Last season’s playoffs, featuring 16 teams and the best of the first three rounds, received mixed reviews. Fans seemed to like the introduction of the brackets and the elimination of the one-game playoffs, but others feared it was a sign that the expanded playoffs devalued the regular season. If an extended postseason is inevitable because of the money involved, MLB – barring a last-minute change at the end of spring training – will return to 10 playoff teams for at least one more year in 2021.
That would be a satisfying end to the regular season for fans, at least until the San Diego Padres finish second behind the Los Angeles Dodgers with their 103 home runs and then face Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets in the wild-card division with their 89 home runs, while the NL Central champions come up empty-handed in the division series with their 86 home runs.
Another time we can debate the merits of a better playoff system, but for now let’s think about the teams that made the playoffs last season and are least likely to return to the postseason. I’ve included the playoff odds for each team that my colleague Bradford Doolittle published based on his predictions and simulations in his first MLB Stock Watch 2021 in late February.
Here are the six teams least likely to play in October 2021.
Doolittle’s playoff chances: 1%
The projection systems correspond : They don’t like the Marlins and consider them the liver and bug of last year’s playoff teams. Brad predicts 67 wins, PECOTA Baseball Prospectus 71, FanGraphs 73 and Vegas 73.5. Who am I to contradict the spreadsheets?
You see, the Marlins had a remarkable 2020 season in which they used 61 players MLB-wide, as a team-wide epidemic of COVID-19 forced the organization to dig deep into its minor league and waiver wire system just to get a team on the field. They still finished 31-29, ahead of the disappointing Phillies, Mets and Nationals. These three teams are better for 2021. The Marlins have added Adam Duvall.
The biggest problem for the Marlins’ 2021 projection is the offense. Of the expected starters, Jesus Aguilar, Miguel Rojas, Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Duvall are all over 30, and none of them are exactly the players you’d pick for the All-Star team. Jazz Chisholm may or may not be ready for the big leagues. Of the wave of prospects so far, only Brian Anderson has struck out. Jorge Alfaro, Lewis Brinson, Isan Diaz, Monte Harrison are not even that young (Harrison and Diaz are the youngest at 25) and have yet to prove themselves in the majors. This combination of low-level veterans and undisciplined young players means the Marlins will struggle to score points. FanGraphs considers them the second best striker in the National League.
Then you have to consider that you play in a tough division and have interleague games against the AL East. The Marlins better be ready to break out of their rut as they start 13 games against the Rays, Cardinals, Mets and Braves. That 1% chance of making the playoffs might be a little low, but the Marlins haven’t finished a season above .500 since 2009.
Why you’re wrong, Schoenfield: Did you see Sixto Sanchez start the playoffs against the Cubs? The rotation is against the line: He is young and exciting and can take this team to the post season. Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Elieser Hernandez have a combined 3.35 ERA in 31 starts in 2020. Trevor Rogers really stood out with 39 strikeouts in 28 innings.
If the Marlins can get anywhere near 150, they could surprise again. Remember Brave 1990-91? They finished last in 1990, but they had Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery in their rotation. This group of Marlins may not have two future Hall of Famers, but they have a chance to dominate. Pitchers win championships, Schoenfield, and the Marlins can field five above-average pitchers.
Doolittle’s playoff chances: 9%
Has any team had a worse offseason than the Reds? They lost the Cy Young winner, traded away their closer and best passer, lost their shortstop and didn’t replace him, and their big decision was to contract Sean Doolittle, who allowed 14 home runs in 67.2 innings over the past two seasons and moved into one of the easiest homer stadiums in the majors.
Managers like to say you build the environment. The Reds don’t have anything resembling a mid-range player. They have Tucker Barnhart and rookie Tyler Stephenson as receivers. Kyle Holder could be a shortstop, or former catcher Kyle Farmer, or Dee Weird Gordon, who hasn’t played there in years. The second baseman is third baseman Mike Moustakas. The midfield will consist of the oft-injured Nick Senzel and the slightly injured Shogo Akiyama.
Come on, let’s get some exercise. I looked at every playoff team from 2012 to 2019 (the Wild Card era) and tested their combination of WAR at catcher, second base, shortstop and center field. The 2015 Mets (Kevin Plawecki/Travis d’Arnaud, Daniel Murphy, Wilmer Flores, Curtis Granderson) had the lowest overall rating of the Warriors with just 5.2. You can be great without being strong in the middle. The 2018 Red Sox, who have won 108 games, have the second-highest winning percentage at 6.3 WAR – but the Red Sox don’t have Mookie Bett or J.D. Martinez to bolster the lineup. The 80 playoff teams averaged 11.7 WAR over the middle, or about 3 WAR per position. In the fan curve, which uses estimated playing time, the Reds are 1.9 at catcher, 1.7 at second base, minus-0.4 at shortstop and 1.3 in center field.
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Why you’re wrong, Schoenfield: The Reds finished 2020 above .500 despite a .212 offense. Do you really think Eugenio Suarez is going to hit 202 again? What will Nicholas Castellanos hit .225, Joey Votto .226 or Moustaka .230? This group is going to be so much better. Ten other players scored under .200 – a total of .152 (61 for 401). The bank will be much better. The Reds are fourth in the NL in home runs, and Shenfield, even you know that power is the name of the game in 2021.
Sure, the rotation lost Bauer, but it still has Cy Young rival Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and breakthrough candidate Tyler Mahle, and Michael Lorenzen will make a successful transition from the bullpen. By the way, have you seen this department?
Doolittle’s playoff chances: 24%
The Francisco Lindor-Carlos Carrasco swap seems to be the end of an era. Lindor made his debut on the 14th. June 2015, and since then Cleveland ranks fourth in wins in the majors, behind only the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs and ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox. It was also Carrasco’s first season as a full-time starter. In the five years since 2016, the Indians have made the playoffs four times and won 93 games in the year of their failure. The Lindor era has been great for Cleveland baseball, but how do you replace one of the best all-around players in the game and a quality #2 starter? (Take 2019, in which he battled leukemia, and Carrasco is 63-40 since 2015 with a 3.36 ERA).
Cleveland’s big acquisition this season was the acquisition of Eddie Rosario, who at least has power – something the Indians have lacked in recent seasons. For 2019-20. Cleveland ranks 28th in the majors in OPS and 27th in home runs. Rosario should help with that – he hit 32 homers for the Twins in 2019 and 13 in 57 games in 2020 – but he also has a .305 OBP over the past two seasons with a poor defensive performance. There’s a reason why the Twins didn’t hire him. To Cleveland, he could be a killer.
Other positions are also important. Cleveland’s catchers are hitting .204/.291/.356 over the last two seasons. First baseman… Jake Bowers? Bobby Bradley? Roger Dorn? Andres Gimenez, acquired from the Mets, is a good glove, but won’t contribute much to the offense. In order to compete with the Twins and White Sox, the Indians will need to put together a great offensive performance while maintaining a healthy pitching staff.
Why you’re wrong, Schoenfield: You must hate Ohio. There’s a reason Cleveland hasn’t had a losing season since 2012: Pitching. That’s how this team shocks the world, Schoenfield. Your fellow Doolittle is sixth in Cleveland’s rotation, best in the majors – and best in the AL Central. (White Sox 9th, Twins 14th). You also forgot that Cleveland won as many games as the White Sox last year, and only one less than the Twins, and that Lindor wasn’t particularly special either (.258/.335/.415).
Expect Shane Bieber to return to the Cy Youngs and Jose Ramirez to finally win the MVP. As for Zach Plesac, he’s on his way to a breakthrough after posting a 2.28 ERA in eight starts (with a ratio of 57 strikeouts to 6 walks). Oh, and James Karinchak will be the best closer in the majors with his unbeatable curveball. No, the Indians won’t score many points. You won’t need it.
Doolittle’s playoff chances: 30%
The Blue Jays are a local coffee shop’s first choice after contracting George Springer and Marcus Semien, but I fear they’re more of a celebrity collection than a playoff team. The Jays will move some players to new positions, including Semien and Cavan Biggio, and hope some of last year’s accomplishments – Teoscar Hernandez, Rowdy Tellez – are real. Note that the Jays’ offensive numbers were obtained at Sahlen Field in Buffalo: They had an OPS of .823 at home and just .721 on the road.
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But the biggest concern is the rotation, which enters the season with only one reliable starter: Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has only played more than 126 innings once since 2014. The rest of the group:
Robbie Ray: He’s one of the best left-handed pitchers in the league, but he suffered a complete inability to throw strikes in 2020 (45 walks in 51.2 innings) and has a 4.53 ERA since the 2017 All-Star.
Nate Pearson: Pearson is one of the best pitching prospects in the minors. He has a high-yield fastball, but needs to improve his command (6.00 ERA in 18 innings as a rookie, with 13 walks and five home runs). He also missed time with a sore elbow in 2020, had other injuries in the minors and now has a groin strain. It’s a big deal, but he’s probably still on the verge of innings.
Steven Matz: He was 0-5 with a 9.68 ERA for the Mets in 2020 and 31-41 with a 4.35 ERA in his career. His best season was his rookie year in 2016. He’s not as bad as last year, but even in 2018-19 he had a 4.09 ERA/4.61 FIP and now leaves pitcher-friendly Citi Field.
Tanner Roark: Another one who struggled greatly in 2020 (2-3, 6.80 ERA), and while it’s fair to use last year’s stats, he’s 34 and doesn’t have elite speed.
How many teams with this many rotation problems end the postseason?
Why you’re wrong, Schoenfield: What a negative! You act like the five of them are throwing the worst. Why not come up with the best possible scenario, where Ryu, Ray and Pearson are a hit and Matz and Roark perform above average? It’s a great rotation… and backed by the best offense in the league. The biggest problem here, is that you overestimate your beloved Rays. The Rays have their own rotation problems after trading Blake Snell and losing Charlie Morton. Your friend Brad even thinks Toronto’s rotation is better than Tampa Bay’s. And don’t tell me you prefer Tampa’s team to Toronto’s, especially when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. goes wild and hits .312 with 33 home runs.
Doolittle’s playoff chances: 65%
Everyone seems too eager to write off the Cubs in 2021. As you can see, Brad’s system likes them a lot – a reminder that, oh yeah, they won the division in 2020 despite the bad years of Chris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo. However, trading Yu Darvish, vice president of Cy Young, is a big loss for 2021 and only seems to … I don’t know if the description of the bad atmosphere around the Cubs is accurate, but even President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer called this a transition year in one of the team’s early spring training broadcasts. As Jesse Rogers wrote recently, it’s always possible that there will be a major setback before the trade deadline, especially if the Cubs don’t get off to a good start.
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The projection systems do not take this into account in their tables. They expect Bryant, Baez, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and Zach Davis, all potential free agents for the postseason (Pederson has a mutual option), to remain in Chicago for the entire season. Aside from a possible white flag, there are reasons to be concerned for the Cubs on the field, especially in the rotation. Jake Arrieta returned to Wrigley, but his ERA has risen five seasons in a row, including a 5.08 in 2020. Alec Mills had a 4.48 ERA in 2020, but a 5.44 FIP thanks to 13 home runs in 62⅓ innings. Next up is Trevor Williams (5.60 ERA over the last two seasons at PNC Park) and youngsters Adbert Alzolei, Brailyn Marquez, Tyson Miller and Corey Abbott. Starring Kyle Hendricks and Davis, the Cubs zig when everyone else zags for more speed.
Then there is the predicament of the closer, a problem of the last few seasons. Craig Kimbrel lost his job after a rough start in 2020, but he finished a good run with eight consecutive losses without a point (mostly in low average situations). He allowed just four runs in a spring training game. Can he keep his job, and if not, who will take it over?
Why you’re wrong, Schoenfield: Geez, Schoenfield, you act like Bryant, Baez and Rizzo are done or something. Can we go back to 2019? Bryant is hitting .282/.382/.521 with 31 home runs. Baez is hitting .281/.315/.531 with 29 home runs. Rizzo is hitting .293/.405/.520 with 27 home runs. They cost a total of 13.5 WAR. If Ian Happ (.258/.361/.505) and Jason Heyward (.265/.392/.456) hit like they did in 2020, and if Pederson hits one of the 36 homers he hit for the Dodgers in 2019, this will be one of the best offenses in the NL – and certainly the best in the NL Central. And just because Hendricks and Davis don’t throw hard doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Since you didn’t include the Cardinals and the Brewers, you probably think they’re better. You’re welcome to join us. The Brewers have no offense, the Cardinals have no power, and the rotation of the team is like that of the 1998 Braves.
Doolittle’s playoff chances: 54%
We need a third American League team, so my final decision is the A’s against the Astros. The 2020 A’s went 36-24 despite Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and the Seminoles having a poor season (Chapman underwent hip surgery that ended the season and missed the postseason). Chapman returned to the field and even made a great diving stop at third base last weekend, similar to his former Gold Glove. A healthy Chapman is a good sign. They even made some late additions to the bullpen, contracting Trevor Rosenthal, Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo and acquiring Adam Kolarek from the Dodgers.
So, what’s up? For starters, I think the rest of the AL West will be better – certainly the Astros, but the Angels, Mariners and Rangers should be better as well, making it a little harder for Oakland to make the division than it was in 2020. The Astros had a broken finger from Framer Valdez, meaning he could miss the season, but they acted quickly to sign Jake Odorizzi. A tougher AL West increases the likelihood of wild cards coming from other divisions.
Moreover, I don’t see Oakland’s bullpen repeating the performance of 2020, in which it went 14-5 with an MLB-best 2.72 ERA. In the last five seasons, only two other bullpens have had an ERA below 3.00 (2020 Dodgers and 2017 Indians). Here, excluding the A’s and the 2020 Dodgers, are the five lowest ERAs of the last five seasons and what happened the following season:
Indians of 2017: 2.89 ERA to 4.60 ERA. 2018 Astros: 3.03 ERA – 3.75 ERA
2017 Red Sox: 3.15 – 3.72 ERA
2017 Yankees: 3.34 – 3.38 ERA
2016 Dodgers: 3.35 – 3.38
If the bullpen isn’t as good, what will make up for it? Better seasons from Olson and Chapman will help (although I wonder what happened to Chapman’s plate discipline, which is 54 to 8 strikeouts per walk in the box). Elvis Andrus’ offense and defense have steadily deteriorated in recent years, making shortstop a problem. Chris Bassitt is not going to put up another ERA of 2.29.
Why you’re wrong, Schoenfield: No one ever votes for the A’s. All they’ve done the last three seasons is win 97, 97 and the division title. Sure, Basitte is on the decline, but Jesus Luzardo, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea will be better. And take it to the bank: Sean Murphy will be a top receiver. Stay with the Astros. Keep pretending that 2020 was just a psychological consequence of the cheating scandal and not an actual general decline (a list you think Springer lost). Keep underestimating the A’s. They will again be better than the sum of their parts, while the acclaimed Astros finish at 500.
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