A conversation about MLB, on the field, off the field.

Monday, November 12, 2007

From the basement November 12

November, ugh. I recently took the space heater out of storage and have been firing it up most nights to stay warm here in the basement. The offseason ( 1 of the 4 seasons, regular, post & spring training are the others ) is well underway and like always, it is very entertaining ( actually it's more entertaining than either postseason or spring training ).

There's the nuts & bolts of the offseason to monitor; trades, rehabs, roster moves, non tenders, AFL & Winter League tidbits, 6 yr minor league FA's, major league FA filings, farm system assessments, Elias' soon to be released top secret Free Agent Compensation Rankings ( VERY important )....there's always something. I WON'T be paying much attention to awards season, through osmosis I'll know the results but I'm not interested in the chatter that results from it. It's "Hot Stove" season as well, scads of redundant analysis of each teams' strengths and weaknesses ( Nate Silver does a find job ), trade analysis ( I like BA's ), plus endless rumor and conjecture ( and conjecture about the conjecture ) concerning pending free agent signings and trades. However there are some matters unique to this particular offseason that are of interest.

FREE AGENCY - THE BEGINNING OF THE END?

Once you get beyond the best baseball player in the world, the most reviled baseball player in the world, a handful of top shelf CF's plus Lowell & Cordero, the free agent market is weak. Many have made the same point and it has led to the widespread conclusion that there will be more trades this offseason as a result. I agree.

Where did all the free agents go? An inordinate number of potential free agents were signed during the season, Zambrano, Buerhle, Dye etc. As Maury Brown explains, "...clubs are wrapping up contracts more often now – signing players to extensions, which in turn lowers the number of players in the free agency pool....What has happened over the years is a case of viewing free agency as an inefficient avenue in which to build contenders." This isn't to say that this offseason free agents won't cash in big, in fact Maury correctly points out that the diminished number of quality free agents will have an inflationary impact on their value. ( Record industry revenues of $6 billion doesn't hurt either ). In other words, Carlos Silva will soon sign a contract for $50 million. Marvin Miller got it right decades ago when he said the owners - for their own benefit - should make all the players free agents every offseason because limiting their availability inflates their value. ( Or somethin like that ).

I also wonder if the diminished number of free agents is attributable in some way to the record salaries being paid. In other words, has the money finally gotten so stupidly big that agents & players can't be bothered / or are too embarrassed to enter the free agent market? Would Vernon Wells have commanded more than $126 million as a free agent? Yeah, why not? But at that point does it matter to him?

Anyway, Maury's right, the new breed of Ivy League geek management has concluded that free agency is not a preferred option in constructing a team. Young talent - especially pitching - is considered more valuable than ever. This increased emphasis on player development was evident in the most recent Rule IV draft. From Jim Callis @ BA: "The Yankees aggressively signed players in last year's draft, and did so again, spending $7,432,500 in the first 10 rounds. But the Orioles ($7,672,500) and Nationals ($7,619,300) outspent them there, and the Tigers ($7,305,000), Devil Rays ($7,172,000) and Giants ($7,027,000) came close." This all makes sense, competing with the Yanks for amateur talent makes more sense than competing with them for top level free agents. But what's the end game with this strategy? If everybody "allocates more resources" to the draft because it's more "efficient", won't it artificially inflate the value of the amateur players? There won't be more and better players in the draft, there'll just be more money spread around amongst them.

I question if player development has become as efficient as the new breed thinks. Has amateur scouting, drafting, player development - whatever you wanna call it - improved that much since Sandy Alderson concluded it was pretty much shit? Isn't it still a crapshoot? Don't a lot of high picks still stiff? Doesn't the valuation of 16 - 21 year old baseball players remain a very inexact science? Put another way, I'm the only guy who thinks that paying Matt Morris $8 million a year is a viable alternative to ploughing it into the likes of Burnett, Bullington, VanBenschoten & Lincoln.

MLB LOSES

Well, you can't have everything. You can increase your revenues from $3.7 billion in 03 to $6 billion in 07 but you still can't have everything. MLB is losing their legal battle with CDM Fantasy Sports over rights to player statistics ( or the publicity rights associated with the stats depending on your viewpoint ). Essentially the courts have ruled that you don't have to pay MLB - who in turn where paying the PA - for their stats and the player names associated with them. If the battle has been lost - it's not over but so far it's not going well - it's a big blow to the "ball & stick " leagues who all filed briefs on behalf of MLB. Estimates are 15 - 18 million people ( men ) participate in baseball and football fantasy leagues to the tune of $1 billion + per year. I'm on MLB's side in this case - and I don't play fantasy baseball - but they've got so much friggin money I can't feel sorry for them.

INSTANT REPLAY

I don't like it in the NFL, too slow, although I'm in favor of it's use in postseason. I don't want it in baseball either. Oddly, I am increasingly in favor of using Ques Tec - or some other technology - for calling balls & strikes. MLB must have the data, ( Ques Tec is in about a dozen parks? ) and I suspect it would reveal that there are a lot of biases amongst the umps. MLB is a small community and it is naive to believe that a lot of hitters and pitchers - and some teams - don't get screwed by umps who(m) they are unpopular with. It's also time for Derek Jeter to hit with the same strike zone as Yuniesky Betancourt. Also, post Donaghy, shouldn't leagues go further to protect the integrity of their product?

STADIA

As expected, the Marlins and A's continue their efforts to construct new stadiums. The most unexpected news this offseason is that the Rays are negotiating with governments in FLA for a new stadium as well ( long term "The Trop" is far & away the Rays biggest problem ). I read no rumors or speculation about this anywhere. Not in SBJ, or Biz of Baseball or Field of Schemes. I thought in this era of the Web that nothing remained quiet. Not so.

What happens if one of, or a combination of, the A's, Rays & Marlins are unsuccessful in getting their new stadiums constructed? What are the options? Will Las Vegas or Portland do what DC did? Build it, pay for it and turn the keys over to the franchise owners? ( That's why MLB owned the Expos for as long as they did, they were waiting for somebody to pay for a new stadium. It does wonders for franchise values, they sold the Expos for $450 million ) The other option, increasingly speculated about, is to go the NFL G3 route. That has to be a better alternative than the continued subsidization of these clubs by their partners via luxury taxes and revenue sharing.

COLLUSION

Is the PA sabre rattling or are they preparing for battle? Fehr made accusations of collusion after the just completed GM meetings in relation to the free agent market and in particular to the free agency of A Rod. This following the PA's concerns this summer over Selig's attempts ( did he succeed? ) to enforce "slot recommendations " in the June Rule IV draft. Public comments such as these by Omar Minaya won't help the owners' case. “We’ve adhered to the commissioner’s slot recommendations,” Minaya said. “We’ve been good citizens. But not all the teams have done that, and the competitive balance is not fair. We have to take that position under review as an organization.”

THE MITCHELL REPORT

When it is finally released - expected now this offseason - there will be saturation coverage in the baseball press. An anonymous team official has been quoted as saying that the report will be "salacious". No doubt it will. Between BALCO, Radomski, Grimsley, Signature etc., there is no shortage of names to be named. Buster Olney thinks dozens of players, current and retired, will be implicated.

This will be the latest overreported "athlete conduct" story. Fans have proven - we'll tell you differently if asked - that we don't care about "athlete conduct". I.E. Vick, Pac Man, Browne Saunders / Thomas / Dolan, Bonds / BALCO etc. The NFL has not suffered, Knicks season ticket renewals were very strong, 79 million of us ( well, not me ) walked through turnstiles this season at MLB games and the beat goes on....Only the writers and blog geeks care if this era is "tainted", if there should be asterisks, how it will impact HOF voting, yada. ( Yes I'm a blog geek but if I ever participate in an online argument about asterisks in baseball somebody please come to my basement and shoot me. ) The Mitchell Report will have zero impact on the popularity of MLB.

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