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One week on

by Matt Smith

Has it really only been a week since the World Series finished? Maybe the lack of big stories during the intervening period has made it feel longer?

Within the last hour, the MLB All-Stars have defeated the NPB All-Stars to take a 3-0 lead in the Japan All-Star Series. “All-Stars” may be a bit of a stretch when you look at parts of the MLB roster (Erik Bedard was the starting pitcher in today’s contest for instance) but there is certainly a healthy dose of top talent on show (Mauer, Howard, Utley, Reyes, Wright, Dye, Andruw Jones etc). I’m sure the Japanese fans will love seeing Johjima and Iguchi representing the MLB All-Stars team at the very least. Many people have argued that the true end of season series should be the World Series winners versus the Japan Series winners (this year the Nippon Ham Fighters). It would certainly have a more competitive edge over what is essentially an exhibition series, but the World Series winners have had a long enough season without extending it by a further week or two. I doubt heading off to Japan a day or two after winning the World Series would be high on many player’s agendas either.

The MLB team is being managed by Bruce Bochy, who was brave to take the job on given what happened to his predecessors. Ken Macha was originally slated to manage the team before he was dumped by the A’s. Terry Francona stepped in as a replacement only to relinquish the role days later due to being hospitalized with a foot infection. So Bochy decided to take up the position, becoming the MLB All-Star 2006’s third manger before they had even touched Japanese soil. Maybe Bochy thinks that he has already had his bad luck by becoming the Giant’s new manger?

Speaking of the Giants, they are engaged in preliminary talks with Barry Bonds over a new deal. After all these years, it would be strange to see Bonds in anything but a San Francisco uniform; however money talks even when you have as much as Barry does. Bonds showed last year that he can still be a major threat at the plate, if not at his historical levels of previous years. He’s going to command a high single season figure (some put it at around $18 million, similar to the deal Clemen’s received in 2005) and that’s a big commitment to make. No doubt there will be other takers if the Giants decide to take a pass.

Bonds is far from being the only Free Agent this winter, indeed he is currently one of 163 players who are touting their services to potential employees, according to MLB.com. The general consensus is that this year’s crop of free agents is pretty underwhelming and it’s hard to argue with that opinion. Barry Zito for example is the top starting pitcher free agent, alongside Jason Schmidt. As an A’s fan, I’ve obviously got a lot of time for Zito, but in recent years he hasn’t quite been the star ace that some still believe him to be after his Cy Young year in 2002. If there was a larger pool of talent then there may have been a slight chance of the A’s re-signing him; however with talent so scarce it is clear that somebody is going to give Barry a lot of money to secure his signature (and it’s not going to be Oakland). Good for him, I guess; although many a player has accepted top-dollar and found that money isn’t everything, especially when you are going to earn millions anyway. (By the way, ESPN have got a very useful Free Agent tracker on their website).

Probably the most interesting “free agent” on the market is Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese starting pitcher star. The bidding process is fairly complicated, but basically MLB teams have until next Wednesday to table a blind bid, with the team posting the highest amount getting the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka and his agent (Scott Boras, surprise surprise!). So, all things considered, a team will probably have to fork out the best part of $20 million just to open negotiations with the player and reports suggest he will want a contract of around $70 million over five years. It’s fair to say that only a few teams will have that sort of money to play with.

The deal looks extremely expensive but the process of paying to win the right to negotiate with a player is effectively the same as paying a transfer fee in football (and I believe the money, or most of it, will go to Matsuzaka’s current team who are effectively letting him leave his contract early to pursue his dream of playing in the Majors). $20 million would be £10,520,000, not exactly an eye-popping figure when it comes to the fees paid out by the likes of Chelsea and Man Utd for a top player. $70 million over five years would work out at £141,269 per week though, which would even surpass the £120,000 odd that Ballack gets paid at Chelsea. As an overall package $90 million would get you a player for around £23.5 million on £90,000 per week for five years, which sounds about the rate for a big-club transfer. So in comparison to football it looks a normal price, so far as anything can look normal when it comes to the spending of major sports teams.

Another starting pitcher looking to join the Majors is Yuslan Herrera, a Cuban defector who helped his country win gold at the 2004 Olympics. He is reportedly close to agreeing a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, maybe I should get more excited about another Cuban coming to test themselves against the world’s best players and maybe I should give the Pirates credit for possibly making a major move for their franchise. But my reaction to reading this news for the first time was; “hmmm, I guess he isn’t that good then!”. For the sake of the long suffering Pirates fans, I would be more than happy for Herrera to prove me wrong.



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