July 30, 2003
Lock and Load
Theo Epstein won't get much sleep this week, but whatever shut-eye he does grab is going to be very, very good. Epstein, who rode out four months of small-minded teasing about his age, followed by two months of ridicule as the initial implementation of the non-closer-centric bullpen went sour, has positioned the Red Sox to be the AL's most dangerous team down the stretch of his first year as GM.
Yesterday's acquisition of Scott Williamson from the Reds might complete the roster, and it fills out the bullpen with the second of three pitchers best-suited to make this type of pen work. One of the others is Byung-Hyun Kim, who Epstein acquired two months ago for the extra third baseman he had lying around in Shea Hillenbrand. (The other is Octavio Dotel.)
(Hey, how about some love for the columnist? From May 1: "The bigger problem, though, is that the Red Sox lack the talent needed to make this work. There's speculation that they'll trade for Scott Williamson, who is just the type of pitcher that they need: dominant and capable of going multiple innings a couple of times a week. Williamson did very well in Jack McKeon's version of this bullpen in 1999, and would be a great addition for the Sox, immediately becoming their ace reliever.")
The turnaround is stunning. For a modest cost, the Red Sox have not only picked up the two puzzle pieces that make their entire plan work, but they've upgraded their bullpen from a collection of high-risk, high-reward question marks to perhaps the game's best. In addition to right-handers Kim and Williamson, the Sox have two effective lefties in Alan Embree and Scott Sauerbeck. And after a season of seeing more than a dozen pitchers post negative ARPs, the Sox go into the last two months with the following relievers:
Adjusted Runs Prevented Pitcher 2003 2002 2001 --------------------------------------------------- Byung-Hyun Kim -1.0 26.3 23.3 Scott Williamson 7.4 13.8 -1.0 Scott Sauerbeck -2.3 15.5 -3.9 Alan Embree -2.1 16.7 -21.6 Todd Jones 2.4 5.7 -7.3 Chad Fox -4.6 -0.5 15.0 Mike Timlin 6.3 11.2 6.6The Sox total ARP is -30.7, but the guys they'll be carrying from here on out are +6.1, and that's with Kim posting an unusually low figure. All of the guys in that pen who pitched in 2002 were very effective, and the one who didn't, Chad Fox, was great in 2001. This should be a dominant bullpen, right there with the Angels' pen as the best in the AL.
Yesterday's deal is a win for the Sox, with the degree dependent upon the player to be named. It's unlikely to be one of the organization's prize prospects, though. The player who was named, Phil Dumatrait, is one of those guys who brings out the dogmatist in me. I'm pretty adamant about the idea that there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, probably more so than anyone else at BP. For the one pitcher who proves me wrong, a dozen scouts' favorites will go four years, one surgery and two organizations without making an impact. There are exceptions, but I'll put TNSTAAPP up against the industry's fascination with 20-year-olds three levels from the majors with complete confidence.
Dumatrait, 21, missed most of 2001 to injuries. Healthy this year, he's posted a 3.02 ERA in 21 games (20 starts) in the Florida State League, with unimpressive peripherals: 74 hits, 59 walks and 74 strikeouts in 104 1/3 innings. Baseball Prospectus 2003 described him as a fastball/curveball pitcher with a low-90s fastball. While he may have been the best pitching prospect the Sox had, he's not someone to get excited about. The Sox will draft 15 guys a year who look just like him, and sign another dozen as amateur free agents. Like most of the names passing through the trade market this July, he's just another guy. Getting Williamson for this kind of commodity is a steal, and I'm quite surprised that the Reds didn't do better.
It's not just the bullpen where Epstein has made his mark. He took advantage of the slack market this winter to build the game's best roster of position players, one so good that the Sox didn't use a 15th position player until the Hillenbrand trade. I'm not a huge Damian Jackson fan, but when he's your worst player, you're doing pretty well. Epstein picked up David Ortiz (.290/.367/.533), Kevin Millar (.289/.357/.511) and Bill Mueller (.330/.403/.584!) for less than $6 million this year and about $5 million for 2004. Those players' bats are big reasons why the Sox are on pace for 1,025 runs and 428 doubles. Moreover, the flexibility Jackson, Millar and Mueller display has given the Sox a "Team Pretzel" quality, meaning that Grady Little almost always has a move at his disposal to counter an opposition pitching change.
The question I've been getting peppered this week on the radio is, "Who's going to win the AL East?" I've been circumspect up until now, pointing out that the two teams are pretty evenly matched, and that it should be a good race, with the Sox coming out on top. With the addition of Williamson, however, I believe the Sox have moved well ahead of the Yankees. They're the clear favorite.
If the Red Sox do make the playoffs, they're going to be downright scary, with Pedro Martinez starting every fourth game and Kim and Williamson available for multiple-inning outings in the ones he doesn't. Combined with an offense that won't quit, and it might just take extraordinary happenings--a curse, perhaps--to keep this team from winning it all.
Anyone who's read me for a few months or more knows that I'm not a big fan of MLB's administration. That said, one area in which I think they've done reasonably well is in handling the game's umpires. They didn't cave in the face of an illegal mass resignation, and used that error in judgment by the umpires' union to clear out many of the bad umpires and fundmentally change the relationship between the men in blue and the league office.
The QuesTec controversy that has erupted this year stems from those efforts, and points out just how distorted the relationship between the umpires and the game has become: the arbiters' complaints boil down to not wanting to be evaluated and not wanting to be forced to do their job properly. The players who have come out in support of the umpires in the dispute sound like pandering chumps, backing a ridiculous position in an effort to curry favor.
(There, I finally wrote about QuesTec.)
Last night provided an example of what is wrong with the older generation of umps, the generation that--perhaps following the lead of Ron Luciano--forgot to be invisible.
In the eighth inning of the Indians/A's game, Milton Bradley took a 3-2 pitch. He thought it was off the plate, but Bruce Froemming disagreed and called him out. Bradley argued--at first calmly, then with increasing vehemence--to the point of having to be restrained by third-base coach Joel Skinner, then dragged away by manager Eric Wedge. Bradley tossed his bat and helmet in the general direction of--I wouldn't say "at"--Froemming, and continued to scream at the umpire while being walked from one end of the dugout to the other by Wedge.
Bradley's actions were shameful, and he'll receive a fine and perhaps a suspension for them, all rightfully so. Players lose their cool, and there are mechanisms in place for disciplining them when it happens.
It's worth nothing, though, that Bruce Froemming did nothing to defuse the situation, and in fact, seemed to revel in the attention. Rather than start the game once Bradley was in the dugout, turning away and focusing attention back on the field, Froemming stared into the dugout, smirking and waiting for Bradley to exit the area (which Bradley, by rule, had to do). As Bradley was leaving, though, a camera caught Froemming jerking a thumb at Bradley and appearing to say, "let's go, a--hole, let's go," egging him to get to the clubhouse.
Froemming had a difficult situation on his hands, with an angry player making a spectacle of himself. Once Bradley was off the field, however, Froemming's job was done, and he could have moved back to the game. He elected not only to focus his attention on Bradley--to no good end--but by taunting the player on his way out, embarrassing himself and his profession.
There's no place in baseball for umpires who can't keep their composure. Froemming proved himself unworthy of his job last night.
Bradley will pay for his actions. Where's the penalty for Froemming?