Ordinarily, four weeks’ worth of games wouldn’t be enough to consider revising one’s preseason power rankings, but this is no ordinary year. We’re now a third of the way through the shortened 2020 season, and a mere two weeks from the trade deadline, which means that teams are hitting crunch time just as they’re hitting a regular-season groove. So it’s time to reevaluate—perhaps even to the point of overreaction—where various MLB teams stand.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (Previously: 1)
The Dodgers didn’t get off the blocks quickly. They split the season-opening series with the Giants while the Rockies and Padres both came out of the gate on fire. It took a little longer than expected, but L.A. is finally in first place in the NL West with a 16-7 record and a run differential of plus-60, the equivalent of a plus-423 run differential over a full season. The Dodgers haven’t played a particularly tough schedule so far, as 21 of their 23 games have come against teams that currently sit at or below .500. But Cody Bellinger is also hitting like a pitcher, and Walker Buehler is pitching like Don Draper at the Hershey’s meeting. This was the best team in baseball on Opening Day, and nothing in the past four weeks should change that.
2. Oakland Athletics (Previously: 13)
I doubt any other team in baseball has such a high ratio of good players to players casual fans have heard of. The A’s have power up and down the lineup; on Sunday, first baseman Matt Olson hit three singles to bring his season total to seven. He also has eight home runs and 17 walks. But the A’s have started 16-7 because of their pitching depth.
We’ve seen a few potential contenders (Houston and Philadelphia stand out, but are by no means alone) fall flat on their faces because a couple of key pitchers got hurt and all of a sudden the whole team can’t buy an out. Not so Oakland, which has the fifth-best staffwide ERA- despite missing A.J. Puk with a shoulder injury and enduring a handful of really ugly starts from Sean Manaea and Mike Fiers. Oakland’s relievers are second in baseball in ERA- and first in WPA. Jake Diekman and Joakim Soria have yet to allow a run. Closer Liam Hendriks blew a save on Opening Day (the A’s won on a walk-off grand slam by Olson); since then, he’s 7-for-7 in save opportunities and has allowed just six base runners in 10 appearances. This is a season in which nothing can be taken for granted, and the A’s have baseball’s third-best record not because they’re doing anything spectacular, but because they’re doing the little things right.
3. New York Yankees (Previously: 2)
This offense is hilarious. Like, I don’t know how you look at a team with a 127 wRC+ (about what Nolan Arenado hit last year) and do anything but spit out your drink in disbelief. Even though I just did a whole bit about Oakland’s depth and the importance of the fundamentals, the Yankees have so much talent I would ordinarily expect them to finish ahead of the Athletics by season’s end. The only reason I’m ranking them third instead of second is that in the past week, they’ve put DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge on the IL.
Yes, the Yankees have an ability to reach into the dark corners of their 40-man roster and pull out a backup with a .500 slugging percentage like Mary Poppins pulls floor lamps out of her bag, but that’s still a lot of firepower on the sideline. And while a 10-day IL stint is a nonevent in a 162-game season, it’s a huge deal over 60 games. So as long as the Yankees have more elite hitters on their IL than the Mariners have had in the past 10 years combined, I’m going to temper my enthusiasm just a little bit.
4. Minnesota Twins (Previously: 4)
Being in first place is encouraging enough. Being in first place despite not really firing on all cylinders yet is even better. This vaunted lineup, with Miguel Sanó hitting .148 and Josh Donaldson not hitting anything but the injured list, has produced just the 19th-best wRC+ in the majors and the 10th-highest runs per game. José Berríos has an ERA of 5.92, while Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi have thrown 12 innings combined. And yet the Twins have the third-best record in the AL and are tied for the best run differential. Seems like a team poised to keep chugging quietly along until October.
5. Chicago Cubs (Previously: 11)
I was a little pessimistic about the Cubs before the season, and I still don’t completely trust this team. But a lot of my trepidation was based on distrust of their pitching, and, at the risk of jinxing it, is Yu Darvish back? Darvish was perhaps the most exciting starting pitcher in baseball in his first five big league seasons, but he fell off a bit when he couldn’t stay healthy in 2018. And even his 31 starts and 110 ERA+ last year camouflage a season of wild (and wildly frustrating) inconsistency.
But maybe we should’ve seen this coming: In Darvish’s last 13 starts in 2019, he posted an ERA of 2.76, held opponents to a .228 OBP, and made it through six innings 10 times. Through four starts in 2020, Darvish has a 1.88 ERA, and in his past three starts he’s allowed just two runs and 13 base runners in 20 innings. The rest of the NL Central is so mixed up that the Cubs seem like a pretty safe bet to win the division—and if they end the season with Darvish in this kind of form, they can start thinking about making a deep playoff run.
6. Tampa Bay Rays (Previously: 5)
Willy Adames is hitting .284/.377/.522, so let’s talk about Willy Adames for a second. I’ve always really liked the Rays’ third-year shortstop but am completely unable to articulate why. He’s a good defender, but rather than leaping and lunging around the diamond like Andrelton Simmons, he’s more of a contained physical presence. He’s a good hitter, with 20 home runs on his card last year, but everyone and their mother hit 20 home runs last year. Still, while Rays manager Kevin Cash has had to rewrite his lineup game to game and even inning to inning so far this season, Adames has been one of the only Tampa Bay players who’s pretty much always in the same spot. Unfortunately for him, that will probably last only so long.
The Rays’ top prospect is a shortstop named Wander Franco, and prospect writers treat Franco in such a way that makes Adames seem like he’s John the Baptist. It’s a curious feature of contemporary baseball that we have so many shortstops who are not only exceptional players but charismatic personalities: Simmons, Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatís Jr., Javy Báez, Carlos Correa, and so on. Listing the best shortstops in the game, one could forget a big-market slugger like Corey Seager or Didi Gregorius. Players like Adames, whose best skill is being pretty good at everything, almost become anonymous.
7. Colorado Rockies (Previously: 23)
The Rockies have fallen back to Earth a little in the past week, but what initially looked like a team that could make the playoffs only if everything went right has turned out to be legitimately good. Colorado’s got a top-notch starting rotation and a lineup that’s not very deep but has enough star power to make ends meet. Speaking of which, Charlie Blackmon is leading all MLB hitters with a .437 batting average through 22 games. We were searching for someone who could challenge .400 over the shortened season, and it seems like we’ve got our man.
8. Cleveland Indians (Previously: 16)
Cleveland’s season has been a series of good news/bad news propositions. The good news: No team has pitched better so far this year, from Shane Bieber’s transformation into Roger Clemens to James Karinchak’s on-mound impression of the catapult in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
The bad news: Two key pitchers, Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger, broke team rules by leaving the club’s Chicago hotel on August 7, and the fallout is still, well, falling out. Plesac was caught immediately, but Clevinger was not found out until after he’d boarded the team’s charter flight and potentially exposed the entire roster—including Carlos Carrasco, whom MLB regards as “high risk” after he survived leukemia last year—to COVID-19. This has not only weakened Cleveland’s rotation—the two were optioned to the team’s alternate site after serving a few days in quarantine—but apparently divided the clubhouse. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, some Cleveland players were incensed at the pair’s lapse of responsibility and breach of trust, and Plesac’s appeal to restore his reputation suffered more when he recorded and posted an explanation video while driving and not wearing a seatbelt. Veteran reliever Oliver Pérez even threatened to opt out if Clevinger and Plesac rejoined the team immediately.
It’s good news that the club is taking a violation of protocol so seriously, and more so that members of the big league roster are holding their teammates accountable. But again comes the bad news. In his report, Passan foregrounded something that’s gotten lost in the broader Clevinger-Plesac discourse. If the pitchers remain in alternate site exile for more than 20 days, Clevinger’s free agency and Plesac’s arbitration would be pushed back a year. What a convenient way to send a message.
9. Houston Astros (Previously: 3)
Certainly nobody in the Astros’ orbit wanted to be 12-10 at this point in the season and looking up in the standings at a white-hot Oakland team. But Yordan Álvarez is back, they’ve won four in a row, and while injuries have turned the team’s once-vaunted pitching staff into the Corpus Christi Hooks, some of the youngsters—Cristian Javier, Brandon Bielak, and Framber Valdéz—are pitching quite well. Houston’s plus-19 run differential testifies to the fact that things will probably get better.
10. Atlanta Braves (Previously: 8)
The Braves are without their best pitcher (Mike Soroka, out for the year with a gruesome Achilles injury), their two best position players (Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies, both out with wrist injuries), and their top free-agent acquisition (Cole Hamels, who’s yet to throw a pitch due to triceps tendinitis). Even so, it’s hard to view Atlanta as anything but the clear favorite in the NL East, as their three primary competitors for the division title—Washington, Philadelphia, and New York—have all suffered bouts of serious injury and/or general bumfuzzlement of their own. As the joke goes, the Braves don’t have to outrun the bear, but merely their slower friends.
11. Baltimore Orioles (Previously: 30)
Throughout the past five years, I’ve suffered many painful reminders of the limits of my own imagination. Over and over I’ve thought, “things can’t get any weirder,” only to be proved wrong, as each day the world becomes more confusing and ludicrous than it was the day before.
Is this placement an overreaction to a 12-10 start from a team I expected to end up closer to 12-48? A failure to appreciate the fact that the Phillies and Nationals teams that Baltimore went 7-2 against might not be as good as advertised? That we’re still early enough in the season that José Iglesias is hitting .400 and Anthony Santander is on pace for the equivalent of a 52-homer season? Surely not. This is happening. Why can’t it be real? How does one even define real? So we beat on, birds against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the playoffs.
12. Chicago White Sox (Previously: 12)
Sort of an underwhelming start for a team that has the potential to be spectacular, or to be a spectacular disaster. Chicago has too much talent to stay around .500 for long, and I’m both intrigued and encouraged by Dallas Keuchel coming out and saying so after a loss to the Tigers last week. Keuchel earned a $55.5 million contract this past offseason because he has a long track record of reliability and quality performance, not because he’s a rah-rah guy. But while the Proven Winner trope is mostly hokum, players like Keuchel, Edwin Encarnación, and Gio González can have an impact. Those guys aren’t merely on-field producers, they’re veterans with immense amounts of playoff experience. On a young team with lots of personality but no track record of big league success, having a player of Keuchel’s stature stand up and say, “We’re better than this” has a very real motivational effect. Whether that results in the Sox climbing the standings remains to be seen, but this team ought to have high expectations—and there’s nothing wrong with Keuchel saying so.
13. San Diego Padres (Previously: 19)
I might be overrating the Padres because of how enjoyable they are. Dinelson Lamet might be even more fun to watch than Chris Paddack; rookie infielder Jake Cronenworth has suddenly become one of the hardest hitters in baseball; and … oh, you just want to talk about Fernando Tatís Jr., don’t you?
Tatís is tied for the MLB lead in home runs (with Mike Trout) and somehow his power stroke is maybe the fourth-most interesting thing about his game. Even though Tatís has played just 108 games in the majors, there are very few comparable players in terms of all-around skill and jaw-dropping athleticism. Trout and Mookie Betts have carried the flag for this type of player in the past half-decade, but even they lack an ineffable quality that makes Tatís so watchable.
Baseball, unlike soccer or basketball, is very linear. Rather than a constant churn of fluidity, it’s the product of many discrete actions. As a result, there aren’t many position players who we think of as truly creative. Sometimes a Simmons or a Matt Chapman will come along with so much defensive skill they’re able to see plays or make throws that wouldn’t even occur to normal players. Occasionally an Ichiro will appear with 80-grade speed and bat control and attack pitchers in ways that are simply not available to others.
Tatís is that kind of player. Trout and Betts play baseball at the absolute limit of human ability; even the likes of Acuña and Alex Bregman, who combine MVP-caliber skill and athleticism with a natural affinity for showmanship, operate within established tactical and physical boundaries. Those boundaries seem to frustrate Tatís, and with every 100 mile-per-hour backfoot throw and every marauding baserunning adventure, he probes those limits to see if they start to wobble. There’s nobody quite like him in MLB, and perhaps not in all of North American sports.
14. Miami Marlins (Previously: 29)
Of all 30 teams, I am least sure what to do with the Marlins, who are in second place in the NL East but got there by dining out on teams that haven’t figured out whether they’re good or not yet. The Marlins haven’t hit well at all and they’re 27th in FIP. So here we are, fairly close to the middle, among a group of about 12 teams that could make the playoffs, or be genuinely terrible, or make the playoffs in spite of being genuinely terrible.
15. Texas Rangers (Previously: 14)
The widest, hairiest man on your 2019 Cy Young ballot is back, and he’s wider, hairier, and more dominant than ever before.
Lance Lynn.— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) July 25, 2020
That's it, that's the tweet. pic.twitter.com/nO6HeqpP6I
In 32 1/3 innings, Lance Lynn has allowed just 12 hits and only four earned runs, for a league-leading ERA of 1.11. Is that a fluke? Well, he’s also fifth in baseball in DRA. Does that come at the expense of his trademark high-volume pitching? Well, he’s also recorded one of MLB’s few complete games of the season so far. Lance Lynn is the best pitcher in baseball.
INCOMPLETE: St. Louis Cardinals (Previously: 7)
I’m not sure if anyone really believed that 30 MLB clubs could play and travel without one of them losing two weeks of the season due to a coronavirus outbreak, but it happened, and now the Cardinals are in the process of trying to play 53 games in 44 days. To be honest, I find it less interesting to prognosticate about what the team’s record might be at the end of that run than to ponder the sheer logistics of playing so many games in such a short period of time.
Here’s one early sign of what’s to come: Through 10 games this season, the Cardinals have handed 10 players (including seven pitchers) their MLB debut. That doesn’t count a handful of other rookie-eligible players who got a cup of coffee in 2018 or 2019. Ten absolute neophytes, enough to change the team’s colors from red to green. And while that makes a measure of sense, with so many doubleheader innings to pitch and so many COVID-19–related IL stints to cover, it’s no less shocking to see spelled out.
16. Arizona Diamondbacks (Previously: 21)
Amazing how one good week can turn a season completely around. Last Sunday, the Diamondbacks were in the process of dumping the rubber match of a weekend series to the Padres. The loss dropped them to 6-10 on the season, and that day’s starting pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, went on the IL with a back strain. Since then, Arizona’s won five of six against division rivals Colorado and San Diego, and added another win against Oakland on Monday. A team that looked headed for fourth place a week ago is suddenly about an even-odds bet to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs.
17. Washington Nationals (Previously: 6)
Last week, the Nationals took the first two games of a series against the Mets at Citi Field. In the final two games of that series, Juan Soto hit three titanic home runs over the span of about 21 hours, but the Nats lost both games by a total of 11 runs. Two days after that, Stephen Strasburg went on the IL with carpal tunnel neuritis, a continuation of the nerve issue that kept the World Series MVP on the shelf to start the season. This is what your high school English teacher would call a microcosm of a team that has enough talent to beat anyone, but enough offensive inconsistency and pitcher injuries to turn around and lose the next day.
18. Philadelphia Phillies (Previously: 17)
It’s an immutable truth of Philadelphia sports that victory only serves to keep hope alive until some more crushing defeat topples off the shelf and squishes you like you’re an overripe avocado. So even though the Phillies are just two and a half games out of first place in the NL East, and even though top prospects Spencer Howard and Alec Bohm are finally in the majors, this team is staying put.
Apropos of nothing in particular, Bryce Harper is hitting .364/.493/.673 with three stolen bases and more walks than strikeouts. Seems like a bargain at $25.4 million a year.
19. Milwaukee Brewers (Previously: 15)
Over the first three and a half weeks of the season, we learned—if this wasn’t clear already—that if Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura aren’t hitting, this Brewers team floats back down to .500 in a big hurry. I suppose there are worse (or at least less obviously self-correcting) problems to have, as Yelich has hit .289/.418/.667 so far in August. But this team feels more like a token first-round out than a legitimate NL pennant contender at the moment.
The new uniforms look really sharp, though, which bears mentioning since San Diego’s Return to Brown has sucked up all the uniform discourse so far this year. Ditching a dull metallic gold for a bright, warm yellow is always a positive sartorial choice.
20. Cincinnati Reds (Previously: 9)
There are some lessons I just refuse to learn. Every season it seems like I’m high on the Reds in April, then by Memorial Day I’m wondering whether they’d be better off fielding an entire team of Joey Votto cutouts. It’s certainly not over for the Reds, particularly now that the postseason’s been expanded to 16 teams. But this is not the start they (or I) had in mind.
21. Los Angeles Angels (Previously: 10)
The Angels aren’t as bad as their 8-15 record would suggest, but they’re still nowhere near good enough to challenge the Astros or A’s for AL West supremacy. Not even with Dylan Bundy turning into (through four starts) a legitimate AL Cy Young contender. Not even with Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Anthony Rendon in the lineup, and top prospect Jo Adell finally in the majors. This is Trout’s 10th season in MLB, and in that time the Angels have famously failed to win a playoff game. As this failure has become conspicuous, I’ve bounced from puzzlement to frustration to annoyance and back. But this time around, I’m mostly curious to see how many special players the Angels can stack into one lineup and still only finish .500.
22. Detroit Tigers (Previously: 24)
Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize are both coming to the big leagues.— Cody Stavenhagen (@CodyStavenhagen) August 17, 2020
Tigers GM Al Avila says Skubal will start Tuesday. Mize will start Wednesday.
23. New York Mets (Previously: 18)
This year, any team within six games of .500 still has a shot at the playoffs, but suffice it to say this is not how Brodie Van Wagenen drew it up. Marcus Stroman and Yoenis Céspedes have opted out of the 2020 season—the latter amid a characteristically Wilponian smear campaign—and a rotation already denuded of Stroman and Noah Syndergaard could now be without Jacob deGrom, who missed his start Friday with a neck injury. Maybe new ownership, whoever that might be, would transform the organization into something less inclined to strew banana peels across its own path.
24. Toronto Blue Jays (Previously: 22)
Last week, the Marlins and Blue Jays played a wild 10-inning game that ended when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. swung and missed wildly at a Josh Smith curveball, dropped to his knees, and spun around to face the third-base dugout. It was then that something clicked for me.
The Blue Jays’ top young hitters—Gurriel, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette—are not only great young hitters, they’re aggressive. I love to watch the gears churn in a patient hitter like Mike Trout or Juan Soto as much as the next guy. But there’s something to be said for a hitter who goes up not only aiming to hit every pitch to Mars, but confident in his own ability to do so. Now Bichette’s on the IL with a sprained knee and the Blue Jays are 8-11, so it’s unlikely all that confidence and bat-to-ball ability is going to amount to anything this year. But there’s always 2021.
25. San Francisco Giants (Previously: 26)
This year, MLB—like a Spanish clubgoer—really only gets warmed up in the middle of the night. And as much as the A’s, Rockies, and the budding Dodgers-Padres rivalry have made it worth staying up late, the Giants are the official team of MLB After Dark™. I don’t follow professional wrestling at all, but I’m fascinated by wrestling jargon, including the concept of a “jobber.” A jobber is a wrestler who’s paid to lose in such a way as to make his opponent look good and build up their reputation en route to a high-profile match.
The Giants are 8-16, sure, but they’ve played tight, exciting games against the Dodgers, Rockies, Padres, and A’s so far this year. They’re not good enough to win most of those games, but they are good enough to [consults “Glossary of wrestling terms” Wikipedia page] “put over” an up-and-coming team. That might be cold comfort to partisan Giants fans, but to us neutrals, it’s a valuable service.
26. Kansas City Royals (Previously: 27)
The post-rebuild Royals have a type in the draft. This year, they spent the fourth pick on Texas A&M pitcher Asa Lacy. In 2019, they took high school shortstop Bobby Witt second, then drafted 15 college players in a row. In 2018, they spent their first five picks on college pitchers, a strategy that began to pay off when Brady Singer and Kris Bubic joined the rotation this year.
Lacy, who’s still a little further off, is the only one in the bunch with future no. 1 starter potential, but one way to build a solid rotation quickly and cheaply is to sell out in the draft on college arms. The Royals aren’t going to be back in the playoffs anytime soon, but they’re going to have a good big-league pitching staff sooner than you’d think.
27. Boston Red Sox (Previously: 20)
At a previous job covering college baseball across the Midwest, I ran into a few future first-rounders and some productive big leaguers, but also an absolute bucketload of pitchability guys. These were upperclassmen who topped out around 90 miles an hour with one good off-speed pitch, but were broadly expected to go pro in something other than sports. Which is to say that while I’m absolutely thrilled to see Indiana’s Kyle Hart and Missouri State’s Matt Hall take turns in a big league rotation, it’s probably a bad sign for the Red Sox that so many of their pitchers trip the “Wow, I didn’t expect him to reach the majors” alarm.
28. Seattle Mariners (Previously: 28)
Every day that passes is one day closer to Jarred Kelenic being called up.
29. Pittsburgh Pirates (Previously: 25)
“So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.” Job 2:7-8
All advanced stats current through Sunday