Nobody really knows how this unprecedented 60-game MLB season will take shape or what areas of team-building might prove more important than in a normal season. With a host of rules and scheduling changes, from expanded rosters and a universal DH to fewer off days and less travel, it’s possible that a more playoff-like atmosphere throughout the season could better emphasize relief pitching. Or that the consistently warm weather could elevate offense. Or that any other combination of factors unique to the 2020 season could alter the regular calculus used to judge a team’s strengths and weaknesses.
The only certainty is that if the 2020 season lasts until October, new teams will make the playoffs. And not just because the compressed schedule allows for more randomness in the standings—baseball is a sport rife with turnover in postseason spots.
In the wild-card era, 49 percent of playoff teams didn’t reach the postseason the previous year, and that figure is the same for both the eight-team and 10-team playoff periods. Every season in that span has seen multiple new playoff teams, and every season since the wild-card expansion in 2012 has seen at least three new playoff teams.
So in surveying the teams that missed the 2019 postseason, which are best suited to press an advantage in one key area of the roster? Here are a half-dozen possibilities—none of whom are favored to reach the playoffs, but all with a realistic chance in this strange season.
Starting Rotation: Rangers and Reds
The 2019 postseason saw the Nationals and Astros romp to the World Series thanks in large part to their stable of stout starting pitchers, demonstrating the power of consistent starting pitching, night after night, in a short stretch of games. A deep, reliable group of starters prevents overtaxing the bullpen, simplifies the offense’s responsibility, and keeps the team in every game—a necessity in a short season when every contest could be the realistic difference between a playoff appearance and an early exit. Most of the teams poised to maximize that facet of the roster are already contenders: FanGraphs projects 11 teams to earn at least 5 WAR from their starting pitchers this season, and nine had winning records last season, with an average of 98 wins between them. Texas and Cincinnati, conversely, were below .500.
Best Rotation Projections for 2020
|Team||Projected WAR||2019 Record|
|Team||Projected WAR||2019 Record|
Texas is more beholden to its rotation, which offers both a high ceiling and a high floor. Mike Minor and Lance Lynn excelled last season, but all of the Rangers’ other starters combined for a 7.22 ERA. Now, they’ve added Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner just two years removed from a third-place finish; Kyle Gibson, a prototypical middle-of-the-rotation starter with average stuff and results; and Jordan Lyles, an inconsistent performer who has nonetheless excelled across two stints with the Brewers over the last two seasons.
The Rangers could benefit from the Kluber addition in particular, with the 34-year-old starter plenty capable of running through a dozen dazzling starts in a row. In December, I called the Kluber trade an “unmitigated disaster” for Cleveland—and that was before the prized prospect Cleveland acquired in return for their ace, reliever Emmanuel Clase, was suspended for a positive PED test.
With Minor, Lynn, Kluber, and Gibson, the Rangers are the only team with four different starters projected for at least 1 WAR this season. Texas’s lineup leaves a lot to be desired after Joey Gallo, but the rotation might be good enough by itself to thrust the Rangers into contention.
Cincinnati doesn’t look quite so lost on offense, with incumbent slugger Eugenio Suárez joined by offseason additions Nicholas Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and NPB star Shogo Akiyama. The addition of the designated hitter should especially help the Reds, with their plethora of defensively questionable batters. But the Reds’ lineup and bullpen still look average at best, and they’ll need to rely on their rotation to compete in a crowded NL Central field.
Like in Texas, the Reds’ rotation starts with two returning arms: Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, the latter of whom rediscovered himself in an All-Star campaign in Cincinnati, as he reunited with his former college pitching coach after a lost season and a half with the Yankees. The Reds are hoping that kind of turnaround is possible for their newest additions too, after Trevor Bauer and Wade Miley suffered from calamitous collapses toward the end of 2019.
Bauer came to Cincinnati from Cleveland as part of a three-team trade at the deadline, costing the Reds Yasiel Puig and outfield prospect Taylor Trammell. Yet his new team certainly didn’t envision a performance like Bauer gave after arriving in Cincinnati: Out of 78 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings after last year’s trade deadline, he tied for 75th with a 6.39 ERA.
Outside a home run spike, however, his underlying numbers in Cincinnati weren’t terribly out of line with his previous work in Cleveland. And while Bauer has never really been the kind of ace his draft pedigree and outsize reputation might suggest—in his best season, 2018, he was the beneficiary of some tremendous luck—he’s at least qualified to serve as a no. 3 arm behind Castillo and Gray.
Miley’s final stretch of the 2019 season was even stranger than Bauer’s. The lefty had pitched well for the Brewers in 2018 and the Astros up through August in 2019; he entered September with a sparkling 3.06 ERA. Then his arm was secretly swapped with a Little Leaguer’s, and he allowed 21 runs in his next 11 1/3 innings, including three starts in which he failed to escape the second inning.
If Bauer and Miley can return to form—and the latter, at least, thinks a bout of pitch tipping contributed to his struggles—Cincinnati’s rotation will be the NL Central’s best. Anthony Desclafani was an above-average pitcher last year, adjusting for ballpark, and he’d be the no. 5 man.
Bullpen: Padres and Mets
The 2019 playoffs excepted, the sprint-not-marathon nature of the postseason generally rewards elite bullpens, with the top relievers able to throw the most important innings against the toughest opponents. Particularly with starters’ arms not necessarily stretched out because of the abbreviated spring training period, that same dynamic might arise in the shortened 2020 campaign.
If so, the Padres could benefit as they try for their first playoff appearance since 2006. San Diego’s bullpen was already solid last year, with Kirby Yates and Craig Stammen leading the way. Yates was the National League’s best individual reliever, with a 1.19 ERA and 41.6 percent strikeout rate, as well as an MLB-best 41 saves in 44 tries. And Stammen has been surprisingly effective and durable over the last two seasons, with a 3.02 ERA and 3.17 FIP in 161 frames. He ranks third in the majors in relief innings over that span. (One of the two pitchers ahead of him is the Rays’ Ryan Yarbrough, who often pitched multiple innings behind an opener.)
Now that duo gets some elite company, in the form of righty Emilio Pagán and free-agent lefty Drew Pomeranz. Pagán came to San Diego in the other Rays-Padres trade this winter (not the one that exchanged Tommy Pham for Hunter Renfroe and a “slapdick prospect”), after a 2.31 ERA campaign in Tampa. He’s an archetypal hard-throwing reliever, with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball and biting slider.
Pomeranz is even more interesting after half a season of relief dominance in 2019, most of it in Milwaukee after a deadline trade. The veteran southpaw had struggled mightily in San Francisco’s rotation, but Pomeranz in relief wielded an overpowering fastball and generated nearly identical strikeout and walk numbers to teammate Josh Hader—and he allowed half as many home runs, to boot.
Drew Pomeranz, Shutdown Reliever
|Statistic||Pomeranz, Starter||Pomeranz, Reliever||Josh Hader|
|Statistic||Pomeranz, Starter||Pomeranz, Reliever||Josh Hader|
|Innings||75 1/3||28 2/3||75 2/3|
|Fastball Velo||92.0 mph||94.5 mph||95.5 mph|
Put it this way: 458 different pitchers threw at least 10 innings in relief last season. Among that mass, Pomeranz ranked second in strikeout-minus-walk rate, Yates ranked third, and Pagán ranked eighth. The Padres are ready to thrive in all of their close games this season.
The other 2019 non-playoff team with the best chance at a world-beating bullpen is the Mets, who are banking on Seth Lugo’s continued brilliance and several rebound seasons from relievers with a history of relief dominance. Forget Bauer and Miley—closer Edwin Díaz had the strangest 2019, with a 5.59 ERA, seven blown saves, and an astonishing 15 home runs allowed in his first season in New York. But under the hood, Díaz didn’t look all that different last season: His strikeout and walk numbers were in line with his career averages, his velocity was just fine, and he induced just as many uncomfortable swings and misses. Assuming he doesn’t run into catastrophic home run luck once again, he could easily regain the form that made him a top closer in Seattle.
Jeurys Familia was also terrible last season, with the majors’ second-highest walk rate (minimum 60 innings) contributing to a 5.70 ERA. But by fWAR, he rated as a top-15 reliever in 2015, 2016, and 2018 (he missed most of 2017 due to a suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy and an injury), so his pitching potential is much higher than the 2019 results reflect.
New Met Dellin Betances barely had any 2019 results at all: Between a shoulder injury and Achilles tear, he pitched to just two batters all season. He struck out both—a fitting performance given that Betances had led all relievers in strikeouts over the previous five seasons, with at least 100 Ks each year. The former Yankee signed a below-the-radar deal across town in December and should be ready by this delayed Opening Day, rounding out an indomitable bullpen group.
Forget great pitching: We don’t know whether the ball will still be juiced in 2020. (Remember when the juiced ball was MLB’s greatest worry?) And after watching teams like the Yankees and Twins slug their way to the playoffs last season, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a team with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani doing the same this year.
Trout, of course, is still the majors’ best player by a wide margin; the gap in projected WAR between Trout and the second-place position player this season is the same as the gap between second place and 16th. And the Angels return several other key contributors too, from DH/pitcher Ohtani and shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the underrated infield duo of David Fletcher and Tommy La Stella. Justin Upton could also bounce back after struggling through an injury-riddled campaign.
Like the Rangers’ rotation and Padres’ bullpen, though, the Angels’ potential lineup breakout stems from new additions to surround the existing talent. Rendon was the best free-agent position player last winter, and the reigning World Series hero both gives the middle of the Angels’ order more thump behind Trout and affords new manager Joe Maddon more flexibility with the versatile fielders on his roster. (Fletcher, for instance, made 20-plus appearances at four different positions last year.)
Rendon isn’t the only potential reinforcement, either. Fellow free-agent signee Jason Castro was an above-average hitter last year, a rarity for a catcher, and top outfield prospect Jo Adell may debut in 2020, which would add yet another dynamic bat to the lineup. Given the state of their pitching staff, the Angels have to hope their heavy investment in the lineup pays off, and with as many dynamic bats as possible: They’re devoting north of 80 percent of their payroll to position players, by far the most in the majors. (The Brewers, at 73 percent, are the only other team above 65.)
Prospects: White Sox
All batters—except for maybe Trout—are streaky in small-enough samples. That maxim seems especially true for rookie hitters just entering the league, who can either struggle upon first exposure to MLB arms or dominate them before the league figures out their tendencies.
In 2017, Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins hit .314/.442/.805 with 18 home runs in his first 34 games; he finished that season with a .135/.292/.192 stretch and hasn’t approached those early highs in either full season since. In 2019, Cincinnati’s Aristides Aquino hit .330/.393/.804 with 14 home runs in his first 27 games, then finished the season on a .194/.246/.370 slide. While Aquino was torching NL pitchers, Toronto’s Bo Bichette was laying waste to their AL counterparts to the tune of a .351/.388/.684 line through 26 games—only to fall to a far more mundane .256/.319/.415 over his last 20.
Such is the natural ebb and flow of adjustments and readjustments: Pitchers took a few weeks to learn Bichette’s tendencies and manage his weaknesses, so Bichette would have to respond to their new approach, and so on. In a 60-game season, though, those hot starts would encompass half the schedule.
And if there’s one team best suited to take advantage of that initial learning period, it’s the White Sox, who already benefit from an easy regional schedule in 2020. Two rookies are poised to debut for Chicago this season: outfielder Luis Robert and second baseman (and Ringer favorite) Nick Madrigal.
Robert is a five-tool centerfielder with prodigious potential. Across three minor league levels last season, Baseball America’s no. 2 prospect tallied 32 home runs and 36 steals, and he profiles as a great defender besides. His most concerning flaw is spotty plate discipline; he posted a 23 percent strikeout rate versus a 5 percent walk rate last season, a combination only a few outliers can turn into positive offensive production in the majors. But if opposing pitchers need some time to figure out how to exploit this weakness, Robert might be halfway to winning the Rookie of the Year award before the mess of strikeouts arrives.
Contact maven Madrigal, meanwhile, has struck out just 21 times in 705 career minor-league plate appearances; he’s already projected for the majors’ lowest strikeout rate. (Apologies to other Ringer favorite Willians Astudillo, now no. 2 in that projection.) Heck, if anyone is going to challenge a .400 batting average in a short season, it might as well be Madrigal, whose contact ability and unique approach may befuddle opposing pitchers his first time through the league. Without any real time for the league to adjust to his strengths, Madrigal could post incredible individual numbers this season—and help his team in the process, as the White Sox press forward with their youth movement toward the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2008.