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December 21, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Hesitations, Retractions, and Rebuttals

by John Perrotto

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The longer CC Sabathia mulled over the offer, the stronger the suspicions became. The Yankees offered the left-hander seven years and $140 million at the outset of free agency last month, but Sabathia was in no hurry to accept it, even though it soon became clear that no other clubs were even close to that amount; the Brewers had stopped at six years and $110 million in their attempt to retain the 28-year-old. The situation led to plenty of speculation that he wanted to play for anyone but the Yankees, and that Sabathia, a California kid who had spent his entire major league career in the Midwestern markets of Cleveland and Milwaukee, wanted no part of the hustle, bustle, and unrelenting microscope of New York.

Yet in the end, Sabathia signed with the Yankees after they increased the money to $161 million. When Sabathia was officially introduced this week at a news conference, he claimed that he had wanted to be a Yankee all along and was not afraid of pitching in the biggest market of them all. "It took longer than people wanted, but I planned on wherever I play is where I'm going to live," said Sabathia, who spent the day before the press conference looking at houses in northern New Jersey with his wife, Amber. "I made the decision to play here, so I'm going to live here."

Sabathia has an opt-out clause in his contract that would enable him to leave the Yankees after the 2011 season, another red flag that might indicate he isn't quite sold on life in New York. "I look at it as I'm going to be here through the duration of the contract," said Sabathia.

While he is one of the best pitchers in the game, there certainly are reasons to think that he may not be cut out to pitch in New York. Sabathia has usually been awful during the postseason on baseball's biggest stage, posting a 7.92 ERA in five starts and 25 innings. That's not a significant sample size, but Sabathia has admitted to putting too much pressure on himself in October. His lone quality start came as a 21-year-old rookie with the Indians in the 2001 American League Division Series, when he allowed two runs in six innings to beat the 116-win Mariners. Sabathia had quality starts in 15 of his 17 outings for the Brewers last season after being acquired from the Indians in a July trade, but gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings in losing to the Phillies in Game Two of the NLDS.

No manager knows Sabathia as well as the Indians' Eric Wedge. They were together from the time Wedge took over at the start of the 2003 season until Sabathia was traded. Wedge insists that Sabathia will be fine pitching in New York.m"I think he's going to be more than fine," Wedge said. "Nobody puts more pressure on CC than CC. I know some people scoff at that because New York is different, but because of everything CC has been through, and because of the adjustments he's made-mentally, physically, fundamentally, and just the leadership ability he has, the strength he has as a human being, just what he takes care of both on and off the field-he's going to be fine. He has perspective. He has a tremendous belief system in himself and the process. The process is as important in this sport as any other sport, because when you play a six-month regular season, have a two-month spring training, and hopefully another month in the postseason, it takes time for things to play out. Because of that, if he has a tough day, he's not going to overreact to it. He's just going to be that much better the next time out."

There is also a school of thought that giving a long-term contract to Sabathia is not wise because of his size. He's listed at 290 pounds on the Yankees' roster, but he may actually be over the 300 mark. Wedge does not see Sabathia's weight as being an impediment, and as proof of the pitcher's conditioning, Wedge pointed to his having made three starts on three days' rest during the final two weeks of the 2008 regular season to help the Brewers win the NL wild card. "He's always going to be a big guy, but he's a hard worker, a tremendous athlete, and as strong as an ox," Wedge said. "What he did last year, making all those starts on short rest, whether you agree with it or not, is nothing short of incredible. You've got to be some kind of strong to be able to hold up to that. He's a guy, like a lot of athletes, who has to stay on top of his conditioning, but he does that."

The Yankees also say that the possibility of Sabathia getting heavier as he gets older had never entered into their thought processes when they offered him the richest contract ever given to a pitcher. "It's an unknown," general manager Brian Cashman told the New York Daily News. "You try to come up with comparisons, but he's unique; he seems to be a standalone."

"It shouldn't matter," said pitching coach Dave Eiland. "As long as he has a real consistent, clean, fluid delivery, he'll stay healthy and have tremendous control."

Sabathia has been hearing about his conditioning ever since he came to the major leagues in 2001. Despite the concerns, he is eighth in the major leagues in both starts (254) and innings pitched (1,659 1/3) over that span. Just six pitchers rank ahead of him in both categories: Barry Zito, Greg Maddux, Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, Jamie Moyer, and Javier Vazquez.

"I look like this," Sabathia said. "I'm not going to change."

---

A team refusing to deal with a certain agent is not an entirely unique concept: the White Sox do not have any Scott Boras clients in their organization, for example. But rarely, if ever, has a team made a more public statement about its disdain for an agent than the Braves did this past week after thinking that free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal had agreed to terms with them, only to reverse course and re-sign with the Dodgers for three years and $30million.

Braves GM Frank Wren had drawn up a term sheet that also outlined a three-year, $30 million contract, and Furcal's agent, Paul Kinzer, gave his approval, which in baseball circles is considered the same as a handshake agreement.

Braves president John Schuerholz, about as even-tempered an executive as there is in the game, blasted Kinzer publicly and said that his club would never again deal with a player from the Wasserman Media Group, which employs Kinzer and is headed by long-time agent Arn Tellem. "Having been in this business for 40-some years, I've never seen anybody treated like that," Schuerholz told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The Atlanta Braves will no longer do business with that company. Ever. I told Arn Tellem that we can't trust them to be honest and forthright. I told him that in all my years, I've never seen any [agency] act in such a despicable manner. It was disgusting and unprofessional. We're a proud organization, and we won't allow ourselves to be treated that way. I advised Arn Tellem that whatever players he represents, just scratch us off the list. Take the name of the Atlanta Braves off their speed dial."

The only Wasserman client on the Braves' 40-man roster is reliever Peter Moylan, and the agency's web site lists 60 major leaguers that it represents. Tellem issued a seven-point rebuttal to Schuerholz's statement, claiming there was never a deal in place, and that Furcal had asked Kinzer if he could sleep on the Braves' offer before making a final decision.

Furcal denied that he had agreed to terms with the Braves during a brief conference call with reporters announcing his signing with the Dodgers. He claimed that his preference was to return to the Dodgers after spending the last three seasons with them. "I don't know what happened," said Furcal.

---

Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson figured he'd be traded this winter after telling GM Neal Huntington that he would be amenable to a deal. The Pirates, however, have found almost no interest in Wilson. While one report earlier this month claimed that the Tigers and Pirates had completed a deal, one Detroit official insisted the story was planted by Pittsburgh in an effort to increase the trade market for Wilson, who had a .234 EqA last season.

Wilson has been part of eight of the franchise's 16 consecutive losing seasons, which has tied the major league record set by the Phillies from 1933-48. Now that he is likely back for a ninth year, and having watched outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady get traded last July, Wilson told Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past week that the time has come for Pirates management to become accountable and put a competitive team on the field. So far, the Pirates' biggest off-season move has been to sign free-agent utility infielder Ramon Vazquez.

The lack of activity is not a surprise, though, because president Frank Coonelly and Huntington have been clear in stating that the franchise wants to take a long look at its young players in 2009 to see where they fit in for the long-term. "The biggest thing stressed over the past year was accountability," Wilson said. "That includes everybody in the organization, as far as having accountability for themselves and in wanting to win. It's not just the players. Look, we've got to do whatever we have to do to try to find a way to compete. I know that there are 25 players right now who would love to compete at this level for the Pittsburgh Pirates. There are eight core players who are dying to compete. There are thousands and thousands of fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates who are dying to compete, and we all need to be accountable for that."

Coonelly rebutted Wilson's comments by pointing out that both of last season's World Series participants, the Phillies and Rays, had many key players on their rosters who were drafted and developed by their organizations. This is the blueprint the Pirates are hoping to follow, though Coonelly and Huntington inherited a franchise bereft of talent at the minor league level when they replaced Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield late in the 2007 season. "We have said very clearly that a championship organization, regardless of market size, starts with a strong core group of players built from within," Coonelly said. "This year's World Series opponents provide the latest proof that drafting and developing is far more effective than attempting to buy championships on the free-agent market. I am not sure if Jack is suggesting that we return to the days when the club signed veteran players in their last years like [Jeromy] Burnitz and [Joe] Randa, but if he is, that is not a suggestion we are likely to follow. While we are aggressively pursuing several free agents in addition to Ramon Vazquez, the free-agent market is not where we are going to build the core of our team."

---

The way things are unfolding, one wonders if the United States will have enough players to fill a roster for the World Baseball Classic in March. Among the American players who have already decided to opt out of the WBC are Sabathia and right-hander A.J. Burnett of the Yankees, left-hander Cole Hamels, closer Brad Lidge and first baseman Ryan Howard of the Phillies, Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb, Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett, and Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton.

While Red Sox second baseman and 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins have said they will play, Team USA manager Davey Johnson is already left without one of his best options; he was counting on Hamilton to be the cleanup hitter.

Hamilton believes that he would be better served by staying in spring training to build himself up for the regular season after playing in a career-high 156 games with 704 plate appearances last year. "I did wear down a little physically and mentally," Hamilton told Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. "I want to be able to better deal with that. I'd be all for playing for my country, but personally and professionally where I'm at right now, and playing full-time for the first time last year, I just think [not playing in the WBC] is the best situation for me."

---

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cardinals are considering pulling the two-year, $18 million offer they have on the table to free-agent lefty closer Brian Fuentes, who apparently is waiting for an offer from the Angels. ... The Giants are focusing on trying to sign left-hander Randy Johnson as a free-agent to add a veteran to their talented young starting rotation. ... The Mets appear at the front of the pack to sign free-agent right-hander Tim Redding, though the Rockies, Orioles, and Rangers are also in the hunt. ... The Padres are considering free agents David Eckstein, Mark Grudzielanek, and Omar Vizquel as they look to shore up the middle of their infield. ... The Marlins are interested in free-agent reliever Derrick Turnbow, who is also being pursued by the Tigers, Pirates, and Giants. ... The Diamondbacks are close to re-signing reserve first baseman Tony Clark. ... The Braves have signed former Giants first baseman Lance Niekro to a minor league contract, and he is trying to become a knuckleball pitcher, following in the footsteps of his father, Joe Niekro, and his uncle, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Free-agent outfielder Manny Ramirez apparently has his heart set on signing with the Yankees, and he believes they may offer him a four-year, $100 million contract, which seems rather steep. ... The Red Sox have explored the idea of a potential trade for the Padres' Jake Peavy, though a deal seems highly unlikely. ... The Orioles have their sights set on free-agent catcher Gregg Zaun, with Paul Bako, another free agent, as their alternate plan to fill the hole behind the plate. ... The Indians appear to be the frontrunners to sign free-agent reliever Joe Nelson. ... The Twins are still trying to pry shortstop J.J. Hardy away from the Brewers, though without much success, and they also have interest in free-agent reliever Brandon Lyon along with two free-agent pitchers from Japan, Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara. ... The Mariners are considering moving Jose Lopez from second base to first base, a bit of a surprise since he had 11 FRAA at second last season.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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