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August 1, 2004
Terminated the contract of OF-R
We all weep for Operation Shutdown 2: The Phantom Menace, I'm sure. Picking him up wasn't a good idea, and now he's happily been excused.
Let's not beat around the bush: For the second year in the row, Theo Epstein has caved in to the mob. Hordes of bleating extras culled from the sets of Cheers or Bob Newhart or from the pages of The Shadow Over Innsmouth really ought to be ignored, but not here. Maybe Nomar started it, maybe the guys with the pitchforks and torches did, but after last year's capitulation over bullpen management and this year's craven trade-down to give the ballclub the appearance of owning some leather, I think it's safe to say that concerns that Boston was going to mount a challenge to the Yankees were wildly overanticipated. If the fans had wanted leather, the Sox would have been better off hosting Bondage and Dominance Night at the ballpark.
Instead, these deals basically put a marital aid in the wrong place; it might have been well-intentioned, but Theo managed to miss the sweet spot by several rooms. For a massive offensive downgrade, the Red Sox pick up an OK shortstop and a powerless 30-year-old first baseman. And whatever the off-field drama involved, it's Theo's responsibility to smooth that out, not let it become tabloid fodder. And although Nomar's defensive numbers are grisly in his month-plus in the lineup, keep in mind that he didn't do a lot of rehab, so he's rusty. If the Yankees can survive with Jeter's pretty waves at passing groundballs, I fail to see how Nomar, even if he stayed this bad for the rest of the year, would have kept the Red Sox from pushing for a playoff spot. Instead, the Sox can count on Cabrera's bat to help make that happen.
Finally, as Joe Sheehan has pointed out, the marginal benefits of Cabrera's and Minky's gloves are effectively wasted on a flyball-strikeout pitching staff, and any claims that Cabrera will fix Derek Lowe ignore that the Red Sox had already abandoned the plan to spot-start Pokey Reese for Lowe's starts. If they were willing to forego defense in that circumstance, why then deliberately handicap the offense in the other four nights by moving from Nomar to Cabrera? Minky's almost as bad, although he'll lose playing time to his inability to outhit Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, or Trot Nixon, and perhaps even Gabe Kapler. Someone should let Theo know that it's a little late for a defensive replacement to undo Buckner's boo-boo.
The question these pickups inspire is whether or not the Red Sox are really going to be able to keep up in the Wild Card chase in a season already choking on the Yankees' dust. To me, it looks like these deals put them behind whichever two teams don't win the AL West. Although I doubt that failing to make the playoffs would derail the putative sabermetric magic kingdom, if it's followed by a slow start next year, and given the already-demonstrated willingness to submit to mob rule, the Red Sox's competitiveness might be nothing more than a latter-day resurrection of those '30s Red Sox teams, laden with All-Stars and ambition and a whole lot of nothin'.
If you trade a pumpkin that was once something more than a pumpkin for a pumpkin that was only rumored to someday be something more than a pumpkin, but couldn't prove it, did you really help yourself? This is a basic challenge trade. The Sox are talking bravely about how they see how Contreras has been tipping pitches, and there's the invariable chatter about how people escaping from New York can settle him down and let him get on with his career. But let's face it, Contreras gave the Yankees lousy value on their investment. For the Sox, this is a virtual white flag. Consider it the product of a triple hangover: The one left over from last summer, when Kenny Williams' multiple stretch moves didn't produce a division title, the one left over from the winter deal with Loaiza, and the one left over from last month, now that it's really looking like Freddy Garcia isn't the staff ace the Sox talked themselves into thinking he was. When you wake up with this many regrets, you can't gnaw off all of your limbs, so you make a compromise with your future. The Williams regime has been colorful, but the Sox remain the great non-achiever franchise.
Purchased the contract of Scrub-B
Again, I'm impressed with another one of the GMs who was on the periphery of all the moving and shaking, and managed to cherrypick a few goodies for a willingness to participate. Huber's future probably isn't behind the plate, but he's a good enough bat (.271/.414/.487 at Double-A this year) to make room for in an outfield corner or first base or DH. And Nunez, despite getting moldy on the Marlins bench, remains a promising enough outfielder to challenge David DeJesus for playing time in the near future. Since all they gave up was a scrapheap reliever and a Rule 5 waiver claim, that's an outstanding day at the office for Allard Baird.
A nifty little deal for the Twins. As their part of cashing in on the panic in Beantown, they get a flamethrowing lefty with promise for a first baseman they were better off without. It means a commitment to Justin Morneau from here on out, which is about as 'win now' as it gets, plus they get something for the future. They even save money. Could there be a better combination of factors wrapped up within a single move?
The Yankees needed to add certainty to their world, and getting Brown and (on some level) replacing Contreras with Loaiza do that. If Brown's healthy from here on out, their hopes for October happiness change dramatically. As for Loaiza, even if he doesn't recapture last year's brilliance, and has instead reverted to the dull utility he's had for years, the Yankees can afford that at his price tag. It certainly beats waiting for Jose Contreras to run out of excuses and come to terms with the fact that he just might not really be all that special. And anything that involves less Tanyon Sturtze is automatically on the list of good things you like to have happen to yourself.
The problem that remains unanswered is what the Yankees' postseason rotation after Brown and Vazquez might be. Assuming Mike Mussina comes back, Joe Torre will have to pick between Mussina, Jon Lieber, El Duque, and Loaiza, and nobody's doing so well so far as to suggest any answers. I guess we can consider this the purpose of the last two months of the season for the Bombers. Even then, it isn't like Brown and Vazquez have been that dominant this year. The Yankees' dependence on their lineup is pronounced; if the rotation doesn't improve in-season, that's a formula for regular-season success and short-season failure.
As for the Giambi situation, it's been frightening, and being a native Californian and a good-natured A's fan instead of a New Englander and semi-rabid, I really hope that he heals up well. I'm not the type given to prayer, preferring to achieve solutions in our own world on our own terms, but if I were, I'd think of Jason Giambi among other things, because nobody needs to live with the fear that he's had to face. You don't have to be a Yankees fan to want him well and back next year.
The news of note here is that Lopez is up to bring an end to the Age of Bloomquist, which in turn means the future is now on the left side of the infield. Lopez had a solid season at Tacoma, hitting .295/.342/.505 (for a .233 major league EqA). He's only 20 (apparently, really, no, I mean it, really, he's a Venezuelan, not a Dominican, OK?), and there's some concern that he might outgrow shortstop, but for the time being, he's a great prospect at the position in an organization with few alternatives.
If Omar Minaya was a surprise winner at the deadline, consider Chuck LaMar the guy who won the sweepstakes. For dumping a Mike Torrez wannabe and a bit of Agegate mystery meat, he got one of the best young lefties in baseball. You might wonder how, but apparently Rick Peterson's concern that Kazmir will never get his mechanics ironed out cut that much ice. If I'm the Devil Fishies, I'm happy to take that chance that Peterson, like every other man on the short list of 'best pitching coach in baseball,' has his blind spots. Kazmir's been dominant while being treated carefully, and if the D-Rays can treat him equally gingerly, they may have an Al Leiter of their own. And Diaz isn't a slouch; although still clearly a former catcher, he's got mid-90s heat and dubious command. If he only turns into the next Jesus Colome, that's still a nifty throw-in, and there's a chance that he could be more than that as he learns his craft. As tools-oriented projects go, it's the kind worth investigating. And again, to get this package for a fourth starter with command issues and a nondescript minor league reliever? Tasty.
As an A's fan, I'm ecstatic. The Rangers needed something to fill in the rotation to end their version of Spahn and Sain and three days of pain, and they wound up with Scott Erickson. Sam Narron might not be able to dent bread, or perhaps even strike out a loaf, but he may well be the better choice for the rotation than Erickson.
Keep in mind that this was a deal for only two months of Steve Finley's time, and it was something both parties put together once it became clear that Randy Johnson and Dan O'Dowd weren't quite so eager to jump into the bed that Paul DePodesta had made for them. So to give the Dodgers a generic veteran catcher whose sole attribute is that he stands on the left side of the plate when he bats and Finley puffed up by BOB inflation, Joe Garagiola Jr. got himself a decent group of leftovers.
Because there's a catcher and a center fielder and a catcher going to each side, it's easy to focus on those being the particulars. But that would also be missing the real bonus for the Snakes, Murphy, who was flipped from the Marlins to Arizona via L.A. in two days. The organization is desperate for pitching, and Murphy's thriving in Double-A. Don't fuss too much about the 4.08 ERA; by whatever combination of events, Murphy's allowed only one unearned run, so he was giving up four per nine. In 103.2 IP, he'd struck out 113 and allowed only 80 hits, while surrendering 59 walks. As you might guess, he's got decent velocity for a lefty, and a hinky-jinky delivery. If there's a problem, it's his having allowed 17 home runs, but Carolina isn't a great place to pitch. Unfortunately, neither are El Paso or Tucson or the BOB, but on talent, Murphy's the prize in the deal.
Are there sources of concern? Sure, but it involves the other guys. Hill's only hitting .286/.339/.471 at Vegas, and 25 unintentional walks in over 380 plate appearances isn't the sort of thing you want to see. Don't pretend that Hill's a young pup either: He's 25 and a product of Wichita State, and he spent considerable time in Triple-A last year. Most importantly, he can catch, something nobody thinks Craig Ansman can do. I guess on some level, what Hill offers is insurance in case Chris Snyder's development has a hiccup between now and some time during the 2005 season.
Finally, there's Abercrombie, who is strong like bull, fast like wind, and bad like Glenn Braggs. Another football player, Abercrombie's 24 and hasn't gotten himself out of A-ball yet, because he has no clue about the strike zone. He's a better ballplayer than Herb Washington, because he's a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement. He's no threat to Josh Kroeger or Luis Terrero; hell, at this rate, he may never threaten the Texas League.
Sometimes familiarity breeds familiarity. The Braves were interested in getting a veteran lefty to leaven the otherwise all-righty pen, and Martin was available in the wake of the Dodgers' orgy of deals large and small. Although this helps the Braves now, Merricks was a lot to give up; he's a short lefty with mid-90s velocity who just made it up to Double-A after terrorizing the Florida State League. I mean literally terrorizing. Anyone who hits 13 batters in 73.1 IP is picking fights with an élan only Bruce Kison could admire.
This is one of those moves you have to love. Letting Nomar break bricks in Wrigley, smoting liners and scalding heaters into the bleachers? With his ability to drive the ball with authority consistently, he might have been the perfect bat to put behind Sammy Sosa in the lineup, although that's not where they'll put him. (He's a shortstop, and shortstops batted second in Dusty's day, donchaknow. At least it means a few more at-bats.) And whatever Nomar's defensive shortcomings, Zambrano's the only starter who might really fidget, and he made do with Ramon Martinez well enough, so the purported downside of this deal really doesn't exist.
And sure, Nomar came at a price, but Harris wasn't in the club's plans, and Beltran is one of a small army of good arms in the organization. And you get a lineup where either Michael Barrett or the second basemen or perhaps Corey Patterson are hitting eighth. Oh, boo hoo. This move doesn't clinch the Wild Card, but it obviously helps, and if the Cubs are playing in October, there isn't a team in baseball that shouldn't be a bit afraid of drawing them in a short series.
It's a pretty normal investment strategy from a mid-line pseudo-contender to have and then deal its relief mercs. Now that the Reds are practically out of the postseason picture, they flipped Jones for stuff, and got decent stuff. Hancock has been a moderately effective rotation regular in Scranton, and as another potentially adequate starter for the Reds' rotation, represents an upgrade from the unhappiness of having to ever rely on Todd Van Poppel. Andy Machado is a minor league Eddie Joost of sorts: all walks and power and a bit of speed, and little ability to hit for average. He arrives from Scranton having hit .227/.337/.363. He's considered a plus defender, but he's been a bit error-prone. As shortstop prospects go--despite spending the last three years above A-ball, at 23 he's still young enough for the label--he's iffy, but an interesting iffy. Since all bets on Felipe Lopez's future are off, and somebody has to replace Barry Larkin someday, it's a worthwhile hedge.
These moves might look contention-minded, but they might end up as disastrous in the short-term as they are for the future. As much as fixing the problem behind the plate has to be good news, and getting a quality reliever was a desperate necessity, the Marlins made two new problems in their lineup to get there, while robbing the rotation of one of its two reliable contributors. Losing Penny and relying on Burnett? That's a good idea? Although Encarnacion was useful last year and you can hope a return to these parts will inspire better performance, it's a lot to hope that putting Encarnacion in right and Jeff Conine at first is going to help the lineup.
At least the pen is better off. Mota is a significant asset, and Seanez, like Chad Fox last year, can be occasionally healthy enough long enough to do a team some good. Unfortunately, fixing the bullpen cost so much in terms of talent in the lineup and rotation--the areas where you win games during the regular season--that it looks like a zero-sum game, where the Fish really aren't any better off. I guess they can satisfy themselves with the hope that Jason Stokes makes Hee Seop Choi's future a bit fungible, but Stokes isn't as good a prospect as Choi, and all that the Fish got for flipping his future to L.A. was a 32-year-old catcher and a nice reliever, while creating new holes. The moves that won the East? For the Braves, maybe, but I don't know if the Fish can even keep up with the Phillies now.
It looks like a slam dunk for the Dodgers, but let's place the swag in context of what this does for this year's pennant chase. I know, it's initially unfair, because it reduces Hee Choi's future to the elephant in the room, but indulge me.
First, they got a famous, formerly great center fielder who might no longer really be the no-brainer choice over Milton Bradley in center. Given his just-adequate walk rates, his chief offensive asset is slugging; over the last four seasons (2004 inclusive), you're talking about a guy who slugged .441 away from the BOB. Finley's good, but he may be merely a modest offensive improvement over Dave Roberts, who was basically discarded.
Offensively, that gives you two major exchanges: Moving down from Paul Lo Duca to a Dave Ross-Brent Mayne combination behind the plate, and practically exchanging Hee Seop Choi for Juan Encarnacion (with Shawn Green moving back into the outfield). Encarnacion was virtually worthless: He was easily their worst-hitting outfielder, and he was signed to big money through next year. For that, you swap in an offensive powerhouse. Freed from the twin terrors of first Dusty Baker's opinion and the muggy muck of Miami, Choi should be golden, potentially giving the team its best lefty slugger since Duke Snider, and also a hitter with superb command of the plate. For the sake of argument, if the Dodgers' alternative was going out and getting Carlos Delgado, this is doing themselves one better: They get a player with Delgado's offensive skills on the upswing of his career, and they get at least four more years of Choi, should they want to have them.
Lo Duca was worth something. However, whatever you might say about heart and soul or whatever nonsense is coming out of one famous New York beat writer's hat (I love how some johnnies-on-the-spot can sniff out emotion from another league and three thousand miles away), LoDuca's not a great catcher, and his offensive value these days has withered away to an ability to make contact. At 32 years old, this might be his last really valuable season. There isn't a lot to say about Mayne; at best, he can catch. The hidden bonus in this is that Ross might bop for some power down the stretch. He showed considerable sock last season, and propelled into everyday play, he'd give the Dodgers a defensive upgrade who would also hit better than Encarnacion. Of course, then you should also compare LoDuca to Choi, and that looks like a net gain for the Dodgers, now and into the future.
Then there's the pitching portion of the program: Penny's no slouch to stuff into the rotation, and if you have a choice between a useful starter and a useful reliever like Mota, the useful starter's generally the better option. Mota may be one of the 10 best relievers in the NL right now, but by getting Penny, they're replacing Mota's innings in the pen with Wilson Alvarez, which doesn't hurt. Later, when Edwin Jackson comes off of the DL, either he can help out in the pen down the stretch, or he takes Jose Lima's place in the rotation, and Lima gives the pen some more good stuff. So the pen will be covered, leaving you with the good news that you've got Penny. As persistent as the rumors are that this is the year that Penny's elbow melts down, he might be the best starter the Dodgers have, certainly giving them a fine one-two punch at the top of the rotation with Odalis Perez. Then you've got Jeff Weaver and Kaz Ishii in the back end of a postseason rotation, which is a significantly happier state of affairs.
Now, admittedly, there were costs. But the Dodgers could afford to discard Roberts and Tom Martin. In the outfield, with Grabowski and Werth on the bench, they have fourth and fifth outfielders better than some starting flychasers for a few contenders, and in the pen, Martin was pushed out by the new role for Alvarez. Abercrombie and Hill are disappointments on the prospect front, and Encarnacion was practically worthless. So really, to sum up, DePo gave up a great reliever, a good if graying catcher, two seedy outfielders, a lefty journeyman reliever, and he got a series of offensive upgrades, a defensive improvement behind the plate, and a significantly improved rotation. Then you get into the financials and long-term prospects of someone like Choi, and it's a great two days for the Dodgers. Finley's importance will be overstated, but if anything, his pickup might be the least significant. He's nice to have and came relatively cheaply, of course, but getting Choi and Penny are the real gems.
To borrow some elliptical philosophy from in The Mystery Men, if you define yourself by your ambitions, your ambitions will define you. The Mets wanted a fourth and fifth starter, and by god, they got a fourth and fifth starter, and devil take the cost. Of course, they also overpaid to add the storied possibilities of Benson and Zambrano. To be polite about it, no matter how good Rick Peterson is, he's got two major projects on his hands, and two months to make it work. Benson's still not where he once was, and although Lloyd McClendon's expert opinion that he'll never make it back shouldn't count for much, it still means fixing somebody in-season. Similarly, Zambrano might be the sort of guy that can improve his control with a few Peterson lessons; he might also be somebody who isn't willing to listen, figuring he's been OK so far. That's a lot of mights and maybes, par for the course where fourth and fifth starters are concerned, and it cost the Mets two worthwhile bats and three decent arms. These aren't the sort of moves to propel them past the Braves, but I guess it helps keep their Wild Card hopes alive, if at excessive cost.
For all of their talk, perhaps this was for the best. They couldn't get a major upgrade in center, so they're better off trying to get Byrd back on track. Instead, they turned their attention to a different significant problem, and by adding Felix Rodriguez to the bullpen, they shouldn't have to worry in the late innings as much as they used to. I'm a lot less convinced of the virtue of hauling in Todd Jones, but he is a veteran and a former closer, and at least notionally, a reliever who thereby holds Larry Bowa's confidence for the near future. You can consider this a gut feeling worth discarding, but Jones seems less like that sort of guy always on the edge of suckitude; I just expect Rodriguez to be more valuable despite Jones' superiority so far this season.
Essentially, this is the team that was expected to win the division by 10 games and won't. I guess it's too their credit that they're going to let it ride, and that they're still in the Wild Card race as well.
Although on some levels this was a simple dump of a source of annoyance, the Pirates addressed some problems with the move. First, they get their immediate fix at third base in Wigginton, which allows them to let Rob Mackowiak spend that much more time in the outfield and Craig Wilson most of his time at first base. Still, Wigginton is effectively filler, but they also get back Bautista, which sort of provides for the future at third. It also finally rescues Bautista from the waiver wars that had guided the former Pirate and Rule 5 victim through this season. The question is whether Peterson is a prospect of the caliber to give this deal a signature beyond the act of purging Benson. He's got decent velocity and good breaking stuff, and he's been decent at Binghamton: a 3.27 ERA, and a 90-45 strikeout-walk ratio in 104.2 IP. He is only 22, so he should continue to develop (barring injury, naturally), and he has made that big jump to Double-A. I wouldn't expect him to become a staff ace, but if he grows into a third or fourth starter, this will have been a wildly successful move for Dave Littlefield.
If the alternative to getting Hansen was Fullmer, consider this a much happier turn of events. Where Fullmer's an injury-prone bat without a position, Hansen's one of the most practiced and competent professional pinch-hitters in the game today, and he can take the field at first or third in a pinch.
There had to be an undropped shoe somewhere in all of this. Ledee doesn't fix the Giants' pitching problems, and he's not an upgrade on whatever combination of Marquis Grissom, Michael Tucker, and Dustan Mohr gets used on any particular day. So the Giants dump a reliever they desperately needed, get an outfielder they don't have an obvious need for, and get a nice minor league pitcher for their troubles? The Dodgers and Padres should be pleased.