The season finally starts on Thursday night, which seems at least moderately safe to write at the moment. It’s anybody’s guess as to how long it will last given the unpredictability of the pandemic.
Two weeks? Two months? Is the entire season possible?
Teams have managed to get through workouts at their home parks in relative peace. Most clubs have at least a few players waiting to be declared free of the virus but nothing so far that compromises their ability to field a representative lineup.
That seems in danger of changing once the season starts and teams travel to virus hot spots such as California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. But to what degree is uncertain.
For now, let’s put that aside and contemplate how quirky and entertaining a 60-game season could be.
Consider that ace pitchers will make only 12-14 starts and the best hitters will get roughly 225-250 plate appearances.
This is a season where there could be an out-of-the-box MVP or Cy Young Award winner. Maybe somebody will hit .400 or win the first Triple Crown since Miguel Cabrera in 2012.
The 10 playoffs teams last season averaged 98 victories — a .605 winning percentage. By that standard, 36 wins would be enough to get a playoff spot this season.
That means a team can’t afford more than 24 or 25 losses and expect to play in October. Every game is significant now. Starting 5-10 would mean having to play at a .688 clip the rest of the way to catch up. That’s better than the 2018 Red Sox.
From a statistical standpoint, none of it will be legitimate. But the World Series champion will very much be authentic, even more so than usual.
The group of players that sticks together for four months and wins a championship will have overcome plenty and learned to succeed in a baseball environment unlike anything before.
This will be a season of stripped-down, obey-the-rules baseball, a mental grind much more so than a physical one given the risks away from the ballpark and protocols within.
Here are some predictions for how it will play out:
American League playoff teams: Rays, Twins, Astros, Yankees (wild card), and Indians (wild card).
National League playoff teams: Mets, Cubs, Dodgers, Phillies (wild card), and Diamondbacks (wild card).
AL champion: Twins. They have excellent leadership at the ownership, front office, and dugout levels, along with a wide base of talent. Minnesota’s time has come.
NL champion: Dodgers. Their bullpen is a concern, but the lineup and rotation are imposing. A short season should help Clayton Kershaw be sharper come October. Dave Roberts will hold them together.
World Series champion: Twins. The team that wins it all this season will have a strong sense of purpose. Manager Rocco Baldelli has created an environment where that flourishes.
What about the Red Sox?: They could score the most runs in the league — and give up just as many, if not more. A full season always exposes a weak rotation, but in this case a short season will do the same.
Martin Perez was signed to a one-year deal to be the No. 5 starter. He’s now the No. 2 starter. That sums up their problems. A 30-30 record would be an accomplishment, and 25-35 is more realistic unless they outhit their pitching problems.
The Sox had several 36-24 stretches over 60 games last season, so there’s that.
AL MVP: Francisco Lindor, Indians. Mike and Jessica Trout are expecting a baby in August and that changes everything in this equation. Can anybody say for certain he’ll come back if the Angels aren’t in contention?
NL MVP: Mookie Betts, Dodgers. Betts compartmentalizes as well as any athlete I’ve been around. He can’t control how the free agent market develops this winter, but he can control being the best player in the game.
AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole, Yankees. New York hasn’t played a game yet and Aaron Boone is impressed with Cole’s presence and work habits. The huge contract seems to have inspired him. Oakland’s Jesus Luzardo could make a run at it.
NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, Mets. It would be his third in a row, something that hasn’t been done since Randy Johnson ran off four straight from 1999-2002.
AL Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert, White Sox. He had a 1.001 OPS in the minors last season and there’s no holding him back now. Robert homered in camp this past week while tripping and falling in the box.
NL Rookie of the Year: Gavin Lux, Dodgers. The universal DH will give the Dodgers more at-bats to spread around, which should mean more reps for Lux at second base.
AL Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker, Astros. At 71, he took over a team in turmoil and now is dealing with the pandemic. His presence will be a salve all season. The scoundrel Astros also catch a break with fans being banned.
NL Manager of the Year: David Ross, Cubs. That he would eventually manage has long been a given. Ross will be tougher on his old teammates than you might expect. He’s what this underachieving group needs.
Non-virus off-field issues to watch
1. When will the Nationals take care of Mike Rizzo? The widely respected general manager of the defending World Series champions has three months remaining on his contract. The Lerner family does things differently, but this is odd even for them.
2. Renaming the Indians. Cleveland has said it plans to “determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.” That’s basically saying a change is coming. This will probably be their last season as the Indians. How about the Cleveland Rockers?
3. Will the Mets be sold? Part-owner Steve Cohen is battling with Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez to buy controlling interest from the Wilpons. But can they — or anybody else — get it done in time to make a run at Betts?
1. Manny Machado: How many better third basemen are there in the game? Maybe 10. Machado’s $300 million deal with the Padres looked like a loser last season.
2. Trevor Bauer: He’s at the forefront of analytics and wields his social media influence like a cudgel. He also has eight years in the majors with one All-Star selection and had a 4.48 ERA last year.
3. Joey Votto: His .768 OPS last season was a career worst. At 36 (and signed through 2023) he needs a bounce-back season.
4. Rob Manfred and Tony Clark: The commissioner and the head of the MLB Players Association alienated many fans (and people within the game) with how they mishandled negotiations to start the season. Do they care more about the health of the sport or winning their personal feud?
1. Daniel Bard: He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013 with the Red Sox when wildness ruined a promising career. But at age 35 he made the Rockies’ roster. Bard was working as a mental skills coach with the Diamondbacks when he decided to attempt a comeback. Everybody who knows Bard will be rooting for him.
2. Yoenis Cespedes: He has played only 119 games since 2017 and missed all of 2019 with assorted injuries. Cespedes is 34, but the DH will give him a chance to help the Mets.
3. Mike Matheny: The Cardinals fired him 93 games into the 2018 season. His intense style, once a plus, had become a detriment. After what he termed a period of self-evaluation, Matheny gets a second chance with the Royals.
New Japanese players
1. Yoshi Tsutsugo, Rays: He can play third base, first, left field, and right field and had a .382 OBP with the Yokohama Bay Stars in Japan’s Central League over 10 years.
2. Shogo Akiyama, Reds: The first Japanese player ever signed by the Reds, Akiyama will be slotted in as the leadoff hitter.
The heat is on
1. Anthony Rendon, Angels: He spurned the Dodgers to become Trout’s wingman with the Angels, taking a seven-year $245 million deal. They need his bat.
2. Cole, Yankees: He’ll get a much easier introduction to New York with no fans waiting to pounce and the media tucked behind their Zoom screens. Cole profiles as somebody primed to succeed.
3. Josh Donaldson, Twins: Minnesota wanted a veteran hitter with an edge and leadership skills to get its group over the top. Those qualities now seem more important than ever.
4. Madison Bumgarner, Diamondbacks: Arizona has built a deep roster. It hopes Bumgarner’s postseason pedigree is the final ingredient.
Red Sox invest in development
The Red Sox were at a disadvantage going into the draft without a second-round pick. But it appears to have worked out now that the process is over.
They signed all four of the players they drafted, going $120,100 over their $5.25 million bonus allotment to secure infielder Nick Yorke, third baseman Blaze Jordan, and lefthanders Jeremy Wu-Yelland and Shane Drohan.
They’ll be penalized $90,075 for going over. But that’s a bargain considering they signed 14 undrafted free agents for only $280,000.
In all, their 18-player class is the largest in the majors.
“We didn’t have a specific quota in mind, so to speak,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “We wanted to take advantage of that period as much as we could. As long as we identified players that we thought could add to our system and we were able to make a case to them to come join us in that unique recruiting period, we wanted to be active.”
Jordan is the key to the class. He fell into the third round and signed for $1.75 million, a larger bonus than 37 players taken before him. If the slugger from Mississippi works out, he’ll have been a steal.
“His power is top of the scale for a high school player,” Bloom said. “When you’re betting big on a high school player, you want to make sure you feel really good about who that person is and his chance to overcome the ups and downs of development in the minor leagues.”
The Sox trusted that their area scout, Danny Watkins, had a good read on Jordan.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ The coaches are more impressed than you might expect with Jose Peraza, a pedestrian infielder who had a good season for the Reds in 2018 when he had 2.5 WAR as their everyday shortstop.
“We really like what he’s doing,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “His swing has been great; his BP has been great.”
The Sox see the righthanded-hitting Peraza as their primary second baseman who will get starts at shortstop and third base when Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers need days off.
“He’s valuable,” Roenicke said. “The game slows down for him. He has good hands and really good instincts.”
▪ As you watch games this coming week, keep an eye on how well the Sox (and other teams) handle relays, rundowns, cutoffs, and other fundamentals. With one field to work with and social distancing required, team-wide defensive drills aren’t as much of a priority.
Roenicke said it’s a concern, but the bigger issue would be having so many players on the field at the same time for the drills.
▪ Roenicke spoke to the Boston College coaches in person on Thursday to get their thoughts on how best to handle the tiebreaker rule that will be in use this season.
Roenicke came up with the Dodgers and coached under Mike Scioscia. His instinct would be to bunt the runner to third. But run expectancy charts say don’t give up that out.
The decision will ride on three factors: who is on base, who is up, and who is on deck. The Sox seem to want a pinch runner available (Tzu-Wei Lin most likely) for the situation.
▪ Prior to this season, the latest the Sox got started in a season was April 26, 1995, after a work stoppage was settled. They also started the 1901 season on April 26. Their shortest season on record is 108 games in 1981, another season with a work stoppage.
A-Rod playing both sides
Alex Rodriguez made $448 million during his career and enjoyed the backing of the Players Association when he was exposed as a PED user and clawed back salary after being suspended.
But now that he wants to own the Mets, Rodriguez suggested the players adopt a revenue-sharing model similar to the NBA and NFL.
The union has long opposed revenue sharing, saying it’s tantamount to a salary cap. They’ve embraced that tenet for years.
But for A-Rod, it was an obvious wink and nod to MLB that he would happily play along with what it wants. After MLBPA executive director Tony Clark called him out, Rodriguez issued a statement saying he never used the words “salary cap.”
That’s at best a technicality.
“I hope to God he’s shouted out of every clubhouse he attempts to enter in this and future seasons,” wrote former big league righthander (and current Rangers executive) Brandon McCarthy on Twitter.
“Call him a self-serving liar and make him explain himself to a room full of his former peers if he wants broadcast content.”
Francisco “Chico” Herrera is a ball boy and a clubhouse attendant with the Dodgers. The 30-year-old former junior college player had a tryout with the team eight years ago and didn’t make it. But he can still play. Herrera, wearing No. 97, has been filling in as a left fielder during intrasquad games and made several plays any big leaguer would be proud of. He threw Chris Taylor out at second when he tried to tag up on a fly ball and made an outstanding catch on the warning track to rob Mookie Betts of extra bases, then started a relay that doubled Gavin Lux off first … Milwaukee’s Logan Morrison on the idea of playing games without fans: “For me, it’s not going to be that difficult. I played for the Rays and Marlins.” … Once games start, you can expect to see more advertising in dugouts, on tarps across empty seats, and on the back of the mound (where the center field camera will pick it up). With no fans in the seats, owners are looking for every possible way to find revenue … Happy birthday to Billy Gardner, who is 93. A hard-nosed infielder from New London, Conn., a city with a great baseball tradition, Gardner played 10 years in the majors, including 89 games for the Red Sox from 1962-63. He stayed with the organization and coached third base from 1965-66 before managing and coaching in the minors until 1971. Gardner went on to manage the Twins from 1981-85 and the Royals for part of the 1987 season. His son, Billy Jr., is with the Nationals as a minor league manager.