Sure, it’s only 60 games. The rosters are bigger, the rules are stranger, and the coronavirus pandemic promises to wreak havoc with players, teams, and schedules for the duration.
But baseball is back and a country suffering from illness, death, and rampant unemployment needs the diversion. Badly.
That being said, this season will be like no other in a game that has spanned three centuries.
Because of personal and family health considerations, some participants will wear masks, others will sit out, and still others will try to survive the summer without winding up on the dreaded COVID-19 list – a disabled list without an end date.
Constant testing, social distancing, and empty ballparks will be the norm – especially for broadcasters forbidden to accompany their teams on the road. Yes, the re-created game has returned – only with TV monitors rather than Western Union ticker tape.
There’s no minor-league baseball this year but there are 60-man player pools and taxi squads, both for the first time in the history of the game. There are also pro-rated salaries for players, who are normally paid for a 162-game season.
The 2021 schedule, already published, calls for that many – but only if the pandemic eases by spring. And then there’s an ugly specter of a labor dispute as players and management seek to negotiate a new five-year Basic Agreement at the end of next season.
In a word, oy.
Fortunately, the game itself hasn’t changed much, even though the designated hitter has migrated to the National League and tie games will start extra innings with a “designated runner” on second base in an effort to speed up proceedings.
Perhaps the only recognizable aspect of the campaign will be the 10-team playoffs, involving three division champions and two wild-cards from each league. The owners, anxious to add to their heavy haul of broadcast revenue, wanted a 16-team tournament but could not get the union to rubber-stamp that ridiculous concept.
Still, things could change in a heartbeat, as Major League Baseball reserves the right to relocate games to neutral sites in coronavirus hotbeds. The Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s only club, have already been told they can’t play at home – thanks to a government edict that mandates two-week quarantines for anyone coming into the country.
In the meantime, there are tons of potential story-lines: will the Mets and Yankees give New York its first Subway Series in 20 years? will Jacob deGrom win his third straight Cy Young Award? Can Shohei Ohtani live up to his reputation as the best two-way player since Babe Ruth?
One thing is virtually certain: because of the vagaries of the virus, this season is more difficult to predict than any other. Yet, no season can start without this annual Fearless Forecast.
So here goes:
AL East – With Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton healthy again, the Yankees will ride the pitching of Gerrit Cole and James Paxton into the playoffs, even without Masahiro Tanaka (concussion) and Aroldis Chapman (positive test). The uprooted Blue Jays will ride kid sluggers Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio into a surprise runner-up finish, with Hyun-Jin Ryu the new No. 1 starter. Look for Tampa Bay to finish a close third, followed by the reeling Red Sox, now minus Mookie Betts and David Price (traded) and Chris Sale (injured). We won’t even mention the Baltimore Orioles, who would lose 110 if the season were long enough.
Likely finish: Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, Orioles.
AL Central – More than any other team, the Chicago White Sox imported enough talented veterans to mesh well with a young corps. Lefties Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez help a lot, along with sluggers Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion, while former Cuban star Luis Robert gets his first shot in the majors. Minnesota’s maulers mashed a record 307 home runs last year and might hit more now that Josh Donaldson has arrived but the Twins don’t have enough pitching, even with Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, and Kenta Maeda signing up. Slugging Indians infielders Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez can’t compensate for the loss of Corey Kluber, but Cleveland could still be a formidable foe. Not so for Detroit or Kaycee, even though the Royals got a surprise league home run king last year is Jorge Soler.
Likely finish: White Sox, Twins, Indians, Royals, Tigers
AL West – Call them the Houston Asterisks perhaps but even stabilizing manager Dusty Baker, at age 70, won’t have an easy time. Despite 107 wins last year, this team lost five starting pitchers, a catcher, and an outfielder. Half its lineup is also eligible for free agency this fall. All-Stars Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and George Springer are great players but Justin Verlander is a year older and can’t pitch every day. That being said, the Angels hope to be heavenly now that miracle worker Joe Maddon is managing and National League RBI king Anthony Rendon is joining Justin Upton, Albert Pujols, and Shohei Ohtani in the lineup. Ohtani will pitch on Sundays but will his supporting cast be enough? The Oakland A’s are in the hunt after a 97-win season but also need pitching after staff ace Mike Fiers. There’s power and defense in the infield, where Marcus Semien is an MVP candidate. Texas could surprise after adding former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and position players Todd Frazier and Robinson Chirinos.
Likely finish: Angels, Astros, A’s, Rangers, Mariners
NL East – Baseball’s most competitive division could feature a season-long tussle involving the Braves, seeking their third straight divisional crown; the Washington Nationals, hoping to defend their first world championship; and the New York Mets, who have had more stadiums (3) than world titles (2). Atlanta has the best hitting and defense but the Nats and Mets have more pitching depth, even though New York has lost Noah Syndergaard (surgery) and Zack Wheeler (free agent). For the Mets, much depends on the DH success of Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. The Braves bank on Ronald Acuna Jr., who led the league in runs scored and stolen bases, and Ozzie Albies, who led in hits, plus the good health of Freddie Freeman after a COVID scare. The Nats need Juan Soto after losing Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman (opt-out), while the Philadelphia Phillies bank on new manager Joe Girardi, fellow ex-Yankee Didi Gregorius, and high-priced slugger Bryce Harper, plus pitchers Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Jake Arrieta.
Likely finish: Braves, Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Marlins
NL Central – Pete Rose and Marge Schott are ancient history but the Reds are again a team to be reckoned with. Newcomers Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas join Eugenio Suarez and Joey Votto in a potent lineup that provides plenty of support for Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, and Wade Miley. With the Cubs aging rapidly, the Cardinals will be a bigger threat. Look for big years from Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong, who combined for 64 home runs, and pitchers Jack Flaherty and John Gant. The Cubs will miss Maddon but still hope Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javy Baez provide backup for pitchers Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, with comeback hopeful Craig Kimbrel closing again. Christian Yelich heads a Milwaukee attack weakened by free-agent defections and the fast fade of Ryan Braun while Pittsburgh doesn’t have much beyond Josh Bell.
Likely finish: Reds, Cards, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates
NL West – Buoyed by pitching, power, and versatility, the Los Angeles Dodgers are favored to coast to their eighth straight division crown – six short of Atlanta’s record. Mookie Betts joins fellow sluggers Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson in the outfield, while Max Muncy and Justin Turner power the infield and Clayton Kershaw forms a fine left-right pitching tandem with Walker Buehler. Even adding ex-Giants ace Madison Bumgarner won’t be enough for Arizona,
even with Kole Calhoun and Sterling Marte joining All-Star Ketel Marte (no relation). San Diego needs pitching to protect leads generated by Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Eric Hosmer, while the Rockies always need pitching – no matter what Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon do. Forget the Giants, an old team even weaker without Bumgarner (free agent), Buster Posey (opt-out), and Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt (both injured).
Likely finish: Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies, Giants
Postseason – ALWC: Astros over Twins; ALDS – Yankees Over Angels; Twins Over White Sox; ALCS – Yankees Over Twins; NLWC: Nationals Over Mets; NLDS – Braves Over Reds,
Dodgers Over Nationals; NLCS – Dodgers Over Braves; WS – Dodgers Over Yankees.
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