Previewing this week’s winter meetings

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Expect the rumors to come fast and furious as the league’s top executives converge on Dallas. The winter meetings officially start Monday, but the general managers will arrive and start talking among themselves this afternoon. With so much of the free-agent talent congregated at a few select positions, there could well be more trades than usual, and chances are we’ll see at least a couple of significant signings over the next few days. Some potential highlights:

– Starting pitching trades – Since the pitching market beyond C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle is pretty barren, many familiar names will be tossed around this week. There has been plenty of talk about Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, Atlanta’s Jair Jurrjens and Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez already. The White Sox may be open to moving either John Danks or Gavin Floyd. There’s also the Rays’ James Shields, the Cubs’ Matt Garza and the Twins’ Francisco Liriano, none of whom are certain to be available but who would generate plenty of conversation.

– A Buehrle signing – Just two of this winter’s top 20 free agents are currently off the board and those two are closers (Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell). One gets the impression that the top two starters might be the next to go. Buehrle doesn’t seem like the type who will want the free agency process to drag on, and he already has a handful of offers to choose from. Wilson is also a candidate to sign in the next few days, though that process may take a bit longer to play out.

– Closer trades – The Rockies’ Huston Street appears to be pretty much free for the taking, as Colorado would prefer to reinvest his $7.5 million salary elsewhere. Oakland’s Andrew Bailey and Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan would be considerably more expensive, but both could be had by a team not wanting to commit $10 million per year to Ryan Madson or Francisco Rodriguez.

– Mystery teams! – The big three of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes aren’t making nearly enough noise at the moment, so it’s definitely time for some mystery suitors to become involved. Of the trio, only Reyes looks like any sort of candidate to get a deal done this week. The Marlins, though, would likely have to step up their offer to make that happen. Possible mystery teams for him include the Red Sox and Tigers.

– A Michael Cuddyer signing – The Twins want Cuddyer back, and the market is quiet enough that they may not have to go to three years to make it happen. Only the Phillies have made much noise regarding Cuddyer. The Red Sox are unlikely to chase him, and the Indians’ interest ended when Grady Sizemore chose to re-sign.

Aaron Judge ties the rookie home run record with his 49th blast

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Monday afternoon baseball that isn’t either (a) part of a doubleheader; or (b) on a holiday is always a bit unsettling, but today’s rare Monday tilt gave us a gift in the form of history: Aaron Judge hit his 49th home run, tying the rookie record.

The dinger came in the third inning of this afternoon’s Royals-Yankees tilt. It was the sixth pitch from Jake Junis and left via right field. Mark McGwire also hit 49 with the Athletics in 1987. Judge has the rest of today’s game and five more games after it to hit number 50 and claim the record for himself.

Watch:

Major League Baseball wants you to look at a screen while you’re at the ballpark

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During the debate last week involving expanded netting at major league ballparks, the familiar refrain from the anti-netting crowd rung out: “hey, netting wouldn’t be necessary if you simply paid attention!” These folks get particularly upset at the idea of people looking at their phones or other electronic devices during the game, implying — or sometimes explicitly stating — that if you do that you almost deserve to be hit with a 100 mph foul ball.

The problem with that, though, is that Major League Baseball increasingly encourages fans to use their phones during games. You can order your concessions through them now. Fans are encouraged to use the MLB.com Ballpark app for an increasing number of in-game features. And, of course, the video boards — always in the opposite direction of the hitter — are getting larger and larger and contain more and more information that the clubs and the league want you to see.

But it goes farther than that. Or at least it will soon. As this article from TechCrunch makes clear, in the future, Major League Baseball wants you actually watching the game action through your phone or your iPad. It’s an augmented reality feature in which you hold up your tablet and . . .

In essence, it’s a bit like watching TV broadcast in person, with information overlaid on the action as it happens in real-time. The data is gathered from Statcast, MLB’s in-house analytics tool . . . Players on the field, meanwhile, get small, square popups featuring their faces that can be tapped open to offer up personalized player information

Which is kind of cool, actually. Personally I am fascinated with the possibilities of augmented reality. For me it usually comes to mind when I’m out hiking and I want to know what a certain kind of tree is or something (my natural education was sorely lacking as a child), but there are tons of other applications. Even though I probably know more about the players and what’s going on on the field than your average American, I’d still probably use such a product, at least a little bit at a game.

But, of course, there is that safety tradeoff. How can Major League Baseball continue to be hands-off about a netting policy and maintain that fans assume the risk of foul ball injuries while simultaneously encouraging the use of electronic devices that will, necessarily, distract them from directly observing on-field action? Indeed, if they do continue to maintain that paradoxical approach, I’d expect this quote from the article to be used at a trial of an injured fan suing for damages:

“People are already using their phones, and we don’t think this is all that different,” MLB Product VP Chad Evans told us at the event. Of course, in a sport where small spherical objects are regularly projected into the stands at high speeds, it’s a good idea to keep your eye on the field. Perhaps popping up an alert on screen when a ball approaches would be a good start.

That last bit — not the quote, but the article’s suggestion of a warning — is comical given how quickly a ball can make it into the stands. Even fans paying rapt attention can get hurt by fast foul balls. Expecting them to process a warning and then act based on it when instinct often isn’t fast enough is ridiculous.

Cool product, for sure. Like I said, I’d probably even use it on occasion. But the more technology and the more distractions Major League Baseball pours into the game, the more responsibility it will have when those distractions contribute to fan injuries. In light of that, they simply cannot continue to be hands-off with respect to the matter.