It’s the final week of the regular season and hoo boy, what a season it has been. 2020 has been an onslaught of a year, and baseball has not been spared its wrath. But we have playoff baseball in our sights, folks. We made it. It hasn’t been what any of us were expecting when the calendar turned over back in January, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. Let’s see what awaits us in the waning days of the 2020 regular season.
1. Verlander, take 3
So about that last Justin Verlander blurb I wrote. This will be the last one, I swear.
Verlander took to Instagram on Saturday and revealed he would be undergoing Tommy John surgery and would not return for the 2020 season. Due to the usual recovery time of TJS for pitchers, it’s likely JV won’t be able to participate in much of, if any, the 2021 season as well. This comes just days after manager Dusty Baker had updated us regarding Verlander’s status and sounded optimistic the reigning MVP would be able to return to the mound this year. The sudden heel turn makes it even more of a gut punch.
The question that keeps crossing my mind is if we have seen the last of Verlander. He’ll likely be 39 by the time we see him pitch in a game again, and given his nearly 3,000 innings thrown over a 16-year career, it may just not be worth it to him to put his body through a lengthy rehab. Verlander is already a bona fide Hall of Famer, he has nothing left to prove. Not only that, but his current contract with Houston expires after the 2021 season. Absolutely inauspicious timing. We’ll have to see if either the Astros or Verlander himself address their future together.
2. Expanded playoffs
Commissioner Rob Manfred announced last week that the expanded playoff format that the league instituted for the shortened 2020 season could be the norm going forward. He also mentioned that the universal DH and extra-inning “batter on 2nd” rule could be in place as a permanent fixture as well. None of this has yet to be approved, but 2021 could see multiple sweeping changes to the game.
After the quiet optimism that (mostly) surrounded Manfred following his succession of Bud Selig back in 2015, public sentiment has heavily turned against Manfred. Most notably, fans have been critical of his handling of the Houston Astros investigation as well as his well-intentioned, albeit misguided, obsession with pace of play.
In short, the new playoff format, if you are not familiar with it, would expand the playoff pool from 10 to 16 teams, seeding the winners and runner ups in each division 1-6 with 2 wild card teams at the bottom. Teams would then face off in a regular bracket format, with seeds 1 and 8, 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5 facing off. While the intention here appears to be creating more playoff baseball to expand the audience and increase excitement, I believe this could be a double-edged sword.
The main problem I encounter people having with baseball is the long 162-game slog of a regular season. The day to day grind is just too much to watch for a casual fan to keep up with or care about, as to them “each game doesn’t matter all that much.” What I think the expanded playoff system could do, theoretically, is devalue those games even more. While admittedly it does put more emphasis on winning your division, if a winning % floating around .500 gets you a playoff spot – why put so much emphasis on regular season games? I suppose I’ll have to see how 2020’s playoffs work out before I pass final judgment, but this system may not be ideal for a regular length schedule that we are all expecting in 2021. Let’s see if Manfred makes any more moves in the coming days.
3. Air quality issues
Due to wildfires that have been plaguing the Northwest, many games have been affected by the haze and smoke that have spread across the globe. Last week, stadiums across the Western United States had skyscapes that looked more like another planet or something out of a video game, as smoke choked the skies, creating an orange-yellow haze that blocked out sunlight. Now, while this hopefully shouldn’t affect the playoff landscape down in Los Angeles and San Diego, the Mariners, Giants, and Athletics all still have home games to play out. All in the epicenter of the wildfires.
While the MLB finally decided to move several of the games in order to keep players safe, the fact that they even had to play in situations where the Air Quality Index was well over 200, which is considered unsafe, is damning. With a week left in the regular season and the wildfires still raging, we’ll have to see if the MLB has to call another audible on game sites.
4. Meadows out, Franco up
The Rays received some troubling news as outfielder Austin Meadows suffered an oblique strain. This will all but certainly keep Meadows sidelined until 2021. Meadows never got the wheels turning this season and was a far cry from his breakout 2019 form. But now we’ll get to see what the Rays can cook up next. The Tampa roster is very deep and Manager Kevin Cash has plenty of options to fill in for Meadows, but some interesting news broke yesterday when it was reported the Rays would be calling up shortstop and top prospect Wander Franco.
Franco is a consensus top prospect in the game, and has mowed down all competition in the minors to date. The good news was then thwarted, however, when it was clarified that the Rays were not in fact calling Franco up, but were instead including him in the 40 man postseason roster pool. Due to it being so late in the season, he could also possibly replace someone who has served the minimum amount of time on the IL, in this case – Meadows. I’ll be watching closely to see what the Rays plan to do here, given the fact that Franco is one of, if not the most exciting young player in the game.
5. Yastrzemski avoids the worst
San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski exited Thursday’s game with an undisclosed injury, which ended up being a calf strain that he would need an MRI for. Yaz has been the Giants’ best player in 2020, hitting .285/.390/.553 with nine homers in 49 games. At 30 years old, Yastrzemski is the definition of a late bloomer, but he has been a massive contribution to keeping the Giants within shouting distance of a playoff spot. Luckily for the team, Yaz won’t require an IL stint, but the nature of calf injuries are shaky. Much like oblique injuries, they can easily be aggravated or worsened with physical activity.
The Giants currently sit at 26-26, embroiled in a 3-way tie with Milwaukee and Cincinnati for the NL’s second Wild Card spot. With a marathon of 8 games against Colorado and San Diego in the next 7 days, the Giants will need Yaz at his best if they want to sneak into the postseason.
6. Jacob deGrom back tonight
After leaving his last start early due to a hamstring injury, Mets ace Jacob deGrom is scheduled to return to action tonight against the Tampa Bay Rays. deGrom reportedly threw two successful bullpen sessions in the last two days and manager Luis Rojas has said their prized starter is ready to go once again.
The Mets are not currently in possession of a playoff spot but are still technically in the hunt for a WC berth along with San Francisco and Milwaukee. Fangraphs’ playoff odds currently has the Mets at 6.6% to make the postseason, and it will take no small feat to get them there. But if anyone can get them in gear, it’s deGrom. A date with the high-powered Rays will be must-see baseball.
7. Hosmer back in action
Another Padre has entered the chat. First baseman Eric Hosmer has been activated from the IL following a fractured finger. Hosmer has been resurgent in 2020, slashing .287/.341/.533 batting mostly out of the cleanup spot for the Friars. After several down years in San Diego that led to widespread panning of the expensive contract GM AJ Preller gave to the former Royal, it’s refreshing to see Hosmer succeed again.
Yesterday the Padres clinched their first playoff berth since 2006, and getting Hosmer back into the fold is a further boon to their lineup. The team did have to scratch Mike Clevinger from his last scheduled start due to bicep tightness, but the general consensus is that Clev should be ready for his next start. Seeing this team in October and full strength will be something to behold.
8. Rockies’ reliever roundabout
The Rockies announced on Saturday that veteran reliever Wade Davis was designated for assignment. Fans probably know Davis best from his time with Kansas City and the Cubs, where his string of dominance from 2014-2017 made him one of the most feared closers in the league. Following 2017, the reliever signed a three-year deal with the Rockies, as Colorado spent big in an attempt to give their bullpen a makeover. What followed was an absolute disaster. Davis was fine in 2018, recording 43 saves but saw his ERA spike to 4.13. Then the wheels really fell off. Davis was completely disassembled in 2019-2020, forcing the Rox to call it quits on their prized free-agent catch. At 35 years old, its possible Davis has just run out of steam. Such is life with elite relievers. Still, I could very much see a team take a stab at a rebound and sign him a minor league deal or even a one-year “prove it” deal for 2021.
But where one has failed, possibly another could succeed. The team also announced Saturday that they’d be calling up reliever AJ Ramos to the active roster. The former All-Star Ramos has several years of excellent production in Miami before his numbers crater following his trade to the Mets. He tried to hook on with both the Dodgers and Cubs since, but to no avail. Ramos managed to throw a scoreless inning on Saturday and hopefully will look to join fellow comeback candidate Daniel Bard as effective relievers in Colorado’s bullpen. The Rockies are on the cusp of being eliminated from postseason contention, but the last week’s slate of games could give Ramos the opportunity to prove himself once again worthy of a major league bullpen.
9. Postseason rosters
It’s that time of year again folks, when the playoff-bound squads begin to shape their playoff rosters and line up their rotations for the incoming postseason series. Teams must submit their 26-man rosters prior to the start of each series, and the grind of no off days will definitely be changing up the strategy for most managers.
Teams can no longer rely on only three starting pitchers past the Wild Card round given the aforementioned lack of days off, and bullpens will be forced to use more than just a select few relievers. Teams who have already guaranteed themselves a playoff spot have already begun orchestrating their setups, giving starters an extra day or two of rest in order to align them for the opening games of the postseason. It will be interesting over the last several days of regular season play to see how each of the 16 playoff teams will be constructing their rosters.
10. Clinch watch
Speaking of playoffs – we still don’t have our entire postseason cast set in stone just yet. The AL has been more concrete so far, with Tampa Bay, Chicago, Oakland, Minnesota, and New York all clinching a spot, leaving Houston, Cleveland, and Toronto as the current remaining three teams in line for a spot. The Mariners, Angels, Orioles, Tigers, and Royals are all still technically in the hunt as well, with only Boston and Texas being mathematically eliminated as of today. It would take some major breaks to see one of the current 6-7-8 seeds lose their spots, but those are the theatrics I’m signed up for.
Over in the National League, things are a bit more fluid. Only two of the eight spots are locked in, going to the dominant NL West duo of the Dodgers and Padres. The Cubs, Braves, Marlins, Cardinals, Phillies all still hold tentative spots, with the last Wild Card team a current three-way tie between the Reds, Brewers, and Giants as I mentioned earlier. The Cubs and Braves currently hold 3 and 3.5 game leads over the Cardinals and Marlins, respectively. So the 2 and 3 seeds are still technically up for grabs with a week of baseball still to be played. Where the drama really shines is in those Wild Cards, though. With only the Diamondbacks and Pirates mathematically eliminated, as many as 5 or 6 clubs are in play for the Wild Card spots. I’ll be doing even more obsessive scoreboard checking than usual in these final few days.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)