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Baseball Notes

Teams no longer are in any mood for an argument

By Nick Cafardo
January 23, 2011

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The fact that Jacoby Ellsbury got a massive raise after playing in just 18 games and contributing nothing to the 2010 season seems like blasphemy to some, but under the arbitration system, his career numbers for a player with his service are appropriate for the $2.4 million salary (up from $496,500) the Red Sox and agent Scott Boras negotiated.

A comparable player in this case was Houston’s Michael Bourn, who received $2.4 million after a 2009 season in which he stole a National League-high 61 bases, hit .285, and won a Gold Glove. The difference is that Bourn got his money after a really good year in his first arbitration-eligible season, while Ellsbury got his big payday after being injured all season. Great work if you can get it.

The Red Sox have never gone to arbitration since Theo Epstein took over as general manager in 2002, but that isn’t surprising in this day and age. Teams want to settle cases rather than create unnecessary friction with the player in a hearing. But it’s the only time a team can really control its costs, and most choose not to fight for it. Under previous regimes, the Sox used to fight for their number in arbitration.

Ellsbury’s situation was similar to the Carlos Quintana case some 20 years ago. The Q (as we used to call him), had a promising 1991 season in which he hit .295 with 11 homers and 71 RBIs. Then he got into a bizarre car accident in the offseason while transporting two brothers who had been wounded in a gunfight in Venezuela. He hit a bridge embankment, broke an arm and a toe, and missed all of 1992.

But while he was out, his service time kept ticking, and he was arbitration-eligible for the first time before the 1993 season. Quintana’s agents, Jim Bronner and Ed Gilhooly, asked for $850,000 based on comparable players at the time.

Tal Smith, the current president of the Astros, represented the Sox, and he advised that the team submit an arbitration figure equal to Quintana’s salary of the previous year, considering there was no contribution by the player that season. Smith won the case and Quintana was paid $340,000 in 1993, same as 1992 when he didn’t play.

Comparables are one thing, but what has happened to the fight?

While owners complain of higher payrolls, teams seem to avoid arbitration at all costs. Yes, it is a time-consuming process, but both sides have the data (now more than ever) to make their case before an independent arbitrator. Some teams and agents say they don’t want players subjected to harsh rhetoric, but why not? Have they become that thin-skinned?

“There’s always been that misconception that if you go to arbitration, there’s going to be all of this mud-slinging back and forth about the player,’’ said Smith, who has argued more cases for management than anyone in baseball history. “But in reality, it doesn’t happen or it’s not that bad.

“You have your numbers, they have theirs, you state your case, and the arbiter rules. It’s pretty simple.’’

This season, 37 players exchanged arbitration numbers with teams. The teams’ salary numbers totaled $145,782,500, while players came in at $191,375,000. The average difference was $1,232,230. For a lot of smaller-market teams, that’s the difference between signing a decent player or not, and more often than not, most teams elect to add payroll simply to avoid the process.

If you’re the Red Sox or Yankees, giving Ellsbury almost five times his previous salary for no contribution is not going to make or break you. Ellsbury can look at it as payment for 2009, when he electrified the league with a major league-high 70 steals, batted .301, and made highlight catches in center field. Ellsbury should consider himself very fortunate, and because he is a humble man, he probably does.

The Sox also avoided a discussion of Ellsbury’s complicated rib injuries; they have publicly stated they bear some responsibility for the recurring injuries that kept him out of the lineup.

If we continue to use Bourn as a comparable, Ellsbury can look forward to another big arbitration-fueled payday after this season. In 2010, Bourn slipped to 52 steals (still tops in the National League) and his average dropped 20 points to .265, though he won another Gold Glove. His 2011 salary? He settled for $4.4 million.

Smith remembers a day when arbitration-eligible players got pay cuts if their performance dipped from one year to the next. Those days are long gone. Big-market teams seem willing to pay a little extra to avoid what they consider a big fat nuisance — trying to win an arbitration case.

AFTER-DINNER SPEAKER

Honoree Benoit has chance to digest things

Joaquin Benoit was presented with the Tony Conigliaro Award at the 72d Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner Thursday night. Benoit came back from a torn rotator cuff to have an outstanding season for the Rays, and this offseason, he set the market for relievers when he inked a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Tigers.

“I’m sure the other relievers were happy I signed early and they feel that helped them,’’ said Benoit. “Maybe some others didn’t feel that way. I was getting a lot of phone calls because people were signing and they felt that I helped them by signing early.’’

Benoit is curious to see how his ex-Rays teammate, Rafael Soriano, will adapt to a new role with the Yankees. Soriano, who was the closer in Tampa Bay, signed a three-year, $35 million deal (with opt-outs after the first two years) to set up Mariano Rivera.

“That’s going to be interesting,’’ said Benoit. “When you have been a closer and then go back to the setup, that’s reversing things. Now it’s backwards. Who knows what’s going to happen?’’

Benoit was surprised that a closing role wasn’t available to Soriano somewhere for the type of money he was seeking. He also acknowledged that the lure of pitching for the Yankees probably impressed Soriano.

The opt-outs were a smart move by agent Scott Boras, who understands that if Soriano isn’t happy in the role, he can seek a closer’s job elsewhere. The only fly in that ointment is whether a team would dish out close to $13 million per year for a closer.

That wasn’t available to Soriano this winter, but a full season of some closer blowing saves could change that.

Benoit also said the Red Sox will love every minute of Carl Crawford, particularly his defense.

“The pitchers love him because he saves them runs,’’ said Benoit. “He can go get the balls hit in the gaps like nobody else. Great player.’’

INFIELD SHIFT IN TEXAS

Washington will work around new guy Beltre

The Red Sox will open the season in Texas against the defending American League champions, with the added spice of Adrian Beltre being in the Rangers lineup.

Though the Rangers added Beltre, they probably didn’t get better overall this offseason because they lost ace Cliff Lee, who signed with the Phillies. They are hoping to get lucky with rehab project Brandon Webb.

“As a manager, you would be disappointed to lose out on a pitcher like that,’’ said Texas skipper Ron Washington, “but we’re the type of organization that whatever we have to go out there and play with, we try to make the best of it.

“Cliff made a decision for him and his family. Once he made it, we decided to move on. Some of our young pitchers have to step up.’’

The big spring decision will be whether to transition Rookie of the Year closer Neftali Feliz into the rotation. That would push Derek Holland back to the bullpen, and Frank Francisco and Alexi Ogando would compete for the closer role.

“As of right now, we’re going to bring [Feliz] into camp and give him an opportunity to stretch himself out,’’ said Washington. “And if he shows us he’s better fitted with our ball club to start, then we’ll go in that direction.

“If not, we know he can close ballgames and we’re very happy with that.’’

With Beltre at third, the Rangers defense will get better. Washington said Michael Young, the incumbent third baseman, will act as the primary DH, and will “still be getting his at-bats.’’

Added Washington, “We found out in the past that these guys can’t go out playing 162 games a year. The times when we give [Ian] Kinsler a day off, Michael will play second. With tough lefthanders out there, he’ll play some first, and when we give Beltre time off, he’ll play third base.

“The most important thing about getting Beltre is that we were able to hold on to Michael Young.’’

Playing the Red Sox right off the bat is “going to be a challenge,’’ said the manager. “Right out of the gate, we get to gauge where we are.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. Amazing that the payroll for John Henry’s Liverpool soccer team is almost identical to that of the Red Sox ($160 million); 2. Jake Kalish, a lefthanded pitcher at George Mason, is the spitting image of his brother Ryan; 3. No love out there for Vladimir Guerrero?; 4. Sorry, but the Yankees aren’t going to be as bad as you think; 5. Scott Boras at his best: Johnny Damon’s contract with Tampa Bay has a $750,000 attendance clause.

Updates on nine 1. Johnny Damon, LF, Rays — We always expected that Tampa Bay would be a natural destination for Damon with Carl Crawford gone and Damon living in the Orlando area. The Damon signing ($5.25 million) takes pressure off young outfielder Desmond Jennings, who can now start the season at Triple A. Without Crawford, they can use Damon’s leadership in the clubhouse and his ability to wear down pitchers. Damon was always good for Manny Ramirez and had a few heart-to-hearts with him when they were teammates.

2. Manny Ramirez, DH/LF, Rays — He came as part of a Boras package deal with Damon, signing for $2 million — $18 million less than his 2010 salary. The Rays will sport a very good lineup if Ramirez can get his old stroke back. He’ll likely be the main DH and hit cleanup, replacing Carlos Pena. Here’s a possible lineup: LF Damon, 1B Ben Zobrist, 3B Evan Longoria, DH Ramirez, RF Matt Joyce, CF B.J. Upton, C John Jaso, 2B Sean Rodriguez, SS Reid Brignac.

3. Mike Napoli, C/1B, Blue Jays (left) — He comes to Toronto along with outfielder Juan Rivera as part of an odd deal for center fielder Vernon Wells. The Angels tried for many weeks to move Napoli, who fell out of favor as a catcher with manager Mike Scioscia. Strange that the Angels would not go the extra mile for Crawford or Adrian Beltre but were willing to assume the $86 million (four years) remaining on Wells’s contract. The Blue Jays were, in the words of general manager Alex Anthopoulos, able to “gain financial flexibility’’ by getting out of Wells’s contract and signing two veterans with short-term commitments. Napoli will help in numerous roles, including DH, catcher, and first base. Rivera’s role will be determined by whether Jose Bautista plays third base or right field.

4. Vernon Wells, LF, Angels — He will likely move to left, with speedy Peter Bourjos in center, but someone is just keeping a position warm until 19-year-old phenom Mike Trout is ready for the big leagues. The Jays have tried to dump Wells’s contract almost from the moment he signed it. This seems like a desperate move by the Halos, who took third strikes on their other pursuits this offseason. Wells had a good rebound season in 2010, with 31 homers and 88 RBIs, but he’s not a $20 million-plus player.

5. James Loney, 1B, Dodgers — He is staying put, but the Nationals made a good push for him, according to a Dodgers source. The Nationals needed a replacement for Adam Dunn, and when their overtures for Loney were rebuffed, they signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal.

6. David Eckstein, 2B, free agent — While the Padres’ signing of Orlando Hudson seems like an upgrade over Eckstein, a veteran baseball person said, “Eckstein is one of those guys who makes every team he plays for better because he plays with such energy and emotion. He’s obviously short on skill set compared to Hudson, but sometimes that doesn’t translate to a better player.’’

7. Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Red Sox — Jon Heyman of SI.com reported that the Sox considered dealing him to the White Sox or Oakland, but the $12 million salary nixed things. But a Red Sox source said this: Papelbon won’t be off-limits in spring training or during the season, no matter where the Sox are in the standings and whether Daniel Bard or Bobby Jenks is ready to take the closer job.

8. Carl Pavano, RHP, Twins — One of the biggest surprises of the offseason was the unwillingness of teams to go three years on the 35-year-old Pavano. Another was Yankees GM Brian Cashman offering Pavano a one-year deal for $7 million after all the acrimony during Pavano’s tenure in New York. The Pirates and new manager Clint Hurdle tried to recruit Pavano, but he wasn’t going to a losing team.

9. Wily Mo Pena, OF, Diamondbacks (left) — He is back in pro ball and still only 29 (as of today). He still has monstrous power, but will it ever come together for him? Pena started last season in independent ball, then graduated to Triple A with the Padres, hitting .324 with 9 homers and 34 RBIs in 142 at-bats. Pena, whom the Red Sox acquired from the Reds for Bronson Arroyo in 2006, also struck out 45 times in those 142 Triple A at-bats, but there’s still quite a fascination about him.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “From 2005-08, David Ortiz had a strikeout percentage of 16.4 and a home run percentage of 6.2. However, over the last two seasons, 22.6 percent of all his plate appearances ended in strikeouts and 4.9 percent ended in homers.’’ Also, “Here’s why Alex Rodriguez is so valuable. Last season, in 595 plate appearances, A-Rod produced 169 runs (runs plus RBIs minus homers). Also producing 169 runs were Vladimir Guerrero (643 PA) and Michael Young (718 PA). And, “Over the last five seasons, Roy Halladay led the majors with 90 wins, followed by CC Sabathia’s 88. Zach Duke led with 68 losses, followed by Barry Zito’s 67.’’ . . . Happy birthday, Wily Mo Pena (29) and Alan Embree (41).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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