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2021 MLB Preview: Flying Blind During COVID

2021 MLB Preview: Flying Blind During COVID

2021 MLB Preview: Flying Blind During COVID

The Royals weren't worried about Adalberto Mondesi. Really, they weren't.

Their young infielder's batting average stood at a below-Mendoza .179 on Sept. 4, and it appeared as if the 2020 short season was going to make him a casualty and a question mark heading into what everyone hopes will be a more robust, if not complete, '21 campaign.

"He really scuffled at the beginning of the season," Kansas City assistant GM J.J. Picollo says.

You think? Mondesi started the season at a tortoise crawl, and even though he warmed a bit in early August, his .179/.231/.440 line four days into September looked like an NL pitcher's, before the universal DH was foisted upon the Senior Circuit. Mondesi had led the AL with 10 triples in 2019, but he had just one to that point. Sending him up to the plate was akin to handing a history major some advanced physics calculations. No shot.

But Mondesi went 3-for-4 that night against the White Sox, with a pair of RBIs. Thus began a season-ending binge, during which Mondesi hit .376. He had multiple hits in nine of KC's last 22 contests and was 14-for-18 (.778) in the Royals' final five. If fans thought the 2020 season was too short, imagine how Mondesi felt. He had finally heated up, just in time to pack up his belongings and head home.

"We weren't panicked," Picollo says. "He had a bad month.

"He turned things around almost overnight. Down the stretch, he was excellent. It was exciting to watch."

Because Mondesi had played parts of four seasons with the Royals and had been part of the organization since signing as a free agent in 2011, he and the team had some history. That made the slow start a little easier to endure — for both sides — since he was not a hopeful trying to make an impression but a young vet going through a rough patch. Had the season lasted another 100 games, Mondesi may well have settled into the kind of productive groove the organization expects from him, and few would have remembered his flailing start.

Because of that relationship, the Royals won't spend too much time in advance of the 2021 season trying to figure out what they have in Mondesi. They know. But KC, like every other club in the majors, has issues with other players on its big-league roster and throughout the farm system, not to mention how it evaluates talent on other teams, in terms of preparation, future trades, and roster moves. The shortened '20 campaign made it difficult for teams to get complete reads on players at every level, and that could lead to some bad decisions, as well as some luck for those who happen to figure out ways to gain accurate assessments, despite the abbreviated time frame. It's not impossible, but coming up with reliable evaluations will require a variety of tactics.

Some front office folks, like Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos, who has helped build the Braves into an NL stalwart, do not seem too worried by what needs to be done.

"Like anything that has happened before, when guys miss time in a season, you're going to have small sample sizes," Anthopoulos says. "You have to be skeptical about what you have seen. All 30 [MLB] teams face the same thing, so you have to keep working to make the best use of the information you have.

"You're not going to be as comfortable, but the more information you have, the greater comfort you will have. With major league players, you'll still have a track record. You've seen it over six months in the past."

Anthopoulos' optimism is warranted, especially when dealing with seasoned players. However, it's not going to be as easy to gather all of the necessary information, since many teams have cut their scouting and evaluation staffs over the past year. Some didn't waste any time once it became clear the league wasn't going to have a full season. In early June, the Angels furloughed several scouts and some of their international staff. L.A. wasn't alone. The A's, Diamondbacks, Reds, Rangers, and Nationals also furloughed front office staff in the late spring and early summer. In August, the Cubs reduced scouting and player development staff. In October, the Phillies released seven members of their scouting staff, a month before the franchise lopped 80 more employees from the ranks while announcing losses of $145 million for the truncated season that didn't include fans.

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It was all part of a league-wide effort to mitigate losses, but it could have long-term effects on how teams look at their talent and make moves down the line.

"It's really case-by-case," Picollo says.

• • •

During the 2019 season, when teams were considering whether to add a veteran starting pitcher to their rosters, Texas lefthander Mike Minor was a popular possibility. He was durable, having made at least 25 starts in five of his previous six seasons. He was versatile, too, having made 65 relief appearances during the one year he wasn't a starter. Minor wasn't a Cy Young candidate, but he had won double-digit games three times and was in the middle of a 14–10 campaign that included a 3.59 ERA and his only All-Star nod.

The Rangers didn't deal Minor in 2019, but they did dish him to Oakland last season, after he started the year 0–5 with a 5.60 ERA in seven starts. He finished the campaign 1–6, with his only victory a shutout. Although his fastball was still nasty, he gave up a pile of homers and saw his hard-hit rate soar 10 percentage points, to 40.4 percent. It wasn't the best argument for someone heading into free agency.

Except maybe it was. On Dec. 1, the Royals signed the 33-year-old to a two-year, $18 million deal, clearly looking past the 2020 performance to what Minor accomplished in previous seasons.

He'll join Danny Duffy as veterans on the KC staff, with Brad Keller and second-year men Kris Bubic and Brady Singer leading a crew of young talent providing hope for the future. Since the Royals are rebuilding, they were able to let the young pitchers start every fifth day and learn how to fight through problems and to develop some work habits that will allow for future success. The shortened season was something of a blessing, since there was no chance of letting the young arms throw too many innings. Singer threw 64.1, while Bubic tossed 50. Although it's a smaller sample size than the organization would have liked, it was still enough to see how the hurlers would handle major league life, without overusing them.

"Even though they didn't throw a lot of innings, the season still had some stresses," Picollo says. "I'm not saying a 60-game season is the equivalent of a 162-game season, but the mental fortitude needed to get through it was as great as any other season."

The Minor signing was something of a surprise, since Kansas City is rebuilding from its 58-win nadir in 2018 and is more interested in accumulating young talent than spending resources on veterans, even if the two-year deal for Minor is modest. He'll be a good bridge to prospects like Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, and should they — or others — prove ready for MLB action early on, Minor can always use his fastball in a closer's role. He was effective as a ninth-inning option for KC in 2017.

While Kansas City is looking to build and will devote most of its moves to younger players with bright futures, even if their MLB arrival dates are a few years away, the Braves are mostly a finished product, and Anthopoulos and his staff will be looking for proven talent to fill in around Atlanta's outstanding core to key another run at the World Series. It is important for the franchise to pay attention to other teams' farm systems for future deals, but if the Braves are going to make moves in 2021, they will likely be for major leaguers who can step in right away.

"We are contending, and we are focused on guys at the big-league level," Anthopoulos says. "We are trying to win a division."

As 2021 plays out, teams will have more insight into players, thanks to what they do during the season. And they will also have large stockpiles of analytics information capable of augmenting even the thinnest scouting report. So much of what is done today is predictive, and even if a pitcher threw just 70 innings in '20, there is a growing stockpile of data to assist in his evaluation. There will be some mistakes made and some shrewd decisions. Teams will thrive, and others will stumble.

Just like every year.

— Written by Michael Bradley (@dailyhombre) for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.

(Adalberto Mondesi photo courtesy of @Royals)