Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Year In Selective Review

The year just concluding in local sports was most notable for its ups and downs.

As far as reversals of fortune go, the Eagles late season resurrection may be the stuff of legends, Delaware Valley division. No franchise in all of professional sport may dominate its local landscape quite like the Philadelphia Eagles do. During the off-season, training camp and regular season they absolutely rule the roost. (One wonders whether an appearance in the World Series by the Phillies would outdraw the Eagles if the Cowboys were in town the same day.) So it was noteworthy a mere month ago when all hope for the current season seemed lost as quarterback Donovan McNabb went down with a knee injury. With six games still remaining, nearly everyone gave up on them and, not coincidentally, their head coach, whose play-calling and clock management had been suspect for years. Yet a mere six weeks later Andy Reid is again the toast of the town and the Eagles, already in the playoffs, are generally considered to be one of the hottest clubs in an admittedly cool National Football Conference.

The Phillies once again toyed with their faithful, stumbling out of the gate in April and putting on another late season rally that again fell short of the playoffs. To compensate for the overall team failure, however, the boys of summer gave us one Ryan Howard, the most personable and formidable slugger to come along in many a year. Howard impressed fans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean as well as voters who hand out various and sundry hardware at the close of business. Teammate Chase Utley, another sophomore sensation and All-Star, kept pace with Howard throughout the season as far winning the hearts and minds of fans.

Meanwhile, the Sixers provided precious few ups (truth be told I cannot think of a single one) on their way to another dismal season. They finished out of the playoffs at the beginning of 2006 and picked up right where they left off in the Fall of this year. Allen Iverson finally did what GM Billy King had been unable to do: pulled the trigger himself and demanded a trade. Meanwhile, to celebrate his pre-trade banishment from the premises, his teammates went on a ten-game losing streak, which was briefly interrupted by a two-game winning streak. The losing streak has resumed since that two-game aberration and AI’s eventual departure for the snows of Denver. He will be missed by many, but not, apparently, by his coach.

The Flyers were competitive last season albeit old and slow on defense and those liabilities took their toll as 2006 dawned, concluding with another early exit from the playoffs. Picking up where they left off, the Flyers began the current season in disarray that lead to the firing of head coach Ken Hitchcock and the resignation/firing of GM Bob Clarke. Instead of old, the Fly boys became young in the extreme: more than half their roster is made up of guys who were in the minors a year ago. As might be expected, they quickly sank to the absolute bottom of the NHL standings, all divisions considered. Last night they set a franchise record by losing their tenth straight game.

2007 doesn't hold any promise for the Sixers or Flyers, unless one considers draft position. As for the Eagles, the likely outcome of their playoff appearance(s) will be a dose of reality. The Phillies can be rightfully labeled a work in progress. If they manage to fill a few glaring holes in their bullpen, they should be competitive. Whether that translates into their first playoff appearance in fourteen years remains to be seen.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

It's Tough Out There

Ho hum, yet another athlete departs and says Philadelphia is "hardest city in the world to play in."

In the next life I'd like to see all of these guys who think it's tough here to spend a season each in Boston and New York and then tell us all where Philadelphia ranks on the tough-o-meter!!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Just Your Garden Variety $100 Million Dollar Players

So much for the fantasy of Vernon Wells in a Phillies uniform. Admittedly, as fantasies go this one was way out there. Probably no more than a few of us even entertained the notion but we are back on our medication now. Before we move on, or back, to reality, and in light of my recent post on salary madness in baseball, it is impossible to ignore the huge contract Wells just signed with Toronto without comparing it to those signed just this past off-season by a few other outfielders.

Wells is a very fine player who at age 28 should be reaching his peak. A career .285 hitter who has slugged 200 home runs over his seven seasons, Wells has also won three consecutive Gold Gloves. What’s more, during a brief stint this post-season as an in-studio analyst on ESPN, he was impressive: bright, articulate, insightful. This guy, as they say, appears to have the whole package.

Leaving aside character, do Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee merit nearly as much money as Wells? Soriano is a high-strikeout kind of guy with lots of power, too. He has hit 208 home runs, 41 of them last year alone. Over the same seven years the 30-year old Soriano has a .280 batting average. He was among the league leaders in outfield assists last season (he may have even led the league) but will never be mistaken for Willie Mays.

Interestingly enough, Lee, also 30, has logged seven years in the big leagues himself. Over that period he is a lifetime .286 hitter with 221 home runs. No one would mistake him for Willie Mays Hayes let alone his namesake!

Wells extended his current contract with Toronto last week, signing for $126 million over seven years. Soriano signed for $136 million for eight years with the Cubs in November.. Lee signed a six year deal with Houston for an even $100.

To summarize: three guys, all with the same major league experience whose career batting averages are within six points of each other and whose home run totals and within 21 of each other. Only when comparing them as fielders do the differences stand out.

Get used to it, baseball fans. We have entered the era of the good but not certifiably great (yet, if ever) $100 million player. When I was a lad we used to hear of heated debates that went something like this: who would you rather have on your team, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, or Roberto Clemente? I would seriously doubt our $100 million outfielders of today (you can throw in Carlos Beltran while we are at it) are the subject of such debates.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Tis The Season To Give

Another off-season, another installment of Beantown Vs. The Evil Empire.  Ho hum.

Now, before you get the idea those two clubs play in a higher league let me remind you the Tigers and Athletics played each other in the ALCS.  As for the best teams money bought in 2006, the Red Sox failed to make the post-season and the Yankees made an early exit.  Only the networks, their spnsors and Tommy LaSorda were disappointed.  Everyone outside Route 128 and the Island of Manhattan openly rejoiced.

Still, when one looks at all the money being thrown around it’s not hard to understand how these two teams dominate the news and will once again be favored to make it to the post-season.  After all, how many clubs spend $51.5 million just to talk to a free agent?  The Red Sox may have scored a few points among their jealous rivals if  they indeed stared down Scott Boras in the Daisuke Matsuzaka negotiations and he blinked.   Poor Scott.  If reports are true he “settled” for a $52 million, six-year contract for his 26-year old client.  

Meanwhile, over in the poor old National League, which despite generally being considered the weaker of the two leagues managed to win the World Series last year, the Dodgers have reached deep into their pockets and made a number of acquisitions that will likely make them the favorites in the West.  Not to be outdone, by anyone in either league as it turns out, the Chicago Cubs lavished millions of dollars on several marquee players in an almost desperate attempt to break the endless cycle of futility that hangs over this storied franchise.  Unfortunately, none of the beneficiaries of their munificence can pitch, at least not without breaking down.

What has become evident in baseball among all the major sports is the spiraling out of control of salaries.  Go ahead, name the top salaries paid to NFL superstars like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.  Of course, you haven’t got a clue; but you can name the “posting” fee for Matsuzaka.  Tell me, what are the Penguins paying Sidney Crosby?  A little louder, please.  Meanwhile, over at the NBA, no stranger to ridiculous salaries, the big names there, take your pick, are making how much?

Those who point out that baseball is enjoying record attendance and revenues and can afford these salaries forcibly remind me of the so-called securities experts who during the tech boom of the late ‘90’s and early turn of this century argued that earnings were not the true measure of a company’s worth or prospects.  

We all know how that turned out.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How Not To Sell A Classic


1996-07 Bentley sedan. Driven hard. Never garaged. Entered in over 100 off-road races; finished in 98. Body compromised in too many places to list here. Involved in three known accidents. Driver-side door does not open. Last known oil change ca. the new millennium. $59,900 or BO. Contact: Billy King, Philadelphia 76ers.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Full Court Treatment

I digress….

The Philadelphia 76ers are in the process of giving Allen Iverson a full-court treatment worthy of the former Soviet Union: to wit, erasing him from the history books and sending him out into the Gulag where he will become a non-person. Of course they cannot really expunge eleven years of hogging the ball just like that so they are doing the next best thing: barring Iverson from the arena (for both games and practice), clearing out his belongings from the locker room, removing his name plate from the stall he used to call home and, get this, re-editing the team video to remove his presence from the highlight reel. Man, that has got to be one short highlight reel now, eh?

The whole sorry affair is really GM Billy King’s fault but as long as Ed Snider owns the 76ers we can expect King to escape the same fate that has befallen his former franchise player. Remember, Snider is slow, painfully slow, to pull the trigger on executives he’s hired no matter how lousy they are at the job. See Bob Clarke for details. In King’s case it can hardly be said he has endeared himself to his boss the way Clarke did.

What Iverson’s imminent departure means is that there is a serious vacuum for future pretenders to the sports medal stand in this town. Indeed, by my reckoning, things stack up like this: Ryan Howard currently wears the gold; Chase Utley the silver; and Brian Dawkins the bronze. No one else is even entered in the race.

Friday, December 08, 2006

And Another Thing....

In this morning’s Daily News Paul Hagen writes:

Some scouts said [Garcia’s] velocity was down dramatically at times last season and that his fastball barely touched 90 even on his good days. Arbuckle disagreed.

"We don't have a lot of concern about that," he said. "His velocity isn't what it used to be when he started out in Seattle. Back then he used to top out at 95. But he's a pitcher now, not a thrower. He's a little different animal."

Garcia is only 31 but all those 200+ innings per season mount up quickly. I still like the deal but I am far from convinced the big right-hander is the savior we’ve all been waiting for. The Phillies’ clearly agree as they continue their quest for bullpen help and another right-handed bat. And well they should.

* * * * * * * *

Barry Bonds has found a job. More to the point, he’s kept his old one. The Giants have re-signed the aging Steroids Man to a one-year $16 million deal. I have to assume his guest appearance at the Winter Meetings moved the Giants off the dime. They must have been worried he'd go somewhere else, break the home run record and then announce he was going into the Hall of Fame wearing, say, a Minnesota Twins cap. The Giants could have saved themselves some money if they’d checked first with Cooperstown. Apparently, they get the last say on whose cap a player wears going into the Hall.

In today’s baseball economy $16 million, even for an aging, bulging superstar must be seen as a bargain. Bonds will put lots of fannies in the seats as he chases Hank Aaron’s record, but if and when he breaks the mark, the drop-off will be precipitous for the Giants, who don’t figure to be contenders in the NL West. Then, they will be left holding the bag with a rapidly fading sour puss making everyone in the clubhouse uncomfortable. That’s the price of “success”.

* * * * * * * *

Speaking of aging though not necessarily fading superstars, what’s with this annual will-he-or-won’t-he bit with Roger Clemens? Now his hedging has infected his protégé, Andy Pettitte, who apparently has unretired before he even retired. Is this such a pitching-starved era that some players are given the first three months of the season off to prepare and then granted special privileges for their few months of active service?

Speaking of “pitching-starved” eras, is ours any more starved than earlier eras or has the nature of pitching if not the overall game changed? Is this also a “hitting-starved” era? I await the reply of some of my sabremetrically-oriented blogging brethren.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Good Beginnings But What About The Ending?

Going into the off-season if you had told me the Phillies would add two starting pitchers I would have been surprised, yet here we are in early December and they have done just that with the free agent signing of Adam Eaton and yesterday’s trade with the White Sox for Freddy Garcia.

The Eaton signing shows up on many observers’ lists as one of the worst deals of the Hot Stove League to date in terms of the dollars spent. The Garcia trade will be viewed by many as one of the best deals. To get the proven right-hander the Phils gave up [on] former first round draft pick Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, whom they had acquired from the same White Sox.

The surprise here is that the White Sox were willing to gamble that Floyd would eventually fulfill his early promise. The Phils gave him every chance and he muffed the overwhelming majority of them including a stint in the Arizona Fall League that just concluded. His promises will likely remain unfulfilled. Gonzalez is a known commodity to the Sox, who originally developed him and then traded him to the Phils in the Jim Thome deal. Gio was inconsistent at Reading last season but was still considered one of the organization’s top pitching prospects.

Garcia is eligible for free agency at the end of next season and thus may turn out to be a one-year rental, but it is highly unlikely Floyd would have helped at all this coming season or beyond and Gonzalez, like many young pitchers, remains unproven.

The other surprise is that the White Sox did not insist the Phillies include Aaron Rowand in the deal. They have openly regretted trading him in the same Thome deal and have made no bones about wanting to reacquire him. In today’s Inquirer it was suggested they can wait another year when he becomes a free agent.

Commenter extraordinaire George S. wrote a number of us an email this morning suggesting that the improvements in the starting rotation should translate to more innings thrown by that quintet and thus less demands on a clearly depleted bullpen. Theoretically George is correct though Charlie Manuel has shown himself to be one of those managers who turns to his bullpen with Pavlonian consistency after five or six innings no matter what the situation. When he does, he is going to find less proven arms there to call on as things currently stand. Chief among the deficiencies are a proven set-up guy and someone who can take Flash Gordon’s place should the aging right-hander suffer yet another injury. No matter how much they improve at the beginning of the game, the Phils must have someone for the finale if they expect to compete for the NL East title.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Where's Kenny?

There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Kenny Lofton is aiming to play for all 30 MLB teams before he retires. Sure, Kenny is a free agent and could sign with his twelfth team in fifteen years (including two stints with Cleveland), but at age 39 time is running out.

Meanwhile, every Phillies fan’s favorite outfielder JD Drew has just signed with his fourth club, a mere piker next to Mr. Lofton. Eight years Lofton’s junior, Drew has a lot of catching up to do and it doesn’t appear there will be time given the terms of his deal with Boston. Yesterday Drew signed for five years with the Red Sox, meaning he would be 36 years old before he could move to his fifth club. At last report, Lofton isn’t even looking in his rear view mirror any more but if he were, you can be sure JD’s image wouldn’t even appear.

* * * * * * * *

Pat Gillick’s affinity for players from teams for which he previously worked is getting a little scary. Did Gillick, a Canadian, spend his off-season comparing notes with former Flyers’ GM Bob Clarke, who not only liked to reacquire players he’d previously traded, but had a fatal tendency to trade for players who had great records against his club?

While it would be very nice to have the White Sox’ Freddy Garcia in red pinstripes next season, my enthusiasm would be tempered if he were a one-year rental. Garcia, who played for Gillick in Seattle, can become a free agent at the end of next season. Unless he agrees to an extension before any deal is made, highly unlikely given the kind of numbers being thrown around at less accomplished pitchers this off-season, Garcia might come at too high a price.

Gillick’s penchant for the familiar may only be exceeded by his inexplicable attraction to players with the Texas Rangers on their resumes. We needn’t list all the deals Gillick has previously made with Texas other than to point out that not a single one of the players he received in these transactions is still on the Phils’ 40-man roster. Now, there are rumors he might try and acquire Kevin Mench in a deal with Milwaukee. Anyone want to guess where Mench spent 5.5 of his 6 year career prior to his stint with the Brewers?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Say What?

The calendar pages turn and the seasons roll by. Stadiums are demolished and new ones built. Players and managers come and go. So do broadcasters. But for more than a quarter of a century one constant remains: Dallas Green’s big mouth.

We can all stop worrying about Pat Burrell now that Green is on his case. While most of us mistakenly thought the former phenom’s problems were breaking stuff away and hard stuff inside, Green has put his finger on the real problem: too much fun. That’s right, sports fans, Pat Burrell is just too good looking and too rich for his and the Phillies’ own good. Or as Green so eloquently put it, "It's neat to have money, it's neat to have good looks, and it's neat to have broads all over you.”

Ever on point to say nothing of pc; that's Dallas Green. Now, with that out of the way, we can expect Burrell to respond with Triple Crown numbers to Green’s public calling out. Thanks, Dallas, he needed that!

* * * * * * *

As I’ve been saying for months, Aaron Rowand remains the most likely player to be dealt by the Phils prior to the start of Spring Training. Among his many reported suitors are his former team, the White Sox, and the Texas Rangers. Will someone please tell Pat Gillick there are 28 other major league teams in North America besides the Rangers? What, exactly, is Gillick’s fixation with them? Can he look back over the last year and reasonably say he has done well in his dealings with them? The last time I looked the Phillies no longer had one former Ranger on their 40-man roster.

With the emergence of Shane Victorino last season, the Phils can afford to let Rowand go. Victorino is the superior fielder with a vastly better arm who will hit as least as well as Rowand if not better and generate more excitement on the base paths. He has already shown he can crash into as many walls as Rowand but hopefully with better outcomes.

The White Sox just re-signed Scott Podsednik to a one year deal, but they would love to have Rowand back by most accounts. Sox GM Kenny Williams has pitching to trade, especially starting pitching, which would fit nicely if another rumor, that the Phils are shopping John Lieber, turns out to be true.

* * * * * * * *

Jim Salisbury notes in today's Inquirer that "The Phils plan to interview Jeff Maier for an entry-level scouting or front-office position tomorrow. Maier, 23, became a household name in 1996 when he interfered with a ball at Yankee Stadium, turning a Derek Jeter fly ball into a home run in a playoff game between the Yankees and Orioles. Gillick was the Orioles' GM at the time.

Maier, a North Jersey native, graduated from Wesleyan University in May as the school's all-time hits leader. He had a scouting internship in the Cape Cod League last summer."

Now, as a Wesleyan graduate myself, I am always delighted to see a fellow alum do well in the world. But I am also Baltimore born and bred and was for 35 years a die-hard Orioles fan. So, you can see my loyalties in this matter are conflicted. Let's just leave it at this: I hope Maier is a better judge of talent than he is of fly balls.

Monday, December 04, 2006

On Second Thought....

Albert Pujols wants to apologize to Ryan Howard for his remarks last week about the MVP vote.  That is big of King Albert.  Less big, however, is Pujols’ complaint that his apology is in order because his remarks last week were taken out of context.  He said what he said, consecutive translation notwithstanding.  (The translations, by the way, were fine.)  What Albert miscalculated was that apart from winning on merit, Howard is extremely well liked by everyone including the voters who cast their ballots for the St. Louis first baseman.  When no one rushed to Albert’s defense, he chose option number two:  blame it on the reporters who “misquoted” him.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Thus far this off-season the Phils haven’t done anything to improve their area of greatest concern, the bullpen.  Nor have them found the big bat to protect Ryan Howard.  As they go into the Winter Meetings, the few remaining free agents available hardly offer much consolation let alone…well…relief.  More and more it appears that any help will have to come via a trade, but it is also generally acknowledged the Phillies have virtually nothing to offer in return except for a few untested pitchers like Gio Gonzalez, whom they are loathe to surrender, and Aaron Rowand, who is still scheduled to be a starter.

Before everyone starts moaning again about the lousy farm system of the Phillies and Ed Wade’s role in its depletion, keep in mind J-Roll, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and Carlos Ruiz are all products of that system.

On the other hand, the problem for the Phils’ farm system today is that as is the case on Wall Street, the markets are only interested in future earnings, not past performance.

It would be encouraging to read a few stories about how much the Phillies are investing in overseas scouts in Latin America and Asia as well as how much they are doing to improve domestic oversight.  In addition, it would be nice to learn the Phillies have finally recognized too many of their prospects move up through the organization without ever learning some of the basics that would include but are not limited to:  learning when to take a pitch or two, moving runners along, hitting behind runners, and bunting.  This includes the Phillies’ pitchers, who are atrocious at all of the above.

There is a lot of competition out there for all athletes let alone baseball players, but every organization should be capable of demanding a certain level of proficiency from the ones they do sign.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Barry Bonds is still without a job and is it any wonder?  No, this isn’t Collusion II on the part of the owners.  Who wants the expense of hiring Bonds for one year at today’s ridiculous prices?  Will he make that money back in additional revenues for his new team?  He’s just as likely to break the mark on the road as at his new home, though you can be sure he will sit out a game or two if the schedule has him returning home as he closes in.  And who among the NL teams wants the liability of watching him limp along in the outfield, unable to perform the most routine plays he used to do so effortlessly?  That prospect makes it more likely he will sign with an AL team and DH.  Finally, who among all MLB teams wants the guaranteed aggravation of the media circus that is sure to ensue as he nears the mark, replete, no doubt, with his inevitable I-am-the-victim-here soliloquies?   One thing seems certain:  while MLB will fete him should he break Henry Aaron’s mark, Hammer’ Hank won’t be among the celebrants.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Looking Ahead?

Help may yet be on the way, but at this stage it is difficult to determine from what quarter.  Until then, I have to conclude  Pat Gillick was telling the truth after all:  he is looking beyond 2007.

For the coming season the Phillies will certainly be competitive in a weak NL East division with the roster they currently have, but holes in the bullpen in particular need to be addressed if they have post-season aspirations.  Failing that, Gillick’s reluctance to overspend this off-season may be putting the Phils in perfect position…for 2008.  By resisting the urge to spend all their new-found cash reserves on free agents Alfonso Soriano, a good player but hardly worth the dollars thrown at him, or Carlos Lee, a middling player who cannot field to save his baseball life, the Phillies should be able to go after some worthy free agents next Fall.  

Meanwhile, any team that trots out  Mssrs. Utley, Howard and Rollins on a daily basis and Hamels and Myers every fifth day should be ready for action if not formidable.  Right now the lineup shapes up like this:


Helms and Burrell may flip-flop in the five hole.  Howard and Utley may flip-flop in the four hole though I doubt they will.  Ruiz will be spelled occasionally by Coste though Gillick is quoted in today’s Inquirer as saying he is still looking for help at the catcher position.   He was also quoted on Comcast Sportsnet as saying a guy (Burrell) who average between 25 – 30 home runs and 90 rbi’s over the last five years is a difficult commodity to come by.  It’s hard to believe there has been so little interest in Burrell, but his no-trade clause may remain the big stumbling block.  Certainly his salary has to be seen as “in line” with the ridiculous numbers being thrown around these days though his production is hardly as consistent as his GM’s “endorsement” would suggest and his health remains a mystery.  All in all, it appears more likely than ever he will remain with the club.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Albert Pujols is complaining loudly that he, not Ryan Howard, deserved the MVP award. His rationale? Only players who lead their teams into the playoffs deserve the award. Sorry, Albert, but yours is not the official definition of the award. In fact, there is no “official” definition. Over the years, the award has sometimes been given to the individual player who had the best season regardless of his team’s performance; at other times, it has been given to the player whose outstanding performance led his team into the playoffs and World Series.

So, until and unless the voters strictly define the criteria, Albert, yours are just sour grapes. While we’re at it, let’s throw in greed, too.

* * * * * * *

The FA market is rapidly dwindling down to marginal players, questionable commodities, players with alarming health profiles and other flotsam and jetsam. Under the circumstances, it is only prudent that Phillies GM Pat Gillick is casting a wary eye at those players still circling the remaining chairs. If he needs further confirmation of the risks of spending a lot of money on guys with a history of arm miseries, he can look no further than the Phillies closer, Flash Gordon, who broke down last year and upon his return had a decidedly mediocre finish to the season.

Gillick’s problem is that he needs a lot of bullpen help and none seems available. Rather than sign some guy who is going to break down, the Phillies would be wise to use Matt Smith in the main set-up role and as their emergency closer, bring back Fabio Castro and actually use him in meaningful situations and tell Ryan Madson he is their sixth or seventh inning guy period and stop even thinking about any other role.

* * * * * * *

The Red Sox seem to have hit a stumbling block in their negotiations with Daisuke Matsuzaka and it’s name is “money”. What a surprise. MLB has informed Boston they “cannot reduce their $51.1 million bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka in order to sign him, even if his Japanese team agrees to take less…”

"There are no side deals in the situation," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office. "Everybody's been assured that's not allowed, and everybody's been made aware of the rules."

The next sentence in virtually every media outlet reporting this development is that the Red Sox will figure out a way to work around these rules. What a great idea this posting system is!!

* * * * * * *

While many people believe the most important developments thus far in the Hot Stove League have been the outlandish salaries heaped on Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, I would also point to the fact that Barry Bonds remains unemployed at this date. Generally acknowledged as the most feared hitter of his generation, Bonds will eventually sign with someone who wants the box-office boost his chase of Hank Aaron’s home record will surely produce, but in the meantime it is gratifying to see him in limbo.

Meanwhile, another home run hitter of note, Mark McGwire, is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time and his candidacy looks to be in real trouble. Many voters are making their secret ballots very public when it comes to McGwire and opinion is running against him, not, it should be pointed out, simply because of his unacknowledged use of steroids, but because his overall numbers are not HOF-worthy in the eyes of many voters. Some writers are frankly stating they are not in the business of policing the morality of baseball. Others say that the moral issue is important to them but MLB itself abrogated this responsibility during the height of the steroid era and it isn’t up to them to right this wrong. Instead, they point to Big Mac's overall offensive totals and say they do not measure up.

With the clearly worthy Cal Ripken and Tony Gywnn on the ballot for the first time as well as a few holdovers from the past who deserve serious consideration, McGwire’s chances of admission are poor in his first year and will no doubt deteriorate going forward.

Rest assured that when Bonds’ name comes up six or seven years from now he will be a first ballot entrant. Even with the tainted power numbers of recent years and a body that has “Steroids” written all over it, Bonds is a certifiable baseball immortal. While entry to the Hall has never been strictly defined in terms of numbers, it is clear Bonds has matched or exceeded the standards of those already admitted to this select circle. Nothing in the guidelines says anything about jerks, many of whom have been getting into the Hall for years. When Bonds’ becomes eligible, he will get the same “morality” pass guys like Ty Cobb got and be elected strictly on statistics. McGwire cannot rely on those.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Will They Seize The Moment?

Long-suffering baseball fans sense a rare opportunity for the Phillies to ascend to the top of an admittedly modest heap of local sports teams and win the hearts and minds of the entire region.  What’s more, these loyalists don’t want the moment to slip away…again.

The Eagles, Flyers and Sixers are all down and out, a cheerless mixture of aging veterans, disappointing rookies, front office upheavals and questionable coaching.  The Phillies, on the other hand, have a nucleus of bright young stars who seem poised for greatness.  All that’s missing are a few pieces to propel them into the playoffs.  Well, maybe there are several missing pieces, but the core of young stars is in place.

Despite unloading all or large portions of several onerous contracts, the Phillies haven’t spent big money this off-season in trying to improve themselves.  Indeed, the Wes Helms and Adam Eaton signings are widely viewed as plans C and D after more coveted players signed elsewhere or made it known they had no interest in coming to Philadelphia.  Given the outlandish contracts offered to Alfonso Soriano and, in particular, Carlos Lee, Pat Gillick cannot be faulted for exercising fiscal responsibility.  Helms and Eaton may be gambles, but these were worth taking if the former’s previous season was not a fluke and latter can stay healthy.  Of the two, Eaton’s hefty contract potentially poses some difficulty if he cannot put in the innings.

The latest rumor has the Phils in hot pursuit, along with the Oakland A’s, of aging catcher Mike Piazza, who still can hit lefties but whose always-suspect defensive skills have eroded to the point of embarrassment.    The question of where to play Piazza in the field is hardly unimportant on a team that isn’t overwhelmingly strong defensively in the infield and desperately needs a reliable hand and mind behind the plate.   It’s time for the Phillies to hand the catching job to Carlos Ruiz, who has earned his shot, and let him prove his worth as an every day player.  Chris Coste makes a perfectly competent backup.  I don’t believe Gillick would sign Piazza under those circumstances, which also include their desperation to rid themselves of Pat Burrell’s presence and contract.  Frankly, Burrell is as good if not better an alternative to Piazza as a hitter and, swallowing hard, superior defensively.

As commenter RichSchuBlues has pointed out here and elsewhere, it is only late November and there is still time to find some relief pitching and, less likely, a big bat to protect Ryan Howard.  Meanwhile, nearly everyone seems to think the Phillies starting rotation is set, but when I look at that quintet I see two aging veterans, one of whom is clearly out of shape and the other of whom is 43 years old, a sophomore with a history of health issues who threw more innings last season than he had in several previous years combined, a putative ace whose mental makeup on and off the field has prevented him from reaching the stardom everyone has predicted for years, and a newcomer who has had a series of health issues as well.  Call me skeptical, but that group does not inspire a lot of confidence.  They could surprise me, and the potential is there, but it could be fairly said that as a group they have a lot to prove…still.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hot Stove Updates

Welcome back, Adam Eaton. Your locker is the one over there in the far corner, with a sling still hanging in it. We’ll have someone remove Randy Wolf’s belongings and name plate by day’s end.

The Phillies have apparently completed their starting rotation with the signing of the free agent Eaton, whom they selected in the first round of the 1996 draft and later traded to San Diego. He replaces Wolf, who in seven years, all with the Phils, won 69 games. If Eaton remains healthy, he figures to be one of the sleepers of this off-season. Both he and Wolf are no strangers to injury, each having undergone Tommy John surgery. In six big league seasons Eaton has won 54 games.

Eaton spent last season with the Texas Rangers in a pitcher-friendly park. Now, he gets a chance to show his stuff in a hitters’ park while Wolf moves on to spacious Chavez Ravine.

The Eaton signing has to be seen as something of a gamble. Last year he lost considerable time due to a finger injury. Scouts love his stuff, which is code for he should be good if he can stay healthy and pitch like he is capable of pitching.

* * * * * * *

David Dellucci has signed a three-year deal with the Cleveland Indians, who guaranteed him a starting role in left field. Dellucci was never happy in Philadelphia and made no effort to conceal his displeasure. He takes his astonishingly weak arm, questionable glove and flat-out inability to hit lefties or breaking balls back to the American League, which he prefers.

* * * * * * *

Bill Conlin is one of the few local sports columnists who regularly replies to emails. Of course, he is so “faithful” because he is motivated by more than mere conversation; at least half of those replies drip with unconcealed contempt for his correspondents. Here he is today on bloggers and other cyberspace fans:

“Blog Nation and its e-mailing disciples remain locked in historic silk-purse-for-sow's-ear mode. Like their snail-mailing fathers and catcalling grandfathers, they insist you can get five-tool outfielder Vernon Wells from the Blue Jays for oft-injured, power-deprived outfielder Aaron Rowand and $4.2 million bonus flop Gavin Floyd.

They believe a similar package certainly should be able to land Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, a former MVP. Oh, yeah, since the Migster is adamant about remaining at shortstop, selfless, all-for-the-team-except-taking-a-pitch Jimmy Rollins would volunteer to jump on over to third base. Sure. The deal-breaker, of course, is at the action end of the deal, not the consequences end.

Andruw Jones, that's it. Atlanta GM John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox are dying to move their best player so they can help Ryan Howard get more pitches to jack out of the yard. Let's see... How about Rowand, Floyd and a couple of minor league pitching prospects, maybe Gio Gonzalez and J.A. Happ?

Nobody ever wonders, of course, how people that dumb managed to win their division 14 straight seasons.

The Blogs, phan phorums and unattached Hot Stove League regulars thought they had a Bobby Abreu for Manny Ramirez deal cold at the trade deadline. Bobby would play right and gimpy Trot Nixon would move to left. Even though Manny, generously labeled "eccentric" by Gillick last week, had already told the Red Sox he would not go to Baltimore. So why would they think he would go to Philadelphia?

Now they are plugging away again, packaging the Phillies' usual suspects for the Sawx unusual leftfielder and resident flake.”

Conlin goes on to censure the Phillies front office for their own incompetence, writing that “…the scouts, cross-checkers, assistants to the GM and other members of the Phillies team who have been making mostly bad decisions since this ownership group bought the Phillies after the 1981 season.”

As usual, Bill, you’ve got it right. The bloggers and fans are uninformed idiots, just as incompetent as the Phillies’ front office. We are fortunate you are here to point this out.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Gimme, Gimme Some Lovin'

What’ya gonna’ do when nobody loves ya?

Gary didn’t want to come here in the first place. Alfonso politely declined even though at last report Philadelphia was slightly closer to the east coast than Chicago. Carlos took an offer he couldn’t refuse and was last seen laughing all the way to the bank. Randy opted for home cooking, lower humidity and a bigger ball park. It appears that only Pat Burrell wants to stay.

A team subjected to so much rejection could get a real complex if it had half a mind. That’s a big “if” according to most observers. A GM could get one, too. Frankly, the Phils are better off having refused to give in to the patently obscene contracts handed out thus far this off-season to aging veterans, converted outfielders who strike out a lot and overweight sluggers who flat out cannot field.

As for those who felt Randy Wolf owed the Phils for their loyalty to him as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, sorry, fellas, but you were dreaming all along. The Phillies didn’t do anything 29 other major league clubs would have done under the same circumstances. Indeed, had they been able to opt out from the $9 million they forked over to Wolf for less than half a season’s effort in 2006 they would have rushed to do so.

Right now Wes Helms looks like more than a bargain; he represents fiscal sanity if not the big bat the Phils wanted hittting behind All Everything Ryan Howard. He might turn out to be the sleeper of the Hot Stove League, or he may turn out to be the career .269 batter with a stone glove. One thing he won’t turn out to have been is overpriced and over-hyped. Oh, and one other thing that is kind of novel about Helms: he actually wanted to come here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

See You After The Break

Barring a trade for Vernon Wells or a comeback announcement by Steve Carlton, I am taking off the next few days to celebrate Thanksgiving at home with my extended family. The menu always includes a few items peculiar to my upbringing in Baltimore, chief among which is a sauerkraut dish I make every year. Yeah, I know, you eat what?

I am responsible for cooking the turkey, stuffing and sauerkraut. My wife oversees the rest of the meal which resembles a cornucopia in variety and quantity. Everyone else pitches in equally when it comes to consuming our efforts.

Meantime, Pat Gillick gets a few days off as well, no doubt to contemplate the Phillies pitching needs, which remain not only the team's principal area of weakness, but with regards to the bullpen may still yield the best hope for improvement.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ryan Howard Is Your MVP

In the end baseball writers are fans, too, and what is clear now with Ryan Howard’s selection as the National League’s MVP is that most of them must have been caught up in all the excitement this kid generated every time he came to the plate. It's tough to choose anyone over Albert Pujols when your team needs a base hit, but it is tougher to choose anyone over Howard when you just want something to cheer about. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Howard's magical season is that hardly any writers gave a damn about the Phillies' fortunes overall but day in and day out the majority of them clearly wanted to know "How'd Howard do?".

Plan C

Remind me again what Plan C is.

The Chicago Cubs have snatched Alfonso Soriano from the beckoning arms of Pat Gillick and if the Phillies’ GM has any sense and decorum he should send the Cubbies his congratulations and heartfelt thanks.

Eight years and $136 million!!?? Precisely the kind of contract the Phillies should be avoiding. Frankly, precisely the kind of contract any team should be avoiding, but that is another story. Eight years and $136 million!!?? That’s essentially a no-trade contract. Who’s going to take on Soriano’s $17 million per year if things go sour in, say, year four or five let alone six or seven? Well, we don’t have to worry about that outcome any longer.

MLB’s haves are flush with cash and many of them are spending it like sailors on shore leave.

The Phils still have a lot of problems to address, particularly protection for Ryan Howard (sorry, Wes, but you ain’t the man) and pitching, both starting and relief. There are still a number of options out there via trades but the Phillies don’t have many bargaining chips other than Aaron Rowand. They are unlikely to move Ryan Madson given their own shortcomings in the pen and they will no longer get anything for Gavin Floyd. Who else can they offer? The other worrisome prospect is that the Phils will overspend the money they just saved to re-sign Randy Wolf. While I am a fan of Wolf the battler and athlete, I am not a big fan of Wolf the junk ball-throwing hurler. My guess is he is looking for at least a three-year deal at $5 – 7 million per. That’s too much for a veteran guy who has never shown me he knows how to pitch.

At this point the Phillies don’t need to save salary by dumping Pat Burrell for .50 on the dollar or less. I’d rather see Pat bailing out on pitches over the inside corner of the plate and taking other ones right down Broadway than have the Phils unload him for next to nothing. As much as he infuriates us, Burrell’s bat is due for a decent season if his on-again-off-again pattern holds true. It would be nice is someone, perhaps Pat himself, let us and his current team in on the status of his feet. That wouldn’t be asking too much, even from a guy who is far from loquacious.

Inquirer columnist Jim Salisbury raises an interesting question in his piece today. He wonders when the Phillies might ask Jimmy Rollins to move to third base and open up shortstop for someone the likes of Miguel Tejada, perennially unhappy playing for the sad-sack Orioles. This may be the only bad idea Jim has ever come up with, publicly. Jimmy is too valuable up the middle, where Utley is steady but hardly spectacular. Moreover, having just signed Wes Helms, it would seem that this discussion’s time has passed. Finally, by all accounts Tejada, never a spectacular glove man, has lost more than a step or two in the field. Back to the drawing board on this one.

* * * * * * * *

Ryan Howard finds out today whether or not he sweeps the post-season awards when the Baseball Writers Association of America announces its NL MVP. The bet here is Albert Pujols nudges Howard for the award. It would be hard to vote against Pujols whose home run and rbi totals might very well have exceeded those of the Howard had he not lost time to injury. In every other respect, Pujols’ credentials equal or surpass those of Howard including as Erik Grissom among others would point out, his fielding.

But there is one factor that weighs more heavily in Howard’s favor and a lot of the voters, being human, will have a difficult time ignoring it. No one, not even King Albert, captured the imagination of the nation as much as Howard did. Not a single baseball fan wanted to be caught getting a cold one from the fridge when Howard came up to bat during his tremendous run. In that respect, Howard was more than the NL MVP; for a long stretch of time he was MLB’s MVP. Albert can't say that. Nor can the voters whatever their ballots may say.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Low Threshold

Short post today. Tolerance for rumors and the money side of baseball is at an all-time low.

With apologies to Sports Illustrated….

You know the apocalypse is upon us when…

- A free agent pitcher who just had surgery in mid September to repair a partial tear of his rotator cuff is coveted by seven or eight teams.

- The fellow just named National League manager of the year will be in the broadcast booth next season, not on the bench, working for the Yankees.

- The cost of conversation has risen to $51.1 million giving a whole new meaning to the tag line “Can you hear me now?”!

In other news, Gavin Floyd had himself a certifiably mediocre "season" in the AFL. Here is the summary from the Phillies web site:

RHP Gavin Floyd -- Floyd made his final start of the season against Phoenix on Saturday, allowing two runs on five hits over four innings. The 23-year-old, who still has an outside chance of cracking the Phillies' rotation in 2007, finished the AFL season with an 0-1 record and a 5.57 ERA over six starts.

An "outside chance"? What Yaqui medicine man did the Phillies hire in their PR department?

Frank Thomas just signed a two-year, $18 million deal with an option for a third year with the Toronto Blue Jays. I guess the market for 38-year old comeback players with a history of injury problems is a lot stronger than I imagined. The Jays looked at all the home runs and rbi's in the cavernous confines of Oakland's ptifiul stadium and decided Thomas was well-worth the gamble.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

On The Bubble

Major League Baseball is giddy these days. There aren’t enough hands available to pat themselves on the back. Revenues are up. Attendance is at an all-time high. TV networks bid up their contracts with each passing season. Merchandizing deals are more lucrative than ever. New stadiums, many funded by the local citizenry, abound.

So delighted are owners and players alike, they easily signed a new long-term agreement guaranteeing labor peace for several years to come. Not a single representative from either constituency who stood around the overflowing pot of gold dared piss in it.

So why am I in such a lousy mood?

The Daisuke Matsuzaka deal has me seeing red. The posting system is a sham, open to all sorts of shenanigans and otherwise as opaque and ill-conceived as any process in baseball. The Japanese teams may think they have MLB over a barrel when it comes to purchasing the rights to negotiate let alone sign their players, but they are mistaken. Only Bud Selig and his cronies have failed to figure that out. The leverage MLB has but appears reluctant to use or unable to recognize is that players like Matsuzaka want to play on the biggest stage in the game. Given their desire to don American uniforms, what Japanese teams would be content to thwart these players’ desires, restrict their movement, and deal with their discontent? If MLB refused to play this sham preliminary game of posting and went right for the straight negotiation, there would be less room for shenanigans at the very least. Until MLB restructures the process, at a minimum they should fix this lousy process by declaring that the winning bidder has a right to move on to the final negotiation stage and conclude a deal in 30 days or the next highest bidder earns that right. Better yet, they should jettison the posting nonsense altogether.

That is only part of the problem, however. The bigger problem MLB faces is what to do about the whole free agent situation and salary structure in the first place. As I wrote the other day, did anyone who knows the difference between a strikeout and a walk really believe the small market teams had a chance let alone opportunity to bid for Matsuzaka’s services? We all knew it would be the Yankees, Red Sox or maybe one other wealthy team that would end up the winner. No one in Kansas City even bothered to learn how to pronounce his name.

Compare that situation to the NFL. When a major free agent makes himself available in the NFL no one, not ESPN, NFL Films, Terry Bradshaw or Ray Didinger, has the slightest idea who is going to land him unless, and only then, the player himself states his intentions clearly. NLF free agents are as apt to sign with a team offering the best deal as the best opportunity. And unlike MLB, all NFL teams are in a position to deal.

MLB likes to point to the last several World Series winners, a different one in each of the last seven years, and congratulate itself for parity, but this is just another illusion. Championships may rotate at the top levels of the game, but for nearly half the franchises there is no hope. They cannot compete for the top players so they are unlikely to compete for the top prize. Would a salary cap be the answer in baseball? I don’t really know. Has it worked well in football and basketball? I don’t know that either though it appears on the surface that basketball’s success with it is questionable. We do know that football teams regularly let veteran players go before their careers are finished for reasons having everything to do with caps and nothing to do with X’s and O’s.

Baseball, however, has institutionalized a class structure that guarantees haves and have-nots. All involved may believe this golden age and calf will go on forever, uninterrupted by reality let alone economics, but like all bubbles – tulips and real estate – eventually it is going to burst.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What A Steal!!

Like everything else in our society, the Hot Stove League has become over-hyped and, yes, overheated. And this year’s crop of free agents is a very thin one!!

All one needs to know is the Boston Red Sox just paid $51.1 million for the right to talk to free agent pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Now they sit down and negotiate a contract with his agent, the always flexible and agreeable Scott Boras. Whether the Red Sox wanted to keep the young Japanese hurler away from the Evil Empire to the south or whether they coveted him outright no longer matters. Some have even suggested the Red Sox want to establish a more visible identity in the Far East. This from one of the last if not the last team’s in the American League to allow Black Americans to play for them. There are also numerous conspiracy theories out there regarding Boras and another of his clients, JD Drew, which I won’t go into here.

Suffice it to say baseball is entering terra incognita with its opaque and flawed posting system regarding foreign players whose rights are owned by foreign teams. Now, the “winner” of this particular lottery can sign Matsuzaka to, say, a six-year $90 million contract and turn around and say, “what a steal”!!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Still On Hold

If the Phillies don’t get their man, aka Alfonso Soriano, Pat Gillick is going to have to make a deal to improve his team and, frankly, he doesn’t have many chips with which to bargain. Pat Burrell is not an option given his no-trade clause. Gavin Floyd, reportedly still unable to pitch consistently at the AFL level, has minimal value and falling. The farm system has few arms that would help the Phils down the road let alone attract interest from other teams and those who do such as Gio Gonzalez, should be virtually untouchable. So, who ya’ gonna’ trade? Aaron Rowand is my top nominee and I doubt there are a lot of clubs out there who would be interested.

It could be a very unproductive off-season which would lead to a very unproductive on season given the holes that remain. Don’t say Gillick didn’t warn us with his comments at the July, 2006, trade deadline that he, for one, might be looking beyond 2007.

Until the Phillies do something constructive, I am casting about for something more concrete to discuss.

Hey, look over there, across the street. Yeah, the Flyers may be losing every night out but at least they are working the telephones, trying to right the ship.

Paul Holmgren, who just the other day had the label “interim” deleted from the front of his title as GM, has picked up just where Bobby Clarke left off, reacquiring players previously traded. Not a good sign, Paul. If you are going to emulate your mentor, you should leave out the parts about second-guessing yourself about past decisions.

This deal does underscore what makes hockey difficult to follow religiously for this sports fan. For every thrilling rush up and down the ice there is the inevitable dropping of gloves.

The Flyers’ excellent beat writer Tim Panaccio picks it up from here: Paul Holmgren's first move as general manager of the Flyers wasn't to get a 20-goal scorer to add life to an anemic offense.

Instead, it was to add life to a comatose dressing room with a guy who was continually offering encouragement from the bench during the Western Conference finals last season - Todd Fedoruk.

Here’s the “difficult” part: Flyers’ coach John Stevens noted that The thing you like about Fridge is he has that infectious personality; he is a fun guy and keeps everyone loose. He brings a level of enthusiasm, when he walks into a locker room. We do have a quiet team... . Fridge is one of those guys who brings life."

It's great; I'm excited to be going back to Philly, said Fedoruk, who is on injured reserve after suffering a fractured right cheekbone and broken orbital bone after a fight with Minnesota's Derek Boogaard on Oct. 27.

Sounds like a real fun guy alright!!

* * * * * * * *

So, how are the other occupants of the Wachovia Center faring at the moment? Not too good. That three game opening streak turns out to be just a mirage. Now headlines in the paper cite the Sixers’ determination for the umpteenth time that Andre Iguodala get more aggressive. It isn’t going to happen. This is Andre’s third year in the league and by this time his aggression, or lack of it, is well established. Of course, the Sixers haven’t tried the obvious approach with him. Have him work out with Todd Fedoruk and his buddies. Why didn’t they think of that before? After all, they all work in the same building.

Meanwhile, Chris Webber grows more and more unhappy as a Sixer. I have no idea how much is left on his contract and what options the Sixers have with regards to his ongoing tenure with them, but you can bet your last dollar Mo Cheeks and ownership won’t be quoted as saying what a fun guy Webber is or how much he brings to the locker room any time soon.

* * * * * * * *

The Eagles are back in favor in this town after their dominating win over a lousy Washington team which was led by an ineffective quarterback and who lost their top running back in the first quarter. Before making plans for the post-season it is worth noting the Eagles didn’t look very good stopping the run yet again. They did blitz a whole lot more than in the recent past, a reversion to defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s historic tendencies. But bear in mind they were blitzing a highly immobile quarterback in this game.

Meanwhile, much has been made of Andy Reid’s decision to hand the play-calling over to his offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. I thought it was interesting that when wide receiver Reggie Brown was interviewed after the game about the switch he acknowledged he had no idea who was calling the plays. Maybe it’s more about execution not authorship???

Monday, November 13, 2006

Whom Am I Offered?

One by one the players reportedly of greatest interest to the Phillies keep dropping off the radar screen. Gary Sheffield was traded to Detroit and now Aramis Ramirez has re-upped with the Chicago Cubs. If you believe the Phillies' public pronouncements Ramirez never really seemed to interest them but he did have a lot of support in the blogosphere. The biggest name still out there is Alfonso Soriano, the player the Phillies have strongly hinted is their top priority. I remain convinced he doesn’t reciprocate the feelings and that in the end the Phillies will be better served spending the enormous sums he demands elsewhere.

The rest of the free agents available in areas of need for the Phils are largely uninspiring veterans of varying accomplishment and ability whose warranties are about to expire. Most if not all of them will want multi-year deals, a fool’s errand from the Phillies’ perspective if ever there were one. Do we really want a Rich Aurilia for three years? There remains a better than even chance that no free agents will sign with the Phillies this off-season. They should be so lucky given the current list. The best bet remains to work out a trade to fill their most urgent needs: the back end of the bullpen and third base.

The Hot Stove league becomes more complicated with each passing season as GM”s must make decisions not only on offering deals to declared free agents but also on whether or not to offer arbitration to players whom they don’t really expect or want to re-sign with them but for whom compensatory draft picks are at stake as well. David Dellucci is the poster boy for this maneuver. The Phillies wouldn’t mind having him come off the bench for another season as a platoon player, but Dellucci is having none of that. If he walks without going to arbitration the Phils get nothing in return. If they offer him arbitration and he walks, they get a draft pick.

One player the Phillies would like to re-sign is pitcher Randy Wolf. There are some who suggest Wolf “owes” the Phillies something for standing by him throughout his surgery and recovery. That argument probably holds little water especially with Wolf and justifiably so. Had the Phillies been able to get out from under his guaranteed salary for 2006, they would have done so. Furthermore, if ever there were a pitcher ill-suited to Citizens Bank Park, iterations one and two, it is Randy Wolf. With so few top drawer starters on the market right now, Wolf will draw interest and should command a very good salary. His repaired arm will only get stronger and should not be a worry to teams looking for a middle of the rotation lefty. The bet here is that if the Phils are competing against a contender, especially one from a warm weather market, they would come up short in the Wolf sweepstakes.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Biding My Time

As we await real developments rather than rampant speculation on the baseball front, my thoughts temporarily turn elsewhere. Temporarily.

* * * * * * * *

All politics may be local, but sports are even more so.

If you live anywhere in this general region and weren’t pulling for Rutgers last night for perhaps the first time in your life, you either grew up in Louisville or you have never forgiven that professor who gave you a D in freshman English at the State University of New Jersey.

Trailing 25 – 7 at the half to the number three ranked Louisville Cardinals, Rutgers stormed back in the second half to win a thriller 28 – 25 and remain one of only four undefeated major college teams. Rutgers turnaround from moribund program to giant killer is nothing short of astonishing.

* * * * * * * *

Equally astonishing for altogether different reasons has been the Philadelphia Flyers’ complete collapse from contender to a team that is well on its way to setting a franchise record for futility.

Will the Fly boys ever win another game this season?

Perhaps more significantly, will the Flyers’ faithful return to the Wachovia Center to watch? Reports in today’s newspaper indicated the house was 1/3 empty last night, an almost unheard of and unimaginable situation in one of the NHL’s most admired and successful franchises. It used to be the only way to get tickets to a Flyers’ game was to inherit them from a deceased relative. These days, they are probably available at a steep discount on Ebay.

* * * * * * * *

For the umpteenth week in a row the Eagles are in a must-win situation. Nearly every voice coming out of the locker room speaks of turning things around, regaining focus, and playing up to potential when what they could really use is a better running game, improved pass rush, and competent game plan and clock management. The feeling here is that no matter how hard the players try, the guys on the sidelines with the clipboards and earphones are the real weak link.

* * * * * * * *

The Sixers have gotten off to a decent start this season considering the low expectations for them. Allen Iverson continues to play his heart out. Mo Cheeks may have succeeded to some extent in convincing his squad defense does matter. Samuel Dalembert and Andre Iguoala may be beginning to reach their potentials. Most notable at this point, however, is the virtual disappearance of forward Chris Webber. As Webber’s contributions to this squad and basketball in general continue to fade, the guy responsible for his arrival in the first place, GM Billy King, is the one who is on the hottest seat. Look for him to be the first casualty of the season when things go south, as they invariably will.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Lucky Ones

How lucky are we to be rooting for the team Ryan Howard plays for?

In a charming piece in this morning’s Inquirer Adam Rubin describes Howard’s experience during a just-concluded tour of Japan by a squad of MLB All-Stars. The visitors swept their hosts 5-0 and Howard was named the series MVP. Off the field, the young first baseman toured Kyoto with his mother and sister wearing a throwback Johnny Unitas jersey (what is that about??), tried his hand at sushi and was in turn captivated by the Japanese, who couldn’t get enough of him.

Little fazes this guy and even less goes to his head. Virtually unknown to Japanese baseball fans and journalists prior to the start of the series, he became an overnight sensation following his four home runs and .566 batting average. Meanwhile, the hardware just keeps piling up. Already named the Sporting News Player of the Year and winner of the Hank Aaron Award for 2006, Howard was just named the NL and MLB player of the year by his peers. He smiles that room illuminating smile of his and says the appropriate thanks to all the voters and probably wonders what all the fuss is about.

There can be no greater tribute to Howard than how other ball players speak of him: in short, with admiration, respect and affection. The other first baseman on the American squad, Lyle Overbay, got very few AB's during the tour because manager Bruce Bochy said he didn't want to sit Howard given the streak he was on. Was Overbay upset? Not in the least. He was cheering for Howard, too.

Rubin’s descriptions of Howard eating sushi were priceless. Even more delightful was his description of the pain Howard felt in his legs, seated, eating sushi. The big guy kept shifting his position trying to get comfortable. Afterwards, Howard admitted that apart from downing the sea urchin and other delicacies, the hardest thing of all was just getting up.

If Howard were to move to Philadelphia permanently and have the kind of career he is on track to achieve, he would own this town. But he doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who cares a thing about "owning" any town. We're just lucky to live here while he's passing through.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Memo to Chase Utley: Enough already.

You’ve been playing baseball virtually nonstop since last February and March when you joined the United States squad for the inaugural WBC. Next, you played your heart out for nearly all of the Phillies 162 games. You didn’t even take time off for the All-Star break, which admittedly would have been awkward since you were voted a starter. Following the regular season, you did manage a brief involuntary vacation while you and your teammates watched the post-season on television, but as soon as the World Series concluded it was off to Japan for a tour with a squad of MLB stars including teammate Ryan Howard.

Time to take a break, Chase.

Memo to Ryan Howard: Don’t stop now.

Ryan, your playing streak has not lasted quite as long as that of your sidekick Chase, and, frankly, the way you are hitting everything out of sight on both sides of the Pacific it would be a shame to stop now. Nonetheless, in a few days it looks like you, too, are going to have to sit a spell. You can pick up where you left off come next April.

Memo to Art Howe: Art, could it be we hardly knew ya’?

Looks like Art Howe may put in the shortest tenure in Phillies history as a third base coach if the Texas Rangers’ new head man, Ron Washington, hires him to be his bench coach. Talk about sending a man home.

Memo to Pat Gillick: Don’t let all that money burn a hole in your pocket!

Just when the Phillies finally have gotten out from under on some of the onerous long-term contracts they lavished on players in the past and just when they appear to be working on getting out from under one more if they can move Pat Burrell, all signs indicate they are interested in going all in on one free agent, Alfonso Soriano. GM Pat Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel have been sending out all sorts of vibes that Soriano would look very good in red pinstripes. The only announced sticking point would be if Soriano insisted on a no-trade clause as part of the deal. Gillick will have none of that. My considerably less money is on Soriano signing elsewhere.

Memo to Pat Burrell: Widen your trade zone if not your strike zone.

Pat, do you really want to endure another summer of boos in Philadelphia? How many more times can you back away from balls right down the middle of Broadway? In the end, Pat, are you happy?

While I would admit you are still a decent threat to knock in some runs, your time in Philadelphia hasn’t exactly been gratifying…to all involved. If it is true some players benefit from a change in scenery, you are not the exception that will disprove the rule.

Monday, November 06, 2006


The race for the National League MVP award is the tightest in recent memory with Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols each deserving of the honor. As if their regular season exploits weren’t sufficient evidence of their prowess, both players have continued padding their credentials in the post-season. It is worth noting, however, that ballots were sent in by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, two from each city, by the end of the regular season. The post season cannot figure in the voting.

Pujols, of course, played an official post-season that will go down in the record books. His production helped the Cardinals win their first World Series in 24 years, but it cannot help him with the voters. Howard had to wait to put on his final spurt for the current MLB tour of Japan during which he hit three home runs in the first three games while batting .700. His towering blast in the Tokyo Dome will long be remembered by Japanese baseball fans, but those voters stateside who put him down first on their ballots can only privately nod their heads in satisfaction.

By the way, Pujol’s first Gold Glove cannot help him either, that award having been announced after the World Series. Good thing, too, because the “sure-handed and nimble fielder with a powerful and accurate throwing arm” that Howard is fast becoming would make next year’s contest even closer!!

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The Phillies continue to be in the thick of several rumors regarding free agents and possible trades but thus far none of them convince me they will improve themselves significantly. The headliners among those thought to be on Pat Gillick’s radar include Gary Sheffield and Alfonso Soriano. The former may still be a dangerous hitter, but at age 38 he is a defensive liability with no good position and prone to injuries. He is also unlikely to be a positive clubhouse presence given his well-publicized annoyance with his current club, the Yankees, who exercised their option on him thus preventing Sheffield from filing for free agency. At best, he might be a one-year temp in Philadelphia; at worst, he would probably be a vocally unhappy one-year temp.

Alfonso Soriano is also rumored to be high on the Phillies’ shopping list and would be inserted somewhere in their lineup to provide protection for Ryan Howard. Were Soriano to bat fifth, the spot in the lineup where he might provide the most protection, the Phillies number four and five batters would enter 2007 with 341 strikeouts between them from the previous season. That’s a lot of balls not even put into play. Too many. Power is not the protection Howard or the Phillies need; putting the ball in play is.

In the end, the strongest argument for signing either Sheffield or Soriano may not be protection for Howard. It’s hardly a coincidence that both of them are outfielders, for better or worse. Overall the Phils’ outfield situation remains cloudy since they are openly shopping Pat Burrell, are unlikely to re-sign David Dellucci, and cannot possibly see Jeff Conine as anything other than a role player. When Aaron Rowand and the Phillies both declined their options last week setting up a likely arbitration hearing this off-season, Gillick announced his intention to retain the hell-bent-for-leather centerfielder. The only other outfielder on the roster who will definitely start next season is Shane Victorino. Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson remain long shots at best to fill the third spot. Without Sheffield or Soriano, the Phillies’ outfield would be profoundly short on power and somewhat less on experience. My solution would be to move Rowand and two pitchers, Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd, for someone like Carl Crawford. Tampa Bay no doubt wants more pitching than those two offer, especially starting pitching, but it would be a good place to start discussions. With Crawford and Victorino in the outfield, the Phils could afford to gamble on one of their own kids for the remaining spot.

Gillick’s track record is not that of a gambler; if anything, he prefers the familiar to the unknown as the Franklin and Rhodes signings indicated. While I have difficulty imagining him having made so much effort to free up salary only to turn around and give a big chunk of it to Soriano for five plus years or Sheffield for one, he does not strike me as someone who is planning to be stick around for more than another year or so. If that is the case, he might just decide he has nothing to lose by placing his biggest bet on Soriano with Sheffield as his backup plan.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Develop Or Acquire?

Contrary to popular belief, free agents do sign with teams other than the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets. When it comes to throwing around big money the Orioles, for one, have been right up there with their large market brethren thanks to the deep pockets and even deeper ego of owner Peter Angelos. Albert Belle and Miguel Tejada, just to name a few, have been more than happy over the years to take the O’s owner’s money and run. And let us not forget the Toronto Blue Jays, who last off-season spent over $100 for two FA pitchers, B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett, both of whom it could be fairly said had less than long track records of success prior to their windfalls.

There have been good signings and bad ones over the years. To read one person’s opinion on them take a look at this fascinating article by The Baseball Analysts , who provide an excellent summary. (Note, this piece was written prior to the start of the 2006 season.) In several articles I’ve read one thread runs through nearly all of them: free agent pitchers rarely deliver the goods the way free agent position players do. The conclusion of many observers is that it’s best to spend money developing pitchers rather than trying to acquire them. The question I would ask has two parts: 1) Has this always been the case; and, 2) does this notion apply to trades as well as free agency?

Throughout the Phillies’ history developing pitchers has usually worked out better than acquiring them, but when there were exceptions they have been real doozies: Steve Carlton and Curt Schilling, both acquired via trades not free agency. I haven’t seen a study comparing trades and FA signings, but I suspect the former works out better in part because the dollars aren’t generally as high and thus the expectations aren’t either. Another factor may be the historical timing of trades vs. free agency acquisitions. In the past, teams might have been more inclined to trade for pitchers when they were very young in order to develop them within their own systems and only sign them as free agents when they were older and more established. Today the two approaches have converged more as virtually every pitcher with the required years of service under his belt will opt for free agency, often in his late twenties or early thirties, thus moving up the age at which teams will tender offers on the open market.

One things remains clear: when it comes to free agency, GM’s seem ever-willing to give untold millions to the Carl Pavano’s of the world on the off chance they will come through in a big way and lead their new team to the promised land. It’s a lottery and like all gambles, some pay off while most do not.

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By the way, if anyone out there has ever see a more “sure-handed and nimble fielder with a powerful and accurate throwing arm” than Ryan Howard I’d like to hear from them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Posting (Not The Blog Sort)

One of the most coveted players on the open market this off-season isn’t exactly a free agent in the usual sense. Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the 26-year old star of the WBC and the real deal according to ex-pat Bobby Valentine, will be the subject of some intense bidding and even more intense maneuvering. As it turns out, his services will depend first on the mysterious process known as posting.

Here is how Going Deep Interactive describes the process:

Japanese players are not subject to the Rule 4 Draft, which currently includes only residents of the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico (or other U.S. territories), or non-residents attending high school or college in the United States.

But they're not really free agents, either, unlike Latin American players, who are eligible to negotiate and sign with any club so long as they are at least 16 years old.

The process to sign a Japanese player who is already playing professionally is, in a way, like the amateur draft, with one basic, significant exception. While the right to negotiate with a drafted amateur is based on a team, in reverse order of record, using a draft choice on him, the right to negotiate with a Japanese player is secured by the highest bidder.

At any point between November 1 and March 1, a Japanese team can "post" one of its players, which essentially means it puts its player up for bid to see how much a Major League club will pay the team to get it to release the player from his Japanese contract. Sometimes the team initiates the process to see what it can get for the player. Other times the player asks his team to post him. And sometimes, a Major League club may anonymously request a status check, basically putting the Japanese team on notice that it has an interest in a particular player to see whether the Japanese team would consider posting him.

Regardless of which trigger is involved, the Japanese team has full discretion as to whether to post the player. If interested, it notifies the MLB Commissioner's Office that it wishes to post the player. MLB then distributes official notice to the 30 big league clubs advising that the player in question will be available for posting starting on a certain date. The clubs are given 72 hours to submit a blind bid for the player. After the 72-hour window expires, the club that submitted the highest blind bid is awarded the right to negotiate with the player.

The club and player then have 30 days to make a deal. If the club comes to an agreement with the player, the blind bid money goes to the Japanese team as a transfer fee. If there is no agreement with the player, no money exchanges hands between the MLB club and the Japanese team (the bid money is returned), and the player cannot be reposted for another year.

The system was created in response to Hideo Nomo's 1995 "retirement" from Japanese baseball, which effectively allowed him to sign with the Dodgers without compensation to the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The system does not apply to players with at least 10 years of service in the Japanese professional leagues.

The posting bid is sometimes as significant as the dollars involved in the eventual contract: the Mariners bid $13 million before the 2001 season in order to negotiate with Ichiro Suzuki, whom they eventually signed to a three-year, $14 million deal. On the other end of the spectrum, San Diego secured the right to negotiate with Akinori Otsuka with a prevailing bid of just $300,000. The Padres then signed the reliever to a two-year, $1.5 million contract with a $1.75 million option for 2006, which the Rangers inherited when they acquired Otsuka in January.

The posting bids on Matsuzaka are expected to be in the Ichiro range, if not higher. The Rangers have reportedly sent director of pro and international scouting A.J. Preller to Japan to scout the righthander, who turns 26 on Wednesday.

Buster Olney, of ESPN, offers the following, which should only complicate matters further (while no doubt increasing the attorneys’ fees):

The posting system is deeply flawed. For example, here's one sabotage scenario that might interest a team like Baltimore, which is faced with the possibility that Matsuzaka will land with either of the big market monsters in its division, the Yankees or the Red Sox. The Orioles could post a huge bid -- say $50 million -- and blow everybody else out of the water. With exclusive negotiating rights, they then could offer Matsuzaka a take-it-or-leave-it minimum bid, like a six-year, $6 million deal. Matsuzaka and agent Scott Boras, with just 30 days to negotiate and with no ability to generate a competing bid from another major league team, would have a stark choice of taking the Orioles' lowball offer or remaining in Japan. If Matsuzaka came to the U.S. under those circumstances -- and that would seem very unlikely -- then the Orioles would have a frontline pitcher for much less than the total package of $80 million that everybody expects it will cost to keep Matsuzaka. And if he were to stay in Japan after such a lowball offer, then the Orioles would get their posting fee back and would still serve their own purposes, as well, by keeping him out of the hands of the Red Sox and Yankees.

Even though as many as ten teams might post their interest in Matsuzaka, the final number of teams willing to meet his and Boras’ price could be limited to the usual suspects. You might have noticed in reading numerous articles on the prized right-hander that the Phillies do not appear on any list.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Of Coaches And GM's

Throughout baseball, teams, players and their agents are just beginning to stoke the Hot Stove League fires. As we await the heat, there is plenty of smoke if not fire elsewhere on the sports scene.

Andy Reid’s fall from grace might just be the fastest in Philadelphia’s long and mostly sordid coaching history. No, we’re not talking about his eight-year tenure here, the last five of which provided him with complete control over everything relating to player personnel. Instead, we are talking about the last three weeks when Reid went from head man finally out from under the long shadow cast by a certain departed player to a guy whom many doubt has control over the 53 guys who remained.

Perhaps his monosyllabic answers to every question posed don’t play well in the locker room either, where clearly much more in the way of explanation is required of him.

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Billy King begins the Sixers’ season by acknowledging he is on the hot seat. King is my candidate for the next “can’t fire the players” move in Philadelphia sports. If nothing else, his timing stinks with the election for governor a mere week away. King was once mentioned as a possibility for Pennsylvania’s highest public office; now, he will have to wait four more years to toss his hat into that ring. On second thought, that might not be so bad; the interval gives voters four years to forget what he did in his last job.

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Speaking of coaches and GM’s, the passing of Red Auerbach has understandably received wide attention. No one in professional sports history had a greater impact on his game while enjoying so much success. Not George Halas. Not Casey Stengel. Not Bear Bryant. As numerous tributes point out, Auerbach’s impact would have been tremendous had he not won a single championship. He influenced the way the game was played, who played it, how they were drafted and, ultimately, who coached it.

None of this should come as a surprise for a Jewish kid from hardscrabble Brooklyn who grew up understanding prejudice if not experiencing it first hand. If nothing else, Auerbach was a pragmatist. He refused to bend to the racist practices of his day, insisting on drafting black players, putting the best men on the court regardless of color and ultimately turning over the coaching reigns to the first African American head coach in the league.

He drafted Larry Bird when number 33 was a junior thus insuring he would play in a Celtics uniform. No one before him would have thought of “wasting” a draft pick like that. If the five best players on an Auerbach-coached team happened to be black, they were going to start even when the unwritten rule in the NBA was to limit the number of black players in order to maintain the game’s appeal to white fans.

And, then, of course, there was his record. All of those championships as a coach and then GM certainly helped to establish his legend. But what strikes me in reading the outpouring of reminiscences about him is how many former players and opponents, sportswriters and fans saw him as tough but fair, idiosyncratic but steady and, above all, human and accessible.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Only Game In Town

As the Eagles and Flyers sink further in their respective standings and prospects for the Sixers remain poor, the Phillies may provide most of the sports excitement this autumn and winter.

Reports out of Arizona that Gavin Floyd has pitched well in his last two outings should be taken with a huge grain of salt applied liberally around the rim of whatever it is the Phillies alleged brain trust is drinking out there in the desert.

While the AFL might not be in the immortal words of AI “practice”, it cannot be more than one step up from it. Maybe Mike Arbuckle and Pat Gillick are better at playing poker than I gave them credit for. If they are attempting to build up Floyd’s stock prior to throwing him in on some pending deal, well, my hat is off to them. I for one am not counting on the youngster contributing to any major league club calling Philadelphia home. If anything, he should have sparkled in the AFL about three years ago, not now.

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The two players most often mentioned as being on the Phillies radar for the coming Hot Stove League are Alfonso Soriano and Gary Sheffield. The likelihood of Soriano joining the Phillies has to be somewhat less than that of the City of Brotherly Love hosting a parade on Broad Street for guys dressed in Black and Green or Orange and Black. Ever since he was traded by the Yankees to the Texas Rangers, who in turn sent him to Washington, control of Soriano’s destiny was out of his hands. Now that he has regained control, he is going to make the most of it and I cannot imagine the Phillies will be willing to meet his price.

As for Sheffield, there are those who think the soon-to-be 38-year old still has a lot left in his tank and would provide the perfect protection for Ryan Howard, but it’s hard to imagine how the Yankees and Phillies could get together on another trade following their mid-summer deal that sent Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Bronx. And a trade is what it is going to take since the Yankees will likely exercise their option on Sheffield and thus hold all of the cards in his immediate future.

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While I don’t have major problems with the re-signing of Jamie Moyer, I am less than thrilled about offering him two years, not one, and a “limited no-trade clause” for which there were no specifics disclosed. Moyer was on the verge of retiring, not an altogether surprising development for a fellow who is about to turn 44, but suddenly he is back for more than anyone would have thought. I have to assume the second year of that contract is not guaranteed until I read otherwise. As for teams to which he would not accept a trade, however limited they are in numbers, I thought Gillick was on record as disliking those kind of terms.

Everyone agrees Moyer brings a lot to the dugout as a mentor and coach without portfolio. Indeed, I would have thought he might be auditioning for pitching coach, but not at $5 million a year. The other concern I have is how Moyer will fare his second time around the league. I guess we are about to find out!!