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The Dodgers Lead Our National League Predictions, But Don’t Count Out The Nats Or … Reds?

Welcome to the second part of our 2020 baseball season breakdown, based on our MLB prediction model. To help make sense of the contenders and also-rans of this strange season, we plugged the shortened schedule into our forecast model and simulated it 100,000 times, tracking each team’s expected record and its odds of winning the division or the World Series. Here’s what our model thinks of the 2020 National League. (And don’t miss the American League preview.)

How Elo is forecasting the NL East race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Nationals 1548 34 26 +36 61% 42% 7%
Mets 1529 32 28 +15 41 23 3
Braves 1528 32 28 +15 41 22 3
Phillies 1503 29 31 -7 22 10 1
Marlins 1457 25 35 -46 5 2 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2020 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The reigning champion Washington Nationals remain in a strong position entering the shortened 2020 season. Staff ace Max Scherzer has enjoyed seven-straight top-five Cy Young finishes and shows little sign of slowing. Last season, in his age-34 campaign, he led the NL and posted personal bests in fielding-independent pitching (2.45) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.7). Scherzer is backed by fellow elite starters Stephen Strasburg — whom the Nationals retained for what was briefly a record deal for a pitcher — and Patrick Corbin, a 2019 free agent signee who outproduced departed star Bryce Harper last season (4.8 wins above replacement to 4.6). They give the Nationals what projects to be one of the top rotations in the NL. While the Nationals did lose star Anthony Rendon to free agency, Juan Soto could be on the cusp of becoming the most feared hitter in the league: Last year, he became the first batter in MLB history to post an on-base percentage of at least .400 in his age-19 and -20 seasons. The Nationals aren’t without their question marks, particularly their bullpen, which struggled mightily last season — though they did add right-handed reliever Will Harris in free agency.

The New York Mets do not lack for elite pitching, with Jacob deGrom coming off back-to-back Cy Young Awards. DeGrom’s combination of velocity, command and assortment of three plus pitches is just about peerless. For three straight seasons, Michael Conforto’s sweet left-handed swing has produced at least a 120 weighted runs created plus, which adjusts for the ballpark and the run-scoring environment in any given year, meaning that he’s been 20 percent better than league-average offensive performance. But the Mets still have a number of question marks. Can Brandon Nimmo enjoy a full season and flirt with a .400 OBP? Can Robinson Cano bounce back at age 37 after his worst season since 2008? Can Edwin Diaz rediscover the success he had with the Seattle Mariners? And, after an injury scare for deGrom, the biggest question might be: Can everyone stay healthy?

[Related: Baseball Will Be Weird This Year. But The Astros And Yankees Are Favorites In The American League … Again.]

While we consider the Atlanta Braves to be a postseason contender, other projection systems see the Braves as a favorite to win the NL East. The team has the strongest position-player group in the division, according to FanGraphs, and trails only the Los Angeles Dodgers in projected position-player production. Braves MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. just missed a 40-40 season a year ago; Acuña, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies each provided more than 4 wins above replacement for the season. As for pitching, Atlanta should have a quality rotation, though given his modest strikeout rate, it’s not clear if Mike Soroka can repeat his 2019 performance.

The Philadelphia Phillies loaded up on stars before the 2019 season, with their signing of Bryce Harper to a record contract as the centerpiece. What they got was a disappointing 81-81 record and a fourth-place finish. Harper ended up posting a mark of 4.6 WAR, good for 26th in MLB, but Philadelphia might worry that his best seasons are behind him: His strikeout rate has inched up for three consecutive seasons, and he’s now five years removed from truly elite production when he won the NL MVP in 2015. J.T. Realmuto is still projected as one of the best catchers in baseball, and he was last year in his first year with the Phillies, but staff ace Aaron Nola took a step backward last season, and it’s not clear how Andrew McCutchen will perform coming off knee surgery. The Phillies will also be looking to get more from free agent signee Zack Wheeler’s raw tools (elite velocity and above-average spin rate) than the Mets did.

The Miami Marlins, in the midst of a deep rebuild with what we project to be the second-worst run differential in the NL, have improved their farm system, which had been one of the worst in baseball. The Marlins also roster some intriguing major league talent they hope can show growth. Second baseman Isan Diaz has a swing that resembles his idol Robinson Cano. He hit .305 with 26 home runs in 102 Triple-A games last year. Pitcher Caleb Smith has elite spin and movement, allowing him to strike out better than a batter per inning for his three-year career. The speedy and versatile Jonathan Villar is moving to the outfield and could be a trade candidate. And catcher Jorge Alfaro is just one year removed from a 3-WAR season.

How Elo is forecasting the NL Central race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Reds 1522 32 28 +18 44% 27% 3%
Cubs 1524 32 28 +16 41 25 3
Brewers 1522 31 29 +13 40 23 3
Cardinals 1514 31 29 +11 37 21 2
Pirates 1468 26 34 -33 8 4 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2020 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The NL Central race figures to be one of the most wide-open contests in baseball this year, with our model projecting four teams finishing within a game of first place. The team with the best chance of winning the division (at 27 percent) is the Cincinnati Reds, who haven’t appeared in the postseason since their 2013 wild-card game loss. Emerging homegrown ace Luis Castillo, one of the top strikeout pitchers in the game, was joined last year by Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer to form a potential quality rotation. While Bauer struggled last year, he is just one season removed from finishing sixth in AL Cy Young voting. Gray enjoyed his best season by WAR under pitching coaches Derek Johnson and Caleb Cotham, leaning on an excellent curveball and slider — both of which were well above average. Offensively, while Joey Votto looks to be in decline, the Reds have one of the more underrated players in the game in third base slugger Eugenio Suárez, who crushed 49 home runs last year and has had three straight years of 3.9 WAR or better. Suárez is fully recovered from a late winter shoulder injury.

The Chicago Cubs once looked as if they were on the cusp of a dynasty, winning the 2016 title with a young, elite core of position players. While that group remains strong, the Cubs have struggled to develop their own pitching. The team spent heavily — in dollars and prospects — to put together its rotation: Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Jose Quintana (acquired in a deal that sent Eloy Jimenez across town) and Jon Lester were all acquired via trade or free agency. Chicago’s rotation projects as just the 17th best in baseball, and only Darvish projects to post a sub-4.00 ERA. The Cubs will try to bounce back from last season’s disappointing finish under a new manager, former Chicago catcher David Ross, who replaced Joe Maddon after he and the club parted ways and he then joined the Angels.

[Related: Our 2020 MLB Predictions]

The Milwaukee Brewers have enjoyed Christian Yelich’s growth into a superstar, changing from an extreme ground-ball hitter to one who more often lifts pitches and slugs them. And the club is hoping that another star-caliber player emerges in second-year second baseman Keston Hiura. He has a number of tools that include incredible bat speed, though he also had some swing-and-miss issues last season as a rookie. The Brewers added former top Padres prospect Luis Urias in an offseason trade and could end up with one of the best young middle infields in baseball — though they have to hope that Urias’s first underwhelming 300 plate appearances in the majors will be his worst after a stellar minor league career in which he demonstrated all five tools.

The St. Louis Cardinals have developed a new ace in Jack Flaherty, who produced the lowest ERA in the majors in the second half of last season (0.91). The 24-year-old has three plus pitches in his four-seam and two-seam fastballs and breaking ball. However, the Cardinals were just 10th in the NL in runs scored last season, and with key contributors Paul Goldshmidt, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter all on the wrong side of 30, it’s not clear how much upside resides in the group. Only the Brewers and Giants had older position players last season.

Every NL Central team appears to have a shot at the division, save for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their new regime led by general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton. The Pirates appear headed for a retooling season in part because their starting rotation is depleted. Jameson Taillon is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and Chris Archer, acquired in what is shaping up to be one of the worst trades in recent memory, is also out for the season.

How Elo is forecasting the NL West race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Dodgers 1584 37 23 +68 85% 72% 20%
D-backs 1512 30 30 +3 29 11 1
Padres 1502 30 30 -3 25 10 1
Rockies 1489 28 32 -17 16 5 <1
Giants 1454 25 35 -48 4 1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2020 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

Even with David Price sitting out the season because of concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Los Angeles Dodgers are clear favorites according to our projections. The Dodgers, winners of seven-straight division titles and two of the last three NL pennants, return a lineup with stalwarts like Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Corey Seager, and they added a star in a trade for Mookie Betts. Los Angeles also has a deep system with potential future stars ready to contribute, like infielder Gavin Lux, one of the top prospects in the game, and catcher Will Smith, who hit 35 combined home runs between Triple-A and the majors last season. Only the Astros project to produce more position player wins above replacement than the Dodgers. And despite the free agent departure of Hyun-Jin Ryu, who left L.A. for Toronto, the Dodgers have plenty of firepower in their rotation in long-time ace Clayton Kershaw and an emerging No. 1 pitcher in Walker Buehler. Among all starting pitchers in the second half of last season, only Scherzer had a superior FIP mark than that of electric-armed Buehler. The Dodgers project to produce the fourth most pitching value in this shortened season.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were in the wild-card hunt a year ago and added Madison Bumgarner, Starling Marte and Kole Calhoun in the offseason to bolster their rotation and lineup. Bumgarner posted 3.2 WAR last year with the Giants after two injury-shortened seasons, and he could give the team a No. 1 pitching option. Strikeout artists Robbie Ray and Zac Gallen provide the Diamondbacks with a deep rotation.

[Related: How Our MLB Predictions Work]

The San Diego Padres are a young team on the rise, one that could exceed expectations. The Padres had the youngest position-player group in the NL last season, with an average age of 26.2 years old, and they boast the top farm system in the NL — even after the graduation of Fernando Tatis Jr. last season. Tatis Jr. looks like a potential superstar: In his debut year, he produced an offensive performance that was 50 percent above league average, with a 150 wRC+ mark. He belted 22 homers and stole 16 bases in a partial season while displaying a powerful arm at shortstop. A sleeper NL Cy Young candidate is ace Chris Paddack, who was limited to 140 ⅔ innings as a rookie last season by the cautious Padres. Paddack employed excellent command of a swing-and-miss changeup and fastball and finished 17th in strikeout minus walk percentage among all pitchers who tossed at least 100 innings. If an improved curveball becomes a better option for him, Paddack could ascend from being very good to great.

The Colorado Rockies were a wild-card team in 2018, but their pitching fell off last season: Their ERA+, which adjusts for ballpark factors and league scoring environment, was an above-average 109 in 2018 but a below-average 94 last season. Even at mile-high altitude, pitching will be key to any success for the Rockies, given that they project to have some of the poorest production in the majors at catcher, first base, left field and center field, according to FanGraphs.

While the majority of the NL West will attempt to be competitive in 2020, the San Francisco Giants are still in retooling mode, with a new manager in Gabe Kapler. The Giants will also be without the longtime face of their franchise in Buster Posey, who is electing to sit out the season due to COVID-19 concerns related to his family. Top catching prospect Joey Bart, a former No. 2 overall pick, is the heir apparent to Posey; he has had a good summer camp, but he may not get much, if any, major league time in 2020.

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Travis Sawchik is a former sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.