All posts by Eric Willuweit

MLB Draft: Sox Take College Pitcher, Cubs Take Local High-Schooler

With no games being played, and the 2020 baseball season in doubt, Major League Baseball took a pause from contentious negotiations with its players to look to the future, as the 2020 MLB Draft took center stage in an otherwise empty sports landscape on Wednesday night.

Both Chicago baseball teams looked to infuse new talent into their organizations during the first round of the MLB Draft, hoping that the players chosen could make an impact on their respective big clubs in the not so distant future.

White Sox Take LHP Crochet, Cubs Take SS Howard With Top Picks

The White Sox, with the 11th overall pick, selected University of Tennessee left-handed pitcher, Garrett Crochet, adding talent and depth to the organization’s already strong pitching ranks.

Five picks later, at number 16, the Cubs created the buzz of the evening in Chicagoland by choosing shortstop Ed Howard, the local kid made good out of Mt. Carmel High School in Chicago.

“I’m excited to be a hometown guy, I think it’s special, it’s unique,” said Howard during his introductory conference call with Cubs beat reporters. “I’m ready to take on that challenge, have fun, and play my game” Howard continued.

Cubs Pick of Ed Howard Brings a Jolt of Excitement to the Northside Fan Base

The pick of Howard is sure to generate excitement with Cubs fans, who have been looking for some positivity after back-to-back disappointing seasons on the field and off.

The Cubs blew a late division lead in 2018 and wound up losing to the Colorado Rockies at home during the National League Wild Card game. 2019 saw the Cubs miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014, ending a five-year post-season run.

Off the field, the Cubs have had their issues as well. Most notably with the Kris Bryant years of service grievance, and the rollout of the Cubs new team-owned regional sports network, The Marquee Network. The network was roundly booed during the Cubs Convention in January when team owner Tom Ricketts mentioned it by name. Many fans were unsure if their television providers would even carry the fledgling network, or if they did, how much extra would it cost. More recently, Ricketts has come under fire for comments stating 70% of team revenue is derived from day-of-game receipts, a figure many are questioning.

The selection of Howard, however, gives the Cubs a chance to ride some positive buzz about their team, at least in the near future.

Howard grew up in Chicago, and was a member of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team that captured the hearts of Chicagoans and the nation when they won the 2014 Little League World Series. Their title was eventually revoked due to roster eligibility issues, but the team still remained popular locally.

He went on to play baseball at Mt. Carmel High School, where he starred as the team’s shortstop. Even without playing a single game for the Caravan during the 2020 season, Howard was viewed by scouts and draft experts as one of the top shortstop prospects in the country. His selection with the 16th pick confirms that.

Howard was also a product of the Chicago White Sox Amateur City Elite program, or ACE, an arm of White Sox charities that provides inner-city kids with opportunities for education and to develop in the game of baseball, providing avenues for advancement to college or professional baseball. Another goal of ACE is to reverse the decline of African-American players in baseball, something that was probably not lost on Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who recently stated he needs to build more diversity in the Cubs organization overall.

Ultimately, however, Howard’s talent and potential as a baseball player is the reason the team made him their first-round pick. Cubs new Vice President of Scouting, Dan Kantrovitz, told reporters that Howard being available “was literally our best-case scenario.” Kantrovitz added: “He’s got an electric skill set. He’s a plus shortstop. He’s got pop in his bat. He can run. He can impact the game in so many ways. We think he has a chance to be a star.”

The Cubs stated that Howard would remain at shortstop in the organization. Most experts believe 2023 would be the soonest Howard might make his Major League debut. However, the timeline for all prospects could be delayed due to the absence of minor league baseball in 2020.

White Sox Bypass One of Their ACE Program Graduates in Howard, Draft University of Tennessee LHP Garret Crochet

With Howard, a Southsider, available when the White Sox pick came around at number 11, many people were wondering if the team would select one of their home-grown talents from their ACE program. However, when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped up to present the team’s pick, the name of a large college left-handed pitcher was announced instead.

Crochet comes to the White Sox as one of the top left-handed college pitchers in the draft. He struck out 149 batters and walked 48 over 132 innings pitched during his three years at Tennessee. He is known for a plus fastball that can reach triple digits, as well as a good slider and change-up. Control has been an issue for the lefty, who only pitched one game for the Vols in 2020 while dealing with shoulder soreness.

“I told Garrett … it’s an outstanding piece of your life to be compared to Chris Sale” Shirley told reporters. “But please proceed as being Garrett Crochet” he said. – White Sox Director of Amateur Scouting, Mike Shirley

Crochet has been receiving many comparisons to another tall left-handed hurler, former White Sox starter Chris Sale. And while he acknowledged to reporters during his post-selection conference call that some parts of his game were modeled after Sale, he doesn’t want people to just assume the same outcome. “I feel like it’s kind of tough to make on me(the Sale comparison), as I have not achieved anything as close as Chris Sale has achieved” Crochet told reporters.

Major League Baseball’s Dilemma: Return To Play Or Point Of No Return

On March 10th, the NBA and NHL were entering the home stretch of their respective regular seasons, as teams jockeyed for playoff positioning and qualifying. Major League Baseball teams were in the middle of their Cactus and Grapefruit league Spring Training schedules, with the earliest opening day in league history set to take place later that month on March 26th.

On the morning of March 11th, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was the first North American pro athlete to test positive for Covid-19. Later that day, the NBA suspended their season indefinitely for health and safety reasons. The NHL and MLB followed suit the next day, announcing the suspensions of their seasons on March 12th. As the calendar advances to early June, all three leagues have remained sidelined.

Return or No Return: Major League Baseball’s Dilemma

But sidelined has not necessarily meant seasons have been canceled. “Return-to-play” has been the phrase of choice by sports leagues as they each work with their players to negotiate the terms, guidelines, protocol, and logistics for the resumption of their respective seasons.

On May 26th, the NHL became the first of the three leagues to formally announce their return to play plan, ending the regular season but expanding the playoff pool to 24 teams. The NHL will ultimately choose two hub cities that will host each conference’s playoff rounds. The NHL tentative return date is late July.

On Thursday, the NBA announced a different approach for their return to play, eliminating the bottom eight teams from resuming play, while instituting an eight-game seeding schedule to determine the final makeup of the league’s traditional 16-team playoff format. The NBA is looking to finalize an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to utilize Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando as their operating base. The NBA is hoping to restart on July 31st.

And then there’s Major League Baseball.

Will Baseball Return, Or Take Their Ball and Go Home?

MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have figuratively dropped the ball as they attempt to put together their own return to play plan. The league and the players are nowhere close to an agreement on the specifics for a return, and, as is usually the case with baseball, money is at the forefront of the negotiation hurdles. A tradition like no other, indeed.

MLB had been floating several unofficial return-to-play scenarios throughout the pandemic shutdown to any baseball scribe that would listen, in the hopes certain writers would take them and run with it. This served a dual-purpose for the league. First, it kept baseball in the sports news cycle by having writers post and Tweet various theoretical proposals, allowing the sport to carry the day so to speak from a fan interest standpoint. During a pandemic shutdown, there was not much competition for sports media exposure that the league had to worry about.

The second reason for the leaked concept proposals was to serve as a sort of a trial balloon to gauge player feedback and response. In the age of social media, when a writer puts something out there that has implications to players, you can be sure that those associated with the game will respond.

The first official proposal by the owners to the players union did not take place until May 12th. At a high level, the proposal called for an 82-game regular-season schedule starting the first week of July, with teams playing only their division counterparts in both leagues, as a measure to mitigate COVID-19 related health concerns over prolonged travel.

Additionally, the proposal also called for expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams in total, as well as implement a “universal” designated hitter in both leagues. And while the proposal provided comprehensive details regarding protocols for protecting players, team, and stadium personnel from COVID-19 infection and transmission, the financial component was not included in the initial presentation of the MBL proposal. But rumors of a significantly reduced compensation structure were already swirling, and that immediately became a sticking point for the players and the union.

Baseball’s Return To Play Battle – How Did We Get Here?

Back on March 27th, the owners and players agreed to an initial framework that, among other things, guaranteed the players a pro-rated payout of their full 2020 salaries based on the number of regular-season games played. For example, if the league wound up playing half of the normal 162-game regular season, the players would receive a 50% payout of their full 2020 salary. There was also a 50-50 post-season revenue sharing feature included in the original framework. At the time that seemed significant, as baseball has never had a revenue-sharing plan between owners and players, like the NFL, NHL, and NBA all have, in varying formats.

The owners are contending that at the time the initial agreement was reached, there was not enough information available about the rate of expansion of COVID-19 infections, and the subsequent safety measurements and guidelines that were implemented by Federal and State governmental agencies to combat the spread. Key among those measurements were restrictions placed on mass gatherings of 50 or more people at events, including sporting events. That restriction prevented the possibility of fans being able to attend baseball games for the foreseeable future, thus eliminating revenue streams for the teams from gate receipts, parking, concessions, and merchandise sales.

The owners have been referencing an “economic feasibility” clause in the March agreement that, per MLB, was intended to re-open the financial arrangement previously agreed to by players and owners for 2020 return to play if fans were not allowed to attend games. As one might imagine, the players, the union, and their lawyers have a different interpretation of that language, and so far have not been willing to budge off the pro-ration provision of the initial agreement.

When the owners finally presented their amended compensation plan on May 26th, the union and players roundly rejected the proposal publicly. The plan called for a sliding scale of reductions based on player salary, with higher-salaried stars having to bear the brunt of the salary reductions versus players making the league minimum or in-between. Overall player compensation would have been reduced from $4 billion to $1.2 billion.

The players countered with their own proposal on May 31st. In it, they re-affirmed their position on maintaining the original pro-ration formula. They also proposed an increased 114-game schedule. This would have meant the players achieve a 70% pro-ration of their 2020 salaries or $2.8 billion of the initial $4 billion player pool. MLB has since rejected that proposal, and, although not formally providing a counter-offer, it is rumored that the league is discussing implementing a 48-50 game schedule without fans.

Return To Play Or Risk Permanently Harming The Game

Given the state of a national economy ravaged by COVID-19, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, the optics of Major League Baseball owners and players fighting over billions of dollars look bad. The initial optimism that the “boys of summer” would take center-stage and be the first major North American professional sports league to return to action in early July has quickly waned and has left fans wondering if there will be a season at all.

 

If that were to happen, it would be more than bad optics at play for the game. Baseball entered 2020 having already endured a rough off-season, in which two of the league’s premier teams, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox, were implicated in sign-stealing scandals. Both fans and players alike were angry at how blatant the level of cheating was at its peak. And both were equally frustrated that Astros and Red Sox players were given immunity from punishment, in effect, for their cooperation during the separate investigations.

If baseball were to compound things by not being able to reach an agreement between the league and its players for a return to play for 2020, and have to cancel the entire season, this could have a lasting, negative impact on the growth of the game.

Baseball Needs To Find Its Next Generation Of Fans

Baseball has made it clear it wants to capture the interest of the younger generation to help expand their market share and ensure a replacement demographic for baby boomers is in place to carry the sport moving forward. To that end, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been working almost maniacally to find creative ways to speed up the game through pace-of-play initiatives. Reducing the average length of games to zero through the cancellation of the season was probably not what he was intending. You cannot capture the imagination of the younger generation by giving them a bag of air.

Assuming the league could resume from a health and safety standpoint – and that’s a big if – the owners and players are blowing a tremendous opportunity to capture the interest of both hard-core and casual sports fans alike who are starving for live sports. How perfect would it be for baseball to return to play Fourth of July weekend? A nation reeling from the impact of COVID-19, and now boiling over with the uprising and protests regarding the murder of George Floyd, racism, and police brutality might welcome a three-hour distraction in their lives.

Sadly, it does not look like a resolution to the negotiations is anywhere in sight. The rhetoric between the owners and players is as off-putting as it has ever been. The mighty dollar is once again the anchor that weighs down and submerges both sides.

In the short-term, baseball is facing an 18-month hiatus between seasons if the 2020 season gets scrubbed. If that were not depressing enough, consider that the current labor agreement expires in December 2021. That opens up possible scenarios of a lockout by the owners, or a strike by the players if the current discord between the two sides cannot get resolved by next year.

There is so much at stake for both sides. Unfortunately, they both seem content to stand their ground, ultimately taking themselves and the game of baseball with them off the cliff and out of sight, out of mind.

But do not worry, the boys of summer will hopefully be returning this year, to a sheet of ice or a hardwood court near you.