Getty Images

The arrival of Major League Baseball's exhibition season can mean only one thing: it's time to shift into full prognosticator mode. Most, but certainly not all, of the winter's transaction activity is behind us. Now, it's time to survey how the teams look on paper and make our best guesses about what that might mean for the 2024 regular season.

Part of that means breaking some hearts (or, at least, angering some souls) by casting doubt on a handful of incumbent playoff teams. Don't blame us for that, blame the reality of MLB's postseason turnover. It's too soon to draw conclusions from MLB's new playoff system, but, under the old 10-team format it was common to see half the field change on a year-to-year basis. That's why, every spring, we highlight the five playoff teams who we feel have the most reason to be concerned about a return trip.

Below you'll find those five teams, along with explanations for their inclusion. In some instances, it's about injury or offseason loss; in others, it's because their performance in 2023 did not seem repeatable, or because they're facing stiff competition within their division or league. Whatever the case, we think there's an argument to be made, even if the team ends up proving it silly over the course of the summer. (Do note that the teams are presented in ascending order, from most to least safe.) 

5. Texas Rangers

We know, we know. Anytime you include the defending champions in this sort of piece, you're setting yourself up to look foolish. But put aside the champagne bottles and the commemorative gear and you have to admit there's a lot of downside here.

Most of that comes in the form of a battered rotation. The Rangers are going to be without Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer for at least the start of the season. Offseason signing Tyler Mahle is likely to miss the year as well following Tommy John surgery, meaning Texas could be relying on Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, and Andrew Heaney to carry them through the All-Star break and perhaps even a little beyond that. 

Mind you, all three are coming off good (or great, in Eovaldi's case) years, but go back to 2022 and they averaged fewer than 20 starts apiece. If one or two of them have their availability or performance compromised in a real way before Scherzer or deGrom return, the Rangers will be digging into some untested depth. That doesn't necessarily have to end poorly, but it is something to bear in mind with their ranking here.

There's also the matter of the American League. Realistically, the Rangers have four spots to vie for: the West crown and the three wild cards. The West has two other teams who seem like serious playoff contenders -- the Astros and Mariners -- and the East might have as many as five clubs jockeying for a postseason berth. It's no knock against the Rangers to write that the health of their starters might dictate their fate -- that's true of most teams, but then, most aren't already down like the Rangers.

4. Tampa Bay Rays

It seems like we doubt the Rays every spring, only for them to show up every fall. Still, they're due for a down season at some point -- and that point might be this year.

The Rays will enter the season without Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs. Add in the Tyler Glasnow trade, and Tampa Bay will be relying on a rotation that includes Zack Littell, Ryan Pepiot (prone to injuries himself), and Taj Bradley. Those three have combined for 49 big-league starts. Each has their merits -- indeed, we would not be surprised if Pepiot and Bradley enjoy breakout seasons -- but it's only fair to have some sense of trepidation about them.

As for the lineup, the Rays are similarly banking on the unproven likes of Jonathan Aranda, José Caballero, and René Pinto to solidify themselves as real starting options. They do have some high-quality prospects en route, including a new left side of the infield in third baseman Junior Caminero and shortstop Carson Williams, but we're doubtful they finish with the second-best park-adjusted offense in the league again.

Even if you're more sold on these Rays, you have to concede it's an extremely tough division. The four other East teams all have a chance to crack .500, meaning a bad week here or there could disrupt any given club's playoff chances. 

3. Minnesota Twins

On the one hand, the Twins still appear to be the best team in the Central despite the best efforts this winter of the Tigers and Royals. On the other hand, being the best team on paper in the Central doesn't always mean you're a safe bet to return to the playoffs.

The Twins' winter was defined by loss. Sonny Gray, Kenta Maeda, and Tyler Mahle all departed, leaving Minnesota with a remade rotation. They also traded away Jorge Polanco and bid adieu to closer Emilio Pagán and rental slugger Joey Gallo

Minnesota's uncertain television deal made it complicated for the front office to do much shopping, meaning their most notable addition was late-career Carlos Santana. We do think they did a good job of adding low-cost relievers who could form a quality bullpen around Jhoan Duran. If we were picking division winners today, we'd have the Twins atop the Central. Let's face it, though, this club as it stands does not feel inevitable.

We're not alone in that respect. The projection systems we surveyed have the Twins leading the Central by four to six games. The average root mean square error tends to be around five games for the best forecast models. In other words, we'll see.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

Speaking of winters defined by loss … how about the Brewers? David Stearns and Craig Counsell both bolted for bigger markets; Brandon Woodruff was non-tendered (although he has since re-signed on a reported two-year deal); and Corbin Burnes was traded. The Brewers did make some late-winter additions in the persons of Rhys Hoskins, Gary Sánchez, and Jakob Junis, but this is a new era in Milwaukee -- and that's part of why we have them ranked this highly.

Of the four teams presented so far in this article, we think the Brewers have the highest odds of pulling the plug at the deadline. At minimum, we think they would take a hard, long look at trading shortstop and impending free agent Willy Adames, right-handed starter Freddy Peralta, and shutdown closer Devin Williams if their playoff chances nearing mid-July can be charitably described as "hanging around."

There's enough uncertainty at the top of the National League Central for us to keep an open mind about their competitive chances -- it's fair to have questions about all of their chief rivals for the division crown. But that sell-happy scenario is enough for us to plop them down in second place. 

1. Miami Marlins

It only makes sense, right? The Marlins were unquestionably the weakest team in last year's playoff field. They won 84 games during the regular season, 33 of those in one-run fashion, and finished with a minus-57 run differential. Even ownership seemed to accept Miami's success was fleeting, as the Marlins hired former Rays executive Peter Bendix to overhaul the baseball operations department.

Bendix may prove to be a wise hire over the long haul, but he barely touched the on-field roster during his first winter at the helm. The biggest additions to the projected Opening Day lot were catcher Christian Bethancourt, outfielder Nick Gordon, and infielder Vidal Bruján -- none of whom are guaranteed starting roles. 

On the flip side, the Marlins lost one of their best hitters, Jorge Soler, to free agency. They'll also be without one of their best pitchers, with workhorse Sandy Alcantara slated to miss the entire year after undergoing Tommy John surgery last October.

Take a team whose success already seemed unsustainable heading forward, subtract two key talents from the roster, and then add no one of note in return and what do you get? In our evaluation, the playoff team most likely to fall short this summer.