New Year Dawns As Baseball Yawns

ALSO: WHY THE ATLANTA BRAVES WILL BE BEASTS OF THE EAST FOR YEARS

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Lou Whitaker lasted 19 years as double-play partner of Hall of Famer Alan Trammell but only one year as a Hall of Fame candidate, falling off the ballot after polling 2.9 percent. . .

Rafael Palmeiro is the only man with 3,000 hits and 500 homers not in Cooperstown. . .

When Twins rookie Alex Kiriloff stated against the Houston Astros in the 2020 Wild-Card Series on September 30, it was the first time a player made his debut by starting in a post-season game. . .

Pitchers for Chicago teams – Lucas Giolito of the White Sox and Alec Mills for the Cubs – were the only ones to hurl no-hitters last season.

Leading Off

New Year No Guarantee Of New Season

The calendar says today is the first day of 2021. But even though it’s January, there’s no guarantee we’ll have spring training next month or a 162-game season after that.

This is the winter of Baseball vs. The Great Unknown.

The pandemic that shuttered baseball for four months, kept fans from ballparks, and froze the free-agent market is still very much alive – even with the advent of several vaccines.

Without game-day revenue in 2020, the 30 teams in the big leagues took a financial bath to the tune of nearly $3 billion and can’t afford to continue that dollar drain.

Pro-rated player salaries won’t help over a schedule of 162 games, 100 games, or 60 games and elongated playoffs won’t solve the problem.

Complicating the situation is the looming expiration of the current Basic Agreement, which expires at the end of this year. If players and owners can’t agree on such things as schedule, roster size, and rules, how can they agree on compensation? And we’re talking about this season, under the current Basic Agreement, not the new one.

To cite one example, the designated hitter worked well when expanded to the National League as a one-year experiment during the shortened 2020 campaign. Everybody liked it, with the possible exception of NL pitchers who had to face nine respectable hitters rather than eight.

But popularity isn’t enough for the two sides to make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision.

The Office of the Commissioner, instead, has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to use the DH as a political football – perhaps trading its approval for union agreement on keeping the postseason in tournament format.

In the meantime, however, indecision on the DH has jammed a free-agent market for people like Marcell Ozuna, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, and others who need to know whether their market has 15 teams, all in the American League, or 30. In retrospect, it’s ironic that Ozuna, who played for the Atlanta Braves last year, was voted DH of the Year the first time the National League deployed the role.

Things always move slowly in baseball, especially when the commissioner gets involved, and almost nothing gets done during the winter holiday week. But there’s no reason the DH decision couldn’t have been made months ago – right after the end of the World Series in October.

Rob Manfred could have said yes and won points with the union, the army of player agents, and the DH types themselves. Ozuna, for one, would like to know where he stands, since his defense in left field is the worst since Lonnie Smith, Greg Luzinski, and Dave Kingman tried to hide at the position. On the other hand, he can swing the bat, proving that fact last year with the home run and RBI crowns in the NL and even a late run at the league’s Triple Crown (last won by Joe Medwick in 1937).

Other rules also need to be decided: will doubleheader games still stop after seven innings? will “designated runners” be placed on second in both halves of extra-inning games? will relief pitchers be forced to face a minimum of three batters?

Of utmost importance is determining whether spring training and the regular season will be delayed or shortened, when they will start, whether fans will be admitted, what capacity will be allowed into ballparks, how many games will be played, and how or whether divisions and schedules will be reconfigured.

With pitchers and catchers slated to report in six weeks and teams anxious to sell tickets, there’s little time to waste.

For baseball and its players, it’s time to spit or get off the pot.

HERE’S THE PITCH Weekend Editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is a national baseball writer for forbes.com, columnist for Ball Nine, senior writer for Latino Sports, and contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He is also the author of 38 baseball books and a SABR member since 1981. Dan’s e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Cleaning Up

Youth-powered Braves Could Be Starting Another Long Title Streak

By Dan Schlossberg

If youth is the secret elixir, the Atlanta Braves are destined to keep a firm grip on the top of the National League East.

Other than Freddie Freeman, 31, and Travis d’Arnaud, 32, every likely regular of the 2021 Braves is well shy of his 30th birthday and some of them are hardly old enough to vote.

With Nick Markakis and Mark Melancon free agents, the oldest man on the current Atlanta roster is 37-year-old free agent signee Charlie Morton, the only pitcher in baseball history to win four consecutive elimination games.

Other teams would kill to own such rising talents as Ronald Acuna Jr., 23, and Ozzie Albies, 24, not to mention blossoming slugger Austin Riley, 24, and blue-chip rookie centerfielder Cristian Pache, 22.

The Atlanta pitching staff, other than Morton and fellow veteran acquisition Drew Smyly, 32, is so young that three of its NL Championship Series starters were rookies – Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson – and none of them had started a postseason game before 2020.

Max Fried, a lefty from Los Angeles who idolizes Sandy Koufax, figures to be the ace of the staff at 27 – at least until Mike Soroka, 23, returns from surgery to repair a torn Achilles. The owner of a deceptive curveball, Fried not only went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA but kept the ball in the park until the last week of the season. He also won his first Gold Glove, snapping Zack Grienke’s six-year streak.

Anderson, a former first-round draft pick, went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in six late-season starts, then was even better in the post-season. The 23-year-old right-hander will be a key man in the Atlanta rotation, though Wilson, 23, and Wright, 25, could be shunted to the bullpen by Morton and Smyly.

Albies, a switch-hitter who led the National League in hits during the last full season, forms a fine double-play combination with 27-year-old former Vanderbilt star Dansby Swanson, who led all major-league shortstops with nine runs saved during the shortened season. Both are Gold Glove candidates, along with Freeman at first base, and all three could top 25 homers.

Freeman hit a career-best .341 last year, when he led the NL in runs scored (51), posted an on-base plus slugging mark of 1.102, and won his first Most Valuable Player Award, but he’ll need a strong right-handed bat behind him. That’s why the Braves hope to keep free agent Marcell Ozuna, who led the NL in home runs and runs batted en route to the Designated Hitter of the Year award – in the only year the DH was deployed by the Senior Circuit.

Should the DH disappear, the defensively-challenged Ozuna could wind up across league lines, where the designated hitter has been a staple since 1973.

The Braves also could lose Adam Duvall, a right-handed slugger who was non-tendered even after becoming the first man in franchise history to produce a pair of three-homer games.

With switch-hitting rookie slugger Drew Waters knocking on the door, manager Brian Snitker seems ready to try an outfield alignment of Waters, Pache, and Acuna Jr. from left to right. Acuna, who led the league in runs scored during the last full season, has already announced he’d like to be the first 50/50 man in baseball history. Many MVP awards are in his future.

Waters, already compared to Chipper Jones, and Pache, whose defensive prowess has prompted comparisons to Hall of Fame contender Andruw Jones, are two of many talents seeking to surface from a loaded farm system.

Catcher William Contreras, brother of Willson, is heir apparent to d’Arnaud, entering his the walk year of his two-year contract, while pitchers Kyle Muller and Tucker Davidson could fill bullpen holes created by the free agencies of Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day.

The kid pitchers turned last year’s biggest weakness – the rotation – into a strength, fortified by the signings of Morton, a righty, and Smyly, a lefty. As a result, manager Brian Snitker must find reliable bullpen arms, settle on a leftfielder, and decide if third baseman Riley will be more of a help (with his light-tower power) than a hindrance (a penchant for frequent strikeouts).

The Braves can hit. In 2020, Atlanta led both leagues in hits (556), doubles (130), runs batted in (338), on-base percentage (.349), on-base plus slugging (.832), total bases (1,001) and plate appearances (2,344). They did most of that without Albies and Acuna, both victims of injuries.

When they finally found some pitching, the Braves won seven straight playoff games and three of their first four NL Championship Series games before the experienced Los Angeles Dodgers rebounded, won the pennant, and took their first world title since 1988.

It’s ironic that the youngest team in the National League has the oldest manager. Snitker, 65, is an organization man who’s been with the Braves for 44 years – once trying unsuccessfully to catch the knuckleball of the late Phil Niekro during his minor-league days.

But the team loves Snitker like a grandfather who knows how to coddle, when to prod, and how to reward effort and energy. That’s why Baseball America named him Major League Manager of the Year for 2020.

Owned by Denver-based Liberty Media, the Braves don’t have the financial freedom of the Mets, Nationals, or Phillies but they do have a time-tested brain trust led by Hall of Fame executive John Schuerholz, baseball operations president Alex Anthopoulos, and Snitker.

They play well in Truist Park, their suburban Atlanta ballpark, and have a penchant for pulling out games when the chips seem stacked against them.

They are the same team that once won 14 consecutive division titles, including three in the NL West before realignment created by the advent of three-divisional play. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers, with an active string of eight straight, have come close to challenging that mark, the team equivalent of Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-game playing streak.

Now that the Braves have three in a row, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them place a firm grip on the top of the NL East for years to come. Don’t bet against them.

Timeless Trivia

The Houston Astros are the only team to hit a leadoff home run and walk-off home run in the same postseason game (2020 ALCS Game 5) . . .

Artificial turf was installed in Marlins Park, which had natural grass, in 2020 . . .

Jim Palmer never surrendered a grand-slam home run . . .

Atlanta’s Truist Park got its name when a merger of SunTrust Bank and BB&T Bank became Truist Financial.

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Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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