Hill evolves in hopes of pitching for Sox

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Hill evolves in hopes of pitching for Sox

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Change is inevitable for most pro athletes, but Rich Hill has weathered more than his share in the last year.

First, he transitioned from starter to reliever last year, a concession partly made by a shoulder injury from the year before. Then, Hill joined the Red Sox organization last summer, the fourth team he's been with in his career. Finally, at the behest of former pitching coach John Farrell, Hill began throwing sidearm on a full-time basis.

With the changes behind him, Hill, a native of Milton, is free to concentrate fully on baseball and the roster battle to make the 2011 Red Sox.

Hill, who turns 31 in two weeks, finds himself part of a crowd in contention for two final spots in the Boston bullpen. Fellow lefties Hideki Okajima, Dennys Reyes and Andrew Miller are in the mix, along with righties Scott Atchison, Matt Albers and Alfredo Aceves, but Hill insists he doesn't spend much time analyzing his chances.

"Those are all distractions that you can't control,'' Hill said, "so you've got to be able to control those distractions and do what you have to do and staying in your routine. That's all that really matters.''

Hill's 2010 season began in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization, with Hill clinging to the notion that he could still be a successful starter, as he had been when he was 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA for the 2007 Chicago Cubs.

But after mid-season, he opted out of his Triple A deal with St. Louis and went to Pawtucket, where he started and relieved but began eying the bullpen as his long-term assignment.

Farrell thought Hill might benefit from the change in delivery, since it would make his motion more deceptive.

"I think it gives a different look out of the bullpen,'' Hill said. "Lefty-on-lefty or even lefty-on-righty, it created a different angle. Really, it's something that has come easy. It's natural. It feels like free and easy when I'm down there.

"John and I were talking about it. They liked what they saw from down there and wondered if I could stay down there all the time. I had done it before when I was starting. Every once in a while, I'd drop down to throw a breaking ball or fastball to a lefty. It gave them a surprise look that they weren't used to and made them feel very uncomfortable in the box. If you can make a hitter feel uncomfortable, that's a big advantage.''

The change was a significant one, but Hill didn't have to be convinced of the wisdom of the switch. From the beginning, he saw the benefits.

"I'm all in,'' he said. "I enjoy it. I feel that it's something hopefully will promote longevity and help me pitch longer at this level. (The sidearm motion) feels natural. I think it's always been there. Just to make the switch, it's really buying into it and applying yourself. You're not going to say, 'OK, if it doesn't work, I'm going to switch (back) at the drop of a hat.' You have to be persistent and be committed to it.''

Given an eight-game audition last September, Hill began dropping down with most of his pitches and saw immediate results.

"(Hitters) were uncomfortable,'' he recalled. "When you have that, that gives you some confidence. When (even) righties starting reacting, that's when you know there's something there. That's what made me want to explore this a little more.''

While Hill has bought into the changes mentally, the execution, he freely admits, still needs some refinement.

"Part of the process now,'' he said, "is finding the consistency (with the release point). One thing we've been working on here is trying to get the fastball down and in on the righties and away from the lefties. That's the biggest thing now, with the fastball. The changeup's been great, breaking ball's been great. If I can command the fastball, that's just going to build the pitch-to-pitch process and help me become more efficient.''

In the Boston bullpen, five spots are spoken for, all by righties. The Sox could carry one, two or no lefthanders, depending on spring performance, options and other factors.

But whether Hill makes the Opening Day roster or begins the season in Pawtucket, he would prefer not to be restricted to a role as a lefty specialist.

"I'd like to be able to go out there and get lefties and righties out,'' he said. "I believe I can do that. I did it last year. There were qualitiy righty hitters that I got out. It creates a whole other level, where you can go, where you can take this.''

The experience of pitching for the home team last September only whetted Hill's appetite. He had interest from other teams last winter, but elected to re-sign with Boston even if it meant accepting a minor league deal.

After his cameo last fall, he feels more familiar and comfortable this time around.

"Coming into a spring training,'' he said, "you go to camp where you know trainers, front office, the guys on the team. That without question contributed to coming back.''

So, too, did the opportunity to pitch for a team with championship goals. That he's joining such a team in his hometown makes it all the more rewarding.

"There are only a few places like this,'' said Hill of the Boston experience. "You want to be part of something like this. For me, it just happens to be made better that this is where I'm from, where I grew up and the team that I enjoyed watching.

"It's something that not many guys get to experience. Guys that play at this level, that's a great achievement. But to do it in your own hometown is something special.''

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

New MLB labor deal: All-Star Game no longer determines home field in World Series

New MLB labor deal: All-Star Game no longer determines home field in World Series

IRVING, Texas -- Baseball players and owners reached a tentative agreement on a five-year labor contract Wednesday night, a deal that will extend the sport's industrial peace to 26 years since the ruinous fights in the first two decades of free agency.

After days of near round-the-clock talks, negotiators reached a verbal agreement about 3 1/2 hours before the expiration of the current pact. Then they worked to draft a memorandum of understanding, which must be ratified by both sides.

"It's great! Another five years of uninterrupted baseball," Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt said in a text message.

In announcing the agreement, Major League Baseball and the players' association said they will make specific terms available when drafting is complete.

"Happy it's done, and baseball is back on," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy said.

As part of the deal, the experiment of having the All-Star Game determine which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series will end after 14 years, a person familiar with the agreement told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal had not yet been signed.

Instead, the pennant winner with the better regular-season record will open the Series at home.

Another important change: The minimum time for a stint on the disabled list will be reduced from 15 days to 10.

The luxury tax threshold rises from $189 million to $195 million next year, $197 million in 2018, $206 million in 2019, $209 million in 2020 and $210 million in 2021.

Tax rates increase from 17.5 percent to 20 percent for first offenders, remain at 30 percent for second offenders and rise from 40 percent to 50 percent for third offenders. There is a new surtax of 12 percent for teams $20 million to $40 million above the threshold, 42.5 percent for first offenders more than $40 million above the threshold and 45 percent for subsequent offenders more than $40 million above.

Union head Tony Clark, presiding over a negotiation for the first time, said in a statement the deal "will benefit all involved in the game and leaves the game better for those who follow."

Key changes involve the qualifying offers clubs can make to their former players after they become free agents - the figure was $17.2 million this year. If a player turns down the offer and signs elsewhere, his new team forfeits an amateur draft pick, which usually had been in the first round under the old deal.

Under the new rules, a player can receive a qualifying offer only once in his career and will have 10 days to consider it instead of seven. A club signing a player who declined a qualifying offer would lose its third-highest amateur draft pick if it is a revenue-sharing receiver, its second- and fifth-highest picks (plus a loss of $1 million in its international draft pool) if it pays luxury tax for the just-ended season, and its second-highest pick (plus $500,000 in the international draft pool) if it is any other team.

A club losing a free agent who passed up a qualifying offer would receive an extra selection after the first round of the next draft if the player signed a contract for $50 million or more and after competitive balance round B if under $50 million. However, if that team pays luxury tax, the extra draft pick would drop to after the fourth round.

Among other details:

-For a team $40 million or more in excess of the luxury tax threshold, its highest selection in the next amateur draft will drop 10 places.

-While management failed to obtain an international draft of amateurs residing outside the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, it did get a hard cap on each team's annual bonus pool for those players starting at $4.75 million for the signing period that begins next July 2.

-There is no change to limits on active rosters, which remain at 25 for most of the season and 40 from Sept. 1 on.

-Smokeless tobacco will be banned for all new players, those who currently do not have at least one day of major league service.

-The regular season will expand from 183 days to 187 starting in 2018, creating four more scheduled off days. There are additional limitations on the start times of night games on getaway days.

-The minimum salary rises from $507,500 to $535,000 next year, $545,000 in 2018 and $555,000 in 2019, with cost-of-living increases the following two years; the minor league minimum for a player appearing on the 40-man roster for at least the second time goes up from $82,700 to $86,500 next year, $88,000 in 2018 and $89,500 in 2019, followed by cost-of-living raises.

-The drop-off in slot values in the first round of the amateur draft will be lessened.

-Oakland's revenue-sharing funds will be cut to 75 percent next year, 50 percent in 2018, 25 percent in 2019 and then phased out.

-As part of the drug agreement, there will be increased testing, players will not be credited with major league service time during suspensions, and biomarker testing for HGH will begin next year.

Negotiators met through most of Tuesday night in an effort to increase momentum in the talks, which began during spring training. This is the third straight time the sides reached a new agreement before the old contract expired, but a deal was struck eight weeks in advance in 2006 and three weeks ahead of expiration in 2011.

Talks took place at a hotel outside Dallas where the players' association held its annual executive board meeting.

Clark, the first former player to serve as executive director of the union, and others set up in a meeting room within earshot of a children's choir practicing Christmas carols. A man dressed as Santa Claus waited nearby.

Baseball had eight work stoppages from 1972-95, the last a 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95 that led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. The 2002 agreement was reached after players authorized a strike and about 3 1/2 hours before the first game that would have been impacted by a walkout.

The peace in baseball is in contrast to the recent labor histories of other major sports. The NFL had a preseason lockout in 2011, the NBA lost 240 games to a lockout that same year and the NHL lost 510 games to a lockout in 2012-13.