The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
5 Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

Baseball is the only major professional sport to have a name for its off-season, the Hot Stove Season, named for the era when people gathered daily around a stove at the barber shop or general store during the winter to re-hash the baseball season just completed and speculate on what is going to happen next season.

Nowadays the sports talk radio and TV shows are full of conversations and debates about free agent signings, player trades, upcoming Hall of Fame voting, and who’s going to contend for next year.  There’s a lot of re-living the highlights or the lowlights, as the case might be, of your favorite team and their heated rivals.

Below are five topics that are getting a lot of attention as the Hot Stove Season gets into full gear.

 

Where will Giancarlo Stanton land?

Stanton was baseball’s biggest slugger in 2017, with 59 dingers, in a year in which the Major League Baseball set a new record for most home runs in a season.  In 2014, Stanton signed a mega deal with the Miami Marlins involving $325 million for 13 years.  That was then-owner Jeffrey Loria’s commitment to the Miami fans that he wanted Stanton around for a long time.

Now, the new Marlins’ ownership led by former New York Yankee star Derek Jeter is going in a different direction.  They don’t have the financial wherewithal to maintain Stanton’s contract and thus have let it be known Stanton is on the market.  In addition to lowering payroll, the Marlins are looking for prospects and low-cost, high-value contributors that can become the core of a new team.

Despite his high price, there are surely several suitors for Stanton, with the Cardinals, Giants, and Phillies being talked about the most.  Fans of those teams and others are fantasizing right now about how Stanton could impact their teams.  But the fact is Stanton has a no-trade contract with the Marlins, meaning he can decline a trade to a team he doesn’t want to play for.  So he’s in control of his destiny and unfortunately for some of the suitors, he ultimately won’t figure into their plans.

Stanton’s a West Coast guy, having grown up in Sherman Oaks, California.  It will be no surprise if his preference for a new team is the Dodgers or Angels, but they already have some big stars with high salaries.  It’s no secret the other West Coast teams (Padres, Giants, and A’s) could use definitely Stanton, but will he want to bank his career on franchises that are currently struggling?

 

Who will the Yankees hire to replace Girardi?

It’s been said the managerial job of the New York Yankees is the one of the least secure jobs in baseball, but since 1996, there have been only two – Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.  Now that the Yankees have dismissed Girardi as his contract ended this season, who are the likely candidates as his successor?

Apparently the Yankees’ front office had become uncomfortable with how their relationship with Girardi had evolved over ten years at the helm, despite his taking the team to six post-season appearances, including a World Series championship team in 2009.  So what are the expectations of the Yankees going forward?  Yankees GM Brian Cashman indicated he wanted someone who would have more connectivity with the players and front office.

The trend nowadays for MLB teams is to hire managers without prior managerial experience, including stints in the minors as managers.  It’s as though that prior experience somehow automatically casts the person as entrenched in old-school ways that aren’t adaptable to today’s game and players.  The other major criteria is the person’s proclivity to embrace analytics as a way to implement evolving game strategies.  Furthermore, front office exposure of the candidates is a plus, because of the preferred teaming relationship between the front office and the field manager to implement the newer analytics.  An example is the Phillies’ recent hire of Gabe Kapler.

One would think the Yankees have a couple of viable in-house candidates for Girardi’s successor, both currently on the Yankees’ coaching staff.  Bench coach Rob Thomson, who has been in the Yankees organization for 28 years, has already been interviewed.  He has only one year as a minor-league manager, but has been on Girardi’s major-league staff for ten years.  He has a lot of familiarity with the front office and the players.  First-base coach Tony Pena was the manager of the Kansas City Royals during 2002 and 2005 before coming to the Yankees during Joe Torre’s tenure.  But it’s not clear Thomson or Pena have a leg up on other candidates.

Former major-league players Aaron Boone and Raul Ibanez are reportedly candidates for the job, as both fit more of the criteria to bring fresh blood to the team.  Boone has been a TV analyst since retiring as a player in 2009.  As a Yankee player in 2003, he is best remembered for hitting one of the most dramatic home runs in their history, an extra-winning shot in Game 7 of the ALCS against Boston.  Although not a formal role, Ibanez was a “player-coach” for the last few teams he played for.  He seemed to develop sound connections with his teammates and was a steadying influence during the playoffs.

Last week the Yankees interviewed Eric Wedge, a former manager of the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners.  He was somewhat of a surprise candidate, since his teams mostly had mediocre finishes and he doesn’t have a reputation of necessarily being a good “player’s manager.”

There will likely be other candidates we don’t even know about yet. Heck, even A-Rod might be a candidate..just kidding.  Cashman has ample time to make a decision.  Whoever the new manager is, he will be walking into an enviable situation with the Yankee’s current core of young players and a farm system loaded with top prospects.

 

Will “bullpenning” gain more traction in the upcoming regular season?

The 2017 playoffs gave us more insights into how the evolving bullpenning strategy could be used more extensively in major-league baseball.

The concept of having starting pitching go through the opponent’s lineup only once and then yielding to relief pitchers who go multiple innings, including the closer, has previously been used by a few teams during the regular season.  This year’s playoff teams seemed to be well-positioned to employ it more extensively, and it became a major factor in the outcome of several games.

However, the strategy exposed several factors that will be the subject of debate as to its continued viability by more teams and whether it can be used effectively during the regular season.  During the playoffs, several starters who got through the first three to four innings without any trouble were automatically lifted for less effective relievers, calling to question whether the managers should stick by what their analytics tell the, or use their gut intuition to stick with the starters for another one or two innings.  Relief pitchers seem to tire more as the teams got deeper in to the playoffs, as they had less down time between appearances.  Managers lost confidence in some of their relievers and didn’t use them, further exacerbating the workload issues of the other relievers.  Trying to leverage the relief staff early in games for traditional lefty-righty matchups between pitchers and batters tended to use up the staff faster.  A few pitchers were bridged between starting and relieving roles with a fair amount of success.

In the post- World Series analysis, staunch advocates of bullpenning said the playoffs proved that it can be effective and should be utilized more.  Doubters of the approach said the playoffs were not necessarily a good indicator of how well it will work during the long 162-game season.

Stay tuned.  The debates will continue and it will be interesting to see whether the strategy gains more traction in the upcoming season.

 

Will Shohei Otani be the first two-way player since Babe Ruth?

Shohei Otani is the latest Asian player to indicate a desire to play in Major League Baseball in the United States in 2018.  The 23-year-old is an outstanding pitcher and hitter, as two seasons ago he captured the Pacific League MVP Award of Japanese Professional Baseball playing both ways.

In his five seasons in Japan, he went 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings.  He batted .286 with 48 home runs and 166 RBI in 1,035 at-bats as a designated hitter and outfielder.

Otani will enter the posting process agreed to by MLB and the Japanese league where Japanese clubs are compensated with a percentage of the player’s guaranteed contract when MLB teams sign their players.

He has been compared to legendary slugger Babe Ruth because of his dual baseball skills.  In 1918 and 1919, Ruth both pitched and played in the outfield for the Boston Red Sox, before being traded to the Yankees in 1920 when they wanted him in their lineup because of his bat.  Ruth went on to become the most prodigious home run hitter in history.

Otani would like to leverage both his pitching and hitting skills in the majors, but there’s a question about whether the major-league club Otani signs with will actually allow him to play both ways.  It hasn’t been done on any significant basis since Ruth.  However, don’t count out the possibility until Otani gets a chance to prove himself.  It may be the next new twist to roster construction by major-league front offices.

 

Who will be the next break-through team in in the majors?

The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros are the poster children for how major-league clubs can do complete make-overs of their clubs and ultimately climb their way back to prominence to win World Series championships.  Unfortunately, the organizational plans implemented by their respective front offices meant their fans would be forced to endure several paltry seasons in the process.  But in the end, those plans paid off with long-awaited World Series rings.

Following the Astros’ and Cubs’ blueprints, several other major-league clubs have embarked on similar paths and are aiming to be the next franchise to get themselves in a position to be completive.

The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are well into their plans for about three years now, while the Chicago White Sox just began its journey before the 2017 season.  Each of these teams essentially started over in their roster makeup, which called for dumping high-priced veteran players and acquiring young prospects they can get under contract control for several years.

To a lesser extent, the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, and Milwaukee Brewers have made significant changes in their rosters, but without the complete overhauls as some of the other clubs.

The Yankees appear to be ahead of their schedule in getting back into prominence, as they forced the Astros into a Game 7 in this year’s League Championship Series before bowing out.  The new core of the Yankees team has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and the club appears to have even more young talent poised to assume big league jobs.  Unlike the Cubs and Astros, the Yankees didn’t suffer miserable seasons to get to their current status.

The Twins surprised everyone by making it as a wild-card team in the playoffs this year after losing over 100 games in 2016.  The Brewers led their division for the first part of 2017 when the Cubs were slow to get out of the gate and went down to the wire before dropping out as a play-off contender.  One other team we don’t hear a lot about is the Oakland A’s.  Their roster has been notorious for being in a constant state of flux, but they now appear to have accumulated some players we need to start to watch.

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