Biggest Things to Watch for Across the Sport of Baseball in 2021
By Chris O’Connor
March 2, 2021
That’s all there is to say. Everyone has heard Seattle’s former president/CEO Kevin Mather’s unbelievably self-sabotaging comments to a Rotary Club on February 5, but this is an issue that (1) is not limited to just Mather and the Mariners and (2) is not going away anytime soon.
Let’s start with the Mariners: players are understandably upset and angry. Top prospect Jarred Kelenic, whom Mather admitted to keeping in the minor leagues for service time manipulation, recently told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that he was “extremely disappointed” and “beyond frustrated.” He also discussed the apology from Mariners GM Jerry DiPoto, saying that it was “strange” and the players reacted like “someone farted in church.” It is clear from Kelenic’s comments that Mariners players do not trust management even after Mather was fired. How will they respond to it? If Kelenic shows out at spring training, will they have him on the opening day roster?
Many players across the sport, notably Gerrit Cole, Josh Donaldson, and Kris Bryant (who endured the most clear and obvious case of service time manipulation) have spoken out against the comments, indicating that it is a good thing that they were made public because Mather’s sentiments are prevalent throughout the industry.
This is a problem that is, again, not limited to the Mariners. I am actually looking forward to seeing how teams throughout the sport deal with service time manipulation in 2021 now that players and the media will be eyeing it like hawks.
The December 1 CBA Expiration
On a similar note, the relationship between the players and owners is something to watch for. Commissioner Rob Manfred was chosen by the owners to succeed Bud Selig because of his ruthless negotiating skills and he led the owners to a clear and obvious win in negotiating the current CBA.
The owners have taken the players to school on things like service time manipulation, using the luxury tax thresholds as de facto salary caps, and using the idea of tanking as an excuse to run incredibly meager payrolls for years at a time.
The relationship is so bad that the two sides cannot even agree on something everyone wants: a universal DH. The players want it, the owners want it. But since the owners know that the players want it, they refuse to implement it unless the players agree to something in return (like expanded playoffs). So for yet another year, fans are forced to watch pitchers hit .050 because the owners and players cannot get along. That is just one example of the acrimonious relationship that has many in the industry predicting some kind of lockout or strike when the CBA expires. Three straight years of either shortened or altered seasons would be devastating for the game of baseball, so here’s hoping the two can work through some of their differences in the coming season.
What Rule Changes Will Stick?
Speaking of altered seasons, the 2020 pandemic-shortened season brought many rule changes to the big leagues, the most notable among them: universal DH, expanded playoffs (from 10 to 16), seven inning doubleheaders, extra innings beginning with a runner on second base, and a three batter minimum for pitchers.
For 2021, the universal DH and expanded playoffs are gone while the seven inning doubleheader, altered extra innings, and three batter minimum are back. It is entirely possible that, closer to the season, the league will implement expanded playoffs like they did in 2020, but for now that appears unlikely.
Personally, I liked the seven inning doubleheaders and believe that might be in play moving forward for 2022 and beyond. The universal DH, a lesser version of the expanded playoffs (like 12 or 14 teams), and three batter minimum are most likely here to stay as well. I am less bullish on runners at second base to start extra innings, but it is possible that that is implemented in the new CBA.
I believe that a major part of determining the future of these rule changes is (1) Money (what else) and (2) how they are received by players, coaches, and fans. Another year of seeing what works and what does not is something to watch for ahead of what promises to be a contentious negotiation in December.
Mike Trout Turns 30
While this is technically his age-29 season, he turns 30 in August. Trout was my first real favorite baseball player. When he had his first full big league season in 2012, I was 13 years old and just starting to really follow MLB as closely as I do today. That 2012 season was something else. He actually started the season in Triple A after a bad case of the flu caused him to lose 20 pounds. In the 139 games after he was promoted for the final time, he hit 30 homers, stole 49 bases (against 5 caught stealing), scored 129 runs, and slashed .326/.399/.564. Combined with excellent defense in center field, it was a season worth 10.5 bWAR, tied for 27th among all seasons in big league history. He just did everything well and remarkably just continues to get better at something every year whether it is improving his defense, plate discipline, or baserunning.
Among position players, he is already 52nd all time in career bWAR ahead of names like Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, and Tony Gwynn. Again, he is not even 30.
There are too many Mike Trout stats to name but my favorite is that his worst season was probably 2014. That year he led the league in runs, RBI’s, total bases and won the MVP. It is such a shame that he is not more well-known. Maybe that is because he does not market himself. Maybe that is because he plays on the West Coast and many people are asleep when his games begin. Maybe it is because his team has consistently been bad enough that he has never won a playoff game, or maybe it is because while he is at the top of the league at pretty much everything every year, he does not have one defining trait. Whatever it is, what he has done in his nine full seasons is nearly unprecedented for consistent greatness.
He is on his way to being a top 10 player of all time and I really hope he can play meaningful games late in the year. With the Angels in perennial win-now mode, this might be the year they break through.
Aside from the Yankees, Root For Teams That Are Attempting to Get Better and Win Games
This has become increasingly rare in baseball today, so it has been refreshing to see teams like the Padres, Mets, Blue Jays, and White Sox make trades and spend money in free agency to actually try to win games.
The Padres, among other moves, traded for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, signed 25 year old versatile infielder Ha-seong Kim, and extended the face of the franchise Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14 year, $340 million deal.
While Mets fans are disappointed that they did not lure any of the big free agents, they did sign the steady James McCann to fill a need at catcher and traded for Franscico Lindor and Carlos Carrasco.
The Blue Jays, of course, signed George Springer and Marcus Semien to complement their young core.
The White Sox traded for Lance Lynn, signed Liam Hendricks to a big contract, and hired the ultimate win-now manager in 76 year-old Tony La Russa (a controversial move but one certainly made with the intention of winning).
Even the Royals made a few moves in signing Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, and trading for Andrew Benintendi.
I’ll be rooting for these teams solely on the basis of them bucking the trend of anti-competitive practices that far too many teams have engaged in for the last few years.