Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Puig Story and Damning Thoughts

         By Ross Newhan

         The story of Yasiel Puig's harrowing defection from Cuba, as reported comprehensively by Jesse Katz in Los Angeles Magazine, and in an upcoming version by ESPN The Magazine, leaves me to wonder how this incredible narrative escaped the hometown Los Angeles Times.

          Since Puig burst onto the L.A. and major league scene last year there hasn't been a more compelling figure. The Times? There were stories dealing with the desperate, deadline impacted drive by Dodger scouting director Logan White to get Puig signed as a free agent in Mexico, but the reporting otherwise was consistently vague---Puig "not wanting to talk about his defection" and "not much being known about it."

           I do not indict national baseball writer Bill Shaikin or beat writers Dylan Hernandez and Mike DiGiovanna. They had other obligations. It was up to the editors, to the publisher, to recognize the possibilities--Puig's overnight magnitude and the mysteries surrounding his arrival--and provide a team of reporters the time and resources to get the story, as so often happened in an era of deeper finances and staffing, and which now seems to surface only infrequently.

           Sadly, a compelling story was there for the taking, but The Times could only react on a second day basis--and then somewhat hyperbolically.

           Aside from my provincially based response as a former Times baseball writer of more than 40 years, I acknowledge there is a more damning and important element to the Puig story.

           In providing a financial beacon at the end of a very dark tunnel for Cuban players, and creating rules/regulations that at conspicuous times seem to disappear, MLB--and the U.S. government--play a direct role in the very dangerous and widespread business of human trafficking.

           As Katz wrote:

           ..."Under Major League Baseball's byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department's outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent--and score a fat contract--is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing. The five men piloting Puig's vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. At least two were fugitives--one, on the run from a federal indictment in Miami, was alleged to have extorted Cubans traveling this very route. They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel, which charged the smugglers a "right of passage" to use Isla Mujeres as a base."

          The Puig journey, as reported by Katz, was "underwritten by a small-time crook in Miami named Raul Pacheco, an air-conditioning repairman and recycler who was on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID."

          There were 24 Cuban players on the 40 man rosters of major league teams at the start of the current season. Not all traveled a route as dangerous as Puig--or continue to face the financial and, possibly physical, threats that he reportedly does--but the majority were exposed to middle men of a suspect nature and had to establish that "third country residency" while voracious U.S. player agents waited to get a piece of them.

         MLB knows what is going on. The Treasury Dept. knows what is going on. Puig's desperation drove him toward Eden.

        They are all partners in a trafficking business that, for the Dodger outfielder and, perhaps, other former countrymen, may continue to exact a toll.



Sunday, March 30, 2014

Re-Opening Day Thoughts

        By Ross Newhan

        Opening Day Mind Benders:

        --MLB needs to get back to a traditional opener, whether it's Presidential in D.C. or a day or night opener in Cincinnati. I get spreading the game internationally, but that doesn't need to include  league games in Australia or Japan or anywhere else, games that are played with probably 90% of baseball fans paying no attention and which are followed, for the two participating teams, by two or three games that DON'T count before they reopen the season with games that DO. How does that make sense? Also, there's this: While the two participating teams get a few days to recover from the jet lag, those 17 hours take a toll. Whether that toll played a role in Clayton Kershaw opening the season (oh, that's right, the Dodgers already opened the season) on the disabled list is uncertain, but I know how this 76 year old athlete felt returning from Africa last summer.

      --While Mike Trout's six year, $144.5 million extension fits the security and business needs of player and team, the 10 year, $292 million contract that the Tigers gave Miguel Cabrera is another high wire risk of the Albert Pujols variety considering Cabrera will be 41 in the final year, Cabrera, like Pujols, has already established himself as one of the best right handed hitters (a shrinking commodity in today's game) ever with a chance to advance among the elites, but the chance is also there that he could be done in mid-contract. The Tigers unloaded another large contract and larger body by trading Prince Fielder to Texas, but economists and skeptics (who are those people?) will be watching to see how the Cabrera deal plays out.

     --The Tigers announced Cabrera only a couple days after releasing a sharply worded statement revealing that Max Scherzer, their Cy Young Award winner, had rejected a longterm contract that would have made him one of baseball's highest salaried pitchers and that there would be no more negotiations until the season is over. The offer was believed to be for six years with an average annual value of more than $24 million. Agent Scott Boras quickly announced that it was the Tigers who had rejected the proposal but that the club was right in saying there would be no additional talks until the season ended. Typically, Boras does not like clients in their walk years to sign extentions before testing free agency (and with Scherzer there is a chance he could eclipse the Kerhaw contract record for pitchers), but no matter who did the rejecting, any pitcher who puts shoulder and elbow on the line with every start would seem foolish in not jumping at an AAV of $24 million.

   --As the cost of your cable contracts continue to rise, major league teams have spent in the neighborhood of one billion dollars (I thought it best to spell that out) since the end of last season on extensions and free agent signings, a measure of baseball's TV bankroll. In some ways it's a case of TV robbing Peter (you) to pay Paul (the 30 owners), and, yes, there is still no deal between Time-Warner and the major cable providers, leaving most Dodger fans in the SoCal dark after ESPN's converage of tonight's semi-opener with the Padres.

   --MLB and the players union should be applauded for not waiting until the current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season before toughening the Joint Drug Agreement in several ways (stronger penalties, more tests, disallowing suspended players from participating in the post-season). However, 22 years of labor peace could still be threatened in the post '16 negotiations.The union alone wants to a) remove some of the current limitations on what clubs can spend in the June amateur draft under management's slotting system, b) seek changes in how clubs use the arbitration and free agency clock to delay advancement by deserving young players and c) spell out and streamline exactly what investigative tactics MLB can use in potential drug or other cases, a reaction to what the union--and many legal experts--believed to be the league's over the top tactics in the Alex Rodriguez investigation.

    --So, as the season opens for a second time, and I remain perplexed as to why, with so much already invested (i.e. Pujols and Josh Hamilton) and about to invested (i.e.Trout), would Arte Moreno choose this offseason to put a luxury tax limit on his Angel payroll and leave his starting pitching so vulnerable from a quality and depth standpoint, here is how I see it:

                                                               NATIONAL LEAGUE

                 Division Winners: Dodgers, Cardinals, Nationals. Wild Cards: Reds, D-Backs.  Champion: Cardinals.                  

                                                               AMERICAN LEAGUE

                 Division Winners: A's, Tigers, Rays. Wild Cards: Royals, Red Sox. Champion: Rays.

                                                               WORLD SERIES

                World Series: Cardinals over Rays in six.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Remembering an All-Star Friend

              By Ross Newhan

              I met Jim Fregosi in that first Palm Springs camp in the first year of the American League's newly created Los Angeles Angels.

              He was 19, a shortstop selected out of the Boston Red Sox organization in baseball's first ever expansion draft. I was 24, on my first beat assignment for the Long Beach Independent, Press Telegram, and in over my head--unlike Fregosi, who would make his big league debut in September  and become the Angels fulltime shortstop in 1963 at 21.

              No surprise to Manager Bill Rigney, who would brag about him from the first day of that first spring, often telling the story of how longtime San Francisco Giants' scout and executive Tom (Clancy) Sheehan had come to him soon after that draft and scoffed, "Hell, Rig, you can find a player like him under every rock in Arizona."

              Rig knew differently, of course, and so did and does most every scout who keeps turning over rocks in Arizona and elsewhere, looking for players of Fregosi's young skills and, if they look hard enough, perhaps, the inate traits that would quickly enable him to become a leader on and off the field, the full blown personality that was on display for 54 years as player, manager, scout.

              Jim died Friday morning at 71 after suffering multiple strokes while on a cruise with his wife, Joni, and other MLB alums.

              I hope it is not corny, on this Valentine's Day, to say that he lived his baseball and family life with a big heart, and I am saddened (how trite is that?) to think I will not be bumping into him in Anaheim and other ballparks, no longer exchanging phone calls, often just to say hello or listen to his latest story.

            He was good at that, telling stories from a vast storehouse, and enjoyed interacting with the baseball scribes, his and my early years being a different time in the game, fewer microphones and cameras, no cell phones and internet, an easier breeding ground for trust between players and the men who covered them.

           For Fregosi and teammates on those early and often zany Angels there was no pressure to rush from the clubhouse after the game. I would frequently finish my story on deadline and still find Fregosi and Joe Adcock and Lou Burdette and Buck Rodgers talking ball in the clubhouse, joining them for a beer there or at a bar--the House of Serfas at Stocker and LaBrea during the L.A. years or at Adamo's in Anaheim after the move.

          One night at Adamo's I introduced him to a girl I was dating, the young Connie Fisher, and the next night at the park Jim pulled me aside and said, "if you're smart and know what you're doing you better marry her."

         Connie Fisher and I have been married for 46 years, and that's how good a scout he was even then, long before he spent the last 17 years on special assignments for Atlanta general managers John Schuerholz and Frank Wren.

         In fact, Jim would be a groomsman in our wedding, what would undoubtedly be considered crossing a line in the player/writer relationship now but not so much then, and he loved to relate how we had a cocktail party BEFORE the ceremony and how the late columnist, Bud Tucker, assigned to light candles down one side of the temple aisle and a bit tipsy, found the task overwhelming as he (Fregosi) waited patiently on the other side for Bud to catch up.

        A different time for sure, and while those personal touches will linger longest, I will always carry visions of the six-time All-Star shortstop who would team with Gold Glove second baseman Bobby Knoop from 1964-'68 to form one of the best double play combinations I have ever seen.

        "They were as good as there was and probably as good as there has been," recalled a saddened Buck Rodgers, the young catcher who also came out of the expansion draft, by phone Friday.

       "Bobby was pure gold defensively, and Jimmy, while probably recognized more for his offense, wasn't far behind defensively."

       For both Rodgers and Fregosi there was more groundwork to their time with the Angels than what happened on the field.

       "Rig told us often that we each had a chance to manage," Rodgers said, "and he made it a point to explain the intricacies and technicalities of the things he did, why he handled some player differently from others. He was great with us, whether it was sharing time on the plane, in the clubhouse or over coffee on the road."

      Rodgers would enjoy managing success in Milwaukee and Montreal before a disillusioning tenure at the helm of the Angels during one of the many periods in which it was difficult to tell in which direction the organization was heading.

      Fregosi, traded in 1971 to the Mets for four players, including Nolan Ryan ('my biggest contribution in Anaheim," he was fond of saying), would return as well, hired off Pittsburgh's active roster in 1978 to be the Angels manager in what was portrayed as the return of the prodigal, having long been portrayed as one of owner Gene Autry's favorites.

     It was a charmed move and looked to be the start of a renewed and lasting relationship when Fregosi led led the Angels to their first division title in 1979.

     But, as always, there would be no guarantees under the Cowboy's ownership. Autry and a revolving cast of general managers had gone through seven previous managers in the '70s alone, and then, in two huge mistakes:

   Ryan was allowed to leave as a free agent before the champagne had dried following the '79 playoff loss to Baltimore, and Carney Lansford (arguably the best position player produced by the franchise to that point) was traded after the 1980 season. The Angels spiraled backwards, leading to Fregosi's firing in mid-season of strike ravaged 1981.

        Gene Mauch took over, and Fregosi blasted Autry privately.

        "Prodigal my ass," he told me. "They brought me back as a 36 year old man and treated me as if I was still 19. I'll never work for them again."

        He would manage again, leading Philadelphia to 97 wins and a National League pennant in 1993 before ending his managerial career with Toronto in 2000 after finally deciding that enough time had past, enough bitterness in regard to his relationship with the Angels had been swallowed.

       He returned in 1998 to have his No. 11 retired and be inducted into the club's Hall of Fame.

       And the last time I saw Jim was in the Anaheim press box in 2012. I was working on a freelance story and he was on an assignment for the Braves.

      We took a minute before the game to have a cup of coffee together, and he said, wistfully almost  for a man whose voice usually boomed and whose passion was as large, "I don't think anyone will have as much fun as we did in those early years. It was just another time, and I'm glad I had a chance to experience it."

       Me, too. RIP, Jim Fregosi.                                      


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

And Now: How Good Is Tanaka Really? How Good Are the Yankees Really?

                 By Ross Newhan

                 The pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka was ultimately ruled by desperation, prompting the Yankees to blow out the limited competition, blow over the tax threshold that had been their oft-stated, off-season cap and blow fuel on the festering antagonism between the smaller and larger markets.

                 Having already invested heavily in the attempt to reestablish their AL East swagger, the Yankees simply had the biggest combination of rotation need and available resources (augmented by the A-Rod savings).

               At 25, coming off that 24-0 season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka was clearly the most attractive and intriguing proposition among remaining free agent pitchers, and the Yankees bit for far more than either the Dodgers or Chicago Cubs were believed willing to spend, though Tanaka may have coveted New York from the start.

               The bottom line of $155 million for seven years (Tanaka has an out after four) and another $20 million to cover the posting fee for a pitcher who has yet to start a game in the major leagues tends to make the seven year, $215 million agreement that the Dodgers reached with their two time Cy Young award winner, Clayton Kershaw, look like a bargain, and the Dodgers--who have seldom if never been outbid under the Guggenheim ownership--didn't come within $55 million of the Yankee offer, sources insist.

              With a front three of Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu (with Dan Haren and Josh Beckett possibly in the fourth and fifth spots) and contract work beginning on Hanley Ramirez, the Dodgers need for another $20 million a year starting pitcher didn't match the Yankees eagerness to add a mid- to top of the rotation arm to C.C. Sabathia, Hideki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and possibly David Phelps.

            The restructured posting process, lowering the fee for any club to negotiate with Tanaka to $20 million, was expected to create a wide open market, and while Houston and Seattle are known to have investigated, among possibly other smaller market teams, it is believed that only the biggest of the big, the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs, were involved toward the end, with long suffering Cub fans absorbing another dose of false hope after trying to tell themselves there was a chance.

            In an offseason that has seen major league clubs commit approximately $1.8 billion on the signing of free agents, the Yankees--with Tanaka parlayed to Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Kuroda among some smaller signings, have guaranteed more than $460 million. They have rebuilt the outfield, strengthened their catching, filled gaps in their rotation and, at this point, are free of the Alex Rodriguez distraction. Yet, with all of that, somebody has to replace Mariano Rivera, and the infield could be a day to day proposition with Derek Jeter, 39 and Mark Teixeira, 33, no sure things as they come off injuries, and both second and third base problematic.

           If the Yankees, with all of their spending and acquisitions, remain a question, so is Tanaka, of course. Despite glittering statistics, he has put in a lot of work at a young age. As pointed out by ESPN's Jayson Stark, only three major league pitchers in the last 50 years--Frank Tanana, Larry Dierker and Bert Blyleven--had thrown as many innings (1,315) as Tanaka by 24. However, no Asian pitcher, including Yu Darvish and Ryu, has arrived amid as much fanfare and scout praise.

          His agreement with the Yankees should also finally unlock the market for free agent pitchers Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo, among others. Several potential buyers were either involved with Tanaka or chose to wait out that side of the market. Only Garza, in that group, comes without draft compensation, making him more attractive to a club like the Angels, who are determined to stay under the tax threshold and avoid giving up a draft pick. The Angels only kicked the tires on Tanaka despite the need, their billion dollar-plus TV contract and the sense that,  with no certainty of a longrange payback on their big money investments in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, they have to make a run now in a vastly improved division that has seen them fall short of the playoffs for four years.

         Financial times have changed in Anaheim, and while several smaller market teams, including Oakland, Minnesota, Houston, Seattle and Kansas City, were active in the free agent inflation of the winter, there is also considerable unrest among the smaller markets involving a widening revenue gap with the big markets and the perceived need for changes in the overall financial process. Twenty one years of labor peace could be at stake when the current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season.



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If Best Pitcher Gets Record Contract What About Best Player?

                    By Ross Newhan

                    If baseball's best pitcher is going to receive almost $31 million a year for the next seven, what does the best player receive?

                    The Angels may have to dig deeper into that question as it relates to Mike Trout after the Dodgers reached a record $215 million contract with Clayton Kershaw.

                    The latter is 25 and the former is 22, and there is a difference beyond age, of course,  between two of SoCal's and baseball's brightest stars.

                   Kershaw has pitched more than 1,000 major league innings and was two days away from salary arbitration and a year away from free agency when he and the Dodgers agreed.

                   Trout has achieved his generally recognized stature as MLB's best all-around player after just two plus years. He will need another year before becoming eligible for aribtration and another four before free agency. The Angels don't have a gun at their head yet, but yet they do. Trout wasn't happy when they renewed him at $510,000 last year, only $20,000 above the big league minimum, and they can hardly afford to further antagonize their center fielder and MVP runner-up. They owe Albert Pujols eight more years and Josh Hamilton four--a potentially tough financial slog despite their TV billions--but can they risk not getting ahead of the Trout Express at some point over the next two seasons? Can they risk anything short of a seven to 10 year agreement eclipsing anything that has come before (or has Trout's displeasure over last season's renewal already left him of a mind to take it a year at a time until closer to free agency)?

                The Dodgers knew they didn't want to reach Friday's deadline and have to exchange arbitration numbers with Kershaw and they certainly didn't want to get into the season with their left handed ace closing in on the temptation of free agency. On the basis of age and ability, with internal reports telling them that no pitcher at 1,000 innings or so had ever accomplished what Kershaw has, they knew what it would take, and what it would take hasn't been a deterrent to the Guggenheim group in its brief tenure as owner.

              Only rarely anymore does any team allow its best player to get away, and this is what Kershaw had going for him: Two Cy Young Awards in the last three seasons, three straight National League ERA titles, two of the last three strikeout titles and a four year average of 225 innings, 230 strikeouts and a composite ERA of 2.37.

             In addition, if Kerhaw is building a career comparable to his idol and mentor Sandy Koufax,  he is also already something of a man of the people with his mop of hair, gregarious personality and charity work on two continents.

           There are skeptics who will weigh the money and length and point out that a series of left handed pitchers over the years--Frank Tanana, Steve Avery and Don Gullet to name just three--began to demonstrate wear and tear after reaching 1,000 innings at a comparatively young age. They will also point out that Kershaw seemed to wear down as the playoffs wore on last year, turning in one of his worst efforts in the decisive Game 6 with St. Louis.

           Nevertheless, at 25, given his statistical foundation, the fact he will still be in his prime when the seven years are up and that, as agent Casey Close negotiated, he can opt out after five years, the Dodgers clearly felt the better part of history as it relates to their own left hander was on their side. They now have five players who will earn $20 million or more in 2014 and a payroll certain to exceed an MLB high $250 million with the lingering question of whether to extend Hanley Ramirez and/or to pursue Masahiro Tanaka.

          With the status of Kerhaw and manager Don Mattingly stabilized, however, the Dodgers have taken two major steps as Guggenheim continues to take care of its own house no matter how much unhappiness it creates in smaller markets or how much immediate abuse owner Mark Walter has to endure during the current owners' meetings where he will undoubtedly cross paths with Arte Moreno, who has suddenly been left with a little more to consider when it comes to the L.A. market and what to do now or in the near future about retaining his centerfielder on a longterm basis.