Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ringing in 2-007 with a vodka martini

With the holidays come and gone, there have been some major free agent signings that I haven't gotten a chance to touch upon. I've been enjoying time with my friends and family but now can wrap up the last transactions of the calendar year. Sorry for the delay, but bloggers have lives, too. Well, actually we don't, but . . . you know what I mean.

  • The biggest news, of course, is that prize left-hander Barry Zito signed a 7-year, $126 million deal with the Giants. The deal is the richest ever given a pitcher (AAV -- Average Annual Value -- of $18 million), and one of the longest, with only the 8-year deal given to Mike Hampton surpassing it.
    Where to begin? I guess a comparison to Hampton would be most apt. Not that the two situations are really similar -- Zito's going to the easy league and staying in a pitcher's park -- but let's remember the success rate of pitchers signed to contracts this long. It's Zito, Hampton, and Kevin Brown, and boy, that's not good company for young Barry. (I have to mention -- Zito's #1 similarity score through age 28 is none other than Hampton himself; take it for what it's worth).
    Remember that Kevin Brown looked like a safe 7-year investment at the time of the deal. Brown was a good deal older (33 when he signed; Zito is 28), but was also much better and much more reliable. Brown built up a reputation as a solid pitcher with Texas before becoming arguably baseball's best pitcher from 1995-1998, with ERA+ numbers of 136, 214, 150, and 160, consecutively. Brown signed the deal and gave the Dodgers two good years (1999 and 2000) before injuries turned him into Mr. Brittle. After 2000, Brown's seasonal IP were: 115.2, 63.2, 211, 132, 73.1. That 211 was a fine 2003 with the Dodgers that got him traded to the Yankees, where he reverted to form and finished his career in 2005.
    Although their styles of pitching aren't at all similar, and the five-year age difference is a huge difference, I think we can see Zito's deal working out in a similar fashion. Zito likely won't experience his deterioration as soon as Brown did -- the deal runs through his age 35 season -- the net effect may be similar: two good years and a lot of wasted money. Zito isn't remotely as good as Brown was at his peak, so even if he maintains his current value, he won't be worth $18 million a year. And no sane person would bet that much money for 7 years on something as unpredictable as a pitching arm.
    There are three main problems with this deal: 1) Zito isn't nearly as good as the Giants (and the press) think he is, and neither he -- nor any other pitcher -- is worth gambling $126 million on 7 years into the future; 2) Zito's 2006 performance is troubling, indicating a loss of stuff and with ill omens for the future, and 3) Zito's environment won't be as helpful in San Francisco.
    Point #1: Even if Zito maintains his current level of performance for seven years (something no one can safely predict), this deal won't be worth it. Zito is an above-average, durable pitcher who was really good for one season (2003), won a Cy Young Award he didn't deserve, and has been overrated ever since. None the less, he makes 34 starts a year and manages an above-average ERA (his ERA+ numbers since '03: 129, 105, 116, 116). His strikeout rate is above-average, but he also gives up a lot of walks and home runs (Zito has finished in the AL's top 5 in walks allowed every full season of his career but one). So the Giants are paying $18 million per year to an above-average innings-eater.
    This point was summed up well by Keith Law on ESPN Radio. He was asked if he'd ever looked at Zito and seen one of the five best pitchers in baseball. Law answered without hesitation, "No." I would add "absolutely not." He might have been back in 2003 when his fastball and curve were working so well, but not since and most likely not again. Why you would give the biggest contract in history to the tenth of twelfth best pitcher in the AL (and the second-best on your team, behind Matt Cain) is beyond me.
    Point #2: Zito's never really been the same since 2003, and it's not looking good. I'm not a scout (obviously), but most everything I've heard since then has been about the trouble he's had getting the curve over for strikes and the lost zip on his fastball. From what I've seen -- and admittedly I don't see the A's much -- that's pretty accurate. The scouting reports jibe with the numbers, which show that not only is Zito settling back into the "comfortably above-average pitcher," there are signs of trouble ahead. This may not mean serious trouble, but it would certainly make it unlikely that Zito's every going to break through and pitch like an ace again, even though he's sure as hell getting paid like one.
    Point #3: San Francisco isn't really the best setting for Zito. It's not that bad, certainly; it's big and roomy to suit Zito's fly-ball/walk tendencies, and it's in the weak league, which should give Zito a boost in ERA regardless of what he does. Many commentators point out that Zito will be pitching a lot not just in San Francisco, but in other roomy ballparks in Los Angeles and San Diego. That's true. He'll also be pitching a lot in Colorado and Arizona, where pitchers like Zito go to die. Let's not forget that.
    And, as many have pointed out, Zito will not have the benefit of a strong defense behind him, especially in the outfield. The A's have been one of baseball's best defensive teams in recent years, and this was never more true than in 2005, when they had Jay Payton, Mark Kotsay, and Milton Bradley covering ground for Zito. It's a long, long fall down to the level of Barry Bonds, Dave Roberts and Randy Winn. (Roberts isn't bad, but he's got a lot of room to cover.) He also won't have the benefit of Oakland's generous foul territory (a foul out in Oakland is an 8th-row souvenir and a do-over for the hitter in most ballparks).
    But this isn't just an odd fit for Zito, it's an odd choice for the Giants. The Giants, who have already leveraged big money on winning right away, can't really afford to stretch their payroll to the breaking point, and yet they've done exactly that. Zito is an improvement over the other guys in that he's about ten years younger and will be around for more than a year or two, but the benefit of a long contract is also a risk and a weakness; name one team that has ever looked back on a big, long-term deal with anything but regret about the last year or two (or four). You need look no further than Hampton and Brown, or most every other player given a contract in Zito's pay range. The only pitcher who's really justified such a blockbuster contract is Pedro Martinez.
    I'm not a political scientist, and I'm not a scout. But I know two things for damn sure: Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy, and Barry Zito is no Pedro Martinez.

    What's the bright side for the Giants? The "optimistic" view is that Zito will reverse his downward trend in peripherals and give the Giants solid work. Zito will certainly get a cosmetic boost from moving to the NL, and he could even manage a career year or two and contend for another Cy Young. He won't make the Giants contenders (at least, not by himself), and he won't push them to the World Series (neither Brown nor Hampton made it to the postseason until after they were traded away).
    But it's highly doubtful that Zito's couple of good years will outweight the other 5, especially as he reaches his mid-30's and the risk factor increases exponentially. The Giants have made a big mistake here, and this could prove to be the mortal one for Brian Sabean's career.
  • The other "big" pitcher left on the market, Jeff Suppan, signed a four year deal with the Brewers for $42 million. The deal is pretty much in line with what other pitchers have been making this offseason. While I don't think the deal is a big mistake, I have several reservations.
    The big thing that many commentators have pointed out is Suppan, who relies very heavily on his defense, is going to be very disappointed with the "D" in Milwaukee. Think of the confidence Suppan must have had to turn around and see an infield of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and David Eckstein. What will he think when he takes a look at Prince Fielder's glovework at first? How will he adjust to the Merry Misadventures of Rickie Weeks at second? Corey Hart isn't bad, but he's not Scott Rolen; and if Bill Hall ends up at shortstop, God help us all. I saw one computation that had Suppan gaining a half-run of ERA simply due to more balls in play turning into hits. Suppan isn't a bad pitcher, and he's done quite well with the Cardinals, but I wonder if the Brewers know what he looks like in translation?
    All that said, I can understand why GM Doug Melvin made this deal. I think he's one of the most competent GMs in the game, and so I can give him the benefit of the doubt. He knows that pitching is his biggest weakness, especially if Ben Sheets is injured again. He's got a lot of major league-ready hitters, but no pitchers ready to step in and fill that #3 role. He sees that the NL Central is soft and weak, and he knows that a team with his payroll doesn't get a lot of chances like 2007. So I can certainly understand the logical reasoning behind this decision.
    I understand it, but I disagree with it. I think Melvin may have been too enamored of Suppan's Postseason Halo and not observant enough to see that his 4.12 ERA last year was an ensemble effort; remove the ensemble, and you're left with a 32-year-old low-strikeout pitcher with a 4.50 ERA. That's not bad, but it's not worth $13 million. Tomo Ohka may not be famous, but he's about 80% as valuable as Suppan at 25% of the price.
    The Suppan deal won't be the biggest disappointment of the offseason by a longshot. But it's a rare misstep for the Brewers, which is unfortunate. I have to admit; I'm kind of rooting for them to shock the world and win the division.
  • The Rangers and White Sox completed a semi-challenge trade last Saturday. The Sox sent erstwhile 5th starter Brandon McCarthy to Texas along with minor leaguer David Paisano in exchange for top pitching prospect John Danks and minor league pitchers Nick Masset and Jacob Rasner.
    I'm interested as to why the White Sox made this trade. McCarthy was penciled in as their #5 starter next season, but now that position will be filled by Gavin Floyd, Charlie Haeger, or perhaps even young Danks. McCarthy was a promising young pitcher whose only real achilles heel was home runs, and that's a problem in Chicago (it's also a problem in Texas, but there you go). After making room for McCarthy by trading Freddy Garcia, Chicago GM Kenny Williams has now traded McCarthy away as well. But the more I think about it, the harder it is to determine if the Sox made a good move. McCarthy wasn't the Sox' golden boy; their pitching staff will survive just fine without him. And John Danks is a good-looking young pitcher with a solid minor league track record; his ERAs haven't yet caught up to his strong peripherals, but he's also a 21-year-old at Triple A. He turns 22 in April with the potential to make the big leagues quickly. McCarthy is two years older than Danks, which is a pretty major distinction, especially since he's already spent time in the big leagues; the Sox control Danks for 6 major league seasons starting next year. Maybe that's the determining factor that would make the Sox get rid of a pitcher who could be better and more reliable than Danks. But that's debatable; Danks is good. I guess you could argue either way about which is the better pitcher short-term or long-term, but it seems to me that the White Sox gave up some short-term assurance for a riskier long-term prospect -- but one with (possibly) more potential. And since the Sox are just gambling with the #5 spot, it's not a big deal (at least for now).
    This is, essentially, a challenge trade, with Kenny Williams betting that Danks will mean more to the team than McCarthy. It also weighs toward the Sox in that they're also getting some good spare parts. Nick Masset will be 25 next year and made it all the way to the majors with Texas. There's not a whole lot to get excited about, but even if Masset is just a solid arm, hey -- those have value, too. Rasner is a starter that the Rangers took in the 7th round of the 2005 draft; an organizational soldier, if anything. Paisano, the Sox' other player involved, is also in the low minors. He's got some potential, but it's way in the future.
    As for the Rangers, I guess they feel the opposite; that they'd rather have the short term boost of Brandon McCarthy rather than gambling on Danks. To be fair, McCarthy does have a solid minor league track record and should have no trouble filling in as a #3 pitcher in the big leagues. He's young and healthy, too. The troubling thing for me is his tendency to give up fly balls. That won't do him any favors in Texas, although Chicago is a fair home run park in its own right. I've read a lot of commentary dismissing McCarthy's potential in Texas, but I think this is an overreaction; Texas really isn't much worse than Chicago when it comes to inflating offense, so it's not like McCarthy's pitching on the moon. And these were the same commentators who gave McCarthy high marks as a White Sox starter.
    So who won this deal? I really don't know. There's a lot we still don't know about Danks and McCarthy, and it's likely that the Rangers and Sox know more than I do. There are other factors involved in this as well, particularly concerning Barry Zito. The McCarthy trade was probably insurance in case the Rangers didn't sign Barry (and they didn't, as it turned out). Who knows? Right now, I'm inclined to favor Brandon McCarthy, but then I tend to favor the more proven commodity. Danks has the potential to surprise me and make this trade worthwhile. As it is, I think this is just one of those trades that you have to wait on, at least as far as I can see. I'd be interested to get a good scouting report on all the players involved to see if there's something I'm missing.
  • Reports came in today that the Orioles signed free agent Aubrey Huff to a 3-year, $20 million deal.
    Well, we can all debate as to whether or not Huff is worth that much money. I'm not sure, but I think he probably is for a team that really needs a corner infielder/outfielder swing man who hits lefty, especially if you're a contender with a hole to fill.
    For many teams, this signing would be perfectly reasonable. But for the Orioles, it's another in a long line of useless signings that is fast establishing them as one of the most inept franchises in the game.
    The biggest question I had was this: where the hell is Huff going to play? The press releases I found made no specific mention. I ask because there's no spot open in the lineup. First base is filled by free agent Kevin Millar (ugh), third base by incumbent Melvin Mora (look out below), left field by free agent Jay Payton (shall I pack your bats for the road trip, Mr. Payton, or just not bother?), right field by rookie sensation Nick Markakis (stud), and DH by incumbent Jay Gibbons (why overachieve when you can just settle for mediocrity?).
    Where does Huff fit in to this picture? He's not an untalented guy and could even be more useful than several of the guys slotted into the lineup. But unless the O's make a trade, they've just spent $20 million on a bench player.
    With most teams, I would take this signing as a pretty good sign that they're going to trade someone. Few teams intentionally overcrowd their lineup with expensive free agents. But you can never give the O's the benefit of the doubt when it comes to logic and good sense.
  • It's been a month since the J.D. Drew deal was announced and, unless I slept through the announcement, the deal still hasn't been finalized. I said before that I think the deal will get done, just because it's in everyone's best interests. But a month of silence can't be ignored.
  • The Marlins signed Aaron Boone to a one-year contract worth a little less than a million dollars. This isn't a bad deal for Florida; they could use some backup for Miguel Cabrera at third, and Boone has his uses as a bench player. His days as a starter are probably over, but he's worth a shot off the bench, especially at a rock-bottom salary.
  • The Reds traded for Jeff Conine from the Phillies. They didn't give up a lot to get him, mainly just spare parts, and will likely use Conine as Scott Hatteberg's platoon partner at first base. You could do worse than to have Jeff Conine on your team, but I'm still not sure the Reds are aware of what their real problems are.
  • The final numbers on Marcus Giles' deal with the Padres: one year, $3.25 million, with a club option worth $4 mil. for 2008. I'm still not sure what Schuerholz was thinking when he cut Giles, but he sure gave Kevin Towers one hell of a Christmas present.
  • Big, BIG news on the legal front: federal authorities have subpoenaed the test results from the MLB's confidential substance abuse tests of 2003.
    In 2003, as negotiated in the CBA, baseball initiated a confidential drug testing system to measure the use of steroids in baseball. Although positive tests were high enough to automatically trigger a full random drug-testing policy, they weren't nearly as high as the "25-50%" figures being bandied about in the news.
    The tests were done under the agreement that the results would be confidential; samples would not be linked to individual athletes and no disciplinary action would be taken (the Union, of course, insisted on these parameters).
    Enter the federal government.
    The feds recently raided the lab that held these old samples and also acquired the super-confidential coding system that connected the samples with the players. It seems that in their quest to mount a perjury case against Barry Bonds, they were looking for evidence of a positive steroid test (it's doubtful that the feds were targeting anyone else, except possibly Giambi and Sheffield). Although I don't see what good this raid would do for the government's case. If Bonds tested negative, that really hurts their case. And if he tested positive, so what? Bonds has already admitted to using PEDs, he just claims that he wasn't aware he was using them.
    At any rate, the player's union sued, claiming that the tests were confidential and the government's raid was an invasion of privacy. In a scary ruling, the courts decided against the union. Union head Don Fehr has promised to appeal the ruling, but right now it's very possible that the government can keep the samples and use them as evidence.
    This is a terrible blow for the Players' Union. With the players and the results now linked, the names of the positive tests will come out eventually, and that won't accomplish anything at all except to make a few dozen ballplayers' lives a living hell.
    And I can't help but feel that the Union itself is somewhat to blame. When the Union agreed to the confidential testing, they must have known (I hope) that Major League Baseball has, of course, no power to fight a federal subpoena. The feds could give a damn about a confidentiality agreement between the MLB and the MLBPA; in a criminal case, a subpoena trumps it all. Don Fehr must have known on some level that any assurances he got about confidentiality weren't backed up with any muscle. He should have known that he was about to agree to the systematic documentation of illegal activity among his union members, which would leave him totally vulnerable to federal subpoena, something Bud Selig has no power to control. Was Fehr really so unaware of this danger?
    Fehr's argument is on the basis of privilege and constitutional rights. That's difficult. He agreed to forfeit the consitutional rights of the players so that they could submit to the drug tests. That was fine. But letting other people read the results -- that's an invasion of privacy? The MLB has a right to your urine, but the federal government doesn't have the right to subpoena evidence of criminal activity? What logic is that?
    The more substantive argument is that since the feds seized the samples from a medical lab, they violated the players'/patients' right to medical privacy, i.e. "doctor-patient privilege." But this isn't really a case of a patient and doctor's privileged records. The feds aren't issuing subpoenas for Barry Bonds' latest medical checkup. The MLB and their contracted labs can hardly be granted the same privilege as a "doctor" who deals with the players as patients. Don Fehr disagrees; according to an AP report, Fehr said that if the ruling "is allowed to stand it will effectively repeal the Fourth Amendment for confidential electronic records."
    Strong words. But does the privilege really apply here? However useless the information might be to the feds, and however damaging it would be to the players, is there a legal basis for arguing that the raids violate the 4th Amendment? Hard to see. Among the things I'm not an expert on is constitutional law (most of my knowledge thereof was gleaned from AP US History class and Law & Order episodes). But is there precedent for the government getting subpoena power over employer/employee drug test results? With more and more companies testing employees for drugs, that must have gone before the courts by now. If the precedent was set that the government has no right to those records, then Fehr's case is solid. If the precedent is that an employer/employee confidentiality agreement is no match for a federal subpoena, then his case is toast.
    On a personal level, I consider myself to be a strong supporter of civil liberties. And I'm troubled by the invasive nature of drug testing. I certainly don't want my previous remarks to suggest that I want the government seizing these records. On the contrary. However, given the legal system as it is, there doesn't seem to be a strong legal argument to prevent them from doing so. It's a shame, but then welcome to post-9/11 life.
    And above all, I personally think that Don Fehr should have been ready for this.

We'll end today's entry with those strong words. We've covered a lot of topics, and somehow I've managed to tell everyone about all the things I'm not an expert in. That's not a good way to built a reputation for excellence, and they may revoke my claim to "whiz kid" status.
But that leads me to my next article: my New Year's resolutions (for baseball).

I'll see you then. Have a safe and happy New Year.

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