Zito and the Giants?

December 28, 2006

So, my prediction skills are officially terrible!

MLB.com is reporting that Barry Zito has agreed to a monster deal with the Giants: seven years for $126 million.   I guess out of all the rivals he could have joined, having him join the National League is a plus.  Seeing him with “San Francisco” on his jersey will be painful to say the least though.

Now, I’m not one to bash Barry Zito.  He’s not the “Ace” pitcher that some (including the Giants) still believe him to be, but he’s a very reliable number two with an unblemished fitness record and that’s not to be sniffed at (particularly when some teams are giving Jason Marquis $21 million).  Barry’s main weakness is his tendency to give up fly balls (and therefore homers).  The rumoured move to the hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field in Arlington looked ill-fated but the AT&T Park should suit him well.  Staying in the Bay Area will take away a good deal of uncertainty for him as well.  Finally, it’s accepted that the AL is the tougher league for pitchers right now.  So there are some positives to build on.

However, the 2006 Giants were not very good and, as noted in the Hardball Times 2007 Annual (well worth buying by the way!), the real indictment of their season was that there were no great disasters or disappointments.   The team played about as well as expected and ended up with a 76-85 record.   Their “win now with Barry” experiment has not paid off and they are left with a core of ageing players.  Zito is a good pitcher, but he will simply be replacing Jason Schmidt’s contribution rather than making them markedly better and there’s little to suggest that there will be much improvement from the rest of the roster in 2007 (Noah Lowry being the main possible exception).

The NL West has rebounded from their “NL Worst” moniker of 2005 and it could be one of the most competitive divisions in 2007 with the Padres and Dodgers remaining strong and the D-Backs having several top quality youngsters coming through (alongside a genuine Ace in Brandon Webb, and the continuing rumours of a Randy Johnson return).  Even the Rockies have cause for optimism.   Zito will help the Giants in the near future at least, but he’s not going to make them competitive on his own.  They need an overhaul to get back on track.  Bringing in Zito as a part of this would make sense, yet chaining yourself to a seven year big money commitment to a pitcher doesn’t smack me as being part of a great masterplan.  Only time will tell.

As for Barry,  he commented recently in the San Francisco Chronicle that his main focus is on winning titles.  $126 million is enough money for anyone to be dazzled by.  Whether he will end up with a ring or two to go with the cash is debatable.  Certainly in the short term at least you would fancy the Mets as a much better bet for post-season glory.  A lot can happen in seven years though and maybe the Zito signing will prove to be the catalyst for some good times in San Fran.  Giants fans at least have a little bit of hope again.


Zito and the Mets

December 20, 2006

As an Oakland fan, the Barry Zito sweepstakes is almost a non-event.  Not long after we got tanked by the Tigers in the ALCS it was basically accepted that Zito had pitched in the green and gold for the last time.  He’s not coming back to Oakland and therefore in many respects I’m not fussed where he goes.  Rumours of strong interest from divisional rivals (Rangers and Mariners) as well as our Bay Area neighbours might make me somewhat nervous of our former hero joining a deadly rival.  But when it comes down to it, Zito’s going to be a Met.

This public dating game is all very nice.  The Mets flying to a summit in California. Scott Boras (him again!) allegedly whispering about proposed $100 million deals from other teams.   Each side posturing and bargaining.  Really it’s just like two thirteen year olds eyeing each other up at a party, with everyone else in the room thinking “just bloody well get on with it”!

The Mets are a strong outfit already but they need another starting pitcher and have the financial resources to splash out on the free agent market.  Zito wants a fat contract (which he’ll get from the Mets), a chance to win the World Series (the Mets are as good a bet as any), and a chance to boost the “Barry Zito brand” (which he’ll get from New York).  It’s a perfect match and both sides know it.  Zito in a Mets uniform is about as guaranteed as any potential deal gets.

And if I’m wrong?  Well that will probably mean Zito’s wearing  a Mariners/Rangers/Giants uniform and I’ll be far more annoyed about that than having my prediction skills publicly squashed.

Vernon Wells = very wealthy

December 17, 2006

It’s not just Matsuzaka who has been changing teams in the past week. Another major recent event is the contract extension Vernon Wells has all but signed with the Blue Jays for a reported $126 million. Toronto have been proactive by signing Wells a year before he hit free agency.

With the ever-booming free agent market, is this going to be a general trend from now on? Locking-up a player to a long-term contract is nothing new as shown by deals such as the one St Louis agreed with Albert Pujols in 2004, and the Astros agreed with Lance Berkman in 2005 (and more recently with Roy Oswalt). Still, it only works if you have the financial resources to not only agree to the deal, but also to have enough money to put a good team around the player. The Braves are unlikely to follow the Blue Jays’ lead and stop Andruw Jones testing the free agent market next year because they don’t appear to have the financial resources to do so. It’s becoming quite common in football for teams to continuously extend a player’s contract, such as Man Utd’s recent deal with Rooney. When you have already had to pay a large fee to buy the player, there is even greater incentive to keep hold of the asset, not least because you receive no compensation if they leave on a “Bosman” free transfer. In baseball now, the cost for teams to replace a player via free agency is escalating at a frightening pace and this will probably make the wealthier teams put even more effort into keeping their top players.

Toronto have proved recently that they are prepared to spend big money to try and compete against the Yankees and the Red Sox in the AL East. With their financial resources, the Blue Jays would have still been major players for Wells’ services had he hit the free agent market at the end of 2007. It made perfect sense to try and use their exclusive negotiating position to agree to a deal now rather than wait for other teams to bump up the price. Agreeing to any long-term lucrative deal with a player always carries plenty of risk, but the Blue Jays are in a better position than most to make a judgement on Wells’ future health and attitude.

As for Vernon, no doubt he could have gained more on the free agent market, but if he’s happy in Toronto then why not stay? $126 million is more than enough to set-up your family for life. There’s also the possibility that 2007 could have decreased his value. We can all reel off examples of players having great “walk years” leading to a bumper free agent contract out of synch with the player’s overall career performance (you’re thinking of Gary Matthews Jnr too, aren’t you?!). The other side of the coin though is that an injury hit walk year can have the opposite effect, generally leading to the player having to accept a one-year deal and trying to prove themselves again. $126 million is a lot of money to turn down and he’s made the right choice in accepting it in my book.

Dice-K at Fenway

December 16, 2006

What else can I write about? The Daisuke Matsuzaka deal is the talk of baseball and rightfully so.

The main thing I learned this week was that I had been mispronouncing his first name all along (not, to be fair, that I had said it to anyone who either knew or cared who he was). Dice-K is the correct pronunciation and there promises of be plenty of K signs when he’s on the mound.

It went right down to the 30 day time limit, but we always knew it would do. That’s the nature of bargaining. In a couple of weeks’ time the January football transfer window will open and no doubt the same old saga will play out as it does every year. A few deals will go through here and there, but seventy-five per cent will be rushed through in the last couple of days with teams frantically faxing the paperwork off to the FA and leaving every nervously waiting fan pondering; “why didn’t they sort this out a week ago?” (particularly when another club has come along at the last minute and stolen the player your team had been focusing on, leaving you with nothing – (c) the bitter experience of a Norwich fan!).

Deadlines create pressure and pressure forces people to make decisions. On this occasion Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, couldn’t use the normal trick of playing one team off another because there were no other teams involved. He could have said “don’t sign him now and the Yankees will get him next year” but as Matsuzaka would still be subject to the “posting” process next year (he doesn’t become a free agent until the end of 2008) there was no guarantee of that. The team and the agent/player are always at opposite ends of the deal spectrum, both trying to bargain their way to the best deal for themselves. In this case the opposite ends were more polarized than usual. While Boras had a valid reason to conclude that the posting fee shouldn’t effect Matsuzaka’s contract, the Red Sox had no option but to take it into consideration. It’s something football teams know only too well. There’s no point in submitting a £15 million bid if you then won’t be able to afford the £40,000+ per week contract the player will demand. You have to take into account the full cost of the deal. Any way you slice it, the Red Sox have put at least $100 million on the table and that’s putting a lot of faith in a guy who has never pitched in the Majors before.

Like most people, I always thought that an agreement would be reached. Matsuzaka essentially had two options, agree to the Red Sox deal or go back to Japan for at least another year. While Boras may have tried to play that bargaining card, I don’t think the Red Sox would have been too scared by it. Matsuzaka is clearly desperate to play in America and a year is a long time to further put off your dream when you have a great opportunity in your hands. I’m sure he wanted a good financial package and he would be selling himself short if he didn’t, but I don’t think chasing the biggest pay-day was on his mind. Arriving back to an adoring nation with his hopes dashed would have been hard to take. The deal guarantees him $52 million and could rise to $60 million depending on performance. That’s not to be sneezed at. Matsuzaka will be 32 when his deal runs out so if he’s successful and stays healthy he could always ink another lucrative contract. He looked happy enough at the press conference anyway!

Of course, this is only the very start of the journey. Sadly there will be plenty of people, not least bitter ex-players spouting rubbish on TV/radio shows, who will be waiting for him to fail. Every mistake will be jumped on and Boston will need to support their new star. The scouting reports and the stats all suggest he has genuine “Ace” potential, but it’s a big ask to expect him to move to a new country, new language, new culture, new environment, new league etc and immediately bring his “A” game. He will need a bit of time to settle, not that some people will allow him this.

As a baseball fan I’m delighted that Matsuzaka will be pitching in the Majors next season. The hitters often get their names in lights, but most years it is a pitcher or two who really captures the imagination. In 2005 we had Felix Hernandez (sadly not so much in 2006) and last year we had Francisco Liriano (even more sadly, not at all in 2007) with honourable mentions to Cole Hamels and Jered Weaver to name but two. These are new guys who, despite your allegiance, you go out of your way to catch their starts. I’m far from the only person who will be doing this for Matsuzaka in 2007.

The financial sums involved in this deal have raised lots of questions about the “posting” process. It’s certainly unconventional and does not favour either the U.S. team or the player. What system could be used in its place though? Many have been quick to note that it is the Japanese team who benefits the most, but why shouldn’t that be the case?

Until a player becomes a free agent, they have no legal right to walk out on their club to join another as they have made a commitment by signing their contract. A player only gets posted by a Japanese team if the player can convince them to do so. No team is going to give up their best player without receiving adequate compensation, so the system has to be attractive to the “selling” club. There also appears to be little choice other than to make the compensation financial. As in most countries, American sports began in a somewhat insular way and their structure has developed to reflect what suits them best. While players from other countries can join the league via the draft or free agency, most player movement is in the form of trades with players going in opposite directions. That’s fine in a sport which works within national boundaries but is untenable when you want to do a deal between clubs in different countries.

I struggle enough with the idea that a team can wake up a player one morning and tell him to pack his bags for another city because he’s been traded. It’s an accepted part of American sports and the players just get on with it. Still, imagine being told you had just been traded to another country! That’s clearly a situation that is not going to happen so trades are out of the question. Major League teams obviously can’t trade draft picks to Japanese teams either. So all that is left is cold hard cash and if the Japanese club is putting itself out to let a team take their best player, they have every right to expect to receive a substantial return. The blind bidding process has certainly worked in the Seibu Lions’ favour this time around, which is probably a good indication that MLB will be looking to change it.



Pettitte back in Pinstripes

December 9, 2006

The latest big move has seen Andy Pettitte return to his former team (pending a physical). How does this deal play out for all involved?

The Yankees

It’s good news if you’re a Yankees fan. Their rotation has been a bit of a mess for a couple of seasons now and it was vital that this was addressed during the winter. Of course, the Yanks have tried to improve their rotation in recent off-seasons with limited success. Maybe that’s part of the reason why they have concentrated their efforts on bringing back former Yankee starters in Ted Lilly and Pettitte. Having missed out on Lilly, it was an immediate boost to announce that a deal was nearly finalised. Pettitte’s talent is a big notch above that of Lilly’s and signing him to a one-year $16 million deal (with a one-year player option) makes great sense. With Mike Mussina signed on for another two years at below-market rate and talks ongoing with Kei Igawa, the Yankees are making a concerted effort to shake-up the rotation. Mussina, Johnson, Pettitte, Wang and a battle between Igawa and Pavano for the fifth spot doesn’t look too shabby, particularly with a great batting line-up supporting them and a potential future ace in Philip Hughes on the horizon.

The Astros

Good new for Yankees fans means bad news for Astros fans. I posted a couple of weeks ago that the signing of Carlos Lee would be a bit hollow if their rotation was left to wilt away. Losing Pettitte creates a sizeable hole to fill and if it plays a part in Clemens either retiring (again) or not returning to Houston then they will have some serious work to do. Not that the Astros’ front office needs anyone to tell them that, as a recent attempt to acquire Jon Garland shows; however the fact that this fell through is testament to the situation they now face. Houston are almost desperate for arms right now and that weakens their bargaining position. Although they have some top quality players, the Astros everyday line-up also contains parts that don’t contribute enough offensively (Ausmus for a start) for them to take liberties with their starting pitching. If anything their recent success has been in spite of a below average run-producing line-up. Pettitte’s agent claims in the MLB.com story that Houston could have had him if they had increased their offer from $12 million to $14 million. I’m not sure if that was completely the case (never trust an agent!), but if it was then it may well come back to haunt them.

In truth, it’s difficult to judge this deal from Houston’s perspective right now. We have to wait and see whether the money they would have spent on Pettitte is put to a better use. I have my doubts, but it’s up to the Astros to prove the doubters wrong.

Andy Pettitte

You get the feeling that he would have been happy either way. After deciding not to retire, having a choice between returning to your home team or going back to the Yankees is not the worst position to be in. Having narrowly failed in his mission to help the Astros win their first World Title, he now gets a chance to make it five rings with the Yankees.

Deals, deals and more deals

December 7, 2006

Deal or no deal may be all the rage over here, but in baseball right now it’s just deal, deal and more deals. Lots of moves have taken place over the last 24 hours and not just of the Rule 5 variety (although that was a strangely active affair).

Pitcher called Lilly

Sometimes there is a poetic symmetry to events. “Pictures of Lily” is famously a song by The Who all about, well, masturbating. Plenty of times over the past few years I have considered the Cubs to be a bunch of tossers. Consequently it was almost written in the stars that they would spend even more money by snapping up Ted Lilly. No doubt Jim Hendry will be enjoying his hospital soup this morning. We can all poke fun at some of the contracts they are agreeing to, but how can you not admire a guy who can seal a deal while being “hooked up to [a] EKG machine”,as Lilly’s agent described. That they fought off the Yankees to get Lilly is a big coup for Chicago. Will it work out well though? I’m not sure. Even when he was at Oakland, I never quite had faith in him to get the job done. He’s solid enough and I guess solid costs $40million nowadays.

Freddie to the Phillies

It was the day of pitching changes and the Phillies have really started their off-season well. The White Sox had a bit of a starter logjam and, considering the free agent prices for starting pitchers, they were in a great position to deal from strength. To be honest I was surprised that they didn’t get more for Garcia, although that may be partly due to my unfamiliarity with the two prospects they acquired in exchange.  The fact that Garcia will be a free agent next year is probably a part of it as well, although the Phillies may look to sign an extension with him. Whatever Garcia’s contract situation, they can now go and shop Jon Lieber, presumably for an addition or two to the bullpen. There’s still a long, long time until April, but the Phillies look to be shaping up pretty well.

Meche signs for who?

As I logged on to MLB.com after getting home from work, I have to admit to making a double-take as I saw the headline story. Maybe this is being harsh but I’m not sure how many free agents would be looking to Kansas City as a place to further their careers right now. Still, the Royals have given Gil Meche the opportunity to further his bank balance and that counts for something. The report on MLB.com gives a nice little storyline of how this move fits into the overall roster, but my pessimism is fuelled by one telling comment:

“The five-year package was believed to be worth about $11 million a year for Meche, bringing him up to the level being paid to designated hitter Mike Sweeney who had the team’s top salary”.

Comparing him to Mike Sweeney doesn’t fill me with confidence that this is going to work out well for the Royals, but at least they are doing something.

And the same can be said for the Nationals who have signed Jesus (Flores) as a Rule Five pick from the Mets. The funny things is, Nats GM Jim Bowden probably thinks he has actually signed Jesus and credits his general all-round genius for pulling off such a shock.

The A’s make a move (or two?)

December 6, 2006

Well I posted a short while ago that more moves would happen over the next few days and the next thing I know, the A’s are signing a player (or two?).

Picking up Alan Embree is not exactly a headline grabbing move, but it encapsulates what the A’s are all about.  With Barry Zito’s smile getting ever bigger as less talented players get paid by the bucket load, it’s pretty obvious that Z has pitched his last game for the A’s.  Oakland don’t have the luxury of going out on the free agent market and snapping up a ready made replacement though.  So the A’s get creative and find a piece they like and they can afford in Embree.  Making that move allows them to move Joe Kennedy into the rotation, and Zito is replaced (in theory).

More headline worthy perhaps is the report on ESPN that the A’s are close to sealing Mike Piazza’s signature.  Once again this is a classic example of the Oakland way.  Billy Beane played a masterstroke by landing Frank Thomas on an incentive laden deal last winter and that paid off handsomely; however his 2006 performance put him out of Oakland’s reach and he took Toronto’s money and ran (understandable considering the way the White Sox unceremoniously dumped him the year before).  So he needs to be replaced as well and Piazza is seemingly the man who has been chosen.  Piazza showed with the Padre’s last season that he can still hit and his diminishing catching ability will be put to one side by slotting him into the DH spot.

The Piazza deal is not yet confirmed but it looks like it will happen.  My one concern is that Piazza is going to have to face American League pitching for the first time in his career, which is not going to be an easy task.  I’m not expecting Piazza to have the impact that the Big Hurt did, but if some other A’s hitters can stay healthy in 2007 (not least Chavez and Crosby) then he can play a useful part in a system where the whole is always greater than the individual parts.