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Problems go beyond Torborg
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Jeff Torborg to Jack McKeon really isn't the point. What happened with A.J. Burnett and the pitch counts, followed by Josh Beckett grabbing his elbow and Brad Penny grasping his back, were part of what cost Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg their jobs in a season in which club president David Samson predicted the Phish would not only have the second winning season in their history, but they would win at least 91 games.
The issue of pitch counts and injuries and the prehistoric approach baseball has so long taken with pitchers is, by and large, an industry-wide foible, with a few bright lights understanding the notion of prehab that a few pitching coaches like Rick Peterson of the A's and Larry Rothschild of the Cubs, as well as Dr. James Andrews/Dr. Glenn Fleisig pupils Stan Conte of the Giants and Chris Correnti of the Red Sox have implemented.
With four-fifths of their rotation now down with varied injuries, the hope that so infected general manager Larry Beinfest and many in the organization this spring is now all but dashed. Now comes the reality: by spring training next season, they likely will not have Luis Castillo, Derrek Lee, Mike Lowell and Burnett in the organization. Granted, they have two very good prospects in third baseman Miguel Cabrera (.404, 7 HR in Double-A) and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but with Castillo a free agent, Lee and Lowell due close to $12 million between them in arbitration and Burnett too risky and expensive at $4 million next season, Beinfest will be forced to decide when and if the club is out of it and try to get prospects to go with Cabrera, Gonzalez and Juan Pierre.
"The problem he faces is that in the last year any team trading contracts for prospects has had to include money in the deal to fray the cost of the contracts and buy the low-salaried, low-service time prospects," one NL GM said. "With the Marlins' attendance and perceptual problems, it will be hard to do."
Major League Baseball has Florida, Tampa Bay and Detroit to worry about, as well Montreal. But a year after Bud Selig and the owners decided that a strike to fix its financial problems was a greater long-term evil than settling on an agreement that essentially punished only the Yankees (as if George Steinbrenner really cares), while there may be more competitive balance, it seems more of a reflection of the natural settling of the game's economy.
Is this a great upcoming free-agent market? No, but pretty good, especially when one throws in some of the players whose arbitration numbers could run them out of their towns, like Carlos Beltran, Javier Vazquez, Lee and Scott Williamson.
Prominent 2003 free agents (* club option for 2004):
Starters Position Players Bartolo Colon, ChW Rafael Palmeiro, 1B, Tex. Andy Pettitte, NYY Roberto Alomar, 2B, NYM Kevin Millwood, Phi. Luis Castillo, 2B, Fla. Sidney Ponson, Bal. Carl Everett, OF, Tex. Cory Lidle, Tor. Juan Gonzalez, OF, Tex. David Wells, NYY* Miguel Tejada, SS, Oak. Glendon Rusch, Mil.* Rich Aurilia, SS, S.F. Rick Reed, Min.* Barry Larkin, SS, Cin. Hideo Nomo, L.A.* Shannon Stewart, OF, Tor. Livan Hernandez, Mon.* Mike Cameron, OF, Sea. Andy Ashby, L.A.* Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Mon. Relievers Javy Lopez, C, Atl. Armando Benitez, NYM Damian Miller, C, ChC Keith Foulke, Oak. Brad Ausmus, C, Hou. Kelvim Escobar, Tor. Dan Wilson, C, Sea. Steve Kline, StL Ellis Burks, DH, Cle.* Antonio Osuna, NYY* Moises Alou,OF, ChC* Felix Rodriguez, S.F.* Brian Jordan, OF, L.A. Scott Sullivan, Cin.* J.T. Snow, 1B, S.F.* Gabe White, Cin.* Jose Valentin, SS, ChC Antonio Alfonseca, ChC Fernando Vina, 2B, StL* Mark Grudzielanek, 2B, ChC* Fernando Tatis, 3B, Mon.* Pokey Reese, 2B, Pit.* Kaz Matsui, SS, Japan
Players whose projected arbitration salary numbers may be too high for their current teams to keep, or at least bear watching:
Javier Vazquez, RHP, Expos $10 million Orlando Hernandez, RHP, Expos $4.75 million Jose Vidro, 2B, Expos $7.5 million Orlando Cabrera, SS, Expos $4.75 million Michael Barrett, C, Expos $4.1 million Tony Armas Jr., RHP, Expos $4 million Derrek Lee, 1B, Marlins $7.25 million Mike Lowell, 3B, Marlins $5.6 million Juan Encarnacion, OF, Marlins $5 million A.J. Burnett, RHP, Marlins $4.1 million Carl Pavano, RHP, Marlins $3 million Carlos Beltran, OF, Royals $11 million Roy Halladay, RHP, Blue Jays $6.2 million Jose Jimenez, RHP, Rockies $6.2 million Byung-Hyun Kim, RHP, D-Backs $5.5 million Kerry Wood, RHP, Cubs $9 million Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers $5 million Placido Polanco, 2B, Phillies $4.3 million Aaron Boone, 3B, Reds $5.5 million Ryan Dempster, RHP, Reds $5 million Scott Williamson, RHR, Reds $3.8 million Freddy Garcia, RHP, Mariners $9 million Randy Winn, OF, Mariners $5 million Carlos Guillen, SS, Mariners $4.75 million Jason Johnson, RHP, Orioles $5 million Carlos Lee, OF, White Sox $5.75 million Erubiel Durazo, 1B, A's $5.4 million
The question, however, is where the market is going. "What we saw last winter wasn't collusion, it was the market reversal so many of us saw last summer," another AL GM said. "The national economy is flat, and probably will be until everything in the Middle East is past; don't think owners haven't lost billions in their real worlds. Attendance is flat across the game. After Philadelphia and San Diego open their stadiums next year, there are no new ballparks on the horizon, as the economy and politics have blocked attempts in New York, Boston, Minnesota and Florida to get new facilities; what did parks do for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, anyway?
"Then," the GM continued, "there are the concerns about future television contracts. That Fox deal isn't likely to walk through the door. And while we may have new ownerships in Anaheim, L.A. and Atlanta, will they splurge? That's not Bill Stoneman's style and he's supposed to have a strong say with the new Angels ownership."
General managers point to two other major factors in the feeling that the immediate future of the free-agent market will likely be spotty. "I think most general managers feel empowered to be fiscally conservative because of what happened with the Angels and Giants last year," one GM said. "Most of our owners look at the Yankees as one team in a league of their own. Then they look at the Mets and contrast them with Anaheim, San Francisco, Oakland, Minnesota and Montreal."
The other issue is a major one: Insurance. "It's not only prohibitively expensive to insure players," the GM said, "but no prior injury can be covered. If the Red Sox lose Pedro Martinez next year, tough. They're out $17.5 million, 12-15 percent of their payroll. Pitchers are limited to three years of coverage. Mo Vaughn was covered under the old industry contracts, but the Mets have a 90-day deductible, so they can't start collecting until August, and then they get back 75 percent of what's owed. If he cannot play next season, he has to remain on the 40-man roster to get 75 percent of his contract paid off.
"But those insurance deals will be harder to get." The Indians found out that Juan Gonzalez cannot be covered for back or shoulder injuries, for instance.
"I think you'll see clubs willing to go higher for one- or two-year contracts, but not long term," a GM said. "There is too much serious risk. A middle-market team cannot afford to be paying someone $12 million not to play. Unless you're the Yankees, you have to have your best players on the field and your stars have to play like stars. Why does Oakland stay in it every year? Because Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson are never hurt. But what happens to the Red Sox next year when they're paying Martinez, (Nomar) Garciaparra and Manny (Ramirez) $50 million? Even with a payroll in the top five, with the money they pay their stars, if those stars -- the three and Derek Lowe --don't play like stars, they're in trouble."
The industry has had a clear pattern. Check multi-year contracts:
2003 50 2002 79 2001 122 2000 90 1999 121
Think back to the early days of the Fox deal, when Shawn Green, Kevin Brown, Carlos Delgado and others got huge deals. Or the winter of 2000-2001, when Alex Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Mike Mussina and Chipper Jones signed six of the 11 biggest total deals, ever.
Total contract package:
$30-40M $40-60M $60-252M 1998-99 11 0 5 1999-2000 1 1 1 2000-01 6 5 9 2001-02 7 2 6 2002-03 4 1 3
Since 1998, the Cubs, Mets, Yankees and Athletics are the only teams that have increased payroll every year. And while the Mets will lose several contracts -- Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Armando Benitez for three -- at the end of the season, if they give Guerrero whatever he wants, if they go to a dangerous level of $130 million and cannot get the insurance money on Vaughn, is it worth putting 15 percent of the payroll into one player and 50 percent in four players, including Mike Piazza, Tom Glavine and Al Leiter when they also need a second baseman, center fielder, a closer and perhaps even another starter?
"There just are very limited markets for the seven-figure players," said one NL GM. "It won't be easy for the Royals to move Carlos Beltran for three prospects, knowing he's going to make $11 million next season and then can be a free agent. Let's say Boston decides to trade Nomar Garciaparra at the end of the season. With Miguel Tejada, Kaz Matsui and Rich Aurilia out there on the market, it may be difficult to get two or three potential star young players because whoever gets him has to sign him in the shadow of the A-Rod and Jeter contracts -- even if those were signed in a different economy."
Difficult decisions face the Red Sox in the next 18 months; if they re-sign Garciaparra, Martinez and Lowe and two of the three get hurt or old, they are out of luck, doomed to average performance.
It impacts big markets, and small markets. Just ask the Florida Marlins. Goodbye Jeff Torborg and Brad Arnsberg, your bosses are blaming you for the arm injuries. Now the reality: the March promise of a contending team will be the August promise of another coming attraction.
Oh yes. And next year Mike Hampton will be their highest-paid player.
That's just the way it is.
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