It appears that there is going to be a baseball season after all, one of 60 games, following a month of ugly public negotiations between the players and owners over how to navigate through the money of the shortened season. In the words of Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer, “COVID-19 already presented a lose-lose-lose situation and we’ve somehow found a way to make it worse.”
Anyway, we can at least briefly turn our attention once again to the upcoming season and pretend we’re back in the middle of March, talking about baseball and baseball players and the wonder and joy of the best sport on the planet. A season of 60 games? Fine, here are 60 storylines to watch once those first pitches are thrown:
1. Mookie Betts in a Dodgers uniform
The February trade that sent Betts and David Price to the Dodgers for Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong might have been done to spark a rebuilding of sorts in Boston, but that doesn’t make it any less of a blockbuster. Now we’ll get to see Betts in a Dodgers uniform — and you have to admit, it looked like a perfect fit back in spring training. Of course, Betts would look good in those awful White Sox uniforms from the 1970s with shorts and collars.
Betts is arguably the second-best player in the majors, trailing only Mike Trout in WAR over the past four seasons. Then again, he might be just the second-best player on the Dodgers given that Cody Bellinger was the National League MVP in 2019. Betts makes the Dodgers an even better defensive team — and they might have been the best in the majors already, after finishing second to the Astros last year in batting average allowed on balls in play and first in the majors in defensive runs saved. Bottom line: Whether it’s 60 games or 162 games, the Dodgers are still the World Series favorite.
2. Gerrit Cole with the Yankees
You might not remember all the offseason signings, but you remember this one: nine years, $324 million. Cole will enter our new season with a 16-0 record with a 1.78 ERA over his final 22 starts with the Astros. That stretch featured 16 games of double-digit strikeouts, including his final nine in a row. He did lose a game in the postseason but went 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA in five starts, holding batters to a 1.65 average. Signing him makes the Yankees the consensus American League favorite, so maybe we’re headed for our first Dodgers-Yankees World Series since 1981.
3. Mike Trout has protection!
The second-biggest free-agent signing of the offseason was Anthony Rendon‘s seven-year deal with the Angels. Trout won his third MVP Award in 2019, and now Angels fans can salivate on Rendon hitting third and following Trout in the lineup. Angels No. 3 hitters batted .265/.323/.464 in 2019, ranking 21st in the majors in wOBA. Nationals No. 3 hitters — that’s mostly Rendon — ranked first.
4. Mike Trout!
He is now in what is regarded as his age-28 season and will turn 29 in August. So he is theoretically entering the decline phase of his career. I hope not.
5. The Nationals try to repeat as World Series champs
Remember, the Braves — not the Nationals — won the NL East, and now the Nationals are minus Rendon. The Nationals obviously can’t afford to get off to a slow start like last season, when they went 19-31 their first 50 games. You’ll hear that mentioned often as evidence of the wild results that can happen in a short season, but note that 19-31 is an extreme result for a playoff team. In fact, over the past three years, that’s the worst 50-game stretch for any — that’s any 50-game stretch at any point in the season. So yes, a bad stretch could happen to a good team, but it’s not as likely as you might think.
6. How much will people hate the Astros?
Before the coronavirus shutdown, this was bound to be an ongoing story throughout the season. Now, not so much. Maybe teams will pipe in loud boos over the stadium sound system when the Astros are the visiting team.
7. How will the Astros hit?
The Astros led the majors with a .274 average last year. They had the highest walk rate. They led in slugging percentage. They’ll be fine. Replacing Cole and Wade Miley is the bigger concern as they aim for the equivalent of a fourth straight 100-win season — which, by the way, had never been done before.
You might recall that there were many home runs hit in 2019 — a record 6,776 in total, or 1.39 per team game. Fifty-eight players hit at least 30 home runs, shattering the previous high of 47 in 2000. In 1998, the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke Roger Maris’ record of 61 homers, just 33 players hit 30. So will we get the same lively ball in 2020? The 60-game equivalent to 30 home runs would be 11.
9. The universal DH
Get over it. It’s time. Pitchers hit .128 last year. They struck out in 43.5% of their plate appearances. Then again, they hit .115 in 2018, so maybe they’re getting better.
10. New strategies
No, we won’t suddenly see more bunting, but we could see a little more creativity in the way pitchers are deployed — not just openers, but maybe something like tag-team starters early on, with two starters each pitching three innings or so before handing games over to the bullpen.
The most obvious strategic change over a short season will be aggressive usage of a team’s best relievers and longer outings for closers. Managers won’t have to worry about keeping relievers strong over 162 games; and with each game having a larger impact on the standings, they will want to concentrate as many innings as possible to the best bullpen arms. For example, there were 1,180 saves across the majors last year, with 195 of those (16.5%) being more than three outs. That percentage had already been on the rise (13.8% in 2018), and I suspect we’ll see a lot more four- and five-out saves.
11. Juan Soto‘s next level
He turned 21 in the middle of last year’s World Series — a series in which he hit .333/.438/.741 with three home runs and seven RBIs and introduced himself to a wider audience. Unfortunately, the short season will deprive him of the chance of becoming just the third player to hit 40 home runs in his age-21 season. Your all-time age-21 leaderboard:
Soto’s 34 home runs in 2019 put him fourth on the age-20 list, behind Mel Ott, Frank Robinson and Alex Rodriguez. After hitting .282/.401/.548 with 108 walks, Soto already is a proven on-base machine. Only 11 players have hit 40 home runs with a .400 OBP before turning 24. He won’t do it 2020, but he won’t turn 24 until after the 2022 regular season.
12. Ronald Acuna Jr.’s encore
That’s a perfect transition to Acuna, who not only hit 41 home runs last year but led the NL with 37 steals and 127 runs and finished fifth in the MVP voting. He might be the game’s most exciting player, and at 22, he could be an MVP candidate. (Cut down on those strikeouts!) Instead of aiming for a 40/40 season, however, maybe he can set his sights on 20/20. The only player to do that in the first 60 games of a season? The man, the myth, the legend: Eric Davis, in 1987. The last to go 15/15 was Bobby Abreu in 2005.
If Soto and Acuna were last year’s super sophomore sluggers, this year’s were going to be Alonso, coming off his rookie-record 53 home runs, and Alvarez, who slammed 27 in 87 games. Alonso has the charisma to be a star beyond whatever numbers he puts up. Alvarez has the talent — he also hit .313 — to be one of the best hitters in the game. Tune in, my friends.
For a third straight season, we won’t get the full demonstration of what the smash brothers might be able to do over 162 games. In 2018, Judge missed 50 games. Last year, Judge played 102 and Stanton just 18 — and the Yankees still hit 306 home runs. And it’s possible we won’t see the duo healthy together this year, either, as Judge is reportedly still battling a stress fracture in his rib suffered in September.
15. Bryce Harper‘s second year in Philly
Contrary to what one national pundit opined, Harper did not “stink” in his first year with the Phillies. It’s also true that Harper will forever play in the shadow of his otherworldly MVP season in 2015. Still, the Phillies have bigger concerns than Harper.
16. The White Sox and Reds “won” the winter. Will it matter?
The White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Steve Cishek and Gio Gonzalez as free agents, while also re-signing Jose Abreu. Throw in rookie outfielder Luis Robert and rookie second baseman Nick Madrigal and the White Sox have one of the most exciting lineups in the game:
The Reds, meanwhile, signed Mike Moustakas, Nicholas Castellanos, Wade Miley and Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama. They’ll have Trevor Bauer for the entire season. I like what the White Sox did a lot more than the Reds, but Cincinnati could be relevant for the first time since 2013.
17. Speaking of Luis Robert, he could be one of the top rookies
The 22-year-old Cuban center fielder is a power/speed threat who ranked No. 5 in Kiley McDaniel’s top 100 prospects. Robert hit .328 with 32 home runs and 36 steals between Double-A and Triple-A and should be a star, especially if you can improve his approach at the plate (28 walks, 129 strikeouts). My top rookie of the year candidates:
The key for the White Sox, however, might be the production of Rodon and Kopech. Rodon had his surgery in May 2019, but White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper recently said he should be ready once games resume. There has been a speculation Rodon will pitch out of the bullpen, however. The hard-throwing Kopech had his surgery four starts into his major league career in 2018, and he has the upside to be part of a dynamite 1-2 duo with 2019 breakout All-Star Lucas Giolito.
19. How about that other team in Chicago?
It was a quiet offseason for the Cubs, who didn’t spend more than $1 million on any free agent. Their biggest story right now is that Anthony Rizzo has lost 25 pounds during quarantine. Maybe the Cubs just need some healthier fare at the postgame spread to get back to the playoffs.
20. David Ross replaces Joe Maddon; Maddon goes to the Angels
The former Cubs catcher takes over for the iconic Cubs skipper, who moves to the organization for which he was a longtime coach before embarking on his successful managerial career. In a normal season, both managers would have been under immense pressure to improve on last year’s results. Does that lessen in a short season? I think so.
21. Shohei Ohtani returning to the mound
The Angels originally planned to limit Ohtani’s innings, and if the season had started on time, we likely wouldn’t have seen him pitch until at least May. Preserving innings won’t be an issue now, but let’s see how often the Angels start him. Will they stick to a once-a-week plan, like he did in Japan and in his 10 starts in 2018, or will they try to get him more starts in a short season?
22. Jacob deGrom goes for a third straight Cy Young Award
That has been done before — Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux each won four in a row — but deGrom is also aiming for a third straight season with a sub-2.50 ERA. To put that in perspective, just 27 starting pitchers since 1920 have had three seasons in their careers with ERAs under 2.50 (Maddux and Juan Marichal have the most, with six apiece).
23. Mets … LOL or Ya Gotta Believe?
Mets fans always expect the Doomsday Scenario, and it doesn’t help that Noah Syndergaard is out after Tommy John surgery, but the team did add Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha to go with deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz. The Mets also have a new manager in Luis Rojas, who replaced Carlos Beltran before Beltran managed a game. The Mets went 46-26 in the second half last year, which is often an indicator for the following season. I’m leaning toward Ya Gotta Believe.
Not that they wanted the extra time off, but both pitchers should benefit, given Strasburg’s workload in the 2019 playoffs and Scherzer’s health issues by the end of the World Series. Strasburg opted out of his contract with the Nationals, re-signing with a massive, seven-year, $245 million deal. I’ve pointed this out before, but Strasburg and Scherzer through age 30:
Strasburg: 112-58, 3.17 ERA, 32.3 WAR
Scherzer: 105-62, 3.46 ERA, 30.8 WAR
Strasburg might be entering the best four or five years of his career.
25. Madison Bumgarner in Sedona red, black and teal
The Diamondbacks will have new uniforms for 2020 — gone are the controversial diamond-pattern gradients and charcoal-gray road jerseys — but it’s who will be wearing that uniform that is most interesting. Three-time World Series champion Bumgarner left the Giants to sign a five-year, $85 million contract with Arizona, joining an intriguing rotation that includes Robbie Ray, Zac Gallen, Luke Weaver and Merrill Kelly. Will Bumgarner be successful away from pitcher-friendly Oracle Park? He had a 5.16 ERA on the road the past two seasons.
26. Are these guys for real?
27. Definitely for real: Rafael Devers
The most extra-base hits in a season by a Boston Red Sox player:
Devers, 2019: 90
Ted Williams, 1939: 86
Nomar Garciaparra, 1997: 85
Williams, 1940: 80
Mookie Betts, 2016: 78
28. Dusty Baker takes over the Astros
Baker just turned 71, having most recently managed the Nationals in 2017. That makes him the oldest manager in a job that has been getting younger over the past decade. He’s on a one-year deal with a team option for 2021 and was brought in as a steady hand after the dismissal of AJ Hinch in the fallout from the sign-stealing scandal. In one sense, Baker might have more at stake than any other figure in the game in 2020. He has 10 90-win seasons and nine playoff appearances, and he’s 15th on the all-time wins list. What he lacks is a World Series title. If he gets that, he might have a spot in Cooperstown.
29. Josh Donaldson to the Twins
The Twins set the major league record with 307 home runs last season, featuring five players who hit at least 31 home runs, and then they added former MVP Donaldson, who hit 37 for the Braves in 2019. I would have loved to see this play out over 162 games and see whether the Twins could have challenged last year’s 101 wins (second in franchise history).
30. Speaking of which, can the Twins, A’s and Rays do it again?
The Twins and A’s have made back-to-back playoff appearances. The Rays beat the A’s in the wild-card game last year before pushing the Astros to five games in the division series. Yes, all three can do it again — and don’t be surprised if one of them reaches the World Series. My bet is on the Rays, who combine extraordinary pitching depth and great defense with what might be an improved offense after they added Japanese slugger Yoshimoto Tsutsugo, former Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez and former Padres outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot. That’s a lot of mixing and matching, but it will be fun to see how the Rays maximize their lineup on a daily basis.
31. In fact, will we see Wander Franco?
The game’s top prospect is just 19 and hasn’t played above Class A, and there isn’t an obvious opening in the Tampa infield, but Juan Soto wasn’t supposed to arrive a couple of years ago at 19. As was the case with Soto, a prospect such as this makes his own timeline, and the Rays might think it beneficial to get him some big league at-bats, rather than having him spend an important development year not playing.
32. Are the Red Sox really rebuilding?
Let’s call it a readjustment. Under new general manager Chaim Bloom, the team traded Mookie Betts to add some young talent and get future payrolls under better control. The Sox also lost Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery. Without Sale, Price and Rick Porcello (who signed with the Mets), the Red Sox have lost 49% of their starts from 2019, so it’s going to be a patchwork rotation at best. Still, don’t count out a lineup featuring Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.
33. Will Cody Bellinger repeat as NL MVP?
He probably will if he starts off like he did in 2019, when he hit .376/.462/.733 with 20 home runs in the Dodgers’ first 60 games. He also started hot as a rookie in 2017, when he hit 24 home runs in his first 60 games. I’m not sure that’s enough evidence to label him a fast starter, though, as he had a terrible May in 2018, when he hit .180.
34. Will Christian Yelich challenge for MVP honors again?
Yelich won in 2018 and was even better in 2019, hitting .329/.429/.671 with 44 home runs and 30 steals and capturing his second straight batting title. So much for regression. By the start of the original spring training, Yelich was recovered from the fractured kneecap that ended his season a couple of weeks early last year. So, yes, at 28 years old, he’s at his peak, and he could become the first NL player to win three straight batting titles since Tony Gwynn won four in a row from 1994 to 1997. (Miguel Cabrera won three straight in the AL from 2011 to 2013).
35. Oh, yeah, Miguel Cabrera
He’s now 37 years old and hasn’t been Miguel Cabrera since 2016, so even though he was in great shape in March, age and injuries mean that a big comeback isn’t likely. But you never know. Cabrera is 23 home runs away from 500, so that milestone is now out of reach for 2020, but he will pass Adrian Beltre with his next home run to claim sole possession of 30th place on the all-time list. (Fred McGriff and Lou Gehrig are next, at 493.)
36. Albert Pujols
He’s four home runs away from tying Willie Mays at 660 for fifth all time. He’ll also pass Alex Rodriguez with 12 RBIs to move into third on that list, trailing only Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. This is almost hard to believe, but he’s now gone seven consecutive seasons without slugging .500 — after slugging .608 the first 12 seasons of his career.
37. Is this the year for Clayton Kershaw?
He’s not exactly washed up, people. He went 16-5 with a 3.03 ERA and held batters to a .222 batting average. Yes, the trends are going in the wrong direction — three straight years with a higher ERA and declining strikeout-to-walk ratio — but he’s still very, very good and aside from your own team, there’s nobody you’d like to see win a World Series ring more than Kershaw (unless you’re a Giants fan).
38. Justin Turner‘s final year in L.A.?
Turner is in the final year of his contract with the Dodgers and in his six seasons with them they’ve won six division titles. How good has he been? Among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances since 2014 he ranks tied for 11th in OPS+ — tied with Donaldson and Yelich. In many ways, he has been the heart and soul of the Dodgers, a player who turned himself from a utility infielder into an outstanding player.
39. The other 2021 free agents
Besides Betts and Turner, it’s an interesting list of players — a group that will be fighting for dollars in what almost certainly will be a tight free-agent market because of the economic losses this season. The top names: J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, DJ LeMahieu, Yuli Gurriel, Michael Brantley, Nelson Cruz, Joc Pederson, Trevor Bauer, James Paxton, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, Masahiro Tanaka.
Again, some of the economic uncertainty probably makes it less likely these players will be traded — teams will be reluctant to take on even more money. On the other hand, especially in Lindor’s case, maybe the Indians’ owners will be even more desperate to save money and trade him for 75 cents on the dollar.
41. The Padres’ new uniforms
Can uniforms be a storyline? Yes, when Fernando Tatis Jr. is wearing one.
42. A trio of Blue Jays
Bo Bichette was the revelation, Cavan Biggio the surprise and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. the chosen one. The three sons of former major leaguers — two of them Hall of Famers — on one team is already a great story. It will get even better when they build a better team around the three youngsters.
43. Can Jack Flaherty continue to dominate?
The Cardinals’ ace over his final 16 regular-season starts: 7-3, 0.93 ERA, .139 batting average allowed, just six home runs in 106 ⅓ innings. Umm, I’m going to say this and you can only nod in agreement: That’s Gibson-esque.
44. Young Dodgers starters
45. Comeback players
This list might include Joey Votto, Craig Kimbrel and Edwin Diaz, among others, but the No. 1 guy to watch is two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, now with the Rangers after an offseason trade. He was hit hard in seven early-season starts before missing the rest of the season with a forearm fracture after getting hit by a line drive and then an oblique. He joins Mike Minor and Lance Lynn to potentially give the Rangers one of the best starting trios in the majors.
46. Hard-hittin’ shortstops
Garry Templeton won a Silver Slugger for the Padres in 1984 — hitting .258 with two home runs. Only one NL shortstop hit more than six home runs that year. Only Cal Ripken Jr. hit more than 16. Let’s just say it’s a different era and it’s not just because of the juiced ball. The game is full of athletic, strong, power-hitting shortstops. Six of them hit at least 30 home runs in 2019 — Gleyber Torres, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor and Paul DeJong. Javier Baez hit 29. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Carlos Correa could certainly get there in a regular season. Tim Anderson just won a batting title. Corey Seager, Trea Turner, Jorge Polanco, Willy Adames, Dansby Swanson, Nick Ahmed — it’s truly a golden age.
47. Oakland’s rotation
The A’s won 97 games and may have 3.5 new starters for 2020. Rookies Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk join Frankie Montas, who had a 2.63 ERA in 16 starts before his PED suspension. And Sean Manaea returned late in the season and looked terrific. Mike Fiers and Chris Bassitt are the holdovers. Don’t give Houston that AL West division title just yet.
48. Will somebody hit .400?
Well, it’s possible! But not likely! Only one player since 2000 has hit .400 in his team’s first 60 games, Chipper Jones, who hit .409 for the Braves in 2008. In the past 10 years, the highest average through 60 games was actually Bellinger’s .376 mark last season.
49. Luis Arraez
Who is Luis Arraez? Your 2020 AL batting champ.
50. Matt Manning, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal
No team has three upper-level pitching prospects who can match these three for the Tigers. Manning was Kiley’s No. 13 prospect, Mize ranked 14th and Skubal 79th — and Skubal outperformed both of them in Double-A. The Tigers aren’t going anywhere this season, but it will be interesting to see if they give these guys major league innings — good experience for 2021.
51. MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino
Actually, the Padres are right there with the Tigers, with Gore (Kiley’s No. 8 overall prospect) and Patino (No. 11). They aren’t quite as advanced as the Detroit pitchers — Gore made five starts at Double-A and Patino two — but without the minor leagues to pitch in and the expanded rosters, the Padres should at least be tempted to use these two in the bullpen at the minimum and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them get some starts.
Snell was the 2018 Cy Young winner, Morton finished third last year and Glasnow may be better than either of them. Have I mentioned I really like the Rays?
53. Which “rebuilding” team could surprise?
I have no idea, but in a 60-game season, something weird will happen. Hey, the Mariners are in first place in the Baseball-Reference simulated season.
54. Which favorite will disappoint?
The Cubs are 20 games under .500 in the B-R simulation. I don’t think they’re that bad, although there is legitimate concern about the age/overall health of the starting rotation (combined with a dearth of MLB-ready pitching prospects in the minors).
55. Who will win the MVP awards?
I’m going with Mike Trout (duh) and Juan Soto.
56. Who will win the Cy Young Awards?
I’ll go way out on a limb and go with Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom. But don’t rule out a wild card. As ESPN Stats & Information notes, one group of players who could benefit from a short season are pitchers who get off to hot starts. Guess who holds the record for the lowest ERA through 60 team games in the live ball era (since 1920)? Ubaldo Jimenez, at 11-1 with a 0.93 ERA through 60 team games in 2010.
57. Wait, is that rule change about beginning extra innings with a runner on second base actually going to happen?
Apparently so. Hey, now that the DH debate is gone (at least for 2020 and perhaps forever), we need a new issue to divide baseball nation.
58. Empty ballparks
Yes, it will be strange. It will be quiet. You might be able to hear players spitting sunflower seeds, except spitting sunflower seeds will be forbidden (can’t wait to see the first player ejected for spitting seeds). On the other hand, it will cut down on the garbage can banging. (I kid, Astros fans, I kid.)
59. TV ratings
Did the ugly public negotiations alienate fans? There’s no good way of knowing, but I suspect a lot of attention will be paid to the local TV ratings.
60. And perhaps the biggest question of all …
As Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson tweeted out Monday night, “What happens when we all get it?”