Soler Provides A Window Into The Future

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Through Jorge Soler, I’ve gazed into the future.

Not because he’s such a hot prospect and was so heavily in demand that the Cubs today signed the 20-year-old Cuban outfielder to a 9-year, $30 million contract. I have no idea how good he is or if he’s going to take 3-5 years of seasoning to become anything close to what his talent indicates he could be. Cubs’ team President Theo Epstein is a good executive, but he’s gotten torched on the international market before both practically and narratively.

The posting fee and signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka was costly. The results were inconsistent at best and, by all accounts, disappointing. One can only hope that Epstein won’t take to calling a 20-year-old from Cuba “Mr.” Soler as he called Matsuzaka “Mr.” Matsuzaka.

When the Red Sox were avidly pursuing Jose Contreras, Epstein had just taken over as their GM and there was still a sense of puppetry with Larry Lucchino holding the strings floating over the head of the then-28-year-old, so it wasn’t such a shock that the story of Epstein being so angry that the Yankees had signed Contreras that he broke a chair in the Nicaragua hotel in a fit of rage.

Epstein vehemently denied it and I believe him. In subsequent years, he became a respected GM and won two championships while working in his hometown and running what isn’t a passion in Boston, but is a religion. It’s no surprise that he was showing the wear of eight years at their helm—he was burned out and needed a new mountain to climb. The Cubs are certainly that.

That said, no one knows what Soler will be. In that sense, he’s like a highly drafted player who is given a massive signing bonus along the lines of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg just for signing his name on a contract.

But he’s not a drafted player. He was a former professional player in Cuba who, because of that status, became an MLB free agent.

It’s ironic that the Soler signing occurred during the frenzied confusion that’s been a corollary to the new MLB draft rules that have the “experts” and advocates of drafting and developing throwing hissy fits over players like Stanford pitcher Mark Appel. Appel was considered one of the top if not the top player in the draft, but fell to the Pirates at 8 because of signability concerns that have placed him in a box: his eligibility as an amateur is exhausted; MLB is the only game in town; it’s sign or don’t play.

A large part of the preparation for a drawn out battle is Appel’s adviser, Scott Boras. Boras has been openly critical of the new draft rules.

You can read about the new draft rules here. They’re hardline to say the least.

It’s only a matter of time before the defector’s handbook is used in the opposite way for the known amateur stars in North America and Canada to circumnavigate the draft. Much like the reserve clause challenged and from which Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally eventually won their freedom from the indentured servitude that used to be in place, someone will try to take MLB to court to negate the draft. From the legal wrangling initiated by Flood, the entire wall came crashing down not long after. It only takes one player and one agent to try and sue baseball to get out of the requirement that the player go to the team that drafted him or be forced to delay the start of his career by years if necessary to get the opportunity to be paid and go to a venue he prefers. J.D. Drew tried something similar when he (also represented by Boras) played with an independent minor league team after being drafted 2nd overall by the Phillies and couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract. The ploy didn’t work, Drew went back into the draft the next year and was taken by the Cardinals with the 5th pick in the first round. This time he signed.

Much like the concussion and long-term damage inspired lawsuits now being filed on behalf of retired NFL players, it only takes one to start the train rolling before others (some traveling in first class; others hopping onto the boxcar) join in and try to get their piece of the American Dream of riches through lawsuits.

That’s not to diminish the tragic deaths of Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Mike Webster among many others, but did they need a warning that playing in the NFL was dangerous? That repeated blows to the head and body would eventually take its toll and that they were trading years off their lives for the money, glory, excitement and perks of playing in the NFL?

How long before Boras convinces a top draft pick to shun MLB and walk through the loophole of age and professional status presented by players who’ve played in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Cuba? According to this piece on MLB.com, that loophole is big enough for a convoy of prospects to walk through—maybe even the entire first round of the draft.

The relevant bit follows:

Not all international players will be subject to these rules. Players in leagues deemed to be professional (those in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Cuba apply), are at least 23 years old and have played a certain number of years in those leagues can be signed without the money counting against the pool. Yoenis Cespedes, the 26-year-old outfielder who is a free agent after defecting from Cuba for example, would not count against the pool. Neither would Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, should he be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters. But the money spent on Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who was 22 when he signed with the Reds almost two years ago, would have counted against the pool.

Japan has a working relationship with MLB that nets them large sums of money for the posting fees on players like Darvish and Matsuzaka so it’s unlikely that they’d want to upset that applecart by messing with MLB’s attempt to install cost certainty into the draft and cap the bonuses, but would Taiwan care? Would Korea? And if Cuba sees a way to really stick it to a big American business that has raided their players and caused embarrassment with worldwide stories on players defecting, what’s to stop them from creating a baseball player program where college age players would be able to come to Cuba, make some money and then walk back into MLB as free agents and make a truckload of cash that they wouldn’t make otherwise?

Don’t think these scenarios haven’t been considered by Boras.

And don’t think that a player isn’t going to be willing to destroy the draft and the rules because it’s depriving him—in a way that doesn’t reflect the capitalism of what America stands for—of the freedom to auction his skills to the highest bidder due to MLB’s oligarchical constraints.

Baseball as an industry has to think about this. They never thought the reserve clause would be struck down, but it was. The same thing could happen to the draft if they wind up in front of the wrong judge.

It’s going to be tested. Soon.

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Why Would A.J. Burnett Want to Go to the Pirates?

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I can understand why the Pirates would want A.J. Burnett; why the Yankees want to trade A.J. Burnett; and Garrett Jones is a cheap lefty bat who’d hit 20+ homers in Yankee Stadium as a DH.

But why would A.J. Burnett want to go to the Pirates?

Burnett has two years remaining on his contract at $16.5 million annually and can block trades to 10 teams. As the Mets proved last July with Francisco Rodriguez, the intricacies of those no-trade clauses aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface. K-Rod had the right to block deals to certain teams, but his agent at the time had yet to submit that list to the Mets and when he hired his new agent Scott Boras, the Mets reacted swiftly and decisively in dumping K-Rod on the Brewers, a team that K-Rod would’ve blocked a deal to.

Whether or not the Yankees would be able to do it without Burnett’s okay—or if he left the Pirates off the list—is secondary.

Would Burnett, at 35, want to go to the Pirates and have little-to-no chance at contending in 2012 and probably 2013? The Pirates are kindasorta on the right track with young talent coming through their system and Clint Hurdle instilling discipline in the clubhouse, but what’s the motivation for Burnett other than to get away from the Yankees? Getting away from the Yankees is something he has never acknowledged he wants to do.

Of course the Yankees want to get rid of him and maybe he’d like to go elsewhere, but they signed him to that contract and are going to have to pay a substantial portion of it to move him.

Burnett would presumably welcome a trade to any team in the NL West, back to Miami to play for the Marlins, the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs or White Sox. But why would he choose to go to the Pirates? If he goes to a good team in a big ballpark, chances are he’d put up solid enough numbers this year and next to be able to sell himself to some other team for a 2-3 year contract worth another $30 million.

Maybe the Yankees would pull a repeat of the Carl Pavano episode and pursue Burnett again.

But the Pirates? Why?

As is customary, the Pirates’ plans are haphazard and inexplicable. First they let it be known that they’re willing to discuss trading one of the best young players in baseball, Andrew McCutchen, then they’re discussing Burnett.

Is there a plan in place? Or is this a similar decision along the lines of the trading deadline in 2007 when the prior regime led by Dave Littlefield acquired Matt Morris and his onerous contract while the team was 20 games under .500, 14 games out of first place and headed toward a 68-94 finish. They traded a player they could’ve used in Rajai Davis to the Giants to get Morris and the $15 million remaining on his contract.

Is there something in the water at PNC Park that leads the Pirates to doing things that make no sense?

If the Yankees are giving Burnett away and paying his salary, then, yes, a team is going to take him. But it goes back to the question of what would spur the Yankees to do that in the first place.

The rumors discussed don’t make sense for anyone apart from the Yankees. But as we’ve learned repeatedly, that’s all that really matters in Yankeeland. It’s in line with the team’s, media’s and fan base’s air of entitlement that if the Yankees want, therefore the Yankees should get.

At least that’s they way they see it.

Never mind reality.

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The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

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Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

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