On Thursday, more than four months after spring training was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB returns. The league will become the first of the four major North American sports leagues to start its regular season, and while it’ll be just 60 games (assuming all goes according to plan), there are still plenty of story lines to get excited about. Mookie Betts is a Dodger! (For a long time to come, presumably.) Shohei Ohtani is slated to return to the mound. And there are a slew of young players poised to break out. So what will the abbreviated campaign bring? The Ringer’s MLB team tried its best to make sense of it. Here are our picks for all the major awards, as well as teams and players to look out for.
World Series and Playoff Picks
This is mostly chalk, so I’ll focus on the Reds to win the NL Central and the White Sox to make the AL wild card. Cincinnati has Cy Young contender Luis Castillo and a top-tier no. 2 starter in Sonny Gray. I am going to exercise the “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say … ” clause for Trevor Bauer, but indeed, he is on the Reds also! That’s as formidable a rotation as any in the NL, and because it gets to feast on the Royals, Pirates, and Tigers, Cincinnati is primed to win its first division title since 2012. Speaking of the Royals, Pirates, and Tigers … well, that’s how the White Sox are going to sneak past the A’s for the second wild-card spot.
Here we have the best team in baseball on paper, versus the team I expect to adapt most adroitly to the 2020 season’s unique schedule and transactional restrictions. The Rays are like the possum of baseball—not very popular or pretty, but adaptable, tenacious, and a vital component of the American ecosystem.
Before the pandemic descended on the land, it already looked like we were headed for improved parity this season: Last year’s standings were historically lopsided, but 2019’s non-playoff teams made larger than usual offseason upgrades. (As of mid-January, the winter winners in terms of net WAR added were the White Sox, Angels, Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, and Rangers.) Now we know parity will improve, because we’re about to embark on the biggest baseball free-for-all of all time. All bets placed this spring are literally off, but I’m still sticking with the teams I would have picked in March: They remain my playoff favorites, even though they’re more likely to be bumped by an underdog than they were when the season was still 162 games.
The Dodgers, who added Mookie Betts and return most of the roster that went 106-56 last season, received a rare triple-digit win total projection from PECOTA in February, and one of the biggest bummers about this season is that we won’t get to see them strut their stuff for six or seven months. But because we’re so confident that they’re baseball’s best team, a Dodgers win would help legitimize the shortened season, as it did in 1981. Only the 1990s-2000s Braves and Yankees managed longer division title and postseason appearance streaks than the 2010s Dodgers, and both of those groups eventually won a World Series (or four). The best way to win a title is to keep punching tickets to the tournament, and the 2020 team is highly likely to do that again. If the Dodgers had their druthers, they’d probably rather celebrate the end of the franchise’s championship drought under less strange circumstances, but 32 years after Jack Buck disbelieved what he saw, their fans wouldn’t sweat the small sample size. If anything, they’d consider a caveated victory reparation for 2017.
These predictions are going to be wrong. (Well, except for the Yankees vs. Twins playoff matchup. That one’s required by law.) Predictions are usually wrong to some extent—it’d be no fun if we all knew what would happen before the season started—but this season especially should be subject to more randomness and uncertainty than any other in memory. So in that spirit, these picks are a mix of obvious calls—the Dodgers in the NL West, the cursed Astros to win the title in this cursed year—and surprises. Mainly, I have the Padres, a fifth-place team in 2019, going to the World Series, which led a Ringer editor to ask whether I had somehow made a mistake when sending in my selections.
But San Diego has the best-looking bullpen in the National League, a budding superstar in Fernando Tatís, and an improving supporting cast with additions like Tommy Pham. The Padres’ rotation could scuffle all season, or it could challenge the Dodgers’: Chris Paddack, Garrett Richards, and Dinelson Lamet all wield dynamite stuff, and top-20 prospects MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño are making a case in camp to join them by season’s end. The Padres weren’t that bad last year—they were near .500 before Tatís suffered a season-ending back injury—and they have more upside than just about any team in baseball. They’re a weird pick, sure, but this is a weird season above all.
Wagner: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels. I would feel awfully silly if in 15 years I think back on Mike Trout’s career, muse out loud about how he’s the greatest baseball player of all time, and then have a creeping memory of picking Alex Bregman to win the MVP just because he was mad everyone hated him for stealing signs. Who am I kidding? In 15 years, Rob Manfred will finally get his dream of playing baseball on Mars, with each game lasting three innings and pitching changes being decided by fan vote. Trout will still be slashing .265/.398/.573 as one of four DHs allowed in American League lineups.
Baumann: Trout. I’ve literally never picked anyone else to win this award.
Lindbergh: Trout. I wrote the following in our 2018 staff predictions post:
Note to editors: Please paste this selection next to my name in all future installments of our preseason-prediction group posts. I will reevaluate whether Trout is still the default AL MVP pick either in 2024 or when he signs with or is traded to an NL team (whichever comes first). Thank you.
After Trout reasserted his supremacy in 2019, it’ll take more than the shortest, strangest season since the 19th century to make me change my pick prematurely. Sure, I’ll revel in the small-sample madness once the season starts. But we can’t completely change who we are, and I can’t stop making boring, predictable preseason picks that reflect my real beliefs any more than Trout can stop being the best player in baseball. In the worst 60-game span of Trout’s career, from early July to early September of 2014, he was worth 1.8 WAR. That’s almost a five-win pace over a full season, which is easily All-Star caliber. (By the way, he won the MVP award that year.) Also of note: Trout needs 5.2 WAR to maintain his spot at the top of the leaderboard of the best players ever through his current seasonal age. He’s probably not going to get there, but he did put up 5.6 WAR over his best 60-game stretch, so we can dare to dream.
Kram: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels. Yeah, I know, wishful thinking—especially with Ohtani struggling to find the plate in Angels camp as he makes his long-awaited return to the mound after Tommy John surgery. But let me make my case. Ohtani might pitch in 10 games this season (the Angels are planning to use a six-man rotation), bat in 34 more, and rest in the final 16. How might that season play out?
Ohtani pitched in 10 games in 2018: He struck out 30 percent of opposing batters, posted a 3.31 ERA, and threw the most unhittable pitch in the majors. He was worth 1.3 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference. At the plate, he’s a career .286/.351/.532 hitter—that makes for a higher wRC+ than Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr.—who’s averaged about 1.0 WAR per 34 starts at designated hitter.
Given his playing time restrictions, Ohtani won’t win on WAR alone, but the power of the narrative and his unique accomplishment could elevate him in voters’ minds, especially in a short season when the usual statistical markers for an MVP (40 home runs! 100 runs batted in!) won’t be achievable. I’d vote Ohtani for MVP with around 2 or 2.5 WAR, split almost evenly between pitching and hitting, over Mike Trout with 4 WAR.
Wagner: Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves. Acuña almost joined José Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano in the 40-40 club last year—in an era when base stealers are pariahs! I flirted with choosing fellow wunderkinds Fernado Tatís and Juan Soto for this award, but Acuña is already as exciting as Tatís while being more productive and playing just as important of a position. And while Soto is the best pure young hitter in baseball, he plays a below-average left field and I think the Nats are going to struggle in 2020.
Baumann: Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers. This is a makeup prediction for all those years Betts was clearly the second-best player in the American League. (Though of course there’s an argument that with Cody Bellinger across the outfield, Betts is now just the second-best player on his own team.) Maybe someone pulls a 2018 Christian Yelich and makes a big leap to superstardom as his team improves by 10 games, but the narrative I see for Betts as the guy who puts the Dodgers over the top is just too tidy, and I doubt anyone else will have a better statistical record.
Lindbergh: Betts. Thanks to Trout’s dominance, I’ve never picked Betts to win an MVP award. I’m not missing my first opportunity, even though Betts is about to spend the defensive half of his season standing side by side with the 25-year-old reigning NL MVP. Betts has been baseball’s second-best position player since the start of 2014, despite not debuting until halfway through his first season. And although his surface stats have fluctuated considerably in the past several seasons—from MVP-caliber to merely really great—his underlying numbers haven’t moved around as much. While his wOBA sank by 69 points last season from his MVP peak in 2018, his expected wOBA based on batted ball speed and direction dropped by only 26 points, plunging him all the way from the top 1 percent of players to the top 3 percent of players.
That intact production at the plate, coupled with Gold Glove defense and well-above-average baserunning, makes him a worthy foil for Belli and Yeli. An MVP award win would be a fitting denouement to a would-be-walk-year saga that began with an unprecedented trade and segued into a surprise preseason extension. For the Dodgers, a torrid two months by Betts in a year when every win counts would ease the sting of receiving less of his services in 2020 than they expected to when they made the trade. Another stellar stat line wouldn’t have hurt his case in free agency, either, but the Dodgers didn’t need to see any more of Mookie before subscribing to the rest of his career.
Kram: Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers. Here are Yelich’s monthly OPS marks since July 2018: 1.095, 1.030, 1.313, 1.264, .935, 1.149, 1.112, .939, 1.237. That’s seven of nine months with a four-digit figure and two more in the .900s. Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, and Ronald Acuña Jr. are all fine choices, but they’re streaky compared to Yelich, who’s practically guaranteed to hover near the top of the NL batting leaderboards after 60 games.
AL Cy Young
Wagner: Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees. In 2019, per FanGraphs, Cole led all of baseball in pitcher WAR, clocked a 0.895 WHIP, finished first among AL starters in expected fielding independent pitching, and broke Randy Johnson’s single-season record for strikeouts per nine innings. You want traditional stats? He won 20 games, threw 212 innings, finished third in ERA, and struck out 326 batters in 33 starts. The collective baseball world lost its mind when Clayton Kershaw struck out just 301 batters in 2015, and again when Max Scherzer struck out exactly 300 in 2018. Any way you slice it, Cole was robbed of the Cy Young in 2019. Now with the Yankees, the 29-year-old, $324 million man will have every opportunity to pitch on a big stage, has missed only four potential starts in the past three years, and is probably at least a little pissed former teammate Justin Verlander lays claim to his 2019 Cy Young hardware.
Baumann: Lance Lynn, Texas Rangers. You can’t stop me.
Lindbergh: Cole. Just call me Mr. Chalk. When you give a guy the biggest contract ever for a pitcher and the highest AAV in the sport, he’d better be the Cy Young favorite. And he is! Good job, Yankees. You correctly evaluated Gerrit Cole.
Kram: Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays. There are a dozen different AL starters—including three just in Glasnow’s rotation in Tampa—who could very conceivably spin off a dozen phenomenal starts in a row. Glasnow is as good a bet as any after recording a 1.78 ERA and 2.26 FIP in a dozen starts in his first full season working with the Rays’ staff. Had he not missed the rest of the year with a forearm injury, the hard-throwing righty would have contended for this award last season. The only starters with a better strikeout-minus-walk rate were Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale.
NL Cy Young
Wagner: Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers are so good that I had to take some time to wonder whether Buehler—who I think has stuff as good as anyone in the NL—is even going to be the best pitcher in their rotation. They of course still employ the best pitcher of his generation in Clayton Kershaw, and rookie Dustin May is about as close as you can get to a PitchingNinja fever dream. But Buehler’s consistent delivery and fierce competitiveness, combined with the opportunity to prey on the Mariners and Rockies, gives him an edge for me.
Baumann: Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds. Picking Jacob deGrom to win three in a row just didn’t seem like enough fun. I wrote about Castillo in the All-MLB.TV Team post earlier in this preview, and he has the durability (30 starts two years running) and stuff (an absolutely unfair changeup) to hang with anyone in the league. And given the incremental improvement he’s shown from 2018 to 2019, I think the 27-year-old has another gear left to access that we haven’t seen yet.
Lindbergh: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets. Dude’s won back-to-back Cys, despite scant run support and the NL’s worst defense behind him. He only recently turned 32, and aside from a brief back tightness scare in summer camp, there’s little reason to think he can’t keep this up. What do you want from me? An actually entertaining prediction?
Kram: Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals. I don’t usually pay much attention to opponent quality before an MLB season starts; over 162 games, that contextual factor tends to even out. But in a shortened season with a regional schedule, if Flaherty starts every fifth game this season starting with the Cardinals’ opener, six of his 12 starts will come against the Pirates, Royals, and Tigers. That’s half his appearances against lineups that rank 24th, 25th, and 26th in projected runs scored, per FanGraphs. It doesn’t hurt that the St. Louis ace will be pitching in front of what might be the NL’s best defense, or that he authored one of the greatest pitching stretches in MLB history just last season, with a 0.93 ERA over his final 16 starts. It’s hard to imagine lineups like Pittsburgh’s raising that figure much this season.
AL Rookie of the Year
Wagner: Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox. As someone with a pitcher bias, I would prefer to pick Oakland’s Jesús Luzardo in this spot. But, after Luzardo tested positive for COVID-19 during the hiatus, Luzardo has to start the year in the bullpen as he ramps back up to game shape. In a 60-game season, I’m not sure how many starts you can miss if you want to win an award, especially if Luis Robert is mashing home runs while losing his balance and falling over.
Baumann: Nick Solak, Texas Rangers. Bovada lists odds on 17 AL Rookie of the Year candidates. Solak isn’t one of them. I’m picking him anyway because I know two things about the Rangers rookie: First, he can hit. He’s shown this in college and at every step of the minors, and in a late-2019 cameo with the Rangers in which he hit .293/.393/.491 and stayed 14 at-bats under the rookie eligibility threshold for this year. The second is that he’s going to play from Opening Day, which given injury and service time manipulation concerns, is more than I can say for any candidate except A’s catcher Sean Murphy (who won’t put up the offensive numbers required to win the award) or White Sox center fielder Luis Robert (whom other people are going pick, so I wanted to write about someone else).
Lindbergh: Robert. More than three years ago, an anonymous American League scout told MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez that Robert was “the best player on the planet, and that’s no exaggeration.” Either it was an exaggeration, or the White Sox have wasted about 30 WAR on Robert’s three minor league seasons. (I’m going to go with the former.) The ultra-athletic Robert used the last of those seasons to get healthy and make mechanical changes that unlocked his power—after homering three times in 270 at-bats from 2017-18, he went yard 32 times in 503 at-bats in 2019, only 202 of them facing the Triple-A lively ball—and he rocketed up prospect lists and the minor league ladder.
In January, Eloy Jiménez labeled Robert “the next Mike Trout,” and the hype has somehow only intensified since then, which will happen when a top prospect hits a homer while falling down. We should probably pump the brakes a bit: Trout put up a 10-WAR year when he was two years younger than Robert is now. (While we’re at it, Juan Soto is more than a year younger than Robert today.) Robert’s somewhat suspect plate discipline could cause some rookie-season stumbles, but because he signed an extension in January, he’ll be the Sox’s center fielder on Opening Day, which gives him a head start on some of the other leading contenders for this award. In a full season, he’d be a 30-30 threat, but even in a shortened one, his combination of power, speed, and defense should provide eye-catching counting stats that set him apart from the pack.
Kram: Jesús Luzardo, Oakland A’s. Robert is the favorite, and Luzardo’s role on Oakland’s staff is somewhat unclear after he missed part of camp. But then I watch the young lefty throw a pitch, and I can’t help but be convinced that Luzardo is the most talented rookie in the league—and maybe one of its most talented pitchers, period. Counting his three shutout innings in Oakland’s wild-card loss, Luzardo tossed 15 MLB innings in a brief debut last season, during which he allowed two runs while striking out 20 of the 58 batters he faced; that strikeout rate is about what Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander did last season. Luzardo will pitch in front of an elite defense, too, and whether he’s a full starter or swingman or full reliever (he recorded two saves and two holds last September), he can patch together the necessary statistics to win this award.
NL Rookie of the Year
Wagner: Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers. I am nothing if not a hypocrite, so I’m going to break my own rules from Luzardo and go ahead and pick an uber-talented young pitcher who is technically not yet in the rotation. The key exception is that Dustin May is ready for the rotation. Like, ready-ready. When David Price opted out of the 2020 season, May was the obvious choice to replace him. He has a high-90s fastball, unfair arm-side run on his sinker, a wicked slider, and a languid delivery to pair with his 6-foot-6 frame. I shudder to think what Dodgers opponents are going to say to themselves when they think they’re lucky to get the 3-4-5 pitchers in L.A.’s rotation, only to see Julio Urías, Alex Wood, and Dustin May staring them down on the schedule.
Baumann: Gavin Lux, Los Angeles Dodgers. Lux isn’t going to start the season in the majors, but—unless the Dodgers hold him down for half the season—he’s too strong a candidate to ignore: a consensus top-five global prospect with a polished two-way game who’s going to play a high-profile position for one of the league’s most successful and glamorous teams. Here’s a list of selected unanimous rookies of the year over the past 30 years: Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter. That’s the kind of campaign we’re looking at.
Lindbergh: Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates. I’m well aware of the gambler’s fallacy, yet I still sort of want to believe that Keller is due. The Pirates top prospect’s star-crossed debut season featured a .475 BABIP, by far the highest ever for a player with as many innings pitched. That ludicrously large BABIP ballooned his ERA to 7.13, but he didn’t deserve that indignity. As I explained at length in March, Keller’s stuff was superb, and his defense-independent pitching stats were almost as impressive. The nearly four-run gap between his ERA and FIP was the biggest by an NL pitcher this century, and almost as large as Roy Halladay’s in 2000—the season before he first looked like the Hall of Famer we know now. Keller probably won’t have a turnaround that dramatic, but the 24-year-old can’t help but benefit from better luck in 2020. What should be a much more successful sophomore season—and maybe even an award-winning one—is slated to start on Sunday in St. Louis.
Kram: Shogo Akiyama, Cincinnati Reds. With Lux starting the season in the minors, this award is wide open. Akiyama is the one contender who’s already proved his baseball bona fides at a high level, as the 32-year-old Japanese outfielder hit better than .300 with 20-plus home runs in each of his last three seasons in the NPB. He also profiles as a decent defender, which distinguishes him from others in the Reds’ outfield, and may receive a boost in counting stats by batting in the leadoff spot for a powerful offense.
Wagner: Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds. I cannot, in good faith, tell you that Nick Senzel’s name doesn’t have a lot to do with why I’m so high on him. It’s a perfect baseball name—one-syllable first name, two-syllable last name with a z in it. Say it out loud a couple times. Great stuff! OK, now that I’ve filibustered because this category is hard, I’ll say that Senzel is an exciting young piece of Cincinnati’s core. And, since you can already tell I’m high on the Reds this year, it’s fitting that I would trust Nick Senzel through July of last year, who slashed .285/.346/.475 with eight home runs, instead of the Nick Senzel who slashed .184/.238/.296 in August and got only four starts for the rest of the year. Senzel is a good athlete who has adjusted well to center after playing the infield in the minors. I like his contact, I like his speed, and I especially like his pop—even if a decent amount of his 2019 big flies were actually juiced-ball wall scrapers.
Baumann: Jordan Montgomery, New York Yankees. Yeah, yeah, yeah, spring training doesn’t count and summer camp scrimmages count for even less. Anyway here’s a video of the Yankees’ big, floppy left-hander, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, making Ringer staff favorite Pete Alonso look like an absolute goon.
Lindbergh: Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers. Two pitchers in MLB history have recorded a BABIP above .410 in a season of at least 45 innings pitched: Mitch Keller and Burnes, who also suffered the highest HR/FB rate on record. I made Keller my Rookie of the Year pick, and I’m even more optimistic for a big bounceback/breakout by Burnes. Like Keller, Burnes was a top-50 prospect prior to 2019, and he looked lights-out in relief in 2018. Last season, when I considered making him my breakout pick but—to brag briefly—went with Shane Bieber instead, he entered Milwaukee’s rotation and posted the worst ERA of any NL pitcher with 40-plus innings pitched, which left Brewers fans saying Boo-urnes. Like Keller, a fellow right-hander with a similar frame and repertoire, Burnes flashed stuff and posted peripherals that far exceeded his surface results.
In addition to his mid-to-high-90s heat, Burnes possesses a rare ability to spin the ball: No pitcher who threw at least 300 four-seamers last season had a higher four-seamer spin rate, and only 10 pitchers who threw at least 250 sliders had a higher slider spin rate. He’s refined his fastball mix since last season—instead of relying on a naturally cutting four-seamer, he’s now working with a true cutter, a hard sinker, and an improving backspun four-seamer—and he’s looked promising in spring training and summer camp. Adrian Houser may be the Brewers’ most popular breakout-pitcher pick (wait, should I have picked Milwaukee to make the playoffs?), but my money—OK, my low-stakes bid for post-prediction bragging rights—is on Burnes. In terms of skills, the sky’s the limit; this year, maybe the fence will be the limit for his fly balls.
Kram: Luis Arraez, Minnesota Twins. Even avid MLB fans likely didn’t know Arraez’s name before the middle of last season. After 2018, the small second baseman ranked as just the no. 15 prospect in the Twins’ system, per MLB.com. But he tore through two minor league levels last season and didn’t slow down once he reached the majors, and he could break out in 2020 as the best option to approach a .400 batting line. Trying to hit .400 over a full season is unfathomable in the modern game, but in a smaller sample, Arraez’s strikeout avoidance and contact skills give him a chance. His odds of managing that hallowed feat still aren’t high, of course, but they’re viable this year; crucially, he wouldn’t need to actually complete the task, just challenge it, to gain tremendous attention with every at-bat. In his first 25 games as a rookie last season, he hit .405. After 35—more than halfway through a 60-game season!—he was still within striking distance, at .381.
Wagner: Washington Nationals. The defending World Champions are still the best team in the NL East on paper. But they lost a perennial MVP candidate from their lineup in Anthony Rendon, who will be replaced by top prospect Carter Kieboom. In the long term, that’s fine. In the short term, that’s kind of a mess. Kieboom is an up-the-middle defender moving over to the hot corner to replace Washington’s most consistent hitter of the past decade. That’s a lot of pressure. Outside of closer Sean Doolittle, their bullpen is dudes who throw hard and straight and are maybe not good at baseball. And, I know we’ve had a long layoff, but the Nats pitching rotation was seriously taxed in the playoffs last year—so much so that ace Max Scherzer’s back started to flare up again in Game 7 of the World Series. Patrick Corbin went from never pitching in the playoffs to throwing 23 high-stress innings in October, many of which were on short rest. Something (read: the backloaded five years, $108 million still left on his deal) is telling me they’ll be cautious with him in this bizarre season. Ironically, 60 games is the perfect season length for Stephen Strasburg. Flags fly forever, though. So congrats to the Nats.
Baumann: Boston Red Sox. Guess what’s probably going to happen when you trade Mookie Betts? That’s right, you’re probably going to flop.
Lindbergh: Philadelphia Phillies. I almost went with the Red Sox—just peep that pitching staff, which is running neck and neck with the Angels’, Rockies’, and Pirates’ in projected WAR—but a team that finished third last year and subsequently lost its best hitter to a much-maligned trade and its best pitcher to Tommy John surgery isn’t starting this season with great expectations. Instead, I’m taking the Phillies, whom both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project to finish fourth. It’s not that I think they’re worse than their projections. Nor is it tough to envision scenarios in which the Phillies break through. But nine years after their last winning season, five years after their belated rebuild began in earnest, and a year after the offseason splurge that was supposed to put them over the top, it’s disappointing that one has to squint to see the payoff that was supposed to have happened by now. In the sense that their farm is fairly barren and they’re still struggling to assemble a playoff favorite, the Phillies have already flopped.
Kram: Baltimore Orioles. I thought about picking the Nationals here; without Anthony Rendon, and with 37-year-old Howie Kendrick presumably regressing after his career year, the World Series champs’ lineup looks mighty thin behind Juan Soto. Instead, I’ll cross over the state of Maryland to take the Orioles, not because they expect to contend (they don’t) or because it’ll be a surprise when they’re bad (it won’t), but because the Orioles have a non-zero chance to end the season with single-digit wins.
Such a performance would have no precedent even in a shortened season. The worst 60-game start for any team since the start of the 20th century is 11-49, from the 1932 Boston Red Sox. Even the infamous 1988 Orioles, who started 0-21, won 15 of their first 60 games, and the 2003 Tigers, who finished 43-119, won 16 of 60.
But if any team could pull off this ignominious feat, it’s the 2020 Orioles. Trey Mancini is out for the season while recovering from colon cancer, so they don’t have a single player projected for more than 0.5 WAR or an above-average batting line. They’re relying on Tommy Milone (5.67 ERA since 2016) as the Opening Day starter. Stuck in the AL East, they play the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Nationals, Braves, Mets, and Phillies for 46 of their 60 games. Orioles Watch 2020 is real.
Wagner: Los Angeles Angels. It’s really hard to justify the use of the word “surprise” with any team in a 60-game season. I would be truly shocked if the Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros didn’t make the playoffs, and the inverse would be true for the Orioles, Mariners, Tigers, and Marlins. The Royals don’t really have a shot either, but they have a few exciting players. Outside of that, there’s a reasonable case for any team in baseball to at least push for the playoffs. Here’s the case for the Angels: Mike Trout puts up 5 WAR in just 56 games, Anthony Rendon is a welcome addition to a lineup that has had trouble insulating Trout, Ohtani’s power continues to shine through at the plate while he has a tremendous bounceback year on the mound, and David Fletcher becomes the most famous baseball player on the planet. All right, that last one was just for me. My case will start to fall apart if I get anywhere near the bullpen, and the Angels rotation is full of massive question marks, but Griffin Canning is a legitimate top half of the rotation guy. If they can cobble together, uh, anything else for that rotation, then maybe this year turns out better than most would expect in the loaded West.
Baumann: Cincinnati Reds. I explained my reasoning a little more extensively in the preseason power rankings, but this is just a really solid team, top to bottom. They have a good bullpen; a lineup that, with a DH, goes seven deep with good hitters; and an underrated rotation featuring not just Castillo but Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer, and Wade Miley.
Lindbergh: New York Mets. Any team could easily surprise us this season. Heck, who knows? The Orioles could get hot and win 23 games. But nothing would be more surprising—to Mets fans, at least—than the Mets’ season not running off the rails. If not for Noah Syndergaard’s season-ending UCL tear, I would have picked the Mets to win their division. I wouldn’t be shocked if they still did: As I write this, they’re tied with the Reds for the NL’s sixth-best division-title odds, and they’re only single-digit percentage points of playoff probability behind both the Braves and the Nationals.
The Mets overtaking those teams or claiming a wild card would qualify as a surprise for most fans, but it wouldn’t be any more far-fetched than Alex Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez, and a coalition of ex-NFL and NBA players trying to buy the team. Edwin Díaz can’t have both a .377 BABIP and a 26.8 percent HR/FB rate again, right? (Right?!) Dellin Betances will probably pitch more than 2/3 of an inning! Robinson Canó could return to not hustling—which worked well throughout his whole Hall of Fame–quality career—and also return to not tearing his hamstring and straining his quad! Jed Lowrie could—OK, maybe we won’t go that far. Until recently, though, who would have predicted that the long-lost Yoenis Céspedes would be the Mets’ Opening Day DH? Or that the Mets would even have an Opening Day DH? See, the surprises have started already.
Kram: San Diego Padres. See above! The Padres could win 25 games, or they could win 35 and rampage through the playoffs with that pitching staff. I can’t wait to watch Tatís and friends try.