Puig headlines MLB’s young money era

Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers has emerged as one of baseball's top rookies. (Lisa Blumenfeld/GETTY IMAGES)

MLB’s tectonic plates are shifting. Yasiel Puig and a cadre of young stars are better, faster, richer—sooner. 

So, Yasiel Puig’s sitting in the dugout at Dodger Stadium during batting practice this summer, picking at his hands and patiently tolerating a beyond-uncomfortable interview conducted by Los Angeles Dodgers legend Manny Mota in Spanish. In case you are unfamiliar, the minuscule Mota was a dependable-if-a-little-boring left-fielder for two decades. He slapped the ball more than drove it, looping single after single into the shallow outfield, becoming one of the game’s most reliable pinch-hitters. Puig, on the other hand, is the most exciting ballplayer to wash ashore—he defected from Cuba on a boat—in recent memory. He’s the bear-sized dude accentuating a massive home run with the bat flip to end all bat flips, gunning runners out from right field in full sprint, audaciously trying to turn bloop singles into doubles and charging home on balls in the dirt that barely elude the catcher. He challenges the game to stop him from taking it over. He makes you take notice. Now he sits next to Mota, who you’d likely miss altogether if you stood up straight. They are an odd match.

Mota’s asking the questions not to Puig but past him as he stares at one of the three cameras set up to capture this innocuous exchange destined for a burial in some distant corner of the Internet. Puig doesn’t really know where to look and Mota keeps asking the questions in a deliberately slow cadence while making big gestures with his hands and grinning excessively because, truth be told, Mota’s kind of a weird guy. He asks Puig if he has a cellphone; he asks him what his favourite food is; he asks him twice what he’s most proud of in the game, because he apparently forgot he had already asked that. It’s awkward.

But then Mota hits paydirt. “How do you compare life in Cuba with life in Hollywood?” he asks. Puig exhales for effect, flashing a rare grin and leaning back against the dugout bench. “Living in Hollywood is,” he starts before trailing off, laughing. “I don’t know. Craziness.”

Puig is right—baseball in 2013 has been nothing short of craziness. From the rookie’s spectacular rise, leading a platoon of young stars who are pushing yesterday’s greats out of the game, to the massive drug bust that banished many of baseball’s biggest names from competition, to rule changes, to the avalanche of television money coming down around the league, this season has been something else. But more than anything, this is a moment for baseball. A period when the tectonic plates are shifting beneath it, reshaping the landscape and moving the mountains of a terrain that has remained stagnant for years. It has happened a few times before. There was the pitching-dominated dead-ball era of the early 1900s, the monumental breaking of the colour barrier in the 1940s, the eras of expansion throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the steroid-fuelled homer-happy years of the 1990s and even the early 2000s. Baseball can be an excruciatingly slow body to evolve, but every once in a while it goes through these shifts, and damn if it doesn’t feel like the game is sitting on the precipice of one right now. Call it the Young Money Era.

Like everything, it starts with cash. Baseball’s broadcasters will begin new contracts with MLB in 2014, paying more than double their previous bills, flooding the league with money. The impact on the game will be considerable. ESPN, Fox and Turner have all signed eight-year deals that will see MLB pull in an average of $1.55 billion per year through the 2021 season. That is very good news if you are an employee of Major League Baseball, but it is also very good news if you are a franchise affiliated with the league, because your cut of the pie is about to double as well. Next year, every team will begin receiving an average of $51.67 million per season from the television deals, up from the current $25.53 million. This is on top of the often excessively lucrative TV deals that teams negotiate regionally. Time Warner recently signed a contract with the L.A. Dodgers worth $7 billion over 25 years; the L.A. Angels are inked to Fox Sports for $2.5 billion over 17 years; the Houston Astros (a lousy team that is practically unwatchable) have a deal with Comcast for $3.2 billion over 20 years. That’s not to mention teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets that wisely possess regional sports networks of their own and pull in anywhere from $60–$90 million of revenue-sharing-exempt profit per season. When all the money is divided next season, it appears most teams will be earning around $80–$90 million from TV deals, while big-market clubs like the Dodgers, Angels and Yankees could be making anywhere from $125–$175 million.

This means two things. First, if franchises like the Astros, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres continue to field cheap teams filled with replacement-level players or good players too young to hit free agency, they will be able to cover their entire payroll solely with television money and still have a considerable surplus left over. Second, it means that Robinson Cano is going to get paid. The current Yankees second baseman—the best hitter at his position in the world—is set to become the biggest name on the free-agent market six days after the conclusion of the World Series. With all that money lying around, and several gargantuan contracts signed in recent years by older, less-talented players such as Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder, Cano can likely name his price and get it. That will only serve to drive up the prices for future free agents and, as television dollars continue to roll in, player salaries may begin to soar to even more preposterous levels.

This inflation is happening at a time when there is a tremendous influx of young talent into the game. Bigger, faster, stronger players are arriving in the big leagues in their early 20s as some of the best athletes the game has ever seen. We’ve talked about Puig, who, as an international free agent, has already been guaranteed $42 million over seven years. And that deal doesn’t even rival the $60-million, six-year deal the Texas Rangers gave 27-year-old Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish. But there are still several players who are among baseball’s best and haven’t even reached their first big payday. Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the most obvious example. For the second consecutive season, he’s leading MLB in WAR and, after an unbelievably stellar 2012 rookie campaign, he’s only getting better. The 22-year-old’s walk rate is up, his strikeout rate is down and he’s making far better contact despite seeing far fewer pitches inside the strike zone. Meanwhile, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado is, at just 21, closing in on a 50-double season and his defence at third base—not his natural position, by the way—is off the charts.

Then there are the pitchers. Mets ace Matt Harvey was working on a Cy Young season this summer, striking out 9.64 batters per nine innings while walking just 1.56 per nine, before the 24-year-old blew out his shoulder in August. His 6.1 WAR was still leading all major-league pitchers long after he was shut down for the year. There is also the Cuban phenom Jose Fernandez who, at 21, dominated all comers in 2013. Opponents were hitting just .184 against him in early September and he struck out 173 batters through his first 158 innings, inducing a swinging strike on nearly 10 percent of the pitches he threw. Asking batters to hit his twisting, hard curveball, which he mixes with a mid-to-high 90s fastball, is virtually unfair.

With these players putting up stupendous numbers, salaries rising exorbitantly and more franchises having more money to spend, it’s become prudent for teams to sign their young superstars to long-term contracts earlier and earlier, avoiding costly arbitration settlements or losing the player altogether through free agency. But the teams aren’t the only ones who understand the new economic realities of the game and just how talented these kids are. The players are empowered more than ever to demand massive salaries during contract negotiations. And if teams want to hang on to their premier talent, they will likely cave.

What is beginning to make the most sense for teams today is to identify talent early (like, 16-years-old early), acquire it cheaply through the draft or international free agency, develop it in-house, and then try to retain it for below market value. Splurging for expensive, old-guard players is no longer working. Look at this past winter’s two biggest spenders: the Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blue Jays, two teams thought to be the winners of the off-season and favourites to claim their divisions. The Angels inked Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125-million contract, just one year after signing Albert Pujols for $240 million over 10 years. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays increased payroll by more than $35 million through trades, acquiring the heavy contracts of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins (who failed spectacularly after signing those two as free agents in 2011) before taking R.A. Dickey from the Mets and signing the 38-year-old knuckleballer to a two-year, $25-million deal. At the beginning of September both teams were below .500 and well out of the playoff race.

Meanwhile, smaller market, thrifty teams like the Rays and Pirates have been thriving by relying on homegrown talent and shrewd acquisitions of affordable yet useful role players to construct their rosters. The Rays, constantly ahead of the MLB thinking curve, have been following the formula for years. They drafted talented, athletic players such as Evan Longoria, David Price and Matt Moore, developed them into stars, signed them to long contracts early, and filled out the rest of the roster with undervalued scrap-heap players discarded by other teams, such as Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, James Loney, Jose Molina and Luke Scott. The Pirates have just recently embraced the trend, and have a winning record in 2013 for the first time in two decades, thanks in large part to organizational products like Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, and an ace no other team wanted in A.J. Burnett.

Even old traditions are vanishing. The league is on the cusp of instituting a long overdue, game-changing instant-replay challenge structure that should eradicate most umpire error. An Earl Weaver-esque argument—one of the most time-tested elements of the game—will be a rarity in baseball next year as managers will be barred from arguing reviewable calls. They will politely inform the umpire of their wish to challenge a decision. No hats will be thrown. No dirt will be kicked. This is the biggest change in the way the game is played or officiated since the designated hitter came into effect in 1973. It is belated, to be sure. It’s nearly a decade behind most other professional sports. But it is also monumental.

Everything is changing. It’s not the same baseball world as it was when Manny Mota was patrolling left field for the Dodgers, slapping singles over infield gloves for $45,000 a year. True, Vin Scully still calls the games, but the ways in which teams are built, players are compensated and the game itself is played are undergoing a massive transformation. This is happening as an unheard-of amount of talent is being funnelled into the system, just the first wave of highly advanced products from youth leagues and high schools around the United States and abroad, where young athletes are being trained and developed with an intensity and specialization never seen before.

But maybe more important than who is entering the game is who is leaving it. An entire generation of stars that shaped baseball for decades is slowly on its way out. Mariano Rivera is on his farewell tour. Chris Carpenter never felt healthy enough to pitch this season. Roy Halladay struggled mightily before blowing out his shoulder. Alex Rodriguez—one of the greatest hitters of all time, a man once thought to be a sure thing to best Barry Bonds’s all-time home run record—hasn’t played a full season since 2007, often looks lost at the plate and is currently appealing a 211-game suspension for steroid use that could effectively end his career. While Puig and others are reshaping the landscape and changing the dynamics of this game, Rodriguez and his like are slowly fading away, taking with them an era of great growth for the game but also great controversy.

Really, Puig sitting next to Mota says it all. Puig is Young Money baseball. A massive, strong athlete’s athlete who represents the mould all young stars will soon take. Look at the rosters for the 2013 Future’s Game. Of the 58 players named to the two teams, just nine were under six feet in height. Eleven of the pitchers were six-foot-three or taller. Ten of the infielders were over 200 lb. We’re talking about teenagers. Forget baseball; these could have been football teams. Young Money baseball will be played by hulking freaks of nature who throw in the high 90s, possess unheard of bat speed and run the bases like the wind. They will play the game with flair as well, much like Puig’s epic bat flips or Machado’s penchant for throwing across his body. And they will be paid incredibly well for it. Baseball will become sexier, louder, faster, bigger. The idea that the game is a quaint, charming pastime, played by noble men in pants and hats who may not be the greatest athletes but sure do know their fundamentals, could fade away altogether. This isn’t a pastime anymore; this is a sport. It is going to be fascinating to watch, and one word does seem to sum it up fairly well.


This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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