The Chicago White Sox haven’t finished with a winning record since 2012, and their last playoff appearance was in 2008. Their dingy ballpark, Guaranteed Rate Field, is named after a company whose logo is an arrow pointing down. It fits.
The Cincinnati Reds have averaged 92 losses over the last six years. Their last playoff appearance was a loss in the National League wild-card game in 2013.
The Reds haven’t won a playoff series since 1995, when Barry Larkin was their star player. He’s now 56.
No major league team is irrelevant. But the White Sox and Reds have drifted along for the better part of a decade without making much of an impact. That could change for both teams this season.
Maybe they’ll even meet in the World Series for the first time since their now-scandalized matchup in 1919. That would be such a 2020 thing to happen.
In a 60-game season where depth will be paramount, both teams are set up well to succeed.
“Two potential surprise teams, for sure,” said former Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who is now with CBS Sports, SiriusXM, and The Athletic.
The Reds signed Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas to boost an offense that averaged only 4.3 runs last season. Their rotation — led by Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Trevor Bauer — is strong.
“I love Castillo,” Bowden said. “I feel he hasn’t touched what he can do.”
Opponents hit .128 against Castillo’s changeup last season and .190 against his slider. Bowden feels the 27-year-old righthander can take a leap forward as he gets a better feel for how to use his 97-mile-per-hour fastball.
“If he can command that pitch in the zone, he can become a star. That’s how good he is,” Bowden said. “He reminds me of Pedro [Martinez] before Pedro became Pedro.”
Bowden believes the Reds can win the National League Central.
The White Sox also added heft to their lineup by signing Edwin Encarnacion and Yasmani Grandal. That will help take pressure off 22-year-old outfielder Luis Robert, who seems to be everybody’s pick for Rookie of the Year.
Two other newcomers, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, should boost a rotation that had the fourth-worst ERA in the American League last season. Lucas Giolito, an All-Star last season, was their Opening Day starter.
“The biggest thing for me is when I wake up in the morning knowing we have a chance to win every night, and that hasn’t been there the last four or five years here,” Keuchel said. “Once a team knows that is possible, that’s when really good things can happen.”
The White Sox took a hit when Michael Kopech decided not to play. He could have emerged as a starter.
“As much as I want to, I can’t put them past Cleveland in second place. But they’re exciting,” Bowden said. “The big question for me is the rotation. The bullpen is going to be good.”
Bowden, a Boston native, was GM of the Reds from 1992-2003. The team has had only sporadic success since.
“There’s no doubt [owner Bob] Castellini wants to win,” Bowden said. “They just haven’t been able to. Castellanos and Moustakas are perfect fits for them. Cincinnati is a lot like St. Louis in terms of being a baseball town. When the Reds are good, there’s nothing like it.
“The community completely changes. It would be great for the game. The Reds draw from Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, [and] Charleston. It’s a whole area of the country.”
The White Sox would be pleased to draw well in Chicago, where they dwell in the large shadow of the Cubs. They drew 1.6 million last year, a little better than half of what the Cubs did.
But with players such as Robert, Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, and Yoan Moncada, the White Sox may be just as compelling as their city rivals.
“We see surprises every year. You’re definitely going to see some in a 60-game season,” Bowden said. “A team like the White Sox can make a lot of noise.”
Red Sox will be in transition
The Red Sox used 27 pitchers over 162 games last year. They could use 27 for 60 games this season.
The Sox have 28 pitchers in their player pool. Outside of lefthander Jay Groome, who is in Pawtucket for developmental purposes, they all could get a chance.
With Eduardo Rodriguez still recovering from COVID-19, Nate Eovaldi and Martin Perez are the only legitimate starters on the roster. The Sox are hoping Ryan Weber can handle the third rotation spot. Fringe big leaguers and openers will fill the other two.
Few Red Sox fans would recognize Dylan Covey, Zack Godley, Matt Hall, Chris Mazza, or Jeffrey Springs. But they’re going to get plenty of work.
You can expect frequent transactions between Boston and Pawtucket.
“It’s important to have guys in Pawtucket who are stretched out,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “We know we’re not going to get through this without some changes … I think there’s going to be quite a bit of movement.”
Pitching help will come from the outside, too, as other teams make moves. The Sox picked up Covey from the Rays for $1, and he made their Opening Day roster.
The Rays, Chaim Bloom’s former team, averaged 32 pitchers over the last three seasons. They manipulated the roster to gain advantages whenever possible. The Red Sox are pointed in that direction.
As one rival evaluator noted, the Rays have been adept at finding hidden gems and determining how best they fit a pitching staff. They used 33 pitchers last season and led the American League with a 3.65 ERA.
“Chaim has that playbook,” the evaluator said.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Jarren Duran may not be needed this season unless there’s an injury or trade. But the 23-year-old center fielder has a bright future based on how he played in an intrasquad game.
Duran had two doubles and made two nice catches in his first game at Fenway Park before being sent back to Pawtucket to work out with the group there.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I couldn’t stop looking around.”
Duran, a seventh-round pick from Long Beach State in 2018, finished last season in Double A. He doesn’t hit for much power but stole 46 bases in 132 games in 2019.
During the shutdown, Duran worked out at Long Beach State. But the Angels booted him out because they’re using the school’s ballpark as their alternative site.
“I was like, ‘I went to college here, though. Can’t I hit in the cage one more time before you guys move in here?’ ” Duran said. “They were like, ‘Sorry, can’t do that.’ ”
▪ When Oakland added righthander Jordan Weems to its roster, it marked a bit of a milestone for the Red Sox.
Now the team’s first eight picks of the 2011 draft have made the majors. Weems was drafted as a catcher in the second round and became a pitcher in 2016. He wasn’t overly impressive and left the organization as a minor league free agent after last season. Oakland gave him a chance and he ran with it.
In order, the Sox took Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Jackie Bradley Jr., Williams Jerez, Weems, Noe Ramirez, and Mookie Betts in that draft.
▪ Junichi Tazawa, who pitched very well for the Red Sox as a setup man, primarily from 2012-16, is now pitching in Japan. That’s noteworthy.
Tazawa angered the Japanese professional leagues when he skipped their draft and signed with the Sox in 2008 as a 22-year-old amateur. He was then informally banned from playing for the national team and Nippon Professional Baseball passed a rule saying amateurs who played overseas couldn’t return for pitch for three years.
Now, at 34, Tazawa is pitching in a Japanese independent league, which could lead to a spot with a team in the NPL.
Giants’ Kapler takes a knee
One manager taking a knee during the national anthem to support the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t necessarily going to change things.
But it’s worth noting that after Gabe Kapler did what he felt was right before the Giants played an exhibition game on Monday night, MLB’s official Twitter account posted a photo of him and included the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
And when that post got pushback from trolls, there was a response.
“It has never been about the military or the flag,” @MLB wrote. “The players and coaches are using their platforms to peacefully protest.”
The Giants team account also posted a photo of Kapler kneeling along one of his coaches, Antoan Richardson.
“I did that because I wanted [the players] to know that I wasn’t pleased with the way our country has handled police brutality,” Kapler said. “I told them I wanted to amplify their voices and I wanted to amplify the voice of the Black community and marginalized communities, as well. I told them that I wanted to use my platform to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with the way we have handled racism in our country.
“I wanted to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with our clear systematic racism in our country and I wanted them to know that they got to make their own decision and we would respect and support those decisions.”
Three Giants players also took a knee, including Mike Yastrzemski.
On Thursday, Kapler and several Giants players knelt again during the anthem before their season opener against the Dodgers. Mookie Betts joined them a day after signing his big contract. White teammates Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger each put a hand on his shoulder.
“It just shows unity,” Betts said. “I think everybody is on board with what’s going on in the world. We need change.”
Again, MLB’s social media channels posted photos of the moment.
The Red Sox and other teams that started the season on Friday also took part in anti-racism events before their games. MLB has provided patches the players and coaches can wear on their uniforms if they choose. One says “Black Lives Matter” and the other “United For Change.”
The public support of the league and participation by every team is significant. MLB has long embraced the legacy of Jackie Robinson and financially supported youth baseball for kids from diverse backgrounds with its RBI Program. But jumping into what has become a politicized issue is entirely different.
With rare exceptions, baseball players are an apolitical bunch when compared with their NBA and NFL counterparts. The ability to steer away from controversial topics has long been considered part of being a good teammate and helping to maintain clubhouse peace.
But when prominent players and a manager take a knee and the league backs them up, it’s a sign those days are coming to an end. Honoring Robinson is great. Emulating him is better.
Some interesting details in Betts’s new $365 million contract: He has a $65 million signing bonus with payments starting in 2021. That offers financial protection in the event he loses more salary this season or next season because of the pandemic or because of a work stoppage before the 2022 season. There are $115 million in deferred payments, too. Betts does not have any opt-out clauses or no-trade rights. But the deferred money reverts back into the contract term if he is traded. If not, his payments will go through 2044. Betts also agreed to donate $100,000 annually to the team’s charity arm … Hard-throwing 21-year-old righthander Brusdar Graterol made the Dodgers’ roster. He was the Twins prospect the Red Sox initially landed as part of the Betts deal, then kicked back because of medical concerns. The Dodgers then made a side deal with the Twins to get Graterol … Now that the Blue Jays will play most of their home games in Buffalo, New York will have three teams for the first time since 1957 when the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees were in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, respectively … Fox plans to use computer-generated fans on its telecasts to make it appear the stands are full. Fox vice president Brad Zager said it will create a “natural viewing experience” and that the network is not trying to fool its viewers. But is that ethical? That fans cannot attend games during a national crisis is what defines baseball this season. Fox’s job is to show viewers what is happening at the park that day, not a manipulated version of what it would prefer. It makes you wonder what else it is changing … When Dustin May started in place of an injured Clayton Kershaw on Thursday, he became the first rookie Opening Day starter for the Dodgers since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. All Valenzuela did that year was win the Cy Young Award at the age of 20 for a World Series champion. May, 22, has a chance to be special. He averaged 97.9 miles per hour with his sinker against the Giants and hit 100 with his four-seam fastball … The Mets did a nice thing, installing a cardboard cutout of the late Anthony Causi in the photographers’ pit at Citi Field. Causi, an acclaimed sports photographer for the New York Post, died in April of COVID-19. He was only 48 … Righthander James Karinchak, who played at Bryant, made Cleveland’s Opening Day roster. Karinchak made his debut last season, appearing in five games. He is the first (and only other) Bryant player to appear in the majors since Keith MacWhorter pitched in 14 games for the Red Sox in 1980 … The Giants have used 14 different left fielders on Opening Day the last 14 years. The streak began in 2007 with Barry Bonds. He retired after that season and the revolving door started spinning … Brett Gardner has made 16 Opening Day starts, the most for a Yankees outfielder since Mickey Mantle. Not bad for a guy who was cut as a freshman at College of Charleston and hung around until it gave him another chance … Happy birthday to Jody Reed, who is 58. He played for the Red Sox from 1987-92 and hit .280 while playing primarily shortstop and second base. He was a doubles hitter, averaging 38 a season from 1988-91, including a league-leading 45 in 1990. Reed was left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft and was taken by the Rockies, who promptly traded him to the Dodgers. Reed played well in 1993 for the Dodgers and was offered a three-year, $7.8 million extension. At the advice of agent J.D. Dowell, who was a longtime friend, Reed turned them down. He made only $2.8 million the next four seasons while playing for the Brewers, Padres, and Tigers.