Eye on the prize

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So much and so little has changed.

It was 10 years and three weeks ago that I discovered Rotoworld.com,
clicked on the contact button and suggested to anyone who was listening
that I was the perfect candidate to write some columns for the site.
Not that this college dropout had any sort of resume. Besides my
willingness to write cheap, I went with the only other thing working in
my favor: I was leading an ESPN baseball contest played by about 50,000
people.

It took nearly four weeks to get a reply, but when it finally did
come, I was welcomed aboard with open arms and I kicked off my
sportswriting career making $25 a week for writing the Strike Zone and
the Prospects Report.

Obviously, things got better from there, or I probably wouldn’t have
made it the 10 years. In January 2000, Rotoworld essentially became my
life, as I took over the baseball, football and basketball news, and
with plenty of hard work and some luck along the way, the site got big.
I gradually received the chance to scale back my workload as we could
hire new people, and I’ve been able to strictly focus on baseball,
always my love, for five years now. We even eventually went corporate,
as the original site owners chose to sell to NBC in 2006. This year, we
started up this blog on NBCSports.com and I’ve been allowed to focus as
much on actual baseball as fantasy baseball for the first time.

I think that’s part of the reason why, 10 years later, I’m again leading that baseball contest, ESPN’s Baseball Challenge.
If I were smarter, I would have switched focuses long ago to a pay game
or two and tried to make myself some real money. But BBC gets more
attention from me than anything else I’ve ever played. When it first
started up in 1997, I got a little obsessed with it, or at least the
chat room attached to it. Among the people I met there was Troy Beech,
who later joined me at Rotoworld and who became very important in
helping the site grow in the early part of the decade.

As for the game itself, I’ve always loved the way it saps luck from
the equation. 10 different players, every single day. No worries about
injuries or players simply falling off a cliff. It comes down to
knowledge and dedication when you have to make 900 picks to win.

And I was really good at it, of course. BBC has always been two
contests per year: one pre-All-Star break, one post. In 1997, I
finished second in the first half and first for the whole year, though
that didn’t count for anything. In 1999, I went on to win the first
half, earning myself a big-screen TV. Ever since, I’ve been on the
leaderboard more often than not, though I’ve never really been in a
position to win coming down the stretch, at least until this year. I
think it’s partially because I’m less burned out on fantasy stuff than
usual, but I’ve been sitting in first place since the third week of the season.

The lead has fluctuated. It was almost 150 points at one time, but it
got down as low as 15 points last week and could have disappeared
entirely if not for a poor outing from Chad Billingsley (unlike most, I
went with Josh Outman and the A’s staff on Friday, only to cringe when
he was forced from the game in the second inning due to a sore elbow).
While the nine hitters account for the majority of the team’s points,
it’s still the pitcher that makes or breaks most days.622

We’re down to the final three weeks now. There are no more flukes high
on the leaderboard, and several of the names below me have won or
challenged for the title before. I’m not going to mind losing if that’s
how it works out; I play the game because it’s a tradition and it’s
still fun for me, even if there are days that I don’t feel like picking
my team. Plus, there’s the added bonus now that it keeps me on my toes
and gives me a good reason to check over every box score even on those
days that my job no longer requires it.

That was convincing, right?

OK, so I want to win. I want to pummel everyone by 200 points. I
want to tease Matthew Berry about it afterwards. I want ESPN to not be
able to interview their two-time champ because, in doing so, they’d be
promoting Rotoworld and NBCSports.com

And I like that the old standby hasn’t changed. The rest of the
daily routine is different, the house is new and the job is nothing
like what I originally signed on for. But six months of the year, I
still spend 20 minutes or so every night writing down the matchups,
checking tomorrow’s weather and then picking my BBC team.

Now that I’ve gone public, I’ll provide weekly updates through the end of the first half.

Cardinals, Dexter Fowler agree to a five-year, $82 million deal

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs reacts during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Getty Images
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The Cardinals have officially signed outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Fowler will also get a full no-trade clause.

The Cardinals gave Fowler a bigger deal than many speculated he’d get, as some reports predicted he’d get something in the $52-72 million range. His skills, however — he’s a fantastic leadoff hitter who plays a premium defensive position — definitely earned him some major dough. Fowler hit .276/.393/.447 with 13 homers, 48 RBI and 13 steals over 125 games in 2016 for the World Series champion Cubs.

For the Cardinals, this will allow Matt Carpenter to move down to the middle of the batting order and will shift Randal Grichuk to left field. It also takes a prime piece from the Cardinals’ biggest rival. For their part, earlier this offseason the Cubs signed former Cardinal center fielder Jon Jay. So that’s fun.

Are the Cardinals about to go on a free agent binge?

John Mozeliak AP
Associated Press
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The Cardinals have always emphasized building from within. In the 2016-17 offseason, however, they may end up being one of the bigger free agent buyers. At least according to some informed speculation.

St. Louis is already in agreement with Dexter Fowler. But Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch write today that the Cardinals “could become more aggressive than previously believed,” with Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion as “possible pursuits.” Worth noting that separate reports alleged some interest on the part of the Cards front office in free agent third baseman Justin Turner.

The Cardinals are already losing their first round pick due to the Fowler signing, so any other top free agent won’t cost them more than the money he’s owed. And as far as money goes, the Cardinals have a great deal of it, despite being a small market team. They have a billion dollar TV deal coming online and Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia are off the payroll now. Spending big on a free agent or three would not cripple them or anything.

Encarnacion or Trumbo would be first baseman, which wold fly in the face of the Cards’ move of Matt Carpenter to first base (and, at least as far as Encarnacion goes, would fly in the face of good defense). Getting either of them would push Carpenter back to second, displacing Kolten Wong, or over to third, displacing Jhonny Peralta. If you’re going to do that, I’d say that Turner would make more sense, but what do I know?

Either way, the Cardinals may be entering a pretty interesting phase of their offseason now. And an unfamiliar one as, quite possibly, the top free agent buyer on the market.