Unlike many of their NBA and NFL counterparts, baseball players are notoriously apolitical.
Part of that is because of the significant number of players who are from outside the United States (28.5 percent last year) and aren’t particularly interested in American politics or social issues.
But it’s also true that baseball players come up through the minor leagues conditioned not to be different or express opinions teammates, management or fans might disagree with.
Sean Doolittle hasn’t crashed down that barrier. But he’s making some big dents in it.
The 33-year-old Washington Nationals lefthander, a two-time All-Star who has pitched for playoff teams five times in the eight-year career, isn’t afraid to say what he thinks.
More significantly, he’s willing to act on those beliefs.
Doolittle and his wife, Eireann, helped host 17 Syrian refugee families for Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago, their adopted hometown, in 2015.
They’ve helped build houses and find jobs for wounded veterans and their families and raised money to purchase 900 tickets for LGBT youth groups when the Athletics scheduled what at the time was a controversial Pride Night four years ago.
Now most teams host such games.
I’m so proud of all the amazing work my wife has been a part of since she joined the team at @SMYALDMV.— Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle (@whatwouldDOOdo) December 30, 2019
I hope you’ll consider helping us by spreading the word about SMYAL or making an end of the year donation so they can continue their mission to empower LGBTQ youth in the DMV! https://t.co/DiIOlvfNQl
Doolittle, a University of Virginia alumnus, also spoke out sharply against the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
“If we don’t condemn this evil it might continue to spread,” he wrote on Twitter.
Such moments, he said, come after a lot of thought.
“It makes you super vulnerable,” Doolittle said. “When you put yourself out there — good, bad or indifferent — sometimes the sheer amount of attention can give you anxiety.
“But I’ve been lucky, most of it has been extremely positive.”
Doolittle, the son of a retired Air Force navigator, usually found a receptive audience in the Bay Area when he played for the Athletics from 2012-17. But he didn’t change his approach after being traded to the Nationals.
“It can be nerve-racking,” he said. “I’ve had to think a lot about it and make sure I’m measured and prepared for what could happen. I always try to be super educated about whatever I’m talking about.
“I’ve been very lucky that the fan bases that I’ve played for have been supportive of who I am and what I stand for.”
A Star Wars fanatic with a bushy red beard, Doolittle knows he’s an outlier in his sport. But he’s at peace with that.
“I’m an acquired taste. I’m not for everybody,” Doolittle said. “Some people might see an athlete speaking out as trying to be opportunistic, or trying to keep their name in the headlines.
“But I try very hard to do my homework. My wife and I want to have skin in the game. We want to speak from experience.”
For those who believe a baseball player should stick to baseball, understand that Doolittle believes his activism has contributed to his success on the field.
“It’s important to me. I need a balance,” he said. “Everybody’s different. Every player is different. I don’t always go home and watch baseball. I need a separation. I’m aware there is life after baseball. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like.”
Doolittle faced 37 batters in the postseason last fall and retired 30 of them. When the Nationals were invited to the White House after winning the World Series, Doolittle declined because of his views on President Trump.
Doolittle then spoke at length to a Washington Post reporter to explain his thought process.
“I’ve got to be who I am,” he said. “At the end of the day, I hope people can respect that. Baseball is my job. It’s a dream job and I love it. But I know there’s a lot of other stuff going on out there.”
This time, market has thinned out
At this point a year ago, you could make almost an All-Star team of players still available in free agency.
Now, with the start of spring training a month away, only a handful of high-caliber players remain. Through Friday, here’s a look at the best available players at each position:
First base — Mitch Moreland and Ryan Zimmerman are out there. Moreland needs one more season in the majors to get 10 years of service time. He missed 71 games last season but still had 19 homers and an .835 OPS.
With Zimmerman, it’s return to the Nationals for a 16th season or retirement.
Second base — Wilmer Flores, Jason Kipnis, Joe Panik, and Yolmer Sanchez are potentially everyday players. Flores had an .848 OPS in 89 games for Arizona but was a below-average defender. Kipnis has a .708 OPS the last three seasons but could still fit a team such as Oakland.
Sanchez, a Gold Glover in 2019, was non-tendered by the White Sox because of a career .299 OBP. As one scout said, he’s a traditional second baseman at a time when teams want their second basemen to hit for power.
Panik is a reclamation project after being let go by the Giants last season and finishing up with the Mets.
Third base — Josh Donaldson is the best player left on the market. The Braves want him back but the Nationals, Rangers, and Twins have interest and the 34-year-old should get to $100 million. A question from several executives: Might the Dodgers sign Donaldson and move Justin Turner to a different position?
Todd Frazier, who was solid for the Mets last season, could fit with Texas or Milwaukee.
Shortstop — Outside of Addison Russell there’s not a starter out there and that’s a stretch. Russell has played only 212 games the last two seasons, in part because of a 40-game suspension for domestic violence. Any team signing him would have to explain that to its fan base.
Catcher — There has been a run on catchers this month as teams find backups. Jonathan Lucroy could return to the Rockies for a second stint. Russell Martin, who turns 37 in February, wants to keep playing but is a backup at this stage. The Red Sox could seek a veteran for Triple A.
Outfield — There are plenty of possibilities starting with Nicholas Castellanos, Alex Gordon, Marcel Ozuna, and Yasiel Puig. Castellanos had 88 extra-base hits last season and is the one client Scott Boras has taken his time with. There’s also a question where he would play. For some teams, such as Texas, it could be first base.
If Gordon decides to play, it would almost certainly be with Kansas City.
Puig’s next team will be his fourth in three years. His antics are wearying and as one evaluator noted, he doesn’t catch up with fastballs as well as he used to. Puig could have to settle for a short-term deal with a rebuilding team. The Marlins sound like a good fit for a Cuban star. But Don Mattingly managed Puig with the Dodgers and doesn’t need that headache again.
Thursday’s trade of Jose Martinez to the Rays theoretically opens the door to Ozuna returning to the Cardinals. But the Braves, Rangers, and Reds are possibilities if the Cardinals elect to give a prospect a shot.
Kevin Pillar, a terrific defender, is still a free agent. The Mets are considering him.
Utility — As is usually the case at this time of the year, there are plenty of options led by old friend Brock Holt. Sean Rodriguez, Neil Walker, and Ben Zobrist are out there, too.
The Red Sox appear to have moved on from Holt with the signing of Jose Peraza. But it’s a surprise Holt hasn’t been signed by another team after posting a .772 OPS over the last two seasons and starting games at first, second, third, shortstop, right field, and left field.
Fair warning: He’d be a pretty good fit for the Yankees.
Designated hitter — Hunter Pence is still out there after putting up a .910 OPS in 83 games for the Rangers last season.
Starting pitchers — Lefthanders Drew Smyly, Jason Vargas, and Alex Wood remain available, as does righthander Ivan Nova. Wood started only seven games last season because of a back injury but had a 3.29 ERA the three seasons prior. Nova is a reliable innings eater.
Felix Hernandez wants to keep pitching. But he had 22 losses and a 5.82 ERA the last two seasons.
Relievers — Former Cubs Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop are still on the market. Matt Harvey, if he would commit to the idea, could be an effective reliever.
Dodgers could make a Betts deal
The Los Angeles Dodgers have spent a mere $11.25 million in free agency this offseason, signing righthanders Jimmy Nelson and Blake Treinen to boost their late-inning relief depth.
Those have been the only additions to a 106-win team that was booted out of the playoffs in the first round last season by the Nationals.
Even with the loss of Hyun-Jin Ryu to free agency, the Dodgers have a roster capable of another 100-win season and an eighth consecutive National League West championship.
But that doesn’t really matter at this stage. The Dodgers haven’t won the World Series since 1988 and there is pressure on chairman Mark Walter, president Stan Kasten, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to change that.
“We’re laser-focused on winning the World Series. We really, we really need that,” Kasten told the Los Angeles Times this past week.
Enter the Red Sox?
The Dodgers, who unsuccessfully bid on Gerrit Cole, can easily absorb the $27 million Mookie Betts signed for Friday. They also have the young talent the Sox would require in return.
A package that started with 23-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo would be worth considering. The Dodgers also have pitching prospects.
Betts will be a free agent after the coming season, but adding one of the best players in the game is worth the risk for the Dodgers. At some point they need a trophy instead of industry praise for an efficient operation.
Betts is a player who can get them over the top.
“There are guys that we think could be difference makers and we have pursued them, we are continuing to pursue them, when there is an opportunity we will certainly jump at it,” Kasten said. “I like stars too . . . it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s fun for the team, it’s fun for the fans.”
The Red Sox have shown no inclination to trade Betts and ideally they would find common ground on a long-term extension. But the Dodgers represent an alternative.
Other observations about the Sox:
■ If you believe Alex Cora should be fired over sign stealing, get off the fainting couch. That’s not a hot take; it’s an overreactionary one.
Cora could well deserve a suspension for flouting the rules about using video for stealing signs. But the notion a manager should get fired for what is essentially overaggressive gamesmanship is quite a reach.
Per MLB historian John Thorn, the last manager fired over a rules violation was player-manager Jack O’Connor of the St. Louis Browns in 1910. He tried bribing the official scorer to change an error to a hit for Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie so he could win the batting title over Ty Cobb.
American League president Ban Johnson insisted O’Connor be fired.
What Cora may have done or at least known about doesn’t rise to a fireable offense.
■ New Rays outfielder/DH Jose Martinez is a career .331/.405/.570 hitter against lefthanders. That should come in handy against the Sox, who for the moment are projected to have Martin Perez, Eduardo Rodriguez, David Price, and Chris Sale in their rotation. Although Martinez has not faced any of those pitchers.
■ Dustin Pedroia was the choice at second base when Baseball Info Solutions selected its All-Decade defensive team. That’s remarkable when you consider Pedroia played only nine games the last two seasons.
From 2010-19, Pedroia had 69 defensive runs saved, including 61 from 2011-14.
Over the last two seasons, with Pedroia essentially not playing, the Sox have been minus-28 defensive runs saved. That’s the worst in baseball.
So while the Sox have certainly missed Pedroia’s bat, his absence in the field has been just as damaging.
■ Tyler Thornburg signed with the Dodgers after the Sox released him and pitched in 12 minor league games. Now he will go to spring training with the Reds on a minor league contract.
Like politics, Hall of Fame voting has its own exit polling. Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs on Twitter) and some assistants track down ballots revealed in newspapers, on social media or elsewhere. He compiles the results on an Excel spreadsheet for all to see. Through 150 of what are believed to be 412 ballots cast by Dec. 31, Derek Jeter has every vote. Larry Walker (84.7 percent) and Curt Schilling (80 percent) are well over the 75 percent needed. But history suggests that ballots not made available publicly usually contain fewer votes. Walker, in his final year of eligibility, could finish a few votes in or out. The announcement is on Jan. 21 . . . The Marlins designated or waived four righthanded relievers after the season — Austin Brice, Tayron Guerrero, Kyle Keller, and Tyler Kinley. All four ended up on other teams. The White Sox claimed Guerrero and trades were worked out for Brice (Red Sox), Kinley (Rockies), and Keller (Angels). So either the 57-105 Marlins were loaded with relief talent last season or they’re misreading how good some of their pitchers were . . . Peter Gammons, the originator of this column, was the deserving recipient of the “In the Spirit of the Game” award given by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation. Through his work at the Globe and later for other outlets, Gammons has long shed light on the work of scouts and in recent years the hardships many of them have encountered . . . Rage Against The Machine is set to play the Boston Calling festival from May 22-24 at Harvard’s Athletic Complex. Have to wonder if Rage guitarist [and Harvard man] Tom Morello will catch a game at Fenway that week? Morello is a Cubs fan but has extolled the virtues of Fenway . . . Happy birthday to Mike Trujillo, who is 60. The righthander was a Rule 5 pick by the Sox in 1984 and appeared in 30 games before being traded to Seattle in 1986. He was one of the players to be named later in the trade that returned Dave Henderson and Spike Owen. Trujillo was 12-12 with a 5.02 ERA over five seasons. He was one of the players who came back to Fenway Park for the 100th anniversary ceremony in 2012.