July 24, 2003
Filtering the Noise
Tuesday's trades by the Pirates had to be a disappointment for fans of the team, who no doubt hoped that David Littlefield would use the older talent at hand to advance a rebuilding process edging into its second decade. Getting little in return for Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Scott Sauerbeck was a setback for the organization, which is thin on position-player talent. Not having to pay those players will help Kevin McClatchy's bottom line, but adding two B pitching prospects and a player to be named--unlikely to be, say, Mark Prior, which is about what it would take to even the deals--does little to make Pirate fans believe their team will be competitive in the Brian Giles Era.
What I thought was interesting was the reaction to the Cubs' end of the deal. Tuesday night, I heard Betsy Ross praise the swap on SportsCenter, lauding the addition of Lofton's veteran leadership. She mentioned that the Cubs hadn't been to the postseason since 1998, which I supposed might have had some relevance in a world where Marvin Miller was elected to public office in 1964 instead of getting into baseball.
That kind of "analysis" trickles down. Yesterday afternoon, my good friend Matt called from Boston to ask what his beloved Sawks might be doing in the trade market. In the course of the conversation, he more or less repeated the line about Lofton's impact on the Cubs' clubhouse.
I think the idea that the Cubs need veteran leadership is a crock. Take a look at their lineup. On most days, they start old people at four positions, including two players with World Series rings (Moises Alou and Damian Miller) and another, Sammy Sosa sitting around wetting himself over the idea that he might not be able to perform in August and September, desperately hoping the Cubs would acquire someone who could teach him?
The Cubs' bench is replete with old ballplayers who don't have much going for them but their service time and a rapport with Dusty Baker. If there's a team in baseball that didn't need to worry about leadership or experience, it's the Cubs, and yet their acquisition of Lofton is presented not as the desperate attempt to avoid playing Tom Goodwin by settling for the only center fielder on the market, but as a proactive attempt to add something the club already had in spades.
I don't mean to disparage the trade; it's a good one for the Cubs, who filled a hole in center field and gave up very little in return. It's just the ex post facto rationale, the blind reaching for an explanation that includes intangibles and leadership, that frustrates me. When the media talk about interpersonal issues on a baseball team, tune out. Winning generates positive chemistry, not the other way around, and experience is about the 21st-most important thing a baseball player brings to the table. It's just more obviously silly when they talk about it in regards to a team like the Cubs.
I thought==OK, I hoped--that last year might have poked a hole in the idea that a team needed experience to win. The success of the Angels, who beat out the veteran-laden Mariners and Red Sox to win the wild card, and pounded the Yankees in the division series, might have served as a clue to those who think experience trumps performance. Maybe the Twins and their 11 seconds of playoff experience beating the A's, or the Giants beating the Braves, would have served to convince the intangibles crowd that they were on the wrong track. "Count the rings, baby," sometimes seems less a defense in the Derek Jeter/Alex Rodriguez argument and more the method--involving a saw--by which the media would determine the better of two teams.
Over the next few weeks, we're going to see more trades, all of which will have a baseball component. Focus on that. Evaluate the deals by how many more runs they add to the lineup, or how many they help the pitching staff keep off the board. That's baseball; the rest is just noise.