Will the Red Sox use Alex Cora’s dismissal as a pretext for a teardown?

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When Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch were fired yesterday, someone asked me what it all means for the Astros. My gut reaction was “not that much, at least in the short term.” Losing your manager and GM is not great and the loss of the draft picks will be a big blow down the line, but in the short term the team is still stocked, with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke going 1-2 in the rotation, Alex Bregman, José Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer in the lineup and a farm system still pretty loaded with talent. They may not win 107 games again, and the rise of the Astros may be over, but they’re not likely to fall too far too fast.

The situation with the Red Sox strikes me a bit differently, though. And with Alex Cora getting fired this evening, I’m wondering if, perhaps, we may see some major changes for Boston, and if we see them quickly.

As Bill noted earlier, the Red Sox are at least trying to shrink payroll. They’ve equivocated on that at various times this offseason, first saying that they wanted to get below the Competitive Balance Tax threshold and that doing so while keeping both Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez would be difficult. They backtracked on that more recently, saying that winning, not getting under that threshold, was the priority. Still, it’s hard to separate the stated goals from the P.R. considerations. One gets the strong feeling that, yes, the Sox’ front office would love to cut payroll below $208 million if they can, but that doing it without trading Mookie Betts would be close to impossible. And, of course, trading Betts would be a huge blow to fan morale, would likely lead to a big backlash, and might sink the Sox, competitively speaking.

But . . . maybe Alex Cora getting tossed aside changes that calculus? Maybe the team’s top brass — including new Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom, who has no connection whatsoever to that which happened in Boston before this winter and who has more leeway right now to build the team the way he wants to than he will ever have going forward — sees this crisis as an opportunity? Maybe they decide to cast Cora’s dismissal and whatever other penalties Major League Baseball visits upon them when the investigation is over as the straw that broke this iteration of the Red Sox’ back and decide to tear it up and start over?

Normally I’d consider this idea as rather far-fetched. And, heck, I don’t even know how much I actually believe what I’m speculating about here as I speculate about it. But the Red Sox have always done things a little differently when it comes to scandal and downturns and I can see them doing something unexpected.

This is the team who, after just falling a single game short of the postseason in 2011, waved goodbye to the manager and general manager who delivered them their first World Series title in 86 years, threw them and most of the starting rotation under the bus in the press as they did so, and then went in a completely different and rather crazy direction by hiring Bobby Valentine.

This is a team who, a year and a half after winning their next World Series, pushed out their general manager who put that club together by hiring Dave Dombrowski and then fired him less than a year after he helped deliver a World Series win.

This is a team who, in grand Red Sox tradition, saw members of the front office anonymously quoted in stories in the local press after all of these moves saying that, really, all the bad stuff was the fault of the guys who were shipped off. It’s just what they do there as a means of deflecting blame from the brass and creating scapegoats for what, in reality, were either brass decisions or situations in which there is plenty of blame to go around.

So tell me, would you be shocked if, in the coming days, there was a story in the Globe or the Herald or at WEEI or someplace in which some anonymous Sox front office person said that they were, frankly, blindsided by what Cora had done and that it disrupted all the plans the organization had? Before you answer, remember that much of the front office is new and thus has totally clean hands from the 2017-18 period and can say such things with at lease plausible deniability.

Would it shock you if, before spring training, Mookie Betts and his $27 million 2020 deal were traded to a contender for a couple of prospects? Before you answer, remember, some folks in the Boston press corps are already priming the fans for that.

Would it shock you if the Sox dumped David Price and enough of his salary to ensure that the club came in under a $208 million payroll in 2020? Before you answer, note that, just today, he was quoted saying some things about how the Red Sox could, if they wanted to, spend more money than they are, and that’s not really on-brand with what the front office would like to have out there at the moment.

Finally, would it shock you if, when all that was done, another anonymous front office employee was quoted as saying, “really, we did not want to do this, but what happened with Cora left us no choice but to start over. We have faith in Chaim that it will be a short, not a long rebuild.” Before you answer, remember that Cora wouldn’t even be the first or second recent World Series-winning manager about whom the Red Sox would say such things.

I’m not saying that’s going to happen. Or that it’s even likely. I’m just saying that, if it does, it wouldn’t shock me.

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.