The Month That Was in Baseball: February 2023
Wednesday, February 1
The Department of Justice is recommending that baseball’s antitrust exemption is basically nonexistent in its original intent, and should at the very least be “narrowed,” per a brief provided to the U.S. Second Circuit Court, hearing an appeal from four minor league teams forced to disband in 2020 after Major League Baseball axed them. In the brief, the DOJ believes that the exemption, created by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922 after Organized (or “Federal”) Baseball was sued by former teams from the short-lived Federal League, is “effectively…a nullity” because it was limited only to player contracts under the reserve clause, itself shattered in 1976 to create modern-day free agency. It also dismisses the notion, as does almost everyone else outside of MLB, that Baseball is a business and not just a “sport,” as the high court wrote in 1922. “The average Major League Baseball team is worth over $2 billion dollars, up nine percent since 2021,” the DOJ wrote. “Major League teams compete not just to win championships, but also to attract fans and earn revenue.” Should the appeal by the four minor league teams be kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court, they feel that their chances are good that it would rule in their favor and strip MLB of its hallowed antitrust exemption.
The deadline for the Baltimore Orioles to exercise a five-year extension of their current lease at Oriole Park at Camden Yards comes and goes without any action, leaving the team potentially homeless after this coming season. But to all you long-time Baltimore sports fans who recall football’s Colts departing town in the middle of the night back in the 1980s, fear not; the Orioles attempt to reassure everyone that they’re not going anywhere. At a joint appearance with Maryland Governor Wes Moore, Orioles head John Angelos said he wants to tap into a $600 million bond set aside for both Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium (home of the NFL’s Ravens) to upgrade not just the ballpark but the area around it.
It’s an invigorating time for the Orioles. Besides the ballpark issue, there’s a family feud taking place as Angelos’ brother is suing the team for being left out of the franchise without compensation, while another lawsuit by the neighboring Washington Nationals over backpay owed by the Orioles-owned sports network MASN (which provides coverage for both teams) will be heard by a New York court starting in March. The Orioles have paid the Nationals $197 million between 2012-16, but the Nationals argue that the figure should be $475 million; MLB arbitrated and pegged the figure at $296 million.
Reliever Chad Green, still recovering from Tommy John surgery and likely unable to play until late this season, has nevertheless agreed to a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. The contract includes two option years and could total as much as $29.5 million.
Thursday, February 2
Dylan Moore, a low-average, high-powered utility guy, has been secured by the Seattle Mariners for the next three years at a cost of $8.9 million. The contract covers Moore’s last two years of arbitration and first year of free agency. In four seasons with the Mariners, the 30-year-old Moore has batted .208 with 35 home runs and 112 RBIs over 921 at-bats.
Friday, February 3
One of MLB’s cash cows over the past decade has been the abundant revenue from regional sports networks, with teams securing nine-figure deals for the rights to have their games broadcast. At the time, we wondered how these networks could avoid getting into debt trying to recoup the extravagant rights fees they’ve paid—and that was before declining viewership as more and more people “cut the cord” from cable. Which brings us to Bally Sports, which operates nearly half (14) of the regional sports networks covering MLB teams and is now facing possible bankruptcy. The details as to how Bally got to this point are complex, but bottom line is that MLB is concerned enough that it has created a committee of league execs to explore what the league will have to do should the networks become insolvent and the revenue checks stop showing up in the mail.
Sometimes when you ask for too much, you may end up getting nothing.
Saturday, February 4
The Los Angeles Dodgers make some noise on two fronts. They extend infielder Miguel Rojas, who they acquired last month from Miami, for a year and $5 million to keep him at Chavez Ravine through 2024. Additionally, a club option year is thrown in for a second year in 2025 for another $5 million, with a $1 million buyout. The team also announces that they’ll retire Fernando Valenzuela’s #34 jersey this August during a home series against Colorado. The 62-year-old Valenzuela pitched for the Dodgers from 1980-90 and gave rise to Fernandomania after a sensational, out-of-nowhere start to his career in 1981; he’s currently ranked eighth in modern-era (post-1900) franchise wins with 141, seventh in shutouts with 29, and sixth in strikeouts with 1,759.
Monday, February 6
The Orioles’ soap opera gets a little less soapy as Lou Angelos, who sued brother/CEO John Angelos after claiming he was left out of the team hierarchy, has apparently kissed and made up. It’s revealed that all legal squabbles between the two have been settled—though it’s not known if Lou will have a say in the team going forward. Perhaps he should steer clear of the Orioles’ other headaches that John is trying to resolve, as mentioned back on February 1.
Tuesday, February 7
The Cleveland Guardians hire their first-ever female coach as Amanda Kamekona is brought in to provide instruction to minor league hitters at the team’s year-round Cactus League headquarters in Goodyear, Arizona.
The World Baseball Classic, which begins March 8, says thanks but no thanks to the pitch clock that will be instituted for the coming MLB season. The reasoning behind the decision is based on the fact that players will need to get used to the clock, rather than jumping cold into a competitive tournament with it being in use.
Wednesday, February 8
Bo Bichette, who’s led the AL in hits over each of the last two seasons, has agreed to a three-year, $33 million extension with the Blue Jays that will cover his final two seasons of arbitration and first year of free agency. The deal locks up one of the game’s most consistently solid players—and one of its youngest, at age 24—as he likely moves into the prime of his career. Through three-plus seasons, Bichette owns a lifetime .297 batting average and .831 OPS; his 162-game average includes 41 doubles, 28 homers, 99 RBIs and 19 steals.
Thursday, February 9
If the catchers can do it, so can the pitchers. When Spring Training games start in two weeks, pitchers will be allowed to use the PitchCom wristband used by catchers last year, calling their own pitches rather than waiting for the catchers to tell them what they think. If all goes well, MLB will allow pitchers to continue using the device once the regular season starts. One thing’s for sure—it will initially look weird to see a pitcher standing on the mound and punching numbers on a wristband, like he’s ordering pizza on his iWatch.
The San Diego Padres apparently believe that pitcher Yu Darvish has quite a bit of gas left in his tank. They extend the veteran pitcher beyond his contracted 2023 season, guaranteeing him five more years at an additional $90 million. Darvish, who already is 36 years of age, will see the contract expire when he’s 42—and the money is guaranteed, regardless of who’s paying it by the time the deal expires.
Friday, February 10
One of the few remaining veteran free agents gets a new team as outfielder David Peralta agrees to a one-year deal worth $6.5 million with the Dodgers. A career .281 batter, the 35-year-old Peralta was a steady presence with the Arizona Diamondbacks for eight-plus years, but his numbers have wilted this decade, and he was sent packing to Tampa Bay to finish out the 2022 season.
The Astros lock up promising young starting pitcher Cristian Javier with a five-year extension paying him $64 million. The 25-year-old right-hander had moments of brilliance in 2022, finishing the season with an 11-9 record, 2.54 ERA and a streak of 25.1 consecutive scoreless innings that remains intact heading into 2023. In the Astros’ triumphant postseason, Javier won both his starts, allowing just a hit over 11.1 innings; that included the first six frames of Houston’s combo no-hitter in World Series Game Four over the Phillies at Philadelphia.
Saturday, February 11
Alex Reyes hasn’t pitched since 2021, but the Dodgers are taking a chance that he still has a chunk of good health left in him. The injury-ravaged, 28-year-old right-handed reliever agrees to a one-year, $1.1 million that’s heavily loaded with incentives—and that’s understandable, considering that Reyes has undergone Tommy John surgery (2017), dealt with lat issues (2018), one shoulder surgery in 2020 and another before the start of last season. When healthy, Reyes is quite good; in in his only full campaign over six seasons, in 2021, he appeared in 69 games, saving 29 of them with a 3.24 ERA and 10-8 record.
Sunday, February 12
Fox Sports announces during its Super Bowl coverage that Hall of Famer Derek Jeter will join the network’s studio group for MLB broadcasts this coming season. What’s intriguing about the move is that Jeter will share the table with ex-teammate Alex Rodriguez, whom he has had a frosty relationship with over the past two decades—though word has it that they’ve warmed up in recent times. Jeter will join Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Super Bowl play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt in the Fox studio.
Monday, February 13
It’s official: MLB announces that the ‘gift runner,’ the gratuitous baserunner thrown at second base to start every half-inning after the ninth, will be made permanent this coming season. Instituted on a temporary basis to help baseball get through the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the gift runner was kept in place in 2021 as COVID remained a threat, and continued last year thanks to a condensed schedule forged by the owners’ wintertime lockout of players.
Let’s not kid ourselves; MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred, in particular, wanted this rule for keeps all along; coaches and GMs wanted it to avoid potentially overworked pitching staffs; and players in general wanted it to avoid that one game every year that lasted 15, 16, 17 or more innings. Fans, by and large, continue to despise the concept by at least a 2-1 margin.
MLB also announces a modest tweak in its rules allowing position players to pitch. Such players can take the mound in one of three instances: Anytime in extra innings, when the player’s team is ahead by 10 or more runs, or behind by eight or more.
Ted Lerner, who bought the Washington Nationals in 2006 shortly after the franchise’s move from Montreal, passes away at the age of 97. Under Lerner’s control, the Nationals failed to have a winning record until 2012, when an improved roster heightened by star #1 draft picks Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg turned the team into a constant winner. Lerner ceded control of the team to his son Mark Lerner starting in 2018; a year later, the Nationals won their first world title in the franchise’s 51st season.
Tuesday, February 14
Michael Wacha, perhaps the best remaining free-agent pitcher left on the market, is picked up by the Padres after a very good year with Boston, where he finished 11-2 with a 3.32 ERA over 127.1 innings. Thus, it’s rather surprising that he remained available this far into the offseason. Overall, Wacha has had an up-and-down career; the right-hander shined in a late-season debut with the World Series-bound Cardinals in 2013 (nearly throwing a no-hitter along the way), and won 17 games for the 2015 Redbirds—but also struggled in recent years in stints with the Mets and Rays before rebounding last season with the Red Sox.
Wednesday, February 15
America’s political divide may not be more palpably felt than in Wisconsin, but it appears that embattled Democratic governor Tony Evers is making a bid to win over the majority of Milwaukee Brewers fans. As the State of Wisconsin is currently enjoying a budget surplus, Evers has said he will commit nearly $300 million to fix up American Family Field, the Brewers home of over two decades. There is a carrot-stick tact at work here; Evers will give the Brewers the money only if the team commits to a 20-year extension of its current lease, which expires after 2030. The financial gift is currently part of an annual budget that still needs to be passed by a Wisconsin legislature which is heavily Republican—and even though allowing the money to the Brewers makes Evers look good, it will make the Republicans look bad if they say no—at least to Brewers fans.
The doors to Spring Training open, just in time to find out that everyone’s hurt. Or so it seems. Among the walking wounded arriving at camp are a pair of the usual suspects: newly-signed Texas ace Jacob deGrom is pulled from a bullpen session after his chronically troubled oblique flares up on him, and Washington star pitcher Stephen Strasburg will remain shelved after a recent setback from his procedure to fix his bout of thoracic outlet syndrome. Then there’s the Yankees’ Frankie Montas, who disappointed after a midseason trade from Oakland last season; he’ll undergo shoulder surgery next week and miss most, if not all, of the 2023 season.
Thursday, February 16
The process of arbitration, to decide whether a player should receive what he feels versus what the team thinks, can be a tricky thing. While the player argues why he’s worth ‘X’ dollars, the team has to argue why he’s worth less. In the brilliant book Lords of the Realm, author John Helyar wrote of the extent some general managers went, in the words of the late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, to try and “tear down” a player in order to get their way in front of arbitrators. The White Sox, for instance, put out a “lowlights” film to visually explain why bopper Ron Kittle shouldn’t get his preferred pay, while Milwaukee’s Jim Gantner was so ticked off at GM Harry Dalton after bad-mouthing him in arbitration, the infielder confronted him afterward and asked, “If you feel that way about me, why don’t you trade me?”
Corbin Burnes can now relate. The Brewers’ star pitcher, 2021 NL Cy Young winner and 2022 NL strikeout champ, recently lost his arbitration case. He wanted $10.75 million; the Brewers felt he was worth slightly less, at $10 million. The Brewers may have won the battle, but for $750,000—nickels and dimes in today’s billion-dollar baseball universe—they may have lost the war in regards to Burnes’ long-term prospects in Milwaukee.
What left Burnes smarting wasn’t the difference in pay, but apparently what the Brewers said to convince the three-person arbitration panel to side in their favor. Arriving at spring camp in Arizona, Burnes let it be known he wasn’t happy about it. “You kind of find out your true value,” he said, “you think you work hard for seven years in the organization, and five years with the big-league team, and you get in there and basically they value you much different than what you thought you’d contributed to the organization.” Burnes inferred that the Brewers, in their argument to the panel, made him a scapegoat for their failure to reach the playoffs last year: “That’s something that doesn’t need to be said. We can go about a hearing without having to do that.” Brewers exec Matt Arnold does quick damage control, admitting that the arbitration process is “uncomfortable” and insisting that Burnes is an “elite talent” and “one of the leaders of our franchise.”
Curious to know if any of those words were used by the team to describe Burnes in front of the arbitrators. We’re guessing that, no, they were not. We also wonder if Burnes asked the same question to Arnold that Jim Gantner asked of Harry Dalton all those years ago.
Sad news in the world of both baseball and broadcasting, as Tim McCarver, the highly respected, long-serving catcher and, more memorably, the go-to analyst for multiple national networks and teams covering MLB games, passes away at the age of 81. His playing career began with the 1959 Cardinals and ended with the 1980 Phillies; along the way, he played with three World Series champions, two All-Star teams, and counted teammates from Stan Musial to Lonnie Smith. In the Cardinals’ World Series-winning 1967 campaign, McCarver finished second in the NL MVP vote behind teammate Orlando Cepeda. Quickly after stepping down from the game, McCarver stepped up to the broadcast booth, where his folksy Southern drawl and sharp, often frank analysis made him a favorite for all four major broadcast networks—his last and longest tenure with Fox alongside Joe Buck—and in localized roles working for the Phillies, Yankees, Mets, Giants and Cardinals.
Friday, February 17
San Diego third baseman Manny Machado says he will opt out of his current contract with the Padres after the 2023 season, the halfway point of his current 10-year, $300 million deal. Though he would still have a guaranteed $150 million coming to him if he stays, the 31-year-old Machado is confident enough that he can generate more on the free-agent market next winter. “Markets change,” he told reporters. “From when I signed five years ago, it’s changed tremendously. Things change and evolve. As a player who’s about to opt out, it’s pretty good to see.”
Saturday, February 18
The Athletic’s Evan Drelich is reporting that the MLB ownership is fractured over Steve Cohen, the Mets’ multi-billionaire lord who’s not afraid to spend his money on players—and certainly not afraid of paying a luxury tax as the team’s payroll soars toward the $400 million mark for 2023. And that concerns not only small-market teams but commissioner Rob Manfred, who’s struggling to contain cohesion as disparate opinions spread among management, even beyond the makeup of rich owner/poor owner.
A sizeable base of owners alarmed with Cohen’s spending habits are raising the topic of a salary cap, but as toxic as that would be for the players’ union—they sacrificed an entire postseason to stiff-arm it in 1994—it’s even messier than that for owners, who would also have to consider a salary floor which teams have debated the merits and mathematics of.
Manfred is so concerned, he’s created a “economic reform committee” made up of four owners (from the Dodgers, Red Sox, Tigers and Rockies) already trying to get the others in line for an acceptable, streamlined proposal to the union three years from now, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement bitterly fought for last year expires. The question thus becomes which battle will be bigger—owners vs. union, or owners vs. themselves?
Complicating the economics of the current environment—and another reason for the existence of the new committee—is the ongoing crisis with regional sports networks (RSNs) covering MLB, 14 of which are controlled by a media giant (Diamond Sports Group) on the verge of bankruptcy. It’s rather stunning how MLB didn’t see this coming, as teams used RSNs as a cash cow to receive boatloads of money amid a shrinking cable landscape. Now, for half of MLB teams, that revenue may not come at all—and Manfred and the owners are scrambling to find solutions to avoid franchises from going deep into the red as a result. All of this means that the 2026 CBA negotiations—and all the boardroom debates at MLB owners meetings before it—are going to be a doozy.
MLB union boss Tony Clark later reiterates the players’ longstanding position that they will never accept a salary cap.
Monday, February 20
Michael Fulmer, the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year who’s become more of a bullpen presence over the last three years, finalizes a one-year, $4 million contract with the Cubs. Between the Tigers and Twins last season, the 29-year-old right-hander was 5-6 with a 3.39 ERA over 67 appearances, all in relief.
Some major league players simply fade away, but at some point they have to let everyone know: Yeah, I’m retired. And so it is with second baseman Jason Kipnis, who says he’s done with the game a couple of years after it was basically done with him. A 10-year veteran and two-time All-Star (2013 and 2015), Kipnis had a series of solid years and finished with a .260 batting average, 1,147 hits, 126 home runs and 136 stolen bases. He last played at the big-league level for the 2020 Cubs, and attempted a comeback in the minors within the Atlanta organization in 2021; that ended up being his last pro activity.
Tuesday, February 21
The Brewers add some name recognition to the roster, signing 2020 major league home run leader Luke Voit and outfielder Tyler Naquin to minor league contracts. Voit has yet to recapture his pandemic-season glory, but he was still effective enough to club 22 homers with 69 RBIs between San Diego and Washington last season. Naquin, meanwhile, played part-time for both the Reds and Mets and finished the 2022 campaign batting .229 with 11 homers and 46 RBIs over 310 at-bats.
The Twins bring infielder Donovan Solano on board as a late signee. The 35-year-old Colombian native played 80 games for the Reds last year, batting .284 with 16 doubles, four homers and 24 RBIs.
Wednesday, February 22
With Justin Verlander no longer in the Houston pitching fold, the Astros are hoping to count on a healthy Lance McCullers Jr.—who only gave them eight starts in 2022 after missing a majority of the season with right flexor pronator issues. Well, 2023 doesn’t seem to be getting off to a good start for the 29-year-old right-hander; a strained muscle in his pitching arm is ailing him to the point he’s certain to miss Opening Day. In those eight precious outings last year, McCullers was solid—winning four, losing twice and posting a stellar 2.21 ERA. He was a bit iffier in the postseason, throwing six shutout innings in his one ALDS start against Seattle—but also giving up a World Series-record five home runs to the Phillies in a Game Three, 7-0 loss.
Albie Pearson, the 1958 Rookie of the Year and early table-setter for the Los Angeles Angels, passes away at the age of 88. As a rookie for the Washington Senators, a few years before their move to Minnesota, Pearson batted .275 and played a competent center field; a year later, he got off to a poor start and was traded to Baltimore. Made eligible for the 1961 expansion draft, Pearson was selected by the Angels and came back to life, batting .284 over the franchise’s first three seasons while averaging nearly 100 runs and walks each per campaign. Over nine total major league seasons, Pearson batted .270 with 831 hits, 77 steals, and struck out just 195 times over 3,077 at-bats.
Thursday, February 23
After losing 13 of 19 arbitration hearings during the offseason, a number of players who failed to get what they had hoped in 2023 salary have sounded off—most notably Milwaukee ace Corbin Burnes. Tampa Bay reliever Ryan Thompson, who also lost his arbitration hearing, had a less emotional but more detailed breakdown, directing his scorn toward the three arbitrators who sealed his fate for a lower payday. In a Twitter thread, Thompson questioned the group’s knowledge of the game and statistics, saying he relied on tried-and-true analytics while assailing the Rays’ use of a stat called “meltdowns” (“I’ve never heard of it,” wrote Thompson, “and maybe never will again.”) and feeling less than wild about the arbitrators’ decision to have drinks at the bar after the hearing, just before making a decision. Click here to read the rant in full.
Friday, February 24
Spring Training games kick off with the obligatory Grapefruit League opener between the Red Sox and collegians (Northeastern, which loses 5-3) and a pair of Cactus League fare out West with Kansas City defeating Texas, 6-5, and Seattle edging out San Diego, 3-2. MLB’s new rules are out in full force, and the Padres’ Manny Machado becomes an asterisked footnote as the first major leaguer to be dinged with a strike for failing to get ready in time for a pitch during his first at-bat. (We say asterisked because it’s on only an exhibition; the real trivia question will be answered on Opening Day.)
The pitch clock does have an influence on the two Cactus League games, as both last just a little over two and a half hours. Also interesting to note: Despite the enlarged bases and quota on pickoff throws, no stolen bases are attempted in either game.
Saturday, February 25
Baseball players had quickly better get used to the numerous rules revolving around the pitch clock, or we could see regular season games resembling something like what happens in a Spring Training contest between Atlanta and Boston at North Port, Florida. In the bottom of the ninth of a tied game and the bases loaded, the Braves’ Cal Conley is facing a 3-2 count against the Red Sox’ Robert Kwiatkowski, and is settling back into the batter’s box when he hears umpire John Libka stop the proceedings. Conley believes that Libka has granted him an automatic ball four and, thus, a game-winning walk, thinking Kwiatkowski has spent too much time getting ready to throw the payoff pitch—but Libka is instead pointing at Conley and ordering an automatic strike three, saying that Conley is the one violating the time by not getting back in the box within the mandatory time allotment. The game ends in a 6-6 tie as Conley and his teammates throw their arms up in the air in frustrated disgust over the call.
Six months apparently hasn’t been long enough for umpire C.C. Bucknor to get over a big-time dispute with St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol, whom he ejected in an August 2022 game over balls-and-strikes calls. Before a spring matchup the Cardinals and Washington Nationals in Florida, Marmol goes out to offer a handshake to Bucknor as a simple matter of respect, but Bucknor refuses. The three other umpires do shake Marmol’s hand and apologize for Bucknor’s behavior. That’s not enough to pacify Marmol, who later says that Bucknor had “zero class” in the diss.
A few days later, MLB will state that the matter between Bucknor and Marmol is “settled.”
Sunday, February 26
It appears that Manny Machado’s ‘decision’ to opt-out from his current contract with San Diego was nothing more than a ploy to light a fire under the Padres to get an extension. It’s announced that the All-Star third baseman will stick with the Friars through his age-40 season, signing a new pact worth 11 years and $350 million. It basically adds six years and $200 million to his current pact, assuming he did not opt out.
The Padres are estimated to have a $266 million payroll for 2023 a $55 million jump from last year—and a figure nearly three times that of the 2019 budget. They’re going to have to carefully manage their money from this point on, given they have massive deals extending to or beyond the end of the decade with Xander Bogaerts, Fernando Tatis Jr., Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove—not to mention that they still owe Eric Hosmer, who’s no longer with the ballclub, $37 million over the next three years.
Monday, February 27
In a brutal blow to the Dodgers, shortstop Gavin Lux will miss the entire upcoming season after tearing an ACL in a 7-6 win over San Diego. The 25-year-old Lux was running to third base on a ground ball and suddenly tripped over himself. After batting .276 with six home runs over 129 games last season principally at second base, Lux was scheduled to be the primary shortstop for the Dodgers this year.
In figures released by the players’ union, the average MLB salary in 2022 checked in at $4,222,193—not only a 14.8% jump from the year before, but the first year in which an increase of any kind was seen since 2017. The rise is the highest seen in baseball since 2000. With all the plush contracts doled out this past offseason, expect another generous rise this coming year.
James Click, unceremoniously dumped by the Astros, has found a new calling in Toronto as the Blue Jays’ vice president of baseball strategy. Click was released by Houston after he refused to accept a weak new contract offer unbecoming of one who oversaw his team’s world championship season; many consider it the last straw in a power struggle between Click and owner Jim Crane.
So far, so quick: Through the first three-plus days of Spring Training games, the average time per nine-inning contest has dropped from 3:01 last spring to 2:38 this year—an impressive 23-minute drop. This is in line with the reduction in time for minor league games last year using the pitch clock, a concept which has been promoted to the majors for 2023.
Tuesday, February 28
Fragile Tampa Bay pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who appeared in only two regular season games last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, suffers a strained oblique that will keep him out of action for roughly six-to-eight weeks. The hard-throwing right-hander has never started more than 14 games in any of seven different major league seasons, though he featured as a reliever (making 34 calls out of the bullpen) for the 2018 Pirates before a midseason trade to the Rays.
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