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Phillies get tricky with roster manipulation, option Zach Eflin to minors

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Phillies starter Zach Eflin pitched well on Friday against the Padres in San Diego, limiting the opposition to two runs on five hits and a walk with eight strikeouts in six innings. That bumped his ERA on the season down to 3.57. Oddly, though, Eflin was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Saturday, creating room for the Phillies to add recently-acquired slugger Justin Bour to the 25-man roster.

On the surface, the move seems perplexing. The Philies, however, got fancy with roster manipulation, as Matt Gelb of The Athletic explains. The team has off-days on each of the next two Mondays and a double-header against the Mets on Thursday. Normally, a player optioned to the minors has to spend at least 10 days there. Per MLB rules, a team can add a 26th man to the major league roster for doubleheaders, even if that player was optioned and hadn’t spent 10 days in the minors. The Phillies are giving themselves an extra position player by making Eflin their 26th man. They will bring him back to the majors to start one of Thursday’s game, then send him back to the minors to finish out his 10 days. Eflin won’t actually miss a turn through the rotation.

Eflin will miss out on nine days of major league service time and about $20,000, Gelb notes. Tom O’Connell, Eflin’s agent, said yesterday, “Today was an understandably extremely tough day for Zach. While this transaction on the surface seems purely administrative, it caught us by surprise and is tremendously disappointing. Major-league starters have a strict routine that they adhere to that allows them to be successful; this roster move affects that. While the club may feel that they are doing what’s best for the organization, they also lose sight of the human element and how it will affect the player.”

GM Matt Klentak said, “We’ve talked all year about the importance of value at the margins. We’re tied for first place. It’s the middle of August. You never know when an extra bench spot or bullpen spot will be the difference in a game. One game might make all the difference. So that’s why we did it.”

Obviously, this is a crummy situation for Eflin, but the Phillies aren’t doing anything that isn’t allowed by MLB rules. The Phillies, in fact, did the exact same roster manipulation with Nick Pivetta in August last year. Pivetta struck out 11 Padres over five innings, then was optioned to the minors. They brought him back up as the 26th man for a doubleheader, then sent him back down to finish out his required 10 days before calling him back to the majors. In both cases, neither Eflin nor Pivetta had any say, so the Phillies can do what they want without any obligations. It is unclear if the Phillies ever made up the lost service time and money to Pivetta and nor is it clear if they plan to with Eflin. It would be a nice gesture if the Phillies gave back the $20,000 or so during upcoming contract negotiations plus an approximation of what the lost service time would cost the players. There is no reason for the Phillies to antagonize their young players, who could be significant contributors for years to come, by getting fancy with roster manipulation.

The bigger picture is that the players’ union should consider all of the ways teams can exploit players — particularly young players — to gain their marginal advantages. This is one example and it has real-world impacts. The current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021. There has already been significant strife between the owners and the MLBPA. This type of roster manipulation could be one more issue added to the docket when the two sides sit down to negotiate in three years.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.