At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Are Free Agent Relievers Worth the Annual Cost?

If there was ever a time to be a decent major league reliever, then this clearly is it! Check out this list of free-agent firemen to change uniforms during the days bracketing Thanksgiving, and you’ll see what I mean:

  • The Blue Jays signed B.J. Ryan for five years, $47 million.

  • The Mets signed Billy Wagner to four years, $43 million.

  • The Cubs signed Bobby Howry for a reported three years, $12 million, and Scott Eyre for three years, $11 million.
Now, I have no particular issue with the pursuit of pitching as a guaranteed right of MLB citizenship – in fact, I’m one of those who believes it and defense, especially in the late innings, are the keys to sustained success. But I am struck by the lengths and dollars these deals involve and was moved to see just what practical value the players might actually provide.

  • Billy Wagner throws smoke, is left handed, converted 92% of his save opportunities last season, and is going to a team that struggled to convert only 67% overall. But he’ll turn 35 midway through next year, and every pitch he throws brings him closer to the one that easily could be his last. Does this mean he’s worth $10.75 million per year? Consider this: if Wagner runs anywhere true to form, he theoretically could put a dozen extra victories on the board for a club that finished seven games out of first place and six games out of the playoffs. So perhaps the Mets are right to throw money at this particular problem.
  • B.J. Ryan is another hard-throwing lefty, and since he’ll be only 31 next season, he may represent more of the future for Toronto than Wagner does for New York. Ryan converted 88% of his save opportunities last year and is going to a team that did so just 63% of the time in total. Do the math and you’ll see that he too could mean 12 extra wins for his new team – but since the Blue Jays finished 15 games out of both first place and the playoffs, this improvement may not be as meaningful to the Birds as it is to the Mets. Will it be worth the $9.4 million per year it costs them? We’ll have to wait and see.
I won’t bore you by continuing the exercise, but you get the idea. Just how much is a relief pitcher worth? It depends on the improvement he is likely to create as viewed in context in which he is to pitch. Ralph Kiner was once famously told by his woeful Pirates that the team lost with him and could easily lose without him, and thus didn’t receive the raise he sought. The same, I believe, is true of pitching, and that’s what makes this year’s free agent dance all the more interesting.

Monday, November 28, 2005

GM By Committee Seems to Work: Look for Larry Soon

By now you no doubt know the Boston Red Sox have taken advantage of the fire sale taking place in Miami, where the Marlins again have found it necessary to shed payroll, and to do so in a hurry. But the most notable thing about this may be the fact that the Sox have done so without a sitting general manager. While the wounds left by Theo Epstein’s surprise departure may still be smarting, it is clear that the team is moving forward, and that’s worth noting whether you’re a fan, player, agent, or opposing GM.

It has been popular lately to wonder whether the Sox can conduct meaningful business without a titular head to its day-to-day operations. But in the past few weeks, a Central Committee consisting of Ben Cherington, Jed Hoyer, Jeremy Kapstein, Bill Lajoie, Craig Shipley, and Larry Lucchino as General Secretary somehow has managed to re-sign Mike Timlin, tender a contract offer to Johnny Damon, and deal for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota. In addition, coaches have been hired, and discussions reportedly also have been ongoing regarding the possible disposition of Manny Ramirez and David Wells, both of whom have requested trades. So it is clear the club is open for business, and given the apparent lack of a compelling candidate to assume the GM role, my November 16 thought that Lucchino himself may be asked to fill the position, even ‘temporarily’ through the 2006 season, refuses to go away.

Even though the current Management by Committee does seem to be working, it is inevitable that the Sox will name a successor to Theo – baseball is tradition-bound, as we know, and operating without a GM is about as non-traditional as it gets. And let’s not forget that sound management practice also recommends that the buck stop somewhere. Given that Lucchino is a senior executive with the team and is a primary controller of player-related pursestrings, in many ways he is already doing the work. How much longer can it be before he is formally gets the job?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

On This Day, We Give Thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I’d like to use this space today to give thanks for what we have, and for what we don’t.

  • I’m thankful we have the Red Sox, without which our summers might be more peaceful, but certainly more empty as well.
  • I’m thankful we don’t have a multi-decade championship drought to brag about.
  • I’m thankful we have the PawSox, Rox, Pride, Cape League, and myriad other sources of quality baseball that prove a good time can be had away from Fenway Park.
  • I’m thankful we don’t have stadium issues that could leave Fenway as empty as Dolphins Stadium may be in July 2009.
  • I’m thankful that major league baseball and the player’s association were able to agree on a policy to take drugs out of our game.
  • I’m thankful we don’t have Congressional legislation to do the same.
  • I’m thankful that the Sox have rebuilt their farm system to the point where prospects can be summoned to help the big-league team (e.g., Papelbon) and used to trade for established talent (e.g., Beckett, apparently).
  • I’m thankful the Sox don’t have a general manager, a first baseman, possibly a left- and center-fielder, and a reliable closer – for it they did, what would we possibly have to complain about?
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Sox Theater of the Absurd Moves from Pinter to Beckett

Reports last night indicate that the Boston Red Sox are about to acquire Marlins right-hander Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell in a trade for highly-touted minor leaguers Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, and possibly Jesus Delgado. Such a move likely indicates that clubhouse-popular and fan-favorite free agent Bill Mueller will not return to the Sox, and that erstwhile third-baseman Kevin Youkilis may be ticketed to play first base, where he has all of nine games of big league experience.

Presuming all the physicals are passed and the deal is consummated, this move is the most solid evidence yet that the Red Sox indeed are moving forward smoothly despite the absence of a general manager, the hiring of which might be said to be Pinteresque in theatrical style. There is nothing absurd about putting Beckett center stage, however – lifetime, he’s 41-34 and has an ERA of 3.46, and he has nearly three times as many strikeouts (607) as walks (223). He was the MVP of the 2003 World Series, so he has that all-important post-season experience that contending teams look for. And he’s 17 years younger than David Wells, who probably will be traded home to San Diego. So all in all, Beckett promises to contribute right away to the Sox’ success and could anchor the club’s rotation for a long time to come.

Lowell, too, is a solid pickup, though coming off something of a down season, he is something of an offensive question mark. Assuming he rebounds, though, he should hit more than 20 homers, drive in 90 to 100 runs, and hit .275 or so – and since he’s also a defensive Gold Glover, he’ll bring a level of all-around play that Boston hasn’t seen since, well, Bill Mueller, who also was no slouch at the plate and in the field.

Statistics and roster-building aside, the best thing about this deal may be the fact that the Sox are in a position to engineer a trade for established players without having to remit wads of extra cash to make it happen. For the first time in a long time, the team has prospects who are good enough for other teams to desire, and one hopes its commitment to player development continues no matter how much of a farce the GM situation may appear to be.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Request for Urine Samples Could Rain on MLB’s Parade

Reports this weekend said that federal prosecutors involved in the ongoing BALCO steroid investigation are seeking access to hundreds of urine samples that were collected in 2003 from major league baseball players. Federal judges previously have prohibited such action on the basis that the search warrants used to obtain the samples were improper, and attorneys for the Major League Baseball Players Association also have fought it on the basis that granting it would amount to an unreasonable search and seizure.

Coming as this does on the heels of baseball’s new, tough anti-steroids and -amphetamine policy, one wonders if the spectre of privacy violations raised by the request will somehow cast a shadow over what otherwise has been a notable step forward in the move to clean up professional sports. Such concerns had long kept the MLBPA from endorsing any sort of meaningful testing program, and while it may be too late to back out now, the last thing we need is for doubts about the confidentiality of test results to rain on MLB’s parade. At the very least, some comfort may be taken in the fact that the judicial system seems to be doing its job.

On a tangentially related note, check out Tony Massarotti’s column in yesterday’s Boston Herald, which echoes my speculation Friday that baseball’s tough new stance against amphetamines as well as steroids will lead to player fatigue, statistical declines, and perhaps, eventually, an erosion of attendance. I guess it’s true that great minds think alike!

Friday, November 18, 2005

MLB’s New Drug Policy to Change the Daily Game

I’ll say this for major league baseball, when Congress says “jump,” it gets pretty high – er, sorry; I mean “elevates to a fairly great degree.” But the outcome may not be what it expects, even if the prospect of federal legislation does now evaporate.

MLB has adopted an anti-drug policy that not only imposes significant penalties for the use of steroids, but for the first time mandates consequences for the taking of amphetamines. Specifically, the steroids measure calls for a 50-day suspension for players testing positive for the first time, a 100-day suspension for second offenders, and a possible lifetime ban for anyone achieving a three-peat. The amphetamines clause requires mandatory testing following a first positive test, a 25-game suspension after the second, and an 80-game suspension after the third.

What makes this news significant isn’t the toughening of MLB’s stance toward steroids – this was inevitable given all the publicity and Congressional attention the issue has recently received – but its decision to target amphetamines at the same time. The widespread use of so-called “greenies” were famously made public in Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s epic chronicle of his 1969 season, and player comments in the wake of the new announcement leave little doubt that they are at least as common today as they were then.

I applaud the owners and the Players Association for moving so decisively – and apparently so cooperatively – to clean up baseball’s act. But I’m also intrigued to see just what effect actively chasing amphetamines from the game will have on the game itself. So many players apparently have relied on them for so long to maintain their energy, attention, and performance that there’s a real possibility their eradication will have a dramatic impact on daily wins and losses – especially late in the season, when players may grow weary, more injury-prone, and less effective.

The fact that MLB has decided after so much time that uppers are no more good for the game than steroids is as remarkable as it is a worthy response to the threat of legislation. I only hope its powers-that-be are prepared to explain the performance decline we are likely to see in all statistical categories, not just power, when the day is done.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Mental Lint: Nipper Comes Home, Ng Passed By, Cameron on the Move?

A few thoughts clogging my cranial vent:

  • The word today is that former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper has rejoined the team as bullpen coach. He and Roger Clemens were best pals in the years sandwiching the team’s 1986 World Series appearance, and he has spent the last batch of years instructing, coaching, and mentoring at both the major and minor league levels for several teams including the Red Sox. It is nice to that he’ll be at Fenway again, and his steadying influence on our young, up-and-coming hurlers should be welcome indeed.
  • The Dodgers yesterday introduced former Giants assistant general manager Ned Colletti as their new GM, passing over their own highly-regarded AGM, Kim Ng, in the process. Ng is the highest-ranking female executive in baseball today, and it was widely speculated that she would be given the Dodger job. Since this did not occur, one wonders what feelings Ng now may be harboring, and whether the opportunity now exists for the Red Sox to scoop her up. Breaking this very important gender barrier may be the team’s best way out of its current publicity fogbank, but Ng has three years left on her contract and has stated her intention to remain in LA. Still, it is hard to imagine that the Dodgers would stand in her way should the Sox come a-knockin’, and I for one will hold out hope that this may yet happen.
  • Mets outfielder Mike Cameron apparently is on his way to San Diego. Assuming he passes a vision test to ensure no problems remain from his August collision with Carlos Beltran, Cameron reportedly will be swapped for Xavier Nady, who is expected to play right field in New York. The Red Sox angle on this has two parts: first, Cameron was said to be at the center of this summer’s Manny-to-the-Mets trade talks, and second, the Sox and the Padres apparently now are discussing ways to return David Wells to his San Diego home. Don’t be surprised if Wells and a minor leaguer are shipped West for Cameron and a young arm – and if that happens, be prepared for Johnny Damon to be given a final offer that he can refuse, and then for him to move on.
That’s all for now – see you at the ballyard!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lucchino the Next Sox GM?

Continuing what has become fairly disturbing trend, Atlanta Braves director of player development and general manager heir apparent Dayton Moore yesterday became the latest candidate to withdraw his name from consideration to become the next Red Sox GM. Moore’s announcement follows on the heels of similar “thanks but no thanks” statements by the Indians’ Chris Antonetti, the Blue Jays’ Tony LaCava, the Padres’ Kevin Towers, and the Brewers’ Doug Melvin, and observers can only wonder just what it is that is sending so many qualified individuals – including our beloved Theo Epstein – running in the opposite direction.

I do not know Larry Lucchino, so I am in no position to judge the accuracy or logic of the published reports that suggest his managerial style is at the root of the difficulty. As a business management consultant, however, the seeming inability to attract and hold the attention of young, ambitious, and highly-qualified individuals does seem to indicate some sort of organizational dynamic is at work that is causing good people to steer clear. Whether this has to do with politics, personalities, or philosophy I cannot say, and in fact, only those already on the inside really are in a position to know.

This salient fact brings me to my point: The fact that the Red Sox now are the only team without a general manager leads me to wonder if the person now most likely to get the job might not be Lucchino himself! For sure, he knows the internal lay of the land – he, after all, helped to create it – and since he apparently worked very closely with Epstein over the past three years, he no doubt has a fairly good handle on the state of Sox player development and the goings-on at the other 29 organizations as well. So who better, at least on paper, to step in right away and direct the free-agent negotiations (e.g., Johnny Damon) and trade opportunities (e.g., Manny Ramirez) that are demanding immediate attention?

Right now, the leading outside candidates for the job appear to be Jim Beattie and Jim Bowden, two experienced hands that seem not to have captured the imagination of the Red Sox brain trust, or else a hiring announcement already would have been made. Internal candidates presumably include the Gang of Four that represented Sox interests at the just-completed general managers’ meeting, but the relative lack of noise surrounding any one of them suggests the final choice may lay elsewhere. In some ways, therefore, Lucchino now is the last man standing, and my guess is that Sox principal owner John Henry will “request” that he assume the role, even if only on an “interim” basis. But even under these conditions, the job will be Lucchino’s, and from there, truly anything – little of it good, I fear – could happen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A-Rod Wins MVP: No Argument Here, But What Constitutes ‘Valuable’ Anyway?

When Yankee third baseman Alex Rodríguez was named American League MVP yesterday over Red Sox DH David Ortiz, the sound of teeth being gnashed could be heard all across New England. However, I have no argument with the decision, for A-Rod put up numbers that essentially were as dominating as Ortiz’s, and he did so while playing defense in the field – and stellar defense at that. I would feel differently if Big Papi’s performance stood head and shoulders above everyone else’s, but it didn’t, and I do think it’s fair to give the nod to the two-way player in such a case.

Still, the closeness of the race does revive the debate over just what makes a player “valuable.” Is it raw offensive output? Contributions to the team’s performance? Leadership in the clubhouse and the community? I had a problem with A-Rod’s winning his first MVP as a Texas Ranger, for that was a club that finished in last place despite his heroics. There is little doubt that his statistical performance certainly qualified him for consideration, but can a player be considered “most valuable” when his presence in the lineup does nothing for the fortunes of his team?

To me, the argument for Ortiz had considerably more to do with the way he carried the Red Sox into the playoffs this year than with his offensive output. Nary an expert or observer would disagree that without him, the Sox easily could have finished third, or worse. But at the end of the day, I believe it was proper to give the accolades to the player who contributed on both offense and defense, and who clearly also made a difference in his team’s position in the standings.

In closing, I want you to consider this: Rodriguez himself knows that the honor he has just received pales in comparison to the one Ortiz and his mates celebrated just 13 months ago. “I would certainly trade his World Series championship for this MVP trophy,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the only reason I play baseball.”

It’s hard to argue with that!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Not a Dry Eye in the Place: New Cape League Hall of Famers Open their Hearts Upon Induction

The Cape Cod Baseball League inducted the sixth class and into its Hall of Fame on Saturday, and the acceptance speeches were so emotional that nary a guest in attendance was left untouched. Jake Pena started the sentimental ball rolling with a stirring tribute to his late father Manny, who was a catcher, manager, and umpire in the league for nearly 40 years, and current Oakland A’s outfielder Bobby Kielty brought the induction proceedings to a close by choking back a few tears of his own as he thanked his wife for her years of support. And in between, the emotions flowed nonstop, as the honorees expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to have been part of the Cape League community.

The event itself was mounted with its usual class and style at the Chatham Bars Inn, and a packed house listened with rapt attention as the inductees at times struggled to maintain their composure and spun delightful yarns about their experiences both on and off the field. The master of ceremonies again was Scott Wahle of WBZ-TV4, whose broadcasting roots reach back onto the Cape and whose good nature served him well when he was teased from the podium by PawSox owner Ben Mondor about the proper pronunciation of the word “Pawtucket.”

The Red Sox moment of the day was offered up the inductee Mickey Morandini, whose stellar play for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in 1987 brought him to this day. Morandini had a highly productive major league career, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he played under current Sox manager Terry Francona and with current Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. According to Morandini, the Phillies were in Cincinnati, where every home team home run was greeted by a display of fireworks. On this particular day, Schilling was on the mound and was having a tough outing. After giving up successive homers and witnessing the impressive light show that followed each one, Schilling took a moment to compose himself and was surprised to find Francona standing on the rubber when he returned to the mound. “Get back to the dugout where you belong,” Morandini remembers Schilling saying. “I know I’m having a rough day, and there is nothing you can tell me that will make it better!” Francona apparently didn’t miss a beat, and with a calm he no doubt didn’t feel simply replied, “I’m not here to tell you anything; I just wanted to give the fireworks guy a chance to reload!”

Today’s Cape Cod Times today has a nice story about the Hall of Fame event, which is held annually in the fall and is well worth the price of admission. I view it as one of the highlights of the Cape League season, and I encourage anyone with a passion for the game to attend. Just be sure to bring along some tissues, for it turns out that there is crying in baseball after all!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

MLB, Congress, and the Question of Steroids: Who’s Problem is it Anyway?

On the surface, major league baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s response to the latest Congressional moves to legislate steroids out of sports was almost funny. Speaking yesterday to the media at the general managers’ meeting in Indian Wells, CA, Selig said, “I know how deeply Senator [Jim] Bunning feels about this. I know how deeply Senator [John] McCain and others feel about it. While it’s preferable for us to solve our problems, if this goes ahead, I said I’d support it and I will.”

Now, wouldn’t he have to? Wouldn’t MLB have to abide by any bill that made its way into law? We know what he means, of course, and there isn't anyone who would either disagree with Selig’s statement that “it’s preferable for us to solve our problems directly, ourselves,” or argue with his commitment “to eliminate steroids and even the talk of it once and for all.” But there is a larger question here, and it has to do with who should own the responsibility to achieve this end.

Fundamentally, I believe that industries – and for the sake of this argument, I put baseball into that category – should be left to regulate themselves unless the failure to do so constitutes a public danger. Why was there a Clean Air Act? Because manufacturers, left largely to their own devices, would not otherwise have installed smokestack scrubbers (for instance) quickly enough or broadly enough to have kept our air quality from deteriorating beyond acceptable limits. But are steroids in baseball the same sort of threat to public safety? Hardly, unless you count being struck in the bleachers by a line drive that otherwise would not have cleared the fence.

Understand, I am not condoning the use of any performance-enhancing drugs in this or any other athletic competition – they are unhealthy for those who take them and unfair to those who don’t, and they cheapen any sport in which they are prevalent. I am merely suggesting that there are more important things for Congressmen to do than to spend time figuring out how long various suspensions should be and worrying about whether Rafael Palmeiro lied under oath.

I believe it is much more in keeping with our country’s free-market spirit to leave Selig and the players’ union to work this out for themselves – and if they don’t, then for us as fans to simply walk away for a while. I know that I may be in a distinct minority in this regard, but I’m perfectly happy to satisfy my baseball needs by attending Cape Cod League and independent minor league games rather than support the shenanigans of “establishment” ball. And when did I discover this about myself? When major league owners and players cost me half a season and the World Series a decade ago.

I now know that major league baseball needs me much more than I need it, and I believe that this – and not the threat of Congressional action – is the pressure that ought to be brought to bear. What sayest you?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

World Baseball Classic a Good Idea – But Shouldn’t Outreach Start at Home?

Let me go on record right now as saying that the World Baseball Classic is a good idea. Baseball already is a global phenomenon, and I am one who feels that the World Series should one day actually be a world series. Putting together a World Cup-style competition is a natural first step towards the true globalization of the sport, and it promises to be a lot of fun for players and fans alike. (Field and general managers, on the other hand, will sweat the prospect of injury right to the very end!)

By continuing to tout the virtue of the tournament as an outreach mechanism, however, major league baseball executives in one way are skipping over what I believe should be one of their primary areas of focus, namely the reestablishment of baseball as the National Pastime here at home in the way that it was for so long.

Now, I'm not suggesting that baseball is in any imminent danger of receding into the background of our national consciousness. But I am concerned that – as evidenced by many measures including the all-important television ratings – the sport is becoming just one of a number of available choices, and that, in this observer’s view, too little is being done to imbue this and the next generation of fans in North America with the emotional attachment that prior generations had to the game. As long as the majority of postseason games are scheduled past bedtime for most kids (and many adults), and as long as the majority of the headlines center on the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the length and value of player contracts, it will be hard to convince the fans of tomorrow that baseball is supposed to be fun!

None of this is new of course, so I will not go on about it. But I do wonder just what could be accomplished in terms of recapturing baseball’s magic in this part of the world if even a fraction of the attention, time, and money being spent on the World Baseball Classic were applied here at home. Minor league teams do it all the time in the form of kids’ clinics, ties to civic organizations, and between-inning silliness. Why executives at the major-league level feel this is beneath them I’ll never know, and I do worry that this will catch up with them – and us – at some future point.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ramirez to Mets After All? Ain’t No Privacy There!

The Boston Herald today is reporting that a deal between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets for left fielder Manny Ramirez still may be possible. According the paper, Ramirez would be traded for center fielder Mike Cameron and two of these three prospects: Lastings Milledge (OF), Aaron Heilman (RHP) and Yusmeiro Petit (RHP). The Boston Globe, on the other hand, says such a move is unlikely, quoting a Sox decision-maker as saying, “That’s a non-issue right now.” It is unclear to this observer, however, whether we’re to focus on the “non-issue” or the “right now” parts of this statement, so perhaps discussions are indeed ongoing.

The greatest puzzle in this – big surprise! – is Manny himself, for there are as many reports that he wants to stay in Boston as there are those that he wants to go elsewhere. Ramirez has famously decried the lack of privacy he feels living here in Boston – though immediately after he did so, he and his family were the subject of a big spread in Boston Globe Magazine. So it’s hard to know just what to think. But as a 10-5 guy, he ultimately will have to make the decision, and then, of course, live with the consequences.

For the moment, let’s take him at his word and assume he is feeling put-upon as a public figure. Why then would he even consider a move to New York? It seems to me that relocating to the media capital of the world would not be in the best interests of someone who wants to avoid the off-field spotlight. Did he not notice what happened to Randy Johnson the first time he set foot in Manhattan? And I hardly think Manny, being Manny, will really want to spend all his downtime behind the suburban fences of Long Island.

As a Sox fan, I’m conflicted by reports such as today’s, for I love Ramirez’ production but can’t abide his complaining. So I’ll miss him if he goes, and will celebrate him if he stays. But either way, I know I’ll be reading plenty about him!

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Hires Within: Why Interviewing Internal GM Candidates Isn’t Significant

Why is it that major league baseball teams seeking new general managers are so publicly formal about interviewing internal staff for the job? In my experience in the business world, organizations looking to fill top slots don't make such a big deal about talking to the people already working there – rather, this is something that they simply do, for they recognize that promoting from within not only short-circuits the process of getting the new guy up to speed, but also lets the people already in-house know that if they work hard, they, too, will be recognized and considered for advancement.

So I had to laugh when I read that Los Angeles Dodgers announced that Kim Ng was the first person they interviewed to be the team’s next GM. Ng clearly is qualified, for she has been a VP and Assistant GM for the last four years. And should she get the job, she would be the first female GM in history. But is it really newsworthy but she was called to read for the part, or even that she was the first one called? I mean, what kind of diligence would the Dodgers be conducting if she weren't atop the list?

Wouldn't an internal candidate be the best choice going into a search process? Wouldn't such a person be better known to those doing the hiring than someone from the outside? Wouldn't such a person already understand the people, politics, and other organizational dynamics that ultimately will make or break their success? Why, then, is it such a big deal when a team talks to someone it already employs?

It's not! It's just baseball being baseball, and if anything, it’s our own fault as fans, for we are always looking for evidence that our beloved clubs are as committed to winning as we are. "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" as Seinfeld famously once said. But such announcements needn't be so momentous, and we shouldn't read too much into them. Instead, let me know when someone is actually hired: then I’ll be glad to sit up and take notice!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Strange, Slow Start to Free-Agent Season as GMs, Coaches Make the News

All the furor surrounding Theo Epstein’s departure from his post as GM of the Boston Red Sox only underscores how strange and slow-to-develop this year’s free-agent season is turning out to be. For sure, Boston’s battle of the board room is newsworthy. But a quick trip around the headlines of the last week illustrates just how organizationally upside-down the transactions have been so far, with most of the activities centering on management and coaches, and precious little on the players themselves.

Consider the following – drawn from the likes of such non-partisan agencies as SI and ESPN – as a representative sample:

  • John Hart may interview with the Dodgers
  • Robin Yount apparently will sign with the Brewers as bench coach

  • Gerry Hunsicker is heading to the Devil Rays as No. 2 baseball guy

  • Tony Pena will be the Yankees’ first-base coach, and Lee Mazzilli will rejoin team as bench coach

  • Glenn Hoffman is becoming Padre third-base coach

  • Roger McDowell is replacing Leo Mazzone (who moved to the Orioles) as Braves’ pitching coach

  • The Indians rearranged their coaching staff, naming third-base coach Joel Skinner as new bench coach, moving first-base coach Jeff Datz to third, and promoting minor-league manager Luis Rivera to coach first.
As a fan, I find these moves and the myriad others like them to be academically interesting, but pragmatically besides the point. I am much more concerned about player movement and the impact it may have on the competitive balance, and I find it striking that the only news in this regard has had to do with some relatively minor contract renewals and resignings (did you see? the Indians picked up their option on second baseman Ronnie Belliard!), and a short item mentioning AJ Burnett’s visit to Toronto.

Much has been written about the relative weakness of this year’s free-agent class, and perhaps it is true. Some notable players no doubt will change uniforms – Manny Ramirez? Billy Wagner? Jacque Jones? – but in a year in which the headlines are dominated by front-office moves and coaching transactions, one wonders just how long a winter we are in for.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Theo Says Goodbye: No Reasons Offered, But None Are Important!

On what could only be described as a strange and mournful day (with apologies to Paul Simon), Red Sox outgoing GM Theo Epstein met with the press yesterday and left observers on-site, on-air, and online with as many questions as answers.

During the event, Epstein attributed his departure from the club to the fact that he no longer could be “all in” about the job. It wasn’t due to any sort of conflict with CEO Larry Lucchino, he said, or disagreement over money, or professional burnout, just the result of considerable organizational and personal introspection.

“There was a process, leading up to the decision, during which we really turned the microscope on ourselves and on the organization, on relationships,” Epstein said, adding, “There were a lot of difficult discussions that probably should have happened a long time ago. But in the end, you asked what changed, the process revealed that I could not put my whole heart and soul into the job at this time.”

Why not? What was revealed, exactly? How long ago did he sense there were issues to be addressed, and why weren’t they discussed at the time? Internal reviews of the sort just undertaken are not unusual in business, and in fact, they are a particularly good idea. But they rarely result in the exit of a major participant – especially following several years of close cooperation among senior executives – over what in this case feels distinctly like philosophical differences.

Epstein wouldn’t elaborate, and principal owner John Henry could only say, “You’ll have to ask Theo” when asked for his opinion during his turn at the podium. So we are left to speculate why Epstein made a decision he clearly thought he should, rather than the one he wanted to, and why Henry, who obviously was troubled and hurt by the outcome, was evidently so surprised by the late turn of events. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen,” he said, and in an emotional moment he elicited sympathetic smiles by remarking, “There’s no crying in baseball.”

As an organizational and strategy consultant by trade and a Sox fan by default, I am pained to see opportunity and potential walk out the door in the person of Theo Epstein. But I also am enough of a realist to recognize that all this will be forgotten, and perhaps even forgiven, if the team beats the Yankees/makes the playoffs/ wins the World Series. So you see, in the end, the reasons aren’t all that important, and I suspect no one knows this better than John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Theo Epstein himself.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dark Cloud Has Gold Lining: Varitek Wins Top Fielding Honors While Theo Teeth-Gnashing Continues

Woe are the Red Sox! Genius GM Theo Epstein has been allowed/forced to get away, Manny wants out (again), Damon’s neither here (Fenway) nor there (Yankee Stadium? Los Anaheim Field?), we’ve got no bullpen (El Guapo, where are you now that we need you?), and the sky is falling, too!

But then, over all the teeth-gnashing surrounding Epstein’s departure, came the sound of the announcement that catcher Jason Varitek has won the Gold Glove Award at his position! He is the first member of the Red Sox to garner this particular prize since Tony Pena won it in 1991, and it’s nice to see someone so deserving actually take home the honor.

The coming days and weeks no doubt will be fraught with speculation, angst, and innuendo as the Sox brain trust picks up the pieces of its shattered image. But before we become too downtrodden, let’s take a moment to celebrate Varitek’s achievement, and to appreciate what we still have. There will be plenty of time later to be fitted for braces!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Oops! Theo's Gone, and Boston Has a Problem

Well what do you know! Turns out yesterday’s reports that Theo Epstein was remaining as Red Sox GM had it wrong, as a team news release last evening stated that the primary architect of last year’s championship “has declined the club’s offer to extend his contract for future years and thus will step down from his post.” Whether the issue was money (seems not) or independence and control (seems so), Epstein’s departure is a blow to the Red Sox and its fan base, and has me again wondering if we yet will see the kind of organizational rip-and-replace the team’s owners have undertaken in the past (see my blog entry on the subject).

In some ways, such a bottom-to-top renovation has already begun, as team doctor Bill Morgan and physical therapist Chris Correnti both were surprisingly and abruptly let go. And now, Epstein has decided not to stay on, assistant GM Josh Byrnes – Epstein’s logical heir apparent – has left to assume the top job in Arizona, and 71-year-old special assistant Bill Lajoie resigned immediately after Epstein made his intentions known. So the environment is especially ripe for John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and the rest of the brain trust to do as they like without causing further ado, and even point to the sudden talent vacuum as the reason to do so.

But what could be the rationale for engineering such dramatic changes? Surely they could have kept Theo if they really wanted to, or dangled his job in front of Byrnes if they preferred him over Epstein. So just what the heck is going on here?

The Reason for the Season
The “new” Sox owners have been warmly embraced by Sox followers almost since the day they arrived, and they have done much good for the team and the ballpark in that time. But my theory is that this is also the root of the reason for the recent power play.

As newcomers taking over from a decades-old ownership lineage, Henry, Lucchino et al. to date have wanted to retain and maximize the community acceptance they received. And what could have played better than hiring a local kid to be GM? Especially since that kid was created by the very people who hired him!

But winning the World Series may have changed things irrevocably. Theo no doubt was left thinking – perhaps correctly, perhaps not – that he deserved more autonomy, and ownership may have been left feeling more free to do as they like, whether that’s jettisoning player-favorite medical staff, buying up properties in the neighborhood, or installing baseball executives that are more compliant than Epstein may have turned out to be.

Whatever happens, the club has several immediate problems to solve in that the general managers’ meeting opens in California next week and they’ve got no one in the official role, there are Sox free agents to be re-signed and others to be negotiated with, there is Manny either to deal with or to be dealt, and there is a public relations mess to be cleaned up. Is this the sort of situation San Diego GM Kevin Towers – who was elevated to that post by Lucchino in the latter’s Padre days – wants to step into? For all we know, that step was already a foregone conclusion, and thus enabled Lucchino to allow/push Theo to move on. Either way, Red Sox fans now clearly have a problem, for our man of the people has just been deposed, and uncertainty now rules the day.