This Great Game Comebacker

The Week That Was in Baseball: January 27-February 2, 2014
Five Free Agents Burdened by Draft Compensation A Big Cap Market for Pitchers
The End for Lance Berkman and Michael Young Whither Andrew Albers?

Burned by Success?
As of upload time, five quality free agents—pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, outfielder Nelson Cruz, infielder Stephen Drew and designated hitter Kendrys Morales—remained on the market, available to the highest bidder. Problem is, no one seems to be bidding on them.

No, it’s not the second coming of collusion, but a wrinkle in the free agent rules that were rethought a few years back: Any team signing a player who declines a qualifying offer from their old team must relinquish a first-round draft choice to the player’s former team. And while players like Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury are knockout stars that ballclubs are willing to lose a future top draft choice for, some ponder the wisdom of the aforementioned five eligibles being equally rated as top talent. You have Jimenez, who looks to have regained stellar form—yet a year earlier was considered yesterday’s news with miserable numbers; you have Santana, a solid pitcher but not necessarily someone’s idea for a rotational front-runner; you have Cruz, a question mark of quality after his plunge into Biogenesis; you have Morales, a good power hitter with limited defensive ability and a history of injuries; and you have Drew, who…well, with all due respect, why exactly is he on this list?

If a loss of a draft pick were not an issue, all five of these guys would have certainly been scooped up by now. But here we are, mere weeks before spring training, and they all remain without a team—though there have been rumors this past week; Cruz is reportedly being courted by Seattle, while Jimenez is getting a good look from Toronto.

Draft-pick compensation was added to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement by management and the players’ union to help safeguard the have-nots from being totally deprived of star talent—and making pursuing teams think twice about signing a big-time (or, in this case, sort-of big-time) player, giving incumbents a better chance to bring free agents back into their fold.

If any of these five players can’t sign a new deal by the amateur draft in June, then any team that signs them afterward won’t lose a draft pick. But if they do manage to snare a pact before then, the money may not be what they had hoped; teams will be hesitant to give big bucks to any one of these five and lose a draft pick at the same time. It some circles, it could be called depressing the market. And for the union, the topic of amending the rules is sure to be a priority when the next negotiation sessions begin in a few years.

Putting a Lid on the Problem
After years of working to solve the problem of pitchers getting drilled in the head from returning line shots, Major League Baseball approved a new type of protective cap that may look a little funny—it’s bigger and twice as heavy as the standard cap—but still may be embraced by pitchers who don’t find humor in concussions and their after-effects.

While the new caps, developed by isoBiox, could potentially curtail head injuries on the mound, they are hardly a cure-all. Pitchers will still have their faces exposed to wicked comebackers, and the caps are said to only protect the head area from “average” line drives of 83 MPH or less. And while many pitchers who publicly responded to the new caps are cautiously optimistic that they’ll work, others aren’t so sure. One of those doubters is Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy, who suffered a brain contusion and fractured skull a few years back after getting nailed by a comebacker for Oakland. McCarthy said that the new caps are too heavy, too hot and, in his opinion, “not quite” major league-ready.

The caps will be optional wear for pitchers this year; expect to see many of them used in spring training by players who’ll decide for themselves whether the lids’ top-heavy presence will be a distraction.

Stepping Down
This week saw the retirement of two stellar baseball players of the last 15 years:
Lance Berkman and Michael Young.

Berkman was a solid offensive presence in the Houston lineup for the bulk of his career, solidifying the Astros’ “Killer B” attack also fronted by Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. In 12 years with the Astros, Berkman hit .296, twice hit over 40 homers and six times knocked in at least 100 runs; he twice led the NL in doubles, including a major league-best 55 in 2001. Knee issues dogged Berkman in his nomadic final years, producing one last burst of greatness in 2011 when he helped the St. Louis Cardinals to a world title with a .301-31-94 line in 145 games; the championship earned him his lone World Series ring.

On the losing side of that World Series in 2011 was Young, who was wrapping up his last great season with the Texas Rangers after leading the majors with 213 hits—Young’s sixth and final year with at least 200, Yet despite that and the fact that he holds all-time franchise leads in hits (2,230), doubles (415), triples (55) and runs (1,085), Young never seemed to get the proper respect from the team, always being shoved to a new position to make way for someone else before being unceremoniously let go from Texas after 2012. When he failed to click on with either Philadelphia or Los Angeles in 2013, he decided it was time to call it a day.

Will Berkman and Young earn Hall-of-Fame plaques down the road? Probably not. Both were very good players who were great on occasion—but not frequently enough to merit 75% of the vote per the current voting rules and mindset.

Good Citizen Chipper
Chipper Jones may have been retired for over a year, but he just can’t seem to stay out of the news. This past week, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer came to the rescue of current Atlanta hitting star Freddie Freeman, one of many, many locals who found themselves stranded on the road as a freak mix of snow and ice made a rare visit to Atlanta and literally grounded vehicles to a halt on frozen freeways. Maybe had Jones brought along a pile of hot ashes—the source of a fire he accidentally started outside his home last week— and sprinkled them atop the pavement, maybe the roads would have thawed quicker and everyone, Freeman included, might have been able to drive their own way home.

No Way to Treat Your Future
Last year we noted the boom in first-year pitchers and included on the voluminous list Minnesota’s
Andrew Albers, the 27-year-old southpaw who proved solid in the minors and spectacular over his first few major league starts, not allowing a run over 17.1 innings while allowing just six hits and a walk. And while Albers was more mortal toward season’s end, you would think the Twins—who arguably fielded the majors’ weakest rotation last season—would have fully embraced him as a significant piece of the starting puzzle for 2014 with strong upside. Right? Right?

Guess not. Albers became the odd man out in a rebuilt rotation that includes free-agent newcomers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, added to returnees Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey; Albers’ fight for a fifth spot would have been challenging at best because the three main arms he’d be competing with (Sam Deduno, Scott Diamond and Vance Worley) are out of options to return to the minors.

Given his unconditional release, Albers felt he could make it better in Korea (of all places), signing a $500,000, one-year deal with the Hanwha Eagles. But don’t be surprised if we hear this man’s name back here again soon—and whether the Twins made a mistake in letting him go.

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Your Immigration Reform at Work
There’s nothing like a little political muscle to help your local ballclub out. With the New York Yankees worried that Japanese ace pitcher
Masahiro Tanaka won’t have his visa application approved before he can start spring training in pinstripes, New York Senator Chuck Schumer has jumped into the fray by making sure everything is signed and dotted in time for Tanaka to arrive at Yankee camp without the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services seeking him out. This isn’t the first time Schumer has come to the rescue of a New York-based ballplayer; he did the same for Jose Reyes (a native Dominican) when he first started with the Mets.

This Week’s Statement of the Obvious
During the San Francisco Giants’ Fan Fest on Saturday, star catcher
Buster Posey gave his first public response to baseball’s planned rule switch to eliminate home plate collisions. He says he likes the idea. But of course he would; it was his season-ending injury in the aftermath of a brutal collision with Florida’s Scott Cousins back in 2011 that ignited talk that led to the imminent ban.

The Grass is Always Greener When it’s Real
Real grass with real white lines is coming to Toronto. (No, Mayor Ford, not that kind of grass or white lines.) Blue Jays president and CEO
Paul Beeston announced this week that the team would be looking at replacing the existing fake turf at Rogers Centre by 2018 should the building’s other prime occupants, the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, find a new home when their current lease at Rogers expires after 2017. That would pretty much leave the stadium originally known as Skydome in an all but permanent baseball configuration and would allow the Blue Jays to plant real sod, leaving only St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field as the lone remaining major league facility with artificial turf—assuming, of course, that the Tampa Bay Rays haven’t bolted Florida by then.

Petco, Anyone?
Tennis at Petco ParkIn these days when baseball-specific venues are game to squeeze in a football field, soccer pitch or hockey rink, why not a tennis court? At left is how San Diego’s Petco Park was set up for Davis Cup tennis matches between the United States and Great Britain that took place this past weekend. As you can see, the double-decked left field bleachers have been made as prime seating for the match, and even the Western Metal Supply building (at far left) provided a sweet birds-eye view of the event.

Cha-Ching Ravine
The Los Angeles Dodgers are spending more than anyone else in baseball (the Yankees arguably excepted), so perhaps they expect their fans to do the same. This past week, the Dodgers announced that they were raising ticket prices across the board as a response to (one) the cost of doing business and (two) “unprecedented” offseason ticket demand. Of 20 ticket categories that the Dodgers offer, ten of them will see steep rises of anywhere from 50-140%. And you thought the $340 million due to the team as their gargantuan local TV deal kicks in this year would have been enough to cover expenses.

Baseball’s Inglorious Bastards
One of the more intriguing movies to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Aspen, Colorado was The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a documentary on the independent Portland Mavericks who took over the town in the 1970s after the longstanding Beavers of the PCL left. The Mavericks, started by
Bing Russell—father of actor Kurt Russell, who actually played on the team—lived up to their independent affiliation and then some, played surprisingly well and then got caught in a tug-of-war with MLB over the rights to Rose City. The film has received stirring reviews, but because it like the team itself was made independently, finding a place to watch it may be difficult. Calling Netflix streaming…

That’s So Big-Headed of You
Tennis at Petco ParkArizona second baseman
Aaron Hill is participating in the Phoenix Open pro-am golf tournament, and he’s got a little help from his friends as shown at left—among them teammates Patrick Corbin and Josh Collmenter—who followed and supported Hill by showing blow-up face signs that are becoming more of a common sight at ballparks. We’ll assume the guys are following golf etiquette and staying quiet at the right times, but this is the Phoenix Open—the PGA event with the largest and wildest galleries, where you can boo a bad shot and not get kicked out by the course marshal.

Because the Pic With the Cuban Boat Was Rejected
Tennis at Petco ParkThe folks at Topps occasionally have a pretty good sense of humor when it comes to their baseball cards—especially the one this year for
Kendrys Morales (right). It shows the slugger heading to home plate after hitting a game-winning homer, with his Seattle teammates awaiting him with sarcastic anxiety—especially pitcher Felix Hernandez, holding his hand outward as if to yell, “Don’t do it!”

Morales, as you may recall, broke his leg back in 2010 when he mis-stomped on home after a similar walk-off homer for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. That freak injury cost him nearly two years of play. (Side note on the card: It’s interesting that Topps have him listed as a Mariner when he is currently a free agent.)

Be Like Mike
Move over,
Michael Jordan. Another former basketball star wants to give baseball a try. Tracy McGrady, who retired last year after 16 seasons in the NBA, has been reportedly working out with the independent Sugarland Skeeters near Houston in hopes of making it as a pitcher. Tweets from a team source says McGrady is throwing the ball over 90 MPH. The Skeeters are the same team that gave Roger Clemens a brief return to the mound in 2012 at the age of 50.

Dan Dickerson Made Me Do It
A Detroit area man on trial for shooting at passing vehicles on a freeway claimed he was told to fire away after receiving “messages” from Detroit Tigers pregame radio broadcasts. In case you’re wondering, his attorney is not using an insanity defense.

Historic, But For How Long?
For all it’s worth, the Houston Astrodome was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which doesn’t mean it can never be torn down or that it will become a national park (the honor is bestowed by the National Park Service). But it does give faint hope that it can still be saved. Last year, Houston voters turned down a referendum that would have saved the so-called “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1965 and give it new life.

He Said What?
“That was like shooting the Easter bunny.” —Giants general manager
Brian Sabean, recalling the reaction to his trading popular third baseman Matt Williams to Cleveland in 1996. Sabean said he received death threats from angry fans after the deal was finalized.

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