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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
The 2020 MLB season will be unlike any baseball fans have ever seen.
A universal designated hitter is in play for the first time in league history. Teams will begin extra innings with a runner on second base. Top prospects might make their debuts ahead of schedule, given the cancellation of the minor league season and the implementation of 60-man player pools.
Then, of course, each team will only play 60 games instead of the usual 162 contests. Additionally, the 30 clubs will play against only divisional foes and interleague counterparts. In other words, teams in the National League East play against teams in the American League East, and so on.
Getting roughly 37 percent of a full schedule places serious pressure on contenders to win from the jump. Usually, the best teams rise to the top in a 162-game season. But this shortened campaign could create logjams in the standings. It also might not be conducive to certain teams many would posit as top contenders in 2020.
The following is a list six MLB clubs that might disappoint this season. This list was assembled using a combination of factors; these include win projections, the new schedule, key offseason losses and injuries, among others.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
It would be easy to suggest the Astros will struggle because of the loss of Gerrit Cole as well as continued fallout from the sign-stealing scandal.
But the rotation will at least get Lance McCullers Jr. back and a full year of Zack Greinke. Not to mention, it seems likely the team’s talented position players will be out to prove they still belong among the top players in the game.
However, Houston’s season is already rife with logistical challenges. Per MLB.com’s Daren Willman, the Astros have the second-highest mileage of any club in 2020, behind only the Texas Rangers.
The Astros will have to make a bunch of trips to the West Coast, and the NL West might also be even more competitive given offseason additions made by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres.
While the loss of Cole hurts, Houston will hope McCullers and Jose Urquidy can still hold things down in the rotation after Greinke and Justin Verlander. Josh James might also be extended.
Rather, the more consequential loss might be in the bullpen. Will Harris signed with the Washington Nationals in the offseason, robbing the Astros of a workhorse and one of their best relievers since 2015.
Harris gave the Astros steadiness, and he dominated against both right- and left-handed hitters. This was never more apparent than the playoffs, when Harris was nearly flawless before giving up a two-run homer to Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series.
Yes, this is still a strong unit. Ryan Pressly is one of the best relievers in baseball when healthy, and Roberto Osuna locks it down at the end of games. But there are questions in the middle innings.
Chris Devenski had a solid spring but gave up 1.7 homers per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. Joe Biagini struggled immensely after coming to Houston at last year’s trade deadline, and Joe Smith will need to take on a bigger workload after throwing just 25 innings last year. Is he up for that? What about newcomer Austin Pruitt, who struggled in Tampa Bay? Is he really a good bridge arm?
The 2020 season was always going to be somewhat challenging for Houston in light of the scandal. But the nature of this offseason and the details of the 60-game schedule might make it even tougher.
Verlander will be coming back from groin surgery. There are questions about the bullpen. George Springer is in a contract year. All of the travel could lead to mental exhaustion.
Dusty Baker is as experienced as any manager in the bigs. But he has also been out of the league for a few years, and now he takes over a club in turmoil under the most unprecedented of circumstances. The Astros could certainly slip up in 2020.
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Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
The defending NL Central champs appear to benefit as much from the new schedule as almost any team in baseball.
Mike Petriello of MLB.com used FanGraph’s win-loss projections to conclude the Cardinals have the third-highest drop in opponents’ expected winning percentage. This would make sense, as 10 of St. Louis’ 60 games come against the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers.
But there are reasons to be skeptical of the Cardinals.
For starters, they lost a major run-producer in Marcell Ozuna. Sure, Ozuna was underwhelming in comparison to his years with the Marlins, and he was a subpar defender in St. Louis. But he also had the second-highest OPS on the team of any player with at least 400 plate appearances.
The Cardinals will hope to replace Ozuna by committee. Tommy Edman figures to see more time in the outfield. Youngsters Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and top prospect Dylan Carlson might also get some innings in the corner spots, and all three have shown promise.
Still, St. Louis’ offense is asking a lot from outfielders Harrison Bader (79 OPS+ in 2019) and Dexter Fowler and third baseman Matt Carpenter. Carpenter could be a boon for the Cardinals if he returns to 2015-18 form, or he could be a detriment with another year similar to 2019.
That said, the Cardinals always seem to find guys who experience drastic year-over year-improvement. The bigger concerns are in the rotation. Jack Flaherty should be a perennial Cy Young candidate, but who comes after Flaherty?
Carlos Martinez might return to the rotation, but he has a history of injuries and has not made a regular-season start since 2018. Not to mention, he gave up eight runs in 13 frames this spring.
Dakota Hudson had a 3.35 ERA in 32 starts. He also led the league in walks (86), and his fielding independent pitching (4.93) and WHIP (1.41) suggest he is due for serious regression. Adam Wainwright is still kicking, but he will be 39 at the end of August and also struggled this spring.
Miles Mikolas regressed in his second year back from Japan because of a spike in his homer rate. Perhaps Mikolas can channel something reminiscent to his postseason performance from last fall, but the increased homer rate does not bode well given the season is starting in summer months when the ball flies.
The Cardinals and manager Mike Shildt also lost a valuable middle-relief arm after John Brebbia had Tommy John surgery in June. Who will hand the ball to Giovanny Gallegos, who must take on additional duties with closer Jordan Hicks opting out?
Andrew Miller finally stayed healthy last year, but his walk and homer rates continue to climb. John Gant and Ryan Helsley are decent options, though Helsley’s peripherals are not very inviting. What happens if Hicks gets hurt again? St. Louis cannot afford to tax Gallegos too heavily, even in a shortened season.
Perhaps Paul Goldschmidt and the rest of the offense will pick up the slack in 2020. But the pitching staff could take a big step back this year, which would likely result in the Cardinals sliding in a crowded NL Central.
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Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Mets fans seem to have plenty of reason for optimism. After all, their club went 46-26 in the second half, with the likes of Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto cementing their status as stars.
Plus, two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom anchors a rotation strengthened by last year’s acquisition of Marcus Stroman. Indeed, FanGraphs projects the Mets will be among the best teams in the league.
Of course, that rotation took a big hit when Zack Wheeler signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and Noah Syndergaard announced he was undergoing Tommy John surgery. Suddenly, the Mets have to rely on Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha as mainstays.
Wacha’s home run rate climbed by nearly a full homer per nine innings in 2019, and his peripherals have been very lackluster the last two seasons. Porcello’s peripherals look friendlier, but he also gives up tons of homers and has struggled in recent years.
Plus, both could be in for a rude awakening after going from two of the stronger defenses in the league (St. Louis and Boston) to one of the weakest. The Mets ranked 26th in team defensive value last season.
The bullpen remains a question mark, as well. Can Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia rebound from poor 2019 campaigns?
Diaz’s struggles stem from less effectiveness with the slider. Opponents slugged just .234 with a 53.8 whiff percentage in 2018. But opponents’ slugging rose to .522 against the slider last year, with the whiff percentage falling to 43.2.
Dellin Betances switched New York teams, and he could be a boon in the Mets bullpen. But Betances—aside from his single outing last season—essentially has not pitched since 2018.
A lot hinges on those three guys. Seth Lugo could wear multiple hats and post multiple-inning outings throughout the season. Justin Wilson will have to hold it down as the marquee left-hander. But the bullpen will be defined by the success—or lack thereof—of Diaz, Betances and Familia.
Meanwhile, the lineup offers excitement. Guys like Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis made the most of their opportunities at the dish last season. But is it possible the return of Yoenis Cespedes might actually be a hindrance?
Rookie manager Luis Rojas will have to figure out how to platoon guys in the outfield. That can be one of the more challenging tasks in baseball, both for managers and especially for players constantly moving in and out of the lineup.
The Mets would love for Cespedes to remain healthy and give them added production. But they also would prefer for Davis and Smith not to take a step back. How will Rojas ensure those guys get enough at-bats without potentially upsetting the balance of the team? The implementation of the universal designated hitter might help, though Robinson Cano might need at-bats there if health is an issue.
It also should not be forgotten New York has been a notorious slow starter in each of the last two seasons before finishing strong. The Mets do not have such a luxury this year. Not to mention, they have nine games against the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays while still competing against a deep NL East.
New York has the potential to unseat the Braves in the division. Alternatively, the Mets could just as easily finish fourth.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
This was supposed to be the year Mike Trout and the Angels took strides toward getting back to the playoffs. It will be immensely challenging.
The Angels signed the best hitter in this winter’s free-agent class in third baseman Anthony Rendon and added starting pitchers on the fringes in Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran.
So what is L.A.’s reward for all its offseason activity? The third-highest increase in expected opponents winning percentage, per Petriello, including six games against the Dodgers. The Angels will also have to travel quite a bit, per Willman.
There were already reasons for skepticism before all the logistical issues. Despite the additions to the pitching staff, the Angels lack a true ace. Two-way star Shohei Ohtani is probably the team’s closest thing to an “ace,” but he is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and the team might limit his innings.
Andrew Heaney’s breaking ball has become a dominant out pitch. He also gives up tons of homers. Bundy is another who is prone to the long ball, having allowed a whopping 41 in 2018. Bundy looked dominant in spring training, but he has yet to string together a quality season as a starter. Perhaps getting out of Baltimore will help.
Teheran is still only 29 and has a track record of success, but recent seasons have been plagued by command issues. He also might not be ready to go by the start of the season, per MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger.
Left-hander Patrick Sandoval—who made his debut last season—has similar command issues. Perhaps fellow youngster Griffin Canning can build on his decent 2019 campaign.
The Angels do not have many arms in their pipeline, so these guys will have to perform right from the jump if L.A. hopes to have success. They also need to go deep into games. The Angels have talented arms in the bullpen, but their relief corps struggled last season because guys in the rotation were unable to eat innings.
Pitching will be the focus, but the lineup is somewhat shallow as well. The Trout-Rendon-Ohtani meat of the order is deadly. But the Angels are lacking in depth.
Tommy La Stella hit 16 homers and had an .832 OPS in 80 games last year. He also has never played a full season as a full-time starter, and his 2019 slugging numbers should be considered an aberration until he proves otherwise.
Luis Rengifo and David Fletcher are decent contact hitters, but they are hardly run-producers. Is Andrelton Simmons’ ankle healthy? If it is, will he be the guy who produced over 100 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) in 2017 and 2018? Or will he instead be the soft-hitting shortstop who produced just 81 wRC+ in 2019?
The Angels are also still giving plenty of playing time to Albert Pujols, who has been worth negative value in each of the last three seasons.
In the outfield, Brian Goodwin also had his first season as a full-time starter last season, and Justin Upton will need to stay healthy after the Angels declined Kole Calhoun’s option.
Top prospect Jo Adell could be a difference-maker, and he might even be considered likely to get action given the cancellation of the minor league season. But it might also be a lot to ask a rookie to be a potential anchor for a team looking to compete for a playoff spot.
Trout might be even more dangerous with Rendon protecting him, and the entire lineup figures to benefit from Rendon. But can the supporting cast generate enough offense to complement the stars?
Last but not least, Trout seems unsure about playing with the expected birth of his first child in August. If he sits, it might as well be curtains for the Angels.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
At the outset, it might be hard to quantify what would be considered a “disappointment” for the Cubs.
In 2018, Chicago collapsed in September and bottomed out during the NL Wild Card Game. Last year, they struggled in September en route to missing the playoffs entirely. The rotation is aging, and stars Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo will be free agents in 2022.
Still, it is hard to deny the Cubs have a talented roster. FanGraphs currently projects they will win the NL Central with a 32-28 record. Like other NL Central clubs, they also benefit from the new schedule. Chicago trails only the Milwaukee Brewers in least amount of mileage, per Willman.
However, the Cubs draw the upstart Chicago White Sox as their interleague rival and have to duke it out against a crowded NL Central.
Much like the archrival Cardinals, the Cubs have plenty of concerns with respect to the pitching staff. Jose Quintana suffered a thumb injury earlier this month, and Theo Epstein said there was “uncertainty” with respect to his timetable for return.
The Cubs already had a vacancy in the rotation left by the departure of Cole Hamels in free agency, and now both Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills will have to fill the void following Quintana’s injury.
Each right-hander has previous starting experience, though Chatwood has a history of command issues and Mills is still something of an unknown commodity.
Jon Lester is a bulldog on the mound. He is also 36, has not posted a sub-1.30 WHIP since 2016 and has struggled with his homer rate. The left-hander might be motivated given the Cubs have a team option at the end of the year, but he will have to be craftier than ever in a limited number of starts.
The bullpen has very few locks. Craig Kimbrel will open the year as the closer, though he had the worst year of his career in an injury-riddled 2019 and did not look very good during an intrasquad scrimmage earlier this month.
Granted, the purpose of MLB Summer Camp is working out the kinks. But Kimbrel will continue to struggle if he cannot elevate the fastball and find the zone with his breaking ball. Kyle Ryan had excellent reverse splits and should continue to be a reliable option for rookie manager David Ross. Everything else is up in the air.
Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck should get opportunities after strong September showings last season. The Cubs will also hope Jeremy Jeffress and Dan Winkler can stay healthier in 2020. But there are no Steve Cishek or Brandon Kintzler types this year. It will be trial by fire.
The concerns are not reserved to the pitching staff. The Cubs had one of the most inconsistent lineups in baseball in 2019, and a lack of quality depth was a clear issue. That could doom the North Siders again in 2020.
Ultimately, however, the pitching staff is likely to determine the team’s fate. Kyle Hendricks is a model of consistency, and Yu Darvish was one of the best pitchers in baseball after the All-Star break last year. But can the rest of the rotation hold it down, and will Ross successfully navigate a makeshift bullpen?
If the Cubs get off to a slow start, trade rumors involving Bryant and Willson Contreras could also resurface.
Given the uncertainty in the staff as well as the questions about the team’s future, it is possible the Cubs miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
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Gregory Bull/Associated Press
The Padres are something like the Angels of the National League: some bona fide stars, uncertainty in the pitching staff and not a lot of depth.
San Diego was aggressive this winter, swinging separate deals with the Tampa Bay Rays to acquire Tommy Pham and Emilio Pagan. It also added Zach Davies and Garrett Richards to the rotation.
Pham is the veteran who should provide leadership while setting the tone at the top of the lineup. Pagan was one of the best relievers for the Rays, posting a 2.31 ERA and 20 saves in 70 innings. He should be yet another excellent table-setter for dominant Friars closer Kirby Yates.
But while the Padres made consequential additions, the rotation is full of guys who have plenty to prove. Chris Paddack is a future ace, and San Diego was smart in its handling of his innings last season. Dinelson Lamet showed plenty of promise as a strikeout pitcher after missing all of 2018, and might be aided by a shortened season.
However, the newest additions pose the biggest question marks. Richards has made just 31 starts over the course of the last four years because of an assortment of injuries. Davies had a 3.55 ERA with the Brewers last season, but also had an expected ERA (xERA) of 5.23.
Fortunately, the Padres have arms in their system. Left-hander MacKenzie Gore—the No. 5 prospect in MLB.com‘s Top 100—is in camp with the Padres and might earn starts in the rotation. The same can be said for right-handed prospect Luis Patino.
Indeed, San Diego has not been afraid to promote young talent earlier than expected. Paddack excelled last season, and perhaps the youngsters can inject some life into the rotation. At the same time, given the nature of the shortened season, the Padres cannot afford to make this a “learning experience” if they hope to make the playoffs.
Moreover, where will the offense come from? The Padres ranked 13th in the NL in scoring last season and no longer have bashers like Hunter Renfrow or Franmil Reyes in the lineup.
Fernando Tatis Jr. showcased an elite hit tool last season, and Manny Machado returning to form would be a major boon. But the Padres still appear overly reliant on internal improvements from the likes of Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers.
Hosmer hit 22 homers last season but also had a 93 OPS+ and saw his strikeout rate rise and walk rate fall. Myers can be a catalyst with his power and speed, but health is a question, and he had a 34 percent strikeout rate last year. Jurickson Profar is another guy with upside, but Profar has also failed to live up to potential.
The Padres are projected to win 31 games, per FanGraphs. But they will struggle to win games if they cannot manufacture runs, especially considering some of the high-powered offenses they will have to play in the AL West, not to mention the Dodgers.
If there is any consolation for the Padres, it is the fact they get to play the Seattle Mariners six times, as well as the fact that the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies should be lackluster clubs.
However, the Friars might yet be a year or two away from contention.