Welcome to The Show.
It’s been a long, long wait, which agitated fans, writers, players and everyone else, as MLB and the MLBPA quibbled for months, arguing in public over prorated salaries, length of season, grievances and other such minutiae that’s all so tiring and exhausting to think about.
But the “When and Where” rallying cry has now turned to “Here and Now,” and Major League Baseball is, finally, back. Whether you agree with pro sports happening in 2020 is one thing, but for now, the league is resuming in the face of the coronavirus pandemic that is still wreaking havoc on the United States.
In a year that could have been written by cinema’s best — or worst — horror writers, baseball will be back with a season that’s not much longer than most Netflix docuseries. That doesn’t mean 2020 will be devoid of drama, pressure or stories. Just the opposite, actually.
A 60-game season means heightened pressure on every squad — and stakes are raised with every single game. While fans are used to a 162-game marathon, this year’s 60-game sprint will challenge fans, players and teams to balance patience and urgency, testing the limits of levelheaded takes for fan bases of all 30 MLB squads.
Here’s a quick refresher on what you may have forgotten and what’s going to happen this year:
Hey, remember when…
… the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole?
Yep, that’s still a thing that happened. In December, the Yankees inked Cole to a nine-year, $ 324 million pact, keeping him in Pinstripes until well after the coronavirus is gone. (Hopefully, that’s sooner rather than later.)
… the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts?
With David Price? To the Dodgers? For salary relief? And some decent prospects?
Betts is only going to get 60 games (and potentially the playoffs) to make his impact felt and push the Dodgers to the playoffs and maybe grab that ever-elusive championship ring, which would be their first in more than 30 years. The Dodgers have the best odds to win it all in 2020, too.
What really stinks for Betts is his free-agency situation after the season. He’ll certainly receive lots of unjust criticism for not accepting the Red Sox’s big extension offer before he was traded, even though he has no regrets about it.
Listen, prospects are good and having good prospects is a decidedly good thing. But you know what’s really good? Having good players, like, right now. That’s good.
… 10 teams got new managers?
Here’s the list:
- Pittsburgh: Clint Hurdle out, Derek Shelton in.
- Philadelphia: Gabe Kapler out, Joe Girardi in.
- Los Angeles Angels: Brad Ausmus out, Joe Maddon in.
- Chicago Cubs: Joe Maddon out, David Ross in.
- San Diego: Andy Green out, Jayce Tingler in.
- New York Mets: Mickey Callaway out, Carlos Beltran in.
- Also New York Mets: Carlos Beltran out, Luis Rojas in.
- Houston: AJ Hinch out, Dusty Baker in.
- Boston: Alex Cora out, Ron Roenicke in.
- Kansas City: Ned Yost out, Mike Matheny in.
- San Francisco: Bruce Bochy out, Gabe Kapler in.
… the Nationals won the World Series?
… the Astros sign-stealing stuff came out?
It was perhaps the first sign that the 2020 season would be doomed. In November, the Astros were outed as a team that used technology to steal signs in 2017 and parts of 2018.
While they’re not the first — and certainly won’t be the last — team to get banged for stealing signs, their scheme was perhaps the most elaborate, using a trash can to signal the batter for the impending pitch.
There’s probably no bigger winner for 2020 than the Astros, who won’t have to travel too far outside their own division to face the full wrath of baseball fans everywhere. While it’s in the past, the punishment has been levied and it’s all pretty much dead and buried, a small, vocal minority of Twitter users won’t let you forget that it happened.
… the Mets hired Carlos Beltran?
The Mets hired Beltran to be their manager in November.
… the Mets fired Carlos Beltran?
The Mets fired Beltran as their manager in January.
… like, everyone got Tommy John surgery?
The Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, Red Sox’s Chris Sale and Yankees’ Luis Severino all opted for Tommy John surgery prior to or during the pandemic layoff, sitting out the upcoming season. All three are expected to be back at some point in 2021.
… the Angels signed Anthony Rendon?
Man, what a deal. The Angels are in prime position moving forward if Shohei Ohtani can continue to develop as a top-tier pitcher, Griffin Canning can build on last year and Mike Trout can continue to do Mike Trout things. With Joe Maddon at the helm, the Angels might return to postseason glory sooner rather than later.
Teams to watch
A 60-game season means anything can happen. The Nationals were 27-33 through their first 60 games in 2019 and there was plenty of speculation that they would be sellers at the trade deadline. That didn’t happen.
So, that said, there are plenty of intriguing teams that could make noise in a 60-game season.
If there’s any team suited for the abnormal, it’s the Rays. Just look how they navigated the 2019 season with Charlie Morton the only Tampa Bay starter to make 30 or more starts. Even with injuries to Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, the Rays still won 96 games, and that doesn’t happen by accident.
Tampa Bay took the Astros to Game 5 in the ALDS, something that a lot of baseball fans and media folk didn’t think was a possibility heading into the postseason. While the Rays didn’t really retool this offseason, they’re bringing in a talented core of players who are built to last.
With the offseason ending approximately 10 years ago, don’t forget how much the Reds improved at the dish in free agency. They signed Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas to supplement a core that features a potentially resurgent Joey Votto and the perennially underrated Eugenio Suarez.
The NL Central is a hodgepodge of average to good teams this year, and the short season likely won’t make it any easier to predict who may come out of the division. But the Cubs have been a team that’s come up a little short on expectations since winning the World Series in 2016, even with their playoff appearances. A short season could benefit them because their pitching depth still isn’t great.
What will happen with the Astros?
The massive report that the Astros were stealing signs in 2017 really kicked off the drama of the 2019 offseason, and that continues well into 2020. While opposing fans won’t be in attendance to let the Astros hear their thoughts, on-field production is something of a question.
Best guess: The Astros will be just fine. Their core is still incredibly talented and with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke at the top of the rotation, they’ll still have a solid 1-2 punch from the rubber. Still worth watching Houston to see how the season will bear out for the ‘Stros.
What impact will Mookie Betts have with the Dodgers?
Betts has 60 games to make an impact on Los Angeles, and Los Angeles has 60 games to make an impact on Betts. LA would love to secure Betts’ services long-term if recent reports are to be believed, and that alleviates any pressure to get a long-term deal done this offseason.
Still, Betts and the Dodgers have 60 games to break the LA World Series drought, and a shortened season could provide the perfect opportunity for that.
Can the Braves break through?
Make no mistake that the Braves are a talented bunch, with lots more talent on the way. This year could be the story of two Mikes: Mike Soroka took a big step forward to solidifying the Braves rotation last season, while Mike Foltynewicz took a big step back after an impressive 2018 season.
The Braves were embarrassed in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS by the Cardinals, leaving many to wonder what went wrong. While Atlanta took steps forward to reinforce its bullpen and attempted to replace Josh Donaldson’s MVP-level production with Marcell Ozuna, there’s still something missing. Is it an ace? Is it swagger? Who knows? The Braves are good and competing in a tough division, but the time for talk and half-measures has passed.
Are the balls still juiced or nah?
There was a lot of hubbub as to whether there was something funky happening with the baseballs in 2019, with the Yankees and Twins both eclipsing the 300 home run mark — something that no team had ever done before last season.
While the longball makes for good entertainment, if MLB was truly screwing with the baseball we can expect the balls to hit the stands again in 2020.
Just how insane will this year be?
First, a reminder: The coronavirus is a serious thing. Just ask Freddie Freeman, who feared for his life while dealing with the worst of it. Professional athletes don’t owe the viewing public anything, especially in the middle of a pandemic that’s still raging.
That said: If all goes well with MLB, this could be an insane year. A 60-game season is just over a third of the games normally played, meaning every game is almost like playing a series. A good stretch from a bad team could throw a monkey wrench in the entire shebang.
It’s going to be fun to watch — as long as everyone stays healthy and safe.
We know about all the guys MLB pushes. It’s time to start paying attention to some of these dudes.
Freddie Freeman, Braves
Freeman has been perpetually underrated since entering the league. He’s a plus hitter and generally an above-average defender, and has been worth 34.6 fWAR in his career. While Ronald Acuña Jr. will likely steal headlines from Freeman (and deservedly so in a lot of cases), Freeman has been the heart and soul of Atlanta baseball for a long time.
The Two Matts, Athletics
Oakland’s Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are probably the best corners combination in MLB in 2020. Chapman is an all-world, all-galaxy, all-universe defender at third base, while Olson can claim the same at first base. They can both handle the bat pretty well, too.
Chapman has been worth 15.5 fWAR through three seasons as an A, with a 6.1 fWAR campaign in 2019. By the way, he’s also been worth 79 — 79! — defensive runs saved over three years at third base. Olson hit 36 dingers last year, and has set career highs the past three years. These guys are good, and they’re much more than a “funderdog” billing in 2020.
José Berríos, Twins
Berríos might not have pitched to a Cy Young level so far, but he’s got Cy Young stuff, and he’s entering the prime of his career. The Twins have added Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda to their rotation this year, and their lengthy lineup will certainly give the pitching staff all the run support it needs.
Berríos has been flirting with greatness for a few years now, so don’t be surprised if he breaks through in 2020.
Mike Trout, Angels
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Mike Trout.
Trout is a three-time league MVP, but he should probably have eight. He’s finished second in MVP voting four times and fourth just once. He has 73.4 career fWAR in 1,119 games. If those stats aren’t your thing, consider this: Trout has 285 career home runs, has slashed .305/.419/.581, one of just 11 players in MLB history to slash .300/.400/.550 or better (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). Nine of the others are Hall of Famers (Manny Ramirez is the only one who isn’t).
Because he’s a to-himself guy, or because he plays on the West Coast, or because he’s with the Angels, or because he hasn’t been to the playoffs often, or whatever the reason, Trout isn’t as loved or heralded as he should be. With a retooled Angels squad, 2020 could be the year the Angels make their return to the postseason.