By David Mullen
A 60-game regular season. A DH in the National League. Still, just one winner will represent the NL in the World Series after winning two, or possibly three, playoff series. Getting to the playoff will be job one.
Remember the Washington Nationals? They came out of nowhere in 2019, relegated to Wild Card purgatory, to become the World Champions. After 60 games, the Nationals were 27-33 and in a Washington wasteland.
All that proves is that the 60-game schedule, which includes playing a number of games against AL opponents, is the most significant change in baseball this season. A four or five game losing streak could end a team’s chances early. A fast start is imperative to get to the playoffs, where some sense of normalcy returns in an abnormal year.
For Washington, it will be tough to repeat in the NL East. They lost the heart and soul of the team when third baseman Anthony Rendon went cross country signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels. But in such a short season, pitching is a premium and the Nats can pitch. At least the starters can. Max Scherzer, Stephan Strasburg and Daniel Corbin are formidable, but added pressure on closer Sean Doolittle will hurt the club. With respect to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, “The Nats stop here.”
I like the Philadelphia Phillies to win the division and the Atlanta Braves to be a Wild Card team. There is a lot to savor in the Phillies favor with Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius and Jake Arrieta, especially under the watch of new manager Joe Girardi.
The youthful Braves will continue to grow. They are fast and are gap hitters, and that should be a resume for success under the new rules. Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson are already starring or stars in the making. Flamethrower Mike Soroka is ready to sparkle well. And they just added Yasiel Puig, for better or worse.
Everybody loves the New York Mets. Why? They lost top starter Noah Syndergaard, leaving Jacob deGrom without a second punch. Robinson Canó is older than the 7 Train to Citi Field. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso must avoid a sophomore slump. And Yoenis Céspedes must get back up on his horse or burro or wild boar or whatever it was that forced him onto the disabled list in 2019.
The Miami Marlins are very young which could be helpful in a shortened season. Caleb Smith and Pedro Lopez are good players ready to blossom. But ultimately, inexperience will reign. The Marlins “swim with the fishes” in 2020.
In the NL Central, baseball’s most competitive division, the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are always expected to fight to the top. But this season, watch out for the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds have Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray in the rotation and added Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Wade Miley in the offseason while division rivals stood watching. The Cubs hired a new manager (David Ross). The Brewers hoped everyone, especially former MVP Christian Yelich, to return to health. And the Cardinals did nothing.
When it comes to the Pittsburgh Pirates, they have a beautiful stadium. Unfortunately (or fortunately), PNC Park will be devoid of fans this year.
It will be the Los Angeles Dodgers on top and the San Francisco Giants, who just lost All-Star Buster Posey to an opt-out over COVID-19, at the bottom and all other teams in between in the NL West. Among the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres, I like the Padres to emerge as a Wild Card team. They are long overdue.
No doubt the Padres will be deemed a surprise team. Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer need to earn their pay. They got the quiet and effective Tommy Pham in the offseason. Closer Kirby Yates, who sounds like the bad guy in a Western movie, is ready for a breakout year. And everyone has Fernando Tatis at the top of their fantasy lists.
Arizona could make the race interesting. The D-Backs beefed up their starting staff by adding Madison Bumgarner in a loss which obviously hurt the rival Giants. Bumgarner joins Robbie Ray at the top of the rotation. They added Starling Marte from the crumbling Pirates to join brother Ketel. But they just don’t match up well against the Dodgers.
The Rockies have underappreciated Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Irving-native Trevor Story, but too many question marks to make the playoffs. And albeit for just 30 games, the relatively unknown pitching staff must deal with the high altitude in Denver.
The Dodgers are without weakness and are paid Hollywood money to take center stage. For good measure, they acquired Mookie Betts from Boston in the winter, not that they needed him. They already have Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Justin Turner, Max Muncy and others. Their rotation is the league’s best with Highland Park’s Clayton Kershaw and second ace Walker Buehler. Kenley Jansen closes, once he tests negative for coronavirus.
The Braves best the Padres in the Wild Card and beat the Reds in the NL Division Series. The Phillies will lose to Los Angeles, who will get rid of the Braves quicker than Atlanta gets rid of their politically incorrect “Tomahawk Chop” chant. It’s the Tinseltown Dodgers league to win or lose, because they are “In a League of Their Own.”
Assuming baseball still begins as planned on Thursday, July 23, next week we look at the American League and a Texas Rangers team finally ready to play in the “Thunder-less Dome.”