Baseball takes a hit in Braun case as system's flaws are revealed
Back in boyhood, stoops at dawn awaiting newspapers from me, I had to laugh at how the noble enterprise of journalism, with its brave war correspondents across the globe and its ink-stained pressmen risking mangled fingers in massive machinery, ultimately was reduced to a 10-year-old-kid and his wagon delivering the product. So it is with the Major League Baseball drug policy, the one that commissioner Bud Selig has fought hard to position as the gold standard of the sporting world. Today Selig's gold is tarnished apparently because a courier in Wisconsin didn't know the FedEx office was open on a Saturday night.
Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, the National League MVP and favorite son of Selig's hometown, won his appeal of what stood to be a 50-game suspension for a positive drug sample. He was not, despite the reportage of Aaron (Edward R.) Rodgers, "exonerated." Braun apparently won his appeal by successfully challenging the sample's chain of custody, not its elevated level of synthetic testosterone.
Barring more transparency from Braun, and however unfairly it seems, his reputation may not be entirely restored. Braun seemed to understand this reality by referring to the ruling only as "the first step" toward clearing his name.
Worse, though, is the hit taken by baseball's drug program, and the suits realized that immediately, based on the reaction from labor chief Rob Manfred. The expected reaction would have been to express disappointment at the ruling by arbitrator Shyam Das, but respect for an important part of the drug policy, the appeal process. But no, Manfred's statement said baseball "vehemently disagrees" with Das.
Baseball's drug policy is, in fact, an industry leader in many ways. But Selig and Manfred know that in the theatre of drug testing -- and yes, like airport screening, the theatre of the process is integral to its effectiveness -- the policy took a broadside hit. The public sentiment is either that a player can do an end-run around the system if he lawyers up well enough or that even 10 years after the owners and players agreed to drug testing they can't even get the collection part of it right.
The entire drug policy and all past suspensions, despite the knee-jerk hysteria, are not blown to bits by this ruling. This was one case, argued very narrowly. Braun found the smallest of loopholes and slipped through it.
The idea that the sample, under seal, was tainted with synthetic testosterone in the 48 hours it was in the custody of the sample collector does require some mental gymnastics to be made plausible. But if Das thought it was even possible, he must have felt compelled to rule in Braun's favor.
Baseball's drug policy does allow for interim storing of samples ("in a cool and secure location") before they are shipped to the lab in Montreal for analysis. But Das must have determined that something about this interim custody -- how the sample was stored or marked -- at the very least raised legitimate questions about the sample's integrity.
Now what? Owners and players need to tighten the description of what constitutes proper chain of custody, removing all doubt. Braun needs to answer questions. Selig needs to understand that the appeals process works and is part of a system's integrity. And Brewers fans need to raise a tall, cold one to one of their own, the cheesehead sample collector who on that Saturday evening last October didn't immediately head to a FedEx office to ship the sample to Montreal.
Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is still two years away from free agency, and yet tomorrow stands as his "deadline" for getting a contract extension from the Nationals. The timing seems odd for a guy who last year ranked eighth in OPS among third basemen with 100 games, right there with near-statistical twin Chase Headley.
Zimmerman, though, hopes to cash in on his perceived value as a "franchise player," a local kid who made the big leagues at 20 and has come to be associated with the Nationals brand. He wants to sign a long-term deal without the leverage of a blockbuster season, so why hasn't Washington pounced on the chance to lock him up? When you take out the emotion of the "face of the franchise" narrative, a Zimmerman extension is more complicated than you think. It's complicated by injuries, the position he plays and by the Jayson Werth contract.
Zimmerman has missed an average of 36 games a year over the past four seasons. He has bounced back well from the injuries each time, but it has brought his durability into question. Injury prone players tend to remain injury prone.
As a third baseman, Zimmerman doesn't have nearly the value of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, making any such comparison a stretch. Tulowitzki signed an extension in which the Rockies paid $19 million a year for his free agent years. Zimmerman isn't in that class.
Other than Alex Rodriguez, no third baseman has been paid an average annual value of more than $16 million. And Zimmerman is not exactly far ahead of his peers at the position. Since 2006, when he became a regular, Zimmerman ranks seventh in WAR, seventh in OPS, sixth in home runs and fifth in RBIs among third basemen. Through age 26, Zimmerman looks a bit like David Wright and Eric Chavez at the same age, or even a slightly lesser version:
Wright, of the Mets, and Chavez, then with the A's, also were known to be "the face of the franchise." And how did that work out? Wright (.272) and Chavez (.250) have declined since then.
Zimmerman is not eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season. (He earns $26 million over these next two seasons). Zimmerman has to treat this extension as an advancement on free agency, so length must be considered in terms of what he would be looking at as a 29-year-old free agent. These are his peak earning years. Seven years is probably about right, taking him through his 36th birthday.
If you make Zimmerman the highest-paid third baseman in history this side of Rodriguez by a 10 percent premium, and pay him two years ahead of free agency what Jose Reyes commanded this past offseason while actually using the leverage of free agency ($17.6 million a year), you get a seven-year, $123.2 million extension. Here's the catch: The Nationals gave Werth $126 million over seven years starting at age 32 and with no history with the franchise.
Can the Nationals offer Zimmerman less than they gave Werth? Would Zimmerman take it? Given these complications, what if the Nationals can't get the deal done before tomorrow? It doesn't mean they don't want to keep him and it doesn't mean they will look to trade him. (See how the Reds will try to win with Joey Votto and as the Brewers did with Prince Fielder last year.) It means putting a value on the "face of the franchise" isn't just an emotional, impulse buy. It may simply need more time.
One of the traits about Bobby Valentine you have to admire, as well as understand is likely to get him in hot water in Boston, is the way he honestly evaluates players. He provided an example the other day to Boston reporters when asked about what he expected from DH David Ortiz. Valentine, in acknowledging the importance of Ortiz's personality and bat, casually slipped in this disclaimer: "Don't know if he'll be able to hit lefthanders equally as well [as last year] -- I hope he can."
Few managers would volunteer such doubt about one of their players, a key one at that. Why would Valentine be unsure if Ortiz could hit lefties so well again? Because Ortiz hit lefties better last year at age 35 than ever before in his career -- and this after faring so poorly against them in recent years that erstwhile manager Terry Francona took away from him some key at-bats against lefties.
From 2008-10, Ortiz batted .218 in 454 at-bats against lefthanders. But last year he suddenly pounded them for a .329 average, .423 OBP and .989 OPS, all career bests as a regular. His OPS in 2010 against lefties was .599. That's an astounding turnaround.
The boilerplate answer from a manager would be to assume that Ortiz this year simply picks up where he left off last year. But Valentine knows Ortiz suddenly hit lefties better than ever last year and it may be asking too much to expect at age 36 he does it again. Valentine went out of his way in a press conference setting to offer up such doubt. It was honesty without an agenda. Get used to it from Valentine.