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March 13, 2006

Prospectus Today

Bullet Point Monday

by Joe Sheehan

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As I do each year around this time, I'll confess: baseball has taken a back seat to college basketball ever since I came back from Arizona. I love the game, love the conference tournaments, love playing amateur bracketologist for five days. I'll be buried in the first and second rounds this coming weekend, coming up for air--probably--for the World Baseball Classic semifinals.

Today, I'll run through some leftover notes from the Arizona trip, along with some other things that have been collecting on my hard drive. If some opinions about the NCAA Selection Committee's "work" find their way onto the screen, well, cut me some slack in a world without College Basketball Prospectus.

  • I never did write up my trip to the A's/Cubs game last Monday. It was a last-minute addition--I was supposed to see the Giants and Angels in Scottsdale--that enabled me to see eight of the 11 Cactus League teams in four days. If there had been more night games, or any for that matter, I might have seen all 11 of them. Arizona > Florida.

    As it turns out, I made a pretty good decision. The Cubs started Angel Guzman, the injury-plagued right-hander who's been populating prospect lists for years. Shoulder problems cost him the better part of two seasons, and a strained forearm held him to 6 1/3 innings in 2005, plus an Arizona Fall League stint. Last week, though, you could see why he retains his buzz; he had a major-league fastball and good command of a breaking pitch. He threw easy, especially for someone who hasn't pitched much since 2003.

    As ever, I am not a scout, so take these observations with a grain of salt. With that caveat, though, I have to say that I'm intrigued by Guzman. He looked like a credible option for the Cubs, who retain an option on him, or a possible midseason trade chit if they're in the race.

  • One interesting contrast occurred in the third and fourth innings, pitched successively by Todd Wellemeyer and Scott Williamson. The two are fighting for space in the Cubs' crowded bullpen (their own fault), and Wellemeyer is out of options. He did not pitch well, struggling to locate pitches and showing little outside of his velocity. Williamson followed him to the mound and was nasty in a 1-2-3 inning.

    Having two power arms capable of being league-average relievers or better isn't the worst problem to have. Williamson, I think, can be more than that. Like Guzman, Williamson's primary issue isn't effectiveness, it's health. With that, he can be one of the better relievers in the NL; Wellemeyer's ceiling is a bit below that, and the Cubs have to hope he either pitches poorly enough to slip through waivers or well enough to bring back something in a trade. I don't see roster space for him.

    One last reliever caught my eye: Sergio Casillas, the pitcher formerly known as Jairo Garcia. Casillas just blew people away in two innings, pounding the strike zone with relentless heat. The A's have some depth in the pen, but a strikeout right-hander to pitch in front of Huston Street would be a nice add; they've had some problem getting strikeouts from the pen the last few years.

  • Cubs fans, there was some more good news: Felix Pie and Brian Dopirak both homered late in the game. Dopirak's shot actually landed in my front yard in L.A. Neither guy has a role on the '06 Cubs, and given the organization's win-now bent and veteran-friendly manager, both, like Guzman, may find that their greatest value to the Cubs is in trades.

  • It was nominally the "Milton Bradley trade," but getting a free Antonio Perez in the deal didn't hurt. Perez played second base in this game, roping a couple of hits and making a nice leaping stab of a line drive. He's blocked at three positions in Oakland, so he'll have to carve out a role as the best fifth infielder in baseball. Given that neither Bobby Crosby nor Mark Ellis is made of steel, having a backup good enough to play regularly is a boon for the A's, who look to me like the best team in baseball.

  • We're into the second round of the WBC now, with the U.S. picking up a big win yesterday, Puerto Rico pulling off an upset, and Korea and Cuba also winning. For those of you who might have forgotten, the WBC is a 16-team international baseball tournament, running throughout March.

    Why would you have forgotten? Well after two great days of baseball on major cable networks last Tuesday and Wednesday, the event's momentum was killed as the last two days of the Classic's fist round were unavailable on live TV in the U.S. I thought that was an unconscionable decision, given how exciting the first two days had been and how much I, personally, was turned around on the subject. I wanted to see that Mexico/Canada game, and it would have been cool to catch that no-hitter on Friday.

    It's no secret why the games weren't available; almost all space in the ether for sports broadcasts was occupied by college hoops. This is a big reason why the WBC needs to find a spot on the calendar away from March Madness, or at least its most insane period. Push it to the -bers, push it to later in March, but don't broadcast two days of baseball and then take the event away. MLB.com has offered the entire WBC online for a reasonable price, but my Internet connection just doesn't work well with live video. These games need to be on television in the U.S. if the U.S. is to take the event seriously.

  • Air Force?!?!?

  • It's funny that Alex Rodriguez was the hero in yesterday's U.S./Japan game. At the Pool B opener last week, Rodriguez was one of the few players booed. He still takes some grief for struggling which of his two home countries to play for, criticism that seems completely unwarranted given how many American players have grabbed at the chance to play for other nations in this event. To some extent, Rodriguez is still paying the price for "252." No matter what rationalizations are offered, that Rodriguez signed the biggest contract in sports history is the chief driver of the petty taunts he hears. That will never change, no matter how many times it's pointed out that his contract never stood in the way of the Rangers' performance while he was in Texas.

  • Random players who caught my eye on the trip, who I haven't written about yet: Francisco Cruceta, the ex-Indians reliever who landed with the Mariners and threw harder than anyone else I saw in Arizona; the Padres' Cesar Carillo, who didn't pitch well, but seems to have a lot of buzz surrounding him; the Brewers' Justin Thompson struggled some with his command, but I have to root for him to have one good year, and maybe one good contract, before he hangs 'em up; Corey Hart flashed a strong arm in that game; Jason Ellison took a lot of pitches, worked some deep counts, perhaps a sign he's working on his game; Scott Munter got three ground balls in his inning of work, and could emerge from a crowded middle-relief situation for the Giants.

    Even with all of the above, I think the most important thing I learned is how little I can actually learn. It's too early in the spring, too many guys are just working on stuff or shaking out the kinks or not even there, because who needs the bus trip? The WBC exacerbates this, as two or three of the lineups I saw weren't within a time zone of "representative." I still smile about the six games in five days, and will happily go back next year. I just have to be realistic about the limits of observational evidence by an untrained eye across small samples and variable competition.

  • One of the most aggravating aspects of the coverage of yesterday's bracket announcement was the persistent criticism of the committee for the number of bids that the Missouri Valley Conference got relative to some of the BCS conferences. The popular line was to talk about how such-and-such team played in the Big 12 or the Big 11 or the ACC, and that finishing .500 in a conference like that was a qualification unto itself.

    There are an assortment of flaws in this--honestly, there are parallels between NCAA hoops coverage today and MLB coverage 15 years ago, mostly having to do with the quality of argumentation and the misuse of irrelevant data (Hi, Mr. Packer!), but the most notable one is that the expansion of these conferences has meant that "the ACC" or "the Big East" doesn't mean what it used to. You have to look at the pool of teams played, because there's considerable variance in schedule quality among teams in the same conference.

    This point is best made by looking at Florida State. Yes, they went 9-7, but they didn't play in the ACC. They played in the "A(lmost)CC." The conference had four NCAA teams. FSU played just five games--one over the minimum--against those five, and went 1-4 in those, the win over Duke being their only argument for inclusion. Their other eight wins were over ACC teams, but ones that were NIT fodder. Leaning on the conference for support without specifically looking at the conference schedule and the wins from that schedule is worthless.

    Adjacent to this point is the idea that the non-BCS conferences shouldn't have an equal number of bids to the BCS circuits. The popular support for this is to name the top three teams in a BCS league and the top three in the Valley and then leave a long pause, implying that the inequality there should speak for itself.

    Of course, that's not the proper comparison. In most seasons, the middle tiers of the ACC, the Big 12, the Pac-10 are comparable to the top tiers of the highest non-BCS leagues. In this particular season, though, that wasn't the case. The top tier--actually, the top six--of the Missouri Valley were better than the fifth team in the all three of those leagues, and the top three in the Colonial can make the same claim. It's not always going to be the case, but this year, it was. Yammering about how conferences that already get far too much respect and far too many advantages in scheduling and opportunities somehow got screwed…well, you're just embarrassing yourself. And as my favorite bracketologist says, teams get bids, not conferences.

    Like I said, cut me some slack here. It's not politics, right? And I still haven't talked about non-conference scheduling, or the apparent value of the RPI and the BracketBuster…I'm telling you, College Basketball Prospectus, just because I need an outlet for this stuff.

  • A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about identifying a ballgame playing on TV in the background of a scene in "A Few Good Men," ending the section with a note about the game in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Sure enough, a bunch of readers pointed me to June 5, 1985.

    You're all crazy, you know. Not me, just all of you. And I love you for it.

  • I watched the NFL's recent negotiations over a Collective Bargaining Agreement with amusement. Have you ever seen 30-odd American entrepreneurs so frightened of a free market? The only motivator was the potential for a year in which there would be no leaguewide agreement to cap labor costs, and the fear that caused. I was simultaneously amused and horrified to see the Bengals' Takeo Spikes on TV, talking about the need for things like revenue sharing and a payroll cap, clear evidence that the NFLPA remains wholly owned by the NFL.

    In the days after an agreement was reached, NFL players and their non-guaranteed contracts were released leaguewide, and a fresh batch of non-guaranteed contracts were signed. NFL players get their money up front as signing bonuses, and despite the fact that a larger percentage of revenues are generated centrally, the league still has concerns about leveling football revenues to prevent well-capitalized teams from investing in their product, paying high bonuses to lure talent.

    The NFL does a tremendous job of selling perception, often in the face of reality. One team won three titles in four seasons and the league still sold "parity." A similar situation in baseball forced massive concessions by the union, in no small part due to a complacent media and an apathetic, innumerate populace. The NFL has an underclass, but instead of threatening it with contraction, it helps it build shiny new stadiums in the 'burbs (I saw the Cardinals' new facility in Glendale, Ariz. Incompetence pays, I guess). Twenty percent of the cost of NFL season tickets is paid to watch amateurs play, part of the league's packaging of preseason games with real ones. In some years--I'm thinking of the Eagles two years ago and the Colts last year--fans pay full price to watch irregulars in worse in 30% of their trips to the park.

    My point? Just that the NFL's relationship with the NFLPA will always be paternal, thanks to the successful use of replacement players in 1987, and that its relationship with the media is just as close, albeit not as familial. Those two relationships are the entire reason for the perceived superiority of the NFL to MLB.

    OK, those two relationships and gambling.

  • No, really…Air Force?

  • In baseball's business, Miguel Cabrera signed a one-year deal that will pay him less than $500,000 in 2006. Cabrera had no leverage other than to hold out; I imagine he felt it was important that he take less so that the Marlins would have enough money to pay their star-laden roster and remain competitive.

    A year from now, Cabrera is going to either go to arbitration or sign a massive contract with the threat of a hearing in play. I would guess that he'll make more than $5 million in 2007. When the deal is done, it's going to be reported as a 900% raise for Cabrera, as if he's just hit some kind of lottery, the lucky bastard. All that's happened is that Cabrera has gone from "no leverage" to "some leverage below the level of the free market."

    Once, just once, I'd like to see these renewals given that same treatment. Where is the "Cabrera Signs for 5% of Market Value, Fish Save Millions" headline at a time like this? Where's the shock over that kind of disparity between actual pay and what the player should be making? Why is it only ever an issue when a player makes a lot of money or is overpaid, rather than when he makes 50% more than the minimum and is as underpaid as a BP intern?

    Equity. All I want in the reporting of the business of sports is some equity. I've given up on numberacy or an understanding of economics. Just give me some equity and I'll shut up.

Ah, hell, I'll shut up now, anyway.

(But really…Air Force?!?!?)

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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