The 2011 baseball year surprised us at so many turns. Offense was dialed back to 1992 levels, none of the nine biggest payrolls in baseball won a postseason series, not one but two teams suffered pennant race collapses of historic proportions, and the Cardinals joined the 1986 Mets as the only teams to be one strike from elimination and win the World Series -- and then they lost two franchise icons.
Amid such chaos, it was worth remembering the brilliantly twisted words of Casey Stengel, who once cautioned, "Never make predictions, especially about the future."
Fair enough. With 2011 and such Stengelese in mind, as the new year dawns let this be an opportunity not for predictions -- remember that Phillies-Red Sox World Series talk this time last year? -- but for sticking with what we know will happen. It will be a season of changes, many of which are brought about by the new collective bargaining agreement. What's so new about the new year? Here are 15 new developments for 2012:
1. The Rangers, locked in a fresh rivalry with the Angels, will spend more. Texas faces a Jan. 18 deadline to get pitcher Yu Darvish signed, and it likely will take $60 million or so to get it done -- more money than Daisuke Matsuzaka got from the Red Sox in 2007 for a guy who is younger, bigger, has better stuff and brings a better track record than Dice-K.
Then there is the boatload of money they will offer Josh Hamilton to keep him away from free agency after the season. Hamilton turns 31 this season and has played 135 games only once. But he is an impact player who boasts nearly the same profile as Ryan Braun at the time Braun signed a five-year, $105 million extension that begins in his age 32 season:
2. The quality of the 2012 free agency class will be defined in the next two months. In addition to Hamilton, pitchers Cole Hamels and Matt Cain can hit free agency this year, so the Phillies and Giants, respectively, will make a run at locking them up. Hamels and Cain figure to pull down more than the $85 million over five years the Angels gave Jered Weaver, who signed his extension in August when he was a bit further from free agency and as a Southern California guy agreed to a team-friendly contract. Check out how they compare:
3. Albert Pujols will face enormous pressure. The guy who turns 32 this month and is in a slight three-year decline now faces the burden of trying to live up to a $254 million contract immediately. Changing teams with a huge contract has not worked well recently. Consider the three biggest signings of each of the previous two winters. Among those six players, only Cliff Lee worked out well for his team -- and Lee had already played in Philadelphia, so his was not a fresh start. Take a look at the other five and compare their ERA+ or OPS+ in the first year with their new team to their previous career mark, and notice that none of those big spenders made the playoffs:
4. Winning no longer takes a 25-man effort. Time to update your encyclopedia of clichés. Rosters will expand to 26 for certain doubleheaders, a ridiculous idea that came from managers, who have pushed the specialization of bullpens to such absurd lengths that a 25-man roster is no longer enough to cover the rare doubleheaders.
It was only 1986 when we saw the greatest postseason ever staged with 24-man rosters, the owners having cut rosters that season to save money. Where does it end?
5. Tobacco police. Players no longer can carry smokeless tobacco with them on the field (no more tins in the back pocket) and cannot use it during televised interviews or any team events where fans are present. Enforcement and penalties are unclear. Shirt stains are even worse.
6. Owners will decide soon whether to expand the playoffs this year or next. They are expected to discuss at their Jan. 11-12 meeting in Phoenix whether the postseason television schedule can be tweaked to include the one-game wild card knockout game this year. A final determination must be made by March 1, but a decision is expected before then. A second wild card, which will equate to 89 wins on average, figures to have an immediate impact on teams on the cusp of contention, such as Toronto, Miami and Washington.
7. The June draft will look very different. It will cause teams to spend less money (the industry, which spent $228 million on bonuses last year, has $185 million to spend on the first 10 rounds), encourage many high school players to go to college (the ones who formerly received big bonuses in late rounds), prompt quicker signings (the deadline this year is July 13, about a month earlier), and allow draft picks to be traded for the first time (but only the 12 "competitive balance lottery" picks and only during the season).
8. Nobody will test positive for HGH. Congratulations to the owners and players for agreeing to the first blood testing program for HGH in North American sports. The details aren't nearly as impressive as the headline. Players will be tested only once -- when they show up for spring training, which amounts to an announced test. As the saying goes in drug testing, this is not a drug test, it's an IQ test. Players can be tested during the season only with reasonable cause, an extremely high and unlikely threshold.
Some players will have blood drawn during spring training solely to study if blood testing causes any effect on competition (i.e. stamina) to see if in-season testing is possible. Hello? Baseball already has a control study group with a large sample size: minor leaguers already have been tested in-season for HGH, with Rockies minor leaguer Mike Jacobs failing a test last year.
9. Braun faces a suspension. The NL MVP may indeed have a plausible explanation why he flunked a drug test in October for elevated levels of testosterone. But to win the appeal he has to prove the testing protocols were flawed (highly unlikely, given the state of the art testing and its established history) or that he received MLB approval for a prescribed drug, known as a Therapuetic Use Exemption. Taking a banned drug accidently or by prescription but without MLB approval are not grounds for a successful appeal, so Braun will need an unprecedented defense to avoid or reduce the suspension.
10. The All-Star Game in Kansas City will be well attended by star players. To skip the game, players must be hurt or -- and this creates a large gray area - "otherwise excused by the commissioner's office," according to the CBA. So now it's up to Bud Selig to give approval if a guy simply wants the time off to rest, as Derek Jeter did last year.
11. Umpires get magic wands. Instant replay will be expanded to include a second look at trapped and fair/foul balls, which puts umpires in a position to divine what might have happened. Here's an example: A line drive is hit near the rightfield line. Runners at first and second base. The ball immediately is ruled foul and everybody stops play. Replay, however, shows the ball was fair. Now what? The umpires have to judge where to place the runners. Can't wait for the first game decided by virtual walkoff.
12. The biggest milestones belong to ballparks, not ballplayers. Fenway Park turns 100, Dodger Stadium turns 50, Oriole Park at Camden Yards turns 20, and the newly named, newly outfitted Miami Marlins open their new ballpark, which is a cutting-edge facility made for these times: It comes complete with an aquarium behind home plate and an SEC investigation.
13. Veteran comebacks, Part I. Among the star players coming back from an injury-shortened 2011 will be Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, Buster Posey of the Giants, Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and Joe Mauer of the Twins. Forty-nine year old pitcher Jamie Moyer, a free agent, would love to join them. Ryan Howard of the Phillies and Matsuzaka will make in-season comebacks. And don't forget about the comeback of Boston manager Bobby Valentine, who returns to a major league managing gig for the first time in a decade.
14. Veteran comebacks, Part II. The Swinging Friar of the Padres, the cartoon bird of the Orioles and the original bird of the Blue Jays all return for 2012, while the Mets will incorporate some 1962 styling to their uniforms on their 50th anniversary.
15. Hall of Fame voting gets even noisier. The whining and hand-wringing -- largely due to The Steroid Era -- will get even worse as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza make their debut on ballots mailed out in December. Also added to the ballot will be Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Kenny Lofton and David Wells.
Ballots are due before the last day of the year -- or 10 days after the end of the world as some have interpreted from the Maya Long Count calendar. Of course, not many people take seriously 12/21/12 as the end of days. But many people suddenly will take doomsday more seriously depending on whether a certain team wins the World Series.
After all, it was exactly 100 years ago tomorrow that a 16-year-old kid arrived in America for what would become a future as a famous tavern owner in Chicago. Billy Sianis would become even more famous as the man who at the 1945 World Series, upon being ejected from Wrigley Field on account of the stench of his pet goat, put a curse upon the Cubs that they should never win another World Series.
The curse remains intact. The Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908. It has not been quite as long as the Long Count calendar (13 periods of 144,000 days each), though a lifelong Cubs fan can be forgiven for thinking of them as of equal length.