Please, Joe Mauer, Stay a Twin (a short essay)

One of the early themes of this off season is the status of Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols.  Both are franchise players a year away from the end of their current contracts.  Commentators seem to enjoy asking whether Minnesota or St. Louis can afford to keep these iconic players.  Will they be able to match the deals Mauer or Pujols could receive as free agents?

Well, wait.  Don’t Joe and Albert get a say in this?

Much writing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth has accompanied discussion of baseball players’ astronomical salaries.  I don’t mean to add another decibel to that cacophony.  But there is a prevailing attitude to the coverage of players like Mauer and Pujols which profoundly bothers me: that they are obligated to take the biggest paycheck offered them.

*Ahem.*

sigh...

Growing up a Seattle Mariner fan in the 1990s, I watched Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez leave town, each motivated to varying degrees by a bigger paycheck elsewhere.  It was heartbreaking.  Learning as a boy how the game’s greatest players were linked to specific teams (Stan Musial and the Cardinals, Roberto Clemente and the Pirates, all the Yankee greats), I longed for Seattle to have greats of its own.

Baseball’s history with respect to money and labor negotiations is long and complicated.  I understand this.  Stan Musial could not have left for Boston if he disliked St. Louis.  Free agency gives players an important lever in dealing with their employers.  But to read commentators and the last ten years of free agency, it seems as if star players have fallen into the opposite situation.  They are not able to stay with their teams even if they want to.

I have never heard anything about this, but I suspect there is enormous pressure within the Player’s Association on big stars to go for big money.  If CC Sabathia really wanted to play for Cleveland, I’m pretty confident Cleveland would have found the money to welcome him back for $10 million a year.  But such a contract would depress the signings of all the lesser pitchers.  Negotiating with Randy Wolf, an owner could say, “No way are you worth eight million a year if Sabathia is only worth ten!”  So the top free agents seek the most money in order to help out the rest of the union.

That is understandable.  But how often has a star player wanted to play for a team, but felt unable to do so because money elsewhere was so much greater?  Has that really never happened?  Do the highest salaries always come from the preferred team?  Surely not always.

The best games are played for free

Free agency not a problem

The perception that a team’s best players are almost required to take the largest contract offered them in free agency undermines the important emotional connection between team and fan base.  Young boys (and girls!) dream of playing ball for their favorite teams.  Has baseball constructed a system where those who make it to the majors learn that it just isn’t that simple, kid? It is already difficult to overlook the absurd piles of money players earn for playing my favorite childhood game (after Calvinball).  It is too much to consider that baseball has commercialized itself into a coldly pragmatic machine indoctrinating players with the belief that everybody is in it for the money.

This is more of a problem for fans of younger, less successful teams.  Yankee and Red Sox fans can root for the franchise as a lasting entity with characteristics independent from its players.  As a Mariner fan, I cannot hold onto a winning tradition, or even a losing tradition made appealing by sheer length (see: Cubs, Phillies).  I’m a Mariner fan because of specific teams made up of specific players.

The danger here threatens baseball’s bottom line.  Baseball has a reputation, which it tries desperately to maintain, of being a transcendental team game.  A sport of beautiful simplicity and generation-binding nostalgia.  It brags of a history where players were synonymous with the cities they played in.  Baseball does not carry itself with the glossy, militaristic swagger of the made-for-TV NFL.  If baseball wants to keep this aura, I strongly believe it needs to do a better job of juggling its finances and the un-capitalistic, impractical, romantic tendencies of its fan base.

I do not begrudge a player his millions, since the league and its owners are making many millions off of his play.  And a city’s love for a player does not necessitate the player’s love for a city or team (see: Bonds, Barry).  But it is this perception, almost absurd when stated aloud, that baseball needs to combat: a superstar taking a discount to play for his hometown team is a heroic and noble act.  When I think about this, and realize that this heroic act involves taking $60 million dollars instead of $90 million dollars, I feel foolish for caring so much.

Both great and adored

I hope, someday soon, a player will take a significant pay cut in order to play for his favorite team.  Perhaps the team he grew up rooting for, perhaps the team that gave him his shot at the Big Time.  For a city’s emotional attachment to individual players is part of what makes sports special, and what gives those players the ability to make enormous salaries in the first place.  And the transient loyalties in free agency, even if motivated by a union-vs-management mindset, undermines these emotional attachments and makes those contracts all the less attached to reality.

So, as my two cents, here are some players I hope remain with their current teams for the rest of their careers.  Because they are great players in a position to be forever enshrined in the baseball heart of their cities:

  • Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  • Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  • Joe Mauer, Twins
  • Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, Phillies
  • David Wright, Mets
  • Chipper Jones, Braves
  • Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (not gonna happen)
  • Ichiro, Mariners

Just great

It is these feelings which put Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripkin Jr. ahead of Ricky Henderson and Reggie Jackson in my baseball pantheon.  Perhaps a “franchise player” rule, like in the NFL, could help make one-team careers more common.  Possibly there are fans in Minnesota who want Joe Mauer to go to the Yankees, make $23 million a year, and make good.  But I bet most of them want him to remain in Minnesota, let the city name a street after him, and let the fans include him in future conversations about the best players to ever grace the Twin Cities.

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The Cycle: Mets Play Winning Baseball in 2012!…?

One of my friends has developed a theory that the Mets have fallen into a baseball cycle wherein they advance in the playoffs every 6 years. And a quick look at the past decade gives us no reason to argue otherwise:

2000: 94-68, lose WS to bat-tossing Clemens’ Yanks.
2003: 66-95, low point of sucking.
2006: 97-65, lose NLCS to suddenly hot, crappy Cards.
2009: 70-92, injuries prevent Mets from blowing season late.
2012: ??-??, despite massive success they lose somewhere in playoffs?

Now comes the fun part where I try to picture what the 2012 non-crappy Mets will look like. Fortunately there are a few tools at my disposal to futz around with their farm system and free agents.

Using Cot’s Baseball Contracts we see that the Mets have a few players under contract in 2012 and several more under arbitration. (contracts in millions)

SP: Johan Santana – $24
CP: K-Rod – $17.5 option based on performance (somehow this will probably be enacted, but this contract is just ridiculous)
3B: David Wright – $15.25
Arbitration Players (will be signed, possibly to extended contracts)
OF: Angel Pagan
SP: Mike Pelfrey, Fernando Nieve
RP: Sean Green, Brian Stokes

First up, just looking at what they currently have, I piece together a team assuming they only sign or let go their own players and/or promote prospects. We all know this is very unlike the Mets, but bear with me as this will lay a foundation that I can gradually tear apart.

C: Josh Thole – Has no power, but can hit 1 for 3 every game.
1B: Ike Davis – Has shown promise and power. Could be up for 2011 season. And he can field.
2B/SS: Jose Reyes will probably be re-signed, but the Mets have an odd amount of prospects at SS, so one or two or all of them will be converted to 2b or traded for crap. Jordany Valdespin gets credit as the only actual 2B prospect, but the SS’s in no particular order are Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada, and Reese Havens (one of these three would be manning second).
3B: David Wright
OF: The Mets will make the odd decision of re-signing Carlos Beltran to another ridiculous contract, fortunately he will make less than $17mil per year. Fernando Martinez takes one corner. Jeff Francoeur gets signed for 3 years at the stupid lopsidedness of $5, $10, $15. If not then one of the aforementioned SS’s moves to OF.
Bench: Angel Pagan is 4th OF, Nick Evans is a 1B/OF, Daniel Murphy is worthless as a fielder and finds work as DH somewhere else, another one of those SS’s gets a backup infielder job, Jefry Marte is a defensive infielder, Omir Santos is a useless crapbag so pick from Francisco Pena or Rene Rivera, neither of whom may amount to much at all.
SP: Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese gets to pitch a full season in the majors!, Oliver Perez is useless and John Maine will get dumped after missing most of any other season he gets signed for, most minds have Jenrry Mejia and Brad “I wish his name was Steve” Holt as the next best arms in the system.

Now pitching for your New York Mets.

RP: K-Rod finishes his stupid contract, Fernando Nieve plays long-man, Brian Stokes and Sean Green stick around until management realizes they aren’t all that great (which means they stay forever), Eddie Kunz and Bobby Parnell fight out for being the other crappy reliever, Pedro Feliciano and/or Pat Misch get to stay around for being lefties (Misch can also play the long game).
Coach: Jerry Manuel is no longer the coach following 2010. New guy will be…flashback to 2000! Bobby V!

The mustache is key.

GM: Omar Minaya has a weirdly impossible stranglehold on the position that he can’t lose unless the Mets go 0-162.

Ok, so we know that the Mets tend to trade away 90% of their prospects. Therefore this team will never exist. Also there will be a few free agency periods for the Mets to massively overpay players. I can assure everyone that that will happen (Matt Holliday is drooling). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a list of Free Agents leading up to the 2012 season, but many places have lists for 2010 (which is now) and 2011. This team assumes that the Mets will overspend in the next two seasons so that they can’t sign anyone major for 2012.

C: Mauer and Victor Martinez are free agents after next season. Theoretically the Mets could jump the gun and trade their farm system to the Twins right now and use Thole as the backup (unless he is part of the trade). If not they obtain Ramon Hernandez at some point to split time with Thole (and teach him).
1B: Derek Lee and Carlos Pena are also free agents after this season (I’m guessing Pujols will be extended). Going by past signings, Derek Lee is the older, more injury-prone player and therefore the Mets’ next 1B!
2B: There are some rumors about Luis Castillo moving in a three team trade that nets Lyle Overbay. I doubt that will happen, but I do think Castillo might be gone at some point soon (even though he was one of the few healthy starters) and Orlando Hudson will be ours!
SS: Jose Reyes gets re-signed. Or he gets moved with one or more (probably more) prospects for Carl Crawford. If Reyes leaves I think this is one of the few times the Mets develop a prospect far enough that he becomes something useful.
3B: DAVID WRIGHT LEARNS TO READ!
OF: Beltran, Holliday, and Crawford (possibly) are all massively overpaid. Holliday has his last useful (fielding) season in 2012. If not Crawford then Francoeur and Pagan split time.
Bench: Angel Pagan, Nick Evans, Julio Lugo, Jorge Cantu, Josh Thole.
SP: Santana, Pelfrey. Linked with Lackey and Wolf so far this off-season, but those are mistakes waiting to happen…meaning the Mets sign at least one of them. Erik Bedard might be a nice surprise (until he gets injured). Brandon Webb is a free agent after next season, but the Yankees might as well call dibs now. Jon Niese and Jon Garland (surprise crappy pitcher move, akin to Tim Redding experiment) may also have some time in the rotation.
RP: K-Rod, Stokes, Green. Kiko Calero, Scott Shields, and an assortment of in-house options fill out the bullpen.
Coach and GM: Does it even matter? This is destiny! Hooray being slightly less than the best!

Possibility...or the future?

The Decline of Adam Dunn

Sell out

Sadly, our heroes do not live forever.  The baby robins in the front yard eventually abandon their nest.  The family dog loses his eyesight and can no longer bound up the stairs.  And Adam Dunn has sold out to the almighty batting average.

 
Enough time has passed since the end of the regular season that we can now touch on a painful wound: Adam Dunn did not hit 40 home runs this season.
 
In an apparent effort to appease the Batting Averageistas, Dunn sacrified power for average this season.  The result?  A career-high batting average of .267, but not that sweet 40 in the HR column we thought was as reliable as your father’s old Toyota Corolla.
 
The Decline of Dunn
2004: .266 avg, 46 HR
2005: .247 avg, 40 HR
2006: .234 avg, 40 HR
2007: .264 avg, 40 HR
2008: .236 avg, 40 HR
2009: .267 avg, 38 HR
 
Perhaps he will return to his free-swinging ways next season, but the Streak is over, the bubble is popped, and winter is on its way.

And the award for most bizarre offseason development goes to…

Sammy Sosa for turning… white?

According to Sosa (by way of ESPN), facial cosmetic cream has lightened his skin. Whether White Sosa is here to stay or not, I’m just happy to have any Sosa back in my life. What ever happened to that guy anyway? What? Oh. Yeah…

Another Reason to Hate the Mets – Sorry, Thaddeus

The Mets are going to host a dinner for the Hebron Fund this month, a group that supports the ongoing illegal settlement of Hebron, a city in the West Bank that has some really onerous Israeli religious folk.

Go to this site and tell the Mets to suck it: http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/publish/article_1227.shtml.

Pretend you’re a Phillies fan and 600 Mets fans come down the turnpike, pick a spot downtown and turn it into an armed garrison. They then proceed to take pot shots at random Philadelphians, walk through town pointing their guns at everyone and being a real nuisance. When there is some violence, New York sends down its police force to keep the peace (if violence is directed at the Mets fans, only).

And then one day you come home, and find David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Delgado telling you to get the fuck out of your house.

Gold Glove, Gold Smhlove

The 2009 Gold Gloves have been awarded.  As a young boy, I always rooted for my favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr, lock; Jay Buhner, one!; Edgar Martinez, fat chance) to win.  Today, I know that this award is decided by a process dramatized below:

Manager: “Hey Jim, time to fill out those flippin’ gold glove ballots.”

Jim: “Oh yeah?”

Manager: “Hmm.  Shortstop.  Who made some good plays against us this year?”

Jim: “That Jeter had a good season.  Battin’ leadoff, too.”

Manager: “Yeah, he did.  I remember that one grab he made against us in June.  Good play.”

Jim: “Yup.”

Manager: “Okey doke.” [checks box]

Now, by contrast, I provide a dramatization of how the Gold Gloves could be decided:

Manager: “Hey Jim, time to fill out those flippin’ gold glove ballots.”

Jim: “Oh yeah?”

Manager: “Hmm.  Outfield.  What outfielder made more plays against us than most other outfielders?  Who didn’t make many errors, took good routes to balls, covered more ground, threw strongly and accurately, and generally decreased the number of runs the average pitcher gave up by playing in the field?”

Jim: “That Franklin Guiterrez had a good season.”

Manager: “Yeah, he did.  I remember that one grab he made against us in June.  Good play.”

Jim: “Yup.”

Manager: “Okey doke.” [checks box]

Now, I present to you my league-winning fantasy baseball team for 2009 the Gold Glove teams from each league:

National League:
C  Yadier Molina (playoffs)
1B Adrian Gonzalez
2B Orlando Hudson (playoffs)
3B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Jimmy Rollins (playoffs)
OF Shane Victorino (playofs)
OF Michael Bourn
OF Matt Kemp (playoffs)

American League:
C  Joe Mauer (playoffs)
1B Mark Teixeria (playoffs)
2B Placido Polanco
3B Evan Longoria
SS Derek Jeter (playoffs)
OF Torii Hunter (playoffs)
OF Adam Jones
OF Ichiro

What a coincidence that the game’s best offensive players are also the best defensive players, and a majority of them played for teams that made the playoffs.  Such well-rounded athletes!

The Knuck Marches On

ESPN reports that the Red Sox have torn up the best contract in baseball.  Yes, they have replaced Tim Wakefield’s perpetual, $4 million per year contract with a 2-year, $5 million dollar deal.  This is obviously a source of concern for those who want to see Wakefield play indefinitely, as it suggests a timeline in the Red Sox’s mind.  Nevertheless, two more years will bring Wakefield that much closer to the great cumulative records of all time.  Here is how our favorite Everyman is doing in his relentless assault on the greatest pitching records of all time (years to goal are based on his average yearly production):

WakfieldTim Wakefield: 17 years Major League service (not including 1994, when he regrettably did not play)

Wins: Cy Young (511)
Wakefield: 162
Years to goal:36.6

Innings pitched: Cy Young (7,354.2)
Wakefield: 2,931.2
Years to goal: 25.7

Walks: Nolan Ryan (2,795)
Wakefield: 1,122
Years to goal: 25.3

Earned runs: Cy Young (2,147)
Wakefield: 1,411
Years to goal: 8.9 (!!!)

Hits allowed: Cy Young (7,092)
Wakefield: 2,836
Years to goal: 25.5

These year goals are, of course, rough approximations.  Everyone knows that the knuckle ball can, without warning, go off and become unhittable for a day, month, or half-season.*

I hope the Red Sox will do the right thing and let Wakefield remain their #5 starter until he accomplishes his Destiny as our generation’s greatest and best chance to wipe Cy Young, and occasionally Nolan Ryan, from the cumulative-stat record books.  Phillies, you are on standby to retain Jamie Moyer should the Red Sox fail in this mission.

*See Wakefield’s first half of 1995: 1995: 7-1, 1.61 era in 10 starts.