Andrew McCutchen's day off — enlightening, enjoyable, important

Photo courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Andrew McCutchen's day off — enlightening, enjoyable, important

KANSAS CITY — Amidst the 162-game grind of a major league baseball season — and let’s not forget those 30 games in spring training — off days become very important to a player. They’re a time to recharge and refresh the body, a time to detach from the schedule and clear the mind.

Andrew McCutchen has been in the majors for 11 seasons. Thursday was the most important off day of his career and it had nothing to do with clearing his mind.

Just the opposite.

It was about what he learned.

“It was so informative,” McCutchen raved. “I wish I took notes.”

Between series against the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, the Phillies All-Star outfielder followed through on his long-held desire to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. McCutchen was joined by several Phillies teammates, members of the coaching staff and club officials for a fascinating hour-long journey through the history of the Negro Leagues, expertly narrated by museum president Bob Kendrick.

(Photo courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

“The state of Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, was a hotbed for Negro League Baseball,” Kendrick told the group from Philadelphia.

The Hilldale club from Delaware County played in the first Negro League World Series in 1924. The Philadelphia Royal Giants toured Japan in 1927 and helped introduce that baseball-loving nation to the game.

Of course, no mention of the Negro Leagues and the state of Pennsylvania would be complete without a word or two about the great Josh Gibson, the power-hitting catcher from the Homestand Grays in Pittsburgh.

“No steroids in this guy,” Kendrick said, pointing to a statue of Gibson. “Just ham hocks and collard greens. He used a big bat, 40 ounces, 41 inches. They used to call him the black Babe Ruth. And some people called Babe Ruth the white Josh Gibson.”

Kendrick talked about the great Roy Campanella, one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of Philadelphia. The Simon Gratz High School product broke in with the Baltimore Elite Giants as a teenager and went on to win three National League MVP awards with the Brooklyn Dodgers after integration.

Kendrick told stories about Olympian Jesse Owens, the fastest man in the world in his time, and how he’d race anyone except James “Cool Papa” Bell, the fastest man in the Negro Leagues. He regaled the group with stories about Satchel Paige, who pitched into his 50s but never knew his actual age because his birth record was placed in the back of the family Bible and, as Paige said, “The goat ate the Bible.”

The Negro Leagues featured a great collection of players and personalities with a daring and entertaining style of play. The demand to see them play was so great that night baseball was born in the Negro Leagues long before it came to the major leagues.

The thing that struck you during the hour-long tour is how upbeat everything is at the museum. There is no woe in the place. It’s a celebration of the game framed around the adversity the players overcame to play it. Frankly, there’s a lot of joy in the place.

“Out of segregation comes a wonderful story of triumph,” Kendrick said.

(Photo courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

The Negro Leagues were founded in 1920 and ran through 1960, 14 seasons after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro Leagues' most famous club. As Kendrick explained during the tour, Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues, but, in the mind of Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, he was the best person to break the color barrier because he was a few years older than some young stars, he was college educated, had been in the military and had the “guts” not to fight back when he was encountered with treatment that warranted fighting back.

McCutchen had always known Robinson’s story. But hearing it in this setting was powerful.

“Branch Rickey knew this is all or nothing, if it doesn’t work it’s never going to work,” he said. “Jackie had to succeed. That’s unbelievable pressure. You’re representing so much.”

Robinson succeeded.

“In 1947, Jackie Robinson not only changed baseball forever, he changed the country,” Kendrick said. “Jackie carried 21 million people on his back.”

Robinson won the National League MVP award in 1949.

McCutchen won the same award in 2013.

Kendrick was thrilled that the schedule had finally put McCutchen and the Phillies contingent in Kansas City so they could visit the museum.

“This is a great story and we need to keep telling the story,” Kendrick said. “It’s very important to have Andrew and all of these guys here in person. It’s important for the African American and Hispanic stars of our game to know this story. These are their roots. It’s important for them to know their lineage. No ands, ifs or buts, you’re not playing if it wasn’t for these guys and the sacrifices they made to play the game they love.”

McCutchen will return to the Negro Leagues Museum someday.

“I want to take my family,” he said. “I want my son to know the reason I’m able to play this game and the reason he’ll be able to play the game. When you learn the history, you have a greater respect for it and just putting on a uniform and stepping on a field means more.

“It’s paying your respects to those guys who came before us and getting educated. I knew a little about what these guys went through but not as much as I should. It was a great experience.”

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Phillies free-agent target: Gerrit Cole

Phillies free-agent target: Gerrit Cole

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Gerrit Cole, RHP

The vitals

The powerful 29-year-old right-hander and former No. 1 overall draft pick (by Pittsburgh in 2011) is the unquestioned prize of this winter’s free-agent class. He has built an impressive career resume, especially recently. He is 35-10 with 2.68 ERA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 65 starts over the last two seasons for the Houston Astros. He is durable and postseason tested. He went 20-5 with an American League-best 2.50 ERA in 33 starts in 2019. He had an 0.895 WHIP and led the majors with 326 strikeouts. For the season, his fastball averaged 97.1 mph, according to Statcast. Only the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard chucked it harder at 98.1 mph. 

Why he fits

Because he’s one of the best pitchers in the game and would immediately make the Phillies better as they try to live up to general manager Matt Klentak’s goal of winning now. Cole would give the Phils an ace who could stand up to Max Scherzer in Washington, Jacob deGrom in New York and the lineup in Atlanta. As an unquestioned No. 1, he’d take pressure off Aaron Nola, who felt some down the stretch in 2019.

Why he doesn’t fit

“If this were major-league Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that clearly wanted a lump of Cole,” agent Scott Boras said of his client as the market opened last week.

The competition for Cole will be intense as teams from the game’s largest markets bid for his services. Cole is from Southern California and word is the Los Angeles Angels are ready to back up the truck for him. The mega-rich New York Yankees also want him. That sets up a nirvana-like situation for Boras, who can play the two markets off each other. The Phillies will be in on Cole — they’ve already touched base with Boras — and they cannot be counted out because they have money and an owner willing to spend. However, given what it might take to sign Cole, the Phillies might be better off spreading their money around and trying to fill multiple holes in the rotation and lineup.

The price tag

Cole is right in the middle of his prime years. There has been speculation that he could fetch $300 million in a long-term deal. He almost surely will eclipse David Price’s $217 million deal with Boston, a record for a pitcher, and could top Justin Verlander’s annual salary of $33 million, also a record for a pitcher. In other words, he’ll be expensive.

Scout’s take

“It took a while, but it looks like he found out how good his stuff is and his success has given him great confidence. He really knows how to utilize that great fastball high in the strike zone.”

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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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