During the customary 162-game marathon that Major League Baseball teams endure, there are very few avenues for bad teams to sustain enough good luck to squeeze into the incredibly exclusive postseason. However, in a 60-game sprint, the possibilities are a lot wilder.
Of course, the Baltimore Orioles will still be the worst in the league, even if all nine teams in their realigned division each had their three best players opt out of the season.
However, some under-the-radar teams may have accidentally been assembled to succeed in a shortened season. Without yet knowing who opts out, let's break down the types of clubs that could be built to win under these unusual circumstances:
It may simply come down to depth.
The Los Angeles Angels could be a wild-card team to watch, but losing one of Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, or Anthony Rendon for even 15 games - one-quarter of the season - could easily be their undoing.
Meanwhile, the teams that can best weather such absences will be increasingly strong.
The Los Angeles Dodgers immediately come to mind when thinking of depth, but they were always set to be a juggernaut. There are a couple of fringe contenders, though, that could look even better than expected.
The Cincinnati Reds were a dark-horse pick to win their division entering the originally scheduled campaign, and their offseason acquisitions look even better now. After losing out on some marquee names the club was tangentially linked to, the Reds opted to sign Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama.
It seemed prior to the pandemic that those moves would cost young phenoms Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino some playing time. Now, though, the club will need to rely on that depth. Additionally, both Senzel and Eugenio Suarez should be healthy to start the season, which wasn't true in March.
The Chicago White Sox were also a popular pick to turn some heads this season but likely not contend. They supplemented a young, up-and-coming roster with depth veterans this winter.
The addition of Yasmani Grandal was viewed with some skepticism after James McCann was a breakout All-Star last year. Now, though, the two catchers, along with Edwin Encarnacion sharing first base and designated-hitter duties with Jose Abreu, could be a huge boon.
Chicago also opted to invest in its starting pitching, but instead of going out and spending on Gerrit Cole, the White Sox added Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez - veteran strike-throwers - to help bolster a rotation led by Lucas Giolito.
Though depth could be the X-factor, a strong relief corps will also go a long way. During the abbreviated season, teams will treat each game - maybe even each inning - with added importance.
Clubs will rely on their bullpens perhaps more than we've ever seen before during the regular season. Pitchers such as Trevor Bauer may work on short rest, but those starts will surely be abbreviated and the Reds will go to their bullpen to lock down the late innings.
Here are the top four bullpens last year, according to FanGraphs' WAR:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those were all playoff teams last year, and two of them surpassed 100 wins. Most retained key assets in the bullpen, too, though the Tampa Bay Rays traded away Emilio Pagan. Expect more success for these four clubs.
That being said, this isn't a perfect measure and omits a significant part of the narrative: strategy. In a condensed season, teams will look to get even craftier with how they deploy pitchers, perhaps opting to piggyback starters some days, potentially on short rest. Therefore, the strength and depth of a starting rotation will also factor heavily.
The San Diego Padres, whose bullpen ranked sixth in WAR and led the National League last year, could thrive in such a setting. Beyond budding ace Chris Paddack, the rotation boasts notable depth with Garrett Richards, Zach Davies, Dinelson Lamet, Joey Lucchesi, Cal Quantrill, Javy Guerra, Adrian Morejon, and Michel Baez all able to capably start games. A handful of them - along with top prospects MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino - could become valuable relief weapons alongside an already elite group led by Kirby Yates, Drew Pomeranz, and Pagan.
The Milwaukee Brewers are set to welcome back former closer Corey Knebel from Tommy John surgery, and Steamer has the club's bullpen pegged to be the third-best in baseball. That's disproportionately due to the continued contributions of lights-out lefty Josh Hader, who's thrown over 75 innings in two straight seasons and will be called upon early and often by skipper Craig Counsell.