Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Bud Selig Never Calls

Quote of the Week

"The fact of the matter that they're winning on the field doesn't solve their problems."

-- Baseball Commissioner Bud $elig, referring to the early season success of contraction targets Minnesota (one game out of first place) and Montreal (leading their division), essentially admitting that the owners’ professed concern about competitive balance on the field is nothing more than a smokescreen.

Speaking of Bud Selig, I have a complaint to make. Last December, ESPN’s Rob Neyer ran an anti-Bud column which precipitated a telephone call from the man himself. On Friday, Baseball Prospectus’s Doug Pappas got the ring. I ask you, what does a guy have to do to get yelled at? I’ve been taking pot shots at Bud and his cronies for weeks now, and I’ve heard bubkis. If I still haven't heard anything by Memorial Day, I’m gonna have to start calling myself.

At any rate, is it just me, or does anyone find it incredible that the leader of a multi-billion dollar enterprise is taking the time to harass sports columnists just because they disagree with him? Does he really think he can convince smart guys like Neyer and Pappas that they’re wrong, or is he simply that insecure? All I know is that if Bill Gates started calling the guys at Slashdot every time someone made fun of his operation, people would start wondering whether the boss was making the best use of his time.

Ground Chuck

While we’re quoting, here’s one more:

"Prototype size and speed...has a very large wingspan...has the speed and motor to chase...explosive at a good pad level...massive widebody..."

No, it's not marketing copy from Lockheed Martin’s strike-fighter catalog. It's a collection of quotes lifted verbatim from scouting reports on ESPN.com's "NFL Draft Tracker". The Draft Tracker (and any number of other draft supplements like it) compiles tons of important information about the future elite of pro football. For example, it tells you that Julius Peppers, a defensive end from the University of North Carolina, "shows the ability to bend at the knees." Thank goodness for that. One thing it doesn’t seem to do too well, however, is tell you whether or not young Peppers and his fellow draftees can actually play the game of football.

The modern NFL draft and its attendant analysis have turned twenty-two year old kids who thought they were football players into cuts of meat, stopwatch times, and IQ-test results. This failure to see the forest for the trees has transformed pro football from a beautiful game of strategy and physical prowess into the freakshow of a sport it has turned into today. If he were coming out of college in 2002, Joe Montana would go undrafted because he lacks scrambling ability. Walter Payton would slip down the list due to a hundredth of a second lag in his 40 yard dash time. Lawrence Taylor would be knocked for not having an adequate "wingspan."

In evaluating talent, baseball has largely avoided the worst excesses of the NFL. Unfortunately, there are more and more scouts and GMs out there leaning towards the NFL approach. It's becoming increasingly common to read about players being analyzed in terms of their "tools": raw abilities like speed, arm strength, and power. The thinking of the "tool" school is that anyone with a healthy combination of these raw talents can be transformed into a great player.

Obviously, anyone who runs a baseball team wants players who are fast, powerful, and can throw. But more often than not, teams fixated on "tools" have had a terrible track record developing players. They routinely dismiss short, weak-armed guys who just happen to hit the cover off the ball (like Pittsburgh’s all-world outfielder Brian Giles, inexplicably let go by the Cleveland Indians) in exchange for fast, powerful, good-throwing guys who can’t play baseball very well (like Ruben Rivera, Juan Encarnacion, and Alex Escobar). Toolsy players look great in uniform, but most of the time they don’t do much to help their teams win ballgames.

Call me naive, but I can’t help thinking that the best indicator of a player’s ability to do well in the majors is how well he did in the minors, and in high school or college before that. How much he can bench press or how fast he can run a 40 yard-dash should be a secondary concern at best.

And Then There Were Three

Another week, another manager fired, with Colorado’s Buddy Bell biting the dust on Friday evening. Not counting Montreal’s lame duck Frank Robinson, that leaves three guys (Tony Muser, Mike Hargrove, and Hal McRae) as sure bets in my dead pool.

What to say about Buddy Bell? Not much. Like this season’s other two casualties, he was dealt a losing hand before the season began. No one was going to do anything with that team in Colorado, and now that Rockies’ management has figured that out, maybe it’s time to get creative. One hot rumor floating around last week was that the Rocks were considering trading pitcher Mike Hampton and outfielder Larry Walker to the Red Sox for Manny Ramirez. I don’t really see that happening with the Red Sox in first place, but wouldn’t that be a humdinger of a trade? Manny could hit 80 home runs in Coors Field. Short of that, the Rockies could consider giving more playing time to guys who could actually help them instead of screwing around with dead wood like Terry Shumpert.

Cool it, It’s Early

My spot-on managerial predictions notwithstanding, I received an email from a reader the other day asking if I was willing to recant my preseason predictions in light of the fast starts by the Pirates and Expos, and the slow starts of the Astros and Braves.

Look, I love and respect all twelve of my readers, but buy-high-sell-low guys like that are the ones who end up working three jobs into their 80's because they screwed up their IRAs. It’s April. There’s tons of baseball to go. Besides, even if I'm wrong all down the line with my predictions, do you think I'd throw away a perfectly good post-season column idea ("Why It Wasn’t My Fault That I Was Wrong") by admitting it now? Patience, grasshopper, the truth of the season will be revealed in time.

And There’s no Santa Claus Either

Last Thursday, my wife was out to dinner with clients (she always was the harder working Calcaterra), leaving me at home with a turkey sandwich, a couple of beers, and an Atlanta Braves game. Even better, it turns out that my most favoritist baseball player in the whole wide world -- Greg Maddux -- was pitching that night. I sank into my Eames lounger to watch the artist at work.

Maddux got creamed. How bad was it? This bad.

My idol allowed eight runs and walked four batters in a nightmare of a fifth inning. Maddux normally goes a month without walking four guys. Always the perfectionist, he’s notorious for launching F-bombs at the top of his lungs when his pitches miss their mark (and by his definition, missing a mark means being three inches outside). On Thursday he could do nothing but watch as his stuff went wherever the hell it wanted to go.

You can't read too much into one start, and Maddux's recent back troubles may go a long way towards explaining his feebleness. Still, watching him struggle that night was like watching someone whup your old man. I wouldn't wish the feeling on...Bud Selig.

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Barry Bonds Among the Tents of the Achaeans

Last Thursday, the Milwaukee Brewers became the second team this young season to fire their manager. After two-plus years of futility, it’s probably no surprise that Davy Lopes got the axe, but he's hardly the only reason for the Brewers' woes. The fact is, Milwaukee faces a talent deficit of major proportions, and even the reanimated corpse of John McGraw wouldn’t be able to win with what Lopes has had to work with. Of course, when the guy who decides whether or not the manager gets canned -- Brewers’ GM Dean Taylor -- is the same guy responsible for bringing in talent, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s the manager who's going to be cleaning out his desk when things go south. It has always happened this way in baseball, and it probably always will.

Still, two firings and it's not even Secretaries’ Day yet. Normally I wouldn’t start my managerial dead pool until midseason, but since this year is shaping up as a bloodbath, I may as well get going now:

Go ahead and refinance, you’re not going anywhere:

Joe Torre (NYY), Grady Little (BOS), Charlie Manuel (CLE), Ron Gardenhire (MIN), Jerry Manuel (CHIW), Luis Pujols (DET), Lou Pinella (SEA), Mike Scioscia (ANA), Bobby Cox (ATL), Jeff Torborg (FLA), Jimy Williams (HOU), Tony LaRussa (STL), Bob Boone (CIN), Bob Brenly (ARI), Dusty Baker (SF), Jim Tracy (LA), Bruce Bochy (SD), Whoever the Hell follows Lopes (MIL).

Cox, Pinella, and LaRussa are all safe because (a) they have good teams that should be in the playoffs, and (b) even if something weird happens and they don’t make it, they don’t have bosses known for flying off the handle. Torre has four World Series rings and probably the best team of all, but he also works for Steinbrenner, and on the off chance the Yankees don't win, he could be in danger (not that the thought should be keeping him up nights). The rest of these guys are either new enough or have decent enough teams to make continued employment a relatively sure bet through the 2002 season. Well, except for Jeff Torborg, whose continued tenure as manager of the Expos/Marlins strongly suggests that he must have compromising pictures of owner Jeff Loria.

Dust off your resume just in case:

Buck Martinez (TOR), Art Howe (OAK), Jerry Narron (TEX), Larry Bowa (PHI), Bobby Valentine (NYM), Don Baylor (CHIC), Lloyd McClendon (PIT).

Martinez has a new boss who doesn't favor him. If he slips up once, he’s toast. The others are potential victims of the expectations game. Some, like Valentine and Howe, need to make the playoffs to be safe. Others, like Baylor and Bowa, preside over teams that are expected to continue improving. Either one could be out if his team even looks like it's starting to backslide (it doesn’t help that both of them have the rare ability to alienate star players). This is Narron’s first full season, but the ship he’s steering in Texas is mighty expensive, and Tom Hicks isn’t paying for a fourth place finish. McClendon is subject to lower expectations since his team is so bad and he’s only been on the job a year. But if the Pirates’ new stadium is three quarters empty in August, he could get axed too.

Dead men walking:

Hal McRae (TB), Mike Hargrove (BAL), Tony Muser (KC), Frank Robinson (MTL), Buddy Bell (COL).

Since he’s merely the MLB trustee for the soon to be liquidated or moved Expos, Frank Robinson doesn’t count. The rest of these guys are presiding over teams that look to be really stanky this year, and someone’s gonna have to pay.

So if you include Detroit and Milwaukee, we could have six firings by the end of the season -- a bit more than usual, but not at all impossible.

Good Faith Negotiations:

According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, the owners’ most recent proposal to the players’ union included an item called a "Competitive Balance Tax." The idea is that teams would pay a 50 percent tax on payrolls above $98 million. But contrary to the impression given by the name of the tax, the proceeds would not go to the teams that Czar Bud Selig thinks are unable to compete with the Yankees of the world. Instead, the money would flow into a "Commissioner's Discretionary Pool." Will Bud distribute it among the owners? Will it go towards buying Selig some botox injections, which he appears to need desperately? I have no idea, but until the owners say what it would be used for, the players are likely to view it as nothing more than a giant burning pit where money that would otherwise go to them would disappear. Not exactly the sort of proposal the owners should be making if they really want to reach a compromise with the players.

Even more revealing of the owners’ motives is another one of their proposals: the implementation of "a mechanism through which clubs can secure the independent verification of offers purportedly made to free agents." -- in plain English, price-fixing. They were doing it informally in the mid-1980's, and got busted for collusion. Now they're at it again, but this time they're hiding their true intentions with lots of pious talk about preserving "competitive balance". Clearly their real goal is to lower player salaries. That’s fine; after all, it’s their negotiation. But just remember this when the owners claim that the coming strike is about the players’ greed and the owners’ efforts to protect the integrity of the game.

No Mulligans in Baseball:

It’s 2001 all over again in the AL West. Once again the A’s biggest competition -- the Mariners -- have roared out of the gate despite the absence of a superstar, and once again the A’s have stumbled in the early going despite being the better team on paper. Sixteen games in, and Oakland already finds itself four games back. Perhaps the A’s representatives should make their own proposal for the next labor agreement: the implementation of do-overs for April.

The Giants’ Achilles Hamstring:

I don’t know much about Barry Bonds’s upbringing, but rumor has it his mother dipped him into the River Styx as a child, rendering him invulnerable except at the hamstring by which she held him. [Ed's note: She held him by the hamstring?]

Now that Bonds has injured that hamstring , the outcome of the war against hated, er, Arizona, is in doubt for San Francisco. Luckily, the Giants have started quickly, so disaster may yet be averted if some Patroclus can be found to fight in Bonds’s armor in the event he has to go on the disabled list. That said, over the long run the Giants need Bonds to overcome the Hectors and Sarpedons of the NL West. If Bonds's injury proves too much for him, it will be the Giants dragged around the walls of Troy, while their women wail and beat their breasts in lamentation.

Hypocrisy Watch -- Yankees’ Fans:

As you probably know, New York Yankees fans booed Jason Giambi mercilessly on April 5th after he "failed" to earn his massive new contract in the first four games of the season. The booing was an example both of the ridiculous impatience of Yankees fans and the complete irrelevance of 16 at-bats over the course of a season. Since the boo-birds came out to sing, Giambi has been, well, Giambi, posting an on base percentage of .400+ and hitting three home runs. Eventually he’ll go on a tear and once again find himself atop the American League leader boards. Question: why do Yankees fans get so angry when they think you're denying the greatness of their team (a perception which usually stems from your failure to root for the Yankees as vigorously as they do) when they themselves are so damn fickle?

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

2002 Season: First Impressions

Strike Nine!

So it's only two weeks into the season, and already reporters and commentators are playing the "on pace" game. You know the one: Barry Bonds is "on pace" to hit 113 home runs, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson are "on pace" to win 35 games each, and the Detroit Tigers are "on pace" to lose 162. It's all bunk, of course, but this year Johnny Sportswriter may be doing us a service. The way things are going, fantasy projections might be all we have to remember the 2002 season by.

For the first time since 1994, Major League Baseball began the year without a collective bargaining agreement in place. As most of you will recall, 1994 brought a nasty strike that managed to do what the Great Depression, two world wars, and the Loma Prieta earthquake could not: cancel the World Series.

But apart from the duration of the work stoppage, 1994 was a pretty typical year for baseball, in the sense that every labor contract expiration since 1972 has been followed either by a player’s strike or an owners’ lockout. The current total is eight work stoppages.

Plainly, the odds of going a full 162+ games this year are not good. The owners got some good press early on by pledging not to lock players out during the season, but those promises meant essentially nothing. During the season, the players have all the leverage. The owners get almost all their income from putting butts in the stands. They're far more likely to declare an impasse and impose a lockout the day after the World Series ends than any time during the regular season. If there is a work stoppage during the season, it will be a players’ strike designed to keep the owners from unilaterally imposing new work rules after the season ends (which, due to the mind-numbing intricacies of labor law, the owners are allowed to do).

No baseball fan wants to see a strike, but if and when one occurs, don’t buy into the "screw those greedy players" hype that hacks like Mike Lupica like to peddle when talking the business of baseball. Yes, the players make a lot of money, but no one put a gun to Tom Hicks’s head and made him pay A-Rod 250 large. And contrary to conventional wisdom, baseball tickets, concessions, parking, and souvenirs have not become prohibitively expensive because of escalating player salaries. Basic economics tell us that player salaries are high because ticket prices are high, not the other way around. If you flunked basic economics but got a gentleman’s C in statistics, consider that there is absolutely no correlation between where the various teams rank in terms of payroll and ticket price. If you flunked both those subjects, just remember back to your days at Big State University when you used to have to pay pro-level ticket prices to see unpaid athletes.

I could riff all day about the ins and outs of baseball economics, but we’re going to have plenty of time for that when the season comes to a premature end. For the time being, suffice it to say that labor negotiations aren’t simple, and only in the simple mind of guys like Mike Lupica do single issues like player greed adequately describe their dynamics.

Enough of that sad business for now, what else is going on?


The Detroit Tigers fired their manager and general manager a mere week into the season. Though no one who knows anything would suggest that it was a bad move to let Phil Garner and Randy Smith go, it's hard not to question the timing. Presumably, five or six months ago, Tiger honcho Dave Dombrowski thought that Garner and Smith were the right men for their jobs. Otherwise else he would have fired them back in November or December. But now, a mere six games into the season, they’re suddenly wrong?

Dombrowski may have done the right thing getting rid of Smith and Garner, but he gets a half-point deduction for style. If he would have cleaned house before the season, he would have sent Tiger fans a clear message that he was assuming responsibility for changing Detroit’s losing ways. Having waited to move until the Tigers had posted an 0-6 start, Dombrowski will now no doubt spend the next six months laying all the blame for the wretched season (did you hear that the Tigers are on pace to lose 162 games?) on the Garner and Smith-led slow start. Just watch, next winter, Dombrowski will be telling the Detroit Free Press how the 2003 season is really his first crack at making the Tigers into a winner.

Addition by Subtraction

In 1998, the Seattle Mariners had Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez on their roster. All four were clearly the best players at their respective positions at the time, and both Griffey and Rodriguez could reasonably claim to be the best player in all of baseball. The 1998 Mariners were less than the sum of their parts, however, and finished with a dismal 76-85 record.

Each of the following three seasons, the Mariners shed one of their marquee players, with Johnson and Griffey leaving by trade, and Rodriguez via free agency. The Mariners improved slightly in 1999 after losing Johnson, dramatically after Griffey’s departure in 2000, and went off the charts (116 wins) in 2001 after saying good bye to A-Rod. No one expected the Mariners to recover from any of these defections, let alone thrive, but thrive they have.

Last week the last of Seattle’s four stars -- Martinez – went down with a torn hamstring. I hereby predict that they will not lose a game for the rest of the season.

Anarchy Watch: The Texas Rangers

Before Opening Day I suggested that the Rangers were flirting with disaster by signing John Rocker, Carl Everett and a handful of other notable malcontents. Two weeks out of the chute, it looks like the great chemistry experiment is coming along quite nicely. In keeping with today’s other predictions and projections, I’m setting May 17th as the before/after line for a full blown Ranger implosion. I’m not exactly sure how the inevitable chaos will usher itself in, but I wouldn’t rule out fisticuffs, a clubhouse coup, or multiple superstar trade demands.

Friday, April 5, 2002

2002 NL West Preview

Arizona Diamondbacks:

Every so often, bad decisions lead to good outcomes. As proof, I give you the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

In 2000, the Diamondbacks finished a distant third in the National League West, with a roster full of aging B-listers like Matt Williams, Steve Finley, and Jay Bell. Inexplicably, Arizona brought in even more old-timers for the 2001 season (Reggie Sanders and Mark Grace), and benched their lone young slugger Erubiel Durazo. The result? An improbable World Series championship run fueled by unexpectedly good performances from a number of guys on the wrong side of 30. Clearly, Lady Luck shined her ever-loving light on the D-Backs last season.

But it would be sheer folly for the Snakes to count on luck two years in a row, wouldn't it? Unfortunately for Diamondback fans, however, that's exactly what their team appears to be doing.

Instead of infusing the Arizona lineup with young blood in Durazo and minor league masher Jack Cust, Diamondback GM Joe Garagiola Jr. traded Cust to Colorado for a spare part-level lefty reliever, and announced that Durazo would once again be riding the pine. Cust has shown no glove-skills whatsoever, and his trade may be marginally defensible, but continuing to block Durazo with the geriatric Mark Grace is nothing short of outrageous, and has even inspired a guerrilla movement of sorts among Durazo's supporters.

It may seem a bit picky to criticize a world champ for not playing its youngsters, but the Diamondbacks aren't your typical world champion. The average age of Arizona's everyday players and most frequently-used pitchers was 33 last year, making them the oldest World Series winner ever by a long shot. Given that they hardly made any moves on the roster this offseason, that age is going to be even higher in 2002. It's always possible that the Diamondbacks will once again beat the odds and not avoid having a gaggle of starters succumb to injuries and statistical regression, but I wouldn't count on it.

A strong starting rotation and an overall weak division will probably save the Diamondbacks' bacon this year, but time is not on their side. They'll probably still win the division, but if they run into some bad luck, they may find themselves looking up in the standings at...

San Diego Padres:

San Diego is this year's fashionable pick to surprise in the National League -- which is usually a bad sign, since fashions in sports aren't much more rational than deciding that brown is this year's black. Still, at the risk of looking foolish six months from now, I have to say that the Padres are going to surprise a lot of people this year. My prediction, however, has nothing to do with fashion, and everything to do with wine.

The Padres kind of stank last season, but in baseball, not all smells are equal. The 2001 Orioles, for example, had the stink of a rotting corpse, but the 2001 Padres had the slightly yeasty funk of an immature burgundy. You didn't want to drink last year's Padres, but connoisseurs knew that given some more time in the cellar, 2001 Padres Noir would eventually show its good breeding.

The Padres' vintner is general manager Kevin Towers, who has shown a great deal of patience and savvy in his craft, always seeming to know the exact time to plant, prune, pick, and preserve the fruits of the Padre farm system. He showed his technique last year, as he pulled off one of the better steals of the season, trading Jay Witasick to the Yankees.

Witasick, a perpetually average pitcher, was picked up by the Padres for almost nothing late in the 2000 season. Before the 2001 season, San Diego moved Witasick to the bullpen where he began the year strong, as many converted starting pitchers do when first assigned to relief duties (over time, a starter moved to the bullpen will usually revert to his mediocre ways). Despite all the obvious signs that Witasick was a flash in the pan, Towers fooled the Yankees into giving up prized middle infielder D'Angelo Jimenez for him. Predictably, Witasick immediately slid back into mediocrity, while Jimenez established himself as the Padres' second baseman of the future. Towers has pulled off several deals like that over the past few seasons, and as a result, the Padre organization is loaded with talent.

This year, Towers will focus on making sure that nothing goes wrong with the aging process. The Padres will open the 2002 season with two rookies in the infield: third baseman Sean Burroughs and shortstop Ramon Vazquez. These guys are so good that the Padres moved their two best players -- Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko -- to different positions in order to accommodate them. In addition, the Padres have two of the best starting pitchers in the minors in Dennis Tankersley and Jacob Peavy. While one or both may begin the season in the minors, they are likely to contribute sooner rather than later. If Burroughs, Vazquez, Tankersley, and Peavy perform well, the Padres may be worth decanting come October. If any of them have a breakout season, Robert Parker might just give them a 90+.

San Francisco Giants:

Barry Bonds is without question the best player in baseball, and barring injury will smack 60+ homers this year. The Giants, meanwhile, are a respectable club in a division lacking a clearly dominant team. Once again, they should find themselves challenging for the division title.

But that's been the story for the past five or six years now, and it's getting a little stale. So instead of rehashing the question of whether Tsuyoshi Shinjo can handle centerfield every day or whether Jeff Kent will rebound from his wrist injury, let's talk about ballparks.

Baseball has seen a stadium-building boom over the past decade. Since 1992, twelve new baseball-specific stadiums have come online, with future parks slated for at least three other cities. With few exceptions, these parks were funded primarily from public sources: the issuance of tax-exempt bonds, the hiking of sales taxes, or the out and out underwriting of construction costs by state and local governments. Why do Mayor Smith and Governor Jones continue to foot the bill? Because they believe that new stadiums spur economic growth and that government subsidies will be offset by revenues from ticket taxes, sales taxes on concessions, and property tax increases arising from the stadium's presumed economic impact on the region.

Unfortunately for John Q. Taxpayer, this theory is bunk. As people smarter than me have conclusively shown, a new sports facility has an extremely small and perhaps even negative effect on a region's overall economic activity and employment. Even when a stadium provides a spark for its neighborhood -- as Camden Yards did for Baltimore's Inner Harbor -- such benefits usually come at the expense of other areas in the city.

Rather than spreading benefits among the general public, a new baseball stadium usually redistributes wealth upward to rich baseball owners. Owners typically keep all revenues from luxury boxes, advertising, concessions, and parking. They even have the right to all rents derived from non-baseball use of their publicly-owned stadium. It's a first-class scam, and the local governments that finance these things are either accomplices or dupes.

Thank goodness for guys like Giants' owner Peter Magowan. After 20 years of owners trying to shake down the citizens of San Francisco for a publicly funded stadium, two years ago Magowan and a band of bankers opened PacBell Stadium: the first privately financed ballpark since Dodger Stadium was built in 1962. Contrary to Bud Selig's prophecies of doom, the world didn't end when the Giants footed their own bill. In fact, it got a whole lot brighter: PacBell is widely considered to be the best new park in baseball, and the Giants cover the $20 million/year debt service on the new joint with billboard advertising alone. Over time, owning its own park will also dramatically enhance the value of the franchise.

So the next time you hear your favorite team whining about how it can't compete because taxpayers won't give it a shiny new ballpark, remember that there is a team in San Francisco that never drew a large number of fans, and had fairly piddling annual revenues, but somehow managed to both pay for its own stadium and put a consistently solid product on the field. Nice story, no?

Colorado Rockies:

Some of the most intuitive but underused analytical tools in baseball fall under the category "park effects." These are statistics that account for the ways the physical characteristics of a ballpark can increase or decrease offensive production. Some of these characteristics are static, like the distance of the fences from home plate; others, like wind and humidity, can change from year to year.

Playing in the mile-high environs of Coors Field, the Rockies have to contend with the most extreme park effects in the history of baseball. The thin mountain air allows balls to fly out of Coors at an unprecedented rate. Knowing this, outfielders tend to play deep, allowing weakly hit balls to fall in for cheap base hits. As a result, Coors makes ordinary hitters look like Hall of Famers, and solid pitchers look like scrubs.

Unfortunately, the Rockies have learned the wrong lesson from their freakish park. Rather than acknowledging that their mostly average hitters are only apparently good, and that their mostly decent pitchers are only apparently bad, the Rockies have done an inordinate amount of fiddling with their pitching staff. In some cases, this has led them to try interesting and harmless tactics like carrying 12 or 13 pitchers on their roster. In other cases, however, they have spent way too much money on free agents like Daryl Kile or Mike Hampton.

The key to winning in Colorado is to face the facts. Rather than try to fight the laws of physics by developing a Coors-proof pitching staff, the Rockies should acknowledge that their juiced park has led them to overestimate the quality of their hitters. Sure, they have plenty of guys who put up big numbers, but only a couple of them (Larry Walker and Todd Helton) have shown that they can put up those numbers on the road as well as at home. It may seem counterintuitive for a team that routinely scores in double digits, but I think the answer for the Rockies is to add offense.

And in fact, while they didn't have a particularly busy offseason, the Rockies do seem be pumping up. Their best trade -- unloading relief pitcher Mike Meyers to Arizona for masher Jack Cust -- was an absolute steal. As I mentioned in the Diamondbacks preview, Cust's inability to play defense does pose a bit of a problem, but for a team facing the challenges of baseball at altitude, Cust's mighty bat will come in handy. Emphasizing pitching and defense didn't work for Colorado; who's to say that improving their offense at the expense of their defense will be any worse?

Los Angeles Dodgers:

The Dodgers have had more nicknames than just about any team in baseball history. Since their founding in 1884, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles franchise has been known as the Dodgers, the Superbas, the Grooms, the Bridegrooms, the Grays, and the Atlantics (why any team would get rid of a great name like "the Superbas" is beyond me, but we'll leave that for another column).

Now that they've won six world championships and sixteen pennants as the Dodgers, it's unlikely they'll be changing their name anytime soon. But maybe they should, since "the Dodgers" just doesn't seem to fit anymore.

Part of the problem is geographic. The name "Dodgers" supposedly comes from the phrase "trolley dodgers," which is what players walking to the ballpark through 1930's Brooklyn really were. But as anyone who has been there knows, nobody walks in L.A. -- least of all, millionaire baseball players. And the auto and real estate industries did away with L.A.'s Red Line Trolley years ago (remember Roger Rabbit?).

The other and more important reason "Dodgers" doesn't fit is that most people associate that nickname with the well-run franchise that was the envy of the baseball world for decades. The O'Malley family owned the team for nearly 50 years, and under their watch, the Dodgers established baseball on the West Coast, financed their own stadium, and compiled a record of on-the-field success rivaled only by the Yankees. The O'Malley Dodgers symbolized class, stability, and a good deal of horse-sense. All that ended, however, when the National League's most legendary franchise was sold to News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting Company in 1998, becoming merely another horse in Rupert Murdoch's corporate stable.

Since then, the Dodgers really haven't been the Dodgers. Despite fielding one of baseball's most expensive teams for the past few years, Los Angeles hasn't made the playoffs since 1996, and the extremely questionable personnel decisions made by Fox executives over the past few years will no doubt ensure that the current losing streak will last a long, long time. Two months after Fox bought the Dodgers, it traded Mike Piazza -- perhaps the best-hitting catcher in the history of the game -- to the Florida Marlins for Gary Sheffield, who was recently traded to the Braves for spare parts and little else. And if you think turning a living legend into scrap is a good trick, wait until you hear what Fox has done on the free-agent market. Before the 2001 season, the Dodgers signed free agent pitcher Darren Driefort to a contract paying him Roger Clemens money despite the fact that, statistically speaking, Driefort is most similar to Harry Byrd, Pete Redfern, and Bob Milacki. Don't remember those guys? Don't worry, because in a couple of years you won't remember Driefort either.

Prior to this season, the Dodgers tried to solidify their outfield (an outfield that needed solidifying the minute the Dodgers got hosed in the Sheffield deal) by inviting a lot of "big name" free agents like Dante Bichette, Roberto Kelly, and Mark Whitten, to camp. Unfortunately, the talent attached to these names hasn't been impressive since Clinton's first term, and none of them will make the team. Of course, with a couple of exceptions, the players that will make the team aren't much better than the flotsam that will get cut before opening day. The team was somewhat respectable last year, but this feels like the year the Dodgers hit bottom.

And there's no relief in sight. It's hard to have any confidence that the same people who brought you "Celebrity Boxing" have the class or wisdom necessary to do what's necessary to restore Dodger blue to its former glory. The least Fox can do is change the name of the team to protect the innocent. The Los Angeles Superbas, anyone?

PROJECTED FINISH: Arizona, San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado, Los Angeles

Monday, April 1, 2002

2002 NL Central Preview

One doesn't normally associate the Midwest with Zen Buddhism, but the NL Central seems to embody the Asian principles of balance and symmetry better than any of the other divisions. Home to two teams on the cusp of reaching baseball Nirvana, two teams well along the path to Enlightenment, and two teams floundering in the wake of Karma, the NL Central has enough equipoise to satisfy the Dalai Lama with some left over for Richard Gere. If a tree falls in St. Louis, and there is no one there to hear it . . .

Houston Astros:

Averting what some have characterized as a public relations nightmare, last month the Houston Astros bought their way out of a contract that would have had them playing their entire season in "Enron Field." In truth, the Enron folks ought to be just as happy as the Astros to see the naming rights deal in the rear view mirror. The last thing Enron needs is to be associated with the good people behind Major League Baseball. When it comes to cooking the books, these guys are every bit as creative as Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Arthur Anderson put together.

Last winter, as Bud Selig prepared to testify before Congress about baseball's antitrust exemption, the owners released what was purportedly the most detailed summary of team finances ever compiled. According to that report and Selig's testimony, baseball somehow managed to lose $519 million last year, despite bringing in record revenues of more than $3.5 billion. This claim was met with disbelief from practically all independent observers, and as fellow lawyer and writer Doug Pappas has pointed out in an indispensable series of columns on the business of baseball, the owners' numbers, if not unadulterated bunk, are misleading in the extreme.

Misleading because despite owners' cries of poverty, franchise values continue to soar (the owners of the teams that were allegedly the worst off financially -- the Expos and Marlins -- scrambled to purchase other teams last winter). Misleading because owners often pay themselves exorbitant "consulting fees" which are generically lumped under "expenses," raising costs and lowering profits. Misleading because media conglomerates that own teams like the Cubs, Braves, and Dodgers, often arrange things so that their television subsidiaries pay their baseball subsidiaries far less than market value for broadcasting rights, costing teams tens of millions a year.

Particularly Enronesque are the off-book transactions involving related but distinct corporations which appear to have no other purpose than to siphon off earnings from the club. In 1997, for example, Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga attributed $38 million of luxury suite, club seat, parking, concessions, advertising, and naming-rights revenues to his stadium rather than the team, making a profitable venture appear to be hemorrhaging money. There are countless other examples of these kind of shenanigans. For a more thorough treatment of them, I highly recommend Pappas's series.

But are these all just harmless accounting tricks? Hardly. Bud Selig's fantasy numbers affect the owners' collective bargaining strategies, drive efforts to garner support for publicly funded stadiums, and provide cover when a seemingly successful team (like Huizenga's 1997 world champion Marlins) insist they have to drastically cut payroll in order to survive. Some have suggested that Bud Selig's recent Congressional testimony about baseball's finances constituted perjury. At the very least, the owners' repeated lies outside of Congress constitute a breach of trust with the fans, cities, and taxpayers that support their franchises.

Oh yeah, the Astros. They're loaded. Great young arms, the best first baseman in the National League, and a bunch of young sluggers make them my choice in the Central.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Last year, the Cardinals had a first baseman who posted an on base percentage of .316, a slugging percentage of .492, and hit 29 home runs. His name was Mark McGwire, and his performance led him to conclude that he could no longer justify drawing the remaining $22 million salary he was owed by the Cardinals. He retired at the end of the season.

Last year, another first baseman had an on base percentage of .329, a slugging percentage of .501 and hit 34 home runs. Rather than be embarrassed into retirement by his performance, this first baseman signed a three-year $21 million free agent contract with the Cardinals. This man's name is Tino Martinez. The funny thing is that despite the two players’ nearly identical numbers and salary requirements, the Cardinals think they're a lot better off at first base with Martinez than they were with McGwire.

The Cardinals aren't alone; sports writers of every stripe have anointed them the team to beat in the National League. But just as Martinez doesn't seem much of an improvement over last year's hobbled Mark McGwire, I can't see how this year's Cardinals are going to be much better than last year’s very good, but by no means dominant club.

The Cardinals suffered some nagging injuries last year, but for the most part, anything that could go right did. Following a spring training injury to expected starter Bobby Bonilla, rookie Albert Pujols came from out of nowhere and had one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of baseball. Coming off serious elbow surgery and a long year of rehab, starter Matt Morris turned in one of the best performances in the league. In an August trade intended more to unload disgruntled outfielder Ray Lankford on the Padres than to actually acquire talent, the Cardinals got pitcher Woody Williams, who ended up winning seven of eight decisions down the stretch. In short, St. Louis kept falling in shit in 2001, but each time they got up smelling like a rose.

This is not to say that things will necessarily get worse this year. Albert Pujols looks like the real deal, and Matt Morris has fully recovered from surgery. He should continue to perform at an elite level. Still, it would be unreasonable to expect either of those guys to improve on their 2001 seasons, and the same goes for just about everyone on the Cardinals roster. Sure, outfielder J.D. Drew could stay healthy all year, and newly acquired reliever Jason Isringhausen could help out what was a rather mediocre bullpen, but there is no compelling reason to think that the Cardinals are going to leave Houston in the dust before the All-Star break.

I expect the Astros and the Cardinals to run neck and neck all season. Whichever team doesn't win the division will likely win the wild card.

Chicago Cubs:

Everyone has heard of the the Red Sox’s "Curse of the Bambino";’ fewer people know that the Cubs have a curse of their own -- one that is even more fantastic, and given the Cubs' fifty-six year World Series drought, apparently more effective as well.

In 1934, William "Billy Goat" Sianis opened a bar -- the "Billygoat Tavern", natch -- on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Ever the canny businessman, Sianis tried to bring his bar mascot -- an actual billygoat -- into Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series, but was refused entry by Cubs owner Phil Wrigley. Legend has it that in retaliation, the theatrical Greek immigrant put an Old Country hex on the Cubs.

As with most stories involving hexes and goats, there remains some uncertainty about the exact facts of the matter. Some say that Sianis caused the Cubbies to lose the 1945 World Series. Others say that he cursed the team to lose as long as Phil Wrigley lived. Or as long as the goat lived. Or as long as Sianis himself lived.

The way I heard it, the Cubs would simply lose forever. If that was indeed the case, the hex is in serious danger, because the Cubs look to be really good really soon.

The foundation, of course, is Sammy Sosa. After nearly a decade as a slightly above-average masher, Sosa's production took off in 1998 and shows no signs of coming down from the stratosphere. Roger Maris's old home run record was replaced in the books first by Mark McGwire and then by Barry Bonds, but Sammy has topped the fabled 61 home run mark three out of the last four years. Sosa has become scary good, and he's one of four or five guys in the game right now that you're going to be telling your grandkids about.

But from Ernie Banks, to Ron Santo, to Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs have always seemed to have one Hall of Fame-caliber player on the roster. The Cubs' problem is that management, whether it be the Wrigleys or the Tribune Company, has rarely put a lot of effort into signing or developing the supporting players necessary to bring home a championship. After all, with a gem of a ballpark and super station exposure courtesy of the Tribune's very own WGN, the money and fans have consistently poured in no matter what the quality of the product on the field.

Maybe the bosses recently decided to try to compete, or maybe it's all just a happy accident, but it appears that Sammy won't be the only quality big-leaguer playing in Wrigleyville in the near future. The Cubs have a bunch of good looking prospects, including first baseman Hee Seop Choi, second baseman Bobby Hill, outfielders Rosie Brown and Corey Patterson, and pitchers Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. A lot of these names aren't going to be on the Cubs' opening day roster (manager Don Baylor still seems to prefer grizzled veterans to people who can actually help his club), but they should all see playing time at some point this year. If they all produce at expected levels, the Cubs have a shot at the wild card this year. And if they all develop over the course of the next two or three years, the curse of the billygoat may finally come to an end.

Cincinnati Reds:

Like the Cubs, the Reds have one certified stud (Ken Griffey Jr.) and a lot of hope for the future. Last year, hulking slugger Adam Dunn hit 51 home runs across the major and minor leagues, and is without question one of the brightest young stars in the game. Even more sluggers are poised to start contributing in Cincinnati this year, with young outfielder Austin Kearns and first baseman Ben Broussard close to being viable major leaguers, and catcher Corky Miller and infielder Gookie Dawkins ready to fill holes as needed.

By the way, if the Reds had not traded infielder Pokey Reese, they could have had the an infield consisting of Corky, Pokey, and Gookie this year. Why this wasn't an organizational goal is beyond me. They'd only be a Mookie and a Dummy away from being the best-named team since the dead ball era.

The problem, as it is with so many teams these days, is pitching. The Reds will likely start the season with a rotation consisting of Joey Hamilton, Elmer Dessens, Chris Reitsma, Jose Acevedo, and Jimmy Haynes. I'm sure their mothers all love them, but as a major league rotation, they're more than a little shaky. No doubt over the next few years, a couple of these guys will prove reliable major league starters. But for the Reds to make waves, they are going to have to trade some of what looks like a hitting surplus for pitching talent. Generally speaking, General Manager Jim Bowdon is a pretty shrewd guy, so it will probably happen.

The Reds are at least a year, and probably two years away from seriously threatening Houston and St. Louis, but there is reason to be optimistic in Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh Pirates/Milwaukee Brewers:

Ever since the Cleveland Indians moved into Jacob's Field in 1994 and transformed themselves from a perennial doormat to a dominant force, owners have convinced their fans to fund new stadiums by pointing to the Cleveland "miracle" and claiming that it could happen in their town too. The Brewers and Pirates, both suffering through extended periods of futility, made such promises to their fans, and in 2001, each moved into new stadiums amidst high hopes.

The problem with all this is that there was nothing miraculous about the Indians' ascension. Years before the new park opened, Cleveland laid the groundwork for their winning club by developing talent like Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, and Kenny Lofton. The Indians had a plan, you see, and that plan was to have their young players mature just as their new park opened, giving the taxpayers of Cleveland a feeling that their investment paid off.

The Brewers and the Pirates, however, did very little to develop talent in the years leading up to their stadium openings, and proceeded under the idea that a pretty, new building would cure all their ills. As their 2001 records indicated, however, that wasn’t the case.

Rather than grow from within, both clubs tried their luck on the free agent market. Each failed miserably. The Pirates signed Derek Bell to a $9 million contract despite the fact that he's a well-below average right fielder on the wrong side of 30. They also signed middle infielder Pat Meares to an equally above-market contract, his long track record of mediocrity notwithstanding. Similarly, the Brewers thought it wise to pay outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds over $7 million, even though he has never played a full year due to injuries, and the only season in which he ever posted decent numbers he had while playing in the offense-distorting confines of Coors Field.

Predictably, Bell and Meares played horribly, and Hammonds played horribly, and ended up on the disabled list for the lion's share of the season. The two teams claim to have been hampered by small-market revenues, but bad moves such as these essentially foreclosed the possibility of fielding a competitive team.

I'd like to say that the Pirates and Brewers have learned from their recent mistakes, but so far, reports are mixed at best. Pirates' new GM Dave Littlefield (the Bell and Meares signings got previous GM Cam Bonifay sacked) recently traded pending free agent Jason Schmidt and solid but aging pitcher Todd Ritchie to the Giants and White Sox, respectively, in exchange for several young pitching prospects. Good moves, those, but they were countered by an equally dumb move in insisting on trying to convert 2001 first-round draft pick John VanBenschoten -- an amazing hitting prospect -- into a pitcher.

There's a good news/bad news dynamic in Milwaukee as well. On the one hand, the Brewer's stated confidence in young starters Ben Sheets, Ruben Quevedo, and Nick Neugebauer is encouraging. On the other hand, Milwaukee signed second baseman Eric Young to a two-year contract despite the fact that they already have a younger, cheaper, and better player there in Ronnie Belliard.

The Young signing shows that Milwaukee still values the ever elusive "veteran presence" that guys like Young supposedly provide over the demonstrated production of guys like Belliard. Like Pittsburgh, the Brewers seem to take two steps forward and one step back.

Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are showing signs of organizational improvement, but they need to do more. Unless the Pirates and Brewers get better fast, they risk alienating their fans. Both cities tolerated a loser for years, but that was because the owners had brainwashed them into thinking that they couldn't compete in their old stadiums. As the novelty of the new parks starts to wear off, one can't help but think that that the people who paid for the stadiums' construction in the first place are going to start demanding more.

PROJECTED FINISH: Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh.

Press Release

I'm so very, very sorry.