January 29, 2015

CORPORATE SHILLING

Patrick Mooney reports on a notion tossed around by baseball agent Scott Boras.

Having seen the media circus and national attention the NFL gets for its Super Bowl Week, Boras wants MLB to adopt the same format: have a World Series Week at a rotating neutral site.

“Baseball is serving up great steaks and we’re serving it in a drive-thru window,” Boras said. “We’ve got to change that. We need a ‘World Series Week.’ We need the World Series in one city, so that all journalists, from all over the world, can plan a year in advance and come to one place, stay there and watch these two teams go at it for seven days in one spot.”

“We’re talking about the betterment of baseball,” Boras said. “If we continue to do this on a regional scale, we’re going to lose something that baseball deserves. And what it deserves is world attention. And to keep the product at that level, you’ve got to create a platform (so) the world can attend.

“Most corporations and most journalists and most everyone involved — because you don’t know where the World Series is going to be until a day or two in advance — they have not budgeted (for it). They have not funded it. There’s no plan for the attention required to go and focus (on it).
“There’s so much more we can do when we know where the World Series is at. We can have so many events. We can involve corporations. We can have national media, international media. (But not knowing) where the World Series is going to be is making it a regional event.”

But one needs to realize that Boras is talking from a bias. He would like to see MLB generate a ton more money for the league and teams so the money pool grows to pay his clients more money in free agency. As we have seen, professional sports franchises are hitting the ceiling on broadcast revenue channels. Actual fan attendance will probably go down as many teams continue to price the average family out of baseball as an entertainment option.

Adopting another sports "championship set up" can lead to disaster. When the PGA adopted NASCAR's end of season points qualifying system to pare down the field to a small championship chase, it continues to be a confusing disaster. It was so much easier to crown a golf champion based upon earnings rather than a made up point system.

The greatest obstacle to a World Series Week would be the possibility it would take away a national fan base of Cub loyalists the opportunity to see a World Series played at Wrigley would be anarchy at its highest level.

January 28, 2015

EXPANSION

With a new commissioner, there is always renewed debate in whether MLB should expand to 32 teams. The main reason is to balance out the leagues and scheduling issues. The other side is that more teams mean a more diluted product (lesser talent).

Yes, the U.S. population has grown since the last expansion, but that does not equate to fist full of dollars baseball fanatics. Most of the growth in the population are in the lower middle class, which is continually hard hit by the endless mild recession.

Still, the proponents like the idea because more teams means more coverage and more league revenue. If MLB can franchise two more teams, that means maybe a billion or two dollars split among the 30 owners, or maybe $33 million of free money per team.

Expansion to new cities will be hard with the Athletics and Rays already looking to relocate. Some possible new locations: in California near Sacramento, in Texas at Austin and San Antonio. Brooklyn or north New Jersey, if you can get the Yankees and Mets to play ball (good luck with that). It might be time to finally move a team to Las Vegas … maybe. The South is lacking for teams, with Charlotte, Nashville, Memphis or Louisville being possibilities. Also another team could be in Canada, with Montreal getting a long look. The league has often thought international expansion into the Latin market (Mexico, San Juan, even Havana if diplomatic relations are opened).

But not lost in this discussion is the fact that contraction is probably the better answer. MLB continues to subsidize a half dozen teams already through revenue sharing. MLB gives smaller market teams who struggle to compete bonus provisions like protected picks in the draft, and capping spending by big market money teams on international player signings.

It would make more sense to contract the 30 teams down to 28.

Miami and Tampa Bay play to low attendance crowds. Combine the two clubs and move the franchise to Orlando, where you can get the excess tourist trade on a game by game basis.

The powers that be have been kicking Houston around for being a mismanaged bottom feeder for a long time (being exiled from the NL Central to the harder AL West for example). So why not improve the franchise by merging it with the Oakland A's who want out of the Bay Area. Plunk the new Houston A's in San Antonio if Houston can't support a team.

The players union will balk at losing 80 40-man roster spots with contraction. But on the flip side, that means more money for the players on the newer 28 team rosters.

Most likely nothing will happen for a long time.

January 27, 2015

TOO HARD

With the passing of Cub legend Ernie Banks, people have got an opportunity to reflect at one of the great players and human beings in Chicago history. Banks is remembered as a jovial, high spirited, fun loving, nice and exceptionally talented man who in Cub tradition never made it to the post-season stage. He played the game like he did as a kid, with youthful exuberance. Every day he had a chance to play baseball, he felt joyous. It was not a job to him, it was his pleasure.

Banks was the rare individual who performed at a high level playing a child's game with a childlike innocence, respect and intelligence.

Many current players may have started their paths with the same childlike zest for the sport, but over time, the pressure, expectations and money turns the game into dreary work. Being a professional is being able to balance all the conflicting elements of being a highly paid athlete while tapping the inner child's passion for the game.

MLB.com reported that Joe Maddon went to Puerto Rico to see Javy Baez in winter ball. “He’s trying way too hard,” says Maddon. “I want him to back off. The last thing I want him to do is try to impress me tonight. … I said, ‘Hit a couple singles and, above all, I want to see you smile.’

The 22-year-old Baez’s 2014 stat line  (.169/.227/.324 in 229 plate appearances) was a concern, but written off as understandable given his youth. But he needs to improve his strikeout rate before he can make an impact in the big leagues. That is what a professional has to accomplish: adapt to better competition at the final level. As a result of the ramped up expectations on the Cubs, many believe all the Theo-Jed prospects are going to be instant All-Stars. But statistically, that is impossible.

If players like Baez "are trying too hard" to make contact, hit the glamorous home run, and become a star like their press clippings before their time, they will be doomed. The Cubs have a history of touting five-tool, "can't miss" prospects. There are times just to let things play out naturally on the field, like Banks' approach to playing his game.

January 26, 2015

ICHIRO

41 year old Ichiro Suzuki is about to sign with Miami for probably one last season in the majors.

He is only 156 hits short of 3,000 as a U.S. MLB player, the milestone that still gets an automatic berth in the Hall of Fame.  If you add in his Japanese hit totals, he is well over 4,000 professional hits.

He was an old school professional hitter, taking his hard swings and taking his choppy infield singles. He also was an above average outfielder with a good arm for his size. His success in Seattle opened the doors for many more Japanese ball players to be scouted and signed in the U.S.

He has led the league in hits for 7 of his 14 seasons in the U.S. He sports a career BA of .317. He won two batting titles. He hit 117 HR, 717 RBI and 487 RBI. He has a career war of 59.3.

When one goes by the standard of whether a HOF candidate was an "impact" player during his era, Ichiro would qualify.  He probably will fall just short of 3,000 hits and 500 SB so some writers may put him in the "very good" player category like a Kenny Lofton.


January 24, 2015

PUT THE HAMMERS DOWN


The Wrigley renovation debacle just got worse, and Tom Ricketts himself is to blame
for allegedly making inflammatory statements against the rooftoppers at a
Cubs convention.  Recall, many rooftop businesses have sued the city for violating due process
and the landmark ordinance in approving the 7 signs and new scoreboards.

Now, Crain's reports today that several rooftops sued the Cubs for breach of
contract, including the provision in the settlement against disparaging remarks
by either side, so there may be a construction injunction in offing soon, as well
as some triple damages federal claims to hit the Cubs in the wallet:

Crain's reports that two rooftop businesses overlooking Wrigley Field  sued the Chicago Cubs and owner Ricketts in federal court, accusing them of attempted monopolization in violation of the Sherman Act, as well as breach of contract, defamation, consumer fraud and deceptive practices.
The lawsuit is the latest legal skirmish in a long-running battle between the Ricketts family, which plans major renovations to the historic ballpark and the surrounding neighborhood, and owners of nearby buildings who believe plans to erect advertising signs will unlawfully obstruct their views. It is the second recent lawsuit to allege the Cubs are shifting planned outfield signs to block the views of rooftops that refuse to sell their properties to the Ricketts family.

The present contractual agreement states that the Cubs are prevented from erecting "windscreens or other barriers to obstruct the views of the rooftops," the copy of one contract reads. In return, rooftops businesses pay the team 17 percent of their pre-tax revenues. The Cubs argue that the outfield signs constitute an "expansion" of Wrigley Field that is allowed under the terms of rooftop contracts.

The new suit by the right field rooftoppers seeks an injunction to block the Cubs' most recent plan for signage, as well as unspecified monetary damages. The rooftop owners argue that their 20 year 2004 settlement agreement requires an unobstructed view of Wrigley as part of the revenue sharing deal. Now, the owners believe that the Ricketts are using the new signage to destroy their businesses, and burn down the value of their businesses while trying to buy up the properties around
Wrigley. In other words, the Ricketts are attempting to bully the rooftop owners into selling their properties at fire sale prices. Ricketts family just concluded purchasing several properties with rooftops.


“The Cubs decided to put up giant signs to block the rooftops halfway into a 20-year contract to guarantee the rooftops' unobstructed views,” the rooftop owners attorney said in a statement. “The Cubs are blocking the rooftops that refused to sell their properties for a fraction of market value, and who refused to participate in a price-fixing scheme the Cubs demanded to raise ticket prices. It's unfortunate the rooftops have been forced to take legal action, but they're confident the legal system will protect their rights.” 

But the boiling point has come recently with Ricketts actions. Crain's reports  the plaintiffs accuse the Cubs of anti-competitive conduct, as well as defaming the rooftop owners by accusing them of stealing the Cubs' product. The rooftop plaintiffs  allege that after the Cubs announced their seven-sign plan, they met with Crane Kenney in July 2014 and offered to sell the rooftops at fair market value, according to the complaint. In offering a much smaller figure, Kenney told McCarthy “once we put up the signs, you don't have a rooftop business,” according to the complaint.

The complaint said that in offering a “grossly unfair” price, Kenney asked the rooftop owners: “How hard is it going to be to sell tickets when you have no glimpse of Wrigley Field?” Kenney added, according to the complaint: “Whatever (rooftop businesses) we don't buy, we're going to block.”

The complaint also references a statement by Tom Ricketts at the 2014 Cubs Convention, which the owners believe was defamatory.

“So you're sitting in your living room watching, say, Showtime. All right, you're watching 'Homeland.' You pay for that channel, and then you notice your neighbor looking through your window watching 'Homeland.'" Ricketts told fans, according to the complaint. "And then you turn around, and they're charging the other neighbors to sit in the yard and watch your television. So then you get up to close the shades, and the city makes you open them. That's basically what happened.”

For the past two years, the Cubs and the rooftop business owners have been fighting over the team's plan to put up signage above the Wrigley Field bleachers as part of a $375 million ballpark renovation. The Cubs have been fast and loose with specifics in their rebuilding plans, signage and the changing verbage of their projects. The Cubs said that no public money would be involved, but after approval it was reported that the Cubs are seeking a $75 million federal tax credit for "landmark" rehabilitation costs. However, the new bleachers and electronic scoreboard and advertising signage are not historic preservation but new, modern improvements that defeat the notion that Wrigley is still a historic landmark. But the Cubs want to make these massive changes, then get a new "landmark" status with the changes, in order to collect the $75 million in public tax breaks.

Now baseball has had a long standing exemption to federal Anti-Trust rules, based on a Supreme Court opinion that stated that baseball was not in "interstate commerce," so the Sherman Act does not apply. However, the same act has been applied to all other various professional sports. The Supreme Court has reasoned that since Congress did not amend the law to reverse its past decision, that decision stands as the lone sports exemption to federal anti-trust law. Many other courts have taken exception to the exemption - - - trying to limit it to the old reserve clause. However, MLB won a ruling recently allowing it to block the move of the A's to San Jose from Oakland. But that decision could have easily been based on the league charter and rules rather than approved by an anti-trust exemption.

A pleading in federal court filed without a justifiable basis can lead to sanctions. The plaintiffs counsel must have various arguments to counter the blanket anti-trust exemption defense, considering that Wrigley Field itself is owned by a separate legal entity than the baseball franchise. But common ownership and affiliation may mute that argument. But the strongest position may be the simplest: the anti-trust exemption solely deals with internal baseball operations and decisions, not matters dealing with the public or third parties (such as rooftops). 

With the announcement that the bleachers will not be ready until late May, 2015, season ticket holders were only given 10 days to decide what to do with their tickets: exchange them, get a refund or if they missed the deadline, the Cubs would hold their money "on credit" for future game purchases. In other words, the Cubs don't want to give back the cash, but bait and switch bleacher seats for unused grandstand seats for April and May contests.

But there still is another open issue with the delayed bleacher completion. The historic brick walls are just supported by 2 x 4s. It is doubtful that the walls have the structural integrity if a ball player hits it while trying to make a catch. Also, since this is still an active construction site, the city could red tag the area as being unsuitable to the public or players. This is like the ill-planned Northwestern football game when the Big Ten officials called the field unplayable because it was configured with too small end zones ending in the brick walls. (The game was played on in one direction).

But nothing seems to matter to the Cubs organization except to bulldoze ahead with their various plans.

January 23, 2015

MADDENING JOE

As upbeat, laid back, humorous and gracious that Joe Maddon was at the Cubs fan convention, the expectations placed upon his shoulders is the weight of Sears Tower.

He was labeled one of the best managers in his generation. When he suddenly opted out of his Tampa contract, it was felt it was a heavenly godsend that the Cubs could pick up an experienced, winning coach to lead the young prospects to the promised land.

The Cubs have had a long line of saviors since the last World championship.

Maddon had two interim gigs with the Angels, in 51 games managed, he went 27-24. It took almost a decade before he became a full time manager with the Rays. In the 9 seasons with Tampa, 1459 games managed, his record was 754-705 in line with career .517 winning percentage. His teams averaged in 3rd place in their division. His club only won divisions twice, in 2008 and 2010. In 2008, his team was 5 games better than projected, winning the AL pennant but losing to the Phillies in the World Series, 4-1. Maddon won his only AL manager of the year award in 2008.

In his 48 replay challenges, he got 21 overturned for a .4375 winning percentage.

Maddon hauntingly compares well with former savior, Lou Piniella.

Piniella managed 19 seasons prior to the Cubs with four different teams. He had compiled a career .517 winning percentage as a manager. In his 23 seasons as a manager, 6 of his clubs finished in first place (twice with the Cubs) and he had one world series title (1990 Reds). His teams prior to the Cubs placed around 3rd in their division.

The numbers are historically close. Piniella got off to a fast start with a veteran club and got to the post-season. The expectations of the former Yankee (and the reputable glory of that franchise) were through the roof. But the Cubs bombed in the worst way. Piniella would later say that being the Cubs manager drained him like no other tenure had ever done. The fans and the team put so much pressure to end the alleged curse that the weight of the baseball world crushed him.

Now, Piniella had nothing to prove when he came to Chicago. He had his playing career and excellent reputation as a manager. He had his championships, he had his personal glory. He liked baseball. He was an old school lifer. He was jovial, likeable, spoke his mind, got along with most of his players, kept things loose - - - until the wear and tear of the Cubs broke his baseball spirit.

In some respects, Maddon is at the same crossroads as Piniella. The Cubs job will probably be his last managerial one in baseball for Maddon. He could cement his eternal legacy by giving the Cubs a century due championship. Or it could grind him up like a Chicago red hot sausage.

The only difference between Maddon and Piniella is that Maddon is taking over a younger Cub squad. Maddon and Piniella both managed second tier organizations to the post-season. Both managed in Tampa prior to becoming the Cub skipper. Only time will tell if this is deja vu.

January 22, 2015

NEW ARMS RACE

With Max Scherzer out of Detroit, the White Sox rotation clearly has closed the talent gap with Detroit.

The Tigers projected rotation is:

1. David Price, 6.1 WAR in the last year before free agency.
2. Justin Verlander, has lost velocity and ERA shot up last season.
3. Anibal Sanchez, injury prone, only 21 starts last season.
4. Alfredo Simon, who had one break out year for the Reds.
5. Shane Greene, acquired from the Yankees has only made 14 starts in career.

The White Sox counter with this rotation:

1. Chris Sale, a Cy Young candidate with overpowering stuff.
2. Jeff Samardzija, an innings eater who can be a steady influence.
3. Carlos Quintana, the most underrated starter in the AL last season.
4. John Danks, who is still slowly coming back from arm issues.
5. Hector Noesi (caretaker) until Carlos Rodon is called up from AAA with his electric stuff.

The staffs are very comparable. Price and Sale are legitimate aces. Samardizja is a more consistent pitcher than Verlander at this point. Quintana over Sanchez on health concerns. Simon may be slightly better than Danks, depending if his Reds year is no fluke. And Rodon is the real deal.