There is baseball in just over four days. Real, live major league baseball, with standings and statistics and strikeouts. Max Scherzer will throw the first pitch of the abbreviated 2020 season when the Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees on Thursday night on ESPN. It's going to look weird, with no fans in the stands, although it might sound relatively normal, as stadium engineers will pump in about 75 different crowd reactions from noise compiled over several seasons and used in the MLB The Show video game.
Of course, there will be nothing normal about the season, with the COVID-19 pandemic still hanging over everything and a few players opting out of playing and others who will miss the start of action after testing positive -- with more positive test results surely to come throughout the season.
If there's a slogan MLB should adopt for 2020, I would suggest "Embrace the sprint." Imagine if we woke up on July 23 of a typical season with every team tied for first place. We would view it as a chaotic ride to the finish line in which every game matters. That's where we will be when Scherzer takes the mound to face Gerrit Cole with the fake crowd noises, no sunflower seeds and no smells of hot dogs and summer sweat.
It's still baseball, however, and here are some of the themes, teams and players to watch in the first 60-game season since the Boston Red Stockings won the National League in 1878 with a 41-19 record.
Exciting young players
We're in a golden age of young talent, and while a 60-game schedule isn't what we desire, it works for college baseball and it's a lot better than seeing players miss an entire season in their primes. Here is one way to look at the young talent in the game today: In 2019, there were 29 position players age 25 or younger who had at least 3.0 WAR -- the most ever in one season (27 in 2018 was the second-highest total). If we lower the cutoff to 24 or younger, we still had 18 such position players -- tied for the second-highest all time behind 20 players in 1979.
Here are five of those young players, still 25 or younger, who will drive the narrative in 2020:
Cody Bellinger, CF, Dodgers: An MVP in 2019 at age 23, Bellinger already has 111 career home runs after belting 47 last season. He's much more than a slugger, however, and with the Dodgers' acquisition of Mookie Betts, he moves to center field on a regular basis. He should be outstanding there after winning a Gold Glove in right in 2019, as Statcast ranks his sprint speed in the 89th percentile and his jump rate in the outfield in the 87th percentile. The Dodgers are going for their eighth consecutive National League West title, but it's all about October for this group, and that's where Bellinger has struggled, hitting .178/.234/.326 in 36 postseason games.
Ronald Acuna Jr., OF, Braves: He just missed going 40-40 in home runs and stolen bases in 2019 at the age of 21, finishing with 41 home runs and a league-leading 37 stolen bases. His ability at such a young age to punish breaking balls is impressive, as he had the ninth-highest wOBA in the majors against curveballs and sliders. He's got the flair and the bat flips to rile up opposing players and fans, which makes him a focal point in every game.
Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets: He broke Aaron Judge's rookie record with 53 home runs, won the Home Run Derby, then won over Mets fans with his shirtless celebrations and his "LFGM" rallying cry. Alonso understands his dual role as baseball player and entertainer, especially in a market like New York, which instantly turned him into one of the prominent faces of the sport. Not every player wants that role, but Alonso is willing and eager to accept it. The Mets have a chance to be really good and battle the Braves and Nationals in the NL East, especially if Alonso hits a bunch of bombs again.
Juan Soto, LF, Nationals: He posted a .401 OBP at age 20 in 2019 -- the only other players to reach .400 in their age-20 season since Ted Williams were Al Kaline and Alex Rodriguez. Soto then ripped five home runs in the postseason, including three in the Nats' World Series win over the Astros. He's good, he knows he's good and he's going to get better. Washington has lost Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon in back-to-back offseasons, so the Nationals are now counting on the 21-year-old to carry the offense.
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres: Another age-20 performer, Tatis' 84-game rookie season in 2019 was an exhilarating burst of thunder and lightning: .317/.379/.590 with 22 home runs and 16 stolen bases and some dazzling plays in the field (although his overall defensive metrics were poor). Last summer, my colleague Sam Miller called Tatis the most watchable player in the game. As Sam wrote, "A player who is almost certain to do something interesting in a given game; who can frequently do something stunning, unprecedented or GIFable; and who plays in a way that evokes some secondary emotion, apart from the mere thrill of victory/agony of defeat that all sport offers." He did miss the final month and a half with a back injury, so health is paramount, but Tatis is perhaps ready to lead the Padres to their first .500 season since 2010 -- and maybe something more if the young pitching develops.
And I just realized ... that's just five from the National League. That's how deep the game oozes in young talent right now. You want five from the American League? Here:
Gleyber Torres, SS, Yankees: Two All-Star trips in two seasons and 38 home runs at age 22. Like Alonso, he's embracing his status as an up-and-coming superstar, learning English in the minor leagues and seeking out endorsements. As Alden Gonzalez recently wrote, "He realized early on that he didn't just want to be a professional baseball player; he wanted to be good and popular and transcendent, not because he's arrogant or entitled but because he's a long-term thinker who always placed himself within a larger context."
Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox: At 22, he had 90 extra-base hits -- more than Ted Williams ever had in a season. He finished with 32 home runs despite going homerless in April.
Austin Meadows, OF, Rays: In his first full season, Meadows made the All-Star team and finished sixth in the AL in slugging percentage and eighth in OPS. He recently tested positive for the coronavirus, so he might miss Opening Day.
Yordan Alvarez, DH, Astros: Alvarez has been absent from summer camp due to an undisclosed condition, but once he returns, watch out. As a 22-year-old rookie, he hit .313/.412/.655 in 87 games.
Bo Bichette, SS, Blue Jays: We could include his teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. here, as well, but Bichette had the more electric debut and perhaps ends up as the better all-around player. He has some of the quickest hands in the majors and lined 29 extra-base hits in just 46 games -- that's a pace of 98 over 155 games. He just turned 22 in March.
Most exciting showdowns
Acuna versus Soto: They're both young, they're NL East rivals, they arrived in the majors at the same time and they both have best-in-the-game potential. Within every Braves-Nationals game, there will also be a secondary battle going on here.
Walker Buehler versus Jack Flaherty: OK, they're in different divisions, so the two young aces won't actually face each other this season (teams play only within their own division and the corresponding geographical division in the other league), but I will always pair them together since they both reached the majors for a cup of coffee in 2017. Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are the reigning kings of National League right-handers, but these two are ready to contend for Cy Young honors, and if the Dodgers and Cardinals make the playoffs, maybe we'll see them square off in October.
Twins' lineup versus Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger: The Twins set the single-season home run record and added Josh Donaldson, but the Indians have two of the AL's best starters in 2019 breakout All-Star Bieber and the underrated Clevinger. The AL Central could come down to these showdowns. Bieber went 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts against the Twins in 2019, and Clevinger went 2-1 with a 2.39 ERA in four outings.
Justin Verlander versus A's lineup: Losing Gerrit Cole adds a little vulnerability to Houston's hold on the AL West, and the A's are ready to pounce, having won 97 games two years in a row. They haven't been able to solve Verlander, however, who is 4-1 with a 2.58 ERA in seven starts against Oakland the past two seasons.
Gerrit Cole versus everyone: No pressure here, short season or not. The Yankees won 103 games without him, and Cole is the expected final piece to get the Yankees back to the World Series for the first time since 2009. Beginning with that first game against Scherzer, every start -- and he has won 16 regular-season decisions in a row, by the way -- will be must-watch TV.
Hoping for better results in Year 2
Bryce Harper, RF, Phillies: Harper was very good in his first year with the Phillies and especially good in the clutch (1.149 OPS with runners in scoring position and 1.037 in high-leverage situations), but the Phillies disappointed with a .500 record. The Phillies signed Zack Wheeler to back up Aaron Nola in the rotation and will hope for a healthy Andrew McCutchen and a productive Didi Gregorius. Joe Girardi replaces Gabe Kapler as manager, which could be a positive change, as well.
Manny Machado, 3B, Padres: Last year's other megabucks free agent hit 32 home runs and played good defense, but his overall line of .256/.334/.462 was well below his best seasons. He struggled in San Diego, hitting just .219, so he'll have to prove he can match his Orioles numbers without the help of Camden Yards.
Edwin Diaz, RP, Mets: The Mets gave up a lot to get Diaz from the Mariners, and it looked even worse after Diaz had a miserable season (2-7, 5.59 ERA, 15 home runs in 58 innings, a million blown saves, according to AngryMetsFans.com) while Jarred Kelenic became one of the top prospects in the game. Diaz still has strikeout stuff, and he, Dellin Betances and Seth Lugo could be a dominant bullpen trio. (FanGraphs projects the Mets with the fourth-best bullpen in the majors.)
'Can he do it again?' players
Shohei Ohtani, P/DH, Angels: Ohtani proved his 2018 season at the plate was no fluke, hitting .286/.343/.505 with 18 home runs -- not quite the rate of production from his rookie season, but a lot better than, say, Albert Pujols. Now he'll be back on the mound, starting once a week, and we'll once again get to see if a two-way player can perform at a high level.
Nelson Cruz, DH, Twins: He turned 40 on July 1 but is coming off an incredible season in which he hit .311 and mashed 41 home runs in just 120 games. He earns bonus points for his clubhouse leadership. Don't discount the idea of the Twins heading to the World Series, and Cruz would be a major reason why.
Lucas Giolito, SP, White Sox: The White Sox invested heavily in a "win-now" strategy in the offseason, signing Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez as free agents. Highly rated rookies Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal will join the lineup. Their chance to spoil the Twins-Indians race in the AL Central rests heavily on Giolito pitching once again like a No. 1 starter. Two years ago, he led the AL in earned runs and walks. Last year, he finished sixth in the Cy Young voting.
The universal designated hitter and other rules changes
National League pitchers hit .131 with a .329 OPS last year. Unless you like sacrifice bunts and strikeouts, that's no fun to watch, and I don't want to hear about the complexities of the double switch. I'd much rather see Scherzer navigate through lineups that might now include Yoenis Cespedes or Marcell Ozuna as a designated hitter. It's for only one year -- at least for now -- but get used to it, NL fans, because it might be here to stay.
Three other important rules changes:
Relievers must now face a minimum of three batters, unless the inning ends.
Rosters will start at 30 players before eventually being whittled down to 26.
Everyone's favorite COVID-19-specific rule change: Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base. Last year, 8.6% of all games went into extra innings. Note that this will not include the postseason.
Most likely playoff teams that finished under .500 in 2019
1. Cincinnati Reds. The Reds most recently made the postseason in 2013, but the NL Central appears wide open, and with a rotation that includes Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Wade Miley, the Reds could be very good. And, please, baseball gods, let Joey Votto have one more great season.
2. Chicago White Sox. The White Sox haven't been relevant since 2012 -- they've finished an average of 25 games out of first place over the past seven seasons despite playing in the weakest division in baseball -- but they're an interesting mix of young, fun players such as Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada and this new crop of free-agent veterans. If the Twins or Indians falter and Robert and Madrigal are the real deal, the White Sox have the talent to surprise.
3. Los Angeles Angels. Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon might be the best one-two punch in the game, add in Ohtani returning to the mound, the defense of Andrelton Simmons, the underrated David Fletcher and a potential impact rookie in Jo Adell, and the Angels could surprise if they get any semblance of starting pitching.
OK, embrace the sprint!
Let's go back to the end of April 2019 -- about 30 games into the season, or what will be the halfway mark in 2020. You know who was tied for a playoff spot in the American League? The Seattle Mariners, due to that unexpected 13-2 start. In the National League, the Padres and Diamondbacks were in wild-card positions and the Phillies led the East. Only five teams were more than four games out of a playoff spot.
Yes, baseball is traditionally a test of endurance. That won't be the case this year, but it will be fascinating to see how teams adapt to the fast-and-furious, two-month chase -- for example, those teams that find a way to give as many innings as possible to their best pitchers will benefit greatly. A slow start will bring added pressure that wouldn't otherwise exist over 162 games. Obviously, avoiding the virus will be key.
So, yes, enjoy the chaos. Here's how I rank the potential excitement of each division race:
1. NL East: I see a tight, three-team race among the Braves, Nationals and Mets, with the Phillies capable of making it a four-team fight. Note that Harper is traditionally a fast starter, which, in turn, could help the Phillies to a good start. They open with the Marlins, Yankees, Blue Jays and Marlins again, before their first test against the Braves.
2. AL West: The Astros remain heavy favorites, and the A's have a great infield with Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Matt Olson and an intriguing rotation, but the Rangers and Angels have the ability to run off 60 good games, and manager Joe Maddon could bring some new energy to Anaheim, California.
3. NL Central: There isn't a great team here, but this is the division most likely to end up in a four-way tie with each team at 31-29.
4. AL East: Maybe the Yankees end up running away with the division, but I'm predicting a great two-team battle between the Yankees and Rays. It might even be better than the Boston-Cincinnati showdown of 1878!
5. AL Central: The Twins look pretty tough with that loaded lineup and some new additions to the rotation, but the Indians still have Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, who had a monster 2019 second half after that slow start, and Terry Francona always gets the most out of his team.
6. NL West: Even in just 60 games, the Dodgers should run away with it, but don't forget 2018, when they were just 30-30 after their first 60 games.
That's the ultimate point: In a small sample size of 60 games, anything is possible. Heck, maybe the Mariners will even end the longest playoff drought in the majors. And, yes, it will count.