It was exactly one year ago today that the first -- and let’s all hope last -- Summer Camp in Major League Baseball history began. It wasn’t just pitchers and catchers reporting for duty, a la Spring Training. It was pitchers, catchers, position players and nasal swabs arriving for the shortest and strangest of seasons, with no guarantee that we’d even get to the finish line.
Let’s all be thankful, then, for the scientific shot in the arm that made it possible for this July 1 to serve not as our start point but our midpoint, just the way the baseball gods intended. The All-Star Game is back. The Home Run Derby is back. The Trade Deadline, which last year required teams to make evaluations just five weeks after Opening Day, returns to its traditional spot (albeit a day early, on July 30). We’ll even have a new wrinkle with the Draft taking place amid All-Star festivities in Denver.
So it’s going to be a busy month. And as was the case back in May, when I wrote quite possibly the most pathetic and snake-bitten predictions piece in the history of the internet, I have some erroneous ideas on how this is all going to play out.
(Apologies in advance to those who will be adversely affected by what follows.)
1) Shohei Ohtani will win the Home Run Derby.
It’s already bananas that Ohtani is serving as both a regular DH and a regular rotation member for the Angels and thriving at both (Wednesday's start against the Yankees notwithstanding). That he’s going to do the Derby on top of all that is some form of fruit even crazier than bananas.
Let’s go with boysenberries. It is boysenberries that Ohtani is doing the Derby, an event many stars abstain from out of fear of screwing up their swing.
Ohtani, true to form for a man who is in the midst of defying all baseball logic, shows no such fear. This is the season in which he has evolved from curiosity to transcendent celebrity. And after giving a small taste of his Coors Field capabilities in batting practice a few years back, he will win the Derby. The only question is whether he will somehow pitch to himself.
2) Trevor Story will NOT get traded.
I want badly to write “Trevor Story will get traded to the A’s,” but, given the aforementioned cracks in my crystal ball, I’m confident writing that would only jinx the possibility. Others could certainly get creative at shortstop, but Oakland is the only clear contender with a clear need at the position. Because Story will make nearly $6 million in the last two months of 2021 before reaching free agency, that complicates any potential deal -- especially with the low-budget A’s.
Teams don’t value rental position player help nearly as much as they do rental pitching help (the Orioles’ lackluster return for Manny Machado in 2018 is evidence of this), so unless they’re willing to eat some salary, the Rockies could struggle to get what they deem to be an appropriate package. Ultimately, they will have to weigh the value of the offers against the value of the Draft pick compensation they’d receive if/when Story signs elsewhere over the offseason. As crazy as it sounds, the latter might actually be the better path. If you were the Rockies’ next GM hire, would you rather have a top-35 pick in the Draft or some marginal prospects that you didn’t select?
For the good of Trade Deadline intrigue, I do hope I’m wrong on this one. And the good news is I probably will be.
3) No, Max Scherzer’s not getting dealt, either.
Mike Rizzo is too dogged, the National League East is too complicated and Kyle Schwarber hits too many homers for the Nats to pack it in.
Won’t stop us from speculating about the possibility, though!
4) The Yankees will trade for Starling Marte.
Oh, cool. Another right-handed bat.
Well, beggars can’t be choosers, and the Yankees find themselves begging for center field help in light of Aaron Hicks’ potentially season-ending wrist injury. It’s a position where quite a few contenders could use help, and good help will be hard to find. But unless an extension agreement is reached with the Marlins (the two sides have discussed it), Marte is an obvious trade candidate on a Marlins team that hasn’t proven ready to take the next step this season. As a pending free agent, Marte’s acquisition cost wouldn’t be overly punitive, and the Yankees can ill afford to miss an opportunity to improve their underperforming offense, even if this does absolutely nothing to solve their heavy right-handedness.
5) The A’s will trade for Nelson Cruz.
OK, so even if the Story thing doesn’t happen, the A’s could still stand to augment their offense in a meaningful way. Cruz is a natural fit for an Oakland team that has the second-lowest OPS from the DH spot (.671) of any AL team. Cruz, 40, will make around $4 million between the Trade Deadline and the end of the season, so the acquisition cost in terms of both dollars and prospect value is not as high as it would be for Story.
My sneaking suspicion is that Cruz winds up with one of the small-market stalwarts -- the A’s or Rays. He would be a big boost to either ballclub.
6) Kumar Rocker will get drafted ahead of Jack Leiter.
Honestly, the top end of this Draft doesn’t really lend itself to much in the realm of “bold” predictions, because there are a handful of players who would all be perfectly reasonable selections at No. 1 overall, including both of these prominent Vanderbilt pitchers. But every major mock draft to date -- in line with industry consensus -- has Leiter ahead of Rocker. (The latest mock from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis has Leiter to the Rangers at No. 2 and Rocker to the Royals at No. 7)
Leiter, though, has an unusual amount of leverage in signing bonus discussions. The biggest household name (because of his famous father and the extensive coverage of his college career), Leiter is a Draft-eligible sophomore who could potentially demand and command above-slot money even if he doesn’t go 1-1. And depending on how pre-Draft negotiations go, that leverage could land him lower than some fans expect -- just imagine if it somehow landed him at No. 10 overall, where his dad’s Mets would be waiting.
With the Pirates widely expected to go with a prep shortstop (Callis and Jonathan Mayo both have Marcelo Mayer at the top of their mocks), it will be interesting to see where the first college arm lands. Were finances not a factor, Leiter would be the top arm taken. But some evaluators view Rocker as potentially having the higher ceiling and, perhaps, the lower cost.
However it all shakes out, Leiter and Rocker are the most intriguing teammate tandem in the Draft since UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer both went in the top three a decade ago.
7) The White Sox will trade for Adam Frazier.
And replace one vertically challenged, contact-oriented second baseman with another.
Losing Nick Madrigal on the heels of having already lost Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert (among others in the lineup) to injuries was a huge blow to a White Sox team that, if healthy, would be a good bet to win the AL pennant. But while Jiménez and Robert are expected back before season’s end, the same can’t be said of Madrigal. All the injuries have caught up to Chicago in recent days, and this team cannot let its opportunity in the AL Central slip away.
Frazier is having a career year, comes with an additional season of arbitration control and has enough outfield experience to offer flexibility when Madrigal returns next year. Plus, his lefty bat gives the Sox some needed balance.
9) The Cubs will acquire Kyle Gibson.
Right now, evaluators are scrambling to make sense of the effects of the midseason enforcement of the foreign substance rules. Some pitchers who once thrived on high fastballs are suddenly no longer able to execute those pitches quite as convincingly, while sinker-slider guys with command are more valuable than ever.
That makes Gibson a really intriguing trade candidate. He was already having a hugely successful season (his 2.00 ERA and 220 ERA+ both lead the AL), but the environment -- and an affordable salary for 2022 -- adds to his allure.
Lots of teams will be interested in Gibson, but the Cubs are an especially intriguing fit. They are the big-market team most comfortably below the luxury-tax threshold. And though the front office did its darnedest to initiate a transition year with the offseason trade of Yu Darvish, the Cubs have played themselves into contention yet again. Barring a collapse in the next couple weeks, the Cubs need to do right by their clubhouse and get the rotation help needed to ease the pressure on a surprisingly good 'pen and allow the North Siders to advance. Gibson would accomplish just that.
10) The National League will win the All-Star Game.
Six wins since 1987. Three since 1996. None since 2012. The NL’s calamitous track record in the Midsummer Classic defies the law of averages and would be worthy of sophisticated scientific scrutiny if the results still mattered.
Spoiler: They don’t.
We could tie the AL’s awesomeness to the effects of Ichiro Suzuki’s reportedly raucous pregame pump-up speeches. But Ichiro hasn’t been an All-Star since 2010, so I, for one, am out of ideas. I’ll just keep picking the NL to win until they finally do. And I’ll also predict that Fernando Tatis Jr. will be the MVP, because, well, why wouldn’t he be?