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

San Francisco Giants' Shabby Miller pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks

Shelby Miller, who pitched for the San Francisco Giants, met with Dodgers officials through an extension before signing with the team. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

It was Tuesday afternoon, just 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 relationship,” 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 get a lot of things done that would otherwise potentially take days.”

The Winter Meetings have traditionally been where the MLB universe congregates for business. Often, there is an opportunity for team executives to physically meet the representatives of a free agent. The players 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 in the last two winters that has made a more intimate interaction accessible throughout the industry just like in so many others in the post-pandemic world: the zoom call.

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

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Friedman said he had never been on an advanced call with a free agent before last winter. He estimates he’s been on 10 such virtual sessions with free agents this offseason, though the Dodgers have managed to sign just one free agent (reliever Shelby Miller) to a major league deal as of Thursday afternoon. Friedman confirmed that Miller was one of the callers and declined to release 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.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander celebrates the last out in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the World Series.

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 about progress before signing with them last week. Cody Bellinger, who was not offered a contract by the Dodgers last month, met with at least three teams about advances in the days leading up to his decision to sign with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said the team had “eight or so” extension calls with free-agent starting pitchers this offseason.

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Friedman said the Dodgers’ virtual sessions with free agents lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. An executive with another team said his club’s free agent extension calls are usually not too thorough, lasting no more than 45 minutes. He said they are 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 signed 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 agreeing to a three-year, $58.5 million contract.

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Angels general manager Perry Minassian sees zoom as an option, though he finds the sessions stressful at times.

“There’s also an anxiety with zoom,” Minassian said. “Especially when it’s something really, really important. How many times do you check your health? I do it eight, nine, 10 times. Then I look at myself and say, ‘What’s 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.

Minassian still prefers the conventional phone 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 someone in person.

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

The advantages are why Aaron Judge, the main prize of the offseason, chose to fly to San Diego late Tuesday to meet the Padres at Petco Park, just blocks from where the baseball industry is convening in Manchester Grand Hyatt. He ultimately chose to re-sign with the New York Yankees early Wednesday morning.

In the afternoon, people are heading to the airport, dispersed to localities around the country where they will continue to conduct business. In-person interactions will be few and far between during spring training. But there is always progress.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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