Three Up, Three Down

March 24, 2021
 
Short preamble: here are three teams that I'm more optimistic about for the coming season than the general public, , and three teams that I am pessimistic about for 2021, with some rambling thoughts about each.
 
 
Three on the Upswing
 
Kansas City Royals
 
The Royals offense was bad last year: it should improve in 2021.
 
Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier followed breakout 2019 seasons with pedestrian production over the COVID campaign, and the rest of the offense (excepting Salvador Perez) followed their lead. Whit Merrifield’s on-base percentage declined, Adalberto Mondesi didn’t make any strides towards become Willie Wilson-Mays, and even stalwart Alex Gordon saw his bat retire a few months before he did.
 
It was a dud year all around, but the Royals added two players this offseason that should help the offense significantly. Carlos Santana is exactly the kind of player the Royals needed: a high on-base hitter who can anchor an offense historically allergic to taking walks. And former Red Sox Andrew Benintendi - still twenty-six years old at the outset of 2021 - get a chance to hit the reset button after a brutal slog of a final year in Boston.
 
These were tremendously smart acquisitions for a team like the Royals, who are situated in a division that finds itself in a moment of flux: with Cleveland jettisoning some serious talent and the White Sox deciding to rehire their wunderkind manager from 1983, the division isn’t as top-heavy as the NL west or the AL East. There’s a chance Kansas City will slip past a couple of the more celebrated teams in the division, and play meaningful baseball down the stretch.
 
Santana and Benintendi improve a specific problem (the team’s dismal .309 on-base percentage last season), but they also bring experiences that should provide benefit a team that is trying to figure out their identity in the post-Gordon era.  If Mondesi and Benintendi find their feet and Bobby Witt Jr. is given a starting job in May, this is a team that could surprise us.
 
 
Boston Red Sox
 
Not giving too much away, but all of my upswing teams are in the American League. Is this a bias, or it something else?

It is something else.
 
The good teams in the National League – the Dodgers, Braves, and Padres - feel legitimate. The Nationals have a core of Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg, and the Mets have overhauled their entire roster: while I think both teams will do better in 2021, I think everyone thinks that both teams will be better. There’s nothing interesting to say about either team.
 
The NL Central is a wash: the division will going to go to whichever 85-win team (Brewers, Cubs, Reds, Cardinals) decides to reach out and take it.
 
That is all to say that the Senior Circuit feels decided. There will be good pennant races in the league, certainly, but that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for swings of fortune - swings where the good become bad and the bad become good and the ugly stay in Baltimore – and most of those feel like they’re in the American League this year.
 
On to Beantown.
 
I’m leery of mentioning my hometown squad, but last season was rough. It was rough from the jump: Mookie was gone, E-Rod got sick, Sale wasn’t going to play…it was just one of those lost years where you just have to endure and get through it. I suppose a lot of us can relate.
 
I think the Sox could bounce back, though I am unsure if the bounce will be into contention, or merely into competency. The core of this team is still good: Xander, Devers, Verdugo, J.D. Martinez, E-Rod, Sale. Add in some compelling pitching fliers on Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta, and you’re looking at a team that should at least finish ahead of the Orioles this year.
 
The Red Sox have been in a cycle, recently, of surrounding strong seasons with seasons that have been very forgettable. The 2013 champions were surrounded by two last-place clubs, and the 2018 champions - the best Sox team of my lifetime – followed up an 108-win season with a lackluster 84-win campaign, and then last year’s nightmare.
 
It is not enjoyable, and one wonders if this is one of the effects of increasing efficiency at negotiating the structures around professional sports. To have a real shot at the World Series, you’re going to have to leverage your long-term prospects for a carousel of bats-for-hire and LOGY’s to cross the finish line. I’d prefer a little less of the cycling of arms at the trade deadline, a little more pressure to play-who-got-you there.
 
 
Toronto Blue Jays
 
If it is unfair to select a preponderance of AL teams, it is doubly unfair to have so many in one division. But we’re coming back to the AL East: I think the Jays, too, are a team on the rise.
 
Unlike our other two entrants, the Jays were reasonably good last year, finishing a game behind the Yankees and getting their feet wet in some playoff experience in the expanded rounds. But the team-from-Buffalo wasn’t great: they had stretches of poor play, stretches where Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only person standing between them and an extended losing streak. In short, the Jays performed exactly the way you’d expect a young team enduring home games in a far-flung minor league stadium in upstate New York to play: up-and-down, but hungry.
 
But the 2021 squad, which finished third in the AL in runs-per-game, should emerge as an offensive juggernaut. Count me as one of the many, many people expecting Vlad Jr. to have a breakout season this year. Add to that a healthy Bo Bichette, newly-acquired (and, as of today, newly sidelined) George Springer, the wildly underrated Cavan Biggio, and the unpredictable Marcus Semien, and I expect that Toronto will pace the league in runs scored this season.
 
Which brings us to their pitching, which was dismal after Ryu last season. There is, again, cause for optimism: Steven Matz and Tanner Roark have to be better than they were last year, and Robbie Ray showed better control upon joining the Jays.
 
It is my belief – untested - that a team which has good hitting can cope with mediocre pitching better than a team with excellent pitching can cope with a mediocre offense. There is something contagious about a big offense: it eases the pressure. A pitcher can have a bad first inning and know that his teammates have the ability to put up a crooked number and get the game back. Pitchers on low-offense teams, in contrast, are always walking a tightrope: you give up too much and the wind comes out of the sails.
 
Which brings us to the teams I’m pessimistic about.
 
 
Three on the Decline
 
 
Tampa Bay Rays
 
If two teams are going to rise in the AL East, we have to see at least one team fall. I think it’ll be the Rays.
 
The Rays and Blue Jays had nearly identical offenses last year (OPS+ of 109 and 108), but while the Toronto squad probably underperformed their abilities, the Rays overperformed with the bat. The Rays could be viewed as mirror-opposite of Toronto: they have good pitching, but the offense has work to do. Maybe they’ll pull it off, but I’m not convinced.
 
Actually…let me scratch that approach and take a different angle.
 
I think the Rays did an absolutely fantastic job managing a short season last year. Right up until the end, the Rays seemed to pull all the right levers at all the right moments. They should be commended for the terrific job they did.
 
But their success begs a question: can such a distinctive approach work as effectively over a full season as it did during last year’s sprint?
 
I don’t think it can. I think the Rays organization managed the short season brilliantly, but I don’t think the same approaches – the gimmicks with starters and the platooning and the bullpen reliance – I don’t think it will work for an 162-game season.
 
This is a smart organization – perhaps the smartest in baseball - and the people calling the shots have likely realized that an adjustment is needed. This is also a team with a heap of elite prospects bubbling up from the minors: I think in the latest FanGraphs tally of 100 best prospects, the Rays had three of the top-10 or 15 prospect, including #1 prospect Wander Franco. This team has a fabulous base of talented players.
 
But it is also a team stuck in a division of heavyweights and burdened by a comparatively small payroll, a team that has had to take unusual paths to victory. Those paths have a cost: you can call this hyperbolic, but I firmly believe that the Rays traded Blake Snell because of what happened in Game Seven of the World Series. I think the decision to pull him, and the subsequent loss, made it impossible for him to return to the team.
 
I rooted for the Rays last year, and if anyone can pull another rabbit out of the hat, it is this organization. But it’s awful hard to adjust from the strategies that led to the success they had last year to what will be successful over 162-game season. I think this I going to be an adjustment year for Tampa Bay.
 
 
Miami Marlins
 
OK: I’ll throw a National League team into the conversation.
 
Some people have hyped the Marlins, coming off a positive 2020 season, as a candidate to surprise us again in 2021. I am not buying it. No chance.
 
First off, the Marlins team significantly exceeded their expected W-L record from last year, going 31-29 when their runs scored and runs allowed suggested that they should’ve finished at 26-34.
 
The positives for this team start and end with their young starting pitchers, who are…fine. The starters managed to post a respectable 4.31 ERA last season (compared to an ugly 5.50 ERA from the bullpen), and the starters are young, and can be expected to improve. That’s a good starting point: young pitchers can be a successful team’s strength.
 
But who is going to create in runs for this club? The best hitter from last year is Miguel Rojas, a thirty-two year old with a career Adjusted OPS of 86. Rojas managed an outlandish 141 OPS+ last year, which seems unsustainable going forward. Garrett Cooper can hit, but he’s twenty-nine and a corner infielder/DH-type, not Mike Trout. Corey Dickerson and Adam Duvall are fun fliers, but they’re not quite in the same ballpark as Benintendi and Carlos Santana in Kansas City.
 
This is a team that is going to experience whiplash. Having reached the playoffs in the weird 2020 season, having talked themselves into thinking maybe they’re better than the big teams in the NL East, I think the Marlins are going to crater at the first bad stretch of baseball they have to suffer through, and stay cratered. They don’t have enough talent to fight their way into the pennant race.
 
The Marlins are a team that got ahead of themselves: they jumped the queue. The short COVID season should’ve been a year when they stretched their wings a bit, trying to figure out what kind of team they were. Instead, three of the better teams in their division - the Mets, Phillies, and Nationals –utterly collapsed, and the Marlins found themselves backing into a playoff series they had no business being anywhere near. They weren’t really a playoff team, and unlike Toronto they weren’t really close yet: the Marlins are going to struggle in 2021.
 
 
Chicago White Sox
 
The White Sox, on the other hand, are a very similar team to Toronto: a young team with considerable talent that found themselves in the playoff mix a year or two earlier than expected because of unforeseen circumstances.
 
One difference between the two teams is that the White Sox got a little more ahead of themselves than the Jays. Toronto played good baseball, but they spent the bulk of 2020 chasing the Yankees and Rays: they played every day with the knowledge that they still had work to do if they wanted to really take over the division.
 
The White Sox, on the hand, jumped out in front and stayed in front until the last week of the season, when the Twins caught them. As a team, they got the message that they were already good enough: that they were on par and maybe ahead of Cleveland and Minnesota.
 
I don’t think the White Sox are that strong a team: I root for Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu, and I think that Eloy Jiminez and Giolitto are terrific players, but this is still a young team that plays young: they stuck out a lot and didn’t draw too many walks and made a few more errors than your average team. That’s fine: even with their limits, this is a team that has as much talent as every other team in the division. But they’re not ahead of the pack.
 
Which brings me to their decision to hire Tony LaRussa as their manager. I was very critical of the move when it happened, and my feelings haven’t cooled in the interim: I still think it is a disastrous decision.
 
Within the context I’ve outlined – a context you can buy or discard at your leisure – what do we make of the LaRussa hiring?
 
It is a decision bolsters the notion that this is already the best team in the division. Why would a Hall-of-Fame manager come out of a decade of retirement to manage again? Because there is a team ready to cross the Rubicon, and they need an experienced manager to lead them.
 
That would be fine if the White Sox were really an elite team that can count on an easy division title, a team that can start the season with one foot already in October baseball. But that’s not this team. This is a good team, but it is a young team that might’ve gotten a little too cocky last year, a team that still has a distance to go to join the elite squads in the game.
 
And Tony LaRussa is the wrong man to manage that team. He is too far removed from the day-to-day grind of management, and his cache as a Hall-of-Fame manager has significantly less impact on a team of young players who have no connection to his era.
 
The White Sox have a great deal of talent, and had they selected a manager with reasonable credentials to take over the reins of the team, they probably wouldn’t be near this list. But the selection of LaRussa feels like a staggering mistake of judgement, a choice guided by sentiment or nepotism instead of prudence.
 
I am basing that opinion – and a lot of what I’ve written here - on instinct alone, and if I’m wrong you can all remind me of that fact as the White Sox parade their trophy around the Loop. But put me on the record: I think this is the squandering of a good team to satisfy the egos of a few individuals who should know better, and I am disappointed that it happened.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in southwest Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

MWeddell
Ben's wish was just granted.
8:10 PM Mar 31st
 
benhurwitz
I hope this is a prelude to Bold Predictions for 2021
8:09 AM Mar 25th
 
evanecurb
I’m hoping the manager doesn’t make any difference. I hope Rick Renteria gets another job. He knows his stuff.
3:24 PM Mar 24th
 
DaveFleming
I like the Biden comparable: I was skeptical that Joe was going to be up to the task, but he held his own against the young-uns in the primary.

It's possible Tony L. will pull it off, but I still think the White Sox should've gone with a young, hungry skipper who could stick around. At best, LaRussa is a one-year band-aid, not a solution.

I think for me, the distance thing is at least as concerning as the age thing. LaRussa hasn't managed in ten years, which is a long absence, and baseball players are VERY different than they were a decade ago. The job is just different, and I don't know that LaRussa is going to be able to adjust his experiences to the new challenges. But: it's a fun team: I hope I'm wrong.
2:23 PM Mar 24th
 
DaveFleming
There are typos galore: I was trying to post before online school started with the kiddos. My apollojeez.
11:21 AM Mar 24th
 
SteveN
You say "and his [b]cache[b] as a Hall-of-Fame manager". Pretty sure that should be 'cachet'.
11:07 AM Mar 24th
 
bhalbleib
While we haven't ever really seen the LaRussa phenomenon in baseball, a 10 year hiatus and then return to managing by someone as old as Tony, we have seen it in football. And Dick Vermeil did pretty well, as I recall. So it can work. Not sure LaRussa's leadership style is similar to Vermeil's, but it can work.
11:03 AM Mar 24th
 
evanecurb
The conventional wisdom seems to be that LaRussa is too old to be an effective major league manager. He's not. I'll say it; the White Sox are going to the World Series. Not because of LaRussa; they're a very good team.

Last year, the conventional wisdom was that Biden is too old to be a good president. Even many who voted for him said "I don't know; I just can't vote for the other guy." I know it's only been two months, but he's off to a great start.

There's nothing wrong with having 40 and 50 somethings in leadership positions, but some of the 70 somethings know what they're doing.
10:51 AM Mar 24th
 
evanecurb
Dave Fleming: " I’d prefer a little less of the cycling of arms at the trade deadline, a little more pressure to play-who-got-you there."

Here, here! MLB (in conjunction with the MLBPA) have the power to change rules to make the game better - roster movement rules, trade deadline, and pace of play movement rules, specifically. Do something for the fans, guys. You may actually benefit in the long run. I'd love to see incentives for 70 win teams to add a few competent players instead of the current tear-it-down-to-the-studs-then-rebuild philosophy.

Win with what you got. I like that idea.
10:47 AM Mar 24th
 
 
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