JETER HYPE OVERSTATED
The AL Most Valuable Player vote is in and it’s Joe Mauer. No surprise there, but the frequent mutterings down the stretch that Derek Jeter would receive a kind of John Wayne-“True Grit” career achievement MVP award proved to be pure fantasy. Mauer received 27 of 28 first-place votes, the remaining first-place ballot going, somewhat inexplicably, to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. Jeter did not receive a single first-place vote, and his own teammate, Mark Teixeira, out-polled him in second-place votes, 15-9, third-place votes, 6-5, and fourth-place votes, 4-3. Total points for the top three finishers: Mauer, 387; Teixeira, 225; Jeter 193.
Mauer had a historic year at catcher, even having missed the first month, and there should be nothing remotely controversial in his winning the award. What is more interesting is the way the rest of the votes fell, and the apparent perception that Teixeira, a first baseman having a very good but by no means great season. Jeter had a season that ranks among the top 25 by a shortstop in the past 60 years. Both were integral to the success the Yankees experienced this season, but there’s a huge difference between a shortstop contributing at the level that Jeter did and a first baseman doing what Teixeira did.
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter — Jeter has been robbed in previous awards voting. He wasn’t robbed this time. This is more a cri de coeur against misapprehensions about the replacement value of a great shortstop season versus a good season by a first baseman. Before anyone jumps on me for saying Teixeira’s season was “good,” not “great,” it’s not meant as an insult. It’s just that the hitting standards at first base are so ridiculously high that to call Teixeira’s season great would be ludicrous given the existence of Albert Pujols.
In the end, we should probably be thankful that Jeter did not get a career-achievement MVP award. That John Wayne got an award for “True Grit” doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t even get nominated for “The Searchers” (indeed, “The Searchers” was not nominated for a darned thing), “Red River,” or even his gritty sergeant with a heart of gold in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (he was nominated but lost to Broderick Crawford chewing up the drapes in “All the King’s Men”). Henry Fonda getting a deathbed for “On Golden Pond” doesn’t forgive the lack of notice for “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “The Grapes of Wrath” (nominated but lost to Jimmy Stewart for “The Philadelphia Story”), or “Fort Apache,” among others. Cary Grant’s honorary award doesn’t make up for the lack of recognition for “His Girl Friday” or “Only Angels Have Wings,” to name just two. These are apologies, not awards that carry the power of in-the-moment recognition.
As I said, Mauer deserved the award, but there is a certain sadness that Jeter, one of the most-celebrated players of his day, will never get an MVP award despite playing excellently on five World Series winners. It’s a strange discordance that he was both the best and someone else was always perceived to be better — apparently including Miguel flippin’ Cabrera, who went out on a drinking binge and brawled with his wife during the Tigers’ last series against the Twins. Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski had to go pick him up at the police station. That vote is not only an insult to Jeter, it’s an insult to Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Ben Zobrist, and every other candidate for the award — not to mention that everything I said about the replacement value of a first baseman versus more demanding positions goes double for Cabrera, a mediocre fielder. Cabrera is a heck of a hitter and carried the weak Tigers offense, but yipes, if you truly thought he was a better or more important player than Mauer, Jeter, Teixeira, Zobrist, Youkilis… You either weren’t paying attention and you don’t understand the game… And don’t even get me started on fifth-place finisher Kendry Morales, who wasn’t one of the 20-most valuable players in the league. It’s pretty hard to be most valuable when you have a .355 OBP, but home runs and RBIs still forgive so much. How can Morales have been more valuable than Evan Longoria, or Alex Rodriguez, who propelled the Yankees out of a terrible rut when he came off of the disabled list?
Ah, forget it. I’m going off to watch “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Do not disturb.
The list of arbitration-eligible players is out, a fine subject for scrying the future, for hidden somewhere in the list is a group of unexpected free agents, players whose teams will not send them contracts so as to escape the expensive “heads I win, tails you lose” business of arbitration. How appropriate that it is Friday the 13th.
The depressing thing about arbitration is that no one ever takes a pay cut. The player submits his desired salary and the team submits what it wants to pay, lower than the player’s figure, but still more than he made the year before. Either way, a young player tends to get a bump from six figures to seven, and those who have been through the process — all players between three years of Major League service time and those under six years (the six-year guys get to be free agents), plus a handful of so-called “Super-Twos,” players who qualify despite less than three years of service — go from one seven-figure salary to a higher seven-figure salary.
Most of these cases settle before an actual hearing, but those that actually go before an arbitrator are depressing for everyone, as a team has to slag the reputation of a player it wants to keep and the player has to listen to it. “Let me tell you why Arnold Smoof is not worth a quintillion dollars. Sure, he drove in 187 runs on 43 home runs, sure, he batted .387, but he’s still completely lame compared to Albert Pujols. Also, he’s a total klutz in the outfield. And he smells. Bad.” As Tom Hagen said, “This is business, not personal,” but you can’t help but take it personally when people who have formerly professed to love you are telling a total stranger what a loser you are. It’s like a divorce hearing without the divorce — there’s no coming back from that.
The list is long, containing 209 players, including what seems like the entire Dodgers roster. Teams have until December 12 to tender these players a contract. If they do and the player doesn’t dig the proffered salary, the player can opt for arbitration. At that point, everyone negotiates with a gun to their heads, trying to compromise before the actual hearing, and most of the time they do. Even then, a big raise is inevitable, so with some players, teams would prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Those players never even get a contract. The deadline passes and they’re set free. Their teams can still negotiate, but at that point they’re fair game for anyone. This makes perfect sense. To pick a player at random, Ryan Church is a useful outfielder, but you don’t really want to pay him the gross national product of Luxembourg for his services, which is what you’re going to end up doing if you send him a contract. Better to gamble on losing the player than blowing the budget on someone who is basically replaceable.
The Yankees have five players on the list, and four of the five probably shouldn’t be tendered a contract. The no-brainer is Chien-Ming Wang, who made $5 million this year. He pitched in 12 games, was pounded like Berlin in ’45, and underwent shoulder surgery. He could be out until 2010 All-Star break, perhaps longer. There is simply no reason to commit anything to Wang right now, let alone a figure north of $5 million. You could make a similar argument about Brian Bruney, who gets hurt often, pitches well sometimes, and is “just” a right-handed reliever, a breed of player which is (1) highly variable in its performance, and (2) available in huge, heaping numbers. However, the Yankees apparently plan to make him an offer.
More troublesome is the case of Chad Gaudin, a pitcher who obviously has some ability but rarely got to demonstrate it with the Yankees, who were always holding him back for an emergency that never came. I’ve been calling him “The Fireman of Atlantis.” It’s a novel role, but it might not be worth paying for. On the other hand, the guy could probably be a league-average starter, and you never know when your staff is going to be kneecapped by injuries (or the Joba Rules), so Gaudin could be handy.
The remaining players are Sergio Mitre, who can’t be non-tendered fast enough as far as I’m concerned, and Melky Cabrera, who is going to get an offer above this year’s $1.4 million base salary and should, players who can field his position and hit (sort of) being in short supply. More importantly, the Yankees have to hold Cabrera at all costs until their Sally League prospect Melky Mesa is ready, so that they can play the first two-Melky outfield in Major League history, sell T-shirts that say, “Got Melky2?” and so on. It might be awhile — Mesa has a whole lot of learning about the strike zone to do before a dual-leche pasture can become a real possibility.
As for the non-Yankees players on the list who might actually have use to the Yankees and could conceivably bet set free, there’s the platoon outfielder Matt Diaz, a career .347/.384/.537 hitter against southpaws; Conor Jackson, who missed most of the season suffering from Valley Fever but would be a decent left field candidate if healthy; power-hitting center fielder Cody Ross; and Rays fourth outfielder Gabe Gross. Chances are there will be many more non-tendered, and perhaps some top-quality players will be in there, but it’s tough to anticipate what teams will do in this depressed economy of ours. If teams are in more of an austerity mode than anticipated, it’s possible that some very good names will be available for signing in a month. Until then, alas, things will go slowly.
WHADDYA KNOW, THERE’S BASEBALL TODAY…
…And unless the game never ends, Iowa Baseball Confederacy-style, the Yankees might even have a playoff opponent before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, the conclusion of the PB awards ballot. Check out Part I here.
AL CY YOUNG AWARD
1. Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
2. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
3. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays
4. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
5. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Jon Lester and Mariano Rivera rank just out of my top five. If Greinke wins, that will be three Cy Young awards and five winning seasons for the Royals since 1989. His 16-8 record doesn’t seem like much until you consider that he received only about four runs of support per start and that his .667 winning percentage towers over the team. Adjusted for time and place, his 2.16 ERA against a league average of 4.75 is top 40 all-time.
What’s most impressive to me is the weak contact batters made against him when they weren’t striking out (9.5 times per nine innings); though Greinke is a fly ball pitcher, he allowed just 11 home runs in 229.1 innings, which is a number out of 1909, not 2009. Parenthetically, Andy Pettitte allowed only seven home runs in 240.1 innings in 1997, something I don’t recall hearing a peep about at the time.
Hernandez had a terrific season, the combination of a still-young pitcher maturing and a Mariners defense that was best in the league at turning balls in play into outs. Halladay was his usual excellent self, his only failing being not approaching Greinke’s level of dominance. The Jays have been on a treadmill for his entire career; let’s hope he has something left to give to a real team. Sabathia had a 3.83 ERA after his first 22 starts, a 2.52 ERA in his final 12, even with the embarrassing October 2 blowout by the Rays. The stretch-drive CC is an award winner; the guy who was around before that was just very good. You can say something similar about Verlander, except that he was unhittable at midseason and after that he was still very good, but not quite at the same level (3.90 ERA in August-September).
NL CY YOUNG AWARD
1. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
2. Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
3. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
4. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
5. Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves
The differences in quality among Lincecum, Carpenter, and Wainwright are so small as to be insignificant, and you could pick any of the three and the other two would have no kick coming. Carpenter boggles the mind — twice in his career he’s disappeared for more than a year and come back to pitch well. Carpenter was important to a division winner, while Lincecum helped the Giants make an unlikely, pitching-based run at contention. I’m giving the kid the edge, but I’m open to arguments that see it another way.
AL MVP AWARD
1. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
2. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
3. Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays
4. Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
5. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Sentimentally, I’d quite like to see Jeter pick up this award in the way that John Wayne got one for “True Grit,” or Henry Fonda did for “On Golden Pond.” Unfortunately, the magnitude of Mauer’s season dwarfs such considerations. Though he missed 25 games, the season he did have (is having, through tonight) was essentially the best in the American League by a catcher in over 50 years (only Mike Piazza’s 1997 slides past it). Mauer’s impact was not only historical; by tonight, the Twins might be on their way to the postseason, something that would not have come close to happening had Mauer not been so good.
Jeter had one of the top five seasons of his career and was a better defensive player than he was in his offensive prime. Zobrist had what will probably prove to be a forgotten great season of 2009, hitting like a right fielder while also playing the middle infield. Teixeira had a big offensive season, though not a special one by the standards of his position, and his defense was a key to the Yankees’ success this season; the Yankees tied for second in the league in defensive efficiency, and Teixeira’s vanquishing of the Jason Giambi clank was a big part of that. Just as without Mauer there would be no Twins tonight, without Cabrera there would be no Tigers. Extending this list to include a top 10 would see Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, and Kevin Youkilis added.
1. Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
2. Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins
3. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies
4. Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies
5. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Pujols is the easiest No. 1 here, even with some weird power outages during the season. Ramirez’s season wouldn’t look out of place on the back of Honus Wagner’s baseball card. Tuluwitzki rebounded from a slow start to bat .325/.402/.616 from June to the end of the season, helping to propel the Rockies’ unlikely comeback. Utley had his usual fine season in helping the Phillies defend their pennant, and missed little time despite hip surgery. Fielder had bigger slugging seasons than any of the three middle infielders I listed ahead of him, but the middle infielders reap a huge positional bonus from me, one so huge that it’s bigger than Fielder himself. My top 10 would also include Ryan Braun, Pablo Sandoval, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, and Derek Lee.
Head to head rankings of the Yankees against whoever the heck they’re playing already. If we don’t know soon, I may just substitute the 1949 A’s or 1980 Indians… Johnny Damon ’09 better than Miguel Dilone ’80? The mind reels…