FORT MYERS, Fla. — You expected Chris Sale and Co. to be tossing baseballs with MLB gumshoes visible in the background. A forensics truck in the parking lot.
As it is, not only was there no Sale—his flu became pneumonia—but the Boston Red Sox barely had a new manager by the time they stepped onto the field for the first time last week. Ron Roenicke was named to replace Alex Cora a mere 18 hours before the spring's first workout. And the club slapped the interim tag on Roenicke at that.
No permanent manager. No Mookie Betts.
Nowhere are two of the game's ugliest current sins—scandal and early-onset tanking—on display together as vividly as they are here.
Roenicke is expected to have the interim label removed when the MLB investigation wraps up, hopefully, commissioner Rob Manfred says, by the end of next week. Chaim Bloom, Boston's new chief baseball officer, said that the club felt inserting the word "interim" was the best way to "respect" the investigation as long as it was ongoing.
"But we also felt Ron was the clear choice to lead us forward and the right fit for this club, and we wanted to put him in position to do that as camp opened," Bloom said.
The Betts trade rumors were out there for months, yet the Red Sox players still had difficulty believing their veracity.
"I was shocked," Boston catcher Christian Vazquez says of his reaction when the rumors became reality. "He brings a lot of memories to us all these years. He brings a World Series ring. He brings a lot of things that are special to us.
"We're going to be champions for life."
That last part sounded almost as if Vazquez was offering consolation to himself and his team, which, given that the memories are far stronger than Boston's immediate future, is probably just about right.
In dealing Betts and Price, the Sox shaved roughly $75 million from the payroll in one deal (the Los Angeles Dodgers are paying roughly half the remaining $96 million left on Price's deal, plus Betts' $27 million this year).
Red Sox owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner were said to be shocked at the blowback that's come their way from fans, but that's no surprise. They were completely caught off guard by the negative public reaction when they sacked television broadcaster Don Orsillo for Dave O'Brien a few years back, too. Sometimes the size of your yacht is directly proportional to your lack of touch with the working stiffs.
Henry, Werner and club president Sam Kennedy took another run at their critics with a formal press conference timed to coincide with the club's first full-squad workout Monday, trying to explain how, in the inimitable words of Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, Fenway Park has transformed into "Tropicana by the Charles."
Among other things, they tried to compare dealing Betts to the Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004. Not even close, for many reasons.
"Even though I didn't get a chance to know [Betts], I know how it feels to be that connected to a great player, and how difficult it is to see that player leave the organization," Bloom said. "I fully get all that. As I said the day we made the trade, he is one of the greatest players ever to wear our uniform. That makes it really difficult to do something like this. We feel that. We know our fans feel that. We know it hurts. We know it's going to hurt for a while.
"We just felt at the end of the day, our job is to do what's best for the Red Sox not just today, but down the road. We have that duty to our fans to make sure we're taking care of the long view of the organization, as well."
The hell of it is, the Red Sox probably had enough to challenge the New York Yankees this year...until they folded their tents and allowed Rick Porcello to leave as a free agent, and until they dealt Betts and Price. Had they kept those guys and added another starter, who knows?
Now we'll never know.
Turn Devices Off at 1st Pitch
As the owners' quarterly meetings concluded earlier this month in Florida, Manfred said he was inclined to think there is too much technology cluttering the nine innings each night.
At a Sunday press conference in North Port, Florida, new spring home of the Atlanta Braves, Manfred confirmed that he expects "really serious restrictions on player and playing personnel access to video in-game" by Opening Day 2020.
What the game needs to do is move instant replay rooms out of the clubhouses and turn off all live feeds and devices during games.
The massive sign-stealing scandal was borne out of baseball's well-intentioned but poor execution of incorporating instant replay into the game. The replay rooms and technology embedded in each clubhouse were too tempting, like keeping bags of Cheetos in your kitchen. Do that and you know your night is ending in a blur of orange dust and a bad feeling no matter how many times you tell yourself no.
The replays already run out of New York, anyway.
The obvious solution is to scrap the current manager-appeals process and charge New York with overturning blatantly wrong calls as it sees fit. That was the original purpose of replay, anyway: Get the friggin' calls right. This fixes the obvious mistakes and eliminates the ridiculous replay requests.
As for the latter, allow managers to challenge a call as they see fit, but only in real time on plays they're watching with their naked eye. This puts them on equal ground with the umpires and eliminates the rhythm-crushing delays when the manager holds a hand up to pause the next pitch while he's awaiting word from the clubhouse.
This solves almost everything. There is no need to have screens available during games for hitters to rush back and watch their just-concluded plate appearances. As one current MLB coach told me this winter, only two things ever come of that: The hitter either sees he was wronged by an umpire and spends the next several minutes complaining, or he sees it was a routine out and moves on. Neither is productive.
Washington Nationals star and three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is involved in talks with both the Players Association and MLB through his position on the Playing Rules Committee.
"Everybody likes to be able to watch what just happened," Scherzer said. "I know hitters like to be able to watch a swing, watch pitch location, see where the pitch actually was ... to understand, 'hey, where was that pitch?'
"It kind of helps you make in-game adjustments. That's what video has been used to for all of us. I feel like it's helped the game. To me, it's really hard to say 'take that out of the game.' So it's really how do we get creative and come up with rules and ways to keep it in the game but make sure you don't have another scandal come about."
A handful of years ago, former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had all of the screens removed from a room just behind the Pirates dugout because he was tired of hitters spending more time back there than watching the game from the dugout. Hurdle told his guys that every time the Yankees were on television, whenever the cameras panned the dugout, there was Derek Jeter. And if Jeter was there watching his teammates, so, too, should they.
All the homework should be done before that night's first pitch, anyway. Hitters have already studied pitchers and vice versa. When the game starts, it should solely be about executing on the field.
What the Astros Face
Vitriol. Hatred. Booing.
And that's just from unfriendly fans in road cities.
But what about from rival players? I've never seen this much fury from the players themselves toward some of their peers, including back when steroids dominated the game.
"It's like Mean Girls," one player quipped, shaking his head.
This is so fast-moving that it's difficult to keep up with. Take the idea of angry rival pitchers potentially using Astros hitters as target practice, and all of this over a mere 72-hour span:
Thursday, new Houston manager Dusty Baker: "You can't live your life in fear. You play your game. If it happens, it happens. That's kind of like being afraid of a car accident riding down the street."
Thursday, Houston starter Justin Verlander: "Look, when we step away from the field, we have families. I have a little girl. Jose [Altuve] has kids. It's different when you bring health into the equation. I think the commissioner's been very clear in the past that's not an appropriate form of retribution, and I would hope that stands to reason with this, as well."
Friday, Dodgers starter Alex Wood:
Friday, Dodgers swingman Ross Stripling:
Saturday, Dusty Baker: "I'm depending on the league to try to put a stop to this seemingly premeditated retaliation that I'm hearing about. And in most instances in life, you get kind of reprimanded when you have premeditated anything. I'm just hoping that the league puts a stop to this before somebody gets hurt."
Sunday: Manfred meets with managers in the Grapefruit League (and will deliver the same message to Cactus League managers this week) and warns them about any retaliatory measures against the Astros. "It's dangerous, and it is not helpful to the current situation," Manfred said.
Proposed New Postseason Format: Whaddaya Got?
I'll be honest. I've got a mixed reaction to this right out of the gate.
Knee-jerk: I hate it because adding teams to the postseason to the point that nearly half of each league will participate (seven out of 15 clubs) is going to seriously diminish the integrity of the regular season. With that many teams automatically playing in October, the 162-game slog is bound to lose some meaning. And, this reality-TV show idea in which the division winner with the second-best record would pick its opponent from the three wild-card teams on live television on the final Sunday night of the season? The only things missing are the tents, elephants and carnies.
Level-headed: The system is flawed now with far too many teams tanking. Consequently, as sad as it is to say given what should be the spirit of competition, we've reached the point at which winning must be incentivized more than it currently is. As such, all good and interesting ideas for change should be considered. However, warning ahead: Over at FanGraphs, Ben Clemens did an interesting study in which he argued that this new proposal actually could disincentivize winning.
So where does that leave us? With a very interesting debate that will undoubtedly continue for the next many months as baseball lurches into a future that isn't as certain as it once was.
Three other interesting things are at work here:
- Not a surprise that baseball leaked this one on the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting. It's called "changing the conversation away from the Houston scandal." Guess what? It didn't work.
- While baseball's national television deal with Fox runs through 2028, the deals with ESPN and TBS are up after the 2021 season. Given that, the proposed 2022 implementation of this idea would seem to position MLB for leverage in those negotiations.
- Any change to the current postseason format must be bargained with the players. The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021, and you may have heard that players have significant concerns after two of the previous three offseasons featured sluggish free agency. Bottom line: The players aren't going to sign off on this postseason proposal without getting something in return, such as free agency a year earlier or earlier arbitration.
Jessica Mendoza: Out of the Front Office, Back to the Booth
While ESPN broadcaster Jessica Mendoza resigning from the New York Mets may have seemed sudden, B/R sources say the growing issue of broadcasters who are employed by individual clubs is something the commissioner's office has been looking at since last summer.
This is nothing personal whatsoever. I enjoy Mendoza's broadcasting. But the growing collection of combo media members/club employees—David Ross with the Chicago Cubs before he became their manager, Alex Rodriguez (Yankees), Al Leiter (Mets), Pedro Martinez (Red Sox), Rick Sutcliffe (Cubs), David Ortiz (Red Sox)—is problematic to many throughout the industry, and here's why.
National broadcasting crews for a particular game usually receive special access to the managers and, often, to players in the clubhouse, as well. They could potentially glean information on a specific player with Team A through these normally off-the-record meetings, then a few months later, in trade talks, tell their baseball bosses that Team A privately thinks the outfielder it's trying to deal is lazy or has a poor attitude. So the team of the broadcaster, thanks to this inside information, could decline the deal.
It doesn't have to be Mendoza. It could be anybody working national games who reports back to a club. Two different baseball operations' bosses told B/R last season that they were very concerned about this double duty. And the Dodgers restricted the access of both Mendoza and Ross last postseason.
As for Mendoza, we'll hear from her frequently during games this summer, but mostly midweek after ESPN demoted her from the Sunday night booth.
5 Best Winters
Los Angeles Dodgers: Adding Mookie Betts to a 106-win club is like adding a pint of Ben & Jerry's Milk & Cookies to your freezer when you've already got Phish Food, Cherry Garcia and Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream. The righty Betts and lefty Cody Bellinger will be something to see this summer. And don't sleep on left-hander David Price. Moving to the no-DH National League will be just the boost his career needs. The Dodgers could spot each of their four NL West rivals a 10-game head start on Opening Day and still win the division going away.
New York Yankees: Gerrit Cole is exactly the Game 1 starter the Bronx deserves, a legitimate ace to represent as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton (if healthy), DJ LeMahieu and the rest of the Savages take aim at their first World Series title since 2009.
Minnesota Twins: They were in on Zack Wheeler early and, when the right-hander went wheels up to Philadelphia, the Twins dreamed on their Bomba Squad and added slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson. We'll see how Kenta Maeda's stuff plays in the American League, but fair warning: He works so slowly that fans will have more time to scarf up extra skewers of Target Field's Walleye on a Stick.
Cincinnati Reds: The biggest mystery in the game last summer was Cincinnati's lack of offensive punch despite playing with juiced balls in a hitter's park. That's why adding infielder Mike Moustakas and outfielder Nick Castellanos to a team with a rotation that includes Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray sounds as delicious as the ribs at Montgomery Inn. And early word on free agent Shogo Akiyama is that he plays an amazing center field. The Reds are going to be fun.
Chicago White Sox: As intriguing a mix of young and veteran talent as there is in the game. Free agents Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Encarnacion blending with Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Lucas Giolito at least gives South Siders the most hope they've had in years.
5 Worst Winters
Houston Astros: Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang (go the trash cans).
Boston Red Sox: Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang (go the tone-deaf owners).
Chicago Cubs: President of baseball operations Theo Epstein promised us "the reckoning." But all that came was the firing of the manager. No major trades. No free agents. It was the Fourth of July when your sparklers fizzle out.
Colorado Rockies: The Rox mostly sat around in their flannel pajamas (unless you count the additions of infielder Kelby Tomlinson and catcher Elias Diaz as sexy lingerie purchases), and star Nolan Arenado became enraged at what is believed to be the club's lack of interest in, you know, getting up off the couch and doing something this winter.
Pittsburgh Pirates: In a total housecleaning, they fired their team president (Frank Coonelly), general manager (Neal Huntington) and manager (Clint Hurdle). It's a good start, but what really needs to go is owner Bob Nutting.
This Spring's Best Positional Battles
Cubs, second base: Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist are gone (is that part of the reckoning?), which means Javy Baez is the full-time shortstop, leaving David Bote, Nico Hoerner (the future), Daniel Descalso, Ian Happ and Robel Garcia to battle for second.
Nationals, third base: Anthony Rendon's play was too heavenly, so now he's an Angel, and the Nats hope Carter Kieboom (pronounced Kee-boom) wins the job this spring. However, Kieboom (too bad it's not pronounced Ka-boom, huh?) has only played 10 games in his career at third base. If it doesn't take, veteran Asdrubal Cabrera is the fallback with Howie Kendrick possibly spotting in at third here and there.
Mets, rotation: After Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman, three more potentially very good starters are battling for two spots: former AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha and Steven Matz.
White Sox, second base: Top prospect Nick Madrigal, the fourth overall pick of the 2018 draft, is set to take over. But that might be later this summer. Until then, Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick will battle for playing time.
Phillies, second base: Jean Segura played all 144 of his games at shortstop last year in Philadelphia, and then the Phillies went out and signed Didi Gregorius. So Segura moves, and the big question is whether he or Scott Kingery will play second base. Of course, phenom Alec Bohm will push his way into the second base job soon, which means manager Joe Girardi and the club will have some key decisions to make this spring.
Diamondbacks, rotation: Mike Leake's fractured non-throwing wrist (thanks, he says, to aggravating an old injury during a fall while chasing his dog) magnifies the importance of depth, which Arizona has. After Leake, Robbie Ray, Madison Bumgarner and Luke Weaver, the D-backs have Merrill Kelly, Alex Young, Zac Gallen, Jon Duplantier, Taylor Widener and Taylor Clarke. Kelly and Young both had good seasons last year, and Gallen arrived at the trade deadline from Miami last July with terrific potential.
- Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg was on the mound Sunday but not throwing. Instead, on the bullpen mounds, he was without a ball, working on his balance. "I call it baseball yoga," manager Davey Martinez said.
- Mets right-hander Michael Wacha's brother, Lucas, is a linebacker for the Tampa Vipers of the XFL.
- Rarely, if ever, have we seen this much managerial change in a season. Ten of 30 managers this season are new to the job: Ron Roenicke (Red Sox), Dusty Baker (Astros), Mike Matheny (Royals), Joe Maddon (Angels), David Ross (Cubs), Luis Rojas (Mets), Joe Girardi (Phillies), Derek Shelton (Pirates), Jayce Tingler (Padres) and Gabe Kapler (Giants).
- Warning, extreme turbulence ahead: Alex Rodriguez is said to be a candidate to lead an ownership group to buy the Mets. Perfect. He and Derek Jeter going head-to-head as owners in the NL East? Be still, my heart.
- If you're headed to spring training, a few must-stops along the meal trail: Frenchy's in Clearwater Beach, Florida (the grouper sandwiches are incredible), Leftovers Cafe in Jupiter, Florida (sweet potato-encrusted yellowtail snapper or any other fish), Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (sausage and fennel pie), Matt's Big Breakfast in Phoenix (as it sounds), Culinary Dropout in Phoenix (soft pretzels and provolone fondue), Richardson's Cuisine of New Mexico in Phoenix (roasted pork mole, prickly pear margaritas), Oregano's in Phoenix (pizza) and Sweet Republic ice cream in Phoenix.
- Congratulations to Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who is getting married on an off day in the Grapefruit League schedule next month. It is the first marriage for Shildt, 51, who, presumably, won't be honeymooning right away.
- Condolences to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo on the loss of his father, legendary baseball man Phil, who died on Feb. 1 at the age of 90.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.