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Incoming New York Mets general manager Billy Eppler tasked with building contender through free agency



NEW YORK — The New York Mets introduced new general manager Billy Eppler and made their intentions for the offseason clear.

They’re hoping to spend money on free agents, and a lot of it.

Mets owner Steve Cohen made the team’s desire to build a postseason contender clear on Monday, as the team introduced its third general manager since the start of the 2021 calendar year after the team fired Jared Porter for sending explicit text messages to a reporter and fired interim general manager Zack Scott after a DWI arrest. With the team’s lack of farm system depth, Cohen said the team will need to spend money or make trades.

“We want to win our division and be in the playoffs and win in the playoffs,” Cohen said. “So you know, we’ve got to field a team that has the ability to do that. I’ve let Billy and Sandy know that it’s whatever they need, and I’m open to their suggestions and recommendations and the goal is for a competitive team on the field.”

The Mets collapsed over the course of the 2021 season, holding onto first place for 103 days but ultimately finishing 77-85 and missing the playoffs over the final two months of the season after losing ace Jacob deGrom to an elbow injury. The Braves and Phillies eventually leapfrogged over New York in the division, with Atlanta eventually going on to win the World Series.

Eppler said his top priority going into the job will be to rebuild the team’s rotation, which lost free-agent pitcher Noah Syndergaard on a one-year, $21 million contract to the Los Angeles Angels.

“We’re going to have some resources behind us,” Eppler said. “We had one player who signed somewhere else in Noah and we just really want to reinforce the overall depth. We are going to entertain things in the outfield and entertain things in the infield.”

Eppler will need to hire a new manager after the team fired Luis Rojas after the season. Eppler said he will talk to the baseball operations department about the best approach on hiring a skipper, balancing the factors between in-game management, analytical approach and clubhouse culture creation.

“That’s a process I’m going to start with this afternoon,” Eppler said. “I have a little bit of my own feeling on that, but I’d rather hold back on getting what exactly that criteria is at the moment because I want to have the group engage.”

Eppler spent 2015 through 2020 in the Angels organization, which had internal issues of its own. Federal prosecutors charged former Angels communication director Eric Kay with felony distribution charges following the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs due to an opioid overdose. The team also fired pitching coach Mickey Callaway — whom the Angels hired in 2020 — after Callaway violated the league’s sexual harassment policies.

Cohen said the organization did due diligence in performing a background check on Eppler prior to his hiring.

“We vetted it multiple ways, we spoke to a lot of people who were around the organization at that time, spoke to people within baseball,” Cohen said. “We’re incredibly confident with Billy and his decision-making and his ethics and his integrity.”

Eppler said the Callaway situation evolved his vetting process with job candidates.

“The industry in general has a vetting process that’s evolved,” Eppler said. “We have greater resources because of it. … There’s not really anything more specific I can add today.”

Mets president Sandy Alderson said he that he will be hands-off in baseball operations decision-making.

“I expect Billy to be driving this operation; I will be available as a resource,” Alderson said. “As time goes on, I would expect that Billy will have more latitude than he will have immediately, but I would expect that latitude to expand and that my role will diminish.”

Eppler’s Angels teams did not make the playoffs during his tenure, and he hopes that trend won’t keep up in New York.

“In ’17, ’18, ’19, we really had a real chance to overtake Houston,” Eppler said. “We played a little bit safer, and didn’t want to burden the organization long term. A lot of those free-agent deals didn’t work out. My biggest takeaway is the importance of depth. That’s my biggest takeaway.”

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Buck O’Neil joins Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, others in being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame



Buck O’Neil, a champion of Black ballplayers during a monumental, eight-decade career on and off the field, joined Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and three others in being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Former Minnesota Twins teammates Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat, a longtime television analyst after his playing days, also were chosen along with Bud Fowler by a pair of veterans committees.

Oliva and Kaat are the only living new members. Dick Allen, who died last December, fell one vote shy of election.

Kaat pitched 25 seasons with a host of teams, including the Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals, winning 283 games. He served as an analyst for the Yankees before moving on to the MLB Network.

The 16-member Early Days and Golden Days committees met separately in Orlando, Florida. The election announcement was originally scheduled to coincide with the big league winter meetings, which were nixed because of the MLB lockout.

The six newcomers will be enshrined in Cooperstown, New York, on July 24, 2022, along with any new members elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. First-time candidates David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez join Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling on the ballot, with voting results on Jan. 25.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Daisuke Matsuzaka ends 23-year career, surprised by Ichiro Suzuki in ceremony



Daisuke Matsuzaka brought his 23-year professional baseball career to a close Saturday in a ceremony that included a surprise appearance by Ichiro Suzuki.

Matsuzaka, who faced only one batter this season for the Saitama Seibu Lions — issuing a walk in an October appearance — told fans at Seibu’s MetLife Dome that he was happy to leave the sport on his terms.

“I’m content that I was able to keep playing baseball until I could no longer throw normally in the end,” Matsuzaka said, according to Kyodo News.

A video from Suzuki was played, ending with the longtime Seattle Mariners outfielder surprising Matsuzaka on the field and giving him a flower bouquet.

“I hadn’t imagined this. It was crazy,” Matsuzaka said, according to Kyodo News. “At first I was able to hold up, and then the tears came and I was done for.

“I was surprised and just overjoyed that, at the end, Ichiro-san came to see me. I’m happy I was able to come so far.”

Suzuki and Matsuzaka faced each other both in Japan and Major League Baseball over their careers. They were also teammates for Japan’s World Baseball Classic titles in 2006 and 2009.

Matsuzaka, 41, was 56-43 with a 4.45 ERA in 132 career MLB starts with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets from 2007 to 2014. He won a World Series title in his rookie season with the Red Sox in 2017.

He started and ended his career with the Lions, pitching for them from 1999 to 2006 and the past two seasons. He also played for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Chunichi Dragons after returning to Japan in 2015.

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Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson and USWNT soccer player Mallory Pugh announce their engagement



Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson earned a ring last month. U.S. women’s national team forward Mallory Pugh got one this month.

The World Series champion and the World Cup winner announced their engagement on Instagram Thursday night. The two have dated since 2017.

The couple met through Swanson’s former teammate Jace Peterson, now with the Milwaukee Brewers, who is married to Pugh’s sister.

Pugh plays with the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL and has been with the U.S. national team since 2016. She played in the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2019 World Cup, scoring a goal against Thailand.

Swanson made his major league debut with the Braves in 2016. This season, he hit .248 with 27 home runs and 88 RBIs.

The couple is just the latest power couple with connections to the U.S. team. They join Megan Rapinoe and her partner, WNBA star Sue Bird, and Julie Ertz, who is married to Arizona Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz.

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