Sports | July 28, 2020 8:40 am

The Marlins, Shohei Ohtani and Nelson Cruz: Buying or Selling MLB's Top Opening-Weekend Storylines

Unfortunately for MLB, the Marlins' COVID-19 woes overshadowed a good weekend of baseball

The Miami Marlins, Shohei Ohtani and Nelson Cruz: Buying or Selling MLB's Top Opening Weekend Storylines
Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins hits a three-run home run. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Getty Images

With Major League Baseball’s first slate of games now in the rearview mirror, we’ve had our first look at what pro baseball in the midst of a pandemic looks like. As should probably have been expected, it is a little weird and, thanks to what happened with one team in particular, maybe even a little scary. Below, you’ll find the top storylines to emerge around the league following the opening weekend of the season, and whether we’re buying or selling ’em.

Sell: The Marlins’ outbreak will sink the season

As you are probably aware of by now, the Marlins’ clubhouse suffered a COVID-19 outbreak that led to two games scheduled for Monday night being postponed after more than a dozen Miami players and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.

While some assumed the outbreak and subsequent response were proof the 2020 MLB season is doomed, league owners did not discuss the prospect of canceling the campaign during their weekly call on Monday despite the outbreak. That’s good because, at this point, they shouldn’t.

As disturbing as some of the issues surrounding the outbreak are — Marlins players were allowed to take the field on Sunday despite finding out about multiple positive tests that morning and group-chatting about it — baseball had to be anticipating the potential for teams suffering multiple positive results, hence the expansion to a 60-man pool from which to pick players in 2020.

Despite that anticipation, MLB was clearly unprepared to deal with so many positive tests in such a short amount of time, something they will have to correct — quickly.

A nuclear option could be to simply remove a team like the Marlins from play:

A much more likely option would be to have Miami rely on players from its extended “taxi” pool, most of whom are not really MLB-ready and would put the Marlins at a severe competitive disadvantage. As unsavory as that might be, there isn’t much wiggle room in a 60-game season, and there are only so many postponements the year can withstand. Regardless, MLB needs to figure out a strategy, because no matter how careful players are, positive tests are coming.

In a weird way, perhaps the early outbreak could ultimately prove to be a positive (no pun intended), in that it will underscore to players how important it is to do everything they can to avoid the virus, from forgetting high-fives to quitting spitting to staying home after games. If they don’t, the season may be in danger. As of now, it’s not.

Buy: Shane Bieber will lead MLB in strikeouts

In Cleveland’s 2-0 victory over the Royals, Shane Bieber tossed six scoreless innings, giving up four hits and one walk while striking out 14 Kansas City batters.

With that stellar outing, the 25-year-old ace passed Bob Gibson and Lon Warneke for most strikeouts without allowing a run on Opening Day in MLB history, while also setting a club record for strikeouts on Opening Day for the Indians.

The Opening Day performance was a hell of an opening statement for Bieber, who began last season as a No. 5 starter but ended up striking out the third-most batters in MLB (259) last year behind only veteran studs Justin Verlander (300) and Gerrit Cole (326).

Bieber, who posted a 6.5 K/BB last year in his sophomore season, is now the top starter in Cleveland following the trade of Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and should keep leading by example by mowing down opposing batters.

That being the case, there’s reason to believe Bieber’s breakout last year was just the tip of the iceberg and that, especially in a condensed schedule that will see younger pitchers like himself throw as many innings as they can handle, he’ll leapfrog Verlander and Cole to lead MLB in strikeouts in 2020.

“When I say he makes the glass look half full, that would be the biggest understatement,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of the youngster. “He’s really something.”

Bieber’s next start is scheduled for July 29 at home against the White Sox.

Sell: Nelson Cruz will lead MLB in home runs

In Sunday’s 14-2 victory over the White Sox, Minnesota designated hitter Nelson Cruz had seven RBI with four runs scored while going 4-for-5.

Cruz, who also had two doubles, crushed a pair of home runs in the win, a solo shot in the fourth inning and a three-run blast in the eighth.

With three home runs on the season, 40-year-old Cruz leads the league in long balls … but he won’t for long.

Cruz, who finished his age-39 season with 41 homers and 108 RBI, has not hit fewer than 37 home runs since 2013 and has averaged 40.66 taters per year over his last six MLB campaigns. Unfortunately, due to the 60-game format, he’ll fall short of that average this season through no fault of his own.

Refusing to show any signs of aging to start the season, Cruz should challenge for the league lead in home runs in 2020, just as he has for more than half of the last decade. But,Cruz will likely get enough days off over the course of the season due to his age that a young slugger like Eugenio Suarez or Jorge Soler will end up surpassing him in the home-run race sooner rather than later.

Buy: 2020 Will be the year of parity

By losing to the Diamondbacks on Sunday, the Padres ensured all 30 MLB teams had at least one loss through the first four days of the baseball season.

According to ESPN’s Stats and Information department, 2020 is the first season since 1954 that did not see a single team start 3-0. When that happened in ’54, MLB had only 16 teams.

The odds of that happening? Not high.

As a result of the fairly equitable opening, not a single team in any of MLB’s six divisions is more than one game back of first place. While that doesn’t sound that important, it actually is, as each win or loss in a 60-game season is the equivalent of 2.7 results in a typical 162-game slate. Therefore, starting at 3-0 this season would have been the equivalent of starting 8-0 in a regular year and going 0-3 would have been the same as going 0-8.

Thanks to (possibly) pandemic-induced parity, that didn’t happen. At this point, it seems like every team in the league still has a fighting chance at the expanded 16-team postseason.

Sell: Shohei Ohtani is finished as a pitcher

More than 20 months after he threw his last pitch in the major leagues, two-way star Shohei Ohtani toed the rubber during a Sunday start for the Angels. Ohtani, the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year, didn’t last 20 minutes against the A’s.

In a horrid start, Ohtani walked three batters, gave up three singles and was chased from the game before he could record a single out, leaving with two on and a 4-0 deficit. 

The start was so bad it raised some concerns that the 26-year-old was not ready to return to the mound and should stick to hitting until further notice.

While the way Ohtani pitched would seemingly validate those concerns, it is way too early to give up on a guy who went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and racked up 63 strikeouts in 51 and 2/3 innings over 10 starts during his rookie season before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament.

A little rust after such a long layoff was to be expected and, even though Ohtani was rustier than a tin can in a monsoon, there’s no reason to panic. But if Ohtani throws like Dr. Fauci again in his next start, sound the alarm.

(Note: All statistics, standings and streaks are current as of the afternoon of 7/27/2020.)

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