Yankees and Phillies, East champs? Six MLB teams best suited to dethrone division winners

New blood, shattered expectations and a changing of the guard are always fun in baseball. The Baltimore Orioles represented all of that last year, when they turned the American League East on its head and won the division for the first time since 2014. In fact, the AL East and AL Central have seen three different division winners the past three years. In 2021, the San Francisco Giants shocked the baseball world by winning 107 games and dethroning the Los Angeles Dodgers, who’d won eight consecutive NL West titles. 

So, which teams will unseat reigning title winners in 2024? There is at least one legitimate candidate in every division.

And with the current playoff format, there’s more incentive to finish at the top. The No. 1 seed (best league record) and No. 2 seed (second-best division winner) in both the American and National Leagues receive first-round byes and advance directly to the division series. That’s a huge benefit from a health standpoint, as it provides extra rest after the long 162-game season. It also allows teams to reset their rotations, especially their top 3–4 arms, before hurling into the playoffs. 

Some of last year’s division winners had busy and exciting offseasons to help maintain their elevated status, while a couple either took a step back or kept the status quo, leaving room for rivals to capitalize. Let’s check out which teams exactly are best positioned to win their divisions in 2024 after falling short in 2023. 

2023 AL EAST WINNER: Baltimore Orioles
2024 TOP CHALLENGER: New York Yankees

The Orioles are the talk of baseball after a blockbuster trade for Corbin Burnes and a new ownership group on the way. The O’s front office is finally taking the roster talent seriously after a young and hungry crew led by Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson disrupted the division last year. Still, Baltimore’s biggest threats to take back the AL East feature the four-time Silver Slugger with a tailor-made shuffle, the 6-foot-7 behemoth who’s two years removed from hitting 62 home runs, and the rubber-armed righty coming off his first career Cy Young award — all of whom are parked in New York. The pinstriped trio of Juan Soto, Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole are going to do their best this year to make sure the Yankees resemble the Evil Empire that the rest of the league can detest again. The Yankees are not used to being anything but the favorites to win the division, and their lowered standing in competition with a compelling Orioles team should be more than enough to put fire in their belly. It’s not like anyone in the Bronx has forgotten the disasters of last season — and the franchise’s worst record in over three decades. 

The Tampa Bay Rays haven’t done enough this winter to repeat a 99-win season, but they can’t be counted out, either. The Blue Jays made a few moves that only filled roster holes, which should set them up for another wild-card push. And the Red Sox appear content to finish last for the fourth time in five years. The AL East remains the toughest division in MLB, and the Yankees look primed to clinch it for just the third time in more than 10 years.

2023 AL CENTRAL WINNER: Minnesota Twins
2024 TOP CHALLENGER: Detroit Tigers

The Twins needed just 87 wins to easily secure the AL Central last year. It was the least amount of wins by any division winner. To put it another way, 87 wins equated to a fourth-place finish in the AL East last season. But Minnesota took its division title and converted that into a fruitful playoff run. Yet, rather than build on that success this offseason, the Twins have so far failed to improve their roster. They haven’t even replaced Sonny Gray. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for another club, one that actually upgraded this winter, to claim the AL Central. 

Detroit is the best candidate after filling every position of need this winter. President of baseball operations Scott Harris added Mark Canha to the outfield, Jack Flaherty and Kenta Maeda to the rotation, and sufficiently bolstered the bullpen. The A.J. Hinch-led Tigers quietly won 78 games in 2023 and usurping the Twins in 2024 might not require too many more victories. The Royals have been comparably busy this offseason but are still rebuilding after a 106-loss season, while the Guardians and White Sox appear no better than they were last year.  

Royals lock up superstar Bobby Witt Jr. with $288.7 million extension

Royals lock up superstar Bobby Witt Jr. with $288.7 million extension

2023 AL WEST WINNER: Houston Astros
2024 TOP CHALLENGER: Texas Rangers

The Rangers gave the Astros plenty of headaches down the stretch of the regular season last year. In the end, Texas and Houston wound up with the same record (90-72), but the Astros clinched the division title for the sixth time in seven years because they won the season series — 9-4. The AL West is expected to be just as tight this year, with the reshaped Mariners posing as a threat again. The Rangers have all the momentum after ousting the Astros in the ALCS and winning their first World Series in franchise history. 

Texas still needs another front-end starter in its rotation (a reunion with Jordan Montgomery would significantly help), but bolstered its shaky bullpen by adding David Robertson. The Astros marginally improved by signing closer Josh Hader. Expect another competitive race between these two Texas rivals. Here’s guessing the Rangers and their loaded lineup snatch the AL West in 2024 — and win more than four games against Houston in the regular season. 

2023 NL EAST WINNER: Atlanta Braves
2024 TOP CHALLENGER: Philadelphia Phillies

Just because a division rival would likely have to collect 100 wins to threaten the Braves doesn’t mean it’s far-fetched. The Phillies have chased the Braves out of the playoffs two years in a row, so what’s stopping them from doing so in the regular season first? It’s fair to assume some regression from Atlanta’s historic offense. But in order for the NL East’s six-time reigning champs to lose their grip, the Phillies must rely heavily on the tools that they beat their rivals with in October. Quality pitching led by Zack Wheeler, who is expected to put on a showcase before he enters free agency at the end of this year, and the freshly re-signed Aaron Nola will intimidate opposing lineups. Philadelphia’s offense, when clicking, is capable of overpowering most teams in the league. 

The club’s growing confidence from two straight NLCS appearances, paired with its frustrations from failing to capture its first NL East title since 2011, could finally help the Phillies close the gap against the Braves. The Mets and Marlins have a chance at sneaking into the playoffs, but that would likely come through the wild card. The Nationals are taking their rebuild so slow they make snails look swift. It’s always been the Phillies that have the best chance at toppling the Braves and competing for a top seed in the NL.

2023 NL CENTRAL WINNER: Milwaukee Brewers
2024 TOP CHALLENGER: Chicago Cubs

It would be a baseball miracle if the Brewers managed to repeat their 92-win season after becoming significantly weaker this winter. They lost manager Craig Counsell to the rival Cubs, with whom he’s set up to do the same thing he did in Milwaukee by squeezing the most juice out of a motivated Chicago roster. Trading Corbin Burnes leaves no doubt about Milwaukee’s plans to retool, with Willy Adames and maybe even Devin Williams next to go. 

That leaves the Cubs in prime position to capture the NL Central for the first time in a full season since 2017. They probably need to reunite with Cody Bellinger, who remains a free agent, to further reinforce that possibility. The Reds are also a threat after their 2023 breakout and simple, yet persuasive, deals this winter. The Cardinals should be pushing for the playoffs following their disastrous 2023, but winning the division appears more conceivable for fans in Wrigleyville after Chicago strengthened its rotation with ​​Shōta Imanaga and its bullpen with Hector Neris. The Cubs kicked off the offseason with the mega-signing of Counsell. Now, they could be just one more big move away from having a big season.

Should the Cubs be the favorites in the NL Central?

Should the Cubs be the favorites in the NL Central?

2023 NL WEST WINNER: Los Angeles Dodgers
2024 TOP CHALLENGER: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Dodgers are under a ton of pressure to win something like 120 games with the star-studded roster they’ve assembled this winter, and that’s unrealistic for any baseball team, even the one driven by Shohei Ohtani. It’s probably in the best interests of the rest of the NL West to operate like nothing has changed, because the idea of competing against Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow and Ohtani is too daunting to dwell on. Building a superteam is always good in theory, but there’s always a chance that it doesn’t work in practice. That’s where the Diamondbacks can take advantage. Arizona’s Cinderella story in 2023 featured an ego-less club having fun, playing loose, relying on veterans for leadership and young players for energy, exceeding expectations, and riding that momentum all the way to the World Series despite an 84-win season. 

Since then, general manager Mike Hazen has added several impactful pieces this winter to build on last year’s success. The addition of Eduardo Rodríguez might be one of MLB’s best value signings of the offseason, while Joc Pederson at DH and Eugenio Suárez at third base are effective upgrades for a D-backs team that returns all of its key pieces. As for the rest of the division, the Padres are still talented but their 2024 direction remains a mystery, the Giants made some creative moves but didn’t meet expectations of spending big and landing their big star, and the Rockies are coming off a 103-loss campaign. If any team in this division will actually pose a threat to the juggernaut Dodgers, it’ll be the one that beat them in the playoffs last year. 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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