What’s quite certain to be the weirdest year in Major League Baseball history shoves off Thursday night with the familiar 162-game, six-month marathon having been shortened – after a wildly self-destructive standoff between the owners and the players that cast doubt on whether there would be any season at all – to a 60-game, 67-day sprint. Ready or not, let the games begin.
How weird are we talking?
Well, for starters, as of press time the first pitch is less than 24 hours away and at least one team has no idea what city it’s going to play in. And that’s putting aside the empty ballparks (for now), cardboard cutouts in lieu of fans, artificial crowd noise, expanded rosters and revamped rule book, all of which promises a season both aesthetically and tactically unlike any we’ve seen.
Who’s playing and who’s not?
About a dozen major leaguers have opted out of the season entirely, citing the health risks stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. They include some of the sport’s biggest names: six-time All-Star catcher Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals lifer Ryan Zimmerman and former Cy Young award winners David Price of LA Dodgers and Felix Hernandez of the Atlanta Braves.
Other stars who have already tested positive for Covid-19 but are expected to play this year include Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, Texas’ Joey Gallo, Kansas City’s Salvador Perez, San Diego’s Tommy Pham along with the Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu and Aroldis Chapman.
What rules are different and who will benefit?
Baseball’s decision to expand the designated hitter rule to National League parks in a move intended to alleviate players’ workloads dealt a blow to purists everywhere, but will represent a strategic wrinkle on the senior circuit where pitchers have always batted their turn in the order. Obvious beneficiaries include the Dodgers, whose unmatched roster depth will grant manager Dave Roberts even more flexibility to limit problematic matchups. The change also stands to help teams with dangerous hitters whose bodies may no longer be up for the daily wear and tear of playing in the field, such as the New York Mets (the oft-injured Yoenis Céspedes) and the Milwaukee Brewers (Ryan Braun).
The other major on-field tweak involves tied games after the regulation nine innings. Teams will start each half-inning after the ninth with a runner on second base: specifically, the batter who made the final out in the previous inning or a substitute. This sudden-death element, designed to cut down on overlong games, could give an edge to teams with lockdown bullpens like the Yankees, Padres and Brewers. Additionally, arguments and bench-clearing altercations will be more harshly penalized in an effort to curtail unnecessary physical contact as much as possible. Players and managers will be subject to immediate ejections, fines and suspensions for coming within six feet of an umpire to dispute a call.
Oh, and no spitting.
Most Valuable Player winners
Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, who turns 29 next month, has finished either first or second in the American League’s MVP voting in every full season he’s played, winning the sport’s highest individual honor for a third time last year. He does most baseball things exceptionally and none of them badly, posting numbers with the type of dumbfounding consistency future generations will look back on in disbelief. The National League winner may well be a short drive up Interstate 5. Do-everything outfielder Mookie Betts, who joined the Dodgers in a February trade before inking a 12-year, $365m contract extension on Wednesday, will have every chance to shine in the NL’s deepest lineup – but don’t write off emerging Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr, who finished his first complete season with 41 home runs and a league-best 37 stolen bases.
Cy Young winners
Right-handed fireballer Gerrit Cole finished a close second to Houston teammate Justin Verlander for the top pitching honor last year, finishing with a 20-5 record, a 2.50 earned run average and an MLB-high 326 strikeouts. Washington’s aging Max Scherzer will benefit from the shorter season to enter an elite class of hurlers with four or more Cy Young baubles, joining Roger Clemens (seven), Randy Johnson (five), Steve Carlton (four) and Greg Maddux (four). Look no further than Thursday night’s delicious opening day matchup between the Yankees and Nationals for an early peek at both.
AL East winner
The talent-rich New York Yankees were division favorites even back in March when they faced the prospect of several months without injured stars Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks. Few teams stand to benefit more from the season’s late-July start with all three expected to feature in the opening night lineup for a juggernaut that won 103 regular-season games and came with two wins of the World Series. The addition of free-agent crown jewel Cole on a record nine-year, $324m contract will more than compensate for the loss of Luis Severino to Tommy John surgery, all but ensuring New York will hold off the scrappy Tampa Bay Rays (and their almost comical penchant for injuries) in a weaker-than-usual AL East.
AL Central winner
The Minnesota Twins muscled their way to 101 regular-season victories in 2019 – the club’s highest win total since 1965 – with an offense that set a major league record with 307 home runs. Naturally, they brought in more power, adding third baseman Josh Donaldson (37 homers with Atlanta last year) to a lineup that returns Nelson Cruz (41), Max Kepler (36), Miguel Sano (34), Eddie Rosario (32) and Mitch Garver (31). The Twins are hot favorites in a division where only the Cleveland Indians and perhaps the upstart Chicago White Sox are expected to offer much resistance, but whether Minnesota are able to reverse their historic postseason hoodoo will likely depend on whether veteran additions Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill can shore up a sometimes vulnerable rotation.
AL West winner
The Houston Astros were rocked by a sign-stealing scandal that left Astroball looking as legitimate as Theranos, but the core that won the club’s first World Series title in franchise history and came within a game of winning a second in October remains intact. Second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer anchor a formidable lineup while right-handed starters Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke headline a rotation well positioned to weather the loss of Cole in free agency. And if there’s any team who stands to gain from a season with no spectators, surely it’s an Astros side that’s overtaken the Yankees as the sport’s biggest villains and will be spared the hostile reception that awaited them in every visiting park.
NL East winner
The defending champion Washington Nationals can’t afford the sluggish start that left them with an uphill climb through last year’s playoffs, but the shortened season could mitigate the potential for burnout for a not-particularly-young rotation headlined by Scherzer (36 years old), Anibal Sanchez (36), Stephen Strasburg (32) and Patrick Corbin (31). A committee of Asdrubal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick and Starlin Castro won’t make up for the loss of star third baseman Anthony Rendon, who signed a splashy $245m deal with the Angels in free agency, but the Nationals should have enough to eke past the Braves for the division crown. Whether they can become the first team in two decades to repeat as World Series champions is a tougher ask.
NL Central winner
The Cincinnati Reds are coming off a fourth-place finish and a sixth straight losing season, but David Bell’s group have emerged as a trendy pick in baseball’s most competitive division thanks to an already formidable rotation (Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Wade Miley and Anthony DeSclafani), the addition of power hitters Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos in free agency and no glaring weaknesses. The key could be leadoff hitter Shogo Akiyama, the centerfielder who inked a three-year, $21m deal following after a decorated career with the Seibu Lions, where he broke Japan’s single-season hits record in 2015.
NL West winner
The deep-pocketed, talent-stacked Los Angeles Dodgers, who finished with franchise-record 106 wins and won the division by 21 games last season, were runaway favorites to win an eighth straight division title even before February’s blockbuster trade with the Red Sox for the veteran left-hander Price and Betts, who’s been the second-best player in the majors over the past few years. And while Price has opted to sit out the season due to the pandemic, Betts gives the Dodgers a third MVP alongside 24-year-old Cody Bellinger (last year’s winner) and star left-hander Clayton Kershaw. The biggest question surrounds closer Kenley Jansen, who may be working on a short leash after last year’s career-worst season and with Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol waiting in the wings.
Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s
Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs
Yankees over Astros, four games to three
Dodgers over Braves, four games to two
Dodgers over Yankees, four games to two. Everything about this wackadoo season is pointing toward an unexpected champion, presuming we even make it that far. But the Dodgers, despite a proclivity for October heartbreak you could set your watch by, are simply too deep and too talented for their number to not come up one of these years. It says here David Roberts’ snakebitten group finally gets over the hump and brings a World Series title back to Chavez Ravine for the first time since Kirk Gibson touched ‘em all in 1988.