Through four months of a global health crisis punctuated by heated labor strife, the primary question regarding the 2020 MLB season has been one of “if” rather than “when.” But here we are, just days away from the start of a 60-game sprint that basically boils down to a pennant race. So the question arises: Which teams are in the best position to tackle the most chaotic season in MLB history?
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
I touched on this a few weeks ago, so I won’t belabor the point here, but the 2020 Dodgers are the best on-paper team I’ve ever seen. This club won 106 games last year, then added Mookie Betts over the winter. Losing Cy Young runner-up Hyun-Jin Ryu will hurt, and the rotation would’ve looked much more robust if David Price hadn’t decided to sit out the season, but the Dodgers will make up for it with the additions of four top-100 prospects (Gavin Lux, Will Smith, Brusdar Graterol, and Dustin May) who weren’t with the club full time in 2019.
The Dodgers are the only NL contender without an obvious weakness. They have a potential Cy Young winner (Walker Buehler), the early favorite for Rookie of the Year (Lux), and in Betts and Cody Bellinger perhaps the two best position players in the NL. Justin Turner and Corey Seager, both top-10 MVP vote-getters in recent years, are afterthoughts. So is Max Muncy, who’s been worth about five WAR per year since joining the Dodgers in 2018. Even the bullpen, the team’s Achilles’ heel in 2019, should be sturdier with Graterol and Blake Treinen shoring up the middle innings. The nature of a 60-game season invites chaos, and nobody needs to remind the Dodgers that regular-season success doesn’t always translate to postseason hardware. But as of Opening Day, this is the best team in baseball—and it isn’t close.
2. New York Yankees
Last summer, manager Aaron Boone led an injury-riddled roster to 103 wins by conjuring All-Star-level hitters seemingly out of thin air. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton played just 120 games between them in 2019, and the Yankees still scored 943 runs. If those two can stay on the field and most of last year’s surprise breakout hitters can maintain their level of production, the 2020 Yankees could become the first team in 20 years to score six runs per game.
But as much as the offense thrived during last season, the Yankees frequently came up short in the starting rotation. Spending $324 million on Gerrit Cole, perhaps the best pitcher on the planet right now, might seem like a painfully obvious way to patch that particular crack. But sometimes the obvious solution is obvious for a reason, and the Yankees are the most fun when they’re the least subtle. Having a full season of Jordan Montgomery and Jonathan Loaisiga should also go a long way, and the club’s top two pitching prospects—Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt—are nearly MLB-ready.
3. Houston Astros
The Astros could easily be no. 2 on this list, but I have two minor reservations that hold them back. The first is uncertainty about how the rotation fits together after Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, especially with Cole moving northeast to suit up for Houston’s biggest AL pennant rival. Lance McCullers Jr. is coming off a yearlong layoff after Tommy John surgery. José Urquidy has not participated in the training camp restart, and Josh James was inconsistent in 2019 after an eye-popping debut the year before. It’s also unclear what role, if any, top prospect Forrest Whitley will play in the 2020 season.
The second nitpick concerns the team’s response to an offseason full of public shaming and internal restructuring following the sign-stealing controversy. Maybe there will be no effect, or maybe it will cast a palpable yet intangible pall over the entire campaign—there’s only one way to find out.
4. Minnesota Twins
Last year’s Twins were the most prolific home-run-hitting team in baseball history. So what did they do this winter? Added Josh Donaldson to that already hilariously dinger-happy lineup. Hell. Yes.
The biggest question about the Twins, as ever, concerns the pitching staff, which is a substantial weakness compared to the impressive stables of arms in New York, Houston, and Tampa Bay. But the 60-game season could play into Minnesota’s hands. Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and (once he comes back from suspension) Michael Pineda have all been absolutely electric in short stints, and manager Rocco Baldelli will have the opportunity to get creative and maximize output from those pitchers, along with swingman types like Devin Smeltzer and Randy Dobnak. Expect fireworks on both sides of the ball, and, if Maeda and Hill can live up to expectations, a possible run at a championship.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
After five years of triple-switching, openering, and otherwise MacGyvering his way to 90 wins a season, Rays manager Kevin Cash has to be rubbing his hands together and grinning at the prospect of 29 other managers being thrust into his world of tactical chaos. Cash has more in-game substitution options and bullpen combinations than Everlast has rhymes (and by extension, more than the Bible has Psalms). I doubt any manager will be more comfortable navigating this season of unfettered weirdness.
The other reason to be bullish on the Rays is that, when healthy, this is the best starting rotation in baseball. Have Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, and Brendan McKay all been healthy and effective at the same time? Well, no, but while I wouldn’t bet on all of Morton, Snell, and Glasnow to make it through 33 starts each, it’s not unreasonable to expect that they could all make it through 11 or 12 in a shortened season.
6. Washington Nationals
Even after losing Anthony Rendon to free agency, Washington’s starting lineup and rotation are championship-quality. There’s not a lot of depth on the bench or in the upper minors, but if Max Scherzer’s back problems are behind him, Carter Kieboom hits better than he did in his 2019 call-up, and all three starting outfielders stay in the lineup, this is probably the second-best team in the National League. If not, this short season is going to feel really long.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
Of the middling National League group that I’ve dubbed the Wilderness of Havoc (because each team included could either make the World Series of finish 15 games under .500), the Cardinals have the fewest obvious flaws. Jack Flaherty showed Cy Young potential down the stretch last year, and the rest of the rotation looks solid, if not spectacular. Ditto the lineup, which lacks even a dark horse MVP candidate but contains seven or eight solid hitters. And with Tommy Edman and Paul DeJong, the Cardinals can get creative defensively if the situation calls for it.
The bullpen is … fine … and I’d like to see a no. 2 starter emerge behind Flaherty—Alex Reyes, the Cardinals’ ace-or-closer-in-waiting for the past several years, has not pitched in camp yet. Regardless, it seems like the Cardinals are in for another summer of their customary unwavering competence.
8. Atlanta Braves
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are still the headliners, but the next wave of Atlanta’s spectacular farm system is also starting to emerge. Former top-five pick Kyle Wright struggled mightily in 2019 but figures to get another crack at the rotation this year, while Austin Riley should settle in as a DH. Top prospect Cristian Pache, a 21-year-old with the potential to become one of the top defensive center fielders in the game, was on track to join the team early this year until he sprained his ankle last week. The Braves could drop him into center field when he’s healed and, between him and Acuña, leave two-thirds of their outfield alone for the next six years.
9. Cincinnati Reds
I wanted to pick the Reds to win the NL Central but I’m a coward, so I played it safe and went with the Cardinals. Following last year’s Trevor Bauer trade and the successful Sonny Gray Reclamation Project, Cincinnati’s rotation fills out quite nicely after no. 1 starter Luis Castillo. The bullpen, anchored by closer Raisel Iglesias, big left-hander Amir Garrett, and two-way man Michael Lorenzen, has been a strength for years.
And no team in the NL benefits more from the DH than the Reds, who came into camp with a lineup constructed mostly of corner guys. Now, they can play three third basemen and three right fielders all at the same time without cramming former no. 2 overall pick Nick Senzel in at shortstop.
10. Los Angeles Angels
Stop me if this sounds familiar: The Angels have added a prominent slugger to supplement Mike Trout in the lineup. Their rotation is made up of big-name pitchers with checkered injury histories. Shohei Ohtani might stay healthy. And a new manager is coming in to revitalize the clubhouse. You know what? I am 100 percent on board to walk into that particular sliding glass door again. Maybe the sixth time will be the charm.
11. Chicago Cubs
[Closes eyes, reaches into Wilderness of Havoc.]
My case for the Cubs as a bounceback team is partially based on finding most of the other NL contenders to be uninspiring. The other part, though, is that I don’t understand how this roster won only 84 games last year. I’m not particularly bullish on David Ross as a first-time manager, but it’s eminently possible that Joe Maddon’s rah-rah act got a little stale after five years, and a change in leadership will knock loose whatever malaise or complacency undermined the team last year.
Then there are other little things that might add up. Craig Kimbrel cannot possibly be as bad as he was in 2019, and beyond Kimbrel, the Cubs have no shortage of intriguing relief options. Ian Happ is back from his bizarre minor league exile. Kyle Schwarber is finally going to get to be a DH, and whatever Chicago’s other shortcomings, having Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javy Báez in the middle of the order is a huge advantage.
12. Chicago White Sox
Back in March, I planted my flag on the White Sox as This Year’s Breakout Team, so this is me committing fully to the bit. In all honesty, this year’s White Sox will probably end up being like last year’s Padres—tons of fun and loaded with talent, but still a year or two away from being a serious playoff threat. Then again, a little irrational optimism is good every once in a while.
On a more serious note, it will be a huge bummer if the White Sox decide to play service time games with second base prospect Nick Madrigal. The no. 4 pick in the 2018 draft is one of the best contact hitters in the game, and at 5-foot-7 has unlimited potential for taking funny photos next to bigger dudes like Eloy Jiménez and Lucas Giolito. More importantly, he’s a better second baseman than Leury García or Danny Mendick, and if the White Sox are serious about putting pressure on the Twins this year, they’ll have him in the lineup on Opening Day.
13. Oakland Athletics
Oakland’s billing as the West Coast version of the Rays isn’t entirely accurate: Yes, the A’s perennially scratch, claw, and finagle their way to wild-card contention on a rock-bottom budget, but they’ve got serious offensive star power in Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman, plus top-end sluggers in Matt Olson and Mark Canha. They might have a third elite masher in Khris Davis if he can recover from his down year in 2019. Still, despite how much I love rookie catcher Sean Murphy—a former Wright State standout and top-100 prospect who will take over behind the dish full time this year—the lineup is a little top-heavy.
The A’s always seem to find a way to work around their problems, but that will be tougher this summer since the season-opening pitching rotation will feature neither A.J. Puk (who’s on the IL with a shoulder injury) nor Jesús Luzardo (who’s in the bullpen after a positive coronavirus test delayed his arrival at camp). At the risk of invoking Wooderson’s Law, it’d be a lot cooler if it did.
14. Texas Rangers
Here’s something nobody’s ever said about the Texas Rangers before this year: I don’t trust their lineup even a little bit, but I absolutely love their rotation. In a 162-game season, I think the Astros would win the AL West without breaking a sweat, but there’s enough chaos built into the 2020 schedule that Houston could stumble out of the gate while the Rangers (or A’s, or Angels) go on a hot streak and steal the division.
And it’s easy to go on a hot streak with a rotation fronted by Corey Kluber, Lance Lynn, and Mike Minor, a trio who will give the Rangers a marked pitching advantage over most of their opponents. Maybe Joey Gallo goes off for 30 homers in 60 games, while youngsters Nick Solak and (when he returns from his hip injury) Willie Calhoun provide enough secondary offense to make the most of their exceptional rotation. Stranger things than that will happen this year.
15. Milwaukee Brewers
For a team coming off two straight playoff appearances, the Brewers have seen a lot of roster turnover. Star catcher Yasmani Grandal moved 90 miles down I-94 to the White Sox, while third baseman Mike Moustakas ended up in Cincinnati. Drew Pomeranz went to San Diego via free agency, and Trent Grisham and Zach Davies joined him there thanks to a trade that landed the Brewers former Kent State left-hander Eric Lauer and former top-30 prospect Luis Urías.
Milwaukee has made the playoffs with less talent than this, but apart from Christian Yelich, Keston Hiura, and Josh Hader, the rest of the roster is full of either serviceable veterans (Eric Sogard, Justin Smoak), talented but high-variance youngsters (Urías, Corbin Burnes), or players who have shown flashes of greatness interspersed with periods of woefulness. These are the anti-Cardinals—nothing they do would surprise me.
16. Cleveland Indians
Cleveland managed its spectacular back-to-back 2016 and 2017 campaigns thanks to an exceptional run of scouting and development, and more than a little good luck. But when the team’s business plan involves salary-dumping a two-time Cy Young winner because he’s making more than $10 million a year, there is almost literally no room for error—and the franchise’s all-time front office hot streak seems to have come to an end.
A fallow few years in the draft and a few trade misfires have shattered Cleveland’s depth. The club currently has two superstar position players, three really good starting pitchers, and not a lot else, even in the upper levels of the minors. Seems like a recipe for a .500 team.
17. Philadelphia Phillies
Along with the Cubs, the Phillies were last year’s “How is a team with this many good players this bad?” team. I’m at least partially inclined to believe that was a fluke, just because the boatload of veteran hitters they brought in around Bryce Harper—Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura—was so famously consistent beforehand. And yet all of them, plus Harper and Rhys Hoskins, underperformed at the plate. Maybe new manager Joe Girardi can undo whatever hex they suffered under last season.
I still don’t love the rotation after Aaron Nola, and with Seranthony Domínguez and David Robertson on the shelf, the bullpen is even more concerning. But the addition of Zack Wheeler takes tons of pressure off the frustrating Zach Eflin and the aging Jake Arrieta. All the more so if and when top pitching prospect Spencer Howard joins the big league rotation. There’s a lot to be optimistic about, but this team has crumbled down the stretch and underachieved two years running. They’ve lost the benefit of the doubt.
18. New York Mets
The projection systems seem to like the Mets—PECOTA has them less than a game behind the Nats, while ZiPS has them in a three-way tie for first in the NL East—but I don’t really see it. With Wheeler on a division rival and Noah Syndergaard out for the season, that leaves Michael Wacha, Steven Matz, and Rick Porcello to round out the rotation. Now, if GM Brodie Van Wagenen has found a portal that transports those guys back to their 2015 forms, the Mets might go 45-15. Failing that, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Marcus Stroman and Jacob deGrom.
The lineup should be pretty solid. I’m a big believer in Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto, the addition of the DH opens up opportunities for both Dom Smith and Yoenis Céspedes, and nobody needs to be talked into Pete Alonso. But what happens in the rotation will determine whether the Mets finish first or fourth.
19. San Diego Padres
Yeah, everyone loves Fernando Tatís Jr. and Manny Machado; the Tommy Pham trade is pretty exciting; and for long stretches of last season, The Ringer’s MLB coverage was essentially a Chris Paddack fan blog. But this bullpen is going to be unbelievably good. Emilio Pagán, who arrived via trade from Tampa Bay, was nearly unhittable last year, and he’ll be the Padres’ third-best reliever. Pomeranz has reinvented himself as a shutdown lefty out of the pen. And last season, closer Kirby Yates held opponents to a .262 slugging percentage, struck out nearly eight batters for every walk, and posted a 1.19 ERA. He also saved 41 games from 44 chances and finished second among MLB relievers in win probability added. I hope Yates gets more notoriety in 2020, but I worry that with Pagán and Pomeranz ahead of him in the bullpen, everyone will just assume the Padres are going to win every game they lead after six innings and turn off the TV.
20. Boston Red Sox
This is as far as I could let them slip. Maybe it’s an overreaction to Chris Sale being out for the year and the trade that sent Betts and Price to the Dodgers for a kid named Jeter, but it bears repeating that Chris Sale is out for the year and the Red Sox sent Betts and Price to the Dodgers for a kid named Jeter. The offense should be playoff-caliber even without Betts, but after Eduardo Rodríguez, the team doesn’t have a starting pitcher I’m confident in. If Nathan Eovaldi isn’t hurt now, he could well be by the time the season starts; and Martín Pérez is the guy you sign when you can’t get Wacha or Porcello. Collin McHugh was supposed to add some depth and experience to the rotation, but he opted out over the weekend. Pity that Cam Newton signed with the Pats already, because he could’ve broken into this rotation.
21. Arizona Diamondbacks
Between Madison Bumgarner, Starling Marté, and Kole Calhoun, Arizona is a stone cold lock to lead the league in, “Oh shit, that guy’s on this team now?”
Even without Greinke, who was traded to Houston at last year’s deadline, and Mike Leake, who opted out of the 2020 season, Arizona has plenty of pitching. Bumgarner is probably a little short of being ace-quality these days, but Robbie Ray was one of the top pitchers in the NL just three years ago, and youngsters Luke Weaver and Zac Gallen put up huge numbers in limited action last year. This year should mark the first serious contributions for the prospects Arizona acquired for Greinke, namely first baseman Seth Beer and pitcher J.B. Bukauskas. And top catching prospect Daulton Varsho is also in line to see action in the majors in 2020.
There’s a lot to like about this D-backs team, and in a more winnable division, they’d be a realistic playoff contender. But the NL West is going to be very tough to navigate until the Dodgers fall off.
22. Toronto Blue Jays
With their roster of dinger-happy Baseball Sons—Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette—the Blue Jays have already introduced their offensive core of the next generation. They have a top-end closer in Ken Giles, a playoff-tested no. 1 starter in Hyun-Jin Ryu, and one of the top pitching prospects in the high minors—if not the top pitching prospect at any level—in Nate Pearson.
I was going to go out on a limb and rank the Jays ahead of the Red Sox and predict that they would become the 2020 season’s surprise playoff contender. But this weekend, the Canadian government (quite reasonably) denied MLB permission to host the Jays’ home games in Toronto, noting that it wouldn’t be safe for the team and its opponents to fly back and forth over the Canadian border from states with high coronavirus case counts such as Florida and Georgia. The best-case scenario for the Jays is spending the season in an unfamiliar locale chosen mere days before the season, hundreds of miles from the comforts of home that the 29 other teams will enjoy. The (admittedly unlikely) worst-case scenario is ending up as an itinerant perpetual road team. This concept is common in indy ball when stadium arrangements fall through, and the road warriors invariably finish last. That won’t happen to “Toronto” because the Orioles are also in the AL East, but it’s not good for the Blue Jays’ postseason chances.
23. Colorado Rockies
This is the lowest-ranked team that could reach the playoffs without causing me to keel over dead of shock. The lineup is solid, if a little top-heavy, but the big issue is pitching. In 2018, Kyle Freeland posted a 166 ERA+ in 202 1/3 innings and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, which undersells how good he was. Freeland’s 8.2 bWAR in 2018 would have led all MLB pitchers in 2019. But in 2019, Freeland posted a 6.73 ERA in 22 starts and spent part of the year in the minors.
Colorado’s top four starters—German Márquez, Jon Gray, Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela—have all suffered some version of this yo-yo effect. If all four put in their best performances in 2020, Colorado could grab a wild-card spot. If not, they could finish dead last in the NL West.
24. Detroit Tigers
Hidden within Detroit’s historically awful 2019 season was a pretty decent pitching staff, led by Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull. And while the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Phillies all have at least one top prospect who could change the course of the season with an early call-up, the Tigers have four.
Matt Manning, Casey Mize, and Tarik Skubal were ranked 12th, 16th, and 53rd on FanGraphs’ offseason top prospects list, and Mize and Manning ought to be in Detroit’s rotation right now. Even the top pick in this year’s draft, Spencer Torkelson, might be the best hitter under contract in the entire Tigers organization, given the dire state of the team’s position player group. Much as I always urge bad teams to play the kids, the Tigers’ kids are so good (and their big league roster so bad) that playing them could bump Detroit way closer to .500 than last year’s 114-loss campaign would make it seem.
25. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates player I’m most excited about this year is pitcher Steven Brault, who posted a 5.16 ERA in 113 1/3 big league innings last year. More importantly, Brault—a vocal performance major in college—released an album of Broadway tunes this spring, and it’s really good.
Like I said, 2020 is a weird year for baseball.
26. San Francisco Giants
The Giants are going to be really bad this year, but I’m very happy that Johnny Cueto will be back in the majors full time. Cueto gets underrated because of a few ill-timed playoff blowups, but by any statistical measure, he’s one of the best pitchers of his generation. Now, at age 34, Cueto has turned into one of those crafty veterans—like Greinke or Bartolo Colon—who’s so much smarter than the hitters he’s facing that he can get by on guile and tricks. Between his penchant for hesitation deliveries and his bevy of off-speed offerings, Cueto is still a ton of fun to watch.
27. Kansas City Royals
Kansas City has gone all in on college pitching in the past few drafts, but most of their big-name prospects are a few years away. In the meantime, here’s one thing I like about the Royals’ rebuild so far: They’ve sought out and given serious playing time to guys who couldn’t crack the lineup on good teams. The greatest success so far is Jorge Soler, who was a bench bat with the Cubs but led the AL with 48 home runs in Kansas City last year.
This offseason, the Royals have offered roster spots to Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal—both former elite closers who fell on hard times—and Chance Adams, a former top-100 prospect who couldn’t break into the Yankees’ crowded rotation. Just last week, they traded for Padres castoff Franchy Cordero, a power-hitting outfielder who never got more than a cup of coffee in three seasons in San Diego. We’ve seen this approach pay off for other rebuilding teams, and Soler’s success alone justifies it. But Kansas City will need to find a couple more contributors in the next few years before their top pitching prospects arrive.
28. Seattle Mariners
I … don’t have much to say about the Mariners. Do not ask about the pitching staff. Do not worry about whether top prospect Julio Rodriguez broke his wrist last week. And under no circumstances should you Google “Mitch Haniger” and some combination of “hernia” and “ruptured testicle.”
29. Miami Marlins
Are the Marlins going to be good this year? No. Are they going to be one of those bad teams that showcases a lot of fun prospects, like last year’s Padres? Maybe if they get aggressive. Will they absolutely ruin the NL East race by going something like 19-41 overall but 9-1 against either the Mets or Phillies? I guarantee it.
30. Baltimore Orioles
In all honesty, it just feels mean to write about the Orioles anymore.