How Zoom has helped Major League Baseball adjust to free agency during a pandemic

It was Tuesday afternoon, just about halfway through Major League Baseball’s first in-person winter meetings in three years, and Andrew Friedman wasn’t sure how to assess the three-day affair.

“It’s a real love-hate,” the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations said. “It’s not the healthiest three days of the year for me. But it’s efficient. We’re able to plow through a lot of things that otherwise potentially take days.”

The winter meetings have traditionally been where the MLB universe congregates for business. Oftentimes, it’s a chance for team executives to physically meet with a free agent’s representatives. The players themselves surface occasionally.

Face-to-face meetings during free-agent pursuits are otherwise rare, almost always a step reserved only for the premier players. Players travel to the prospective club or have officials come to them. Those encounters still happen. But a new wrinkle has been introduced over the last two winters that has made a more intimate interaction accessible across the industry just like in so many others in the post-pandemic world: the Zoom call.

“I think it helps add a personal touch,” Friedman said. “You’re able to get on representative people from your organization and able to give players a better feel for our group that I think is a help.”

Friedman said he had never been on a Zoom call with a free agent before last winter. He estimated he’s been on 10 such virtual sessions with free agents this offseason, though the Dodgers have managed to sign only one free agent (reliever Shelby Miller) to a major league deal as of Thursday afternoon. Friedman confirmed Miller was one of the calls and declined to disclose the others.

Justin Verlander was one of the other nine video chats, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The three-time Cy Young Award winner chose the New York Mets over the Dodgers on Monday. He met with both teams over Zoom.

Justin Verlander, pitching for the Houston Astros against the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2022 World Series, chose to sign with the Mets over the Dodgers.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Last month, Jacob deGrom, the top starting pitcher on the market, met with the Texas Rangers over Zoom before signing with them last week. Cody Bellinger, who was not tendered a contract by the Dodgers last month, met with at least three teams over Zoom in the days leading up to his decision to sign with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said the team has had “eight or so” Zoom calls with free-agent starting pitchers this offseason.

Friedman said the Dodgers’ virtual sessions with free agents have lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. An executive with another team said his club’s Zoom calls with free agents aren’t usually too thorough, going no more than 45 minutes. He said they’re almost always requested by the player’s representative.

“It’s more about getting a feel,” the executive said.

Last November, on the day before the owner-imposed lockout began, Houston Astros officials video-chatted with reliever Hector Neris to make their recruiting pitch, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Neris was in the Dominican Republic. They sold him on his role — on the field and in the bullpen — and the team culture. Neris wound up signing a two-year, $17-million contract to join a team that ended up winning the World Series.

An Astros executive estimated he’s been on a handful of other video calls with free agents. But they haven’t abandoned the old-school approach. Recently, for example, club officials visited free-agent first baseman José Abreu in Miami — Abreu’s offseason home — before he agreed to a three-year, $58.5-million contract.

Angels general manager Perry Minasian views Zoom as an option, though he finds the sessions stressful at times.

“There’s an anxiety with Zoom, too,” Minasian said. “Especially when it’s something really, really important. How many times do you check your sound? I do it eight, nine, 10 times. Then I look at myself and say, ‘What is wrong with me?’ Check your battery, make sure you’re charged. I’m at 100% and I still have it plugged in. That’s how nuts I am.”

Minasian still prefers the conventional telephone call — he hopped on one with reliever Carlos Estévez before the sides agreed Tuesday on a two-year, $13.5-million deal — because he can “hear it in their voice.” Ultimately, though, nothing beats meeting with someone in person.

“You see body language and tone and all those types of things,” Minasian said.

Those advantages are why Aaron Judge, the offseason’s top prize, chose to fly to San Diego late Tuesday to meet with the Padres at Petco Park, just blocks from where the baseball industry convened at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. He ultimately chose to re-sign with the New York Yankees early Wednesday morning.

By the afternoon, people were heading to the airport, dispersing to locales around the country where they’ll continue conducting business. In-person interactions will be few and far between until spring training. But there’s always Zoom.

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