MLB

Reasons for fans of all 30 MLB teams to give thanks: Postseason success, young stars and more

Zac Gallen’s breakout. I had Gallen as a breakout pick before the season and he delivered, throwing 72 innings with a 2.75 ERA and 82 strikeouts. He does it with control, a five-pitch arsenal, and fearlessness. The Diamondbacks nabbed Gallen from the Marlins in an easy-to-overlook deadline deal in 2019, and he now looks very much like an impact starter. Arizona had a really bad, really disappointing 2020 season. Their fans can at least be thankful they have a good, young top-of-the-rotation starter in the mix going forward. One of the best cores in baseball. And most core players are signed or under team control long-term too. Ronald Acuna Jr. is signed through 2026 with club options for 2027 and 2028. Ozzie Albies is signed through 2025 with club options for 2026 and 2027. Max Fried and Mike Soroka are under team control through 2024, Ian Anderson through 2026. Freddie Freeman will be a free agent next offseason, but it would be a surprise if the two sides do not work out a contract extension at some point. The Braves are the three-time defending NL East champs and they have the talent in place to reman atop the division a long time. Also, shoutout to winning a postseason series for the first time since 2001 this year. That is definitely something to be thankful for on this day. Finishing in fourth place. Look, it’s not easy to come up with things Orioles fans should be thankful for right now. They do have catching prospect Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, on the way, and several young players (Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, etc.) took steps forward in 2020. That’s something. The fact the O’s were not an abject embarrassment on the field this past season is also worth celebrating. They won at least 40 percent of their games for the first time since 2017 and they did not finish in fifth place for the first time since 2016. Baltimore is still a long way from contention. At least now you can see things are heading in the right direction.   2020 was only 60 games long. As far as baseball goes, I’m not sure any team had a worse 2020 than the Red Sox. They started the year by trading away Mookie Betts (and David Price) and finished it watching Betts win a World Series with the Dodgers. In between, Boston went 24-36, their worst winning percentage since 1965, and their pitching staff had the third-worst ERA (5.58) and the worst WAR (minus-0.2) in baseball. Sixty games was enough. Imagine sitting through 162 games of that team? This season couldn’t enough soon enough for the BoSox. Better days are ahead. Yu Darvish has figured it out. The first year and a half of Darvish’s time with the Cubs did not go well. He looked like a big-money free agent bust. But, since the 2019 All-Star break, Darvish has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, pitching to a 2.40 ERA with a ridiculous 211/21 K/BB in 157 2/3 innings. Darvish finished second in the Cy Young voting this year and is every bit the ace the Cubs expected. There’s a chance he will be traded as part of the club’s cost-cutting this offseason and that would be a bummer. When he’s on, Darvish is one of the most watchable pitchers in the sport. The most fun roster in the American League. The White Sox made the jump from rebuilder to contender this season — they qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2008 — and they’re poised for long-term success. Tim Anderson is a superstar, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert are outfield cornerstones, Yoan Moncada and Nick Madrigal are key contributors, Lucas Giolito is an ace, and Jose Abreu is an MVP. No team in the Junior Circuit plays with more verve or a more exciting brand of baseball than the ChiSox. They are very good and very fun, which is the best kind of team. Their first Cy Young winner ever. The Reds have been around basically since the dawn of time, yet it wasn’t until 2020 that the franchise had its first ever Cy Young winner. Granted, the Cy Young Award has only been around since 1956, but still. Cincinnati was the lone pre-expansion franchise without a Cy Young winner. Trevor Bauer took home the award thanks to a National League-best 1.73 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 73 innings during the 60-game season. Bauer is a free agent now and it seems unlikely the Reds will win a bidding war to re-sign him, though he did at least give them a historic season. The pitching factory. I don’t know how they do it, but Cleveland just keeps cranking out quality starting pitcher after quality starting pitcher. The latest is unanimous Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, an unheralded fourth-round pick in 2016. Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac were also good but not great prospects who have become rotation mainstays. And, of course, this is the organization that turned Corey Kluber (a middling prospect) into a two-time Cy Young winner and Mike Clevinger (a minor trade addition) into an impact starter. Cleveland is going to trade away Francisco Lindor at some point, probably soon, and that stinks. As long as the pitching factory is up and running though, this team will be in contention. Some sneaky-good pitching. It wasn’t a good year for the Rockies, who are reportedly trying to trade Nolan Arenado (again) and are planning to cut payroll this winter. That said, Colorado got some sneaky-great work from their rotation. Antonio Senzatela quietly finished third in the National League with 2.8 WAR, Kyle Freeland was ninth with 2.2 WAR, and German Marquez wasn’t far outside the top 10 with 1.7 WAR. Coors Field guarantees there will always be bumps in the road (see: Freeland’s 2019), but this is the best pitching core the Rockies have ever had. That’s a reason to be thankful. The right manager at the right time. Look, the sign-stealing stuff will be a black mark on A.J. Hinch for the rest of his career. That’s just the way it is, and baseball fans at large won’t ever forgive him. In the eyes of MLB, Hinch has served his punishment and is in good standing. And truth be told, he is the perfect manager for his Tigers team. He is well-versed in analytics, he relates well with young players, and he has experience leading a rebuilding team through the transition of becoming a contender. The sign-stealing stuff stinks. It really does. Hinch’s qualifications as a manager fit Detroit perfectly though. This is the type of manager you want at the helm at this point in a rebuild. The next wave of pitching. The 2020 season could have gone off the rails for the Astros, who lost Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery one start to the season and Jose Urquidy for an undisclosed reason in summer camp. Rather than crumble, the Astros were kept afloat by Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, who propped up the rotation and cemented themselves as key members of the pitching staff going forward. Verlander will miss 2021 while rehabbing and both Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. will be free agents after next season. Valdez and Javier are the next pitching core. The young pitching is arriving. Brady Singer (113 ERA+) and Kris Bubic (106 ERA+) were both above-average starters during their MLB debuts in 2020, and the next wave of prospect arms (Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar) should arrive in 2021. Add in veterans Danny Duffy and Jake Junis, and you have the makings of a respectable rotation moving forward, if not something better. The Royals have emphasized pitching during the rebuild and they’re beginning to see the fruits of their labor.  Mike Trout. Obvious, right? The Angels missed the postseason (again) and owner Arte Moreno hired another rookie general manager (again), so in that sense, it was business as usual in Anaheim in 2020. The Angels continue to employ Trout though, and that is always worth being thankful for this time of year. Trout is the game’s greatest player and he is still right smack in his prime at age 29. He’s signed to what amounts to a lifetime contract as well, so he’s not going anywhere either. Don’t ever take Trout for granted, Angels fans. He’s not a once-in-a-generation player. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player.  Finally getting over the hump. The World Series drought is over at 32 years. No longer will anyone questions this group’s resolve, Clayton Kershaw’s postseason gumption, or Dave Roberts’ managerial acumen. The Dodgers fell just short in 2017 and 2018 but finally broke through in 2020 and won the World Series. And, on top of that, they’re set up to be a dynasty as well as any champion in recent memory. The core is mostly young and either signed or under team control long-term. There is no reason to think the Dodgers won’t be among the game’s elite teams in the coming years. Breaking glass ceilings. Could go several different ways with the Marlins. They snapped their long postseason drought this year — it was their first postseason berth since 2003 — and top prospect Sixto Sanchez looked like a budding ace in his MLB debut. I’m going to go with the Kim Ng being named the new general manager. She is the first female general manager in baseball history and that should be celebrated. A man with her qualifications (21 years in front offices and 10 years in the commissioner’s office) would’ve been hired and fired a bunch of times already. It’s about time a team gave Ng a chance. Props to the Marlins. A team willing to break down barriers is always something to be thankful for.

The Airbender. Devin Williams took home Rookie of the Year honors thanks to his changeup, a pitch so good it has been nicknamed The Airbender because, well, click here to see why.  Yep, that’s an Airbender. Williams struck out struck out 53 batters in 27 innings this season thanks to that pitch. His 53.0 percent strikeout rate is the highest ever — ever! — among the 33,008 pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings in a single season in baseball history. Williams was outrageously good in 2020 and his signature changeup might be the best pitch in the sport.

Stealing Kenta Maeda. Brusdar Graterol is pretty darn good. He is not Maeda though. The Twins traded Graterol for Maeda back in February and Maeda gave them 66 2/3 innings with a 2.70 ERA and an insane 80/10 K/BB in 2020. That earned him a second-place finish in the Cy Young voting. Best of all? Maeda is signed very affordably another three seasons. Anytime you can trade a reliever — a good reliever, but just a reliever — for an impact starting pitcher on a favorable contract, you do it eight days a week and twice on Sundays. What a trade for Minnesota. A new owner, finally. Is any fan base more thankful this Thanksgiving than the Mets? I don’t think so. The Wilpons are out, Steve Cohen is in, and better days are ahead. The Mets now have an owner willing to invest in the organization and ready to run a payroll commensurate with the team’s market size. Cohen isn’t just expected to pump money into the roster either. He’s committed to improving the front office, specifically the scouting and analytics departments. Cohen is still in the honeymoon phase and soon his team will have to deliver, but, right now, Mets fans are on cloud nine. Gerrit Cole is a Yankee. Indeed he is. The Yankees gave Cole a pitcher record $324 million contract last offseason and he was worth every penny in 2020, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting and pitching to a 2.95 ERA in three postseason starts. That includes 5 1/3 innings of one-hit, one-run ball on short rest in the decisive ALDS Game 5. The Yankees didn’t win that game, but that’s not Cole’s fault. He was great. Cole is the first true ace the Yankees have had since CC Sabathia was in his prime from 2009-11. Fans should always be thankful when they have a guy like this atop the rotation. The Matts. There is no better corner-infield combination in baseball than Matt Olson and Matt Chapman in Oakland. The Athletics have Gold Glovers at first and third bases — Chapman might be the best defensive player in baseball regardless of position — and they can hit too. Granted, their combined .297 on-base percentage in 2020 was very underwhelming, but 2020 was a weird year and I’m willing to give every player a mulligan on this one. The Matts are cornerstone players and spectacular corner infield defense is one of the game’s underrated pleasures. Also, shout out to Sean Murphy for looking like a future All-Star behind the plate. The bullpen can’t be that bad again. It can’t, right? The Phillies bullpen had a 7.06 ERA in 2020, the second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball history behind the 1930 Phillies (8.01). Seeing how they missed the postseason by one stinkin’ game, it’s not hard to believe the Phillies would’ve make the postseason with a bullpen that was merely bad rather than horrific. Fixing a bullpen is not easy — throwing money at the problem doesn’t always work — but Philadelphia’s relief crew was so bad this year that even minor changes should bring significant improvement. Hard to believe the bullpen could be that bad again. Clinching the No. 1 pick. And they only had to sit through a 60-game season to get it too. The Pirates will pick No. 1 overall next year for the fifth time in their history. They selected Jeff King with the No. 1 pick in 1986, Kris Benson with the No. 1 pick in 1996, Bryan Bullington with the No. 1 pick in 2002, and Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 pick in 2011. The top prospects in the 2021 draft are Vanderbilt righties Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, though there’s a long way to go between now and draft day. For now, Pirates fans can be thankful they have been rewarded with the top selection for their team’s poor season.  Alex Reyes staying healthy. Once one of the top prospects in baseball, injuries have sabotaged Reyes the last few years, but he finally stayed healthy in 2020, and he had an impact for the Cardinals. Reyes, who is still only 26, struck out 27 batters in 19 2/3 innings after being recalled from the alternate site in mid-August, and he became a trusted late-inning reliever by the end of the season. Chances are Reyes won’t ever hold up as a starter. There’s no shame in being a reliever though, certainly not these days, and Reyes has a chance to be a very good one for St. Louis. The most fun roster in the National League. The rebuild is over and the Padres are now a force to be reckoned with in the National League. They’re led by Fernando Tatis Jr., maybe the most electric player in baseball, and he’s supported by Manny Machado, Trent Grisham, Dinelson Lamet, and many other great and exciting players. There’s more on the way too (MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, etc.). The Padres snapped their postseason drought in 2020 and had the third-best record in baseball. The Mike Clevinger Tommy John surgery news is a major bummer, but that is pretty much the only piece of bad news in San Diego right now. They’re good and they’re fun. Not sure what more a fan could want. Farhan Zaidi’s ability to spin straw into gold. Mike Yastrzemski finished eighth in the MVP voting. Donovan Solano hit .326. Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly turned in strong seasons. Zaidi, the Giants president of baseball operations, picked up all those players on the cheap and turned them into valuable contributors. San Francisco nearly made the postseason in 2020 because Zaidi is doing what he did during his time with the Dodgers, which is unearth gems in other organizations. It won’t be long before San Francisco returns to October. The Gold Glove infield. Evan White won the Gold Glove as a rookie and might be the best defensive first baseman since Keith Hernandez. J.P. Crawford won the Gold Glove at shortstop as well. Kyle Seager did not win a Gold Glove this year, but he has won one in the past, so I’m counting it. The Mariners have some things to figure out at second base, otherwise they’re set with stellar defenders and promising bats at the other infield positions. The makings of the next contending Mariners team are beginning to take shape. That is definitely something to be thankful for seeing how the Mariners have the longest postseason drought in baseball. Wonderful Wander. Rays fans have had a tough stretch since winning the AL pennant. Their team lost the World Series (due in part to a controversial managerial decision), and in the weeks since, have seen one quality starting pitcher depart in free agency (Charlie Morton), and another (Blake Snell) light up the rumor mill. Breakout star Randy Arozarena was then detained in Mexico over a domestic dispute. If Rays fans want to hold tight to one thing this Thanksgiving, it might be Wander Franco, who is the best prospect in baseball and a potential budding star. He could well reach the majors before 2021 ends. Joey Gallo’s majestic dingers. No player in baseball has a longer average home run distance over the last two seasons than Gallo (417 feet). Scouts grade players on the 20-80 scale where 20 is terrible, 50 is average, and 80 is elite. Gallo has true 80 power and few things in the sport are as breathtaking as Gallo squaring up a baseball. The Rangers just had a pretty terrible season and the pandemic meant fans couldn’t enjoy their new ballpark, so pickings are slim here. Can’t really go wrong with Gallo’s jaw-dropping power though. The second-generation stars. Maybe stars is overselling it at this point, but they’re all on their way to stardom. Cavan Biggio (Craig’s kid) managed a .375 on-base percentage in 2020. Bo Bichette (Dante’s kid) is one of the best young shortstops in the game. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slugged .462 as a 21-year-old. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., son of Cuban baseball legend Lourdes Sr., is very quietly emerging as one of the top young hitters in the game. The Blue Jays have an impressive young position player core and, in Hyun-Jin Ryu and top prospect Nate Pearson, they have some pitching to go along with it. The arrow is definitely pointing up in Toronto. Juan Soto. I feel like we don’t give Soto enough credit or attention for being as good as he’s been at such a young age. He just hit .341/.490/.695 in the abbreviated 2020 season and is a career .295/.415/.557 hitter in 313 games. I repeat: .295/.415/.557. Soto turned 22 in October, I should note. According to Baseball Reference, Soto’s most similar batters through age 21 include six Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson) and one future Hall of Famer (Mike Trout). The Nationals let Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon leave when they became free agents. They would be insane to let Soto be anything other than a lifetime National.



 

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