Spring training starts this week, with pitchers and catchers day arriving on Wednesday for eight teams, and the rest of the majors getting going on Thursday or Friday. Hopefully, this year’s ramp-up to the season will go more smoothly than 2020, when the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues had to shut down and all of baseball went on pause until summer.
With coronavirus anything but under control in Florida and Arizona, the next month and a half are going to be a nervy time, at best. But there’s also a lot to wonder about aside from the pandemic as baseball gets ready for the 2021 campaign.
The biggest question, one that faces all teams, is still pandemic-related. After a shortened season last year and having calendars thrown off in general, how will players’ health hold up? Lance Lynn led the major leagues last year with 84 innings pitched. Nobody had more plate appearances than Marcell Ozuna’s 267. The issue this season may be players hitting a wall in summer as they extend well past where they were a year ago, but players also will be showing up for spring training in different shape than they have in past years, because the recovery from last year was different. It won’t be a surprise at all to see a lot of early injuries, particularly with pitchers. You just never know who it’ll be.
For the moment, at least, you know who it won’t be, because several key free agents remained unsigned, including Jackie Bradley Jr., Brett Gardner, Jake Odorizzi, Trevor Rosenthal, and Taijuan Walker.
Justin Turner only over the weekend agreed to a deal to bring his infectious personality back to the Dodgers, who also added Trevor Bauer, and now we’ll all see if he can get through spring training and manage to avoid alienating his teammates and embarrassing himself and the organization before ever throwing a pitch in home whites at Chavez Ravine.
Generally, the start of spring training is supposed to be as optimistic as it gets, but that’s not the case everywhere, especially with teams that have actively made themselves worse over the winter, like the Cubs and Rockies. Once they get to camp, how invested will players like Kris Bryant and Trevor Story be for clubs that aren’t doing everything they can to win? How quickly, if at all, do situations move from trying to make the best of things to actively seeking a way out via trade?
And when it comes to bad feelings, will they extend across the exhibition fields? We have seen brawls in spring training before, both as a result of previous seasons’ bitterness and from happenings in the tuneup games themselves. This year, to reduce travel amid the pandemic (as if taking a chartered bus across Florida would be the straw to break the camel’s back on this whole thing), the spring training schedule has been rearranged into geographical pods. The Red Sox, for instance, will only face Atlanta, Baltimore, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay during Grapefruit League action, as part of the southwest Florida group.
Best to keep cool heads, though, because another impact of the pandemic is that MLB’s safety protocols call for stern punishment for anyone involved in physical contact in a dispute. Even umpires are supposed to be given six feet of distance. And keep your masks on, everybody. There’s a long season ahead.