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December 6, 2005

Prospectus Today

Dallas, Day One

by Joe Sheehan

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A quiet Monday at the Wyndham Anatole was highlighted by a press conference for the World Baseball Classic. The 16-nation event, a product of years of effort by MLB, the MLBPA and USA Baseball, among others, is designed to help baseball increase its popularity globally and establish a baseball parallel to soccer's World Cup or basketball's World Championships.

I'm skeptical about a lot of the details of the Classic, but on Monday, it was hard to not be swept up in the enthusiasm for the concept. MLB put on a presentation featuring clips of the game's greatest stars, many of whom have committed to play in the Classic, talking about how great it would be to put on the uniform of their home country and compete for their nation's honor. Commissioner Bud Selig, the MLBPA's Gene Orza and representatives from USA Baseball, including Team USA manager Buck Martinez playing the Tommy Lasorda role, stepped to the microphone and talked about how exciting the event would be and how it would expand baseball's popularity like no event in the game's history.

It's easy to be excited about this in December at a press conference. It's easier when you see the roster of players who have attached themselves to this event, to imagine the lineup of the Dominican team, or the USA's pitching staff. The players' buy-in to the WBC is perhaps the single best reason to think this is going to be a success, because what's being sold here isn't baseball as a sport so much as the star power of MLB players. The lack of MLB players in the Olympics are just one reason why the 2008 Games will not feature baseball.

With that said, the devil is most certainly in the details here, and on Monday, those details were largely glossed over. I can boil my problems with the Classic--and why I think the event is going to be a disappointment--down to two words: "March" and "pitchers."

The critical difference between baseball and the other sports contested in major global competitions is that so much rides on each day's starting pitcher. Even in MLB, a team's chance to win is largely tied to who takes the mound at the start of the day. Even the lowly Mariners were generally big favorites when sending Felix Hernandez to the hill last year, while the Yankees would be no better than even money when guys like Al Leiter started.

More to the point of the WBC, however, pitchers are why baseball teams spend six weeks in warm climates getting ready for the season, because pitchers need that kind of time to get their arms ready. Pitchers work their way through long-toss to side sessions to BP to brief appearances in meaningless games, and by the end of March they're ready to throw 100-110 pitches every five days or so for six months. This has been the spring-training pattern for years.

Now, because it's convenient for the marketing of baseball overseas, we're going to have those pitchers ready to throw highly-competitive innings in a major tournament at a point on the calendar when they're just about ready to throw 30 or so pitches over two innings against a mixture of major leaguers and Double-A players. Even with the expectation that participants will start their preparations earlier, it is, to me, whistling in the dark to think that the WBC is taking major risks with pitchers' health. It's not just that the pitchers might not be ready for that kind of effort; it's that regardless, they might push themselves to try, anyway, with results that materially affect pennant races.

To address this problem, in part, pitchers in the WBC will be held to pitch limits. No number was mentioned at the press conference--there's a committee in place working on these details--but the number that seems to pop up most often is "60." I would guess, and I emphasize that word, that no pitcher has gone 60 pitches before the third week in March in some time, so even that is going to be stretching these guys out, and these aren't going to be, shall we say, Sarasota pitches.

Mind you, these rules are in place to protect the major-league pitchers in the tournament, and they have the effect of favoring the teams who have staffs largely made up of major-league pitchers. To be sure, Cuba (which will not claim its MLB hurlers for this event) wants nothing to do with pitch counts, nor does the Netherlands or any other competitor with few or no MLB pitchers. These teams are going to be unable to use their best, non-MLB pitchers for longer than the posted limits even though they likely lack the depth to overcome the restriction or the need for it.

Are you starting to see the problem here? The World Baseball Classic is being pitched as a chance for the best players in the world to compete at the highest level for their country so we can arrive at a "true" world champion. Unfortunately, there's a conflict--and not a minor one--between that goal and the major-league season. You can't have pitchers going all-out in mid-March when teams have invested millions of dollars in having them around from April through September or October.

I'm mostly thinking about pitchers here, but the risk of an injury at the World Baseball Classic costing MLB teams lots of money is real. Forget the possibility of insurance that directly compensates a team for an injury; what happens when that injury takes out a team's star for six weeks? If the Angels have to do without Vladimir Guerrero for a month because he hurts his shoulder on an awkward slide against the Rangers, well, that's baseball. If it happens in an exhibition, are they going to be so sanguine? Will you, Angels fans, if it means you don't get to see Vlad play, and your team falls four games behind the A's in April because your boys score 39 runs that month?

That's an extreme example, but it highlights the conflict here: the World Baseball Classic isn't more important than your team's season, and without that, there's no reason to think of it as baseball's World Cup. It's first and foremost a marketing endeavor, an attempt to expand the game into Europe and get a firmer grip on Asia and perhaps get the rest of the world interested in our funny little pastime. It's a chance to sell merchandise with "Mexico" and "Venezuela" and "Dominicana" on it, and an attempt to gain mindshare a few weeks before Opening Day. These are all good ideas, and I don't begrudge MLB's efforts in that regard. I just think you have to be realistic about the problems associated with this competition, and be conservative about what it really means.

You can solve 80% of these problems by moving the Classic to July. There would be little or no concerns about pitchers being able to provide maximum effort, and you would have a better chance of calling the competition a true championship. Of course, you'd have to shut MLB down for three weeks, which makes the idea a non-starter. Again, you see that MLB is willing to provide a watered-down competition to assist marketing efforts, but there's no way it's going to give up summer dates on the schedule to provide for a truer test. Money, baby.

(Just to head off some e-mails, you can't move the Classic to November because no one wants to make pitchers work that deep into the year. Moreover, it would pretty much preclude any player without a guaranteed contract for the following season from playing, as they'd be assuming a tremendous amount of financial risk for minimal reward.)

The World Baseball Classic should be a lot of fun, and if it helps to grow baseball globally, it's a net positive for everyone involved. It's not baseball's version of the World Cup, and because of the nature of the game, it might never become that, not without considerably more sacrifice from MLB and its member teams.

--

As of Tuesday noon, The Toronto Blue Jays appear to have "won" the bidding for A.J. Burnett, signing the right-hander to a five-year deal worth $55 million. It's the second five-year agreement the Jays have reached with a pitcher this offseason, following the $47-million commitment they made to B.J. Ryan last month.

This is madness, of course. At his best, A.J. Burnett has been a decent #2 starter with good peripherals and enough size and stuff to get scouts excited. Injuries have been an issue for him, most recently Tommy John surgery that cut short his '03 season after four starts. With more than six years of service time, Burnett has made 30 starts just once--in 2005--and he's qualified for an ERA title just three times. He's not durable.

Then you look a little deeper and you realize that the Blue Jays aren't even getting the guy you see in the stat lines. Burnett has a significant and persistent home/road split, one that cuts across his entire performance record. His career ERA at Dolphins Stadium and its aliases is 3.20; everywhere else in the world, it's 4.26. In Miami, he strikes out a shade over a batter an inning (423 in 422 1/3); his rate elsewhere is nearly 25% worse (6.9 K/9). His strikeout-to-walk ratio, home-run rate and IP/start all show similar trends. In 2005, the platform season that earned him the big contract, all of these trends were present. Burnett is basically a league-average pitcher who has been the beneficiary of a terrific environment for his entire career. He's now leaving that environment, and with that, he becomes a 4.26 ERA pitcher with a K/BB of less than 2-to-1.

Beyond the specifics of Burnett, the deal is a nightmare from a planning standpoint. We've made a lot of progress in player projection, but there aren't 20 players in all of organized baseball I can point to and say, "they're going to be good for the next five years." There certainly aren't five pitchers about whom I can make that claim. The Jays have made a $100-million bet that they've identified two, and given that this is an organization that has shown a persistent inability to identify its problems or acquire reasonable solutions, I have no reason to think that they know something about Ryan and Burnett that no one else does. The likelihood, the strong likelihood, is that the Jays are going to be paying these two guys $24 million or so in 2010 for something like 88 innings of 5.12 ball.

The Jays have also sacrificed their second- and third-round picks in the 2006 draft, on the heels of losing a #2 in 2005. They've blown a huge hole in their future and they're still not likely to make the postseason any time soon, because they're not building towards the 94 wins it takes to get there in the American League. They'll be better in '06, as much because Roy Halladay and Ted Lilly should return as because of these signings, but their offense is still mediocre, and they don't have any plan for fixing it. Shea Hillenbrand is likely to return, using up 450 outs in the middle of the lineup, and he's actually one of the team's better hitters. There are persistent OBP issues that aren't going to change with the personnel in place, save some marginal gains by the young infielders and perhaps a Vernon Wells resurgence.

It's really not a matter of whether the Devil Rays will pass the Blue Jays in the AL East, just a question of when. To look at how these two franchises, each caught in a difficult competitive environment, have chosen to tackle the problem, is to see the difference between the game's past and its present, between money as a panacea and money as a tool.

Between getting it and not.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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