Charlie Baldwin brings to you five of the biggest stories of the offseason, with updates on how they have developed into the very early part of the regular season.
1. The Red Sox and Yankees close to deal to play games in London in 2019
On the 19th March, Bloomberg News reported that the Yankees and Red Sox were nearing an agreement to play two games in London in June 2019. The rumoured venue is purported to be the London Stadium (the home of West Ham United FC).
Although there has not been definitive confirmation (on the dates or number of games), there is talk of a two game series between the two heated rivals taking place at or near the end of June.
Charlie Hill head of MLB UK was a guest of the Batflips and Nerds podcast in early March. Charlie hinted at a major announcement not being far away. MLB in the UK has been need of a major shot in the arm for a while The loss of the iconic MLB on Five after the 2008 season left the great game with no free to air television coverage in the UK for the first time in 20+ years.
Prior to the 2012 Olympics, Baseball was also dropped as an Olympic sport. This meant a loss of huge potential exposure as well as free to air olympic Baseball on the BBC and Eurosport (Olympics TV rights holders at the time).
In Season Update: There have been no updates since the original story came out. It would seem from the reports that all sides are keen to get a deal done sooner rather than later.
2. New Pace of Play Rules for 2018
Since Rob Manfred became MLB Commissioner in 2015, one of his main aims has been to shorten Baseball games. The reason for this is, to primarily attract new fans. A full list of changes can be found here.
For the fans, the most noticeable changes will be the shorter advertisement breaks as well the mound visit limit (six per game in regulation innings, one per inning in extra innings). Crucially when a manager comes out to change pitchers, these are not included as one of the mound visit,
Controversially, there was talk of a pitch clock, with a thirty second time limit for every pitch, being introduced. The reaction to this potential change, by baseball fans on social media was extremely negative. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped for the 2018 season.
Manfred has to walk a careful tight rope here. It is understandable that despite the record revenues currently flowing through the game, he would want to attract newer fans. The reason for this being that the average age of Baseball fans in the US is 57.
The problem with this is that by potentially changing core elements of the game it may alienate current viewers. Thus the game may gain new viewers but also lose long term viewers.
3. The Unusual Free Agent Market
It’s tough to describe the 2017-2018 free agent market as anything more than strange or anomalous. While some deals that were expected got made, such as Yu Darvish to the Cubs for six years and $126million (albeit with opt-outs after the second year), others didn’t. Despite having a 2017 where he clubbed 38 home runs, drove in 85 runs with a healthy OPS of 835, Mike Moustakas ended up back at the Royals for one year and $6.5million.
The free agent market was also so slow in developing that, the MLB Players Association actually held their own spring training camp in Florida in mid-March. Even at the writing of this article, the likes of Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, John Lackey and Mark Reynolds all remain unsigned.
How was this market created? For me there are three reasons. Firstly, the collective bargaining agreement has a set luxury tax limit. If a team goes over this limit, they pay a fine for every dollar they are over this limit. For 2018 the limit was set at $197million. Now to make things slightly more complicated the amount a team gets “fined” for going over the limit, varies depending on how often a team has gone over the limit in the past. There are quite a few teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers who would all be liable to be taxed at 50% per dollar that they are over the limit for next season. This is important as next seasons free agency is absolutely stacked with major names such as Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Bryce Harper. Those players are just the cream of the crop but all will be expensive. As an example of what could happen if you went over the limit this year, if a team was to pay Bryce Harper $40million next season, they would incur $20million in tax. This would mean the total cost of Harper would be an astronomical $60million per year after tax.
The second reason is analytics. The metrics are saying to front offices “why should you pay a player based on past success when he will regress?” This is leading teams to instead look to younger players as well as making, in the teams minds, more sensible offers for free agent veterans, meaning shorter term deals and less money.
The third reason, is “the rebuild”. Given the successes of the Cubs and Astros in recent years, more teams have adopted this approach. This means that the market for free agent veterans is dependent on however many teams are competing in a certain year versus how many are rebuilding. At the moment the list of teams rebuilding or that will start rebuilding come the end of the season probably comprises of the Braves, Phillies, Marlins, Reds, Pirates,Padres, Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Rangers, A’s. That’s 14 out 30 teams, very close to half the league.
In Season Update: The changes to the free agency market may mean younger players, opt for security by signing contract extensions earlier in their careers rather than waiting till arbitration or free agency, as in the past. Despite not even appearing at a major league level game, Scott Kingery of the Phillies signed a $24million, six year extension. It also includes three club options for 2024-2026.
Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies was due to hit free agency after the 2018 season. He instead signed an extension with Colorado, that presuming all options are exercised and incentives are achieved, will pay him around $116million over six years. At 28 years old, Blackmon is actually considered to be at a fairly old age in the game these days. However, with how free agency panned out in the offseason, we may see more veteran players taking the security of an extension with their current teams over the unpredicatable risk of free agency.
4. The Red Sox and Yankees Bats Race
The Yankees had one of the best offenses in Baseball in 2017. They ranked second in runs – 858, first in home runs – 241 and third in OPS with .785. With the emerged Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, complimented by the emerging Greg Bird and the solid Didi Gregorious, getting an extra bat didn’t seem to be much of a necessity for the Yankees.
As can happen in free agency, a perfect storm for the Bronx Bombers emerged. The Miami Marlins embarked on a rebuild to reduce payroll to $90million. This meant trading all their key high earning players, the highest earning and most important being the reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton (also in the midst of a 14 year/$325million contract).
The Giants and Cardinals both had trade bids accepted by the Marlins, but Stanton rejected them. The reason being he would only go to one of the 2017 League Championship series teams i.e. the Cubs, Dodgers, Astros or Yankees. The Yankees had the most interest and won out, sending Starlin Castro plus prospects Jorge Guzman and Jose Devers to Miami for Stanton. This meant the Bronx Bombers could now have arguably the most lethal 3-4-5 trio in the game with Judge/Stanton/ Sanchez.
In contrast it was a down year for Boston’s offense. In 2017 the Red Sox finished 10th (out of 30 teams) in runs with 785, an unexpectedly low 27th with 168 home runs and 22nd in OPS with .736. Despite these unexpectedly less than stellar offensive numbers the Red Sox managed to win the AL East last season.
After the Yankees acquired Stanton it was clear Boston would react. The Red Sox did in a major way by signing the best free agent bat available in the slugging JD Martinez for $110million over five years. Martinez had a career year in 2017. Between Detroit and Arizona he hit 45 home runs, drove in 104 RBIs had a slash line of .303/.376/.690 for a 1.066 OPS. The Red Sox were probably always going to sign or trade for a bat anyway, but the Yankees acquiring Stanton, gave them added impetus.
In Season Update: Stanton has experienced the highs and lows of being a Yankees thus far. He had an excellent opening day. A few days later, at his home debut had an 0-5 day, striking out in every plate appearance, with the Yankees fanatics showing their displeasure by way of booing him.
Stanton currently has a slash line of .200/.317/.514 for an OPS of .831, 133 OPS+ with three home runs, seven RBIs and six walks in 41 plate appearances. It’s been a slow start for J.D. Martinez. He has a slash line of .259/.323/.481 with a .804 OPS and 127 OPS+ with one home run, four RBIs and three walks in 31 plate appearances.
5. The Giants lose their ace to injury
There is one thing that every team wishes to avoid in spring training and that is injuries. The Giants knew they would be without lefty setup man Will Smith until May and Jeff Samardzija until about the end of April with a pectoral injury. Mark Melancon was having arm issues after an operation towards the end of last season. Other than that everybody was healthy until Madison Bumgarner got struck with a come backer line drive off the bat of Whit Merrifield on March 23rd.
Diagnosed with a fractured little finger on his left pitching hand, Bumgarner is expected to miss somewhere in the region of 8-10 starts. This has implications not just for the Giants but also a very tight looking wild card race. The Phillies, Mets, Cardinals, Brewers, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Giants were all widely expected to be in competition for the two NL Wild card spots. Also, as an innings eating ace the loss of Bumgarner would mean likely extra work for the Giants bullpen as his replacement would not be likely go as deep into games as Madison usually does. A good portion of various media analysts predicted that the injury could be the end of the Giants wild card hopes but if the team can remain close to .500 they may still have a chance.
In Season Update: Bumgarner’s spot has been taken by Ty Blach who had a great opening day. The results weren’t as good for San Francisco in Blach’s second start as he gave up six earned runs, on ten hits with two walks in four and a third innings against the Mariners, also taking the loss 6-4.
Despite being without both Bumgarner and regular number three starter Samarzija, the Giants have thus far held their own with a respectable 4-3 record going into the Sunday 8th April game against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. The question for the Giants is can they keep this good start going while waiting for the cavalry (in the form of Bumgarner and Samardzija) to arrive?