The baseball season, at long last, starts on Thursday with fans in the stands and a sense of normalcy edging in like the tide.
After a 2020 season that was short, bizarrely quiet in the ballpark, and fraught with worries, we can look forward to 162 games, the return of the All-Star Game, and playoff games in front of home crowds.
A few predictions:
AL MVP — 1. Mike Trout (Angels), 2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays), 3. Matt Chapman (Athletics). Trout recently said he “figured something out” with his swing. Good luck to the pitchers. He should also have more lineup protection with Shohei Ohtani again swinging the bat well. Guerrero seems primed for a breakout season. He’s making contact on everything he sees in Florida. Chapman is criminally underrated.
NL MVP — 1. Mookie Betts (Dodgers), 2. Ronald Acuña Jr. (Braves), 3. Francisco Lindor (Mets). The National League is loaded with exciting players. None have the all-around skills of Betts, and winning a second championship will only make him want another. Acuña had similar numbers to Fernando Tatis Jr. last season and is capable of even more. Lindor is the perfect fit for the Mets and will thrive in New York.
AL Cy Young — 1. Tyler Glasnow (Rays), 2. Gerrit Cole (Yankees), 3. Lucas Giolito (White Sox). Glasnow averaged 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings the last two seasons. The talent is there for a monster season. The Yankees will get what they paid for in Cole — unless (sticky) substance abuse is behind his success. Giolito is building toward major success and had a great spring.
NL Cy Young — 1. Jacob deGrom (Mets), 2. Walker Buehler (Dodgers), 3. Blake Snell (Padres). DeGrom hits 100 miles per hour like it’s an afterthought. He has a young arm at 32, having not pitched in college until his junior year. Buehler makes pocket change next to his rotation mates, but he’s the ace. Snell is going to enjoy the NL after all those games against the Red Sox and Yankees.
AL Rookie of the Year — 1. Bobby Dalbec (Red Sox), 2. Randy Arozarena (Rays), 3. Jarred Kelenic (Mariners). If Dalbec hits 35 home runs, how does he not win? Arozarena will look to build on his playoff heroics. Kelenic, although out with a knee injury, will not lack for motivation once he’s called up.
NL Rookie of the Year — 1. Ian Anderson (Braves), 2. Sixto Sanchez (Marlins), 3. Ke’Bryan Hayes (Pirates). Anderson received a vote last year based on six starts. He’s still eligible but will have to hold off the talented Sanchez. Hayes will be a bright spot as the Pirates rebuild under Ben Cherington.
AL Manager of the Year — 1. Dusty Baker (Astros), 2. Kevin Cash (Rays), 3. Charlie Montoyo (Blue Jays). Baker guided the beaten-up Astros to the ALCS last year. They’ve lost George Springer but can still win the West, especially if Alex Bregman rebounds.
NL Manager of the Year — 1. Dave Roberts (Dodgers), 2. Mike Shildt (Cardinals), 3. Brian Snitker (Braves). Roberts was NL Manager of the Year in 2016, but it doesn’t feel like he gets enough credit for his skills in and out of the dugout. His new challenge will be integrating Hurricane Trevor into a sharply focused group.
AL Comeback Player of the Year — 1. Eduardo Rodriguez (Red Sox), 2. Trey Mancini (Orioles), 3. Jameson Taillon (Yankees). Three accomplished players and good people, too. Hopefully they all flourish.
NL Comeback Player of the Year — 1. Mike Soroka (Braves), 2. Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), 3. Miles Mikolas (Cardinals). Soroka’s return from Achilles’ tendon surgery, perhaps by late May, would be a huge boost for the Braves.
Managers on the hot seat — 1. Luis Rojas (Mets), 2. Rocco Baldelli (Twins), 3. Torey Lovullo (Diamondbacks). Rojas was hired by former GM Brodie Van Wagenen. Now he’s got a restocked roster, an ambitious new owner in Steve Cohen, and a tough division. Hope he’s renting. Minnesota’s state-of-the-art front office works well with Baldelli, but they need to win playoff games. The Diamondbacks were a disappointment last season after an encouraging 2019 season.
Players under pressure — 1. Gary Sánchez (Yankees), 2. Jose Altuve (Astros), 3. J.D. Martinez (Red Sox). The Yankees stuck with Sánchez, who was awful last season. He’s even catching Cole on Opening Day. Altuve’s output plunged last season. Weird season, or not knowing what was coming? Martinez gets his precious video back and with it his swing, or the Red Sox are in trouble.
Trade targets — 1. Trevor Story (Rockies), 2. Mancini, 3. Kyle Seager (Mariners), 4. Sonny Gray (Reds). Story will be a free agent, and at this stage, why would an accomplished player stay with the poorly run Rockies? Better to trade him instead of extending a qualifying offer and collecting a draft pick. Tanking is a heartless business, and if Mancini returns to form after missing last season, the Orioles could trade him before he gets expensive. Seager is in the final year of his deal. He deserves a chance to play in the postseason. Gray is signed for a reasonable $10.1 million in 2022 and there’s a team option for $12 million in ’23. The Reds could get a haul for a front-line starter with an affordable two-plus years of control.
Big stories of the season — 1. Pitcher injuries, 2. Labor negotiations, 3. The return of Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch, 4. Tony La Russa is back. The industry is nervous about the health of pitchers after last season. A rash of injuries as spring training started to wind down only made it worse. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire on Dec. 1, the future of the game will be an ongoing topic. That MLB and the Players Association couldn’t agree on something as easy as the universal DH was a bad omen. Cora and Hinch return to the game with only partial attendance allowed in most cities and fans kept away from dugouts. But there are sure to be some days they face vengeful crowds. Hinch’s Tigers play in Houston on April 12. La Russa and the White Sox feels like an all-or-nothing. Either the Hall of Famer’s credibility will bridge the gap with players decades younger or it will be a season of missed connections.
Red Sox invest in analytics
It probably should come as no surprise that the Red Sox added seven people to their baseball research and development department, which now has 21 members.
Five are analysts, with two in systems.
“We want to be at the front of the industry in everything we do. If you want to be on the forefront, you need to have enough people to do the work to cover everything we want to cover,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “The group here is great, but they were overworked. It was great to get the support and expand the group.”
Most of that work is on longer-term projects and research and not day-to-day data for game planning, Bloom said.
The newcomers include analyst Tyler Burch, who was with the Argonne National Laboratory developing particle physics simulation and machine learning to run on the Aurora supercomputer.
Another analyst, Jonathan Waring, came to the Sox from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Bloom didn’t personally recruit the newcomers, but he values staffers coming from different backgrounds because they bring different perspectives of the game. Mark Heil, a former Reds staffer, is coordinator of major league advance information. Sam Larson, a behavioral ecologist and analyst, came from the Padres. Tyler Forgione, a former Trinity College player, will be on the major league staff handling systems.
Deven Swiergiel, a full-stack developer, had been working on screening tools to fight COVID-19 in New York state. Analytics assistant Scott Steinberg came to the Sox from Deloitte.
Jordan Elkary and Chris Stasio, who had been on the R&D staff, are now in player development.
Former Sox executive Zack Scott, now the GM of the Mets, had oversight on research and development. Bloom said that those duties have been split up and there are no immediate plans to replace Scott.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Lance McCullers landed a five-year, $85 million extension with the Astros. He’s in his age-27 season and has an adjusted ERA of 110 with 6.7 WAR in 94 games over five seasons.
Eduardo Rodriguez turns 28 in April and has an adjusted ERA of 113 in 127 games with 13.6 WAR over five seasons.
In other words, E-Rod is going to be paid.
▪ Bloom said the Sox plan to bring back Chris Sale to the big leagues once he has built up to be a starter in minor league games. That would mean a series of minor league games, as opposed to stretching him out in major league games.
“We’d want him in the same routine as the other starters. Obviously, we’re going to take care of him,” Bloom said.
▪ The Sox are scheduled to play day games for 13 of their first 17 games, including all four games at Minnesota from April 12-15.
The season hasn’t started and there’s already attrition in American League bullpens. The Yankees will be without Zack Britton for four months after elbow surgery. The Blue Jays took a chance on Kirby Yates’s worrisome X-rays and lost when he needed Tommy John surgery. Now the Rays have shut down Nick Anderson with a partial UCL tear they believe will be solved by rest. The worries about last season playing havoc on arms are being realized. “We didn’t know how these guys were going to react,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “It’s not that they’re coming from surgery [or] they were hurt. They didn’t pitch. I bet everybody is looking for information. Their sports science people are looking for trends. This is something new” . . . Heath Hembree has hit the bouncing-around part of his career. The righthander, who was a reliable reliever for the Red Sox from 2015-19, was traded to the Phillies last August. He became a free agent after the season and went to camp on a minor league deal with the Indians. Hembree was released and latched on with the Reds on Monday . . . In other Red Sox alumni news, Brock Holt made the Opening Day roster of the Rangers after coming to camp on a minor league contract. The Rangers had to make a decision to avoid Holt opting out of his deal. He could push Rougned Odor for playing time at third base . . . The Blue Jays really had a bad week. In addition to Yates, George Springer has an oblique strain and Robbie Ray has a bruised elbow after falling down some stairs . . . Nice story with the Angels as 28-year-old career minor leaguer and Anaheim native Jose Rojas seems to have made the team as a utility player. Rojas was a 36th-round pick in 2016. “If you cast aside any kind of bias you have based on how he got here and just look at it with pure intentions, he’s done really well,” manager Joe Maddon said . . . Cam Bedrosian, who is trying to make the Reds as a non-roster invitee, struck out 14 of the first 29 batters he faced in the Cactus League, although he did allow four runs . . . Matt Harvey, who turned 32 Saturday, made the Orioles’ rotation. His last victory in the majors was June 13, 2019, with the Angels . . . The White Sox may not have Eloy Jimenez for the season after he tore a tendon in his chest trying to make a play in the outfield. Jimenez, 24, has homered 45 times in 177 career games. “A shock to the system,” said GM Rick Hahn, who could be in the market for an outfielder . . . Juan Soto through 13 games: 33 at-bats, 0 extra-base hits, 0 RBIs, and now he’s dealing with a cramp in his right calf after drawing an 11-pitch walk on Thursday night.
Memorable goodbye for Midwest Sox fan
Rest in peace, Eric Sauser. The Nebraska resident and loyal Red Sox fan died this month from leukemia at the age of 43, and the obituary penned by his wife, Crystal, went viral.
“Eric loved, in this order, his smoking hot wife, his brilliant kids and family, his many friends, the Boston Red Sox, the Kansas City Chiefs (before being a Chiefs fan was cool), the Huskers, Liverpool Futbol, QT iced tea, Adidas sneakers, fishing, backpacking, hiking, hunting, and any old Chevy he saw on the road,” she wrote.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that Eric and Crystal came to Boston a few years ago to catch some games at Fenway and that he had a trove of team memorabilia at home. His father, a Yankees fan, wore a Dustin Pedroia jersey to the funeral.
They sound like a great, loving family and condolences to them.
All the best to Dick Stockton, who has retired from broadcasting at age 78. His call of Carlton Fisk’s blast in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series — “There it goes, a long drive. If it stays fair . . . home run!” — remains legendary. Stockton stayed quiet for 36 seconds after his call, letting one of the great moments in baseball history breathe . . . The Astros decided to open the season at 50 percent capacity at Minute Maid Park, imposing their own safety guidelines after Texas state officials declared none were needed. The Rangers are operating at full capacity . . . There seems to be a trend in MLB players naming their sons. Consider the choices by Bryce Harper (Krew), Kevin Kiermaier (Krew), Mitch Moreland (Crue), Steve Pearce (Crew), and Kyle Seager (Crue) in the last few years . . . The Indians added Dan Otero to their advance scouting department. The 36-year-old righthander decided to end his playing career after spending last season with the Yankees and not being called up. Otero pitched eight seasons in the majors with a 3.39 ERA over 358 games and appeared in 12 playoff games, three in the World Series. That’s a nice career for a 21st-round pick in 2007 . . . Happy birthday to Ryan Kalish, who is 33. He had a solid rookie year for the Red Sox in 2010 and seemed to have a bright future. But a series of injuries limited him to 100 more games in the majors. Kalish has traveled extensively since and is now a “mental acuity coach.” Mark Melancon is 36. He’s been a shutdown reliever for 12 years in the majors — if you discount his season with the Sox in 2012, when he allowed 31 runs in 45 innings. His career ERA is 2.58 otherwise.