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Baseball Notes

Protection has become part of the package

By Nick Cafardo
January 24, 2010

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Jason Bay, in his short time here, seemed to be a nice guy. His demeanor and his performance reminded me of Nick Esasky, who in one year (1989) with the Red Sox hit 30 homers, drove in 108 runs, and batted .277 while playing a decent first base.

The difference is that Esasky wanted out of Boston to be closer to his Georgia home, so he signed a free agent deal with Atlanta, where he unfortunately developed vertigo (or something like it) and was out of baseball at age 31.

Bay wanted to stay in Boston. He liked the small ballpark, which was the best place for him offensively and defensively. The wear and tear on his knees and shoulder here would have been far less than it will be in the expanse of Citi Field. All common sense.

So don’t believe the hooey from his news conference when he said New York is where he always wanted to be (in a ballpark where righthanded hitters go to die). Basically, it was the only place he could go after the Red Sox dared do their medical diligence and found things in his knees and shoulder that raised red flags in the minds of some of the best orthopedic doctors in America.

Bay elected to clear the air with WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford Friday, laying out a timeline of events. He said the Sox wanted him to have knee surgery - even though his knee didn’t hurt - to kick in a new four-year, $60 million deal, a provision that, according to Bay’s version, the team retracted in later offers. The Sox wanted medical provisions to protect them, and Bay and his agent balked, especially after two other medical opinions disagreed with Boston’s findings.

The Sox will likely not be able to come back and challenge Bay on his story because of the HIPAA Act, which prohibits them from disclosing medical information. But judging by some of the things I’ve heard on Yawkey Way the last couple of days, they seem to think Bay’s story is a little fuzzy in some areas. Quite frankly, they don’t want to engage in a he said/he said scenario with a player who has moved on and said is very “happy’’ and has “no regrets.’’ Evidently, he has a few.

It doesn’t really matter if a second opinion or third opinion or 10th opinion all disagreed with the conclusions of Thomas Gill, who has served the Patriots and Red Sox quite well as team doctor. The fact is, Gill had concerns, the same concerns he had when he insisted that J.D. Drew’s contract contain a provision that if he should spend more than 35 days on the disabled list because of an existing right shoulder condition, the Sox could void the contract after the 2010 season. This is a provision that Scott Boras, Drew’s agent, agreed to.

The Sox also insisted on a provision in John Lackey’s deal that if he has elbow surgery at any time he is under contract, the Sox have the option of bringing him back for a sixth year at the major league minimum salary. Lackey agreed to the deal.

Gill is the same doctor who after looking over Pedro Martinez’s medical history advised the Sox that, based on what he saw, Martinez would likely break down and have a major shoulder issue. Well, about 1 1/2 years into his contract with the Mets - the same Mets who have signed off on Bay’s issues - guess what happened.

The Sox had concerns about Curt Schilling entering that final year of his deal but went against their better judgment and picked up the $8 million option feeling a sense of gratitude to Schilling, who had helped bring them a world championship in 2004.

I’m guessing the Sox will require medical provisions in future contract discussions with Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon, both of whom have had shoulder issues. And if they balk, don’t be surprised if they leave for teams that are more lenient on such matters.

Are the Sox going too far? Are they being too cautious when other doctors opine that Bay will be fine?

The bottom line is . . . the bottom line. It’s the Sox who are paying the millions, so if they have concerns, that’s really all that matters.

Over the next few years, we’ll see whether their concerns about Bay were warranted. We’ll see whether Bay continues to average 154 games. His sentiment, in his explanation to WEEI, was: If it’s not broken, why fix it? Fact is, the Sox felt it was broken or will be broken, and they wanted to fix it before the fixing would cost them valuable time without a slugger in the lineup.

Like Esasky, Bay was a treat to watch when he was in a groove. He did disappear for lengthy periods, but power hitters are prone to do that, just as they are prone to high strikeout totals.

What’s puzzling is that if he felt so confident about his physical condition, and understood how good Fenway and Boston were to him, why wouldn’t he go along with the medical provisions, just as some prominent teammates had? If the Sox - according to Bay’s version - were willing to go three guaranteed years and a fourth year with medical protection at $15 million per year, what was so offensive about that?

The Sox showed smart business sense. And Bay? Guess he did the same. He got his money with no strings attached, and in his words, he is “truly happy to put everything behind me and become a member of the New York Mets.’’

HEARING LOSSES
Examining the case against arbitration
Tal Smith, president of the Houston Astros and Tal Smith Enterprises, which represents many major league teams in arbitration cases, has seen his business dwindle over the years. Teams and agents would rather settle than argue the merits of their numbers. This is a far cry from the old days, when Jeremy Kapstein and Dennis Gilbert and Tom Reich and Dick Moss liked to get in there and battle for their clients.

Teams are 49-25 in arbitrations against players since 1999, a sign that Smith had the upper hand. It’s a wonder why more teams don’t save themselves money by taking their case to a hearing. In 2008, only three cases went to hearings. The last double-digit hearing load came in 2001, with 14.

The Red Sox, who are 12-5 in arbitration, haven’t been to a hearing since 2002 - never in the Theo Epstein era. They have the resources to pay their players and avoid the process.

But some teams have been missing from the hearing room much longer. According to Smith, Cleveland hasn’t gone since 1991, the Cubs since 1993, the Blue Jays since 1997, the Brewers since 1998, and the Cardinals since 1999.

“There are probably a number of reasons,’’ said Smith, a Framingham native. “Nobody likes to lose. And we’ve seen instances over the years where a player has fired an agent for losing in arbitration.

“The teams don’t like what they perceive as a contentious relationship with the player if they should beat him, but it’s been my experience - and I’ve done more than 150 cases - that it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I remember I beat Barry Bonds twice and Barry, every time I saw him, was certainly not happy about the result but didn’t hold it against me.’’

It seems that teams simply don’t have the stomach to pursue it all the way, but Smith has a potential monster this season in Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner who is asking for $13 million while the Giants are coming in at $8 million. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Giants will go all the way. Lincecum is their superstar, and going all the way might be viewed as challenging him.

Smith wonders why more teams don’t take advantage of the process, though he concedes it is designed to compromise. Asked whether teams felt it was too expensive to go, Smith said he charges expenses only if he loses a case and a percentage of the difference if he wins, so the process itself isn’t of great expense to teams. Some teams do their arbitration calculations in house, which reduces the cost even more.

Is it that nobody likes a good fight anymore?

“I think the cases now are far more complicated and elaborate than they used to be,’’ Smith said. “There are more statistics, more graphs, and there’s more to the presentation than way back when.

“I think at one point Scott Boras said he spent $150,000 to put a case together. Way back, the agents would come in and have a legal pad and just read off their notes. Back then, there also wasn’t as much at stake.’’

THE BACK BAY BOMBERS
Sox lead the majors in home run hitters
The Sox will head into spring training with nine players on the roster who have hit 25 or more homers in a season, the most of any team. Six of the nine are starters, which is as many as the Yankees have. One of the nine is Mike Lowell, who will likely be moved before the end of spring training.

The Sox also have more moderate power in Jeremy Hermida, whose high is 18 homers; Dustin Pedroia, who hit 17 in his MVP season; Jacoby Ellsbury, who some feel is going to begin cranking more homers, like a Johnny Damon; and Marco Scutaro, who hit a dozen for the Blue Jays last season and is expected to hit more at Fenway.

Those who have hit 25 are Lowell, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, Jason Varitek, Bill Hall, and Adrian Beltre, and that includes big years such as 54 by Ortiz in 2006, 48 by Beltre with the Dodgers in 2004, and 35 by Hall with the Brewers in 2006.

Among the Yankees starters, only left fielder Brett Gardner hasn’t reached the 20-homer mark. Derek Jeter and Nick Johnson have surpassed 20 but have never reached 25.

The Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Twins, and Phillies are the only teams to have at least five starters who have hit 25. The Rangers have five overall, but one is super utility player Khalil Greene.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Pirates, who have no players that have hit 25 homers. The Padres have only one, Adrian Gonzalez, a player the Sox would love to add. Lowest in the AL are Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, and Seattle with two each.

The Sox say this was not part of any overall strategy, to create a team of home run hitters, but it sure did turn out that way.

Etc.

Apropos of nothing
1. I find the Yankees’ treatment of Johnny Damon baffling; 2. Never heard so much anger coming from the mouths of Hall of Famers and other ex-players concerning Mark McGwire; 3. Get a lot of messages from Mets fans who believe their only salvation is if the Wilpons sell; 4. Mark Prior anyone?; 5. Orlando Cabrera can’t get a job?

Updates on nine
1. Ben Sheets, RHP, free agent - The Sox were one of the teams that sent a scout to his workout in Louisiana last week, but one Sox source said it was unlikely they would be in the running. Sheets (left), who was throwing in the low 90s, would likely want a situation where he could be in the back end of a rotation until he got up to full health. The Mets remain the team with the biggest need.

2. Ron Mahay, LHP, free agent - One major league scout wonders why more teams haven’t taken an interest in the former Sox outfielder/pitcher. “He pitched so much better once he left Kansas City and got to Minnesota,’’ said the scout. “I think the Twins gave him a more set role and he responded. He can still get people out and I’m sure he’s going to be on a major league roster before spring training.’’

3. Miguel Batista, RHP, free agent - Batista, 38, can provide multiple innings as a middle guy. He went 7-4 with a 4.04 ERA in 56 games for the Mariners last season. While Batista can be a heart attack at times, “He’s still a very serviceable piece in your bullpen,’’ said a National League scout. “He’s a guy who has been around for a while that you could spot-start if you needed someone in that role.’’

4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers - Now we know why Cabrera (left) wasn’t in play this offseason: alcoholism treatment. The Tigers would have entertained offers for their slugger, as they wanted to pare payroll even more than they did. But with Cabrera in rehab, it was difficult for any team - including the Sox - to lay out talent for him and take on his $20 million-a-year contract. Cabrera could be in play by the trading deadline if things go well for him and if the Tigers don’t stay in the AL Central race.

5. Carl Crawford, LF, Rays - The feeling is that if the Rays’ financial picture gets any gloomier, Crawford will be trade bait by the trading deadline or even earlier. In fact, both he and Carlos Pena could have new addresses at some point in the season.

6. Grant Desme, OF, A’s - He got the “callup’’ last week. Not from Oakland, but from a higher place. A 2007 second-round pick and last season’s Arizona Fall League MVP, Desme retired from baseball to join the priesthood. He hit a combined .288 with 31 homers, 89 RBIs, and 40 steals at Single A affiliates Stockton and Kane County in 2009. In the Fall League, he hit .315 with 11 homers and 27 RBIs for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. He went out on top.

7. Jim Thome, DH, free agent: There’s no doubt guys like Thome and Gary Sheffield can still hit. The Twins are trying to find a way to get Thome (left) as a DH. That would give them some impressive power with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel at new Target Field, which has the same dimensions as the Metrodome. Thome spent the last few weeks of his season with the Dodgers as a pinch hitter, which seemed like a waste for someone who can still produce.

8. Gary Matthews, OF, Mets - The Mets got themselves a motivated player in Matthews, who had a decent season in Texas in 2006 (.313, 19 HRs, 79 RBIs), which landed him a five-year, $50 million deal with the Angels. It was a big mistake by the Angels, who have been trying to cut their losses for some time. At the winter meetings, they entertained talks with the Sox on Mike Lowell for Matthews, but once Lowell’s thumb injury became a concern, that deal was pretty much dead. The Mets got $21 million to pay Matthews’s salary, so it isn’t a bad move to add protection for Carlos Beltran, who could miss a month of the season after knee surgery. This is a fresh start for Matthews, who believes he can still play at a high level.

9. Joel Pineiro, RHP, Angels - Somewhere along the line, the Angels’ focus changed. After they lost John Lackey, they were determined to obtain another No. 1 starter (Roy Halladay), but that never materialized, so they opted for Pineiro, who many scouts believe was perfectly suited to stay in the NL. The Angels don’t seem to think Pineiro - who reinvented himself, as most pitchers do, under Dave Duncan in St. Louis - will find the American League any more daunting. “He’s certainly not a No. 1,’’ said an AL GM, “but he could be another middle-rotation guy. If you have enough of them, which they do, you might be able to piece together a good staff, even with the loss of Lackey.’’

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: “The pitcher with the highest W-L percentage, and at least 500 innings pitched, from 2000--09, was Jon Lester, whose 42-16 record gave him a percentage of .724. The leader with at least 600 innings pitched was Pedro Martinez, with a percentage of .691.’’ Also, “The last time Brian Shouse pitched for the Red Sox was May 6, 1998, against the Minnesota Twins. The last batter he faced was Twins first baseman David Ortiz, whom he struck out swinging.’’ . . . The New England Baseball Journal (baseballjournal.com) has made a nice debut . . . “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey,’’ a documentary about Bill Lee, airs on MLB Network tonight at 10 . . . Happy birthday to Cory Bailey (39) and Ted Cox (55).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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