Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thursday Starting Five

MLB Hot Stove Edition
1. Major League Baseball Players Association. There is not a single person, or group of persons, who was happier about the $160 million free-agent contract between CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees than the MLB Players Association. They needed him to ink that deal far more than he did. So much so, that people were worried about the organization putting pressure on the 2007 AL Cy Young winner. Because, you see, Sabathia's contract now establishes the new normal. It's the bar that will have to be leapt over for the next BIG (insert fat joke here) pitcher to hit the free agent market. And, perhaps, even more importantly, it gives agents and players something to point to when making smaller deals this season. All of a sudden, Derek Lowe is a steal for four years and $56 million. Right? Every dollar that Sabathia would have left on the table had he followed his heart and chosen to sign elsewhere would have been fifty cents left on the table for guys like Randy Wolf and Jon Garland (lesser lights in the free agent stratosphere) who need the money much more than he does. Of course, all of them need the money far less than I do. Or you do. But that's a whole 'nother thing and something that the Players Association is less interested in.

2. Omar Minaya. When the Mets signed General Manager Omar Minaya to a contract extension following the disastrous end of the 2008 season a coworker asked me how it felt to know that my team would stink for at least four more years. I found his query far less funny than the one I posed last night as to the OVER/UNDER on CC's weight in year five of his new contract. Fast forward two-and-a-half months and Minaya was dubbed "the big winner of the [winter] meetings" by ESPN baseball scribe Jerry Crasnick.
Minaya completely overhauled the Mets bullpen and he did while spending less money than expected. After setting the single-season record for most saved games, Francisco Rodriguez entered the offseason with a price tag that read five years and $75 million. This week the Mets signed him for three years and $37 million. To get the ball to K-Rod the Mets acquired All-Star closer J.J. Putz (pronounced like he "puts" the other team away) in a mammoth 12-player deal that sent Heilman and middle-reliever Joe Smith packing along with fan favorite Endy Chavez and a few fringe prospects. Now the Mets endgame (indisputably their biggest weakness late last season) is far more formidable than most and exponentially better than last September's Heilman to Luis Ayala nightmare.

3. Aaron Heilman. His bullpen-mate Scott Schoeneweis may have gotten it worse from the fans at Shea Stadium during the last two seasons, but I don't think there was a member of the Mets who was more demoralized or who cried himself to sleep more than the Indiana-born pitcher out of Notre Dame. Debuting in 2003 after being the 18th pick in the 2001 draft, Heilman was a mostly mediocre starter before finding a niche in the bullpen as a setup man. He was as good a seventh-inning option as there was in the summer of 2006 but also surrendered the biggest hit of that season: Yadier Molina's tie-breaking two-run homer in the top of the ninth in Game 7 of the NLCS. Heilman always wanted to be a starting pitcher and could always point to the complete-game one-hitter he threw when making a spot start in April 2005 as proof that he was up to the task. I think he was just terrified of being out on the mound late in the game. Either way, he may get his chance (or he may not), to start again after being traded to the Mariners in the 12-player deal that netted the Mets J.J. Putz. This trade was good for the player and both teams involved.

4. Amber Sabathia. Her husband's got a tough road ahead of him. The expectations are larger than his waistline. Likewise, the Yankees took a sizeable (insert fat joke here) gamble of their own by signing any pitcher to a seven-year pact. Especially one with so many miles already on him and such obvious red flags about his conditioning (and therefore, longevity). Of course, it could work out fine. Especially if the team can win a World Series in any of the next three seasons. But it also could not work out fine. Which is why there is no one who made out better this week than CC's wife, Amber. She's been with CC since high school and is the mother of his children and the one who will get to enjoy most of that $160 million on a day-to-day basis. And she'll enjoy it no matter what happens on the diamond.

5. Mark Teixeira. Now all eyes are on him. K-Rod is signed. Sabathia is signed. And it looks like Manny will hold out until after the All-Star first baseman is off the market (positioning himself to take advantage of the runner-up in the Tex sweepstakes). So, it's finally Mark's time to get paid. Which is all he's been waiting for. Having been described by a teammate as being "just interested in bank accounts," Teixeira seems the ideal Scott Boras client: He's got all the skills in the world, a solid work ethic and sparkling smile. He wants to be on the cover of a team's media guide, star in the Boys and Girls club commercials and make more money than anyone else. The Washington Nationals have already offered him $160 million over eight years. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have offered that same sum over seven years. The Baltimore Orioles have only managed to scrape together $140 million. It's time to sit back and grin and let the money roll right in.

Benched. Yankees Cache (but not Yankees cash). There was as time when players dreamt of wearing Yankee pinstripes because it was an organization of class. Nowadays players are weary of donning the Yankees uniform, although they may still dream of it. But only because it is an organization of cash. The Yanks publicly offered CC Sabathia $140 million over six years on Nov. 14. This was supposed to be the Godfather deal that was too good to refuse. It was more than any other pitcher had ever earned. It topped what Johan got from the Mets. But it still wasn't enough. CC didn't want to play for the Yankees. He didn't want to play in the American League. Days went by without an answer from his camp. Weeks passed. And, then just about a month later the Yankees upped the offer in terms of years and cash and flew out to visit Sabathia in California (where he is building a home and prefers to pitch). He relented and accepted. But the Yankees had to bid against themselves to make that happen.

Prodigal Sons Rise in NJ

Harrington, Knicks Bag Nets Near Exit 16

On Thanksgiving night, as the Cowboys made the Lions feel like the Christians in the days of old, my uncle said something that really just blew my trytophan-addled mind. A lifelong Knicks supporter and pathological sports fan of the highest order (and, that is meant as a compliment), he told me that he was watching more Nets games these days than contests featuring the team he had followed all of his life. I nodded and did my best to keep my stuffing stuffed inside my belly. The Nets? You're rooting for the Nets? Devin Harris is your favorite player? Seriously? And, we're still related? We're still supposed to eat pie together and make small talk over coffee?
With the answers to all of those questions being "yes," we continued to speak civilly. And to my chagrin, everything my uncle said made complete sense. The Nets were less of a circus sideshow and more of a basketball team. They did have a better point guard. And, with the exception of Vince Carter, the team is made up of young likeable guys. It was all true. All of it. And, that's why I wanted the Knicks to beat the Nets last night even more than usual.
With Jason Kidd finally departed, this is supposed to be the season that the Knicks re-established themselves as the dominant team in the NYC metro region. We couldn't be ceding that intra-area battle with the Summer of 2010 looming on the horizon. And, forgetting all of that, it would be nice to just be better than someone against whom we are going to be constantly measured. The teams play less than 20 miles apart. They are in the same division and will likely be (better-case scenario) battling for the final playoff spot as the bide their time before battling for a bevy of free agent superstars.
And, hopefully all of those various pairings will fall to the Knicks as easily as this one game did. Two natives of the Garden State silenced (perhaps just temporarily) the argument that the New Jersey Nets are the best basketball team in New York City. Al Harrington scored a season-high 39 points while taking just 21 shots while Tim Thomas chipped in 26 points, going 5 of 8 from beyond the arc. After falling behind 10-20 about halfway through the first quarter the Knicks outscored the Nets 111-89. It was as comfortable a win as seven players can have against ten.