As I mentioned last year, the new CBA made it a little harder for teams to directly tank and throw in the towel, and we only had like 2 or 3 teams [the Nats, A's and Reds] that decided outright that they weren't gonna win games in 2022, and one of those decided basically midway through the year.
Now, going into 2023, looking at the field, I can't really name many teams that made zero effort to build for the season. The Cubs, who stayed back and tried replacement players for a few years, signed some of the biggest free agents of the season, the A's netted a number of useful, if not starry, free agents in Aledmys Diaz, Jace Peterson and Shintaro Fujinami, and the Pirates, at the very least, brought back Andrew McCutchen.
I think that what the ease-off of tanking is making teams do is be less liberal with bringing in their prospects and letting them repopulate the team. In the wake of what a lot of the truly competitive teams have been doing, I should stress that it's mostly the rebuilding teams that are giving positions to rookies to start the season [Vaughn Grissom and Anthony Volpe shouldn't be starting the season in the minors, even if we don't know about Volpe yet].
The Royals, especially as 2022 ended, were definitely ready to give big roles to some of their rookies and younger players. Right now there's like 5 positions looking to go to rookies or second-years. There's still the long-gestating catching battle between M.J. Melendez and Salvador Perez, which the team is trying to resolve by playing Perez at DH and Melendez at left field. But now we have Michael Massey and Nate Eaton, both of whom came up midway through the year, looking at starting positions. Massey has had a scorching spring, is hitting pretty well so far and looks to be a solid DP combo with Nicky Lopez. Eaton has a shot at a starting outfield spot due to the injury to Drew Waters, who also had a shot at a starting spot, and will likely leapfrog Kyle Isbel over time. And then you also have Vinnie Pasquantino, who's a shoo-in at 1st or DH.
I think the Royals really banking on these younger, lower-budget players is gonna make them a sleeper favorite in the AL Central. I mean, not only are they doing their usual dominating in Spring Training play, but the Royals have less contracts holding them back, less people that might leave in July, and less unsinkable type guys that could let them down. Bobby Witt is primed for a strong sophomore season, they're projecting great things from Brady Singer, and this could be at the very least a promising third place team that outdoes expectations.
The Nationals, similarly, are going with a lot of recent trade returns for starring roles, including C.J. Abrams, who they intend to start at shortstop this season, and MacKenzie Gore, who is now fourth in line for starters on the depth chart thanks to Strasburg and Cavali doing their thing. The Nats are at the point now where several of their big roster pieces, including Lane Thomas, Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray and Riley Adams, are returns from the deals that sent some of their biggest pieces, such as Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Brad Hand, to competitors.
And the interesting thing that sets them apart from the Royals is that now that they trust people like Thomas, Ruiz, Gray and Joey Meneses [mostly], they're beginning to supplant with cheap free agents, and getting Dom Smith, Jeimer Candelario, Trevor Williams and Corey Dickerson to fill crucial roles in the roster. Some of these guys are replacement level, there's the hope that Smith will spring into action now that he's actually on a team that has a role for him, but he's still Dom Smith. At the same time, the Nats do have some new mega-prospects, like James Wood, Robert Hassell and Elijah Green, but, with the exception of Hassell, they all seem to be a few years away. There are no huge prospects coming up immediately, like a lot of other rebuilding teams [O's, A's, etc].
I think the Nats might be a few more years away from really competing, but they do seem to be putting a little bit of effort here just on the basis of the people they've used to ensure they have competent choices at most positions. It's not a full tanking mentality, though it is close.
The Royals probably have the better chance of these two teams, though who knows which players will catch fire and which won't.