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OC Register: Hoornstra: 10 MLB storylines to watch in 2021

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Like a cheesy 1980’s sitcom, baseball is now being filmed before a live studio audience.

The smell of the grass, the taste of overpriced beer, and the sounds of mass gatherings are back. It’s the top storyline of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, and it sets the stage for a year, refreshingly, like most of those that came before. Here are the top 10 storylines to watch:

1. Welcome back, fans

On March 10, the Rangers announced Globe Life Field would open its gates to 100 percent capacity on Opening Day. The announcement came eight days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded all of the state’s COVID-19-related restrictions.

In Arlington, Opening Day might be the first major U.S. sporting event played before a sold-out crowd since the pandemic began. Outside of Texas, optimism is more cautious. The Dodgers and Angels are on track to host up to 20 percent of capacity at their first home games.

Another season of television-only viewing would be draining, but is it really safe for most of us to attend a baseball game in person? That’s a multi-million dollar question affecting every team’s bottom line.

2. The steep ramp-up

The other multi-million dollar question: How to keep pitchers healthy.

The ramp-up from a 60-game regular season to 162 games is steep. Much has been written about how that might affect pitching staffs and so-called “maintenance days” throughout the season. Already we’ve seen some of the top contending teams – like the Yankees, Dodgers, Padres, Mets – beef up their starting rotations beyond the usual five, motivated in part to guard against injuries.

3. Pitchers are hitting again

So, why are pitchers hitting for themselves again?

Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association could not compromise on the terms of a universal designated hitter rule, which was adopted for the first time last season. Now, after a one-year respite, National League pitchers will again be grabbing a helmet and a bat and holding on for dear life.

This has already had ugly consequences. Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen suffered a hairline fracture of his right (pitching) forearm in spring training. He told reporters the injury first cropped up when he was jammed by a pitch while taking batting practice. With pitching-related injuries already expected to take a greater toll, don’t be surprised if some pitchers skip batting practice – or don’t swing at all once the games begin.

4. The Dodgers have an excellent chance of repeating

No team has repeated as champions since the 1999-2000 New York Yankees. The 2021 Dodgers have a better chance than any team in the last two decades.

After winning the World Series, the Dodgers boosted their payroll north of $240 million, throwing caution to the wind of the competitive balance tax. Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and the biggest fish in the free agent pond, is now theirs.

5. Shohei Ohtani arrives, Part II

If Babe Ruth was baseball’s first legitimate two-way star, the game waited nearly 100 years for its second.

Shohei Ohtani offered mere glimpses of what it looks like to be an everyday hitter and pitcher in 2018 before a torn elbow ligament robbed him of half his game. Finally back to full health, Ohtani arrived in spring training as originally advertised: a full-time designated hitter and a full-time member of the Angels’ starting rotation.

6. Padres: first World Series within reach

San Diego is the largest city in the U.S. never to have won a World Series, Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. The Padres have a chance to bring a banner home for the first time since the Chargers won the AFL championship in 1963. Even the Padres’ manager, Jayce Tingler, wasn’t alive then.

An offseason of wild trades and free-agent signings netted San Diego a wave of new talent, including pitchers Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove and infielder Ha-Seong Kim. They’ll join Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis (he of the $340 million contract extension) and the Padres’ other stars to form a baseball juggernaut unlike any the city has seen.

7. The Astros Cheating Tour resumes

If there was any question whether the Astros’ cheating scandal was still a story in the minds of fans, the suspense was resolved on March 21. With Astros star Alex Bregman at the plate, a security guard at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida reportedly banged a trash can prior to every pitch. Welcome to spring training.

No fans were allowed inside Dodger Stadium when the Astros visited last year. That means their Aug. 3-4 visit to Los Angeles will be their first before a live crowd since the so-called “banging scheme” was exposed. Circle your calendars.

8. Oh, right, the virus

It’s easy to take for granted that stadiums will be more full than empty come August. The pandemic will have to cooperate, but for fans of the 29 U.S.-based teams, attending at least one game this season shouldn’t be a challenge.

Meanwhile, fans of the Toronto Blue Jays are stuck on the wrong side of a U.S.-Canada border that remains closed to non-essential travel. The Jays will begin their season at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida, their spring training home. When they can return to Toronto is anyone’s guess for now.

9. Threatened labor peace

This time a year ago, MLB and the Players’ Union were ratcheting up their rhetoric for a labor fight. At the time, they were bickering over the terms of the abbreviated 2020 season. Now, they must renegotiate a Collective Bargaining Agreement that expires at the end of the season.

Internally, the players’ distrust of ownership is said to run high. Former Mariners president Kevin Mather exacerbated the problem when he openly discussed how his team suppressed the service time of its top prospects and played hardball with free agents over the winter. Mather was fired, but his comments provided the union with ample bulletin-board material for improving their next labor deal. The rhetoric might ratchet up again soon.

10. The baseball is dead

Amid skyrocketing home run rates, MLB resolved to “deaden” the baseballs in use for the 2021 regular season. By loosening the tension of one of the wool layers within the baseball, Rawlings believes it can reduce the ball’s bounciness. Its new product should be less aerodynamic, and therefore less likely to fly over the fence.

In theory, this will produce a game less dependent on the home run, a callback to an earlier era of baseball. But will the change resonate with fans? After being shut out of ballparks for most of last year, we’ll just have to take what we can get.

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