The Month That Was in Baseball: February 2019
A Sad Goodbye to Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe and Bob Friend
The Pitch Clock Goes to Spring Training • Bruce Bochy’s Swan Song
Friday, February 1
While top free agents remain idle on the market without a new team, others commanding far less in wages continue to get snapped up. The Texas Rangers bring on veteran pitcher Jason Hammel, who’s struggled with a 12-27 record and 5.59 ERA for Kansas City over the last two seasons, to a minor league contract. They also sign Matt Davidson, who’s hit 20-plus home runs for the Chicago White Sox in each of his last two campaigns, but also constantly hit in the .220s with high strikeout totals (165 each in his last two years). Yet the Rangers may see an extra dimension in Davidson, who relishes the chance to also pitch after making three appearances on the mound for the White Sox in 2018, allowing just one hit over three overall innings.
Saturday, February 2
An arbitrator’s decision between Oakland reliever Blake Treinen’s $6.4 million salary request for 2019 salary and the $5.6 million offered by the A’s request is an easy one. After posting a remarkable 0.78 ERA, 38 saves and 9-2 record in 68 appearances for the A’s in 2018, Treinen is granted his wish and will receive the highest payday given to a reliever through arbitration.
Sunday, February 3
The baseball world loses a Warrior as Bob Friend, who was given that nickname by his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates, dies at the age of 88 after suffering cardiac arrest in his sleep. The veteran right-hander evolved out of miserable times in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, snagging an ERA crown for the last-place Bucs in 1955 and winning a major league-best 22 games in 1958; analytically speaking, he’s our choice for the NL’s best pitcher in both 1955 and 1960, the second-best pitcher in Pirates history, and the majors’ 10th best pitcher of the 1950s. But he also lost 16 or more games seven times (often through no fault of his own) and thus has the dishonor of being the only pitcher in major league history to suffer 200 defeats without winning 200, despite a career 3.58 ERA. Writer Leonard Koppett said of Friend: “A gentleman in every sense, respected universally by fellow players. Friend is articulate, cooperative and knowledgable. His blue eyes twinkle with a humor that’s softer than Whitey Ford’s, but rich enough. And if there is such a thing as big league atmosphere, Friend exudes it.”
Monday, February 4
It’s publicly revealed, five months after it happened, that a 79-year-old woman hit by a foul ball at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium died a few days afterward from her injuries. Linda Goldbloom was struck in the head during the ninth inning of an August 25 game between the Dodgers and San Diego Padres while seated in the loge (second deck) section above the protective netting. She was alert, but was carted away by EMT and threw up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, where she died three days later after being unable to recover from brain surgery. Both the Dodgers and the victim’s family kept the matter quiet from the media, with the family sending only an email to friends and other family members acknowledging the incident. After the story is finally reported, nobody involved in the matter wants to add anything to reporters—suggesting that any legal and/or financial dispute was amicably and privately handled between the team and family.
Quick question: In a day and age where literally nothing goes unnoticed in this connected world, how did this story slip under the radar for five months?
Goldbloom is the third known fatality from a foul ball during a major league game—and the second at Dodger Stadium, following a 1970 incident in which a fan was struck by a line foul ball from the Dodgers’ Manny Mota. The other took place during a 1943 game at Washington’s Griffith Stadium when a fan seated in the first row of the stands was hit by an errant throw from Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner.
Tuesday, February 5
For the San Francisco Giants, payback is a bitch. Several years after the Giants denied the Oakland A’s the opportunity to build a ballpark 50 miles to the south in San Jose—because they own territorial rights in that city—their bid to allow football’s Oakland Raiders to play at Oracle Park before their permanent move to Las Vegas is denied. By who? The San Francisco 49ers, who currently play down in Santa Clara, a suburb of San Jose. Why? Because the 49ers hold NFL territorial rights in San Francisco. Thus, a lost opportunity for additional revenue. Tough being on the other side, isn’t it?
Wednesday, February 6
While Lorena Martin’s wrongful-termination suit against the Seattle Mariners has yet to go to court, Major League Baseball has come to its own conclusion and has exonerated the team against her claims that it disparaged players of color, including long-time team ace Felix Hernandez. Martin publicly responds that MLB’s finding is disappointing but not surprising, and finds it “puzzling” that all interviews and information was kept confidential. “I would have hoped for a bit more transparency,” she says.
Veteran pitcher Jeremy Hellickson returns to the Washington Nationals for one year and $1.5 million. The former AL Rookie of the Year had one of his better campaigns of late in 2018, posting a 5-3 record and 3.45 ERA in 19 starts.
Kansas City brings on some closing experience by inking Brad Boxberger to a one-year deal worth $2.2 million. The 30-year-old Boxberger saved 32 games for Arizona in 2018, despite an iffy 4.39 ERA.
Thursday, February 7
The baseball world loses a giant as Frank Robinson passes away at the age of 83 in Los Angeles. The Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star did it all; he was NL Rookie of the Year, hitting a then rookie-record 38 homers at age 20 in 1956; became the first (and still, only) major leaguer to win MVPs in both leagues; earned the triple crown of hitting in 1966 while leading Baltimore to a World Series triumph, a year after Cincinnati let him go because he was “an old 30”; four times accumulated a 1.000+ OPS; and he became the first black manager (and last player-manager in the AL) in 1975 for Cleveland, launching a second career as he piloted four different teams (the Indians, San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal/Washington) for 16 seasons over a 31-year stretch. Robinson finished just 57 hits shy of 3,000 and 14 homers shy of 600; he also stole 204 bases and was hit by pitches another 198 times. Robinson was hard-nosed and hard-driving; not an iconoclast, but certainly someone you had to keep on your toes with. Robinson’s last big honor came in 2005 when President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “In the game we love,” Bush says after learning of his death, “few names will ever command as much respect and esteem as the name of Frank Robinson.”
One of the biggest offseason stories finally concludes as catcher J.T. Realmuto, desperate to leave the rebuilding Miami Marlins, gets his wish and is traded to Philadelphia. In return, the Marlins receive young catcher Jorge Alfaro, two minor league pitchers including top prospect Sixto Sanchez, and $250,000 in international pool cash. Realmuto struggled at the pitcher-friendly Marlins Park where he had a lifetime .245 batting average—but he’s hit .309 everywhere else.
The disabled list will now be officially referred to as the injured list as the request of disability advocates who felt the old name had the wrong ring to it.
Friday, February 8
It’s never too early to get hurt, even before spring camps open. This is unfortunately true for the Cleveland Indians, who discover that star shortstop Francisco Lindor will miss up to nine weeks (and thus Opening Day) after straining his right calf during a workout. Lindor hit .277 in 2018 with 38 homers, 92 RBIs and an AL-best 129 runs scored
Saturday, February 9
Infielder Brett Lawrie, who hasn’t played in the majors (or minors) since 2016, is taken on by Milwaukee in a comeback attempt by signing a minor-league deal. The 29-year old was cut by the Chicago White Sox in the spring of 2017 after suffering a lower-body injury, and was never brought on by any organization until today.
Sunday, February 10
Hosting the Caribbean Series on a moment’s notice after scheduled host Venezuela had to bow out due to widespread social and political unrest, Panama defeats Cuba 3-1 to win the tournament. Panama had previously won the series in 1950, using mostly American players—but hadn’t even played in the tournament since 1960.
Monday, February 11
Kyler Murray, last year’s first-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s—but also last year’s winner of the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player—announces via a professionally designed graphic tweet that he’s choosing a career as a pro football quarterback over baseball. Murray will return all but $300,000 of the $1.5 signing bonus with the A’s, and won’t see any of the $3.16 million that was due to him had he reported to spring training. But he’ll likely earn a whole lot more by joining the National Football League as an expected first-round pick—earning instant star attention as opposed to taking bus rides between Stockton and Rancho Cucamonga for a year or two.
Tuesday, February 12
Reliever Sergio Romo, who was the first “opener” for Tampa Bay when the Rays began their audacious bullpenning experiment in 2018, signs a one-year deal for $1.25 million with the Miami Marlins. Romo started five games, relieved in 68 others and saved 25 last season, accumulating a 3-4 record and 4.14 ERA.
Wednesday, February 13
Young Philadelphia ace Aaron Nola is rewarded for his solid early returns with a four-year, $45 million extension that will cover his final three years of arbitration and first year of free agency. Additionally, the Phillies have a fifth-year team option worth $16 million in 2023.
Friday, February 15
Another day, another arbitration-level ace signing an extension. The Yankees’ Luis Severino is given a four-year deal guaranteeing $40 million, covering the final four years of his arbitration period. There is a team-option fifth year that will gross Severino another $12.25 million should the Yankees enact it.
It’s becoming quite clear that teams are seeing more value in younger players and giving them better wages during their arbitration years, usually edging into their first year or two of free agency. This is probably one more reason why free agents aren’t getting the time of day from prospective teams like they used to.
Sunday, February 17
Commissioner Rob Manfred announces that a 20-second pitch clock will be used during spring training games, likely a test run to make sure everyone gets used to it should he decree its use in the regular season—which he has the unilateral authority to do. No pitcher will be penalized for going over the time limit (a called ball, fine); Manfred wants to give them the chance to get used to the countdown.
Trust us: If pitchers aren’t going to get penalized in any way during spring games, they’ll ignore it. Perhaps Manfred realizes this as well and may be using this as a way to put public pressure on the pitchers. Here’s another thought:
Why doesn’t Manfred just nose into his own rulebook and read Rule 8.04, which currently states: “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call ‘Ball.’” Just order umpires to start enforcing that rule—or just strip it from the rulebook if you plan to ignore it.
Monday, February 18
San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy announces that he’ll retire following the upcoming 2019 season. Bochy, who is in the last year of his contract, has managed the last 24 years, 12 each for the Giants and San Diego Padres, with four pennants and three world titles with the Giants this decade. With a career record 1,926-1,944 (Retrosheet.org has him at 1,924-1,943, owing to brief absences that he officially still gets credit for), Bochy needs 74 wins this year to reach 2,000—and 90 to ensure at least a lifetime .500 record. But he’s 44-33 in the postseason with three rings—and that’s why he’s likely to end up in Cooperstown in the not-too-distant future.
It’s quite possible that the old-school Bochy saw the writing on the wall and figured he would not be retained by the Giants for 2020, given the recent front office addition of analytics-embracing Farhan Zaidi as their president of baseball operations.
Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija says this: “Unfortunately after this you’re going to have 30 puppets out there.”
Two current Hall-of-Fame members enshrined as managers did so with losing records: Connie Mack and Bucky Harris.
Tuesday, February 19
The big-shot free agent dam final breaks. Manny Machado is given a 10-year, $300 million package from the San Diego Padres, moving him down the freeway and keeping him in the NL West after spending the end of last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s the second largest pact in baseball history, surpassed only by the $325 million the Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton in 2015.
For all the grief bouncing around baseball about how even the biggest big-time free agents aren’t getting the love, Machado ends up getting pretty much what he had hoped.
Veteran third baseman Mike Moustakas may not agree with our above note, as he again has struggled to secure an optimal deal of his own via free agency. But he’s happy to be back in Milwaukee after signing a $7 million, one-year deal with a mutual option for 2020 totaling another $11 million (with a $3 million buyout). This pushes the Brewers’ current 2019 team payroll to a team-record $130 million.
Former Dodgers pitching great Don Newcombe, the majors’ first African-American pitching star and first player ever to win Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards, passes away at the age of 92. The big (6’4”, 220 pounds), temperamental right-hander was an immediate revelation for Brooklyn, winning at least 20 games in three of his first six years—peaking in 1956 with a 27-7 record that earned him MVP and Cy honors. But Newcombe had his demons. He lost the dominance when it mattered the most; he failed to win any of five postseason starts with an awful 8.59 ERA, and couldn’t win key season-ending games in 1950 (against the Phillies) and 1951 (against the Giants and Bobby Thomson) that would have given the Dodgers two more pennants. He couldn’t conquer the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with its ridiculously short left field dimensions when the Dodgers moved to California, prompting a trade to Cincinnati that removed him from the spotlight. And off the field, Newcombe was so addicted to alcohol that he sold away his 1955 World Series ring to buy more booze; he finally got himself straightened out in 1966 after his second wife threatened a divorce. But he goes down in the books as a terrific pitcher, posting a career 149-90 record and 3.56 ERA playing mostly in live ballparks—while also batting .270 with 15 home runs over 878 lifetime at-bats.
Wednesday, February 20
After making $10 million last season, veteran infielder Josh Harrison snares a $2 million, one-year deal with Detroit. The source for such depreciation in his wages could be found in his recent numbers; since hitting .315 for Pittsburgh in 2014, Harrison’s numbers have steadily declined, with a .250 mark in 2018 over 97 games.
Thursday, February 21
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s attempt to kick off the spring training exhibition schedule, but maybe it’s too early to attempt it. Persistently cold and wet weather throughout the Southwest takes its toll on the Phoenix area, as rain and temperatures barely reaching 50 degrees put a premature end to a 5-0 Seattle lead in the second inning. Both teams are trying to get a headstart on the spring schedule as they’re four weeks away from an early start to the regular season with a pair of games in Tokyo.
Nick Cafardo, a veteran sports reporter of 30 years for the Boston Globe, dies at the Red Sox’ training facility in Fort Myers, Florida after suffering an embolism. After collapsing, the 62-year-old Cafardo is immediately attended to by Red Sox medical staff, who are unable to revive him.
Friday, February 22
The Minnesota Twins sign free agent outfielder Marwin Gonzalez to a two-year, $21 million contract. The 29-year-old Venezuelan had a severe dropdown in his numbers in 2018, batting .247 with 16 home runs and 68 RBIs after going .303-23-90 the year before, but is valued for his switch-hitting abilities and versatility in the field where he can play both the outfield and infield.
Saturday, February 23
The Cleveland Indians, looking for a little more beef in their lineup, sign 35-year-old Hanley Ramirez to a minor league deal. The three-time All-Star slugger suffered through an inglorious 2018 with the Red Sox, hitting .254 with seven homers through a third of the season before being released—all despite still being owed $15 million on the final year of his contract.
Monday, February 25
A couple of contract extensions brighten up the day for a few major league employees. The Yankees’ Aaron Hicks, who belted a career-high 27 homers with an .833 OPS in 2018, is rewarded with $70 million over six years and a seventh-year club option that could increase the total number to over $81 million. And the Rockies, impressed with Bud Black’s managerial success to date, give him another three years of guaranteed wages after leading the team to a postseason spot last year.
It’s only spring training, but the Twins’ Byron Buxton is making an immediate impression. The one-time top prospect whose expected breakout season in 2018 devolved into a total breakdown instead—he hit .156 with no homers and four RBIs in 90 at-bats—has his second straight spring game with a home run and five RBIs to start the exhibition schedule. Overall, Buxton is 5-for-5 with a double added in.
Tuesday, February 26
A day after securing their current manager for the future, the Rockies do the same to their best player. Perennial All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado is given an eight-year extension worth a whopping $260 million, which at $32.5 million makes him the highest-paid position player by annual salary in baseball history. The contract includes an opt-out after three seasons, and erases an arbitration-record $26 million he was due to make in 2019. Over his last four years, Arenado has averaged 40 home runs and 126 RBIs.
This is a great move by the Rockies to retain one of the best all-around players in the game as he hits what’s expected to be his peak years. Arenado is currently without peer at third base (though fans of Oakland’s Matt Chapman might disagree), and he’s a major danger with the bat both at Coors Field and on the road. He may very well emerge as the greatest player in Rockies history—if he hasn’t already.
Also extended is St. Louis pitcher Miles Mikolas, who is rewarded for a breakout 2018 campaign (18-4 record, 2.83 ERA) with a six-year deal worth $70 million. The 30-year-old right-hander struggled for three years in the majors, then fled to Japan for three more seasons where he acquired a positive groove before returning to the States.
Thursday, February 28
Bryce Harper finally finds a new home. The Philadelphia Phillies, long considered one of the prime favorites to land the 26-year-old star slugger, get it done with a 13-year megadeal worth a baseball-record $330 million. The annual salary of $25.38 million is lower than anticipated, but Harper sacrifices some of that for long-term longevity with one club; he even goes against the advice of agent Scott Boras and insists on no opt-out clauses. The Phillies win out over the Giants—which offered $310 million over 12 years—and the Dodgers, who reportedly was trying to coax Harper with a shorter deal at a higher annual salary.
With the offseason acquisitions of Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto and now Harper, The Phillies will surely be considered the favorites in the NL East from many prognosticators.
The Giants’ reported offer was almost on par with that of the Phillies, and one would have expected Harper to side with a West Coast team near his hometown of Las Vegas. But the Giants also were handicapped by high California taxes that would eaten into Harper’s earnings, and an expansive ballpark (Oracle Park) that would have eaten into his power numbers—two major factors that make it difficult for the team to acquire such free agents, as we recently listed.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, in the dugout during a spring game in Florida, gets word of the Harper deal from fans in the stands behind him waiving cell phones with the news at him.
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