Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dr. Kei

The Yankees have won the rights to sign Hanshin Tigers lefthander Kei Igawa, nicknamed "Dr. Kei" in Japan. As the name suggests, Igawa has been a strikeout pitcher for the Tigers, leading the Nippon League's Central League in strikeouts three out of the last six seasons, including this past season. In 2003, he was the Central Leagues' Cy Young and MVP. He's the ace of his team, one of the best pitchers in Japan, and he's 27 years old, so he should be in his prime.

Those are the positives. Igawa reportedly posted for $26 million; or roughly half of what the Red Sox paid to secure Daisuke Matsuzaka's negotiating rights. But Matsuzaka was considered one of those special talents--the guys who are all the way on the righthand side of the bell curve: a Roger Clemens, or Pedro Martinez, or Johan Santana. They're worth a premium. Igawa isn't considered half the talent that Matsuzaka is, even if he has enough talent to be a top performer in Japan. The scouting description of Igawa's pitches: high 80s-low 90s fastball (looks like he throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer), plus change, average slider, curve he only shows to lefties--this is not an incredibly rare combination. Sure, there's more to pitching than velocity, and the assesment of Igawa is based mainly on his appearance in the MLB/Japan All-Star matchup earlier this month--an exhibition in which Igawa pitched after a six-week layoff.

The comparison I've seen most often is David Wells, but wells never profiled as a big strikeout guy, and Igawa doesn't look to have David's pinpoint control. Say the fact, no one comes to mind that really resembles him--you don't see many lefties get big strikeout numbers who can't crank the fastball into the 90s, and most of the successful lefties starters don't throw up in the zone as much as Igawa does. Pitchers that came to mind when I was watching him were guys like Doug Davis, Jim Abbott, or maybe Andy Pettitte.

Anyway, the Yanks' high bid for Igawa sounds like a "me, too" move, after the Red Sox won the bidding on Matsuzaka. They've now got the second-best pitcher available, but a guy who is probably not in the first-best pitcher's league, and they've paid as much to get these negotiating rights as most people figured that Matsuzaka's negotiating rights would go for. It could be that this is the new market for pitching--contracts are getting more expensive, so it's worth more to acquire exclusive rights to negotiate with a given player.

Or it could be that the Yanks are higher on Igawa than the scouting report would suggest--in the 2004 Baseball Prospectus annual, Clay Davenport translated Igawa's performance to a 4.08 ERA--comparable to the 3.93 translated ERA he got for Matsuzaka. Still, even that comparison saw Matsuzaka as one baserunner per nine innings and one strikeout per nine better than Igawa--and the trend lines have diverged substantially since then.

The last option is that the Yanks panicked, were purely in a defensive mode, put back on their heels after misjudging the market for Matsuzaka by some $20 million. This makes some sense, but it's important to remember that this money is not worth the same to the Yankees as it is to other teams because of the luxury tax. Since for every dollar of salary the Yankees pick up, they have to pay $0.40 to the Major League Central Fund, every non-taxable dollar the Yankees spend on player acquisitions is really only worth about $0.71. So that $26 million posting feeis the same as a $18.6 million contract expenditure for the Yankees--this is closer in line with the Mets' reported bid of $15 million (the Mets are unlikely to have to pay any luxury tax this season, so they don't get a discount). The Yanks expect to sign Igawa for far less than the eight figure-per-year salary Scott Boras is looking to get D-Mat--some are reporting it could be as little as $4.5 million per season over four years. Under those terms, the Yankees' outlay would be in line with a four-year, $31 million contract.

So the key is to keep expectations low. Despite his nickname, we're not looking at a Dwight Gooden-type phenom, here. The hope is a competent back-of-the-rotation starter, someone who can give you innings. Someone better than Ted Lilly. Because if we get our hopes farther up than that, Igawa might need to show his second nickname: Iron Nerves.

  • You'll notice I wasn't talking about the Yankees receiving a kickback from Hanshin. That's because major league baseball has carefully spelled out that there's no kickbacks allowed. Now, the fact that kickbacks aren't allowed doesn't stop it from happening in a number of other real-world industries and contexts, but for now, we'll take MLB at its word and hope that the Yanks and Red Sox don't try to cheat on their posting bids.
  • Speaking of the Red Sox, I'm quoted in Maury Brown's Biz of Baseball website with regard to the negotiation strategy of Scott Boras. Here's a link, and here's a blurb:
My contention is that it is in the Lions' best interest to get this deal done. It also is in Scott Boras’ best interest, as well, as this year sees a shallow free agency pool, and the aforementioned spike in salary figures. Next off-season sees a far deeper pool of talent, and it may well be that the giddy nature of owners, coupled with clubs like the Cubs driving values up, dissipating. Sending Matsuzaka back to the Lions would be embarrassing for Matsuzaka, and would bring up all kinds of questions about the entire posting process.

That is a case if Boras is just thinking of the Matsuzaka deal in a vacuum.

Derek Jacques, another one of my Baseball Prospectus colleagues plays devil’s advocate when it comes to Boras. It may be that Barry Zito, another Boras client, fits into the equation, as well.

Jacques counters my point by saying:

I don't know if it's in Boras's best interests to make this fly. Boras's M.O. has been to use his clients to set new salary standards--which then benefit his other clients, and by association, his bottom line. He's done this to the point of occasionally sacrificing a particular client rather than missing an opportunity to set the market. I presume it wouldn't fit into this strategy if part of Matsuzaka's compensation were hidden through Seibu--if he takes a below-market bid on Matsuzaka, he can't use that contract to get the Mets to bid up on Barry Zito. It might be better for Boras if Matsuzaka hits the free agent market next off-season, so he can get a bidding war going without the posting fee complicating things.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Movie Review: Babel

Complaining that a movie called "Babel" is confusing should be some kind of irony. What's stranger still, is that the confusion has nothing to do with the plot, which is fairly straightforward. A couple of Moroccan kids, trying out a new rifle, accidentally shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett). The tourist and her husband (Brad Pitt) have left their kids in the care of a Mexican nanny. Their emergency means that they're counting on the nanny to miss her son's wedding in Mexico, so that she can take care of their kids. In Japan, a deaf-mute teen is angry about her mother's death, and anxious about the fact that she's still a virgin.

If one of these things doesn't seem like the others, you see where this is going. I must be getting old, because ten years ago I absolutely never would have objected to a cute Japanese nymphomaniac being gratuitously tossed into a movie. But in Babel, the Tokyo-set storyline really belongs in another film. It’s visually impressive and sometimes insightful, but it doesn’t really match the other storylines, despite paying lip service to the themes of language barriers and cultural misunderstanding.

Actually, that’s a little bit backwards. It’s the other segments that are paying lip service to the miscommunication theme announced in the title and in the advertising. Even though Pitt and Blanchett are strangers in Morocco, their lack of language skills never really impacts upon their plight—there is at least one native in their group who speaks English pretty well, and is willing to translate and help. Similarly, the Mexican Nanny speaks English fairly well, as does her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal of The Science of Sleep), and the tourists’ kids seem to understand their nanny regardless of whether she’s speaking English or Spanish. Meanwhile, the Moroccan goatherds who started the whole mess don’t face any language barrier at all—just the brutal local law enforcement officials, who seem eager to prove to the world that the tourists were attacked by bandits, not terrorists. Only Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl, has difficulty communicating with the world around her as the main reason for her problems.

The Moroccan kids are undone by a childish mistake. The American tourists have the phenomenal bad luck of getting shot by a stray bullet while in the middle of nowhere. Other characters demonstrate a complete lack of sense by cavalierly crossing the US/Mexico border even though they're illegal, and driving through an American border checkpoint while drunk and possibly armed, and...I could say more, but then I'd be in spoilers territory. Let's just say that if the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and the screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, were not both from Mexico, they might come under some fire for the stupidity of their Mexican characters.

Arriaga's script is horribly uneven. There are good moments, such as a scene between Pitt and Blanchett where the conversation takes place almost completely in unfinished sentences and awkward pauses. It's beautifully written and acted, the dialogue coming in fragments as much because they have long-standing issues between them as because they've stopped listening to each other. But in other places, Arriaga's plot just doesn't make sense. Sure, it sounds topical that the U.S. would blame terrorism and create an international incident over an accidental shooting in a Muslim country, but the story wants us to believe that the same day that Blanchett's character has been shot, the U.S. has taken control of the roads in Morocco. I know we're an overbearing, empirialist superpower, and Morocco's a small, poor country, but it would take more than a few hours to stage an invasion, even if we thought Brad Pitt's life might be in danger.

Inarritu's direction makes up for some of this. The film is shot beautifully, and has long stretches with little or no dialogue. When Inarritu's busy showing us how people live, it's a whole lot easier to suspend disbelief. The wedding in Mexico is breathtaking, as are the mountains of Morocco, and just about every one of the scenes set in Japan. But even with these beautiful visual touches, the intercutting of the storylines breaks up each story's rhythm. Things will be building to crisis in one storyline, and then that storyline will be put on the backburner, until you've almost forgotten it, eliminating all the urgency and tension that had built up. Imagine throwing scenes from Lost in Translation into the TV show 24, as a season-long storyline. That's how jarring it is.

Despite all that, this movie is recommended, for its ambition, if nothing else. The performances are solid all around, and Rinko Kikuchi, the young woman who plays Chieko, is amazing. I spent a fair share of time with hearing impaired and deaf teens, and Ms. Kikuchi's performance is flawless. I wish I could say the same for Babel.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Movie Review: Casino Royale

On Filmspotting--one of my favorite podcasts--the co-hosts, Adam and Sam, talked about the trailer for the newest James Bond film, Casino Royale. The trailer starts out in black and white with grittier, more realistic scenes of the new Bond, Daniel Craig, kicking butt, followed by color scenes depicting the kind of sprawling action set pieces, chases and such for which the Bond franchise has become famous.

The question the Filmspotting hosts had is that the black and white segment looked interesting, while the color action sequences looked like more of the same from a franchise that has become stuck in a rut of flavorless, unbelievable, over-the-top action. It was not promising to learn that this new Bond would be directed by Martin Campbell, director of the previous Bond's debut, 1995's GoldenEye. GoldenEye was the very image of Bond mediocrity--not an unpleasant film, but rather safe and generic. So what was it going to be: a new direction for Bond or more of the same?

The answer, happily, is a new direction for our favorite British spy. Casino Royale does a Batman Begins to the Bond franchise, re-starting it, showing an origin story of sorts, and bringing the franchise away from camp and toward a more realistic focus. The plot of Casino Royale is simple. There's a criminal called Le Chifre who's a financier for terrorist organizations. He winds up owing his clients a ton of money, so he organizes a high-stakes (like, $10 million per head) poker tournament to make the money back. The new Double-O agent, James Bond, is sent out to make sure Le Chifre loses the tournament, so that the Brits can squeeze him for information on his terrorist contacts.

That's it. There are no death rays or invisible cars in this film--not even the old laser beam-in-a-watch. When this Bond takes a beatdown--or, even more surprisingly, when he kills someone--there's copious blood and a lot of dry cleaning involved. Not to mention fewer one-liners.

This all works with Craig in the lead, for all the same reasons that so many folks thought casting Craig was a disaster. Craig's face, handsome, but craggy and worn even at the age of thirty-eight, reflects the fact that many of the things Bond does aren't pretty. He's the first Bond since Sean Connery whose presence could really be considered menacing. At the same time, Craig's face is expressive enough that he can show the newbie awkwardness with which Bond first dons his signature tux or registers his first kill. Oh, and the guy's cut like a piece of granite, which helps sell those fight scenes.

His supporting cast is a mixed bag. Eva Green is terrific as the first Bond girl ever to have a realistic reaction to someone being killed in front of her eyes. Dame Judi Dench is predictably gruff as M, the only cast member from previous films to reprise her role in Casino. However, Mads Mikkelsen doesn't really register as Le Chifre--a stony poker face is requisite in poker, I suppose, but not such a big advantage in acting.

As much as I enjoyed Casino Royale, it wasn't perfect. There are some serious pacing problems for the film, which is nearly two and a half hours long. As Brother T says, it suffered from Return of the King's problem, where the movie looked like it was over, then started up again, three or four times. The action sequences, some of which were innovative and exciting, often ran a bit too long.

But the length of the film is somewhat justified by all the exposition they pack in between those action sequences. The main body of the movie is based around the poker tournament, the development of the relationship between Craig's Bond and Green's Vesper Lynd, and lots and lots of talking. It was great to see a Bond film in which they actually bother to develop characters, and I'm happy to say that the most tense sequence in any Bond film in at least a decade has absolutely nothing to do with guns, explosives or fighting. That's pretty cool, and well worth a few slow spots in the film.

Recommended, highly recommended if you're a Bond fan. A few random notes:
  • Since it is a vital part of any James Bond film, I have to remark that the opening credits sequence was very disappointing. The playing-card motif looked like something out of the 60's, just without the comforting silhouttes of nude women. Chris Cornell's theme song was just bland, the most forgettable entry since Sheryl Crow's song for Tomorrow Never Dies. Why doesn't someone just put Portishead on retainer for this job? They can't possibly do a worse job...
  • It's nice that someone remembered that James Bond is supposed to be a spy. During the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan tenures, the character morphed into a paramilitary man of action, who didn't seem to have much use for snooping around in other people's affairs, preferring to stick with violence and extreme sports.
  • Martin Campbell has one of the stranger resumes I've ever seen for a director. It includes one movie--a 1991 made-for-cable effort called Cast a Deadly Spell--which I absolutely love, and another--1988's Criminal Law--which is one of the most befuddling and disjointed disasters I've ever seen (Gary Oldman's performance in Criminal Law is so over-the-top that the film is a so-bad-it's-good classic). He directed some of the best episodes of one of the best TV series ever (in season one of Homicide: Life on the Street), as well as some middling, but reasonably enjoyable, action films like the Mask of Zorro and No Escape. The guy was all over the place.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Moving Forward

Season's been over for almost a month. The awards are all given out. It's not quite chilly enough outside to light up the hot stove.

Welcome to baseball's no-man's land. Thanksgiving week is usually baseball's quiet time, with things picking up again during the winter meetings (even though those have been quieter than usual the last few years). So we're looking at a quiet week, with the possibility of no real baseball news--and particularly no Yankees news, since there aren't any free agents the Yanks are clearly courting right now. I have a few film reviews stored up, so we'll start seeing those this week (reviews of Babel and Casino Royale should be up in the next 24 hours), and I'll start gearing up for a look back at the season (and forward to 2007). Otherwise, things should be rather quiet...but you never know.

So, here's a quick rundown of the scant news pickings for the week:

Anthony McCarron in the Daily News has a profile of the Yankees' new hitting coach, Kevin Long. Interesting side note from this article is that Long apparently has an existing relationship with Alex Rodriguez. This seems to follow my theory of Mattingly's bench coach assignment being more a matter of being kicked upstairs rather than a true promotion. I also wonder how much authority Long is going to have as long as the prior hitting coach--unlike Long, a former major league star--is still on the coaching roster.

You knew Derek Jeter would land on his feet. I guess it's easier to take an MVP loss when you can console yourself in the arms of Jessica Biel. And yes, if Biel wants to make out at an exhibit of religious artifacts--or during Schindler's List, the Passion of the Christ, or An Inconvenient Truth, for that matter--you make out. No questions asked.

Speaking of the MVP vote, it seems like BWAA as a whole has patched over this dead news cycle by defending themselves and their brethren from accusations of stupidity on the Jeter/Morneau vote (and to a much lesser extent on the Pujols/Howard vote). In the New York Post, Mike Vaccaro argues that Jeter is the victim of a Bronx Bias, which is an idea that has some merit. So long as Jeter's surrounded by eight-figure salaries and all-stars, folks who believe that there's an "East Coast Bias" will always have an excuse not to recognize his accomplishments.

Lightning rod Joe Cowley (no relation to the onetime Yankees pitcher of the same name) has made himself a household name for not only dropping Jeter to the sixth spot on his ballot and excluding Joe Mauer altogether, but he also gave gave A.J. Pierzynski a 10th place vote. This has, of course, led to radio appearances across the country (like this one, with Mike and the Mad Dog, hat tip to Baseball Primer) for Cowley to engage in "debate" over his choice. Cowley, a White Sox beat writer who had already had his award voting priviliges suspended once before (for making a Chicago "homer" ballot in 2003) uses his ballot to suck up to players who gave him good quotes (as, apparently, Pierzynski did) and gets to be a conversation piece for national discussion. I guess that's the way that obscure jerks like Cowley become bigger jerks like Jay Mariotti.

All of this--the articles, the radio appearances, even the outraged reaction of geeks like me on the Internets--is the point of the BWAA voting on awards. Morneau doesn't get voted in because the writers are stupid or lazy. He gets voted in because it's boring if everyone agrees who the MVP is. By making dingbat, contrarian decisions, the voters create more opportunities to bloviate about why those contrarian positions were right or wrong. There was a movie a few years ago called "Our Brand is Crisis," about James Carville and other American political consultants working on a presidential campaign in Bolivia. The BWAA's motto should be "Our Brand is Controversy."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coronation Interrupted

Don't get too cocky. It should be a Yankee fan mantra by now, on the order of "Don't believe Carl Pavano" and "Never pitch to David Ortiz." It's hard to keep from getting carried away if you root for the Bronx Bombers, since the huge media presence in the Big Apple and surrounding metro area make for an echo chamber, which creates self-reinforcing impressions. Such as "Eric Duncan's a top prospect" (nope, he wasn't), "Chien Ming Wang was the second-best pitcher in the AL" (close, but no cigar), and "Derek Jeter is a shoo-in for MVP."

I allowed myself to get carried away in that last one. It just seemed like we'd hit on the right conditions for Jeter to win the league's top prize--first place team; Jeter the clear best player on the Yankees; second-best player in the league (Minnesota's Joe Mauer) having a couple of fellow candidates on his squad, to split up the vote (RBI machine Justin Morneau and Supernatural Johan Santana); middle-order mashers like David Ortiz and Travis Hafner being out of contention pretty early in the year. There hadn't been a season before this one where the Captain had this clear a shot at the award.

Yeah, that turned out to be wrong. The AL MVP results came in about an hour ago, and the writers snubbed the Captain in favor of Morneau, by a narrow 320-306 point margin. In terms of first place votes, Morneau was clearly the consensus pick, receiving 15 out of a possible 28, and no votes below 4th place. Jeter got 12 first place votes, 14 second place votes, one fourth-place vote and one sixth-place vote. The other first place vote that went to neither Jeter nor Morneau went to Morneau's teammate, AL Cy Young winner Santana.

The writers made a mistake, here. I could understand if Mauer won the award--he was the best hitter on the Twins; I could understand if Ortiz won the award, since he was probably the best hitter in the league, overall (the AL's best hitter, Cleveland DH Travis Hafner, suffered an injury-shortened season and a victory-challenged ballclub). Santana getting the nod would have burned a little--visions of the 1986 Clemens/Mattingly controversy in the air--but no one doubted that Santana (like Clemens 20 years ago) was at least the dominant pitcher in the league, by a wide margin.

Morneau is by all indications a nice guy. The first Canadian MVP winner (I think). He's someone I touted and stuck with on my fantasy team even when he was struggling to hit .200 in April. But he wasn't even the best player on his own team! Sure, the Twins came back to win the AL Central, and Morneau was a huge part of that resurgence, but remember: part of the reason they had to make a big comeback was because Morneau was killing the team early in the year. Morneau gets credited for the comeback, but not for the initial disappoinment.

I'm tempted to pull out the statistical measures--all the silly-sounding stats like WARP, VORP, EqA, and such--to show that Jeter deserved the award, and that Morneau was far from the next-most deserving candidate. But in a world where mainstream sportswriters would likely dismiss me as a stats-geek, I need to just point out that the MVP voters come off as the ones who are statistics-obsessed: they're simply obsessed with old-school statistics like RBI and home runs. Look back at the way they vote, and for all their talk of character and leadership and most valuable to their team, you'll see the "experts" are just a bunch of guys who look at homers and RBI.

Derek Jeter played a tougher position than Justin Morneau, on a better team. He hit better than Morneau did, just with fewer homers and ribbies. That's because he's a different kind of player than Morneau is, a kind of player who doesn't win the MVP award.

  • Given today's results, can we put to rest the legend of the East Coast bias? With bias like this, who needs enemies?
  • Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, the angle that's going to play out is that Jeter's "failure to support" Alex Rodriguez cost Jeter the MVP. Y'know, 'cause a leader supports his teammates. We have yet to see the end of the fallout from September's Sports Illustrated hatchet piece on Rodriguez. Unless someone finds a way to defuse this bomb, Jeter and A-Rod will go into 2007 with more reason to resent each other than ever.
  • This should really be its own column, but Mike Mussina is reportedly back in the fold, accepting a two-year $23 million contract to come back to the Yanks. Good timing, too, since the Mets are reportedly close to losing Tom Glavine, and might be trolling the avenues soon looking for more pitching. With the free agent market going crazy this winter, Mussina's deal seems fair in light of his 2006 performance.
  • In other news, Scott Proctor is being considered a candidate for the rotation. On the one hand, the Yankees have picked up a lot of righthanded middle relievers, which would free Proctor up for the rotation. On the other hand, this smells of a bluff by Cashman, which I will hereafter term a "Bubba" after Cashman's claims last winter that Bubba Crosby would be the Yankees' centerfielder in 2006. An example of usage: "The idea that Andy Phillips will be the starting first baseman in 2007 is a classic Bubba."
  • The Cubs sign Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year $136 million contract, and I wonder: does Jim Hendry realize that Soriano's birth year is 1976, not 1978 as it was when he first came up to the majors? The Cubs are betting that Soriano's going to be worth eight figures in 2014, at the age of 39; meanwhile, Hendry must be betting that he'll no longer be the GM of the Cubs when this contract starts to be a problem.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I Love You, You're Great, You're Fired!

Managers of the Year have been announced, with the manager of the American League Champions, the Tigers' Jim Leyland, and former Florida Marlins manager Joe Girardi winning it in the National League. A few notes on the awards:

  • Even though Leyland was the prohibitive favorite to win the award, his margin of victory over second place finisher Jim Gardenhire was less than Girardi's was in the National League. Some voters must have been swayed by Leyland's team's collapse down the stretch, which saw Gardenhire's Twins pass Detroit for the division lead on the final day of the season. Some folks complain about the shifting standards ("Sure he was the best player, but was he the most valuable to his team?") for the MVP award, but the Manager of the year is just as nebulous. Leyland was favored both because his Tigers team was excellent this year, and because the team wasn't expected to be anywhere near this good. But to some, it didn't make sense to give the award to Leyland over the man who passed him on the last day of the season--despite the fact that the Twins were considered a much better bet to win the Central last season, and indeed were one of the most disappointing teams in the game prior to their resurgence in the second half.
  • In the National League, the guy that Girardi whomped was also someone who finished ahead of him in his own division--far ahead of him. There have always been whispers that Willie Randolph is, as a manager, an angry, bitter guy. Whenever the cameras showed Randolph during the playoffs, La Chiquita always remarked about how upset he looked, regardless of the score. This perception, if true, is a big contrast to how I remember Willie as a player--I seem to recall him as one of the smilingest guys around. If he was bitter before, I'm sure that losing the Manager of the Year to a guy whose team finished three games under .500, and 19 games behind his, will certainly give him something to be bitter about. Willie did an excellent job this season, and fell victim to the hyperbole about how bad the Marlins were supposed to be this season (some commentators had them pegged to be the worst team ever before the season).
  • Getting to Girardi, the interesting thing here is that the reigning NL Manager of the Year will start the season as a studio personality for the YES Network. He won the award despite a very low-class anti-marketing campaign against him by his former boss, Jeff Loria. When Girardi and Loria had their falling-out at midseason, Loria had people leaking to the press moves that Girardi had wanted to make but was overruled by the front office--every time in situations where the player Girardi would have benched or sent to the minors was successful, or the player Girardi favored was not. They tried to get the idea out there that the Marlins won in spite of Girardi, rather than because of him--and that message seems to have been recognized for what it was, sour grapes from a twit intent on firing his manager as soon as possible.
  • I can't recall a manager of the year, or even any top finisher, getting canned before he received his award. In a year in which no manager was fired in-season, not only is Girardi Manager of the Year without a team, but the guy who finished in third place in the AL was fired after the season (Ken Macha, formerly of the A's) the fourth place finisher was apparently this close to getting fired (our own Joe Torre) and the third place finisher in the NL left his team to go manage a division rival (Bruce Bochy, formerly of the Padres and now of the San Francisco Giants). That's a lot of upheaval for one year.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The One with All the Bad Puns

Going Postal in Beantown

Daisuke Matsuzaka has posted, and if you're a Yankee fan, you're not going to like where.

The Red Sox won the blind bidding for the Japanese ace with a whopping bid of $51 million. To put this in context, when Ichiro Suzuki was posted by the Oryx Blue Wave before the 2001 season, the winning bid was $13 million. The rumors going into the posting process on Matsuzaka was that the bidding would likely exceed $20 million, perhaps go as high as $30 million.

No one dreamed of a $51 million bid, because--if you take the bid process seriously--posting at that figure would make it virtually impossible to make a deal with Matsuzaka, who's a Scott Boras client. Let's say you stretched the barriers for a pitcher deal, and gave Matsuzaka six years (there's no indication that Boras is actually looking for a deal that long, given that his client is only 26), that's like tacking $8.5 million to each year of the deal. So signing a guy for $10 million per year over six years--Carl Pavano money--becomes paying a guy $18.5 million per year over those six seasons--Roger Clemens money. And $10 million per season is a low figure given Matsuzaka's expectation.

Matsuzaka figures by every account to be the real deal, but we're still talking about a guy who hasn't thrown a single pitch in the big leagues, who has had elbow trouble in the past, and who has thrown a lot of pitches per start over the past few years. A $100 million is a lot of money to risk, even for the Red Sox.

You'll notice above the modifier I put on the financials analysis, "if you take the bid process seriously". Something stinks about the Red Sox bid, and there are a couple of loopholes to how the bid process working, that might tell us where the stink is coming from. First, is the possibility of a kickback of a large portion of the posting fee back to the Red Sox as they negotiate with Matsuzaka. Rumor is that back in 2000, the Mariners paid only a fraction of Ichiro's posting fee, per a side deal with Oryx. Kickbacks make sense for the Japanese team because they get no part of the posting fee if the posted player doesn't sign with the top bidder. So it makes sense, if the U.S. club needs money to make a deal with the player work out, that the Japanese team figures that 50% or 30% of the posting fee is better than getting nothing.

Still, kickbacks make a mockery of the bidding process, and I'd imagine that some of the other bidders--including the one in the Bronx--will take some care to make sure the Sox actually pay every penny of that posting bid, and get none of it back.

The other key issue, is something I mentioned above. If the winning bidder doesn't agree to a deal with Matsuzaka in 30 days, they lose nothing. From the Red Sox point of view, Matsuzaka presented two problems: a) the Sox need starting pitching, so they're interested in him, and b) the Yankees need starting pitching, so the Sox are interested in the Yankees not getting him. If you think about it in that context, the Red Sox almost had no alternative but to put in a crazy, huge bid, like they did.

The only way the Red Sox could be sure that Matsuzaka doesn't wind up in pinstripes is by winning the bidding. If some other team won, they might sign Matsuzaka and trade him to the Yanks for prospects plus the posting cash. By overbidding, the Red Sox make sure that they have, at the very least, blocked the Yankees. If Matsuzaka accepts a lowball offer, or Seibu comes up with a good enough kickback, the Sox get the big-shot pitcher of this off-season; if not, they lose nothing, and keep the Yankees from being able to negotiate with him.

Good faith negotiation is purely optional. It stinks, but it's the smart play.

Jaret Wright For the Birds

Since last we spoke, the Yankees ended their two-year association with Jaret Wright, eating the $4 million sunk cost they would have had to pay had they voided his contract, and sending Wright to the Orioles for yet another young righthanded reliever.

This time, the Yanks get Chris Britton, a rookie in 2006 who turns 24 in December. Britton had a pretty good season for the Orioles--3.35 ERA in 53 2/3 innings, with 10.6 adjusted runs prevented on the season. For context, that ARP number would have been third on the Yankee staff in 2006, behind Mariano Rivera (25.4) and Scott Proctor (21.3).

Nice job by the Yanks turning up something in return for Wright, a free agent mistake when he was signed away from the Braves in December, 2004. Wright re-joins O's pitching coach, Leo Mazzone--for whom he had his best season--and Baltimore gets a limited pitcher at a pretty nice price of $3 million. This could be a win-win all around.

Mets Shea Good-bye

The Mets announced yesterday that their new ballpark's naming rights had been sold to Citigroup, so the Metropolitans will play their future games at CitiField. If the new ballpark isn't an aesthetic upgrade on the Mets' current digs, or if there's a few losing seasons by the home team, CitiField could lend itself to some unfortunate and profane derivations.

I'm glad that--for the moment, at least--the Yanks have avoided all of this naming rights nonsense. Yes, it's a revenue stream, but one that's made so many ballparks generic--I sometimes have a hard time differentiating Petco from Safeco, PNC from PacBell, Great American from Comerica and U.S. Cellular. So far, the Yanks haven't gone for that revenue source, perhaps because the Yankee brand is so valuable to them.

Shea Stadium, named after William Shea, attorney, sports enthusiast, and political operator, was part of the Mets' history, going so far as threatening to start a third major league in order to prevail upon the National League and convince it to expand. Something will be lost when the Stadium bearing his name is given back to the giant parking lot in Flushing Meadow. Not because the building itself was any great shakes--in my humble opinion, Shea Stadium's ugly, warehouselike, and more than a little run down. It'll be a shame because one more distinctive thing about the Mets will have gone generic, the same way that the Mets' network, SNY, has a name you'd have a hard time picking out of a lineup.

Friday, November 10, 2006

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good-Bye...

The reign of the Iron Sheff is over, as Gary Sheffield is dealt to the Detroit Tigers for three pitching prospects. Everyone comes away happy--the Tigers needed more sluggerlyness, the Yankees add some more depth to their minor league pitching, and Sheffield even gets the two-year extension that he was looking for. All around, a win-win.

The guys acquired, are all righthanded pitchers, and two of them made last years Baseball America list of Detroit's top prospects. Humberto Sanchez, the #6 guy on that list, will be 24 next season. He was awesome at AA last season 5-3, 1.76 ERA, 86 K in 71 2/3 innings; then held his own at AAA, 5-3, 3.86 ERA, 43 K in 51 1/3 IP. Part of his performance drop as a Mud Hen has to do with the forearm/elbow strain that ended Sanchez's season in August. He's a big guy, for whom conditioning is a concern--but he has big-time stuff.

Kevin Wheelan, the #10 guy on BA's list, is a late convert to pitching, moving over from catcher when he was in college at Texas A & M. He'll be 23 in January, and he spent 2006 in high-A ball. Wheelan's been used as a minor league closer, and his repetoire consists of a mid-90s fastball and a wicked split finger. This season, he attempted to integrate a slider into the mix. Wheelan had a 2.67 ERA and 27 saves in the FSL, striking out 69 and walking 29 in 54 innings. The walks are deceptive--in the first half of the season, he had a wild streak in which he walked 20 in 22 1/3 innings, which skewed his season totals.

Anthony Claggett's another minor league reliever, sporting a 0.91 ERA in the Midwest League. Claggett's stuff is supposed to be average, but accentuated by a "deceptive" delivery. Not sure what that means, but his numbers show a substantial platoon split.

Suddenly, it seems, the Yankees are swimming in young pitching. Baseball America's list of top Yankees prospects was released this week, and eight of the top ten were righthanded pitchers (in order: Philip Hughes, Dellin Betances, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Chris Garcia, Tyler Clippard, J. Brent Cox, and Mark Melancon). Add some of the fringier Yanks prospects, like Jeff Karstens, Darrell Rasner, Jeff Marquez, Matt DeSalvo, Jose Veras and Steven White, and that's a lot of arms that the Yanks are holding in reserve. The rule of pitching prospects is "quality in quantity." Some of these guys are sure to fall by the wayside--among Wheedon, Melancon, Cox, Veras, and Brian Bruney, not all of them can possibly be "the heir to Mariano Rivera." But having depth increases the chance that one of them will pan out to step into those (HUGE!) shoes.

Right now, Hughes, Sanchez, and Clippard should make for a great AAA rotation, with Cox as their closer, in Scranton's first year of affiliation with the Yanks. At Trenton, we might see Wheelan and Claggett battling it out for relief innings in the bullpen, while the Yankees' second bumper crop, 2006 draftee starters Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy and closer Mark Melancon team up with 2004 high school draftee Chris Garcia at Tampa, and local product Dellin Betances follows at Charleston or perhaps even in the short-season league at Staten Island.

Sanchez, Wheelan and Claggett are a fine haul to bring back in return for Sheffield, a guy who'd lost his role on this team, had campaigned to be made a free agent, and whose contractual issues figured to be a distraction going forward. Despite some strong rhetoric earlier, I'll be a little sad to watch Sheff go. For all the side issues he brought to the table, he was a great hitter, never an easy out, and--despite his whininess--a consumate professional. Looking back at the 2004 and 2005 Yankees, if you had one at bat--say, man on second, one run down with two outs in the bottom of the ninth--was there any Yankee you'd rather have at the plate than Sheffield?

So I'm not so happy that Sheffield stays in the AL, and particularly not that he goes to a dangerous contender, the team that knocked the Yanks out of the playoffs this season. Still, given that the alternative was letting Sheffield go to the highest bidder for no return at all, I'm glad this deal is done. I'd really be wishing Sheff the best with his new team, if it weren't for the fact that the Yanks will be facing him, frequently and possibly in the playoffs again.

[Yeah, I know, I better hope La Chiquita doesn't read this entry...]

What I can say is vaya con Dios, Gary. It was a pleasure having you on my favorite team.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Golden Threepeat

Luis Aparicio. Roy McMillan. Mark Belanger. Dave Concepcion. Ozzie Smith. Tony Fernandez. Barry Larkin. Omar Vizquel. Rey Ordonez. Derek Jeter.

Apologies for dredging up old news from last week, but Derek Jeter earned his third straight American League Gold Glove at shortstop--joining the other nine guys above as the only fellows to win three in a row in the 50-year history of the Gold Glove award. Let's put it another way: Jeter now has more gold gloves than Cal Ripken. Or Maury Wills. Or Alex Rodriguez.

For the first eight seasons of his career, most fielding statistics had Jeter as the one of, if not the, worst shortstops out there. The data--most of it, at least--says that over the last three seasons, Jeter has improved dramatically from his previous defensive level. That "dramatic improvement," was from horrible to average, perhaps a bit above. None of the metrics I've seen have actually placed Jeter as the best shortstop in the AL, or even in the top three, for the last three seasons.

Jeter, always a test case for the sabermetric point-of-view of defense, now takes things to the next level. All the other names in that first paragraph have legacies as elite defenders. When people look back at Jeter's defense, will they put Jeter on that same pedestal? Or will folks remember the ugly defensive early-career performance described by the stats? If it's the latter, will the gold gloves be at all relevant to future generations of baseball fans?

Those are not rhetorical questions. Feel free to speak up in the comments.


In other news, the Yankees are reported to be mulling a repurchase of 40% of the Houston Astros' pitching rotation, for one last pinstriped hurrah. It's an enticing idea, but I thought collusion rules were initially put in place to prevent a couple of players from coordinating their actions in signing with a team (for those who don't know, the collusion rules were a reaction to a joint holdout by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale some forty years ago).?


Gary Sheffield gave the Yankees a list of places to which he'd rather be traded. Nice idea, Gary, better than "you trade for me and there will be trouble." But a bit irrelevant.

Let's put it this way. Lots of people I know make up these imaginary lists of "freebies"--that is, famous-type folks that their significant other would allow them to have a fling with if the opportunity were available. So, for example, the guy agrees that his wife could hook up with Brad Pitt if he came a-knockin' on the door, while the wife gives her husband the green light to get a little somethin'-somethin' from Jessica Alba, should they happen to be locked in an elevator together, or somesuch. The whole thing works because it's a ludicrous fantasy--presumably Salma Hayek doesn't go around the country looking up all the guys (and heck, probably at least some girls) that have put her on their lists. She doesn't care.

The Yanks shouldn't care about what's on Gary Sheffield's list. Gary would accept a trade to the White Sox? That's nice. You say the Royals are offering Alex Gordon? Get used to scenic Kaufman Stadium, Gary!

[By the way, lest I start getting hatemail from the Midwest Sabermetric Mafia, not serious about Gordon. I'd happily take Billy Butler in his stead. OK, ok, seriously, Andrew Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos would be plenty, for sure.]

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Benching Donnie Baseball

It's been a quiet week so far, with the big news coming in the form of a coaching shuffle that sends Lee Mazzilli packing, shifts Don Mattingly from his present job as hitting coach to the more nebulous role of "bench coach," and calls for a new batting coach--the name that's heard most and loudest is AAA Columbus hitting coach Kevin Long--taking over for Donnie Baseball.

Most of the news coverage has been focused on what Mattingly being appointed bench coach says about the Yankee line of succession. It's a fuzzy position--even fuzzy by coaching standards--but the bench coach is considered a consiglieri to the manager, a strategic assistant, the guy who manages the team if the manager gets ejected. As such, the bench coach position is considered by some a place where bright young managerial prospects go to apprentice, particularly if they're high-profile types who likely aren't willing to go manage in the bus leagues for a few seasons. More on this in a moment.

I can't remember when the "bench coach" came into vogue...I really don't remember anyone holding that position with the Yankees prior to "the Gerbil" Don Zimmer. Zim wasn't really someone looking for a managerial job at that point, and his managerial style was a good contrast to that of the manager, Joe Torre--much more openly temperamental than Torre, a more aggressive field manager, more outspoken. It often seemed like they worked the umpires together, with Torre playing good cop to Zimmer's bad cop. If Joe was the calm father figure of the Yankee clubhouse, ol' Popeye was the crazy uncle your mother disapproves of you hanging out with. He and Joe were a good match.

Since Zimmer was forced out by Steinbrenner, we haven't seen such a match again. In 2004, Willie Randolph took over after a tempestuous tenure as third base coach and primary media-anointed manager-in-waiting. I say Willie's time coaching third was tempestuous because of the gale force turbulence Randolph created with his constantly-windmilling arm. Randolph had the good fortune that no matter how many baserunners he sent to their doom, it didn't seem to cost the Yankees that many games when it counted. Still, Willie didn't seem to light the world on fire in the bench coach job, and it was around this time the rumors started that Don Mattingly was the preferred successor to Torre. After Randolph went off to the Mets, former catcher/broadcaster Joe Girardi took over the bench coach job. This inspired to a lot of talk about what a great manager Girardi would make some day, but didn't otherwise seem to have a big impact on the way the Yankees were managed or played on the field.

When Girardi went to the Marlins (and, indeed, did a good job managing there) Mazzili was brought on, perhaps in the hope that having another "wartime consiglieri" with managing experience would bring back some of that Don Zimmer magic. No dice. Mazz may have had the "vocal" and "temperamental" stuff down, but he didn't have Zim's strategic brain, or his 1,500+ games of managerial experience.

So now Mazzilli goes, and is replaced by Mattingly. I don't know where this is going to help the ballclub much, other than giving Mattingly some more manager-type experience. Torre, Zimmer, and former pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre were of a different generation from the fellows who have come after. When Zimmer came to Torre with advice, he was coming from the perspective of someone who was playing the game when Torre was just starting high school, and who had more managerial success than Torre had in his pre-Yankees days. That's bringing something to the table. If Mattingly has suggestions, will it play out the same way? Will Mattingly, always a quiet leader during his playing days, even speak up if he has any suggestions? The mind boggles.

And while this has been termed a "promotion," you have to wonder if Mattingly's new role isn't a tacit criticism of the job he did in his old role, as hitting coach for the team that just got shut down in the playoffs, rather than as an endorsement of his managerial bonafides. The Yanks hit well during the Mattingly's tenure, and he does get credit for the development of Robbie Cano and Melky Cabrera. Still, by and large Donnie Baseball had a huge crop of baseball talent to work with, and Mattingly certainly didn't seem able to reach the Yankees' key player, Alex Rodriguez, this season. Whoever the new batting coach is, that's job number one (job number two being to work on the continued development of Cabrera, and job number three being to make sure the coffee in the dugout is always fresh; OK, so I made one of those up).

This is a story to keep an eye on in Spring Training.