Posted on: February 29, 2012 6:18 pm

Baseball hits grand slam with new playoff system

The new slightly expanded playoff system was always going to pass. There never was a doubt. And there is an easy way to explain why that is: what Bud wants, Bud gets.

But there is another good reason in this case. It makes sense.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig wanted to add two more teams to the playoff mix, two play-in teams, actually, that will vie to become the wild-card team in a one-game playoff. Selig's support all but guaranteed it would happen eventually.

Though even with Bud's backing, the other thing you know is that these things always go right down to the deadline. Tomorrow is the official deadline to change the playoff format, though this is in reality a soft deadline, meaning it may take another day or two past the deadline to finalize things. But it will pass in time to make it happen for the 2012 baseball season.

Another reason it will pass is that there is no real opposition to the concept. The only reason it's taken right up until the deadline is that there are complicated scheduling and TV issues to be worked out. MLB needs to satisfy its TV partners as well as the players, who are the ones who will be performing in these extra games.

The new rule will put a greater premium on the regular season. Now it will be a bigger advantage to win the division as opposed because it means avoiding the winner-take-all play-in game.

Adding the ninth and 10th teams to the postseason mix opens things up a bit, too -- though not too much. Baseball -- and Bud -- are striking exactly the right note here.
Category: MLB
Tags: Bud Selig
Posted on: February 29, 2012 10:32 am
Edited on: February 29, 2012 1:22 pm

Cards understand Yadi's value; looks like $75M

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals are about to sign Yadier Molina to a five-year deal believed to be worth $75 million, and though this deal certainly cannot be considered a discount, the Cards could not take a chance on losing him.

Folks will look at Molina's new contract, which a source suggested should come in at right about $75 million and is expected to be finalized soon, as a partial make-good after losing all-time great Albert Pujols to the Angels this winter. However, that is unfair to Molina, who is the best defensive catcher in baseball as well as the best throwing catcher. He had a very nice offensive year last season with 14 home runs, 65 RBI and a .305 batting average, but Molina's value goes well beyond that. The team has not only been a perennial winner in his tenure, but it has fairly consistently outperformed expectations, including two unexpected World Series championships. Some of that might have to do with an under-rating of Pujols' value or underestimating of ex-manager Tony La Russa's impact, or even Dave Duncan's. But a lot of baseball people think it is because of Molina.

Beyond the fact that he a three-time All-Star and a four-time Gold Glove winner, he may be the most underappreciated impact player in the game. He is obviously not by the Cardinals, but by others. The biggest key to their title defense is not how they replace Pujols' offense but how they pitch, and it is hard to measure the importance of Molina's throwing, blocking and gamecalling ability. Molina respectfully declined comment this morning when asked about his contract situation, but sources suggest it appears headed toward finalization.

Molina is only 29, so the extension covers years 30-34, meaning there is a decent chance he'll still be productive at the end of the deal. The salary, assuming it comes in at $75 million, will make him the second-highest paid catcher ever behind Joe Mauer ($184 million, eight years), even ahead of Mike Piazza, ($91 million, seven years) and Jorge Posada ($52 million, four years). And though he obviously isn't the hitter they were, the value of having a great defensive catcher sometimes goes overlooked.

Glad to see the Cardinals, one of the smarter front offices in baseball, understood that.

Category: MLB
Posted on: February 27, 2012 4:53 pm
Edited on: February 27, 2012 5:07 pm

Francona all wet with rip of Bobby V.'s beer ban

Terry Francona derided his Red Sox managerial replacement Bobby Valentine's decision to ban beer in Boston's clubhouse as a "PR move'' while talking on one of his new employer's new shows. That banning beer became obvious and necessary due to Francona running a Romper Room the previous year was never mentioned.

Francona can have an opinion here if he wants, but it needs to be said in context. And here's the proper context: Francona's lax policing of a clubhouse gone wild necessitated this move by Valentine, which he likely would have done anyway.

Valentine banned alcohol in the Mets clubhouse and, as he pointed out, nearly 20 clubs have banned alcohol. Why the other 10 haven't remains a mystery.

Nothing good can come from drinking in a clubhouse, and the Red Sox's in-game beer drinking by three of its key pitchers last year covered that team in shame. Two, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, owned up to their mistake. How about Francona owning up to the fact he took a paycheck to do practically nothing last year?

Francona was there, but he wasn't there. He needed to speak to several of his players last year, and he blew it off. Instead, he called a team meeting, when at least 20 of the guys in the meeting probably wondered why Francona wasn't calling in Lester, Beckett and John Lackey individually. He mishandled the situation, and he managed to lose a job he appeared to own.

Now he's spouting off for cash. As Valentine -- who in a twist was Francona's TV predecessor -- said in a retort to the Red Sox writers: "Remember, you're getting paid over there for saying stuff. You get paid over here for doing stuff. I've done both.''

Francona will continue to get paid for saying stuff. But it is a more valid opinion when he targets someone other than the one guy in baseball who took his job.

Posted on: February 27, 2012 3:29 pm
Edited on: February 27, 2012 4:42 pm

Fred Wilpon shoots high, predicts survival

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Every year, kindly Mets owner Fred Wilpon gives his state-of-the-Mets address at about this time in spring training, and of course his predictions in recent years have, for the most part, overshot reality. This year, he offered predictions for both the team and himself, giving himself a chance for the first time to go 0-for-2.

First, about the team, Wilpon said, "I'm very optimistic that this team will be far better than you guys have reported. We're going to surprise some people.'' A snappy comeback might suggest that they'd surprise folks merely by winning a third of their games or even beating the '62 Mets.

As for the bigger question about franchise ownership, Wilpon said of himself and brother-in-law Saul Katz, "We plan to own the franchise for a very long time.'' Then, Wilpon, an eminently pleasant man, added his own punchline, saying something along the lines of "whether people or happy about that or not.''

The Mets arrived in camp with their first sub-$100-million team in a long time, the result of an unprecedented $50-million cut from their $140 million paryoll of a year ago. Their spin on it is they didn't finish the year with the big payroll and that their previous year's payroll was bloated with non-productive players, including the two now unmentionables, the perenially-picked on Oliver Perez plus Luis Castillo.

The reality is that no New York team should have a payroll as puny as $90 something million dollars, unless they've done such a terrific job of picking talent that they've gathered many underpaid players. That obviously isn't the case here. Their players are generally paid handsomely for what they bring.

Obviously, the biggest name hanging over camp continues to be Madoff. Some of the more inquisitive players are continuing to ask about what's going on with the case regarding the all-time crook, as everyone here knows it affects everything. Wilpon explained that his prediction when the scandal broke that Madoff would not affect the team came when "we weren't being sued.'' Wilpon's contention is they would have been fine had Madoff trustee Irving Picard not sued them for clawback monies and more. But now it's still uncertain whether they'll be fine.

Now they definitely can't say Madoff hasn't affected things. Sure, they have been losing and having trouble drawing. But does one respond to that by returning with a payroll that's $50 million lower? Of course not. Madoff hangs in the air.

Wilpon, pressed a bit, did admitt Madoff had some effect on the greatly lowered payroll, which included the loss of superstar Jose Reyes to the rival Marlins. Speaking specifically about Reyes and Madoff, Wilpon said, "It has had some effect, but that was not the deciding factor.''

Wilpon maintained, though, that the Mets made an offer to Reyes that would have allowed him to make close to $100 million (with many incentives), in opposition to Reyes' contention 40 miles down the road in Jupiter, where he repeated again just Sunday that there was never an offer for him. (It's possible that the Mets suggested that that's where they might go, which in Wilpon's mind must count as an offer, though in reality it technically is not an offer to Reyes, not when there's a concrete $106 million waiting in Miami.)

Madoff isn't only hanging over the team, it is hanging over the ownership team of Wilpon and Saul Katz. Wilpon can speak optimistically about his chances for ownership survival, and he might end up being right about it, but it's too early to know for sure.  Picard is still looking for $300-million more from them at a time when they are in debt to a lot of folks already. "We'll see,'' Wilpon said. "Things will be a lot clearer in the next few months.''

Wilpon's future with the team is going to come down to the court cases that will likely be played out soon. One person familiar with the issues said he believes Wilpon and Katz "need a lot of things to go right'' to survive as owners. But one thing you have to say about Wilpon and Katz, they are nothing if not survivors.

It's not sure the same could be said for their diminishing team. 

Category: MLB
Tags: Fred Wilpon, Mets
Posted on: February 26, 2012 8:40 pm
Edited on: March 1, 2012 8:37 pm

Marlins, Ozzie, Loria make fun 3-ring circus

JUPITER, Fla. -- When someone suggested to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria that the Marlins "certainly would be entertaining,'' Loria corrected that person. "More than entertaining,'' Loria said.
"Don't sell us short,'' he further advised.

That probably won't happen, not with two of the game's better salesmen in tow. The best, of course, has to be new manager Ozzie Guillen, who had the players in stitches in his pre-preseason speech, according to Mark Buehrle, who like Guillen came to the Marlins from the White Sox. Guillen saved his best for the speech, because he was maybe too tired to be his outlandish self by the end of the workout, when he finally met with the media.

The speech to the team, though, was said to have been doozy, covering everything up to and including ballplayer patriotism (on that score, he told his troops, "I expect to see everyone get up on that bleeeing step'' for the national anthem). One of the more substantive speech highlights, according to Marlins players, came when Guillen reminded them how much money Loria spent on this team, and also told them he didn't want to see them waste it. An old veteran pooh-poohed the impact of the speech, yet this much is true: the Marlins clubhouse seemed lmuch more alive than ever before.

Some of that has to do with a mix of talent so enticing that when they looked around, it could do nothing but excite them, no matter how much Loria, the other great salesman, spent. (For the record, it was $191 million between shortstop Jose Reyes, lefty starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell alone). Indeed, there is a lot to love about this team, including the manager and owner who taken together make it three rings in this circus.

The Marlins have maybe the player with the most power of any in the majors in Mike Stanton. They have the player who may be the fastest in the game in Emilio Bonificio. And, for good measure, they have the one who may have the most to prove in the perpetually temperamental Carlos Zambrano after the Cubs wanted him gone so badly they paid all but $3 million of his $18-million salary to be rid of him. (Though talented new third baseman Hanley Ramirez may not be far behind in that competition.)

Whatever happens there, Loria isn't going to be able to pull a John Henry and act like he wasn't behind the Zambrano deal since Loria said, "The trade was made with my enthusiastic support. I don't care what's happened before. The page is turned''

What happens next is really what's on the mind of the Marlins. The excitement truly was palpable in a clubhouse filled with interesting people. "This team has a lot of personalities,'' Loria allowed.

They also have the friendly lefthander Buehrle, a transplanted American Leaguer. They have the chatty veteran closer, Heath Bell. They have the superstar on the move, Ramirez. They have the safety-last veteran outfielder Aaron Rowand, another of Guillen's former White Sox. And they have the baseball's twitter champion, Logan Morrison, who last year upset his bosses with some dazzling tweets (though truth be told, they were much tamer than those of Giuillen's youngest son Oney, who used to rip his daad's boss Ken Williams all the time in tweets).

For now Guillen has no complaints with anything here, certainly not Loria, whose big winter disappointment was the failure to sign superstar first baseman Albert Pujols, which would have at least doubled their payout, depending on who you ask. Marlins people say they bid $201 million for Pujols, while someone in Pujols' camp suggested they actually offered $275 million. There were a couple brief dalliances with Prince Fielder, but there seemed to be a hierarchical split over whether to seriously pursue him, with Loria seemingly much more interested than team president David Samson, who declared during the middle of continuing reports that the Marlins were still involved that they had actually no interest in Fielder. A few people who dealt with the Marlins did say they sensed a bit of a split on a couple choices between Loria and Samson, Loria's former son-in-law. And in a couple of those cases, Samson seemed to have gotten his way (Fielder would have been yet another big personality in the Marlins' vastly improved clubhouse.)

Even though the Marlins didn't get the supertsr first baseman they badly wanted or the second-choice first baseman some of their top people wanted, they still spent more than anyone by the Angels, the signers of Pujols and C.J. Wilson, yet another top pitcher the Marlins tried for (they offered $99 million before Wilson went to his hometown Angels for $77.5 million). Speaking of the winter, Loria said, "We met out expectations.''

With all the money spent, and all the excitement that comes with the new players plus the say-anything Guillen, the hope is that the Marlins get back to the playoffs this year, even if Loria wouldnt go far as to out-and-out predict that. While he did say this is the strongest Marlins team he's had to start a season, including the eventual World Series champion 2003 edition, Loria declined to predict a World Series for this talented, eclectic mix.

Instead, the Marlins owner offered a bit of advice to the reporters. "You want predictions,'' Loria said, "call Samson.''

Posted on: February 26, 2012 6:15 pm
Edited on: February 26, 2012 9:03 pm

Hanley talks great game, says he'll be best 3B

JUPITER, Fla. -- Hanley Ramirez's smile was bigger than his muscles, which look bigger than ever. Ramirez was smiling broadly throughout the team's first full-squad workout, either the result of an attitude overhaul or a determined effort to prove everyone wrong that he carried the potential to destroy the good feeling around Marlins camp. When someone remarked what great shape he appeared to be in, Ramirez said, "When everyone was talking ... I was working.''

There was indeed a lot of talk this winter about Ramirez, and more specifically, whether he'd take to the switch from his beloved shortstop to third base. Stories seemed to swing back and forth about whether Hanley hated, tolerated or relished the move. I'm not sure whether it's because today was the day for the brief media refresher course, but Ramirez's public message was that he loved third base and was looked foward to the challenge. "It's 200 percent OK,'' Ramirez said. "I feel it in my heart. I feel it in my mind. I feel it in my body.''

Meanwhile, in case Ramirez's feelings are ahead of his skills, new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has begun lowering expectations for Ramirez at third base. "He's not a Gold Glover (at third base). We have to be patient. He will make mistakes,'' Guillen said.

He is far from a media darling and has been considered something of a prickly personality in the past, but he is making no mistakes in the interview sessions so far, that's for sure. Maybe he's been humbled a tad. Between a season in which he hit an uncharacteristic .243 to his very public forced transfer to third base, perhaps he understands he isn't the king of the team anymore. He was always the star of the Marlins as well as the obvious personal favorite of team owner Jeffrey Loria, who once bought a gold necklace for Ramirez in honor of his batting title. Now Ramirez is only one of several Marlins stars, including up-and-coming slugger Mike Stanton plus free agent imports Jose Reyes (the reason for Ramirez's move), Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell.

So far at least, Ramirez understands the news is all positive here, and judging by his demeanor, he isn't about to do anything to jeopardize that. He also likes his chances at third better than Guillen does. Asked how he thinks he'll be at third, he said, "Great ... the best.''

Category: MLB
Posted on: February 26, 2012 5:39 pm
Edited on: February 26, 2012 9:04 pm

Johnson, key to Marlins season, takes big step

JUPITER, Fla.-- Ace righthander Josh Johnson let the ball loose today in his bullpen session, and he loved the results. Every move he makes, every step he takes, is a big one for the Marlins. This was a nice step.

"I relaxed today and let it happen,'' said Johnson. "I was down in the zone, which was huge for me. My first couple times I was trying to muscle it, and the ball was up.''

Spiritually speaking, Johnson is up, anyway. For all the money the Marlins spent, and all the many big imports who are contained in a much livelier Marlins clubhouse, the biggest key to their season remains Johnson, who was off to a typical dominating start last year when it all stop May 16. He was 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA when he left a game against his personal patsy, the Mets, never to return for the season.

At first, they figured he'd be back in a month. Then it was the All-Star break. And before long the decision was made to shut him down for the year. Johnson may live in Las Vegas in the offseason, but he wasn't about to gamble that his arm was right when it didn't feel right.

"It was very frustrating,'' Johnson recalled. "It took us a while to figure it out. I'd feel better, but I didnt feel great.'' Everything was tried to quell the inflammation in his right shoulder short of surgery. But Johnson didn't feel quite right all season. Now, fonally, he feels right.

"I feel great,'' he said.

Those are the three greatest words in the Marlins lexicon, maybe even the key to their season. Johnson said he plans to pitch the opener April 4 at the Marlins' new park. He went to check out it Friday, and he liked what he saw. "It's pretty big he said,'' reciting the spacious dimensions. The guess so far is that it'll be a pitchers' park, and Johnson said he already told them he'd prefer to pitch the opener with the roof open, and maybe even his first few games there. Can't hurt.

Nice to realize he's thinking about something other than his shoulder and planning for future games. Beacuse for all the Marlins' winter work and all their dollars spent, their holdover ace is the biggest factor in their much-anticipated season.

Category: MLB
Posted on: February 26, 2012 2:01 pm
Edited on: February 26, 2012 3:08 pm

Early word: Nats paid too much for Zimmerman

The immediate reaction to Ryan Zimmerman's $100 million, six-year extension with the Nationals was this:
Where's the hometown discount?

Zimmerman's total contract, which now runs through 2019, guarantees him $126 million, including the two years he already had on his deal. Forget that $126 million has been an unlucky number in baseball contracts (see Vernon Wells, Barry Zito and Nationals teammate Jayson Werth), it just seems a bit high considering 1) Zimmerman has an injury history, 2) he sprayed a few throws in recent years, and 3) the Nationals have a top third-base prospect in Anthony Rendon.

Said one competing executive of the Nats' two nine-figure deals now in the books: "Seems like they have two $100 million contracts but no $100 million payers.'' That also refers to Werth, who didn't live up to his contract last year. (Though some might say the Nats have Stephen Strasburgh and Bryce Harper, who may be worth $100 million some day.)

No matter what anyone on the outside thinks, Zimmerman was said to be the Nats' No. 1 priority this winter, and they did get the deal done. They love him for his defense, his clutch hitting, his personality and his local roots (University of Virginia). They also recall that he led the majors in WAR one year.

But he has also been hurt a fair amount, enough to question whether he warrants the ninth-biggest deal in the majors and third-biggest for a non-1B infielder (behind Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki) or deserves to join Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Tulowitzki, Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp as players in the books through 2019. Zimmerman's deal also includes an option for 2020 that could bring his haul to $150 million.

Zimmerman did agree to a $10 million personal services deferral, which means only $116 million of the $126 million counts as payroll and could help the Nationals in terms of flexibility. But the reality is he's a one-time All-Star. And that's a lot of loot for a one-time All-Star.

Category: MLB
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