A season unlike any other will begin with six five-way ties for first place on July 23 and a schedule geared entirely around regional travel. All it takes is a hot week or two -- maybe an unexpected boost from an unheralded player or previously unproven prospect -- to totally upend everything we thought possible in 2020.
Because baseball is inherently unpredictable, my lists of the top 10 lineups, rotations and bullpens were subject to change (and argument) before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered the MLB landscape.
Now? Now we’re in unchartered and wavering waters, friends. Hang with ‘em.
For this lineup list, one stat I’ll cite frequently is weighted runs created plus (wRC+). This quantifies run production with important external factors (ballparks and the offensive environment) taken into account, with 100 being the league average -- so a 120 wRC+ is 20 percent better than league average, while an 80 is 20 percent worse.
This is important to note, because a team like the Rockies will always rate well in terms of runs scored (ninth in MLB last year) but didn’t rate nearly as well in wRC+ (26th). The context matters. (You can read all about this in my book, “A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics.")
With that in mind, these are the 10 lineups that look best… for now.
1 -- Dodgers
The focus is understandably on the MVPs in the leadoff and cleanup spots, but don’t lose sight of the overall complexion here. No. 2 hitter Muncy has 70 homers and a .927 OPS over the last two seasons, and Turner (No. 3) has posted wRC+ marks anywhere from 123 (above-average) to 158 (excellent) in each of the last six seasons. You’ve got Seager -- a 2016 National League MVP Award finalist finally entering a season healthy -- lurking in the No. 5 spot. And don’t sleep on Lux, who has one of the highest-rated hit tools of any prospect in the game.
Elsewhere, the Dodgers mix and match a lot from their bloated bench to gain the matchup edge within games. And they are plenty deep enough to handle the addition of the DH role, with multiple viable options for it on a daily basis.
2 -- Twins
It would be naïve to expect the Twins to duplicate their rate of production from 2019, when they set the MLB home run record for a team. New addition Donaldson is 34 and Cruz is 40, so the Twins are banking on age not catching up to them. Were defense considered in this conversation, the Twins wouldn’t rank this high, and it will be interesting to see how home run-reliant teams fare if the pitchers are ahead of the hitters after a brief Summer Camp.
But every member of the Twins’ starting nine is projected by Steamer (available at FanGraphs.com) to post a wRC+ mark that is better than the league average, and utility man Marwin Gonzalez gives the Twins 10 such players who figure to play regularly. Take the Bomba Squad and add Donaldson, and you’ve got something special.
3 -- Astros
Not facing the wrath of many or any opposing fans could be a benefit for an Astros club that was receiving a ton of public scrutiny prior to the March shutdown. But it’s still anybody’s guess how a team with a target on its back handles the pressures of 2020.
On paper, though, Houston has an argument to be No. 1 or No. 2 on this list. The Astros led the Majors in wRC+ last year, and they obviously retained one of the deepest and most balanced lineups, with both patience and power. A full season of Alvarez, who had a historic rookie year after arriving in June, provides added upside, as does the possibility that Kyle Tucker blossoms and begins to assert himself in right field.
4 -- Yankees
This delay bought time for Judge (stress fracture of right rib), Stanton (right calf strain) and Hicks (Tommy John surgery) to get healthier. But even if durability becomes an issue again, the Yankees have the depth to handle adversity, as we saw in 2019 when LeMahieu (136 wRC+), Urshela (132), Mike Tauchman (128) and Voit (126) took on unexpectedly prominent roles.
Whether those guys can deliver similar results in a new season is an unknown, but it seems reasonable to suspect that Torres’ star is just beginning to shine after he posted a 125 wRC+ in 604 plate appearances at age 22. Even when battling injuries last year, Sánchez (116) put up particularly positive production for his position, and Miguel Andújar’s return from right shoulder surgery makes him an interesting option at multiple spots.
5 -- A's
The A's essentially return the group that posted the fifth-highest team wRC+ mark (107) in the Majors last season. It’s an underrated cast, as tends to be the case in Oakland.
Even though second base is a question, this is an all-world infield in which Semien (third) and Olson (sixth) ranked in the top 10 among qualifiers at their position in wRC+ last season, while Chapman was 12th. Davis returning to his homer rate of old -- he hit north of 40 from 2016-18 -- after a down year would augment the effort. Laureano is so far known mostly for his unbelievable arm, but he had a .358/.411/.679 slash in 125 plate appearances in the second half and upped his launch angle last season, leading to a jump in homers.
6 -- Mets
For the first time in a long time, there’s at least as much reason to be intrigued and optimistic about the Mets’ offense as their starting staff. That’s a credit to Alonso coming off a rookie season for the ages (Major League-leading 53 homers), McNeil coming off All-Star output of his own (.318/.384/.531 slash), Conforto coming off his best full season (33 homers, 29 doubles), Davis proving a revelatory pickup (.895 OPS, 45 extra-base hits) and Rosario putting up a strong second half (.319 average, .351 OBP), among other factors.
Imagine if Nimmo can get back to his 2018 level of production, when he had a 148 wRC+ that ranked fifth among qualified outfielders in MLB and/or if Canó turns back the clock. Hey, maybe they’ll even get something out of Céspedes, too. The addition of the DH suits this squad well.
7 -- White Sox
There is danger in: A) Assuming a new-look lineup will congeal as hoped and B) Assuming a bunch of youngsters will assert themselves all at once. But what the heck? Let’s do both of those things with a White Sox team that has seven regulars projected by Steamer to post wRC+ marks above league average -- Jiménez (122), Encarnación (122), Grandal (119), Abreu (117), Moncada (115), Robert (110) and Mazara (106).
8 -- Cubs
Hey, the gang’s still here. Despite many offseason trade rumors to the contrary, the Cubs retained the makings of a really stout lineup. Granted, it’s a lineup that has arguably underachieved the last two seasons. But even in the course of underachieving, it has managed to post the ninth-highest wRC+ in the Majors during that span (tying for ninth in 2019). It will be interesting to see how or if Bryant’s move to leadoff impacts things, because the .677 OPS the Cubbies got from that spot last year really hampered their offense.
Two X-factors for this team are Steven Souza Jr., who was limited by injury to just 72 games total the last two years but could share right field with Heyward, and Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Hoerner’s a high-contact bat with good speed who could be getting the second-base at-bats before long.
9 -- Red Sox
Hey, the gang’s… not all here. But the departure of Betts doesn’t stop the Boston bunch from posing a threat because of the nucleus of Martinez (142 projected wRC+, via Steamer), Devers (129) and Bogaerts (123). Devers and Bogaerts both ranked in the top four in the Majors in extra-base hits last season. Vázquez emerged as one of MLB’s more productive catchers.
That’s not to say there aren’t questions elsewhere. To ultimately justify this spot on the list, the Red Sox will need to get positive production from Verdugo (projected for a 119 wRC+). He arrived while recovering from a stress fracture in his back but is operational now.
10 -- Angels
That Trout-Rendon-Ohtani grouping looks pretty tremendous, and it would look even better if we knew Ohtani was going to hit every day (having him as a stud pitcher once a week is a pretty good trade-off, though). All three of those guys are projected for a wRC+ north of 130 (Trout, of course, is in another stratosphere, at 173).
A bounceback year for Upton after an injury-riddled 2019 would add a lot of meat to the middle of the order. La Stella’s the only other Angel projected to be above-average offensively, but none of us can know what this team will get from toolsy prospect Jo Adell (No. 6 overall per MLB Pipeline), who has serious star potential and is coming soon to right field.
Honorable mention -- Blue Jays
Look, the Braves boast Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman, and they brought in Marcell Ozuna after Donaldson departed. The Tribe has Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, and potentially big power from Franmil Reyes. The Nats have one of the game’s great young hitters in Juan Soto. The Padres have a nice speed and power blend fronted by Fernando Tatis Jr. The Reds are coming off an aggressive offseason that included the additions of Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas. The Rays are better-equipped offensively than many might realize.
The point is, a lot of teams have an interesting argument to be on this list if this or that breaks right and if their stars play like stars.
But a Toronto team with all kinds of upside in Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio and Gurriel is the one I had the hardest time leaving out of the top 10. All four of those guys are 26 or younger (in fact, the Blue Jays’ average age for their projected lineup is 26) and all four showed spectacular flashes in 2019. In general, young position players might be in the best position to handle this weird schedule with a shortened second spring. So the Blue Jays might be ready to pop.