Monday, February 21, 2011

Personnel Matters

Something that seems to impact the fan much more than anyone else involved with a sports franchise is the subject of player movement. Every fan has her or his favorite player(s) and when that guy leaves your team, it can be almost like losing a family member. Sometimes it is a case where a player no longer fits with a teams plans. Other times, it is the team that doesn't fit the players plans. Or it might be that he is too old to keep playing at a level where it is worth putting in the work. Or maybe it is the club telling him he is too old. Regardless of the situation, it is a topic that is hitting close to home for two of my favorite teams at the moment.

I chose "A Spot of Red in Cubland" as the title for my blog because I'm a Cardinals fan that lives in the Chicago suburbs. But I also liked it because it made a subtle reference to my favorite team in the English Premier League, Liverpool FC (sometimes referred to as "the Reds" because of their red uniforms)...a team and sport that has come to dominate my sports interests during the offseason in baseball.

It is Liverpool where I take us for the first "crisis" involving a player. A quick primer on how player movement works for those of you that don't follow the EPL. For the most part, player movement is restricted to the transfer windows. The window starts at the end of one season (usually mid-May) and runs through August 31st. A mid-season window also opens for the month of January. During the window, teams are able to bid on players whether they are under contract or not. If the player is currently out of contract, then the club only needs to agree to terms of a contract with the player. More often, the player will still have a valid contract, so first the front offices of two clubs need to agree on a transfer fee, and then the club buying the player needs to agree to terms on a new contract for the player. There are variations on this, of course, and would take much more space than I want to use to cover, so for now I'll just refer you here for a more detailed breakdown.

Liverpool is a storied club in English Football, but things have not gone well after the club finished 2nd to Manchester United in the 2008-09 season. Instead of building on the promise of that campaign the club saw its two American owners (Tom Hicks - the guy who also tried to bury the Texas Rangers - and George Gillette) saddle the club with a huge amount of debt. Instead of using the proceeds from the sale of some top players to fund the signings of suitable replacements, the cash went to pay down the debt. Again, the topic would take a lot more space than I intend to spend to do it justice, so you can read about Liverpool FC's history here. A season and a half of sub-par football followed, a popular but somewhat poloarizing manager was "sacked" and eventually the club was sold to New England Sports Ventures, the owner of the Boston Red Sox. Early season struggles left the new owners with no choice but to replace new manager, Roy Hodgson, with LFC legend Kenny Dalglish. After a few rough matches, Dalglish got the team rolling, and the team's best striker, Fernando Torres, seemed to be regaining the form that had been largely missing for over a year as the player battled injury and was forced to play in a style that clearly didn't suit his strengths. Three straight wins, and fans were seeing the club climb the table (standings). The club also looked to be bolstering their attack by adding striker Luis Suarez from Dutch club Ajax. But news of Suarez' signing was followed by rumors that EPL rivals Chelsea had placed a bid on Torres that had been turned down. This was met with plea from Torres for LFC to at least negotiate with Chelsea.

Liverpool fans were outraged. How could "El Nino" want to leave just as things were turning around? He had professed his love for the team, for the fans and even said that he was proud that his kids would be raised as "Scousers" - a term used to describe someone from Liverpool. Now, he was looking every bit the mercenary as he not only wanted to leave, but wanted to join a West London club that has seen much success in recent years, but was short on the type of true history that is the source of pride for many Liverpool fans. Again, for those of you that don't follow the EPL, Chelsea would be like the late 90's Orioles or the '97 Marlins. An owner (Russian billionaire Roman Abromowich) that will spare no expense to build a winner, and splashes out huge sums of cash in the process. Notice I didn't compare this to the Yankees -- the reason being that the Yankees, for all their financial muscle, have been the "Damn Yankees" for much of the last 100 years.

So off Torres went, but the new owners proved they aren't like the old owners. In addition to Suarez, LFC also brought in Newcastle United phenom Andy Carroll. All of a sudden, the Reds were looking like not only a team that had averted disaster, but had also gotten a bit younger in the process. Torres is nearing 27, and the clock is ticking on his days of being a top striker. Both Suarez and Carroll are in their early 20's. Ironically, Torres' first match for Chelsea was against his old team, but the storybook quality of the tale ends there -- for Torres. Liverpool turned in one of their most resilient performances of the season, and scored the game's only goal just after Torres was taken off in the second half. That Torres has yet to play an "El Nino" type game wearing Chelsea blue is a comfort to LFC fans, but the pain still remains that a beloved player didn't want to stay our club. In the weeks since his departure, Torres has explained his reasoning, and shown some respect for Liverpool -- both the club and the fans. But his words and respect will never change the fact that he is now the villain.

Turning to the world of baseball, spring training is officially underway. While this is typically the time of year where I start dreaming of sunshine, warm weather and Opening Day, there is also a sense of dread surrounding the Cardinals. After a disappointing 2010 campaign, the team is looking to rebound. The rotation looks to be as good, if not better -- Wainwright and Carpenter are still there as co-aces, 2010's surprising rookie Jamie Garcia looks to build on a great season and Jake Westbrook was resigned to be that solid #3 or #4 starter. If Kyle Lohse can be simply serviceable, this rotation might be as good as any rotation outside of Philadelphia, where they can boast 3 1/2 aces (Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hammels), or San Francisco, where the strength of the rotation carried the Giants to a title. The lineup looks to be improved as well....Lance Berkman comes in to add some firepower to the 1-2 punch of Pujols and Holliday. Ryan Theriot may not be the most exciting player in baseball, but he's the perfect type of player for a Tony LaRussa team. Colby Rasmus is another year older, and hopefully will continue to improve (and be allowed to improve by TLR).

But that cloud hanging over the Cardinals as Spring Training opens is Albert Pujols' next contract. He won't be a free agent until after the 2011 season, but there's little doubt that many of the club's moves over the last few years have been to convince Albert that the Cardinals are committed to building a good team around him. The problem with taking that tact, however, is now apparent...the club has big money invested in Holliday and Carpenter. Wainwright is nearing a time when he'll need to be resigned, and the farm system, while improving, has yet to become the NL version of the Minnesota Twins, where you simply plug in a guy from AAA and never see the difference.

Pujols is the best player in the game, and the Cardinals have used that image to sell a lot of tickets over the last 10 years. More than any other player in baseball he IS the face of his franchise, and now that we're past his self-imposed deadline, he claims there will be no negotiations regarding an extension until after this season is in the books. He wants to be paid like the best player in the game, and is using the A-Rod deal as his model.....$300 mil over 10 years is what it will take. The Cardinals have made offers and if reports are to be believed, they are giving Albert a choice between the average annual value of the contract and the length of the contract.

Intellectually, I understand the Cardinals' position....Pujols is 31, and in the post-steroid era it is rare to see a player get better as time passes. Pujols' is a "leave it all on the field" type of player, and I can't help but think of Larry Bird during the last few years of his career when I imagine what Pujols will be when he's my age (38 as I'm writing this). In truth, while he's still putting up numbers that seem to cement his spot among the game's legends, I think most Cardinals fans recognize that he has slipped slightly as he's moved into his 30's. So you can understand why the Cards' brass wouldn't want to tie up that kind of money over that long of a period.

I can also understand why Pujols is holding firm to his desire to be paid like the best in the game. How many dollars has Bill DeWitt, Jr. made on Pujols' back? When Pujols comes to bat, the stadium stops. Everyone watches. Pujols tshirts and jerseys outnumber those of other players at least 2-1. Most don't expect him to really sign somewhere else, but the fact that we've passed the deadline and didn't even see signs of progress has me preparing for the day when Albert is playing somewhere else. In my heart, I don't believe it will happen, but you just never know how these things will turn out. I never thought Fernando Torres would leave Liverpool for Chelsea, but look how that turned out. I still think something gets done during the season. As the calendar turns to May, I think Mozelik calls Pujols' agent, floats a few numbers, finds the common ground, and the deal gets done. Ok, maybe "hope" belongs in there more than "think".

Finally, we also saw the retirement of Jim Edmonds last week. He's been gone from the Cardinals for a few years now, but had signed a minor league deal before spring training in hopes of earning a bench spot. As things got underway, he found that he simply could not be the player he wanted to be, and decided that it was time. I'm glad that he is able to retire as a Cardinal. To be honest, during most of his tenure in red, I was more focused on my other favorite team (the Yankees), but I've always marveled at Edmonds' knack for stepping up when the stakes were at their highest.

So for now, I'm simply looking forward to the season. I'll worry about Pujols when it's time. I'll count the days until that first spring training game is shown on, prepare for my annual fantasy baseball draft and look forward to the start of another season. I'll also spend my weekend mornings keeping up with my soccer addiction and hope that Liverpool can continue their recent form and possibly rise as high as 4th (which would qualify them for the Champions League), and pettily hope that it comes at the expense of Chelsea and their new #9. I'm tired of worrying about this player or that player and where he'll be next season, so I'll just do the one thing that always gets you through the heartbreak....I'll enjoy the games.