A line repeated early and often in the run-up to MLB’s revamped 60-game season is that it’s an environment ripe for surprises. This truly could be the year a team comes from out of nowhere to make some noise -- the question is how will it do so?
MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince did the brave task of ranking the top 10 lineups, rotations and bullpens this week (thus upsetting every fan base whose team wasn’t included on those lists), and now we’re taking the time to pick the “best of the rest” that didn’t make Castrovince’s rankings. Maybe these units will top everyone’s list by season’s end, or maybe they’ll simply fall into the middle of the pack (in a 60-game season, who knows?). But here are the lineups, rotations and bullpens that are the most tantalizing picks to surprise people in 2020.
Should be on your radar because: The top half could be a gauntlet
José Ramírez was a two-time reigning American League MVP Award finalist and a top-flight power-speed threat who suddenly looked lost during much of 2019, seemingly straying from the pull-happy approach that was the basis of his power in efforts to beat shifts. Once Ramírez reverted back to his old ways, he was right where most thought he would be: Ramírez was a top-five position player by fWAR after the All-Star break alongside names like Anthony Rendon, José Altuve, Mike Trout and Ketel Marte before he broke a hamate bone in his right hand. Then, he homered three times after returning for the last three games of the season.
Ramírez could absolutely be a top-10 player again this year, as could Francisco Lindor who, even while posting the second-lowest wRC+ of his career, still became the only player to put up 30-plus homers and 40-plus doubles in each of the past three seasons. Not many lineups across baseball can boast that kind of duo. Then there’s Carlos Santana, who quietly finished in the top 15% of Statcast’s exit velocity and hard-hit rate rankings while still avoiding strikeouts and falling just shy of a .400 OBP. Add the offseason signing César Hernández, and the Tribe could very well have four straight switch-hitters atop the lineup.
But the biggest reason to be bullish on the Cleveland attack is Franmil Reyes. The big man in the middle was top five among all qualified hitters last year in both hard-hit rate (51%) and average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives (98.2 mph), and while his first few months by Lake Erie weren’t explosive, his power can carry a ballclub if he puts it all together. There are questions behind these first five spots, but if the stars stay on the field for 60 games, this club can mash.
Should be on your radar because: The bullpen could make things much easier
Chris Paddack had a sensational rookie season and is a potential ace for years to come, but he faded down the stretch and needs a consistent breaking ball to complement his fastball-changeup combo. Dinelson Lamet was this writer's Cy Young Award dark horse pick and put up a gaudy 33.6% strikeout rate last year, but this will be his first full season following Tommy John surgery. Joey Lucchesi's “ugly duckling” churve is one of baseball’s funkiest pitches and gets whiffs, but he was also one of MLB’s hardest-hit starters once he got to opponents’ third time through the order. Garrett Richards is a longtime king of spin -- that is, the elite action on both his fastball and curveball -- but he hasn’t pitched anything close to a full season in five years.
The point is that while the Padres’ rotation is stacked with tools and talent, it doesn’t necessarily look built for a marathon season. That’s where the 60-game slate and San Diego’s excellent bullpen (ranked No. 2 by Castrovince) come in. Teams across the game figure to be even more creative with their pitching layouts than they have been in recent years, and that means more “bullpenning” and piggybacking starters. The Friars are projected to be right in the thick of the NL Wild Card race, and that means the temptation to shorten the game with the ‘pen will be there for first-year manager Jayce Tingler right from the very first contest. He’ll have a handful of arms in Craig Stammen, Matt Strahm and Luis Perdomo who are used to bridging the gap to what should be an excellent back three in Emilio Pagán, Drew Pomeranz and Kirby Yates. It’s easier to see Paddack, Lamet, Lucchesi and Richards excelling for four to five innings at a time across 10-12 starts instead of a typical 162-game grind.
Should be on your radar because: There’s more swing-and-miss there than you think
This unit has been coming on for a while now, rising from last in the NL in bullpen fWAR in 2016 to fifth in ‘19, and a look at the various percentile rankings for Reds pitchers last year via Baseball Savant makes one believe that ranking should climb even higher. Cincinnati brings back four relievers -- Amir Garrett, Robert Stephenson, Michael Lorenzen and closer Raisel Iglesias -- who ranked among baseball’s top 20% of qualified pitchers in whiff-per-swing rate. That quartet was also within the top 25% of qualified pitchers in expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), Statcast’s all-encompassing metric that considers both the amount and the quality of contact a pitcher yields. Only six other bullpens are projected to field at least four relievers who were top 25% in xwOBA from 2019, and just one -- the Rays, a multi-dimensional ‘pen to which every club would love to compare itself -- boasts four pitchers who were both top 25% in xwOBA and top 20% in whiff rate, like the Reds.
Not included in that Cincy quartet are Lucas Sims, a master of spin who struck out 32.2% of the hitters he faced in 24 appearances; Pedro Strop, who, while coming off a tough 2019 season with the Cubs, could easily rebound with what is routinely one of MLB’s most unhittable sliders; and soft-contact specialist Matt Bowman. There are filthy fastballs and breaking balls up and down this bullpen, and while all the whiffs didn’t directly correlate with flashy results, Statcast’s expected ERA metric (which converts xwOBA to the ERA scale) points to how that could soon change:
Sims: 4.60 ERA / 3.18 xERA
Stephenson: 3.76 ERA / 2.70 xERA
Strop: 4.97 ERA / 3.97 xERA
Iglesias: 4.16 ERA / 3.43 xERA
Bowman: 3.66 ERA / 2.95 xERA
Avg. MLB ERA in 2019: 4.51
Predicting bullpen success within an already strange 60-game season is next to impossible, but all of the Reds’ underlying talent -- placed in the capable and forward-thinking hands of pitching coach Derek Johnson and coordinator Kyle Boddy -- makes them the most tantalizing sleeper pick.