2019 MLB Preview: 5 Stories to Watch

636638314625538506-citi-field0605There seems to be a theme building in professional sports no matter the league as the players and the owners seem to be growing further and further apart.

Sports are constantly growing and as they grow they are under more scrutiny than ever, add that to the fact that the athletes have more of a voice than ever before.

Social media has allowed members to reach out to fans and they are becoming more and more comfortable with speaking their mind.

That has led to a lot more players expressing their displeasure with things to the public and not keeping it in.

It is showing just how fractured the world of sports is, as the athletes are not happy and now that everyone has a voice everyone is hearing about it.

This had always been done behind the scenes and only really came out when the disagreements got serious.

That is when the CBA expired and both sides of the equation begin to look to pull public opinion.

The owners will claim that the players are just looking for more money after already seeing rising paychecks.

For the players, the story is always about that the owners are getting rich over their work and that they deserve a bigger cut.

There are a lot more reasons for either side not to agree and they are all complex but the basic arguments stay the same.

This new era of the sports world is giving one side a more of a face than the other and it is beginning to turn the tide in a major way.

The MLB is not immune to this as their players are becoming more and more active on social media.

They have had plenty to say as well and with the current CBA expiring in 2021 they are already getting the public on their side.

This offseason was another where the players had plenty to get angry about as the free agency market was sluggish for a second year, the MLB attempted to make a number of changes to the game and owners continued to use the rules to their advantage.

Even with the issues, the game continued to evolve and a few players got big paydays.

Some players were not happy with how things went but the new season will continue to show where this game is going whether everyone likes it or not.

The debates will continue as players will continue to express their feelings about where the league is going.

They will continue to build their case, some very legitimate, as the league heads towards a new CBA while also trying to grow their audience.

Slow to Start

2019 was supposed to be the best free agent market since free agency began with MVP-calibre players available for the right price. Some major names were going to enter the free agent market looking to cash in and get a big payday while also finding their way to a team who could help them reach that goal of a championship. It was so great that teams seemed to take a step back the year before in order to save up for a spending spree. At least, that is what it seemed when the 2018 free agency market was one of the slowest on record. Teams waited months to sign players and one theory was that some teams were refusing to spend all of their money on a group that wasn’t anywhere close to the group in 2019. Yet with players like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper on the market teams remained quiet throughout the offseason. Teams were unwilling to jump into big contracts right away and be the first to sign a big name. Instead, they waited it out and drove prices down for most of the mid-range players. Meanwhile, Machado and Harper received monster contracts. Machado signed with San Diego for $300-million over 10 years while Harper signed with Philadelphia for $330-milion over 13 years. They were two of the biggest contracts in the MLB and made the free agent market a bigger debate. On one hand, it was slow for a second straight year making it seem like teams were just forcing players to take lesser contracts. On the other hand, the two biggest names took massive contracts that could shift the power in the league. Were teams slow playing to not spend money or were the big names holding everyone up. After all, both Machado and Harper seemed to be waiting each other out before they signed and were forced into decisions when Spring Training began. For the players, it is a clear sign of teams not spending money while the teams see those big contracts and most know they can’t compete or stay viable paying out those contracts. It is a debate that is nowhere near the end with the second slow free agency now gone and two more before the CBA comes and the two sides try to find a solution.

Working the Rookie

In another long-lasting battle between players and owners, the Toronto Blue Jays are taking heat for their treatment of the best prospect in baseball. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been among the best prospects in baseball for the last few years. He is currently ranked #1 in almost every ranking of prospects usually for his bat and power that brings back memories of his father. He has dominated at every level he has played and it seemed almost certain he was going to be in the MLB a year ago. Yet the Blue Jays weren’t convinced that he was good enough and they kept him in Triple-A most of the year. This isn’t a new strategy as teams have used a rule in the MLB rule book to their advantage. When a rookie finds his way to the MLB his clock starts and as soon as he hits 172 games he has completed his first year of MLB service. The interesting part of that is that a full MLB season lasts 187 days. This allows teams to sit their players for 15 days in the season and then bring them up without losing a year of their MLB contract, giving them seven years of control before that player is allowed to become a UFA. The Jays didn’t want to call Guerrero up last year because it would have started his clock and given them six years of control. They likely won’t call him up until midway through April to ensure they get that extra year. The Blue Jays are taking the brunt of the complaints right now that this is against the spirit of the rule and that they are screwing players and fans by doing this. Then again they are far from the first team to do this as Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuna are well-versed in the service time rule. Both players were considered the best prospects in their time and both were forced to wait in the minors until partway through the season. MLB teams claim it is to let them develop while players claim it is a manipulation of the rule. It may not be great but it is in the rules and the Jays are just taking advantage like every other team, although that won’t be good enough to prevent this from becoming a CBA issue.

The Constant Battle

There is never a stop to the constant battle in all sports between offence and defence and for the MLB that is a distinct fight that has been taking more and more headlines over the last few years. The battle in the MLB can get more complicated as offence can take so many forms and defence can do the same. What it has been boiled down to though is the fight between pitchers and batters. It gets even more specific than that though as the real battle between offence and defence in baseball has turned into a competition between strikeouts and home runs. A home run is the ultimate in offence as it leaves it entirely out of the hands of the other team. Sending the ball out of the park is the quickest way to get offence and often leads to big innings. The exact opposite of that is the strikeout where the pitcher takes it out of the hands of his defence and handles his own business. These two opposing forces are generally the star stats that people look at when judging how good a batter or a pitcher is in any given season. The most feared hitters are the ones who can change a game with the swing of the bat while the most feared pitchers are the ones who can sit someone down with three pitches. This battle has only gained momentum in the last few years as the concentration on both has increased by every team. Home runs became the way that offences ran after defensive shifts rendered ground balls useless. Between 2015 and 2017 home runs grew at a rapid rate with 2017 seeing the most home runs in a season. To counter that trend teams looked for those power pitchers to prevent the ball from even touching the bat. As the home runs increases so did the strikeouts as 2018 saw a record number of strikeouts in a season. It remains the shift that everyone is watching as the game is becoming an all-or-nothing game. The concerning part for some though is that this strikeout or home run game is taking away the action and leaving out some of the most exciting plays in baseball. If the trend continues a game already known for being boring is seeing more time without anything happening.

The Fading Starter

As home runs have surged throughout the last few seasons managers are looking for ways to shut these power hitters down. With an emphasis for batters to get the ball in the air and take the decisions out of the hands of the fielders the only way to do this is by utilizing pitchers. Finding power pitchers is one solution but it is far from the only solution that teams are looking at in order to shift the power. Last season the Tampa Bay Rays took an extremely unorthodox approach when they brought out an opener. Sergio Romo started a game for the Rays but was not going to take the load that starters usually take. Romo was just out there to put in a few innings to get things started before the team moved into other options. It was essentially the reverse but similar role of a closer coming in for a few innings this time to ensure that the opposing team couldn’t get off to a good start. The move was another in a long line of innovative moves by the Rays who were also the team who introduced the defensive shift that effectively changed baseball. This might not catch on like the defensive shift but there is something happening in baseball. Pitchers throwing harder has led to an increase in injuries and with more money being invested into pitchers teams are getting scared to put the same workload on them as they used to. The 200-inning pitcher is rarer than ever before and complete games are almost non-existent. As important as starters remain a shift began a few years ago to build up great bullpens and with a bigger investment, teams are looking to use those players. Bullpens are increasing in importance and starters are turning in a quality start and going home. The opener was a sign that teams are beginning to think outside of the box when it comes to pitching and that is something new to the game. Traditional roles are going away and the position of pitcher is becoming a different role with teams willing to tackle the problem of offensive power by committee and that evolution could take another step in 2019.

Manfred’s Mission

When Rob Manfred took over as the commissioner of baseball he had a clear mission for the league and it has everything to do with the growth of the league. In an era where leagues are struggling to get the attention of the younger generation baseball might be the league struggling the most. It is a slower game than most as the game is more about the finer points of skill that it takes to win. Games can take a long time and the action can be minimal which is not great for a league looking to attract attention from a generation with shorter attention spans. To hold an audience for a three-hour game is not an easy thing to do and with games lacking the action that they used to the league is having a hard time appealing to the new generation that they need in order to continue to grow the game. Manfred came in as the new commissioner looking to bring the league into that new generation and one of the ways to do that is by speeding up the game. Pace of Play has been a major issue for years and Manfred is will to talk about a lot of different ideas to get them to a shorter game. He has already put in a number of rules to quicken the game but as he continues his time as the commissioner the rules are getting bolder. Last year he established a mound visit limit that helped to reduce the number of times a manager could come out to visit the pitcher without changing that pitcher. They will reduce that number to a total of five mound visits this year once again looking to take away stalling tactics. This year rules limiting breaks between innings will attempt to reduce the time of games while they continue to play around with rules like the pitch clock and a minimum batter rule. Both will be tested in the minors with clocks being established to force pitchers to speed up their delivery and pitchers being forced to face at least three batters eliminating the one and done pitchers. Both have been highly controversial rules and their testing the minors is a sign that the MLB is seriously considering bringing them to the majors causing an even bigger uproar.

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