This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: January 2019

It’s Finally Unanimous: Mariano Rivera Gets 100% of the HOF Vote
Just One Word, Rays Fans: Plastic    Free Agent Inertia, Part II

Comebacker Index    February 2019

Tuesday, January 1

It’s a happy new year for the Seattle Mariners, who actually gain talent rather than send it away. Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikichi, a 27-year-old southpaw, joins a team known for its rich history of Asian-born players (Ichiro Suzuki, Hisashi Iwakuma) for a guaranteed $56 million; if the Mariners are happy after three seasons, they can enact an extension that will increase their total payment to $109 million over seven years.

Troy Tulowitzki, released by Toronto last month despite still being owed $38 million, signs for the minimum $550,000 with the New York Yankees. The 34-year-old shortstop, whose best years are clearly behind him, is expected to fill in for Didi Gregorius while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. It’s also rumored as to how the signing will impact the Yankees’ chances of signing mega-free agent Manny Machado.

Thursday, January 3

Reliever David Robertson, acting as his own agent, signs a two-year, $23 million deal with Philadelphia. Reliable at his least, the 33-year-old right-hander carries a career 2.88 ERA to the Phillies—which will be his first National League team after playing 11 previous seasons for American League teams in New York and Chicago.

Yahoo Sports’ Mike Oz writes that Robertson saved $1.5 million in agent fees with the deal by representing himself—but could he have actually made more if a qualified agent been better able to shop his talent and negotiate a richer fee?

Saturday, January 5

Former Baltimore closer Zach Britton is okay staying on with the Yankees as a set-up man. The 31-year-old left-hander signs a three-year deal for $39 million with New York; he could opt out after two seasons if the Yankees fail to activate a fourth year worth another $14 million.

The New York Mets gain a dynamic back-up in the outfield by trading for Milwaukee’s Keon Broxton, sending reliever Bobby Wahl and a pair of minor leaguers to the Brewers. Broxton has a weak .221 career batting average but does wield strong power, speed and superior defense in center field.

Sunday, January 6

Lenny Green, who thrived during the Twins’ first few seasons in Minnesota after their move from Washington, dies at the age of 86. The speedy outfielder was mostly a part-timer, but he did manage everyday play at Minnesota in 1961-62, wielding modest power (a career-high 14 homers in 1962), good patience with 80+ walks a year and nearly 100 runs scored in each. Over a 12-year career that saw him play for five different AL teams, Green batted .267, collected 788 hits and stole 78 bases.

Monday, January 7

According to, Major League Baseball earned a record $10.3 billion in revenue in 2018—and that doesn’t include the $2.58 billion all 30 teams received to share from the sale of BAMTech, the digital streaming arm of MLB Advanced Media, to Disney. This despite a 4% drop in attendance and a rare decline in average player salary.

Should these trends continue, you can bet the players’ union will increasingly claim that its constituents are not getting their fair share and possibly force a work stoppage after the current Basic Agreement expires at the end of 2021.

The Chicago White Sox, one of the more aggressive spenders this offseason, sign reliever Kelvin Herrera to a two-year contract worth $18 million. Herrera had a combined 2.44 ERA between Kansas City and Washington in 2018; he spent his first seven-plus seasons with the Royals before a midseason trade to the Nationals.

Wednesday, January 9

Catcher Yasmani Gradnal signs a one-year, $18.25 million contract with Milwaukee after four seasons with the Dodgers. Grandal possesses good power with 22-plus homers in each of his last three years, but has consistently hit in the low .200s—and his absolutely dreadful postseason performance (5-for-42, two errors, three passed balls) for Los Angeles last year didn’t help his free agent market.

Some insist that the Grandal signing is more proof of veteran free agents getting the shaft by penurious owners, but he also refused a four-year, $60 million deal with the New York Mets. Given his overall numbers, Grandal is lucky to be earning nearly $20 million for the coming season.

Another ballpark changes its name. San Francisco’s AT&T Park will now be rebranded as Oracle Park after AT&T exercised its contractual right not to exercise its final year of the current deal, which annually paid less than $5 million to the Giants. Terms of the new contract are not revealed, though it’s said to be in the range of $300-350 million over 20 years.

Thursday, January 10

Free agent infielder Jed Lowrie, who hit the first (and unofficial) home run in Citi Field history during a dry-run exhibition for Boston against the Mets in 2009, signs a two-year, $20 million contract to play for the Mets. The 35-year-old Lowrie has principally played second base, but will have to be utilized elsewhere after the Mets also brought in Robinson Cano.

Both Lowrie and Cano are former clients of agent Brodie Van Wagenen, who just now happens to be the Mets’ GM.

Friday, January 11

It’s arbitration deadline day, with numerous young stars re-upping for significant wages. Reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts is given $20 million for 2019 by the Red Sox, a jump of $9.5 million over his previous year’s salary. That’s a record increase that lasts for only a few hours, before New York Mets ace (and 2018 NL Cy Young Award winner) Jacob deGrom sees his payday increase by $9.6 million to $17 million. Other significant sums go to Washington’s Anthony Rendon ($18.8 million), Oakland slugger Khris Davis ($16.5 million), and the Chicago White Sox’ Jose Abreu ($16 million).

Players unable to come to terms and are thus headed for arbitration include Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado—who a year before declaring free agency asks for $30 million while the Rockies counter with $24 million; either way, he’ll earn the highest pre-free agency salary, breaking Josh Donaldson’s $23 million from 2018. Other players currently at contractual odds with their teams include Houston’s Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa, Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer and Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola.

The difference in financial elevation between arbitration-eligible players and veteran free agents appears to be shrinking. Teams seem far more inclined to handout solid annual salaries to players close to or at their prime, rather than takinge a risk on nine-figure payouts to those whose best years may be behind them. This doesn’t explain the glacial pursuit of unsigned free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado—both only 26 years of age—but that has more to do with two agents, one waiting for the other to blink first. Yet in an age where 30 has become the new 35, with veterans increasingly unable to stay intact through the 162-game grind, it almost seems understandable as to why general managers would rather put their money where their fresh talent is.

Free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glover and 2016 NL batting champ, signs a two-year, $24 million deal with the Yankees. LeMahieu’s signing makes a crowded Yankee infield even more jam-packed—and, one would think, it absolutely takes them out of the running for Manny Machado. (But these are the Yankees, so you never know.)

Several days after losing Yasmani Grandal to free agency, the Dodgers trade for Toronto’s Russell Martin, sending a couple minor leaguers to the Blue Jays. While Martin, who’s returning to Los Angeles where he spent the first five years (2006-10) of his career, hit just .194 in 2018 and turns 36 in February, the Dodgers will only pay $3.6 million of the $20 million owed to him in 2019; the Blue Jays, rather charitably, will pay the rest.

Sunday, January 13

Former Yankee ace and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre passes away at the age of 77 after a long battle with cancer. The right-hander from Missouri had the utter misfortune of aligning his playing career with that of the Yankees’ lost years, when CBS didn’t know how to run a baseball team. Yet he won 20 games three times, furnished a fine lifetime ERA of 2.97, and pitched in four All-Star Games. Stottlemyre did appear in one World Series, furnishing a 1-1 record and 3.15 ERA in three starts against the St. Louis Cardinals as a 20-year-old rookie in 1964; a chance to pitch in the postseason toward the end of his career (as George Steinbrenner took over the Yankees and quickly brought them back to respectability) eluded him as he fell victim to a torn rotator cuff. But he would ultimately be fitted with five World Series rings as a longstanding pitching coach, employed for 23 years by four different teams including the pitching-rich Mets teams of the 1980s and the great Yankee squads of the Derek JeterMariano Rivera era.

Monday, January 14

The Giants re-up with pitcher Derek Holland for a one-year, $7 million contract. Holland rebounded from an awful 2017 campaign with the Chicago White Sox, posting a decent 3.57 ERA in 2018 for the Giants while leading the club in innings (171.1).

Tuesday, January 15

Retired closer and 1996 World Series MVP John Wetteland is arrested in Texas on a child sex abuse charge. Authorities tell the Associated Press that Wetteland first committed the violation in 2004 when the child was only four years of age, and repeated the act several times over the next few years. Since his retirement, Wetteland, a born-again Christian, has occasionally found himself in the Baseball Babylon blotter; in 2009, it was reported that he was contemplating suicide, but later said in a statement that “the circumstances leading to my elevated blood pressure and heart rate have been addressed.”

Wednesday, January 16

Long-time Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman says that the 2019 season, his 46th in the booth, will be his last. The 76-year-old Brennaman has become one of the more familiar names among play-by-play voices; he received the Hall of Fame’s Ford Frick Award for broadcasting excellence in 2000.

The year’s first steroid suspension is levied upon Kansas City pitcher Eric Skoglund, who was said to have a roster spot locked up with the hope of making the rotation. Instead, he’ll miss the first 80 games after testing positive for both Ostarine and Ligandrol, both on MLB’s do-not-take list of substances.

Steady but unspectacular infielder Wilmer Flores signs a one-year, $3.75 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. A decent contact hitter, the 27-year-old Flores doesn’t strike out often, always hits around .265 and wields enough power to knock out 10-20 homers a year.

Thursday, January 17

As if the Yankees need another top-end reliever with Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton and Dellin Betances already in the fold, they sign free-agent Adam Ottavino to a three-year, $27 million deal. This pretty much gives the Yankees, on paper, the majors’ best bullpen—and leaves others wondering if they’re going to try a little bit (or more) of bullpenning in 2019.

Ottavino proves that after Derek Jeter’s likely uniform retirement, there still is a single digit jersey available at Yankee Stadium. He’ll be wearing the same “0” that he wore with Colorado, his previous team.

Friday, January 18

There’s two more free agent signings which, once again, do not qualify as blockbusters. Outfielder Avisail Garcia, who just two years earlier hit .330 for the White Sox before sliding back to Earth with a .236 figure in 2018, signs for one year and $3.5 million with Tampa Bay; incentives could his wages to $6 million. The Angels, meanwhile, give out another one-year deal—this one an $8.5 million pact to closer Cody Allen, who struggled (4.70 ERA) with the Indians in 2018 after consistently posting sub-3.00 ERAs in each of his five previous seasons.

The second straight year of free agent inertia is starting to bring the ire out of major leaguers. In an Instagram post, San Francisco third baseman Evan Longoria wrote, “We are less than a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games’ biggest starts (sic) remain unsigned. Such a shame,” Longoria says. “It seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents….as players we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth…”

Here’s some ideas, Evan: Report late to spring training. Create a mass walkout on the first day of spring games. Wear armbands out of solidarity. Start a social media campaign. None of these will immediately solve the issue, but if you know you have a battle on the horizon, now’s the time to win over the public.

Monday, January 21

Sonny Gray gets his wish and won’t have to pitch half of his games at Yankee Stadium anymore. The 29-year-old right-hander is traded to Cincinnati for a minor leaguer and draft pick, and then signs a three-year extension with the Reds for $30 million. Gray was considered a prime pick-up for the Yankees when they acquired him from Oakland midway through 2017, but while he pitched well on the road, he was a disaster at the Stadium; he has a career 6-7 record and 6.35 ERA at New York. (Outside of Yankee Stadium, his lifetime ERA is 3.30.)

Tuesday, January 22

Mariano Rivera becomes the first unanimous selection in Baseball Hall of Fame history, and is one of four players inducted into the Class of 2019 in the general vote. The other three are pitcher Roy Halladay, elected posthumously on his first ballot; designated hitter Edgar Martinez, who gets 85.4% vote in his last year of HOF eligibility; and pitcher Mike Mussina, who in his sixth year of eligibility sneaks above the 75% threshold with 76.7%. Knocked out of the general vote is Fred McGriff, who fails to reach enshrinement in his 10th year with 39.8%. Those eliminated from future ballots after just one year of consideration include former Houston standouts Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, all-time Texas hit leader Michael Young and former MVP Miguel Tejada.

We have no real qualms with any of the selections. Rivera, undoubtedly the greatest closer ever, and Halladay, arguably the finest pitcher of his generation, both are highly deserving. We might hesitate on Martinez, who was primarily a DH and often not even the star hitter among his Seattle teammates, but it’s hard to argue against a lifetime .312 average. Similarly, Mussina’s 3.68 career ERA makes it difficult for us to consider him a “great,” but when you finish with a 270-153 record, we get it.

Controversy surrounds Rivera’s unanimous selection. HOF voter Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette initially made it known that he would not vote for Rivera because he saw little value in the closer and the ‘save’ statistic—but changed his mind when he was slammed by fellow voters and angry social media trolls. Maybe he switched once persuaded by the facts of how great the Yankee closer was, but we’re betting he was more likely fearful of the Internet’s mob mentality and how it might tarnish his reputation. This is not good; HOF voters are knowledgeable enough to make rational decisions on the ballot, and just because your vote represents the slim minority doesn’t mean you should be shamed into making an about face.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens continue their long and perhaps futile ascent toward Cooperstown acceptance. In their seventh year of ballot eligibility, the two steroids-tainted stars generate just under 60%, barely a 2-3% increase for both. With three years of eligibility left, and with those gains having pretty much the standard from year to year, it’s hard to see Bonds and Clemens getting in on the general vote—unless voters who’ve been purposely making them sweat it out wait until the 10th ballot (in 2022) and select them then. Which would be a petty thing. (Meanwhile, Sammy Sosa—on his seventh ballot—still can’t even clear 10%.)

Several weeks after the HOF results are announced, Lance Berkman publicly opens up with puzzlement as to why he gets the one-and-done treatment with just 1.2% of the vote, while Martinez—whose career numbers practically mirrors his—gets past 75%. We wouldn’t have voted for either player, but Berkman has a point; though Martinez has him on batting average (.312 to .293), Berkman matches—and in some cases, surpasses—Martinez in just about every other category. Then there’s this: Martinez’s career postseason average is .266 in 34 games, while Berkman shines with a .317 mark, nine home runs and 41 RBIs in 52 games—along with a World Series ring for being an active member of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. All of this speaks less to the lack of focus on the equity between the two, and more on the massive lobbying hype surrounding Martinez.

The surviving members of Halladay’s family ask the Hall of Fame not to place a logo of either the Blue Jays or Phillies—the two teams he played for—on his plaque. This would not be a first—in fact, some 75 players in Cooperstown have no such team identification, including more recent entrants such as Greg Maddux and Catfish Hunter. Mussina, who split his career between the Orioles and Yankees, will later also request that no logo be put on his plaque.

The Milwaukee Brewers become the third team this offseason to announce a name change at their ballpark. Starting in 2021, Miller Park will be no more as the Brewers reach an agreement with American Family Insurance for a new naming rights deal once the current one with Miller ends. Terms are not disclosed, and what exactly the new name for the ballpark will be is not yet determined.

Despite a starting spot on the NL All-Star team, a Gold Glove award in the outfield and a .297 average playing all 162 games of 2018, Nick Markakis signs for just $4 million to return to the Atlanta Braves on a one-year deal—nearly a third of what he made the year before. Granted, Markakis is 35—but this isn’t right.

Veteran infielder Asdrubal Cabrera signs on to become Adrian Beltre’s replacement at third base for the Texas Rangers, inking a one-year contract for $3.5 million. The 33-year old Cabrera hit .262 with 23 homers and 75 RBIs combined for the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies last season.

Wednesday, January 23

The Giants sign southpaw pitcher Drew Pomeranz to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, though that could increase to $3.5 million through performance maximization. The 30-year-old Pomeranz was 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA for Boston in 2017, then collapsed to a 2-6 and 6.08 last season as he suffered through two arm injuries

Thursday, January 24

The Dodgers fill a potential outfielding void (created after trading Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to Cincinnati) by signing free agent and former Diamondback A.J. Pollock. The deal is worth four years and $55 million. The 31-year-old Pollock evolved into an All-Star level player by 2015, but injuries in each of the past three seasons have led to a regression.

Friday, January 25

As if the Tampa Bay Rays need another reason to depress attendance even further, the team announces that it will no longer except cash purchases anywhere within Tropicana Field—forcing fans to pay either with credit/debit or with a Rays “gift card” for users to buy food and merchandise with. Some fear that the move will further discourage low-income fans, who have no access to credit cards or banking, from showing up at the ballpark.

We could see this happening in Boston (where Red Sox fans are so loyal, they’ll pay with their own blood) or San Francisco (with its high-tech fan base), but Tampa Bay? This is a big risk for a franchise that might get outdrawn this year by Triple-A teams if they’re not careful. MLB will certainly be watching how this works out for the Rays.

The Mets make reliever Justin Wilson his fifth team in six years, signing a two-year, $10 million deal. Wilson’s up-and-down career includes a year-plus stint most recently with the Chicago Cubs, for whom he was 5-5 in 88 appearances with a 3.86 ERA.

The Oakland A’s bring on starting pitcher Marco Estrada for a one-year deal worth $4 million. Estrada, who turns 36 in July, struggled to a 7-14 record and 5.64 ERA with Toronto in 2018, allowing a league-high 49 doubles in 143.2 innings.

Sunday, January 27

Baseball mourns the loss of former Giants owner Peter Magowan, who passes away at age 76 after a long battle with cancer. Magowan is responsible for keeping the Giants in San Francisco in 1992 after emerging as the lead to bid on buying the team, after previous Giants owner Bob Lurie had initially given approval for a Florida group to move the team to St. Petersburg. He also stewarded the effort to get Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park) built as one of the most beautiful and popular ballparks in the majors.

The Kansas City Royals reward 2018 AL stolen base leader Whit Merrifield with a four-year, $16.25 million extension that will cover his remaining arbitration-eligible years. The deal includes a team option for a fifth year at an additional $10.5 million. The 30-year-old Merrifield was clearly the Royals’ most productive offensive player last season, hitting .304 with 192 hits, 43 doubles, 45 steals and 88 runs scored.

Tuesday, January 29

Jenrry Mejia, banned for life by baseball—until last year—signs a minor league deal with the Red Sox. The 28-year-old reliever was nailed three times by MLB for failing PED tests and was given a lifetime punishment, but MLB had a change of heart last year and resubmitted him.

Thursday, January 31

Avoiding arbitration, Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado agrees to a 2019 salary of $26 million for his final year before free agency; it’s the highest annual wage ever given to an arbitration-eligible player, breaking Josh Donaldson’s $23 million figure of last season.

Wade Miley, who posted an impressive 2.14 ERA in 20 starts (including four in the postseason) for Milwaukee in 2018, signs a one-year deal worth $4.5 million with the Houston Astros. The 32-year-old lefty had been a mess in his previous two years with Seattle and Baltimore, registering ERAs well over 5.00, before finding his groove back with the Brewers.

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