If you ain’t first, you’re last. That bit of intentionally obtuse movie wisdom is, luckily, not true in baseball. Twenty-nine teams won’t win the World Series, 18 won’t make the playoffs, and nine haven’t been playing for any immediate satisfaction in more than a month.
They are the teams building for the future. Some entered spring training knowing that would be the ultimate goal of their season, while others, uh, discovered that mission in July. Still, some form of success is possible — and often quick to reveal itself. To wit, several teams from last year’s version of this list are now very much in the playoff hunt: the Baltimore Orioles came in at No. 1 one winter before storming to the top of the American League, while the No. 2 Arizona Diamondbacks, No. 3 Cincinnati Reds and No. 5 Chicago Cubs are all in the NL wild-card chase.
Once again, let’s take a look at the teams deemed “failures” by the conventional measures of competing for a division or even the playoffs and gauge their successes on baseball’s longer timeline. How much optimism for future seasons did each team inspire with its 2023 big-league performance, minor-league player development and front-office moves?
As reference points — but not necessarily as guides for these rankings — we tallied each team’s count of 25-and-under players who have accumulated at least 1 WAR in the majors, as well as the number of players in each organization currently ranked as top-100 prospects by FanGraphs and/or MLB Pipeline (because we’re interested in the presence of visible potential, not the exact 100-player cutoff).
1. Washington Nationals
U25 hitters: 1 | U25 pitchers: 2 | Top 100ish prospects: 4
Allow me to throw some cold water on this enterprise by saying that no 2023 rebuilding team has quite the momentum that 2022’s up-and-comers did. This time last year, the Orioles, D-backs and Reds all had bountiful prospect baskets ready to overflow into major-league usefulness. The Nationals aren’t necessarily ready to turn the corner that emphatically, but they have turned the Juan Soto trade and strong draft status into some considerable competitiveness with stars on the horizon.
While other teams on this list have a greater quantity of promising prospects still in the minors, no one can top the Nationals’ combo of James Wood and Dylan Crews. Both outfielders are solidly among the game’s consensus top 10 prospects, sometimes both in the top five for public evaluators. Wood, the gliding, 6-foot-6 prize of the Soto deal, and Crews, the No. 2 overall pick in this summer’s stacked MLB Draft, could both reach the majors next season.
They would join shortstop CJ Abrams, catcher Keibert Ruiz and starting pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray as the team’s young core. Abrams, in particular, has turned heads in a positive way this summer, showing flashes of his potential future as a contact-hitting speed demon atop the order. Serious questions remain, including about the Nats’ player development acumen and Ruiz’s defensive capabilities, but manager Dave Martinez recently signed a contract extension, and GM Mike Rizzo is in talks to do the same. Sensing the timeline, Rizzo held on to Lane Thomas, the 28-year-old outfielder who might have otherwise been moved at the trade deadline amid a breakout 23-homer, 17-steal season.
2. New York Mets
U25 hitters: 1 | U25 pitchers: 0 | Top 100ish prospects: 6
This obviously hasn’t been a successful season for the Mets. But if you remove the lofty preseason expectations and treat the Mets as a bad team, you have to admit that they did more than most to improve their chances of winning once this season’s mess gets wiped off the standings page. Since July, team owner Steve Cohen and GM Billy Eppler have been operating, as wild as it sounds, in rebuilding mode. In exchange for Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Robertson and a boatload of money, the Mets infused their farm system with four of its top 10 prospects, including likely 2024 debutantes Drew Gilbert and Luisangel Acuña.
Misfires and misfortunes this extreme won’t be forgotten overnight — especially in the rabid, fatalistic world of Mets fandom — but the front office reaction was heartening and certainly more productive than the Angels’ short-lived double down or the Padres’ relative stasis. As Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty, Mark Vientos and new call-up Ronny Mauricio get full-time reps the rest of the season, reports indicate that New York could soon hire former top Brewers executive David Stearns to lead baseball operations, which would help ease concerns about the club’s thought processes — at least until the next decision that goes awry.
3. Detroit Tigers
U25 hitters: 3 | U25 pitchers: 1 | Top 100ish prospects: 6
In their first season under Scott Harris, the president of baseball operations plucked from the San Francisco Giants, the Tigers have begun to reorient their raft of players in a positive direction. After sinking under the weight of poor player development and an over-eager foray into free agency ahead of 2022, Detroit had one of the bleaker outlooks in baseball this time a year ago. Despite one major missed opportunity — failing to trade Eduardo Rodriguez at the deadline — the new front office has provided far more reason to believe.
Players already in the organization, such as former No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson, young outfielder Riley Greene and 25-year-old slugger Kerry Carpenter, have shown strong progress. Prospect Colt Keith looks like a surefire impact hitter, and development gains for pitchers Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden have convinced scouts that better organizational practices are in place. The Tigers were also beneficiaries of the deep 2023 draft, as high school outfielder Max Clark became their top prospect immediately upon being picked at No. 3 overall.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
U25 hitters: 1 | U25 pitchers: 1 | Top 100ish prospects: 6
The Pirates land in the murky middle of these rankings for the second year in a row, and it’s at least a little worrisome that they seem to lack some of the signs of a critical mass that other clubs in their rebuild cohort achieved a year or two ago.
Mitch Keller looked to be having a full-on breakout early in the season, but that sentiment was mitigated by a disastrous July. Ke’Bryan Hayes is batting .306 with eight homers since returning from injury Aug. 2, but his overall season line is once again limited by injuries and inconsistency with the bat. Bryan Reynolds signed an extension but is posting his worst full season at the plate (108 wRC+). Top prospects Henry Davis, Endy Rodriguez and Quinn Priester have arrived in the majors but look mostly overmatched. It doesn’t help that shortstop Oneil Cruz has missed nearly all of the season due to a broken ankle suffered on a slide.
But then there’s Paul Skenes! The Pirates took the huge, flame-throwing pitcher — potentially a nearly readymade major-league starter — with the No. 1 overall pick, expecting him to join the core soon. Next year, maybe next year. Right?
5. St. Louis Cardinals
U25 hitters: 2 | U25 pitchers: 0 | Top 100ish prospects: 4
Understandably, the Cardinals only sort of did a rebuild at the deadline. Still armed with a formidable lineup featuring star veterans (Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado) and budding young hitters (Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman), they are set up to mash in 2024. They are less set up to pitch.
There are very few sure things on the Cardinals’ pitching staff heading into next season: Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz will probably be in the rotation, and the bullpen has some useful pieces to start with. The moves St. Louis made at the deadline, trading rental starters Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty and reliever Jordan Hicks, were clearly oriented around getting talent that will be able to help soon. Tekoah Roby, a right-handed starter who came over in the Montgomery deal, is the most exciting player in the haul and just returned from shoulder soreness looking dominant at Double-A. Sem Robberse, a starter acquired for Hicks, likely doesn’t have the same ceiling but seems like even more of a lock to contribute in 2024.
6. Colorado Rockies
U25 hitters: 2 | U25 pitchers: 0 | Top 100ish prospects: 6
Stuck in high-altitude, low-odds purgatory in the NL West, this year’s Rockies have mostly avoided their recent habit of doing exactly the opposite of what the industry thinks they should do. They have a major prospect in Adael Amador, a top-10 overall candidate who could turn into a star contact-hitting shortstop, and several intriguing ones on the rise in outfielders Dyan Jorge and Yanquiel Fernandez.
The most important development out of Denver this year, though, was probably the Rockies’ decision to draft Tennessee starting pitcher Chase Dollander. Reasonably preoccupied with the detrimental Coors Field effects on arms, they have focused energy on sinker-throwing, ground-ball types who tend to have less star potential. Dollander breaks that mold. A No. 1 overall candidate at the start of the college season, thanks to a big, prototypical ace’s rising fastball, Dollander dropped back a little in the draft, and the Rockies pounced.
7. Chicago White Sox
U25 hitters: 1 | U25 pitchers: 1 | Top 100ish prospects: 5
There’s no way around the elephant in the room: Team owner Jerry Reinsdorf dismissed longtime front office leaders Ken Williams and Rick Hahn last month after a once-promising core floundered to .500 last season and totally cratered this season. Some new ideas might be just what the doctor ordered for a club with plenty of players who should be in their primes but only one — Luis Robert Jr. — who is truly thriving. Alas, Reinsdorf, also the driving force behind the Tony La Russa experiment, turned around and promoted Chris Getz from within. Maybe Getz has some grand designs to shake the floundering White Sox out of their misery, but it’s not an inspiring hire.
In terms of the season’s rebuilding moves, executed entirely by Hahn & Co., the White Sox did well to get pitching prospect Nick Nastrini from the Los Angeles Dodgers and a solid haul (headlined by catcher Edgar Quero) from the desperate, doomed Los Angeles Angels. Their top prospect to watch is 6-foot-3 infielder Colson Montgomery. Currently a shortstop, Montgomery figures to move elsewhere but remain firmly in the upper echelon of prospects, thanks to a terrific swing and strong idea of how to approach at-bats.
8. Kansas City Royals
U25 hitters: 2 | U25 pitchers: 1 | Top 100ish prospects: 0
Speaking of internal hires where a reboot was warranted, the Royals are in Year 1 under J.J. Picollo, longtime lieutenant of former GM Dayton Moore. The pros are Bobby Witt Jr., who is playing like a superstar in Year 2, and trade-deadline acquisition Cole Ragans, who has exploded onto the scene after coming over in the Aroldis Chapman deal. Thanks to work with external pitching lab Tread Athletics, the lefty is throwing 96 mph and hitting 101 — up from 92 mph a year ago.
With the Royals, Ragans has boosted his usage of a 92 mph cutter and roared to a 1.51 ERA in eight starts. Still, that early win can’t stand up to the complete dearth of progress for the Royals’ existing young arms. Kansas City needs to either try new tricks in the player development field or scoop up a lot more Ragans types because its farm system is virtually drained of impact talent.
9. Oakland Athletics
U25 hitters: 2 | U25 pitchers: 0 | Top 100ish prospects: 3
Intentionally scraped clean of promise by team owner John Fisher as he moves the team to Las Vegas, the A’s don’t have much to hang their hats on. The players most likely to stick around are second baseman Zack Gelof, a 2021 second-round pick who has smacked 10 homers and nabbed 10 bags in 47 games since his MLB debut, and first baseman Ryan Noda, a Rule 5 pick from the Dodgers pulling off the Max Muncy formula with patience and power. Just back from injury, hard-throwing pitcher Mason Miller could join that group with more healthy innings.
Still, you can’t help but notice the lack of help coming from the A’s trade returns for stars Matt Olson and Sean Murphy. Catcher Shea Langeliers is running a 78 wRC+ in his first full season (.202/.267/.381), eyebrow-raising target Esteury Ruiz has 58 steals but not much else to sustain the profile (81 wRC+, middle-of-the-road defense), and other pieces have entirely flopped or washed out.
It’s going to be brutal for a while. But that was the plan, anyway.