Among the many — and perhaps least important — “unprecedenteds” that can be deployed in a facile attempt to explain the previous 12 months is an unprecedented lack of access at sporting events. I like to think we’re getting by — fans and reporters, both — through a healthy dose of innovation, perspective, and an unhealthy dose of time spent staring at various screens.
But for an in-depth look at each team ahead of the 2021 season, I wanted to talk to someone who’s allowed within six feet of the field. So for each team, division by division, you’ll hear from a top executive about expectations and evaluations. Are they biased? Absolutely, but you’re smart enough to see through that when it applies. And besides, we tried to provide an appropriate counterbalance.
All the quotes are based on exclusive interviews conducted by Yahoo Sports over the past six weeks and have been edited for length and clarity. The teams are ordered by the projected standings from the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus.
With James Click, general manager
What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Astros?
Click: “We are competing for a championship. Our goal this year is to win the World Series. And that is what we're going to be focused on from Day 1 until until the end of the season. I think it's difficult sometimes to have that attitude, because ultimately 29 teams are going to be disappointed with their seasons. But given the talent that we have on the roster, given the history of the franchise and everything that we've done on the field the past few years, I think anything less than winning the World Series and there will be some level of disappointment.”
What do the projections say?
Reports of the Houston core’s demise were premature, basically. PECOTA pegs the Astros for 92 wins — not dominant, but still the second-best projection in the AL. The lineup boasts four hitters expected to be at least 20 percent better than league average, including José Altuve and Alex Bregman.
You joined an organization that the commissioner himself said had a culture problem in the front office in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. Did you encounter that? How have you gone about addressing that? Do you think there's a culture problem in the Astros' front office?
Click: “No. As we discussed last year, when this organization went through the changes, we feel this was a failure of leadership. That's why Jim Crane did what he felt like needed to be done. I have been really impressed with the people here in this organization, and their creativity, their ingenuity, their love for the game of baseball, their willingness to think outside the box, their willingness to work hard. And in a lot of ways it's starting to remind me of some of the cultural stuff in Tampa that I would like to bring over here. There were some things that needed to be addressed and needed to be taken head on, and we'll continue to improve on those, but we do not have a culture problem.”
You sighed heavily.
Click: “Yeah, it's a really difficult question to answer. It's also tough because it's one of the things that I knew that I was going to be working on when I first got here — as opposed to everything else that I've had to deal with since I first got here, which we didn't know.
“And I think one of the ways to best address and answer that question is to get to know people as best you can, as quickly as you can and — again, that goes back to the difficulty of that in a COVID world. And so the reason I sighed is just because I'm realizing I still have so much work to do.”
What won’t the team tell you?
The Astros’ down year offensively in 2020 — the team squeaked into the postseason with a sub .500 record — was likely the result of bad luck and a small sample size, and not, I’m sorry to say, any sort of cosmic justice. An anticipated rebound has them back atop the projections, but they’re likely somewhere between being better than they looked in 2020 and worse than they were for a few years before that. That’s partly because George Springer is gone, off to provide veteran leadership and winning know-how to the Blue Jays, and largely because their rotation can’t catch a break (and no, that’s not karma, either). Justin Verlander was already slated to miss the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery when it was announced that Framber Valdéz could also be sidelined until 2022 with a finger fracture. That timeline is looking a little more optimistic lately, but throw in a Tommy John surgery for top prospect Forrest Whitley and the rotation is looking notably thin behind Zack Grienke. That’s especially concerning in a year when pitching depth is primed to factor heavily into any team’s success — or lack thereof.
What's your approach generally to the core you inherited? What is it going to look like for you to shepherd them through getting older, either reaching free agency or just getting older?
Click: “When I came in, looking at the roster and when certain guys would be free agents and things like that, my assumption — my estimation — was that we had at least a year if not two years where we should be a very competitive team. And so the hope was to not make a lot of massive changes to the roster in those two years, and spend those two years focusing on getting the rest of the organization where it needs to be.
“Now some injuries and things like that have forced it a little bit on that front and that's baseball. Things very rarely go the way that you expect them to go. But coming into another organization, you're always gonna have to get to know the core of players that are there. And so, like with the staff, I spent a good portion of last year just trying to get to know these guys, what makes them tick, what they prioritize, that kind of stuff. And ultimately I'm hoping that will help going forward.”
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
What would it take to consider 2021 successful for the Angels?
Newly hired general manager Perry Minasian is facing the same questions that Billy Eppler faced right up until he was pushed out: How do you do right by Mike Trout?
“Pressure, for me, is what you put on yourself. Obviously, from a baseball operations standpoint we want to put a good product on the field, we want to compete. We’d love to make the postseason. Mike will be the first one to tell you, it’s not just about him. It’s the team. He loves this organization, he chose to stay here for a long time — he did not have to do that,” Minasian said in an interview with MLB Network this spring. He did not return Yahoo Sports requests for comment.
“Anthony Rendon signed here for a significant period of time,” he continued. “He didn’t come here to lose.”
The crux of the season could again, he acknowledged, hinge on a pitching staff that has often failed them in years past.
“It’s going to all come down to pitching. We realize that,” Minasian said in that interview. “From a talent standpoint, it’s a good lineup. We should score runs. It’s going to come down to the mound producing, and I’ve said this a lot: Internal improvement is important. You cannot go out and sign, trade for 10, 12 pitchers.”
What do the projections say?
They might finally break through and return to the playoffs, but it won’t be easy. Despite Mike Trout’s usual MIKE TROUT projection, the Angels are on a path toward 87 wins and a very close AL wild-card race, per PECOTA. And even that depends on 24 or more starts from bastions of health and consistency such as Dylan Bundy and Alex Cobb. Of note: PECOTA is sour on Ohtani’s pitching ability, so if he lives up to the hype there, it could swing the equation.
What won’t the team tell you?
Maybe this is finally the year the Los Angeles Mike Trouts and Co. of Anaheim not only make it to the postseason but manage to win a game there. Or, maybe, being the other team that was reportedly interested in all the aces that eventually ended up elsewhere doesn’t do much to actually improve your club. The Angels did add some arms this offseason, but not the ones that would give them a good chance of seizing the opportunity to unseat a mitigated Astros team from atop the division before Trout is forced to abdicate his best-player-in-baseball automatic honorific. Without reinforcements, Angels fans will have no choice but to heap even more expectations on Shohei Ohtani, who is slated to be a regular part of the rotation despite a whopping 1 2/3 innings pitched over the past two years. I’m not sure it was possible to want Ohtani to succeed as a two-way player any more than the collective baseball media already does, but 2021 could prove to be a final referendum on the experiment that has periodically made the team appointment viewing. The Angels need Ohtani to be more than just one of the most interesting athletes on the planet; they need him to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.
With David Forst, general manager
What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the A’s?
Forst: “Well, I think it's a different answer for the A's than it is for baseball as a whole. I mean, it's obvious a successful season for baseball is we play 162 games, no one gets sick, and by the time the season's over the country has moved out of the virus and we put this behind us. Some of those things are similar for the A's — we stay healthy, we work as a group to adhere to protocols. But also, you cannot take the focus away from the performance on the field. We won the division last year, albeit in a truncated season, but I think our guys absolutely have an expectation to defend that title and to go even further in the playoffs. So I think what we'll measure success of the season on the field as far as how far we go in the playoffs.”
What do the projections say?
The forecasts do not like their chances of defending the AL West title or playing in October. A standout performance from a young starting pitcher like Jesús Luzardo could change the math, but for now PECOTA projects a fall back to the pack, and 83 wins.
What’s something other than results that would contribute to it feeling like a successful season?
Forst: “We have a real concern about our depth beyond the first 26 guys. We've graduated a number of our sort of top prospects to the big leagues — [Sean] Murphy, [AJ] Puk, [Jesús] Luzardo. These guys are now part of the major-league team and if we're going to sustain success, beyond just '21, there needs to be a next group of guys. And on paper, I don't know if we have any sort of flashy names. But I think there's a group of next-level guys who have a chance to be contributors at the major-league level, and getting some sense of where that group is at is going to be important for whatever we do beyond '21.”
What won’t the team tell you?
That, despite recent history, the team might not even get a chance to lose in the first round of the postseason this year. Being able to do more with less earned the A’s a nice run of contention despite the Astros’ divisional dominance, but they might be stretching the limits of the team’s innovation, gumption, and collection of chronically underrated men named Matt or Mark after losing Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks to free agency this past offseason. Even without their former star closer, the bullpen remains a strength — especially since they were able to find an almost suitable replacement in Trevor Rosenthal. With apologies to Rangers fans, an aging Elvis Andrus is no Marcus Semien, however, and even incremental degradations could cost a team with such a thin margin for error one of their magically achieved and ultimately ill-fated postseason appearances.
Are we ever going to see a career Oakland A’s star?
Forst: “Once we see a building, we are. It's an answer, unfortunately, I've been giving for 20 years. When you put a shovel in the ground. The whole reason to build a stadium is so that guys like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson can be A's for their whole career.”
With Jerry Dipoto, general manager
What would it take in terms of results for you to consider 2021 successful for the Mariners?
Dipoto: “So it's funny you use the word results, because we have spent roughly, going on six years now trying to urge our players and staff not to focus on the result. We view ourselves as process-oriented, and we've been driving that with our players and coaches, even through the 2016 to 2018 stretch where we were largely a veteran team that was built to contend now, and we fell short, but we still drove home the idea of focusing on the process rather than the result.
“This is now entering Year 3 of what I think has been an enjoyable rebuild for us, and we feel like we're getting ready to turn a corner and the real answer to your question is improvement. If we improve in any tangible way — in baseball we measure just about everything, so we have given our players a number of things to focus on individually. And then collectively, we're going to look just to get 1 percent better in every area with the idea that if we just get 1 percent better at our ability to get on base, 1 percent better at our ability to hold other teams down, to not allow runs, the way we run the bases. Name the category and we've given a set of data that will effectively measure our success in that zone, so it's not just, you know, subjective. And then the idea is to drive home the idea of getting 1 percent better each month over the course of the season, and the compounding effect of that, it'll lead to something much greater than we would expect that is what we're advertising.”
What do the projections say?
PECOTA has the Mariners down for 71 wins and a fourth-place finish. Or, in other words, one year away.
After years of unsuccessfully trying to contend every season, it feels like you took a really concerted step back in 2019, and tried to rebuild quickly with the hope of competing as early as 2020 or 2021. It didn't quite pan out that way. So what do you think is a reasonable expectation now, and do you think you're on track to build a more sustainable contender?
Dipoto: “After the 2018 season, you know, we won 89 games, which was the best season that we had had as an organization since 2003. We had, three of the previous four years, come painfully short of getting to the postseason. And when you've not been to the postseason for 20 years, it's very easy to go chase it one more time, especially with a group like we had where we did have a veteran group — we were the oldest team in the American League in 2018. And we had visible stars — you know, Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz and Félix Hernández.
“We opted at that time to take that step back and and rebuild because if we would have waited one more year, we would have had two things: One, we would have been a year older, a year more expensive, a year less control on the tradable players, which makes them considerably less valuable to the acquiring team. And we thought we would rather be a year early than a year late. We knew that this was eventually necessary, so we did it post-2018 with the idea that by 2021, you know, we would be back — we thought we’d see a young, upside, fun, athletic team by the second half of 2020, and then in 2021 we would be geared up to re-enter the system as a legitimate contender. And then the pandemic got in the way a little bit. So by virtue of slowed down player development and everything else that was associated with it, it probably set us back by about half a season, but we think we’re still roughly on the same timeline we set up initially.”
What won’t the team tell you?
Well, that depends on whether you’re a member of the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club or have access to their Zoom archive. Now-former team president Kevin Mather said an awful lot in a virtual appearance last month — insulting the English of foreign-born players and announcing plans to keep top prospects in the minors long enough to manipulate their service time and gain an extra year of team control. Verbalizing this well-known source of labor strife cost Mather his job — and yet Jarred Kelenic, the exciting young outfielder who would have been on the opening day roster if he had signed a team-friendly extension, is still going to start the season in the minors. A spring training injury buys the Mariners some cover in Kelenic’s case, but the team has some work to do convincing fans that they’re putting the best possible product on the field.
How much do you think about your reputation for wheeling and dealing every offseason, is that on your mind that you've got to live up to the reputation?
Dipoto: “No, not at all actually. The first three years I was here, we had to do something because we were the oldest team in the league, we were floating about $160 million or thereabouts, $165 million payroll. Our effort was to get back to the postseason, and we didn’t have much depth. The only way you’re going to acquire depth in that position — it only comes through two avenues, free agency and trades. You don't have the luxury of waiting for a drafted player to matriculate through the system and get there because by that time, the Canós and the Cruzes and the Félixes, they've moved on. So we had to find a way to balance the two. And when I say depth, I don't just mean the backup utility infielder or the left fielder who supports the everyday lineup. We needed those, too, but we didn't have guys that could play at Triple-A that could come up and reasonably get us through the injuries or the bumps and bruises that inevitably occur during the season. So a lot of the trades wound up being peripheral or on-the-margins moves to build up depth in the back of our major-league team, so that when those things happened we could function.
“And along the way, it was a goal of ours to target players — kind of like we have this offseason — who could be a part of the now, but we could grow forward with. And that's roughly where we came up with Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales and, you know, they were players we acquired while we were still very much in a highly competitive window. But we felt like at 25 and 26 years old when we acquired them, respectively, we felt like they were young players we could continue to grow forward with.
“But we didn't have the type of prospect cache to be able to go out and get a lot of Hanigers and Marcos. We had to build it on the margins and that's where you know all the trades come from, but you'll see even in the last year or two, that has slowed down to a more — I will still say we're aggressive, which is just my nature — but we're less likely to stand out for doing seven trades in a week.”
So you’re saying we have to find a new Twitter joke other than the Mariners make a thousand trades?
Dipoto: “I have a feeling it will go on in perpetuity, and it's probably deserved.”
With Chris Young, general manager
What would it take in terms of results for you to consider 2021 successful for the Rangers?
Young: “I can't say in terms of results, in terms of a win/loss record, what a successful season looks like for us. I will tell you this, I'm not placing any limits on what we can do. I will tell you in terms of the main result of what we are trying to achieve, and what we're going to achieve, is setting a championship culture and expectation here. And it may mean we win 90 games, it may mean we win 70 games. But I do believe that if our players, day in, day out, play with the type of mentality, the discipline, the sacrifice that we're requiring, it’s going to set the standard moving forward.”
What do the projections say?
Any local fans who took in the World Series when it was played at the Rangers’ new ballpark in October should count themselves lucky. PECOTA has Texas down for a lowly 68 wins.
What’s something other than results that would contribute to feeling like it was a successful season?
Young: “The Rangers have always been known to develop pretty good position players. … The pitching side is one where the Rangers have struggled for years and, for me, it's a big goal of mine that we are developing our own pitchers internally that we have a pipeline of pitchers on the way continuously to the big leagues. And I think that will help us sustain success.”
What won’t the team tell you?
The Rangers were really bad last year and completely listless. After snagging Chris Young from the commissioner’s office to run his hometown team, they’re really bad — but now with optimism and maybe even some direction! The team won’t put a timeline on the plan to compete for its first championship, which is probably the most honest answer, considering they’re still in the stage of figuring out what they even have. It’s not a great sign for their immediate performance that their most interesting player is still in the process of deciding what position he plays, but it’s a better reason to watch than a new ballpark.
You signed a couple of pitchers (Kohei Arihara and Hyeon-jong Yang) from the Asian leagues that had more normal seasons. Was the sheer number of innings that those guys threw in 2020 one of the attractive factors?
Young: “Completely. Completely, it factored into both decisions. First of all, they're good pitchers, they've had success in both Japan and Korea. That's the first criteria that was met. And we're excited about both. But I think that their workloads last year put both of them probably in the top 100 in terms of innings pitched in the world last year. And I think Yang is probably in the top 10 in the world in terms of innings pitch last year. It was as normal of a workload as he could have had. And I think that gives us comfort in knowing that he should be able to thrive in innings for us, and there's some depth there that will help protect some of our young guys.”
Tell me about the decision to hand the starting shortstop job to Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who made such a huge change defensively going from catcher to infielder. What led to the confidence to put him at short after having a franchise icon there for so long?
Young: “I have to preface this by saying that a lot of the groundwork for that was done before I came on board. So the decision had been made internally, and it's one which I agree with completely. Kiner is a winning player. Going from catcher to the infield, playing third base in the big leagues, he won a Gold Glove last year at third base — that shows you what type of competitor this guy is. He is just the ultimate team guy, not afraid of any challenge and believes in himself and believes in his teammates and makes the players around him better. And those are leadership qualities that we highly respect, it's what we want the Texas Rangers to represent. And you know, it just felt natural for him to shift from third to second to shortstop. Elvis [Andrus] certainly has done wonderful things for the Rangers organization and will forever be a legend for the Texas Rangers. But the skill set had declined a little bit and we felt like it was time to try to commit to Kiner and find out what he can do at shortstop and give him an opportunity to establish himself as potentially our solution there for years to come.
“Players look up to him. Players respect him. They know who he is and what he represents. He has the respect of everybody in the clubhouse.”
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