Well, first off, it means that baseball is changing. A lot. While the new, five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement ensures things will remain constant with regards to labor peace for at least 21 straight years, it means a lot of things about the game we know and love will now be different.
Here are some thoughts …
* Astros fans may not like it much, but their move to the American League West makes plenty of sense — it creates those six five-team divisions, gives them that natural rivalry with Texas and creates an avenue for the additional Wild Card teams.
* I love the additional Wild Card teams, but as I’ve said before, I’d prefer that it be a best-of-three scenario between the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds, not simply a one-game elimination.
* I don’t mind Interleague Games being played all year long. Interleague play has lost its luster through the years — like all things that grow old — so no biggie. It’ll be interesting to see how they shape the schedule, though. If you’re going to make winning your division more meaningful, you ought to give teams more games against their division rivals.
* I’m still trying to get my head around the elimination of Type A and Type B free-agent status. It seems this greatly benefits those middle-tier free agents, who end up being classified as A or B without having really earned the distinction. Teams will now be less willing to offer them a deal — in this case, the average of the 125 highest-paid players in baseball — in order to get Draft picks, and they’d have more suitors. Wouldn’t make much difference for the big-name FAs, though.
* The players won in a lot of ways here. There will be a lot more Super IIs, and the Major League and Minor League averages continue to rise.
* But it’s not a good time to be an amateur ballplayer. The signing deadline is now a lot earlier (some point between July 12 and 18, instead of Aug. 15), and there is now a cap on spending on the First-Year Player Draft and the international pool.
* MLB and the MLB Players Association continues to seek competitive balance, and a lot of this CBA promotes that — including the new “competitive balance lottery,” where clubs with the lowest revenues and smallest markets have a chance to obtain additional draft picks. But competitive balance certainly isn’t promoted with regards to spending caps in the draft. Over-spending on the Draft is how teams like the Pirates and Nationals have been trying to make themselves better, not teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. If there was a spending cap, and an earlier deadline, you think the Nats have Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper right now?
* HGH testing, bans on smokeless tobacco and several other mandates — all signs of players and owners being on the same page.
I recently filed a column to MLB.com on why it would be best to make it a best-of-three series instead of a one-game playoff between the two Wild Card entrants in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is expected to be announced early next week. But I wanted to share some of what Jerry Reinsdorf told me in a recent phone interview. In addition to being the White Sox’s chairman, Reinsdorf (pictured by The Associated Press) serves on Selig’s 14-person special committee, which on Thursday announced plans to move the Astros to the American League West, thus creating six five-team divisions and paving the way for an additional Wild Card team in each league — though the tentative plan is for the two Wild Card teams to face off in a one-game playoff to see who advances to the current three-tiered playoff system.
On his overall thoughts about the playoff expansion …
“I can tell you why I voted for it. A couple of reasons. One reason — and I’m not sure what the order is, but one reason is, as it presently stands now, there is very little advantage to winning division as opposed to the Wild Card. The only disadvantage is you’re not going to get home-field advantage in the Division Series or League Championship Series. And in baseball, home field has the least importance of any sport. By creating the second WC team, basically it’s a one-and-done; the two Wild Card teams are going to have to go with their best available pitchers. So that’s going to pout them at a little disadvantage. So that was one reason. I really wanted there to be a premium on winning the division. This year, [former Red Sox manager] Terry Francona said it didn’t matter if they were the Wild Card team or if they won the division. Now we really have put a premium on winning the division. So if you’re the Wild Card team, you run the risk of being out in one game.”
On making it a one-game playoff instead of a best-of-three …
“Because first of all, you lengthen the postseason. Whatever team is going to be playing the Wild Card team would have to sit around for at least an extra three days, and the layoff is a bad thing. … You don’t want to push the World Series into November, and you don’t want to ask the division-winning teams to sit around. And one-and-done games are really exciting. It generates an awful lot of fan interest. When we played the Twins in ’08, and they played the Tigers in ’09 when they were tied for the division lead, it got great ratings and was really exciting. But the main reason in my mind is not to put division winners at a disadvantage of sitting around for three days.”
On the regular-season schedule …
“That’s another thing I like about the realignment, is having two leagues with 15 teams in each league and all divisions have five teams. So when you go to Interleague Play, every team will be playing same the same games in Interleague Play. When we play the NL Central, every team in the AL Central will play every team in the NL Central. Before, that wasn’t the case. We’d all be playing different teams. So I like that. … I like the fact that we’ll be playing the same NL team as the Twins and Royals, plus the natural rival. But I haven’t seen a final schedule for how it’s going to work out. …I don’t like the idea of a balanced schedule. If you have that, then what’s the point of separate divisions?”
Two things about the free-agent market this offseason: It sure is thin, and it sure is top heavy. If you’re looking for a lights-out closer, there are many. If you’re looking for a front-line starter, there are little. And if you want a premier slugger, you better be prepared to pay up.
Without further ado, here’s my guess (with emphasis on the word “guess”) at the destination of who I consider to be the top five free agents …
Albert Pujols: Cardinals
The notion that Tony La Russa‘s retirement somehow has some relevance with regards to Pujols’ situation is silly. Pujols is signing a deal that could reach 10 years. And even if La Russa, at 67, did come back, he’d only manage for another, what, two years? Pujols knows this. And this may just be me falling victim to the moment, but I can’t see Pujols signing with a different organization just because he’ll be making a few extra millions. With the Cardinals, Pujols goes to a city where he’s revered, an organization where he basically makes the rules and a team that consistently has a chance to win. The Cardinals’ contract offers may not have been lucrative enough before, but they got some extra money with a World Series run, restructuring Chris Carpenter‘s contract and signing Lance Berkman to a rather bargain deal. Plus, if they make third-base coach (and Pujols’ buddy) Jose Oquendo the manager, their chances of him staying are even greater. It’ll be a long, drama-filled battle. But in the end, I’ve got the Redbirds. … Perhaps it’s just that part of me that wants to believe a star player can stay with one franchise.
Other options: Rangers, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, Marlins, Blue Jays, Nationals
Prince Fielder: Dodgers
I can’t see Fielder picking his team until Pujols signs first and, thus, sets the market for him. And though Brewers owner Mark Attansio expressed his team would “be in the game” for Fielder, it’s long been considered a foregone conclusion that the 2011 season was Fielder’s last in Milwaukee. The West coast seems to be the logical landing spot for the big vegetarian. It’s a big market, Prince and Matt Kemp are pals, the Dodgers badly want to improve their offense, and general manager Ned Colletti is expected to have $25 million to spend on free agents this offseason. Of course, a lot of this will hinge on how quickly the sale of the Dodgers goes through and who buys them. But if this gets done quickly, and MLB proclaims it will be, the Dodgers and Prince look like a great match.
Other options: Brewers, Rangers, Cubs, Giants, Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Nationals
Jose Reyes: Tigers
The Tigers are right there. They just need to improve their defense and get some sort of consistency out of the top of their order. Hello, Jose Reyes. The Tigers’ biggest deficiency in 2011 was third base, but that can easily be solved by moving the defensively-inept Jhonny Peralta — signed through next year, with a team option for 2013 — over to his more comfortable position of third base and obtaining Reyes, who would allow Austin Jackson and his .317 on-base percentage to move lower in the order. Two things that may stand in the way: GM Dave Dombrowski has said he prefers to keep Peralta at shortstop, and the Tigers already have two players making $20-plus million a year in Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. But owner Mike Ilitch has shown he’ll do what it takes to build a championship-contending club, and the Tigers may be a Reyes away from that. The Mets will give it a valiant effort, but barring significant payroll-shedding moves, they don’t have the capital to keep up.
Other options: Mets, Marlins, Red Sox, Cardinals (if no Pujols)
C.J. Wilson: Marlins
The Marlins have money to spend, and they keep telling everybody they’re going to be in play for the major free agents. That includes Wilson, who would give Florida something it badly needs headed into its new ballpark: A frontline starting pitcher, particularly a left-hander. The price for Wilson will be high, considering he’s clearly the best of what’s a shallow free-agent pool of starters and plays a position that’s always coveted. Projections have him attaining something in the range of the five-year, $82.5 million deals A.J. Burnett and John Lackey previously signed in free agency. But he may get an ever bigger deal. Regardless, the Marlins want to prioritize the rotation and, for one of the rare times in franchise history, have the means to do it. Wilson would give them a solid No. 2 behind Josh Johnson.
Other options: Rangers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Nationals, Red Sox, Twins, Orioles, Rockies, Royals
Yu Darvish: Yankees
The Yankees are prioritizing the rotation once again, but reports say they don’t want to go all-in on Wilson. If he’s posted, the Japanese Darvish seems like the perfect answer for general manager Brian Cashman, who continues to put a premium on accumulating young starting pitching (something he showed while refusing to trade his top prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez at the non-waiver Trade Deadline). Darvish will have a much cheaper contract than Wilson because he’s only 25, but because of the posting fee that would come with him — remember, Daisuke Matsuzaka required a $52 million posting fee, and that was five years ago — he won’t be much cheaper. The Yanks will face a lot of competition for Darvish, but when it comes down to dollars, they usually win if they have enough desire. And they definitely desire another rotation piece.
Other options: Rangers, Blue Jays, Nationals, Red Sox, Mariners, Twins, Orioles, Rockies, Royals (and probably a bunch of others)
** Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.