Dare to be stupid

Well, baseball’s silly season is upon us.

All the proof we need of this are the words emanating from the John Deere of agents (nobody spreads more manure faster) Scott Boras who is saying that Jason Varitek’s non-hitting skills are worth four years at $13 million per.

“I’ll take ‘Things said under the influence of crack cocaine’ for $800 Alex.”

Nah, I don’t mind the players getting their money; this is more general commentary and observations of this time of year. There will be enough idiotic diatribes about “greedy players” soon enough but I will say this much—they’re only professional baseball players, but they’re freakin’ amateurs to the owners when it comes to raw avarice.

But I (you guessed it) digress.

Probably the most striking thing to me about the free agent period is how times have changed.

In 1981, the player strike was to prevent the implementation of a compensation scheme for clubs losing free agents. Ownership insisted that any team signing a top free agent had to allow the club losing the free agent to select a player from the signing team’s roster. The team that signed the player was allowed to keep 15 players “off-limits” respecting compensation.

The whole point of this scheme was to create a massive disincentive to signing players and to reduce the value of free agent rights. At the time, the amateur draft pick was considered wholly inadequate insofar as recompensing clubs losing a top player to free agency.

Now, draft picks have become like gold.

It used to be that the “rent-a-player” (one that was in the final year of his contract) trade deadline acquisition was about mortgaging the future to make a run in a given year, but now they’re considered much less onerous since the acquired player would depart for greater riches—letting some other team foot the bill for his decline phase—while the team would simply offer arbitration to collect the goodies: a juicy high draft pick or two.

We see trades where arbitration becomes a sticking point for both sides; the player will try to get the team to promise not to offer arbitration to the player to increase his value in the marketplace, since he’s worth more to the team signing him if they don’t have to give up draft picks as part of the deal.

The Manny Ramirez deal to the Dodgers involved some quid pro quo—Ramirez desperately wanted his option years dropped so he could become a free agent, as a condition of doing so, the Ramirez camp (read: Boras, Scott) agreed to decline arbitration so the Dodgers could get the picks from Ramirez’s status as a type A free agent.

The whole A.J. Burnett saga in Toronto had bloggers and other hard core fans watching his season closely. It was correctly assumed that he would opt out of his current deal if he had a decent, injury-free season. The hope was that he would have a good enough season to qualify as a type A free agent so the Jays could get better picks. Now, the debate rages whether the team would be better off with Burnett in the rotation with an expensive new contract or the picks and praying desperately that he doesn’t sign with a team that would downgrade his compensation.

Speaking of which…

Ideally—if you’re a Jays’ fan the best thing would be his going to a team like the Mets. The Blue Birds get optimum compensation and he’s out of the AL East should he be healthy and productive.

If he reverts to his old fragile ways, then certainly there would be a twisted sense of glee if he signed for five years and $80 million with the Red Sox or Yankees; they would again get top picks plus he’s a drain on the roster and not harming Toronto’s chances. If he signs with the Orioles—it’s win/lose since the Blue Jays compensation would be reduced but at least he’s not helping direct rivals for the post season (assuming he is healthy) and would instead be costing them a half game in the standings (relative to Toronto) when pitching well.

Do I want A.J. back?

I’ve flip-flopped on this so many times I’m no longer half-baked. I really wish Burnett’s recent fortunes were reversed and his 19 superb starts beginning when Cito Gaston was hired (12-3, 3.12 ERA) on the heels of his 18 poor starts (7-8, 5.73 ERA) went the other way. Had that happened, we wouldn’t be as worried about losing him.

I think (his past) history will play out and after signing a big contract he will have time on the disabled list and will suffer from spells of ineffectiveness as he did in 2006 with Toronto.

In the mean time, what does J.P. Ricciardi do?

Again, I’ve gone back and forth on this; the thing is, Toronto has no shot at CC Sabathia or Derek Lowe—Ricciardi has conceded the top pitchers to his rivals.

Considering that starting pitching will be a hot commodity this off season with the Yankees and Mets both needing same it’ll increase the cost of the next tier of starters. I don’t think they’ll be worth the money. I mean, will guys like Jon Garland, Matt Clement, Paul Byrd, Jason Jennings, Jon Lieber etc. be that much better than David Purcey, Davis/Ricky Romero, Scott Richmond, Brett Cecil or a converted-to-starting Scott Downs and Brian Wolfe?

I’m not saying the Jays shouldn’t take cheap fliers on the likes of Pedro Martinez, Carl Pavano, Freddy Garcia types to see if they can contribute, but let’s not forget, the team did OK in 2007 with Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch. The more I think about it, I can see Toronto competing with a rotation made up of some combination Litsch/ Purcey/Romero(s)/Cecil/Richmond/Downs/reclamation project behind Roy Halladay while awaiting the return of McGowan … especially with the bullpen support they’ll have backing them.

I mean, how many thought the rotation of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine would deliver 153 starts of 3.91 ERA work at the beginning of 2008? Just because the Yankees/Red Sox snap up a bunch of the expensive baubles on the free agent market doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically be healthy and effective next year—the same go for the rest of their rosters. I’ll predict this much—the Tampa Bay Rays will not get over 900 innings and 150 starts of sub 4.00 ERA from their rotation of last season. Don’t be surprised if there’s both injury and ineffectiveness from some of the quintet and don’t be shocked in David Price isn’t ready for full time work at the big league level.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the following regarding the meeting baseball’s general managers (or what Boras refers to as “the candy store” so many suckers in one place):

“Baseball commissioner Bud Selig warned baseball general managers about the national economy as they formally began their annual meeting Tuesday.
Some club executives say teams have delayed setting budgets for payroll because they want to determine whether the economic downturn will change revenue projections.

Selig spoke to the GMs by video conference for eight or nine minutes, according to Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner’s office. Solomon said Selig began the session by discussing the state of baseball.

“He also talked about our economy and how troubling it’s been, and how we have to operate in a fashion that’s cognizant of that economy,” Solomon said. “Basically it was short and to the point.”

It’s a good thing team owners and GM’s need not pay attention to the economy since they have Selig to keep them abreast of things.

Bottom line, it’s the commissioner finding new ways to tell teams not to spend too much on players. Considering that soon they will be answering a collusion charge—it’s nice to see that Selig is making sure that he never does anything that could be construed as collusive activity—like, getting a bunch of executives in charge of deciding how much to pay players in one room and telling them to not get crazy in the free agent market.

Heaven forbid!

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