It’s hard to see today’s ruling as a victory for San Jose

19 Comments

I’ve taken a few minutes to gather some thoughts on today’s decision in the San Jose-MLB antitrust lawsuit. I have still not read the decision, but it does appear that the status being currently reported is accurate: (1) the argument by San Jose to have Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption struck down, thereby paving the way for the A’s to move to San Jose over the Giants’ objection has been dismissed; and (2) San Jose continues to have a viable claim against MLB for tortious interference with the city’s contract(s) with the Athletics, which will be pursued under state law.

Let’s take those one-by-one:

San Jose’s Antitrust claim

This was obviously the big target here. And a nice fat one if San Jose could’ve convinced the judge that baseball’s antitrust exemption — which prevents a team from moving into another’s territory — is stupid and wrong.  And the judge did, apparently, say that the exemption is stupid and wrong. Unfortunately he also said that he felt bound by Supreme Court precedent to uphold it, so that matter will now likely be the subject of an appeal. Major League Baseball still has risk of losing their exemption on appeal, but they just bought a year at least before an appeals court rules on it and longer than that before the matter might get to the Supreme Court, which would ultimately have to weigh in to overturn the original case which granted the exemption.

With the claims to overturn the exemption gone, at least for now, the A’s will be unable to move to San Jose. The league rule establishing San Jose as the San Francisco Giants’ territory holds, thus preventing the A’s from going to San Jose.

The state tort law claims

This is the claim alleging that MLB tortiously interfered with San Jose’s contract with the A’s. If you recall: the contract is an option agreement entered into in 2011 between the A’s owners and San Jose for the purchase of some land on which a ballpark would be built. The A’s paid San Jose $50,000 for the option. It expires soon. If they want to keep the option open for another year it’s another $25,000. If the A’s owners were to buy the land, they can do it for between $6 million and $7 million. Nothing in the option agreement, however, promises that the A’s will actually move. It doesn’t even promise that they’ll buy the land. Just that they have the option to do so.

Of course, since the antitrust exemption is in place, the A’s can’t just decide to move to San Jose. Therefore, unless they are the biggest idiots on the planet, they will not agree to commit to the $7 million land deal. Put differently, no A’s witness will get on a stand and say “yes, we totally want to give San Jose $7 million right now but MLB won’t let us!”  As such, the value of the contract that San Jose now has to prove MLB interfered with is $75,000. That’s it.

Where that leaves us

Much of the reaction in the past few hours — including opinion from legal minds I respect, such as FanGraphs’ Wendy Thurm — has it that this outcome gives San Jose leverage to force a deal with MLB to get the A’s to San Jose.  I’ll grant that they’re better off now than they would be if the whole suit had been tossed — and I do want to read their thoughts on it and may change my mind on the matter if they point out something I’m totally missing here — but I can’t see how San Jose suddenly has much more leverage than it had before.

One idea is that Major League Baseball might fear discovery and depositions that could take place.  I’ll grant that no one wants to have their deposition taken, how threatening is this really? The current claim is limited in scope: $75K on a land option. How much email traffic do you think MLB officials have had on that? And how much of it is damning? Sure, maybe there’s all kinds of stuff about how MLB is “conspiring” to keep the A’s out of San Jose, but so what? The court just ruled that, under the antitrust exemption, such behavior is totally legal!

More broadly: how dumb is Major League Baseball? Not too dumb, usually. The entire purpose of Bud’s famous committee on San Jose was to do … nothing. There are likely reports about city and stadium viability and all of that, but the reason you set up that committee is to funnel everything to it and make it disappear for half a decade. Or at least to have it sit there innocuously. It’s staffed, by the way, in part by lawyers who have worked for MLB before. You think they’re sitting on smoking guns? Hardly.

Any effort by San Jose to dig deeper than the matters specific to the A’s and their option contract is irrelevant and discovery about that stuff will be resisted. Maybe they get some things, maybe they don’t. But they don’t get the keys to all of MLB’s finances and Bud Selig’s health records and the famous list of positive PED players and Larry Baer’s grandmother’s apple fritter recipe. With limits on discovery there are limits on leverage. And with an existing claim this small, the discovery will be limited.

OK, long enough, Craig, sum it up

Having a claim hanging out there is not good for MLB. But having a trial court decision that the antitrust exemption is still the law outweighs it for now. There was pressure on MLB to avoid a bad decision on that in the trial court and that didn’t get them to the settlement table. There is now pressure, to a degree, to resolve this before an appeals court decides differently. But that’s down the road a bit, and if anything the league has more breathing room on that today than it did yesterday.

It’s a partial win for San Jose, sure. But they lost the big claim and have gained nothing in the short term. More importantly, this does nothing to get the A’s any close to San Jose.

Kevin Gausman to start Opening Day for the Orioles

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Orioles have tabbed Kevin Gausman to start on Opening Day, April 3 against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports. Chris Tillman started the previous three Opening Days for the O’s. This will be Gausman’s first Opening Day nod.

Gausman, 26, finished the 2016 season with a 3.61 ERA and a 174/47 K/BB ratio in 179 2/3 innings. The Orioles selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2012 draft and moved him through their minor league system quickly. Gausman debuted in the majors in May 2013.

2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Getty Images
8 Comments

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central