Passan's 20 questions: MLB cracks down on pine tar, spring surprises and more

ByJeff Passan ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 3, 2020

This relatively calm moment, between the cacophony that accompanied the Houston Astros' arrival at spring training and the impending clamor of the results of Major League Baseball's investigation into theBoston Red Sox's alleged sign stealing, offers a good time to reflect on what has been and peer ahead at what's to come. This isn't a make-or-break moment in baseball history so much as it is a period to understand how the sport arrived here and where it intends to go.

Such a moment tends to inspire plenty of questions. On this subject and the many others emanating from spring training, with an assist from dozens of sources around the game, here is an attempt to answer 20 of the most pressing.

If this is a period to understand where the sport is, where exactly is the sport?

So many people involved possess such disparate perspectives, it's best to divide "the sport" into three categories: Major League Baseball, players and fans.

Start with MLB, and not just because of the broad powers assigned commissioner Rob Manfred. The league severely miscalculated the anger that players would share publicly in the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal. Manfred in particular bore the brunt. He convened owners on a conference call. He held a town hall for all MLB employees. Amid fear, he urged calm.

One constant refrain from MLB officials in the weeks since has been that the league spends 2020 ensuring the vitality of fairness and competitive integrity. Snicker if you will, and snark rightly that a sport with incentivized pathways to noncompetitiveness can't do this about-face without getting some egg on it, but this is a reasonable goal for MLB. Better the league recognizes the imperative of this early on and attempts proper mitigation.

The form that takes is worth watching. MLB and the MLB Players Association are discussing just how draconian to get restricting in-game video in hopes of scuttling sign stealing entirely. This is a noble endeavor. It also ignores entirely the idea that actors outside of the clubhouse could be involved in such a scheme, but then that has been a particular point of emphasis from MLB this spring.

During meetings with team personnel, from the front office to coaching staff, officials from the commissioner's office have been exceedingly clear in their message, according to sources: If you aid or abet cheating in any form -- from sign stealing to using foreign substances to the many other forms and fashions -- you will be held responsible and disciplined.

Oooooooh. Sounds serious.

You're not impressed.

Just saying, it's easy to play tough guy after a cheating scandal happened on your watch -- and there were pretty clear signs that it necessitated monitoring back then. How exactly is MLB going to enforce this?

Great question. Especially when the answer is: not easily. MLB won't have security sweeping every corner of ballparks in search of illicit cameras. There will be no TSA pat-downs before a pitcher walks onto the field. The league is impressing on team officials that there is a responsibility among all parties in restoring the notion that baseball is a game best played on a level playing field.

So when Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer tells Real Sports that 70% of major league pitchers use some sort of illegal substance, whether it's pine tar or Firm Grip or some witch's brew, and nobody at the league disputes that because 70% is actually probably light, well, that's a conundrum. Particularly considering better grip equals more spin, and more spin typically equals superior pitching.

The league could start handing out 10-game suspensions for foreign-substance usage on the daily, and that would be the law-abiding thing to do, since Rule 6.02 clearly states pitchers cannot use foreign substances on the mound. The problem there is twofold. First is the practical: That would require opposing managers to ask umpires to check pitchers, and managers are loath to do that because they know their pitchers are using tacky stuff too. Beyond that, the possible narrative -- that a rash of players are getting suspended for 10 games as a consequence of the Astros, who got suspended for zero games, cheating -- would be a rough look for the league.

Whether MLB sticks to its stated intent to hold teams accountable for foreign substance usage or this falls by the wayside remains to be seen. But the warning was serious enough that multiple pitching coaches told me and Kiley McDaniel that if they are caught supplying a pitcher with any sort of foreign substance, they will be subject to discipline, including suspension.

Perhaps there is another way -- one fiendishly offered on a platter by Bauer himself last September. As Ben Clemens noted at FanGraphs on Monday, Bauer's spin rate on his fastball jumped to an average of 2,757 rpm over his final four starts, according to Statcast data. His average four-seamer over his first 30 starts: 2,358 rpm. That's a 399 rpm jump, a staggering amount, one that Bauer himself has said in the past, generally speaking, happens only when players use foreign substances to aid their spin. Through August, Bauer's four-seam spin rate was the 120th highest in baseball. In September, it was the second highest.

When asked by ESPN on Monday if he had used any foreign substance, Bauer declined to comment, but honestly, he didn't need to say anything. The numbers say it. Bauer, who was outspoken about sign stealing long before the Astros were caught and who has been at the front of the foreign-substance conversation, might have been flouting the rule, but it was to make a point: If 70% of pitchers are doing something, that means 30% aren't. That is the definition of an uneven playing field. So either ban it entirely or change the rules.

This year, MLB intends to pursue the former route, hopeful that Pandora's box can be closed and pitchers don't fall prey to the spin gods. As Bauer showed, if MLB wants to know who's using foreign substances, the numbers often tell the story.

Hold on. Let's look just at the foreign-substance/spin issue from another angle. Five years ago, spin rate wasn't a thing. Two years ago, spin efficiency wasn't a thing. Now, some pitchers act like they're the only thing. They've been fed this idea that their careers can be made or broken by spin. Teams' almost-universal fealty to numbers is creating this, right?

It is easy, and not entirely unreasonable, to suggest that baseball arrived at this point -- its 2017 World Series champions sullied, its 2018 World Series champions under investigation, skepticism about 2019 understandably and accordingly rampant -- because of broader shifts in the game. That cold, dead-eyed efficiency was the devil on the game's shoulder, urging it down this debauched path. That baseball is in this position because the quants won.

But come on. This is not entirely about some new generation coming into baseball and stealing the game from the lifers. Lest we forget: Arguably the single most famous play in baseball history is surrounded by accusations of cheating. It is fact that in 1951, the New York Giants used a scheme to relay signs from the right-field bullpen to home plate. Whether Bobby Thomson used it or didn't when he hit The Shot Heard 'Round the World is not entirely material; the Giants writ large used it, used it often, used it in a pennant-winning season and used it half a century before Moneyball existed and 66 years before the Astros banged on trash cans.

People don't cheat because of technology; they cheat because competition is fierce and advantages slim. Perhaps it's true that asking those very competitive people to buy into the greater-good theory is a road to perdition, but the idea that unplugging will solve all of baseball's ills does not square entirely, either.

How do fans factor in?

In a clearly important way: They are the ones who will be the truest arbiters of the sign-stealing scandal's fallout. They will watch games on TV ... or stop watching games. They will go to stadiums ... or stop going. Yes, there are dozens of other factors -- COVID-19 is one that's beginning to scare a number of high-ranking officials across the game who fear the potential of a severe drop in attendance -- but the sign-stealing scandal has been so pervasive that the league wonders its true effect. MLB has weathered all sorts of scandals in the past, but the general interest in sign stealing, its tentacles and the lasting effects exceeds anything since steroids -- and perhaps even before that.

And what about you and the rest of the media? Aren't you part of this too?

Absolutely. The media does play a part in stories of this magnitude, and we should be held to account on words past and present. Of particular interest to Astros fans have been some past words I wrote when the Red Sox were fined for illicitly using an Apple Watch, the first punishment levied in the sign-stealing era.

Here's what I said: "The entire charade is patently absurd. Almost every team in baseball blurs the line of cheating on a daily basis."

Here's the truth: It was a bad take. One that did allude to deeper issues -- "Some executives fear a slap on the wrist will enable those tempted to go beyond stealing signs," I wrote later in the piece -- but I didn't fully digest the gravity of what was going on in baseball.

Sliming the media is easy, and wearing that slime is part of the job, and those who believe this amounts to a sign that I hold the Astros to a different standard than the 29 other teams are entitled to that belief. It's not true. Opinions evolve, and the more I spoke with people in the game, the more details about what the Astros did emerged. As more details emerged, the depth of their cheating was significant compared to other teams'. Yes, other teams blurred the line. The Astros erased it -- an erasure they themselves admitted to as they apologized and apologized again and apologized once more.

I'm glad my opinion evolved, by the way. Opinions are clay, not stone. They should be malleable, shaped by new fact sets rather than dogma. Moral intransigence and intellectual incuriosity are sins far worthier of scorn.

Are you done with Astros and Astros-tangential stuff?



Probably not.

Just talk about baseball, Passan.

Fine! Hey, how about Nate Pearson!

Who's Nate Pearson?

Only the most impressive player in baseball this spring. The 23-year-old right-hander is a frightening presence (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) with a frightening fastball (his velocity sits at 96 to 98 mph and tops out at 102) and frightening secondary pitches (slider, curveball and changeup). In three innings, he hasn't allowed a baserunner and has struck out six hitters.

And ... he is going to start the year in Triple-A. The Toronto Blue Jays haven't said as much, but general manager Ross Atkins said Monday the team is "entirely focused on his development," which is code for: We are going to manipulate his service time. Which is what pretty much every other team in baseball would do too. (See: Earlier conversation about competitive integrity.) It's just frustrating to know that one of the most talented pitchers in the world -- and on pure stuff alone, Pearson already is that, before logging a single major league inning -- will be in the minor leagues to start the season not for "development" reasons but because the Blue Jays want to keep him under control for nearly seven full seasons instead of six.

Who else has been impressive?

A quick (and certainly not complete) list from scouts:

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Tampa Bay Rays: The 28-year-old's power is evident, but most impressive has been his nimbleness at third base, a position he hasn't played regularly since 2012.

"He's better than Yandy Diaz there," said one scout, and while that comes close to damning-with-faint-praise territory, Tsutsugo getting reps there and jumping into the middle of the Rays' lineup looks likelier by the day.

Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks: Acquired for dynamic shortstop prospect Jazz Chisholm at the trade deadline last year, the right-handed Gallen is looking more and more like a front-of-the-rotation starter. He'll play most of the season at 24 years old, his fastball is playing in the mid-90s and he is an extraordinarily bright pitcher, able to add and subtract velocity off a four-pitch mix that includes a wicked changeup and cutter.

Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres: When the Padres acquired the 23-year-old Grisham in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers over the winter, they hoped he could play center field. Evaluators who have seen him this spring believe that not only is Grisham an every-day center fielder, he could be a well-above-average one. Add an emerging bat and it could make the trade -- along with Zach Davies for shortstop Luis Urias and starter Eric Lauer -- perhaps a newer version of the Ketel Marte-Mitch Haniger deal that saw breakouts abound for Arizona and Seattle.

Franmil Reyes, Cleveland Indians: He is down 20 pounds. He still has otherworldly power. He won't turn 25 until the All-Star break. If ever he can cut down the strikeouts, he has a chance to be a star.

Trevor Rosenthal, Kansas City Royals: Yes, there is a buyer-beware element after his struggles with Washington last year, but Rosenthal's fastball is sitting at 98 mph -- and, most important, he is throwing strikes. Among Rosenthal, Greg Holland and Josh Staumont -- the 26-year-old whose heat is sitting at 100 and topping 102 -- the Royals could have the makings of a decent bullpen surrounding Ian Kennedy and Scott Barlow.

What is this, the Deep Sleeper Fantasy Report?

I feel seen.

Tell me about Mookie.

Fine. What do you want to know?

Why did the Dodgers get Mookie Betts if they're already going to win the National League West anyway?

Because he is Mookie Betts. Because he is one of the best players in the world. Because they want to re-sign him. Because complacency doesn't win World Series. Perhaps the better question is: Why didn't more teams go strong after Betts?

Well ...

Remember that stuff about not being incentivized to win and competitive integrity and every team having about the same read on every deal and thus paralysis by analysis being the great baseball disease of 2020? That's pretty much why every team wasn't beating at the Red Sox's door. Because the greatest criticisms of Mookie Betts have nothing to do with his game and everything to do with the economic statuses he carries: $27 million salary, free agent-to-be.

So how many games are the Dodgers going to win?

Let's start with this: Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is so confident in the Dodgers that it has the likelihood of them making the playoffs at 100.1 percent. You know when a team breaks PECOTA it's pretty good.

Systems such as PECOTA tend to play things pretty conservative too. So to see not only the literally impossible percentage but the projection for 102.4 wins speaks to how good these Dodgers can be. They have ceiling. They have depth. They hit for power. They're patient. They're fast. They field well. They're versatile. They have hard-throwers. They feature a pitcher for every situation. They've got prospect depth. They are as scary a team as baseball has seen in a good while.

The question to ask about such teams is: What could stop them? A Walker Buehler injury would be bad, particularly for playoff time. Really anything having to do with their rotation, even though they've got a full rotation's worth of pitchers who aren't going to crack their starting five.

All of this is to say: Put me down for 105 wins. With the caveat that they do a better job of staying healthy than the other MLB superpower 3,000 miles away.

Is that your oblique way of saying the New York Yankees' injuries should scare their fans?

"Scare" is too strong a word, but when your entire starting outfield could miss Opening Day, and that starting outfield includes two of the game's greatest power hitters and a center fielder who will be out for months following Tommy John surgery -- well, that's a start. And then you compound that with your second-best starter undergoing Tommy John and another starter needing back surgery and a third starter missing months because of a domestic violence suspension, and to not at least worry a little about that all seems kind of irresponsible.

Granted, even with all that uncertainty over Giancarlo Stanton's calf and Aaron Judge's pec, the Yankees still have a lineup that includes Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, Brett Gardner, Miguel Andujar and Mike Tauchman. That plays. Even without Luis Severino and James Paxton and Domingo German, the Yankees still have a rotation that includes Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery and Jonathan Loaisiga, with Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia, among others, in reserve. That is plenty, when the Yankees' bullpen is as good as it is.

So, no, they probably shouldn't be scared. But the possibility of losing Stanton or Judge for an extended period, while not seemingly in the cards at the moment, is the sort of thing that would give the Tampa Bay Rays that sliver of daylight they need to not just challenge the Yankees for the American League East crown but win it.

Not the Red Sox?

Nope. Not these Red Sox. Their offense should be potent, but their rotation -- with Chris Sale starting the year on the injured list, Eduardo Rodriguez the Opening Day starter, Nathan Eovaldi being relied on to make 30 starts having done so once in his eight-year career -- is a mess.

Martin Perez is their fourth starter. In 14 second-half starts last year, batters hit .319/.374/.542 against him. Essentially, for 327 plate appearances, Perez made every hitter look like Jeff McNeil. Their fifth-starter race is a grab bag of prospects, non-prospects and never-were prospects.

What's worst is that when the penalties come down on the Red Sox from the investigation into their alleged sign stealing -- and there are expected to be penalties, even if they're not nearly as severe as the Astros' were, according to sources -- it could handicap a team that already has a mediocre farm system.

The Red Sox will be fine because new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is good at his job and they have goo-gobs of money that they're going to spend after dipping under the luxury-tax threshold. Right?



You sure about that?

Aren't I the one who's supposed to ask the questions?

Yes. But I'll ask and answer one instead.

Question: What's been the funniest part of spring training?

Answer: Unquestionably the continuous awkwardness between the Colorado Rockies and their star third baseman, Nolan Arenado.

It is abundantly clear at this point that Arenado wants to get out of Colorado because he has zero faith in the Rockies' ability to win. The Rockies, meanwhile, have tried to trade him but are asking teams for far more in return than a player owed $234 million for presumably the downside of his career would warrant. Thus, this incredible stalemate that sees Arenado coming up with new ways to talk about how excited he is for the season because 29 other teams are going to be watching him or how he wouldn't have signed his contract extension last year and would've been a Dodger this year had he known the Rockies were going to spend the entire winter of 2019-20 not spending a dime in free agency.

Ultimately, this is going to end with the Rockies trading Arenado. That is inevitable. The relationship is broken. The Rockies aren't good enough right now to contend in the NL West, and the lack of contention will only reinforce Arenado's point, and the Rockies will drop their asking price, and somebody will pounce. Until then, he'll hit like a star and field like a Hall of Famer and do all the things he does, and the Rockies will remain the team whose owner said they're going to win a franchise-record 94 games because he doesn't understand how math works.

So if Arenado is moving eventually, are the Indians going to trade Francisco Lindortoo?

At some point probably. They're in an odd position in the AL Central right now, with the Minnesota Twins favorites and the Chicago White Sox up-and-comers and the Indians nursing a handful of injuries. If things go sideways, the incentive to deal Lindor -- who will be a free agent following the 2021 season -- is strong.

Cleveland's young core, led by Shane Bieber, is decent. Where they're undoubtedly strong is in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Outfielder George Valera is a star in the making. Middle infielders Brayan Rocchio and Aaron Bracho are slick-fielding switch-hitters who have impressed scouts. None of them is 20 years old yet.

Flipping Lindor for cost-controlled, win-now players would help bridge the gap until 2022, when the kids could be ready and a new window could open for Cleveland.

What other team interests you?

The Astros.

You're a troll, you know?

Seriously, they do. I know I said the Astros' portion of the proceedings was closed, but they're just a fascinating group.

I'm curious how they adapt to the boos that will greet them.

I'm curious how each player has processed the scorn.

I'm curious how baseball treats all of those outside the clubhouse, like Kevin Goldstein, the longtime director of pro scouting who the league's investigation cleared of wrongdoing, or Tom Koch-Weser and Derek Vigoa, executives who figured more prominently in the Codebreaker and "dark arts" aspects of what Houston did.

I'm curious how deep the anger among the players runs -- because I keep hearing that for all the support some players have given the Astros, other friendships have been ruined.

I'm curious how the Astros will play. Genuinely, deeply curious about that, because baseball is already a hard enough game when the entire industry isn't watching.

What players interest you?

A list of 25, in no particular order, with occasional comments:

Mike Trout: Of course.

Jo Adell

Jacob deGrom

Dakota Hudson: After working with pitching guru Bob Zimmermann over the winter, Hudson has gone 4 walkless innings after leading the major leagues with 86 walks last year. It's early yet, but it's progress.

Wander Franco

Dellin Betances

Vladimir Guerrero Jr: The star shall emerge.

Andrew Benintendi

Yasiel Puig: Whatever his flaws, whatever reasons he has for not signing yet, baseball is a more interesting game with Puig than without.

Jasson Dominguez

Josh Hader

Jesus Luzardo: He has the stuff to be an ace and is part of the nastiest trio of left-handers in baseball, alongside Sean Manaea and A.J. Puk.

Stephen Strasburg

Oneil Cruz

Collin McHugh: He is back to throwing after a Tenex procedure cleaned up his right elbow, and his versatility will be a bounty wherever he lands. "I can start and relieve," he said in February, "and I can do both well, especially given the right situation." An excellent midseason addition waiting to happen.

Lance McCullers Jr.

Jimmy Nelson

Fernando Tatis Jr.: Lightning in a bottle.

Ronald Acuna Jr.: Thunder in a bottle.

Corey Kluber

Trea Turner: The No. 3 hitter version.

Julio Rodriguez

Dylan Carlson: "He's a [bleeping] superstar," a scout said this week. It followed something similar, minus the bleep, from another scout. St. Louis should be excited.

Yoan Moncada

Yu Darvish

OK. We've got the teams. We've got the players. Let's just go general: With the season about three weeks away, with baseball about to kick into full swing, what else about the game right now interests you?

Two words: Joey Shoves.

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