By Arnie Leshin
Take me out to the ball game is a no-no this time around. No fans in the stands and COPID-19 coronavirus restrictions will be applied, but the game will return despite this.
After a delay of nearly four months, the 2020 Major League Baseball season will begin Thursday night when the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals play host to the New York Yankees, and it’s time to pin down expectations for what to expect to happen in the abbreviated 60-game campaign.
Will the Nationals repeat? Is this the year the Los Angeles Dodgers end their long championship drought? Will Gerrit Cole pitch the Yankees to their first title since 2009? So we polled columnists, writers, researchers and editors, also 32 of ESPN’s leading baseball experts to focus on who’s going to win their respective divisions, as well as who’s going to finish first in their leagues and then ultimately the World Series.
So here goes, the pre-season report on predictions for each division and for both leagues, followed by who should land in the World Series.
AMERICAN EAST: The pick is the NY Yankees with 21 votes, with 11 votes going to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays might be the league’s most creative team, which makes them most likely to find hidden opportunities in these anomalous circumstances. It would be easier to pick the Yanks’ wealth and talent to win out in 162 games, but in 60 games, the gap is negligible, and the division could go to the team that first figures out how to make this once-in-a-lifetime schedule work for it.
AMERICAN CENTRAL: The pick is the Minnesota Twins with 23 votes, with the Cleveland Indians getting five and the Chicago White Sox three. Among the trio of AL divisions, the Central is the most wide-open, and among Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota, the White Sox possess the highest ceiling during this boom-or-bust season. Minny has a talented group, but Chicago probably boasts the highest talent ceiling in the division, and this could be the year for the Windy City’s South Side team in what figures to be a three-team clash.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST: The pick is the Houston Astros with 17 votes, with 11 gong to the Oakland A’s and four to the Los Angeles Angels. Will Houston remain the team to beat or will the A’s and Angels close the gap significantly. Of these three, the Astros have to make up for the loss of starting pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, while the Angels picked up Anthony Rendon from Washington and have Most Valuable Player Mike Trout, but do not count out Oakland, which has a stellar bullpen.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARDS: The top vote-getter with 21 votes would be the Rays, with both the Yankees and Astros getting 10 votes apiece, the White Sox six, the Indians five, the A’s four, the Angels three and the Blue Jays one. It’s difficult to make a numbers-based case that Oakland should be favored over the Astros in the AL West, but the A’s have been one of the best five six rosters in the game, plus they have the added strength of team defense and relief pitching.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST: The pick is the Atlanta Braves with 16 votes, with 10 going to the Nats, four to the New York Mets, and two to the Philadelphia Phillies. FanGraphs has the Nationals’ odds with the Braves to win the division as a coin flip, and that sounds fine. But it’s a lean toward the rotational power Washington team with its starting three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, although the Braves do have a little more youth and upside.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL: The pick is the Cincinnati Reds with 14 votes, ahead of seven for the Milwaukee Brewers, six for the Chicago Cubs, and five for the St. Louis Cardinals. This appears to be the league’s most wide-open division, so when in doubt default to starting pitching, and the Reds should be the best on the mound with Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer, plus their lineup should also be improved, but Milwaukee has some good returnees, and you can’t count out the Cubs or the Cardinals.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST: The talented Los Angeles Dodgers become the pick with a whooping 32 votes, with not any remaining for the other clubs. The San Diego Padres are a chic pick, but there’s also the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have an excellent defensive team anchored by shortstop Nick Ahmaed, a star in Ketel Marte, and a veteran starting pitcher in Madison Bumgarner, although LA is loaded at every position, with centerfielder Mookie Betts just signing a long contract, and the hurlers a tough bunch from both sides.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WIDE CARDS: Washington holds the top spot here with a dozen votes, and the Mets and Diamondbacks with eight each, with the Braves and Padres with seven apiece, the Brewers and Cards with five each, the Phils with four and the Reds with three. Now the Padres could be a year or two away, but might be ready now with this shortened season and feature Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., but the Nationals still have the edge here because of their post-season experience.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPION: The Yankees are the pick here with 14 votes, and then come the Rays with seven, the Twins, Indians and A’s with three each, and the Astros with a pair. Dealing with packed stadium will not be in evidence here, but Houston would be good with no fans in the stands and the shorter season will favor it because it still has a formidable lineup, and even without Cole can boast of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers, Jr.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPION: The pick belongs to the Dodgers with, like the Yankees, 24 votes. This leaves the Braves, Nats and Brewers with two apiece, and the Diamondbacks and Reds with one each. Yes, Los Angeles looks on-top the pack, but the Braves, Nationals and Brewers can be right up there, same as Arizona and Cincinnati. Atlanta lost Josh Danielson to free-agency, but bring back most of the lineup that brought 97 wins last season. The virus recovery of first baseman Freddie Freeman should also be a big plus, but LA will be a tough challenge.
WORLD SERIES CHAMPION: The Dodgers are the overall choice with 18 votes. The Yanks get six, the Rays three, the Brewers two, and the Braves, Nationals and Indians one each. There is no deeper team than Los Angeles. It won 106 games last season, and outscored opponents by 273 runs. Now they add Betts. Houston has uncertainty and acrimony around their off season, while the Bronx Bombers have to get out of a tougher league that feature six of the top seven teams. Still, it should be the Dodgers with more depth at every position, but NY right behind.
NATIONAL LEAGUE MVP: Mookie Betts, Dodgers.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CY YOUNG: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals.
NATIONAL LEAGUE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Carter Kieboom, Nationals.
AMERICAN LEAGUE MVP. Alex Bregman, Astros.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CY YOUNG: Gerrit Cole, Yankees.
AMERICAN LEAGUE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Luis Robert, White Sox.
To conclude, there’s plenty that can happen in only 60 regular-season games. Injuries can hamper things, so can the mysterious virus, lineups now can be very different after Thursday’s first pitch. Besides, it’s always a guessing game, and with each team at 0-0 as they play ball.