BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
As the COVID-19 pandemic looms over the competitive sports landscape in the US, Major League Baseball will become the first of the four major leagues to attempt to stage contests, though they will do so without fans to witness them.
Starting Thursday, July 23, the latest Opening Day in the history of the league will be broadcast to a nation hungry for the diversion of sports. While the owners and players squabbled over the length of the season and the safety considerations that would be required to minimize player risk, months slid off the calendar, and baseball will now be sharing the attention of the viewing public with the NBA and NHL, leagues that will be finishing their seasons beginning just a week after baseball starts theirs. The NFL will attempt to open training camps during the final week of July, resulting in the confluence of all four major sports associations for the first time ever.
Lest you forget about the issues and stories that were foremost in the minds of baseball fans back in February, this preview should help re-set the stage for the season to come:
For nearly 100 years, a majority of American League fans have been able to agree upon a common archenemy: the deep-pocketed and wildly successful New York Yankees. The Yankees have won the World Series 27 times, more than twice as many as their closest competitors in St. Louis, where the Cardinals hold 11 titles. That kind of dominance inspires both grudging respect and utter disdain among baseball partisans, regardless of their individual allegiances among the other American League franchises. In 2020, perhaps for the first time in nearly a century, the title of “Most Disliked Team in Baseball” might finally pass from the Bronx Bombers to a new villain: the Houston Astros.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have swept the Astros banging scandal from the front pages, but as the discerning baseball fan, you remain aware of the scandal that revolved around the Houston franchise and their 2017 World Series title. A MLB investigation found the team guilty of cheating during that 2017 season and postseason, using video replay monitors to decode opposing catchers signals in real time, and relaying that information to the batter at the plate by banging on a trash can behind the dugout. As a result, in January the team was fined $5 million (the maximum allowed by the MLB constitution), GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for a full season-and almost immediately fired by team owner Jim Crane-and the team was ordered to forfeit their first and second round draft picks in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
Having had over a month to develop a strategy to address the issue before the team arrived in Florida for spring training, the Astros figured to express appropriate levels of contrition, regret and remorse about the scandal, and ask their fellow players for forgiveness. Suffice to say the “apologies” issued by Crane and players such as Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Justin Verlander did little to quell the rising tide of acrimony and contempt expressed by opposing players and managers. If anything, the Astros managed to throw additional gas on a fire they could have helped douse by handling the situation more adroitly.
Crane’s televised press conference was enough to inspire vitriol directed towards the franchise as well as the individual Astros players, with stars such as Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer and the Angels Mike Trout making strongly worded public statements about their displeasure over Houston’s brazen scheme. Thinly veiled threats of retribution were bandied about, causing MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to issue proactive warnings about opponents attempting to mete out frontier justice on Houston hitters via beanballs. “I hope I made it extremely clear that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated-whether it’s at Houston or anybody else,” Manfred said. The bad blood that is (and has been, for the better part of two seasons) brewing will not be easily mitigated.
It’s obvious that the Yankees will have company atop the most disliked franchise list among AL fans, and a formal poll attempting to answer the question definitively would almost certainly see the Astros finish comfortably ahead of New York. That being said, those franchises still figure to be the two best teams in the league in 2020, and it will require significant effort to unseat them from their positions as division favorites.
The Astros, now managed by Dusty Baker, have won the AL West for three straight seasons, and enter 2020 as the odds-on favorite to do so again. According to playoff odds for this season, the Astros are projected to win 35 games, just 2 more than the A’s, who sit second with 33. With those 88 wins, however, the A’s figure to be in the mix for a Wild Card berth, and if their young talent takes another step forward in 2020, and both lefthanded prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk live up to their billings, the A’s could well outperform their projections and catch Houston for the AL West title.
The Astros appear vulnerable on the mound, especially after Gerrit Cole signed a $234 million deal with the Yankees. Verlander, the defending Cy Young Award winner, appears to have plenty left in the tank, but Father Time eventually takes his toll on all athletes. At 37, it is reasonable to imagine Verlander losing some effectiveness, something that #2 starter Zack Greinke, 36, might also encounter. The depth behind those two veteran aces is questionable, and while the Astros figure to score plenty of runs again in 2020, a sub-par season from their starters might just open the door for other AL West challengers.
Oakland seems to be the most threatening challenger to Houston’s dynasty, but the Angels, with Joe Madden now at the helm and fresh off the seven-year, $245 million deal that secured third baseman Anthony Rendon to play alongside Trout, the best player in the game, might also rise. The Angels remain without a dominant starting pitcher, and while Trout, Rendon and OF/DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani comprise arguably the best 2-3-4 batting order in baseball, they will have to overcome their lack of pitching to succeed. Seattle and Texas, in various stages of rebuilding their rosters, don’t figure to impact the division race this season.
In the AL Central, Cleveland’s three year run atop the division was abruptly ended last season by the upstart Minnesota Twins, who won 101 games and bumped the 93-win Tribe out of the playoffs entirely. Those two franchises figure to battle for division supremacy again in 2020, though the Indians arguably took a huge step backwards this offseason, trading staff ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to Texas in return for journeyman Delino DeShields and relief pitching prospect Emmanuel Clase in a cost cutting measure. Clase, who is armed with a 100 MPH cutter, will miss up to three months with a strained upper back muscle, making the trade appear even less sanguine to Tribe partisans.
In contrast, the Twins added former AL MVP (and A’s third baseman) Josh Donaldson on a four-year, $92 million deal, moving slugger Miguel Sano to first base full time. The Twins also tried to address needs in their rotation by re-signing Jake Odorizzi, adding free agent lefty Rich Hill, and trading for Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers. Fresh off a season where they set the MLB record for home runs in a season, the Twins offense is again formidable, and projections peg them for 34.5 wins in 2020, one game ahead of Cleveland’s projected 33.5.
The White Sox are finally emerging from their lengthy rebuilding effort, and figure to take a step towards contention this season after adding free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal and lefthanded starters Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez to their young core of intriguing talent. Luis Robert is the best prospect in the American League, and after the White Sox signed him to a six-year $50 million deal before he ever played a single major league game, they see him as their centerfielder on Opening Day, and the likely odds-on favorite to claim the Rookie of the Year Award. Chicago might be a year away from menacing the Indians or Twins atop the division, but if their young talent develops quickly, they could be in the Wild Card mix. The Tigers and Royals are the bottom feeders in the Central, and neither figures to factor into the playoff picture this season.
The AL East arguably produce three playoff teams in 2020. Betting sites forecast the Yankees at 37.5 wins, the Rays at 34 and the Red Sox at 31.5, with each of those squads given at least a 50% chance of earning a playoff position. The Yankees addressed arguably their biggest need by luring Cole away from the Astros, strengthening their own team while damaging their chief competitors for the AL pennant. Their lineup is still formidable at nearly every position, anchored by home grown stars Aaron Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez, who will be supported by shortstop Gleyber Torres to form the heart of an offense that fell a single HR shy of the Twins record for most dingers in a season last year. Each of those players is 27 or younger, and don’t figure to suffer any age related decline.
The injury bug, however, does seem to have an affinity for New York. After losing several key players for huge chunks of the 2019 season (yet finding replacements in third baseman Gio Urshela and outfielder Mike Tauchman who helped ease the pain of those injuries), the Yankees had to be planning on better health for their players this year. Perhaps they had better revise that notion. Luis Severino, who made only three starts last year with a variety of ailments, underwent Tommy John surgery in late February, and will miss all of 2020 and most of 2021. He was being counted on to be the #2 starter behind new ace Cole, in front of #3 starter LHP James Paxton, who will return from back surgery as the season begins later this week.
Given the quality of Tampa’s rotation, featuring 2018 Cy Young Award winning lefty Blake Snell, veteran Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA) and 6’8” fireballer Tyler Glasnow (6-1, 1.78 ERA in an injury marred season), any slippage by the Yankees could open the door for the small payroll ($59 million vs. the Yankees $246 million) Rays to play David to the Yankees Goliath.
Boston made headlines this offseason primarily because they traded outfielder Mookie Betts, 27, to the Dodgers. Betts, who is a free agent after 2020, is perhaps the second best player in baseball behind Trout, but he was steadfast in his insistence that he’d test the market instead of signing a contract extension, and that led the Red Sox to ship him and David Price to the Dodgers for a package that included outfielder Alex Verdugo. That decision was perceived by Boston fans to be motivated by strictly financial concerns, and has led to great unrest among the New England faithful.
Despite losing Betts and Price, the Red Sox still feature a roster of star caliber talent, though ace LHP Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery in March and will miss the season and part of 2021 as he recovers. Boston will depend upon Eduardo Rodriguez to hold together a very middling starting pitching staff, and hope that middle-of-the-order mashers Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and DH J.D. Martinez, each of whom hit .300 or better with 30 HRs and on base percentages north of .360, can help score enough to win. Still, it would require significant steps forward by their rotation and supporting cast to propel Boston back to the playoffs, but considering that the core of the 2018 World Series winners remains largely intact, counting them out entirely would be foolhardy.
The Blue Jays have an enviable collection of young position player talent, led by infielders Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio, each of whom is the son of a former major league star. Lourdes Gurriel also looks like a future All-Star in waiting. They added Hyun-Jin Ryu from the Dodgers as a free-agent acquisition to front their staff, and could be joined in Toronto by flame throwing right-handed pitching prospect Nate Pearson, who has touched 104 MPH on the radar gun with his fastball, but figures to start the season at AAA. The Canadian government has decreed that the Blue Jays will not be allowed to host games at the Rogers Center in Toronto, and as of this writing, the team is still in limbo as it searches for an alternative site to play games when their home season begins July 29th (Buffalo, NY and PNC Park in Pittsburgh have been floated as potential solutions).
The Orioles don’t figure to have much to look forward to as they attempt to climb from the ashes of three straight last-place AL East finishes, losing at least 108 games the past two seasons. They will not be counted upon to gain much ground in the rugged division in 2020.
Here are my predictions for the American League in 2020:
West: Houston Astros
Central: Minnesota Twins
East: New York Yankees
Wild Cards: Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox
Pennant: Minnesota Twins
MVP: Mike Trout
Cy Young: Gerrit Cole
Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert