The 2020 baseball season is roughly one month away. Spring Training games have begun in Arizona and Florida. The chase for the World Series is on, and the National League has the defending World Series champion, the Washington Nationals. Let’s map out the National League race through the various divisions.
National League East
The Atlanta Braves should be the favorite in this division. Why not the Washington Nationals? Fair question, and it begins with the fact that Anthony Rendon, who had an MVP-quality season in 2019, is now with the Los Angeles Angels of the American League. Not having Rendon in the batting order leaves a hole in the Nationals’ lineup. Over the course of 162 games, that is going to be hard to overcome. The other big reason the Braves are the favorite in the National League East is that they have deeper starting pitching than the Nationals.
Keep in mind that in a short series, the Nationals are in the best position of any National League team. The Nationals might still be the favorite to win the National League pennant because as long as they get into the playoffs, their Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg duo will be extremely tough to handle. As long as the Nationals can get into October, they don’t have to win the East. They can merely win the wild card and play their way into the World Series. The Braves are better built for the full season with their young arms such as Mike Soroka and Max Fried. Over 162 games, the Braves’ surplus of starting pitching will overcome their shaky bullpen. They also have Ronald Acuna, newly-acquired Marcell Ozuna, Ozzie Albies, and other young guns in their batting order. The Nationals’ hitting won’t be as formidable through their full lineup. Washington is the better bet in the playoffs, but the Braves are the better bet to win the East.
The Philadelphia Phillies have loaded up on big names. The question is if those big names can still play great baseball. Andrew McCutchen is now a Phillie after a lengthy stay in Pittsburgh with the Pirates, followed by a trip to San Francisco to play for the Giants. McCutchen hasn’t been the star player he was for most of his time with the Pirates. Maybe a return to the state of Pennsylvania will revive his career. If McCutchen is better, though, the Phillies could be able to make a run.
This team does have Bryce Harper, and it made a splashy acquisition when it brought in Didi Gregorius, who had been a dependable member of the New York Yankees for several years. Gregorius gives the Phillies another big bat in their order. The offense could be enough to offset their pitching limitations. A key question is if veteran Jake Arrieta has another good season left. If he does, this season could fall into place just right for the Phils.
National League Central
The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs largely stood pat this past offseason. Neither club made a lot of huge moves, instead choosing to tinker and tweak on the edges. They figure to be at the forefront of this division race all season long, so what might make the difference between them as they go forward?
The Cubs have a new manager, David Ross, who was a player on the 2016 World Series championship team managed by Joe Maddon. After the 2019 season, Maddon was let go. The Cubs wanted to turn the page and freshen up their clubhouse after three very emotionally draining seasons – 2017 through 2019 – which fell short of the World Series and failed to create the dynasty the Cubs hoped they would have been able to establish.
Ross is not being brought in as the manager because of a belief that he is smarter than Maddon. He isn’t. Ross is not being brought to Chicago because of managerial experience, because he lacks any and all coaching experience. He only recently retired as a player. Ross is being tabbed the manager for the Cubs because he gets along really well with players in general, and he gets along great with the current roster, most of which remains intact from 2016. If Ross creates a good atmosphere in the clubhouse and inspires players to be professional and responsible all the time, the Cubs could substantially benefit. That is the gamble the Cubs are making. Ross probably won’t make a lot of good moves in terms of pitching changes or substitutions, but the organization is much more focused on the attitude of the players. If it improves, Ross could make questionable decisions, but the team could still be several games better.
The Cardinals hope that the loss of Marcell Ozuna to the Braves won’t be a huge blow. The Cardinals are hoping that starting pitcher Jack Flaherty, who came out of nowhere to become their staff ace last season, has another ace-level season this year. If he does, the Cardinals can compete on even terms with the Cubs. Yet, the loss of Ozuna, combined with the good vibes in the Cubs’ clubhouse, make it a lot easier to lean to Chicago than St. Louis.
The Milwaukee Brewers are the sleeper here. The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates are in no position to make a run, so the Brewers are the only real candidate to challenge the Cardinals and Cubs. The Brewers have picked up some players who could certainly add value to the team, but are not stone-cold locks to perform well. Justin Smoak, Avisail Garcia, and Brock Holt have all had really good professional seasons in recent years, but they have not been consistent from one year to the next. They all have to play well this season for the Brewers to win the Central. Closer Josh Hader had a bad 2019. He has to be back on his game in 2020 for Milwaukee to win the division. The Brewers’ starting pitching isn’t good enough to get substandard performances from the back end of the bullpen or from the 5, 6 and 7 hitters in the batting order.
National League West
The overwhelming favorite in the National League West is the Los Angeles Dodgers. It really isn’t a close call. It’s not just a reflection of the reality that the Dodgers are absolutely stacked throughout their roster; it’s more than that. The San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies, and San Diego Padres have not made significant upgrades to their rosters to warrant serious consideration as contenders to the Dodgers, at least not this season.
The Giants are in a complete rebuild, and longtime manager Bruce Bochy, a future Hall of Famer, has retired. The Rockies put the pieces together late in the 2018 season, but nothing good happened for them in 2019, and their pitching stands on very shaky ground. The Padres are in a long-term youth movement, hoping that a lot of young arms can hit their stride in 2021. San Diego will have a very good bullpen this season, but it still has nothing resembling a quality starting rotation. The Padres are still at least one year away, if not two.
The Dodgers have to be seen as the clear favorite in the National League West. They still have Walker Buehler, and Clayton Kershaw, and a roster with proven hitters such as Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Kike Hernandez, and other proven role players who give Los Angeles a lot of depth and versatility.
Yet, as good as the Dodgers already were, and given how much starting pitching and hitting they already possessed, they then made a blockbuster deal in which they landed not one, but two, prime players. The Dodgers traded elite prospect Alex Verdugo and two other high-profile prospects to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for outfielder Mookie Betts and lefty starter David Price. The Dodgers dramatically beefed up their roster, improving their pitching, defense, and hitting in one trade. Betts is a star who makes a very good lineup that much better. Price will eat up lots of innings so that Kershaw doesn’t have to overextend himself during the regular season. The Dodgers won’t have to go too deep into their bullpen and can pace themselves in the season, peaking for the playoffs. This team has just about everything it could hope to have.
The Arizona Diamondbacks might be the one team which could make the National League West an interesting division in 2020. Madison Bumgarner, who tormented the Dodgers as a member of the San Francisco Giants, is now in Phoenix with the D-Backs. That could be the beginning of an Arizona pitching staff which finds a groove this season and makes life difficult on Dodger hitters, plus the rest of the National League West. The Diamondbacks also added Kole Calhoun, the solid outfielder from the Los Angeles Angels, to fortify their lineup. The Diamondbacks weren’t a great team last year, but they were a decent team, and with their upgrades, they might be able to win 90 games, which means the Dodgers can’t relax. Los Angeles will have to earn the N.L. West.