This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: March 2021

Goodbye, Cardboard Cutouts    Minor Leaguers as Lab Rabbits, 2021 Edition 
The Best and Worst of the Exhibition Season

February 2021    Comebacker Index 


Monday, March 1

Fans who shell out some pretty big bucks for a spring training matchup between Atlanta and Boston at the Red Sox’ Florida home of JetBlue Park get to see quite the incomplete game. First of all, the game lasts seven innings, with the Braves winning, 5-3. But even some of the individual innings didn’t go the required distance; in three of the seven frames, the Red Sox ask umpires to end the inning before their pitchers could get the third out and escape some jams. This is part of a pandemic-era spring rule in which a team can ask for a premature end to the opposing team’s at-bat should their pitcher exceed 20 pitches in the frame. It happens in the first when starter Garrett Richards faces six batters and gets only one of them out; with two runs in and the bases loaded, Boston manager Alex Cora says no mas—as he also will in the third with Kyle Hart, and the seventh with Zac Grotz

While the rule exists to keep pitchers—some of whom are minor league-level hurlers who haven’t pitched competitively since 2019—from getting overworked too quickly, it does take away opportunities for hitters who are in the same boat to get their hacks in. But whatever—they’re playing baseball and there’s fans in the stands. Just, please, Rob Manfred—don’t pull this stunt in the regular season. 

Tuesday, March 2

Just when you thought Triple-A ball was around the corner…think again. It’s been decided by MLB—which now thoroughly runs the minors—to delay the season by a month, having it start at the same time as the lower-level leagues which are scheduled to begin at the beginning of May. ESPN’s Jeff Passan, who breaks the story, says that the Triple-A season won’t be shortened, but rather extended into September. As of right now, players expecting to break camp as part of Triple-A rosters will be placed in “alternate sites,” much as backup players were throughout the shortened 2020 season, to keep fresh until May. 

Wednesday, March 3

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who is a week away from turning 48 years of age, undergoes surgery to have a pacemaker inserted. This isn’t totally surprising news; in 2009, he had open heart surgery performed on him, and recently complained of low energy and shortness of breath that prompted him to get the pacemaker. He will be back with the Yankees within a few days. 

Boone isn’t the only one undergoing a procedure uncommon within baseball circles. Veteran pitcher Jon Lester, prepping for his first year with the Washington Nationals, is having his thyroid gland removed. This may or may not be related to the chemotherapy he received back in 2006 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma; he’ll return to the Nationals within a week. 

More traditional injuries pile up elsewhere. Houston pitcher Framber Valdez will miss a bit of time after fracturing the ring finger on his throwing (left) hand just five pitches into his first Spring Training start. This could be a big early blow for Houston, as Valdez emerged as a solid component to the rotation last season; keep in mind, the Astros are already without Justin Verlander for the entire season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.  

Joe Altobelli, who enjoyed a brief but successful managerial career, dies at the age of 88. The left-handed-hitting outfielder/first baseman never made it in the majors as a player, logging part-time numbers in 1955, 1957 and 1961 before moving on to a coaching career in the minors. He got his first major league managerial job with the Giants in 1977 and, a year later, won NL Manager of the Year honors by turning around a previously moribund San Francisco team to a strong third place finish in the NL West. But he was fired late in 1979 when the Giants fell back to the bottom; after a few years serving as a bench coach for the Yankees, Altobelli succeeded Hall-of-Fame skipper Earl Weaver in Baltimore and, in his first year piloting the Orioles, won the World Series over Philadelphia. But quick regression led to another ouster a couple of years later. Altobelli remained on the coaching scene afterward, assisting the Chicago Cubs through 1991.

Thursday, March 4

One of the last remaining high-ranking free agents signs as ex-Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. inks a two-year, $24 million deal with Milwaukee. The deal includes an opt-out after the first year. Known more for his exceptional defense than his bat, Bradley won a Gold Glove in 2018 but has a .239 career batting average. 

According to The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, we can all breathe easier because this year’s postseason will go back to the normal 10 teams—meaning only deserving teams will participate. Owners had hoped that players would agree to stick with the 16 playoff teams from last year, because, you know, money—but because there’s been little discussion toward a decision, it’ll be back to the status quo. So we’ll be spared the possibility of a losing team falling short of the World Series by a single game, as it was last year with the Houston Astros

Friday, March 5

The five California MLB teams have been given permission by Governor Gavin Newsom to allow 20% capacity at their ballparks to start the 2021 season—so long as they remain in state’s “red tier”, the third highest of four risk levels (yellow being the lowest risk, purple the highest). This is of course subject to change, but as California follows the larger pattern across the country of decreased infections and increased vaccinations—and with the weather gradually warming up—it is expected that the state will continue to edge toward a lower-risk status, allowing for an even higher percentage of ballpark capacity. But for the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, A’s and Padres to all know they’ll have actual living butts in the seats to start the season will be a welcomed sight. 

As a reminder that we’re not out of the pandemic woods, the Astros order eight of their pitchers to leave camp immediately to undergo one week of COVID quarantine. It’s not known whether the pitchers, some of whom are on the major league roster while others are likely headed to the minors, have tested positive for the virus—or if they just came into contact with someone else who has it. But in the name of avoiding an outbreak, the Astros are taking no chances. 

Free agent reliever Sam Dyson is suspended for the entire 2021 season for alleged domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend—and her cat—back in 2019. The 32-year-old Dyson missed the 2020 season while recovering from shoulder surgery. The year-long suspension is the longest yet given to a major league player for domestic abuse. 

Saturday, March 6

The Astros, faced with a bit of a pitching dearth in the short term (eight pitchers sidelined by COVID concerns) and long (broken finger for Framber Valdez), sign lingering free agent Jake Odorizzi to a two-year deal with a player option on a third. The 30-year-old right-hander struggled with rib issues last year, making just four winless starts for the Twins, losing one with a 6.59 ERA. The year before, Odorizzi set a career high for wins (15, along with seven losses) and posted a 3.51 ERA—but fell three innings short (159) of qualifying for the league lead. 

Sunday, March 7

Reliever Jeremy Jeffress had a heck of a short season last year for the Cubs, going 4-1 with a 1.54 ERA over 22 games and 23.1 innings. He became a free agent at year’s end and found only one taker: The Nationals, who offered nothing more than a minor league deal. Just three weeks into Spring Training, the 33-year-old Jeffress—who has yet to appear in a spring game—is released by the Nationals for what the team describes as “personnel reasons,” as if to clear up that there wasn’t anything attitude-wise going on. (Jeffress has had a history of off-field issues.) 

Adding intrigue, Jeffress tees off on his former agent Joshua Kusnick, tweeting that he “ruined my life.” Kusnick, who apparently doubles as a stand-up comic, doesn’t shy away from the social media response by stating, among other profane things, that he hasn’t represented Jeffress since 2019. 

Monday, March 8

The City of Chicago gives the Cubs and White Sox the green light to put fans in the stands at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field at 20% of capacity. That means roughly 8,000 spectators per game, until further notice. This leaves the Seattle and Washington as the only MLB teams left in the dark on whether they’ll have to stick to cardboard cutouts at their home ballparks when the season starts on April 1. 

Rheal Cormier, a Moncton, New Brunswick native who pitched 16 years in the majors and participated in two Olympics 20 years apart, dies of cancer at the age of 53. The southpaw was a starter for the first six years of his major league career before converting to a relief specialist, pitching for five different teams—principally for the Phillies from 2001-06. Not only did he get the final win at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, he also got the first at its replacement, Citizens Bank Park, in 2004. Cormier was a member of the 1988 Canadian Olympic baseball team—and a year after retiring from the majors, returned for the 2008 Games in Beijing. Among Canadian pitchers, only Paul Quantrill has appeared in more major league games than Cormier, who logged 683 total appearances. 

Tuesday, March 9

The Baltimore Orioles receive a rather generous allowance for spectators at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to start the season, with 50% capacity—or 23,000 fans. This is part of a greater statewide announcement by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who’s removing all capacity limits at restaurants, bars and gyms within the state. Meanwhile, the Colorado Rockies are granted a higher capacity rate at Coors Field, from 25% to 42.6%. (How they came to such an exact number, we don’t know.) This means that the Rockies can now max out at 21,363 fans. 

Wednesday, March 10

The Ouch Couch grows a bit crowded with major injuries (or infections) to pivotal players. Veteran Yankees reliever Zack Britton will miss Opening Day—and possibly much longer beyond—when it’s announced that he would need surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow. At New York Mets camp, recently acquired pitcher Carlos Carrasco is also doubtful for the start of the regular season after experiencing elbow soreness—but the pain could be attributed to the aftereffects of receiving his second COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, one person in need of the vaccine is Cincinnati star first baseman Joey Votto, who was placed on hiatus after testing positive for the virus. And pitcher Forrest Whitley, the Astros’ top prospect, will undergo Tommy John surgery after he was discovered to have a sprained UCL in his throwing (right) elbow. 

Whitley’s loss is a bruising blow to the Astros in that, according to mlb.com, he’s the only Houston prospect ranked in baseball’s top 100; overall, the Astros have the 29th-ranked farm system out of 30 teams. 

An avid online gambler who made news over a year ago for threatening major league players—apparently after losing on some bets—pleads guilty in a Tampa courtroom for his crimes and could face up to five years in prison. The 24-year old from Napa, California sent threatening (and racist, in a few cases) messages to members of the Rays and White Sox after the Rays lost a home game in 2019. This wasn’t the first time that the man went nuts online after losing a bet; he’s also threatened members of other major league teams, the NFL’s New England Patriots and a Swedish soccer player during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. 

As more teams announce increasing capacity allowances at major league games to start the season, the Texas Rangers do everyone else one better by saying that they’ll allow 100% capacity—a full house—for their first home game on April 5 at Globe Life Field. The announcement comes a week after Texas governor Greg Abbott lifts the state’s mask mandate and allows businesses to reopen at 100%. It would be the first time a major sporting event has been played at max capacity since the pandemic shut everything down starting exactly one year ago. Any of the 40,000 fans who show up to the Rangers’ game will need to bring their mask, because it will be required wear. 

Thursday, March 11

One of the reasons MLB consolidated its power over the minor leagues was to inflict its mad-scientist philosophy in the form of potential rule changes. And so the lower leagues will become lab rabbits this coming season as MLB is trying out some ideas that, if successful in its eyes, could be leveraged to the big league in the next year or beyond. Among the experiments: Larger and less slippery bases, from 15 inches square to 18, at the Triple-A level to encourage more stolen bases and prevent injuries like the hideous kind that nearly ruined Bryce Harper’s career a few years back; a clamping down on the shift at the Double-A level, with all infielders required to position themselves within the infield instead of being placed in short right or left; a new “step off” rule at the high-A level in which pitchers must now completely “disengage” from the rubber before making a pick-off move; and, at the low-A levels, a limit on pick-off attempts, a 15-second pitch clock and, in the “Southeast” circuit, use of the computerized strike zone to “assist” human umpires.

These test rules have been overseen by Theo Epstein, former architect of the champion Red Sox and Cubs and now an MLB executive consultant who’s complained about the lack of action in the game. But we feel the approach is wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the game as written in the rulebook; it’s survived 120 years without rule change for a reason. The problem is the way modern players are taught, whether by self or others. You want more steals? Teach the players to steal better. You want more bunts? Teach them to beat the shift. Preach the basics, and the problems will take care of themselves. You don’t reward players for refusing to adapt by adapting the rules around them. 

The Mariners will be allowed to have a maximum of 9,000 fans at T-Mobile Park to start the 2021 season, leaving the Nationals as the only remaining MLB team yet to be given clearance to allow spectators back at the ballpark on Opening Day—though that could change any day. 

Friday, March 12

After 15 seasons in the majors, outfielder Nick Markakis has retired. The 37-year old sensed that his role with the Braves would be diminished for the upcoming season, and thus decided to step down. In nine years with Baltimore and another six with Atlanta, the easygoing Markakis collected 2,388 hits including 514 doubles—only Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano have more among active players—yet made just one All-Star team, in 2018. A solid outfielder, Markakis nabbed three Gold Gloves and racked up 122 assists. 

Saturday, March 13

This is supposedly the last day in which teams could “roll” innings in Spring Training games, the act of a manager calling for the end of the inning before the third out. The routine has confused some fans and upset others who feel like they aren’t getting their inflationary money’s worth as they watch an inning get shortened. (We still must think it ticks off opposing hitters who would like another at-bat or two to prove their stock.) 

Meanwhile, the Giants and Indians must have read our recently released list of 10 other rule changes MLB should consider. One of those 10 ideas—letting the winning team bat in the bottom of the ninth because, hey, let’s rub it in—is actually used when the two teams agree to let the Giants, up 5-4, bat even with the win already in the bag. The umpires say no to the idea and leave—forcing the two teams to continue with spare players acting as temporary umps. The bottom of the ninth is unofficial and thus does not appear in the box score. 

All of these bizarre options—the rolling inning, players being allowed to re-enter, winning team batting in the bottom of the ninth—are supposed to no longer be allowed for the rest of Spring Training. But as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser tweeted, “Not sure even that rule is a rule at this point.” 

Sunday, March 14

After taking last season off to avoid any entanglements with COVID-19, flamethrowing Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks takes the mound for the first time this exhibition season and rediscovers just how grueling pitching can get. He quickly gets two strikes on the first batter he faces, the Mets’ Luis Guillorme—who works the count to 3-2, adding in a few foul balls. When we say a few, we mean…16. Finally, on the 22nd pitch of the at-bat, Guillorme takes ball four and trots to first base with a very hard-earned walk. And that’s it for Hicks, who’s removed after running his pitch count up on just one batter. Had this duel taken place during a regular season game, it would have officially broken the record for the most pitches in one plate appearance, by one—topping the epic 21-pitch battle between the Giants’ Brandon Belt and Angels’ Jaime Barria in 2018

Tuesday, March 16

The Washington Nationals became the last MLB team to be told they can have fans in the stands on Opening Day, as the District of Columbia gives the okay to allow a maximum of 5,000 at Nationals Park until further notice. 

The Orioles get themselves a bit of a bargain by signing third baseman Maikel Franco to a one-year deal worth just $800,000. Though Franco has never materialized into the star player we once idealized when he all but exploded onto the scene for Philadelphia in 2015, he did produce last season for the Kansas City Royals—playing all 60 games and batting .278 with 16 doubles, eight home runs and 38 RBIs. (Do the multiplication on that to a 162-game season and you get 43 doubles, 23 homers and 103 RBIs.) Playing half his games at hitter-friendly Oriole Park at Camden Yards should, in theory, help keep his game alive—but he’ll also have to knock incumbent third baseman Rio Ruiz out of the everyday lineup. 

Thursday, March 18

It appears that “Indians” will be given a one-year reprieve in Cleveland. Earlier this winter, Cleveland owner Paul Dolan announces that the team would be dropping its name of 107 years as pressure mounted for a change, but says that a new name won’t be put into use until 2022. In an online video call with reporters on Thursday, Dolan now says that the new name may not be approved and ready until 2023. “Our target is still 2022, but it’s a difficult process,” he said. “Trying to find a name that works, that we can clear, and ultimately in a tight time frame. By tight, I mean we can’t just show up in Spring Training and say, ‘Here’s the name.’ We have to be buttoned up long before that.” 

We understand that a rebranding process takes time, but geez, Paul—you’ve got a whole year to “button it up.” Get to work, man. 

Despite the fact that daily new COVID-19 cases in the state of New York has steadied within the 5k-10k range over the last six weeks, the Yankees and Mets is given the go-ahead to increase its capacity limit at their ballparks from 10% to 20%. This now means that both teams can draw close to 10,000 per game to start the 2021 season, though fans will have to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to be gained admittance. 

Friday, March 19

If there indeed is to be another surge of COVID-19, don’t blame baseball. It’s announced by MLB that 14,845 tests were conducted on players, coaches and staff in the past week—with just one positive result. That’s an infection rate of 0.007%. 

Saturday, March 20

The 2021 MLB Amateur Draft doesn’t take place until July, but scouts are firmly focused on a couple guys pitching for Vanderbilt University—especially after their latest starts. On Friday, big right-hander Kumar Rocker—what a name—scattered two runs over eight innings and struck out 14 against South Carolina, improving to 4-0 with a microscopic 0.39 ERA in four starts so far in the young season. He’s followed today by teammate Jack Leiter, the son of former major leaguer Al Leiter, who walks the first South Carolina batter before retiring the next 27 to complete a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts. This brings Leiter’s record to 5-0 in five starts with an equally sensational 0.31 ERA. By the way, Leiter is ranked #3 on ESPN’s list of collegiate prospects; Rocker is #2. 

Jesus Camargo, a 25-year-old minor leaguer in the Cubs organization, is arrested in Vail, Colorado after he’s pulled over for speeding and subsequently found to have a duffel bag full of meth and opioids. The arrest takes place while Camargo and two passengers are on their way to Phoenix. A right-handed pitcher, Camargo has made it only as far as Class A+, and after being unable to play last season due to the pandemic, performed wintertime ball in Mexico. Don’t expect to see him toiling in a baseball uniform anytime soon—unless it’s for the prison team. 

Sunday, March 21

$82 million over four years may not sound like a blockbuster in today’s baseball environment, but it’s enough to be the richest deal in Kansas City Royals history as the team extends six-time All-Star catcher Salvador Perez. The 30-year-old Venezuelan is being given the extension despite missing all of 2019 to Tommy John surgery, and another 23 games of the shortened 2020 schedule due to blurred vision (to say nothing of a COVID-19 positive test before the 60-game season began)—but he batted .333 with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs to earn AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. The contract extension is primed to solidify Perez’s standing as the greatest catcher in Royals history. 

Tuesday, March 23

The Blue Jays made a bet on closer Kirby Yates, signing the 2019 NL saves leader to a one-year, $5.5 million despite being limited to six games in 2020 due to elbow inflammation. It appears that they have lost that bet. Yates’ elbow not only hasn’t gotten better, but instead worse enough that he’ll have to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2021 season. With Yates sidelined, the Jays will presently shoulder their closing duty hopes on Jordan Romano and/or Rafael Dolis, who’ve notched a combined career total of 11 saves. 

Wednesday, March 24

Teams have been notified by MLB officials that they’re going to crack down on pitchers using foreign substances on baseballs this coming season. What’s interesting is not why they’re doing it, but how; among the tactics to be employed include “gameday compliance monitors” who will hang around the dugouts, clubhouses, bullpens and batting cages to police the scene; gathering of suspect balls to be tested offsite; and the use of Statcast data to detect unusual fluctuations in spin rate, as foreign substances are said to help accelerate such rates. Not only would any pitchers be subject to fines or suspensions should they get caught, but so would coaches and managers who might be deemed as accomplices. 

How all of the above will be properly executed should make for some interesting stories in the year to come…or it could be just another edict that runs out of steam before it has a chance to settle in, like the strict enforcement of the balk rule in 1988, or the time limit between pitches in 1995—both of which ended up being short-lived. 

A career 32-25 record and 3.70 ERA over five seasons is apparently good enough for Lance McCullers Jr. to earn a five-year extension from the Astros for $85 million. With Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke on the back side of the 30s—and a 29th-ranked farm system—the Astros feel it’s time to lock down a quality starter for the future. 

Thursday, March 25

Baseball’s Ouch Couch has little room to spare after a number of key players are declared out for Opening Day and beyond. The most crippling injury comes from White Sox camp where third-year slugger Eloy Jimenez will miss the bulk of the year after tearing a tendon in his shoulder while trying to make a diving catch in a spring game. Elsewhere, oft-injured Colorado pitcher Kyle Freeland will be out until May with a strained shoulder—though the Rockies were expecting much worse news, so a month counts as a silver lining of sorts. It’s worse news for Tampa Bay reliever Nick Anderson, who has a partially torn ligament in his pitching elbow and won’t return to action until after the All-Star Break. And the Rangers’ Khris Davis—acquired from the A’s over the winter for veteran infielder Elvis Andrus—will miss up to four weeks after straining his quadriceps while legging out a bunt single. 

Some might say that playing in the big leagues was their biggest achievement. Perhaps Bobby Brown, who passes at the age of 96, might have said that as well—but he did so much more in life. He was a cardiologist, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War and, from 1984-94, President of the American League. Playing for the Yankees from 1947-54, Brown was a career .279 hitter and a vital component of manager Casey Stengel’s platooning system; he was especially good in World Series play, collecting 18 hits in 41 at-bats (.439) with five doubles, three triples and nine RBIs. With his passing, there are only 12 living ex-major leaguers who can say they played before 1950

It took one appearance this spring for veteran pitcher Gio Gonzalez to say, “Enough.” The 35-year-old left-hander, who signed a one-year deal over the winter with Miami, was shelled for seven runs on eight hits five days earlier while retiring just one batter; it was his first outing this spring and the last of his career as he has decided to step down from the game. “I gave it one last fight, unfortunately my body wasn’t keeping up with my mind,” Gonzalez posts on Instagram. “My heart and my mind are finally at peace with my decision.” Gonzalez won 131 games over a 13-year career, including a major league-best 21 (against just eight losses) in 2012, his first of seven years pitching for Washington after beginning his career with Oakland. A two-time All-Star, Gonzalez had a nasty habit of walking batters but gave up few hits, reflected in a career .240 opposing average. 

Friday, March 26

Baseball’s prolific Bell family suffers a sad loss with the passing of 46-year-old Minnesota coach Mike Bell to kidney cancer, just two months after being diagnosed with the disease. The brother of former player/manager David Bell, son of 18-year veteran third baseman Buddy Bell and grandson of 1950s slugger Gus Bell, Mike toiled in the minors for 13 seasons and got one breath of major league air in 2000, batting .222 over 27 at-bats and 19 games for the Reds. He took up coaching after retiring from playing in 2005, and was beginning his second season as bench coach for the Twins. 

Alas, also passing on the day is 89-year-old Joe Cunningham, who practically did it all for the Cardinals in his career—serving as a player over 10 years within the organization, as a minor league manager, a coach under Whitey Herzog, and as a valuable member of the front office during the 1990s as he devised well-received marketing schemes for the club. The left-handed-hitting Cunningham broke into the majors midway through 1954 with a bang, homering with five RBIs against the Reds in his debut before smoking two more homers off Braves ace Warren Spahn the next day. He finished the year batting .284 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs over 85 games but, over the next two years, found himself fully back in the minors. Returning to the bigs in 1957, Cunningham began an impressive three-year stretch in which he hit a combined .328 with patience, leading the majors in 1959 with a .453 on-base percentage. After a few more decent years in St. Louis, Cunningham was dealt to the White Sox and then eventually the Washington Senators, where his career began running out of gas as he hit his mid-30s. 

Former All-Star and batting champ Dee Strange-Gordon is looking for work after being released by the Reds. The 32-year-old infielder had signed a minor league deal with hopes of earning over a million bucks had he made the Opening Day roster—but despite hitting .281 with four steals so far in Spring Training, he was likely jettisoned to make room for promising young infielders Jonathan India and Alex Blandino, hitting a combined .338 this spring.  

Saturday, March 27

The oft-injured group of Yankee sluggers nearly make it out of Spring Training with 100% health. Luke Voit, last year’s major league home run champion with 22—or 59 if you pace it out from 60 games to 162—will be out until mid-May with a knee issue. 

For all of those veteran players who signed minor league contracts this past winter, today is the deadline to learn of their immediate fate for the 2021 season. For some, the news is good; third baseman Pablo Sandoval makes the Opening Day roster for Atlanta, as do pitchers Julio Teheran and Derek Holland for Detroit, infielder Jed Lowrie for Oakland, pitcher Ian Kennedy and infielder Brock Holt for Texas, and second baseman Joe Panik for Toronto. For others, the news is not so good, as Atlanta infielder Jason Kipnis, Cubs outfielder Cameron Maybin, Pittsburgh third baseman Todd Frazier, Philadelphia reliever Tony Watson and Washington outfielder Yasmany Thomas all find out. Those players become free agents with the hope of latching on elsewhere—though their prospects of making a major league roster are now even more slim. 

Sunday, March 28

Minnesota pitcher Randy Dobnak, who’s impressed in the little time he’s performed in regular season action (8-5 with a 3.12 ERA over 19 career appearances) and has a sterling 0.66 ERA this spring, signs a five-year extension worth $9.25 million. The contract includes two club options that increase the value of the contract to nearly $30 million for the 26-year-old right-hander. 

Monday, March 29

ESPN has tallied up the Spring Training numbers and discovered that the allegedly deader ball being introduced into major league games this year has, so far in fact, deadened the offense. The average total number of runs per game is at 9.4 runs, down a full run from the last fall exhibition slate (2019) and the lowest since 2015, while home runs are at 1.1 per game—the lowest since 2017. There may be a caveat in that the data doesn’t acknowledge whether the numbers are counted just per game or per nine innings—an important factor to consider since many spring games this year have been short of nine innings, with some going as little as five. There’s also this: If MLB is serious on cracking down on pitchers using foreign substances once the regular season begins, the offense may tick back up. 

The Rangers will carry on into the regular season without second baseman Rougned Odor, who is released after an unimpressive spring camp. This is considered a continued decline in productivity for the 27-year-old Venezuelan, who batted .205 in 2019 and just .167 last season; he is 7-for-35 this spring. The power is still there—Odor hit 10 homers within 38 games in 2020 and has reached 30 or more three times since 2016—but the Rangers sense that the future at second is brighter with Nick Solak

Even without a current job, Odor doesn’t have to worry about his bank account for the short term; he’s owed $27 million by the Rangers through 2024. 

Tuesday, March 30

Miami’s Marlins Park will now be known as loanDepot park, per a Bloomberg interview with top team exec Derek Jeter. The grammar associated with the new name is something of a mind-bender; some looking at it through sans serif type see it as “IoanDepot,” while others are mystified that “park” is not initial-capped. Terms of the deal are not disclosed. 

Wednesday, March 31

Spring Trained: Who’s Ready—and Not—for 2021 

Every spring when the exhibition season comes to an end, we look back at the players and teams who dominated (and were dominated) to determine who’s ready for the regular season—and who’s not. Here’s the sampling of Spring Training’s Best and Worst. 

Ready: Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals. A year off appears to have done the Washington lifer quite good, as he’s tanned, rested and ready for Opening Day after batting .481 with six home runs and 15 RBIs over 27 at-bats. 

Not Ready: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals. Everyone’s high on St. Louis this spring, but the Cardinals might struggle if the veteran second baseman doesn’t pick up from a miserable 2-for-37 performance in camp. 

Ready: Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier, Pirates. The middle infielding duo is hit a combined (and insane) .554 over 74 at-bats. Without them, the Bucs’ .260 team average drops to .234. 

Not Ready: Max Kepler, Twins. Power hitters who don’t hit for high batting averages during the regular season tend to do much better in Spring Training because of the high percentage of minor league-level pitchers they face. So how does that explain Kepler, who collected just three hits—all singles—and no walks in 43 at-bats? 

Ready: Shohei Ohtani, designated hitter, Angels. With a .548 bat average and five home runs over 31 at-bats, the fourth-year Angel is chomping at the bit to get in a full season at the plate. 

Not Ready: Shohei Ohtani, pitcher, Angels. Though the zip has returned on his fastball, it’s not showing up in the numbers; he finished the spring 0-3 with a 12.19 ERA. The silver lining? He’s survived this far without any major arm issues. 

Ready: Joc Pederson, Cubs. Batting .378 with a spring-high eight home runs (tying ex-teammate Corey Seager), the ex-Dodger heads into 2021 feeling fueled about proving his value in a new locale. 

Not Ready: Spencer Torkelson, Tigers. As last year’s top draft pick in the MLB Amateur Draft, the 21-year old is considered the future for the Tigers. But that future clearly isn’t now, after a 1-for-27 effort with 16 strikeouts this spring. 

Ready: Kenta Maeda, Twins. The 32-year-old Osaka native is ready to show that his excellent short-season effort of 2020 was not a mirage; no qualifying pitcher had a better ERA (0.49) this spring. 

Not Ready: David Hess, Rays. After three horrible years (4-20 record, 5.86 ERA and 51 home runs allowed over 190.1 innings) with the Orioles, the 27-year-old righty was hoping that a change of scenery in a place (Tampa Bay) known for getting the most out of their arms would be the ideal tonic. So new jersey but, alas, same old Hess—who struggled with a 17.28 ERA and six more long balls allowed over just 8.1 innings. 

Ready: Logan Webb, Giants. With the addition of a change-up not seen in two previous, mediocre campaigns at the top level, Webb appears to have become a changed pitcher with a 0.53 ERA and just two walks over 17 exhibition innings. Tim Lincecum redux? The regular season will tell. 

Not Ready—and Apparently Never Will be Again: Gio Gonzalez, Marlins. The veteran lefty made one start and got one out while giving up eight runs on seven hits and two walks—then walked away from the game. 

Ready: The Red Sox’ offense. If Boston is to play the role of AL sleeper, it may have woken up a few opponents with their exhibition play as the Sox batted a spring-high .270 with an .831 OPS. 

Not Ready: The Astros’ offense. MLB’s Notorious B.U.G. ranked dead last in batting average (.223), home runs (16) and runs (93), sinking the team’s spring record to 6-14. Astros haters collectively daydreamed: If only those games had counted. 

Ready: The Marlins’ pitching. With a spring-best 3.30 ERA, the Fish swam to a highly agreeable 14-5 record. Leading the way was Sandy Alcantara (1.33 ERA over 20.1 innings) and exciting rookie prospect Sixto Sanchez (1.13). 

Not Ready: The Reds’ pitching. Bad arms forged the highest spring ERA at 6.03. Somewhere, Trevor Bauer must have been itching to tweet: “Miss me yet?”

On the eve of Opening Day, an unnamed Nationals player tests positive for COVID-19—and not only will he have to quarantine, but so will four teammates and one staff member who were said to be in close contact with the player. None of the players are named, but it might become apparent when the Nationals release their Opening Day roster for the season opener at Washington against the Mets. 

Umpire Angel Hernandez loses his discrimination suit against MLB in which he claimed he had been intentionally barred from becoming a crew chief or working postseason games since 2005. Judge J. Paul Oetken writes that MLB and chief baseball officer Joe Torre are not in the wrong, stating that the league was right to assess that Hernandez “has not demonstrated the leadership ability and situation-management skills in critical high-pressure roles on a consistent basis.” Of course, many of those who’ve seen one bad call after another from Hernandez over the years believes that, at this point, he’s lucky to have a major league umpiring job at all.   

Commissioner Rob Manfred, in an interview with the Associated Press, speaks out on some of baseball’s hot topics of the moment. Among them: He expects ballparks to be back at full capacity by midsummer, that all players should be vaccinated by the end of May, and that he has begun discussions with union head Tony Clark on the possibility of moving this year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest the State of Georgia’s recently passed series of laws restricting Election Day voting—which some see as an attempt to make it more difficult for African-Americans to cast their ballot. 

According to MLB, two Dodgers—Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger—top the list of the baseball’s best-selling jerseys over the past year. Among the top 20 players revealed, the biggest surprise may be that Angels superstar Mike Trout ranks only #10 on the list—with ex-Dodger and current Red Sock Kiké Hernandez ahead of him at #9. To explain that, two things are in play; the Angels have done very little alterations of their uniform package, so fans haven’t felt the need to buy more Trout swag, while Hernandez’s sales have probably picked up since switching teams. The same could be said for #8 Francisco Lindor, who went from Cleveland to the New York Mets in the offseason.

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits  Take a look back at the daily doings of baseball with the TGG Comebacker archive.