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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Winter Meetings Coming and Goings

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Perfect Game
DALLAS—This city is serving as the host site for the 2011 Winter Meetings. That hits home for me because Dallas is where I attended my first baseball meetings back in 1980.

Same city, same hotel, although the Hilton Anatole was known then as the Loews Anatole.

The Winter Meetings have been staged in the same Dallas location six times in the last 31 years because the sprawling Anatole is one of the few hotels large enough to host baseball’s annual winter retreat, which attracts some 4,000 attendees, including front-office personnel at both the major- and minor-league levels, the national media, hundreds of job seekers and other assorted baseball folk.

I attended the Winter Meetings in 1980 as my first official function after making the decision that fall to launch Baseball America. My primary purpose in coming to Dallas was to meet with baseball officials at all levels, recruit a handful of writers/correspondents and generally spread the gospel that a new baseball publication devoted almost exclusively to the game at the grassroots level was in the works. Less than three months later, the first issue of Baseball America was launched.

Though I am no longer associated with the publication, and haven’t been for more than five years, Baseball America continues to flourish and be an influential voice in all areas of the game—and BA predictably remains a very visible presence at this year’s gathering of baseball people.

I’m here at the Meetings this year with four other members of the Perfect Game staff and our primary mission has been to spread the PG gospel to the baseball masses, especially with a new baseball complex in Emerson, Ga., in the works and scheduled to become a reality in the spring of 2013.

With 16 fully-turfed, fully-lighted baseball fields at PG’s disposal for 12 months of the year, along with plans for multiple soccer, lacrosse and softball fields, the new sports complex will be the biggest of its kind in the U.S., and we’ve been challenged to make everyone in Dallas aware of a new baseball facility that will change the face of Perfect Game going forward.

The complex, based just northwest of Atlanta, also has the potential to reshape the game at the grassroots level—much like I envisioned in Dallas in 1980 when Baseball America was in the process of getting off the ground.

Pujols Watch

The Winter Meetings have been synonymous through the years with big trades and major free agent signings. But those types of player transactions have been few and far between this week.

The re-energized and newly-renamed Miami Marlins have been the biggest mover and shaker to date, signing free agents Heath Bell, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. But first baseman Albert Pujols, the biggest free-agent prize in this year’s class, eluded the Marlins grasp and initially appeared as though he was headed back to St. Louis, the club that most observers felt he would re-sign with all along. But the Cardinals, who reportedly had a 10-year deal worth $220 million on the table, were also unable to sign Pujols, as the Los Angeles Angels made a strong, late push and blew Pujols away with a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $250-260 million.

Though the slugger, as well as lefthander C.J. Wilson (who also signed with the Angels), may have eluded the Marlins, it wasn't because of a lack of trying on that team’s part.

With projected revenues from a brand-new stadium in the heart of Miami expected to give the Marlins a major shot in the arm, beginning in 2012, the team was in position at these Meetings to open up the coffers to sign a number of attractive free agents and also tender Pujols a reported 10-year, $220 million offer, though it appears to have the desired effect, in the Pujols camp, at least, of simply leveraging his deal with other teams.

Now that Pujols is in the fold, most of the other major dominoes in this year’s free-agent field will be expected to quickly fall into place, notably first baseman Prince Fielder.

All the Marlins wheeling and dealing at these Meetings has been met with skepticism by much of the assembled masses, who remember that this team has been down this same path twice before. It led to World Series victories for the ramped-up Marlins in 1997 and 2003 (both times as wild-card teams in the only years the franchise has ever been to the post-season), only for the team to quickly dismantle those rosters when they couldn’t afford to retain the assembled talent over the long haul.

In the last decade, the Marlins have consistently been in the bottom three of major league teams in overall attendance, and it remains to be seen whether an apathetic south Florida will finally embrace this team, especially with a lavish new stadium.

New CBA Provides Positive Spin

Even with little action on the trade and free agent front, the Meetings have been relatively upbeat, stemming in large measure from the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement that has insured labor peace in the game for at least the next five years.

In past meetings, there has often been an air of tension hovering over the proceedings—both from pending negotiations involving owners and players, and even the major leagues and minor leagues. None of that bad blood is evident this year, and there’s little complaining from the assembled media of some 300-400 about the lack of headline-grabbing trade action.

No tangible document exists yet that spells out all the terms of the new CBA, but it has been established that the Houston Astros are moving from the National to American League, making for two 15-team leagues, and that there will be daily interleague play along with an expanded playoff format to include one more wild-card team in each league. There are even provisions in the agreement for HGH testing.

But the most-intriguing, and potentially most-important component of the CBA, almost everyone agrees, centers on the most-radical transformation to the first-year player draft that we’ve seen in any year since the draft was implemented at the 1964 Winter Meetings, effective with the 1965 season.

We’ve already spelled out various changes like the bonus limits that each club can spend collectively on all its draft picks and international signings, and the change in the signing deadline from Aug. 15 to mid-July.

Beginning in 2012, teams will be allotted a fixed amount that they can spend on all their draft picks in the first 10 rounds, with the threat of a significant fine or loss of premium draft picks if they exceed that amount.

There’s no hard slot on any individual pick, though, and if a team doesn’t spend to the recommended slot on any of its individual picks in the first 10 rounds, it can apply the shortage to other draft picks in the first 10 rounds.

For instance, it is known that the Houston Astros, who will have the first pick in 2012, have been allotted $7.2 million to sign that selection. On the chance the Astros end up signing the pick below slot, for say $5 million, they would have an additional $2.2 million to spend on picks elsewhere in the first 10 rounds (over and above the slot for that pick) without being penalized.

It is anticipated that the 30 teams will have roughly $185 million to spend on draft picks in the first 10 rounds, not including compensation-round selections (for both major-league free agents signing with other clubs and unsigned picks in the first three rounds in the previous year’s draft) and for lottery selections (to six of the 10 smallest-revenue or smallest-market teams).

The signing deadline itself will range from July 12 to July 18 with the actual date selected so that it doesn’t compete with the major league all-star game or fall on a Saturday or Sunday. The signing deadline for 2012 will be July 13, a Friday.

There are a number of additional, more-subtle changes to the draft that we’ve managed to uncover at the meetings, some of which haven’t been totally spelled out yet in black and white. Among some of the draft provisions that weren’t evident once the agreement was announced a couple of weeks ago:

--the draft has been reduced from 50 rounds to 40
--if a team fails to sign a draft pick in the first 10 rounds, it cannot allocate the slot amount for that pick to other selections. The team’s draft cap is simply reduced by the assigned value of that pick.
--teams have been given a universal cap limit of $2.9 million to sign all international talent in 2012. Beginning in 2013, the weakest teams from the previous season will have a larger budget than the stronger clubs. By 2014, there is a significant chance that a full-blown international draft will be in place.

Scout of the Year

From a pure baseball standpoint, the best event of the Winter Meetings is the annual Scout of the Year reception, which was held Wednesday night. For the 27th year, three scouts with at least 25 years in the profession were recognized.

This year’s honorees were Mel Didier, who began scouting in 1953, has worked for several clubs in various capacities through the years and is currently a senior advisor for player development and scouting for the Blue Jays; Bob Engle, former scouting director of the Blue Jays and currently the vice president of international operations for the Mariners; and Mike Radcliff, long-time scouting director of the Minnesota Twins and currently that club’s vice-president of player personnel.

The event attracted some 400-500 people, almost all with scouting or front-office connections.

Great Choice as Spink Winner

From a personal standpoint, the best piece of good news at these Winter Meetings occurred Monday when fellow Canadian Bob Elliott was named winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, given annually to an influential member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

This year’s winner hit a little close to home as Bob is a close personal friend, and as such is the first-ever Canadian recipient of the award. He will be formally honored during Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown in July.

Bob’s influence on the game extends well beyond his years of distinguished service covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun. He has been very instrumental in promoting baseball in Canada at all levels through the years and was properly recognized in his homeland last summer by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as winner of the Jack Graney Award, Canada’s equivalent of the Spink Award.

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