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Spring Training: Time for Pitchers, Catchers and Cheaters

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Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers ponders a question during an interview with the media on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Oakland, Calif. Fiers, the Oakland pitcher and whistleblower in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, appeared with teammates and manager Bob Melvin at team offices. Fiers has not spoken publicly about the sign stealing since the story was published in The Athletic in November. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Baseball returns to the field next week when pitchers, catchers and cheaters report to spring training.

Fans await the annual sunny scenes of favorites stretching on bright green grass in Florida and Arizona.

This year the players bring along dark clouds of scandal — the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros have been tainted by their sign-stealing scam and the 2018 champion Boston Red Sox have been accused of similar subversion.

Teams hope once workouts start, the stain will fade.

“I think those stories lines will weave in and out, but that spring training is that juncture for individual fan bases to be optimistic about what the season ahead holds and it shifts back to that,” Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro said. “There’s a natural kind of rhythm to spring training that diverts to the positive stories.”

But first, confessions?

Some regard baseball’s blemish from sign stealing as vivid as the acne on the backs of steroids-swelled sluggers of the 1990s and early 2000s.

None of the current members of the Astros has publicly expressed contrition for breaking prohibitions against using a video camera to swipe signs from opposing catchers in 2017 and 2018. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said spring training might be the appropriate time for a group mea culpa because fessing up individually during the offseason “could be sort of a treacherous road to go down.”

Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, now with Oakland, sparked the scandal in November when he went public in an interview with The Athletic. He took down 10% of major league managers and became for some an MVP — Most Virtuous Player.

Houston manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the season by Major League Baseball on Jan. 13, and the pair were fired by the Astros later that day. Manfred’s conclusions led to the departures of Boston manager Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, and new New York Mets manager Carlos Beltrán, Houston’s senior player during the title run.

A third of the teams changed managers, including the Mets twice. Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell, hired in May 2015, already is the National League’s senior skipper. New faces include Dusty Baker (Astros), Joe Girardi (Phillies), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Joe Maddon (Angels), Mike Matheny (Royals), Luis Rojas (Mets), David Ross (Cubs), Derek Shelton (Pirates) and Jayce Tingler (Padres), with the Red Sox yet to announce Cora’s successor.

Baker, at 70 the oldest big league manager, is tasked with keeping the Astros on track to become the first team to win 100 or more games in four straight seasons. He also will try to steady a core branded as villains by players and fans in other cities.

“You got to go forward and make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Baker said. “It certainly is not going to happen on my watch here, and I don’t foresee it happening ever again because this has been an embarrassment for a lot of people.”

Cora’s punishment was delayed by Manfred pending MLB’s investigation into the Red Sox, which could conclude next week. Boston’s turmoil extended to the trade market, with a deal that would send former MVP Mookie Betts and former Cy Young Award winner David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team trade involving Minnesota. The delay in the deal being finalized prompted criticism from the players’ association, still smarting over the grievance loss of Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who unsuccessfully claimed the team violated the labor contract by delaying his big league debut until the day his free-agent eligibility would be delayed a year.

Bryant’s trade value increased with arbitrator Mark Irvings’ decision, because acquiring teams can be certain he cannot go free for two more seasons. The cost of top free agents was never more vivid than this offseason.

Players who switched teams included pitcher Gerrit Cole ($324 million from the Yankees), third baseman Anthony Rendon ($245 million from the Angels), right-hander Zack Wheeler ($118 million from the Phillies), third baseman Josh Donaldson ($92 million from the Twins) and left-hander Madison Bumgarner ($85 million from the Diamondbacks).

Right-hander Stephen Strasburg became a free agent shortly after winning the World Series MVP award, then stayed with the Nationals for $245 million.

On the December day he signed with the Yankees, Cole thanked pioneering player Curt Flood, former union head Marvin Miller and others who fought to gain free agency and then to preserve it.

“It’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is,” Cole said.

All those big bucks and pre-Christmas deals contrasted with the slow markets of the prior two offseasons. Spending followed MLB’s fourth straight attendance drop, to 68.5 million, down from 73.8 million in 2015.

“It’s a more competitive environment. More teams are trying to win,” New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said.

Washington will raise the championship flag for the first time in franchise history and will try to become the first repeat winner since the Yankees from 1998-2000. The previous longest stretch was between the 1977-78 Yankees and the 1992-93 Blue Jays.

Houston will go for its third AL pennant in four seasons, and the Yankees will try to reach the Series for the first time since 2009 — following their first decade since the 1910s without a World Series appearance.

“We can all look each other in the eyes and know, when it counts, we can all count on each other,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said, “and we’re a bunch of winners.”

Champions always believe that. But it hasn’t worked out for any one them in two decades.

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays Season Outlook & Preview

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Two Tampa Bay Rays players on the field during a game. Photo: Elsa/Getty Images.

TAMPA, Fla. (FNN SPORTS) – It is Opening Day weekend across Major League Baseball. For the defending AL East Champion Tampa Bay Rays, that means a home series against the division opponent Baltimore on Friday.

24-year-old Shane McClanah will get the start for the Rays who went 100-62 during the 2021 season, the first time the team reached 100 wins in franchise history. McClanahan played his college ball at nearby USF, and is no stranger to getting the ball in big games. He went 10-6 on the year with a 3.43 ERA and has six postseason appearances including the World Series in 2020.

Star pitcher Tyler Glasnow is likely out for the season while fellow pitchers Michael Wacha and Collin McHugh along with Nelson Cruz left the team in free agency. Fan Favorites Joey Wendle and Austin Meadows were traded to the Marlins and Padres respectively.

So where does that put the season outlook for Tampa Bay? Most baseball outlets have the Rays in the middle of the AL East standings with the Blue Jays and Yankees as the favorites, both having major offseason additions to bolster their lineups. Despite being one of the best teams in baseball the last several years, the Rays have a tough time getting respect.

Wander Franco signed a massive 11-year, $183 million deal that will keep him with the club through 2033 and an option for an additional year. Having a superstar in Franco coupled with star Randy Arozena, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, and a team that can hit and play defense with the best teams in baseball is a positive sign.

The question for the Rays will be their starting pitching depth. Behind McClanahan is new addition Corey Kluber and youngsters Drew Rasmussen, Luis Patino, and Ryan Yarbrough. Behind them is one of a very reliable bullpen with set-up man Pete Fairbanks and closer Andrew Kittredge.

Fans have numerous opportunities to see an exciting brand of Rays baseball in April alone with home series against the Orioles, Athletics, Red Sox, Mariners, and Twins.

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Todd Grasley is a sports reporter for Florida National News Tampa. | sports@floridanationalnews.com

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After a 99-Day Lockout, Baseball is Officially Back

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Tropicana Field. Photo: Todd Grasley/Florida National News.

TAMPA BAY, Fla. (FNN SPORTS) – After a 99-day lockout the players union and owners have finally struck a deal on America’s National Pastime, and the best news of all, a full 162-game season. It’s a decision that comes as a sigh of relief to baseball fans nationwide who feared the wait could lead to the cancellation of the season, much like it did in 1994-1995.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who took a lot of flac from outsiders throughout the process, was relieved to hear from MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark that the two sides had come to an agreement.

“I have a great job, but one of the negative parts of it is when you have a situation like this, where you’re depriving the fans of the game…I felt a great weight from that,” Manfred said in an interview with ESPN.com. “When we learned that they ratified, that weight came off my shoulders.”

While the new Collective Bargaining Agreement improves conditions for MLB players, it also comes with several rule changes to the game, including the postseason being expanded to 12 teams, a universal DH, doubleheaders now consisting of nine innings, eliminating the rule of having baserunners to start extra innings.

The 2022 season will start on April 7th for most teams, with the initial missed games at the beginning being made up in doubleheaders throughout the year and at the end of the season.

Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay Rays are ready for the 2022 season. Photo: Todd Grasley/Florida National News.

Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay Rays are ready for the 2022 season. Photo: Todd Grasley/Florida National News.

As for Spring Training baseball in Florida and Arizona, players can report to voluntary workouts starting March 11th with games starting the week of March 18th.

Check out the complete schedule of Grapefruit League (Florida) and Cactus League (Arizona) games and keep it locked on Florida National News for coverage of Major League Baseball throughout the season.

Let’s play ball!

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Todd Grasley is a sports reporter for Florida National News Tampa. | sports@floridanationalnews.com

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MLB Players Vote to End Lockout, Salvaging 162-Game Season

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Atlanta Braves minor leaguers are shown at spring training baseball camp in North Port, Fla., Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Players have voted to accept Major League Baseball’s latest offer for a new labor deal, paving the way to end a 99-day lockout and salvage a 162-game regular season that will begin April 7.

The union’s executive board approved the agreement in a 26-12 vote Thursday, pending ratification by all players, a person familiar with the balloting said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no announcement was authorized.

MLB sent the players an offer Thursday and gave them until 3 p.m. to accept in order to play a full season. The union announced the player vote around 3:25 p.m. Owners planned to hold a ratification vote later in the day.

The agreement will allow training camps to open this week in Florida and Arizona, more than three weeks after they were scheduled to on Feb. 16. Fans can start making plans to be at Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium and Camden Yards next month. Opening day is being planned a little more than a week behind the original date on March 31.

The deal will also set off a rapid-fire round of free agency. Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant are among 138 big leaguers still without a team, including some who might benefit from the adoption of a universal designated hitter.

The sport’s new collective bargaining agreement will also expand the playoffs to 12 teams and introduce incentives to limit so-called “tanking.” The minimum salary will rise from $570,500 to about $700,000 and the luxury tax threshold will increase from $210 million to around $230 million this year, a slight loosening for the biggest spenders such as the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers and Red Sox. A new bonus pool was established for players not yet eligible for arbitration, a way to boost salaries for young stars.

Commissioner Rob Manfred had set a Tuesday deadline for a deal that would preserve a 162-game schedule along with full pay and service time required for players to reach free agency. Talks spilled past the deadline and Manfred announced more cancellations Wednesday, increasing the total to 184 of the 2,230 games.

After yet another snag, this time over management’s desire for an international amateur draft, the deal came together Thursday afternoon and capped nearly a year of talks that saw pitchers Max Scherzer and Andrew Miller take prominent roles as union spokesmen.

Players had fumed for years about the deal that expired Dec. 1, which saw payrolls decline for 4% in 2021 compared to the last full season, back to their 2015 level. The union had an ambitious negotiating stance in talks that began last spring, asking for free-agency rights to increase with an age-based backstop and for an expansion of salary arbitration to its level from 1974-86.

In the late stages, the level and rates of the luxury tax, designed as a break on spending, became the key to a deal. Players think that too low a threshold and too high a rate acts tantamount to a salary cap, which the union fought off with a 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95.

The agreement came after three days of shuttle negotiations between the MLB offices in midtown Manhattan and the players’ association headquarters, three blocks away.

Despite hundreds of hours of threats and counter-threats, the sides are set to avoid regular-season games being canceled by labor conflict for the first time since the 1994-95 strike. Games originally announced as canceled by Manfred were changed to postponed, and MLB will modify the original schedule.

The deal came at a cost, though, with years of public rancor again casting both owners and players as money obsessed. Spring training in Arizona and Florida was disrupted for the third straight year following two exhibition seasons altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Exhibition games had been scheduled to start Feb. 26.

Players will have about 28 days of training rather than the usual 42 for pitchers and catchers.

In some ways, the negotiations were similar to those in 1990, when a lockout started Feb. 15 and ended with a four-year deal announced 1:18 a.m. on March 19.

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