Top 10 storylines to watch in 2014
January, 1, 2014
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
Tim Kurkjian had it right last spring when he said the hardest thing to predict in 2013 was who was going to finish fifth in the AL East. Many folks thought it would be the Boston Red Sox, and instead, they won the World Series with a group of invested players who reinvigorated Boston’s fan base.
We can draw a lesson from that example, as we look ahead to 2014: You never know what you’ll see on a given day. But you can predict the 10 most prominent story lines that promise to attract a lot of attention in the months ahead.
1. The identity of Bud Selig’s successor
Selig has announced he will retire a year from now, so let the campaigning and the lobbying (and maybe some deal-making and backstabbing, in some quarters) begin in earnest.
I’ve heard three different theories about who will follow Selig from high-ranking club executives.
A) Some believe he won’t actually retire at the end of this season, and will instead by convinced by owners to stay on board.
B) Rob Manfred, the chief operating officer of baseball, is destined to be Selig’s hand-picked successor. “There’s no way [Selig] is leaving that job without anointing the next guy,” said one official, “and that’s Rob.”
C) The "heir to the throne" hasn’t actually emerged, because of a growing unhappiness among a core of mid-market and small-market teams hasn’t manifested itself yet. Whoever the next commissioner is will have to make his peace with that group, as Selig has been able to do.
2. Rule changes: The first widespread use of replay, and the forthcoming abolition of legal home-plate collisions.
As we’ve seen with the home run replays (and with other sports), the use of the advanced technology won’t put an end to the controversy. The flaws in the new system, and the new collision rules, will be exposed and abused, inevitably, and this will lead to improvement of the sport. So think of 2014 as a step in the right direction, as MLB reaches for a higher standard. Hopefully, the first catcher who avoids an opponent coming home with the winning run gets the full backing of his teammates and manager.
3. The resolution of the Alex Rodriguez case
This could come quickly, with the arbitrator’s decision now looming. But Rodriguez has shown a willingness to sue just about everybody for everything, and if the arbitrator rules against A-Rod, then presumably the third baseman could challenge the decision in federal court.
The decision is not only important for A-Rod and the Yankees, but also for Major League Baseball, given that Rodriguez was the biggest name swept up in the Biogenesis net. If MLB loses (which might be defined by an extraordinary reduction or an outright rejection of the 211-game suspension rendered by Bud Selig), baseball’s entire drug-testing program would be greatly undermined, increasing fears that there are cheaters circumventing the process by a greater understanding of the drugs and the testing. MLB’s investigation has netted all but one of those targeted in the Biogenesis mess, including Ryan Braun, but Rodriguez would be the big one that got away if somehow he prevailed.
4. The shaping of the union power
The Players Association lost a great and beloved leader in Michael Weiner in 2013, and while former player Tony Clark was named to replace him, very little has been cemented about the nature of the union’s leadership. Will he defer to the union’s counsel in labor negotiations? Will he be like Weiner, who preferred compromise rather than be an intractable believer in doctrine, or like Don Fehr, who drew hard lines in his talks with owners? Will the players -- now almost two decades removed from the last major labor war -- benignly follow Clark, or will they drive him and be part of the process? And who will become the most active leaders among the active players?
Weiner’s death left a tremendous power vacuum within the union, and 2014 promises definition of the new regime.
5. A crossroad season for the New York Yankees and Derek Jeter
Jeter was wrecked by injury in 2013 and managed just 73 plate appearances. And while he and the Yankees worked out a one-year deal for 2014, the simple fact is that the team has no idea if he’ll be able to be productive next season. If he’s not, then Jeter’s career might well be nearing its end, in the year he turns 40.
General manager Brian Cashman’s contract is set to expire next fall, and although owner Hal Steinbrenner’s has demonstrated a benevolent (charitable?) side in his first years of running the team, it’ll be interesting to see if he affects changes if the Yankees miss the playoffs for the second straight year for the first time since the ’92-’93 seasons.
6. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Don Mattingly
In the last three months, the Dodgers have made the postseason, won a playoff series and have had two major press gatherings for Manager Don Mattingly -- and there is still no clarity on his status. Will he manage 2014 as a lame duck? If Mattingly gets the extension that was discussed earlier this offseason, will he still be managing for his job, as he runs as team in win-now mode? Is he actually safe?
We really don’t have any answers yet, and while nobody is talking about exactly where this cold war stands, the fact that it continues is a statement in itself.
7. AL West race
The Texas Rangers went to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, so the Los Angeles Angels spent heavily on Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton, signing Hamilton away from the Rangers. Texas upped the ante this winter by adding more than $200 million in salary obligations by acquiring Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. The Seattle Mariners spent more money on one player than any other team this winter, outbidding the Yankees for Robinson Cano. And the Oakland Athletics just keep on doing what they always do, as the division’s Little Engine That Could, and have won the AL West the last two seasons. The AL West race could turn out to be more intense than any other, given the pile of chips that have been shoved into the fight, given all that’s at stake.
It’s not a good time to be the Houston Astros. Again.
8. Teams at a tipping point (besides Seattle)
The Philadelphia Phillies are trying to extract one last season from their aging core, and even the front office doesn’t seem to really believe in it, having let other teams know that they are willing to take offers for everyone from Cole Hamels to Cliff Lee to Jimmy Rollins. One way or another, circumstances will force the Phillies to commit to a direction.
The Kansas City Royals are all-in for this year, with James Shields eligible for free agency after next season and with Scott Boras clients Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas quickly climbing the arbitration scale. This is a franchise reaching a critical mass, for good or for less.
Arizona Diamondbacks honcho Ken Kendrick is in must-win mode, having approved aggressive moves by the front office while also declining to pick up the options for general manager Kevin Towers or Kirk Gibson beyond this upcoming season. If the team struggles, changes will loom.
The Baltimore Orioles broke through to make the playoffs in 2012, contended in 2013 -- and have worked to manage payroll this winter, frustrating their fan base. If Baltimore takes a major step back this year -- which seems possible, unless Kevin Gausman immediately develops into a frontline starter and unless Manny Machado comes all the way back from knee surgery -- there will be repercussions, outside and inside the organization.
The Toronto Blue Jays positioned themselves for a run at the playoffs in 2013, trading prospects for R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and others. But the team floundered, failing to post a winning record for the third straight year, and if they do so again in 2014, there could be many changes.
9. Contract situations
Clayton Kershaw deferred a decision when the Dodgers’ approached him last summer about what would essentially be a lifetime deal, for $300 million, and he has staggering leverage after winning his second Cy Young Award, as he heads toward free agency next fall. Let the speculation begin about Max Scherzer, who is eligible for free agency after the 2014 season and is represented by agent Scott Boras, who almost always takes his clients into the free agent market.
The Dodgers already have had some conversations about a new multi-year deal with Hanley Ramirez. The Rays have yet to trade David Price, who is eligible for free agency after 2015. And let the speculation begin about Miguel Cabrera, whose current contract will run out after the 2015 season. Craig Kimbrel will set records in arbitration, if he gets that far, and very quickly -- like within the next 18 months -- the Braves will come face-to-face with the choice of keeping the most expensive closer in baseball history, or swapping him to a team that can better afford him.
Finally: Each day that goes by, Mike Trout inches toward what might be the largest contract in baseball history.
Jeter -- who has 3,316 hits -- needs three more to tie Paul Molitor for ninth place on the all-time hits list, 103 to tie Carl Yastrzemski for eighth place. A-Rod needs 61 hits for 3,000, and 31 more RBIs for 2,000; he’d pass Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds along the way, and become only the fourth player to achieve that number. Pujols needs eight more homers for 500 in his career, two more RBId for 1,500. Adrian Beltre needs 24 more homers for 400. Cabrera needs 35 more homers for 400.
And Bud Selig will serve as Commissioner for a 17th season (if you include his years when his title was acting Commissioner), after serving six years as the de facto commissioner. That’s 23 years in all -- only one year less than the 24 years served by Kennesaw Mountain Landis. (Selig isn’t officially credited with the title of Commissioner until 1998.)
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Astros signed Jesse Crain.
2. Nelson Cruz’s vacation was kind of ruined.
The Orioles could be even better defensively this year.
Dayton Moore wouldn’t tip his hand on whether the Royals might bid on Masahiro Tanaka. If they got him, outbidding the biggest big-money teams in the majors, it would represent one of the greatest upsets in baseball history.
But again, it costs nothing for the Royals to engage, and they can at least say, with complete honesty, that they explored the possibility.
A former teammate says Kurt Suzuki was a good pickup for the Twins.
Raul Ibanez is excited to play for the Angels.
Jason Motte is continuing his comeback, as Derrick Goold writes.
An anonymous former teammate took a shot at Adam Eaton.
*Here are some New Year’s wishes for baseball, from Richard Griffin.
*An early Mike Trout autograph has been discovered.
And today will be better than yesterday.