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15 Things to Watch in Baseball in 2021

15 Things to Watch in Baseball in 2021

15 Things to Watch in Baseball in 2021

Major League Baseball weathered a shortened 2020 season and pulled off an expanded playoffs at a neutral site. While the 2021 season will not be nearly as unique, there are still plenty of questions hanging over the upcoming season. The New York Times' Tyler Kepner breaks them all down in a feature from the Athlon Sports 2021 Baseball Annual.

1. The impact of the virus

It's an outcome no one could have ever conceived: an officially sanctioned regular season with a combined paid attendance of zero. That was life in 2020 for Major League Baseball, which whittled its season to 60 games because of the coronavirus and barred all ticket sales until the NLCS and World Series in Texas. Alas, with the pandemic still raging at press time, 2021 presents more of the great unknown — but the games in Texas, at least, showed that limited, socially distanced attendance was feasible. The possibility of fans, then, is the overwhelming factor that most consumes us for this season. How will varying state regulations impact attendance — and, subsequently, team revenues? Will health or financial concerns keep fans from the ballpark even if they are allowed to go? All of those issues are critical to the future of the game, which also faces more subtle questions, like the future of players' interaction with the public. Will players and media forever be separated by Zoom screens, redefining the flow of information from the clubhouse to the fans? Will autographs and selfies ever feel safe again? It's one thing to upend a sport for one abbreviated season, but quite another to establish new norms that seem antithetical to growing the game for the long term. Like everything else in life these days, the national pastime is largely at the mercy of the virus.

2. Delayed Astros fallout

Cardboard cutouts keep quiet, which was a relief for the Astros in 2020. With fans and opponents livid at the team for stealing signs in its championship season of 2017, the pandemic gave Houston a reprieve: a truncated 60-game season, plus three rounds of playoffs, with no real humans in the stands. When crowds return to ballparks, will fans have the same vitriol for the Astros that they promised to bring last year? If the postseason is any indication, they sure will. In San Diego, where the Astros played the Rays in the ALCS, a fan on a nearby balcony jeered the Astros with a bullhorn. At the World Series in Arlington, Texas, some fans chanted "Cheeeeeterrr!" at the Rays' Charlie Morton, who played for the 2017 Astros but — as a pitcher — never personally took a stolen sign. At press time, only four Astro hitters from the notorious title team remain in Houston: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel, all of whom played well below their career norms last year. The Astros' spirited postseason run seemed to bring back their swagger, and young pitchers like Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier came into their own. Manager Dusty Baker has had a year in Houston to learn his team's personality, and there's no better communicator in the game. That's bound to help the players — even those who had nothing to do with the scandal — because the fans will make sure to be heard. If they can sustain their outrage all season, the Astros will have to get used to life as villains.

3. Free agent shortstop class

It's hard to believe so many stars at the same position are reaching free agency at the same time. But that's where we're headed with Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story, a shortstop quintet who are all eligible to hit the market after this season. Three have already won World Series titles, all have been All-Stars and all were first-round picks out of high school — meaning they'll all become free agents squarely in their primes, before turning 29 years old. Each player's team faces a monumental decision: Should they try to sign the player to a long-term contract, trade him, or play out the season and let him enter the market? With just one year of contractual control, it's unlikely a team would get equal value in a trade return. But after seeing the big-market Boston Red Sox trade Mookie Betts last offseason with only one year remaining, it's certainly possible that any of these players could be moved (except perhaps Seager, who just won the World Series MVP award for the Dodgers). How will they respond to the pressures of playing out a season with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line? Who will emerge as the clear top choice? The record value of a free agent contract — $330 million, for Bryce Harper with the Phillies — seems within reach. But extensions can be more lucrative, like Mike Trout's 12-year, $426.5 million deal with the Angels and Betts' 12-year, $365 million pact with the Dodgers. Those are the kinds of figures these shortstops could command, and their decisions could rock the competitive landscape for years to come.

4. Tony La Russa rejoins the White Sox

It's been so long since Tony La Russa managed the Chicago White Sox that the first time he was hired, he replaced a player-manager. That was in August 1979, when Bill Veeck owned the team and outfielders might have still been finding shards of vinyl from "Disco Demolition Night" a few weeks before. La Russa stayed in Chicago until 1986, when owner Jerry Reinsdorf allowed GM Hawk Harrelson to fire him. Reinsdorf has long regretted that decision, and he finally righted things after 34 years when he lured La Russa from semi-retirement in November. It was a bold and somewhat puzzling move, since La Russa, 76, has already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and only two managers have ever been older. The White Sox roster is full of young stars big on self-expression, like Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, and the industry is awash in analytics. But while La Russa is decidedly old-school, he also defies caricature: He tolerated Hall of Fame hot dogs like Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley in Oakland, where he was hailed for an information-based approach that emphasized on-base percentage long before Billy Beane made it popular. La Russa, who last managed at St. Louis in 2011, when he won his third World Series, has promised to adapt to the modern game while insisting that much of baseball is timeless. "The preparation will be better — I'm looking forward to it — but the actual game decision-making will be much like what I learned," he says. "You watch the game and try to figure out how to put people in position to win." Even so, it's a big risk by Reinsdorf — and the scrutiny only rose after the revelation that La Russa had been arrested for driving under the influence last February, at least his second such offense. For a manager with a well-earned legacy of success, La Russa still has much to prove.

5. Innings increases and injury risk

Starting pitchers' workloads have been declining for years, and now teams may be even more conservative after the truncated 2020 schedule. No pitcher threw even 90 innings last season (Lance Lynn led the majors with 84), so teams will likely be very cautious in reacting to any and all discomfort. In some ways, there's not much they can do to stop a major innings spike; it's a by-product of going from 60 games back to 162. But pushing through fatigue and re-training their arms for the slog will be critical for pitchers, who are some of the most finely tuned, routine-oriented creatures in sports. Watch for an early outbreak of injuries (like the one suffered in 2020 by Mike Clevinger, requiring Tommy John surgery), which would send the industry scrambling for answers and probably lead to wide-scale overreaction — and a whole lot of tedious pitching changes, even with the three-batter minimum rule still in place.

6. Kim Ng makes history with the Marlins

It took three decades of working in baseball, but Kim Ng finally got her chance to make history in November. The Marlins made Ng the first full-time female general manager in the history of the four major pro sports leagues in North America. Ng (pronounced Ang), a former executive with the White Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and the Major League Baseball central office, has a familiar boss in Derek Jeter, the Marlins' chief executive who starred in the Bronx when Ng worked there from 1998-2001. Jeter has loaded Miami's front office and coaching staff with ex-Yankees, and while the Marlins may never have the payroll of the Yankees, they're clearly a team on the rise after reaching the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003. Ng inherits a team with a trio of young starters — Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, and ace-in-waiting Sixto Sanchez — who are all 25 or younger and combined for a 3.38 ERA last season. The offense is older, but the Marlins have several prospects with outstanding tools, like shortstop Jazz Chisholm, who could develop into stars. Ng has been an assistant GM only for high-payroll teams (the Yankees and Dodgers) and will need to find the kind of low-cost, productive talent to keep the momentum going in a fickle baseball market. She'll always be a pioneer in the industry, though, and now she'll be judged like everyone else: on organizational progress and won-loss record, the way it should be.

7. Field of Dreams

It's been more than three decades since Kevin Costner's character carved a baseball diamond out of an Iowa cornfield for the movie "Field of Dreams." Last summer, Major League Baseball heeded those mystical cinematic voices and did the same, constructing a temporary 8,000-seat ballpark adjacent to the field where Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox came back to life in the film. A game was supposed to be played there last year, but the pandemic canceled it. MLB will try again on Aug. 12, with the Chicago White Sox facing the New York Yankees. It'll be the first MLB game ever played in Iowa — Dyersville, to be precise — and with Fox broadcasting to a national audience, the league will pump up the pageantry to achieve the same spine-tingling Hollywood magic of the 1989 original. The White Sox are a natural choice, of course, and the Yankees will bring sluggers like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luke Voit to join Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, and friends in taking aim at the cornstalks beyond right field. The new park's design will evoke the dimensions of old Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox from 1910 to 1990.

8. Miguel Cabrera's milestone push

The Tigers' long rebuild continues under new manager A.J. Hinch, but from a historical perspective, it's worth keeping track of Miguel Cabrera, who turns 38 in April, near the start of his 19th major league season. Some of the all-time greats were still going strong at that age — Hank Aaron, David Ortiz, and Frank Thomas all hit at least 30 homers — but Cabrera has slowed significantly since 2016, when he last made the All-Star team. In four seasons since then, Cabrera has averaged .267/.342/.406 — lower figures in each category than he'd posted in any previous full season. The Tigers still owe him a staggering $94 million for the next three years, so Cabrera's not going anywhere. With a decent season, though, Cabrera can at least reach some round numbers to polish his Cooperstown credentials. He's 13 homers away from 500 and 134 hits away from 3,000, putting him in rare company among Tigers. Among the 32 members of the 3,000-hit club, only Ty Cobb and Al Kaline played primarily for Detroit, and none of the 27 members of the 500-home run club spent the bulk of his career with the Tigers. Cabrera has a .313 career batting average, best among active players — although Houston's Jose Altuve, who is also from Venezuela, is right behind at .311.

9. Bryce Harper and the Phillies face down a drought

When the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract before the 2019 season, it signaled their intention to contend after a long rebuild. Harper has held up his end, with an even better OPS in Philly (.903) than he had in Washington (.900). But the team has not followed, finishing .500 in his first year and 28–32 in 2020. They've fired a manager and a general manager since Harper's arrival, added veterans, and promoted Alec Bohm, a rising star at third base. But they now have the longest playoff drought in the National League, at 10 years, and Harper has a right to feel impatient. He connected immediately with the Philly fans, who love his all-out style, his long-term commitment (no opt-out clause), and newfound passion for the city and its sports teams. If the Phillies again fail to put it together, Harper, 28, has a chance to be the voice of those fans — and a powerful one, perhaps capable of influencing owner John Middleton's moves. But even if he doesn't say a word, Harper is still a treat to watch. Last season, he walked more than he struck out for the first time in his nine-year career, signaling an ever-more discerning eye at the plate and a growing respect from pitchers. He's almost halfway to 500 home runs, and he's well on track to a Hall of Fame career. But the more the Phillies flounder, the more urgent his need to play in the World Series becomes. In that way, he's the East Coast version of Mike Trout: an MVP-caliber slugger in red, hoping his prime isn't wasted on also-ran teams.

10. Analytics backlash?

Let's face it: Analytics aren't going anywhere. Teams would be foolish to disregard information that could help them win. Some teams make more data-driven decisions than others, but everyone agrees advanced metrics and technological innovations have an important place in the game. After the debacle in Game 6 of the World Series, though, maybe the rising tide will start to ebb. Did the analytics revolution reach a crossroads when the Rays removed Blake Snell from a shutout in the sixth inning, leading to their swift elimination by the grateful Dodgers? Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash stuck rigidly to the principle that pitchers tend to falter the third time through a lineup, and he paid for it dearly. Even Theo Epstein voiced some guilt about the data saturating the sport when he resigned as Cubs president of baseball operations in November, saying that, unwittingly, executives had placed such an emphasis on optimizing individual and team performance that they had created "a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game." Strikeouts are out of control, he added, and the sport must find a way to get more action in the game and let players show off their athleticism. When as bright and savvy a baseball mind as Epstein expresses those concerns, and a team is willing to risk losing the World Series by following a stat-based script, it's time to pay attention and strike a better balance.

11. Draft changes

Baseball planned to change the draft last June by moving it to Omaha in conjunction with the College World Series. That plan was scrapped, of course, and with no minor league season taking place, the draft was slashed to five rounds, by far the smallest in history. The domino effects through the industry have been significant, with many players who would have turned pro now opting for college or returning to their college teams, creating a logjam in the amateur ranks. As coaches and scouts sort it all out, they'll have another month to prepare: With short-season rookie leagues eliminated, MLB moved this year's draft back by a month to July 11-13, coinciding with the All-Star Game festivities in Atlanta. The Pirates will pick first overall, followed by the Rangers, Tigers, Red Sox, and Orioles; it's the first time Texas has picked that high since 1974. This draft won't be as short as last year's, but in their agreement last March on re-starting the season, the league and the union included an option to limit the draft to 20 rounds in 2021. While that's four times as many rounds as last June, it's a far cry from the 40-round drafts that came before — or the essentially unlimited-rounds format of decades ago. So while pairing the draft with the All-Star Game will cause a flurry of activity in mid-July, a whole lot fewer kids will get the life-changing news that they've been drafted by a major league team.

12. The future of the minor leagues

Major League Baseball was already pushing to streamline the minor leagues before last season, and then the pandemic canceled the entire schedule. When the minors return this year, the landscape will be upended, with each team restricted to four affiliates in the U.S. and Canada: Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A, with short-season rookie leagues eliminated. With 120 teams instead of 160, dozens of towns lost their tangible connections to the big leagues, and some lost baseball altogether. As a replacement for some cities that didn't make the cut, MLB created three unaffiliated leagues using mostly existing franchises: the Pioneer League, for professional players seeking to sign with existing teams; the Appalachian League, a summer wood-bat college league; and the Draft League, for amateurs hoping to make a final impression before the July draft. These so-called "partner leagues" will be funded by MLB, which promises state-of-the-art scouting technology to help players advance their careers. For fans who simply want an affordable night of family fun at the ballpark, there may be very little difference. But for diehards used to getting a peek at the future stars of a particular MLB team, things will never be the same — and for abandoned communities, the loss of baseball could leave a bitter scar.

13. Randy Arozarena

When last September dawned, the Rays' Randy Arozarena had seven hits and one home run in a brief and unremarkable major league career. No one knew he'd spend the next two months as the best player on the planet. From Sept. 1 through the last game of the World Series, Arozarena hit .338 with 17 home runs in just 136 at-bats. His postseason OPS was a mind-bending 1.273, better than Babe Ruth's OPS in his hallowed 60-homer season of 1927. Arozarena's 10 home runs — all hit after the newly created wild card round — established a new postseason record. He earned MVP honors for the ALCS, even though he hit for a higher average in each of his other three postseason series. Incredibly, because he missed most of the regular season coming back from a positive COVID-19 test, Arozarena is still considered a rookie in 2021. He's been around for a while, though — he played professionally in Cuba and Mexico before signing with the Cardinals in 2016, and will turn 26 in late February. That should put him squarely in his prime, and if he's anywhere close to the force he was in lifting the Rays to the World Series, he'll establish himself as a do-it-all superstar who commands our attention every time he steps in the box. We can't wait.

14. Steve Cohen and the Mets

He's the owner Mets fans have craved for years — a billionaire who bleeds blue and orange. Cohen doesn't need the Mets to make money; he's taken care of that already with an estimated net worth of $14 billion, earned as a master hedge-fund manager. He bought the Mets because he's loved them since they played at the Polo Grounds, and he's ready to do what the Wilpons wouldn't in the last dozen years or so: spend like a team in the nation's biggest market. Cohen will trust Sandy Alderson to spend his fortune wisely, and he'll spare no expense to build a lasting winner, but there's ultimately a list of things no owner can control. What he can do, though, is create an open line of dialogue with fans, as he's done on Twitter, and take a fresh look at the ballpark experience in Queens. Expect Cohen's savvy, innovative and well-financed leadership to burnish the reputation of a team that's too often been known for comedy and chaos. Whether or not the Mets meet Cohen's goal of a World Series title within five years, it might be time to retire the #LOLMets hashtag for good.

15. Blue Jays take flight

A generation ago, the Blue Jays drew more than three million fans five years in a row. When they returned to the playoffs a few years ago, they again drew more than three million in consecutive seasons. Canada loves good baseball, and now the Jays are on the upswing again with an energetic young roster led by Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Teoscar Hernandez. But can a team be Canadian if it doesn't actually play in Canada? The Blue Jays were forced to play home games in Buffalo, N.Y., last season as the Canadian government restricted non-essential travel to and from the United States because of the coronavirus. That policy persisted into the fall and winter, forcing the NBA's Raptors to a temporary home base of Tampa, Fla. The Blue Jays have scheduled their home opener for April 8 against the Angels, but a lot can happen between now and then that's out of their control. If they are allowed to play, expect Blue Jays fans to snap up whatever tickets they're allowed to buy. This is the kind of roster that fans adore, filled with dynamic, homegrown players ready to challenge the Rays and the Yankees. As an organization, the Blue Jays have the same simple goal as every player on the basepaths: They just want to come home.

— Written by Tyler Kepner (@TylerKepner) for Athlon Sports' 2021 MLB Preview.

(Top photo by AP Photo/John Amis(