I witnessed a lot of crazy things when I covered the international baseball beat for Baseball America from 1989-97, and I never thought I'd see anything more ridiculous than a play in the 1990 Goodwill Games. Mexico wanted to end a game against the Soviet Union via the mercy rule, so shortstop Javier Acosta tried to steal home. Outfielder David Trejo took a full swing anyway, almost decapitating Acosta while hitting a grounder to second base. Acosta's slide took out Trejo at the plate, so the Soviets threw him out at first base while he lay on his back in the batter's box.
But now that absurdity has been topped. The International Baseball Federation has adopted a speed-up rule that will be used in international competition, starting with the Beijing Olympics. Beginning in the 11th inning, teams will open each frame with runners on first and second base. Additionally, to start the 11th inning, clubs can decide where they want to begin in the batting order (though they won't be able to further reset the order in later innings).
"The upcoming Beijing Olympic competition may be our last unless we are successful in adding the sport back to the Olympic program for the 2016 Games," IBAF president Dr. Harvey W. Schiller said. "We must demonstrate to the International Olympic Committee not only does our game belong alongside the other great sports of the world, but our sport is manageable from a television and operational standpoint."
This asinine rule is going to restore baseball's status as an Olympic sport? I had little interest in watching Olympic baseball, and I have even less now.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column about the enigma that was Jeff Samardzija At the time, he wasn't doing much to distinguish himself in high Class A, where opponents batted .323 against him while he averaged a mere 3.8 strikeouts per nine innings. For a guy with mid-90s velocity and plus sink, not to mention a $10 million major league contract, this just didn't compute.
At the time, the Cubs maintained their faith in Samardzija's huge upside. He was more famous for his football exploits at Notre Dame, where he set every notable receiving record, and he didn't become a full-time pitcher until 2007. The Cubs believed that once he refined his delivery, his slider and an offspeed pitch, hitters wouldn't be able to sit on his fastball.
Samardzija continued to struggle with those tasks in Double-A at the start of this year. He went 3-5, 4.86 in 16 games (15 starts), and his velocity and sink still weren't enough to miss bats. Opponents hit .252 off him, which was an improvement, but his 44-42 K-BB ratio in 76 innings wasn't inspiring.
His secondary pitches started to click in June, earning him a promotion to Triple-A, where he suddenly took off. He had a 40-16 K-BB ratio in 37 innings over six starts, and when he allowed just six hits while fanning 18 over 12 innings in his last two outings, the Cubs summoned him to Chicago.
Though Samardzija gave up a game-tying run to the Marlins in his major league debut on Friday, he rebounded two days later to record a two-inning save. He also looked spectacular, topping out at 99 mph and pitching in the mid-90s with his fastball with ease. He also showed a mid-80s slider and mixed in a splitter, and retired 12 of the 14 batters he faced during the weekend, striking out five.
With Kerry Wood on the disabled list again and Carlos Marmol struggling, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Samardzija could emerge as the Cubs' closer down the stretch. That formula of a rookie closer coming out of nowhere worked pretty well for the other club in Chicago three years ago.
There surely will be a couple of surprises between now and Aug. 15. In the last week, we've seen some above-slot signings trickle in, but to this point, most of the huge deals (starting with Tim Beckham and Casey Kelly) have involved two-sport athletes where teams can take advantage of MLB rules and spread their bonuses out over five years. We may be in for a repeat of 2007, where teams won't announce big bonuses until as late as possible, in hopes of reducing MLB's ire.
Twelve first-round picks remain unsigned as of now, but I think the only one who might not come to terms is Wake Forest first baseman Allan Dykstra. Dykstra and the Padres had agreed on a $1.4 million bonus, but a subsequent physical has the club concerned about his right hip, which required surgery in high school. San Diego is worried that it's a degenerative condition, while Dykstra got a second opinion from Angels medical director Dr. Lewis Yocum, who cleared him. Add in the Scott Boras Corporation, which is advising Dykstra, and it may be difficult to resolve the situation to both sides' satisfaction.
There are two unsigned sandwich-rounders, Wichita State third baseman Conor Gillaspie (Giants) and Stanford lefthander Jeremy Bleich (Yankees), but I expect that both will turn pro. Six second-rounders remain in negotiations, and the two who are the strongest possibilities not to sign are Fresno State righthander Tanner Scheppers (Pirates) and Mississippi righty Scott Bittle (Yankees). Scheppers would have been one of the first 10 picks if he hadn't injured his shoulder in May. He's scheduled to throw for Pittsburgh just before the deadline. Bittle has told Mississippi newspapers that the Yankees are concerned with the wear and tear in his shoulder.
I haven't heard of any unresolvable impasses involving third-rounders or supplemental third-rounders. When all is said and done, I'll be surprised if more than three or four picks from the first three rounds don't get signed.
As for players with high price tags, I expect that two fourth-rounders will sign seven-figure deals: Missouri high school righthander Tim Melville with the Royals and Pennsylvania prep outfielder Pete Hissey with the Red Sox. Melville told teams he wanted a bonus commensurate with the top 10-15 picks, while Hissey's asking price was $1.2 million.
The Red Sox also are monitoring Rhode Island high school outfielder Ryan Westmoreland, a fifth-rounder who wants $2 million to turn down a Vanderbilt scholarship, and Indiana prep righty Alex Meyer. Meyer would have been a mid-first-rounder if not for his strong commitment to Kentucky, which caused him to drop to the 20th round. He might require $2 million as well, though it's not certain that he'll turn down the Wildcats for any amount.
Another first-round talent who dropped is Pepperdine righty Brett Hunter, who could have been a top-10 choice if he hadn't come down with elbow problems that sidelined him for most of the spring. The Athletics took him in the seventh round and have watched him pitch with Team USA this summer. As with Westmoreland and Meyer, it might take $2 million to sign Hunter. But if Oakland believes his elbow is healthy, signing him would be a coup.
Allowing teams to trade the rights to draftees probably wouldn't facilitate a lot more activity at the trading deadline. It might help swing a deal here or there, but it's uncertain that MLB ever would allow this. MLB one day may permit trading picks before the draft, but allowing teams to swap the rights to draftees afterward might result in agents trying to drive players to the richer or more desirable clubs. That fear, which was realized after Pete Incaviglia forced the Expos to trade him to the Rangers in 1985, led MLB to institute a rule that currently forbids draftees from being dealt until a year after they sign their first pro contract.
Though he has been knocked around in his last two starts, Zink is enjoying the best season and most sustained success of his eight-year pro career. He's tied for the International League lead in wins (12-3), ranks second in ERA (2.70) and has posted an 86-38 K-BB ratio while limiting opponents to a .217 average in 133 innings.
With most organizations, Zink would have earned a big league callup by now. But the Red Sox don't have a rotation opening. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka are mainstays; another knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, keeps chugging along as he nears his 42nd birthday; and prized rookie Clay Buchholz has some of the nastiest stuff in the majors. Veteran Bartolo Colon and rookie Justin Masterson have been solid when called upon to make starts, and 21-year-old righty Michael Bowden is having a superb minor league season and pushing for his first callup.
Zink broke into Organized Ball in 2002 as a reliever, and there's no reason he couldn't pitch in that role. While middle relief has been a sore spot for Boston, trusting a rookie knuckleballer to throw strikes and work crucial innings in August and September is a lot to ask. So despite Zink's fine year, he may need to change organizations to get a full opportunity in the majors. If the Red Sox don't add him to their 40-man roster in the offseason, he can become a minor league free agent.