Saturday, November 15, 2014


               Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. I say that with full knowledge of the fact that predicting the future of players in the diamond sport is difficult, the differences in its levels being steep. The kid who looks great in high school or college often fails in the minors and some minor-league stars never make it in The Show. Adults make a living off trying to overcome the prophetical obstacles, probably more than should.
          But scouting is a game anyone can play for fun and I do it yearly at the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is the finishing school to which all 30 Major League teams send some of their more promising young prospects. Each team assigns seven.They’re grouped in six teams of 35 that play a 32-game schedule running from early October through the second week of November, this year ending today.

               It’s baseball at its purest, with individual performance all. The audiences in the Phoenix area’s spring-training parks consist mainly of real scouts and geezers like me with nothing better to do. Starting about the second week we’re joined by the gaggle (giggle?) of girlfriends the players attract in the normal course of things. Six weeks with pay during the desert-lovely autumn, with most nights off, is about as close to paradise as most of these young men will get. It’s a wonder they go home.

               My first general impression of the current season is that the pitchers have it over the hitters, continuing the situation that’s prevailed in the Major Leagues for several years.  A decade or so ago, when I began taking in fall games, most of the young arms here delivered heat and little else. Now many sport a variety of deliveries, to the discomfort of the batsmen. Thus does the game evolve, although the results might not be universally appealing.

               My second take is that I saw no prospects whose talents immediately dazzled. That’s in contrast with past years, when the potential of the fledglings Ryan Braun, Tommy Hansen, Starlin Castro and Nolan Arenado was apparent to anyone who looked. Ditto last season for Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs’ phenom now poised on the cusp of the Bigs. This year the crystal ball was hazier.

               Exhibit A in that regard was MARK APPEL, the young man whom the Houston Astros made the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft and paid a reported $6.35 million to sign.  Like any top draft choice, the 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher out of Stanford U. came with a can’t-miss label, but he’s struggled in the minors, posting a 5.93 ERA in 121 innings over two seasons in classes A and AA. He started well here, posting 14 straight scoreless innings, and added two more when I saw him in a game on October 31, but the first solid hit he gave up that day (a triple) seemed to unnerve him and he went on to surrender six runs on three more hits and three walks before being pulled with no outs in inning five. His problem seemed to be one of confidence, but that could be the worst kind.

                 Proving a point that baseball makes repeatedly, the three best pitchers I saw had nothing close to Appel’s credentials coming in.  C.J. EDWARDS, a Cubs’ farmhand, was a 48th-round draft choice in 2011 out of a South Carolina high school, but the skinny right-hander has been brilliant in three minor-league seasons through Class AA. I saw him pitch five innings in two starts. He struck out seven and the only run he allowed shouldn’t have been earned because the player who scored it reached on what should have been scored as an error. He throws fastballs in the low-90s but isn’t afraid to throw breakers when he’s behind in the count, and gets most of his strikeouts therefrom. 

               As if the San Francisco Giants don’t have enough pitching, they have a budding closer in STEVEN OKERT. The 23-year-old lefty, a fourth-round draft choice in 2012 from Oklahoma U. with a heavy fastball and good slider, has struck out 17 in 12 innings of relief here while walking just one. I saw him pitch two of those innings and only one batter of the six he faced hit the ball.               

              The mantra of Ray Miller, the old Baltimore Orioles’ pitching coach, was “work fast, change speeds, throw strikes.”  He would have loved CHRISTIAN BERGMAN.  Bergman is 26 years and a bit elderly for the AFL, and doesn’t strictly qualify as a prospect because he started nine games for the Colorado Rockies last season, but I love him because he’s the quickest-working pitcher around next to Mark Buehrle. Bergman doesn’t have great stuff but moves the ball around, pitches to contact and manages to get batters out. I’m rooting for him to succeed.
              The best position player I saw was FRANCISCO LINDOR, a shortstop in the Cleveland Indians’ chain. A 21-year-old native of Puerto Rico and a first-round draft choice in 2011, he had four hits the first game I saw him, including a home run and a double. That he didn’t do that well thereafter is attested by his .265 AFL batting average, but every time I was there he made good bat contact with surprising authority for his smallish size. He moved well in the field and his minor-league tab shows stolen-base ability.

               The notion that draft position isn’t everything was underlined by a couple of 22­-year-old New York Yankees’ power prospects, AARON JUDGE and GREG BIRD. Judge was a first-rounder in 2013, Bird a five-rounder in ‘011, but the left-handed Bird easily was the more-impressive plate performer here, leading the league in home runs (6), runs batted in (21) and total bases (55). A couple of his homers were of tape-measure quality. At 6-feet-7 and 230 pounds Judge is the bigger guy, and may catch up, but Bird’s bat looked quicker and I’m guessing he won’t.

Sons of several former major leaguers are on AFL rosters, including those of Dante Bichette, Dwight Smith, Raul Mondesi and Lee Mazzilli.  There’s also a BOOG POWELL. He’s no relation to the old Orioles’ giant; indeed, at a listed 5-10 and 185 pounds the Oakland A’s prospect is a quite-different physical type from the original. Still, every time I looked he was getting a hit, stealing a base or making a nice catch in center field, and might be one of those scrappy players who finds a major-league niche.

TIM ANDERSON, whom the Chicago White Sox hope will crack their lineup at either shortstop or second base, gets an “A” for being an ath-uh-lete, but a lower grade for his awareness of the strike zone. TREVOR STORY, a Rockies’ second-base prospect, looked good in the field and showed extra-base power, but also was something of a “K” machine. Outfielder EDDIE ROSARIO of the Minnesota Twins chain is a singles hitter in the mold of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Ben Revere, a Fall League standout of a few years back.  Twenty-year-old COREY SEAGER looks Hollywood-cast to be a future L.A. Dodgers’ shortstop, and usually plays like it, too.

When some of the all-caps names I’ve tagged make it to the Bigs, remember where you saw them first.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


               Bud Selig’s 22 years as baseball commissioner end with this waning annum, so report cards on his tenure are apt. Mine has him doing well, perhaps for reasons you might not expect.
             Although it’s tough to sneak up on people amid the glare and blare that continually surround our major team sports, that’s pretty much what Selig did. A car dealer among billionaires, operating from the hinterlands base of Milwaukee, he quietly set an indelible mark on the National Pastime.

 He came on the baseball scene as the political equivalent of a one-issue crusader, hiding behind the potted palms in hotel lobbies (a much-repeated description first used in my front-page Wall Street Journal profile of him years ago) to badger team owners into permitting the Major League game to return to his native city after the absence created by the 1965 exodus of the Braves. He succeeded in 1970 with the transfer and renaming of the Seattle Pilots, under an investment group he headed, then set about embedding himself into the game’s governance.              

Baseball may be a billion-dollar business but its ownership-level functioning most resembles that of a local Rotary Club, where those willing to do the scut work eventually get the top jobs. From the outset Selig raised his hand for every committee assignment available so that by 1992, when he and his fellow owners had had enough of Fay Vincent, he was the logical candidate to succeed him. Characteristically, he sidled into the office instead of storming in, allowing the word “interim” to precede his title for six years, but by the time it was removed there was no doubt who was running the show. 

Although it was little commented upon at the time, the fact that a team owner was named to head a major U.S. sport was nothing short of revolutionary, and marked a sea change in our sporting perceptions. From the advent of the post in 1920, when the jurist Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to cleanse baseball of the Black Sox scandal, commissioners were viewed as having tsar-like powers. That may have been true of the flinty Landis, whose reign ended only with his death in 1944, but it hasn’t been since.

Indeed, what John Helyar called “commissioneritis” in his wonderful 1994 book “Lords of the Realm”—the illusion that those who held the job could exceed the dictates of their owner-employers—is what brought down three of the four men who preceded Selig during the players’-union era (Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth and Vincent). The fourth –- former Yale U. president A. Bart Giamatti—might have been bit, too, had he lived beyond his 13-month term. Wealth does not bow to intellect, so clashes were predictable.

Selig’s ascent not only set the public straight on the notion that the baseball commissioner is an owners’ man, it also calmed the internal ownership strife that contributed to the seven strikes or lockouts that interrupted play between 1972 and 1990, keeping the sport continually riled. It took the granddaddy of all stoppages—the eight-month, 1994-95 lockout that wiped out the 1994 World Series on his watch—to finally clear the air, but the 20 years of labor peace that have followed is among his biggest achievements.

Keeping in line the rich, egotistical men who own baseball franchises is widely likened to herding cats. Selig has done it through the often-claimed but rarely followed practice of leading from behind. Rumpled, modest and sometimes clueless-appearing, and journalistically derided as “Bud Lite” early in his commissionership, Selig has been an indefatigable worker of the phones, hashing out and building consensus for his goals before revealing them publicly. Thus, the major on-field innovations of his rule, including inter-league play, post-season expansion and making All-Star-Game outcomes determine World Series home-field advantage, slid into being with barely a ripple. So, too, have the measures to expand TV and on-line income that have fueled Major League Baseball’s overall revenue growth to a reported $9 billion this year from $1.2 billion the year Selig became commissioner. Like the movie gangster Hyman Roth, he’s always made money for his partners.

Selig’s greatest accomplishment-- revenue sharing-- is one that couldn’t have happened without his patient politicking. Introduced in 1996, and solidified in the game’s 2011 labor agreement, it provides that teams put about one-third of their local revenues (mostly TV-rights income) into a pot that’s split equally among the 30 teams. That plus the game’s payroll-based “luxury tax” have given an annual revenue boost of some $30 million to the smallest-market teams.

Coupled with the provision that recipients spend the money on payroll or player development (instead of the owners merely pocketing it), revenue sharing has gone far to narrow the haves-havenots gap that rankled Bud in his days as a small-market club owner.  It’s at least partly why  the likes of the Kansas City Royals, Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates have been playoff teams of late while, this year at least, the big-payroll New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox watched the post season on TV.

               Alas, however, there was one big downside to Selig’s tenure: the blind eye he turned toward steroid use in baseball from the early 1990s to the overdue advent of meaningful drug testing in 2005. I call that span baseball’s HITS era, for Heads In The Sand.

               Selig says that players’ union resistance to testing contributed to the lag, as did a lack of clear understanding of the problem among team executives. The first part of that assertion is correct, the last is not; from the time a steroids-laced dietary supplement was spied on an open shelf in Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals’ locker in 1998, no one could claim ignorance.

More than any other American sport baseball depends on comparisons with the past to illuminate its present. The steroids blight put an eternal asterisk on the game’s records for 15 years, an entire playing generation. Without that misstep Selig’s commissionership would rate an “A,” the initial of his square first name, Allan. With it he gets a “B,” as in Bud.