1 Prediction for Every 2020 MLB Playoff Contender Down the Stretch

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2020

1 Prediction for Every 2020 MLB Playoff Contender Down the Stretch

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    We're entering the stretch run of the 2020 MLB season. With the expanded 16-team playoff field, a lot of clubs can technically call themselves contenders.

    We narrowed that list to the 20 squads with at least a 10 percent chance of reaching the postseason, per FanGraphs' odds entering play Tuesday.

    Here, we've made one prediction about each contender, based on the performance of essential players, impactful injuries and general thoughts about how this wild campaign will play out.

Atlanta: Kyle Wright Will Boost Injury-Depleted Rotation

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

    Atlanta is on track to win the National League East, but it has suffered significant losses in its starting rotation. 

    Mike Soroka is out for the season with a torn Achilles, while ace Max Fried landed on the injured list with a back issue. To win a third straight division crown, Atlanta will need young arms such as Kyle Wright to shoulder the load.

    The 24-year-old picked up his first big league win on Sunday in a 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals. It was his second start since he was recalled from the alternate site, and it could be a turning point for the 2017 fifth overall pick.

    If so, it would be a huge boost for Atlanta's banged-up starting corps as it moves into the playoffs.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant Will Hit Under .200

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant has endured an injury-marred 2020 season. Entering play Tuesday, the 2016 National League MVP was hitting an even .200.

    Despite that, the Cubs are in position to win the National League Central.

    Finger and wrist issues have limited Bryant to 26 games. That might be the root cause of his problems.

    "It's just more of a mental thing, too, when you can go up to the plate and not have to worry about swinging and feeling pain," Bryant told reporters. "That's the biggest thing, and that was the goal of taking the time off, is to get to that point."

    The 28-year-old is set to hit free agency after the 2021 season. An extension or a trade are on the table. Given his issues and those impending distractions, we'll predict he finishes below the Mendoza Line this year, and that his underperformance may hamper Chicago's October run.

Chicago White Sox: Tim Anderson Will Win the AL Batting Title

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Chicago White Sox are in the thick of an intriguing three-team race in the American League Central behind their exciting young core.

    Among the burgeoning South Side stars, shortstop Tim Anderson stands tall.

    Through 37 games, the 27-year-old is hitting .369, tops in both leagues. He's gone 58-for-157 with 11 doubles, a triple and seven home runs.

    He's on track to win a batting title, and the short season shouldn't diminish the accomplishment.

    "Every day I try to get better," Anderson told reporters. "The respect follows, but I've never been a person who tries to please other people. I always try to make myself happy, and I've been making myself happy for these last two years. I don't really care about nobody else."

Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto Will Post a Career-Low OBP

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Joey Votto has paced the Senior Circuit in on-base percentage seven times since breaking into MLB in 2007. But this season, the 37-year-old is slipping toward a new low in the OBP department. 

    Through 43 games, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman sports a .339 OBP, nearly 20 points lower than the .357 OBP he posted last season.

    Votto is also hitting a career-worst .225, though he does have nine home runs for a Reds team that's clinging to the edge of the NL postseason race.

    Cincinnati hasn't made the postseason since 2014, a fact Votto is well aware of.

    "It's frustrating each and every year," he told reporters. "Very clearly, it just creeps up on you. It just creeps up on you and you just have to do your best to fight it off."

Cleveland: Shane Bieber Will Solidify His Cy Young Case

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Cleveland is in the mix for the AL Central crown with a pitching staff that leads the Junior Circuit in ERA and strikeouts.

    Shane Bieber fronts that group with a 1.53 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 64.2 innings. On Friday, he recorded his 100th punchout in the fewest innings since 1900.

    The 25-year-old right-hander will make up to three more starts for Cleveland, during which time he'll be able to cement his Cy Young credentials.

    "He has the ability to throw any pitch at any spot in the count," manager Terry Francona told reporters. "And he's got enough fastball to get it by you."

Colorado Rockies: Nolan Areando Will Play His Final Game in the Purple and Black

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nolan Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies in February 2019. Less than 11 months later, he expressed displeasure with the team.

    Arenado can opt out of his deal after 2021 and test free agency. As a five-time All-Star who will be entering his age-31 campaign, there won't be a better time to cash in.

    The Rockies' playoff hopes are dim, and this offseason will give them a chance to dangle Arenado for a package of prospects and/or MLB-ready talent. 

    They should take it, and their franchise player should be wearing a new uniform by Opening Day 2021.

Houston Astros: Justin Verlander Won't Be Their Savior

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Houston Astros are hanging around .500 and have fallen out of the American League's top tier. But they're virtually assured of a postseason berth thanks to their placement in the mediocre AL West.

    Their pitching staff lacks a postseason-tested ace behind Zack Greinke. At this point, they're counting on the return of Justin Verlander from a forearm injury.

    "Hopefully, if everything goes well, he could be back at the end of the month," manager Dusty Baker told reporters last week.

    Verlander's return would help Houston. But color us doubtful that a 37-year-old hurler who hasn't tossed an inning since July 24 will save the Astros' season.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Mookie Betts Will Lead the NL in Home Runs

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox in February and signed him to a 12-year, $365 million contract extension in July.

    So far, Betts is on track to win a home run title.

    Entering play Tuesday, Betts had 15 home runs. That tied him for the NL lead with San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

    Down the stretch, the Dodgers and Pads will battle for division supremacy. And Betts and Tatis will duke it out for the HR crown. 

    As much as we believe in Tatis' sky-high ceiling, we'll bet on Betts.

Miami Marlins: Sixto Sanchez Will Bolster His ROY Credentials

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    A number of players are in the mix for NL Rookie of the Year honors, including San Diego Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth (.328 AVG, .950 OPS).

    But keep your eyes on Miami Marlins righty Sixto Sanchez.

    The 22-year-old has posted a 1.69 ERA through five starts with his radar-gun-singeing fastball, even as his club has remained in the mix for a postseason slot.

    No less an authority than Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez called Sanchez "like a mini me with better stuff."

Milwaukee Brewers: Christian Yelich Will Hit Under .200

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    We already made life hard for the Cubs' Kris Bryant. Now it's Christian Yelich's turn.

    The 2018 NL MVP is struggling through an unusually down year with a .195 average entering play Tuesday.

    "You're going to see really good players have really bad years," the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder told reporters prior to the 2020 season. "It's going to happen. ... You don't have that large sample size for everything to even out, so if you get off to a tough start or a bad start, you're really behind the eight ball."

    So far, he's right. And while it's possible Yelich and the Brew Crew will right the ship, it's also possible this anomalous downturn will reach its sub-Mendoza conclusion.

Minnesota Twins: Josh Donaldson Will Be Their X-Factor

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Twins will pay Josh Donaldson $21 million in 2021, 2022 and 2023 with a $16 million team option and $8 million buyout for 2024. He's 34 years old and has played only 19 games this season due to a calf injury.

    That doesn't bode well for the future of the Twins' financial commitment.

    However, Donaldson has gone 6-for-21 with two home runs over his past six games heading into Tuesday and has reinserted himself into Minnesota's offense.

    Donaldson has amassed postseason experience with the Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland and Atlanta, and he could be an X-factor for the Twins as they defend their division title.

New York Mets: Jacob deGrom Will Make His Case for a 3rd Straight Cy Young

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    No pitcher has won three or more consecutive National League Cy Young Awards since Randy Johnson accomplished the feat from 1999 to 2002.

    Though he pitches for a New York Mets club with only a dim chance of reaching the postseason, Jacob deGrom could join the Big Unit in that club.

    After claiming NL Cy Young honors in 2018 and 2019, deGrom leads the Senior Circuit in ERA (1.67) and has struck out 79 in 54 innings.

    He has competition from the Cubs' Yu Darvish (1.77 ERA, 11.6 K/9) and Padres' Dinelson Lamet (2.12 ERA, 12.0 K/9), among others. But even if the Queens contingent fails to make the playoffs, deGrom has a real opportunity to make it a Cy Young trifecta. 

New York Yankees: Judge and Stanton Will Return, But It Won't Be Enough

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees are in second place in the AL East and could end up as the No. 7 or 8 seed if they can't fend off the Blue Jays.

    Aaron Judge (calf) and Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring) have both been reinstated from the 10-day IL, which is good news for the Bronx Bombers.

    At the least, it should ensure New York will make the playoffs. But that was already virtually a given since the teams below them in the AL standings (Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles) have no business even talking about October.

    Stanton and Judge are big-time boppers, but they've also positioned themselves as the poster boys of "injury-prone." Expect them to hit a few big homers down the stretch, but don't assume they'll save the Yankees' season.

Oakland Athletics: The Loss of Matt Chapman Will Be Their Undoing

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Oakland Athletics will win a weak American League West. But their hopes of making a deep playoff run were damaged by the news that third baseman Matt Chapman needs season-ending hip surgery.

    Chapman won a pair of Gold Gloves and finished in the top seven in MVP voting each of the past two seasons. He had 10 home runs with an .812 OPS this year before his injury.

    Now, others such as first baseman Matt Olson and shortstop Marcus Semien will have to fill in.

    The A's have a strong bullpen behind closer Liam Hendriks and a burgeoning ace in left-hander Jesus Luzardo. But without Chapman, they might be ticketed for another early postseason exit.

Philadelphia Phillies: Ailing Realmuto and Hoskins Will Derail a Deep Run

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Phillies are nipping at the heels of Atlanta in the NL East, but they're dealing with injuries to two of their best hitters.

    Catcher J.T. Realmuto (hip) and first baseman Rhys Hoskins (forearm) haven't played since Saturday, underwent MRIs on Monday and will be out an undetermined period of time.

    Best-case scenario, the pair will be back in action soon. But every day that the Phillies are without their top two home run hitters diminishes their chances of making a deep postseason run.

    They play in a tough division, and these injuries couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.

San Diego Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr. Will Finalize His NL MVP Case

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres are nipping at the Dodgers' heels in the NL West.

    That's due in part to the additions they made at the trade deadline, including right-hander Mike Clevinger and late-inning reliever Trevor Rosenthal. 

    But give a lion's share of the credit to shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who is compiling a compelling NL MVP resume.

    Through 49 games, Tatis has 15 home runs and a .989 OPS. He leads MLB with 46 runs scored and has stolen nine bases.

    He was on pace to win NL Rookie of the Year honors last season before an injury cut things short. Now, he's on track to win the NL's biggest award.

San Francisco Giants: Drew Smyly Will Help Them to the Postseason

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants are one of several teams on the NL playoff bubble. They probably won't catch the Dodgers or Padres, but a wild-card seed is within reach.

    If they reach it, credit will likely go to Drew Smyly.

    The 31-year-old recently returned from injury, but he has logged 19 strikeouts in 12.1 innings this season.

    With San Francisco looking for depth and consistency behind Kevin Gausman and Johnny Cueto, Smyly may be a boon.

St. Louis Cardinals: Kwang Hyun Kim's Return Will Push Them to the Postseason

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Cardinals are hoping to sneak into the NL playoff race. If they do, credit left-hander Kwang Hyun Kim.

    The 32-year-old has a 0.63 ERA in 28.2 innings pitched. He returned to action Monday and became, as MLB.com's Anne Rogers noted, "only the third Cards pitcher since at least 1901 with four straight games of five-plus innings pitched and zero earned runs. The last was Bob Gibson (5) in 1968 and the only other was Paul Derringer (4) in 1931. The last MLB pitcher to do it within a single season was Chris Sale in 2018."

    In a Cards rotation that also features ace Jack Flaherty and seasoned veteran Adam Wainwright, Kim could be a scale-tipper.

Tampa Bay Rays: Brandon Lowe Will Carry the Offense

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays are cruising toward a division title thanks to a deep and talented roster. Give special credit to second baseman Brandon Lowe, who has a .920 OPS through 43 games. 

    The 26-year-old has been particularly hot of late, going six for his last 18 with two home runs and carrying the Rays toward the finish line.

    After finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, he has been among the best hitters in either league and has the stats to back it up.

    If he keeps it up, he'll be in the discussion for AL MVP honors and will undoubtedly be one of the Rays' most valuable hitters.

Toronto Blue Jays: Nate Pearson Will Return and Play a Big Role

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Toronto Blue Jays are in a battle with the Yankees in the AL East. Both clubs surely think they can win the division, but a second-place finish is more realistic.

    If the Jays are going to best the Yanks, they could use a strong finish by right-hander Nate Pearson.

    The hard-throwing prospect flashed big-time promise through four starts before an elbow strain put him on the shelf. However, he's nearing a return and could help Toronto in its 2020 playoff quest either out of the pen or as a starter.

    "The most optimistic and more likely scenario is that he comes back in to a starting role," manager Charlie Montoyo told reporters. "Maybe it's in more of a hybrid [one], like when you've seen us have more pseudo-piggybacking scenarios, but it really just depends on when and where he comes back."

    The 24-year-old is obviously part of the club's long-term plans. But he feels like a possible game-changer down the stretch right now.


    All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs; all contract information courtesy of Spotrac