After the longest offseason in baseball history, Opening Day is finally within sight. As you already know, a 60-game season lends itself to somewhat more randomness than a full 162-game campaign would, so while you wouldn't expect to see a lower-tier team win its division over six months, you might see someone go on a wild run for only two months. It might not be likely, but it's possible. That's part of the fun, should we manage to complete the full partial season.
Still, there's reason even in a shorter season to expect the good teams to be good and the lesser teams to be ... less good. After 60 games in 2019, the teams with the most wins were the Dodgers, Astros, Twins and Yankees. At the other end, the teams with the fewest wins were the Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays and Tigers. That all tracks.
So we could, if we wanted, power rank the teams, 1 through 30. It's fun, and it's expected. But it's also a little unsatisfying, because ranking the teams implies that there's a big difference between, say, team No. 13 and team No. 15 (there's not) or even team number No. 28 and team No. 30 (there is, again, not).
Besides, that's not how teams view themselves. They don't think about being the eighth-best or 14th-best team. They think about reasonable expectations for the season, be that "win it all" or "make it to .500" or "just take a step forward." So, we'll do the same.
We came up with seven tiers of teams for the abbreviated 2020 season. They roll out like this, roughly from "best to worst."
1) Title or bust!
2) The Astros zone
3) Strong contenders
4) Borderline contenders
5) Star-laden teams seeking direction
6) The competitive up-and-comers
7) Everyone else
You might not like where your team is. That's fine. Let's explain who resides in each tier -- and why. The order within each tier is irrelevant. (We'll even list them alphabetically by team name, to be clear.) It's which tier you're in that matters.
TIER 1: TITLE OR BUST!
These aren't the only three teams that could win the 2020 World Series, obviously. But these are three of the only four teams that won 100 games last season, and this group has since imported Josh Donaldson, Gerrit Cole, Mookie Betts and Blake Treinen from the outside, while swapping Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill between themselves. They're each heavy favorites to win their divisions, and they're three of the only five teams projected to have a higher than 60% chance to make the playoffs (per FanGraphs).
(What about the other two? You'll see about the Astros in a second, and the Rays certainly could belong here. But unlike the Dodgers and Twins, they have another top team in their own division to worry about.)
Dodgers: Look, this team won 106 games last year, it's won seven consecutive division titles, and it went out and added Betts. It's not all wine and roses -- David Price chose not to participate in the season, and there's been some uncertainty about the status of Kenley Jansen, Gavin Lux, A.J. Pollock and others -- but it says a lot about their depth that even with those issues, the Dodgers are still the clear favorites in the NL West. Remember: Back in February, we were talking about them in "deepest lineup ever" terms. It might not be quite that, but most teams don't get to simply give more playing time to Ross Stripling, or Dustin May, or Tony Gonsolin, or Joc Pederson. There's so much here.
You can't, obviously, guarantee a World Series win. But the Dodgers have essentially guaranteed a trip back to October (87% playoff odds at FanGraphs) and that's the first step.
Twins: Last year's Twins won 101 games, the second most in Minnesota/Washington history, and they set the all-time record for home runs by a team, too. Now, imagine if the Mitch Garver partial-season breakout was for real -- and it sure seems like it might have been -- and if Josh Donaldson helps improve a relatively weak defense. (And, obviously, mashes like he always does.)
It's fair to point out that Minnesota didn't get the elite starter it was hoping for, but what it did instead was to reinforce the rotation with depth. At the start of the winter, José Berríos -- already one of the better young pitchers in the game -- was the Twins' only clear starter. Then they brought back Michael Pineda (once he returns from suspension) and Jake Odorizzi; then they imported Maeda, Homer Bailey and Hill (who benefits from the delayed start, as he was going to miss months due to injury and now may be ready to go). Throw in a quietly good bullpen, led by Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey and Trevor May, and the Twins are projected to have something like the eighth- or ninth-best pitching staff in the game.
Now, add that to the third-best projected collection of position players, and this isn't a team looking to just get to October. It's looking to win it all. Not bad for a group that lost 103 games as recently as 2016.
Yankees: Well, they won 103 games and then added the best starter in baseball on a record-setting contract, so yes, expectations are fairly high, or at least they were when you could say things like "103 wins plus Cole plus presumably better health from Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, Luis Severino and Miguel Andújar equals unstoppable baseball force."
So take all that, and realize that no team may have benefited more from not having to start the season in March. OK, Severino (Tommy John) is still out for the year, but remember all the injuries this club had in March? Aaron Hicks (Tommy John), Judge (ribs), Stanton (calf), James Paxton (back) and Sánchez (sore back) would all likely have missed various amounts of time had the season begun on time, plus Andújar was fresh off the shoulder surgery that wrecked his 2019. Now, each and every single one of them are ready to go. That's a huge win, although there's now concern over the health of Aroldis Chapman, DJ LeMahieu and Luis Cessa, who each tested positive for COVID-19.
Still, now they have Cole, and better health, and we haven't even mentioned Gleyber Torres, Chad Green or Luke Voit. It's been more than a decade since the last title came to the Bronx. If the Yanks win ring 28 in a shortened season, it won't be any less sweet.
TIER 2: THE ASTROS ZONE
We don't need to fully rehash their tumultuous offseason, do we? The sign-stealing scandal not only cost the Astros their manager and general manager and their top two Draft picks for the next two years, it cost them any sense of the benefit of the doubt. If there were fans at the games, this team would have been booed more on the road than perhaps any sports team in memory. If a Houston hitter gets off to a perfectly reasonable slow start, he will be inundated with suspicions about why.
The criticism will be entirely expected, of course, and earned. But that's not why they're in their own tier. (Or at least not entirely why.) There's no reason to believe, even with the scandal, that Alex Bregman, José Altuve, George Springer, Michael Brantley and Carlos Correa won't continue to mash. (It's still unclear how much the scheme actually helped, or if it actually did at all.) Ryan Pressly remains the best reliever not enough people know about. You won't like watching it, but Houston is going to win a lot of games -- maybe enough to get Dusty Baker that ring.
No, the reason the Astros are here is because of the most traditional baseball reason of all: Pitching depth. The rotation already looked thin with Cole off to the Bronx, and it's now led by Zack Greinke (turns 37 in October) and Justin Verlander (turned 37 in February). The delayed season actually helped in this sense, because it allowed Verlander to recover from a lat strain and groin surgery, which was almost certainly going to cost him early season time. But that's a lot to put on two older pitchers, given that the likely starters behind them (Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy, Josh James, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez) combined to make all of 18 starts last season. (Not all are in camp yet, either. Neither is defending AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, though the lineup can handle that better than the pitching staff.)
Maybe it'll be fine. Maybe Verlander and Greinke can still be excellent over two months and it won't matter. It may not be A Problem, but it's a problem.
TIER 3: STRONG CONTENDERS
Here we have a group of very good teams. Four of them made the playoffs last year, they're all projected with at least 40% playoff odds in 2020, and the Nationals, as you might remember, won the World Series. For various reasons, they're not quite as strong as our first tiers, but you also wouldn't be surprised if literally any of these teams took home a title. (Yes, even the Mets.) We'll go out on a giant limb here and say we're guaranteeing that at least two of these clubs are headed back to October.
A's: You know, the A's have won 97 games in each of the past two seasons, which no one ever seems to notice, mostly because they've had the misfortune of sharing a division with the Astros and because each of those seasons ended with single-game Wild Card defeats. (Only the Astros, Yankees and Dodgers won more games than Oakland in 2018-19.) It helps when you have three legitimate superstars in the infield, thanks to Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, along with Marcus Semien, and a few valuable secondary pieces like Ramón Laureano and Mark Canha.
But what really makes the A's interesting are the additions they'll have in 2020, and we're not talking about free agency or trades, because they didn't really do that. We're talking about the fact that three of the top 60 prospects in baseball -- pitchers Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk, and catcher Sean Murphy, though Luzardo is recovering from the coronavirus -- are ready now, after each impressed in small stints in 2019. This team keeps winning 97 games without those guys, and up against a fully functional Astros Death Star. What does it look like now?
Braves: Atlanta has won back-to-back division titles, and it has increased its win total each year dating back to 2015's 67-95 low point. In Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka, the Braves have a handful of the more exciting young players in baseball. They spent all winter reloading their bullpen, notably adding Will Smith, so this team is going to be good once again. Perhaps very good.
Even before that, we had some concerns about the offense, because the lineup downgrade (big on offense, bigger on defense) from Donaldson to Marcell Ozuna seems large -- and no projection system believes that Soroka can quite repeat what he did without reaching even a league-average strikeout rate. And although the layoff did allow Cole Hamels extra time to recover from a spring shoulder injury, he's still behind schedule.
They'll still be good. Thing is, 80% of the NL East is good.
Mets: Every year, we talk ourselves into buying into the Mets. Every year. It's not hard to see why, obviously, because you see all of the star-studded names like deGrom, Syndergaard, Conforto, Alonso, Stroman, and McNeil, and you dream on what happens if a Díaz / Betances / Lugo / Familia bullpen plays to its full capabilities. Even in February, we were here with a "Why the Projections Think So Highly of the Mets" piece, because they did.
Of course, that was before Noah Syndergaard went down for the year with Tommy John surgery, putting a lot more pressure on newcomers Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha. And it's now been nearly five years since the Mets actually won a postseason game -- taking Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, a game that was so long ago that their middle infield that night consisted of Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Flores.
But it's not that hard to see it working, right? Jacob deGrom is the two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner, and in the conversation for baseball's best pitcher. It was only two years ago that Edwin Díaz was having a historically great season. Pete Alonso just did have a historically great season. There's an argument that the manager misfire may have left them in a better position, given Luis Rojas' experience and popularity within the organization. Dominic Smith, Amed Rosario and J.D. Davis all showed breakout signs in 2019. Jeff McNeil is indisputably a star. Seth Lugo might be a Top 10 reliever in the game.
You can see it. You really can. Even Yoenis Céspedes is in the field! Surely, nothing could go wrong from here.
Nationals: It's been two decades since the last repeat champions, dating back to the 1998 to 2000 three-peat Yankees. Washington has returned many of the same players who won the title, and that's both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing, obviously, is that many of those players are really, really good -- Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin and Juan Soto and Trea Turner and so on.
The bad news, however, comes from the 2019 Red Sox, who also went with the "bring back most of our same team, including October hero free agents Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi" approach. You know how that ended, right? The 2020 Nationals are going to be good and competitive, obviously, but the "we're going to count on a bunch of old guys pulling it together at the same time, including October hero free agents Howie Kendrick and Daniel Hudson" trick usually works once, not twice -- to say nothing of a still-questionable bullpen, or how to fill the hole that Anthony Rendon leaves, or what it'll be like without Ryan Zimmerman for the first time in D.C. history.
Rays: Tampa Bay has increased its win total in each of the past three seasons, from 2016's 68 to 2019's 96. This is a good, deep team, one that just had the best pitching in the game (even with a limited season from Blake Snell) and is projected to be at or near the top again. We cannot, again, talk enough about the three legitimate Cy Young contenders in the rotation or the arms in the bullpen like Nick Anderson, Colin Poche, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe and so on. The Rays have baseball's best farm system, too.
Now, will they have enough offense, having dealt Tommy Pham away and with Avisaíl Garcia off to Milwaukee? That part is less clear, though everyone wants to see what Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is capable of. But the shorter season might play to their strengths, given how many innings they can fill with high-quality arms, and they're projected to be just a game worse than the Bronx Bombers. If they take down the mighty Yankees, don't act like it was a total surprise. The Rays are for real.
TIER 4: BORDERLINE CONTENDERS
This group is where we start seeing good teams maybe headed in different directions, all with some question marks. For example: The Reds had a very busy winter, improving their team. The Brewers also had a very busy winter, but maybe didn't actually improve their team. The Cardinals did just about nothing, yet still have a good team. It's easy to see any of these teams making noise in October; it might be as easy to see a lot of "one game over .500" records out of this group, too.
Angels: A team that has Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Andrelton Simmons, Anthony Rendon, and soon enough, top prospect Jo Adell should be in contention to make some noise. Full stop.
But as has been reported ad nauseum, the 2019 Angels were the first team since the 1919 Phillies, and only the second team since the birth of the American League, to fail to have a single starter make 20 starts. There's merit to importing each of Dylan Bundy, Julio Teheran and Matt Andriese in their own ways, but none are difference-makers, and Griffin Canning is still working through elbow problems. The Angels' rotation is projected to be baseball's 21st-best. That's better than last year's 30th, but not even Trout can solve that problem.
Brewers: “Do I like their team on paper? I never do,” an unnamed executive told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic about the Brewers. “But they know how to win games.”
Yes, to both points. The Milwaukee winter was busy, yet whether it was productive is a matter of opinion. Gone are Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, Drew Pomeranz, Jordan Lyles, Junior Guerra and Jimmy Nelson. In are Luis Urías, Eric Lauer, Omar Narváez, Josh Lindblom, García, Brett Anderson and a litany of utility infielders like Eric Sogard and Brock Holt. Those don't look like great swaps. They're still projected to be in something of a four-way tie atop the Central. They do always seem to outdo our expectations.
If Lorenzo Cain can rebound from a down 2019, and if Christian Yelich and Josh Hader keep playing at an elite level, and if Brandon Woodruff and/or Adrian Houser reach some of the high expectations we have for them, they'll top that. They always seem to. It just won't be easy.
Cardinals: The Cardinals didn't do anything this winter.
It's easy to leave it at that -- if totally unfair to Kwang-Hyun Kim, signed to add pitching depth -- because the biggest issue with the 2019 Cards was their inconsistent offense, and they're simply bringing back the same group, minus Ozuna. That group is projected to score the fourth-fewest runs per game in the NL and none of the three teams below them is going to come anywhere near the playoffs. Those teams don't have Jack Flaherty, obviously, or baseball's best infield defense, or Top 20 prospect Dylan Carlson. They'll be right there with the other Central clubs. But still: Where's the offense coming from?
D-backs: The D-backs, conversely, did make some noise this winter, with big moves to add Madison Bumgarner and Starling Marte, plus smaller ones for Kole Calhoun, Guerra and Stephen Vogt. Were you to ask the proprietors of the various projection systems, they would generally all agree that they were surprised at how low their systems are on the D-backs; before the season was delayed, FanGraphs pegged them at 79-83, and Baseball Prospectus at 80-82, a year after the actual D-backs went 85-77.
Part of that is the expected strength of the Dodgers, but part of it is the lack of depth in the lineup. You definitely want the two Martes, and there are things to like about Eduardo Escobar, David Peralta and Christian Walker, it's just ... well, there's still another half of a lineup to fill here.
Phillies: A year after adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Andrew McCutchen, the Phillies stayed busy, signing Didi Gregorius to play shortstop, giving Zack Wheeler $118 million over five years and hiring Joe Girardi to replace Gabe Kapler as manager, while at the same time cutting loose 50% of their starting infield over the past few seasons in César Hernández and Maikel Franco. This is a team that already had Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and Jake Arrieta. There's no shortage of names here.
So why don't they feel ... stronger? At FanGraphs, they've been given a mere 10% odds of winning an admittedly strong NL East, and a 0.9% chance -- or, if you prefer to round down, no chance at all -- of winning the World Series. Personally, we think that's a little harsh, given the talent here and the non-zero chance of Harper, Nola, Wheeler and Gregorius all offering more than they did in 2019. It's not that hard to see this team winning.
Then again ... they didn't really do much to fix last year's nightmare of a bullpen, and that was before Seranthony Domínguez had Tommy John surgery, and before Héctor Neris, Ranger Suárez and Tommy Hunter all started camp on the injured list. Scott Kingery has been open about his harrowing experience with the coronavirus, and Wheeler still hasn't fully committed to playing -- understandably so, given that his wife is due with a child this month.
Phillies fans never really liked how Kapler managed the relievers, not unfairly. But that was mostly about who was available, and Girardi may have the same issues.
Reds: If there's an award for "won the winter," give it to the Reds, who made good on an offseason promise to spend money and ended up adding Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Wade Miley, Pedro Strop and Shogo Akiyama. It's a bit of an odd-fitting roster -- whether Moustakas can handle second base is an open question -- though the delayed start allowed third baseman Eugenio Suárez to recover from his shoulder injury, and no team benefited more from the reconfigured 2020 schedule. The rotation should be very good, though it's worth noting that Trevor Bauer posted a 6.39 ERA in 10 post-trade starts for the Reds.
If it seems like a bummer to expend all that cash and energy and only end up here in Tier 4, it's not. Cincinnati lost 87 games last year, and it's had six straight losing seasons. During that stretch, from 2014-19, no team in baseball has had a worse record than the Reds' 418-554. That they're now considered in the conversation for real contention (40% playoff odds) is a compliment, not an insult.
TIER 5: STAR-LADEN TEAMS SEEKING DIRECTION
• Red Sox
You want stars? This group has stars. Put it this way: Cleveland has Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez on the left side of its infield. That's indisputably an incredibly talented pair, right? And yet you can at least make the argument that of these four teams, that's the fourth-best shortstop/third-base combination of this group -- to say nothing of other names like Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Clevinger, Anthony Rizzo and, when healthy, Chris Sale.
This group, over the previous four seasons, has won two rings (Cubs 2016/Red Sox 2018), an additional pennant (Indians '16) and the Rockies have shown up with back-to-back Wild Card Game appearances ('17, '18). There's so much talent here. And yet ... where are these teams going? Outside of Houston, did any collection of seemingly competitive teams have more disappointing winters? Every single one of these teams had its biggest star in trade rumors -- and the Red Sox actually shipped their best player away. It's a weird time in the lifespans of these four franchises.
While we're not going to split these out into individual team segments, it does feel like there are two sub-tiers within this one. The Cubs and Indians never did trade away their stars, and despite disappointingly inactive offseasons, they remain very much in the playoff race. (Each have playoff odds of about 47%.) There's not an NL Central team clearly better than the Cubs are, and even if few would put the Indians over the Twins in the Central, the Wild Card is still very much within their grasp.
On the other hand, the post-Betts/Price -- and without Sale -- Red Sox seem to be in a much tougher spot, with two very strong teams in their division and an extremely thin rotation projected to be baseball's 22nd-best. The Rockies, meanwhile, didn't sign a single Major League free agent, have the NL's fourth-worst projection, and seem headed for a Nolan Arenado departure sooner than later.
TIER 6: THE COMPETITIVE UP-AND-COMERS
• Blue Jays
• White Sox
These four teams have something in common, which is that they all had losing records last year (from the 78-84 of the Rangers to the 67-95 of the Blue Jays), all made moves to get better in 2020, and yet all might be juuuuust a bit short, or perhaps still a year away. It might be fair to say that you'd reasonably expect each of these four teams to improve, but that you probably wouldn't expect any of them to make the playoffs, in 2020 at least.
But there's a lot to be excited about, right? The Blue Jays have some incredible young hitters, phenom Nate Pearson is ready to throw flames, and they added Hyun-jin Ryu. The Padres might have more fun-per-second than anyone else, thanks to Fernando Tatís Jr., Tommy Pham, Chris Paddack, Manny Machado and potentially baseball's best bullpen. The Rangers had two starters receive Cy Young votes as they move into a new ballpark; the White Sox made a ton of noise this winter, adding Grandal and Dallas Keuchel to young stars like Yoán Moncada and Lucas Giolito, plus arriving ones like Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert, though Michael Kopech elected not to play.
These clubs are all going to be pretty fun, and it's not at all hard to see one of these four having that breakthrough earlier than expected, pushing through to October this year. For most, 2021 or '22 is more reasonable.
TIER 7: EVERYONE ELSE
These seven teams combined last year: 431-702, .380
These seven teams projected this year: 184-246, .428
Number of these teams with playoff odds at 10% or higher: 0
You can correctly argue that not each team is in the same situation, in that the Marlins' young pitching might be already turning the corner and that they added competent veteran bats; that the Tigers might graduate elite pitching prospects Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize this year; that the Pirates and Orioles each have extremely long roads ahead of them.
We need not go through each situation in detail, other than to note that if we were to look at most team wins from 2014-16, you'd find four of these clubs in the Top 10. There were four titles here in the last decade, and nine combined World Series appearances in the 21st century. They can win, and at some point, they will. It's just not going to be in 2020.