We instinctively (and I would say sensibly) devote the vast majority of our conversation this time of year to contenders. But right here, right now, let’s talk about some teams that are out of it now but could get in it in 2020.
And when I say out of it now, I mean out of it.
My first thought was to consider only clubs that were 10 games back of a postseason spot going into the weekend. My second was to consider only teams that had a 0.0% playoff chance by FanGraphs going into the weekend.
Turns out, those two lists are identical: Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Marlins, Pirates and Rockies.
Yes, that means the math is still extending a shred of hope to the D-backs (3.2% chance), Red Sox (2.1%), Reds (1.4%), Giants (0.5%) and Padres (0.1%). And while that is not likely to pan out, it’s not especially difficult to map out a '20 case for any of those clubs (particularly the Padres, in my estimation).
So, let’s work off the aforementioned “out of it” inventory and identify five clubs from that list that, as currently constructed, are set up best for next year.
We could cynically assume that Mike Trout will play every game the rest of his career on a team generally in the vicinity of .500 without ever getting meaningfully over that hump. And having another $59 million committed to Albert Pujols from 2020-21 is a real drag on the Halos' payroll.
But it forever bears repeating that a Trout-led team has a high floor, at the least. And the return of the two-way version of Shohei Ohtani and the likely promotion of touted prospect Jo Adell (No. 4 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100) could further improve the Angels’ outlook.
Where they need help -- and stop me if you’ve heard this before -- is in the rotation, all the more after the devastating death of Tyler Skaggs. Rookie Griffin Canning might be their best pitcher, and he's done for the year because of elbow inflammation. But there is an expectation in the industry that the Angels could be the team that steps up and pays for Newport Beach, Calif., native Gerrit Cole, and the great work that general manager Billy Eppler has done to remake the farm system could pay dividends in the trade market.
With the Twins having yet to prove their staying power (they’ll have to rebuild the bulk of their rotation at season’s end) and the Indians creeping closer to the likely end of the Francisco Lindor era, opportunity could open up for the American League Central’s long-standing also-rans soon. Among the White Sox, Royals and Tigers, the South Siders are the team best-positioned to make a leap.
Yoán Moncada took a leap of his own this season, and Eloy Jiménez will hopefully do the same in his sophomore year in '20. It won’t be long before Luis Robert (No. 5 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100) and Nick Madrigal (No. 41) infiltrate the order, and Michael Kopech (No. 18) is expected to face live hitters before the year’s end in his return from Tommy John surgery.
Because guys who once invited skepticism (Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito) have turned things around this season, and because the Sox have just $15 million (yes, you read that right) in guaranteed money on the '20 books after striking out on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last offseason, you don’t have to squint too hard to see something legitimate materialize here.
Reality set in for Texas after it unsustainably flirted with contention in the first half. And the reality is, this club has a lot of legwork to do if it’s going to mount a more viable challenge next season. In part because there’s not a ton of immediate help on the Minor League horizon, it’s currently hard to imagine a scenario in which the Rangers are ready to seriously challenge the Astros for the AL West title.
But, because general manager Jon Daniels and Co. stopped short of a full-on rebuild at the Trade Deadline (i.e. moving Mike Minor, Lance Lynn and others), there must be some thought that they can put the pieces together to at least vie for an AL Wild Card spot in their first season at Globe Life Field.
Texas still has one more year and $21 million owed to Shin-Soo Choo, but the overall payroll picture is pretty manageable, especially given the revenues that will come with the move.
And I’m just saying: Anthony Rendon is from Texas, the Rangers will have an opening at third base and Rendon went deep in a Nationals game literally as I was typing this sentence, which has to mean something. He’d look good in a lineup with a healthy Joey Gallo and a full season of Willie Calhoun.
My gut says this is a reach, because Toronto just doesn't appear to have the pitching to make a sudden rise in the AL East, and its own front office tends to point more toward '21 than '20 when talking about becoming competitive again. If they were big believers in '20, they likely wouldn’t have shipped out both Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez when they did.
But we're still going to list Toronto here because baseball’s rules have been rewritten in recent years. The second Wild Card spot obviously created a different definition of “competitive,” and the influence of young talent means that clubs' timetables can accelerate faster than anticipated.
The Blue Jays have the makings of a very fun offense built around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (who we can probably assume will settle in and find his stride in his sophomore season), Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Cavan Biggio. If that offense lives up to its potential and Toronto can piece together a pitching staff that even vaguely resembles league average, maybe this will be the type of team that has a better-than-expected first half and looks for upgrades ahead of next summer’s Trade Deadline.
The Blue Jays’ biggest expenditure next season will be the $14 million they still owe Troy Tulowitzki. So, while I highly doubt they’ll make a big splurge this winter, there’s plenty of ability to add quality depth to the roster and make the bit of conjecture here more than a half-baked scheme.
I’m only including one National League team because, well, when darn near every NL club is not totally, completely, 100% out of it in the third week of August, there’s not much to work with.
These confines of my own making left me with just three NL teams to choose from: the Rockies, Pirates and Marlins. I would be lying if I said any of the three inspire great confidence right now. They are where they are for a reason.
The Marlins will graduate several of their top prospects to the Majors next season, but they need a lot of help. The Pirates might have the best chance at their division title of the three, but they've already lost Jameson Taillon for 2020, don’t have an overwhelming farm system to rely on and, in all likelihood, aren’t going to be spending significant money this winter.
So the Rockies, it is. They’ve got a top-heavy payroll that’s going to make improvement on this frustrating season difficult, and binging on the bullpen has seriously backfired. But if the carousel comes back around with their young starting staff -- health for Jon Gray, better health and results for 2018 down-ballot NL Cy Young Award vote recipient Kyle Freeland, better luck for German Marquez, etc. -- and youngsters like Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers reach their potential, it’s a low bar for entry into the NL Wild Card conversation. And having one of the best players in the game in Nolan Arenado doesn’t hurt.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.