There may still be some ice around in the UK, and I hear thereâ€™s been a small covering of snow in some parts of the U.S. as well over the past week, but Spring Training is just around the corner for Major League teams.Â
Sometimes I wonder how we cope without daily baseball updates.Â Soon enough weâ€™ll be hearing the good old stories of players who are in â€˜the best shape of their livesâ€™, pitchers who are going to work on a new pitch during Spring Training (95 per cent of the time being discarded when the serious stuff begins) and a veteran or two hoping to roll back the years and earn a Major League roster spot once again.
Two veterans who will not be battling for a job are Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine, both of whom announced their retirements this week.Â Those were the two main stories of the last seven days as the transactions slowed down to a trickle.Â They key deals were not involving players moving to new teams, but players coming to terms with their current clubs on a contract for 2010, and in some cases beyond.Â
Lincecum lands the loot
Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants narrowly avoided an arbitration hearing on Friday when they agreed a two-year deal at the very last moment.Â
The hearing was all scheduled to begin before the Lincecum party decided to re-start negotiations with the Giants and they eventually struck a deal without needing the arbitration panel to step in.Â
The two-year deal is worth $23m (Â£14.7m) in total and his basic salary this year will be $8m, which is the figure that the Giants had filed for the arbitration hearing.Â That makes the end result look like a win for the Giants, although pocketing a guaranteed sum of $23m doesnâ€™t exactly make Lincecum a loser.Â He reportedly turned down a three-year offer worth $37m earlier in the week, so his side would appear to have a long-term plan that will benefit from returning to negotiations two years down the line, when the starting pitcher will still have two arbitration-eligible years left.Â
Maybe they will look for a lucrative five-year deal then, allowing him to pocket another sizeable chunk of guaranteed money before becoming a free agent at the age of 33?Â If the Giants donâ€™t bite on a multi-year deal at that point, Lincecum could go through potentially block-busting arbitration deals in 2012 and 2013 and hit the free agent market at 30.Â Either way, taking a two-year deal leaves plenty of options open and guarantees Lincecum a tidy sum.Â
Heâ€™s certainly got more than enough money to afford to have a haircut.
Corey cashes in
The vast majority of cases are settled before an arbitration hearing is needed, not least because it can be quite a dispiriting exercise with the club essentially having to argue why the player isnâ€™t as good as he thinks he is.Â
Still, arbitration can work out very well for players and the most notable example of this has been Corey Hart, who won his case against the Milwaukee Brewers and bagged himself a $4.8m salary for 2010.Â That was $700k more than what the Brewers thought he was worth, which is not to be sneezed at and also helps to set his salary bar higher for next year.Â Players can normally count on getting a raise from the arbitration process, with only a lengthy injury or an outright terrible performance liable to knock them back at all.Â Hart earned $3.25m last year and didnâ€™t have much of a season, playing in only 115 games due to injuries and batting .260/.335/.418.Â Give a lot of credit to his agent for turning that into a $1.55m raise.
The Big Hurt bids us farewell
Frank Thomas will always be remembered as a Chicago White Sox player andÂ thatâ€™s the cap that will be on his head when he is inducted into Cooperstown four years from now after he announced his retirement yesterday.Â
My main memories of him naturally come from his season with the Aâ€™s in 2006. It was the only time in the last 6 years that the Aâ€™s have made the postseason and Thomasâ€™ contribution was a crucial factor in this.
I was excited when it was announced that the Aâ€™s had signed Thomas and in some ways I was being overly optimistic.Â He would be 38 that year and had played in only 108 games for the White Sox in 2004 and 2005 combined due to injuries. There were also some concerns over his attitude as he had reportedly burned his bridges with manager Ozzie Guillen, although that doesnâ€™t seem the hardest thing in the world to do.Â Despite his undoubted pedigree, there were no guarantees that Thomas would be an effective performer for the Aâ€™s that year.
My optimism was based on the fact that he had a point to prove to a few people and it was clear that if he could stay healthy, he could be a dangerous bat to add into our lineup.Â Yes, his ability to take the field (or the batterâ€™s box at least) was a big â€˜ifâ€™, but it was well worth a punt for an initial investment of just $500k.Â Either he would be an inexpensive mistake or an absolute steal.
In just a few weeksâ€™ time, weâ€™ll be able to sit back and enjoy listening to Spring Training games via Gameday Audio on MLB.com.Â They donâ€™t count for anything, but any live baseball seems like a godsend after the long winter months and you get the added benefit of hearing about your teamâ€™s new recruits and young prospects.Â
Frank Thomasâ€™ Spring Training debut in an Aâ€™s uniform was therefore an unmissable event for me. I donâ€™t remember the final score, in fact I donâ€™t even remember who we were playing, but I can shut my eyes and instantly recall the excitement of listening to the Big Hurt crushing a home run in just his second at-bat.Â Thomas also launched a home run off Randy Johnson in the Aâ€™s regular season opener against the Yankees, although getting pounded by a final score of 15-2 somewhat took the edge off the joy on that occasion (Barry Zito gave up 7 runs in 1.1 innings, for the record).
After those encouraging early signs, Thomas went on to have an excellent season.Â He smacked 39 home runs and batted in 114 runs over 137 games.Â With Nick Swisher coming of age with a 35 homer season (a tally he hasnâ€™t matched since) and Eric Chavez performing well in over 137 games (the exact same total as Thomas, coincidentally enough), the Aâ€™s were able to put together a good offense and matched it with decent pitching to propel them to the AL West title.Â
Thomas went deep twice in the ALDS opener against the Twins and the Aâ€™s went on to sweep the series, only to then be swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.Â
The downside to Thomasâ€™ season was that it put him out of the Aâ€™s financial reach.Â He went on to sign a two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays worth $18m, while the Aâ€™s tried to strike it lucky with a veteran bat for a second time by signing Mike Piazza.Â That move didnâ€™t work out so well and the Aâ€™s havenâ€™t replaced Thomasâ€™ bat since; however, you canâ€™t blame General Manager Billy Beane too much for that.Â Few players of recent memory could match up to the Big Hurt at the plate and thatâ€™s why, even though he spent a considerable amount of time as a DH, he should be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Glavine goes out too
Tom Glavine also announced his retirement this week.Â The legendary pitcher was frustrated at the way his career ended after injuries stopped him from competing at all last year, but I think itâ€™s turned out for the best.Â Not playing in 2009 means that he can be inducted into Cooperstown alongside former teammate Greg Maddux, which just seems right.
Glavine had a fantastic career and will be remembered for his bulldog spirit as much as anything. While the announcement of his retirement made others reminisce about his great moments on the mound, Iâ€™m reminded of the completely bizarre ceremony that the New York Mets laid on for him to celebrate his 300th career win.
things got even better for Tom on Sunday when the Mets staged a pre-game ceremony honouring the starter. It looked less like Glavine had reached a tremendous landmark and more like he had just won a TV Quiz show. There were a few gifts to start with, such as a decorative plaque on which 300 golf balls spelt out â€œ300â€, a glass plate signed by his team mates, and a pair of hockey jerseys. Then came the â€œBullseyeâ€ moment: two jet skis and a sparkling SUV. No doubt they made all the sacrifices seem worthwhile!
I donâ€™t mean to sound all high and mighty, but it was one of the least dignified celebrations of a sporting achievement that Iâ€™ve ever seen.Â Thankfully it was undignified in a hilarious way, so I still look back on it with bemused fondness.Â Maybe heâ€™ll drive to Cooperstown in that SUV?Â Hopefully heâ€™ll take the jet skis along for the ride as well.