himself once again after he hit a career-best .307 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs in his first season in Chicago. Michael Busch was acquired in a January trade with the Dodgers, and the Cubs are hoping the young infielder is ready for a regular role. The big variable for Chicago is Christopher Morel, a streaky slugger who blasted 26 homers last season but also struck out 133 times in 107 games.

2.) Cincinnati Reds. Cincinnati’s promising young infield, led by Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain, took a hit when Noelvi Marte was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. But the Reds have several different ways to replace Marte while he is out. Jeimer Candelario signed with the team in free agency, and 2021 NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India also could be a factor in the infield alignment. Injuries for Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft turned Cincinnati’s rotation into a patchwork mess last season, but Andrew Abbott and Brandon Williamson gained some valuable experience that could pay off this time around. Montas also joins the rotation after an injury-decimated stint with the Yankees.

3.) St. Louis Cardinals. It’s hard to imagine the vaunted Cardinals repeating their lackluster performance from last season. St. Louis went 71-91 in 2023 and finished last in the NL Central. It was the franchise’s first losing record since it went 78-84 in 2007. Its rotation had a 5.08 ERA, and that was the Cardinals’ biggest focus in the offseason. Gray cashed in with a $75 million, three-year contract after he had a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts with Minnesota. Lynn and Gibson each got a one-year deal. But each of the three right-handers is on the wrong side of 34, and Lynn surrendered a major league-high 44 homers in 32 starts last year. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are back to help anchor the lineup, and Jordan Walker could be even better after a solid rookie season.

4.) Milwaukee Brewers. Rhys Hoskins fills a hole at first base after signing a $34 million, two-year contract in free agency. Also worth watching is an athletic group of young position players that includes Jackson Chourio, Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick and Brice Turang. Mitchell, Frelick and Turang are former first-round picks in the amateur draft, and the 20-year-old Chourio is one of baseball’s top prospects. Following the Burnes trade and Woodruff’s injury, Freddy Peralta is the team’s top starting pitcher. The right-hander went 12-10 with a 3.86 ERA in a career-high 30 starts last year. Wade Miley was brought back on a one-year contract, but the veteran lefty has been slowed by injuries. If the Brewers stumble early on, closer Devin Williams and shortstop Willy Adames could be two of the top names on the market ahead of the trade deadline. Williams will begin the season on the injured list because of two stress fractures in his back.

5.) Pittsburgh Pirates. With Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Henry Davis, the Pirates have the beginning of what they hope becomes a solid young core. Cruz is looking for a healthy campaign after he missed most of last season with a fractured left ankle. Hayes continued his development in 2023, winning his first Gold Glove at third base while batting .271 with a career-best 15 homers and 61 RBIs. Davis, a catcher and right fielder, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 amateur draft. Marco Gonzales was acquired in a trade with Atlanta in December, putting another veteran arm in the rotation behind All-Star right-hander Mitch Keller.


Milwaukee made the playoffs in five of the previous six years, and it doesn’t sound as if the team cares all that much about possibly being underestimated going into this season.

“I definitely think we’re going to be a competitive team this year,” outfielder Christian Yelich said. “Even when we’ve been good the last few years, no one ever picks us to be good just because we’re the Brewers.”


Pittsburgh took Paul Skenes with the No. 1 pick in last year’s amateur draft, and the 6-foot-6 right-hander could make his big league debut this season.

Skenes, 21, helped LSU win the 2023 College World Series, going 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings. He pitched in five minor league games last summer over three levels, allowing four runs in 6 2/3 innings.