The Biggest Losers in a Seasonless Season

While we can hope there’s a 2020 season that provides both quality baseball and sufficient safety protocols for players, team personnel, and those who work in the game’s orbit, a lot of things have to come together to make such a season happen. A number of COVID-19-related health concerns and continued issues between labor and ownership could cause the season to stall before it ever starts.

In a very real sense, if this happens, everybody loses. But in a baseball sense, the consequences of a lost 2020 season won’t weigh equally on every team. While we maintain the fiction that every team enters the season with a real chance to win the World Series, our story’s ending is more like that of one of those German fairy tales; even if Ron Gardenhire is unlikely to be eaten by a wolf, the Detroit Tigers were always long shots to go 70-92.

Teams had different ideas about what they wanted to accomplish in 2020, and for some teams, this season was more crucial for their long-term goals — in one way or another — than it was for others.

Cincinnati Reds

Many analysts, myself included, have bemoaned the lack of ambition many teams have displayed the last few offseasons, with winning clubs seemingly most concerned with not paying luxury tax penalties or spinning tales of financial hardship too fanciful even for the Brothers Grimm.

With so many teams content with a zig to mediocrity, the Cincinnati Reds have tried to take a very refreshing zag. After losing 95 games in 2018, the Reds decided to push open their window rather than waiting for it to do so on its own, acquiring Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray (plus a contract extension), Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp. And the year prior, the Reds went all-in, putting a great deal of effort into their long shot quest to sign Shohei Ohtani, who eventually signed with the Angels.

For this good-faith effort to put together a winning team, the Reds were rewarded with…87 losses. But they didn’t give up their ideas about contending quickly, acquiring Trevor Bauer and, over the offseason, signing Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Wade Miley, and Shogo Akiyama. With these additions, ZiPS projects 2020 as Cincinnati’s greatest concentration of talent over the next five seasons. Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani are both free agents after 2020 regardless of whether games are played this year. Castellanos is unlikely to opt-out given baseball’s financial situation, but very little of the team’s core of talent projects to be better in 2021 than they do this year.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays don’t face the same kind of ticking clock that other teams do, with no players headed to free agency and team options on Charlie Morton and Mike Zunino. But with the much-reduced amateur draft likely resulting in more players deciding to go to college rather than take forced-and-deferred pennies on the dollar, there may be less new talent entering baseball this year than at any other time in recent memory. This is important for the Rays, whose model of — let’s be generous — thrift relies on a constant inflow of talent.

That makes the “now” more important for the Rays than it typically is, and they were in an excellent position to win more than 90 games again. The ZiPS projection system has the Rays essentially the equal of any team except for the Yankees and Dodgers, and even in the AL East, ZiPS still gave Tampa a puncher’s chance of toppling New York. With a short season, those odds get even better, as it’s easier to best a better team over 82 games than 162. The Rays are one of the teams least reliant on attendance for their revenue, so there’s less to lose in fanless games. With no other realistic contenders in the division other than the Yankees – sorry, Toronto — this may have been Tampa’s best chance to win their first AL East crown since 2010.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are quite likely to be an excellent team in 2021 and beyond, but as with the Reds, there’s some storybook cruelty here with the Mookie Betts situation. Without a season, the Dodgers will still retain the services of David Price and Brusdar Graterol, but the primary reason the Dodgers were willing to give up Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs was to retain the services of Betts. Now there’s a chance that after the trade that most represented the Dodgers going all-in, Betts never plays a game in a Dodgers jersey. Even Marlins fans have that week of Mike Piazza to remember. Just imagine if the Red Sox had successfully held out for Dustin May or Gavin Lux!

After the Angels’ confusing case of cold feet, the Joc Pederson trade fell through before the pandemic hit, leaving the Dodgers missing one of the possible fill-ins for Justin Turner, a free agent entering 2021. Assuming a 94% chance that the Dodgers pick up Jimmy Nelson’s $2 million option for 2021 — that’s the probability ZiPS gives for him being worth it for the team — the Dodgers will have 15 depth-chart projected 2020 wins walking away after the season, the most in baseball.

Baltimore Orioles

This was largely a “throw-things-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” season for the Orioles. The team has a lot of interesting names in the minors, but most of those players need to accumulate experience rather than add one last coat of polish. The diminished amateur draft and its budget and the (likely) lack of a minor-league season will result in Baltimore answering none of their myriad unanswered questions. With a partial major league season and a taxi squad, there would at least be an opportunity to learn more about Adley Rutschman. A lost development year arguably hurts the Orioles more than a team of established veterans.

Oakland Athletics

The Mariners are rebuilding, the Rangers have serious offensive holes, and the Angels have some depth concerns and an predilection for still playing Albert Pujols. With the Astros reeling from their trash cananigans, the loss of Gerrit Cole, and Justin Verlander recovering from groin surgery, Oakland had a real shot to topple the reigning World Series runners-up. Without a season, the unsigned Marcus Semien may have played his last game in Oakland, with his 4.7 projected wins accounting for nearly half of the 11 that are forecast to hit free agency next winter (fifth in baseball). With the world economic collapse, the odds of building a new stadium anytime soon have gotten longer, meaning 2020 may be as good as it gets.

Using the projected depth charts, I ranked all 30 teams by 2020 wins projected to hit free agency this winter. For players with player or club options, I pro-rated the wins by the projected likelihood those options are picked up or exercised after the season. The Yankees mostly get to “keep” their wins, as Giancarlo Stanton is projected as being overwhelmingly unlikely to opt-out, while the Rockies “lose” Jake McGee‘s and Bryan Shaw’s projected wins, as those options are not being picked up (all zero wins).

Departing 2020 Wins
Team Departing WAR
Los Angeles Dodgers 15.0
Minnesota Twins 12.3
New York Yankees 10.7
New York Mets 10.7
Oakland Athletics 10.6
Philadelphia Phillies 10.4
Boston Red Sox 9.8
Atlanta Braves 8.8
Houston Astros 8.5
Arizona Diamondbacks 8.1
Cincinnati Reds 7.4
Los Angeles Angels 7.2
Detroit Tigers 6.9
Texas Rangers 6.5
Cleveland Indians 6.5
San Diego Padres 6.3
Chicago Cubs 5.9
San Francisco Giants 5.7
Toronto Blue Jays 5.1
St. Louis Cardinals 4.6
Washington Nationals 4.5
Milwaukee Brewers 4.4
Kansas City Royals 4.4
Miami Marlins 3.8
Pittsburgh Pirates 3.4
Chicago White Sox 2.9
Seattle Mariners 1.6
Tampa Bay Rays 0.9
Baltimore Orioles 0.7
Colorado Rockies 0.0

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Uncle Spikemember
3 years ago

Excellent work, Dan!