Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Scherzer: A Lot to Like (With One Hesitation at $210M)

                    By ROSS NEWHAN

                    Well, okay, I get it.

                    I get why Ted Lerner, at 89, would give the go-ahead on a seven-year, $210 million contract for the 30 year old Max Scherzer.

                    There are only so many opportunities, after all, to see your Washington Nationals go the distance (which they probably should have done last year), and now, with Scherzer, your already formidable rotation is the best in baseball (although a trade could still be forthcoming) and your lineup is one of the best.

                    I also get (to an extent) how the contract isn't entirely what it seems and works for both the team and Scherzer (simplified: it's $15 million a year spread over 14 years, working in the deferments).

                   Where I stop getting it, and I acknowledge that my little yardstick won't matter to anyone concerned only with the State of the Nationals, is how the $210 is only $5 million less than Clayton Kershaw's seven year contract with the Dodgers considering they are not in the same category. Kershaw, at 26, is fashioning a career of historic measure. Scherzer is not, which is not to demean his accomplishments.

                   He was the best pitcher still on the market, and the market, in a $9 billion industry, is a market of which I became numb to long ago.

                   And while I just don't see Scherzer within $5 million of Kershaw, I get what he brings to the Nationals, which includes a long list of analytic positives, a 70-24 record over the last four years, 492 strike outs in his last 434 2/3 innings, and 18 wins and 220 innings a year after winning the 2013 Cy Young Award.

                Will he be the same pitcher at 37 he is at 30? The Nationals, viewing a pitcher seemingly getting stronger, have little reason to look beyond the next three or four years.

                 With Scherzer added to a fearsome fivesome of Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, they now have several options.

                   They can recoup some of the $210 by trading a starter, possibly Zimmerman, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the year and has said he will not give the Nationals a home discount, or Strasburg, who would probably net a bigger return. Strasburg is represented by the noted Scott Boras, who also represents Scherzer and is unlikely to have placed the latter in a situation that would result in another client being uprooted except that Strasburg, who lives in San Diego and attends many athletic events at San Diego State, where he became a first round draft choice, would probably love to leave for the Padres, hungry for a starter with relievers and prospects to offer.

                   If there is no trade, the impressive young Roark, now the sixth man out, could move to a setup role, replacing the recently traded and expensive Tyler Clippard, and if there is no trade and Zimmerman and Fister, who will also be eligible for free agency, leave next fall, Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark and a host of young pitchers on the farm provide a solid foundation for the future.

                  I get it: Lerner and the Nats built on a strength, and while I don't see Scherzer in Kershaw's neighborhood, no one understands the price of the game better than Boras, and in this case he found a team willing to pay it to the Max.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Selig Tenure: Not Perfect But Darn ($$$) Good

                       By Ross Newhan

                       Bud Selig will preside over his final owners meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Phoenix, with the owners and a few guests feting the commissioner at the end of the business sessions--as well they should. Industry revenue has soared from $1.2 billion to $9 billion during Selig's 22 years at the helm, and the average franchise is now valued at more than $1 billion, with the Dodgers having sold for $2.1 billion 14 years after Peter O'Malley sold for $311 million.

                        Selig, who will be in Los Angeles Saturday night to present an award at Dennis Gilbert's 12th annual Scouts Foundation dinner, officially retires Jan. 24. Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred has already made several changes in baseball's administrative staff, but Selig's legacy is embedded even if the patient, ear to the phone, consensus building leadership style undergoes some high tech alterations while operating fully from 245 Park Ave. in New York City rather than 777 East Ave. in Milwaukee.

                        Never has a tradition bound sport experienced the dramatic changes--on and off the field--than it did under the ninth and second longest tenured commissioner.

                        His grade, if one has to be given, would be somewhere in the area of an 'A-' or 'B+'.

                        The cold reality is that no one should be allowed to emerge from the Steroid Era's embrace with a perfect grade and no commissioner can escape the asterik that accompanies cancellation of a World Series--despite the complexities involved at the time.

                        Nevertheless, it is simply impossible to say the game isn't better off--economically, competitively and relationship-wise (among owners and between management and the players union) than when Selig led the ouster of Fay Vincent and became acting commissioner in September 1992.

                       While there could be changes in those relationships and threats to what will be 22 years of labor peace when the current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season, anyone who had spent his career following and/or writing about the industry would have been hard pressed in 1992--or '94 when the  Series was cancelled because of a work stoppage rooted in the owners then perpetual desire for a salary cap--to predict the peace, prosperity and parity that has followed.

                     Interleague play, realignment, expanded playoffs and revenue sharing have been significant steps under Selig, who took over at a time when the owners were still using revenue sharing formulas from the 1940s and 50s, and the big market clubs treated their smaller brethren with disdain. Selig, in time, convinced his constituents that they were all operating under the same tent, and now approximately $400 million in revenue sharing money changes hands annually, contributing to the fact that 29 of the 30 teams have reached the post-season since 2001 and 12 wild card teams have played in a World Series.

                   In addition, for a man who doesn't use a computer, Selig has seen his Advanced Media internet operation experience unparalleled success compared to other sports, generating almost $700 million in annual revenue, with part of that stemming from the globalization efforts, which have spawned three World Baseball Classics, five opening days in Japan and Australia and yearly overseas clinics.

                While MLB and the NFL can debate which is now the National Pastime, Selig has also seen  attendance increase from 1992, when 12 of the 26 teams drew less than two million, to a 2014 average of 2.5 million for the 30 teams, five drawing more than three million and 22 of the 30 opening new ballparks during his tenure (and yes, taxpayers, thanks for your contributions).

                At the same time, the Oakland and Tampa Bay stadium situations remain unresolved, the minority hiring program has lapsed badly, dare I even mention that foolish exercise know as contraction, and there is some sentiment--in virtually every corner of the baseball community--that over-reaction to the 2002 All-Star game tie, resulting in an exhibition game now deciding which league gets home field advantage in the World Series, should be corrected.

                Then, of course, there is the steroid residue---a polluted era, a devalued record book and a commissioner who will have to carry some of the responsibility into retirement, though the union and media shared in the era's sounds of silence.

                The fact that baseball has emerged with the toughest testing and drug program in pro sports and a take no prisoner investigative approach as exemplified in the Biogenesis and A-Rod episodes provides a measure of solace for Selig, but the impact of the era will linger in differing forms for years, if not forever.

                 And now Manfred, among other issues, will first deal with possible changes to the pace of games in an effort to reinvest a younger demographic and revitalize TV ratings. Manfred has been Selig's chief labor lieutenant, significantly responsible for maintaining a record stretch of harmony with the union. The 20 owners who opposed his election, led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Arte Moreno, did so, in fact, on the very belief he has been TOO easy on the union. If that bloc remains in tact in 2016, when both sides are believed ready to pursue a variety of issues more vigorously than in the most recent negotiations, labor peace could be at stake.

                Selig, meanwhile, will be writing his biography with the help of the renowned Doris Kearns Goodwin while also, at 80 and with an unquestioned love of the game he is leaving, teaching history, possibly at the University of Wisconsin. Will he be a tough grader? Who knows? His own history as commissioner is deserving of a high mark, just not quite straight 'A'.  






Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pedro And A Haunting Mound of Dodger Decisions

                  By Ross Newhan

                  The election of Pedro Martinez to the Hall of Fame has spurred unpleasant memories for the Dodgers.

                  Martinez, at 22, was traded by the Dodgers in November 1993, a move prompted by the need for a second baseman and anatomical concerns about the slightly built pitcher that has been well chronicled by this writer and others. With time the judge, all clubs make trades they can savor and others they would prefer to forget, but if pitching is the backbone of the game and young pitching a prized commodity, the trading of Martinez capped a comparatively narrow timeframe the Dodgers would definitely like to forget.

                 Starting in December 1981 with the trading of Rick Sutcliffe, who had won the National League's   Rookie of the Year Award two years before, and ending with Martinez just over a decade later, the Dodgers traded five pitchers--25 and younger--who would go on to establish headline careers that included recognition for each in the voting for both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards.

                  The late Al Campanis traded Sutcliffe, 25, Dave Stewart, 25, and John Franco, 21, in a period of less than three years, and then Fred Claire traded John Wetteland, 25, after the 1991 season and Martinez two years later. I discussed the loss of the five young pitchers with Claire a couple years ago and he said, "with any trade, whether it was made by Al or me or anybody else, the goal is to improve the team. But you look back, and it's pretty easy to judge. Would you classify these trades, whether it was Pedro or Franco or Stewart or Sutcliffe or Wetteland as good trades? No, I don't know how you could."

                 It should be noted that the Dodgers, during the period involved, won the World Series in '81, reached the National League's Championship Series in '83 and '85 and won the World Series in 1988. They were often looking to pick up a piece here and there to assist in sustaining that otherwise successful period,  and the one management constant during it was Tom Lasorda, who was never shy about offering an opinion and who often said that the Dodgers could not afford to operate a developmental camp in the major market that is Los Angeles.

               Those pieces included Jorge Orta, Rick Honeycutt, Rafael Landestoy and Eric Davis. Each made a contribution during relatively short tenures in L.A., but those contributions would have to be classified as modest when measured against the success of the five young pitchers after leaving, and, of course, Delino DeShields was a three year bust in exchange for Martinez in the trade that retrospectively hurt most given Martinez healthy longevity over his Hall of Fame career.

              "All those people who put all those labels on me must be out there (in L.A.) now banging their heads against the wall," Martinez told me before starting the 1999 All-Star game for the American League. "You're talking about some of the biggest people in baseball, but they obviously didn't know anything about the game. I made 65 appearances in '93 and they were still saying I was too small, too weak, certain to break down. I think about it all the time. It's still my motivation. Durability is my whole game. I've proven them wrong. God willing I'll continue to prove them wrong."

             Martinez pitched 18 years in the big leagues, but his tone has changed since receiving the HOF notification, which sends a message of its own. He has thanked the Dodgers for giving him the opportunity to reach the big leagues and trading him to Montreal, where he had the opportunity to become a fulltime starter.

            The ensuing success of those other four young pitchers also speaks for itself.

            Two years after winning the Rookie of the Year award, Sutcliffe was left off the Dodgers' 1981 post-season roster because of a late season injury and reacted by rearranging Lasorda's office during a loud argument and was traded two months later. Over the ensuing six years he finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting three times and won the award in 1984 when he was a combined 20-6 with Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs, including 16-1 with the Cubs.

           Franco and Wetteland went on to become two of baseball's all-time best closers. Franco saved 424 games over 21 years to rank fourth all-time while Wetteland saved 330 over 12 seasons to rank13th. Stewart struggled for a time after leaving before ultimately emerging as one of MLB's most dominant and driven starters during one of Oakland's championship runs, Stewart, now the Arizona Diamondbacks general manager, won 84 games in four years, a minimum of 20 each year, and should have won the Cy Young Award at least once except for slanted voting that favored Roger Clemens.

           The past is past, but Pedro has brought it vividly to mind again, painfully for the Dodgers.                                                        


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Hall Vote: A Good Day All Around

                        By Ross Newhan

                         The election of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio to the Hall of Fame represents a quality result for baseball, Cooperstown and the BBWAA electorate.

                         Putting aside the steroid issue and inevitable quibbles over this candidate and that candidate,  there is this: Two years after the BBWAA failed to elect anyone, the Hall doors seem to have become more easily breached.

                        Seven deserving players have been elected since the voting whitewash--Biggio was the only one not in his first year on the ballot--and the election of four marks the largest class in 60 years (the three pitchers in the same year--Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz--being a first). Next December's ballot will include only one sure-fire first timer, Ken Griffey Jr., which should bode well for Mike Piazza and, possibly, one or two others who failed to garner the necessary 75% in this years election.

                        My take aways:

                        --Piazza, baseball's all-time home run leader among catchers while also weighted some by steroid suspicions, needed to be named on 28 more of the 549 total ballots but climbed from 62.2% to 69.9% and should make it next time, his fourth year of eligibility.

                        --Jeff Bagwell, who finished behind Piazza at 55.7%, should also continue to climb, although a 20% jump is probably unlikely. Why there has been such a voting disparity between Bagwell and Biggio, his Killer B teammate in Houston, is difficult to decipher. Biggio had his 3,000 plus hits while playing catcher, center field and second base, but Bagwell's assorted power numbers at first base are some of the best all-time while achieved in the shadow of the steroid era--an unfortunate handicap.

                     --Tim Raines and Curt Schilling made the biggest jumps behind Piazza and Bagwell: Raines, with a ground-swell of metric support, gained nine points to 55% but has only two more years on the ballot. Schilling gained 10 points to 39.2%, and with Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz, along with fellow pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, having now been cleared from his path in the last two years, could continue to gain rapidly. He has seven years left.

                     --Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the Steroid Era poster boys, made incremental progress, but the safest speculation would be that their HOF futures will fall to a veterans committee--and maybe that's the way it should be, taking their candidacy out of the split hands of the BBWAA to a committee of players, owners and media members who by then will have had more time to weigh the era, the history and their accomplishments.

                   --While Johnson, arguably the best left handed pitcher ever, gained 97.3% of the vote, the eighth highest plurality ever, it is hard to understand how 9% of the electorate failed to vote for Martinez (91.1), who pitched a large portion of his honored career amid the claustrophobic dimensions of Fenway Park in a DH league during the PED era. Safe to say that the steroid candidates, along with a large cast of quality first year candidates on the last two ballots, have forced a higher degree of strategizing by voters, and some undoubetedly withheld votes for Martinez and others they viewed as certain to be elected in order to support other candidates of their choice.

                 --The cramped ballot and the 10 vote max has unquestionably impacted many candidates. Two among the many: Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent far back at 24.6 and 14.0 respectively. Mussina won 270 games with the Orioles and Yankees during some of the best years of the AL East and the height of the Steroid Era while Kent's stats rank at the top or near the top of virtually every second base category. Then again, you have to also look look deep to find Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff, Larry Walker and Gary Sheffield.

                 --Don Mattingly received 50 votes (9.1%) in his last year of eligibility and will be turned over to the Expansion Era committee in two years. Of course, the Dodger manager has plenty else on his mind what with being always under the microscope at the helm of his high priced, high expectation team that now has a new front office handling the microscope.

                 My ballot (as posted previously): Bagwell, Biggio, Johnson, Kent, Martinez, Mussina, Piazza, Raines, Schilling, Smoltz.