An Interview With Jonah Keri

In continuing our series of interviews with people in and around the game of baseball we're joined by friend of the site and sports writing vagabond extraordinaire, Jonah Keri.  We talk about Crawford, Bradley, instant replay, the financial state of the game, and two young LOOGYS on the rise.  Enjoy.

 

EH:  Lets kick this off with the $64,000 question. Crawford and the Rays, what happens?

JK:  Depends on how the Rays fare in 2010, I imagine. If they fall out of the race early, I can't imagine Crawford's not traded. If they're in it, oddly, that might be the time to push for a possible contract extension.

Figure the order of most to least desirable outcomes goes like this:
Rays contend all year, re-sign Crawford at a discount.
Rays fall out of contention, trade him for a package like Kazmir's or better, with a mix of 0-to-3 guys and prospects.
Rays let Crawford walk, collect compensatory draft picks - DRaysBay has done a good job of noting that picks are no sure thing (i.e. you might not sign the guy) and that they're not cheap.

I doubt they trade him this off-season.

EH:  Crawford is obviously the hot button issue of the winter, but asTommy brought up last week, Carlos Pena is another name who could be moved before the end of next season.  How do you see the first base situation shaking out?

JK:  Every Rays fan loves Los, between his great production and his winning personality. But it's hard not to love, say, Los fetching a B+ prospect and a power RP with 0-to-3 years of service time. If they can land a deal like that, then turn around and sign, say, Russell Branyan or Nick Johnson to a short-term deal for less money, that has to considered. If I had to guess, though, I'd say the Rays keep Crawford and Pena and Bartlett for now, even though an argument could be made to trade any one of them. You can't overstate how much that Kazmir trade helped the budget.

EH:  Jayson Stark recently wrote an article proposing that MLB implement a minimum salary threshold where a team would tax 20% for every dollar they were under it after the first year.  What are your thoughts on this idea?  Could something like that realistically work?

JK:  Words cannot express how much I dislike a salary floor idea. So what, the Rays would have to sign Russ Springer to a five-year extension now to get over the minimum threshold? If MLB is so concerned about owners who pocket revenue sharing proceeds instead of reinvesting in the team (cough Jeffrey Loria), they should do a better job of vetting ownership candidates. You think Mark Cuban would run a $25 million payroll every year if he took over a team, even a small-market team? No chance.

Beyond that, the smartest revenue sharing recipients would do well to funnel those funds into areas like scouting, drafting and player development, since the most valuable assets a major league can have are star players younger than free agency age (and ideally pre-arbitration). It's no surprise that the #1 player on Dave Cameron's MLB Trade Value scale was Evan Longoria, given his combination of talent and contract status.

EH:  Stark goes on to say this would be the first step in "fixing a broken system."  Yes, some teams spend far more/far less than others, but baseball has been thriving over the last 15 years and has had more different champions than any other major sport in that time period. Is the system really broken?

JK:  The system is not broken. You've got five other divisions especially where anything can happen and any team can make the playoffs in a given year, with a reasonable amount of smarts, luck and talent.

If you want to argue that the system is broken, or that the deck is horribly stacked against anyone, you can make that case for the Jays, Orioles and Rays. Though bad geographical luck, those three teams face the toughest challenge of any teams in the major U.S. team sports, going up against the two wealthiest teams in the sport, especially now that the Yankees and Red Sox have the right people running those franchises too. I talk about this at length in the book. The Jays, for instance, might've won one or more division titles under J.P. Ricciardi if they played in a different division. But largely because they play in the AL East (while granting that Ricciardi made some ill-fated moves too, of course), the Jays now have a new GM, and they're trying to reinvent themselves for, what, the third time in a decade?

EH:  There was more news this past week about the Rays and their stadium issues.  The ABC Coalition came to the conclusion that "if the current stadium isn't replaced in a timely fashion, the Tampa Bay area could lose Major League Baseball."  I'd say most of us here at DRB do not have a problem with Tropicana Field.  You've been to the stadium and have gotten more familiar with the situation over the past year, where do you stand on this issue?

JK:  Well first of all I grew up going to games at Olympic Stadium, so I'm comfortable with a dome environment. There needs to be some acknowledgment of weather here too: The Rays could certainly benefit from a new ballpark, but if they try to build an outdoor facility, that won't end well. Who wants to sit in a stadium with 95-degree weather and 95% humidity half the season - and rain the other half?

Beyond that, the whole stadium saga has been fascinating. I went way back in time in my research, to when the City of St. Petersburg was contemplating building a stadium on spec, in hopes of landing a baseball team. On spec! Can you imagine spending $500 million in today's economy to do that? (Actually they're thinking about spending something like $800 million to do this for an L.A. football team, but no one ever accused California of being a fiscally sound state.) Anyway, there's an amazing history here in terms of everything that happened just to get the Trop built - I highly recommend reading Bob Andelman's book on the subject, "Stadium For Rent".  From the looks of things, I imagine the fight won't be any less dramatic this time. And yes, if they don't get a new park -- unless they start a dynasty where they reel off three or four World Series in a row or something -- they will almost certainly need a new park to survive in the Tampa Bay area.

EH:  Your friend Rob Neyer has advocated giving the RF job to Desmond Jennings and platooning Matt Joyce at DH with Pat Burrell.  I doubt the Rays will go that route- the team will likely supress Jennings' arb. clock as much as possible- but it's an interesting thought. Would that be a better option than leaving Burrell at DH and platooning Joyce with Gabe Kapler in RF?

JK:  Well, you allude to Plan C in your next question, which is going out and acquiring Milton Bradley (or generally going a non-Burrell route). Burrell was hurt for most of last season, and I have a hard time believing the gap between the NL and AL is THAT vast that it turned a very good hitter into Rafael Santana. I agree that keeping Jennings' service time clock in check makes sense, and I like the idea of a Joyce/Kapler platoon in right to start the season.

EH:  We've heard rumors this off-season about the Rays possibly dealing for Milton Bradley.  His past has been well documented, but do you think Bradley would be a good fit for the Rays, on and off the field?

JK:  Yes I do. I've been a Bradley fan since way back when he was a Vermont Expo. Even back then, he'd already earned a label as a great talent who was also fiery in his demeanor. Look, the guy's a fierce competitor, probably overcompetitive. But there's also no doubt in my mind that if he was pigmentally challenged, he wouldn't get nearly the bad rap that he does. Put him in the lineup, leave him be, and he'll be fine. If the Rays can resolve the contract situation, Bradley would be a great pickup. He's an absolute on-base machine without a major platoon issue, even in an off year.

EH:  You're a big proponent of baseball adopting more uses of instant replay, but that doesn't seem likely with Selig still in office. Realistically, how long do you think it will be until baseball joins the 21st century and uses the advances in technology to improve the quality of the game?

JK:  The next time I correctly predict what Bud Selig will do will be the first. I will say you have to look at this the way you would any piece of collective bargaining. I would guess that if Selig pushes for replay, that means he needs to make a concession to umpires. Same way you'd think that stricter drug testing would be a slam dunk, but it requires/required owners to make it palatable for players.

I will say this, though: It's just another in a long list of short-sighted (non-)decisions by the most overrated Commissioner of any major sport who's ever presided during my lifetime. When Bud Selig makes his Hall of Fame speech, I look forward to jeering him with chants of "1994", followed by me breaking down and weeping. Then throwing monkey feces at him.

EH:  If you were in charge of the Rays for one day, what changes would you make, roster or otherwise?

JK:  I don't presume to have a better grip on how to run the team than the current management team does. These guys are great at what they do. They usually get the big things right -- like the Garza trade -- and the little things right -- like trading for Ben Zobrist for pennies on the dollar. And that's the thing about good decision making. Do enough little things right, and just by sheer power of probabilities, one of them could turn into a big score, like finding an MVP candidate who plays 817 positions.

The only moves I can think of right now that would make sense within the framework of the team's revenue stream, talent base and likely payroll would be:

--Make a run at Billy Wagner.

--Make a run at Ryan Doumit.

--Consider the Roy Oswalt start-of-career path for guys like Jake McGee and maybe even Jeremy Hellickson. With guys like Crawford, Pena, Bartlett and Upton about to get expensive or hit free agency, there's a real window for 2010. I'd love to see some of the team's higher-level pitching prospects come in to help the bullpen before later shifting to the starting rotation. It's a great way to gain major league experience and help the team, while still knowing they'll be starters later on (certainly in Hellickson's case). Earl Weaver used to do this all the time. And really, did anyone ever have a better grip on how to run a roster than Earl Weaver?

EH:  You're a busy man, what is it that you're currently working on?

JK:  I'm hunkering down on the Rays book, plus raising two future millionaire LOOGYs.

--

As always, a big thanks to Jonah for joining us.  You can find Jonah's work at a myriad of publications ranging from The New York Times to Penthouse.  Check out his website here, and if you're not already (what's wrong with ya?) follow him on Twitter @jonahkeri

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