Archive for February, 2005

The Class of 2006: Top Ten Free Agents to Watch During 2005

The free agent class of 2004-2005 did well for itself. Big signings — some of the biggest since the early 2000s — dominated the headlines, and players from Pedro Martinez to Carlos Beltran to Carlos Delgado ended up in unexpected places.

While teams are getting into shape and pitchers are beginning to air out their arms in Florida and Arizona, it’s never too early to examine those who will be free agents come next November. Who’s primed for a big contract and who needs to play well to land the big bucks?

Hitters

1. Lance Berkman

Berkman’s free agent campaign got off to a rocky start when he injured his ACL this winter. While the Astros’ All-Star outfielder thinks he’ll be ready by Opening Day, team doctors believe he’ll be set to go by May 1. Either way, Berkman’s primed to land a big contract next year. With a career on-base percentage of .416, he’s been an offensive machine the last four years in Houston. Averaging 32 home runs and 113 RBIs since 2001, Berkman is a better offensive version of Magglio Ordoñez. Considering that Berkman signed a one-year $10.5-million deal to avoid arbitration, he should land a comparable contract with another solid season in 2005.

2. Nomar Garciaparra

While Berkman has his future set, Nomar has a lot to prove this year. Nomar, who turns 32 in July, has to reassert himself as a superstar in order to land an Edgar Renteria-type deal. He’ll also have to play more than 81 games. Playing in Wrigley away from the glare of the Boston media, Garciaparra will have his chance to sit back and drive the ball just like he should. If he can hit 40 doubles and 25 home runs, he’ll end up with a nice four-years at $10-$12 million a season. If he’s injured and can’t produce anywhere near his peak, he may end up with another one-year, prove-yourself contract.

3. Johnny Damon

Damon stated publicly that he wants to finish up his career in Boston. At the same time, the Yankees will be looking for a center fielder younger than Bernie Williams in eight months. If Damon’s intent on staying in Boston, he may have to resist the lure of George Steinbrenner’s wallet. Damon’s had some hit-or-miss seasons over the last four years. He was a bust in Oakland and signed for $8 million a year with the Sox in 2001. After a mediocre 2003, Damon had a break-out season last year, hitting 20 home runs with 94 RBIs and a .380 OBP. He also scored 123 runs out of the lead-off spot. If he keeps up that level of production, King George will be drooling in anticipation of a bidding war.

4. Bret Boone

Will the real Bret Boone please stand up? Boone’s contract will depend upon whether he follows his 2001/2003 model or his 2002/2004 model. If he hits close to .300 with 35 home runs and 120 RBIs, he’ll have numerous suitors looking for a great second baseman. If he hits .265 with an OBP below .320, he’ll draw considerably less attention. Additionally, now that his name has been publicly associated with steroids, teams may be scrutinizing Boone’s performance a little closer this year. Boone has age working against him as well. He turns 36 this season and probably shouldn’t get more than a two or three year deal.

5. Erubiel Durazo

In a weak free agent class, Durazo is a sleeper pick. He’s an on-base machine with a career OBP of .387, but he’s never hit more than 22 home runs or driven in more than 88. He’s also a liability in the field, and his walk totals decreased by nearly 50 percent between 2003 and 2004. Yet, if Durazo finally has that breakout year many in baseball have been waiting for, he could land a decent contract. He’s just a few months older than Damon and Garciaparra. So if he comes into his own this year, he may land a nice deal from a team in need of a Designated Hitter.

Pitchers

1. Tim Hudson

Health, health, health, health, and health are the five issues (or is it just one?) facing the top five free-agent-to-be pitchers, and none of them embody that more than Tim Hudson. There’s no doubt that the Braves’ latest ace is the real deal. In Oakland, he was arguably the best pitcher among the Big Three. His ERA is constantly well below the league average, and until last year, he was a workhouse, placing in the top three for innings pitched in 2001, 2002, and 2003. But questions surround Hudson’s health as he lost his effectiveness last season after an oblique muscle injury. Hudson’s also had a declining strike out rate over the last few years which is often a warning sign of a pitcher losing his effectiveness. It will be interesting to see how a switch to a new league and an idolized pitching coach affects Hudson’s season.

2. A.J. Burnett

Of all the players on this list, Burnett has the best upside. He’ll be 29 by Opening Day 2006 and could be one of the game’s premiere power pitchers. However, he’s never had an injury-free season and has started just 23 games over the last two years. If he’s healthy and can maintain his strike out rate of nine per nine innings, expect the boys from Boston and New York to woo A.J. Burnett until he’s sick of steak dinners, limo rides, and visits from Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, and everyone in between.

3. Kevin Millwood

Kevin Millwood’s name has appeared on everyone’s list of free agent pitchers for the past few seasons, and every year, he’s been a disappointment. It’s becoming more and more obvious that he’s break-out season of 1999 may just have been a fluke. He struggled last year, giving up more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2000. His 4.85 ERA was inflated due to the tight new park in Philadelphia, but even his park-adjusted ERA was a career high. If Millwood doesn’t show some more consistency, he may just end up signing one-year, $7-million deals until he retires.

4. Matt Morris

Before the 2004 season, Morris would have been number two or three on this list, but injuries and an off-season shoulder surgery have dropped him down a few spots. If Morris can get his ERA back to the 3.40 range and reestablish himself the strike-out pitcher he was in 2001 and 2002, he’ll be in a position to draw big bucks. However, if his arm acts up and his K/9 IP ratio continues to drop, teams will be very wary to approach him.

5. Billy Wagner

Early last year, Wagner delighted the fans in Philadelphia by lighting up the radar gun at Citizen’s Bank Park with his 100 mph heater. In the summer, he left the fans high and dry as injuries limited him to a four-year low of only 48.1 innings pitched. While he still managed to record 59 strike outs, an injured Billy Wagner may not get more than the $8 million the Phillies are paying him. If he has another dominating season, teams will be lined up down the block to secure the services of one of the hardest throwing lefty relievers in the game.

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Steroids Scandal Shows Major League Disconnect

I really care about baseball’s steroid issue. I’ve found, however, that I am among the minority and that disturbs me.

Many passionate fans care about the steroid issue because it affects the integrity of the game, and it sullies the reputations of players who have been idolized by their fans. For me, the issue comes down to something as basic as cheating. Using illegal performance-enhancing drugs to one-up your competition is cheating. Just like corking your bat is cheating. Just like throwing a game is cheating. The fact that Major League Baseball had not explicitly outlawed steroid use before the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement does not validate any steroid use before 2002. It’s all cheating.

To understand this steroid phenomenon, it’s necessary to explore just how baseball, its fans and the media have built up a system where drug use is acceptable and encouraged. The deepest root of this evil – like many – is the promise of more money, more home runs, more fans. Would a steroid-less Giambi have received a $120 million contract offer? Would Jose Canseco have received his own overvalued $25 million contract back in the late 1980s without his steroid-fueled MVP campaign? Of course not. The drive for greed has led many players to drugs that will mess them up later in life.

But it’s not just the players who are to blame. The owners, managers and general managers can’t walk away scot-free. Tony La Russa says he knew that Jose Canseco was juicing up. The Yankees supposedly removed the word steroid from Jason Giambi’s contract. This is nothing new. In 1976, according to Wednesday’s New York Times, then-Twins executive Clark Griffith wanted a mandatory drug testing program and mandatory treatment for players abusing drugs and alcohol. The general managers voted it down, and as they told Griffith, they wouldn’t report a player without first checking out his stats.

Can this really come as a surprise to anyone? Of course not. Baseball managers and general managers are not oblivious to what goes on in the clubhouse, and they’re not blind either. When a player looks different physically and hits the ball with a little more pop in his bat without hitting the gym, something isn’t natural. But the game is about winning. Why would you rat out your best players?

Then, there is the media, possibly the guiltiest party in the entire scandal. The media is having a field day with the steroid scandal. CBS garnered high ratings from the Canseco interview; the story is splashed across tabloids across the country; and columnists on the web are audaciously suggesting that Barry Bonds retire before he further sullies some of baseball’s exalted records. Self-righteousness reigns supreme in the press.

But something’s not right because these are same sports commentators who lapped up the McGwire-Sosa 1998 home run race. These are the same sports commentators who were enthralled by Bonds’ 2001 pursuit of the home run record and are eagerly counting down the at-bats until he reaches 715, 756, and beyond. The media once trumpeted the offensive age of baseball as they applauded the game for drawing in fans to fill the seats after the strike of 1994-1995 saw a decline in baseball popularity.

If more home runs means more coverage and more coverage means more revenue, then the press – the Fourth Estate of American life – is just as guilty for encouraging steroid use as managers are for ignoring a drug problem in baseball’s clubhouses.

Furthermore, the media loves everything that sells. They love home runs; they love steroids. It’s the great hypocrisy of the press. One season, they’ll tout the great offensive explosions; the next winter, Murray Chass will wax poetic about the pressures of the new drug policy. And that’s where the fans come into play.

This is the trickiest piece of the puzzle. Are the fans to blame? Yes, but not for the obvious reasons. The fans are to blame because they don’t care enough about the steroid scandal and how it affects the integrity of the game. In a recent unscientific SportsNation poll on ESPN, more fans by a 51-49 margin, said that competitive balance was the biggest problem facing the game, not steroids. And this comes after a five-year stretch in which five different teams won the World Series. Drug use, folks, is now more acceptable than having five out of six divisions feature wide-open races this season. (Only the AL East will be a two-team dog fight.) If these SportsNation voters are only those interested enough to seek out the poll to vote, I can only imagine the apathy the rest of baseball’s more casual fans feel about steroids.

But the fans do care about the publicity. Canseco’s book was the number three seller on Amazon the day it was released. Millions of people eat up steroid news everyday. These fans, however, only seem to want more names and more details. They want gossip and innuendo. They want to know who has done what and how.

All of this stems from one overarching belief that many fans share: As long as their team’s players produce on the field, it doesn’t matter what happens off the field. This isn’t to say that everyone feels this way; I know plenty of people who are highly disappointed that players would stoop to steroid use. But these sentiments can be found everywhere among baseball fans.

I, for one, do not approve. We baseball fans should care about what baseball players do in the locker room. We should care what players who are admired by young and old alike do with their bodies. We should care about the fact that cheating is becoming a socially acceptable phenomenon in the game called America’s Pastime. While many baseball fans want to leave the steroid issue behind and just focus on the games, it’s time for baseball fans to demand accountability and integrity from the greatest game on Earth.

Canseco’s Steroid Revelations Put MLB in a Tough Spot

The story no one in baseball wants to hear – rumors about steroid use – reared its ugly head once again this weekend.

With little more than a week left before pitchers and catchers report to training camps in warm locales, the steroid scandal is once again splashed across the sports pages of newspapers across the country. This weekend’s revelations focused around former Major Leaguer Jose Canseco and his upcoming book entitled Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.

According to the New York Daily News, Canseco delivered on his promise to name names and point fingers. He accuses former teammates Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi of shooting up. He reportedly implicates famous sluggers who played with him on the Texas Rangers and even goes so far as to take a swipe at President George W. Bush, claiming that Bush knew that his players were using performance-enhancing drugs when he owned the Rangers in the 1990s.

Players, managers, and agents have of course already begun their damage control. Tony La Russa and Dave McKay, two coaches who led the A’s during Canseco’s time with the team, disputed the leaked material from the book. In The New York Times, La Russa stuck up for his former star slugger. “He’s hurting for money and he needs to make a score. What’s a more sensational thing to say, and who’s a more sensational target to pick than Mark?? he said.

Meanwhile, the Daily News claims that the leaked book, set to hit stores right at the start of Spring Training on Feb. 21, is already creating a stir among the higher-ups in Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association as they prepare for the worst. Yet, the issue is not a clear cut one, and it will only become further complicated as more information about the book is released. In the end, baseball could use this latest diversion to leave steroid use firmly in the past.

First, as La Russa pointed out, there’s the issue of Jose Canseco’s credibility. Truth be told, Canseco is not the most reliable of sources. He’s always had a tumultuous relationship with the media and has been into and out of trouble more often than he’s been traded. Anything he says should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

However, since Ken Caminiti’s 2002 admission to steroid use during his MVP season and the BALCO testimony that rocked the baseball world this winter, more people have been willing to listen to these steroid allegations. As ESPN contributor Mark Kriedler wrote back in 2002, “But what Ken Caminiti is saying, if you’ll take the time to find his words, is that the Jose Cansecos of the baseball world are far more right than wrong.?

Second, compounded with the issue of Canseco’s credibility is the unfortunate (for the author, at least) timing of the book. This winter saw more than its fair share of steroid stories. Leaked Grand Jury testimony sealed the fates of certain sluggers while the development of a new steroid policy showed that baseball was ready to address a serious problem. Now, Canseco’s book really does seem like the icing on the cake. By releasing the book now, it is as though Canseco just wants to cash in on a public itching to hear more about what All Stars, what future Hall of Famers, and what average players juiced up during the past 15 years.

In response, already embattled Major League coaches such as La Russa and McKay are vehemently backing their players. But is that the right move to make? I don’t think Canseco’s book should be taken for much more than a gossipmonger trying to pick up a quick buck, but that’s only in terms of the namedropping. The real message of Canseco’s warnings – that, at one point, 80 percent of Major Leaguers used steroids – is much more likely to be true, and this isn’t something Major League Baseball can sweep under the rug.

It’s admirable that managers stand behind their superstars, but that is not the right move to make anymore. With a public that grows increasingly skeptical anytime a La Russa says that a Mark McGwire, a known user of Androstenodione, is completely innocent of using performing enhancing drugs, it’s time for Major League Baseball to reassess its responses to these steroid revelations no matter how dubious the source may be.

This raises a sticky question: Should Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association out steroid users in an effort to reclaim the purity of the game? If players stepped forward or were outed by their peers, the argument goes, the public would begin to believe those who claimed not to be users. These moves would also restore confidence in the integrity of today’s game. But considering the strength of the Players’ Association and the delicate nature of the controversy, it’s probably not the best idea for players to out their peers and thus alienate what could be a large percentage of the union. However, coaches and teammates could be better off if they remained silent on this issue instead of rushing to the defense of every nice guy or hard-working player implicated in the scandal.

In the end, Major League Baseball is in a Catch-22 situation. They shouldn’t publicly out those who used steroids during the Juiced Era, but those involved in the game shouldn’t be turning a blind eye to reality. This isn’t to say that Mark McGwire is definitely guilty and that Jose Canseco is telling the truth. But if Major League Baseball is truly intent on leaving the steroid scandal in the past, the iron wall of support for all players should come down.

Records and personal achievements of superstars from the past 15 years will always be in doubt in the public mind. Here’s to hoping that the next 15 years won’t produce an environment for any more asterisks, suspicions, syringes, or gossip-driven books.


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