Scenes from Spring Training: A day with the Twins, Part 4

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La Russa closeup.jpgSeeing as though I spent some time in the Twins’ clubhouse that morning, I figured I’d spend the postgame with St. Louis.  Helping me make this decision was the fact that MLB.com’s Matthew Leach and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold are two of my favorite writers going, and I wanted to tag along and them do what they do.  Finally, given how much ink I’ve spilled over Tony La Russa in the past, I figured he might be fun to watch do the little postgame thing, so it was off to the visitors clubhouse.

La Russa was showering, so we were kept out of his office for a few minutes, and instead waited in the main area of the clubhouse. Same basic scene as the Nats the other day: boxes of pizza and lots of dudes in their underwear. A little less morose than the Nats’ clubhouse, probably because the Cardinals are a generally successful team and, unlike the Nats, realize that they will, in fact, win a game at some point soon.  Biggest takeaway while we waited: Colby Rasmus has the same laptop bag I have.

After a few minutes we were ushered into LaRussaLand. La Russa was asked what he thought about Adam Wainwright’s tough outing. He wasn’t worried, he said, stuff happens.  On a followup, one of the reporters informed La Russa that Wainwright had said earlier that his problems weren’t physical. Rather, he just wasn’t mentally prepared for the game. This got La Russa a bit pissed. He said that was “not acceptable,” and that “Adam knows better than that.”  I think he was really mad. And poor old Wainwright was gonna skate on it until the sporting press ratted him out.  Tough break.

More interesting than anything La Russa said, however, was how he said it. He’s a lawyer by training, and it shows.  He parses every word of every question to make narrow distinctions between what is being asked and what he wants to answer. If someone premises or qualifies a question, he pounces on the premise or qualification to, again, answer what he wants to answer instead of what was asked or, in some cases, to deflect the question entirely.

And it doesn’t matter if everyone knows what the reporter is truly wanting to know, which I’m sure a man as smart as La Russa can tell. It’s not some Socratic exercise in which he’s trying to get the reporter to ask the right question in as specific terms as possible. It’s a word game, not unlike the kind of stuff I used to see — and do — in depositions where the defending attorney will try anything he can to thwart the purpose of the exercise — the extraction of information — and instead just try to vamp until it’s over.

It’s not so clumsy and transparent in La Russa’s case as it is in some normal lawyer’s case. He’s a much more seasoned pro with much more experience in his particular arena — postgame interviews — than any lawyer has experience defending depositions. Indeed, his tactics are quite subtle and maybe even invisible to La Russa himself. After all, law school changes the way a person thinks, more so than he realizes, and I’m sure La Russa’s interview m.o. is so ingrained in him that, to the extent there was ever any calculation involved, it’s long been replaced by reflexes alone.

But this lawyer recognizes it. And though La Russa’s particular brand of circumlocution may ultimately have the same deflecting effect of “we just gotta take ’em one game at a time”-style cliches, it’s decidedly more hostile and, in my personal opinion, distasteful.  Though he’s probably the best manager in my lifetime, I’ve never thought that highly of Tony La Russa the man, and after observing what I observed today, I am less impressed with him than I ever was before.

The gang bang broke up and I left the clubhouse and sat by the dancing waters outside of Hammond Stadium for a spell. As I watched the traffic dissipate, I wondered about the whole process of reporters collecting ballplayer and manager quotes, whether they matter and whether there isn’t a better way to present the game of baseball to readers who thirst for information about their favorite sport, their favorite players and their favorite teams.

I have a few ideas along those lines, but they’re only half-baked at the moment.  It’s something I’m going to think about a lot in the near future, however.  By midseason the ideas will have either ceased to interest me or will have coalesced into a scathing manifesto.  I don’t think there will be any middle ground.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.

Your 2016 Winter Meetings Wrapup

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OXON HILL, MD — The 2016 Winter Meetings are over.  As usual, there was still no shortage of excitement this year. More trades than we’ve seen in the past even if there are still a lot of free agents on the market. Whatever the case, it should make the rest of December a bit less sleepy than it normally is.

Let’s look back at what went down here at National Harbor this week:

Well, that certainly was a lot! I hope our coverage was useful for you as baseball buzzed through its most frantic week of the offseason. And I hope you continue coming back here to keep abreast of everything happening in Major League Baseball.

Now, get me to an airport and back home.