Part 6: Cage the Elephant

by Timothy Malcolm

Jim Thome on board. Nice move, sure, but the elephant was stirring.

Jonathan Papelbon on board. Big move, sure, but the elephant was stirring.

Brian Schneider! The backup catcher! Back on board?

Suddenly everybody started talking Brian Schneider.

“The Phillies were 27-8 in games Brian Schneider started last year…His job is to give Ruiz a blow and to handle the staff,” tweeted Philadelphia Daily News Phillies beat writer David Murphy, a Wednesday night before the team agreed to terms with the backup thirty-four-year-old backstop.

“And,” retorted blogger Paul Boye, “he hit .191/.254/.278 as a starter.”

The .191 was his batting average, the .254 his on-base percentage and the .278 his slugging percentage. Those numbers were simply poor, and Boye’s tweet sparked a dialogue between he and Murphy about the importance of re-signing Schnider. Heck, there were countless options out there. Why not Ryan Doumit, a younger and more powerful hitter capable of driving in big runs? Or maybe Ramon Hernandez, a powerful catcher with much better offensive numbers than Schneider? Why bring back an aging veteran with little offensive ability?

“And I understand where you are coming from,” Murphy tweeted, much later in the conversation. “Just think this is No. 25 on what to worry about.”

***

Squint closely, and you see his trunk. There, the tusks too. He’s much larger than you think. And he has sleepy eyes, but they are beginning to open. And now, the elephant in the room is starting to move. He is gray and plump, and he stretches, and he begins to stand, and suddenly he is humongous. And his eyes open wider, and wider more, and he is a sight to behold! Regal and prolific, maybe with some dents, and maybe with some wear, but boy, can he still move! He has been manning the shortstop position in Philadelphia since April 2001. He is Jimmy Rollins. His infield partners have included everyone from Kevin Jordan to Ryan Howard, with two Placido Polanco stints thrown in for good measure. He morphed from a speedy and near reckless spinning top, to a refined hitter with power, to an excellent fielder with reasonable offensive abilities. He is a Most Valuable Player award winner and a world champion. He anchored the Phillies through their finest days. And he is a free agent.

In 2011, Rollins hit for a .268 batting average with a .338 on-base percentage and a .399 sluggin percentage. While the batting average and slugging percentage were below Rollins’ averages during his prime, the on-base percentage was on par with that of his prime. A small reason: Rollins was walking at a higher rate, and striking out at a slightly lesser rate. Still, his sixteen home runs seemed more like bonus home runs, and his thirty stolen bases felt quieter than usual. At his most dynamic – that Most Valuable Player season of 2007 – Rollins recorded eighty-eight extra-base hits. Albert Pujols, in possibly his best season, 2008, recorded eighty-one extra-base hits. Add Rollins’ thirty-five net stolen bases (subtracting times caught from his overall steals) and the 2007 Most Valuable Player made himself a scoring-position player one-hundred and twenty-three times. Staggering. In 2011 made himself a scoring-position player just sixty-two times, or, half as many times.

But Rollins is not half the player he was in 2007. He displays more patience at the plate and works well with his slightly declining offensive abilities. More, however, he is a superior defensive shortstop, possibly the best in baseball. Making a few flashy plays, but never committing bad errors, Rollins is a steady anchor with speed and a highly trained arm that has perfected the throw to first base from multiple pivot points. In the grand tradition of stars like Dave Concepcion, Rollins is a smart veteran shortstop that can contribute substantially to a team’s championship drive.

Of course, that means multiple teams with championship aspirations are looking at signing Rollins to a multiyear contract. Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote on November 10 that he heard six teams had interest in Rollins; likely suitors, according to Stark, are the Phillies, Giants, Brewers, Cardinals and Braves. All are contending teams seeking to fill a hole at shortstop, and Rollins, who looks attractive compared to lesser talents Edgar Renteria and Yuniesky Betancourt, would fit nicely in nearly any situation. So with that sort of leverage, it was also reported that Rollins sought a five-year contract, even as he approached his mid-thirties. But who can blame him? Rollins wants a big paycheck, especially since he agreed to a friendly five-year, $40 million contract in 2006. And if the Braves, or champion Cardinals, or native Giants want to hand Rollins another five-year contract, why wouldn’t he pack his bags?

So now, Rollins is an elephant, standing taller than the furniture, eyes wandering rapidly, glancing about the parlor as the Schneiders of the world are brought back into the kitchen. Worse, at least to the fans, he seems not to care. Rollins is asked by a tweeting fan what he thinks about the Phillies signing Jim Thome, and Rollins says it’s a good move for them. Yup. Them. He says “the Phillies.” He is no longer with “the Phillies.” He is no longer “Us.”

***

In Saint Louis they’re having a similar problem. Albert Pujols has been a mainstay on the Busch Stadium infield since that same 2001 season, and now he is a free agent, potentially landing with any old team that might decide to shill millions of dollars for his services. It’s hard to imagine Pujols in Cubs pinstripes, or in Nationals grays, or god forbid, the black and orange they have splattered on the new Miami Marlins. This is Albert Pujols, the most feared hitter of his generation, a new version of Hank Aaron, of Barry Bonds. Albert Pujols, a Marlin? He is only a Cardinal.

This isn’t a problem in the Borough of The Bronx, New York. There, the Yankees can afford to overpay for Derek Jeter, then remain protected from critics who question the financial splurge. They can throw money at any old player and make it work. But the Cardinals can’t afford that sort of carelessness, even if the recipient is this generation’s Hank.

Just before Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball approved a new collective bargaining agreement; according to the contract, teams that surpass the luxury tax will have to pay nearly twenty-three percent of its overage to the league. That’s no huge problem for the Yankees, as they run a cable television network and lead baseball – and the world, apart from soccer’s Manchester United – in merchandising and global reach. A couple million bucks back to the league won’t injure the Yankees. But it would injure the Cardinals. And they’re a franchise with plenty world championships, a large American fan base and impressive reach throughout the Midwest. Yet they might have to engage creativity to afford their star player. And if they can re-sign Pujols, the Cardinals would most definitely have to purge in other places, invest strongly in younger, more affordable players and patch together another miracle run. They’ve done it before, and they can do it again, but boy, what a way to live.

Some teams have found success in this patchwork method of team building. The Oakland Athletics famously changed the game with “Moneyball,” a philosophy in which the underappreciated, the scarcely scouted and the physically odd were embraced, partly because they were cost effective, and partly because, hell, they could still play baseball. A book called “Moneyball,” written by Michael Lewis and detailing the Athletics’ and general manager Billy Beane’s mission to remain competitive in an unbalanced market, revealed the secrets of the philosophy. A pitcher named Chad Bradford, who threw at a kooky angle. A stocky catcher named Scott Hatteberg who broke his elbow, pushed to first base because nobody else wanted him. These were the lab rats of the movement, and Beane was the poster boy, helping to influence countless disciples who rode his strategies to varying degrees of baseball success. A dashing young man named Theo Epstein was one of them, assuming leadership of Boston Red Sox baseball operations and placing high value on patient hitters like Kevin Youkilis who, as noted in “Moneyball,” was Beane’s white whale. Epstein helped bring the Red Sox to the forefront of baseball prominence, winning two championships in the process. Andrew Freidman and his Wall Street-trained associates nabbed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, then shortened the franchise’s name, changed its image and began heavily valuing the first-year player draft. The Rays would pay high above slot allowances, gobble more picks by letting prized youngsters walk as free agents, then pay the best ones early through ridiculously long and cost-effective contracts. The result? A World Series appearance in 2008 (against the Phillies), an American League East championship in 2010, and a shocking return to the postseason in 2011, winning when nobody thought they had a shot.

But Major League Baseball has a way of slapping down good theories. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it happens, it’s strong, and it’s hard, and it’s damning. Like the theory that the pitcher can be a productive hitter. The American League wiped that one out. Years ago a pitcher like Rick Wise could clout with any slick-fielding shortstop; now, just a handful of hurlers can actually hack it at the dish. Or the theory that the baseball postseason is perfect with four teams. It excludes any possibility of luck or mediocrity. But the wild card wiped that one out. Now a team that turns up the heat in September can climb into the thick with teams that proved their worth back in June. Of course, we can’t blame the teams that climb into the thick. We can only point to Major League Baseball. It slaps the good theories down and muddies the picture, mostly in the interest of fairness, or money, or contracts, or necessity, or whatever the league wants to cite. And when Major League Baseball passed its new collective bargaining agreement, it cited fairness, and money, and contracts, and necessity, and all the other stuff. It also slapped down the good theories laid by Beane and perfected by Epstein and Freidman. Since, according to the agreement, teams that overspend to attract draftees will be penalized harshly – whether by being taxed at least seventy-five percent, or by being taxed and losing a draft pick – the short-term victim is the Rays. It’s also the Royals, and the Pirates, and all other small-market teams that need the draft to leverage their ability to succeed. The Yankees and Red Sox, and yes, the Phillies, can spend millions on established free agents, but the Rays, Royals and Pirates cannot. But they could spend more on cost-effective and well-controlled draft picks. The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies wouldn’t necessarily need this to operate successfully. The impact will be clearer in years. And more clear: The wealth of highly touted athletes who will shun baseball because it can’t pay them what they feel they deserve. That’s the long-term victim: Baseball.

Maybe somebody will devise a new philosophy, a new way to undercut the capitalistic ethos of the game. Until that happens, know that the St. Louis Cardinals – the biggest force in Midwestern baseball – will have trouble re-signing its franchise player.

***

On November 20, before the Philadelphia Eagles surprisingly snuck past the New York Giants on national television, the Phillies surprisingly snuck a trade through the wires. Long a prize for the Phillies, Ty Wigginton was acquired for a player to be named later. The super-utility right-handed everyman, formerly of the Colorado Rockies, swung an uneventful but decent stick, but more importantly, played practically every position on the baseball diamond. He can man first base while Ryan Howard sits out the beginning of the year with his ankle injury. He can spell Placido Polanco at third base. He can platoon in left field with whomever the Phillies desire to take the mantle. And he can do all of this while supplying a competent plate appearance each time out, capable of knocking in some runs, taking a few walks and possibly swatting some balls deep into the Philadelphia night. Compared to Wilson Valdez, who fielded well but hit terribly, Ty Wigginton is Babe Ruth. The Babe Ruth of super-utility men.

The Babe Ruth of super-utility men will be paid $2 million by the Phillies in 2011. A small chunk of the payroll, sure, but a chunk nonetheless. Like wads of gum, Wigginton is added to the Schneider chunk ($800,000) and the Papelbon chunk ($12.5 million) and the Thome chunk ($1.25 million). They’re all adding up, crowding the kitchen, chunk after chunk. One more big move might just push the Phillies past the $178 million threshold, which means paying the luxury tax, facing Major League Baseball’s rules, getting slapped in the face at the gates of the condominium complex known as baseball’s upper echelon.

And all the while … oh look, now the elephant, adorned with purple and gold, a crown and a glimmer in his eye, is walking around the room. And the room is shrinking.

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