Ron Roenicke did not chase after any of the manager jobs that came open last winter. He was content to be Alex Cora’s bench coach for at least another season before deciding what came next in a professional baseball career that started in 1977 when the Dodgers drafted him out of UCLA.
But when Cora was forced out in January because of his prominent role in the cheating scandal surrounding the 2017 Astros, Roenicke stepped forward.
Roenicke told the Red Sox he wanted the job and more than that, he was the right person for it given the circumstances.
Given all that has transpired since, that’s more the case than ever. Assuming Major League Baseball and the Players Association agree on a deal to start the season, Roenicke’s familiarity with the players, coaches, and staff will be important.
“This will be a season unlike anything we’ve had before,” he said. “It’s something I’ve thought a lot about.”
Roenicke has been at his Southern California home since late March but is now preparing for what he hopes will be word to report to Boston or Florida for three weeks of workouts before the season starts in July.
The Red Sox have had only one team-wide meeting via Zoom since they disbanded in March. Most of the communication with the players has been done individually or in small groups. Roenicke usually reaches out via text messages.
“They’re hearing from the medical staff, the conditioning staff, and the coaches,” Roenicke said. “The communication is there. We’ve talked to them about a lot of different things.
“People have asked me if it feels like I’m taking a vacation. Not at all. I’m busy working and preparing for the season. Whatever I can do that helps us get back to work, I want to do. There are a lot of things we have to take care of.”
Managing the team on the field is paramount. But Roenicke is preparing for the leadership role he will take in guiding the group through playing and traveling during the pandemic.
“You want the players to be comfortable with what we’re doing,” Roenicke said. “As a bench coach, one of my jobswas meeting their needs. Making sure they had enough time for extra BP and figuring out how best to do that, issues like that.
“But that’s not always going to be the way it works this season. There will be times I’ll have to say we can’t do something.”
Roenicke said “quite a few” Red Sox players follow a rigid schedule from the time they come to the park until first pitch. Players have been taught to find a routine that works and stick with it. That typically involves interacting with a number of people on the staff.
“Hopefully we get to a point where we can do most of that stuff,” Roenicke said. “But the guys are going to have to be flexible with how much time we’ll have at the park.”
Roenicke also acknowledged the necessity of finding a way to get off to a good start if the season is only 82 games.
“You always want to get off to a good start. But over 162 games you’re not too concerned because you have time,” he said. “In an 82-game season, it seems more important.
“But basketball and hockey have 82-game seasons and I wonder if they feel the same way? For us it’s so different to have the season cut in half. But I don’t know if there will be some huge advantage in a fast start. But hopefully we’ll do that.”
Teams are expected to have a 28-man or 30-man roster with as many as 20 players available on a taxi squad.
For the Sox, that should allow them to get a better look at 21-year-old Jonathan Arauz, their Rule 5 pick from Houston.
“A lot of people liked what they saw from him,” Roenicke said. “I thought we would have had some tough decisions to get down to 26. So this will give us a chance to keep some players we like.”
Since spring training was shut down, the Red Sox have had Nate Eovaldi, Martin Perez, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Ryan Weber on a schedule that calls for two simulated innings twice a week.
The hope is that they could move up to three innings quickly once the team gets back together and build up to at least five innings before the season starts.
“That has been the plan and those guys have been doing what they need to do, getting off the mound and keeping their arms ready,” Roenicke said.
There’s also optimism that righthander Collin McHugh will be ready. McHugh, who was signed March 5, has started a throwing program after recovering sufficiently from an elbow injury.
McHugh is 51-39 with a 4.14 ERA in 119 career starts. He had a 6.37 ERA in eight starts last season before the Astros sent him to the bullpen.
“We’re still trying to figure out that fourth and fifth spot,” Roenicke said. “If you put Weber in there, we have four or five other guys who could start.”
Brian Johnson is part of that group. The Sox also could use openers.
Roenicke is confident with the lineup, especially with right fielder Alex Verdugo cleared to play after rehabilitating a back injury. Verdugo was able to work out at JetBlue Park much of the last two months because he was on a rehab plan.
“I’ve seen more video of him than anybody else,” Roenicke said. “He’s going to help us a lot. He can really hit and having him with us from the start is huge.”
Roenicke is toying with lineups, trying to decide if the lefthanded-hitting Verdugo fits better near the top (he had a .342 OBP last season) or in the middle to provide some thump.
The Sox have not yet decided where to work out before the season, Boston or Fort Myers. There are better facilities in Florida, but training in Boston would allow the players to get settled in for the season.
The hot and humid weather in Florida is another factor.
“There are different scenarios,” Roenicke said. “You have to look at the safety issues and what we would be able to do. We would need to find some additional fields in Boston, maybe.”
It’s likely that the preseason workouts will be internal with no outside competition to cut down on the risk of exposure to the virus.
Roenicke, 63, said he’s not overly worried about himself.
“Maybe I should be because I’m in an age group where there is greater risk and it would be harder on you,” he said. “But I feel good physically and I want to be with the team.”
For Roenicke, the biggest thing now is for a deal to be made to have a season. He feels that’s important.
“Absolutely. I think it will ease people’s minds a little to see us out there playing whether there are fans or not,” he said. “People will feel better to see baseball. We need to get out there and I think we have a team that can make it interesting.”
A PLACE FOR PILLAR?
Red Sox have outfield puzzle
The Red Sox signed Kevin Pillar on Feb. 14; four days after the Mookie Betts trade became official. They needed somebody who could play right field with Alex Verdugo expected to start the season on the injured list.
That need has vanished, leaving Pillar coming off the bench.
“He’s going to be very important,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “We have plans for Kevin.”
Pillar is a career .281 hitter against lefthanders with a .766 OPS. So having him in the lineup against pitchers such as Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ, Steven Matz, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Blake Snell (assuming his inflated ego allows him to play) makes a lot of sense considering Jackie Bradley Jr. has hit .229 with a .660 OPS against lefties since 2016.
“I feel like he’s going to be important to us,” Roenicke saidof Pillar.
Pillar is primarily a center fielder but has experience on the corners. He’s also 31 and on a one-year contract, so motivation will not be lacking.
The expected adoption of a universal designated hitter means J.D. Martinez can settle in there, leaving the outfield innings to Bradley, Pillar, Verdugo, and Andrew Benintendi.
A few other observations about the Sox:
▪ If dedication counts, Tzu-Wei Lin should land a spot on the roster. Lin stayed in Fort Myers during the pandemic with his family and was among the first players to report to Fenway South when the complex reopened Wednesday.
Lin could be an attractive candidate with expanded rosters because of his defensive versatility.
▪ The Sox released 22 minor leaguers Friday. Most were players who would have been let go in March had transactions not been frozen because of the pandemic.
The list included righthanded reliever Matthew Gorst, who spent part of last season in Triple A, and infielder Nick Lovullo, the son of Arizona manager Torey Lovullo.
The minor league season hasn’t been officially canceled yet. But that seems to be just a formality.
▪ MLB officially announced the draft would be June 10-11 with 37 first-round selections the first day followed by Rounds 2-5 the next. Only 160 players will be selected as opposed to the usual 1,200 or more over 40 rounds.
Baseball history is loaded with players who were taken after the fifth round and became stars. But that has not been the case for the Red Sox in the last 20 years.
Since the 2000 draft, only four players taken after the fifth round who signed with the Sox that year went on to give the team more than 1.0 WAR.
Christian Vazquez, a ninth-round pick in 2008, has been worth 2.9 WAR. Travis Shaw, a ninth-round pick in 2011, produced 2.9 WAR before being traded.
Josh Reddick, a 17th-round pick in 2006, gave the Sox 1.5 WAR before he was traded. Lefty Kason Gabbard, a 29th-round pick in 2000, had 1.7 WAR for the Sox prior to being traded.
Several lower-round draft picks factored in trades over the years. But the later rounds have not been productive for the Sox for a long time.
Penny wise, pound foolish
Teams are slashing costs by furloughing employees, cutting the salaries of others. Oakland even stopped $400 weekly payments to financially strapped minor leaguers.
The Angels furloughed player development staffers, minor league coaches, and most of their amateur scouts. The Athletics made similar cuts.
Other teams, including the Blue Jays, Giants, and Phillies, have committed to keeping their employees on through at least Oct. 1. The Rockies and Tigers have said there is no anticipated end date for their commitment.
The Red Sox are among the teams who have said they will pay the minor league stipends through Aug. 31, which would have been close to the end of their season.
Most scouts, minor league coaches, and baseball operation staffers make modest salaries and work long hours. Their commitment stems from a genuine love of the game and the hope that will pay off with a better job in the organization down the road.
Angels owner Arte Moreno and Athletics owner John Fisher, both billionaires, will save some money in the short term. But when baseball returns to whatever the new normal will be, scouts and coaches will remember which teams supported their employees and which did not. Valuable people will find new jobs as quickly as they can.
Scouts and minor league coaches do their work far from the spotlight, but the best ones can make a huge difference in an organization’s ability to discover and develop talent.
Finding a future major league player deep in the draft or unlocking the talent of an underachieving player in the minors will produce more value to an organization than they would save with salary cuts.
Meanwhile, the draft this season will be limited to five rounds and undrafted free agents will be limited to signing bonuses of $20,000. Dozens of legitimate prospects will be available at low cost and their choices will hinge on secondary factors.
If you were a player put in that position, wouldn’t you seek a team that values their employees?
Actions taken now will have an impact for years, positively for some teams and negatively for others.
Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Enes Kanter, Steve Kerr, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum were among the many NBA players and coaches who took to social media to comment on the callous death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on Monday. NFL players Odell Beckham Jr., DeMarcus Lawrence, Ryan Tannehill, J.J. Watt, and Carson Wentz spoke out, too, as did Devin and Jason McCourty of the Patriots. But prominent MLB players were almost uniformly silent outside of Sean Doolittle, Andrew McCutchen, and Marcus Stroman. “He should be alive,” McCutchen wrote. “I don’t want pity, I want change.” Blame baseball’s insular culture more than indifference. It remains a sport where young players are expected to be quiet and anybody in a clubhouse speaking up on social issues is seen as causing a distraction. It would take a star player to end that, but most hide out during turbulent times. At least Twins manager Rocco Baldelli did not duck the issue. “George Floyd should be breathing right now,” he wrote on Twitter. “We have a lot of progress to make. Remember his name. Remember what happened.” … The Mets released 39 minor leaguers as part of an industry-wide purge ahead of the draft. But Tim Tebow remained in the organization. The 32-year-old former NFL quarterback hit .163 with a .495 OPS in 77 Triple A games last season and struck out 98 times in 264 plate appearances. Tebow is by all accounts a high-character person. But at a time when hundreds of players are being tossed from the game, keeping him around sends a message to actual Mets prospects that the organization overvalues celebrity … Alex Cora dipped a toe back into baseball this past week, conducting an online seminar on hitboricua.net about opportunities in professional baseball beyond playing. Former major league manager Edwin Rodriguez runs the site. Cora has remained active on social media since his season-long suspension was levied April 22 … The best baseball bar in Manhattan, Foley’s NY, became a victim of the pandemic and will not reopen. Owner Shaun Clancy made the announcement Friday. For a bar in the shadow of the Empire State Building, Foley’s had plenty of Red Sox memorabilia, including a corner devoted to Joe Castiglione. Foley’s was a favorite of scouts, umpires, broadcasters, media relations staffers, and, of course, writers … Happy birthday to two members of the 2013 World Series champions, Andrew Bailey (36) and Jake Peavy (39). One of the 2004 champions, Dave Roberts, is 48.