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New MLB rules try to speed up game, entice stars, reframe rosters

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New MLB rules try to speed up game, entice stars, reframe rosters

Major League Baseball and the MLBPA reached an agreement on new rules for 2019 and 2020. The biggest news here may simply be that the squabbling sides could come to a consensus about anything. But first, the rules.

Here’s what is happening this season:

Inning breaks:

Subject to discussions with broadcast partners, inning breaks will be reduced from 2:05 to 2:00 in local games and from 2:25 to 2:00 in national games. The commissioner’s office retains the right to further reduce the breaks to 1:55 in local and national games for the 2020 season. Remember when your Little League coach yelled at you to hustle on and off the field? This is that for grown-ups.

Trade Deadline:

The August waiver trade period will be eliminated. The July 31 trade deadline will be the only deadline. Players may still be placed and claimed on outright waivers after July 31, but trades will no longer be permitted after that date. The idea here is to make the offseason more active, as well as create more weight on the July 31 deadline. Think about the Nationals of last year had this rule been in place. Would they have held onto everyone into August, including Bryce Harper?

All-Star Game:

Fan voting will be conducted in two rounds. The “primary round” which replicates the All-Star voting of old, followed in late June or early July by an “Election Day”. The top three vote-getters at each position in each league during the primaries will be voted on by fans in a prescribed time period to determine the All-Star starters.

And, a wrinkle in the game to help end it: All-Star games that go to extra innings will begin with a runner on second base in each inning (managers can send players previously removed from the game back onto the field for this duty).

Mound visits:

The maximum number of mound visits per team will be reduced from six to five per game. This change was touted as a time-saver before its implementation last season. It had little to no effect on the game beyond gobbling up scoreboard space which could be used for something more informative.

Home Run Derby:

Total player prize money for the Derby will be boosted to $2.5 million. The winner will receive $1 million. MLB’s hope is the increased payout will attract bigger stars to the competition. But why would it? Bryce Harper makes $26 million this year. Mike Trout, who has never participated, makes $33 million. Hard to see this moving the needle.

Not happening after experimentation in spring training: The 20-second pitch clock. That’s out for a minimum of the next three years. Max Scherzer rejoices.

Coming in 2020 are more significant changes which will greatly influence managerial strategy and roster building:

Three-batter minimum for pitchers:

Rule 5.10(g) will be amended to require that starting pitchers and relief pitchers must pitch to either a minimum of three batters or to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions for incapacitating injury or illness. The intent is to speed up the game via fewer pitching changes. A likely result is more action because pitchers are not in situations leveraged as much in their favor. That’s good. The rub is more action also takes more time, and most current action includes only the three true outcomes -- walk, strikeout or home run. That’s not great. And, this also raises the possibility of a fake injury to produce a more beneficial pitching matchup. Like certain trips to the injured list, it’s impossible to police. The players’ association did not actually straight agree to this rule, according to ESPN. It instead said it would not challenge it.

Roster numbers game:

Active rosters expand to 26 for the regular season and postseason. They are also capped at 28 -- all teams must carry 28 -- after Sept. 1. The number of pitchers a club can carry on the active roster will be determined by further discussions by a joint committee. Teams must also designate each player as a pitcher, position player or two-way player. A two-way player must pitch at least 20 Major League innings and play at least 20 Major League games within the past two seasons in order to qualify as a two-way player. Players designated as two-players can pitch any time. Position players can only pitch in extra innings or in a game which the team is losing or winning by more than six runs when he enters.

Injured list adjustments:

The minimum placement period for pitchers on the injured list is expected to increase from 10 to 15 days. The minimum minor-league assignment time will also rise from 10 to 15 days. Both sides need to discuss this further before it is officially entered into the agreement. Teams were circumventing the recently created 10-day period by essentially cycling pitchers between the major and minor leagues to have fresh arms on the roster as often as possible.

In the big picture is interesting language: “As part of the agreement, the parties will meet and discuss a renegotiation and extension of the Basic Agreement.” The league and its players spent much of the winter grousing about each other three years ahead of the current CBA’s expiration following the 2021 season. That activity did not bode well. Commissioner Rob Manfred panned MLBPA executive director Tony Clark at a mid-February press conference in West Palm Beach. Players repeatedly expressed their concerns about another dragging offseason period. An agreement here is a sign the two sides can at least talk. But much harder topics are coming up, most notably revenue split and team control over young players.

 

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Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Kurt Suzuki will turn 37 years old while in a major-league uniform if the Nationals play October baseball again this season. This is year 14 and the second stop with one of four teams he’s played for. Suzuki spent time in the American League,
 then the National League, then back to the AL before a return to the NL. He’s well-traveled.

Which makes the headlines cooking with his name all the stranger to him. Following comments to The Washington Post that the Houston Astros were using a whistling system to steal signs in the 2019 World Series, Suzuki’s name was hurled to the front of the cross-player sniping currently pervasive in Major League Baseball. Houston’s Carlos Correa transitioned to specifically talk about Suzuki on Saturday when he rumbled through a session with Astros writers. Sunday, Suzuki conducted his own group session, something he was partly in disbelief about, and something he doesn’t want to keep occurring. 

“Honestly, I’m too old to get in the middle,” Suzuki said. “I really don’t associate myself with this kind of stuff. I just kind of go about my business and try to stay out of everything and get ready to play baseball. That’s what it’s about -- playing baseball.”

Suzuki’s steady answers Sunday inside the Nationals’ clubhouse focused on two ideas: he’s enjoying the World Series and preparing for 2020. Suzuki stopped short of saying “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” but that was the general tenor after he politely agreed to talk with reporters despite being self-aware enough to realize the topic.

“I thought you guys were going to talk about the 1-for-20 in the World Series,” Suzuki joked.

He made the same joke with teammates before heading to meet the media. He was asked where that “one” landed.

“Train tracks.”

Suzuki joined Yan Gomes, pitching coach Paul Menhart, Davey Martinez and others in devising a multi-tiered system to protect signs against the Astros in the World Series. Suzuki did not say Sunday he knew the Astros were cheating in the World Series. 

“You hear stuff around the league,” Suzuki said. “All you do is you do your due diligence and you try to prepare yourself to not get into that situation. We just did our homework on our end and did everything we possibly can to combat the rumors going around and we just prepared ourselves. That was the bottom line: just getting ready for it if it did happen.”

His session of diffusement ended with a nod to Max Scherzer’s comments from when spring training began. Scherzer bounced back questions about the Astros by advising reporters to go talk to them. 

“That’s their situation,” Suzuki said. “I think Scherzer said it best. They are the ones that have to do the answering. We’re just getting ready for the 2020 season to defend the title. That’s it. We’re getting ready, enjoying our teammates, enjoying the World Series and getting ready for the season.”

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Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The double doors from the field into the Nationals clubhouse pushed open Saturday morning, and in strode Victor Robles.

He was dressed mostly in black, his preferred thin hoodie up over his head, big gold watch on his wrist, and general mojo bursting about. Robles made announcements in Spanish and English. He provided hugs for most. Not long after walking in, he ended up in one of his common reclining positions, this one inside a mobile laundry basket, folded like an overgrown kid in a shopping cart. Robles laying on the floor with his legs on a folding chair while burning through his phone will come later.

The clubhouse was sparsely populated upon his arrival Saturday. He ventured down the freshly-painted hall and ended up in the manager’s office, previously existing as a serene setting. Music drifted out of the open door. A green candle passively burned. Davey Martinez, once again able to drink coffee thanks to a clean bill of health, was doing some reading.

“He just came in really loud,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here? I’m not supposed to see you until Monday. Come back Monday.’”

And an addition: “I love him.”

Robles was the Saturday jolt in West Palm Beach on an otherwise bleak day. Rain romped through in varied bursts. The workout was cut short, everyone packed and Washington’s side of the spring training complex receded peacefully into the afternoon after the pitchers threw. Meanwhile, their fellow residents at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches continued to tussle with the world at large.

Amid the rain, Robles wandered out to the batting cages with two bats in hand and wearing a T-shirt he manually removed the sleeves from. One of the questions -- of the few in what is a stable camp with limited open spots and decisions -- is what kind of growth will come from Robles.

Will he step forward on offense, helping to mitigate the offensive production loss from Anthony Rendon’s departure? Will he move up in the lineup if he’s more disciplined at the plate? Where is his offensive ceiling a year after he became a Gold Glove finalist in center field?

The defense is there. Robles pushed aside much of the rawness he dealt with early in the season to become one of the league’s best defensive outfielders. His lack of experience coupled with determination to run into anything in his way caused specific concern among the Nationals’ coaching staff when the team went to Wrigley Field for the first time. The message to Robles about playing in Wrigley? “The wall is brick. You will lose.”

But, this is how Robles does things; he's living an upbeat baseball life destined to crash into the ground, a pitch, the middle of chaos. His approach also influences his plate performance. Robles swings often -- almost 49 percent of the time last season -- and is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone 31.9 percent of the time. For a comparison point: Juan Soto left the zone on 23.4 percent of his swings and swings 40.8 percent of the time overall.

“If you look at Vic’s numbers in the minor leagues, his on-base percentage was actually pretty good,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to get him -- we want him to be aggressive in the strike zone and stay within himself. That’s something we talked to him last year when he left and I know that [Kevin] Long is going to harp on it this year. Be aggressive in the strike zone, take your walks.”

Robles stole 28 bases last season despite a walk percentage of 5.7 and on-base percentage of just .326. He struck out almost four times as much as he walked.

So, the room for growth exists. The need for improvement also exists because Rendon left and the gap needs to be closed somewhere. How Robles will get there is among the spring training questions. Whether he will be heard from is not.

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