Two years ago Umpbump interviewed Paul Hagen, who covers the Phillies for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Now he’s back for more. I recently chatted with Hagen over email about the Phillies’ World Series victory, the team’s offseason moves and the Hall of Fame. Here’s what he had to say.
Coley Ward: OK then, let’s start with the Phillies. They won the World Series! As somebody who’s covered the team for a long time, what was it like watching them win a championship? Were you able to celebrate like a fan, or did you have to keep your journalist’s cap on?
Paul Hagen: Because the final “game” lasted only 2 1/2 innings, there was time between the first deadline and the final deadline to spend a little time downstairs. That made it different. And it was fun to see the way the fans reacted, how happy everybody was. But there was still the usual pressure to get something, get it done, do it well.
After that, honestly, I just felt kind of numb. It had been a long road in the postseason, working every day for three weeks or a month or whatever it was. Covering games and writing special section stuff and offday stories. And then, just like that, it was over. I remember walking out of the stadium. There was a postgame party in the tent. There were people in the streets. I thought about going to join one of the other, but I just felt kind of detached. So I drove home. I stopped at a little bar close to my house and had a couple beers. Then the bar closed and I went home and went to sleep. It wasn’t a matter of “being able” to celebrate. I really was very content just to go home and leave that to everybody else.
Ward: Let’s talk about the future. The Phillies have spent a lot of money this offseason signing Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard to deals that buy up arbitration years, but not any free-agent years. These deals offer the Phillies some cost certainty, but could backfire if either Hamels or Howard gets hurt or doesn’t perform well. What do you think of the decision to sign these two stars through their arbitration years?
Hagen: The Phillies have had a difficult time shedding their reputation for being cheap. If these offseason signings, plus Raul Ibanez and the other people who are already tied up (Rollins, Utley) doesn’t change that, nothing will.
Obviously, there’s always a risk when a team signs a player to a longterm deal. And the team always assumes most of the risk. That’s why Howard was, eventually, willing to potentially leave some dollars on the table in exchange for the security.
The risk in Howard is that, except for home runs and RBI, his numbers have declined steadily since he won the MVP in 2006. His batting average and OPS are both down sharply and he’s struck out 199 times each of the last two years. With Hamels, it’s injury. Last year was his first full professional season when he wasn’t hurt in some way.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think you can be afraid and succeed. Not every move you make is going to work. So you have to shake it off and when things don’t go the way you’d hoped and keep moving forward. And, if you win, people will overlook that you gave Adam Eaton $24.5 million for three years.
Ward: I agree that there’s always a risk when signing a player to a longterm deal. And I agree that Howard’s numbers have been down the last two years and that, at 29 years old, we may already have seen his best baseball. I’d also point out that while Hamels was healthy last year, he increased his workload over 2007 by 73 innings and that means he’s at even greater risk of injury in 2009. My question is, knowing all that, why would you sign these guys to contracts that don’t buy up any free agent years? Hamels and Howard were going to be in Philly through their arbitration years. That hasn’t changed. So why do it? Sure, the Phillies may end up saving a little money in the long run. But they could just as easily end up spending more money than they otherwise might if they went year to year with these guys. You say “you can’t be afraid and succeed” and I agree. But I think you mean you can’t be afraid to spend money, and I think you can’t be afraid of a little cost uncertainty, or of people thinking that you’re cheap.
While we’re playing GM, let’s talk about Raul Ibanez. This guy doesn’t appear to be any better than Pat Burrell, and yet the Phillies are paying him $30MM over three years while Burrell settled for two years and $16MM from Tampa. Did the Phillies misread the market here? Or do they really think Ibanez is that much better than Burrell? And is there any chance the 36-year-old Ibanez will still be worth $10MM a year in the third year of his contract?
Hagen: I’m not sure I follow your logic. First you seem to suggest that they shouldn’t have guaranteed Howard three years. Then, if I’m following you, you said they should have given him even more years to buy out some free agency. You also question giving Hamels three years then again insinuate they should have also bought out some free agent years.
In the case of Howard, it seems like a clear case of compromise. The rumor was that he wanted something like $200 million over seven or eight years. So this is somwhere in the middle.
And the Phillies have a policy of not signing pitchers for more than three years. So they’ve rewarded Hamels without setting a precedent. As for Ibanez, I belive the thinking was that they were replacing Burrell with an outfielder who was more consistent and somewhat more athletic. Burrell’s final numbers were decent but even by power hitter standards, he was incredibly streaky. And they don’t plan to take Ibanez out for a defensive replacement or a pinch-runner in the late innings.
The biggest concern, really, is that with Utley and Howard, it makes the middle of the order extremely lefthanded.
I think they believe, rightly or wrongly, that Ibanez can still be productive in 2011.
Ward: Here’s what happened, as I understand it:
Howard: I want $200MM over eight years.
Phillies: But you’re really not that good. You’re true value in 2008 was $15MM, and that was 10th among first baseman. Moreover, your true value has decreased every year for the past three years. You’re 29 years old and you may have already passed your prime.
Howard: Aha! But the arbitration process thinks I’m awesome! It doesn’t care if I can’t field or run the bases!
Phillies: You got us there, Ryan. But still, the arbitration process usually pays out at a 40/60/80 rate and based on that you should earn about $27MM over the next three years.
Howard: Well I want more than that. I want $54MM. And if I don’t get it I’m gonna be totally bummed.
Phillies: Well that’s not a very compelling argument, but we’re going to give you the money anyways, because we’re nice guys.
OK, maybe that’s not exactly how it went down. But it seems a little crazy that in a summer where the market value of one-dimensional sluggers is at an all time low, the Phillies are overpaying for a guy with seemingly declining skills.
As for Hamels, you mentioned that the Phillies were able to reward him without signing him to a contract longer than 3 years. But why do they care about rewarding him? Hamels will get rewarded when he gets to free agency. In the meantime, the Phillies should pay him as little as possible. That’s the way the system works. Overpaying a guy on purpose is just stupid.
Then there’s Ibanez. Bobby Abreu gets one year and $5MM. Adam Dunn gets two years and $20MM. Raul Ibanez gets three years and $30MM? And we gave up a draft pick to get this guy? Seriously? The Phillies may plan to leave Ibanez in late in games, but that doesn’t mean he’s any good defensively. In fact, over the last three seasons he’s cost his team an average of about 13 runs a season with his bad defense. Burrell cost the Phillies an average of about 11 runs per season.
Paul, so far you’ve told me what you think the Phillies were thinking. But I want to know your opinion of the Phillies’ offseason. Are you in favor of these moves? I’m a huge Phillies fan. I’m a proud owner of the Phillies 2008 DVD set. But I gotta say I think they’ve had a pretty terrible offseason. Not sign-Barry-Zito terrible, but bad.
Hagen: Obviously, I don’t have the same problem with it that you do. On Howard, you’re proceeding on the assumption that his best days are behind him. I disagree. I think he should have at least three more productive years in him if — and I’ll grant that it’s a big if — all you care about is home runs and RBI. I mean, take the money out of the equation and who’s going to do what he does for you?
As for Hamels, you’re right in that they weren’t obligated to reward him with a three-year deal. But, again, they made the calculation that they think he’s going to be really good and that they’ll end of saving money. Yes, there’s a risk involved because he might get hurt. But there’s also a risk that he pitches really well and it costs you more. Think about it: Do you really want to send him out there hoping he’s only mediocre so you don’t have to pay him as much next year?
If I were a fan, I would want the team to do whatever it could to try to win. I don’t think I’d really care about the money. I just don’t get why you think they had such a bad offseason.
Ward: OK, let’s switch gears. You’re a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the group that decides which former players are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Will you tell us who you voted for in the most recent election and why?
Hagen: I voted for Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice, Lee Smith and Andre Dawson. I think the vote for Henderson is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t spend a lot of time on that one. I have voted for Jim Rice for several years, so this wasn’t just because it was his last year of eligibility. I was covering the Texas Rangers for much his heyday with the Red Sox and he fits the qualification that I think is most important to determining a Hall of Famer: he was one of the most dominant players in his era.
While some of his raw power numbers aren’t impressive by Steroids Era standards, he played in a different time. I think his blend of power (382 homers) and eye (.352 on bas percentage) is impressive. I’m glad he finally made it.I voted for Andre Dawson for much the same reason I supported Rice, adding in the fact that before his knees went, he was an excellent baserunner and defensive player as well. I think the Hall of Fame has been a little slow recognizing the accomplishments of closers. And I think the old-time guys, who didn’t always just come in for three outs, are more impressive than the modern, more specialized closer.
The second part of your question concerned A-Rod and the Hall of Fame. Honestly, this is becoming a tiresome question between A-Rod, McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Palmeiro, etc. But I can tell you this much. I have not, to this point, voted for McGwire. I think it will get more complicated in coming years. And I think it’s become pretty clear that for a certain period of time, almost every player used some sort of performance-enhancing substance, or at least thought about it. Since there is no test for HGH and since we have learned that the designer steroids tend to be ahead of the testing curve, I don’t think we can ever say for sure again that players aren’t using something.
So. . .the choice almost becomes ignoring the possibility – maybe even probability – that the top players have at least experimented with some sort of PED and continue to vote for the best players of the era. Or not vote for anybody at all. And I honestly haven’t come up with an answer to that that makes me comfortable yet.
Ward: No vote for Tim Raines? How come? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Raines was the second greatest leadoff hitter of all time. He had a .385 on base percentage. His 808 stolen bases was 4th all time in the modern era behind only Henderson, Brock, and Ty Cobb. And he had the highest stolen base percentage in baseball history at 84.7%. Aren’t those Hall of Fame credentials?
PH: I realize that not everybody agrees with me on this, but. . . technically, a voter is allowed to cast ballots for up to 10 candidates per year. Personally, I believe that’s too many. I think baseball’s Hall of Fame should be difficult to get into, that the bar should be high. So I almost always try to limit myself to voting for no more than four former players, prioritizing those I think are most worthy.
I recognize that this opens the door to questions like, “How can a player not be considered worthy of the Hall of Fame one year and then be on your ballot in a subsequent year?” But that’s the way I feel.