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Japan’s Shun Yamaguchi, Ryosuke Kikuchi made available to MLB teams

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NEW YORK — Two players from Japan, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, have been made available to major league teams through the posting process.

Clubs have until Jan. 2 (5 p.m. EST) to negotiate with them, Major League Baseball said Tuesday.

Yamaguchi, a 32-year-old right-hander with the Yomiuri Giants, was 15-4 with a 2.91 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 170 innings. He led the Central League in wins and strikeouts, helping Yomiuri to its first Central League pennant in five years.

Kikuchi, a second baseman who turns 30 in March, hit .261 with 13 homers, 48 RBI and 14 stolen bases for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Yokohama outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo was posted last month and is available until Dec. 19.

MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball reached a posting agreement after the 2017 season. An MLB team would pay a Japanese club fee of 20% of guaranteed money in a major league contract through $25 million, plus 17.5% above that through $50 million, plus 15% over that.

A supplemental fee would equal 15% of any earned bonuses, escalators and compensation from option years that are exercised or become guaranteed.

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Pete Frates, inspiration for ‘Ice Bucket Challenge,’ dies at age 34

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BOSTON — Pete Frates, a former college baseball player whose battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease helped inspire the ALS ice bucket challenge that has raised more than $200 million worldwide, died Monday. He was 34.

Frates died peacefully, surrounded by his family, they said in a statement.

“A natural born leader and the ultimate teammate, Pete was a role model for all, especially young athletes, who looked up to him for his bravery and unwavering positive spirit in the face of adversity,” the family said. “He was a noble fighter who inspired us all to use our talents and strengths in the service of others.”

The ice bucket challenge began in 2014 when pro golfer Chris Kennedy challenged his wife’s cousin Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankees great who suffered from it.

ALS patient Pat Quinn, of Yonkers, New York, picked up on it and started its spread, but when Frates and his family got involved, the phenomenon exploded on social media.

The process was simple: Take a bucket of ice water, dump it over your head, post a video on social media and challenge others to do the same or make a donation to charity. Most people did both.

Thousands of people participated, including celebrities, sports stars and politicians — even Donald Trump before his election and cartoon character Homer Simpson. Online videos were viewed millions of times.

“The ALS ice bucket challenge represents all that’s great about this country — it’s about fun, friends, family, and it makes a difference to all of us living with ALS,” Frates said at the time.

The challenge has raised about $220 million worldwide, including $115 million alone for the Washington-based ALS Association.

“Pete Frates changed the trajectory of ALS forever and showed the world how to live with a fatal disease,” the group said in an email. “He inspired everyone he met and his efforts to lead the ice bucket challenge had a significant impact on the search for treatments and a cure for ALS.”

Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or motor neuron disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that leads to paralysis due to the death of motor neurons in the spinal cord and brain. There is no known cure.

Frates, a native of Beverly in the Boston suburbs, was a three-sport athlete at St. John’s Prep in nearby Danvers. He went on to play baseball at Boston College. He played professionally in Germany after graduation and in amateur leagues upon his return to the U.S.

He was playing for the Lexington Blue Sox in 2011 when he got hit on the wrist by a pitch and noticed that it wasn’t healing properly. After months of testing, Frates was diagnosed with ALS in 2012.

“The man upstairs has a plan for me,” he told The Salem News in 2012. “I’m not having too many issues with this, mentally. This is the hand I’ve been dealt and I’ve made my peace with it. There are people out there that don’t have my support system or my advantages, and I want to help them.”

As the disease progressed, he became paralyzed and had to use a wheelchair, lost the ability to talk and had to be fed through a tube.

With the help of funds raised by the ice bucket challenge, significant investments in research on the causes of and potential treatments for ALS have been made. Dozens of research institutions and hundreds of scientists around the world have benefited from the money raised.

The ALS Association said it used to spend about $4 million to $6 million per year on research, but that has grown to $17 million to $19 million per year since the ice bucket challenge exploded.

The challenge has also been used to raise awareness for other charitable causes.

Frates’ father, John, said targeted research led to advances in treating other diseases.

“When I was a young kid, we were worried about polio. When Magic Johnson got AIDS, it was a death sentence. If we get money flowing into ALS, things will get better,” he told The Salem News. “Hopefully, Pete can be that spokesman that sparks that.”

The death was announced just hours after Major League Baseball displayed Frates’ BC baseball cap at a news conference to announce a charity auction to benefit ALS research. ESPN announcer Jon Sciambi said Nancy and John Frates wanted to be at the winter meetings in San Diego for the announcement but stayed home to take care of Pete.

“Pete continues to fight strong and inspire everyone today,” Sciambi said. “I wish Pete could be here, and, Pete, if you’re watching, we love you. Keep fighting, pal.”

Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr. called Frates an inspiration.

“The courage and determination of Pete Frates inspired countless people throughout the game he loved and around the world,” Manfred said. “He galvanized ALS awareness for a new generation and honored the memory of a fellow ballplayer, Lou Gehrig.”

Frates maintained close ties to his alma mater. The school will name a new 31,000-square-foot baseball and softball training center scheduled to open next summer the Pete Frates Center.

“Never in the history of baseball have we seen a person’s efforts outside of the game gain him a professional baseball contract and a home in the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” Boston Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement. “Such was the enormity of Pete Frates’ impact. His efforts will not only be felt in the labs of ALS researchers across the country, but also within the walls of Fenway Park where his spirit will remain with us, always.”

Frates is survived by his wife, Julie; daughter Lucy; parents John and Nancy; and siblings Andrew and Jennifer.

A funeral Mass will be held Friday at St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, next to the Boston College campus. The family also plans a celebration of his life closer to their Beverly home at a later date.

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Minor league baseball president Pat O’Conner rebukes contraction plan

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SAN DIEGO — Speaking to minor league baseball’s executives about a controversial proposal to contract 42 teams, MILB president and CEO Pat O’Conner delivered a blistering rebuke of the plan.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be splintered for this next deal,” O’Conner said. “No one’s future is safe, unless all of your futures are safe.”

In his annual address during the opening session of the minor-league winter meetings, O’Conner began by ticking off the general health of MILB, which saw a year-over-year increase in attendance to 41.5 million during a time when in-venue attendance is dropping across the sports landscape. Nineteen teams set single-season attendance record. Bottom-line revenue is expected to be up.

“Big storm clouds loom on the horizon,” O’Conner said, abruptly changing the tone of his speech with that sentence.

According to the proposal from Major League Baseball, as first detailed in October by Baseball America, 42 teams would lose their MLB affiliation when the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires on Sept. 15, 2020. The remaining teams would be re-aligned into leagues that maximize the proximity of each affiliate to its big-league parent.

In addition, the draft would be pushed back to mid-August and rather than deploying new draftees in short-season Rookie Leagues, teams would send their new players to big-league spring training facilities to receive analytically-based training.

Other proposed changes include a new “Dream League” venture that would be created to fill the void opened by contracted teams. Clubs in that circuit would operate similar to an independent league, though it would be co-owned by MLB and MILB. Also, the number of players a big-league organization can have under contract at any one time would be drastically reduced to 150.

MLB has suggested the changes are needed due to poor facilities in some communities, a need for enhanced player health services, better pay and reduced travel.

“I for one am not comfortable with conceding the notion that we need such radical change,” O’Conner said near the end of his speech. “Do we need a tweak? Absolutely. Do we need to refine the way we do things? Yes. Do we need to work on our facilities, travel, player health and welfare? Yes.

“And we have told the other side that we’ve always agreed that those are items that are central to the next agreement. We are in agreement that there is a need for improvement in those areas.”

Still, in often bombastic language, O’Conner insisted that any proposal that would impact the number of teams or end the long histories of many of the teams that might be subject to contraction won’t be tolerated.

“We are baseball’s first touchpoint for millions of kids in this country,” O’Conner said. “We are the first baseball experience for millions of American families. In many cases, we are the only touchpoint for baseball for millions of fans.

“It seems to me that minor-league baseball’s future is under an existential threat as we negotiate this next baseball agreement. The next agreement will cover a specific period of time, as is traditionally the case. That’s not new. What is unique is the next agreement could be the most important agreement that we have signed in the last 50 years.”

The speech, along with an address from MILB Vice President Stan Brand which preceded O’Conner’s, seemed to lay out a two-fold strategy to brace for the on-going negotiations, beginning with the need for minor-league clubs and leagues to act as a unified entity.

“I assure you the power of one, in this current environment, is never more important than it is today,” O’Conner said. “This situation reinforces the power of one, not only as mantra to success, but it’s our mantra to survival — as individual teams and as an organization. We should never be divided in our resolve to represent grassroots American and provide affordable, family entertainment to over 80 percent of this country.”

Another key tool for MILB in the negotiations is political might, according to Brand.

“There is no other group engaged in Washington that enjoys the level of good will, appreciation and respect that minor-league baseball does,” Brand said. “It is genuine. It is universal. It is unbent.”

As details about MLB’s proposal began to circulate, several politicians, among whom the most prominent was presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, spoke out against it. Independent analysis of the proposal, such as the one from Fangraphs.com have estimated that as many as 16 million fans could lose easy access to live baseball under the proposal.

O’Conner and Brand have helped lead lobbying efforts that culminated in last week’s announcement of the bi-partisan Save Minor League Baseball Task Force in Congress.

“For us, it’s never been just about our business,” Brand said, speaking to the gathered team officials. “It’s been about community, embracing our fans and their interests. We have a long road ahead, but I can assure you of one thing, the support we have across the political landscape — that you’ve built through your charitable work, your commitment to diversity and the appreciation you play in your role in the community — has never been higher, or more critical to the survival of minor-league baseball as we know it.”

Last week, Sanders met with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to discuss the proposal and the negotiations. Sanders, a senator from Vermont, sent Manfred a letter on Nov. 25 calling the plan “an absolute disaster for baseball fans, workers and communities throughout the country.”

After the meeting, MLB released a statement, saying it “understands that we have an obligation to local communities to ensure that public money spent on minor league stadiums is done so prudently and for the benefit of all citizens.

“MLB also must ensure that minor league players have safe playing facilities suitable for the development of professional baseball players, are not subjected to unreasonable travel demands, are provided with compensation and working conditions appropriate for elite athletes, and have a realistic opportunity of making it to the major leagues.”

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Winners and losers of Stephen Strasburg’s $245 million return to Nationals

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Well, the hot stove is officially lit. An eye-popping $245 million deal for ace Stephen Strasburg to return to the Nationals got the fun started on the first day of baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego. As the defending champions bring back their World Series MVP, we asked ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield to weigh in on what the deal means for Strasburg, the Nats and the rest of this MLB offseason.

Gut reaction: Do you like this deal for the Nationals?

David Schoenfield: Hey, it’s not my money! This guy just carried your team to a World Series title, but that’s also a very large chump of change for a pitcher who just topped 176 innings for the first time since 2014. There’s nothing wrong with bringing him back and continuing to construct your team around the big three of Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, but at this price I’d rather have Anthony Rendon and the more predictable outcome of a position player. Of course, it’s also possible that Strasburg stays healthy and has five or six more dominant seasons — much like his teammate Scherzer has done in his 30s. In fact, if Strasburg continues to pitch well throughout this contract, he’s a sleeper Hall of Fame candidate as he does have 112 career wins, 32.6 WAR and a great record in the postseason.

Bradford Doolittle: If it’s a choice between Strasburg and Rendon, I guess I’d have gone for Rendon. But for all we know at the moment, it’s a choice that might not have existed. Strasburg has made about 85 percent of his starts since his first full season after Tommy John surgery, though he’s hit 200 only twice. It’s that lesser track record of durability that separated him from Gerrit Cole in my mind, so I was thinking five or six years for Stras as opposed to seven or eight for the latter. But no one knows him better than the Nats and if they think he’s ready to reel off a string of 15-20 win seasons, then they can figure out the back end of the deal later. Pitchers this good are just so scarce.

Sam Miller: I do. If your owner has a net worth of $5 billion, it’s a lot harder to find a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg than to find a big pile of money.

This is a True Ace contract, and there’s a tendency to overlook just how highly Strasburg ranks among MLB pitchers-partly because he pitches in the same rotation as one of the few superior pitchers in the world, partly because he shares a free agency class with another of them. But over the past three years Strasburg has the seventh-best ERA in baseball (including the postseason), the 12th-most innings, the sixth-most WAR. It’s true that he’s 31; it’s also true that he’s had his two best seasons over the past three years, and from July 1 onward this year he had a 2.51 ERA, including his month against postseason offenses. He hasn’t had a major injury in nearly a decade. He’s on a team that will compete for a postseason appearance and will find that the margin between making and missing October is one Stephen Strasburg.

Who is the biggest winner of Strasburg re-joining the Nationals?

Schoenfield: Obviously, Strasburg. You kept hearing how he’s comfortable in Washington, had bought a house in the area and preferred to remain with the only organization he’s known. The money made it an easy decision. If there’s a ripple effect here, Madison Bumgarner has to be happy. He can now pitch teams that you can get him for half of Strasburg’s contract — and get a pitcher more than half as good.

Doolittle: Gerrit Cole and Scott Boras. My assumption had been that a bat-stuff crazy offer for Cole would end up at something like 8/$280. Now I’m wondering if it ends up 9/$300-plus. Which is nuts. But he’s now a market of one. Of course, while the need for him is ubiquitous, the demand doesn’t exactly correlate because not many teams can play in this arena.

Miller: Strasburg’s eventual biographer. His career-from the most highly touted draft prospect ever to a possible Hall of Famer-is so much more compelling when it all happens in one jersey. The pick of Strasburg in the 2009 draft was the catalyst for a golden age of Washington baseball, climaxing with a World Series run in which Strasburg had an all-time great October. It seems plausible that he’s only peaking now, and the next seven years could comprise-in addition to an eventual decline-more postseason runs, Cy Young votes, milestone pursuits and franchise records. When it’s over, there will be a statue of him outside Nationals Park. They usually don’t put statues up for half careers.

Who is the biggest loser of Strasburg going back to the Nationals?

Schoenfield: The New York Mets. They’ve seen the Phillies sign Zack Wheeler, the Braves sign Cole Hamels and the Nationals re-sign Strasburg. Meanwhile, the Mets have … well, they traded for a center fielder who had a .280 OBP last season.

Doolittle: Padres fans. I don’t know if they even tried to sign Strasburg, though they should have been beating down his door. Inking the hometown kid to head up an emerging pitching staff would have been story book stuff. Of course, perhaps the scenario was always just a fantasy.

Miller: Besides the Mets and the Phillies–who now look like they’ll be fighting for third place again, at least in the short term and barring other major moves–it’s probably whomever ends up with Gerrit Cole. This Strasburg deal comes a day after we heard that the Yankees had offered Cole $245 million. If they really believed they had a shot with that number, they (and anybody else in the running) is going to need to adjust those expectations, by at least $50 million and maybe a lot more. Actually, it’s probably whomever doesn’t end up with Cole. Strasburg is no longer around as a fallback.

Now that Strasburg is returning to the Nationals, who is the favorite to land Anthony Rendon?

Schoenfield: I’ll go with the Rangers. They’ve signed Kye Gibson and Jordan Lyles to join Mike Minor and Lance Lynn in the rotation, but they still have a gaping hole at third base and the money to bring to Rendon back to his home state. Rendon is an intriguing fit for the Dodgers, but based on recent track record of how the Dodgers spend in free agency, the Rangers are more likely to give a bigger, longer-team contract.

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