Steve Sparks is heading to spring training soon to broadcast the Houston Astros’ exhibition games on radio. But with the sport and the country still in the grip of the coronavirus, he will miss the up-close access that gives spring training its charm.
“We’ll probably have some roped-off areas where we can get to a certain spot, but not like those days where you could stand right next to the bullpen, watch the prospects and listen to the teaching,” said Sparks, a former major league pitcher. “One day I was eight or 10 feet away from Justin Verlander throwing in the bullpen, seeing him look at an iPad after every pitch and making this one adjustment that I was able to talk about for half of a season because of what it did for his fastball.”
Fans, too, can often get close enough for their own moments of wonder at complexes in Florida and Arizona, which open for pitchers and catchers for 15 teams on Wednesday and all teams by Friday. Most teams let fans roam the back fields with few restrictions. In Mesa, Ariz., the Chicago Cubs encourage fans to tailgate beside the players’ walkway from the training complex to the ballpark, bringing a touch of Wrigleyville to the desert.
Alas, this spring will be different. Attendance will be limited to 20 to 25 percent of capacity, depending on the city. The usual ambience — crowded grassy berms above the outfield walls, fans snagging autographs — will take a hiatus. Even the minor leaguers will keep their distance; most of them will not report to spring training facilities until the big leaguers leave town.
At least players in Florida will get a break from two- or three-hour bus rides. The five teams based in the east coast of the state — the Mets, the Houston Astros, the Washington Nationals, the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals — will play against only one another, and the teams that train in the Tampa area will not play the teams in the Fort Myers area.
The changes make last spring training seem much longer than 12 months ago. Back then, the industry was consumed by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Three managers and a general manager were fired over it, and the Houston players faced severe backlash from colleagues around the league and fans at exhibition games. The pandemic abruptly changed everything.
During a four-month shutdown, the commissioner’s office and the union bickered over the details of the restart, an early battleground for the painstaking negotiations to replace the collective bargaining agreement that expires after this season.
The sides assumed their hard lines again this winter. With support from city officials in the hard-hit Phoenix area, owners proposed pushing back spring training, staging opening day in late April and shortening the schedule to 154 games. Players would get full pay, with a universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs as part of the deal. The union rejected that plan without a counterproposal, retaining the expanded playoffs as a bargaining tool to get the larger-scale changes it wants in the next C.B.A.
Barring a change, then, the league will head into an uncertain future by turning to the recent past, with pitchers hitting in National League parks and the same playoff format as was held from 2012 through 2019 — three division winners and two wild-card teams in each league. Last season, eight teams from each league qualified for the postseason, and the designated hitter was used in all games.
“I don’t understand why we don’t have a D.H.,” Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said last week on MLB Network Radio. “I think for both sides, for the fans, for the game, for health and safety — there’s no reason why the D.H. shouldn’t be in there. It shouldn’t be tied to anything. The D.H. makes sense for the betterment of the game. It makes sense for the future, it makes sense for keeping pitchers healthy. Nobody wants to see Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks hit. They want to see them strike guys out; they want to see them be the aces that they are.”
Two innovations from last season will remain: Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, and games will last seven innings during doubleheaders. (Some spring training exhibitions will be limited to five innings.) The league will also introduce a new ball that adheres closer to the middle of the existing specification range — in other words, slightly lighter and less bouncy, in hopes of curbing the majors’ home run surge.
For some pitchers, this adjustment confirmed suspicions that the league had juiced the old ball to generate more homers. In any case, if last season proved anything, it was the timeless lesson that pitching usually wins. The Los Angeles Dodgers had the best earned run average in the majors and won the World Series. They beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best E.R.A. in the American League.
The Dodgers added to their overpowering staff by signing Trevor Bauer, who won the N.L. Cy Young Award for Cincinnati last season, to a three-year, $102 million contract. The deal is front-loaded with salaries of $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022, and Bauer can opt out after either season.
Bauer, who chose the Dodgers over the Mets, will be the third former Cy Young winner in the rotation, joining Clayton Kershaw and David Price. The Dodgers also have a wave of hard-throwing homegrown starters, none older than 26, in Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urias, who threw the final pitch of the World Series.
No team can match that depth, not even the division-rival San Diego Padres, who traded for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove to build off the team’s first playoff appearance since 2006. After a shortened season, it may be more important than ever to carefully manage pitchers’ workloads.
“We feel like we’ve got seven proven major league starters; we’re not sure exactly how things are going to shake out on April 1, but we couldn’t be more confident that they’re going to help us through the year and also through October,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “Adding to our pitching depth was something that was really important to us, just with all the unknowns, going from a 60-game season back to 162 games.”
While the Dodgers try to become the first team to repeat as champions since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000, the Padres, the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays moved aggressively to continue their ascent. The White Sox — under a new manager, the Hall of Famer Tony La Russa — gave a three-year contract to closer Liam Hendriks in free agency and traded for starter Lance Lynn, while Toronto splurged for center fielder George Springer (six years, $150 million) and infielder Marcus Semien (one year, $18 million).
Several other teams made multiple win-now moves, like the Yankees (Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon), the Mets (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann, Trevor May, Aaron Loup), the Minnesota Twins, the Washington Nationals and even the Kansas City Royals, who traded with the Boston Red Sox last week for outfielder Andrew Benintendi.
The Red Sox, who dealt Price and Mookie Betts to the Dodgers last winter, stumbled to 24-36 for a .400 winning percentage, their worst since 1965. Their additions have been mostly low-cost placeholders — Franchy Cordero, Enrique Hernandez, Marwin Gonzalez, Hunter Renfroe — signaling another year of rebuilding at Fenway Park.
Teardown strategies are still in vogue, and not just with typically stingy teams like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. The Cubs shipped Darvish to the Padres, and the Colorado Rockies dealt Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals, less than two years after signing him to an eight-year contract extension. Several other teams, like Arizona, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Seattle, did almost nothing to improve.
It is no wonder, then, that players believe the current economic system incentivizes losing while also discouraging teams from exceeding a luxury-tax limit, in effect creating a salary cap. Resolving those issues and avoiding a strike must be an off-field priority this season — because while this spring training is bound to feel different, it is surely better than no spring training at all.