INTEGRITY STRIKES OUT

By Murray Chass

July 21, 2010

Commissioner Bud Selig was so adamant in his defense of his clubs that I was unable to get the word integrity into the conversation. Had I brought it up, he would have scoffed at the idea. But then, the commissioner has never acknowledged that the owners, of whom he was one, colluded against free agents in the 1980s.

Baseball’s integrity was on my mind because I suspect that teams like the San Francisco Giants have undermined it. These teams just don’t seem like they’re trying to win, or at least doing everything they can to win.Buster Posey2 225

That’s a pretty damaging charge, I admit, and Selig and the Giants denied it. But when a team doesn’t use the best players available to it, you have to question its motives and its integrity.

Teams don’t have to spend outrageous millions on free agents, but they have no excuse ignoring whatever means are already available to them. In the Giants’ case, I would say that means calling up catcher Buster Posey before they did.

The Giants delayed Posey’s callup by almost two months, and the delay effectively delayed by a year his eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency.

That’s part of the manipulation of major league service time in which the owners engage. It’s a game I’ve written about before, most recently last month. Unlike collusion, it’s perfectly legal, and the clubs take full advantage of it.

The losers of the game are the players and the fans. The players whose service time is manipulated are forced to wait an additional year for salary arbitration and then free agency, and the fans are deprived of players who might help their team win.

Brian Sabean, the Giants’ general manager, rejected the idea that service time had anything to do with the timing of Posey’s promotion to the majors.

“Eligibility has nothing to do with it; that’s a moot point,” Sabean said. “The biggest factor was he hadn’t played much professional baseball. He was learning the catching position. We wanted to make sure he was comfortable at the plate.”

Sabean’s plate reference was to Posey’s hitting, which had produced a .327 minor league average. Then, talking about Aubrey Huff, Sabean said, “An opening came when Huff was moved to the outfield. That opened first base and gave us a chance to call him up and get him comfortable in the big leagues. We didn’t feel he would be ready at the beginning of the season.”

But let’s look at Posey. Called up May 29, he missed the first 47 games of the season. When he arrived, he hit the ground hitting and hasn’t stopped. Entering Wednesday’s games, Posey was hitting .350 with .573 slugging and .386 on-base percentages. He also had demonstrated outstanding talent as a catcher with laser-like throws to second base to catch would-be basestealers.

The Giants are in a four-team race in the National League West. They are in an even better position in the wild-card race. A couple more wins, and they would lead the wild-card race.

There’s no guarantee what Posey would have done had the Giants called him up earlier, but there’s no reason to think he could not have hit at a similar level for another 10 or 20 games. That hitting would almost certainly have helped produce a few more victories, which would have been beneficial to the Giants’ post-season chances.

If you doubt that the Giants’ strategy stems from economic motives, consider this. If the Giants legitimately believed that Posey needed more time in the minors, they could have kept him there for a month and a half and still brought him up earlier than they did.

But if they had recalled him only 11 days earlier, May 18 – what could he have learned in those 11 days? – those 11 days would have given him enough time to have a full year of major league service (he was in the majors for 33 days last season).

Now that Posey will not have a full year of service this year, the Giants will have him for seven years instead of six before he can be a free agent.

Stephen Strasburg, the year’s most dynamic rookie, will also need seven years. Unlike Posey, he will also need an extra year to be eligible for salary arbitration. When his four-year contract expires after the 2012 season, he will have two years and 118 days of major league service, falling about 20 to 22 days short of arbitration eligibility. An earlier callup – he was added to the Nationals’ roster June 8 – would have altered that status.

The commissioner, though, doesn’t see anything wrong or questionable in what the Nationals did.

bud-selig-finger-225“I know the Nationals felt that Strasburg needed to be in the minors,” Selig said in a telephone interview. “They handled him very carefully and in my opinion very intelligently. How do you know if he’s ready if you don’t see him pitch in the minors? I’ve seen a lot of guys ruined who were rushed, moved too fast. Baseball people have to make those decisions.”

Strasburg had a 4-2 record and a 2.03 earned run average in his first eight starts. The only thing he needed was more runs – in his two losses and one of his two no-decisions the Nationals scored a total of one run – and they don’t teach pitchers in the minors how to get their teams to score more runs for them.

As Selig pointed out, neither of us is Branch Rickey, but I doubt that it took a Branch Rickey to know that Strasburg was ready for prime time before the Nationals said he was. What was magic about June 8? Nothing except it was a safe salary arbitration date.

I pointed out to Selig that Mike Leake, who has a 6-1 record, has pitched well for the Cincinnati Reds without pitching in the minors.

“We can talk about Mike Leake,” he said, “but someone made a decision that he was ready.” And a sound decision it was. The Reds were more interested in winning than in economics. They chose not to cheat their fans.

The Giants, on the other hand, appeared not to care about their fans.

“I don’t know anything about Posey; maybe he wasn’t ready,” Selig said of the catcher who stroked three hits in each of his first two games and 9 hits in his first 19 times at bat. “I have to rely on their player development people. They did have Molina,” he added, referring to Bengie Molina, whom the Giants traded less than two weeks after they recalled Posey.

“I know people think there were economic reasons,” Selig said of the Giants’ delay with Posey. “I don’t think so.”

And it also wasn’t economic with the Marlins and Mike Stanton (June 9), the Pirates and Jose Tabata (June 9), the Orioles and Jake Arrieta (June 10), the Indians and Carlos Santana (June 11), the Pirates and Pedro Alvarez (June 16), the Astros and Juan Castro (June 22), the Giants and Madison Bumgarner (June 26).

Teams have a right to try to save money but not at the expense of their players and their fans. Baseball officials might not see it as a matter of integrity, but their credibility doesn’t represent the ideal. This was the same gang that negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement in August 1985, then only months later violated its terms on free agency.

I suppose it’s difficult for people to care about or recognize how a lack of integrity affects players and fans when they lack integrity themselves.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.