February 26, 2024

Rosenthal: Shohei Ohtani’s unique media situation, explaining Billy Eppler’s punishment

Most fans don’t care if players talk to the media. I would argue that players benefit when they engage, showing their personalities, giving their takes on events. But I can’t argue that speaking to reporters in any way benefits their performance.

It can have a secondary effect, though.

When a player declines to talk, he leaves his teammates to answer for him, at times creating an uncomfortable dynamic. Players can grow resentful if they perceive a teammate is not accountable, and the clubhouse chemistry can suffer, no small thing in a season that lasts six months.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Friday when asked if he is concerned some of his players might be upset if Shohei Ohtani speaks to the media only occasionally, as he did with the Angels.

“Yeah,” Roberts said. “Speaking frankly, yeah.”

Roberts then recalled playing for the Giants in 2007 when Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron’s all-time home-run record. Bonds was not the type to stand at his locker and wax poetic on his chase for 755. Roberts was one of the players who would talk when Bonds and other Giants refused.

“I’m not trying to compare the two, but in the sense of the magnitude of (Bonds) going for his home run record, dealing with the buildup … I was that player, a teammate, that had to answer a lot of questions. Because other teammates didn’t care to,” Roberts said.

“I think we’re all aware. The newness, what a special ballplayer Shohei is and obviously we’ve got (Yoshinobu) Yamamoto and people are curious about Yoshi as well. So that’s part of it and the bottom line is he makes us a considerably better ballclub. But I think, yeah, a conversation is going to be had.”

Judging by their reactions at DodgersFest, the team’s fan event, players such as Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are genuinely excited to play with Ohtani, and fully prepared for the circus atmosphere surrounding him. That excitement is not likely to wane if Ohtani and the team are playing well, a likely scenario.

During his time with the Angels, Ohtani generally only spoke to the media after his pitching outings and certain breakout offensive performances. He already has spoken three times as a Dodger: when the team introduced him on Dec. 14, at DodgersFest last Saturday and before the team’s first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers on Friday. The Dodgers have not yet said how often he will talk during the season, and might not even determine such a thing in advance.

Considering Ohtani’s intense pregame preparation and workload as a two-way player, it was unrealistic to expect him to provide daily media updates during his time with the Angels. His schedule this season also will be hectic, albeit in a different way, as he rehabilitates from elbow surgery while serving as the Dodgers’ everyday designated hitter.

He is unique. The players seem to recognize as much. And Roberts had an interesting answer when asked which player in his clubhouse he would nominate for the “Dave Roberts role” on days Ohtani is not talking.

“Put the questions towards Jason Heyward,” Roberts said, smiling. “I think Jason is going to be my first person. So the Japanese media, just go to Jason Heyward.”

Heyward is already at camp, but the Dodgers did not re-open their clubhouse to the media after Friday’s workout, leaving him unavailable to comment immediately on his new “assignment.”

He is forewarned: On Saturday, he could draw a crowd.

Explaining the decision on Eppler

Why did commissioner Rob Manfred punish former Mets general manager Billy Eppler for improper injured-list placements when it’s believed that virtually every team has committed similar infractions?

Simple answer: The commissioner wanted to set an example, and Eppler made for an easy target.

Manfred did not anger any owner by placing Eppler on the ineligible list through the end of the 2024 World Series. Eppler, already subjugated to a lesser role under David Stearns, resigned on Oct. 5 after the league began its investigation, and is currently not employed by any club. The league, which acted on a detailed anonymous tip according to a source briefed on its investigation, said it interviewed more than three dozen individuals and reviewed relevant documents and electronic records. Typically, accusations of improper IL placements lack such evidence.

Barring early reinstatement, Billy Eppler will spend the entire 2024 MLB season on the ineligible list. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

The league seemingly had precedent to make Eppler a different kind of example. On Sept. 15, 2017, the same day Manfred fined the Yankees and the Red Sox for their roles in the Apple Watch incident, he issued a memorandum to clubs reiterating the rules regarding the use of electronic equipment to steal signs. The memorandum put teams on notice, with Manfred promising harsher penalties for electronic sign stealing in the future.

The commissioner could have taken a similar route with Eppler, issuing less severe discipline while warning clubs he would take sterner action the next time an infraction occurred. But the Apple Watch memorandum proved an insufficient deterrent — multiple teams continued to cheat — and the league believed precedent for punishing Eppler already existed. In 2016, it suspended Padres GM A.J. Preller 30 days without pay for submitting false medical records to the Red Sox during trade discussions. Not an exact analogy, but close enough in the league’s view.

The league’s press release noted that Manfred could reduce Eppler’s time on the ineligible list if the former executive applies for early reinstatement. In a statement, Eppler said, “I cooperated fully and transparently with MLB’s investigation, and I accept their decision.” His attorney, Jay Reisinger, declined comment.

Outfielders for sale!

In the latest edition of, “As the Outfielders and DHs Turn,” we present a list of unsigned free agents not named Cody Bellinger, Jorge Soler or J.D. Martinez.

The group includes Adam Duvall, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, Michael A. Taylor. All capable veterans. All players who eventually should receive major-league deals.

Consider the teams still in the market, according to the agents for some of the players:

• Giants
• Red Sox
• Angels

The Mets are another possibility — the New York Post reported they are talking to Martinez, but their interest seems contingent on his price falling. The Reds could enter the market as well if they trade Jonathan India, who avoided arbitration Friday by reaching agreement with the team on a two-year, $8.8 million contract — an interesting move, considering India (sorry, Kirk Herbstreit!) does not appear to fit on the roster.

And so the game of musical chairs continues. Bellinger, Soler and Martinez obviously will fill three of the spots. The others will scramble for the remaining openings.

Making up for lost funds

Adolis García, in his first crack at salary arbitration, agreed to a two-year, $14 million contract with the Rangers. The deal was especially rewarding for him, considering he was not eligible the past two years for money from the pre-arbitration bonus pool, an element introduced in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

The league excludes foreign professionals from the program, and classified García as such because the Cardinals signed him out of Cuba for $2.5 million in 2017, when he was 23. Of course, not all foreign leagues pay the same, and not all foreign professionals receive the same money when they join major-league clubs. Some could use the bonuses from the $50 million pool more than others.

The bonuses from the pool are distributed to eligible players based on awards votes and through a WAR formula. García likely would have earned less than $500,000 in 2022 and in the $1.1 million to $1.2 million range in ‘23. The latter figure would have included $500,000 for being named second-team all-MLB.

Brewers’ pending logjam at catcher

On Dec. 20, the Brewers signed Eric Haase to a one-year, $1 million contract. On Jan. 5, they added Austin Nola on a minor-league deal. And on Wednesday, they secured a third potential alternative at catcher, Gary Sánchez, on a one-year, $7 million agreement.

Sánchez’s deal is pending a physical, but if it becomes official there is little chance they will open the season with three catchers, much less four. The situation appears particularly unfortunate for Haase, who signed with the Brewers believing he would be a leading candidate to back up William Contreras. But the Brewers never promised Haase that his arrival would end their search at catcher, according to a source close to the player.

If Sánchez passes his physical, the team could either part with Haase before camp opens or attempt to trade him later in spring training. Nola, because he signed a minor-league contract, could opt out on several different dates specified by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The first would be March 24, four days before the start of the season.

Urshela to Miami?

The Marlins are one of the teams talking to free-agent infielder Gio Urshela, according to sources briefed on the discussions. Urshela would not address the team’s need at shortstop but could help fill a void created by the departures of Soler and Yuli Gurriel, moving between first base, third and DH.

When Josh Bell is the DH, Urshela could play first. When Jake Burger is the DH, Urshela could play third. How the Marlins address shortstop remains to be seen. Tim Anderson, Amed Rosario, Adalberto Mondesi and Nick Ahmed are available free agents at the position.

(Top photo of Shohei Ohtani: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)