Archive for the ‘Baltimore Orioles’ category

Performance Incentives and Contract Negotiating Inertia

February 22, 2018

Years ago before I started this blog in April 2009 I wondered why you didn’t see major league contracts that contained as much or more incentive money than guaranteed money.  It seemed fairly obvious to me that for players over 29 or 30 coming off a bad year following at least some very good years in the not too distant past, they would be ideal candidates for contracts that didn’t guarantee much up front but could pay the player generously if he was able to recapture a some portion of his old magic.

At the time, I more or less assumed that there were limitations set by the collective bargaining agreement regarding just how much of a major league contract would be in the form of incentives.  However, since starting this blog, I’ve looked through the collective bargaining agreements and never seen anything that limits the amount or percentage of the contract that can be payable as performance incentives that have to be earned.

Instead, I do believe there are written or unwritten limits on the nature of performance incentives.  You can’t get a performance incentive for winning 20 games or hitting 30 home runs, but you can get an incentive based on playing in a certain number of games, accumulating a certain number of plate appearances or pitching a certain number of innings.  You can also get performance incentives for winning or finishing in the top five of Cy Young or MVP voting or by making the All-Star team.

In the last few years, we’ve seen all kinds of contracts which are mostly performance incentives.  Today, Chris Tillman finalized a deal with the Orioles that guarantees him $3 million, but contains an additional $7 million in innings pitched incentives.  Two off-seasons ago, the Dodgers signed Japanese hurler Kenta Maeda to a deal that guaranteed Maeda $25 million over eight seasons but could be worth a potential $105 million if all of the many, many different performance incentives were achieved.

Assuming that there were in fact no collectively bargained limitations on contracts for which 70% to 80% of the value of the contract was in the form of performance incentives, why did it take so long for teams and players to reach the kinds of deals that we see routinely now?  It is particularly strange when you consider that for a very long time minor league contracts for veteran players have routinely provided the player 7 to 10 times as much money for major league roster time as for minor league roster time.

I think that a lot of it has to do with the inertia of past contract negotiating practice, as I suggested in one of yesterday’s posts.  In the past, a player worth a guaranteed major league contract (and his agent) expected that most of the money of the contract would in fact be guaranteed.  That was the whole purpose of collectively negotiating for guaranteed annual contracts.  Everyone in MLB was a little suspicious of the idea of major league contracts that provided more than t0% or 20% of the potential contract amount as unguaranteed performance incentives.  So long as both players and managers took for granted certain salary structures, there wasn’t much reason to adopt a different form of contract, even if it would have made a great deal of sense to do so.

Why have things changed in recent years?  I think Maeda’s contract really changed the way everyone in MLB viewed MLB contracts, and his contract was based on certain somewhat unique circumstances that at the time seemingly applied only to him.  As a Japanese star, Maeda was basically guaranteed a four-year $20 million contract in NPB when he became a free agent.  NPB limits free agent contracts to a maximum of four years and has a de facto salary scale that made Maeda’s future NPB earnings highly predictable.

The Dodgers eight year $25 million offer beat any guarantee Maeda was likely to get from an NPB team (plus, of course, Maeda was determined to test himself against the best in MLB).  Also, Maeda is a small right-hander who had thrown a lot of NPB innings.  MLB has had a long-standing prejudice against small right-handed pitchers, particularly when they’ve already thrown a lot of innings.

I think Maeda’s contract was something of a revelation for MLB teams.  Reliable MLB 4th and 5th starters now command $6M to $10M a season (see e.g., Jhoulys Chacin), and the Dodgers were getting someone potentially better than that for a guarantee of less than $4 million a season.

Meanwhile, the contract has worked out for Maeda, who has pitched well enough and often enough to make far more money pitching for the Dodgers than he could have made in Japan.  In fact, I suspect that the Dodgers in 2017 made it a point to get Maeda his 25th start, when another performance incentive kicked in, because Maeda was clearly worth the extra money and the contract hadn’t taken into account that Maeda might be highly valuable to the the team as a sometime relief pitcher.

The other big factor is how much starting pitchers are now worth.  Chris Tillman was really good from 2013 through 2016, but was pretty awful in 2017.  He isn’t worth more than a $3 million guarantee based on his age (30 in 2018) and his 2017 performance, but if he returns to his 2013-2016 form in 2018, a reasonable possibility, he could easily be worth $10 million.  He’s going to have to be pretty good to pitch 200 innings, when the last of the incentives kicks in, in a season in today’s game.

Once one team and player do something obvious but contrary to prior practice, then all the other teams quickly jump in.  You could say the same, for example, for the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson in 1946.  However, until that first team and player do it, everyone is worried about the possibility that a dramatic change will upset the apple cart.

Teams have always wanted to pay players based on their immediate past performance and anticipated immediate future performance.  It’s just taken awhile for the contract negotiators to catch up.

 

Advertisements

San Diego Padres Reportedly Reach Agreement with Eric Hosmer for $144 Million

February 18, 2018

The San Diego Padres have reportedly reached a deal with Eric Hosmer that will give him $144 million over eight seasons with an opt-out after year five.  The deal is front-loaded, paying Hosmer a $5 million signing bonus and $20 million a year for the first five years, but only $13 million a year for the final three.

The deal is two years and $12 million guaranteed more than mlbtraderumors.com predicted for Hosmer, and in my mind it tends to support management’s claims that the slow free agency period this year has more to do with advanced analytics than collusion.  Hosmer is younger than most of this off-season’s free agents and his big contract suggests that teams are just a lot more leery of over-30 free agents who are likely entering the down-phase of their careers right quick.

The biggest winners of the Hosmer, even more than Hosmer himself, are next year’s young free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.  They will be two years younger than Hosmer is now, and they’re better players.  If Harper and Machado have typically strong seasons in 2018, I would expect both to beat the $325 million deal that Giancarlo Stanton received from the Marlins three off-seasons ago.

Even with Hosmer’s apparent signing, six of mlbtraderumors’ top ten free agents remain on the board.  Hosmer had the Padres and the Royals bidding against each other for his services.  Now that Hosmer has signed with San Diego, the Royals may decide they need to bring back Mike Moustakas to prevent their fans from revolting.  However, there hasn’t been much chatter about Moustakas or the four remaining top pitchers, and one team obviously in the market for pitching, the Minnesota Twins, just traded not a whole lot for Jake Odorizzi in what appears to be a straight salary dump by the Rays.

With Yu Darvish signing for much less than expected, it looks like Jake Arrieta is going to have to come to terms with the fact that no team is likely to give him a $100 million offer.  My guess is that Arrieta will have to accept a three year offer for a $80 million guarantee with a team option for fourth season.  As for Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, teams will probably wait to see which of the two is the first to crack and accept what interested teams are willing to pay him.

The Virtual Travels of Engelb Vielma

January 26, 2018

Engelb Vielma‘s virtual odyssey this off-season continued today as the San Francisco Giants traded Vielma to the Baltimore Orioles for a player to be named later or cash considerations.  Vielma finished the 2017 season in the Twins’ minor league system.  He was claimed by the Giants off waivers, then by the Phillies, then by the Pirates, then by the Giants again, and after the Giants designated Vielma for assignment for the fifth time this off-season, the Orioles presumably claimed him and a modest deal was worked out.

Of course, all of this movement has been solely on paper, as Vielma played winter ball in Venezuela, his homeland, and almost certainly hasn’t left Venezuela since the winter season began there.  He’ll instead just wait until Spring Training until his agent or his then team tells him where to report.

Vielma’s “come here-come here-come here-go away-go away-go away” status is almost entirely due to his specific situation.  He is an excellent defensive middle infielder who doesn’t turn 24 until late June 2018.  In 508 AA level plate appearances, Vielma has slashed .275/.350/.321, which is just fine for a quick middle infielder who defends as well as he does.  However, in 314 plate appearances at the AAA level in 2017, Vielma slashed an absolutely brutal .206/.233/.260.

A player his age with his glove who has proven he can hit AA pitching is still a prospect.  That’s why teams keep claiming him off waivers.  The reason why teams keep designating him for assignment is because he will almost certainly become a minor league free agent after the 2018 season if he is not on a major league roster at that time.  He’s thus not a guy that’s worth keeping on the 40-man roster, because the odds aren’t particularly good that he can contribute at the major league level in 2018 before he may well become a free agent.

The reason he’s moved around so much this off-season is that teams keep trying to slip him through waivers in order to protect somebody else on the 40-man roster, but another team with roster space keeps coming in and claiming him.  From Vielma’s perspective, it’s good to know that many teams want him enough to keep claiming him, because it means that when/if he becomes a minor league free agent, there will be multiple teams competing to sign him to minor league deal, at least so long as he shows some meaningful improvement with the bat (an OPS of at least .590 or .600) at the AAA level in 2018.

MLB Teams Want Shorter Free Agent Contracts

January 18, 2018

There has been a lot of talk this off-season about the fact that only two of the top dozen free agents has yet signed a contract. mlbtraderumors.com weighed in again on this issue today.

The one thing that seems obvious to me looking at the players who have signed free agent contracts this off-season so far is that teams want shorter contract lengths (i.e., no more than three years) and will pay more per year to get them.

No team has yet signed a player to more than three years.  However, the players who have agreed to three year deals have done pretty well, at least compared to mlbtraderumors’ predictions for its top 50 free agents, which experience has shown deserve a lot of weight.  mlbtraderumors has a formula it uses and tweaks every off-season based on the previous off-season’s signing results, and their predictions have proven to be well better than educated guesses.

Carlos Santana’s three-year $60 million deal is the biggest free agent signing so far.  mlbtraderumors correctly predicted the three-year term, but underestimated the payout by $5 million per year.  Tyler Chatwood (predicted 3 years $20M; actually received 3 years $38M). Jake McGee (3/$18M; 3/$27M), Mike Minor (4/$28M; 3/$28M), Bryan Shaw (3/$21M; 3/$27M), Tommy Hunter (2/$12M; 2/$18M), Pat Neshek (2/$12M; 2/16.25M), Michael Pineda (2/$6M; 2/$10M) and Miles Mikolas (2/$10M; 2/$15.5M) all did significantly better on two and three year deals than predicted.

Meanwhile, only Addison Reed (4/$36M; 2/$16.75M), CC Sabathia (2/$24M; 1/$10M), Yonder Alonzo (2/$22M; 2/$16M), Brandon Kintzler (2/$14M; 1/$5M) and Howie Kendrick (2/$12M; 2/$7M) have done significantly worse than predicted.  Zack Cozart (3/$42M; 3/$38M), Jay Bruce (3/$39M; 3/$39M), Juan Nicasio (2/$21M; 2/$17M), Jhoulys Chacin (2/$14M; 2/$15.5M), Welington Castillo (2/$14M; 2/$15M), Anthony Swarzak (2/$14M; 2/$14M) and Steve Cishek (2/$14M; 2/$13M) got right around what was predicted.

Finally, both Wade Davis (4/$60M; 3/$52M) and Brandon Morrow (3/$24M; 2/$21m) got one fewer year than predicted, but at a much higher annual rate, so much higher, in fact, that one has to think there wasn’t much incentive to hold out for the extra year.  I think these signings make it likely that each of Lance Lynn, Greg Holland and Alex Cobb will be forced to accept three year offers, although probably for only $3M to $6M less than mlbtraderumors predicted over four seasons.

I suspect that advanced analytics have suggested to teams something they already knew: long-term free agents contract can be a long-term albatross around a team’s neck is veteran player gets hurt or old fast.  Better to pay more per season for fewer seasons so the burden of a bad contract doesn’t hurt the team for as many seasons.

I could see Yu Darvish being forced to accept a five-year deal in the $140M to $150M range, although as the No. 1 starter available this off-season, I think someone will eventually give him a sixth season.  The reported rumors sound as if both Kansas City and San Diego have made Eric Hosmer offers close to the six years and $132M that mlbtraderumors predicted.

The market for J.D. Martinez does not seem to be developing as predicted, but the four years at $100M predicted for Jake Arrieta seems likely to be met since he is the second best free agent starter available.  Scott Boras is representing a number of top free agents this year, and his asks have been pie-in-the-sky, as they always are.  I don’t believe the reports that any free agent will wait until after the 2018 regular season starts to sign, because that is an absolute value killer for a free agent if ever there was one.

It’s likely that a majority of the mid-range free agents (Nos. 20-50) who haven’t yet signed won’t do as well as the predictions, however, based on the fact that many teams have now filled their needs by the free agent players signed to date.

 

The Ten Best Players from Curacao and Aruba in MLB History

January 3, 2018

The islands of Curacao and Aruba have replaced St. Croix and St. Thomas as the tiny Caribbean islands that produce an oversized share of major league baseball players.  I have decided to combine players from Curacao and Aruba, because while both are governed more or less independently, both are part of the greater Netherlands, and they are part of the same island group, the Leeward Antilles.  Besides, it makes for a better list.

Curacao has produced at least 16 major league players, and Aruba has produced at least five.  To my knowledge, the third island in the group, Bonaire, has produced no major league players yet.  Almost all of these players have played recently so I’ll keep my comments relatively brief.

The first player from Curacao to play in the majors was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens in 1989.  He didn’t have a great deal of success in the U.S. major leagues, but he had some strong seasons in Japan’s NPB, and also played professionally in South Korea and Mexico.  After his playing career, he became a batting coach, most recently for the San Francisco Giants.

The first player from Aruba to play in the major leagues was Gene Kingsale, when he entered a game as a defensive replacement on September 3, 1996.  Five days later Calvin Maduro became the first Aruban to pitch in the major leagues.

1. Andruw Jones (1996-2012).  The big knock on Jones is that he was one of the early 2000’s steriods boys, and when the Vitamin-S spigot got turned off, his game dropped off sharply almost overnight.  Still he hit 434 major league home runs, plus another 50 in Japan.  He’ll likely remain the best player from Curacao or Aruba until Andrelton Simmons and Xander Bogaerts approach the ends of their respective major league careers.

2.  Andrelton Simmons (2012 to present).  Operating under the assumption that each generation of major league baseball players is a little better than the one that preceded it, it is possible to argue that Simmons may be the best defensive shortstop that major league baseball has yet seen.  He also had his best year with the bat in 2017, although it was his age 27 season.

3.  Kenley Jansen (2010 to present).  Through his age 29 season, Jansen has a career 2.08 ERA and 230 saves.  ‘Nuff said.

4.  Xander Bogaerts (2013 to present)  Bogaerts is no Andrelton Simmons with the glove, but he’s a better hitter, and he’s three years younger.  His bat may be what keeps him in the game long enough to pass Andruw Jones.  He’s the first Aruban on my list.

5.  Didi Gregorius (2012 to present).  Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, where his father was playing baseball professionally in the Dutch League and also working as a carpenter (the Dutch League only plays a 42 game schedule, so even with international play for the Dutch National Team, ball players need to have another job).  Gregorius’ grandfather was a great pitcher in Curacao in the mid-20th Century.  Didi and his family moved back to Curacao when he was five.  Needless to say, both the Dutch pro league and the national team are disproportionately made up of players from Curacao and Aruba.

The only other two players of any note born in Holland, Bert Blyleven and Jack Lelivelt, have perhaps even less claim to being Dutch than Gregorius, as both moved with their respective families to the New World at the age of 2.

6.  Jonathan Schoop (2013 to present).  It is little short of amazing that so many great players have come from such a tiny place (Curacao’s current population is about 150,000) all at about the same time.  Schoop is a 2Bman who hits for power and turns the double play extremely well.  That’s a combination made in heaven for a 2Bman.

7.  Sidney Ponson (1998-2009).  When I first started this blog in 2009, Sidney Ponson, along with Milton Bradley, was one of my favorite whipping boys.  It had a lot to do with his arrest in Aruba during the 2004 off-season for punching out a Judge in a dispute over Ponson’s operation of a motor boat or jet skis, and even more to do with the two DUIs he picked up in the U.S. in 2005.  Ponson had a world of talent, but he ate and drank his way out of taking full advantage of it.

Nevertheless, Ponson hung around long enough to go 91-113 with a career 5.03 ERA.  I once wrote that when Ponson retires “he will become the poster boy for talent wasted.”  I stick by this assessment, but 91 major league wins is 91 major league wins.

8.  Jair Jurrjens (2007-2014).  Arm problems did in Jurrjens’ major league career, but he’s pitching professionally.  He pitched in Taiwan’s CPBL in 2016, pitched for the Dodgers’ AAA team in Omaha in 2017 until he was hit with an 80 game suspension for testing positive for exogenous testosterone.  He’s currently pitching effectively in the Dominican Winter League as I write this.  However, his chances of returning to the major leagues in the future seem slim, particularly if he still needs to serve out any portion of the 80-game PED suspension. Jurrjens went 53-38 with a career 3.72 ERA.

9.  Ozzie Albies (2017 to present).  Albies has had only 244 major league plate appearances, but he makes my list because he was only 20 years old last summer and slashed .286/.354/.456 in those 244 plate appearances.  Unless something really awful happens to him, he’s going to be a good one.

10.  Randall Simon (1997-2006).  Randall Simon could hit, batting .303 with 19 home runs for the Tigers in 2002.  However, he walked less than 5% of this plate appearances and that’s a problem for 1Bman.

Simon famously got in trouble during the Milwaukee Brewers’ “Sausage Race” on July 9, 2003.  He hit the Italian Sausage mascot with a bat hard enough to knock the female college student inside the costume down.  He was fined by the local authorities $432.10 for “disorderly conduct” and fined by his team (the Pirates) $2,000.  Simon later apologized to the young woman and gave her an autographed bat. Even better, the Curacao Tourism Board gave her a complimentary trip to the island for two.  The next time Simon played in Milwaukee, now as a Cub, he purchased italian sausages for an entire section of fans and during that day’s race, his teammates playfully held him back while manager Dusty Baker guarded the bat rack.

Jurickson Profar turns 25 in February and has hit well in the minors, so there’s still a chance he’ll become a major league star.  Wladimir Balentien flopped in the U.S. majors, but he’s become a huge star in Japan, setting the single-season NPB record with 60 home runs in 2013 and belting at least 30 home runs in five other seasons.

The Ten Best Players from the U.S. Virgin Islands in MLB History

December 31, 2017

Lately, the tiny island nation of Curacao (current population 150,000) has garnered a lot of attention for all the great baseball players produced there.  Before Curacao, the tiny Caribbean island nation (sort of) that produced a surprisingly large number of major league players was the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The first Virgin Islander to play in the major leagues was Valmy Thomas on April 16, 1957.  Thomas was born in Puerto Rico, where he later experienced the greatest share of his professional baseball success, because his mother didn’t trust the hospitals in the U.S. Virgin Islands and thought she’d get better care in Puerto Rico.  However, mother and baby returned to the Virgin Islands shortly after the delivery.  Joe Christopher was the first major league player actually born in the Virgin Islands when he broke in in 1959.

Including Thomas and Julio Navarro, who was also born in Puerto Rico but grew up on St. Croix, at least 16 Virgin Islanders have played in the majors.  Here is my list of the best ten:

1. Horace “Hoss” Clarke (1965-1974).  The starting 2Bman in the period immediately following the end of the New York Yankees’ multi-decade dynasty, Clarke was in his prime a terrific defensive 2Bman, leading the Junior for six consecutive seasons in assists (1967-1972), four consecutive seasons in putouts (1968-1971) and twice in double plays (1969, 1972).  He was also seen as a good lead-off man in his day, but he was definitely an old-school lead-off man who ran well and stole bases but didn’t really get on base enough for the role.

Clarke’s reputation in his own day was affected by the fact that the Yankees were no longer consistent winners, as one of the team’s best players in this era, he took a lot of undeserved heat for it.  He also had a reputation for not being tough on hard slides into second base to break up the double play, but as noted above, he did lead the AL twice in turning double plays and never finished lower than 5th (in a 10- or 12-team circuit) in this category in any of the seven seasons between 1967 and 1973.  He was also a polite but quiet man who preferred playing musical instruments to talking, something that probably didn’t endear him to sportswriters looking for good quotes and copy.

Like most Virgin Islands players of his era, he played many winters in Puerto Rico where V.I. players were more or less treated like locals, and like several other V.I. players Clarke took a Puerto Rican wife.  After his career, Clarke returned to St. Croix, where he taught children to play baseball and also worked for a time as a scout for the Royals.

2. Al McBean (1961-1970).  Al McBean is not at all well remembered today, because his nine year Pittsburgh Pirates career was played entirely between the 1960 and 1971 teams that were World Champions.  He won 15 games as a starter in 1962 and then was gradually converted to a reliever over the 1963.  The Pirates’ top reliever Elroy Face took McBean under his wing and taught McBean how to pitch in relief situations while having McBean over to his house to BBQ.

McBean went 13-3 with 11 saves in 1963, posted a 1.91 ERA with 21 saves (tied for 2nd best in NL behind Hal Woodshick‘s 23 saves) in 1964, and posted a 2.29 ERA with 19 saves (tied for 4th best) in 1965.  McBean wasn’t as good after that but remained an effective reliever and starter for the Bucs though 1968.

McBean had a hard sinker that was hard to elevate, and he threw from different arm angles to give hitters diverse looks.  He was known for his sense of humor and tried to put on a show for the fans, which sometimes got him called a hot dog.  He was also a flashy but stylish for the time (mod) dresser who became famous in Pittsburgh for a white suit, white tie and white shoes ensemble.  He sometimes drew comparisons to Muhammad Ali.

McBean also married a Puerto Rican woman named Olga Santos, whom he told the first time he met her that one day he’d marry her.  They married about nine months later in Pittsburgh.

Surprisingly, McBean never made an All-Star team, but he played in the one and only Latin American Players’ Game, the last game played at Manhattan’s old Polo Grounds on October 12, 1963, attended by 14,235 fans.  It was played for charity with NL and AL squads featuring Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio, Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva among others.  The National League team won 5-2, and McBean was involved in the game’s most exciting play: a triple by McBean that drove in Tony Gonzalez but on which McBean was thrown out at home plate on a Minoso to Aparicio to Jose Azcue relay.  For what it’s worth, the players on the two teams were disproportionately Cubans, reflecting all the great players coming out of that country before the Revolution.

McBean finished his major league career with a 67-50 record, 63 saves and a 3.13 ERA.  He returned St. Thomas after his career, working in housing and recreation for the Virgin Islands government.  Needless to say, he thinks most of today’s highly paid stars are soft.

3.  Elrod Hendricks (1968-1979). Part of Earl Weaver‘s catcher’s platoons for many years, Hendricks played for much of the Orioles’ greatest period of success between 1966 and 1979.  Hendricks didn’t hit for much of an average (.220 lifetime), but he’d take a walk and hit not too infrequent home runs, two things that Earl Weaver loved.  In fact, Weaver discovered Hendricks while managing in Puerto Rico after several unsuccessful attempts by Hendricks to establish himself playing in the U.S.

Hendricks was also a fine defensive catcher who throw out 38% of attempted base stealers during his career.  He played in five post-seasons, four with the O’s.  He played 16 seasons of winter ball in Puerto Rico and was the Orioles’ bullpen coach for a remarkable 28 years.

He was also a great handler of the Orioles’ great pitching staff.  He caught Jim Palmer‘s no-hitter on August 13, 1969, and Palmer had great things to say about Hendricks, despite their sometimes contentious disagreements about pitch-calling while Palmer was on the mound.

The most famous play in Hendricks’ career happened in the 1970 World Series.  In Game 1 with the score tied 1-1, Reds pinch hitter Ty Cline hit a high chopper off home plate, which Hendricks grabbed with his bare hand.  Berno Carbo came charging in from third trying to score.  Hendricks lunged towards Carbo trying to apply the tag as umpire Ken Burkhart moved forward to call the batted ball fair.  Burkhart and Hendricks collided, spinning Burkhart to the ground as Hendricks tagged Carbo with his empty mitt.  Burkhart called Carbo out, and Carbo and Reds manager Sparky Anderson argued vociferously.  This was before instant replay replay reversal, but the instant replays on TV showed clearly, both that Hendricks had tagged Carbo with the wrong hand and that Carbo had completely missed home plate.  Carbo did not touch home until he did so unaware as he argued with Burkhart.  Here is the replay from youtube.

4. Jose “Shady” Morales (1973-1984).  Morales and Manny Mota were generally recognized as baseball’s best pinch hitters during the 1970’s.  Morales’ 25 pinch hits in 1976 broke Dave Philley‘s 1961 record (tied by Vic Davalillo in 1970) and lasted until John Vander Wal stoked 28 in 1995.

Jose Morales’ had started his professional career as a catcher because of his strong arm, but developed a reputation as a defensive liability there.  Becoming a top pinch hitter kept on major league rosters, and he later had success as part of a DH platoon for the Minnesota Twins.

Morales played professionally for more than twenty seasons, including two decades of Winter ball in Puerto Rico.  When he retired his 123 career major league pinch hits was third best all-time, and he still ranks 8th best all-time.  He then worked as a hitting coach and instructor and now lives in the Orlando area.

5.  Jerry Browne (1986-1995).  Known as the “Guv’nor,” Browne had his best season as the starting 2Bman for the 1989 Indians, when he slashed .299/.370/.390.  Despite being a fast base runner who got on base, Browne was inconsistent and wasn’t good at turning the double play.  Ultimately, he developed into a utility man who played 2B, 3B and all three outfield positions.  He’s done some couching for major league organizations and now lives in Texas.

6.  Joe Christopher (1959-1966).  Joe Christopher had one great major league season when he was one of the few bright spots on a dreadful 1964 Mets team.  He slashed .300/.360/.466 and recorded 10 assists as the team’s primary right-fielder.  As a pinch-runner for the Pirates, “Hurryin’ Joe” scored two runs in the 1960 World Series.

He was the fifth player drafted by the expansion 1962 Mets.  His most vivid memory of the 1962 season was teaching center fielder Richie Ashburn how to say “Yo la Tengo” (“I got it!”) so that he wouldn’t collide with Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacon, only to have Ashburn get run over by the much larger left fielder Frank Thomas.

Christopher credited his hitting success in 1964 in part to a pamphlet written by Paul Waner, which Christopher sent away for for 50 cents based on an add in the Sporting News, and a meeting he had with Waner in 1961.  Christopher also played in Puerto Rico for many winters and married a Puerto Rican woman, although the marriage lasted only about six years.  After baseball, he went into advertising.

7.  Midre Cummings (1993-2005).  Cummings moved to Florida for his final year of high school and became a first round draft pick for the Twins (29th overall in 1990).  He developed a reputation in baseball, perhaps unjustly, as a player with a lot of talent but who had a bad head in that he was too lackadaisical in his training and work habits.  He was never able to establish himself as an everyday player at the major league level, but he eventually established himself as an effective pinch hitter, leading his league several times in pinch hits.

The highlight of Cummings’ major league career, perhaps, was the 2001 post-season, where like Joe Christopher before him, he was used primarily as a pinch runner and scored three runs, two of them in the World Series, including the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7.  Cummings now lives in Tampa and coaches children.

8.  Jharel Cotton (2016-2017).  Cotton came to the U.S. at the age of 16.  He went 9-10 with a 5.58 ERA as a rookie starting pitcher for the A’s in 2017.  He’s got a live arm, but he will be 26 in 2018, so we’ll see where his career goes.  On August 9, 2016, Cotton fell one batter short of pitching a perfect game in the AAA Pacific Coast League, allowing a triple to the 27th batter with two outs in the ninth.

9.  Calvin Pickering (1998-2005).  Pickering also moved to Florida for his final year of high school.  Although a 35th round draft pick, he showed both a tremendous ability to hit and to hit for power as soon as he started his professional career.  Alas, weight issues (he reported to Spring Training at least one year weighing 300 lbs and never played at much less than 260) and the injuries that came with them prevented him from becoming a major league star.

Pickering hit 35 home runs at AAA Omaha in only 379 plate appearances during his age 27 season and played for half a season in South Korea’s KBO two years later.

10.  Valmy Thomas (1957-1961).  My next post will be devoted to Valmy Thomas, who had a very interesting professional career.

The Ten Best Panamanian Players in MLB History

December 28, 2017

Continuing on to Panama, a country between Colombia and Nicaragua which also has a long baseball tradition.  At least 58 Panamanian-born players have played in the majors league.

The first was Humberto Robinson, when he pitched a third of an inning for the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955.  Hector Lopez started his successful 12 year major league career on May 12, 1955, and Webbo Clarke, who pitched for many years in the Negro Leagues, made all seven of his major league appearances for the Washington Senators in September 1955, following a 16-12 record in the Class A Sally League that year, the same league in which Robinson had won a record-setting 23 games the year before.

Both pitchers were long and lean, and Robinson went 8-13 with three saves and a career 3.25 ERA over parts of five major league seasons.  It’s likely that both pitched in the Panamanian Professional Baseball League, which played continuously between 1946 and 1972, after their U.S. careers were over.

Robinson died in Brooklyn in 2009 at the age of 79, while Clarke died at the relatively young age of 42 back in Panama.  Robinson also notably reported a bribe offered in the amount of $1,500 to throw a baseball game in 1959.

The relative success of the PPBL is surely one of the reasons so many Panamanians have played in MLB, despite a population of only 3.75 million currently. The current version of the PPBL, Probeis, has been playing continuously since 2011.

1. Rod Carew (1967-1985)(HOF).  Carew was one of the great pure-hitters of all time, a terrific base runner who stole home plate seven times in 1969, tying Pete Reiser‘s 1946 Post-World War II record.  Ty Cobb stole home eight times in 1912 and 50 times for his career.  During their mostly lively-ball era careers, Lou Gehrig stole home 15 times and Babe Ruth did it 10 times.

Carew moved to New York City after two years of high school in Panama.  He did not immediately begin playing high school baseball, because he was spending all of his time studying, working and learning English.  In 1964, he began to play with an organized team, and he reaches the majors three years later.  He worked as a hitting instructor and coach for many years after his playing career.

Carew married Marilyn Levy, a woman of Jewish ancestry, in 1970, as a result of which Carew received death threats.  They had three daughters, but divorced after 26 years, shortly after the death of their 18 year old daughter Michelle to leukemia when doctors were unable to find a matching bone marrow donor due to her unusual ancestry.  Carew subsequently performed extensive charity work to increase the number of bone marrow donors.

Carew chewed tobacco for 28 years before developing mouth cancer in 1992.  In late 2016, Carew had heart transplant surgery, but he’s still alive as of this writing.

2.  Mariano Rivera (1995-2013).  With an all-time best 652 saves, Rivera will make the Hall of Fame shortly.  He played recently enough and burned brightly enough, that no one reading this needs anything further from me to remember Rivera.

3.  Carlos Lee (1999-2012).  He bounced around a bit, but he had five seasons with 30 home runs, six with 100 or more runs batted in, and four seasons with at least 100 runs scored.  A left fielder with an exceptionally effective throwing arm, Lee is now a wealthy rancher in Texas and Panama.

4.  Ben Oglivie (1971-1986).  Oglivie took a long time to develop, but he became a fearsome slugger for Harvey’s Wallbangers during the American League Milwaukee Brewers’ great period of success from 1978 to 1983.  He led the Junior Circuit with 41 home runs in 1980 in a tie with Reggie Jackson, becoming the first player born outside the United States to lead the AL in HRs. He hit 34 regular season long flies and two more in the post-season for the Wallbangers’ team that lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

After MLB, Oglivie had two successful seasons in Japan’s NPB at the ages of 38 and 39.  He finished his playing career with two games in the Texas League at the age of 40.

Oglivie also moved to the United States (Bronx, NY) when he was in high school.  Bill Lee described Oglivie as the”brightest guy on the club” when they played together on the Red Sox, and he attended college in Boston and Milwaukee while he played.  He’s worked for years as a hitting coach since his playing days ended.

5.  Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980).  One of the batting heroes, along with Roberto Clemente and Bob Robertson, of the 1971 Pirates who came back from two games down to win the World Series against the Orioles.  Sanguillen made the National League All-Star three times and received MVP votes in four seasons.  Sanguillen didn’t have much power, and, a notorious bad ball hitter, he didn’t walk much either, but he had a .296 career batting average and threw out 39% of the 820 men who tried to steal bases against him.

Sanguillen played in the post-season six times for the Pirates, including driving in a run for the Pirates’ last victorious World Series team in 1979, when he was 35 and nearing the end of his career.  Sanguillen married a Pennsylvania woman, Kathy Swanger, had two kids, and still lives in the Pittsburgh area, hosting Manny’s BBQ behind center field at PNC Park.  Sanguillen says his greatest baseball accomplishment was catching Bob Moose‘s no-hitter on September 20, 1969.

6 (Tie).  Roberto Kelly (1987-2000) & Hector Lopez (1955-1966).  Kelley was a center fielder who played well for the Yankees between 1989 to 1992.  Lopez was a jack-of-all-trades guy who played at least 175 games in each of LF, RF, 3B and 2B, playing most often in left field and at third base. Lopez’s best seasons were for the Kansas City A’s and the Yankees between 1955 and 1960 and he played on five consecutive World Series teams for the Yankees from 1960 through 1964.

Lopez also sported the nicknames “The Panama Clipper” and “Hector the Hit Collector.”  Playing for Kansas City, Lopez roomed with former Negro League star, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who got the nickname because he wore size 13 shoes, which a sportswriter wrote looked like suitcases.  After his playing career was over, Lopez became the first black, let alone Panamanian, manager of a AAA team, when he managed the International League’s Buffalo Bisons to a 7th place finish.

Roberto Kelly coached and managed for the San Francisco Giants organization for nine years until 2016, after his playing career ended.

8.  Omar Moreno (1975-1986). Today, Omar Moreno is primarily remembered as a light-hitting stolen base threat, and he was known as the Antelope, but he was also a really good player for the 1979 World Champion Pirates, leading the Senior Circuit with 77 stolen bases (in 98 attempts) and in putouts by an outfielder (489, 64 more than Gold Glove winner Garry Maddox of the 4th place Phillies) and also scoring 110 runs.  Moreno finished 15th in the NL MVP vote that year and was almost certainly more valuable than that.

In 1980, Moreno stole 96 bases (in 129 attempts) being edged out of the league lead by Ron LeFlore with 97, and again led NL outfielders in putouts, but he didn’t bat as well and only scored 87 times while making more than 500 outs on offense, even more than he prevented on defense.   Moreno stole 487 bases on his major league career at a 73% success rate.

After his playing career, Moreno and his family returned to Panama, where he started a foundation to help poor kids to play baseball.  In 2009, he became Panama’s Secretary of Sport where he represented Panama internationally and oversaw the country’s athletic programs.  After he left office, he returned to working with under-privileged children.

9. Bruce Chen (1998-2015).  Chen is a Panamanian of Chinese descent who amounts to the best starting pitcher Panama has produced.  Another bright guy, Chen studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech during his playing career.

Chen won 13 games for the Orioles in 2005, and won 12 back to back for the Royals in 2010-2011.  He was a consistently affordable bottom of the rotation starter who ate up a lot of innings by today’s standards and pitched well enough to hold onto that role for an astounding 17 seasons.

He finished his career with an 82-81 record, tying him with Mariano Rivera for most wins by a Panamanian-born pitcher, and a 4.62 ERA.  Chen came out of retirement to pitch for Team China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

10.  Juan Berenguer (1978-1992).  Berenguer went 11-10 with a 3.42 ERA as the World Champion Detroit Tigers‘ fourth starter in 1984, but didn’t pitch in the post-season, when Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox got all the starts.  He then became an effective reliever  (32 career saves) for the Giants, Twins and Braves, ending his major league career at the age of 37.

Known as “Senor Smoke,” “El Gasolino” and the “Panama Express” because of his high-90’s fastball, Berenguer went 8-1 as a reliever and spot starter for the underwhelming Twins team that went on to win the 1987 World Series.  After his playing career, he returned to and still lives in Minnesota.

Berenguer retired with a 67-62 career record and 3.90 ERA.  He was the all-time Panamanian wins leader until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2008.

Honorable MentionsRamiro Mendoza, Rennie Stennett, Carlos Ruiz and Randall Delgado.  Panama has produced enough major league players that some pretty good ones don’t make the top ten.  The 1970’s Pirates, during their best run of the post-WW II period, had three Panamanians in Sanguillen, Stennett and Moreno who were key starters on winning teams.  I remember Stennett as being one of the worst free agent signings in SF Giants’ history, although five years for $3 million sounds like peanuts today.

Carlos Ruiz deserves to be in the top ten for the six seasons he had for the Phillies from 2009 through 2014, and he was the starting catcher for the World Champion 2008 Phillies, the last period when the Phillies were consistent winners.  Randall Delgado is entering his age 28 season in 2018, so he’s certainly got a chance to break into the top 10 one day, although he missed most of the second half of the 2017 season to an elbow injury, for which he received platelet rich injections in his elbow as recently as late September.

A majority of Pananian born baseball players are Afro-Panamanian with many coming from in and around the heavily Afro-Caribbean city of Colon.  However, my personal observation spending 16 days in Panama around January 1, 1999 was that a large percentage of the population in greater Panama City appeared to my surely untrained eyes to be some admixture of European, African and Indigenous Panamanian ancestries.