MLB managers discuss the joy and pain of delivering Opening Day roster news

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — As spring training reaches the finish line, roster decisions come into focus and the pressure mounts for players on the bubble.

“Every night you’re going to sleep wondering if tomorrow’s the day,” said Cleveland manager Stephen Vogt, who spent many springs in roster limbo.

On decision day, an assistant coach typically approaches a player at his locker and tells him to head to the manager’s office. Tigers prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy described it to The Athletic last week as “seeing the Grim Reaper catch your boys.”

“You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, is it after me next?’”

Malloy was reassigned to minor-league camp late last week.

For the player, it’s a wobbly-kneed walk to the manager’s office. Their heart thumps and mind races, forecasting every possible scenario and recapping every spring feat and failure.

“When you get the, ‘Hey, the manager needs to see you,’” Vogt said, “you go to dark places really quick.”

In recent days, 30 managers have delivered life-changing news to hundreds of players.

You’re being sent to Triple A.

You’re being released.

Many managers have sat on the other side of the mahogany desk in a nerve-filled daze, awaiting the news that would set the tone for their season. They know how the player is feeling, and they lean on their experiences to present the news with tact.

Vogt, in his first spring as a major-league manager, said he shed tears during meetings with Cleveland players.

“Whether it’s your first big-league camp (or) your 10th big-league camp,” he said, “and you hear the words, ‘Hey, we’re going to reassign you’ or ‘We’re sending you out,’ that’s a delay in you reaching your dreams. Having empathy for the players is something that’s really important.

“It’s never fun or easy, but I don’t ever want it to be fun or easy.”

Cleveland’s brass conferenced with veteran center fielder Myles Straw over the weekend to inform the Gold Glove Award winner that, despite having three years and about $20 million remaining on his contract, they were outrighting him to Triple A.

“It crushed all of us,” Vogt said. “It’s never fun to hear that news. I heard it a number of times in my career. It was a really rough morning.”

During one afternoon media session this spring, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch was highlighting the emotions players experience in the final days of camp.

“As a former bubble player …” Hinch began.

Craig Monroe, the Tigers’ outfielder-turned-broadcaster, smiled and interjected.

“I was one, too,” Monroe said.

“My bubble burst before yours did,” Hinch replied.

Hinch was battling for a catching job with Cleveland in the spring of 2003. The Indians were in Lakeland, Fla., to face the Tigers toward the end of camp. Al Avila, then Detroit’s assistant general manager, told Hinch the Tigers had acquired him and that the transaction would help him resurrect his big-league career. But then he added a caveat.

“Oh, by the way,” Avila told him, “you’re going to Toledo.”

“I’m like, ‘Where’s Toledo?’” Hinch recalled. He spent much of that season at the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate.

During his decade in the majors, Vogt often braced himself for the worst news, assuming he would leave the manager’s office with a boarding pass for a commercial flight to a minor-league city. He said he’d rather be pleasantly surprised than absorb an unforeseen jab to the gut.

“This news is hard to deliver,” Hinch said. “It’s harder to receive.”

That’s not the case for those who make the team, of course. The same day Hinch had a difficult talk about sending pitcher Matt Manning to the minors, he summoned pitcher Reese Olson to his office.

“How’s your anxiety level?” Hinch asked him.

“Pretty high,” Olson replied.

“Well,” Hinch said, “you’re going to be with us.”

Reds manager David Bell deemed this part — telling a player they had made it — “one of the top honors of the job,” a responsibility that feels even more rewarding when compared to the pain of delivering bad news.

Outfielder Nick Martini is 33 years old and has more than 4,500 minor-league plate appearances to his name, so when Bell looked Martini in the eye Friday and told him he had made the Reds’ Opening Day roster, “you could tell everything flashed through his head, everything he’s been through to this point,” Bell said.

Vogt enjoyed a similar reaction from Carlos Carrasco when he told the 37-year-old he would be the Guardians’ fifth starter to begin the season. Carrasco said he was willing only to sign with Cleveland once he became a free agent, having pitched for the club for the majority of his 15-year career before spending a shaky last few seasons with the Mets. Even as the oldest member of the Guardians’ roster, the veteran — who made his big-league debut 5,321 days ago — said he was nervous to meet with Vogt and team president Chris Antonetti.

“The look on his face,” Antonetti said, “you would have thought it was the first Opening Day roster he ever made.”

Bell delighted in telling Tejay Antone he had made Cincinnati’s roster after the pitcher charged back from two injury-riddled seasons.

“You realize when you’re telling somebody that,” Bell said, “how much it affects their life. In a world where transactions become a normal thing and it becomes a name and a number, no matter how thoughtful we are, sometimes you realize that you’re affecting human beings’ lives and families.”

It became apparent as March wore on that outfielder Jarren Duran, infielder Ceddanne Rafaela and Rule-5 pick Justin Slaten would make Boston’s Opening Day roster for the first time, but Red Sox manager Alex Cora refused to confirm as much until he spoke with each player. Cora said “the right way” is to allow each player to bask in that memorable moment.

Other managers opt for a different technique. Steven Kwan barged his way onto Cleveland’s season-opening roster in 2022 with a sterling spring but convinced himself throughout camp he stood no chance. He said the ignorance “was blissful.” That made then-manager Terry Francona’s approach more effective. Francona initiated their meeting with a somber, apologetic tone, all but confirming Kwan’s expectations. Then, Francona did a 180 and told Kwan he made the team.

He was probably feeling me out and seeing how I’d react,” Kwan said.

Guardians reliever Hunter Gaddis was itching to have his conversation with Vogt last week. He was relieved when bullpen coach Brad Goldberg told him to head to Vogt’s office over the weekend.

“There’s stress that builds up from wanting it and wanting it and wanting it,” Gaddis said.

Vogt told Gaddis he earned a spot in Cleveland’s bullpen.

“You could definitely see the pressure valve release,” Vogt said.

Vogt prefers a direct approach. Hinch, like Francona, enjoys a less serious reveal.

To begin a meeting with first baseman Spencer Torkelson at the end of camp in 2022, Hinch rehashed a play from that spring in which Torkelson collided with shortstop Javier Báez while chasing a lazy pop fly. Torkelson promised to never again sideswipe a teammate. Then, Hinch disclosed the real reason he had called Torkelson to his office: He would be Detroit’s Opening Day first baseman.

Hinch asked infielder Colt Keith during a recent game if he wanted an extra at-bat. Keith replied that he did, because it would grant him another chance to face Mets reliever Austin Adams, who had retired him earlier this spring.

“Do you know why I asked you?” Hinch questioned. “I only ask the guys who are on the team.”

Keith offered a confused look.

“So next week in New York,” Hinch said, referencing the Tigers’ upcoming series at Citi Field, “you’re gonna see this uniform, and I need you to have the same intent to go out and face him again.”

Those are the encounters managers and players cherish. For every few conversations with a player who fell short, there’s one worth relishing.

“It’s so easy to forget every one of these players has the same goal, the same dream,” Vogt said, “and that’s to be an everyday player. Some of that is out of your control, and that’s the worst part, the emotions you go through, the roller coaster every day of, ‘Aw man, it’s right there. I can see it. I can taste it. I can feel it.’”

The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans, Cody Stavenhagen and Chad Jennings contributed to this story.

(Photo of Stephen Vogt: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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