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August 1, 2003

Prospectus Today

Pondering Inaction

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm rarely as aware of how big a baseball nut as I am in late July. I love the trade deadline, and all the speculation, consternation and evaluation that goes with it. I've barely slept all week, spending most of my time with one eye on the television, a second on my computer monitor, and a third...um, my ear...pressed to my cell phone. I look forward to the last few days of the month, anticipating the moves and wondering how they'll change the look of the races.

Which is what made yesterday such a letdown. The story of the day wasn't the moves that were made, but the number of teams that sat out the dance. The entire National League East twiddled its thumbs; the Astros and Cardinals avoided adding pitching, which makes the Cubs look more threatening than they should. In the AL Central, the Royals and Twins failed to address their holes, even as the White Sox seem ready to leave them both behind.

Some of these teams had added players earlier this month, and a couple made minor acquisitions yesterday, but the overriding theme was inactivity. The passing of the deadline brought the usual talk about how so many players will pass through waivers and how big trades will be made in August, but I don't see it; too many teams have playoff aspirations, and the market's problems--not enough teams willing to trade good prospects, not enough impact players available, everybody trying to get someone else to pay off a contract--aren't going away.

In the AL East, the Yankees and Red Sox did their best to make it a July 31 to remember. The Yankees continued to act like a team run by Bad George, tossing away a 24-year-old left-hander who appears to be ready for a rotation slot in Brandon Claussen to upgrade from a .269 EqA at third base in Robin Ventura to a .272 EqA in Aaron Boone. Even conceding that the true difference between the two players may be a little more than that, it's certainly less than two wins a year, which means that the Yankees dealt a cheap replacement for Andy Pettitte for someone who is going to bat eighth and have almost no impact on their chances this year. They also got an injured LOOGY in the deal in Gabe White, who could do almost anything in the 15 innings he'll pitch between now and free agency.

Contrast that with what the Red Sox did. At this point, Sox fans should be bringing their virgin daughters to Theo Epstein's doorstep. Following up on the Scott Williamson acquisition, Epstein went back to the Pirates and undid last week's trade--but kept the best player in it--while also picking up a mid-rotation starter. The end result is Freddy Sanchez for Scott Sauerbeck and Jeff Suppan. Sanchez is a middling second-base prospect who might hit .280/.330/.390 for the next few years while working cheaply. Getting two major-league pitchers for him, both of whom will be important parts of the playoff staff, was a great move.

The Yankees gave up a lot and didn't get much. The Red Sox didn't give up much and got a lot. That's the difference between an owner running the team and a GM running it.

As well as the Sox did, they weren't the big winner in the AL East. That was the Orioles, who made the day's proverbial "good deal for both teams," swapping Sidney Ponson to the Giants for Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman. It's a bit of a risk, as Ainsworth has a fluke shoulder injury that clouds what appeared to be a bright future; he needs to pan out for the Orioles to win the deal. This kind of return for a player two months from free agency, who carried questions about his shoulder and workload that would have made him a risky signing, is nice work by Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, really the first sign of life in their administration.

The Blue Jays were one of the sellers who couldn't find a real buyer, unable to complete deals for Kelvim Escobar, Greg Myers or Cory Lidle. Lidle should get through waivers, but the other two will be claimed, limiting the Jays' options for saving a few bucks or adding some talent in August. Having Escobar for the next couple of years at a reasonable cost wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but his apparent insistence on a three-year deal is problematic, because he's had enough problems being good in consecutive years, much less three in a row.

The AL Central had all the activity of the sleepy midwest burgs that have teams in it. The Royals made the only trade of the day, buying Al Levine from the Devil Rays, and the White Sox swapped middle relievers with the Angels on Tuesday, gettiing Scott Schoeneweis for Gary Glover. Now, the Sox made their big moves earlier in the month, getting Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett to help their lefty/righty balance. The Twins had previously picked up Shannon Stewart as well, adding to their collection of corner players who hit well enough to keep a job without actually being special. Still, they could have used another starting pitcher, or perhaps a middle infielder with some on-base skills. They don't look like they can stay in the race without improving; Terry Ryan has to be the fall guy here, both for the contracts given to Torii Hunter and Joe Mays that handcuff him financially, and for his failure to shape the talent in his organization into a better baseball team.

The Royals' inability to complete a trade for an outfielder who can hit or a reliable starter is directly attributable to their refusal to trade any of their good prospects. Planning for the future is nice, but a division title has an immediate financial impact on a franchise, and pays off throughout the following year. Opportunities to win don't come along every year, and it's incumbent upon management to seize them when they do. The Royals haven't been a factor this late in the season since the 1994 strike, and all the minor moves they've made--Levine, Curtis Leskanic, Graeme Lloyd--don't add up to anything compared to what the White Sox did. They needed to pull the trigger on something, and letting a blind faith in Jeremy Affeldt or Jimmy Gobble get in their way could cost them the division.

Allard Baird didn't get the job done, and he shares the blame for that with David Glass, who aspires to Carl Pohlad's role as the game's cheapest owner. Small-market is as small-market does, boys. See below.

It was business as usual in the AL West, where the A's got some help and the Mariners didn't. Jose Guillen is a stone fluke who could return to earth at any moment, but the price was right: three arms, just one--Joe Valentine--with any chance to burn the A's. Guillen doesn't have to keep hitting .337/.385/.629 to improve the A's; a more modest .280/.330/.500 would be a huge upgrade on their current corner outfielders while fixing a slugging hole in the middle of the lineup. Billy Beane might want to cover his eyes, though: Guillen has 16 unintentional walks in 349 plate apperances. This trade doesn't resemble the Jermaine Dye acquisition in 2001; it is the Jermaine Dye acquisition in 2001.

The Mariners were beat out for Aaron Boone, and weren't seriously in the market for anyone else other than negative Freddy Garcia. As good as they've been in the Safeco era, doesn't their abject failure to improve at the trade deadline come back on Pat Gillick and the ownership at some point? The left side of the infield is Jeff Cirillo and Rey Sanchez, which is just the most obvious reason why you can expect them to be caught and passed by both the A's and the Red Sox by the end of the year.

I really didn't think that the Ugueth Urbina and Mike Williams pickups would be the best the NL East had to offer, but I was wrong. No one in the division made a deal yesterday; the Braves lost out on Ponson and lowballed their way out of Escobar. The Marlins couldn't pry J.D. Drew from the Cardinals, in part because of Jim Edmonds' injury. The Expos, in stark contrast to last summer's flurry of action, have a deer-caught-in-the-headlights aspect to them this year. The Phillies could have used a reliever and a bench player, but unlike the rest of the wild-card bunch, they can probably make the post-season with the roster they have. They were the biggest winners Thursday: no one else improving helps them.

The Astros and Cardinals have about four good starting pitchers combined, and managed to come out of July without adding anyone. The Cardinals, heaven help them, might find themselves in a bidding war for Kevin Appier once he clears waivers. I'm surprised by and a little disappointed in both teams: the Astros, because I thought they had both the money and the prospects to make a deal; the Cardinals, because I spent the last month talking up how great a job Walt Jocketty had done at trade deadlines in the past. I don't think the Cubs are that good, but they look like the best of the three teams right now, especially with Roy Oswalt possibly out for the season.

The Pirates continued to disappoint the many people whose tax dollars went-against their will--into the construction of PNC Park. Coming away with a old second-base prospect who might hit .300/.340/.420 in his best seasons for two of their best pitchers is reminiscent of the work Cam Bonifay used to do. It looks even sillier when you note that the most likely player to be named in the Kenny Lofton deal with the Cubs is another old second-base prospect of modest ability, Bobby Hill.

I can't entirely blame Dave Littlefield, who had his hand forced by Kevin McClatchy at the absolute worst time, but this year has been a disaster in Pittsburgh, and if the Brian Giles/Jason Kendall deal comes to pass, there won't be any reason to go to a Pirates game until 2006 or so.

Brian Sabean continues to be the GM most underrated by statheads. Once again, he leveraged the organization's pitching prospects to make a deal at the deadline. Even better, he kept the two best arms he had--Jerome Williams and Jesse Foppert--while acquiring the best player to change hands in Sidney Ponson.

What keeps coming up with the Giants is the short time frame in which they're working. With Barry Bonds at the center of the game's oldest lineup, every year has to be treated as the potential last chance. Adding Ponson makes virtually no difference in the race this year; the Giants have a 12-game lead in the West, and nothing short of losing Bonds is going to cost them the division crown.

What adding Ponson does is make the Giants an amazingly difficult out in the playoffs. Along with Jason Schmidt, Ponson gives the Giants two power right-handers who will start about half their playoff games combined. Now, it's a certainty that the Braves will be in the postseason, and it's likely that one of the Astros and Cubs will make it as well (and both might). All three of those teams are heavily, in some cases overwhelmingly, right-handed. Schmidt and Ponson might not be legendary aces, but against those lineups, they very well could look the part.

The Giants have a 12-game lead with less than 60 to play, so here's a wacky idea: They should treat Ponson with kid gloves the rest of the way. He was worked hard by the Orioles, and they don't need much from him to make the playoffs. They will, however, need him to be in top form come October. This entire deal is predicated on giving the Giants another top-flight starter in the postseason. Putting Ponson on a strict pitch count, or giving him extra rest between starts, would mean nothing to their regular season while maximizing his chance to help them in the playoffs.

It's a great pickup for the Giants. While their circumstances are certainly different from those in other cities, the teams that sat on their hands yesterday can take a lesson from Sabean and Peter Magowan's willingness to go out on a limb. The Mariners, in particular, look quite small in comparison.

The Dodgers and Diamondbacks both went digging through the Yankee discard bin, adding old, declining players who actually help them a little bit, but not enough to make a difference. Robin Ventura might as well be Jason Giambi for the upgrade he provides at either infield corner for the Dodgers. Raul Mondesi can hit lefties a little, which could help the Diamondbacks late in games when they're seeing a steady diet of LOOGYs. He needs to be platooned, though, and the Snakes dealt the obvious dance partner, David Dellucci to the Yankees in the deal. Mondesi will struggle to cover the big gaps in Bank One Ballpark, so on the whole, the deal doesn't help Arizona much.

Here's what I think is weird. The Braves and Giants have effectively locked up playoff spots already. Behind them are nine teams separated by six games battling for two spots (the NL Central and the wild card). Of those nine teams, seven of them did nothing to improve this week, and the other two made only minor deals. The Cubs had made their big move last week, so they're excused, which leaves six teams fighting for a playoff spot who passed up the best remaining chance to improve.

That's what I mean when I say the big story was the inactivity. If you're a fan of some of the best teams in baseball, the trade deadline was pretty enjoyable. For the fans of teams aspiring to that, who were looking for a reason to believe, July 31 was just a big disappointment.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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