The 2021 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is officially here —with more normalcy, to boot.
Following last year’s COVID-19 pandemic-delayed and shortened season that saw the World Series played at its first-ever neutral site in Arlington, Texas, America’s pastime has returned back to its traditional 162-game schedule on time, April 1 — with live fans allowed back in stadiums.
Sure, quirks remain.
For instance, the Toronto Blue Jays are starting off the season playing “home” games in Dunedin —amid Canadian-U.S. border restrictions.
For the most part, though, the peanuts and Cracker Jacks will be a flowing much like they were in simpler times.
As the big league season gets into full swing, there are several ballplayers, and a manager, that have their roots in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area — and are expected to make major contributions to the show.
Here’s a rundown on some of those, with local connections.
Austin Adams, San Diego Padres, pitcher
Local tie: Zephyrhills High School
Austin Adams is seeking a more pronounced role in 2021 on a contending San Diego Padres squad after garnering limited action last year — where he posted a 4.50 ERA, 12.5 WHIP and seven strikeouts in four innings pitched following offseason knee surgery.
Some experts project the 29-year-old, 6-foot-3, 220-pound righty will have a breakout season, thanks to a high-spin rate fastball and slider, which generate plenty of swings and misses.
But, he’ll begin the season on the 10-day injured list with what’s described as a minor elbow issue, preventing him from making a spring appearance since March 7.
Adams grew up in Zephyrhills, playing little league at Sam Pasco Park. He went on to earn four letters in baseball (and one in basketball) at Zephyrhills High School from 2006 to 2009.
He posted a 2.43 ERA and 80 strikeouts in his Bulldog career.
Adams’ high school pedigree led to a baseball scholarship at the University of South Florida, a program that achieved its first Big East Championship final in 2012, during his junior year.
He then was drafted in the eighth round by the Los Angeles Angels in 2013. He also spent time with the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners organizations.
His road to the big leagues was lengthy, having thrown more than 250 innings across five minor league seasons before making his MLB debut in 2017 with the Nationals (from where he was traded to by Los Angeles in late 2016).
John Gant, St. Louis Cardinals, pitcher
Local tie: Wiregrass Ranch High School
Following several seasons of sustained solid output with the St. Louis Cardinals, John Gant has secured the organization’s fifth starter spot to begin the regular season.
The 28-year-old Gant exhibited enough in spring training, making four appearances (three starts) and posting a 4.40 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in 14.1 innings.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty has held a variety of pitching roles entering his sixth big league campaign, including a mid- and late-inning bullpen arm in 2020, turning in a 2.40 ERA, 1.076 WHIP and 18 strikeouts across 15 innings.
Gant is known for having one of the more unique windups in all of baseball, whereby he takes a couple left-footed toe taps, then pauses before firing off a pitch.
Part of his repertoire is a changeup nicknamed “The Vulcan,” which involves gripping the ball between the middle and ring fingers. Its nicknamed after the Vulcan salute used by Spock in the Star Trek series.
Gant has other interesting baseball footnotes, too.
He earned 11 wins in relief in 2019, the most of any reliever that year and most by a Cardinals relief pitcher since Al Hrabosky had 13 in 1975. Also, in 2018, he became the only player in Major League history to have hit at least two home runs while never having reached base safely by any other means.
Gant starred on the Wiregrass Ranch High varsity baseball team from 2008 to 2011 — striking out over 200 batters and sustaining just three losses in four years.
He also was a member of the Wiregrass Ranch basketball and swimming teams. His father, John Sr., was a science teacher at the school and longtime varsity girls basketball coach.
The pitching standout signed with the New York Mets out of high school and spent five years in the minors before making his big league debut in 2016 with the Atlanta Braves, then was traded to the Cardinals that offseason.
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher
Local tie: Odessa native, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School
Nate Pearson enters the 2021 season on the 10-day injured list due to a strained right groin suffered in spring training, but is expected to make substantial contributions to a Toronto Blue Jays poised for a second straight playoff berth — as he was all but penciled in to be the team’s No. 2 starter before multiple injury setbacks.
One of the game’s top-rated prospects, Pearson made his MLB debut last season, finishing the year with a 4.22 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 10.2 innings.
The 24-year-old, 6-foot-6, 250-pound righty flamethrower is regarded for a fastball that regularly touches triple digits, plus a low-to-mid 90s slider and a developing changeup.
Born and raised in Odessa, Pearson starred at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, helping the program to the Class 3A state semifinals as a senior in 2015. He wrapped up his prep career with a career 1.24 earned run average and 144 strikeouts in 101.2 innings pitched, with a 12-1 record.
Pearson went on to play college baseball at Miami’s Florida International University, then transferred to the College of Central Florida in Ocala. There, he was named the Rawlings/Perfect Game JUCO Pitcher of the Year, and subsequently selected by the Blue Jays in the first round (28th overall) of the 2017 MLB Draft, signing for a $2.45 million bonus.
Pearson has proceeded to shine at each level of the minors, boasting a combined 2.19 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 119 strikeouts across 123.1 innings from rookie ball through Triple-A.
Staying healthy and available will be key.
Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians, outfielder
Local tie: Gaither High School
Oscar Mercado was one of the Cleveland Indians’ final spring training cuts and optioned to Triple-A Columbus, but expect to see the speedy centerfielder garner some action sometime this season if others get hurt or otherwise underwhelm over the course of the long-winded 162-game regular season.
Reports indicate the decision by the team’s front office and coaching staff was to help boost 26-year-old’s confidence following a subpar 2020 campaign where he hit a paltry .128 with a .348 OPS in 36 games.
His spring training numbers didn’t fare much better, batting .214 with a .527 OPS in 28 at-bats.
This is all a far cry from his breakout rookie season in 2019 where the 6-foot-2, 197-pound Mercado batted .269 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in 119 games, adding 70 runs scored, 25 doubles, three triples and 15 stolen bases.
Getting more reps on a hitting program out of the pressure and spotlight of the major league club should help Mercado’s cause going forward.
A native of Colombia, Mercado and his family emigrated to the United States, and settled in the Tampa area when he was 7 years old. He became a four-year starter at shortstop at Gaither High School from 2010 to 2013, leading the program to back-to-back district crowns and ranked among the nation’s top prep middle infielders.
Following high school, Mercado was picked by St. Louis Cardinals in the second round (57th overall) in the 2013 MLB Draft, signing with the club for a $1.5 million signing bonus. He spent nearly six years working through the Cardinals minor league system until he was traded to the Indians in July 2018.
Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays, manager
Local tie: Lutz native, Gaither High School
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash last year managed his hometown franchise to heights it never before reached — Game 6 of the World Series.
The seventh-year manager and his team are hoping for a similar historical encore, albeit with an altered roster that blends in plenty new faces, particularly on the pitching side, and already enters the season with a handful of key injuries.
But, the reigning American League Manager of the Year surely has myriad solutions in the way of ever-changing batting orders, openers, platoons, shifts, and mixing and matching the rotation and bullpen. His reputation for fostering a loose, welcoming clubhouse to settle players shouldn’t hurt, either.
The question is if the 43-year-old Cash and company can lead the Rays to a third straight playoff berth amid an AL East division that features a financially beefier New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays rosters, plus the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.
The Rays are once again an underdog, as many media outlets peg them for a third- or even fourth-place finish in the division and winning fewer than 90 regular season contests.
The respected skipper is a key cog to proving naysayers wrong.
Cash spent his younger days growing up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood, situated across from Lake Park in Lutz.
He first hit the national scene in 1989 — then a 12-year-old second baseman for a Northside Little League team that reached the 43rd Little League World Series.
Cash later starred at Gaither High School, penning that into a successful college run at Florida State University and eight-year MLB career as a journeyman catcher mostly.
Cash is a baseball legacy of sort, as his father and uncle both played professionally, the latter reaching the big leagues in the 1970s.
Others to follow:
• Frank German, Boston Red Sox, pitcher: This Bishop McLaughlin product joined the Boston Red Sox in January, in a trade with the New York Yankees, who had selected him in the fourth round of the 2018 MLB Draft out of University of North Florida. The 23-year-old German was a non-roster invitee to Red Sox spring training, where he faced 14 batters across three innings before a reassignment. German has posted a 3.56 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 128 innings across 111.1 innings of the minors, between rookie ball and Single-A.
• Joe Hudson, Pittsburgh Pirates, catcher: This Odessa native who prepped at Tampa Jesuit (and college at Notre Dame) played in nine regular season games last season with the Seattle Mariners then signed a minor league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates this offseason. The 29-year-old Hudson enjoyed a strong spring training as a Pirates non-roster invitee, collecting five hits (including a homer) in 13 at-bats across nine games, which may be credited to a revamped swing.
• CJ Van Eyk, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher: The Lutz native and Steinbrenner product has yet to play in a minor league game since being drafted in the second round of the 2020 MLB Draft out of Florida State University. However, the well-rounded 22-year-old righty thrower could be a quick riser in the Toronto Blue Jays system, considering his college experience and limited action in spring training as a non-roster invitee.
Published April 07, 2021