The Dodgers already have three wins. Puig-mania is already in effect. But with apologies to Australia and Sunday Night Baseball, the season truly begins today. It is Opening Day. Everyone has something to be excited about, and everything will finally be good again, as a wise man once said in a movie about baseball-playing ghosts:
It was a busy offseason for Major League Baseball. There were rule changes, stadium deals, free agent signings, a new drug agreement, and an announcement from a legend that this season would be his last. So now that winter is over and baseball is back, let’s take a glance at some of the big issues that will play out on and off the field this summer:
The Captain’s final hurrah: For the second straight year, a Yankee legend will embark on a farewell tour. Last year it was Mariano Rivera; this year it’s captain Derek Jeter, who announced in the winter that his 20th season in pinstripes will be his last in baseball. You’re going to see replays of Jeter’s iconic plays — like this one, this one, or this one — a million times between now and October, but there’s still a question about whether he’ll be able to do anything like that again. Jeter played in just 17 games last year while dealing with an ankle injury, but here’s hoping his final year looks more like 2012, when he batted .316 and led the American League with 216 hits.
And Bud Selig’s too: Baseball will, in all likelihood, lose another giant after the 2014 season, which will reportedly be commissioner Bud Selig’s last (though he’s said that before). Selig’s tenure has been marked by controversy: the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series, the steroid era, the All-Star Game tie, the takeover of the Montreal Expos, and, last year, the Biogenesis scandal. There are those of us, myself included, who will forever hold the strike against Selig, but he’s unquestionably been good for his bosses: baseball revenues grew from $1.4 billion in 1995 to $7.5 billion in 2012, and they’re still growing rapidly today thanks to new television deals. It’s unclear who will replace Selig, but it’s an important decision: the current bargaining agreement with players ends after the 2015 season, and Selig’s successor will be tasked with continuing baseball’s unprecedented era of labor peace that has made the game healthier than ever.
Home plate collisions: The most contentious offseason decision: baseball’s move to eliminate home plate collisions between baserunners and catchers. It’s a move many coaches and catchers have questioned, but it has a clear aim: reducing the number of serious injuries, including concussions, catchers suffer. As rare as these plays may be, it’s only a matter of time before the new rule pops up at a key point in a game this season, and controversy will surely erupt. But as I’ve written before, this is a good rule that seeks to eliminate — or at least limit — a needlessly dangerous element of the game.
Under further review: Baseball’s decision to (finally) adopt expanded replay review means that some 90 percent of plays will be subject to possible review, a big change aimed at, obviously, getting calls right. Here’s how it works: managers will enter each game with one challenge. If they win that one, they’ll get another. And from the sixth inning on, umpires have the power to review plays without a managerial challenge. A central office will handle reviews. “Force plays, tag plays, ground-rule doubles, hit by pitches and fan interference are on the roster of challengeable situations,” the New York Times explains. “But balks, foul tips, balls and strikes, and the so-called neighborhood play at second base during a double-play attempt are on an even lengthier list of plays that cannot be challenged.”
Drugs, drugs, drugs: One name we won’t see this year: Alex Rodriguez, who is suspended for the entire 2014 season thanks to his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal that rocked baseball last year. The outgrowth of the scandal is a new Joint Drug Agreement that increases penalties and adds tests — exactly the prescription I questioned when we first learned about Biogenesis last winter. The nuts: offenders will now be suspended for 80 games for their first positive, a full season for their second, and life for their third. In addition, any player who fails a test will be ineligible for the postseason even if he has already served his full suspension, a harsh penalty that HardballTalk’s Craig Calcaterra has already raised questions about. There are positive changes, too: players will now have more rights in front of baseball’s independent arbitrator to argue against their punishments, and the new agreement includes year-round supplement supplies meant to keep players from resorting to outlets like Biogenesis unless they’re hell-bent on beating the rules.
New digs: The biggest stadium news of the offseason was that the Atlanta Braves signed a new stadium deal in Cobb County, meaning they will abandon the not-very-old Turner Field for the 2017 season. No teams are moving into new stadiums this year, but two others will surely continue asking for them. The Oakland A’s are trying desperately to get out of the crumbling O.Co Coliseum, an effort that has the team embroiled in a territorial dispute with the San Francisco Giants, their Bay Area neighbors. The Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, are still fighting with St. Petersburg to get out of their current lease at Tropicana Field, a move Selig and the other owners badly want to happen, so much so that they’re making the same claims in Tampa that they made in Miami just a few years ago. And we all know how that turned out.
Arm injuries: In a two week span this spring, four All-Star caliber pitchers suffered major elbow injuries that ended their season. And while Atlanta’s loss of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, Oakland’s loss of Jarrod Parker, and Arizona’s loss of Patrick Corbin could all have playoff implications, the rash of blowouts is also sparking a renewed focus on baseball’s eternal question: how can it better take care of its pitchers and lessen the likelihood of the devastating arm injuries that are inherent to the game?
Mike Trout. Always Mike Trout: There’s probably no saving you if you’re not already in love with Mike Trout, the third-year Los Angeles Angels centerfielder who might have two MVP awards already if it wasn’t for Miguel Cabrera. Trout’s almost surely going to be an MVP candidate again this year — look at the gap between his projected worth and that of second best player in baseball — and he’ll be an Angel for the forseeable future now that he’s signed a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension with the team. That deal completed an offseason that featured plenty of teams spending big on young talent: the Braves alone, for instance, bought out arbitration years for Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Andrelton Simmons, and Craig Kimbrel, continuing a trend of young stars choosing financial security over their first shot at free agency. “Locking up young players has become the new market efficiency, and we’re seeing the baseball equivalent of a land rush,” Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci wrote this winter. It’s hard to blame the young guys for taking the money up front, but it does have implications for their peers: without players like Trout, Kimbrel, and before them Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutcheon, the free agent market dips for everyone — and that could be at least part of the reason baseball players’ salaries are rising at a slower pace than baseball’s revenues.
Old faces, new places: Robinson Cano is now a (rather wealthy) Seattle Mariner. Prince Fielder and Shin Soo Choo are now Texas Rangers. Masashiro Tanaka left Japan for the Yankees. Curtis Granderson skipped the Bronx for Queens and the Mets. Looking for two moves that may have a huge impact on the championship race? The Nationals bolstered an already-strong starting rotation by trading relatively nothing for Doug Fister, who will begin the season on the disabled list but has been one of the game’s best starting pitchers over the last three years. And the Cardinals, who won the National League last fall, made their lineup even better by signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
New metrics! For stats nerds, the best news of the offseason was MLB Advanced Media’s announcement about a new defensive tracking system that could revolutionize the way we analyze defense. “It’s the Holy Grail, basically,” Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner wrote, and he’s not wrong. There are still plenty of questions about it, especially about if and when the data will be public, but take a look at the video that accompanied the announcement and it’s easy to be giddy about the prospect of analyzing and evaluating defense like this:
Predictions: You can’t predict baseball, but I’ll try anyway: the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers will win the National League divisions, while the Rays, Tigers, and A’s will be the American League’s division champs. The Pirates and Giants will win the NL’s Wild Card spots; the Red Sox and Royals will do the same in the American League. And Mike Trout will finally win his MVP award.