Although most news these days amps up anxiety levels, we can find a few bright spots in the weirdest Major League Baseball off-season ever.
After all, the Padres did make news in 2020 by reaching the postseason for the first time since 2006 and won a playoff round for the first time since the glory days of 1998. Although the Padres lost the divisional series, the team that prevailed, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, went all the way.
But now, in December, the pandemic continues to rage, reaching new highs across the country in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. MLB has not been untouched. On December 6, Dodger employee Jairo Castillo, 31, succumbed to complications of Covid-19 shortly after the death of Lon Joyce, 72.
A Christmas spike will undoubtedly follow the Thanksgiving spike with no end in sight. However, in a race to ultimately stop the spread, Pfizer and other companies have announced positive results in vaccine trials.
That good news must be tempered with the fact that young, healthy males will have to wait until health care workers, first responders, the elderly, and those with serious medical problems receive vaccinations. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, does not foresee a return to some semblance of normalcy until the end of 2021. However, that depends upon Americans being willing to wear masks, practice social distancing, avoid crowds, and be vaccinated. At least a 70 percent vaccination rate is required to meet that goal and will meet resistance from a portion of the population.
The traditional MLB Winter Meetings will definitely not take place in Dallas. Instead, communications will go virtual, and general manager A.J. Preller, whose phone is semi-attached to his body, will undoubtedly be working that phone.
Barring injuries and increasingly unlikely trades, an outfield of Tommy Pham, Trent Grisham, and Wil Myers and infield of Eric Hosmer, Jake Cronenworth, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Manny Machado appear set. Catcher Austin Nola earned a spot behind the plate. Preller can concentrate on the pitching staff, decisions on the futures of catchers Luis Campusano and Francisco Mejia, and a few add-ons instead of rebuilding the entire roster as he has in the past.
Early in December, the Padres got a boost when MLB announced the finalists for the All-MLB team. Four Padres made the cut: Jake Cronenworth at 2nd, Manny Machado at 3rd, Fernando Tatis Jr. at short, and Dinelson Lamet on the mound.
So far, no news must mean good news for Lamet. He and Mike Clevinger succumbed to elbow problems at a crucial time during the playoffs. Clevinger has had Tommy John surgery and will miss all of the 2021 season. Apparently, Lamet, who underwent the surgery in 2018, dodged a bullet.
In a 1 1/3 inning cameo, rookie Ryan Weathers wowed fans with his cool demeanor as only the second pitcher ever to debut during the playoffs. Top prospect, lefty MacKenzie Gore, should see action in the big leagues next year.
Pham should be healthy after suffering three injuries last season and rebound from the worst season of his career. In 2020 he batted .211/.312/.312 in 125 plate appearances, which bore little resemblance to the player that batted .284/.381/.475 from 2017 to 2019 with the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays. After a positive coronavirus test and a stab would sustained outside a strip club, one hopes he’ll concentrate on his career rather than his extracurricular activities.
Last year, Coronavirus appeared out of the blue, and baseball executives had to adjust on the fly. At least they have experience in trying to capture as much of a season as possible next year.
However, the dollar drain will undoubtedly affect the 2021 season. Commissioner of Major League Baseball Rob Manfred estimates a loss of $3 billion last year, and uncertainty again rules for the 2021 season.
Will Spring Training begin on February 27, 2021? What are the chances of a return to a 162-game schedule? Will Petco Park be empty of fans for the home opener on April 1, or partially filled? Preller’s’ budget already faced constraints not related to the pandemic, and his decisions will undoubtedly be complicated by these and other unanswered questions.
General managers find themselves in limbo over questions about the designated hitter in the National League. The Major League Players Association and baseball executives must decide on that question as well as the continuation of an expanded number of playoff teams.
While Major League owners may gripe about the hit on their wallets, Minor League owners have far less financial leeway than big-league owners. MiLB has already contracted and now has fewer teams and fewer opportunities for aspiring players. Preller will have to make tough decisions about handling budding prospects like Gore, Luis Patino, and CJ Abrams.
Fans may need baseball more than ever, but a return to normalcy will have to wait. At least Padres fans can savor this season’s success while waiting and wondering what 2021 will bring.