So much went on in baseball this past week that this could easily be a 10,000 word article. I will spare you that and try to limit myself to touching base on only the stories I found to be the most urgent and interesting in the week that was. This will probably be just a precursor to even more action this week, as the Winter Meetings are now underway down in Tennessee. Buckle your seatbelts, kids.
***Former MLB union head and labor pioneer Marvin Miller died last Tuesday at the age of 95. Miller helped found the Players Association in 1966 and guided them through legal battles and obstacles, which ultimately led to free agency and exploding player salaries. His 16-year tenure as head of the union was easily the most productive of any of his colleagues in baseball or other sports.
Although many now decry the high salaries and occasional strikes, Miller’s work provided players with fundamental rights and the ability to claim some of the vast amounts of money they were making for the owners. When Miller joined the MLPA in 1968 the minimum play salary was $6,000. That threshold was $480,000 as of last season.
Miller has tragically not yet been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He fell two votes shy of induction in 2009 and missed by just one vote in 2010. There is little doubt that enemies he made during his time with the union have contributed to his exclusion. He must get in one day, as he is the definition of a baseball pioneer and contributor. It’s just a shame that personal grudges kept him from enjoying while he was alive what he had earned through his life’s work.
***New York Mets third baseman David Wright agreed to the largest contract in team history, coming to terms on an eight-year, $140 million pact. Although Wright is the face of the franchise, it seems that he is getting paid more because of his past performance than the value he will offer over the life of the contract.
Wright will be 30 by the time next season starts and has already seen his power reduced since the Mets moved to Citi Field. He hit a home run every 20.4 at bats when the Mets played at Shea Stadium, but has seen that drop to every 28.3 at bats since moving to his new home in 2009.
A team that has struggled financially so much in recent years handing out such a contract seems like an iffy proposition. Wright is a good player but can’t be considered more than a fringy star at this point in his career. Letting him walk now may have been a disastrous PR move for the franchise, so now they have rolled the dice that he can defy the creep of time over the next decade.
***Another week and another player suspended for testing positive for a banned substance. Yawn. This time it was Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz who was caught using an amphetamine and received a 25 game suspension to be served at the beginning of next season.
Ruiz issued the same boilerplate apology that has become standard fare among the fraternity of positive testers in recent years. Yeah, yeah, we get it. They’re real sorry. Until the punishment reaches the same financial levels as the possible benefits from taking banned substances, players are going to continue gambling in an effort to add zeroes on to their pay checks.
Many will likely equate Ruiz’s positive test with him having the best stats of his career at the age of 33 this past season, when he hit .325 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI. Even though there is no proven correlation between the substance he took and any on-field benefits, it’s a label and virtual asterisk his career will now carry forever because of the way such things are seen by so many fans and journalists.
***Another major free agent was taken off the market when B.J. Upton agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. The center fielder, long regarded as one of the most toolsy players in baseball, had spent the first eight years of his major league career with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The move is curious from Atlanta’s standpoint. Upton’s best season came in 2007, when he hit .300 with 24 home runs, 22 stolen bases and a .386 OBP. In the five seasons since then he has topped a .246 batting average just once and has seen his OBP dip precipitously, to the point it reached .298 this past season.
It seems like every season people are holding their breath for Upton to break out and turn into the star he was envisioned to be when he was the second overall pick in the 2002 MLB Draft. Perhaps it’s time for the baseball world to realize that Upton is what he is; a guy with a little pop, some speed and good outfield range. He is not a player who can anchor a lineup. I can’t think of many players who turned the corner a decade into their career, especially after having been in decline for as long as Upton has. Let’s hope that whatever bad habits Upton has developed since his slide doesn’t rub off on young Atlanta star Jason Heyward.
***The Cincinnati Reds have apparently decided to finally give Cuban flame thrower Aroldis Chapman a chance to be a starter. This decision was made by the three-year, $21 million contract they agreed to with Jonathan Broxton, who spent the second half of last season with the Reds after being traded from the Kansas City Royals.
I have seen many question why the Reds would want to monkey with a lights-out closer, like Chapman proved to be in 2012. However, when you have a pitcher with his talents, it’s something that has to be done. Chapman won’t throw 101-105 MPH or strike out 15.3 batters per nine innings like he did last year as a reliever, but he has the potential to be very good.
Some legitimate concerns about this experiment include the fact that Chapman has never thrown more than 109 innings in a season since coming to the United States in 2010. He will undoubtedly be on a closely scrutinized pitch and innings count in 2013. Also, Broxton has shown signs of increasing decline. His strikeouts per nine innings (7.0 in 2012) has been nearly cut in half since its high point of 2009, when he had a mark of 13.5. According to FanGraphs.com, his average fastball velocity has dipped from 97.5 MPH to 94.8 MPH during that time. On the other hand, his 2012 FIP of 3.03 shows that he was still an effective pitcher, even if he isn’t working with the same weapons. At 300 pounds, it will be interesting to see if he can hang in as an effective closer for the Reds over the next three seasons with his bad body type and declining skill set.
***With all the flak being showered on the Marlins for their recent fire sale, a small market team finally made headlines for doing something positive. The Tampa Bay Rays locked up the face of their franchise, third baseman Evan Longoria, to a six-year, $100 million extension that will keep him through at least the 2022 season. The contract is a gamble being taken by both sides. Longoria gave up all of his arbitration and free agency years to take the sure-fire money now. The Rays are banking on him maintaining a high level of play until he is 37, which is when the contract runs out.
Longoria is close to being a star at a premium position. Although he missed half of the 2012 season because of injury, his .896 OPS and 149 OPS+ would have been career highs, suggesting he is coming into his peak. This contract makes him Tampa Bay’s equivalent of a George Brett or Robin Yount. It’s hard not to admire the commitment represented by both sides on this deal. It will be both brilliant and mutually beneficial if it ends up working out for both parties.
Filed under: Digging Deep - Analysis Tagged: | Aroldis Chapman, Atlanta Braves, B.J. Upton, Carlos Ruiz, David Wright, Evan Longoria, George Brett, Jonathan Broxton, Marvin Miller, MLB Winter Meetings, MLBPA, New York Mets, PEDs, Philadelphia Phillies, Robin Yount, Tampa Bay Rays