Phillies warned by MLB to stop stealing signs

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Tracy Ringolsby reports that Major League Baseball has issued a warning to the Phillies over allegations that they have been stealing signs.

The latest: during Monday night’s game against the Rockies, bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was seen using binoculars to look in at Rockies catchers. Meanwhile, Shane Victorino was seen in the dugout on the bullpen phone. You don’t have to be Josh Beckett’s wife to figure out what was going on.

There’s nothing in the rule book about sign stealing. There is, however, what amounts to an executive order on the matter. Back in 2001, then-Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Sandy Alderson sent out a memo to all teams that restricted the use of
electronic equipment during a game. Such equipment and technology, Alderson wrote, “could
not be used for communications or for the purpose of stealing signs or
conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.”

Binoculars aren’t electronic equipment. I suppose the bullpen phone could technically be considered that, though I’m guessing that’s not what Alderson had in mind. He was probably thinking about teams having laptops and cameras and Dick Tracy wrist-radios and light-signals a la the 1951 Giants and stuff.  What the Phillies are doing is a bit more low-tech than all of that.

But there is something that seems like a transgression here. Yes, we’re deep into the murky world of the unwritten rules again, but do you not agree that it’s one thing for, say, Chase Utley to pick up a sign while leading off second base and flash it to Jayson Werth, but something different for the bullpen coach to be doing it via binoculars and telephone?

The former seems like competition. The latter seems, well, rather unseemly.  And that’s the case if, for no other reason, than because Utley can get a ball thrown at his ribs if his subterfuge is discovered where the bullpen coach can’t, and that sort of thing tends to matter when it comes to violating unwritten rules.

So shape up, Phillies. It’s bad enough that you’re getting three more home games this year than anyone else. You don’t need the advantage that comes from stealing signs too.

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment ‘egregious case of service time manipulation’

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Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.