The Monday Baseball Column: Michael Kopech. Andrew Benintendi. Two scouting examples of how this year is already different.

Rob Bradford
March 16, 2020 - 12:18 pm
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Mike Rikard summed it up perfectly.

“It’s crazy times,” said the Red Sox’ vice-president of scouting. What else can be said?

Sure enough. Priorities and responsibilities have changed in a blink of an eye. The coronavirus has put baseball in a place nobody knows what to do with, presenting a future that is impossible to predict.

Player preparation. Scheduling. Scouting. You name it. There are flat-out no easy answers or blueprints. 

“Everyone is on the same playing field,” Rikard added. “We’re all on equal ground in that there is not a whole lot we can do.”

What we do know is that 2020 is going to be different in so many ways. This new world is going to change lives, and not just in the short-term. The paths many aspiring professional baseball players thought they had mapped out just ran into a cliff thanks to the sudden absence of high school and college baseball.

We don’t have any idea if the June Amateur Draft will still be taking place this year. And while there have been murmurs of conducting combines or individual workouts for draft-eligible players, those are far from viable solutions when it comes to making up these suddenly baseball-free months.

Nobody knows that better than a scout such as Rikard, who has lived through the rhythms of draft preparation since 2000. Now, 

“What happens when you see these guys in the summer, you try to separate them. This guy has a little better delivery. This guy has a little better breaking ball. But you’re seeing them in the showcases for one or two innings. Trying to separate one from the other can be challenging. We had him identified in a really good way, but he jumped into that first-round conversation with a really good uptick in March and April.”

This is life-changing stuff. Two players you might have heard can attest to that.

“The one that clearly stands out is (Andrew) Benintendi because he was someone coming into the spring we had decent reports on but he was an eligible sophomore, he didn’t have a great freshman season and he didn’t play in the summer,” remembered Rikard, who served as the Red Sox amateur scouting director up until this season. “So right about this time was when he really started to pick up steam. We had a couple of scouts go in early and really, really jumped him up the board. It was right about this time. To be quite honest we didn’t have a whole lot on him prior to that. I think that is a really good example of someone who if this was 2015 would have missed a great opportunity.”

Benintendi went to the Red Sox with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. He earned the honor after being named as the best college player in the country during his sophomore season at Arkansas, having hit. 380 with 19 home runs. If he didn’t have the season the outfielder was going to be judged off a freshman season that saw him hit just .276 with one homer.

“One of the things we try to do is come into the fall with a good list of names and while it’s still early we do our best to try and identify and put together a framework for our pref list and then we try to solidify it in the fall,” Rikard said. “So when we come into the spring we kind of have an idea of who the top guys are. But scouting is very, very hard and a lot of guys take a big jump from October to February. There are a lot of things that can change.”

Then there was the case of Michael Kopech.

The Red Sox drafted the odds-on-favorite to win the 2020 Rookie of the Year with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 Draft. Without his senior season at Mount Pleasant (Texas) High, that doesn’t happen.

“He’s a guy we knew had a big arm. But a lot of times the high school pitching is the group that takes the biggest jump,” Rikard said. “You can go from being a guy who is throwing 92 to all of a sudden someone who puts on a little weight, tighten up your mechanics and the next thing you know he’s throwing 96. That happens quite a bit. Kopech is a guy we recognized as being interesting with a great arm and right about this time people started rolling in with him throwing 95-98 realizing he’s one of the best guys. It happens. It doesn’t happen as much on the college guys but it does happen quite a bit with the high school kids.”

What might have been. What might be. Crazy times, indeed.

NOT THE SAME, BUT STILL NOT THE NORM

There are no comparisons to what is currently transpiring in baseball. All we have semi-recent incidents which, to be honest, pale in comparison.

For instance, in 2003 there was the SARS outbreak. At the time it was enough of a scare to make a few players — most vocally pitcher John Burkett — hesitant about making the Red Sox’ early April trip to Toronto. But after a late-spring training visit by Major League Baseball representatives the games were played at Rogers Centre, with the Sox actually making another visit to Toronto in late May.

“When MLB came in with the doctor I think they convinced everybody,” remembered then-Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick. “But then when we landed everybody had their mask on. We had some discontentment from people not wanting to go but we had to go because they didn’t have to cancel the games. There were other dissenters but John was pretty vocal. He was a good guy, a great guy. They decided the best course of action was to go after hearing what MLB had to say. Before that people were leery.

(For a great look back at how the SARS epidemic impacted Toronto sports, click here to read Jeff Blair’s recent column.)

Then there was the last big delay when it came to starting a season, in 1995 after MLB’s most recent labor stoppage. 

Once the season was saved after going through an entire spring training with replacement players, the second round of spring training started April 7 with the regulars playing 11 exhibition games before kicking off the season on April 25. Aaron Sele was the Red Sox’ Opening Day starter (on April 26), making six starts before going on the disabled list with a bad shoulder for the rest of the season. Sele was making the start in the opener because Roger Clemens missed all of the shortened spring training and the first two months with a shoulder issue.

COLTEN BREWER’S WILD RIDE

On the day before spring training was put on hold Brewer spoke with a smile on his face.

The previous afternoon the pitcher had asked to pitch 2 2/3 innings, the longest stint he had gone since July, 2017 with San Diego’s Triple-A team. The extended stint on the mound was no coincidence, with interim manager Ron Roenicke making it clear that Brewer had positioned himself to become one of the key figures in the Red Sox’ plan to use a Closer for their No. 5 spot.

“I would definitely take pride in doing something like that,” he said. “I watched (Tampa Bay’s Ryne) Stanek last year. He was one of the first guys to do it and he had great success. We have Chaim coming over, implementing some of that stuff. That would be really cool to do.”

The newfound lot in life on the mound — made possible partly due to a spring training that saw him give up just two runs on four hits while striking out nine in 8 1/3 Grapefruit League innings — was just part of Brewer’s evolution.

Last spring training he was one of the few new guys, trying to make the team with just 11 big league appearances under his belt. And living that life while having to call a Bighorn RV his spring training home. 

“I got that when I had my little stint with the Padres,” said Brewer, who recently got engaged, sold his mobile home and bought a house. “It’s definitely something not a whole lot of people experience. Growing up I loved camping so I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m going to make every day a camping trip.’ Eventually down the road I would like to get an RV just to bring to spring training.

“A lot of things are changing in good ways. If I keep trusting in my stuff and the process I think it will wind up in a good way.”

THE UNEXPECTED ICE FISHERMAN

It’s probably not a leap of faith to suggest Alex Verdugo is the only member of the Mexican National Baseball Team whose hobby is ice fishing.

As Verdugo first explained to NESN’s Tom Caron on an upcoming “My Story” episode, Verdugo — who grew up in Tucson, Arizona — recently discovered a love for the sport of ice fishing. How did that happen? The seed was planted thanks to his grandparents, who raised Verdugo’s mother in International Falls, Minnesota, a place that totals a high temperature of below 32 degrees an average of 109 days per year.

“Just get up in the snow. Get up in the cold weather. Just hang out,” Verdugo told WEEI.com. “I remember a few years ago I was out there for Christmas. It was like negative-30. It was nuts. My Grandpa that year had bought a John Deere tractor and put a snowblower on it. I’m like, ‘Grandpa, let me drive it.’ We’re just snow-blowing everything and before you know it I’m out there doing the neighbors’ yard and then a field that didn’t even need to be done. I was like a little kid. I was just having fun. I was out there for about two hours and my eyebrows and eyelashes were frozen. … I love the cold.”

Snow-blowing was just the arctic appetizer. In recent years Verdugo has been introduced to ice-fishing courtesy his grandfather.

“When I was there my Grandpa has a little fish house,” the Red Sox outfielder noted. “You drive it out on the leg, you drop it and you put barriers on the side of it. It has a heater in there. It’s very comfortable. You play cards, hang out, talk and drill a couple of holes in the ice, throw a couple of lines in and you just kind of hang out.

“It’s just super nice. I get out there and it helps me get my mind off of everything, what I think matters at the time. You’re just having fun with nature. You’re being a little kid again, hanging out with your family. It’s a stress-free, worry-free zone. It’s nice.”

SOME OTHER STUFF …

- Even before the coronavirus chaos, the Red Sox’ spring training had been out of the ordinary. So when it came time to making arrangements for camp to disperse, life only got more complicated. This is why a huge shoutout goes to first-year traveling secretary Mark Cacciatore whose job this past week was undoubtedly among the most challenging.

- First impressions are nice, but last impressions are more important when it comes to spring training. The best last impressions for the Red Sox: Brewer, Ryan Weber, Austin Brice, Jonathan Lucroy, Jackie Bradley Jr., Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. Minor-league catcher Connor Wong also should be mentioned considering he hit his third homer of the spring in a back-field game last Thursday off Eovaldi.

- Spring training numbers!!!!

From 2019 …

HITTING

Batting average: Robinson Cano, Mets (.441)

Home runs: Jung Ho Kang, Pirates (7)

Hits: Cano (26)

Strikeouts: Johnny Field, Cubs; Travis Shaw, Brewers (25)

Walks: Joey Votto, Reds (17)

PITCHING

Strikeouts: Max Scherzer, Nationals (34)

Walks: Sean Newcomb, Braves (15)

Earned runs allowed: Victor Arano (20)

From 2020 …

HITTING

Batting average: Yadiel Rivera, Rangers (.500, 11-for-22)

Home runs: Orlando Arcia, Brewers; Ryan O’Hearn, Royals (5)

Hits: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Rangers (14)

Strikeouts: Chris Gittens, Yankees (17)

Walks: Chris Davis, Orioles (9)

PITCHER

Strikeouts: Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox (20)

Walks: Sandy Alcantara, Miami (11)

Earned runs allowed: Taylor Clarke, Arizona (15)