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The Cutoff Man: Giving the defense its due

March 28, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 3/28/2011:

Baseball players always talk about hoping to play “meaningful baseball” in September, a term that alludes to being in a pennant race late in the season. This is the only context in which that term is really thrown around. However, in order to be playing meaningful baseball in September, teams must play meaningful baseball through the season’s first five months; and, if a team plays exceptionally well all the way through August, it might be able to put a lot less pressure on the outcomes of those September games.

Even spring training games are meaningful. Important? No, but definitely meaningful, especially for the many teams who still have question marks about their Opening Day rosters. In three days, at 1:05 p.m., the first two games of the regular season will begin, with the Braves and Nationals opening the National League schedule and the Tigers and Yankees christening the American League slate.

That said, in what little time remains before the big show begins, teams like the Mets and Phillies are just some of the teams that don’t even know what their starting lineups will look like come the first game of the season.

The Mets’ and Phillies’ issues both stem from second base. Both teams are still trying to figure out who will be starting at the position come the teams’ openers on Friday. The Phillies can take some comfort in knowing that they do have a star second baseman in Chase Utley, who hopefully can recover from nagging injuries and quell any issues with the position.

The Mets, however, have spent most of spring training waiting for one of their unestablished candidates to distinguish himself as the best option, but none of them have. In fact, the only player in the competition who’d been a regular second baseman at the Major League level was Luis Castillo, whom the Mets released after a beleaguered tenure with the club and who now is competing for the Phillies’ second base job.

For the Phillies, the choice looks to be between the ex-Met Castillo and Wilson Alvarez, another ex-Met who filled in adequately at shortstop last season for the Phillies during Jimmy Rollins’ extended stints on the disabled list. Castillo’s upside is his experience and offense, which has dwindled considerably since his heyday in Florida but could still prove to be consistent enough to be a decent table setter for the big RBI guys in the lineup. Alvarez, purely on account of being younger and having had zero times as many knee problems, no doubt has better range than Castillo, and both can sufficiently turn a double play.

The Mets have somehow been able to whittle the second-base competition down to Daniel Murphy, Brad Emaus, and Luis Hernandez, none of whom has been a regular second baseman at the big-league level. Only Murphy, the best offensive candidate of the bunch, has been a starter, having played regularly at first base for the Mets in 2009. However, Murphy began that season in left field, before his horrendous fielding forced the Mets to make a change.

That said, Murphy hit almost 40 doubles that season and if healthy could provide an offensive boost at the position — however, Murph is still getting acquainted with the position and hasn’t proven anything defensively. Emaus, who may win the job partially due to his Rule 5 status, has proven to be decent both offensively and defensively and could provide the balance and consistency that the Mets so badly need at the position.

Then there is Hernandez. Although his only career highlight came offensively last year, when he broke his foot with a foul ball and then homered on the next pitch, his game is all defense. There is, sadly, a stigma associated with purely defensive players, and they tend to fall by the wayside as teams try to piece together only the best offensive lineup they can.However, a purely defensive player like Hernandez could help shore up an otherwise-stellar defensive infield. The Mets of the late ’90s played with Rey Ordonez at short, a perennial Gold Glover who endeared himself to fans with his spectacular defense no matter how horrible he was at the plate — and boy, was he horrible.

Errors can, and will, be devastating. Castillo proved that to the world when he gave the Yankees a win by dropping a pop-up in the ninth inning. Bill Buckner, a million times more infamously, did it before him. Dewayne Wise, on the other hand, became a White Sox hero when he made a spectacular play to rob a home run and preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game.It is a truth universally acknowledged, and subsequently overlooked, that while good pitching and good hitting win ball games, it is good defense that saves them and bad defense that loses them.


The Cutoff Man: Baseball ’n’ Roll

March 21, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 3/21/2011:

Last night, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its 2011 class. This year’s class included performers Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Darlene Love, and Alice Cooper.

Although I am a fan of Neil Diamond and think Dr. John and Darlene Love had some good tunes, the term “Hall of Fame” — and the fact that the above five have been grouped together at the same level, regardless of actual talent or ability — seems a little suspect.

Some years it seems that the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum,” should just be called the “Rock and Roll Museum” with the random assortment of performers it inducts each year; one needs to look no further than the 2006 class of inducted performers, which included Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Sex Pistols. You know what? On second thought, let’s just go with the “Music Museum,” because as much as Miles Davis was an excellent musician and a musical genius, he neither rocked nor rolled; that’s why we called it “jazz.”

According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum website’s Induction Process page, “Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to rock and roll.” Though I’m already doubtful that the “five to seven performers” that have been inducted every year for the past 25 years have all contributed to the development and perpetuation of the genre and its subgenres, these criteria sound strikingly similar to the criteria for an artist to get his or her work into an art museum — and you don’t see the Metropolitan amending its title to the “Metropolitan Hall of Fame and Museum of Art.”

The biggest reason that it seems like anyone who’s recorded a Top 40 single will get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is explained on the museum’s website. “Ballots are then sent to an international voting body of more than 500 rock experts,” the site reads. “Those performers who receive the highest number of votes — and more than 50 percent of the vote — are inducted.”

In order to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a player must receive at least 75 percent support on the ballots cast. This has proven a very stringent process, as unlike with the music museum, there are some baseball greats whom many believe belong in the Hall that still have not found their way to Cooperstown. On the other hand, 50 percent on more than 500 ballots leaves an awful lot of opportunity to get inducted, which is why I expect that in 25 years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of performers will include Smashmouth, Toby Keith, Green Day, Taylor Swift, Slipknot, Nas, and the cast of Glee.

That said, music has long been an integral part of baseball. Whether it’s a bugle getting the fans to cheer “CHARGE!” or a player’s trademark walk-up tune, music is constantly heard at baseball games. The most significant marriage between baseball and music, of course, happens during the seventh-inning stretch of every game, when fans of all teams unite to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Most stadiums nowadays have their own musical traditions as well that play an even greater part in showing fans’ true spirit in support of the home team. At Citi Field, as soon as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is over, Mets fans join together in singing along to Lou Monte’s “Lazy Mary.” Yankee Stadium is known for playing the Village People’s “YMCA” as the groundskeepers sweep the infield dirt — and for the Bleacher Creatures’ blue-altered lyrics to the song. But without a doubt, the most well-known and powerful musical tradition among fans is at Fenway Park in Boston, thanks to 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Neil Diamond.

Diamond has had many hit singles of his own, and has even written a few hits for others, including “I’m A Believer” for The Monkees. But it is Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that joins Red Sox fans together in a rousing chorus in Fenway Park’s intimate atmosphere that seems to echo all throughout New England. Even if, for some reason, a fan doesn’t know the written lyrics to the song, he can still join in on the unwritten lyrics — the intermittent belting of “oh, oh, oh!” during the chorus of the song. With fans so tightly united, both in song and in support of the Sox, it feels as if there is a greater force pushing the home team to victory, even when the cards are stacked completely against them.

While there are some members of the music museum whose tunes I’d prefer not to see incorporated into the game, musical traditions will continue to make the games that much more fun and entertaining — even the fan karaoke at PNC Park.

That said, Pirates, you really need to stop playing The Police’s “I Can’t Stand Losing” after the Pirates lose — you know that song’s about suicide, right?

The Cutoff Man: Almost the real thing

February 28, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 2/28/2011:

Spring training games began this past weekend, giving fans a teaser of events come April.

Some games were even broadcast by teams’ local stations, making them feel even more real.

As a Mets fan, it was nice to hear Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling — the best broadcast team in baseball (as agreed upon by — getting back to narrating games again.

As a baseball fan in general, of course, it was just nice to see nine uniformed players on a diamond and a guy in a different uniform at the plate.
Spring training games are a time for recently injured stars to prove they’ve still got it, for backups to shine, and for Oliver Perez to show he’s not a complete waste of the $12 million remaining on his contract.

Chipper Jones, who had initially planned on retiring at the end of 2010 before a season-ending injury, will use spring training as a gauge of how ready he is for one more go-round.

Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and pretty much the rest of the Mets’ roster will use spring training to prove that they are healthy and rid of their many ailments.
Justin Morneau, who missed most of the Twins’ surge to the playoffs at the end of last season with a concussion, is no doubt eager to show that he’s finally fully recovered and free of any post-concussion symptoms.

Unfortunately, though, proving that you are healthy during the spring doesn’t do anything to prove that you can stay healthy throughout the regular season.
Spring training games are also a time for teams to showcase their rising stars.

For a top prospect like the Braves’ Freddie Freeman, it’s a chance to reward his team’s faith and give them confidence in their decision to make him an everyday Major Leaguer.

For other top prospects, like the Nationals’ Bryce Harper, it’s a chance to beat their teams’ expectations and force their way onto the Opening Day roster.
For the fans, it’s a chance to see all that develop right before their eyes.

That said, much of the excitement of spring training games stems solely from the fact that they are indeed baseball games — Major League games being played between Major League teams by Major League (and Minor League) players.

For the true baseball fans, spring training games are like the Star Wars prequels.

They are, for the most part, entertaining, they showcase what happens before the things we really care about happen, and they are hyped up to be far more awesome and important than they end up being.

Sorry, journalists, no spring training game will ever have a playoff atmosphere, even if it’s Red Sox-Yankees after the 2004 playoffs.
Unfortunately, though, reports indicate that upon finding out that he’d lost Adam Wainwright to surgery, Tony La Russa did not continue the prequel analogy by screaming, “Noooo!”

As a Mets fan, I’ll be watching these spring spectacles, scouring for positives and excitement as I eagerly await Opening Day.

Then I can begin watching A New Hope, The Mets Strike Back, and Return of the Collapse. Oops, I mean, Playoffs.

The Cutoff Man: Hope springs eternal

February 14, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 2/14/2011:

While many people will be celebrating a Hallmark holiday with their loved ones this Valentine’s Day, baseball fans worldwide are also celebrating the official start to spring training. Today is the reporting date for most teams’ pitchers and catchers, and by the end of the week, spring training will officially be underway. While we at Carnegie Mellon certainly don’t have the time to be traveling frivolously, the start of baseball’s preseason serves as an excuse for diehard fans to pack their bags for Florida and/or Arizona for some warm weather and, finally, some Major League Baseball.

Spring training is important because it provides preseason excitement and intrigue. It allows for position battles, it gives prospects a chance to strut their stuff, and, most importantly, it provides optimism for every baseball fan. Fans have every reason to be happy and optimistic — not much can go wrong (barring an injury), actual games are being played, successful springs can only leave high hopes for the regular season, and if a player or team has a bad spring, who cares? It’s only spring training. Not to mention that baseball has ushered spring in five weeks before it actually begins.

The 2011 season marks the first year at the helm of their respective teams for five managers and the first full season for five more, and a good spring training will no doubt instill much-needed confidence in each for the regular season. Even without a good spring training record, signs of leadership, control, and an understanding of the game and his players will leave a good impression for each new manager. Terry Collins of the Mets will no doubt be under the most scrutiny if spring training goes poorly; Clint Hurdle of the Pirates, however, has nowhere to go but up; and anything positive out of Bradenton, Fla. will be a good thing for that franchise.

Mike Quade will be entering his first full season as manager of the Cubs after an abbreviated interim stint at the end of the 2010 campaign. Quade’s team has certainly upgraded its starting lineup this offseason, and spring training will allow Quade to quickly get on the same page as his new stars Matt Garza, Carlos Penam and Kerry Wood. On the other hand, Florida’s Edwin Rodriguez will enter his first full season with a Marlins team that, while certainly chock full of future talent, does not look nearly as well-equipped as the group he managed in 2010. However, Rodriguez is in full control of the Marlins’ potential in 2011, and his ability to nurture the talents of youngsters Chris Coghlan, Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, and Mike Stanton will dictate how successful this Florida team can be. Keep in mind that on paper, Bud Black’s young Padres were not expected to do much last year, but, well… Black’s 2010 Manager of the Year award more than tells that story.

On a sadder note, this past weekend brought the death of an old manager: Chuck Tanner, who managed the Pirates from 1977–85 and led the 1979 team to a World Series title. Pirates fans — and all other baseball fans — mourn his passing and no doubt fondly recall the “We Are Fam-a-lee” Pirates that came back to win the Series after trailing, three games to one. Hopefully, 32 years after that triumphant season, Hurdle will be able to foster this year’s young, talented Pirates team into something that would have made Tanner proud, and — finally — return winning baseball to Pittsburgh.

The Cutoff Man: Is it All-Star voting time?

February 7, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 2/7/2011:

“Step 1: Spring Training.

Step 2: Opening Day.

Step 3: Launch All-Star ballot.”
-Mark Newman, Enterprise Editor at, 4/19/10

It’s only a matter of time before Newman writes an article that bumps step 3 up to step 1.

Last year, I wrote a Modest Proposal

parodying Major League Baseball’s “This Time it Counts” initiative for the All-Star Game and, more importantly, the fact that All-Star voting seems to begin earlier and earlier each year. So, a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, here are my predictions for this year’s All-Star team. After all, it’s all about who fans like rather than who deserves it, so why wait to see who fits the latter bill?

Players donning new uniforms in 2011 will no doubt get a lot of support from their new fans but for the most part, the big names who’ve changed teams this year are guys who have made it in the past. Pitchers, of course, have been omitted from my predictions, as they are still selected on a deserving basis, unless one of them makes it to the Final Vote (but let’s face it: Cliff Lee is a-goin’).

National League

The NL has had its fair share of marquee players changing teams this winter, but for the most part, those players have been pitchers — see Lee, Zack Greinke, and Matt Garza. Jayson Werth joined the Nationals, an acquisition that would undoubtedly have garnered him a ton of All-Star support if Washington had any fans at all. Carlos Pena left the Rays for the Cubs, but will most likely be blocked from starting at first base at the All-Star Game by some guy named Albert. Dan Uggla was traded from Florida to Atlanta, and if he has a good first half then he could take out Chase Utley at second base.

Of course, you should expect to see at least one Braves player starting, as last year’s NL hero, Brian McCann, should be a lock to make the lineup. Reds first baseman Joey Votto should also get a strong backing, but like Pena, will most likely get blocked by Pujols.

There are also some up-and-coming players like Pedro Alvarez, Mike Stanton, and Freddie Freeman who may influence the ballot if they prosper, but for the most part, the NL starting lineup at the All-Star Game should be business as usual:

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves; First base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals; Second base: Chase Utley, Phillies; Third base: David Wright, Mets; Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins; Jason Heyward, Braves; Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies; Outfield: Mike Stanton, Marlins.

American League

Many AL teams have made some major upgrades this winter, and many players with new homes will most likely find themselves in Phoenix come the All-Star Break. Boston has already been deemed the “winner” of the off-season by many after acquiring Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and the Red Sox Nation should vote both into the American League’s starting lineup regardless of their first-half performance. Adam Dunn would have probably gotten enough support from his new White Sox fan base to be the AL’s starting designated hitter — and likewise Manny Ramirez would from Rays fans.

Unfortunately for Yankees fans, Rafael Soriano can’t get voted in, and the team’s lackluster offseason will leave many bandwagon fans spitefully not voting this year, which may sway both corner infield positions Boston’s way. Barring any surprises, the AL lineup will also include many familiar faces, though not all will be representing the same team in the past:

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins; First base: Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox; Second base: Robinson Cano, Yankees; Third base: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox; Shortstop: Derek Jeter, Yankees; Outfield: Carl Crawford, Red Sox; Josh Hamilton, Rangers; Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners.

Now that I’ve predicted July’s starting lineups, it’s time to look forward to spring training. Let the countdown to Valentine’s Day begin!

The Cutoff Man: Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk

January 31, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 1/31/2011:

Whether a person is liked or disliked will often come down to the words that come out of his or her mouth. Ballplayers can usually get away with mouthing off as long as they can back it up on the field. Executives, agents, and the like have a little tougher time with that; they have to hope that the players they represent will back up their words for them.

Last week, both executives and players kept their mouths running just long enough to let both their feet fit comfortably inside.

Strangely, the player whose words proved most controversial last week was newly minted Cardinal Lance Berkman. Berkman, widely viewed as one of baseball’s true good guys, managed to make at least one enemy whewn he publicly doubted the Texas Rangers’ chances in 2011.

“I felt like if they didn’t re-sign Cliff Lee that they were going to be an average team,” Berkman said in a radio interview, “and I feel that’s probably what’s going to end up happening.” Berkman, who was part of a 2010 Yankees team that got mowed down by then-Ranger Lee, was giving his reasons for opting not to sign with Texas this year. “It’s all about your pitching,” he added. “I feel like last year was one of those special years where you kind of catch lightning in a bottle and they got hot and they had some guys that I felt like were pitching better than their talent level, and consequently, they had a great year.”

One of those guys who didn’t so much outpitch his talent level as he did expectations was C.J. Wilson, who publicly took issue with Berkman’s comments — and rightfully so. Berkman’s foot was already feeling snug inside his mouth when he said of his new team, “If there’s a better team in the National League, I don’t know who they are. On paper, you can talk about the Phillies, and obviously they have a great pitching staff.”

Obviously, indeed; after all, the Phillies were the team who signed Lee, and if it is indeed all about pitching as Berkman said, the Phillies are rolling in it.

Considering that Lee, the alleged make-or-break for Texas’ chances as a contender, joined a rotation that included Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, no team in either league seemingly stands a chance against the Phillies — even the Cardinals.

Perhaps Berkman was just being honest, but honest or not, he did not sound knowledgeable. It now remains up to him and his team to back up his words — and if the Cardinals do prove to be the best in the NL, a potential showdown with Texas in the World Series would certainly settle the score.

Joining in the verbal throwdown was the Yankees’ President Randy Levine, whose comments coincidentally were also directed at the Rangers and related to Lee. Levine was responding to new Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg’s comments that the Rangers’ pursuit of Lee had deterred the pitcher from signing with the Yanks. In an article on, Levine first criticized Greenberg for believing “he’s mastered what everyone else is thinking” — which was acceptable and justified. It was what Levine continued on to say that should’ve been more of a keep-it-to-yourselfer. “I’ll be impressed when he demonstrates he can keep the Rangers off welfare,” Levine said in the article. “What I mean is make them not be a revenue-sharing recipient for three years in a row, without taking financing from baseball or advance money from television networks — then I’ll be impressed.”

Regardless of the Rangers’ money situation, the point of owning a baseball team is not how it manages its finances — just ask Pirates fans.
The point is to maintain success on the field for years to come, and the real test of Greenberg’s ability to run his organization will be how the Rangers play in 2011 and beyond. The Yankees, who lost to Texas in the 2010 postseason, have much more to prove: They have to show that, with their plethora of monetary resources, they can actually keep making the postseason again and putting a good — not just talented and expensive — group of teammates on the baseball field. It was the late George Steinbrenner who made the Yankees infamous with his marathon mouth; most of the time, his team backed him up. It’s up to George’s successors to back up their own words now.

The Spring Training countdown is now at 14 days. Until then, players and executives alike are well-advised to stay silent and wait until their bats, gloves, and arms can do the talking for them.

The Cutoff Man: New look, same great player

January 24, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 1/24/2011:

As the off-season quickly becomes the preseason, there are still some proven veterans on the market. A few of them, such as Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, found new homes last week, while other players who already had homes found themselves new ones. Now that most teams — most, not all — have gotten the basic architecture of their rosters built, the last few weeks of the off-season are for shoring up their weaknesses and looking at all available options to improve on their team’s core. For some, that means adding depth. For others, it means finally getting a difference-maker. For free agents and trade candidates, it means getting ready to scour the real estate pages.

The Tampa Bay Rays made the biggest splash this past week when they signed proven veterans Ramirez and Damon to surprisingly cheap one-year deals. The Rays have been utterly depleted this winter, losing perennial Ray and star outfielder Carl Crawford to free agency along with first baseman Carlos Pena and closer Rafael Soriano, and trading pitcher Matt Garza. Signing Ramirez to a mere $2 million and Damon to $5.25 million (with incentives that’d push it to an even $6 million) not only allowed them to spend less than the Yankees did on Soriano, but gives the Rays low-risk, high-reward solutions to fill the holes in their lineup. Damon, who played mainly designated hitter for the Tigers in 2010, gives the Rays a relatively potent bat at the top of their lineup who could be a serviceable replacement for Crawford if he stays healthy and maintains a high on-base percentage.

Ramirez is a bit more of a wild card — wild indeed — but could end up giving the Rays a very big bat to protect Evan Longoria in the lineup and fill the hole that Pena’s bat left. A new uniform helped his production when he was traded from Boston to Los Angeles, but not necessarily after his 2010 deadline trade to the White Sox; however, if he truly enjoys playing in Tampa, the young Rays may prove to be the perfect environment to foster the best in Ramirez once more. Ramirez’s cheap deal surprised everyone after he held out each of his past two years of free agency for too much money, so perhaps this is a sign that Ramirez just wants to play some good ball and prove himself again.

Meanwhile, the Angels and Blue Jays pulled off a big trade on Friday when Vernon Wells was sent to Los Angeles of Anaheim in exchange for catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera. The Angels’ beat reporter, Lyle Spencer, said on Twitter that Wells is “that big bat fans want.” Technically, yes. But there is a reason the fans wanted a big bat: The Angels completely wiped out in their lackluster attempts to lure both Crawford and third baseman Adrian Beltre, and they seemed essentially to be banking on the return of Kendry Morales to be their big off-season improvement. Getting Wells, a three-time Gold Glover who averages 26 homers and 95 RBI a year, gives the Angels a solid outfield and a much more complete middle of the order. Wells is not only the big bat the fans want; he is the big bat the team needs.

For Napoli and Rivera, the deal provides a chance to start anew. While Napoli most likely will not be a starter, I expect him to serve as a veteran presence on the bench who can help mentor both the pitching staff and the team’s highly-touted rookie catcher, J.P. Arencibia. Rivera, the other guy in the deal, never really got going in 2010 after hitting 25 home runs in 2009. There was really no place for him in the Angels outfield, and starting over in Toronto — where it seems everyone on the team gets a power boost — could be just the thing for Rivera to establish himself as a feared and productive Major League hitter.

Spring training is now only three weeks away. Teams are still looking to improve, so look for the number of last-minute trades and signings to keep picking up. Soon, teams will see what the future holds for their has-beens and could-bes.

At the end of the season, every team wants to hear, “What a bargain those guys got! That pickup really worked out for them!” Which team will hear that come November 2011? We’ll soon find out.

The Cutoff Man: Offseasons and onseasons

January 17, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 1/17/2011:

Valentine’s Day is exactly four weeks from now and folks, there’s no need to buy any gifts this year. It just so happens that Major League Baseball has already taken care of that for us. Sure, you and your hubby can spend a romantic dinner together, maybe even see a movie. But then you can go home and revel in the joy that this Feb. 14 is the day pitchers and catchers report to officially begin spring training. If that’s not enough of a gift for you, then maybe plane tickets to Florida and/or Arizona would seal the deal.

Speaking of deals, this off-season has been chock full of ’em. Perhaps most notably, Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees and surprised everyone by signing with the Philadelphia Phillies — yes, the same Phillies that traded him for Roy Halladay only a year ago and then acquired Roy Oswalt at the deadline. Although all three could be the standout aces of any major league staff, they instead find themselves joined by Cole Hamels in the most formidable rotation in baseball. Is Halladay-Lee-Oswalt going to match Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine in dominance and sheer intimidation? No. Hudson-Zito-Mulder? Maybe. The latter trio was totally homegrown in the A’s system, which made them all the more likable, especially when the A’s starters won 15 games during the team’s 20-game win streak in 2002. While the Braves’ trio was not as technically homegrown — Smoltz came in a Ryan-Fergosi-esque deal from the Tigers and Maddux had already established himself with the Cubs — by the time the trio was finished pitching in Atlanta, they’d certainly become household names. No doubt all three will go into the Hall of Fame donning Braves caps. Give Halladay, Lee, and Oswalt another five years together and maybe the comparisons will start to flow a little more easily.

The Phillies have not been the only big winners this offseason. Until the Lee deal, the Boston Red Sox were — and still should be — considered the big winners of the off-season. Within a week, the Sox traded for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed the Yankees’ second-most coveted free agent, left fielder Carl Crawford. Gonzalez, especially playing in Fenway Park, could become the best first baseman in the game, even surpassing that guy Albert on the Cardinals. His fielding is already second to none, and his opposite-field stroke will no doubt benefit from a short porch in left. Crawford — whom the Yankees really didn’t need, so much as want — gives the Red Sox a legitimate speedster who can play any outfield position better than who they have already and who will no doubt benefit from a short porch in right. More importantly — knock on wood — Crawford has done a pretty good job of staying healthy over his career, which is more than Boston can say for most of its roster, and especially its outfield. With Crawford and Gonzalez in tow and leading the charge, the Sox are easy favorites to win the AL East.

But don’t worry, Yankees fans; all is not lost. The Yanks just signed setup man Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million contract. Aside from the fact that they have now dedicated $65 million this off-season to five years’ worth of two relievers — Mariano got $30 million for two years earlier this winter — the move does give the Yankees a formidable setup-closer duo on paper. Whether Soriano, who wasn’t always a closer before dominating for Tampa Bay last year, can be as effective in a non-closing role as the Yanks hope he will remains to be seen. The Red Sox are hoping to get similar results from Bobby Jenks this year, but as J.J. Putz and the New York Mets can attest — and the Red Sox and Eric Gagne, for that matter — things don’t always go according to plan. While I understand that Soriano will no doubt replace Rivera once the latter finally does retire, that day shouldn’t arrive until the last year of Soriano’s contract at the earliest. If Rivera’s next two seasons are successful, it may take even longer. Other teams, like the Brewers, Rangers, and Cubs, have made big moves this winter as well. That said, the off-season hasn’t been kind to everyone. In every big trade, there is the team that is losing its star player, and in every big free agent acquisition, there arwe the teams that lose out on signing him. The Angels inexplicably barely made a peep in trying to sign Crawford and Adrian Beltre, both of whom would have filled giant holes in their lineup and put the team on the right track after a horrendous 2010 campaign. The Marlins have traded away most of their former future, most notably sending Dan Uggla to fellow NL East-mate Atlanta.

But then there are the teams that couldn’t help having a bad off-season in 2010. The Royals traded Zack Greinke because he asked them to. The Padres traded Gonzalez because they couldn’t afford to pay him what he deserved. The Rays lost Crawford to the Sox and Carlos Pena to the Cubs via free agency simply because they couldn’t afford to re-sign either, and they later traded Matt Garza to the Cubs to avoid having to pay him more than they would be able to.

The Rays have significantly less money to work with than most teams, especially due to the unfortunate fact that no one in Tampa seems to come to their games. The Mets have made big management and front office shakeups, but their off-season plan seems hinged around maybes, has-beens, and hopefuls. Their off-season situation has a little more backstory than “can’t help it,” though; they have almost zero payroll flexibility, mainly due to bad deals of off-seasons past. 2011 benchwarmer Luis Castillo is owed $6 million this year, and bullpen forget-me-please Oliver Perez is owed $12 million. Carlos Beltran is in the final season of his expensive contract, but if things go according to plan, he could still make this year worth every penny. That said, with what little money they do have, the Mets have made some potentially good moves and some nonsensical ones, the most prominent being letting Hisanori Takahashi walk after a phenomenal (and cheap) season.

What’s another difference between the Mets and the Rays? The Rays won their division in 2008 and 2010 and have now proven that they can win with what they have. The Mets have had the big money, but they finished fourth in 2009 and 2010. As this off-season comes to a close, there’s no telling how 2011 will play out for those having, well, off offseasons. 2010 losers like the Orioles and Brewers have done what they need to in order to contend this year, while perennial behemoths like Boston and New York will look to make those moves moot. But winners or losers, off-seasons or on-seasons, there are only four more weeks until hope springs eternal for all.

The Cutoff Man: The 2010 trading block

November 22, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 11/22/2010:

If baseball had a crystal ball — and I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s made one — it would most likely be diamond-encrusted and covered with the logos of each World Series winner. If you knew the right words to utter, you could look into it every off-season and see which players will switch uniforms come Opening Day. Shop, I believe I’ve just found your new Christmas bestseller. Without looking into any crystal ball, one already has an idea of how the 2010–11 off-season will shape up. Unlike the hype surrounding the NBA’s 2010 off-season, it looks like one of baseball’s big questions this winter will be about who will be taking his talents from South Beach. The Florida Marlins have already traded second baseman Dan Uggla — to divisional rival Atlanta — along with trading former future stars Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin. Both Miller and Maybin were the centerpieces of the Marlins’ deal with the Tigers during their last fire sale, when they traded pitcher Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera to Detroit.

Don’t expect Florida to be done dealing, either. Florida has been known to have fire sales every few off-seasons, usually coming after a successful year. After winning the World Series in 1997, the Marlins infamously traded away catcher Charles Johnson, first baseman Jeff Conine, third baseman Bobby Bonilla, shortstop Edgar Renteria, outfielders Moises Alou and Gary Sheffield, starting pitchers Al Leiter and Kevin Brown, and closer Robb Nen. They then proceeded to finish with the worst record in baseball in 1998 at 54–108. After winning the 2003 World Series, the Marlins spent their next few off-seasons dismantling their winning team again, and although they were only an 80–82 ball club in 2010, it looks like team owner Jeffrey Loria and his crew have deemed it time to rebuild again.

A Marlin guaranteed to garner trade offers is ace Josh Johnson, who, if healthy, could help push many contenders out of the role of also-ran and into the role of champion. Starters Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, and Ricky Nolasco are all contenders to wear new uniforms come 2011, with Nolasco the most likely of that bunch to be traded. They all possess the talent and potential for greatness, and the only question will be how much a team is willing to give up for that potential. 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan (outfield) and 2010 ROY contender Gaby Sanchez (first base) could find themselves on different teams soon enough; however, it’s unlikely that either will be traded until at least next year. Coghlan is coming off an injury-shortened campaign, and Sanchez only has one year of Major League experience, so the Marlins will want to wait for the players’ values to go up before using them as trade bait.

A year ago, the big question on the trade market was whether or not the Padres’ big bopper Adrian Gonzalez would find a new home in 2010. Despite heavy rumors to the contrary, Gonzalez stayed in San Diego and helped lead the Pads almost to a division title that once seemed firmly in their grasp. Don’t expect Gonzalez to be moved this winter; after signing manager Bud Black to an extension, the Padres now seem committed to building up and winning with the squad they have, and Gonzalez is the centerpiece of that crew.

While this off-season will no doubt be defined by where pitcher Cliff Lee signs, there are a few other free agents that will warrant nearly as much attention. There will still be 29 teams that don’t sign Cliff Lee, and look for trades to be the big difference-makers come April 2011. Florida, I offer you my condolences now.

The Cutoff Man: Pitching-starved Yanks hungry for a Cliff bar

November 15, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 11/15/2010:

I’d like to think that this headline’s pun is one of the more original ones out there regarding free agent pitcher Cliff Lee. Or at least more original than the corny “Cliffhanger.”

Lee, the centerpiece in a trade deadline deal for the second July in a row before helping the Rangers to the World Series this year, can start buying new Rolls Royces by the dozen as he headlines this offseason’s free agent class. Lee is not only the best pitcher available on the 2010–2011 market, but he is a guy who has done one very important thing: He has dominated the Yankees on many occasions. That pretty much sealed his fate on getting quite the handsome paycheck for the foreseeable — and even the unforeseeable — future.

It’s not that Lee is guaranteed to sign with the Yankees. That the Yankees have entered the Lee sweepstakes — and they certainly have, with GM Brian Cashman already having flown down to see Lee at his Arkansas home — means that the bidding for his services will start high and end higher. The Yankees have the obvious advantage here in that they can essentially offer Lee anything he asks and more without truly compromising their ability to sign or trade for other lineup studs; any other team entering the Cliff contest will at some point have to consider the impact of Lee’s salary on its financial flexibility for the many years on his eventual contract. The Yankees also have the ability to offer Lee a chance to pitch alongside former Indians teammate C.C. Sabathia, who had also previously dominated the Yankees in the playoffs before they blew other suitors out of the water by offering Sabathia a seven-year, $161 million contract in the ’08 offseason. To further illustrate my previous point, though, the Yankees also added two other huge contracts to their payroll that offseason, signing pitcher A.J. Burnett to a five-year, $82 million contract and first baseman Mark Teixeira to an eight-year, $180 million contract. Not that their payroll wasn’t already huge to begin with — the previous offseason, they’d inked third baseman Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $275 million contract extension.

The Yankees may end up not having much competition for Lee’s services to begin with. Most baseball analysts have predicted that the Rangers will be the only team competing with the Bronx Buyers to land Lee. The Rangers, Lee’s current team, would be wise to lock up Lee for many years as a pillar to build their young rotation on; at 32 years of age, Lee still has enough good years ahead of him, barring injuries, to ensure a high reward for at least the next five years. The problem, though, is that any deal beyond five years for a pitcher is unwise and unnecessary, as most pitchers tend to fall victim to shoulder ailments and even shoulder surgeries at some point in their career, especially by their late 30s. The Rangers may be hesitant to sign Lee to an absurdly long-term deal for that very reason; however, they may be forced to, as the Yankees have proven that short-term success is the only thing they care about, and money and years are just formalities in the process of signing a big-ticket guy like Lee, regardless of the potential long-term consequences.

That said, as problematic as it may prove in the future, the Rangers would be unwise not to go all out for Lee. As it stands, they have plenty of young talent that will not enter the free agent class for a few more years. Lee would provide enough short-term reward that it would be a historically good move to keep him on the staff, and it would be good for baseball if a team not owned by the Steinbrenners signed the biggest free agent on the market. While baseball fans worldwide may ponder the possible success of a rotation that includes Lee, Sabathia, and Phil Hughes, the offseason would be boring and frustrating if the Yanks walked away again with the kind of purchase that the 29 other Major League franchises would deem irresponsible.

That said, I expect to cringe when I see Lee in a pinstriped uniform come spring training. Happy offseason!

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