Saturday, February 27, 2021

Coming Soon to a Ballpark Near You, Baseball That Looks Familiar

2020 will always be remembered as a bizarre baseball season, by far the weirdest of my lifetime. The only seasons that approached it in sheer peculiarity were 1981, where a strike shut the game down for two months from June 12 - August 9, and 1994, when baseball just packed up and shut down for the rest of the year without crowning a champion. Still, at least to my mind, 2020 stands alone. Not only for the dramatic accommodations MLB had to make to play an abbreviated season at all, but how very weird all of our lives became outside of the game itself.

It would be nice if I could believe that 2021 will feature a return to normalcy in all respects, but we all know that's not going to happen. 2021 will be a hybrid year, straddling two realities — one foot stuck within the ongoing pandemic, but the other foot taking the first step into a post-pandemic reality. I still have to wear a mask to go food shopping, yet it's quite likely that before the summer is over, I will be sitting maskless in a pub, enjoying some long overdue cold ones with equally maskless friends. Perhaps I may even find myself in Citi Field at some point this summer, cheering on the Mets in person. Simple dreams like those make the drudgery of living a full year in a COVID-19 dominated world a bit easier to take.

I have a pretty good idea of what my life will be once I and the majority of my neighbors are vaccinated. It will be as absolutely close to what my life was before last March as is possible. Still, I'm smart enough to realize that there will be no return to exactly the life I was living. Too many things have changed over the past year, including my current employment status, for that to happen. I'm not going to feel too sorry for myself over that, however. There were over half a million Americans who aren't going the chance to pick up their lives. For myself, my big resolution is not to take for granted what I am blessed with. I don't care if that sounds a little corny.

As for the game that I love, Major League Baseball will be going through its own hybrid experience. Right now, very few in the game have been vaccinated, and burdensome health and safety protocols are still in place. While there will be some fans in the stands once the games get underway in earnest, there won't be anything approaching full ballparks this spring. Whether there are by the end of the season remains to be seen, I wouldn't be shocked if that was the case. Whatever the numbers, baseball will be a better game with real human being cheering their teams on rather than cardboard cutouts and canned cheers.

They started spring training on time last week, and the plan is to play a full 162-game schedule. Teams will likely be playing in front of more fans as the weather gets warmer. Still, some significant differences will result as a consequence of the short 60-game schedule last season. One of the biggest will be how pitchers — both starters and relievers — will be handled. We're hearing a lot about "workload management" right now, and it will continue to be an issue right up through October.

The reason is common sense, of course. Teams worry about ramping back up to a normal full season of work for pitchers when none of them came close to those numbers in 2020, not even the pitchers who threw for teams who made it far into the postseason. Peter Gammons in The Athletic had an interesting look yesterday at some of the things teams will be doing to ensure that their prized pitchers survive the upcoming season.

Gammons started off the piece by quoting Andrew Friedman, PBO of the Dodgers, that he had "no idea how this season plays out," specifically speaking on the uncertainty surrounding playing a season that will be more than 2-1/2 times longer than last year's. Friedman went on to say:

"My fondest hope right now is that five years from now we don't look back and see a serious health issue stemming from this season, whether it's the Dodgers or the industry. We're coming off a 60-game season that was extremely difficult for everyone and now are hoping to play 162 games. There is so much that is consequential, to players and to the game, and there is no way we can anticipate them right now."

As for pitchers, Gammons notes that MLB teams are looking to open the year with 7-10 starting pitchers and 10-15 relievers, expecting to use all of them to manage the innings in 2021. Strategies for protecting starters include 6-man rotations, while bullpens are likely to feature a constant shuttle between a club's Triple-A franchise and the Major League ballclub. As I've previously written, players with minor league options left — and the Mets have stockpiled a few of those — are going to be crucially important.

There was thinking that there would be an NL DH this season, mostly to protect starting pitching. That still is possible, but it hasn't happened yet and seems more and more unlikely. MLB owners thought the DH was more valuable to the players because it added 15 starting position players in the NL, so they tried to trade the DH for expanded playoffs, which the players turned down. For the life of me, I don't understand why they felt they could trade something both sides wanted for something owners wanted.

What made more sense to me, but never seems to have been discussed, was MLB offering the players the NL DH and some kind of increased active roster size for 2021 in exchange for expanded playoffs. The owners could have gotten the money-maker they desired in exchange for a couple of more low-paid players on the active rolls if they brought back the 28-man roster from last season. MLB clubs would have benefited from two extra players with a little extra flexibility to keep highly-paid players healthy, with fewer moves between the Triple-A and active rosters. Sadly, accommodations that make sense for both sides never seem to see the light of day in negotiations between MLB and the Players Association.

So what are we likely to see this season from the Mets to keep their pitchers healthy? For the starters, I'd bet against a 6-man rotation. For a great pitcher like Jacob deGrom, this would mean fewer starts and a break in his normal routine, and that's just not ideal at all. Nor would it make much sense to keep deGrom pitching every fifth day and putting the rest of the rotation on an every-sixth-day routine. That would be disruptive to other pitchers that the team is counting on, like Marcus Stroman, Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker, and Noah Syndergaard when he returns.

What I believe we'll see is starting pitchers starting the season with restrictive pitch counts for the first 3 or 4 outings at least, liberal use of the 10-day injured list to give pitchers who are showing signs of fatigue a break, and an extra day or two of rest when the schedule allows it. Perhaps starters outside the top 3 might see some time in long relief as somewhat of an in-season break. Openers and bullpen games are certainly a possibility.

For relievers, my previously-mentioned shuttle between New York and Syracuse is a given, but that will only work to keep your extra relievers fresher. For the late-inning men that the Mets will depend upon all season, we'll be looking to Luis Rojas and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner to proactively manage their workload, particularly early in the season. The Mets have a track record stretching back across multiple coaching staffs and front offices of severely overusing their best relief pitchers. Even if these pitchers managed to avoid serious injuries, they were often less effective by the end of the season. That didn't matter much when the team was losing 90+ games and finishing last, but it sure does matter if the club is fighting for a playoff spot.

For Edwin Díaz, Trevor May, Seth Lugo (when he returns), and Aaron Loup, as long as they stay healthy, the Mets will want them available for most games. You can add Jeurys FamiliaDellin BetancesMiguel Castro, and Sam McWilliams to this list, too, if they pitch effectively. I can see the club putting one of them on the 10-day injured list if they are really fatigued at some point in the year, but having to do that will indicate a failure on the part of Rojas and Hefner. They're going to absolutely need to give them days of rest as needed to avoid that kind of burnout. Meanwhile, there will still be the day-to-day pressure to win ballgames, along with juggling around the normal injuries that can befall even well-rested arms during a Major League campaign. I'm thinking that those guys are going to have their hands full in 2021.

We've only talked about pitchers so far, as they will likely be the most challenging to manage this season. Position players are likely to need at least a bit more rest than they would in a normal season. The Mets are lucky in this area. They have enough depth at most positions to give regulars more days off. It would be helpful if a last-minute deal is made for the NL DH, as that can be used to give key hitters a day off in the field while keeping their bats in the game.

While the glare of the spotlight won't be shining as brightly on minor league ballplayers, the Mets are going to have some huge challenges there, too. While a few prospects saw time in the alternate site last season, and the top ones were invited to the fall instructional camp, no one enjoyed a "normal" developmental year. Many prospects received no formal development at all. Complicating things further are the changes to the minor leagues, eliminating some of the options for prospects at the lowest levels. Managing these players' workloads while ensuring that their development gets back on track will be a most difficult challenge. At least over the next few seasons, the future of the Mets organization will very much depend on them getting all of this right.

Okay, I'm out for today. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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