Just hours before the start of the 2020 season, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement to expand the playoff field from 10 to 16 games for this season. All of the sudden, nearly every MLB team has at least a somewhat realistic possibility of making the playoffs. Under this format, which was announced Thursday evening, the top two teams in each division will qualify for the postseason, with the seventh and eighth seeds coming from the two remaining teams with the best record in each league.
In the shortened season, just about anything can — and probably will — happen, making predicting outcomes an even trickier task than usual. So if the following predictions turn out wildly incorrect, that’ll be my excuse. If many are right, though, then I knew it all along. So here goes, my playoff and award predictions for the 2020 MLB season:
AL East: Yankees (First), Rays (Second)
As much as I want to pick the Rays to pull off the upset here, I can’t bet against the Yankees, who have a top five offense in baseball and added Gerrit Cole this past offseason. The big question for the Yankees, as it always seems to be in recent years, is whether or not the team can remain reasonably healthy.
The Rays seem to me to have the perfect type of roster for the shortened season. Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow form a highly formidable top three in the rotation, and the team has a wealth of arms behind them, including a bullpen which posted the best ERA in baseball last year. They may not have star hitters, but the Rays do have plenty of intriguing bats with positional flexibility and the No. 1 farm system in the game.
AL Central: Twins, Indians
The Twins added Josh Donaldson, coming off a 37-homer season, to a lineup which set an MLB record for the most home runs hit in a season in 2019. Minnesota’s lineup is perhaps the strongest in the AL 1-9, and the Twins also improved their rotation with the offseason additions of Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda.
The Indians have questions on the offensive end behind star infielders Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, particularly in the outfield. And while Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are no longer with the team, Cleveland does have two starters leading the rotation — Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber — that I wouldn’t be surprised to see finish top 5 in Cy Young balloting.
AL West: Astros, Athletics
With a core that includes the likes of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and George Springer, the Astros are the clear favorite to win the AL West for the fourth year in a row. My concern with the Astros is that the team is more vulnerable in the rotation than in recent years, with Cole now gone and 37-year-old Justin Verlander and 36-year-old Zack Greinke leading a rotation with not a ton of guaranteed, high-level depth.
This second spot was a choice between the A’s and Angels. Both teams have pitching concerns, so I’m going with the team with the deeper offense. The Angels added Anthony Rendon to a lineup which already included the game’s best hitter, yes, but the team is more reliant on a few bats than Oakland. The A’s offense features three infielders who surpassed 30 homers last year as well as breakout center fielder Ramon Laureano and Khris Davis, who led the majors with 48 homers just two years ago. The team will need to get off to a better start than it typically does, though.
AL Wild Cards: White Sox, Angels
It looks like the White Sox finally have the pieces necessary to contend. They’ve got the young emerging ace in Lucas Giolito, the exciting young hitters in Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncado, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, and the established veterans in Edwin Encarnacion, Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel. I think the expanded playoff format will help the White Sox reach the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
I don’t think the Angels are quite as good as the A’s, but I am optimistic about the team this season with the additions of Rendon and new manager Joe Maddon, among others. Rendon will provide something Mike Trout hasn’t had in several years: elite protection in the lineup. Shohei Ohtani is returning to the mound and Justin Upton is healthy after missing significant time last season due to injury.
AL Champion: Twins
Here’s my bold prediction. Most have the Yankees as the AL Champions, while some others picked the Astros, but I’m going with the Twins. They may not homer at quite the clip of last season, but the Twins lineup is simply sensational and I believe the pitching updates they’ve made have been underrated. Rich Hill could be one of the best pitchers in baseball if he remains healthy, and Kenta Maeda figures to be allowed to pitch deeper into games now that he’s away from the Dodgers. The team also has one of the better closers in baseball in Taylor Rogers.
NL East: Nationals, Braves
I decided the Nationals’ pitching advantage should weigh more heavily than the Braves’ strong offense, thus this conclusion. Washington has the best trio of top starters in baseball in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, something I believe will be key in the shortened schedule. After pitching deep into October last year, the layoff could be particularly beneficial for this group. I acknowledge the significant questions the team faces on the offensive end without Rendon and with Juan Soto sidelined to start the season.
The Braves’ rotation isn’t nearly as proven as the Nationals, but Atlanta’s offense is much more impressive. Ronald Acuna is coming off a near 40-40 season at age 21, while Marcell Ozuna should provide some thump, Ozzie Albies is one of the best second basemen in baseball and Freddie Freeman is expected to be in the team’s starting lineup soon after recovering from COVID-19.
NL Central: Reds, Cardinals
This will undoubtedly be the most controversial of my picks to win their division. The Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals have battled things out for the NL Central in recent years, but none of those teams made significant improvements in the offseason like the Reds. Cincinnati added infielder Mike Moustakas and outfielder Nike Castellanos on four-year deals, and the pair figures to add some significant power to a lineup which also features third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who swatted 49 longballs in 2019. The Reds also feature a strong top of the rotation with Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer.
The Cardinals have the best ace in the division in Jack Flaherty, and per usual boost impressive pitching depth. Two-time All-Star Carlos Martinez is back in the rotation, alongside Miles Mikolas and 2019 16-game winner Dakota Hudson. There are notable questions on the offensive end after the team let Marcell Ozuna walk without adding a significant replacement, but a Matt Carpenter bounceback would go a long way on that front.
NL West: Dodgers, Diamondbacks
The easiest of any of these calls. The Dodgers are, on paper, the best team in baseball. They’ve got star hitters, they’ve got star pitchers, they’ve got impressive depth as usual. You’d be hard-pressed to find any significant holes in the Dodgers roster. They’re the co-favorites to win the World Series for good reason.
So much attention is paid to the Dodgers that the other NL West teams, including the Diamondbacks, don’t receive much attention. Arizona has a number of interesting hitters coming off breakout seasons, including Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Christian Walker. They also added veteran outfielders Kole Calhoun and Starling Marte into the mix, and have a solid, if unspectacular rotation with Madison Bumgarner, Robbie Ray, Zac Gallen and Luke Weaver as the projected top four starters.
NL Wild Cards: Cubs, Phillies
This may be the Cubs’ last chance to compete with its current core, and it’s a good one. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez form a dynamic offensive trio. But the questions surrounding the rotation, only amplified by the loss of Jose Quintana to start the season, are significant, which is why I project the Cubs to finish behind the Reds and Cardinals.
The Phillies have enough on paper to win the NL East. Bryce Harper, J.T. Reamuto and others have been joined by offseason additions Zach Wheeler and Didi Gregorious. Andrew McCutchen is back after missing most of 2019 due to a torn ACL. With Joe Girardi now at the helm, I believe the Phillies will post their first winning record since 2011.
NL Champion: Dodgers
Unlike with the American League, I’m not getting fancy with this pick. Who knows what stranger things will happen in an extremely strange season, but what’s clear right now is that the Dodgers are leaps and bounds better than any other NL team.
World Series Champion: Dodgers
My track record with these predictions is such that I’m probably jinxing the Dodgers just by putting their name in writing here. In all seriousness, I just didn’t see any point in overthinking it. The Dodgers have the high-end talent, they have the depth, and they have the resources to add prior to the August 31 trade deadline. They’re my pick for the 2020 World Series title.
AL MVP: Mike Trout
Baseball’s best player confirmed on Wednesday that he will not opt out of the 2020 season. With that settled, there’s no further explanation needed for this pick. Other possibilities: Francisco Lindor, Alex Bregman, Aaron Judge, Anthony Rendon.
NL MVP: Ronald Acuña Jr.
This was a tough call between Acuna, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich. But with Yelich returning from a fractured kneecap and in a weaker lineup, and Betts’ drop to 16 steals last season, Acuna seems to be the best bet for elite five category production. Acuna’s age (22) means he could be set to take another step forward this season, though it also means increased risk as well. Other possibilities: Betts, Yelich, Bryce Harper.
AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole
Perhaps it’s unwise to bet against Justin Verlander, even at 37 years old, but I’m going to take that chance. Cole led the AL with a 2.50 ERA and paced the majors with 326 strikeouts in 2019, and will now be backed by a Yankees’ offense predicted by many to be the best in the American League. A pretty easy call here. Other possibilities: Verlander, Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Blake Snell.
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
Now this was a tough call. I’m going with Scherzer over young stars Jack Flaherty and Walker Buehler as well as back-to-back reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. deGrom’s start to 2020 was really good, but not great, and while I’m highly optimistic about the futures of Flaherty and Buehler, I do have a few questions about each. That’s not to say there aren’t questions with Scherzer, who’s 35 and dealt with back problems last season. But I think the time off could really help Scherzer, who I imagine will have a long lease with workload not a concern at all in the shortened season. Other possibilities: deGrom, Flaherty, Buehler, Stephen Strasburg, Luis Castillo.
AL Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert
The No. 3 prospect in baseball, Robert is a five-tool player who slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 homers and 36 steals in 122 minor league games last year. He impressed in training camp and is set to handle center field every day for the White Sox. Other possibilities: Nate Pearson, Kyle Lewis.
NL Rookie of the Year: Carter Kieboom
My first instinct here was to go with Dodgers infield prospect Gavin Lux, who comes in behind only the Rays’ Wander Franco in MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings. But the news that Lux will begin the season with the Dodgers’ taxi squad changed my pick. While much of the decision may involve service time considerations, and Lux could very well be starting in the majors in just a few weeks, in a shortened season that time missed would be a significant portion of the season. Kieboom, the Nationals’ top prospect, is set to begin the season as the team’s starting third baseman following the departure of Anthony Rendon. Kieboom hit .303 with a .902 OPS in 109 games at AAA last season. Other possibilities: Lux, Dylan Carlson.
Photo by Arturo Pardavila III / Flickr