Black swan events are a defining feature of each baseball season. Like any good sport, the contours of the game elicit a comfortable and familiar warmth. But also like any good sport, the details that make up the fabric of a particular contest or campaign are essentially unpredictable. It’s the round ball, round bat game: Weird stuff happens all the time.
Once they happen though, unexpected events have a way of enmeshing themselves in the game’s broader narrative as if they were just another ad on the outfield wall. Our brains struggle to handle surprises, and so we rationalize them. For a time, it was very weird that Lucas Giolito suddenly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball; by the time the Cy Young ballots were tallied, his breakout season was just another event from 2019, a feel-good moment and a developmental win but no longer a curiosity. Lucas Giolito is now good and we accept this for what it is.
But there’s so much more fun to be had with unexpected events. They’re worth celebrating on their own merits. In one form or another, they happen every day and to every team and we should remember the most notable of those surprises. More to the point, one of these is coming for your club in 2020. Like a birthday present waiting to be unwrapped, each team is just a month or so away from discovering something weird about itself. Today we’re going to use recent history as a guide to imagining what that will look like.
Below I’ve recounted the most unexpected thing that happened to each team from last year — with a twist. Instead of simply reflecting on what happened, I’ve assigned that very same outcome to a different, random team in 2020. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays saw their ace break a bone in an unfortunate shower accident. What would that look like if it happened to the Dodgers?
This is the second part of a long article. Today you get the National League teams; we did the AL last week.
One final thought: These comparisons are meant in fun and good cheer. It’s worth pointing out that the seemingly ridiculous is actually very possible — as evinced by it literally happening last season — but we’re going to try to keep this relatively light. You won’t find any allusions to the real tragedies or heinous crimes from the past season listed here, unexpected as they may have been.
Atlanta: That guy on your prospect list trending towards a bullpen role defies expectations, à la Miami
A year back, Sandy Alcantara looked like a reliever in waiting. True, he was pegged for Miami’s starting five, and he clung to a spot on the back half of the Top 100 in part due to the (somewhat dim) possibility he’d stick in the rotation. Everything seemed to be pointing to the bullpen though: The power fastball, the low spin rate, the corresponding lack of whiffs, and the inefficiency all suggested a future in relief.
A trip to the All-Star game put the brakes on that idea, at least for now. Alcantara still didn’t miss many bats, but he threw hard enough and with a sufficiently varied pitch mix to coax a ton of groundballs and turn in an unconventional-but-successful three-win season.
Bryse Wilson seems like a guy poised to pull an Alcantara, another 50-FV right-hander with a strong arm and a decent shot of winding up in the bullpen. Atlanta is hopeful that another year of refinement has improved Wilson’s slider enough to keep him in line for a rotation spot; should that prove true, it would be a huge shot in the arm for the team, as they need at least one of their starting prospects to take a step forward and grab a starting spot. Should Wilson be the guy, he could be a difference-maker in a tight division race.
Miami: Let’s cook up an All-Star season for a rookie who wasn’t on your team’s prospect list, à la Baltimore
Eric and Kiley are really good at what they do. No, really, really good; better than you think. The amount of time they spend on the fields, on the phones, writing, re-writing, and reorganizing the structure of their content to deliver a better product to the readers is inspiring, really. Of course, they don’t hit on everybody. Nobody can, but even when they’re a little high or a bit low on a player, they’re almost always in the neighborhood.
So when a player doesn’t even make the notable names section (Future Value: 35+) of a team’s prospect list, and then goes on to make the All-Star team — and deserve his place, more or less — six months later, that’s weird. Really weird.
John Means is the only kind of prospect who could have done it. A lefty thumber with better command than expected, Means blitzed through the American League for three months. He was notably worse (4.85 ERA, 4.96 FIP) after the break, and going forward he looks more like a mid-rotation starter or backend arm than building block. For where he was a year ago though, that’s pretty good.
The Marlins, like the Orioles, need all the help they can get, which makes them an excellent fit for this particular prize. We’re looking for a 25- or 26-year-old minor league journeyman here, so, uh, congratulations to Cody Poteet. See you at the All-Star Game in July, don’t forget to bring that 2.50 ERA with you.
New York: Your post-hype sleeper more than doubles his homer total, leads the league à la Kansas City
It’s not fair to say that Jorge Soler came out of nowhere; after all, he was a former top 20 prospect in the middle of last decade and a post-hype sleeper pretty much every season since. Five years of oft-injured and otherwise middling production wasn’t enough to entirely dampen enthusiasm. As the Cespedes Family Barbecue guys tweeted out last spring: “There have been many Spring Trainings where I have been eagerly proclaiming that This Is The Year For Jorge Soler but like, really, this time, I can feel it: ***This*** Is The Year For Jorge Soler.”
It finally was. Soler’s 48 homers shattered Kansas City’s franchise record and were enough to pace the AL. It was quite an accomplishment for a player who had only 38 dingers coming into the season, the kind of breakout that seems tailor-made for Dominic Smith to replicate. Smith, who famously posted his best big league season in 2019 after discovering the wonderful restorative power of a good night’s sleep, looks like a good bet to keep hitting so long as he can stay on the field. With Pete Alonso blocking him at first, Smith’s at-bats figure to primarily come off the bench or in left, where the Mets will have to balance his offensive production with a very shaky glove. The guess here is that he gets the ABs one way or another. If you can hit, they’ll find a place for you.
Philadelphia: Let the in-fighting begin, à la Pittsburgh
The Bucs won their final game before the All-Star break, closing the first half with an unexpectedly decent 44-45 mark. Upon returning, all hell broke loose. The Pirates dropped 17 of their first 19 in the second half, and then 24 of 28, an ugly skid that prompted no small amount of tumult. The Pirates famously fought the Reds in a late-July matchup, but they also started beating each other: Felipe Vázquez and Kyle Crick fought over clubhouse music, and Crick later scrapped with coach Euclides Rojas on the field while Keone Kela fought with a different coach, Hector Morales. It was a collective meltdown from the bullpen, one that rivaled anything that unit spat up once they got on the field last summer, and a stretch that reinforced the old notion that a losing, veteran clubhouse is a horrible place to spend your waking hours.
Squint and you can see that happening in Philadelphia. The Phillies aren’t an aging club quite yet, but there sure are a lot of veterans. If they get off to a tough start, or find themselves trailing a couple good teams in a very competitive division, it’s the little things that will produce fireworks. So when you hear about J.T. Realmuto and Adam Morgan fighting about the blender, or Héctor Neris shouting down a coach over parking lot protocol, or Jean Segura passively aggressively tweaking Didi Gregorius for dropping a popup, you’ll know that this destiny has been fulfilled.
Washington: One of your relievers winds up starting a few games in center field, à la Cincinnati
It’s one thing to have a pitcher good enough to pinch-hit a time or two. Once in a blue moon, you’ll see a guy switch from pitching to playing in the field or vice versa. But I sincerely hope that the arrival of Shohei Ohtani didn’t usher in the concept of a two-way player so quickly that we forget just how bananas the idea of sending one of your best relievers out to center field would have been just a year or two ago. Michael Lorenzen has a real case for the “best athlete in baseball” mantle.
Washington lacks an obvious candidate to pull a Lorenzen. Their relievers have barely swung the bat at all in recent years, and none of them have distinguished themselves when given the opportunity. But Tanner Rainey could be a sleeper here. In his junior year in college, he hit .386/.491/.842 with 15 homers in 53 games. True, it’s a long way from West Alabama to the big leagues, but 15 dingers are 15 dingers. The young man clearly has some thump in the stick, and 2020 will be his time to shine.
Chicago: Your longest-tenured player is now Taylor Davis, à la Toronto
Anthony Alford is not the most experienced player on the Blue Jays, nor has he accumulated the most playing time of anyone on the team. But by virtue of debuting in May of 2017 and remaining on the 40-man roster since, he’s technically the organization’s longest-tenured player. The dean of the clubhouse has a grand total of 59 plate appearances.
The Cubs are a perfect fit here. Not because they seem in any way likely to excise Javier Báez and Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo (and on and on) from the roster, but because their winter behavior offers a splendid backdrop to consider such a farcical scenario. Would starting 10-20 really get the ball rolling on this rebuild? Would a 31-54 mark prompt Theo Epstein to deal Rizzo and Baez for both of Cleveland’s AZL rosters and international cap space? Tune in to find out!
Cincinnati: Your home park starts to play differently, à la Colorado
Coors Field has a well-earned reputation as a great place to hit, but the park became a caricature of itself in 2019. Goosed in part by the juiced ball, offense soared in Denver. Ten-run games became run-of-the-mill, and Rockies players on both sides of the ball posted extraordinary home-road splits. Sam Miller chronicled all of the fun in a very entertaining article at ESPN.
A combination of humid air, short fences, and relatively low walls have made Great American Ball Park one of the friendliest places to hit outside of Colorado. It’s hard to imagine a way that it could play even more favorably for hitters, but it’s possible that Rob Manfred’s thirst for dingers knows no bounds. An even jumpier ball could disproportionately affect the smaller parks, and if that proves to be the case, bleacher-dwellers in Cincy better bring their mitts. Such a development doesn’t necessarily have to hamstring Reds pitchers, the strength of the team; perhaps they just win a bunch of games 8-6 instead of 5-3.
Milwaukee: Your most important game of the season bellies up in spectacular fashion, à la Atlanta
Coming off of a disappointing Game 4 loss in the NLDS in St. Louis, the Braves returned to Atlanta for a little home cooking in Game 5. They had the crowd, they had a beautiful day, they… were down 10-0 before they took a turn at bat. Belly-flopping at such an inopportune time is a special kind of painful.
For Milwaukee, well, it can’t be any more painful than that, you wouldn’t think.
Pittsburgh: A lot of your good players just don’t play very well, à la San Diego
Fernando Tatis Jr. was a smashing success. Everyone else? Various shades of disappointing. For Manny Machado, an injury was to blame, as he was actually pretty good over the season’s initial months. But Eric Hosmer turned in another stinker, neither Francisco Mejía nor Austin Hedges rose to the occasion, Luis Urías never hit and was subsequently shipped out, and on and on. One of baseball’s toolsiest teams spent three months looking like a contender before collapsing under dead weight.
The bad news for Pirates fans is that if this strikes, they’re in for a miserable year. They don’t really have all that many good players left, and a step back from Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds, Adam Frazier, Josh Bell, and Joe Musgrove could make 2020 an ugly season pretty quickly. On the other hand, a dip in performance sounds better than constantly trading your best players or learning that your closer is a vile criminal. Call it progress?
St. Louis: Your volatile prospect will be a revelation, à la New York
It’s hard to remember now, but Pete Alonso was a somewhat divisive prospect. Everyone recognized his immense raw power, but there were legitimate concerns about how the hit tool would play and whether his defensive limitations would significantly eat into his production in the batter’s box. Fifty-three homers and a Rookie of the Year Award later, and he’s not so divisive anymore.
There are some loose — loose — similarities here with Dylan Carlson. Like Alonso, Carlson is a bat-first high-minors prospect. There’s more defensive value here though, and his more well-rounded game gives the profile less of an all-or-nothing flavor. Still, Eric and Kiley threw a bit of cold water on a guy whose stock trended up in a big way following a 2019 statistical breakout, projecting him to a corner and likening him to more of a good player than a great one. I’m not calling those guys wrong; I’m just saying that Devil Magic has made great meals with worse ingredients before and that the Cards could find themselves in the completely unfamiliar position of seeing a young prospect come up and beat all expectations.
Arizona: Various scandals clean out the brain trust, à la Houston
Four months ago, the Astros front office was seen as one of the best and brightest (among other less-flattering adjectives) groups in baseball. Today, for different reasons, Jeff Luhnow, Brandon Taubman, and A.J. Hinch find themselves out of work. Life comes fast and all that.
It seems like a terrible fate to bestow upon the Diamondbacks’ management, which, to our knowledge, is as above-board as anyone. They haven’t been connected to the sign-stealing fiasco embroiling the game, nor anything else that we can think of. But scandals often reach the public out of nowhere, and there will always be more of them. Perhaps the batting practice caps will get everyone canned.
Colorado: You’re the team that outperforms its pythag, à la Milwaukee
The Rockies would be arguably the most interesting team to make a surprise run at contention. Not only would a Colorado surge embiggen the pile of teams challenging for the playoffs, but they’d also directly push the Diamondbacks and Padres, two strong contenders for the wild card. Contention may also help salvage the club’s fraying relationship with Nolan Arenado, a development that would presumably be as welcome in Denver as a deep October run.
Los Angeles: Your ace breaks his toe stepping out of the shower and never quite gets going, à la Tampa Bay
Baseball is a game of bizarre off-field injuries. It’s Clint Barmes hurting his shoulder carrying deer meat. It’s Kazuhiro Sasaki breaking his elbow hauling a suitcase. It’s Glenallen Hill dreaming about spiders and sleep-running into a glass table. There are many, many more examples, enough so that the story about Blake Snell breaking a toe in a freak accident while stepping out of the shower barely registers.
Showers can be dangerous places for ballplayers. Scooter Gennett once injured his hand taking a shower in the clubhouse (“trying to grab some body wash in the shower and sliced my finger on the bottom of the metal thing that holds the shampoo,” he said), and even in hardball literature, it was the shower where Brooklyn Dodgers phenom Roy Tucker ruined his pitching career.
Thus it should only be so surprising when such a fate strikes the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler or Clayton Kershaw. Surely the malady won’t be related to the seven runs Buehler surrenders to the Giants, or his subsequent wild swing at the faucet; we’ll all nod along as he explains how his shoulder separated simply when he tried to change the water temperature.
Like the Rays last year, the Dodgers will make the playoffs anyway.
San Diego: An entire side of the ball goes AWOL, à la Detroit
We knew the Tigers would be bad. The pitching staff looked thin and the offense was supposed to be worse. Still, nobody expected them to be the second-worst group of position players in my lifetime (fun? sidenote: the Tigers occupy four of the bottom six spots on this list). They couldn’t hit, they couldn’t run, they couldn’t field, and the only competent guy got shipped to Chicago in July. All told, Detroit’s position players were worth -2.5 WAR, which should be all but impossible.
But the impossible can strike even those most prepared for the storm. The Padres may seem an unlikely candidate for this fate and, well, they are. You may think that Tatis Jr., Machado, and Chris Paddack are excellent hedges against this sort of absurdist ineptitude, and that’s a rational counterpoint! But the rules are the rules. Sorry Padres fans, your pitchers will be historically bad in 2020. You were warned.
San Francisco: Everyone’s power calcifies, à la Philadelphia
The Phillies were a trendy World Series pick a year ago at this time. When the club rattled off four wins to start the season, with dingers coming from every direction in a suddenly potent lineup, it looked like the beginning of a very fun year in Philadelphia.
It didn’t turn out that way, in part because so many players in the lineup took a small but noticeable step back. Indeed, Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Segura, Realmuto, Cesar Hernandez, and Maikel Franco all notched a worse wRC+ in 2019 than they did in 2018. Key to that was a team-wide power outage and a mysterious inability to do damage on fastballs.
It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any team a bit long in the tooth, which makes it a natural fate for the Giants. Nearly every key contributor is in their 30s, and guys like Buster Posey and Brandon Belt already show signs of trending dangerously in the wrong direction. Even last year’s hot rookie, Mike Yastrzemski, is 29. For three seasons now, the Giants have hung on as a bad but stable and competent baseball team. A team-wide dip in power would push the franchise headlong into the rebuild they’ve held off on embarking.