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Tuesday, April 8
Dipping into the e-mailbag

By Rob Neyer

No sooner does the season start than I get desperately behind in reading my e-mail, let alone answering it. So today I'm taking a hack at the backlog, which won't do much to reduce the e-pile but will make me feel a little better about the situation ...

    Hey Rob,

    I just saw that the Sox picked up Pedro Martinez's option for $17.5 million ... Please correct me if my line of thinking is wrong here. A lot of people think it's Boston's worst nightmare to sign Pedro for, say, five years and $90 million (conservative estimate) and then have him mess up his arm for good. But actually, their worst nightmare is for him to not mess up his arm and pitch five more great years ... with the Yankees.

    Pedro Martinez
    Starting pitcher
    Boston Red Sox
    2 15 0-0 1 12 0.60

    The Sox have a $90 million payroll (conservative estimate, again). If Billy Beane can put together a perennially contending team in Oakland with less than $45 million ... So Pedro signs for $16M per, blows out his shoulder, and then the Sox have $16M a year in dead money for five years.

    That limits their payroll to "only" $75M a year beyond that, which should still be enough. Not only that, but the fans in Boston will crucify (GM) Theo Epstein if Pedro ever pitches in pinstripes. That's over-simplifying, of course, but if I'm Theo Epstein, I sign Pedro tomorrow and don't think twice about it. Wouldn't you do the same?

    -- Justin Zeth

You're right, Justin; that's an over-simplification.

But you're also right, in that the Red Sox didn't have much choice here. When Pedro Martinez extended his "deadline" -- which, as it turned out, really wasn't a deadline at all -- he essentially forced the Red Sox to pick up the 2004 option on his contract. If they hadn't, it would have been public-relations and a player-relations nightmare. And with their early bullpen problems, the last thing management needs is a problem with their best player.

Unfortunately, picking up the 2004 option on Pedro's contract does not give them two seasons of comfort, as I'm sure they would like. Instead, the moment this season ends, the whole process will start again, with Pedro saying that if the Red Sox really want him, they'll sign him to a long-term extension that carries him far past 2004. And the Red Sox aren't going to enjoy that position any more next spring than they did this spring.

So for Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox, the 2003 season constitutes a six-month tryout. If he's healthy and pitches well, the Red Sox will almost certainly sign him to that big extension, one that will probably cover the rest of this decade. If he's not healthy, the Sox might at least consider letting Martinez pitch in 2004 without an extension, distractions be damned.


    Whoa ... I'm listening to ESPN radio, and Peter Gammons just said that he and others believe that the Pirates have improved enough to "be around" come Labor Day. I'm blinking hard just thinking about that. I know that (GM) Dave Littlefield has turned the franchise in a better direction ... but this year? Come on ...

    Any thoughts?

    Patrick Byrnett
    Washington, D.C.

Sure, Gammons is crazy ...

Crazy like a fox.

Seriously, I think that Peter has probably fallen prey to something I like to call April Fever, which unfortunately is contagious but fortunately is rarely fatal.

On the other hand, some team is going to surprise us this year. Last year it was the Angels, the year before that it was the Phillies, and the year before that it was the White Sox, and the year before that it was the Diamondbacks, and the year before ... well, you get the point.

Yes, it's easy to shoot holes in the Pirates' chances, but then it's easy to shoot holes in the chances of every team that nobody projected as a contender before the season. But at least one of those teams will still be hanging around the wild-card race when Labor Day rolls around, and I'm not convinced that the Pirates won't be that team.

Speaking of teams that look a lot better now than they did a month ago ...


    Are you going to write about the Royals' early success and their chances of actually being a decent club this year? Or are you afraid to jinx your favorite team?

    Thanks, and keep up the wonderful articles.

    -- Lee Albert

Thanks for writing, Lee.

I don't believe in jinxes, but then I don't believe in the Royals, either.

Mike MacDougal
Relief pitcher
Kansas City Royals
3 3 3 1 4 0.00

I want to believe -- man, you talk about your surprise teams -- but there just doesn't seem to be enough pitching there, even if Runelvys Hernandez does get through the entire season without a loss and Mike MacDougal doesn't blow a save all season. So while the Royals looked to me like a 100-loss team before the season, now they look like a 95-loss team.

Which is fine.

When you're a fan of a lousy team, you learn to take your small pleasures where you can find them, and revel in baby steps toward respectability.

Though I'm almost certain that the Royals' 5-0 record -- the best in the American League, not that anybody's counting -- is little more than a mirage, that doesn't mean I didn't spend five minutes Sunday night, five more minutes Monday afternoon, and five more minutes this morning, just staring at the standings and enjoying the moment.

And I like the direction the Royals are taking. There was nothing more frustrating than watching the Royals lose with the likes of Chuck Knoblauch and Roberto Hernandez, and knowing that even if the Royals ever became competitive again, it wouldn't be with those guys on the roster. Now all those guys are gone -- well, all of them except Michael Tucker -- so at least if the Royals lose, they'll lose with players who have a chance to be around when they win.

Before we leave the Royals, I'd like to clear up something about Mike Sweeney's contract, which everybody seems to get wrong. Sweeney is locked up through 2004. If the Royals reach .500 in either the 2003 or the 2004 season, then a contract extension kicks in that could keep Sweeney with the Royals through 2007. If the Royals do not finish at .500 or better in at least one of those two seasons, then he can become a free agent after the 2004 season.

And even if they don't reach .500 in 2003 or '04, I'm not at all convinced that he'd leave. Given the current market, it's unlikely that he'd match his projected Royal salaries on the free market, so there's a good chance he'd stay if the franchise seems to making any sort of significant progress.

My column from last Friday, comparing Honus Wagner to Alex Rodriguez, resulted in a fair number of comments, most of them similar to this ...


    Just a quick note, and I'm sure you heard it before. My contention is that any modern-day offensive superstar would blow away any old era player. I know all the counter-arguments, or at least most of 'em. However, being African-American, I have my own argument: players like Honus Wagner quite possibly were not tested against the best players of their day. I'll take it a step further ... in my mind I discount any record and/or eye-popping stats made before 1947. The argument can even be made to discount stats for a few years after that, as the major leagues were painfully slow to integrate.

    Short and sweet, there it is. Any article I see that compares modern-era ballplayers to their ancient counterparts, I read with amusement. Simply put, they were playing against and with a talent pool that was not chosen solely on the basis of talent.

    Thank you,
    Mark G. Willis

Yeah, I have heard it before, including a dozen or so times since last Friday's column. And I think there's something to it. It's generally more difficult to dominate in 2003 than it was in 1903. This is true for a number of reasons, and the color line is certainly one of the biggest.

Similarly, I believe that Mickey Mantle wasn't quite as good as we think he was, because most of the great black players of Mantle's era played in the other league (and by "black players," I mean players who simply wouldn't have been allowed to play Organized Baseball before World War II).

But we can take this line of reasoning too far. In 20 years, will we be downgrading the players of the 1990s because they didn't have to compete with the best Japanese players? Today, should we downgrade the players of the 1960s because the majors weren't yet populated with large numbers of players from the Dominican Republic?

I think that you generally have to take the major leagues as they are, and give players for doing what they did, rather than what they might have done if only the conditions had been what we wish they'd been.

Sure, it's pretty obvious that if Wagner had been forced to face all of the best pitchers, his amazing numbers wouldn't be quite so amazing. And I suppose that if he played today, he might not even be good enough to play in the majors.

But if that's the way we play the ratings game, then it's really, really easy. Alex Rodriguez is better than Cal Ripken, who's better than Ernie Banks, who's better than Arky Vaughan, who's better than Honus Wagner. Gee, that was fun.

I don't have a problem with a time-line adjustment. I don't mind considering the fact that Honus Wagner didn't have to face Sol White and the other great black pitchers of his era. And after doing those things, I still say that Honus Wagner is obviously the greatest shortstop who ever played the game.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is

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