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Friday, December 14, 2012

Angels and Dodgers Play 'Can You Top This?'



       By Ross Newhan

       It was foolish to think that Angel owner Arte Moreno was through after Joe Blanton, particularly when Zach Greinke made his departure official by signing with that other Los Angeles team for $149 million.

      The Angels and Dodgers are playing an expensive and dangerous game of "Can You Top This?"

     Moreno's response to Greinke was a shocker, the five year, $125 million signing of Josh Hamilton, the premier hitter on the free agent market, coming out of the blue, although it had been quietly in the works for several days, even as General Manager Jerry DiPoto insisted nothing major was imminent after his comparatively quick signing of four pitchers--Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson--to bolster the rotation (devoid of Dan Haren and Ervin Santana) and bullpen.

    Now Moreno can plaster all those billboards throughout the Dodger market with a new El Hombre, Hamilton replacing Albert Pujols and featuring a plug for the Hamilton movie that is already in production.

    The story of Hamilton's career--his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and the years he missed because of it--has been chronicled. He has had two known relapses, is required to take three drug tests a week and, in six years with the Texas Rangers, accrued more than 500 at bats only three times. Yet, he never failed to hit fewer than 30 home runs or drive in 100 runs, and last year, despite a second half falloff and some erratic play in the playoffs, he hit 43 homers and drove in 128 runs.

    C.J. Wilson, his former Texas teammate, spoke highly of Hamilton and the bonus of a mellow Anaheim environment to Moreno when the Angel owner was contemplating that pursuit, according to a club source who was not authorized to speak on the record, and, at 31, the left handed slugger will now provide balance to a predominantly right handed lineup--and more. He provides DiPoto with the opportunity to trade Mark Trumbo (which is doubtful) or Peter Bourjos (more likely) for a front line pitcher (initial speculation has centered on R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets and Rickey Nolasco of the Miami Marlins), and he gives the Angels an explosive lineup that features Mike Trout leading off, Pujols and Hamilton batting third and fourth, and Trumbo hitting fifth, if he stays as expected. With a rebuilt rotation behind Jered Weaver and Wilson, there may be more games in which the Angels will simply have to outscore the opposition, and the only lineup question involves the No. 2 spot with Torii Hunter having gone to Detroit as a free agent.

    There is some belief, according to industry sources, that this trade was made by Moreno and club president John Carpino despite opposition of the top executives in the baseball department, and the deal came as a shock to the Rangers and to the popular Hunter, who wanted to stay in Anaheim and whose first reaction was that he had been lied to by the Angels when they told him they didn't have the financial resources. The Rangers, who have won three straight American League West titles at the frustrated expense of the Angels, were angered that--despite admittedly offering fewer years and dollars than Hamtilon received--they were not given a chance at a final negotiation and only called after a long period of silence to be told by Hamilton he was going to Anaheim.

     In my last blog I wrote that the free spending of the new Dodger owners should be welcomed after the tumultuous and sometimes penurious ownerships of News Corp. and Frank McCourt. However, the Dodger payroll is now over $200 million with more roster spots still to be signed, and the Angels, with Hamilton at $25 million per year, headed for a club record payroll, although there will be relief in 2014 when Vernon Wells is gone.      

     Wells, of course, is an example of an expensive deal gone bad, and for all of Moreno's and Mark Walter's bank accounts, for all of the TV money that will soon be rolling in, there comes a time when enough is enough, although the fight over the L.A. market may have no end.







Sunday, December 9, 2012

Were the New Dodger Owners Not Supposed to Spend?




            By Ross Newhan

            So, what is another $183 million, the Dodgers' latest outlay, not counting the $25.7 million posting fee they had to pay the South Korean league for the negotiating rights to Ryu Hyun-jin, who beat Sunday's deadline by agreeing to a six year, $36 million contract?.

           The deal with Ryu came a few hours after the Dodgers reached agreement on a six year, $147 million contract with Zack Greinke, which made him the highest paid right handed pitcher in baseball history--eclipsing Matt Cain's five year, $112.5 million extension of last April--and who now has the highest average annual salary (among pitchers) of $24.5 million, surpassing  C.C. Sabathia's $23 million a year.

          These latest two signings, lifting the multi-year salary commitments since Mark Walter and his partners took over as the Dodger owners to about $630 million and assuring that their 2013 payroll will be the highest in baseball at more than $200 million (it was less than $100 million in Frank McCourt's last season as owner), is bound to create some raised decibels among other owners, but what is/was Walter and Co. to do?

         Spending $2.1 billion on a flag franchise that was operating at half mast and required restoration as an organization and market at a time when there was virtually no help in the farm system, the new owners have had little choice but to demonstrate they are dedicated to that restoration and understand it had to be done quickly.

       For all of their spending, of course, the Dodgers aren't guaranteed of anything except that Manager Don Mattingly will be carrying a lot of pressure.

      The New York Yankees have produced a $200 million plus payroll in each of the last five years and won only one World Series.

     Can Ryu, 25, jump from Seoul to a major league rotation? Does Greinke have the mental fortitude to cope with that record contract and his premier status given that he has coped with mental issues in the past?  
         
     At $200 million plus, there are other questions. The left side of the Dodger infield hinges on Hanley Ramirez proving he can play shortstop. There is no bonafide leadoff hitter, and left fielder Carl Crawford needs to prove he can still be Carl Crawford.

     But should the Dodgers have left Greinke go elsewhere and not taken a chance on Ryu?

    Should they have not made that blockbuster trade with Boston even if, in the long term, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is the only meaningful part of it?

    With Clayton Kerhsaw and Greinke at the top of the rotation, and possibly Chad Billingley, Josh Beckett, and Ryu forming the rest of it (where Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang fit in isn't clear), the Dodgers may have a rotation potentially competitive with that of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.   .

     They are also in the verge of a multi-billlion dollar TV deal with either Fox or Time-Warner, presuming they don't initiate their own network.

     The point is that the new owners set a record to buy in, recognizing the market's and brand's potential. They have recognized, as well, what had to be done and the time frame in which it had to be done. The TV potential, restoration of the fan base, eventual revitalization of the stadium and the internal strengthening of the front office aimed at improving domestic and international scouting will ultimately pay off to a larger extent than all these pay outs.

    In the aftermath of the sordid News Corp. and McCourt ownerships, I don't see where the club's rooters have anything to complain about, despite the ruckus that some in the industry may create.       
            

Thursday, December 6, 2012

If Moreno Has Drawn a Line, What in the World Are the Yankees Doing?

   
       By Ross Newhan

       Baseball's winter meetings ended Thursday, but the head shaking signings will continue, and two things are now clear:

       1. Arte Moreno may have a new TV contract, which admittedly was why he felt comfortable committing $317.5 million to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson last winter, but he apparently won't let the 2013 Angels surpass last year's record payroll of $159 million.

      2. Hank and Hal Steinbrenner have tightened the New York Yankees budget to such an extreme that their late dad, Boss George, must be screaming from his unknown location, be it heaven or hell.

     The Yankees, whose industry high payroll has topped $200 million in each of the last five years while producing only one World Series title, are not hiding the fact that they are determined to be under the 2014 luxury tax threshold of $189 million, taking advantage of financial covenants in the . collective bargining agreement.

   The 2013 lineup will include some familiar faces such as Derek Jeter, Mark Texeira, Robinson Cano and Mariano Rivera back as closer after losing a year to surgery, but it isn't going to be the intimidating Wall Street of the Bronx. They have gaping holes at catcher (they wouldn't match the two year, $17 million contract Pittsburgh gave Russell Martin), at third base (while Alex Rodriguez recovers from a second hip operation that will sideline him until mid season or longer) and in right field (where they refused to meet the years and financial requests of Nick Swisher).

  Typical of the Yankees' new financial restraints is the situation at third base.

  They let Eric Chavez leave as a free agent (he signed a $3 million contract with Arizona) and they refused to give free agent Jeff Keppinger a three year contract that he then received from the Chicago White Sox at $12 million. Chavez and Keppinger are utility types who don't resemble Rodriguez (even the fading Rodriguez) but they were cheap alternatives in a market not overflowing with third basemen. Now, Kevin Youkilis may end up there, and Nate Schierholtz, who has never hit more than nine home runs in a season, may be the inexpensive replacement for Swisher's 24.

   At the winter meetings, renown agent Scott Boras told reporters he couldn't speak for the Yankees, but he then couldn't resist doing just that.

  "I think the model to be a Goliath is wholly different than the approach they're taking," he said. "They're reducing their payroll from past practices, despite record revenues in the $800-$900 million area, and frankly, when you look at the collective bargaining agreement, their reason for doing it, (given) the value of their brand, has to be looked at very closely."

   Responded Yankee President Randy Levine: Scott's a great agent, but he's an agent. Last I looked, he had zero experience running a professional sports team. I think the Yankees have done pretty well following our own course. My advice to Scott is stick to your day job representing players."

   Boras, however, isn't alone in wondering about the Yankees' motivation given their flagship status and industry high revenues, which were further enhanced recently by a reported $420 million check from News Corporation as a part of a complex deal that enabled Rupert Murdoch's company to buy a 49% equity stake in the club's YES network.

   The Angels' new TV deal may surpass $4 billion with built-in options but Moreno seems to have drawn a line. They have apparently withdrawn from the pursuit of Zack Greinke, initially thought to be their No. 1 winter objective, and gone a much more modest route. To this point they have added starters Tommy Hanson (who has gone backwards from his once thought of ace potential) in a trade with Atlanta and the homer vulnerable Joe Blanton for a questionable two years and $15 million as a free agent, in addition to relievers Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson.

   The Angels could be through, in fact, since general manager Jerry DiPoto seems to have satisfied his stated goal of flushing out a pitching staff now devoid of Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and Jordan Waldon. The Yankees still have holes to fill, but who would have thought they'd be looking only for bargains?            

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Baseball, the Fiscal Cliff Is A Molehill




       By Ross Newhan

       Will Congress or the free spending major league baseball owners go over the fiscal cliff first?
       Trick question.
       With the industry's soaring TV revenue--collectively and individually--the clubs, for the most part, continue to make a molehill out of any potential cliff as they continue to dole out multi-year contracts of a head shaking nature. An average annual value of $13 million or more is now common-place. A player making less is second tier, perhaps utility. The average salary of $3.4 million at the end of the 2012 season could surpass $4 million by the start of the 2013 season.
      As Mike DiGiovanna, my former baseball writing colleague at the Los Angeles Times exclaimed in an e-mail this week: "What a country!"
      Mike had two former Angels in mind: Mike Napoli and Dan Haren.
     Napoli received a three year $39 million contract from the Boston Red Sox. He will catch and play first base, neither of which he does very well. His primary assignment will be to use the towering Citgo sign beyond the left field monster at Fenway Park for target practice. At $13 million a year he owes a thank you note if not a case of champagne to Angel manager Mike Sioscia, whose disbelief in his catching ability prompted the team to trade him in 2011, a haunting decision.
     Haren labored through 2012 at 12-13, battling physical issues at times. The Angels did not pick up his $15.5 million option, but the Washington Nationals didn't hesitate giving the 32 year right hander a $13 million contract. Haren, however, will actually receive $16.5 million since the Angels still owe him a holiday token of $3.5 million.
     What a country indeed.
     How about the Red Sox also giving Shane Victorino a three year, $39 million contract to play right field? Victorino's main job is to get on base and steal. He is still capable of that latter task, but getting on base has become increasingly difficult as exemplified by miserable on-base percentages of .324 and .316 with Philadelphia and the Dodgers last season.
    Consider, as well, Angel Pagan, always a utility outfielder before helping San Francisco win the World Series last season. The Giants initially wanted to retain Pagan for two years, but to get him for two years in a competitive market they had to give him four years for a numbing $40 million.
    Even the Pittsburgh Pirates have been at it, giving former Dodger and New York Yankee catcher Russell Martin a two year, $17 million contract coming off a season in which he hit .211, although he also hit 21 home runs.
     The beat goes on, and the two prizes of this year's free agent class, outfielder Josh Hamilton and pitcher Zach Greinke, haven't even signed yet, and a second tier of pitchers, including Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster and Shaun Marcum, have their wallets eagerly out and ready, waiting for Greinke to set a bar of sorts.
      Over the years, I suppose, we have become immune to the numbers.
      Last year, with the Angels on the verge of a new TV deal, they gave $317.5 million to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and then the new owners of the Dodgers sent their payroll to $200 million with that blockbuster trade with Boston knowing, as well, a new TV contract (being estimated at $6 billion)  was around the corner.
     Now, both the Dodgers and Angels are battling over Greinke, while that fiscal cliff gets flattened by deals that make you wonder and others--for example David Wright agreeing to an eight year, $138 million extension with the New York Mets and conservative Tampa Bay giving Evan Longoria a six year extension at $100 million--that fit the ho hum category. I mean, by comparison, why not?  
    
    
               

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

That's the Steroid Era Knocking on the Hall Door





            By Ross Newhan

            Baseball's steroid era has never come knocking on the Hall of Fame's door to the comprehensive extent found on the ballot currently being digested by about 650 eligible voting members of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.
            Among the players who are on the ballot for the first time are Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza..
            On the isolated basis of statistics and accomplishments, all would seem to have either an excellent or reasonably solid chance of garnering the 75% required for election.
            However, all have either been proven to have used varying forms of performance enhancing substances, admitted to having used a performance enhancing substance at various times for varying durations or been strongly suspected of having used an enhancing substance.
            If you were to poll my BBWAA colleagues you would get a mixed bag of reactions and philosophies regarding players who fall into one or more of the above categories.
           Never, perhaps, would those colleagues be split to a more argumentative extent regarding two players of a more renown stature than Bonds, the home run king who also holds the record for Most Valuable Player awards, and Clemens, who won 354 games and holds the record for Cy Young awards.
         Both would be automatic selections if it wasn't for the PED issue, but that issue is an enormous cloud impossible to ignore in the case of Bonds and Clemens, as well as in the case of Sosa and Piazza, although none of the four ever tested positive for a PED once baseball began testing in 2005.
        The steroid era stained baseball statistically and, in turn, historically, and while it is impossible to say--without verifiable proof--who cheated and who didn't, the accusations by Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, among others, that the cheating was widespread is now easier to believe than dismiss (a cheating that continues to a still staining, if lesser, extent).
       And where does that leave my philosophy regarding the Hall of Fame?
      I respect the opinion of colleagues who contend that we are only guessing as to how level or non-level the playing field was during the height of the steroid era and, therefore, any player who has earned the Hall of Fame statistically, historically and never tested postive will receive their vote.
     In contrast, I am more cynical and personally involved.
    My son, David, played parts of eight years in the major leagues and almost six in all. He did not use PEDs, and I believe him on that, having seen him lose roster spots and salary to players who were proven to have used PEDs (or later admitted to it) while their union did nothing to protect the non-cheaters.
    I recognize that the Hall is not comprised entirely of saints, but my criteria-- born in full disclosure by that personal attachment and my long experience--is that where there is reasonable belief of PED use I will/would withhold my vote unless, in subsequent years, by some means, I could be convinced otherwise.
    I also disagree with the view of some colleagues that voting members are not the morality police.
   If they are not, who is?
   I mean, where was the union and commissioner for many of the years in question? And doesn't the Hall's instructions, sent with each ballot, expect the voter to be exactly that, a morality judge?
    Those instructions ask voters to evaulate "the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."      
    The first year chances of Bonds, Clemens, Piazza and Sosa?
    I believe Bonds, Clemens and Piazza will ultimately get 75% and would not be surprised if Piazza does it in his first year of eligibility.
   The former Dodger catcher, arguably the all-time best hitter at his position, has never been linked to a positive drug test but has acknowledged briefly using the steroid precursor androstenedione early in his career before it was banned by baseball.
    If precedent is a gauge, two potential Hall candidates with steroid links, Rafael Palmeiro (who failed a drug test) and new Dodger hitting coach Mark McGwire (who ultimately acknowledged using steroids for nearly a decade after first refusing to testify before Congress)  will never be elected. Palmeiro, who hit 569 home runs and collected 3,020 hits, received only 11% of the vote in his first year on the ballot last December, while McGwire, who slugged 583 homers, has never gotten more than 23.7% of the vote in six years on the ballot.
   The results of the 2012 election will be announced in January. Nate Silver has yet to be heard from.    
SAD SNUBBING OF MARVIN MILLER

   No one had a more profound impact on the industry and more deserved to be voted into the Hall than the longtime union leader who died Tuesday at 95.
   A succession of veterans committees--more than one comprised for the most part of Hall of Fame players who owed so much to Miller and the last being a 12 member post-integration committee in 2010 that included two owners (Jerry Reinsdrorf and David Glass) and a longtime executive (Andy MacPhail), although the vote was not announced (I, too, was a member of the committee) and I am not implying that those three industry executives voted against him.
  Miller created one of the strongest unions in the country, opened the game to free agency and saw the average salary increase from $7,000 when he became leader of the fledgling union to the current $3.4 million. No one is more responsible for the game's economic structure, and I suspect that at some point he will be voted into the Hall.
  However, it is a shame matching the posthumous induction of Ron Santo that it did not happen while he was alive.

ANOTHER STEROID ERA?

   The ongoing introduction of synthetic enhancers has prompted talks between the commissioner's office and union on the subject of tightening testing, according to multiple sources who insist there is no indication that an agreement or any change is close.
      
      
       
        
                         

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Kuroda Contract Helps Illustrate High Price That Will Be Paid For Some Pitching Turkeys




          


           By Ross Newhan

           I don't know if Hiroki Kuroda celebrates Thanksgiving, but he received an early gift from the New York Yankees, who resigned the 38 year old right hander to a one year, $15 million--that's FIFTEEN MILLION--contract. A turkey of a deal by the Yankees? Well, not entirely. Kuroda was 16-11 last season with a 3.32 earned-run average and 1.165 WHIP, for sabermetric followers. Call it a very decent year, and I am not knocking Kuroda. The point here is that his new contract is illustrative of the high price of pitching at a time when the free agent market is very limited, and both the Angels and Dodgers are trapped in a situation in which they desperately need pitching.
          To put it bluntly, what do the Dodgers really have behind Clayton Kershaw, and can the Angels count on Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams to fill two of the three holes behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson?
          Both teams, among others, are pursuing Zack Greinke, far and away the premier free agent on the market.
         Greinke was a combined 15-5 with the Milwaukee Brewers and Angels last season, and has averaged 207 innings over the last five years, going 70-43. However, he made $13.5 million last year, is rumored to be seeking a five year contract at least and, while in his prime at 29 starting 2013, it is hard to forget that he once walked away from the game over mental issues while with the Kansas City Royals. In that regard, perhaps, he is the personification of what Mark Walter, the controlling partner of the Dodgers, meant late last season when he expressed disdain for long term contracts for pitchers by saying, "pitchers break."
        Anibal Sanchez, who is probably No. 2 on the free agent list talent wise, will also be 29 at the start of next season but has broken down with injuries so often that he is clearly a risk despite his similar desire for a multi year contract of at least $10 million a year. Sanchez was 9-13 with a 3.86 earned run average with Miami and Detroit last year.
       Kyle Lohse, who was 14-8 in 2011 and a career best 16-3 with St. Louis last season, is certain to draw attention, but can Lohse repeat at 34 and where does he go from there in demanding a multiyear contract built on the $12.1 million he earned in 2012?
      Pitching is the name of the game, of course, as the San Francisco Giants proved again while winning the World Series for the second time in the last three years.
     It's just that the name of the game has never been so expensive, and quite a few back of the rotation pitchers on the free agent list are going to be paid as if they are better than that,
    Kuroda, who is a No. 2 if you stretch it and more like a No. 3, has already demonstrated the inflationary nature of a market that has been heating up as the holidays approached, and for $15 million Kuroda, the former Dodger who probably left money on the table by not testing the market, is very happy to celebrate Thanksgiving in Osaka.   
          
           
                      

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trout's Compensation? Maybe the Next 15 MVPs





     By Ross Newhan

      I don't care whether you are a traditionalist or a sabermetric seamhead, the contest between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera for the American League's Most Valuable Player Award was a virtual tossup, and it is not a crime, Angel fans and Trout supporters, that Cabrera won. I'm not going to go on and on about this, nor do I dispute that Trout's overall statistics, when including base stealing and his sensational defensive play (which can now be measured metrically), seem superior to those of the Detroit third baseman.

     But consider:

     --Cabrera was the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown, leadng the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.

     --From April 28, when Trout played his first game with the Angels, Cabrera had a better batting average and slugging percentage, and their on-base percentage was basically even.

    --Cabrera also had a better stretch and September than Trout, particularly power wise, helping lift the Tigers over the collapsing Chicago White Sox to a Central Division title while the Angels failed to reach the playoffs despite one more September win than the successful Tigers.

    This is the way I look at it: In his first year, attempting to add the MVP to his Rookie of the Year Award, Trout ran into a historial roadblock in the form of a Triple Crown and a player who basically had a comparable season with the bat in his hands.

    I know that may freak out the computer devotees--the WAR and OPS touters, those who would contend that it is simply wrong to eliminate Trout's defense and stolen base accomplishments as he rewrote the rookie record book--but this was strictly a pick-em contest, and, at 21, Trout's compensation could be that he'll win the next 15 MVP Awards, or at least the majority, he is easily that good.
 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Selig Should Stop Marlins/Blue Jays Trade





    

         By Ross Newhan

         If Bud Selig was ever going to follow the lead of the late Bowie Kuhn and act in baseball's best interest to stop a one sided trade that spit in the face of Miami fans and taxpayers this was it.

        However, Selig has failed to respond to the 12 player trade between the Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays that sent almost all of the remaining cream of Miami's roster to Canada--and that's a shame, to put it mildly.

       Less than a year after opening their $600 million, technicolor ballpark--about two thirds of which is the obligation of local taxpayers--and going on a rare spending spree to justify all of the lobbying and the expenditure on the ballpark, owner Jeff Loria traded about $160 million in contracts to the Blue Jays (obviously having seen Baltimore and Tampa Bay prove that the AL East does not belong strictly to the Yankees and Red Sox).

      Of course, the Marlins were a disappointing 63-79 with all of their in put of talent, but there were so many injuries and internal issues under since fired manager Ozzie Guillen that perhaps the roster that started the season deserved another chance under new manager Mike Redmond.

      Now,  Redmond figures to field a lineup that might have problems with the Class A team he managed last year. In fact, some of his Class A players may be part of the lineup.

      Having already made in-season trades that sent Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Tigers and Edward Mujica to the Cardinals, Loria began the offseason by trading disappointing closer Heath Bell to Arizona (a legitimate move) and now has traded shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, infielder-outfielder Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck to the Blue Jays for seven players who aren't going to produce a run on Miami's season ticket windows. Three of the seven were ranked by Baseball America among Toronto's top 10 prospects, but prospects are just that until they are something more or something less.

     Reyes and Buehrle, the Marlins' premier free agent signings of last winter at $164, had both demonstrated good faith and long term intentions by not demanding no trade clauses, but good faith has always had a twisted meaning under Loria and predecessor Wayne Huizenga, who is remembered for breaking up his 1997 World Series winner.

    Consider, in the context of good faith, what Larry Beinfest, Miami's head of baseball operations, said at the time of Guillen's firing: "Our hope is that a new manager, along with roster improvements, will restore a winning culture."

    Roster improvements?

    Tweeted Giancarlo Stanton, one of the few remaining forces in the Miami lineup: "Alright, I'm pissed off!!! Plan & Simple."

    At a time when money is pouring into baseball through television, internet, merchandising and global expansion, the Marlins have deceived their fans while the Blue Jays have taken advantage of an opportunity. Besides local television contracts that are exploding at an unprecedented rate, the 30 clubs will each receive about $24 million from the new national contracts starting in 2014.

    Selig has opened new avenues--on and off the field---but he should and/or should have closed this one to the Marlins, whose taxpaying fans deserved better.              

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A-Rod: Long a Facsimile




        
     By Ross Newhan

     I first met Alex Rodriguez in 1996. I was the national baseball columnist at the L.A. Times and he was 21 and in his first full season as the Seattle Mariners shortstop. He was in the process of hitting 36 home runs and 54 doubles, driving in 123 runs to finish second in Most Valuable Player voting behind Juan Gonzalez. Rodriguez had been the first player selected in the 1993 June draft, leaving the Dodgers, drafting second, to select Darren Dreifort, and wouldn't history have been different if it had been the other way around?

    I had made arrangements with the Mariners and Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, to meet with the young player early in the Kingdome clubhouse, long before batting practice started, and after first introducing myself, Rodriguez asked, "can I get you a chair and a soft drink?" I had been covering baseball for 35 years and that was a first. No player before or since had or has offered me a chair and drink in a clubhouse interview.

    Rodriguez was that nice, but he had already been prepped.

   Boras and the major league PR department had arranged for the media trainer, Andrea Kirby, to meet with the talented and touted Rodriguez to work on his speech patterns and the expected onslaught of TV and newspaper reporters.

   Over the course of his celebrated career and subsequent interviews with Rodriguez, some long and some just a question or two, I have aways tended to drift back to that first interview, to that one and only time I was asked if I would like a chair and drink before we started. The point being, the thought that has stayed with me, is that the media readied Rodriguez, now 37, a three-time MVP who has hit 647 home runs, initiated his career as something of a facsimile and has never changed.

   Does anyone know the real Rodriguez?

  Can anyone be sure how much of his otherwise Hall of Fame caliber career has been built on his admitted (for a time with the Texas Rangers) use of steroids?

   While acknowledging his baseball gifts, who can say that his mind has always been on the game, or are we apt to think more of the stars and starlets he has dated? Are we apt to think of the recent New York Post story claiming that the benched Rodriguez, during the league championship series with the Detroit Tigers, sent a baseball to a pair of attractive fans on which he asked for their phone numbers?        
   What are we to make of Rodriguez after this latest post-season failure and benching that followed an injury marred and subpar regular season with the Yankees still owing him $114 million over five more years as part of their wacky 10 year, $275 million renewal in 2007?

    Can he be the player he once was or ever was free of steroids? Would any team risk taking him even if the Yankees pick up most of that $114 million? How can the Yankees put him back at third base now that they have started Eric Chavez--his star long dimmed--in the most meaningful games of the season?

    There are no clear cut answers to any of it, primarily because no one can say they have a clear cut vision of Alex Rodriguez.

    It would take a soft chair and something stronger than a soft drink to unwind the facsimile.              

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Yankees Loss of Jeter Is Loss of Player Who Has Been Baseball's Best



      By Ross Newhan

      From the tiime he became the fulltime Yankee shortstop in 1996 until he broke his left ankle in the 12th inning of Game 1 of the American League's Championship Series, Derek Jeter was the best player in baseball.

    I say that as a writer who has written about baseball for more than 50 years, and I acknowledge, in the 16 year period before Jeter went down, that there were better power hitters, better hitters for average, better base stealers and better defensive shortstops--Omar Vizquez for sure.

        Jeter, however, has been the epitome of the complete player, the quintessential Yankee and, if not Mr. October, few players have ever produced more postseason highlights in 33 fall series.

       In an era rampant with drug cheaters, Jeter did it naturally--at least there has never been rumors or evidence otherwise.
     
       Smart, tough, always in the right place at the right time--or think about the 2001 division series with Oakland if nothing more, the backhanded flip as a cutoff man who saw that he had to be far out of position and which nailed Jeremy Giambi trying to score, saving Game 3, and his bloodying, head- first dive into the Yankee Stadium stands to catch Terrence Long's foul fly in Game 5.

      He has been the Yankee captain, the manager behind the scenes, the all-time hit leader (passing Lou Gehrig in 2009) of an organization whose hit list contains some of the most renowned names in baseball history.

     As the leadoff man he set the tone for a series of Yankee lineups that didn't care about newspaper deadlines or the wearying arms of opposing pitchers, always playing their own postseason game.

    They consistently drove up pitch counts as the clock ticked through the time zones, and it all started with Jeter as he fouled off pitch after pitch before looping or driving a  single to right field with his inside out swing.

   This is not meant as an epitaph. Jeter has another year left on his contract at $17 million, but at 38  it is questionable how effectively he can return at a demanding position, and this seemed to be the appropriate time to put on record my opinion that for 16 years he has simply been the best player in the game. It is also questionable, of course, if the Yankees--wtih a regressing A-Rod among other key issues--can survive Detroit without their captain.      

      
           

Monday, October 1, 2012

While the Angels Underprerformed, the Dodgers Exceeded Expectations





       By Ross Newhan

       So, the Angels and Dodgers began their final series of the year Monday night with both still alive for the playoffs (sort of) and a reader asks which of the teams should be more disappointed if it fails to qualify for the post-season.

       The answer, as I see it, is an easy one.

     The Dodgers can take a measure of pride in getter this far. Who knew what to expect entering the season? As it played out, the divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt distracted from the field, the  owner put the team in bakruptcy, Bud Selig took control of the operation, and General Manager Ned Colletti had littrle loose cash with which to improve the product until the new owner took over.

     The Angels should be embarrassed by their failure. The signing of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the arrival of Mike Trout and the continued development of Mark Trumbo contibuted, potentially, to what should should have been the strongest lineup in club history and one of the best rotations in the big leagues.

     Yet, this was a team that left too many runners on base, failed to fulfill its rotation expectations  (aside from Jered Weaver), waited too long to find a potential closer, never turned the bulllpen into anything but guesswork and frequently sent off  whffs of internal issues, as confirmed by multiple sources within the organization. Owner Arte Moreno ultimately posted a message on the team's web site that Manager Mike Sciosica, who is signed through 2018, would be back, along with General
 Manager Jerry DiPoto, but another 8-15 start could relight the smoke under Scioscia despite the six years left on his contract.

    The Angels also have personnel problems despite the generally high level of talent.

    The bullpen needs work, the option years of Ervin Santana ($13 million ) and Dan Haren ($15.5 million) are unlikely to be expercised (creating gaping holes in the rotation unless Zach Greineke can be signed as a free agent), Torri Hunter presents a major free agent quandry after carrying the club in September, and the seldom used or productive Vernon Wells is still owed $42 million over the next two years.

    The Angels, it appears, with their $152 million payoll, are going to watch the Texas Rangers win their third straight division title and face humiliation as the Oakland A's, with their $52.8 million payroll, and Baltimore Orioles, at $84 million, both come from nowhere to capture the American League's two wild card berths. Moreno, of course, still has all that TV money with which to fill holes, but 2012 provided another example that money isn't always decisive.

    The new Dodger owners will soon sign the mother of all TV contracts, although their record $2.1 billion purchase of the team and $260 million acquisition of four players from the Boston Red Sox proved they are not operating on a shoestring. Had Matt Kemp not run into the wall in Colorado and Adrian Gonzalez not struggled intiially after his aquisition from the Red Sox, the Dodger probably would have caught St. Louis (which they still could) for the second wild card spot and, perhaps, even San Francisco for the division title.

    Depending on Carl Crawford's comeback from Tommy John surgery and Josh Beckett's reliability, the Guggehim Partners may have paid $260 million for one player (Gonzalez) but with their insurance revenues and new TV contract it is unlikely that money is a concern to them. They have a varierty of issues that have to be addressed, but what Dodger fan during the heart of the McCourt mess would have predicted the season would end this optimistically or on such a winning run? It was Angel fans, with their great expectations, who would have expected better.   

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Triple Crown by Cabrera Should Deprive Trout of MVP






      By Ross Newhan

      In the last eight or so days of the baseball season, highlighted by a series of division and wild card battles--not to mention release of the great new Mumford & Sons' album ("Babel")--history is at stake in the American League, where Miguel Cabrera of Detroit and Mike Trout of the Angels are vying for the Most Valuable Player Award.

     This, of course, is not your customary MVP contest--nor will it be a knock on the loser or any of the other contenders, such as Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Adam Dunn, Derek Jeter, etc.

     While there are bigger rewards on the line--a Central Division title for the Tigers and the AL's second wild card berth for the Angels---it is difficult to escape the historical backdrop of the MVP contest.

    Consider that Trout--a lock for the AL's Rookie of the Year Award at 21 and putting together a collection of statistics never achieved by a rookie--could join Fred Lynn (1975) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001) as the only players to win the rookie and MVP awards in the same season.

    Meanwhile, Cabrera could become the first winner of the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and only the 14th player--two did it twice--since 1878, an achievement that escaped Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, among many other Hall of Fame players and all of those players who are known to have cheated by employing steroids or human growth hormones.

  Cabrera, entering Wednesday's games, led the league in batting average (.331) and runs batted in (133) and trailed Hamilton in home runs by one, 43-42.

  Trout boasts impressive statistics in each of those three categories, is a far superior base runner and defensive player than Cabrera, and, seamheads would argue, has a considerable lead over Cabrera in the sabermetric category of Wins Above Replacement, which takes into consideration those defensive and base stealing categories, among others.

  There is no debating that Trout, in his first season and one of the youngest players in the majors, is a more complete player than Cabrera. There is no debating that coming up to the season's final week both players have been the most instrumental in putting their teams in position to reach the playoffs, although both have received considerable help from teammates.

  Who should win? Who should be the American League's Most Valuable player?

  Having watched Trout close up, roaming the outfield as if a member of the Border Patrol and becoming a more clutch hitter as games reached the make or break span of the late innings, his speed alone a catalyst as well, it is difficult not to vote him the MVP as well as the rookie award.

  Yet, it has been 45 years since any player has achieved the Triple Crown, and it is such an infrequent accomplishment in all the years of the game, that Cabrera would almost have to be voted the honor.

  There are many, among the MVP committee voters, who can be expected to cite the WAR category and vote for Trout as the more accomplished all-around player, but sometimes those three categories ---batting average, RBI and home runs--speak for themselves, and the difficulty in achieving all three in the same year is documented by the history.                
      

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Dodgers Should Be Better Next Year Because They Should Be Better




       By Ross Newhan

       I don't buy it.

       I don't buy the contention by some columnists and theorists that the Dodgers will be better next year specifically because Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez will have had more time playing together.

       I think the Dodgers will be better next year because Ned Colletti is certain to have improved the pitching staff, Ramirez will be moved to third fulltime and either Dee Gordon or another proven and newly acquired infielder will be at shortstop, the Dodgers could have a more offensive catcher and a surgery recovered left fielder Carl Crawford will be dedicated to proving he can be the player that he once was.

      My point is that Kemp, Ethier, Gonzalez and Ramirez aren't the type hitters--on a general basis--who hit behind runners, who hit and run, who do the little things that hitters benefit from by knowing each other better and by spending more time playing together.

     Yes, Kemp could be fully healthy and better, Gonzalez and Ramirez won't have been newly acquired and trying to prove themselves, and Ethier won't have recently received a contract extension that he may be feeling he has to justify.

     For these four, standing in the batter's box is standing in the batter's box and reacting to the pitch as talented hitters/sluggers do.

    They should (could?) benefit by playing for a better all-around team, but not necessarily because they will have had more time playing together.

 
 
        

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Wild Card Wouldn't Change Fact: Angels and Dodgers Aren't Done Spending




    By Ross Newhan

    Both the Angels and Dodgers had 19 games remaining as of Thursday morning, and three things are clear (four, if you include the fact that the temperature is still hotter than either team):

    1--Neither the Angels nor Dodgers are going to win their division.

    2--Money, as proven often by the Yankees and others, doesn't guarantee success.

    3--Both teams face an off-season of continued spending.

    --The Angels and their $159 million payroll have fallen a surprising (shocking?) 8 1/2 games behind Texas and will see the Rangers win the American League West for the third straight year.

    --The Dodgers and their $262.5 million long-term commitment to four players via the Aug. 26 trade with Boston are a Woolworth's 5 and 10 since then to fall seven games behind San Francisco, which will win the National League West for the second time in the last three years.

   None of this is to say that the Angels and Dodgers are without playoff hopes, but only because of post-season reconstruction that will qualify two wild card teams in each league.

   The Dodgers are only one game behind St. Louis, the second of the National League's two wild card contenders (Atlanta has the first spot wrapped up), as they open a four game series with the Cardinals tonight. The Angels, threatening to finish like they started in an 8-15 April, are 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles (who are tied for the American League's second wild card berth), and 4 1/2 behind front running Oakland entering today's series finale with the $54 million A's, whose rookie pitchers have left the fastball favoring Angel hitters appearing as if they've never seen a breaking ball in a three straight domination.

  So, I suppose, if the Angels and Dodgers reach a respective wild card play-in game they can shrug off some of the division disappointment but not all the eventual questions.

  The Angels, potentially, appeared to have their most potent lineup and best rotation ever, but Arte Moreno will need to keep his wallet out because that potential failed to become reality.

   In fact, he should start working on Zach Greineke now because there will not be a better starter available in the market, and that rotation is a pitcher shy and an inconsistent enigma when it comes to Ervin Santana,  C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren.

  The bullpen, a problem from the start, needs rebuilding, third base can be improved (Adrian Beltre was a missed opportunity in more ways than one but that was two years and one general manager ago) and the saving that once seemed feasible with the expiring of Torri Hunter's contract may have to be reconsidered off  his performance behind Mike Trout and the slide of Mark Trumbo.      
   Also, is Mike Scioscia safe and does he want to be, even with a contract through 2018?

  The Dodgers, with Gugenheim already committed to $170 million next year and certain to pass the Yankees at the top of the payroll standings, have to rebuild the pitching staff, look hard at the middle of the infield and hope that a recovering Carl Crawford and those four would be bellwethers in the middle of the order--Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez--will be more effective with more time together, although the rules won't be changing. Each will still be alone in the batter's box.

  While all of that is getting ahead of those 19 games, the reality is unmistakeable:

  The Angels and Dodgers face a winter of cold cash, wild card or not.                       

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Orioles Are Unveiling Statues But Producing Bigger News In The Standings





      By Ross Newhan

      That was not a typographical error in Wednesday's newspapers. The Baltimore Orioles--the same Orioles who finished last season with a 69-93 record and had not been in first place in September since 1997--were tied with the New York Yankees at the top of the American League East with Tampa Bay only a game behind.

      How did this happen given that in any of the last 15 years Thursday night's unveiling of a Cal Ripken Jr. statue--one in a series of six unveilings by the organization during what it has billed as a Legends Celebration--would be the highlight of the club's September?

     Well, trying to explain it is no easier than getting your mind around the fact that now--with less than a month to play--the battered and misdirected Orioles of those recent years have to be regarded as a legitimate playoff contender--if not, obviously, more.

    I mean, start with the fact that figures obviously lie. The Orioles are 16th in the major leagues in earned-run average (having allowed fewer runs than only 10 of the other 29 teams), are 21st in hits and batting average, and 17th in runs.

   Yet, they are 24-7 in games decided by one run and have won 12 straight extra inning games.

   Both are measures of a team that isn't quitting on itself, as in previous summers when Camden Yards was a second home for Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans.

  Now, underscoring the standings, Baltimore has also won 21 of its last 29 games, and a corps of young players acquired in trade or developed within--Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and 20 year old Manny Machado among them--have played an important role.

   Nevertheless, there has been some educated magic involved.

   With an $84 million payroll the Orioles are still more than $100 million behind the hated Yankees, forcing General Manager Dan Duquette to operate a rotating roster.

   Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who had been out of the GM chair for a decade, has made 158 roster moves, employing 50 players, including 25 pitchers and 11 different starters--the most recent being the addition of veterans Joe Saunders and Randy Wolf. Both Saunders and Wolf--Arizona and Milwaukee castoffs--made a key start in the last week, catching some of the magic.

   Duquette is the sixth general manager, and Buck Showalter is the seventh manager, since Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson led the Orioles as GM and manager to the 1997 division title. It takes a measure of guts--or the simple need for a paycheck--to become an Oriole manager or general manager given the propensity of owner Peter Angelos to have the final word and/or to interfere in every facet of the baseball operation--the one Oriole constant.    

  There are probably not two more controlling personalities in baseball than Angelos and Showalter,  but Showalter is now in his third year at the Oriole helm, and close observers say Angelos has stayed remarkably clear of the manager's and general manager's business.

  The owner has not even been attending the statue unveilings, sending Louis, the youngest of his two sons.

  Whether the senior Angelos can pass on the Ripken unveiling remains to be seen.

  Who would have thought that a September game with the Yankees following the unveiling would be the evening's highlight?

           

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Wild Card Clock Is Ticking on the Angels---and Scioscia?





    By Ross Newhan

    This is not exactly a revealing statement, but I haven't seen it stated clearly anywhere else: The Angels are dead in the American League West.

    They are 10 games behind the Texas Rangers entering Tuesday night's game against the Boston Red Sox with 33 to play, and the Rangers are going to win the division for the third straight year. The one-time dominance of the Angels in the West during the mid-2010s is over, and this year's failure by Manager Mike Scioscia's team to even mount a challenge is an embarrassment.

    It is an embarrassment because the Angels have the most potentially potent lineup in their history and, potentially, the best rotation in the American League.

   The rotation, however, has been a second half disappointment, and the bullpen has been a season-long failure, which is not entirely a surprise.

    Jordan Walden has gone from a 32-save rookie surprise to one save. General Manager Jerrry DiPoto made a nice mid-season addition in Ernesto Frieri, but Frieri appears tired, set up man Scott Down does not appear healthy and the rest of the bullpen can't be trusted.

    The Angels enter the Boston series four games behind the American League's second wild card team. They still have a shot at the playoffs, and while that could ease a measure of discontent, they are a team that should have been better than a last gasp playoff team and they are an organization that should have dealt with the bullpen issue earlier in the season.

   With a payroll of almost $160 million, with that offense and potential rotation, it is easy to feel that something has been missing besides a deeper bullpen and reliable closer.

   DiPoto and owner Arte Moreno both insist that Scioscia will be back, and to question his status is a distraction.

   Scioscia has six more years remaining on his remarkable contract, but I don't totally accept that Scioscia's position is secure.

   The firing of batting coach Mickey Hatcher--on top of the previous departures of coaches Bud Black, Joe Maddon and Ron Roenicke--has changed the environment around Scioscia (and the firing of Hatcher, in particular, did little to strengthen the relationship between Scoscia and DiPoto).

   I don't know if Scioscia will be fired. I don't know if he would quit. I do believe, as stated above, there are internal issues that have been affecting the Angels performance and leadership.

  I do not remember while covering the Angels as a columnist and game reporter for The Times that I wrote as many instances of both subtle and outright questioning of Scioscia stratagy and personnel decisions as I have read this year in stories by writers I respect.

  The Rangers have buried the Angels (who even tral the under-manned and under-financed Oakland A's in the West), and there can be no more excuses.

 The wild card clocking is ticking on the Angels--and their manager?                

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Did Dodgers Overpay? Do New Owners Really Care If They Did?



      By Ross Newhan

      I get it.

      I get that Mark Walter and his fleet of insurance companies will pay the price--any price at this point a) to make the Dodgers more competitive at a time when their farm system can't do it and they are in the battle for a division or wild card playoff berth, b) to remove the stigma of Frank McCourt and c) to challenge the rest of the National League to sneer that they have become the Yankees of the West.

    What do I think of this blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox in the wake of the Dodgers' $85 contract extension for Andre Etheir, the signing of Cuban free agent Yasiel Puig for $44.2 million and the trades for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and others?

    I think the Red Sox, while getting little of player substance in return with the possible exception of pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Watson,, created financial flexibility in the closing weks of a disspiriting season and can begin rebuilding through free agency as soon as that bell rings, probably first firing manager Bobby Valentine.

   I think the Dodgers, in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, acquired aother proven hitter for the middle of the lineup--a significant improvement on James Loney--and a Latino gate attraction who has six years and $127 million remaining on a contract that is in line with other first basemen of his caliber.

   The question that emerges then is this: Did the Dodgers overpay to get Gonzalez?

   The obvious answer is yes, but a clear cut answer as to by how much they overpaid won't be known until the Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford contracts play out.

   It is easy to believe the Red Sox when they insist that they didn't want to trade Gonzalez, but they were delighted to dump Beckett, Crawford and more than $262.5 million for the four players, including utility infielder Nick Punto.

  They were so delighted to create the financial flexibility--which will include evasion of the luxury tax--that, beginning next year, they will pay a total of $12 million of the contracted $262.5 million the Dodgers must pay, pennies under the Red Sox circumstances.

  This is not to say that pitcher Beckett and outfielder Crawford are totally worthless. It's just to say that we won't know how much value they retain until a measure of time passes in their new venue.

  Becket, 32, has gone backwards, plagued by back and clubhouse issues. He is 5-1l with a 5.23 earned-run average and owed $31.5 million for two more years. Yet, with Chad Billingsley having left Friday night's game with an uncertain elbow problem and Ted Lilly still on the disabled list, Beckett could be energized by the change of venue and play an important role down the stretch and beyond. He had to waive his 10 and five rights to approve the trade.

  Crawford, owed $102.5 million over the next five years, has had two disappointing and injury marred seasons with the Red Sox. He appeared in only 31 games this season and underwent Tommy John surgery Thursday, meaning the Dodgers may have to find a way to retain Victorino next year since it it is uncertain when Crawford will be ready to play.

  With all of that, the Dodgers are a better team today than they were yesterday.

  In the new math that the new owners are involved in, that seems to be the only yardstick they are concerned about.         

           

Friday, August 24, 2012

Will Dodgers Have to Take Beckett to Get Gonzalez





        By Ross Newhan


        The question--one of several--confronting the Dodgers and Guggenheim Baseball over the next 72 hours is this:

       Are they willing to take on Josh Beckett and the $31.5 million he is owed over the next two years in order to get Adrian Gonzalez?

      In one of the most intriguing waiver situations in recent history, the Boston Red Sox have accepted the Dodgers waiver claims on Gonzalez and Beckett, and now they have those 72 hours to work out a trade for one or both players, or Boston can withdraw the waivers with no trade.

     At 30, Gonzalez is owed $127 million over the next six years and is not having his best season--he is batting .300 with 15 home runs and 86 runs batted in--but the former San Diego Padres star is a vast improvement on the Dodgers duo of James Loney and Juan Rivera, figures to be energized by the return to the National League and the escape from a dissension riddled Red Sox clubhouse, and would provide the Dodgers with a legitimate Latino star, enhancing a lineup strengthened recently by Guggenheim's addition of Hanley Ramirez to go with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.

    The Dodgers have a shot at both the division title and a wild card berth, but if the Red Sox insist on Beckett being included--or they insist on the Dodgers giving up their two best pitching prospects: Zach Lee and Allen Webster--Guggenheim has a lot to weigh. Beckett, 32, has gone backwards and been hounded by injuries. He is 5-11 with a 5.23 ERA and has reportedly been trouble in the clubhouse. At $31.5 million--given the addition of Gonzalez and Ramirez--he would definitely put a load on Guggenheim's maneuverability during the off season, although at this point there is no other first baseball of Gonzalez' caliber in the next free agent market, and Beckett, too, could benefit by the change in venue.

    Stay tuned.        

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zero Tolerance Only Answer for Baseball's Ongoing Drug Problem





         By Ross Newhan

         Victor Conte, the founder and president of BALCO, the Bay Area labratory intricately involved in baseball's steroid era and drug scandals, reacted to the recent 50 game suspension of San Francisco outfielder Melky Cabrera for employing a banned testosterone substance by insisting that 50% of big league players were still using a performance enhancing drug.

         With the Cabrera development still fresh, baseball took another hit Wednesday when Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon was suspended 50 games for employing the same substance. Colon, 39, has been a key pitcher in the Oakland A's surprising playoff bid, going 10-9 with a 3.43 earned-run average after a poor season for the New York Yankees in which he was 8-10 with an ERA of four.

         Cabrera and Colon are the fourth and fifth major leaguers suspended this year, not counting Ryan Braun, who evaded a suspension on a technicality. The other players suspended were Giants' relief pitcher Guillermo Mota for 100 games for a second offense, Chicago Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd for 50 games and Philadelphia infielder Freddy Galvis for 50 games.

      Baseball has come a long way in cleaning up the steroid era, but Conte and others believe there are still testing loopholes and designer drugs that are staying ahead of the testing process.

     It is the opinion of this writer that the only way to potentially eradicate the cheating is for baseball and the players union to agree to a policy of zero tolerance in which a player who tests positive is  suspended for a full year rather than 50 games and is then suspended for life rather than 100 games for a failed second test.     

Can Strasburg Really Be This Nonchalant About His Benching?




     
      By Ross Newhan

      With the Washington Nationals 31 games over .500, seven games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and wondering if it is too early to put the champagne on ice, they are also preparing to shut down their best pitcher until next year. Stephen Strasburg, 24 and two years removed from Tommy John surgery, will probably make three or four more starts before his magic numbers become 2013.

     Strasburg, signed out of San Diego State as one of the most ballyhooed and blistering pitchers of the modern era, is 15-5, has a 2.85 earned-run average and leads the league with 183 strikeouts in 145 1/3 innings. He has a knee-buckling curve and a fastball in the high 90s.

    The decision to protect his most valuable asset by shutting him down early, by turning him into a spectator during the playoffs, was made by General Manager Mike Rizzo before the season began. Rizzo has not said how many innings he will allow Strasburg to pitch, but it is believed to be in the 170 area. Since Strasburg pitches about six or seven innings (at most) per start, three or four more is probably the outside limit

    Rizzo has not talked in depth about his reasoning, but agent Scott Boras has, citing medical evidence documenting that 24 year old pitchers in their first full season after Tommy John surgery have a far better shot at a longer career if protected wisely during their comeback season. Boras has been outspoken on this, ripping Tommy John himself after John pointed out that he made 31 starts and pitched 207 innings two years after his groundbreaking surgery in 1974 and ultimately pitched 15 years more.

   Strasburg is a power pitcher and John was more of a finesse pitcher, and it is probably impossible to predict career length given individual mechanics and physical traits.

   If Rizzo and Boras believe the smartest and safer course is to protect their valuable asset (Strasburg received a four year, $15.1 million contract when initially drafted), there is probably not a right or wrong to it. The befuddling aspect to me is the absense of vigorous argument from Strasburg, whose basic posture has been that he gets his information from the internet and that the decision is out of his hands.

  Give me a break.

  At 24 and obviously healthy, with his team hopeful that Strasburg represents repeated victories in the playoffs and no guarantee that the Nationals will advance that far next year or for several years, shouldn't Strasburg be hammering on Rizzo's desk and demanding to pitch out the season--no matter how far it goes?

  Instead, he is apparently satisfied pitching every fifth day into September and watching the golf channel in between starts.

  Rosters expand in September, so Strasburg will ultimately slip into an abyss and not be included on the 25 player post-season roster.

  The Nationals lead the NL in team earned-run average at 3.23, but Gio Gonzalez, 16-6, is the only Nationals pitcher other than Strasburg in double figures in wins.

  Will Strasburg be missed? What do his teammates really think, and what happens if another Nationals starters gets hurt in October when Strasburg won't be available? Shouldn't he be showing some annoyance at this decision, even though it is designed to extend his career in the view of Rizzo and Boras?

   It is possible that no prospective division winner has ever arbitrarily sat its ace, as the Nationals are about to do on the eve of the post-season.

   It is possible that no ace has ever simply shrugged and slipped away with a similar whimper instead of a bang.                                           

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Shamefully, Cabrera's Stupidity Taints the Perfection of King Felix





     By Ross Newhan

     How ironic.

     On a day that King Felix Hernandez demonstrated pitching perfection, as the Seattle Mariners right hander was destined to do at some point in his career, Melky Cabrera of the San Francisco Giants, proved there is no limit to stupidity in baseball (or in  anything else really) by being suspended for the remainder of a season in which he was a key member of a team battling for a division title or wild card berth at worst.

    Cabrera, the San Francisco outfielder batting .346 in what has been either a breakthrough season or one in which he benefited from an elevated level of testosterone, a level that resulted in his 50 game suspension under baseball's drug policy, will not be eligible to play until the Giants reach the sixth game of the playoffs, if they get that far. By violating the drug policy, and there is apparently no technicality involved, such as the one that enabled Ryan Braun to excape suspension earlier this season, he managed to taint the perfect game that Hernandez pitched against Tampa Bay in Seattle.

   Until baseball is totally free of illegal drug use--if that is possible--the cheaters will always cloud the accomplishments of the non-cheaters, which is a shame in the case of Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner in the American League and arguably--along with Justin Verlander and Jared Weaver--a candidate for the award again and a player who has breezed through all of his drug tests.

   In pitching the third perfect game and sixth no-hitter of a season dominated at near historic levels by pitching, Hernandez improved his record over his last 11 starts to a remarkable 6-0 with a 1.73 earned run average. As usual, the Mariners provided meager support as King Felix managed to turn a single run into a 1-0 victory.

   Almost at the same time, the Giants, beginning play Wednesday tied with the Dodgers for the National League West lead, were losing to the Washington Nationals, 6-4, in the first game of Cabrera's suspension. He is the second San Francisco player to fail baseball's drug policy this year, joining pitcher Guillermo Mota, who is in the process of missing 100 games because of a second violation.

  Given a shocking pattern of drug violations at the minor league level it is obvious that baseball is still working its way through a major and underlying problem.

  At least, on Wednesday, King Felix stood above it--despite the shame of Melky Cabrera.        

  

          

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What If They Put the Baseball Teams in Sequins?






        By Ross Newhan

        So, another Olympics is almost over, and I have this to say:

        I don't mind BMX and mountain bike racing. I especially like the crashes.

        I don't even mind rhythmetic gymnastics. Who isn't captivated by ribbons and sequins?

       But another Olympics without hardball and softball? C'mon.

      The IOC doesn't like the fact that major league baseball is in season and can't put a dream team on the field, a la the U.S. basketball team.

      Let me ask, however: How many of the names are recognizable in 90% of Olympic sports? It's  a joke. Baseball has become a global game (even Israel is preparing a team for major league baseball's next world tournament), but the situation is unlikely to change before 2016, when the Olympics are in Rio de Janiero.

       At least we should get some regular shots from Copacabana.

      Even better than ribbons and sequins.

       

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

For Dodgers and Angels, the Dog Days Produce Fascinating Scenarios





        By Ross Newhan

        Amid the 100 degree dog days of August, I always tend to remember what the late Bill Rigney told me when I was a rookie on the baseball beat in another lifetime.

        "The team that can win in August," Rigney would say, "is the team that will win in September."

       When it comes to winning this month, the Dodgers and Angels are producing a mixed bag, but they have also produced and are producing a fascinating scenario, virtually a new story every day, a series of highs and lows that make it difficult to predict how September will play out amid a new playoff system in which two wild card teams in each league will qualify for a one game play-in to the post-season, enhancing and widening competition.

       Management has done what it can do.

      The new Dodger owners have been on a roll, from Hanley Ramirez to Brandon League, to Shane Victorino to Joe Blanton to a failed waiver claim on Cliff Lee despite the millions he is owed and his comparative ineffectiveness this season.

     The Anges management, pending a possible contract offer, gave up three top prospects for the right to rent potential free agent Zach Greineke amid a rotation collapse--a bit strong, perhaps--that has left Jered Weaver the only sure thing.

     Is a bullpen of musical chairs strong enough and consistent enough--and hasn't that been a concern since opening day?--in a division in which the surprising Oakland A's have emerged with the best overall pitching and the Texas Rangers, seeking a championship three-peat--are battling problems of their own: external, internal and medical.

    In the American League, on the morning of Aug. 7, Texas, Chicago and New York lead their divisions, and six other teams are within four games of each other in the wild card scramble. In the National League, on the morning of Aug. 7, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Washington lead their divisions, and four other teams are within four games of each other in the wild card scramble.

   The standings are much like the Presidential polls. It may not be until the Olympics are over and we have moved past Labor Day that many otherwise interested followers will take a hard and serious look. Nevertheless, for the Dodgers and Angels, with little breathing room amid soaring temperatures and tightening division and wild card races, every game of August has become critical. every game may carry long-term significances beyond the standings and playoffs.

   The work of general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly through the stress of the  daily grind and the pressure of the trade deadline under new ownership has seemingly solidified their holds on those key positions with the Dodgers, initially a team of numerous questions, now becoming a contending and believing team.

   In Anaheim, the situation is different.

  The $154 million payroll, the $317.5 million investments in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the arrival of Mike Trout and development of Mark Trumbo as key parts of what should be one of the most potent offenses in club history and the hazy relationship between manager Mike Scioscia and general manager Jerry DiPoto--the firing of Scioscia ally and batting coach Mickey Hatcher still lingers--has all served to create an uncertain atmosphere around Scioscia despite a contract extending through 2018 if the Angels don't reach the playoffs. 

    It is difficult to believe Scioscia's job could be at stake given his overall record, the club's 12 years of stability and his long-term security, but with the payroll, the potential and key relationships under question, along with some open second guessing from media and clubhouse, it would not be a total surprise if Arte  Moreno's ultimate question pertains to "what have you done lately?" The Angels had 52 games left as of Tuesday. More so even than the Dodgers under their new ownership, the Angels can not afford to lapse into dog days exhaustion.

    X         X        X

    O'MALLEY TO RECEIVE PADRES APPROVAL.

   A group headed by Peter O'Malley, including his sons, Kevin and Brian, and nephews, Peter and Tom, along with Ron Fowler, chief exectuive of San Diego based Liquid Investments, will be approved as new owners of the San Diego Padres at an owners meeting in Denver on Aug. 15-16. The former Dodger owner is purchasing the club from John Moores for about $800 million, with his sons and nephews expected to take on a major leadership role in time, and locally based golfer Phil Mickelson participating on a visible basis.            

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hanley Ramirez Underscores the New Dodger Era




     By Ross Newhan

     Quietly, efficiently and, yes, stunningly, Guggenheim Baseball underscored the Dodgers new era with the acquisition of Hanley Ramirez from the Miami Marlins.

     Once one of the most talented and multi-faceted players in baseball (he stole 51 bases each of his first two years and was National League Rookie of the Year in 2006), Ramirez has not come back to his MVP caliber form of 2009 when he was second in voting while batting an NL high .342, but he is still only 28 and could find the change of venue to be an elixer.

     He is leaving one of the year's most disappointing teams for one of the most surprising, and should enhance the Dodgers' division and/or wild card bids, no matter if he plays shortstop or third base or where he bats in relation to Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, although he brings sub-par numbers, which include a .246 batting average with 14 homers, 48 runs batted in and 14 stolen bases.

    Clearly, sub-par or not, the Dodgers will welcome the package, which includes a financial obligation of about $38 million over the next 2 1/2 years and an occasional display of temperament, although this Ramirez is no Manny Ramirez.

    In addition, the Dodgers acquired in Randy Choate another left handed reliever in the deal, a needed and always valuable commodity. Left handed hitters are batting only .150 against the veteran Choate.

   The deal cost the Dodgers a talented young pitcher in Nathan Eovaldi, who at 22 could be given the time to develop by the Marlins, but Guggenheim may not be through.

   The Dodgers are not completely out of the Ryan Dempster picture, although Dempster's Cubs and the Atlanta Braves have agreed on a deal that would send pitching prospect Randall Delgado to Chicago. Dempster, however, has veto rights as a plater with 10 years in the majors and five with the same club, and has yet to approve the move to Atlanta. All indications are that he would prefer the Dodgers, although it is not clear that the Dodgers will meet the Cubs' price, which includes Zach Lee, the top pitching prospect in an L.A. system otherwise comparatively barren.              
            

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Beane Is Doing This Without Brad Pitt


      By Ross Newhan

     Who needs Brad Pitt or any other actor playing his part? Billy Beane doesn't want to miss a second of the surprising drama that his largely no-name Oakland A's are producing.

     As the A's general manager said on the MLB web site, "no matter how many years you've been doing this, the little kid in you still comes out."

    In this season when two wild card teams in each league will qualify for the playoffs--or at least a play-in game--the A's (a distant 74-88 last year) are shadowing the Angels in the American League West, the equivalent of the equally surprising Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, who are also making a wild card and more bid in their respective leagues.

   The A's opened a series in Toronto Tuesday night with a 14-2 July record, 8-1, since the All-Star break, and coming off a four game sweep of the New York Yankees.

   Talk about not wanting to miss a second.

   The A's are 20-10 in games decided in the seventh inning or later and lead the majors with 11 walk off victories produced by 10 different players.

   At 51-44 as they played the Blue Jays, the A's were tied with the Angels (who lead the AL wild card race) in the loss column, were two back in wins and were tied with Baltimore for the second wild card spot.

   Can they maintain this recent magic, the improbable sweep of the Yankees and their torrid July, with a roster that is last in the American League in runs but first in earned-run average?

   With his terrific track record and dead honest approach, Beane thought he could contend with Texas and the Angels again in 2014 and that his team needed to be stripped away after last season.

   The stripping included the trading of three All-Star pitchers--Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey and Gio Gonzalez. He took some hits in the Bay Area media, received a truckload of prospects in return and figured the A's could even have an impact this season when he saw the young arms in spring training.

   Suddenly, many of the young pitchers--Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and A.J. Griffin among them--are not such no-names. Milone, Parker and Griffin are 18-10 and all under 25.

  Another comparative youngster,, Josh Reddick, 25, has 21 home runs. Yet another, Sean Doolittle, a first base prospect until last August, has a 1.86 ERA and become the set up man for Cook, who has 10 saves.

  The A's have the second lowest payroll in the majors and no certainty they will ever have an ATM in the form of a San Jose ballpark, but Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, their one big investment at four years and $36 million, has paid off with 13 homers and 45 runs batted in.

  When the Angels signed Albert Pujols for $240 million and  C..J. Wilson for $77.5 million it made it easer for Beane to believe he was doing the right thing by totally rebuilding with young players.

  Of course, you also have to be flexible. You can't fill a 25-man roster strictly with kids, so the 39 year old Bartolo Colon has thrown 118 innings with an ERA under 4.00 and been a tutor for his young colleagues, and in the opener of the Toronto series the A's started 29 year old Travis Blackley, a recent waiver claim from the Giants, whose nomadic career has included appearances in Korea and the Mexican leagues.

   The A's surprising play may force Beane to give up one of his building blocks before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. He knows the script seldom follows form, and to this point he's produced an unexpected hit. It won't win him an Oscar nomination, but Executive of the Year is another matter.          
    

                          

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dodgers and Angels Face Tell-Tale July




     By Ross Newhan

    I do not fault Stan Kasten and the new ownership of the Dodgers for posting a letter to fans in which they claimed that "Dodger Pride Is Back."

   Neither do I blame them for boasting of modest and immediate improvements in security, some  concession areas and investments in international scouting and signings.

   A more telling impact in relation to the new ownership's aggressiveness and financial availability could be determined before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

   Beyond the health of the returning Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers need a first baseman, third baseman and shortstop, unless you are thinking Ozzie Martinez can be more than just a shadow of Dee Gordon, whose loss for six weeks or so on the eve of the All-Star break was a major setback.

  One more reliable starting pitcher also wouldn't hurt if the cracks that began to appear in Manager Don Mattingly's first half mirrors are going to be repaired amid the pressure and reality of the second half.

  Of course (and pardon the cliche) it takes two to tango, and no matter how aggressive General Manager Ned Colletti attempts to be with Guggenheim Baseball's wallet, you can't make a trade by yourself.

 As I have written previously, the new playoff system provides for two wild card teams in each league.. At the break, almost two thirds of the 30 teams are statistically alive. Are they alive enough to trade a prospect or a significant player in an attempt to improve--and improve the team with which they are negotiating?

  Sometimes, more isn't better, and all of these potential wild card teams--as I have noted previously-- may be delude into thinking they are already set, and the trade market could be comparatively quiet.

  Whether the return of Kemp and Eithier alone is enough to allow the Dodgers to hold off San Francisco and Arizona in the West and the onslaught of all those other potential wild card teams is a  significant risk.

  If the new ownership really wants to do some boasting, a major trade is needed, although what the Dodgers can find to give up out of a sadly barren farm system isn't immediatly apparent.

  The Angels also face a tell-tale July.

  They have the best record in baseball (42-24) since the April 28 arrival of Mike Trout, but they face a murderous schedule starting in New York Friday night, and what once seemed to be the best rotation in baseball has been pretty much reduced to Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson now that Dan Haren is on the disabled list, Ervin Santana is 4-9 with no indication of improvement and the fifth starting spot is pretty much a game of musical chairs.

  General manager Jerry DiPoto could trade Peter Bourjos but has voiced reluctance to do that, and no one is anxious to help a team that has been drawing national attention since the signing of Albert Pujols, the arrival of Trout and the continued development of Mark Trumbo. DiPoto also faces a potential roster clouding decision when Vernon Wells comes off the disabled list with two years and $42 million left on his contract.

  The immediate hurdle, however, is the schedule.

  Starting Friday night the Angels play 13 consecutive games against division leaders New York, Texas and Chicago, plus seven against division contending Detroit and Tampa Bay.

  Both the Angels and Dodgers have shots at their division titles, along with wild card entry to the playoffs. It is interesting that what they do--on and off the field--in the first three weeks of the second half could determine their fate.