And waiting around for the next 2 minutes, 34 seconds.
So as electrifying historical milestones go, it's safe to say this one wasn't exactly Bobby Thomson's homer.
But it was history all the same. Replay history. And the words "upon further review" were never even uttered. Who knew that was actually possible?
Baseball's new, hopefully improved, replay era had to start somewhere. So let the record show it started in Fort Myers on a picturesque Monday afternoon, in a game being televised with exactly three cameras.
It started with a play in which the two players on the historic replay screen were a couple of soon-to-be household names who were thrilled to be immortalized (or whatever) -- Twins outfielder Chris Rahl and Blue Jays first baseman Jared Goedert.
And it started with a challenge by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, which was issued not by tossing a red flag, an old rosin bag or a broken fungo bat -- but with a jog out to first base to invite first-base ump Fieldin Culbreth to get those replay machines off and whirring.
"John came out, and, basically, he told me, 'I'm not too sure that you're not right here. But since we haven't done it before, let's go take a look,'" Culbreth reported afterward. "And I said, 'OK. That's what it's for.'"
So off went Culbreth and plate ump Bob Davidson to grab their headsets and wait for Brian O'Nora, who was serving as the replay umpire for the middle three innings, to make the call.
O'Nora then spent the next 2½ minutes reviewing a sixth-inning play in which Toronto shortstop Munenori Kawasaki pulled Goedert off first base with a high throw -- and Goedert took just enough time trying to find the bag when he came down that Rahl was called safe.
So while O'Nora watched the replays from a video truck outside the stadium, Rahl stood on the bag, thinking, "This could be kind of cool. I might get on ESPN or something." (Which he did, by the way, about 87,000 times).
And Goedert joined his fellow infielders on the mound, where they basically fidgeted around, trying to comprehend the "magic" of the moment.
"It was almost like it was a mound visit," he said later, "with no coach out there."
And so, as the crowd buzzed and both teams waited anxiously, O'Nora began peering at his screen, trying to make sense of what just happened.
Had this play occurred during the regular season, the man making this call wouldn't have been sitting in a video truck a few hundred yards away. He'd have been a replay ump, sitting in MLB's replay headquarters in New York.
And had this play occurred in a "real" game, the replay ump would have had a dozen camera angles to choose from, in ultra-high-def, not three Fox Sports North cameras that weren't quite that state of the art.
But, eventually, O'Nora was provided an angle that "definitely" showed, he said, that by the time Goedert located the bag, "the Twins runner's foot was already on the base." So he relayed that info to Culbreth, who then yanked off his headset and gave an emphatic "safe" sign. And the replay era was off and digitizing.
It turned out to be the first of two experimental replay extravaganzas on this day. And neither call was overturned. But it was a chance to finally see baseball's replay wheels turning, after a mere 138-season wait. So now that we've seen this system in action, what have we learned? Here’s what:
It took longer than advertised
Baseball officials have said they expect most calls to be reviewed -- zip, zip, zip -- in somewhere between a minute and 90 seconds. The two reviews in Monday's game took 2:34 and 2:03, respectively. But Culbreth was confident that time can be sliced during the season, when more camera angles and better technology can help umpires zero in on exactly what they're looking for more quickly.
"It will work itself out," he said. "I think time really isn't going to be an issue in the end. And if it is, it's about getting the play right in the end, anyhow."
It wasn't too long for the players
We've heard repeatedly that the players' biggest fear about replay was that it would take too much time and destroy the rhythm of the game. But even after two reviews that ate up more than two minutes each, there wasn't a complaint to be heard.
"I didn't think it slowed the game down or anything too much," said Twins infielder Doug Bernier, whose sprint down the first-base line inspired the second review of the day. "I thought it was fine. I think everyone just wants to make sure you get the call right, so they were able to do that."
Challenges can be optional
Maybe the most encouraging thing that happened all day was the second challenge -- because it happened in the eighth inning, when Gibbons was out of challenges. So in this case, he couldn't officially challenge a close call at first -- but he could "request" one. And the umpires never hesitated in heading right back to the headsets.
And that wasn't just because it was spring training and Day 1 in the replay lab and what the heck, either.
"I'm not separating spring training from the regular season," said Culbreth, who was in the replay booth for the second review. "I'm looking at this thing as this is the future of the game. And I'm going to treat these games here the same way that I'm going to treat them during the regular season. And if there's a reason for me to doubt what happened on the field, in the seventh inning and beyond, when it's the umpires' right to go look at it, if that's how I truly feel about it, I'm going to go take a look at it."
Let's all repeat together: Bravo.
Umpires want to test-drive this system, too
One wrinkle Monday that we didn't expect was three different umpires spending a three-inning stint in the replay booth, just to see how it went and to prepare themselves for their assignments to do this for real in replay headquarters in New York during the season. Asked how that rotation came about, Culbreth replied:
"I've umpired 25 years out there [on the field]. I've got as many minutes in the replay booth as you do. So we're all trying to familiarize ourselves with this thing. And the only way we can do it is get in there as much as we can while we can, let everybody have a taste of it, and that way, when we do go to New York [during the season], we're not stepping into totally virgin ground."
Replay can deliver anyone's 15 minutes of fame
Jared Goedert is a 28-year-old utility man who's about to embark on his ninth minor league season. He didn't start this game. He didn't even enter it until the bottom of the fifth inning. But he wound up in the middle of two plays that suddenly turned into the lead story on "SportsCenter." And how cool was that?
Asked what he'd tell his grandchildren about his historic day in Fort Myers, Goedert laughed.
"I'd probably tell them I was part of history -- and then tell them to guess why," he quipped. "And I'll bet they wouldn't guess that."
Well, here’s trivia question No. 1 for you: Since the 2012 All-Star break, Clayton Kershaw has the best ERA in baseball (1.92) among pitchers who have worked at least 250 innings. But guess who’s second (at 2.40)?
And while you ponder that one
Here’s trivia question No. 2: Over the last eight full months of baseball (dating back to August 2012), name the only pitcher in either league who has won three pitcher-of-the-month awards?
OK, ready for those answers? They happen to be the same guy. And it wouldn’t be a guy named Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Kershaw, Zack Greinke or, well, anyone you’d think of off the top of your head.
And here’s our advice: Remember the name.
The Braves haven’t announced anything. But Medlen appears on track to be the Braves’ Opening Day starter. There’s a reason for that.
It’s the same reason he started their first game of the postseason in each of the last two Octobers. It’s the same reason they’ve found a way to go 30-14 in his regular-season starts over the last two years.
And the reason is: Kris Medlen is on the road to being something special, one of those rare pitchers who is more than the sum of his radar-gun readings.
“He’s been great,” said Braves assistant general manager John Coppolella on Thursday, after Medlen had spun two innings of two-hit, one-run baseball in his spring debut against Detroit. “I don’t know where we would have been without him the past two years.
“Look, the fact that he’s not 6 feet tall and that fact that he doesn't throw 95 [miles per hour] makes it seem like he’s not a power guy,” Coppopella said. “But he’s very good with what he does. He plays to his strengths. And he does pretty much everything that he can to help himself. He’s a huge part of our staff. And we hope he will be for a long time.”
Well, however big a part of the Braves’ staff Medlen has been until now, here’s a bulletin for you: He’s about to become an even bigger part.
By his own admission, he’s “the old guy” in this Atlanta rotation these days. At age 28. And without Hudson setting the tone for this group for the first time in a decade, Medlen has emerged as the most likely member of this rotation to take on at least a semblance of that responsibility.
“It’s a huge hole that he leaves,” Medlen said of Hudson on Thursday -- but he also reminded us of something, that it’s not a hole the Braves only began coping with two weeks ago.
After all, they also spent the final two months of last season without him, after Hudson fractured his ankle covering first base and never returned. So while “there’s no way we wanted his Braves career to go out like that,” Medlen said, “I think it led us into this year, where [the question is] can we do it without Huddy. But I don’t even know if that’s a question anymore because we did it for two months.”
Without Hudson around to liven up this show, though, it’s caused everyone to reflect on the impact he made on everyone. And that includes Kris Medlen.
“Huddy was so big in my development as a person on the field, but also off the field,” Medlen said. “I remember being in his hotel room in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, and I was in the bullpen at the time. And he said, `Dude, you’re going to be one of our starters. You’re going to start for us for a long time.’ And when a guy like that says it and you’re in the bullpen, being a long guy, you’re like, `Yeah, whatever.’
“But hopefully, I’m going to be here long enough to prove him right. He always had my back. He was always on my side. And I have a lot of gratitude for having that kind of guy around me.”
Medlen may never be viewed as a classic “ace” just because of his fastball velocity (89-91 mph). But if you look beyond that, here’s what you find:
• He’s a strike-thrower whose 3.59-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the seventh best among all active starters with at least 500 career innings. “I always trust myself, and the guys behind me,” he said. “Of course, it’s easy when you have Andrelton Simmons behind you and Jason Heyward. They’ll run some balls down for you.”
• He’s the proud owner of one of the best changeups in the game. “Guys can know that that changeup’s coming,” Coppollela said, “and they still can’t hit it.”
• He’s developed a rapidly improving curve ball. “When he was out [in 2011] and had Tommy John surgery,” Coppolella said, “he worked on his curve ball, which has now turned into a very good pitch for him.”
• He’s such a good athlete, his manager Fredi Gonzalez says that “if you take Simmons out of the equation, he might be the best athlete on the field, or at least the best infielder on the field.”
• He’s a former college shortstop who thinks the game like an every-day player, even though he only gets to play every five games. “I just always understood the game,” Medlen said, “and understood the little things it takes -- the preparation and instincts. So it’s the game that’s exactly what I love. And it’s helped me, I think, as a pitcher, too.”
• And he’s one of the Braves’ most lovable personalities, a guy who Gonzalez quips “should be left-handed, some of the stuff he does. It wouldn’t surprise me if he popped into the clubhouse one day on a skateboard. He’s just one of those guys. There are no 'big games’ for him. He’s like he goes out and plays like he’s in the back yard, like he’s having fun pitching, and having fun swinging the bat.”
So the questions will no doubt continue -- this month, next month and over the long season to come. There will be doubts about whether the Braves have That Guy in their rotation. And there will be doubts about whether Kris Medlen can turn into That Guy.
But the skeptics should know they’ll be aiming those doubts at a man who isn’t listening.
“I honestly don’t think I need to prove anybody wrong,” said Medlen. “For me, I’m kind of a positive thinker. So I’ve always tried to prove myself to people who believed in me -- rather than try to prove people wrong.”
That story line goes kinda like this:
Ryan Howard -- part-time player $25 million platoon player yada, yada, yada.
“Yeah, I’ve heard people talk about that and about whatever,” Howard said Wednesday, after drilling an RBI single against Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ in the Phillies’ spring opener. “But I don’t think about that. I’m not focused on it.”
What he’s focused on, though, is being anything but a platoon player, that .224/.300/.428 career slash line against left-handed pitching notwithstanding. No matter how logical that platoon-player stuff might seem to everyone else, the Phillies’ first baseman has other plans.
And they involve spending the next six months (and beyond) as the cleanup hitter -- against everybody.
“Yeah, absolutely. That’s my goal as a baseball player, or just myself, period,” Howard told ESPN.com. “I want to be out there, playing against everybody. I don’t want to have to sit against somebody because they don’t think I can hit that guy or do this, or whatever. I want to be out there competing. If a guy gets me that day, he gets me that day. But next time he comes around, I’m trying to even the score.”
But if not -- and not would be a heavy favorite in Vegas, by the way -- then we probably haven’t heard the last of this discussion.
It would be one thing, you see, if this talk was coming only from sabermetricians, talk-show geniuses and about 2 zillion people on Twitter. What makes it more interesting is that it’s also come from Howard’s manager (Ryne Sandberg) and general manager (Ruben Amaro Jr.).
Check out these pithy quotes from a radio interview Amaro did over the offseason:
“Ryan has never been a great hitter against left-handers,” Amaro said. “But when he is in there and he does enough damage against right-handers it’s tough to take him out of the lineup. Now, if we feel like he’s not performing against the left-handers then we put someone else in there to hit. If he proves to us that he cannot handle hitting left-handers, then Ryne may have to put someone else in there to hit against left-handers.”
Sandberg, meanwhile, has voiced similar thoughts. So clearly, he is watching closely this spring. And here, he said Wednesday, is what he’ll be looking for when Howard faces the left-handed portion of the population:
“I want to see if he can make them throw the ball off the plate,” the manager said. “Be patient. Be relaxed in those situations. Get a good ball to hit. Make the pitcher come to him. I mean, I've said it before. I know he can hit balls in the strike zone, right-handed or left-handed pitching. So if it means being patient and taking walks, that’s for the betterment of the team. And be a baserunner. Let the guy behind him hit.”
But swinging at strikes has, increasingly, become an issue for Howard. According to FanGraphs, he’s chased more pitches outside the strike zone in the last two seasons -- 37 percent in 2012, 34 percent last year -- than at any time in his career. So Howard concedes he needs to swing at more strikes, period.
“Righty or lefty, that’s the name of the game, is getting good pitches and swinging at strikes,” he said. “Hitters’ strikes.”
He also admits he has asked Sandberg to give him as many opportunities to face left-handed pitching as possible this spring.
“I just wanted to do it, just to be able to see it,” he said. “To be able to see more [left-handers]. To start working on an approach. Just seeing left-handed breaking balls, left-handed pitches. Trying to work on picking up the ball sooner. And it’s spring training, where you’ve got the opportunity to go out and do it. So why not do it?”
No matter how this turns out, though, Howard has come into spring training healthier than he’s been at any time in three years. It’s now 28 months since he blew out his Achilles. And after five months of intensive conditioning, it’s finally healthy enough that it isn't an issue anymore. And neither is his arthroscopically repaired knee. So even he sees the difference in his health and agility between last spring and this spring.
“I can do everything,” Howard said. “I mean, I was able to do everything last [spring]. But then once it kind of started nagging, it was tough going out there and trying to play on it. But this year, being able to go out there, having a full offseason to be able to do agility drills, lifting, everything I wanted to do this offseason as far as that area goes, actually getting back to running this offseason, and now doing everything that’s asked of me in spring training. So yeah, that’s probably the biggest difference between this year and last year -- being able to do everything that’s been asked of me.”
And so far, “everything” includes handling those guys who insist on pitching left-handed against him. But there are still five weeks until Opening Day. So this is one Ryan Howard plot line that won’t be going away -- whether he’s tired of it or not.
Well, actually, not upon us. Upon 30 managers who are about to hold the power of replay challenges in their hands. Lucky them.
Just what every manager needs, right? One more decision they can get second-guessed about.
But we've noticed something this week, in our spring travels: These managers aren't sweating this. Not yet anyway. Not after being briefed by baseball officials in recent days about how the new replay system is going to change their worlds.
“Let me tell you,” said the Orioles’ ever-meticulous Buck Showalter. “Everybody’s talking about how we’re going to get second-guessed. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
“And the reason, he said, is simple.
I have confidence that the umpires want to get the play right, because if they choose not to review that, and then everybody at home and in the ballpark sees that they were incorrect in doing that, then the heat's on them a little bit. So I would say the umpires want the right call.” --Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg
“If you know you’re right before you go out there,” Showalter said, “where’s the strategy?”
Hmmm. If you know you’re right? Is that what he said? So how, you wonder, can he – or any manager – possibly know he’s right before he starts challenging away?
Easy. Because all these teams are in the process of making one of the most important hiring decisions in recent baseball history -- The Video Guy.
The Video Guy will be the trusted team employee with a big flat screen in front of him and a hotline to the dugout. It will be The Video Guy’s responsibility to alert the manager about which calls to challenge and which calls to leave alone.
Some teams are hiring Video Guys who are ex-players. Some are hiring ex-umpires. Some are hiring people with experience working in baseball video departments.
But whoever they are and wherever they come from, let’s just say The Video Guy had better be right. Or he’s going to find himself in a headline, or 12.
For instance, we asked Tigers manager Brad Ausmus the other day if he was worried about the vast new opportunities for the know-it-alls to second-guess him over his challenges (or lack thereof). Turned out he had this all figured out.
“Yeah, I guess if you use your challenge in the second inning and get it wrong, and then there’s a big play in the sixth, you could get second-guessed,” Ausmus said. “But I’ll just blame my video guy.”
Cue the rim shot.
But this is no jokefest for these managers. You’d think, with the first experimental use of baseball’s extensive new replay system only a few days away (with the first spring tests scheduled for next week, in both Arizona and Florida), that they’d be nervous about having another critical responsibility added to their job descriptions. But we’re not sensing that.
After being briefed in the last week by Joe Torre and Tony La Russa about what to expect, they’re showing very little fear -- even of having just one challenge to play with per game if they get it wrong, or two at the most, even if they hit on the first one.
“I just think, if you get the information right [from The Video Guy], where’s the strategy?” Showalter asked.
Even, we wondered, if it was the early innings and you were risking losing your challenge in case another big moment came along later?
“But if you know you’re right, why are you worried?” he replied. “If you’ve got the right guy feeding it to you, [you say to the umpires], `You missed it. Go get it.’”
So there is so much confidence among managers that they’re not going to get burned that we've discovered something fascinating -- something we didn't expect, to be honest:
If you thought these guys were going to overlook that botched call in the first inning just because they want to hoard challenges for later it appears you’re dead wrong.
“For me,” said the Phillies’ Ryne Sandberg, “my idea is being aggressive with my challenges early in the game.”
Sandberg said he can easily envision challenging “that call in the first inning, where a run comes in or two runs come in or that [missed] third out with men on base early on in the first three or four innings.”
The reason, he said, is that he expects far fewer missed calls than most of us might expect. And if that’s true, what is he saving those challenges for -- a moment that’s likely never to come?
Yep, you read that right. Once every 6.5 games.
“So really,” Sandberg said, “we're only talking about once a week.”
And if that’s the case, he said, not only does he not plan to save his challenges. He’s strongly considering rolling those dice occasionally even when his Video Guy isn't sure whether a call was missed or not.
“That would be one,” he said, “where you’d say, 'Well, wait. This was a ball down the line. It’s inconclusive, but three runs came in, or two runs came in.’ Inconclusive? I still might have to give that a shot.”
And Showalter is right there with him.
“I’m going to tell you what. If there’s a chance to overturn something in the first inning, I’m going,” he said. “You don’t know, in the second inning, what that brings. And then in the third inning, if I got the first one right, if it happens two outs later, I’m going again, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re telling us there’s only one missed call every so many games. So why wouldn't I go in the first inning?
“You’re telling me that outs are more important in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings than in the first or second?” Showalter wondered. “Why?”
Excellent question. But the seventh, eighth and ninth innings must be different, because the whole replay system changes when the seventh, eighth and ninth roll around.
It will be at that point -- but not before -- that umpires magically acquire the authority to initiate challenges on their own. But just to clear up never-ending confusion on this, they can only do that if the manager is out of challenges.
So if there’s any portion of this system that creates the potential for trouble, it’s those late innings. Here’s exactly where that trouble could arise:
Let’s say it’s the top of the eighth. The manager is out of challenges. A close play at the plate doesn’t go his way. He trots onto the field and tells the umpire: “I’m out of challenges, but are you sure you got that right? Why don’t you guys confer?” And the crew chief tells him: “We’re sure. Sorry. Now get the heck off the field.”
Meanwhile, fans across America have just watched 87 replays and know the umpires got this wrong. You know exactly what they’ll be asking:
“What’s the point of having replay if you’re not fixing a play like that?”
That’s precisely what they should ask, too, of course. And it’s precisely what baseball should be fearing most about these new rules. But again, the managers themselves don’t seem to share those fears.
“I have confidence that the umpires want to get the play right,” said Sandberg, “because if they choose not to review that, and then everybody at home and in the ballpark sees that they were incorrect in doing that, then the heat’s on them a little bit. So I would say the umpires want the right call. The technology’s there. Everybody wants to get the play right. And I have confidence in the umpires being on that same page.
“Otherwise,” Sandberg laughed, “They'll be doing the press conference after the game and not me.”
In the Phillies’ camp Tuesday, catchers were given a quick course on how the rules will affect them. And starting Wednesday, manager Ryne Sandberg told ESPN.com, the Phillies will begin “multiple” drills for both catchers and baserunners to cover how plays at the plate will no longer be the same.
Asked how soon his team would begin working with players to help them understand how to react to situations that arise on plays at the plate, Sandberg replied: "Immediately. We've got games taking place Wednesday.”
So Sandberg had his coaching staff explain the rule to his catchers on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, they’ll launch right into their first situational drill. And it won’t be the last.
“That’ll have to be [taught] multiple times,” Sandberg said Tuesday morning, on the eve of his team’s first spring training game of the year. “It’s something new. This will be a drill, with catchers, with baserunners. And we’ll have a [coach hit fungos], with varied throws going to different spots.”
Sandberg said he envisioned this session as a variation on a drill teams do every spring, in which catchers take assorted throws at the plate -- but with a whole new twist.
“Only now,” he said, “we’ll be stopping it and saying, 'Hey, on this throw right here, if the catcher is in this position and he’s just received it, here’s his responsibility, and here’s what the runners can do, and here’s what you can do as a catcher.’ And that creates multiple options around home plate. That starts tomorrow. And that’s huge.”
One of the first situations Sandberg wants his catchers to understand is that, even if they’re set up correctly to allow the runner a lane to the plate, if the throw from the outfield brings them up the line, into the path of the runner, the baserunner is still allowed to hit them.
“In that situation, it’s not a violation by the runner if he bowls him over,” the manager said. “So it goes back to the old idea that it’s free game right there. So you know what? I think that’s going to stress outfielders making good throws to home plate, and for the catchers to position themselves to allow the runner to have a lane to home plate.
“That right there is cut and dried,” he said. “But with different throws coming in, if the catcher shows the lane and then he [catches the ball and] takes the lane away and blocks the plate, now, for me, they need to be ready to take a hit there. And once again, that’s subjective, in the judgment of the home-plate umpire.”
But for all the complications and gray areas Sandberg is concerned about, he’s still a big fan of the rule itself, and what it aspires to address.
“I've seen those plays where it's a good throw, the catcher gives the runner a chance to slide, and all of a sudden the runner goes out of his way to hit the guy high,” he said. “That’s the flagrant play at the plate that I totally agree with. That’s intentional injury, 100 percent. And the last thing anybody wants to do is lose their catcher for the year in April on a play like that.”
"I've been fortunate," the Orioles' catcher said Monday, on the day Major League Baseball and the players' union announced the sport's new rules governing collisions at home plate. "I've gotten lucky a few times, really, that I never got hurt worse than I did."
"There are always going to be catchers who want to leave it on the field," he said. "You want to be strong for your team. And stopping runs is the most important part of this game. It's whoever scores the most runs. So you want to be able to stop those runs at any cost.
"But the bigger thing, that I think really comes into play here, is you look at the NFL and the effect that concussions have. You know, we're not just talking about a career. You're not just talking about missing a season with an injury. You're talking about a couple of head-to-head collisions, and you could have quite a bit of memory loss, and quite a difficult time functioning later in life. And for me, I think that's the one issue I'm glad is hopefully going to be straightened out."
Nevertheless, Wieters has questions. And he hasn't hesitated to voice them to the union in the past few weeks, as officials on both sides struggled with how to word these rules.
So let's start with this: The collision rules say a catcher "in possession of the ball" can still block the plate. But Wieters, like a lot of catchers, would like to know exactly what that means -- and, in fact, needs to know what that means.
"That's part of a big concern for me," he said. "If a ball beats the runner and I'm not allowed to even block the plate then, a good sliding runner could still be safe, even if he would have been 'out' by 10 feet. So that's one thing I want to [ask]: What is blocking the plate? How much of the plate do you have to give? Hopefully, we'll go through that in spring training and get a real substantial feel for what's legitimate and what isn't, going into the season.
"But I think the one thing for me is, if the guy is out and the ball beats him, you want the guy to be called out. And if the guy's safe, you don't want a guy to be called out who would have been safe."
Another topic that Wieters said he's voiced a lot of concerns about is what happens when throws inadvertently take catchers into the path of the runner. That's an issue jam-packed with gray areas.
"You don't want a runner being called safe because a catcher had to back up to field the throw to get a better hop," he said, "or to have the throw coming into the line. And that's one thing that we've had to work through -- to make sure the catcher had the liberty to play the ball."
But Wieters also knows there are going to be times when these plays aren't going to be clear-cut, where it's difficult to tell whether it was the throw that took the catcher into the path of the runner or whether the catcher intended to block that path all along.
And when that happens, no one is too certain how anyone is supposed to react -- not the catcher, not the runner, not even the umpire. Yet.
"That's the hard part," Wieters said. "Part of it is obviously going to be a judgment call that the umpires have. And I think that's one of the things going through it. You don't want the umpire to have to make six or seven different judgments on where he's standing and where he's going. You want him to be able to make one judgment of: Was it a violent collision? Could it have been avoided? And I think that's the biggest thing in this rule: Is it contact that could have been avoided at the plate?"
Wieters' manager, Buck Showalter, attended a briefing on the new rule by baseball officials Sunday. And as a manager who still cringes when he thinks of some of the hits his catcher has taken, Showalter is grateful for a rule that aspires to all but eliminate "the cheap-shot collision."
"We're talking about where the [catcher] is completely exposed, doesn't have the ball and some guy hunts him," Showalter said. "We've had it happen with Matt a couple of times. And as you remember, we were real unhappy about it. I can still remember the players who did it. With no intent to score. Had the plate given to him. Could have slid. And just [hit him] very maliciously. We're going to get that out of the game."
But Wieters wanted to make one thing clear: This isn't just a rule designed to protect catchers.
"You know, catchers don't want to see runners getting hurt, either," he said. "So you want to be able to protect the runner, too. And I think that's part of the issue of why it's taken so long to put something together. You've got to be able to protect both parties. You can't just say: The catcher can do whatever he wants, so now you're going to have a bunch of runners getting hurt. It's a fine line of trying to keep the game the same, but at the same time, coming up with a rule that also eliminates some injuries."
And he and Showalter both believe baseball accomplished that Monday.
"You're probably not going to see, with the naked eye, a lot of the changes," Showalter said. "Just hopefully, we won't be showing on 'Baseball Tonight' these violent collisions that shouldn't have happened."
He's on the final season of a three-year, $22.5-million contract. The Baltimore Sun reported this week that the Orioles have contacted his agent, Craig Landis, to let them know they're interested in talking about an extension. And Hardy told ESPN.com on Monday morning that he planned to meet with his agent in the next 24 hours to discuss where they go from here.
"I don't know how that will all play out," Hardy said. "We'll see. I'm actually going to meet with my agent. And we're going to talk a little bit about what could happen. And he'll kind of fill me in because I don't really know much.
"We've talked about all the different options, about what could happen -- other possible teams that might be looking for shortstops. There's so much that goes into it. And I'm not all caught up to speed."
Those teams could include the Dodgers (depending on their contract talks with Hanley Ramirez and on just-signed Cuban shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena), the Phillies (depending on whether Jimmy Rollins vests his 2015 option) and the Indians (depending on the progress of top prospect Francisco Lindor). And of course, there are the Yankees -- of whom Hardy quipped: "I heard their shortstop's retiring or something."
But Hardy, who turns 32 in August, has made it clear that if the stars and dollar signs line up right, he'd prefer to stay right where he is -- in Baltimore.
"I'll say, and I've said it a lot, that I've really enjoyed my time here," he said. "I like playing here. I like the guys. I like the manager. I like the coaches. There are a lot of things that make me happy. So I definitely like it here. But we'll see what happens."
Hardy and outfielder Nick Markakis are the two most prominent members of the Orioles' position-player core who could be free agents next winter. And two Scott Boras clients, catcher Matt Wieters and first baseman Chris Davis, are two years away. So Hardy understands why people keep saying and writing why the Orioles' window to win is now.
"When you look at it like that, you can see it how you want," Hardy said. "But they've got Manny [Machado] for another five, six years. The pitchers are young, so they'll be around. So I guess you could think that window with these guys in this clubhouse right now could be closing. But it doesn't necessarily mean the window is closing for the whole organization."
Whether it's closing or opening, though, the Orioles have had themselves about as action-packed a first week of spring training as any team in history -- agreeing to terms with Ubaldo Jimenez, Korean ace Suk-min Yoon and now Nelson Cruz.
After a winter so quiet that it won them our not-so-coveted Most Unimproved Team in the American League award, they've sure picked up the pace since they arrived in Sarasota. And you could argue that by doing it this way, they've energized their clubhouse even more than if they'd signed all these guys two months ago.
"Maybe that was their strategy," Hardy deadpanned. "If it was, they definitely added excitement. Whether that was what they had in mind, or that was their plan, it's worked. I'll say that. They're playing it out brilliantly."
And for the record, Cabrera says he has also noticed Prince's helpful contributions to his ever-growing trophy collection. And even to Ryan Braun's trophy collection, for that matter.
"He's got three MVPs," said Miguel Cabrera, with a soft laugh, of the man who spent the past two seasons cleaning up behind him. "Three MVPs and a Triple Crown and two batting championships."
Then Cabrera looked across his locker room and eyeballed the man who hit behind him before Fielder showed up in Motown, and who will hit fourth again this year now that Prince is no longer a crouching Tiger -- Victor Martinez.
"And Victor," Cabrera added, with an even bigger laugh, "he's got one [batting title]."
In truth, of course, if you want to get all technical on us, Prince and Victor have combined for zero MVPs, zero Triple Crowns and zero batting titles. You can look that up. That math was merely a product of their amigo, Miggy, just being his usual magnanimous self.
But with Fielder gone -- traded to Texas over the winter in an eyeball-rattling deal for Ian Kinsler -- the issue of OMG, Who Hits Behind Cabrera Now hangs over the Tigers this spring, as Cabrera's first season of the post-Prince era approaches.
Fortunately, the new manager in town, Brad Ausmus, pretty much cleared up part of that question over the weekend. Ausmus said he's "95 percent" certain that Martinez would return to hitting cleanup behind Cabrera this season, just the way they lined up in 2011, in the final year of the pre-Prince era. So there ya go.
But now here's the bigger question:
How much does it even matter?
Maybe not so much. Or certainly not so much as you might think.
As my esteemed colleague, ESPN.com's Dave Schoenfield, wrote recently, there "just isn't evidence," in almost any of the really significant numbers in Cabrera's stats column, "that Prince Fielder made Miguel Cabrera a better hitter."
Wait. There isn't any evidence? Really?
That's a statement that seems impossible on the surface, even to the Tigers themselves. After all
• In the two seasons in which Fielder hit behind Cabrera, their man Miggy won back-to-back MVPs and back-to-back batting titles.
• Cabrera's on-base percentage also went up 14 points (from .403 to .417) in those two seasons, compared to his previous years with the Tigers.
• Meanwhile, his slugging percentage zoomed upward nearly 50 points (from .571 to .620).
• His home runs per season (from 35 to 44) and RBIs per season (115 to 138) also were way up.
• And his intentional walks (54 over the two seasons before Prince, 36 in the two seasons with Prince) were down.
So if you attend that school where they teach the course, Lineup Protection Is a Myth 101, you should not be expecting any guest lectures any time soon from visiting professor David Dombrowski.
"I do not think it's a myth," said Dombrowski, the Tigers' president, general manager and CEO who understood all the ramifications of trading Fielder for Ian Kinsler this winter. "I'll tell you. I think sometimes, you can get too overly analytical.
"The reality is," Dombrowski went on, "when they're doing whatever [studies] they're doing, if you don't have a bat behind him that is at least a threat, the way they approach that guy -- even though they may pitch to him -- is significantly different."
You probably don't need us to survey the occupants of locker rooms from coast to coast to know that that belief is one that's shared by pretty much every player alive. But just to give you a sampling of what you'd find if you did survey those locker rooms, here's the take of always-thoughtful Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter:
"Now you can ask Miggy," Hunter said. "Miggy's going to hit .320 or .330, and he's going to hit 30 or 40-plus [homers] no matter what. So don't get it twisted. Even without Prince, he's a hitter. But there's gotta be something said for that, that three years in a row, Prince has hit behind three MVPs and one Triple Crown winner.
“"Now if anybody can get the Triple Crown [all by himself], it's going to be Miggy," Hunter said. "So I know you've got to be careful saying that Prince had a lot to do with Miggy, because Miggy's from another planet. But I still think it plays a little bit. I don't know what percentage, but it plays into it some."
When Miguel comes up to hit, I guarantee you there are pitchers who are looking to see who's hitting behind him in situations. There are going to be times you pitch around him. There are going to be times when you can pitch to him. But there's never a game, or an at-bat, for Miguel that the pitcher doesn't look on deck to see who's coming up.” -- Wally Joyner, Tigers' hitting coach
OK then. Get the picture? Even players who are at least remotely skeptical of the concept of lineup protection still think there's something to it. But if you look past the circumstantial evidence in Cabrera's trophy case, there are really persuasive facts that say otherwise.
You'd think, for instance, that with a feared presence like Fielder behind him, Cabrera would have seen a lot more strikes over the past two years. Right?
Wrong. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron ran those numbers for us and found this:
Pitches in the strike zone to Cabrera from 2007-11: 46 percent.
Pitches in the strike zone to Cabrera in 2012-13: 46 percent.
You would also think, we're guessing, that Cabrera saw many more fastballs with Fielder hulking it up behind him. Nope. Not really, according to FanGraphs.
Fastballs thrown to Cabrera over his career: 59 percent.
Fastballs thrown to Cabrera in 2012-13: 59 percent.
OK, how about first-pitch strikes? They must have gone up in The Prince Years, correct? Sorry. Here’s more from FanGraphs:
Cabrera's career first-pitch strike percentage: 58.6 percent.
Cabrera’s first-pitch strike percentage in 2012-13: 58.9 percent.
So where's the evidence? It sure is difficult to find. But here's Torii Hunter's argument. It's one you'll never find on any stat sheet.
"The numbers don't lie, right? That's what they say," Hunter said. "But the numbers don't have a heart, or feelings, or adrenaline."
What he means by that is that the heart, the feelings and the mind are also part of this equation. And Torii Hunter should know, because he's the guy who hits in front of Miguel Cabrera, in the 2-hole.
"When I'm hitting in front of Miggy," Hunter said, "it gives me so much confidence that these guys have got to pitch to me, that I'm going to be able to hit. There's a mental side of the game. And me hitting second [with Cabrera third] is more mental than anything.
"I can almost bet you that they're pitching me the same as when I was hitting fourth, fifth and sixth in Minnesota, and early on with the Angels. But now it's more mental, because I'm not trying to hit home runs. I'm just poking the ball to right, because I'm hitting second, because I know who's hitting behind me."
And that mental and psychological side of this story also applies to the pitcher, says Cabrera's new hitting coach, Wally Joyner.
"When Miguel comes up to hit, I guarantee you there are pitchers who are looking to see who's hitting behind him in situations," Joyner said. "There are going to be times you pitch around him. There are going to be times when you can pitch to him. But there's never a game, or an at-bat, for Miguel that the pitcher doesn't look on deck to see who's coming up."
But that's where Victor Martinez comes in. To the outside world, the idea of the gargantuan Fielder lurking on deck would seem far more intimidating than the presence of Martinez on deck. The Tigers, though, don't see it that way.
"I have no problem with Victor being behind him," Ausmus said. "And it gives you the advantage of Victor being a switch-hitter. My guess is that last year, if there was a lefty on the mound, they would not want to give Miggy anything to hit and just pitch to Fielder, and go lefty-on-lefty. But you can't really do that with Victor."
The Tigers actually have all the data they need to know Martinez's "protection factor" is just as formidable as Fielder's -- because they tried it that way for a year, in 2011. And while it may have seemed as if Fielder had a major impact in 2012 -- seeing as how Cabrera won the Triple Crown and all -- in fact Cabrera's on-base percentage went down 55 points that year (from .448 to .393) with Martinez no longer behind him.
"So people think they're not going to pitch to me with somebody else [besides Fielder] behind me, but it's not going to happen," Cabrera said, "because Victor is a great hitter with men in scoring position. He can drive in runs, too. So I think we don't have to worry about it."
Well, just so he knows, his bosses aren't worrying.
"Maybe if he had, let's just say, a .190 hitter hitting behind him on a consistent basis," Dombrowski mused, "Miggy would probably get to the point where he'd get a little frustrated. But that's not going to happen."
While he may not subscribe to the Lineup Protection Is Fiction newsletter, Dombrowski has thought about this a lot. And he's come to a conclusion that all of us, no matter where we stand on this issue, can't help but agree with.
Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez are excellent hitters, in any spot in any lineup -- "but they're not as good as Miggy," Dombrowski chuckled. "No offense to either one of them, but he's the best hitter in baseball."
So we can debate this question for the next six months. But Dave Dombrowski has it figured out better than anyone.
"In reality," he said, "the only person who could protect Miggy is Miggy."
And now here they are, together in the spring training camp of the Detroit Tigers, where Vizquel still so looks so good when he takes an occasional ground ball that his manager, Brad Ausmus, joked Saturday that “Omar’s our Plan B” at shortstop.
Later Vizquel said of Iglesias, “Everyone knows what kind of hands he has.” So I couldn't help but ask Vizquel afterward: “Who has the better hands -- you or Iglesias?”
“It’s still me,” laughed Vizquel, whose three different seasons with five errors or fewer (and at least 130 games played) are as many as all the other shortstops in history combined.
And why did he vote for himself?
“I’m already done,” said Vizquel, who is in his first year of coaching after a 24-year big league career. “And I've already proved what I can do. Now it’s his turn.”
Standing a few feet away was rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos.
“What was the answer to that question?” Castellanos asked.
“I said, 'Me,'" Vizquel told him. “I’m already gone. And I already did my thing. It’s his turn to do it.”
“You guys are different,” Castellanos told him.
Vizquel’s response: “It’s just different styles of playing. I think his style is just a little bit more flashy than mine. Even though I was flashy, I have a different style of fielding the ball. But the end result is still the same. Make the out.”
Oh, and there's one more way in which they’re different, Vizquel chuckled: “He talks more than me.”
Torii Hunter, upside down in the Fenway Park bullpen, feet pointed toward the stars, as the most famous bullpen cop in history celebrates a David Ortiz grand slam.
What people don’t know is the price the Detroit Tigers’ right fielder paid for taking that tumble.
“It took me two months to get right from that,” Hunter said Saturday. “Two months. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about. It hurt. I went to rehab. Did everything. Muscle tension. I had a lot of stuff going on.
“My lower back was locked up,” he said. “I had to get soft tissue work for two months. Getting out of bed was tough.”
Not all of those aches and pains were the result of just that one play, Hunter said. He already had laid the groundwork for that agony in the ALDS against Oakland, where “I beat myself up.”
Hunter is fine now, he said, as he enters his second season with the Tigers and his 18th in the big leagues, at age 38. But hard as he tries, he can’t seem to escape the world’s fascination with his upside-down journey into the lore of October.
He’s cool with the people who remember it as a spectacular effort to rob Big Papi of a game-tying grand slam. It’s the people who think that was some sort of comedy show that get to him sometimes.
So, when fans shove photos of that play in front of him, hoping he’ll autograph it, what they get back is a polite: “No thanks.”
“I ain’t going to sign that,” Hunter said, affably but firmly. “A couple of people have tried. They said, 'Would you sign this?’ I said, 'No. That ain't even me. That’s my feet.’ They think it’s funny. It’s funny to them. It’s not funny to me. I was trying to win.”
And most of all, that’s what Hunter wants people to remember about that dramatic moment in postseason time. Yeah, Ortiz was the hero. But the man who toppled into the bullpen almost made an amazing play, one that might have changed the entire course of October events.
“Most people, the majority of people, people who know the game, they were like, 'Wow, that was a great effort,'" Hunter said. “A lot of guys don’t even go for that ball. They just [pull] up.
“And a lot of people don’t know I lost the ball. It was in the lights. The whole time, it was in the lights. And that’s why I kind of overran it. Well, I don’t know if I exactly overran it. Just, it was behind me, while it was in the lights. And I had to try and make an adjustment really quick with my body. I didn't pick it up until it was like five feet in front of me.”
So, when it came time to make an instantaneous decision, Hunter never thought twice. He risked those two months of pain and rehab because a World Series trip was on the line. It was the only choice, he said.
“I could have just [given] up,” he said, “because it was going over the fence regardless. But what the heck, man. I’m trying to win. I’m going to go all out.”
Hunter knows there was one other byproduct of that play, though. It turned Steve Horgan, the bullpen cop, into an official, autograph-signing, picture-posing New England celebrity. And that’s the one part of the Boston celebration Hunter says he has no problem with.
“That was awesome, man,” Hunter said of Horgan. “You know, he’s a fan. He’s just rooting for his team. And it so happens, you get a snapshot of him, with the excitement, with my feet right next to him. But he’s a good man. He’s always smiling in the bullpen. You know, Steve, I’d met him before. But I had a chance to talk with him after that incident and really get to know him. I thought he was a great guy.”
And now they’re bonded forever, by one wild and crazy October moment, frozen in time by a click of a camera. And that click stands as a reminder that, when postseason paths collide, one man’s jubilation can be another man’s painful struggle just to get out of bed in the morning.
• So which Ubaldo Jimenez did the Orioles just sign?
Was it that guy who ripped off a 1.82 ERA in his 13 starts after the All-Star break last year -- the second-best ERA in baseball behind only Clayton Kershaw?
Or was it that other guy -- the Ubaldo Jimenez who had a 5.10 ERA in his first 61 starts with the Indians, with 175 walks in 340.2 innings?
The Orioles are well aware that this is a pitcher who has a complicated delivery and a history of losing that delivery. But they've just bet $50 million that they can fix those issues.
“I have a lot of confidence in the kid,” said the Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations, Dan Duquette. “But I also have a lot of confidence in the leadership of our team, in Buck [Showalter] and [new pitching coach] Dave Wallace.
“Dave Wallace is a pro. You go back and look at his record in L.A., New York and Boston. He gets the most out of his pitching staffs. He’s very good with starting pitchers. So I think we have a reasonable chance to get good performance from Ubaldo.”
• Another potentially important Dave Wallace connection is his history in Los Angeles with the Martinez brothers -- Pedro and Ramon. Wallace was their pitching coach with the Dodgers. Duquette was Pedro’s general manager in Montreal and Boston. And Jimenez has the same agent (Fernando Cuza) as the Martinez brothers.
So Duquette made a point Thursday of pointing out that Cuza “saw how Dave Wallace worked very efficiently with Ramon and Pedro Martinez, and particularly Ramon, who’s built very similarly to Ubaldo and has a similar type delivery and an excellent changeup. I think Fernando saw the obvious possibilities of Ubaldo working with Dave, and making the same kind of adjustments that Ramon made and having the same type of success.”
Cuza confirmed that, saying, “The Dave Wallace connection was important. And Dave speaks perfect Spanish. He knows the culture. He’s worked with some of the best Dominican pitchers in the history of baseball. So I think, in this environment, Ubaldo is going to be able to really thrive.”
• Duquette made repeated references to the fact that Jimenez has started at least 30 games in each of the last six seasons. For the record, he’s one of 10 right-handers in baseball who have done that. The others: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, James Shields, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson.
• Yes, Jimenez really said he’s looking forward to facing all those tough lineups in the AL East. Which is interesting, considering that he has a 5.86 career ERA against the rest of the division -- and that he’s 2-5, 8.78 lifetime against the Red Sox and Yankees.
Here’s what he said, for the record: “It’s a big challenge every five days. It’s not easy. It’s the toughest division in baseball. So you have to try to bring your A-game every time you pitch. But I like challenges.”
Showalter’s response after listening to that answer: “I don’t want to see that on the bulletin boards now tomorrow, that he’s looking forward to pitching against the AL East. He’s looking forward to the CHALLENGE.”
• Adam Jones, on whether the Orioles’ window to win is right now, with Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy a year away from free agency and Matt Wieters and Chris Davis two years away: “That’s the economic part of baseball. And I didn’t major in economics, so I have no idea how it’s going to work. In a perfect world, we’re going to lock everybody up for five or six years. In reality, it’s not going to be like that. But the important part is that right now, we've got guys here who want to be here. And hopefully, they’re here for a long time. But I don’t know if they will, because it’s a business.”
“Oh, no. I thought I was done,” the best 21-year-old third baseman in baseball admitted Thursday. “My first thought was, 'There goes my career. There goes my knee. It’s going to be tough to come back from this.’”
But luckily for Machado, and luckily for the Baltimore Orioles, this wasn't The End for one of baseball’s brightest stars. Miraculously, his left ACL wasn't torn. Miraculously, this was “just” a tear of the medial patellofemoral ligament, which could be repaired arthroscopically instead of with major reconstructive surgery.
And even more miraculously, five months later, Machado is trotting around the Orioles’ spring training complex, taking batting practice and fielding ground balls. And he never would have thought that would be possible, either, he said.
Oh, he isn't running full speed yet. He isn't running the bases yet. There are still drills that either his medical staff or his manager won’t allow him to do.
One of these weeks, one of these months, Manny Machado will be back on his road to stardom. Just don’t mention that ever-popular expression, “Opening Day,” around the Orioles. Any of them.
Asked Thursday where starting on Opening Day ranks on his list of spring goals, Machado had a telling answer:
“Last,” he said. “That’s at the bottom of my list. It’s not even on my list, to be honest.”
And not surprisingly, that’s exactly what his manager wanted to hear.
“He’s certainly heard it enough from me, and from the doctors, I’m sure -- that when we get it, we want to get it right the first time,” Buck Showalter said. “My biggest goal with him this year is not to have any setbacks. I don’t want to have any setbacks this spring.
“And believe me, our infield coaches, our strength-and-conditioning guys and everybody, they've heard that a lot. I don’t want to hear about setbacks. And I don’t want to hear about him being ahead or behind schedule. You’ll never hear somebody say, 'This guy’s on schedule.' There is none. The schedule is what it is. When he’s there, he’s there. And he’s worth waiting on, to be right, because I don’t want him to have any doubt in his mind that he’s ready.”
So Machado’s most important date next month isn't March 31. It’s March 15, the day he’s scheduled to visit his surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, in California. And it won’t be until at least that point that he can resume full baseball activities.
It’s still possible, said Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations, that Machado could be cleared to play Opening Day. But until then, they’re all taking this day by day.
“When I’m ready, I’m going to be ready,” Machado said. “And everybody’s going to know it. And that’s when I’m going to be out there with the team, whether it’s Opening Day or sometime in April.”
In the meantime, Machado says he’s erased the “freak” play on which he got hurt, while simply turning first base, from the DVR in his mind.
“It’s gone,” he laughed. “I've got some new memories in there. Now I’m just trying to get back out there. That’s the most important one.”
From their ever-skeptical fan base. From the always-wary members of the local and national media. Even from the occupants of front offices throughout the land, who kept asking, What the heck are the Orioles doing?
Well now we have our answer, don’t we? Now we know, says the Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations, Dan Duquette.
They were just biding their time. That’s all.
You knew that all along, right?
The Plan was always to sign someone like Ubaldo Jimenez, for something like four years and 50 million Angelos family dollars.
It just took awhile. Like a really, really, really long while.
So that was their story Thursday, the day they announced the signing of Jimenez amid major live-TV-back-to-Baltimore hoopla. And they were sticking to it. But why not?
It might have taken nearly a week into spring training for the Orioles’ key offseason acquisitions to start rolling in; but in a way, Duquette said, it actually works out better that way.
“If we went out and we signed these players in October or November,” Duquette said, “people would be saying: ‘The Orioles are addressing their needs. They’re being aggressive. They’re adding good starting pitching. They’re ramping up their team for a run at the title.’ OK?
“Well, we didn’t sign them in October. But by waiting, we got contracts with these players that are good for the market, that are good for the team. And people understand that we are building our team and ramping it up to be a contending team this year.”
Well, whether people actually understand it or not, he’s still right about that. The Orioles are better and deeper today than they were a week ago. They needed to add pitching if they were going to survive another journey through the AL East minefield. And at least they’ve done that.
They were even willing to give up their first-round draft pick, and the slot money that goes with it, to do it. And their willingness to do that, Duquette said, tells us something about their priorities that we didn’t know for sure a week ago.
Losing that pick “is always a consideration,” he said. “But getting dependable starting pitching is very important.”
So, Duquette added, “do we want to be giving up all our draft picks every year? No. That’s not something we want to be doing long term. But we’ve made a conscious choice to do that this year, to put the resources into our pitching staff [because of] the core players we have. We thought that was the right choice to make.”
That, of course, would be a reference to another of our famous media storylines about the Orioles these days -- their dwindling window to win right now, before they can no longer afford “core players” like Matt Wieters and Chris Davis, who can be free agents in two years and have Scott Boras as their agent.
Suddenly, with their payroll blowing past $100 million after the Jimenez signing, keeping all of these players would seem to be getting more challenging by the minute. But Duquette said simply: “I would say we want to have a competitive team, year-in, year-out. And we’re going to do what we have to do to accomplish that. ... But we have to do it within the resources of this team and this market.”
So there you go. They’re going to do what they have to do. It would be safe to say that for most of this winter, the citizens of Baltimore weren’t so sure of that. But two significant free-agent signings later -- with the possibility of another down the road (hello, Kendrys Morales?) – it turns out they always did have a Plan.
And so, a wry smile formed on Duquette’s face when one of his media admirers asked him Thursday how difficult a winter he’d just been through.
“You mean the snow?” Duquette quipped. “Oh. You mean the cold.”
Roll the clock back to last spring training. Nearly everybody was picking those Toronto Blue Jays to win the AL East. Remember?
Now ride that time machine back to this spring training. And nearly everybody is picking the Blue Jays to finish last in the AL East.
OK, makes sense . . . except for one minor detail: It’s practically the same team.
The first baseman is the same (Edwin Encarnacion). The shortstop is the same (Jose Reyes). The third baseman is the same (Brett Lawrie). The DH is the same (Adam Lind). The whole outfield is the same (Jose Bautista/Colby Rasmus/Melky Cabrera).
The Opening Day starter is the same (R.A. Dickey). Three of the other four starters are the same (Brandon Morrow/Mark Buehrle/J.A. Happ). The closer is the same (Casey Janssen). And virtually his entire set-up crew is the same (Brett Cecil/Steve Delabar/Sergio Santos/Aaron Loup).
But “same” doesn’t quite describe them -- because most of them are a lot healthier now.
So what happens, wondered GM Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday, if this year’s edition of the Blue Jays can just eliminate the “Murphy’s Law component” that turned last year into probably the most disappointing season in franchise history?
“Sometimes you sit there and say, ‘We won 74 games, when everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,’” the GM said. “So this year, what happens if we just have a little bit of luck?
“I can understand the skepticism about our team, absolutely, coming off the year we’re coming off,” Anthopoulos went on. “But I just don’t think it’s a stretch to expect improvement out of a lot of these guys this year, simply because the floor was so low.”
So think this through, all right? IS it possible that, when all of us geniuses in the predictions business picked this team to win last year, we had the right pick, but just the wrong season?
Uh, maybe. So let’s take a look at three big areas where everything went wrong last season and assess how likely it is to go right this season.
This team really was a calamity waiting to happen last year. Reyes wrecked his ankle sliding into second base. Bautista hurt his hip stepping on home plate. Lawrie injured his oblique diving for a ground ball in the World Baseball Classic.
Melky Cabrera had a tumor in his back that took months to diagnose. Happ got hit in the head by a line drive. Brandon Morrow had a freak nerve issue in his forearm.
“So I think the way I see it,” said Dickey on Wednesday, “is that we did NOT have this team last year, simply by way of injury. We were playing with a different team.”
Only three position players on the roster (Encarnacion, Lind and the ex-catcher, J.P. Arencibia) played in even 120 games. Three-fifths of the rotation (Happ, Morrow and Josh Johnson) wound up missing a combined 55 starts. The projected every-day lineup wound up playing exactly THREE games together.
So yeah, it’s true that every team has injuries. And yeah, it’s true that every team is supposed to build all the depth it can assemble to weather its injuries. But no team could have survived the health issues the Blue Jays had last season. Period.
If their health luck is better and they actually get their real lineup on the field, with better defense at second base (in slick rookie Ryan Goins) and better offense at catcher (largely from Dioner Navarro), this team has a chance to lead the league in runs scored and be way better defensively.
Everybody loves to blame the World Baseball Classic for, well, just about everything. But no team was hurt more by the WBC last spring than the Blue Jays.
At a time when they needed to make their new pieces fit together, the WBC ripped them apart -- subtracting seven key players (Reyes, Encarnacion, Lawrie, Cabrera, Dickey, Arencibia and pitcher Esmil Rogers). And to add to the pain (literally), Lawrie got hurt and wasn’t 100 percent until midseason.
“I honestly believe the WBC really hurt us,” said manager John Gibbons. “The WBC took our third baseman, our shortstop, our first baseman and our catcher. Dickey was gone. And I think -- well, this year we’ll find out if I’m accurate or not -- that when you lose that many guys so quickly, when you’re trying to bring it all together as a team, I think that hurts.
“There’s just something about bringing together a bunch of new faces. . . . It was a new mix, with high expectations. And I just think it would have served us much better to have our team together for that whole month. Now obviously, that’s not the reason we ended up finishing the way we did. But I don’t think it helped coming out of the gates. Let’s put it that way.”
Yeah, it’s true they had six months after the WBC ended to fit the pieces together. But they then started the season by losing five of their first seven and 21 of their first 31, and their season was already history. In May.
There’s no WBC this year. So there are no WBC excuses, either.
Want to guess the first word that came to Dickey’s mind when the conversation turned to the Blue Jays’ 2013 rotation? Yep, it certainly wasn’t “dominating.” The word instead was “painful.”
“It was painful, is what it was,” he said. “In the AL East, you have to have guys who can take the ball every fifth day. Instead, we lost three-fifths of our rotation pretty quick. And it was tough to survive that.”
Here’s a stat that tells it all: This team wound up having 30 games started last year by pitchers with ERAs over 6.00. Now here’s another stat for you: This crew only had three games started by pitchers with ERAs under 4.15 (all by emergency starter Chad Jenkins, who never threw a pitch beyond the fifth inning).
That’s a testament to how bad Josh Johnson (2-8, 6.20) was, to how bad their health luck was and their total lack of depth at Triple-A, where by mid-summer they were running a no-prospect, all-veteran-retread rotation out there. But it was still a formula for disaster.
“We didn’t go into the season expecting to have the 29th-best rotation in baseball,” Anthopoulos said, “or to have a starters’ ERA that was 29th out of 30 teams. We didn’t expect Brandon Morrow to win two games. We didn’t expect Josh Johnson to struggle the way he did and then be out for the rest of the year. As it turned out, R.A. and Mark Buehrle were the only guys who took the ball the entire time, and even R.A. wasn’t fully healthy until the second half.”
So is there reason to expect this group to be better? If the Blue Jays had signed or traded for an impact starter, there would be more reason for optimism. But suppose Morrow -- who went 10-7, 2.96, with a 143 ERA-Plus in 2012 -- pitches a whole season.
Suppose 23-year-old left-hander Drew Hutchinson picks up where he left off in his last seven starts before blowing out his elbow in 2012 (4-2, 3.41, with a .217 opponent average).
Suppose their 2012 No. 1 pick, Marcus Stroman, lives up to his Sonny Gray comparisons and makes an impact in the second half.
“At least we’ve got some fallback plans now that we really didn’t have a lot of last year,” Gibbons said. “So when guys were beat up, we were scrambling. And you know what? With some of these young guys, that’s how careers are made. Why can’t some rookie come up out of nowhere and win 10 games for us? It happens other places. Why can’t it happen here?”
Well, it could happen here. It’s possible it could happen here. Unfortunately, the Blue Jays probably need for it to happen here -- or something like it -- to have a rotation that ranks in the top half of the sport.
But still, there’s actually a lot more reason for optimism about this rotation than the outside world seems to have comprehended, whether they sign Ervin Santana or not. (And we’d bet heavily on NOT.)
“I don’t need to try to convince people that we’re better,” said Gibbons. “I just have, in the back of my mind and in my heart, that we’re a much better team. How good, we’ll find out. But we did so much talking last year about how good we were, and we didn’t get the results. So you get tired of talking about it. And it’s time to stop talking about it, and let’s go show somebody how good we are.”
• Are the Pirates done shopping? Maybe not.
We know they were willing to offer A.J. Burnett $12 million, so they clearly still have money to spend. We also know they never could find a left-handed-hitting platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez at first base this winter. But clubs that have spoken with them believe they’d still like to acquire one.
There doesn't seem to be much substance to rumors connecting them with free agent Kendrys Morales. But the Pirates continue to monitor Ike Davis' status in Mets camp. And when Morales and/or Nelson Cruz sign, that could result in players such as Justin Smoak or Mitch Moreland becoming available.
In the meantime, GM Neal Huntington said Tuesday, the Pirates remain "confident in our internal options" -- which would include converted outfielder Andrew Lambo, who hit 32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, former Rangers prospect Chris McGuiness and nonroster invitee Travis Ishikawa.
But Huntington also said: "That doesn't stop us from looking elsewhere. It’s just that now, our bar has been set a little bit higher, as to 'How do we make the club better?' And 'How do we make the club better at the right situation for us?' If there's something that makes us better, and makes sense for us, we'll still look to do that."
• A year ago, Francisco Liriano was an enigmatic mystery man trying to get healthy. Now, amazingly, he’s about to become the Pirates’ Opening Day starter.
After seven often-exasperating seasons in Minnesota, Liriano was "fixed" by the Pirates' pitching gurus last year and went 16-8, with a 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 161 innings. But the true measure of how far he has come is that his manager, Clint Hurdle, used a word to describe him Tuesday that you never heard in Minnesota -- "dependability."
“The greatest ability you can have, day in and day out, is dependability,” Hurdle said. “We have that in Francisco.”
Volquez had the highest ERA (5.09) and WHIP (1.53) in baseball over the past three seasons, among pitchers who worked as many innings as he did. But the Pirates look at his strikeout rate (8.4 per 9 IP over his career) and ground ball rate (which was once as high as 1.26 ground balls per fly ball in Cincinnati) and think they can make this work.
"The challenge is command," Huntington said. "Staying in the strike zone and attacking the strike zone. But analytically, we saw a guy who can strike people out and get ground balls. It's the walks (4.8 per 9 IP) that are the challenge."
The Pirates already have tweaked Volquez's delivery and believe he's in tremendous physical shape.
• The Pirates also feel they're on track, so far, to get Wandy Rodriguez back into their rotation after a season in which they had to shut him down after 12 starts because of forearm tendinitis. Rodriguez has thrown two bullpen sessions and said: "I don't feel nothing. I feel good. A lot different than last year."
• Finally, closer Jason Grilli, who also missed time last year because of forearm issues, caused some alarms to sound over the weekend when he skipped what seemed to be a scheduled bullpen session. But Hurdle said Tuesday -- on a day when Grilli threw 15 pitches off the mound and five more on flat ground -- that the blueprint was always for Grilli to take it slowly this spring.
"We have a plan in place for him to get involved at a particular time and then add to that as we move forward," Hurdle said.