MLB's Next Commissioner Must Consider Shortening Spring Training

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MLB's Next Commissioner Must Consider Shortening Spring Training
David Goldman/Associated Press

We don't know who'll be MLB's next commissioner after Bud Selig just yet. We just know said commissioner will take office in January 2015, and that he or she will have a laundry list of priorities for action or consideration.

I'd hereby like to propose one for the consideration pile: the death of spring training as we know it.

It doesn't need to become something entirely different. Though I'd be cool with a spring-training site on the moon someday, I don't have anything that drastic in mind.

Nope. It would be good enough if spring training were simply shorter. 

I won't lie. One of the reasons is a bit selfish.

As much as I enjoy celebrating the return of baseball every spring, it's around the one-month mark that the glow wears off. The baseball-fan half of me becomes impatient. The baseball-writer half of me becomes annoyed over how much spring material is either boring or pointless. Or both. Between the two halves, I make for pretty lousy company this time of year.

But MLB could please more than just writers by shortening spring training. The league could please those who actually have to partake in it, and possibly itself as well.

For starters, we hear complaints about the length of spring training from people in uniform every year. One of the more definitive collections in recent memory was compiled by Kevin Baxter and Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times just last year. It was about how spring training was even longer in 2013 due to the World Baseball Classic, but some of the comments would be relevant any year.

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports
"Boring!" — Somebody in this dugout

Said Los Angeles Angels reliever Kevin Jepsen: "When you get to spring training, you're always looking forward to the season. You've been here for two weeks and you think, 'Dang, we still have a month left.' Sometimes it drags on."

Said then-Los Angeles Dodgers utility man Skip Schumaker: "It's long. For the older guys, you know how many at-bats you need to get ready and feel good. And a lot of us feel good after a couple of weeks and you're ready for the season to start."

It was Angels manager Mike Scioscia, however, who really hit the nail on the head:

Even the [usual] five weeks for position players is too long. Guys don't need that. When spring training was designed, most guys came in to get into shape. Now most guys come in in shape and ready to hit the field and get into drills and work some of the stiffness out.

It's nice to say we have this extra time, but when you get to March 20 these guys have peaked. They want to get out there and play.

Scioscia is right. Spring training is still necessary, but the notion that it needs to be so long is antiquated.

For players, the baseball offseason used to be a different animal. Before the arrival of free agency in the 1970s, some ballplayers used to spend their winters, you know, actually working. As Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated noted in November, Lou Brock held down a job as a flower shop owner and operator (yup) even when he was at the height of his stardom.

In addition, ballplayers as a whole didn't used to be that serious about offseason conditioning. A long spring training really was necessary for them to get in shape.

Recalled former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, via the Tampa Bay Times: "When I played, you came to spring training with a 10-pound winter beer belly, and ran about 30 wind sprints and sweated with a sweat jacket and got yourself in condition."

But now?

"Now the players do Nautilus, they play racquetball, they swim...they come to spring training looking like Tarzan," added Leyland.

Either that or the Incredible Hulk, but it's a valid point no matter which fictional hunk of man you choose. Established major leaguers have the time, the means and the desire to get (or keep) their bodies in peak condition over the winter. Indeed, it says a lot that a player not showing up to camp in shape qualifies as a scandal these days.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Now, things are different for pitchers than they are for position players. The longer spring training lasts, the more time they have to get their arms in game shape. This is especially important for starting pitchers, who need to get ready to handle roughly 100 pitches per outing.

But it's not until the last couple of weeks of spring training that starters are ready to approach the century mark. Early on in spring training, they're working a couple of innings at a time and keeping their pitch counts safely under the 50-pitch threshold.

If that portion of their arm-strength-building phase could be safely tackled with bullpen sessions and/or simulated games, the report date for position players could be moved back and the exhibition season could start in early March with all starters ready to eat three, four or even five innings. 

This is not to ignore the potential drawbacks of delaying and shortening the exhibition season, but some of those are no big deal.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
For example, do you think Dee Gordon will still be the Dodgers' second baseman come June? There's a good chance he won't be.

There's the idea that fewer spring games means less time for teams to resolve position battles, but those are overrated anyway. Between the way teams are constantly juggling roles and making personnel moves, it's not like they have to stay wedded to their Opening Day rosters.

There's also the notion that spring training is a chance for younger players to make an impression, but that's overrated, too.

Teams are hopefully more aware than ever that spring-training performances can't be trusted, and MLB-readiness would appear to be turning into more and more of a moot point when it comes to elite prospects. From what we've seen in recent years, teams are more worried about their elite prospects' arbitration clocks than they are their MLB-readiness. 

No, the real barrier hindering the idea of MLB shortening spring training is, well, the usual barrier when ideas are on the table: money.

Arizona and Florida surely wouldn't approve, as fewer exhibition games would mean a tighter window for tourists to come and pump money into local economies, but MLB would be missing out as well.

And probably more than you think. According to Forbes, there are 10 teams that are charging an average of at least $50 per ticket this spring, four of which play at four of the seven spring-training stadiums that have opened since 2003. There's good money in spring training, and it's only going to get better as more new facilities are added.

But perhaps this idea could sway MLB: Shortening the league's spring product could very well lead to a better regular-season product. 

For one, call it a hunch that shortening spring training would more than likely lead to fewer injuries. Spring training games aren't more dangerous than other games, but they still contain all the elements that could potentially get a player hurt. Hit-by-pitches, batted balls, collisions, diving plays, you name it. Fewer spring games would essentially mean less time in the line of fire for players.

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As for how else MLB stands to improve its regular-season product, it's plausible that requiring players to expend less energy in spring training would leave them with more energy for the regular season.

That's something MLB should want, as it's a long season and players aren't permitted to use certain, ahem, enhancers to help get them through it anymore. Any possible change that allows them to give a greater effort in the games that count is an idea worth considering.

MLB's next commissioner is going to have bigger fish to fry than this. Certainly, the next collective bargaining agreement is the big one, as a new CBA will be needed in 2016 and there are more than a few potential sticking points at play between the league and the MLB Players Association. Anything that will help the growth of the sport and the league should also take priority.

But if MLB shortens spring training, it will be sparing players and managers the annoyances of an antiquated tradition and possibly putting itself in a position to showcase a better product during the games that count.

I won't tell MLB's next commissioner to get it done or else. But at the least, it's worth a thought.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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