Daily Distractions: Putting Josh Beckett’s optimism in its proper context.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett had a rib removed from the right side of his rib cage in July. (Associated Press)

In his first interview of the spring, Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett declared himself healthy and ready to pitch when the 2014 season begins.

Beckett’s optimism is nothing new. He was so upbeat about his recovery from thoracic outlet surgery last August that one reporter was compelled to ask if Beckett intended to pitch at some point in the postseason.

But Beckett’s optimism is like the cushioned cork at the center of a baseball. It’s surrounded by layers of yarn and cowhide and leather stitching that need to be unwound. By itself, Beckett’s healthy optimism and optimal health are great developments, but they need to put in context.

For one thing, Beckett is 33 years old. His record the past two seasons is 7-19. His early-career track record is stellar: a World Series MVP award at age 23; 80 wins and a 116 ERA+ in the span of his 25-to-29-year-old prime; an all-star appearance with Boston as recently as three years ago. But then you point to Beckett’s age, and his last two seasons, and you wonder what he’s doing in the starting rotation of a team with a $240 million-plus payroll.

Then there’s the nature of thoracic outlet surgery. It hasn’t been in baseball as long as Tommy John surgery, for example. Chris Carpenter had the procedure recently — Beckett told reporters yesterday that Carpenter’s thoracic outlet syndrome was worse than his own — as did Daniel Bard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Shaun Marcum. That’s a short list. It doesn’t offer nearly large enough a sample size to conclude, with the same degree of certainty, how long Beckett will need to make a full recovery.

So we have Beckett’s word, his medical reports (you and I don’t, but the Dodgers do), and his track record, and not much else. Then we have a locker in the Camelback Ranch clubhouse with Paul Maholm‘s nameplate overhead, and should it really come as a surprise that the Dodgers took out a $1.5 million insurance policy in the form of a sixth starter?

Not really. And that’s not a reflection on Beckett or his health, so much as the Dodgers’ financial wherewithal. As the Dodgers learn what Beckett can do post-surgery, there’s less at stake in the final outcome of the process. Management can sit back, watch, and be happy for Beckett if he makes a full recovery. And hey, maybe you get a fifth starter at the end of camp.

How’s that for some annual start-of-spring-training optimism?

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Daily Distractions: Reviewing the Dodgers’ unsurprising off-season.

Brian Wilson

Reliever Brian Wilson re-signing with the Dodgers might constitute the biggest surprise of the off-season. (Getty Images)

Accountability matters here, so I decided to take a look back at a little list I made in October.

In it, I ranked the Dodgers’ 12 in-house free agents in order of their likelihood of re-signing. Here’s how I ranked them:

12. Edinson Volquez
11. Mark Ellis
10. Chris Capuano
9. Jerry Hairston Jr.
8. Skip Schumaker
7. Brian Wilson
6. Michael Young
5. Carlos Marmol
4. Nick Punto
3. Ricky Nolasco
2. Juan Uribe
1. J.P. Howell

In light of Marmol’s contract with Marlins — he agreed to terms yesterday — that leaves only Capuano still unsigned among the 12 players.

Starting at the top of the list, it came as little surprise that the Dodgers re-signed Howell and Uribe. Nolasco was offered four years and $49 million from the Minnesota Twins. Since not many 31-year-old pitchers with a career history of below-average ERAs in the National League get four-year contracts from American League teams, Nolasco did the logical thing and signed the contract.

The Dodgers reached out to Punto about re-signing, but the Oakland A’s wanted him more. Billy Beane made a quick push and signed Punto for one year and a guaranteed $3.25 million. The Dodgers really didn’t have a chance to be interested in Marmol; they were more interested in Wilson and Chris Perez for set-up roles, and both pitchers accepted the Dodgers’ offers in December.

Young retired. So did Hairston. Schumaker and Ellis were swept away by better offers from a pair of NL Central teams, the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.

Volquez got a one-year, $5 million contract from Pittsburgh, where he’ll compete for the fifth starter’s job on a good Pirates team. Not unexpected.

Come to think of it, as busy as it was, the off-season mostly stayed true to expectations. Clayton Kershaw re-signed. Don Mattingly got a new, longer contract. The Yankees threw a ton of money at Masahiro Tanaka.

In Uribe and Howell, the Dodgers re-signed the two players who were the best fits to re-sign. The Dodgers wanted a durable veteran to fill the number-four starter’s job on a short-term contract; Dan Haren is a durable veteran who was content with a short-term contract. Haren’s history shows less risk than that of Nolasco, who got the longer-term deal he wanted from the Twins.

Ned Colletti reached outside the organization for bullpen help from Jamey Wright and Chris Perez. Neither could be considered a real surprise: Perez replaces Ronald Belisario, who was non-tendered in his final arbitration year, and Wright becomes the long reliever the Dodgers never really had in 2013.

Even though the final bill hasn’t come in yet, the cost of building the Dodgers’ bullpen is already staggering. Together, Dodger relievers will earn roughly $26 million in actual salary in 2014. That doesn’t include deferred signing bonus payments, salaries for players with 0-3 years’ service time (such as Paco Rodriguez, Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez), or the actual closer — Kenley Jansen, who has yet to re-sign. That’s an eye-popping number.

 

The biggest individual surprise might be Wilson, who drew interest from the Yankees and Tigers — two teams that expect to contend in 2014 — to be their closer. Instead, he chose to be baseball’s highest-paid eighth-inning man in Los Angeles for $10 million and a player option for 2015.

For a team that reached the NLCS in 2013, no major changes were needed. We got none.

My spring training preview runs tomorrow.

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Michael Young will retire rather than return to Dodgers.

Michael Young

Michael Young batted .314 in 21 regular-season games with the Dodgers, and collected one hit in 10 postseason at-bats. (Associated Press photo)

Veteran infielder Michael Young has decided to retire rather than return to the Dodgers, ending a 14-year major-league career.

The 37-year-old native of Covina was mulling a one-year offer to re-sign with the Dodgers. At a charity bowling function on Sunday in Anaheim, Young sounded eager to play his natural second base position in a utility role, but also acknowledged that family was his first priority. Young and his wife live in Dallas with their three children.

“I’m going through every possible option with my family,” he said Sunday. “I’m not going to hold out as long as possible.”

Young played most of his 1,970 career games with the Texas Rangers, whom he helped lead to the World Series in 2010 and 2011. Young was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in December 2012, then to the Dodgers at the 2013 trade deadline.

He finishes his career with an even .300 batting average, 185 home runs and 1,030 RBIs.

Daily Distractions: California Superior Court judge tosses class-action lawsuit against Dodgers, Lakers, TWC.

SportsNet LA

The Dodgers’ new network, SportsNet LA, is launching Feb. 25. (Photo courtesy of SportsNet LA via Facebook)

A California Superior Court judge tossed out a class-action lawsuit filed against the Dodgers, Lakers, and Time Warner Cable on Tuesday, citing federal laws designed to protect the rights of cable providers. Judge Amy D. Hogue ruled that California’s Unfair Competition Law couldn’t be invoked to relieve Time Warner subscribers of the burden of unwanted fees or channels.

This blog space has focused on the Dodgers’ $8 billion, 25-year television contract to the extent that it impacts the team and its fans — the Time Warner subscribers who are bracing for a rate hike, and non-TWC subscribers who are being asked to “Demand Your Dodgers Now.” That makes sense. This is a Dodgers blog, after all.

But what about the non-Dodger (and non-Laker) fans who don’t want to pay for two channels they don’t plan to watch? That’s the group who filed the class-action suit. Their lead attorney, Max Blecher, summarized their position: “People should have the right to say ‘no.’ ”

Here’s how that position was eloquated in Judge Hogue’s nine-page ruling:

1. TWC plans to pass some the cost of its licensing deal with the Dodgers to its enhanced basic cable customers by increasing the cost of service by an estimated $4 to $5 per month. The Dodgers … knew and consented to the fact that the costs of the licensing agreement would be passed on to TWC enhanced basic cable customers without an opportunity for customers to opt-out of including those channels in their enhanced basic cable subscription.

2. TWC customers who subscribe to the enhanced basic cable package have no way of unsubscribìng from the costs of the Dodgers and Lakers networks, despite the fact that up to 60 percent of customers would do so if given the choice.

In response, TWC contended that the plaintiffs “entirely fail to address the ‘safe harbor effect’ of the CCA” — the federal law that allows cable providers to “bundle” channels in the same manner as SportsNet LA and TWC SportsNet (the Lakers’ network). The federal “safe harbor” law takes priority over California’s Unfair Competition Law. The judge agreed.

Blecher said he might file a notice of appeal if it can be argued that the judge’s ruling went too far. So this fight might not be over. The plaintiffs have at least one strong ally in Congress.

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Daily Distractions: Mark Ellis: ‘I have no hard feelings toward the Dodgers.’

Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis signed a one-year, $5.25 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals on Dec. 16. (Associated Press photo)

The Dodgers are still looking for a veteran infielder who can play second base with 13 days to go until pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Michael Young said his preferred destination is Los Angeles — if he doesn’t retire — and Young seems to be the Dodgers’ top choice for the job as well. Here’s my story from last night.

If Young chooses to retire, the Dodgers have a pair of veteran options in Chone Figgins and Brendan Harris who will attend spring training as non-roster invitees. Of course, the Dodgers wouldn’t be in this position if Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker hadn’t spurned the Dodgers in free agency to sign with Oakland and Cincinnati, respectively.

You might as well throw Mark Ellis into that group as well. He seemed destined to land a starting gig somewhere after a productive 2013 campaign at the plate and in the field. When the Dodgers signed 28-year-old Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero to a four-year contract, Ellis’ best opportunity to start no longer resided in Los Angeles.

Yet after the Dodgers declined his $5.75 million option, Ellis signed a one-year contract with St. Louis for $5.25 million. The Cardinals, like the Dodgers, already have a second baseman of the future (Kolten Wong) who has a chance to be the Opening Day starter in 2014. It’s far from certain that Ellis will be able to extend his streak of nine straight seasons with at least 100 starts at second base in St. Louis.

Ellis was willing to accept that uncertainty with the Cardinals. Why didn’t it work out with the Dodgers?

“Things happened,” he said Sunday in Anaheim. “It wasn’t a hard decision for me. I’ll leave it at that.”

Ellis said the Dodgers offered him a one-year contract. So did the Cardinals, but “it wasn’t hard to choose one offer from the other” and “role had nothing to do with anything,” he said. In other words, the decision was based on money.

Even if the Dodgers’ monetary offer could have been considered an insult, Ellis would never say so. He’s not that type of person. For what it’s worth: Ellis didn’t consider the offer an insult.

“I have no hard feelings toward the Dodgers,” he said.

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Daily Distractions: Masahiro Tanaka rumors are rife; Dodgers and Yankees are interested in Japanese pitcher.

Masahiro Tanaka

The Dodgers and Yankees have reportedly made the largest offers for free agent right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. (Getty Images)

Watching the courtship of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka must be like making progress toward a major scientific discovery. The closer you get to the breakthrough, the more clear the discovery becomes. You know you’re on the brink. It’s exciting.

There were two really good scouting reports published today, each a practical take on what kind of pitcher Tanaka might be in the United States. Dan Szymborski, writing for ESPN.com, concludes that “the biggest test for Tanaka will be the command on his fastball. … Tanaka doesn’t have (Yu) Darvish’s raw stuff, so he’ll need to go after hitters like Iwakuma has done. This may result in more home runs than he allowed in Japan — just six in 2013 — especially if he’s pitching in Yankee Stadium, but that’s the tradeoff that worked for so well for Iwakuma in 2013.”

That sentence should come with a caveat: Darvish’s raw stuff would probably rank among the top 10 in the world. Maybe top 5. Tanaka’s offspeed pitches are pretty good, too. According to BaseballAmerica.com, his splitter and slider would both fetch at least a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

So what’s all that worth on the open market?

According to Nikkan Sports, at least $100 million over six years, plus a $20 million posting fee to be paid to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Nikkan also reported that the Dodgers and Yankees have made the largest offer so far. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti made the strongest statement by any interested GM on Friday: “We’ll play it for as long as we can play it until we know that we’re out.”

Remember, Tanaka doesn’t have to choose the team that offers the most money. There are other factors at play.

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Daily Distractions: On Masahiro Tanaka, the new posting system and the Dodgers.

Masahiro Tanaka

In spite of the new posting system, Masahiro Tanaka might not leave Japan until next year. (Associated Press photo)

A posting system was finally, formally agreed to yesterday by MLB and NPB. Observers have long believed the only Japanese player who would create demand among major league teams, if posted this year, is Masahiro Tanaka. And Tanaka’s team doesn’t want to let him go.

First, the stipulations of the new posting system:

  • If an NPB Club wishes to make one of its players available to Major League Clubs, the NPB shall notify the Office of the Commissioner of the NPB player’s potential availability and the “release fee” that a Major League Club must pay to the NPB Club in order to secure the NPB player’s release.  The NPB Club may not set the release fee at an amount higher than $20 million and the fee cannot be changed once it has been set by the NPB Club.
  • The Office of the Commissioner shall then “post” the NPB player’s availability by notifying all Major League Clubs of the NPB player’s availability and the release fee sought by the NPB Club.
  • All “postings” of NPB players must be made between November 1st and February 1st.
  • Beginning the day after the player is posted, and concluding 30 days later, any Major League Club willing to pay the release fee set by the NPB Club may then negotiate with the player in an attempt to reach an agreement on a contract.
  • If a Major League Club is able to reach an agreement on a contract with the posted NPB player, the Major League Club must pay the NPB Club the designated release fee, which will occur in installments, the timing of which depends on the size of the release fee.
  • If the posted NPB player fails to reach an agreement with a Major League Club, the release fee is not owed, the NPB player remains under reserve to his NPB Club, and the player may not be posted again until the following November 1st.
  • The term of the new posting agreement is three years, continuing from year-to-year thereafter until either the Office of the Commissioner or the NPB gives notice of its intent to terminate the agreement one hundred and eighty days prior to the anniversary of the commencement of the agreement.

On that last point, neither side can formally declare its intent to opt out of the agreement until June 2016. One reason to opt out sooner: There’s a loophole.

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Daily Distractions: How the Dodgers use analytics today.

Ned Colletti

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti has grown his analytics department from 1 to 4 since taking the job in 2006. (Getty Images)

We don’t know how large the Dodgers’ analytics department was in Paul DePodesta’s final days as general manager. It was almost certainly larger than 1, the number of people exclusively assigned to the task when Ned Colletti took over in 2006. And that one person, Colletti said, left two months into his tenure.

I briefly touched on this subject in today’s story about the Dodgers’ changing philosophy for the amateur draft, and what it might mean for their winter free-agent pursuits. The Dodgers have a four-person analytics team now, headed by Director of Contracts, Baseball Research and Operations Alex Tamin. Doing research for the story, I asked Colletti how the department grew from one to four:

We started an internship program. It just so happened that we brought interns in with a very strong analytical background. We just continued that process. … Analytics became a more valuable resource to your decision making. We had interns that had that type of approach, and we recognized the increased value of a more well-rounded approach to the acquisition process. As the interns graduated from college, we started to hire them as full-time employees.

I seek as much information as I can. If you evaluate only through scouting and what people see, you’re not fully utilizing what’s available to you. If you just use analytics, you’re not using what’s readily available to you. Just using analytics would be the same as hiring an executive with a high salary on (only reading) a resume. You need both at a strong caliber of evaluation to give yourself a better-percentage chance.

I think there’s great value in both. I don’t think you can do the process fairly without using both.

This is a topic I’ve touched on before, but as the amount of baseball data continues to explode, it’s worth revisiting periodically to see how the Dodgers keep up with the data explosion. Colletti said he recently had one scout, and one person from his analytics team, advising him simultaneously while making a decision on a player acquisition. Similar scenes will probably play out in the coming weeks and months.

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Ranking the Dodgers’ twelve in-house free agents.

J.P.  Howell

Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell became a free agent on Thursday. (Getty Images)

As noted here this morning, the Dodgers have 12 in-house free agents after they declined the options on second baseman Mark Ellis and pitcher Chris Capuano.

Not all 12 will be back, but here’s an educated guess at the likelihood of each player returning to the Dodgers, ranked in order of least likely to most:
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Daily Distractions: Let the free agency period begin.

Red Sox fans

Boston Red Sox fans celebrate the start of free agency Wednesday night. (Associated Press photo)

The World Series is over, making ringbearers of the Red Sox and free agents of dozens of players around baseball.

The Dodgers will have at least 10: Ricky Nolasco, Michael Young, Juan Uribe, Carlos Marmol, Jerry Hairston, Edinson Volquez, Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson. Per MLB rules, the Dodgers have exclusive negotiating rights with each player up until midnight Eastern Time Monday, after which all are free to sign with any club.

Sometime within the next five days, general manager Ned Colletti and staff must ultimately decide whether or not to extend these players a qualifying offer, a guaranteed contract for 2014 equal to the average salary of the highest-paid 125 players. This year, that’s $14.1 million.

The potential risk every team faces in extending a qualifying offer is that the player will accept the offer and receive more money than he would by testing the open market. The potential reward is twofold: 1, you might re-sign the player at a discount compared to his open-market value; 2, if the player doesn’t accept the qualifying offer and signs elsewhere, your team receives a first-round draft pick in 2014 from the team that does sign the player.

Of the Dodgers’ 10 free agents, Nolasco is the only viable candidate to receive a qualifying offer. He made $11.5 million last year. What’s another $2.6 million? That’s the, um, $2.6 million question that’s been floating around the front offices at Chavez Ravine this month. The answer should be an easy one: Since Nolasco didn’t begin the year with the Dodgers, they won’t receive any draft-pick compensation if he signs elsewhere.

More on him, and the other free agents, later today.

We should also note here that Chris Capuano and Mark Ellis have options for 2014 in their contracts. Capuano’s is a mutual option for $8 million with a $1 million buyout; Ellis’ is a $5.75 million club option with a $1 million buyout. If the team declines the option on both players, that’s a dirty dozen Dodgers destined to hit the free-agent market.

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