Earlier today, Sunday Night Baseball’s John Kruk and Dan Shulman discussed the start of ESPN’s 25th season of Major League Baseball with members of the media. Kruk and Shulman will join reporter Buster Olney on Sunday, March 30, for MLB Opening Night presented by Scotts when the Los Angeles Dodgers visit the San Diego Padres at 8 p.m. ET. The trio will then travel to Cincinnati to provide commentary for MLB Opening Day presented by Scotts as the Cincinnati Reds host the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, March 31, at 4 p.m.
Here is the replay of today’s conference call.
Q. This is the first season with expanded instant replay. You’ve been doing TV baseball for a long, long time. You know how TV crews operate. I’m just wondering if you think this season there’s more pressure on TV crews in general, maybe on your crew, too, if you want to get that specific, because you know that your shots are not just for the viewers but could now decide the outcome of a game.
DAN SHULMAN: I don’t think there’s more pressure. We’ve had it kind of on a limited basis with home runs over the last few years, and I mean, ultimately I think that our crew provides phenomenal shots, phenomenal views. We’ve got a lot of cameras at our disposal, and I think it is incumbent upon us just to give them the best shots that we have. I don’t consider us part of the decision-making process. We’re just supplying some of the evidence that they’re going to look at, I guess.
I’m spending more time thinking about whether I’m fully informed on all the different things that can and can’t be subject to replay because there are many of them, and I promise you I’m going to have it in writing with me in the booth.
Q. There’s a story going around with the Players Association and MLB talking about increasing the penalties for a failed drug test from 50 to 80 games for first-time offenders, a season-long ban for repeaters and no salary during a season-long suspension for anybody who’s obviously suspended for the season. I’d like you to put on your commentator and your ex-player’s hat for a second and tell me if you think this is a good idea, bad idea, and why, either way.
JOHN KRUK: Well, as a commentator and former player, I love it. I think there should be stricter penalties. I think, sadly, it was my era that allowed all this to take place, and I’m really happy that Major League Baseball and the union have agreed upon this – that they need to start drug testing these guys. I never thought 50 was enough. You know the rules. You hear so many guys say, well, I didn’t know it was a supplement. I didn’t know there was anything in it. That’s ridiculous because every trainer, every strength coach, everybody in the organization knows what’s legal and what’s not legal, and I think finally it’s time to get stiffer penalties with these guys.
I always said that I don’t care how much money you’re making. When you start taking that money away from players, that’s when they’ll start saying I’d better do this clean. I love it, and as an analyst and a commentator, I love the fact that they’re going to hopefully get stricter on these guys.
Q. It’s been an interesting offseason and spring for Detroit, causing a little bit of panic among the fans. I just wanted to get your opinion on these injuries and what the offseason is going to lead to for the Tigers this year and if they’re still in position to win the AL Central.
KRUK: Well, if their starting pitching is healthy, they’re the favorites – and I know Cleveland had a great run last year, but I still think, and I always say that once you have enough pitching you’ve got a great chance to win. The thing about Spring Training is, especially with a veteran team like they have, sometimes guys are just doing what they have to do to get ready, and I don’t really put a lot of stock in a veteran struggling in Spring Training. But all things said and done, it’s still their division to win or lose. I think they’re the odds-on favorites and I think I’m going to pick them to get to the World Series this year. I just think that when you lay out all the cards with every team in the American League, I think they’re as good as any of them.
Q. I don’t know how much you’ve been down in Spring Training, but have either of you seen any players, any young players, who you believe will make an immediate impact this season?
SHULMAN: Well, I was only down there for a few days because of all the basketball I’ve been doing, but from what I’ve been reading and seeing, I mean, obviously Billy Hamilton is a guy that I’m fascinated to see – just how much can he get on base, how much of a weapon he is using his speed. I think that he’s going to be a fascinating guy to keep an eye on.
And I think Jake Odorizzi is a guy that I’m very curious about too. I think Tampa Bay has got a phenomenal rotation and I’m actually picking them to come out of the American League this year. I’m curious to see how he does.
But if I had to pick one, I think it would be Billy Hamilton.
KRUK: Yeah, I agree. Billy Hamilton is the guy – not only that but what’s been laid upon him. He’s replacing a guy in Shin Soo Choo who got on base 42, 43 percent of the time last year, and we’ll see if Billy Hamilton comes close to that because if he can come close to that you know he’s going to steal bases and there’s nothing they can do about it. He’s such a weapon once he gets on base.
I’m anxious to see [Taijuan] Walker pitch for the Seattle Mariners. I know he started Spring Training injured, but I think he’s a guy that can make things interesting in the West because of the injuries to the Oakland A’s’ pitching staff and the Texas Rangers’ pitching staff. To me it’s a wide-open division and I think with the addition of [Robinson] Cano, their offense has gotten significantly better. Is it good enough? Probably not right now, but I’m anxious to see with the starting pitching that they have — they add [Taijuan] Walker to the rotation, how good they can be.
Q. Just wanted to get your thoughts about the theory of a contract year. Do you put any stock into that in terms of whether we see a player peak in the final year of that deal or conversely, if we see a possible dip after signing that big contract? As a former player did you see anything in that?
KRUK: Yeah, it’s amazing how some guys — it seems like in a contract year, all of a sudden they become healthy and play better. I don’t know how that happens. Is it sheer coincidence or is it the fact that they know if they have a good year what’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
It’s interesting to me how that happens, but it’s also interesting, too, how when a guy does sign a long-term deal how they press. Even good players, really good players, sometimes press to try to live up to the contract, and subsequently they struggle and people are then saying, this was a terrible deal.
You know, as a competitive person I would hope that these guys are not laying down, not giving everything they have, not preparing themselves to play the whole season until it’s the end of their contract and all of a sudden they’re healthy and they’re playing better than ever and they end up getting a big deal and things start going south again with injuries. I would hope a player wouldn’t do that, but I’m kind of sure it does happen.
Q. Is it the expectations? Is it the psychological kind of impact on things and the heightened expectations with that big money?
KRUK: You know, with a five-year contract waiting for you at the end of the season if you have a good year, it seems like a lot of guys focus better for a longer period of time over the whole 162 game schedule. You wonder what happens to them after they sign it, or the years prior to being in the last year before they can get a contract. Do they just lose focus and do they lose, not the desire to play, but the little nicks and injuries – okay, I’ll sit a few days and let this get better type of deal? I don’t know, I hope the players don’t go that way, but like I said, I’m pretty certain that they do, some of them.
Q. My question is which rebuilding team in Chicago will have the better season? Obviously the White Sox picked up [Jose] Abreu and the Cubs have [Javier] Baez, but which team will rebuild quicker?
SHULMAN: I would have to say this year I think the White Sox are going to wind up winning more games than the Cubs will. I would have to say short term — White Sox — and long term I think the jury is still out. I don’t know if we have enough information yet about how good the Cubs’ young prospects are because they’re not that far along yet and I’m still waiting to see ultimately what kind of a player Starlin Castro turns into. If Starlin Castro, if this is what he is, then that’s another area where I think the Cubs are going to have to really consider things. They’ve put a lot of money into him and he’s supposed to be a key part of what they hope is eventually going to be a championship team. But I think his development is tremendously important for the Cubs in the next few years.
KRUK: I agree with Dan. I think the biggest difference in the two teams is the White Sox have Chris Sale and the Cubs don’t have anyone close to that. That’s a big difference and a big comforting thing when you’re an everyday player to know that every fifth day you’re going to get that guy on the mound who will give you a great chance to win. I don’t think the Cubs have that guy right now, and hopefully [Jeff] Samardzija can develop into that guy and some others, but right now they don’t have anyone that can match [Chris] Sale.
Q. With the incident with Aroldis Chapman, obviously the talk of protective gear with pitchers is going to continue to be discussed. The MLB approved the use of those protective caps, but do you think there’s going to be a big push for those to become mandatory?
SHULMAN: I personally don’t think we’re close to that, to be honest with you. I think change takes time, and nobody is even wearing it voluntarily now. Nobody has tried it out as a prototype in a game. I think we’re a ways away from it being even commonly in use, much less mandatory. There’s some that I don’t know how much protection you can give. The cap with the padding is one thing, but if a ball is going to hit you in the jaw or the nose or the eye, it’s not going to help you unless we go to the next level, which is some sort of protective covering for your face like a visor or a cage or something like that. I’m not sure we’re ever going to see it to be honest with you, and if we do, I think it’s still a ways away.
KRUK: I agree. Reading articles on everything from the pitchers – some of the pitchers haven’t even seen this prototype padded hat or whatever it is that they have. Like Dan said, Aroldis Chapman got hit above the eye and a padded cap is not going to help you. Matt Moore got hit in the lip or the nose somewhere. I know that there’s a little push in softball for some of the girls in softball to wear like a plastic mask, not so much like a goalie mask but a clear plastic mask to protect them from line drives back at them. I think that now they’re such creatures of habit that I just don’t see one of those guys being able to wear it. It’s kind of like the shield in hockey. None of the hockey players wanted to wear them. Back in the day, a lot of guys weren’t even electing to wear a helmet. It’s a comfort level and I don’t know if you can get pitchers. You have to start it in high school and in colleges to get guys comfortable wearing it to where they want to go out on the mound and pitch with it. I don’t think you can get Major League players to buy into it, and if they make it mandatory, I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be some resistance from the players.
Q. Just want to get your thoughts on the Toronto Blue Jays, who obviously did nothing in the offseason to improve their team that they thought was going to be a pennant winner last year. Do you see this team struggling again this year?
SHULMAN: Well, their pitching right now is a major concern. I don’t know that they have the rotation filled out yet, as you know. They’re counting on [Brandon] Morrow to be healthy and successful, and right now J.A. Happ is, I guess, still in the rotation, even though he’s had a spring ERA over 20. They need a lot of things to go right. It’s funny, the personnel they have is almost exactly the same personnel they had last year when a lot of people were picking them to win the World Series. Now everybody is picking them to finish last. It’s actually the same group of players by and large. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
I think if they’re healthier, they’ll be better. They lost [Jose] Reyes, [Jose] Bautista, [Brett] Lawrie for 50, 60 games each, plus Melky Cabrera had the benign tumor on his spine, so they had a ton of health issues. But even if all those guys are healthy, I don’t know that they have the pitching to contend. The bullpen is very good, but the team is going to go on two things: one is health and two is starting pitching. I think they’d have to get everything, everything out of their starting pitching to even have a chance to contend this year.
KRUK: I couldn’t have said it better myself. It all comes down to their pitching, their starting pitching. Even though they should score runs, you have to remember the division they’re playing in, and the Yankees got better with their acquisition. Boston you know is going to score runs, the Orioles, you know they’re going to score runs, and even Tampa has gotten better offensively. So when you’re asking a questionable starting staff to go out there and compete against those other four teams, you’re asking a lot of them. To me, it comes down to their offense. If their offense clicks and [Jose] Reyes is on base and healthy and stealing bases and [Jose] Bautista is hitting 50 homers again, they have a chance to be a lot better than they were last year, but I don’t think you can say that they’re better than any of the other teams in the division right now.
Q. One of the things that we noticed when we were watching last Sunday night, and my wife and I are avid baseball consumers, if you will, was as we watched last year the time that you and Curt Schilling were in the booth together how well you guys played off one another, and it wasn’t quite like finishing each other’s sentences, but you really, really were a fantastic fit, with Dan, as well, the three of you. It’s tough doing a two-man booth versus a three-man booth question, but how tough is the adjustment for you this year without having him to play off of?
KRUK: Well, it’s always going to be difficult. But the thing about last year when I was with Orel and with Curt is I didn’t have to worry about the pitching standpoint. They’re both studious, execution-type pitchers, and their knowledge of pitching far surpasses anything I know about that position. That’s going to be the toughest part is watching a pitcher, how they can pick up maybe a little mechanical flaw that they’re doing as a reason why they’re not throwing strikes. I’m probably going to struggle with that. But the only thing I can go off of is how would I approach this guy as a hitter, what will my thinking be, how would I think along with this certain pitcher, and that’s the only thing I’ve got to work with.
You know, I’m sure I’ll be on the phone with Curt before a lot of games because I’m sure he has been studying, like he does, the pitchers in the league. I’ll play off him and get some information from him about certain pitchers, but that knowledge, it’s hard to replace.
Q. I know this may sound like a really dumb question so I’ll almost apologize in advance, but it sounds like you guys never missed a beat from the time that you were teammates 20 years ago or so, and I’m wondering if you guys have been really as close and as friendly as it sounds on the air. Listening to you guys on the air together, it sounded like you talked every day for the last 20 years.
KRUK: No. When he left the Phillies and went to Arizona, I think I talked to him maybe twice up until about – I guess four or five years ago, he came down to do ESPN The Weekend, and he wasn’t paid by ESPN, but I was asked by the people at ESPN to talk to him to see if he would have any interest, and then as those conversations went on, he called me and asked me a bunch of questions about ESPN – the good, the bad, and he was weighing his options. I really feel like we’re lucky to have him because he does have an unbelievable knowledge of how to pitch, how to compete and how to get people out even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
We talk more now than we did when we played, actually. I made it a point not to talk to any pitchers because just – they were pitchers. But yeah, we talk a lot more now than we ever did before in the last three years.
Q. I was wondering what your thoughts were of the Phillies with Ryne Sandberg now taking over. Does he turn around this Philadelphia team that’s struggled the past few seasons?
KRUK: You know, he has his work cut out for him because there’s a lot of strong personalities in that clubhouse and a bunch of guys that were used to Charlie [Manuel] giving them some freedom, and I think Ryne came in, and when you bring Larry Bowa in as your bench coach, who Ryne Sandberg basically handpicked to be his bench coach, there’s a different feel in that clubhouse. There’s a demand from those two to play hard and play right every single day. When you watch the Phillies the last few years, they made a lot of mistakes. They’ve never been a great situational team. 2008 they win the World Series, 2009 they lose in the World Series, but they just overpowered people with their offense.
Now you look at it with Howard – is Ryan Howard a 40, 50 homer guy anymore? How much can Chase Utley give you on a day-to-day basis? Can he play 140 games? And Jimmy Rollins, he’s had some issues this spring already. Is he going to buy into the more disciplined expectations from their manager and their coaching staff? And if they don’t, they’re probably a third or fourth place team.
SHULMAN: I would say, too, he’s obviously brought a much different feel and atmosphere to the team, and it’s probably something that they needed, but ultimately I think it’s going to be difficult to evaluate him right away because they’re so dependent on that older core of players, and any time you have older players you just don’t know if their numbers are going to be what they were, if they’re going to be healthy and that sort of thing.
He’s been a manager in waiting for a long time. I think everybody kind of expected him to land somewhere as a Major League manager, but I’m not sure we’re going to have an accurate picture of what the team can be or what he is as a manager right off the bat because of how many older players they have on the team right now.