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2020 MLB X-Factors: AL and NL East

2020 is a fresh slate for all 30 Major League teams. It does not matter if you are the 114 loss Detroit Tigers or the World Series Champion Washington Nationals. Every team is starting from square one and has an opportunity to compete in the new season.

Each team’s success will be determined by the players that make the biggest impact in their team’s quest to reach October. Here are the X-Factors for the American and National League East:

AL East

Baltimore Orioles | John Means

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Baltimore was statistically the worst pitching team in the majors last season with an atrocious 5.59 team earned run average (ERA). They are a team with many holes offensively and defensively, however, they are never going to win games if they cannot pitch.

Southpaw John Means is the best choice for Baltimore to lead the rotation. The former 46th round pick had a very respectable year for the bottom feeders of the AL East. With a 3.60 ERA, and an even more impressive 2.74 home ERA in the bandbox that is Camden Yards, Means defied expectations.

He led the team in WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched), ERA, WAR (Wins Above Replacement), and even managed to earn himself 12 wins on a 54 win team.

Means pitched 155 innings showing that he can manage the workload of a full season, and if he can lead their pitching staff with an even stronger showing in 2020, he definitely gives Baltimore a chance to compete in this very tough division.

Boston Red Sox | Chris Sale

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Following a World Series victory in 2018, Boston finished as one of the biggest disappointments as they were unable to make the postseason in 2019. Offensively, Boston ranked 4th in all of baseball in runs scored; however, with a pitching staff that under-performed and battled injuries all season, it resulted in a sub-par 4.70 team ERA.

The main issue was their ace Chris Sale. A Cy Young candidate when performing at the top of his game, Sale was never able to get fully into gear last season.

Sale was an All-Star from 2012-2018, and in the two previous seasons Sale played for the Red Sox, he was able to sustain an impressive 2.56 ERA and 0.92 WHIP over 372.1 innings.

Sale struggled in 2019 with a career worst 4.40 ERA along with pitching the least amount of innings since 2011. If Sale can return to the elite pitcher he was just two years prior, which includes staying healthy, the Red Sox will be a force to be reckoned with once again.

New York Yankees | Masahiro Tanaka

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It is tough to say that a 103 win team needs improvement, but there is a reason that the Yankees did not lift their 28th World Series trophy in 2019. This was a team that defied expectations by overcoming an inordinate amount of injuries and thriving in the regular season.

They were the best offensive team in baseball, but their starting pitching struggled on a daily basis as only 1 of their 5 main starters in 2019 had an ERA below 4.00 with that being James Paxton who will miss the first 3-4 months of the 2020 season with back surgery.

The acquisition of Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole is a huge pickup for them, but it is the performance of Masahiro Tanaka that will decide how far the Yankees advance in 2020.

Tanaka was an All-Star in 2019 with a solid 3.86 ERA in the first half of the season. Tanaka could not maintain his All-Star season as he posted a 5.26 ERA after the All-Star break, including an embarrassing 12 run route at Fenway Park in late July that cemented his second half struggles.

Tanaka’s stuff, specifically his deadly splitter, is what brought him into this league, and if he is able to replicate what he was able to do in past seasons, the pinstripes will have a formidable rotation come October.

Tampa Bay Rays | Yandy Diaz

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Tampa Bay was the best pitching team in the American League last season with a team ERA of 3.65. They had a respectable offense, but not a great one, and Yandy Diaz could be the player to push them from chasing the wild card to battling for the division.

The Rays had very good showings from players such as Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, and Avisail Garcia, but they still lack the firepower necessary to compete in this division. Diaz is a corner infielder that never got significant playing time until last year, and he still he only played in 79 games.

Despite the lack of games, Diaz still produced 14 home runs at a .267 clip. His offensive game is only going to improve with more reps, and he has already shown that he is not afraid of the limelight as evident by his two clutch home runs in the winner take all AL wild card game against Oakland last season. Diaz is the bat that will make Tampa Bay into title contenders.

Toronto Blue Jays | Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

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Lackluster yet promising is one way to describe the Blue Jays 2019 season. They were in a rebuilding year, but most of the personnel on that team were not Major League ready.

Toronto was able to revamp their rotation with veteran pitchers Hyun-jin Ryu and Tanner Roark, but it is their offense, which ranked a league worst team batting average of .236, that needs to improve. The answer for them is one of last season’s top prospects, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr. had a strong rookie season considering he had no protection in the lineup. He hit .272 with 15 home runs in 123 games, and like his father, the sky is the limit in terms of his power capability.

Guerrero Jr. had a career .331 batting average in the minor leagues and showed the ability to hit moonshots in numbers at the 2019 Home Run Derby. With time, Guerrero Jr. may even surpass his father’s greatness and help the Blue Jays get back into the race of the AL East.

NL East

Atlanta Braves | Mike Foltynewicz

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Atlanta was an offensive juggernaut last season that took firm control of the NL East. The biggest question mark for this team heading into 2020 is starting pitching because they lost two major pieces in Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teherán in free agency. In a very tough division, the Braves will need to be clicking on all cylinders, and the only way that will be possible is if Mike Foltynewicz is at the top of his game.

The team already has the bats with Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna, and Ozzie Albies managing the heart of their order. However, other than the unforeseen success of rookie Mike Soroka, Atlanta’s pitching depth was somewhat thin, and Foltynewicz was a major reason why they could not advance further into the playoffs last season.

After an All-Star season in 2018, Atlanta expected big things from the now 28 year old flamethrower. In 2018, Foltynewicz held the 6th best ERA in the NL at 2.85, and this was in large part due to his 96.4 mph average fastball velocity.

His 2019 season was rocky to say the least as he started the season on the IL with a bone spur, and was eventually demoted to AAA after posting a 4.54 ERA and giving up a career high in home runs (23) in much less innings then previous seasons.

If Foltynewicz can put last season to rest and replicate what he was able to do in 2018 with his electric arm striking out the world, then the Braves have a high chance of defending their NL East title.

Miami Marlins | Monte Harrison

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A year after the complete roster tear down with the trades of 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, 2x All-Star Marcell Ozuna, and 3x stolen base champion Dee Gordon, the Marlins struggled as expected. In a stadium with the dimensions of Marlins Park, pitchers will be able to find success.

Sandy Alcántra is a prime example of a player who was able to take advantage of Marlins Park with an All-Star season in 2019. Scoring runs is what really troubles this team as they ranked dead last in the NL in runs scored by only scoring 3.8 runs per game last season.

The best hope for the organization on improving this statistic is to look for a fresh bat. A major reason Miami traded away all their stars was to gain prospects for the future. One of the closest players to being major league ready is center fielder Monte Harrison, whom they received in the Christian Yelich deal with Milwaukee.

Harrison is ranked as the 102nd best prospect in baseball. There are still many holes in his game, but the pieces are all there for him to be a successful ball player.

Harrison has shown all 5 tools in the minors by hitting .274, displaying elite defense, stealing 20 bases, and hitting 9 home runs in 56 AAA games last season. He even earned himself a spot in the 2019 Futures Game.

It is no guarantee that Harrison makes the opening day roster, but he should be playing in the Majors at some point this season. If Harrison can live up to the hype and produce the way Miami hopes, then the Marlins may have a fighting chance.

New York Mets | Edwin Diaz

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The New York Mets were all-in last season as they traded away top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn for aging second baseman Robinson Cano and All-Star closer Edwin Diaz. The Mets were in it to win it, but unfortunately for them, circumstances did not pan out as planned.

They had rookie stud Pete Alonso slug a rookie record 53 long balls, utility man Jeff McNeil became an All-Star, and arguably the best pitcher in baseball, Jacob deGrom, repeat as Cy Young winner. Despite some amazing individual performances and a late season run, the Mets were unable to recover from their biggest detriment being their bullpen.

Everyone in the Mets bullpen struggled, but it was highlighted by the shocking collapse of Edwin Diaz. After a historic season with Seattle where Diaz saved 57 games while holding a 1.96 ERA, he completely imploded in 2019 with a horrendous 5.59 ERA including 7 blown saves.

The team as a whole suffered 27 blown saves (4th in NL) including a heartbreaking loss in the midst of a pennant race at Washington where they blew a 6-run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning. For Diaz, it was almost more mental than mechanical. Former Mets manager Mickey Callaway did a very poor job at managing the bullpen by over utilizing them, and this was a major reason for the downfall of Diaz.

May 29th, 2019 was the day that ruined Diaz as he had a 1.64 ERA and had converted 11/12 saves up to that point, but Callaway decided to pitch him for the 4th time in 5 days, which led to Diaz blowing a 3-run lead in the ninth inning. Diaz has ecstatic stuff, and if the Mets can get him back in tune, the team will be very formidable and competing to win it all once again.  

Philadelphia Phillies | Jake Arrieta

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A .500 finish was not where the Phillies expected to finish after an expensive off-season in 2019 where they acquired big names such as Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Jean Segura.

They were mediocre on both sides of the diamond, but their offense should improve with a healthy Andrew McCutchen, the acquisition of Didi Gregorius, and a possible bounce back year from Bryce Harper.

Young Aaron Nola will lead the pitching staff along with former Met Zack Wheeler as the No. 2 starter, but it is Jake Arrieta who will need to pitch better in order for Philadelphia to prosper in this tough division. Arrieta’s 4.64 ERA was the highest it has been since 2013. His WHIP was the highest since his rookie season at 1.47, and he had the highest HR/9 since 2011 at 1.39.

A combination of lots of baserunners and balls leaving the park is not a good formula for winning games, which is why he only won 8. If Arrieta can return to a fraction of his 2015 Cy Young form, then the Phillies will have a big three in their rotation that can compete with any team that comes their way.

Washington Nationals | Sean Doolittle

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For the first time in the Nationals/Expos history, the franchise held a World Series trophy. However, there is a reason that the road to the promised land was so difficult, and that was because of a faulty bullpen.

Offensively, they should still be pretty capable despite losing one of their best bats in Anthony Rendon to the Angels, and a rotation with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin is one of the best frontlines in baseball. However, the Nationals bullpen was one of the worst in the NL with an astonishing 29 blown saves (T-1st in NL).

The struggles of the pen were a collective effort as they had a league worst 5.66 bullpen ERA, but one player who needs to comeback better this year is Sean Doolittle. The closer suffered a career worst 4.05 ERA in 2019 with 6 blown saves.

Doolittle is a fairly simple pitcher who generally pounds the hitters inside with fastballs, therefore the mechanics should not be difficult to fix. He has also shown flashes of brilliance with a mesmerizing 1.60 ERA in 2018 and possibly an even more impressive 1.78 postseason ERA.

All the tools are there for Doolittle, but he just needs to put them into motion. If the Nationals want to defend their World Series title, Sean Doolittle will need to recover from a shaky 2019 and protect leads for the Nats in October.

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