Archive for October 2013

Evidence That the Penalty for First-Time Steroids Use Isn’t High Enough

October 31, 2013

The Texas Rangers today made a qualifying offer of $14.1 million to Nelson Cruz in spite of the 50-game performance enhancing drug (“PED”) suspension that ended his regular season.  Other players have got to see from this that the costs of getting caught for using PEDs the first time aren’t nearly as great as the potential benefits to be gained by juicing until you get caught.

Sure, Cruz would have gotten a better offer from the Rangers had he not tested positive for steroids.  Also, while Cruz is expected to decline the qualifying offer, there is doubt anyone is going to make a better offer to a 33 year old outfielder with negative defensive value who’s coming off of a PEDs suspension.  Teams certainly have to have noticed the drop-off in Melky Cabrera‘s 2013 performance (according to fangraphs.com, Melky’s value went from $16.8 million in 2011 and $20 million in 2012 to negative $4.3 million in 2013).

Even so, we can now be fairly certain that Cruz won’t make less than $14 million for the next season, no matter who he ends up signing with.

One also has to wonder whether PEDs weren’t the reason Cruz was able to establish himself as a major league star in the first place.  Cruz didn’t establish himself as a major league player until about age 27, which is old as major league stars go.  Was it steroids that enabled him to become something more than another low-paid 4-A player?  We’ll never know for sure (absent a future confession from Cruz), but we’ll always suspect.

I’ve written before that I doubt the players’ union will agree to raise the penalty for a first-time positive test to more than a 75 or 80 game suspension the next time the issue is re-negotiated, simply based on the union’s institutional interest to limit the amount or degree to which MLB can discipline players for any reason to the absolute minimum necessary to discourage the improper conduct.  However, I suspect that a significant number of players are going to continue to get caught for using PEDs at least until the penalty for a first-time positive test reaches roughly a full season (i.e., at least 150 games).  As such, that’s probably where the penalty for a first-time positive test will end up.

Japanese NPB Players Most Likely to Join MLB in 2014

October 24, 2013

yakyubaka.com yesterday published its list of Nippon Professional Baseball’s (“NPB”) domestic and international free agents for this off-season.  Twenty of the free agents are “domestic” while sixty are “international.”

You can read the rules regarding NPB free agency here, but the upshot is that only “international” free agents (nine years of NPB service) are true free agents.  “Domestic” free agents (eight years of service currently, but down to seven years for those drafted after 2007) can sign only with other NPB teams, and the process of changing teams is more like a forced trade with substantial compensation (money and a player) going to the domestic free agent’s old team.  In fact, most players eligible to become domestic free agents fail to exercise their option to do so.

Among this year’s free agent class, there aren’t too many players with the talent and the desire to play in the U.S.  For example, Tetsuya Utsumi and Shinnosuke Abe of the Yomiuri Giants top the list of international free agents in the link above.  They are both fine players, but it’s not particularly likely that either will leave the Giants.

Utsumi signed a four-year 1.6 billion yen ($16 million) deal with the Giants last off-season, so he isn’t going anywhere.  Abe was the best paid player in NPB last year at 570 million yen ($5.7 million) and is likely making even more in endorsements in Japan.  Equally important, Abe will be 35 next year, so while he’s still a major league talent, it’s unlikely he’d have a long career in the U.S.

The one player most likely to come to the U.S. in 2014 is ace Masahiro Tanaka. He went an unbelievable 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the regular season, the third year in a row in which he’s posted an ERA below 2.00.  In the second round of NPB’s play-offs, he threw a shutout in the opener and saved the final game of the series.

Given the success of Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda this year in MLB, plus the huge contracts given to Cuban prospect Jose Dariel Abreu ($68 million for six years) and to Tim Lincecum ($35 million for two years), I have to think that if Tanaka is posted this off-season, he’ll command of a posting fee of around $60 million and a contract at least equal to that of Abreu.

The only knock of Tanaka is that his stuff isn’t quite as good as Darvish’s.  However, Tanaka likely has better command of what is still excellent stuff.

All that said, it is not necessarily a sure thing that Tanaka will, in fact, be posted.  He signed a two-year deal for 400 million yen ($4 million) a season last off-season, which means that his current team the Rakuten Golden Eagles could hold on to him for one more year at what is now a bargain price, even by NPB standards, and then post him after the 2014 season.

It’s also worth noting that the Golden Eagles made the Japan Series for the first time in their nine year history thanks almost entirely due to Tanaka’s incredible pitching.  The Golden Eagles would be hard pressed to make the play-offs next year without Tanaka.

The things that most militate for Tanaka being posted is simply the amount of the posting fee, which is going to be as high as it ever will following Tanaka’s once-in-a-lifetime season and the fact that he will still be only 25 years old in 2014, and also the fact that the Golden Eagles drew very poorly at the gate this year (as they have in the past) in spite of running away with the Pacific League regular season title.  $60 million seems like too much money for a team as poor as the Golden Eagles to walk away from.

There are a number of other players who probably either won’t be posted or won’t otherwise be signed by an MLB team, but I’ll list the best of these players anyway.

Kenta Maeda.  Maeda remains the best starting pitcher in NPB after Tanaka.  Maeda went 15-7 this year and led the Central League with a 2.10 ERA, the third best ERA in NPB.  His 158 strikeouts (in 175.2 IP) was second best in the Central League and 4th best in NPB.

With a little less than six years of NPB service and no salary arbitration, it seems unlikely that his team, the Hiroshima Carp, will post him this off-season.  However, as a small right-hander his potential posting fee value is now as high as its ever going to be, because MLB teams have doubts about Maeda’s durability.  He’ll only be 26 next season, so he’s still young enough to draw serious MLB interest despite concerns about his size.

Also, Maeda and the Carp have already had fights about his salary, because the Carp have wantonly underpaid him.  The Carp offered Maeda 200 million yen ($2 million) last off-season, a raise of only 50 million yen ($500,000), despite a great season from Maeda in 2012 (he went 14-7 and led all of NPB with a 1.53 ERA).  Maeda held out, but he ultimately signed for 210 million yen, because Japanese players who haven’t reached free agency have no leverage.

Meanwhile, the Softbank Hawks, one of NPB’s rich teams, gave Tadashi Settsu a 100 million yen raise to 290 million yen ($2.9 million) for a 2012 season roughly comparable to Maeda’s 2012.  However, Maeda has accomplished more in his NPB career than Settsu despite being six years younger.

If Maeda feels he’s ready and eager to take his shot at MLB, he could demand that the Carp post him this off-season.  Given how stingy the Carp are, he’d almost certainly get a better contract pitching in the U.S.

Chihiro Kaneko.  A right-handed starter who turns 30 in November, Kaneko went 15-8 this year with a 2.01 ERA, second best in NPB, and an NPB-leading 200 strikeouts (in 223.1 IP).  Kaneko is definitely a major league talent, but it’s unlikely his team, the Orix Buffaloes, will post him.

Although the Buffaloes are a low-revenue team, its parent corporation Orix is celebrating its fiftieth corporate anniversary in 2014 and reportedly intends to hold on to the team’s best players in order to field a winning team next season.  Also, since Kaneko isn’t any bigger than Kenta Maeda and four years older, he isn’t likely to command an enormous posting fee.

Yoshio Itoi.  A 32 year old right fielder, Itoi has played well in the World Baseball Classic and was identified on a number of websites earlier this year as a player likely to join MLB in 2014.  I just don’t see it.

Itoi is simply too old (he’ll turn 33 next July 31st) and not enough of an offensive force for an MLB team to risk much of anything on.  He won’t hit for any power in the U.S., and while his career NPB .302 batting average and .389 OBP are good, they aren’t good enough to suggest he’d be a valuable offensive player in MLB.  By way of comparison, Norichika Aoki‘s career numbers in NPB were .329 and .402, and he’s five months younger than Itoi!

Good things have also been said about Itoi’s outfield defense.  However, he played right field his last two seasons in Japan, suggesting he’s no longer an adequate defensive center fielder.  Further, he didn’t reach double figures in assists in either of his two seasons as a right fielder, suggesting his arm isn’t above average.

Finally, Itoi currently plays for the Orix Buffaloes, who as stated above are reportedly intending to hold on to their best players for the 2014 season.

Shun Yamaguchi.  A 26 year old right-handed reliever, Yamaguchi stated last off-season that he would demand to be posted after the 2013 season.  Unfortunately, Yamaguchi’s ERA ballooned from 1.74 in 2012 to 5.40 in 2013.  He still struck out 48 batters in 46.2 innings pitched and struck out three batters for each walk he allowed.  However, he also allowed 46 hits and six home runs.  Most likely, he’ll return to the DeNA BayStars for another season to see if he can return to his previous form and bring his value back up.

Yoshihisa Hirano.  A right-hander who turns 30 next March, Hirano has been an extremely effective reliever with great strikeout numbers the last four seasons.  However, he’s another Orix Buffalo, so he probably won’t be posted this off-season.

Among this year’s domestic free agents, the most likely to be posted and possibly draw some interest from major league clubs are Kan Otake, Katsuhiro Nagakawa, Shohei Tateyama, Hideaki Wakui and Takumi Kuriyama.  Of these, Tateyama, if he’s fully recovered from the injury that cost him almost all of the 2013 season, and Kuriyama look to be the players who would draw the most interest from MLB teams.

Among the international (true) free agents, the most likely to come to the U.S. are Shinobu Fukuhara, Takashi Toritani, Hitoki Iwase and Hisashi Takeda.

Fukuhara is a soon-to-be 37 year old reliever who posted ERAs of 1.20 and 1.76 the last two seasons.  It’s most likely, however, that he’ll return to the Hanshin Tigers, the team he has played for the last 15 seasons and one that can afford to give him a competitive offer.

Toritani is a fine player coming off a year in which he had a .402 on-base percentage, excellent for a shortstop.  However, Toritani will be 33 next June, and MLB teams didn’t show him any interest when he was on the market last off-season.  The odds are strong he’ll return to the Hanshin Tigers in 2014.

One of the great closers in NPB history (382 career saves and 2.03 career ERA), Iwase turns 39 in November and will probably return to the Chunichi Dragons, the team he’s played for the last 15 seasons.  The only reason he might come to the U.S. is if he’s angry at taking a pay cut last season.

In 2012 Iwase was the highest paid player in NPB with a 450 million yen salary.  He had a “bad” year in 2012 — his 2.29 ERA was his highest since 2008 and his 33 saves were his fewest since 2004 — and the Dragons cut his 2013 salary by 80 million yen.  Iwase had a 1.86 ERA with 37 saves this past season, so it’s likely his salary will jump back over 400 million yen ($4 million) if he returns to the Dragons.

Takeda is another fine right-handed reliever who just turned 35 this month.  The last five seasons he has recorded a total of 153 saves and recorded ERAs of 1.20, 3.80, 1.03, 2.32 and 2.28 last season.  He doesn’t strike a lot of batters out, but he appears to be a groundball pitcher, with only 24 HRs allowed in 547 NPB innings pitched.  He’s also a strike-thrower.

Takeda made 240 million yen ($2.4 million) in 2013, so he might be willing to try his luck in the U.S., although it’s doubtful he’d make much more than that on his first MLB contract.

Among foreign players playing in NPB in 2013, the one most likely to return to the U.S. in 2014 is Randy Messenger.  In his four seasons in Japan, Randy has steadily improved.  He went 12-8 in 2013, his 2.89 ERA was fourth-best in the Central League and seventh-best in NPB, and his 183 Ks (in 196.1 IP) was highest in the Central League and tied with Masahiro Tanaka for second-most in NPB.

The Minnesota Twins are reportedly very interested in signing the 32 year old Messenger, but the Hanshin Tigers, his current team, intend to make him a competitive offer.

Wladimir Balentien would certainly draw intense interest from MLB teams if he were to become available.  However, the Yakult Swallows had the foresight to give him a three-year $7.5 million (total) deal last off-season, so Balentien is Swallows’ property unless they decide to sell his contract to a major league team.

Casey McGehee and South Korean Dae Ho Lee have also made noise about returning/coming to the U.S. to play in 2014.  However, I don’t think either will draw enough interest to justify leaving Japan.  While they hit well in NPB in 2013 (.891 OPS for McGehee; .877 OPS for Lee), neither hit well enough to think they can make the jump to MLB.  Add to that the fact that McGehee has already played his way out of MLB and that Lee is dead slow, and I can’t see any MLB organization giving them anywhere near what an NPB team will.

In fact, Lee is likely to sign a two-year contract for at least 800 million yen ($8 million) this off-season, either with his old team the Orix Buffaloes or new suitor the Hanshin Tigers.

Soon-to-be 30 year old set-up man Scott Mathieson had a 1.03 ERA in 63 games pitched for the Yomiuri Giants this past season with a pitching line of 61 IP, 36 hits, two HRs and 18 BBs allowed and 77 Ks.  It’s entirely possible a season like that could get him back into MLB.

As a final note, store the name Hideto Asamura in the back of your mind for future reference.  As a 22 year old 1Bman for the Seibu Lions, he hit .317 and led the Pacific League with a .554 slugging percentage and a .942 OPS.  If he continues to improve as he matures, you’ll be hearing a lot about him in five year’s time.

How Good Is Yu Darvish?

October 23, 2013

Has anyone noticed just how well Yu Darvish pitched this year?  His 2.83 ERA was the lowest by any Rangers pitcher who threw at least 100 innings in the 20 seasons since the Rangers moved into The Ballpark in Arlington in 1994 and only the second Ranger starting pitcher during that period to post an ERA below 3.00 (C. J. Wilson was the first with a 2.94 ERA in 2011).

Darvish’s strikeout rate of 11.9 per nine innings pitched this year was the highest rate since soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson’s all-time single season high of 13.4 rate in 2001 and the ninth highest for a qualifier all-time.  Darvish’s rate of only 6.224 hits allowed per nine innings this year would have been the lowest rate by a qualifying pitcher since 2007, but for Marlins’ rookie Jose Fernandez’s 5.786 rate this year, the eleventh lowest all-time.

Darvish’s utter unhittablity was masked by the facts that he went only 13-9 this year and also that the Rangers failed to make the play-offs after losing a tie-breaker with the Rays at the end of the regular season.

Darvish did have a couple of weaknesses this year.  First, despite allowing so few hits, he allowed a whopping 26 home runs (13 at home and 13 away).  Second, he allowed 80 walks, or 3.43 per nine innings pitched, which is fairly high.

If Darvish is healthy in 2014 and can cut down on the walks and gopher balls, he has to be the odds-on favorite to win the American League Cy Young award next year.

San Francisco Giants Sign Tim Lincecum for Two Years and $35 Million

October 23, 2013

The Giants today reportedly signed Tim Lincecum to the two-year deal the team wanted, but for a relatively large $35 million which got Lincecum’s John Hancock on the bottom line without his testing the free agent market.  I commented a few days ago that a one-year deal or a three-year deal made more sense for Lincecum, but I don’t think anyone can argue that contract total is awfully good for the last two seasons The Freak put up.

mlbtraderumors.com speculated a couple of weeks ago that Lincecum would get a three-year deal for around $30 million total if he went on the open market.  Clearly, a two-year deal makes a lot of sense if you get the same money anyone else would likely have given you for three seasons.

Giants’ fans won’t be sorry to hear the Giants resigned Timmy given his popularity in the Bay Area, at least not until he shows that his 2012 and 2013 seasons were what we can expect going forward.  My only concern about the deal is the extent to which the large annual amounts to be paid to Lincecum make it less likely the Giants will be in on the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, if he is indeed posted this off-season.

However, if Tanaka is posted this off-season and Kenta Maeda also gets posted this off-season, I wouldn’t be sorry the see the Giants take a flyer on Tanaka and sign up Maeda for a bargain price, at least compared to the $120+ million  posting fee and contract it will take to sign Tanaka.  It would certainly be interesting to see if the Giants could catch lightning in a bottle a second time with another small but talented right-hander.

Trickle of Cuban Players into MLB Becoming a Flood

October 22, 2013

Most of the recent news in MLB, aside obviously from the play-offs and the Alex Rodriguez arbitration hearing, has been the signings of Cuban players who have defected at one time or another from Cuba.  Aside from the Chicago White Sox signing Jose Dariel Abreu for a record six years and $68 million this week, the Los Angeles Dodgers just signed soon-to-be 27 year old infielder Alex Guerrero for four years and $28 million, and a few days earlier the Boston Red Sox signed 27 year old righted-handed pitcher Dalier Hinojosa to a $4.25 million deal.

Up next is another right-hander of about the same age as Guerrero, Odrisamer Despaigne, who defected some time ago but has not yet been cleared for signing by the U.S. federal government.

Actually, Cuban ballplayers have been defecting for some time now and the rate of increase in their numbers has been fairly gradual over the last ten or so years.  Some have made it in the Show, and some haven’t, ending up in the Mexican League or in Japan’s NPB.

What seems to have changed more than anything else is the amount Cuban defectors are now signing for following the break-out success of Yasiel Puig this year and Yoenis Cespedes last year.  With each Cuban that signs and succeeds, the value of those more recently defected jumps.

I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that the Cuban government isn’t working anywhere near as hard as it once did to prevent its elite baseball players from defecting.  Yes, I’m sure players who try to defect and fail get punished, as are those who are suspected of planning to defect.

However, the Cuban government is now letting some players play abroad in Mexico or Japan during the summer in order to let those players make some money to reduce their likelihood of defecting.  Slugger Alfredo Despaigne, who played in Mexico this summer for a time, is an example.  At the same time, letting players play abroad makes it that much easier for these players to defect to the U.S. and MLB’s much larger salaries, since you can’t watch a player 24/7 playing abroad for months at a time.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on yakyubaka.com, an English-language website covering Japan’s NPB in depth, stating that this year’s Pacific League home run leader Michel Abreu plans to donate some athletic equipment when he returns to Cuba in November.  What is interesting about this report is that this Abreu defected from Cuba in 2004.

Abreu was initially signed by the Red Sox, who then voided the deal because they believed Abreu had shaved several years off this real age (he may be four years older than his currently reported 34), and Abreu then signed with the Mets.  He wasn’t successful enough in the U.S. minor leagues to reach the majors, and he ended up going to Mexico to play.  He eventually hit so well south of the border, he signed on with the NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters before the 2013 season and gave them a terrific season for a reported $200,000 salary, low for every-day players even by the NPB’s standards).

If he is really free to return to Cuba now without major consequences after having previously defected, it’s clear that other top Cuban baseball players aren’t going to feel much compunction to stay in Cuba playing for peanuts.  Needless to say, if Abreu can return to Cuba, he returns with pockets loaded with cash, at least by Cuban standards, which certainly benefits just about everyone in Cuba in one way or another.

This, of course, may be the real reason the Cuban government is no longer doing all it can to keep its baseball stars at home.  Cuban Americans can now send money and cargo to their relatives in Cuba, which they are doing in abundance, and this money and goods have been a huge boon to the Cuban economy and by extension the Castro regime, which has also liberalized the economy slightly in recent years, now allowing limited, very small scale free enterprise.

I’m beginning to wonder if the ongoing need for Cuban players to “defect” to the U.S. is really just a way for the Cuban and U.S. governments to save face and get around the mutual embargoes both countries have against the other.  At any rate, we’ll continue to see MLB franchises pay huge sums to Cuban defectors at least until there are some spectacular high-priced failures.

Sometimes Lawyers Are Too Clever for Their Own Good

October 21, 2013

I saw an article on espn.com today to the effect that Alex Rodriguez‘s main litigation/trial attorney Joseph Tacopina wants MLB to release the full testimony of Rob Manfred, MLB’s chief operating officer (and quite possibly MLB’s next commissioner) in the ongoing ARod performance enhancing drug (“PED”) arbitration hearing.  It seems that Manfred testified that MLB knew and was not particularly concerned that Anthony Bosch, the principal behind Biogenesis America, ARod’s alleged PED supplier, sold PEDs to minors before they agreed to work with Bosch in going after ARod.

Apparently, ARod’s attorney wants to show that MLB is dirty by dealing with Bosch to prove that ARod bought PEDs from Bosch, because MLB knew that Bosch was a scumbag.  Wait a minute — as I understand it, there is basically no dispute that ARod had dealings with Bosch — MLB says ARod got PEDs from Bosch, while ARod is reputedly claiming that he purchased only legal supplements from Bosch.  Doesn’t showing that Bosch is the kind of guy who would sell PEDs to minors suggest that ARod probably wasn’t buying milk protein, vitamins and flax seed oil (God love you, Barry Bonds) from the guy?  It sounds a little like Krusty the Clown claiming, “I only used non-diseased meat from diseased animals!” in producing the Krusty-burger.

Lawyers can get mighty cute when the facts aren’t in their favor.  In such circumstances, you often hear arguments that assume that the listener is just plain stupid and can’t think even one step beyond the claim asserted.

Clearly, MLB’s current stand against PED use (yes, MLB and its fans, including this one, blindly closed their eyes to rampant steroid use from the early 1990’s through the early 2000’s, but MLB has gone hard after PED users since then, even as it damages its brand doing so, while the NFL and the NHL, for two examples, simply pretend there there is no major problem in their sports since they don’t make much effort to catch anyone) sends a message to young baseball players that steroid use carries potentially serious career consequences no matter how much they might improve an individual player’s performance.

Another thing that galls me is the way each side in the ARod case claims to have the high ground by accusing the other side of leaking contractually-required-confidential information while themselves leaking whatever such information they believe helps their side.  Yes, neither side has entirely clean hands.  At the end of the day, however, the issue in question is whether ARod used performance enhancing drugs. whether MLB has sufficient admissible evidence to prove he did, and what the appropriate penalty is under the collective bargaining agreement if he did, indeed, use PEDs (my educated guess is a suspension somewhere between 50 and 117 games).

I don’t think a professional arbitrator (or a later-reviewing judge) is going to give much weight to what MLB may or may not have known about the extent of Tony Bosch’s scum-baggery before cutting a deal with him.  If MLB can prove ARod had dealings with Bosch, and from the information currently available that seems likely, ARod isn’t doing himself any favors by shouting from the rooftops that Bosch is the kind of guy who would sell adulterated milk to school children.

Hats Off to Former Giants Farm Hand Paul Oseguera

October 20, 2013

Here is one of those stories I love about a ballplayer who has finally made it against all odds.  Paul Oseguera is a small left-hander (6’0″, 180 lbs) the San Francisco Giants once drafted in the 16th round of the 2006 MLB Draft out of UCLA.

Oseguera had a couple of good seasons for the Class A+ San Jose Giants, but what appear to be some injury problems in 2008 and some ineffective pitching in 2010 got him knocked out of the MLB minor leagues.  Unwilling to give up his baseball dreams, he went to the Independent A Atlantic League.

He wasn’t especially effective in the Atlantic League in his first two seasons (2010 and 2011), but in 2012 at age 28, he put it all together and was the Atlantic League’s best starting pitcher, leading the best of the independent-A leagues in stikeouts and finishing second in ERA.

Apparently, his fine 2012 campaign didn’t get any MLB organization interested in him, and he left the Atlantic League to pitch in the Mexican League in 2013, perhaps with an eye that a good year south of the border would give him a better chance to sign with a team in Asia.

If that was Oseguera’s plan, it worked.  He was the best starting pitcher in the Mexican League this year through 19 starts (he ultimately led the league with an even 3.00 ERA and 124 strikeouts despite pitching only 123 innings), when the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (“NPB”) came calling.  In late July, the Hawks signed Oseguera to a reported $250,000 salary, which I assume was pro-rated for what remained of the 2013 NPB season.

Oseguera made six late-season starts for the Hawks following a brief warm-up in NPB’s minor league, and he was terrific.  He went 3-1 and posted an 2.00 ERA.  His other numbers weren’t as good (36 IP, 29 hits, one HR and 15 BBs allowed and 23 Ks), but in any event he certainly did enough to get a even better contract to return to Japan in 2014.  Further, if he’s as much of a ground ball pitcher as his 2013 numbers in Mexico and Japan suggest, he should be reasonably successful pitching in NPB’s small ballparks.

I assume that Oseguera never made more than $20,000 a season pitching in the Atlantic League or more than $25,000 for his partial year in Mexico, so succeeding in Japan, even if only for six starts, is more or less like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Based on his pitching the last two seasons, he certainly deserves the success and financial rewards he’s finally earning.