March 16, 2022

The Lockout Ends

The business of baseball is often portrayed as a treacherous cesspool of greed and deception. But it’s not until you follow the negotiations to create a new collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball ownership groups and the Major League Baseball Players Association that you truly realize the depth of duplicitous scumbaggery that resides on both sides.

Owners of small market teams do their best to ensure that they can make huge profits while remaining uncompetitive as the players’ union derides packages that include a league minimum salary of $700,000 per year as a “slap in the face.” Owners raise our hopes by claiming that an agreement is imminent, only for players to insist that the sides were at no point close to a deal.

Each time there is a labor dispute, fan resentment of the business that constantly perverts this great sport grows at a geometric rate. I’ll love baseball until the day I die, but I’ve got more respect for the executive board of Hydra than I have for MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred or MLBPA President Tony Clark.

For the record, I’m one of the few working-class people that tends to side with the owners during these disputes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that billionaires don’t get to be billionaires by being good, ethical people. But it seems to me that the MLBPA has bastardized the entire purpose that a workers’ union is supposed to represent.

Unions were created to ensure that workers had:

  1. safe working conditions
  2. a decent living wage

Major League Baseball players enjoy first-class travel, five-star hotels, state-of-the-art playing and training equipment, clubhouse assistants at their beck and call, and incredible health benefits including some of the finest doctors, trainers, masseuses, and physical therapists in the country. Before the lockout, the league minimum salary was $571,000 per year. These players may have the greatest working conditions and wages of any unionized workers on the planet.

The MLBPA’s pursuits are not rooted in protecting workers from the iron-fisted ruling class of the industry. They are rooted in painting the owners as gluttonous Scrooges on par with the strike busters of the early 1900s. The MLBPA then leverages that contrived public perception to try to shame the owners into giving their extremely well-compensated workers their “fair” share. 

Somewhere along the line, the MLBPA began viewing the difference between the profits that owners make and the salaries that players earn as some form of systemic tyranny established to keep the boots of ownership firmly planted atop the throats of the players. Rather than simply enjoying their status as adored icons earning six-, seven-, and eight-figure annual salaries, they peek over the dashboards of their Mercedes and Bentleys and frown at the yachts and gulfstreams owned by the very men that pay their exuberant salaries.

“We’re the ones that people are paying to see,” players groan. “Why should they be living so much larger than us?”

Because without a league to compete in, a stadium to play in, a facility to meet and train in, a uniform to wear, a television channel to appear on, and a marketing campaign to promote it all, the players would be selling cars by day and wowing barflies by night with tales of the no-hitter they threw against Rehoboth in the state tournament when they were 17.

Sure, owners can’t play baseball at the highest level. But players can’t run billion-dollar businesses.

Both sides need each other, and the basic tenets of capitalism state that owners make profits while employees make salaries. I’m all for getting as much money as you can from your boss. Go for it. But when baseball fans have to worry about missing games because the players want a bigger slice of a pie that already pays the worst player in the league $571,000 per season, I call BS on their “plight.”

I realize that there were issues beyond money at stake during this lockout. Rules of the game, balanced competition, and other issues were negotiated as well. But whenever a high-profile player was asked about their intentions from December through early March, they always claimed that they were fighting for the little guy; the players at the bottom of the pay scale and the guys that will be graduating to the big leagues in the future.

Well, every proposal laid out by the owners throughout the last month included raising the league minimum salary to $700,000 per year. If the worst player in the entire league is guaranteed to make $700,000 per year, then it’s fair to say that the little guy has been quite adequately protected. If the MLBPA’s battle was truly focused on the little guy, there is no reason that this lockout should have continued after the $700,000 league minimum was offered back in early February.

Luckily, the posturing and disingenuous rhetoric from both sides has concluded and we will get a 162-game MLB season in 2022.

Now, on to the stuff that matters.

 

Bullpen

The 2021 Boston Red Sox bullpen could not be trusted. They had a few relief pitchers that were capable of solid stretches, but last year’s team had only one guy that I was happy to see jog out to the pitcher’s mound in the late innings.

Alex Cora has said that the team plans to stretch out Garrett Whitlock as if he were going to be in the starting rotation when the season begins. After his sensational rookie year, a year in which he was forced into a baptism-by-fire as closer by the annual late-season mental breakdown of Matt Barnes, I had Whitlock earmarked to be the Red Sox closer once again in 2022. If Whitlock is now slated to be a starting pitcher, then this team has no closer.

I recently read that Barnes hopes to retake the closer role this spring. Considering that the Red Sox play in the American League East, I would sooner attempt to fend off an asteroid with a pool cue than use Barnes in that role. Barnes has had many chances in the past, and every August he shows that he has no business toeing the rubber at crucial times late in the season. I never want to see Matt Barnes pitch after the sixth inning for the Red Sox ever again.

I’m hoping that Chaim Bloom and Alex Cora eventually come to their senses and reinstall Whitlock as the closer. It’s rare to find a rookie with the right mentality for that role, and if Whitlock stays healthy, he will only get better as he develops. You can’t conduct in-season tryouts for such an important role when you play in this division. We know he can do the job. Let’s not try and reinvent the wheel.

Following Josh Taylor’s back injury on the last weekend of the regular season, the Red Sox were desperate for lefthanded relievers in the playoffs. Bloom needed to add a couple lefties to the bullpen this offseason, and he did that by picking up Matt Strahm and Jake Diekman. For once, the Red Sox will have some lefthanded options in the bullpen to start the season.

Strahm was fantastic in 2018 and very good in the fake season of 2020 with San Diego. But he’s also had some miserable seasons, and a knee injury limited him to only six innings last year. He’s a fastball-slider pitcher with nothing overpowering, and he’ll have to fight for his roster spot.

Diekman, on the other hand, is a dependable ten-year veteran with a hard fastball and one of those sweeping, wipeout sliders that you just love to see from a lefty reliever. 

I expect Diekman to emerge as the chief late-inning lefty with Taylor as the number two while Strahm, Austin Davis, and Darwinzon Hernandez play musical chairs with the Red Sox, Woo Sox, and waiver wire.

Chaim Bloom subscribes to the “strength in numbers” approach to building a pitching staff. Following the Tampa Bay model to the letter, he has procured a whole bunch of cheap arms with diverse skillsets, many of which still have options to be demoted to the minor leagues.

Considering how much of a crapshoot relief pitching performance is, I think it’s a method that is brilliant in its simplicity. There are so very few relief pitchers in the game that are consistently good from year to year, and I think Bloom’s approach is a big reason why the Rays usually have solid relief pitching. He scouts meticulously, throws a bunch of inexpensive stuff against the wall, and sees what sticks. If someone gets hurt or struggles, Bloom tosses him onto the scrap heap and moves on down the line.

Ryan Brasier and Phillips Valdez are fine for middle relief. Hirokazu Sawamura is once again my dark horse to emerge as the setup man, provided he can keep his splitter out of the strike zone. And Barnes is under contract for a couple more years, so you may as well keep him on the team for mop up detail and to pitch a 6th inning here and there against a bad team.

The closer role, however, is the lynchpin of any bullpen. With Whitlock in that role, I believe the fresh surplus of arms in the Red Sox bullpen will fall into place nicely. Without him there, I see this bullpen as a house of cards on a very breezy day.

 

Starting Rotation

In Chaim Bloom fashion, the starting five is more like a starting nine. And it’s a damn good thing he loaded up with pitchers, because Chris Sale has officially jumped the shark.

Dave Dombrowski’s ungodly ineptitude somehow rose to even greater heights this morning when Bloom announced that Sale has a stress fracture in his rib cage and will probably miss the first couple months of the season. Good thing Davey Dollarbills gave him a 5-year/$145 million extension in 2018 after his first two seasons with Boston ended in complete burnout.

Nathan Eovaldi appears to be figured in as the opening day starter, and Sale’s injury adds a couple tons of pressure on him to replicate his great 2021 season.

Nick Pivetta impressed us throughout 2021 and showed some serious marbles in the playoffs. I see him becoming the staff workhorse, improving his control and putting up bona fide front end starter numbers this year.

Tanner Houck should be a good back-end starting pitcher that will probably be used as a swingman when James Paxton comes off the injured list in the second half. I think Houck will remain on a pretty short pitch count throughout the year, which will hinder him from making any serious breakthroughs. However, I predict some huge relief performances from him during the fall stretch run.

The combination of veterans Michael Wacha and Rich Hill, minor league prospect Connor Seabold, and Paxton should be able to net 40-45 starts to fill out the de facto number five spot in the rotation and make up for the shortfall created by the three or four IL stints Sale will likely make this year. 

Wacha and Hill are veterans that will have a few good starts, a few bad starts, and a whole bunch of blah starts.

Paxton will be particularly intriguing if his recovery from Tommy John surgery goes well, which is no slam dunk by any means. He has borderline ace stuff when at his best, so even 80% of prime James Paxton would be a welcome addition to the rotation at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, carrying Sale on the roster has become an albatross that may force Bloom to make yet another starting pitcher acquisition during the season. As much as I love Sale’s talent, attitude, and leadership, the contract extension Dombrowski gifted him following the 2018 World Series has been abysmal for the Red Sox.

 

Schwarber

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I wanted Kyle Schwarber on the Red Sox. He changed the entire balance and approach of the lineup when he joined the team last August, and re-signing him would have helped justify the presence of Jackie Bradley Jr. With Schwarber’s bat in this lineup, it would have been much easier to hide Bradley’s (lack of a) bat in the nine hole.

However, due to the adoption of the universal designated hitter, 15 teams that didn’t use a DH last year needed one once the lockout ended. I don’t think Chaim Bloom gave any serious thought to matching Philadelphia’s offer (Dombrowski screwing us over yet again) of $20 million per year for four years. Thus, my ideal lineup for this season went into the crapper.

With Schwarber gone and top minor league prospect Triston Casas not quite ready for The Show, we are stuck with Bobby Dalbec at first base in 2022. I hate power hitters who strike out 200 times a year, which means I am not a big fan of Dalbec’s. While he showed improvement in the second half of 2021, his caravan of empty hacks from the first half and playoff run are still fresh in my mind.

To me, Dalbec represents one of the biggest fallacies of the sabermetric revolution: that strikeouts are no worse than productive outs that advance baserunners as long as the player doing all the whiffing can sock 30 dingers per year. I wanted Dalbec traded for an established lefty reliever like Jake McGee of the Giants, but obviously that’s not Bloom’s style. I hope Dalbec develops his patience and ability to make contact, but I’m not holding my breath. That level of futility does not simply evaporate over the course of one offseason.

 

Offense

The rest of the lineup is formidable, but still one hitter short.

I’m concerned about the health of J.D. Martinez. He needs to be the full-time DH this year, as I do not see his aging, plodding body holding up through another season of regular outfield time. If Jackie Bradley Jr. is Boston’s starting right fielder, his greatest contribution may be the luxury of allowing Martinez to remain on his butt whenever he’s not hitting.

As good as this offense was for the majority of last year, it all hinges on the trinity.

Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and 2022 AL MVP Rafael Devers need another moderate threat to support them in the lineup. In the absence of a meaningful offensive addition before April 7th, the Red Sox will be in serious trouble if any of them miss significant time.

I think Bloom is counting on Alex Verdugo to be that supporting threat, and if he can duplicate his performance from the first half of last season, he may be capable of just that. He brings energy to the field (not Christian Arroyo-level energy, but energy nonetheless), but that energy and competitiveness is tempered with too much hero ball.

If Verdugo is going to elevate his game to the level that is needed for the Red Sox offense to stack up with the Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jays, he needs to eliminate the stupid diving and leaping attempts, stop trawling for homers when all he needs is a single or a groundout, and have a better understanding of situational baseball.

 

Hernandez CF
Verdugo LF
Bogaerts SS
Devers 3B
Martinez DH
Dalbec 1B
Arroyo 2B
Vazquez/Plawecki C
Bradley RF

Does this lineup look overmatched compared to the rest of the AL East? You bet. But we all thought the same thing last year too. It’s important to keep in mind that championships are not won in the offseason. The Red Sox didn’t get within two wins of the World Series last year on sheer talent. They got there because they were able to overcome roadblock after roadblock and outfight just about anybody on the field.

Now that the ugliness of the business side of baseball is behind us for the next five years, let’s get back to the business of enjoying another exhilarating season.

The Red Sox train was pretty lonely for much of last year.

Are you ready to climb aboard?

Boston Red Sox Fan

By Luke

2 thoughts on “Unlocking Our Season – Doubleheader Column”

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