Sure, it’s still technically the offseason, but as of last week, spring training is underway. Traditionally, that means one thing: It’s time to hope. It’s time for fans of the best teams to hope for a championship. And it’s time for fans of the worst teams to hope for a surprise — a Cinderella run toward relevance. The regular season can slam shut doors of possibility, but right now, all doors remain open.
Hope is different everywhere, and it’s partly informed and moderated by preseason projections. Teams and fans aren’t going into spring training blind. Once rosters get more or less set, different analytical services use prior data to project what’s likely to happen. Here are the current projected 2018 standings at FanGraphs. There will be shifts between now and Opening Day, but they probably won’t be dramatic. Right there, you can get an informed idea of which teams look solid and which teams look weak.
From the fan perspective, maybe mathematical projections rob us of the fun of the unknowable. It’s clear the White Sox are rebuilding, but the projections also make it clear how far they still have to go. Without the math, it might be easier to dream. But allow me to let you in on a little secret: Projections aren’t destiny. Projections don’t work against hope. They just make clearer what’s being hoped for.
I’m going to talk about three teams I think could be major surprises — in a good way, relative to the projections. Before I get there, I’d like to provide some prior examples. I have a sheet of preseason team projections stretching all the way back to 2005. Over 13 years, several teams, of course, have been projected to be below average or worse. Many of those teams were below average. But some were very successful. Among my favorites:
• The 2005 White Sox were projected to win 79 games. They won 99 games — and the World Series.
• The 2015 Royals were projected to win 79 games. They won 95 games and the World Series.
• The 2012 Orioles were projected to win 70 games. They won 93 games and lost in the American League Division Series.
• And the 2017 Diamondbacks were projected to win 77 games. They won 93 games and lost in the National League Division Series.
Those aren’t the only overachievers. They’re just, shall we say, inspiring ones. Who might overachieve this year among the current below-average ballclubs?
State of the AL East — New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays? How good are the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays?
The last time we saw the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays were the class of the division while the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays were putting together playoff runs of their own — and the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles were battling at the bottom of the division.
Since then, an offseason filled with changes saw Blake Snell and Charlie Morton leave Tampa Bay, free agents George Springer and Marcus Semien ink deals with Toronto, and multiple high-upside pitching moves for New York and under-the-radar veteran additions in Boston. And a Baltimore team still waiting for a talented group of prospects to get to Camden Yards.
We asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle and Joon Lee to take stock of where things stand in the revamped division entering 2021.
Are the Rays still a World Series contender after their quiet offseason?
David Schoenfield: Sure. Yes, it won’t be easy replacing Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in the rotation. But remember, the Rays won two-thirds of their games last season even though those two were more good than great in the regular season. They went a combined 6-4 with a 3.88 ERA while averaging just 4.4 innings per start. Tampa Bay won’t be able to rely as heavily on the bullpen over 162 games as it did over 60 (with expanded rosters), so a couple of guys in the rotation need to step up and chew up some innings, with Tyler Glasnow foremost in that group. Still, these are the Rays, they have a lot of good baseball players on their roster and that depth will keep them near the top of the division.
Bradford Doolittle: Well, I don’t think it was all that quiet. Parting ways with pitchers like Snell and Morton is pretty noisy. The Rays are among the seven or eight teams in the American League that if they won the pennant, it would not be a great surprise. The pitching staff figures to have less stability in the starting rotation, and with some teams, that would worry you. With the Rays, you assume that it’s just a matter of trading rotation production for bullpen production. They will be leaning a bit more on the transition of prospects into producers than with last year’s team, but the Rays are so good at development that that doesn’t seem like a crisis, either. Tampa Bay can get to the playoffs, and if it does, the Rays will again be tough to beat.
Joon Lee: I think it’s incredibly tough to rule out the Rays as a legit postseason contender, even without Morton or Snell at the top of their rotation. The rotation certainly won’t be the same, but this is the same squad that seemingly adds lockdown previously no-name relievers who all throw 98 mph on an annual basis, to the point where it wouldn’t surprise me if we one day learned that the Rays actually have a machine that creates these pitchers out of thin air somewhere in Tropicana Field. Most of the offense returns here, so I think they’ll be right in the mix as one of the stronger squads in the American League.
Have the Yankees become the team to beat in the division?
Schoenfield: While the Rays perhaps lack star power, the Yankees are loaded with it, but it comes with a big asterisk: Can all those stars remain healthy? When Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton battled injuries in 2019, remember that the second string stepped up big time and the Yankees won 103 games. That didn’t happen in 2020 and the Yankees scuffled to a 33-27 season. Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon were certainly great in 2018, when they were last healthy, but will their ultimate value be much different from what Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ provided in recent years? I’ll put the Yankees as the best team in the division since their upside is clearly highest in the division, but they’re not a big favorite in my book. I just worry about all the injury risk.
Doolittle: Yes, the Yankees are the clear preseason favorite. It’s fair to worry about the collective health of the starting rotation given the number of red flags in that group. But even if New York ends up having to piece things together in that area more than they like, they’ll still have a terrific bullpen and the best all-around offense in the division. The Yankees have the most complete roster in the AL East. The teams behind them are good enough to make them work, though, so marking the Yanks as favorites is only the starting point for a very good division.
Lee: Barring injuries, yes, but that feels like a potentially big if. There was a lot of panic last season about the Yankees missing the playoffs when their big bats went down with injuries and the team’s depth didn’t step up to fill that production at the same levels. The team is replacing Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ with Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, and the rotation will need them to produce in order for the Yankees to live up to the expectation that the talent on this roster demands.
How good are the Blue Jays after adding Marcus Semien and George Springer?
Schoenfield: I love the offense, especially when you factor in a bounce-back season from Semien, a potential breakout from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and a full year from Bo Bichette (and more of the same from Teoscar Hernandez). But that rotation could be a hot mess. Hyun-Jin Ryu is the only reliable arm at this point, and I don’t know if the bullpen is good enough to cover if Robbie Ray and Steven Matz don’t have better seasons after struggling in 2020.
Doolittle: Toronto is right there with the Rays as the second-best on-paper team in the division. If the Jays can get consistent starting pitching, they will be a much-improved team. If their young hitters — Guerrero, Cavan Biggio, Bichette — progress as a group, then a run at the Yankees is within the realm of possibility. However, because there is some uncertainty in the rotation that could be exacerbated by what to me doesn’t look like a very good team defense, it’s possible that Toronto could end up having to outscore teams more than they’d like. Because of that, I’d say the range of outcomes for the Jays is wider than that of the Yankees and Rays.
Lee: I view the Blue Jays in the same way that I viewed the White Sox a few years ago, which is an incredibly fun young team with an enormous potential. Between the trio of sons of former big leaguers, I view Bichette as the biggest potential game changer, although I’m hoping we see Guerrero fulfill more of the enormous potential he so clearly possessed with the bat. I don’t think this will necessarily be a playoff team this year, but it’s a group I view as making a big splash next season.
What do you make of Boston’s series of under-the-radar moves this winter?
Schoenfield: It reminds me a little bit of 2013, when the Red Sox were coming off a 69-93 season and signed a bunch of veterans to fill some holes. That strategy worked to perfection and the Red Sox won the World Series (and then fell off to 71-91 in 2014). Maybe Hunter Renfroe is the 2013 version of Shane Victorino and Enrique Hernandez is Stephen Drew. Most likely, however, the Red Sox won’t find the same good fortune. They will be better than in 2020, but that’s because they have Eduardo Rodriguez back in the rotation, with Chris Sale joining him later on.
Doolittle: They look like something of a run prevention mess to me and yet have a good enough offensive profile to still project at right around .500. Chaim Bloom was part of a Rays front office that was better than anyone at figuring out how to keep teams off the scoreboard. It’s possible that even as the Red Sox look to 2022 and beyond, he’s got a plan for this year’s pitching and defense that ends up being better in practice than it looks in projection. Right now, though, this looks like a stopgap kind of season between last year’s bottoming-out and what I presume will be next year’s leap back into serious contention.
Lee: David stole my thunder! I view this team structurally as very similar to 2013. The team’s front office framed that season as a bridge year, but of course, they ended up winning the World Series. Bloom made a lot of similar signings this offseason, working to build the group’s depth. The main difference between 2013 and 2020 is that because Sale is coming off of Tommy John and won’t be back until well after the season is underway, this feels like a potential fringe playoff team. I do wonder how much patience John Henry will have for the team’s current long-term organizational philosophy if this group doesn’t make the playoffs this season. Ben Cherington approached building the Red Sox with a similar philosophy and was kicked out the door for Dave Dombrowski when things didn’t happen fast enough for Henry’s liking.
What would a successful 2021 season look like for the Orioles?
Doolittle: How many under-25 players have established themselves as legit major leaguers by the end of the year? How many players new to the organization have been improved by the Orioles’ big league development processes? The baseline is somewhere in the range of 95 to 100 losses and if they beat that, it’s a good season. The arrival of Adley Rutschman should get everyone in Baltimore excited by what’s to come. Then again, if he comes up and flops and the O’s lose 110 games at this stage of their rebuild, it’s going to be hard to be excited about what’s going on.
Schoenfield: I think Brad nailed it. They need the younger starters — Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther — to show something that suggests they can pitch in the major leagues, because right now John Means is really the only starter who has shown the ability to pitch at this level. They have a couple of highly rated pitchers in the minors in Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, but the hope has to be when those two are ready they will be joining two or three other established starters.
Lee: Continue to build a solid foundation for an organization moving forward. I am really excited to see what Rutschman looks like at the major league level, considering there hasn’t been much of an offensive influx at the catcher position prospect-wise in a considerable amount of time. We’re starting to hit the point of the Orioles’ rebuild where this team needs to begin seeing something resembling results this year after the seasons of losing.
MLB bringing back in-game video for players in 2021
For Chris Owings’ first seven years in the majors, he could pop into the video room to take a look at his at-bats during a game.
Then last season, the utility infielder for the Colorado Rockies had to make due with a printout.
“You’d come back in the dugout and you’d say, ‘Hey where was that pitch at?'” Owings said Monday. “It would be like it is on the MLB app where it just shows where the pitch crossed the plate. You go from seeing every pitch where it crossed, where your swing was, to just being able to see where the pitch was on a piece of paper.”
It was a jarring change for some hitters during a down year for offense during the pandemic-shortened season. But Major League Baseball has cleared the way for the return of in-game video on dugout iPads beginning on opening day, with catcher signals obscured by a computer program.
“A lot’s been said about video rooms and how some people incorrectly used them. But I think we’ve kind of handled that situation,” he said. “Having the delays with the live feeds and things like that allow you to basically squash all of that stuff.
“Hitters and pitchers, honestly, use video during the game, and it gives us the best chance to be successful and it gives us the best chance to, basically, put the best product on the field. Things like that, that help us perform better, should be able to be used.”
For decades, baseball players retreated to a clubhouse video room to check out their at-bats or take a closer look at a reliever entering a game. Then Houston was penalized in January 2020 for an electronic sign-stealing scheme during the Astros’ run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season. The coronavirus pandemic also led baseball to limit clubhouse access.
The prohibition of in-game video access coincided with a .245 MLB batting average during the shortest regular season since 1878, the lowest since .237 in 1968 and down from .252 in 2019. The average number of home runs per game declined from the record set in 2019, and the difference between strikeouts and hits increased despite the short season.
“It definitely made it a little more difficult for hitters,” Texas Rangers outfielder David Dahl said. “You can’t go back and look at where was that pitch, how are they throwing me, what my timing looked like, little things like that that I checked out in the past.”
Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, hired in October, likes how players will be in the dugout with the iPads rather than going back to the video room.
“If you’re always going in the clubhouse to watch your at-bat and then you come out after three outs, you lose a sense of the game,” said La Russa, who last managed in the big leagues in 2011 with the Cardinals. “I think the fact that they would have it in the dugout is a step in the right direction.”
How much in-game video helps depends on the hitter. For some, it’s a major part of routine. Other players don’t find it as helpful.
Chicago Cubs manager David Ross said he wasn’t into video during his playing career, but he understands why some guys rely on the tool.
“When you can see that on video, of where they’re trying to attack you, rather than the feedback that you get without seeing it, maybe you’re like ‘OK, maybe they’re trying to attack me in and exploit a weakness in,’ and you start kind of setting your eyes and your sights there,” Ross said.
New mercy rule bails RHP Garrett Richards out of first-inning jam in spring debut for Boston Red Sox
Garrett Richards had gotten only one out during his first spring training start, loading the bases and walking in one run before the Red Sox stopped the inning after 23 pitches.
Then he went back out for a 1-2-3 second inning.
“It’s building blocks man,” he said after being rescued by the new rule this spring training that allows managers to end an inning after a pitcher has thrown 20 pitches, regardless of how many outs or runners on base there are.
“Obviously, you want to finish it and you want to you want to make all the outs that you’re outing requires,” he said. “So, yeah, it was a little frustrating.”
Richards told reporters from Fort Myers, Florida, that his pitches were moving well, but he just struggled to keep them in the strike zone. He allowed two runs, three hits and two walks in the first inning before it ended.
“By all means, not happy about it. Today’s outing is not what you’re going to see from me on a regular basis, I’ll tell you that right now,” he said. “I just needed to stay a little bit more in competitive mode versus mechanical mode. So once that switch kind of flipped, everything kind of felt great again.”
Richards spent his first 10 seasons on the West Coast with the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres, interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2018 that cost him most of ’19, as well. He went 2-2 with a 4.03 ERA during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and agreed to a $10 million, one-year deal with Boston in the offseason.
“What gets my attention is his stuff,” manager Alex Cora said. “He’ll be one of our guys. And he should be a good one.”
He showed it in the second inning, when he retired the Braves in order.
“It was great to get back out there and finish a strong second inning, get some quick outs,” he said. “It was nice to be able to offset that first inning and kind of get my work in, complete my outing, but also finish on a strong note.”
Also Monday, shortstop Xander Bogaerts had the day off to recover from a sore shoulder. Cora said Bogaerts’ throwing program in Aruba “wasn’t perfect” because of coronavirus lockdowns, and Bogaerts rushed to get ready.
“We shut him down for a little bit,” Cora said. “He’ll be OK in a few days. We’ve just got to be patient. We got plenty of days, right? We’ve got what, 30 more days? So as of now, we do feel that he should be ready for opening day.”
The Red Sox committed four errors in the 5-2 loss to Atlanta.
Another injury that cropped up was to pitcher Zac Grotz, a non-roster invitee who winced in pain after throwing a pitch and left the game. Cora said he tested fine afterwards and wasn’t feeling any pain.
A few players and several members of the training staff came down with a non-coronavirus illness and needed some time off. After receiving an email saying that they were sick, Cora said he was relieved to be notified that their COVID tests were negative.
“You see all the negatives, and it was like, ‘OK, so it’s only a bad meal,'” he said. “So they’re bouncing back. … They’re down for the day, but we’ll survive today.”
Cora also said outfielder Franchy Cordero, who was obtained in the trade that sent Andrew Benintendi to the Kansas City Royals, was on his way to Fort Myers and would need a couple of days to clear protocols.
Japanese pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura was expected to arrive on Monday and had already passed his COVID test, Cora said.
“Everything went the negative way, in a positive way,” he said.
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