How will the reopening of baseball unfold?

MLB schedule release
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On Monday, former major leaguer Trevor Plouffe tweeted that he had heard spring training would resume on June 10 and that games would get underway on July 1. Plouffe, who retired after the 2018 season, isn’t far removed from the game and no doubt has a lot of contacts in baseball, but no one confirmed his rumor and many pushed back, claiming that it wasn’t true.

This morning — in what you should 100% construe as Major League Baseball’s unofficial pushback on that rumor — Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that “no plan is close to firm” as far as when the 2020 baseball season will begin or what it will look like.” He added that “there is no plan, can be no plan, until Major League Baseball gains a clearer perspective on which states are containing COVID-19 well enough for games to be played safely in their most stripped-down form, without fans.” Jeff Passan of ESPN — similarly plugged-in to MLB’s leadership — said almost exactly the same thing.

When Passan and Rosenthal are on the same page like this it’s a pretty good bet that you’re hearing a message that Major League Baseball’s leadership is strongly endeavoring to convey. In this case the message is “we have no idea when or how baseball is returning, but when we do decide, be assured that it’ll be based on science and reason and safety.”

Which is the right message to convey. I just wonder, though, if that’s what’s really going on, technically speaking.

Yesterday I wrote about how there is a clear incentive on the part of some pretty powerful people to bring back baseball by early July as a point of symbolism and inspiration. I don’t know if Plouffe is full of it or not, but that jibes with what he says he’s heard. It also jibes with something both Rosenthal and Passan confirmed in their reports: that teams — each cited the Cleveland Indians — have been told to be ready to go back to spring training in mid-to-late June, with an eye toward an early July season start. Each quickly followed that note with words to the effect of, “but, again, there is no actual plan in place . . .” but that they confirmed the notion that such signaling is already taking place makes me further believe that MLB is clearly eyeing that early July start.

Which makes me think that, rather than watching the data about “which states are containing COVID-19 well enough for games to be played safely,” what’s really going on is that they’ve decided when they want to play — early July — and are looking out for information that would prevent them from making that decision official.

That’s a fine distinction — some may argue it’s a distinction without a difference — but it makes a pretty big difference in practice. It transforms the decision making process from one of data collection and determination (query: what specific information from which states will Rob Manfred cite as his tipping point?) to one that is at least partially grounded in optics.

Here’s what I think is happening, practically speaking.

Major League Baseball has most of the month of May to see if the aggressive re-opening plans of various states or businesses blows up in their faces. To see if there is serious public backlash to it. To see if there are moments of bad optics. To see if famous people — especially athletes or people close to athletes (remember, it was an NBA player getting sick that set all of this off) — get sick or die. To see if vocal re-opening advocates catch hell or are politically embarrassed. To see if there is public unrest of some kind. To see if the increased infection and death rate that the Trump administration is itself predicting captures more of the public’s attention than the reopenings, complete with cable news b-roll of healthy people enjoying lunch at outdoor cafes, do. To gauge the mood just as much if not more than to see how well COVID-19 was, technically speaking, being “contained.”

If, as is so often the case in this country, people start to become fatigued by the bad news and allow it to fall down the page, as it were — if there are stories about how the country is slowly-but-surely returning to normal — an unofficial early July start date will play well with most people and that “be ready for spring training in June” stuff Rosenthal and Passan mentioned will, miraculously, prove to have been prescient. If, on the other hand, the national mood does not follow that course — if some of that bad stuff I talked about in the previous paragraph comes to pass — hey, “nothing official has been decided” so MLB can just put things off.

Either way, I do not truly believe that baseball will begin again because — as measured by hard numbers or specific guidance from public health officials — June is going to be objectively safer than May or because July will be objectively safer than June. If that were the case, again, Rob Manfred could, like governors of the various states, talk publicly about the metrics and scientific and medical considerations which are guiding his reasoning.

Rather, I believe baseball has a pretty darkly-penciled-in sketch of a plan at the moment which involves a mid-June spring training followed by an early July opening as the baseline and which will only be changed if it becomes untenable to hold to it due to the optics of the plan.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.