January 17, 2021

MLB teams will need to dig deeper for pitching as concerns loom over 2021

10 min read
Scott Boras thinks everybody will want as much pitching as possible this upcoming season and...

Scott Boras thinks everybody will want as much pitching as possible this upcoming season and not just pitchers who are his clients – although the guess here is he would appreciate it if Major League teams called him first, anyhow.

It wouldn’t be an off-season if pitching wasn’t the most talked-about commodity, and while there is really only one free-agent difference-maker out there – trollin’ Trevor Bauer – it seems as if position players remain the focus even after Mookie Betts took himself off the market by signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But make no mistake: this season is going to be an arms race.

Some of it comes down to mathematics.

“We’ve gone through a two-month performance element where over 60-something pitchers were on the injured list,” Boras says. “We have a deficit of pitching. Even our most steadfast starters — veterans — will have to go from 80 (innings pitched) to 180-200 innings. We have to re-bridge the game … to allow a full season to be played with minimal risk.”

As Boras notes, much of the focus during the off-season will be on protecting pitchers already under contract – some of them for long terms. Some of it will also focus on the influx of young pitchers whose gradual buildup of innings pitched has been interrupted – including those at the minor-league level whose 2020 season was, effectively, a washout. This task will be accomplished at a time when the minor leagues are going through a culling of franchises.

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The adage, “You can never have too much pitching” will never seem truer than in 2020, which explains why the Toronto Blue Jays will be kicking tires on every available arm. They have a particularly intriguing case in the form of Nate Pearson, who was hurt last season and only offered a glimpse of his real self in his final relief appearance. How many innings can he pitch in 2021 without exponentially increasing the risk of injury and – worst-case scenario – surgery? How valuable is pitching? Consider that the New York Mets gave 26-year-old free agent Sam McWilliams — who was part of the Tampa Bay Rays 60-player pool but hasn’t pitched in the Majors — a contract that will pay him $750,000. As Jon Heyman points out, that is the largest salary in the last 10 years for a player with zero days of big-league service time (not including those coming from Asia). There were reportedly 15 teams interested in McWilliams.

Just as opening the Canada-U.S. border is proving to be a more difficult decision than the decision to close, so too is the resumption of play going to be fraught with concerns that extend beyond the financial. Boras is right when he describes 2021 as being a “bridge” season.

The one sport that is in its second season of dealing with COVID-19 is European soccer, and so far there are cautionary tales galore when it comes to soft-tissue injuries and game congestion and the like. Yes, there have been player absences due to COVID-19, but few if any have been the result of on-field transmission (more likely they occurred the way Liverpool’s Mo Salah contacted the illness: at his brother’s wedding in Egypt during an international break). Luckily for North American pro sports, most managers and medical officials in and around Europe’s leagues have pinpointed the impact of domestic competitions outside of league play – such as the F.A. or Carabao Cup in England – as well as international matches as being the most complicating factor. Describing what he has seen in the Premier League this season with particular reference to Sunday’s Liverpool/Leicester match, Guardian soccer analyst Jonathan Wilson wrote: “The parameters have changed. Football has taken a step back into a more attritional age, in which games are won less by thrilling rapid changes than by the grim plod of trench warfare … this season is about finding a way. Any way.”

Boras is right: you do wonder how the diminished 2020 season and the interruption of normal rhythms caused by the COVID-19 interruption will manifest itself in 2021. Baseball is the one sport that has managed to line itself up to resume regular service. It certainly appears as if spring training will start on time, and while the recent turn of events in the NHL shows us that a sudden change in approach by ownership can muddy up what seemed to be a clear path to play, what happens if a cadre of owners decide it makes no sense to play without fans in the stands? The initial approach from the Major League Baseball Players Association is they want to play 162 games.

Baseball again seems to be well-served here, in that when pitchers and catchers do report to spring training they will be doing so after a relatively normal off-season. But that’s after an odd regular season, and for that reason your favourite baseball team is likely going to be more active than ever in the pitching market, even if you don’t know it.

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FAIR OR FOUL?

• Fair – Wondering about the shift in winds in CONCACAF. Two years ago all seemed possible: the U.S. men’s team looked wayward and Canada’s men’s team had a spring in its step, beating the U.S. at BMO Field then seeing Alphonso Davies burst through at Bayern Munich, so much so that analysts such as Fox’s Alexei Lalas acclaimed him as the best player in CONCACAF. Davies’ season has been interrupted by an ankle injury – he is expected to return to training in two weeks — while Canadian forward Jonathan David has had a difficult time following his record $30-million Euro move from the Belgian club Gent to FC Lille of France’s Ligue 1, being dropped from the squad before finally scoring his first goal this weekend. And while the Canadian men’s team hasn’t played since a 1-0 loss to Iceland on January 20, the U.S. men have restarted using their cadre of European-based youngsters. We’ve talked up our youth but, man, Gio Reyna? Christian Pulisich? Sergino Dest? Josh Sargent? Weston McKennie? Tyler Adams? This could be the best generation of U.S.-born players yet, playing in the Bundesliga, Serie A or La Liga …

• Foul – The Argonauts announced that “The Boat is Back,” that in 2021 the team will bring back its football-on-the-water logo. Why? As I’ve maintained since MLSE purchased this team: there is no one cure-all for the Argonauts’ disappearance from local sports consciousness. The only significant football culture in this city is soccer. That’s down to demographics and everything that underpins the enormous media influence of the NFL and the fact you can no longer guilt fans into supporting a team. But saying that, hitching your wagon to the past is no way to gain new fans. The last, most obvious measure for this franchise ought to be a top to bottom rebrand that creates a modest space for CFL fans. I get there are differences between Toronto and other CFL markets whose franchises have undergone renaming or rebranding, the Ottawa Redblacks and Montreal Alouettes. But this is such weak, weak sauce. If a year-long absence due to a pandemic isn’t the best time to start the rebrand? To maybe cash in on what could be a thirst for attending live sports once we come out of this? I don’t know when there will be one …

• Fair – Robinson Cano’s second failed drug test will have a significant impact on his Hall of Fame candidacy. Very quietly, the ranks of Hall of Fame voters are going through an overhaul and are becoming less homogenous, which is all to the good. That might mean more voters less inclined to focus on the moral overtones surrounding the debate on steroids and other performance enhancing substances, but in the case of a two-time offender whose career WAR of 68.9 is close to the Hall of Fame average at the position and who is 376 hits and 29 doubles away from becoming the 18th player to reach 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, it will be a deal breaker. Difficult to remember that, at one point, Cano was on a Hall of Fame path and considered to be the next great Yankee …

• Foul – Whining about Edmonton native Davies finishing third in balloting for the Golden Boy, the award given out by Italy’s Tuttosport that honours the best player in Europe under the age of 21. Despite his breakout year and playing a key role on a Bayern Munich team that won the Champions League, Bundesliga and the German domestic trophy, it is understandable that he would finish behind winner Erling Haaland of Borussia Dortmund and runner-up Ansu Fati, due to their offensive performances. There’s no shame in finishing in third place as a left-back; indeed it can be taken as a sign of that position’s growing tactical importance …

• Fair – Raptors fans wanting to hear that president Masai Ujiri is signing a new, long-term contract now that most of the heavy free-agent lifting is done …

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THE ENDGAME

You can’t say that the signs weren’t there. You can’t honestly look at what happened to the Raptors in the first 72 hours of NBA free agency and say you are surprised that both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have signed elsewhere. Ujiri and his front office have been sending out signals for three years – going back to even before the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard – that they were planning with an eye toward next winter’s bountiful free-agent class. Even if Giannis Antetokounmpo does stay with the Milwaukee Bucks, there will still be a great deal of joy to be found in that group, and at a time when the pandemic is having a considerable economic impact on club revenues, it just makes sense to keep the books as clear as possible in order to make significant acquisitions. Making the money work to get Fred Van Vleet signed was an absolute must, because in addition to giving long-term cover for 35-year-old Kyle Lowry, his presence is fundamental to maximizing lineup options for head coach Nick Nurse. Remember how the Raptors won Game 6 against the Boston Celtics based largely on the play of a lineup that featured Lowry, Van Vleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell? Van Vleet opens more doors than Ibaka and Gasol, who would have been surplus to requirements if Ujiri has the success he wants to have next winter. So the bottom line is this: you can’t judge this off-season until we see what next off-season brings. In the meantime, the team will play its home games in Tampa anyhow, so punting or at least lining up in punt formation in 2020-2021 might not be the worst thing …

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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