14 things to watch for in 2014, a season of change for baseball
On April 2, 1995, at a meeting in Chicago chaired by then-acting commissioner Bud Selig, baseball owners backed down. They voted to accept an offer from the players association to return to work from a 232-day strike, rather than issuing a lockout in defiance of an injunction issued two days earlier by future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. Since that day the game has enjoyed a record run of uninterrupted labor peace.
Fifty-seven days later, a 20-year-shortstop made his major league debut for the Yankees in Seattle. Derek Jeter, despite his 0-for-5 performance, was on his way to becoming one of the most honored, prolific and popular players of the modern era.
In that year, 1995, baseball generated $1.4 billion in revenue. This year the sport will produce about $9 billion in revenue. Reasons for the six-fold growth in the game are vast, touching on areas as diverse as technology and America's ever-expanding appetite for entertainment. But no two individuals have played a more prominent role in the growth of the game over these past 20 seasons than Selig, the sometimes polarizing commissioner, and Jeter, the five-time world champion for the sport's preeminent franchise.
By coincidence, and by their own decree, this season will be their last. Selig repeatedly has insisted that he will retire when his contract expires on Jan. 24, 2015. Jeter announced last month he will retire after this season. Selig and Jeter have been pillars of the game for so long that it is difficult to remember the game without them in positions of leadership, or the men in their jobs who preceded them (Fay Vincent and Tony Fernandez, respectively).
Selig and Jeter have been so important that the 2014 season cannot help but be defined in a large way by their leaving. But it also will be defined by a beginning, something that Braves president John Schuerholz has called the biggest fundamental change to the game since night baseball: an expanded replay system. No longer will an umpire's call stand as the last word. Technology will be used to get it right.
We also will see a groundbreaking rules change (if not an unnecessarily confusing one) that changes more than 100 years of history of how a baserunner can attempt to score a run.
Moreover, on the heels of phenoms in recent years such as Jason Heyward, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez and Michael Wacha, we have more young players barely out of their teens ready to make a big first impression on the game.
And, as much as we like to pretend we're smart enough to know what will happen, we really have no clue what's about to unfold in the utopian world of competitive balance Selig dreamed about in the ruins of the 1994-95 strike. Unless the Boston Red Sox defy recent history, parity and the minefield that is the expanded postseason format, we will tie the longest streak in World Series history without a repeat world champion.
Selig and Jeter are leaving a game that is more robust than ever -- and more unpredictable. Half the fun, though, is anticipating what might happen this season, just as it is in a game itself. So let's have some fun by taking a crack at answering the 14 burning questions for '14.
1. What team has the best chance to win 100 games?
The Los Angeles Dodgers. Let's remember how difficult it is to win 100 games these days. The Dodgers haven't done it in 40 years. Only three teams have done it in the past eight years. And if nobody gets there this year, it will be the first time in the 53-year history of the 162-game schedule that we see three consecutive full seasons without a 100-win team. (You can thank Bud.)
Los Angeles, a team that ripped off a 42-8 streak last summer, has the best shot at 100 because of a deep bullpen and, when the Dodgers are at full health, the most top-tier talent.
2. Will Miguel Cabrera win a third straight MVP?
He is hands-down the best pure hitter in the game and he's extremely durable, so it's very possible. He may miss the bat of Prince Fielder behind him, but Cabrera might also benefit from a club that will run more than last year. But to win the MVP again Cabrera will have to buck this trend: Since 2001, nobody older than 30 has won an MVP Award in either league other than PED-tainted Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds. Cabrera turns 31 in April.
3. Is Mike Trout going to be even better?
Yes. Trout absolutely crushed the ball in spring training, and what you're starting to see is a guy just growing into his power -- which is scary for someone who hit 30 homers at age 20. Trout is starting to turn on more pitches and, for someone who led the league in walks last year, hinting that you might see him ambushing pitchers early in counts. Forty home runs for Trout would not be surprising at all. It would follow the three-year homer paths of Rodriguez (36, 23, 42 home runs) and Albert Pujols (37, 34, 43).
4. What's the best rivalry in baseball?
The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is back in full force after going dormant for years. From 2003-07 both teams made the playoffs in the same year four out of five seasons. But in six seasons since then, only once have they grabbed a playoff spot in the same year, and the gap in wins between the two teams has been no closer than six wins (in order since 2008: 6, 8, 6, 7, 26 and 12).
The Red Sox were downright awful in 2012, and the Yankees punted last year with journeymen and never-weres to keep alive their wish of a $189 million payroll this year. They blew up that plan when they realized they could not compete at that number because of a fallow farm system. So they did what they do best: they spent more money (almost half a billion dollars on free agents) to make themselves relevant again. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann provide a needed power boost, Masahiro Tanaka will be an instant star with his stuff and personality, and Jeter will be an everyday point of focus on his farewell tour.
The gap between Boston and New York has narrowed again. How much? We get seven Yankees-Red Sox games in the first three weeks to begin to find out.
5. How much will expanded replay change the game?
This is big. Replay may not be a factor in every game, and there are bound to be glitches, including stoppages in play that last way too long. (Eventually we should get the crew chief with an earpiece to receive wireless word from New York, and then announce the decision to the crowd over the PA system.) But there are two huge reasons why replay will be such a big hit that we will wonder why it took so darn long to get it: 1) no game should ever again be decided by a blown call; and 2) we get another layer of drama and strategy when it comes to managers' decisions on when to challenge.
6. Did MLB get it right with the new home-plate collision rule?
Nope. This is not going to be good, folks. The new rule effectively banishes the one scenario when a runner "targets" the catcher -- that is, he alters his path to plow into the guy. Great. But the rule doesn't go far enough. Collisions are not "banned." They still can happen and will happen legally -- as long as the catcher has the ball directly in front of the plate. Did the runner veer to hit him? Did the throw take the catcher into his path? Did the catcher have the ball before he was in the runner's path? An umpire has to make all of these assessments in real time -- and the runner has to gauge the timing of when the catcher will have the ball -- and still look to make a correct safe-out call. It's crazy. It begs for replay to sort through it all.
What baseball should have done was adopt a rule similar to college baseball, in which a runner must make an attempt to score the run (as opposed to making an attempt to dislodge the baseball from the catcher), and contact above the waist of the catcher is not considered an attempt to do that. It essentially is the slide-or-avoid rule that every player grows up with in amateur baseball.
Instead, the players union heard the machismo argument from catchers and other players that contact at the plate is "part of the game" and should be allowed under the right circumstance. Players didn't feel as if they had "enough time" to adjust to an outright no-collision rule. It's dumb. We still have collisions. We have a hybrid rule that invites confusion. And we still will get catchers and runners hurt for no good reason.
7. What rookie players not on Opening Day rosters will make the most impact?
Neither Trout nor Harper were on Opening Day rosters in 2012. Wil Myers and Wacha did not make Opening Day rosters last year. Who are the next impact players who will begin the year in the minors? Gregory Polanco, 22, the multi-talented outfielder with the Pirates; George Springer, 24, the outfield prospect with the Astros who is waiting for his service clock to start ticking; Archie Bradley, 21, the power righthander with the Diamondbacks; Addison Russell, the 20-year-old shortstop prospect with the A's; and Javier Baez, 21, the hard-hitting infielder with the Cubs who has the fastest bat since Gary Sheffield.
8. Who are the 2013 Pirates of 2014?
It's happened every season but one in the wild card era (1995-2013): at least one team makes the playoffs the year after a losing record. Actually, in just the past two years seven teams have done it, including three -- the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians -- last year. In order, here are the losing teams from last year that have the best chance to be playing in October this year: 1. Giants. 2. Angels. 3. Padres. 4. Mariners. 5. Brewers.
9. Which former MVP has the best chance of a comeback season?
The game is littered with 30-something former MVPs trying to regain their glory days: Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau, Ichiro Suzuki and, in the banned-for-the-year division, Rodriguez. Braun, 30, should still have enough of his skills post-Biogenesis to post big numbers. But look for a comeback season from Pujols, who never played a day healthy last year and still has off-the-charts hitting intellect and hand-eye skills.
10. What managers could be on hot seat?
Mike Scioscia of the Angels and John Gibbons of the Blue Jays are both in similar tight spots. They have expensive teams that had losing seasons last year and didn't get much better over the winter. Ryne Sandberg of the Phillies would also fall into this category of teams built to win that are trending downward, but this is his first full season.
Ned Yost needs to deliver Kansas City to the postseason. His career winning percentage after 1,572 games is .471 -- the worst record in the past 100 years among anyone permitted to manage that long. And while Joe Girardi looks to be on solid ground, he would rather not become the first Yankees manager since Ralph Houk (1967-73) to have three full non-playoff seasons.
11. Speaking of managers, what can we expect from the new ones?
Six managers will make their Opening Day debut with their new teams. It's not crazy to think two rookies could wind up opposing each other in the World Series; Brad Ausmus in Detroit and Matt Williams in Washington get ready-to-win clubs with their first gig. Alas, they will have to buck this trend: No manager has won the World Series on his first job (not just his first year) since Ozzie Guillen with the 2005 White Sox.
Let's pretend the six newbies get thrown into their own division. What would the order of finish be? How about this: 1. Washington (Williams). 2. Detroit (Ausmus). 3. Cincinnati (Bryan Price). 4. Seattle (Lloyd McClendon). 5. Philadelphia (Ryne Sandberg). 6. Chicago Cubs (Rick Renteria).
12. What trends will we see?
How about more strikeouts and more pitching changes? Yawn. Nothing new there. The only question is how much longer do those trends continue to play out? But also expect to see more defensive shifts -- even within an at-bat according to the count. Teams soon will need a defensive coordinator.
Now it's time for the counter-move. What we should start seeing are pull hitters who put in honest practice time to bunt or push the ball to the open spaces. Teams are giving away hits -- in some cases doubles (see Robinson Cano at Fenway Park last year) -- and hitters are too stubborn or proud to take them. It's all situation-dependent; you don't want David Ortiz bunting for a single with two outs and nobody on base. But there are too many situations right now when taking what the defense gives you is a smart play, and yet it's not even an option for most hitters.
13. What milestones might we see this year?
Pujols needs eight home runs for 500 and two RBIs for 1,500.
Jeter needs 120 hits for sixth place all-time (3,436), which would give him more hits than any righthanded batter in history except Hank Aaron.
Jeter also is likely to set the record for most farewell ovations and parting gifts.
14. Who will replace Selig and Jeter?
It's pure guesswork. There is no obvious successor to either one right now. You would think the owners would get around to a search committee one of these days -- maybe by their May meetings to have recommendation for the November meetings. But the idea of replacing Selig is so foreign to ownership that some of them are buzzing that they may convince him again to stick around. He says "no chance."
Jeter surely will not change his mind. One of the most amazing statistics in a boatload of amazing statistics about Jeter is that he has played in 2,602 games with the Yankees and only one of them was a meaningless game in which his team was mathematically eliminated. Will he go out in a meaningful game or, as Mariano Rivera did, in a rare meaningless one? The answer may be the biggest story of '14.