What to watch for in tonight’s All-Star Game

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Tonight’s 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will officially open with Detroit’s Justin Verlander throwing to Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez. Still, my favorite part will take place before that. The Midsummer Classic isn’t the must-see event it was before Baseball Tonight, MLB Extra Innings and MLB.tv made seeing the league’s stars in action so much easier. But I don’t think anything beats seeing the 60-some-odd players line up on the field before the game in their array of uniforms, smiling and waving to the crowd. It’s old hat for some, but for the rookies and the first-time veterans in the midst of career years, it’s a standout moment.

Of course, what happens after they say “play ball” should be interesting to. Here’s what to watch for…

– The much-anticipated All-Star debuts of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

Harper was a late selection, only getting on to the NL team because a couple of outfielders had to drop out. Even then, one can argue he’s not really worthy based on his performance this year. I say “so what?” Harper is the next big thing, and he’s plenty good already. Who wouldn’t want to see him come up to the plate in the ninth inning tonight? At 19, he’s the youngest position player in All-Star Game history. He’s actually younger than all but one of the players to take part in Sunday’s Futures Game (the Rangers’ Jurickson Profar was the younger player, in case you’re wondering).

As for Trout, well, there was no doubt he was going to be picked for the AL roster. The 20-year-old isn’t only the AL Rookie of the Year favorite, but he’s right in the MVP mix with his .341/.397/.562 line and league-leading 26 steals to date. A rare combination of speed and power, he rates as the most exciting player in the league right now.

– Chipper Jones’s final All-Star appearance

With a .318/.396/.580 line in 173 at-bats, Atlanta’s elder statesman is putting together a nice last hurrah after announcing his retirement this spring. Barring a playoff run by the Braves, this will be the future Hall of Famer’s last time on the national stage. It will be interesting to see how manager Tony La Russa works him in given that he has four third basemen on the roster (Chipper, starter Pablo Sandoval, David Wright and David Freese). The plan will probably be to have him pinch-hit.

– R.A. Dickey’s darting knuckler and Carlos Ruiz’s attempt to catch it.

Not to mention that AL team’s attempts to hit it.

Dickey deserved to start for the NL squad, but since Buster Posey has never caught a knuckler and the Giants really didn’t want him trying it for the first time tonight, Matt Cain will get the ball instead. The plan is for Dickey and Ruiz to enter the game at the same time, as the Philadelphia catcher was more up for the challenge. Dickey throws a much harder knuckler than what we’ve come to expect from Tim Wakefield and others, and it’s helped him rack up 123 strikeouts, good for second in the NL.

– Four first-time All-Stars in the starting lineup

Here’s the full list of first-time All-Stars

American League
C Mike Napoli (Tex) – starter
OF Mike Trout (LAA) – rookie
OF Mark Trumbo (LAA)
DH Billy Butler (KC)
RP Ryan Cook (Oak) – rookie
SP Yu Darvish (Tex) – rookie
SP Matt Harrison (Tex)
RP Jim Johnson (Bal)
RP Fernando Rodney (TB)
SP Chris Sale (CWS)

National League
C Buster Posey (SF) – starter
OF Melky Cabrera (SF) – starter
DH Carlos Gonzalez (Col) – starter
C Carlos Ruiz (Phi)
1B Bryan LaHair (CHC)
2B Jose Altuve (Hou)
3B David Freese (StL)
SS Ian Desmond (Was) – injured, won’t participate
OF Bryce Harper (Was) – rookie
OF Giancarlo Stanton (Mia) – injured, won’t participate
RP Aroldis Chapman (Cin)
SP R.A. Dickey (NYM)
SP Lance Lynn (StL)
SP Wade Miley (Ari) – rookie
SP Stephen Strasburg (Was)
SP Huston Street (SD)

As for your veteran All-Stars, well, Derek Jeter laps the field there. This is his 13th nod. Next are David Ortiz and Jones with eight apiece.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.