Chris Sale moves back to the pen, takes over as White Sox closer

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Now this one is a real shocker: Chris Sale, who has been very impressive in opening the season 3-1 with a 2.81 ERA in his rotation debut for the White Sox, will move back to the pen and take over as the team’s closer, it was announced Friday.

Health concerns are the obvious reasoning behind the switch, though the White Sox indicated he’d be ready to pitch out of the pen right away. It’s a bizarre move if it’s completely preemptive. If it’s not and he is hurting now, then it’s still bizarre, since it’d make sense to give him at least a week or two off.

From a performance standpoint, Sale’s move to the rotation couldn’t have possibly gone any better. Not only was his record sterling, but he had cut down on the walks and become more efficient with his pitches. On April 25, he needed just 101 pitches — 71 strikes — to get through eight innings against the A’s. In his win Tuesday, he threw 88 pitches in six innings against the Indians.

This also certainly isn’t a case of the White Sox needing Sale more in the bullpen than in the rotation. Hector Santiago had struggled in the closer’s role, but he never figured to be more than the team’s fourth or fifth best reliever anyway. Addison Reed, who has all the makings of a long-term closer, still hasn’t given up a run in 8 2/3 innings this year. Matt Thornton has a 2.38 ERA.  Jesse Crain, though hurt at the moment, is another quality arm.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are likely taking a big downgrade in the rotation by promoting Dylan Axelrod into Crain’s spot. Axelrod was a great find for the team after being let go by the Padres, but he’s not going to open eyes with his stuff. He’s probably going to be a long-term middle reliever, as opposed to a decent fourth or fifth starter.

All in all, it seems like a very odd choice from the outside looking in. Still, if the White Sox think this is the best way to keep Sale healthy, we’ll just have to trust them on that for now. It is a real shame, though. Sale was looking like a legitimate No. 2 starter, and he’s never going to produce that kind of value out of the pen.

Rob Manfred offers little insight, shows contempt for reporters in press conference

Rob Manfred
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
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Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke at a press conference, addressing the Astros cheating scandal and other topics on Sunday evening. It did not go well.

To start, the press conference was not broadcast officially on MLB’s own TV channel (it aired the 1988 movie Bull Durham instead), nor could any mention to it or link to the live stream be found anywhere on MLB.com. When the actual questions began, Manfred’s answers were circuitous or simply illogical given other comments he has made in the past. On more than one occasion, he showed contempt for reporters for doing their jobs — and, some might argue, doing his job — holding players and front office personnel accountable.

Last month, Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal broke a story about the Astros’ “dark arts” and “Codebreaker” operation, based on a letter Manfred sent to then-GM Jeff Luhnow. Diamond was among the reporters present for Manfred’s press conference on Sunday. Per The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, Manfred addressed Diamond, saying, “You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part.” MLB’s response to the depth of the Astros’ cheating ways was lacking and, without Diamond’s reporting, we would have known how deeply lacking that response was. It is understandable that Manfred would be salty about it, since it exposed him as doing his job poorly, but it was an immature, unrestrained response from someone in charge of the entire league.

Onto the actual topic at hand, Manfred said he felt like the punishment doled out to the Astros was enough. Per Chris Cotillo, Manfred said Astros players “have been hurt by this” and will forever be questioned about their achievements in 2017 and ’18. Some players disagree. Former pitcher Phil Hughes even suggested the players have a work stoppage over this issue.

Manfred defended his decision not to vacate the Astros’ championship, saying, “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” The commissioner devaluing the meaning of a championship seems… not great? Counterintuitive, even? The “piece of metal” is literally called the Commissioner’s Trophy. Manfred went on to brag about the league having “the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty.” Be careful, don’t hurt yourself patting yourself on the back for doing the bare minimum.

Manfred said there was no evidence found that the Astros used buzzers and added that, since the players were given immunity, he doesn’t think they would continue to hide that when asked about it. He said, “I think in my own mind. It was hard for me to figure out why they would tell us, given that they were immune, why they would be truthful and admit they did the wrong thing and 17, admit they did the wrong thing and 18, and then lie about what was going on in 19.”

The commissioner expects the league to implement “really serious restrictions” on access to in-game video feeds for the 2020 season.

There has been some recent back-and-forth between the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Astros’ Carlos Correa. Manfred isn’t a fan of the sniping through the media. He said, “I’m sort of a civil discourse person. It must be because I’m old. But, yeah, I think that the back and forth that’s gone on is not healthy.” The reason Bellinger and others are speaking publicly about the issue, attempting to hold the Astros accountable, is because the league did not do a sufficient job doing that itself. Bellinger wouldn’t feel the need to speak up in defense of himself, his teammates, and other players affected by the cheating scheme if he felt like the league had his and his peers’ backs.

Because the players involved in the Astros’ cheating scheme weren’t punished, some — like Larry Bowa — have suggested intentionally throwing baseballs at Astros players to exact justice. Manfred met with managers who were in attendance today to inform them that retaliatory beanballs “will not be tolerated.” He added, “It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.” Manfred has done nothing about beanball wars in the past, but it will now give the Astros somewhat of an advantage since pitchers will now be judged closely on any pitch that runs too far inside on Astro hitters.

Manfred also spoke about the ongoing feud with Minor League Baseball and basically reiterated what he and the rest of the league have disingenuously been saying since it was revealed MLB proposed cutting 42 minor league teams. Manfred’s talking point is that MLB is concerned about substandard facilities being used by minor league players, but not all of the 42 teams on the proposed chopping block have anything close to what could reasonably be considered substandard.

Lastly, Manfred was asked about the Orioles and tanking, and more or less danced around the issue by expressing confidence in the club’s ownership. The Orioles have won 47 and 54 games in the past two seasons. Payroll dropped by more than $50 million. The Orioles saw over 250,000 fewer fans in attendance in 2019 than in ’18. The O’s also saw a decline of over 460,000 fans in attendance from 2017 to ’18. But, yeah, it’s going well.

All in all, this press conference could not have gone worse for Manfred. The press found it condescending and the comments he made rang hollow to the players. Manfred seemed on edge and unprepared addressing arguably the biggest controversy baseball has faced since the steroid era. This is a dark time for the sport.