George Springer

The Astros are playing dirty pool with a top prospect

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We know this is how it works. Phenoms get fewer September callups than they used to, and they rarely debut on Opening Day. Instead, it’s June that’s become the popular time for debuts, all in the name of delaying arbitration and free agency eligibility.

On the one hand, it kind of sucks: much of the fun in each new season comes from watching players burst on to the scene. On the other, it’s really hard to blame teams for playing in this way when the rewards are so obvious.

Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier to blame teams. Take the Houston Astros and center fielder George Springer. Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut, hit .302/.383/.526 with 24 homers and 32 steals in his first full pro season in 2012, with the big caveats that he struck out 156 times in 581 plate appearances and 80 percent of his season was spent at Single-A Lancaster, annually one of or the most explosive environments for offense in the minors.

So, there was still some reason for skepticism last year. Springer, though, answered all doubters in hitting .297/.399/.579 in 73 games in Double-A and then .311/.425/.626 in 62 games in Triple-A. In all, he hit 37 homers, drove in 108 runs and swiped 45 bases in 53 attempts. He was the first 30 HR-30 SB player in the minors since Oakland’s Grant Desme in 2009. He did strike out 161 times in 589 plate appearances, so he’s not exactly the perfect prospect. But it was the kind of performance that certainly should have earned him a major league audition.

Except, of course, he never got one.

While Springer was dominating the PCL, the Astros were going 51-111 and posting the worst record in baseball for the third straight season. Their center fielders ended up hitting .218/.270/.314 with eight homers on the season. The were successful on just 10 of 24 steal attempts. They struck out 187 times. And it’s not like the team had much going on in left field or right field, either.

Springer, though, was denied a September callup as Brandon Barnes and Trevor Crowe (both now departed) finished up the season in center. GM Jeff Luhnow lied through his teeth in November, saying Springer wasn’t called up because of 40-man roster issues.

In the offseason, the Astros acquired Dexter Fowler to play center. The official word entering this spring was that Springer could still win a job. However, everyone knew that was exceedingly unlikely. The plan all along has been to keep in the minors until June, delaying his free agency for a year.

Now, all of this is pretty typical. It’s no secret what the Astros were doing, and we’re all kind of used to this kind of thing. Personally, I had more of a problem with it than the typical delayed callup for two reasons. First, because Springer was simply so outstanding in the minors last season that he obviously earned his promotion; there would have been absolutely no question about it if not for the service time issues. Second, Springer turned 24 last September. It’s one thing to play this game with 20- and 21-year-olds. Springer, though, wouldn’t have been eligible for free agency for the first time until age 30 even had the Astros called him up in September. Now he won’t get to choose his own path until age 31.

Still, that’s the way it’s done. So, even though the thought crossed my mind and my twitter feed a few times, I never did voice my displeasure on the blog. At least not until FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal dropped a bombshell on Wednesday.

Sources told Rosenthal that the Astros offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million contract last September. The obvious, obvious implication being “you sign this and we’ll give you your callup.” After all, once the Astros have Springer signed to the bargain deal, there’s no longer any reason to play games with his service time.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2008, Evan Longoria was sent down by the Rays prior to Opening Day, even though it seemed obvious that he was the team’s best option at third base. Just a couple of weeks later, though, on April 12, he got a surprise callup. Six days later, his six-year, $17.5 million contract with the Rays was officially announced. Unofficially, agreeing to the deal meant he got to spend the rest of the season in the majors. It made him pretty much the biggest bargain in baseball until Mike Trout came along

Springer wasn’t interested in playing ball with the Astros, even though it would have gotten him to the majors three months earlier. And it was absolutely the right call, given that the Astros not only wanted him to give up all three arbitration years but also a year of free agency. Jacoby Ellsbury is about to make $21 million this year in his seventh big-league season. The Astros wanted to pay Springer barely more than that for seven seasons combined. Even though it’s $23 million guaranteed for a player who hasn’t set foot in the majors yet, it simply wasn’t a competitive offer.

I might even consider it extortion.

Thankfully, Rosenthal is taking the Astros to task over this, wondering how Springer is worth $23 million but not a spot on Houston’s still lackluster roster. The Astros declined to comment.

I’m not going to be as polite about it as Rosenthal (I rarely am). What the Astros are doing here is shameful. I know there are a lot of good people in that organization. They’ve hired a number of stathead favorites and other people I respect. And they’re certainly doing a lot of things right to turn their organization around.

But they’re doing this very, very wrong. If nothing else, they’re sending a terrible message to the rest of their prospects. Why should Carlos Correa and Mark Appel bother trying their hardest this year if they feel the Astros won’t promote them before June 2015 anyway?

And Springer certainly deserves better. It’s possible he’ll come up in June and struggle, and the team will start talking about how he wasn’t ready previously. And maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he isn’t. Heck, maybe he’ll be a bust and it’ll turn out that the Astros needlessly delayed a useless player’s free agency.

Springer, though, earned his opportunity. And he would have gotten it, if only he’d been willing to sellout. Good for him that he wasn’t. Shame on Luhnow and company for putting him in that position.

Marlins’ Dee Gordon says he unknowingly took PEDs

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon looks into his dugout after reaching third on a double by teammate Marcell Ozuna during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. The Cardinals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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MIAMI (AP) Reigning NL batting champion Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins says he unknowingly took the performance-enhancing drugs that led to his 80-game suspension, but he’ll accept the penalty.

The announcement of the suspension by Major League Baseball came shortly after the Marlins’ victory at Los Angeles on Thursday night. MLB said Gordon tested positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol.

“Though I did not do so knowingly, I have been informed that test results showed I ingested something that contained prohibited substances,” Gordon said in a statement released Friday by the players union. “The hardest part about this is feeling that I have let down my teammates, the organization, and the fans. I have been careful to avoid products that could contain something banned by MLB and the 20-plus tests that I have taken and passed throughout my career prove this.

“I made a mistake and I accept the consequences.”

The 28-year-old Gordon led the majors in hits and stolen bases last year. He batted .333, became an All-Star for the second time and won a Gold Glove at second base.

The big season helped him earn a $50 million, five-year contract he signed in January.

He and Marlins manager Don Mattingly were together with the Dodgers for four years, but Gordon didn’t become a regular in Los Angeles until 2014. Gordon was traded to Miami in a seven-player deal in December 2014, and Mattingly became the Marlins’ manager this season.

“Dee is always a guy we felt could play, but at that point he was 145 pounds soaking wet,” Mattingly said during spring training. “Now he has turned into a man. He has put some physical strength on him, and he’s a different player.”

Following the suspension announcement, Mattingly said the Marlins will continue to support Gordon.

“I feel like Dee’s one of my kids, to be honest with you, because I’ve known him so long,” Mattingly said.

Shortly before the penalty was announced, Gordon hit an RBI single in the seventh inning and scored after forcing a balk as the Marlins rallied for a 5-3 win and a four-game sweep over Los Angeles.

Gordon became the seventh player to be suspended this year under the MLB drug plan. Last week, Toronto slugger Chris Colabello was penalized 80 games after testing positive for a PED.

Miami President David Samson said the Marlins “completely support the drug prevention program in every way.”

“Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization,” he added. “But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

The speedy Gordon is the son of former All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon.

The MLBPA continues to shoot itself in the foot regarding PEDs

Tony Clark
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Most players are adamantly anti-PEDs now. Unlike their complicit or passive predecessors, today’s players don’t, for the most part, accept PEDs as just part of the game. They’re competitors and they see PED use as their competition cheating. They consider these guys to be taking money and service time away from other players. They are legitimately angry about it. And they should be.

But the manner in which they have expressed that anger — publicly, emotionally or by being quoted at length by baseball’s top writer calling for draconian punishments — is neither the best way to address their concerns about PED use in the game nor is it in their best interests in a larger sense. Indeed, it undermines their interests and sets them up to be taken advantage of by the owners both with respect to PEDs and other matters which affect their lives and their livelihoods.

PED rules and every other rule which affect the circumstances of baseball players are the subject of collective bargaining. It’s union stuff, negotiated with ownership. And it’s a zero sum game. You make a concession, you get something in return. If you give up something for nothing, you get nothing. It’s like any other sort of negotiation. If you cease to treat it as one, you lose your leverage to get what you want. You get no points whatsoever for your personal virtue, your public position and what people not party to the negotiation think of you. Players loudly and publicly proclaiming their desire for the harshest possible PED penalties are like a man in midlife crisis walking into a Porsche dealership wearing a shirt that says “I will not leave here without a red 718 Boxter.”

Ownership knows that the players will agree to anything and will even put the anything on the table themselves. And they’ll take maximal advantage of the players. For example, maybe the players are in favor of a contract-voiding provision in the narrow case of PED use. Maybe they see it as something confined solely to drug situations. The owners could jump at that knowing full well that, for the first time, the union has caved some on the critical concept of guaranteed contracts in baseball and will use that as a basis to make further inroads later. Maybe the players want to suspend players pending their drug test appeal. The owners will nod and privately acknowledge that players will, in the right cases, negotiate away their due process protections. Once a party caves on something, even if it’s a broad concept, it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to later present a credible defense to that concept or to claim that it is sacrosanct.

At the same time, maybe there are things the players can actually GAIN if they’re more guarded in their approach. Many acknowledge that PED use is, at least in part, a function of players trying to keep their bodies together over the long grind of the baseball season. Meanwhile, players would love more off-days and changes to the schedule. Why not link these issues and, in exchange for some harsher penalties, force the owners to give them some schedule relief? Why not get something they want and need in exchange for giving something up? It’s an ideal situation for a party to a negotiation and it’s a situation lost if one spends months before the negotiation making it clear that they’ll freely give away something that would otherwise have to be paid for.

None of which is to say that the players cannot or should not try to get exactly what they want, up to and including, I dunno, an instant death penalty for PED users if they feel it’s necessary. It’s to say that, to get that, they have to be unified. They have to agree on a strategy to get what they want and execute it the same way every other strategy is executed in these situations. There is no negotiating strategy that has ever been helped by loudly signaling to your adversary what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Being guarded about what it is you value and how you value it in the context of a negotiation does not mean that you don’t value it. Demanding that the owners compensate you for an increased PED sanction does not mean that you’re pro-PEDs.

I look at Justin Verlander‘s public comments and the comments of other players who are angry at PED users and I understand where that anger comes from. But I also know that, if Marvin Miller or Don Fehr were running the union today, those comments would be made in communications with union leadership and fellow players for the purposes of developing a strategy, not in public for the purposes of venting anger. They would form the basis of a consensus with which a unified MLBPA could approach ownership in a way best calculated to accomplish the players’ goals. As I put it rather crudely on Twitter this morning, if players in Miller and Fehr’s day spoke publicly in a way that undermined the MLBPA’s negotiation leverage, they’d end up in body bags.

This morning I wonder what Tony Clark is doing to address the legitimate anger of players like Justin Verlander. Does he have their confidence that he can accomplish what they want to accomplish with respect to harsher PED penalties? Are their public comments actually frustration by players at what they perceive to be a union which doesn’t value their concerns? Or, alternatively, are the players simply not as invested in the sort of unanimity of voice that all unions require to be successful? And if so, why not? Is it because they’re complacent or has MLBPA leadership simply not done as good a job explaining to them the real consequences of a failure of solidarity?

Dee Gordon‘s suspension is not, in and of itself, a big deal. But it could have some big repercussions. The MLBPA and its membership had best be on the same page, publicly and privately, if they want to ride out the repercussions and shape their future in a way that best serves their interests. As opposed to the interests of ownership which, in the context of the CBA, is their adversary, even if their interests often coincide.

Dee Gordon’s suspension is likely to lead to a call for harsher PED penalties

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Associated Press
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Objectively speaking there is no difference between Dee Gordon’s suspension for PEDs and anyone else’s. Abraham Almonte, for example. Or Cameron Maybin. Or David Rollins. All were guys who got their 80 games, served their time, came back and whose cases didn’t raise too much of a fuss. But Gordon’s suspension will almost certainly be talked about longer and more loudly and will likely lead to calls for harsher penalties and changes to the PED suspension rules.

Part of it is simply fame. He’s a pretty big name as far as these things go. The biggest since the Biogenesis guys a couple of years ago. He won the batting title last year. He’s the son of a famous major leaguer. There is a direct correlation between the volume and intensity of the narratives applied to one’s story and the fame of the subject of the story. For that reason alone Gordon’s story will last longer and loom larger.

Another reason — a bigger reason, I think — is timing. Gordon was seen by many to have had a breakout season in 2015 and, when it was over, he was rewarded for it with a nice five-year $50 million deal. The narrative will arise by, oh, 9AM today, that the suspension was “worth it” for Gordon and that he cashed in because of it, rendering his suspension a mere slap on the wrist. This is especially true given that his deal is severely backloaded. He’ll lose less than $2 million in salary in 2016 while collecting the other $48 million-plus. Totally worth it!

I understand why people will say that, but such a stance has some serious flaws. Among them:

  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows when Gordon began to take PEDs;
  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows how, in fact, Gordon’s performance was actually enhanced;
  • It forgets that lots and lots of people were talking about how Gordon’s “breakout season” was actually 2014, not 2015, rendering that whole “he juiced and then got his money” argument fairly problematic.

Those points will likely be ignored as arguments in favor of harsher penalties grow louder. Ken Rosenthal reminds us this morning that some have called for some form of contract voiding or clawing back of more money than just the salary earned while on suspension. Those calls too will likely grow louder. There will also be calls for changes in the appeal process. Like this one, which came moments after Gordon’s suspension was announced:

When you have an actual union member angrily call for the repeal of a collectively-bargained protection in punishment situations, you’re sort of through the looking glass. Or past a tipping point. Or something. You’re certainly in a world where the usual dynamics between employer and employee are not operative and, as a result, changes are inevitable. As we noted recently, players today are perhaps more adamantly anti-PED than the owners and the league are. They’re competitors reacting to cheating by their competition. The fuel for stronger penalties is likely to come more from them than anyone.

The union and the league will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year. Performance enhancing drugs and their penalties will be a part of that. Expect harsher penalties and possibly different sorts of rules altogether. Expect Dee Gordon to be the poster child for these changes, even if his case is no different in form than that of Abraham Almonte, Cameron Maybin, or David Rollins. Expect emotion, rather than logic, to lead the coming debate.

And That Happened: Thursdays scores and highlights

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino, right, is congratulated by catcher Tyler Flowers after earning a save during a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Thursday, April 28, 2016. The Braves defeated the Red Sox 5-3. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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Gonna mail this one in this morning. Partially because of the light slate of games yesterday, partially because of a late night for me but mostly because of the Dee Gordon news which has me thinking of a lot of other things I want to write about this AM.

It’s worth noting that the Braves won a game. It comes just ahead of a series at Wrigley against the Cubs, so the winning streak will likely last a single day, but the 2016 Braves have to take what they can get.

The Marlins had a notable night outside the Gordon news too, finishing off a sweep of the Dodgers, which had to make Don Mattingly happy. For what it’s worth, Gordon singled in a run and then came around to score in the seventh. His RBI tied it and the run he scored ended up being the one necessary for the Marlins’ margin of victory. That means nothing, but you know some jackwagons are gonna make a big deal out of that and I figured I’d get ahead of the jackwagons and note that, yes, Gordon and the Marlins knew what was coming before it was announced because that’s how the appeals process works, but no, it makes no difference, because that’s how the appeals process works.

Anyway: Here are the rest of the scores:

Tigers 7, Athletics 3
Cubs 7, Brewers 2
Phillies 3, Nationals 0
Orioles 10, White Sox 2
Braves 5, Red Sox 3
Diamondbacks 3, Cardinals 0
Marlins 5, Dodgers 3
Pirates vs. Rockies — POSTPONED
: In the early morning rain with a dollar in my hand. And an aching in my heart, and my pockets full of sand. I’m a long way from home, and I miss my loved one so. In the early morning rain with no place to go.