(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — Every team across the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues has now reported to spring training. While optimism abounds, as it does in the days before the games count, MLB finds itself under a dark cloud. More could be lurking on the horizon.
The off-season revealed that the Houston Astros systematically stole signs during their 2017 run. Some punishments were meted out, though current players weren’t affected, and the team retained its 2017 World Series title. Pending in the next couple weeks are the results of MLB’s investigation into the Boston Red Sox’s alleged sign-stealing in their 2018 World Series run. How that story affects the already somber tone around baseball remains to be seen.
Actual and alleged cheating aside, multiple teams have improved their rosters going into the 2020 season. Among them are three teams coming off 100-win seasons. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers were already postseason favorites before their off-season acquisitions, while the Minnesota Twins strengthened their grip on the American League Central.
This season’s first Spring Training Report looks at MLB’s burgeoning credibility problem, along with some of the top off-season moves around the majors.
MLB under a cloud
It’s been maybe MLB’s most eventful off-season in quite awhile, and much of the news wasn’t good. An early-January report from MLB showed a system and culture of cheating so pervasive that it’s believed to have helped the Astros win the 2017 World Series. At Minute Maid Park in Houston, a center field camera covertly recorded signs from opposing teams’ catchers. Those signs were analyzed by the Astros replay team then relayed to players in the dugout. The bench signaled current batters what pitch to expect by banging on trashcans.
Multiple coaches, executives and players were disciplined soon after the announcement. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were both suspended for the upcoming season by MLB and subsequently fired by the team. Carlos Beltran, then a Houston player, was also suspended for a year and soon fired from his new manager job with the New York Mets. Former Astros bench coast Alex Cora, who managed the Red Sox in 2018, was also implicated in the scheme. He and the Red Sox “parted ways” in the wake of the report, though his official suspension seems to hang on the findings of the Red Sox investigation.
The Astros’ cheating has since been revealed to have been an open secret around the league. And it is suspected to have continued after some of the original perpetrators had parted ways with the team. Players from the Washington Nationals, who beat the Astros in the 2019 World Series, were contacted by players from multiple other teams offering information in the lead-up to last year’s Fall Classic. The Nationals reportedly developed multiple sets of signs to defend against the sign stealing. And Washington catcher Kurt Suzuki, in an interview a few days ago, admits to being about to hear the Astros’ signals.
That no current Astros were suspended doesn’t seem to sit well with players around the league. Anger at MLB’s perceived tepid response is obvious, and current players are not mincing words. Angels outfielder Mike Trout, last season’s American League MVP, “lost respect for some of those guys.” Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis feels like “every single guy over there needs a beating.” Emotions are raw, as offenders — current players who benefited from pitch signals — seem to have been let off easy. None were suspended, and the Astros retain their 2017 World Series title.
MLB’s credibility problem grows, as teams around the league await the result of the Red Sox investigation.
The Yankees, Dodgers and Twins all finished the 2019 season north of 100 wins. Each comfortably outpaced their second-place rival and blew away the rest of their respective division. (The Dodgers, for example, finished the regular season 21 games ahead of the runner-up Arizona Diamondbacks and 36 games ahead of the last-place San Diego Pirates.) Those gaps my widen this season.
The Yankees didn’t have any glaring weaknesses heading into the off-season, even if the starting rotation could use another arm. So the Yankees went out and signed maybe the most sought-after pitcher available. Flamethrower Gerritt Cole, fresh off a World Series appearance with the Astros, threw over 600 strikeouts in his two years in Houston. Last season he became the second-fastest pitcher to 200 strikeouts in a season, striking out 37.9% of opposing hitters to that point. Cole lost out on the 2019 AL Cy Young to teammate Justin Verlander, but he received a $324 million payday as a consolation prize.
The Dodgers welcomed Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, one season removed from his MVP campaign, and pitcher David Price. the 2012 AL Cy Young winner. Betts hit .301 in his six seasons in Boston, tallying 139 home runs and 470 RBI in that time. He also earned four Gold Gloves. Price turned in a career year in 2012, going 20-5 and striking out 205 with an ERA of 2.56 for the Tampa Bay Rays. None of his seasons in Boston matched that output, but he did notch 228 and 177 strikeouts in the two seasons not shortened by injury.
The Twins weren’t expected to be serious contenders in 2019, let alone win 101 games. Credit a power surge in Minnesota for a big part of that success. Going into 2020, the Twins will be overwhelming favorites in the AL Central, thanks to a series of moves designed to keep the roster competitive. The team signed a four-year deal with Atlanta Braves third-baseman Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP and 2018 NL Comeback Player of the year, who hit 37 home runs last season. Minnesota also signed multiple quality starters who could figure into the rotation, including Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill (the latter of whom had off-season elbow surgery that could delay his Twins debut until around the All-Star break). Tyler Clippard bolsters an already strong bullpen.