This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: February 2017

Randy Levine’s Sore Loser Routine    Goodbye, Intentional Walk (As We Know it)
Our Five Over-Under Locks for 2017    The Ideal U.S. WBC Team

January 2017    Comebacker Index    March 2017

Wednesday, February 1

The St. Louis Cardinals give 25-year-old pitcher Carlos Martinez, owner of a 30-16 record and 3.03 ERA over the last two seasons, a five-year, $51 million extension. It’s the largest deal, in terms of money, given to a player in his first year of eligible arbitration—easily topping the $38 million received by Cleveland’s Corey Kluber in 2015. Martinez’s contract also includes two additional team option years that would extend the deal through 2023.

Friday, February 3

Veteran reliever Sergio Romo, who’s spent each of his nine major league seasons with the San Francisco Giants—earning three World Series rings in the process—inks a one-year deal with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

After the average game time of a major league contest rise four minutes to just over three hours in 2016, commissioner Rob Manfred is publicly acknowledging that he is pushing players to speed up games once more in 2017. Widely discussed among the latest ideas is to reduce the number of mound visits from catchers, but nothing is etched in stone yet as spring training is around the corner.

Here’s a thought to move things along: Just enforce the current rules. Umpires seem more hesitant to remind batters to stay in the batter’s box between pitches, a rule designed before the 2015 season to reduce stoppage time.

The gradual lax enforcement seems to be a habit for umpires; they laid off baseball’s decree to get by-the-book strict in calling balks in 1988, charging pitchers 253 times in April but only 101 by September (and no, it was not a case of pitchers wising up); and in 1995, when the word was given to speed up the games, umpires did their part to enforce the decree early on before getting lazy and returning to the status quo—all while the Lords never bothered to remind them. If Manfred truly wants to keep the game from slowing down, he needs to keep the whip on the umps and install daily discipline from above.

Sunday, February 5

With an intensified focus on finding starting pitching in the wake of Yordano Ventura’s sudden and tragic death, the Kansas City Royals sign Jason Hammel to a two-year, $16 million deal. The 34-year-old Hammel spent the last two-plus years with the Chicago Cubs and won 15 games for the world champions in 2016, but he was left off the postseason roster—and the Cubs declined his $12 million option for 2017.

Tuesday, February 7

Two of baseball’s more powerful sluggers left on the free agent market find new teams for 2017. Chris Carter, who co-led the National League with 41 homers in 2016, inks a one-year, $3 million deal to play for the Yankees. Meanwhile in Texas, Mike Napoli is returning to the Rangers for the third time—he played in Arlington from 2011-12 and part of 2015—after mashing 34 homers with 101 runs batted in for Cleveland last season. Napoli’s deal is also for one year.

Baseball Prospectus’ metric-based PECOTA projections, typically among the first to predict the upcoming baseball season, are released—and as usual, there are some eye-opening picks that stand out. Among them: That the Tampa Bay Rays, who lost 94 games in 2016, will finish second in the AL East at 85-77; that the Minnesota Twins, who lost 103 games, will finish second in the AL Central at 80-82; and that the St. Louis Cardinals will underperform at 77-85 and finish just two games out of the NL Central basement. And as it always seems to be with PECOTA, the Kansas City Royals give no love whatsoever—slated to finish dead with the American League’s worst record (at 72-90).

If the Vegas sportsbooks came out with some of these wins totals, a lot of money could be made by bettors.

Wednesday, February 8

MLB, again searching in vain for something, anything to keep games from going too long, suggests another scheme; any extra inning will begin with a runner automatically placed at second base, a tactic previously used at World Baseball Classic games and one that will be tested in several rookie leagues this summer. MLB Chief Baseball officer and former manager Joe Torre: “Let’s see what it looks like. It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time.” Commissioner Rob Manfred admits later that if this rule is adopted into the majors, it won’t be for a long time.

Baseball is obviously concerned about marathon games that last well into the night and mess with players’ time clocks and travel itineraries. But this is yet another dopey idea that sloppily attempts to forge a manufactured, shortened result while the game continues to ignore the more basic, transparent issues that could so cleanly speed up the game without messing with the rules—mostly, all the wasted time between pitches thanks to pitchers and hitters going through so many unnecessary time-wasting quirks. As we have tirelessly mentioned over and over before (including February 3, above), umpires should be called upon to enforce the timing rules already in the books to avoid these silly conversations.

Pitcher C.J. Wilson announces that he is retiring from baseball at the age of 36. The left-hander, known for his good looks, good results (94-70 career record over 11 years) and for once showing up Texas manager Ron Washington while being removed from the mound, says he’s been buying up several luxury car dealerships in Fresno, California and is going to run an auto racing team.

Rosters for the upcoming 16-team World Baseball Classic tournament are officially set. Participating are 63 major leaguers with All-Star Game experience, including 25 from last year’s game. For the United States team, there’s a pretty impressive starting lineup among position players to be culled from the 34-man roster, but there’s a noticeable absence of star pitching talent—once again underscoring the WBC’s lack of weight as many players continue to value club over country, in contrast to other sports such as soccer (where the World Cup is king.)

Following is our projected starting U.S. nine, top four starting pitchers and closer—and, in parentheses, who would be the best option if everyone were willing and available to play.

Catcher: Buster Posey (Buster Posey)
First Base: Paul Goldschmidt (Paul Goldschmidt)
Second Base: Daniel Murphy (Daniel Murphy)
Shortstop: Brandon Crawford (Corey Seager)
Third Base: Nolan Arenado (Nolan Arenado)
Outfielder: Giancarlo Stanton (Giancarlo Stanton)
Outfielder: Christian Yelich (Mike Trout)
Outfielder: Andrew McCutchen (Mookie Betts)
Pitcher: Chris Archer (Clayton Kershaw)
Pitcher: Tanner Roark (Max Scherzer)
Pitcher: J.A. Happ (Kyle Hendricks)
Pitcher: Michael Fulmer (Madison Bumgarner)
Closer: Andrew Miller (Zach Britton)

Thursday, February 9

Could it actually be? Reports are circulating that Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, reviled as one of baseball’s worst ever, has a “handshake agreement” to sell the club for $1.6 billion. Among those on the buying end is Joshua Kushner, the younger brother of President Donald Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. The rumored sale price is more than double the estimated worth of the team as defined by Forbes Magazine.

Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins slugger who in the past has been publicly at odds with Loria, had this to say about the possible sale as the team assembled for a media luncheon in Miami: “Happy first day back.”

There’s another Trump connection revealed a few days later that could actually complicate the sale, as Loria is said to be the leading candidate to become the President’s ambassador to France. If that happens, the Kushner group says it will not buy the Marlins to avoid potential scrutiny for forging political favors.

Friday, February 10

Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers since 1992, dies at the age of 87. After making a fortune by starting up Little Caesar’s pizza, Ilitch bought the Tigers and resided through some severe ups and downs with the franchise—losing 119 games in 2003, followed just three years later with the first of two AL pennants under his watch. (The Tigers went on to lose both World Series.) Ilitch also helped forge the building of Comerica Park (replacing aging Tiger Stadium) and in later years was known for his generous payrolls that made the Tigers a perennial force in the AL Central. He also owned hockey’s Detroit Red Wings and founded the Little Caesar’s pizza chain.

Ilitch’s son Chris Ilitch will succeed him as the new Tigers owner.

Two days after the PECOTA projections are released, the Atlantis Casino in Reno, as it is its custom, becomes the first sportsbook to release expected wins total for all 30 MLB teams in 2017. The predictions range from a top figure of 95.5 for the defending world champion Chicago Cubs to a low of 64.5 for the rebuilding San Diego Padres. As usual, we have our five picks for teams we would recommend a safe bet on:

Baltimore (84.5): Over. Manager Buck Showalter has made a habit of beating expectations year after year. There’s no reason to presume things will be any different this season.

New York Yankees (83.5): Over. The Yankees met the over last year even as they bottomed out and underwent their idea of a rebuild. Signs point to further improvement this season.

Arizona (78.5): Under. The assumption is that Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller can’t be any worse than last season, but the Diamondbacks, who underwent a front office metamorphosis and head-scratchingly traded sparkplug Jean Segura over the offseason, could trade talent, cash out and begin the tanking process if the season doesn’t get off to a great start. Which is more likely than not.

Minnesota (70.5): Under. Sure, the Twins still have upside with a youthful offense—it was supposed to kick in last year, but didn’t—but they badly still lack pitching.

San Diego (64.5): Over. The Padres are back to being a no-name outfit and the overall vibe is far from great—hey, A.J. Preller, how about that one-month suspension—but the team historically has played with enough grit to be competitive on any given day. Hence it’s safe to say that the Padres will be better than 64-98.

Sunday, February 12

Brandon Phillips, who had seemed inclined to stay in Cincinnati after vetoing several trade attempts even as a rebuild takes full force there, finally agrees to a deal that will send him to the Atlanta Braves—who badly want the 35-year-old second baseman in the wake of a shoulder injury to Sean Rodrgiuez from a car accident that could sideline him for the entire season. The Reds receive a couple of minor league pitchers in exchange for Phillips, who currently ranks on several of the franchise’s modern-era (since 1900) top 10 lists.

Monday, February 13

Eleven major league teams open their doors to spring training as catchers, pitchers and a few other position players eager to get a move on things show up to begin preparations for the 2017 season. Most other teams will open their camps in the next few days to follow.

Travis Wood joins former ex-Cubs teammate Jason Hammel in Kansas City by signing a two-year, $12 million deal with the Royals. A former starter, the 30-year-old Wood was a pure reliever for Chicago in 2016, appearing out of the bullpen 77 times and registering a 4-0 record and 2.95 ERA. The Royals, who struggled against left-handed hitters last season, are looking forward to utilizing the southpaw.

The Washington Nationals, in search of some power backbone, pick up 33-year-old veteran Adam Lind, whose up-and-down career included a yield of 20 homers and a .239 average for Seattle in 2016.

Tuesday, February 14

The opening of training camps also brings out revelations that not every player survived the winter downtime intact. The St. Louis Cardinals’ young Alex Reyes, possessor of a 100-MPH fastball, shows up to camp with a tear in his elbow and will have to undergo Tommy John surgery, ending his 2017 season before it even starts. Baltimore ace Chris Tillman is struggling to return to form after undergoing a platelet-rich plasma injection in December and my not be ready for Opening Day. And at Kansas City camp, it’s reported that Royals reliever Brian Flynn will miss eight weeks after an incident last week in which he broke a rib and several vertebrae after falling through the roof of his barn. He will miss up to eight weeks.

Friday, February 17

Outfielder Nick Swisher, who toiled briefly in the Yankees’ farm system last season and hasn’t played in the majors since 2015, announces his retirement by stating in an article he pens for The Players’ Tribune web site, “The Dream is Over, Baby!” Surprisingly, Swisher doesn’t first make the announcement through his Twitter account, for which he has attracted more followers than any other major league player going back to the app’s beginnings. (Currently, he has 1.72 million followers.) As for his play on the field, Swisher held a consistent power stroke, launching at least 20 home runs per season from 2005-13—capped by a career-high 35 for the 2006 Oakland A’s. But he never could never make that next step to greatness, with only one All-Star Game appearance (in 2010) to vouch for.

Saturday, February 18

Arbitration hearings give players not yet eligible for free agency the chance to call the salary they feel they deserve, but it can also cause friction between the player and the teams that wish to pay them less. This was more prevalent in the 1980s when owners still stinging from constant labor losses sometimes went to extremes to win the hearings. The Chicago White Sox’ Ron Kittle once went into his arbitration hearing only to watch the White Sox present a video compilation of his worst moments on the field—leading him to wonder why the team wanted him at all.

Yankees president Randy Levine delves a bit into that contentious playbook by calling a morning press conference to blast star reliever Dellin Betances, who asked for $5 million via arbitration while the Yankees countered with $3 million. Levine complains that the $5 million sought by Betances had “no bearing in reality,” that it’s “very well established that $5 million goes to elite closers,” and finally, this: “It’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut.’” All this sounds like angry ranting from the losing side, but here’s the rub: Levine and the Yankees won the arbitration.

If we may respond to Levine: First, even common relievers are now earning in excess of $5 million, and Betances is not your common reliever; over his first three full years in the majors, he’s posted a 1.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 391 strikeouts over 247 innings. Second, elite closers make far more than $5 million, as Levine of all people should know; his team signed Aroldis Chapman over the winter for a five-year deal averaging $17 million a season. And third, when you win your arbitration hearing, be happy, sit down and shut up.

Needless to say, Betances is less happy, as he should. He lost the arbitration, but Levine’s dissing angered him more. He later tells reporters: “You look at it a little differently now. I think (free agency) will be a little easier when the time comes.” Unfortunately for Betances, that won’t happen for another three years.

After 11 seasons at Anaheim—where he made it to #1 on our list of the Angels’ greatest pitchersJered Weaver has a new home as the San Diego Padres sign the 34-year-old right-hander to a one-year, $3 million deal. Weaver badly lacks the zip he once possessed on his fastball—he’s lucky to surpass 85 on the radar gun—but he still finds ways to win, managing a 12-12 record for a subpar Angels team in 2016 despite a 5.06 ERA.

The Angels, meanwhile, appear to dispense recent rumors of a move elsewhere within Orange County. Owner Arte Moreno announces that the team will stay at Angel Stadium—the majors’ fourth oldest ballpark—through 2029. That would make it a 65-year ride in a venue that has undergone a number of transformations over the years and hardly looks its age.

Sunday, February 19

Free agent veteran pitcher Jorge De La Rosa, who’s tamed Coors Field better than any pitcher in Colorado Rockies history, is invited to Arizona Diamondbacks spring camp and, if he makes the roster, will earn a $2.25 million salary for 2017. De La Rosa is the all-time Rockies leader in wins and strikeouts and his career ERA at mile-high Coors is 4.29—not a wowing number, but easily better than any other Rockies pitcher, ever—yet he struggled last season, his ninth with the club, with a 5.51 ERA.

At his potential new home of Chase Field, De La Rosa has a career 1-8 mark and 5.05 ERA in 12 starts.

Monday, February 20

On Presidents Day, first-year Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler makes it known that he’s not happy with the restrictive (and, for the moment, illegal) immigration “ban” forged by President Donald Trump. At the heart of Fowler’s complaint is that his wife is an immigrant from Iran, one of seven countries targeted in Trump’s crackdown. Fowler gets no loves on his Twitter account from Cardinals fans who reside in America’s Heartland and, by and large, are likely Trump supporters. Rather than get heated back at the haters, Fowler has a better idea for them—personally offering free spring training tickets as an olive branch.

Tuesday, February 21

Catcher Matt Wieters, the biggest name still left on the free agent market, finally lands a new team as the Washington Nationals sign him to a one-year deal for $10.5 million with a player option for 2018. The signing plugs up one of the Nationals’ bigger holes for the upcoming season; now, they’ll have to hope that Shawn Kelley can perform his best impersonation of departed closer Mark Melancon.

Wednesday, February 22

Say goodbye to the intentional walk as we know it. MLB and the players’ union agree to change the procedure of the free pass, allowing teams to give an opponent first base via a simple sign from the manager as opposed to the pitcher actually having to throw four pitches outside of the plate. This is the first in what MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred hopes will be many time-saving adjustments over the next few years.

Will the “pitchless” intentional walk really save time? Not really. There was one such occurrence every 2.6 games last season—and some of them were often done in advance of a pitching change. Don’t be surprised if there are more “unintentional” intentional walks still requiring four pitches, to give the next guy warming up in the bullpen more time to get ready.

The Arizona Diamondbacks kick off the spring training schedule with a 9-1 victory over Grand Canyon University.

Friday, February 24

The first active slate of spring training games takes place with six contests spread between Florida and Arizona. The exhibition schedule is starting a little earlier this year to accommodate the World Baseball Classic, which will run from March 6-22.

Saturday, February 25

The players aren’t the only ones trying to get their timing down at spring training. During an exhibition game between Cleveland and Cincinnati at Goodyear, Arizona, the field sprinklers suddenly start up during the eighth inning.

Sunday, February 26

At some point, Josh Hamilton will play baseball again…or maybe he won’t. The injury-scarred former MVP, trying to rev it up once again for the Texas Rangers, will need arthroscopic knee surgery and, once recovered, will likely get extensive minor league duty just to prove he can hold up. The 35-year-old Hamilton hasn’t played in the majors since 2015 and logged all of two minor league at-bats during 2016; he is in the last year of a contract that will pay him $28 million this season—almost all of it by the Angels, who traded him to Texas in 2015.

Tuesday, February 28

He’s not the closer the Nationals are badly in need of, but they’ll take Joe Blanton, a former starter who’s effectively reinvented himself as a reliever. The veteran right-hander is 14-4 with a 2.65 ERA over the last two years coming out of the bullpen, after being dishonored by This Great Game as the AL’s worst pitcher in 2014 with a 2-14 record and 6.04 ERA as a starter for the Angels. Blanton signs for one year and $4 million with Washington.

It’s only a spring training game but, nevertheless, a 19-0 loss to Tampa Bay does not bode well for the Minnesota Twins, trying to recover from 103 losses last season. It the final score doesn’t sound bad enough, the Twins don’t even get a runner to reach base until the eighth inning. Minnesota drops to 2-3 in exhibition play.

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