This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: February 2018

MLB’s Quota on Mound Visitation Rights    Air Conditioning for the Baseballs
So Long to Tito Francona, Jack Hamilton and Wally Moon

January 2018    Comebacker Index    March 2018

Thursday, February 1

We hardly knew ye, Mark Appel. The top pick of the 2013 amateur draft, who has yet to make it to the majors, is taking an “indefinite leave” from baseball after struggling through injury and poor results (5.06 earned run average) in the minors for both the Houston and Philadelphia organizations. Appel thus becomes only the third #1 pick in 50-plus years to never log any action at the top level, after Steve Chilcott (1966, New York Mets) and Brien Taylor (1991, New York Yankees).

Veteran catcher Alex Avila signs a two-year, $8.25 million contract to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Avila’s up-and-down career was slightly up in 2017, batting .264 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs over 311 at-bats between Detroit and the Chicago Cubs.

Major League Baseball offers the players union a choice: Play faster in 2018, or we’ll make you play faster. Under the latest play-of-pace proposal, if games this year do not fall under an average of two hours and 55 minutes—13 minutes under the 2017 average—MLB will institute a pitch clock for 2019. The union has until spring to say yay or nay.

Friday, February 2

Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto, one of the last few stars remaining on the Marlins’ depleted roster, probably has more grist to want to get out on the tails of the others who’ve been happily dealt. He loses his arbitration case, meaning he’ll be paid $2.9 million instead of the $3.5 million has asked. Later, Realmuto’s agent makes it official: He wants a trade.

Meanwhile, Arizona pitcher Shelby Miller, who made only four starts last year on top of a woeful 3-12 effort in 2016, wins his arbitration case and will get a $200,000 raise to $4.9 million. It just shows how baseball arbitration can be so…arbitrary.

It apparently took three years, but a man claiming to have had his back broken by Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez and a group of other men (including the late Oscar Taveras) outside of a St. Louis strip club has sued Martinez for $100,000 to help pay off his medical bills. Financials aside, this can’t be good for Martinez’s attempts to shed his past off-field reputation; a few years back, he was admonished by the Cardinals for filling up his social media account with pornographic images.

Sunday, February 4

The players union denies reports that it has discussed the possibility of a spring training boycott as a protest to the continued slow signing of free agents. With just 10 days before teams open camp for pitchers and catchers, 24 of the top 50 free agents have yet to sign, according to ESPN’s free agent tracker.

Meanwhile, a familiar name does find employment with a new team. Pitcher Bartolo Colon, who turns 45 in May, inks a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers. If he earns a spot on the Opening Day roster, Colon will make the Rangers the 11th major league team he has played for.

Colon is one of two active players left (Adrian Beltre being the other) who began their careers in the 1990s, and he’s the last active ex-Expo, playing the second half of the 2002 season in Montreal.

Monday, February 5

In a sign that the New York Mets are out of patience waiting for David Wright to make his comeback, the team signs free agent third baseman Todd Frazier to a two-year, $17 million contract. Frazier has collected 67 homers over the last two years, but has also batted just .220 doing so. The oft-injured Wright, meanwhile, has played only 75 games over the past three seasons—none in 2017—and his prospects for returning to uniform continue to look doubtful.

Tuesday, February 6

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections—one of the early bellwethers of the regular season—are revealed with few surprises, chief among them a rebound for San Francisco (projected at 84-78 after losing 98 games in 2017). PECOTA gives its usual love for Tampa Bay (pinned at 84-78 despite more losses than gains in the offseason, on top of an 80-82 result in 2017) and its usual hate for Kansas City, predicting a 66-96 finish—tied for the worst record in baseball with the talent-stripped Miami Marlins.

As unreliable as preseason projections usually are even in a normal offseason, it’s almost impossible at this point to gauge the crystal ball with so many top free agents still yet to be unsigned.

The Minnesota Twins receive rotten news a week before camp opens when it’s learned that Ervin Santana—the team’s best pitcher over the last two seasons—will be out of action through at least mid-April after undergoing surgery on the middle finger of his throwing hand. Santana had felt discomfort in the finger at the end of last year, but hoped R&R would reduce the pain. Apparently, that was not the cure.

The Giants announce that they will retire Barry Bonds’ #25 uniform this August, breaking from an official stance in which they would only retire numbers of players in the Hall of Fame. Some believe the move is not a protest against the Hall (whose voting members have yet to put Bonds in), but to perform the ceremony while Giants legends Willie Mays (Bonds’ godfather) and Willie McCovey, both in their 80s, are still around to enjoy the moment.

Thursday, February 8

The mother of Pittsburgh back-up catcher Elias Diaz is kidnapped in Diaz’s native Venezuela. This is not the first time such a thing has occurred in a baseball-mad nation that has grown politically mad, unstable and dangerous; Tampa Bay catcher Wilson Ramos, with Washington in 2011, was himself kidnapped and rescued a few days later by authorities.

Diaz’s mother will be rescued two days later and six people—five of whom are reportedly members of an anti-drug police team—will be arrested.

Friday, February 9

The Tampa Bay Rays aren’t ready to build a new ballpark, but at least they now know exactly where they’d like to put one when they get around to it. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announces that he’s eyeing a 14-acre plot of land in Ybor City, a section of Tampa that’s a historic, edgy neighborhood with a Bourbon Street-like nightlife. The Rays are contractually obligated to Tropicana Field through 2027, but are hoping for a new ballpark sooner.

Venezuela just can’t help itself. There’s more bad baseball news from the troubled nation: Pitcher Williams Perez, who spent the 2017 season stuck in the Cubs’ minor league system, is arrested after “accidentally” shooting and killing his former coach, Cesar Quintero. Perez is said to be cooperating with authorities as he explains his role in the incident.

In Chula Vista, California, former pitcher Esteban Loaiza is arrested after he is caught transporting 44 pounds of cocaine and heroin. The 14-year veteran of eight major league teams and two All Star squads made roughly $43,000,000 during his career, so $250,000 in bail would seem a reachable goal—but reports are that much of his earnings has been spent. Loaiza has a checkered past with the law, and more tragically he lost his estranged wife, Mexican singer Jenni Rivera, when she perished in a plane crash in 2012.

Wally Moon, a two-time All-Star outfielder and solid competitor over much of his 12-year major league career, passes away at the age of 87. The Arkansas native hit .304 and scored 106 runs for St. Louis in his maiden 1954 campaign to earn NL Rookie of the Year honors, but he’s best known for his time with the Dodgers while they made the oval Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum their temporary home. Taking advantage of the stadium’s short left-field netting, Moon hit 37 of his 49 homers—“Moon Shots,” they were called—at home from 1959-61. The Dodgers’ move to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium in 1962 sapped Moon’s power, beginning his decline.

Saturday, February 10

We have ourselves the signing of a top free agent (!) as the Cubs reel in pitcher Yu Darvish for six years and $126 million; incentives could raise the total package to $150 million. Darvish, who turns 32 in August, was 10-12 with a 3.86 ERA combined between Texas and the Los Angeles Dodgers last season; he was atrocious in the postseason for the Dodgers, getting bombed in both of his World Series starts.

If players are ragging on teams for being slow to sign free agents this winter, they at least can’t focus much of their ire on the Cubs. With Darvish, they now have signed seven pitchers in the offseason, the second most ever (Texas, 2001).

Monday, February 12

A lawsuit is filed in New York state by Juan Carlos Nunez, who served three months in prison for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, against former employer ACES Baseball Agency for $3 million. The suit alleges that ACES encouraged Nunez to provide steroids to their clients as a way of retaining them; he was also the man behind the infamous fake web site promoting “legitimate” topical creams used by Melky Cabrera before MLB figured out it wasn’t so legitimate and suspended the outfielder. Nunez also was told to give kickbacks to players—most notably closer Fernando Rodney, in 2009—to keep them as an ACES client. ACES co-owners Seth Levinson and Sam Levinson respond to the suit in a statement, which says in part: “This is nothing more than a shakedown by a man broken by his own criminal actions.”

Tuesday, February 13

Chase Utley will return for a 16th season, re-signing with the Dodgers. Although Utley hit just .236 with eight homers over 309 at-bats last season for Los Angeles—and was hitless in 15 postseason at-bats—the Dodgers like the 39-year old’s grit and clubhouse presence.

Tito Francona, the father of Cleveland manager Terry Francona and a veteran major leaguer of 15 years himself, passes away at the age of 84. The left-handed hitting outfielder/first baseman displayed common player status for much of his career, but his 1959 numbers particularly jump out of his back-of-the-baseball-card humdrum. In that year, Francona jumped his batting average 100 points to a remarkable .363—though no one hit higher than him, he failed to win the batting title because he fell 40 plate appearances shy of eligibility—and hit a career-high 20 homers. Francona followed that up with two solid seasons, hitting close to or at .300, leading the AL in doubles in 1960 with 36, and making the AL All-Star roster in 1961 before returning to a part-time mediocre existence for the balance of his playing days. He finished his career with a .272 average, 1,395 hits and 125 home runs.

Thursday, February 15

A couple of mid-line pitchers who have the potential to take it to ace level are checked off the free agent market. Andrew Cashner, who emerged as the Texas Rangers’ most dependable starter with an 11-11 record and fine 3.40 ERA in 2017, signs a two-year, $16 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays give the occasionally effective but oft-injured Jaime Garcia a one-year, $8 million deal, with a $10 million team option (or $2 million buyout) for 2019.

Friday, February 16

The trend of mid-level free agent signings continues. The New York Mets bring on 35-year-old pitcher Jason Vargas, who led the AL with 18 wins in 2017 despite a fair 4.16 ERA, to a two-year, $16 million deal. Southpaw reliever Tony Watson inks with the Giants to strengthen their bullpen, and Edinson Volquez—who threw the majors’ lone no-hitter of 2017 for Miami, and is not expected to pitch this season as he recovers from reconstructive elbow surgery—signs a minor league deal with Texas, as the Rangers hope he’ll be back to full strength for the start of 2019.

Break out the lawyers! Miami-Dade County sues both the past and current regimes of the Marlins, claiming that the sale of the franchise last year came within a 10-year period after the building of Marlins Park and thus forces former owner Jeffrey Loria to give a 5% (or $60 million) cut to the county. Loria’s defense is that he lost money while with the Marlins, therefore technically can claim no profit to share with the county.

Given that Loria bought the team for $158 million and sold it for $1.2 billion, few will believe his story. Six days later, a judge will not; in the first of many legal battles that will be fought to determine this war, a local court rules that the county has a good point and will allow the lawsuit to proceed.

Saturday, February 17

Stop the presses—a Scott Boras client signs. Free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer inks for eight years and $144 million with San Diego, making him the most expensive Padre ever in terms of total dollars. What’s peculiar is that Hosmer will earn $21 million a year through the first five seasons of the deal before he can activate an opt-out clause—but if he stays, he’ll make only $13 million a year for the final three seasons.

This is good news for the Padres, who have lots of raw talent bubbling at the surface and perhaps is making stronger moves now that they’re essentially the only pro sports team left in town with the NFL’s Chargers having moved to Los Angeles. As for the Kansas City Royals—Hosmer’s incumbent team who were reportedly battling the Padres to sign him—the failure to retain him almost certainly puts the final nail in the coffin of their ride to the top in the mid-2010s.

Hosmer won’t be able to wear his #35 from Kansas City in San Diego—the Padres retired that number in honor of 1970s star pitcher Randy Jones—so he’ll wear #30 as a tribute to fallen former teammate Yordano Ventura.

It’s a busy day for the Rays. They trade pitcher Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota, which could use a pitcher after losing ace Ervin Santana for at least the first month of the season; trade a draft pick to the Los Angeles Angels for first baseman C.J. Cron; and designate DH Corey Dickerson for assignment. All of this appears to be about saving money, now, in Tampa Bay; Odorizzi was due to make $6.3 million in 2018, while Dickerson is owed $5.9 million. Cron will make $2.3 million.

Four days later, the Pirates will agree to a trade for Dickerson and take him off of the Rays’ hands.

The low-budget Rays must really be attempting to further tighten the purse strings. Odorizzi still has two years of team control left, and Dickerson was not a heavy price to pay given he was the starting DH for the AL All-Star team last year, hitting .282 with 27 homers in 150 games for the Rays. Does Baseball Prospectus perhaps want to take back its 84-78 projection for Tampa Bay this season?

Monday, February 19

Major League Baseball announces its new pace-of-play rules for 2018—the most significant of which will be the introduction of a quota for mound visits. Each team will now only be given six such visits over nine innings, whether the visitor is the catcher, pitching coach or manager. Exceptions will be made for visits following an offensive substitution, an injury or a chance for a player to clean his cleats in wet weather. Additional visits can be granted by umpires if a catcher and pitcher claim they need to fix a cross-up in communication—which leads us wondering if that will lead to significant abuse of the rule. For those catchers who say they’ll defy the rule, there’s this: If a seventh visit takes place without permission, a pitching change must occur.

Breaks between innings will be reduced to two minutes and five seconds for local broadcasts (down from 2:30), 2:25 for national broadcasts and 2:55 for postseason games. The reductions are sure to rattle TV networks trying to earn advertising revenue to balance out the enormous sums they paid for the rights to the telecasts.

Lastly, Teams will have faster access to video replay to ideally make it quicker to call for a review.

There will be no pitch clock installed—for now.

We’re with the reduced TV breaks and sped-up video rules, but not the mound visit limitations. It may seem an easy target to avoid criticism—after all, mound visits are all talk and no action—but they are an important part of the game for pitchers, catchers and coaches, and to throw a quota on them is rash. Our basic reaction is this: Let them play.

MLB’s web site and app pushes a story featuring a sanitized montage of reactions from players and managers over the new rules, with emotions ranging from optimistic to cautiously optimistic. The more critical responses are not within the story; Cubs pitcher Jon Lester calls them “terrible,” while the Diamondbacks’ Daniel Descalso says, “Not a big fan (of them), to be honest.”

The mating dance between J.D. Martinez and the Boston Red Sox has finally reached consummation. Martinez, who blasted 45 homers in just 119 games last season between Detroit and Arizona, reaches a five-year, $110 million agreement with the Red Sox—who seemed to be the only team to be seriously courting the designated hitter/outfielder. Martinez reportedly was seeking at least $125 million over five years—but with no other serious bidders, his leverage was minimal.

It will take a week for both sides to finalize the contract as concerns over a previous foot injury arise, leading the Red Sox to ask for added language that would protect them should it flare up during the course of the contract.

The Diamondbacks, essentially the only other team to publicly show interest in signing Martinez, make their move in the outfield with free agent Jarrod Dyson. A career part-time outfielder with speed and a .258 average, Dyson will earn $7.5 million over two years.

Chris Tillman, who a year ago appeared to be a top free agent for 2018 before crashing and burning with an awful 1-7 record and 7.84 ERA—earning our dishonor as the AL’s worst pitcher—re-ups with the Baltimore Orioles for one year and $3 million in a performance-laden deal that, if fully, executed, could earn him another $7 million.

Think about that. You have a rotten year at your job and you get rewarded with $3 million. Only in America.

Tuesday, February 20

The Los Angeles Angels announce that they’ll be lowering the home run stripe on the right-field wall at Angel Stadium by 10 feet to accommodate a new out-of-town scoreboard, making it easier for players to go deep to that section of the ballpark. Many suspect the move is enhance the home run count for hotshot newcomer Shohei Ohtani, the left-handed pitcher/slugger who is principally on board to throw but could also likely see extended batting duty.

The paring down of Tampa Bay’s already small budget continues. In a three-team trade, the Rays send outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona, which sends infielder Brandon Drury to the Yankees; the Rays receive four minor leaguers (or players to be named later—so, minor leaguers) from both teams.

Wednesday, February 21

Cameron Maybin is getting a second shot with the Marlins. The once highly-pegged prospect who was considered a key component for Florida in the 2008 trade that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit, Maybin has had an up and (mostly) down career through 11 years—three of those with the Marlins. But Miami, which now has plenty of room to spare in the outfield after dealing away their three starters at that position, sign Maybin to a one-year, $3.25 million contract.

Colby Rasmus has come out of hiding. The taciturn outfielder, who suddenly departed the Rays midway through the 2017 season for reasons not disclosed by neither he nor the team, has signed a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. In an interview a week later, Rasmus will confess that he left the Rays because he wasn’t happy at all playing the game and needed a break.

Thursday, February 22

The Rays, who lately have started to give the neighboring Marlins competition for bragging rights as baseball’s most contemptable organization to their fan base, are given some bad news that’s not of their own making. Pitcher Brad Honeywell, considered the team’s top prospect, will undergo Tommy John surgery and won’t be seen in action until 2019.

Jack Hamilton, an average reliever from the 1960s whose sad claim to infamy is being the pitcher who threw at the head at young Boston star Tony Conigliaro, dies at the age of 79. The right-hander played for six teams in eight years but struggled with his control, walking almost as many batters (348) as he struck out (357). In 1967, he got off to a strong start with the California Angels after a midseason trade from the Mets, winning six of eight decisions with a 2.30 ERA when he took the mound at Fenway Park on August 18 and accidentally drilled Conigliaro in the eye, disrupting the 22-year old’s star trajectory and curtailing his promising career. “I tried to visit him at the hospital but they were only letting the family in,” Hamilton once told the Associated Press. “I never had a chance to see him of say anything to him after that.” Hamilton himself struggled after the incident; he was 3-3 with a 4.80 ERA. Two years later, he was out of baseball.

Friday, February 23

Spring training games begin in full with almost every major league team in action. At Tampa, Giancarlo Stanton makes his debut for the Yankees in a 3-1 win over Detroit, going 0-for-1 with a walk. Out in Arizona, the defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers pounce on the Chicago White Sox, 13-5, with four home runs including one from once-and-current Dodger Matt Kemp; and the Giants lose to Milwaukee in Scottsdale, 6-5, despite allowing no earned runs while committing six errors.

In a supportive nod, all teams wear the caps of Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School a week after it was shot up by an ex-student who killed 17.

Major League Baseball, which refused to admit the ball was juiced last year despite a record number of home runs and complaints from pitchers of ball slickness and excessive blisters, apparently will do something about it anyway for 2018. According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, MLB is ordering teams to keep all game balls stowed in an enclosed air-conditioned space before games, a mild variation of the humidor effect employed in Colorado and (soon) at Phoenix’s hitter-happy Chase Field. Should MLB discover that there is an effect from the AC-affected balls, it could make humidors mandatory for every ballpark starting in 2019.

Saturday, February 24

Young Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani makes his spring training debut for the Los Angeles Angels, allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits, a walk and a wild pitch in 1.1 innings during the Angels 6-5 win over Milwaukee in Tempe, Arizona. Though erratic looking on paper, Ohtani does impress with a 97-MPH fastball and general movement.

Sunday, February 25

Minnesota snags Logan Morrison, drying out on the free agent clothes line despite hitting a career-high 38 home runs last season with Tampa Bay, for one year and $6.5 million. Should Morrison accrue 600 plate appearances in 2018, a second year will kick in for $8 million.

Tuesday, February 27

After a year off from what was presumed to be permanent retirement, two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum agrees to a one-year, $1 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Incentives could enhance the payday, as reports have the 32-year-old Lincecum ready to close as opposed to starting.

Lincecum’s velocity, which during his banner years was close to 100 MPH but had dipped as low as 88, spiked back up to 93 during a recent showcase for scouts. He’ll need it; since 2012, Lincecum is 41-48 with a 4.94 ERA.

The players’ union files a grievance against four teams—Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Miami and Oakland—for not spending the generous sums of revenue sharing that they receive. Those first three teams have undergone major shedding of payroll this offseason, while the A’s just continue to nurture fine young players and then trade them before they become too costly. In response, MLB says that the union’s grievance “has no merit”; Pittsburgh owner Frank Coonelly calls it “patently baseless”; and Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg, waxing puzzlement, says: “I don’t get it.”

Enjoy your baseball for the next four years, because if relations between the players and management continues to deteriorate, it’s quite possible we’ll see a big labor showdown and potential work stoppage in 2022.

Wednesday, February 28

Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel has his hand operated after breaking a bone for what’s reported to be an unknown cause. He will not be ready for action until at least mid-April—and even then, he’ll have to miss five additional games due to a suspension he received during last year’s World Series when he made racist gestures at Los Angeles Dodgers (and now Cubs) pitcher Yu Darvish.

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