The Bullpen: Free agent cap could hit Blue Jays’ Latin recruiting
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera, left, talks with teammates Edwin Encarnacion, centre, and Jose Bautista, right, as they watch batting practice during baseball spring training in Dunedin, Fla. NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Passing through the doors of the Blue Jays clubhouse every morning at spring training can be a lesson in baseball diversity.
It’s not just the addition of Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio to a group that already included Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and others on the Jays’ roster from Latin America.
There are many other Latin American players here, most of the others in camp as non-roster invitees. But is this Latin flavour going to change because of the revised spending regulations in the collective bargaining agreement that limits each club to a cap of $2.9 million per year in worldwide amateur free agent signing bonuses?
Canada and Puerto Rico are included in the entry draft in June, so they aren’t affected by the signing cap that has been in force for one year now. There are 15 Canadians and five Puerto Rican born players in the system. Over the past three years, the Jays have been very active in signing players from Caribbean countries, first under regional scout Marco Paddy and now Ismael Cruz.
According to the Blue Jays’ 2013 media guide, the following are the numbers of players from different countries outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico: the Dominican Republic (49); Venezuela (31); Mexico (3); Cuba (3); Panama (2); Colombia (1); Nicaragua (1) and Aruba (1).
Among the Jays’ Top 20 prospects, according to Baseball America, there are five with Latin American roots, including No. 3 ranked prospect, pitcher Roberto Osuna from Mexico. But under the current system, the Jays might never have signed the 17-year-old Mexican.
“We liked him, but we didn’t go into that season saying this is the one guy we need to have, this is the best player” Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos said. “We weren’t that good as an evaluation group.
“(AGM) Tony LaCava deserves all the credit in the world, because he liked him more than anybody else. But Osuna was signed late, because we lost out on some other players. We liked him, we had some money left over, he was a good prospect, so let’s go sign him. We liked him, maybe not at $1.3 (million), but I don’t think we expected him to be what he was. He wasn’t the top guy on our list. So, there’s an element of luck there and now he’s become that much better than we thought.”
Some of the advantage has been removed for clubs that aggressively signed young players from the region and hoped that some developed, as in the case of Osuna.
Anthopoulos explained that with the playing field leveled and the money being equalized, it becomes about a player deciding where he wants to go. It’s a popularity contest of organizations. The Jays still have a strong foot in that door. Nevertheless, you have to spend your $2.9 million wisely and be correct more often than lucky.
“That’s where the old system was to our benefit,” Anthopoulos said. “Now, we would have had to earmark a guy like Osuna, which we didn’t. (We would have had to) say he’s the guy, he’s the guy and make sure we get the evaluation right. That’s the hard part about it.”
In the meantime, the Jays’ organization is rocking to a Latin beat and is better for it.
CANADIAN BLUE JAYS
The Jays have 15 Canadian players in the organization. Here’s a look at who they are and where they’re from:
- Michael Crouse, 22, OF, Port Moody, BC
- Shane Dawson, 19, RHP, Drayton Valley, AB
- Nathan DeSouza, 18, OF, Milton, ON
- Marcus Knecht, 22, OF, Toronto
- Brett Lawrie, 23, 3B, Langley, BC
- Adam Loewen, 28, OF, Vancouver, BC
-Trystan Magnuson, 27, RHP, Vancouver, BC
- Mike Nickeas, 30, C, Vancouver, BC
- Dalton Pompey, 20, OF, Mississauga, ON
- Nicholas Purdy, 23, RHP, Grafton, ON
- Thomas Robson, 19, RHP, Nelson, BC
- Shaun Valeriote, 23, INF, Guelph, ON
The Blue Jays camp in Dunedin was one of the earliest stops this year on the annual spring tour of major-league teams by MLB Players Association head Michael Weiner. The meeting, with a more veteran group than the Jays have had in years, took about 80 minutes inside the closed clubhouse, with a presentation by the union chief followed by a question and answer session with the players.
Weiner then met with the media for 30 minutes after his session with the Jays’ players. The most interesting revelation from Weiner was that the real impetus towards more severe penalties for PED offenders that fail a test, is coming not from commissioner Bud Selig, the owners or fans. It’s coming from within the union, from players that are tired of other players cheating. The Miami situation with Anthony Bosch and the now-closed Biogenesis anti-aging clinic has brought the issue to a head.
“That’s an active discussion right now,” Weiner acknowledged. “There are certainly players who have expressed that (desire). We’ve had discussions with the commissioner’s office. On the one hand, we do have the toughest penalties of any team sport. I mean 50 games is more than you see for a first time in football, hockey and basketball. If it turns out that we have a different penalty structure because that’s what the players are interested in, that’s what the owners are interested in, it would be for 2014. The 2013 (PED) testing season has started at spring training. We’re not going to change the rules in mid-stream. It could be an active discussion for 2014.”
In the course of the conversation it became clear that Weiner’s personal feeling is that the new program, with HGH blood testing and the recording of current testosterone levels for each player that can be compared to future test results, is more important than increasing the penalties for failing a test.
“That’s what the discussion is,” Weiner said. “There’s a very serious study that says it doesn’t matter what the penalty is, it matters if you think you’re going to get caught. We focused this off-season on making it more likely that players are going to get caught. I will explain that to players.
“I’m not surprised that there is greater frustration for players about the Miami stories because again, players are sick of these issues, whether there’s anything to them or not. They’re sick of this issue. And so it’s natural for a lot of guys to say, maybe we need stiffer penalties. We’ve had a good discussion about whether that’s fair, whether it’s fair to treat players that make a negligent mistake the same way as players that try to cheat the system, whether or not 50 games for a first time is sufficient. We will have that discussion in the course of 2013. The earliest that it could be an issue is 2014.”
Recall two winters ago, Jose Bautista said at a banquet in the Dominican that he had been tested 12-13 times by MLB and that it was OK because he had nothing to hide. It seemed to outside observers that maybe Bautista, if he was correct in his recall of the number of tests, might have been picked on as the result of unsubstantiated rumours of the summer before when he had his breakout season.
The system in place right now makes sure there is one test at spring training and then random tests with every player’s name put back in the pool, even if they already had been tested as the result of the previous random draw. MLB and the union have no knowledge of who is being tested. If you fail a test, like Melky Caberera in 2012, you have six additional tests, plus your name is still in the random selection process. But Bautista would have been random-draw only. So 12-13 tests sounds a little high to be random.
“Jose’s a great guy and I’ve had the conversation with him,” Weiner said. “We checked it out and Jose may have been tested more than he expected and I know, given his performance he was suspicious. . . . We checked it out and everything was done properly.”
As for Cabrera and the possibility of future penalties coming out of t his name appearing in the Miami investigation, Weiner couldn’t rule it out. (That’s in contrast to Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos).
“It’s a tough and complicated legal question,” Weiner said. “I think the commissioner’s office could take the position that if they had evidence of a separate violation, that conceivably they could seek additional discipline. We might challenge that.”
Then came another challenge to the perception that it’s the union always standing in the way of efforts to take performance-enhancing drugs out of the game, always defending the cheaters, always using its power to reduce suspensions and challenge findings. Weiner suggests he has new marching orders.
“The players’ association has an obligation to represent any player who’s subject to discipline,” Weiner began carefully. “The players’ association is also a signatory to a joint drug agreement, and the players’ association also has an obligation, not only to the players who are subject to discipline, but the vast majority of players who want a clean game.”
“The union has an interest in saying, if somebody committed another infraction, there should also be consequences because again, the other players want to make sure that we have a clean game. . . . It may be that we have a legal dispute with the commissioner’s office on this, but the goal is to administer our joint program in the fashion we have and have the toughest program in sports,” Weiner added.
What Weiner said seems to be real progress in the thought process of MLB players. Weiner is obviously hearing from the majority of card-carrying union members that they have had enough. That’s good to see. Prior to this mindset of defending the majority, it always struck me that the union always defended the perpetrator while ignoring the victim, as the NHL Players Association all too often does in hockey.
Contrary to what one might think, the tone of the Blue Jays’ questions, according to Weiner, did not change much this year just because the club has become more veteran and more of a contender.
“Obviously there’s a lot of excitement in this clubhouse and there’s a lot more veteran players,” Weiner said. “In terms of the meeting, this has been a strong union clubhouse for a number of years, even with younger players. So I wouldn’t say it was materially different.
“It was a very active meeting. I meet (separately) with the (younger) players to talk about their particular concerns and they almost wore me out with questions about various provisions of the Basic Agreement. It’s great to see and I think they take the lead from veterans on the team that have made clear the importance of the players’ association,” Weiner said.
On Friday, news emerged that the Angels had renewed the contract of outfielder Mike Trout for $510,000 for 2013, just $20,000 over the major-league minimum. His agent Craig Landis seemed furious that his client, the AL Rookie-of-the-year and runner-up to Miguel Cabrera in MVP voting, would be so disrespected. The numbers he had been seeking and the club’s figure were far apart.
The MLB rule is that if a player has not yet reached arbitration status, then on March 1 a club can renew his contract at an arbitrary number of their choosing. It’s been going on for years. The likelihood is that the Angels were offering more money if Trout would have come to terms, but since they were forced to renew, they cut the figure down. It’s a common tactic.
“During the process, on behalf of Mike, I asked only that the Angels compensate Mike fairly for his historic 2012 season, given his service time,” Landis, who represents Trout, told Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times, via email. “In my opinion, this contract falls well short of a ‘fair’ contract, and I have voiced this to the Angels throughout the process.”
Get over it, Craig. The first two seasons in which the teams have control of their players is about the only time that teams have an advantage. I have seen so often that a club misguidedly tries to be generous in those controllable years, hoping that when the time comes for free agency that the player will remember how generous the team was after the rookie season. But the player bolts anyway to the highest bidder. Teams that try that tactic are delusional. The Angels are using the system. Nothing personal.
But controlling costs can bite back.
In fact, by utilizing the same system, one might argue that the Angels cost themselves a shot at the World Series last season. Having played 40 games in 2011, Trout was left in the minors to open the 2012 season. The tactic there was to control service time and ensure his arbitration is delayed by a year. The Angels brought him up on April 28, which means his arbitration was delayed until after the 2014 season instead of 2013, saving them several million down the line. However in 2012, the Halos got off to such a poor start that by the time they righted themsleves and made a run for the post-season it was too late. What if they’d had Trout from opening day?
Like I said, this renewal thing has been going on for years. I recall on March 1, 1993 Bill Stoneman walked into the Expos’ clubhouse in West Palm Beach with a renewal contract for young outfielder Moises Alou. The 26-year-old, obtained in trade from the Pirates two years earlier, had rehabbed in 1991, missing the entire season. He had worked hard to get back on the field and surprised everyone in ’92, finishing second in NL Rookie-of-the-Year. He was expecting to be rewarded. Sorry.
Alou angrily signed the contract and headed for the field. He was furious, vowing not to cooperate on any Expos off-field activities, to just play baseball. In fact he wasn’t going to even talk to the media. The club’s concerned p.r. man talked him down off that ledge of silence, reminding him that when arbitration arrived, the real money would start to flow in and that it was all part of the process. He understood and remained one of the most accessible, cooperative Expos until it was time to leave.
Trout needs to do the same. His time will come.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
The thing about spring training is that it’s relentless. The games are incidental, other than when Ricky Romero shows signs of bouncing back or Jose Bautista homers again, or there’s a jaw-slackening moment like Ryan Howard taking one out of the Phillies Park that almost carries to Highway 19. Other than that, it’s about personalities and getting ready.
So when any opportunity comes along that has meaning on a personal level, you take it. Such an opportunity arrives for me on Monday. I will drive across the state of Florida to see my freshman son Patrick play for the College of St. Rose Golden Knights on Tuesday afternoon.
St. Rose, a Division II school in Albany, NY, is playing the Concordia Clippers in the opener of the Palm Beach Challenge. Coincidentally the tournament is contested on a complex of diamonds in Lantana that was built by the Montreal Expos in the early ’80s for their minor-league training camp.
Then it’s off to Arizona for the first round of the World Baseball Classic.