Tuesday, December 18, 2012
It's just not easy living in limbo
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti faces a major challenge trying to turn around a franchise that has enjoyed only two winning seasons since 2001. The Indians' attendance is meager, their payroll is tight and the farm system isn't nearly deep enough to help produce an instant contender in the American League Central division.
Justin Upton has been the source of trade rumors for the better part of the past two years.
The never-ending quest to improve the club means exploring every potential avenue, but that approach comes with an unintended side effect: For every player that Antonetti trades, he has to maintain an open dialogue with several others still on the roster.
The Indians have been a source of trade buzz all winter, with outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and pitchers Chris Perez and Justin Masterson all making the rounds on the rumor mill. One storyline reached a conclusion last week when Antonetti traded Choo to Cincinnati as part of a three-way deal with the Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks. Meanwhile, Cleveland's other trade candidates can only wait and wonder if they're going to be next.
Fans are conditioned to think that athletes making millions of dollars to play a kid's game should be ready to pack up and move at a moment's notice. But that doesn't change the reality -- that major leaguers value stability, their wives and kids like it more, and the absence of clarity produces some uncomfortable consequences. When a player feels as if he's in limbo, it can be a source of tension with management, put a crimp in team harmony and complicate life for the manager. That's why front offices strive to keep players informed.
"We try to manage it as best we can by communicating directly with our guys," Antonetti said. "At the end of the season, I talked with Asdrubal and Choo and some of our other guys. I told them, 'Look, this is the nature of the industry. It's the way it works. The offseason and the trade deadline are times when teams inquire about players. There are inevitably going to be teams speculating on your availability. You should take it as a compliment that you're attractive to other teams and they have interest in you.'
"Just because their names come up in rumors doesn't mean we're actively out there looking to try to trade them. More often than not, it's because teams have inquired and expressed an interest in them. I think a lot of the guys who've been around all get that."
The rumor mill, once a fun diversion, has become a full-blown obsession with the advent of Twitter, trade-related websites and 24-hour TV sports channels. A player doesn't have to look hard for evidence that his name is under discussion -- or worse yet, that he's being "shopped."
You could fill a competitive 25-man roster with players who have been mentioned in trade speculation since November. It would include Justin Upton, Jason Kubel, Dexter Fowler, Denard Span, Alfonso Soriano and Mark Trumbo in the outfield, Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa, Cabrera and Yunel Escobar around the horn, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and J.P. Arencibia behind the plate and a pitching rotation of R.A. Dickey, James Shields, Chris Capuano, Trevor Bauer and Rick Porcello, with Joel Hanrahan, Perez and Wade Davis in the bullpen and Wil Myers Garrett Jones, Peter Bourjos, Skip Schumaker and Dee Gordon off the bench.
Some of those players have been moved, others have stayed put and the rest are still waiting for a resolution of their status. Rest assured that another wave of rumors will soon be coming to a Web browser near you.
In an attempt to learn more about how players handle the uncertainty, ESPN.com approached three of the previously mentioned trade candidates and their agents for insights. All of them declined the opportunity to address the topic.
"I would love to," said one agent. "I would have to think about whether it is in my guy's best interest before I open my yapper, though."
In the good old days of sports journalism -- say, back in the 1990s -- a rumor might appear in a newspaper sports section and die of loneliness. But mobile technology and instant analysis have radically altered the landscape. Baseball columnists and "insiders" are free to make sweeping generalizations in 140 characters or less, and an exhaustive, mind-numbing array of nuggets is available to anyone with a Hot Stove fetish. In recent years, the website MLBTradeRumors.com has become a central clearinghouse for trade bombshells, minutiae and everything in between.
"The news cycle is 24/7, and it's even deeper than that, because the information is so repetitive and it comes at you in so many different ways," agent John Boggs said. "And filling that news cycle compounds it. There's a lot of misleading information and conjecture, and it's all over the board. Personally, I think it does have an impact on the player and his family. When you call the player, the first thing he says when he picks up the phone is, 'Where am I going?'"
A player can be in limbo for a variety of reasons. Maybe he's moving closer to free agency and his team wants to get a return before he hits the open market. Perhaps his contract is unwieldy and he's being shopped to free up room on the payroll at the behest of ownership. Or maybe his team has a surplus of bodies at his position and he's about to be squeezed for innings or at-bats.
Dickey became trade fodder when he couldn't reach agreement on a contract extension with the Mets. Morse, in contrast, has been a hostage to the Washington Nationals' contract talks with Adam LaRoche. If the Nats bring back LaRoche, Morse is almost certain to be dealt. If LaRoche leaves town, it's more likely that Morse will stay.
Saltalamacchia, who hit .222 with 25 homers for Boston last season, got a clue he might be expendable when the Red Sox signed free-agent catcher David Ross to a two-year deal in November. Boston's catching depth chart became even more crowded when Mike Napoli agreed on a three-year deal, but Napoli's arrival has since been delayed by concerns over his physical exam.
James Shields pitched seven seasons for the Rays before being traded to the Royals earlier this month.
Upton, a two-time All-Star, has been the focus of trade rumors since the Diamondbacks first bandied his name around at the 2010 general managers meetings. Upton-related buzz reappeared at the July trade deadline and again last week. So it's only natural to ask: When does Upton, a two-time All-Star who is only 25 years old and would seem to fit the description of "franchise face" for the long haul, begin to tune out or feel unwanted?
Even though Arizona GM Kevin Towers said it's "unlikely" that Upton will be dealt now that the Diamondbacks have acquired their long-term shortstop solution, Didi Gregorius, Upton can only wonder when his name will resurface. He can expect a deluge of questions on the topic upon arrival at spring training in February.
Until then, the Diamondbacks don't seem overly concerned about Upton's frame of mind. During the recent winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., Towers downplayed concerns that the constant rumors would weigh on Upton emotionally or drive a wedge between the outfielder and the club.
"If you're Asdrubal Cabrera or James Shields, it's the same thing," Towers said. "It's part of the game. I'm sure [Upton] doesn't like it. I imagine it's uncomfortable, and I don't blame him. But with social media now, it's hard to keep any discussions quiet. Your name is going to get bantered about, and that's rough. But he's a pro. He's still here, so I think he still realizes how much we value him and like him."
Recent history shows there's no telling how a player will react to the uncertainty. Shane Victorino appeared to press after he got off to a slow start last season and his chances of signing a long-term extension with the Phillies diminished. Teammate Cole Hamels, in contrast, pitched like an All-Star in April, May and June, and the Phillies rewarded him with a six-year, $144 million contract in late July.
"You know there's an effect," said Boggs, the agent for both players. "You just hope they can compartmentalize it and focus on what they have to do. It's out of their hands. They basically have to go out there and do their thing and not be affected by every rumor they hear, because so much of it is inaccurate until the final second when something is executed."
Baseball limbo is never an easy place to dwell. If it brings any comfort to the players who reside there, they have plenty of company.