17. February 2021
ESPN MLB Insider
The author’s hand: The billion-dollar secret of sports’ most precious commodity
Pitchers and receivers showed up for spring training for all 30 teams and the countdown to opening day began. To one. In April, the league and its players will struggle to avoid the alternating bumps and potholes left by the coronavirus. Forty-three days of spring training is all that separates Major League Baseball from the regular season.
Just like last year during the regular season, baseball will have to carry its share of COVID-19 diagnoses by making progress like other sports. If the spring training games are lost, they are lost. If teams are late, that’s the reason for the 6-week preseason. That doesn’t mean baseball is good, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad either. It’s a Mandalorian sporting life: Here’s how.
Now that the offseason is officially over and with five days to go before the first practices of the full season for most teams, it’s the perfect time to answer the 20 questions asked in the months since the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series at 3½. If you’re not paying attention to baseball after October, you’ve come to the right place. And if you’ve been following all this craziness and want to better understand what it means and what direction the sport is heading for the rest of 2021, you’ve come to the right place too.
What happened this winter?
Shortstop Francisco Lindor was traded to the New York Mets, whose new owner is the richest man in baseball, fired his newly hired general manager and complicated Lindor’s acquisition with a handful of other moves, but failed to land one of the top four free agents despite varying levels of interest.
The highest paid free agent, center fielder George Springer, went to the Toronto Blue Jays for $150 million. No baseball team has guaranteed more free agents than the $186.3 million the Jays spent this winter. Next up is the Phillies’ receiver, J.T. Realmuto, who, like DJ LeMahieu, Marcell Ozuna, Justin Turner, Michael Brantley, Didi Gregorius, Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman, returns to the team he played on last year.
Right-hander Trevor Bauer has certainly signed the most interesting contract of the winter: a three-year, $102 million contract with the Dodgers that gives him $40 million this year and $45 million in 2022 and also includes waivers after both seasons. He gave up the standard long-term contract that top free agents seek to maximize his short-term income. We’ll come back to that later.
The market for Bauer, as for many free agents, was limited. As Buster Olney wrote, spending is down by hundreds of millions compared to recent free agent classes. Some of this class is weaker. Losses due to a pandemic are one of them. But when five teams (Blue Jays, Dodgers, Phillies, Yankees, Braves) account for more than half of the spending and the bottom teams spend $2.5 million (Pirates) and $1.5 million (Orioles and Reds), it’s not a good sign. And that’s not counting the Rockies, who haven’t guaranteed a penny to Free Agency this winter.
Colorado, on the other hand, traded their star third-baseman, Nolan Arenado, to St. Louis for a meager sum – and sent $51 million to St. Louis to cover his salary. The Padres who want to challenge the Dodgers all trade: for Blake Snell, then Yu Darvish, then Joe Musgrove. The White Sox also made an early entry into the trade market by acquiring Lance Lynn to bolster their rotation. That’s how wild the trading season has been: The Yankees and the Red Sox have made a deal with each other.
Is that so?
Today, between the firing of Jared Porter from the Mets and the suspension of baseball coach Mickey Callaway, the abuse of women in baseball is finally getting some attention. The lower divisions have been completely reorganized, with more than 40 affiliates either eliminated or transferred to development leagues, and each organization now has Triple A, Double A, High A and Low A teams. The league said it was trying to disrupt the ball – and no one can predict the effect (or effectiveness) of that. And the cacophony of work drums continues to grow after the union rejected MLB’s offer to delay the season by a month. The union has stated that it wants the number of COWID-19s to decrease. The players were concerned that this was a financial boost. The league said it would pay full salaries for 162 games. The league said: too late, too close to spring training, too bad. And the collective agreement expires first. December is a day of rest, a day that will cast a shadow over the sport until the ink of the new contract is dry.
Will there be a designated hitter in the National League this year?
It’s possible that something will happen this spring, whether it’s a series of pitching injuries or something else, that will cause the Dutch teams to push for a universal DH, which was used in last year’s 60-game season and is expected to be established in 2022. But since this is a 162-game season, the league doesn’t plan to be as arbitrary with the rules as it was in 2020, when it decided to introduce a dual championship midway through the year.
A rule change as fundamental as DH, they say, would require broad support from clubs in the NL. The players will be for it, of course. In the two draft protocols on health and safety, the union had included implementation of universal reproductive health, according to some sources, but the MLB had to withdraw it. DH remained anchored in the final versions of the protocols.
Here’s the truth, no matter how hard purists might swallow it: Universal DH was here in 2020 and the game didn’t fall apart. This will happen in 2022, and the game will not be interrupted. If teams brought it up now, they would have plenty of time to adjust their lists accordingly.
Is that going to happen? The bet is no.
How about an extended playoff series?
At one point there was talk of a new season, extension of the playoffs and universal DH, which was silly because even at best DH might be worth $20 million more to the players. Yes, the players could negotiate a portion of the playoffs that would benefit them, but the league never considered extending the playoffs even after the MLB signed a television deal in hopes of introducing it in 2021.
So it’s possible? Yes, of course. The actors will think about it. But any deal would have to force a group that said yes last year, especially since it was an additional amount to compensate for lost wages for the season. This year, players should receive a full salary. As such, it is unlikely that a win in the extended playoffs would prompt them to say yes.
Again: The bet is no.
When are the players vaccinated?
In a phone conversation with the general manager last week, commissioner Rob Manfred said vaccinations for players and staff were on the agenda and that the league would do so as soon as possible. The speed with which this happens depends on the country’s supply, according to some sources.
League sources, including officials with knowledge of the matter, hoped April would be able to vaccinate baseball en masse. On Tuesday, however, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the general public may not be vaccinated until May or June. It is not known if baseball players or athletes can be given a special dosage and administered the vaccine in time to strengthen it.
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The problem, of course, is that there may be a large percentage of baseball players who simply refuse to be vaccinated. Over the past few months, ESPN has asked players, agents and officials on the field what percentage of players they believe would be vaccinated. Most agree that the figure is about 75% – maybe a little less, depending on how many people who have already tested positive for VIDOC think the vaccine is useless because they already have viral antibodies in their system.
If this 75% level is exceeded, the League and the Union could potentially negotiate a reduction in the restrictions set forth in the health and safety protocols. The greater the number of people vaccinated, the less likely an epidemic will occur. The lower the chance of flashes, the more important the games are. The more games played, the better the season will be.
What are the incentives for players to get vaccinated?
In addition to the greater evidentiary value, which enhances safety, there is a much more practical element. While it’s unlikely that the rules will change inside the stadium – registration will be a normal part of everyday baseball, for example – what players are allowed to do outside the stadium may depend on the number of people vaccinated. Eventually, this can lead to peer pressure that pushes players over the 75%.
During this period, when the players are not on the field, they may not go to restaurants, bars, clubs or other indoor entertainment venues. You cannot attend a meeting with 10 or more people. You can’t meet anyone outside the team on the street. It is an extremely restrictive way of life, and if the vaccine is the way to eradicate it, even skeptics might think otherwise.
And so far?
Test, test and test again! The launchers, receivers and crew have spent the last few days in quarantine following a suction test. During spring training, they will have saliva tests sent to the MLB lab in Utah. The League has also contracted with bioreferencing laboratories to use point-of-care equipment that can provide results in 15 minutes.
What does this all mean for the fans?
All 30 teams will sell tickets to spring training in Arizona and Florida, two of the weakest states.
In the regular season, it all depends on the teams’ local rules. The Marlins have announced that they will allow about 9,300 spectators per game, or about 25% of the capacity of Marlins Park. The Rangers have the Big 12 against the SEC will draw a crowd of 14,000 to 15,000. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the stadiums can accommodate up to 10 percent of their capacity after the Buffalo Bills hosted 7,000 fans during the playoffs.
On the other hand, the five teams from California and the two teams from Illinois are unlikely to see fans before opening day unless their state protocols change.
What about October? That’s because the World Series is coming through California this year.
It’s a little presumptuous, but not entirely crazy. The Dodgers are the best baseball team. And the Padres are rightfully considered the second best.
If there’s one major story for the 2021 season, it’s Los Angeles versus San Diego. The Padres secured their rotation by trading, signing versatile Korean outfielder Ha-Sung Kim and returning Fernando Tatis Jr. (with whom they are talking mega expansion), Manny Machado, Trent Grisham, Wil Myers, Jake Cronenworth, Austin Nola, Tommy Pham and Profar Jurickson, among others. The Dodgers got their entire core of champions, plus Bauer, the Cy Young winner in the NL, for good measure.
If the Dutch flag is lost to Southern California, what other teams do you have to watch out for?
It depends on whether you want to look at it objectively or subjectively.
According to total win predictions from PECOTA Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, Davenport sabermetric clay and Wynn BET, clear levels have emerged this season.
Level 1 : The Dodgers, Padres, Yankees and Mets are the only teams expected to win more than 90 games against all four.
Level 2 : Braves, Twins, Astros… They all averaged between 88 and 89 wins.
Level 3 : White Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, National, Brewers – each team is unanimously considered above .500.
Level 4 : Angels, Red Sox, Phillies, Indians, A’s, Cardinals …. The average total earnings are 81 to 82.
Here’s the subjective part: My levels are up to extra.
Level 1 : Dodgers, Padres, level two: Braves, Yankees
, Level 3: White Sox, Mets, Nationals, Blue Jays
Level 4: Astros, Gemini, Rays, CardinalsLevel 5: Ah, the Red Sox, the Brewers.
What do Vegas and projection systems disagree about?
Good question, especially for those who want to go further than that. PECOTA, FanGraphs and Davenport have agreed on seven possible uses:
- San Diego is at 94.5 (average prognostic win is 95.7).
- The Chicago White Sox are at 91.5 (86.5).
- Atlanta is at 91 (88.1).
- Difficult for St. John’s. Louis at age 85 (81.1).
- Trailing Oakland, 84 (81.3).
- Miami, 67.5 (69.6).
- Texas is at 66.5 (71.1 – skewed by Davenport’s 80-minute projection for Texas).
That could all change if the other free agents sign, right?
Yes, of course. And there are some good ones. Almost all of the best free agents remained pitchers, led by starter Jake Odorizzi and infielder Trevor Rosenthal. Best player in position: Jackie Bradley Jr.
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Odorizzi, 30, would probably make a very smart team. The season before, when his campaign was interrupted due to lightbulb problems, he was a model of consistency, averaging 30 starts and 165 runs over a six-year period. More than anything, teams are hungry for sleeves in 2021 because they fear that pitchers who will be eliminated in 2020 are more likely to be injured under a normal workload. At a time when only two veteran free agent pitchers are signing multi-year contracts – Bauer for three years and Mike Minor for two in Kansas City – that’s a tough proposition. A situation where a pitcher of Odorizzi’s caliber remains unemployed while the innings are at such a high level doesn’t make much sense.
Rosenthal is part of a large group of startups that are still unemployed. While Rosenthal will get the job and is expected to be one of the highest paid assistants this winter, others have an uphill battle to sign uncapped contracts. Among those still available: Shane Green, Tyler Clippard, Jose Alvarez, Oliver Perez, David Robertson, Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Ryan Tepera, Ian Kennedy, Jesse Chavez, Heath Hembree and Pedro Strop. Also: Roberto Osuna, whose long suspension for domestic violence in 2018 and elbow problems have softened his deal.
Bradley is having his best offensive season since 2016 and continues to be an average center striker. Although he’s been looking for a long-term deal all winter, officials wondered in recent days if the market might force him to agree to a one-year deal.
So, on a micro level, while some actors did well, free agency was not the best. What about the macro?
Let’s take the Bauer contract. Over the years, teams have slowly reduced the length of the contracts issued. The conclusion is obvious: The more players who sign contracts during the year, the more the market becomes saturated the following season. The more stocks there are, the more teams have to squeeze players.
The only players safe from this situation are Bauer’s star players. And stars who can play freely, especially Bauer who just turned 30, almost always get big long-term contracts. Teams are willing to pay for the planned downtime years at the end to get the added value at the beginning.
Bauer got the biggest bundle of dollars for the biggest contract in a year. On the one hand, Bauer is betting on himself, and it’s hard to criticize someone for that as long as they are aware of the risks and consequences. On the other hand, the Dodgers seized the opportunity to contract Bauer with both hands, because for a few years more than he could get on a long-term deal, Los Angeles got all the benefits of Bauer without having to suffer the disadvantages. A dream deal, and at a bargain price of $42.5 million a year.
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Bauer’s contract is important here because it shows what the evolution of free agency says about gambling today – and the operating environment in which it operates. A former star player would never accept a contract like Bauer’s. Maybe it’s because there’s never been a star like Bauer. Or maybe it was because it was the logical conclusion of two decades of successful attempts by the league to gradually dismantle free agency and hope that what works at the bottom will eventually find its way to the top.
Free agency has always been a matter of choice, so it is fundamental that Mr. Bauer chooses to associate in this way. And a mid-year rise in value can have the opposite effect in the short term; it sets a new upper limit for other players to follow. Nevertheless, the Free Agency – and especially its degradation – is at the heart of the workers’ quarrel between the League and the union.
And it’s no exaggeration to say that baseball’s status in 2022 is low. Yeah, yeah, let’s look at the 2021 season first, Chicken Little. I get it. But here’s something you should get too: Collective bargaining in baseball generally begins about a year before the CBA expires. The deadline is now set at 9.5 months and the parties have not yet held any business meetings.
That you can work outside. If one thing is clear in this relationship, it’s that delays drive them to action. And while MLB management loves the union and vice versa, their personal feelings for each other shouldn’t pave the way for something as important as these negotiations.
On the players’ side, there will be discussion about the anti-competitive tendencies of the Free Agency and the teams, as well as the possible redistribution of money to enrich young players when teams make it clear that they do not want to pay the seniors. And for the MLB, concerns about the future of the game are serious enough to attract a group that makes product improvement on the field a priority, even though the economics of the current deal have set them back and will always be in the spotlight.
There are dozens of warning signs that explain why the MLBPA and MLB are on the right track for a labor dispute that the game hasn’t seen in a quarter century. That’s not a concern. Not yet. Not yet. If conversations don’t happen, if they do happen but are random, if they last too long without significant progress – yes, there is cause for concern.
What will the project look like?
If no deal is reached by the end of the World Series, there is one possible scenario – perhaps the most likely, according to some sources.
November: Free agency begins… and the teams aren’t signing anybody. There may be some agreements here and there, but without knowing if there will be an agreement, let alone a 2022 season, the market is frozen.
1. December 2021: MLB teams lock up players. As much as we talked about a strike by the players, the timing of the expiration of the collective agreement suggests that a lockout is a more obvious end result.
December, January and beyond: Chaos.
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Both sides understand how damaging a work stoppage would be to the sport. Fan withdrawal, instability, potential loss of revenue, long-term consequences of struggle, potential loss of game. As much as the players want to recover and as much as the MLB wants to solidify its hold, quitting baseball would be a disaster. Everyone knows that. At the end of the year we will see if these facts matter.
Can you say something that isn’t depressing?
The weather will definitely warm up.
Okay, troll. Go back to baseball. Who are the breakers?
A warning for this and the next: These lists are subject to change until opening day. There will be much more data available – especially on output and rotation rates, which do not necessarily have a linear relationship with peak performance, but are often correlated with success – and thus more of those who succeed or fail.
- Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels: While trying to get back on the mound after Tommy John’s surgery, his bat is getting ready to take a leap forward.
- Adalberto Mondesi, Kansas City: He was probably the best baseball player last September. And it didn’t exactly go smoothly. Here’s the list of players who had a better release rate than him this month: Tatis, Ronald Acuna Jr., Travis d’Arnaud, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Bryce Harper, Rafael Devers.
- Juan Soto, Washington: Yeah, she’s a superstar. This year he goes supernova.
- Keston Huera, Milwaukee: He’s too good to have a bad year like 2020. The same goes for Yelich.
- Frenchmile Reyes, Cleveland: Want to play some valuable games? Reyes will lead the MLB in home runs at +3000.
- Dolton Warshaw, Arizona: As a receiver/median, he has unique versatility and his bat is ready to take off.
What about pitchers?
- John Means, Baltimore: It’s a guess at things (his fastball jumped by 2 mph last year), at his arm (he’s left-handed and was in the mid-90s), and a regression to the mean (nearly 22% of the catches he allowed last year were home runs). Amid all of this, his hitting and lack of steps, Means, who turns 28 in April, has all the tools to be a latecomer.
- Luis Patiño, Tampa Bay: Patinho, the player who made the most money in the Snell trade, will play the entire season at the age of 21. He will do so under the watchful eye of Kevin Cash, Director of the Rays, and Kyle Snyder, Pitching Coach, and a team that, even by its own standards, will use pitchers differently than we’ve seen so far.
- Tejay Antone, Cincinnati: It’s a game that’s on full display. Antoine’s fastball is in the 98th. and his curve ball is in the 95th percentile. It’s none of his business. Whether the Reds use him as a starter or a replacement.
- Alex Reyes, St. Louis: A long time ago, he was in the top five. If he can stay healthy, he will dominate no matter what his role is. That’s what happens when you have a curved ball with vertical movement that’s nearly 11 inches above average – a figure that only Bauer surpasses.
- Brad Keller, Kansas City: With all the hype surrounding Daniel Lynch and Asa Lacy, Keller is only 25 years old and has two of the dirtiest pitches in baseball: a nine-inch horizontal fastball and a soft touch slide. He may not beat many drummers, but that’s because he doesn’t have to.
Who was missing last season that we will see this year?
There are two groups of players here: those who gave up the season and those who missed the season due to injuries.
Players who have withdrawn must return: Stroman, Dodgers starter David Price, Giants receiver Buster Posey, Brewers center Lorenzo Cain, White Sox prospect Michael Kopech, Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, Nationals starter Joe Ross and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and Felix Hernandez, who signed with Baltimore for the minor leagues.
Those who have not played all year or have only played a few games are on the all-star list.
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Red Sox ace Chris Sale and Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard returned from Tommy John surgery, and Syndergaard beat Sale. Another outstanding pitcher, Atlanta’s Mike Soroka, is recovering from an Achilles tendon tear and may not return for Opening Day, but he will play an important role in the Braves’ rotation.
The Yankees are hoping for a pair of returning Tommy Johns to bolster their rotation: Luis Severino and Jacoben Taillon, which they acquired in an exchange with Pittsburgh. Another Yankee starter who barely got off the ground in 2020: Corey Kluber.
Stephen Strasburg, who just signed a $245 million contract, pitched five innings for Washington before leaving the game and having to undergo surgery to repair a nerve problem in his wrist. Houston attacker Yordan Alvarez had a similar year, making just nine appearances before his knee surgery at the end of the season.
This is perhaps the most welcome return of all: Trey Mancini, a 28-year-old infielder for the Orioles, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and underwent a season of chemotherapy. He’s cancer-free and he’s going to Baltimore for a full workout.
Who will win Rookie of the Year?
There are so many good candidates. Four of them were named Rookie of the Year last year. Because of the shortened season, the MLB has adjusted the rules for eligibility to play and Atlanta’s Ian Anderson, Miami’s Sixto Sanchez, Pittsburgh’s Ke’Brian Hayes and Baltimore’s Ryan Mountcastle are all eligible to play in their second seasons.
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There are other members of the ATA who deserve to be watched: Seattle’s Jarred Kelenick, though he’ll likely get playing time; Chicago’s slugger Andrew Vaughn, too; Minnesota’s Alex Kiriloff, if he gets regular playing time; Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, the Detroit starting lineup; White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal, Texas third baseman Josh Jung, Cleveland starter Triston McKenzie, and two Kansas City players who could not only play in the big league, but are also the top bettors for 2022: Outfielder Bobby Witt Jr. and left-hander Daniel Lynch.
Anderson, Sanchez and Hayes are good choices in the NL, as are two center fielders (Christian Pash of Atlanta and Dylan Carlson of St. Louis), catcher Tyler Stephenson of Cincinnati and, if the Padres’ pitchers are injured, McKenzie Gore, who may be the best pitcher in baseball.
What do you expect when baseball comes back?
How polite of you to ask. The first ten things that came to mind, in no particular order:
Michael Nelson Trout.
Regular season games with the fans in the stands.
Nolan Arenado takes the ball to third base, bringing back memories of Scott Rolen.
Gitters says goodbye to Davin Williams.
Derby Home Run. I’m not even a big fan of the home derby, but when it’s played, it means the season is going well.
David Fletcher Memes.
Launcher Jacob deGrom, who has an average velocity greater than half the pitchers in the big leagues.
Fernando Tatis Jr. introduces himself. From the first to the third. Third side of the house. From shortstop to second base. Everywhere. Hair and speed form a dynamic duo.
The return of Drew Robinson.
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