Bonds trial update: Agent Novitzky takes center stage

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The government’s first witness against Barry Bonds was called yesterday: agent Jeff Novitzky, the man who made the BALCO case. And the Brian McNamee case. And the Kirk Radomski case. And who has spearheaded  just about every other investigation into athletes and performance enhancing drugs, from Bonds to Lance Armstrong (case still building).

It was Novitzky who spent a year literally sifting through the trash outside the BALCO labs, looking for evidence of steroid distribution after he received a tip that bad stuff was going down there.  He’s a highly controversial figure who has been accused by some of having a vendetta against Barry Bonds, though that has always seemed like a stretch to me. More likely, it seems, is that he is a careerist who at times has gone too far in order to bring home cases that are less valuable to the protection of the public welfare than they are salacious and attention-grabbing.  His greatest trespass in my mind was his illegal-seizure of baseball’s 2004 drug testing results and subsequent creation of that list of 104 names, some of which have been leaked. He was smacked down by the courts for that.

His testimony yesterday is similar to the testimony he has given in multiple other BALCO cases, all of which have resulted in convictions. He explained how he got on BALCO’s trail, how he came to learn of its clients, including Bonds, and how when the government subpoenaed Bonds and other athletes, there was never an intention to go after them, just BALCO.

Novitzky was cross-examined sharply by Bonds’ lawyers — with many of the questions seemingly designed to discredit other witnesses against Bonds as opposed to attacking Novitzky head-on — but reports from the courtroom suggest that he maintained his cool and made a point to look at the jury when he spoke, not at the lawyer questioning him, which is a small but quite effective touch when a witness is trying to explain technical or scientific evidence. Law enforcement officers tend to do this well.

How effective his testimony was is open for debate. Gwen Knapp, who is in the courtroom live-tweeting the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that the facts weren’t being strung together very well and that the government, via Novitzky’s testimony, wasn’t explaining its case particularly effectively. The New York Times, in contrast, painted a picture of an engaged jury, following the exchanges between Novitzky and his inquisitors raptly.

Novitzky will continue to be cross-examined today. Then he will return to his work of bringing down cheating athletes. The value of his testimony and that work will both be open questions for some time.

Eric Hosmer’s eight-year, $144 million contract isn’t that bad

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Late Saturday night, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres and first baseman Eric Hosmer agreed to an eight-year, $144 million contract, the new largest contract in club history. According to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports, the contract includes an opt-out after the fifth year. Further, Hosmer will average $21 million per year for those first five years and $13 million for the final three years, so it’s severely front-loaded.

Hosmer, 28, had a career year last season, playing in all 162 games while batting .318/.385/.498 with 25 home runs, 94 RBI, and 98 runs scored in 671 plate appearances. Per Baseball Reference, Hosmer accrued 4.0 Wins Above Replacement, only one of six first basemen to do so. At No. 6, he was 0.4 WAR behind Anthony Rizzo and 0.4 WAR ahead of Logan Morrison.

Wil Myers had previously told the Padres he would accept a position change if the club were to sign Hosmer. He will be moving to the outfield as a result. The Padres now have a logjam in the outfield, so Jose Pirela could move moved to the infield. How the Padres plan to handle that situation remains to be seen.

The general consensus about the Hosmer signing once news broke was that it is laughably bad. Back in November, Dave Cameron — ironically now in the Padres’ front office — called Hosmer a “free agent landmine.” That thought hasn’t really changed among many writers. For example, using restraint, Dennis Lin of The Athletic calls the deal “a big gamble.” MLB Network’s Brian Kenny said Hosmer has at least three “red flags.”

FanGraphs projects the Padres to finish 71-91, so adding Hosmer isn’t likely to transform the club into a contender on his own. That being said, the Padres’ payroll was only at $70 million prior to the Hosmer signing, so the contract won’t hamstring them going forward. If the young nucleus of players — including Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe — perform as expected, the Padres could be a threat in the NL West relatively soon with plenty of cheap, cost-controlled players and having some experienced veterans like Hosmer and Myers could be useful for their intangibles — pennant race/playoff experience, clubhouse presence, leadership, etc.

Hosmer has had three seasons of 3.5 WAR or more, according to Baseball Reference. He’s had four between -0.5 and 1.0. Now entering his age-28 season, it’s hardly a guarantee he’ll be an All-Star-caliber player in 2018, let alone in 2022 when he is 32 years old. From a strict dollars-to-WAR standpoint in a complete vacuum, one could’ve done better than Hosmer at eight years, $144 million.

The Padres, however, aren’t a small market team; they just operate like one. Forbes valued the club at $1.125 billion last April. The Padres don’t have the financial muscle of the Dodgers or Yankees, but paying Eric Hosmer $18 million on average for the first five years of his contract won’t come close to hurting the organization in any way, shape, or form. More importantly, signing Hosmer shows the rest of the team and the fans a commitment to being legitimate, bumping the payroll up towards $90 million. That now dwarfs teams like the large-market Phillies, who opened up spring training with just over $60 million in player obligations.

In the grand scheme of things, the Hosmer signing is also a good sign given the standstill in the free agent market. Many veteran players — even reliever Fernando Abad, who posted a 3.30 ERA last season — had to settle for minor league contracts instead of guaranteed major league deals. Many others, including the likes of Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez, remain unsigned. The rumor that Hosmer wanted more than seven years and close to $150 million was laughed at last month. Agent Scott Boras was still able to get his client the deal he wanted, which could bode well for those still teamless. Martinez’s patience may yet be rewarded like Hosmer’s was; money may once again start flowing in the free agent economy.

In summation, the Eric Hosmer contract is good if: you are Eric Hosmer, related to or a friend of Eric Hosmer, a teammate of Hosmer’s, Scott Boras, a current or soon-to-be free agent, a Padres fan, and a baseball fan in general. The Hosmer contract is bad if: you are a penny-pinching owner of a Major League Baseball team, or someone who cares more about $/WAR than an actual good product being put on the field.