Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Opening Day Answer Man

The Opening Day Answer Man

           By Ross Newhan

           The first question, please.

           Question: Which is the best team in baseball entering the new season?

            Answer: The Washington Nationals, largely on the basis of elimination and their ace-deep rotation. One thing is certain: The Nationals are the only functioning organization in the capital.

            Q: What is the best division in baseball and who will win it?

             A: The American League Central, with Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago and Cleveland capable of winning and only Minnesota leaving Paul Molitor to wonder if he made the right decision, particularly now that Ervin Santana has set a record for stupidity by drawing an 80 game PED suspension after the Twins guaranteed him $55 million. As to the winner, I nervously tab the Tigers to make it five in a row, believing they can  pound out enough victories to overcome their suspect pitching. Then again, my son is the assistant hitting coach, so what answer did you expect?

            Q: Is is really true that Alex Rodriguez will be in the Yankees opening day lineup?

            A: Yes, at 40 and after missing a year and a half, A-Rod had a reassuing spring, hitting three home runs and batting .286 with a .400 OBP. And, look, the 2015 Yankees aren't loaded with a lot of Murderer's Row options.

            Q: Where do we look on opening day for some of those high dollar Cuban players?

            A: Check the minors, counting their money. That's where Boston's Yoan Moncada ($63M) and Rusney Castillo ($72.5M) will be. Arizona's Yasmany Tomas ($68.5M) was still on the big league roster as of Saturday morning but probably headed down since rookie Jake Lamb has won the third base job. The Dodgers' Hector Olivera ($62.5M) hasn't even left the Dominican Republic yet because of visa issues. Any one for a cigar.

            Q: Can Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson avoid the disabled list at the back end of the Dodger rotation?

           A: History suggests they can't, and that compounds the fact that Hyun-Jin Ryu is already opening the season on the DL and the L.A. bullpen is a mess with closer Kenley Jansen out until mid- or late May.

           Q: Are you saying the Dodgers won't win the NL West again?

           A: No, they are the team to beat, possibly even stronger than last year. Just saying there are reasons for supporters to hold their breath. Of course, 70% of supporters in the L.A. market won't be able to watch their favorite team again because of the greed involved in the ongoing TV issue, which is about as close to a resolution as a trade involving Andre Ethier, which isn't close at all.

           Q: Who are Johnny Giavotella and Tyler Featherstone?

           A: The former is the Angels replacement for Howie Kendrick at second base and the latter is his backup. The Big A now stands for Anonymity, which is not to say the team is close to a trade for Chase Utley, but, well, keep it in mind.

           Q: So, the Angels can't win 96 games again without a proven second baseman?

           A: No, they very well can, and I credit GM Jerry Dipoto for doing a good job picking up pieces to improve the overall depth, minimizing the uncertainty over Josh Hamilton and other potential roster issues-- and I know what the next question is: Do they hope Hamilton returns or would they prefer he retire? Well, management's over the top reaction to the absence of a suspension would make it seem they hope he stays home and cares for himself and his family, but what's the expression about making your bed and.....

           Q: Are the Mariners in the AL West, the Marlins in the NL East and the Indians in the AL Central as legitimate as many prognosticators are saying.

           A: Yes, each has a real chance in their respective divisions, but as the only prognosticator that counts I still lean toward the Angels in the West, the Nationals in the East and the Tigers in the Central. And, though you didn't ask, I tab the Orioles in the AL East, the Dodgers in the NL West, and the Cardinals again in the NL Central.

          Q: Aside from minor steps to improve the pace of games has the new commissioner done anything to ban shifts and improve the offenses?

           A: No, he is hoping the game begins a natural adjustment from pitching dominance. as it has done in both ways at times in the past. However, offensive statistics have seldom--if ever--been on a downward trend comparable to the last 15 years, and 2015 will be watch closely on Park Ave. with the possibility of  significant changes in 2016.

          Q: Pete Rose has applied for reinstatement. Will we see that happen in 2015?

          A: Rob Manfred seems more open to a fresh appraisal than his predecessor, and there has been speculation that Rose could be reinstated, becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame, while restricted to the type job he could accept in the game. However, I remain doubtful. I suspect the Hit Leader will remain banished with Shoeless Joe, and I regret that. I have long supported a permanent ban, long written that Rose had done  little to enhance his situation, but I have reached a point where I believe the point has been made and his contributions--if not the man himself--are worthy of reinstatement. It would be a powerful statement by the new commissioner and good for the game. It just makes sense.                                               

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Take on Josh Hamilton, and Myself

                       By Ross Newhan
                        I have no first-hand or family connection to addiction, and for that I am grateful, although I am undoubtedly being cavalier about that "first-hand" bit.

                        During all the years (decades), covering the Angels or Dodgers on the road, covering All-Star games and World Series, covering labor negotiations and owners meetings, the nightly habit was to have a drink or two when the writing was done.

                       And too often a drink or two led to three or four.

                       Even when covering a game at Dodger Stadium or in Anaheim, well, for many years there were post-game drinks served in the hospitality rooms behind the press box or there were stops on the way home.

                       I was lucky to have survived, lucky to have not produced an accident involving others.

                      My drink of choice at the time was VO and water. There was one night, covering the 1980 baseball winter meetings in San Diego, when I had no recollection the next morning of having driven from the Town and Country Hotel, where the meetings were held, to my hotel across the freeway.

                      I have not had a VO and water since, which is not to say I don't occasionally have a glass of wine or an occasional beer (with the driving left to my wife).

                     I am quite sure, during those many years of heavy drinking, I could have been, would have been, classified as alcoholic. An alcoholic functioning at high level (based on the reaction to and rewards for my writing), but alcoholic nevertheless.

                    Confession may be good for the soul but I am not looking for cleansing because there is an aspect of those years, an aspect of addiction, I do not understand and maybe can not.

                    Maybe? Probably? Undoubtedly I was (am) fooling myself, but I never felt that I HAD to have a drink. It was habit, social time with colleagues and competitors, unwinding after having produced 800 or so words in 20 or so minutes, another deadline down.

                   Even now, thinking about all that drinking, all those impaired miles behind the wheel, trying to grasp a truthful reason for it, it is impossible for me to understand the unrelenting addiction that has pulled at Josh Hamilton since his teenage years--the day by day, night by night, turmoil (terror?) behind locked doors and windows, accountability partner or not, loving family or not.

                   His story has been chronicled, and it is enough to repeat that he has been one of the great hitters of the last dozen years, an MVP winner and contender who has earned the admiration of teammates while handling high velocity fastballs amid a far more challenging obstacle of which he has talked openly. Now, he has clearly acknowledged a cocaine and alcohol relapse in meeting with MLB officials. He faces suspension as a repeat offender of the category called drugs of abuse, and I would not be so glib, as some have, to say it is time for Hamilton to walk away from the game and deal totally with an addiction that will always be there in some measure. Nor will I pile on the Angels--more than I already have--in regard to that five year, $125 million contract that has three years and $83 million left and carried a high risk from the time it was signed.               

                 Whether Hamilton will ever return the high reward that hopefully accompanied the risk remains uncertain and is probably not the current issue.

                  The issue is one of life, not livlihood, and while I have covered other players who had to cope with an addiction of one type or another, Hamilton has brought home new insight into the tenacious grasp of addiction at its fiercest.

                  I hope he can play again. I hope he can find a way to ease the stranglehold because there is more at stake than a uniform.

                  And, from a perspective I have not given comparable thought to before, it is probably best if I think in terms of "judge not...."                                  


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reflections on a Wild Off-Season

       By Ross Newhan

        Pitchers, catchers and thoughts on a frenetic, finance-busting, franchise empowering off-season (with more action still to come):

                                                       TODDLIN' TOWN
        Chicago should be just that--Northside, Southside, both. No general manager nailed his winter blueprint quicker than Rick Hahn of the White Sox, and no one acquisition did more to energize a long suffering fan base than the Cubs signing of one-of-a-kind Joe Maddon as manager. The White Sox look like contenders in the AL Central without another move and the Cubs should be competitive, if not contenders, in the NL Central, with the next seven weeks helping to sort out the MLB's deepest fleet of seemingly ready prospects.

                                              LIGHTING UP THE GASLAMP

        Petco area businesses are salivating over the attendance impact expected for Padre home games because of the lineup overhaul by new general manager A.J. Preller, all via a series of adrenelin pumping trades except for the free agent signing of James Shields. This could be the best San Diego team since the 1998 World Series version, particularly if Will Myers can play center field and Will Middlebrooks is the everyday third baseman. With the Wills, there may be a way in the NL West. Otherwise, the Padres will have to do some unhappy juggling to shore up the defense behind that very good pitching and some of the new arrivals may be sitting--questions for spring.

                                                    SWOON OVER MIAMI?

        It is always difficult to know if the Jeffrey Loria of today will be the Jeffrey Loria of tomorrow, but this appears to go beyond the owners' whims and has all the look of a real, longterm deal for the Marlins given the foundation inspiring committment to Giancarlo Stanton, the additions of Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Martin Prado, and the healthy mix of a productive farm system. If Jose Fernandez remains on track to return in mid-season from Tommy John surgery the Marlins should be wild card competitive in the NL East, where the rich get richer Nationals will be tough to unseat.

                                                     CUBA LIBRA, ANYONE?

        So, Yasiel Puig pumps the Dodgers with energy (and irritation) and Jose Abreau wins a Rooke of the Year award with the White Sox, and now the Cuban onslaught is in full swing. Rusney Castillo is expected to be an outfield starter with the Red Sox after costing $72.5 million and Yasmany Tomas is expected to start at third base for the Diamondbacks after costing $68.5 million, but, in all liklihood, you ain't seen nothing yet.   There are approximately 75 Cuban players pursuing contracts with major league clubs headed by infielders Yoan Moncada, Hector Olivera and Andy Ibanez and pitcher Yadier Alvarez. The international signing guidelines differ in each case, but the madcap, private workout pursuit of the 19 year old Moncada, in particular, is expected to culminate in the next 5 to 10 days with a (big market?) bonus signing that could top Castillo and Tomas, and include a 100% tax on the respective club's bonus pool overage. It's a complicated business, but the loosening of relations with Cuba could, in time, end MLB's dirty relationship with human traffickers and accelerate the push for a needed international draft.

                                                PANDA TRACKS (AND MORE)

         They are thinking first-to-worst-to-first in Red Sox nation, providing they can dig Fenway out of the snowback in time. Down in sunny Fort Myers, in the meantime, they will be putting Pablo Sandoval on the scales regularly and giving Hanley Ramirez regular lessons in left field, where the wall and diminsions are similar to those he will find in Boston. The early signings of arguably the two best hitters on the free agent market cost the Red Sox $183 million, and now they are considered the team that is in best position to make one of the splashiest late moves, dipping into a deep prospect system to trade for Cole Hamels, providing a missing ace for their pitching deck.

                                                  THE DH FACTOR?

          While Sandoval and Ramirez are moving to a league that in which the designated hitter provides them with an added lineup option, the three best and most expensive free agent pitchers on the market--Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Shields--all fled the DH burden of the American League for the DH-less National. Each of the three is in his 30s, and while the opportunity to pitch to a pitcher rather than a bonafide hitter may not have been the primary motivation in their decisions, well, it's a nice thought in their senior baseball years. Besides, now they get a chance to hit themselves (LOL).

                                                     SICK BAY?

            A lot of what has happened to the Giants, since winning their every other year World Series, and to the A's, since at least reaching the wild card play-in game, hasn't been good. Or, looking at in another way, has been difficult to understand. Oakland GM Billy Beane renovated his roster, insisting he wasn't rebuilding because he is too old for a five year plan. Yet, as my former Times' colleague, Bill Shaikin, pointed out, Beane made nine trades involving 27 players, dismissing four of the five A's who hit 10 or more home runs and five of the seven who made the All-Star team. He is left with a still promising rotation, a moneyball mix and match lineup and the return of Barry Zito, 36, from retirement. The Giants had their parade, and then largely went quiet. Sandoval and Morse left, taking away 32 home runs, while their replacements, Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki, hit five. The rotation that Madison Bumgarner carried through the post-season is the same as it was, meaning the return of Matt Cain from elbow surgery seems critical.


         The new management of the Dodgers turned over the lineup in a 48 hour span of the winter meetings, emerging with a new shortstop (Jimmy Rollins) and second baseman (Howie Kendrick) and handing center field to Joc Pederson as Puig left for right field and Matt Kemp for San Diego. The defense should be better,    the bullpen (given veteran additions) deeper and much depends (big time) on the readiness of Pederson and the health of the new fourth (Brandon McCarthy) and fifth (Brett Anderson) starters. The Angels, looking to go farther than 94 wins took them (a division series wipeout to Kansas City), made smaller but possibly significant moves in the offseason, deepening their pitching and farm system. Do they have a replacement for Kendrick? Will Garret Richard be ready early in the season? Can CJ Wilson bounce back? Some of the big questions. The biggest? Josh Hamilton. Now you see him, now you don't.



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'.