At a holiday gathering this past week, a friend who keeps only the loosest of tabs on Major League Baseball news asked me if anything big has transpired in the game this winter. At the moment, this feels a little like asking if there have been any new developments in medicine in the last century. Where does one even begin to address such a query?
In the age of free agency, rosters are always subject to the requisite offseason evolution, but what's happened these last two months has been particularly nuts, and it has provided a fitting cap to a calendar year that has never lacked surprise or intrigue. We'll have plenty of time to analyze and debate what this winter has wrought when 2015 dawns, but for now the onslaught of activity -- from teams like the Padres, the White Sox, the Marlins, to name a few -- illustrates the first of my five big-picture takeaways from baseball in 2014.
1. Competitive parity has never been stronger.
This can be expressed any number of ways, but the simple truth is that juggernaut clubs no longer exist in baseball's current competitive climate. We haven't had a 100-game winner since 2011, and none of the three teams who won more than 94 games in 2014 (the Angels, Orioles and Nationals) were even playoff clubs the year before. All three of those clubs, as well as the Dodgers (the only other team to win north of 90), failed to reach the World Series, which instead included two Wild Card clubs and was won by a Giants team that had opened October by winning a one-and-done on the road.
Beyond the obvious unpredictable nature of a four-round October, revenue sharing, TV money, Draft and international spending limits and -- perhaps above all else -- a greater reliance on young talent in light of more natural aging curves have created an environment in which the long-term rebuilding plans of old are no longer necessary. A team can turnaround quickly, which is why new Padres general manager A.J. Preller was busier than Santa Claus this month.
Baseball has come a long way from the "Damn Yankees" days. As colleague Richard Justice opined, you can count on (less than) one hand the number of clubs that will probably enter 2015 without earnest visions of contention. That's pretty cool.
2. The game's evolution is ongoing -- and fascinating.
As much as people like to romanticize baseball as some sort of sepia-toned snapshot that has changed very little from its initial inception, the truth is that we're in the midst of a period of drastic evolution in the on-field experience.
First and foremost, the implementation of instant replay in 2014 was a necessary and gigantic step forward for the sport, and its presence in day-to-day doings exceeded all expectations. Including the playoffs, there were 1,276 uses of replay, according to baseballsavant.com, and 608 of those uses resulted in an overturned call. Nobody's claiming it was perfect or seamless, but it succeeded in its basic principal of fixing mistakes.
Rule 7.13 also succeeded in its most basic goal of preventing ghastly catcher collisions at home plate. But the development that could really pave the way for major changes to the game in the long, long-term was the experimentation with new pace of play procedures in the Arizona Fall League. The conversations about what, if anything, those experiments will reap are ongoing, but incoming Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it clear he views pace of play as an important element of baseball's future.
Beyond rules initiatives, 2014 also saw the continuing and dramatic upward trend in the use of defensive shifts, which, at this point, need to be countered in some meaningful fashion in the minds of young hitters. The need to use the whole field has never been stronger. This year's playoffs also showed us that the value of a deep bullpen to exploit mid-game matchups is arguably greater than ever, perhaps -- dare I say -- even more valuable than a sterling starting rotation.
3. Injury prevention needs to begin at the youth level.
People talked up the Tommy John "epidemic" at the Major League level earlier this year as another spate of surgeries cropped up among impact pitchers, and there is no question that, unfortunately, we'll hear of many more elbow ligaments snapping in 2015.
Teams will continue to do all they can to protect their pitchers, but a mountain of research has made it clear that the risk factors begin long before a player reaches the professional ranks. So consider this section of this column another excuse to direct you to this link to MLB and USA Baseball's "Pitch Smart" guidelines, which ought to be elemental for all youth pitchers.
4. Baseball still resonates with all races.
Mo'ne Davis' awesome ascension to superstar status in the midst of the Little League World Series was a great representation of girl power, but the overall makeup of her inner-city Taney Youth Baseball Association team -- a collection of kids from various socio-economic circumstances -- also captured the imagination in the midst of so much hand-wringing about the percentages of American-born African American players at the big league level. Mo'ne's team and the U.S. champions -- the all-black Jackie Robinson West club from Chicago -- demonstrated to any doubters about the game's ability to resonate in black America that basic opportunity is everything.
At a time when so much of the amateur experience gravitates toward expensive year-round travel leagues, the game and its sponsors need to continue to look into every feasible route (the idea of an academy in every Major League city has been floated by some forward-thinkers) to foster increased participation in inner cities. This can only aid the sport's talent pool and marketing might.
5. The Giants are a model franchise.
Well, duh, right? They've won three titles in five seasons.
But contrary to some popular narrative-painting that has gone on in some other media corners over the years, the point must be made that the Giants aren't some old-school club that eschews advanced analytics strictly in favor of scouts' eyes. Rather, they blend the two worlds together as well as anybody, and the stability they've employed and enjoyed in their front-office and coaching staffs has helped them routinely put together championship-caliber clubs that don't kick the ball around, eke the most out of the pitching staff and -- most importantly -- don't overlook the fact that the concept of "player development" does not end just because a particular player has already established himself at the Major League level. Every season is an opportunity for a player, veteran or otherwise, to refine his game within the demands of the current climate.
And just to bring this thing full circle, the Giants, in 2014, also showed us that an 88-win team can win it all. This is the basic concept that has driven baseball's wild winter and set us up for what should be a wide-open 2015.