McClendon Responds To The Cano Hustle Debate

Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MVP, Players, Spring Training, Stats

The ongoing back and forth about Robinson Cano’s hustle or lack thereof is gaining momentum and a life of its own. While Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long’s response to questions about Cano’s preference not to run hard to first base on ground balls was more of a simple answer to a question rather than an attempt to smear his former pupil, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon responded in an attempt to defend his new player.

I wrote about the initial statements made by Long regarding Cano here on AllVoices.com.

McClendon is in a tricky situation in his new job with the Mariners and had no choice but to defend his player publicly. Having waited so long to get another chance as a manager and with a general manager in Jack Zduriencik who is clearly on the hotseat, McClendon is facing the prospect of one bad season and being fired in a massive purge of the entire Mariners baseball hierarchy. What choice does he have other than to stand up for his player even if he knows that Cano is notorious around baseball for not running out ground balls and it’s a running commentary about how blatantly he does it?

Yes, it’s true that many players – including the best one in Mariners history Ken Griffey Jr. – didn’t hustle, but Cano takes it to the extreme of not even putting up the pretense of running moderately hard to first base. It’s also true that the number of plays in which it matters is a minuscule percentage and the argument is valid that it’s not worth the risk of injury for a meaningless play and would only harm the team in the long run. But Cano isn’t willing to act as if he’s giving the effort. Whereas for players like Griffey, they were running at, say, 75 percent, Cano is running at 45 percent. That’s too slow not to be noticed and it’s not going to change now that he’s a Mariner with a $240 million contract. Lest anyone believe that Cano’s status as a veteran leader and the highest paid player in club history is going to alter his view on the needlessness of running hard to first base.

The prevailing implication, elucidated by McClendon, is that Long spoke out of school and should keep quiet. In truth, he was uttering a truth that had been kept quiet by the Yankees to placate Cano. They and the rest of baseball have been aware of it. Some are bothered by it. Others don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Yankees GM Brian Cashman sounded surprised that Long said what he did and gave the politically correct – and mostly accurate – answer that Cano played every day and put up the numbers. It did not come from the Yankees organization with Long as the mouthpiece ripping Cano. They did their own version of taking a shot at him when they gave his uniform number away immediately to Scott Sizemore.

McClendon spent many years playing and working for Jim Leyland. He’s a good baseball man and learned his lessons well from Leyland that the players have to be shielded and it’s the managers job to do it. However, he’s not a manager who is going to be able to get through to Cano that it’s important that he set an example to the rest of the club. McClendon said, “As long as you don’t dog it down the line, what’s the difference between 65 and 85 percent? Just run down the line.” But Cano did dog it. And the 65 percent reference is an example of searching for points on a math test so the student will pass. Cano’s effort was rarely that high on balls in which he knew he was going to be out.

McClendon can state publicly how much he supports Cano and that his hitting and defense are far more important than keeping critics at bay with a transparent sprint to first base once a week. He knows that Cano isn’t going to bust it to first base, nor will he be able to threaten Cano into running hard. If Joe Girardi and Joe Torre couldn’t do it, what chance does McClendon have? His former Yankees managers, Long, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and many other players tried to get it through his head and it never sunk in. McClendon will have the same experience and won’t do anything different. He’ll shrug, accept it and take the bullets for his star player because he has no other choice.




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Odds On Tanaka And Why He’ll End Up With The Yankees

Ballparks, CBA, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, Players, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

Masahiro Tanaka’s deadline to pick a team is Friday. In the past, the waiting game on Japanese players was based on whether the team that won the bidding would make a sufficient offer to sign the player. Limited as it was to a single team, the Japanese import had the options of either using the dull axe—which the team knew would never leave his belt—of going back to Japan, or making the best deal he could.

There was pressure on the team that won the bidding as well. After a month of promotion, ticket sales and hype, winning the bidding meant the player had to be signed.

With the new rules, Tanaka’s a pure free agent with the forgettable and meaningless deadline. The threat of him going back to Japan to play is less than zero. Because of that, instead of the manufactured drama of “will he or won’t he?!?” sign a contract in time, the speculation is where he’ll wind up.

You can log onto the schlock sites, sports news sites and clearinghouses and fall into their trap. Preying on the fans’ desperation for information about Tanaka, they’re trolling you with information that, at best, stretches even the most elastic boundaries of common sense. The sheeple are clamoring and clawing for a minuscule smidgen of news about Tanaka. For the rank-and-file fan rooting for teams out of the bidding, it’s a distraction in the cold winter. For fans of the teams that are in the running for the pitcher, they’re looking for validation as to why their team will get him and “win” the sweepstakes.

Ignoring all the ancillary nonsense, let’s look at the realistic odds based on what we actually know and not what’s planted to garner webhits with speculation, whispers and rumors from invisible sources that might not exist.

New York Yankees

Odds: 1-2

Initially, I thought the Yankees were one of the leading contenders, but not alone at the top of the list. In my estimation, they were even with the Mariners and Cubs. Now, however, the Yankees are the best bet to get Tanaka. In a similar fashion as the Yankees being seen as a darkhorse for Mark Teixeira while the Red Sox were the team with whom he was widely expected to sign, the Yankees dove in and got their man. With Tanaka, they don’t have much of a choice anymore. Their starting pitching is woefully short and in spite of the offense they’re going to get from the outfield additions Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann, their infield is currently a series of aged question marks, journeymen and massive holes. The bullpen is a mess; the starting rotation is a roll of the dice. Tanaka won’t solve those problems if he solves any at all—no one knows how a Japanese player will transition—but they need him not just on the field but at the box office.

It’s unconscionable that the Yankees have had everything go their way in terms of the Alex Rodriguez suspension, that they received inconceivable salary relief in their goal to get below $189 million and they’re still probably not going to be able to do it. Since they’re near the limit and have those holes to fill, it no longer makes sense for them to put forth the pretense of getting below the limit at the cost of losing out on Tanaka and having a roster that’s equal to or worse than the one that won 85 games last season.

They don’t have any other options apart from pitchers they don’t want in Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo. They could trade Brett Gardner for a middling starter, but that’s not going to sell tickets for a fanbase looking at this team and wondering where they’re headed.

The Yankees have every reason to tell Tanaka’s representative Casey Close that if there’s an offer that surpasses theirs, to come back to them for a final offer to get their man.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Odds: 2-1

When Mike Tyson was at the height of his powers as the heavyweight champion of the world and didn’t have the tax collectors garnishing his salary to pay his debts, he purchased on whims based on his limitless bank account. One story detailed Tyson driving past a luxury car dealership and driving in with one luxury car to purchase another one. He did it because he felt like it, because he could.

That’s the sense I get with the Dodgers.

Whether or not you believe the stories of Tanaka’s wife preferring the West Coast, if Tanaka signs with the Dodgers—or anyone—it will be because that’s the team that offered him the best deal. The Dodgers have locked up Clayton Kershaw and have Zack Greinke. If Tanaka’s anywhere close to as good as advertised, that top three is 1990s Braves-like, if not better. They have the money to spend and both Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett are coming off the books after 2014. He’s not a need for them. If they sign him it’s because they wanted to. It’s as good a reason as any when dealing with a payroll whose limit appears to be nonexistent.

Seattle Mariners

Odds: 6-1

The Mariners haven’t been mentioned prominently in recent days, but there are numerous reasons not to count them out. They signed Robinson Cano, but the other “big” additions they made were Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. These were downgrading moves from Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales.

Other than Cano, what have they done to get significantly better from what they were in 2013? Tanaka will slot in right behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and be in front of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. The injury to Danny Hultzen limits some of the Mariners’ vaunted pitching depth and they need another arm and another name to draw fans. Cano will spur some ticket sales and if they lose out on Tanaka, the fans might draw some slight enthusiasm from Garza, Santana or Jimenez, but not as much as they’d get from Tanaka. They could trade for David Price, but that would cost them Walker plus others.

No matter who they sign, the Mariners won’t have fans coming to the ballpark if they’re 20-30 after 50 games, Cano or no Cano. Tanaka would bring fans into the park and it’s a good situation for him.

There’s talk that the Mariners are close to the limit on their payroll and they need approval from ownership before spending more on the likes of Tanaka. If they don’t continue to add, the signing of Cano was done for show and little else.

Chicago Cubs

Odds: 8-1

Of course there’s no connection between the two, but it would be interesting if Cubs team president Theo Epstein goes all-in with Tanaka after his negative experience with Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Red Sox. The Cubs are in the middle of their rebuild and Epstein is loading up on draft picks and international signings. Giving Tanaka the time to grow accustomed to North America with a team that’s not expected to contend could be good for him. If Epstein’s plans work, by the time Tanaka’s acclimated, the Cubs will be prepared to take a step forward with him at the front of their rotation.

The Cubs have done absolutely nothing at the big league level this off-season apart from that…unique…new mascot. Ownership, if not overtly meddling, is getting antsy. The Cubs’ attendance is declining and judging by the roster they’re putting out there as of now, that’s not going to change without a splash. Tanaka is that splash.

I doubt Epstein is going to go above and beyond what the other suitors offer while the Yankees will and the Dodgers might, making Tanaka landing with the Cubs unlikely.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Odds: 50-1

He’s not going to Arizona. They don’t have the money to match the other teams. Why they’re even putting on a front of going hard after Tanaka is bizarre. Never mind that he’s still an unknown, he’d immediately walk into the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse and be the highest paid player on their roster by almost $10 million per season. The expectations there would be far more intense than they’ll be in the other venues. It’s a silly idea.

By Friday, we’ll know where Tanaka’s going. But all logic and reality dictates that he’ll end up with the Yankees for $130 million-plus, for better or worse.




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Michael Kay’s Barbie Versatility

Ballparks, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, World Series

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Barbie was such a popular and profitable doll because Mattel constantly came up with new accessories, venues and themes. Michael Kay is having a similar transformation, but it has more to do with trying to deal with the stages of grief that are accompanying the Yankees’ downfall than appealing to the masses. As always, the center of Kay’s universe is key. That center is Kay himself and his self-concocted connection to the Yankees’ unassailable greatness.

Let’s take a look at the different forms of Michael Kay that are manifesting themselves as he comes to grips with reality.

  • “Disappointed Dad” Michael Kay

Robinson Cano doesn’t hustle.

Were you aware of this?

It’s only become a problem recently because the team isn’t winning and a new object of anger must be found. Picking Cano is a bad idea. Cano’s lackadaisical baserunning isn’t going to abate because Kay and his booth cohorts suddenly realize that he runs at about 60 percent speed and rip him for it. Criticizing Cano for getting thrown out at second base on an attempted double as happened on Monday night and Kay noting that Brett Gardner hustles out of the batter’s box as a pointed fact/dirty look won’t help either. Cano doesn’t run hard and has no intention of running hard in spite of manager Joe Girardi’s subtle digs and fan complaints that are slowly reaching a climax.

You know what they’re going to do about it? Nothing. You know what Cano’s going to do? He’s going to take it easier over the final two months of the season.

While Kay went into a deranged and idiotic rant against the Mets when Jose Reyes bunted for a base hit and pulled himself from the final game of the season to clinch the 2011 batting title—ironically over Ryan Braun—Kay began his monologue on the subject with a “from day one” attack on the Mets as if they could do any more about Reyes’s decision than the Yankees can do about Cano. Reyes didn’t steal many bases over the second half of that season because he didn’t want to reinjure his hamstring and further reduce the amount of money he’d get on the open market. Reyes signed a contract worth $106 million, validating his behavior. Cano is looking for a contract for more than twice what Reyes got and will probably get it. With the Yankees going nowhere, he’s not going to risk injury so close to that dream’s fruition.

If Girardi, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, general manager Brian Cashman and any other prominent Yankee figure speaking to Cano about his lack of effort hasn’t done the trick, it’s disturbing that Kay is so egomaniacal that he thinks his commentaries and collateral shots will spur an epiphany in Cano at this late date. Kay folding his arms like Tom Bosley in Happy Days and shaking his head forlornly will be roundly ignored by a player like Cano, who clearly doesn’t care what anyone thinks about his effort or lack thereof.

Following Tuesday’s loss, Kay watched the Yankees file out of the dugout and said something to the tune of them having to “go into the clubhouse and think about it” as if they were naughty children being placed into time out. They’re not thinking about it. They lost. They know where the season is headed and are behaving accordingly. After the game, they went for drinks, dinner and whatever else players do to amuse themselves and are not listening to a scolding from Kay.

  • Memory lane Michael Kay

As the losses pile up, references to the decade-old glory days are appearing during YES telecasts. During the series in Chicago, Kay and John Flaherty spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the 2003 ALCS win over the Red Sox. We heard more talk about Aaron Boone than we’d heard in the past five years combined. Why? Is it because the current on-field product is so repugnant that all that’s left are memories?

This is similar to the dark times of Yankeedom from 1965 through 1975 and from 1979 to 1992 when the team was a dysfunctional, rudderless, horribly run non-contender. “Remember when” is considered the lowest form of conversation and, in this instance, nobody other than the sympathetically delusional Yankees fans and apologists want to talk about anything but the past because the present and future is so hellish that they’re trying to smother it out by reliving 2003. Incidentally, 2003 was a year in which the highlight was the ALCS win because they were upset in the World Series by the Marlins. Inconvenient facts are, well, inconvenient to the narrative of “historical greatness.” That historical greatness was backed up by luck and money. These are two things that are in short supply for the Yankees right now.

They could just as relevantly talk about Babe Ruth. The same amount of luck it took for the Yankees to purchase Ruth from the Red Sox is evident in the fortuitousness involved in the circumstances of a 22nd round draft pick Andy Pettitte; a 24th round draft pick (as an infielder) Jorge Posada; a pitcher they nearly traded in Mariano Rivera; a shy and quiet Bernie Williams; a retread managing loser like Joe Torre; and for owner George Steinbrenner to be suspended at just the right time to prevent them from trading all these young players for veterans and repeating the 1980s cycle to nowhere. It was so long ago that it might as well have happened 100 years ago rather than 20.

  • Bitter and jealous Michael Kay

This Kay changes to shades of green, carries a dull sickle and features a dino buddy (sold separately). During last night’s game—another loss to the last-place White Sox—Kay gave the out-of-town scores and when he got to the Mets, he spoke of Matt Harvey’s complete game shutout over the Rockies. Rather than say something positive like, “Wow, that Harvey’s something,” it became another backhanded compliment by pointing out that it’s amazing what Harvey’s doing for a Mets team that is nine games under .500. Leave it to Kay to take a Mets positive and pee on it in a pathetic attempt to mark a territory that’s no longer his.

It’s a time of panic for Kay and the other Yankees sycophants. Not only are the Red Sox turning around their own disastrous season from 2012 with a likely playoff spot, but the Mets are putting together the foundation for a contender led by a pitcher whose performance and mound demeanor are nearly identical to Roger Clemens in 1986. The Mets—the METS!!!—have attributes the Yankees don’t. They have significant young players contributing with more on the cusp of the big leagues and they have money to spend this off-season. Having to accept these facts will take time and the snippiness will grow worse as he travels the road of denial.

  • Osmosis cool Michael Kay

Dress it in bellbottoms, sort of behind the times but with a “what’s the difference?” shrug.

Kay is the epitome of the guy who shows up at the party without anyone knowing who invited him or how he gained entry. Why is he on the YES Network? Because he roots for the Yankees. One of the reasons I didn’t want him replaced when his contract was up and his return was in question was that YES was likely to find someone worse, so it’s better to stay with the devil you know. Why is he on ESPN in New York? The station wants to attract Yankees fans who are looking for even more homerism than they get from Mike Francesa. He’s the guy who couldn’t play but managed to find a job in which he gets to hang around with the cool kids like Jeter and, through osmosis, hopes that some of their cool becomes part of him. Instead, he’s just a gadfly and hanger-on like a part of the entourage whose presence wouldn’t be missed.

  • Mouthless Michael Kay

Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody wants to hear the caveats, preceded by “I’m not using this as an excuse” despite the fact that the mere use of the phrase says, “Yes, I’m using this as an excuse” when talking about injuries and age and whatever other reason for this mess is proffered. The same logic that was used when the team was riding high in April and May fits now, except in the wrong direction. They were winning with the likes of Vernon Wells contributing mightily. Now they’re losing because Wells fell back into being the player he was for the past three years. It wasn’t “Yankee Magic.” It was a brief renaissance that couldn’t possibly continue. It has nothing to do with the “rich tapestry of history.” It has to do with a short run of good luck that ran out. You can’t say how great Wells and Lyle Overbay were early in the season and trash them now. It doesn’t work that way.

They don’t have the money to spend to buy their way out of their issues, don’t have the young players to trade for immediate help, and their front office doesn’t have the ability to function in an atmosphere when they don’t have $50 million more to spend than their next closest competitor. Kay’s lashing out and whining won’t change that. These are the results you see when these factors are in place and no one, not Kay, not Steinbrenner or anyone could fix it with the speed at which it’s expected to be fixed.

This is reality. These are the Yankees.

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Waiting Out The Cano/Jay-Z Results

CBA, Free Agents, History, Management, Media, Players, Stats

When Yankees second baseman and pending free agent Robinson Cano fired Scott Boras as his agent and replaced him with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports and CAA, it was seen as a positive omen for Cano to stay with the Yankees. Gone were the predictions of a contentious negotiation with questions surrounding whether the Yankees would spend the money to meet the demands of Boras and Cano. The threat of the free-spending Dodgers was very real and Boras doesn’t care about team loyalty or legacy—he wants to get his players paid and the players hire him because they want to get paid. If it took a slow dance with the Dodgers or any other team to get the Yankees to put the ring on Cano’s finger, so be it. There’s no pretense nor is there ambiguity.

At first blush, the obvious response to the Jay-Z hiring was that Cano wants to stay with the Yankees. He dumped the agent who left the prospect of him re-signing in question, and hired someone who would facilitate a deal between the sides to avoid the mere possibility of a departure. Now, as time has passed and the contract talks between the sides at a reported impasse, it’s opening increased wonderment as to the wisdom of making the change. Boras wouldn’t have a deal done by now and would advise his client to go through to free agency. If the idea of hiring Jay-Z was to preclude free agency with a preemptive deal, well, that hasn’t happened either and doesn’t look like it will. So what was the point?

The Yankees payroll constraints are one reason that the long-term, huge money contract that Cano wants is not as guaranteed as it would’ve been five years ago, but there are others reasons as well. The Yankees need only look at the albatross that Alex Rodriguez’s contract has become; how Mark Teixeira’s contract is heading in the same direction; at Cano’s age (31 in October); how other players like Albert Pujols who have signed contracts similar to what Cano is going to want have declined, and set a line that they won’t surpass in terms of years or dollars hoping that Cano blinks. Are the Yankees going to be held hostage by Cano and Jay-Z for a ten-year contract and pay a 38-41-year old what will probably amount to 40% of the total value of the deal in those years when Cano will either be declining or finished entirely? It doesn’t help Cano that there is a lack of attractive options if the Yankees don’t want to pay. They’re not going to bid against themselves and they might play chicken with Cano as they did with Derek Jeter and tell him that if he thinks he can do better than their best offer, so be it.

Although Jay-Z has been certified as a player agent, the concept of him sitting across from Brian Cashman and poring through the contract’s fine print is silly. He’s lending his name to a new business and while he’s a savvy businessman, this “hands-on” concept won’t extend to the ludicrous with Jay-Z reading the fine print of a contract that is packed with legalese. While Jay-Z has qualified attorneys and agents handling the actual negotiations, this decision on the part of Cano reeked of panic, desperation and listening to the whispers of others. Changing agents so close to free agency and so soon after hiring Boras defeated the purpose of hiring Boras to begin with. Boras, in fact, never really did any contract negotiating for Cano; all he did was some saber rattling. It was a flighty and flaky move that could end up biting the second baseman and the rap mogul if they don’t get a deal done to the financial satisfaction of the player and the reputation of Jay-Z. And rest assured other agents who are threatened by Jay-Z’s foray into sports representation will latch onto any mistake, small or large, that is made and let players who are considering hiring Jay-Z know exactly what happens when they hire someone who’s not a legitimately experienced sports contract negotiator. Even though CAA is going to handle the contract nuts and bolts, many athletes will only see the end result if Cano winds up with less than the $250+ million he’s going to want or has to leave the Yankees due to overplaying his hand when his first (and probably only) desire is to stay.

When Cano fired Boras there was a sense—from me included—that the change was designed to turn down the rhetoric that was a part of Boras’s negotiating strategy and get something done to avoid even the threat that Cano would leave. But no deal has been struck and the Yankees are clearly going to wait to see what Cano and Jay-Z do after the season. Say what you want about Boras and the manner in which he does his deals, but his main interest is that of his clients. If they want money, that’s what he pursues; if they want to sign a down-the-line deal to stay with their preferred team as Jered Weaver did, he’ll acquiesce to their wishes.

With Jay-Z, Cano is a the test case in the expansion of an empire which tacitly indicates that the goals are not just for the player, but the representatives as well. In fact, Jay-Z might make be even more strident with the negotiations than Boras would to ensure that he’s not seen as a Yankees fan who had the power and sway to acquire a client the stature of Cano and allows that to blur the line between his client’s interests and his own. Whatever the intention was with the hiring, it hasn’t yielded any results as of yet and those results won’t be known until Cano’s fate is determined. That fate is currently up in the air just as it was with Boras, only there’s a different pilot who might not have the skills that the former pilot did. It makes me question the wisdom of changing planes in the first place.

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Francesa Dreams Of Justin

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With Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira reinjuring his right wrist and the possibility of him being lost for the season very real, expect Mike Francesa on WFAN tomorrow to begin anew his delusional, deranged and silly demand that the Yankees get—not pursue, but get—Twins first baseman Justin Morneau.

The reasons this won’t happen are nearly endless. The Twins, in spite of being five games under .500, are only 6 1/2 games out of first place, which puts them 2 1/2 games further out of first place than the Yankees. The Twins aren’t giving Morneau away regardless of his expiring contract at the end of the season and there still remains the possibility that they’ll do a typical “Twins thing” and re-sign Morneau. Morneau has played in 61 games this season and hit 2 home runs vs. Teixeira’s 3 in 15 games with a wrist that is now revealed to not have been at 100%.

It makes no sense in any context, but that won’t stop Francesa from repeating the name Morneau (Moah-no) as if that is the answer to the Yankees’ woes when it’s:  A) not; and B) not going to happen.

Amid all the talk of the likes of Cliff Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Brian McCann and other available or potentially available name, they too are unlikely unless the Yankees are willing to surrender the prospects and eat the money that will be necessary to do it. Strangely, with Kevin Youkilis also returning to the disabled list with a back injury and the big news that Derek Jeter is back to baseball activities and may be able to return after the All-Star break, the one player that everyone reviled and wanted gone might be the player who can help more than any of the others who’ve been mentioned and won’t cost them anything to acquire: Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod, for all the vitriol and embarrassment he engenders, still hit 18 homers and posted a .783 OPS in 122 games last season. His late-season stumble and post-season nightmare were due to him being hurt. If he comes back and shows some semblance of the pop he has in the past, pitchers will still have to plan for him even if he isn’t the 50-homer masher he once was.

After all the loathing A-Rod has inspired, it would be somewhat ironic if the Yankees look forward to his return because they need him and don’t treat him as if he’s an incurable disease whose mere mention inspires retching. And if the fans start clamoring for A-Rod and have the audacity to give him a standing ovation similar to the one that Jeter’s going to get when he comes back, A-Rod should respond appropriately. Given how he can’t sink any lower in the eyes of the public, a perfect response would be to drop he pants and moon the cheering crowd as he flips his middle finger at them. It would sum up the relationship and would probably be the first time in A-Rod’s tenure as a Yankee that he was honest about anything. The fans might actually appreciate it…as long as he hits.

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SI’s Tom Verducci Grades Free Agents A Month Into The Semester

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Of course one month is more than enough time to determine whether or not a free agent is a bust or a boom. So it goes with Tom Verducci (he of the “Verducci Effect” of twisted pitching studies designed to prove the out of context and unprovable) having the audacity in Sports Illustrated to grade players who signed this past winter based on their production over the first month with their new teams.

Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s also out of context.

He talks about expectations with players like Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, and B.J. Upton and that Edwin Jackson has been “horrible” for the Cubs. Then there are references to big signings of the past by teams like the Yankees getting CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season.

Yes, Greinke’s hurt. But his injury wasn’t one in which the Dodgers made a mistake by signing a pitcher who quickly tore an elbow ligament—he got run into by a 6’2” 240 pound truck named Carlos Quentin and broke his collarbone. He gets a grade of “C” because he got hurt?

Then we get to the “expectations.” Because teams either misjudged what they were getting by failing to look at the production of the players such as Upton or airdropped a mentally and physically fragile person like Hamilton into the dysfunction trumping all current MLB dysfunctions with the Angels doesn’t call into question the entire process of free agency. Sabathia is “declining?” Where? Teixeira is hurt and has still hit the ball out of the park and played Gold Glove defense when he’s played. The Yankees signed Burnett and got Burnett. They bought a flawed pitcher, they got a flawed pitcher. This is the most prevalent aspect of free agency: teams don’t accept what they’re getting and think they’ll unlock a player’s talent simply by having him put on their uniform. It’s not the money. It’s the misplaced beliefs.

In general, there’s a reason a player doesn’t live up to expectations when signing a big free agent deal. The Braves purchased a player in Upton who had a slash line of .246/.298/.454 in 2012. In 2011 it was .243/.331/.429. In 2010 it was .237/.322/.424. This is also a player who was repeatedly benched and called out by teammates on the Rays for lack of hustle. What’s wrong with B.J. Upton? Nothing apart from that fact that he’s B.J. Upton.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Upton will start hitting to achieve the numbers he did in the last three years, hit his 18-20 homers, steal a few bases and play good defense in center field. This is what they bought. Now they’re disappointed because he didn’t turn into Rickey Henderson?

Verducci references players as “lemons” like they’re a bunch of used cars because clubs are taking the principle of supply and demand to its logical extreme by paying for a 1998 Honda as if it’s a 2013 Lamborghini. If a club does that, who’s at fault? Is that a “lemon” or a dumb decision on the part of the team that purchased it? The sign says “as is.”

Reading the article, you start to see through the SI scheme of garnering webhits by the linking in the middle of Verducci’s article to a piece “studying” teams over the past decade that “won” the previous winter and how they fared the next season; in the middle of that piece, another linking goes to that bastion of incredibility Joe Sheehan (he of the belief from 2004 that the Twins should have taken Mark Prior in the 2001 draft over Joe Mauer and projected Mauer’s future production to Mike Sweeney’s) looking at the “myth of winning the winter.” It’s only a myth because the media constantly harps on crowning a winner in the winter since they don’t have the imagination to write about anything else in the off-season. As for the judgment of players a month into the season, there are other things to write about. What’s the excuse this time?

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The “Worst” Contracts In New York Sports History?

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This New York Times article by Benjamin Hoffman has all the earmarks of the editorial edict telling him to write something and hand it in for publication without caring what it was that he actually wrote in content or accuracy. Never mind that judging the “worst” contracts in New York sports history can only be done in retrospect, it’s a completely random analysis that hinges on so many factors that it’s impossible to predict whether a contract will be deemed “good” or “bad” until years after the fact. This was designed to stoke fan anger by bringing up players who drew their ire.

The baseball names listed are Alex Rodriguez, Carl Pavano, Johan Santana, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Kei Igawa, Bobby Bonilla, Jason Bay and Oliver Perez.

Going one by one, let’s look at the reality of these signings when they were made and the “badness” of the contracts.

A-Rod

A fall for A-Rod was predictable to a degree. That said, he’d hit 54 homers and won his second MVP with the Yankees in 2007. No one could’ve foreseen the number of embarrassing off-field episodes and injuries that have befallen A-Rod along with the continued PED admissions/allegations. Reasonably, the Yankees could’ve expected five more “big” A-Rod years with MVP contention, then three years of good production followed by a decline in the final years of the deal. The “final years” decline came early and now he’s an albatross.

Pavano

Had the Yankees not signed him to that contract, the Red Sox, Tigers or Mariners would have. They signed a pitcher who: was entering his prime at 29; had logged 200+ innings in back-to-back years; won 18 games in 2004, was an All-Star and finished sixth in the NL Cy Young Award voting; pitched brilliantly in the Marlins’ 2003 post-season run to the World Series title—especially against the Yankees; was from the metropolitan area and grew up a Yankees fan. Why wouldn’t they have signed him? Who could’ve predicted that they’d get someone who hated being a Yankee, acted like it and found reasons not to pitch?

Santana

The Mets had collapsed the year before and blown a playoff spot. They needed an ace at the top of the rotation and Santana was a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner. They gave up essentially nothing in terms of players at the time and in retrospect and were looking for the last piece in a championship puzzle. He was brilliant in 2008, good in 2009, and then the injuries started. There’s not much that can be done about that. Had they not paid him, someone else would have as a free agent after the 2008 season.

Giambi

In seven years in pinstripes, Giambi had 209 homers and a .925 OPS. This was almost identical to the numbers he’d posted in eight years with the Athletics before the Yankees signed him. Did they not get what they were expecting?

Teixeira

He’s hit 135 home runs in four seasons, won three Gold Gloves and has been an old-school professional. How his contract can be labeled as one of the “worst” with four years to go is a mystery.

Burnett

The problem with Burnett is that the Yankees overpaid for him based on desperation and his potential while ignoring that he was 31 when they signed him and he was what he was: gifted and aggravating. Blaming him for being himself is silly. This was a bad and stupid contract.

Igawa

A George Steinbrenner signing done as a “response” for the Red Sox signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka, it’s similar to any form of retaliation: it’s usually shortsighted and does more damage to the one making the move than to the one they’re retaliating against. No qualified baseball person could have looked at Igawa and thought he’d be a success against Major League hitters.

Bonilla

Find an economist to explain the Mets’ reasoning for the deferment and whether they’re actually going to wind up making money on the deal instead of giving a broad-based overview as to why it was “bad.” I would guess that the Mets probably used that money to make even more money than they’re spending for its duration.

Bay

Even if Bay had a decline in production because of the switch to Citi Field and advancing age, no one could’ve predicted that he’d be as bad as he was.

Perez

This was a desperation contract like Burnett’s. Ironically, Perez is a similar pitcher to Burnett in that he was gifted, aggravating and the club signing him mistakenly expected something other than what he was.

Go through any contract and you can find a reason to rip it. The number of Evan Longoria-type contracts where the club gets more than they bargained for at the right price or lower are so few and far between that it would be easier to list those than to list the bad contracts and it would make for a much shorter piece without the finger-wagging “I told you so.”

It’s random and to make it worse it appears to have been done because the author was instructed to do it and find case studies to “prove” a point that can’t be proven in the first place.

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Derek Jeter’s Surprise

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The “surprise” isn’t that Derek Jeter is going to be out of action until (at least) after the All-Star break, but that anyone thought he’d be back and healthy so quickly after a serious ankle injury and surgery and be ready for opening day. The obvious joke is that Yankees extended spring training is turning into their version of the Roach Motel: they check in and don’t check out. It happened last year with Michael Pineda who, ironically, was on the last pitch of his rehab outing when he tore the labrum in his shoulder and hasn’t been seen since and now it’s Jeter.

The truth is that the constant harping on Yankees’ superiority has no basis in reality, especially when it comes to medical issues. If that wasn’t understood before, it has to be getting through now as the Yankees are continually having problems with the health of key players Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Pineda, Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner. Many of the problems were mistreated and misdiagnosed with the programs either failing or hindering the players’ return to health.

This isn’t an indictment against the Yankees; it happens with every team and not much can be done to change it. Players will get hurt and they’ll suffer setbacks.

Regarding Jeter, the question has to be asked if Jeter pushing so hard negatively affected his recovery. In retrospect, the club might’ve been better off telling him—not asking, telling him—that if he wanted to play in spring training, it would be with a local Junior College team because he wasn’t going to be in the lineup for the Yankees until he was deemed by the doctors to be healthy and able to perform, not 60%, 70% or whatever percent—healthy and able to perform.

This injury was called a “new fracture” by GM Brian Cashman. This suggests to me that perhaps Jeter was compensating for the original ankle fracture and injured himself again. That stems from the “I need to get back and prove I’m better” compact with himself that has made Jeter who he is.

If you asked Jeter if he regrets pushing so hard to be ready for opening day, he’d probably say no and he won’t be convinced otherwise. If Jeter were still in his 20s, then maybe he could’ve pulled it off, but the ravages of age—whether we like them or not—must be acknowledged and accepted. While it hasn’t been said, Jeter’s determination to get back on the field in time for opening day probably spurred him to push the envelope in his rehab to expedite matters and all he may have succeeded in doing was delay his return more. Part of the reason Jeter has accomplished everything he has is that determination to prove doubters and those who diminish him as wrong and to achieve his goals on his schedule by his rules. But he’s about to turn 39. The metabolism slows. The body takes a longer time to heal. The outlawed and questionable drugs that might’ve help to speed his recovery are overwhelmingly unlikely to be an option for the image-conscious Jeter. As a result, like a former powerful politician who isn’t used to waiting in line at the movies, in a restaurant, or anywhere else, Jeter has to wait to get back on the field just like everybody else.

This was an important season for Jeter’s future. His contract is up at the end of the season and he has an $8 million player option for 2014. If he had a big year, he could’ve leveraged that into a contract extension through at least 2015 with an option for 2016 and a significant raise. Now he’s obviously going to exercise the option whether he plays this season or not and the Yankees are not going to be beholden to the past and pay him because he’s Derek Jeter. If he can’t play up to the levels he and the club are accustomed to or at least be competent, the Yankees will have no choice but to cut the ties after 2014. He’ll be 40 at that point and expecting his defensive range to be even adequate after the ankle woes is delusional. He won’t move to another position either, which is a Jeter frailty along the lines of pushing his rehab. Sometimes there have to be concessions.

I keep getting the image of the film Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise where he plays Vietnam vet Ron Kovic who was shot and rendered paraplegic. In the film, the character was in the hospital and in the midst of his denial was using a walker to drag his legs behind him as if he was “walking.” But he wasn’t going to walk again and only succeeded in falling and breaking his leg so the bone stuck out of the skin. Jeter’s plight isn’t that permanent, but it’s in the same ballpark with the same mentality of ignoring the reality and pushing forward even if it only makes things worse.

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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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Red Sox and Yankees: Early Season Notes

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Boston Red Sox

There haven’t been any glaring John Farrell managerial mistakes as of yet. He’s pretty much gone by the book. They’re over .500 and the main concern is Joel Hanrahan’s poor start and now hamstring injury.

What’s been prominent with the Red Sox has been the continuing talk amongst the media about what a better atmosphere there is in the clubhouse with the new faces they’ve brought in. Positivity has to lead to wins and whether that occurs over the course of a long season with the Red Sox remains to be seen. Their positive attitude won’t amount to much if they’re under .500 at mid-season. There’s a media-created desperation to bolster the Red Sox into the behemoth they were five years ago and that’s not going to happen, especially with this roster and that manager.

The latest hype is the attempted credit given to GM Ben Cherington for the acquisitions he made in last August’s salary dumping trade with the Dodgers. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster are receiving most of the attention for their arms. In realistic context, it’s not like the Dodgers were doing the Red Sox a favor by taking a load of money off their ledger. Josh Beckett was a “get this guy outta here” trade and Carl Crawford was hurt, but Adrian Gonzalez was acquired from the Padres for three of the Red Sox top prospects a year-and-a-half earlier and is a star in his prime. If you’re trading him, you’d better get some good prospects for him and not just add him as the X in the deal as a, “if you want X, you’d better take Y.”

New York Yankees

The Yankees have treaded water with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter all out. Andy Pettitte’s been great, but now he’s having a start pushed back due to back spasms, thus dampening Mike Francesa’s elementary school enthusiasm that Pettitte could pitch forever and ever and ever as if he was trapped in the Francesa Overlook Hotel in which he’s overlooking Pettitte’s age and injury history.

They’ve gotten hot starts from newcomers Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner. The pitching, that was supposed to be a strong suit, has been bad behind Pettitte and CC Sabathia. The season will hinge on whether the new additions can maintain some level of production and the injured players return ready to contribute.

There are sudden concerns about Ichiro Suzuki’s slow start which shouldn’t be concerns at all—they should’ve been expected. He hit .322 as a Yankee last season and had a BAbip of .337. In 2013, he’s hitting .176 with a .167 BAbip (and no, I don’t have it backwards; his BAbip is really lower than his batting average). Ichiro’s success is contingent on his soft line drives and ground balls dropping in and finding holes. If they’re not doing either, he’s not going have numbers that appear to be productive.

Check out my appearance on Donn Paris’s Seamheads Podcast from yesterday here. We discussed the Angels, Astros, Mike Scioscia, the Red Sox, Yankees, Jeff Luhnow, player development, the draft and much more.

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. Check it out and read a sample.

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Yankees Get Vernon Wells…For A.J. Burnett

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After all the ridicule the Yankees are receiving for trading for Vernon Wells and agreeing to even pay $13.9 million of the $42 million remaining on his contract, did they get better or was this a move of pure desperation in the George Steinbrenner tradition to get a name he happened to recognize and isn’t any good anymore?

Let’s look at the various parts of the deal.

For Wells

Wells is an easy man to please. It was only two-plus years ago that Wells referred to Anaheim in the following way at his introductory press conference upon joining the Angels:

“This is paradise. This is one of the best places to play in baseball.”

Now with the Yankees, Wells said:

“This is baseball, this is the center of it all. There’s no other place like it. This is a fun way for things to go toward the end of my career.”

The Yankees are putting a lot of stock in his hot spring training in which he hit 4 homers and had a .361 batting average, but he walked twice in 41 plate appearances continuing the trend of recent years. In spring training, when pitchers are building arm strength and trying to get their own timing and mechanics down, it’s senseless to put any stock in how a veteran who’s fighting for a starting job hits. Wells was the odd man out in Anaheim in an outfield of Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos and Josh Hamilton with Mark Trumbo as the DH. He wasn’t going to play and if the Angels didn’t find a taker to absorb at least some of his salary, eventually, they would’ve cut ties and paid him to leave. As it is, they were so desperate to get rid of him, that they paid $28.1 million to get him off the team and acquire two players—Exicardo Cayones and lefty pitcher Kramer Sneed—with difficult to spell and/or unusual names.

Cayones was acquired from the Pirates for A.J. Burnett a year ago, so considering the money the Yankees paid to get rid of Burnett ($19.5 million), they basically just traded Burnett for Wells and paid $33.4 million to do it. All this talk about the Yankees paying “nothing” for Wells is just that—talk. And it’s nonsense.

Objectively, on the field Wells can hit a few home runs and is a good defensive outfielder who can play center field if needed. Wells was once a .900 OPS player with home run power, speed, great defense, and he didn’t strike out. He’s not that anymore. It says more about the Yankees than it does about Wells that he’s an upgrade over what they had a few days ago. If you look at Wells’s home run logs from the past, especially 2011-2012, you’ll see that he hits bad pitching. This is the hallmark of a declining player who guesses and sometimes guesses right. He doesn’t have any clue of the strike zone and hacks at the first pitch that looks tasty. Sometimes it happens to go out of the park.

For the Yankees

In addition to Wells, the Yankees signed Lyle Overbay to a minor league contract after the Red Sox released him. If the Yankees are basing the singing of Wells on his spring training numbers, for what purpose are they signing Overbay, who batted .220 this spring? The last time Overbay was a productive everyday player was in 2009. Combine that with Wells last having been productive in 2010 and you get the feeling that the money being saved on players is being invested into the construction of a time machine. In fact, the 2013 Yankees roster would win 135 games…in 2006. The problem is it’s not 2006 and no longer can players take certain little pills and potions to make them feel and play like it’s seven years earlier.

Most tellingly, it’s finally beginning to sink in with Yankees fans and media apologists that they really are following through with the plan to get below $189 million in total salary by 2014. What we’re hearing now, en masse, is about the 2014-2015 free agency class and how much money they’re going to spend to get back to the the “real” Yankees, whatever that is; we’re also hearing about their young prospects on the way. Hopefully for them, they’ll be better than the non-prospects they haven’t developed or traded away over the past decade.

Are they better now with Wells and Overbay than they were a week ago? Sadly, for the Yankees fan who expects a Hall of Famer at every position, yes, but Wells and Overbay are not Hall of Famers. They’d have to pay to get in just like everyone else.

The reality

You can go on an on about the injuries that were unforeseeable with Mark Teixeira’s wrist and Curtis Granderson’s broken forearm; about Derek Jeter returning from surgery and his “heart” and “courage” pushing him forward; about Wells and Overbay being stopgaps until the varsity is ready, but no sane fan or media person can justify the Yankees having so cheap and shallow a bench considering the age and injuries on this team; no one can say that they couldn’t have accounted for this possibility and that they’d be seeking the dregs of the dispatched because they don’t have any high level minor leaguers who can step in for a month—a month—that they had to go and get Wells and Overbay.

The Yankees’ spring training has been eerily similar to the opening of Tropic Thunder and if truth imitates art, the season goes downhill from here at the speed of plummet. Don’t blink or you might miss the crash.

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