- Will the last one out of the World Baseball Classic please turn out the lights? I mentioned earlier that several major leaguers had already declined, thinning the ranks of superstars somewhat. But recent days have seen Yankee Robinson Cano, Brave Tim Hudson and Dodger Nomar Garciaparra all bow out for various reasons. This may turn into a rush as, so to speak, no one wants to be the only cool person left at the Nerd Party. Most of the game's biggest names (Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, A-Rod, Derek Jeter) are still in (so far as I know), so there will still be plenty of faces to put on the PR. But the loss of Barry Bonds from the USA team subtracted the most well-known baseball player in America and threw another wrench in the PR works. Bonds cited health reasons, which are certainly legitimate for an over-40 injury risk, but more suspicious observers have pointed out the more rigorous drug testing for the WBC, which is played under international rules (and tests). The WBC will test blood, which the current baseball system does not. Blood tests can catch the presence of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) a designer steroid Bonds has often been accused of testing. While it's certainly suggestive that Bonds has suddenly decided not to play in a competition that could out him as a potential HGH-user, it's also entirely possible that Bonds is telling the truth; he's old and doesn't want to risk a run at Hank Aaron's record on a competition that will have all the grit and intensity of the All-Star Game. Although if the defections continue (along with the general apathy of the America public), it will have the grit and intensity of a company softball game.
- The lack of PR for the WBC continues. The MLB is taking out ads and trying all the official PR, but word-of-mouth and actual tangible excitement from either the fans or the press is non-existent. The press hasn't really commented on the lack of interest, but this isn't surprising. Is ESPN really going to run a segment on how nobody cares about a competition that they recently paid a good deal of money to air on their network? Sports reporters are supposed to be cheerleaders and co-marketers, if not in specific cases, at least for the good of the sport itself. I don't suspect any overt censorship as much as a realistic understanding that what's best for baseball is best for the baseball media.
- On another note, it must be said that the WBC is a big risk. It's the result of a lot of time and energy on the part of many people, and Bud Selig and the MLB are putting a lot into this. You can't really wait a few years for the WBC to catch on; if people don't watch now, a lot of money is going down the drain, and there will be no next year for it. It's a worst-case scenario, I know; my realistic opinion is that the WBC will get a modest response, and everyone will forget about it 5 minutes later. But it has the potential to be a public-relations disaster, if not on the level of New Coke or the XFL, certainly too much for baseball to handle. There's not a lot of room for failure for a sport still reeling from a steroid scandal and the fact that it's been the 3rd-most popular American sport for quite some time now.
- But now on to actual baseball. Since my last post, there have been two new developments on the General Manager front. The first is that the new-ownership Reds fired General Manager Dan O'Brien. O'Brien only had the job for about two years, so it's tough to pass judgment, but my own two cents is that he was simply ill-equipped to save a team as awful as the Reds. There are many strong lights on the GM front with other teams; it's crucial that the Reds find the right one. The team even invited Lou Pineilla, manager of the 1990 World Champion Reds, to join a team as a special assistant. This would basically be an invitation to wait until the season's over and current manager Jerry Narron's contract is up (sucks to be Narron, I guess). But it's nice to know that the Reds are aiming high, and not content to fill the job with the nearest warm body, as the hiring of ex-managers Bob Boone, Dave Miley, and Narron would seem to suggest. It seems like the Reds are headed in a new direction under this ownership, but Reds fans should know all too well not to get their hopes up.
- The other big news is that former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein returned to the team. His exact title isn't determined, but it's become clear that he will be the de facto GM, running the baseball operations. It's an odd little dance we saw this off-season: the Red Sox and Epstein failing to reach a new contract, Theo leaving the team to allegedly pursue charitable interests, and Epstein returning a few months later back in his old job. On the surface it's good news; Epstein is one of the game's best GMs and having him back makes the team better. But I have to wonder who the hell is running a ship of fools that severs ties (in public and contentious fashion) with their wunderkind boss and then rehire him a few months later. Have they solved the problems that led to his leaving in the first place (rumored to be conflict between Epstein and team President Larry Lucchino)? How do Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington -- whom the Red Sox officially anointed co-GMs of the team barely two months ago -- feel about being getting the biggest job of their lives only to have it snatched away a few weeks later? Did they know it would happen all along? Peter Gammons (who knows infinitely more about the inside situation than I do) suggests that Theo's return was an inevitability. So if everyone just knew he was coming back, why did he leave? Is this the most bizarre, completely public executive struggle and reorganization we've seen in a while? Can I ask any more rhetorical questions?
- The Sox staff and new GM Epstein made obtaining Cleveland CF Coco Crisp (the real-life Covelli Loyce Crisp) a priority. Boston is missing a center fielder since Johnny Damon's defection to the Yankees, and they needed someone to fill the spot. Cleveland, who has some spare outfielders, sent Crisp off along with reliever David Riske and backup C Josh Bard in exchange for reliever Guillermo Mota, super-3B prospect Andy Marte, and C prospect Kelly Shoppach. The Red Sox may have given up a lot to get a player who is basically above-average hitter with questionable defense in center field, but they also needed some fix for the 2005 lineup, who is already sporting Alex Gonzalez (and his career .291 OBP) as their starting shortstop. Crisp is a step down from Damon, but he's younger (26, Damon is 32) and obscenely cheaper. He's also inclined to get better, whereas Damon is due to deteriorate. Crisp isn't nearly as famous, but he's actually not quite so much worse than Damon. Damon in 2005 hit 366/439/316 with decent defense with the Red Sox. He also, it must be said, went an amazing 18-for-19 in steals. Crisp hit 345/465/300 with good defense (playing left field) in Cleveland, a much tougher park to hit in. Crisp went a decent 15-for-21 in steals. So Damon was only somewhat better than Crisp last year, and the age difference suggests that the gap is closing. And, of course, Crisp is so damn much cheaper that the Red Sox can recoup the 1 or 2 wins they lose on the deal with all the money they saved on Damon's contract.
- This is where the Yankees shoot themselves in the foot; they usually sign good players, but they almost never sign good bargains. I actually think Steinbrenner considers making a good bargain deal to be beneath him. He'd much prefer to sign an older, more expensive player and get the ego boost. Then they're left with a few big superstars to make $200 million, but they still somehow have Ruben F'ing Sierra as their full-time DH (last year) and humpties like Aaron Small forced into the starting rotation.
- The Red Sox aren't above getting a good bargain, taking a hit in the short term, but doing well in the long term. They also get a decent reliever in Riske, which they REALLY need, and a backup catcher for the aging Jason Varitek. The Indians come out fine; they too, suffer a bit in the short term, as they can't easily replace Crisp's contribution. But they get a solid 3B prospect in Marte, who should displace the schlumpy Aaron Boone rather soon, and a good catching prospect. The Indians have a good young catcher already, but speculation is that they'll use Shoppach in a future trade (catching prospects being worth their weight in gold). It's not a steal for either team, but it's a sensible trade; the kind of trade good teams make.
- Two (former superstars) went to new teams in free agent deals. Frank Thomas signed a 1-year deal with the Oakland A's. He's making something like $800,000 on a 1-year deal, which is nothing, but he gets all sorts of incentives if he stays healthy and plays a lot of games. Thomas is unlikely to play a lot with his history of injury, but when he has played these past few years, he's still been an excellent hitter. And even if he does nothing, the A's aren't out much.
- The Padres signed Mike Piazza to another low-end deal. This is an odd move for two reasons: One, the Padres are signing him to be their main catcher. This is after it became painfully clear these past few seasons that Piazza was a liability behind the plate, suffering injuries that would suggest a move to DH or first base. I can understand that, considering his injury history and deteriorating offense, teams would be reluctant to sign him. But he'd be a great DH/part-time 1B for a pretty low price, I thought. I have no IDEA why you'd want him as a catcher, unless you just get a kick out of seeing the other team steal bases. They also signed Piazza, primarily a power hitter (at least now) to play in the worst ballpark for power hitters in baseball. Piazza's not a line-drive hitter like Brian Giles, who can still produce with lots of doubles in cavernous Petco Park. Piazza's the kind of hitter who's going to see his long home runs turn into long fly ball outs. So while this future Hall-of-Famer is still valuable, the Padres chose perhaps the worst circumstances to exploit that value.
- Soon I will be making my projections for the coming seasons, determing a rough prediction for a team's wins and losses based on individual player performance. I'll be presenting a short discussion of those as soon as possible.
- P.S.: If you live in the Cincinnati area, come and see Halcyon Days.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
My apologies on not posting sooner, but it's a slow time for baseball news, and I've been fairly busy. On to the news: