THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
For baseball fans, the perennial return of the Boys of Summer is a time for hope and optimism for what is to come over the impending dog days and hot nights of summer.
But this year feels a bit more significant. After a year when the world was turned upside down by a virus, when we faced lockdowns and disruptions, isolation and alienation from the things we love to do and the people we love to do them with, it feels like finally, FINALLY, there might be light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
2020 in the baseball world meant empty stadiums, Covid cancellations, and a strange 60-game season that brought some distraction from the daily travails of a pandemic contaminated world but also embodied the half-lived, constricted, unfulfilled times that we all just wanted to get through.
That's to take nothing away from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays who met in the World Series, with the Dodgers shaking the monkey of recent post season failures off to take the title in six games. It was a prodigious feat in its own way. But that was last year.
Probably the most meaningful aspect of Opening Day 2021 was the return of fans in the seats. Each ballpark across the league has their own restrictions on the number of fans allowed to attend for the start of the season, from 12% in Boston to 25% in Miami to 100% capacity in Texas for Rangers games, the only team allowing unrestricted access from day one.
And while it wasn't exactly a roar of the crowd from Yankee Stadium in New York to PETCO Park in Seattle on Opening Day, having even a portion of the fans back in the stands felt like a giant step in the road back to normalcy. "So much better, so much better — that's how it should be," Phillies starter Aaron Nola said. "Hopefully it'll be more soon, but it was good to hear humans in the stands."
But all the empty seats also served as a reminder that while the green shoots might be emerging from a barren patch of history, we are not out of the proverbial woods just yet.
On the field, the designated hitter made an appearance in the National League last season, but it was shelved for 2021. Ditto for an expanded playoff field, as the league and the players' union could not come to agreement - for now anyway - on keeping either of them in place.
The most noticeable change to the game comes with the introduction of a rule to place a runner on second base at the start of each half inning of games that go to extra-innings. As my 12-year-old daughter pointed out, this feels a bit like cheating. While it kind of rankles the baseball purist side of me, after watching the endings of the Brewers, Blue Jays, Phillies and Mariners games on Opening Day, there's no denying that it adds an element of instant suspense to affairs. The fact that none of those tie games went to an 11th inning surely signifies that the 14-inning snooze fest has been relegated to the history books - for better or worse.
So how is your team shaping up this season? Let's take a look.
While the East Coast Yankees-Red Sox rivalry usually gets the spotlight, it's the left coast where the real heavy hitters reside this time around, and it starts with the defending champion Dodgers.
Their .717 regular season winning percentage (43-17) in the shortened 60-game regular season was in the realm of historically good. After winning 15 of their first 18 games to start the season, there is little doubt that they will make a serious run at the major-league record of 116 wins this season.
Right fielder Mookie Betts just seems to get better and better, center fielder Cody Bellinger is a former MVP, as is pitching ace Clayton Kershaw who still seems to have plenty in the tank. A deep starting rotation got even deeper when the Dodgers signed 2020 Cy Young award winner Trevor Bauer in free agency. Heck, they have a former Cy Young award winner in their bullpen in left-hander David Price. But their biggest threat might be just down the road in their own division.
The term 'all in' hardly does the Padres justice. After signing third baseman Manny Machado to the largest contract in team history prior to the 2020 season, the Padres splashed out $340 million on home-grown shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr, one of the most electric talents in the game. How electric? In 143 games across two seasons, Tatis has hit .301 with 39 homers, 98 runs batted in, 27 stolen bases and accumulated a .956 on-base plus slugging percentage. And he's just 22 years old.
But the Friars didn't stop there. They brought in starter Yu Darvish via a trade with the Cubs, pried former Cy Young winner Blake Snell away from the Rays, and added another talented starter in righty Joe Musgrove to completely revamp their starting rotation.
The Padres are one of six MLB franchises never to have won a World Series (along with the Brewers, Mariners, Rockies, Rangers and Rays). Even if they fall short this season, they have laid the groundwork to be competitive for years to come. World Series or not, this is going to be a fun team to watch, especially every time they lock horns with the rival Dodgers.
With Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford all in the final year of their contracts - and the potential to shave $100 million in salaries - don't be surprised if the Giants are sellers come trade deadline time. The team remained in the playoff hunt until the season's final day last year, but with the gap to the top two teams in the division widening and the playoff field contracting, look for the Giants to bide their time to go into rebuild mode.
The D-backs finished last in the division a season ago and may well do so again. Any hope out in the desert relies on a return to form of pitchers Madison Bumgarner, Ketel Marte and Zac Gallen.
The Rockies have always struggled to find pitchers who could maintain low ERAs in the high altitude of Coors Field. With the likes of Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray they have a core who might be able to make a go. Trading away fan-favorite Nolan Arenado - arguably the best third baseman in the game - did not sit well with the Rockie faithful, and might well have paved the way for talented young shortstop Trevor Story to follow.
Remember when the Braves ran off a streak of 14 straight division titles back in the '90s? Well, they are working on a new one, having taken home the last three NL East crowns, and falling but a game shy of the World Series last season.
The team brought in hurlers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to join a dynamic young starting rotation alongside Ian Anderson, Max Fried and Mike Soroka. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman lead an offense with a lot of upside. After coming tantalizingly close last year, nothing short of a World Series appearance will do in the Peach State, but they'll have to navigate a division in which every team has gotten better.
The Metropolitans put their money where their mouths are by signing shortstop Francisco Lindor to a 10-year $314 million extension. That may have been the easy part, as now they have to get it done on the field if they hope to snap a four-year post season drought.
Nobody in the regular lineup is older than 30, and the team added starter Marcus Stroman to join a rotation that includes ace Jacob deGrom, whose miniscule 2.10 ERA since 2018 is best in the Majors.
The Phils were let down by their bullpen last year, posting the majors' worst relief corps' earned run average since 1930, at 7.06. If the retooled pen can turn things around and hold up their end of the bargain, and the likes of starters Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin and sluggers Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins can do what they do, the Phillies could find themselves in the thick of things come September. They'll be looking to break a playoff drought that dates back to 2011, the longest in the National League.
Off the field, chief executive Derek Jeter, last year's N.L. manager of the year, Don Mattingly, and the new general manager, Kim Ng (the first female GM in MLB history) have put the Marlins on a path to success. The team surprised everyone with a playoff appearance last season. There is talent across the board, but the team will be firmly in below-the-radar territory again this year as they try to repeat last year's achievements.
2019 World Series winning starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are still around. Juan Soto, 22, is one of the games rising stars, and shortstop Trea Turner, the game's fastest everyday player, is worth the price of admission. After that, things drop off precipitously for a team that suffered its worst season in a decade last year. With their solid core you don't have to squint too hard to see the team bouncing back, but they'll have to do it in possibly the game's most competitive division.
The Brew Crew snuck into the expanded playoff field with a losing record and an anemic offense last year. Starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes and relievers Josh Hader and Devin Williams are electric, and the team added gold glovers Kolton Wong at second and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., so run prevention will be key. They'll need a return to form from the likes of 2018 MVP Christian Yelich, Keston Hiura (who moves to first base with the arrival of Wong) and Lorenzo Cain (who sat out last season) if they are to get the offense back in gear and make a run in the weakest division in the National League.
If the Brewers falter, the Cardinals will be waiting to pounce. The rotation is thin, and talented youngsters such as Tommy Edman, Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson and Tyler O'Neill have been up and down. Pulling off a blockbuster trade to snag the aforementioned Nolan Arenado was a coup, and the Cards always seem to find a way to stay relevant. With stalwarts Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina still on board, it's not too difficult to see things falling into place for a division title.
The core of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo has helped the Cubbies to five postseason appearances in six years and a World Series title in 2016. All three are in the final year of their contracts and it is hard to know if the team is committed to building around them or starting from the ground up. If things don't get off to a good start on the North Side, look for the trade winds to start blowing out at Wrigley Field.
The Reds made the expanded playoff field last year behind strong pitching. Starters Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray return, but the team decided Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer was too expensive and let him walk to LA in free agency. The offense tore out of the gates, leading the league in runs scored over the first three weeks of the season. Cincy fans will be hoping they can keep that going and stay in the hunt.
At least Pirates fans have picturesque PNC Park to watch baseball games in, as there doesn't figure to be a whole lot to cheer about on the field.
Starter Justin Verlander is out after Tommy John surgery, and outfielder George Springer is plying his wares in Toronto. But the likes of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel are still around from their World Series days. Jake Odorizzi steps in to fill Verlander's shoes and join ace Zack Greinke in the rotation. After a slow start last year, the Astros got wind in their sails towards the end of the short season, and will be looking to carry that into this season and make another run at an AL West title.
The Angels are hoping that a healthy Shohei Ohtani can bring his two-way magic back to Southern California after a string of injuries. If things go as planned, he'll pitch every fifth day and hit every day. In his first spring training appearance this year he hit 100mph on the radar gun and launched a 450-foot home run. Mike Trout remains the best player in the game, but the Angels never seem to be able to put a team around him that can translate that talent into playoff success. They will be hoping that improved pitching depth will give them a chance to change that this time around.
As usual, the A's have talent and depth up and down the line up without having a bona fide superstar. First baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman both hit 36 home runs while winning a Gold Glove in 2019. Last season, Olson hit just .195 and Chapman needed surgery to repair a torn right hip labrum, so the team will be hoping for a return to form this year from the duo.
The Mariners made headlines for all the wrong reasons over the offseason when former chief executive Kevin Mather made widely published disparaging comments about his team's players. Hopes are that A.L. Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and a host of young prospects can put the focus back onto the field, but it doesn't look like this will be the year that they break their 19-year playoff drought, the longest in North American professional sports.
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have struggled to stay healthy, but the Yankees have maintained their Bronx Bombers moniker with slugging power up and down the line up. Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon form the core of a tough rotation as well. The Yanks have their sights set high this year, but they have stumbled out of the gates, bringing out the boo-birds in the Bronx.
The Rays were the best team in the American League last year and took the Dodgers to six games in the World Series. Almost the entire roster returns for another run, including Randy Arozarena, who burst onto the scene, hitting a Babe Ruth-like .377 with 10 homers in 20 postseason games. Starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton are gone, but the Rays always seem to find quality innings from unlikely sources. Look for the Rays to be in the thick of things again in the most workmanlike way possible.
The Jays splashed out to bring in outfielder George Springer and starter Marcus Semien to join home-grown talent Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, a slimmed-down Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Pitching depth is a concern, and the team will be playing home games at their spring training grounds in Dunedin, Florida, as they remain banned from cross-border travel, which could have an impact over the course of the season.
Expectations were modest to start the season in Beantown, but a fast start to the season has BoSox fans hopeful. Young hitters like Alex Verdugo and Bobby Dalbec have bright futures, but Boston fans are praying that trading away Mookie Betts doesn't forbode a lengthy stay in baseball purgatory.
Even Orioles fans would have trouble naming many of their players. The team hopes there are brighter days ahead, but the Orioles have gone nearly 40 years without a pennant, and that's not about to change soon.
Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa comes out of retirement for a second stint at the helm of the White Sox to lead a team that won the division a year ago. Reigning MVP Jose Abreu, starters Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn, closer Liam Hendriks, and youngsters such as infielders Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, outfielder Luis Robert and starter Lucas Giolito give LaRussa a legitimate shot at becoming the first manager in history to win titles with three different teams.
The Twins will continue to mash the baseball with Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Sano & Co plying their wares at Target Field. Andrelton Simmons, a four-time Gold Glove shortstop, arrives to shore up a weak spot in the Twins' defense. The rotation gets thin after Kenta Maeda and José Berríos, and the team will need to be hitting on all cylinders to keep up with the White Sox.
The team can hit for power with the likes of Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozie and Salvador Perez; and Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi can steal bases. Brady Singer has ace potential, but there's not realistically enough going in KC to keep the Royals in the hunt.
Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and other talented starters should keep most games competitive, but there is no replacing shortstop Francisco Lindor. With an A.L.-low projected payroll of $62.6 million, it's clear which direction this team is headed.
According to MLB.com rankings, the Tigers have five of the game's top 25 prospects, including starter Casey Mize and infielder Spencer Torkelson, both former No. 1 overall picks. Miguel Cabrera (487 homers, 2,866 hits) will be chasing milestones as the team rebuilds around him.
And that's a wrap. 30 teams, 162 games - if all goes as planned - and the hope that baseball can show us the way out of a lockdown world and into a place that feels more normal. It's time to 'play ball' and sing 'Take Me out to the Ball Game', so sit back and enjoy the ride.