DOLLARS & SENSE

DOLLARS & SENSE

It was quite an (un)eventful off-season for the Boys in Blue.  When the Diamondbacks swooped in and paid Zach Greinke 6/$206.5M, Andrew Friedman and company took a ton of flak.  An oft-held belief is that the Dodgers have unlimited money, and that not signing Greinke was simply a bad business decision.  Unfortunately for those not in the know, the facts don’t bear that out.

The Dodgers reported to Spring Training ready to defend their NL West crown.  However, from nearly the first day of camp, the news out of Camelback Ranch could not have been worse.  With the pre-season winding down and the Dodgers getting ready to head West, here is a list of their walking/limping/crutching wounded:

  • Brett Anderson (back)
  • Mike Bolsinger (ribs)
  • Andre Ethier (shin)
  • Yimi Garcia (knee)
  • Yasmani Grandal (forearm)
  • Alex Guerrero (knee)
  • Kike Hernandez (rib cage)
  • Howie Kendrick (calf)
  • Brandon McCarthy (elbow)
  • Yasiel Puig (hamstring)
  • Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder)
  • Corey Seager (knee)
  • Alex Wood (forearm)

And with each injury, the chattering class kept dredging up the Greinke deal.  It is the naysayers belief that if the Dodgers had just opened the vault and paid Greinke what he wanted (and given him that risky sixth year), all these ailments would be healed; all these problems would be solved.  There is a fair argument, however, that just the opposite is true.

The Dodgers’ payroll has exceeded the Luxury Tax threshold each of the past three seasons; and it is expected to do so again this year.  Four or more seasons results in a 50% penalty.  So, regardless of the number of years they gave Greinke, the Dodgers would be paying 150% of his salary in actual dollars.  Or, said differently, at $34.6M/year, Greinke would have cost the Dodgers more than $50M.  Is Zach Greinke worth $50M/year?

It bears repeating, but the Dodgers don’t have unlimited funds.  Guggenheim Partners didn’t become a billion dollar company by being profligate or stupid.  They are asset managers; they know how to manage assets.

So, rather than effectively spending $50M for one pitcher, Friedman and Farhan Zaidi decided to allocate those resources in a manner that provided depth – the type they know they would need if they wanted another chance at the Fall Classic.

Well, how’d they do?  Here is a list of the Dodgers’ off-season deals:

  • Brett Anderson (1/$15.8M per a Qualifying Offer)
  • Scott Kazmir (3/$48M; but only $11M for 2016)
  • Kenley Jansen (1/$10.65M)
    Chase Utley (1/$7M)
  • Justin Turner (1/$5.1M)
  • Howie Kendrick (2/$20M; but only $5M for 2016)
  • A.J. Ellis (1/$4.5M)
  • Joe Blanton (1/$4M)
  • Kenta Maeda (8/$25M)
  • Yasmani Grandal (1/$2.8M)
  • Brandon Beachy (1/$1.5M)
  • Luis Avilan (1/$1.39M)
  • Scott Van Slyke (1/$1.225M; arbitration eligible)
  • Chris Hatcher (1/$1.065M; arbitration eligible)
  • Yasiel Sierra (6/$30M; but only $1M for 2016)
  • Louis Coleman (1/$750K)
  • Jamey Wright (Minor League contract)

The Dodgers signed 17 players (including 11 pitchers) for a total of $76.78M of 2016 dollars.  Strangely (smartly?), the total value of all of the contracts the Dodgers gave out for those 11 pitchers is roughly the same as the actual value of Greinke’s deal.  (As an aside, the well-informed might wonder about the defunct Hisashi Iwakuma deal, but it is fair to think that the Dodgers would not have signed Kazmir had they completed that deal; so that is essentially a financial wash.)

For the same $76M, the Dodgers could have re-signed Greinke and the position players listed above, and hoped for the best on the hill.  Or, they could have invested in their depth and their future, and put themselves in a position to win this year, next year, and in 2018 – the last season before the Best Pitcher on Earth can opt out of his contract.

So, contrary to what Dylan Hernandez wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the Dodgers wasting the best years of Kershaw’s career, the Dodgers actually did exactly what Kershaw says they have done: “I can only speak for what’s happened since I’ve been here, and every single year I feel we’ve had the chance to win.”

Had the Dodgers signed Greinke in lieu of all of the players listed above, it would have been the first time they didn’t – at least strategically – give Kershaw a chance to win.

PLAY BALL!!

HOT SEAT

HOT SEAT

The Boston Red Sox 2012 season – what was supposed to be a bounce-back year after the fried chicken and beer calamity that was the 2011 campaign – ended with a thud.  The Bobby Valentine experiment failed (in Spring Training), and so the Red Sox needed their third manager in three years.  In an effort to move up, the team looked up; they went to Canada and hired John Farrell as their new skipper.  In his first year at the helm, the Red Sox went 97-65 and won the World Series.  Not a bad start.

However, in 2014, the Red Sox resumed their position in the cellar, going 71-91, a grave disappointment.  And 2015 didn’t start much better.  By mid-August, the Sox were comfortably ensconced in last place, with a 50-64 record.  And then, on August 14th, Farrell announced that he was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that he would immediately undergo treatment.  The team named Torey Lovullo as the interim manager for the remainder of the season.

As these things tend to go, the team responded.  Maybe it was the inspiration of their fallen leader; maybe it was just a different voice in their ears; or maybe it was simply aggression to the mean.  But whatever it was, over their last 48 games, the team went 28-20 (a nearly 95-win pace).

However, not wanting their manager to get “Wally Pipped” by a cancer diagnosis, shortly after the season ended, the team announced that Farrell would return for the 2016 season.  And then the following happened:

• The BoSox acquired closer Craig Kimbrel from the Padres.
• And then they made the move of the off-season, signing David Price for 7/$217M.
• And then they finished off their Hot Stove by acquiring Carson Smith and Roenis Elias from the Mariners.
• After that, Red Sox Nation started polishing the duck boats in anticipation of another parade through the Back Bay.

But then Spring Training started.  Pablo Sandoval came in overweight (to put it kindly).  Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz and Henry Owens and Brian Johnson proceeded to look awful on the hill.  And Carson Smith left a game with the dreaded forearm tightness.  Now suddenly, the outlook ain’t so brilliant, and Farrell finds himself squarely on the hot seat.

If the Red Sox break camp and start slowly – and there are many indications that they will – the front office will need to use their heads, not their hearts.

It is one thing to not fire a manager who is out on medical leave, fighting for his life.  But, by all accounts, Farrell is healthy, and the Red Sox are no longer required to take pity on the man if the team isn’t playing well.

Torey Lovullo remains right there on the bench; the man with the .583 winning percentage (admittedly, a small sample size) is but a seat cushion away.  World Series victory or not, Farrell comes into the season with a career record of 372-390; a Red Sox record of 218-220, with two last place finishes in the last three years (and 4 of 5 managerial seasons finishing in fourth place or worse).  Neither Farrell nor the Red Sox can allow that to become five out of six.

So, keep a watchful eye on Boston in April and May.  Dave Dombrowski and John Henry should have no issue eating the remainder of Farrell’s salary for 2016 and all of 2017 for a chance to win now.  And they should have even less compunction about doing so knowing that the right guy is already there, a few feet away, under contract, undervalued, and ready to take the reins.

PLAY BALL!!

FAMILY TIME

FAMILY TIME

If you are like me, you spend a great deal of time worrying about being a good parent, making sure you spend quality time with each of your kids, and giving/showing/having the appropriate amount of love for each (if you have more than one).  That said, when you have a son who has the same interests as you, it is a hell of a lot easier to grab a ball and glove, or toss around the pigskin, or hit the links, than it is to set up the teacups or pull out the rainbow loom.  But no one ever said being a parent was easy.

Parenting, as you all know, is hard work.  And oftentimes, parenting is a study in absenteeism.  We all struggle with the perfect (best/appropriate/acceptable) work-life balance.  Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could just bring your kids to work with you?  All your problems would be solved (you think), and you would never feel bad about leaving early or coming home late – you would never miss a minute of time with your kid(s).  In short, all would be right with the world.

As anyone with an internet connection knows, gigabytes have already been written about Adam LaRoche and his decision to walk away from $13M with the White Sox because they asked him to reduce the amount of time his son, Drake, spends with the club.  After LaRoche issued a statement last week, there is now some discrepancy between whether the team asked him to “dial back” or eliminate Drake’s presence at the yard.  Adam clearly believes he had an agreement with the team wherein Drake could be there all the time, and he felt that the team simply reneged when Kenny Williams made this request/demand.  And, judging from the outpouring of support from LaRoche’s teammates, it doesn’t seem as if Drake, who, by all accounts is a great kid, caused any disruption to the team.

But putting all of that aside, and notwithstanding any handshake to the contrary, the White Sox – as the employer – do have the right to set the workplace rules.  And LaRoche – as the employee – has right to take his bat and go home.  Neither side is wrong.

As the closeness of Adam’s relationship with Drake got more and more coverage, I began to wonder about Adam’s relationship with his 12-year old daughter, Montana.  It is not for me (or you) to judge, and Montana may be perfectly happy and content spending time with her mom and away from her dad.  But Adam, by his own words, laments the situation.  Last year (coincidentally, around Father’s Day), Adam told the Chicago Tribune that “it’s unfortunate she can’t come [into the clubhouse]. That’s thousands of hours of time we missed together, and Drake and I get to spend it together.”

This is not to say that Adam doesn’t treat Montana fairly (even if not equally).  I just know the hell I would take from my wife – not to mention my daughters – if I spent six months with my son and not my daughters, and if there were “thousands of hours of time we missed together”.  I know how hard it was on the family when I was on the field coaching my son for 2-3 hours on a Saturday afternoon, or for whole weekends when we had travel-ball tournaments.  But, even in those instances, the girls normally came to the fields, and I was just on the other side of the fence; I saw what they were doing, and could slip them a finsky for the snack bar.  Being on a big league field, hanging out in a Major League clubhouse, doesn’t offer that kind of access for a player and/or his daughter(s).

And then, how do you explain to your daughter that your relationship with your son is worth $13M?  I am sure some mental health professional out there would say that at least part of that $13M would have been handy for therapy down the road.  But I digress.

At the end of the day, how Adam and Jennifer LaRoche raise their children is their choice, and our feelings on the matter stop at the end of our fingers (regardless of how much they may be waived or wagged).  And Adam’s decision to walk away from $13M was well within his rights (and, not to be said too loudly, much to the benefit of the Pale Hose).  And how Montana LaRoche deals with her father – not to mention her brother – is her concern.  All I know is what would and would not fly in my house.

So when I think of my relationships with my kids, and I think about Drake and Montana LaRoche, I couldn’t be happier that I have already planned a father-daughter trip with my girls this summer (to Chicago, natch).

PLAY BALL!!

THE GOOSE IS LOOSE

THE GOOSE IS LOOSE

If you even tangentially follow baseball, by now you probably have heard about Rich “Goose” Gossage’s tirade about the current state of baseball.  If you don’t have the time to listen to an old man shouting “get off my lawn”, allow me to provide you with just a handful of highlights:

Goose’s take on front offices:

“The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it.  I’ll tell you what has happened, these guys played Rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the fuck they went and they thought they figured the fucking game out.  They don’t know shit”.

Um, sorry, Goose.  All evidence is to the contrary.  I think the fine folks in New England are pretty happy with Theo Epstein’s Yale education and the two rings he brought to Fenway.   People in Dallas seem pretty satisfied with the Cornell-educated Jon Daniels.  And, just for giggles, the “old school” General Manager of the Mets, a guy who has been in baseball since 1983, Sandy Alderson has degrees from both Dartmouth and Harvard.

(Side note: Of the 30 current GMs, there are 4 Harvard graduates, 2 each from Cornell and Dartmouth, and 1 from each of Princeton and Penn.  There are also grads of MIT, Amherst, Georgetown, and Wesleyan, 2 law degrees from Harvard, 2 MBAs from Northwestern, and a Ph.D. from Berkeley.  Time will tell how good – or bad – they are at their jobs.)

I guess it is fitting that Goose made these remarks this week, as the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference kicked off today – this is its 10th year.  Someone, somewhere, thinks the nerds have something valuable to add to the conversation.

And then Goose took on current players:

“[Jose] Bautista [he of the epic bat flip in Game 5 of the ALDS] is a fucking disgrace to the game” and “he’s embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him”.

Now, putting aside Goose’s bona fides as a mouthpiece for all Latin players, these are pretty strong words that don’t reflect reality, at least with respect to embarrassing other players.  Jose Bautista is well-respected in the baseball community – by players of all nationalities.  Apparently, Goose has learned a thing or two from Donald Trump – if you say it, it must be true.  But I digress.

And some special vitriol was saved for ESPN The Magazine’s Baseball Preview Edition’s cover story, the reigning NL MVP, one Mr. Bryce Harper.  What did ol’ Rich have to say about arguably the best player east of the Mississippi:

“What does this kid know?  This kid doesn’t know squat about the game, and [has] no respect for it . . . So let me tell Bryce Harper something: go look at the history, figure it out and quit acting like a fool.”

Well, okay then.

But it wasn’t just players, it was the game itself that Goose has a problem with:

“You can’t slide into second base.  You can’t take out the fucking catcher because Posey was in the wrong position and they are going to change all the rules.  You can’t pitch inside anymore.  I’d like to knock some of these fuckers on their ass and see how they would do against pitchers in the old days.”

Fair point.  But if that is what he wants, then he has to get the inverse.  I would like to see how Rich would react if Giancarlo Stanton charged the mound after being “knocked on his ass”.  Goose was 6’3” and threw hard; but he was about 180 pounds.  Stanton rolls out at 6’6” and 240.  How about Yasiel Puig?  I don’t think he would take too kindly to being brushed back by the ‘stache.  How would Goose fare when 6’2” and 255 pounds of Cuban fury came out of the batter’s box at full tilt?  But those are the extreme examples.  Let’s take a middle infielder – the days of Bucky Dent being prototypical are over.  What if Troy Tulowitzki and his 215 pounds looked askance at Goose?  I am not saying that Goose wouldn’t throw down – there is no question he would.  I am just saying that the outcome may not be too pretty.

Now, for some context.  Goose was doing a radio interview and he was asked to respond to comments that Bryce made in said ESPN The Magazine.  That is when the Goose got cooked, and Mount Goosuvius erupted.  So what, exactly, did Bryce say to cause this type of reaction:

“Baseball’s tired . . . It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself.  You can’t do what people in other sports do.  I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair.  If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig – there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.”

He went on to say:

“If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me.  Good for you.  Hopefully I get you next time.’  That’s what makes the game fun.  You want kids to play the game, right?  What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball.  Look at those players – Steph Curry, LeBron James.  It’s exciting to see those players in those sports.  Cam Newton – I love the way Cam goes about it.  He smiles, he laughs.  It’s that flair. The dramatic.”

Apparently that was a bridge too far for a guy who played it old school in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  But, putting all hyperbole aside, this is just an age-old generational question.  I am sure Early Wynn and Warren Spahn would have had a few words to say about Gossage and Guidry.

Which brings us to the big question of the day, and one I have asked in this space enumerable times, especially on generational issues: What about the kids?

With Little League opening days this, or this past, weekend, with high school and college seasons already under way, what do we tell the kids?  There has to be some happy medium between sharpening your spikes and drilling guys who “disrespect the game” and guys flipping their bats on flyouts to the warning track?  Do pitchers have to be docile when striking out the clean-up hitter with two outs and two on in a one-run game?  Do hitters have to simply put their heads down and circle the bases when they hit a game-tying homerun in the bottom of the 8th?

This is a very tricky topic for me because I can see both sides.  I like to think that I was taught to play the game the “right way”.  What do I mean by that?  Well . . .

  • Never walk in front of the catcher to get into the batter’s box (always walk behind).
  • Never run across the mound on your way off the field.
  • Try to run out every ground ball or pop out (admittedly, I wasn’t always successful at that).
  • Slide hard into second base, but never with spikes high and always within arm’s reach of the bag.
  • As a first baseman, this was even more personal: Never intentionally step on a fielder’s foot or hand.
  • I did slap down a hard tag – and would expect the other team to reciprocate (as an aside, and opposing coach once came up to me after a game and said/threatened, “payback’s a bitch”).
  • Always bring teammates their glove and hat between innings (and expect them to do the same).
  • Because I didn’t hit many homeruns, I never had a bat flip or a Cadillac trot (but, had the moment called for it and it was a no-doubter, I am sure I might have had a little Ricky in me).
  • I did show emotion on the field.  I was definitely known to slam a helmet or throw a bat – but those were out of frustration, not to show anyone up.  It seems that even The Goose would be okay with those infractions.

But I am on the fence because I also recognize that the landscape has changed.  Today we have social media (even in Little League games, friends film each other and then immediately post the outcomes on Instagram); we have branding; we have ESPN, Top Plays, and Web Gems.  We live in a slam-dunk, chest-thump, fist-pump, bat-flip world, and – regardless of what Goose Gossage (or Oscar Robertson (if you don’t know this reference, Google “Oscar Robertson Stephen Curry”)) have to say – that genie ain’t going back in the bottle.

So, again I ask, what do we tell our kids?

Well, I think we tell them to play the game the right way.  We tell them to enjoy the game, and everything associated with it.  And we tell them that emotions on the field are okay as long as (a) they are appropriate to the situation, (b) they don’t show up the other team/players, and, most importantly, (c) they are not pre-meditated.

If your kid is practicing his bat flip during BP, nip that in the bud.  If your star pitcher is staring down opposing hitters in a pre-season game, give him the hook, pronto.

But if your player just hit the walk-off homerun in front of friends and family on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, let that kid go crazy.  And not because Jose, Manny, or Hanley do it, but because – in the moment – his/her emotions took over.

Does Goose begrudge the 1:00 mark of this video:

And if your kid just struck out the other team’s best hitter with the bases loaded on that same Spring day, let him go a little Max Scherzer, a little Jose Fernandez, a little Jonathan Papelbon (okay, maybe just a little Pap).

And the next time ol’ Rich opens his mouth about the “good old days” and “in my day”, ask him about his former teammate Reggie Jackson . . .

(Enjoy Howard Cosell, and then check the reaction at the 1:15 mark)

And then show Goose this clip from 1987:

And then, in the words of Brian Cashman regarding another Yankee legend, tell Goose to “shut the fuck up”.

PLAY BALL!!

TRANSCENDENT STARS

TRANSCENDENT STARS

Every few years baseball is graced with a couple of transcendent stars.  Merriam-Webster would tell you that “transcendent” means “far better or greater than what is usual”.  When we – as baseball fans – discuss transcendence, we talk about players whose names span the ages – players who can easily be dropped into the “best of a generation” conversation.

Now, I won’t bore you with a litany of players who have fit this description over the years – you all know who they are, and most have plaques in Cooperstown – but I do want to focus on two transcendent stars.

When I was a kid, when I first really became interested in baseball – as a fan, not as potential T-Ball player – there were a few transcendent stars – Brett, Ryan, Rose, Carlton, Schmidt, Guidry, arguably Winfield.  But the guy who jumps to the top of any such list – for me – is Pops.  Can anyone think back to late-70s baseball and not picture Pops Stargell leaping in the air after the last out of the ’79 World Series?

 

Who could forget Willie being the first to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium?

Is anything more 1970s than that bear of a man in stirrups, a bright yellow pullover jersey, wearing a skull cap, and playing on cheap Astroturf?

Blog_Stargell

Willie Stargell was more than a once-in-a-generation player.  He was a once-in-a-lifetime man.  In 1988, Willie became only the 17th player inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.  And yet, even after hitting 475 homeruns, being a seven-time All-Star, and winning the 1979 NL MVP, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s obituary for Willie stated that “his numbers were dwarfed by his humanity”.  High praise, indeed.

Starting about midway through the 1978 season – Willie’s 17th in the big leagues – he began handing out “Stargell Stars”.  A Stargell Star was bestowed upon teammates for their exceptional performance.  And more than any perfunctory “Attaboy”, this was the equivalent of a hug from Dad or a smile from the Prom Queen.  This was ultimate prize for players playing for the ultimate prize.  Day after day and night after night, Willie’s teammates sought to be recognized by the big man so that they could add another “gold star” to their pillbox hats.

And even though the ’78 Pirates fell short on the final day of the season, Pops kept this tradition going the next year.  And, while not exactly scientific, I believe it was the Stargell Stars that catapulted the Buckos to 1979 World Series title.

In recent years, with exclusive branding and licensing deals and corporate sponsorships and a more global sport, baseball has imposed strict limitations on what players can put on their hats, jerseys, and other equipment.  In the theater of the absurd, MLB told the Yankees and the Mets that they could not wear NYPD or NYFD hats in games after 9/11.  You want corporate concerns run amok: MLB physically took caps from the Mets’ dugout on the one-year anniversary of 9/11 to keep the players from wearing them.  All the while, the New Era American Flag cap that the Mets were required to wear that day was being sold at the ballpark for $36.99.  Nothing like a little free-market patriotism.

But I digress.

When word got out that the Pirates would dust off their pillbox hats for Sunday home games this season, Todd Radom (if you don’t know him, but you love sports and logos, look him up @ toddradom.com) suggested that the Pirates also bring back the Stargell Stars.  And that is where transcendent players come back into the conversation.

As we enter the 2016 season, the Pirates are lucky enough to have one of the most transcendent stars in the game patrolling centerfield.  Andrew McCutchen is on the short list of the best and brightest in the game – both on and off the field.  Here is a five-tool guy who can also sing, draw, do impersonations, and make certain young kids remain fans for life:

 

While it is too soon to say that McCutchen is the next Pops Stargell in the Steel City, he is quickly approaching that exalted status.  So who better to restart this tradition?  What better way for this generation of players and fans to be tied to a prior generation of players and fans?  Could MLB really stand in the way of joy, happiness, and the rewarding of a job well done?  Will Rob Manfred become Roger Goodell and impose No Fun League-type rules, or will he allow the game to grow and prosper by taking just a small piece of its past and allow it to become a small piece of its present?

Riddle me this: If McCutchen and the Pirates are allowed to bestow Stargell Stars (McCutchen Medals?) starting on April 3rd, what Little League team in the Rust Belt won’t be donning these emblems on their hats for the rest of the Spring and Summer?  What kid won’t be diving into the hole, or moving a runner to third with less than two outs, or going first-to-third on base hit to right, or working an 0-2 count for a walk, just for the pride of lousy piece of yarn?

All this will do is inspire a younger generation to play, and play better.  All this will do is re-stoke the flame of what makes baseball great.  Forget the huge contracts and the fancy spikes and the packed stadiums.  Kids – both young and older – play for the love of the game, and for the adulation that comes from a playing it right and from playing it well.

So hang a star on that.  Give the Big Kid at PNC Park the right and the ability to dole out this symbol of greatness (no matter how small), and watch those little gold stars light the night sky from Western Pennsylvania to Chavez Ravine, from the Pacific Northwest to South Beach.  Andrew McCutchen is already on record as saying he wants to restart this tradition, he just needs the league to say it is okay.

To that I implore Rob Manfred to

PLAY BALL!