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Notable names still without a home on Opening Day

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The 2017 regular season began on Sunday afternoon with the Yankees facing the Rays, the first of three games on the slate. With every team’s Opening Day roster finalized, there are still a handful of notable players hanging around in free agency.

Ryan Howard: That Howard is still a free agent comes as no surprise. The free agent market was full of 1B/DH types, which really hurt Howard and a handful of other hitters who will be mentioned below. Howard is also 37 years old and is coming off the worst season of his career. His bat is waning, he’s a well below-average fielder, and he can’t run. According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, Howard still wants to play. Sadly, it’s tough to see Howard getting a shot even during the regular season as there are some more attractive 1B/DH players available.

Angel Pagan: Pagan had a decent showing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but remains unsigned. The teams most recently linked to him include the Braves, Blue Jays, Giants, Padres, and Tigers. Pagan, 35, still has gas in the tank as he hit .277/.331/.418 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, 71 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in 543 plate appearances last year with the Giants.

Jonathan Papelbon: We haven’t heard much about Papelbon since December, when his agent Seth Levinson said the veteran closer was focused on dealing with a private family matter. Papelbon is 36 years old and coming off of the worst season of his career, which saw the Nationals acquire Mark Melancon to take over the closer’s role from Papelbon mid-season. The club eventually released him in August. He didn’t sign with a new team though some, including the Red Sox, showed interest.

Alexei Ramirez: Ramirez, 35, is coming off of the worst season of his career, which is starting to sound like a familiar theme. With the Padres and Rays last year, he hit .241/.277/.333 in 506 PA. Along with the weak bat, Ramirez’s speed and defense have cratered. Injuries do happen throughout the year and Ramirez can play both shortstop and second base, so it seems feasible he might find an opportunity during the season.

Billy Butler: Butler spent 2016 with the Athletics and Yankees, finishing with a .752 OPS in 274 PA. The veteran, who turns 31 on April 18, is a platoon DH at this point in his career, but a big warning flag is that Butler’s production even against lefties has fallen. Unfortunately for him, he’s competing with other 1B/DH types for work in an industry that values players of that archetype less and less every day.

Doug Fister: Three years ago, Fister was the Nationals’ best pitcher, putting up a 2.41 ERA over 25 starts. He wasn’t able to replicate that success, putting up a 4.19 ERA in 2015 and 4.64 last year. Interest in his pitching services was lukewarm during the offseason, with the Royals, Mariners, Marlins, Padres, and Pirates showing muted interest. Pitching is always at a premium, however, so Fister is likely to find an opportunity at some point this season.

Justin Morneau: The Twins showed interest in bringing back Morneau, but decided against it. The 35-year-old hit .261/.303/.429 in 218 PA with the White Sox last season. His age, positional limitations (1B/DH), and injury history have given teams pause when considering him. As he showed he’s still close to league average as a hitter, though, he could be to a team what Matt Stairs was to the Phillies in 2008.

Major League Baseball considering expansion, radical realignment

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Tracy Ringolsby of Baseball America wrote yesterday about a “growing consensus” within baseball that expansion and realignment are inevitable. The likely expansion cities: Portland and Montreal. The 32-team league would then undergo a radical realignment that would also involve reducing the season from 162 to 156 games while expanding the playoffs to 12 teams.

To be clear, Ringolsby’s actual reporting here is limited to that “growing consensus” about expansion, and the most likely cities involved, not regarding the specific realignment or game reduction plan. That I take to be speculative — he refers to it as “one proposal” — though it seems like reasonable and informed speculation. The general idea is that, if you expand, you have to realign, and if you realign you have to change the playoff structure lest too many teams in any one division become also-rans. That, combined with the near impossibility of changing the early-April-to-late-October footprint of the season and the desire of players to have less arduous travel schedules and some extra time off, leads to the shorter season.

The details of the plan:

  • The American and National Leagues would be disposed of, with MLB putting all 32 teams into four, eight-team, regionally-based divisions: East, North, Midwest, West. This is designed to (a) maintain regional and traditional rivalries while (b) cutting way back on cross-time zone travel. Both New York teams and Boston are in the “North,” both Chicago teams and St. Louis are in the “Midwest,” etc. Texas and Houston are in the “Midwest” too, but we’ll let the Texans get mad about that later.
  • The playoffs would feature a LOT of play-in games. Specifically, Ringolsby would have the four division winners go to the Division Series, where they would play the winner of four different Wild Card games, the participants in which would come from the eight non-division winners with the best records, regardless of which division they came from.
  • The schedule would go back to 156 games, giving every team an off-day every week. Between that and the more compact, almost all single-time-zone divisions, the travel schedules would be far less taxing, with shorter flights and more flights which could leave the day after a night game as opposed to directly after a night game, causing teams to arrive in the next city in the wee hours of the morning.

Thoughts:

  • Obviously this would piss off the purists.  The elimination of the traditional leagues, the shorter season, a (slightly) altered standard for records and milestones, and a doubling of one-and-done playoff series would make a lot of fans dizzy. On the one hand, I could argue that baseball has NEVER been as pure and unchanging as people like to pretend it is so maybe people shouldn’t get too bent out of shape over this, but it’s simply unavoidable that this would rattle a lot of baseball fans, and not just the ones hopelessly stuck in the past. Baseball should not be slavishly devoted to its history, but it needs to recognize that its history is a selling point and an important touchstone for many, many fans.
  • Ringolsby’s specific realignment idea is kind of fun, but will inevitably lead to some winners and losers. For example, many traditional rivalries or regional rivalries would be maintained — Chicago and St. Louis and Boston and New York would remain division rivals — but other, less-sexy but very real rivalries would be disposed of. The Mets, for example, would have no old NL rivals in their division. There will also be some teams which get screwed logistically. Here, all of Minnesota’s division rivals would be Eastern Time Zone teams, so all of its road games would be played in a different time zone. You could fix that somehow, but someone else would likely be inconvenienced. There isn’t a perfect way to do it. As such, implementation could be pretty messy, with some owners opposing it, possibly vehemently.
  • The playoff idea would make for a lot of drama with four play-in games, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable model. Yes, division winners would all be guaranteed a five-game playoff series, but having two-thirds of all of the playoff teams subjected to a random one-and-done game as opposed to the current four of ten would inevitably lead to calls for longer Wild Card series. And it would likely, over time, diminish the cachet of the Wild Card itself. Now most people think of Wild Card teams as having made the playoffs, With this plan, I suspect fewer people will think of it that way as opposed to some sort of weird, non-quite-the-playoffs limbo, thus hurting late season interest among fans of non-division winners.
  • A 156-game season wouldn’t be the end of the world. We had a 154-game season for a little over half a century total and a 162 game season for 56 seasons so far. Changing it might cause people to get grumpy about records and milestones, but other changes in the game, be it pitcher usage patterns or juiced baseballs or integration or night games or any number of other things have already changed the context in such a way that such standards were never as set-in-stone as people tend to believe. At the same time, extra off days might very well improve the caliber of play as players are more rested and therefore sharper.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that Ringolsby’s article is, in all likelihood, a trial balloon leaked by Major League Baseball, so don’t take any one aspect of it too seriously, even if we should all take the idea of some radical shift involving expansion and realignment in the not-too-distant future seriously.

Why? Money mostly. There are huge financial incentives for baseball to do this. Part of this involves the cost-savings which would result from better scheduling and less travel that Ringolsby mentions. A much greater incentive would come from the franchise fees the owners of the two new teams would pay the 30 current owners in order to be allowed into the MLB fraternity.  In the last round of expansion, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays owners paid $150 million each for their teams. Given that franchises have gone up in value by a factor of ten twenty, it’s not inconceivable that new owners in Montreal and Portland would have to fork over well north of a billion dollars each to enter the league. That’s a check for $66 million written to each owner in exchange for simply voting “yes” at some meeting in Scottsdale on some fine December afternoon.

So, while there may be no uncertainly on the “how” of it all, the very fact of expansion and subsequent realignment seems inevitable. Now is a good time for us to start thinking about how the details of it all would work.