Rounding the Bases: Reds, Marlins and McGwire

MlbHlSqIt’s 41 days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training and 78 days until Opening day.  I’m sure you are counting them down just like I am, but it’s not as though we are suffering from a lack of baseball news in the meantime.  Quite the opposite.

A week after Jason Bay and Matt Holliday came off the free agent market, Aroldis Chapman joined them by signing for a team that were seen as a real outsider for his services.  The Astros, Diamondbacks, Giants, Pirates, Rangers and Tigers all spent some money on free agents, while the Marlins had their spending publicly questioned by MLB and the Players Union.  The A’s and Padres agreed to a trade and former Oakland star slugger Mark McGwire found himself firmly back in the news. 

Cincinnati signs Cuban star

Everyone knew that Cuban free agent pitcher Aroldis Chapman was wanted by all thirty Major League teams.  It was therefore no great surprise that the Cincinnati Reds were in on the bidding, but few would have predicted that they would be the ones to land the big prize

World Baseball Classic- Mexico City Day 3

The Reds agreed a Major League deal with Chapman on Monday worth $30.25m (£18.6m): a staggering sum for a 21 year old who has a fairly limited track record of success pitching against quality batters.  What he does have is youth on his side, a great pitching frame, a live left arm and at least two excellent pitches: a fastball that has been clocked at a shade over 100 MPH and a potentially devastating slider.  He is certainly not yet the finished article, indeed he may not even pitch in the Majors until the latter part of the season after developing his craft in the Minors, but his talent and sky-high potential is unquestioned.

Cuban defectors always carry with them a large amount of intrigue and interest.  Compared to players in the Minor League system and in North American colleges/high schools, relatively little reliable information is known about many Cuban players.  Mythical tales of mile-long home runs, fastballs too quick for the naked eye and spellbinding glovework pass among the baseball community like Chinese whispers.  We know to treat such tales with caution, but at the same time there is always hope that a potential superstar is just around the corner, waiting for their chance to break free and show what they can do in the Majors. 

Chapman has been talked about in hushed but excited tones for a while and his defection in July last year set in motion an exciting sequence in which we would finally see him turn from a Cuban wonder to a Major League prospect.  That sequence was made all the more interesting for me, and other European baseball fans, because it started in the Netherlands.

Chapman was in Rotterdam for the World Port Tournament in July last year when he walked out of the entrance to the Domina Hotel, hopped into a car and sped away from the control of the Communist Cuban regime on a journey to the competition and cash point of the Major Leagues.  For Chapman and many baseball fans, that was great news.  For Joe and I, about to hop on a plane to the Netherlands and greatly looking forward to seeing him pitch live at the Neptunus Stadium, his defection came a few days earlier than we would have liked.  Just one chance to watch him on the mound would have been a real treat, but it wasn’t to be.  Reading that the A’s narrowly missed out to the Reds in signing Chapman has made it a ‘so near, yet so far’ double-whammy for me. 

I guess I’ll have to accept that we just weren’t meant to be together.

Marlins under the microscope

While I would have much preferred to see him end up in Oakland, it’s still great to see such an exciting young talent join a team other than the usual big-spending suspects (Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Angels etc).  It goes to show that all Major League teams do have the funds to compete for players in certain circumstances.  The big market teams will always have an advantage, as is the case in all types of business, but the shared revenues in MLB mean that no team can honestly cry ‘poverty’ and claim that they have no hope of competing. 

That was recognised in another news story this week when the Florida Marlins became the first team to be picked up publicly for their spending of the shared revenue they receive. The whole justification for the revenue-sharing system, introduced in 1997, is that it is for the good of MLB as a whole to have 30 competitive teams and a certain amount of money should be shared between them so that this can be the case.  Consequently, it is a requirement under the Common Agreement, which itself amounts to the legal framework within which MLB operates, that every team uses the money to improve their performance on the field.   If the owners of the small-market teams simply pocket that money (most likely to pay off debts) rather than put it into the on-the-field ‘product’, the system breaks down.

And the Players Union gets very unhappy.

The Marlins’ payrolls have consistently been far below the assumed level of revenue received over the last few years, although they are adamant that “there had been no violation of the Basic Agreement at any time”. Certainly their performances on the field have been more than creditable during the last few seasons and Major League payroll is only one part of an organization’s expenditure on its playing staff (amateur draft signing bonuses, international signing bonuses etc).  However, the unprecedented step of issuing a joint statement between a club, MLB and the Players Union on this topic tells its own story.  We can assume that the Marlins’ lawyers could potentially present a successful case that showed they had not technically breached the Agreement, but that MLB and the Players Union could also present a case that showed they were sailing very close to the wind. 

The Marlins therefore reaffirmed their commitment to invest in their playing staff and this was followed, coincidentally or not, by them signing star pitcher Josh Johnson to a four-year contract extension worth $39m (£24m). 

Other deals this week

MLB: Angels v Rangers September 26, 2007

Both teams in the Lone Star state made a free agent signing this week.  The Texas Rangers signed Vladimir Guerrero to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $6.5m (£4m), with an option for 2011.  Guerrero isn’t quite the fear-inducing force of old as injuries have taken their toll, but the Rangers can give him some rest as a DH and offer a great batting environment.  Those two factors helped the oft-injured Milton Bradley to have a career year with the Rangers back in 2008 and while Guerrero isn’t going to return to his MVP form of 2004, he’s a good bet to put up some strong numbers this year.  Meanwhile the Houston Astros added former Philly Brett Myers on a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $5.1m (£3.13m) with a 2011 option.  Last season was a struggle for Myers after he had helped the Phillies win the World Series back in 2008.  He now gets a fresh start and gives the Astros a number three starter behind Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez. 

Several of the Astros’ competitors in the National League made moves this week.  The San Francisco Giants signed first baseman Aubrey Huff to a one-year deal worth $3m (£1.85m).  It’s a confusing development for the Giants’ offense.  The acquisition of Mark DeRosa seemed to make most sense if he was used at third, moving Pablo Sandoval to first and leading to an addition or two in the outfield.  However, now Huff has to play first, keeping Sandoval at third and probably moving DeRosa to the outfield where his bat is much less valuable. The Giants were discussing a two-year/$14m (£8.6m) deal with Adam LaRoche, but he ultimately decided to take a one-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, guaranteeing him $6m (£3.69m) and giving him a much better opportunity to turn a productive year in hitter-friendly Chase Field (as opposed to the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park) into a more lucrative multi-year deal over the next offseason. Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates added to their outfield options by acquiring Ryan Church, LaRoche’s former teammate in Atlanta, on a one-year deal worth $1.5m (£922k).

In the American League, the Detroit Tigers have agreed (but not yet officially confirmed) a contract with the final remaining Type A free agent on the market: Jose Valverde.   The former Astros closer has reportedly come to terms with Detroit on a two-year deal worth $14m, with a $9m (£5.53m) option for 2012. Valverde adds a dominating presence to the back of a bullpen that has lost Fernando Rodney (Angels) and Brandon Lyon (Astros) over the offseason.

Oakland and San Diego agreed to a trade on Friday that will see Scott Hairston return to the Padres after just six months.  Oddly enough, it is his best friend on the Padres team, Kevin Kouzmanoff, who will be heading in the opposite direction as part of the deal.  Kouzmanoff is a sure-handed third baseman with some power and he will be under contract for the next three years, giving the A’s some welcome stability at a position that has been manned by fourteen different players over the last three seasons.

Big Mac and Lies

Away from all of the player transactions, the big talking point of the week was Mark McGwire’s confession that he used steroids during his playing career, including during his historic 1998 season.

Mark McGwire admits to using steroids

It was not exactly ‘shock’ news.  Most people had their suspicions at the time, suspicions that were all but confirmed by McGwire’s cringe-inducing performance in front of Congress back in 2005.  Just in case there was any doubt remaining, we now know that McGwire’s reluctance to “talk about the past” under oath was because it would have involved him admitting to a systematic programme of drug use.

McGwire’s confession has been panned by many, not least due to his claims that he took steroids to aid his recovery from injuries and that he didn’t think they contributed to his home run-hitting stats.  The second claim goes back to the same old question: we all know drugs alone can’t make you a top ballplayer, but can they turn a very good home run hitter into an excellent one?  It would make sense: the extra strength helps a ‘warning-track’ shot over the fence, not just adding one more home run to the tally but quickly ending an 0-for-12 slump and restoring confidence, leading to another burst of hits.  Definitely possible, but also definitely difficult to prove or quantify.

The MLB-leading home run totals in the last two seasons (47 by Albert Pujols in 2009 and 48 by Ryan Howard in 2008) pale in comparison to McGwire’s 70 and 65 of 1998 and 1999.  Maybe those stats tell us something about the ‘steroid era’; but maybe what they tell us is that the ball was juiced as well as the players?  Then again Sammy Sosa led the Majors with ‘only’ 50 longballs in 2000, right between McGwire’s two best years and Barry Bonds’ all-time record of 73 in 2001.

The situation calls to my mind something John Lennon once sang:

“All I want is the truth
Just give me some truth”

That qualifying second line jumps out at me.  Ideally we all want the truth (did McGwire take drugs and what exact impact did it have on his performances?) but in the end most of us will, out of desperation, settle for some truth (that McGwire did take drugs). 

It’s just a shame that, once again, this is one of the few baseball-related stories that finds its way into British newspapers.

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11 Responses to Rounding the Bases: Reds, Marlins and McGwire

  1. Matt Smith January 17, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Just a quick update: the A’s-Padres trade has now been confirmed.

  2. Joe Cooter January 17, 2010 at 11:51 am #

    Sigh, the thing is that most of the writers who were angry with Mac before this and refused to vote for his candidacy for the hall of fame unless he admitted using steriods. These same people are angry that he won’t admitt that the steriods helped him hit an extra 20 homruns to break the record. I’m sorry, but I just do not see anyway that it could have been possible for steriods to be the only reason that his home run totals were influence as much as people would like to believe by steriods. Did it help him hit one or two homeruns? I really don’t know. I simply don’t know what the scientific definition of performance enhancement.

    Simply put we do not know what the correlation is, we don’t know how strong it is. The only reason that sportswriters over hear have latched on steriods was because it seemed to be the easiest explanation. That doesn’t necessarily make it the right explanation. By the way this hole thing has prompted one fed of baseball writer to say that the hall of fame voting process should be changed to excluded the writers because the writers have appointed themselves to be the games morality polices. Buster OLney went on ESPN last week and said that the Baseball Writers Association should not get into the business of judging morality. Sadly, I think that there are many of his collegues who are in that business.

    Btw most sportswriters missed Jose Cansecos interview on MLB network on tuesday night, where Canseco basicly confirmed McGwires reasoning for taking steriods, and said he actually believed that Mac could have hit those homers with out the juice. I saw his interview on MLB Network and that was the most significant part of the interview. Sadly, the media chose to focus on the homoerotic notion of Jose and Mark injecting one another in bathroom stalls.

  3. Steve January 18, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    While McGwire could have conceivably hit the home runs without steroids, even if we take his explanation at face value he wouldn’t have even been at the plate without them. At the simplest level they improved his performance because they allowed him to play more often – and so he had an unfair advantage on those who didn’t use steroids.

    Of course, if MLB had addressed the drugs issue earlier things would be simpler now.

  4. Matt Smith January 18, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    “Of course, if MLB had addressed the drugs issue earlier things would be simpler now.”

    Ain’t that the truth!

  5. Chico January 18, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    We already went through this debate on here. Very few people doubt juicing helped McGuire, whether it was to keep him on the field or like most medical and training people believe, helped add distance because it added unnatural strength. To say it can’t be proved is like saying the antibiotic that was taken can’t be proved to have helped an individual beat a infection. The world is flat and juicing makes no difference. One thing for sure is that McGuire has no credibility with almost everyone and better be ready to hear a lot from fans as he goes through NL cities this coming season.

  6. Joe Cooter January 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    The thing is, we do not no the correlation between hitting a baseball and taking steriods. We do not even know if they actually help people get better. This is NOT to condone what they’ve done, however I feel that it is necessary to point out that the muscles you gain by taking steriods are not nearly as flexible those gained with out them. Muscles obtained for steriods are more brittle and prone to injury, so your more apt to pull your hamstring as you are to speed up the healing of your knee. We truly do not know what the correlation is. This is a topic to be discussed on either Doctor Who or Myth Buster.

    It doesn’t help the situation when you have people like Kieth Olbermen politicizing the issue. Last week he lambasted McGwire’s interview simply because it was organized by Ari Fliesher, who was President Press Secretary. Olbermen seemed to read the political into McGwires confession, simply because Fliesher is working for the Cardnails. Now granted I agree with Olbermen on the Bush administration, but I don’t see where this is something that has to be politicized. I’m sorry, simply because a former Bush official is working for the Cards, doesn’t make it a vast right wing conspiracy. Fliesher seems to be one of the few Bush Administrations officialls who hasn’t said anything about the President and seems to be retired from Politics. Besides it’s quite possible that many players on the Cards simply wouldn’t agree with Fliesher anyway. This is why Politics and Sports simply do not mix.

    PS, The Marlins resigned Josh Johnson after getting the riot act read to them by the Union. It seems as if they are now on notice to spend some of that money. I heard on MLB network that they are now on Double Secret Probabtion.

  7. owen January 20, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    Chapman at $30 mill is a total waste of money. Is he twice as good as Strasburg?

    Apart from a 100mph fastball what has he achieved in either Cuba or when playing for the national team?

    Alot has been written about this guy but until he plays a couple of years in the Major Leagues I will not be convinced that he is worth this money. You also have to ask why none of the bigger teams offered him this kind of money?

    As a final point I would be as bold as saying that Cuba were happy for him to defect. The government were aware that he was trying to leave the island and then they allowed him to keep his passport when he landed in Holland. This never happens.

    On my team I would rather have Yunieski Maya

    • Matt Smith January 20, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

      Hi Owen. The reports about how Chapman basically just walked right out of the hotel with his passport do seem strange considering the normal tight control the Cuban players are under.

      Only time will tell whether the Reds were right to pay so much. I think it’s fair to say the Red Sox now regret paying such a high price for Matsuzaka (even though he helped them to a World Series win) and he was seen as a much more polished product. I guess the Reds were prepared to pay so much because the best free agents are tough for them to acquire and they haven’t been getting a top 1-3 draft pick to really go after the very best prospects through the draft. They’ve paid a premium because they think he’s an elite talent that they could acquire. Now they’ve got to hope Chapman’s talent translates into a top Major Leaguer.

  8. owen January 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    I did hear from one of the Dutch guys he did have lunch before he walked out! To be fair the Cuban players are never under tite control. Players are free to do what they want. Even after that event players were still free to go out on the town the nite of the final games and ladies were allowed in the rooms!!

    I believe the Cuban team new he was going to leave the team and also believe he will not be that good. Unheard of for players to still have passports. Even the Cuban officials were not that concerned. Several used my laptop to see what was being reported in the press.

    Time will tell.

    I see that you are a Oakland fan. To bad ur number 8 prospect Grant Desme has given up the game. http://www.baseballamerica.com/blog/prospects/?p=7461
    Saw him play in Arizona a few months back and he looked like he had a chance.

  9. Matt Smith January 22, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    Hi Owen

    Yes the Grant Desme story is a bit of shocker! He had such an impressive Arizona Fall League that I think all A’s fans were really looking forward to what he could do this year in the Minors. We will never know. You’ve got to respect him for taking this decision though.

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  1. BaseballGB » The next chapter for Chapman - March 8, 2010

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