As a baseball writer, I’ve long been envious of how quickly and decisively NBA and NFL teams act when it comes to signing free agents and making trades.
Their transactions are theater, drawing national attention to the sport and captivating fans. Meanwhile, baseball plods along throughout the long winter, teams and agents waiting each other out like a medieval siege until the start of spring training.
The trade deadline offered proof it doesn’t have to be that way. Ten players who were selected to the All-Star Game were traded during a wild week. The Nationals and Cubs alone traded 17 players, including Max Scherzer, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez.
The third-place Yankees, in despair when they left Fenway Park last Sunday, picked up Rizzo and Joey Gallo, exciting their fans.
As Red Sox manager Alex Cora said, it was an exciting week for baseball fans that was good for the sport in its entirety.
That there was a hard deadline drove the action. That’s something MLB and the Players Association should remember as they craft the next collective bargaining agreement.
Find a way to put deadlines on free agent signings and trades to compress the action and put baseball in the national spotlight in December. Turn the Winter Meetings into an event that generates news, not just speculation.
Deadlines drive action. As baseball looks for ways to increase the action on the field, it should do the same off the field.
A few thoughts on the frenzy:
National rebuild: Washington general manager Mike Rizzo wasn’t accustomed to being a seller. Turns out he’s pretty good at it.
He traded Lester, Scherzer, Schwarber, Trea Turner, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Daniel Hudson, and Brad Hand. The Nationals picked up 12 prospects, including catcher Keibert Ruiz and righthander Josiah Gray from the Dodgers.
Rizzo wore his 2019 World Series on a video call with reporters afterward. He said he wore it all day Friday to remind himself of the team’s goal. Rizzo feels like the Nationals are putting together the core of their next championship team.
Blues brothers: The Cubs shipped out beloved World Series winners Baez, Bryant, and Rizzo. They also put the White Sox in a better position to win a World Series by trading them an All-Star closer in Kimbrel.
There was no room for sentiment.
“The decisions that we have to make in this game sometimes are really difficult,” GM Jed Hoyer said. “I hope that people don’t ever think that there’s not real emotion that goes into doing that. Those guys, they’re icons here. They did something that no one had ever done.”
Ben Cherington crafted a similarly effective fire sale with the Red Sox in 2014. Theo Epstein taught his proteges well.
No stopping: The Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts to win the World Series last season. That worked. Then they signed Trevor Bauer to repeat. That failed. So now they’ve traded for Scherzer and Turner.
The first-place Giants must feel like they’re fighting the Terminator. They took two of three from the Dodgers, who then went and got another ace.
“Whenever you’re in position to win a championship, and you have impact-type players that you can add, our mind-set is to be aggressive,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.
The Dodgers can make these moves because of a deep reservoir of attractive prospects. It’s the model Chaim Bloom is trying to construct with the Red Sox.
But the Dodgers also have a $274 million payroll now. A knack for player development with a budget to fill in the gaps with players such as Scherzer is a frightening combination for the rest of the National League.
Rocky times: Colorado was 40-51 and clearly out of contention at the All-Star break. The Rockies traded reliever Mychal Givens to the Reds and … that was it.
“I’m confused and I don’t have really anything good to say about the situation and how it unfolded,” shortstop Trevor Story told the Denver Post.
Us, too. Story had had a poor season, but surely the Rockies could have traded him for a better return than the draft pick they’ll get when he leaves as a free agent.
They also inexplicably held on to pending free agents C.J. Cron and Jon Gray, along with 36-year-old closer Daniel Bard.
If the Rockies have an organization philosophy, it isn’t apparent.
The Mariners were equally hard to understand. They’re a few games out in the wild-card race and traded closer Kendall Graveman to the division-rival Astros, angering the clubhouse. GM Jerry Dipoto promised it would make sense then acquired a lesser closer in Diego Castillo.
Sox being patient with Sale’s return
Two e-mails arrived recently asking why it has taken so long for Chris Sale to return to the Red Sox.
The answer is it really hasn’t. It only seems that way.
Sale last pitched for the Sox on Aug. 13, 2019, so his expected return will come after a two-year absence give or take a few days. But his Tommy John surgery was March 30, 2020. The Sox tried a period of rest and rehabilitation with Sale’s elbow after the 2019 season that didn’t work.
A return from Tommy John after 16 months is within the usual range.
Johnny Cueto came back to the Giants in 13 months, but Jordan Montgomery needed 15 months before rejoining the Yankees.
Sale, Tyler Beede, Luis Severino, and Noah Syndergaard had their surgeries between Feb. 27-March 30, 2020. Only Beede has pitched in the majors since, and that was for one inning on July 10 before he was optioned.
Sale (COVID-19, neck spasms), Severino (groin strain), and Syndergaard (elbow inflammation) all had setbacks. If Severino and Syndergaard return this season, it will likely be as relievers.
It’s also worth noting that Sale is 32 and in 2018 spent time on the injured list with a shoulder injury. The Sox had ample reason to be careful with how they brought him back.
The team scheduled what amounts to a normal spring training build-up for Sale: five starts and about 20-22 innings. That’s what he did in 2017 and ‘18.
Sale didn’t go through the same preparation in 2019 and had a 4.40 ERA before finishing the year on the injured list.
Ultimately, he’s not late. He may just be right on time.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ The Sox have until 5 p.m. on Sunday to sign second-round pick Jud Fabian, a power-hitting outfielder from Florida. His slot value is $1.85 million, but Fabian is seeking $3 million. The Sox would get the 41st overall pick in 2022 as compensation if Fabian doesn’t sign.
Fabian turns 21 in September and has already played three seasons for the Gators. He was projected to go in the first round back in March but hit .249 and struck out 79 times in 225 at-bats, albeit with 20 home runs.
Fabian is taking on a lot of risk if he goes back to college in hopes of doing better than $1.85 million. He’ll also lose all negotiating leverage with his next team. College players gained an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic but going back for a fifth year wouldn’t make any sense.
▪ The Red Sox made a slick roster move by optioning Tanner Houck to Worcester on Thursday.
They weren’t planning on using the righthander as a starter until next Saturday’s doubleheader in Toronto. Houck’s required 15 days in the minors won’t be up by then, but he can be named as the extra player for the doubleheader.
Houck can start Saturday, return to Worcester, then come back to the majors to make his next start if that’s their decision.
The Sox received 10 days of roster flexibility at a time they can use it at the cost of one relief appearance early this coming week.
▪ Triston Casas has been hitting cleanup for Team USA in Japan, which tells you a lot about what Mike Scioscia thinks of the 21-year-old first baseman.
“He makes adjustments from at-bat to at-bat, which is not something you see with many players that age,” Scioscia said before the team left for Japan. “He has an advanced process with how he goes about things.”
The Olympic experience, particularly being around older players and playing games that matter, should provide fuel for Casas as he moves up the ladder.
▪ Xander Bogaerts played his 1,000th game at shortstop on Saturday. Only two players in team history — Everett Scott (1,093) and Rick Burleson (1,004) — have more at the position.
It’s a testament to the organization having faith in a player that many evaluators thought would end up at third base, and to Bogaerts proving he should stick at shortstop.
▪ According to the Twitter account @ScoringChanges, there have been 12 calls made by official scorers at Fenway Park that have been changed this season, the most in the majors. The Dodgers are second with nine. There have been an unusually higher number of changes this season as more players (via their agents) have appealed decisions.
Francona facing a big challenge
On Thursday, Terry Francona stepped down as Indians manager for the rest of the season. He checked into the Cleveland Clinic on Friday to prepare for surgery on Monday to have his left hip replaced. Then in 5-7 weeks, he’ll return to have a steel rod implanted in his left foot to combat the effects of a staph infection that included getting a piece of bone taken out of his big toe.
Ten weeks of staying off his feet will follow.
The physical maladies were getting in the way of Francona being the kind of manager he wants to be.
“I want to love my job,” Francona said after making the decision. “I’m just not able right now to physically do what I think needs to be done. I haven’t lost the love of the game or the love of our team or the people in it.
“If anything, I know I care more today than I ever did. The relationships have grown, and they’ve gotten stronger. I’ve got to get healthy, or I can’t do this job. It’s like one step at a time.”
Francona, who already has an artificial right hip and two artificial knees, will have a long winter of rehab. The hope is he can return at some point next season.
“I have to get healthy or there really wasn’t a decision,” he said.
Francona has been using a walking boot all season. Just going to the mound was a chore.
“It’s not just been hard physically, it’s been really hard mentally,” he said. “I think the coaches knew that it had been weighing on me for a while. Man, it’s difficult. A big reason why it’s difficult is because I love what I do and I love where I do it. I love this place.”
At 62, Francona still has plenty of years left to continue a managerial career that almost certainly should land him in the Hall of Fame. But he needs to worry about his well-being first. It’s not a lock he returns next season, but these steps could give him a chance.
For now, baseball has to be secondary.
“I’ve got to give myself a chance to have a little bit of a life,” Francona said.
Meanwhile, DeMarlo Hale gets a chance to manage the Indians. It’s a long overdue opportunity for the former Red Sox coach and minor league manager.
The Hall of Fame issued a press release on Thursday announcing that Craig Biggio, Tom Glavine, and Ken Griffey Jr. were added to its board of directors. At the bottom of the release was this: “The board of directors also reviewed Curt Schilling’s request to be removed from the 2022 Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot. In a unanimous decision, the request was denied. Schilling will remain eligible for the BBWAA ballot for the 10th and final time in 2022.” In a 1,200-word screed issued in January after he received 71.1 percent of the votes, Schilling wrote the writers did not have valid opinions and he would not participate in the process. The board affirmed that candidates do not have that choice. Schilling fell 16 votes short of the required 75 percent last year. Players often get a bump in their final year on the ballot, but it’s uncertain whether Schilling will get that benefit given his history of ugly comments on social media … When the Royals honored Alex Gordon on July 24, he decided to throw out the first pitch from left field, and he hit catcher Salvador Perez on one hop. Gordon, who retired after the 2020 season, won eight Gold Gloves and had 102 outfield assists … Tampa Bay’s Nelson Cruz signed his first pro contract on Feb. 17, 1998, three years and 12 days before teammate Wander Franco was born … A story lost in the trade deadline furor: There have been significant COVID-19 outbreaks with several Florida Complex League teams, particularly the Phillies. It could affect scheduling in August … Pittsburgh rookie infielder Rodolfo Castro was a modest 5 of 21 in his first nine games. But all five hits were home runs. He was the first player in the modern era whose first five career hits were homers. The last Pirate who had five straight hits that were home runs was Willie Stargell in 1965 … The Twins hit seven home runs and lost, 17-14, against the Tigers on Wednesday. It was only the fifth time since at least 1901 a team has hit seven homers and lost. No team has ever hit eight homers and lost ... The Blue Jays returned to Toronto on Friday for the first time since Sept. 29, 2019. Clay Buchholz, now retired, went five innings to beat Tampa Bay in that game. Bo Bichette, Toronto’s shortstop for the better part of three seasons, went into the weekend having played more games in Buffalo (35) than Rogers Centre (21) and just as many games as Dunedin, Fla. … Happy birthday to Tony Muser, who is 74. He played two games for the Red Sox in 1969 before going to spend eight years in the majors as a player, 14 as a coach, and parts of six as a manager. Muser was drafted by the Giants in 1966, declined to sign, and signed with the Sox as a free agent during the 1967 season. He got to the majors for two games at the end of the ‘69 season then was traded to the White Sox in 1971. He went on to hit .261 for the White Sox, Orioles, and Brewers. That led to a long career in the dugout. Muser managed the Royals from 1997-2002, going 317-431.