Sunday Night Baseball is going to look a lot different next season on ESPN. During the summer, it was announced that long-time play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman, who succeeded Jon Miller in 2011, would be leaving the weekly broadcast. Then last week, analyst Aaron Boone, who joined Sunday Night Baseball in 2016, left ESPN to manage the New York Yankees.
That leaves half of the Sunday Night Baseball crew still standing – dugout reporter Buster Olney (who has worked in that role since 2011) and analyst Jessica Mendoza (who joined the booth near the end of the 2015 season, replacing Curt Schilling).
ESPN has had to remake its Sunday Night Baseball booth a good bit in recent years, with a variety of analysts cycling into and out of the roles next to Shulman since Miller and Joe Morgan departed following the 2010 season. But they’ve typically only had to replace one analyst in the three person booth, and not an analyst *and* the play-by-play announcer.
This puts the network in an interesting position. How do they fill the commentary team next year? Will they pair Mendoza with one of their existing teams to create a new triumvirate? Will they simply promote a play-by-play announcer to work with Mendoza? Or, could they take Mendoza off of Sunday Night Baseball and either promote an announcer pairing or create an all-new trio?
With all of these options in mind, here’s how ESPN could structure their broadcasts during the 2018 season.
Option A: Mendoza and an existing pairing
ESPN actually seemed to be testing Mendoza with existing commentary teams last season, as during the week, she often worked with different partners. Some of those pairings included Jon Sciambi and Rick Sutcliffe, Sciambi and Boone, and Sciambi and David Ross. The constant in all of those broadcasts in Sciambi, who has primarily worked with Sutcliffe in recent seasons. A trio of Sciambi, Sutcliffe, and Mendoza would make sense, given the familiarity that Sciambi has with each of his analysts and the “hitter and pitcher” analyst combination that ESPN fell back on for Sunday Night Baseball time and time again prior to Schilling’s ouster in 2015.
If ESPN wanted to take the path of least resistance, this is what they would probably do – keep the booth at three people while promoting their most established pairing and not demoting the lone remaining Sunday Night Baseball analyst.
Option B: Mendoza in a duo with a play-by-play announcer
This would also be somewhat of a layup for ESPN, and would allow them to go away from the three-person booth that is becoming more and more popular throughout baseball (except at Fox, who wisely decided that John Smoltz would be a massive upgrade over Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci following the 2015 season).
Sciambi would be the easy choice to be promoted to the role, but someone like Karl Ravech, who has been at ESPN for quite awhile, could also be in line for a promotion after serving as the Baseball Tonight pregame host for years. Ravech also called his share of games for ESPN in 2017, typically working with Eduardo Perez, and took over as host of the Home Run Derby this season.
A couple of possible dark horse candidates here are Dave Flemming, an experienced baseball voice that has been gaining more high profile assignments at ESPN, and Jason Benetti, who ticks a lot of the same boxes as Flemming, but hasn’t been with ESPN as long and seems poised to take over for Hawk Harrelson on a full-time basis in Chicago after the 2018 season.
Option C: A trio without Mendoza
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Much of what I said in Option A above could apply to Option C, using a different analyst aside from Mendoza – for instance, pairing Sciambi and Sutcliffe with someone like Perez, or Ross, or even Mark Texeira. They could also promote someone like Flemming or Benetti along with a pair of analysts, while partnering Sciambi and Mendoza for weekday games.
Option D: A duo without Mendoza
I think this would be the safe, somewhat boring option for ESPN – just saying something along the lines of “hey, Jon Sciambi and Rick Sutcliffe are the new voices of Sunday Night Baseball, have fun!” and letting the rest of the pairings form as they do with Mendoza picking up another partner for midweek games. It’s the incredibly easy way out, and would cause the least amount of buzz and reaction.
Here’s what I think will end up happening – ESPN gives the job to Sciambi, as expected. But instead of keeping Mendoza around as an analyst on Sunday Night Baseball, she’s bumped to the pregame show with Karl Ravech. As for analysts, Sciambi is paired with two recent ESPN hires that the network is incredibly high on – David Ross and Mark Teixeira. Each of those two had prominent roles on ESPN programming this year, and while their actual in-booth analysis is limited (in fact, I believe Teixeira didn’t even call a game for ESPN this season), ESPN is clearly optimistic about the duo’s future.
I think Sciambi’s ascension is a near-certainty (feel free to point this out to @OldTakesExposed when I’m inevitably wrong), but the analyst situation is still a bit murky. Just promoting Sutcliffe seems too restrained to happen, as does keeping Mendoza and having her work with Sciambi as a duo. A trio with Sciambi, Sutcliffe, and Mendoza could work, as could trios with Sciambi, Sutcliffe, and Ross, and Sciambi, Ross, and Mendoza.
The real shame of all this, in my opinion, is Doug Glanville being let go in April. Him, Sciambi, and Sutcliffe had fantastic chemistry, and I would have loved to hear those three on Sunday Night Baseball. But with him (and Dallas Braden, for that matter) out of the picture, the situation is murkier. ESPN’s decisions about the future of Sunday Night Baseball will never be easy, but heading into 2018, they’re much more complicated than I think anyone expected.