Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Fox, NCAA Fumble the Ball

Picture this: after a full season of listening to Simms and Nantz, Aikman and Buck, or Michaels and Madden, broadcast NFL games every Sunday right through the playoffs for their respective networks, the NFL decides to put the Super Bowl on ABC with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit behind the mic. Take nothing away from Musburger and Herbstreit, but do you think critics would go knuts about having two guys and a network that has nothing to do with the NFL put on the biggest game of the year? That’s exactly the situation with the BCS Championship Game.
Fox did not cover one college football game all season, not one, not even a lowly bowl game played in Idaho in mid-December, yet the only place to find four of the five biggest games of the season, including college football’s “Super Bowl” is Fox. Yes, they host the BCS Standings show every Sunday, and undoubtedly know how to put on a big sports event, but I want the broadcasters I watch all season, the crews that have insight to those defining moments in mid-October.
Fox offset the lack of in-season college football experience with a strong cast of studio analysts and some game analysts, notably former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, Charles Davis, and even Urban Meyer for the title game. Jimmy Johnson, and the Kenny Albert/Moose Johnston tandem leaped over after covering the NFL all season. Still, the coverage lacks personal insight. Analyzing the game does not change, but familiarity with the players, referencing specific games during the season, bringing other teams into the discussion that can make a case for the crown, these guys and the network as a whole are not prepared for good college football coverage. I say this without even mentioned the Cotton Bowl, when Pat Summerall, who they ran off the stations NFL coverage a few seasons ago, had the call, and frankly, I could not bear to listen. For a few minutes it was great hearing the legendary voice, but his lack of knowledge quickly shined through and drove me to the next game.
TO make matters worse, Fox and the NCAA completely blow the scheduling. Explain this one, build up for over a month, then play four BCS games in three days, before taking three days off prior to the title game. The final ratings will tell the story, but Fox lost out. A weekend of exciting NFL football, and the Clemens steroid debacle, completely overshadowed the game on Monday. Why wait? What was wrong with Friday night, while you have the audience captivated? Or, god forbid, play two of these games in the same time slot, perish the thought? Every week fans watch college football all day Saturday, and find a way to watch multiple games, and actually enjoy it. College football succeeded for years playing every game on New Years Day. Maybe squeezing all the games into one day will be too much, but why not start with the Rose Bowl on New Years afternoon, followed by a nighttime doubleheader, then two consecutive nights to finish the BCS.
The BCS also suffers from competitiveness problems. Without the exact stats in front of me, recent years have provided more unwatchable, blowouts than nail biters. For every Boise St. upset win we have a series of blowouts of over twenty points, case in point, four of this seasons five games. Another advantage of having two games played simultaneously is preventing a blowout from driving away the audience.
Picking the teams that play in the BCS, and the merits of a playoff system, is an argument for a different day. For now, the NCAA and the networks should at least fix the schedule, and make Fox get involved with coverage before the last week of the season, so they can present a game the viewers can enjoy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Minute Maid Makes the Grade

Never judge a book by its cover. Checking out a rooftop view from the Magnolia Hotel, only three or four blocks away, Minute Maid Park stands as an indistinguishable contraption with big green stanchions, easily mistakable for a generic warehouse with the retractable roof closed. Hardly an architectural gem from the exterior, my expectations for Minute Maid declined before I ever step foot in the park.

Thankfully, I am open-minded. The Astrodome replacement, while not in my Top 5, makes up for the external aesthetic disaster with a solid ballpark design, combining unique stadium attributes with modern amenities, while maintaining the old time feel. Only saying it is an upgrade from the Astrodome, which had less character than most dog runs in Manhattan, sells Minute Maid short.

Unlike most modern day stadiums located downtown, the streets surrounding the park hardly seem rejuvenated, contributing to the negative vibe felt from afar. Even upon entering, thankfully to a well air-conditioned concourse away from the 100 degree Texas heat, though I felt an immediate buzz of excitement, the concourses are set too far back from the field, making it impossible to watch the action. Other new stadiums, notably San Diego, remedy this with an array of HDTV’s in the concourse, Houston that memo. A detriment to my typical ballpark frolicking, relegating me to a seat.

In line with new stadium trends, Minute Maid has field level seats behind LF, the Crawford boxes, giving fans a chance to watch from the perspective of an outfielder. The obligatory luxury suites and club seating consume the second tier, providing luxury treatment to high paying customers while generating revenue. Standing-room only tickets, with a dedicated section along the left and left-centerfield walls, provide a more cost effective option. I opted for first row, upper-deck, behind the plate, an awesome view of the entire stadium.

Left field immediately draws attention. A plexi-glass wall with a view to downtown Houston, though the view from my studio apartment might be better, provides the background to a plain, cement, gray wall rising above the standing room section beyond the Leftfield wall. The leftfield view tormented me all game, unable to decide if I liked or not. The flags with retired Astro numbers on the cement wall provided a nice touch, but the bland wall belonged in someone’s backyard with a few rose bushed in front of it, not at a stadium. The plexi-glass enclosure provides natural light into the dome - an underrated feature of modern stadiums that builds an outdoor atmosphere without enduring 100-degree heat - creating an illusion, making the stadium feel bigger.

Putting a replica train with a fake Citgo sign sitting above it fails miserably. Rule number one; do not copy Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or Yankee Stadium. Rule number two, if you break rule number one, at least make a representative effort. Minute Maid Park failed on both accounts. Regarding the train, a salute to Union Station, a Houston historical landmark, find another location, it simply does not fit.

Complaints aside, the ballpark creates a fun, enjoyable baseball atmosphere. A constant buzz of excitement and anticipation fills the stadium, erupting to near pandemonium when the Astros, even during a subpar season, score. With the park about 75% full for a meaningless August game with Chicago generating near-deafening cheers after home runs by Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, at different points in the game, I can hardly fathom the noise during the playoffs. I envision the decibel level for a big playoff game in Houston, eclipsing the noise factor even at Yankee Stadium, with an assist from the acoustics of dome stadiums, though Houston can never capture the same energy and feel of the Stadium. ‘Stros fans showed a lot with the passion and noise they brought for a disappointing team, well out of contention.

Tal’s Hill in dead centerfield accentuates what makes baseball stadiums special, uniqueness. An uphill in dead centerfield, with a flagpole in play, making for highlight reel catches and exciting sprints around the bases. No other sport provides teams a chance to customize the playing field, Minute Maid Park takes full advantage. The hand-operated leftfield scoreboard comes straight out of the 1950’s, providing the full box score for all out of town games, a coup for baseball geeks like myself. While the enormous video screen and scoreboard caddy-cornered in right centerfield provide the replays, between inning entertainment, and stats that nobody in the information age can live without. Minute Maid quietly provides the modernization without impeding the game, keeping the scoreboards and major advertisements distant from the field, out of mind, out of sight. Of course, lest I forget, the Chick-Fil-A “Fowl” Pole, one indelible mark of the creative advertising at any cost generation we live in.

A Craig Biggio homerun, a few pints, or plastic cups, of Shiner Bock, the sights and sounds of Minute Maid Park, what better Astro experience. To top it off, four more converted fans, colleagues I dragged to the game, who knew more about Luke Skywalker than Luke Scott, and probably prefer staring at blank walls than watching baseball, now anxiously awaiting their next ‘Stros game a Minute Maid.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Perspective and Continued Debate

With one sweet lefty swing, six months of controlled chaos ended. Bonds breaking the record became inevitable when the Giants finally agreed to re-sign him, after briefly toying with the idea of letting him walk. All the melodramatic subplots - Selig, Aaron, crowd reaction, opposing pitchers – provided the only suspense. Tuesday night the story played out, a few days leaves us with perspective, and unfinished debates.

After intermittently following Bonds for over a week, Selig missed the historic moment, sending a MLB official in his place. When he finally decided to attend the games, Selig received wide commendation for “doing the right thing”, but his actions and commentary during the pursuit lacked sincerity. Selig became a spectacle to himself. The weekend prior to the record-breaker Selig was quoted as calling his travel following the home run chase “herculian”. Excuse me, but when did watching baseball games become a super-human task. Selig’s other excuse, work responsibilities requiring his presence in the NY office, also reeks of falsity. If thousands of road warriors find ways to work away from the office, I believe the commissioner of MLB can receive the accommodations to do the same.

Selig should have been at AT&T Park. He should have attended every game, even if it lasted the entire season. Once you commit to acknowledging the record, follow through to completion. Enough negativity surrounded the pursuit, without Selig adding to it. Maybe San Francisco was a better place on August 7 with Selig far away. His reaction in San Diego to homerun 755, off a convicted steroid user, was borderline morbid, standing with hands firmly in pocket and an uninterested, gloomy facial expression. The act appeared contrived. If Selig opposed the record as strongly as his actions show, he needs to speak out, not attend the games take a firm stance. In a fitting conclusion, Selig issued a statement both congratulating Bonds, and implying the Mitchell investigation will dictate the historical context of the record. Another case of Bud tacitly playing to both sides. The commissioner needed to act more decisively, take a stance, and remain genuine, his half-hearted effort failed.

The one figure the public embraced and sympathized with during the chase, Hank Aaron, turned from hero to hypocrite with one taped message. A few months ago, when asked about attending the record breaking moment, Aaron notably proclaimed he did not even know how to spell his (Bonds) last name. Aaron further stated he would not be at the game, maybe not even the country. Hammerin’ Hank essentially threw Bonds under the bus, calling the record tainted.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, after Bonds triumphantly crosses the plate, soaking in ecstasy from the hometown crowd, all eyes shift to the oversized scoreboard behind CF, up pops Hank Aaron. The now former homerun king stared directly into the camera, not unlike Rafael Palmeiro in front of Congress, and in his deep Southern drawl, congratulated Bonds on the great achievement. Aaron had all the reason in the world to refuse to legitimize the record due to the allegations swirling around Bonds, but how can he then proceed to send a heartfelt public congratulatory message only weeks after calling the record tainted? I respect everyone’s right to an opinion - particularly regarding such an open-ended issue still lacking all the facts – however, I find no dignity with double talk. If Aaron truly felt Bonds cheated, and he said as much, he should have kept his word and not appeared on that scoreboard.

Possibly due to the inordinate side stories, or the uncertain legal status potentially altering its historical context, or the sheer prolonged hype the chase received, it lacked that spine-tingling sensation of historical baseball moments. Two nights earlier, even with Glavine watching from the bench, I had the feeling when Ruben Gotay tossed to Carlos Delgado for the last out of win number 300. Watching Glavine emerge from the dugout trying to withhold almost 20 years of emotion gave me goose bumps, as I flashed through classic Glavine moments in my head.

Bonds broke the most historic record in sports, only the third homerun leader in over 80 years, surely an historical moment. Rather than celebrating an elite career, attention focused on the controversy, the legitimacy of the accomplishment. Unfortunately, the story remains unfinished since we await the conclusion of the Mitchell investigation, along with Grand Jury testimony that may indict Bonds, officially marring the record. This occasion usually yields a call from the President of the US, particularly one so immersed in baseball. Given the circumstances, forget it. Half the country lost interest, or rooted against Bonds, taking that special feel away for most.

With all the opportunity in the world to play the villain, Bonds actually handled the whole situation splendidly, making others affiliated with the situation look even worse. He said the right things publicly, never criticized the people or fans that slammed him like a piñata, outside of Bob Costas, all the while continuing to play at a high level, without any supporting cast to note. If Barry only displayed this public persona the past ten years, rather than a grumpy surliness, the public would be embracing him. Too little, too late.

Time will tell how Bonds we remember Bonds blast 10, 25, even 50 years from now. Congress may expose Bonds as a cheater, immediately asterisking the record, though he clearly would not be alone. In less than ten years, he may watch A-Rod smash his record at a considerably younger age. Anything remains possible under this cloud of uncertainty.

…On a side note, always an interesting side note, the play-by-play call of the moment. The home radio, home television, and ESPN broadcast, all handled the occasion well, with each broadcaster remaining under control, sticking with their traditional homerun call, describing the moment appropriately, and providing a nice balance of excitement and professionalism. Broadcasters have a knack for going way over the top, picture John Sterling calling the homerun. Jon Miller was clearly more excitable than Dave O’Brien, but that goes with being the home broadcaster opposed to the neutral national broadcast. My guess, we hear Duane Kiper if Visa ever makes a Bonds commercial.

…and if Visa does make a commercial about the record homerun, it should end with the infamous Met fan emerging from the right-centerfield scrum with the famous ball. One $20 bleacher seat, one ball worth over $500,000, now that is priceless.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

One to Go

A television armed with picture in picture, trips to the ballpark, a laptop tuned to MLB TV, live Internet gamecasts, a cell phone ready to dial, and of course the trusty AM-FM tuner - all in the name of baseball history. To honestly say, “I saw Bonds hit 756”, or 7 years down line when A-Rod chases Bonds’ all-time homerun record, to remember watching Rodriguez’ milestone 500th blast live, or waiting for Tom Glavine’s reaction as he emerges from the dugout following the final out of win 300.

No matter where you stand on the steroid issue affecting the legitimacy of Bonds’ pending record, even the casual observer tunes in anticipating history. Cheer or boo A-Rod in the past, put postseason failures and big money contracts aside to appreciate possibly the most talented baseball player of this, or any, generation reach the benchmark for power hitters at a younger age than any player ever, including the Sultan of Swat and alleged Sultan of Shot. Similar to his days in Atlanta, playing wingman to Madduz and Smoltz, Glavine flies under the radar amid the fascination with homeruns. The classy, dignified lefty, receives less fanfare than his record chasing brethren, but will hold no less exclusive place in history, possibly becoming the last pitcher in this generation to win 300.

Never before has baseball witnessed three major milestones on the same day. Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio pulled a double earlier this season, Gwynn, Boggs, and McGwire went back-to-back-to-back days a decade ago. On Tuesday night, baseball fans scrambled to catch every at-bat and every pitch, while all three, unsuccessfully chased history. If that excitement did not get the blood flowing, Tuesday also marked the non-waiver trade deadline. For one day, the information overload fans deal with in the digital age could not keep up with the news and stories. Without sounding too giddy and corny, baseball is great.

At the same time, the drama is all about stats, and not at all about stats. Unlike any other sport, statistics drive baseball, and the milestones signify reaching a specific number, forever immortalized in baseball annals. More than stats, these chases are about the game, the history, the moment. Perhaps thanks to the controversy, everyone seems more intrigued to see what happens when Bonds hits the magical 756.

Location remains a major storyline. Will it take place in San Francisco, or on the road? Prevailing opinion says Bonds needs to hit the record-breaker at home to avoid a negative historic moment, some analysts go as far as saying the Giants, and possibly even MLB, will rig the proceedings to avoid it occurring on the road. Associating a negative fan reaction to a highlight clip bound to appear on highlights for years to come must scare baseball, but benching Bonds in road games chews at the integrity of the game. With division rivals San Diego, Los Angeles, and Arizona in a heated pennant race, removing the Giants best hitter for select games unfairly sways the balance of power. Thankfully, Bonds started each road game thus far.

Breaking the record away from San Francisco would only intensify the drama. Will the fans boo, will anyone throw debris on the field or try running on the field, and do the opposing players shake his hand while rounding the bases ala a not yet indicted Mark McGwire in 1998 after smashing Maris’ single season homerun record, more storylines than the average soap opera.

Even simple details sound intriguing. How will Bonds react, in the batters box, rounding the bases, and crossing the plate? Will teammates mob him at home plate, or have a subdued reaction? What single moment will

A-Rod elicits feelings of jealousy, thanks to his enormous contract, and occasional outright dislike, with his penchant to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and to underperform in clutch situations. Listen to the Yankee Stadium crowd each time Rodriguez comes to bat, any question fans put all feelings aside in favor of 500? Without stopping to realize it, we have the privilege of watching one of the great all-around baseball players ever. Number 500 will generate October-like electricity at the Stadium, and send chills up your spine no matter where you are.

The onset of small ballparks, watered down pitching, and other notable factors dramatically increasing power numbers, and three other active players bearing down on 500 homeruns, jeopardize the exclusivity of the club going forward. Less than a decade down the road 500 homeruns may not remain the benchmark for elite power hitters, or lead to automatic hall of fame entry. While Jim Thome chasing 500 brings along a debate on the merits of the magic number, A-Rod is different. Rodriguez can arguably retire as one of the top five players of all-time, and is on pace, yes I hate that phrase, to shatter Bonds’ final number. If a 22 member fraternity was not exclusive enough, having turned 32 years old last week, A-Rod will become the youngest to gain entry, the best of the best.

Despite a recent spate of 300-game winners, the species threatens to go extinct as we embark on the generation of pitch counts, specialized relief pitchers, and five man rotations. Glavine will reach the milestone with the least publicity and notoriety of almost any pitcher. He lacks the consecutive Cy Young’s and multiple years of shear dominance of Maddux, and the strikeouts and drama surrounding Roger Clemens, the only two pitchers to reach the achievement in the past 27 years.

Never dominating, rarely, if ever, considered the best pitcher on his own team, never mind the league, Glavine stayed under the radar relying on a perfect change-up, impeccable pitch location, and unmatched consistency, to keep batters off balance for over twenty years. The milestone win will not be a scintillating 15 strikeout performance, or a one-hit gem, expect another quality start in a long line of them, 6 or 7 IP, maybe 1 or 2 earned runs, and lots of frustrated hitters wondering how they could not hit an 80-85 mph fastball.

The model of stability, Glavine started at least 29 games each season since 1988, except the strike-shortened year, posting an ERA under four in all but three of those seasons, and collecting two Cy Young awards. One edge Glavine has over both Bonds and A-Rod, an unforgettable clutch playoff performance and World Series ring. The 1995 World Series MVP stifled Cleveland in Game 6, twirling a gem for the ages, a one-hit shutout over eight innings in the 1-0 clinching victory.

Unlike Bonds and A-Rod, barring the rare complete game, Glavine will not even be on the field when he officially reaches the milestone. The homerun can happen at any moment, on any given pitch, blink and you miss it. The suspense for Glavine’s win will build over nine innings, the level of drama depending on the score, and as if the lefty needed the reminder, his teammates need to help. Tuesday night Glavine departed with 300 in sight, before Guillermo Mota, convicted steroid user, blew the lead. A-Rod and Bonds control their fate, at least when pitchers challenge them. Where else are paths to achievement within the same sport so divergent.

Steeped in history and nostalgia, every new major moment in baseball presents interesting links to the past. Surrounded by controversy, including the debate on Commissioner Selig’s attendance, and the legitimacy of the record in the so-called Steroid Era, Bonds hitting 755 or 756 during Hall of Fame weekend, where two immortal, classy players who signify everything right with baseball entered Copperstown, would have created a major distraction and PR nightmare for baseball. With no control over the situation, it worked out, no homerun, all eyes remaining on Copperstown; baseball always seems to work out.

Bonds had an opportunity to create great historical symmetry with Aaron’s record breaker, off Al Downing of the Dodgers with legendary Vin Scully broadcasting the game. Three games in LA, but no homeruns, an ironic twist of fate missed. Wherever, and whenever Bonds hits the next two homeruns, a record broken only once in over 75 years stands to fall, put that in historical perspective.

In New York, if A-Rod connects during the homestand, he becomes the first to reach 500 at Yankee Stadium, the unofficial baseball cathedral, since Mickey Mantle in 1967, and becomes only the third to achieve the milestone in Yankee pinstripes, joining Mantle and Ruth.

Baseball holds a special place in public lore, forever America’s favorite past time. While extra hype surrounds these historical chases, the purity of the game shines through. Everything circles back to the crack of the bat, the sweet swing followed by the reaction in the batters box and an exhilarating trot around the bases, officiating the milestone by touching the plate, followed by teammate reception, and the curtain call to thank the fans. For Glavine, the slow walk off the mound after handing the ball the bullpen, watching his reaction during the final agonizing outs, and then greeting his teammates and the pitcher who finished off his 300th win. What single moment will stand in history, the snapshot forever immortalized? How will the broadcaster blessed with the opportunity call the historical moment, knowing everyone will listen to the replay forever? Many questions, tons of intrigue, uncontrollable anticipation – a special time that no other sport can duplicate, proving again why baseball is the greatest sport.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Yanks Quiet at the Deadline

Since the current playoff run began in 1995, the Yankees and trade deadline rumors have gone hand in hand. This year is no different, the Bombers are linked to almost every potential big name player out there, Texeira, Gagne, Dotel, even Dan Johnson. Alright that last one is not quite a big time player, but point taken. In line with his stance last season, Cashman, and the Tampa brain trust, are unwilling to part with any top tier prospects, and feel confident plunging forward with the current roster.

Pitching remains a concern. Kyle Farnsworth added fuel to the fire with another disastrous outing yesterday, amid yet another blow up on the mound, Jorge Posada the recipient this time. Shipping Farnsworth out would fit the addition by subtraction mantra, but at the least his days of appearing late in important games must end. Note to Torre, no more eighth innings for Kyle, unless the mercy rule is in effect. With Luiz Vizcaino the only reliable setup man in front of the recently unhittable Mariano Rivera, the Yanks have a need.

Gagne, Dotel, Otsuka, Qualls. New York is in play on all of them, but teams want the sun and moon from the Yanks, notably Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, particularly Texas. Unless Texas suddenly gets a dose of reality, Gagne stays put. Nobody else available is a difference maker. Teams drooling over Octavio Dotel, the same Dotel the Yanks left off the postseason roster last year, says everything you need to know about the players available. Enter Joba Chamberlain, 21-year-old righthanded flame thrower, 2006 draft pick from Nebraska. The Yanks promoted Chamberlain to Triple-A last week. Before he could make his second start, management scratched Chamberlain and sent him to the bullpen, where he will throw Monday and Wednesday. Critics argue that the late season move to relief, at this age, screams for an arm injury. Proponents counter that limiting his innings will decrease stress on Chamberlain’s arm. Right or wrong, expect Joba sporting pinstripes on Friday night against Kansas City. Forget Torre’s use of Edwar Ramirez, Chamberlain will pitch meaningful innings, and pitch often. According to scouts, he is ready now and provides a serious upgrade over all the current options.

Still, the Yanks remain in play for the aforementioned relievers, though not as desperate. Phil Hughes will join his fellow uber-prospect next weekend at the stadium, after completing another dominant rehab outing, tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings for Scranton. Hughes immediately slots into the rotation, behind Wang, Pettitte, and Clemens. Torre may continue calling Mussina the fourth starter, but if a playoff series started today, before even returning the majors, I still pitch Hughes before Moose.

With Hughes back the starting pitching is set, while New York will reinforce the bullpen internally with Chamberlain, and Jeff Karstens, who has matched Hughes zero for zero during his rehab stint, could provide a surprising boost to the relief corp. Chance of a trade for pitching, 50/50, but no major deals likely, unless Texas or KC drastically change their requests in the next 48 hours.

Go around the horn, A-Rod, Jeter, and Cano. All set there, especially with Cano swinging a hot bat the last three weeks, dispelling rumors of his demise. First base, a sore spot most of the season, is the most frequently mentioned trade possibility on the offensive side. Partially thanks to the merry-go-round of inhabitants underperforming most of the season, though I feel the rumors persisted because critics needed to point the finger somewhere when the offense was struggling to score runs and first base is the only lineup spot not solidified. Potential trades continue floating through the grapevine, notably A’s backup Dan Johnson. If anyone feels Johnson, or a Shea Hillebrand, also mentioned before inking a minor league deal with San Diego, will be a difference maker, I have a bridge you might want to buy. Andy Phillips finally looks comfortable, and somewhere Doug Mientkiewicz lurks.

The red hot Hideki Matsui, a rejuvenated Bobby Abreu, and the young and old platoon of Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera, round out the lineup. Again, due to contracts, age, and current performance, the outfield is set.

Depending on who you ask, Jason Giambi intends to play in August, the question remains where. Giambi should never defensively take the field again for the Yankees. He ranks somewhere between putrid and unwatchable. Damon already consumes the DH role, a move back to CF puts Melky Cabrera, a far superior defensive player and budding offensive contributor, on the bench, transforming the Yanks into a station to station, home run hitting lineup, with below average defense. If Giambi brings his 35 home run stick to the plate, the shear threat is worthwhile. Given his early season performance, and about three months vacation hurting timing at the plate, do not count on Giambi. In fact, Giambi returning hurts the team. It forces Torre to play him, potentially inserting an automatic out into the middle of the lineup, while hurting the defense as documented above. Giambi just disappearing better serves the Yanks.

Of course, if Damon is traded that changes. Rumors circulated that New York is offering the aging CF, and the remaining 2 ½ years on his ill fated, around the league. The sheer rumor signifies Cashman and the front office brass admit their mistake. When healthy, and performing, Damon is a lightning rod leadoff hitter. Injuries, a refusal to go on the DL, age, and a slower bat, has relegated Damon to a shell of the “idiot” leader from Boston. Finding a taker remains another story. Barring a major injury elsewhere in the league, the contenders can do without a broken down Damon, while long term contracts do not fit rebuilding situations.

One player surprisingly drawing interest is Kei Igawa. Another situation where the Cashman and company admit a mistake, without directly saying it, finding a taker for Igawa is likelier than Damon. Igawa has shown one glimmer of hope that he can pitch in the majors, his strikeout total. Since returning Igawa fans about a batter per IP, substantiating his Japanese statistics. Control remains his undoing. Igawa walks close to a batter an inning, while consistently falling behind in counts allowing opposing hitters to tee off on his below average fastball. Maybe pitching in NY is overwhelming, or the transition to America, or he may simply not be good, but lefty pitchers always get second, and third lives. With no spot for the Kei-man, Igawa will move, the only question is now or after the season, and how much of the contract the Yanks must pay. Cashman only wishes he could trade the posting fee along with him.

The non-waiver deadline lurks tomorrow, followed by another month of rumors before the waiver deadline. Outside of bench player, or middle reliever, Scranton will provide the Yankees biggest acquisitions. After already cutting the lead in half since the All-Star break, Chamberlain and Hughes may just be the youthful shot in the arm that carries the Yanks past Cleveland.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Annual Trade Deadline Countdown

Speculation, rumors, buyers and sellers, insider information, media types contriving situations only conceivable in the imagination – may sound like your average down on Wall Street, but it’s the annual prelude to the baseball trading deadline. Several in baseball personnel continue to predict 2007 will be the slowest year to date, with few difference making players available, and contending teams unwillingly to part with high prospects for rental players. The pattern of holding onto prospects, sometimes overvaluing, has been building over the past few years as the value of young, impact players earning bound to relatively low salaries has skyrocketed in the age of escalating free agent salaries.

Listen and read enough, and it seems half the players in the league are involved with trade rumors. 14 teams should realistically be buyers and only some will execute a trade. Unless a borderline team, like Minnesota or St. Louis, with an outside chance to reach the playoffs, wants to become the 2004 Mets, they should face reality and look toward next year. These teams, smartly managed for the most part, are unlikely to make a Scott Kazmir-esque mistake, and both may sell an ancillary piece if things continue spiraling down over the next few days. I stress ancillary piece. Forget Torri Hunter, or god forbid, Johan Santana. Minnesota must try to resign both, if only to save face publicly.

Mark Texeira is the biggest name out there, and all indications are he is heading to Atlanta for a trio of highly touted prospects, headlined by switch-hitting catcher Jared Saltalamacchia. Texeira is the only formidable bat available, with a few big failures in his short tenure, Texas GM Jon Daniels needs to move Texeira before he walks and get good value or he is staring at unemployment. Atlanta can use a power bat to pick up the slack with Andruw Jones struggling, plus the Braves have a dearth of young talent to deal. The pieces all fit here. With the Mets staggering along in first in the NL East, an impact move by either Philly or Atlanta may provide the statistical and emotional lift to catch the Mets. While many other teams have floated in the Texeira rumor mill, the Angels are the only sensible fit. LA’s recent track record is holding onto prospects, which is backfiring since none have developed into formidable contributors yet. Casey Kotchman holds better long term value than Texeira anyway.

Most teams subscribe to the old axiom, good pitching beats good hitting, and covet bullpen help. Almost every contender, particularly Detroit, Cleveland, both NY teams, and Atlanta, can really use middle relief help. All indications are Octavio Dotel and Eric Gagne is likely to go, while rumors surround the entire Astros bullpen but at most only one member will get dealt. The Yankees are playing both sides, looking to acquire while simultaneously shopping both Kyle Farnsworth and Scott Proctor. Farnsworth to Detroit makes sense on many levels, except the Yankees are directly competing with the Tigers in the AL. The unwritten rule never to help the competition went out the window when San Diego traded Scott Linebrink to Milwaukee earlier this week, so maybe the Yanks do cut their losses and deal Fransworth to Detroit. It appears the Bombers biggest pitching acquisitions will come from Triple-A Scranton, in the form of super prospects Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

Gagne to Cleveland makes the most sense. He wants to close games; the Tribe have an unstable closer situation, and hear the footsteps of the Yankee stampede behind them. The Royals have no excuse for keeping Dotel, with a contending team at least two to three years away. I think Dotel is a nice consolation for Cleveland or Detroit, if they cannot land Gagne, or his bullpen mate, Akinori Otsuka.

One under the radar rumor involves Chad Cordero to the Mets. Cordero would provide a major upgrade to a struggling Mets middle relief core that recently saw Joe Smith returned to Triple-A, and only has one reliable contributor, Pedro Feliciano, at this point. Cordero immediately vaults the Mets bullpen to a formidable level, required to succeed in the playoffs.

In Houston, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls, continually show up in rumors. Each has struggled at times this season, sparking trade speculation, while each has pitched lights out for stretches fueling the theory that Houston will hold onto each, keeping the bullpen in tact for a run next year. Lidge appears to have rediscovered his dominant stuff the past month, returning to the closer role, lowering his season ERA below two and posting over a K/IP. In other words, forget about him. Qualls or Wheeler is there for the taking, but both are available since neither has pitched great.

Watch out for Atlanta in the reliever sweepstakes. The Braves desperately need relief help, after losing setup man Mike Gonzalez to season ending surgery in May, and watching Bob Wickman continually blow late inning leads to the tune of a 7+ July ERA. With all the holes Atlanta needs to plug, give credit to Bobby Cox for holding the ship together, keeping the Braves very much within striking distance.

Just as many contenders need starting pitching, but it is simply not available. The White Sox continue offering everyone, outside of Mark Buerhle and John Danks. All reports are Jose Contreras is a shell of his former self, and the numbers supports that theory, 5-13 record with a 6.22 ERA. Is that really going to help anyone? Javier Vazquez and Jon Garland are better options, until you hear Kenny Williams’ asking price. The Braves, surprise, can really use a veteran fourth starter behind Smoltz, Hudson, and James, while both the Mets, counting on Pedro Martinez returning in August, and Cleveland, will likely fill their needs from within.

The past two years, starting pitcher trade rumors and Dontrelle Willis go hand in hand. I feel the allure comes from his track record, his age, his larger than life persona, and his team’s willingness to deal, more than his value. Willis’ numbers have clearly declined since his 22-win 2005 season. The Marlins missed the opportunity to get maximum trade value, but some team desperate for pitching, blind to reality, may still ante up. Every day Florida holds onto Willis his value declines. D-Train to the Mets rumors have persisted for almost two years, now may be the team. The Mets need a shot in the arm, and pitching stability. Willis provides both. He may not be an elite pitcher, or a staff ace, but he will take the ball every fifth day, give the team a chance to win, and provide life to the clubhouse. With El Duque always on the brink of a missed start, Tom Glavine getting hammered two of every three starts in his slow pursuit of 300 wins, and the great unknown in Pedro Martinez returning from major surgery that often leads to setbacks, the Mets can use a known quantity. More important, the clubhouse intermittently turmoil laden clubhouse needs a good spirited character to reunite the team.

Offensively, the Mets are actively pursuing 2B help after losing Jose Valentin earlier this week, but I feel they can use a big OF stick. Consider Shawn Green’s awful numbers since returning from injury, the likelihood Moises Alou stays healthy for more than a week, not to mention Ramon Castro hit fifth this afternoon, and the Mets really need bat. Jermaine Dye anyone. Unfortunately, all indications are Omar Minaya is counting on Alou and Pedro to be major contributors. Not exactly making Met fans feel warm and fuzzy. After multiple poor offseason trades (see Guillermo Mota, Brian Bannister for Ambrioux Bourgous, and Heath Bell for Ben Johnson), Minaya needs to make amends for a team expected to win now.

While the big name hitter is not available, outside of Texeira, some teams can use a serviceable hitter to add punch to the lineup, notably San Diego and the Angels. The Padres waiver acquisition of Milton Bradley already paid dividends, with late game clutch hits, and some much needed pop. Mike Piazza is a nice fit for LA, at a low cost. The Rays are dangling Ty Wigginton out there. A 20-plus homer threat, able to play almost every position, Wigginton can help any team with offensive needs, if only the Mets could reverse that Kris Benson trade, but Wigginton has no place on the Yankees, the team most associated with him. With Giambi possibly returning, Andy Phillips hitting well, and Torre already struggling to get everyone into the lineup, Wigginton would replace Miguel Cairo as the utility infield backup, hardly his optimum role. Cashman Wigginton will not solve the Yanks problems.

Arizona is interesting to watch. Only a week ago rumors circulated that Livan Hernandez was on the market, what a difference a week makes. Back surgery shelves Randy Johnson for the season, and eight straight wins propel the D-Backs within .5 games of first place LA. Now, Hernandez and Eric Byrnes will stay put, and Arizona may become buyers. The D-Backs sorely need a veteran to provide leadership, and solidify the young team. Do not expect Arizona to mortgage any of those young studs though.

The next three days should be interesting. New players may surface at the last minute, while teams can decide to cash in their chips for the season and trade away big names. The deadline may turn out like your average Hollywood film, more hype than substance, but GM’s can tilt a few divisional races with deadline moves. Every NL division is there for the taking, a deadline lift could determine the winners.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Yanks All-In on Hot-Rod

Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner pushed all the chips to the middle of the table. They went all in, showed their cards, now they await the dealer’s hand. The dealer is one Scott Boras, famous for his stern poker face.

The Yanks front office had little choice here. Texas still pays about $8 millions per year for A-Rod, meaning the Yanks only chip a mere $17-18 each season. Allowing Rodriguez to opt out, then signing him to a new contract makes no business sense, since they lose the $20+ million Texas contribution over the next years. A-Rod has only 15 days after the World Series to decide whether to opt out or not. A small negotiation window for a contract extension guaranteed to be the highest valued ever. If A-Rod opts out, meaning Texas no long frays the salary impact for the Yanks, I think the chances he returns are slim to none. Negotiating now is the only option.

On the flip side, do you think Scott Boras cares what helps the Yankees? Boras is all about dollars and cents, seeing what the market yields, then asking for more. Unlike A-Rod’s previous free agency, Boras will not require a 100-page binder to convince teams A-Rod deserves a blank check, one sheet with his final 2007 stats should do the trick.

No matter what the Yankees offer, Boras will want more. The super agent, with a penchant for setting new financial standards, expects to again reach unchartered waters making A-Rod the first $30 million a year player, or, dare I say, $40 million a year. Undoubtedly, Boras plans to pit the Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, White Sox, Yankees, and Mets, against each other, with Boston, and perhaps a sleeper like San Fran, in the mix, all with hopes to drive the price up. And you know what, that is exactly what will happen. And some team will pay up.

With both A-Rod and Boras refusing to negotiate until after the season, Cashman better start identifying contingency plans to add both a right-handed power hitter, and a third baseman. The minor leagues are barren of impact position players, nor can any rookie bear the weight of replacing A-Rod. Mike Lowell is a name that keeps popping up. If Florida unloads players, Miguel Cabrera is as close to A-Rod as the Yanks can come, and he comes cheaper and younger. Cabrera would cost a pretty penny in prospects, though.

New York opened a potential Pandora’s box by agreeing to negotiate with A-Rod in-season, against team policy, only to immediately have A-Rod refuse the request. Now, it is possible that A-Rod walks anyway, leaving the Yanks with egg on their face, and the Yanks damage their relationship with Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, who they each refused to negotiate with this season, to the point where each walks after the season. As unlikely as it sounds, today the possibility is very real. If that happens, the 2007 season may seem like glory days compared to the 2008 edition.

Rickey, A Coach?

Apparently, first place in the NL East is not sufficient. With the Mets lineup failing to meet lofty preseason expectations, thanks to a boat load of injuries, and underperforming superstars, notably Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, hitting coach Rick Down paid the price. Down is out, the first coach fired under Randolph, replaced by none other than Rickey Henderson. Stolen base king, former MVP, World Series champion, aloof purveyor of unforgettable quotes, the previous generation’s Manny Ramirez, a coach.

Other than simply shaking things up, I do not see many tangible benefits from bringing Rickey into this clubhouse. During his playing career, Henderson occasionally exhibited an attitude problem, lack of work ethic, and famously disappeared for a card game during a Mets-Braves playoff series. Not to mention, Rickey does not come off as the most astute individual. Name the last time a professional coach, spokesperson for the organization, setting examples for young players, spoke of himself in the third person.

Subsequent reports have Henderson taking over at first base, with Howard Johnson assuming the duties of hitting instructor, a better scenario for the Mets. Getting on base and base stealing are Henderson’s sweet spot. As first base coach, he can focus on teaching base stealing, similar to his role as spring training instructor a few years back, and help hitters approach at the plate, lending credence to patience and working pitchers. I do not envision Rickey succeeding breaking down the technical components of a swing, nor do I want during a playoff run, if I am the Omar Minaya.

The move can go one of two ways, Rickey can prove a quality clubhouse person and provide important leadership to the young core of talent, or he can disrupt team chemistry. Despite public perception, almost everyone he played with, to a man, says Rickey is a great teammate. The only difference, teammates found his antics amusing and laughable at times. As a coach, he needs to take a more serious approach, saving the clown act for select times. Can he make that adjustment?

I have never spoken to Rickey, though I would love to, nor have I recently heard him interviewed, so it is hard to say if “retirement”, which he still refuses to admit to, has led to maturity. If so, Henderson can provide some desperately needed mentorship, especially following the Jose Reyes hustle problem, and Paul LoDuca vs. the Hispanic player’s controversy. If he is still the old Rickey, putting himself before the team, the Mets only gain another sideshow, the last thing they need.

Adding Henderson is as high a risk-reward proposition as changing a coach can be. Given his lack of any coaching experience, and the situation the Mets are in, middle of a pennant race with pressure to make the World Series, I do not like the timing, and prefer a more experienced coach. As with all decisions, time will tell. But I cannot wait for that first interview, and the return of the quote machine. Hey, its just Rickey being Rickey.

Reconstructing the 2007 Yanks, Or Not

Each year when the trading deadline approaches, at least since their return to prominence in the mid-90’s, the Yankees become a one-team rumor mill. The Yanks come up in conjunction with any player that has a chance to be available, whether the move makes sense or not. Teams want New York involved to drive up the price, while the Yankees feel the need to be involved thanks to a do anything to win now mindset and occasionally the prevent other teams from winning tactic. This season is different. Below .500 for the first time since 1995, fielding an inflexible roster log jammed with superstars, the playoffs a long shot, unlikely to be sellers simply because its not the Yankee way, the Yanks appear headed to an uneventful trade deadline.

A-Rod is not going anywhere this season. One train of thought says with the team out of contention to trade A-Rod, likely to opt-out of his contract after the season anyway, obtaining prospects instead of letting him walk. No chance this happens. Even if somewhat logical, there are too many reasons it will not happen. First, the Yanks just announced they plan to negotiate an extension with A-Rod. Regardless if the extension is completed, the commitment means he stays. With attendance expected to reach 4 million, a privately owned television network depending on star power for ratings, and the prospect of chasing a 60-homer season, Ruth or Maris ring a bell, the Yanks need A-Rod, no matter how far from the playoffs the team is. Trade him and risk a major public out lash. Cashman will learn the fans “Big Hook” may be bigger than the Boss’. Finally, no team will exchange fair trade value for A-Rod given the contract situation, without negotiating an extension, which Boras will never allow. At worst, if he walks after the season, at least the Yanks save face publicly.

Besides A-Rod, rumors continue to surface about trades involving notable underperformers, Bobby Abreu and, before the injury, “Mr. Stuff”, Jason Giambi. Not happening. One major oversight here, trades require two willing teams. What team wants a mediocre fielding corner outfielder with no power, hitting seventh in a struggling lineup, susceptible to prolonged slumps? Did we mention the $15 million salary? Yes, the Yanks can eat it, but why even go there, play it out.

Up the middle the Yanks are entrenched, Jeter, Cano, Posada, Cabrera, and Damon, in some capacity. Matsui mans left, and the revolving door platoon of Phillips, Mientkiewicz, and Cairo, handle first. With three high paid veterans, a young ace, and burgeoning prospect, the starting rotation is not going anywhere. In the pen, Rivera is untouchable, but everyone else is in play. If the Yanks trade any major leaguers, the bullpen will be the source. Other contenders can use a Farnsworth or lefty-specialist Mike Myers, the two most likely targets. For some reason the Yanks seem to love something about Farnsworth, but I can envision swapping the big mouth reliever for an underachieving reliever on another team, or Myers for a low-level prospect.

On the buy side, the most obvious targets are first base, and the bullpen. Texiera rumors continue, but not at the price Texas is asking. Cashman’s plan remains and I believe correctly, to hold onto all the young minor league pitching. Trading Hughes, Chamberlain, or any other player off the Double-A pitching staff for a 3-month rental in what appears as a lost season, would haunt the Yanks for years. Cashman will not allow that to happen, irrespective of his job security.

Swapping relievers is possible, but how much impact will that have. Like it or not, barring a major surprise, if the 2007 Yankees plan to make a miracle comeback, they need the current players to pull it off. However, over the past few years, we have learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to the Yankees.