Hard truths about hardware
Tom Verducci, SI.com
Nobody ever sat atop a barstool and argued with a buddy about who should win the Hank Aaron Award. Many people aren't even aware of it, as is evidenced every year when the MVP debate inevitably degenerates into the suggestion that there ought to be an award for the best hitter. (That would be The Hank, est. 1999.) The four major awards, as decided by the Baseball Writers Association of America -- MVP, Cy Young, Manager and Rookie of the Year -- remain the gold standard of postseason prizes for all pro sports. This year, as much as any other in recent times, reminded us that one reason baseball's honors remain so compelling is the room for debate. The awards are as important and controversial as ever.
What helps make the awards so controversial is the easy-to-understand, very public voting system used by the writers. (Ever see Gold Glove voting results? Football Hall of Fame? World Series MVP? Hank Aaron Award? The Grammys? Of course not.) For its postseason awards, baseball uses a system that thrives on accountability, which should be expected from professionals who ask likewise of the people they cover. If you're going to ask a pitcher why he gave up that game-winning homer, you'd better answer for your own ballot selections.
And whoo-boy, did a few writers have some explaining to do this year. Ballots have never been kept secret, but the issue of who voted for whom has loomed much larger since George King (New York chapter) and LaVelle Neal (Minnesota) left Pedro Martinez off their 1999 AL MVP ballot.
The sunshine movement gained more momentum this year when Bill Ballou (Boston) and Jim Souhan (Minnesota) decided they would ignore the very specific eligibility rules for the Rookie of the Year award and make up their own. And so they determined not only that Hideki Matsui of the Yankees was not a rookie, but also what the "spirit" of the award was.
What they should have done as conscientious objectors was to recuse themselves from the balloting. They should have declined the invitation to vote, allowed others who actually would adhere to established rules to fill out the ballot, and then brought up the possibility of changing the rules at the next BBWAA meeting -- and these are moves they should have made in any past season in which they felt so strongly. (The topic of rookie eligibility has never been formally discussed at a writers meeting.) Other scribes have, however, declined the opportunity to vote for various reasons in the past.
Accountability makes the writers look good and bad at the same time. It does reveal the warts, and one of the worst warts is the provincialism that goes on. Each award is voted on by two writers from each city in that particular league. Here are some of the more noteworthy hometown ballots cast:
• Chicago White Sox pitcher Esteban Loaiza received the only two first-place Cy Young votes that did not go to Roy Halladay. And where did both Loaiza votes come from? Chicago.
• Texas infielder Mark Teixeira received one first-place vote in the AL ROY voting. Where did it come from? Dallas.
• Only one writer left Carlos Delgado (RBI champion, second in OBP, slugging, walks and home runs) completely off his AL MVP ballot, which has room for 10 players. That was a writer from Chicago, Joe Cowley, who just happened to put two White Sox players on his ballot, Frank Thomas and Loaiza, who received no other MVP votes.
• David Ortiz of the Red Sox was a part-time player for two months, was worthless against left-handers (.216, four homers), played only 45 games in the field, was awful outside of Fenway Park (.256 with 39 RBIs, three less than Todd Walker) and ranked eighth on his own team in hits, a mere 69 fewer than Nomar Garciaparra. He did, however, receive four first-place MVP votes, including both from the Boston chapter.
• Minnesota outfielder Shannon Stewart had laughable numbers for a serious MVP candidate. He was a leadoff hitter who didn't run (he stole four bases and was thrown out six times) or get on base much (he scored 90 runs, five fewer than Raul Ibanez) or hit for power (13 home runs) or hit especially well down the stretch (.289, zero home runs in September), all while playing a corner position (left field) with one of the worst arms in baseball. He did get three first-place MVP votes, though -- one from (surprise!) Minnesota and two from fellow AL Central chapter Chicago. (Chicago, again?)
In the end, no player or manager was robbed of an award. Even if Cowley had put Delgado first on his ballot, for instance, Alex Rodriguez would have still won the MVP award. You could also argue that ROY winner Angel Berroa had a better season than Matsui.
It's precisely the arguments that make the BBWAA awards so great. In what other system do people care so much about why somebody received a second-place vote (Derek Jeter?!) or demand to know who left a certain player off their ballot?
It's not a perfect system precisely because it is so human. Beat writers see their own team more than any other. They can get caught up in the euphoria of covering a championship club. They will see the same players they voted for (or against) a few months later in spring training, when the world knows how they voted.
So the next time you can't understand why somebody voted for Stewart as MVP or how somebody could think Delgado wasn't among the 10 best MVP candidates or how Matsui could not be considered a rookie despite the fact that prior to this season he'd never played Major League Baseball, remember that you are entitled to answers and that nobody cares this much about any other sports awards. You can thank the baseball writers for that. Their awards remain the best.
Quick, name one significant player who signed a contract extension this season.
Didn't think so. The owners are executing a plan first posed by the eccentric Charlie Finley when free agency was instituted in 1975: flood the market with lots of players. (Finley proposed no service-time limit on free agency. Much to the relief of union director Marvin Miller, the other owners didn't listen to him.)
The days of "buying out" a player's free-agent rights by signing him in his walk year appear to be over. In 2002, for example, Al Leiter, Mark Kotsay, Ryan Klesko and Mike Lieberthal all signed contract extensions during the season in which their clubs bought out at least one year of free agency. Last March, the Diamondbacks signed Randy Johnson to a two-year, $33-million extension and Luis Gonzalez to a three-year, $30-million extension. Since then? Nothing.
If form holds, get ready for another crowded and spectacular free-agent class next year. Players entering their walk seasons include Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Eric Chavez, Mariano Rivera, Garret Anderson, Brad Radke, Carlos Delgado, Troy Glaus, Mike Lowell, Matt Morris, Eric Milton, Magglio Ordonez, Curt Schilling, Jose Vidro, Derek Lowe and Corey Koskie.
For years and years owners were ridiculed for their stupidity in running up salaries, especially for locking up second-tier players. In addition to general economic conditions, they have since forced the so-called market correction with several tools, including:
• letting more players hit the open market
• avoiding arbitration and turning back a player's "salary clock" (money based on service time) by non-tendering them, which further dilutes the market
• establishing a slotting system for draft picks, who are not fortified with union protection
• slowing the offseason shopping period. The Dec. 20 non-tender date has become important because Bud Selig will wait until December to give the Expos a budget, which forestalls trade and signing activity. Get used to more Kenny Loftons -- the outfielder wasn't signed until after spring training camps opened last season.
Some players will still get walk-year offers, but it's no longer automatic that they could do much better if they waited for free agency. Sidney Ponson could be the latest such example.
All of those tactics are, at face value, anyway, perfectly legit. You can bet, however, that the union rightfully is watching closely with a critical and cynical eye.
The power of Prior
Mark Prior received financial security when he signed a five-year, $10.5-million contract with the Cubs after they selected him with the second pick in the 2001 draft. The club typically gains cost certainty with those kinds of big deals for amateur players. The Cubs, however, did not. As it turns out, the right-hander obtained not only security in the deal but also flexibility, which could blow up on Chicago.
Prior's $10.5 million package has already grown to $12.3 million because of bonuses and automatic salary increases triggered by his selection to the All-Star Game and his third-place finish in Cy Young Award voting this year.
Prior's greatest loophole, however, is that he can opt out of his contract after next season and exercise his arbitration rights. That would seem to be a formality, considering that the 23-year-old would stand to earn much more than the $5 million total due him in 2004 and 2005 by means of his original contract. And that will put enormous pressure on the Cubs to get him signed to another long-term deal after next season. Maybe this time they'll actually buy out his arbitration rights.
Brian Goldberg, the agent for Ken Griffey Jr., said he expects the trade market for the center fielder to resume activity in July, assuming Griffey has re-proven his health and value by then. Goldberg said Griffey, who is recovering from shoulder and ankle injuries, has been cleared to begin taking batting practice Jan. 1 . . . How bad were Indians pinch hitters? Manager Eric Wedge used a pinch hitter 102 times and not one produced an extra-base hit. Cleveland's pinch hitters batted .159, producing just 13 singles . . . The Devil Rays expect outfielder Josh Hamilton to be in spring training after writing off last season due to personal and family issues. Hamilton, the first pick of the 1999 draft, turns 24 in June and still has fewer than 300 games of pro experience.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.