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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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The Star ran an interview with Carlos Delgado today in which he talks about Christmas in Puerto Rico.

Of course, the writer (not listed in the online article) fires off a cheap shot at Delgado, followed by a paragraph complaining that he isn't particularly open with the press. If someone were to accuse me of being shallow, I don't think I'd be too cooperative in interviews either.
This is entirely a propos of nothing, but while I was doing research on Dave Parker for an article I'm writing for Baseball Primer, I came across a little gem written to commemorate the passing of Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field. Just a small collection of "great moments" and personalities from the Reds' time in the stadium, there are dozens of little reminders in here of the quirks and personalities that make baseball such a captivating pastime for all of us.

Never have so many excellent players been left standing when the offseason music stopped. OK, a couple of times before, but the owners were found guilty and punished. This time, it's not illegal -- has anyone noticed Donald Fehr taking any bows for negotiating the new CBA? -- but we are seeing a wholesale change in the business of baseball.

The Twins can't afford David Ortiz, the Angels prefer a roster spot and cash to Brad Fullmer, the Jays wave goodbye to Jose Cruz, and so on. And if six or seven other teams let similar players walk, instead of going to arbitration, they will all hire each other's castoffs to fill the same roles as they guys they let go. The result? No change in talent (some teams will guess right, some wrong, on who they sign to replace the departed, but no net change) and a huge reduction in the collective payroll.

I'm not saying this is a terrible thing. I wasn't pro-union before the 2002 strike threat, nor pro-owner. I was vehemently against the "hawk" faction among the owners, who wanted the players to save them from their own greed and inept management practices. I was thrilled when the strike was averted, and credited the saner players (Glavine, Surhoff and others) for urging their leaders to compromise. I did not anticipate that the deal would have such a dramatic impact, expecting business as usual and a fantastic AL West stretch drive. I was half right; it was a great pennant race.
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Richard Griffin gets off a great line with which I completely agree -- "The owners have recorded a TKO to run their record as organized labour pugilists to 1-13-1" -- and takes only a few backhanded swipes at J.P., applying the "genius" tag with little enthusiasm and a hint of sarcasm. The usual resentment and envy seeps in there, no doubt unintentionally. It suits R.G.'s purposes to feel sorry for Jose Cruz, but mostly he's upset that he didn't get a scoop in advance of the move.

There's some useful stuff in this column, too, like a summary of the Jays' payroll savings under Ricciardi. But when it's time to list the incoming and outgoing Jays in the J.P. era, Griffin resorts to the same underhanded sleight-of-truth he's used before -- arbitrarily drawing the transaction line at Opening Day 2002 instead of four months earlier, when the GM took over. Why? So Hinske doesn't "count" as an acquisition; that would ruin the effect of the propaganda. Only about 90% of fans won't notice the omission, but he can't fool us in the Batter's Box with that garbage.
Thanks for the heads-up to DS, and the Transaction Oracle report -- Dan beat the wire services on this one year deal, at a million bucks.

Sturtze (32, 6' 5", 190) is durable, but hittable, as Jordan pointed out the other day. He's better than his 2002 W-L record of 4-18 in front of the woeful D-Rays, but I don't think anyone expects him to be a Cy Young candidate. What he does offer the Blue Jays is another alternative to Pete Walker and Justin Miller for the rotation, and at this price, if he doesn't get the job done as a starter, he won't be overpaid as a long man in the bullpen. Strictly a depth move, with no risk and a possible reward.
Plenty of pre-Christmas treats for you to nibble on, from the one and only Peter Gammons. My favourite quote:

One AL GM, citing the way The Boss is overriding Yankees GM Brian Cashman, senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman and his sage organization, likens the Yankees to the last decade of the Soviet Union, old and with millions upon millions of dollars unusable.

Fact, according to Peter. Here's another:

It's too bad Oliver North isn't still doing international brokering... the only way Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd could rid himself of (Denny) Neagle is in some four-way deal involving arms, cash, Iran and the Contras.

Like I said, holiday munchies, to be enjoyed with a grain of salt. Mmm...
Some of you may remember an article about the Blue Jays' Consultant (Baseball Operations) Keith Law that ran in the Toronto Star back in September. It was an odd little piece, because the title and splash-page photo featured Keith, but the story itself was just as much about Ricciardi and the whole new face of operations at Skydome. Nevertheless, the references to Law as "Rain Man" and the inferences that he was basically a mad statgeek directing Ricciardi's moves with a laptop from a tiny room were, to say the least, misleading. (Remarkably enough, it wasn't written by our friend Griff, but by Geoff Baker.)

A briefer but better profile of Law, penned by the underrated Mike Ulmer, appears in today's Toronto Sun. If you read the Star piece, you should read this one too, because the author doesn't have an agenda and paints a better picture of a good guy. Ulmer also seems interested in actually sharing with his readers some of the myth-debunking knowledge that Keith and his fellow sabrmetricians bring to the table. It's worth a read.
Say what you will about J.P. Ricciardi -- most armchair critics will be roasting him on a spit for this move -- he has guts. Jose Cruz Jr. was unceremoniously dumped because the Blue Jays had two choices: pay roughly $5,000,000 for his services, or let him walk, and spend that money on more pressing needs.

This is what the market has come to, and the Blue Jays are going to be fiscally prudent, no matter what the average fan's opinion. In hindsight, you might think that they could have, and should have, traded Cruz for something, but no other teams are willing to take on mediocre, arbitration-eligible outfielders, with no control over what salary they might be awarded. Jose, and dozens of other players, have become "poison pills" nobody wants to swallow.
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