Masahiro Tanaka: Full Analysis, Video and Predictions

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Masahiro Tanaka has been posted and teams are scrambling to get their hands on the 25-year-old Japanese star. Like most hot items, though, is it availability that’s spurring the interest? Is it hype? Is it his gaudy 24-0 record pitching for Rakuten in 2013? Is it his ability? Or is it a combination of a multitude of factors that Tanaka and his new U.S. agent Casey Close are going to exploit to extract every last penny out of MLB clubs?

The loudest shrieks in favor of Tanaka aren’t based on any analysis. “I want Tanaka!” is not analysis and it’s based on nothing. So let’s take a look at the numerous positives and negatives of the Japanese sensation that could wind up being the next Yu Darvish or the next Kei Igawa.

Mechanics

You notice the different teaching techniques with every Japanese pitcher that makes the trek to North America. They step straight back as pitchers are supposed to to maximize leverage toward the plate. Many Americanized pitchers don’t step straight back. They move to the side or at a diagonal angle. The Japanese pitchers will bring their arms above their head and hesitate as if they’re making sure all their weight is on the lead leg before they move forward. Then they’ll very quickly and all in one motion pivot on the rubber, lift their legs and they bring their arms down, separate ball from glove and fire. Many have what appears to be a leg-based motion similar to that which was used by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux.

But are they using their legs?

Looking at Tanaka, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish among many others, they’re garnering leverage from their lower bodies, but essentially stopping halfway through and using their arms to generate power. With Seaver, he would explode hard off the rubber, using it as a foundation to launch himself toward the hitter. The energy would flow from his lower body all the way up through to his arm. Upon release of the ball, that energy would suddenly be compacted as he bounced and stood straight up. The arm was simply a conduit of that power that was generated by the legs, butt and hips. While Tanaka and the others are contorting their bodies and generating power through their legs, the brunt of the release of the ball falls on their arms because the legs stop working. You can see it when he finishes his release and the leg drags along behind him rather than whipping around after impact. His arm bullwhips as it’s not decelerating with the cushion of the lower legs. He has the flexible front leg Seaver, Ryan and Maddux used, but it’s a middling technique that’s done without completion of the intent of taking stress off the arm.

You’ll hear people who regurgitate scouting terminology and facts as if they have an in-depth knowledge of them. The inverted W and Tanaka’s wrist hook should become such terms you’ll need to understand when looking at Tanaka and whether these issues will affect his long-term health and durability. There’s a profound negativity surrounding the inverted W when the pitcher moves both arms simultaneously into what looks like and upside down W (which leads to the question of why it’s not called an “M”) and guarantees his arm will be in the optimal position when he turns and throws. For pitchers who have trouble maintaining their arm slot and release point when making a big circle with their arms or might have the arm drag behind their bodies when they throw, the inverted W is a checkpoint method to ensure the arm is in the proper position. The only time it’s a problem is if the arm is brought back further than is necessary and it strains the shoulder. If the pitcher raises the elbow above the shoulder, this too can be an issue. Tanaka does neither. Watching a quarterback with proper throwing mechanics is the correct way to use the inverted W. Getting the elbow to shoulder level is the point. There’s no issue with Tanaka there.

As for the wrist hook, it’s not something that can be stopped or fixed. Barry Zito does it and has had a successful career without injury issues to his arm. Rick Sutcliffe and Don Drysdale hooked their wrists as well. With Sutcliffe, it was part of a long and herky-jerky motion that was actually quite smooth. He had arm trouble in his career, but he was a top big league pitcher and quite durable for his 18 year career. Drysdale blew out his shoulder, but he lasted until he was 32 and averaged 237 innings a season with four straight of 300-plus innings. Was it the workload or his mechanics? I’d say it was the workload.

When there is a mechanical problem, it has to be repaired when the pitcher is in his formative years. The longer they throw a certain way, the greater the challenge in “fixing” an issue. It also has to be remembered that a part of the reason pitchers like Sutcliffe were successful was because of his unique throwing motion. Much like it can’t – and shouldn’t – be taught for a pitcher to hook his wrist up toward his elbow, it can’t be changed either once he’s established. Hooking is not going to be a health issue unless it’s a pronounced yank. I don’t see Tanaka yanking the ball.

Analysis: He throws mostly with his arm and I would be concerned about him staying healthy.

Stuff

Tanaka has a mid-90s fastball with good life, a shooting split-finger fastball and a sharp slider. At the very least, no one is manufacturing a story that he throws pitches that either do or don’t exist as was done with Matsuzaka and the gyroball. The gyroball, for the record, is thrown with the wrist turned for a righty pitcher as if he’s waving to the third base dugout. From a righty pitcher, it would appear as a lefty quarterback’s spiral. The problem was Matsuzaka didn’t throw it. Hisashi Iwakuma does throw the gyroball and it’s nasty.

As for Tanaka’s fastball, it’s explosive when he throws it high and hitters will chase it given the downward action of his splitter and slider. His fastball is straight meaning if he doesn’t locate it and isn’t getting his breaking pitches over, he’ll get blasted. His breaking pitches are the key to his success. If hitters are laying off the splitter and his slider’s not in the strike zone, he’ll be forced to come in with his fastball where big league hitters will be waiting.

Analysis: With the velocity and breaking stuff, he certainly has the ability to be a successful, All-Star level pitcher in MLB.

The switching of leagues

In Japan, they tend to adhere more closely to the by-the-book strike zone. With that, Tanaka got high strike calls above the belt that he’s not going to get in MLB. If hitters learn to lay off that high pitch, he’s going to have a problem.

The ball in Japan is smaller than it is in North America. That hasn’t appeared to be a problem with most hurlers who’ve joined MLB and been successful. It’s not something to discount, but not something to worry about either.

Looking at Tanaka’s statistics are silly. A pitcher going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA (an ERA he achieved in both 2011 and 2013) is indicative of a weak-hitting league. When studying a pitcher making the switch from Japan to MLB, the statistics might be a gaudy show to sell a few tickets, but few actual baseball people who know what they’re doing will take it seriously. Igawa was considered a top-flight pitcher in Japan and his stuff was barely capable of being deemed that of a journeyman Triple-A roster filler.

Analysis: Accept the statistical dominance at your own risk.

Workload

Much has been made of how Japanese pitchers are pushed as amateurs and expected to pitch whenever they’re asked to for as long as they’re needed. Two months ago, Tanaka threw 160 pitches in losing game 6 of the Japan Series then closed out game 7 to win the series for Rakuten.

Is this a red flag?

In North America, where pitchers are babied and placed on pitch counts and innings limits seemingly from little league onward, then are tormented by big time college coaches who couldn’t care less about their futures similarly to the workload Tanaka endured, then are placed back on their limits, it would be a problem. In Japan, it’s not unusual for pitchers to be used in ways that would be considered abusive. But that’s the way they’re trained. They’re expected to pitch and there’s no evidence that injuries and pitch counts/innings are correlated because the pitchers who’ve gotten hurt (Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey) were watched while others who weren’t (Maddux, Clayton Kershaw) have stayed healthy. With all the reams of numbers and organizational mandates steeped in randomness as to what keeps pitchers healthy, perhaps it’s all about the individual and his capacity to pitch. Japanese pitchers are conditioned this way and the workload wasn’t a jump from being allowed to throw 100 pitches to suddenly throwing 175 in two days.

Analysis: I wouldn’t worry about it.

Cost

With the changes to the Japanese posting system, Rakuten is guaranteed $20 million. That’s well short of the $51.7 million Nippon got from the Rangers for the rights to Darvish and a severe disappointment to Rakuten. They could have kept Tanaka, but instead chose to acquiesce to the pitcher’s wishes and let him go to MLB.

The new posting rules make more money for the players rather than the teams that are selling him. Darvish received a $56 million contract two years ago. Tanaka is expected to get over $100 million, but I’m expecting the bidding war to reach $130 to $140 million.

Is he worth it?

To hand this pitcher $130 million after the number of Japanese pitchers who’ve come over and failed is crazy. There’s an overemphasis on the fact that he’s a free agent that won’t cost a compensatory draft pick. But he’ll cost an extra $20 million to get his rights. Matt Garza won’t cost a draft pick either because he was traded at mid-season and he’s an established big league pitcher. Is it wise to spend $130 million to get Tanaka even if he’s 75 percent of what he was in Japan? Given the failures of Matsuzaka, Igawa and Hideki Irabu and the success of the less heralded pitchers who’ve come over like Hiroki Kuroda, Hideo Nomo and Iwakuma, the fact is no one knows with any certainty as to what they’re getting. And that’s important.

Is it preferable to pay for potential or to pay for what is known?

Let’s say the Yankees give Tanaka $130 million and he turns out to be an okay third starter. Was it worth it when they could’ve signed Garza and Bronson Arroyo, filled out their rotation with pitchers who are known commodities, kept their draft picks and had an inkling of what they were getting with arms who’ve succeeded in the AL East? Or is it better to go for the potential greatness of Tanaka and face the consequences if he’s Irabu/Igawa-revisited?

Other teams face the same dilemma. The Dodgers have their own 2015 free agent Kershaw to worry about and would like to sign Hanley Ramirez to a contract extension. How would signing Tanaka influence those issues? It’s more important to keep Kershaw than it is to sign Tanaka.

Analysis: I would not give Tanaka $100-130 million.

The pursuit

Tanaka is the first full-blown Japanese free agent with the new posting fee rules and it opens up a larger pool of teams that think they have a shot at getting him. The Yankees and Cubs are known to be hot for him.

The Mariners need another arm and it makes no sense to stop at Robinson Cano and think they’ll contend. Singing him would keep them from needing to gut the system to get David Price and a top three of Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma and Tanaka with Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton would be tough.

The Angels need pitching; the Diamondbacks and Dodgers are interested; the Astros could be sleepers with an owner holding deep pockets and trying to show he’s not a double-talking, money-hungry, arrogant cheapskate; the Rangers are all in for 2014; the Red Sox are always lurking; the Phillies need pitching; and the Orioles need to make a splash.

Analysis: It’s going to come down to the Yankees, Cubs and Mariners.




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Cliff Lee And The All-Star Look

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If there are a trail of bodies or body parts scattered from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas and back to Philadelphia, be on the lookout for this man.

cliffleeallstar

What is Cliff Lee’s problem? Never mind that his All-Star look was more appropriate for a man awaiting a decision as to whether or not he’d get the death penalty and the question as to whether he’d ever learned to fake a smile and tip his hat. This isn’t about that face which would make a hardened criminal or sociopathic dictator think twice before messing with him, but it’s about the repeated trades of Lee and how he’s seemingly always up for discussion in trade talk. We’ve seen instances of him glaring at teammates who make errors behind him and even confronting them as he did with Shane Victorino. Much like the B.J. UptonEvan Longoria incident when Longoria questioned Upton as to why he didn’t hustle on a ball hit in the gap, it obviously wasn’t the first time that players, coaches and the manager spoke to Upton regarding his lackadaisical play. Lee’s name prominently featured in trade talks, his strange history as a journeyman in spite of how good he is and that face make it a viable question as to whether he’s worth the aggravation unless he’s pitching like an All-Star.

Is Lee a clubhouse problem? While his teammates appear to respect his commitment and status as one of the top pitchers in baseball over the past five years, it reverts back to wondering why he’s always a negotiable topic in trade discussions. With the Indians the trade to the Phillies was spurred by his contract status, that the team was rebuilding and they wanted to maximize his value rather than lose him for nothing a year-and-a-half later. With the Phillies, the club got the idea that he wanted to test the free agent waters after the 2010 season and they preferred someone who was with them for the long-term in Roy Halladay while simultaneously maintaining some semblance of a farm system. Lee denied that he told the Phillies he didn’t want to negotiate an extension prior to the trade.

With the Mariners, the club was in the midst of a disastrous season in which the planned dual-aces at the top of their rotation with Felix Hernandez and Lee wasn’t working out and they traded him to the Rangers for a large package of youngsters. Lee certainly didn’t look any happier with the Mariners than he did during the All-Star introductions.

He went back to the Phillies after the 2010 season, spurning the Rangers and Yankees. Whether or not Lee is a clubhouse problem or is just an introverted, intense competitor who lets his emotions get the better of him is known only to his teammates and the organizations he’s played for. With Lee, though, there’s been a smirking shrug when things aren’t going his way as if it’s not his fault.

The Phillies’ decision to trade Lee once was based on pure business practices. When the parties reunited after backbiting and back-and-forth accusations as to what went wrong the first time, it was viewed as Lee liking Philly better than New York and the Phillies offering more money than Texas. For the Phillies it was an overt admission of the initial mistake in trading Lee. Given their continued willingness to listen to offers on Lee, it’s clearly evident that the relationship is still a business one. Lee didn’t want to bring his family to New York where his wife had a bad experience during the playoffs against the Yankees while he was pitching for the Rangers. The Phillies wanted to build a juggernaut. Both got what they wanted.

Currently there is speculation that the Phillies might trade Lee if they decide to sell at the trading deadline, but they’ve said they’re not going to. It’s not because they’re in love with Lee, but because they think they’re still in contention for 2013 and will be in contention in 2014, so they’ll be a better team with Lee than they would be with the prospects he’d bring back or the players they could sign with the money freed up after getting his contract off the books. Lee doesn’t sound as if he’s all that bothered by the trade talk. His attitude and that face indicate he’s treating the game as a business and if he’s traded, that’s part of the deal. He’ll get paid and will escape another town and use his glare to scare off onlookers yet again in a new venue.

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The Astros and the Antiquated “Process”

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In this Tyler Kepner piece in today’s New York Times, the Astros and their plan for the future is again detailed. You can insert your own joke about their early spring training activity of practicing a post-victory celebration. By the time we get to August and they’ve likely traded off the rest of the veteran players they have on the roster including Carlos Pena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Rick Ankiel and Wesley Wright and released Philip Humber and Erik Bedard, they’ll be so dreadful that a post-victory celebration will be so rare that the celebration should resemble clinching a post-season berth.

What’s most interesting about the piece is the clinging to the notion that the key to success is still the decade ago Moneyball strategy (first put into practice by the late 1990s Yankees) to run the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to get them out of the game and get into the “soft underbelly” of the middle relief corps and take advantage of bad pitching in the middle innings.

Is it still an effective tactic if everyone is doing it and the opposition is better-prepared for it? There’s a case for saying no.

Back then, most teams were still functioning with a middle relief staff of journeymen, youngsters and breathing bodies. In 1998, for example, the Red Sox won 92 games in comparison to the Yankees 114, made the playoffs, and had as middle relievers Rich Garces, John Wasdin, Carlos Reyes and Jim Corsi. The Indians of 1998 were the one team that put a scare into the Yankees that season and had Paul Shuey, Eric Plunk, Jose Mesa (after he’d lost his closer’s job to Michael Jackson and before he was traded to the Giants at mid-season), and other forgettable names like Steve Karsay, Chad Ogea and Ron Villone.

These were the good teams in the American League. The bad teams starting rotations were bad enough before getting into their bullpens that it didn’t matter who a team like the Yankees were facing, they were going to hammer them.

Today, the game is different. The pitch counts are more closely monitored, but certain teams—the Rangers, Giants and Cardinals—don’t adhere to them so fanatically that it can be counted on for a pitcher to be yanked at the 100-pitch mark. Also, teams have better and more diverse middle relief today than they did back then because clubs such as the Rays are taking the job more seriously.

Waiting out a great pitcher like Felix Hernandez is putting a hitter in the position where he’s going to be behind in the count and facing a pitcher’s pitch. In that case, it makes more sense to look for something hittable earlier in the count and swing at it.

With a mediocre pitcher like Jason Vargas of the Angels, he’s more likely to make a mistake with his array of soft stuff, trying to get ahead in the count to be able to throw his changeup, so looking for something early in the count makes sense there as well. In addition, with a pitcher like Vargas (and pretty much the whole Angels’ starting rotation), you’re better off with him in the game than you are with getting into the bullpen, so the strategy of getting into the “weaker” part of the staff doesn’t fit as the middle relievers aren’t that far off in effectiveness from Vargas.

Teams use their bullpens differently today. You see clubs loading up on more specialists and carrying 13 pitchers with a righty sidearmer, a lefty sidearmer, a conventional lefty specialist, and enough decent arms to get to the late relievers. The Cardinals are an example of this with Marc Rzepczynski as their lefty specialist; Randy Choate as their sidearmer; and Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly, both of whom have been starters, can provide multiple innings and throw nearly 100-mph.

I’m not suggesting hitters go to the plate behaving like Jeff Francoeur, willing to swing at the resin bag if the pitcher throws it, but swinging at a hittable fastball if it comes his way and not worrying that he’ll get yelled at for being a little more aggressive and deviating from the faulty “process.”

The Astros can use this idea of “process” all they want, but the reality is that they may hit a few homers and be drilling it into their hitters from the bottom of their minor league system up that they want patience and don’t care about batting average, but by the time they’re in the middle of their rebuild it might get through that this strategy isn’t what it once was. Waiting, waiting, waiting sometimes means the bus is going to leave without you. Other teams have adjusted enough so it won’t matter if the hitter is trying to intentionally raise the pitch count because it won’t have the same result as it did when the idea first came into vogue with Moneyball. And it’ll go out the window just as the theories in the book have too.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. It’s useful all season long. Check it out and read a sample.

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2013 MLB Awards Predictions

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American League

MVP: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

If the Blue Jays are contending as they’re supposed to, they’ll be doing it with Bautista having the type of year he had in 2010-2011 when he led the majors in home runs both years and had an OPS of .995 and 1.056.

Cy Young Award: Felix Hernandez, Mariners

He finally has an offense to score a few runs and won’t have to have people make a case and “search for points” to vote for him to win an award he should win outright.

Rookie of the Year: Aaron Hicks, Twins

He’s hit, hit with pop, gotten on base, and stolen bases at every minor league level and forced his way into the Twins’ starting lineup. Because the Twins are not expected to contend, they can let Hicks play until he grows comfortable without immediate pressure to send him down if he slumps.

Manager of the Year: Eric Wedge, Mariners

I’m expecting the Mariners to be contenders in a tough division and if they are, the manager will get the credit.

National League

MVP: Joey Votto, Reds

A healthy Votto, surrounded by power hitters and guys who will get on base in front of him will yield massive classic power numbers with a huge slugging and on base percentage. Plus he’s a Gold Glove candidate and the leader of the team.

Cy Young Award: Zack Greinke, Dodgers

Pitching in Dodger Stadium will keep his ERA supernaturally low.

Rookie of the Year: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers

Ryu has an exploding fastball, a changeup, slider, curve and control. He won’t have to be the center of attention behind Clayton Kershaw and Greinke and there won’t be a large amount of attention paid to him as there would be for an import from the Far East who had expectations a la Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson, Nationals

Johnson’s team will be frontrunning from the beginning of the season to the end. Barring an unexpected team contending and having their manager given the credit to take the award away from Johnson, he’ll win the Manager of the Year for the Nats’ regular season success.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Keys to 2013: Seattle Mariners

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Starting Pitching Key: Felix Hernandez

On the surface, it appears that the Mariners have taken steps not to be so reliant on Hernandez’s greatness by bolstering the offense. In reality, though, since they brought the fences in at Safeco Field and their lesser pitchers are likely to suffer, they’ll need Hernandez to be as good or better than he’s been in recent years. In addition, GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge have their jobs riding on this season. If the Mariners don’t show legitimate improvement, there’s likely to be a new regime in Seattle. Hernandez’s medical exam for his new contract made public possible future issues with his elbow. If Hernandez is diminished in any way due to the new park dimensions, an injury or just bad luck, the Mariners 2013 season is shot.

Relief Pitching Key: Tom Wilhelmsen

Wilhelmsen is an interesting story as he was out of baseball and working as a bartender before receiving a tryout with the Mariners based on Zduriencik having been part of the Brewers’ front office that drafted him in the first place.

With a fastball that reaches the upper 90s and a slow curve, Wilhelmsen strikes out plenty of hitters and in a strange way, the time away from the game is probably going to help him stay healthy. The Mariners have a mandate to contend this season and they need quality work from their closer to do it.

Offensive Key: Justin Smoak

Smoak murdered the ball in spring training, for what that’s worth. Since he was acquired as one of the key parts of the trade of Cliff Lee to the Rangers in 2010, he hasn’t hit much the Mariners at all. That said, many of his problems could have stemmed from the spacious home ballpark. He hit 19 homers in 2012 with 15 of them on the road. Perhaps the alterations and reduce the intimidation factor of the home park and spur him to return to the high on-base, switch hitting bat with pop the Mariners thought they were getting.

Defensive Key: Brendan Ryan

Ryan is in the lineup for his defense and run prevention. It seemed in years past that the Mariners were all run prevention and no runs, probably because they were all run prevention and no runs. With the smaller park, the Mariners have to keep runners off the bases and prevent big innings with the higher run totals that will be accumulated at home. Ryan, at shortstop, is the center of the diamond and the center of that blueprint.

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Mike Trout’s Contract and the Needless Uproar

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There’s been an absurd uproar and reaction of shock that the Angels chose to renew Mike Trout‘s contract for $510,000. This is strange considering that the constant storyline surrounding athletes is how overpaid they are. For the most part, it has little to do with their performance. Players who are at the top of the baseball pay scale like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Joey Votto and Felix Hernandez are the examples given of players who are either not going to fulfill their paychecks with extended production into their late 30s or are considered anomalies and accused of PED use if they do perform.

In the realm of public perception, they can’t win. Of course they win in their bank account, but through no fault of their own, no matter what they do, it’s not going to be good enough.

Pujols’s contract is called a backend nightmare because he’s going to be paid $59 million two seasons after his 40th birthday.

A-Rod is breaking down physically, has $114 million due him with the very real possibility that the Yankees will eventually cut their losses of him and his constant sideshow of embarrassing drama, paying him to leave. They won’t even have the benefit of the extra income they thought they, as an organization, would accrue as A-Rod broke home run records. He probably won’t break the records at all and if he does, they’re sullied beyond all recognition due to his admitted PED use and recent allegations that their use has been ongoing.

Votto will be 30 in September and his 10-year, $225 million deal doesn’t kick in until 2014. He’ll be paid $25 million annually from age 35-39 and $20 million at 40. Plus Votto’s playing for a mid-market club, the Cincinnati Reds, for whom that contract might preclude them from putting commensurate talent around him.

Hernandez is a pitcher whose prematurely announced contract was put in jeopardy by red flags found in his elbow during his physical. By the time the contract news had been strategically leaked, neither he nor the Mariners could back out and protective language was inserted to shield the Mariners if he gets hurt.

Those who take down-the-line contracts to remain in their current venue are so rare that it’s a worldwide stunner when they make the decision that they don’t need to be the highest paid player in the world and that $85 million can buy just as much stuff as $200 million. Jered Weaver and Evan Longoria are players who have made that choice. They’re a rarity.

No matter where you stand on the issue of athletes’ pay, the way baseball functions can be manipulated to advantage the player, the club, or they can come to an agreement to share the risk with a preemptive, long-term deal. Once a player has exhausted his amateur eligibility, he’s at the mercy of the organization that drafts him. For the first three years of their major league careers, they’re paid at the whim of the team. The next three years they’re eligible for arbitration. Then they can become free agents. If they choose to do as Longoria did and sign a contract to give up their opportunity at arbitration and have their first couple of years at free agency bought out with guaranteed years and options, they can have a nice nest egg of $10-20 million regardless of whether if they flame out as players or become stars. It’s a gamble they take. It’s a gamble the team makes. It applies to everyone from Trout to the last player taken in the draft who manages to make it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee or is a late-bloomer and has a 20-year career.

You wouldn’t know that, though, from the indignant reaction to the Angels deciding to renew Trout’s contract for $510,000. Does Trout’s near-MVP season in 2012 have any bearing on the Angels’ decision to raise his salary by $28,000 from what he made as a rookie? Should it?

The Players Association makes the rules for all the players and it’s the players who instituted these rules. It allowed MLB to implement draconian constraints on newly drafted players because of the proffered reason to cut down on the huge signing bonuses amateurs receive. But the real, primordial reason is a “screw those guys” attitude that permeates established players and would, in a financial form of plausible deniable hazing, let the drafted players work their way up to making big money. It’s long been a point of contention for veteran major leaguers to see some kid taken at number 5 in the draft being handed an automatic $8 million bonus for nothing other than being a good amateur or having great tools. They dealt with it the best way they knew how. Of course it blew up in some of their faces as solid pitcher Kyle Lohse is sitting out because no one wants to give up the draft pick to sign him.

Eventually it affects everyone. These are the rules. The Angels aren’t beholden to an abstract code of right and wrong. They don’t have to give Trout a long-term contract extension if they don’t want to and they renewed his contract for an amount determined on their own volition. They don’t have to apologize or explain.

If Trout plays even 75% as well as he did in 2012, he’s going to get a $200 million contract from the Angels or someone else. He’ll have his freedom in five years. For now, he’s tied to the club that drafted him and that club can pay him whatever they choose to pay him under the parameters of the basic agreement. They decided on $510,000 and that’s what he’ll be paid. Or maybe they’re already planning a long-term contract to pay him for the next 6-8 years and buy out his arbitration years and free agency. Until that happens, his salary is what it is.

Is it fair?

Is it unfair?

It’s neither. These are the rules. It’s not slave wages and there’s no reason for the explosion of public ridicule for the Angels operating within the pay structure in Major League Baseball.

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King Felix’s Mariners Deal Will Get Done Because It Has To Get Done

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The dual-sided coin of big signings leaked to the media before they’re “officially” official is landing incoveniently for both the Mariners and Felix Hernandez now that there’s a sudden snag in the finalization of his $175 million contract extension with the club. Did he fail the physical? According to this Geoff Baker piece, that’s what it sounds like. But we won’t know until we know even though, technically, it’s not our business. More information will be whispered to various media people by unnamed sources and it will, of course, wind up in front of the fans’ prying eyes.

This puts the sides in an equally unfavorable position. The Mariners were basking in the glow of the positive aspect of keeping their franchise arm through the 2019 season. Hernandez was becoming the highest paid pitcher in baseball and wouldn’t have to worry about being traded or heading into free agency.

The Mariners were presumably worn out from having to answer the phone with, “Hello? Seattle Mariners. Felix Hernandez is not available, how may I direct your call?”

GM Jack Zduriencik’s typical conversations must have gone the same way, fending off Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman’s advances as he tried to cajole, beg, demand and whine Hernandez away from the Mariners. Given his history with the Cliff Lee switcheroo and pawning Michael Pineda off on the Yankees, if Hernandez were truly suffering from a potential elbow problem, Zduriencik would’ve traded him to the Yankees long ago. The Yankees would’ve taken him, signed him and it would’ve been their problem for the future.

Now it’s the Mariners’ risk. They’ll have to live with it.

Buster Olney writes that there is “concern” about his pitching elbow. Of course his workload and the number of innings he’s pitched were referenced with context in the above-linked ESPN piece. Its relevance is cherrypicking considering clubs like the Nationals have taken great pains to limit the number of innings for their young pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg only to see them blow out their elbows anyway. Why point to Hernandez’s workload with the unsaid implication that it’s eventually going to be a problem with long-term durability when there have been pitchers who’ve gotten hurt with lighter touches and others who haven’t despite being “abused?”

This highlights the gray area of giving a player a massive contract and the new practice of making sure the player isn’t signing it with a foreseeable injury already in place and ticking like a time bomb. We saw it earlier this winter with the Red Sox and Mike Napoli as a $39 million deal over three years became a $5 million base salary with $8 million in incentives for one year because of a hip problem. In fact, the Red Sox were something of a pioneer in this practice. Whereas other clubs were signing players without worrying about the future and getting torched for it as the Mets did with Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox made it their life’s work to install protective language in the event of injury. They did it with John Lackey and Napoli. It’s a sound business practice even if it’s going to upset the fans and put players in a situation where they have to shop their services elsewhere. Just as easily as it gets out into the public that a deal is “done,” it can also hinder a player if he tries to go somewhere else if an injury is found and disclosed before he signs.

Deals of this kind would be better for all parties if they weren’t leaked to the media prior to official completion, but every reporter worth anything has his sources in management and with player agents. It benefits the club and the player to have the information out to prevent cold feet, second thoughts or a better offer from someone else. It benefits them, that is, until something unexpected like this happens.

This is bad on multi-levels for each side and why the Mariners will eventually sign Hernandez. The Mariners had their one star locked up and are trying to give their increasingly irritable fanbase a reason to think that brighter days lie ahead.

Now that’s on hold.

With this news, Hernandez’s trade value is slashed significantly. The Mariners would get a big package for him if they chose to deal him now since he’s signed through 2014 and, as far as we know, is healthy enough to pitch in the short-term. It’s nowhere near what they’d get if the trading team thought they were getting him and keeping him for the long-term.

For Hernandez, it’s become public knowledge that there’s something going on in his elbow. If this contract fell through, Hernandez might tell the Mariners to trade him; he might start becoming concerned about what this news is going to do to his value if he winds up on the free agent market, and rightfully so. How would it look for a team to have warning two years in advance that there’s something off in the elbow, then signs him for $150+ million and having him get injured? They’re not getting full insurance on the contract with this out there until he’s been checked and given a clean bill of health from multiple doctors.

The leaks made for a few days of big headlines, but boomeranged on both Hernandez and the Mariners. What was a happy marriage is a shotgun wedding. The deal will get done because now it has to get done.

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Not Your Daddy’s Steinbrenner

Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Trade Rumors, World Series

If Hal Steinbrenner is being sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why fans are concerned and upset that the Yankees haven’t made significant improvements over the winter, he’s gone beyond holding true to the company line he himself implemented and venturing into unexplored territory of delusion.

Back when George Steinbrenner was running things he was hard on his employees, but he was able to hit back at criticism (albeit in a loony, bullying way) without the screechy bewilderment that underscores Hal’s continued parental entreaties to a bratty progeny (the fans and media) that they should appreciate what they’re given.

Unwittingly or not, he’s lavishing expectations on a compromised and aged squad that are no longer as realistic as they once were. The Yankees do have the personnel to contend in 2013, but their margin of error is tied to the financial margins they’ve unilaterally enacted and with which they’ve constrained GM Brian Cashman. The easy answer will be to blame Cashman or manager Joe Girardi (in the last year of his contract), but is it fair to say it’s Cashman’s and Girardi’s fault for having run a club based on veteran mercenaries and a core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who can still play but whose primes were a decade ago? All GMs and manager have their strengths and weaknesses and Cashman’s strength is buying free agents. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difficult juggling act to put him in this position with no money to spend, a mandate to reduce the payroll to a finite number foreign to him during his tenure while simultaneously demanding that he figure it out and win.

George would’ve openly ranted and raved about his $200 million club annually flaming out in the playoffs, but with the ranting and raving there would be money available to get better. With this team under Hal, it’s not.

Hal is constantly referencing the money spent to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and the signing of Kevin Youkilis, but he’s misunderstanding the litany of reasons that fans are justifiably concerned.

Their bench is atrocious. They’re old. In their division, the Blue Jays are substantially improved to go along with the still-strong Rays and the AL Wild Card winning Orioles. There’s talk from the likes of Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are “terrible.” Terrible is a bit much. If the Red Sox have 10 question marks heading into the 2013 season, the Yankees have 8.

When listening to Francesa and other Yankee-centric “analysts,” the shifting of tone is stark and noticeable. It’s not an automatic 95 wins and ticket punched to the playoffs in March. It’s “they’ll be in the mix.” In the mix of what is unexplained. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to reconcile the “new” Yankees in their minds.

The talk that they’re going to “do something” to improve before the season has ceased as well for the simple fact that the reality has hit that there’s not much of anything they can do at this late date. Travis Hafner is about as good as it’s going to get as far as “improving.”

Another hard truth came this week with Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners. The players available on the market aren’t young and star-level. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw—they’re not going to see free agency. With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, the Yankees sought to mimic the Red Sox development of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to save money in the long run, but in 2008 the Yankees did that by choice and when it failed, they signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to fill the unfilled holes. Now, they have to develop out of necessity, making it all the more challenging. They don’t have the money to buy nor the prospects to trade or use themselves.

Hal sounds like he’s whining at the box he’s put his team in. For all of George’s faults, one thing he never did was whine. Perhaps Hal’s reaction comes from the safety and security of not having built anything of his own, but inheriting it. It was long thought that Hank Steinbrenner was reminiscent of their father as the out-of-control lunatic with a bloviating temper and outlandish statements that were quickly qualified with an eyeroll and head shake. Hank was figuratively (or literally, we don’t know) locked away. Hal was the sane and logical one. He was the rational, understanding, business-minded steward of the Yankee brand who let his baseball people run the club and understood why, if the team lost 7 out of 10, that it wasn’t a lack of motivation or work ethic on the part of the manager or coaches that required a pep talk of several firings, but because they hit a rough patch from which they’d emerge because of superior talent.

Hal’s statements could be seen as maintaining a unified front and waiting to see what happens, but I doubt he’s that calculating. He’s stung by the criticism and is not acknowledging the faults that his club has because he doesn’t understand them himself. He doesn’t have the intimidating persona that his father did implying that if the team doesn’t perform, heads will roll, headlines will explode, missives will be issued, and no one is safe. Randy Levine tries to play that part, but he’s sort of laughed at and ignored.

The sense of entitlement is prominent and a bigger reason than anything else to be worried if you’re a Yankees fan. If the ownership doesn’t comprehend the problems, how is it possible to fix them? This is especially so when the resources to do the repairs are as limited as they apparently are.

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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

Ballparks, CBA, Draft, European Football, Free Agents, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Stats

Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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Erik Bedard and the Astros—A Marriage of Convenience

All Star Game, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors

There’s nothing to lose for the Astros to sign Erik Bedard and have a look at him, but there’s probably not much to gain either. Bedard, age 34 in March, has seen his time come and go. When he was traded from the Orioles to the Mariners, the Mariners were expecting an ace whose frequent injuries and attitude problems would be tolerated if he pitched as he did for the Orioles in 2006-2007.

Considering his disdain for reporters and brusqueness with teammates, the Mariners weren’t getting him for his congeniality; they got him because they thought he could pitch…if he stayed healthy. He didn’t. The injury problems began almost immediately upon his arrival in Seattle and didn’t stop until he left.

First it was his hip; then it was his back; then it was his shoulder. Because Mariners’ GM Bill Bavasi traded a package of players including Adam Jones, George Sherrill and Chris Tillman to get him, the trade is a retrospective nightmare for the Mariners. Like the Royals’ trade this winter to get James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays for a package including top prospect Wil Myers, the Mariners were in “win now” mode, hoping that their 88-74 season in 2007 was a portent of contention and with Bedard fronting the rotation with Felix Hernandez, the club would make a playoff run. It didn’t work for the Mariners. It might for the Royals.

In 2008, Bedard got hurt and so did closer J.J. Putz; the Mariners wound up losing 101 games leading to the firing of Bavasi and the hiring of Jack Zduriencik. Zduriencik’s reign has resulted in a different set of mistakes and disastrous decisions which have left the Mariners pretty much where they were before Bavasi made the trade for Bedard.

In Bedard’s 3 ½ seasons being paid by the Mariners, when he pitched he was effective. In 46 games, he threw 255 innings; struck out 249; had a 15-14 record for a terrible team; and posted a 3.31 ERA. These numbers would be acceptable for a season-and-a-half, not for an entire tenure.

Traded to the Red Sox at mid-season 2011, Bedard pitched in only 8 games because of a knee problem, but was a witness to the historic Red Sox collapse. In 2012, he signed with the Pirates for 1-year and $4.5 million. He was worth a shot on a 1-year deal, but the expectations should’ve been muted. In his heyday with the Orioles, his velocity was around 91-93. Combined with a nasty curve and deceptive across-his-body motion, he racked up the strikeouts. With the Pirates, his velocity was around 88 and his curveball lacked the same bite. The diminished break of the curve coincided with the increased breakdown of Bedard’s body. These things happen with age.

He showed enough effectiveness with the Pirates to warrant him getting a look from someone for 2013, but it’s telling that the Astros are the club that signed him. If teams thought he had something left, a better one than the Astros would’ve brought him in. Perhaps Bedard thinks the expansion-level Astros provide him with the best chance to garner a spot in the starting rotation and rejuvenate his career. In that sense, he’s right. The 2013 Astros are quite possibly the worst team I’ve ever seen. Ever. While I understand that they’re rebuilding the whole organization, there’s something to be said for putting a competent big league product on the field. Spending money on name free agents for cosmetic purposes is self-destructive, but this roster is embarrassingly bad; moving to the rough AL West makes a team that lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 on track to lost 115 (or more) in 2013. With an expected payroll under $30 million, MLB has to take a look at what’s happening in Houston and ask some serious questions as to the intentions of the new ownership and front office.

This is a marriage of convenience for Bedard and the Astros that could benefit both. Reality says it probably won’t. That they wound up together in the first place is indicative of the state of Bedard’s career and the Astros’ 2013 expectations. Neither are good.

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