Nine big-league questions at the dawn of a new baseball season.
1. What effect will an extra wild card playoff team have?
There are varying opinions regarding the additions of one wild card playoff team in each league. On one hand, it gives hope to a broader spectrum of teams to be playing meaningful baseball games in September.
On the other hand, if you happen to be the No. 1 wild card team in either league, instead of going directly into a League Division Series, you must now survive a one-game crapshoot against a second wild card entrant.
One thing is clear. A division championship is now more valuable than ever. To play 162 games and then have your entire season hinge on the outcome of one sudden-death game is not something anybody wants. For years there has been a sense that division winners did not get much of a reward over and above the wild card entrant. Now there is a premium on finishing first.
2. Did the Angels go too far on Albert Pujols?
By signing Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract, they have agreed to pay him premium dollars almost until his 42nd birthday. The contract is back-weighted so that Pujols will earn $28 million at age 39, $29 million at age 40 and $30 million at age 41, but owner Arte Moreno is gambling that he will get his value out of Pujols long before that.
If the Angels donít at least cash in with a string of playoff appearances and a World Series or three along the way, then this deal could turn into the biggest mistake in free agency history.
In his 11th season with the Cardinals in 2011, Pujols had the least productive year of his career, though most players would have been happy to achieve is 2011 numbers. His 173 hits were a career low, as were his 66 extra-base hits. For the first time, he failed to drive in 100 runs and, also for the first time, he failed to hit .300. His .366 on-base percentage was 54 points below his career average and his .907 OPS was 130 points below his career average.
3. Will Yu Darvish make us forget Daisuke?
Daisuke Matsuzakaís six-year deal with the Boston Red Sox ends this year and itís doubtful the Sox will get any significant late dividends ontheir $103 million investment. In 2009-10-11, Matsuzaka delivered 260 innings and 16 wins, total.
People familiar with Darvish say heís cut from a different cloth than many of the Japanese pitchers who have preceded him to MLB. One group who must be praying for Darvish to step up and become a star for the Texas Rangers are the various owners in the Nippon Professional Baseball League. After the disappointment of Matsuzaka, to have Darvish fail would probably implode the posting process that has pumped a lot of American dollars into Japan.
Off his solid spring, thereís little doubt heís going to succeed. The biggest test will be how he handles the ferocious Texas heat which has done in more than a few pitchers.
4. Will a new stadium turn around the Marlinsí fortunes?
After years of sparse crowds as secondary tenants in a football stadium, the Marlins have staked their future to a brand new downtown covered stadium in Miami. After drawing three million fans in their inaugural season (1993), they have drawn more than two million only once, settling in at about 1.5 million fans a year, despite having won two World Series.
The heat, the humidity and the constant threat of rain are obstacles of the past now that the Marlins will play in air conditioned comfort. The new park will have the smallest capacity (37,000) of any in baseball but the Marlins are counting on the small footprint to build demand for their tickets.
The folks in Tampa will be watching with interest, because the Rays are hoping to convince their city fathers that if it can be done in Miami, why not Tampa?
5. Will the Tigers regret signing Prince Fielder?
For a professional athlete who is neither a sumo wrestler nor a nose tackle, the dimensions are eye-popping. Officially, Fielder is 5-11 and 275 pounds but is anybody really sure about that poundage? Whatever the numbers, at the age of 27, he is a large package to be projecting nine years into the future.
Detroit Tiger owner Mike Ilitch had no qualms in signing Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal that will keep his vegetarian first baseman in groceries past his 37th birthday.
The body type in combination with the length of the contract scared off a lot of teams who might have otherwise been interested in employing a guy with Fielderís productive history. Itís one thing to count on him for three or four years but a 30-something athlete carrying that much weight is unlikely to remain at his peak for very long. In Fielderís case, only time will tell.
6. Will realignment lead to further changes?
On the surface, the switching of the Houston Astros to the American League West from the National League Central in 2013 seems almost a housekeeping issue that creates a nice, symmetrical set of six five-team divisions, with 15 teams in the American League, 15 in the National. But what comes next?
Interleague play will be a part of the schedule from start to finish instead of just during specific periods. Weíre guessing this constant reminder of the interleague factor will put a more intense spotlight on the designated hitter debate and might precipitate a movement to either eliminate the DH or make it standard in both leagues. The other side-effect of realignment could manifest itself in a more balanced schedule that would take something away from regional rivalries in the interest of creating a more level competitive field. Weíre betting realignment isnít just a stand-alone move, but a precursor to more change.
7. What does the Dodgers sale mean for MLB in general?
For starters, 29 other MLB owners must be dancing on the decks of their massive yachts, when theyíre not doing cartwheels down the aisles of their private jets.
The Dodgers (including the team, the stadium and the surrounding land) fetched $2.15 billion at auction last week. Thatís more than double and closer to triple the $800 million that Forbes Magazine had estimated the team to be worth. It also eclipsed the previous record sale for a baseball team ($845 million for the Chicago Cubs in 2009) by well more than double.
What this massive escalation in franchise value represents is, in large part, driven by the value of media rights. The Dodgers can now turn around and sell their media rights to the highest bidder and estimates have them going for a 20 year deal as high as $4 billion, or $200 million a year. Another alternative for the Dodgers to monetize that value is to start their own regional broadcasting company. After all, if the media rights are worth $200 million a year to an established broadcaster then they would be worth more than that to the Dodgers themselves if they had their own network.
Any way you slice it, the price of owning a baseball franchise just took a quantum leap.
8. What does Torontoís 23-7 Grapefruit League record mean?
Come Thursday, absolutely nothing. Thatís when the dials are all re-set to zero and the important business of sorting the contenders from the pretenders begins for real. What their team record-setting spring does mean is that the depth within the organization that GM Alex Anthopoulos has been trying to foster, is starting to deliver results. More than that, it reflects on the overall attitude that has pervaded this camp from the very first day. It is sort of a pack mentality that this is a team destined for a breakthrough season. At least thatís the notion that has driven this group of players all spring and itís the idea they will leave Florida with.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to win 23 of its first 28 spring games was the 1997 Florida Marlins, who ended up winning the World Series that season, in just their fifth year of existence.
9. What will those September collapses mean for the Braves and Red Sox?
The Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves both choked in monumental fashion last September, each blowing huge wild card leads to miss the playoffs. On Sept. 1, the Red Sox were leading the division by 1.5 games over the Yankees and the wild card by nine games over the Rays. On the same day, the Braves led the wild card race over the Cardinals by 8.5 games.
The biggest effect on the Red Sox players is that, as a result of their collapse, they have a new manager. The comfort level the Sox had with Terry Francona is gone. Bobby Valentine is a very different cat and thereís no question he will take some getting used to by the Red Sox. It doesnít have to be a negative relationship but it could be because Valentine often rubs people the wrong way. The AL East is a six-month relentless challenge and it helps to have everyone on the same page. A new manager is a variable that wouldnít be in play if not for the collapse.
The Braves, on the other hand, did virtually nothing. Fredi Gonzalez is still the manager. Frank Wren is still the GM. They added no players of substance, while Derek Lowe, Alex Gonzalez, Nate McLouth and George Sherrill have moved on. After a 1-10 start in spring games, they rallied to approach a .500 record this spring.
If you look back over the 10 biggest September collapses in history, only one team, the Dodgers, rebounded to make the playoffs the next year and they did it twice, once in Brooklyn and once in Los Angeles.