Baseball Report 2020-2021 by Jon Daniels (firstname.lastname@example.org)
March 2020 seems so long ago but that is the last time I went to college baseball and spring training. The pandemic was on the brink of reality and baseball beckoned.
CHICAGO BASEBALL IN MARCH 2020
Before my annual pilgrimage to Sarasota, I decided to catch a college ball game featuring Northwestern at University of IL Chicago (UIC). I usually take a pass on these early frigid games. However, the weather was unseasonably warm (46 and sunny) and I needed a baseball fix. In 2015, the home of the UIC Flames, had an extensive renovation funded by a 5 million donation of Curtis Granderson, the only UIC graduate to play in the Majors. A shiny new facility coupled with a great view of the Chicago Skyline (below) gives one a unique setting in which to watch a collegiate baseball game. The Wildcats took advantage of the wind blowing out and slugged their way to an 8-2 victory.
2020 SPRING TRAINING IN SARASOTA FLORIDA
In early March 2020, I spent 7 days on Florida’s Gulf Coast going to 7 baseball games featuring 9 teams in 5 parks. The sunny weather was warm with temps in the mid 70’s. I stayed at my timeshare on Siesta Key in south Sarasota. I had an opportunity to see 2 games at CoolToday park (below), the Braves new spring training home in North Port (20 miles south of Sarasota). The stadium ranks high among FL spring training facilities based on its exceptional functionality and good sightlines in the lower and upper decks.
My most memorable player moment in Spring Training was seeing King Felix Hernandez in perhaps his Last Hurrah. Felix scattered 6 hits while giving up only 1 run over 5 innings. He opted out of the 2020 regular season and failed to make the Orioles out of 2021 spring training. At age 35 his baseball career just might be over. On the 6th day, I found out that further baseball games were cancelled. I was lucky to squeeze in 7 games. I was able to escape Florida on the next day but not without some anxiety.
2021 SEASON RECAP
I am not the baseball pundit that predicts outcomes for the upcoming season. Instead I like to reflect on the last season. Below are my observations of the 3 teams I saw play the most.
CUBS EARLY SEASON HOPES FADE QUICKLY
Before the season started the Cubs were going to be rebuilders, selling their year-end free agents (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, etc.). Then the worst happened; the Cubs played like contenders and were 42-39 tied for 1st in their division on June 24th. A month later they were out of contention and left holding free agents within a week of the trading deadline. The contenders turned out being pretenders. The Cubs cleaned house getting rid of most veterans at bargain prices. The massive player turnover translated into a MLB record-breaking use of 69 players for the year.
So what happened to cause this slump. On the pitching side, the veteran starters, Jake Arrieta (remember him?) and Zach Davies were ineffective by the end of June. New starter Adbert Alzolay was ineffective all season, finishing 5-13. Out of mercy he was taken of the rotation in September so that he could not lead the league in losses. The pitching pluses of starter Kyle Hendricks (14-7) and closer Craig Kimbrel (miniscule .49 ERA) were not enough.
On the hitting side of the ledger, the Cubs were not much better finishing 11th in the league in runs scored. Veterans Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and especially Jason Heyward had subpar seasons. Their best hitter was 29-year-old rookie Patrick Wisdom who had a Cub rookie record 28 HR’s.
Where does this leave the Cubs for 2021? Baseball America (BA) ranks their talent at 17 out of 30 clubs, a slight improvement over 2020 based on prospects picked up for their free agents. However, they are still unable to cultivate starting pitching from their farm system. Their #1 pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez did not even pitch in 2021 due to COVID and a strained shoulder.
To be positive, in September, the Cubs auditioned several starters (Justin Steele and Mike Rucker) with good results. The late season position placeholders (Rafael Ortega, Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom) might carry over to 2022, but beware of good September results. In October-November, Cubs starting pitching prospect Caleb Killian finished up a successful Arizona Fall League season with a perfect 6-inning championship game performance. Free agent Marcus Stroman will bolster the starting rotation. Also playing in the weak Central Division could make a difference.
THE WHITE SOX WIN WEAK CENTRAL DIVISION BUT LOSE TO ASTROS IN POSTSEASON
The White Sox continued their success with a 2nd consecutive winning season and 2nd trip to the playoffs. However, their 27-29 record against clubs with winning records plus a faltering pitching staff late in the year would be a portent to their post-season.
The White Sox got off to a rousing start (54-35 in the 1st half) behind excellent starting pitching (Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodon, Dyan Cease, and Lucas Giolito) and a strong bullpen headed by Liam Hendriks.. 4A player Yermin Mercedes came out of nowhere to start the season with 8 straight hits. Although his hitting success would only last 2 months, it came when needed.
In the 2nd half, the Sox still had a winning record of 39-34, but lost momentum. The biggest disappointments were starter Dallas Keuchel who did not even make the post season roster and mid-season acquisition reliever Craig Kimbrel who had a 5.09 ERA with the White Sox after having a dominating 1st half with the Cubs. The Sox bowed out in the 1st round to the AL Champion Astros.
One player that deserves special recognition is Leury Garcia, senior member (9 years) of the team. Leury was not a starter but always ready; playing.6 positions in 126 games. Good news! Leury was resigned for 3 years.
I have left mention of manager Tony LaRussa to last. At the age of 77 and not having managed in 10 years, Tony’s hiring as manager was questioned. However, his quiet effective leadership left the players wanting Tony to come back in 2022.
The future looks bright for the Sox. The starting staff is pretty well in place with Kopech replacing Rodon. The bullpen will be improved with the signing of Kendall Graveman. On the field, the White Sox glaring need is a 2ndbaseman. There is no budding 2B prospect to fill the gap making a trade very likely. The Central Division is weak raising hopes for a Division championship. 2021 Post Season experience should make a difference in 2022.
I once again make my annual appeal to support the White Sox. I can say I enjoyed most of the games I attendedon the South Side, win or lose, plus the chances of another playoff season in 2022 are excellent. The Sox deserve better fan support than the 1,596,000 attendees in 2021. Good seats are easy to get, especially on Sundays when parking is free. You can comfortably watch games and get some good grub. So if you are a BB fan, try to make it to the Southside for a game in 2022.
CARDINALS STREAK TO A POSTSEASON APPEARANCE
In recent years the Cardinals have not been considered NL Central Division favorites due to an offense shortage. The acquisition of Nolan Arenado in February 2021 made the Cardinals favorites in the Central Division.
Through July, the offense woes continued ranking 11th out of 15 NL clubs in runs scored. The bullpen was leading the league in walks and sporting a 4.34 ERA. The weak hitting and an inconsistent bullpen left the Redbirds sputtering with a 52-52 record on July 31st
The Cardinals were likely sellers but had very little to trade. They made two very bizarre pitching acquisitions in castoffs Jon Lester (ERA 5.02) and J.A. Happ (ERA 6.77). These moves defied explanation.
In August things turned around with a record of 15-11; followed by a surreal 23-9 in September. Veterans Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado lead the offensive comeback with support from youngsters Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader. 39-year-old starter Adam Wainwright finished finished strong with a 17-7 record. Those castoff acquisitions (Lester and Happ) were good enough to win important games. Setup reliever Giovanny Gallegos replaced faltering closer Alex Reyes and ended up with 14 saves.
The Redbirds snuck into the 2nd NL Wild Card spot on the wave of a 17-game winning streak. The bubble busted in port-season but not without a fight. The Dodgers beat the Cards 3-1 on a 2-out Walk-off HR.
A week later, the Cardinals surprised everyone by firing Manager Mike Shildt. The reason management offered was “philosophical differences”. When Shildt was announced as a NL Manager of the Year candidate, the firing seemed even more questionable. The Cardinals went internal; hiring bench coach Oliver Marmol.
The Outlook for 2022 season is as hazy as their managerial move. VP John Mozeliak has called the Cardinals offseason posture for moves as “patient but ready”. The positional part of the roster is considered set based on repeatable performances of the last 2 months in 2021. The pitching staff will be dependent on comebacks of injured pitchers (starter Jack Flaherty and reliever Jordan Hicks) plus free agent starter Steven Matz. The Cardinals are also relying on 39-year-old Adam Wainwright to continue fooling Father Time.
During 2021, I attended 73 Major League regular season games and one post-season game. The 73 games included 5 doubleheaders. I also reached my goal of seeing all 30 teams. My favorite moments and players from those games are as follows:
Cubs Games at Wrigley Field
4/2//21 against Pirates – The Cubs beat the Bucco’s 5-1 behind the strong pitching of Jake Arrieta. In early August Arrieta will be released with a record of 5-11.
4/17/21 against Braves – The Cubs trounce the Braves 13-4 as Kris Byrant hits 2 HR’s and has 4 RBI’s. The highlight of the game will be Braves pinch hitter Sean Kazmar making his 1st ML appearance since 2008.
5/4/21 against Dodgers – The Cubs get 4 1st inning runs off Clayton Kershaw and win 7-1. Kershaw will only pitch 1 inning, the shortest outing of his career.
5/28/21 against Reds – Cubs Adbert Alzolay edges Reds Vladmir Gutierrez in a 1-0 pitchers duel. The game will mark Gutierrez’s MLB Debut. The rookie Red will stay in the rotation and end up 9-6 for the season.
6/2/21 against Padres – The Cubs down the Padres 6-1. In the 5th inning, outfielder Tommy Pham and SS Ha-Seong Kim collide while tracking down a short fly ball. Both leave the game but not before Pham aggressively confronts Kim for not backing off the play. Pham needs stitches and Kim is put on concussion protocol.
6/11/21 against Cardinals – The Cubs comeback to beat the Cards 8-5. Anthony Rizzo caps a 14-pitch AB with a game-tying HR.
6/19/21 against Marlins – The Marlins swipe the Cubs 11-1 stealing 5 bases off catcher Jose Lobaton. Lobaton will be one of 7 players behind the plate for the Cubs in 2021. Fish outfielder Adam Duvall will hit 2 HR’s.
7/23/21 against D-Backs – The Cubs break out with 6 runs in the 1st 3 innings to win 8-3 on 2 HR’s by catcher Robinson Chirinos. Chirinos originally signed with the Cubs in 2001 & finally played on the team 20 years later.
7/26/21 against Reds – The Cubs edge the Reds on a WO single by pinch hitter Javier Baez. Baez will get fined for taunting Reds losing pitcher Amir Garrett.
8/11/21 against Brewers – The Brewers will annihilate the Cubs 10-0. Cy Young Award winner Corbin Barnes will strike out 15 including a ML record 10 consecutively.
8/12/21 against Brewers – The Brewers continue their destruction of the Cubs with a 17-4 beat down. Luis Urias and Jace Peterson both got 5 hits. Kyle Hendricks has a career worst outing giving up 9 runs in 4 innings. After a combined 20 years in the Majors, brothers Austin and Andrew Romine get to play in a ML game with each other. Andrew will pitch and Austin will catch in the 9th inning.
8/22/21 against Royals – The Royals beat the Royals 6-2. Royals catcher Sal Perez hits 2 HR’s. He will go on to establish the ML “record” for most HR’s in a season by a catcher with 48. 17 of the HR’s are when he is a DH.
8/22/21 against Rockies – The Cubs will score 5 runs in the last 2 innings to win 6-5. Rafael Ortega will get the decisive hit with a 2-Run WO HR.
9/25/21 against Cardinals – The Cardinals win their 15th straight game holding off the Cubs on an 8th inning chaotic double play. With runners on 1st and 3td and 1 out, Rafael Ortega grounds into a 3-2-5-4-2-8-5 double play with runners on 1st and 3rd out.
9/26/21 against Cardinals – The Cardinals score 2 runs in the 9th to win 4-2 for their 16th straight victory. The ninth inning is filled with excitement on a bizarre infield fly rule popup to Gold Glover 3rd Baseman Nolan Arenado. Arenado drops the fly and one of the runners is tagged out, running at his own risk. The umpires rule that they called time out before the runner was tagged.
White Sox Games at Guaranteed Rate Field
4/25/21 against Rangers – The White Sox score all their runs in the 1st 3 innings to defeat the Rangers 8-4. Reliever Michael Kopech makes an unscheduled start as an opener and strikes out 10 in 5 innings for the win
5/1/21 against Indians – The Sox score their runs on 4 hits including a GS HR by Tim Anderson to win 7-4
5/12/21 against Twins – The Sox break early to win 13-8. Veteran speedster Billy Hamilton has a career day with 4 hits, 3 runs, double, triple and stolen base.
5/25/21 against Cardinals – In a game full of ceremony and many celebrities, Joe West upstages the game by umpiring his 5,376th game to top Bill Klem’s ML record. High school teammates start against each other. Sox starter Lucas Giolito outpitches his high school teammate Jack Flaherty to secure a 8-3 victory.
6/27/21 against Mariners – The Mariners prevail in a 3-2 victory but the spotlight is on Seattle reliever Hector Santiago who becomes the 1st pitcher suspended for use of a foreign substance under new MLB rules. Later in the season Santiago will be suspended 80 games for use of steroids.
7/16/21 against Astros – In a preview of what the Sox can expect in post-season, Astros Lance McCullers dominates giving up 2 hits and striking out 10 in a 7-1 victory.
7/19/21 against Twins (1) – The Twins edge the Sox behind the strong pitching of Air Force Captain Griffin Jax. Officer Jax is the 1st graduate of the Air Force Academy to play in the Majors.
7/19/21 against Twins (2) – The Sox comeback to defeat the Twins on a WO HR of Gavin Sheets. Manager Tony LaRussa surprises everyone by giving Sheets a big hug.
8/1/21 against Indians – The Sox call up Jimmy Lambert to open a bullpen game. Jimmy and 4 other pitchers hold the Tribe to 4 hits and 1 run. Biran Goodwin hits a WO Hr for a 2-1 win.
8/27/21 against Cubs – in a wild see-saw slugfest, the Sox hammer the Cubs 17-13. White Sox starter Dallas Keuchel lasts 1 inning giving up 6 runs. The Sox come back with 8 runs in the 1st 3rd innings to take a lead they never relinquish. Yasmani Grandal bangs out 4 hits and drives in 8 runs.
10/2/21 against Tigers – The Sox storm back with 5 runs in the 7th and 8th innings to edge the Tigers 5-4. Unfortunately, Dallas Keuchel bombs in his audition as a reliever
Brewers games at American Family Field
I made 2 trips to Milwaukee including 3 games in September during the 17-Cardinals game-winning streak.
8/20/21 against Nationals – Mired in a slump most of the season, Christian Yelich has his best game of the year with 3 hits and 6 RBI’s as the Crew defeats the Nats 9-6. .
9/21/21 against Cardinals – In a 2-1 pitcher’s duel Cards Jake Woodford bests Brandon Woodruff. Reliever Giovanny Gallegos adds to the drama by loading the bases in the 9th before closing the door on the Crew.
9/23/21 against Cardinals – Starter Adam Wainwright gives up 4 runs in the 1st but the Cards roar back behind 2 HR’s by Paul Goldschmidt to win 8-5.
Hopefully your 2021 baseball season had as many exciting moments as mine.