There is a reason ESPN has been gradually losing its status as the go-to television outfit for baseball.
It is not just the attempt to turn Baseball Tonight into some sort of summer-time version of the college football pregame show. It’s not the seeming pairing of every actual baseball expert like Buster Olney with an info-challenged sidekick like Wendi Nix. It’s not the ludicrous and already jab-pencils-into-your-eyes repetitiveness of John Kruk’s segments on the “best seats” in each stadium, each of which make the asinine features Steve Lyons used to do for our pre-game show at Fox look like doctoral theses. It’s not even the cancellation of the lumbering Sunday Night game telecast in favor of a new program that I think is called Bobby Valentine’s Three-Hour Autobiographical History Of The World.
I mean, seriously, another week of this and I’m sending Sherpas out to search for the bodies of my friends Orel Hershiser and Dan Shulman. I only hope they are out there somewhere, doing the really good two-man-booth broadcast of which they’re capable, to an audience of St. Bernards and Yetis.
Those are just symptoms of the reason ESPN has turned itself into a distant No. 2 in the battle with MLB Network. The disease is: ESPN is no longer invested in baseball and no longer trusts it to carry its own weight. And this didn’t just start when MLB Network came on the scene with its necessary advantages of being the in-house outfit permitted to carry basically anything it wanted, almost any time it wanted. I can recall that in the middle of the “nuclear winter” of 1994-95, the Rangers traded Jose Canseco to the Red Sox. Canseco was no longer the incumbent MVP, but he had just been voted “Comeback Of The Year” and still had five 20+-homer seasons to go. The Canseco trade, instead of getting at least some of the attention it merited, was buried in a little tag-on feature at the end of SportsCenter called “News And Notes.”
We all know what the network, and that show, are about these days – promoting other ESPN products and reducing sports to merely another form of entertainment living somewhere in the neighborhood where Mariah Carey’s twins matter more than the Minnesota Twins. There’s nothing wrong with that neighborhood, just don’t impose it on actual sports fans.
But ESPN’s disconnect from baseball is now part of its DNA. It may in fact be the case that the last things that really tethers true baseball fans to the Worldwide Leader are its game broadcasts (especially for those deprived of access to MLB Net), and what had been an efficient and sometimes innovative baseball fantasy game. But even that latter slender thread is fraying. A few seasons back the computer program somehow “lost” more than a week’s worth of the daily roster juggling for literally tens of thousands of fantasy players, screwing up countless leagues and strategies. And now this weekend, the system by which ESPN manages the only “content” thing it is required to stay on top of – which real-life players are hurt, and which ones have been called up to the majors – collapsed.
Pablo Sandoval of the Giants broke a hamate bone and early Saturday was placed on the disabled list. As anybody who’s ever played fantasy baseball knows, an injury like that is mitigated only by the opportunity to place Sandoval on your disabled list and add another player to replace him in your line-up. In some leagues, you can do that instantaneously: as soon as a player gets hurt, you can rush to your computer, place Sandoval on your disabled list, and “pick up” his replacement. In others, the process occurs via scheduled “waivers,” which can be daily, or every few days, or weekly. But whatever the process, it’s possible to put Sandoval on your disabled list only after ESPN has put him on its disabled list, and as of Sunday evening, more than 24 hours after the Giants put The Panda on the shelf, the ESPN computer geeks had failed to do so.
For Sandoval’s thousands of “owners” – and by the company’s own stats he is “owned” in every single one of the leagues it operates – they are thus not only deprived of his services and the opportunity to replace him, but conceivably could have sat there in frozen and agonized horror while other owners in their league got to his potential replacements first. A call to ESPN’s fantasy “help” line revealed this disturbing fact: the phone operator said the game managers never updated disabled list eligibility over the weekend, so Sandoval would likely not be made DL-eligible before Monday. If it hadn’t happened by then, the operator helpfully suggested, they could write up a “ticket” and see if the problem could be corrected in the next few days.
When I was at ESPN, the then managing editor John Walsh used to forcefully remind us that all the research data on the constancy of the audience produced the same stark data: they were the most loyal in television, and planned to remain loyal for ever more – unless somebody came along and offered them a better product. Leaving a few thousand fantasy players remembering the weekend “ESPN” became a four-letter word may not seem like a back-breaking straw, but combine it with the soliloquies of Bobby V and the knowledge that the network’s key games will soon enough get trundled off to the backwaters of ESPN2 to provide space for football exhibitions – to say nothing of the existence of a truly superb 24-hour product from MLB Network – and you can almost watch the loyalty dissolving before your eyes.
You know what? MLB Network doesn’t offer its own baseball fantasy league product. I wonder what would happen to ESPN’s baseball audience if it did.
Update: two hours after I posted this, guess what happened? Somebody at ESPN’s Fantasy Games outfit…placed Kung Fu Panda Sandoval on the official computerized Disabled List.
You don’t really want to know about my fantasy teams (well, except the name of the American League one, which I think achieves our league’s annual goal: the ideal conflation of current events and baseball – The Moammar Garciaparras). But you may yet gain some useful info from the two fairly early drafts, one for each league, which occupied much of my weekend.
Biggest news I can now share is that while in Florida, every Philly source I talked to – from the casual ones who talked a lot, to the in-the-know ones who tried to say nothing – left me with the same impression: Chase Utley is not going to play baseball this year. Supposedly they are trying rest and minor rehab now, which will tell them whether there is a remote possibility that more rest and more extensive rehab later could preclude surgery. If not, they’re going to cut him. Even if they decide they can get away without opening up the knee, that rest-and-rehab route could just as easily cost him the season.
So I guess nominating him in our auction this afternoon while there was still decent money on the table makes me a stinker?
Still, I’m not the one who paid $16 for him. Other injuries of unknown duration also did not scare a free spending NL-only league (sixth year, second auction, some real sharp fans). Mat Latos went for $20 even though the Padres are so strapped that Tim Stauffer will start on Opening Day. Brian Wilson still fetched $17 (comparison: Heath Bell, $18). Very late – after Francisco Cordero had gone for $15 and Brandon Lyon for $7, we shelled out $13 for J.J. Putz and $6 more for Brad Lidge. Both Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson were picked up as collars for Lidge (I think it’ll be Contreras) and Daniel Hernandez was an excellent no-risk flyer for Putz.
There was the usual star-sniffing inflation among the impact players. Most valuations of Hanley Ramirez place him at around $39 in an NL-only operation. He sold for $45. I reached past his likely $36 value to pay $42 for Carlos Gonzalez, and if Troy Tulowitzki’s inflation from $28 to $38 shocks you, or David Wright’s growth from $27 to $38 – you’d better sit down for these next two. Several of us must have read Matthew Berry’s note on how well Dan Uggla has hit lifetime in Atlanta, because he may have been valued at $22, but I gave up on him at $33.
And best of all was Mike Stanton of the Marlins, whom most analysts have pegged at a value of $20 or so. I think Stanton is going to bust through all ceilings this year, and so did another bidder. I won him – at $36. Before you think we’re daft, I won the league last year and the fella who was willing to pay $35 finished second.
I suspect his Florida teammate Logan Morrison will also turn heads before October, and the Pedro Alvarez I saw at third base in Florida two weeks ago had the confidence of an All-Star. What else did I pick up that you can use? Ian Desmond will lead off for the Nationals this year and Jayson Werth will inexplicably hit second. This means lovely things for Mr. Desmond. Brian McCann is saying all the right things after the Luis Salazar nightmare, when he was ready to retire when he thought he’d killed the man. But he hasn’t hit a lick since. He’s still the best, but be careful.
Lastly: on NL pitching, if you wait for it, it will come. Lincecum cost $33, Halladay $29, Kershaw $27 (the Commissioner is a Dodger fan who brings a radio with him to the games), Cain $24 (one guy named his team “Your World Champion Giants”), Cris Carpenter, Tommy Hanson and Ubaldo Jimenez $22 each. But I put together a perfectly respectable starting rotation of R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia, James McDonald, Javier Vazquez and Carlos Zambrano for $22 (and stashed Johan Santana and – what the heck, Strasburg – for another $3).
If you care, here are my guys and their values. All but Soriano ($15) and Carlos Lee ($14) were on my “Favorites” list – and I happily took them at what I saw as 25-30% discounts. The rest of these choices I firmly endorse (although Alex Gonzalez may be wildly overpriced at $2). SP I mentioned. Bullpen: Axford $11, Lyon $7, Romo $4, Contreras $1 (we count holds). C: Buck $3. IF: Sandoval $19, Alvarez $16, Kelly Johnson $16, Lee $14, Espinosa $3, Alex Gonzalez $2, Chris Johnson $2. OF: C. Gonzalez $42, Stanton $36, Victorino $22, Hart $19, Soriano $15, $2 Morrison. Santana and Strasburg will go on our two-man DL to be replaced by a free agent starter and another set-up man.
My American League info will be of less use to you because in this one we do not start annually from scratch. There are keepers – up to six of them – and not everybody has the same idea what they are for (I kept an underpriced Nick Swisher at $12 and five guys at a buck apiece; a dear friend of mine kept Mauer and Teixeira – at $42 apiece). But I do have some useful info, most of it pertaining to the wonders that hitting coach Kevin Seitzer appears to be working for Kansas City. Kila Ka’aihue is powdering the ball and will push Billy Butler to DH. Melky Cabrera has lost weight and regained bat speed. And the Siren’s Call is being heard again: “Alex Gordon! Al Exxxxxx Gorrrrr Dun!” Line drives are flying off his bat and witnesses say he perfected first his new swing and then his new timing mechanisms. In any mixed league you should be able to get these guys very cheap, and probably only in an AL-only league is Ka’ahuie on the radar.
Also: fear of injury just doesn’t seem to register. Kendrys Morales went for $25 in our league, even though a likelier estimate of his contribution this year is about $18. Francisco Liriano still got a $21 pricetag, and in one of the more mystifying results, David Aardsma, who a year ago went healthy at $9, went this year, injured, for $12.
My team will indicate who I expect to flower in the AL this season. The freezes were Swisher, J.P. Arencibia, Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Lewis, Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson. More relevantly, these are the new purchases: (SP) Haren $26, G. Gonzalez $9 (most reports from Arizona agreed: Most Improved Pitcher this spring), Pineda $2, Matsuzaka $1 (I think he will do very well this year; he seems to be really listening to the new pitching coach Curt Young), Niemann $1. (RP – again, holds count): C. Perez $15, Jenks $3, Farnsworth $1. (C) Napoli $12. (IF) A. Gonzalez $38, A. Rodriguez $38, Nishioka $15 (this is a rookie of the year candidate), Hardy $5 (another bounce back year – he was described to me as “the 2007 J.J.”), C. Guillen $2, Dan Johnson $2. (OF) Crawford $40, Raburn $15, Ordonez $7, Gordon $6, Cabrera $2.
The only other insight I have from the AL is the Rays’ bullpen. It is unlikely that Joe Maddon will make Jake McGee his closer early or maybe at all – too valuable as a lefty specialist. Like dozens before him, he will give Farnsworth a try. If you don’t have to invest too much in him, you can, too. The real story of the spring has been how good the much traveled Juan Cruz has looked, though he’s more likely to wind up as the 8th inning man.
Final point: drafting has its rewards and I’m not going to call anybody who prefers it names, but if you want to be tested and challenged, once you go Auction, you’ll never go back. There is a palpable energy curve during the thing and a tremendous sense of fairness – you never get stuck with the 10th pick and thus miss on the best (and your favorite) nine players. If you didn’t get Pujols, you have nobody to blame (or commend) but yourself.
But it is essential that you price every player and stick – within reason – to individual price. It is also necessary to push players – the ones you want and the ones you don’t – up to within at least a couple of bucks of where you’ve priced them. And until you’ve nominated about 10-12 guys do not nominate a player you actually want. It is your job to get as much money off the table as possible. Are there guys in your league who are more loyal to their real-life team than the one they’re putting together? Bleed them. Make sure Aubrey Huff goes for more than he could be possibly worth, and make sure you shove those ailing stars out there as early as you can (I not only nominated Utley, I also nominated Brian Wilson). Eventually the madcap money will vanish – all at once you will look up and realize you can’t afford to pay more than $6 for anybody (and neither can anybody else) and the second half of the draft will be filled with a mix of bargains and desperation. It is essential to be able to stock 15 roster spots with $75 or less and be happy with the outcome.
In both leagues we play ESPN’s version and its auction function is pretty darn good. But a glitch seems to have developed this year that cost one owner in each league dearly – irreparably, in fact. If you let the computer literally do your bidding for you, unless you go in and set your own personalized values for each player, the program will bid conservatively – often stopping five or six bucks shy of the “official” ESPN value of a player – on some sort of computer-logic premise that it can spend your money much more efficiently later. This left our owner who couldn’t attend the auction with no fewer than 18 $1 players and $192 in unspent auction money that doesn’t even buy him a discount on ESPN The Magazine. Even last year’s second-place guy who did put in his own values still got screwed. He came home with Ryan Howard, Wright, Tulo, Lincecum, Cain, and ten $1 pitchers. So if you want the highest form of Fantasy Baseball fun, go with the auction. And if you want to survive the auction, do not do it on auto-pilot.
Besides which, why would you want to? As one of our more astute owners said today, counting holidays and his exciting film and tv career and, I assume, even his exciting dating life, this is the happiest day of his year.
If you have a fantasy league team – or just like to play Closer Roulette – there is nothing more perversely fascinating than to watch an actual big league club suddenly go to Bullpen Plan B, or even Plans C and D, seven weeks into the season.