This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: February, 2016
What the Qualifying Offer Hath Wrought MLB Strikes Out Jenrry Mejia
Let’s Speed the Games Up a Little More Baseball Might Soon Expand...But Where?


Wild Pitches

Yes, They Can’t Believe This Really Happened
(February 2016 Edition)

You Just Don’t Get It, Do You...
Pete Rose appeared in a Super Bowl ad promoting a sports gambling app.

Ski Fenway
If it’s not ice hockey or college football, the Boston Red Sox will come up with something to keep Fenway Park active during the offseason. The latest (and most bizarre) case in point: A temporary snow ramp that’s 140 feet tall—almost matching the famed CITGO sign near the ballpark in terms of height—to be used for a two-day snowboarding and freestyle event.

Flanning the Flames
Retired Giants base coach Tim Flannery, who spent his entire playing career with San Diego before coaching under Bruce Bochy for both the Padres and Giants, gave into trolls who were ripping him for his allegiance to the Giants—never mind that he won three more rings in San Francisco than in San Diego. “OK. One time only,” started Flannery in a Twitter rant that rambled on about how and why the Padres’ organization and fans suck. Our question: Flannery later admitted that he probably shouldn't have sounded off online, but how was he able to send a tweet that went way, way beyond 140 characters?

Fung Goo Panda
At the Giants' Fan Fest, a kid wearing a Boston Red Sox cap all but begged Giants manager Bruce Bochy to "take back" Pablo Sandoval. The fans around him were less than thrilled with the idea.

Save Some for Sheffield Avenue
On his first day of spring training, Chicago Cubs masher Kyle Schwarber appeared to be in midseason form—belting a deep fly that easily cleared the fences and smashed the windshield of a parked car.

Just Teammates, Right?
Albert Pujols is selling his home in Irvine, California, and the realty web site showing pictures of the house includes one of his bathroom with a Mike Trout poster taped to the mirror. (Okay, so it’s probably his kids’ bathroom.)

One and Done With This
Pittsburgh star Andrew McCutchen grabbed the ear of player union Tony Clark and lobby him to change the wild card playoff from a single game to a best-of-three series. But of course he did; his Pirates have gone one-and-done in each of the last two seasons, shut out at home by the Giants in 2014 and Cubs in 2015.

Grounded
The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig bought a helicopter in hopes of flying it direct to Dodger Stadium and bypass bumper-to-bumper auto traffic; the FAA told him no, you can't do that.


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Monday, February 1
New York Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, who collected 11 home runs and 31 runs batted in through just 46 rookie appearances in 2015, will miss the entire 2016 campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery. Not only will this put pressure on injury-prone Mark Teixeira (who turns 36 after Opening Day) to stay healthy this season, but it might prompt the Yankees, oddly enough the only team this winter not to sign a free agent, to make a last-minute pick-up.

Tuesday, February 2
Finally, something is being done with the site where Tiger Stadium once sat. The Detroit Police Athletic League announces that it has secured enough funding to move forward with a youth sports facility, one that will preserve the still-existing Tiger Stadium field (albeit with artificial turf) and include some historical nods to baseball’s past at the old ballpark. The facility is expected to be finished in 2017.

Besides the field, one other aspect of Tiger Stadium will remain at the new facility: The 125-foot flagpole in deep center field, which has stood since the building of the old ballpark in 1912.

Wednesday, February 3
Jonny Gomes, who’s played for six teams over the past five seasons, is really going to pile on the moving services points by announcing that he’s playing overseas this coming year for Japan’s Ratuken Golden Eagles. The fidgety 35-year-old slugger split his time last year between Atlanta and Kansas City, hitting .213 with seven homers.

Gomes says that his move to Japan was forced by the fact that no major league team was interested in him, but one wonders if the man who adjusts and readjusts every part of his baseball apparel while at bat would rather just play in a league where no pace-of-play rules currently exist.

Friday, February 5
Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta asked for $13 million via arbitration, while the Chicago Cubs offered $7.5 million. The two avoid going before a mediator and settle for a one-year, $10.7 million deal that’s the highest given to a pitcher in his second year of arbitration.

Sunday, February 7
Mexico defeats Venezuela 5-4 to win its third Caribbean Series in four years. The game is equally (if not more) noted for the final appearance by former All-Star pitcher Freddy Garcia, who announces before the game that he is retiring. The 39-year old starts and allows two runs over five innings for Venezuela.

Delmon Young, currently unemployed within the majors, gets into another off-field altercation that's likely of his own making. He is arrested for battery after getting angry with a parking valet in Miami, calling him a "stupid little Cuban," choking him and threatening to kill him.

If this is proven true, then apparently the anger management therapy hasn't been working out in the wake of another altercation from 2013 in New York, when he used hostile anti-Semitic language against a panhandler.

Monday, February 8
The Arizona Diamondbacks show once again that they're dead serious about making a run at the postseason this year. After earlier acquiring pitchers Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and infielder Jean Segura, the Diamondbacks today announce the signing of reliever Tyler Clippard to a two-year deal worth 12.25 million.

Reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who does not become a free agent until 2019, reaches a two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for $29 million to avoid arbitration through 2017.

Tuesday, February 9
Sometimes the best sources for the inside story on generations of players can be found by talking to the guys who’ve been running the clubhouse since before many of us were born. One such person was Bernie Stowe, who dies today at age 80. He worked for the Cincinnati Reds for nearly 70 years—starting as a batboy in 1947, helping out the likes of Augie Galan, Johnny Vander Meer and Ewell Blackwell—ultimately becoming the team’s longtime clubhouse manager. Stowe retired in 2013, and the Great American Ball Park clubhouse is named after him.

The Stowe tradition carries on; Mark Stowe, who started working for the Reds in 1975, is the team’s visiting clubhouse manager, while Rick Stowe (who joined in 1981) looks after the home clubhouse.

Thursday, February 11
The Atlantis Race and Sports Book in Reno gives out its annual predictions for the upcoming baseball season via over/under win totals. San Francisco has the highest win total at 90; Atlanta has the lowest at 65. A year after winning the World Series when earlier predicted to not even reach .500, the Kansas City Royals gain respect with a win total of 87, matching Toronto for the highest total within the American League.

Following are four bets you should make right now (or, if you're looking at this via archival, here are four bets you can look back on and laugh over):

Cincinnati, 71: Under. The Reds plummeted to end last year, then traded off All-Star slugger Todd Frazier and closer Aroldis Chapman. Unless the youthful pitching matures first, there’s no way the Reds will make the 70s in wins.

Chicago Cubs, 89: Over. Yes, we’re jumping on the Cubs’ juggernaut bandwagon, and why not; they’re loaded with great young talent that’s picked up quick seasoning via last year’s playoff ride, and they’ve been buffeted further with the free agent additions of Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist. It will be a major disappointment if the Cubs don’t reach 89 wins.

Cleveland, 84: Under. Sorry, Tribe fans, but this has got to be classified as a no-brainer. The Indians come into the season with one of baseball’s most promising rotations, but their everyday lineup is weak, they’ll lack their best hitter (Michael Brantley) to start the year and they did next to nil to improve the roster in the offseason. How Vegas expects an 81-80 team from 2015 to improve is beyond us.

Philadelphia, 66.5: Over. The Phillies bottomed out in 2015 with 99 losses, but with much of the stale and/or disruptive veteran clutter removed, it’s the youngsters’ turn to take control of the clubhouse—and some of them have terrific upsides. If they can set the vibe toward the positive, they’ll be onto something. Maybe not a playoff appearance, but certainly something better than 66.5.

Friday, February 12
In a stunning announcement, New York Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia—suspended twice last year for positive PED tests—has been nailed a third time, resulting in a lifetime ban from the game. He is the first player permanently kicked out of organized baseball for steroids, and the second living person (besides Pete Rose) actively banned. The 26-year-old Mejia says he will appeal, telling a reporter in his native Dominican Republic: “It’s not as they (MLB) say. I’m sure that I didn’t use anything.”

Mejia can apply for a reinstatement after two years, but his chances of being allowed back into baseball are slim at best. Meanwhile, his options to play in exile are limited, as the lifetime ban is honored in Japan, Korea and Mexico. He could play the winter leagues in Latin America or the Caribbean.

If Mejia knowingly took the PEDs, many questions need to be asked: Is he arrogant? Stupid? Both? Did he really think about the enormous risks? Is he a steroid junkie? And where was he getting the stuff?

There’s huge pressure in the impoverished, baseball-mad Dominican Republic to make it big in the majors. Many athletes there do it the right way, but others seek more illicit short cuts to the big riches beyond the lure of steroids, such as lying about their age. MLB has been attempting to provide educational resources in the D.R. to set young prospects straight in advance, but it’s a daunting task given the culture.

Three weeks later, Mejia will give a more formal response regarding his suspension to the New York Times, saying it was "witch hunt" perpetrated by MLB to get him kicked out of baseball. It should be noted, however, that MLB is not directly involved in the testing procedures, outsourcing that responsibility to a third party.

The Milwaukee Brewers, in the midst of a rebuild, trade slugger Khris Davis to the Oakland A’s for two minor leaguers. Davis led the Brewers with 27 home runs in 2015, but it would be a mild surprise if he surpassed that total playing half his games at the Coliseum, a more deadened atmosphere for dingers.

Saturday, February 13
The Atlanta Braves may be moving to suburban Cobb County in 2017, but they can't take the Hank Aaron statue with them. The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Commission says that the statue, currently located outside the gates of Turner Field, is owned by the county, not the team. The Braves, in a weak attempt of shaming the county, suggested that Aaron himself should decide where the statue should end up. In the end, the team has decided that it will commission a new statue of Aaron while allowing the county to keep the current one.

Monday, February 15
Expect to hear Jose Fernandez’s name a lot this coming season, but not exactly for the reasons you would think. The talented yet thus-far-fragile Miami Marlins ace, who was the subject of many offseason trade rumors, is saying he wants to be given a $30 million-a-year contract, and according to close friends has soured on the Miami front office (well, hey Jose, join the club). Then there’s news today that the Marlins will put Fernandez, less than two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery, on a limit of 180 innings for the upcoming season.

First, as far as the $30 million annual salary is concerned, we think Fernandez needs to shown a little more sustainability. Another tear in the elbow and he could become yesteryear’s news. And the 180-inning limit is interesting as it makes us all recall the similar quota branded last season upon the Mets’ Matt Harvey—who, like Fernandez, is represented by Scott Boras.

Tuesday, February 16
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both announce a change in ticket strategy that will eliminate third-party secondary markets such as MLB-sponsored StubHub. The only way you can now enter Yankee Stadium is with a traditional “hard” ticket or a scanned code on your smartphone from tickets purchased directly from the Yankees; the team says that the lure of counterfeit tickets forced them to make this change. In Boston, the Red Sox are beginning their own secondary market resource, in partnership with MLB Advanced Media and Tickets.com.

In the Yankees’ case, it will be curious to see if their new, relatively restrictive policy helps or hurts attendance at Yankee Stadium, given the convenience that StubHub generally provides.

Wednesday, February 17
Baseball Prospectus releases its annual PECOTA preseason picks for the coming season and, wow—it still has no love for Kansas City, even as the Royals are coming off a championship season and second straight AL pennant. After picking K.C. to finish 72-90 for 2015 after taking the AL pennant, PECOTA has the Royals finishing dead last in the AL Central at 76-86. That’s not the only eye opener among its predictions; it also has Tampa Bay winning the AL East and Cleveland taking the AL Central with a league-best 92-70 record. PECOTA’s NL picks are more as anticipated—with the Mets, Cubs and Dodgers winning the East, Central and West, respectively.

Thursday, February 18
Jim Davenport, who played all 13 of his major league seasons with San Francisco, coached the Giants another nine years and managed them in 1985, dies of heart failure in the Bay Area at age 82. The third baseman was one of four rookies who played almost every day for the Giants during their first season on the West Coast in 1958, and he amassed 1,142 hits over a modest career that included an All-Star appearance in 1962. In an interview with TGG’s Ed Attanasio some years back, Davenport talked of teammates Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and playing at arctic, wind-swept Candlestick Park.

Friday, February 19
Despite playing independent baseball as recently as 2011 and still said to be in great shape, Tony Phillips succumbs to a heart attack and passes away at age 56. The fiery performer of many positions—he was ejected 22 times during his major league career—totaled 18 years in the majors, mostly with Oakland and Detroit, and was one of the premier leadoff hitters during the 1990s; only Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas walked more during the decade, and four times he scored over 100 runs. In fact, no other player has been in more games and accrued more walks and runs without making an appearance in the All-Star Game since its inception in 1933. Phillips’ defense was his short suit, but he sure created havoc for opponents when at bat.

The harrowing journey of Cuban defector and (now) Seattle outfielder Leonys Martin has led to the arrest of his agent, Bart Hernandez, on charges of human trafficking. Hernandez, who also represented other Cubans such as Jose Abreu and Jorge Soler, is accused by knowingly being involved in the illegal smuggling of Martin and other players into the United States. He faces up to 20 years in jail and the forfeiture of $1.5 million in “gross proceeds” from some of his Cuban clients.

A couple days later, the perils bringing Cuban players to the majors are exposed even further when Charles Hairston, the agent for Lazaro “Lazarito” Armenteros, claims to be threatened by the Dominican-based “investor” or “buscon” for the 16-year old.

All of this underscores the need for MLB to press quickly forward and establish an international draft to eliminate such adventures and provide a fair balance of payment between collegiate or high school players forced within an amateur status, and those outside the country who can take advantage of loopholes and sign for far more money.

Saturday, February 20
Free agent pitcher Yovani Gallardo, perhaps one of those players who should have excepted the $15.8 million qualifying offer after last season to stay with Texas, signs a three-year, $35 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles. The Rangers will get a first-round draft pick as compensation, which is why Gallardo signed so late and, relatively speaking, for so little.

A few days later, Gallardo is forced to have his contract restructured so that only two years and $22 million is guaranteed, and the third year becomes an option for the Orioles—who became weary after reading the results of Gallardo’s physical. This seems to be nothing new for the Orioles, who again prove they are second to none in having second thoughts on a contract after putting the player through a physical. Closer Grant Balfour had a two-year, $15 million contract cancelled early in 2014 after taking his physical.

There might be one way to solve the dilemma of players like Gallardo when the issue of qualifying offers and draft compensation is brought up during upcoming discussions on a new Basic Agreement between players and owners: Just raise the bar on who is eligible. When studs like David Price, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke go on the market, no team will think twice of giving up a draft pick to acquire them. But then there are borderline star players like Gallardo, Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler who were eligible for the qualifying offer, turned it down and became free agents knowing that teams would hesitate to sign them out of fear of losing a draft pick. Of course, these lesser names could take the qualifying offer and wait another year—at $15.8 million, it had to be a tantalizing carrot stick—but who’s to say they wouldn’t find themselves in the same exact predicament a year later? Yes, this was all designed to retain competitive balance within the majors, but there’s got to be a better way.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, doing the interview circuit as spring training opens up around baseball, discusses a number of current issues including draft compensation, the mlb.tv mess and possible expansion. On that last point, Manfred has continued to waffle, leaning toward “no.” This is what he says today to mlb.com’s Todd Zolecki: “Expansion is important. I think baseball is a growth business. There are huge advantages to getting to 32 teams. But I don't see it as an immediate issue for us.”

First, MLB will not expand until Oakland and Tampa Bay resolve their ballpark issues. The A’s and Rays are nowhere nearing breaking ground on a badly needed new facility, and MLB needs to keep potential expansion sites open as possible relocation destinations should either of those two teams reach a worst-case scenario and move out. Expansion thus becomes unlikely for at least the next five years.

Even if baseball were to expand, who’s available? There’s no city out there that’s nakedly deserving of the game, as Washington, Toronto and Denver were back in the day. Montreal is the emotional first choice for those who feel the city was ripped off by the Expos’ move after 2004, but it needs to build a new ballpark—the voluminous Olympic Stadium is a non-starter. San Antonio is a possibility, though one wonders the level of obstruction the nearby Rangers and Astros would put up against such a move. There’s Portland, Oregon, a small market with a sports fan base that runs hot and cold—just talk to fans of basketball’s Trail Blazers, who’ve witnessed rollercoaster support over the years. Las Vegas is often talked about but is way too small a market and, oh yes, there’s the gambling angle. There are numerous other cities big enough to generate chatter such as New Orleans, Memphis, Charlotte, Salt Lake City and Vancouver, but the lack of any talk regarding these cities suggest there’s no civic push afoot to lobby MLB to come visit.

Monday, February 22
Jimmy Rollins thinks he has gas left in the tank, and the Chicago White Sox take a chance on agreeing with him—giving the 37-year-old shortstop a minor league contract that can blossom to $2 million if he makes the Opening Day roster. Thw switch-hitting Rollins, the Phillies' all-time hits leader, batted just .224 last season in his lone campaign for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Rollins is the eighth former MVP to be given a minor league contract after winning the award.

Tuesday, February 23
The Orioles continue to create drama with every move they make—or try to make. Reports have Baltimore signing outfielder Dexter Fowler for three years and $33 million, and Orioles management confirms it—but two days later, Fowler says that he has not agreed to the deal and, instead, re-inks with the Chicago Cubs for one year with a mutual option for 2017. The breakdown with the Orioles occurs when the team refuses Fowler’s request for an opt-out after one year.

More qualifying offer madness: Fowler’s deal will pay him $8 million in 2016—a little more than half of what he would have received had he accepted the Cubs’ qualifying offer of $15.8 million at the end of last season.

Thursday, February 25
Baseball announces additional timing rules to help speed the game up even more. The official time between innings will now be shortened by 20 seconds to two minutes and five seconds, while all visits to the mound by managers and coaches shall go no longer than 30 seconds, a span from when they leave the dugout to when they are done talking to the pitcher and start walking back to the dugout. So a note to all managers and coaches: Walk briskly and keep your conversations short.

On the shorter breaks between innings, this will not thrill the regional sports networks that have shelled out billions for the rights to broadcast MLB games, as the reduced time could potentially cut into much-needed ad revenue. They’ll likely make it up with increased in-game advertising, such as the superimposed promotions that pop up on the screen in between at-bats.

In response to the highly controversial moment in last year’s NLCS when the Dodgers’ Chase Utley slid brutally into the Mets’ Ruben Tejada—breaking Tejada’s leg—baseball also announces new rules to limit such contact. From now on, runners heading toward second must begin their slide before the bag, with the intent of touching and staying on the bag—and they cannot deviate their path toward a fielder.

Also eliminated is the so-called “Neighborhood Play,” in which a fielder could take a throw at second, not touch the base and still get the out. This never made any sense to us, so good riddance; rules should be rules, and if you don’t touch the bag—even if the throw beats the runner—then you shouldn’t get credit for the out. Plain and simple.

Friday, February 26
Abraham Almonte, traded from San Diego to Cleveland in the midst of last season and projected to be a starting outfielder for the Indians in 2016, is banned for the first 80 games by MLB for testing positive for PEDs. Almonte is the third major leaguer (after Jenrry Mejia and Juan Duran) given a PED suspension; all three hail from the Dominican Republic.

In step with the reactions of most other players testing positive for steroids, Almonte claims he has no idea how the offending drug entered his body.

Sunday, February 28
Ian Desmond, the last of the offseason free agents who turned down a qualifying offer, signs a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers worth $8 million. But with the Texas infield set, the 30-year-old shortstop’s only everyday option will be to play the outfield amid the recent revelation that Josh Hamilton will be out through May.

This is another head scratcher. Over a year ago, Desmond was offered a seven-year, $107 million extension from the Washington Nationals; he declined. After last season, he was offered the generous $15.8 million qualifying offer to stay one more year with the Nationals; he declined. And now he’s playing on a one-year deal for half of that.

It’s often said that hindsight is 20/20, but in this case, so was the foresight. How Desmond, a good but not great player, refused to except those earlier offers when there likely wasn’t going to be anything better out there—especially with a draft pick tied to it—puzzles us. As we mentioned earlier, only elite free agents should cost the teams that sign them a first-round pick.

Monday, February 29
No news to report on the eve of the first spring training games (not including the lopsided exhibitions against college squads held today), so a happy once-every-four-years birthday to former major leaguers Al Rosen, Pepper Martin and Terrence Long.


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