Archive for January, 2005

Twins Show Santana a Lack of Faith, Committment

What would you do with the opportunity to lock up the best young pitcher in baseball to a long-term deal? Would you throw as much money as you could at him or would you do almost everything possible to make sure he leaves via free agency?

If you were the Minnesota Twins, the second option sounds surprisingly appealing, and it’s exactly how they’ve handled their efforts at securing the services of 25-year-old Johan Santana for the next few seasons and beyond. This is, however, nothing new in the way the team has handled Santana as he has developed into a Cy Young winner and one of the best lefty arms in the Bigs.

Going back to 2002, the Twins used Santana, who had pitched in just 45 games in his career, primarily out of the bullpen. That season, he struck out 137 in 108.1 innings while putting together a 2.99 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. As he gave up 24 fewer hits than innings pitched, it was clear that the Twins had something special.

When Spring Training 2003 rolled around, Twins fans assumed that Santana would earn his rightful place in the rotation. When Eric Milton went down with a knee injury, it became even more likely that Johan would be one of Minnesota’s starting five. But the Twins saw things differently, and they signed Kenny Rogers to fill the gap. Santana was quoted as feeling “screwed? by the team. I don’t blame him. I don’t know anyone who would pick Kenny Rogers over Johan Santana.

That season, Santana pitched his way into the rotation. After dominating as a reliever for a few months, he finished the year 12-3. He struck out 169 in 158.1 innings while pitching to an ERA of 3.07.

In 2004, the Twins didn’t even consider using Santana out of the bullpen, and the rest, as they say, is history. Santana, 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA, became only the sixth American League pitcher to win the Cy Young unanimously. He struck out 265 while walking just 54 in 228 innings and gave up an amazing 76 fewer hits than innings pitched. Opponents managed just a .192 batting average against Santana. After a few years of fighting to earn his spot in the rotation, Santana had finally blossomed into one of the game’s elite starters.

Now, the Twins are doing their best to ensure that Santana walks when he becomes a free agent after the 2006 season. The latest rounds of insults started this off-season when Santana’s contract status for next season came into question. Before the arbitration deadline, Santana and the Twins were unable to come to any sort of agreement. So Santana submitted an offer for $6.8 million while the Twins countered with one for $5 million. Over the past few weeks, the Twins have tried to find a way to avoid this arbitration hearing. However, not only have their efforts been in vain, but they’ve probably shot themselves in the foot too.

The Twins have made two offers to Santana. The first one, which the young lefty basically laughed off the table, was a three-year, $19.5-million offer. The second one was a three-year, $25-million offer. In an off-season in which Carl Pavano signed a contract averaging $10 million a season and Kris Benson inked a deal worth $22.5 million over three years, the Twins offer looks incredibly stingy. Santana stands head and shoulders above Pavano, Benson and the other free agent pitchers who landed big deals this winter. With a VORP of 88.8, Santana was by far the number one pitcher in the Majors. The next best hurler was Randy Johnson with a VORP of 72.9. At number five, Pavano’s value was 62.4. Not to take away from Pavano’s performance, but Santana was much better. Considering that he’s three years younger than Pavano, Santana should get at least the initial offer that Pavano received.

To make matters worse, the Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad isn’t exactly poor. Worth approximately $2.3 billion, Pohlad is the 92nd richest American, according to Forbes magazine. He has however continually decried the Twins as a losing property. He has chosen to invest little in his team, a perennial contender in the AL Central. Maybe a well-timed free agent signing would be enough to push the Twins over the top. They could further wrap up a weak division year after year while drawing more fans. Santana is exactly the type of player around which Minnesota could build a franchise if only Pohlad were willing to open his wallet.

The Twins have already blown it this off-season. While Santana and agent Peter Greenberg were somewhat willing to consider the $25-million offer, they declined the offer yesterday. Greenberg and Santana are now committed to going to arbitration, and either way, it’s lose-lose for the Twins. They’ll have to pay $6.8 million for the most dominant 25-year-old or they’ll pay $5 million and deal with a disgruntled ace.

Most teams in the Twins’ position would try to mend relationships after a tumultuous and failed negotiation period. The Twins however have burned yet another bridge. While their offers to Santana were on the table, the Twins named Brad Radke as their Opening Day pitcher. The Opening Day honor generally a symbolic show of faith. The pitcher who gets the ball is the one the team relies on to deliver in tight spots and turn in a solid performance start after start. Instead of entrusting this to the reigning Cy Young winner who went 13-0 in his final 16 starts, the Twins have turned to Radke.

If this wasn’t enough of an insult, both Gardenhire and Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said it took them all of two seconds to make the decision. This move speaks volumes about the way the Twins view Santana. They simply don’t have faith in him. Santana took the decision in stride, but that’s because he has to spend two more years in a Twins’ uniform. However, those two years may be his last in the Twin Cities.

Future history: The unique arbitration case of Roger Clemens

As pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training in 25 days and the Carlos Delgado free agent chase draws to a close, the last remaining loose threads of the off-season are the arbitration cases scheduled for the next few weeks. While these are usually mundane hearings that determine how much of a raise a player will get, this year, Roger Clemens’ record-setting filing brings a new level scrutiny to the salary arbitration process.

As my fellow columnist Susan Kelly noted yesterday, Roger Clemens’ request for $22 million is an arbitration record, toppling the previous high-water mark of Derek Jeter’s $18.5 million request in 2001. The Astros offered Clemens a reasonable offer of $13.5 million. The difference between the two figures — a cool $8.5 million — is also an arbitration record.

My first reaction to this news was to categorize this as a Classic Roger Clemens Event. Somewhere along the lines of slacking off during his last year in Boston and confusing a baseball bat with who knows what during the 2000 World Series, this is Roger Clemens at his finest. A year after pitching for the Astros at a hometown discount of $5 million, Clemens has clearly decided that his seventh Cy Young Award might be worth more than what Esteban Loaiza made last year while compiling one awful season.

It seems that in Clemens’ mind, the $5 million was a mistake. He got the Astros one game away from the World Series, and he won that Cy Young Award. For that, he figures he should have gotten that $13.5 million. So why not correct it next year? By making $22 million in 2005 and $5 million in 2004, he gets the equivalence of $13.5 million per year for two years. So much for that hometown discount. Mr. Nice-Guy Clemens only lasted for so long.

My second thought was a meditation on the nature of arbitration. In the case of Clemens, a 42-year-old clearly at the very end of his career, how would an arbiter decide this case? Does Clemens’ case get judged based on what he’s likely to do during 2005 or does he get paid based on what he has already accomplished? Clearly, the two outcomes could be vastly different.

First, based on what he has accomplished in 21 seasons at the Major League level, Clemens probably deserves to become the highest paid pitcher in the history of the game. (And at the mid-point of the two offers — $17.5 million — Clemens would be just that, breaking the $17.5 million record held by Pedro Martinez.) The Rocket has won the Cy Young Award in one-third of the seasons in which he has pitched. That’s simply incredible. He’s won 328 games, tied for 10th all-time, and he has over 4000 strike outs. Simply put, if any pitcher in the game ever deserved $22 for what he has accomplished, Roger Clemens is it.

There is, however, the other side of the equation. Should Clemens get paid based on what he will probably do next season? If so, the numbers look a bit different. Using Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Scores that they provide on every player page, I examined those few pitchers whose careers were similar to Clemens through age 41. The results were quite mixed. First up was Tom Seaver with a similarity score of 865. However, age 41 was Seaver’s last year pitching. Steve Carlton, Warren Spahn, and Don Sutton were the three other pitchers with scores over 800. Of the three, only Spahn improved from age 41 to age 42. At 42, Warren Spahn tied his career-high in wins with 23 and threw 22 complete games. But he struck out only 102 batters. He was a must different pitcher than Clemens is, and it’s tough to draw any conclusions from that comparison.

Looking at Carlton and Sutton, two pitchers who were power pitchers in the vein of the Rocket, a clearer picture begins to emerge. By 42, Carlton had already seen a significant decline in his effectiveness. While his ERA at age 41 was nearly 2 runs above his career average, his ERA at age 42 was even worse at 5.74. He won only 6 games compared to 14 losses and struck out just 91 in 150 innings. Considering that he’s third on the all-time strike out list, those are shocking numbers. Sutton, seventh on the strike out list, saw a similar decline. His ERA rose by a whole run in between ages 41 and 42. He struck out just 99 and gave up more hits than innings pitched for just the second time in his career. Those years past 40 have not been kind to the game’s best power pitchers.

So what does this say about Roger Clemens’ current situation? Based on how other power pitchers have fared at the age of 42, Clemens may actually deserve just $5 million for his 2005 season. It does not seem unreasonable to believe that the Rocket’s ERA will jump up from 2.98, a six-year low. He probably won’t strike out 218 batters either. Nor will he win 18 games when his offense is missing Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran, and probably Lance Berkman for a few months. Plus, it’s his second season in the NL. He may have enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts last year, but it just gets tougher the second time, even more so at age 42.

Yet, there is another argument: Roger Clemens is not like other pitchers. Sutton, Seaver, and Carlton had already seen significantly performance declines by the time they all hit 40. Clemens has yet to suffer the same fate. Maybe he is a bionic man. Maybe he could turn in another Cy Young performance and turn 42 at the same time. History is not on his side, but then again, Roger Clemens stands alone in baseball history.

In the end, I think the point is moot. Over the next few days, we’ll find out if Clemens is set on returning to Minute Maid Park next season. If he decides that retirement is not for him, it’s pretty unlikely that his case would end up in arbitration. It’s much more likely that Houston and the Rocket would settle for amount that would guarantee Clemens more money than any pitcher in history. But in the very rare event that the case actually went to the arbitration, I would hate to be the arbiter having to decide between Clemens’ remarkable career accomplishments and the precarious perch of 42-year-old pitchers in the Major Leagues. How do you decide between baseball history and Clemens’ Hall of Fame qualifications or baseball future and the likelihood of an off year for a man at the end of his career?

The hidden impact of the steroid policy

By now, it’s no secret that Major League Baseball and the Players Association has beefed up baseball’s drug-testing program. On the heels of the BALCO scandal and calls from prominent politicians, baseball’s new policy is a major step in the right direction. While some people still believe that the policy is lacking in regards to the issue of amphetamine use, one facet of this new agreement should be highly effectively in curbing drug use in the clubhouse.

Under the terms of the old agreement — the one without any teeth — players received the proverbial slap on the wrist albeit an anonymous one. First-time offenders were given drug counseling. That’s it. No public shaming. No suspension. Just counseling. Repeat offenders were suspended, and a fifth-time offender would receive a year off from the game.

It’s been said to death over the past couple of years, but this was not a policy designed to lend faith to the institution. While the penalties were far from harsh, the policy called for just one test a year. The incentive to stop steroid use just wasn’t there; as long as a player was clean for that one test, it wouldn’t matter what they did the rest of the time. As the BALCO case exploded this winter, and Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds became the poster children for steroid use in the Major Leagues, MLB and the Players’ Association knew they had to come up with a new agreement, one with more bite. They unveiled this new deal on Thursday.

Under the terms of the latest agreement — which is to be in place until 2008, well past the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement — first-time offenders will receive a suspension of 10 games. Second-time offenders get a 30-day vacation, third-timers get 60 days, and four-time repeat users who get caught get one year. If a player gets nabbed five times, his fate is left in the hands of Commissioner Bud Selig, and it’s doubtful that Bud would be lenient.

Another big improvement in the new policy is the frequency of the tests. As ESPN reported on Thursday, “Players will be randomly selected for additional tests, with no limit on the number, and for the first time will be subject to random tests during the offseason.? This new stipulation gives the drug policy much more weight. Players will have to clean up their acts year-round because a test could come at any day or even on consecutive days. They will be at the whim of the randomly-generated number system MLB will have in place for the start of the season.

Finally, Major League Baseball has done something positive to address a problem with the game. They’ve put in place a drug-testing program that should discourage the players. In my opinion, this program will work because of the public stigma associated with steroid use. As Jayson Stark wrote yesterday: “The worst part of testing positive would be getting that label Steroid User stamped on your forehead. That’s a scarlet letter that these players would have to wear for the rest of their lives. If you don’t believe their reputations will be tainted forever, just ask Jason Giambi—if you can find him. For a high-profile player, that means not just a life sentence of boos and insults. It means having everything he ever accomplished thoroughly discredited.?

Now, under the new deal, players’ offenses will be a matter of public record from the first time on through their lifetime ban, if that’s the punishment Selig chooses. While some commentators feel that fans will react to what the players do on the field only, I think the fans will not forgive their favorite, or former favorite, players for cheating. Not only with the fans be unforgiving, but the suspensions will forever tarnish the reputation that player. Players who may have been idolized by youngsters will instead become the symbols of cheating in the game. Star players will become outcasts. In addition to an institutionalized punishment system, players will now be subjected to judgment by the media and the fans, and those two groups are among the first to point fingers and the last to forgive and forget.

Despite these strides, however, I still am a favor of a stricter testing policy. A few weeks ago, on my blog, I wrote about how taking steroids is just as bad, if not worse, than betting on baseball games. It’s illegal, and it’s cheating. Players should not get second chances, let alone a fourth or fifth chance. If a player gets caught once, his reputation is in tatters, but he still gets to play the game. If a player is caught betting on baseball, he gets suspended for life even if he’s betting for his own team to win. If the point of these rules is for baseball to set a moral example, than the penalty for first-time offenders in both cases should be the same. Those who cheat should not be allowed to play the game.

I will applaud Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association for addressing this problem in the span of about six weeks since the BALCO story broke. But this should not be the end of it. Baseball should seriously consider banning amphetamines, and those running the game and the union should be willing to accept harsher penalties for steroid users. Baseball is, after all, America’s game, and baseball should be teaching Americans that cheating gets you no where.

The Beltran Blues

When Carlos Beltran traded in his red Astros pinstripes for a set of blue Mets pinstripes on Monday, he did more than just break the hearts of Houston fans. Rather, he set back the Astros by at least a spot or two in the division. He also sent the team spiraling into a rebuilding mode with only 35 days left until Spring Training camps open and with precious few free agents still on the market.

On June 25, 2004, Carlos Beltran arrived as a potential savior in Houston. Up to that point, the ’stros had failed to meet their very lofty expectations. Andy Pettitte had missed a lot of time with a bad elbow, and Houston was 38-34 in fourth place. At first, Beltran didn’t seem to be the answer. On July 24th, a week before the trading deadline, the Astros were going nowhere fast. They were 48-49 in fifth place in the division and six games out in the Wild Card race.

The rest, as they say, is history. After an incredible stretch drive, the Astros came within 27 outs of the World Series. Beltran hit eight postseason home runs and dove into right and left fields to rob Cardinals of their doubles. He seemingly carried the team to the brink of that World Series.

During the subsequent months, Drayton McLane clearly wanted to resign Beltran and use the 27-year-old outfielder as a keystone to a decade of Houston success. To free up the finances to do so, the Astros declined Jeff Kent’s $9 million option and saw him leave for Los Angeles. They didn’t even talk to Wade Miller who signed with Boston, and they didn’t open serious negotiations with any of the other available free agents who could have helped the team. Instead, they made Beltran the biggest offer in Astros’ history only to see him decline it.

The problems are worse however. First, Lance Berkman tore his ACL in early November and will be out until at least May and probably until June. Next, there is the issue of Roger Clemens. Clemens has not decided yet whether or not to return to Houston this season. His return was largely contingent on the Astros putting together another competitive team. But with Beltran and Kent gone, Berkman out for two months, and no viable replacements from any of these players, speculation is that Clemens will opt to retire.

In effect, the Astros’ failure to sign Carlos Beltran has cost them a lot more than just one player. It has cost them nearly one-third of all of their games from last year. Looking at 2004 statistics, the Astros are in danger of losing as many as 100 win shares depending upon the severity of Berkman’s injury and the speed of his recovery. If Berkman can make a full recovery, the Astros would be down 68 win shares — or the equivalent of nearly 33 victories. It is very unlikely that the Astros can climb out of this hole this deep in time for the 2005 campaign.

With Beltran just a physical away from the Mets, the tough part begins. The Astros have to figure out who will replace their departed players. If Clemens does indeed retire, the loss would be as devastating as Beltran’s decision to head for the Big Apple. The front end of the rotation would be Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, but there are question marks around Pettitte’s health. Behind these two, the loss of Wade Miller will be noticeable as well. While injuries limited his action down the stretch last year, he was a solid third or forth starter. He has won 52 games for Houston since 2001, and his DIPS (that’s defense-independent pitching statistics) showed that he was good and not just lucky. Brandon Backe would step in to the rotation, as would some combination of Tim Redding, Pete Munro, Brandon Duckworth, and whatever else the Astros farm system has. That’s a major step down for a team that was just nine innings away from the Series.

In the outfield, with Berkman’s injury and Beltran’s departure, the Astros are left with the potential starting three of Jason Lane, 40-year-old Craig Biggio, and career journeyman Orlando Palmeiro. The three combined for a whopping 92 RBIs last year. In the infield, the Astros are left with Mike Lamb to fill in for Jeff Kent. Clearly, this team is a far cry from the one that upended the Braves and nearly upset the Cardinals just three months ago.

While I’ve painted a fairly dire picture for the Astros and their fans this upcoming season, there is still hope that they could land a free agent or two to help alleviate these losses. Jeromy Burnitz and Magglio Ordoñez remained unsigned. Ordoñez could adequately replace Beltran’s bat in the lineup, but he too has some health issues. Burnitz is appealing, but his numbers are Coors-inflated. He’ll be 36 in April, and there’s no way he would hit 37 home runs and drive in 110 at sea level. Other than that, the pickings are slim.

So then, where did the Astros go wrong this off-season? This is a team with money that was willing to spend. I think the obvious answer lies in their infatuation with Carlos Beltran and the way in which they played into Scott Boras’ hands. There’s no denying that Carlos Beltran is a great player. His .536 postseason OBP and 1.022 slugging proved that this kid can play, and the towering home runs were enough to blind even the most objective of baseball analysts. But this was Beltran’s biggest contribution to the team. He did little to push the team into the playoffs, hitting .258 in September while slugging just .474. He drove in only seven runs the entire month.

Despite an unclutch performance, the Astros blindly pursued Beltran. They did not look at Steve Finley; they did not look at Moises Alou; they never talked to any of the free agent pitchers that would have fit nicely into the back end of their rotation. In the end, Beltran opted to walk. Scott Boras used Astros to get seven years and $119 million from the New York Mets. Now, the Astros are left without a second baseman, without a solid outfield, and possibly without the reigning Cy Young winner.

They are left, however, with a large cache of cash. If they want a shot at contending this year, they had better spend some of it quickly and pray that the Rocket wants to fire up his right arm one more time.


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