Earlier this spring, I was offered an opportunity to speak with Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan. Passan has been writing about baseball since 2004 and has written extensively about Ryan Braun's drug appeal and Biogenesis. Because Passan is a bit of a lightning rod among Brewers fans, I seized that opportunity, and on Wednesday we spoke about a wide range of topics. In part I, we discuss the recent Lohse signing, expanded instant replay, and the Hall of Fame's character clause. Look for part II next week, which will focus on the controversy surrounding Ryan Braun. I'd like to thank Jeff for his generous time and candor.
Nathan Petrashek: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me, Jeff. It was a pretty uneventful spring for the Brewers until this week. You've written that preying on desperation is an art. Does that fairly describe both the Brewers and Kyle Lohse in coming together on this deal?
Jeff Passan: I thought the Kyle Lohse deal was brilliant for the Brewers, because Lohse has made sense for them from the start. You can't go into a season with as many question marks in the rotation as the Brewers had and bank on them all working out. Whether it was Mark Rogers' velocity or something else, something was going to crop up. And when it did, the fact that Kyle Lohse was sitting there with a pretty ribbon on him just waiting for them was a stroke of luck. If anyone should be thanking the new collective bargaining agreement, it's the Brewers. They got themselves a good starter, and they needed him.
I'm not terribly bullish on the Brewers this year, but I like them a lot more after they signed Lohse. And if you look at the terms of the deal, they got him cheap. Very cheap. The present day value of the contract is about $10 million per year. You expect to pay $10 million for a number four starter in this market. Lohse is, or has been over the last couple years, a number two-level guy. So to get that was an absolute coup for them.
NP: It's true, Lohse has been a number two over the last couple years. You can debate whether you think that's going to stick or not; it certainly doesn't describe the preceding ten years of his career. Part of Lohse's cost, in addition to his salary, was the first-round draft pick the Brewers forfeited by signing him. That's why he lasted until late March. I think giving up that pick, and that draft money, makes sense if you expected that the Brewers were going to compete anyway, but this signing doesn't push them into a division win, probably not even a wild card, does it?
JP: I don't think so, but at the same time, prospecting is such a difficult thing to do. If you have a top ten pick, you should get a major league player out of that. Once you start getting past that, to the fifteen or twenty range, for every Mike Trout you find, there are an enormous number of busts. So, if you believe that you can reasonably get three years from a major league player at a discounted rate, then I can see why that's something Doug Melvin would want to do.
At the same time, the Brewers aren't necessarily ignoring their farm system, but they're taking this opposite tack from just about every other team in baseball. They don't seem to focus on their farm system as much as other teams. It's an interesting route to take, and it's a risky one. As the chasm between big-market, big-money ball clubs, and small-market, lesser-revenue clubs widens, all of a sudden you're going to need to have that cache of cheap guys to rely on so you can go out and get that free agent you want. I think the Brewers have actually done a good job of spending their money. The two Braun deals are good examples of that. They got one of the best hitters in the game at a fairly discounted rate.
NP: Mark Attanasio seems to be afraid of the word "rebuilding." He's trying to push that off as long as possible into the future, even though for a team like the Brewers it seems inevitable at some point. Buster Olney just wrote that the Brewers would pay a price for their aggressiveness, and the bill would be coming soon. Does the draft pick and money have an enhanced value for the Brewers, whose farm club isn't all that highly regarded, and who needs cost-controlled players to compete?
JP: Yeah, I think so. But look at the missed picks of the last couple years. Jed Bradley and Taylor Jungmann were both first-round college pitchers. When you have those picks, you can't whiff on them. The Brewers had a golden opportunity in that 2011 draft to reload, and they didn't do it. That, to me, is a much greater indictment than giving up a draft pick to pursue winning at the big league level. We'll see if that pursuit is ill-conceived. I have to give Doug Melvin credit, because he understands that winning today is important. At some point, he's going to go for that, and it's not going to work out, and it's going to get him fired, but at least he'll have tried.
Also, a rebuild isn't necessarily inevitable. Next year at some point, Yovani Gallardo may get traded, and you'll get a ton for him. Same with Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. The Brewers can rebuild that system fairly quickly with the pieces they have now, and it's just a matter of when they're going to pull the trigger. They don't have any untradable guys, including Kyle Lohse. He's an asset.
NP: I want to shift to some columns you've written recently, the first about instant replay. You're an advocate for "full replay." What does that consist of for you?
JP: Every single binary play should be reviewable. By "binary" I mean there are only two possible outcomes. Was it fair or was it foul? There's no in between. Did the ball hit the batter? Was a player safe or out? When you have the technology to be able to tell you what is true and what is not, it's incumbent upon you to use it and get the calls right. A lot of it comes down to old baseball men on Bud Selig's committee coming to grips with MLB's responsibility to get calls correct, because that should be the number one priority.
The big issue is pace of play. They hate the idea of losing the natural, inherent rhythm of a baseball game.
NP: Which is important for pitchers, too, and why I have concerns with bringing review to a micro level of looking at balls and strikes. Are you in favor of a system that can automate those calls?
JP: No. I know Keith Law loves the idea of robot umpires, but there is a point at which tradition matters. Home plate umpires do a very, very good job of calling balls and strikes, and technology helps them with that; they get graded on every game. Strike zones are never going to be the same from umpire to umpire, but at least if an umpire calls his zone consistently, then he's doing well enough. Now, there are some egregious calls sometimes on balls and strikes; we saw some in the World Baseball Classic, for example. But the vast majority of the time, the umpires behind the plate do a very good job.
The Hall of Fame and the Character Clause
NP: No one was elected to the Hall of Fame on the most recent ballot. In response, you wrote that the Hall of Fame's character clause should be eliminated, and players elected solely based on performance. That's the rub with PEDs though, isn't it? We can't parse out what's real and what's not from an artificially enhanced performance.
JP: That's true, and it's an issue. I talked to a very prominent All-Star outfielder who is indignant over the idea that he is probably not going to sniff the Hall of Fame, whereas other guys, who did use stuff, are probably going to make it. That's the part that I have a lot of trouble with, and I totally feel for him.
The problem is what we don't know. When you don't know something, it's very difficult to render a judgment on it. When it comes to baseball, we know what the numbers are. We know what the statistics are. We don't generally know what guys were and were not taking, unless they get caught. I get my Hall of Fame vote this year. I am going to think very long and very hard about it, because it's a huge responsibility. Anyone who has been to Cooperstown realizes that it's a pretty special place. It's the type of place that should have an accurate rendering of history. My issue with my colleagues who turn in blank ballots or refuse to acknowledge what happened is they're potentially refusing to acknowledge an entire era in baseball. I don't think that's what the Hall of Fame is there for. It should be there to acknowledge things good, bad, and ugly. If it was an ugly time in baseball, we can say that while still recognizing the best players of that time.
NP: As it relates to active players on Hall-of-Fame tracks, you've been a bit harsher. When the Biogenesis news broke, you called Alex Rodriguez a "sullied, pathetic liar" and an "abuser of the game he loved." That characterization would seem to apply to a lot of former players currently eligible for the Hall of Fame.
JP: Of course it does. The way you treat the game needs to be distinguished from how you play the game, though. I don't think the Hall of Fame is there to recognize the players who loved the game. There's a place for that; that's what the Buck O'Neil Award is for. People who love the game deserve recognition. Maybe its cynical of me to say that those people shouldn't get the same recognition as people who excelled on the field, but the Hall of Fame has always been there to celebrate the players who have performed the best. And Alex Rodriguez, for his selfishness, for the lies he has told, for all of things, has still been one of the best players of all time, and one of the best I've ever seen.
In other words, I don't think they're mutually exclusive. You're a lawyer; you can tell me if my logic is off. I think you can see it both ways. Am I talking in circles?
NP: Well, sort of. You're saying the Hall of Fame analysis needs to be performance-based, and not focused on the player's respect for the game. I understand that, but it doesn't address the issue that we're not sure how legitimate those numbers actually are.
JP: Well, the numbers are what we have to go on. There have been plenty of players throughout history who have done the game wrong who nonetheless deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb was a burr on Major League Baseball; between the racism and the way he treated fans, he was a bad human being. That shouldn't preclude him from being in the Hall of Fame because he was a tremendous baseball player. The same goes for Pete Rose, for Joe Jackson, for all the guys out there who are going to be implicated in the steroid era. If Ryan Braun continues to put up the numbers he has over his early career, I think no matter what you tie to him, he's on a Hall of Fame track.
NP: If you put him on a ballot today, and he would otherwise qualify, I can't see him getting in. There are enough writers who have concerns about the failed 2011 drug test.
NP: So you think the voters' perceptions of the PED issue will change dramatically in the next fifteen or twenty years?
JP: Yeah. I think Barry Bonds is going to make it ultimately, and he's arguably the biggest steroid user of all. There are probably other guys who used more, but of all the ones we know, Bonds was sort of the poster boy for excessive steroid use: massive growth and all the things that can go wrong with it.