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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)

 

WASHINGTON - Scott Boras stood over the left shoulder of J.D. Martinez on Monday afternoon, the prominent baseball agent watching intently as the Red Sox outfielder and one of his star clients took questions.

The concourse full of cameras and other media personnel at Nationals Park suggested excitement in the air. For these two days at least, baseball can put to the side some of the ills that continue a steady assault on the game itself.

Friday begins the revival of what by now has become a spectrum of complaints. Decreased attendance, competitive imbalance, a lack of action on the field and extended game times continue to drag down the return at the box office, with

patrons filing through the turnstiles six percent less frequently than in 2017.

"It's one of those things where that's the new trend in baseball," Martinez said. "Apparently they're okay with it. It's sad in my opinion, but I really can't do much about it. I totally understand what you're saying."

It's a conversation most players hope to avoid, but a situation they can tacitly acknowledge when gently prodded to peel back the curtain. To be fair, Martinez and Boston don't share most of those concerns.

Red Sox ratings on NESN have been strong in 2018, tripling and quadrupling the Celtics and Bruins, and all seven games of the Fenway Park homestand into the All-Star break were sold out.

That can't erase the decision made by several clubs opting to stash their money away and rebuild their sagging rosters through the draft and international signings. The sport's middle class has largely gone missing as a result, with seven teams having won at least 55 games and seven teams having lost at least 55 as of Monday.

The Red Sox (68-30), Yankees (62-33) and Astros (64-35) each sit at least 29 games over .500, while the Orioles (28-69), White Sox (33-62) and Royals (27-68) have all but thrown in the towel on 2018.

"Now it seems like there are a lot more teams on the other side of it," Martinez said. "That's a situation that has to get addressed."

Martinez emerged as a force with the Tigers in 2014, hitting 23 home runs and becoming a lineup staple for the American League Central champions. Detroit counted four Cy Young Award winners in its rotation by season's end, sending Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and David Price to the mound every fifth night.

None of those four starters remain with the Tigers, as Verlander was the final holdout before the trade that sent him to defending World Series champion Houston late in 2017.

"Guys ask me that all that time, 'How did you guys not win?' " Martinez said. "I don't know. That's baseball. We had four Cy Young winners as our starters, and the lineup that we had was disgusting."

Detroit's payroll now ranks 17th overall at $149.8 million, slightly below the league average of $150.65 million. First baseman Miguel Cabrera and starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman are the only two players signed past this season, with three others set for free agency and 13 more eligible for arbitration.

The Tigers have just $69 million committed for 2019, placing them squarely among the majority of franchises who would rather bottom out and amass draft capital than spend a small fortune to lose in or before the October postseason.

April saw the wrong kind of history made, with fewer hits recorded (6,003) than strikeouts (6,392). Power pitchers from starters to bullpen arms and an emphasis on hitting home runs have combined to stifle batters in both leagues.

The game's owners have renewed their push to utilize the designated hitter across all 30 teams, taking the bats from the hands of National League pitchers and those in the American League forced to the plate during interleague play.

"For me, unless I'm bunting, it's just a completely useless at-bat," Houston starting pitcher Charlie Morton said. "I think the game improves when you have professional hitters against professional pitchers. I think that's what people want to see."

Boston manager Alex Cora sees an opportunity to move the game in a different direction. More aggressive marketing of multitalented players like Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, Angels outfielder Mike Trout and more could return some of the appeal.

Betts and Trout are both dynamic talents capable of hitting, running and throwing their way into nightly highlight packages throughout the country.

"Somebody asked me if we're out of the norm because our guys are smaller - it seems like the small guys are performing now," Cora said Saturday. "Jose Ramirez (Cleveland), Francisco Lindor (Cleveland), Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve (Houston) - it seems like athletic guys are dominating the game."

"Probably get (the ball) on the ground and use my speed," Betts said Monday, when asked how raw tools that have produced 25 home runs, 23 doubles and a league-best .691 slugging percentage would have been utilized a decade or two ago. "Times have changed."

@BillKoch25

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