FT. MYERS, Fla. -- Here in this no-frills town on Florida's west coast, both of baseball's big-bucks baseball player negotiations are playing out without much fanfare.
So much silence surrounds the talks regarding Twins superstar catcher Joe Mauer that unenlightened outsiders are starting to wonder whether progress is being made. The same goes for star pitcher Josh Beckett and his talks with the Red Sox, who train seven miles down the road. (UPDATE: Mauer has reportedly agreed to an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins.)
While little has become public in the case of either Mauer or Beckett, that shouldn't be taken to mean that neither negotiation is going well. In fact, indications are strong that steady or better progress is being made in both talks. Though nothing is known to be set yet with either player, the likelihood is that both stars are likely to eventually reach deals for contract extensions with their current teams, and that neither will hit the free-agent market next winter.
Although there still appears to be work to be done, the guess here is that the two stars will end up with deals for a quarter of a billion dollars combined, or perhaps slightly more than that. The guess here is that both megadeals will be done in the coming weeks. In the case of Mauer, both sides are said to be willing to work into the season, if necessary, as each trusts the other to keep quiet and Mauer is focused enough to block out negotiation noise while playing or the Twins.
While one Boston person said "we need Beckett,'' the Red Sox do have two more ace pitchers in Jon Lester and John Lackey. That sort of statement is even more true for the Twins and Mauer, the hometown hero whose stature has grown to the point where he's much bigger than even Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett ever was, as a Twins employee acknowledged to me on Thursday.
The reality is, the Red Sox would love to keep Beckett, the ace for two World Series winner. But the Twins absolutely have to have Mauer.
"The Twins have no choice but to pay [Mauer],'' one competing executive said. "He is a God in Minnesota. The Twins are moving into a new park, and let's not forget the Pohlads are about the richest owners in baseball."
These are not the same old Twins, however, that always kept their payroll among the lowest in the game. Already this spring, they've signed outfielder Denard Span and pitcher Nick Blackburn to long-term extensions and their payroll is about $95 million, which is comparable to the bigger-market Dodgers and Cardinals.
Mauer, who has a home here where both the Twins and Red Sox train, has been assumed to prefer to stay in his hometown -- he's a native of St. Paul -- where he has absolutely thrived, though he says little about his desires publicly (much less than Beckett, who said that he prefers to stay in Boston in a brief chat here a few days ago). Mauer's representative, Ron Shapiro, is the very agent who represented Cal Ripken Jr. and Puckett and made deals for those legends to stay with the Orioles and Twins, respectively, rather than chasing more dollars elsewhere (though neither came cheap, as both were about the highest-paid players in their time).
But while a new deal for Mauer would seem to be a necessity, some disappointment and even real anxiety appear now to be building in Minnesota, where many assumed that a Mauer contract would be done by now. Perhaps the belief that a deal was at hand as spring training began a month ago was fueled to some degree by a premature Minneapolis radio report suggesting that Mauer was on the verge of a 10-year agreement. Folks also made something negative out of the fact that Shapiro had come to Twins camp for a few days and has long since left.
But the feeling that things aren't going well (or even falling apart) appears to be unfounded. People familiar with the situation say that "talks are proceeding,'' and that there's "nothing negative'' that has arisen that's likely to forestall a deal indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Beckett and the Red Sox were said to be making real progress toward a new deal.Beckett was said by a person familiar with the talks to be seeking just slightly north of Lackey's $82.5 million, five-year free-agent contract with the Red Sox.
It is believed that Mark Teixeira's $180 million, eight-year contract is one of the main comparables in the case of Mauer, who at 26 is slightly younger than Teixeira and perhaps slightly better, but is not yet a free agent and thus lacks the ability to bid the number up by creating competition between multiple major markets, as Teixeira did before signing with the Yankees. There's no telling how high Mauer's price might go if he were to play this out next winter, when the Red Sox and Yankees almost certainly would compete in one of the most high-profile free-agent battles of alltime.
Mauer's story is creating such interest that there is now occasional speculation that he could be traded, supposition that a Twins decision-maker on Thursday called "ridiculous.'' And in fact there is zero evidence that the Twins would even consider this.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said that none of the speculation regarding Mauer is ever discussed in a clubhouse that truly is one of the best in baseball, filled with solid citizens who also happen to have great personalities. "That's for upstairs and the agent,'' Gardenhire said, succinctly. Even Mauer doesn't seem very worked up about it. "I'm more focused on this year than 2011, 2012 or 2013. All that other stuff will take care of itself,'' Mauer said. "I'm not worried about it. I'm just preparing for the season, and getting after it.''
Beckett doesn't seem very worried, either. But he made it clear that he'd like to stay, saying, "It's a great place to play. You're going to be playing in front of a lot of fans every day.''
Presumably, Mauer prefers to stay, too. The guess here is, both players will get their wish.
Twins star closer Joe Nathan, a rare reliever who's also a team leader, will test his right elbow by playing catch either Saturday, Sunday or Monday in what's being portrayed as a long-shot attempt to avoid Tommy John surgery and save his season. That may be true, but the Twins are not looking at the situation as a lost cause for the year --- at least not yet. Gardenhire, who admits to being perpetually optimistic, said that the Twins have heard from a few doctors suggesting that there's a chance that Nathan might be able to pitch despite his torn ulnar collateral ligament.
"Some say he could pitch through it, others say no,'' Gardenhire said. The list of pitchers who've pitched through the injury doesn't seem to be very long, though. One is Takashi Saito, now with the Braves. The Twins have done a fair amount of research on this. Former Minnesota starter Scott Erickson pitched without that ligament, Gardenhire said.
"If there wasn't a chance to pitch through it, he wouldn't be throwing over the weekend,'' Nathan's longtime agent, David Pepe, pointed out.
Nathan said the elbow has "calmed down'' and he's ready to test it this weekend. He's just waiting for the word from Twins doctors on which day to give it a go. "We're preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best,'' said Nathan, who has more saves than anyone in baseball since 2004 (three more than Mariano Rivera). "Guys have thrown with no ligaments, and guys have thrown with torn ligaments,'' he said. "It's just going to be how it feels.''
Gardenhire said that any pain or discomfort for Nathan would trigger the surgery. They aren't going to force it, or take any chances. "We're not going to put the guy at risk,'' is the way Gardenhire put it. People around the Twins say that Nathan would like to pitch as long as he possibly can, and Pepe confirmed that.
The Twins had one of baseball's best bullpens last year, with a 3.14 overall ERA. But Gardenhire said, "The bullpen is normally only as good as the guy at the end. You don't replace [Nathan]. "You put someone else in and you hope to get the job done. But to replace his professionalism, that's hard to do.''
As Nathan suggested, the Twins are preparing for the worst. Relievers Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch and starter Francisco Liriano are the names heard most as candidates to take Nathan's closing spot, though there's also Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek, who missed last year with an injury himself.. Liriano would be the most interesting call, and Gardenhire said that he wouldn't rule anything out, since the Twins have starting depth with Brian Duensing and Glen Perkins. But as Gardenhire admitted, it may well take a combination of a few pitchers to replace Nathan.
Rangers bosses Nolan Ryan (the club president) and Jon Daniels (the GM) certainly showed their compassionate side in deciding to keep manager Ron Washington after he failed an MLB-administered test for cocaine following the All-Star break last year, as reported here first on Wednesday. They didn't want one mistake to ruin a man they liked and revered, which is admirable.
The revelation that Washington used cocaine -- which Washington admitted to MLB, Ryan and Daniels even before the test came back -- was as much a bombshell in the Rangers' office as one might imagine. There had been no inkling that he could do something like this, as his record was clean.
The Rangers are to be commended for showing so much compassion in this circumstance. Daniels said they kept Washington "for all the reasons they hired him in the first place,'' which included the fact that they believe he is a good man and would be a good manager. He didn't say whether there was any practical consideration to keeping him, but one can imagine that a revelation such as this with the team in the middle of a great season carried the potential to torpedo things.
Had Texas fired him with the team in the thick of the AL West race, Washington's transgression almost certainly would have been figured out, since reporters would have been forced to search hard for the reason for a seemingly out-of-the-blue firing. The team had just picked up Washington's option for 2010 only a month earlier, so a firing would have raised flags. By keeping Washington, there was a chance that his drug use would never become public due to the confidentiality of the testing program, which is what Rangers brass clearly hoped.
Washington handled it as well as could possibly be expected when informed that the story was about to be reported. In three conversations before we published the story, Washington never made one excuse about his transgression. Though he clearly preferred that the story not be published, he handled things as maturely and professionally as possible.
Though he demonstrated his leadership abilities throughout the ordeal, there's no getting around the fact that the pressure is great on Washington to win now. Ryan, who reportedly favored making a managerial change soon after he took over two years ago when the Rangers started 7-16, said publicly that he thinks Texas has a 92-win team, which would represent another step from the 87 they won last year. That would be a big increase considering that the team didn't markedly increase its payroll. They have terrific young talent but are still relatively inexperienced and in a tough division with the perennially strong Angels, the improved Mariners and up-and-coming A's.
Washington enters the season on the last year of a contract that was team-friendly to begin with -- two years and two club options. Realistically, the pressure is greater on him than on any other manager in baseball.
• Aroldis Chapman hit 100 mph according to a scout who saw him. That scout was also very impressed by his slider. "It's not Randy Johnson, but it could be,'' that scout said. The issue with Chapman isn't going to be stuff but maturity. The Cuban defector was said to have been very disappointed to have received offers initially that were in the range of what Stephen Strasburg got ($15.67 million) when he was said too be pining for $60 million. Eventually, he got $30 million from the Reds, which was half his target figure.
• That scout questioned any call to send either Chapman or Strasburg to the minors. "Why? What are they waiting for?'' the scout said. One source said that the current plan calls for Strasburg, who like Chapman has been brilliant this spring, to make "six to eight'' starts in the minors before promoting him.
• The Rockies breathed a sigh of relief when their closer Huston Street's shoulder MRI came back clean. "He should be fine,'' GM Dan O'Dowd said by text, though O'Dowd also said they would proceed cautiously with Street. They are also monitoring the market for relief insurance. The best free-agent relievers still available are Joe Beimel and Ron Mahay.
• There is a snag in the sale of the Rangers from Tom Hicks to Chuck Greenberg, as the banks, which are said to have grown distrustful of Hicks, are seeking somewhere between $25 million and $50 million more (one source said $25 million, another said it's closer to $50 million). One person familiar with the sale talks called it "a mess.'' But an MLB source said that they remain hopeful that something will be worked out and that the group of Greenberg, Texas oil man Ray Davis (the big money behind the deal), Rangers legend Nolan Ryan and others can be installed. Hicks also wants to remain on the board of the team, which complicates matters. MLB is working hard to try to facilitate the deal, as they want Hicks, who couldn't meet his payroll last year, out. But MLB also doesn't want to take over the team, and repeat what happened with the Expos.
• New Astros manager Brad Mills is "running an excellent camp,'' according to one veteran baseball observer. So that's a positive development for a team in need of a turnaround.
• Folks shouldn't put too much stock into bad springs by pitchers in Arizona, where the ball flies. Even the great Tim Lincecum has been dreadful this spring. Though Ben Sheets' 10-run, no-out outing is especially noticeable.
• Late April seems to be a fair target date for Diamondbacks ace Brandon Webb, who's coming along slowly after last year's shoulder surgery.
• If anything, the $51.25 million deal for Justin Upton has made him even more focused. This guy looks like he could have a breakout year. He has three home runs, 13 RBIs and a .385 batting average.
• The power of Marlins prospect Mike Stanton is wowing them all. But he is also impressing folks around the team with his studious nature. Like former Marlin Carlos Delgado, Stanton is keeping a book on opposing pitchers, which is something quite unusual for a 20-year-old. Scouts say he is still learning how to deal with a top breaking ball, which means he's still more likely than not to begin the year in the minors. But he should be with the Marlins at some point.
• Gaby Sanchez (.370) is outhitting Logan Morrison (.161) in a spirited battle for first base in Marlins camp, so he should get the job. But some Marlins people love Morrison's potential even more.
• Mike Lowell makes some sense for the Marlins. He is just getting started playing for the Red Sox. They can't expect the Marlins to pay the $3 million (of the $12 million on his contract) that Texas agreed to pay before he failed their physical. But he's working hard to try to get back and re-establish his value.
• The Mets are intending to demote top first base prospect Ike Davis (hitting .500 this spring) and shortstop prospect Ruben Tejada (.385) to the minors (Daniel Murphy will start at first and Alex Cora at short if Jose Reyes isn't ready) despite great springs but appear to be leaning toward having top pitching prospect Jenrry Mejia (1.08 ERA, no walks, eight K's in 8 1/3 innings) join their bullpen. Fernando Martinez, who's also having a terrific spring (3, 11, .556), is an interesting question, as well.
• Lackey has been everything as advertised in Red Sox camp. He has allowed no runs and no walks.
• The Rays look superb this spring. One player who looks tremendous is Sean Rodriguez (5, 11, .394 this spring), who came from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir deal. He's in a battle with Reid Brignac, who's also having a great spring (.355). They have a few alternatives at second base and right field, as they have versatile star Ben Zobrist, who will play one of those two positions, and Rodriguez can also play either position, as well (he's said to be even more comfortable in right field). Brignac would have to play second if he wins a starting job. But they all look like good choices.
• The Rays' believe that J.P. Howell's shoulder tweak is just that, and that he'll be all right. Assuming that's the case, their pen looks solid, with Rafael Soriano the new closer, Howell as the eighth-inning man and Grant Balfour manning the seventh inning. A major improvement.
• The Diamondbacks always expected Mark Reynolds to sign a long-term deal, and he did, for $14.5 million over three years (including two arbitration years). Reynolds never made a big bonus as a rare low draft choice to become a star, and he had the misfortune to miss arbitration this year by one day. Characteristically, he handled that disappointment well.
• I nominate the Twins as nicest team in baseball, with stars like Nathan, Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span. Adding Orlando Hudson and alltime nice guy Jim Thome (he's in the category of Sean Casey of MLB Network) only enhances the best clubhouse in the game. Gardnehire said, "If you can't say hi, you won't be a Twin.'' He also said that he doesn't subscribe to Vince Lombardi's theory. He pointed out, "That's a different sport.''