Saturday, March 30, 2013

Can Nationals Be Beaten in Interleague Dominant Schedule?

    By Ross Newhan

   One of the strangest seasons in baseball history begins Sunday with 15 teams in each league, an interleague game virtually every night and 30 owners rolling in money, the average franchise value having increased 23%--a one year record, according to Forbes--to $744 million.

   Amid the nightly/daily absurdity of "now you see the DH and now you don't," here is my top 10. the most obvious features being the absence of that former hedge fund giant known as the New York Yankees and their annual American League East rival from Boston:

   1.  Washington Nationals: No weaknesses, from lineup to bench to pitching staff,  unless the do nothing Congress counts.

   2. Detroit Tigers: You could say the same thing about the Tigers except for some consternation about the bullpen by committee. Still, easily the best in AL Central.

  3. Atlanta Braves: Should be a dynamite dogfight with the Nationals in the NL East. Upton brothers figure to inspire each other, and if only Chipper was still at third base.

  4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Spring pitching didn't provide much confidence, but Ernesto Frieri should be able to save enough high scoring games to edge out Texas and Oakland in AL West, a division that now welcomes the doormat Houston Astros.         

  5. Toronto Blue Jays: With help from Jeffrey Loria, Miami North filled enough holes with that one-sided trade and subsequent acquisition of R.A. Dickey to be considered the favorite in the AL East, particularly amid decline of Yankees and Red Sox.

  6. Cincinnat Reds: GM Walt Jocketty did a major league with minor fanfare in flushing away a lot of strikeouts in his lineup, strengthening his bench, acquiring a legitimate leadoff runner in Shin Choo Soo and who cares whether Aroldis Chapman starts or relieves, as long as they don't make him do both. Now the best in NL Central.          

  7. San Francisco Giants: Two out of the last three World Series title and still no respect, but the thinking here is that someone in the NL West is going to have to prove they can best that pitching over 162 games, and the Giants did what they needed to do to retain their key players from 2012.

  8. Los Angeles Dodgers: Here's what a $230 million payroll gets you: Questions in left field, shortstop, third base, back of the rotation and closer. Maybe they will all come up positive, but at this point no one is handing Guggenheim anything except a few more checks to be invested. The team has weapons but will have to prove it can return dividends.

  9. Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies will open with a healthy Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, a revamped outfield in which Ben Revere and his 40 steals were acquired from Minnesota and the homegrown John Mayberry and Domonic Brown finally have unobstructed starting chances, but the ability to compete with Washington and Atlanta largely comes down to Doc Halliday proving he retains a fastball and Cliff Lee shaking off the 15 no decisions of last year.

 10. Kansas City: Considering that 13 different teams have made at least one postseason appearance in the last two years and nine have won the World Series in the last 12, parity is obvious and there is no really no such thing as a sleeper anymore, but lets put the long dormant Royals in that disappearing category with their baseball best spring record, array of young talent and off-season acquisitions of starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis in exchange for top hitting prospect Wil Myers.

    And on to a season in which a schedule is mandatory.          

Monday, March 25, 2013

K.C.'s 21-6 Record: Illusion or Reality?

    By Ross Newhan

    The results of spring, individually and collectively, can be either an illusion or a significant steppingstone to a successful season.

    The Kansas City Royals entered a Monday night game against the Dodgers with a 21-6 spring record, easily the best in baseball.

     Their young talent is not an illusion--built through the draft over a series of years--and during the last winter owner David Glass and General Manager Dayton Moore felt what Moore described by phone as the  "narrow window of opportunity" was right, given "the young talent that is now under club control for a period of years" to support it with veteran additions to the rotation.

     The 21-6 record does not carry into the season, but the confidence that it has created does, and while many general managers generally dismiss spring statistics, Moore does not.

     Was it important for the Royals to win in the spring, to prove that the enthusiasm created among the young players by the veteran additions, translated to the field?

     "Absolutely," Moore said in our interview.

     "The Royals haven't been to the playoffs since 1985 (and have had only one winning season since '95), and so we're consistently reminded of the need to create a winning culture.

     "We know that on April 1 our record goes back to zero, but winning as we have in the spring is definitely, I believe, a reflection of our talent and quality depth."

    Parity grips baseball. In the last two years alone, 13 of the 30 teams have made at least one postseason appearance. Nine teams have won the World Series in the last 12 seasons, and their average payroll rank has been 10th. Both Tampa Bay and Oakland, with the second lowest payrolls in 2011 and 2012, made the playoffs in those respective seasons.

    In addition, with a second wild card team in each league now qualifying for the playoffs, many more clubs have acquired playoff fever.     

  Whether Kansas City can unseat the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central is uncertain, but it's a wide open division otherwise, and the Royals have delivered a spring message.

   Building on the homegrown talent of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, Moore took three offseason steps to strengthen the rotation, the development of pitching having failed to keep up with the development of position players as the Royals took advantage of generally high draft positions because of their poor finishes during the season.

   First, he acquired Ervin Santana from the Angels, then re-signed Jeremy Guthrie, who pitched well for the Royals after his mid-season acquisition last year, and, believing there is "still enough quality in the pipeline,"  traded one of the he top hitting prospects in baseball, Wil Myers, to Tampa Bay for starters James Shields and Wade Davis.

   "I feel like our younger, position players responded immediately," Moore said. "The rotation now has a presence to it, and our entire camp had a more stable feel and sense of stability.

   "The one thing that should allow our young players to continue to mature at their natural rate is the  better starting pitcher. We should be able to compete more effectively from the first day to the last."

   Moore and staff took over in mid-season of 2006. Gordon and Butler were in double A, "and I thought we were looking at an eight to 10 year process of building from within and developing the waves of players that would allow us to make a move of the type we did in trading Wil Myers.

   "As I mentioned, it's a narrow window in which you have quality young players under club control or signed to long term contracts, and we felt we had reached the point where we could enhance that nucleus by creating a veteran presence in our rotation that would enable us to build a winning culture that the city has been without for too long--at least on the baseball field."

   A long tenure in baseball has taught me to approach spring results cautiously.

  However, there is no denying that the Royals have some attractive young players augmented by a stronger rotation, and 21-6 is impressive at any time of the year.                          

Friday, March 22, 2013

MLB Suit Against Drug Clinic Is Innovative, but...

      By Ross Newhan

      Give Major League Baseball credit for determination and innovation.

      The suit that MLB has filed in a Florida state court against six former employees of a now defunct South Florida clinic alleged to have distributed performance enhancing drugs to an undisclosed number of major league players is a backdoor attempt to gain evidence that can possibly be used in suspending those players.

     MLB is accusing the six of damaging the sport in distributing PEDs to the players and is asking for at least $15,000 in compensation, but the money is secondary.

    If the suit is not dismissed, MLB will gain the subpoena power it does not now have and access to a variety of notebooks and documents maintained by the Biogenesis Clinic and at least some of the six people named in the suit, along with the right, of course, to depose the six, who are alleged in the suit to have "participated in a scheme to solicit major league players to purchase or obtain, and/or to sell, supply or otherwise make available to major league players substances that the defendants knew were prohibited under baseball's" drug testing program.

   There are no players named in the suit, but among those who have been linked to Biogenesis records in various media reports are the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, currently recovering from a second hip operation, and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who was the National League's Most Valuable Player last year. Braun has insisted he has "nothing to hide" and that his only link to Biogenesis resulted from his attorneys using the clinic on a consulting basis when MLB charged Braun with a positive drug test last year and suspended him for 50 games. Braun claimed at the time that it was a false positive, appealed through arbitration, and had the suspension overturned on a chain of custody issue involving his urine sample.

   One of the six defendants in the MLB suit is Marcelo Albir, a former University of Miami teammate of  Braun and Detroit minor leaguer Cesar Carrillo. The latter, who did not have the protection of the Major League Players Assn., because he was not on the Tigers' 40 man roster, was suspended for 100 games last week for violating the minor league drug policy. MLB did not cite specific violations, but Carrillo was one of six players named in the original Miami New Times report that first broke the Biogenesis story and, according to multiple reports, was uncooperative with MLB investigators.

   The suit by MLB comes after the New Times refused to turn over documents pertaining to the clinic and would seem to suggest that baseball investigators, lacking the legal requisites, have not acquired the documentary evidence or witness testimony necessary to discipline players in cases where there is no positive drug test.

  The suit is an unusual and aggressive step in MLB's continuing battle with doping, but whether it will move forward is uncertain.

  It cites, in part, "loss of goodwill, loss of revenue and profits and injury to its reputation, image, strategic advantage and fan relationships.''

 Can that be proven in a period of record attendance and revenue even amid the doping brushfires and lingering ashes of the steroid era?               

Monday, March 18, 2013

U.S. Failure in WBC Won't Stop Globalization; Dodgers/D-Backs Could Open in Australia Next Year

      By Ross Newhan

      Baseball's global initiative will continue despite another failure by the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic.

      In fact, the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks are discussing the possibility of opening the 2014 season in Australia, a relaxing flight of about 15 hours.

     The irony in that is this: It's surprising any team is discussing anything with the Dodgers.

     If L.A.'s record payroll of $230 million hasn't annoyed the majority of organizations, owner Mark Wohlers upset many in the National League West with a recent USA Today interview bordering on braggadocio. I just returned from a Cactus League trip and spotted the interview on several clubhouse bulletin boards.

    Warner said that one of his goals was to win 14 straight division titles as the Atlanta Braves did in the former NL West except that he wants to do far better than Atlanta's one World Series win.

    "I want to be a team that people are not looking forward to playing unless they want to play the best," he said.

    I'm not sure there is anything wrong with an owner expressing high expectations, especially an owner who paid a record $2.15 billion for the franchise before building a record payroll.

   But as one division executive said to me: "Sometimes it's just better to let your team's play speak for itself."

   If the Dodgers and D-Backs open in Australia it will simply be a continuation of Commissioner Bud Selig's determination to stretch the game worldwide, reaping the licensing, merchandising and media benefits.

   It's just too bad that so many U.S. players, who share in the WBC wealth and globlalization of the game, aren't inspired inough to participate.

  It is understandable, to some degree, that they are drawn two ways, feeling a responsibility to the club that pays them as well as the opportunity to represent their country, but under the current plan the WBC is conducted only once ever four years, seemingly a chance not to be missed, as many of their foreign teammates recognized.

  What has been illustrated in the last two WBCs is that a U.S. team of second tier players at some positions can not automatically beat the animated Caribbean teams, the always difficult Japanese team and now the most advanced of the European countries, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which now boasts six academies and has sent 10 players to the majors. It is true that the U.S. may have advanced beyond the quarterfinals this spring except for injuries to David Wright and Mark Teixeira, inuries that could have happened in their spring camps or exhibition games, but the lack of depth and absence of too many powerful U.S. players took a toll.

   The U.S lost games to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. A few U.S. players objected to the celebratory mannerisms of the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, but as Dominican manager Tony Pena said, "We're not trying to show anybody up. We're just showing the emotion that is our culture."

   It will all be forgotten as players from the various countries rejoin their major league teams. The percentage of players born outside the U.S. on last year's opening day rosters was 28.4%, the second highest ever. Globalization rolls on, and the Dodgers and D-Backs may go a distance in showcasing the game next year, a possibility still being discussed.            


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hurdles Mount for Yankees, but the Calendar Still Reads March

           By Ross Newhan

           Even with the overall toughening of the American League East---with the rebuilt Toronto Blue Jays, the revived Baltimore Orioles, the always resilient Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox on the road to revitalization--it would be foolish to dismiss the New York Yankees in early March.

           Nevertheless, amid issues of age, departures and a seemingly inescapable series of injuries, it's hard not to speculate that the pin stripes could be more of a pin cushion.

          The latest hit came Wednesday with news that first baseman Mark Teixiera will be out eight to 10 weeks with a strained tendon in his right wrist, an injury that occurred Tuesday while hitting off a tee in the camp of the U.S.A. team that will play in the World Baseball Classic and, initially, was not believed to be that serious

          In an earlier exhibition game, outfielder Curtis Granderson suffered a broken right forearm when hit by a pitch and will be out a similar length of time. Granderson hit 43 home runs last year while Teixeira, in an off season, hit 24, meaning the Yankees will play into May without the power of two prominent hitters who combined for 67 home runs.

        Of course, that's only part of the hurdles facing the Yankees after an off season in which they failed to storm the free agent market with their usual abandon as George Steinbrenner turned over in his grave and sons Hank and Hal, with the payroll tax in mind, ordered their general manager, Brian Cashman, to get the payroll to $189 million by 2014, cedeing their normal No. 1 ranking to the record $230 million of the Dodgers.

      In the process, outfielder Nick Swisher (24 homers, 93 runs batted in), catcher Russell Martin (21 homers) and closer Rafael Soriano (42 saves as Mariano Rivera recovered from a torn ACL in May) all were allowed to leave as free agents.

     Rivera is now attempting to reclaim his closer role at 43, Derek Jeter, returning from a broken ankle suffered in the American League Chamionship Series, is attempting to prove he can still be the fulltime shortstop at 38, and then there's Alex Rodriguez, at 37, recovering from a second hip surgery and the Yankees, unsure if Rodriguez will be able to play at all this season, preferring to work out some form of buyout with A-Rod on the five years and $114 million he is still owed. Rodriguez also still has his alleged involvement with the Biogenesis clinic in South Florida hanging over him and it could be that Major League Baseball may find a way to suspend him without pay, earning gratitude from the Yankees.

   With all of that, 16 game winner Phil Hughes has a bulging disc and may open the season on the disabled list, GM Cashman broke his right leg while sky diving on behalf of chairity Monday, and Ichiro Suzuki totalled his SUV in a Florida traffic accident last week. The one bit of good news is that Ichiro was uninjured.

   So, there are the suddenly budget conscious Yankees, partially decimated by injuries and free agent departures, potentially weakened by age at key positions, and facing the realistic possibility that if they are out of the division race by mid season they might choose to make a move that their division rivals often face, trading a key player who will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season.

   In this case it's the Yankees best player, second baseman Robinson Cano, who is represented by the renowned (or is it dreaded?) Scott Boras, who almost never allows his players to sign a long term contract with their current club before testing the free agent market. The Cano issue/distraction is one more in a list of issues/distractions that have the rest of the division salivating over the possible fall of the Evil Empire, although on March 6 it's awfully early for anyone in the A.L. East to get giddy.     

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Angels Took Big Risk in Playing Salary Hardball With Trout

     By Ross Newhan

     The contract renewal process in baseball is comparable to the sequester.

      It's ugly--or it can be if the club and player can't reach a compromised agreement through negotiation.

     The process generally affects players with less than three years of service time and are not eligible for salary arbitration.

     And it can prompt bitter and lasting feelings from the player and his agent if they contend the club's renewal salary is unfair, which is how agent Craig Landis termed the Angels renewal of Mike Trout at $510,000.

     In fact, Landis termed it well short of fair.

    At $510,000, the American League's Rookie of the Year in 2012--author of one of the most brilliant all around debuts in baseball history--will make only $20,000 (about 4%) above the 2013 minimum of $490,000.

    I recognize that $510,000 is $510,000 and, as General Manager Jerry Dipoto pointed out, baseball is generally criticized for paying players too much instead of not enough.

   In this case, however, given Trout's rookie season, the fact that he is already at the center of the Angels' marketing program (there are five giveaways during the coming season built around Trout), the risk inherent in alienating a player at the heart of their future, and the money that owner Arte Moreno pulls out of his wallet when he otherwise seems done for that year (see: Vladimir Guerrero or Josh Hamilton), that $20,000 raise is akin to playing hardball with a core player who was at their mercy.

   Dipoto simply toed the service time line

   "...the 0-to-3 class drives the boat," he told writers covering the club. "Mike understands how the system is set up, and he understands the benefits that come to him later."

  It's a complicated, and often nasty, process.

  The Colorado Rockies, for example, recently renewed the contracts of 21 young players and three other, more experienced players--Jeff Baker, Carlos Gonzales and Ryan Spillborghs.

  The three are represented by the renowned Scott Boras, who has long argued against the renewal process and with whom the budget conscious Rockes had no interest in trying to bargain.

   Among the Angels,  Mark Trumbo, who has played for two years, signed for $540,00, the most of any Angels player with less than three years experience.

  If Dipoto pays Trout more than Trumbo, he faces criticism from Trumbo and his agent.

 Trumbo has had two big seasons in the power category but he is not the player Trout is, and I suspect he recognizes the historical elements of Trout's rookie season and would have accepted Trout either surpassing his salary or, at the least, drawing even, which, at the least again, would seem to have been a fairer step by the Angels with their $160 million payroll and would not have sunk the 0-to-3 boat.

  Mike DiGiovanna, my former baseball writing colleague at the L.A. Times, reports that the last 10 rookies of the year made an average of 21% over the minimum salary in the following year. It is natural to think that Trout's 4% raise could come back to haunt the Angels when he gains bargaining power through arbitration and, especially, when he becomes eligible for free agency.

   It is doubtful, however, that given his obvious joy at simply playing the game he would allow it to affect his performance in 2013, although multiple sources tell me he is not overly joyed at moving to left field, making room in center for Peter Bourjos.

  "You could easily put yourself in a bad mood about it, but that's not me," Trout said of the renewal. "I like to play baseball....(and) my time will come."

   It will indeed.