On Tuesday, MLB announced that it will go forward with a shortened 60-game season beginning on July 23 or 24. Not only did this represent a pause in months of labor hostility between the league and the MLBPA, it also served as a somewhat shocking reminder that three months and change after spring training shut down, baseball is at least going to try to pick up where it left off.
The thing is, it’s hard to remember exactly where baseball left off, because it’s been a long three months and change. More than that, the offseason that preceded this break contained unprecedented free agent spending, trades that tilted the sport’s balance of power, and the fallout from the biggest scandal baseball has seen in a decade. It was the prelude to what should have been the most interesting MLB season in years, but then all that got put on hold.
Since mid-March, baseball fans have had scant intellectual and emotional energy to spend on the sport, and what news has trickled out of the spigot has mostly involved a somewhat abstruse and opaque argument over economics. Given all of that, it’s worth checking back in on the big stories of the offseason as a reminder of what we could see in the 2020 campaign. (“Snell gets saucy on his Twitch / Braves sign Félix, Hamels, Smith / Beltrán’s hired, then cashiered / Puig’s still unemployed—that’s weird / We didn’t start the fire …”)
This is the great granddaddy of all offseason baseball stories. From the moment the news broke in November through the suspension of spring training in mid-March, The Ringer, among numerous other sports news outlets, devoted dozens of stories to every twist and turn of the sign-stealing scandal. It called into doubt not one but two World Series champions, and led to the firing and/or suspension of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and three MLB managers: A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora, and Beltrán, who lasted just seven weeks as manager of the Mets.
The scandal turned A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, the otherwise unremarkable veteran who blew the whistle on the affair, into a figure of national fascination. It turned bloggers and YouTubers into online sleuths and household names, and led (at least momentarily) to a reevaluation of superstar pitchers branded as choke artists when they failed to beat a cheating opponent.
It caused one of the weirdest press conferences in MLB history, an investigation into José Altuve’s questionable tattoos, and a veritable cornucopia of memes, jokes, and innuendos. And every time the Astros or MLB tried to put a bow on the story, some new tentacle would pop out, spraying egg on the faces of anyone who’s appeared on the Astros’ payroll since 2017. And just when we thought this was all dying down, the Yankees, a putative victim of the Astros’ perfidy, recently entered into a court battle over a sealed letter that supposedly contains evidence that the Bronx Bombers themselves have cheated.
All this seems to have moved out of the public imagination since the pandemic started. In early March, it looked like players across the league were on the verge of a revolt, and that a beanball war against the Astros was on the horizon. Now, even those who haven’t cooled down have bigger fish to fry. The biggest baseball story of the past 10 years has simply been immured by the biggest news story of any kind in the past 20.
Remember when the Red Sox, who’d won 108 games and the World Series two seasons before, salary-dumped the second-best player in baseball to the Dodgers, along with David Price? Whatever mental bandwidth we had left over after the Astros scandal went into the shock and confusion over why a marquee franchise would behave in such a manner.
As tiresome as it is to relitigate this trade at this point, there is one thread that will remain a mystery now that we’ve lost more than half the 2020 season. Last year’s Dodgers won 106 games, the most by an NL club in 33 years. And while they lost a few key pitchers this offseason, like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill, and Kenta Maeda (who went to Minnesota in a cadet branch of the Betts trade), they stood to add Betts and Price, plus first-time full-season contributions from top-100 prospects Will Smith, Gavin Lux, and Dustin May.
Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system offered a median Dodgers win total of 102.9, which is an unprecedentedly high number. A graph of PECOTA’s results showed a nontrivial portion of the right tail peeking out past the all-time record of 116 wins in a season, shared by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners. Even if the 2020 Dodgers weren’t in line to tie or break the all-time wins record, they had a real shot at becoming the first National League team in more than 110 years to win 110 games in a season. Of all the records that won’t be broken in a 60-game season, this one stands out.
Betts wasn’t the only superstar to get dumped from a contending team this offseason. In December, Cleveland traded two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to Texas for Delino DeShields (a 27-year-old fourth outfielder) and relief pitcher Emmanuel Clase. The few who defended the trade extolled Clase’s closer-level stuff, but Cleveland will have to wait a while to see it—the 22-year-old tested positive for the anabolic steroid Boldenone in May and will have to sit out 80 games.
The Free Agent Bonanza
After multiple offseasons in which teams seemed largely uninterested in signing free agents, three players rang the bell for a combined $814 million in early December. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg took $245 million over seven years to stay in Washington, while teammate Anthony Rendon signed an identical contract to join Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani on the Angels. The Yankees then ended their search for an ace by shoveling a record-setting $324 million over nine years into Gerrit Cole’s newly pinstriped pockets.
And the money kept flowing outside that anointed trio of postseason heroes. Ryu, the Cy Young runner-up, cashed in with a four-year, $80 million deal to anchor Toronto’s rotation, while the Phillies inked former Mets righty Zack Wheeler to a nine-figure deal of their own. The defending AL Central champion Twins added Josh Donaldson to their record-setting cavalcade of sluggers, while the up-and-coming White Sox lavished a franchise record deal on Yasmani Grandal and signed former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel in an attempt to knock Minnesota off the top step of the division standings. Given the noise owners made all spring about paying players even the wages they’d agreed to in March, this will probably be the last big offseason for a while—but it was good while it lasted.
Other Miscellaneous Player Movements
- The Braves signed veteran pitchers Cole Hamels and Félix Hernández either to round out their otherwise youthful rotation or to collect all the best changeup pitchers of the 2010 season.
- The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, are collecting all the Martes, trading for Starling Marté to play outfield alongside All-Star Ketel Marte (no relation).
- The Diamondbacks also signed Madison Bumgarner to a five-year contract, by the end of which there’s a slim chance it won’t be weird to see him in a non-Giants uniform.
- Will Harris surrendered the World Series–winning home run to Howie Kendrick of the Nationals, then joined Washington as a free agent.
- The Reds are building an entire roster of corner guys, adding free agents Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, and Shogo Akiyama to a team that already includes Eugenio Suárez, Joey Votto, and breakout slugger Aristides Aquino.
- The Rays … well, they did their customary winter housecleaning. Tommy Pham, Emilio Pagán, and top-100 prospect Matthew Liberatore are out, while platoon slugger José Martínez, Hunter Renfroe, and prospect Xavier Edwards are in. It was Edwards whom Cy Young winner Blake Snell called a “slapdick prospect” in his second-most-notorious streaming utterance of the offseason. (This happened in December, by the way, and not in 1948, which is what it feels like.)
- Marcell Ozuna is on the Braves now. I bring this up because if you’re not a Braves fan, you’re going to find out about this three weeks into the season and be so shocked you’ll knock your drink on the floor.
- Though that’s not nearly as shocking as finding out that Dellin Betances is on the Mets.
The UCL Repair Club
Speaking of the Mets, Noah Syndergaard wouldn’t have played this year even without the pandemic, as the big right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in March. So, too, did Red Sox ace Chris Sale and Yankees right-hander Luis Severino, both of whom struggled mightily in 2019, possibly due to underlying symptoms that surgery will now fix.
None of the Managers Are Where You Think They Are
When the sign-stealing scandal claimed Hinch and Cora, two of the most celebrated managers in the league suddenly found themselves out of work. They were soon joined by Beltrán, who’s viewed as a rising star in the business. But even before that bizarre week in January, it had been a busy offseason. All told, nine teams have changed managers since the end of the 2019 regular season, including the Mets, who’ve now done so twice.
The Astros, baseball’s pariah, brought the avuncular and much-loved Dusty Baker in to helm the club. The Cubs parted ways with Joe Maddon after a fruitful—if sometimes tumultuous—five-year partnership, and replaced him with catcher turned broadcaster David Ross. As for Maddon, he found work before the Cubs even introduced his successor; the 2016 World Series champion returned to the Angels, a club he spent more than 30 years with before becoming manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Phillies finally put a stop to Gabe Kapler’s controversial and fraught two-year spell as skipper, but only after weeks of hemming and hawing. The team replaced him with Joe Girardi, who won a World Series in 2009 by beating the Phillies in six games. Kapler, like Maddon, wasn’t out of work long; his former Dodgers colleague Farhan Zaidi, now running the Giants baseball ops division, saw Kapler as a fit replacement for the retiring Bruce Bochy.
Remember this? Remember when home runs spiked a few years back, then spiked again in record numbers in 2019, then suddenly got un-juiced for the playoffs? Remember when it was possible that an inexplicably listless baseball could have thrown the 2020 season into an offensive slump not seen since 1968?
No? Yeah, I don’t either. That was a million years ago.