Way-too-early division predictions for 2020

November 10th, 2019

When we make our preseason division picks, we expose ourselves to the possibility that injury strife and baseball’s general propensity toward the unexpected will render our choices fruitless, pointless and ridiculous.

This leads to two possible conclusions:

A. We should never make predictions. The chance of error is too high and the accompanying chance of us lowering our internal estimations of self-worth is too great.

B. If a bunch of stuff is going to change and make us look dumb anyway, we might as well make predictions even earlier! 

Let’s embrace option B here with these way, way, way too early division picks.

I am not confident in anything below, because things are going to change. Nor am I married to anything below, because things are going to change. But it’s fun to take stock of the six divisions and try to guess where the changes/surprises might come.

AL East: Rays

With rumors swirling about the Red Sox possibly trading Mookie Betts as part of an attempt to get below the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, this pick pretty much comes down to the Yankees and Rays right now.

Certainly, there is angst among Yankees fans over the team’s decade-long World Series drought and the nagging thought they didn’t do enough at the Trade Deadline to give themselves more of a leg up in the American League Championship Series against the Astros. But with a deep lineup and bullpen (and hopefully better luck in the injury realm), they’re still a juggernaut that will, in all likelihood, be the 2020 favorite in the East.

But what the heck? I’m going with Tampa Bay as my way-too-early AL East pick, given the overall the strength of the pitching staff (which could be a genuine force if and are healthy) and the growth that will come with pushing the Astros to the brink in the AL Division Series. And while the Rays have never been what you’d call big spenders on the free-agent market, they showed a willingness last offseason to bring in high-profile talent when they nabbed AL Cy Young finalist with a two-year deal. It’s easy to see them making a similar kind of upgrade this year, presumably in their lineup. I also believe in this front office’s ability to identify undervalued talent, and it remains to be seen if the Yankees let the threat of added luxury tax penalties get in the way of strengthening their rotation.

AL Central: White Sox

I know this is nuts, but you might have noticed the AL Central is not exactly an elite division. So jumping from 89 losses to genuine contention feels more doable here than elsewhere. Heck, the Braves went from 90 losses in 2017 to a division title in a more difficult NL East in '18, so crazy things do happen. And if I had told you a year ago that the Twins ought to be the division favorite coming off of their 84-loss effort in ’18, you would have thought it a peculiar pick, too.

In their bid to repeat, the Twins need to essentially rewrite their rotation (fortunately, they do have money to burn) and might (read: will) find their historic offensive output difficult to replicate. And the Indians, while possessing a strong rotation, lack overall depth in their lineup and once again aren’t going to be a major spender this winter (and might, in fact, explore the trade value of ). 

So why not the White Sox?

Oh, right. The 89 losses. Great point! But this is a good time of year to get drunk on upside and focus on the good points of the South Siders -- the forward steps taken by their young talent in 2019, the appeal of their Minor League pipeline, their apparent willingness to pursue big free agents -- and an arrow that’s pointed upward, as opposed to sideways. Remember, , , and all looked like rising stars for some or all of last season, and a championship core is building. Clearly, though, they’ve got a lot of work to do this winter to make this way-too-early prediction an actual prediction. Let’s see how it goes.

AL West: Astros

While I’m going chalk here, this division race might be a lot closer than you think. If the Astros lose , as expected, suddenly a 2020 rotation fronted by a 37-year-old and 36-year-old -- especially after a deep playoff run -- has some undeniable age concerns. The Astros are already projected to go over the Competitive Balance Tax threshold without any external additions this winter, and they’ve taken some hacks to their farm system to build the juggernaut we see at the big league level. 

I think the A’s can catch the 'Stros in 2020. Oakland figures to have a dangerous rotation with better health from promising young starters and , and the lineup will basically return intact. Of course, with the projected payroll already right around where it was in 2019, Oakland’s ability to upgrade and enter the year with the depth it will take to top a superpower in the division is a genuine question.

As for the rest of the division, while the Angels and Rangers are expected to be aggressive this winter, suffice it to say they have a ton of question marks to address. There’s a good chance the Angels, in particular, are a media darling by winter’s end if they sign Cole, but I’ll wonder if it’s a 2019 Phillies-like situation, where offseason spending can’t patch up all the problem areas.

NL East: Braves

This is another division ripe for surprise. So I hate to just reflexively go with the two-time-defending division champs -- especially when it can be construed as dissing the defending World Series champs. The Nats will deal with the so-called “hangover” effects of their deep run (especially having fielded the game’s oldest roster in 2019) and have some major monetary decisions to make with regard to free agents and , but they’re still obviously a threat in the National League East. And if the Phillies go on another spending spree or the Mets do anything of note, there will be temptation to lean toward them, too. (Actually, for what it’s worth, FanGraphs’ Depth Charts gives the Mets the highest projected WAR in the division presently.)

But at the risk of offending any of the above, I still think Atlanta is likely to enter 2020 with the best overall outlook -- between the quality of the big league roster and the organizational depth that comes with having one of the most pitching-rich farm systems in the game.

Yes, the Braves need a catcher, a cleanup hitter (if free-agent third baseman signs elsewhere) and a starter -- and that’s a lot of heavy lifting. But they’re in a pretty flexible spot right now, with just north of $50 million committed in guaranteed contracts for 2020 after carrying a payroll around $135 million in '19. So I suspect they’ll fill their needs ably. While the NL East is especially deep with clubs to consider here, I don’t see much reason to move off Atlanta at the moment.

NL Central: Reds

Look, I have no idea, OK? None. The NL Central was a total toss-up deep into 2019. Even the Pirates were within 5 1/2 games of first as late as July 16.

While I have much respect for the organizational depth and the resurgence of the defending division champion Cardinals, I’m not about to blindly assume they have staying power up top. Especially with an aging offensive core and free-agent outfielder no lock to return.

I’m also done assuming the Cubs’ supposed best-on-paper roster strength will carry the day, because, well, it sure didn’t in 2019. They’re talking about shaking up their group dynamic, and the public comments from the front office and ownership have been as focused on extending the window as on winning it all in '20. So who knows what their offseason looks like?

The Brewers might be in the best spot here in terms of financial flexibility, but they’ll likely need it to improve their overall pitching depth and several questions marks in the lineup, with and in free agency.

So with November a time for wild projection, I might as well go out on another limb. Despite their fourth-place finish last season, the Reds had the NL’s fourth-best staff ERA and were only outscored by their opponents by 10 total runs. They lost 33 one-run games, for crying out loud, so it might not take much to flip things around. The Reds are expecting to be aggressive in their pursuit of offense, and they might not be as far off as you think. An Ozuna here and a Didi Gregorius there, and they’d look pretty attractive.

NL West: Dodgers

The Padres could make their third splurge in as many years to further support an exciting young core. The D-backs could apply the major cost savings from the Zack Greinke trade to support a group that surprisingly won 85 games. Both of those clubs have a very clear path toward postseason viability.

But it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which the Dodgers don’t enter 2020 as the prohibitive favorite to win their eighth straight division title. That’s not to say they don’t have work to do. Indeed, the front office is facing scrutiny for the approach to last offseason and the Trade Deadline, given the way October turned out (and deservedly so). But they’ve got stars all over the field, positional flexibility, Minor League depth -- everything you need to win the war of 162 games, at the very least -- and they’re a good bet to add to their formula in the next few months.