Thursday, January 04, 2007

Johnson gone?

Several news bits on the baseball wire today. First, I need to offer a correction to a previous entry. When I spoke about the government's seizure of the players' steroid test results, I didn't have the whole story. I was forming my opinions based on the early AP wire reports. But I should have waited, as Maury Brown has offered a great deal of clarification in his Business of Baseball blog and at Baseball Prospectus. Apparently, I wasn't getting at the real issue of the case.
While some of my general remarks are still valid, I was mistaken in thinking that the legal bone of contention here was the search itself. As it turns out, the government had the authority to seize records pertaining to the 11 players implicated in the BALCO scandal. As it turns out, the government (according to Brown) seized a lot of records of a lot of different athletes, far beyond those covered by their search warrant and even extending into other sports.

The issue of "spontaneous discovery," or whatever it's called, is a thorny one in constitutional law. Did the feds, in searching for incriminating evidence, have the right to seize evidence unspecified in the search warrant just because it may also indicate illegal activity? It's a thorny issue, and it's not surprising that it's got people up in arms.
So I apologize if my original analysis of this news story was premature. A lot of the general arguments in the article I still stand by, but of course, I was basing my specific arguments on an incomplete understanding of the facts. Luckily, there are people like Maury out there to elucidate these matters (you know, like what a reporter should do).

That aside, let's look into some interesting transactions over the past few days:
  • The Yankees have reached a tentative agreement to trade Randy Johnson back to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The two sides now have a 72-hour window to finalize it. The Yankees would get reliever Luis Vizcaino and three minor leaguer prospects. The prospects haven't been officially confirmed, but reports are that they are pitchers Ross Ohlendorf and Steven Jackson, plus shortstop Alberto Gonzalez.
    The Yankees would reportedly pick up about $2 million of Johnson's $14 million salary next year. It also looks like the deal would include an extension for the 2008 season amounting to $10 million.
    The minor leaguers given up by Arizona aren't just no-names. Ohlendorf is a promising right-handed starter, who spent most of 2005 in Double-A notching a 3.29 ERA and a 29:125 BB:K ratio in 177.2 IP. He made one start in Triple-A, and it was a good one. Ohlendorf's peripherals show a good-but-not-great strikeout rate and a slightly high walk rate. Still, he's a great guy for the Yankees, helping to deepen their minor league pitching arsenal. And even if he's just a serviceable starter, that's worth a lot in this year's market.
    Steven Jackson is a decent minor league arm, but doesn't look like he'll make much of an impact in the majors. Alberto Gonzalez is a shortstop with a decent batting average but not much in the way of secondary offensive skills. Plus, with Jeter and Cano stuck in the majors for quite a while, it's doubtful he'll amount to much.
    The big plus for the Yankees, though, is cutting $14 million from their payroll with Johnson. Vizcaino won't cost more than a couple million dollars in arbitration. He's no savior, but if the Yankees are going to get mid-level relief pitchers, it's much better that they get them for $2.5 million rather than making another Steve Karsay-sized mistake.
    It's possible that this move could hurt the Yankees somewhat in the short term. Johnson is getting quite old and is showing a good deal of wear and tear, but there's a good chance that he's still got some good pitching in that left arm. What makes this an acceptable risk is the fact that the Yanks are already set 1-4 in their pitching staff, and they've got top prospect Phillip Hughes coming up sometime in mid-season. And if they were going to trade away a starter, it's best that they trade the oldest one; no pitcher on the team makes more than Johnson, and the Yanks apparently didn't want to gamble $16 million on something as risky as Johnson when he's just their #5 pitcher. And at his age, it's not like he's a factor in their long-term plans.
    My only reservation about this deal is to wonder if maybe the Yankees could have gotten more. Johnson is still a potent guy, and there's obviously a big market out there for a big-game pitcher. But my guess is that the Yankees wouldn't have gotten more for Johnson without paying more on his salary. And I'll lay my bets right now that the $10 million or so that the Yanks save on this deal gets earmarked as "Roger Clemens money."
    From the Diamondbacks' perspective, they took a big step toward solving their pitching problems without giving up a great deal of talent in exchange. Johnson is a big risk, as I said before, but the 'Backs feel that they can contend in '07 if they can just shore up their pitching staff. As it is right now, the D-Back starting rotation is: Brandon Webb, Randy Johnson, Livan Hernandez, Doug Davis, and somebody else (Juan Cruz/Edgar Gonzalez/?). That's not a bad bunch. If Johnson comes through with a good season, you'll have an ace (Webb) a legit #2 (Johnson), and two legitimate LAIMs (Livan and Davis). Combine that with the heaps of potential in the Arizona offense, and I think the D-Backs really are contenders in 2007. The only real snag is that $14 million (plus a $10 million extension for '08, which sounds like it's a conditional agreement). That's a lot to gamble on a 43-year-old power pitcher with deteriorating knees and a bad back. It's a big risk for Arizona, but it might just be a worthwhile one.
  • The Indians signed Keith Foulke to a 1 year, $5 million contract, with a mutual option for 2008 and a possible $2 million extra in performance incentives for 2007. This ends the silly idea that Joe Borowski will be the Indians' closer next year. But Foulke may not be any less silly. Foulke hasn't had a really good season since 2004, and -- like Eric Gagne -- the Indians are really hoping that he'll be able to pitch like his old self again. Their risk isn't monetary -- $5 million isn't much -- but it's a risk for the ballclub if they install the wrong guy at closer and end up sending their bullpen up in flames.
  • The agent for Mark Loretta is reporting that his client will be signing with Houston for a one-year deal worth between $2.5 and $3.5 million, depending on incentive bonuses. It's unclear where Loretta will be playing, with Craig Biggio nominally slotted in at second, but Loretta's agent stressed that Loretta can play "all over the infield." I don't know about that, but Loretta would be great insurance in case Biggio keeps degenerating past the point of no return. He could also fill in at first base if they want to move Berkman to the outfield or split some time at third with Morgan Ensberg. Loretta's a nifty guy to have around, especially as a super-sub. He's not going to mean a whole lot to Houston's bottom line, but he will make their season move a little more comfortably.
  • The Yankees signed Doug Mientkiewicz to a one-year contract for 2007. Mientkiewicz joins Andy Phillips and Josh Phelps as potential first basemen for 2007. Mientkiewicz is a lefty and Josh Phelps is a righty; this would seem to imply a fairly effective platoon for next season. Phelps is a better hitter than he's given credit for, especially if he can sit against tough righties. Mientkiewicz can be the spot starter for twice a week or so and also serve as a defensive replacement. Hopefully, the odd man out will be Andy Phillips, who has nothing to offer beyond what a Phelps/Mientkiewicz platoon could accomplish. Not that said platoon will be very good, but it will at least fill a hole, and it's not like the Yanks aren't getting their offense from other places.
    On the contrary, it's refreshing to see the Yankees looking for low-cost solutions to their problems. I'd have to check the numbers to make sure, but I think this is the most conservative offseason in years for New York. They've only signed three major free agent, Kei Igawa, Andy Pettite, and Mike Mussina. While Igawa's contract was high, it wasn't at all unreasonable in context. Pettitte gets a lot of money yearly, but it's a one-year deal with a one-year option, which is amazing in this market. And Mussina's contract was just absurdly good for New York. Not only that, but the Yankees have traded away two big contracts, with Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield taking off.
    This is very good news for Yankee fans, because if they can start spending all of that money with good efficiency, then the AL East is theirs.
  • The Red Sox signed former Mariner Joel Pineiro to a 1-year, $4 million contract. They say that Pineiro will get a chance to win the job of closer. I find this really, really, really hard to believe. It's hard for me to believe that any team would take such a failed starting pitcher and make them their closer, let alone a team with great resources playing in a city that simply does not tolerate failure. If I had to guess right now, I'd say that the Red Sox' closer in 2007 will be Jonothan Papelbon.
  • There's very little information out so far, but this is a big story: the University Medical Systems, Inc. (Ohio) has just published a study showing that Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball from 1998 was -- to put it bluntly -- juiced. The rules of major league baseball are quite specific about the composition of the ball itself, and these rules do not allow for the "rubber ring" around the "pill" of the ball discovered in McGwire's home run ball. This offers pretty interesting evidence that Major League Baseball was indeed juicing the ball during the heightened home-run era of the mid-90's and could help explain some of the high numbers (and also alleviate some of the hysteria claiming that steroids alone were responsible).
    Another interesting fact was brought up by Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus. Jaffe, who wrote an interesting article about the steroid era in Will Carrol's excellent book The Juice, cites other studies that also suggested that MLB baseballs weren't quite what they claimed to be. A 2000 study done by University of Massachusetts-Lowell showed that the variation in composition among "official" baseballs is higher and more significant than previously thought. The study claims, according to Jaffe, that the difference between the two extremes in composition could amount to a difference of about 49 feet on a fly ball.
    Another story in 2000 quoted researchers at the Center for Quantitative Imaging. This research team studied hundreds of baseballs from different eras and came to a pretty solid conclusion. According to Dr. Avrami S. Grader: "“It’s astonishing to see the changes to the core over the decades. It is a completely different ball today.”
    Here's another quote from the article, again quoting Jaffe's article:
    “Surrounding the core is a band made of synthetic rubber that over the years has been altered in thickness while the size of the core has increased which gives the ball additional ‘pop’ or liveliness,” said David Zavagno, president of Universal. “More importantly, this band is not part of Major League manufacturing specifications.”
    There's certainly room for a lot more research on this subject, but we could have stumbled upon a fairly obvious, yet previously unmentioned reason for some of the rise in offense in the 1990's. This would make for a lot of questions for baseball officials, who have always claimed that the ball hasn't changed and that the manufacturing process is held up to the strictest standards. The most notable thing to come out of this could be the possibility that baseball knowingly juiced the ball and then lied about it for years. Even if they weren't aware of the change in manufacturing, that itself is a damning bit of ignorance, especially since they've personally vouched for the new balls.
    Trouble in the Realm . . .

Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.

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