The Biggest MLB Stories You've Forgotten Over the Last 3 Months
At long last, a plan is in place for Major League Baseball to return, per Jeff Passan of ESPN and several other sources.
While the 2020 season—which will notably be shorter than any in the history of MLB—will certainly be unlike any other before, baseball can at least try to pick up where it left off before it broke for the coronavirus pandemic in March.
If you've forgotten what the top storylines were back then, you've come to the right place. We've hand-picked a dozen narratives (six positive and six, well, less than positive) with which everyone ought to re-familiarize themselves.
Let's start with the bad news items.
The Minor Leagues Are in Peril
As grim as things have been for Major League Baseball in recent months, they've been grimmer for Minor League Baseball.
Even before the sports world shut down, MLB's proposal to downsize the minor leagues was casting a dark cloud over the latter's future. Though such a reduction might improve player development, Ben Clemens and Meg Rowley of FanGraphs noted that it would also cut millions of fans off from direct access to live baseball.
Now it's looking unlikely that there will be a minor league season in 2020, while a massive reduction in teams seems inevitable. Meanwhile, parent clubs have cut hundreds of minor leaguers, and the league shortened this year's amateur draft from 40 rounds to just five.
To put it bluntly, none of this bodes well for the oldest and biggest pipeline of talent to the major leagues, much less the future of baseball as an institution.
What the Heck Is Going on with the Ball?
Because Major League Baseball owns Rawlings, which supplies the league's balls, it's hard not to wonder if the ball has been juiced on purpose. But for what it's worth, MLB's official report on the matter concluded that the ball's recent performance is owed to inconsistent seam heights caused by manufacturing variations.
Yet it seems that the inconsistencies themselves are, well, inconsistent. According to Dr. Meredith Wills of The Athletic, the strange behavior of the ball during last year's postseason came about because the league was mixing balls from 2018 with balls from 2019.
So even if MLB hasn't been intentionally futzing with the ball, it clearly has a quality-control issue it needs to iron out. In the meantime, how the ball will behave in 2020 is anyone's guess.
The 3-Batter Minimum Rule Will Make Its Debut
Even if you don't see MLB's increasing home runs as a "problem," you might feel differently about how long modern games take to play. To wit, the average game lasted a record three hours and 10 minutes in 2019.
In response, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has chosen 2020 as the new front in his war on pace of play. Back in February, he instituted several rule changes that were meant to speed up games. The most notable of those was a three-batter minimum for pitchers, which MassLive.com's Chris Cotillo reported still applies even for the shortened season.
If nothing else, this might help curb the rising tide in the number of pitchers used per game. Since 1995, that number has escalated from 3.45 to a record 4.41 in 2019.
Mind you, the biggest pace-of-play problem remains unfixed. Until Manfred finds a way to reduce the average time between pitches, all he's doing is applying Band-Aids where stitches are needed.
3 Aces Felled by Tommy John Surgery
Tommy John surgeries have become less frequent in recent years, yet the last few months have been a reminder that there's only so much teams can do to protect their pitchers' elbows.
After missing most of 2019 with a faulty shoulder, New York Yankees right-hander Luis Severino had to go in for Tommy John surgery in February. About a month later, New York Mets righty Noah Syndergaard and Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale (see here and here) had to have their own operations.
With Severino and Sale done until 2021, the picture in the American League East looks a lot different now than it did at the outset of 2020. Ditto for the National League East, where the Mets are now a man down for what figures to be a heated divisional battle.
For other teams, the lesson here is that the obvious rewards of having a hard-throwing ace atop your rotation inevitably come with inherent risks.
The Houston Astros as Baseball's Biggest Villains
The Houston Astros had a rough couple of weeks toward the end of 2019. They lost the World Series to the Washington Nationals in October and then had their sign-stealing operation from 2017 blown open by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic in November.
As punishment for said operation, Manfred hit the Astros with a $5 million fine, a loss of draft picks and suspensions for general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, who were promptly fired.
While the league may have considered the matter closed at that point, pretty much everyone else had other ideas. People were furious that the Astros got to keep the World Series title they won in 2017, and their attempts to apologize in February didn't go over well.
Now that baseball is ready to return, the Astros are back to being baseball's chief villain. That might not preclude them from carrying on as winners, but there might be more beanballs along the way.
Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor on the Trading Block
Though neither story was quite as big as Houston's cheating scandal, there was much intrigue over the futures of Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor when we last left baseball.
Arenado seemed set to be a Colorado Rockie for life after signing an eight-year, $260 million extension in February 2019. But after the Rockies slipped to 91 losses in 2019, they spent their offseason entertaining offers for their superstar third baseman.
That didn't sit well with Arenado, who wasn't on speaking terms with Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich upon reporting to spring training. Given these circumstances, a divorce seems much more likely than reconciliation.
The 2019-20 Offseason Was a Nice Change of Pace
Now for some good news, starting with a reminder that the 2019-20 offseason provided a breath of fresh air before everything turned sour in the spring.
Per Spotrac, 10 teams spent as much as $100 million in free agency. Those included usual suspects like the Yankees, Nationals, Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies, but also unusual suspects like the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays.
Of course, none of those teams knew then that the league was on a crash course with a pandemic that would put the sport in a dire financial predicament. When the effects will wear off, nobody knows.
A Whole Bunch of Familiar Faces in a Whole Bunch of New Places
Apropos of all that took place this past winter, it will soon be time for many players to don new threads for games that actually count.
This notably includes ace right-hander Gerrit Cole, who inked a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees in December. Fellow aces Zack Wheeler (Phillies), Hyun-Jin Ryu (Blue Jays), Madison Bumgarner (Diamondbacks) and Dallas Keuchel (White Sox) also found new homes for pacts totaling $338 million.
Anthony Rendon landed a megadeal when he accepted seven years and $245 million from the Angels. Fellow star third baseman Josh Donaldson also got a good deal, signing with the Twins for four years, $92 million.
There were also some blockbuster trades over the winter, particularly the one that sent MVP Mookie Betts and Cy Young Award winner David Price from the Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February. Corey Kluber, who has two Cy Young Awards, likewise went from the Indians to the Texas Rangers in December.
MLB's Next Wave of Young Talent
The situation in the minor leagues is sure to complicate matters for many of baseball's top prospects this year. Some, however, are going into the season with major league jobs in hand.
This includes MLB.com's Nos. 2 and 3 prospects: Gavin Lux and Luis Robert. Fresh off winning Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year for 2019, Lux is set to man second base for the Dodgers. Robert, who also had a heck of a season in '19, will play center field for the White Sox after signing a six-year contract in January.
A close eye should also be kept on the Oakland Athletics. In Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, they're set to have two talented rookie left-handers in their starting rotation. And they'll be throwing to Sean Murphy, who looks like a potential All-Star at catcher.
Elsewhere, other prospects with major league jobs include Nationals third baseman Carter Kieboom, Seattle Mariners first baseman Evan White and Pittsburgh Pirates righty Mitch Keller.
Shohei Ohtani Nears His Return as a 2-Way Star
In Anaheim, there's a certain member of the Angels that former ace CC Sabathia recently deemed "the best baseball player I've ever seen in my life."
He could have been talking about three-time American League MVP Mike Trout. But nope. He was talking about Shohei Ohtani.
When last anyone saw Ohtani in 2019, he was adding to an impressive offensive track record that now includes an .883 OPS and 40 home runs in 210 career games. Because he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, however, his pitching record remained untouched.
The New York Yankees Are out for Revenge and Getting Healthier
There isn't a team in Major League Baseball that won't have it in for the Astros this year, but the Yankees have an especially righteous motivation for revenge.
The Yankees fell to the Astros in the 2017 American League Championship Series. Though they may not be innocent of sign-stealing in their own right, the pain of that loss and the Astros' subsequent championship was amplified by the revelation of their cheating scheme.
"It wasn't earned the way of playing the game right and fighting to the end," Aaron Judge told reporters.
The Yankees also lost to the Astros in last year's ALCS, though the blame for that arguably fell more so on New York's extraordinarily bad luck with injuries. It was deja vu all over again when the club was hit by another wave of injuries during spring training.
But to this end, the delayed start to the 2020 season has afforded Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and James Paxton a chance to recover. As a result, the Yankees might begin their quest for vengeance at something close to full strength.
The Los Angeles Dodgers Also Seek Revenge, and They're Loaded
After the Astros dispatched the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS, they went on to overcome the Dodgers in a thrilling World Series.
Once the Dodgers found out the '17 Fall Classic wasn't on the level, they were understandably miffed. Utility man Enrique Hernandez was especially frank, saying: "They cheated, and they got away with it."
As much as the Dodgers might enjoy winning one over the Astros, they'll settle for a World Series victory over anyone in 2020. It's been 32 years since Kirk Gibson kick-started their last championship party back in 1988.
This might be the year the Dodgers finally snap their drought. With Betts joining fellow MVP Cody Bellinger and Price slotting into a rotation that already had Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, this Dodgers club looks even better than the one that produced 106 wins a year ago.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.