Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Big Time Talent at a Big Time Price

         By Ross Newhan

         Arte Moreno and Tony Reagins were never as deep in the doghouse of Southern California baseball fans as was/is Dodger owner Frank McCourt, but make no mistake: The howls regarding the Angels lack of major off-season activity were deafening.

         Moreno had said in October he would pay any price to get the Angels back to the post-season, and then the market exploded on him. Carl Crawford was the perfect fit, but Moreno wasn't going to match Boston's $142 million, seven year offer, and he wasn't going to go to five years and $80 million for Adrian Beltre, who signed with division champion Texas and would have filled the Angels lingering cavity at third base.

       Less than a month before the Angels report to spring training it looked as if Moreno and Reagins would have to continue enduring the slings and arrows of outraged fans, but then the general manager, operating quietly, pulled a sleeper deal with Toronto for All-Star outfielder Vernon Wells, and Moreno quickly agreed, even though it takes his payroll to about $145 million, potentially baseball's third highest, and Wells, at 32, is owed $86 million over the final four years of a seven year, $126 million deal.

      The Angels will recoup about $10 million by including Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera in the trade, and there are mixed reports that Toronto, anxious to make payroll room for Jose Bautista and his 54 home runs, is picking up some of that $86 million still owed Wells.

      What to think?

      Well, it's easy to spend other people's money, and the Angels were backed into a corner this late in the off-season. Wells bounced back last season, hitting .273 with 31 homers, 44 doubles and 88 runs batted in after averaging 17 homers and 75 RBI for three disappointing and injury-marred seasons after signing the big contract. Always a respected person in the clubhouse, there are scouts who contend that Wells had seemed to lose some fire on the field, but his performance last year--healthy in body and statistics--would appear to defuse that contention, and Wells has said that his excitement in joining the Angels produced goose bumps.

    With Torii Hunter and the returning Kendry Morales he gives the Angels considerable punch in the middle of the lineup, and with Hunter in right, Peter Bourgos (providing Bourgos retains the job) in center and Wells in left (Bobby Abreau becomes the designated hitter), the Angels should have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

    Given the quality of the Angels rotation and the addition of Wells and Morales, the Angels are a potential match for the Rangers and improving Oakland A's, and the howling should ease.

    Which is not to say that Wells answers all the questions.

    He is owed $23 million this year and $21 million in each of the following three, which eats up a lot of the payroll at a time when the Angels have been making cuts in their scouting and front office departments.
     In addition, the Angels still have that gaping hole at third base, a back-sliding Eric Aybar at shortstop, a second baseman in Howie Kendricks who has yet to fulfill all of his offensive potential, a catcher in Jeff Mathis who hit .195 last year (unless Hank Conger is ready), an opening at the back end of the rotation if Scott Kazmir can't find his slider again and a hold-your-breath closer in Fernando Rodney.

    Still, the opportunity to get Wells couldn't be bypassed. He brings big time talent and salary (the highest in Angel history).

    Arte Moreno did pay just about any price, as he had said he would. How it plays out is still uncertain, but for the time being he leaves McCourt alone in the doghouse.         


Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the Anguish of Arizona


      By Ross Newhan

       It is Sunday morning and I am experiencing the same knot in the pit of my stomach that I expect most Americans are experiencing.

       I am staring at a keyboard that has been the instrument of my life's work unsure of what words to choose. Of course, for almost 50 years I have written entirely about games and the people who play them and the words have come reasonably easy--on occasion even winning awards for those I have chosen.

      Now I feel that I would like to write about something far more serious and I don't know quite what I want to say, and ultimately, in cases like this, I think about what a journalism instructor named John Gartner, the man who put me on this course at Long Beach Wilson High many decades ago, advised: keep it short and keep it simple.

     Yesterday in Arizona (the most "bigoted and racist" state in the nation said the sherrif of Pima County, referring to the very state he must help protect), an allegedly deranged young man using a gun he obviously had little trouble obtaining despite his mental history and turned it on an informal meeting that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was conducting with political constituents.

     Six people were killed, including a respected federal judge and a nine year old girl who was the grand- daughter of longtime baseball man and acquaintance Dallas Green and the daughter of Dodger scout John Green. The Congresswoman is in critical condition after brain surgery.

    I do not pretend to know what motivated the troubled Jared Lee Loughner, but this I do know:

   Unless the rhetoric in this country is turned down, unless the message coming out of Washington becomes one of legitimate compromise, there will be other tragic events, other mornings when we share a knot in the pit of our stomachs.

   Debate is the fabric of our country, but what was the exact moment, the time and place, when civility disappeared? Yes, there were times, have been times, when I wrote negatively about some of the people I covered as a humble baseball writer, but I tried to present my thinking reasonably, devoid of any poison in my pen. Some may disagree. There were times I received argumentative reactions from people of the stature of Bud Selig, Tom Lasorda and others, but the avenues of communication remained open.

   Now, the jarring discourse from cable television, from talk radio, from even the gallery and the floor of Congress, is so heated that legitimate comprise and reasonable debate seems beyond the grasp of the leaders we have elected, the personalities we listen to, and even the people who sit in our kitchens, the members of our own families.

   John Adams and Thomas Jefferson strongly disagreed on the course a young country should take and the type of government it should have, but it would serve all of us good to go back and reread the civility of the letters that these founding fathers exchanged in the twilight of their lives.

   In this, my semi-retirement, I try to stay abreast of daily developments by spending an hour or two  watching the cable news shows on both sides of the spectrum, but the tone is so harsh, the message from hosts and guests so unremitting from one day to another, that I am quick to reach for the remote. There is always ESPN, although negotiating 15 minutes of Chris Berman's decibels is not exactly easy or relaxing either.

   Chris is harmless and fun. The rest of it often is neither.

   A staff member of a Florida politician in the recent elections is quoted saying that if ballots fail to work there are always bullets.

 Sarah Palin runs a TV advertisement on behalf of the Tea Party targeting the Democrats who should be defeated by using a gun sight for their locations in the country, Congresswoman Giffords being one.

  The Congresswoman won her election for a third term, defeating an opponent who had invited supporters to come out and shoot an M-16 with him.

  We can only hope that the events of Saturday in Arizona will finally get the message across. We need a return to civility. We need to tone it down. On both sides of the aisle and the street we need to do what is best for the country and our neighbors.

   Yes, I can hear John Gartner yelling from the grave that short and simple is best, so I will go watch playoff football and hope that the knot in my stomach eases, that Saturday will not have been in vain.           



Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hallmarks and More


        By Ross Newhan

        Roberto Alomar should have been elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot (not his second) and Bert Blyleven long before his 14th, but one positive about the eligible voters among the Baseball Writers of Assn. (and the numbers and cast shift some every year) is that at some point they will always get it right.

       Alomar was the best defensive second baseman--not to mention owning a combination of offensive statistics that put him in a category matched only by Paul Molitor--I saw in almost 50 years of coverage (with apologies to Bobby Knoop during the early years of the Angels and Joe Morgan in the 70s) and you have to believe that some voters withheld their support last year because of the spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck, an event that both men have long since moved past, as last year's voters should have. Blyleven has terrific numbers in almost every category, particularly strike outs, shutouts, complete games, post-season and even some of the new metrics, and should not have been forced to creep up on the 75% needed for election before getting 79.7% in his next to last year of ballot eligibility.

     Next year's first year cast of eligible players is a weak one, but weather Barry Larkin can make the jump from 62.1% and Jeff Bagwell from 41.7% is still problematic. I voted for both, but in the case of Bagwell, he was obviously hurt by the shadow of the steroid era, even though there has never been tangible evidence that he used steroids. My policy--as I stated while working for the Los Angeles Times and since starting this blog--is that I will not vote for any player carrying tangible evidence of steroid use. Suspicion is not enough, and should not handicap a player of Bagwell's credentials.Clearly, however, any player who has tested positive or acknowledged steroid use has little chance of getting in, as evidenced by Mark McGwire, who is going backwards in the low 20s, and Rafael Palmeiro, who has first ballot credentials but received only 11% of support.

     Two years from now there will be a remarkable array of players eligible for the first time, promising one of the most interesting elections in Hall history. Those players include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza. Talk about the shadow of the steroid era, although Bonds and, perhaps, Clemens, could escape it on the basis that many voters believe they had produced Hall of Fame careers before syringes and a commodity called the cream allegedly became part of their training regimen. I don't accept the pre-PED contention. An envious Bonds, for example, watched McGwire and Sosa receive national notoriety with their home run battle in 1998, knew he was a better player than either one, became determined to top anything they had produced (or he had produced previously) and suddenly and literally emerged in the physical form of a Transformer, going on to besmirch the McGwire and Henry Aaron home run records.

    Some writers have made the point that we are not the morality police and should accept the Steroid Era as we do the Dead Ball Era or any other, but I don't agree. As I was quoted in a New York Times story Sunday, if we are not the morality police, if we are not the custodians of the game's hsitory and its legacies, who will be? Bud Selig, who has done so many things right in his tenure as commissioner, should have kept hammering at the players union in regard to the absence of a testing policy, and the union, riding the shaky policy of civil liberties, should not have fought it for so long while many of its non-cheating constiuents were thrown under the bus. The history is what it is, and there is no sense going over the sad ground.

    That, however, does not mean that eligible Hall of Fame voters should whitewash the era, accepting the phony numbers as if we have no responsibility to baseball's history.

    Righteous indignation? I don't apologize. I accept the badge of the morality police.

    *  *  *
    So, Adrian Beltre goes to the Texas Rangers for $96 million over six years and Carl Crawford goes to the Boston Red Sox for $142 million over seven years, and where does that leave the Angels?

    What are we supposed to think of owner Arte Moreno drawing a financial line after going into the winter saying he will pay any price to return his team to the playoffs?

    Moreno probably regrets making that statement, making it seem that he would literally pay any price.

    It is clearly not quite what he meant, but he will have to live with the expectations it created and the abuse he is going to receive.

    The market exploded on Moreno and clearly moved beyond his checkbook, or at least his willingness to write a check for any amount.

    Closer Rafael Soriano is still out there, but last year's acquisition of Dan Haren and the return of first baseman Kendry Morales may represent the biggest moves for the team that now carries the name of the nation's second leading market.

    Who's on third? It's like asking who's in left field for that other Los Angeles team.