Friday, November 29, 2013

The 2014 Hall Ballot: Another Blessing

                     By Ross Newhan

                    Thanksgiving, or Thank Goodness?
                     Well, put is this way:

                   While the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot may fall far short of the many more personal and substantive reasons for giving thanks, it at least pushes the tiring residue of the steroid era largely into a secondary status behind a strong lineup of untainted players in their first and second year of eligibility.

                    Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are still on the ballot, bringing with them the admissions, skepticism and documented proof of PED use.

                   But, unlike 2013, when Clemens, Bonds and Sosa were on the ballot for the first time, dominated December debate and, in the end, no one was elected in BBWAA voting, the Hall's 2014 induction ceremonies, coinciding with the museum's 75th anniversary, should, could and will include (my view and vote at least) more than one ballot winner.         
                   I mean, with Greg Maddux deservingly automatic in his ballot debut, fellow freshmen Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina also seem on the fringe of that automatic category, and I have never understood the philosophy of some voters in withholding their first ballot accredidation, as if the accomplishments of retired players are going to change over time.

                 Craig Biggio's haven't. He still has 3,060 career hits and was an All-Star at three different positions. Biggio received 68.2% of the 2013 vote in his first year on the ballot and certainly should eclipse the needed 75% this time.

                 Eligible Hall voters can select 10 players from a ballot of 36.

                 I have never reached 10, but 2014 could prove an exception.

                 Without being totally definitive at this point, there's Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Kent, Mussina, Biggio and my ongoing support of Mike Piazza, in his second year of eligibility, and Jack Morris, needing to jump from 67.7% in his 15th and last year of eligibility.

                 Then there's Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Lee Smith and Curt Schilling percolating somewhere in my considerations, and among those PED boys, does the hammer continue to fall on Clemens with his seven Cy Young Awards, 354 wins and acquittal in the 2012 jury trial on all six counts of obstruction and lying to Congress in denying PED use. Clemens received 37.6% of the 2013 vote in his first year on the ballot and isn't going to jump to 75% in '14 no matter how many voters dismiss the syringe collection of his former strength coach, Brian McNamee, and damning insistance by former teammate and (former?) friend Andy Pettitte that Clemens told him he had used HGH.

                There ARE voters, of course, who contend that the BBWAA is not charged with the responsibility of serving as Morality Police, that Ty Cobb, Gaylord Perry and even the Babe, among others in the Hall, are illustrative that this is not an annual election on Sainthood. However, if the BBWAA does not accept its role as a custodian of the game in general and primary caretaker of the Hall, who will?

                For 2014, Thank Goodness AND Thanksgiving, the positive choices far outweigh the potentially negative, and there is also this:

               The 16 member Expansion Era Committee, composed of writers, owners/executives and former players, is expected to help fill the Cooperstown dais by voting in three former and acclaimed managers--Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox--while rejecting again (oh, those owners) the late Marvin Miller.                        




Friday, November 22, 2013

Trading With St. Louis Risky Business

      By Ross Newhan

     Name a department (management and development in particular) and the St. Louis Cardinals are so respected in baseball that any club thinking of trading with them has to be leery about being had.

     I'm not saying the Angels were had Friday when they traded Peter Bourjos for David Freese (those were the two principals), but this much is certain:

    The Gold Glove caliber upside of center fielder Bourjos, at 26, is far beyond that of 30 year old third baseman Freese, who went backwards in every way last season.

    Of course, if Bourjos had played more than 55 games and wasn't coming off wrist surgery the Angels might have either 1) decided to keep him as their center fielder or 2) pried Shelby Miller or another young starting pitcher away from the talent rich Cardinals.

    So far in this baseball winter, for what the Angels are willing to give up (and with Bourjos' value having taken that injury marred hit in 2013), the Angels haven't been able to manufacture interest among the few teams possibly willing to deal a young starting pitcher.

    It's a complicated situation with which General Manager Jerry DiPoto is dealing.

    He won't trade Mike Trout, can't unload the contracts of either Josh Hamilton or Albert Pujols, and would prefer not to trade either Mark Trumbo or Howie Kendrick.

    In addition, with 10 roster players already guaranteed $126 million and another nine (including Freese) eligible for arbitration, and with Arte Moreno putting a payroll ceiling at the luxury tax level of $189 million, DiPoto has to take a bargain route in free agency, a pitching market that is thin and quickly getting thinner.

    The goal is to find two starting pitchers and rebuild the bullpen in front of closer Ernesto Frieri.  Initially, the Angels only needed one starting pitcher, but because of the dollar restraints they refused to go beyond a three year, $24 million offer to their own free agent, Jason Vargas, who got that fourth year and $32 million from Kansas City.

    So, with the pitching void taking on the appearance of an albatross, DiPoto opted to use Bourjos to fill a vacancy at third base.

   The National League champion Cardinals are delighted.

   They ended their postseason hoping to dump Freese, move Matt Carpenter from second base to third and put the young prospect, Kelton Wong, at second. They are also now in position to use Bourjos, assuming he is 100% and back to 2011 form when he stole 22 bases, led the league in triples and slugged .438, at any of the outfield positions, particularly center, where John Jay is no longer that entrenched.

   If the Cardinals are counting on Bourjos to rebound, the Angels are hoping the same for Freese, who was MVP of both the 2011 LCS and World Series and then slugged 20 homers and batted .293 in 2012 before opening last season on the disabled list with a back strain and slipping to nine homers and a .262 average while ranking 33rd defensively among major league third baseman.
   While Freese may or may not be in decline, he is a better choice than any of the internal options for the Angels, who will also be hoping that Kole Calhoun is ready for a fulltime outfield role with Trout staying in center fulltime.

    There were two other players in the trade and both may prove to be more than throw ins.

    Fernando Salas, 28, could fill a bullpen role with the Angels, and Randal Grichuk, 22, could in time join the St. Louis outfield.

   Grichuk was a first round selection of the Angels in 2009 (selected, in fact, ahead of Trout) and hit 22 homers in double A last season, a standout season in a thin minor league system.

    Clearly, there is more than one way in which time will be the determining factor in this trade, but the Angels have a historic knowledge of the inherent risk in dealing with the Cardinals.

    In March of 2000 outfielder Jim Edmonds, then in a comparable situation to Bourjos, went to St. Louis and won six consecutive Gold Gloves and played in two World Series.

    That time, at least, the package coming to Anaheim included Adam Kennedy, a seven year fixture at second base for the Angels and a key to their 2002 LCS (he was MVP) and World Series victories.

   That time, at least, there was an upside on both sides.





Thursday, November 21, 2013

Texas Power Play Isn't Finished

             By Ross Newhan

             The one thing we knew for sure about this baseball winter was that the Texas Rangers would trade a middle infielder--Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler or the prized prospect, Jurickson Profar-- for either a front line pitcher of the David Price caliber or a left handed power hitter of the, well, Prince Fielder, stature. As it turned out, quickly and quietly, Kinsler has been traded for Fielder in what can be considered a power play on two levels: Power in that unique form of Fielder for the middle of the lineup and the first flexing of power by General Manager Jon Daniels now that he doesn't have to go through the "retired" Nolan Ryan at the top of the front office roster and has a Dallas supporter and friend, Ray Davis, in that role.

             Daniels/Davis and the Rangers seem certain to have more to come as they attempt to retake the West from the imaginative Billy Beane and his middle class Oakland A's and, (oh, yes) fans in Anaheim nervously wait for the Angels to improve pitching in the hope of resurfacing in the West.

             Although neither Fielder or Kinsler were at their best in 2013, the trade should help both the Rangers and Detroit Tigers in a variety of ways.

             Kinsler will play second base in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera, a liability at third, will carry his MVP Awards to first, replacing Fielder, and a touted rookie, Nick Castellanos, will play third.

             The Tigers had given Fielder a nine year, $214 million contract in a failed attempt to win a World Series for owner Mike Ilitch two years ago (they did reach the Series in 2012) and will send $30 million to the Rangers to help offset some of the $168 million that Fielder is still owed over the next seven years. But despite that $30 million, Detroit now will have the financial flexibility, if it chooses, to extend Max Scherzer and Cabrera while pursuing a free agent closer and another hitter to pick up some of the Fielder slack.

            Amid a public divorce last season Fielder hit only 25 homers, had a career low slugging percentage and failed to homer or drive in a run in 54 post-season at bats. Still, at a prime 29, he will now join Adrian Beltre in the middle of a lineup aching for left handed power in a park where left handers need only a sand wedge to reach the seats amid the prevailing breeze. In addition, amid the constant jibes at Fielder's physique, an overlooked fact is that he has missed only one game over the last five seasons and played 217 more games than the athletic Kinsler since 2006, although, admittedly, there is nothing to compare with the heat of a Texas summer.

           The departure of Kinsler opens up second for Profar, and, while the Fielder contract will cost the Rangers an annual average of $24 million over the next seven years, it is not expected to deter their immediate pursuit of a free agent catcher, outfielder and closer if free agent Joe Nathan, isn't retained--with the outside possibility they could even move another middle infielder with another of their middle infield prospects, Luis Sardinas, knocking on the door.  

           It's still the early weeks of a market that has seen the San Francisco Giants set some stunning pitching precedents with the $35 million retention of Tim Lincecum and $23 million signing of Tim Hudson, but one thing is clear: The Texas power play isn't finished.