August 6, 2003
The Pony Express Rides Through Havasu
LAKE HAVASU CITY, Ariz.--It's hot.
I don't even want to hear that it's a dry heat. You know what I do in this kind of dry heat? Cook things. I have an appliance in my house that creates plenty of dry heat and works very well for chicken, beef, pork...people shouldn't be exposed to it.
I'm on the annual trip to Lake Havasu, which is more or less the L.A. version of the Jersey shore. There are two types up here: "river people" (referring to the Colorado River, which flows into the lake) and others. I am most definitely others, but come up here every summer with Sophia and a dozen river people and fake it as best I can. I even got a fun column out of it once. Mostly, though, I watch my flesh burn and miss my DSL.
And answer e-mail.
What I'd like to see as a fan and what I think will happen as an analyst don't always mesh, and the 2003 Royals are certainly one of those cases. Setting aside that one of my best friends is a huge--and, ahem, "grateful"--Royals fan with only the faintest memory of 1985, it would be a great baseball story for a team roundly predicted to finish fourth to win its division. It doesn't matter that it would make me wrong, or that the team doesn't appear to have the talent of even a .500 team. It would be fun, it would be exciting, and it would be another mark against the idea that baseball has a competitive balance problem.
As an analyst, though, I have a hard time seeing it happening, and that's what I write. I'll be wrong sometimes--see Angels, Anaheim, 2002--but as long as the analysis is solid and grounded in the available information, I'm comfortable with that. Maybe the Royals will go 40-12 the rest of the way and clinch on September 17. Maybe the Dodgers will score 400 runs over the next two months. Maybe Scott Hatteberg will post .290 EqAs deep into his 30s.
We don't know, and that's just one reason why it's a beautiful game.
D.C. wrote a second e-mail as well:
I wanted to run these e-mails together because they raise some excellent points, and serve to illustrate the kind of quality feedback I get every single day.
First off, a division title is all the Royals can control right now. Once in the playoffs, anything can happen; I do not believe there is any team good enough to make the playoffs that can't win three best-ofs in them. I wouldn't favor the Royals to do so, but the best team doesn't always win in October, and we see that every single year.
A division title--including a September pennant race that would likely energize the Royals' fan base--would be valuable even if the Royals got swept in the Division Series. The Royals have been one of the game's dormant franchises, meandering along below .500 and generating no buzz year-in and year-out. They need a year like this, and if it costs a 19-year-old pitcher three levels from the majors--and I acknowledge his performance--that's a deal you make. Pitching prospects are largely fungible; division titles are not.
Speaking for myself and not for the rest of the BP guys, I think sometimes you have to recognize that flags fly forever. The Royals would get a tremendous amount of revenue, prestige and fan appreciation from a division title. Their limited effort toward making that a reality is a disappointment, and appears to stem from a reluctance to assume risks in trading young players and taking on salary obligations. That's a failure by management.
D.C.'s second e-mail is more important to me, because it appears to indicate that I'm flip-flopping on the Royals. I hate internal inconsistency, be it in other writers or myself, so I want to clarify the point. I believe that the Royals needed to acquire a starting pitcher and a power hitter at the trade deadline, and that their not doing so will be a key factor in their not being able to stay in this race. Yes, they're a 77-win team, and if they could have been made into a 79-win team, or an 81-win team, that would have increased their chances of holding off the White Sox and Twins. That they didn't do so decreases their chance of being the game's best story in September, and motivates me to say that they won't win. They needed help, and they didn't get it.
I will say this: the mere fact that I'm answering e-mails about the Royals in August is a great thing.
I have to disagree, to a certain extent, with your take on the Aaron Boone deal. Not that Boone is that great or anything but I am not as impressed with Brandon Claussen. Sure, his quick return from Tommy John surgery is very impressive and he is the organization's best pitching prospect, but his strikeout rates have been cut nearly in half since his return from Tommy John surgery. And since when has a cheap alternative in the rotation mattered to the Yankees? Plus, is there any chance that Boone will age gracefully, as Jim Bowden suggested on ESPN? I know this sounds odd, but his brother has had his best years in his 30s.
One at a time...Claussen's strikeout rates have slipped from his pre-surgery days, but I'm willing to grade him on a curve, since he's breaking new ground in the recovery process. His command has been excellent, and I expect him to be a cheap rotation solution from 2004 through 2006, with 90 starts, an ERA in the 3.00s and about 15 SNWAR. He's not really a pitching prospect anymore; he's a pitcher.
The Yankees have already reached a point where the money they throw at problems is generating industry backlash; they're the only team paying the luxury tax in 2003, and will probably pay it in every one of the next four seasons. They have to find a way to develop internal, low-cost solutions; just moving towards a $200 million payroll isn't going to work, even if the revenues support it, because the rules will be changed to constrain them. Claussen would have been a big part of their cost-containment, and he's been exchanged for two months of a minor upgrade. That's bad management.
How Boone will age isn't a big issue here, since the Yankees only have his rights through 2004. PECOTA sees him as aging pretty well actually, worth 2.0 wins in 2004, 1.7 in 2005 and 1.5 in 2006. That's not someone I want to sign to a big free-agent deal after 2004, paying top dollar for his age 32-34 (or 35) seasons. There are some truly scary names on his comp list: Damion Easley, Kelly Gruber (who strikes me as a great comparable) and Travis Fryman among them.
I think this trade is the one deadline deal that has the potential to be, if not Bagwell-for-Andersen, at least Smoltz-for-Alexander.
I live in Sacramento, and have never been to the Al Davis Reconfigurable Hole. I know all about the A's and I value them greatly for their innovation. And yet, I'd rather go see Barry Bonds sink balls into the Bay (which I've been lucky enough to see about four times now). After reading Moneyball, though, I find myself a little bit more inclined to make the journey down through the concrete jungle and see these characters play. I think the A's are wise to lock up a cornerstone of their newly discovered "persona," for the sole reason that Hatteberg is likely to draw fans. A rough calculation would require about 200,000 fans to go to the Coliseum over the two years. That doesn't seem like such a stretch to me. This Friday, my wife (she loved Moneyball, too) and I will go for the first time in our lives...and probably not our last this season.
That's certainly a way of looking at the contract that I hadn't taken into account. Let's see...$5 million over two seasons means that M.W.'s "200,000 fans" would be worth about $25 a head. I think that might be a little high, but it's certainly closer to reality than simply looking at what they might spend just on tickets, so let's go with it. With 81 home games each year, that would mean 200,000/162 or about 1,200 fans a game.
M.W., with all due respect to your experience, I don't think it's going to be replicated 1,200 times a game at the Coliseum. Some players do impact attendance--notably Fernando Valenzuela--but there's no way that having Scott Hatteberg signed through 2005 is going to bump the A's crowds by 1,200 fans a night. Trading for Bonds would. Trading for Alex Rodriguez might. Winning a championship would accomplish that. Hatteberg gets in the way of that last thing.
(By the way, I'm stealing "Al Davis Reconfigurable Hole." That rocks.) (Ed note: Derek Zumsteg gets credit for the phrase, as seen here.)
This is just a tiny sample of what sits in my "Reader Mail" folder. I'm terrible about responding to reader e-mail--too much to handle--but the caliber of thought I see every single day is one of the things that makes this gig so great. Please keep it coming.