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Ahoy, San Diego: 2019 Winter Meetings Preview

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Over the weekend the baseball world will descended on San Diego, California for the 2019 Winter Meetings. Let’s talk about what’ll go down there in the next week.

 

Free Agents

So far this has been a much brisker offseason than the past two, during which it seemed like no one signed between November and February. This year, however, we have already seen top-30 free agents Zack Wheeler, Yasmani Grandal, Cole Hamels, José Abreu, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Moustakas, and Michael Pineda sign, and a handful of others have inked pacts as well.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. Top free agent Gerrit Cole has had some heat around him lately, with the Yankees reportedly hot on his trail, and New York has at least had a conversation with San Diego native and resident Stephen Strasburg as well. Beyond them, Anthony Rendon, Madison Bumgarner, Nicholas Castellanos, and Josh Donaldson are all looking for new employers as well.

At the end of October Rotoworld’s Matthew Pouliot ran down the top 111 free agents, from highest-ranked to lowest, to help you get a jump on who is available.

 

Trades

Free agent signings notwithstanding, we are in an age in which a lot of teams are in cost-savings mode. For that reason some big, MVP-caliber names are reportedly on the trading block, including Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, Francisco Lindor of the Indians and, perhaps, Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. Beyond them, there has been chatter about the Dodgers dealing Joc Pederson, the Tigers dealing Matthew Boyd and the Pirates and Rockies shopping anyone worth a bag of balls.

Whether any of those big names switch teams, it’s already been a pretty active trading season so far, and it would not be at all surprising of the transaction wire is humming in the next week. We, of course, will have near-instant breakdowns of every deal that goes down, so make sure you keep a window open with this site on it and hit refresh early and often.

 

Managers on Parade

 

Trade deals and free agent negotiations take place behind closed doors, so we can only talk about those once they happen. One of the major public activities of the Winter Meetings is when all 30 of the managers meet and greet the press.

We have a boatload of new managers this year, all of whom have had their happy little press conferences back in their home cities so far. The press availabilities at the Winter Meetings are a bit more in depth and, quite often, feature managers giving more detailed answers to their philosophies and their plans as they prepare for the 2020 season.

New at the little tables and under the bright lights this year: Jayce Tingler with the Padres, Mike Matheny with the Royals, Gabe Kapler with the Giants, David Ross with the Cubs, Derek Shelton with the Pirates, Joe Maddon with the Angels, Carlos Beltrán with the Mets, and Joe Girardi with the Phillies.

And, yes, the tradition like no other continues this year, as I will be ranking all 30 of the current managers on the basis of handsomeness. Here’s last year’s rankings. The new rankings will go up first thing Monday morning. It’s the silliest thing I do all year and, for better or for worse, it’s the thing I’m best known for. What a life I have.

 

Hall of Fame Vote

The Modern Baseball Era Committee — formerly known as the Veterans Committee — will meet on Sunday to vote in, or not vote in, new inductees for the Hall of Fame. For the past two weeks I’ve been profiling the candidates. Here are those profiles:

Committee members get four votes each. If I had four I’d give them to Whitaker, Evans, Simmons, and Miller, but you never know what the real voters will do. We’ll have the results up on Sunday evening once the vote is made public.

 

Major League Baseball vs. Minor League Baseball

One thing a lot of people don’t know about the Winter Meetings is that it’s put on, primarily, by Minor League Baseball as an organization and the vast majority of the people on the ground at the Winter Meetings either run or work for or are trying to sell stuff to minor league teams. Almost every team’s owner comes and brings along some staffers. Coaches, trainers, scouts, and other team employees who spend most of their year out in the bushes as opposed to back at the big club’s home base attend meetings and hobnob with one another.

Normally that’s all pretty routine. This year, however, it probably won’t be thanks to Rob Manfred’s plan to contract 42 minor league clubs and rearrange a great many more of them across levels and leagues.

As we noted earlier today, that scheme has set off a political firestorm and is no doubt the top agenda item and point of concern for every single minor league official and employee at the Winter Meetings. There are, reportedly, already meetings going on in San Diego about all of this. Expect some news about it at any point in the next week. At this point I’d expect anything from Manfred totally scrapping the plan, to him doubling down on it, to reports of general acrimony and possible legal action and everything in between.

 

The Boring Business of Baseball 

Outside of the transactions, the Hall of Fame stuff, the managers and the minor league contraction intrigue, we’ll likely have more mundane Winter Meetings business. Most people at the Winter Meetings aren’t there for transactions. They’re there to network, seek jobs and discuss the business of baseball like any other industry convention. Ever year we hear about a rule change or a proposal for future rule changes at the Meetings. There is no single rule change that everyone is talking about at the moment, but something will likely pop up. Sometimes we’re completely surprised with that kind of stuff.

 

The Rule 5 Draft

The final event of the Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place at 8am Pacific time on Thursday morning. You likely have no idea who most of the players who will be selected, but by next summer you may very well know some of them who are either picked or who were made available this week. Max Muncy could’ve been had by anyone a couple of years ago, went un-picked and all he’s done is rake like crazy for the team with the most wins in the National League. Given that even the combined minds of 29 front offices didn’t think he was worth a roster spot last year, you’ll be forgiven for not having any idea about the guys in this year’s Rule 5. But, if you want to at least attempt to be prepared for it, here’s a good place to start.

So, yes, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll be on the scene at the Hyatt Manchester in San Diego — and maybe a few other places around town — bringing you all the best hot stove business we have to offer and, as usual, some more fun odds and ends from baseball’s biggest offseason event.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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UPDATE: Major League Baseball has released the following statement in the wake of Jeff Passan’s ESPN report overnight, discussed in more detail below:

MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so.  While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.  While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.  The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.

9:04 AM: Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.