Who Can Actually Compete with the Juggernaut Dodgers for NL Supremacy?
The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers look like a team that can't be reasoned or bargained with, much less stopped.
They're coming off a season in which they won 50 more games than they lost, and they just acquired an MVP (Mookie Betts), a Cy Young Award winner (David Price) and one of the most electric pitching prospects (Brusdar Graterol) in Major League Baseball.
Baseball Prospectus' newly released PECOTA projections confirmed the Dodgers are heading into the season as the heavy favorites in the National League. They're projected to win 103 games, while no other NL team is forecasted for even as many as 90.
But to determine if it's really that hopeless, we sought to break things down more thoroughly by sizing up the Dodgers themselves and their primary competitors.
Are the Dodgers Really That Good?
Granted, reigning ERA champion Hyun-Jin Ryu is now with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Dodgers also lost fellow left-hander Rich Hill via free agency, and they parted with outfielder Alex Verdugo and right-hander Kenta Maeda to land Mookie Betts, David Price and Brusdar Graterol.
Nevertheless, the addition of Betts alone must not be undersold.
He ranks second to only Mike Trout in rWAR since 2016, and his offensive upside goes well beyond the .915 OPS and 29 home runs he posted in 2019. Along with reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger and fellow stars Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Joc Pederson (who was spared from being traded) and Corey Seager, Betts will ensure the Dodgers remain an offensive and defensive juggernaut in 2020.
Without Ryu behind Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, the front three of the Los Angeles rotation doesn't look as strong. But if healthy, Price is at worst an above-average innings-eater and at best a No. 1 starter. A healthy Graterol, meanwhile, has the pure stuff to be one of many valuable arms on a pitching depth chart that's marked by talent and versatility.
These Dodgers are at least as good as and arguably better than last year's iteration.
Dark Horses to Topple the Dodgers
Around the NL, there seems to be five clubs that might take down the Dodgers and five clubs that actually could.
This is a brief run through the former.
After signing Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado in back-to-back offseasons, the San Diego Padres continued adding veterans—including left fielder Tommy Pham and lefty reliever Drew Pomeranz—this winter. They're also sitting on the best farm system in the NL.
Still, a lot needs to go right for the Padres to seriously challenge the Dodgers after they lost 92 games in 2019. Certainly the biggest unknown is if they can cultivate a functional rotation after getting a 4.66 ERA out of theirs last season.
The Milwaukee Brewers have been to the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and they're rolling into 2020 with Christian Yelich at the heart of their roster. He's on a tear that dates all the way back to the 2018 All-Star break.
However, the Brewers chose to remake their roster on the cheap in response to losing standouts such as Pomeranz, Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Eric Thames via free agency. The finished product is interesting, but anyone would be hard-pressed to argue it's improved.
The Arizona Diamondbacks quietly won 85 games last season, and they've been aggressive in trying to get better for 2020. To wit, they spent big bucks on ace lefty Madison Bumgarner and bolstered their thin outfield by signing Kole Calhoun and trading for Starling Marte.
Yet the D-backs come off as a team that has more of a high floor than a high ceiling. Their bullpen is an apparent weakness, and their offense and rotation are more good than great.
The Philadelphia Phillies have a competent manager now in the person of Joe Girardi, and this won't be his first rodeo overseeing a roster full of expensive veterans. To that end, they can dream big about Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler, Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura.
Nevertheless, the Phillies actually had to overachieve to get to 81-81 last season. And if 2020 ends up being yet another disappointing year for Wheeler, then it's hard to see Philadelphia getting past the pitching shortcomings that tripped it up in 2019.
St. Louis Cardinals
Wait, hang on. A team that won 91 games and the NL Central just last season is only a dark horse to overcome the Dodgers in 2020? How does that make sense?
Look, you can direct your befuddlement at the St. Louis Cardinals. A pitching staff that posted a 3.80 ERA last season should do good work again in 2020. However, it's hard to fathom how an offense that was below-average with Marcell Ozuna is supposed to be any better without him. If anything, it'll be worse.
The Chicago Cubs haven't made it easy to be optimistic about their upcoming season.
It was just four years ago that they won 103 games and the World Series, yet the degree to which they've fallen since then makes that peak feel like ancient history. And rather than go out of their way to improve a roster that produced only 84 wins in 2019, they have lost more than they've gained this offseason.
The Cubs did, however, make a necessary change in swapping out Joe Maddon for David Ross in the manager's chair. The latter might be able to reinvigorate a culture that got a little stale under the former.
As to other matters, the Cubs' offensive core of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber averaged an .887 OPS and 30 homers apiece last season. More of that would be welcome, and bounce-back years from Jon Lester and Craig Kimbrel would go a long way toward improving a pitching staff that was good enough for a 4.10 ERA in 2020.
If all goes well, the Cubs might just recapture their old mojo and climb back up the NL power structure.
*The Cubs presumably won't play 163 games. This is a rounding issue.
It only counts on paper, but the Cincinnati Reds' PECOTA projection effectively validated their offseason.
Rather than risk another below-average offensive output in 2020, the Reds spent $149 million on Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama. The first two would have combined for an .854 OPS and 62 homers as teammates in 2019. For his part, Akiyama was a .321 hitter in his last five seasons in Japan.
The true quality of the Cincinnati offense remains debatable, but the upside is clearly there. Health permitting, Eugenio Suarez and Aristides Aquino can be everyday power suppliers. Elsewhere, Joey Votto is a rebound candidate, and Nick Senzel is a breakout candidate.
On the mound, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo are an elite rotation duo. Trevor Bauer can make it an elite trio if he gets back on the All-Star track from 2018. Wade Miley and Anthony DeSclafani are ideal back-end starters, and Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Amir Garrett form an underrated late-relief threesome.
The picture here is that of a team that could take a page from the Washington Nationals and overwhelm the Dodgers with star power in a playoff series. But the Reds obviously have to get there first, and that's where they could be tripped up: by the depth of the NL Central or the scrubs that accompany their stars.
The Atlanta Braves have won back-to-back NL East titles, the latter of which came courtesy of a 97-win romp.
And yet their PECOTA projection isn't entirely unfair. The Braves will feel Josh Donaldson's departure on offense and defense. There's also some bust potential in their starting rotation, particularly if it doesn't improve on its modest strikeout rate from last season.
Still, it's also fair to wonder if PECOTA is underestimating the Braves.
Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies are back to drive what was a very good offense. And while neither is on Donaldson's level, newcomers Marcell Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud did have a decent .779 OPS and 45 homers between them in 2019.
What the Braves lack in pitching star power, they make up for in sheer depth. All-Stars Mike Soroka and Mike Foltynewicz headline an impression collection of young arms, and Atlanta scored big by adding Cole Hamels and Will Smith to its rotation and bullpen.
The Braves may therefore have a path back to 97 wins. That means the Dodgers should fear them by default.
New York Mets
The New York Mets haven't done much to improve their roster this offseason, and they had to scramble for a new manager, Luis Rojas, after the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal cost Carlos Beltran his job.
Yet PECOTA's optimism is partially a reminder that the Mets had one of the better offenses in the NL last season. Pete Alonso, who led the majors with 53 home runs, and Jeff McNeil are back, and New York stands to get more out of guys such as Robinson Cano, Brandon Nimmo and even Yoenis Cespedes.
Pitching-wise, the Mets are led by two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman can be co-aces if they fully harness their talent. The situation in the bullpen is uncertain, but there's plenty of bounce-back potential between Edwin Diaz, Dellin Betances and Jeurys Familia.
Though the Mets aren't a better all-around team than the Dodgers, they could copy and paste their formula from 2015 and overwhelm the Boys in Blue with power pitching and power hitting come October.
There's just one problem: Even if PECOTA is right about the Phillies, the road to the top of the NL East is still rife with peril.
The Nationals were able to get past the Dodgers in last year's playoffs, dispatching them in Game 5 of a National League Division Series via huge home runs from Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick.
Alas, Rendon is out of the picture after signing with the Los Angeles Angels. Instead of replacing him with a comparable star at third base, the Nats moved to replace him in the aggregate by re-signing Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Yan Gomes and Asdrubal Cabrera and adding Eric Thames and Starlin Castro.
That may not be enough to deter an offensive backslide, but such a thing must be put in perspective. The Nats were the second-highest scoring team in the NL last year. They could take a step back and still have a top-five offense.
Their pitching, meanwhile, could be as good as and maybe even better than it was in 2019. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez are all back, and Washington's deals with Daniel Hudson and Will Harris should stabilize a pen that was often leaky last year.
So even sans Rendon, the reigning World Series champions look like the NL's best hope to slay the Dodgers in 2020.