Category: News

Baseball Will Rise Again, Phoenix-like…But In 30 Locales, Not One

I saw the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview on the stands (a grocery store one, actual bookstores being closed now for several weeks, needless to say) last week. It looked very thin. A much condensed version of its normal annual self, appropriate I suppose for a season which is bound to be a rather condensed and lesser version of a normal season. Why bother putting in a lot of time and effort, they probably figure, to prognosticate about a season that might not even take place?

Of course, this type of thing has to be weighing heavily on Rob Manfred and MLB. The Easter long weekend is all but upon us and, instead of having good crowds out in what’s seeming like an unusually warm spring in the East, with teams looking to get into the double digit win column, we’re still in a holding pattern. MLB TV is running re-runs of old games, and in some markets quickly running out of prime ones to air. One has to think if this keeps up much longer, we’ll start seeing headlines on their website like “See King Felix pitch five shutout innings before giving up two runs in 3-2 loss to Minnesota in meaningless summer 2012 game.”

That considered, one must realize that this pandemic has thrown us all for a loop – individuals and businesses alike. Speaking as a big fan who was looking forward to this 2020 season and a (hopefully) much improved version of my Blue Jays… I’d like to see the games begin. But I also have a lot of other things on my mind. Frankly I don’t spend a huge amount of time every day worrying about the season or speculating on how Toronto would be doing two weeks in. That kind of thinking probably worries Manfred and the owners more than imported novel viruses do. Which brings us to the latest internet rumor and buzz – starting the season up in Phoenix with all the teams in quarantine. The suggestion is that with 10 spring training sites in the metro Phoenix area and the Diamondbacks Chase Field, the entire schedule could be shifted, temporarily at least, to those sites with everyone quarantined and no fans in the stands. The season could begin fairly soon, and not only would fans be happy to get some baseball again, but MLB could capture the national spotlight in a time when organized sports are not taking place anywhere. NBA finals? Nope. Kentucky Derby? Nada. Olympics? Maybe next year. Baseball? Live from an empty field in Surprise, Arizona… How good would that be? Baseball could be the “national pastime” once again.

Someone – probably an Arizonan sports writer – suggested it, now MLB itself is looking at it. In their notice on Continency Plans this week, they say the league is “actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so”, elaborating “while we have discussed the ideas of staging games at one location… we have not settled on that option.”

Let’s hope not. Granted, there are positives to that idea. If they decided right now to go ahead with it, teams could perhaps assemble in the city and work out for a couple of weeks and begin play by the beginning of May. A season of over 120 games could be fitted in, although with no idea yet of how much of that would be limited to Arizona and when games could start in the other 29 big league stadiums.

However, there are problems galore well beyond the simple question of who wants to play games that count in empty stadiums?

The MLB statement clearly says play can commence when public health allows it. Clearly at this point, public health doesn’t. Corona virus is killing off scores of people in New York City and has impacted most MLB markets. Public gatherings are prohibited in most cities and discouraged by both scientists and governments all across the continent. Given the roster size, coaches and others needed, having a game would require violating the CDC and governmental recommendations against large public gatherings.

Everyone involved would need to be quarantined, crowded together in a hotel or two in a city that has been shut down with a “shelter in place” order like most of the rest of the country. In all likelihood, they’d not be able to go out besides practising or the actual games, and wouldn’t have much to be able to go out to even if they wanted to. Players tend to have a tendency to fall into one of two categories. There are famly men, married young guys, often with children who are all about that. And there are the playboys, or “playahs”, or whatever you would call them… young rich guys with flashy cars, thick wallets and lots of wild oats to sew. The ones who like to hit the trendy clubs after every game. Neither of those categories are likely to be happy, or even willing, to voluntarily shut themselves up by themselves in a hotel for an unknown period of time. A month? Two months? The whole season whatever that might be? No wife and kids when you get home. No hot gals in the nightclubs after the Saturday afternoon game. Not too appealing.

And consider the breadth of the problem; the numbers involved. This season teams were supposed to carry an enlarged 26 man roster. But with the late start and ideas for a heavier than normal schedule once it does begin, there’s been wide acceptance of the idea that they might be able to have bigger rosters (29 is often mentioned) for the first month or so at least. So, we’d need 30 teams of 29 players. But, of course, if an injury occurred, or a player was flubbing it, there’d be a need for potential backups. With the minors not in action either, teams would probably need to take along a number of players as backups…maybe their whole 40 man roster. Add in five or six coaches and managers per team and you’re quickly up to 1400 or more people. Add to that a few other staff like trainers and a skeleton crew of office personnel for each club plus umpires (enough for 15 games a day plus one or two subs no doubt), which would be another 70 or 75 men. Then, with empty stands, it would be extra important to have the games all televised or broadcast in some way. Each game might require four or five cameramen, at least, plus some technicians and an announcer or two. Chances are each team would want their own, so perhaps another 250 to 300 technical staff for that.

Then, since they would all be quarantined in hotels, there’s a need for the whole hotel staff – maids, room service people, cooks, you name it – who’d all also presumably need to be prevented from outside contact. Two hundred? Three hundred more? The suggestion would mean ultimately a couple of thousand people holed up together. All would need to be tested and healthy beforehand, and if even one somehow got sick and brought corona into the environment, it might require another lengthy and embarrassing shutdown of unknown length. Not to mention things like if a player had a minor injury that might shut them down for a couple of days normally, but required a doctors visit, would they be forced to go on the DL and self-isolate elsewhere for 15 days? What if a player tested positive but wasn’t showing any symptoms at all? Dr. Fauci suggests up to half the people infected might be asymptomatic and able to go about day-to-day life unhindered, all the while spreading the disease. Imagine a scenario where say Mike Trout felt fine but failed a corona test and the Angels being told they couldn’t use their superstar for over two weeks when he was capable. Any number of bad scenarios exist.

One more factor is that right now, with all that’s going on… maybe fans aren’t on the edge of the seat to get the season going right off. If they had a ball game and nobody came…fans might not necessarily buy into the idea of games taking place that they couldn’t go see and (with the exception of the D’backs) would all be road games really. It wouldn’t be a big money-maker for the league and could actually build up ill will. Particularly if the virus somehow entered the baseball biome and started endangering either star players of innocent hourly workers serving them there.

Yes, it’s a drag. So too is having your favorite restaurant closed, or not being able to browse the new releases with a Starbucks at Barnes and Noble, or having to try to home school high schoolers or seeing your employer shut down indefinitely. Or having loved ones die of a nasty pneumonia from some new alien disease… or any of the other terrible scenarios people are dealing with worldwide right now.

Yes it’s a drag, but suck it up baseball. Start the season when it’s safe for the fans to come out and cheer and feel cheery in all 30 ballparks. Whenever that might be.

Best Case Scenario Not Too Great

This is about when I normally would begin posting my outlook for the year ahead and predictions for standings. Normally. What a pleasantly quaint and welcoming word these days when we are left to wonder what the new “normal” is going to be… or when.

Of course, two things are obvious to the baseball fan. One is that the cancellation of half of Spring Training and the postponement of the regular season sucks. Like Mark Shapiro of the Blue Jays front office said, upon hearing of the delay of Opening Day, “I had a moment where selfishly I was pretty sad and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! There’s great things happening. I want to continue to watch these guys playing.”

Great things indeed. Toronto was sitting at 12-6 with two ties, behind only Philadelphia for the best spring record (Washington, last year’s champions were sitting at a dismal 6-11 for what its worth) and leading the Grapefruit League with 120 runs scored, or 6 per game. Their run differential was +25, behind only the Dodgers and Phillies. Last year’s Gold Glove candidate catcher who couldn’t hit, Danny Jansen, was hitting over .500 (!) and Matt Shoemaker, who was looking like an ace last year til he broke his knee in April, was looking like an ace once again. And on an on.

But Shapiro continued, “I caught myself after about 30 seconds” and that “our immediate concern should be the health and safety of our fans, players and staff.” And that’s the second thing that is obvious to us now.  Something we’re all coming to realize in a time when suddenly lineups at grocery stores full of empty shelves, empty restaurants and no public entertainment events of any sort are becoming routine.

By now, it seems sadly appaent there is no way we can get in a regular 162 game season in this season. Here’s my Best Case Scenario Suggestion, based on the concept that we’ll be able to get this new virus more or less corralled and under control within weeks here, rather than months.

The CDC suggested on the weekend that all events with more than 50 people be canceled for 8 weeks. That would take us to about May 9. Theoretically, MLB could then kick off the 2020 season, if things have cleared up by then.

However, with the restrictions in place, transportation becoming iffy and spring training camps mostly been shuttered, that would mean more than that – about 9 weeks- since players last played. It would be like mid-February all over. Players would need to get in a bit of training, and then need to play a handful of games still to get back up to speed and for the GMs to assess final roster moves.

So let’s say things are fine by May 9. My suggestion of a realistic, but accelerated schedule could look like this.

May 10-11: players return to Spring training camps (Florida and Arizona locations would be best, to facilitate easy transit for training games).

May 12-16 : players work out vigorously

May 17-23: spring training games, 7 per team.

May 23: teams finalize rosters

May 24: travel day

May 25 – Memorial Day. 2020 season begins, with all teams beginning to play.

July 14 – All Star Game in LA, as scheduled, but with only 13th, 14th off (ie games begin again on 15th, not 17th).

October 15 – 128 game schedule finishes, on a Friday night.

October 16-17 – wildcard games played this weekend

October 18-23 – division series

October 25 – November 2 – championship series

November 4 – 12 – World Series. Game 7, if necessary on Thursday night.

The 128 game schedule would consist of 12 interleague games per team, 6 games against each team in their own league but not division and 14 games each against divisional rival. In addition, to accelerate the schedule, each team would host one double-header during the season, (meaning 63 home dates instead of 64) perhaps on two league-wide Fan Appreciation Days. Also, road trips/homestands would be longer… generally 9-12 games at a time, to reduce numbers of travel days off.

Is that ideal? No, far from it. A normal 162 game schedule would be close to ideal. It would be odd to have an All Star game take place when teams have only played around 40 or so games a piece. Players won’t like a number of 10-12 game road trips (though they will be balanced with home stands of the same duration); owners won’t like having even one less home gate in an already abbreviated season. Questions will need to be debated and argued no doubt, over things like players’ service time (we would hope that if the schedule is 128, players on roster would get credit for full-season after 128 games), pay and so on. a shortened playoff timeframe would mean up to World Series, most days more than one game would be going on. And even with this sched, we’re potentially seeing mid-November baseball. By mid-November, overnight lows average below freezing in Minneapolis and snow can be flying in Denver so there’s a good chance that some games in places like those, or Chicago, or Cleveland, will be played in crappy un-baseball-like weather.

Is it ideal? No. But it might be the very best we can hope for now, for 2020.

MLB’s New ‘Two Way’s To Add To Fan Aggravation

Well its been about two weeks since the last post and so, no surprise to regular readers, Leadglove Rob’s been at it again since then. Yes, never ones to let a chance to shoot themselves in the foot go by without bloodying a toe or two at least, MLB is back at it with more ways to make the sport and league just a bit less interesting and appealing to the fans.

First we have the availability of games online. For years now, the league has been promoting MLB.TV as a way to watch any game you want. No worries about what channel your cable provider might have or if you’re out of the house… pay MLB and you can watch any game, every game online on your PC or phone, or any number of other new device. The service has been a little expensive, but for many, it’s a great way to be able to see all your team’s games anywhere you go.

A good system, so whaddya know – they’ve changed it up in a number of markets for the 2020 season. Some (if not all) the teams are going to have blackouts for their local areas, meaning you’ll be able to watch every game … except your hometown faves. For them you’ll be able to go out to the park to “root, root, root for the home team”… or possibly buy another expensive local service. For Jays fans in their main market of Canada, all 3500 miles from sea to shining sea, it would mean buying a new service from the team’s owner’s Rogers’ Communications. Which some fans might do, but would certainly cut down on their desire to renew their MLB.TV account, as not many Toronto fans will be wanting to plonk down something like $150 (in Canuck bucks) to watch those late-night San Diego/ Arizona battles. Yahoo didn’t think much ofYahoo didn’t think much of the plan, but then again, who does?

Next up, another new Rob Manfred rule announced last year that makes little sense to quite a few fans and is perturbing Cincinnati fans … and possibly Toronto ones too! Enter the “Two way player”. Of course, baseball rode a wave of excitement and international interest a couple of years ago when Shohei Ohtani came over from Japan and signed with the Angels. Another good Japanese pitcher, but with a twist … he is a hitter too. Fans were abuzz, even outside of Anaheim, and while so far, Ohtani’s trips to the mound have been limited due to injuries, he’s been a fan favorite and seen by some as a role model for a brand new kind of player. Brand new old school type of player, some would say. Remember that Babe Ruth, the game’s greatest hitter not only had the home run record for about five decades but also managed to pitch 300 innings twice in a season and finish his career with 94 wins and an ERA barely above 2.

Well MLB apparently thinks we don’t want too much fan excitement or too many star players becoming household names, so they’ve installed rules essentially designed to prevent this from becoming more common. As of this year, teams will have to designate a player as a “two-way” if they want to use him as a pitcher as well as position player. Otherwise, non-pitchers can only appear in extra innings or in blow-out games where the lead is over 7 runs. And, to add a snag to having an influx of players designated as such, they decree that player must have not only pitched 20 innings in the current season or the year before, but also have started 20 games as a position player and had 3 or more plate appearances in each of those games. Since Ohtani didn’t actually live upto those numbers they put in a one-time grandfather clause that will let the Angels call him a two-way this season.

Not so lucky, the Cincinnati Reds, who have a similar, if perhaps less-stellar, type player in Michael Laurenzen. they’ve used him both as an outfielder and a regular arm in the bullpen, but even though he logged over 80 innings last season, and playing 100 games in the field, he didn’t qualify because he was often used as a defensive replacement and didn’t always notch 3 times to the plate. The Reds can still use him this year but would have to call him a “pitcher” (which, it’s not clear, may impede his ability to play regularly in the outfield) or an outfielder who can only be called upon infrequently in extra inning games or blow-outs to pitch.

Another player who will suffer from this new rule is… wait for it… Jose Bautista! Wait, you say. The Jose Bautista of “bat flip” fame? The 50-homer hitting Joey Bats of the Blue Jays of yesteryear? The Bautista who’s apparently retired?

Yes, that Jose Bautista. He never officially retired and has been working out all winter, apparently trying to not only play in this year’s Olympics (glad that baseball is apparently reinstated as an Olympic sport!) but wants to get back to the majors as a two-way player. In his prime, he did have a laser of an arm in the outfield, and doubters who’ve watched him come away less dubious. He apparently has a 94 mph fastball, and a good slider with “legitimate tilt”. Former teammate Marcus Stroman has worked out with him and declares Bautista good enough to make many MLB bullpens right now. And while maybe not fast enough with the bat to lead the league in dingers anymore, have no doubt he could still swat a few out of the park and run down a ball or two in the outfield.

The prospect has excited many, especially Toronto fans. Bautista was always well-loved among the Jays faithful and seemed to reciprocate their warmth. With the Jays bullpen so-so and full of possibilites but short of sure-things beyond closer Ken Giles and with the likes of Derek Fisher seeming like contenders for a backup OF spot, many think Jose could actually fit into the 2020 roster. And well, who wouldn’t be a little curious to see the announcer declaring “batting for Texas, second baseman Roughned Odor. And now pitching for the Blue Jays, Jose Bautista…”?

Perhaps unrealistic, perhaps a pipe dream.But what is real is the fact that once again, Rob Manfred and his minions are needlessly draining the game of a little bit more excitement and fun.

Les Rays? La Imbeciles?

If baseball bosses were given awards like players, there’s no chance that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would win a Gold Glove. Clearly Mr. Manfred seems uniquely able to keep dropping the ball every time he gets to it. This month two more examples arise as the players blow the dust off their gloves and bats for Spring training.

First there’s the ongoing Astros debacle. Now, I will say that to me his reaction seemed reasonable. He suspended the Astros manager and GM for a year, he fined the club as much as he could with the limitations of the Collective Bargaining agreement and he took away draft picks. Houston should feel rebuked; Boston should be nervous since they too are apparently under investigation for the same thing and have a direct link through (now fired) manager Alex Cora.

I’m OK with that, as long as there are warnings all around that if it happens again, the punishment is going to be ramped up for players as well as coaches. I am not most fans – or most MLB players – however. Outrage is pouring out of every corner of the baseball world and at a time when the game should be getting an annual dose of positive press – baseball returns after a long winter with games in Florida and Arizona, optimistic projections for even lacklustre teams, players having fun and interacting with fans in small stadiums and so on – it seems story after story revolves around the Astros and their cheating. Apologies have been slow in coming and half-hearted at best from most of the Astros, and perhaps the most believable have been from pitchers (who didn’t benefit directly) and their fired manager AJ Hinch.

As I said to reader Badfinger20 in a comment to the last post, I am not a professional consultant or counselor. But there are such people. The types that companies hire when things go sideways for them – products get tampered with; bosses call minorities the “N” word, engineers falsify pollution tests and so forth. I’m not one of those spin doctors, and neither apparently is Manfred. Maybe he should have used one because this little scandal, now months old, is not only not going away it actually appears to be meta-sizing and snowballing.

Then we have the ongoing problem that is the Tampa Bay Rays. A feisty and usually over-achieving team set in one of the league’s smaller markets, one inhabited it might seem by people who don’t care much for baseball. This is not Manfred’s mistake in itself. The team existed for a couple of decades before he took the job running the league and, when it was awarded a franchise, Tampa seemed like a viable spot for a team. After all, it had an older population (typically more of the generations who love baseball) and has been a major, popular center for Spring training. The Rays should have done fine.

They haven’t. Now, on field, they’ve had some success and post a competitive team more often than not, so they’re A-OK in that department. However, off field things haven’t been so kind to the Rays. They have a stadium that almost everybody despises, in St. Petersburg which is across the bay from most of the metro area’s populace. And attendance is continually abysmal, at or near the bottom of the league year after year. TV ratings aren’t wildly exciting either which clouds the answer to whether the stadium is the problem itself.

Over twenty years in, one might think the answer would be to relocate the club. There are a number of cities of sufficient size and probably enthusiasm that could host a Major League club – Charlotte and Las Vegas come to mind quickly. But MLB has been reluctant to let them move away, and Manfred seemed to double down on that. Tampa it is, sink or swim. Until now.

Once again a ridiculous scheme has come forward and is getting a nod of approval from Manfred. that would be to have the Rays split their season between Tampa and… wait for it… Montreal!

Yes, the big idea is that the team could stay and play half the time in central Florida and play the other half of the season up in Francophone Canada. One team, two cities, two countries! What could go wrong?! they want to implement the plan in 2028.

This is flat out one of the dumbest ideas to come out of MLB’s offices yet… and there’ve been some doozies of late.

First off, neither city even has a suitable stadium right now. The plan necessitates both cities building fine new outdoors parks. Tampa’s, as noted, is poorly located and domed, lacking charm while in Montreal, the Olympic Stadium last used for baseball is equally charmless and actually cost the Expos home games in the past due to parts of it crumbling and being a hazard to fans and players alike. Oh yes, if you haven’t been keeping track, Montreal had a MLB team in the past. The Expos were not unlike the Rays… a team which produced many great players and had some good seasons but lagged in attendance before they moved to Washington DC in 2005.

So far, no one’s been able to come up with funding to make a suitable stadium in Tampa. Taxpayers have turned down additional taxes to fund one and big business hasn’t signed on to build one to profit from either. About the same is true in Montreal. Now up there, it’s not entirely implausible to think someone might pony up for a stadium. Bell comes to mind, the main competitor to Rogers in Canada’s tele-communications market. Rogers owns the Toronto Blue Jays and their stadium; one might imagine Bell wanting a piece of that action down the 401 in the country’s “second city.” It’s more difficult to foresee that happening for a team which would only play half a season per year there.

There are a number of minor issues that come to mind – what would the uniforms say, would there be different ones for the Montreal games than the Floridian ones? There are more major issues.

While a high-profile, high salary free agent (think Gerritt Cole type) might play anywhere at all if the paycheque is right, the arrangement might be a significant deterrent to ordinary free agents when picking a team. If you’re a utility player looking to make $1 million a year, do you want to have to rent a condo in one city or two cities out of your cheque? If you’re from say, Mississippi and have small kids, it might be a family upheaval if you play in California or Illinois… do the wife and kids stay at home until the school year ends, move full-time etc. Multiply that by two. I’m guessing the Bi-national Rays wouldn’t be a popular destination of choice for players who had a choice.

Worse yet, the fans. Announcing this dodo plan now is just dense. It’s not going to rev up fans in Quebec. Eight years away seems a lifetime in sport and the whole thing hinges on a stadium appearing out of the blue. And it seems to suggest that they could see mid-summer games (when the climate is nice there and Florida is humid and prone to thunderstorms most days) but if they make the post-season, the games would be in warm-weather Tampa. Yay! We could watch on TV! Even if a few ball fans there get excited, are they likely to cross a national border and travel 1500 miles to patronize Tropicana Field and “their” new team? Hardly.

On the other hand, one can well imagine that the small, but reasonably loyal, Tampa Bay fans will take this like a sucker-punch to the gut. You get to keep your team, but only halfway. You now have friends in another country, mes ami!

Tampa’s done very well on field the past two seasons; last year winning 96 and finishing second in a tough division. Yet attendance was steady at 1.178 million,or about 14 300 a game. that put them 29th out of 30 teams, ahead of only their counterparts further south in the state, Miami. In 2018, yep… the same. 29th out of 30.

The Rays almost always seem to exceed expectations on field. Still, I can’t envision them matching last year’s 96 win tally with Hunter Renfroe as the cleanup hitter, their top pitcher being 36 years old and a catcher who hit .165 last year. but maybe they’ll surprise. What I am more sure of is that they will be hard-pressed to lure even 14 300 fans out per game with this plan floating over them.

Lead Glove” Manfred strikes again.

Fold Them Sox?

Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden has nothing on the debate likely to erupt when you put two baseball fans – especially Boston ones – together in the same room right now. Of course there are topics aplenty that crop up like the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing in 2017, but the one on everyone’s mind currently is the big trade. The three-way trade between Boston, the Dodgers and Minnesota … which is yet to be finalized because the Red Sox are apparently balking a bit at the medical tests of one pitcher they should receive.

We’ll streamline the trade by only really looking at the two main players in it, L.A. and Boston. And boy, the one trade certainly exemplifies a lot of the dilemmas for baseball – its fans and its operators both – these days. Who won? Who lost? Is Boston being sensible or giving the middle finger to its loyal fans? Unfortunately, there’s probably no one right answer to these questions.

As a recap, the Red Sox send “name” stars outfielder Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price to L.A. in return for young outfielder Alex Verdugo, and Minnesota rookie pitcher Brusdar Graterol, while Minny in turn get Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda.

At the west coast end of the trade, there’s not really a whole lot to debate it would seem, and from here, it seems like their fans are happy. And why not? While the team has won 7-straight divisions and seemed to already be cake-walking to an eighth straight before they even set foot on the grass. But, they have also been frustrated in their attempts to turn that into a World Series championship. Last year, they bowed out unexpectedly in the NLDS to the Wild Card-winning Nationals. There was a thought that they really lacked enough hitting … they had decent hitting, sure, but not the type of combination of bats that would take them to the promised land. Getting Betts should give them that. Meanwhile, David Price, no longer in his prime should be an upgrade over Maeda. They give up a good youngster in Verdugo, but they have lots of minor league talent and Verdugo projects to be a star but not a superstar. The only downside to the deal for L.A. is it jacks up their payroll and probably puts them into the luxury tax bracket.

For the Atlantic end though, the picture is much cloudier. The Red Sox give up their best, and most-popular player plus a good, if not great, starting pitcher and get back that decent, but not great young outfielder and a hard-throwing young minor league pitcher. The roster is clearly weaker now… but they save a bundle of cash and perhaps look better two, three years down the road. They would argue they’re building for the future and just letting up on the gas a bit this year, a season when no one at all was picking them to usurp the first-place Yankees in the division. To the fans though, they’re giving up their heart and soul and throwing in the towel only one season removed from winning it all. Indeed, the Washington Post ran a headline after the trade that read “Red Sox seemingly concede AL East to rival Yankees.” That’s gotta “ouch” if you’re one of the Fenway Faithful.

Let’s look at the details. This was largely a money-driven trade. Seems there’s rarely a different type these days, unfortunately. Betts got an arbitration-awarded $27M for this year and will be a free agent next winter. Price has $96M left over the next three years on his contract. Verdugo on the other hand, isn’t even arbitration-eligible and will earn less than $1M this season, and little more next; Maeda was under contract for about $3M. The trade boosts the Dodgers payroll (per Sportrac) to $215.8M, second only to the Yankees this year. The Sox, on the other hand, drop below the tax threshold to about $179M, fifth highest. (For you wondering, Toronto is ranked as 20th with a $96M bill.)

For L.A., it’s clear. They want to win, they want to win now. Betts was the AL MVP in 2018, the runner-up in 2016, and they hope the even-year trend will carry on and cross league lines. And with good reason. Even last year, a supposedly “down” year for Mookie, he hit .295 with 29 HR, 80 RBI and a .391 OBP. He lead the league scoring 135 runs and won his fourth-straight Gold Glove. His mammoth 2018 season, an injury-marred one no less, he hit .346 and was worth a WAR of 10.9. Betts averages 94 RBI and 44 doubles a year over the past four years. He is as good a bat as they could wish for to add some real “oomph” to the lineup that boasts Justin Turner and NL MVP Cody Bellinger already.

Price may not be a Cy Young candidate anymore – he last won votes for that in 2015 – but with Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw already in town, he won’t need to be. He just has to be a decent #3 starter, which he likely will be. If he’s better than Maeda, it’s a bonus for the blue-and-white. Chances are he will be that too. Even though two of his past three years have seen him suffer injuries, he’s averaged 21 starts, 119 innings and better-than-average ERA through them. In 2018, the Sox World Series year, he was 16-7, with an ERA of 3.58 through 30 starts and a 4.4 WAR. He may not be the 6.6 WAR guy from 2012, or the one who pitched upwards of 186 innings every year from ’10-15, but he’s still a more than capable lefty who should excel in the pitcher-friendly NL West. Maeda on the other hand, while only four years into his MLB career, is 32 in April to Price’s 34, and has been on a slow downward-trajectory since his rookie season in 2016. That year he was 16-11, had a 3.48 ERA that was 58% better than league average and he hurled 176 innings. All those ’16 numbers have been his career best so far; last year he was consigned to the bullpen for a part of the year and had his ERA rise to over 4. Bottom line- L.A. is a better team, and one that has a greater chance of getting to the World Series than they were before the deal. It’s a financially costly one for them, but they are a rich franchise who will make the money back through increased attendance next year and merch sales if they finally bring a championship to SoCal.

Red Sox fans aren’t so sure they are better off though, and it’s easy to see why. Verdugo is a fine young outfielder. He hit .294 in his first full season last year (he had brief call-ups in both 2017 and ’18) and so far in his career, through a total 158 games (about one season in full) he’s .282 with 14 homers and a .784 OPS. Last year he got a WAR of 3.1 including a smart 1.2 with his defense. Athlon Sports last season ranked him as L.A.’s second-best prospect. He’s got decent speed, a good glove and will probably develop a bit of power as he matures. What he isn’t is Mookie Betts, or a likely MVP anytime soon. And the pitcher they get to replace Price is a youngster from Minnesota, Brusdar Graterol. He’s a flamethrower, according to scouting reports, with a 102 MPH fastball, and a very good slider. He’s a rightie and 21. Athlon ranks him as the 38th best prospect in the game. However, there are a few red flags. He’s listed as 6’1” and 265 pounds, which is a little offputting for a young pitcher. We remember how roly-poly Bartolo Colon was, but not everyone’s the Bartman. In addition, through four levels of ball last year (A-AA-AAA-Majors) he logged only 70 innings. Sure he was better than a K per inning in the minors where he had a 1.95 ERA, but he only started in AA. Apparently the Red Sox are having second thoughts about his health and see him as a bullpen arm rather than a starter to add to an “iffy” rotation alongside Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Sale had a career-worst year and looked “off” last year, Eovaldi disappointed, Perez has never been more than an innings-eater and bottom of rotation guy which leaves Rodriguez as the closest thing to a sure thing in their rote now. He had 19 wins, 203 innings and the softest-contact rate off him of any AL starting pitcher last year. If Sale rebounds to his old self and Eovaldi improves, they might be OK. If those two see the downward spiral continue, the pitching could be a horror show. Either way, Graterol is unlikely to add much depth to the starting rotation, although he looks like he might be a good set-up guy. They will feel the loss of David Price either way. It’s easy to see why their fans are up in arms.

The Red Sox owners counter though that Betts is a free agent after this year. Sure he might have a monster MVP year, but he’s likely to walk away for 2021 anyway in search of a $400M contract. And even if they pony up that money to keep him, the result is likely going to be an albatross of a contract that no one in Boston would like four or five years into a nine or ten years. Ask Anaheim and their fans about that, vis a vis Albert Pujols. They get an outfielder who could develop into something special and will be around for five years anyway. In shedding Price, they unload an aging star who’s already overpaid in context of the league norms and might be terribly so by 2022. They’ve been prudent, they say, and if it costs them a few wins in 2020, let’s face it, it will only narrow the gap between Toronto and them since they weren’t going to be up there with Tampa, let alone New York. Fans should thank them.

It’s a tough call to make. Baseball is in many ways like poker and as Kenny says, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold ’em.” Who is right, who is wrong? L.A. seem to come out clearly ahead, even if Mookie walks away after this season and even if they end up paying an extra $10M or so to the league in “tax” for bumping their payroll. The Red Sox hand was much more difficult to play. On the one hand, they in all likelihood were heading to an about 85 win, third place season out of the post-season, and paying tax on their bloated payroll. After this trade, they now will probably be no better than a .500 team and have every chance of falling behind the Jays into fourth place. But their payroll is trimmed and, if Betts ends up in New York pinstripes next year and if Price continues to show signs of aging; they still have two up-and-coming stars on their roster they wouldn’t have otherwise. Perhaps prudent but still a stinging rebuke to their large, loyal fanbase. One could hardly blame them for forgoing a trip or two to the park this season when it seems clear their team’s bosses have thrown in the towel.

Hold ’em? Fold ’em? It’s more and more a question for a majority of teams and it begs the question is it sensible to go all out to win as much as possible when no one thinks you’re going to be a champion? Owners usually say “no.” Fans usually say “yes!” One might think the 1990 Reds and 2015 Royals would agree.

The Chase For Success Begins…

A long, long time ago, those of us Blue Jays fans old enough to remember times when the likes of Dave Roberts and Brad Ausmus were players rather than gray-haired managers, might recall the phrase “Stand Pat.” Of course, Toronto sports fans didn’t create the phrase, but they did get a lot of use out of it in the context of expressing the team’s tactic of leaving well enough alone when Pat Gillick was running the show. While in retrospect, the Gillick era did anything but (the biggest trade of the team’s history, arguably, the one with San Diego which brought in Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter was done under his watch, as were free agent signings of big names like Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor) it was a good enough strategy when the team was continually winning and missed the playoffs only once between 1989 and 1993. However, Gillick’s long since moved onto different organizations and so too have the great years. Coming off a 95 loss season when 21 different starting pitchers were used, “stand pat” would not be a viable option.

So, Monday’s activity in itself is some reason for guarded optimism. Team president Mark Shapiro has said the team needs to get better, and fast, and that has to begin with an upgrade to starting pitching. GM Ross Atkins apparently is listening. The Blue Jays made a few roster moves yesterday, the most noteworthy being a trade with Milwaukee for a starting pitcher; also worth noting, “veterans” Ryan Tepera and Devon Travis have been removed off the 40-Man roster. We’ll start with those.

Travis is the type of player you hate to see go, and the type you root for. Rowdy Tellez pretty much credits him for talking him out of quitting baseball a couple of seasons back and almost everyone in the organization, young and old, cite Devon as one of the most upbeat, positive players they’ve been around. When he came to Toronto before the 2015 season, he was a major prospect, a second baseman with good range and speed and a great bat. Unfortunately, he’s been something of a walking medical journal with injuries that just seem to follow one another like dominoes falling. Damage to his knees is said to have limited his fielding range and the only time he ever hit 400 plate appearances was back in 2016. He missed all of last season, and by now seeing his spot as a regular on the big club blocked by Cavan Biggio, it’s no wonder he chose to refuse an assignment to the minors and become a free agent.

Ryan Tepera is much more of a mystery. The pitcher was “DFA’d” or designated for assignment, and to most fans it seems to make very little sense. Like Travis, he arrived with the Blue Jays in 2015. Since then he’s been one of , maybe the most consistent member of the bullpen. Although he did miss June, July and August this season with surgery on his elbow, the rightie came back in September and looked decent. He pitched in11 games, with a 3.38 ERA. Getting rid of him on a roster with such thin pitching makes no sense, unless as someone suggested to meon Twitter, the team doc is saying more than the public knows. The counter-balance is Shi Davidi, long time TV analyst for the team who suggests it’s just a “Moneyball” cost-cutting strategy. Which I would add will backfire not only in giving away a solid middle reliever but also suggesting to other players there’s no loyalty to long-term players in Toronto.

The Big Deal , and The Price is Right, was the trade with the Brewers. The team picked up starting pitcher Chase Anderson for a AA minor-league infielder/outfielder who frankly showed very little promise. So, a good trade for Toronto as long as they aren’t going to cry “poor”…Anderson has a contract for 2020 at $8.5M and an option for the next year at $9.5M – a bargain compared to projections for Gerritt Cole’s upcoming contract, but not real cheap nonetheless. Too expensive for small-market Milwukee evidently, owing to Anderson’s decent but not spectacular career.

Last year, Anderson was 8-4 with a 4.21 ERA over 30 games and 139 innings. Over his final three regular season starts, he went 4, 6 and 5 innings and gave up just 2 runs. Career-wise, the pitcher with a very good curveball but mediocre fastball will be 32 on opening day and has put together a 53-40 record and 3.94 ERA. Nothing special but by no means bad. He has never topped 160 innings but he’s stayed pretty healthy and clearly said in the news conference that he thought he could’ve gone deeper into the game on a number of starts last season and gotten closer to 200 innings if given the chance – a promising attitude at least. On the upside, he’s been good and fast in his delivery and has managed to get over half potential base stealers three out of his six years. On the negative, although a ground ball pitcher by and large (a very good thing for Toronto), an alarming number of his flyballs fly far and leave the park. In 2018, he led the NL in home runs given up with 30. Not promising in a division with tiny parks and unusual numbers of heavy hitters.

Anderson as reviewers have pointed out, would be a reliable back-of-rotation guy on most teams. Nothing remarkable, but a solid, ordinary #5 starter. On the Jays though, right now he could slot in as the “ace”. His ERA last year, even when converted to AL equivalent at 6% better than average would convert to 4.33 – slightly ahead of Jacob Waguespack’s 4.38 among starters the team ended the year with. And his measly 139 innings would have ranked him second behind rookie Trent Thornton.

Takeaway from it :a good trade since the team gave up little. Anderson could be a very good #5 pitcher, even if maybe a bit overpaid for that role. We’ll give the move a conditional “thumbs up”… conditional on Ross Atkins not saying “voila! I got you another veteran pitcher, we’re done.” Because clearly, the work should have only begun.

Road To World Series; Viva Las Vegas?

It’s said that good pitching trumps good hitting. I don’t always subscribe to that theory but this year, it works for me. So with the Division Series done with, we’re left with 4 very good teams, any of whom could advance to the World Series. But I’ll go with the teams with the “Aces” and pick Houston and their home advantage over New York in 5 and the surprising Washington Nationals over St. Louis in 7.

In the AL, both teams have pretty solid, comparable hitting but you have to give the nod to the team with home advantage (where they won 60 games this season) and have Gerritt Cole (25 K, only 3 walks, 6 hits in 15 2/3 innings over his two starts vs Minnesota) and Justin Verlander (1 win, 1 loss in his two starts but still… Justin Verlander!) not to mention Zac Greinke.

In the NL, the Cards showed they can hit with the best of them (I had for several months thought Ozuna was under-rated and a good player for Toronto to target this off-season to upgrade their OF hitting and defense; alas, with 6 runs, 9 hits and an .857 slugging percentage in that first series, one must expect his cost just jumped) but then, so can Washington. The Cards don’t have Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer, so even with the home advantage, look for those two durable super tossers to tip the scales in the Nats favor.

***

The Nationals were the last team to relocate in MLB, as we remember, moving south from Montreal in 2005. But commissioner Rob Manfred suggested we might see another move soon. He issued a veiled threat to Oakland politicians that the Athletics could be moved to Las Vegas.

The issue is about the stadium the A’s use – now called Oakland Coliseum, previously MacAfee Coliseum, previously Oakland Alameda Coliseum – and fans and players alike abhor. It’s been in use right back to the green-and-yellows West Coast start, over 50 years back. The structure was never ideal, and now is disliked for its old look, uncomfortable seating, small clubhouses and frequent issues with sewage overflowing. The A’s obviously want a new stadium, but they don’t have the finances to come up with a new state-of-the-art facililty themselves and the city, and Alameda Co. haven’t been too warm to the idea of them picking up the tab. To make matters worse, both the city and county co-own the field and the lot it sits on, and right now the city is suing the county over a plan the county liked to sell the stadium to the team, which could redevelop it.

Manfred referenced the NFL Radiers move out of Oakland and said “unless things change, Bay Area fans may be going to Las Vegas or elsewhere to watch the Athletics as well.” He later back-tracked on it, but the Oakland mayor is adamant that he suggested it to the council and specifically referenced “Las Vegas.”

To me, it would be a move which could make sense. Oakland’s stadium is apparently very outdated, and with sewage issues, not a desireable spot for a nice Sunday out. But even if they could get a new stadium, one wonders if that would be enough. While the Bay Area is a large metro area, baseball’s never been king there and the A’s always – always – seem to play second fiddle to the San Francisco Giants across the bay.

To whit, the Giants drew 2 708 000 fans this year, while winning 77 and coming in third in the NL West. The A’s, on the other hand, won 97, made it to the post-season via the Wild Card for the second year in a row, and brought in 1 662 000. that left them 18% below the AL average attendance.

Nor was that a “blip”. For Oakland, the attendance did rise a bit over 2018, and 2017 when their 1 476 000 left them 36% under league average, but still wasn’t good. A team with underdog personality makes the playoffs twice in a row and still draws about 5000 fewer fans a game than an “average” team. The last time they exceeded the league average was 2003. The Giants, on the other hand, have topped 3 million attendance 17 out of the 20 seasons this century, and winning or losing seems almost irrelevent to their fans. Granted a nice, new comfy stadium with plenty of boxes would probably appeal and help them draw more, but one has to question whether there is ever going to be enough interest in the team to bring out numbers, or enough interest in baseball to support two major league teams.

Las Vegas seems overdue, with a city population nearing 700 000 and a fast-growing metro area of 2 227 000, comparing decently at least to places like Kansas City and Minnesota. With its growing population and huge tourist trade, it would seem like a good spot for a team. And being in the far West, it wouldn’t require any shake up of the divsional structure. The A’s would still be a natural fit for the west.

The solution isn’t without problems though. Namely, no one seems to have come forward from Vegas to suggest they’d finance a team and its roster. More importantly, there isn’t a suitable stadium in the city. The AAA team, the 51s (or Aviators as they apparently have been renamed) play at Las Vegas Ballpark, a decent minor league facility with capacity of 10 000. Adequate for minors, not even close to major league ready. The move would necessitate a new stadium, and I dare say, with an average high of 100-degrees or more through most of the summer, a roofed one too (an opening roof would be ideal for those nice summer evenings or 75-degree desert April days). Who’s going to pony up for that, and how long would it take? Clark County isn’t likely to be much more accomodating than California’s Alameda County if they get asked to perhaps throw in half a billion dollars to help bring baseball to the city.

Bottom line. Baseball teams can move, and be successful. On the other hand, new owners and a new stadium can sometimes perform miracles for an existing one. Either way, I hope the A’s find a resolution soon. It’s too bad a team that has over-performed so much of late has so few fans and dollars to show for it.