Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hot Stove Myths and Truths

In the words of Public Enemy (and Jim Thome), "Don't believe the hype"

by Matthew Taylor

"The Baltimore Orioles plan to pursue several high-priced free agents ... at baseball's winter meetings. Orioles executives are looking to add a top-notch starting pitcher and a power hitter in the lineup."

Sound familiar? It should. That's what was being reported by the Associated Press on Dec. 8, 2004, when Carlos Delgado (a power-hitting first baseman) and Carl Pavano (a presumed ace) topped the Birds' off-season wish list. Replace the surname Delgado with Teixeira. Now replace the surname Pavano with Burnett. You've just described the O's 2008 off-season.

So it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same, and not just when it comes to the Orioles' free-agent needs. The stories of how the team might acquire players to meet those needs often remain the same as well, and they tend to take on the form of Hot Stove myths.

Fans following the Birds' off-season efforts to bring Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett into the nest would be wise to remember a couple of favored narratives that consistently occupy the front burner of Hot Stove sports coverage.

Hot Stove Myths

The Hot Stove season is to baseball what the draft season is to the NBA or the NFL - an off-season event that generates lots of excitement and armchair general managing. Fans focus intensely on an extended period of non-action and journalists fill the void with extended analysis based on a collection of rumors, tidbits, leaks, and occasionally even firm information.

Sports reporters find themselves in a role similar to that of the TV anchor in a 24-hour news cycle who tries to piece together news as it happens or, in many cases, before it happens. Faced with this circumstance, journalists rely on familiar narratives and over time myth-making occurs.

You could argue that fans prefer these familiar narratives and myths because they provide reason for optimism even as they obscure the true business side of the equation. We therefore have good reason to continue following the free-agent sweepstakes on every sports site's Hot Stove page and to employ the logic of Lloyd Christmas: "So you're telling me there's a chance."

Here are two common Hot Stove narratives that are used in Baltimore to examine our chances for success with top-notch free agents and to explain our failure with said free agents after the fact.

Narrative/Myth #1: We're an attractive destination for a top free agent because we have an "in" with him (aka "The Hometown Discount"/"Hometown Hero" Effect).

The thinking here is that a player's relationship to the city, the team, or its personnel will propel him to take a below-market deal with the Orioles. This favored narrative applies to cases where we're trying to keep a guy in the fold (i.e. the hometown discount) or to bring him into the fold (i.e. the hometown hero). Mike Mussina was an example of the former, Mark Teixeira is an example of the latter. A.J. Burnett, whose wife is from the Baltimore area and who has an off-season home in Monkton, could also fit into the latter category.

One need only look back to the 2004 offseason to see an example of the failed logic of the hometown hero narrative, and it applies to Burnett, no less. Here's what The Washington Post had to say
on Dec. 16 of that year about the O's prospects with Burnett:
"A safer choice may be Burnett, who would require less in a trade than Hudson, but is also a free agent after next year. The Orioles and Florida Marlins have begun preliminary discussions for Burnett, who has close ties to the Baltimore area and said, through agent Darek Braunecker, that he would be open to signing a contract extension. Burnett's wife is from Baltimore and the couple rented a house near the area this offseason.

'They spent the entire month of November in Baltimore and he loved it,' Braunecker said. 'There was a certain comfort level with the area.'"
Mussina left Baltimore, Burnett still isn't here, and Teixeira remains a longshot. Kids may dream of one day playing baseball in their home city, but Major Leaguers tend to replace the stars in their eyes with dollar signs.

The "having an in" theory goes beyond hometown connections. Consider again the 2004 off-season, this time with Carl Pavano.

From The Post, Nov. 5, 2004:

"If the Baltimore Orioles were looking for any kind of advantage with prized free agent pitcher Carl Pavano, they may have found it in agent Scott Shapiro, a diehard Orioles fan virtually since birth and a friend of owner Peter Angelos. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the two wealthiest franchises in baseball, are expected to bid on Pavano.

'I know that Carl and I have talked about [the Orioles],' Shapiro said. 'The Orioles are a team he thinks are building a winner. He thinks he could be a part of that. . . . The Orioles are going to be one of the teams we'll be spending a lot of time with. The Orioles are a franchise that we're
interested in exploring the possibilities.'


Pavano, from New Britain, Conn., has close ties with a couple of people in the Orioles organization. In the mid-1990s, Kenney, then a member of the Red Sox' minor league department, helped develop Pavano as a prospect.

'He was always a prospect from the day we drafted him,' Kenney said. 'Pavano, he's a big man with big legs and a strong body and a great arm.'

In 1998, Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie, then the Montreal Expos' general manager, traded Martinez to the Red Sox for Pavano and pitcher Tony Armas Jr.
Who is the source for this information about Burnett and Pavano? Their agents! Agents love to play the media if it means earning more money for their client. Two words: bargaining chip. The Orioles remained in the running for Pavano's services, which helped fuel and even bigger payday in ... New York.

Another example of the "having an in" theory is Leo Mazzone, who, according to conventional wisdom, was going to attract a bevy of free-agent pitchers to Charm City because they had success with him in the past.

From The Post, Oct. 19, 2005, when the O's were courting the pitching coach:
"Under Mazzone, Atlanta's pitching staff ranked either first or second in ERA in the majors each year from 1992 to 2002 and was first in 2004. Mazzone's hiring also could help Baltimore in the free agent market. Free agent pitcher Kevin Millwood, the American League's ERA leader with Cleveland, worked with Mazzone in Atlanta.

'It would probably make anyplace more attractive to a pitcher,' an agent of a prominent free agent pitcher said."
The O's got Mazzone and two of his proteges: Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright. Conventional wisdom fails once more.

Narrative/Myth #2: We lost out on [name of free agent] because we play in the A.L. East.

After weeks of speculation and optimism, the Birds can't seal the deal. So what happened? A much-relied upon answer goes something like this: "Free agent pitchers avoid Baltimore because they don't want to hurt their numbers by pitching in the A.L. East."

This logic has applied to the Birds' free-agent failures for at least the past decade as pitchers were initially
afraid to pitch against the mighty Yankees; then they feared the Yankees and Red Sox; perhaps now we can add the Rays to the mix. Any way around, the explanation is inadequate. [Note: This thinking sometimes applies to hitters as well, but it seems to be a more popular logic relative to pitchers.]

A free-agent pitcher does have to weigh concerns about run support and the defense that will be backing him up and what those factors could mean to his overall numbers; however, it's an insult to a fan's intelligence
to continually be told that a guy was "really serious about playing in Baltimore" only to be scared off by the prospect of playing against quality competition. The theory holds less water than a broken-down mule.

Once again, current
free agent A.J.Burnett provides an easy example to counter the conventional wisdom. According to The Sun, Burnett has four of the five A.L. East teams on his short list. Apparently his experience pitching in Toronto wasn't enough to scare him away from the big, bad A.L. East.

Major League players didn't reach the peak of their profession by being timid. These guys want to play on the biggest stages the sport has to offer, and they want to cash in as they do so.

What's a guy (or gal) to believe?

These are the truths of free agency
, as I see them, relative to the Orioles:

-Most Major League teams are competing for the same small pool of elite free agents. Demand outweighs supply.

-Free agents know they're in demand, so they use teams like the Orioles as an added bargaining chip to drive up their asking price.

-The Birds aren't going to be a truly attractive destination for free agents until they end the run of losing seasons, put fans back in the seats, and get the media exposure that represents the fruit of their collective labor.

-It will continue to be an uphill climb with free agents, and we're not likely to get the top guys on our wish list very often.

-Even if we land a top-tier free-agent, it won't start a flurry of signings, much less an avalanche.

[See, for example, Miguel Tejada, 2003. The thinking was that Tejada would attract more stars to the Baltimore skyline, particularly Latin players. Tejada signed in 2003, and USA Today had the following to say:
"The Baltimore Orioles, who made the biggest news at baseball's winter meetings by signing free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada to a $72 million contract for six years, are continuing to negotiate with three other big-name players: Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and catchers Ivan Rodriguez and Javy Lopez.

'Given the sluggish market, general managers around baseball think the Orioles appear have a chance to get Guerrero, who hit .330 with 25 home runs for the Montreal Expos last season, and one of the catchers.'"
We all know what happened there.]

-Free agents aren't the answer ... yet. The Birds are going to have to continue building a solid foundation before free agency makes a truly discernible difference in their fortunes. In other words, free agency is best used to fix the leaks rather than to replace the plumbing.

Feel free to add you own Hot stove myths and truths in the comments section.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Offseason Odds and Ends

Mussina retires, Erin Andrews interviews Teixeira, and more

by Matthew Taylor

A roundup of interesting O's-related topics ...

-"Flashback Fridays" ended with the last pitch of the season, but a tip from Stephen Johnson allows Roar from 34 to revisit the tradition in brief.

Johnson is the creator/executive producer of "Gettysburg Eddie" and the producer of the long anticipated "Forgotten Birds." He notes that Hall of Famer Eddie Plank, a longtime Philadelphia Athletic and the subject of his latest documentary, has an O's connection: "In 1901 on May 13th, Connie Mack called for the bullpen and Eddie Plank ran to the mound. He came in to mop up a game with the Baltimore Orioles. So a future hall of famer (1946) started his pro career in Baltimore."

It's also worth noting that Plank finished his career with the St. Louis Browns, a precursor to the Birds, and therefore appears on the Baltimore Orioles' all-time roster.

-Mike Mussina has decided to call it a career. Buster Olney, who covered Mussina as an Oriole and as a Yankee, offers a nice coda on his blog. It says a lot about Mussina that even after he left the Birds for the hated Yankees, many O's fans still hold him in high regard. I'm one of them.

-Bleacher Report considers a hypothetical Ryan Theriot-for-Brian Roberts deal between the Cubs and Birds.
"Does the name 'Brandon Fahey' ring a bell? I doubt it...unless you're a fan of the Baltimore Orioles. Fahey, who will turn 28 in January, is projected to be the Orioles' starting shortstop on Opening Day 2009—which is great if you're related to Fahey.

He hit .228 in 58 games last year, including 25 strikeouts in 106 at-bats. Comparatively, Theriot struck out 58 times last year in over 500 at-bats.

So do you think an enormous upgrade at shortstop would be enticing to the Orioles?"
-Mark Teixeira did a sideline interview with Erin Andrews (poor guy) during Thursday night's ESPN game between Miami and Georgia Tech. Andrews mentioned the Red Sox and Yankees, but the O's name never came up. The circumspect Teixeira noted that (I'm paraphrasing here), "the East Coast is my home." Make of that what you will, but it seems like the "hometown" radius has grown considerably.

-I admittedly have not been following the Orioles' spring training saga. Nevertheless, it's nice to see some positive things written about the team, no matter the motivation. Doug Holder of the Florida House of Representatives has this to offer:
"This is the opportunity we have with the Baltimore Orioles organization -- one of the most successful teams in Major League Baseball history, winning the World Series three times and the American League pennant six times. But perhaps sometimes we focus too much on the aspect of the game of baseball and overlook the business side of bringing a new team to Sarasota County for spring training."
-Sad to see the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards struggling so much. If you haven't been there, it's worth a visit.
"The Maryland Board of Public Works has approved $440,000 in debt relief for the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.

Mike Gibbbons, the museum's executive director, says the facility has been hindered by diminishing attendance at Baltimore Orioles games. Gibbons says the nearby Babe Ruth Museum also could suffer without help."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Losing Is What We've Got

With apologies to Sublime, losing is what we've got ... for now

by Matthew Taylor

Obviously, free agent talk is topic number one, two, and three now that we've officially entered the Hot Stove season. Sports Illustrated provides a through dousing of cold water with its assessment of what the O's have, what they need, what they're likely to do, and what they should do.
"If the Jays should look beyond 2009, the same goes doubly for the 68-win Orioles, who employed the fifth-oldest lineup in the league, one in which only Jones and Nick Markakis were on the right side of 30. For far too long the O's have been in denial about their plight, which now extends to 11 straight losing seasons. A typical winter's patchwork involves trying to get them to 75 wins, a level that the Orioles have actually reached just once in this millennium. This only forestalls a more extensive rebuilding effort; they need to face the music and clean house. Take the rotation -- please. The unit's ERA as a whole was an MLB-worst 5.51, and Jeremy Guthrie was the only member with at least a dozen starts and an ERA below 5.25; in that light perpetually maddening Daniel Cabrera starts to make sense because of his ability to eat innings. The Orioles need another arm or two to stabilize a corps of not-so-young and none-too-effective pitchers like Radhames Liz and Garret Olsen, but they shouldn't overpay for name-brand studs on long-term deals, because they're a couple of years away from a credible run at .500, let alone the division flag. Paging Odalis Perez...."
My assessment of the team's future is a tad more optimistic than this one. What, no mention of the improving farm system? Not even a word about Matt Wieters? However, the overall age of the roster is easy to forget if, like me, you focus on guys like Jones and Markakis.

Even with last year's successful off-season maneuvering, the team hasn't provided a definitive indication of how long the latest, greatest rebuilding effort will take. What happens in the coming weeks should provide a hint of the team's thinking in that regard.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The New Look Orioles

Team pulls off a successful off-season marketing effort

by Matthew Taylor

So the O's finally put Baltimore back on their road jerseys and revealed some other uniform alterations in a Wednesday afternoon press conference that was quite similar to the Ravens' uniform unveiling at the same location more than a decade ago. Perhaps the Ravens' example served the Orioles well as, for the most part, the team hit a marketing home run with this effort.

The only major downside to the Birds' marketing of their new unis was that they let word of the hat change leak out weeks in advance only to make a very minor - and unnecessary - adjustment that simply seems like an effort to pull in more merchandising bucks. Otherwise, the team handled this thing well. At noon, the official O's web site looked no different than it did all season; by 12:15, as the uniform ceremony was wrapping up, the site featured the new logo along with a link to purchase an updated jersey. Clearly, a well-coordinated effort.

Overall, the O's turned the news of their uniform change into a true off-season event, one that generated some buzz for the team and gave fans a reason to be excited soon after another losing season ended. The ceremony itself was quick and to the point, featured an appropriate tone of cautious optimism (okay, mostly cautious - Melvin Mora did announce his plans to drive in 130 runs in 2009), and gave a nod to the team's more celebrated past. And that's not even to mention that the biggest change - the addition of the Baltimore script - addressed a long-running fan demand.

If those aren't reasons enough to convince you that the team did things the right way, just consider some of the alternatives they could've gone with:

-Jim Palmer makes an appearance at the uniform unveiling and provides a true "flash"back to the team's past ... in his Jockey briefs.

-Team announces its intention to have all position players wear gold gloves in '09 to protest the snubbing of Nick Markakis.

-Eye patches instead of uniform patches.

-Jim Hunter stays at home, leaving the emceeing responsibilities in the hands of Rick Dempsey and Melvin Mora.

-Team sells advertising space on the new unis, starting with Southwest's "Wanna Get Away?" promotion.

-Terry Mathews appears and proudly announces, "Gray is slimming."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Cause Worth Supporting

O's fan advocates for ALS-Lou Gehrig day next season

by Matthew Taylor

He grew up in Queens in the '60s but rejected the Yankees to become an Orioles fan. He's even attended the Birds' fantasy camp, where he heard Dave Trembley's story of trying to get tossed from a game without cussing and choosing the term "den mother" to fill the space for expletives. But those aren't really the reasons you should appreciate Michael Goldsmith. Instead, you should appreciate Goldsmith's efforts to draw attention and funding to the fight against ALS, a disease he's been fighting since 2006.

Goldsmith, 57, wrote a "My Turn" piece for Newsweek at the beginning of the month.

"I received my death sentence in September 2006 when doctors told me I had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressively paralyzing neuromuscular disorder. There is no cure. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the Yankee Hall of Famer who died of it, ALS is so uncommon that medical researchers consider it an 'orphan' illness—so few people have it that pharmaceutical companies lack financial incentive to invest in finding a cure.

The public also pays scant attention to ALS. (May 2008 was ALS Awareness Month. Who knew?) Public attention and contributions understandably go to more widespread killers like cancer, heart disease and diabetes."

He has since been profiled in other outlets, including the New York Times. In other words, the message is starting to spread and should continue to do so.

"After playing baseball in Queens as a child, Goldsmith later picked it up in his 30s in an amateur league, against former college and minor league players, learning to switch-hit and becoming a better player than he had ever been. Early this year, he attended a fantasy camp run by his favorite team. The former Orioles Jeff Tackett and Bill Swaggerty worked with Goldsmith, pushing him onward with basic ballplayer humor: 'They never let me get maudlin,' Goldsmith said."
But there is more than just a good story to tell here. Goldsmith's trip to the O's fantasy camp has inspired him to advocate for making July 4, 2009, ALS-Lou Gehrig Day in baseball.
"At some point, we talked about what Major League Baseball could do to fight ALS, and I realized that next July 4 will mark the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. Since his retirement, more than 600,000 Americans have shared Gehrig's fate, as medical science has made virtually no progress toward finding a cure. Through the years some players and a few teams have occasionally helped raise funds, but Major League Baseball has never taken comprehensive action against ALS. Defeating ALS will require the same type of determination, dedication and drive that Gehrig and Cal Ripken demonstrated when they set superhuman records for consecutive games played. With this in mind, why not make July 4, 2009, ALS-Lou Gehrig Day? Dedicate this grim anniversary to funding research for a cure; every major- and minor-league stadium might project the video of Gehrig's farewell, and teams, players and fans could contribute to this cause. An event of this magnitude has the potential to raise millions, dwarfing the relatively scant sums that ALS walks, rides and similar small-scale efforts have produced."
As the Orioles start to do a better job of fan relations, this is one cause they'd be wise to support in any way possible. Consider this one resounding vote in favor of Goldsmith's effort. Here's hoping the Birds' game at Anaheim on July 4, 2009, is part of ALS-Lou Gehrig Day. Fans can also help the effort by contributing money and/or time directly to the ALS Association.

[Image source: The New York Times (courtesy of Michael Goldsmith). Click photo for original.]

Friday, November 07, 2008

Top Ten List

And it has nothing to do with David Letterman

by Matthew Taylor

Baseball America's list of the Top 10 Oriole prospects has garnered some attention this week, as you might expect it would for a team whose future hopes rest in the hands of prospects to develop or deal.

I'll leave the serious analysis to others who follow the farm system more closely; however, I will offer this much: it's encouraging that six of the 10 players listed are pitchers. Pitching and defense, pitching and defense, pitching and defense. You can always find a good bat on the free-agent market, but acquiring solid pitching is a considerably more risky and pricey endeavor.

One other note: Has there been a more anticipated O's prospect in recent history than Matt Wieters?

On to the list.

1. Matt Wieters, c
2. Chris Tillman, rhp
3. Brian Matusz, lhp
4. Jake Arrieta, rhp
5. Nolan Reimold, of
6. Brandon Erbe, rhp
7. Billy Rowell, 3b
8. Troy Patton, lhp
9. Brandon Snyder, 1b
10. Kam Mickolio, rhp

Some reaction to the Baseball America list:

-Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone
"Baseball America came out Wednesday with its list of the Baltimore Orioles' top 10 prospects, and it's another painful reminder of the Erik Bedard trade. No. 2 is pitcher Chris Tillman, and No. 10 is pitcher Kam Mickolio, both of whom came over from the Mariners for Bedard, along with reliever George Sherrill, who made the All-Star team last year, Adam Jones, the Orioles' starting center fielder, and pitcher Tony Butler."
And of course the localized angles (i.e. "He's one our ours") ...

-Tri-City Valley Cats
"Former Tri-City ValleyCats pitcher Troy Patton was named the Baltimore Orioles eighth best prospect according to Baseball America on Wednesday. Patton was the eighth former ValleyCat to reach the Major Leagues when he made his debut with the Houston Astros on August 25, 2007."
-Frederick Keys
"Six former Frederick Keys dotted the listing of the Baltimore Orioles top-ten prospects in Baseball America's annual listing released Wednesday afternoon. C Matt Wieters (#1), RHP Jake Arrieta (#4), OF Nolan Reimold (#5), RHP Brandon Erbe (#6), 3B Billy Rowell (#7) and 1B Brandon Snyder (#9) made the list. The Orioles most recent first round pick, and possible future Frederick Key, Brian Matusz ranked third on the list."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Closing in on Respectability"

So says Baseball Prospectus, which also proposes a unique scenario involving Brian Roberts

by Matthew Taylor

Baseball Prospectus, via Sports Illustrated, offers up some potential "creative deals" for this off-season, including one non-trade scenario (at least in the short-term) involving Brian Roberts.
"The Orioles move Brian Roberts from second to shortstop. Roberts, playing his walk year in 2009, was Baseball America's National Defensive Player of the Year at shortstop in college. The O's didn't have a reliable shortstop in 2008, and given their farm system and the players on the market, they aren't likely to have one in '09. Roberts (right) would be better than the available options and allow Baltimore--which is closing in on respectability--to sign one of many stopgap second basemen (such as Ray Durham and Mark Grudzielanek). If successful, the move would give Roberts even more trade value, something the team needs to maximize."
What do you think of moving Roberts to short? Vote in Roar from 34's poll.

*Update: Roch Kubatko says it ain't happening. At least that's what Dave Trembley tells him.
"Brian Roberts is an All-Star caliber second baseman and premier leadoff hitter. I leave him there at second," Trembley said. "No one from our organization has ever talked about moving Brian back to short. I got questions about moving Adam Jones to short last spring, but he's our center fielder."
Of course, the article in question expressed an intriguing hypothetical. The writer never claimed that the O's had discussed the move.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wanted: Sports Owners

I recently received an email from the folks at Project Franchise who are hoping to buy a professional sports franchise and let the fans make decisions about the team. They sent me such a nice email - going so far as to pretend that they read Roar from 34 on a regular basis - that I figured I'd give them some free publicity with all five of my readers (Note: figures reflect regular-season viewership; off-season numbers not available by design).
"ProjectFranchise is just bringing this power to the people: we're buying a more affordable minor league team, bringing on 20,000-30,000 other like-minded sports nuts to become the 'PF Team Players', actually asking for only pocket change and then letting the PF Team Players vote on decisions that a real-life elected Team Captain will execute on. We’re just going to make it more fun by having people vote on every decision big or small – so the PF Team Players will not only be able to pick a new roster, but also decide if we serve spicy or yellow mustard with our hot dogs."
Project Franchise even managed to generate some non-low-level-blog publicity in the form of a humorous New York Times column.

"Enter Joe Scura, the mind behind Project Franchise, a group with a mission to buy a sports team and let the fans vote on every decision.

Yes, every decision. Next time Fox wants to advertise its hilarious new cop-and-dog buddy flick behind home plate, it may have to poll the fans.

'Something like this has been a long time coming, but the Internet has finally made it feasible,' Scura said. 'Fans are more than just piggy banks/hot dog receptacles.'

For $5, fans can buy a vote and act as the collective general manager, deciding on everything from personnel to team colors. That could have helped the Tampa Bay Devil Rays when they decided that pastels belonged in a logo. The Rays have since rebranded in dark green and dropped the devil from their name. Word has it the devil himself no longer wanted to be associated with the team.

This isn’t merely some 'leave Britney alone' Internet lark. The leadership of Project Franchise consists of lawyers, Web gurus and business school graduates who probably have more sports skill than, say, a shipbuilder."

Perhaps Project Franchise involvement is worth considering. It's certainly a fun idea. Nevertheless, I'd rather put my money toward helping a Ripken-led ownership team buy the Birds (not that they'd need my $5).