With the Major League Baseball season making its belated start this week, Mike Carlson fills us in on everything we need to know and picks his best bets...
"In the NL my dark horse Padres are 3/1 to make the post, and the Brewers 15/8, both of which are good value."
Major League Baseball will open the 2020 season on Thursday, with a twin-bill chosen to tweak the interest of everyone from desperate fans to those with just a nodding interest in the sport.
First the defending champion Washington Nationals will take on the New York Yankees, baseball's natural party of dominance, and the game's biggest spenders, with a payroll of $114m, more than 10% bigger than the next-biggest, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers will take on west coast rivals the San Francisco Giants in Thursday's second game.
Sixty game season with empty stadiums
The big story, of course, is Covid-19, and the virus has already had its affects on those games. Washington star Ryan Zimmerman and LA pitcher David Price, acquired from the Red Sox in the off-season have both elected not to play in the covid-shortened season. All told, 13 players players have opted-out, including Buster Posey, along with 11 umpires, probably at most risk given the propensity for face to face shouting matches with managers.
The games themselves will be played, like all games at the moment, in stadia devoid of fans; and for the Toronto Blue Jays, it will be a stadium somewhere outside Canada, as the government will not allow baseball teams unfettered rights to travel. It would be worse if fans could go to the ball park, but for the nomad Jays it will make settling down to normal that much more difficult.
But what is normal? The season will last 60 games. That is basically 3/8 of a normal season. If the 162 game season is a marathon, 2020's version, if not a sprint, will be more like a mile run.
Picking the season is extra hard
It's often pointed out how playoff baseball helps teams with top-line stars, especially pitchers, but less depth. The short season might do the same. Even more interesting is figuring how hot streaks might play into the results. Every season we have players who are phenomenal in the first half of the season, but peter out in the dog days of summer, and others who get hot after the All-Star break. Since this almost-half season will begin just after what would have been the All-Star break, who knows which players might come out of the gate on fire, and continue their hot play right through the playoffs.
Everyone's had extra rest. Will some players be rusty? Will some older players avoid fading out? The National League will use the designated hitter this season; that's an immediate boon for teams with deeper sets of hitters, like the Dodgers. The hot/cold start worry applies to teams as well; the Indians, Nationals and A's have all been slow starters in recent years. It is fascinating, but it makes picking the season extra hard.
The schedule will also be different, as teams will concentrate their games in their divisions and attempt to cut down on travel. This is bad luck if you are the well-balanced NL East, and you're playing 20 games against the AL East, also balanced and possibly a bit better. It doesn't affect your divisional position, but it could knock your second-place finisher out of a wild card.
And of course there is the virus. What happens when a player tests positive? Do you have to quarantine the team? Do you keep playing in their bubble? Do you have enough bench strength to survive the loss of multiple starters? No one knows how these questions will play out, or whether, even if the present plan proves effective, what might happen in the face of a second wave in the autumn. We hope the league and the players can work together to make this truncated season a success, but most of all we hope they can stay safe and healthy.
Here are my straight-up picks across the six divisions: the heavy favourites are the Dodgers and Yankees, for good reasons, but I'm looking at one playoff upset along the way. Remember, it's a short season, anything can happen, and watch who's quick out of the gate.
Atlanta can win National League East for third successive season
The Nationals basically have stood pat, giving Steve Strasburg a seven year $245m contract. But they let Anthony Rendon go and lost Zimmerman. Atlanta have won the division the past two years, but Freddie Freeman and new closer Will Smith have both tested positive for Covid, but should be ready to play, while Nick Markakis and Felix Hernandez are high-profile opt outs.
The Mets won't have Noah Syndergard, after Tommy John surgery, but signed Rick Porcello and Mike Wacha to replace him and Zach Wheeler, who joined the Yankees' Didi Gregious in moving down I95 to the Phillies, who may have their best playoff shot in years.
Braun can help Brewers win National League Central
The Cubs look worse than last year, while the Reds have added punch in Mike Moustakis and Nick Castellanos. The Brewers should benefit from the DH, as Ryan Braun is likely to play every day, while Keston Hiura and Ryan Woodruff may make their names. The Cardinals could get a breakout year from Jack Flaherty and will hope rookie Dylan Carlson (no relation) can help the OF.
Dodgers still best in National League West
The Dodgers remain the best bet in baseball: the short season may erase some of Clayton Kershaw's late-season woes, and even if Mookie Betts turns out to be a 60 game rental, his presence in an already stacked hitting lineup can't hurt. They've won seven straight division titles for a reason. Arizona had added Starling Marte (who lets Ketel Marte stay at second base) and Madison Baumgartner, while the Padres could surprise if their young players mature quickly, especially Fernando Tatis Jr, yet another second-gen star.
Hard to look beyond Yankees' Stars in American League East
The Yankees seem to have the big stars, including Aaron Judge, getting healthy at the right time, and Gerrit Cole, MLB's best pitcher last year, who pocketed $324m in a nine-year deal. Gleybar Torres is the young guy to watch.
I like the Jays as my dark horse: they added Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark to the rotation, Anthony Bass to the pen, and Travis Shaw, coming off a horrible season in Milwaukee, at first base. Second-generation stars Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr (whose father was a star in Cuba) make them one of the best stories in the game, and watch rookie pitcher Nate Pearson.
The Rays added Japanese slugger Yoshi Tsutsugo, but they and the Red Sox don't look to have the legs to compete. Of course, this is a short season.
Pick: New York Yankees
Donaldson can blast Twins to victory in American League Central
The Twins set a home run record, and added Josh Donaldson, who's a prime candidate for a short-season bonanza. Same with oft-injured 40-year old lefty Rich Hill, one of my favourite pitchers. One key is Byron Buxton's recovery from shoulder surgery.
The White Sox signed a bunch of veteran free agents to compete with Minnesota in the power department, and have potential MVP candidate Tim Anderson at short. The Indians will hope to run them close again, but don't look much stronger than last year. The Rangers have added Corey Kluber, who if he returns to form is an ace.
Angels to edge out Astros and Athletics in the West
What will the Astros be like this year? They've won the most games in baseball the past three seasons, but the sign-stealing scandal may affect them. Cole's gone, but Justin Verlander has had extra timeto recover from off-season surgery, and the other Gurriel brother, Yuli, could explode. You can't write off a team with Jose Altuve, Roberto Osuna or Zach Grienke, but I wonder if the door might be open.
The Athletics have more wins than anyone in baseball except the Astros, Yankees and Dodgers over the past two years, but they've been slow starters and one-and-done in the playoffs. They added Astros whistle-blower Mike Fiers, and young pitchers AJ Puk and Jesus Luzardo have both had extra time to rehab injuries. But they could find the Angels passing them: with Rendon providing some cover for Mike Trout, MLB's best player, and Shohei Otani scehduled to pitch once a week and DH the rest of the time, Joe Maddon could manage this team to success in the short-season.
Jays, Padres and Brewers offer value
As I like the Jays as a dark horse, they seem good value at 6/1 just to make the playoffs. The Angels are 2/1 to do that, which is tempting also. The Yankees are odds-on to make it, of course, but 5/1 not to, if you're a Yankee-denier. The A's and Nationals are both evens not to, and the Astros 3/1 not to make the post season, which are both interesting bets.
In the NL my dark horse Padres are 3/1 to make the post, and the Brewers 15/8, both of which are good value. Although I didn't pick them, the Phillies at 2/1 might attract some support. The Dodgers are 9/1 not to make the playoffs, even I won't touch that.
Dark horses to challenge Betts for MVP?
In the National League, Mookie Betts is the 5/1 favourite to win the MVP. It's not a bad shout; he's likely to start strong, he is in his contract year, and despite being in a loaded lineup, if his presence pushes the Dodgers to a streak it will be working in his favour.
I mentioned how much I think of Tatis and he's 11/1, but needs to really dominate statistically. The best dark horse may be Bryce Harper at 9/1, a guy whom the short season seems likely to benefit, both for quick starts and health, and if the Phillies can contend, he'll get more attention.
The Mets Jacob DeGrom is probably the league's best pitcher, and he's the Cy Young favourite at 7/2. How much the team performance affects his standing is crucial. It might help Clayton Kershaw, who with the short season seems good value at 11/1. I like Jack Flaherty a lot and he's 15/2.
In the American League, Mike Trout is the best player, and short odds at 15/8. A typical Trout season with the Angels making the playoffs would see him in pole position, although if Otani puts together a winning streak as a pitcher and a big hitting season, at 11/1 he might compete.
It's similar with the Yankees; Aaron Judge is 15/2 but Torres at 11/1 may be a better pick. Remember, though, the voters are influenced by the same prejudices toward home run power and pitcher wins, on winning teams, as most fans. Pre-judged, as it were. Donaldson at 12/1 is a great bet if the Twins go far and he hits a ton, while Rafael Devers came close to breaking out last season, but if the Red Sox aren't contenders 11/1 may flatter him.
Gerrit Cole at 11/4 is an obvious favourite for the AL Cy, but if you're looking for better value, try Cleveland's Shane Bieber at 6/1 or the White Sox's Lucas Golito at 19/2. I don't have their teams in the playoffs, but the AL Central could be really tight.