This has been the busiest spring training in memory — and it has nothing to do with the action on the field. Baseball has been buzzing with talk of sign stealing and commissioner Rob Manfred’s handling of the Houston Astros‘ transgressions, a proposed change to the playoff format and trade rumors involving some of the game’s biggest names.
ESPN baseball reporters Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez made the rounds during media day at the Cactus League in Arizona, asking managers and GMs for their takes on some of the hot-button issues.
How are you addressing sign stealing as spring training opens?
Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns: “This is a topic of conversation in every clubhouse, and it’s a topic of conversation with every fan base. And through these conversations, I think there’s an awareness of it. I don’t know that we’re necessarily doing anything systematically different than we have in the past, but there’s certainly an awareness of it.”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “We’ve been working on getting a handle on multiple sign systems, and probably getting some type of card that [the pitcher] and the catcher have to be able to kind of choose which system they use, and can be able to change it at any point in time, whether it be within an at-bat or change of an inning, whenever they want.”
Oakland Athletics GM David Forst: “I don’t know that we’re doing anything differently. We’ve had these concerns for the last couple seasons, not only going into Houston but other places. I think Bob [Melvin] and the catchers, the pitching staff, I think they’ve had an ongoing conversation about how to change this up or how to do it. I don’t think this is something new that has to be addressed for the first time.”
Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto: “It’s not like sign stealing is new to baseball. This is a much different thing, but we have adopted multiple sets of signs, we changed them very frequently, and made sure that we never got too stale. I remember coming up as a player, you had one set of signs on Opening Day and you didn’t change the signs again until the All-Star break, and through the year you’d go through two sets of signs. We’re doing four and five a game, just to make sure that there’s a constant flow.”
Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward: “Making sure our guys abide by the rules. We’re very aware of what happened with the Astros. Obviously that was probably the height of how bad you could do it. But teams are always going to try to get away with as much as they can. So we tell our guys, ‘Let’s not even border on getting close to the [line].’ Teams are going to get as close to the line as they can. We do that in other ways as far as just preparing, trying to do the best we can with the numbers and do everything we can with our players and our staff to give ourselves the best advantage. But in that way, a line’s been drawn.”
San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler: “You don’t want to get too far out in front until we know exactly what the rules are, as far as video and things like that. I feel it’s our responsibility to be versatile and be able to protect our signs, and besides that, we’re just waiting to hear the rules.”
Chicago Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: “You have a responsibility to protect yourself from legal sign stealing. That’s on us. You can’t blame that on anyone else. We have to be vigilant. It’s important to classify those things differently. The real-time, trash-banging stuff, you can’t have that, but if it’s based on the night before or the last start or whatever, that’s legal and we have to come up with ways to prevent that.”
What is your preferred playoff format?
Major League Baseball is considering a new playoff format that would add two more wild-card teams in each league, with the top team in each league getting a bye and the other six teams playing best-of-three series.
Forst: “My preference is to go back in time and get rid of the one-game wild card the last two seasons. … We [the A’s] obviously are victims of that game three times now. I’m open to any proposal that changes that format.”
Dipoto: “I think more teams in the playoffs is a good thing. I vote yes. That’s fun. It’s fun to imagine more teams competing. I go back to 1994, as an active player — when they went to the new three-division leagues and added a wild card, who had ever heard of such a thing? It was, like, blasphemy. And it made the postseason so much more exciting. I don’t see why the next layer isn’t going to do the very same thing.”
Tingler: “I just want to see the Padres in it.”
Woodward: “I’m all for more teams, not because our team right now doesn’t grade out as a top-three team. Regardless of whether I had the best team in baseball or the worst team in baseball, it’s healthy for the game. We do it in other sports.”
Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell: “It’s something I thought about for sure. One idea I’ve had for years is making the first round longer, a best-of-seven. I like the wild card. It’s been good, but if there is a way to improve it, I’m all for it. More playoffs is a good thing.”
Stearns: “There’s a benefit from a competitive balance standpoint to having more teams in the race. That’s clear. It’s potentially going to lead to strong engagement, it can help out in some other areas as well. I certainly understand the purist argument that increasing the number of teams potentially dilutes the regular season. I’m still digesting it. … I’m interested to hear the debate on this. I’m glad we’re thinking about these things. As an industry, we haven’t been great at implementing change.”
Roberts: “I think an ideal playoff format, for me, is three seven-game series. I think that the wild-card system, as is, is great. But that first division series should be seven games. I just think that over the course of a seven-game series, it shows the better team. I just think it’s harder to steal a series.”
Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore: “I view it real simple. This is my 27th year in pro baseball. I grew up in the game very traditional. Whatever the commissioner says, we do. Whatever the rules are, we do. I wasn’t for instant replay. I wasn’t for interleague play, but I don’t get caught up with it. If the commish says this is best for baseball, then we’re going to work like heck to make sure it is the best for baseball.”
Hoyer: “I would lean toward maintaining the importance of the regular season. That’s what makes baseball special. It matters. The marathon is really important. The more playoff teams we have, the more we sort of get away from that a little bit. If we go that route, I would hope they would do something to preserve that, whether it’s making a big deal out of the team that finishes with the best record or whatever it might be. The marathon is why we do this. It’s why we look at the standings every day. We don’t look at the standings every day in other sports in the same way.”
What’s the most exciting thing at your spring training camp?
Forst: “We don’t often get to return the majority of our club. I’m excited that we have a group that knows each other, that has played together, and that can actually build on the previous season, and that we didn’t have to do quite as much turnover this offseason.”
Dipoto: “Watching the young players grow. We have so much young talent. If I were to flash back two years, it’s night and day — what’s happening in our organization, the quality of the prospect system, the quality of the young guys that are at the big league level. I think we’re going to wind up as the youngest team in the American League, and what’s exciting to me is watching them get better every single day.”
Woodward: “The belief. Our group has a lot of optimism. There’s a lot of belief in our clubhouse that we’re gonna be good. And they expect to be.”
Stearns: “I’m excited about our depth as a team. We took an approach to this offseason where we believe we created a really talented roster from 1 to 30 that we think can help us throughout the entirety of the season. I think it’s about as deep a team as we’ve had since I have been here, so I’m excited about seeing that depth come together and seeing some of our different puzzle pieces fit together.”
Moore: “We have great energy and a hunger with our players that, truthfully, I haven’t seen over the last couple of years. Mike Matheny is a tremendous man and great leader. We had an interesting offseason. We’ve had an ownership change and a managerial change. The neat thing about our ownership group is they live in K.C. or have strong ties to K.C. That gives us a competitive advantage going forward. They don’t view this as an investment. They view this as a mission.”
Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn: “We’re on the precipice of an extended run of success. This rebuild was never aimed at jumping up and winning for just one year. It was aimed at putting us in a position to contend for multiple years. From our standpoint, we view this as just a start.”
Bell: “What’s exciting in camp is the culmination of a lot of different work over the last couple of years putting this foundation together. It’s the excitement of having a player from Japan [Shogo Akiyama] and the media that comes with that. It’s added an element. And veterans like [Mike] Moustakas and Wade Miley and Nick Castellanos.”
Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon: “We have several great athletes, I’m finding out very quickly. There’s more there than I knew. Billy Eppler has done a wonderful job in the draft. We have athletes. It’s very interesting.”
Roberts: “The one thing I’m most excited about in our camp is to watch Mookie Betts every day.”
MLB, union weighing variables related to potential restart of season
As Major League Baseball handles the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak and tries to determine when — or even if — it will begin its season, the league is grappling with a number of key issues that could come to a head over the next few days, sources familiar with the dealings told ESPN.
The subjects MLB is juggling, according to sources, include:
A deal with the MLB Players Association that would advance a portion of players’ salaries and cover a wide swath of labor-related issues
Receiving assurances from teams that non-player employees will receive paychecks through at least April, with cost-cutting measures a possibility come May
Delivering payments to minor league players, most of whom have not received a paycheck since the end of last season in early September 2019
MLB and the MLBPA have worked toward a potential agreement over the last 10 days, acknowledging the inevitability of a shortened season that both parties hope would begin by early June and would guarantee players a prorated salary that would depend on the number of games played, according to sources. Multiple players told ESPN they are willing to play a significant number of doubleheaders — as many as two a week — to make up for lost games and try to get as close to a full 162-game schedule as possible.
While the sides have discussed a myriad of options for a potential season, both agree that if necessary, regular-season games could stretch into October and playoff games could be played at neutral sites in November, either in warm-weather cities or, if federal officials allow indoor events, domed stadiums, according to sources. Expanded-playoff scenarios have been under discussion but are likely to be settled as the scope of the coronavirus outbreak becomes clearer and a firm outline of a championship season is set, sources said.
Should the sides reach an agreement — the season was due to start Thursday, and the sides have targeted Wednesday as a deadline — players likely would receive full service time if a championship season is played. A stalemate over the doomsday scenario of a cancellation of the 2020 season and its impact on service time, which counts the number of days played in the major leagues and determines a number of milestones — including when a player reaches free agency and arbitration – has complicated negotiations, sources said.
The fear on both sides is understandable and palpable. For top players such as Mookie Betts and Trevor Bauer, losing a year of service could delay their free agency in the winter of 2020 by a year. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, who traded for Betts and Bauer, respectively, within the last year, would be similarly exploited were the two to reach free agency without having played in 2020. The sides could agree simply to reserve their right to litigate the case in an arbitration setting.
To allay short-term financial concerns for players, teams have pledged an advance of more than $150 million on salaries that the union would divide among four players of classes, according to sources: first-time players on the 40-man roster, players with low-salary split contracts who earn different amounts depending on whether they’re in the minor leagues or major leagues, players with higher-salary split deals and players with guaranteed major league deals. The advance would not be repaid to the league in the event of a canceled season, sources said. A clause in the uniform player contract allows commissioner Rob Manfred to suspend contracts in the event of a national emergency, which President Trump has declared, but MLB has not shown an appetite to invoke it, according to sources.
Some of the game’s highest-profile players have been engaged in discussions, with Mike Trout, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, Zack Greinke, Pete Alonso, Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Anthony Rendon and David Price among the 100 or so who participated in a union conference call Sunday to discuss the issues, sources said.
With teams bracing for significant financial losses and the industry facing a potential multibillion-dollar shortfall, Manfred in a conference call Monday urged teams to continue paying employees through at least April, sources said. Salary cuts, furloughs, deferred payments or layoffs could come in May if the beginning of the season remains in limbo, according to club officials. Unlike the NBA and NHL, which had played a majority of their regular-season games before shutting down amid coronavirus concerns, MLB and its teams have not tapped into their two greatest revenue streams: television contracts and gate receipts.
While some teams remain confident in their abilities to retain employees long-term, cash crunches with others had prompted them to consider job reductions within weeks, sources said. Manfred, according to three sources familiar with the call, cautioned against that as the league navigates the complicated financial implications of the coronavirus outbreak. Amid backlash Tuesday, the ownership group of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils reversed a plan to require employees making more than $50,000 a year to take 20% salary reductions.
Another outlay, though at a far lower cost, could come from the choice to pay minor league players, sources said. Multiple general managers said they believe minor leaguers, who were not paid during spring training but will receive $400 allowances through April 8, will be paid at rates similar to their expected salaries for the immediate future.
The uncertainty has rocked baseball, which initially delayed opening day two weeks and then pushed the start of the season back to at earliest May 10. The likelihood of the pause lasting longer is significant enough that MLB and the players are acknowledging a number of interruptions to regular business, including:
A later start to the season than June: Multiple officials pointed toward July — and specifically around the All-Star Game in Los Angeles — as a potentially powerful way to kick off the 2020 season. On the other hand, if games start in late June or early July, it could complicate All-Star week
Games in front of no fans: While both sides would prefer games with crowds — an estimated 30 percent of revenue comes from gate receipts – they recognize that health officials may quash such an idea depending on the severity of outbreaks. Further, widespread adoption of social distancing could cut into the number of fans that attend games when they do resume
Games at neutral sites: Even during the regular season, teams in metropolitan areas with the highest prevalence of COVID-19 could play games at spring-training facilities if outbreaks aren’t quelled
A shortened “spring training”: Rather than spending a month ramping pitchers back up, MLB could opt for an abbreviated second spring and instead expand rosters to allow teams to carry extra pitchers
Questions about the draft and international signing period: With hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually on amateur players, teams are balking at such an expense, particularly if games have not returned by the scheduled June 10 draft and July 2 start to signing international amateurs. The concerns are particularly acute with high school and college seasons canceled and scouts currently pulled off the road
A transaction freeze: If an agreement is reached, teams could adopt an embargo on signings and trades
Changes to the arbitration system: Arbitration, which is a precedent-based system that uses statistics to award players’ salaries in their fourth, fifth and sixth major league seasons, would likely need adjusting — particularly with the expectation that salaries will be depressed going into 2021 because of lessened revenue
Red Sox minor leaguer tests positive for coronavirus
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.”
Noah Syndergaard joins growing list of injured hard throwers in MLB
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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