1. The Budding Red Sox-Tigers Rivalry

The beautiful thing about sports is that the landscape is ever-changing and the competition is ever fiercer, and a couple of years after Torii Hunter lands upside-down in a bullpen in Boston in October, things between the Tigers and Red Sox can get even stranger.

Before Boston eclipsed them Tuesday by agreeing to terms with David Price on a record (for a pitcher) $217 million deal, the Tigers signed the first big free agent of the winter, handing Jordan Zimmermann a six-year, $110 million contract this week. Key takeaway: With Al Avila in charge of the front office, so far the Tigers don’t look much different than they did with Dave Dombrowski in charge.

Dombrowski, now running the Red Sox, was fired in August. Well, Detroit owner Mike Ilitch doesn’t use the word “fired.” But when your contract is running out and you are not asked back, what else do you call it?

“He knew he wasn’t getting a contract,” Ilitch told the media in Detroit on Monday as the Tigers introduced Zimmermann, via MLB.com’s Jason Beck. “That’s all there was to it, because I didn’t win with him. We were close. He’s a great guy. But you know, there’s times you’ve got to change. If you’re not winning, you’ve got to change.

“So I made up my mind: I’ve got to change. So I called him and told him like a gentleman.”

Combined with their acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez two weeks ago, the Tigers are leaping out of the gate this winter. Avila, highly respected in the industry, is off to a flying start.

Now, here’s the interesting part:

“This year, I like the way Al and [manager Brad Ausmus] are going after everything,” Ilitch said. “I’m telling them, ‘You have to go out and get me the best players. I don’t care about the money. I want the best players, and that’s it.”

Dombrowski brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit. Also Max Scherzer. Victor Martinez. Prince Fielder. David Price. One after another, like an assembly line. With him in charge, the Tigers won four consecutive AL Central titles from 2011-14. They played in two World Series (’06 and ’10) and just missed two more (losing the ALCS in ’11 and ’13).

Maybe Ilitch, 86, will get his long-awaited World Series title with Avila in charge. Could happen. But it is nearly humanly impossible for Avila to acquire players with greater marquee value than Dombrowski did.

Meanwhile, in Price, Dombrowski hauled in the ace the Red Sox couldn’t get last winter when they whiffed on Jon Lester. Dombrowski, of course, traded Price away from Detroit last July with the Tigers out of the postseason running, because an aging organization was desperate for an infusion of young talent.

Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, the young pitchers Dombrowski obtained from Toronto in the Price deal, figure into Detroit’s 2016 rotation behind Justin Verlander, Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez.

While it would have been even more interesting were the Tigers pursuing Price as well, the fact that Avila is operating in Detroit with nearly all of Dombrowski’s staff working under him while Dombrowski continues chasing a World Series title in Boston adds one more early layer of intrigue to 2016.

Maybe it was just time for the proverbial fresh start for both sides. But you can bet that of the many things now driving Dombrowski in Boston, sticking it to Ilitch and the Tigers is one of them. He’s got too much class to ever say that himself, but it is a natural human emotion, isn’t it? Someone tells you adios, no matter how friendly it is, and you still want to prove the other guy wrong.   

There was some thought in Detroit at the time that maybe the Tigers would shift philosophy and embark on a retooling program. But Ilitch, speaking publicly for the first time since cutting Dombrowski loose, said he plans to continue spending toward that elusive World Series win. He made it clear that if the Tigers payroll passes the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million, it’s fine with him.

“I’m supposed to be a good boy and not go over [the threshold],” Ilitch said, via the Detroit News‘ Bob Wojnowski. “If I’m going to get certain players that can help us a lot, I’ll go over it.

“Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.”

The Tigers still need an outfielder, another starter and some bullpen help. The Red Sox have added Price and star closer Craig Kimbrel. Stay tuned.


2. The Dodgers, Dave Roberts and “Collaboration”

The reason Gabe Kapler emerged as an early favorite for the Dodgers’ managerial job is because it is clear that the front office wanted a man who is willing to play ball and employ the front office’s ideas. Congenial as Don Mattingly is, he was never fully that guy.

So call new manager Dave Roberts a compromise.

When Los Angeles ownership worried that Kapler could not be sold to the players because they would view him simply as an extension of the front office, GM Andrew Friedman and his front-office partners, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes, turned to Roberts. And any question regarding how much autonomy Roberts will have was answered in the first few minutes of Tuesday’s news conference.

“He’s got intellectual curiosity, he’s been around a lot of front offices with different philosophies, he understands the collaborative process of how to put a team together and how he’s going to run a team,” Zaidi said.

“I’m definitely open to it,” Roberts said, noting that the Dodgers have “the brightest people in this organization in research and development and baseball operations. … All great organizations in any industry depend on collaboration.”

Translation: When Friedman, Zaidi or Byrnes think the Dodgers lineup should tilt a particular way on a given night, Roberts will be fully open to implementing their thoughts.

In today’s world, it’s the way more and more clubs are doing business: collaboratively.

There’s always been a “collaboration” between the manager’s office and the front office, in that the general manager’s job always has been to construct a team. Tommy Lasorda had to “collaborate” with Al Campanis and Fred Claire to a degree, as well.

It’s just that the old way of doing business was that the GM would assemble a team and then turn it over to the manager. And a manager like Lasorda—or Sparky Anderson or Dick Williams—could have an outsized personality and was clearly in charge on the field.

Those days are gone. Fewer and fewer managers anymore come with dominant personalities. The job description now is to run the clubhouse, get along with the players and accept input when it comes to lineups, rotations and how to manage a bullpen.

Whether the pendulum ever swings back the other way, we’ll see.

Roberts is a terrific baseball man and a good guy who still gets mail from Red Sox fans after his epic stolen base in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. He becomes the first minority manager in Dodgers history, no small thing in an organization that hired Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color line in 1947.

He is the right man at the right time, as long as the Dodgers get the pitching he needs.


3. Yasiel Puig Gets Smaller

Last week’s reported brawl and the fact that MLB is expected to investigate Puig under its new domestic violence policy only clouds Puig’s future even further.

We already know that the Dodgers have asked him to lose weight this winter following an injury-plagued season during which he played only 79 games. Maybe you’ve heard trade rumors attached to his name, but it is difficult to see Los Angeles trading him this winter, because right now the Dodgers would be selling low. Puig’s current trade value has never been lower.

One of Roberts’ biggest challenges as the new Dodgers manager, clearly, will be handling Puig. Roberts said he has never spoken a word to Puig, of whom he said, “From the other side, he is ultra-talented, a special player, feared, tough to compete against.”

“Feared” and “tough to compete with” could describe playing alongside Puig as well.

“This is an opportunity for me to embrace him,” Roberts said.

Biggest question is whether Puig ever will allow that to happen. It takes two to embrace.

 4. Barry Bonds and Miami is No Fish Story

The easy joke is that Barry Bonds just might be a better hitter at 51 than Ichiro Suzuki is at 42.

How might Bonds work out as the Miami Marlins’ co-hitting coach?

And can he be of any aid to Ichiro, who hit .229/.282/.279 in 153 games last summer?

And should Bonds even be welcomed as a full-time coach with any team?

Colleague Danny Knobler examined this issue the other day, so I won’t go deep here. Bonds generally got good reviews during his brief spring training stint as a San Francisco Giants hitting coach a couple of years ago and in working with Alex Rodriguez and others over the winter.

Whether or not Miami or any other team wants to hire Bonds is its own business. The man enveloped by one of the biggest steroids clouds in history has never acknowledged his cheating, nor is he expected to. Several years ago, it was made clear to Mark McGwire that if he wanted to leave exile to become Tony La Russa’s hitting coach with the Cardinals, he would have to cop to using steroids and apologize for it.

Granted, years have passed, and we live in a different day and age now. But it sure seems hypocritical to press McGwire for an apology and give Bonds a free pass.


5. Free-Agent Power Rankings

1. David Price: OK, $217 million in Boston, baby. Can y’all top that?

2. Zack Greinke: Working on it, owner of Astro the dog, who will eat very, very well now.

3. Jordan Zimmermann: Signs five-year, $110 deal with Detroit. He ain’t David Price, but he’s a start for the Tigers.

4. Ben Zobrist: Chatter surrounding him is increasing as next week’s winter meetings in Nashville draw near. Mets fans are dreaming of a Zobrist Christmas.

5. Johnny Cueto: Reportedly spit at a six-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks. What does he want, water included with his desert?


6. Reviewing Instant Replay Reviews

Ever wonder which managers are the best at challenging umpires’ calls? You’re in luck: David Vincent of the Society for American Baseball Research has doggedly tracked this for the first two years of replay, and here’s what he found.

The list below includes, alphabetically, all managers and interim managers, with totals at the end. The “Total” category represents how many instant-replay challenges a manager has asked for, the “Over” category lists how many of those umpire calls were overturned, and the “Over %” category lists by percentage how many of that manager’s challenges have been overturned.


With a small sample size of only two years, as Vincent notes, “Any manager within five percent of the 52 percent average is average as far as I’m concerned.” One other note: Remember, while the names listed are the managers, their success rates also include the video guys assigned to watch replays in the clubhouse and individual team philosophies regarding replay. Some teams challenge far more often than others.


7. Reviewing Instant Replays Part II

So, breaking down the above list per Vincent’s information, we have two more charts. The first lists managers with the most challenges, the second lists managers by success rate:

8. The Evolution of Pitching

Here are some interesting complete-game and relief stats, courtesy of friend Tim Kurkjian. It’s why the market for a reliever like Darren O’Day is so hot, and why the Reds are taking so many calls on Aroldis Chapman:


9. How Many Sluggers Has Your State Produced?


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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