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Toronto is snowed in today, and spring training is more than a month away. The stalemate continues between the agents of most free agents, and the newly-responsible, budget-conscious GMs who are more concerned with dumping their worst contracts on each other than filling their needs.

Fortunately, there's fantasy baseball to amuse a guy. The last time I posted something here, it didn't attract a lot of comments, but a couple of people e-mailed and joined me in leagues. So here's another heads-up. Shrike has already expressed an interest in Roto Junkies, an AL-only, 5x5 keeper league, and I've put him in touch with our Commissioner. Now there are two spots open, so here's an opportunity to join a well-run league of friendly guys. RJ has features like the Prospects draft, where you can "stash" five players who don't break camp on a 25-man roster, and trading of future draft picks. There's a $35 US annual fee, and transaction fees, even if you're a compulsive FA shopper like me, might be another $25 for the whole year, but all the money is awarded in prizes. One of the available teams has a cornerstone (A-Rod) and a stockpile of high draft picks, including my #2. The other has Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko and other excellent keeper possibilities.
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I'm conceding baseball's weakest division to the defending champs, and with the experience of last year's playoffs under their belts, this young, talented team could be even better next October. A couple of ESPN columnists agree. In the first of a series called Hot Stove Heaters, John Sickels takes a detailed look at the 2003 Twins, and raves about lefty Johan Santana. Best known for his excellent minor-league analyses, Sickels also rates the Minnesota farm system highly. Up next on Monday, it's the D-Backs on the Hot Stove, then Your Toronto Blue Jays will be dissected January 7.

Less thorough than his colleague, but usually more entertaining, Jim Caple calls Scrooge Pohlad's decision to increase the payroll to $50 MM, "as unexpected a move as if he drove up to a Minnesota farm and told the family not to worry about their late mortgage payments, he wouldn't even think of foreclosing." Caple also points out a problem they share with the Jays -- the Twins were 23-29 against LH starters and 71-38 against righties last year. If you're reading this, Art Howe, why didn't you start Barry Zito in Game One of the ALDS?
Not much Toronto baseball news out there today, but I stumbled across this report from Seattle. (What kind of a name is Post-Intelligencer for a newspaper?)

Sounds like certified genius GM Pat Gillick's hands are tied. When the owners didn't allow him to do anything but add Jose Awfulman at the 2002 deadline, it was a white flag on the season, and the furious Lou Piniella decided right then to leave. Now we're told the accountants gave permission to wave $7 MM under the nose of a Cuban defector, but that money can't be used to acquire another FA pitcher, because it came from a different pocket.

So all the M's have accomplished is to get Randy Winn (who had a breakout/fluke season at 28, depending on your point of view) as compensation for the skipper jumping overboard, and re-signing two old guys -- Jamie Moyer and John Olerud, who assure us these are their final contracts.
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Most of us who play fantasy baseball are wannabe general managers, but so are a few thousand well-qualified people with relevant real-world experience. ESPN's Rob Neyer has devoted two recent columns to a couple of the better candidates for that demanding position.

Last Saturday, Neyer published an e-mail interview with Tim Purpura of the Astros, named Organization of the Year by more than one respected publication. Today, Rob talks to Mike Arbuckle, assistant GM of the Phillies. Along with Paul DePodesta, who is in J.P. Ricciardi's old job at the right hand of Billy Beane, they are the next wave. It's interesting to compare their philosophies. Arbuckle is proof that "old school" values are still prominent in baseball front offices, while Purpura seems more open to new ideas. He also provides some practical career-path advice, if you really want to follow in J.P.'s footsteps.
Further on the topic of minor-league Athletic outfielders coming to Toronto, here's a stealth Dec. 30 signing -- Mike Colangelo. He's a pretty good defensive outfielder, a pure centrefielder who can also take a walk. That's the good news; the bad news is spelled .212/.331/.253 at AAA Sacramento in 2002 (yes, his OBP and SLG are correctly positioned). He's not that bad, but he's not going to compete for a job with the Blue Jays either. This looks like roster depth at Syracuse to me, or maybe an emergency CF in Toronto; Colangelo has never had a ML_EqA above .265, and has exactly 116 big-league ABs.

The best thing about Mike Colangelo? Say his name real fast and think of the Sistine Chapel.
Just a little something for all you New Year's Day hangover sufferers out there ... an assessment of Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin from Baseball America. If BA were releasing their Blue Jays Top 10 today, they say these guys would rank #5 and #6 behind McGowan, Cash, Werth and Rosario -- which I felt was a pretty insane ranking at the time, and still do. I think, as the high-ceiling pitcher closest to the majors, Arnold merits a Top Three ranking at the minimum, certainly ahead of McGowan and a still-recovering Rosario.
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He's too modest to post it here himself, but our own Craig Burley has penned a terrific piece for Baseball Primer. As part of a series on the eligible candidates for the upcoming Hall of Fame elections, Craig took on the daunting assignment of evaluating Dave Parker. The Cobra was a great RF, hitter and leader, whose personality and lifestyle rubbed many the wrong way, so I don't think the tiny minds of the BBWAA will elect him, but after reading this thorough and enjoyable analysis, you will have a greater appreciation for both the player and the man. Maybe even the author :-)

Awesome work, Craig. I agree with many Primates that it's the best article in the series.

In today's NY Daily News, five people who have known George Steinbrennner well talk to Wayne Coffey about the Boss. Football coach Lou Saban, "magnitude of me" Reggie Jackson, some guy named Bud, PR man Marty Appel and one of GMS III's favourite warriors, Lou Piniella, share their recollections of a man who is underestimated and misunderstood by many.

This is the second of a two-part series; yesterday Coffey had a long interview, 30 Years of George, with the man himself. That's also a recommended read, especially his thoughts on Selig and Larry Lucchino. The Boss is also trying to light a fire under Joe Torre and Derek Jeter.

I knew Steinbrenner in my harness racing days. He talks about winning a Kentucky Derby as an unfulfilled goal, but a decade ago had just as powerful a stable of trotters and pacers, trained by Tommy Haughton at Pompano Park, where I was the senior racing official. On a slow baseball news day, here are a few personal thoughts about the man and the legend.
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Reflecting on the top baseball stories of the year will occur to others, whose evaluations may not be as Toronto-centric as mine, or as personal. Most will agree with the top four, but some may put my #10 on their "worst of" lists. To all Batter's Box contributors and readers, Happy New Year!

1. Labour Peace

This wouldn't have been much of a list, or much of a season, if the threatened strike hadn't been averted at the eleventh hour. I hope that one day, Tom Glavine (with a decent ghostwriter) publishes his autobiography and devotes several chapters to what really happened. My assumption is that he, and some other influential players, persuaded Donald Fehr to accept an unpalatable deal, because they didn't want to be blamed for ruining the game. On the other side of the table, I've portrayed the real dispute as a handful of militant owners vs. the sensible majority, and I'm sure the Commissioner changed sides, bringing at least one of the hawks with him, in order to reach the agreement. While I was relieved at the time, and considered it a return to business as usual for four more years, there were unexpected consequences (see #7 below) to the Luxury Tax. To me, the settlement was obviously the story of the year, for plenty of reasons, including the most important -- it made the next one possible.
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Breaking news from Primer is that the Jays have signed the little Cat to a $2.25M contract.

My quick read is that this is a very good deal which should provide efficient and affordable offense in RF and 2B, as the Cat can play several positions on the field as needed.
By Mick Doherty

Baseball fans of a certain age - let's just say if you remember Joe Torre playing for the Mets before he turned into a genius across the Apple - will recall the nascent days of free agency in the mid-1970's. The ridiculous "free agent drafts" where teams basically announced who they felt like negotiating with. The shock, nay, dismay, at the idea of paying a pitcher two million dollars - spread over ten years, true, but two million dollars! (Cleveland fans will recall with shock, nay, dismay, that the pitcher in question was one Wayne Garland.)

And every single sportswriter with a bylined column devoted several column inches of newsprint (that's sort of like saying "posted several screens worth of text," except in ancient pre-Internet language) to showing off just how awesome a "Free Agent All-Star Team" some enterprising young general manager could assemble given enough cash and resources. (Sort of like the Yankees these days, only all of the players were American.)
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Say what you will about the New York Yankees -- Red Sox officials had plenty to say about their divisional rivals after Team Steinbrenner outbid them for Jose Contreras -- they are committed to doing whatever it takes to win.

"Evil Empire" isn't my choice of words; that's what Boston CEO Larry "Sour Grapes" Lucchino called the Yanks. Compared to the true emerging power in the AL East (your Toronto Blue Jays) both the big-budget free-spenders are losing their grip on baseball reality. The Red Sox, in fact, may have "won" by losing out on Contreras; they are now forced to look elsewhere to keep up, and may return their attention to the less-risky, similarly-priced Bartolo Colon. Here's another Daily News article about the newest Cuban superstar in the Bronx. The $32 MM investment won't bankrupt George if it doesn't work out, nor will the $21 MM he threw at Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui. But if both players turn out to be just average, or either is really disappointing, that's a lot of money down the drain, especially considering the tax ramifications and other liabilities like Rondell and Raul.
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Just a week after his reasonable piece on Keith Law (see BB #113) comes this "Last Word" column by Mike Ulmer of the Toronto Sun, calling the Jays' GM the city's most compelling newsmaker of 2002, but not exactly endorsing his accomplishments. The question in my headline is Ulmer's -- most of you know where I stand -- and here's how he phrased it:

J.P. Ricciardi is either the smartest man in baseball, or the nerviest fraud this side of Enron boss Ken Lay.

Mike Ulmer: Hack or Moron? (You are permitted, actually encouraged, to vote "both".)
Our link to Blue Jay Way has been re-directed, and I finally got around to reading Matthew Elmslie's latest column, entitled Sabremancy. It's a good introduction to some Bill James principles for predicting team success; highly recommended if you just said, "Bill who?"

Matt correctly points out that Toronto's AAA farm team was a disappointing 64-80 last year, a negative indicator. But the outlook has changed dramatically for 2003 -- in addition to some excellent talent on the way up from lower levels, the thorough Mr. Ricciardi has added several very capable players who will strengthen the Syracuse roster, if they don't make the big club's bench in spring training. Last year's inexperienced SkyChiefs (Mike Smith, Scott Cassidy, Justin Miller...) spent plenty of time in limos, being shuttled to and from Toronto, but now veterans like Bruce Aven, Howie Clark, Doug Linton and Josh Towers are in the mix. I'm confident that a year from now, this rule of thumb will predict a successful 2004 campaign for the Blue Jays.
There's no question that simultaneous belt-tightening by just about every MLB team has left a lot of free agents pacing nervously on the sidelines. There's no precedent, other than deliberate collusion, for so many excellent players being non-tendered, or traded for "nothing." This response by the vast majority of teams to the new CBA has already deflated market values, and the glut of available talent means there's no hurry to offer lucrative multi-year deals.

But there's another reason for the stagnant baseball economy. Suddenly conscious of fiscal responsibility, teams (except for the Yankees) are reluctant to add payroll until they somehow escape the burden of their existing "bad" contracts. There will be no interest in Rondell White ($5M) or Raul Mondesi ($7M) or Sterling Hitchcock ($6M) unless a large bundle of cash is included, and not much expected in return. Then there's Drew Henson, who will receive $2M in 2003, $2.2M in '04, $3.8M in '05 and $6M (!) in 2006 -- any takers?

From the MLB Contracts site, I came up with this partial list of other "untradeable" players, who are tying the hands of their current employers:
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