For 11 teams, 60-game sprint got harder

August 7th, 2020

We’ve taken to calling this shortened 2020 season a “60-game sprint,” and quite a few clubs that were widely projected/expected to contend for a playoff spot have stumbled out of the blocks.

Fortunately for them, an expanded postseason format -- in which second place in a division is good enough for an automatic October spot and each league will produce two Wild Card clubs that don’t finish in first or second in their divisions -- is forgiving.

But because seeding matters -- and because a 16-team field is not a 30-team field -- it’s time to pick up the pace. So let’s take a look at 11 teams off to slow starts and relay -- on a scale of one to five -- how strenuous their sprint has become.

One sneaker means a light jog, five means a mad dash.

Rays (5-7)

They need to "Rays" their team batting average. Yandy Díaz bounces between the leadoff and No. 3 spots, and he hasn’t hit in either of them (.625 OPS). Offseason acquisitions Hunter Renfroe (.674) and Yoshi Tsutsugo (.593) have similarly struggled. Although there is hope for the rotation, with Blake Snell’s workload increasing and Charlie Morton looking more Morton-like after a rough first start, a Rays team a lot of us were excited about has looked shockingly flat so far, all while the Yankees have been pummeling people.

This remains the second-best team in the American League East on paper, which is why Tampa Bay retains an 80.8 percent chance of reaching the postseason, per FanGraphs. But you can’t take that for granted.

Sprint status: 2.5 out of 5 sneakers

Indians (8-6)

The Cleveland pitching staff has been sensational (.190/.248/.339 opponents’ slash). But until finally breaking out with 13 runs against the Reds on Thursday, the lineup had managed to make opposing pitchers resemble … the Cleveland pitching staff (.181/.284/.262 slash). The issue was particularly palpable in the outfield: The Tribe entered Thursday with a collective OPS (.419) frighteningly lower than what sterling staff ace Shane Bieber had allowed to opponents (.443 OPS).

But while there is concern that the Tribe may have wasted some of the best its bullpen has to offer, the rotation should remain steady, and the schedule remains light. In part because of bigger issues elsewhere in the AL (and with the White Sox bit by the injury bug), the Tribe’s postseason chances have actually gone up since the start of the season.

Sprint status: 1.5 out of 5 sneakers

Astros (6-6)

There were signs that the Astros might run into pitching trouble this season, but nobody could have seen this coming. While Houston’s offense is still banging away, the rash of injuries to the arms -- Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski, Jose Urquidy and Brad Peacock, to name a few -- and the unavailability of Joe Smith has put the ball in the hands of a ton of unproven rookies and upped the pressure on Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr.

Although the performance of many of those rookies has been a bright spot, what we’ve seen, to date, doesn’t feel like a great recipe for a pennant repeat. The A’s have accelerated in recent days, and the Astros need to keep pace.

Sprint status: 3 out of 5 sneakers

Angels (5-8)

Losing Shohei Ohtani as a starter is a big blow to a team that has struggled to find a reliably healthy and effective stopper in the rotation, and the bullpen has already blown five saves. It’s harder to judge the Halos’ offense, because they’ve only had three games in which Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Ohtani (as a DH) have been in the same lineup, and Jo Adell has only recently arrived.

The depth questions have already been brought to the forefront, and the pitching injury issue is frustratingly familiar. If a 16-team field still doesn’t get Trout to October, we’re running out of ideas.

Sprint status: 4.5 out of 5 sneakers

Nationals (4-5)

The plan: Juan Soto carries the lineup, and the rotation carries the defending champs back to October.

 The reality: Soto missed the first eight games (13 percent of the schedule) due to COVID-19 protocols, Stephen Strasburg has yet to throw a pitch (nerve issue in hand) and Max Scherzer left his most recent start after one inning because of a hamstring tweak.

Between all that and the fan-less games, the followup to the championship run has not been particularly joyous. But Soto’s return, and events and injuries elsewhere offer plenty of hope for another late-season run.

Sprint status: 2.5 out of 5 sneakers

Mets (5-8)

The Mets’ lineup one night this week had Brian Dozier (signed two weeks ago) at second base, Ryan Cordell in center, Andrés Giménez at short and Tomás Nido at catcher. That’s … not how the Mets drew it up.

This was supposed to be a year in which the lineup was every bit as exciting as the rotation, but both have been ravaged by injuries, the bullpen has been dreadful and Yoenis Céspedes’ in-season decision to not play has further complicated matters. Other than all that, things are going great. But the Braves’ rotation depletion means there is still ample opportunity in the National League East.

Sprint status: 3.5 out of 5 sneakers

Cardinals (2-3) and Phillies (3-4)

The Phillies’ inexperienced bullpen has not performed well, and the Cardinals’ lack of offensive upgrades has shown.

But these issues are secondary to the basic fact that COVID-19 protocols have limited these two clubs to a total of 12 games. That’s going to put them in the difficult position of making up for lost time in a short time.

Sprint status: 4 out of 5 sneakers

Brewers (5-5)

Milwaukee’s proven ability to piece together a quality roster earned the front office the benefit of the doubt, even as the likes of Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal departed. But the offense just hasn’t been there -- beginning with star Christian Yelich (43.2 percent strikeout rate entering Thursday) -- and now Lorenzo Cain has elected not to play the remainder of the season. (Watching Trent Grisham play so well for San Diego has to hurt.)

Playing 80 percent of their schedule, to date, on the road hasn’t helped the Brew Crew, either. The bright side is that the Cubs are the only perceived contender in the NL Central playing to their capability so far. But Milwaukee’s lost a lot of talent.

Sprint status: 4 out of 5 sneakers

Reds (5-8)

Suffice it to say the Nick Castellanos acquisition has worked out well; he entered Thursday with an MLB-leading 1.325 OPS. But by and large, it’s the same story as last year, with the Reds squandering the great performance of one of the best starting staffs in the game (2.35 ERA). They desperately need to get Eugenio Suárez going (.098 average, .464 OPS), and they have to get the bullpen on track, too.

Early-season stumbles aside, this remains a team with enough talent to chase the Cubs or, at least, vie for second place.

Sprint status: 2.5 out of 5 sneakers

D-backs (4-8)

Madison Bumgarner was supposed to bring additional legitimacy to an underrated rotation group, but his velocity (average 87.9 mph) is way down, and his ERA (7.04) is way up. The rotation, in general, has been walk-prone, and a potentially high-powered offense entered Thursday with fewer home runs as a team (six) than Aaron Judge alone (seven).

While the staying power of the Rockies and Padres in the NL West race is as-yet-unproven, the D-backs have seen the greatest drop in their playoff odds (via FanGraphs) of any team on this list, from a 46.7 percent chance to just 20.5 percent.

Sprint status: 5 out of 5 sneakers