- Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
- Analyst/reporter ESPN television
- Has covered baseball since 1981
It’s the little things in baseball, often the pointless stuff, that excite me. Arcane stats, wild coincidences, names that randomly connect. Here are 30 things, one per team, that excite me about this season, these teams and these players:
The first at-bat at Camden Yards, with Orioles fans in the stands, for first baseman/cancer survivor Trey Mancini. “When he got here [in 2017], it was obvious that he refused to fail,” former Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “We called him, ‘Good, good.’ Every time you ask him anything, he’d say. ‘Good, good.”’ This comeback is great, great.
Boston Red Sox
Designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s pursuit of his first walk-off homer. He has 238 homers, including four in one game, but has never hit a walk-off. Meanwhile, the Rangers’ Charlie Culberson, who has 23 career homers, has four walk-offs. Norm Cash has the most homers (377) in a career without a walk-off homer.
New York Yankees
When second baseman DJ LeMahieu enters the clubhouse, manager Aaron Boone has been known to say, “The machine is in the house!” LeMahieu has been their best player the past two years. He has won a batting title in both leagues and he is on his way to being the greatest position player ever to go by his initials. The team — 1B: J.T. Snow. 2B: LeMahieu, SS: J.J. Hardy. 3B: B.J. Surhoff. OF: J.D. Martinez, OF: J.D. Drew. OF: AJ Pollock. C: A.J. Pierzynski. RHP: J.R. Richard. LHP: CC Sabathia. RP: J.J. Putz. Manager: AJ Hinch.
Tampa Bay Rays
Shortstop Wander Franco. He just turned 20, and he’s the best prospect in the minors, where he’ll begin the season. He has never played above Class A ball, and he didn’t play last season because the minor league season was wiped away because of the coronavirus pandemic. He hits with power from both sides of the plate. In a game ESPN broadcast this spring, he nearly beat out a routine grounder to shortstop. “There are no words to describe all his talent,” Rays shortstop Willy Adames said. “I can’t wait to play with him.”
Toronto Blue Jays
Dynamic shortstop Bo Bichette might become the first player to sign a $100 million contract before he plays 100 games in the big leagues. And he’ll be worth it. The Jays’ Cavan Biggio said Bichette is the most exciting player in baseball. Most swag in baseball? “Bo Bichette,” Jays pitcher Nate Pearson said. “He’s so good — and he looks good.”
Chicago White Sox
In an era in which seemingly everyone hits a home run, second baseman Nick Madrigal had 35 hits last year — and 32 were singles. Hooray. Someone who still values a hit. Thirty times since 1900 has a player had 175 singles in a season. Only Ichiro (twice) has ever had 200 singles in one season. By year’s end, Madrigal will have more singles than Elvis. “I know the home runs will come, but I don’t care if I hit it 30 mph or 100 mph as long as I get on base,” he said.
The best pitcher ever named Shane had a historic season in 2020. Granted, it was only 60 games, but Shane Bieber became the only pitcher ever to have a winning percentage (.889) and strikeout-per-nine-innings rate (14.2) that high, and an ERA (1.63) that low in a season of 75 innings pitched. Like last year, he’ll add another pitch to his repertoire.
Max Scherzer calls Miguel Cabrera “the greatest hitter ever to walk this planet.” And with 13 more home runs and 134 more hits, Cabrera will become the sixth player to join the 500-homer club and the 3,000-hits club — and the first to join both clubs in the same season.
Kansas City Royals
Mike Minor is a quality left-hander, More importantly, he provides wonderfully connective pitching matchups. We’ve had Minor-Leake, Cole-Minor, Minor-Sale and Minor-Fiers. There’s a chance we’ll have a Minor-Diehl. Sadly, it is too much to ask, for Dillon Gee, who last pitched in the big leagues since 2017, to make a comeback. Because how great would it be to have a Gee-Minor?
Defense up the middle is so important. It will be breathtaking watching shortstop Andrelton Simmons and center fielder Byron Buxton cover ground like few ever have at those positions. UZR will have new meaning in the Twin Cities: Unbelievably Zestful Range.
The usual wit and wisdom of manager Dusty Baker. He jokingly lamented last year not being able to go to dinner during the season because of the pandemic. “I’d look in my wallet,” he said, “and I’d think, ‘Hey, this is the same money that was in my wallet yesterday.”’
Los Angeles Angels
The only two players in major league history named Iglesias are now on the same team, shortstop Jose and pitcher Raisel. Jose is a magician defensively; when he played for the Red Sox, infield coach Brian Butterfield (now with the Angels) occasionally and playfully kicked him out of early infield work because Iglesias was throwing the ball behind his back, catching it between his legs, etc. He looked like Kyrie Irving.
Manager Bob Melvin has said that third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson each will win an MVP someday, which would make them the first Matts ever to do so. Matt Williams, Matt Holliday and Matt Kemp are probably the three best Matts ever.
First baseman Evan White won a Gold Glove as a rookie, drawing comparisons to J.T. Snow and Don Mattingly. White’s range in the air is amazing. But please, no comparisons yet to Keith Hernandez, the best ever. Too bad we don’t bunt anymore. Then we’d see how good White is at charging one, then throwing across the diamond, like Hernandez did.
Chris Young is the tallest general manager ever (6-foot-10). He’s the tallest player ever to hit a triple. He’s the most decorated basketball player (started at Princeton) in GM history. But he can’t match former Pirates GM Larry Doughty, who said that he could make a shot from the opposite foul line on the basketball court — that’s 79 feet — while sitting on his butt.
That Freeman kid can really hit. Freddie, of course, but his son, Charlie, is as good a hitter at age 4 as you’ll ever see. “Charlie rises and sets with Freddie, who is a great father,” said Chipper Jones, a close family friend. “There is no better way to mold a 4-year-old to hit by having him hit off a tee. That’s what Charlie does every day. So did Freddie. So did I. But I wasn’t nearly that good. He’s better at 4 than I was at 9 or 10.”
The young pitching in the rotation is electrifying, led by Sixto Sanchez. And now everyone knows one another. Last year, the COVID-19-stricken Marlins used nine different starting pitchers and 27 different pitchers overall in their first nine games. Manager Don Mattingly said it is “exaggerating only slightly” that the first time he met one of his pitchers was on the mound during a pitching change. ‘Let’s just say,” Mattingly said, “that there were at least four pitchers that we had zero idea what we’d get.”
New York Mets
They will become the first team ever to have one pitcher (Marcus Stroman) who wears No. 0 and another (Taijuan Walker) who wears No. 99. The Yankees had pitcher Adam Ottavino (0) and outfielder Aaron Judge (99). And many years ago, the Mets had pitcher Turk Wendell (99) and Rey Ordonez (0). But this Mets staff is covered from 0-99.
On July 2-4, Phillies ace Aaron Nola has a chance to face his older brother, Padres catcher Austin Nola, for the first time in their big league careers. The last time brothers — one a pitcher, the other a catcher — faced each other was Norm and Tom Sherry in 1963.
Juan Soto, Miguel Cabrera and Ty Cobb are the only players to hit cleanup in a World Series game at age 20. Soto’s plate discipline and command of the strike zone is remarkable for anyone, but especially impressive for someone now just 21. When asked where that came from, and if he had it at, say, age 7, Soto laughed and said, “No, no. When I was 7, I swung at everything.”
Newest Cubs starting pitcher Trevor Williams’ father is a huge Cubs fan. As a teenager, he was an usher at Wrigley Field. “My dad is over the moon,” said Williams, who had pitched his entire career with the Pirates. “He’s so happy that he gets to go to Wrigley Field as a fan of the Cubs. He hated wearing his Pirates’ stuff to Wrigley. So it’s full circle for him now that his son is pitching for the Cubs. And my grandma offered us her two-bedroom house. We’re a family of five. We had to tell her we’re going to need a bigger space.”
This needs to be arranged: a dunk contest between Reds reliever Amir Garrett, who is 6-5 and played at St. Johns, against Reds pitcher/outfielder Michael Lorenzen, who isn’t a basketball player. “There isn’t anything athletically that he can’t do,” ex-teammate Derek Dietrich said of Lorenzen. So I asked Lorenzen if he could dunk a basketball any way I would ask him to dunk a basketball. “Yes,” he said.
Pitcher Brent Suter is equal parts brilliant and hysterically funny. His Jim Carrey impersonation is so perfect. He and teammate Josh Hader did a take of “Dumb and Dumber.” He and teammates did a spoof of “Back To The Future” with Suter as Dr. Emmett Brown. “Hilarious,” manager Craig Counsell said.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is already one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. He is the ke’y to the success of the Pirates, He has a ke’en awareness of how to play the game. Like his dad, Charlie, he always stays on an even ke’el. Ke’Bryan Hayes is a ke’eper.
St. Louis Cardinals
Former Rockie Michael Cuddyer said in his first three months with the team in 2013, Nolan Arenado “made the five greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen a third baseman make.” Now Arenado is in St. Louis, where Scott Rolen played. After Brooks Robinson, they might be the two best defenders ever at that position. Let the comparisons begin.
Outfielder Tim Locastro has been hit by a pitch 27 times in 347 plate appearances, an unprecedented rate at the start of a career. Ten Hall of Famers with at least 10,000 plate appearances were hit 27 or fewer times in their career, including Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew and Chipper Jones. “I’ve never been afraid of getting hit. I will throw myself in front of a pitch just to get on base and maybe score a run,” Locastro said. “Every teammate I’ve ever had, on every level, thinks I’m insane.” Insane? “I just saw that Hershel Walker did 1,500 pushups in one day, so today, I’m doing 1,501,” Locastro said. “I started at 8 a.m. I’m at 660.”
Trevor Story is one of the most underrated players in the game, certainly the most underrated among all the premier shortstops potentially headed for free agency after this season. Story is likely to leave with the Rockies in a retooling stage. Rockies fans will enjoy watching him one more year. He’s so good.
Los Angeles Dodgers
This could be a historically good pitching staff with Trevor Bauer joining the rotation. Last year, the Dodgers had a 3.02 ERA. The next best in the league was the Reds’ at 3.84. That represented the largest gap between the leader and next best in NL history. The Padres have upgraded their pitching, but a 1.00 gap for the Dodgers is possible.
San Diego Padres
The last time we saw Blake Snell, he was yanked after 73 unhittable pitches in Game 6 of the World Series. The last we saw of the Padres, they became the first team ever to throw a nine-inning shutout using nine pitchers. The Padres also set a record with 51 pitchers used in a six-game stretch. The Padres have one complete game in the past three seasons. Something has to give. Here’s guessing the Padres let Snell and fellow newcomer Yu Darvish loose.
San Francisco Giants
Mike Yastrzemski has played 161 major league games and has 636 plate appearances. His grandfather, Carl Yastrzemski, played 3,308 games and had 13,992 plate appearances. Mike already has as many three-homer games (one) as Captain Carl. Mike has done something that grandpa never did: hit two homers in a game, one of which was a walk-off. But if Mike, 30, is going to play in as many games as Carl, he’ll have to play all 162 games in every season until he’s 50.
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