Thursday, February 27, 2014

Let's catch up on some White Sox spring training news

We haven't written much about the goings-on in Glendale, Ariz., so let's take a few moments to catch up on some of the White Sox spring news....

1. Pitchers and catchers reported almost two weeks ago, but there is still no sign of free agent acquisition Ronald Belisario, nor is there any timetable for his arrival.

This isn't the first time Belisario has had visa issues, and reports indicate his off-the-field problems contributed to the Dodgers' decision not to tender the right-handed reliever, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Sox this offseason.

“It’s something that’s beyond our control,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn told's Doug Padilla. “It's not entirely unexpected with immigration, especially with a player that had issues with immigration in the past. We’ve got to keep in mind that we're dealing with a relief pitcher who needs to get stretched out to one inning, maybe two, by the end of camp and there's more than enough time for that.”

True enough, but if I were a White Sox player, I would be annoyed if I were in camp working to get ready for the season while one of my teammates is still at home doing whatever. Yes, the visa process can take time, but players know what day camp starts well in advance. Is it too much to ask a player to start his visa process early to ensure that he can report on time? I don't think it is.

Like Belisario, right fielder Avisail Garcia is from Venezuela. Yet Garcia reported to camp early. He didn't seem to have any problems. So what's the deal with Belisario? I'm not sure, but I hope reporters question him, if he ever arrives in Arizona.

A couple days late is one thing. A couple weeks late and it's hard not to find that irritating.

2. Designated hitter Adam Dunn may struggle to hit his weight, but he is going to the Oscars. Dunn is an investor in the production company that made the film "Dallas Buyers Club," which is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture.

Dunn has a cameo in the film as a bartender.

Sox manager Robin Ventura gave Dunn his blessing to leave camp and attend the event with one caveat: Dunn has to go on stage if "Dallas Buyers Club" wins.

So, if you watch the Oscars on Sunday, just maybe you'll get to see a Big Donkey up there accepting an award.

3. What was your favorite memory of the Jake Elmore Era? It didn't last long.

The infielder played 52 games with the Houston Astros last season, and the Sox picked him up on waivers this offseason.

Alas, there is no spot for Elmore in the Sox' crowded infield. He was designated for assignment and traded Thursday to the Oakland A's for cash considerations.

We hardly knew ye.

4. The Sox will play their first spring game Friday afternoon against the Los Angeles Dodgers. This game will air on MLB Network on tape delay at 4 p.m. local time. Ace left-hander Chris Sale will get the start.

Not that we should read anything into Ventura's batting order for the first spring game, but here's how he's going to line them up: Adam Eaton, cf; Alexei Ramirez, ss; Garcia, rf; Jose Abreu, 1b; Dayan Viciedo, lf; Paul Konerko, dh; Matt Davidson, 3b; Gordon Beckham 2b; Tyler Flowers, c.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Late, great (and not-so-great) additions, Part 2

The White Sox have a modest record when it comes to late free agent additions, and the Cubs haven't done that much better, if they've done better at all adding pieces after Feb. 1 and before Opening Day .

Here are the five best late free agent additions for the Cubs in recent history (just like with the Sox list, we're excluding the strike-affected 1995 season):

1. Terry Mulholland (Feb. 2, 1998)
Mulholland was no stranger to signing late in the offseason or playing for the Cubs. The left-handed pitcher went to camp on a February contract with the Phillies just a couple years earlier, and played for the Cubs in 1997 before being claimed on waivers by the Giants in August.

Having been primarily a starter in his career, Mulholland was an effective swingman for a surprising Cubs team that made the playoffs. In 70 games -- which included seven starts -- he recorded a 2.89 ERA in 112 innings. It was a pretty good value for the one-year, $600,000 contract.

Mulholland was less of a good deal when he signed a two-year, $6 million contract to stay after that season, posting a 5.15 ERA before being packaged with Jose Hernandez for a pitching prospect (Ruben Quevedo, if you must know).

2. Kent Bottenfield (March 9, 1996)
Bottenfield is probably most famous for being a guy who won 18 games out of nowhere for the Cardinals in 1999 before being traded for Jim Edmonds the following year. Talk about buying low and selling high. The Cubs actually had an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, signing the right-hander after spring training was underway after Bottenfield spent the previous year laboring in the minors for the Tigers.

Without much service time, Bottenfield spent two seasons with the Cubs, appearing in 112 games, all as a reliever. He logged a respectable 3.34 ERA in 145 2/3 innings for teams that finished in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Figuring they'd seen the best Bottenfield had to offer, the Cubs didn't offer him arbitration after the 1997 season. Instead he went to the Cardinals, where on balance, he was only slightly above average despite the gaudy win total. The year after he was let go, he really only filled the same role for the Cardinals that Mulholland did for the Cubs, only less effectively.

An earlier version of Edmonds than the one the Cubs eventually dragged in years later sure was a nicer return than Quevedo, though.

3. Hee-Seop Choi (March 3, 1998)
OK, this one is cheating. Choi was a international amateur signing and the Cubs had no intention of him playing for several years. He was annually one of the team's best prospects, and even after a rough rookie season, was valuable enough a commodity to be the centerpiece of a trade for Derrek Lee, who we know had some big years for the Cubs.

T4. Jeromy Burnitz (Feb. 5, 2005) / Cliff Floyd (Feb. 1, 2007)
Part of the ongoing efforts by the Cubs to plug a decade-long hole in right field. Since smashing Sammy Sosa's boombox and shipping him and the pieces to the Orioles, the most frequent starters for the Cubs in right field each season have been: Burnitz (2005), Jacque Jones (2006), Floyd (2007), Kosuke Fukudome (2008), Milton Bradley (2009), Fukudome (2010), Fukudome (2011), David DeJesus (2012) and Nate Schierholtz (2013).

Burnitz just wasn't much of a hitter anymore at 36 years old, and faded from respectable to bad in the second half. His one-year, $4.5 million deal was an acceptable risk. Floyd, who came on a cheaper-still one-year, $3 million deal, still hit for a good average and on-base percentage as a 34-year-old, but the power he had in his late 20s wasn't ever coming back. He was still a piece of a playoff team, filling a gap in the outfield as a part-time player.

5. Will Ohman (Feb. 11, 2004)
Ohman was actually a draft pick by the Cubs back in 1998 and had spent years in the organization. He also spent years battling injuries, missing all of 2002 and 2003. The Cubs released the left-hander just after the 2003 season, and when he couldn't find a home all winter, welcomed him back on the eve of spring training.

While Ohman was never great, even as a lefty specialist later in his career, he did give the Cubs mostly solid relief work and a 3.97 ERA over 145 innings from 2004-07. He was traded along with Omar Infante to Atlanta for some guy who definitely wasn't as good of a reliever as Ohman, or as good a second baseman as Infante.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The home plate collision rule: Much ado about nothing

I saw a web headline this morning that read "Plate collisions banned with exceptions." I figure now is the time to brush up on new MLB rules, so I clicked the link and read the article.

Thing is, I don't think this new rule changes much. I felt like the headline should have read "Plate collisions OK with exceptions."

Basically, there are two parts to the rule. First, catchers cannot block the plate unless they have the ball. Second, the runner can't leave the basepath in order to initiate contact with the catcher.

In other words, at least 90 percent of the home plate collisions I've seen in all the years I've been watching baseball are still legal under these rules. If the catcher has the ball and is blocking the plate, the baserunner is within his rights to try to knock him over and dislodge the ball. That's always been legal, and it sounds to me like it's still legal.

The only real change here is if the baserunner goes out of his way to give the catcher a shot, he's automatically out and could be subject to league discipline. Honestly, I haven't seen too many situations like that through the years, Torii Hunter and Jamie Burke in 2004 notwithstanding.

This sounds to me like much ado about nothing. Am I wrong in my intepretation? 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Late, great (and not-so-great) additions, Part 1

With players having reported to spring training, teams are pretty much set as far as the major pieces of their rosters. Sure, there's jockeying for starting jobs, along with guys vying for spots on the back ends of benches and bullpens. But there's not really much left on the free agent market, even with the trend of some players signing later and later in the offseason.

This year you still could grab a starting shortstop (Stephen Drew), a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher (Ervin Santana) or a DH/first baseman (Kendrys Morales). That's only because those guys are clinging to the hope that a huge contract is on the horizon. For the most part, what's left are bench players (Kelly Shoppach, Laynce Nix, Andres Torres), organizational depth (Tyler Greene, Casey Kotchman), rehab projects (Jair Jurrjens, Johan Santana, Andrew Bailey), last-gasp attempts (Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre) or various arms to fill up a pitching staff (Jon Garland, Mike Gonzalez, Brett Myers).

The White Sox and Cubs don't look positioned to cull the cream of what's left, even if the price comes down. Even if they were, neither Chicago team has done well with last-minute additions.

By last-minute, I'm talking about a player signed after the start of February, but before Opening Day. That's when most of the good free agents are off the market, but before the season starts and the roster crunch some teams face creates a different kind of market.

We're just looking at the last 25 years, and not counting the post-strike year in 1995, when the work stoppage pushed free agency back and left everyone scrambling.

First here are the top five late-signing players for the White Sox, and later we'll look at the Cubs:

1. Kevin Tapani (Feb. 3, 1996)
Tapani signed late because while he was a solid innings-eater, he lacked overpowering stuff and owned a less-than-spectacular track record. At the age of 33, there were no takers for his services until the Sox offered him a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

The right-hander lived up to expectations, chewing up 225 innings with an average-ish ERA (4.59 -- average back in the swinging mid-90s) for a team that contended for a wild card before folding late. Like the Sox, Tapani also faded down the stretch, posting a 6.81 ERA in 71 1/3 innings from the start of August until the end of the season.

That didn't stop the Cubs from offering Tapani a five-year, $24 million contract the following offseason to be mostly mediocre, though he was very good in 1997 and almost won Game 1 of the 1998 NLDS against the Braves before Cubs manager Jim Riggleman left him in one batter too long.

As far as what the Sox got out of Tapani, though, they couldn't have really asked for more.

2. Danny Darwin (Feb. 7, 1997)
Darwin was the next-year edition of the Tapani signing. A very solid pitcher over most of his career, Darwin had trouble finding a job as a 41-year-old before the Sox gave him a one-year, $475,000 contract hoping he could help the back end of a suddenly needy rotation that had lost Alex Fernandez and Tapani to free agency and Jason Bere to injury.

While Darwin held up his end of the bargain (4.13 ERA in 113 1/3 IP), the Sox didn't. Other more highly touted (and much higher-paid) free agent pitchers Jaime Navarro and Doug Drabek were disasters, while the offense underwhelmed with a disappointing Albert Belle and Robin Ventura missing to injury.

Controversially, Darwin was packaged with Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez as part of the infamous "White Flag" trade. Other than that, this signing probably far exceeded what the Sox could have asked for.

3. Kenny Lofton (Feb. 1, 2002)
The Sox needed a center fielder while Lofton, just a few months shy of his 35th birthday, was coming off what would be the worst season of his very good career. That understandably scared off would-be suitors, so the Sox swooped in with a one-year, $1 million contract.

Lofton only disappointed people expecting him to recapture the glory days of his mid-20s. For the Sox he batted .259/.348/.418 and swiped 22 bases before being shipped off to the Giants for spare parts. Lofton went on to be a useful, and affordable, piece for contending teams through his 40th birthday. It's just that the 2002 Sox weren't a contending team.

4. Dewayne Wise (March 5, 2008)
This is where the list takes a turn for the worse. Is it a love affair that's still going on to this day? It's easy to be frustrated to see Wise on your team when he's been pressed into duties beyond his abilities. For a fourth outfielder, he still had his moments for the Sox.

5. Wil Cordero (March 23, 1998)
A domestic assault incident the previous year earned Cordero his release from the Red Sox. After a guilty plea in the offseason, the Sox were the only team to offer him a $1 million contract with a team option, only then because of his ties to then-manager Jerry Manuel from their days with the Expos, and his agreement to submit to tests and ongoing counseling.

If this story has any kind of a happy ending, it's that Cordero has seemingly put his history of violence behind him, at least by public indications. His talent was also rehabbed enough to last seven more seasons in the big leagues as a part-time player, though the rebuilding Sox never had much use for him. With Mike Caruso and Ray Durham ensconced in the middle infield, Cordero's inability to make good throws from third base, and lack of a bat big enough (.267/.314/.446 in 371 PAs) for first base or a corner outfield spot, the team said goodbye at the end of the year. be continued when we look at late Cubs signings...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Orioles grab from the bargain bucket again

In another late maneuver, the Orioles signed outfielder Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal.

Nelson Cruz is taking a one-year deal
and will try again for a longer contract
next winter.
Baltimore had been quiet this offseason until signing pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year deal last week. The Orioles decided to wait out the market on Jimenez and Cruz, who reportedly was looking for a contract in the neighborhood of five years and $75 million. Cruz declined the Rangers' qualifying offer of one year and $14 million earlier in the offseason.

It's obvious now Cruz's agent misread the market for his client's services coming off a PED suspension and lacking much in the way of defensive ability.

The Orioles weren't reluctant to snag Cruz at this price, even while having to forfeit a draft pick to do so. Having already given up their first-round pick in the upcoming draft to sign Jimenez, Baltimore only gave up its second-rounder for this deal.

This might not be the end for the Orioles. Having already invested in two bargain free agents, they might also look to fill another gap in their rotation with Ervin Santana, who also languishes on the free agent market.

With the addition of Cruz, Baltimore's lineup looks like:

RF Nick Markakis
3B Manny Machado
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
LF Cruz
SS J.J. Hardy
2B Ryan Flaherty
DH Nolan Reimold/Steve Pearce
C Matt Wieters

That group could be pretty potent, especially if Reimold gets his bat back on track, or the Orioles replace him or Flaherty.

The rotation looks a little more suspect, with Jimenez leading a group that currently includes Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. Baltimore is really crossing its fingers here, along with some key spots in the bullpen.

Still, give the Orioles credit for not submitting in what is annually a tough American League East. There's possibly a case that could be made that the Orioles are still no better than the third- or fourth-best team in that division. Every team there still has its flaws, and with a second wild card now in play, Baltimore is still good enough to be pursuing the postseason instead of joining the ridiculous race to the bottom some other organizations choose to run in the name of attaining marginally more valuable draft slots.

Don't get me wrong, draft picks are an important part of maintaining fiscal flexibility for teams in the face of exploding free agent contracts. The Orioles might be missing out on some cheap young talent by dipping into the free agent pool right now.

Still, if the point of keeping your picks is to reap millions of dollars in savings, it's hard to say Baltimore isn't also saving millions of dollars by vulture-picking players to bargain contracts now late in the offseason.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The White Sox can't be 'Paul Konerko's team' any longer

Paul Konerko's leadership skills will have only a minimal impact on the success or failure of the 2014 White Sox.

There, I said it.

It won't be a popular opinion, especially among lazy reporters who plan to spend the spring and summer beating the "Paulie as mentor" story to death because they can't think of anything else White Sox-related to write about.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad Konerko invited center fielder Adam Eaton over to his house for some batting practice, a couple beers and a shoot-the-bull session. Sox management has asked Konerko to take the young players on the roster under his wing, and to try to pass on some of the wisdom he has gained during his 21 years in professional baseball.

I have no doubt Konerko will perform this task to the best of his abilities, and his efforts can only help these young guys. I don't see how it can hurt.

That said, there's only so much a veteran player can say or do to help age 20-something players who are trying to prove themselves at the big-league level. If it were as simple as having a guy like Konerko pull a young prospect aside for some chit-chat and sage advice after a batting practice session, you wouldn't see so many once-promising players wash out in the major leagues.

Take the case of second baseman Gordon Beckham, who is good friends with Konerko. The two are close enough, in fact, that Beckham's teammates give him a hard time about Konerko being his "dad." Heck, Konerko stood up in Beckham's wedding over the offseason. Think Konerko hasn't been generous with the "fatherly advice" when he's talking with Beckham around the batting cage or in the clubhouse? I'll bet you he has, but that hasn't stopped Beckham from struggling. Despite Konerko's help and good intentions, Beckham has posted a disappointing .249/.314/.380 slash line in five seasons with the Sox. He has never lived up to the potential he had coming out of the University of Georgia as a first-round draft pick.

And you know what? That's not Konerko's fault. Beckham is a grown man and a professional baseball player. He's responsible for his own performance.

That's one thing that is getting lost amid all these stories of Konerko helping out the young guys. He can share what he knows, and he will. But he can't get in the box and hit for these guys. He can't make them establish themselves as major league hitters. He can't make them accept leadership roles. He can't make them take responsibility for their own futures or the future of the White Sox. They have to do that themselves.

It's also worth noting that Konerko can only do so much "leading" from the bench. He's only going to play two or three times a week. We all hope there are a few more big hits in his once-mighty right-handed bat, but he's no longer the cornerstone middle-of-the-lineup presence that he was from 2004-12. He knows it, too. Konerko is still playing to erase the bitter taste of 2013. Hopefully, he'll go out on a decent note, and it will be one last season for the fans and the White Sox to thank him for all he's done for the organization. 

However, his activities both on and off the field are really just a sidebar to what is going to be most important for the White Sox in this 2014 season. This is the year the torch needs to be passed from Konerko to somebody else.

Konerko won't be around to be the "leader" in 2015, so now is the time for other guys to get used to the idea that it's going to be their team for the next several years. Guys like Chris Sale, Beckham, Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana, these are the guys the Sox are counting on to be those cornerstone players in coming seasons.

They cannot and should not sit around deferring to Konerko's leadership any longer. If something needs to be said in the clubhouse, in the dugout or on the field, one the younger guys shouldn't be afraid to say it. Moreover, if something needs to be done on the field, one of the younger guys needs to do it.

Why? Because Konerko is going to be 38 years old, and he's not physically capable of doing it day in and day out anymore. His time is past. For some of these other guys, their time is now. It's their responsibility to seize the day, not Konerko's.

The White Sox have been Paul Konerko's team for the last 15 years. It can't be his team anymore. It's Chris Sale's team now. It's Gordon Beckham's team. It's Adam Eaton's team. It's Avisail Garcia's team.

I just hope they all realize it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Braves smartly investing in young core

A tip for frugality that gets passed around from time to time is to shop in your pantry for dinner instead of buying all new ingredients for that night's meal. Find something you can use that you've already got, and work from there.

Andrelton Simmons tells reporters
how awesome it is to be rich.
The Braves have decided to do something similar this offseason. Instead of focusing on the free agent market, they've instead worked to sign some of their young players to big contract extensions to keep them in Atlanta for years to come.

The latest in the line of extensions was the seven-year, $58 million deal for young shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The Braves decided to go all-in on the 24-year-old after only one full season in the big leagues.

This move came after locking up closer Craig Kimbrel (4 years, $42 million, plus a team option), first baseman Freddie Freeman (8 years, $135 million) and starting pitcher Julio Teheran (6 years, $32.4 million, plus a team option).

These are all big investments in players already on the Braves' roster, and looking at each one individually, each also has its risks.

Simmons is pretty light on experience and hasn't even shown he's an average hitter yet. Freeman has posted only one monster season, his most recent, yet his contract was among the biggest given to a player with his service time. Teheran and Kimbrel are both pitchers who could get hurt. Teheran, like Simmons, also only has one full year of experience, and as good as Kimbrel has been, he's still only a closer expected to throw around 70 innings a year.

Atlanta is definitely agreeing to fork out more money the next few years than it would by going year-to-year, renewing the contracts and taking these players to arbitration when they accrue enough service time for that. 

But here's the way I look at these deals, and I'm sure how the Braves do, too:

Simmons is already an amazing defender and a nonzero with the bat. If he never gets any better, the Braves will get a good value out of this contract. If he makes adjustments and becomes an average or better hitter -- which his minor league track records suggests he can -- then this contract is a massive bargain.

Freeman's huge 2013 came after two good-but-not-great years for a first baseman. But it's hard to fault Freeman for being the best first baseman in the organization as a 21- and 22-year-old. Now just 24, he's already more accomplished than Mark Teixeira was at the same age. Unless something goes wrong, the Braves will be paying much less for the very best years of Freeman's career than the Yankees paid ($180 million) for Teixeira's last great year, three decent years, and what might be four awful, useless years.

The same goes for Kimbrel, who will cost less than other closers such as Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Cordero and ... hold your breath ... B.J. Ryan ... have cost teams on contracts signed over the last decade. Kimbrel could have even eclipsed this total by going to arbitration with his gaudy save and strikeout totals.

Having Teheran under control means not having to plug a rotation hole with an unproven or more expensive player.

And don't forget the pay scale in baseball is only going up right now.

The Braves do lose some flexibility with these deals. If any of these guys gets hurt, or just becomes awful, Atlanta can't just nontender them and walk away. But that's the case when teams choose to sign a player from outside the organization to a huge contract as a free agent. (Too keep it close to Atlanta here, don't you think the Braves wish they could flush Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton and the rest of their contracts down the memory hole?)

Even if the total dollars in these contracts seem eye-popping right now, they still pale in comparison to some of the deals given to players not under team control.

The Braves are climbing on the hook for some big paychecks here, but in return they're keeping the pantry stocked without paying free agent prices, which means they stand to put a good team on the field and save money in the long run.