2008 has come and gone, and baseball capped off a bizarre season with a great ALCS and decent World Series, and the most interesting, if infuriating, winter meetings since the turn of the century, when teams last handed out huge contracts to overrated players.
This was the year the Yankees got younger, then finished third, then got fatter, then just as injury-prone. This was the year the Rays, perennial cellar-dwellers in the A.L. East, out-dueled the Red Sox for the A.L. pennant, and then lost to the Phillies, who hadn't won a Series since 1980.
And let's not forget Roger Clemens' underage mistress, the stained needles, and wartime Congressional testimony.
This was one weird year, and I think it's a good preview of what's to come in 2009. In no particular order, here's five things I'm looking forward to next year.
The World Baseball Classic
The World Baseball Classic, better known as "Spring Training that counts," is coming this spring and gives the lucky players invited a chance to shake off wintry rust in games that sorta matter. And the implications of the WBC extend well into the season, as well.
Anecdotally, a lot of the Major League pitchers that threw in the tournament experienced arm trouble and wore out much earlier than usual in the 2006 season, while hitters who participated entered the regular season nearing mid-season form.
Derek Jeter, for instance, posted a .343 batting average in 2006, the second-highest of his career and his highest this century. With any luck, the WBC may slow the offensive recession from last season.
Also included in the WBC is regular season drama at no added cost to us consumers. A-rod was nice enough to kick off some nationalistic fervor when he announced he'd be playing third base for the Dominican Republic, despite the fact he's American.
You'd think that would free up third base on the American team for Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria, especially since his sister is so hot (I get to use this joke still, since I was using it when he was playing third for the AAA Durham Bulls), but the American team already invited David Wright (good choice) and Chipper Jones (also good, and a nice gesture) to share the position.
That leaves Longoria on the outs, and judging by his reaction, a bit jilted. He later expressed interest in playing for Mexico.
At this point I'd like to make my availability to play first, third or right field for the Italian team known. If there is no Italian team in the WBC, I'm inviting everyone else whose last name ends in a vowel to meet me in south Brooklyn next Thursday, where I'll take up a uniform collection and begin looking for sponsors.
The A.L. East Race
As of this writing, the Yankees have spent $420 million on free agents, since that youth movement thing didn't quite pan out. Setting aside the fact the Yanks could've built a smaller new Yankee Stadium inside the regular new Yankee Stadium with that money (or, you know, slapped a fancy retractable dome on the new one), the addition of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira make the Yanks a legitimate wild-card contender, if it doesn't give them a shot at first in the A.L East.
That's not really because those three players are huge upgrades (Sabathia replaces Moose's 20 wins, Burnett fills Pettitte's spot, and Tex is an upgrade over post-2002 Giambi), it's more that Boston and Tampa Bay haven't done much to improve this offseason.
The Red Sox don't have a catcher and just took a huge risk signing Brad Penny, and the Rays' 'pen got a year older, in addition to their Joba-esque "problem" with David Price, who wants to be a starter. So really, the Yanks spent half a billion dollars to get as good as the two teams they play 38 times a year.
It's gonna be chaos, and given how much ESPN loves talking about the A.L. East, we're gonna be neck-deep in it all year. I say embrace the crazy.
Billy Beane's Antics
Can we all agree Billy Beane is on the verge of pulling a Major League and tanking the A's so they can run screaming from Oakland and into a market not as dominated by the Giants? The man's a genius and may be evil enough to steal off in the dead of night.
The Rafael Furcal pursuit seals this for me. Furcal's a great player, but not really in the A's' wheelhouse. He's posted an OPS+ over 100 only twice, and he steals quite a bit.
That's not to say he's a bad player, but he's an N.L.-only speed/defense guy with a high price tag. Assuming Beane had successfully brought him to Oakland, it struck me as posturing to save face as the A's look toward Vegas or Fresno.
That said, Beane now has a one-year Matt Holliday rental, which means by July about 700 teams are going to knocking down Beane's door in search of an impact player in time for a playoff run. That's when he turns into Goldfinger, or maybe just the devil from Faust.
You'll be hearing Beane's name a lot by the All-Star Break, if only because Steve Phillips screams it during his night terrors.
Manny vs. A-Rod in Weird Battle
You know that scene in Zoolander, when Derek and Hansel are about to have a walk-off, and David Bowie comes out of nowhere and says, "Perhaps I could be of some assistance," then does a Michael Cain impression and steals the show? Manny is Derek, A-rod is Hansel, and Brian Cashman is David Bowie.
Chances are, Manny's going to be a Dodger or a Yankee, and either location is a perfect set-up for an ongoing weird battle between him and A-rod. Let's assume Manny ends up on the Yankees. It's dueling banjos in the Bronx. A-rod proposes to Madonna. Then Manny is seen visiting Plaxico Burress in jail.
Then A-rod walks out of a gay club with Daniel Radcliffe and claims he was there because "the drinks are cheaper." Not to be outdone, Manny begins holding free transcendental meditation seminars out where the monuments used to be in old Yankee Stadium. And it all comes to a head when they both realize they're seeing the same psychologist and get involved in a vicious custody suit.
The only way it's better is if Manny re-signs with the Dodgers, only because the weird battle would play out more like Rocky IV: Is it East vs. West, or man against man?
The MLB Network
Here's the scheduled lineup for Jan. 1, 2009, on the forthcoming MLB Network: 6:00 PM:
Hot Stove Live - "A Studio Show Dealing Extensively with Offseason Trades, Free Agent Signings and Player Movement Rumors"
7:00 p.m.: "All-Time Games" - "1956 World Series Game Five Brooklyn Dodgers @ NY Yankees featuring Don Larsen's Perfect Game. Stay Tuned Following the Conclusion of the Game for a Sit-Down Interview with Batterymates Don Larsen and Yogi Berra"
I'd buy that for a dollar. In New York, we have YES, the Yankees' propaganda network, and even they don't show the '56 perfect game. Instead, we get "classics" from the early '90s when the A.L. East was a wreck.
The MLB network could make baseball an institution again, like back when Howard Cosell was doing Monday Night Baseball. ...Only instead of NBC, this would be premium cable. And probably not picked up by major TV carriers, like with that DirecTV plan Selig tried to slip by us last year.
OK, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. But as a fan of the game, I'm up for 24/7 Baseball Tonight. Only if John Kruk's hair comes, though.