So what happened to Cliff Lee?

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I know the NFL likes to play up that “any given Sunday” crap, but baseball is really the sport where anything can happen.

To wit: Cliff Lee getting torched by a team that wasn’t supposed to have any offense. A team that was supposed to be so dominated by Lee that people actually suggested saving Lincecum to pitch another day rather than waste him on a lost cause. Yeah, well, people who say stuff like that don’t really understand baseball all that much.  Even Cy Young winners and latter-day Sandy Koufaxes get lit up a few times over the course of 30 or 40 starts in a season. It’s just how the game rolls.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to figure out what went wrong.  And it did go wrong. Lee gave up seven runs — not all earned, of course — in  f our and two-thirds. If you look at the box score you wonder how that could be, what with him striking out seven and walking only one.  I didn’t catch any of Lee’s postgame quotes, but the answer, I’m thinking, had to do with his curveball. The thing looked like an eephus pitch at times, arcing over the lefthanded batter’s box and never presenting much of a threat.  It seemed to me that batters were waiting for the heater, and when it came, they deposited it someplace useful. Which just goes to show you how fine a line it is between dominance and humbling mortality in this game, even for the best.

But let’s not overreact. I’m sure that many of the same people who assumed that Lee was a stone cold lock for Game 1 will now be saying how terrible this is for the Rangers in this series and maybe even for Lee on the free agent market.  Ignore that stuff too.  The Rangers only needed one win from Cliff Lee in the ALCS and survived a disastrous Game 1 there as well. As long as they don’t get a second disastrous game — C.J. Wilson, it’s time to pick up your teammate — they’ll be fine.

And this winter, when Cliff Lee signs a nine-figure deal, this will be all but forgotten.

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment ‘egregious case of service time manipulation’

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Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.