2014 season to be a time of change in MLB
Selig enters final year as Commissioner, replay set for expansion and much more
The countdown is underway to another season, a baseball season that could very well be one of the most unique in decades.
Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in about six weeks, and to say change is on the horizon is an understatement.
Start with Commissioner Bud Selig.
Selig has been running baseball since he took over as interim commissioner in September 1992.
During an interview in December, Selig told me when he took over, "Baseball was stuck in neutral. Pro football went by us like a jet. The sport needed fixing at many levels."
Selig, 79, said on Sept. 26, 2013, that he'll retire upon completion of his current contract on Jan. 24, 2015.
So, this could be the final season for Selig. We've heard that many times in the past and he may stick to his word, but I wonder.
During the interview, I asked Selig if he's sincere about leaving.
"I have really thought to myself it's time, it really is," he said.
I mentioned there are people who think he'll stay on if the owners ask him to.
"I know people are saying a lot of things," he said, "but I'm smart enough to know there comes a time in life when you have to get out of the way."
And then, he left the door open: "Listen, I'll always do what the owners want me to do. I always will. We haven't even discussed this stuff [staying on] yet, but I'm here to help. I think it's important; I'm here to do whatever needs to be done."
There have been a myriad of changes during Selig's tenure, and in 2014 there will be two more: expanded instant replay and a rule change that will protect catchers from home-plate collisions.
Final details of the new replay system are still in the works, but almost all calls, other than balls and strikes, will be reviewable. The new format, which comes after instant replay entered baseball in 2008 to handle disputed home run calls, must be approved by the Rules Committee and then submitted for a vote at the next quarterly Owners Meetings in January. Finally, it must be approved by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
During the Winter Meetings in December, Joe Torre, MLB executive vice president for baseball operations, indicated hit batters, the so-called neighborhood play at second base -- whether or not the bag was tagged -- and foul balls over the first- and third-base bags are likely not to be challengeable.
"We certainly don't want to affect the rhythm of the game," said Torre.
Under the talked-about system, there will be one set of challenges for the entire game, although it's still to be determined whether each manager will get one or two challenges. If the manager wins his appeal, he retains the challenge. There are ongoing discussions about the circumstances under which the umpires could decide to review a close call if one or both managers has run out of challenges.
Former manager Jim Leyland, a member of Selig's Blue Ribbon Panel for on-field matters, told me "people have become so possessed for getting the calls right. That's why they're doing what they're doing [expanding replay].
"I think they should replay some plays, but maybe not the extent they're considering."
There was talk managers would throw a flag, similar to NFL coaches' challenges, but that's not going to happen. Managers will simply signal to umpires they want a challenge.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, chairman of the Rules Committee, said the rule change for plays at home plate should be in place at the start of the 2014 season.
This is a tremendous change to the game, especially when you hear all the horror stories about athletes who've suffered concussions during their playing days.
The play at the plate will involve sliding -- any attempt to run over a catcher will result in an out, and could even bring a suspension and/or fine.
While MLB works on the details of these two major changes, the Commissioner's Office is awaiting the ruling by independent arbitrator Fredric Horowitz on Alex Rodriguez's appeal of the 211-game suspension handed down last year.
The decision could come at any time.
Rodriguez, the Yankees' third baseman, was cited for violations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and the Basic Agreement. Rodriguez's suspension is based on his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone, over the course of multiple years, MLB said in a statement at the time the suspension was announced.
Rodriguez's grievance hearing ended after 12 sessions on Nov. 21. Horowitz has not said when he'll announce his decision.
And what about the Yankees in 2014?
In 2013, the Yanks finished third in the American League East and missed the postseason for the second time in 19 seasons.
And while they watched their All-Star second baseman, Robinson Cano, leave after signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with Seattle, the additions of catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, and infielder Kelly Johnson have greatly improved the team. The Yanks have committed $286 million in new player contracts, a sign they're determined to return to the postseason.
When the Mariners signed Cano, it was a shocker of sorts.
The thought occurred to me if Cano will really make a difference, or if this huge signing is similar to two years ago when the Angels shelled out the same amount of money for Albert Pujols? The Halos are yet to make the postseason with him aboard.
Now that star Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka will be posted by Rakuten Golden Eagles, there's talk the Mariners may be in the thick of the battle (with the Yankees) to land the posting rights for the pitcher.
Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in the Japan Pacific League in 2013. He's gone 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in seven seasons in Japan.
Finally, adding to the uniqueness of 2014 will be the National Baseball Hall of Fame announcement on Wednesday.
At least three players -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas --- are expected to be inducted. Craig Biggio, who came close last year, could also make it. With managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre already elected in December, the Hall of Fame will have one of its biggest induction ceremonies on July 27.
Another reason why 2014 will be so unique.