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?