It’s finally 2021 and there is hope for a baseball season that will include fans at the ballpark. But when that season will start still isn’t certain.
That has led to a ponderous pace in free agency with only a handful of notable players having signed. Through Friday, just seven free agents had agreed to contacts worth more than $8 million.
If not for the San Diego Padres trading for Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, baseball would be getting less notice than the Gator Bowl.
Let’s try and sort out where things stand.
When will spring training start? There’s a schedule in place that has Grapefruit and Cactus League games starting Feb. 27. But it’s hard to find anybody in the game who actually believes that will happen.
MLB has told teams to be prepared for an on-time start. But that seems like a best-case scenario.
“You have to be adaptable,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said, echoing similar comments from other managers and general managers.
President-elect Joe Biden said Tuesday that the next few months will be the toughest of the pandemic. That, combined with what has been a slow rollout of the vaccines, could prompt owners to seek a delayed start to the regular season in hopes of having at least some percentage of fans in the stands once games do start.
The Players Association will advocate for a 162-game season starting April 1 as scheduled, citing the success baseball had completing an abbreviated season in 2020.
Both sides want to avoid the protracted public dispute the sport endured last spring, but there is little trust between the union and owners.
“We’ll play more games than last year but fewer than 162,” one GM predicted.
How will spring training work? Florida had a record 17,000 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, a number expected to climb given the packed New Year’s Eve celebrations in Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and other cities.
Fifteen teams bringing 50-60 players to 13 locations in Florida could be asking for trouble.
When the Red Sox and other teams held workouts for minor leaguers in October, there were masking and social distance protocols at the ballparks. The concern is what happens when the players leave the facility.
Will fans be allowed at Fenway Park? The first home game is scheduled for April 1 and the Red Sox are selling season tickets. But individual game tickets are not yet on sale.
The Sox will follow the guidelines set by the state. The team is working on plans for how many fans could be accommodated at Fenway. There’s also a question of how much extra space will be needed for players if social distancing is required.
Will there be a universal DH? Even National League managers have come around on the idea, almost unanimously. The rule was changed as a safety measure last season. Any permanent change would require an agreement with the Players Association. That would seem like an easy task. But the owners are expected to want something in return because the union has long been an advocate for the universal DH.
Other rules changes: The state of the pandemic will determine most of the other changes, although there is momentum for making the extra-inning rule permanent.
Where will the Blue Jays be? With the NBA’s Toronto Raptors playing “home” games at Amalie Arena in Tampa, the Blue Jays are contemplating where they will play next season given the Canadian government’s strict coronavirus protocols.
The Jays could return to their Triple A stadium in Buffalo, which served them well last season. But the team’s renovated spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., is a bigger possibility than it was six months ago.
Free agent Springer appears in demand
The Blue Jays and Mets are seen as the leading suitors for free agent center fielder George Springer, who could land a nine-figure deal.
How that decision swings will help determine where Jackie Bradley Jr. lands.
In what is a shallow group of free agents in center, Bradley offers the most upside beyond Springer given his defensive impact and the potential for offense.
The Astros, who are unlikely to retain Springer, are interested in Bradley. The Red Sox have strongly indicated that, too. Assuming Hunter Renfroe is more a platoon option, they still need a center fielder.
Once you get past Springer and Bradley, Albert Almora and Jake Marisnick are the best of the bunch, unless the Rays make Kevin Kiermaier available.
▪ The Phillies want to trim payroll but could make an exception for catcher J.T. Realmuto, who lost a suitor when the Mets decided on James McCann.
▪ The Red Sox made a strong bid for South Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim before he agreed to a four-year, $28 million deal with the Padres.
Several reports in South Korea said Kim was wary of playing in cold weather and preferred a West Coast team.
It’s hard to beat a city such as San Diego. But there aren’t more than a few days all season when the weather in Boston is truly uncomfortable for baseball.
REMEMBERING A MENTOR
Niekro helped guide Wakefield
It’s funny how happenstance often plays such a large role in all our lives. That was something Tim Wakefield was thinking about after one of his mentors, Phil Niekro, died Dec. 26 at the age of 81.
Wakefield was 5-15 with a 5.84 earned run average for Triple A Buffalo in 1994, which led to the Pirates releasing him out of spring training the following season. The Red Sox picked up Wakefield after he cleared waivers and had him go to Fort Myers to work on his knuckleball.
It just so happened Niekro was in town with his brother, Joe, coaching the Silver Bullets, a women’s baseball team that was preparing for a barnstorming tour.
Eddie Haas, who was on the baseball operations staff at the time, knew Phil Niekro from their shared time with the Atlanta Braves and arranged a meeting.
No pitcher had done more with a knuckleball than Niekro, who pitched 24 years in the majors and won 318 games before being elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997.
“It was a no-brainer for me to work with Phil,” Wakefield said. “He changed my career path. That was huge for me.”
Niekro worked with Wakefield on his mechanics and imparted some of his philosophies about how to set up hitters. There was no formal arrangement with the Red Sox. It was just one knuckleball pitcher helping another one.
“Phil helped me get my confidence back,” Wakefield said. “He confirmed that I was on the right path and that meant so much to me. He was the master of throwing that pitch.”
Wakefield went on to pitch 17 years for the Sox. He won 186 games, picked up 22 saves as a closer, and was an instrumental member of two championship teams. It all started on those back fields in Fort Myers working with Niekro.
“I felt like I was going in the right direction,” Wakefield said. “But Phil taught me things that stayed with me the rest of my career.”
Wakefield and Niekro stayed close over the years. When Niekro was honored by the MLB Players Association Alumni in 2016, Wakefield and his wife, Stacy, traveled from Florida to New York to be there.
“Phil exemplified being a true gentleman. He was a class act,” Wakefield said. “He was kind to everybody he came across wherever he was. He was somebody who wanted to give back to the game.
“Knuckleballers are a small fraternity and we help each other out. But Phil always went above and beyond. I’m going to miss him, and I know a lot of people in baseball feel the same way.”
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Eduardo Rodriguez turns 28 in April and is set to make $8.3 million next season before he becomes a free agent. Rodriguez was 32-11 with a 3.81 ERA from 2018-19 before missing last season after contracting COVID-19.
It will be interesting to see how the Sox approach Rodriguez’s future. He very much wants to stay in Boston, but Chaim Bloom may prefer to follow the Tampa Bay playbook and trade Rodriguez before he gets expensive.
If the Red Sox aren’t in contention at the trade deadline next season, Rodriguez could be on the market.
▪ Outfield prospect Jarren Duran finished the regular season .236/.386/.273 over 14 games for Caguas in the Puerto Rico winter league. He mixed in 14 runs, 10 RBIs, 12 walks, and 6 steals in as many attempts.
Caguas was 14-4. The playoffs were scheduled to start Saturday.
▪ Daisuke Matsuzaka, now 40, signed a one-year deal with the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Pacific League. Dice-K played eight years for the Lions before his celebrated signing with the Red Sox prior to the 2007 season.
Matsuzaka last appeared in the majors in 2014 when he was with the Mets. He is since 8-12 with a 4.52 ERA over 32 games in Japan. Half of those games have been in the minors.
Good for Padres; bad for baseball?
It must be fun to be a Padres fan these days. They traded for Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Victor Caratini in the span of a few days and now represent a legitimate challenge to end the eight-year streak of the Dodgers winning the National League West.
San Diego general manager A.J. Preller traded 29 players in 2020 but retained all but one of his top five prospects. With the support of ownership, Preller has built a roster that should contend for at least three years. But what does it say about the sport as a whole and a financial structure that led to two division-winning teams deciding it was prudent to trade their best starter?
The Rays won the American League pennant and had a lead in Game 6 of the World Series but felt compelled to trade their ace two months later to save $40.8 million over three years.
The Rays are a small-market team forever cognizant about their budget, so at least it’s understandable. They probably would have traded Snell even if they had won the Series.
“By no means is that any sort of white flag on this season,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “We have a lot of confidence in the group that we have here and we’ve got a lot of time left to continue to build this club out and to get this puzzle where we want it.”
The ostensibly well-funded Cubs traded Darvish to save $59 million and threw in his personal catcher. They received a rotation piece in Zach Davies and four young prospects, three who have yet to play a game in pro ball.
Now you know why Theo Epstein left when he did. The Cubs have decided their window has closed and Jed Hoyer has tough decisions to make.
“We have a lot of really good players,” Hoyer said. “But do we need to make some moves with the future in mind after six years of every single move being directed on the present? Yes, I think that’s the prudent thing to do.”
The Cubs decided to move Darvish while he still had high trade value. They missed that chance with Kyle Schwarber and maybe with Kris Bryant, too. Hoyer is not planning a tank-and-recover strategy. Like the Red Sox, it’s a modified restructuring.
“Frankly, that playbook has been copied so many times, it doesn’t work the same way anymore,” he said.
Gary Sanchez told ESPN’s Marly Rivera he didn’t know why he was benched in the playoffs. Sanchez hit .147 with a .618 OPS in the regular season, striking out in 36 percent of his plate appearances. He also has been a poor defensive catcher for several years, especially when compared with backup Kyle Higashioka. That Sanchez doesn’t understand why he was benched is part of his problem . . . To be a Rays player is to never be comfortable. Tampa Bay turns over its roster at a dizzying pace, often preparing for the future at the expense of the present. But the players buy in and that’s an understated factor in their success. “I never wanted out of Tampa,” Snell said after he was traded. “I’m not going to be the guy that gets mad or talks crap about anybody, because they’re doing their job to the best of their ability. I respect the front office. I respect Kevin Cash, and I know people want to get on him about a lot of stuff, but he’s a good manager. I didn’t want out of Tampa; if anything, I wanted to stay there longer.” . . . Robinson Cano must really like playing. He joined the roster for Estrellas in the Dominican Winter League for two games and was 4 for 8 with two homers and a double. Cano was suspended for the coming major league season after a second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. He turns 39 in October and is signed with the Mets through 2023 at $24 million a year. The Mariners are responsible for only $3.75 million of his remaining deal after trading him to New York . . . Padres manager Jayce Tingler on Fernando Tatis Jr.: “As you watch the game, you’re seeing the same thing I am. There’s not anything he can’t do on the baseball field.” . . . The Cubs are still planning to hire a general manager under Hoyer but are delaying the process. Hoyer wants to hire from outside the organization and will take the time to get to know candidates beyond Zoom calls. “I feel like it’s really important for me to spend time with the person that we’re going to hire, to have multiple dinners together, to meet their family,” Hoyer said. “You’re entering in a relationship that’s unique in baseball.” . . . Best of luck to retiring MLB beat writers Jeffrey Flanagan (Royals for MLB.com), Joe Frisaro (Marlins for MLB.com), Ken Gurnick (Dodgers for MLB.com), Chris Haft (Padres for MLB.com). Greg Johns (Mariners for MLB.com), Hank Schulman (Giants for San Francisco Chronicle) and T.R. Sullivan (Rangers for MLB.com). Add it up and they covered the majors for roughly 195 seasons . . . There are two recent baseball documentaries well worth your time. “Icons Lost” on MLB Network celebrates the careers of Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, and Tom Seaver. All died in 2020. The retrospective was put together before the death of Phil Niekro. “Under The Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabathia Story” from HBO Sports is excellent. It’s an unflinching biography of the former Yankees lefthander, including his struggles with alcoholism . . . Happy birthday to Luis Rivera, who is 57. The infielder played for the Red Sox from 1989-93. John Leister is 60. The righthander appeared in 10 games for the Sox from 1987-90. Leister was quarterback at Michigan State from 1979-82 before turning to baseball.