For the first time since the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency, MLB team spending on player salaries will decline, according to numbers compiled by Paul Hembekides, a researcher for ESPN Stats & Information.
That’s 14 consecutive years of pretty steady growth, followed by decline. The players’ share of the pie continues to get smaller, and for the owners, even larger.
There are plenty of signs that the winter of 2017-18 was the first wave in a troubling trend, from the explosion in the number of free agents — the volume works against the players as a function of supply and demand — to the recent rash of signings of young players who agree to forgo free agency for a year or two or three. The players are aware of all of this, of course, and spring training camps were filled with conversations about what should come next for the union. When Tony Clark met with teams, some players asked the executive director very hard questions. The frustration and anger over the financial shift is raw and deep.
But to date, the union’s collective response has been surprisingly slow, and probably for the obvious reason: In an industry in which careers average only a few years at the big league level, the players are mostly focused on their work. On pitching, on hitting, on the increased preparation required for games scheduled almost daily for six months.
This is why Clark needs to drive the changes that are needed, as soon as possible. In some presidential administrations, cabinet secretaries will provide letters of resignation that can be used when needed, so when the president sees a need for change, he can execute it quickly.
Given the current context, a letter of resignation from Clark would push the players’ executive committee into needed action. This wouldn’t necessarily mean that the letter would be accepted or that Clark’s role or title would even change. But it would give the players an immediate opportunity to reassess, to restructure, to strengthen their side.
And with that proffer of resignation, Clark should recommend that the players create an advisory board — a legal brain trust — that could evaluate the union’s position and challenges, and offer suggestions. The counsel of Don Fehr and Gene Orza could be gleaned in this way. Virginia Seitz, who has successfully argued cases on behalf of the players’ association in the past, would be another name to consider.
As it stands, some players have talked about waiting until the executive-board meeting in the forthcoming offseason to give Clark more time for change on his own. Clark is well-liked and well-respected as a person, and some players respect how much he cares for them. But the players should not wait to start the engine of change.
“Each day that passes jeopardizes the next market,” one agent said, “and limits [the group] that is going to lead. Each day that passes is a lost day.”
A big-picture strategy is needed as soon as possible to combat the effects of the recent spending trends: the front-office aversion to investing in free agents over 30 years old; the increased specialization of roles, which limits the earning power of pitchers and position players being rested more often; the enormous classes of free agents.
But the union cannot adequately prioritize issues and create the desperately needed vision until it determines what form the leadership will take, whether Clark leads a revamped legal team or he works in concert with an all-star team of union lawyers or new lawyers take control.
There was talk among some players in spring training about preparing for labor war when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in a few years. That can be helpful only if those conversations serve to educate a generation of players who haven’t been through a work stoppage.
But there are a whole lot of steps that could be taken before the summer of 2021. None of them can really be explored until the players create the leadership they want and need. Once that happens, the players’ association can purposefully engage Major League Baseball on the issues that folks on both sides see as problematic — for example, the increased number of teams that tank seasons and don’t spend. Those conversations will take time — for idea exchange, for bargaining, for identifying common ground and solutions.
Clark would help the players he really cares about by leading them to the changes the union needs.
• Inevitably, there will be more spending on free agents next winter than this winter, because the class might include Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and Josh Donaldson. “Beyond that, it is going to be a disaster — again,” an agent predicted.
From Hembekides: Teams committed almost a billion dollars less in major league free-agent contracts this offseason than each of the previous two, dropping to $1.47 billion from $2.41 billion in 2016-17 and $2.53 billion in 2015-16. As a result, it’s obviously safe to speculate if payroll growth will ever gain the momentum it did for much of the past 15 years.
Challenges and quirks in the regular-season schedule
As Giants players shook hands Friday night, Joe Panik worked to suppress a grin. In each of San Francisco’s first two games of the season, a solo home run by Panik represented the only scoring in the game — the first time the Giants had won consecutive 1-0 decisions on the road since 1908. And this comes at a time when San Francisco is without Madison Bumgarner (out until late May or early June), Jeff Samardzija (expected back sometime in April) and closer Mark Melancon (out indefinitely) — and when the Giants’ schedule is loaded with early games against the Dodgers. Ten of San Francisco’s first 28 games are against Los Angeles, and they need early-season heroes such as Panik.
Some other interesting schedule quirks from early this season:
• The Marlins could get buried quickly: Miami’s new ownership made the decision to slash payroll and trade just about any expensive player it could, to reposition the team. So the Marlins will be likely be terrible by design, and on top of that, their April schedule is packed with games against high-end teams out of their division: four against the Cubs, then two against the Red Sox, two at Yankee Stadium on April 16-17, four in Milwaukee, then three at Dodger Stadium. If those games play out as expected, it could be that by May 1, the Marlins should prepare in earnest for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
• The Nationals could have a pillow-soft schedule in the second half: Washington and the Marlins play only three games before July 5, leaving a whole lot of second-half cupcakes on the table. Twelve of the Nationals’ final 60 games are against the Marlins.
• The Dodgers have a fair bit of travel down the stretch: Sometimes, the West Coast teams can mostly stay in the Pacific time zone in the last weeks, but over the final five weeks of the regular season, the Dodgers will have trips to Texas, Colorado, Cincinnati and St. Louis.
• The Astros will get a lot of their tougher out-of-division games out of the way early: By June 4, Houston will have played home-and-home sets against the Yankees and Indians, as well as a four-game set against the Red Sox. Eighteen of Houston’s first 61 games are against the Indians, Yankees and Red Sox.
• The Cubs have a chance to break out strongly: Chicago will see a lot of the National League’s weakest teams early, including 13 games against the Marlins and Braves by May 17.
• The Red Sox will have a chance to feast on the Rays: The Tampa Bay-Boston rivalry has always been underrated in its intensity — remember Gerald Williams charging Pedro Martinez, one of many brawls between the teams? But the Red Sox are loaded now, and the Rays are restructuring. Boston will play most of its 2018 games against Tampa Bay by May 24 — 13 of 19 matchups. And then the Red Sox won’t see the Rays again until Aug. 17 and not once in September.
News from around the majors
Kershaw threw inside at a higher rate than any pitcher in baseball in 2017, in keeping with a career-long habit of bullying hitters. But on Opening Day, his average fastball was down to a career-low 90.7 mph, and he attacked the outer half of the strike zone in his final few innings, often with off-speed pitches, and kept the Giants’ hitters off-balance, allowing one run in six innings. Some evaluators believe Kershaw would benefit from making the same transition CC Sabathia has made during his career; by consistently using both sides of the plate, he can be less predictable and more difficult for hitters to diagnose.
From ESPN Stats & Information research, no pitcher threw inside at a higher rate last season than Kershaw. He threw 40.2 percent of his pitches inside, a full 3 percent higher than any other player.
Another interesting note about Kershaw’s pitch locations: He threw 70.1 percent of his pitches in the lower half of the strike zone last season, more than 10 percent higher than he has thrown in any other season in the past 10.
• Because Hal Steinbrenner’s Yankees opened this season ranked just seventh among teams in payroll, they are well-positioned to make significant midseason deals, if needed. Last year, the Yankees wanted Justin Verlander but had to let him pass by on waivers because they didn’t have the payroll flexibility to spend. This year, they will likely be among the most aggressive teams, particularly in the August waiver period, with a chance to make an already good club even better.
• The Dodgers appear to have found a great bullpen piece in right-hander J.T. Chargois, who was placed on waivers by the Twins in late February. He was thrilled and surprised that L.A. made the claim, and followed the Dodgers’ suggestion that he move from the third-base side of the pitching rubber to the first-base side, a shift designed to improve his angle and command. Chargois got strong results in spring training and in his first appearance of the regular season.
Baseball Tonight podcast
Thursday: A chat with Kershaw about adjustments; Jessica Mendoza on the Giants and Dodgers; Keith Law on the Astros and predictions; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Wednesday: Jerry Crasnick on the big moment for the Blue Jays and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., plus predictions; Hembekides, about the spending trend in Major League Baseball; and a great story out of the White Sox organization about a man who spent 23 years in prison wrongfully but now has his old job back with the team.
Tuesday: Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons on defense, Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler; Boog Sciambi on the Greg Bird injury and a possible domino effect from the cold free-agent market; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Astros-Dodgers about more than just bad blood
The Houston Astros have more pressing issues than their 2017 misdeeds.
While their cheating scandal will again be part of the narrative when they face the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend, the reality of 2020 is the Astros are under .500 and — despite being a virtual lock for the postseason because of this season’s new format and competing in a poor division — jockeying for the best possible playoff seed.
They’ll also be facing a Dodgers team that holds the best record in baseball and is the favorite to win the World Series.
“The Dodgers have an unbelievable team. They pitch really well. They play defense. They hit. They have played a lot better baseball than we have this year. And that’s what we’re focused on,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told ESPN. “We got beat twice by them last time we played them. For us, it’s about trying to find a way to be a good baseball team because they’re hard to beat.”
Tempers flared in Houston in late July when the teams met for the first time since an MLB investigation revealed the Astros had cheated by using a camera-based sign-stealing system during their 2017 championship run. That run culminated in a World Series victory for the Astros in seven games over the Dodgers.
During a two-game sweep by L.A., hard-throwing reliever Joe Kelly tossed a pitch in the area of Bregman’s head and taunted shortstop Carlos Correa after striking him out, prompting both benches to clear. Kelly later received an eight-game suspension for his actions, reduced to five games on appeal.
Kelly’s pouty expression, directed at Correa, has since been immortalized in a mural in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, a few miles from Dodger Stadium.
“You can’t look back at what happened. At this point in the season, every game is crucial. When you’re playing against a great team like the Dodgers, you have to be ready to go. You have to be at your best and ready to play, and not think about anything else,” Bregman said. “These games are bigger games for us than they are for the Dodgers just because of where we are in the season. We need to win. We’re playing .500 baseball right now and need to start playing better as a unit. You have to do that in order to beat a team like the Dodgers. The intensity is definitely going to be there for us because these are must-win ballgames.
“The Dodgers are the best team in baseball. Our focus has to be on trying to win a baseball game. We need to put together good team at-bats, and we need to hit with runners in scoring position. And they have a great pitching staff so that’s tough to do. And we have to play solid defense. And you have to pitch well. They have an unbelievable lineup, All-Stars all the way through that lineup. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Though the Astros apologized this spring and said they believed they had the team to win in 2017, without sign-stealing, the scandal didn’t just disappear. Calls for Houston to vacate the title and players to be punished echoed loudly throughout the game. But once the sports world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, big-picture attention shifted from disparaging the Astros for banging trash cans to coming up with ways to put together an abbreviated championship season.
The Astros caught another break when the season restart required competing without fans as part of MLB’s expansive health and safety protocols. Before the pandemic, outraged fans had anticipated Houston’s visits to their home ballparks to voice their displeasure at players they considered cheaters.
Still, the fact that the players themselves were not punished by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who granted them immunity during the league’s investigation, did not sit well with many of their opponents.
“Sometimes you simply will not be able to change people’s perspective. They are going to think what they are going to think. And that’s fine. It’s their prerogative,” Correa said. “For many, it did not matter that we asked for forgiveness. We were accused of not being honest in our apology and all that. We said we were sorry. We were honest in our apology. And now it’s about playing baseball. We have to focus on our job, which is trying to make the playoffs and win a World Series again. That is our only focus. It cannot be on anything else.”
Said Bregman: “Like so many teams, our team has gone through a ton of adversity with injuries this year. And our team has done a great job of being resilient and really coming together. Each day that goes by we’re trying, we’re trying every single day, to move on and worry about playing baseball. So that’s what matters. If you focus on anything else besides winning games, you’re not doing your job.”
In looking back at the first Dodgers series this season, Bregman’s attention is on correcting his mistakes. And, maybe more than occasionally, taking in a Mookie Betts at-bat.
“There was a ball hit to my left that I tried too much,” Bregman said of a throwing error that contributed to four fifth-inning runs in Los Angeles’ 5-2 win July 28. “I threw the ball home but should have just gone to second base and tried to turn a double play that way. But since I threw the ball home, we didn’t. It was an error. The inning went on and you can’t give extra outs to a team that is that talented and that good.
“And Mookie has been unbelievable. Definitely one of my favorite players to watch,” Bregman said. “I personally try and learn a lot from just watching his swings. I think he does so many good things mechanically that I try and incorporate. And what he does a great job of is hitting a ball in the air to the pull side of the field. And when you pull a ball in the air correctly, with backspin inside the baseball, I love it. And that’s cool, man.”
As for Kelly, the Dodgers activated him off the injured list, where he had been because of right shoulder inflammation, but the reliever will serve his five-game suspension and will not be available for the series.
“[Joe Kelly] is one of the best pitchers in the majors. The Dodgers have so many of those. And all we want to do is compete and show who is best that day,” Correa said. “We are athletes. And sometimes we say things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. But what the Astros and the Dodgers want is to compete and show who the best is. This is an important series, and if that is what it takes for people to tune in, then that’s great.
“Every team wants to play on Sunday Night Baseball because everybody is watching,” he said. “All the players are traveling and they want to see the game on the plane. Whenever there is Sunday Night Baseball, so many teams are flying to another city. It’s the one game we all get to watch. And because baseball is not the most-watched sport, rivalries like Dodgers-Astros, and the history that we have now, are going to make people tune in and watch. And that’s important. It’s important to our game that it becomes must-see TV.”
Oakland Athletics’ A.J. Puk set for shoulder surgery; Matt Chapman seeking second opinion
Puk hasn’t pitched this season because of inflammation in the shoulder that required injections. He also underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in 2018.
“For A.J., obviously, it’s been a tough road for him,” manager Bob Melvin told reporters. “Back and forth, ramping up, having to shut down. Obviously there’s something going on that he needs to take care of.”
The 25-year-old Puk had been set to join the Athletics rotation in 2020 after making 10 relief appearances in 2019, going 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 1/3 innings.
Also, Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman, who hasn’t played since Sunday, visited a doctor in Vail, Colorado, on Friday for another opinion on his right hip tendinitis.
Chapman is hitting .232 with 10 home run and 25 RBIs this season.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sources — MLB’s postseason bubble plan awaits union approval
Major League Baseball’s postseason plan is nearly set, with the approval of the MLB Players Association all that’s left standing between baseball and a bubble, sources told ESPN.
While questions about when and how families would enter the bubble remain unresolved, a neutral-site playoff format of some variety is expected to be finalized sometime next week, sources said.
In the March agreement between the parties, MLB was given authority to stage a postseason that mimics the bubbles that the NBA and NHL have used to shield their players and staff from a COVID-19 outbreak. In order to modify protocols — a key to a robust bubble –, the players must agree to changes.
Cursory bubble discussions in April fell apart when players expressed reservations about leaving their families for months at a time and the league balked at the logistical hurdles.
A bubble with a shorter lifespan is being negotiated between the league and union currently, sources said. Though the league does not need the players’ approval to continue with the format, with so much at stake — MLB could reap upward of $1 billion in postseason television revenue — the willing participation of players is seen as a vital element to the sort of restrictions the league believes necessary.
Under the plan, the World Series would start Oct. 20 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and would end no later than Oct. 28. It would culminate a month of playoff games that begin with the top four seeds in each league hosting all the games in a best-of-three wild-card series. The four American League series would run Sept. 29, 30 and Oct. 1, and the National League would play Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2.
The highest remaining seed in the NL would play its division series in Arlington while the next-highest seed would face its opponent at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The top seed from the AL would be the home team at San Diego’s Petco Park, while the other series would be held at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. The AL Championship Series would take place in San Diego and the NLCS in Arlington, giving the NL’s top seed — likely the Los Angeles Dodgers — a path to a stationary October.
Concerns from Dodgers players, which were first reported by The Athletic, underscore the chasm between the sides. Because MLB players have spent the season outside of a bubble — and, in many cases, around their families — the desire of some players to continue operating without the restrictions of a bubble are being voiced by the union, sources said.
Still, the prospect of a positive test waylaying the playoffs is palpable enough that MLB is insisting on the extra security a bubble notionally provides. A single positive coronavirus test can result in multiple postponements. In a strictly scheduled postseason, with TV network commitments, such a possibility could be devastating.
And with multiple positive tests in MLB this season being traced to family members, the league’s position is simple: Either families go through a quarantine period, enter the bubble and live with players, or they can come to the host cities but remain socially distanced from players during the postseason.
While MLB hasn’t suffered a significant outbreak since the St. Louis Cardinals‘ in July that wreaked havoc on their schedule, the fragility of the regular season — let alone the postseason — is clear. On Friday night, the San Francisco Giants postponed their game against the San Diego Padres following a positive test by someone in the organization. Saturday’s game between the teams will be postponed as well, and if the teams follow precedent, they’ll sit Sunday as well.
A bubble would theoretically help MLB weather any positive tests. The lack of travel days in a typical playoff series allows the league to bake in days to wait out potential positives. An outbreak, on the other hand, could prompt the league to force a team to play immediately using players from their alternate site, something it didn’t do with the Cardinals or the other team that had a rash of COVID cases, the Miami Marlins.
The prospect of spending upward of a month isolated in hotels still is concerning enough to players that including family is a must. In any bubble scenario, the league would rent out entire hotels, allowing players and their families free rein on the property. They would not be allowed to leave the hotels except to attend games.
Concerns from the NBA and NHL bubbles about the tedium of life inside of them have spooked some baseball players, sources said. At the same time, they recognize the success of the other leagues’ bubbles — no one has tested positive in either — and the potential harm of disrupting a playoff that teams see as vital to help deal with an altered financial landscape. There is already fear among some that the free-agent market this winter could be slower than usual; a postseason interrupted by COVID cases could exacerbate that.
Striking a deal on when and how families enter the bubble is not the only hurdle. MLB also has asked for players to quarantine in hotels the last week of the regular season — even teams playing at home — so they don’t need to undergo an intake period before the playoffs, sources said. For teams that make the World Series, that could amount to five weeks of bubble life.
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