It’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.
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
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.
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.