Is baseball on the horizon? If all goes as planned, which is a major if, the Nationals will host the Yankees on July 23rd, and from there, the goal is to have an exhilarating 60-game season. This won’t be a normal season by any means, but as the great Al Michaels once said, “fantasyland is where baseball comes from anyways”.
Today, I’ll be handing out win total projections for each team, which come directly from my self-created model. For more information about how this model was created, I recommend getting introduced to Value Above Average (VOA), and how it can be used to project team win totals. In a 60-game season, there will be randomness, and that’s without mentioning the likely health difficulties both from COVID-19 and from the long layoff. Therefore, rather than going in depth with every division, we’ll group the entire National League together, as we did with theAmerican League, and will follow that up with award and playoff predictions.
Note: Stat Projections via Fangraphs’ Depth Charts
#1: Washington Nationals
Had this been a normal season, the Nationals would’ve been able celebrate their World Series title with their fans, but would’ve had to avoid a World Series hangover. Now, they won’t have the luxury to do so, though, at the same time, the delay of the season may help them stay fresh. Therefore, although they haven’t won the division in either of the past two seasons, my model believes they’ll get back on top this season.
During general manager Mike Rizzo’s ten-year tenure leading the Nationals, this organization has prided themselves on their starting pitching. As a result, they have three pitchers making over $20 million per season, though with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, they have three top-ten pitchers to anchor their pitching staff. In a full season, those three may have been limited after a heavy postseason workload, but they’re now on the same playing field as every other team in that regard. Who contributes beyond those three remains a mystery, however, as Anibal Sanchez, Austin Voth, and Erick Feede are their next three available starting pitchers. On the bright side, Washington even has their best bullpen in recent memory. Will Harris and Sean Doolittle are a nice duo late in games, and Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey Wander Suero, and Ryne Harper are all capable options for them. Considering their lack of depth beyond their big-three, an improved bullpen will really benefit them.
The Nationals have never really invested in their defense, relying on whiff-inducing pitching to prevent opposing teams from scoring. As a result, they’re able to focus more on building a lineup built to score runs. Now, after losing Anthony Rendon, they no longer have a top-ten offense, but the top of the lineup is still strong. I’m very excited to see how Juan Soto has in store for his third season (he’s just 21-years-old!), and after him, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick all project to post weighted on-base averages (wOBA) over .340. If Victor Robles can hit better, while rookie Carter Kieboom can prove to be an adequate replacement for Rendon, then Washington will be in good hands- they have a nice combination of on-base skills and base-running. I’m slightly worried about their lack of impact power, as well as the shallow nature of their lineup, but they should be able to score enough runs to complement their elite pitching.
I still don’t quite understand why the Nationals chose to re-sign Stephen Strasburg over Rendon, as they’ve already invested a lot into their rotation. At the very least, though, they added a lot of position player depth, and in a short season, that’ll allow them to leverage different matchups and be well-prepared for any of the quirks of this season. As long as their stars produce offensively, while the “big three” does their job limiting runs, they’ll be the front-runners to win the division, and there isn’t any reason to see either of those circumstances not coming to fruition.
#2: New York Mets
The Mets have had been a chaotic team to watch over the past two seasons (when aren’t they?), as they’ve mixed in cold stretches with scorching-hot finishes. In a 60-game season, they won’t have the luxury of getting off to a slow start, especially as they continue to go all-in for a championship with general manager Brodie Van Wagenen leading the way.
Once upon a time, the Mets had a rotation anchored by Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Matt Harvey, but with Syndergaard undergoing Tommy John surgery and the other two no longer with the organization, deGrom is the only one who’ll accumulate innings for them this season. Nevertheless, they still have a top-ten pitching staff. deGrom remains one of the premier aces in the sport, and for the first time in a while, New York actually has prioritized depth in their rotation. Now, Marcus Stroman, Rick Porcello, Steven Matz, and Michael Wacha all are likely to be asked to do more than they’re capable of, but they’re better positioned to replace Syndergaard than they would’ve been traditionally. After all, as long as deGrom does his part, the bullpen may be able to carry the load for them. They currently have five relievers (Edwin Diaz, Seth Lugo, Justin Wilson, Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances) projected to post FIPs under 4.00, and all of those five specialize in missing bats. Heck, even after them, Robert Gsellman, Brad Brach, Jared Hughes, and Daniel Zamora provide adequate depth.
Although they’ll still be strong when it comes to run prevention, it’s clear the Mets will need to score more runs that usual this season, especially since they’re likely to be amongst the worst defensive teams in the MLB. Luckily for them, they should succeed in those efforts. A top of the lineup featuring Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto is amongst my favorite in baseball, and New York should be able to rely on those four. Then, the wildcards emerge. Wilson Ramos was once one of the top catchers in baseball, but he’s coming off of a rough season, and the same can be said about Robinson Cano. Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie are complete unknowns when it comes to their health, and JD Davis will need to limit regression after a career year last year. If just a couple of those high-variance players end up on the right side of the curve, the Mets will be in good shape. If not, their top-four position players will have to carry the load.
In general, the Mets are a strangely constructed team; they have a lot of aging veterans mixed in with young cornerstone players, and have the league’s worst projected defense. Considering that their starting pitchers aren’t known for striking a lot of hitters out, that could be an issue, as is the fact that they’re relying on a lot of bounce-back seasons from their players. They could easily win this division, but there’s also a legitimate chance that they’ll be closer to the team that they’ve been in the first half of each of the past two seasons.
#3: Atlanta Braves
Coming off of multiple division titles, the Braves are hoping that their young talent will set themselves up to run the NL East, similarly to how they did in the 1990s. Unfortunately, they’re one of the teams that have been affected the most by the pandemic, and even if the season went on as scheduled, a quiet offseason may have cost them anyways in a tight division.
Between their offense, base-running, and defense, the Braves probably have the most balanced lineup in this division. As much as I expressed my optimism for the Mets’ top-four players, Atlanta has them beat with Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, and Ozzie Albies, while their “wildcards” are more reliable. Even though Dansby Swanson’s overall numbers weren’t impressive last season, the underlying numbers point towards a breakout season; center fielder Ender Inciarte and the catching duo of Tyler Flowers and Travis d’Arnuad should provide them with solid production from both positions. Ultimately, though, the key for the Braves will be the third base position. I understand why they wouldn’t want to commit four years to a 34-year-old Josh Donaldson, but his presence in their middle of lineup will be sorely missed. As a result, Johan Camargo and Austin Riley will have to fill his shoes, and I’m not really confident in either of them. Given how talented this division is, the loss of Donaldson could prove to be rather costly.
If the Braves aren’t able to score as many runs as they did last season, they’ll need to rely on their pitching. Unfortunately, they’re middle-of-the-pack in that regard. Mike Soroka’s peripherals peg him as more of a high 3.00 ERA pitcher than the sub-3.00 one he posted last year, and it appears that Cole Hamels won’t be ready for opening day. On the bright side, Max Fried’s ERA should be much better than it was a year ago, based on his stable metrics, but this rotation is filled with question marks. They’ll need three of: Mike Foltynewicz, Kyle Wright, Bryce Wilson, Touki Toussaint, and Sean Newcomb to become steady members of their rotation, and the odds are against that happening. Meanwhile, even their additions to the bullpen may not move the needle enough, as Will Smith’s staus is unclear. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Luke Jackson, Chris Martin, and Darren O’Day are all fine options, but considering how thin their rotation is, the potential absence of Smith would certainly hurt them.
Overall, the Braves are a pretty balanced them. Unfortunately, that means that they don’t really have a clear strength, which is why they project to be the third-best team in the division. Rather than focusing on upgrading their bullpen this offseason, I’m confused as to why they didn’t try to add an impact starting pitcher or a better replacement for Donaldson’s offensive production. They still have the brightest future of any team in this division, but they could take a step back this season.
#4: Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies spent over $400 million during the 2018-2019 offseason, yet finished with just one extra win en route to an 81-81 record. They spent more money this offseason, but, at the end of the day, they’re still a team with too many flaws. As a result, they’ll likely be looking at another season in which they hover around a .500 winning percentage.
In that infamous offseason, the Phillies bolstered their lineup with two major additions: Bryce Harper ($330 million) and JT Realmuto (acquired for top prospect Sixto Sanchez). Both players rewarded Philadelphia with strong production, but, unfortunately, the team’s other position players disappointed. Rhys Hoskins should bounce back from a fluky 2019 season, but I’m not particularly inspired by the infield trio of Didi Gregorious, Jean Segura, and Scott Kingery, while the outfield besides Harper is a major red flag. If Andrew McCutchen’s return from a torn ACL goes as planned, he’ll be an effective high on-base table-setter for them, but if not, their lineup will be in a tough situation; Adam Haseley lacks any sort of impact power and Jay Bruce is an average offensive producer with poor defense. Should Philadelphia want to make a playoff push, they ought to call up young third baseman Alec Bohm, who’d provide them with the type of power they don’t currently have.
Even though it has its warts, the lineup won’t be the problem for the Phillies. Their pitching, on the other hand, could prove to be. The duo of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler at the front of the rotation is enticing, but outside of those two, they lack any sort of starting pitching depth. Similarly to with Alec Bohm, they may want to promote top pitching prospect Spencer Howard, as he may be their only hope if they want to have average pitching behind their top-two starters. Plus, since Seranthony Dominguez had to undergo Tommy John surgery, the bullpen is also not in great shape. Hector Neris will close out games for them, while Jose Alvarez, Adam Morgan, Tommy Hunter, and Nick Pivetta should be effective, but they certainly don’t have a core of relievers that can help them overcome their deficiencies in the starting rotation.
Even after spending more money this past offseason, the Phillies still haven’t done enough to finish higher than fourth in this division. They’ll certainly compete for a wildcard spot, but they’re a prime example as to why teams can’t start their competitive window too early- free agency is supposed to be the finishing touch of the rebuild, rather than the main aspect of it.
#5: Miami Marlins
While the top-four teams in the NL East will battle it out for playoff spots, the Marlins are looking towards the future. In a few years, their talented farm system may put them at the top of this division. For now, though, wins will be difficult to come by.
Whereas some rebuilding teams make zero efforts to trying to be competitive, Miami tried to be at least somewhat respectable this past offseason. The additions of Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson, Jesus Aguilar, and Matt Joyce are major upgrades in their lineup, and provide the type of veteran leadership that can be useful for a young team. Third baseman/outfielder Brian Anderson remains the team’s top player as a solid, all-around player, and outside of him, Isan Diaz and some of the their other young players will try to solidify themselves as a part of this organization’s future. They lack plate discipline and power, but at least Miami shouldn’t struggle to score runs as much as they did last season.
Although it projects to be a bottom-five unit, the pitching staff is where most of the intrigue surrounding the Marlins lays. Caleb Smith, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, and Jose Urena are probably maxed out as #4 starter types, but all of them have the pitching arsenals to be better than they’ve shown; Alcantara could really benefit from a tweak in his pitch usage. Furthermore, some of the team’s pitching prospects, such as Sixto Sanchez and Nick Neidert, may make their debuts this season, and Elieser Hernandez is a under-the-radar arm that I hope gets an opportunity this season.As for the bullpen, Miami actually has some depth there. Their recent additions of Brandon Kintzler, Yimi Garcia, and Ryne Stanek will pitch in high-leverage situations, and even lower down, Jeff Brigham, Sterling Sharp, Alex Vesia, Stephen Tarpley and Drew Steckenreider could all prosper if used properly. Obviously, the “floor” of this group is really low, considering that none of them have proven track records, but at least there’s a scenario where the Marlins can at least be average in terms of run prevention.
We’re now into year #3 of Miami’s rebuild, which started with the trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. In an ideal world, this is where the progress of those trades would’ve been showing, but almost all of the prospect acquired have failed to develop. As a result, they’re still a couple years away from being competitive, and with a brutal schedule, are a good bet to receive a top-five pick in next year’s draft.
#1: Chicago Cubs
Coming off of a World Series championship in 2016, the Cubs appeared destned to become a dynasty. Unfortunately, the front office made the mistake that most do when dealing with success- they pushed all their chips to the table to compete in a short-term window, rather than trying to build a sustainable winner. As a result, they haven’t been able to build off of that 2016 season, and now, are heading into a potential make-or-break season.
The position player core that Cubs fans have become enamored with still remains in tact, which means that the team should field a top-ten offense this season. The corner infield duo of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will continue to anchor the top of their lineup, while Javier Baez (defense and power), Kyle Schwarber (offense), and Willson Contreras (acceptable offensive production for a catcher) bring various skill sets. Furthermore, if Ian Happ and Jason Heyward each can build on their 2019 seasons, then there will be more than enough lineup depth; even the trio of Jason Kipnis, David Bote, and prospect Nico Hoerner at second base is an acceptable group of players at a somewhat talent-deficient position.
Chicago has not invested in their defense, and rightfully so. However, that doesn’t mesh great with their pitching staff. For the most part, their rotation is filled with soft-tossing contact inducers (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Alec Mills), and those types of pitchers generally need to be elevated by their defense. Ultimately, they’ll need Yu Darvish to sustain the improvements he made to his command last season- he’s their best pitcher, and misses plenty of bats. In actuality, the bullpen appears to be much stronger aspect of the pitching staff. Craig Kimbrel’s struggles last season were likely a fluke for a variety of reasons, and behind him, Roman Wick, Kyle Ryan, Jeremy Jeffress, and Brad Wieck are reliable options for new manager David Ross. Heck, even some of their lower-level relievers, such as Dillon Maples, offer some level of intrigue. They won’t be world-beaters when it comes to their pitching staff, but the depth of the bullpen allows them to at least be average.
The Cubs have a lot of question marks when it comes to their pitching, but they have sufficient depth in the bullpen, while the rotation shouldn’t be poor. In the end, though, they’ll go as far as their offense takes them, and if the projections hold up, it’ll be enough to secure them a playoff berth in an extremely difficult division. Considering that this could be Bryant and Rizzo’s last stand together, they’ll be a fun team to watch this season.
#2: Milwaukee Brewers
One aspect of baseball analysis that will never get old for me is examine how a front office builds a team’s roster. It’s very interesting to see how small-market teams overcome their lack of spending power by leveraging small advantages over their counterparts, and the Brewers fit that bill. They may not have a conventional group of players, but they are classic example of the sum of the parts equaling more than the individuals themselves; I’m expecting them to once again perform better than most would expect when simply looking at their starting players.
It’s rare for organizations like the Brewers to be able to acquire a star player, but that’s what they were able to do when they traded for Christian Yelich. The 28-year-old allows hit the ball hard in Miami, but an elevated launch angle allowed him to maximize his power, and as a result, he has really taken this team to the next level. How they fit his new contract extension into their long-term finances remains to be seen, but there isn’t any reason to expect him to not be an MVP candidate once again this season. Yelich is the clear headliner of this lineup, but it’s not like he’s going to have to carry them on his own. Lorenzo Cain is still an elite defender in center fielder and should improve offensively with better luck, while Avail Garcia, Justin Smoak, Omar Narvaez, and Keston Hiura all project as solid offensive producers. Meanwhile, they added a lot of position player depth this offseason, which will allow them to leverage platoons, and, as a result, they’ll score a sufficient amount of runs.
A major criticism of the Brewers is that they don’t have enough pitching, and it’s easy to see why- they don’t have a traditional starting rotation. However, with the way they use their pitchers, they aren’t in a position to conform to standard procedures. Even if he can’t handle the workload of an ace, Brandon Woodruff is a high-quality starting pitcher, and besides him, Adrian Houser, Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, and Josh Lindblom all have a lot of talent. Outside of Woodruff, Lindblom may be the only one who is asked to be a traditional starting pitcher, but that’s fine with the personnel they have, especially in a short season.
If Milwaukee didn’t have a top-notch bullpen, perhaps their lack of high-end starting pitching would’ve been a large concern. Luckily for them, they do, in fact, have a superb bullpen. Josh Hader remains the best reliever in baseball as an absolute unicorn that can be used in any particular way, and there are plenty of capable options behind him. Lefties Brent Suter and Alex Claudio each are able to limit walks and induce a lot of soft contact, while David Phelps, Corey Knebel, and Ray Black are all power righties that’ll complement those two lefties well. When you add in Peralta and Burnes as possible relief options, it’s clear that this is one of the most well-rounded bullpens in the MLB.
If you assess the Brewers based on their starting lineup or starting rotation, then you may not see them as a team that’ll compete for a playoff spot. However, when assessing the 26-man roster (30 at first) as a whole, they’ll be able to exploit any potential opportunity to have to gain an edge over their opponents. Ideally, they’d have a pitcher capable of a typical starter’s workload, or would be able to rely on platoons less. Nevertheless, their method of roster-building is incredibly logical, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won this division outright.
#3: Cincinnati Reds
Outside of the White Sox, no team generated more buzz this offseason than the Reds. They made some extremely aggressive moves to bolster their roster, and, as a result, have become the trendy pick to win the division. While they’re certainly talented enough to win this division, I’m not actually sure their offseason additions actually moved the needle for them.
Traditionally, the Reds have trotted out a very talented lineup, but that wasn’t the case last season. Consequently, they signed three players to add much-needed offensive production: Mike Moustakas, Nicholas Castellanos, and Shogo Akiyama. If he can stick at second base, Moustakas may be worth the $16 million he’s making per season- his offense plays much better at that position. On the other hand, he’s a low on-base slugger, which is also true for Castellanos and third baseman Eugenio Suarez. Usually, that wouldn’t be a problem, since Akiyama, Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Joey Votto all possess quality on-base skills. Nevertheless, for various reasons, those four aren’t “sure-things”, and that’s the best way to explain this lineup as a whole. Currently, they’re projected to be below-average offensively, defensively, and with their base-running, which isn’t what they’re hoping for.
On the bright side, Cincinnati’s rotation made major strides last season, and could be even better this season. Away from New York, Sonny Gray went back to being high-end #2 starter he’s generally been throughout his career, and if his second-half success, which correlated with an increase in slider usage, proves to be legitimate then he could be even better than his projected 3.95 FIP suggests. Furthermore, although Luis Castillo’s walk rate spiked last year, that appeared to be due to a designed strategy to not work in the zone as much, which also allowed his strikeout rate to increase. Then, there’s Trevor Bauer, who the team acquired at the trade deadline last year. The 29-year-old remains the best starting pitcher on this team, as he’ll provide them with high-quality innings; he was absurdly dominant in 2018. Heck, you could do a lot worse than Wade Miley, Anthony DeSclafani, and Tyler Mahle when filling out the rotation- depth is not a concern. The same is true with their bullpen. Sure, they may not have a shutdown reliever, but Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzon, and Pedro Strop should be able to handle high-leverage situations adequately. For me, though, the main intrigue regarding this bullpen is with the duo of Robert Stephenson and Lucas Sims. Both have shown flashes of tremendous potential, and at their best, there isn’t any reason why they can’t be useful multi-inning weapons. This is a really fun pitching staff to dream on; manager David Bell has more than enough options to work with.
I’m really excited to see the Reds’ pitching staff in action, as, at their best, they’ll have no problem missing a lot of bats. That’ll mitigate a lot of their defensive woes, but still, I’m not sure they have enough offense to maximize on their potential. The universal designated hitter will allow them to give enough playing time to all of their position players, but I’m not sure that helps them as much as many believe it will- platoons were always going to be the optimal strategy for them. It’s a shame that this season is shortened; they were very aggressive trying to compete, and their depth would’ve been amplified in a normal season.
#4: St.Louis Cardinals
Few teams do a better job consistently winning games than the Cardinals; even in their three-year postseason drought, they had a winning record in each of those seasons. Last season, they made it the NLCS with strong defense and pitching, but there were some fluky aspects to that success, and after resting on their laurels this past offseason, I believe they missed their chance to take control of this division.
A lot is made about St.Louis’ pitching staff, yet it appears to be a middle-of-the-pack group. Jack Flaherty solidified himself as a future ace last season with his second-half surge, but he’s still more likely to post a 3.50 FIP than the absurd sub-1.00 ERA he had in the second half last season, and the depth in the rotation isn’t great. Mike Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, and Adam Wainwright all don’t miss a lot of bats, and although the Cardinals have a talented defense, those pitchers can only be elevated so much; only Mikolas will have an acceptable K-BB ratio. If Carlos Martinez or Kwang-hyun Kim can be impact starting pitchers for them, that would be a major boost, but it’s unclear they’ll be anything more than multi-inning hybrids. Should that be the case, they may be another team that’ll have to leverage innings from their bullpen, which would work if they were better in that department. Besides Giovanny Gallegos, who is one of the best young relievers in baseball, only Andrew Miller is projected to post a FIP under 4.00, and they don’t have any high-upside arms to get excited about.
With a top-ten defense, the Cardinals won’t be as poor when it comes to run prevention as their pitching rank would indicate, so as long as they could get decent offensive production, they’d probably be a playoff team. Unfortunately, “average” may be a stretch when describing their offense. The infield (Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter) features four players that’ll be featured at the top of their lineup, yet they generally shouldn’t be the top-four hitters for a contending team. Assuming prospect Dylan Carlson doesn’t make the opening day roster, I’m not optimistic about their outfield, as none of their options there project to post a weighted-on-base-average of .320 or higher, and 37-year-old catcher Yadier Molina is an average player at best.
Studies done at mvpsportstalk.com have shown that it’s much easier to win through offense and pitching than with defense, yet the Cardinals have chosen to prioritize their defense. Unfortunately, the “Cardinal Way” can only get them so far, and unless some of their players drastically over-achieve expectations, I’d be slightly surprised if they won this division for the second straight season.
#5: Pittsburgh Pirates
After the 2017 season, the Pirates appeared to be entering a rebuild- they traded ace Gerrit Cole and franchise icon Andrew McCutchen. Yet, a late-season push in 2018 prompted them to make an ill-fated attempt to contend, and with a new regime in place, the rebuild appears to finally be in place. With four .500 or better teams ahead of them in the division, they’re in clear position to earn a top-five pick.
Even without Chris Archer, the main acquisition from that infamous 2018 trade deadline, the Pirates shouldn’t field a terrible pitching staff. Joe Musgrove showed promise after using his sinker less at the end of last season, and if those results hold up, perhaps he can emerge as a clear trade-chip for them. Furthermore, youngster Mitch Keller posted a tremendous K-BB ratio in his limited time last season, while Chad Kuhl will be returning from injury. Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, and Derek Holland, meanwhile, won’t inspire anyone with their K-BB ratios, but worse options exist for back-end starters. As for the bullpen, they have pitchers who can miss bats. Keone Kela (if available), Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz, Richard Rodriguez, and Nick Burdi are all intriguing, but even beyond them, Pittsburgh has a lot of relievers that deserve opportunities to produce in a short season. They still are projected to have bottom-ten pitching staff, but I could definitely a world where the projections were too low on them.
For now, Josh Bell remains a Pirate, and he’ll provide the team with a well-rounded offensive profile. Outside of him, though, the pickings are slim offensively. In an ideal world, Bryan Reynolds would be able to hold-off natural regression, but even if he does, he and Adam Frazier lack impact power, which is also true for Jacob Stallings, Jarrod Dyson, and Kevin Newman. Corner outfielder Gregory Polanco and third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes would’ve helped in that regard, but both are currently on the COVID-19 injured list. Thus, runs won’t be easy to come by for Pittsburgh.
The Pirates aren’t a terrible team, as they have some interesting pitchers and hitters with on-base skills. Even so, they simply don’t have the power to score enough runs, and, as a result, feel like a lock to finish last in this division. On the bright side, another early first-round pick would only further boost a strong farm system.
#1: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have been a powerhouse throughout the past decade, as they’ve won the NL West in every since since 2012. Mostly, they’ve done so with platoons and winning between the margins, but now, they’re too talented to need to leverage any potential edge. Simply put, the gap between them and the next National League team is astronomical, and even though, the playoffs are a crapshoot, I’d be shocked if they didn’t reach the World Series.
Where do we even start with Los Angeles? Well, I guess we’ll begin with the lineup. With Cody Bellinger coming off an MVP season, and with Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, and the Joc Pederson/AJ Pollock platoon all projecting to be above-average offensive producers, they were already going to score runs at an extremely high rate. So, naturally, they traded for Mookie Betts. As the clear second-best player in baseball, after Mike Trout, Betts rates out well in all the stable metrics, and with more batted-ball luck, should have a .400/.550 type of slash line this season. Then, you throw in youngsters Gavin Lux (when called up) and Will Smith, and it’s clear that not only are their no easy outs in this lineup, but they could theoretically have a top-ten performer at each position.
Okay, so it’s clear that the Dodgers will bolster a fantastic offense and defense. How does their pitching look? Surely, the loss of David Price should leave them with a noticeable hole that would be difficult to fill, right? Of course not. He might not be the elite pitcher he was once, but Clayton Kershaw is still a frontline starter, while Julio Urias, Alex Woods, Dustin May, Ross Stripling, and Tony Gonsolin provide this team with a lot of depth; Urias and May are two young pitchers that have a lot of potential. Meanwhile, although Walker Buehler apparently isn’t ready to pitch more than 3-4 innings, they’re in a great spot to piggyback him with May, Stripling, or Gonsolin.
Generally, Los Angeles’ bullpen garners a lot of criticism. Yet, they finished with best reliever ERA in the National League last season, and have only improved that unit since. Even if Kenley Jansen can’t capture his old form, he’s still an effective reliever, and the same goes for Joe Kelly, Blake Treinen, Dylan Floro, Pedro Baez, Scott Alexander, and Adam Kolarek. That’s a very deep bullpen as is, but that’s not all they bring to the table. As mentioned previously, they have more than five starting pitchers, so whomever isn’t in the rotation can be an effective multi-inning weapon for them, as can Brusdar Graterol and Caleb Ferguson. Once the rosters decrease to 26, I’m not sure the Dodgers are going to have enough spots for all of these pitchers, and that’s fantastic problem to have.
I’ve never seen a team have as few weaknesses as this Dodger team. In a full season, it’s very possible that they would have eclipsed 110 wins, and although there is more randomness in a short season, the talent gap between them and the rest of the National League still persists. President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman’s ability to be responsible despite a large budget is remarkably impressive, as he’s built this team with same principles as a small-market team, and they’ll continue to reap the benefits for a long time.
#2: San Diego Padres
Although they didn’t win many games last season, the Padres were a very exciting team, and they’ve even solidified that excitement after a very fascinating offseason. They probably aren’t a threat to overthrow the Dodgers, but they’re a definite playoff contender.
Between $300 million free-agent signee Manny Machado and former top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., the Padres have one of the most fun-to-watch left sides of the infield in baseball. Tatis Jr. will have to overcome potential regression after posting a batting average on balls in play over .400, while Machado is coming off of a down season, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that they are two fantastic players. In actuality, though, the best hitter on this team is Tommy Pham, whom the team acquired from the Rays, and he’s a perfect fit given their need for more plate discipline. Furthermore Trent Grisham and Jurickson Profar are intriguing acquisitions, and the catching duo of Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia is serviceable. They’d still be much better off not giving everyday playing time to Eric Hosmer, but there is certainly some potential with this lineup.
While their lineup is a little concerning, the Padres have built a fabulous pitching staff. A rotation anchored by Chris Paddack, Garrett Richards, Dinelson Lamet, Jand Joey Luchessi will be a clear strength of the team, and that’s before taking into the account the potential promotion of some of their pitching prospects, presumably MacKenzie Gore. The only possible issue with that group of pitchers is that none are known for pitching deep into games, but that’s where their fabulous bullpen comes into play. Kirby Yates will be their closing pitcher, and there isn’t any reason why he won’t continue to be a force to be reckoned with. However, he’s far from their only talented reliever. Drew Pomeranz and Emilio Pagan will pitch in high-leverage situations for this team, and even beyond them, Craig Stammen, Matt Strahm, Pierce Johnson, Gerardo Reyes, David Bednar, Luis Perdomo, and some of their pitching prospects provide excellent depth. Heck, even just for giggles, general manager AJ Preller acquired lefty Tim Hill from the Royals, and if they better optimize his raw skillset, he’ll be able to be even better than he has been previously.
With an absurdly deep pitching staff, the Padres will be able to be extremely creative in optimizing the usage of their pitchers, which will certainly be a major benefit for them. Ultimately, they’ll need to score enough runs, making Machado and Tatis Jr. the X-factors of this team, but they’ll be right in the thick of the NL wildcard race; currently, they’re projected to be the first team out of the playoffs.
#3: Arizona Diamondbacks
After trading away franchise star Paul Goldschmidt, and also losing Patrick Corbin and AJ Pollock in free agency, the Diamondbacks weren’t expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2019. Instead, they won more games than they did the previous season, despite the fact that general manager Mike Hazen has managed to keep a long-term view as the organization’s lead executive. Hazen was more aggressive this offseason, so Arizona should be in position to have a higher winning percentage, right. Unfortunately, they appear to be the epitome of a mediocre team, which is why a record around .500 is the most likely outcome for them.
The Diamondbacks didn’t miss a beat scoring runs last season despite losing Goldschmidt and Pollock, and a lot of credit should be given to their two key acquistions- Christian Walker and Carson Kelly. Walker was able to match Goldschmidt’s 2019 production at first base, and Kelly, the main piece in that trade, has emerged as one of the top catchers in the sport. Meanwhile, the new additions of Kole Calhoun and Starling Marte improve the team’s outfield, especially if David Peralta gets back on track; Eduardo Escobar and Nick Ahmed are also quality left-side infielders. Then, there’s Ketel Marte. The 26-year-old is coming off of a massive breakout season, and although he definitely benefited from a little bit of luck, there were a lot of sustainable aspects of his improved performance (elevated launch angle, high xwOBA). Overall, Arizona has a collection of quality position players, and are rather balanced when it comes to batting, base-running, and defense. Thus, they should have a very high floor, though, at the same time, I’m not sure there is much of a ceiling for them- they have a lot of players that are facing regression in one way or the other, which leads to some uncertainty.
Not typically a major spender on the open market, Hazen shocked many by signing former Giants ace Madison Bumgarner to a $85 million deal. Away from San Francisco, the projections aren’t optimistic for the innings-eating lefty, who may see his HR/9 surge. At the same time, he also wasn’t optimizing his pitches when with the Giants, and an increased usage of his curveball could allow him to rely less on luck. That’s the strategy for Robbie Ray and Zac Gallen, who are probably the true top-two pitchers in this rotation; although they struggle with walks, their strikeout ability makes up for it. Heck, even Luke Weaver may prove to a more quality option (same projected WAR as Bumgarner), and he’ll round out a solid top four. The last spot is a minor red flag, but most likely, Merrill Kelly should be able to be a capable #5 starter. Or, they could use that fifth spot as a “bullpen day”, though they don’t have a group of relievers that miss a lot of bats. Outside of Archie Bradley, Kevin Ginkel, and Andrew Chafin, the projected K-BB ratios for the members of their expected bullpen aren’t particularly inspiring, and since those are the stable aspects of pitching, they’ll need a lot of luck, as well as sound defense, to hold down the fort.
The Diamondbacks will continue to be a competitive team, but with the Padres drastically improving their roster this offseason, it’s clear to me that they’ve been relegated to the third-best team in the NL West. It almost feels like a guarantee that, given their high floor, they can win around 30-32 games in a short season. Yet, they simply don’t have the impact talent needed to get over that threshold- what’s their strength?
#4: Colorado Rockies
Coming off a postseason appearance in 2018, many were optimistic about the Rockies’ outlook heading in 2019, with some even predicting they’d win the NL West. However, the front office didn’t make the necessary moves to compete, and after another quiet offseason, the organization’s direction is unclear.
Due to the “Coors Field effect” that comes with playing their home games at an elevated altitude, the Rockies will always score runs. However, so will their opponents, and based on their current lineup, I’m guessing Colorado will be on the short end of a lot of games. The trio of Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Charlie Blackmon all project to post wOBAs better than .360, so it’s safe to say that they aren’t the problem. Rather, the issue is with their lack of lineup depth. Daniel Murphy is coming’ off of one the worst seasons off his career, while David Dahl and Ryan McMahon are unlikely to sustain the luck they benefitted from last year. Furthermore, Tony Wolters and Garrett Hampson have zero power whatsoever, so only prospect Brendan Rodgers appears to have the offensive capabilities to emerge as an impact player for them. Their defense is fine, but I’m never a fan of top-heavy lineups, and this organization has taken that to the extreme.
“Top-heavy” would also be the best way to describe the Rockies pitching staff. Obviously, it’s always going to be difficult to limit runs in Colorado, but that should theoretically prompt the front office to add as much pitching depth as possible. Yet, they’ve done the opposite. German Marquez and Jon Gray are two pitchers who’ll likely be much better than the ERAs would indicate, and I’d love to see how either would perform with a different team- it would make sense for the Rockies to trade them while they have multiple years of club control. After that, though, there isn’t anyone else that I have much faith in. Kyle Freeland’s 2018 ERA proved to be a fluke, and after the top two, Jeff Hoffman (4.98 FIP) is the only pitcher with a projected FIP below 5.00. Furthermore, outside of Scott Oberg, Jairo Diaz, and Carlos Estevez, there aren’t many reliable options in their bullpen; unless Wade Davis is the pitcher Colorado thought he’d be when they signed him, they’re going to struggle massively to hold leads.
The Rockies have enough star talent to avoid a last-place finish in the NL West, but their lack of depth means that they most likely won’t finish higher than 4th. I’ve been consistently confused with this front office’s team-building methods, and it’ll be interesting to see how much leeway they get before ownership decides to go in a different direction- Nolan Arenado’s displeasure any adds pressure for Colorado to drastically over-achieve, based on current projections.
#5: San Francisco Giants
The Giants may have won three World Series in five years, but their stubbornness in keeping their competitive window has hurt them significantly. Right now, they’re undergoing massive transition with president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler leading the way, and, in a few years, that duo should be able to get this team back to being competitive. As far as 2020 is concerned, however, they appear to be the worst team in the National League.
In a normal season, San Francisco was likely to rank near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories. However, now that catcher Buster Posey has opted out, and Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria are on the injured list, they’ll only be worse offensively. All three of those players likely would play every day, but as things currently stand only outfielder Mike Yastrzemski is an everyday option for them. He’ll need to prove his 2019 breakout season wasn’t a fluke, but the batted ball numbers support him, so he figures to be the team’s best players. After that, the lineup will consist of several platoons. Alex Dickerson, Wilmer Flores, Austin Slater, and Hunter Pence stand out as the most intriguing options, but even then, none of them are projected to have a wOBA of .320 or higher. Additionally, without Posey, their catcher production will likely be amongst the worst in the league, while Mauricio Dubon and Jaylin Davis haven’t shown the on-base skills necessary for them to have success this season. Defensively, this is a fundamentally-sound team, but when you can’t score runs, how much does that matter?
Kapler is not a traditional manager, so I’m expecting the Giants to blur the lines between a “starting pitcher” and “reliever”. Jeff Samradzija and Johnny Cueto will likely eat innings as standard starting pitchers, but besides those two, Kapler figures to mix and match pitchers consistently. Kevin Gausman, Drew Smyly, and Tyler Anderson were two excellent additions this offseason, and all are built to thrive in flexible roles. The same goes for youngsters Logan Webb and Conner Menez, who should be considered “bulk options” for them. As far their more standard relievers, Trevor Gott and sub-mariner Tyler Rogers are the only two that intrigue me, as they figure to have one of the worst bullpens when it comes to K-BB ratio.
Between their usage of platoons, unusual pitcher optimization, and other unorthodox strategies, Kapler and the Giants are built to do whatever is possible to gain any possible edge they can over their opponents. However, that can only take you so far, and as things stand, their lack of talent is quite alarming. They’ll use a lot of different players, and maybe some are able to over-achieve in a short season, but my money is on them finishing with the worst record in the National League.