This is a personality dump. The Cubs, frustrated by the disappointing end to their 2004 season, laid the blame at the feet of Sosa, whose outsized personality became less tolerable to them as his production dwindled. Sosa's bailing on the season's last game--an inexcusable act for which he was properly fined--was blown out of proportion as Cubs' management reached for a scapegoat for the team's collapse. Sosa shares the blame for the team's 2-7 finish with the rest of his lineup mates, but can't be singled out: he hit .250/.382/.536 in the season's last ten days.
No, this is a classic case of a team blaming its failings on its star, if not its best player. Sosa has ceded that title to a number of pitchers and Aramis Ramirez, but he remained a lightning rod for criticism. The traits that made him lovable and marketable during his five-year Hall of Fame peak from 1998 through 2002 didn't play as well when his production dropped, nor did they endear him to fellow outsized personality Dusty Baker, who joined the Cubs' in '03.
The net result for the Cubs is that instead of paying $17 million for Sosa, they'll pay about that much for Jeromy Burnitz, who's likely to sign a one-year deal for about $5 million once the trade goes through. The Cubs are paying the Orioles $12 million to take Sosa. Burnitz's apparently big '04 season is just a park effect: he hit .244/.327/.448 outside of Coors Field last year, and hasn't had a very productive season since 2001. His main asset is being the last man standing in the market, outside of the mysterious Magglio Ordonez.
AB EqAVG EqOBP EqSLG EqMLVR VORP Burnitz 400 .255 .327 .483 .024 15.9 Sosa 385 .258 .349 .513 .101 25.3 Note: park-neutralEach is projected to cost his team three runs in the field. The Cubs aren't getting better in this deal, and they're not pretending to. They're just scapegoating the guy who makes an easy scapegoat, establishing that they're Dusty Baker's team now, and hoping that no one notices just how ridiculous the deal is from a baseball standpoint.
The other players in the deal are nonentities. Jerry Hairston Jr. is a utility guy, marginal defensively at second base and marginal offensively everywhere else. He's had serious problems staying healthy. Hairston should improve a woeful Cubs' bench, and that's all. The prospects coming over are just guys. Mike Fontenot turns 25 in June and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 111-to-48 in Triple-A last year. He is, more or less, a junior-grade Todd Walker, right down to the not-as-impressive career at LSU. Dave Crouthers is 25 and had an ERA of 5.03 in the Eastern League last year.
What the Cubs have done is set up their storyline for '05. They should be better just by getting full seasons from Mark Prior and Nomar Garciaparra, and they could well win a division in which they have the most upside of the three real contenders. If that happens, it will, like the Rangers' success in '04, be sold as the positive result of dealing a superstar. In fact, this trade doesn't make them a better baseball team: They're not saving any money, and they've downgraded their talent base.
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