BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
As of this writing, the delayed MLB season is set to commence in a matter of days. It’s still entirely possible that circumstances driven by the COVID-19 pandemic may prevent games from actually being played, but until that becomes reality, a preview of what the season may hold is presented for your enjoyment.
First, there are some new adjustments to play that take the virus into account. There are strict protocols that govern the safety of the players and those employees that are peripheral to the games to insure that risk can be minimized while playing games, and rule amendments that are specific to only the shortened 2020 season.
Each team will play in their home stadiums, but without fans in attendance. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association could not come to a mutually agreed upon season length, so commissioner Rob Manfred decreed a season that will last 60 games, beginning July 23rd. The playoffs will be structured as they have been in recent years, despite several proposals from both sides that included expanded playoff fields.
Instead of playing a “normal” schedule of games, all teams will play only those teams in their respective divisions, regardless of league. The Giants will thus face their natural rivals from the NL West (playing each ten times), but will also be playing series against each team in the AL West that will total 20 games. For the first time in history, the National League will feature a designated hitter.
Given the relative brevity of the season compared to a typical 162 game slate, the chances that a mediocre team can reach the postseason will increase, perhaps offering a ray of hope to those franchises whose talent levels are demonstrably inferior to their competitors. Over a long season, the differences in talent levels tend to emerge and will stratify the league into contenders and also-rans. The Giants had a 50 game span in 2019 where they went 30-20, which would almost certainly be good enough to put them into a playoff position in 2020.
It has been postulated that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. This year, it will be a 200-meter-dash, and might feature wild statistical pursuits among the gaggle of teams battling for playoff berths. It is certainly not impossible that a .400 hitter might emerge, or that a record low ERA is recorded. Those types of achievements would have to be placed in their proper perspective given the length of the season, but it might add intrigue to what figures to be a very abnormal campaign.
Several players have chosen to “opt-out” of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, and those players have the support of their organizations. If players are identified as high risk in the context of a Covid infection, they can opt-out of the season and still gain service time and their full, prorated 2020 salaries. If players choose not to participate for fear of exposing a family member by their participation in the baseball season, their clubs are not obligated to pay them their salaries, but may choose to do so anyway. Without listing the reasons that each player has chosen to opt-out, the following National League players will not participate in the upcoming season, a list that may certainly expand prior to opening day:
Braves: OF Nick Markakis, RHP Felix Hernandez
Cardinals: RHP Jordan Hicks
Diamondbacks: RHP Mike Leake
Dodgers: LHP David Price
Giants: C Buster Posey
Nationals: RHP Joe Ross, 1B Ryan Zimmerman, C Wellington Castillo
Pirates: RHP Hector Noesi
Rockies: OF Ian Desmond
With those considerations established, here is a brief look at the likely contenders for the NL pennant.
By any measure, the defending champion Washington Nationals should be considered among the favorites to emerge from the teams set to pursue the National League pennant. They return the core of their title winning squad, having re-signed Stephen Strasburg to a seven year, $245 million dollar deal to pair with co-ace Max Scherzer, giving them arguably the best one-two punch in the Majors atop their rotation. Despite having lost third baseman Anthony Rendon to the Angels, the Nationals figure to score enough with budding superstar Juan Soto in the heart of their order to support their strong pitching staff, but that still might not be enough to dethrone the Atlanta Braves, who won the NL East in 2019 for the second year in a row.
Built around young, talented superstar OF Ronald Acuña Jr., 1B Freddie Freeman and right hander Mike Soroka, the Braves enter the 2020 campaign as the bettors choice to win the division. The Braves also return 2B Ozzie Albies and sophomore slugger Austin Riley to a lineup that added free agent starter Cole Hamels and reliever Will Smith along with two time All-Star Marcell Ozuna in the outfield.
The New York Mets hope to continue to improve, and have two-time defending Cy Young Award winner Jacob DeGrom fronting their rotation, and 2019 Rookie of the Year 1B Pete Alonso to pace the offense. Alonso hit a major league rookie record 53 HR’s in 2019, and will strive to carry the Mets into the postseason against very stiff competition.
Outfielder Bryce Harper left the Nationals to join the Phillies prior to the 2019 season, and missed his chance to win a ring with the club that drafted him. Now, the 27-year-old slugger will aim to convince the notoriously demanding Philadelphia fans that he’s capable of carrying his new club to postseason glory. The Phillies added free agent RHP Zack Wheeler this offseason, signing him away from the Mets with a five year, $118 million dollar contract to pitch behind ace right hander Aaron Nola, and hope the duo can help pitch the club into the postseason with the help of a bounce back season from Rhys Hopkins.
The rebuilding Miami Marlins aren’t aiming to compete in 2020 as they amass young talent and prospects on a shoestring budget. It will be all the more difficult for the teams in the NL East to pad their records against the weaker National League clubs, since they’ll play their non-divisional games against the crucible of the American League East franchises, featuring the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox, each of whom harbor legitimate playoff hopes themselves. Finding 35 wins out of 60 might just pace this group, though the current odds don’t project any of the NL East teams to win even 34 (the Braves are listed with an over-under total of 33.5 to lead the division, followed closely by the Nats at 33, with the Mets at 32.5 and the Phillies at 31.) Every game will carry added significance when the teams are so evenly matched over such a short slate of contests.
The NL Central figures to be similarly bunched at the top, with the Cubs (32), Reds (32), Cardinals (31.5) and Brewers (30.5) all projected to finish within 2 games of each other in 2020. Only the rebuilding Pirates represent a clear drop from the contenders for the division title. The Cubs still revolve around their best hitters: 3B Kris Bryant, 1B Anthony Rizzo, SS Javier Baez and DH Kyle Schwarber, all aged 27-30 and squarely in their prime productive seasons. They’ll need their pitching staff to get bounce back seasons from lefty Jon Lester, 36 and RHP Yu Darvish, 33, both on the downside of their careers, to follow soft tossing ace Kyle Hendricks. Handing a lead to their bullpen, however, might be fraught with more drama than they’d like, given their dependence on closer Craig Kimbrel, who struggled to a 6.53 ERA in 2019 after battling injuries and a late start to the season.
While the Cubs might be undone by their pitching staff, the Reds should be carried by theirs. Led by righthanders Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and the outspoken Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati should stay in most games, allowing their lineup to score enough to win. They added free agent 2B Mike Moustakas and OF Nick Castellanos to an offense that also boasts 3B Eugenio Suarez, who clobbered 49 HR’s in 2019. With 1B Joey Votto and LF Jessie Winker getting on base ahead of the big guns, the Reds may well be the class of the NL Central.
The Brewers have the best player in the division in OF Christian Yelich, who signed a seven-year, $188 million extension in March to stay in Milwaukee. The 2018 NL MVP finished second in the balloting for the 2019 award behind Dodgers OF Clay Bellinger, and he alone might be enough to help tip the scales in a closely contested division race should he once again catch fire in the short season. The Brewers pitching staff is anchored by their stellar bullpen, featuring LHP Josh Hader and the return of RHP Corey Knebel, who missed 2019 with an elbow injury, but will be counted on to complement the lefty Hader at the end of games.
St. Louis will be led by young ace righty’s Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, who hope to carry the Cardinals back to the playoffs after they won the NL Central last year before getting steamrolled by the Nationals in the NLCS. The Redbirds fortunes may hinge on getting more production out of their aging core, 3B/DH Matt Carpenter, 34, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, 32, and franchise icon C Yadier Molina, 38. If that trio can’t beat back the ravages of time, the Cardinals may end up watching the playoffs this year instead of competing in them.
Aside from slugging 1B Josh Bell, there is little reason for Pittsburgh partisans to tune in to Pirates broadcasts after they traded yet another one of their homegrown stars when finances became an issue. OF Starling Marte, 31, was slated to make $11.5 million in 2019 (with a $12.5 million option for 2021), and that contract got him dealt to Arizona for a pair of prospects. No current Pirate will earn more than $5 million in gross (non-pro-rated) salary in 2020, and the franchise payroll would have been short of $50 million for a full season, the lowest for a Pirates club since 2011.
The NL West has been the dominion of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the past seven years, each of which ended with the team winning the division and winning at least 90 games and the division title. One of those streaks will surely end in 2020, but the Dodgers are projected (38.5 wins) as the best team in baseball this year, and should pace the division yet again. Despite a lineup littered with stars, the Dodgers acquired OF Mookie Betts from the Red Sox to create even more run scoring opportunities. Only two of their starting nine batters are over 30, and they have the defending NL MVP, Clay Bellinger, playing center, flanked by Betts, the 2018 AL MVP, right. Young stars include SS Corey Seager, 26, C Will Smith, 25 and 2B Gavin Lux, 22, each of whom were drafted and developed by the franchise. The offense alone should keep the Dodgers ahead on the scoreboard most nights, but their pitching is also formidable. LHP Clayton Kershaw is 32, but still has ace-caliber capabilities if not the blazing fastball of his youth. RHP Walker Buehler, 26, makes up for that loss of velocity by bringing his own 99 MPH heater, and he may well end up as the best starting pitcher on the club this year.
Arizona may represent the stiffest challenge to the Dodger dynasty, and the Diamondbacks made several offseason moves designed to unseat them in 2020. They signed LHP Madison Bumgarner away from the Giants with a 5-year, $85 million free agent contract to be their ace, fronting a rotation that will also include lefty Robbie Ray, 28, and righthander Luke Weaver, 26. The DBacks also benefited from the Pirates penurious penchant, swiping CF Starling Marte to fill that position, and to add punch to a lineup that already boasted a star Marte: Ketel, the breakout 2B who hit .329 with 32 HR for the club in 2019.
If Arizona can’t put heat on Los Angeles, perhaps the young Padres are up for the challenge in 2020. San Diego boasts arguably the best farm system in baseball, and may promote future aces LHP MacKenzie Gore and RHP Luis Patino, both regarded among the top 10 pitching prospects in baseball coming into the season, into their rotation to join ace righthander Chris Paddack, 24. If the Padres can find some starters to keep runs off the board, their collection of bullpen behemoths should hold the leads they are given. To support closer Kirby Yates, who had a 1.19 ERA and 41 saves in 2019, the Padres signed lefty Drew Pomeranz to a four-year, $34 million free agent contract, and traded for RHP Emilio Pagan and LHP Tim Hill to augment their elite relief corps. The Padres will need offense from their prior free agent indulgences, including 3B Manny Machado, 1B Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, along with more signs of future superstardom from Fernando Tatís Jr. if they want to unseat the Dodgers atop the division.
The Rockies will go as far as their young star hitters will take them. Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado will again drive the offense, supported by CF David Dahl and SS Trevor Story. Charlie Blackmon, 34, returning from a bout with COVID-19, will hope he’s got a few more strong seasons in him. Left handed starters German Marquez and Kyle Freeland, as well as RHP Jon Gray, each of who is 28 or younger, lead the pitching. Shortstop Brendan Rogers, a former first round pick, figures to lend his bat to the lineup at some point in 2020, providing yet another powerful thumper for Colorado fans to enjoy.
The Giants will be taking the field without their two most popular players in 2020, and embarking upon a retooling effort. Ace Madison Bumgarner left via free agency to pitch for Arizona, and C Buster Posey opted to sit out the season to avoid potentially exposing his young family to COVID-19. 1B Brandon Belt, SS Brandon Crawford and 3B Evan Longoria will provide recognizable names for Giants fans to cheer for, but aside from 2B Mauricio Dubon, 26, most of the Giants projected lineup is on the wrong side of 30 and in performance decline. RHP’s Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samadrzjia, 34 and 35 respectively, don’t figure to reprise their prime seasons on the mound in 2020. The Giants hope rests in the future, with top prospects C Joey Bart, SS Marco Luciano and OF Heliot Ramos all figuring prominently on the next contending San Francisco roster.
Here are my predictions for the National League in 2020:
East: New York Mets
Central: Cincinnati Reds
West: Los Angeles Dodgers
Wild Cards: Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres
Pennant: San Diego Padres
MVP: Mookie Betts
Cy Young: Walker Buehler
Rookie of the Year: Gavin Lux