These are the most intriguing things about the 2017 MLB season
This season brings more rule changes, more new things to consider about a sport that wants to adapt to the times. It’s a sport that wants to appeal to millennials, get them to love baseball as their parents and grandparents did.
Yet major league players and uniformed personnel resist the changes; all this for the sake of merely reducing the length of games by a few minutes?
A major problem with length of games is that modern hitters don’t swing at the first good pitch they see, like Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays used to do. They have been taught to work the count full and then foul off a few pitches before striking out or walking. This is something we can’t change. It’s simply how the game has evolved.
As much as we get annoyed by hitters stepping out of the box and pitchers taking forever to throw the ball, or the ungodly number of relievers used in a game, the proposed changes to save time are negated by a time-consuming instant replay system.
“I think when people talk about changing the game, sometimes they lose sight of the fact that the game is changing,” commissioner Rob Manfred recently said on CBS Radio. “It has changed dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years, the numbers of strikeouts, the number of home runs, the shifts, how often balls are put in play, the way we use relief pitchers.
“I try to make people understand we’re not talking about changing the game so much as we are about managing the change that is otherwise taking place in the game.”
Already this reporter is hearing complaints from managers about changes in replay. Managers now have 30 seconds to decide whether to review a play. And replay officials in New York now are supposed to rule within two minutes but are given more time if needed.
The standard stay on the disabled list now runs 10 days, not 15.
There’s the automatic intentional walk. No more wondering whether the pitcher will throw one wide to the backstop.
Base coaches have to stay in their boxes before every pitch.
Everyone will get used to the changes over time. If baseball eventually adopts a pitch clock, we will get used to that, too.
Manfred is trying to find ways to improve the pace of play. This is something Red Sox chairman Tom Werner stressed as he made his run for commissioner after Bud Selig stepped down. Batters are being instructed to stay in the box after a ball or strike (other than a foul ball), as they were two years ago.
Aside from rule changes, there are many more reasons to be intrigued by the new season.
For instance, I’m intrigued by 43-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who believes he can play until he’s 50.
I am intrigued by the Cubs, to see whether they can build toward a dynasty.
I am intrigued by Giancarlo Stanton and whether he could be the next 60-homer guy, if he could stay healthy and continue to learn the strike zone.
I am intrigued by Bryce Harper and whether he can become the next Mickey Mantle or whether he continues last season’s statistical decline.
I am intrigued by Mookie Betts. Will he become the superstar we all think he can be, or was last season an outlier? Remember, when Jacoby Ellsbury hit 32 homers, knocked in 105 runs, hit .321, and stole 39 bases in 2011 at age 27, we thought we were witnessing a season that would take Ellsbury’s career to the next level. So did the Yankees, who invested $153 million in him before the 2014 season.
I am intrigued by the rebuilding efforts of the Phillies, Brewers, Braves, Reds, Twins, and Padres and how they will progress.
I am intrigued by the Royals, to see if they’re in the race at the trading deadline, and if not, will they trade pending free agents Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain?
I am intrigued by the Tigers, who tried in vain to break up their veteran nucleus in the offseason but will still be very competitive.
I am intrigued by the Yankees and whether Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Luis Severino can become New York’s next “Core Four.”
I am intrigued by the Mets, who have seven outstanding young pitchers with the potential to dominate.
I am intrigued by the Nationals and whether they can finally get over the hump and win the NL pennant.
I am intrigued by Andrew McCutchen’s potential rebound season.
I am intrigued to see whether Yasiel Puig will ever amount to anything.
I am intrigued to see what baseball is like without David Ortiz and whether Ortiz will get bored and want to unretire.
I am intrigued to see which team turns into a surprise contender. Seattle? Houston? Pittsburgh? Baltimore? Colorado?
I am intrigued by how less foul territory (as a result of extended dugouts and 124 new seats) at Fenway will affect Red Sox pitchers, and whether less foul territory there will add to time of game. Bill Chuck offered this gem two weeks ago: The average time of an AL game in 2016 was 3 hours 1 minute; the games played in Oakland (the most foul territory) were the shortest at 2:52, the games played at Fenway (the least foul territory) were the longest at 3:14.
I am intrigued to see how much the Red Sox will miss Koji Uehara.
I am intrigued by Albert Pujols’s pursuit of 600 home runs, of which he’s nine away.
Welcome in the 2017 baseball season. It should be filled with intrigue.
‘NOT DONE YET’
Nationals should extend Baker
What a tremendous baseball life Nationals manager Dusty Baker has led.
He played 19 seasons in the majors and hit .278 for his career. He hit 242 homers and knocked in 1,013 runs. He had a career OPS of .779. He won one Gold Glove. He made two All-Star teams. He was MVP of the 1977 NLCS. He’s in his 22nd season as a big league manager, with a career record of 1,766-1,571 (.529). He has won one pennant. He managed Barry Bonds.
Baker, 67, took two years off after being fired by the Reds following the 2013 season, then signed a two-year deal to manage Washington. The Nationals haven’t extended his deal, but Baker says he doesn’t mind.
“I’m not done yet,” he said, laughing. “I’d like a new deal. I would love to keep managing.”
And really, there’s no reason to believe he won’t. Baker is beloved by his players. He has a good feeling about this year’s roster, which features an elite starting rotation and a very good lineup led by Bryce Harper.
I asked him, can you tell beforehand when a season is going to be good?
“Not really,” he said. “There are too many variables like injuries and different things that happen in players’ lives. One thing though, you know when you have a bad team. When you leave spring training you know when you have a bad team and you know when you have a good team. Just hard to predict how good sometimes.”
Was he ever surprised by a “bad team” gone good?
“Yeah, it wound up good Chicago [in 2003]. We made a major trade and that’s what helped make us good halfway. We picked up Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon [from Pittsburgh]. We picked up one-sixth of our team and that made us good,” Baker recalled of the Cubs, who lost to the Marlins in the NLCS.
“Everybody says injuries are no factor, but it’s a factor depending on who’s hurt. If your top horses are hurt, it’s a factor. If they are guys who aren’t as important to your team, then you can replace them for a while, but it’s hard to replace your horses. That’s why they’re horses. That’s why I talk about good health. That’s No. 1.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Mitch Moreland told me the Red Sox scouted him at Mississippi State but were looking at him as a pitcher. “There were teams who wanted me as a pitcher and the Red Sox were one of them,” said the Red Sox’ new first baseman. “Texas wanted me to be a hitter so that’s what I chose.” Moreland threw 95 miles per hour in college, and the Gold Glover isn’t afraid to make risky throws in the majors.
2. Ryan Howard still wants to play, but no one’s been willing to give him a chance.
3. If I were looking for a reliever for June/July, I’d be all over the rehabbing Luke Hochevar.
4. The reason Blake Swihart will eventually be the Red Sox’ starting catcher is that he can hit from both sides of the plate. Good defensive catchers such as Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon are easier to find than good-hitting catchers. A.J. Pierzynski, an average to below-average catcher, was a starter for most of his 19 seasons in the majors because he was a .280 career hitter. Look at Joe Mauer. He was an average catcher, but he could hit. Same with Jorge Posada. I can go on and on.
5. I remember a Mariners official, on the day the Red Sox acquired Carson Smith, saying, “He’ll break down because of his delivery.” Sure enough, not long into his first season with Boston, Smith needed Tommy John surgery. Tyler Thornburg, acquired from Milwaukee in December to be the Sox’ setup man, is dealing with a shoulder impingement and will start the season on the disabled list. The Red Sox have been very sensitive about rumors of the injury stemming from their offseason throwing program, but it was Thornburg who brought it up. And by the way, pitching coach Carl Willis said Boston’s throwing program is very similar to the Mariners’ throwing program while he was their pitching coach.
6. Pawtucket will have the highest payroll in Triple A history thanks to Allen Craig’s $11 million and Rusney Castillo’s $10.5 million salaries.
Updates on nine
1. Ervin Santana, RHP, Twins — The White Sox’ Jose Quintana may be the big name on the trading block, but the guy who might soon get a lot of attention is Santana, who wouldn’t cost as much in terms of talent. Santana is owed $28 million over the next two seasons, plus a $1 million buyout of an option year. One AL scout said recently that a combination of Santana’s remaining salary, his ability, and his experience will make him a major trade target. The Astros, Rangers, Dodgers, Pirates, Orioles, and Marlins could all be interested, though the Twins have given no indication that Santana is in play.
2. Jonny Venters, LHP, Rays — The picture of perseverance, Venters is giving it another shot after recovering from a third Tommy John surgery. The former fireballer used to set up for Craig Kimbrel in Atlanta, but he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012. Venters has made a great impression on Rays officials.
3. David Ross, special assistant, Cubs — Ross is living a whirlwind life, working with Theo Epstein, serving part time with ESPN as an analyst, pitching Raisin Bran Crunch cereal, appearing on “Dancing with the Stars,” and co-writing a book. “My life is as far from normal as I could ever imagine,” he said. “I am in the middle of something [“Dancing with the Stars”] I never thought I’d be a part of, and enjoying every minute of it. It’s just so far outside of my box that, to be in this arena and to take, one, a guy that’s a backup catcher and not really a superstar like some in the game and to represent MLB and try to put, with no pun intended, a good foot forward, and just have some fun with this dancing thing. I signed on with ESPN and being a part of that, and still being a part of the Cubs, it’s just been a lot of fun for me.”
4. Brock Holt, utilityman, Red Sox — With Marco Hernandez’s success in camp, there were quite a few scouts watching the Sox who wondered whether the team would now contemplate dealing Holt for either a bullpen piece or back-end starter. But the answer is likely no. Dave Dombrowski said during camp that there had been a great deal of interest in Holt as teams look for position versatility.
5. Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, free agent — Papelbon hasn’t decided whether he will resume his career after stepping away from baseball last season to tend to a family matter. The former Red Sox, Phillies, and Nationals closer has kept details of his family issue quite private.
6. Jayson Werth, LF, Nationals — Remember when Werth and Carl Crawford were the big bats in free agency in 2011? The Red Sox went after Crawford because they needed a lefthanded hitter and Crawford turned out to be a bust for the bulk of his seven-year, $142 million deal, which was paid largely by the Dodgers after he was acquired from Boston. Werth is coming to the end of his seven-year, $126 million deal and the Nationals have no complaints about what Werth has given them, even though a couple of seasons were cut short by injury. “He produced for us,” said one team official. “He gave us good righthanded at-bats, clutch hits, and leadership. He fulfilled his contract.” Werth, who has a .795 OPS with Washington, is still playing well defensively at age 37.
7. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers — The soon-to-turn-38 Beltre is providing a strong example for 23-year-old teammate Rougned Odor, who just signed a six-year, $49.5 million extension. Beltre hasn’t slowed down much as he builds his Hall of Fame résumé. Last year he hit 32 homers and struck out just 66 times in 153 games. It was the second time in Beltre’s career that he hit more than 30 homers and struck out fewer than 70 times. The only other active players to do that are Albert Pujols (nine times), and Victor Martinez and Edwin Encarnacion (once each). Hank Aaron holds the record with 10 such seasons.
8. Kyle Kendrick, RHP, Red Sox — If he knew he was going to pitch this well in spring training, he would have inserted an opt out on March 31 and not June 15. Kendrick would have had a dozen teams trying to sign him. Kendricks went 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA in eight spring games, recording 31 strikeouts and only four walks in 33 innings. The scouts who watched Kendrick consistently came away very impressed.
9. Rickey Henderson, special assistant, A’s — The field at the Oakland Coliseum will be renamed Rickey Henderson Field on Monday in a pregame ceremony. Who knows how much longer the A’s will play there, but Henderson will be a presence at least in name.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Dustin Pedroia will be making his 11th straight start at second for the Red Sox on Opening Day. The only Sox player with more consecutive Opening Day starts at the same position is Carl Yastrzemski, who started 12 consecutive years in front of the Monster, from 1961-72.” . . . Also, “Over the last three seasons, Jose Altuve is the only player with three 200-hit seasons. No one else has more than one. Altuve is also the only player with three 40-plus-doubles seasons.” . . . Happy birthday, Curtis Leskanic (49), Tommy Barrett (57), Al Nipper (58), and Reggie Smith (72).
Hungry for baseball?
The 2017 season opens Sunday and while many fans are focusing on changes on the field, there will be plenty in the stands as well. Here’s a menu of new food offerings around baseball this season. Dig in . . .