Who’s In Better Shape Thanks To The NBA’s Restart?

Every NBA team embarking on Orlando practically got to experience a whole offseason  before the playoffs.  According to the laws of science, that probably means that everyone just got a lot better by virtue of health.

That being said, there were teams who could have really used the break though, and others who might not have benefitted as well.  Was it really a good thing for Milwaukee’s historic season to be stopped on a whim like that?  Or for the Raptors, who on a roll as well?  Maybe not.

But for the teams that did need it, it comes as a massive break, and should help them out greatly.  Below are those teams, followed by what an awards ballot should look like this year since the NBA announced that the eight seeding games prior to the playoffs will not affect this season’s honors.

76ers

Philadelphia is better in every conceivable way heading into the league’s restart, even in a non-basketball sense.

When something is hard or frustrates you, sometimes it’s good to take a break and come back to it later.  That’s essentially what the 76ers just did in the middle of a season where they’re potentially the NBA’s most disappointing team.

Things weren’t going well for Philly before the shutdown.  They sat at sixth in the East with a (predictable) struggling offense, a defense that was lockdown but not winning them enough games and injuries that made their starting lineup fluctuate with its most important guys.  Plus, Ben Simmons was on the cusp of missing perhaps the rest of the season, depending on how deep the Sixers made it into the playoffs.

Now, a lot of this could go out the window.  The layoff gave everyone not only a chance to get healthy and rest up before the most competitive time of the year but time to think about the problems at hand.  This includes the players, coaching staff and front office.  During the season, the day-to-day grind of playing and traveling doesn’t really allow teams time to practice, let alone switch their entire offensive scheme and have long-term conversations about what it should be.  If the front office is thinking about it, their thinking about how to implement it the next season, not in the current one.  That’s too hard of a midseason change.

Philly practically just got an offseason to think it over, and perhaps they’ve realized that things need to change.  In scrimmages and practice videos, the Sixers have been experimenting with Simmons at power forward, alongside Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid.

Putting Milton into the mix is intriguing yet may not solve the entire problem.  With just 52 career games played at the age of 23, the former second-round pick doesn’t quite have the NBA chops under his belt just yet.  But, at 6’5, he’s an explosive guard who can use his size to get where he wants on the court.  The athleticism combined with his passing ability is impressive and at times scary for opposing defenses.  It’ll make him more of a true point guard for this Philly offense – one that can contribute more on the offensive end than Simmons.  

But there are drawbacks.  Milton’s a bit of question mark shooting the ball – it was a weakness on his scouting report in the 2018 draft, and while he’s shooting 45.3 percent from deep this season on 3.3 attempts per game, that does average out to just 1.5 makes per outing.  It’s certainly an upgrade over Simmons, but doesn’t move the needle quite enough.

Simmons at power forward is something that could make Philly work better.  The threes he made in the scrimmages the past week seem like click-bait teases – we shouldn’t be projecting Philly forward as if Simmons is going to change his game and emerge as an offensive threat.  However, the 4-spot brings some intrigue.  Simmons is an awesome screen-setter, and his seven foot frame makes him a looming presence at the rim.  Playing him more like a post player could make sense – there were aspects of that during his brief LSU career.

But who currently occupies the post?  None other than Joel Embiid, who’s the best player in basketball when he wants to be.  There’s no reason to disrupt that force with Simmons down low.

Moving Simmons to power forward feels like them benching him without actually doing so.  Philly is practically getting him out of the way and letting Milton cook instead.  If Simmons actually has a three point shot now, a wing-like role in the corner would be extremely effective.  At the same time, if Simmons has added to his game and is taking steps forward like that, why would the Sixers be moving Milton into the picture and taking the ball out of Simmons’ hands?  A versatile, aggressive offensive game from their now power forward would solve practically all of their problems.

This legitimately working for Philly seems unlikely.  Though the Sixers won’t be tasked with a playoff environment (They also lose their homecourt advantage though, where they were a historic 29-2), Milton coming in and taking the league by storm with less than a full year of NBA experience would be one of the best/most improbable stories in awhile.  

The Sixers won’t recover from this season – the ship has sailed on their expectations.  But that’s what makes the Milton experiment worth it.  What do they have to lose?  If things get worse, then the season is a wash anyways due to expectations already being low.  If things get better, then great: the Sixers can see how far the new scheme gets them, and possibly implement it next year.

Heat

Miami got the same help from the shutdown Philly did: when times are tough, take a break and do something else.

The Heat’s issues were never as deep as the Sixers.  But they were on a problematic trend.  

February was a tough month for Miami.  They went 6-7 and dropped from 15th in defensive rating to 21st.  Tyler Herro missed a significant amount of time during this stretch, but he wasn’t exactly the cog to Miami’s defense and their offense didn’t suffer much as a result of his absence.  

The answer might be found in certain lineup combinations, and it might be tied to Kelly Olynyk and some of Miami’s more traditional lineups..  With Olynyk on the court in February, Miami’s defensive rating rose to 115.7.  When he was off it, it fell to 111.3.  A lot of these pitfalls could be found through Miami’s roster.  Jimmy Butler saw a similar decline, with Miami’s defensive rating clocking in at 116.1 with him on the court and 109.7 off it.  That’s not a difference you’d expect to see from one of the game’s best perimeter defenders.

It’s clear defensive breakdowns were in full swing throughout the month, which might have led to Miami’s big trade for Jae Crowder and Andre Igodouala at the deadline.  Both are consistent wing defenders who could replace Olynyk’s spot in the rotation, and contribute enough offense and shooting to be playable.  The brief numbers the duo showed were promising: a 106.6 defensive rating for the Heat when the two played their 186 minutes together in the month.

Miami’s second most heavily used lineup in February, featuring Crowder, Igoudala, Goran Dragic, Olynyk and Duncan Robinson was sick defensively, posting a 96.6 defensive rating.  Butler’s decline is even more evident when considering net rating – the dynamic two-way player made Miami better when he was on the bench from Feb. 1 through the shut down, where as Crowder made Miami better by playing with a net rating of 2.2.

For whatever reason the miscommunications were happening, Miami should have had plenty of time to figure them out.  Butler is too good of a player – especially on the defensive end – to be having the lapses he did in February and March.  Miami’s deadline upgrades should also provide a needed boost defensively, and allow them to be play a bit smaller and more efficiently as well.

Trail Blazers

Even though Portland saw their schedule getting significantly harder in addition to losing half of the games they had remaining to catch the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, there’s no doubting that the Trail Blazers are in better shape heading into Restart Night Friday.  For the first time all season, they have their real team together.

The days of Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony in the starting lineup together are over.  Over a year after suffering a nasty leg fracture, Jursurf Nurkic is back to anchor Portland’s defense down low and bring back his crafty offensive game.  In addition, Zach Collins will make his return after suffering a shoulder injury just three games into the season last October.  

Collins and Nurkic most importantly give Portland offense they desperately need.  Though it’s a tiny sample, Collins had seemed to expand his offensive game a bit earlier in the year, stretching out to three point line and making 42.9 percent of his attempts, a career high by far.  If that’s in the mix now for Collins, it would open up the court even more for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to cook.  Collins had always moved better than his game would suggest – he would play an integral part alongside Nurkic in Portland’s screening game for its guards.  The defense – like everyone on Portland – was always meh, but the Blazers’ philosophy has always been to outscore the opponent.  With their backcourt, there has always been a ceiling on what the team could be defensively. 

However, Nurkic’s return will certainly help on that end.  He’s a much better defender than given credit for, and took massive strides on that end last season before his devastating injury.  His offense will be welcomed as well – the passing he provides can help take the burden of Lillard and McCollum to create everything for this offense.  It’ll also take the ball out of Anthony’s hands more, who will still be getting heavy minutes thanks to Trevor Ariza’s opt out.  Portland could opt to play Anfernee Simons more despite his rawness, but the impact we thought he could deliver this season was a bit overrated, and likely reduces his minutes.

No matter how you shake it, Portland has gotten back two of their four best players for the restart, and while some of the issues that have plagued them for years in the playoffs are likely to still be prevalent, they’re a threat to any of the teams in front of them, including the one they could see first in the playoffs.

The Spurs and Suns

The only reason these teams are in better shape is because their playoff hopes before the suspension of the season were much smaller than they even are now, which are both still pretty small.  

The restart can serve each of these teams well.  Even though it may not make sense from a long-term perspective to try and get into the playoffs, the Spurs aren’t ever going to purposefully tank for draft position, and Suns GM James Jones probably needs all the help he can get before owner Robert Sarver decides to cut bait with him too early.  The NBA’s decision to bring back San Antonio and Phoenix may not have been smart for the safety of the bubble, and still doesn’t make sense considering LaMarcus Aldridge’s shoulder surgery and the low odds these teams still face trying to get in, but it certainly changes the legacy of the season for both, especially if they get in.  It would be a massive win for the Suns to steal the eighth seed – it’s been 10 years since Phoenix made the playoffs and would lessen fright among Suns fans about Devin Booker potentially bailing.  In early-to-mid March, these teams were already preparing for next season and were focused on developing their youth rather than actually trying to win.  Now that’s changed significantly, and it’ll give both teams experience they could use.


ALL-NBA TEAMS:

1st team:

G-James Harden

G-Luka Doncic

F- LeBron James

F-Giannis Antetokounmpo

C-Anthony Davis

2nd team:

G-Damian Lillard

G-Bradley Beal

F-Kawhi Leonard

F-Jayson Tatum

C-Nikola Jokic

3rd team:

G-Chris Paul

G-Kyle Lowry

F-Khris Middleton

F-Pascal Siakam

C-Bam Adebayo

Tough cuts: Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler

All-DEFENSE TEAMS:

1st team:

G-Kris Dunn

G-Ben Simmons

F-Giannis Antetokounmpo

F-Anthony Davis

C-Brook Lopez

2nd team:

G-Marcus Smart

G-Jimmy Butler

F-Kawhi Leonard

F-Pascal Siakam

C-Rudy Gobert

Tough cuts: Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet

All-Rookie Teams:

1st team:

G-Ja Morant

G-Kendrick Nunn

F-Tyler Herro

F-Terence Davis

C-Eric Paschall

2nd team:

G-Cam Reddish

G-Matisse Thybulle

F-Rui Hachimura

F-Brandon Clarke

C-PJ Washington

Tough cuts: Michael Porter Jr.

MVP:

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. LeBron James
  3. Anthony Davis
  4. James Harden
  5. Luka Doncic

Defensive Player of the Year:

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. Anthony Davis
  3. Kawhi Leonard
  4. Pascal Siakam
  5. Brook Lopez

Sixth Man of the Year:

  1. Dennis Schroder
  2. Montrezl Harrell
  3. Lou Williams
  4. Donte DiVincenzo
  5. Christian Wood

Most Improved Player of the Year:

  1. Pascal Siakam
  2. Brandon Ingram
  3. Christian Wood
  4. Jayson Tatum
  5. Domantas Sabonis

Tough cuts: Luka Doncic, Bam Adebayo, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Schroder

Rookie of the Year:

  1. Ja Morant
  2. Kendrick Nunn
  3. Eric Paschall
  4. Tyler Herro
  5. Terence Davis

Coach of the Year:

  1. Nick Nurse
  2. Frank Vogel
  3. Billy Donovan
  4. Mike Budenholzer
  5. Nate McMillan

The Rockets Are The NBA Restart’s Scariest Team

James Harden does not wake up on the mornings of playoff games and decide to suck that night.  No player as good as Harden – arguably a top 30 player of all-time already – should have such a large gap in his success between the regular season and postseason.

It has nothing to do with how skilled a player is.  It’s all about how they respond mentally to the pressure, the potential presence of a hostile crowd, and the elevated competition.  We’re lying to ourselves if we don’t see lesser performances from Harden in the playoffs every year, but what if none of it was actually his fault?

No player in NBA history has had a greater workload during the regular season and gotten farther in the playoffs than Harden did during 2018-19 season based on usage rate and playoff games played.  The Rockets guard finished with a usage rate of 40.47 percent, the second-highest number of all-time.  That year, the Rockets played 11 games in the postseason.  The same goes for the 2017-18 season as well.  Harden’s 36.07 percent usage rate ranked 13th all-time, and Houston played in 17 playoff games.  None of the 12 players ranked above Harden played in more.

The year before that, in 2016-17, only four players in NBA history got farther in the playoffs than Harden did with a highest usage percentage (34.24 percent and 11 playoff games played): Allen Iverson in 2001-02, Carmelo Anthony in 2012-13, Dominique Wilkins in 1987-88 and Michael Jordan in 1992-93.

“Workload” is subjective and there’s not much we can do with that.  Usage rate is the best statistic we have to help quantify that.  At the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that there has perhaps been no greater carry-job than LeBron James willing the Cavaliers along in the 2015 NBA Finals or getting them to the 2007 NBA Finals.  Those were, however, shortened sprints with lesser game totals – the maximum amount of games a team can play in the playoffs is 28.  Harden’s statistics are spread across an 82 game season.  It’s easier for statistics to be less accurate with a lower sample size.

But Harden is playing the game differently than anyone else in basketball history.  The former MVP has been the conductor of an offense that hasn’t only led the league in average three point attempts per game over the past four years (including this 2019-20 regular season that has yet to be completed), but for three of the past four has put up the highest number ever in that statistic.  Harden also has the record for most three point attempts in a season with 1,028 in 2017-18, which was a historic season in its own right as mentioned above.

Threes are easier yet harder shots both at the same time.  They’re easy because they can be jacked up with little risk – rebounds bounce out faster and farther than any other shot, giving the offense a better chance of retrieving it.  That also comes with high reward: a 50 percent increase in total value over that of a two point field goal if either are made.

But threes secretly take their toll in ways that statistics and even the eye test can’t communicate: arm fatigue.  Shooting from beyond the arc requires a lot more mustard on the ball than any other shot on the court.  While it does build strength, it can also wear you down, just like a pitcher’s arm does late in the MLB playoffs.

If this is Harden’s problem, then why haven’t shooters like Stephen Curry experienced the same thing?  Well, even though the total number of three pointers attempted is quite close (Harden’s career 3PAs is 6,320 while Curry’s is 5,739 – keep in mind Curry has missed almost all of this 2019-20 season and dealt with injuries early in his career, which makes up the large gap numerically), there is a difference: you won’t find Curry’s name anywhere close to Harden’s on the all-time usage rate chart.  The system Curry’s played in since he emerged as a superstar doesn’t rely on his volume of shots.  It relies on his gravity and the team’s ball movement instead.  Meanwhile, Houston is isolating every possession and then putting up threes – a much tougher task for Harden and its other players which builds fatigue and tires quicker.

In addition, Harden has four of the top 52 seasons ever in free throw attempts, and in 2016-17 attempted 881 shots from the line, good for 24th all-time (which is tied with Oscar Robertson 1965-66) in a single season.  Even more impressive, Harden’s 2016-17 season at the free throw line is just one of three seasons since 2000 that rank in the top 25.  He’s the second person this past decade behind Dwight Howard in 2010-2011 to attempt that many as well.

You can say that Harden leans into defenders and doesn’t draw his fouls the right way – those criticisms are fair and they rightfully draw frustration from players, coaches and fans alike.  But he still takes a beating (He’s fouled consistently driving to the rim too), and you don’t luck into potentially 20 free throws a game by cheating the refs every single call.

Harden and the Rockets were likely on yet another path to postseason letdown this year.  Harden’s usage percentage before the suspension of the season was 10th all-time at 36.41 percent, and the should-be third place finisher in MVP voting was scoring a ridiculous 34.4 points per game this year.  Meltdown was likely on the horizon again, especially with the road to the Western Conference Finals clogged by the Lakers and Clippers – it would have been stunning – and maybe still will be– to see one of those teams not play for a trip to the Finals.

But in a way, the suspension of the NBA season couldn’t have benefitted Houston more.  Even with Eric Gordon’s ankle injury that will cost him two weeks (Which is essentially the length of the eight seeding games prior to the playoffs), the Rockets might be the scariest team in basketball right now.  Harden’s had almost five months off – the length of an entire normal offseason.  If his playoff meltdowns are caused by the heavy usage and insane numbers he puts up during the regular season rather than pure choking, then the NBA is about to experience a Harden they’ve never seen before come playoff time.  With Clint Capela gone and Russell Westbrook fully unleashed, Houston can outscore anyone even though their center is a 6-foot-7 wing.  The ungodly amount of shots that Harden misses in the playoffs will go in at a much higher rate.  Cold shooting nights will truly be cold shooting nights – they won’t happen every other game like they have previously.

The Lakers are likely Houston’s biggest problem.  They’ve had success with an old-school approach – one that not even the biggest supporters of analytics and small-ball can detest because Anthony Davis is one of the most gifted and unique talents we’ve ever seen on a basketball court.  P.J. Tucker has been pretty effective at center, and Houston should be able to get away with it given their offense.  The Lakers are likely the exception to that.  Davis is so big and skilled he could legitimately score every time he gets the ball.  The Lakers continuously feeding him would be easy buckets, and help them keep pace on a good shooting night from Houston.  A bad shooting night – even with a Harden that’s not in the middle of a postseason letdown – would be devastating for the Rockets.

Perhaps Houston could stand more of a chance against the Lakers if they varied their offensive approach.  Constant isolations resulting in pull-up threes can lead to bad things quickly if the shots aren’t going in.  Westbrook driving – and likely not kicking – is the closest thing to ball movement that they have.  Getting better shots increases the likelihood of shots going in.  It would also make a Lakers defense – down one of their key defenders – work a bit harder and cover the whole floor.

Houston has seen this work before.  The strategy has been staring them in the face for years.  It – not Harden – is what’s led to the underwhelming losses of the past, and now is their chance to fix it.

Which Teams Are Worse Heading Into The NBA’s Restart?

It’s entirely possible that all of the 22 teams embarking on Orlando for the NBA’s resumption of the 2019-2020 season are worse.  It’s also entirely possible that they’re all better.

The bubble that holds this year’s playoffs will be weird.  It’s not really an arena, but calling it simply a building feels too mean.  It’s more of a gym, like the one your high school probably played in.  It just looks fancier on the inside, has cool technology and a better court design.

There’s a chance anything could happen.  The rest of this NBA season could play out like the MLB season might – chaos everywhere, guys not being ready to go or vice-versa, a neutral, incubated environment upping the level of play from everyone, not just the good teams, etc.  Every prediction we have could be wrong.

But that’s typically not how basketball works.  The best team usually wins, and that’s at any level of the game in any environment.  Now players have had practically a whole offseason off to rest and let their bodies recover before ramping back up into tip-top shape.  That might make everyone better, but it also makes the best even better as well.  That’s a bit scary.

So because of that, we should probably evaluate things based on how we left them.  But circumstances do change.  In 2020, they most definitely have, so much so that the way our daily lives are lived have been affected drastically.  NBA players and teams aren’t immune to that, and for some, that effect has been so great that basketball has had to take a backseat, which is not only an understandable position but one that is brave and courageous.

On the court though, those decisions have impacts as well.  Not all the teams below have seen the COVID-19 pandemic directly affect them – some of those not participating couldn’t even if they wanted to.  Regardless, there are teams that enter Orlando in a much different state than they were before the season’s suspension, and that comes with unfortunate consequences.  Here are those teams:

Lakers

Despite being the No.1 seed in the West, fourth in offensive rating, somehow third in defensive rating and the Vegas favorite to win the Finals, Los Angeles was not a team that could afford the losses they’ve suffered since the NBA season was suspended in March.  Avery Bradley’s opt out and Rajon Rondo’s broken hand leave the Lakers without two of their top seven rotation guys for a significant amount of time, and even with reinforcements, the consistency produced by those two will be hard to overcome.

Bradley had emerged as a legitimate NBA player again this year.   His defense had been key against point guards and versatile wings of opponents – his offense less so, but the 12-year vet was scoring 8.6 points a game on 36.4 percent three point shooting for LA this year.

He was a competent rotation guy and a starter.  Most importantly, he was their No.1 weapon on the defensive end against point guards.  You don’t get to be the third best defense in the league by just relying on Anthony Davis and not locking down the Damian Lillards, Lou Williams’ and James Harden’s of the world.  Alex Caruso can also play the role Bradley leaves, but Bradley’s length and size enabled him to switch onto 2s and 3s as well, giving the Lakers lineup a varied defensive attack.  Caruso is a grinder, but is suited better in lesser minute roles and purely against guys his own size.

Los Angeles’ lineup with the most minutes featured Bradley.  Now he’s out of the picture, and LA’s second most used lineup this season is the same as their most used one except for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope taking Bradley’s spot.  The difference?  A 9.2 point drop in net rating.

Perhaps the newly signed Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith can fill the hole – they’d likely be upgrades offensively, although saying that about Waiters feels risky.  Smith is a shooter and there’s no questioning that.  With LeBron James alongside him, Smith is a productive player on one end of the floor, granted the mental mistakes.  How much does that matter though?  We’ve likely yet to see the full unleashing of the James-Davis duo.  The usage of the pick and roll between those two has been lackluster this year; LA has gotten away with either feeding Davis post-ups, getting Kyle Kuzma heat-check games or running through James offensively instead.  It’s a weapon that will be necessary come the playoffs.  Does Smith’s (and in an unlikely world, Waiters’) extra firepower help?  And is it worth the sacrifice on the other end of the court?

Los Angeles doesn’t really have much else it could do though, which shows the vulnerability of the roster.  James at point guard with Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma alongside him is massive, and while the James-Kuzma two man lineup numbers are good (13.9 net rating with a 98.6 (!!!) defensive rating), James is worse with Kuzma on the floor statistically.  Letting those two cook independently might be beneficial, although Kuzma’s numbers without James suggest the league’s best player makes him better (surprise).  Caurso is really the only other option. Like Bradley, he’d be there for defense and get out of the way offensively.  It’d be nice to see Talen Horton Tucker get some action, but the Lakers playing a rookie in real playoff minutes in a funky environment is playing with fire.

Bradley will be missed.  An argument exists that Rondo could fill his void – he’s a good defensive player when he tries, and you never know what Playoff Rondo might bring this time around – but the backup point guard’s broken hand likely keeps him out until the second round of the playoffs.  This shouldn’t impact the Lakers too dramatically, unless the eighth seed looks utterly terrifying in this upcoming eight game sprint and play-in game (For Portland and New Orleans, that’s not totally out of the question), but like Bradley, Rondo had revitalized himself this year and at least remained a competent rotation guy for one of the best teams in the league.

Caruso replaces Rondo more than he does Bradley.  The role of being the second ball-handler was a massive one for the Lakers this year after LeBron converted to point guard before the season.  Rondo has been okay there, but toward the league’s suspension of play, Caruso had really emerged as perhaps a better option, the defense and cutting offensively he brings being the difference.

For now it leaves Caruso and the Lakers filling two holes with one guy: Caruso attempting to make up Bradley’s defense and Rondo’s playmaking at the same time.  Evaluating Waiters as anything more than a net neutral feels like a mistake, but you could argue his sixth-man style game helps curb Caruso’s usage offensively, and if they play together, Caruso has established himself as an unselfish offensive player – letting Waiters go to work while saving Caruso for defense could be effective.

A team this good shouldn’t be affected as much as it is by the loss of a role player like Bradley.  The numbers say it’s not that impactful; Los Angeles had a defensive rating of 104 with him on the court and 105.2 with him off it.  But considering the substitutes, the impact feels greater.  If a diversification of the Lakers offense featuring more James-Davis PNR and Smith’s shooting can make up for the points allowed by Bradley’s ghost, then the Lakers should be fine until the Conference Finals, just like they were before.  The road there only gets harder though.

Nets

The Nets almost go without explanation here.  Brooklyn has lost Kyrie Irving and Nic Claxton to season ending shoulder injuries and Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Taureen Prince all tested positive for COVID-19 and have opted to not return for the NBA’s resumption.  As a result, the Nets have had to sign the likes of Jamal Crawford, Tyler Johnson and Michael Beasley and will rely on other unfamiliar NBA players like Donta Hall and Chris Chiozza.

In a way, it begs the question as to why the Nets are even in Orlando.  But that would mean the Nets forfeiting a spot in the playoffs as they currently sit in the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, just a half a game up on the Orlando Magic.

Brooklyn could easily fall out.  It will be a game of “Who’s worse?” between them and Washington, who has dealt with their own amount of opt outs as well.  Orlando seems primed to jump up to seventh seed – at this point they’re far and away better than the Nets and Wizards.  Brooklyn could fall to the ninth spot and lose to Washington in the first game of the play-in tournament (Tournament?  Game?  What if it’s two games?  We need a word for this.  Maybe just play-in?), ending their season.

Brooklyn is worse because they had the chance to be a frisky first round team even without Irving, who was ruled out for the year before the league’s shutdown.  Now much of the core that made them that –Dinwiddie, Prince and Jordan – is done.  Sure, we’ll get to see what Caris LeVert can do by himself, but the core around him won’t offer much in the way of making a fair evaluation.  After all, it was clear early in the season that this was never the Nets’ year anyways.  Whenever next season begins is when they’ll look to get their revenge, and that could come in a very big way.

Jazz

One of the league’s more disappointing teams this year, Utah seemed to be finally figuring things out once COVID-19 hit them personally, which was not only the NBA’s signal to shutter operations but perhaps a wakeup call for the country about the seriousness of what was on the horizon.

Almost five months later, not much is better for the Jazz.  While everyone within the organization is presumably okay after having COVID-19, the Jazz enter Orlando without Bojan Bogdanovic, their big offseason signing in 2019 in conjunction with their trade for Mike Conley.  His season-ending wrist surgery has led to Utah to get neither acquisition to pay off just yet.

Bogdanovic should have.  He had provided firepower to an offense that desperately needed it.  The contract given to him was still a little steep, but the former Pacer gave Utah an excuse to cross off the list titled “Reasons For Lack Of Playoff Success.”  Now, he’s out as Utah enters the Orlando bubble, and they’re back at square one with the same problem that’s plagued them for years.

Bogdanovic’s injury is about as close to a death sentence as you can get.  The additions of him and Conley were supposed to do two things last offseason: 1) Add firepower and 2) help take the load off of Donovan Mitchell.  These kind of went hand-in-hand – taking the load off Mitchell meant he himself could contribute more firepower.  Firepower was certainly added as mentioned above, but Conley’s surprising decline has resulted in Mitchell once again having to run everything.  Utah found success with bringing Conley off the bench before the shutdown, which while effective is about the worst-case scenario Utah could have hoped for.  If less minutes means more production, then this doesn’t indicate it’s just a down year for Conley.  It indicates he’s truly winding down from his peak.

The playoffs were already going to be tough for Utah.  Even though they had figured things out a bit before the shutdown happened (Mostly thanks to an awesome Jordan Clarkson trade), the Conley-Mitchell dynamic was likely too big of a chasm to overcome.  Utah wasn’t going to be pushing for a potential Western Conference Finals berth like some expected them to.  They were bound for the second round.  Without Bogdonovic, getting even there might be tough, because for a large part of the season, his offense didn’t matter like it should have.  Bigger problems are at hand here, and that’s only referring what’s happening on the court.

Pacers

The East feels a lot more penetrable than the West this year.  Sure, one of the best statistical teams of all-time sits at the top of it in the Milwaukee Bucks, but there’s at least a spot open to face them in the Conference Finals.  Out West, getting past both LA teams is a much more daunting task.  Those two spots have been practically determined since the beginning of the season.

The Pacers were one of those sleeper teams you could see meeting Milwaukee with a trip to the Finals on the line.  Indiana had made it through the regular season practically unscathed without Victor Oladipo – they’d been one of the league’s top overachievers thanks to Malcolm Brogdon returning to his college, point guard self and Domantas Sabonis becoming an offensive fixture.  Oladipo’s return could have risen them to a new, scary level.

That wasn’t exactly the case.  Oladipo returned at a time that seemed to be too early.  He didn’t have the burst or the same athleticism.  The shots weren’t falling.  He was a different player.

The suspension of the league should have helped Oladipo’s return, but the former Indiana Hoosiers star has wavered on whether he’ll actually play in the NBA’s restart.  Recent reports have indicated he will, which gives Indiana a needed boost now that Sabonis is out for what seems to be a significant amount of time with a foot injury.

Counting on Oladipo to be himself though needs to come with caution.  Even though it’s been close to five months since we saw him struggle on the court last, Oladipo’s torn quad is an injury that just doesn’t happen in sports.  It was rare and serious.  It could have career-altering effects.  The explosion that was so keen to Oladipo’s game may never come back.

If Oladipo comes back after the layoff looking like a guy on the cusp of stardom once again, the Pacers can hang in this restart.  That alpha presence on the court can make up for the loss of Sabonis. Indiana will take automatic buckets in any form from Oladipo rather than working for them in the way that Sabonis and others do.

It’s going to be extremely unclear whether Oladipo can provide that though.  He’ll have to play arguably the best basketball of his career to give Indiana a shot.  The odds of that are quite low.

Indiana is going to experiment with some fun looks this postseason regardless.  Their new starting lineup should be Aaron Holiday, Brogdon, Oladipo, TJ Warren and Myles Turner.  How the three guards fit together will be fascinating, and Warren is a high-upside option who has improved his efficiency slightly.  The best case is that Oladipo looks like himself, Warren puts up numbers, Brogdon is as involved as he was and Holiday provides supportive shot-making.  But that’s a lot that has to go right for Indiana, who just haven’t seemed to catch a break over the years with their stars.

The 23 Teams That Can Win The World Series: Part 2

In the mere hours after the publishing of yesterday’s column, MLB saw its whole postseason realigned, Juan Soto test positive for COVID-19 and Clayton Kershaw go on the IL with a back injury and not make his Opening Day start.

Let’s hope for better luck today.

The one positive out of yesterday’s news is that, despite the absurdity of it, MLB’s new 16 team postseason makes the idea of 23 teams having a shot to win the World Series seem less ridiculous.  Think about how much this benefits the Toronto’s (Sorry, Pittsburgh’s 2.0s – wait, no, Buffalo’s) and San Diego’s of the league.  What about the loaded NL Central?  It’s no longer impossible for four of their teams to make it now (That’s a hint at the projected standings way at the bottom).

Still, it is incredibly frustrating this change came down literally an hour before the first pitch of the 2020 season was thrown.  It’s now a hassle for teams who set their rosters a certain way – based on how competitive they thought they were going to be in a 10 team playoff format – to re-adjust, not to mention pressure from ownership groups who now see a greater opportunity to win (And therefore make bad decisions).  Everyone in the media already wrote their articles (Cough), did their podcasts and made their predictions for the 10 team postseason.  Now they’re scrambling (Cough, cough).

It will be fun, sure.  But the timing was ridiculous, just as the timing on everything this MLB season has been.  

As for the four teams covered yesterday, things have changed a bit.  The biggest issue with Washington heading into the season yesterday was their lineup, and now their best hitter will be out for what’s going to likely be at least two weeks.  It was going to be tough for them to sneak into the normal playoffs, but with Soto’s injury, the 16 team format probably cancels out any advantage that gave them.

The Dodgers will be fine without Kershaw.  Their depth was written about extensively this past week – having Dustin May be ready to step in like that is a luxury no one else has.  He figures to be Kershaw’s long-term replacement in the rotation, and why wouldn’t he be?  May’s stuff is pure electricity.  Obviously the Dodgers would like to be careful with their young starter, but last night was a perfect example of not letting him get into bad situations.  The worst pickle May got himself into was two on with one out, and the Dodgers pulled him as soon as he let the second man on.  That’s your pitcher being awesome and the team being careful at the same time.  

So, with every other team beginning their shortened 2020 season today, here are the cases for 20 of them to win the World Series.  But first, let’s finish off those who have no shot first.

Nope:

  • Mariners

We’re on about year three of just having zero clue of what the plan is in Seattle.  General Manager Jerry Dipito has refused to fully rebuild or going all-in on crafting a championship squad, and instead has made miscellaneous, seemingly non-impactful trades the past two years.  What does that get you?  A team with two prospects as its two best players (Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford, whom the later is 25) and Shed Long Jr. at second base.  The Mariners might have some good players available for your fantasy baseball team, but it seems as if Dipito is playing that game with his actual big league roster instead of on ESPN.com.

  • Marlins

Almost every player in Miami’s lineup is like if you inserted the first bench guy off nine random teams’ roster into a single lineup.

Almost is the key here.  Lewis Brinson is awesome and is no replacement level player.  Jorge Alfaro is productive, and he has Francisco Cervelli behind him.

But the rest of the offense is troublesome.  The Marlins basically need a career year from the likes of Jesus Aguilar to Corey Dickerson to Jonathan Villar.  If that happens, they could be getting somewhere.

Significant improvement needs to come from the rotation, which might be better off bull-penning two times and letting Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Jordan Yamamto throw as starters (Lopez and Yamamoto weren’t good last year, but they’re only 23) the other three games.

The bullpen is loaded, but that just isn’t going to be enough.  Using them as much as they would have to would likely result in a burnout come playoffs.  If the starting pitching or offense was there, Miami would be among the likes of Kansas City this season.

  • Orioles

Like Detroit, Baltimore is not necessarily trying to compete this year, and even if they were, the roster talent wouldn’t give them a shot.  Aside from some Adley Rutschman at-bats, the Orioles are probably not a squad to even keep an eye out for.

  • Pirates

Ben Cherington took over as GM after the conclusion of the 2019 season, signifying an acceleration of a rebuild that had kind of begun under Neal Huntington.  Starling Marte got shipped to Arizona, and the Pirates replaced him with former Diamondback Jarrod Dyson, which isn’t exactly an upgrade to the major league roster.  Pittsburgh’s two best pitchers – Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer – are both out this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, which leaves Joe Musgrove as the ace (Yikes).  Despite an intriguing bullpen, the Pirates just don’t have much else to support it, and Josh Bell could likely be the next veteran on the way out.

  • Tigers

The most indicative reason why Detriot can’t win the World Series this year is that they’re probably not even trying to.  The Tigers are in the midst of what’s been an impressive tank job/rebuild the past couple years, which has garnered them prospects such as Casey Mize, Riley Greene and recent No.1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson.  The Tigers have been pretty cognizant of their ill-fated rosters over the past three years, and haven’t tried to improve them dramatically yet.  Even in a 60 game sprint, the talent just doesn’t seem to be there around the diamond for this team despite a young and hopefully still developing rotation, which will likely feature Mize at some point this season.


Now for those who can win the World Series in 2020, sorted by alphabetical order:

  • Angels

The Angels are not helping their division’s case to not be entirely confusing.

This could be the best team Los Angeles has put around Mike Trout.  They went out and signed Anthony Rendon to a mega-deal, have an exciting youngster in Jo Adell  ready to make his debut and get one of the most exciting and intriguing players in baseball back on the mound in Shohei Otani.

Yet, not everything feels great about this Angels team.  The effectiveness of Albert Pugols waned significantly last year.  Tommy La Stella is fine (Play Luis Rengifo instead!).  Justin Upton needs to stay healthy and be productive – he struggled in 63 games last year.  Then there’s the pitching staff.

Los Angeles had seven pitchers make more than 10 starts last year – no one started more than 18 games in 2019 (In the lead was Andrew Heany).  

Literally none of those who started games for the Angels last year were good.  Ohtani will certainly help with that.  Griffin Canning could also.  The 23-year-old struggled in his rookie season with a 4.58 ERA, but an ERA+ of 99 of indicates it wasn’t a total disaster.  Canning has been the Angels star in the waiting for awhile now – him not improving would be a disappointment.

Aside from Ohtani and the hope of Canning, the Angels don’t have much else.  That’s why Canning’s success is paramount.  Heaney has had a single good season in his career, and Dylan Bundy – Los Angeles fourth starter – hasn’t had a good year ever.  Their bullpen probably isn’t one good enough to be confident in them bull-penning successfully, which makes a fifth starter even more questionable.

Los Angeles’ offense just doesn’t seem potent enough to push them through their issues.  Trout will likely win MVP again, Rendon and Ohtani will be awesome and Adell should be awesome, but this isn’t an order that strikes enough fear yet.  It may not matter thanks to the new playoff format, but .500 seems like a fair play for this team.

  • Astros

Written extensively about here, Houston enters this season as one of the more confusing teams in baseball.  It feels wrong to say they can win this thing given that cheating may or may not have significantly influenced their success the past three years, but it also feels ridiculous to say that with no real statistical evidence to back that up.  Knowing what we knew prior to the details of the cheating scandal, this team probably has the best lineup in baseball.  Whether those guys are actually good at what they do or not, well, we will likely just have to see.

  •  A’s

This is one of the more A’s-esque teams in awhile.  It’s a lineup that half strikes fear and half underwhelms.  It’s a rotation full of maybes.  Yet, it just feels wrong to totally count them out.

Oakland is actually riding on a lot of youth this year.  Franklin Barretto, A.J. Puk (who has a shoulder issue that doesn’t seem great), Jesus Luzardo and even 2020 first round pick Tyler Sodorstrom could all have major roles for this  team.

It’s Barretto’s turn at second base after the departure of Jurickson Profar.  Profar’s 2019 was an anomaly offensively, which is where Baretto seriously struggles.  That could be a big downgrade for Oakland offensively if the 23-year-old rookie can’t develop at the plate.  Puk, who easily could have been Oakland’s ace this year, is starting the year on the IL and it doesn’t sound like things are great.  Jesus Luzardo had COVID-19, and is projected to be ready for his first start, but assuming players will be able to just come back from the illness without long-term effects seems negligent.  In addition, this is also his rookie year, and with pitchers, we don’t know what we’re going to get (The same case can be made for Puk).

Aside from the young pitchers – both of whom have questions – Oakland’s rotation and pitching as a whole is worrisome.  2020 will be Sean Manaea’s first full year back from shoulder surgery – how he fairs over a larger sample size than 2019 is a question mark.  Frankie Montas is awesome, but you’re looking at him and Mike Fiers as the real, solidified options in this rotation, and with Fiers you’re getting average at best.  Plus, the bullpen aside from Liam Hendricks is troubling, so that safety net isn’t there as well.

Oakland’s offense is going to have to carry them this year, which is doable, especially if Khris Davis can hit baseballs again.  But there’s a chance the pitching staff just doesn’t allow them to hit their full ceiling.  At the same time, if anyone is used to pulling off miracles, it is the A’s.

  • Blue Jays

One of the more fun teams in baseball, Toronto (Or, Buffalo) might have a very, very limited shot at making serious noise in the playoffs, but the amount of youth and potential present on the roster makes them not one to rule out given the expanded playoffs.  If every single one of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson and even Austin Martin show up, ball out and demonstrate that they will all eventually hit their ceiling, then the AL has a problem on its hands.  But to expect 4-5 AL Rookie of the Year caliber performances from five guys on one team is obviously unreasonable, and the pitching – although improved – just quite isn’t there yet.  Next year is where Toronto should have their eyes set, even though all it takes is a good two months.

  • Braves

In a normal year, this Braves team may not get a shining endorsement.  Their loss of Josh Donaldson stings a bit, and leaves them with a lack of power.

But, the power aspect to the game won’t be as prevalent this year – the sheer volume of homers will be drastically lower thanks to the 60 games.  In perhaps a flukey year, teams with varied offensive approaches could go farther than we anticipate.

Atlanta has Ronald Acuna Jr., which could be all that matters for them offensively as well.  He’s a NL MVP candidate and will be tasked with doing some stupid statistical feat this year – is 20-20 instead of 40-40 in play?

Austin Riley is sitting there as a potential solution to a problem.  The Donaldson hole leaves Johan Camargo back at third, where Riley could easily step in and play.  If he delivers, the power void could be resolved quickly.

The Braves question marks have nothing to do with the regular season.  They should win their division (although it is much better than given credit for) and their pitching is good enough.  But come playoff time, how will their youth – especially in their rotation – perform?  They got walloped last year, which might have been what needed to happen to ensure future success.  There isn’t exactly a bullet-proof bullpen behind them – it’s a lot of names that collectively struggled significantly last year.  Atlanta can win the World Series.  They just have to put the whole thing together now.

  • Brewers

Milwaukee’s rotation is a deep, dark hole of underperformance and question marks, but there is arguably no team built better for this 2020 season than the Brewers.

The Brewers have stretched pitching strategies to their limits over the years. They have no regard for long inning, traditional starters.  This year, they could probably get away with letting Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes be their one and two starters and bullpen the other three outings.  Adrian Houser also makes a good case to be a third starter if the Brewers want to turn him loose.

Aside from that, you’re likely getting average returns from the rest of the options Milwaukee has in the rotation.  Stretching Woodruff and Burnes long into their starts will reduce work from relievers on non-bullpen days, and would likely be effective into the playoffs as well.  The innings structure of the staff would be all about preventing a meltdown in the playoffs, because no other team will be dealing with that come October.

If the Brewers can devise a formidable pitching strategy, they should be in pretty good shape.  Their lineup has some holes, but the power in the outfield should be able to make up for it.  This is also a year where small-ball offense will rise, which benefits the Brewers greatly.  There are few teams smarter than Milwaukee in baseball, and those will teams will be the ones who can make noise this year.

  • Cardinals

The NL Central is extremely competitive, but a couple teams in the division have less questions than others.  The Cardinals are one of those.

Like perhaps their biggest divisional foes, pitching is what drives this Cardinals team.  Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson are a top two young duo of starters in baseball.  Miles Mikolas is solid, and there’s no reason to think Adam Wainwright will decline just yet.  

That rotation plays, and it plays well enough to mitigate other concerns.  Last year the offense lacked power, and there were no changes made to the lineup in the offseason.  A rebound year from Paul Goldschmidt could take care of that, or 60 games and its power to change offensive strategy could as well.

St. Louis might lack the oomph, but they’re solid all around, and in a season full of questions, that might be all you want to ask for. 

  • Cubs

From a talent perspective, they aren’t many more teams that are in better shape than the Cubs.  It’s astonishing to think that this team hasn’t made it into the NLDS since 2017, but a crazy NL wild card race in 2018 (Also, Tony Wolters) and a massive letdown last season led to a manager change with David Ross replacing Joe Maddon.  

The hope is that a change in leadership is the jolt this team needs.  The pitching last year was not great – their second best starter was Cole Hamels, who had an ERA+ of 117. Tyler Chatwood, who takes his spot in 2020, was decent in a small sample size.

The bottom line is that this staff is getting old.  Jon Lester is 36 and was bad last year.  Yu Darvish will be 33 soon and has been good every other year recently.  The Jose Quintana trade keeps looking worse every day.

The talent we once thought was there in the pitching staff just isn’t anymore.  That would be okay with a great bullpen, but the Cubs have the opposite of that.

Chicago’s offense is probably good enough to mash everyone and win the World Series for them.  No one should be shocked if they can do it.  But even in a year where pitching seems a tad less valuable, the Cubs just don’t have enough of it.

  • Diamondbacks

Arizona’s busy offseason couldn’t have come at a better time.  For a team that was going to be in a tight NL Wild Card race, the expanded playoffs serve as a massive boost to the Diamondbacks playoff odds.  If they aren’t the second place team in the NL West, then there are going to be serious repercussions.

The Diamondbacks were the most average team in baseball last year, and they made moves to fix that.  They have a trustworthy ace in Madison Bumgarner now, who spearheads an intriguing and most importantly solid rotation.  It felt like Arizona was another productive bat short last year, and Starling Marte will provide that after the D-backs acquired him from Pittsburgh.  

Certain spots in the lineup are still questionable.  Christian Walker needs to be good again with the DH being a full-time position now.  Jake Lamb needs to regain his All-Star form.  Kole Calhoun hitting for legit power would be nice.

The pitching staff has a ceiling.  The bullpen is still worrisome, and the rotation, while solid, feels like one that will just barely get the job done.  That’s not going to win you much in the playoffs.

But the potential is there.  If Luke Weaver can be the guy we saw pre-injury last year, that’s an awesome No.2 or No.3 starter.  Zac Gallen is young and promising.  Robbie Ray as potentially the fourth guy isn’t bad.  Merrill Kelly is getting you average production, which is fine at the No.5 spot.

They have other places they can go if anyone struggles.  Alex Young will be a nice addition to the bullpen, but could be moved into the rotation if need be.  The same goes for Jon Duplantier – counting on him isn’t a good bet though.  Still, Arizona has options.  Whether those options just hold steady or actually improve things will determine how far they make it.

  • Cleveland

For a team that has severely lacked outfielders for the past two seasons, Cleveland has filled the holes on the grass well.

Though young, Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow were quite productive last year, and seem to be the solution alongside Franmil Reyes – who was a nice power bat pickup by Cleveland last trade deadline – or Delino DeShields (which is less inspiring, but likely better than Greg Allen).

They finally have the right pairing for a pretty loaded infield.  Cesar Hernandez is a bit of a question mark at second base, but is a nice flyer regardless.  Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are sick on the left side, and Carlos Santana smacked 34 home runs last year.

As it has been for practically all of the 2010s, Cleveland’s pitching is their heart and soul.  Even without their two-headed monster of Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, talent still exists.  Shane Beiber seems destined to be the next ace in Cleveland, and Mike Clevinger isn’t a bad No.2 starter alongside him.  Aaron Civale gets an elevated role this year, and at 24 years old, he becomes the third of Cleveland’s five starters to be that age (Beiber and Zach Plesac both are as well).  

It’s an impressive group that’s capped by the veteran Carlos Carrasco, who can hopefully improve after a down year last season.  Cleveland has impressive youth in their rotation, and it will likely churn out a lot of value.  The offense could be good enough to sneak them into these extended playoffs, but how far they go will be determined by how those young mound-minders respond.

  •  Mets

The strategy invoked by Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen when he took over in late 2018 is not going well.  Win now moves that featured highly-touted prospects being sent out the door without regard for the future deserve to result in this current Mets lineup.  There’s a lot of potential, but it all coming together seems unlikely.  The Robinson Cano trade keeps evolving as a disaster, and Brandon Nimmo seems unlikely to live up to his projected hype.  Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto certainly make up for that in terms of joy and sanity, but they may not do so in terms of wins.

The Mets rotation is solid if everything goes right.  The loss of Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery bites, but they’ve actually done an okay job making up for it.  Marcus Stroman – despite going on the IL to begin the season – is a good No.2 starter.  Michael Wacha is due for a rebound season back into a competent middle option.  Rick Porcello takes a lot of crap and has his faults, but as a flyer, No.4 starter, you will take it.  Steven Matz is one of the more disappointing players in baseball over the past half decade, but potentially a lower pressure situation could bring out the best in him.  The bullpen needs Edwin Diaz to turn back into his 2018 self, because there isn’t much else back there to support him. 

New York is in a tough division where a lot of other talented teams are trying to be competitive as well.  Unfortunately, the Mets might be close to the end of that line.

  • Padres

Written extensively about here, the Padres have a lot to look forward to this season.  It’s a significant test for their youth.  The pressures of such a short 60 game season could potentially make them better in the long-run.  In addition, youngsters tend to do better in small samples, not worse.  If everyone lives up to their hype, San Diego could easily find themselves in the expanded playoff, and potentially make a run.

  • Phillies

This is another team like the Mets and Cubs that has a ton of talent, yet isn’t one we can totally trust simply because of the resume they have of letting us down.

Philadelphia has spent a ton of money and it’s paid off well.  The Zack Wheeler contract was a bit much this past offseason and represents them pushing their cash a little too far, but the spending has paid for Bryce Harper, Didi Gregorius and Andrew McCutchen at three of eight position spots.

Philidelphia’s lineup is loaded.  Harper, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto balanced with Jean Segura and Gregorious is nasty – the other spots may not matter (and they’re not bad either).  

It’s the type of lineup that can overpower pitching problems, which the Phillies might have.  Aaron Nola showed some regression last year after an awesome 2018, but should rebound given a short season.  The rest is anyone’s guess: Jake Arrieta is 34 and pitched like it last year.  Vince Velasquez has not developed as Philadelphia would have liked to see.  Wheeler, despite earning himself that massive contract, is probably getting overpaid a little too much and is likely just a No.3 starter-mold.  The fifth starter is still TBD – they’re probably best off handing the job to highly-touted right-hander Spencer Howard, who’s their last gasp at having a single young pitcher live up to expectations.  

The bullpen is fine and isn’t one that will bail out this rotation, leaving it all up to the offense to do so.  If the pitching can be everything we hope, Philadelphia could find themselves close to the World Series.  If it’s not, this front office might have seen its last days.

  • Rangers

This Rangers roster reeks heavily of a team like Arizona last year, where they will be middle of the pack practically everywhere.

They’re not bad.  They’re just not necessarily great, either.  The top three in their rotation is impressive: Corey Kluber, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn is a solid group.  But behind them is Kyle Gibson – who’s struggled to make it happen at the MLB level, and a bullpen with more names than actual production.  

Is it enough to overcome the offense?  Joey Gallo is awesome and is one of the candidates to push for 30 home runs or something crazy over the course of 60 games, but the rest of the lineup is bleak.  Todd Frazier is washed, Rougned Odor doesn’t provide the pop; neither does Isiah Kiner-Falefa.  Danny Santana should be someone’s fourth outfielder, not their centerfielder.  

Scoring runs is destined to be a problem for this Rangers team.  But few teams have as reliable of pitching as Texas does.  In the postseason, that can be all that matters.  They just have to get there first, and that’s the problem.

  • Rays

Alongside Milwaukee, no team is better built for a 60 game sprint than the Rays, and saying that almost feels like a criticism.

The Rays would be better than you think in a normal season.  Sure, they carry the same traits someone like Kansas City does – lack of power, small ball, etc.  But neither of those are totally true.  Tampa Bay has Hunter Renfroe, Yoshi Tsutsugo (a slugger from Japan who would have been excellent for the D-backs… let’s carry on) and Brandon Lowe in their lineup, two of whom they accquired this offseason.  That’s added to Ji-Man Choi who can hit 20 bombs in a normal year and Austin Meadows who could emerge as one of the best outfielders in baseball soon.  This offense is more than fine, and with their depth, is even scary.

Combine that with a pitching staff that isn’t going to be as bullpen-reliant as you think and this is a team that in a normal year is likely a contender.  The short season makes them even better than that.  Tyler Glasnow has NL Cy Young potential, Blake Snell has already won that award, and Charlie Morton is the perfect No.3 on any team.  That’s three awesome starters, and Jalen Beeks could also get some looks too.

Tampa Bay will have to use its bullpen less than expected this year, and this was a group destined to have a heavy workload.  Now that’s lifted off their shoulders, making them somehow even more effective.  If the Yankees succumb to some of the concerns mentioned yesterday, then the Rays will be right there for the taking.

  • Red Sox

Talk about a fall from grace.

Since the Red Sox hired Chaim Bloom, here is what the former Fangraphs writer turned Rays executive turned GM has had to endure:

  • A demand from ownership to cut payroll significantly, with the only viable way of doing so being trading Mookie Betts away with a contract
  • The Astros sign-stealing scandal implicating Alex Cora leading to his departure as manager a year after winning the World Series
  • The start of the 2020 season being delayed until July 23 due to a global pandemic
  • Betts then inking a 12 year deal with the Dodgers while the Red Sox planned to reengage contract talks with him when he becomes a free agent

That is brutal, and literally none of it is Bloom’s fault.  Now he’s staring at a team that still has a world-class lineup with zero pitching whatsoever, which lines them up likely right in the middle of the pack – the worst place to be.

The offense is the case for the Red Sox to remain in the mix this year.  Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi (hopefully on a rebound year) and possibly Michael Chavis are all great at the plate.  Almost no one has that many good hitters, and in a year where lower strikeout numbers will go far, Boston’s balanced attack could pay off well.

The pitching just has to survive, which is a tough sell.  Chris Sale’s Tommy John surgery was probably the difference between this team getting a Wild Card spot or not, especially factoring in the expanded playoffs.  Now, Martin Perez and Nathan Eovaldi are their best starters with Eduardo Rodriguez still having COVID-19 symptoms.

The bullpen has some arms, but it’s likely not enough to outweigh the rotation.  They don’t have enough quality arms to bullpen games effectively.  

In 2018, Boston’s offense was the most dominant force in baseball.  It was borderline historic.  Expecting that same output from this group is not realistic, but this year could provide an interesting case study into how much value a group of hitters can truly provide, because the pitching certainly won’t be doing so themselves.

  • Reds

Arguably the team that had the busiest offseason, the Reds big-time spending should pay off.  This team is legit.

Assuming Trevor Bauer doesn’t have long term problems adjusting to Cincinnati’s tiny, waterfront ballpark, the Reds have one of the best 1-2 punches in the rotation out of any team in baseball.  Bauer and Luis Castillo combines one of the best young pitchers in baseball with one of the best in recent years.  Add in Sonny Gray – who had a surprising rebound year in 2019 – and Cincinnati has about as formidable of a three man rotation as you can get.  They also snagged Wade Miley, who should quit being doubted after stringing together quality back-to-back years.  Additionally, Anthony DeSclafani finally put it together last year, and though he’s starting this season on IL, him as your fourth or fifth starter means you’re in pretty good shape.

The lineup is a murderer’s row.  Bringing in Mike Moustakas and Nicohlas Castellanos adds potentially 30-40 home runs to this offense in this shortened season.  Over the course of 162 games, that could be 70-80.  Engenio Suarez sneakily hit 49 home runs last year and has emerged as a true slugger.  Joey Votto will be the typical OBP monster, and Shogo Akiyama – a fantastic hitter from Japan – will love Great American Ballpark. 

Cincinnati is deep too.  They have a million outfielders behind Akiyama, Castellanos and Nick Senzel: Michael Lorenzen, Jesse Winker, Travis Janikowski and Aristides Aquino all exist as either fun or effective options at DH.  That’s notwithstanding Christian Colon and Kyle Farmer in the infield too.

The Reds are contenders this year.  A tough division could hold them back a bit, and the bullpen lacks some depth, but with this rotation and offense, it shouldn’t matter.  Stop labeling this team as a sleeper.  They’re better than that.

  • Rockies

Colorado and Boston are extraordinarily similar teams this year.  All hitting, zero pitching.

And just like Boston, it will be the Rockies offense that will have to produce potentially historic outputs to make this team successful.  Colorado goes as far as their offense takes them.

The Rockies have their own murderere’s row.  Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado in the same lineup is unfair.  Throwing in the potential of Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson, Brendan Rogers and David Dahl makes them look unbeatable.  A lot of those guys haven’t done much yet, though we’ve seen limited samples from Hampson and Rogers.

The pitching just needs to be treated as a net zero. The rotation has a higher ceiling than Boston’s – we’ve seen Kyle Freeland and Jon Gray both be good in years past.  German Marquez has nasty stuff but it doesn’t always translate to good numbers – the same goes for Antonio Senztatela.  But actually getting everyone to produce will be tough.

Colorado hits a ton of home runs, but they’re also well-rounded at the plate.  While that helps them this year, the decreased innings from pitching staffs all across baseball doesn’t at all.  Everyone’s staff gets better this year, and should be better going into the playoffs as well.  Colorado’s pitching could be so bad that less innings stagnates them, making the offense’s role that much more important.

  • Royals

One of a couple “There is no way but in a world far far away you could see it” teams on this list, Kansas City basically gets a nomination here due to their past.  What happened in 2014 (and even 2015, to an extent) was one of the most improbable occurrences in baseball during the 2010s, and some of those key players are still around.  

They have a super scrappy lineup.  Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi and Salvador Perez are awesome at their jobs.  They’ve added some power recently – Jorge Soler hit 48 home runs for them last year, and though he will miss time due to recently testing positive for COVID-19, Hunter Dozier provides some pop as well.  Maikel Franco is a low risk flyer who can also potentially hit 20 home runs or so in a 162 game season.

Their rotation is a disaster aside from Danny Duffy.  They don’t really have options after him: Brad Keller and Mike Montgomery are meh and Jakob Junis is on the IL to start the year.  Even with Junis back, it’s still bleak.  The highly-touted Brady Singer is starting Saturday, which provides some excitement and hopefully success going forward.

Pitching is what gets you to the World Series, but the offense we’ve seen needed to get teams there in previous years isn’t needed this season.  Kansas City still has the formula that got them there in 2014 and ’15 present on this roster.  That will have to be their saving grace.

  • Twins

Minnesota’s attempt at acquiring competent pitching last year went okay.  Jake Odorizzi pitched well for them and Michael Pineda was fine.  At the same time, Martin Perez didn’t work so well, and the Twins ended up started some guy named Randy Dobnak in a playoff game.

This offseason, they were done messing around.  In comes Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and ready-for-a-larger role Devin Smetzler to the Twins rotation, giving them a bottom line of competence behind Jose Berrios.

The Twins won 101 games last season with a faulty rotation.  They made it not matter until the playoffs.  Now, throwing in veterans like the names mentioned above gives them not only experience but a group that won’t give the offense no chance.

Certain numbers indicate Minnesota’s offense was historic last year, and they only added to it in the offseason.  Josh Donaldson takes over at third base, where he’ll take the reigns from Miguel Sano who likely sees split time with Nelson Cruz at DH and potentially in the outfield (That depends on Byron Buxton’s health, which is always a question).  The Twins still have a massive glut of talent amongst their position players – Sano, Willians Astudillo, Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Cave and Ehire Adrianza are all bench players for Minnesota, and all provide tons of value in respective situations.

The Twins could absolutely win the World Series.  But while the pitching they acquired serves as a new precedent and a massive upgrade, all of those guys were available for a reason.  At the end of the day, all of them are just okay, and that is not where this Minnesota team wants to be, nor should be.

  • White Sox

The White Sox are really, really good, and if starting pitcher Michael Kopech hadn’t opted out of the 2020 season, Chicago could have been a serious player come October.

The rotation is good even without Kopech.  Lucas Giolito blossomed into everything we wanted in 2019, and the team signed Dallas Keuchel to a four year contract in the offseason to give the group some experience.  Gio Gonzalez is a solid option at the third spot, while Dylan Cease is a bit of an unknown and Reynaldo Lopez shouldn’t be counted on too much.

As written earlier this week, the White Sox have ways to plug these holes if they want to.  They also have an intriguing bullpen that could work out in their favor.

Chicago’s pricey offseason will do them well.  It made their lineup daunting, which is impressive considering the youth they possess.  That can backfire on them, but it’d be more likely to do so over the course of 162 games rather than 60.  It’s a tough division, but if Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert live up to their potential this season, the White Sox should be in the mix at the top, and could potentially go deep in October.


Division Predictions

Win totals will not be listed due to the 60 game season

AL East

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Tampa Bay Rays
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. Boston Red Sox
  5. Baltimore Orioles

AL Central

  1. Minnesota Twins
  2. Chicago White Sox
  3. Cleveland 
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Detroit Tigers

AL West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Oakland A’s
  3. Los Angeles Angels
  4. Texas Rangers
  5. Seattle Mariners

NL East

  1. Atlanta Braves
  2. Philadelphia Phillies
  3. Washington Nationals
  4. New York Mets
  5. Miami Marlins

NL Central

  1. Cincinatti Reds
  2. St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Chicago Cubs
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

NL West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. San Diego Padres
  4. Colorado Rockies
  5. San Francisco Giants

Playoff Predictions

Here’s how MLB’s new 16 team postseason – which they unveiled an hour before the season began Thursday – works.  Eight teams in each league make the playoffs.  The top three seeds are the division winners ordered by record.  The next three are the second place teams in each division ordered by record.  Then, the final two seeds are the two best records remaining the league.  So, as seen below, the Yankees are the projected AL East winners, the Twins are the Central’s, and the Astros are the West’s, with the Yankees having the best record of all of them.  Then, Tampa Bay is projected to finish second in the AL East, having more wins than the White Sox and A’s, who each finish second in their respective divisions. Then, Cleveland and Toronto are projected to have the two best records remaining. Got it?  Good?

AL Seeds:

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Houston Astros
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. Chicago White Sox
  6. Oakland A’s
  7. Cleveland 
  8. Toronto Blue Jays

NL Seeds:

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Atlanta Braves
  3. Cincinatti Reds
  4. St. Louis Cardinals
  5. Arizona Diamondbacks
  6. Philadelphia Phillies
  7. Chicago Cubs
  8. Milwaukee Brewers

Then it becomes the NBA playoffs.  The No.1 seed plays the No.8 seed, the No.4 seed plays the No.5 seed but in a best of three series.  

Wild Card Series:

AL:

#1 New York Yankees vs. #8 Toronto Blue Jays: Yankees in 2

#2 Minnesota Twins vs. #7 Cleveland: Twins in 3

#3 Houston Astros vs. #6 Oakland A’s: Astros in 3

#4 Tampa Bay Rays vs. #5 Chicago White Sox: Rays in 3

NL:

#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #8 Milwaukee Brewers: Dodgers in 3

#2 Atlanta Braves vs. #7 Chicago Cubs: Cubs in 3

#3 Cincinatti Reds vs. #6 Philadelphia Phillies: Reds in 2

#4 St. Louis Cardinals vs. #5 Arizona Diamondbacks: Cardinals in 3

Division Series:

Then, the winner of the No.1 vs No. 8 seed plays the winner of the No.4 vs. No. 5 seed series in a best of five series.

AL:

#1 New York Yankees vs. #4 Tampa Bay Rays: Rays in 5

#2 Minnesota Twins vs. #3 Houston Astros: Twins in 4

NL:

#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #4 St. Louis Cardinals: Dodgers in 4

#3 Cincinnati Reds vs. #7 Chicago Cubs: Reds in 4

Championship Series:

Then the winners of the Division Series play each other in the best of seven LCS series like normal.

ALCS

#2 Minnesota Twins vs. #4 Tampa Bay Rays: Rays in 5

NLCS

#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #3 Cincinnati Reds: Dodgers in 6

World Series:

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Dodgers in 6

Awards Predictions:

AL MVP: Mike Trout

NL MVP: Ronald Acuna Jr.

AL Cy Young: Tyler Glasnow

NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler 

AL Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert

NL Rookie of the Year: Carter Kieboom

The 23 Teams That Can Win The World Series: Part 1

This year is not normal.  In life, in sports, or in baseball.  Nothing is going to be normal this baseball season.  It’s 60 games, players are still getting sick despite guidelines and divisional alignments and rule changes and what not.  It’s kind of a mess.

But most of the time, baseball is a mess, or at least it seems like it.

Even though the data tells us that this year probably won’t be much different than a normal season, it still feels weird to have the same confidence about everything that we would normally… which teams will be good, who can make the playoffs, who is going to suck.  None of this feels normal, so why would it be normal?

That’s what this column, which debuts today and will finish tomorrow, is going to try and do.  We’re going to look at every non-normal scenario that could play out this season, and that comes in the form of who we could see winning the World Series or not.  Turns out, there aren’t many teams that can’t do it.  One of them plays tonight.  Let’s start there.

Sorry, but nope:

  • Giants 

San Francisco has a roster very similar to the Seattle Mariners (More on them tomorrow), where no direction is very clear.  The Giants roster is practically the same one they’ve had from the past two World Series championships (2012 and 2014), except everyone is old and sucks now (Brandon Belt, Hunter Pence, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, is that enough?).  Alex Dickerson and Mike Yaztremski burst on the scene last year and can plug a couple holes, but they aren’t exactly young either (Yaz will soon be 30 and Dickerson already is that age).  Joey Bart will likely take over for Buster Posey this season, who opted out of the 60 game season.  Bart and Mauricio Dubon represent some exciting youth on this roster, but aside from them, it is slim pickings.


Now for the three others who can:

  • Dodgers

It’s a complete disaster for Los Angeles if they don’t win the World Series this year, pending bad luck (2017’s loss can count as that).  Even in what could be a flukey short season, their talent is just supreme over the rest of the league.  The Dodgers are the favorite because unlike the Yankees, it’s hard to predict major bad injury luck.  Since their rise, New York has been decimated practically every year, which tempers down our expectations for them in a season.  This one is no different.  With LA, we aren’t expecting them to underachieve instinctively.  No one can blame them if they do because of injuries, but if collapses come in the form of 2018 and 2019 again, then Dave Roberts could see the end of his tenure as Dodgers manager.  Thankfully, they now have Mookie Betts locked up and prevented from bolting.

Being the favorites in a 162 game season compressed to 60 shouldn’t bode well for Los Angeles.  In no other year are we looking at 22 other teams that have a shot at winning the World Series – their competition has severely increased.  But for the Dodgers, it really shouldn’t matter.  They’re more talented than the Yankees; what other team is close to having AJ Pollack, Chris Taylor and Kike Hernandez all vie for one spot in the outfield (This assumes Joc Pederson is in a DH role)? What about Matt Beaty as rolling infielder along with Taylor and Hernandez?  Who has Dustin May in the bullpen because they can get away with and be comfortable having Ross Stripling or Tony Gonsolin in the rotation instead?  Who has two of the best four outfielders in baseball in the same outfield?

There’s no excuses anymore for this team aside from injury.  But it’s gotten to the point the past two years where it’s hard to keep picking them over and over again.  

It seems ridiculous to pick against the Dodgers but we know what we get ourselves into when we do it.  Maybe this time around, we won’t actually be let down.

  • Nationals

The Nationals had one of the flukiest, most impressive regular season and eventual World Series runs ever last year, and in a season where flukiness could reign king, Washington might be set up well again.

The lineup looks much different than it did last year.  Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman are gone – Rendon signed with the Angels while Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season.  Eric Thames will be playing 1st in combination with Howie Kendrick, while highly-touted youngster Carter Keiboom will be handling the hot corner.  Starlin Castro slides in at second, with Astrubal Cabrera taking on more of a bench role, and Thursday it was announced that Juan Soto has contracted COVID-19 and will be out for obviously a good chunk of time.  Michael Taylor figures to be his replacement.

It’s the type of lineup that makes you wonder how this team won the World Series last year.  Part of it is the turnover, but part of it is that this team just wasn’t that good last year until it really mattered.  It truly was flukey.

But the starting pitching certainly helped.  That was the heart of that Nationals team, and it has to be again this year given some of this roster’s deficiencies.  They arguably possess the best rotation in baseball, and that’s still the case considering their fifth starter – Joe Ross – opted out.  Washington has had success getting nobodies or unlikely contributors to preform well – fourth starter Anibal Sanchez is a perfect example –so Austin Voth taking over Ross’ spot should be met with confidence.

The bullpen is just as shaky as it was last season, but they were able to survive.  That was coupled with what seemed to be much more potent offense, though.

If it happened last year, than a Nationals World Series championship can absolutely happen again this year.  How much luck they get from the shortened season will just have to outweigh the value lost in the lineup.

  • Yankees

It’s not a Dodgers-level disaster for New York if they don’t win the World Series, but it’s pretty close.

There are a couple reasons for that, one of which was alluded to above.  First, our expectations traditionally have been lower for the Yankees recently due to what feels like an injury bug that plagues them every year.  New York is destined to lose multiple key contributors during every season, and before the first pitch of Opening Day Thursday, they already have.

Luis Severino underwent Tommy John Surgery and will be out for all of this season and possibly part of next. Aroldis Chapman is fine after having COVID-19 but is still getting back into baseball shape and won’t be ready right away.  Masahiro Tanaka was struck in the head by a liner during summer camp and will be on IL with a concussion.

Tanaka’s injury is a killer.  Though it’s not a long term injury, a few weeks can mean a lot this season.  It already wasn’t necessarily a strength to have him be the team’s third starter – 2019 was a rough go for him.  

The Yankees have one guarantee in the rotation in Gerrit Cole.  Aside from that, James Paxton nor JA Happ have been what New York thought they were getting.  Mike Montgomery will need to rekindle his 2017 season and stay healthy to be a viable option.

The good news for New York is that their lineup and bullpen are both awesome, and in this shortened season, the Yankees could easily pivot to bull-penning a game or two if the back of their rotation falls apart.

Injuries are one thing for New York – they’re inevitable and can’t really be blamed on anything.  But the questions in the rotation are the second reason why it’s not a full-scale catastrophe if the Yankees can’t win the whole thing.  It might seem hard to believe, but they are really up against it in certain areas, and their division and schedule won’t help.


Final standings for the four teams listed:

Win-loss records will not be given this year

Giants: 5th in NL West

Dodgers: 1st in NL West, Win World Series

Nationals: 3rd in NL East

Yankees: 1st in AL East, lose in ALDS

Full standings will be released in Part 2 tomorrow

The Most Intriguing 60-Man Rosters In Baseball

The shortened 60 game season has allowed MLB teams to get creative this year, and get our hopes up for who might be on the mound or taking at-bats.  These teams are the ones that should be the most exciting, whether their record shows it or not.

Padres

In a way, this season is a win-win for the Padres organization.  They have a young, incredibly exciting lineup that should be able to produce at a high-level and a rotation that looks like it’s going to be incredible in the long-term.  This year – especially in its 60 games – could be a breakout year for San Diego.

The lineup should rock.  If it struggles, the Padres have options to fill those holes from their taxi squad.  Taylor Trammell was projected to have a decent role in the outfield this year.  CJ Abrams could probably play anywhere, and if things come down to it, Robert Hassell could be used as well.  The 18-year-old did just finish high school, but the Padres wouldn’t have put him on the taxi squad if there wasn’t some comfortability with him playing some major league innings.

Regardless of how the lineup turns out, San Diego will need significant help from the rotation in its current form.  Chris Paddack, who was a stud in his first season in 2019, is the only guarantee San Diego can bank on to start games.  Dinelson Lamet has battled injuries and hovered around the average mark on the mound through his MLB service time.  Zach Davies is coming off a career year, but was at best a replacement level pitcher in seasons prior.  Garrett Richards has had a single healthy season in the last four, and San Diego doesn’t know what it’s doing with its fifth spot behind him.

None of that is very encouraging aside from Paddack, but it leaves the Padres open to long-term options.  Say the rotation is surprisingly good.  San Diego will take that  and hope to compete.  If the group turns out how we fear, San Diego could implement a loaded bullpen as not only a fifth starter but even a potential fourth – less than half the games of a normal season gives them the innings to do that.   Or they could effectively punt on the season and give Mackenzie Gore, Luis Patino and Adrian Morejon a shot at the big leagues.  If those guys live up to their respective hypes, than San Diego wouldn’t be punting on the season.

Gore and Patino have been cautiously developed by San Diego though, and with good reason.  There is no reason to push them this year – you don’t mess around with guys who are that good.  But if progress is shown, throwing them into the fire wouldn’t hurt, and would be strictly an upside move for a team that’s been obsessed with that strategy for years.

Blue Jays

Toronto’s (Or, Pittsburgh’s, or who???) Opening Day lineup is what gets them a spot on this list rather than their taxi squad, and that’s an Opening Day lineup that won’t feature Austin Martin, Nate Pearson or Simeon Woods Richardson.

Toronto, like San Diego, is loaded.  But for a lot of their youth, this is going to be their first full year to show it off.  San Diego’s is either fully engrained as big  leaguers or may not get the chance at all.

That’s what makes Toronto so intriguing.  This is essentially Bo Bichette’s, Cavan Biggio’s and Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s debut.  Toronto’s infield is 3/4s rookies.

That’s how it should be.  The Blue Jays are going about this the right way: when your young guys are ready, throw them into the fire and see what happens.

It could be a blaze or go out quickly.

The Blue Jays have an incredibly high ceiling in a 60 game season.  Young players don’t have a long season to come down from their ups this year.  Their highs will likely stay high.  If Toronto’s youth comes out hot, they could be a top tier team.

Additionally, like San Diego, the pitching will be everything.  The Blue Jays don’t have the star-studded depth the Padres do, but a theoretical rotation of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Pearson and Tanner Roark isn’t a bad start.  Alek Manoah could be thrown in there as well.  The ultimate hail mary would be adding Woods Richardson into the mix.  He’s been great in camp, but it’s unlikely the 19-year-old sees big league innings.   

In a perfect world, the pitching is good enough regardless of which guys are present in it, the infield carries the lineup, lights the world on fire and Toronto is in the playoffs.  More likely is that the Blue Jays are entertaining as hell, and gear up for 2021 to be their year.

Tigers

Detroit is going to suck, but their trio of Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Spencer Torkelson is about as entertaining as any cast in baseball.  Mize and Manning are expected to debut at some point this year, while Torkelson seems less likely.  This cast, in addition to Riley Greene, is the only reason to watch Detroit this year.

White Sox

Chicago’s Opening Day roster is pretty good, and their taxi squad reflects that as well.

The White Sox are the first team on this list that likely won’t need to dip into their non-taxi squad talent – they should be good enough to survive without it.

That means that Chicago has an embarrassment of riches.  With Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn in their system, the White Sox have infastrcutre in place to take care of slips in their lineup.  Tim Anderson certainly figured it out last year, but that doesn’t mean it’ll come back to him this season – he could be replaceable at shortstop.  Leury Garcia is a fine player, but his lack of power is significant – Vaughn could take care of that void.  

The Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease spots in the rotation are question marks.  Garrett Crochet – Chicago’s 1st round pick in the Draft in June – was arguably one of the more MLB ready arms in the draft.  If the White Sox choose so, he could become a part of their cast of arms later on, if it’s an area that truly needs work.

Chicago is a team that’s built to withstand potential downfalls, and with these specific backups, they may get even better.

Mariners

Like Detroit, the Mariners are going to suck this year because they have zero plan and a stunning lack of talent.

However, they could improve their rotation if they choose to pursue competency rather than tank.  A trio of Justus Sheffield, Emerson Hancock and Logan Gilbert is sitting there for them.  Hancock, despite his June arrival, could be deemed as ready.  Gilbert is similar, and Sheffield was primed to be their ace.

Combine that with a potential and hopeful rebound from Yusei Kikuchi and Seattle has an incredibly fun and possibly successful rotation.  Now they just need the talent around it.

Cardinals

These last three teams follow the White Sox mold of having an embarrassment of riches in a sense.  All four plan on being competitive and even making playoffs this year – it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think any of them could make a deep run.  Having depth on the taxi squad makes them all the more dangerous.

St. Louis has awesome players who have no place to really go.  As if the Cardinals didn’t have enough young pitching, Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore are waiting in the wings, but the rotation seems full unless Adam Wainwright finally tails off (not something to bet on happening, by the way) or Carlos Martinez struggles heading back to a larger workload.  Nolan Gorman is blocked by Tommy Edman, who really broke out in 2019.  Dylan Carlson needs Tyler O’Neill to not live up to expectations – those are two young outfielders who are essentially on the same time line.

The Cardinals are in good shape if someone gets sick or is injured. In a normal year, St. Louis could be primed for a big trade with all the talent they have laying around.

Diamondbacks

This might be the homerism creeping in here, but Arizona’s farm system has come a long way since Mike Hazen took over as GM.  The Diamondbacks have almost pulled off a worst-to-first move when it comes to their prospect stash over the years, and their taxi squad reflects that.

Arizona is keen on winning this season though, so they probably won’t dip in unless they need to.  That may be likely, though.  David Peralta’s health is always a question mark, and in a 60 game season, an IL stint could mean the whole season.  That opens up the door for Alek Thomas, who though young has been highly touted.    The same can go for Corbin Carroll as well.

The D-backs fought average play last year, and weak spots in the lineup were to blame.  Pavin Smith could evolve as an interesting DH option – Thomas and Corbin are viable there as well.

Arizona’s pitching should be much improved this year, though the bullpen is still questionable.  The D-backs have transitioned some of last year’s starters to relief work, but young options like 2020 first round pick Bryce Jarvis, Levi Kelly (he’s nasty) and J.B. Bukauskas could provide upgrades.  Banking on that youth for multiple, daily innings of work is risky however.

Dodgers

When labeling the “embarrassment of riches” group in this article, the Dodgers should probably have their own tier all together.

Los Angeles has an embarrassment of riches on their Opening Day roster and on their taxi squad.  None of Chicago, Arizona or St. Louis has that.

In a way, the Dodgers’ talent is blocked just like St. Louis’ is.  For example, DJ Peters will have a hard time getting innings with Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Joe Pederson in the outfield, and that’s not even accounting for the existence of Kike Hernandez and Chris Taylor.

Taylor’s role will be expanded early as Gavin Lux has been optioned down to the taxi squad to start the year.  It’s a bit of a surprise, but he was slow getting up to speed in camp, and the Dodgers surely don’t want to milk his service time if they don’t have to.  He will likely be the full time starter at second base eventually.

If the Dodgers have pitching problems, which is a big if, there are young options to step in.  Tony Gonsolin was in consideration for a rotation spot, and Josiah Gray and Marshall Kasowski could probably play a role if needed.

“If” is the heart of this Dodgers team.  If they win the World Series, if they choke, if they truly need help from their taxi squad.  This should be the year “when” becomes the present, and “if” becomes the past.

The Astros Are Anyone’s Guess

There will be a column posted Thursday morning on this website that makes the case for the Houston Astros to win the World Series this 2020 season.  Something about that just doesn’t sit right.

In some ways, the Astros have felt too good to be true over the past three seasons.  They’ve won 100 games in each of the past three years, including a ridiculous total of 107 in 2019.  They’ve had a super rotation, headed by at least two aces (and occasionally three) that was followed with guys who rose out of the minors and delivered or guys who completely restructed their careers.  Their lineup was arguably the most terrifying in baseball accounting for its balancedness and consistency.  They were decently young – Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and recently Yordan Alvarez will all be baseball players for a long time coming – and had the up and coming prospects that would replace some of their aging contributors.

But it all came crashing down right after Houston fell trying to win its second World Series in three years.  The Athletic wrote a story, the MLB investigated, found out a lot, and two months later reported their findings resulting in three managers and a  GM being ousted and the Astros getting the label of being pure, blatant cheaters.

Look on the surface and you’ll find evidence that suggests Houston not only cheated but benefitted from it greatly.  They won a World Series after being far and away the most dominant team in baseball that year.  They became the first team in MLB history win 100 games in three straight seasons.  They finished 2nd in runs scored, had the second most hits, hit the third most home runs and had the lowest strikeout percentage by 1.4 percent in baseball over the course of 2017-2019.

Houston cheated.  There is no doubting that.  How much it truly benefitted them though is up for debate.  Start looking deeper and you’ll notice that adjusting the statistics above for home vs. away shows that Houston was just as deadly in other teams’ ballparks – where they couldn’t set up their elaborate sign-stealing system – as they were at Minute Maid Park.  They had the lowest strikeout percentage in baseball, this time by 1.3 percent rather than 1.4.   They had the most hits, the third most home runs and scored more than any other team in baseball on the road over the past three seasons.

Those statistics are quite simple though, and don’t always tell the whole story.  Houston was caught knowing what pitch was coming ahead of time.  Basically, if it wasn’t a fastball, a bang would be heard by the batter and thus knew how to attack the pitch or not.  Essentially, swings and misses (whiffs) and strikeouts should be dramatically reduced by Astros batters.  As we’ve seen, strikeout percentage wasn’t dramatically different depending on where Houston played, and accounting for how they faired against certain pitches won’t tell us much either.  Just because the Astros knew an off speed pitch was coming doesn’t mean they didn’t swing at it.  Baseball is a lot easier when you know what is coming at you.  No matter what pitch it is, if you know the pitch, your odds of hitting the ball increase.

Ultimately, the statistical evidence just isn’t there.  Whether that’s because the right data doesn’t exist to find out or because it truly didn’t help Houston is undetermined.  MLB.com’s sabermetrics writer Mike Petriello doesn’t know either, and he’s probably our best bet.

The numbers indicate otherwise (That’s a common theme of this baseball season; stay tuned for Thursday’s column), but it just seems hard to believe that Houston didn’t benefit from their sign-stealing schemes the past three years.  Jomboy videos, the mounts of evidence MLB found in their investigation, the firings of AJ Hinch, Jeff Luhnow, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, Astros’ players subsequent reactions to it all and Jose Altuve’s signaling to not take his jersey off after hitting a walkoff home run in Game 6 of the ALCS to send Houston to the World Series all speaks volumes.  The Astros cheated, and one of the teams of the decade, and perhaps even one of the best teams of all-time, is ruined.

Now that they’ve been caught, the effect that this has on Houston going forward is, just like the effect it previously had on them, unclear.  First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Houston figures to be significantly worse this year talent wise.  Gerrit Cole – arguably the best pitcher in baseball – is gone after signing with the Yankees.  So is Wade Miley, who was a reclamation project that worked out for the Astros last year.  Justin Verlander is old, and struggled mightily in the World Series.  Zack Greinke is way up there in age as well.  Right now, Houston’s rotation looks like Verlander, Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr., who was excellent before having Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2019.  He’ll inject some youth into the Astros rotation and could be a bright spot for them depending on how the arm feels.

Questions surround the remaining two spots.  Josh James has been named as the team’s fourth starter, but a lot of the allure around him hasn’t been met with great results.  James throws incredibly hard, but struggled last season posting a 4.70 ERA and an ERA+ of 99.  Those outings were almost strictly as a reliever too, which makes the move to starting pitching a bit concerning.  Houston converted James to the bullpen once he was called up though – he spent his entire minor league career as a starter and was developed that way.  His arm would beg to differ, but James isn’t someone we should count on.  A shortened season will help, though.

The fifth rotation spot is even more up in the air.  Jose Urquidy was supposed to be in that role, but the second year right-hander has yet to show up at Astros camp with Opening Day on Friday.  We’ve seen this movie around baseball since camps opened back up: those that aren’t there and don’t have a reason for it are likely positive with coronavirus and the teams don’t want that public for good reason (Alavarez is also in the same boat as Urquidy).

With Urquidy’s availability up in the air for what could be a reasonable amount of time, Houston is forced to pivot to other options.  Framber Valdez, Cy Sneed and Cristian Javier have all been deemed viable candidates for the spot, and though all have been highly touted and are younger, none really have any experience.  Valdez has the most and that isn’t saying much – he started five games in 2018 resulting in a 2.19 ERA and pitched in 26 games last year (eight starts) to the tune of a 5.86 ERA.  Sneed has pitched in eight MLB games ever, while Javier – who is just 23 – would be making his MLB debut if he were to get the spot.

Houston’s been notorious for getting maximum value out of pitchers over the past three years, but those results now seem a bit suspicious given what had been going on at the plate.  The Astros pitching was supposed to be what continued to hold steady this season and possibly be their saving grace, depending how affected they were by the lack of cheating mechanisms.  Now, that support system isn’t totally there – it’s full of questions, a lot of which haven’t been answered.  Combining that with pessimism at the plate, and this year could end up being a real stinker for the Astros. In the end, they should probably just feel lucky there won’t be fans to let them know that.

Breaking Down MLB’s Rule Changes For The Shortened 2020 Season

This MLB season is not going to be perfect or pretty.  There have been a lot of bumps in the road to get here.  There will be more.  The MLB’s changes to the season indicate that.

But we should also be grateful we’re getting it – or whatever bit of it – at all.  We don’t know if this will last or how long it will be for, which is part of what makes some of the rules below disappointing.  A lot of it seems short-sighted.  Maybe that’s because this whole season could be very short.

Still, if we are able to pull through this MLB season, things will be different.  Most of those things are unfortunate negatives, but there are positives.  It was as close to a big flunk as possible for MLB, but a season, even with its drawbacks, saves them from that poor outcome.  Here are some thoughts on what baseball will look like as a whole starting Thursday.

Intradivisional and interleague divisional play

Aside from the universal DH, this was the best rule change MLB made for the 2020 season, and it has nothing to do with the actual baseball itself.

It seems as if this rule might have been the crux of this season’s occurrence.  Local governments might have been on edge about having a home team take in players – who may or may not follow MLB’s guidelines when they’re on the road or at home – from upwards of 15 different cities across North America.  That’s a lot of different people coming from a lot of different places, which may have made leaders – especially those who are in charge of areas that have handled the pandemic well – nervous.

Now, a home team is only having teams come from nine different cities: the four in the team’s own division and the five in the team’s interleague division.

Basically, local leaders and governments now know who exactly is coming in and from where.  It lowers the volume, and ultimately the risk.

It may not work.  As mentioned above, players have to follow MLB’s rules on the road.  We will likely know quickly whether they do or not, and that determination will come in the form of positive tests.  That’s the risk that local governments are taking by allowing teams to play.  Toronto wasn’t willing to.

The schedule change creates massive intrigue for divisions and regions that are already competitive.  The NL Central is going to be playing each other 60 percent of the time.  In a division where four of the five teams are of playoff quality and two to three should be serious World Series threats in a 60 game season, the men will be separated from the boys fast.  The schedule for NL Central teams will be tough, and that’s discounting the other foes, which features Minnesota, the White Sox and Cleveland – all teams that have a chance to make serious noise (That might be a tad generous in reference to Cleveland).  Regardless, that’s just one of the three regions.  The NL East should be a bloodbath.  The AL West will be competitive.  With just 60 games, you can’t have a bad week or bad start, and with this scheduling, for some teams it will be hard not to do so.

The three batter minimum for pitchers

Major League Baseball’s slow turn against advanced analytics and sabermetrics starts here.  

This rule – which was implemented before the pandemic hit and will be carrying on to seasons after the 2020 one – completely wipes out a lot of hard work put in by data analysts and front office members over the past 5-20 years.  Using a different pitcher every inning evolved straight from Moneyball, though it morphed into various forms first.  Moneyball was about being efficient.  Seventeen years later or so, we found out that the most efficient way to pitch was to mix it up as much as possible, and adapt for every possible situation.

Now the work that went into figuring that out is irrelevant.  There will never be a pitcher brought in for a specific batter in a specific situation.  Sure, it added a bit more time to an inning.  But watching how that single at-bat played out was fascinating.  It was each team throwing everything they had against one another in a distance of 60 feet and six inches.  It was like watching the emptying of a war chest.

Sure, these strategic moves make the game longer and slower (They also add a commercial break, which means money!).  They may piss off the older fan because it gives the pitching team an easy out from a tight, troubling situation.  It can be frustrating as a fan when an inning is ongoing for 45 minutes already and two pitching changes happen within the span of an out.   But those complaints being heard and resolved has now made the game worse.

The the batter minimum is also going to lead to a lessened work force of players.  What happens to the Adam Kolereks and Adam Climbers of the world?  A lot of specialists haven’t gotten three outs in a single outing in their life.  The transition could be tough for those guys.

After seeing the reduction of the MLB Draft, cancellation of the 2020 MiLB season and MLB’s plan to cut minor league teams, it feels like the league wants to cut its workforce numbers down at all levels, not just the lower ones.  There will be pitchers unable to adjust to this new rule, and it will leave them out of baseball completely. 

The runner on second base to start extra innings

It is understandable to see where MLB is coming from on this one in multiple facets.  Sure, the window to get these 60 games in is tight.  It will be a grind.  There are very few off days, and traveling will be especially brutal – and that’s without extra innings.

Baseball also might be dying, in part because the sport is boring to a lot of people.  MLB knows this.  Millennials and Gen-Zers who grew up with the Internet and are wired for everything to be fast-paced –particularly their sports – have seen football go all air-raid, basketball majorly ramp up its pace thanks to threes and athleticism and soccer, well, soccer has always been fast.  It’s just that no one wanted fast sports more than the past two generations had. 

Baseball hasn’t changed its pace.  The length of games show that.  The TV ratings and attendance indicate that’s a problem.

It is.  There’s no doubt about that.  But there are ways to go about that without affecting how the game is played. That same case can be made for the three batter minimum as well.

You know what’s awesome?  Those 15 inning marathon games on a random Tuesday night in the middle of the summer when you have nothing else to do except watch baseball.  You know what else is awesome?  The tension of bases loaded in the bottom half of an inning in extras.  Getting an early double and then hoping the next batter can bring him in.  Walkoffs that take time to develop.

All of that is gone this year with this new rule.  Baseball is the one sport without a clock.  Inevitably, that’s why the games take so long.  But that’s also the beauty of it, and MLB should embrace it and market their stars better instead of changing the game to appeal to younger masses.  They could also acknowledge the fact that we’ve literally never seen home runs hit at this rate before.  People do like home runs.

There’s also the case to be made that the runner on second saves pitchers’ arms, but doesn’t the three batter minimum do the complete opposite of that?

These 60 games are being smashed into a small time frame.  But the amount of off-days and the ratio of games played per month is extremely similar to a normal season.  Letting games go longer into extras this season is really no different than any other season.

There’s no case worth buying on this one from MLB.  Not only does their claim about this helping pitchers not stick because of the hypocrisy of the three batter minimum, but it’s also flawed because 60 games compared to 162 games will help pitchers and their arms dramatically – there likely won’t be any bullpens melting down in the playoffs due to fatigue this year.

Just like the negotiations to get here were, this rule is another perfect example of MLB deflecting the problem off themselves and into other areas, which will likely end up hurting the game even more.

The universal DH

MLB’s level of stupidity and greed throughout the negotiations with the MLBPA is perfectly reflected in this rule change.  It really took the pandemic for everyone to realize the NL should have a DH?

It just never made sense for them not to.  It never has.  There’s never, ever been a good argument for pitchers to be hitting.  It makes the game worse.  Sports is about athletes competing to the best of their incredible abilities and pitchers swinging bats looks like if you pulled a guy from stands who said he played second base in high school and put him up at the plate.

The common argument for no NL DH is: “Well, that’s the way it’s always been.”  If you have to resort to that statement in any argument then you probably don’t have anything more meaningful to say.  It’s basically like admitting you lost as soon as you use that phrase.  You know many problems in the world would be solved if we didn’t think in terms of “That’s the way it’s always been”?

The lack of a universal DH has also given a completely unfair advantage to the AL throughout the years, which had nine guys who can competently swing a bat in the lineup compared to eight who can and one who literally has no chance.  That makes a difference. 

The DH in the NL is going to help multiple teams who have roster jams.  Those teams tend to be ones who are really good and have a lot of depth, like the Dodgers, Cubs or Reds.  For teams that aren’t so good, well, let’s look back on the competency aspect and make it clear that anyone who’s a position player is probably a better option than any pitcher at the plate.

The hope is that the universal DH sticks for 2021 and beyond.  It’d be incredibly stupid to do it for one year and go back.  No one can possibly be that outraged about pitchers not hitting.  There’s literally so many things more important in life.  

This change was a long time coming.  Be happy about it.  It’s one of the few things MLB did right this year.

What The Reloaded Patriots Mean For The NFL

The Buffalo Bills were going to be the perhaps the most interesting team in the NFL during the 2020-2021 season.  Every single game of their’s would have been absolutely fascinating.  Here was a team that had done everything right in terms of roster construction, whether it be drafting, free agent signings or trades.  They’d built one of the best defenses in the league thanks to a stacked defensive line and one of the game’s best cornerbacks in Tre’Davious White.  They struck gold in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft by selecting tight end Dawson Knox and running back Devin Singletary, two guys who were extremely productive during their rookie seasons in Buffalo and figure to be big pieces moving forward.  They have an indestructible offensive line, and they added the final piece to an intriguing yet lacking receiving core in Stefon Diggs, who commanded a haul from the Vikings this offseason.

Yet, the most important piece of it all was still the question mark.  Third year quarterback Josh Allen just isn’t there yet.  He could have been in line to take that next step this season.  If he did, the Bills were likely to be Super Bowl contenders.  If he didn’t, they were probably still in good shape.  A top defense was ready to make up for what Allen couldn’t.  Buffalo was probably still going to win the division.

Then the Patriots reemerged.

Cam Newton’s signing with New England puts even more pressure on Allen this year.  Buffalo isn’t going to be able to get away with the former Wyoming gunslinger being average like they previously thought they would. They can’t afford Allen to be misplacing balls or making bone-headed decisions.  He can’t keep being a boom or bust player with deep throws.  The Bills being a team that wins eight games or more thanks to their defense alone will not win them the AFC East this year.  

The NFL adding an extra playoff team to each conference will help Buffalo significantly.  It gives them a bit more of a buffer to be able to sneak in if Allen doesn’t take the step forward they hoped this year.  But a first round exit after another average Allen season won’t be very enticing to Bills fans or their front office.  The rest of the roster is too good to be out of the playoffs that early.

If New England hits their ceiling – which would likely involve the re-signing of Newton to a longer-term contract after the season – then it could force the Bills to have an unpleasant conversation about the quarterback position next March.  If Allen plateaus again this year it forces Buffalo into a Chargers-like scenario.  Being in the middle is consistently the worse position in sports, and pulling a 2015-16 Broncos – who rode a stellar defense with practically a corpse at QB to a championship – is extremely tough, especially considering that the Patriots being their best selves this season likely vaults them into being just the third best team in the AFC.

On paper, the Patriots might be the third best team in the conference heading into the season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be even better than that.

Neither the Chiefs or Ravens had to go through the Patriots in last year’s playoffs.  While the Patriots weren’t the same Patriots we and the rest of the NFL has feared for the past 20 years, it still saved each team from having Bill Belichick scheme against them in a playoff game.

Newton’s signing and the youth, energy and modernization he could bring to the Patriots doesn’t hand the league or the conference over to the Chiefs or Ravens just yet.  Patrick Mahomes might be the most talented quarterback of all-time, but he lost in a duel to prime Tom Brady in the 2019 AFC Championship Game and got quite lucky in Week 14 of last season against the Patriots, who were led by what certainly seemed to be a different quarterback.  If this was a negotiation, the Patriots still have the leverage with Kansas City.  They’re still the boss around here, and now they have a new toy to play with in Newton.

Things won’t be as easy this upcoming season for the Ravens either, whose young core got an awakening to playoff football last year in their Divisional Round loss to the Tennessee Titans.  New England could look to replicate a lot of what Baltimore has implemented offensively with Lamar Jackson thanks to Newton’s skill set.  The Ravens heavy usage of two and three tight end sets, unique running game and mobility at the quarterback position won’t be as rare anymore with the Patriots set to run a similar scheme with their newly drafted tight ends and new quarterback.  Newton’s a different runner than Jackson since he doesn’t have nearly the elusiveness or speed of last year’s MVP.  Instead, he’s a bowling ball who trucks his way down defense’s throats.  That gives New England’s run-pass-option sets more creativity, as the Ravens aren’t running Jackson’s thin frame right up the gut.  On top of that, Newton’s strong arm and deep ball ability makes throwing on the run easier than it is for Jackson, who’s deep ball and overall accuracy showed much improvement during the 2019-20 season but isn’t quite elite just yet.  

New England’s offense has the potential to be very similar to Baltimore’s if they so choose.  Having a copycat makes the Ravens schematic advantage over other teams slimmer.  No one might be fast enough to catch Jackson, but no one may be smart enough to stump Belichick as well.

Cam Newton Is The Ultimate Low Risk, High Reward Signing

For the past three months, the New England Patriots led us to believe that they were going to give up.  They were going to replace the best quarterback of all-time in Tom Brady with a fourth-round pick that no one really knew about when countless other options existed on the market.  It was the most Patriots thing ever, and because of their resume, it also didn’t seem like the most ridiculous thing ever.

Turns out, giving up was likely never their plan after all.

Sure, Cam Newton could have been scooped up by any other team over the past three months, but according to multiple reports, New England’s minimum, incentive-based deal was the former Carolina quarterback’s only offer, which coincided slyly with the NFL enforcing penalties on the Patriots due to them allegedly taping the Cincinnati Bengals illegally.

The Patriots had to be prepared for a world where they couldn’t sign Newton, which means they had at least some confidence in second year QB Jarrett Stidham going forward.  But it was never as much as they had previously indicated.

How we got here is still stunning but also makes sense.  Newton’s health has been a massive question mark the past two years – he’s dealt with a foot injury and a shoulder injury which never seemed to go away. Any team signing him to be a starter right after his release was risky, since the coronavirus pandemic didn’t allow teams to do medical checks.  Signing him to be a backup would have created a media controversy over who a team’s actual starting QB was, especially if that team that may not have the best current situation at the position.  

These factors seriously limited Newton’s options – teams like New England or the Chargers were the only places that made sense, and the Chargers made it clear after the draft that they were out.  So, New England let the market cool, knowing they had no competition for his services, and was able to slide him in on a bargain deal rather than blindly pay a large number shortly after his release.

With his health the x-factor, it seems odd that the Patriots would go about signing Newton and presumably make him the starter if they didn’t believe he was healthy.  Why create excitement when you’re not sure?  Additionally, bringing someone in to challenge your young QB in Stidham could hurt the second year signal-caller’s confidence.  If Newton gets hurt or doesn’t play well, pivoting to Stidham shows that the franchise didn’t believe in him as much as they led onto the past couple months.

On the other hand, New England is only out the NFL’s minimum salary if the Newton acquisition doesn’t work out, and if it does, the contract tops out at $7.5 million, which isn’t much either.  Plus, it did serve as a cover for the penalties handed down by the NFL Sunday night, and it certainly worked.  You couldn’t find a story about the penalties anywhere on ESPN.com’s home page Monday – it was all Newton content instead.

Ultimately, the Patriots still might have two really good options here.  Newton could be healthy – and good – and suddenly New England is a Super Bowl contender thanks to one of the league’s best defenses and an above-average quarterback at the helm.  Or, Newton isn’t healthy and/or doesn’t play well, the Patriots owe him nothing, and New England is still content with handing the reigns over to Stidham, despite his confidence maybe being hurt a little bit.  Again, Stidham had to be in the Patriots plans, even if he was Option C.  There was absolutely world – probably a non-pandemic world – where they lose Newton.  There, they would’ve had to pivot to Stidham.  If he wasn’t in their plans, they would have gone after an Andy Dalton or Ryan Tannehill mold or drafted someone.

Touting the Patriots as contenders might seem generous, but let’s lay out the case.  This operates as if health isn’t a question, because as noted, this move may not make much sense if the Patriots have questions about his health.  Newton has never been worse than average healthy.  If Carolina’s been bad, it’s been due to other injuries on the roster or a pure lack of talent around Newton, something that they’ve struggled with for years thanks to David Gettleman at GM and a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera.  Their 6-10 season after Newton’s MVP-winning, 15-1 season could be pinned on the beginning of his shoulder problems – he had surgery after the season to repair his rotator cuff.  The year after, in 2017-18, Newton and the Panthers went 11-5 with Newton leading the team in rushing and Devin Funchess as the leading receiver.  It was Newton carrying the offense, with Christian McCaffrey being misused and Greg Olsen as the most talented pass-catcher.  

The following two years led to more shoulder problems and a foot injury, which led to his season being over this past Fall and his eventual release from Carolina.  

Post MVP, when his career seemed to peak, Newton’s never been bad on his own.  Injuries have caused poor performance or Carolina’s infrastructure failed him, which also included one of football’s worst offensive lines over the middle of the decade aside from lackluster weapons.  

Last year, the Patriots looked a lot like those Panthers teams – a group with an awesome defense whose offense just couldn’t do enough.  That’s not necessarily a good thing for Newton, but New England’s offensive line is certainly better than any he had in Carolina.  That will help immensely.

Plus, as hard as it might be to admit, Tom Brady was worse than ever last year.  That’s not to say he’s toast, and that’s not to say he won’t be successful in Tampa Bay, but it seemed like the Patriots experienced the perfect storm of a regressed Brady, bad luck offensively (Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon) and poor performance from skill position players (like Mohammed Sanu, who New England gave up a second round pick for and just never made an impact and Sony Michel).  It might have just been a bad year for everyone involved.

The Patriots still have Julian Edelman.  They still have James White.  They still have a good defense despite heavy losses in the offseason, and you know Bill Belichick will get more than expected out of them than less.  There was no real reason for Sanu to play poorly last year – he should return to form as a good second or third option.  The Patriots drafted two tight ends in the third round in April, which screams of a plan to possibly recreate the dominance Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi will likely be used heavily, and therefore be trusted targets.  An offense with Newton at QB, White at RB, Edelman, Sanu, N’Keal Harry and two big tight ends in a perfect scheme fit?  That could be deadly.

Last year feels like it should be an outlier for the Patriots.  Even with Brady gone, Belichick still exists, and because of that, they shouldn’t be counted out.  There’s a reason why it was going to be tough to totally write off New England with Stidham this year.  New England tends to just figure things out.  Last year was the first year in perhaps the last 20 where that didn’t happen.  Now, they’ve made sure that next season, they won’t encounter the same problem, and that the rest of the league still has to take the Patriots as seriously as they did before.