Roughly one year ago today, I was sitting in the outfield bleachers in Nationals Park with my brother Nate. The game was great — a interdivisional matchup between the Nats and the Braves with playoff implications, a beautiful night and, best of all for my anti-Washington sports inclinations, a Braves blowout win. Nate even caught a ball from Nats outfielder Victor Robles.
How much can change in a year. The Braves imploded fantastically down the stretch, while the Nationals put together a run for the ages and upended the Dodgers, Cardinals and cheating Houston Astros to win their first World Series. Hot stove season was business as usual, but the fallout of the Astros’ cheating scandal was, well, astronomical. Still not the biggest change of all, though, because that would be the coronavirus pandemic that delayed the MLB season from early spring until today and pressed the league to revert to a 60-game season instead of a normal 162. Spring training became summer camp, and the dog days of summer, with a lot more on the line for each pitch, morphed into primetime.
I missed baseball a lot, and this season has the chance to be among the most exciting ever because of what we don’t know. Will the games feel different with more playoff implications? How close will divisional races be? Will pitching or hitting be rewarded? Will new managers be at a disadvantage? Where will the (formerly) Toronto Blue Jays play this season? And pretty crucially, how many teams will be allowed in the playoffs? 10? 16? Even with the Dodgers and Yankees as overwhelming pennant favorites, the chaos factor is at an all-time high this season, making a sport that has been criticized as dated and slow into appointment viewing.
Just for the fun of it, I’ll throw out my Opening Day predictions, both for the 10-team playoff format and 16-team proposed format (which would award berths to teams finishing in the top two in their division, as well as the next two best teams in that league).
10-Team (Traditional) Playoff Format
AL East- New York Yankees
If healthy, the Yankees boast the best lineup in baseball while adding the game’s top pitcher, Gerrit Cole, to an already potent pitching staff.
AL Central- Minnesota Twins
The Twins will trot out a homerific offense complemented by a promising rotation, and are arguably the best threat to the Yankees on paper.
AL West- Oakland Athletics
The A’s, who quietly won 97 games last season, take the division crown away from Houston.
AL Wild Card- Houston Astros
Houston could have a significant problem with its Gerrit Cole-less pitching staff, but the middle of the lineup makes the Astros a write-in playoff team.
AL Wild Card- Tampa Bay Rays
You could build a whole fantasy baseball rotation with just the guys in Tampa Bay and it would be pretty good. If the Rays can develop their young bats, a deep run could be in the cards.
NL East- Atlanta Braves
They’ll win the division yet again behind MVP candidate Ronald Acuna Jr. They’re a real challenger to the powerhouse out west.
NL Central- St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis suffered a bit of a dip the last couple years, but they will establish themselves back as title contenders in what looks to be baseball’s closest division.
NL West- Los Angeles Dodgers
The best team in baseball, plus Mookie Betts. The Dodgers will be scary, and immensely entertaining, to watch.
NL Wild Card- Arizona Diamondbacks
I like the Diamondbacks as a franchise, and though they are lighter on star power than they have been recently, I could see them eating up their schedule and punching their ticket to October.
NL Wild Card- Chicago Cubs
How could I not? The rotation has two near aces in Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, while the core of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo has another run left.
16-team (Proposed) Playoff Format
Division Winners- New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers
Same as above.
Division Runners-Up: Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks
The runners-up auto qualifier adds the White Sox, who edge out deteriorating Cleveland, and while the Phillies are a hit-or-miss team, I’ll take them to hit in a shortened season.
AL Wild Cards (Next Best Two): Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers
The Cleveland Soon-To-Be-Spiders feast on the Royals, Tigers, and Pirates, while Texas outlasts the boom-or-bust Los Angeles Angels and slides into the last playoff seed.
NL Wild Cards (Next Best Two): Washington Nationals, San Diego Padres
The Nats, who I’m picking to fall back in the division, get a chance to defend their title by taking one of the additional Wild Card slots. In their first year back in brown and yellow, the Padres edge by the Brewers and Reds for the last available spot, signaling their contention days are right around the corner.
AL Pennant Winner- Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays rise from Wild Card to top billing just like the Nats a year before, stifling the Yankees and Twins with shutdown pitching performances.
NL Pennant Winner- Los Angeles Dodgers
Chalk here — the Dodgers’ bats and arms overpower the rest of the National League.
World Series Winner- Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s the Dodgers’ time. Chaos may reign in the MLB, but the Dodgers not winning the World Series? I’ll believe it when I see it (and very likely, I won’t).