Posted on: March 5, 2012 9:31 am
Edited on: March 5, 2012 10:00 am

Pirates spend serious bucks; winning to follow?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are entering the 20th anniversary season of their last winning year and trying hard to ensure that streak doesn't last too much longer. The $51.5-million, six-year extension for outfielder Andrew McCutchen was a necessary step toward that goal.

The Pirates are shedding their "cheap'' label, at the very least. They've spent a whopping $50 million on the draft and international signings since taking Pedro Alvarez first in 2008, they took on salary while acquiring veteran hitters Ryan Ludwick and Derek Lee at the deadline, and they added $13 million over two years by taking on A.J. Burnett. They also reportedly tried for Edwin Jackson before he signed with the Nats.

The McCutchen deal is logical since it mirrors the Diamondbacks' Justin Upton contract. McCutchen's stats are better at the signing, but Upton is the player with greater power and a higher ceiling. In any case, it's not the usual Pirates deal. The McCutchen contract, which was first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has been confirmed.

So they do indeed spend. Pretty soon it will be time to win.

Category: MLB
Posted on: March 4, 2012 5:36 pm

Wind blows, Teheran (6 HRs) not good, either

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Is this any way to come back from a collapse?

The Braves, fresh off their mostly unnoticed September swoon (the Red Sox hogged most of the headlines), are off to a rough start in spring training. After being one-hit in the spring opener, two of their top pitching prospects got roughed up in an 18-3 defeat to the powerful Tigers, who hit nine home runs.

Julio Teheran, considered Atlanta's best pitching prospect and a candidate to make their excellent rotation, allowed six home runs in two innings on an exceedingly windy day. The wind was blowing hard from left field to right field, but two of the Tigers' home runs, one by Austin Jackson and one by Delmon Young, cut through the wind and went out in left. Prince Fielder hit his first homer as a Tiger, hitting the light tower high up in right field on another homer that would have gone out, wind or no wind.

"Tough day to pitch,'' Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "In the big picture, nobody got hurt and we got our work in.''

Gonzalez suggested four or five of the Tigers' homers might not have gone out on a normal day. But Gonzalez also noted that they were batting under the same conditions, and they hit no home runs (though the Braves' lineup consisted of kids and backups).

Another top Braves prospect, Randall Delgado, allowed four runs in the first inning. But the righthander Teheran definitely had the roughest day of anyone. Gonzalez said he didn't think it was necessary for him to speak to him to keep his spirits up, though pitching coach Roger McDowell will surely say a few words to see how he holds up. "There's no doubt in my mind it'll be fine,'' Gonzalez said. "These guys are pretty solid.''

It's been a rough spring all the way around for the Braves. It began when top starting pitcher Tommy Hanson suffered a concusssion in a driving mishap, hitting his head against the window after a blowup while on the way to camp. Hanson threw for five minutes today without incident, and will throw again before getting into a game.

Not too much should be read into spring games, especially ones where one team plays its regulars and the other its kids, but there are legitimate concerns about the health of some of the Braves pitchers. Tim Hudson, who's returning from back surgery, is expected back in early May, though it could be a bit sooner. Jair Jurrjens was out the last month last year with kneee toruble, but he is considered fine. The Braves do have terrific starting pitching depth, which they are going to need.

Category: MLB
Posted on: March 4, 2012 4:53 pm

Giants' hope to keep Cain below $100M unsure now

There was a belief around baseball that Giants star Matt Cain was going to be an easy sign for the Giants. Now that doesn't seem quite so certain.

Word going around the game a few back was that Cain, who's eligible for free agenxy after the season, might even be prepared to sign back with the Giants for less than $100 million. Now that seems far less likely.

The Giants offered at least $100 million on a five-year deal to ace Tim Lincecum but according to sources started negotiations significantly lower than that to Cain, who would be the staff ace in many other players but is clearly No. 2 to Lincecum in San Francisco. Meantime, there were whispers around the game that Cain -- who once signed a $27-million, three-year deal that covered his arbitration years and turned out to be very team friendly -- wasn't prepared to pursue top dollar on the open market.

However, Cain's comments so far in spring training certainly have done nothing to foster the idea that he is a slam-dunk sign. He recently told Giants writers in Scottsdale, Ariz., "I believe both sides would like to have something resolved, whether that's signing back or not. Once the season starts, I want to be thinking about the season. That's my main goal.''

It isn't known for sure whether Cain's stance has changed, but there are definitely indications he's at least open to leaving. Sometime in the last several weeks, his longtime agent Landon Williams was hired by CAA Baseball, a large agency. Whether that was a factor in Cain's stance isn't known either. Cain's new CAA rep Jeff Berry, who's working with Williams on the high-profile case, declined comment the other day when asked about the situation.

But consider that CAA negotiated Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's $100-million, six-year extension, and Zimmerman had two years to go before free agency (to Cain's one) as well as a history of injuries (Cain has none). Some baseball people say they believe Cain's true comp is Cliff Lee and his $120-million deal, while others say he could even top that on the open market; while Lee has shown more dominance, Cain would be a considerably younger free agent.

The best guess here is that Cain still winds up staying with the Giants. He is homegrown guy who has shown inclinations of preferring to stay in the past even if doesn't seem like quite the certainty anymore. One thing seems sure, though, the Giants' great hope to keep the contract below $100 million looks like a major long shot now.

Category: MLB
Posted on: March 4, 2012 3:12 pm
Edited on: March 4, 2012 3:22 pm

Cabrera has right attitude at 3B but needs work

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Some might say Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera is heroic, generous or at the very least team-oriented for giving up first base at a moment's notice and moving to third so the team could sign top free agent Prince Fielder. Not Cabrera, who doesn't see it that way.

"I never had a position, so what's the difference?'' Cabrera said, applying sound logic.

Cabrera actually came to Detroit as a third baseman but was soon switched to first base, where Carlos Guillen was struggling with the nuances of that position. Now Cabrera is going back to third. No matter what happens here -- and he's off to a slow start, with an error here Sunday -- he's the third baseman.

"I feel good [about it],'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He's my third baseman, I like writing his name into the lineup every day. It is what it is.''

What it appears to be is an interesting little imperfection for us to write about on an otherwise superior Tigers team. And it probably is pretty small in the scheme of things. Cabrera has excellent hands and a true arm.

The only issue is his movement, which is undeniably limited. Cabrera was slow going to his left to try to field a grounder by the Braves' David Ross on Sunday, and he wound up booting the ball -- appearing to strain to bend over.

Cabrera joked before the game that he is 330 pounds; he actually is about average for him, somewhere in the high 200s. The Tigers do not seem at all displeased by his shape, round but reasonable.

Cabrera may seem young, but he works hard and he has veteran infielder Rafael Belliard here to work on his technique with him.

"I need to work on it every day. I need to work hard,'' Cabrera said.

The main thing, Belliard said, is to be ready. The ball gets to a third baseman faster than anywhere else on the diamond. Belliard pointed out Cabrera played shortstop at one point, but conceded that was a long time ago. It's even been a couple years for third base. It's a good thing they have all spring.

"We're not asking him to win a Gold Glove,'' Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said.

Even if he can't come close to major-league average even after a long spring of grounders, he's not coming out of games for defense late in games.

"He's a star. I'm not taking my star out,'' Leyland said. "I think that would send the wrong message to Miguel Cabrera, and I'm not doing it.''

More than anyone, Leyland understands the psyche of his players and the importance of it vs. an inning or two of slightly improved defense. That's the right call.

Dombrowski pointed out that Cabrera volunteered to play third base in interleague games last year, and he would have played third in National League cities had they made the World Series. Cabrera has a ways to go to become proficient again. But at least he is willing. That's maybe half the battle.

Posted on: March 4, 2012 2:30 pm

Astros GM Luhnow has right outlook, few players

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- For a guy who came to baseball relatiavely late in life and who runs a team that is by all accounts overmatched, new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow seems quite relaxed. He appears to have the right outlook and demeanor for a team that may again lose 100 games. "Of course, he is (calm),'' one skeptic from a rival team said. "There is absolutely no pressure.''

Luhnow, an intellectual ensconsed in the stat crowd (he just got back from the MIT Sports Sloan Analytics Conference), is always going to have his critics. He and Rays GM Andrew Friedman are the only ones to take the non-traditional route to the GM's chair, meaning they didn't start out as baseball executives. But Friedman quickly proved himself one of the best execs in baseball by now after starting out in the investment business.

Pressure or not to win this year, folks are looking to Luhnow to prove himself. Not everyone is going to be rooting for him, either. Some folks like tradition, and he's taken an unususal route to get where he is. He has a dual engineering and business degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Northwestern University, and he got into baseball in his mid-30s with the Cardinals, in 2003.

Now 45, he spent nearly a decade as an executive with the Cardinals, contributing to two World Series teams as a high-level front-office person. Though, with the ongoing old-school vs. new-school denate raging (he is firmly in the latter crowd), there were definitely some critics in St. Louis. He tried to hire ESPN's Keith Law for a top scouting job in Houston, which wouldn't necessarily have endeared him to some older scouts. (Law turned the job down.)

Say this for Luhnow, the Cardinals generally thrived in his time in a top scouting and player development job there. And say this, too, he seems to have an excellent handle on where the Astros are today. Luhnow said he seeks progress, which is precisely the right answer for a team that lost 106 games last year and threatens to repeat that output. He also said their seemingly dire situation will be aided by a lucrative TV contract that begins next year and that they also hope to become a free-agent player if they can recapture their audience in what he pointed out was a big market.

Luhnow provided a positive-as-he-could be rundown of the Astros playing personnel, but it isn't fair to recount any of that here because his job is to be as upbeat as possible, no matter what the roster looks like. While Luhnow mentioned several nice things about many of their players, he isn't about to pretend the team is ready to contend, which shows he's far from delusional. He does seem to have high hopes for new Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, whom he acquired in a trade for ex-Astros closer Mark Melancon, as well as a few others.

The reality, though, is that even his relatively honest portrayal of his team's situation doesn't say how bad the Astros are thought to be. Their rotation led by Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ is somewhat presentable, but their everyday lineup threatens to be the worst in baseball. Everyone has their own evaluation of course, but one scout said he believed that besides veteran Carlos Lee, who Houston would love to trade, only two players have a chance to be major-league average, catcher Jason Castro and third baseman Chris Johnson, and Castro missed last year with a knee injury and Johnson hit .251 with seven home runs. "Two years ago, he hit,'' the scout said. "Last year he forgot how.''

Category: MLB
Posted on: March 3, 2012 5:12 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 5:16 pm

Spring teen-aged drama begins; can Bryce cut it?

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Out here in plain Osceola County, the Nationals' teen-aged wunderkind slugger Bryce Harper started his first spring game, and thus began the great drama of March: Can Harper become a oh-so-rare 19-year-old to make a major-league team out of spring training, and not just any team but one that fancies itself a threat?

As for the kid himself, the lefthanded Harper is a threat whenever he holds that big bat of his and takes one of his patented swing-to-the-stars cuts, which is just about every cut. Harper is taking his biggest cut this spring in trying to accomplish what few have done by making a major-league team in spring before the age of 20. His clear goal this March, even though he hit only .256 in Double-A last year, is to make the Nationals as their starting rightfielder. And if the decision had to be made today and it was up to his manager Davey Johnson, he'd have a heck of a shot.

Johnson is trying to downplay his obvious interest in Harper so as not to slight any of the mere mortals on the team, but he's told enough people how much he loves Harper that he doesn't have to say a word now. You can only imagine how hard Johnson has to fight a smile whenever this kid takes BP; today, on a typically hot windy day, Harper was routinely launching them over the left-centerfield fence. "He's going to be a star. he's got power and discipline,'' marveled one National League scout. "I don't think he'll start the year with the (Nats), but I think he'll be up by August.''

Harper has been around baseball his entire life, so it's no surpise to hear him throw out the cliche about how he is "just trying not to do too much,'' but it's a slightly funny thing to hear after watching him swing like he's trying to ruin a baseball. Nationals executive Bob Boone remarked how he's never seen anyone swing so hard (he also runs hard every time, by the way). But Harper said, "I've always done that, since I was 7, 8 years old. Dad taught me to swing hard. Sometimes, I'm under control. Other times, I look like an idiot.''

The teen-aged phenom is willing to lay it out there, and this spring the goal is obvious; he wants to jump to the big leagues as a teen-ager like past wonderboys Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones did before him. He said he doesn't think about it when the game starts, and he went 1 for 3 in the opener here, singling off veteran ex-Nats pitcher Livan Hernandez, who unlike Harper has an unknown age. "If I play the game and do things right, I've got a shot,'' Harper said, flatly.

Harper knows that's true from all the scuttlebutt regarding Davey's desires. However, Johnson doesn't want this to become a Bryce Camp, and so Davey discourages too many questions along those lines. One query, about Jayson Werth playing center field Sunday, which is big part of the Harper equation since Werth would have to make the switch from right for Harper to make it, set Davey off on a half-serious riff about how questions about tomorrow's game are too much for him. When a more direct one about Harper possibly making the team came his way, Johnsson said, "I'm not going there,'' before going there. "To me, he deserves ... and I've said this since October ... knowing what we have in camp, he needs to get a look at making this club,'' Johnson opined.

Again, Johnson is trying mightily to hold his obvious enthusiasm, and he said very nice things about Brett Carroll and Rick Ankiel in his attempt to be democratic. But he can hardly hold back. "It's no secret we're looking for more of a lefthanded presence,'' Johnson said, "And he qualifies.'' Johnson helped bring up Dwight Gooden at 19, when he dominated for the Mets. Johnson also thinks the Nats are for real this year, so he doesn't want to waste games early. "Last year we were a pretender, this year we're a contender,'' Johnson said.

Some other longtime baseball people, though, say it wouldn't hurt Harper to start at Double-A, to work his way up to Triple-A and make his teen-age break-in in August or September (he doesn't turn 20 until October). But at least one other Nationals official agrees with Johnson, while others are saying they are at least ready to be convinced. "He has a chance to dominate,''' Nats exec Bob Boone said. "And if he dominates, he could make it tough on us.''  

Harper was greatly disappointed he didn't make the team even last year at 18, then took it all out on Class-A pitchers by hitting .318 with a .977 OPS before having some ups and downs at Double-A Harrisburg. "Absolutely,'' he said when asked whether he was disheartened to be cut at last year's camp. He just started to get hot there when he hurt his hamstring. After only mastering Class-A, it woould be quite a leap to go to the majors indeed. But he dominated the Arizona Fall League, hitting .333 with six home runs in 93 at-bats while posting a 1.084 OPS as the youngest player in the league, before coming here, which got folks thinking. "Just to be able to have the opportunity and have everyone open to it, I'm really excited,'' Harper said. "I'm trying to make the situation hard for them.''

For Johnson, it seems like a pretty easy call (though he isn't saying so publicly, at least not yet). Harper is no dummy. Even someone as talented as him isn't averse to seeking a few brownie point.. "I love Davey. He's a fiery guy,'' Harper said. "It's great to be able to play for a guy like Davey.'' He hopes to play for him for real soon.

Category: MLB
Posted on: March 2, 2012 10:15 am
Edited on: March 2, 2012 12:08 pm

The case for & against the $75M Yadi Molina deal

JUPITER, Fla. -- As I warned Yadier Molina's agent, Melvin Roman, I was going to think/say/write the Cardinals got a great deal on Molina no matter what the deal was. I think he is that good. Roman is probably a little bit biased, but he called me over after the press conference to announce the signing to tell me he agrees with me.

Though clearly, not everyone does. A fairly strong stat-based case is being made on the internet (and below here) that $75 million for five years (plus a mutual sixth-year option) is an overpay.

I say, Molina's game isn't about numbers. I say, there are no comps for Molina because there is no one even close to like him.

The surprise here may be that the sides figured it out without too much trouble since no one's comparable. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt and GM John Mozeliak agreed that it wasn't easy to put a pricetag on Molina because he is such a different player. He is the best defensive catcher in baseball, the best-throwing catcher, a clutch hitter and a winner. So ultimately, it wasn't about the comps, it was about the need and the desire.

"We couldn't take a chance of him being a free agent,'' DeWitt told me this morning.

I'm with him. But it's fair to present the other side. There's a big internet outcry, some but not all by the stat folks, that $15 million per year is to much for Molina. Here's how a friend of mine in baseball who analyzes these things put it for the other side:

"Good move by Yadier Molina. Cash in on a career year offensively and a second (winning) World Series. But buyer beware. He is coming off his first season with double digit home runs (14) and an OPS (.814) that is 100-plus points above his career average (.707). He had a .671 OPS in 2010 and I don't think that would get him $15 a year, even with his great defense.

"Twins got all giddy over Joe Mauer's 28 home run MVP season in 2009, numbers he likely will never reach again. They gave him $184 million. I'm sure they'd like a do-over on that contract.

"John Buck had a career year in '10 (20 home runs, .802 OPS) and that got him three years and $18 million (total) with the Marlins. Buck isn't anything close to Molina defensively, but, other that batting average, his career stats are on par with Molina. In fact, he has more power (90 home runs to 55 for Molina) through their free agent year Nobody is suggesting you;d take Buck over Molina. But it's obvious the Cardinals value Molina's intangibles/gamecalling, as they are paying him at a star rate.''

DeWitt had an answer, saying, "We didn't extend Molina because he had a good year offensively last year. We extended him because of the bulk of the work since he became a regular in 2005. He's been a key player on two World Series teams. He's won Gold Gloves. He's made All-Star teams multiple times.''

Beyond that, Molina brings things that can't be measured. He has tough at-bats at crucial moments (Mets fans know that, as do Rangers fans). He is tough mentally and physically. He doesn't miss games. The pitchers love him at a time they've lost Dave Duncan. As DeWitt said, they just couldn't take a chance.

Posted on: March 1, 2012 12:45 pm
Edited on: March 1, 2012 12:59 pm

Oh baby, Pirates exec delivers in the clutch

Pittsburgh Pirates executive Trevor Gooby made the catch of spring training when he delivered the baby boy of Pirates fan Latasha Kirk outside McKechnie Stadium in Bradenton on Wednesday. The baby, named McKechnie for the park, just fell into Gooby's hands, as he recalls it.

"I must have picked something up watching [Andrew] McCutchen or [Jose] Tabata,'' Gooby said, referring to two Pirates outfielders. "I think it was a little bit of luck or an in-the-moment kind of thing.''

Nobody can accuse Gooby of not being a clutch performer. When Kirk first alerted other fans that she was going to have a baby, it was hard to think she meant at that very moment. Gooby and other Pirates people first found a wheelchair for her, called EMS and waited for help. But the professionals weren't quite quick enough.

"The baby's not waiting,'' Gooby recalled Kirk saying. At that point, he called for water and towels and held his hands out.

"It's happpening,'' Kirk declared "I've got to push,''

One push later and the baby was in Gooby's arms. "I was shocked,'' said the hero exec. Apparently so was the mother. Her first question for Gooby? "Is that the baby?''

The answer was, "Yeah, that's the baby."

Gooby has been working for the Pirates for eight years. But he has discovered a new talent. "Yeah, if this thing doesn't work out [with the Pirates], I could always switch fields," he joked.

McKechnie is a cool-sounding name. Let's hope the mother sees fit to make the middle name Gooby.
Category: MLB
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