November 2011

Blood Brothers

It may seem like every sector of the economy is in free fall, but oh so quietly, Major League Baseball is thriving.  The Rangers and Astros have recently been sold.  The former went for almost 600 million, and the latter for just over 600 million.  Nolan Ryan and Jim Crane weren’t born yesterday.  They had to be almost certain that the revenue would cover the debt service.  In other words, there’s a lot of money flowing through the system and a lot of it is yours,whether you know it or not.

For as long as I can remember, baseball has been fervently trying to reach the 18-25 year old demographic.  Almost accidentally, they finally succeeded by going on line.  MLB.com has been a cash cow and, unlike local TV and radio, it benefits all clubs equally.  This is why you haven’t heard any agonizing compaints from small market teams lately.  And it is why a new Basic Agreement was signed yesterday with barely a hint of acrimony.  No, the Rays can’t spend money like the Yankees and Red Sox.  But they can stay in business.

Several things got my attention when the new deal was announced last week.  First, there were more shackles put on amateur free agents.  With strict limits on amateur bonuses, agent Scott Boros has threatened to steer his young clients toward football and basketball.  I’m sure most GMs would say good riddance.

Personally, I think it’s a good idea to limit the amount the teams can play for untested ballplayers.  Many of them, including a lot of first round picks, will never make it to the big leagues.  And, the ones that do will not win any popularity contests.  The journeyman ballplayers, who signed for a pittance and worked for low pay for many years riding buses in the minor leagues, are generally, and justifiably irritated when the #1 pick in the June draft drives into town in a Mercedes to be showcased in front of the big league staff.

Now, you have to make it to the big leagues to dine in the club car of the Money Train.  The minimum salary for major league players is now nearly half a million dollars, and established stars will benefit too.  Because the number of Type A free agents has been reduced, there won’t be as many players who qualify for compensatory draft picks.   So, the rich players will get richer and the rest will benefit from trickle down largesse.  This is how it should be.  Prove it first; then get paid!

I know many, if not most fans think the multi million dollar players are overpaid.  But that’s built into the system and Ryan and Crane knew it when they bought their teams.  How much does Justin Bieber make anyway?

These issues are important, but they are page two stories.  The headlines proclaim “HGH Testing Part of Labor Deal.”  If you read into the story, you find that this testing is limited to this spring and the next off season.  In-season testing will be studied but not implemented this year.  Although the player’s union has steadfastly opposed drug testing, it is hard to take that stance from a PR standpoint.  My guess is that with a foot in the door on blood tests, the tests will eventually be used during the season too in coming years.

This should be a relief to any player who is not hoping to set a new home run record, which means all of them.  I can imagine the anguish many players experienced when they took their first dose of steroids.  It would have bothered me, but I probably would have taken the medicine.  Sure, many players took the plunge gladly.  But there had to be a lot of guys who felt compelled to take the juice out of self defense.  Now, it’s likely, the playing field will be level — at least until they come up with a drug that can’t be detected or a better masking agent.

The amazing thing to me is that it’s been 21 years since the players and owners have gone to war.  Before that, every renewal of the Basic Agreement was attended by a work stoppage, and bad blood among all parties, including fans.  So, now we are free to play ball for at least five years.  By that time, Ryan and Crane will know for sure whether a big league team in Texas is worth 600 million dollars.

Losing Barmes

At this point, losing Clint Barmes doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not.  But it could mean something next year, beyond saving money for the future and giving the kids a chance.  It could mean that the Astros enter 2012 without any veteran presence except for Carlos Lee.

“So what,” you say.  “They’re not going to contend for the playoffs anyway.”  And you’re right.

But finding a steady shortstop is hard to do.  When I was managing, the position was filled by Tim Bogar and Ricky Gutierrez.  They were both good with the glove, but neither was a run producer.  It worked for us because we had a load of big bats, and our pitchers didn’t have to look over their shoulders every time a ground ball was hit to short.

The Astros have signed a number of potential replacements this fall, some of them with limited time at SS in the big leagues.  The also have Angel Sanchez, who has played short adequately, but with limited range in each of the last two years.  He’s a pretty good contact hitter, but has no power and seldom walks.  If he stays healthy, he could fill the gap between 2012 and say 2014.  By then, he’ll have a veteran presence — probably not the kind of presence a team wants.

Barmes is already the kind a team does want.  I wish him well with the Pirates and, if he plays like he did in the second half of last year, he will be a bargain at 10 million for two years.  He handled the situation with class, going out of his way to mention that he was happy in Houston.  He knows he doesn’t fit into the rebuilding plans here.  He is a professional ballplayer.  And that’s something the Astros may miss next year.

I’ve been through rebuilding efforts several times with the Astros and I don’t recall them ever going into a season with so few veteran players that the young guys can go to for council.  They really don’t need any veterans to rebuild the team physically.  But it may have been useful to spend a little money and keep Barmes just for the abstract notion of “team pride.”

That’s easy for me to say because it’s not my money.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a dime on a big time free agent at this juncture.   But, as a pitcher or a manager, I wouldn’t want to go into a season with the shortstop position so unsettled.  The Astros have one more option that has not been mentioned in anything I’ve read.  And that is Tommy Manzella.  Manzella can play the kind of shortstop that gives pitcher’s comfort.  He was the starting SS in 2010 and he didn’t hit a lick.  He played short at AAA last year and still didn’t hit.  He probably never will.  But the Orioles of old had a shortstop named Mark Belanger who never hit for 18 years!  He was a veteran presence on many championship teams.

Two other positions are so important that you can overlook hitting — catcher and centerfield.   Jason Castro got hurt last year and it was the worst break the team had all year.  Not only did he miss a full season of learning to hit a the highest level. but more importantly, he missed a year of catching young pitchers that he will likely be catching for years to come.  He didn’t need the extra reps behind the plate.  He’s already ahead of the curve in the physical aspects of the job.  He reminds me of Brad Ausmus in that way and could become a better hitter.

Centerfield is another story.  One of the feel good stories of the 2010 season was the emergence of Jason Beorgeois.  He can play center, but he’s no spring chicken.  They also have Jordan Shafer, a left handed hitter who came over in the Michael Bourn trade from the Braves.  Neither of them can replace Bourn, on or off the field.  Fact is, the Astros not only lost their four best players, Bourn, Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt in the last two years.  Every one of them was a winner in every way.

It’s hard to sustain the loss of talent;  losing the men that define you as a team is a tough loss too.  Barmes was that type of guy.  If the young guys make progress, Castro settles in, and the pitching holds up, the Barmes loss will be inconsequential.  By the time the Astros can contend, he will probably be a backup shortstop anyway.  But the Astros still have to play 162 games next year and the year after that.  They need someone to “step up” as they say.  And I’m not sure who that’s going to be.

 

 

Astros Fans Outraged

Outrage is not too strong a word to describe the reaction of Astros fans to the team’s realignment into the American League West.  It’s a typical reaction: “Why me.”

Indeed, why Houston?  Baseball in this city started with the Houston Buffs, a Cardinals farm team.  The Buffs were replaced by the Colt 45’s in 1962 and the 45’s became the Astros in 1965.  The connection goes back as least as far as 1940.  Many fans remember that the Brewers used to be in the American League and wonder why they don’t go back to the A. L.

The reason is simple.  They refuse.  So do all the other teams in the N. L. Central.  As a matter of fact, no N. L. owner would agree to move.  And, if you polled the A. L. owners about moving to the N. L. most, if not all of them, would jump at the chance.  As with most controversial subjects in and out of baseball, all you have to do is follow the money trail.   A good DH is far more expensive than a utility infielder or outfielder.

Beyond that,  many good fans prefer the National League game.  The decision about whether to pinch hit for the pitcher or not creates excruciating managerial decisions.  And, the managers like that.  It’s like chess versus checkers.  I have asked virtually every manager who has managed in both leagues about it.  To a man, Joe Torre, Lou Pinella,  Bobby Valentine, Tony LaRussa, Jimmy Leyland, Bobby Cox and Buck Rodgers, prefer the old-fashioned version of the game.

However, you don’t always get what you want.  Each of them served time in the A. L. because there was no choice.  They took Hobson’s Choice, just like Jim Crane, the new Astros owner.  So, my advice to Astros fans is, “get over it.”  The commissioner couldn’t force an owner to move, but he could withhold approval from a prospective owner.  I know background checks and equity positions were part of it.  But my instinct tells me that it didn’t take six months to get the deal done because of those considerations.  I think it was about money.  And the final deal pretty much confirms that.  Crane wouldn’t agree to move without compensation, which he got.  Instead of paying 680 million for the team he ended up paying 610 million.

The price reduction addressed two issues.  First, starting in 2013, the team will play all west coast night games at 9 or 9:30 Central Time.  These games will not make anywhere near the revenue that prime time games generate.  And that’s another reason the fans are upset.  Most of them have to go to work in the morning.  They can’t stay up half the night to watch the game.  The second consideration is the price of a good DH.

I’m not wild about the American League relocation either.  But I have already gotten over it.  I will still see the greatest players on the planet do all the things they do so well.  It’s not like accepting the replacement players that the owners took to spring training in 1995 to try to scare the real players into capitulating in the negotiations for a new Basic Agreement.  That would have been hard to accept.

But what is hard for me to understand is the reasons for the move.  MLB wants to add another Wild Card team.  So, is that impossible with six teams in the N. L. Central and only four in the A. L. West?  Do you have to have five teams in each division for competitive balance?  I think not.  Competitive balance has a lot more to do with the quality of the teams in a division, than the quantity.  When I was playing for the Astros, we were in the N. L. West.  We had the late start times on the West Coast, so it’s not like we haven’t been there before.  But we also had the Dodgers and Reds in our division, which was like being the Blue Jays in the A. L. East now.  They could probably contend in the other two divisions in the A. L. but not in the East.  There were several years when I thought we could have won the N. L. East back in the early seventies.  But what could we do but get over it.

All of us have moments in our lives when we feel like we are being treated unfairly, but can’t do anything about it.  We grouse and complain, and then we move on.   That is our only choice now.  If you want to hold on to bitterness and anger, be my guest.  My advice would be to let it go and go on with your life.  This move isn’t going to kill anybody.  And if it turns out to be a mistake, it can be corrected.

I think the biggest mistake is having 30 teams to begin with.  the number makes scheduling clumsy and in 2013 we will have interleague games spread throughout the season.  Interleague play has been popular and attendance numbers prove it.  But interleague games have been played in May and June, when it is a pleasant diversion.  The second half of the season has been comprised of intraleague play, which is the best format for a pennant race.  I don’t think the fans will support interleague play as well when it occurs throughout the year.  If I’m right, it will affect revenue, and the money trail will not lead to the desired destination.

Neither fans nor owners are going to like it when the races come down the stretch and their opponents are playing a weak team from the other league, while their team is facing stiffer competition.  If I’m right, there will either be another expansion of two teams, getting the numbers to 16 teams in each league, which would make scheduling much easier.  Or their will be a modification of the interleague schedule.  Either way, it would require another adjustment.

If you don’t like the weather in Houston, someone will tell you, “Stick around, it’ll change.”    I would tell Astros fans the same thing.