It’s not quite time to declare a state of normalcy in baseball, not when the rules annually change on a whim, or rotting franchises compel fans to stay away in droves, or the actual sphere placed into play performs as predictively as a tech stock.
Yet as spring training camps prepare to open and the off-season grinds of established and aspiring stars alike churn toward the 2020 season, the competitive landscape feels far healthier than Februarys of the recent past.
Every meaningful free agent has a home. A handful of teams have pivoted from endless tanking to something resembling competition.
And as USA TODAY Sports releases its projected win totals for 2020, it feels far less like a formality and a bit more like a journey into the unknown.
Oh, you’ll see plenty of the usual favorites atop the divisions. This recipe still consists of heaping spoonfuls of conventional wisdom; this time, though, there’s a few dollops of promise mixed in.
So feel free to bet on the proven ponies, but also to dream a bit on the White Sox or the Reds or the Diamondbacks. With that, a look at 2020 record projections from our six-person panel:
What does $324 million buy these days? Not a single extra win for the Yankees, who brought Gerrit Cole to the Bronx for October, not regular season window dressing. Chalk up a third consecutive 90-win season for the Rays, who have made believers of us all. Too much talent in Boston to dismiss the Red Sox, but trade winds, pitcher health and attrition elsewhere will all have to work in their favor if they’re to contend. Hyun-Jin Ryu buys the Blue Jays some stability, but it will take one more year for their core of legacy players to get them over the .500 mark. A handful of keepers are trickling toward Baltimore, where the Orioles may be worse than last year, but a year closer to 2022, when the ugliness may finally subside.
The Twins will drop from a quiet 101 wins to a noisier total in the mid-90s, with Josh Donaldson giving the Bomba Squad an MVP-caliber presence. So long as the Indians hold Francisco Lindor, they will contend, but shipping out he or Mike Clevinger will send them tumbling toward the second division. “Winning the winter” usually doesn’t matter, but beware the White Sox, who made impactful moves just as the Eloy Jimenez-Luis Robert core is ready to form. Can the Royals scare up a couple more viable players in the manner Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler stepped forward in ’19? That would make another inevitable losing campaign a little more palatable. It’s going to be another miserable year in Motown, but at least once every five days, the Tigers can hand the ball to Ivan Nova and see league-average performance, in all its glory.
Like a 34-ounce hunk of ash repeatedly slamming into a plastic receptacle, we’re seeing just a few cracks in the Astros. One of our panelists opted for Oakland while another sees a tie atop a division that figures to be decided by the Nos. 3-5 starters. For the Athletics, that group includes Houston whistleblower Mike Fiers, who will attract plenty of attention – the better to allow Sean Manaea, Jesus Luzardo and Co. to operate under the radar. Bold of the Angels to keep firing even after missing out on Cole; $245 million for Anthony Rendon will make them a much better team, but stopgap starters Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy won’t push them much higher than .500. The Rangers finished second on Rendon but filled in shrewdly without him; at the least, they will complicate the wild-card dreams of the division’s top three teams. Are Evan White and Kyle Lewis and Shed Long and J.P. Crawford building blocks in Seattle? Or churning pieces in the Mariners’ eternal five-year plan?
They’ll be the three-time division champion Atlanta Braves by October, but few will care if they can’t get out of the NL Division Series. For now, a second wave of elite young pitchers will help mitigate Donaldson’s significant loss. The Nationals wouldn’t hate a second consecutive wild-card slot, if only because it meant they survived the post-championship body blows accrued by the six trusted members of their pitching staff – along with the gaping lineup hole Rendon leaves. The Mets and Phillies will be joined at the hip, thanks to Zack Wheeler’s defection from Queens to Broad Street. Yet it will be each team’s respective bullpens determining if either challenge the Braves or Nationals. In any other division, the Marlins’ modest moves would move the wins needle a bit. In this one, they’ll be not quite good enough on a lot of nights.
For a division that figures to be volatile, our six NL Central ballots came back surprisingly identical: Cardinals-Reds-Brewers-Cubs-Pirates. Perhaps most jarring is the Cubs’ impending irrelevance: They’re pegged for a high of 83 wins and a low of 80. A moribund off-season after three years of gradual decay won’t win many caucuses. Meanwhile, the Reds’ winter flurry certainly garnered attention, though the player they acquired last July – right-hander Trevor Bauer, a free agent after this season – will likely have more say in their fate than $64 million men Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos. The biggest mystery: Do the Brewers have another rabbit in their hat? Don’t overlook the impact Keston Hiura’s .938 OPS might have over the course of an entire season. The Pirates might have made all the right moves in rebooting their baseball operations, but this may be their worst team since losing 105 games in 2010.
Just once in their seven-year reign atop the division did the Dodgers leave the door cracked – 2018, when they won just 92 games and endured the harrowing indignity of a one-game playoff for the West title. Well, last year they went back to boat racing, lapping the field by 21 games and winning 106. Despite nemesis Madison Bumgarner aligning with a live contender in Arizona, expect another six-month October tune-up. Can the Diamondbacks crack 90 wins? MadBum, Starling Marte and a soft bottom of the division will greatly help the wild-card cause, even if they don’t keep the Dodgers up at night. When is it time for the Padres to really, really go for it? Despite aggressive acquisitions and rumblings of a blockbuster, the answer remains as it was a couple years ago: 2021. The Rockies will be bad again, and now they’ll be miserable, too. Trading, keeping or further alienating franchise player Nolan Arenado may be the lone suspense of this season. The Giants haven’t even launched a “youth movement” yet – their fun finds of 2019, Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson, each turn 30 this year, which will give them six thirty-something regulars.