Sports·THE BUZZER

What you need to know as baseball (finally) springs into action

With the lockout over and spring training camps underway, CBC Sports' daily newsletter gets you caught up on some key things to know as the MLB season fast approaches.

New rules, big-name free agents take centre stage post-lockout

The Toronto Blue Jays hope high-priced pitcher Kevin Gausman can help push them into the expanded playoffs. (Steve Nesius/The Canadian Press)

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Baseball is scrambling to get ready for Opening Day

Last Thursday's agreement between Major League Baseball and its players to end the soul-crushing, 99-day lockout triggered a Rickey Henderson-like dash. With Opening Day set for April 7, teams now have just over three weeks to run through a quick spring training while scrambling to sign free agents and make trades to round out their rosters in time for the first pitch.

As they play catch-up, let's get you caught up on some baseball stuff you should know as the regular season fast approaches:

New rules

The new labour deal includes two big changes that will go into effect right away. The first one you'll notice is that the designated hitter is now universal. Pitchers in the National League will no longer bat, ending baseball's anachronistic practice of playing by different rules in National and American League parks.

The other is that the playoffs are expanding from 10 teams to 12. That's three division winners and three wild cards per league. The division winners with the two best records get first-round byes, while the other division winner and the three wild cards square off in best-of-three series where the higher seed hosts all three games. Next are the usual best-of-five Division Series and the best-of-seven AL and NL Championship Series and World Series.

Another rule that technically expired after last season looks like it'll be restored. The so-called "ghost runner" — the man placed on second base to begin extra innings — will return if MLB and the players' union agree to it. That's expected to happen over the next few days, as both sides like the rule's potential to limit marathon games.

Two more notable changes: a draft lottery will be held for the bottom six teams (the goal is to discourage tanking) and ads will be placed on jerseys and helmets (because every other league is doing it and baseball can never say no to extra cash, aesthetics be damned).

There's some confusion about three more big rule changes that were reportedly agreed on during the labour talks — a pitch clock, bigger bases, and a ban on the despised infield shift. Those weren't part of the new deal, so you won't see them this season. But it sounds like they could be coming as early as next year.

Big deals

It feels like a lifetime ago, but several star players landed massive contracts right before the lockout put a freeze on transactions. The Toronto Blue Jays added pitcher Kevin Gausman on a five-year, $110-million US deal, but lost MVP-finalist second baseman Marcus Semien (seven years, $175M with Texas) and Cy Young winner Robbie Ray (five years, $115M with Seattle). The Gausman deal and the seven-year, $131-million extension given to Jose Berrios a couple of weeks before that are the two biggest contracts Toronto has ever handed to pitchers.

Along with the Semien signing, Texas lured shortstop Corey Seager from the Dodgers for 10 years and $325 million — completing a half-billion-dollar rebuild of the Rangers' middle infield.  Another shortstop, Javier Báez, jumped from the Mets to Detroit for 6 years, $140M. Hell, Marcus Stroman even got $23.7 million a year from the Cubs.

And that's not it. The big names still on the market include Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, San Francisco third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant and 2020 NL MVP first baseman Freddie Freeman, who's fresh off a World Series title with Atlanta.

What's next for the Jays

Toronto added to its November splurges by inking lefty Yusei Kikcuhi to a three-year, $36-million deal yesterday to shore up the rotation. Now the Jays are reportedly eyeing slugger Kyle Schwarber, who smashed 32 homers for Boston and Washington last year, and one of the three big fish still out there — Freeman. The 32-year-old first baseman followed up his 2020 MVP season by hitting .300 with 31 homers and helping Atlanta win its first World Series title in a quarter-century. And he comes with the bonus of being a dual American-Canadian citizen. Freeman was born and raised in California, but both his parents are from Ontario.

Adding Freeman (and/or Schwarber) to a batting order that already includes the likes of AL MVP finalist Vladimir Guerrero Jr., excellent young shortstop Bo Bichette and strong outfielders Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and George Springer could defray the loss of Semien and push Toronto into the expanded playoffs.

The Jays deserved to make it last year, when they racked up the fifth-best run differential in baseball despite playing the bulk of their "home" games in U.S. minor-league parks and the rest in front of reduced-capacity audiences in Toronto. But some bad luck and a tough schedule pushed them down to fourth place in the brutal AL East and they missed the playoffs by one game. A full-time return to a full dome might be enough to push them over the top.

Recent MVP Freddie Freeman is reportedly being targetted by Toronto, among other teams. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Quickly...

Leylah Fernandez is into the round of 16 at tennis' "fifth major." The 19-year-old Canadian advanced to the fourth round of the prestigious Indian Wells event in California last night by defeating unseeded American Shelby Rogers. Fernandez, seeded 18th, will face No. 5 Paula Badosa of Spain tonight after 9 p.m. ET. Fernandez is the only Canadian left in the singles draws after men's No. 13 Denis Shapovalov fell to 18th-seeded American Reilly Opelka yesterday. Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev's tenure as world No. 1 will be brief after the Russian was upset yesterday by Gael Monfils. Novak Djokovic will reclaim the top spot when the new rankings come out next week despite being barred from Indian Wells due to his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Some of Canada's Olympic bobsledders say their safety is at risk. That was one of the issues cited in last week's open letter signed by "60+" unnamed current and former athletes calling for top Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton executives Sarah Storey and Chris Le Bihan to resign. The organization responded by calling in a mediator to help address the athletes' concerns. In the meantime, some athletes are sharing details about those concerns. Former Olympic hopeful Kori Hol believes her career was derailed after she crashed and hit her head multiple times during the team-selection process and BCS did not, she says, follow concussion protocols. Alex Kopacz, who won Olympic gold in 2018 as a brakeman, says he was pressured to compete for his spot on the Canadian team while suffering from a shoulder injury. On the skeleton team, Indigenous athlete Kevin Boyer claims he was subjected to racist language from a coach. Read more about these allegations and BCS' response to them here.

And finally...

Say goodbye to The Bad Guy. Pro wrestling lost one of its most beloved and influential performers yesterday when Scott Hall died at the age of 63. Hall rose to stardom in the '90s as the WWF (now WWE) character Razor Ramon — a charismatic heel from Miami inspired by 1983's Scarface (right down to referring to himself as The Bad Guy). In 1996, Hall jumped shipped to the rival WCW and, along with fellow defectors Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan, formed the villainous New World Order faction. Fuelled by Hall's swagger, the nWo was a huge hit with fans and helped the once-modest WCW overtake the mighty WWF in popularity during the fabled "Monday night wars" of the late '90s. Traditionally, wrestling fans always cheered for the good guys. But Hall helped change that with two of the coolest bad-guy creations in wrestling history. Read more about him here.

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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