Oakland A’s baseball is almost upon us for another season.
The Cactus League action in Arizona gets underway on Saturday with the A’s hosting the Diamondbacks at Hohokam Stadium. It’s a convenient evening start time for us in the UK, as are most games during Spring Training, and the NBC Sports California crew will be on hand to cover the contest.
Plenty to play for
In the majority of MLB camps, the Spring Training period will be a case of the established players slowly building up for the season whilst the coaching staff runs the rule over a few players who may claim the last bullpen spot or a place on the bench.
It’s quite different for our A’s.
There are a bunch of new players to get to know, with current projections suggesting as many as 10 or 11 players on the Opening Day roster could be new recruits, as well as some of the exciting young players we’ve got coming through.
Spring Training stats should always be treated with caution, but with so many spots up for grabs it promises to be a very competitive camp. Players know that a strong Cactus League showing could be the difference between getting the first opportunity on the Big League roster or starting the season in Triple-A.
Following the games
As always, only a small selection of Spring Training games are being broadcast on TV Stateside, either by NBC Sports California or the opposing team’s crew; however these will be supplemented by a decent number of games covered by a basic camera set-up and radio commentary.
The 2023 MLB.TV subscription details were announced recently and, whilst there was an always-unwelcome small price rise, there are some nice new features. The main one is that the Minor League TV subscription has now been bundled into the main MLB.TV deal.
In previous seasons you could buy MiLB.TV at a discounted rate if you were an MLB.TV subscriber; however the MiLB “First Pitch” app was quite basic and buggy (I ended up uninstalling it from my iPad early last season in frustration and watched games from my laptop instead).
The new approach will allow you to use the MLB.TV app for MiLB affiliate games of your chosen Favourite Team, whilst improvements for the “First Pitch” app are in the works too.
A few things to note
The weekend of the 4th and 5th of March will involve the A’s using a split-squad, with half the camp playing in Arizona and the other half travelling to Las Vegas to play a two-game series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The A’s did this back in 2020, prior to the Covid-19 shut-down, and it’s a nice way to reward our Triple-A affiliate; however this time it has a different feel to it given the ongoing threat of relocation. It will put Mark Kotsay and the players in a difficult position when they are bombarded with the inevitable questions and creates a distraction I’m sure they could all do without.
The A’s will also diverge from the usual Cactus League schedule on Wednesday 8th with a game against the Colombia national team, who will be warming up for the World Baseball Classic.
Don’t forget the World Baseball Classic!
This spring will also be complemented by the return of the WBC for the first time since 2017 after the 2021 edition was postponed due to Covid-19 and the MLB lock-out.
As an ‘international’ fan, the WBC is particularly important to me as I know how much of a difference it can make in promoting the game outside of North America. That has a special resonance this year as Great Britain has qualified for the tournament for the first time.
It’s inevitable that the event does cause some disruption to the preparation of MLB teams; however I strongly feel that it’s a small price worth paying given the uniqueness of the tournament in the baseball calendar and how marketable the WBC is to an international audience.
The A’s WBC contingent predominantly are Minor Leaguers, with Jordan Díaz (Colombia) and Adrián Martínez (Mexico) being the only ones who have played in the Majors. Take that as a small silver lining to the cloud of not having many established Big Leaguers that WBC teams are desperate to call on.
After what has felt like the longest off-season ever – probably because technically it has been, at least in recent memory – we’ve now reached the “this time next week …” point.
For all the player departures and budget woes, I’m no less excited for this coming season than I have been for any other. It’s the seasons when you expect big things and it all falls apart that hurt the most. This year, we know the A’s have taken some steps backwards and that we have to adjust our win-loss expectations accordingly, but there will still be plenty of great performances and fun moments over the course of the 162 games to come.
Rule Changes Announced
MLB and the Players Association jointly-announced some additional rule changes on Thursday that will come into effect immediately.
The Extra Innings rule, where a runner is automatically placed on second base from the tenth inning onwards, will be back this year as expected, to the considerable anger of some baseball fans but to general indifference from me.
Extra innings are a bit like extra time in football: you may not like penalties as a way to decide a game, but if the teams couldn’t be separated after 90 minutes you may as well get on with it rather than adding another 30 (almost always boring) minutes onto the game.
The more immediate rule changes are those that are going to be temporary until the end of April. The active roster size will be 28 rather than 26 until May 1st, which should help teams manage pitching innings early in the year after the disrupted Spring Training schedule. It also will slightly annoy A’s owner John Fisher in having to pay the MLB minimum salary to two extra players for a month – yes, we know he is that petty! – so count that as an added bonus.
Related to that, there will also be a change from May 2nd that means pitchers (and those two-way rare birds) will be put on a 15-day Injured List rather than the 10-day Injured List. I’m not particularly sure why they’ve modified that (the period is a minimum so it’s not like it will impact a team potentially having to rush a pitcher back), but let me know in the comments if you’ve got any suggestions.
The 28-man active roster means the A’s will be able to carry a couple of extra players (pitchers, more than likely) so that will have a bearing on some of the close calls that otherwise might have had to be made in pairing the group down for Opening Day.
MLB.com’s Martín Gallegos wrote an article yesterday about Sheldon Neuse and Kevin Smith, both of whom having impressed hugely in camp. The ability to add a couple of extra pitchers to the roster means that the team won’t have to make a compromise elsewhere, so I’d expect both to make the Opening Day roster.
Both of them are a great example of the stories that a year like this can bring. I was disappointed when Neuse was traded to the Dodgers a year ago, in part because I always expected Matt Chapman to be traded this off-season, so it’s great to see he has got another shot at becoming a regular in the A’s infield.
As for Kevin Smith, he got a taste of the Big Leagues last year with Toronto and when rumours were circulating of the Blue Jays looking for infield additions it must have felt to him like he would have to climb another mountain to get back there. He’s now in a situation where, even if he has some time in Triple-A at points this year, there’s a much clearer path to getting some regular playing time in the Majors. Players like that, who are desperate for a chance to give everything to the cause for the A’s, are always easy to get behind.
Oller Oller Oller
There’s no one on the roster that applies more to than Adam Oller. After toying with thoughts of retirement and giving up on his Big League dreams, his years of hard work are finally going to pay off.
Mark Kotsay told Oller on Friday that he would be on the Opening Day roster and his comments about calling his parents to tell them the news were wonderful to read. Kotsay clarified yesterday that the plan for now is for Oller to be in a long relief role in the bullpen, something that is likely to be particularly important over the first month.
Not all good news
Unfortunately it’s the way of things that where there is good news for some, there’s bad news for others.
Deolis Guerra was an unsung hero out of the bullpen last season, filling in with several innings out of the bullpen on numerous occasions when needed; vital work even just to save the rest of the relievers so that a short outing from a starter didn’t snowball into several days of pitching struggles. He looked all set to build on that work this season with a more prominent role; however, he is now slated for surgery in response to suffering from forearm tightness.
The exact details are yet to be disclosed, but the concern is that forearm tightness can often be a symptom of a ligament tear in the elbow that could require Tommy John surgery and over a year on the sidelines. All we know right now is that he’ll start the year on the Injured List, so we have to hope for the best whilst perhaps fearing the worst.
The same goes for Brent Honeywell who looked like he was finally over his years of injury problems that plagued his time with the Rays and was ready to start the season in the A’s starting rotation. Instead, he’s been shutdown with what could be yet another serious elbow injury, as per the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matt Kawahara:
And there was also bad news for A’s prospect Grant Holmes. We’ve been waiting for him to work his way through the Minors since being acquired from the Dodgers in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill trade that also bagged us Frankie Montas and Jharel Cotton back in 2016. Holmes came into camp out of Minor League options, so he either had to make the Opening Day roster or be made available to other teams.
Unfortunately for Holmes, he struggled in his Cactus League appearances so a Big League call is once again on hold. The one positive, for the A’s at least, is that he wasn’t claimed off waivers by another team so they have been able to take him off the 40-man roster (gaining a needed spot on there) whilst keeping him in the organisation. He’ll be back with Triple-A Vegas in 2022.
Plans for the week ahead
As well as keeping up the Sunday blogs and news items here, my plan for 2022 is to up our game on our YouTube channel having spent time over the off-season learning more of the intricacies of Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects and Photoshop (although, as with the A’s, perhaps temper your expectations in the early going!).
Not only will I be doing regular A’s videos and livestreams there, but I’ve also started a series where I’ll be commenting on news stories around the Majors in my “The Other 29” series. So, head over to the channel and subscribe if you haven’t done so already.
Dom is out in Oakland right now enjoying some Roots action in place of the A’s original home-stand being postponed. That’s given him the chance to dish out some A’s UK (and Roots!) merch to plenty of our friends in the East Bay as well as to finally take our beautiful Town Business to where it belongs.
We’ll probably be a little behind in getting around to our 2022 Predictions podcast until Dom’s back, but keep an eye out on the YouTube channel and Twitter account for a bunch of features as we look ahead to the A’s Opening Day on Friday in Philadelphia.
You know baseball is getting close when the clocks go forward one hour in the UK.
The hour less of sleep this morning is easily forgiven with lazy Spring Training games to listen to or watch in the British evening. There’s something very relaxing about spending an hour or so listening to Ken and Vince, or Vince’s son Dom, at the end of a long work day.
The A’s have just 10 Spring Training games left before the real action gets going. This year, more than most, it’s difficult to know quite how close we are to knowing what our Opening Day roster will look like.
Putting the band back together
For all of the cost-cutting going on, it always seemed likely that the A’s would make some veteran additions to fill out the roster and bring some more experience into the camp.
I wrote about Stephen Vogt’s return on Thursday and yesterday he was joined by Jed Lowrie signing another one-year contract with the team.
Lowrie was a very pleasant surprise last season after the A’s took a chance on bringing him back after two lost seasons with the New York Mets. His performances did tail off as the year wore on, but he still gave us more than even the most optimistic fan would have projected when he signed a Minor League deal with the club.
Mark Kotsay is going to need to manage his workload so that he can stay productive; however, it’s a low-risk situation so very worthwhile trying to catch lightning in a bottle for the second time.
Pushing up the payroll!
Stephen Vogt’s contract is worth $850k, with another $100k possible if he’s on the roster for more than 60 days. Jed’s deal is likely to be in the similar price range, so we are not exactly looking at A’s owner John Fisher diverting from his cost-cutting course.
The A’s projected Opening Day payroll sits at $52.6M, 27th out of the 30 teams. That figure includes the salaries agreed with Sean Manaea ($9.75M), Frankie Montas ($5.025M), Lou Trivino ($3M) and Ramón Laureano ($2.45M) ahead of the arbitration deadline this past week.
It’s all gone a bit quiet on the Manaea/Montas trade-away rumours recently, although that may in part have been due to the arbitration deadline getting closer and it being easier all round for the A’s to agree contract terms first. I still think it’s possible Frankie will be a mid-season trade chip, given that he has two years left under contract rather than Manaea’s one, but the coming week will probably give us an answer.
The main question then will be if the current $30M reduction in payroll from last year is what Fisher has set for the Front Office or if any salary commitment traded away will be added to the savings pot?
This looks like being our starting rotation as things stand, with James Kaprielian starting the season on the Injured List:
Whilst it’s dangerous to put limits on Fisher’s cheapness, you have to assume that some of the money saved if/when Manaea and/or Montas are traded will be spent on a veteran free agent starter in the $2M-$3M range.
The Vogt-Lowrie comeback immediately makes me think of a player like Brett Anderson also making another return. He signed a one-year, $2.5M contract with the Brewers last season and that’s the sort of price range at which the Front Office would be shopping.
As with the other recent returnees, I do think there’s real value in having some experienced players on the roster, irrespective of how much their direct contributions will change the win-loss column.
The success of this season on the field will come from seeing a bunch of players taking a step forward, whether that’s the likes of Irvin, Kap and Seth Brown adding to their experience or the likes of Daulton Jefferies, Kevin Smith and Nick Allen really getting their Big League careers going. Those guys will greatly benefit from having some experienced heads around them.
New podcast episode now available
On Tuesday we recorded our first podcast since the MLB lock-out came to an end. That meant we had to tackle the less-than cheery topic of A’s players being traded away, but we find plenty to have a chuckle about in any case. In this episode, Dom and I were joined by our good friend Jay from the New York A’s.
You can find the podcast at all the usual platforms, with an eleven minute excerpt also available on our YouTube channel. This version allows you to enjoy the full effect of Jay trying to dress up as Dom!
The A’s Spring Training began on Friday with a come-from-behind win over the LA Angels. It’s fair to say we all needed some on-field action, even just of the exhibition type, to briefly distract us from the off-field news.
Manaea In A Muddle
The two came together last night in the A’s Cactus League game against the Cincinnati Reds. Sean Manaea took the mound with trade rumours swirling as to whether he would even come out for the assignment pending an imminent trade.
Manaea did pitch, but didn’t pitch well. He only retired one of the six batters he faced in the first inning before Mark Kotsay decided to go get him. Spring Training rules allow a player to come back into a game and the A’s took advantage of this by sending Sean out to start the second inning.
His final pitching line – 1.1 innings pitched, 5 earned runs allowed – still looks ugly, but he looked much more like himself in the second inning.
With one year left under contract, it seems only a matter of time before Manaea is moved on. He’s a favourite of so many of us A’s fans and it will be tough to see him in another team’s uniform; however, that’s a feeling we’re all-too familiar with.
At time of writing, here’s the list of key contributors from last season who are no longer with the team:
Traded: Chris Bassitt, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman
Free Agents signed by other teams: Mark Canha, Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes, Andrew Chafin, Jake Diekman.
The Cot’s Baseball Contracts site currently projects the A’s 26-man Opening Day roster as costing $53.2M, fourth lowest across MLB. That figure includes estimated arbitration salaries of $10M for Manaea and $5.25M for Frankie Montas, so it could fall to as low as $38M in short order.
The total blow-up job the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing means that it somehow still wouldn’t be the lowest in MLB (the Buccos are currently projected at $35.9M), but in any case I wouldn’t expect the A’s to start the season with a payroll quite this low.
Trading Manaea and Montas would leave us with an extremely inexperienced crop of starting pitchers, whilst the bullpen looks equally challenged. There are always free agent pitchers available at this time of year who can be signed to relatively modest one-year commitments, including the likes of Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo who are still without a new team.
Whilst it depends quite how restrictive owner John Fisher is being with the budget, I’m sure the A’s Front Office will be pushing to make a batch of one-year signings once their trading activity is completed.
Every team in the play-off race come the trade deadline will be looking for an extra arm, so it’s worth taking a flyer on some pitchers to use as trade chips at that point. In a structure that doesn’t allow you to trade for draft picks or directly buy prospects from other teams, it’s a very economical way to add more talent to your farm system. I also feel it’s important for the younger players to have experienced heads around them, especially in a season when we’re likely to take plenty of losses.
The most interesting A’s story this past week came in the wake of Matt Chapman being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.
In an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Chapman confirmed that the A’s had offered him a 10-year, $150M contract extension at the end of the 2019 season. As one of many A’s fans who have recently highlighted the fact that our biggest contract award came a in 2004 (the $66M extension given to Eric Chavez), it is a noteworthy revelation.
At the time, Chappy had just had an excellent season and it was precisely the point at which teams are increasingly looking to sign young talent to long-term deals. The thought process is that it could ultimately save the team millions compared to what they would otherwise have to pay, yet would still put a guaranteed life-changing sum on the table for the player to be motivated to accept.
The contract would have covered four arbitration seasons and then bought out six free agent years. Given that Chappy is a little older than perhaps you’d assume (he’s 29 at the end of April) and would have been 36 at the end of the 10-year pact, it’s understandable why he decided to bet on himself to earn more money by going through arbitration and then signing a free agent deal.
Even so, it was a very fair offer by the A’s relative to other similar deals, as acknowledged by Chapman in admitting he second-guessed his decision when he had hip surgery the following year. We do need to give the A’s credit for that, including (deep breath!) John Fisher; however the fact that Chappy noted his concerns about how competitive the A’s would be needs to be added to the other side of the ledger too.
Quality players will earn a big contract from one team or another. They would prefer to take it from a team that gives them confidence they’ll be playing meaningful baseball in September most seasons unless you really blow the competition out of the water, as it appears the Colorado Rockies did with their seven-year, $182M contract with Kris Bryant.
The latest A’s blow-up only increases the challenge the Front Office will have in convincing current players and free agents to sign long-term deals with the team, much as that seems a moot point with where the team is right now.
Matt Chapman has joined the exodus, and a few others will probably follow, but after a very trying winter Spring Training is now finally upon us.
I’d say it will be a brief diversion from the A’s trade news; however that’s still likely to be the main topic of conversation by the announcers!
The graphic above shows the start times as they will be here in the UK. Two of the contests are night-games, on Saturday 19th and Tuesday 29th, so those ones will take place in the early hours of the following day. All the rest are evening time for us and early afternoon out in Arizona and the Bay Area.
It’s worth noting that the traditional two Bay Bridge games at the end of Spring Training will take place in Arizona rather than back in the Bay. The ballparks in Arizona are losing some games as it is, particularly tough for them after the disruption of the past two years, so it’s no surprise they’ve wanted to maximise the number taking place there before the regular season gets underway.
Not all of the games are televised during Spring Training, but a decent number will be available to watch via MLB.TV (the rest will have radio commentary available). The games on Sunday 27th and Sunday 3rd are being broadcast by NBC Sports California, with seven of the other eight home games available online.
The home-game that isn’t being broadcast by the A’s is Friday’s opener, although there will be an Angels TV feed to watch (probably best to mute the sound or change the sound to the A’s radio broadcast!).
The current plan for Friday is that new recruit Brent Honeywell will take the ball to start and hopefully get two innings of work in. Paul Blackburn and A.J. Puk are also due to pitch an inning or so each at some point during the game.
Some of you may want to stay away from the action, feeling it a bit too soon to dive back in after the pain of this past week. I understand, but the last two years have made me feel that I shouldn’t take any A’s game for granted, whatever the time of year and whatever our place in the standings.
Okay, I’m going to leave the Chris Bassitt trade to another blog later today and instead focus on the overwhelmingly positive news that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was announced on Thursday.
Today we will be able to see photos and videos of players in Spring Training camp at last, with the Cactus League opening on Friday 18th and the A’s regular season starting on Friday 8th April, one day after the official MLB Opening Day. Considering that just one week ago we were staring at the grim prospect of a long delay, having baseball back in our lives so soon is a gift we should all be grateful for.
The CBA covers a vast array of topics, and some of the finer points are still to be made public, but here are five key points that we know about so far and how they will affect our A’s.
1. Starting on the East coast
The timing of the agreement has meant that only the first week of the original schedule has had to be rearranged. It’s still a shame, as that means it will be even longer before fans in Oakland will be able to see the team at the Coliseum, but at least the games will be rescheduled so that there will be 81 home games to enjoy.
The new schedule will see the A’s getting going on Friday 8th April for the first of 10 games on the road against East Division teams.
All three games from the opening series against the Phillies are being played during the day, with three of the following seven games also being afternoon affairs, so those of us battling the time difference will be able to watch the games live at a convenient time.
The only oddity with east coast games is that those starting at 1pm local time, in this case the final game of all three opening series, are unusually early to the point where it feels a bit strange to have the game finished before we’ve started to feel tired! As they are 10am starts in Oakland, we can at least share the “it’s a bit too early” experience together.
It’s an exciting start against three teams who all will expect to be in the hunt for a play-off spot this season.
The one thing to be aware of is that there is still some uncertainty over how Canada’s Covid vaccination policy (i.e. no vaccine, no entry) will be taken into account in terms of roster rules when teams head to Toronto. Mark Kotsay stated on Friday that all of the coaching staff are vaccinated but that he didn’t yet know the full picture on the players’ side. Of course, there’s a fair chance the roster will look quite different in a few weeks’ time anyway, so it’s perhaps not something for them to worry about too much at this point.
2. Can’t Hit, Won’t Hit
The opening series in Philadelphia will mark the first A’s interleague series in a National League ballpark when the universal DH rules will take effect.
It’s been coming for a long time and the initial impact will be felt more keenly by the NL teams, who will now have a DH spot to play with, than for us AL teams that have been used to it since 1973.
Whilst I usually recoil a bit at the U.S. desire to have specialist roles in sports, hitting in the Majors is incredibly difficult and especially so for players who stopped developing that skill at the end of high school. Pitchers don’t hit in college (other than exceptional cases) or in the Minor Leagues, so it’s become an almost impossible task even for NL pitchers who at least have a couple of at-bats every five days.
For AL pitchers, it’s the equivalent of a striker having to go in goal in football. The occasional sight of it is amusing, of course, and I will miss the joy the starting pitchers found in their fellow rotation-mates being made to look foolish, but it’s a total mis-match and something that we likely won’t miss.
3. Every team, every season
The two leagues playing by different rules wasn’t such an issue when the AL and NL distinctions actually meant something. Now, the constant of interleague play made it increasingly hard to justify.
That’s going to become even more pronounced next season when a new schedule format will be introduced that will mean we’ll play at least three games against every team every season. The full details are still being worked through, but the general plan will look like this for the A’s:
AL West – We’ll play each of the other four teams in our division 14 times, down from the current 19. I’m fine with that: 19 games against the same opponent always felt a bit much, but this format will still mean we’ll face our division rivals by far the most.
The rest of the AL – We’ll play six games (three at home, three on the road) against each of the other 10 teams. That’s not too different to the existing situation, albeit to make the numbers work currently you have to play some teams six times, other teams seven.
The 15 teams in the NL – This is where those 20 ‘lost’ games from division rivals are allocated. We’ll play four games, rather than the current six, against the San Francisco Giants as our nominated interleague rival. Honestly, it’s a shame to lose two of those games per season, but I guess that just raises the Battle of the Bay stakes even further! We’ll then play a three-game series against every other team in the NL and the location will alternate year-to-year. So, for example, if we host the New York Mets in 2023, we’d play them at Citi Field in 2024, then back at the Coliseum in 2025 etc.
Traditionalists won’t be so keen, but personally I like the thought of watching the A’s taking on every other team in at least one series every season. More than anything, it makes planning trips to watch the A’s play in other ballparks much easier, as we’ll no longer be in the potential situation of waiting six years for the next time we play at a particular NL ballpark.
4. Good riddance to the Wild Card game!
Ensuring every team has as close to the same schedule as possible is more important now than ever with the play-offs expanding from 10 to 12 teams.
In different years, different divisions can be stronger than others and that is a problem when the rotating interleague division match-ups come into play. A close Wild Card race can be decided by luck of the draw with one team having to face a harder schedule than another. That could still be the case this season, with the new schedule format only starting in 2023, but it will soon be a thing of the past.
Each league will produce three wild card teams alongside the three division winners. The two division winners with the best win-loss records will go straight through to the second round. The other division winner will face the third-placed Wild Card, with first and second facing each other, in a best-of-three game series.
You may feel that the play-off format won’t be a big topic for the A’s this season, and you might be right, but no team has felt the pain of the one-game Wild Card ‘play-in’ contest quite like us since it was introduced. Our 0-3 record can be consigned to the history books and whilst a three-game series still is relatively short, it does seem more in line with how we experience baseball the rest of the season.
5. Revenue Sharing Rules
It was reported a few weeks ago that the A’s would become recipients of revenue sharing once again under the new CBA. That has now been confirmed, as has the reason why the team was stripped of that funding in the previous agreement.
The new CBA will see the A’s receive revenue-sharing money, intended for ‘small market’ teams, on a phased basis with us getting 25% of the usual share this year (probably something in the $7m-10m region). However, Ken Rosenthal has confirmed at The Athletic that the continued receipt of this money is dependent on the A’s getting a binding agreement for a new ballpark by 15 January 2024.
It had long been thought that stripping the A’s of this money was a direct punch on the nose from the other owners who were fed up with Fisher and Co.’s inability to get a new ballpark sorted.
Directly linking the money to a ballpark deal proves that to be the case, as well as confirming that the A’s are almost certainly going to have to sort out their future one way or another very soon.
Oh, and yes the player market is now open again
Waking up to the news that Chris Bassitt has been traded to the New York Mets shows that, to the surprise of no one, John Fisher hasn’t found a conscience during the course of the lock-out.
No doubt there will be more moves coming in the very near future and we’ll have to trust the Front Office’s judgement on making the best of the situation they’ve been put in once again.
We at least have the benefit of experience here and that feels all the more meaningful now after the past three months. Whoever’s on the roster, and whatever the season may bring in terms of the win-loss column, we will get to spend the next six months or so following our team through the highs and lows together.
And, I’m sure like you all, I cannot wait to get it started.
Spring Training is almost over and whilst it’s customary to dismiss what goes on in the Cactus League (and Florida’s Grapefruit League), this year it feels like the last month has been more meaningful than in years past.
The most notable feature has been the presence of fans.
Major League Baseball lambasted the Players Association for refusing to move Spring Training, and the start of the regular season, back by three weeks or so. The teams simply wanted to delay the return to action in the hope of being able to have increased capacities and therefore able to sell more tickets. This was a valid idea in response to the significant revenue drop experienced in 2020, yet the way MLB framed it as being entirely about safety, and that the players were being hugely irresponsible in not agreeing to the delay, was always false.
The last few weeks have showed that it’s possible to bring fans back into the stands and for that to be safe for all, just that it needs to be done with caution and restraint (unless you’re Texas, of course). It’s pointless to wonder if MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will apologise to the players for his comments now that they have been proved right, but it’s worthwhile to highlight why he should.
Talks over the next Collective Bargaining Agreement are going to pepper the baseball conversation all season long. Relations between the players and owners appear to be more strained today than they have been at any point since the 1994-95 strike and that reduces the likelihood of an amicable agreement being reached in a timely fashion this Winter.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic should make both sides all the more determined to strike a deal, the evidence so far has been that the owners and MLB Commissioner’s Office believe they can leverage the situation to turn more fans against the ‘greedy players’, regardless of how inaccurate and disingenuous the claims are.
Sadly, so long as that continues to be their stance, the possibility of a work stoppage next year will be high.
What a difference a crowd makes …
On a more positive note, the Cactus League crowds have proved that having any ‘real’ fans at games immeasurably improves the atmosphere and the spectacle.
The Coliseum will be at 20 per cent capacity to start the season and there are already reports that Alameda County will move into the Orange California Covid tier this coming week that in theory would allow capacity to increase to 33 per cent.
Matt Kawahara of the San Francisco Chronicle clarified on Twitter that other restrictions mean that, initially at least, the A’s won’t be selling tickets beyond their current 11,020 capacity, yet it shows that there are genuine grounds for optimism on how the numbers could start to ramp up (as we are required to describe anything Covid-related).
The A’s averaged approximately 20,000 fans in 2018 and 2019 and 33 per cent of the 55,000 capacity Coliseum would be in the region of 18,000, so it’s possible within six to eight weeks or so we could be pushing towards a typical Coliseum crowd.
And, as we all know, a typical Coliseum crowd makes significantly more noise than most other ballparks when they are completely full.
Something tells me the A’s fans who haven’t been able to cheer our team from the stands for 18 months will be making up for lost time when the Astros come rolling into town for our opening series!
Opening Night plans
In last week’s column, I wrote about the get-up/stay-up dilemma for night-games on the west coast.
My original plan was to get a few hours of sleep before Thursday’s opener against the Astros; however, Dom has put forward the idea of us doing a live-stream one hour before the game. That will be 2 a.m. here in the UK (early hours of Friday) and apparently “if we’re getting up for 2 a.m. there’s no point in going to sleep”!
I’m not totally convinced by that argument, but the idea of doing a live-stream before the opener sounds like a good one. The alternative to one at 2 a.m. would be to do a live-stream at 8pm or so on the Thursday UK time (so midday in Oakland). Keep an eye on our Twitter account for confirmation.
One thing I can confirm: if we end up doing a live-stream at 2 a.m. then I will be in mid-season form when it comes to my “hitting the wrong button” skills.
A’s UK Predictions (Jay pending …)
We started up our 2021 predictions contest on our latest podcast, with Dom, Hannah and myself putting forward our choices for: the A’s win-loss record, who will lead the A’s in home runs, who the A’s will beat in the ALCS and World Series (yes, we’re confident!), who the A’s surprise player will be and how many walk-off hits Mark Canha will get this season.
A decision was made that we couldn’t take duplicate selections and a beer-mat flip set the selection order of Dom, then Hannah and then me. Jay couldn’t make the podcast so is now considering his picks, something that will take quite a bit of thought in some of the cases now that he’s picking last!
Here’s how the list shapes up currently:
These season-long predictions will be complemented by monthly prediction contests throughout the season. We’ll each select a topic to predict and update the prediction leader-board as we go.
Details of our April predictions will be announced here on the blog.
The A’s have two Spring Training games left to play, both of them against the San Francisco Giants.
Today’s game is at 21:05 BST and available to watch for free online via MLB.TV, with the Giants’ TV crew providing the coverage. The two teams meet again on Monday, although it is radio-only coverage.
“Friend of A’s UK” Cole Irvin pitched an absolute beauty against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday.
Facing what was essentially a full-strength Dodgers batting line-up (Betts, Seager, Turner, Bellinger, Muncy, Pollock, Barnes and Lux), Cole struck out 10 over six score-less innings, giving up just a single to Lux when the ball cannoned off the first-base bag.
He also made a ridiculous catch on a come-backer that had ‘decapitation’ written all over it!
I’ve decided to make it the centre-piece in our Song For Cole, now available on our YouTube channel:
There is a rotation spot up-for-grabs on the Opening Day roster now that Mike Fiers is going to start the season on the Injured List. Irvin’s final audition could not have gone any better and even if he doesn’t get the nod in this case, with Daulton Jefferies impressing in Spring too, then his Cactus League performances have ensured he’ll be at the top of the list when the A’s do need another arm during the regular season.
Another key name on that list is A.J. Puk. Had he been healthy all Spring then Puk may have made the roster regardless. Unfortunately, injuries have bedevilled Puk in recent years, denying him the opportunity to really get into a groove and to show what he can do, and they’ve slowed him during March too.
Puk will get an opportunity to impress on Saturday when the A’s face the Texas Rangers. The game is a 20:05 GMT start and is being broadcast on NBCSC by the A’s crew. MLB has announced that MLB.TV will be free from today through Tuesday, so if you don’t yet have an MLB.TV subscription you can still watch the game live online via MLB.com.
The A’s game tomorrow against the San Francisco Giants is also being televised, albeit by the Giants’ TV crew, so we can enjoy a Bay Bridge Series warm-up this weekend. Sunday’s game begins an hour later (well, is an hour later for us after we are robbed of one hour overnight in the move to British Summer Time).
“You’re used to getting up at 3am though, aren’t you”?
It’s a comment I’ve received plenty of times over the years and one that will be familiar to all A’s fans in the UK and across Europe. It’s part of the deal in supporting a west coast team; an unavoidable consequence of the time difference that either makes you or breaks you as a fan.
Naturally, for most of us it’s not possible to watch all of the A’s games live when work and other commitments make getting some sleep a necessity. You have to pick and choose your games that you can stay-up/get-up for alongside the blessed relief of day-games in the States that make for much more convenient evening-time viewing for us.
For most (all?) of us, none of this is a consideration during Spring Training. Most of the games are played in the day-time anyway and, much as we love our A’s, staying up for those that are in the early hours is not on the agenda. Pre-season exhibitions are important for the players, not so much for the fans.
However, there is a part to this that does fall under the ‘preparing for the regular season’ title for us.
There comes a point in many Spring Training games when you hit a wall; most of the regulars have been taken out of the game by both teams, the result is immaterial and your bed is calling for you.
At about 10.30pm yesterday that was the case when the A’s were comfortably ahead of the Angels and the process of pointing out all of the fans not wearing masks had gone past annoyance to resigned acceptance of idiots being idiots (compliance seemed much worse at the Angels’ ballpark yesterday than we’ve seen at Hohokam). Logic told you to call it a night, but that’s when watching with others on a Zoom call helps you along.
Call it support, call it peer pressure: there’s always someone willing to coax you into sticking with the next inning and you’re invariably glad that you did. We could have all signed off early last night, but we didn’t and that’s the sort of spirit you need to build up at this time of the year.
The truth is, I’m like many others in never quite “getting used” to getting up at 3am, or some other early time.
If you’ve tried to stay up for it then there’s the ever-present risk of drifting off to sleep and waking to the “MLB.TV This Game is Over” screen. If you’ve tried to get some sleep beforehand then there’s a danger zone at the point when you stop your alarm bleeping where all of your senses are telling you to go back to sleep.
You have to power through and, when Opening Night comes along, we’ll be glad of the moments during Spring that helped us build up the willpower to do just that.
The stay-up/get-up dilemma
On that note, discussion did turn to this age-old dilemma during the game last night. The A’s regular season opener on Thursday April 1st is a 3.07am start for us and whilst Good Friday allows us all to catch up on sleep the “following” day, the question is what is the best way to approach it?
For me, west coast night-games are “get-up” affairs. Catching 4+ hours of sleep beforehand helps me to ‘stay in the game’ (i.e. not fall asleep again) provided I can get through the aforementioned ‘danger zone’ when my phone alarm goes off and there’s a voice in my head saying “you could just catch up on it later”. Trying to “stay-up” all the way through never seems to work for me, but each to their own.
The home-opener is an exception this season as the A’s have decided to change their usual start times and bring them forward by 30 minutes. The usual 3.07am start will now be a 2.40am start, which sounds a small difference but does mean games on average should finish half-an-hour earlier.
The official A’s UK Sleep Pattern Science Research Experiment for 2021 therefore will be assessing the viability, desirability and effectiveness of trying to get another hour or so of sleep after the A’s game has finished.
So there we were on Tuesday, moderately excited that the A’s Cactus League game against the Chicago Cubs was being broadcast by their TV network, so was one of a small number of A’s games we could watch this Spring.
Not only was it available via MLB.TV, it was chosen as a game shown live on the UK TV home of MLB, BT Sport. Convenient UK evening start time, TV coverage: what more could you want?
It was about five innings into it that the annual moment of realisation hit us on our Zoom watch-along. Pre-season exhibition games are not the most captivating of spectacles, especially when the coverage is being provided from the opposing team’s perspective.
Long in-game chat with Joc Pederson about his sneaker collection? Check!
Telling us the name of the A’s Minor Leaguer currently at the plate? Coin-toss at best!
That’s no great criticism of the Marquee Network coverage from the game as it works the same for every announcing team at this time of year. Their main audience is fans of their own team and knowing much about an unheralded Double-A prospect from another club doesn’t figure highly on their priority list.
The issue really is that, after the first few days, Spring Training gets old pretty quickly for fans and players alike. There are bright moments along the way – another Buddy Reed highlight, for example – yet by and large the games are easily ignorable other than catching up on the key points from the beat writers afterwards.
Which brings us back to the A’s game on Tuesday. As it was a very rare A’s Spring Training game on British TV we committed ourselves to watching it all the way through. This only amounted to seven innings, but that was long enough when there was little of note happening.
The one highlight was in discussing the current Spring Training practice of ‘rolling the inning’.
This means that if a pitcher has thrown 20+ pitches then the manager has the ability to bring the inning to an end. The logic is that you don’t want to overwork pitchers early in Spring and that this is all the more important this year when you want to limit the number of players at the ballpark each day as part of Covid social-distancing measures. Rolling the inning prevents burnout whilst also preventing a team from running out of pitching and then needing the game to be called ahead of the agreed duration, as doing this would impact on the other team’s plans on getting work in for all of their allotted pitchers that day.
It’s meant to be a unique measure for the first half of this strange Spring Training that is fair for both teams; however, as with most things, the fairness does require teams to utilise the power responsibly so that it doesn’t descend into what can only be described as “shit-housing”.
The A’s have been on the wrong end of this twice this Spring, with both the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers ‘rolling the inning’ when we had the bases loaded, denying Minor Leaguers the chance to face that pressure situation of trying to come through in the clutch (pressure still there in that moment for the hitter trying to impress the Big League coaching staff irrespective of the game being an exhibition).
With the A’s leading in the bottom of the seventh inning and Nik Turley struggling on the mound, the discussion on Zoom turned to whether we should roll the inning and the (to us, hilarious) reaction from the Cubs fans in attendance? Bob Melvin being the epitome of class and proper conduct as a manager didn’t consider such a thing.
“It’s only Spring Training” is the lesson we quickly re-learn every year, but that doesn’t stop the involuntary swearing when your team loses a game on a walk-off grand slam.
None of the above thoughts change the fact that watching any A’s baseball on a Sunday evening in the UK (lunch/early-afternoon in California) is always a treat not to be taken for granted.
Our A’s are taking on the Chicago White Sox today and the NBC Sports California crew will be on hand to cover the action. Frankie Montas is scheduled to make his 2021 Cactus League debut, with first pitch set for 20:05 UK time, 1.05pm in California. For those of us outside of the Bay Area, coverage is available to watch online via an MLB.TV subscription.
The Coming Week
Mon: Cleveland (1.05pm PDT, 20.05 UK)
Tues: Arizona (1.10pm PDT, 20.10 UK)
Weds: Kansas City (1.05pm PDT, 20.05 UK)
Thurs: San Diego (1.10pm PDT, 20.10 UK) *
Fri: Chicago Cubs (1.05pm PDT, 20.05 UK)
Sat: LA Angels (1.10pm PDT, 20.10 UK) *
(*) Available to watch on MLB.TV. “Radio” commentary is available for the other games, also via MLB.TV/MLB At Bat.