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Cruz control, and other issues

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Poor Juan Cruz: too good for his own good, as it were. At the moment, his 2009 employment prospects look about as bleak as those of Byung-Hyun Kim, who'll be sitting out the World Baseball Classic after losing his passport. Cruz is one of the best relievers out there - as is shown by the fact that he was still in the top 20% of the Elias rankings, even though they take saves into account and Juan has exactly none since 2002. Over the past two seasons, his ERA+ is 161, almost identical to Brian Fuentes (162); but the latter has fifty saves, so got to chew down on a tasty two-year, $17.5m contract with the Angels. Cruz is miles better than the 41-year old Trevor Hoffman (119), yet the Hoff still got $6m out of Milwaukee.

Cruz offers closer-level performance (Valverde, Gregg and Cordero, as well as Hoffman, have all accumulated 50+ saves since 2007 with a worse ERA+ than Cruz), at a non-closer price. He seems to have become the poster-child for the impact of draft-pick compensation for free agents. The collective wisdom is that the prospect of losing a first-round pick for signing a Type-A free agent scares off suitors such as the Minnesota Twins - especially as he's not a closer. That seems somewhat idiotic to me, but then I tend to think saves are vastly over-rated. However, the current economic crisis has led the value of draft picks to increase for owners, as a cheaper way for them to build their teams.

It's been reported this compensation may be phased out, if the union agree to pre-determined slots for draft picks. But that won't be until the next time the labor agreement gets reworked in 2011, so won't help Juan Cruz. Enter the Diamondbacks, who are the only team who can sign him without losing a pick. Various creative solutions are being explored to get everyone what they want: a team gets a top-quality reliever; Cruz gets employed; Arizona get compensation. As draft picks can't be part of a trade, the most likely solution involves Cruz and a team coming to agreement, but the D-backs inking him to paper for that deal instead. They would then trade him to his desired destination, probably in exchange for a minor-league prospect or prospects.

As Nick Piecoro explains, it's even more complex than that, with the union and the commissioner's office also getting involved, because you aren't supposed to be able to trade newly-signed free agents until the middle of June (without their consent). The Yankees might also be in the mix for a 'sign and trade': they've already signed so many free-agents this winter, their first three draft picks are already gone, so they'd only be giving up a fourth-round selection. However, if I was on one of the teams which had lost their first-round pick by signing a free-agent, I would be distinctly unimpressed by these machinations, designed explicitly to allow another team to avoid doing the same. It would seem fairer for MLB to sit this one out and let the dominoes fall where they may, and correct things for all teams, beginning next off-season. Sucks to be Cruz, but he is the one who declined the team's offer of arbitration, after all.

Moving on, Conor Jackson avoided having to go to arbitration here in Phoenix today, he and the team coming to agreement. He wanted $3.65 million, the club offered $2.45m, and the sides split the difference evenly down the middle, agreeing on a $3.05m deal, very close to the one the Dodgers reached with Andre Ethier ($3.1m). Said CoJack,  "I'm just glad it's over with. I'm ready to get back to baseball and get back on the field." It's been a long time since the team went to a hearing: the last I could find was Damian Miller in 2001, who won his case and got $1.25m, the club having offered $850K. And back in 1998, the arbitrator opting for AZ's $875K, when Jorge Fabregas wanted $1.5m. However, Jerry Colangelo then signed Fabregas to a two-year, $2.9m contract anyway. And you wondered how the franchise came to teeter on the edge of financial oblivion.

If you want to keep up to date on spring training, the best think you can do is read Nick Piecoro's blog, as he's now back in the saddle and firing off reports there as if there were no tomorrow. The rest of this story will, frankly, consist of me largely rehashing what he has published there, so you could always cut out the middleman and go straight for the source. However, he has this whole pesky "journalistic standards of impartiality and corroboration" thing going, which I don't have to bother with. I get to be a good deal more sarcastic and stuff, thankfully.

He does share my amazement at the startling development in Tucson, where the Pitcher Formerly Known as Adriano Rosario actually showed up on time. In previous seasons, the late arrival of Tony Peña - inevitably due to visa issues, no doubt stemming from a youthful identity crisis, where he impersonated his nephew - had been as much a part of spring training, as some guy you've never heard of hitting .400, then slumping as soon as Opening Day arrives [I'm looking at you, Chris Burke]. Maybe his new duties as a father have made him more responsible? Or maybe it was finally realized that the State Dept are always going to sit on his application, in retaliation for previous indiscretions, so he applied for his 2009 visa back in October.

Eric Byrnes is apparently ready for action. Unlike 2008. "At no point last year, no point, not one day in spring training, not one day during the season, was I healthy. It’s my own fault... Ultimately it cost me the season." One of the things I like about EB is he doesn't speak in a stream of tightly-controlled clichés. What he says may be stupid and/or tactless sometimes (just ask TAP!), but you rarely sense he is anything other than brutally honest. In an era of carefully-guarded sportsmen, cautious about appearing on YouTube, that's refreshing. Here are some more selected Ericisms:

I’m coming in here and trying to fight for playing time. That’s it. Every time Bo-Mel goes to write the lineup card, I expect he’ll put the best nine players in there. My goal is to be one of the best nine...My biggest thing is, let’s get on the field first. All that other stuff is just a bunch of BS unless I’m healthy. It doesn’t matter...  I don’t play this game for people’s opinions. I play it for first and foremost my enjoyment of competition, my enjoyment of being out there. The only thing I did wrong last year was actually play and play when I shouldn’t have. We’ll see what people say. If it’s July and all of a sudden I’m heading to an All-Star game, was it a bad contract?

Max Scherzer is slightly behind the curve as far as being ready is concerned, but Melvin doesn't see it as being a problem. That's partly because of the extra week in training this year, due to the WBC occupying much of March (and a few Diamondbacks), and also him being the #5 starter, so not needing to take the mound until, potentially, April 15. Tom Gordon...not so certain. Melvin says, "I certainly don’t want to push it, coming off of off-season surgery. He’s a guy that’s going to be important for us and we want to take it slow with him." Would it be cynical to suggest that, the fact Gordon gets paid more, the longer he is active on the roster, might also play into this?

Finally, an interesting challenge, as Travis Blackley apparently listed "about 10 sports that he thinks are more popular than baseball" in his home country of Australia. Hmmm. Cricket. Soccer. Australian Rules. Two kinds of rugby (league and union). According to Wikipedia, horse racing and motosport are among the most attended, with swimming and tennis also rating a mention. Mind you, since the number of Australians playing baseball is barely above 50,000, you can probably add just about anything up to and including crocodile hunting onto the list.