Baseball’s nine biggest story lines at the start of the season:
1. Derek Jeter’s retirement
The positive face of the game for so long (did baseball take advantage of him to the fullest?), Jeter has his biggest challenge — showing that he’s recovered from ankle surgery.
If he’s slowed or unable to perform as he has in the past, the Yankees could be in for a long season. In my conversation with Jeter early in spring training, he felt he could finish on top, not embarrass himself, and hold down the position one more time, much like teammate Mariano Rivera did in his final season.
2. Bud Selig to retire?
This is supposed to be the commissioner’s final season, but we could question it based on the fact you don’t hear about a possible replacement. With no collective bargaining agreement pending, it would appear Selig, who oversees an $8 billion industry, could stay one more year while a suitable replacement is found for 2016. Selig oversaw a $1.2 billion industry when he took over in 1992, and now, “I’m not sure we can reach $9 billion this year, but you never know,” he said Friday.
3. The Red Sox’ quest to repeat
The last time it happened was 2000, when the Yankees won their third consecutive title with a core of Jeter, Rivera, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada, and complemented by the most perfect blend of veterans such as Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch, Mike Stanton, and Jeff Nelson.
The Red Sox went the free agent route last season, employing seven new faces for their title run. This year, they add Grady Sizemore, replacing the uniquely talented Jacoby Ellsbury in what could be the most significant loss in baseball, and A.J. Pierzynski, but a core of position players Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli remains. The Sox will introduce rookie Xander Bogaerts to the lineup, while the pitching staff is virtually the same, with the exception of free agent reliever Edward Mujica.
4. Stiffer PED penalties
Players have finally come around to what Selig has wanted for a long time, the strictest penalties for performance-enhancing drug use among the four major sports.
PED use will be scorned more than ever. New rules will double the number of random tests, and the number of blood collections for human growth hormone will increase to 400 per year.
A first offense will now carry an 80-game suspension, up 30 games; a second offense comes with a full 162-game suspension and loss of a year’s salary; and a third offense will result in a permanent ban. And from here on out, players who serve suspensions will not be allowed to participate in the postseason.
5. The influx of youth
We mentioned Bogaerts, but at some point this season we’ll also see Noah Syndergaard, a high 90s righthander with the Mets; Alex Meyer, another hard thrower, who should make his way up to Minnesota; and Cubs left fielder Junior Lake and shortstop Javier Baez. The Diamondbacks will bring up hard-throwing righty Archie Bradley soon, while the Astros will introduce outfielder George Springer and the Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco.
We’ll see explosive international talent such as White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (Cuba) and Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (Japan).
We’ll also see the next stage for talented youngsters Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks, Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, and Danny Salazar.
6. Instant replay
A game-changer. How often it will be used, none of us know. The hope is not very often. The bugs were worked out to some degree in spring training, though teams such as the Red Sox did not have a communication system set up between the person determining whether the play should be challenged (Billy Broadbent) and manager John Farrell. There will likely be some gray areas at first as to what can or cannot be reviewed. And how much time it takes to get the call from the central office should be interesting.
7. Home plate collision rule
Will this take the fun out of baseball? Eliminate a collision where the runner tries to dislodge the ball from the catcher’s mitt? That’s the fear. It doesn’t happen very often and we’ll see if injuries are reduced as a result. The rule will come into play if the runner goes out of his way to knock over the catcher. That’s going to be a judgment call. Hello, instant replay.
8. The Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera debate
“Miguel Cabrera is my friend, but Mike Trout is the best player in baseball,” said Ortiz. Hard to argue. Cabrera, who is moving to first base, will go for his third straight MVP. Trout is the best all-around player and everyone is curious to see how great he can be.
9. Potential for surprise teams
It’s always interesting to see who emerges and who doesn’t live up to the hype. Two teams that could be better than people think — the Brewers in the NL Central and the Angels in the AL West. Both teams have players to keep an eye on, such as Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, who is coming off a PED suspension, and comebacking Angels Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, both of whom had strong springs.
Will Red Sox break pattern for Lester?
The Red Sox are going through what most GMs and owners hate, trying to hammer out the right contract for their No. 1 pitcher.
The Sox are all about team-friendly deals, for pitchers and position players. They’ve done a lot of them recently, including with Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski, Edward Mujica, and David Ortiz. Shorter commitments for less-than-market value.
When the Sox knew Jacoby Ellsbury wouldn’t agree to one, they didn’t even make him an offer, and instead picked off Grady Sizemore for $750,000 guaranteed with incentives that could the deal worth up to $6 million.
So, if Jon Lester wants to sign an extension with the Red Sox, he’d better forget the six-year, $144 million offer Max Scherzer just declined from the Tigers and be willing to take a lot less.
Scherzer and Lester have averaged 15-9 records over their careers, Scherzer with a 3.67 ERA and Lester 3.76. Lester, 30, is a year older and has a 100-56 record and 1.304 WHIP, while Scherzer is 73-45 with a a 1.229 WHIP.
“Because of the volatility it’s difficult to hand those out, but because of the limited number of quality consistent performers, you’re forced to consider it,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.
Cashman has negotiated his share of long-term deals for starting pitchers, including with CC Sabathia, and Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, who signed a seven-year, $155 million deal this offseason.
Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet, got the Dodgers to pony up $215 million, but now he’s got a back issue.
“We just don’t think there’s a pitcher better than Kershaw on or off the field,” said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti.
The Lester negotiations will be a true test of how much faith the Red Sox have in their top prospects. Enough to let Lester sign a long-term deal with another team if he doesn’t fall in line with their parameters?
Brandon Workman looks like the real deal, but can the Sox say that about Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa? Matt Barnes was shut down with shoulder issues. Anthony Ranaudo had an inconsistent camp. Lefthander Henry Owens was topping out at 92-93 miles per hour but was still effective.
Lester is tried and true, but he too would be taking a big risk by not signing before the end of the season. It’s not the style of Lester’s agents, the Levinson brothers, to get every last dollar, but then again, Lester doesn’t want to set a lower market for other pitchers, either.
New deals for Justin Masterson, James Shields, Scherzer, and David Price are also looming. Masterson, Shields, and Scherzer are potential free agents, while Price, two years from free agency, is getting to the unaffordable stage of his arbitration years with the Rays.
Apropos of nothing
1. Why do teams protect first-round picks Nos. 20-30 when so few of them become impact players? Since 2000, only Matt Cain (Giants), Chad Billingsley (Dodgers), Carlos Quentin (Diamondbacks), Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox), Glen Perkins (Twins), Adam Wainwright (Cardinals), Mike Trout (Angels), Matt Garza (Twins) have made an impact from those spots in the draft. The others are fringe major leaguers or busts. Boston’s No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft (20th overall), Kolbrin Vitek, just retired (as reported by WEEI.com’s Alex Speier) because of injuries. “You can’t give away those picks every year, but we know the draft is a crapshoot unless you have one of the top 10 picks,” said Orioles GM Dan Duquette, who gave up the 17th pick to sign Ubaldo Jimenez, yet justified it by making three top international signings.
2. Top-selling players in terms of merchandise since Jan. 1, according to Fanatics.com: 1. Derek Jeter; 2. David Ortiz; 3. Mike Trout; 4. Dustin Pedroia; 5. Buster Posey.
3. Think Ortiz is already kicking himself for agreeing to options based on plate appearances in his one-year, $16 million extension after seeing Miguel Cabrera’s new deal?
4. Pedro Martinez will likely be a first ballot Hall of Famer next season, and he’ll go in as a Red Sox. Wonder if he’ll have his number retired (the team does not issue No. 45), even though he fled to the Mets and then the Phillies over the final four years of his career.
5. ’Tis the season for polls. The St. Leo University Polling Institute in Florida conducted a national survey of 1,009 people. Jeter emerged as the most popular player with 39 first-place votes. Others: Ortiz (11), Cabrera (9), Freddie Freeman (6), Alex Rodriguez (5), Chase Utley (5), Pedroia (5), and Justin Verlander (5). All time? Babe Ruth (29), Hank Aaron (21) Mickey Mantle (17), Willie Mays (15), Jackie Robinson (12), Jeter (11), Cal Ripken Jr. (9), Ken Griffey Jr. (8), Nolan Ryan (8), Roberto Clemente (8), Ted Williams (7), and Joe DiMaggio (7).
6. Defensive shifting is extremely popular nowadays. Bill Chuck points out that on July 14, 1946, Indians manager Lou Boudreau put on what amounted to the first shift ever, against Williams. He had the second baseman behind the first baseman in short right field and also had the shortstop and third baseman on the second base side of the infield. The left fielder was in left-center, the center fielder in deep right-center, and the right fielder almost on the line. According to the Globe story by Jack Malaney, Williams stepped out of the box and started laughing. But Boudreau won the battle.
Updates on nine
1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers — While it’s true that baseball executives were for the most part aghast at the Cabrera extension of eight years at $248 million, with options that make it worth more than $300 million, most of the ones I spoke to were from small to medium markets. But as a National League GM said, “So you let it play out and disgruntle the player? I have the utmost respect for Dave Dombrowski and he knows the situation better than the rest of us.”
2. Casey Kelly, RHP, Padres — The Padres have never reaped the benefits of Kelly’s promise after the Adrian Gonzalez deal with Boston. GM Josh Byrnes told me he’s still very high on Kelly, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, and “essentially his spring training progression starts about now. Possibly available by May.”
3. Johan Santana, LHP, Orioles — GM Dan Duquette has been very pleased with the progress the veteran has made in his throwing program. The Orioles have no idea what to expect from him, but Duquette loves his competitiveness and believes there’s a chance he’ll find a way to win a few games for them down the road.
4. Alex Wilson, RHP, Red Sox — Seems like one of the forgotten men with the Sox’ pitching depth, but scouts have played him up in their assessments. Said one AL scout, “He’s got that reliever’s mentality, but he battles you, normally locates well. He could be in the back end of bullpens of 20-25 teams right now.”
5. Daniel Bard, RHP, Rangers — GM Jon Daniels told me he’s pleased with how Bard is coming along from thoracic outlet surgery in early January. “He’s starting to throw off the mound and progressing toward getting out in system on rehab,” Daniels said. The big question is, was Bard’s throwing disorder physical, mental, or both? Will the surgery allow him to get past the mental aspect? Everyone is eager to see how Bard, once baseball’s top setup man, responds.
6. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers — One thing GM Ned Colletti doesn’t want to do with Puig is “take away his passion and enthusiasm.” Yet Puig still has difficulty with cutoff throws and base running. “He doesn’t believe there’s anyone who can outrun his throws and there’s no base he can’t get to,” said Colletti. “That’s what I mean about his enthusiasm and confidence. But on the other hand, we need to get him to do those things. The spotlight is always on him. He’s a kid who took the game by storm, tremendous ability. We look forward to what’s ahead.”
7. Alfredo Aceves, RHP, Yankees — After the Orioles decided Aceves couldn’t nail down the 12th spot on their staff, Aceves and his agent, Tom O’Connell, opted out of the deal. O’Connell said he received a few calls from interested teams and settled on the Yankees, for whom Aceves began his career and had a lot of success. Aceves can opt out of his deal in July, but given the Yankees’ thin bullpen, he has a shot to stick.
8. Bo Greenwell, OF, Red Sox — Mike Greenwell’s son was on the bubble as far as hanging on with the organization. The Sox are into comeback stories and Greenwell, who has had three surgeries on his left knee, is certainly that. Greenwell was signed in early March as a free agent after being released by the Indians. Meanwhile, his father has become a successful organic vegetable farmer in the Fort Myers, Fla., area, owning more than 80 acres of land.
9. Josh Willingham, OF, Twins — The Twins are hoping the regular season will ignite something in Willingham’s swing, which was awful during camp when he went 2 for 41 (.049) with 14 strikeouts. The Twins aren’t worried yet, but they need him to be a top producer in their batting order and entering the season you can’t say with certainty he’ll be that.
From the Bill Chuck files — “CC Sabathia has recorded at least 11 wins in each of his 13 seasons. Don Sutton did it in his ﬁrst 17 seasons, Eddie Plank in his ﬁrst 16 seasons, and Tom Seaver in his ﬁrst 13 seasons.” . . . Also, “Pitching for Cleveland in 1991, Red Sox manager John Farrell had Tommy John surgery, the only major league player to have it that season. There were 23 players in 2013 and 46 in 2012 who had the procedure.” . . . Happy birthday, Josh Bard (36).