Why these five MLB playoff teams from 2019 could miss the 2020 postseason

With Opening Day 2020 just three weeks away, we’ve reached the part of the spring when prognostication becomes the baseball media’s second religion. There is no shortage of questions to answer with guesses at this point. Who will be the fifth starter? What about the last player on the bench? What are the odds this or that injury is healed in time for the season?

At minimum, these exercises are a good way to run down the clock. Sometimes, though, they prove to be more than filler, and can spur some interesting thoughts. For instance, this week we intend to answer two questions to the best of our ability: 1) what sub-.500 teams will ascend and become contenders?; and 2) which playoff teams from last season will miss this year’s dance? We answered the first question yesterday, so today let’s tackle the second inquiry.

Let’s begin with some pertinent information. The 10-team postseason has been around since 2012, when Major League Baseball introduced the Wild Card Game as a means of creating more drama. In the seven postseasons since that inaugural edition, at least three teams have fallen out of the bracket on a year-to-year basis. The average turnover is five, or half the field. 

Which teams sail over their Vegas win totals? And how many wins will every single MLB team have this season? Visit SportsLine now to get the top 10 season win total bets, and see every team’s projected record, all from a computer model that went 14-5 on win total picks last year.

The past doesn’t always ensure the future, but in this instance it makes for a handy framing device. Below you’ll find last year’s playoff teams split into two tiers: “safe” and “risky,” or the five teams we think are likeliest to return and the five we think are likeliest to fall out. We’ve ranked the teams within each tier as well, as a means of showing our confidence level in each club.

Now, let’s get to it.

The safe teams


Mookie Betts should give Dave Roberts and Andrew Friedman ample reason to smile.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Here’s how secure the Dodgers are: PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ storied projection system, gives them a 100 percent chance at making the playoffs. That’s based on their simulations of the regular season, which have the Dodgers averaging 23 wins more than the second-place finisher in the National League West. For a point of reference, consider that PECOTA thinks the gap between first and last in the National League Central will be 16 games.

You don’t have to know diddly squat about PECOTA to appreciate the stacked nature of this Dodgers club. They won 106 games last season, and then added the second-best player in the game (Mookie Betts) and a veteran starter (David Price) without giving up much. They did lose Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill to free agency, but there’s significant room for internal growth, depending on the progress of Will Smith, Dustin May, and Gavin Lux, among others.

With most teams, you can envision them missing the postseason. Not here, not even if you’re N.K. Jemisin. Andrew Friedman builds depth charts resembling spider webs, with coverage and contingency plans everywhere. Maybe the Dodgers win only 100 games instead of 110 or more, but they have too much talent and too much depth to envision them failing to qualify for October.

2. New York Yankees

The risk with the Yankees is injury. New York changed its strength and conditioning staff after leading the league last season in days missed due to injury, but so far it hasn’t paid off. Luis Severino is out for the year; James Paxton will miss the start of the season; and both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge are dealing with health-related matters of their own. Woof.

Assuming the Yankees don’t have key contributors drop like flies all season, again, they’re about as safe as an American League team can get. PECOTA has them winning the East by more than 10 games, thanks in part to the Boston Red Sox prioritizing profits to wins. Maybe the Tampa Bay Rays can give the Yankees more of a scare than projected, but that’s to be seen.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins

Mitch Garver was one of the most improved players in baseball last season, and remains a key to the Twins’ success.
Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

3. Minnesota Twins

The risk with the Twins is regression, as their roster enjoyed a lot of career seasons in 2019. It’s fashionable these days to credit those banner years to skilled coaching, therefore suggesting genuine changes of the true-talent variety. Maybe that proves to be the case for a few Twins players, but remember that their coaching staff was raided by the rest of the league. The instructors in place now can be as good as their predecessors without getting the same results.

The good news for the Twins is that they don’t appear complacent. The front office added the second-best free-agent hitter available, in Josh Donaldson, and restocked the rotation by acquiring Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, and Jhoulys Chacin, as well as retaining Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda. That the Twins still have some pieces of note on their farm system should afford them the potential to improve in-season, should the need or opportunity arise.

It doesn’t hurt the Twins’ chances that they play in a fairly weak division. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals serve no threat; Cleveland should be decent despite doing little to help its cause; and the Chicago White Sox did a lot to help their cause, but might be only a contender for a wild card spot. PECOTA has the Twins winning the Central by seven games. Though the gap might be smaller when all is said and done, we agree with the algorithm that the Twins will be on top.

4. Houston Astros

PECOTA has the Astros down for the best record in the American League, and second in the majors only to the Dodgers. Why do we have them fourth? Because we think there’s more crater potential here than meets the eye — and we’re not talking about the manifestation of bad karma from their cheating scandal. Rather, we have concerns about Houston’s rotation. 

Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are a combined 73 years old and have nearly 6,000 regular-season innings under their belts. Both are tremendous talents who will end up in Cooperstown someday, but injuries and age-related slippage can (and often do) happen to everyone — even the best of the best, even when neither seems to be on the table. 

The Astros seem especially vulnerable to that possibility now that Gerrit Cole is elsewhere. The rest of Houston’s projected rotation includes Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy, and Josh James. McCullers missed all of last season due to injury, and in four big-league seasons has topped out shy of 130 innings each time. Urquidy, Houston’s breakout star last October, set a new career-high by tossing 144 innings between the majors and minors in 2019. Meanwhile James, the Urquidy of the postseason before last, had a 4.70 ERA in relief last year. 

The Astros are going to have to rely upon their bullpen, and will likely have to dig into their starting depth. Those could prove to be dicey propositions. The Astros lost Will Harris without replacing him, and their collection of near-ready starters have blemishes of their own. Forrest Whitley had a horrible 2019, ravaged by underperformance and injury; Cionel Perez’s year wasn’t much better; and it would be in Houston’s best interest to avoid relying upon Rogelio Armenteros, Cristian Javier, and Cy Sneed for significant contributions. 

Houston will probably figure it out and be fine, but it’s easy to imagine stretches where the team looks exposed due to a rotation that isn’t as strong or deep as it used to be.

5. Atlanta Braves

We thought the Braves had a solid offseason despite losing Josh Donaldson, as they landed Marcell Ozuna, Cole Hamels, and Travis d’Arnaud, and rebuilt their bullpen by securing Will Smith and Chris Martin. Could they have done more? Probably, but they have Cristian Pache and Drew Waters coming, and they still have the potential to consolidate some of their pitching at the deadline. For those reasons, we put the Braves here over the teams below.

There’s a fair chance we end up looking stupid for it, too. 

The East features three other potential postseason clubs, including the defending World Series champions, giving the Braves the most divisional competition of any team in this tier. That’s notable considering the Braves had the worst run differential of these five teams. Whereas the other four clubs posted the four best run differentials, the Braves were tied for eighth. (Their run differential suggests they overachieved by six games in notching 97 wins.)

Our reservations about the Braves are supported by PECOTA, which has them finishing third in the East with 83 wins. We’re not willing to go that far, but we can see the logic to it.

The risky teams


The Rays added Hunter Renfroe, among others. They just wouldn’t seem to have enough to track down the Yankees.

1. Tampa Bay Rays

We’re amenable to the idea that the Rays should’ve been the fifth “safe” team. They have a solid roster, fair depth, and the ability to deal and promote from a top-notch farm system. They also just saw their closest threat deal the second-best player in baseball to save some coin. If we had to name one team in baseball the likeliest to win a wild card spot, it’s the Rays.

In the end, that designation landed the Rays here instead of in the above tier. They were a rung down from the Yankees last season, when they finished seven back, and this winter hasn’t changed that. The Rays didn’t do much to address their pitching staff, as every one of their projected 13 was a member of the organization last season. 

Instead, the Rays prioritized their lineup, and specifically adding platoon pieces of the right-handed variety. Slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who came over from the Yokohama Bay Stars, is the one new left-handed addition to the roster. Otherwise, the Rays are banking on the likes of Hunter Renfroe, Jose Martinez, and Manuel Margot to combat lefties and provide depth.

That should work out fine, but probably no better than fine. Unfortunately for the Rays, scaling the AL East would seem to require more than fine.

2. Oakland Athletics

The A’s were a much better team last season than people realize. To wit, they finished the regular season with the fifth-best run differential in baseball. That’s with Khris Davis having an awful season; with their catchers giving them little at the plate; with their top high-leverage relievers falling apart; and with Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, A.J. Puk, and Jesus Luzardo combining for 21 starts. That’s a lot of bad stuff for a team to overcome, but they did it.

So, why are they on the risky side? It has more to do with probabilistic thinking and the ability to upgrade than any talent deficiency. The A’s already appear capped out, and don’t have a Rays-like farm system to promote and deal from during the season. If that leaves the A’s behind the Rays in the standings, that means they’ll be duking it out for one playoff spot with the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland, the White Sox, and others. Their risk of losing out is much higher.

The A’s, then, could find themselves in an unusual position of being one of the better teams in the game, based on their talent and performance levels, without being involved in the playoffs.


We’re skeptical of this scene repeating itself in 2020.

3. Washington Nationals

We mean no disrespect to the defending champions, who will likely be competitive again within the division and perhaps within the league. We just think there’s a lot of downside in D.C.

The Nationals essentially brought back their roster from last season, minus Anthony Rendon, plus Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, and Will Harris. Sounds fine … except it means the Nationals have 1) less impact-level talent and 2) a greater reliance on aging veterans. Put another way, six of the Nationals’ 13 projected position players are at least 33 years old. That’s a ton of attrition risk for a team that does not have much minor-league depth to its credit.

We can’t ignore the possibility that the heavy workload from last October will impact Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin, either. Those three combined for 93 starts last season. What happens in 2020 if they start only 85 times? Or 80? Again, the Nationals just don’t have the depth to make up for a significant decline or absence. 

Baseball hasn’t had a repeat champion since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees. We don’t think that’s changing this year.

4. St. Louis Cardinals

By run differential, the Cardinals were the weakest division winner in 2019. They didn’t do much to improve their club this winter, either, save for signing Kwang-Hyun Kim and some bit pieces. 

St. Louis let Marcell Ozuna walk and didn’t make an addition to counter his loss. They also traded Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena for an A-ball pitcher, albeit in a deal that could work out well for them over the long haul. On the injury front, they’re likely to be without Miles Mikolas and Jordan Hicks for a chunk of the season. That’s not a great set of developments. 

Dylan Carlson’s arrival will help, and the Cardinals always seem to find a three-win contributor in the couch cushions. For now, though, they seem like the most vulnerable division winner. 

5. Milwaukee Brewers

We covered the Brewers in detail when naming their offseason one of the worst in baseball. The short version is that they got cheaper but not better, and that they arguably lowered their ceiling as a team. We could still see the Brewers competing for a wild card spot, but there’s a lot of downside here and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they finish third or fourth in the NL Central.

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