After a very tumultuous offseason, and with Opening Day on the horizon, we take a look at five MLB teams that are finally beginning to come out of their rebuilding process and are projected to be competitive this season.
Rebuilds are very hard. It can be a daunting task to embrace the tank and sacrifice an MLB team’s immediate success in order to create the conditions, both financial and athletic, to build a competitive, sustainable future. And it’s even harder for the fans. It’s an act of faith in itself, the ultimate patience test.
But it is a necessary step for most everyone, and particularly for small-to-mid-market teams, to let go of certain players and acquire and cultivate new talent. Recently, and whatever your stance on the cheating scandal might be, the Houston Astros went through a remarkable process. They went from a horrendous 51-111 in 2013, to become the World Champions in 2017, and remain a superpower this year.
In the last few seasons, several organizations have undergone their own rebuilds to varying degrees of success, but as teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners, and Detroit Tigers are still at the beginning or middle stages, there are 5 teams that could come of age in 2020, projected to finally reap some benefits and even battle for spots in the playoffs.
This might be the team with the least completed process of our five, as projections believe it will become more competitive around 2022, and its position in the competitive AL West doesn’t help much either, but we expect that 2020 will mark the start point for their ascent.
The main story, of course, is their starting pitching, as 2-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber is finally back from an injury-riddled ’19 season. Kluber, along with Lance Lynn — who is projected to work the most, with 173.3 innings — Mike Minor, who’s coming off a stellar performance last year, and new-signing Kyle Gibson, who had a solid year for AL Central-conquering Twins, are a very promising rotation. If they manage to keep their ace healthy and Minor in the organization, we could look at them finally overcoming the 80-win mark for the first time after three years under .500.
To complete their battery, the Rangers bring back Robinson Chirinos from pennant-winning Astros, and while the team still has no significant punch to support power-hitter Joey Gallo, the positive projections about outfielder Danny Santana, the signing of Todd Frazier, and the fact that Roughned Odor and Nick Solak are reaching maturity might open the window for significant gains in the offensive department.
Prospects to watch: Tyler Phillips, a young pitcher with surprisingly good command, and Sherten Apostel, a big third baseman with lots of power and a decent defense for his size.
Toronto Blue Jays
One thing we might all agree on about the Jays in 2020: They’ll be very, very fun to watch.
First of all, the signing of Korean star Hyun-jin Ryu, 2019 NL’s ERA leader, will significantly improve the starting pitching situation. Last year, they used 21 different men for that job, and the addition of Ryu will not magically solve their problems, but the organization did a very smart thing and brought Japanese gun, Shun Yamaguchi, who boasts an enviable 15-4 record with 2.91 ERA and 1.158 WHIP in 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, and Tanner Roark, who’s projected a WAR above 2.4, really nice for a youngster.
In the offensive department, we will see improvements from the “prodigal sons” – Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio – who will have to carry the lineup on their backs, but they’re reaching the heights of their potential pretty quickly. We see the potential for a good season from Ryan Grischuk and Travis Shaw as well, but when it comes to them, everything needs to fall in its right place, and they need to stay healthy.
Prospects to watch: Alejandro Kirk, a lethal combination of power and plate discipline, and Nate Pearson, who’s poised to tear the league apart with 100+ heat from the mound once the time is right.
San Diego Padres
2020 is the year where we could finally see the San Diego Padres as a serious wild card contender. Yes, the team’s got superstar Manny Machado on third and Fernando Tatis Jr. on shortstop, but the addition of Jurickson Profar, who’s motivated for a bounce-back year, and Tommy Pham, who had a breakthrough with the Tampa Bay Rays, make for a lineup that may be ready for the playoff battle. They just need to get a significant comeback from Eric Hosmer, because his contract is becoming a liability.
The Padres also have a pretty serviceable rotation with Lucchesi at the helm, and metrics nerds project a breakthrough year for Chris Paddack, but this team’s main weapon in their bullpen, currently ranked as the third-best in the entire League. If hurler Garett Richards and Dominican Dinelson Lamet stay healthy, we may see a true contender coming from the West not named the Dodgers. Diamondbacks fans take notice.
The Padres have built a strong farm system in the last ten years, and their intelligent approach in development and trades is finally about to pay off. They have stellar pitching, great offensive/defensive talent, and if their huge arsenal of youngsters keeps delivering, the sky is the limit.
Prospects to watch: Oh, this team’s got plenty; Mackenzie Gore, a very promising lefty with a projected three-win WAR, upstart Luis Patiño who is on a very quick rise as a pitcher, as well as lefty Travis Radke; Ty France and Owen Miller, two batters that are coming into their own, and recent signing Jake Cronenworth, an infielder with a vast set of tools.
Chicago White Sox
Definitely the most improved team in the 2019-20 offseason, and an increasing threat to the AL and MLB superpowers. The White Sox have been rebuilding for a while now but with some crucial new acquisitions and the coming of age of their key homegrown stars, they’re projected to have the biggest leap in quality this season.
The headlines focused on the signing of Yosmani Grandal, one of the best catchers in baseball, who will become an instant star behind the plate, which will be essential for a pitching staff that showed tremendous signs of promise in 2019. But this squad is filled with talented players — Yoan Moncada, Yolmer Sanchez, and of course, Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu — that are set to sharpen their skills and turn even more impressive this year. It will all be about cohesion and consistency since we have seen brilliant-but-spotty collective performances so far, but hopefully, emerging hitters Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal might contribute to the offensive dynamic of the team.
But the most substantial improvement is at the mound. Lucas Giolito had an All-Star season last year, and now he’s joined by veterans Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, two lefties that are set to comprise a reliable rotation, and if young gun Michael Kopech makes a successful return from Tommy John surgery, we’ll get a winning team that we all need to consider at least for wild card contention.
Prospects to watch: The aforementioned Robert and Madrigal, and Bernardo Flores, a pitcher with the control and stability to potentially become a very nice 4th or 5th starter.
Alright Reds fans, it’s time to get really, really excited.
Are we looking at the new champion of the NL Central? Well, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA rankings think so. Even with a stacked division, where Brewers and Cubs still have a lot to say, and the Cardinals may work their dark magic like basically every year, 2020 may just be the year for the Big Red Machine.
They have certainly worked for it this offseason, signing free-agent gems Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to improve a very lackluster offense that ranked 12th in the NL in runs and team batting despite having Joey Votto who really underperformed in 2019. But the organization has a lot of faith, not only in these very costly acquisitions but also in their young core of Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker and Aristides Aquino.
However, the most important addition to the Ohio team might be Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, considered one of the most versatile, complete baseball players in the world. He collected a great .303/.376/.454 batting line with the Saitama Seibu Lions of the NPB, and he could be that missing ingredient the Reds needed for a well-rounded, truly competitive team.
The team needs several things to go their way though. In the pitching department, their bullpen is solid, but they need to get a return to form from Trevor Bauer, a more consistent outing from Sonny Gray, and a good healthy comeback season from reliever Jose De Leon. Fortunately, the signing of Wade Miley will add much-needed depth to their staff, and if he keeps the rhythm shown last September with the Astros, he and Luis Castillo might take the team to the next level.
The offense also needs to take it up a notch. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez is projected to have a productive season, but they still need a bounce-back from Votto, and Akiyama and the Moose to adapt to the team dynamic quickly. Only if they pull this off we will witness the rise of a true challenger, but the possibilities are there. It will all come down to the intra-division games.
Prospects to watch: Their key young players are already well established in the big leagues, but as prospects go, we can look at Alex Powers, who performed incredibly in the Pacific Coast League as a reliever and may come in handy in case of bullpen emergencies.