Now that 2011 is but another mile on baseball's odometer, our attention turns to the new year and what it holds. Were I a better prognosticator, I'd peddle my wares for $2.99 a minute on a 900 number. Instead, I'll have some fun and hope you do, too. And it's all free.
So here's a look at the biggest names, faces and issues heading into baseball's 142nd year as an organized sport. Enjoy this helping of alphabet soup that actually tastes good:
A is for Albert, as in Pujols, who is something like his Einsteinian namesake in his ability to hit a baseball. In seven weeks, he'll be doing it with a new contract (10 years and $240 million guaranteed) in a new city (Los Angeles) with a new uniform (the Angels'). And with a contract so heavily backloaded that the Angels are going to pay him $140 million for his ages 37-41 seasons. Alex Rodriguez's 10-year deal is a disaster, yes, but at least the Yankees structured it to taper down toward its end. Along with incentives, Pujols could reap an average of $30 million a year for half a decade when most players are retired. All of which is to say: better win now.
B is for Bud, though it just as easily could be bye-bye, as baseball wishes farewell to its commissioner. Maybe. Possibly. Conceivably. Aw, hell, probably not. Bud Selig's contract is up at the end of the year, and he says he's going to retire. Like he said he was going to in 2006. And like he said he was going to in 2009. While it makes more sense this time – Selig will turn 78 in July – he remains undeniably popular among owners, who have struggled to pinpoint a logical successor. So until Selig actually vacates his position, assuming anything – least of all that he's really, truly gone – is premature.
C is for CBA, the hundreds-of-pages-long document of freshly printed legalese that is changing the way baseball operates. Teams are still trying to figure out how to navigate the strictest provisions of the new collective-bargaining agreement – the restrictions on amateur spending – and the front offices that do so quickest will enjoy an advantage before the rest of the game mimics them. More than any other game, baseball is now won in the front office. Brains forage for the brawn.
D is for Darvish – Yu, yes, Yu. The Texas Rangers are almost halfway through their negotiating period with the 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander from Japan who immediately should fortify a rotation that's already among the deepest in baseball. The investment in Darvish should end up about $125 million – No. 1 starter money, risky for someone who hasn't thrown a pitch in the major leagues. The return – a legitimate ace, something the Rangers lacked last season – makes the outlay worth it.
E is for Everyone who wants to see Bryce Harper make the Washington Nationals out of spring training. Count me among them. The Nationals, on the strength of back-to-back bonanza No. 1 draft picks, are on the verge of something exciting. Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen – few teams can boast a roster where more than 40 percent has All-Star potential. It'll be closer to 50 percent if a certain free-agent first baseman signs with Washington. And while it makes more sense to keep Harper at Double-A for a couple months before summoning him, the idea of a National League East with the deep Nats, the powerhouse Phillies, the young Braves and the up-and-coming Marlins is enough to consider it a worthwhile challenger to the American League East as best division in baseball.
F is for Florida, as much for fans of the Miami Marlins as the team itself. Sure, the Marlins turned from paupers to princes overnight thanks to their boondoggle stadium, but the contracts of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell are signed, and their rotation (if Josh Johnson is healthy) and lineup (if Hanley Ramirez isn't Dr. Sulkenstein) look awfully good. The question now is: Now that you've built it, will they come? The few current Marlins fans swear that enough people will show up so no longer can they be counted by hand. They'd better. Otherwise, this shell game will collapse as quickly as it came together.
G is for Good Lord Almighty, Fred Wilpon, Just Sell The Mets Already, Please. That is all.
H is for Hall of Fame and the decisions that must be made, ones that more than ever will involve morals, ethics and the judgments of a voting bloc one could argue is severely ill-equipped for the task. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are eligible for Hall induction in 2013, and the discussion about their suitability will consume plenty of time and energy as the Baseball Writers Association of America considers their worthiness – and, in all likelihood, slams its gavel with a distinct no.
I is for Ichiro, the only baseball player who could pull off a mononym and not look pretentious. For the first time, Ichiro did look old last year – his bat slower, his legs the same, his game unlike anything we had seen since he arrived in the major leagues a decade earlier. At 38 and with free agency beckoning, Ichiro faces a year that will map out his future. In Seattle? Elsewhere? Bounceback? On the decline? Between him and Darvish, Japan's interest in the major leagues should be greater than ever.
J is for Josh Hamilton, superstar and the marquee free agent in the Class of 2012-13. It's a group without a $200 million contract in it. Maybe not even a $150 million deal. Among Hamilton, a bevy of 20-something starting pitchers and the deepest group of catchers in ages, it should generate plenty of hot stove fodder.
K is for Strikeouts, a commodity that grows increasingly prevalent. In the last five years alone, strikeouts have climbed almost 9 percent, from 31,655 to 34,488. That's more than one per game – up to 14.2 on average between both teams. Not only does it lessen the likelihood of a pitcher without strikeout stuff getting a look-see at the major league level, it makes the Pujolses and Reyeses and Victor Martinezes and Ian Kinslers and Dustin Pedroias – the low-strikeout hitting stars – all the more valuable.
L is for Losing in big markets, something that in today's financial landscape shows a staggering level of mismanagement. The Mets' and Dodgers' comes back to awful ownership. The Cubs' was due to bad front-office decisions. The White Sox's has snuck up, especially a year after owner Jerry Reinsdorf allowed GM Kenny Williams to raise the payroll to nearly $130 million. The number of contractual messes on the South Side is harrowing: Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn – some GMs would get fired with one of those. Williams won his power struggle with manager Ozzie Guillen, though, and is shepherding the White Sox through a rebuild, leaving baseball with one of its oddest dichotomies in ages: four of the six teams in its three biggest markets undergoing an overhaul.
M is for Manny being … back. Probably. The market for Manny Ramirez has yet to materialize because Manny is still working back into baseball shape in Florida. One friend who saw him says his swing "looks great" and that he's determined to prove that at 39 (and 40 in May) he can succeed PED-free. Someone might give him a chance, and with Manny seemingly willing to accept a minor league deal, if his swing and attitude are tip-top he'll be on a major league roster at the end of May when his 50-game suspension ends.
N is for Napoli, and the guess that unlike 2011, this is not going to be The Year of the Napoli.
O is for Orthokine, the latest straw-grab by Alex Rodriguez in an effort to stave off the effects of aging. A-Rod is entering his 19th season in the major leagues (and 17th full year), and last year was the worst. His sore joints plagued him enough that he flew to Germany for Orthokine treatment on his right knee and left shoulder in hopes the centrifuge-spun-and-enriched blood would promote faster healing. If A-Rod does this year what pitcher Bartolo Colon did last season following the injection of fat stem cells into injured body parts, he'll owe it in large part to what some consider performance enhancement and others therapy.
P is for Prince, aforementioned first baseman who would look great in a Nationals uniform, premier free agent left on this year's market and someone who doesn't necessarily practice what his last name, Fielder, preaches. Prince can hit something fierce, though, and it makes sense for him to wait as long as need be for the proper money to come along. It will. A 50-home run hitter, as long as he's reasonable, gets what he asks. Always.
Q is for Quaaludes, which includes the sneaky back-to-back A's that find themselves everywhere in baseball: Double-A, of course, along with Hank Aaron, Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven (real name: Rik Aalbert Blyleven) and free agent reliever David Aardsma. Look, it was either Q is for Quaaludes or Q is for Quentin, and Petco Park is probably going to neuter Carlos Quentin like it does everyone else, so illegal sedative-hypnotic drug from the '70s it was.
R is for RSN because the exorbitant money regional sports networks are drawing for teams – especially those in large markets. Take the $3 billion deal the Angels signed that allowed them to poach Pujols and C.J. Wilson in the same day. Or the Yankees' YES Network that's worth billions. Or even the Mets' SNY, the only thing keeping them solvent. Live sports are DVR-proof. DVR-proof programming is worth a significant premium to advertisers. Massive dollars come into baseball because of it. Those dollars get funneled back to players. In other words, MLB owes TiVo.
S is for Suspended, which, unless he's the first person ever to win a PED arbitration case, NL MVP Ryan Braun will be for the Milwaukee Brewers' first 50 games. Braun's lawyers are working up his defense, digging for even the tiniest opening, because at this juncture only a technicality could get him off. His urine was dirtied with synthetic testosterone and "I didn't know" isn't a good enough excuse. Should the findings of the drug test be upheld and Braun catch 50, it will be interesting to see if he's as effusive in his innocence and tries to explain it away or just swallows the penalty and tries to move on.
T is for Twitter, an ever-expanding part of our daily lives as well as some athletes' favorite ways to communicate. Accordingly, these being athletes, it also affords them a great platform in which to make idiots of themselves. The worst so far is Logan Morrison angering his bosses with the Florida Marlins because they don't have a sense of humor or Guillen's outspoken middle son ripping his dad's former bosses with the White Sox. Nobody in MLB has pulled an Anthony Weiner. Yet.
[ Related: Big League Stew's best blogs of 2011 ]
U is for Unlikely Contenders all around baseball this season. By now, the Tampa Bay Rays aren't as unlikely as they are improbable. The Kansas City Royals – now they're unlikely and are an injury or two to Detroit away from being AL Central favorites. The Marlins and Nationals aren't exactly perennial challengers. The moderate-payroll Reds and Rockies should return to 2010 form. And even San Diego, with an infusion of young talent on the way, could surprise a year early.
V is for Verlander, Cy Young and MVP, awards that don't often intermingle. When they have, the after-effects haven't exactly sparkled. Sure, Roger Clemens followed up his 1986 double with a strong season, and Bob Gibson was excellent in 1969 after his historic '68. Denny McLain wasn't quite the pitcher in '69, and Vida Blue was downright mediocre in 1972 after winning both in '71. Their ERAs during their MVP/Cy Young season: 91.5 percent better than league average. Their ERAs the year after: 38.8 percent better.
W is for What The Hell Happened To The Yankees And Red Sox? It's January. Boston has committed $4.35 million in free agency. The Yankees have spent $4 million on one free agent, Freddy Garcia, and he was with them last year. That ranks 18th and 19th in money committed, respectively. (And don't count CC Sabathia: For one, he was never technically a free agent. More important, the Yankees have had a line for him in their budget since he first signed before the '09 season.) Whether they're reigning in spending, don't like the free agents available or a combination of both, the tight-fistedness of the two superpowers and the robust market in spite of it should quell bellyaching about huge free agent salaries being due to the Yankees and Red Sox throwing around their muscle. Oh, and just in case anyone forgot: These are still two damn good teams, September and October failures aside.
[ Related: Jeff Passan's ultimate free-agent tracker ]
X is for Xavier Nady because there's no one else. What, would you have preferred I used Xavier Paul? Fine. X is for Xavier Paul. Happy?
Y is for Yoenis, who actually prefers to be called La Potencia – that's Spanish for The Power – instead of his full name, Yoenis Cespedes. Whatever he's called, he'll be a familiar name in baseball soon once he signs a monster free agent deal after defecting from Cuba. How good a ballplayer is Cespedes? That doesn't matter, really, because in free agency good doesn't matter nearly as much as could – and Cespedes, with his raw power, could be great. He'll get $30 million easy. Maybe $40 million. The bidding could go as high as $50 million, which one front-office man calls "crazy for someone they've barely seen." Welcome to 2012.
Z is for Zambrano, and while it would be preferable to end with as much star power as the beginning of the alphabet lent us, the craziness of the Cespedes bidding segues nicely to the mercurial Carlos Zambrano, whom the Cubs owe $18 million in the last season of a five-year, $91 million contract. The Cubs would love to deal him. They'd also have to eat almost all of the money. The Cubs are doing all they can to squeeze something out of a roster bereft of tradable pieces beyond Matt Garza and Geovany Soto. And even if Z somehow is dealt and the other two start the year with Chicago, it doesn't take anyone with a 900 number to predict this much: 2012 won't be the Cubs' year.
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