Well, the rollercoaster “negotiations” have come to a merciful end. There was a brief period of further uncertainty following the players union voting down the proposed 60 game deal from the owners, but Commissioner Rob Manfred has instituted a 60 game season with full pro-rated pay for the players on his own. While 60 games, as opposed to the feared 48, may seem like a tiny olive branch, expect negotiations over the next CBA after the 2021 season to get really ugly after this debacle.
For now, though, let’s be optimistic. On paper, we have a season. COVID-19 may eventually cancel it, but us baseball fans should bask in this however-brief period of believing we will indeed have a season. In doing so, I wanted to look ahead at the 10 storylines I am looking forward to the most for this upcoming season. Here they are, in no particular order:
1 – The Post-Getting-Caught Houston Astros
Most people are probably tired of hearing about the Astros and, frankly, I am too. They are a supremely talented team and I believe that talent will rise to the top and the Astros will continue to be a force. Additionally, according to the commissioner’s report on the matter, the cheating stopped at some point during the 2018 season. So, the Astros played the 2019 season without allegedly doing what they were found guilty of the years prior and still went a ridiculous 107-55. With that said, the world now knows what transpired and make no mistake about it, this was a massive story and many fans, particularly of rival clubs, are furious. They were punished, deservedly so, and social media has taken the Astros to task.
Will the cloud that hangs over this team affect their play in 2020? Time will tell, but the fact that stadiums will most likely be empty definitely works in their favor. One can only imagine the not-so-warm welcome Yankee Stadium would bestow upon the Astros in 2020 if there were fans there. Nevertheless, if the offense slumps, particularly out of the gate, look for the media to apply a lot of pressure. Just how good are the Astros without cheating? Without stealing signs, can the Astros compete? These kinds of questions are already being asked and they will be repeated until the Astros prove themselves once again. How the Astros perform in 2020 could really make or break not only this team’s future but also its past.
2 – Mookiewood
The Dodgers didn’t quite “put it all” on the line by acquiring Mookie Betts, but they certainly put a lot on the line. After some sketchy business on the part of the Red Sox following an agreed-upon deal that would have sent Mookie to LA without LA giving up much to anyone in return, the Dodgers were forced to re-negotiate and include an elite prospect, Jeter Downs, in the deal. Downs was in addition to Alex Verdugo who, while not the caliber player of Betts, is very good in his own right, only 24 years old, and not an unrestricted free agent until 2025. That is quite a haul for Betts, who is an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season.
Betts, the 2018 AL MVP, could put the Dodgers over the top. After appearing in the World Series for two consecutive seasons before losing in the NLDS in 2019, the Dodgers have now long-been on the cusp of winning the big one. Great players have come and gone during that stretch, such as Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, and Rich Hill. Players who were critical to their early success such as Hyun-Jin-Ryu, Kenta Maeda, and Yasmani Grandal are also gone. Yet, the Dodgers still find themselves positioned to take the NL West and beyond. Betts is far superior to all of those players, but on a one-year deal, this is a huge gamble. He could put them over the hump and make them World Series champions, or he could leave after a season that has another disappointing ending and end up costing the Dodgers two potentially great young players (or three if you count catcher Connor Wong). In a shortened-season with a much smaller margin for error, how Betts adjusts to baseball in LA will be a significant storyline.
3 – Farewell to Pitchers Flailing at Pitches
The National League will embrace the DH!… for 2020 anyway. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire after 2021, many are assuming the universal DH will be a part of the new CBA when it is announced. While the 2021 season will have pitchers hitting again in the NL, it is clearly a part of the game that is on its way out. Seeing DH’s in the NL this year has me interested.
While NL pitchers may take some time adjusting to not being able to face an automatic out about three times per game, many hitters in the NL are poised to get a lot more playing time (relatively speaking, of course). Some exciting players who were set for at least a little bit of questionable playtime this year are going to benefit greatly such as Aristides Aquino, Nick Senzel, JD Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, Gavin Lux, and Joc Pederson. The DH is simply going to grant more opportunities for us to see offensive talent that we otherwise may have missed or only got in spurts. I am all for a Madison Bumgarner home run but will be happy to see more talented hitters hit.
Pitchers hit .128 in 2019. Designated hitters hit .252. While .252 may seem like a low average, that was actually the exact same as the MLB average in 2019. Such a jolt of offense in the National League should have a ripple effect throughout the game.
Take the Braves, for example.
Though the Braves had one of the best offenses in the NL last year, their pitchers were the worst in the NL at hitting. They hit .101 through 340 PAs, with zero home runs. If those PAs went to some combination of Austin Riley, Ender Inciarte, Matt Joyce, and/or Brian McCann, how much better would the Braves have been? There are other significant implications, too. DH-only players in the AL will now have a bigger market when they hit free agency, assuming this rule finds its way into the new CBA after the 2021 season. Fewer prospects will be blocked because there will be more openings and flexibility in daily lineups. Careers of beloved players like Buster Posey and Joey Votto may get prolonged and those players may see a boost in production if they no longer have to play the field.
There are many layers to this rule change. I don’t mean to come off as so anti-pitchers-hitting. Bartolo Colon’s home run is one of the most memorable individual PAs, as is Felix Hernandez’s grand slam off Johan Santana. I do think, however, the pros far outweigh the cons here and look forward to following the impact of this now league-wide rule.
4 – It’s Globe Life Field, not Globe Life Park
This one really isn’t that significant, but I wanted to include it because of how much pitchers have feared Arlington over the years. The Rangers left Globe Life Park for Globe Life Field. The two stadiums are only a one-minute drive from each other, but the impact could be significant considering how hitter-friendly the former was. The hot weather that lets balls sail through the air and over the fence will still be there, obviously. However, Globe Life Field will feature a retractable roof. Will this have an impact on how far the ball carries when the roof is closed? If so, we may have more pitchers duels than we were used to during Arlington games in July. I’m sure that makes Corey Kluber smile, but I’ll have to see it to believe it for a city that we are so used to seeing huge offensive performances in.
5 – Pending Free Agents
Even players like the aforementioned Betts, a widely-considered top-five player, could end up in some trouble with their pending free agency coming so soon. The full extent of the economic impacts of COVID-19 is not yet known. What we do know, however, is that owners were unwilling to up their proposal to the players from 60 games to 70 games in fear of losing out on, what appears to be, about $8 million per team. If times are that tight where billionaire owners would rather cancel the entire baseball season than lose out on $8 million, then what does that mean for free agency? It could get ugly.
The best way to ensure a good deal would be, of course, to play well in 2020. However, with such a short season, the margin for error is significantly smaller. A 60 game stretch could lead to some whacky final season numbers for a lot of players.
Using Betts as an example, through the Red Sox’s first 60 games in 2019, he was hitting just .271 with fewer homers than rookie teammate Michael Chavis. While anyone with half of a brain knows that such a sample is far too small to properly judge Betts, owners will understandably use a poor 2020 performance to gain leverage over players during the upcoming free agency period.
Closers such as Kirby Yates, Ken Giles, and Liam Hendriks are also staring down the barrel of an impending free agency during a pandemic. How will MLB teams utilize their bullpens? If those guys are not able to accumulate many saves and are instead used in other ways because they are their teams’ best pitchers during a sprint to the playoffs, will that help or hurt them in free agency? My guess is the latter since save totals typically dictate the price attached to relievers in free agency. Maybe the recent monstrous contract given to Drew Pomeranz, a non-closer reliever, will begin to change things in a positive direction for these arms. If I were a player like Yates, though, I would be worried about my save production going from 41 in 2019 to, say, 7 in 2020, even if it is easily explainable.
So what is the storyline here? Well, for the short season itself, the story is how the impending free agents like Betts, Yates, and J.T. Realmuto perform for their own upcoming contracts. I do not really buy into the whole “guys perform at a high level during contract years” thing because, for every example of players having career years during contract years, you can find players who played even worse in their contract years. But, man, do these free-agents-to-be need to hit the ground running… and hit it hard.
The other side of this story is free agency in general during the upcoming winter. Over the last few years, we have seen top names take until late February or even March to find a deal they like and sign with teams. Both JD Martinez and Bryce Harper took until February to sign their respective contracts. Fortunately, during this most recent off-season, the three biggest names (Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg) all signed pretty early in December, perhaps returning free agency to a state of normalcy. However, with COVID-19 and its economic impacts now in full swing, will free agency turn back into a long, drawn out staring contest where top players have a hard time finding homes?
6 – Expanded Playoffs? Still Have a Chance!
While it may look like the idea of expanded playoffs for 2020 is gone, it is not completely dead yet, according to Jon Heyman:
MLB and players still have a month before Opening Day to fashion a deal, or more likely at least side deals. It’d be silly if they can’t find a way to agree on expanded playoffs, which benefits both in the long term. It’s more big games and extra $ so would be nice to find a way.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) June 23, 2020
In a sport where it is not uncommon for a Wild Card team or lower-seeded squad to make serious noise in the playoffs, this is hugely significant. There was a growing chance even before COVID-19, especially after the Rendon signing, that we were finally going to see Mike Trout in October (to be fair, we did see him for 12 ABs in the 2014 playoffs when he was 22 years old). Even if the playoffs do not get expanded for 2020, we may see Trout in the playoffs! That in and of itself is a massive storyline.
Trout is not the only stud who would have a great chance at appearing in the playoffs for the first time in a long time, though he certainly would be the most highly anticipated. Vladimir Guerroro Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Luis Castillo are just a handful of random stars from around the game that could make their playoff debuts in an expanded setting and begin to establish a legacy of postseason dominance.
I don’t think baseball fans would want to always have expanded playoffs. What is the point of a 162 game season if over half of the league will make the post-season anyway? That aside, these are clearly different times we are in. Expanded playoffs leave a greater chance that the best teams will rise to the top. In a season so short, that will be more important than ever. I actually prefer the smaller playoffs for the MLB, however, this year is just so unique. It will be an accelerated pennant race, no doubt, but it should be really exciting with so many teams making a push for the World Series if the players and owners can come to an agreement about expanding the playoffs. Like every year, the hunt for October is the best storyline going.
7 – Trade Deadline?
The trade deadline has been set for August 31. With smaller margins in the standings between teams due to fewer games, more teams than usual could be buyers. Teams like the Padres and Blue Jays who, back in November, probably thought they were two or three years away from truly competing may be thinking differently. However, with so many teams actually competing for playoff spots, it is unlikely that there will be many sellers to begin with, limiting the pool of available players.
If there are more teams buying, look for the teams that are sellers to potentially cash in big-time. Instead of starting a bidding war between what would have been two or three teams, a race between five or six teams for a particular player could skyrocket some prices. The more teams there are that think they have a chance to win the World Series, the more we may see players go for gargantuan hauls at the deadline. This could be a solid season to reset for some clubs that, even with the potential of expanded playoffs and the certainty of more volatility within the final standings due to fewer games, have no chance at winning anything.
I do wonder if any organizations, like many fans, will view the 2020 World Series as one that will require an asterisk because of how few games there are during the regular season. If that is the case, I doubt any team would surrender a prospect haul for a rental if they didn’t think the payoff of winning an asterisk-laden title would be worth it. Though this is an unlikely approach, it is another layer to this strange season.
8 – Subway, Bay Bridge, Red Line, Beltway, and Citrus Series’!
Alright, admit it, you had to look a few of those up.
A rule for 2020 agreed to is that teams will only face the competitors in their own division as well as the teams in the corresponding division in the other league (e.g. The Orioles will only face the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Mets, Nationals, Braves, Phillies, and Marlins—AL East and NL East). This is to somewhat restrict travel and keep teams as local as possible.
I doubt many fans are now over the moon to see the Rays vs the Marlins multiple times in a season (no offense, Citrus Series). However, who isn’t excited to see Jacob deGrom and the Mets face off with Gerrit Cole and the Yankees potentially multiple times in one season? Everyone knows about the intense crosstown rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox. The Cubs have much more recently won a World Series, but the White Sox are on the rise with a ton of young stars. Several series between these clubs to determine the king of Chicago would be awesome.
Rivalries give huge sparks to sports. The rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson ushered in an era of immense popularity for the NBA. Who can forget the 2003 and 2004 ALCS between the Yankees and the Red Sox? Although the reasons behind the MLB’s plan are related to geography and safety during a pandemic, there could be unintended positive consequences as it pertains to rivalries.
Fortunately, the MLB was smart enough to do this:
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) June 24, 2020
Circle your calendars for those games!
9 – Sho-Time
Shohei Ohtani was going to be a hot storyline no matter what the length of the season was. However, with this massive delay, he should now be ready to pitch on Opening Day. We haven’t seen him pitch since 2018 but man, did he impress or what? Factor in that last year in under 400 ABs, he hit 18 homers with 12 stolen bases, and you have easily the most “complete” baseball player in the league. Could 2020 be the year we see the full, unrestrained Ohtani dominating on the mound and in the box? I hope so. Everyone knows the Angels need the pitching (something tells me Dylan Bundy is not the answer) and with Rendon joining Trout and Ohtani in the heart of the lineup, the Angels look poised to make some noise.
Baseball-Reference has been doing a cool exercise where they have used OOTP to simulate the season up to this point as if it started on time. As of June 20, Ohtani has simulated out to a .274 BA – 36 R – 11 HR – 35 RBI – 6 SB in just 197 AB. On the mound, he simulated a 3.61 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 16 starts. Granted, these numbers are just what amounted from meaningless simulations, but that is crazy! It is the same dude putting up those pitching and hitting stats!
I can’t wait to see how post-Tommy-John-Surgery Ohtani looks. The AL’s 2018 Rookie of the Year should be let-loose on the league and I am here for it.
10 – Prospect Palooza
Service time for prospects will be prorated. So, all things being equal, I don’t think we would notice that much of a difference in terms of seeing prospects earlier than normal or anything like that. However, with the smaller margin for error for each team and the fact that playoff races will be tighter due to the shortened season, maybe that makes calling up the likes of Carter Kieboom, MacKenzie Gore, Alex Bohm, Spencer Howard, and other top prospects that much more enticing to competing teams. The game has received a tremendous boost of young talent over the last few years, but that could pale in comparison to the amount of top young guns we might see called up in 2020.
Assuming the year-end awards are still given out for an abbreviated 2020 season, both leagues’ Rookie of the Year chases should be hotly contested. More important than any individual awards, however, will be how much of a boost these players give their teams. Could Bobby Dalbec provide some pop for the Red Sox that goes missing due to Betts’ departure? Could Howard (in addition to the newly acquired veteran Zack Wheeler) be the addition that the Phillies need to take their next step into the playoffs? These questions, and many others regarding the game’s top prospects, have me excited for 2020.
Images courtesy of Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis