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OC Register: Alexander: MLB reverts from sprint to marathon in 2021

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The prognosis is better, even if society isn’t completely in the clear. People are getting vaccinated, infection rates are improving, and so are the chances that the small crowds allowed in ballparks on Opening Day will grow larger as Baseball 2021 proceeds. (Now, if we can only convince the maskless hordes in Florida for Spring Break, among others, that their actions really do affect others.)

So, are we ready for this? Can we handle a full 162 games as fans and observers after last year’s mad 60-game trophy dash? We won’t even get into whether the pitchers can handle it; evidence and logic suggest they’ll have it hardest of all, or that the burden will have to be spread among more of them.

On the eve of the first full season since 2019, then, some things to watch for:

More trash can: We’ve already gotten a small hint of what it’ll be like when the Houston Astros visit an enemy ballpark. During a Marlins-Astros spring training game in Florida last week, a security guard spent Alex Bregman’s entire at-bat banging on a trash can. (Bregman struck out looking, by the way.) The public was denied its opportunity in 2020 to directly express its displeasure about the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, and as fans come back into ballparks they will almost certainly hold Bregman, Carlos Correa and the rest accountable.

And if you were wondering, the Astros are in Anaheim on April 5-6, Aug. 13-15 and Sept. 20-23, and at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 3-4.

The minors: Will we recognize them? Will we slip and use “Pacific Coast League” and “California League” rather than the new MLB-approved designations of “Triple-A West” and “Low-A West?” (This Space guarantees he’ll slip more than once, and not always accidentally. Consider it my personal protest.) Also, will the Dodgers, Angels and Padres reconsider sending rehabbing big leaguers to Rancho Cucamonga, Inland Empire and Lake Elsinore, or will it matter that the big leaguers would be facing prospects a year further from the majors with the league’s re-designation from high-A to low-A?

Another thought: What will a year without minor league baseball have done to player development? The best prospects were able to gather at teams’ alternate sites last year. Everyone else essentially lost a full season. How do they recoup that? (That’s also a season of earning power they’ve lost, by the way, which might create more urgency for the Players Association to revamp the system and position players to get paid more earlier in their careers.)

Shohei: Mike Trout is a three-time MVP and perennially part of the conversation, but Shohei Ohtani could be the Angels’ MVP if he stays healthy and is fully productive as a two-way player this year. The balls he has hit over the batter’s eye in Tempe would be one indication he’s on the right track, and keep in mind that Ohtani has a history of slow starts in spring training. It might be more of a sign than we think.

And it’s entirely possible that real live fans in ballparks this year will bring out the best in him; he was one of many players a year ago who struggled to generate enthusiasm and adrenaline while playing before cutouts.

Rejuvenation by the Arch: How many players over the years have jump-started their careers, or at least found a second wind, after a trade to St. Louis? Lou Brock, of course. Orlando Cepeda, Joe Torre and Roger Maris later in the ’60s. Mark McGwire. Ozzie Smith. Darrell Porter. Jim Edmonds. Paul Goldschmidt. And now Nolan Arenado. The pride of El Toro High got his wish and got out of Colorado, and while getting out of the thin air of Denver might skew his numbers slightly, playing for an organization that values winning will offset that. (And all it cost the Cardinals was the baseball equivalent of a few magic beans.)

Labor pains: The end of the sport’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement in December will be the underlying storyline all season. It would be nice if Commissioner Rob Manfred and his people, and MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark and his people, could get something settled quickly and chase the black cloud away, but there is too much mistrust among the players to hope for that. I’m not optimistic.

Data vs. art: That has been Angels manager Joe Maddon’s mantra, striking a balance between analytics and the soul of the game. For more than a decade the scales have been lopsided toward the data, during which we’ve lost much of the action that makes the game worth watching – stolen bases, hit-and-run plays, balls in the gap, great defensive plays. The result: Games that are longer but with less action. At some point, the cost of victory becomes losing your audience. Is it worth it?

Manfred at least recognizes the issue and has deputized Theo Epstein to find solutions, starting with some experimentation in the minor leagues this summer. If Theo can pull this off, it will make his curse-breaking achievements with the Red Sox and Cubs look small.

The Cleveland Baseball Team: The hope here is that when Cleveland does unveil a new nickname after this season – and I wholeheartedly endorse “Spiders” – someone will be stuck with a warehouse full of Chief Wahoo gear that won’t sell. I know, too much to ask.

Time for a classic: It has been four decades since the last Dodgers-Yankees World Series. There will be another in October of 2021, the result will be the same as it was the last time, and Mookie Betts – energized by all of those boos he’ll hear in the Bronx – will earn World Series MVP honors to go with the regular-season National League MVP award that he should have won in ’20 and will win in ’21.

And then? Let’s hope the argument over Betts vs. Trout as the game’s preeminent player lasts longer than the discussion between Clark and Manfred about the financial rules of the game, and its future.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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