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Rounding the Bases

by Matt Smith

After a couple of weeks of rest after the World Series, I’m now back in off-season writing mode.

There will be a series of 2013 review articles leading up to Christmas touching on MLB, the British Baseball leagues (something that I wasn’t able to cover as much as I had hoped during the second half of the season) and International competition (from the high of the World Baseball Classic to the low of baseball’s latest Olympic rejection).

I’ll also be writing regular round-ups of the most important news from the Major Leagues, starting with this one today.

Atlanta Braves are on the move

Arguably the biggest news of the past week has been the surprise announcement that the Braves are planning to leave Turner Field for a new facility 10 miles away, with the projected opening being in 2017.

The reports make clear that there have been issues rumbling along about Turner Field’s ability to meet Atlanta’s needs in the coming years, but there had been little in the way of public comment about the Braves potentially moving until this recent announcement.

Turner Field is a relatively new ballpark itself, having been converted into its current state after the 1996 Olympic Games. It is proposed that the current stadium will be bulldozed which seems an awful waste.

It must be galling to the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays in particular as they are having little joy (to put it mildly) in finding a way out of their current ill-fitting venues. So desperate are they, the two teams would be forgiven for momentarily considering a far-fetched plan like trying to dismantle Turner Field and moving it somewhere else.

Mauer on the move

The Minnesota Twins announced that current catcher Joe Mauer will be ditching the so-called ‘tools of ignorance’ and wearing a first-base glove instead from the start of the 2014 season.

The fielding position of catcher is unique across sport. Even with some occasional rest days, playing the position over a long season takes a toll on the body and offers the constant risk of injury via foul-tips and home-plate collisions (the latter potentially being outlawed, or at least heavily regulated, in the near future).

Mauer’s future fielding position has been a topic of conversation for several years as he is so valuable to the Twins, both in terms of his contributions at the plate and in terms of his contract. It makes sense to move him out of harm’s way, but catchers generally are reluctant to give up the position.

In this case, Mauer has taken it upon himself to suggest the move after a concussion ended his 2013 season prematurely, a decision made easier due to the Twins not having an ideal first baseman on the roster already.

Hopefully the move works out well for Mauer. Twins fans are in a strange position in that in recent years their team has made decisions that delighted them (staying in Minnesota, building a wonderful new open-air ballpark, preventing hometown hero Mauer from being snaffled by the Yankees etc) but the performances on the field have been bitterly disappointing.

Player moves 

The Hot Stove is not bubbling yet, in fact it’s hardly even simmering. Exciting rumours are seeming hard to come by, let alone news of actual moves potentially being on the cards.  The Winter Meetings do not begin until 9 December and it’s quite possible there will just be a batch of minor deals, with maybe one or two leading free agents coming off the market, over the next three weeks.

The main free agent acquisition so far has seen the Philadelphia Phillies signing outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16m contract (£95,470 per week).

Byrd put up a good showing in 2013, firstly with the New York Mets and then with the NL Wild-Card-winning Pittsburgh Pirates, but it came after a miserable 2012 when he performed poorly for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox and served a 50-game suspension for failing a drugs test. He turned 36 at the end of August and having earned $22m from twelve seasons on Major League rosters, being able to add a $16m contract to that is an incredible turn around for someone whose career looked to be finished one year ago.

So it’s great news for Byrd, but the Cinderella story for him will have Phillies fans fearing they’ve spent $16m on a pumpkin. After winning the NL East division five times in a row between 2007 and 2011 inclusive, Philadelphia have dropped off the pace in the last two years (their 73-89 2013 record was their first sub-.500 season since 2002) with ‘win now’ spending to sign or keep hold of veteran players creating an old and increasingly injury-plagued roster.

Signing Byrd doesn’t look to be a way to turn the tide in that respect.

Japanese player posting system

There may be one less free agent on the market this offseason. Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reportedly was likely to be made available to MLB teams, but this is now in doubt after MLB’s proposed new player positing agreement with Japan was withdrawn.

Players in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League become free agents after playing for nine seasons and they can only seek offers from MLB teams before then if they go through the player posting system. The respective Japanese club will make their player available in a blind bidding process. If the largest bid is acceptable to the team, the player can then begin negotiations on an MLB contract. From the Nippon Professional Baseball League’s perspective this allows them to get the best fee, but that’s exactly why MLB doesn’t like it.

Paying transfer fees – as that’s effectively what they are – is alien to MLB teams and there’s a view among some fans in the States that the whole process should be scrapped. However, Japanese teams clearly cannot trade players in the way that MLB teams do between themselves, and receiving an amateur draft pick as compensation is not an option either, so a fee is the only viable way for a Japanese team to be compensated if an MLB team wants to acquire a Japanese player who is still under contract.

MLB understands this and their proposal was simply to revise the process so that the fee would be a defined point between the 1st and 2nd-best bids.  Nippon Professional Baseball League has failed to respond to that offer and MLB has now withdrawn it, working from the position of strength that it only effects a small number of players and that unless Japan’s league agrees to a system more to their liking, they will walk away and wait until players reach their nine-year free agent mark.

That will deny the very best Japanese players the opportunity to move to MLB during their prime, whilst taking away the chance for a Japanese team to receive a substantial transfer fee and potentially affecting the standing of Japanese baseball as their best players will not get the chance to showcase their abilities in what’s considered worldwide to be the best competition (in fairness, the Nippon Professional Baseball League is very popular in Japan, so they may feel keeping hold of their stars is better than any second-hand publicity boost through one of their players performing well in the States).

In short, there are a host of reasons why players and teams in Japan would want to retain the option of having a system to transfer players and MLB has now put the ball back in their court to achieve this.

Managerial set complete 

After the Detroit Tigers did indeed appoint Brad Ausmus as their new manager, that left the Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners as the two teams still seeking a skipper.

Those positions have now been filled with the Cubs appointing the San Diego Padres’ bench coach Rick Renteria to be their 53rd manager in franchise history and the Mariners opting for Lloyd McClendon who had been on the coaching staff of the Detroit Tigers for the last eight years following a five-season spell as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Both have substantial experience in coaching and managerial positions, showing that whilst teams are not afraid to give managerial newcomers like Ausmus a chance, there’s no reason for established coaches and former managers to give up hope that another opportunity may come their way.


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