Blake Snell is off to a disastrous start. How did signing so late impact these MLB free agents?

PHOENIX − They were the late arrivals to the party.

The ones who held out, signing after the start of spring training, or in some cases, even after it ended.

Now, here they are, trying to get acclimated into the mainstream of a major league season, and so far, it’s a little rougher than they ever envisioned.

Two-time Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who signed a two-year, $62 million contract with the San Francisco Giants on March 18, didn’t pitch a single inning in the minors before making his Giants debut on April 8.

So much for good first impressions.

Snell’s start to the season has been disastrous.

He has made three starts, and has been terrible in each of them. He is 0-3 with an 11.57 ERA, failing to last even five innings in any outing, while giving up 23 baserunners in 11 ⅔ innings. The Giants have been outscored 34-6 in his three starts.

While no one in the Giants organization is saying the decision to sign Snell was a mistake, it’s easy to question whether they should have permitted him to open the year in the major leagues without making at least a few minor-league starts.

“It was definitely an option, but I don't think I needed it," Snell told reporters after his latest debacle Friday. “I still don't think I need it. I've just got to get better with sequencing. The stuff is there, so it's all sequencing and pitching like I know I can. Once I start doing that, then the what-ifs and all that will fade. …

“The more I get in the zone, the more I have better sequencing and understanding hitters, then the outcomes will be better. In a month, two months from now, we'll be talking about other things."

Giants pitcher Blake Snell is 0-3 with an 11.57 ERA.
Giants pitcher Blake Snell is 0-3 with an 11.57 ERA.

Teammate Matt Chapman, who didn’t sign until March but at least played in 11 spring training games, also is off to a slow start. He’s hitting .205 with a .676 OPS in the other 20 games.

Slugger J.D. Martinez, who signed a one-year, $12 million contract March 23 with the New York Mets, still hasn’t played because of lower back tightness.

Outfielder Tommy Pham, who signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox this week that will pay him $3 million in the big leagues, made his season debut Saturday night in Charlotte.

When you’re a late signee and don’t have a full spring, the adjustment is real, Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger says.

Bellinger, who signed a three-year, $80 million contract on Feb. 25, is also off to something of a slow start, hitting .218 with a .714 OPS. He says the adjustment would be even more difficult if he was trying to get acclimated to a new team. He proved last season to the Cubs and their fans what he can do – batting .307 with 26 homers, 97 RBI and an .881 OPS – but just had trouble convincing the front office and the rest of baseball that he could do it again.

Bellinger and agent Scott Boras were seeking at least $100 million more than he eventually received, but the Cubs held their ground and eventually got him when every other suitor faded away.

“It’s tough when you’re starting behind everyone else,’’ Bellinger tells USA TODAY Sports. “I always did as much preparation as I could during the winter, but the game itself is difficult. You just do what you can to make the adjustments.

“April is always hit or miss. It’s a crazy month. Some guys come out hot, some don’t. I’ve got to make that adjustment. It’s a hard game."

And even though Bellinger didn’t get the contract he desired and he can hit the free-agent market again after the season, he’s not blaming Boras or anyone else.

“I got a lot of people asking," Bellinger says, “but I’m not leaving him."

Veteran starter Jordan Montgomery, who also was hoping to cash in after his fabulous season but wound up receiving only a one-year, $25 million heavily-deferred deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, changed agents and fired Boras. He can hit the market again this winter, but knows he needs another strong season if he’s going to receive the payday he envisioned all along.

He has been the outlier among the late signees, having instant success despite missing all of spring training. While Montgomery signed a week after Snell and missed the entire spring, he decided that instead of being thrust immediately into the regular season, he’d be better off with two tune-up starts at Triple-A Reno.

He made his 2024 season debut Friday against the Giants, coincidentally against Snell, and was terrific, yielding just four hits and one run without a walk in six innings.

“Everybody, including me," Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo says, “talked about some of the struggles that people that don't have a full spring training could potentially walk through. He answered a lot of questions about his readiness and preparedness."

The more the struggles continue, the longer the questions will persist, leaving front offices to second-guess themselves whether they should have thrown out big money, even on short-term contracts, so late in the spring.

If nothing else, it will be a cold reminder for teams and free agents next winter.

Sign before spring training or the consequences, financially and performance-wise, could be an awfully steep price.

“It’s just hard,” Lovullo says. “You play catch-up. Your mind doesn’t work right. You feel like you’re in tune with where your swing is or where your emotion is, or delivery is if you’re a pitcher, and it probably takes a little more time than you think.’’

The start of this season is living proof.

Music for a cause

Bernie Williams, the five-time All-Star center fielder and four-time World Series champion, is performing at a concert May 3 in his native Puerto Rico to help raise awareness about idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the rare blood disease that took the life of his father, Bernabe Williams.

Williams, a brilliant jazz guitarist and Latin Grammy nominee who has partnered with Tune In To Lung Health, decided that a live concert will bring the awareness to new heights.

“We’ve been raising awareness for a number of years, but it’s really important for me to go there for personal reasons,’’ Williams tells USA TODAY Sports. “My father’s homeland is my homeland. This is the community I grew up in. I want to do everything I can to help and give this a bigger platform. I’m very proud its going to have a bigger purpose."

Williams’ daughter, Beatriz, is also helping the campaign with her artistry and solo exhibition that opens in New York this weekend, “Del Patio De Mi Titi."

“I’m very proud of her work as a painter and artist,’’ Williams says. “I was a player and now a musician. So it’s come full circle in the family.’’

Meanwhile, Williams, who retired in 2006, is becoming more involved with the Yankees. He spent several weeks at their spring training camp and believed there was no way this team would be sitting home in October a second consecutive season.

“I could sense something really special about this team," Williams says, “with the camaraderie they have. They seem to be very committed to erasing the bad taste from their mouth after not making the playoffs last year. I sensed an urgency with this team. And so far, they’ve been proven to take that to heart.

“Hopefully, everybody stays healthy and they can make it to the end.’’

And, just like everyone else in New York, he’s certainly going to miss beloved Yankee announcer John Sterling, who had his retirement ceremony on Saturday.

“There were a lot of great memories with John and all of us,’’ Williams said. “He was the voice of our team, our generation. He had a great understanding of the culture of the team and the camaraderie between the players. He was tough, but he was fair.

“And he was part of so many iconic calls."

Yep, just like his first signature home run call, “Bernie goes boom! Bern Baby Bern.’’

“I still hear that all of the time,’’ Williams says. “’It is high! It is far! It is gone! Bernie goes boom!

“He took that to the next level. He was creative. He was funny. It was all part of his mystique.

“Maybe next time I see him, I’ll have him say it again for my answering voice mail or something."

Trying to make a difference

While the Black population in Major League Baseball has plummeted to 5.7%, its lowest since 1955 – the year after Jackie Robinson retired – Diamond Allegiance, an organization trying to make baseball affordable to everyone, just committed $1 billion to help revolutionize club baseball.

The organization is committed to making baseball accessible to everyone, providing scholarship and financial assistance. They want to make sure the families who aren’t spending $20,000 for their kids to be in showcase games can still be recognized by college and pro recruiters.

“We need to help change the model for these kids," University of Michigan baseball coach Tracy Smith tells USA TODAY Sports. “We need to help reduce the cost and improve the effectiveness of travel sports in baseball and softball. We have such a huge disconnect right now.’’

Sandy Ogg, founder of Diamond Allegiance, says the goal is to simply create a more accessible and affordable travel baseball ecosystem. They want to reduce family costs, and increase youth participation in underrepresented communities. While the Black population in baseball is the lowest in nearly 70 years, there is an even lower percentage of Black players in the college ranks.

They have also created an app called CURVE player development to help families get indoctrinated into the amateur system with an advisory staff that includes Clemson Coach Erik Bakich, former Oregon State coach Pat Casey, and University of Florida Coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

“We want to help as many kids as possible," Ogg says. “We want to change the business model and provide real and true direction for kids. We have a huge disconnect between showcases and minority-owned travel ball teams.

“We not going to turn kids away."

What frustrates Smith and collegiate coaches is that families are sold on the belief that if they don’t spend thousands of dollars on showcase events, they won’t be scouted, and will never have a chance to play baseball higher than the high school level.

That should never be the case, Smith and Ogg say.

“They have sold the myth forever that exposure equals recruitment," Smith says. “They say that in order to be seen and get the maximum exposure, you’re going to have to be in the right tournaments, fly to Jupiter, Fla., and stay for a week or 10 days, and all of the college coaches and pro scouts will be there to see 471 of these kids. It’s insane."

The plan, Ogg says, is to organize travel ball, make it more local and regionalized, and allow everyone the opportunity to play without families needing to take out second mortgages.

“Everyone’s trying to solve the same problem," Ogg says, “but we’re all working independently. The studies are telling us that 97% of college baseball rosters are from select baseball travel teams. So, if you don’t have access to travel teams, you won’t be playing college baseball or softball.

“We want this foundation to make sure that if you’re good enough to make a team, money shouldn’t ever be a factor.

Around the basepaths

≻ It’s early, but some pitchers and scouts are stunned by how hard the ball is being hit this year and convinced the ball is juiced  – despite teams averaging 0.99 home runs per game, baseball's lowest mark since 2014.

“Those things are like golf balls the way they’re flying out," one veteran National League pitcher said.

MLB officials, of course, insist there is no difference this season in the baseballs.

≻ You want to know why the San Diego Padres slashed their payroll by $95 million this season?

The Padres will receive only $17 million from the Diamond Sports Group instead of the $360 million they were scheduled to receive from 2024-2032.

≻ Kudos to the Arizona Diamondbacks for surprising Jim Marshall, 92, with a 2023 National League pennant-winning ring this past week. Marshall is a member of the original ’62 Mets and original front office executive with the D-backs.

Marshall, who had two of his children pass away last season, wept with emotion when D-backs owner Ken Kendrick, president Derrick Hall and executive vice president Tom Harris presented him with the ring in a private ceremony.

“I really appreciated it,’’ Marshall told USA TODAY Sports. “They know what I’ve gone through. I told them they are my family now. It was a such a beautiful experience and I can’t thank them enough.’’

≻ The Texas Rangers privately believe that three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who has been recovering from herniated disc surgery, could be back by mid-May, a month ahead of schedule.

≻ Now that Los Angeles Angels reliever Robert Stephenson is out for the year, the Angels will have a $2.5 million club option on Stephenson in 2027. The Angels made sure to protect themselves with Stephenson’s three-year, $33 million contract in case he missed most of a season. It was similar to the five-year, $82.5 million deal that John Lackey signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2009 that added a year at the league minimum if he missed a season because of an arm injury.

≻ The Chicago White Sox knew it would be a rough season, but they never envisioned this nightmare.

They have been shut out seven times this season, the most by any team in the first 19 games since at least 1900.

≻ The biggest surprise this season has been the Boston Red Sox’s starting rotation. Their starters’ 1.72 ERA is the franchise's lowest through 21 games since 1920, and the second-lowest by any team since 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

≻ So, just what did Houston Astros Cy Young winner Justin Verlander say to his teammates after they lost 14 of their first 20 games?

“Pretty much, get our heads out of our asses,” utilityman Mauricio Dubon told reporters.

Verlander took care of matters on his own when he made his season debut Friday with six strong innings, leading the Astros to a 5-3 victory.

≻ Padres second baseman and leadoff hitter Xander Bogaerts is feeling the wrath of Padres fans with his .190 batting average and .261 on-base percentage this season.

“It’s tough to see me hitting first right now,” Bogaerts told reporters, “I ain’t gonna lie. I come to the ballpark every day, and I’m not doing my job. It sucks. It sucks for me more than anyone else. The amount that I care for this game and the amount that I care to succeed, it really sucks. It’s tough to see me go through it. But I’ll keep my chin up and keep going.”

Bogaerts, a five-time Silver Slugger winner with the Boston Red Sox, is just in the second year of an 11-year, $280 million contract.

≻ Tale of two teams (and philosophies) too:

The Pittsburgh Pirates pulled 22-year-old rookie Jared Jones after only 57 pitches in five innings this week against the Mets. He was virtually unhittable, yielding just one bloop hit without a walk, striking out seven.

The same night, Phillies manager Rob Thomson let 28-year-old Ranger Suarez throw 112 pitches in his complete-game shutout, 5-0, over the Colorado Rockies.

“You know, it’s OK to let a guy go nine innings," one baseball executive said. “It’s legal."

Meanwhile, Paul Skenes, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, has yet to pitch longer than 3 ⅓ innings in the minor leagues this season despite absolutely dominating hitters with 27 strikeouts in 12 ⅔ innings.

≻ The First Family of Pitching: Mark and Al Leiter not only pitched in the major leagues, but now their sons have made it, too, with Jack Leiter, Al’s son, making his big-league debut this past week. They are first MLB siblings to also have their sons play in the big leagues.

“Pretty cool,’’ said Cubs reliever Mark Leiter. “Everyone in the family is pretty proud."

≻ Certainly, it’s much easier to steal bases these days with the new rules than in the past, but still it’s hard to believe Mike Trout has stolen five bases in 17 days after stealing five bases in the previous 1,325 days.

≻ When Mickey Mantle won the 1957 American League MVP award, he hit for the cycle the only time of his career. It was the first time a switch-hitter hit for the cycle. Well, the jersey he wore that day has now hit the auction block at Goldin’s.

≻ DIRECTV’S new national advertising campaign is called “For The Birds" featuring two pigeons and Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, who accidentally killed a bird in 2001 with his fastball.

“We’re kicking off the start of the baseball season by working with fellow bird-lover Randy Johnson to rehome our pigeon friends in our new bird ballparks,’’ Vince Torres, chief marketing officer of DIRECTV said in a release.

≻ The Houston Astros have already used a major-league leading 22 pitchers this season.

They employed 22 pitchers the entire 2022 season when they won the World Series.

≻ Coolest call-up of the week: Red Sox 31-year-old lefty Cam Booser, who made his major-league debut Friday.

Booser, who quit baseball in 2017 and became a carpenter, returned to baseball in 2020 and pitched for the independent Chicago Dogs in 2021. He pitched last season for Triple-A Worcester.

≻ Quote of the week: Doc Gooden, when asked about his career being hurt by drug abuse: “I’ve got to be thankful for the things I did accomplish, and not worry about the things that didn’t happen. Not to blow smoke, but I won just about every award a pitcher can win. I won the World Series with both New York teams, having your number retired, last year I was inducted into the Negro League Museum’s Hall of Game. I have nothing to be ashamed of about my career.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blake Snell off to horrible start. Signing late hurt these MLB stars