Now that Major League Baseball is just about done engaging in everyone’s second-favorite national pastime — spending money on free agents — the teams finally will take the field this week in Florida and Arizona.
In some ways, this won’t be the same sport you last witnessed in November, whether it’s big names in new places or rule changes that have been on tap for what’s felt like decades or even the constellation of stars aligning for this year’s World Baseball Classic.
And for all the heat Mets owner Steve Cohen endured in the offseason — whether real or perceived — from fellow owners for throwing all that cash around, it’s worth mentioning that the Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner technically forked over the most on free agents during the last four months, a whopping $537.5 million (Cohen was at $482.1M).
Kudos to Cohen for calling out the more frugal MLB franchises, but as we’ve been schooled over the years, record-breaking payrolls don’t necessarily buy World Series trophies. Still, a Mets-type offseason is the kind that really stokes a fan base for spring training, and what Cohen has created will turn Port St. Lucie into perhaps the most fascinating destination on the Grapefruit League map.
The Mets and Yankees spurred a record $3.6 billion in contracts for 114 free agents this winter (according to spotrac.com) and that doesn’t include the money put up for extensions, such as the Red Sox giving that $10-year, $313 million deal to Rafael Devers or the Padres’ six-year, $108 million contract to Yu Darvish.
All told, that’s a half-billion more than a year ago, when baseball was briefly torn apart by labor strife, and a $1.5 billion increase from the last pre-pandemic offseason leading into 2020.
Economics aside, MLB is investing in some other notable developments for the sport, and both should have a noticeable impact on spring training for different reasons. Right from the jump, it will be interesting to see how quickly teams adjust to the trio of significant rule changes, with the pitch clock, larger bases and defensive-shift ban all being implemented in the coming weeks.
Long story short, commissioner Rob Manfred wants a shorter game with more action, and these three tweaks should deliver what he’s looking for. As far as the pitch clock goes, there is data to support his position, with minor-league games trimmed from 3 hours, 3 minutes in 2021 to a much tighter 2:38 last season.
Players traditionally pushed back against a pitch timer because of what they viewed as a radical change to their working conditions, and this will involve an adjustment period. The pitch now has to be delivered in 15 seconds with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on.
This should be a problem only for the slower-working pitchers — the former-Met-now-Blue Jay Chris Bassitt comes to mind — but being on a clock is going to require a different mindset for everyone. A faster pace, however, is nothing to complain about for a sport that got bogged down during the past quarter-century, with hitters and pitchers alike exploiting the umpires’ negligence in moving things along.
The larger bases, now 18-inch squares (up from 15 inches), will result in them being 4 1⁄2 inches closer, which should encourage more base-stealing attempts, a recent casualty of advanced analytics.
And speaking of those metrics, the ban on defensive shifts — two defenders on each side of second base, with the infielders inside the outer edge of the dirt — is another rule designed to promote more balls in play, especially for lefthanded hitters victimized by the previous alignments.
“This has been an eight-year effort for us,” Manfred told reporters this past week at the owners’ meetings. “I hope we get what our fans want — faster, more action, more athleticism.”
Ideally, the rule changes should promote those things. But as we’ve discovered with the evolution of the replay-review system, there are always unintended consequences. We’re sure to see some of those early red flags during the next six weeks of spring training.
Something you won’t see in their usual spots for a significant chunk of March: a number of All-Stars. In the Mets’ case, that will include their entire starting infield as players head to their WBC camps for a tournament scheduled to run from March 8-21.
The WBC represents a unique opportunity to see the game’s marquee talent competing on an international scale, with stacked dream-team rosters that outshine what people will watch during MLB’s regular season.
The tournament is designed to grow the sport beyond its traditional fandom, and this year’s WBC should be must-see TV, especially with serious high-stakes baseball replacing the usual mundane March exhibitions. But it’s not without risk, as the WBC atmosphere puts players under atypical stress for this time of year in an uncontrolled environment.
Rather than easing their way into a greater intensity as the clock ticks closer to Opening Day, players can feel compelled to push themselves, which is a much different mindset from practice reps.
One cautionary tale that comes to mind was David Wright in 2013, when he suffered an intercostal strain with Team USA fresh off his $138 million contract extension with the Mets.
Wright earned his Captain America nickname during that WBC, batting .438 (7-for-16) with two doubles, 10 RBIs and a grand slam against Italy. But he also admitted trying to play through that rib-cage discomfort for a week before he landed on a pregame injury report and the Mets summoned him back to Florida.
While it’s true that the same exact injury happens from time to time during any Grapefruit or Cactus League game, the WBC tends to ratchet up the anxiety for MLB teams, partly because the players no longer are under the supervision of their regular training staffs.
Mets manager Buck Showalter expressed those concerns this past week. With a $373 million payroll, sky-high expectations for this season and nine key players on WBC rosters, the Mets have more to lose than most clubs do.
“It enhances our game globally and I support it, but I’m looking at it selfishly from what’s best for the New York Mets,” Showalter said. “We’re going to keep a close eye on it.”
Showalter would agree there’s a lot to monitor during what should be an unusual spring training. And it all gets underway this week.