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Record-shattering contracts and dirty deeds: 12 major storylines from the 2019 MLB season

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 12/29/2019 By Bradford William Davis, New York Daily News

Nationals manager Dave Martinez argues a call with home plate umpire Sam Holbrook during Game 6 of the 2019 World Series. © Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images Nationals manager Dave Martinez argues a call with home plate umpire Sam Holbrook during Game 6 of the 2019 World Series. Distilling a hyperlocal sport like baseball into a handful of universal themes was more challenging than originally anticipated. The lack of national exposure of the games’ best and brightest, magnified by the constant pace of games and the lack of practical (legal) access to teams across the league meant that more than a few standout narratives were overlooked by the masses.

And while there were individual accomplishments so exceptional they couldn’t help be recognized, this recap largely focuses on the ones that impacted every team in some capacity.

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The umps are not all right

Umpires are part of the charm of the game, but only inasmuch as they remain intentionally vintage decoration, interfering with the game as little as possible. Save for eccentric strike three calls, umps are to be seen and not heard. But their impact on the game is getting loud.

Some of this isn’t their fault. Hot mic eavesdroppers like Jimmy O’Brien closed the distance between the on-field bickering between players and umps that has existed as long as the game itself. But, when players, frustrated by a night of inconsistent strike zones on both ends during a World Series matchup, are vaguely open to the notion of integrating robotic strike zones, we may have reached a boiling point.

It may be time to take our chances with the machines.

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New season, seemingly new balls

Your eyes weren’t deceiving you, but the baseball was. MLB finally copped to the balls having a lower drag, meaning, they traveled farther than intended. The league also released a report that found their balls were varied considerably from game to game, not just season to season.

Numerous teams broke franchise home run records, with numerous players reaching unprecedented levels of offensive production. You can’t blame launch angle on everything.

Also, changes to the seam manufacturing led to numerous pitchers losing bite on their trademark bread and butter pitches, with some changing their grips midseason to combat their own equipment. Could the unreliability of the ball have a tangible impact on their bottom line?

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Found money

This wouldn’t have made the list were it not for the last month of transaction madness. But, the league underwent a startling epiphany: Free agents aren’t free.

Stephen Strasburg broke a record for pitching contracts after re-upping with the Nationals for seven years and $245 million. Then, Gerrit Cole shattered the 2019 World Series MVP’s brief moment in the record books by signing a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees.

But that’s not all. Anthony Rendon joined the Angels for $245 million, and the Phillies bet $118 million on Zack Wheeler reaching his full potential. Even the players from last offseason that signed one-year pillow contracts — Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel — found multi-year deals, which brings us to … .

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Labor war and peace

Why did it take reputable All-Stars like Moustakas, Grandal, and Keuchel an extra year to get a contract commensurate with their work? Well, if you ask Rob Manfred, he might (reportedly) wonder aloud if “Marvin Miller’s system doesn’t work anymore.”

Miller’s “system” is free agency. Those were fightin’ words. And all year, we saw numerous players waiting until spring training, or worse, to sign deals

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two 25-year-old superstars on Hall of Fame tracks, wait until spring training to join the Phillies and Padres, respectively. The aforementioned Keuchel and Kimbrel, who is very likely the best closer of his era had to wait until the summer to join teams.

MLBPA chief Tony Clark was on high alert for any actions that might indicate the faintest hint of collusion. Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, a tad less. Anthopoulos’ informal group chat provoked an MLBPA investigation.

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The race to the bottom

The good news: In 2019, there were more 100-win teams than at any point in baseball history. The bad news: this meant a whole lot of Yankees-Orioles.

Teams have long entered rebuilding and competitive cycles, but the brazen anti-competitiveness of the O’s, Tigers and Marlins made for a lot of lopsided games.

Gleyber Torres’ Camden Yards exploits aside, predetermined losses aren’t nearly as attractive to fans as it was to the executives hoping to compete indefinitely for draft picks instead of big league wins.

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Astros accused of stealing more than bases

The Astros embodied the other side of competitive imbalance. While the dregs of the league exploited the established rules to ostensibly restock their teams for the long haul, the Astros appear to have ignored the rules for a competitive edge.

Houston’s alleged illegal sign-stealing exploits have become well-documented thanks to the integrity of former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, close onlookers like Baseball Prospectus writers Lucas Apostoleris and Rob Arthur, and then, an avalanche of Yankees and Dodgers fans sifting through 2017 postseason footage for further proof of stolen valor.

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Houston, we have a problem

Sign stealing, though clearly deceptive, isn’t even close to the Astros’ worst moral offense, even if it’s likely to dole out the most punishment. The team’s coordinated slander of a reporter for honestly rendering an account of intimidation and bullying from a top executive during the Astros ALCS celebration — all because she and two other media colleagues chose to publicly express their displeasure over their 2018 trade for alleged domestic abuser Roberto Osuna — amplifies long-established criticisms about the organization’s integrity, from the top down.

The Astros were willing to win at all costs, including their reputation unless the cost included Gerrit Cole.

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Mike Trout can do no wrong

We could just write “Mike Trout” and end the section there. Trout’s name is synonymous with baseball excellence.

The Angels center fielder and living legend missed the end of the season with an injury, yet still led the league in OPS and won his third MVP. Just 28, Trout’s got a shot at being the best player to ever play. Maybe even better than Derek Jeter.

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The opioid crisis hits home

Tyler Skaggs’ tragic overdose brought needed attention to the rise of opioid abuse throughout the league. The Angels’ rotation mainstay routinely purchased oxycodone from team communications director Eric Kay, which, along with fentanyl and alcohol, was found in his system in the subsequent medical examination.

After the season, the league and union responded to Skaggs’ death by overhauling their approach to handling “drugs of abuse” in their joint drug prevention program by testing for the drug while prioritizing treatment, rather than aggressively punitive non-solutions.

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Minor league downsize

Franchises may not need every minor league affiliate for efficient player development, but it’s a vital arm of what should baseball’s first priority: entertaining as many people as possible. MLB’s plan to contract over 40 minor league teams shows the league apparently thinks otherwise.

Dismantling America’s pastime was catnip for politicians at all levels, from Democratic nominee contestant Bernie Sanders to local congressman Max Rose. Manfred and the league have argued that by cutting potentially thousands of jobs across small cities and towns dependent on their minor league clubs, the saving would allow teams to raise their sub-poverty minor league wages. Then again, the Blue Jays did that without anyone’s permission.

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Nationals claim first World Series

The Nationals have suffered more than your average perennial contender, suffering heartbreaking division series losses, and that’s when their championship-caliber rosters didn’t fall apart in the second half.

But these Nationals, on the strength of their super-elite troika of aces, Howie Kendrick playing the best ball of his 14-year career, and a few Juan Soto crotch-grabs and moonshots, clinched their first World Championship. (Congrats Juan, you can finally drink to your accomplishments.)

The Nationals may have said goodbye to their best player for specious reasons, but at least they did so after finally breaking through.

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The myth of sticking to sports

Wouldn’t it be nice if baseball were a walled garden from the real world, rather than a persistent magnifying glass to society’s foibles?

But sometimes, the President decides to take in a World Series game in Nationals Park, is booed relentlessly, yet still gets a warm embrace from the majority of champions despite the silent protestations of their teammates.

Or, an umpire threatens to purchase an AR-15 in preparation for the upcoming “CIVAL WAR” if Congress impeached President Trump.

Or, a star player like Manny Machado identifies a double standard in his perception by pundits around the league that has more to do with his ethnicity than his behavior. Tim Anderson gets punished by opposing pitchers, then suspended by the league for two distinct, yet interrelated expressions of his culture.

No matter how hard we tried to stick to sports, baseball just wouldn’t let us.

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©2019 New York Daily News

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