Sports Baseball

MLB PREVIEW

Top 10 things you need to know for this season

By Scott Mitchell, Toronto Sun

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Justin Turner, left, is congratulated by Adrian Gonzalez and Corey Seager after hitting a two-run home run against the Los Angeles Angels Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Justin Turner, left, is congratulated by Adrian Gonzalez and Corey Seager after hitting a two-run home run against the Los Angeles Angels Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

They took it right down to the wire, but disaster was avoided in November when Major League Baseball and the players association struck a new five-year labour agreement.

While talking the ins and outs of a CBA is an easy way to put a reader to sleep — the major changes were to the qualifying-offer system and luxury-tax thresholds — a number of interesting twists were revealed in the deal, including a few that will be very noticeable right from the get-go this year.

With Opening Day upon us, here are 10 things you need to know about the 2017 Major League Baseball season:

10—A repeat bid for the ages

The Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. It still feels odd saying it. Yes, the Lovable Losers put 108 years of disappointment to bed last year in a dramatic extra innings win over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7, leaving them as the team being hunted for the first time in more than a century. The last time the Cubbies pulled off the repeat? That would be 1907 and 1908.

9—Baseball in good shape

This still isn’t going to make disillusioned Montreal Expos fans feel any better, but when the new five-year CBA expires in 2021, baseball will have enjoyed 27 uninterrupted years of labour peace. Thanks to stable attendance and solid television numbers in most cities, MLB has reported record revenues for 14-straight years now.

8—UCL breakthrough?

Right now, Tommy John surgery for a pitcher comes with a minimum 12-to-14 month rehab period. This winter, however, Los Angeles Angels righty Garrett Richards took an alternative route with his elbow injury, one that could be a game-changer if it works. Instead of the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, Richards used a combination of stem-cell treatment and platelet-rich plasma injections, and he has been throwing problem free so far this spring. Even cutting the rehab time in half would be a huge win for both the owners cutting the cheques and the fans paying premium prices to see the best players on the field.

7—Shohei Otani’s arrival delayed?

Raising the age of players included in the bonus pool system from 23 to 25 may delay the arrival of Japan’s best player, a 22-year-old drawing (serious) comparisons to Babe Ruth for his two-way ability, until after the 2019 season. Most assumed Otani, a right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitting outfielder for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League, would be posted next winter. That may still happen, but Otani would be foregoing a potential $200-million contract as a free agent for a 10-figure signing bonus and typical arbitration payouts over his first six years of MLB service. Testing himself against the best players in the world would be the only reason he’s in North America next season because the money gap will be huge.

6—Smoking out tobacco

You’re going to start seeing a lot less circular objects in the back pockets of players in the coming years. One of the more interesting changes to the CBA calls for a ban on smokeless tobacco products for all new major leaguers, while grandfathering in chewing for veterans. It’s been a hot-button issue since Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died from salivary gland cancer in 2014 and his family subsequently filed a lawsuit against tobacco companies.

5—The Dodgers are rich

The Los Angeles Dodgers certainly have no problem spending that Magic money. Heading into the season, the Dodgers’ payroll, according to salary tracker spotrac.com, is approximately $237 million already this season, about $42 million more than their closest big-spending competitors, the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox, who all check in between $193 and $196 million. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are approaching the $160-million mark. Last year, the average Opening Day payroll hovered around $128 million.

4—Zoning in

Whether you like it or not, expect to hear a lot of talk about the strike zone this season. A proposed off-season change that wasn’t received as well as the new intentional walk called for raising the bottom of the strike zone to the top of the hitter’s knees. Currently, the zone is defined as “the hollow beneath the kneecap,” but the idea was that the extra two inches would produce more balls in play and promote offence. It hasn’t happened yet because the union didn’t agree to it for 2017, but it’s something MLB is pushing.

3—Walking is easier

The exciting tradition of a pitcher lobbing four baseballs into the opposite batter’s box for a free pass is no more. Sort of. While teams can now choose to send a hitter to first base with a signal from the dugout, a manager can also decide to use the old school method if he feels he needs more time to get a reliever ready. It’s all in the name of saving time and shortening games.

2—It’s now the 10-day disabled list

In the age of extra large pitching staffs, roster flexibility is key. MLB gave teams a whole lot more starting this season by turning the 15-day DL into the 10-day DL. It might change how teams deal with an injury to the rotation, now that a starter could potentially only miss a start or two with a DL stint. Baseball hasn’t had a 10-day DL since 1984.

1—Classic change

For the past 14 years, the league that won the MLB all-star game was controversially awarded home-field advantage in the World Series. That is no longer the case. After the 103-win Cubs were forced to go on the road to beat the 93-win Indians last fall, both the league and the players union agreed to go back to handing the World Series rubber-match to the team that wins more during the 162-game grind.