Big markets remain silent during strange winter
Here it is, approximately six weeks from Spring Training, and Prince Fielder is still on hold. So are Rick Ankiel and Ryan Madson and Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson.
When the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo Friday, it sent several clear messages. First is that 2012 is part of a huge overhaul process for the team that had the second-worst record and run differential in the National League in 2011, an overhaul that a $200 million investment in even as extraordinary a force as Fielder would not solve.
Problem is, if indeed Toronto is paring payroll and Texas isn't going to sign Yu Darvish and Fielder, other than the relationships Scott Boras has built delivering potential stars to Washington, where is there a team with local media rights that Fielder could impact? And local media rights is what's driving the cars these days, as Albert Pujols knows.
"The dynamics of this winter are different for several reasons that have converged," says one general manager. "The Yankees and Red Sox are not competing in the market and actually seem to be cutting back because of the present and future luxury tax ramifications. Yes, the Angels and Rangers are in their own Yankee-Red Sox-type of war, fueled by their impending television deals. The Marlins are jumping into it because of their new stadium. And the Cubs and White Sox may be in the third-largest market, but they are not in the big bidding process [although they both may be in on Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler]. Neither are the Dodgers or the Mets, for other reasons."
Nor are the Giants, who were in the top 20 percent in revenues in 2011.
The Marlins plunged in wisely. Their offers to C.J. Wilson and Pujols were heavily backloaded, and they resolutely refused to give out no-trade provisions. They claim that is team policy. In reality, what it is is smart business.
The free-agent market is not like arbitration, because it really isn't based on comparables as much as it is decided by the whims of ownership, media rights, ballparks and fears of local market erosion. We get the logic of Boras's epic book on Fielder, the Pilgrim's Progress of salesmanship; Boras needs the Dodgers to have been sold last week, the Rangers to start spending its future television revenues or Nationals owner Ted Lerner to say "I have seen the future and it is Prince, Strasburg and Harper" and not worry about life in Washington without Ryan Zimmerman after 2013.
As for Madson, there is always the Rangers-Angels market push. Or for Jackson, something to go wrong with Rafael Soriano or Phil Hughes, because if Yankees ownership hadn't signed Soriano last winter, Brian Cashman probably would be in on Jackson.
Cashman continues to look for pitching, but not at the price it would take to sign Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda or Oswalt. The Yankees won the division with 97 wins. They were in the middle of the pack in starting pitching, and Cashman sees Bartolo Colon replaced by Hector Noesi, who Cashman says "could be this year's Ivan Nova."
Cashman notes that Nova won 16 games with one year of service, Hughes has won 18 games, and the Yankees have Noesi, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances on the horizon. "To get a front-line pitcher [like Gio Gonzalez] in a trade, we'd have had to give up three of our best prospects."
He made the call that Banuelos, Jesus Montero and another prospect was too much for Gonzalez or Matt Garza, knowing that come June or July, if there are needs, he will have the capital and the prospects to do what appears necessary, especially if age or injuries crop up on what is still a veteran team.
The Yankees haven't signed or acquired one significant piece this winter. Tampa Bay has added Fernando Rodney, Josh Lueke and Burke Badenhop. Boston has replaced Jonathan Papelbon with Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey, J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick with Ryan Sweeney and Jason Varitek with Kelly Shoppach. Toronto has acquired Sergio Santos, Jason Frasor, Aaron Laffey. Baltimore signed Endy Chavez.
The Red Sox also signed vagabond Carlos Silva with the hope of him turning into this year's Freddy Garcia. They're looking at the likes of Paul Maholm. Aaron Cook reportedly accepted a Minor League deal, and his history with pitching coach Bob McClure would make him a possibility. As much as the Red Sox need innings after a season in which their starters compiled the second-fewest innings and quality starts in the American League, right now they will not exceed the luxury-tax threshold and be taxed 40 percent on every dollar over that figure.
For now, the plan is to go to Spring Training with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz set as the top three -- presuming Buchholz has no setback to his back injury -- then figure out the other spots. Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves will train as starters. Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront, whose '11 season was awash in conditioning-related injuries, will get looks. So will Silva.
Bard started 22 games in 2007, in what was a confusing first professional season, in which he walked 78 in 75 innings and had a 7.08 ERA, which began in a nightmarish ballpark in Lancaster, Calif. He was put in the bullpen the next year and quickly shot through the system. He is very different than he was in 2007. He is far more mature. When he continually flew open with his left shoulder and took his fastball out of the strike zone, he had no secondary pitch; with the help of (family friend) John Farrell, he settled on one breaking ball, and since has come up with a boring two-seam fastball and a changeup that acts like a split, a four-pitch mix he couldn't utilize out of the pen.
"I'm really looking forward to the opportunity," says Bard. "I think I can use all those pitches. But my preparation for Spring Training really won't change. My throwing program remains the same. I might do a couple more bullpens than last year, but the bullpens really begin in Spring Training. Last year Jon Lester came to visit me near the end of January, and when we went to do our throwing work, I'd actually done more bullpens and longer sessions than he had."
Bard has worked 74 2/3 and 73 innings the past two seasons, but like Neftali Feliz, who similarly is moving into the Ranger rotation, he throws 96-100 mph with ease. But the fact remains, he has never pitched 80 innings in a professional season. Aceves threw 140 innings three times in the Mexican League and Minors.
McClure understands their issues. He came up with the Royals in 1975 and appeared in 230 games as a reliever before Harvey Kuenn made him a starter in 1982. McClure won 12 games and threw 172 2/3 innings, and the Brewers made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
"Obviously their workloads will be monitored," says McClure. "But I think at their ages and with their experiences, it can work. I actually believe the fact that they've had experience in the bullpen is beneficial because they've come into situations with runners on base, dealt with getting out of jams. I think that's important."
McClure, incidentally, was on board with moving Aaron Crow into the rotation in Kansas City.
Still, if Beckett, Lester and Buchholz can actually combine for 600-650 innings, that leaves another 900-850 to be accounted for, with Papelbon, Aceves and potentially Bard out of the relief mix -- another reason Aceves's flexibility and durability could be sorely missed in the 'pen, should he start.
"I think getting 1,000 innings out of your five starters is one of the most important ingredients in a winning team," says Angels GM Jerry Dipoto. Indeed, six staffs got 1,000 innings out of their starters. The Phillies led with 1,064 2/3, followed by Tampa Bay(in the three times the Rays have been in the playoffs in the past four years, they have had at least 1,000 innngs out of the starters), then the Angels. The D-backs were the sixth -- Dipoto's work on Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson was extremely important -- and allowed Kevin Towers, Kirk Gibson and Charles Nagy to keep the bullpen in place.
With Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Wilson and likely Jerome Williams, the Angels hope to get more than 1,100 innings. While Dipoto is monitoring Madson to see if his price and terms come down, he says he thinks the Angels' starters make the bullpen crew -- with Jordan Walden, Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins -- secure. The Angels' signings of Pujols, Wilson, et al. guarantee that their payroll will be close to that of the Red Sox, in the $170 million range. If Texas gets Darvish done, the Fielder watch will come into focus, especially if Washington backs down and Prince does not want to go to Seattle.
Things can and may change, as well. Oswalt is 159-93 lifetime; granted, he's experienced back issues and has averaged fewer than 120 innings the past three years, but he has be a tremendous pitcher. Granted, Jackson has been with five teams in four seasons, but he's 28 and averaged 207 innings the past three years. Joe Saunders has averaged 200 innings the past four years.
If Hughes or Buchholz or some other starter on a contender had some accident in the next three weeks, the calls could start, and the luxury-tax threshold/cap could be forsaken.
But, at this point, it's been a strange winter, with New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston not in the mix.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.