Wednesday, January 22, 2014

And Now: How Good Is Tanaka Really? How Good Are the Yankees Really?

                 By Ross Newhan

                 The pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka was ultimately ruled by desperation, prompting the Yankees to blow out the limited competition, blow over the tax threshold that had been their oft-stated, off-season cap and blow fuel on the festering antagonism between the smaller and larger markets.

                 Having already invested heavily in the attempt to reestablish their AL East swagger, the Yankees simply had the biggest combination of rotation need and available resources (augmented by the A-Rod savings).

               At 25, coming off that 24-0 season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka was clearly the most attractive and intriguing proposition among remaining free agent pitchers, and the Yankees bit for far more than either the Dodgers or Chicago Cubs were believed willing to spend, though Tanaka may have coveted New York from the start.

               The bottom line of $155 million for seven years (Tanaka has an out after four) and another $20 million to cover the posting fee for a pitcher who has yet to start a game in the major leagues tends to make the seven year, $215 million agreement that the Dodgers reached with their two time Cy Young award winner, Clayton Kershaw, look like a bargain, and the Dodgers--who have seldom if never been outbid under the Guggenheim ownership--didn't come within $55 million of the Yankee offer, sources insist.

              With a front three of Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu (with Dan Haren and Josh Beckett possibly in the fourth and fifth spots) and contract work beginning on Hanley Ramirez, the Dodgers need for another $20 million a year starting pitcher didn't match the Yankees eagerness to add a mid- to top of the rotation arm to C.C. Sabathia, Hideki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and possibly David Phelps.

            The restructured posting process, lowering the fee for any club to negotiate with Tanaka to $20 million, was expected to create a wide open market, and while Houston and Seattle are known to have investigated, among possibly other smaller market teams, it is believed that only the biggest of the big, the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs, were involved toward the end, with long suffering Cub fans absorbing another dose of false hope after trying to tell themselves there was a chance.

            In an offseason that has seen major league clubs commit approximately $1.8 billion on the signing of free agents, the Yankees--with Tanaka parlayed to Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Kuroda among some smaller signings, have guaranteed more than $460 million. They have rebuilt the outfield, strengthened their catching, filled gaps in their rotation and, at this point, are free of the Alex Rodriguez distraction. Yet, with all of that, somebody has to replace Mariano Rivera, and the infield could be a day to day proposition with Derek Jeter, 39 and Mark Teixeira, 33, no sure things as they come off injuries, and both second and third base problematic.

           If the Yankees, with all of their spending and acquisitions, remain a question, so is Tanaka, of course. Despite glittering statistics, he has put in a lot of work at a young age. As pointed out by ESPN's Jayson Stark, only three major league pitchers in the last 50 years--Frank Tanana, Larry Dierker and Bert Blyleven--had thrown as many innings (1,315) as Tanaka by 24. However, no Asian pitcher, including Yu Darvish and Ryu, has arrived amid as much fanfare and scout praise.

          His agreement with the Yankees should also finally unlock the market for free agent pitchers Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo, among others. Several potential buyers were either involved with Tanaka or chose to wait out that side of the market. Only Garza, in that group, comes without draft compensation, making him more attractive to a club like the Angels, who are determined to stay under the tax threshold and avoid giving up a draft pick. The Angels only kicked the tires on Tanaka despite the need, their billion dollar-plus TV contract and the sense that,  with no certainty of a longrange payback on their big money investments in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, they have to make a run now in a vastly improved division that has seen them fall short of the playoffs for four years.

         Financial times have changed in Anaheim, and while several smaller market teams, including Oakland, Minnesota, Houston, Seattle and Kansas City, were active in the free agent inflation of the winter, there is also considerable unrest among the smaller markets involving a widening revenue gap with the big markets and the perceived need for changes in the overall financial process. Twenty one years of labor peace could be at stake when the current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season.



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If Best Pitcher Gets Record Contract What About Best Player?

                    By Ross Newhan

                    If baseball's best pitcher is going to receive almost $31 million a year for the next seven, what does the best player receive?

                    The Angels may have to dig deeper into that question as it relates to Mike Trout after the Dodgers reached a record $215 million contract with Clayton Kershaw.

                    The latter is 25 and the former is 22, and there is a difference beyond age, of course,  between two of SoCal's and baseball's brightest stars.

                   Kershaw has pitched more than 1,000 major league innings and was two days away from salary arbitration and a year away from free agency when he and the Dodgers agreed.

                   Trout has achieved his generally recognized stature as MLB's best all-around player after just two plus years. He will need another year before becoming eligible for aribtration and another four before free agency. The Angels don't have a gun at their head yet, but yet they do. Trout wasn't happy when they renewed him at $510,000 last year, only $20,000 above the big league minimum, and they can hardly afford to further antagonize their center fielder and MVP runner-up. They owe Albert Pujols eight more years and Josh Hamilton four--a potentially tough financial slog despite their TV billions--but can they risk not getting ahead of the Trout Express at some point over the next two seasons? Can they risk anything short of a seven to 10 year agreement eclipsing anything that has come before (or has Trout's displeasure over last season's renewal already left him of a mind to take it a year at a time until closer to free agency)?

                The Dodgers knew they didn't want to reach Friday's deadline and have to exchange arbitration numbers with Kershaw and they certainly didn't want to get into the season with their left handed ace closing in on the temptation of free agency. On the basis of age and ability, with internal reports telling them that no pitcher at 1,000 innings or so had ever accomplished what Kershaw has, they knew what it would take, and what it would take hasn't been a deterrent to the Guggenheim group in its brief tenure as owner.

              Only rarely anymore does any team allow its best player to get away, and this is what Kershaw had going for him: Two Cy Young Awards in the last three seasons, three straight National League ERA titles, two of the last three strikeout titles and a four year average of 225 innings, 230 strikeouts and a composite ERA of 2.37.

             In addition, if Kerhaw is building a career comparable to his idol and mentor Sandy Koufax,  he is also already something of a man of the people with his mop of hair, gregarious personality and charity work on two continents.

           There are skeptics who will weigh the money and length and point out that a series of left handed pitchers over the years--Frank Tanana, Steve Avery and Don Gullet to name just three--began to demonstrate wear and tear after reaching 1,000 innings at a comparatively young age. They will also point out that Kershaw seemed to wear down as the playoffs wore on last year, turning in one of his worst efforts in the decisive Game 6 with St. Louis.

           Nevertheless, at 25, given his statistical foundation, the fact he will still be in his prime when the seven years are up and that, as agent Casey Close negotiated, he can opt out after five years, the Dodgers clearly felt the better part of history as it relates to their own left hander was on their side. They now have five players who will earn $20 million or more in 2014 and a payroll certain to exceed an MLB high $250 million with the lingering question of whether to extend Hanley Ramirez and/or to pursue Masahiro Tanaka.

          With the status of Kerhaw and manager Don Mattingly stabilized, however, the Dodgers have taken two major steps as Guggenheim continues to take care of its own house no matter how much unhappiness it creates in smaller markets or how much immediate abuse owner Mark Walter has to endure during the current owners' meetings where he will undoubtedly cross paths with Arte Moreno, who has suddenly been left with a little more to consider when it comes to the L.A. market and what to do now or in the near future about retaining his centerfielder on a longterm basis.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

A-Rod on an Island of His Own Making

      By Ross Newhan

      No man is an island?

      Well, Alex Rodriguez is.

      He is a man without constituency, isolated except for his retinue of lawyers and public relations personnel.

      The players union? The union did what it had to do in supporting him (any player would have been given the same support) in his appeal of Major League Baseball's 211 game suspension, but when the arbitrator announced that he was upholding a record 162 game suspension--covering the 2014 season and post-season--the union released a brief statement saying it strongly disagreed with the decision but recognized it as "final and binding" and respected the collective bargaining process that led to it.

     Teammates and fellow players? Where were their tweets Saturday?

     The New York Yankees? Good riddance. Oh, a Yankee statement couldn't go that far, but are they happy to save about $22 million in 2014 salary and to be free of the daily distraction that Rodriguez had become? There can be no doubt about that even though it isn't clear who will be playing third base in the coming season beyond Kelly Johnson as the left handed hitting part of a possible platoon.

     Kelly Johnson replacing Alex Rodriguez?

     Call it an inglorious way to finish, an arrogant, egotistical and colossal waste of talent and intelligence. 

     Thirty nine in July, having undergone two hip operations and played only a handful of games in 2013, how likely is it that Rodriguez can come back in 2015?

     A federal court could throw him a lifeline by ordering a stay in the arbitrator's decision, allowing him to start the new season in uniform, but that it is a longshot, according to legal experts.

     Courts seldom intercede in arbitration cases created by collective bargaining.

    Rodriguez, in a statement Saturday, continued to say the deck was stacked against him, that the arbitrator heard evidence and testimony that wouldn't have been allowed in a courtroom, but he has been firing from that repaired hip from the time that Biogenesis scandal first surfaced, calling it a personnel witchhunt by MLB, throwing legal and/or personal grenades at Bud Selig, the Yankees, the arbitrator (Fredric Horowitz) and a Yankee team physician.

    Make no mistake: MLB went hard after Rodriguez and the other players implicated in Biogenesis, and aspects of the investigation, paying for evidence, according to reports, and leaning on testimony from a turned felon, may have seemed distasteful then, and distasteful now. However, in a case in which only one of 14 players had a positive drug test on his record, that evidence can be assumed to have been and to be unprecedented, ultimately leading to an unprecedented suspension.               

     For Rodriguez, of course, it didn't have to come to 162 games.

    The other 13 players considered the evidence and accepted far shorter bans--12 agreeing to 50 games, and Ryan Braun, who had tested positive in 2012 only to have the test thrown out on a technicality, accepted 65. Rodriguez was in MLB's crosshairs from the time he rejected any and all offers of a plea bargain, and while the determined wrapup of Biogenesis represents a positive development for baseball in the ongoing battle to eliminate the use of performance enhancing drugs, it is alo a sad and, perhaps, final day for a player (wealth aside) who should have been another kind of face of the game.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It's A Negative Hit Parade Behind Maddux, Glavine and Thomas

           By Ross Newhan

           The Hall of Fame voting results mirror the complexity of the 2014 ballot.

            Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas survived the bottleneck to become deserving winners, and, yes, 16 voters failed to include Maddux on their ballot but with 97.2% of the 571 votes it will not matter much to the 355 game winner when he is inducted on July 27 in Cooperstown.

            Craig Biggio needed only two more votes to also qualify for a plaque.

            Biggio, who led the winner-less 2013 election in his first year with 68.2%, climbed to 74.8% this time, so close to the needed 75% that he seems certain to attain in 2015, though there also seems to be no predicting an electorate of which I am one.

           Maddux, Glavine and Thomas were all in their first year of eligibility and reflected the quality of a large frosh class that compounded a) the similar worthiness of a large group of ballot holdovers, b) the lingering question for many, many voters of what to do with an otherwise qualified group of players tied to the Steroid Era and c) the ongoing 10 vote limit when there were probably 20 players deserving of serious consideration.

           It was virtually impossible not to vote for 10--which I did for the first time in 43 years and many others did as well, according to their published accounts--and the difficulty of that process can best be measured by the results behind Maddux, Glavine, Thomas and Biggio (the latter also being impacted by the depth of the ballot and the widespread differences in voter thinking).

           In fact, behind the top four, the only holdover to show an appreciable increase in percentage was Mike Piazza, and none of the newcomers attained a percentage--as illustrated by Mike Mussina's 20.3 and Jeff Kent's 15.2---that indicated they will have a serious chance in the next 14 years to climb to 75.

          Jack Morris, who was second in 2013 voting at 67.7%, fell to 61.5 in his 15th and last year on the ballot, a victim, perhaps, of the NewThink metrics and a blow to those of us who have continued to support his candidacy. Morris will now go to a veteran's committee in 2016.

         Jeff Bagwell, who was third in 2013 at 59.6, fell to 54.3,  a modest drop compared to many others. Piazza, fourth in 2013 at 57.8, withstood the earthquake, climbing to 62.2 to rank fifth behind Maddux, Glavine, Thomas and Biggio.

         Curt Schilling, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith and Larry Walker, all among candidates thought to have a chance now or in the future, took major hits, and the PED boys all slipped. If the majority thinking in regards to Barry Bonds, at 34.7, and Roger Clemens, at 35.4, is changing affirmatively, it wasn't demonstrated by the 2014 vote, and a third member of the PED contingent, Rafael Palmeiro, fell to 4.4, below the 5% need to stay on the ballot despite a career of more than 500 home runs and more than 3,000 hits.      

          Whether the vote limit will be increased before the 2015 election is uncertain. Hall officials seem disinclined to make any changes, and it is unclear if the Baseball Writers Assn. of America will muster a lobbying campaign.

         One thing IS certain: A complex process will remain complex, with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz among those joining the ballot.

           My 2014 ballot again: Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Biggio, Piazza, Morris, Martinez, Kent, Schilling and Smith.      



Sunday, January 5, 2014

Raising HOF Voting Limit Is OK---But Not Necessity

    By Ross Newhan         

     Any analysis of the 71 years in which eligible members of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America have conducted voting for the Hall of Fame would conclude that the BBWAA has been a conscientious custodian, preserving Cooperstown from the over population of other Halls while constructing a consistent line between great and merely good (always, of course, in the eye of the beholder).

     The 2014 results will be revealed Wednesday.

     No other ballot, perhaps, has created a wider array of opinions or generated a more difficult selection process, stemming from a large and intriguingly worthy group of first time eligible players, a much smaller group of repeaters who had been building towards the 75% necessary for election and the holdover refuse of familiar names from the Steroid Era.

     One result is already known.

     A BBWAA committee has been formed to study possible changes in the election process, possibly increasing the number of players a voter can select from 10 to 12 or more.

     There has also been a call by some for the Hall to broaden the "character and integrity" instructions sent to voters to include a definitive policy on players tied substantively to the use of performance enhancing drugs or to the Steroid Era in general.

    I have voted since 1971, when I first met the requirement of having been a traveling baseball writer for 10 years, but am neither tied to the past nor a traditionalist.

   If the majority of eligible voters believe that a small increase in the 10 player rule would be beneficial I would not object, although I am not sure it would make a significant difference in the number of players who attain 75% and are inducted each year.

   The complexity of this year's ballot wasn't created so much by the ongoing presence of a group rigidly associated with the Steroid Era (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire) but the 19 first time eligible players. That group included Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina. A Hall of Fame case can be made for each, and any voter putting an X by their name on the ballot might then have trouble maintaining support, under the 10 player limit, for candidates the voter has supported in the past and who remain on the ballot. The steroid group, as mentioned, played into the complexity, but more daunting was the group of quality first timers in association with holdovers such as Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling, Lee Smith, Larry Walker, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell, among others.

     Thus, in the opinion of many, the need to increase the 10 vote limit. Again, I don't object, but I also firmly believe that the vast majority of  voters will select 10 only on an infrequent basis (this was the first time in 43 years that I can recall voting for 10) and surpass 10 even more infrequently. Last year, when Biggio, Piazza and Schilling highlighted the first time list, and those steroid names were also on the ballot, no one was elected, the eighth time that has happened and a measure--in my mind--of the conscientious approach of the BBWAA's eligible members. In addition, while an increase to 12 or more but might keep more candidates within site of 75% (next year Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are among arrivals compounding the process), the most players inducted through BBWAA voting in any single year at Cooperstown was five--and that was in the first year of 1936 with the golden names of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.

    If being elected is an honor, having the vote is a privilege, and I am convinced that the BBWAA membership has regarded it as such in each of the 71 elections, and which is why I believe there is no need for a policy statement by Hall officials governing the Steroid Era. I will not vote for any candidate where there is substantive evidence of PED use, but again I believe that any voter who believes otherwise is letting his conscience be his guide. I don't expect a policy statement from the Hall on this or any other aspect of the voting process.

    Hall President Jeff Idelson said as much in a response to a query from this writer.

    Idelson said: "The BBWAA has done an excellent job reviewing candidates, utilizing the rules provided by the Hall of Fame, which we consistently review internally...(and) have always maintained an open dialog with the BBWAA and its voting members... Having the responsibility of placing the ultimate 'seal of approval' on someone's career is never easy."

    My ballot: Biggio, Maddux, Glavine, Morris, Kent, Piazza, Thomas, Martinez, Schilling, Smith. At 12: Add Bagwell and Mussina.