Yay! Baseball is back, even if it is only spring training games today. Correction – even if its only a weak imitation of spring training games, with new Rob Manfred-initiated rules allowing pitchers to go in and out of the game, games to last as little as five innings and innings being ended when a manager feels like it’s gone on long enough. Anyway, there will be opposing teams on the field hitting the ball, so that’s a nice sign of springtime and something resembling normalcy.
MLB itself recently listed their “seven players all eyes will be on” this season. By and large their picks were reasonable, but I had a few slight disagreements with their picks so here are my Five Players Who Will Be In The Spotlight in 2021, in descending order.
5) Francisco Lindor, Mets. Lindor’s rapidly risen to the ranks of superstar, both with his bat and glove, but up until this year he’d been playing on a small-market, slightly-above-average talent team. This year pressure will be notched up with him playing in the largest city in the game, on a team who’ve stated fairly straight-forwardly they intend to win and are tired of being “that other Big Apple team.” He’s one of the new breed of flamboyant players who seem to crave the spotlight, so it’s his time to shine. If he can indeed thrive in a bigger market and help the Mets take a run in October, he’ll probably be the premier free agent come this winter ( a tall order in a year when Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien will also be available shortstops.) If not, he may be next year’s Semien, a decent enough short-term pickup for a team trying to move up in the standings.
4) Fernando Tatis, Jr. Padres. In two seasons of the bigs, Fernando has played 143 games – about one normal year’s worth. During that “one” season, he’s hit .301, slugged .582, had an OPS 54% better than league average and hit 39 homers. His WAR in that time , a tidy 7.0. That’s impressive for essentially a rookie campaign. But is it impressive enough to warrant a massive 14 year, $340M contract? San Diego think so. There’ll be a lot of people looking at him under a microscope and if he doesn’t pull off the seemingly improbable – getting better than he has been – and more importantly, if San Diego don’t make a very serious run at the Dodgers for the division title, many will think him a bust.
3) Yu Darvish, Padres. Does anyone remember the time before Yu in the MLB? Fewer and fewer do. Darvish has been in North America for nine years now. And while he’s been a “plus pitcher” for years, he had never come close to living up to the extraordinary amount of hype generated by his coming over from Japan, where he was a Bob Gibson crossed with Steve Carlton and a dash of Randy Johnson. Over here he built up a reputation for being fragile (even though he logged 140 + innings five of the first seven years here, which in this day and age is fairly sturdy, alas) and was a goat in L.A. where they blamed him for losing the World Series. That changed last year when he was dominant in the NL Central, going 8-3 with a 2.01 ERA and 93K’s in 76 innings pitched in the shortened season. Suddenly he was the guy Japan had sold us, so to speak, and a solid Cy Young candidate. So much like Tatis, now that he’s in San Diego, there’ll be more eyes on him watching to see if he can propel the Padres deep into October and perhaps tutor a few of their great young arms along the way.
2) George Springer, Blue Jays. Yes, I admit again, this Blue Jays diehard wasn’t ecstatic with his $150M signing by Toronto. I don’t hate it, mind you, but wasn’t dazzled by the optics or dollar amount. But George clearly was set up as the top available position player in the off-season. Toronto had stated they intended to take the next step to go from barely Wild Card to a legit World Series contender, and Springer is the showcase in their turn in that direction. Springer will be carefully watched not only because he’s a home run hitter in the most homer-friendly division in the game but because he still wears a cloak of shame from being a member of the 2017 Champions of Cheat team out of Houston. Nonetheless, Toronto management talked to him at length and figure he’s a solid character who will be a great mentor to the very many talented but raw kids on the roster. A lot to live upto for the big outfielder.
1) Trevor Bauer, Dodgers. Are you kidding me? MLB didn’t think Bauer was the #1 deer in the headlights this year. I figure no player, no five players combined, will attract as much attention as Trevor will. It won’t matter how many Kardashians file for divorce or how many celebrity assistants get shot, the media in L.A. will be nowhere but at the Dodger clubhouse door when he’s due to take the mound. After all, there’s the money, the controversy, the idea of a new breed of player and a World Championship in a city which at times has trouble producing trophy-winners, all rolled into one.
Start with how wherever Bauer goes, controversy usually follows. Nothing if not outspoken, he’s made enemies in the Commissioner’s office wit his criticism over many Rob Manfred decisions (one can only wonder how he’ll respond to potentially five-inning spring games or pitch counts deciding when to end an inning) and with a huge number of Democrats across the country with his rather prolific and outspoken use of Twitter and other social media. His support of Donald Trump and questioning of Barack Obama’s background may be long-remembered in one of the most liberal cities in the land…particularly if he can’t come close to matching his Cy Young winning season of last year. His social media presence extended to his free agency, where he publicly goaded some teams into talking to him, and solicited all kinds of feedback from fans in various cities. One of the few superstars to not use Scott Boras, his agent was a young woman named Rachel Luba. She followed his lead and did much of her negotiating, it would seem via Twitter. Expect other players and agents, for that matter, to watch to see how well the season plays out before deciding if they want to update their methods as well.
And then there’s money. Why wouldn’t people be attentive to how he does? He just broke a new gold ceiling in the sport by becoming the highest-paid player this year and the first to rake in $40M a year. That alone would be attention-getting, but in his context is more so. After all, before 2020, he was an only slightly-above average pitcher by the numbers. He’d only had an ERA below 4.00 once in eight seasons and had only reached 190 innings twice. Last year things changed with him winning a deserved Cy Young with his league-leading 1.73 ERA, and almost 6:1 strikeout to walk ration, not to mention two complete game shutouts, an animal as rare as a dodo bird these days. But one can’t help but ask, how much does his performance over a season that was less than half the normal length, in a schedule adjusted to let him avoid playing any tough Eastern or Western teams really spell out how good a pitcher he is, or will be? With San Diego beefing up their roster and payroll rapidly, you bet all eyes will be on Trevor to see how he answers that question, and if he can get L.A. back to the World Series.