NEWS ITEM: Nation's Unemployment Rate Hits 2-Year High
Yes, America's unemployment problem remains big news, all right.
But Mark Sweeney's unemployment problem? Not so big news.
Ditto the continued joblessness of Doug Mientkiewicz. And Royce Clayton. And Kevin Mench. And lots and lots and lots of other men who think of themselves as fine, upstanding, theoretically employable baseball players.
But the key word in that previous sentence is definitely "theoretically." Because life as a free agent this winter -- Non-A-Rod Division, at least -- hasn't exactly been a joyous ride down to the nearest multi-millionaires convention.
If Erik Bedard hadn't missed the final five weeks of the season, he would have led the American League in strikeouts. Can you name the only three active left-handers who have led their league in strikeouts? (Answer later.)
Here at World Rumblings Headquarters, we keep a free-agent transaction book every offseason. But we've never seen a winter like this. As of Friday morning, we still had more than 150 names in our book that hadn't been crossed off. Yeah, 150.
That's not guys who played in Korea last year. That's not guys who played in the Gulf Coast League. That's the number of players who have played in the big leagues within the last two years -- counting men who have been released, non-tendered, designated or pretty much forgotten altogether -- who still don't have jobs.
And it's February.
We're not talking about just a bunch of situational relievers or utility infielders, either. This list includes a man who drove in 92 runs (Sammy Sosa). And three guys who hit at least .290 (Kenny Lofton, Shawn Green and Shannon Stewart).
• There has been so much talk for so long about the Cubs trading for Brian Roberts, you might think that deal would go down 30 seconds after the Erik Bedard trade is official. Uh, not so fast. According to teams that have spoken to the Cubs and Orioles, they still haven't settled on any of the specifics. The Orioles would get back a starting pitcher -- either Sean Gallagher or Sean Marshall. But beyond that, nothing is particularly concrete. Felix Pie has been much-rumored as the second piece. But when one baseball man was asked whether Pie was likely to be in the trade, he replied: "I doubt it."
• One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball last year was Bedard's open feud with his old pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, which led to widespread rumblings that Bedard was uncoachable. But one baseball man who knows Bedard laughs at that theory.
"Overrated," he said. "Erik can be stubborn. Very stubborn. But what's so unusual about that? A lot of good pitchers are stubborn. You think (Tom) Glavine and (John) Smoltz agreed with everything Leo said? Hell, no. They were just smarter about it. They might not have agreed with Leo, but at least they listened. Erik didn't listen at all. Those other guys didn't always listen, either. They just didn't broadcast it like Erik did."
• Are Bedard and Felix Hernandez about to become the most dominant top-of-the-rotation tag team in the American League? They just might. Bedard is one of the top half-dozen pitchers in the whole sport. And one AL executive says of Felix: "There's a Josh Beckett season in there somewhere."
We'd take that duo over Beckett-Dice-K, Halladay-Burnett, Wang-Pettitte, Verlander-Bonderman or Lackey-Escobar. But one NL evaluator says he'd still take one pair ahead of all of them -- C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona.
"The reason I don't think Bedard and Felix match them," he said, "is innings. Both guys give you the lefty-righty combo. But C.C. and Carmona give you serious innings. One thing about C.C.: He takes the frigging ball."
• But Bedard and Hernandez aren't the only arms that other teams drool over in that Seattle mix. "The kid I'd like to see them put in that rotation is Brandon Morrow," said one NL executive. "I think you're looking at another (Justin) Verlander."
• One other thing we should mention: Every baseball man we've polled rates the Orioles' return for Bedard as being vastly superior to the Twins' return for Johan Santana, assuming the rumored names are correct.
Adam Jones "oozes tools," said one scout. Another had this review: "I think he'll be a very good offensive player, with exceptional defense." Jones has been compared to both Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron. But the second scout said: "He could be better than either one of those guys." And the primary pitching piece, Chris Tillman, is such a scout favorite that one says: "When it's all said and done, he'll be the one guy in this deal everybody talks about."
"What if I told you I've got interviews today at Home Depot and Bed, Bath and Beyond?" laughed Morgan Ensberg, a man who was one of those members of The Great Jobless Hoards until Thursday. "I heard they've got guys from the Olympics working at Home Depot. So I was, like, 'Dude, I can carry a safe.' I have to believe I'd be one of the more agile people working there."
OK, full disclosure: Just kidding. Ensberg actually knew at the time that he was on the verge of signing with one of a couple of interested teams. (In fact, he did indeed sign a minor league deal with the Yankees on Thursday.) So he wasn't particularly nervous.
But you sure can't say that about all of the other names on our jobless list.
We've often observed that it's amazing how far away spring training seems on Dec. 31 -- and how close it seems on Jan. 1. But when you flip that calendar to February and you still don't have a job, let's just say the old nervous system can tend to act up.
Consider the example of another fellow who didn't have a team to call his own until Friday -- The Mayor himself, Sean Casey. On Friday morning, Casey agreed to a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Red Sox. But as late as Thursday afternoon, he was as frazzled as a relentlessly upbeat guy like him ever gets.
"In December, when I didn't have a job, I thought, 'Hey, that's all right. It's December,'" Casey said. "I figured by the beginning of January, we'd get something done. But then you look up and it's almost February. I talked to my agent the other day. He said, 'Just be patient.' I said, 'How much more patience do I need to have?'"
Excellent question. And the answer is: As much as it takes, obviously. Because this is now, officially, One of Those Years on the always-insane free-agent market.
Not surprisingly, all this inactivity in the old transactions column has been enough to make some people -- players, agents, careful observers of offseason affairs -- just a tad suspicious. And at this point, you can't blame them.
"I don't believe anything that happens in this business is a coincidence," said one agent recently.
"It's the panic of supply and demand," said another agent. "As long as there's more supply than demand, it drives prices down. That's basic economics. As long as it's not intentional and it's not artificially created, I don't have a problem with it."
So is it intentional? Is it artificially created? Makes you wonder. Put it that way.
We asked a bunch of executives from both leagues about this free-agent gridlock. They offered all sorts of plausible explanations.
One of the least compelling free-agent crops ever. Too many interchangeable parts. Too much trade talk involving bigger names, which held up the market. The Mitchell Report. Renewed emphasis on younger players. Yada, yada, yada.
As we said, it's all plausible. It's all true. But that doesn't mean it isn't weird.
Granted, A-Rod got his $275 million. Francisco Cordero raked in $46 million. Carlos Silva -- CARLOS SILVA! -- scribbled an autograph worth $48 million. ("Carlos Silva," muttered one NL executive, "won the Powerball and the Mega Millions at the same time.")
So as long as you have your requisite share of crazy contracts, as long as there's movement, as long as every offer to each player isn't identical to every other team's offer, it's tough to define this as classic collusion.
But if you don't think it's at least classic strategy, you're giving the men who run baseball way too little credit.
"I haven't been rattled for one second," Ensberg insisted. "But I've talked to some friends -- guys that I've played with, I'm talking legitimate players -- and they said they haven't even gotten a single call back. I'm not talking about offers. Simply a phone call. I don't know how many guys are left out there or how exactly this works. But it does seem a little strange."
Sure does. Why, for instance, would a 33-year-old, .301 lifetime hitter like Casey have found himself jobless all the way into February? True, he only hit four home runs last year. But after a slow start, he did basically what he always has done for a decade -- get his hits.
After May 1, Casey's stat line looked like this: .317 avg./.372 on-base/.424 slugging. Compare that to, say, J.D. Drew in the same period (.269/.373/.429). Or Jeff Francoeur (.290/.332/.426). Or Delmon Young (.294/.323/.410).
All those guys managed to stay employed. But of course, they were younger. Or under contract already. But Casey picked a rough winter to be a free agent -- a winter full of suggestions like, "If you played another position besides just first base "
"If I played some outfield or a little third base, I'd have signed two months ago," the Mayor told Rumblings the other day.
"Here's an idea," we told him. "Do you have a catcher's mask?"
"I could do that," he said. "I could catch. But my career would be over in about four innings."
Luckily for him, it never came to that. Luckily for him, the Red Sox finally figured out he was exactly the kind of supplemental left-handed bat they needed.
But for his 149 unemployed buddies, the job hunt goes on. And on. And on. And in case we hadn't mentioned this before
Rumbling through the February jungle
Rumblings of the week
BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
We have a Fernando Valenzuela sighting. Although he's now (theoretically) 47 years old, Valenzuela busted out his Fernando-mania act three times this winter for those Mexicali Aguilas of the Mexican Pacific League. Here's his line for the winter:
0-0, 8.10 ERA, 6 2/3 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
OF THE WEEK
Octavio Dotel has made 354 consecutive relief appearances over the last seven seasons. But that didn't stop the White Sox from tossing a $25,000 incentive clause into his new deal just in case he's named to be the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
GEOGRAPHERS OF THE WEEK
Finally, it's been a while between Rumblings columns. (Sorry 'bout that.) But in our last Rumblings, we nominated the claiming of Ryan Houston by the Houston Astros as our favorite transaction of the winter -- and challenged you loyal readers to come up with any other player who played in the same city as his last name.
Well, nobody could find one -- for good reason. It's never happened. But we had some tremendous, creative nominations nonetheless. So here are some of our favorites:
• Loyal reader Jon Dee reported that A.J. (Arlington John) Murray pitched for the Rangers last season -- who play in Arlington, Texas, of course.
• Loyal reader Travis Nelson checked the middle-name small print and found that the Cleveland Indians have employed players named Grover Cleveland Land, Grover Cleveland Lowdermilk and Grover Cleveland (Lefty) Stewart. Which caused Nelson to conclude: "That Grover Cleveland was either a heckuva president or he was paying people to name their babies after him."
• Travis Nelson also noticed there's a minor league outfielder named Jeremy Cleveland out there. He's in the Padres' system, but that just makes him a transaction waiting to happen, right?
• Lastly, there was the most inventive entry of all, from loyal reader Michael Maher. While Daryl Boston never did play for Boston, Maher did come up with a list of former and current Red Sox players whose last names were also towns or cities in Massachusetts. Here they are, for the Rands and McNallys in all of us:
The Sox have never had a player named Marblehead. But does Manny Ramirez qualify?
• Don't look now, but we're only a year away from the next edition of the World Baseball Classic. The dates will essentially be the same. The countries participating are expected to be the same 16 as last time. But two big changes are in the works. One is that the entire first round will be played outside the United States (exact sites to be determined, but feel free to book those Tokyo flights). The other is the elimination of those incomprehensible tiebreaker rules in the first two rounds -- a gimmick that allowed the United States to advance instead of Canada last time, even though they both went 2-1 in the first round. You can call off those international-incident alerts. From now on, it's double-elimination, so all ties will be played off.
• We polled 12 front-office types this week on whether they thought the Phillies or post-Johan Mets would win the NL East. Ten of them took the Mets. But one who didn't, an NL executive, was adamant that the Phillies have an energy and a personality the Mets lack.
"I'm talking about the way guys like (Jimmy) Rollins and (Chase) Utley and (Shane) Victorino play," he said. "Guys like that find ways to grind out wins. The Mets don't have those kinds of guys. Both those teams had a lot of guys who got hurt last year. But after the Mets got hurt, they didn't play the same way. Chase Utley got hurt and the Phillies kept on coming. To me, that's because that 'gamer quotient' was still there."
• Once the Santana trade is done, expect the Mets to swoop into the free-agent market to add an outfielder to replace Carlos Gomez. One name they've kicked around: Kenny Lofton.
• The Braves, believe it or not, are actually expecting Javy Lopez to head north as their backup catcher, even though he didn't play one game last season. Lopez called Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia, a former roving catching instructor, in October and told him he was open to a No. 2 catcher's job and was committed to improving his throwing and defense. After Cadahia worked with him for two months, he called GM Frank Wren and recommended they give Lopez a chance. So between Mike Hampton and Lopez, this team might lead the league in Comeback Player of the Year candidates.
• The whole free-agent process never ceases to astound us. How come, say, Chan Ho Park got a job months ago, but a quality human being, and potentially valuable puzzle piece, like Mike Sweeney was still scraping around for low-budget employment this week? Clubs that are believed to have at least some mild interest in Sweeney: Yankees, A's, Rangers, Giants and Padres.
• One of the most uttered sentences in baseball lately, once it became clear the Yankees preferred keeping Phil Hughes to trading for Santana, was: "Phil Hughes had better be good." Yankees GM Brian Cashman has, essentially, staked his job and reputation on Hughes, since Principal Son Hank Steinbrenner obviously would have voted to deal for Santana. If the Yankees sputter and Hughes doesn't make an impact (at age 21, remember), don't expect Steinbrenner to show much patience -- with Hughes or his GM.
• Nobody accumulates potentially useful pitching options like the Braves. They quietly signed one-time 14-game winner Ryan Drese late last summer, content to let him ease back from Tommy John surgery. Now they're bringing him to camp with an eye toward stashing him at Richmond until they need him.
• Pedro Feliz may not be Mike Schmidt reincarnate, but here's one reason he's an important signing: The Phillies were one of only two teams in baseball last year that got twice as many errors (25) as homers (11) at third base. (Pittsburgh was the other.) "He's a hell of a third baseman," one scout said of Feliz. "And he might hit 40 home runs in that park." Then again, he might not. But A-Rod had more home runs by last April 20 than the Phillies' three third basemen hit all year combined. So at the very least, Feliz is a legit upgrade.
• If the Orioles don't get a big league-ready starter out of the Bedard deal, there are rumblings they might bring back Steve Trachsel to chew up some innings.
• We're hearing talk that the Padres are so happy with how phenom Chase Headley's experimental conversion from third base to left field is going, they're rethinking whether they really need to add another outfielder before spring training.
Randy Johnson (duh), Johan Santana (double duh) and the guy who wound up leading the AL in whiffs last season when Bedard didn't -- Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir. (If you didn't get that one, don't you feel like giving up answering trivia questions forever?)
• Rumors of David Wells' demise may be premature. Wells' agent, Gregg Clifton, has been telling teams Wells wants to play one more year and doesn't care what time zone or zip code he plays in. Some window-shopping so far, but no aggressive bidders.
• And speaking of ageless wonders, you may find this hard to believe, but it's beginning to look as though Julio Franco won't be playing until he's 60 after all. The Braves aren't interested. The Mets aren't interested. Haven't heard his name anywhere. Franco's first big league at-bat was against Bob Forsch, on April 23, 1982. Forsch has now been retired for 19 years.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.