A mild case of giddiness set in on a mild Saturday afternoon in mid-February. The mostly empty BoltBus zoomed down I-95 toward Washington just as CPAC ’11 was gearing up. While young conservatives in the Woodley Park hotel were lapping up Ann Coulter’s endorsement of non-candidate Chris Christie for the 2012 presidential nomination, my rolling (and intermittent) WiFi service did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm about pitchers and catchers reporting to camp.
#ad#The offseason is not the nadir of a baseball fan’s existence (that would be when one’s team is eliminated). After all, there is no shortage of baseball-related news in the winter months: Players participate in fall and winter leagues, switch teams, sign new contracts with their current employer, retire, and even play harmless pick-up games of basketball. Many organizations hire new front-office personnel and field managers.
But many fans understandably snooze through the winter and only steel themselves for the long MLB season once their NCAA bracket has been blown to smithereens. (It is unclear whether POTUS became any more focused on Libya once all four of the No. 1 seeds he bravely selected got eliminated.)
So what follows is a recap of the most noteworthy happenings since the San Francisco Giants beat the Texas Rangers 3–1 in the championship-clinching fifth game of the World Series. (Thanks in particular to Craig Calcaterra, Aaron Gleeman, and the other contributors to Hardball Talk, as well as the Fangraphs reference site.)
PLAYERS ON THE MOVE
The Great Recession took it easy on this offseason’s free-agent class. After receiving more handsome offers from the Rangers and New York Yankees, southpaw Cliff Lee opted to sign a bit more modest five-year pact with the Philadelphia Phillies for $120 million, thereby giving the Phillies a starting rotation that brings back memories of the Braves staff from the late ’90s.
The Boston Red Sox landed star left fielder Carl Crawford with a seven-year deal worth $142 million, much to the chagrin of Yankee fans everywhere. The Washington Nationals signed outfielder Jayson Werth to an “insane” seven-year contract worth $126 million, Adrian Beltre agreed to a $96 million contract over six years with the Rangers, Adam Dunn inked a $56 million four-year contract with the Chicago White Sox to be the club’s designated hitter, and Victor Martinez signed with the Detroit Tigers for $50 million over four years.
Noteworthy trades included Boston’s acquisition of San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, whom the Sawx expect to sign to a contract extension once the season begins. The Brewers acquired 2009 Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke from the Kansas City Royals and possibly the most effective pitcher casual baseball fans know little about, Shaun Marcum, from the Toronto Blue Jays. These trades seem to signal that Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin is betting big this year, possibly the last for first baseman and soon-to-be free-agent Prince Fielder in a Brew Crew uniform.
Other interesting swaps included the Jays’ dumping all but $5 million of Vernon Wells’s four-year $86 million contract into the Los Angeles Angels’ lap and receiving serviceable big-league talent in return; the Atlanta Braves’ trading with the Florida Marlins for second baseman Dan Uggla, who subsequently signed a contract extension; the Chicago Cubs’ strengthening their starting rotation by acquiring Matt Garza from the Tampa Bay Rays; the perpetually underrated left fielder Josh Willingham’s going from the Nationals to the Oakland A’s; and the Baltimore Orioles’ picking up a new left side of the infield by adding Mark Reynolds from the Arizona Diamondbacks and J. J. Hardy from the Minnesota Twins.
How did the market treat the Evil Empire this winter? The Yankees came up short in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes and lost Andy Pettitte to retirement, but after flirting briefly with Boston, future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera re-upped with the Bronx Bombers for two more years. Days later, general manager Brian Cashman inked future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter to a three-year deal, although those negotiations experienced some discomforting moments. Rays closer Rafael Soriano signed to set up Rivera.
#page#Tampa Bay lost several players instrumental to last season’s divisional crown, including Soriano and Crawford, but received princely compensation with highly ranked prospects and a staggering 11 of this season’s top 75 amateur draft picks. Intriguingly, last year’s AL East division champs brought in two of the original Red Sox idiots, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, on short-term contracts. (New York writer Howard Megdal observes, “No exaggeration: Manny Ramirez, at one year and $2 million, is the biggest bargain of the offseason. It’s not particularly close.”)
Meanwhile, the Rays’ recent on-field success and the front office that helped make it possible are the focal points of a just-released book: Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.
What occupied commissioner Bud Selig’s time? Among other things, he played law professor and announced plans to determine, once and for all, the origins of baseball. Chances are he was also keeping an eye on clubs flying through turbulent skies. The nasty and very public divorce of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, has dragged on for more than 17 months. It is becoming increasingly apparent that, sooner or later, a sale of the team will take place.
Back east, the New York Mets ownership has been hemorrhaging red ink, thanks principally to its one-time cozy relationship with Ponzi-scheme guru Bernie Madoff. (There is a measure of good news in Queens though: the arrival of a new front office, led by Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and J. P. Ricciardi. Two decisions are already making the fan base want to dance: the departures of second baseman Luis Castillo and pitcher Oliver Perez.)
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers reportedly nixed the idea of mimicking the Colorado Rockies’ practice of storing baseballs in humidors before games at currently homer-happy Chase Field.
Newsday columnist Ken Davidoff’s offseason winners and losers list gave high grades to the A’s, Rays, Cubs, Phillies, and San Diego Padres, while his losers consisted of the Indians, Angels, Yankees, Mariners, Astros, Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, and Giants. Of the Angels, he wondered, “The Vernon Wells trade is a head-scratcher for the ages. Wouldn’t they have been better off simply outbidding the Red Sox for [Carl] Crawford?” Also, Davidoff predicted doom and gloom for the Redbirds: “It could be an ugly, [Joe] Torre-esque ending to [Tony] La Russa’s managerial career.” And what of his thoughts on the Mariners? “I’m so bored by their winter that I don’t know even what to write about it.”
As of March 25, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report suggests that division crowns are more likely to go to the Red Sox, Twins (barely), Rangers, Phillies, Cardinals, and Giants, with the Yankees and Dodgers as wild-card favorites. (The methodology is explained here, as is the observation that the injury to the elbow of Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright decreases the team’s chances of making the postseason by nearly 15 percent.)
Reds and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, 76, was the only skipper to win a World Series in both leagues. Fireballer Bob Feller, 92, was the greatest man to don a Cleveland Indians uniform. Dave Niehaus, 75, did play-by-play for the Mariners from their inaugural season in 1977 through last season. Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, 70, somehow remains excluded from Cooperstown, despite a career OPS+ of 125 and nine All-Star Game appearances. Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger Duke Snider, 84, will be forever remembered as one of New York’s three spectacular center fielders of the mid-1950s – Mays and Mantle being the others.
Other notable RIPs include: Cubs first baseman Phil Cavaretta, 94; outfielder Gino Cimoli, 81; Mets manager Joe Frazier, 88; pitcher Woody Fryman, 70; Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie, 76; Yankees infielder Gil McDougald, 82; and Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, 82.
Legendary Mets manager Casey Stengel once said of Greg Goossen, who passed away at age 65: “This is Greg Goossen. He’s 19 years old, and in ten years he’s got a chance to be 29.”
We said goodbye too to legendary opera singer and umpire Enrico Pallazzo, 84.
ODDS AND ENDS
The No. 1 pick in last year’s amateur draft, Bryce Harper of the Nationals, raked in the Arizona Fall League, but Seattle Mariners farmhand Dustin Ackley was even more impressive at the plate, earning MVP honors. Baseball America’s annual top 100 prospects list gave its highest marks to Harper, Mike Trout (Angels), and Jesus Montero (Yankees). The Royals had a major league–high nine prospects cited.
Braves coach Luis Salazar lost his left eye in a spring-training batting-practice incident.
Negotiations between the Cardinals and superstar first baseman Albert Pujols failed to produce a new contract extension; Pujols is eligible to be a free agent at season’s end.
#ad#The Giants’ victory tour included a flight to New York to showcase their first World Series trophy since moving out of Manhattan’s Polo Grounds in 1957.
The Twins won the right to negotiate with highly touted Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka and eventually signed him to a three-year deal.
There are growing concerns about the future viability of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.
Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Stan Musial.
Surprise! The Phillies have the worst baseball fans in America.
For those still reluctant to delve into advanced statistics, perhaps a stick-figure video primer on FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) will persuade you.
Pirates pitcher and Princeton alum Russ Ohlendorf sported a 2010 won-loss record of 1–11 and then proceeded to win his arbitration hearing, meaning that he will earn $2.025 million this season. Lesson learned: Pitcher wins are borderline meaningless. Another lesson learned: Maybe an Ivy League education matters, after all.
Here is an increasingly rare piece of good news for Indians fans: Thanks to a South Korean victory in last fall’s Asia Games, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is exempt from military service and will play for the team this season.
Vin Scully will begin his 62nd year doing play-by-play for the Dodgers.
Lenny Dykstra cursed out prostitutes whom he claimed never to have met.
ESPN’s Sunday-night game broadcasts will no longer feature longtime partners Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. The new team will consist of Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser, and Bobby Valentine.
What Cubs game did Ferris Bueller attend?
The world discovered on Super Bowl Sunday that Cameron Diaz hand-feeds popcorn to her current boyfriend. In club dietary news, Pablo Sandoval is no longer chubby, while Tim Lincecum went wild on In-N-Out burgers. Staying with gourmet cuisine perhaps longer than necessary, outfielder Cameron Maybin had some pretty graphic thoughts about the digestive powers of Panda Express, not realizing that the CEO of the company happens to be a minority owner of Maybin’s newest employer, the Padres.
On a far more somber note, both the Central and Pacific Leagues of Nippon Professional Baseball will start regular season play on April 12 in order to accommodate teams and fans affected by the horrific earthquake and tsunami. Opening Day had been originally scheduled for March 25. Ichiro gave a Y100 million ($1.2 million) contribution to the Red Cross. Hideki Matsui donated Y50 million ($600,000).
In North America, the season begins today. Let us hope that the 2011 campaign will be the most exciting one yet, irrespective of whether my fearless prediction of a White Sox sweep of the Phillies in the World Series amounts to anything.
— Jason Epstein, a diehard Mets fan and Nationals season-tickets holder, is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC.