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An Interview With Jesse Spector

Over the past couple of months we've interviewed some of the brightest baseball writers and executives around, but have yet to speak with someone who writes exclusively for a newspaper.  That changes today.  Please join me in welcoming to the site Jesse Spector of the New York Daily News.  Jesse was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the Rays present and future as well as the future of newspapers and the joys of spring training. 


Erik: What do you think will happen with the Carl Crawford situation this season?

Jesse: I think he'll play out the contract and become a free agent, as it doesn't make sense for the Rays to trade him now when he's a big part of their plans to contend for 2010, and it doesn't make sense for him to sign an extension without testing the market.

There are, of course, ways that the situation could change. If the Rays are hopelessly behind in July, they should be able to do with Crawford what the A's did with Matt Holliday last year, and get a nice haul of prospects. And that's what they should do, painful as it would be, because next year's free agent class is so deep, there's no guarantee that the compensation pick would be a first-rounder (in addition to the guaranteed sandwich pick).

The other thing that could happen, and it's something that I'm just thinking off the top of my head and haven't seen reported anywhere, is a one-year extension. It makes sense for the Rays because it gives them another year of Crawford, obviously, and it could make sense for Crawford based on the market -- look at what's going on with Jason Bay now, though I do think Crawford at 29 will be far more desirable to more teams. Or, if he wants to stay in Tampa, just take the arbitration that the Rays are sure to offer.

Ultimately, though, I think that it's the simplest and most likely scenario: Play it out, be happy if you're the Rays to have had these two reasonably-priced option years, then move on.

E.H: Last season the Rays' bullpen, especially in the late innings, left a lot to be desired at times.  Obviously the acquisition of Rafael Soriano will help that, but how much?

J.S: I think it helps a lot, even though Soriano isn't the world's best closer. There's now more certainty in roles in the Rays' bullpen, and it's easier to get away with a committee of eighth-inning guys than it is in the ninth. I know that the numbers say that it doesn't matter, that the outs are the same, but what the numbers don't tell you is the media scrutiny that comes with the committee. And other relievers can be more comfortable with a better sense of their roles -- look at how much more effective several guys were when Percival was around, regardless of how Percival pitched.

Most of all, I'm impressed with the way the Rays went about filling this spot -- they turned Akinori Iwamura, a fine player, but a guy rendered expendable by Ben Zobrist, into a legitimate closer. That's one of the top under-the-radar upgrades of the winter.

E.H: How soon do you foresee Rays' top prospect Desmond Jennings in the teams' lineup?  And at what position?

J.S: If Evan Longoria wasn't part of the Rays on Opening Day two years ago, Jennings isn't going to be part of the Rays on Opening Day this year, no matter how good a spring he has.

I've never seen Jennings play, but looking at his numbers (and I follow him every day during the season with Baseball America's prospect e-mails), the thing that impresses me most is the walk rate for a speed guy. That takes a lot of guys a long time to learn -- look at Chone Figgins, who just recently has put it together to really warrant that contract with the Mariners.

I'd expect to see Jennings in left field against tough lefthanded pitchers sometime after the All-Star break, to give the Rays a chance to see how he can handle the position at the big league level in the event that Crawford leaves. If things go badly with B.J. Upton again, all bets are off.

E.H: This is an organization of great pitching depth.  The team recently sent Mitch Talbot to Cleveland to complete the Kelly Shoppach trade, and Talbot would be in the starting rotation of most other teams. With Jeremy Hellickson quickly rising through the Rays' system, it appears the team will again be able to deal from a position of strength.  The question is, when do you see the Rays making room for Hellickson, and at whose expense?

J.S: I'm really someone who does more work on analyzing after the moves are made, so these questions about the future continue to give me a great opportunity to make myself look stupid, as I have no sources deep within the Rays' organization, and no real hints about what they're thinking.

That said, I'm going to go out on a major limb and guess that Hellickson's arrival could come at the expense of Matt Garza. He's going into his first year of arbitration now, so he'll be incredibly attractive to prospect-rich teams looking for a relatively cheap pitcher for a few years to come. Meanwhile, his walk rate has crept up, as has his home run rate, and his solid BABIP looks to me to be as much a product of the Rays' good defense as anything. And the success that Garza had with his fastball in 2008 may have been an aberration -- the Rays can seriously fleece a team if they trade him, and that's what they have to do to be successful long term.

Either I've made a case and gotten you thinking about that, or you're laughing at me. If it's the latter, let's just say Andy Sonnanstine is most likely to lose his job to Hellickson. But that's dull.

E.H: You work for the NY Daily News, and obviously the newspaper business has taken a big hit over the past year.  With so much excellent coverage popping up on the internet seemingly on a daily basis, do you think newspapers as a whole will be able to compete with sites like FanGraphs, Beyond the Boxscore, The Hardball Times, etc
over the next five years?

J.S: So long as newspapers (and their concurrent websites) can continue to provide fresh and relevant content, we don't have to worry about competing with sites like FanGraphs, BtB, THT and the like, for one simple reason: those sites are engineered for people like you and me, who can't read enough about baseball. There's room enough on the Internet for all of us, and the more the merrier, because we can't read enough about baseball. I'm dreading the next couple of days of Christmas break, because there's not going to be a lot of baseball to read about. I will be quite bored, though I suppose I can catch up on some stuff that I've missed.

But I think if newspapers want to keep eyeballs, and lure more, I think they'll be well-served to have more baseball-intensive content, because the market is there, as evidenced by these other sites. What I do at the Daily News (and my blog is just extra work that I do because I love it -- my 40-hour-a-week gig is copy editing, writing headlines and captions) is not common in newspapers, because newspapers can't afford to hire people to do stuff like this. Yes, the majority of people who are clicking on our website are doing so to read about the Yankees or Mets, but when I analyze a move by the Rays, it still carries the "oomph" of being from the Daily News, and when someone on another blog links to a story that says "Daily News writer says Rays make great move," that brings people in.

That is a long-winded way of saying we can all get along. If I thought of you as a competitor, I wouldn't be doing this right now. I think we all feed into each other, and the more eyes that see quality reporting, writing and analysis, the better for everyone. For more and more people, the first source of information is becoming social networks, or aggregators, and I believe that the continuing conversations in those media between information providers will drive content in a meaningful way. Really, I wouldn't be on Twitter if I didn't believe that.

E.H: Being one of a very small group of newspaper writers who actually encorporates more advanced statistics into your work, how much do you think those writers who shy away from the advanced stats could learn by broadening their horizons?

I think it's important to remember that not every reader is comfortable with advanced metrics, and if you're writing for a newspaper, you've got to include statistics that casual fans will be able to identify with -- the newspaper has a responsibility to its entire readership, not just the baseball fan. I think that's an area where the secondary and tertiary stories of the day can really benefit, though; the casual fan is not going to be as interested in these stories as they will the main and the column, so why not get some more seamhead-type stuff in there?

But the writers have to be comfortable with it, as well. Just as I was really playing guessing games with your questions about what the Rays will do, and when we might see some of their prospects, I doubt Bill Madden, who deservingly will go into the Hall of Fame this summer, would be the guy you'd turn to if you wanted to talk about WAR. That's not his game, just as getting the inside scoop and breaking news on trades isn't my game.

E.H:  If Bud Selig was Santa Claus for a day, what is the one thing the Rays Front Office would have asked for this Christmas?

J.S: Obviously, a salary cap would be huge, but that's not something Buddy Claus has the power to take care of on his own -- there's a Heat Miser/Snow Miser situation going on there with the union. I'd ask for the return of the balanced schedule. It would mean more road trips to distant locales, but I don't see how it's fair to have an AL East team play 18 or 19 games against at least two of three of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays (all three, if you're the Blue Jays or Orioles) and try to compete for a wild-card spot with the teams from the other divisions, who are playing far weaker schedules.

E.H:  Spring Training is coming up pretty quickly.  You've been to nearly all of the Spring Training sites in baseball; Which is your favorite in Florida and why?

J.S: First of all, since you're a Rays guy, it's important to note that I loved Al Lang Field, the first stop I ever made on a spring training trip, and I've never been to Port Charlotte. For me, criteria for a favorite is probably different than it is for a fan -- since I'm going to spring training on a limited schedule, trying to talk to as many people from as many different teams as possible, I'm looking for a place where both the home and visiting clubhouses are accessible, and the players don't have a million different nooks and crannies to hide. That's why Arizona is tough, and that's why I'm not a huge fan of the Phillies' new place in Clearwater, sparkling and fan-friendly though it may be.

Dunedin might be my favorite if it weren't for the nightmarish parking situation (I love the occasional fog that rolls in there during morning workouts, though I imagine the players hate it). And I can't really go with Disney, because part of the fun of spring training is going to a small town where baseball is in the air -- that's why Vero Beach and Dodgertown were so great. And for that reason, I'm going with Lakeland. It's an easy drive from Tampa, allowing me to stop there either on my way to a night game at Disney or to catch the end of an afternoon game after seeing someone else in the morning. The clubhouses are about 10 feet away from one another, making my job easier to talk to two teams' worth of players. The Tigers have been there for forever, and done a better job of maintaining the facility than many other teams, and the people are phenomenal. I've never been disappointed by a trip to Lakeland, which is more than I can say for almost everywhere else I've been in Florida.

Thanks again to Jesse for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with us.  You can check out his blog, Touching Base, for indepth analysis of every major transaction this winter.  Please also follow him on Twitter @jessespector.