Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dwight Howard and Baseball Labor Etiquette

(It’s a slow time for baseball. It’s almost Christmas and the Rays are only making minor moves. This post might only be 40% Rays-related, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.)

Imagine you are a seven year-old boy or girl. Imagine the Orlando Magic are the first professional sports team you ever liked. Imagine your mother or father have taken you to several Magic games and you had the time of your life.

Imagine Dwight Howard is your favorite player. Imagine you have a Dwight Howard jersey or t-shirt and Dwight Howard poster on your wall. You haven’t known an Orlando Magic team without Dwight Howard. He has been there your entire life. He is what got you into the Magic.

Then imagine you woke up one morning and the Magic traded Dwight Howard, perhaps to Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps to the New Jersey Nets, perhaps to the Harlem Globetrotters. It doesn’t matter. Your favorite player is no longer on your favorite team.

Players get traded, get released, and their contracts run out and the sign on other teams. That’s part of sports and every kid has to learn that one day. But what happens to the heart of a child when this conversation occurs:

“Mommy, why is Dwight Howard not on the Magic anymore?”

“He didn’t want to play in Orlando anymore, dear.”

“So, he left?”

“Yes dear, he plays in New Jersey now.”

“So he didn’t like Orlando?”

“I guess not, dear.”

“Why didn’t Dwight like it here, Mommy? I like it here. You and Daddy like it here, right, Mommy?”

“Yes, we do, dear.”

“I want to go to New Jersey with Dwight Howard, Mommy. I don’t like it in Orlando anymore.”

Scenarios like this make me glad baseball hasn’t lost its collective mind like basketball has. Rays fans will never be in the same situation as the Magic fans are in currently with Dwight Howard. Baseball players don’t have the leverage or the power of basketball players. And although I am very much against The Man holding people down, it is incredibly bad to have the inmates running the asylum as they do in NBA.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge basketball fan. I think the players are incredibly talented and are exciting and fun to watch. But I hate the power basketball players have and I hate how they can hold teams and fanbases hostage with specific trade demands.

Rays fans have had their hearts broken by players leaving town. Anyone who didn’t hope Carl Crawford could have stayed in a Rays uniform forever is lying. He was the face of our franchise. But most Rays fans were honest with themselves when it came to the team’s economics. Crawford didn’t necessarily want to leave, he had no choice. The Rays couldn’t afford him. Of course, his signing with the Red Sox was not expected, nor appreciated, but Rays fans by and large knew Carl wasn’t going to play in the Trop after October 2010.

This year we face the chance that another of our veteran players, James Shields, could be traded. A Shields trade would be a big deal, but if it happens it would be team-driven. Shields, as far as I know, doesn’t want to be traded. He has never once said he wanted to play with Crawford, another pitcher, or even his cousin, Marlins outfielder Aaron Rowand.

The only Rays player comparable to Dwight Howard in wins and from a public relations standpoint would be Evan Longoria. (Yes, Zobrist was statistically more valuable. But if he was traded, although most analytical Rays fans would bang their heads against a wall, most fans would shrug.) But besides the fact that Longoria is locked into an amazing team-friendly contract, the only way the Rays would trade him is if in the last year of his contract the contract was so team-unfriendly compared to his production that the Rays saw it best to move him. The Rays have a better chance of Longoria wanting to renegotiate his contract than him requesting a trade. And even if he requested a trade to a specific team, the Rays front office would go for the best deal. I would guarantee that.

That said, what would happen if Longoria wanted to renegotiate? Would he hold out? Would he have a leg to stand on considering he signed the contract three years ago? I’m far from a sports law expert, but I don’t think the Players Association would stand alongside Longo as he pickets his contract. And Evan Longoria sitting out until he earns more money would not win him any fans in the Bay area.

Maybe a comparison of Howard with the superstars of the Rays isn’t exactly fair. Although Shields was an all-star and one of the best pitchers in the American League last year, he is only a starting pitcher. Using the most cumulative metric, Shields was worth 6.1 wins above replacement according to The Rays won 91 games. Simple math says that replacing Shields with a replacement-level pitcher, i.e. someone who was good enough to be promoted to the Majors, but not good enough to contribute, would have meant the Rays would have won only 85 games.

Howard, on the other hand, had a 14.4 win share in 2010 according to Again using simple math, Howard was doubly more important to the Magic than Shields was to the Rays in 2011. And 14 wins in the NBA is 17% of the season during a normal 81-game season. Shields would have had to be worth nearly 30 wins for him to match Howard’s importance to the Magic. That’s almost statistically impossible in baseball, since Babe Ruth was only person to break 14 wins over replacement since 1920. So dare I say Howard is worth two Babe Ruths to the Orlando Magic?

Maybe Howard has a point that he is carrying more than his share of the load for the Magic. Maybe he needs help. Maybe Magic general manager Otis Smith has done a poor job of roster management. Maybe Howard would be closer to a championship if he played somewhere else. Maybe he really would like to play with his friends or with some desired teammate. That’s his opinion and he is entitled to it.

But I don’t feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for Magic fans. Especially the kids.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Art of Acquiring Intangibles

With the annual baseball winter meetings almost upon us (and no, I am not going this year as I did in 2006 and 2010), the Rays are looking to tweak, twist, and trade their way into a better roster than they had last year. Anyone who watched them last year knows they had problems. Even though they won 91 games, they were far from a perfect team.

But before talking about future acquisitions or who the Rays might part ways with, I want to talked about who the Rays have already added to the team this offseason. It is usually rare for the Rays for pick up players in the early days of the offseason. And the two players the Rays have added to the roster so far couldn’t be more diametrically opposite. One is a pitcher who hopes his personal past doesn’t affect his potential, and the other is a catcher who hopes his on-the-field contributions can merit keeping his knowledge.

The last time I wrote here I wrote a letter to Rays owner Stu Sternberg. I wrote about the need to market the team better. I mentioned how the organization could better use social media, how they could better push their personalities, and a few ideas for theme nights and other brainstorms that I thought may increase ticket sales.

One of the ideas I didn’t mention because I thought it was common sense was to stay away from problem children – those players who have somewhat nefarious backgrounds. I get that some problem children have very good stats or very good potential and they usually come cheap. But one slip up could mar public perception of the team and give the organization a deeper black eye than the same action would for the Yankees or the Cubs or any almost any other team.

So far the Rays have had success with players who might be considered “behaviorally risky”. And they’ve shimmied off players such as Elijah Dukes and Al Reyes after their misdeeds. For example, they took a risk on Matt Bush, he of the infamous drunk police dispute and so far Bush has been a success.

Although each player brings his own set of conditions and drama, I think the organization is playing with fire by taking chances with players with nefarious backgrounds. The Rays have to fight against a very difficult environment. For whatever reason the Tampa area is a hotbed for athlete misbehavior and unfortunately I think it’s just a matter of time before the Rays get burnt.

I’m not saying some players can turn over a good leaf in the right environment. Phil Jackson coached Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest and won with both. Some organizations are ideal to embrace and bring out the best in people with problems. Perhaps Joe Maddon has established that type of environment. But I am cautious. The Rays walk a thin line with attendance as it is. Any good will built by school appearances and charity drives will be driven to the back pages by a DUI, a bar fight, or anything far worse. Flawed characters come cheap but they are flawed for a reason. And character flaws are a lot more impactful than an inability to hit left-handers.

Of course, a guy might be a devil in public but a saint in the clubhouse or vice versa. Some players may not be well socially adjusted outside of the baseball clubhouse. A player may be awesome with fans and a complete jerk to his teammates. Most times, we never know. But for better or worse, we make judgments on what we do know.

And that brings me specifically to Josh Lueke. I don’t know the guy nor do I know what happened on a night in May 2008. All I know is he comes with baggage. Personally, I’m not going to roll out the red carpet for the guy, however, my on-the-field rooting for him will not be affected by what he did off the field.  If he strikes out Robinson Cano with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, I don’t care if he pushed little old ladies into cars and threw cats into trees, I’m applauding him in that moment. That’s not to say I’ll root for him to come in the game or even put on a uniform, but I will cheer his accomplishments. I’m a fan, it’s what I do. I’m not going to sit there with my arms crossed as he does what he needs to do. If Joe Maddon trusts him to get the job done, I will cheer when he does so. Not before. I think that’s fair.

That said, I do hope Josh Lueke does something to win over the fanbase as people. It would be nice for him to help a battered women’s shelter or a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Show us right off the bat that he is not a monster. Tampa sports fans have had our share of terrible people and law breakers either hail from here or play here. We are almost immune to players with baggage. Almost. But I would really like to see Lueke set himself apart from the Goodens, Strawberrys, Dukes, or Jeremy Stevens types.

Of course, some will never forgive. That’s apparent from the Mike Vick saga. Just like people will always hate Vick for what he did to those poor, helpless, defenseless doggies, someone somewhere will always think Josh Lueke is a lowlife. But outside of the nameless defendant and perhaps their family, no one should hold it against Lueke if he tries to put his best foot forward and tries to make amends for his negative actions.

Now on to the positive intangibles. For that of course I mean the signing of veteran catcher Jose Molina. I love this acquisition. I am a big fan of back-up catchers who barely hit their weight but reek of baseball knowledge. They provide veteran guidance to young players on how the game is played. They have been around the block, ridden the buses, and are the baseball version of the Star Wars B’omarr Order (enlightened monks from the planet Tattooine for the non-Star Wars geeks).

Molina is a baseball lifer. He started in the Angels organization while Joe Maddon was still there. He played under various former catchers such as Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre, and Joe Girardi and he is of course the brother of Yadier and Bengie Molina, recipients of six Gold Gloves. I have no doubt Jose Molina will be a coach or manager at some point after his career.

For now, however, Molina will be working with the Rays catching and pitching staff and playing on occasion. And he will add to his off the field contributions with some fine framing skills, where he was recently ranked the best catcher for framing pitches over the last five years. Even if Molina reverts back to his offensive mean, if Andrew Friedman can find some offense from the shortstop position, the Rays can afford to play Molina more than Jose Lobaton, who I am convinced will never hit Sam Fuld’s weight (180 for those keeping score at home).

Molina reminds me a bit of when the Rays acquired Gregg Zaun a few years ago. There is one big difference however. When Zaun was acquired in August 2009, he had to learn the pitching staff on the fly during the season. If I remember correctly, the staff didn’t do so well the first few times Zaun caught them. There is definitely a learning process when it comes to battery mates and Molina will have all spring to learn the staff.

We will see who Andrew Friedman brings into the fold during the Winter Meetings and through the rest of the offseason. Will we see the conclusion of the Upton Era, the departure of Wade Davis and Jeff Neimann, and the end of the Magic of Kotch? Will the Rays stick with Reid Brignac at short? Will they even entertain the thought of buying Prince Fielder a salad?

Be assured however that no matter who else they acquire, they will fall somewhere between Josh Lueke and Jose Molina in those off-the-field intangibles clubhouses and communities consider important.