Baseball’s top 10 stories of 2013
A year ago at this time the Boston Red Sox had just finished a 93-loss season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had wrapped up their 20th consecutive losing campaign and no one had heard of Biogenesis. The next 12 months would prove again that much of what happens in any given year can not be predicted. As 2013 draws to a close, here’s a look back at the 10 biggest baseball stories of the year.
1. The Red Sox prove Boston Strong
It’s not just that the 2013 Red Sox became the first team in major league history to win the World Series one year after posting a winning percentage lower than .430. It was that they did so as symbols of strength and resilience for a city struck by terrorism at the start of the season’s third week while being led all year by a 37-year-old World Series MVP in David Ortiz who turned in an October statement almost as unforgettable as the one he delivered in the wake of those bombings in April.
Boston’s 28-win turnaround and third championship in 10 years seemed impossible after a 2012 season plagued by injury and dysfunction and the franchise’s most losses in a single season since 1965. But after shipping some of their biggest stars to Los Angeles in a salary dump in August 2012 and firing another overvalued star in manager Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox found new life in 2013. New manager (and former pitching coach) John Farrell and a new batch of often-bearded players, including Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes, emerged to return the team to glory and bring a title back to Fenway Park.
2. The Pittsburgh Pirates snap their streak in style
The Pirates didn’t merely snap the longest streak of losing seasons in North American professional team sports history. They won 94 games, third most in the National League, claimed the NL’s top wild-card spot, beat the Reds in the Wild Card Game in front of a sold-out and supercharged PNC Park crowd and pushed the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals to the limit in the Division Series. In the process, the Bucs completely revitalized baseball in Pittsburgh, drawing the second-most fans in team history (2,378,331 including their three home playoff games).
Leading the way was centerfielder and NL Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 27 SB), Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle and revitalized ace and Wild Card Game winner Francisco Liriano (17-8, 2.95 ERA, including his two postseason starts).
3. Biogenesis scandal casts black cloud over season
Baseball in 2013 was haunted by the performance-enhancing drug scandal stemming from the shuttered Coral Gables, Fla., anti-aging clinic Biogenesis of America run by Anthony Bosch. It began with an initial report in the independent weekly Miami New Times on Jan. 31 and is still continuing with the ongoing legal battle between Major League Baseball and Alex Rodriguez. Including three players tied to the clinic who tested positive during the 2012 season, the scandal resulted in a total of 18 player suspensions of 50 or more games, 13 of which were handed down on the same day in early August, including a record 211-game suspension of Rodriguez. His appeal of that decision awaits an arbitrator’s verdict as we head into the new year.
Minor leaguer Cesar Carrillo, a non-roster player who was thus not protected by the union, was suspended for 100 games in March, 50 of them reportedly for his refusal to cooperate with MLB’s investigators. In late July, 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun agreed to a season-ending 65-game suspension. Seven of the 18 players suspended were former All-Stars, and two — Braun and Rodriguez — were former MVPs with strong Hall of Fame candidacies. Prior to Biogenesis just three All-Star players had been suspended for PEDs (Manny Ramirez, Edinson Volquez and Marlon Byrd). None of the 15 Biogenesis suspensions handed down in 2013 were the direct result of a positive drug test.
Beyond the implication that PEDs are still a significant problem within the game, the Biogenesis suspensions had a direct effect on the pennant races. The Texas Rangers, who would up losing a tie-breaker for the second AL wild-card spot, lost rightfielder Nelson Cruz for the final 50 games of the regular season, and the Tigers and Red Sox, who later met in the American League Championship Series, participated in a three-team trade prior to the non-waiver trading deadline that sent shortstop Jose Iglesias to Detroit as a replacement for Jhonny Peralta, who was also among those suspended in early August. The suspensions may not have had their desired effect, however, as Peralta returned to hit .333/.353/.545 for Detroit in the postseason and signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals in November.
4. The Dodgers become baseball’s new 800-pound Gorilla
A new ownership group led by longtime Braves and Nationals executive Stan Kasten and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson bought the Dodgers in May 2012 and immediately set about rebuilding the team and asserting its place as a financial heavyweight. Via its 2012 trades for shortstop Hanley Ramirez and the Red Sox’ Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett and the off-season signings of pitchers Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon League,, Los Angeles added nearly a half-billion dollars of player contracts for 2013 and beyond, including $96.25 million worth of salary for the 2013 season alone.
Those acquisitions couldn’t prevent the Dodgers from languishing in last place, 12 games below .500 in late June, which put manager Don Mattingly squarely on the hot seat. The team then went 53-13 (.803) over its next 66 games to surge into first place, ultimately winning the NL West by 11 games. The Dodgers, who also grabbed plenty of headlines for their extracurricular behavior in the form of two on-field brawls and a dip in the Chase Field pool, advanced to the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Cardinals. That 66-game run was the best by any team since the 111-win 1954 Indians and hadn’t been bettered since the 1944 Cardinals went 54-12. In November, Mattingly finished second in the Manager of the Year voting while Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) won his second Cy Young award.
5. Yasiel Puig becomes baseball’s new lighting rod
In 2012, at the age of 21, rightfielder Yasiel Puig defected from Cuba and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers. He then hit .328/.405/.611 in 63 minor league games, .517/.500/.823 in spring training this year and .313/.383/.599 in Double A to start the regular season, prompting his call-up on June 3 in the wake of injuries to outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford. All the 22-year-old Puig did in his first 27 games was hit .443/.473/.745 with eight home runs, 17 RBIs and 21 runs scored while making throws like this. It’s no wonder the team turned things around in June.
Puig wasn’t just good, he was thrilling to watch, both for the things he did well and the things he didn’t. It’s hard to blame a player who once scored from second on a groundout to first base in a major league game for taking chances, but Puig’s play teetered between aggressive and reckless, and his tendency to showboat angered many opponents and self-appointed guardians of the game. As his two reckless driving arrests attest, Puig does need to learn self-control, but there is no denying his talent or the fact that he arrived in the majors a full-blown superstar. Puig hit a more human .272/.363/.453 in 320 plate appearances after his initial 27-game outburst, but even that line, removed from the controversies over his style of play and scorching first month, was impressive for a 22-year-old rookie in his first full year in both the United States and professional baseball .
6. Young pitching dominates National League
As exciting and impressive as Puig was, he was not the best rookie in the National League in 2013, and he wasn’t even the best young Cuban player in the NL. That was 20-year-old Marlins righthander Jose Fernandez, who skipped over Double and Triple A entirely to break camp with Miami and, after two months of adjusting to the majors, emerged as arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Fernandez went 10-3 with a 1.50 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 18 starts of the season en route to the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Fernandez was merely the most exciting of a gaggle of talented young National League pitchers who had breakouts of various degrees in 2013. Mets sophomore Matt Harvey, in his first full major league season at age 24, was the sensation of the first half, starting the All-Star Game for the NL at Citi Field and posting a 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 9.6 K/9 and 6.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 starts before being felled by a torn ulnar collateral ligament in late August. With Puig as the exception, four of the top five finishers in the NL Rookie of the Year voting were starting pitchers, including Fernandez, 22-year-old Cardinals righty Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06 ERA), 26-year-old Dodgers lefty Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA), and 22-year-old Braves righty Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20 ERA).
The trend continued into October as one of the top stories of the postseason was the performance of 22-year-old Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha, who took Miller’s place in the rotation and went 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning in his first four postseason starts.
7. Chris Davis and Max Scherzer chase history with breakout seasons in the American League
First baseman Chris Davis homered in each of the Orioles’ first four games in the 2013 regular season while driving in 16 runs, setting records for the first four games of a season in both categories. That was a surprising outburst from 27-year-old player with a career .258/.310/.466 batting line coming into the season, but it was merely an opening salvo in what proved to be a breakout season. Davis had always had big power — evidenced by the 33 home runs he hit for Baltimore in 2012 — but his lousy plate discipline had rendered him a marginal starter and prompted the Rangers to give up on him completely just two years earlier.
In 2013, however, he emerged not just as a reliable force in the Orioles’ offense, but as a legitimate MVP candidate (he finished a deserving third in the voting) as well. He also mounted a very real threat to Roger Maris’ American League home run record, hitting 37 before the All-Star break before cooling off down the stretch and finishing with “just” 53 home runs and 138 RBIs, both major-league-leading totals.
The Tigers’ Max Scherzer, meanwhile, opened his age-28 season with a 13-0 record, becoming the first pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986 to do so. He eventually got to 19-1, tying Rube Marquard for the second best won-loss record to start a season in major league history, before losing consecutive starts to being the month of September and finishing at 21-3. Scherzer’s winning streaks proved to be something of a red herring causing traditional observers to overvalue his performance while also prompting some progressive analysts to undervalue what proved to be a deserving Cy Young award-winning season.
8. Greatest relief pitcher of all time retires after inspiring comeback season
Mariano Rivera had planned to retire after the 2012 season, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered while shagging flies in Kansas City in early May of that season prompted him to adjust his plans. “I don’t think, to me, going out like this is the right way,” Rivera said in the wake of his injury.
In 2013, he got it right. Back on the mound at the age of 43, Rivera saved 44 games with a 2.11 ERA and 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio all while taking what amounted to a hospitality tour of the major leagues, making a point of meeting with stadium workers and fans in every major league city that the Yankees visited. Along the way, Rivera graciously accepted gifts from every major league team (the best of which was the rocking chair made from bats broken by Rivera’s pitches presented by the Twins), and was named All-Star Game MVP.
Rivera’s farewell tour was one of the few highlights for a Yankee team riddled with injuries following a disappointing, belt-tightening off-season. As was the case the last time New York missed the playoffs in 2008, the last season of the “original” Yankee Stadium, the early end to its season set up an emotional farewell. On Sept. 26, longtime teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, the latter also on the verge of retirement, came out to the mound to remove Rivera from his final home game. It was then that Rivera, a model of dignity, grace, and composure on and off the field, let his emotions rise to the surface in what may have been the most touching moment of the entire season.
9. Offseason yields major contracts for top free agents
The quantity and quality of the top free agents may be shrinking due to teams’ growing preference to sign their young stars to long-term extensions, but the money spent on the remaining free agents shows no sign of drying up. This offseason has already yielded three contracts worth at least $130 million over seven or more years. The biggest contract, and biggest surprise, thus far has been the $240 million, 10-year deal the Mariners used to lure Robinson Cano away from the Yankees. That contract ties Albert Pujols’ deal with the Angels as the third-richest in major league history. The Yankees, meanwhile have signed centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury for $153 million over seven years (third-richest for an outfielder), catcher Brian McCann for $85 million over five years (fourth-richest contract for a catcher) and Carlos Beltran for $45 million over three years. Most recently Shin-Soo Choo signed with the Rangers for $130 million over seven years, the sixth-largest outfielder contract ever.
Records are falling in terms of international contracts as well. The White Sox signed Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu for $68 million over six years in October, the richest-ever for an international free agent. That mark is all but guaranteed to be surpassed by the eventual contract signed by Tanaka, who is expected to land a deal worth in excess of $100 million. If so, he’d be the fourth player this offseason to sign nine-figure contract.
10. Significant rule changes could impact how the game is played and by whom in 2014 and beyond
Major League Baseball announced three major rule changes toward the end of 2013. In August, it was announced that expanded instant replay would be implemented for the 2014 season using a challenge system similar to that in use in the National Football League. In early December, MLB announced an impending ban on collisions at home plate, and later that month, MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball came to terms on a revised posting system that will bring posted NPB players closer to true free agency, a system now being tested by Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka. All three moves seem like positive steps forward in general, but the challenge and posting systems, in particular, are sure to have their share of drawbacks and will likely require further fine tuning.