Let’s start there. Because you know where we are heading. For these purposes we will call it anti-joy. Masks and temperature checks and stay in your hotel and, my gosh, did you hear about the COVID-19 breakout on the (fill in your team)? Pitchers and catchers have been joined uncomfortably this time of year by health and safety.
It is all coming. In real life and on this list.
So let’s start with joy.
Let’s start with Francisco Lindor. Because why not begin with someone whose nickname is Mr. Smile?
You don’t have to ask Lindor if he loves baseball. Just watch him play. In fact, this year, watch him play on a far grander stage. Think of Cleveland as Off-Broadway, the place where he learned and was beloved and helped lift a team without a title since 1948 to at least an AL championship in 2016. But it was a place in which his star had limitations.
There is no such lid in New York. If he can handle what he has dreamed of having — you know, beware of what you wish for, at least sometimes — Lindor can be the face of the Mets. Heck, he can be a face of baseball. It is not since 1948, like the Indians. But the Mets have no title since 1986.
The Mets have a new owner in Steve Cohen. So they have a new avenue — one lined with billions of dollars — to pursue the Yankees in New York and to pursue the rest of the sport, writ large. Lindor is the first stake in the ground of this administration screaming it is a new day. And, at a time when we need it in baseball and life, Lindor is joy.
For that, Lindor leads our annual, pre-spring training list of the 50 Most Interesting People in Baseball:
2. Rob Manfred
Now to that less joyful stuff. No commissioner ever has had more on his plate. Because no commissioner ever has had to face all the usual issues while also trying to steer a second season through a pandemic. This time it will not be a quick spring training 2.0 and a 60-game sprint. Manfred will have to cope with the fatigue of personnel, some of whom will betray strict rules that legislate most of the off-the-field fun out of their lives for the next nine months.
There is a new collective bargaining agreement that has to be negotiated at a time when the relationship with the union is more Hatfields and McCoys than anything resembling Tinker to Evers to Chance. There is cord-cutting, worries about continuing love from regional sports networks and ESPN, need for a better record in minority hiring, need for better culture to avoid sexual harassment and need to address on-field issues, namely those surrounding the lack of action.
Yet, perhaps the most important item to fixing much of this is perception: Players don’t trust the commissioner. The commissioner has expressed frustration in trying to build a bridge to the players. He must keep trying. Nothing of lasting positive substance happens for the game without a trust between the sides that does not currently exist.
3. Tony Clark
The head of the players’ union has many of the same issues on his table. Both he and his lead negotiator, Bruce Meyer, are advocates for players. But they, too, are stewards of the game. They, too, must find a way to build trust and a partnership with the league. They, too, must come forward with concrete ideas on how to grow the appeal of the game and create areas of connection to ownership in which both sides win. The Players Association can continue to say, “no” as its template to gain leverage and frustrate ownership. But these will be pyrrhic victories if myopic goals throttle long-term vision and partnership — and long-term revenue that can flow to players. It is not a healthy industry when everyone in it is guaranteeing a work stoppage after the season.
4. Kim Ng
The first female general manager in the four major leagues begins her tenure at a time when her sport is trying to figure a way to a future of inclusion while dealing with a history of harassment. Ng has plenty on her plate trying to make the Marlins both contenders and popular in Miami. She endeavors that task as a role model of what is possible.
5. Trevor Story
And Lindor. And Javier Baez. And Carlos Correa. And Corey Seager. This is another reason why Lindor is No. 1 on this list, because he is part of one of the biggest overhanging stories of this season — five of the best shortstops in the world are entering their walk seasons. Some may sign (bet on Lindor with the Mets). Some may be traded (think Story from the Rockies). But this is a race within the race, which shortstop is going to position himself best for the biggest payday?
6. Alex Cora/A.J. Hinch
They are back managing after a year’s suspension for their involvement with illegal sign stealing. Cora returns to Boston, Hinch moves on to Detroit. What do they do with this next act?
7. Trevor Bauer
He turned winning an NL Cy Young based on 11 starts in a shortened season against exclusively weak AL/NL Central competition into $40 million this year, $45 million in 2022 if he doesn’t opt out and $102 million overall if he stays for three seasons with the Dodgers. There is no more polarizing player in the game. Thus, you can find those who think the defending champions just got much better with a starting arm coming into its own. And you also can find those who believe the Dodgers have taken unnecessary risks with their culture by bringing in a player who in his own words has admitted he is good at annoying people.
8. Tony La Russa
He is a Hall of Fame manager with the third-most wins ever, but he hasn’t managed since 2011, and shortly after his hiring by the White Sox in October it was revealed he had a misdemeanor drunk-driving charge looming. It was his second public incident of driving while impaired. He pleaded the case down to a lesser charge and vowed to redouble his efforts off the field. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has long stated that firing La Russa in 1986 is his greatest regret. But will he regret trying to rectify it more? The White Sox have a talented roster. Is this version of La Russa the person to maximize it?
9. Nolan Arenado
He wanted out of Colorado and got that with a trade to the Cardinals. He still has the right to opt out after this season (and also after the 2022 campaign). Will he find happiness and regular contention in St. Louis?
10. Steve Cohen
At about this time last year, he was saying he was out of the bidding for the Mets. Since then you might have heard he got back in, beating out a consortium fronted by Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez. He was cheered as a hero for bringing all his money and bouncing out the Wilpons. He took to Twitter trying to be an average Joe with $13 billion-plus that helped, among other things, import Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann and Trevor May. But his first pick as GM, Jared Porter, was bounced in a month due to revelations of lewd, harassing text messages to a female reporter in a previous job. And Cohen deactivated his Twitter after what he said were relentless and at times threatening tweets directed at him and his family following the GameStop surge. Cohen is learning that owning a sports team brings a lot more attention than just accumulating billions of dollars.
11. Juan Soto
The best hitter in the majors was born four days after the Yankees completed their World Series sweep of the Padres in 1998. It is one thing to lead the majors in on-base and slugging percentage at 21, as Soto did last year. But he led in on-base percentage by 28 points and slugging percentage by 55 points. Corey Seager, who finished 13th in the majors in slugging, was as close to second-place Freddie Freeman (.640) as Freeman was to Soto. What would happen if we took the DNA of Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera and made a hitter? You get to watch it in 2021 — when Soto is just 22.
12. Theo Epstein
His hiatus from running a club’s baseball operations includes working for a private equity firm that specializes in buying stakes in sports teams and working for MLB as a consultant for on-field matters. He will have an interesting influence in the short term while adding a few intriguing elements to an already Hall of Fame résumé as a baseball executive.
13. Jose Altuve/Alex Bregman
Astros personnel have yet to feel the road-fan animus from the team’s sign-stealing scandal — which was the biggest story in the game in 2020 BC (Before COVID). What does this look and sound like, even with limited fans?
14. Randy Arozarena
From Aug. 30-Oct. 27 last season, Arozarena hit 17 homers, including 10 in 20 playoff games. He is still technically a rookie. Anyone else curious to see who he is over a full season?
15. Eric Cressey
The Yankees have not stayed healthy enough in the past few years, including Cressey’s first in charge of their strength-and-training program last year. If it ended there, he would be under the microscope to see if he can make a difference in the Yankees’ injury numbers. But a championship-or-bust franchise in desperation for a No. 2 starter invested $11 million in Corey Kluber, though he pitched one inning last season and 36 ²/₃ the past two seasons. And they did so because the trainer he works out with in the offseason vouched for Kluber being an excellent gamble. That is Cressey.
16. Chris Sale/Luis Severino/Noah Syndergaard
This trio underwent Tommy John surgery within a month of each other last February/March. When they return, and at what level, could determine playoff spots and pitching needs for the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets.
17. Alex Rodriguez
He missed out on the Mets, kept his ESPN announcing job and goes on the next Hall of Fame ballot. A-Rod has a way of staying in the news.
18. Curt Schilling
He just missed being voted into the Hall of Fame in results announced last month and asked to be taken off the ballot (which is unlikely) before his 10th and final year of eligibility. Will he lay low in 2021 or will he publicly ratchet up his polarizing personal beliefs and his fight with voters — 7 out of 10 of whom thought he was a Hall of Famer?
19. Shohei Ohtani
We have gathered again to see if one man can effectively do two major league jobs — pitch and hit. It did not go well last year. In a return from Tommy John surgery, Ohtani lasted 1 ²/₃ innings in two starts and walked eight. As a hitter, he batted .190. The Angels still have only made the playoffs once in Mike Trout’s career. A key to making the postseason in 2021 is Ohtani being an effective pitcher, hitter or both.
20. Fernando Tatis Jr.
Would there be much surprise if when this season finished, the Padres shortstop was widely viewed as the majors’ best player?
21. Miguel Cabrera
These milestones used to resonate more, but Cabrera is 13 homers from 500 and 134 hits from 3,000.
22. Albert Pujols
The 10-year contract that has mostly been a detriment to the Angels the past few years ends after the 2021 season. He needs 83 hits to pass five players and move into the all-time top 10. He currently is at 3,236. Will he get to that mark? Will he get to the finish line this year with the Angels.
23. Willie Mays
Mays is one of the five players who Pujols could pass. This season marks the 70th anniversary since Mays broke into the majors and, at 89 (he’ll turn 90 on May 6), he is the oldest living Hall of Famer.
24. A.J. Preller
We can nominate him now as the most likely to make a big trade deadline deal. The aggressive Padres general manager threw a brick on the gas pedal this offseason — among other things — by acquiring Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove for the rotation in midst of taking San Diego to a franchise-record payroll in attempts to catch the Dodgers in both the NL West and atop the sport.
25. Carlos Beltran
Cora and Hinch regained employment after their suspensions and firings in the aftermath of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Beltran has stayed publicly quiet since never even reaching the starting line as Mets manager. Will a team reach out to tap his expertise?
26. George Springer
The highest-paid player ($150 million) in this year’s market. Can he help the Blue Jays take the leap from interesting to legitimate AL East threats?
27. Jacob deGrom
The Mets were willing to pay Bauer more on average per year than deGrom. Without Bauer, though, the Mets are even more beholden to deGrom remaining arguably the majors’ best pitcher. Over the past three seasons, the righty has allowed 127 fewer hits (353) than innings pitched (480) while striking out one in every three batters he has faced.
28. Brodie Van Wagenen
DeGrom’s old agent and then old Mets boss is back in the agent game, this time for Jay Z’s Roc Nation.
29. Gerrit Cole
Is there a more important player to a contender than Cole to the Yankees? The members of the rotation behind him — Kluber, Severino, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery and Deivi Garcia — are unproven or recently broken. Remove Cole, and the Yankees’ Jenga tower verges on collapse.
30. Wander Franco
The consensus best prospect in the majors. The shortstop hasn’t played at Double-A yet, but nearly was promoted to the Rays last year as they pursued their AL title. Is it possible that the always pitching-centric Rays could become more offense-minded behind Arozarena and Franco?
31. Mookie Betts
He is the baseball version of a triple-double, able to do everything on a field well to impact winning.
32. Masahiro Tanaka/Tomoyuki Sugano
Neither felt he received MLB offers commensurate with his skills this offseason. So Tanaka returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles on a two-year contract, but said he had unfinished MLB business, while Sugano signed a four-year pact back with the Yomiuri Giants, but with outs after each year. So keep an eye on them because they could try again next offseason. Takahiro Norimoto, Tanaka’s teammate with the Golden Eagles, and Kodai Senga of the SoftBank Hawks also are pitchers who major league teams are watching as possibilities for next season.
33. Kris Bryant
In 2016, Bryant was the NL MVP and as much a face of the Cubs’ first title in 108 years as any player. Now, he is coming off of a season in which he hit .206, and there has been limited enthusiasm in the trade market for him. Is he dealt in his walk year, and what kind of platform season will he take into free agency?
34. Jarred Kelenic
Robinson Cano is suspended this season after failing a test for an illegal performance enhancer for the second time in his career. Perhaps Edwin Diaz can still justify what could shape up as one of the worst trades in Mets history. That determination revolves greatly around what Kelenic becomes, and one of the game’s top prospects probably breaks through into the majors this season for the Mariners.
35. Jasson Dominguez
The Yankees invested $5.1 million in July 2019 on the most-heralded player in that international class. This year the outfielder should get his first chance at pro ball and we will get to see if the money (and hype) have been worth it.
36. Christian Yelich
In 2018-19, Yelich played like perhaps the best player in the majors. The Brewers stepped up with a nine-year, $215 million contract, and in 2020 Yelich fell to a .205 batting average and far less impact. The NL Central is mediocre and winnable for perhaps four teams. But it won’t be Milwaukee, in all likelihood, if Yelich is not special again.
37. Aaron Judge/Giancarlo Stanton
They have diminished their weight lifting to see if they can be more pliable and less injury prone. Over the past two years, Judge has appeared in 130 games — tied for 253rd in the majors. Stanton has appeared in 41 — tied for 575th.
38. Mike Trout
He will turn 30 on Aug. 7. Will his Angels be in contention on that date?
39. Aaron Boone
The last time a Yankees manager was allowed to get to a fifth year without winning a World Series in his first four seasons was Ralph Houk’s second tenure (1967-73). But in Houk’s initial tenure, the Yankees won the World Series in his first two years (and lost it in his third). Before that you have to go Miller Huggins, who lost the World Series in Years 4 and 5 and won it in Year 6. This is Boone’s fourth season. His contract expires after this year.
40. Kyle Schwarber
The expected long marriage with the Cubs did not happen. He is now a National, and trying to prove that the high-impact hitter he is projected as is still present.
41. Gary Sanchez
He is the catching Schwarber — a good hitter who became addicted to launching and had his average fall and his strikeout totals rise while continuing to leave questions about defensive capability. The Yankees ignored J.T. Realmuto and doubled-down on Sanchez. Was that wise?
42. J.T. Realmuto
He never has made the playoffs. The Phillies have gone the longest in the NL (nine years and counting) without reaching the postseason. Philadelphia gave him the highest per annum contract for a catcher in history to stay with Bryce Harper, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler to see if Joe Girardi can navigate a team that had one of the worst bullpens ever in 2020 to better days.
43. Luis Castillo
If you are thinking about a starting pitcher who can most make teams salivate at the July trade deadline, it would be the Reds ace. Will Cincinnati be out of it? Would they try to cash in on Castillo now?
44. Jose Ramirez
If you are thinking about position players who can most make teams salivate at the July trade deadline, think Cleveland’s third baseman. He is under team control through 2023, but the team already has traded Lindor. Ramirez has finished top three in the AL MVP in three of the past four years.
45. Josh Hader
If you are thinking about the reliever who can most make teams salivate at the July trade deadline, then there is the Brewers fireballer. Hader’s name is persistently in trade rumors. One day, Milwaukee will act.
46. Max Scherzer
The seventh and final season of one of the best free-agent deals ever — two Cy Young awards, a second-place finish, a third and a fifth. How much does the Nationals star still have at 36? He also is among the most influential players in labor matters.
47. Freddie Freeman
The 2020 NL MVP is entering his walk year. This feels like the kind of player so important to the franchise that the Braves will not let him walk. Will the sides get something done even before this season begins?
48. Dusty Baker
One of the wise men of the game turns 72 in June. He is in the final season of a two-year contract. He needs just 14 wins to jump from 15th all-time among managers to 12th — passing Bill McKechnie, Gene Mauch and Casey Stengel. Like Mauch, he has never won a World Series. Will this be his last chance?
49. Madison Bumgarner
Was the 6.48 ERA last season the beginning of a slide for the lefty, or a blip in a shortened season? The Diamondbacks still have four more years invested in Bumgarner.
50. Trey Mancini
He was diagnosed with colon cancer and missed all of last season. He completed his chemotherapy in September and is a full-go for spring training. Let’s hope this is one of the feel-good stories of the year with the Orioles slugger.