Normalcy — sort of — has returned to baseball for the 2021 MLB season. There are still pandemic-related obstacles for the sport to navigate, but at least teams are scheduled to play 162 games and fans have returned to stadiums. The usual rhythm of the sport will take hold soon enough, and like any new season, questions abound.
Which star player will put his bummer of a shortened 2020 year in his rearview mirror with a return to his former elite status? Will new monitoring of doctored baseballs make a difference on the field? Who will be the must-see players to watch this season? And which big names could be moved in blockbuster deadline deals?
We asked a team of 28 executives, players and scouts for answers to these and other pressing questions going into the start of the new season. The caveats were they couldn’t vote for their own team or players, all voters were promised anonymity so they could vote freely and not all participants answered every question.
Here is what those around the game predict will happen in baseball this season.
Which team will be the biggest surprise, good or bad, in the league this year?
Survey says: Good — Royals 7, Indians 3, Red Sox 3, Phillies 3, Giants 3, Diamondbacks 1, Detroit 1, Cubs 1
Bad — Reds 5, Astros 4, Phillies 2, Cubs 2, White Sox 2, Angels 2, Mets 1
As you might expect, this question garnered a variety of answers with two teams standing out. People in the game are impressed with what the Royals did this past winter and unimpressed by the Reds’ lack of moves.
It’s no surprise the NL East was represented on both lists as predictions for that division differ wildly among the experts. The Cubs also appeared in each spot because they have talent, but could be selling a lot of it off come July.
“The Red Sox will challenge for the AL wild card behind another great year from Eduardo Rodriguez, the return to form for J.D. Martinez and catcher Christian Vasquez establishing himself as a top-five catcher in the game,” said one executive.
“Kansas City,” said another. “They had a great offseason and think they have a chance to be a really solid team.”
“The Astros started their downward trend last year,” said one scout. “The division isn’t stacked, so they may hang around the race, but they aren’t nearly as deep as they once were.”
“The Cubs just have too many things going on,” another scout opined. “A new starting staff combined with a large number of players in their walk years will make for a difficult season to navigate.”
Another scout had the exact opposite view of the Cubs: “Some clubs think they will flounder with their soft-tossing rotation, when in fact, the slower pace will confuse lineups — that group is just so different than the rest of the league.”
“I’m sure fans will be surprised but the Mets won’t be very good, one player stated. “Lindor can’t teach them how to win on his own.”
Which star player who struggled in 2020 is most likely to return to form?
Survey says: Christian Yelich 12, J.D. Martinez 5, Anthony Rizzo 3, Carlos Correa 3, Javier Baez 1, Justin Upton 1
It’s not a surprise that several of these players have expressed their excitement over in-game video returning to MLB in 2021. Martinez and Rizzo are near the top of that list. Interestingly, Yelich is not one of those guys who relies on it. He admittedly simply wasn’t good last season.
“Christian Yelich,” one executive said. “Because his 100-point decrease in batting average on balls in play will reverse itself,”
“Yelich can’t be worse so I’ll go with him,” a player chimed in.
“J.D. Martinez with the ability to get back on routine through the use of video,” said another executive.
“Carlos Correa … just think he has something to prove heading into free agency,” a third voter said.
“Anthony Rizzo has always proved to be reliable. I’ll take him,” another player said.
Who will win AL and NL MVP?
Survey says: AL — Mike Trout 11, Aaron Judge 6, Alex Bregman 2, D.J. LeMahieu 1, Gleyber Torres 2, Luis Robert 1, Anthony Rendon 1, Tim Anderson 1, George Springer 1, Shohei Ohtani 1
NL — Juan Soto 7, Ronald Acuna 5, Mookie Betts 3, Bryce Harper 2, Cody Bellinger 2, Fernando Tatis 2, Corey Seager 2
It feels like some voters were trying to find someone besides Trout in the American League, but only Aaron Judge came close. Considering the Angels outfielder has finished in the top five in nine consecutive years, can you blame anyone who chose Trout?
The NL certainly provided room for more debate, though clearly voters think this is Juan Soto’s year. Three different Dodgers received multiple votes — another testament to how talented L.A. really is.
“Corey Seager,” said one scout. “He’s going to have an outstanding year, and he has all the weapons around him to put up numbers.
“Mike Trout,” said the same scout. “It’s a little better lineup, but he doesn’t even need protection because he’s that good.”
Who is one player you sit down in front of the TV to watch play right now?
Survey says: Soto 10, Jason deGrom 3, Tatis 3, Kyle Hendricks 2, Stephen Strasburg 1, Clayton Kershaw 1, Shane Bieber 1, Anderson 1, Ohtani 1
“Juan Soto hitting,” said one scout. “No one will ever be Barry Bonds, but Soto’s combination of plate discipline and power is fun to watch.”
“Clayton Kershaw,” an executive offered. “I still like to watch his starts.”
“How do you not love watching Hendricks carve up hitters at 88 mph?” a fellow pitcher stated.
Which pitcher has the nastiest stuff in baseball right now?
Survey says: deGrom 6, Gerrit Cole 6, Yu Darvish 5, Devin Williams 5, Bieber 3, Strasburg 1,
“DeGrom’s repertoire in 2020: four-seam sat 99 mph, slider at 93, change at 92,” said a scout. “But honorable mention to Corbin Burnes whose spin rates on five different pitches rated in the top eight in MLB among 209 qualifying pitchers: second in four-seam; second in sinker; seventh in cutter; third in slider; eighth in curve.”
“Gerrit Cole,” said an executive. “He seems to have no-hit stuff every night.”
“Devin Williams has a changeup like a left-handed breaking ball,” said another exec.”
“When healthy, Strasburg has just too many weapons,” said a player.
Who is the one player most likely to be traded by the deadline?
Survey says: Kris Bryant 9, Trevor Story 8, Zack Greinke 4, Carlos Correa 3, Starlin Castro 1, Kevin Gausman 1, Brock Holt 1, Chris Sale 1, Anyone from the Cubs
Several participants admitted they have voted for Bryant in past surveys but that this will be the year considering he’s a free agent come November. As for Story, some simply believe he’ll be moved as part of the rebuilding process the Rockies began the moment they traded Nolan Arenado.
Top relievers become heavily sought after around the deadline, but no voter could zero in on one. The first half will dictate the emergence of those names.
And, yes, one voter chose the entire Cubs team since Chicago has no less than 13 players beginning their walk years. “It’s now or never for Bryant,” one scout said. “The Cubs have to take what they can get.”
“Don’t count out Greinke,” another scout stated.
“Teams like that experience. But he has to show he still has the stuff for a pennant run.”
“Texas will not be competitive, and his defensive versatility and attitude will always be valuable to a contending club,” said one voter who chose Brock Holt.
Will the enhanced monitoring of doctored baseballs have a small or large impact on the game in ’21?
Survey says: Small 21, Big 4
Most in the game can’t envision how this policy is going to play out for it to have a big impact. Many are hoping the threat of punishment and enhanced monitoring will dial down the use of illegal substances, but most are unclear of the process so their fallback was to vote for “small.” Two voters called it “eyewash.”
“Small because I think the emphasis on it will slowly go away come summer and be a non-issue by the postseason,” said one scout.
“Small,” said one exec. “Unless someone breaks the gentlemen’s agreement not to ask the umpires to check, because that could lead to a free-for-all.”
“If they actually monitor, it will be a huge impact,” said one player. “Some guys have no idea what to do without it.”
“Large,” said a scout. “Hit batters will be at an all-time high.
What will be the biggest adjustment in going from last year’s shortened season to a full 162-game season?
There wasn’t one specific answer to this question but most revolved around pitching.
The jump from 60 games to 162 will be interesting but some relievers, in particular, say they’re fresher than ever. Starters will be monitored more closely.
“Pitching injuries for sure but also how quickly teams adjust to a guy who was great in 2020 but struggles in 2021,” one exec said. “How long of a leash will teams give to the 2020 season?”
“If a team is forced to deal with a COVID breakout, the scheduling issues could be massive and will create a lot of issues,” another exec stated.
“There will be a ton of total pitchers used this year,” a voter said. “Lots of four-inning starts, games with six-seven relievers and shuffling of rosters.
“We will get more days off,” a player simply stated.
Who’s your World Series winner — if not the Dodgers?
Survey says: Yankees 12, Braves 5, Padres 4, White Sox 3, Mets 3, Blue Jays 1, Since the L.A. Dodgers are an overwhelming pick to win this year’s World Series, we asked for a non-Dodgers choice here. There was a good variety of answers, although Yankees are the clear-cut favorite if it’s not the Dodgers this season.
Las Vegas agrees with our voters as all teams mentioned except for the Blue Jays are among the next behind Los Angeles in odds to win the World Series
“I just like the Yankees as long as they’re healthy,” one scout said. “They have tons of talent. It just has to be on the field.”
“The Braves are as dangerous as ever,” another scout said. “If the Dodgers open the door slightly, I say the Braves kick it in.”‘
“Mets,” said one voter. “Off-the-wall choice, but this new owner, with money not an issue — and there’s going to be a lot of money issues with people dumping salaries — when you can buy guys and spend money and not have to give up prospects, that’s going to be huge. I believe that the Mets are capable of that.”
Braves rip ’embarrassing call at home plate that keyed Phillies’ win
Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm slid home with the eventual winning run as Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud attempted to apply the tag, moving from the third base side of the plate to the first base side where Bohm was coming in.
Home plate umpire Lance Barrett called Bohm safe though replays showed he may never have touched home plate. After a long delay for the video challenge, the ruling on the field was upheld.
“In real time it’s bang, bang,” Braves starter Drew Smyly said after the game. “We have five different angles on a national televised game, and it’s clear that his foot didn’t touch the plate. That it was on the chalk. For MLB not to overturn that, it’s embarrassing. Why even have replay if you won’t overturn that?”
The official ruling from MLB stated the replay official “could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag.”
“Initially, I didn’t know if he was safe or out but after watching the replay it looked like his foot didn’t touch the bag, from any angle we saw,” d’Arnaud said. “I thought he was clearly out at the plate.”
The inning began with the teams tied, 6-6. After Bohm led off with a double, Jean Segura hit a ground ball to second, allowing Bohm to reach third base. Lefty Didi Gregorious then hit a shallow fly ball to left field off of Braves reliever Will Smith. Braves left fielder Marcell Ozuna camped under it then threw a two-hopper to the plate, slightly to the third base side. D’Arnaud caught the ball and then slid over towards first to tag Bohm as his left foot got to the plate.
Bohm was asked if he thought he was safe after the game. “I was called safe,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
Phillies manager Joe Girardi added: “We felt like we had a chance [to score on the fly ball]. It was a narrow one and it was by the skin of the big toe that we scored. It looked like his big toe kind of hit the corner of the plate when we saw all the angles.”
The Braves adamantly disagreed.
“It makes me not even want [replay] anymore,” d’Arnaud said. “It just slows the game down. To me, they got it wrong. I just rather not have it and get the game going.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said he didn’t get a good explanation from the umpires after the call while d’Arnaud stated the replay official in New York should be the one being interviewed. After the Braves lost the challenge, the downsized crowd at Truist Park got angry, throwing garbage onto the field, prompting a scolding from Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson.
“I love our city,” Swanson said. “I love our fans. They’re passionate. They care. But what happened after they announced that call is the most embarrassing part of the whole night.
“The throwing of things on the field, it’s disrespectful to the people who put in so much work to have the field ready for us every day. …It’s an embarrassing representation of our city. The worst part of it is I don’t think people realize we have families here. There are kids that are sitting in the front row and you have bottles whizzing by their heads. Endangering kids that may not be able to protect themselves is downright embarrassing and shouldn’t happen again.”
The controversy overshadowed another good game by Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. He had three hits, including an infield single he beat out on a routine ground ball to short in the first inning. Later, he homered to tie the game, 6-6.
In all, Acuna had nine hits in the three-game series, most for him over a 3-game span in his young career. But it won’t get the headlines as the replay challenge took center stage in an early season battle between division foes.
“They said there wasn’t enough evidence but there were five different angles,” an incredulous Smyly declared. “It’s clear. He didn’t touch the plate.”
Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez on a mission to leave 2020’s struggles behind
J.D. Martinez suffered through a miserable 2020 season. He hit .213. He ranked 129th out of 142 qualified hitters in weighted on-base average (wOBA). He finished with more strikeouts than hits. It was a shocking season for a hitter who ranked second in the majors in wOBA from 2017 to 2019, behind only Mike Trout.
He also made one thing clear in spring training: “I’m kind of tired of being judged on two months,” he told WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford late in March.
Martinez is making an early statement in 2021. He hit three home runs in Sunday’s 14-9 win for the Boston Red Sox over the Baltimore Orioles and has started the season with extra-base hits in all eight games he’s played — including seven doubles and five home runs. Martinez is the hottest hitter on the planet. Oh, and after Red Sox Nation and pundits were ready to bury the Red Sox after an 0-3 start in which the Orioles outscored them 18-5, Boston has won six in a row.
“He’s on a mission to prove people wrong,” manager Alex Cora said after Sunday’s win. “It was only 60 games. He was one month away from getting his numbers right and now he’s locked in and I’m glad he’s swinging the bat the way he is.”
Against the Orioles on Sunday, his three home runs came off three different pitchers:
• Third inning: 1-2 knuckle-curve from Jorge Lopez, 372 feet to right field (105.2 exit velo)
• Sixth inning: 1-2 curveball from Mac Sceroler, 382 feet to right-center (102.4 exit velo)
• Eighth inning: 0-2 changeup from Tyler Wells, 430 feet to center field (105.7 exit velo)
Granted, that trio of pitchers isn’t exactly headed to the 2021 All-Star Game. I hadn’t even heard of Sceroler and Wells until now, as Sceroler was making just his second major league appearance and Wells his fourth. Still, all three home runs came with two strikes, a good sign considering Martinez hit .171 with two strikes a year ago.
From the cool factoid department, Martinez also became the fifth player to hit three home runs in a game with three different teams:
• Martinez (Tigers, Diamondbacks, Red Sox)
• Mark Teixeira (Rangers, Braves, Yankees)
• Alex Rodriguez (Mariners, Rangers, Yankees)
• Dave Kingman (Mets, Cubs, A’s)
• Johnny Mize (Cardinals, Giants, Yankees)
Martinez’s eight straight games with an extra-base hit to start a season ties the major league record held by Alex Rodriguez (2007) and Sandy Alomar Jr. (1997). It’s the volume of extra-base hits that is so impressive, however, as Martinez is hitting .472/.500/1.083:
Most extra-base hits in player’s 1st 8 games played in a season (since at least 1906):
2021 J.D. Martinez: 12
1994 Dante Bichette: 12
2006 Chris Shelton: 11
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) April 11, 2021
OK, the Chris Shelton reference is a reminder that not all hot starts are going to last, but Martinez has that long track record of being one of the best hitters in the game — and now he has his beloved in-game video back to study.
That was offered as one reason for Martinez’s struggles in 2020, when in-game video was disallowed under the guise of pandemic protocols. He also had an ankle issue he played through that may have affected his swing. Whatever the reason, he admitted his troubles were self-inflicted.
“I think I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Martinez said when he reported to spring training in February. “I’ve always played with that, I’ve always played with that chip, having to prove people wrong my whole career. It kind of might have went away a little bit, but I think I’ve got it back a little bit now.”
Martinez struggled most of spring training, however, leading to concerns that maybe he had just lost his swing overnight. Still, he’s just 33, so it seemed a little early for that to happen. Cora pointed out Martinez finally got going late in camp, especially driving the ball to right field – like he did on Sunday. Cora sent another message to Martinez in spring training, playing him quite a bit in the outfield instead of just using him as the designated hitter. While Martinez has started just one game in the outfield so far, it was perhaps a signal from Cora to remind Martinez to stay in shape.
Still, it’s hard not to ignore the psychological comfort of being able go into the dugout or clubhouse between at-bats to check the iPad. Few hitters in the game study their swing as studiously as Martinez — remember, he completely reconstructed his swing earlier in his career and was in the middle of that process when the Astros released him in spring training of 2014. Martinez signed with Detroit and has since had four 36-homer seasons, five .300 seasons and four 100-RBI seasons. And one big chip on his shoulder.
As for the Red Sox, their six-game win streak includes two extra-inning wins (12 innings over the Rays and 10 innings over the Orioles on Saturday) and they’ve hit a robust .332 with 53 runs those six games. Rafael Devers has homered in three straight games, Xander Bogaerts is hitting .375 and Christian Vazquez is off to a hot start. For this Red Sox lineup to click like it has in past seasons, though, it needs Martinez to thump.
What remains to be seen is how good the pitching will be. Playing six of nine games against the Orioles doesn’t really tell us much. This week’s series against the Twins and White Sox will be a much tougher test. Nick Pivetta, who won Sunday’s game with four runs over six innings, is a key member in the rotation. For now, the Red Sox are in first place – it’s early, of course, but that’s a much better place to be after starting 3-9 and 6-13 in 2019 (and never really recovering) and then 6-18 in 2020.
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Archie Bradley on IL with oblique injury
Bradley, 28, revealed the injury to Phillies brass after giving up a run on two hits in Saturday’s loss to the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s not something I can pinpoint,” Bradley said on Sunday afternoon. “It wasn’t one particular act that I felt it on.”
Bradley was a major offseason addition to the Phillies’ bullpen, which had a historically bad season in 2020. He gave up runs in two of his four appearances this year before heading to the injured list.
This is Bradley’s first experience with an oblique ailment, which can take considerable time to heal, depending on the severity. The righty wasn’t sure on a timetable for his return.
“It’s not something I felt doing baseball activities,” Bradley said. “Honestly, I don’t know where it came from.”
The Phillies recalled lefty JoJo Romero from the alternate site to take Bradley’s place on the roster. Romero was a late cut from spring training but is now needed just over a week into the season.
“He’s throwing the ball pretty well,” manager Joe Girardi said of Romero.
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