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X-factors who could impact each division race

@RichardJustice
March 9, 2020

So far, Spring Training has cleared up nothing, which is typical. Optimism occasionally is tested in March, but it’s never smothered. As possibilities abound, there’s a reasonable case to be made for 20 teams getting one of the 10 postseason berths. This does not include almost every other manager thinking,

So far, Spring Training has cleared up nothing, which is typical. Optimism occasionally is tested in March, but it’s never smothered. As possibilities abound, there’s a reasonable case to be made for 20 teams getting one of the 10 postseason berths.

This does not include almost every other manager thinking, “We’re going to be better than people think.” At this point, there may be just one consensus division favorite: the Dodgers in the National League West. Three other NL West teams -- D-backs, Padres and Rockies -- believe they just might be legit contenders.

And after a season in which the Twins improved by 23 games, the Yankees won 103 despite a boatload of injuries and the Nationals survived a 19-31 start to win the World Series, it’s easy to believe in the improbable.

Let’s assign one X-factor to the six division races:

American League East
Yandy Díaz, 3B/1B, Rays
The Rays believe they finally may have enough offense to go with an elite pitching staff and push the suddenly vulnerable Yankees in the AL East. Yandy Díaz was pretty much what the Rays hoped he’d be when they acquired him from the Indians in December 2018. That is, he made consistent hard contact (44.8% hard-hit rate, ranking in the 82nd percentile). He still has adjustments to make in terms of competing against right-handed pitching and getting the ball in the air, but he’s going to be a big part of an interesting offense if he can stay healthy.

AL Central
Franmil Reyes, RF, Indians
Don’t sleep on the Indians. Sure, the Twins have constructed a powerhouse lineup and the White Sox appear poised to turn a big corner. But the Indians still have the division’s best pitching staff and Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez on the left side of the infield. Franmil Reyes could be the guy that elevates their lineup to a higher level. His 51 percent hard-hit rate was fifth-highest in the Majors and his 93.3 mph exit velocity was fourth. His first full year away from pitching-friendly Petco Park could make for a monster season.

AL West
Sean Manaea, LHP, A’s
The A’s won 97 games last season despite their ace missing five months of the regular season recovering from shoulder surgery. Sean Manaea looks as good as ever this spring, with a new slider that has touched 89 mph. The A’s are counting on kid pitchers A.J. Puk, Jesus Luzardo and Frankie Montas, but the return of their ace would be a huge step in closing the gap on the Astros.

NL East
Mike Foltynewicz, RHP, Braves
If Mike Foltynewicz pitches the way he did in 2018 -- 183 innings, 2.85 ERA -- the Braves could win a third straight division title in what should be one of MLB’s tightest and most competitive races. Foltynewicz's struggles got him briefly demoted to the Minors last season (6.37 ERA before he was sent down), but he pitched well down the stretch and has had a solid spring after an offseason focused on conditioning and fine-tuning his stuff. With Cole Hamels sidelined by an cranky left shoulder, Foltynewicz is more important than ever.

NL Central
Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals
Matt Carpenter is one season removed from one of his best years: 42 doubles, 36 home runs and an .897 OPS. On a team with little margin for error in a division in which the Reds, Cubs and Brewers all think they’re good enough to win, the Cardinals are counting on Carpenter being the player he has been for most of his career. His .866 OPS last September is a hopeful sign for 2020.

NL West
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres
Hyped like crazy before his debut last Opening Day, Fernando Tatis Jr. did something that seemed almost impossible: He outplayed the hype. In 84 games before a lower back injury ended his season in August, the Padres saw enough to believe he can be the kind of resplendent talent that elevates an entire organization (.969 OPS, first among primary shortstops with at least 250 plate appearances). The Padres are the longest of long shots to unseat the Dodgers in the NL West, but with Tatis and Manny Machado on the left side of the infield, a bounty of young arms and the addition of Tommy Pham to lengthen the lineup, the Padres could be a factor.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.