This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: January 2017

Deaths on a Dominican Highway    The New Kids in the Hall
No More Motel 6’s for Minor League Umps  President Obama Pardons the Cubs

Comebacker Index     February 2017

Sunday, January 1

In a somewhat baseball-related note on the last day of the National Football League’s regular season, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Mike Trout is personally given a football from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback/good friend Carson Wentz following a touchdown pass against the rival Dallas Cowboys. Which leads us to ask: Along with activities as dirt-bike riding, skateboarding, surfing, et al, shouldn’t Trout’s non-recreational clause of his contract also include sitting among notoriously rabid Eagles fans?

Tuesday, January 3

The Arizona Diamondbacks, tied to their current lease with Chase Field through 2028—they officially can’t even talk with an outside group about building a new plant until 2024—sue Maricopa County to get out of it. The team says that the 18-year-old ballpark needs $187 million in repairs, though the county claims that what the Diamondbacks really want are cosmetic updates, intended to reduce the venue’s 48,000-seat capacity and increase ticket demand.

Rajai Davis, Cleveland’s would-be World Series hero whose three-run homer tied the Chicago Cubs to helped send Game Seven into extra innings—where the Indians lost—signs a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s. This is the second stay for Davis in Oakland, who performed there from 2008-10 and has also played for five other teams over an 11-year career. His 365 steals are the fifth highest total among active players.

Friday, January 6

The Seattle Mariners heat up a cool hot stove winter by making two trades. They being in pitcher Yovani Gallardo from Baltimore for outfielder Seth Smith, and outfielder Jarrod Dyson from Kansas City for pitcher Nathan Karns. The acquisition of Dyson will provide the Mariners with additional speed—he stole 30 bases as a part-timer for the Royals in 2016—while it’s hoped that Gallardo will bring a vintage veteran presence to the club after a rather dismal (6-8, 5.42 earned run average) effort for the Orioles.

For the Mariners’ sake, let’s home the trade for Gallardo will work out better than the last trade the team made with Baltimore—when they gave away eventual major league home run champ Mark Trumbo for part-time catcher Steve Clevenger, who was banished from the team late last season for making insensitive remarks about Black Lives Matter on his Twitter account.

Sunday, January 8

Manny Ramirez’s Hall-of-Fame fate (for this year, at least) is less than two weeks from being decided, but for now he has bigger things on his mind. Such as, his latest comeback with an obscure independent team in Japan, as he agrees to play this upcoming season with the Kochi Fighting Dogs in the Shikoku Island League Plus. The controversial slugger, now 44, hasn’t played in the majors since 2011 but has made several tries at a return, including three separate minor league stints, two stays in Dominican winter ball and a brief foray in Korea.

Some players just can’t let the game go, but with $200 million (before taxes) in the bank, you got to say this about Ramirez: He just loves to play. Nothing wrong with that.

Monday, January 9

Minor league umpires agree to a new labor agreement that bumps up salary (with a minimum of $2,000 per month for Class-A umps and $2,600 for those in Triple-A) and per diem by $2 a day. They will also receive up to five paid days off, work with baseball officials on new evaluation technology, and will be guaranteed “interior access” to hotel rooms—in other words, no more one-star motels.

The deal should remind us all that players aren’t the only ones who have it tough trying to make a life of it in the minors; it’s even worse for the umpires, whose chances for advancement to the majors are next to nothing, given the microscopic turnover that takes place at the big-league level. According to the new pay range, the highest-paid umps in Triple-A will receive no more than $3,900 a month—still, barely $20,000 a year.

Colby Rasmus is headed to his fourth team in nine years after signing a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for a base salary of $5 million. The 30-year-old outfielder has endured a somewhat interesting career to date, which includes a series of clashes with Hall-of-Fame manager Tony La Russa in St. Louis and a series of wobbly results with Toronto and Houston. He does yield the capacity for power, best recalled with four homers in 17 postseason at-bats for the Astros in 2015.

Tuesday, January 10

After seven years with the Minnesota Twins, third baseman Trevor Plouffe signs on with the A’s. Plouffe has power—twice he’s surpassed 20 home runs in a season—but he also lacks for overall hits with a .247 career batting average.

Wednesday, January 11

A day after signing Plouffe, the A’s aren’t done. They sign on 36-year-old reliever Santiago Casilla, who endured through a horrendous campaign attempting to imitate a closer for the San Francisco Giants across the bay in 2016.

The Mariners, five days after making a small rash of acquisitions, get busy again as well. They trade for Atlanta outfielder Mallex Smith in the morning, then flip him later in the day to Tampa Bay for pitcher Drew Smyly. Although the left-handed Smyly had an off-year for the Rays in 2016—posting a 7-12 record and 4.88 ERA—his 3.59 mark in four previous campaigns gives Seattle hope that he’ll adequately round out a rotation that also includes recent arrival Yovani Gallardo. Smith, meanwhile, may not become a starter right away in the Rays’ outfield, but does possess upside and tremendous speed.

Friday, January 13

It’s arbitration avoidance day in the majors, with several big names agreeing to contracts. The day’s largest deal, in terms of years and money, is granted to San Diego slugger Wil Myers—who receives a six-year, $80 million extension to cover his final three years of arbitration and first three of free agency. Also agreeing to sizeable arbitration pacts are Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado (two years, $29.5 million), Chicago ace pitcher Jake Arrieta (one year, $15.64 million), Washington outfielder Bryce Harper (one year, $13.5 million), New York Mets aces Matt Harvey (one year, $5.125 million) and Jacob deGrom (on year, $4.05 million) and Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado (one year, $11.5 million) and closer Zach Britton (one year, $11.4 million).

Among those who fail to agree on a pre-arbitration deal at the deadline are Yankees reliever Dellin Betances, Oakland slugger Khris Davis, St. Louis pitcher Carlos Martinez, Arizona pitcher Shelby Miller and Toronto pitcher Marcus Stroman.

Tyson Ross, perhaps the most coveted starting pitcher remaining on the free agent market—despite the fact he missed virtually all of 2016 to injury—agrees to a deal with the Texas Rangers. The 29-year-old right-hander has a career 32-53 record that’s deceiving once you consider his lifetime 3.38 ERA.

Monday, January 16

The Chicago Cubs would rather make the obligatory, post-World Series visit to the White House before Donald Trump takes office—even if it means being congratulated by a big fan of the rival White Sox, President Barack Obama, four days before he leaves office. The reigning world champions typically come to the White House during the season, when the team is in town to play the Nationals or nearby Baltimore Orioles—and even though there are no legit rumors, one must wonder if Cubs players rejected the idea of being feted by the divisive Trump. As for Obama, he says of the Cubs, “Among Sox fans I’m the Cubs’ number one fan,” and receives gifts from the team including a #44 Cubs jersey, a lifetime pass to Wrigley and a “W” flag, among other items.

The Royals and pitcher Danny Duffy agree to a five-year, $65 million contract extension, covering his final year of arbitration and first four years of free agency. The 28-year-old southpaw was Kansas City’s most trusted starter in 2016, earning a 12-3 record and 3.51 in 26 starts while relieving in 16 other games. Michael Saunders inks a one-year, $9 million pact to play with the Philadelphia Phillies, giving Toronto one less outfielder to rely on for 2017—and one more reason the Blue Jays will likely step up their efforts to re-sign Jose Bautista, who’s struggling to find a new home via free agency. Saunders hit .253 with career highs in 24 homers and 57 RBIs for Toronto in 2016.

Tuesday, January 17

With little surprise, Jose Bautista comes home. The Blue Jays give him a one-year deal worth $18 million, with two additional years as mutual options that could bring the total package to $60 million.

Bautista is surely a big-name star, but for someone coming off a .234 average and is 36 years of age, this isn’t too shabby a deal.

President Barack Obama ends his eight years in office by granting pardons to 273 people—and one of those is 79-year-old Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. So what it is that got McCovey in trouble in the first place? He was convicted of tax evasion in 1995 and agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter penalty of two years’ probation and a $5,000 fine. McCovey never paid revenue from card shows, though he claims to have done so unintentionally.

A day before the Hall of Fame announces its Class of 2017, former star and steroid user Jose Canseco goes on a Twitter rant stating that Cooperstown needs him to educate voters about those who played in the steroid era—and even drops a few names of players he believes were on the juice, including Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. “I could easily clean up the Hall of Fame voting system if they would just contact me what are they afraid of the truth,” he writes.

There is too much unnecessary angst and drama tied up in Hall of Fame voting these days, but Canseco is not the cure.

Wednesday, January 18

Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and first-year eligible Ivan Rodriguez surpass the 75% threshold from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and gain entrance into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Bagwell gets the largest percentage of approval at 86.2%; Raines, on his tenth and last eligible ballot, is right behind at 86.0%; and Rodriguez, at 76%, becomes the first player to play the bulk of his career with the Texas Rangers to be enshrined. (The only other Rangers representative in the Hall is long-time broadcaster Eric Nadel.)

Trevor Hoffman (74%) and Vladimir Guerrero (71%) just fail to get elected on their first year on the HOF ballot. Edgar Martinez, a lifetime designated hitter but solid hitter, finishes with the next highest approval rate at 58.6%; he is followed by Roger Clemens (54.1%) and Barry Bonds (53.8%), who both make gains after finishing in the 40% range last year.

Lee Smith, in his final year of eligibility, garners 34.2% of the vote and will have to wait down the line for any Cooperstown enshrinement via the Veterans Committee.

Two other notable first-year eligibles—esteemed slugger but three-time (at least) steroid abuser Manny Ramirez (23.8%) and former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada (3.8%)—fall way short of the 75% approval needed. By failing to earn even 5% of the vote, Posada will no longer be eligible for future ballots.

We again beg to ask the question: How did Bagwell (41.7% during his first year of eligibility in 2011) and Raines (24.3% on his first ballot in 2008), suddenly get so much better in the years since?

Curt Schilling, who gets 45% of the vote—down from last year’s 52%—takes aim at the writers who cast the ballots as a “group of people that were some of the worst people I’ve ever known.” The ex-pitcher, who has made numerous political waves (from the far right) and was excommunicated by ESPN last year for what it termed insensitive remarks, has three more years of HOF eligibility left.

Thursday, January 19

Dan Straily was the most effective pitcher on an otherwise sorry Cincinnati staff in 2016—and so what do the Reds do? They trade him, to the Miami Marlins for three prospects. The 28-year-old Straily was 14-8 in 31 starts with a 3.76 ERA for the Reds last season.

Former Marlins pitcher Josh Johnson, one of the tougher guys in the game to hit against—that is, when he was healthy—retires at age 32 after realizing that his war-torn elbow just can’t take it anymore. The big (6’7”, 250 pounds) right-hander was part of a parade of impressive Marlins rookies in 2006 (a group that also included Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Anibal Sanchez) and racked up a 56-37 record and 3.15 ERA over eight years in Miami, a span which including a NL-leading 2.30 ERA in 2010; he’s currently listed at #2 on our all-time list of top Marlins pitchers. But Johnson was as fragile as was efficient, almost always fighting arm issues that cost him big chunks of the 2007, 2008 and 2011 campaigns. He last threw in the majors in 2013, and tried numerous comebacks that rarely got off the ground.

Friday, January 20

Reigning home run champion Mark Trumbo will stay in Baltimore for the next three years—and for a relative bargain. The Orioles re-sign the 31-year-old slugger, who mashed 47 homers in 2016, to a three-year deal worth $37 million. It’s an eye-opener of a contract considering that Trumbo declined the Orioles’ qualifying offer of $17.2 million at the end of last season.

Sunday, January 22

Baseball is shaken by the loss of a current star pitcher and an ex-major leaguer, both killed in separate car crashes in the Dominican Republic. Kansas City ace Yordano Ventura, age 25, is the only occupant of the car he is killed in a winding mountainous stretch of road. No other cars are said to be involved, and it appears that Ventura was not under the influence of alcohol—though investigators believe he was speeding and not wearing a seat belt.

Skinny but blessed with a powerful throwing arm that delivered a fastball at 100 MPH, Ventura struggled in 2016 with an 11-12 record and 4.45 ERA, but most everyone believed better things were ahead of him. His career includes a 38-31 record and 3.89 ERA. He also wielded a temper that frequently got him into heated exchanges and then some with opposing players, leading to a number of suspensions.

A wintry Kauffman Stadium becomes a portal of grief as Royals players, executives and fans gather to remember Ventura. Royals GM Dayton Moore calls Miami president Mike Hill to ask how his team handled the sudden loss of Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ ace pitcher who died in a boating accident late last year.

The haunting irony of Ventura’s death is that he was a good friend of Oscar Taveras, the St. Louis outfielder who also perished via a road accident in the Dominican Republic shortly after his rookie year in 2014.

The news of Ventura’s death follows just hours after reports that Andy Marte, once a major prospect who never clicked in the majors, is also killed in a car accident in the D.R. As with Ventura, Marte was alone and no other cars were involved. The 33-year-old Marte logged seven seasons in the bigs, playing mostly as a part-time infielder who batted .218 with 21 homers and 99 RBIs over 308 games. He spent his last two years in Korea, putting up the kind of numbers he had hoped to accrue in the majors.

There’s an irony of sorts as well in regards to Marte’s death in that has last game as a major leaguer, in 2014 for Arizona, was against the Royals—with Ventura the starting pitcher. Marte appeared late in the game as a pinch hitter after Ventura had been removed from the mound.

Major League Baseball should look into establishing an agreement with Dominican Republic officials to ensure that any ballplayer visiting there will have their driving licenses temporarily taken away…for their own safety. We kid, sort of. The D.R. is said to have the world’s highest mortality rate among automobile drivers, and the deaths of those listed above—and trust us, they’re not the only ones—tell a troubling trend.

Monday, January 23

The Dodgers’ frantic search for a second baseman finally ends as they land Logan Forsythe from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for pitching prospect Jose De Leon. Forsythe is a less sexy option for Los Angeles than Brian Dozier and Ian Kinsler, more productive options the Dodgers were seeking, but Forsythe’s .264 average, 76 runs and 20 homers—the latter two representing career highs—from 2016 suggest that he could become a positive complement to the team’s star hitters.

Tuesday, January 25

Greg Holland, one of the game’s premier closers from 2013-15 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery, signs a one-year deal with Colorado. The 31-year-old was released by Kansas City after 2015 and missed all of 2016 as he recovered from the procedure.

Sunday, January 29

The baseball world, already unnerved by the deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte a week earlier, get news that a SUV containing Atlanta utility infielder Sean Rodriguez and his family are broadsided by a stolen police cruiser in Miami. Rodriguez is initially said to be unhurt, but it’s later determined that he needs shoulder surgery as a result of the accident and will miss up to five months of action; the other three members of his family are sent to the hospital, with his wife is in fair condition and his two young children in serious but stable condition. The driver of the stolen vehicle is killed in the accident.

Monday, January 30

The St. Louis Cardinals finally learn their punishment for hacking the Houston Astros, six months after former team scouting director Chris Correa was sentenced to nearly four years behind bars for his actions. The Astros will receive the Cardinals’ top two draft picks (#56 and #75) from the upcoming draft and $2 million in penalty payments.

The next day, Correa, from his jail cell, releases a statement claiming that the Astros actually first hacked into the Cardinals’ scouting database—and he hacked back to see what they had hacked. Correa also says that MLB rebuffed his request to be questioned on the subject. MLB disputes this. 

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