Twenty things to watch this baseball season
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Twenty things to watch for this baseball season:
1. The Giancarlo Stanton/Aaron Judge Show: The Yankees are near the center of attention in any season, but you ain't seen nothing yet. Some are describing it as Ruth/Gehrig reincarnated. Of course it could also be a flop, but we tend to doubt it. Will there be droughts? Absolutely. But the upside should be quite a spectacle.
2. The Angels will draw the attention of the baseball world with two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, who will draw a Japanese media contingent of more than 100, surpassing even the Daisuke Matsuzaka craze that invaded Boston in 2007. Ohtani will be manager Mike Scioscia's biggest challenge, trying to incorporate him into a six-man pitching rotation, while also getting him some DH at-bats. Should be interesting and good for baseball.
3. Can the Astros go back to back? Absolutely no reason they can't, except that it rarely happens. The Astros seem even more stacked than they were a year ago. They'll have Justin Verlander for a full season, though he's a year older. They have added Gerrit Cole to the rotation, and bullpen pieces Joe Smith and Hector Rondon.
4. The comeback of David Price could be the most important topic of this season. Why? Because a Red Sox dynamic duo of Chris Sale and Price could offset the Yankees' Herculean lineup. After Price's 2017, which included a major injury for the first time in his excellent career, he seems determined to rebound with a 30-plus-start season.
5. Will veteran acquisitions Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, as well as the return of legendary executive Brian Sabean, return the Giants to a force in the NationalLeague? The Giants were horrible last season but have greatly improved their offense, and their pitching remains solid.
6. How deep will the disconnect grow between players and their union leader Tony Clark, and against the owners? Many free agents remain available, despite games having begun in spring training. By agreeing to luxury-tax limits and penalties for going over that tax, the players basically agreed to a salary cap. This has reduced their earning potential. Resentment is growing both against the players' leadership and against the owners.
7. How many games will the Marlins lose? This could be epic. We're guessing between 100-120.
8. The J.D. Martinez factor in the Red Sox lineup will be closely scrutinized. He is basically David Ortiz's replacement. The Red Sox need 40-plus home run power. Only six righthanded batters have hit 40-plus homers in a season for the Red Sox: Manny Ramirez (three times), Jimmie Foxx (twice), Jim Rice, Tony Armas, Dick Stuart, and Rico Petrocelli.
9. Bryce Harper will be the most-watched player in baseball. If he has a great season, we will see a free agent period orchestrated by Scott Boras like we've never seen. This will be a mind-blowing contract, likely in the 10-year range and north of $300 million. Maybe even $400 million. So there's pressure for Harper, who is only 26, to have a 2015-type season.
10. How about these new pace-of-play rules? The biggie is no more than six mound visits per nine innings, with a couple of "special circumstances" provisions. Players are griping that they need to get signals straight, especially late in games when sign-stealing goes on. The other stuff is fairly easy. The time between innings, the warm-ups for pitchers ending 20 seconds before the 2:05 clock expires, should be easy to execute.
11. Wondering which young player will emerge as baseball's next superstar. Our candidates include Rafael Devers (Red Sox), Christian Arroyo (Rays), Gleyber Torres (Yankees), Ronald Acuna (Braves).
12. We're going to see the results of baseball's latest trend — young, inexperienced managers taking over significant teams. It likely will be hard for Aaron Boone (Yankees), Alex Cora (Red Sox), and Dave Martinez (Nationals) to fail because of stacked lineups. Gabe Kapler (Phillies) has it a little tougher, though there are no expectations quite yet in Philadelphia. And Mickey Calloway (Mets) will have to prove himself in New York.
13. We await the future destination of Chris Archer. You know he's going to be the next and biggest name to be traded by the Rays, who are on a mission to deal their valuable assets for top prospects. Archer has forever been linked to the Dodgers, but the Brewers, Yankees, Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, and Orioles could also be in the mix for him.
14. Will Calloway be able to make the leap from pitching coach to manager? And more important, will he be able to return the Mets' pitching staff to prominence? If he can, the Mets, who have added some nice offensive pieces in Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and Adrian Gonzalez, could be interesting to follow again.
15. Strikeouts, strikeouts, strikeouts. It's either a strikeout or a home run. The home run part is exciting, but can anyone put the ball in play anymore?
16. Teams including the Red Sox are apparently going to adopt the Astros' approach at the plate and swing early in the count. It worked well for the Astros. We also have a "launch angle" approach, where swings are elevated to hit fly balls, and hopefully home runs. The concept was adopted by, among others, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron. But it's new again.
17. Never has there been more devaluing of scouts. This will be the year we'll see even traditional teams such as the Red Sox do away with live advance scouting and rely solely on video for their preparation, eliminating the human fact-finding scouts do when they're live at an event.
18. The Twins began their return to contention last season, and it will continue. They added Jake Odorizzi to their staff, and Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney to the bullpen. This should be a contending team in the American League Central, with the possibility of challenging the Indians.
19. In addition to the Marlins, other "tanking" teams will likely be the Tigers (who would have thought?), Reds, Pirates, and Rays. It's not going to be pretty to watch their games.
20. Manny Machado will go back to playing shortstop for the Orioles as he enters his free agent season. While we seem to think he'll eventually be a Yankee, it wouldn't be out of the blue to see Orioles owner Peter Angelos realize that Machado is the face of the franchise and make a substantial offer to retain him. Then again, Machado, who will turn 26 in July, will also receive a decade-long free agent offer from somebody, whether it's the Yankees, Phillies, who will have a lot of money to spend, or some mystery team (Red Sox?).
Free agents keeping busy
Hey, keep this between us, OK? There's a free agent camp going on in Bradenton, Fla. Media and major league scouts are not allowed. The free agents are working out to get ready for the season, but the Players Association doesn't want anyone to know it.
We did get some information from Jarrod Saltalamacchia, one of the players at the camp. Salty tells us he's trying to keep in shape for the season in case he gets a call. He's only 32 and feels he's fixed some of the offensive problems he had last season before he was released by the Blue Jays.
Saltalamacchia, who caught 119 games for the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox, estimates there are about 50 players at the free agent camp. He said the numbers started small (about 15) and have increased over time.
The "name" players we know of are veteran reliever Tyler Clippard, ex-Red Sox slugger Mike Napoli, former Rays and Orioles outfielder/DH Luke Scott, and veteran third baseman Chris Johnson.
Saltalamacchia said that while scouts aren't allowed, if they petition the union to work out a specific player, they can gain access. Saltalamacchia said he had not received any invitations to this point but did have a Tigers scout watch him hit the other day.
"Bo [Porter] has done a great job to keep things organized," Saltalamacchia said. "It's like a regular spring training. The pitchers are on their own program, but [Tom] Gordon is there to make sure they stick to their programs."
Saltalamacchia acknowledges that as player with his experience, he's disappointed not to have a spring training invitation at this point. While he understands the union's view of not wanting the camp to turn into a media event or circus, "we would have liked more positive coverage of what we're doing here rather than publicity like we're complaining about money."
Saltalamacchia acknowledges his offense was really messed up last season. He said he went to the West Coast to work with new hitting coaches. As it turns out, they were J.D. Martinez's coaches — Robert Van Scoyoc and Craig Wallenbrock — who have stellar reputations. But Salty said the work he did in California didn't work for him. So this year he's gone back to his longtime hitting coach, Brian Oliveri.
"I made adjustments with my load and got away from a toe tap," Saltalamacchia said. "I feel quicker now, and like I used to. When I hit for the Tigers scout he said he definitely noticed a difference and that I look good. It's definitely frustrating. Last year was a bad year. I feel where I've proven myself over the years and where I'm offering to go to Triple A and be an insurance policy, I'm just frustrated nobody has taken my offer. I think it will happen."
Saltalamacchia said the Red Sox told him they are all set for catchers, and his agents, the Levinson brothers, have reached out to teams on several occasions, to no avail.
So Salty will endure the secret free agent camp and hope a team changes its mind and gives him a call.
Apropos of nothing
1. Jose Bautista, who hit 288 of his 331 homers for the Blue Jays, is one of the many free agents out in the cold right now. Bautista, 37, has tried to keep a positive attitude. "I'm just focusing on getting ready for the season like I always do, and see what happens," he said. Bautista said he's working out on his own and not taking part in the free agent camp. He has been working on his approach at the plate all offseason and feels he can get back to his best days if he gets a chance. "Baseball is a game of constant adjustments and I didn't make them in a timely manner last season," Bautista said. Teams such as the Twins, Rays, and Marlins could use a middle-of-the-order hitter.
2. Here's one of the reasons the Red Sox will stress launch angle with their hitters this season, courtesy of Bill Chuck: "The Oakland A's hit the fewest ground balls in baseball last season with 1,542 (.242 batting average), the Padres hit the fewest in the National League with 1,668 (.258 average). The Marlins hit the most in baseball with 2,153 (.261 average), the Red Sox hit the most in the American League with 2,040 (.248 average)." Elevate, baby.
3. Northeastern plays Auburn March 9-11. It'll pit NU coach Mike Glavine (Tom Glavine's brother) vs. Auburn freshman lefthander Peyton Glavine (Tom's son).
4. There's one advantage new Red Sox manager Alex Cora has: he's bilingual. Cora is often seen speaking Spanish to Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Eduardo Rodriguez, Eduardo Nunez, and others. "It's a huge advantage," Cora said. "You can communicate directly and clearly. Sometimes when there's an interpreter involved things can get lost in the translation. This way the player gets it clearly. There's no chance things will get misunderstood." Cora said his language skills came up during interviews both when he got the bench coach job in Houston and the manager job in Boston.
5. It was amazing meeting Jimmie Foxx's daughter, Nanci Foxx Canaday, and 95-year-old George Yankowski, who played for the Philadelphia A's and Connie Mack in the 1940s, at The Villages, Fla. Yankowski was the Red Sox' Dick Berardino's high school baseball coach at Watertown.
6. Sorry to hear of former Red Sox lefthander Vaughn Eshelman's struggles with kidney and liver failure. Eshelman is only 48 but he's fighting.
7. What perseverance by Jonny Venters, who was Craig Kimbrel's setup man in Atlanta. Venters has had three Tommy John surgeries and another elbow procedure, and he is making yet another comeback attempt with the Rays.
8. After breaking their 108-year curse, the Cubs didn't get as far as they wanted last season, but they've added Yu Darvish (while losing Jake Arrieta), as well as Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow to the bullpen. They added new coaches in Chili Davis and Brian Butterfield. They await a great season from Kyle Schwarber. The expectation is the Cubs could be great again as Theo Epstein has tried to reshape this team on a yearly basis, as he did in Boston.
9. There's been stone-cold silence on free agent third baseman Mike Moustakas. He'll likely be somewhere soon, but will it be on a long-term deal? The Braves, White Sox, Phillies, and Orioles could be possible landing spots, but this has been the most blatant free agent snub of the offseason.
10. NESN's Tom Caron suggests this compromise to the Yawkey Way renaming debate: Change the name to "Yawkey Foundation Way." This would recognize the philanthropy aspect.
From the Bill Chuck files — "Mookie Betts led the majors last season with 70 popups; only two fell for hits (.029 batting average). Mike Moustakas, who is still job-hunting, went 1 for 62 on popups, and new Mets third sacker Todd Frazier was 0 for 57 . . . Also, "In 2011 and in 2005, 108 pitchers made 25-plus starts, the most ever. In 2016, there were 92, and last season there were 91." . . . Happy birthday, Rich Rowland (54), Dana Kiecker (57), and Danny Cater (78).