When Major League Baseball submits its proposal for salvaging the 2020 season to the players union this week, it’s reportedly expected to lay out plans for scheduling about 80 games per team before an expanded playoff tournament in the fall.
According to The Athletic, teams would only face opponents from their own division and the division from the opposite league. In the Nationals’ case, their schedule would consist of games against their NL East rivals as well as the likes of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles from the AL East.
There are still so many unknowns about how the seeding might work and just how much MLB hopes to expand the playoffs amid the coronavirus pandemic that it’s impossible to predict what the Nationals’ road to the postseason might look like.
However, two factors have stood out that appear likely: The season is going to be much shorter than normal and a significant chunk of each team’s schedule is going to be dedicated to playing their own division.
Even if the NL and AL East divisions are combined, the Nationals are still going to be seeing their familiar enemies in the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins quite often. And with a smaller sample size being used to determine the postseason field, every win is going to count more than it ever has.
That’s good news for the Nationals. They were the oldest team in baseball last season and spent most of the winter re-signing their veteran pieces for another run. In a shortened season, those older players’ durability won’t be tested over the course of a full 162-game campaign.
Instead, they will be well-rested thanks to three extra three months of offseason before making the 80-game sprint to the playoffs. While no 19-31 start can be swallowed this time, the Nationals have now established a track record of getting hot when it counts. Extra roster spots or taxi squads should also allow players to get a few days off here and there even if the league decides to play every day.
On the surface, that also seems like good news for a team like the Phillies. Zack Wheeler and Jake Arrieta both have injury concerns in the rotation and Andrew McCutchen is returning from an ACL tear he suffered last June. By keeping their workloads light, all three can reasonably expect to be ready in time for the postseason.
Yet the Phillies are also going to be tasked with scoring consistently, as the dry spells they were prone too last season could prove damaging if they resurface again in 2020. The return of McCutchen and addition of Didi Gregorious should help, but someone in the middle of that lineup is going to need to step up and be the team’s anchor—whether that’s Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins or J.T. Realmuto.
The Mets, meanwhile, should have no problem scoring runs. A young lineup highlighted by Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeal, Michael Conforto and J.D. Davis should give opposing pitchers trouble. The big question for them is in unfamiliar territory: the rotation.
After letting Wheeler walk in free agency and losing Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery, the Mets lack much firepower in the rotation beyond Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman. Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha and Steven Matz are all coming off down years. If the Mets are relying on that trio to start 60 percent of their games, they will be banking hard on at least one of them bouncing back.
As for the Braves, their talent is undeniable. For what the rotation lacks in star power, the lineup makes up for twice over. Last season, they went 48-33 in their first 81 games and 49-32 the rest of the way. They were built for the long season but have enough talent to win out in short spurts as well.
That being said, Atlanta has also failed to advance past the NLDS in back-to-back seasons. In both series, its hitting disappeared when facing quality pitching from the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. Gone is also Josh Donaldson, who was replaced by Marcel Ozuna in the lineup.
With the Braves’ opponents limited to NL and AL East teams, they’re going to be facing some of the best arms in baseball with the Nationals, Yankees and Rays all boasting deep staffs while deGrom, Stroman, Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Hyun-Jin Ryu present their own set of challenges. If great pitching is the key to beating the Braves, then they may be in trouble with this proposed alignment.
There are still many more important questions that need to be answered before baseball can return, chief among them how the league can operate without posing significant health risks to those involved.
But for now, the Nationals are in as good of a position as they can be with the season expected to be shortened. The pressure is on the rest of the NL East to show it can take down the defending World Series champions.
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