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This week, Inside the Clubhouse looks at Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, preseason predictions and the injury risk of letting pitchers hit.
Injuries will always be part of baseball, but there is a fear that there will be more injuries this season, especially to pitchers, than ever before.
Just look at the San Diego Padres. They added Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove to a rotation that already featured Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack. Of course, part of that aggressiveness had to do with Lamet (elbow) not being ready to begin the season with a full starter’s workload and Mike Clevinger being out for the season. But general manager A.J. Preller realized depth has never been more important and took advantage of teams shedding payroll by acquiring elite starting pitchers for pennies on the dollar.
That depth will be tested at some point this season as baseball transitions from a 60- to 162-game season. The Rays lost reliever Nick Anderson for most of the season with a partial tear of an elbow ligament. The Rockies will be without Kyle Freeland for an uncertain amount of time after injuring his shoulder pitching in a Cactus League game, though manager Bud Black said initial reports from the team’s medical staff are “encouraging.”
Some pitchers have privately voiced concerns about the risks at spring training. Others, meanwhile, are taking a more measured approach, with one prominent National League pitcher telling me recently:
“Some injuries just happen. I don’t know about there being more,” the pitcher said. “You saw the amount of injuries that happen in a 60-game season because we had to start and stop and start up again. For some teams, it was start, stop, start, stop, start. That’s bigger than anything.”
One way Major League Baseball could have decreased the risk for pitcher injuries would have been implementing the universal designated hitter.
Instead, the game will continue to include pitchers hitting in the National League. MLB made multiple attempts to complete an agreement on the DH with the Players Association but sought an expanded playoff format as part of any potential deal. Some pitchers have already made it clear that they are not looking forward to stepping in the batter’s box.
“I don’t know if I’m looking forward to it,” the Detroit Tigers’ Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018, said on MLB Network Radio this week. “I think pitchers hitting, this might be probably the last year of it. I think it would be cool to get an at-bat or two, but I’ll be excited when that’s over. I don’t think I’ve ever faced over 90 (mph), so I think that would be a pretty scary thing to experience.”
The risk isn’t worth it. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen, one of baseball’s best young starting pitchers and a Scott Boras client, suffered a hairline stress fracture in his right forearm during batting practice on March 10. It will only sideline him two weeks but can you imagine the uproar if a serious injury happened to, say, Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer while hitting or running the bases?
“This is a health and safety issue,” Boras recently told the New York Times. “I want these owners to understand that you’re putting the game, and all the investment they have in pitchers, at major risk. Hamstrings, ankles, broken fingers — when you don’t run the bases and you haven’t bunted for over a year and a half, you’re asking elite athletes to do things they haven’t done.”
There is still time for MLB and the MLBPA to come to their senses and reach an agreement on a universal DH, but the clock is ticking with only days remaining before Opening Day.
Added Boras: “This is going to cost more time and more injuries to players than COVID will.”
Christian Yelich could be heading for an MVP season
Christian Yelich recently held an extensive one-on-one batting session with Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines. The results have had teammates and executives wondering if Yelich is on the verge of another MVP season.
Yelich, 29, is hitting .400 with a 1.403 OPS this spring. One teammate recently remarked that he appears to have a better sense of timing at the plate and is more comfortable with his swing. He believes that having a full spring training, along with having a set schedule and being a full year removed from a broken leg, will allow Yelich to hit the ground running in the regular season.
What exactly went wrong for Yelich last season remains a mystery. His swing percentage dropped from 45.2 to 34.6. He swung at 11.5 percent fewer pitches in the strike zone, with only Yandy Díaz and Jorge Soler becoming more passive on pitches over the plate.
Yelich, of course, was not the only star to struggle last season. Cody Bellinger, Javier Báez, José Altuve and Eugenio Suárez were among the many players who had down seasons. But a poll of scouts, executives and players pegged Yelich as the most likely player to bounce back to an MVP-level performance.
Having Yelich return to his pre-injury form would put the Brewers squarely in the mix in the National League Central. Combined with the additions of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kolten Wong, along with a pitching staff and defense the organization is increasingly optimistic about, the Brewers could be primed to be one of baseball’s biggest surprises.
But it all starts with Yelich.
Can Mike Trout finally get back to the playoffs?
Mike Trout has not been to the playoffs since 2014, and two scouts who watched the Los Angeles Angels this spring believe this is the year he finally breaks that streak.
The scouts pointed to the supporting cast around Trout. Anthony Rendon remains an elite player on both offense and defense. Justin Upton entered the offseason healthy and it has translated to a dominant spring training. Shohei Ohtani has topped at 101.9 mph on the mound and has hit .571 with five home runs and 8 RBI at the plate.
“Ohtani,” one scout said, “is a freak show.”
Most important, however, is an improved rotation. Dylan Bundy returns as the ace and is joined by Ohtani, Jose Quintana, Alex Cobb, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning. There are concerns whether there is enough depth in the bullpen, even with the addition of Raisel Iglesias, and the team remains on the hunt for bullpen help. The Angels are in agreement with free-agent reliever Noé Ramirez, sources said, and have also considered right-hander Shane Greene.
But the pitching should be better than it was a year ago, and the infield defense behind it figures to remain strong with the addition of Jose Iglesias. He has dazzled at shortstop this spring and his defensive prowess, along with Rendon and David Fletcher, should play hand-in-hand with Cobb, who ranked seventh in baseball with a 54.5 ground-ball percentage (minimum 50 innings).
The Angels are hopeful it will be enough to at least get Trout back to the playoffs, a conversation that he recently admitted he has grown tired of. “The only way to change that,” he said, “is to get to the playoffs.”
Dodgers or Padres?
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the defending World Series champions. The San Diego Padres believe this is the first year of an extended playoff window. Who comes out on top?
This is a new era of Padres baseball. They acquired Darvish, Snell and Musgrove while keeping most of their top-10 prospects. Mark Melancon took significantly less money to sign with San Diego. They topped it off by signing Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year, $340 million contract, the third-largest deal in baseball history.
The roster, which also includes Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Lamet, among others, is arguably the most talented in baseball. It is a credit to general manager A.J. Preller and team chairman Peter Seidler for aggressively upgrading the roster while most of baseball looked to shed payroll.
In most seasons, they would enter as the clear World Series favorites. They just so happen to not even be favorites to win their own division.
The Dodgers return most of the roster that led them to their first World Series since 1988. Their lineup features a trio of elite hitters in Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager. Their already strong rotation got even better with the addition of Trevor Bauer and their bullpen remains a strength with the additions of Blake Treinen and Corey Knebel.
It positions the Dodgers to become the first team to repeat as champions since 2000. But the Padres, who made their World Series aspirations clear this winter, have gained ground on them. Some executives even believe that the Padres have passed the Dodgers.
But the best part isn’t that this will be a one-year rivalry. Both of these teams are built to last and have made it clear that they will do anything necessary to bring a title back to their respective cities.
AL East: New York Yankees.
AL Central: Minnesota Twins.
AL West: Houston Astros.
NL East: Atlanta Braves.
NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers.
NL West: San Diego Padres.
AL Wild Card: Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays.
NL Wild Card: Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals.
World Series: Dodgers over Yankees.