- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

When teams take the field Thursday for opening day, a long winter of changes will give way to a new season — this time of the 162-game variety.

There will be some fans in the stands across the country, new faces on ballclubs and a new ball used by the league. There will also be the same old issues facing MLB, with pace of play concerns remaining for a sport with an aging fan base and enough downtime between balls hit into play to make just about anyone old.

That’s what hangs over opening day and beyond, with answers to several of baseball’s worries to be seen as the season plays out. Here are five major storylines to follow heading into the 2021 campaign.

Pace of play: For all of MLB’s efforts over the years to reduce the time a baseball game lasts, the changes have hardly led to improvement. The push began in earnest after the 2014 season concluded, with timers added to stadiums to measure breaks between innings and pitching changes. Mound visits have been limited to 30 seconds, with just five allowed per team in a nine-inning game.

In 2021, the league will continue with the seven-inning doubleheaders tested last season. Extra-inning games will once again start with a runner on second. And to cut down on pitching changes, the league instituted a three-batter minimum for relievers.

And yet, even with those changes, MLB still set a record in 2020: games took on average 3:07 to complete.

The issue that pace of play poses it impacts the long-term health of baseball, particularly when it comes to attracting the next generation of fans.

The 2020 championship series was the least-watched World Series on record — although streaming and a presidential election may have cut into viewership. According to a 2017 Sports Business Journal study, the average age of baseball fans is 57.

America’s Pastime is in danger of going out of fashion.

New ball: Chances are, when watching a baseball game in 2020, the viewer would witness one of three possible outcomes: a strikeout, a walk or a home run. In 36.1% of all plate appearances last season, that’s what happened, reducing the number of balls in play while placing a priority on swinging for the fences.

MLB is attempting to change that, introducing a new ball to the game this season. The Associated Press reported that the balls should travel one or two feet shorter on hits longer than 375 feet — a small change that the league hopes could induce a major change.

The goal: more balls in play; fewer moments waiting for a loud crack of the bat.

Perhaps the changes will lead to more pitchers pitching to contact, opting to put the ball in play rather than painting corners to strike out — or walk — batters. That remains to be seen. But if the new ball brings about more action and less waiting, that would be a success in MLB’s search to address viewership concerns.

Stacked NL East: Of all the divisions in baseball, the National League East might be the most competitive. That doesn’t mean all the best teams are there — the NL West, with the Dodgers and Padres, could take that crown — but top to bottom, the NL East will be a challenge.

Realistically, the Nationals, Braves, Mets and Phillies could all gun for the division title. Even the Marlins made the postseason in the expanded format last season.

Atlanta could be the favorite, with Ronald Acuna Jr. leading the way. Plus, the Braves made strong improvements to their starting rotation, adding Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.

Elsewhere, the Mets made significant offseason moves, including a trade for shortstop Francisco Lindor. The Nationals retooled their lineup, plugging in Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber to supplement Juan Soto and Trea Turner.

And the Phillies have Bryce Harper — although baseball isn’t a one-man game.

Who moved where: Plenty of star names were on the move this offseason, from Lindor’s trade to New York to the Rockies trading third baseman Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals.

But in free agency, the market sparked enough to lead reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to the Dodgers in a deal worth $102 million. He’ll make $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022, making him the highest-paid player in MLB history.

Beyond Bauer, the Blue Jays made a splash for outfielder George Springer, and the Padres bulked up their rotation for the long battle ahead with the Dodgers by trading for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish.

World Series contenders: ESPN ran 10,000 simulations for the upcoming season to predict where the Dodgers — considered the best team in baseball and coming off a World Series title — would finish the regular season. Only two of those simulations ended with Los Angeles holding a sub-.500 record, and several simulations predicted the team would break the all-time win record of 116 games.

Those are just simulations, but the point is this: the Dodgers are the overwhelming favorites to win a second consecutive World Series.

Other teams in the hunt include the Padres, Yankees, Braves and White Sox. But a lot can change in 162 games — from injuries to hot streaks — so there’s no telling what October could bring.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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