Hot Stove Week in Review (cont.)
Johnny still good
Poor Johnny Damon! He can get a pro wrestling gig (really) but baseball has nothing for him. He's so sad about the whole thing that he's now claiming he may just up and retire. Per Bob Klapisch, a friend wants credulous general managers and the public to know that far from being desperate to play for any team with a pair of cleats and a few bucks, Damon, 36, "is completely in the family mode right now."
Quite so, surely, but let's think about this. Take the contenders, and would-be or sort-of contenders, who had the worst OPS out of left field last year. The Mariners now have Milton Bradley, the Cubs are paying a bit too much to Alfonso Soriano to think about replacing him, and the Diamondbacks have a good young player in Conor Jackson... It goes on like that, with most every contender either having a good, promising or pricey player fielding the position. There are four exceptions: The Tigers, Reds, Braves and Yankees.
Four teams makes a market, especially when Scott Boras works for you. All four are at or within a couple million dollars of their theoretical payroll limit, but even strapped teams (to say nothing of the Yankees) can usually scrounge up a few million for the right player, and as a very good player who's even more famous than he is good, Damon is everyone's right player. He seems a very safe bet to do at least as well as Bobby Abreu did last year, when he signed for $5 million, and nothing's wrong with that. He is, after all, about exactly as good as Abreu.
Hope for the game
Phil Dale grew up a fan of the Big Red Machine, which would be nothing unusual save for where he was born: Melbourne. As a young pitcher he watched his team on videotapes, chased down who knows where, and saw himself playing in the unimaginably distant major leagues. He would go on to be the first Australian ever to win a four-year baseball scholarship to an American school and pitch four years in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system, in the second of which he saw Craig Shipley become the first Australian to play in the majors in 85 years. Since then, 15 more have made it.
Dale has traveled the world as a scout for the Braves over the last two decades and has no doubt what does most to inspire players on the obscure fringes of baseball. "It's the opportunity that major league baseball represents, to play in the major leagues," he says. "I'm a firm believer in that. It's that dream."
As far from the majors as they now seem, that dream has done some work on players like Stepan Havlicek. With the 16-year-old left-hander having signed with the Tampa Bay Rays this week, that's now nine natives of the Czech Republic who have signed with major league clubs, according to Clive Russell of MLB's London office. One of them may become the first from that country to play in the majors. Even If it's none of them, eventually it will be someone, and he'll be followed by others. Czechs may play for pennant winners and world champions, as Australians have done. They may make lives in the major league game, as men like Dale and Shipley -- currently the Red Sox's vice president for international scouting -- have done. Whatever they do, they'll make baseball a bit richer.
If you want one reason to be really optimistic about baseball's future, it's the game's increasing international reach. Baseball may never be as strong in Italy and South Africa as it is in the Dominican Republic and Japan, but it doesn't have to be for such places to make immense contributions to the sport. Consider Dutch brilliance in soccer and kickboxing and then imagine them applying themselves even more than they already have to honkbal. If that and the mere idea of a 16-year-old from Brno, baseball capital of the Czech Republic, making his way to Australia to begin a professional apprenticeship at their baseball academy don't wash you clear of at least a bit of cynicism over drugs and money, what will?
In other news
This was a week of real pitching bargains, and one of the best may have been the slightly absurd two-year, $5 million contract to which the Rangers signed Colby Lewis, who will return from a two-year trip to Japan. There are different schools of thought on the quality of Japanese baseball, but you can discount his statistics mightily and still be impressed by an 8:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a fastball and backdoor slider that, per this site, were routinely coming in at 95 mph. Even if Lewis is just a fourth starter here, that's a screaming deal for the money.
Doug Davis' new deal with the Brewers, which guarantees the 34-year-old lefty just $5.25 million, strikes me as another potential bargain. Yes, crafty lefties of his age who issue as many walks as he does are lousy bets on paper, but there's something to be said for having performed, and there are just 22 pitchers in baseball who have bettered both the 542 innings and 110 adjusted ERA that Davis has put up over the last three years. He could implode and be out of baseball by the end of the year, which is why he came so cheap, but I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have him than someone like Ben Sheets or Rich Harden.
Felix Hernandez's new five-year, $78 million contract is something I could write about at much greater length, but it's enough to say that while every reservation expressed above about signing Tim Lincecum long-term could in theory apply to King Felix, there isn't a young pitcher in whom I'd rather invest as heavily. The guy throws an 88 mph changeup and you can come away from watching a game like this one utterly convinced that if you docked him 10 mph on all his pitches, he wouldn't lose that much. Along with Lincecum and Zack Greinke, Hernandez is one of three pitchers you really need to see in person this year if you can.
If you thought that Jim Edmonds' threatened comeback at age 39 was random, note that Preston Wilson, 35, is fit to join him and that the Rockies have actually signed Paul Lo Duca and Jay Payton, both 37.
Were you wondering what Adolphus A. Busch IV of the formerly Cardinals-owning Busch family is thinking about Mark McGwire? So was I! Per a press release:
"Mark McGwire made a 'personal' decision to use illegal drugs. He deliberately cheated the game and stole its most coveted records along the way. He stonewalled Congress. He even lied to the Cardinal fans and the media by his now infamous quote of February 2005, 'Once and for all, I did not take steroids or any other illegal substances'.
"McGuire [sic] has chosen to come out of the closet at the perfect time -- Alongside a manager who also refuses to be honest, to the fans or to the game itself."
As I wrote in this space last week, I have no problem at all with McGwire, but I'll admit to wondering if Busch doesn't have a bit of a point with that last sentence there.
You don't often get to say this, but I think Joe Posnanski missed something here. All the factors he lists as having contributed to the great offensive boom era no doubt did so, but count me with those who think it was mainly the ball that was juiced.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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