One month before pitchers and catchers report, we've still got several things to settle…
1. What's Up with Cespedes?
While Justin Upton has surfaced, it seems Yoenis Cespedes is stuck somewhere on Mars with Matt Damon. Golfing, maybe.
Five months ago, Cespedes was emerging as a last-minute National League MVP candidate. He joined the New York Mets at the trade deadline and immediately rocket-launched them toward the World Series.
Today, Cespedes is more invisible than Punxsutawney Phil.
Will he emerge this week? Next week? By, ahem, Groundhog Day (Feb. 2 for all you non-believers)?
The icing of Cespedes is freeze-drying into perhaps the winter's biggest story. While Upton found a soft landing in Detroit on a six-year, $132 million deal, the man who hit a combined 35 homers with 105 RBI and a .328 on-base percentage in Detroit and New York last summer continues to scan Craigslist.
For one thing, Cespedes last summer landed at the wrong place at the wrong time. He probably could have parlayed his second-half World Series charge into untold riches in nearly any other market. Popular demand would have pressured the club to keep him. But in New York, where Mets ownership has been off balance since the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, the Mets continue to toss nickels around like one of George Halas' (Mike Ditka's?) manhole covers.
"The Mets are a debacle right now," one agent told Bleacher Report. "It's a shame that family still owns the team."
The Mets telegraphed at season's end the fact that they probably wouldn't be players for Cespedes on a long-term deal, so their lack of engagement this winter is not surprising. Most projections going into this winter pegged Cespedes for roughly a six-year deal around $140 million, which would be just a bit more than Upton got from Detroit this week.
But other than a sudden interest by Baltimore last week, there hasn't been much noise around Cespedes. And the Orioles' interest in hindsight appeared to be simply a maneuver to roust slugger Chris Davis, who agreed with the Orioles on a seven-year, $161 million deal over the weekend.
One major league executive believes clubs like Cespedes more on a short-term deal than on a multiyear contract because of concern with how he will produce long-term.
The fact that Cespedes has played for four teams in the past four years also adds intrigue.
"The pattern has been real good initially, then some form of backing up as it goes along," an American League executive told Bleacher Report.
"When this guy is engaged, he's a terrific player. When he is not, he lacks the effort on defense and the at-bats aren't as good. He has been streaky, which is not abnormal for power hitters, but the at-bats weren't as good the longer he was somewhere."
After Cespedes hit .287/.337/.604 with 17 homers and 44 RBI in just 57 games with the Mets last summer to lead them to the NL East title, his autumn turned weird. He became embroiled in a mini-controversy on the day of Game 4 of the NL Championship Series when, after he left the game with a sore left shoulder, it was revealed that he was seen playing golf in Chicago the morning of the game.
Then he left Game 5 of the World Series in severe pain after fouling a ball off his left knee.
As for the golf, it turned out that it was business as usual for Cespedes. He's become hooked on the game, playing often during the season, to the point where Mets hitting coach Kevin Long last summer would ask Cespedes when he arrived at the park whether he played golf that day. And if he had, Long smiled.
"If he played golf, most of the time he hits a home run," Long told the Wall Street Journal.
But the autumn issues may have left a lasting memory that carried into winter negotiations as well.
"Obviously, how things went in the playoffs didn't help," the AL executive said. "Taking himself out of the clincher with the Cubs early in the game, then [being] seen in the dugout with goggles around his neck wasn't a good look."
Recent industry speculation included the Tigers, but they opted for Upton. The Orioles are out after signing Davis.
The Los Angeles Angels clearly need a left fielder. Though owner Arte Moreno has steadfastly maintained he prefers to remain under the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million, if Cespedes is to get a monster contract, the Halos are one of the few organizations left that could afford it. On the other hand, Albert Pujols already is weighing down the franchise with a long-term deal, and they just got out from under another bad contract in Josh Hamilton, so there could be some aversion to romancing Cespedes long-term.
The St. Louis Cardinals, after losing Jason Heyward, have a need. So do the Houston Astros. And Cespedes would bolster a Chicago White Sox lineup big-time.
The Washington Nationals, who struck late for ace Max Scherzer last January, also are thought to be considering a similar late-winter strike this year for Cespedes.
"There are a lot of yellow flags around him," the executive said. "Not the dark red ones, but caution flags.
"I don't think he is a star. He's a very good major-league talent. But he disappears too often."
He has absolutely disappeared this winter.
When he will re-emerge has become the most interesting question of all.
2. Mike Ilitch Does It Again
Justin Upton can be an impact bat in the middle of the order, and if Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera can stay healthy, the Tigers have a chance to recapture the division title from Kansas City in an AL Central that gets more intriguing each week.
Whether Upton does or doesn't work out, though, say this: Detroit's owner Mike Ilitch is the kind of owner every fan has to wish his or her team had. Year after year, Ilitch has laid out millions in pursuit of the one goal that continues to drive him, bringing a World Series title to Detroit for the first time since 1984.
From Pudge Rodriguez to Miguel Cabrera to Justin Verlander to Prince Fielder to Jordan Zimmermann (and beyond), Ilitch has thrown money at one star after another. In that regard, he's reminiscent of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who poured every ounce of energy he had, year after year, into attempting to bring New York a Yankees World Series title.
While teams in larger markets continue to do calisthenics to avoid going over the $189 million luxury-tax threshold (the Yankees, ironically, and the Angels, to name two), Ilitch thinks nothing of it.
3. Of Tanks and No Arms Race
As we edge closer to the glorious sunshine and pitchers and catchers reporting to camps in Arizona and Florida, some serious questions are on the horizon in the National League.
Mainly, spring training, that time of hope and optimism, isn't going to bring what it once brought to several National League clubs. And how damaging might that be to the integrity of the game?
Friend Jayson Stark over at ESPN.com wrote a riveting piece on the subject last week, noting that at least four teams (Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves) and possibly as many as six (Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres) are shifting into, basically, non-compete mode while rebuilding.
It was bad enough when the Houston Astros stripped things down to the studs and foundation a few years ago, losing at least 106 games in each of three consecutive seasons (2011-13).
The Cubs caused some grumbling as well in the early years of the Theo Epstein regime, finishing fifth in the NL Central for five consecutive seasons.
Now, with both the Cubs and Astros roaring back in 2015 and boasting some of the game's best young talent, enough other clubs appear to be following suit that baseball might wind up with an embarrassing situation sooner rather than later.
"I think it's a problem for the sport," an executive for an American League contender told Stark, speaking of the NL. "I think the whole system is screwed up, because I think it actually incentivizes not winning. And that's a big issue going forward."
At the very least, it is an issue baseball must closely watch. As things stand now, it's good to be a member of the NL Central and NL East—because only three of the five clubs in each of those divisions really are trying to compete in 2016.
In the NL East, you've got the Mets, Marlins and Nationals on one side, while the Braves and Phillies are stripping things down.
In the NL Central, you've got the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates with chances to win, while the Brewers and Reds will resemble Triple-A outfits.
Given that clubs face each other 19 times because of the unbalanced schedule, that's a lot of extra wins the front three clubs in each of those divisions will pick up. Enough, probably, to guarantee that the two NL wild-card teams likely will come from the East and the Central, not the NL West.
Commissioner Rob Manfred told Stark that rebuilding is just part of the cyclical nature of the game.
"Obviously, you don't want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that," Manfred said. "But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it's not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that's out of line."
That the Astros and Cubs had so much success with their dramatic rebuilds is to each of their credits, of course.
It just becomes a problem if the rebuilding highways become gridlocked with copycats.
4. Where Have You Gone, Mariano Rivera?
Yankees GM Brian Cashman says newly acquired flamethrower Aroldis Chapman will head into spring training as the team's closer, because that's where he adds "max value."
However they divvy up the work, there's no question the Yankees should be awesome in the late innings with Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller aboard.
There's also no question that Mariano Rivera is becoming smaller and smaller in that rear-view mirror. As statistics whiz Bill Chuck points out, Chapman could give the Yankees their fifth different saves leader in the past five seasons in 2016: Rafael Soriano (42) in 2012 (the year Rivera missed most of the season with a knee injury), Rivera (44) in 2013, David Robertson (39) in 2014 and Andrew Miller (36) in 2015.
5. The World Champs Get Better
Make no mistake: Ian Kennedy is not David Price or Zack Greinke. It's not like the Kansas City Royals signed a guy who will become a favorite to win a Cy Young Award.
But in agreeing to terms with Kennedy on a five-year, $70 million deal, the Royals unquestionably took a step in the right direction after losing Johnny Cueto to free agency.
Kennedy is coming off a down season in San Diego but should be able to give Kansas City exactly what James Shields did a couple of years ago: a summer of 200 innings and a solid veteran rotation presence.
He surrendered a career-high 31 homers last season, which is saying something given that he pitched some of his early years in hitter-friendly Arizona. But from that perspective, Kansas City is a good landing spot: Kauffman Stadium was the most difficult park in the American League to homer in last summer, surrendering an average of 1.60 homers per game.
It's also hard not to look at Kennedy's splits last year and give him the benefit of the doubt that an Opening Day hamstring pull threw him off balance during the first half of 2015. Before the All-Star break, he went 4-9 with a 4.91 ERA and 20 homers allowed in 84.1 innings pitched in 16 starts. After the break, he went 5-6 with a 3.64 ERA and 11 homers allowed in 84 innings pitched.
6. Free-Agent Rankings
Here's my weekly take as agents bluster, suitors cluster and bean counters muster the courage to write those checks as the winter (gulp) deepens…
1. Yoenis Cespedes: A guy needs to know where to schedule his tee times this summer.
2. Dexter Fowler: C'mon, Joe Maddon will even write a letter of recommendation.
3. Howie Kendrick: The last second baseman the Dodgers jettisoned went on to win the NL batting title. But Kendrick is no Dee Gordon.
4. Yovani Gallardo: The leftover bin of starting pitchers remains pretty well stocked.
5. Doug Fister: One year ago, he was slated to be part of one of the greatest rotations in recent memory. Cough, cough.
7. Pete Rose in the Hall
Yes, the news bulletin you saw Tuesday is true: Pete Rose is going to the Hall of Fame.
The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.
Not only that, the club will retire his No. 14 during the Reds' Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, June 24-26.
Good for them, and good for MLB for allowing this to happen.
While it is true that Rose is banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame for being on the game's suspended list, individual club Halls of Fame are a different, more localized version. They don't necessarily have to play by the same rules as they do in Cooperstown.
Reds owner Bob Castellini said in a statement Tuesday that this will be "a defining moment in the 147-year history of this storied franchise. He is one of the greatest players to ever wear a Reds uniform and it will be an unforgettable experience watching him be honored as such."
Incidentally, word of the honor did reach Cooperstown. And not everyone there is opposed to this, or even greater honors, for Rose:
8. The Mo-Man Reappears, Long Live the Mo-Man!
There is only one Mo-Man, the long-retired Mike Morgan, who pitched for 12 teams (then a record) between 1978 and 2002.
The fourth overall pick by Oakland in the 1978 draft, he went straight to the majors, never looked back and pretty much had a rubber arm the entire way through. I came across him in Minnesota when he was playing for the Twins and I was covering them. He had a very unique way of viewing the world and of speaking.
What I most remember is when he had a poor start. He'd meet the media afterward, shrug and simply say, "Bob Seger, man." That was his code for one of Seger's most well-known songs: "Turn the Page." Yep, forget about a bad start, turn the page and get 'em next time.
There were dozens more just like that.
Now 56, Morgan has been gone for a while: When there was no interest in him following the 2002 season, he went home to Utah, hurt (not physically—his feelings were hurt) and went into a sort of self-exile.
He reappeared at the Diamondbacks' fantasy camp last week.
"I can still throw seven days a week," he told MLB.com's Steve Gilbert. "I can still throw the hammer [curveball]. It's not 12-to-6 anymore, it's 12-to-3. Four-seamers, two-seamers, sliders.
"I still get guys asking me to throw the hammer so they can see it out of my hand. And I always tell them, 'Just tell me where to meet you and I'll come throw to you.'"
9. Farewell, Monte Irvin
One of the first African-Americans to play in the majors and a mentor to the great Willie Mays, Monte Irvin passed away last week in Houston at the age of 96. A Hall of Famer as both a player and a person, Irvin spent three years in the Army during World War II and, as Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week, "was a true leader during a transformational era for our game."
And, he said this, and amen, amen, amen:
9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week
We're barely halfway through January and already 2016 has been painful. Last week we lost David Bowie, this week Glenn Frey. Though he's a little more known, you might say, for his great hits like "Tequila Sunrise" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling," there was a time, believe it or not, when Frey wanted to become a baseball broadcaster. Not only does he do so for a day here with Vin Scully in 1985, he gives a tremendous home run call:
You left us way too soon, Glenn, but thanks for the words and music.
"City girls seem to find out early
"How to open doors with just a smile"
— Eagles, "Lyin' Eyes"
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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