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Rob Manfred has an option

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Now even LeBron James has weighed in on the Astros scandal, with the King calling on commissioner Rob Manfred to listen to aggrieved, angry players like Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Justin Turner, and do something more than what he has done.

Manfred’s options are limited by the immunity granted to players during the sign-stealing investigation, but more because of the inherent limitations of operating under a collective bargaining agreement. As some opposing players have noted, taking away the Astros’ 2017 World Series title is impractical, maybe even a little silly; the games were played, they were won and lost, and you can’t go back in a time machine and take away the Astros’ competitive advantage. And it’s possible that if Manfred tried to vacate the title, he would run afoul of the MLB Players Association, which could legally challenge the premise that he has the power to unilaterally take away a championship.

But there’s another option through which the collective anger we have seen over the past three months could coalesce: Manfred could take the step of wielding a formal and final and unprecedented resolution of censure of the 2017 Houston Astros.

He could ask the owners for their backing and then forward the final resolution to the members of the players’ association, giving the Astros’ frustrated brethren an opportunity to vote their disapproval. A sportwide condemnation would be a permanent stain of ignominy.

Manfred could say: As I’ve had more time to process the fallout from what the Astros did in 2017, and as I’ve heard from fans and players throughout the sport, I believe more action is warranted, beyond the initial penalties handed down Jan. 13. For repeatedly cheating against its opponents throughout the regular season and postseason, as established in the Major League Baseball’s investigation, the 2017 Houston Astros are hereby censured, a designation to be forever noted in baseball’s official record book.

If Manfred took these steps, he would find support within the industry, given the apparent fury over the Astros’ handling of the aftermath — much of it lacking remorse or contrition, or even an acknowledgement that their sign-stealing system was potentially difference-making. “Our opinion is this didn’t impact the game,” Astros owner Jim Crane said last week, words that ricocheted around the game.

“This is really bad for baseball,” a senior official said. “Jim has handled this atrociously. They have not accepted responsibility, and acted like, ‘This is no big deal, everybody was doing it,’ when it’s apparent that they had an advantage. They just refuse to take responsibility, and now is the time for the other teams to act.”

A censure might feel soft initially, without the teeth of a suspension or the revocation of riches. But the weight of history would prevail. Moving forward, references to the ’17 Astros would inevitably contain the qualifier that the group was censured for cheating by peers.

Look, even if Manfred doesn’t take any more action, the legacy of the players on that team is forever diminished. It’s already apparent they will be remembered as cheaters to most in the court of public opinion, and in the eyes of many of their peers — cheaters who wielded an illicit competitive advantage. But for all of the majesty implied in the title of commissioner, Manfred has almost no leeway to discipline the players, even after declaring in his findings that the Astros’ scheme was player-driven. Judge, Trout, Cody Bellinger and others can confirm that for themselves with union chief Tony Clark, as the players’ association begins its annual spring training get-togethers.

Had Manfred refused to grant immunity to the Houston players as Major League Baseball dove into its investigation, then the union would’ve interceded and protected players in legal peril — and protecting members is exactly what any union should do. Many or all of the players would’ve refused to answer questions, and then Manfred would’ve run into the same types of problems that George Mitchell did in his laughable investigation of the steroid era. No subpoena power, no absolute proof that Player X benefited from the sign stealing. MLB investigators probably would’ve gotten a lot of, “I don’t recall.” Or, “I didn’t hear the trash can banging.” Manfred is right in this regard: At least the core of the truth is exposed.

But Manfred has the power to go one step further and distinguish that Houston championship from all others in baseball history.

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As Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle closed on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, commissioner Ford Frick announced that unless a player reached at least 60 home runs in 154 games — the parameters under which Ruth played in 1927 — there should be some special designation in the record books, separating the accomplishments. Frick never formally issued an edict, and eventually that suggestion faded in history; Maris was recognized as the record holder until Mark McGwire passed that mark in 1998. But Frick’s mere suggestion served to unfairly diminish Maris’ accomplishment in the years that followed.

So do not underestimate the long-term impact of a formal censure, because no matter what Jim Crane or anyone else argues about the legitimacy of the ’17 championship, a censure introduced by Manfred and seconded by the players would stand as the final word.

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Red Sox minor leaguer tests positive for coronavirus

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A Boston Red Sox minor league player has tested positive for COVID-19, the team announced on Tuesday. The player received the results of his positive test on Monday and is “doing well” according to a team announcement. His identity has not been revealed.

The unnamed player was last at the Red Sox complex in Fort Myers on March 15, three days after Major League Baseball officially suspended its season, according to the announcement. The team believes the player contracted the virus after he left Fort Myers, but the Red Sox are shutting down operations at their Fenway South facilities for the next two weeks and will perform a deep cleaning to disinfect the buildings.

“During this pandemic, the health and safety of our players and employees and those in our community is prioritized over all else,” a team spokesman said in a statement. “The club will continue to follow recommendations set forth by health officials, Major League Baseball and our own medical team.”

The player is now recovering at home after receiving the results of the positive test, and all players and staff who came in contact have been advised to self-quarantine for the next two weeks. Two minor leaguers in the Yankees system previously tested positive for the coronavirus, with the Red Sox minor leaguer marking the third known professional baseball player to test positive.

Several players, including many who live in the Fort Myers area, continued working out at the Fenway South after the suspension of the season. The Red Sox said most coaches have gone home, but players have still been showing up, with around 8 to 15 players showing up daily, according to interim manager Ron Roenicke.

“We do have a crew there, a reduced crew, of medical staff, and we have guys who are able to work out with players who are coming,” Roenicke said last week. “They are showing up in waves. So the pitchers are showing up first in the morning. The guys who are in the area. And then in the afternoon, the guys who are still there, the regulars are showing up to hit in the batting cages and to stay sharp that way.”

In a conference call with the Boston media last Thursday, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said he would not be surprised if someone in the organization contracted the virus that has shut down the United States in recent weeks.

“That’s something we’re being very vigilant in monitoring,” Bloom said last week. “You look around the way this is going, we know it’s very, very possible it’s going to happen at some point. So we’re just trying to make sure everybody is educated and stay in touch with everybody.”

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Noah Syndergaard joins growing list of injured hard throwers in MLB

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The first pitch that Noah Syndergaard threw in Major League Baseball was 97 mph. His second pitch was 98 mph. His fifth pitch was 99 mph. From that first start in 2015 it was perhaps inevitable that this day would arrive. The human elbow isn’t built to regularly throw baseballs at such velocity.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan is reporting that the New York Mets pitcher will undergo Tommy John surgery on Thursday, the end diagnosis of the discomfort Syndergaard had experienced before the suspension of spring training earlier this month. That would put him out for the entire 2020 season with an optimistic timeline for a return next April and a conservative estimate more like 15 months out — something like the All-Star break in 2021.

It’s hard to evaluate the impact on the Mets for 2020, since we don’t know when the season will start — or even if we’ll have a season. The Mets still do have five potential quality starters in two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha. The issues there are Porcello had a rough 2019 with a 5.52 ERA for the Red Sox and Wacha had a 4.76 ERA (and 5.61 FIP) for the Cardinals. They allowed a combined 57 home runs in 300 innings.

There is also little depth behind those five, with the next-in-line candidates including Corey Oswalt, Walker Lockett and Stephen Gonsalves. The Mets’ upper-level pitching in the minors is probably about as weak as that of any franchise, with no projected impact starters.

Losing Syndergaard puts a lot of pressure on Stroman to step up as a strong No. 2 behind deGrom. In his 11 starts with the Mets last season he had a 3.77 ERA, although his walk rate increased from 2.5 per nine with the Blue Jays to 3.5 with the Mets. Like Porcello and Wacha, he’s not a huge strikeout pitcher for this era (although he did increase from 7.1 strikeouts per nine with Toronto to 9.1 with the Mets), so the Mets’ defense — which doesn’t exactly project as a strength — will have to perform better than it did in 2019.

Syndergaard has remained a frustrating enigma. After a terrific first full season in 2016, when he posted a 2.60 ERA and league-leading 2.29 FIP with a 29.3% strikeout rate, he has battled injuries and inconsistency. His injuries have included a torn lat that caused him to miss most of 2017, a strained finger and viral infection in 2018 and a strained hamstring in 2019. While he still managed a career best 32 starts and 197 ⅓ innings, he also had a career-worst 4.28 ERA, led the NL in earned runs allowed and his strikeout rate dipped to 24.5%.

Out of 130 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Syndergaard’s strikeout rate ranked 39th — good, but not reflective of his raw stuff. His biggest problem has always been that his fastball, despite the highest average velocity among starting pitchers last season, has always been more hittable than you would expect. Batters hit .275/.341/.440 against his four-seamer and .305/.361/.466 against his two-seamer. FanGraphs calculated a run value for all pitches and Gerrit Cole, who had the second-highest fastball velocity among starters, saved an estimated 37.1 runs above average with his fastball, best among those 130 pitchers with 100 innings. Syndergaard ranked 61st. This gets into why pitchers are obsessed with spin rate — Syndergaard’s fastball ranked in the 24th percentile in spin rate while Cole’s ranked in the 96th percentile.

Still, one reason the Mets were going to be a popular pick heading into the season was the 1-2 punch of deGrom and Syndergaard, with the belief THIS would be the season Syndergaard matches deGrom to become a Cy Young contender. Mets fans are not only locked in their apartments and homes, but now they’ve lost some hope during the virus shutdown as well.

There’s a bigger issue here, of course, related to the unending pursuit of velocity. Syndergaard joins Luis Severino and Chris Sale as Tommy John victims this spring. Flamethrowing Padres reliever Andres Munoz also underwent TJ surgery this week. In 2017, Severino had the highest average fastball velocity among starters. In 2018, Sale eased into his velocity but hit 100 mph that summer and from June through August 12, when he landed on the injured list, he threw 253 pitches of 97-plus mph while averaging 97.2 on his fastball.

You can go on down the list. Of the 25 hardest throwing starting pitchers from 2018, 11 had or have since had TJ surgery. That doesn’t include Shohei Ohtani (he didn’t throw enough innings to qualify for my list), Lance McCullers Jr. (who just missed the top 25), Yu Darvish (who was not in the top 25), Michael Kopech (called up that year and lasted four starts before blowing out his elbow), Dinelson Lamet and other high-end velocity guys who have had the surgery as well. It’s a long list.

Of course, due to the miracles of modern surgery, many pitchers who have Tommy John surgery return as good as ever. Syndergaard only has to look in his own clubhouse for inspiration as deGrom had the surgery as a minor leaguer in 2010.

You do wonder how the game will evolve over the next five years. Spin rate may be more important than just throwing hard. The percentage of fastballs continues to trend downward. Velocity will always be king, but it’s not everything. Maybe Syndergaard would have been better off throwing 95 instead of 100, not that that would have guaranteed good health. Teams do a much better job than a generation ago in attempting to protect their pitchers, with starters making fewer starts and throwing fewer pitches per game than ever. In 2019, there were just 70 games were a pitcher threw at least 115 pitches. In 2009, the tally was 316, and in 1999 it was 780.

Still, pitchers get hurt and we’ve had three major stars now go down this spring. It makes you wonder: Who’s next?

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Classic Home Run Derby showdowns on ESPN2

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On Thursday, March 26, ESPN2 will be airing a Home Run Derby Classics marathon starting at 6 p.m. with 2019’s epic battle between Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso. After that, it will be 2018 (Washington, D.C.), 2017 (Miami) and 2015 (Cincinnati).

The best home runs we ever saw: Rocking Wrigley, Game 7 drama and Bat Night fun

How the Home Run Derby became America’s national pastime

Inside the long list of home run records set in 2019

2019: Cleveland (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Inside Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s incredible Derby performance

Pete Alonso stole the show in classi Derby

2018: Washington, D.C. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Harper wins Derby in dramatic fashion

2017: Miami (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

What you might have missed while Aaron Judge was destroying baseballs

2015: Cincinnati (12 a.m. ET, ESPN2)

Best HR Derby ever

Gallery: 2015 Home Run Derby

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