The Weekly Comebacker: The baseball week in review
The Week That Was in Baseball: November 14-20, 2011
Houston Goes American Is a Second Wild Card Team Wise?
What's With This Union-Management Love Fest? G'day, Xavier Paul...Xavier?...

The American Astros
Major League Baseball this past week okayed the move of the Houston Astros to the American League starting in 2013, to be situated as part of a five-team AL West—and, as a result, giving baseball two 15-team leagues with three five-team divisions. MLB made the move as a condition for Jim Crane to buy the Astros from Drayton McLane; Crane, who wanted to stay in the NL, was given a $70 million discount off the $680 million purchase as an incentive not to complain.

The symmetry of the leagues certainly makes sense, but the odd number of teams in each league now means there always will be interleague play throughout the year—and more of it, as MLB has increased the number of league vs. league to 30 per year from the current 18.

The range of reaction to the Astros’ switch was loud and varied. Former NL Central opponents like the idea of one less team to compete with in their division, even if it was a team that was only 28-50 against them this past year; among the Astros’ new AL West rivals, the Texas Rangers were clearly the most happy about the move, in part because their intra-state rivalry now has more meaning but, more importantly, also means that they don’t have to play all of their divisional road games two time zones apart. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, on the other hand, are less wild about having two divisional teams in the Central time zone (not that the Angels would be playing fewer games outside of their own). As for the notion that AL West teams could salivate over playing 18 games against a currently inferior team that finished a franchise-worst 56-106 in 2011? Oakland GM Billy Beane isn’t buying it, saying that times change—after all, just six years ago, Houston was a National League champion. And besides, Beane also admitted that “everyone is bigger than us.”

And what about the Astros and their fans? A Houston Chronicle poll revealed that over 70% of respondents aren’t happy about the switch, with one fan even comparing it to the departure of the NFL’s Houston Oilers to Nashville. A local lawyer says he may have found legal muscle to keep the move from taking place—discovering the lease agreement for Minute Maid Park contains a clause stating that the host team must be from the National League. Good luck bringing that suit to fruition.

Getting Wilder in October
The other major movement at baseball’s meetings of owners in Milwaukee this past week was to add two more wild card teams, thus increasing the number of postseason participants to ten from the current eight; this move could take effect as early as next year. We weren’t wild (no pun intended) about the idea when it first hit the public airwaves months ago, and we’re no more thrilled about it now; had it been in effect this past season, that wonderful last day of the regular season—in which Tampa Bay knocked out Boston while St. Louis edged out Atlanta for the two wild card spots—would have lost all of its dramatic punch, because all four teams would have already clinched reservations for the playoffs. Furthermore, the idea of the two wild card teams facing off in a one-game series is preposterous; so after a team scratches and claws 162 games to get to the postseason, it’s expected to place all its faith on one starting pitcher to deliver?

The New Wave
It was widely assumed after the postseason that ex-Boston manager Terry Francona would fill up one of two prime pilot positions available in Chicago and St. Louis. But after he announced this past week that he wouldn’t be managing in 2012 (perhaps the Fox gig seduced him), the Cubs and Cardinals quickly made their choices.

The Cardinals went internal, sort of, by naming former catcher Mike Matheny as their new manager. Though he’s never managed at any level, most in St. Louis are pleased with the decision; Matheny was a highly likeable and tough player’s player, and he also appears to have the respect of the coaches from Tony LaRussa’s regime—including long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan and hitting coach Mark McGwire, both of whom will continue to serve under the 41-year old Matheny.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the Cubs opted for Dale Sveum, whose career both playing and managing have had fleeting and bittersweet moments of promise. As a player, Sveum looked to be on his way to a solid career after hitting 25 homers with 95 RBIs for Milwaukee during his second season in the majors in 1987. But a devastating knee injury the following year forced Sveum to miss all of 1989, and he was never the same afterward—playing through 1999, but strictly on a part-time basis at best. He became a coach in the 2000s and, after the Brewers strangely fired manager Ned Yost with the Brewers in the thick of the stretch run towards the 2008 playoffs, took over as interim manager—winning seven of 12 games to earn the wild card spot and one vote for NL Manager of the Year. Sveum has been the hitting coach for the Brewers since then.

Now All You Need is Joe Carter and Brooks Robinson
The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles may not be showing many signs of catching up with the titans of the American League’s Eastern Division, so they’ve decided that perhaps an aesthetic blast from the past—when times were better—might work. The Blue Jays announced this past week that they’re going back to their original logo, a circular mark that includes the bird icon (the one constant through much of their looks over the years) and the Canadian maple leaf; the only modernization is a more traditional, serif take on the logotype. Meanwhile, the Orioles tore out of mothballs their cartoonish 1960s icon seemingly inspired by Hanna Barbera to match their cartoonish play of the last 15 years.

The Plunder Down Under
The Australian Baseball League was excited to have any major leaguer, even if it was young utility player Xavier Paul, who was recently designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates and signed on to play down under. So camps opened in Brisbane where Paul was assigned to play, but…no Paul. And no one was surprised more by his absence than Paul himself, who didn’t even know he was coming.

Turns out, an ex-minor leaguer named Breland Brown acted as an agent and signed on with the ABL with the promise that he’d bring Paul along. Brown, who is now being investigated by Major League Baseball, was released by the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization this past summer. And what does Paul, who doesn’t know Brown, think about all of this? “To see someone go that far, I guess, kind of made me laugh.”

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.

So Far, So Predictable
Baseball’s postseason honors started getting handed out this past week, with no surprises attached. The closest vote, relatively speaking, occurred in the AL Rookie of the Year count where Tampa Bay pitcher Jeremy Hellickson grabbed 17 of 28 first-place votes to finish first over Los Angeles of Anaheim slugger Mark Trumbo. Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel was the unanimous chance in the NL rookie tally, easily outdistancing second-place teammate Freddie Freeman.

The Cy Young and Manager of the Year selections also lacked drama. Detroit ace Justin Verlander was the overwhelming favorite for the AL Cy and the vote reflected that, with the Angels’ Jered Weaver and Tampa Bay’s James Shields a distance second and third, respectively. Clayton Kershaw took the NL Cy with ease, but not unanimously; Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay received four first-place votes, and Arizona’s Ian Kennedy got one. In the managers’ tally, the Rays’ Joe Maddon deservedly picked up his second AL award for forging low-budget Tampa Bay past Boston and into the postseason, while Arizona’s Kirk Gibson received the NL honor for catapulting the Diamondbacks from worst-to-first in the NL West.

The MVP awards will be announced this week.

For Your Resume
New York Yankee reliever David Robertson picked up a vote in the AL Cy Young Award tally.

That Was Easy
With stealth-like precision, baseball’s lords and players quietly and painlessly reached an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this past week that will last the next five years. That’s right. There was no chest-thumping, no war of words, no malicious accusations, no Don Fehr, no Richard Ravitch—and no work stoppage, let alone even the threat of one.

So, who was passing out the happy pills during negotiations?

Apparently, the self-inflicted wounds of the disastrous 1994-95 strike have left a sobering impression on those involved. Commissioner Bud Selig was at the forefront then as now, but he’s got a legacy to worry about—so the last thing on his mind was to throw mud at the other side of the table. Union leader Michael Weiner was there in 1994, albeit it in a much smaller role, but he surely recalls the seething from boss Fehr as trust with the owners hit an all-time low.

But life is good now in baseball—and more critically, one side isn’t jealous of what the other side has, or wants, or insists on doing. Many of the issues hammered out in the new deal are technical modifications to existing luxury tax and arbitration rules. The minimum salary will increase to $500,000 within a few years—or, roughly what the average MLB salary was 25 years earlier.

But perhaps the most staggering development to come out of the negotiations is that the union has agreed to testing of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), something they have previously and publicly resisted—and a topic we gave opinion to as a possible way for MLB to fracture or even break the union (not that we’d condone that). But here’s the deal: Blood tests will be administered to players as they arrive at spring training camps, yet it’s not reported as to whether the tests will continue randomly through the season. If it doesn’t, then here’s our next question: How long does HGH last before its ability to be detected melts away? So someone can take the test clean in February, then shoot up the next day without worry of being looked at again for another year? We need more info on this.

Isn't It Ironic?
Last week, Washington catcher Wilson Ramos is kidnapped in his native Venezuela, is bound, gagged, threatened with death, then rescued without ever being harmed. This past week, Chicago Cub pitcher Carlos Zambrano, pitching winter ball in the land of Hugo Chavez, gets drilled in the face by a line-drive comebacker while on the mound. He needed 16 stitches, but otherwise is okay.

Spending Other People's Money
Baseball’s first nine-digit signing of the offseason didn’t even involve a current free agent—and more surprisingly, it involved Frank McCourt, the bankrupt (financially and otherwise) Los Angeles Dodger owner who re-upped Matt Kemp to eight years and $160 million a year before his current deal with the Dodgers expired. At first, the deal reminded us of the great line from Top Gun when hot shot pilot Tom Cruise is told by one of his superiors: “Son, your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.” But think about it: McCourt likely won’t be paying most of that money, because by this time next year, someone else will be owning the Dodgers.

Diss Week in Baseball
If this isn’t chalkboard fodder for Alex Rodriguez for 2012, we don’t know what is. New York Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, looking back at his team’s first-round playoff ouster at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, suggested that maybe Eric Chavez—he of the zillion disabled list stints over the last five years—might have been a better choice to start at third base ahead of Rodriguez, who was struggling with injury issues of his own. So what’s more insulting to A-Rod: This, or being asked to hit eighth in the 2006 ALDS, also against the Tigers?

Gnome Zone
Move over, bobbleheads; the San Francisco Giants will have a giveaway promotion next year of 20,000 Brian Wilson garden gnomes, complete with beard. Sponsored by Travelocity?

TGG Goes to CafePress
We’ve always gotten raves for how we look at This Great Game, and now you can own a piece of the brand. We’ve opened a page at the popular CafePress site, with apparel, mugs, clocks and other items dressed in the TGG brand now available. We don’t just throw the logo and be done with it, adding in some fun baseball trivia. We even have a boy brief for the ladies that says on the backside: “If baseball is on your mind at this point, we’re just what you need.” Now you can show the world that you’re a baseball expert...and you’ll look good, too. Check it out now!

Now Playing at TGG
The Teams section has been udpated to reflect results from the 2011 regular season.

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