A bombshell has dropped in what has already been quite the newsworthy week in baseball, but it’s not that Mark McGwire admitted that he took steroids during the 1998 season, when he became the first player in history to hit 70 home runs. It was obvious the admission was coming ever since the Cardinals announced in November that McGwire was leaving baseball exile to become their hitting coach. The only surprise was that McGwire remained in complete denial that performance-enhancing drugs had nothing to do with that 70-homer season.
Still, on a day when McGwire was tearing up in his interview with Bob Costas-who clearly is not on PEDs, as Big Mac dwarfed him-it was not the surprising news of the day. That came when the Reds signed another exile, Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, to a five-year, $30.25 million contract.
Nobody in baseball suspected Chapman would sign with the Reds, and it’s not because he escaped the Reds to pursue his dream of pitching in the major leagues. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty completely hid his interest in a pitcher who reportedly throws 100 mph. It was particularly surprising because the Reds rarely give out huge signing bonuses to draft picks or international free agents.
The Reds were able to swing the deal because it will not cost them much money up front, as his 2010 salary will be just $1 million, and his $6 million signing bonus will come out of the their amateur signing budget. The Reds will also have $23.5 million come off the books following the 2010 season when right-handers Aaron Harang ($12.5 million) and Bronson Arroyo ($11 million can become free agents. The Reds feel they will be able to build their 2011 rotation around Chapman, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey.
“For us to compete in the market size we’re in, we have to do some things like this from time-to-time, make a bold move,” Jocketty said. “We can’t go after the high-priced free agents who are out there. It’s a significant undertaking for this organization, but it’s something we felt we had to do. There’s a big upside.”
Despite Chapman’s immense potential, it seems unlikely he will contribute much at the major-league level this year. The early signs indicate that Chapman will probably start his professional career at Double-A Carolina. That leads to the question of who will provide the Reds with the boost they need to possibly contend? The Reds fancied themselves as dark horses in the National League Central going into last season, but they finished 78-84 in an injury-wracked year for their ninth consecutive sub-.500 finish.
The Reds will go to spring training next month again believing they can be potential contenders after trading for veteran third baseman Scott Rolen at last year’s non-waiver trading deadline and going 27-13 in their last 40 games. Yet the Reds could use some help in their lineup, specifically a right-handed hitting outfielder with power and a shortstop who is not an automatic out, which would be upgrades over Chris Dickerson (.273 EqA but .375 SLG last season) and Paul Janish (.216 EqA with .211/.296/.305 slash stats).
However, it seems doubtful the Reds will add an impact bat unless a bargain falls their way. While Chapman might not count much against the major-league payroll this season, Jocketty has very little wiggle room in the budget, even after getting Rolen to agree to cut his salary from $11 million to $6 million this year in exchange for adding an extra year on to his contract for 2012.
“We’ve talked to some free agents but I’m not real confident we’ll get anything done,” Jocketty said. “We don’t have a lot of room to add guys. We may sign some late to ‘invite’ deals.”
Reds manager Dusty Baker feels the Reds can be competitive with their roster as it is currently comprised, and he particularly believes Janish can get much better. Janish proved his worth defensively to Baker, as he contributed 23 FRAR in just 82 games at shortstop.
“Everybody wants that quality offensive shortstop, and the thing is, he has the ability to improve,” Baker said. “I look back, there were people asking, ‘Would you live with Ozzie Smith? when he first came up to the big leagues. They asked the same thing about Dave Concepcion, who was not a very good hitter at the start of his career. Larry Bowa was that way. There were a number of shortstops that came up and weren’t dynamic offensive shortstops that learned how to hit and became Hall of Famers or near Hall of Famers. Certainly, (Janish) is one of the best defensive shortstops. Let’s give the guy a chance first.”
Though Baker has long had the reputation of not liking young players, he said he has no problem managing a youthful team.
“Well, sometimes you don’t have any choice but to play young guys,” Baker said. “Sometimes with the finances that you have, sometimes with the attendance that you have, sometimes whatever your cable contract is or isn’t, that’s the way to go. I think that’s the way to go in the long run in order to have some kind of sustainability for a long time versus one year and then go in and dismantle and be bad for four or five years and win again.”
On the subject of McGwire, the pitchers who gave up the most memorable home runs of the first baseman’s ’98 season with the Cardinals were Steve Trachsel and Carl Pavano. Trachsel, then with the Cubs, served up No. 62 that broke the single-season record Roger Maris had held for 37 years. Pavano, then with the Expos, surrendered No. 70 in the season finale.
While Trachsel and Pavano might be united in gopherballdom, they had far different reactions to McGwire admitting steroid use.
Trachsel, who retired prior to last season after a 16-year career, told the Bergen Record‘s Bob Klapisch that he feels McGwire has no chance of making the Hall of Fame, and that all 583 of his career home runs must now be called into question.
“To me, once you admit you did steroids, you can’t decide anymore which were real,” Trachsel said. “I’m not surprised Mark said it. I mean, we all suspected it. We all knew it. Now you have to say everything he ever did was tainted, all of it.”
Pavano, on the other hand, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in an e-mail that he believes McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame: “I enjoyed watching him change the game,” wrote Pavano, who now pitches for the Twins.
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat‘s Rob Rains talked to some of McGwire’s teammates with the Cardinals and found that they were not surprised by his admission. However, they also stressed he was a good teammate and would not hold PED use against him.
“I think it was inevitable that something had to happen,” retired catcher Mike Matheny said. “But he could have made it very generic and bland, but to me, that (McGwire’s statement) was pretty wide open and vulnerable in the way he explained it. You can tell he put some thought in it and it wasn’t necessarily an attorney trying to cover all of his bases. I can appreciate that he tackled the issue and it wasn’t fun and wasn’t easy, but he addressed it. There are going to be a couple more days of stuff that he doesn’t want to deal with, but he will be able to put it aside now.”
The Braves will certainly have a different look this year. Right-hander Javier Vazquez and right-handed closer Rafael Soriano have been traded this winter while left-handed closer Mike Gonzalez, first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Kelly Johnson, and outfielder Ryan Church have left as free agents. Meanwhile, the Braves have signed Billy Wagner to be their closer and fellow free agent Takashi Saito to be his set-up man, added corner infielders Troy Glaus and Eric Hinske through free agency, and received outfielder Melky Cabrera and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn from the Yankees in the trade for Vasquez.
Undoubtedly, it has been an active offseason for GM Frank Wren. However, it is fair to question if the Braves are better, especially in the NL East, where the three-time defending champion Phillies have traded for Roy Halladay this winter and the Mets signed Jason Bay as a free agent.
The players who have left the Braves contributed 15.0 WARP3 last season. The players the Braves have added combined for 6.0 WARP3 in 2009. Yet, Wren insists the Braves are better positioned to break a four-year playoff drought that has come on the heels of Atlanta setting a major-league record by qualifying for 14 consecutive postseasons. He disregards the skeptics.
“I can’t control what people think,” Wren told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve got good baseball people in this organization, and we feel good about this group of players. I can’t get caught up in the media perception of what we’ve done to this point. The proof’s going to be when we take the field. Roll it back a year ago. There wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare when we traded for Vazquez. Two years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare for Jair Jurrjens. People said, ‘Jair who?’ I’m looking forward to spring training I think fans will warm up to this team.”
Five years have passed since the White Sox won the World Series, and GM Ken Williams has retooled the roster to the point where he feels he has a pitching staff equal to that of the 2005 champions. Nobody understands the importance of good pitching more than White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper.
“We’ve had guys who have been around here and they know what getting the job done can bring,” Cooper said. “It can bring a world championship.”
While Cooper isn’t ready to say the 2010 pitching staff could be better than the ’05 version, he is excited about having 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy to front the starting rotation. The White Sox acquired Peavy from the Padres at last year’s non-waiver trading deadline but he was limited to three late-season starts because of a torn ankle tendon.
“I’ve had conversations with Peavy this winter, and I can understand why Kenny said that he gets fired up when he talks to Jake,” Cooper said. “He gets me fired up when I talk to him and that’s exciting. We saw what he does for just three ballgames, the intensity, how focused he is, but we also saw that when he’s just hanging out in the clubhouse with the guys. It’s infectious, and I hope all 12 guys on the pitching staff catch it.”
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb wants to test the free-agent market at the end of the upcoming season, and that means Arizona almost certainly won’t be able to afford to keep him. … The Padres have decided to hang on to closer Heath Bell until the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, figuring there will be a bigger market for him among teams competing for playoff spots. The Padres are also trying to sign catcher Brad Ausmus and Reed Johnson as free agents. The Yankees are pursuing Johnson, too. … The budget-conscious Dodgers have kicked the tires on a bunch of free agent pitchers in hopes of finding a bargain, a list that includes left-hander Doug Davis and right-handers Braden Looper, Vincente Padilla, Joel Pineiro, and Todd Wellemeyer. … The Orioles are considering signing free-agent third baseman Joe Crede. … The Rockies have interest in signing free-agent Miguel Batista as a long reliever and Melvin Mora, Robb Quinlan, and Fernando Tatis to serve as a right-handed hitting backup on the infield corners.