Let’s begin the annual dive into analysis, estimates, and hunches, with the National League West:
Los Angeles: In the original classic version of John LeCarre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” Alec Guinness as George Smiley corners Bernard Hepton as the treason-enabling Toby Esterhase with a telling colloquy:
Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?
Esterhase (smiling): Sold a couple once.
Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.
The Dodgers have the talent to win the National League West twice this year. But they probably won’t win it at all, and that’ll probably unleash a disaster in which the General Manager and Manager both get fired, because they’re sticking to the truth behind that quote. The new ownership will stick with the high-end counterfeits they saddled themselves last year simply because they bought them, and they bought them simply because they cost so much.
1. The Dodgers invested in the useless-in-a-pennant-race Zack Greinke, the untested Hyun-Jin Ryu, and traded for the finished Josh Beckett, and will start them while burying or trading the useful but unspectacular Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly. Among the eight possible Dodger starters, Beckett should be ranked eighth.
2. For two months or more, the Dodgers will attempt to replace the injured Hanley Ramirez with Nick Punto (or maybe Juan Uribe) instead of Dee Gordon. How much must they hate Dee Gordon? It’s remarkable enough that they chose to bet on a journeyman minor league lifer who got lucky last year (Luis Cruz) over Gordon, but to be forced to take a second bite of the apple and still bite your own tongue is amazing. Gordon is young and made lots of mistakes in the field and on the bases, but unlike Punto he can hit Punto’s weight, and unlike Uribe, in the field he doesn’t resemble a potted plant.
3. Brandon League – who has blown 29 percent of his career save opportunities – looks like he’ll be the closer. If my calculations are correct, six of these 84 opportunities have come during pennant races. I realize Kenley Jansen has these disturbing heart problems, but if that’s somehow a factor, how on earth are they letting him out on the field in the first place?
4. This is an Andre Ethier slash line: 23/89/.292/.368/.493, 3.2 Offensive War, -0.2 Defensive War. Those aren’t career numbers, or a forecast for 2013. Those are his stat-by-stat highs since his “breakout” season of 2009, which in retrospect looks like his high water mark. And yet the Dodgers and much of the L.A. media still think him a Golden Child who should be batting fifth. I believe this could be called “The Wes Parker Effect,” which was while I lived there the only portion of the dismissal of Southern California as superficial that I found true. For nearly a decade the Dodgers thought first baseman Wes Parker was it, because he looked like he was it. Graceful, good looks, dashing. His career slash was .267/.351/.375 – and his career defensive WAR was minus three. For a first baseman.
Ethier looks like he’s a great player. He’s not. He was an above-average guy with one pretty good year who is well into his post-age-28 decline and is just not going to get any better now (and have a hard time staying even this good). And he will play every day while Yasiel Puig – the closest thing there is to ‘this year’s Yoenis Cespedes’ – goes to the minors.
5. Even more amazingly, until Carl Crawford is ready to play every day in left field, the Dodgers will have Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr fill in, and not Puig. This presumes, by the way, that when Crawford is ready to play he actually will play well, and not be consumed by the panic that destroyed him in Boston. And the Dodgers’ rationales for ignoring in Puig what might be their best athlete this side of Matt Kemp? Incredibly, they are a) blaming Dee Gordon (somehow he forced them to rush him and even though he played terrifically when they brought him up in 2011, because he didn’t last year, that’s a reason to send out Puig), and b) they are crying poverty or at minimum preaching economy. The team that assumed $261,000,000 in Dead Sox contracts on one sunny day last year is actually reported to be worried about Puig’s service time and the acceleration of his free agency and arbitration eligibilities.
6. Even if you think this line-up (A.J. Ellis/Gonzalez/M. Ellis/Cruz/Punto/Schumaker/Kemp/Ethier) is actually the best one the Dodgers can put on the field, my old ESPN colleague and figure filbert deluxe David Punto argues that the way Don Mattingly has ordered it will generate about half a run less than it could.
The only threat the Dodgers should face in this division is from themselves. Unfortunately it seems like a mortal one.
Arizona: So apparently Justin Upton, Chris Young, Trevor Bauer, John McDonald, Henry Blanco, Chris Johnson, Sam Demel, Takashi Saito and a bunch of other guys just weren’t the ‘right types’ for somebody in the Diamondbacks’ hierarchy. Kirk Gibson? GM Kevin Towers? Owner and T206 Wagner trimming scandal victim Ken Kendrick? Who knows, and, frankly, who cares?
The purging of players by dint of character or philosophy or whatever may have once been a productive means of shaping a team. But in the modern game, what it gets you is…the Colorado Rockies. I don’t know what personality trait is shared by the incoming Acceptable Diamondback Personality Types like Eric Chavez, Martin Prado, Heath Bell, Cody Ross, Brandon McCarthy, Eric Hinske, Cliff Pennington, Randall Delgado and Didi Gregorius (although everybody likes McCarthy and Ross, nobody likes Bell, and in terms of defensive prospects Gregorius might be the best one in the game). I only know that engineering a line-up based on anything other than talent is madness and usually results in big “Kaboom” sounds and incendiary lightning strikes.
The one pure baseball consideration in the off-season clean-out also didn’t go well. Chris Young (the centerfielder, not the pitcher) was moved in part to make room for Adam Eaton (the centerfielder, not the pitcher). While the latter may not be quite the prospect Arizona thinks him, it was a defensible argument. Until Eaton got hurt.
The team isn’t bad, per se – just ‘meh.’ The pitchers are mostly A.L. refugees (McCarthy, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Tony Sipp, the injured Daniel Hudson). There are some pretty good position players here and there but absolutely nobody you’d point to and say “All Star!,” which is an irony by itself given that the coaching staff behind Gibson (Alan Trammell, Matt Williams, Don Baylor, Charles Nagy, and now Steve Sax) is illustrious.
Fortunately when they finish a distant third the Specially-Selected Quality-Character D-Backs will all be good sports about it, I guess.
Colorado: Wanna hear something sad? In my fantasy baseball league, based solely on the NL, we had gone 140 players into the auction with every position player having inspired at least two bids (somebody opens for $1 and then another says $2 or $20 or whatever). Then Todd Helton was nominated.
Todd Helton cost $1 in our fantasy league.
The Rockies’ franchise he represents isn’t that bad, nor that sad. There is a disturbing fragility about its superstars (Cargo, Tulowitzki, and from the in-residence emeritus department, Helton) and just when the franchise seemed to be on the verge of recovering from the same kind of Character First nonsense Arizona will now suffer through, somebody decided to reinvent pitching. It’s well-intentioned (pitching has already been reinvented while pitching staffs have merely been enlarged and categorized) but seems to have incorporated only the worst of the old (four man rotation!) and the most dubious of the new (perpetual pitch counts and Vice Presidents of Pitching Developmental Personnel Evaluation Coordination).
There is this to consider, of course. The Rockies don’t have one outstanding pitcher right now, in the rotation or out of it (maybe Rex Brothers or Rob Scahill will become that, but not yet). And yet you don’t hear about that, do you? You only hear about The Executive Director of Coloradoean Pitching Prowess And Succor.
Clever diversion. It still means last place, but it’s clever.
San Diego: What, exactly, did the Padres get out of trading Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs? Oh yeah, Andrew Cashner (possibly not hurt this year) and outfielder Kyung-Min Na (he hit .155 last year). And, oh yeah, this gave the Pods an excuse to pack Mat Latos to Cincinnati for yet another first base prospect, Yonder Alonso (slugged .393 last year) and crack catching prospect Yasmani Grandal (Team Biogenesis; see you in June).
Occasionally the Pods hold on to somebody whom they should’ve given away for a bag of magic beans (Chase Headley) but, not to worry. He gets injured, the team’s faint prospects for a wild card slide back into the ether, and the happy, becalmed residents of San Diego continue to come out in sufficient numbers to keep this somnambulant franchise alive.
It’s really a shame. Hall of Famers Jerry Coleman, Ted Leitner, and Dick Enberg are among the Padres’ announcers. The impeccable Buddy Black is still the manager. And the weather is soooo nice. Shouldn’t somebody be complaining about fourth place?
San Francisco: OK, I admit it. Even after watching the Tigers melt the Yankees in the ALCS last year I had this sneaking suspicion that a good team with fewer stars but better defense, which could execute on both sides of the ball, might destroy the Tigers in the World Series. And then I looked at the San Francisco lineup and I just couldn’t go with my hunch.
I feel great shame.
Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean just don’t make mistakes (well, Sabean shouldn’t have run his mouth when Buster Posey got planted in ’11, but I mean more pertinent-to-the-job mistakes). The rotation may get a little thin as early as Tim Lincecum and I’m not convinced Sergio Romo is the long-term answer in the bullpen. But in a doctrinal division, Giants management is non-denominational. The Dodgers throw money at everything. The Padres throw money at nothing. The Rockies tried religious tests. The Diamondbacks got rid of the ‘bad’ guys.
Bochy and Sabean (and coaches Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner) tried…everything. They did not hesitate to go to Plans B, C, D, or E when their Plan A failed. There were five closers last year, and somebody was invested in all the ones who weren’t Romo. Yet they changed, and changed again, and changed again, and finally were willing to go into the post-season with a closer who had pitched in 276 major league games but seen only 23 save opportunities.
The 2010 championship was won by midseason pickups like Cody Ross. 2012’s was sparked by Marco Scutaro and the finally at-home Hunter Pence. Who will make the difference for the 2013 Jints? Somebody Sabean goes and gets in July (although this year there are some actual farm products who could play a role, like outfielder Gary Brown, starter Kyle Crick, or closer Heath Hembree – who looks like one of those walk-the-bases-loaded-then-strike-the-side-out types).
And oh yeah, the Giants have Posey and Panda and the emerging Brandon Belt.
But mostly they’ll get 100% out of what they have while the more talented and monied Dodgers seem intent on getting 50%. I think they’ll have to keep the pedal down all season to beat L.A. and it might still be close around September 1, which is when the Dodgers will fold for good and finish 4-to-8 games out.
Division: Giants, Dodgers in a pennant race second, Diamondbacks not competitive in third, Padres struggling to fourth, pitching-free Rockies fifth.
Tomorrow the NL East.
In 1991, I got a call from my friend Matt Federgreen, the proprietor of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop and my co-host for a little segment I did on each of my half-hour-long Sunday night sportscasts on KCBS-Channel 2 in L.A.
Matt had been approached by Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and at that time the rising figure in hockey ownership and L.A. sports moguldom. McNall had made his millions buying and selling (and as the jury later agreed, often selling and re-selling and re-re-selling) antique coins, and he was fascinated by the upcoming auction of the Jim Copeland sports memorabilia. Big-money auctions were nothing new to the baseball card world, but this one was being handled by Sotheby’s, meaning the hobby was being mainstreamed into investment-grade collectibles.
The centerpiece of the Sotheby’s Auction was an unbelievably pristine copy of the 1909 American Tobacco Company card of Honus Wagner, hardly the scarcest, but handily the most famous, card in the landmark series we collectors call by its catalogue number “T-206.” McNall and a then-unidentified partner (who proved to be his star player, Wayne Gretzky) wanted the card and they wanted Federgreen’s expertise. The card looked brand new. It bore no earmarks of being a clever counterfeit. But it also bore no signs of nearly 92 years of aging. Unless somebody was standing at the printing press when the card was finished drying, and stuffed it between the pages of a book, and kept the book in a climate-controlled room from the opening days of the Presidential administration of William Howard Taft, and had only taken it out after the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, something seemed wrong.
Something was very wrong. I couldn’t go with Matt to the inspection of the Wagner that McNall had arranged for him. But Matt took a bunch of pictures, and the next time he came in to the studios he brought them.
Matt has a sly smile that usually gives him away. “Whaddya think?”
I took one look at the photos and said “It’s been trimmed.”
Matt laughed. “That’s what I told Bruce. He said thanks very much, he said he thought so too, he said he’d probably buy it any way, and he walked me to the door, and he paid me a very generous fee, and I left.”
I asked him to show me the photos again. They had rung too loud a bell. “I’ve seen this card before.”
Matt’s eyes lit up. By the following Sunday I had found in my rabbit’s warren of card-related stuff, photos of a Wagner that had been offered for sale in the early ’80s by a fellow who owned a baseball card store on Long Island outside New York City. I had no doubt and neither did Matt. Between his photos and mine we were looking at before-and-after shots of the same card.
Before and after somebody with the guts of a burglar and the skills of a circumcision specialist had trimmed the thing.
In its previous state the Wagner was an anomaly. It had very large white borders, and the card was thus perhaps 10% bigger than the average T-206. It looked like it had been hand-cut from a sheet of cards, and not done by a machine. Some of the corners were stubbed and worn from age. But the “face” of the card, the player’s image, the bright yellow background, the lettering, were shiny and virtually perfect. It had been handled, and handled an appropriate amount, since 1909. But whoever had done the handling had been very, very careful not to touch the face.
And then somebody bought it and actually cut away all the damage on the sides and sold it to Jim Copeland who had turned it over to Sotheby’s which would shortly sell it to Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky for $451,000. When McNall was exposed as a crook who would sell the same priceless coin to several different collectors (throwing in secure storage of it for a small additional fee – so that it was always around for him to show it and re-sell it to another collector even though he didn’t own it any more) Gretzky got full possession of the treasure and sold it off to Walmart as a publicity thing, basically at a break-even figure. The price has gone up and up and up, and “the” Wagner was finally sold to Conservative political figure and Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick, who five years ago paid $2,800,000 for it.
It’s not a fake. But it’s also not an original.
And for years, collectors and experts have murmured about the process by which a really nice Wagner had been altered, and the alterations hidden from the public (even receiving the stamp of approval by the presumptive “final word” of a card authenticating company which got enormous publicity – and undeserved credibility – for encasing the card in the first of its plastic “slabs”), and the card became the image of the sports memorabilia hobby.
But who was behind this? And, Heavens, who cut the card?
Now we have the answer, courtesy the FBI…
According to the indictment, in advertising portraying Mastro Auctions as the premier seller of valuable items, including the world’s most expensive baseball trading card, a Honus Wagner T-206 card, Mastro allegedly failed to disclose that he had altered the Wagner T-206 card by cutting the sides in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.
The “Mastro” in question is Bill Mastro, who I have known since we were both teenagers. At age 19, he had bought a Wagner for $1,500 and thus completed his T-206 set. Those of us whose own massive collections might have been worth a total of $1,500 were aghast. My friend and mentor Mike Aronstein told me that some of Mastro’s relatives had actually gathered together to consider what we would now call an “intervention” or forcing him to seek psychological help. It was believed that no Wagner had previously sold for more than around $250. At the left is how this startling development was contemporaneously covered by a monthly publication I used to write for called The Trader Speaks.
Mastro was already buying and selling cards that were not intended for his own collection. By the ’80s he had gone from card dealer to the founder of one of the first sports memorabilia auction houses, Mastro Auctions, and would regularly work the phones to try to drum up publicity for his auctions.
It eventually became a $50,000,000 business. And now it’s gotten Mastro and some of his colleagues indicted. And not just for the deception regarding the Wagner.
More from the Department of Justice’s press release:
CHICAGO — Online and live auctions of sports memorabilia and other collectibles conducted during the 2000s by the former Mastro Auctions, which was based in suburban Chicago, routinely defrauded customers, according to a federal indictment unsealed today. William Mastro, who owned the former business that once billed itself as the “world’s leading sports and Americana auction house,” together with Doug Allen and Mark Theotikos, both former executives of Mastro Auctions, were indicted on fraud charges for allegedly rigging auctions through a series of deceptive practices, including so-called “shill-bidding,” designed to inflate prices paid by bidders and to protect the interests of consignors and sellers at the expense of unwitting bidders.
In short, if you bought from Mastro, you stood an excellent chance of bidding against people who were there only to drive up the price.
For that part of the story, I refer you to the whole press release at the Sports Collectors Digest website. The New York Daily News has even more detail on the extraordinary tale of “the” Wagner, which after two decades of whispering, we can now shout: has been deceptively altered.
Just for fun, I should note here that the entire story of what originally made the Wagner card scarce in the first place also doesn’t add up. The timeline is so messy that it has the card being withdrawn at Wagner’s behest (supposedly because he didn’t want to be involved in selling cigarettes to kids) after he saw an advertisement for it in a national sports magazine. But the ad didn’t appear until July, 1909 and the card was supposed to have been withdrawn in March, 1909. But I’ll save that tale of what might’ve been the first card made deliberately scarce, for another time.
Also, this isn’t the scarcest card of all time, nor even in this set (there are at least 75 of them; there may not be as many examples of the T-206 card of an A’s pitcher named Eddie Plank, and there are only three or four copies of a rare T-206 variation of a Yankees’ pitcher Joe Doyle, and there are unique examples of eight minor league T-206 ‘proof’ cards featuring players who never got into the issued set, and based on recent developments there may yet be a 525th card to add to the checklist). More on that some other time.
Lastly, if you’re ever actually talking about Honus Wagner – the immortal shortstop or the card or now the FBI Fraud Case – the name doesn’t rhyme with “bonus.” Honus was short for the Germanic version of John, Johannes. So he answered to “Honnis,” not “Ho-nus.”