Today, Sammy Sosa is in Baltimore, taking a physical that should clear the way for him to become a Baltimore Oriole. The deal ends the Cubs’ pursuit of any landing place for their slugger, and with it the Slammin’ Sammy Era at Wrigley Field.
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-neutral
Each 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.
The Orioles, unable to convince any significant free agent to join them in their pursuit of the twin beasts of the East, make a minor splash by adding Sosa. With the Cubs assuming $12 million in ’04 salary, and Sosa waiving his right to have his ’06 option year (against a $4 million buyout) guaranteed in any deal, the Orioles get him for a $9-million, one-year commitment, and no talent they’ll miss. Hairston Jr. had no place to play for them, with Brian Roberts having supplanted him at second base, and the minor leaguers they dealt won’t be coming back to haunt them.
Is adding Sosa a good idea? His projected line for ’05 would be a disappointment for the nine million in salary and buyout that the Orioles are committed to paying him. Bringing Sosa in forces Larry Bigbie into center field and hurts the outfield defense, unless Luis Matos can find 2003’s magic dust.
The Orioles are largely betting on a Sosa comeback. Any resurgence by Sosa is going to be tied to his command of the strike zone, which has faltered badly in the past two seasons.
AB UIBB SO AB/SO AB/UIBB K/UIBB EqA 1997 642 36 174 3.7 17.8 4.83 .258 1998 643 59 171 3.8 10.9 2.9 .323 1999 625 70 171 3.7 8.9 2.4 .310 2000 604 72 168 3.6 8.4 2.3 .331 2001 577 79 153 3.8 7.3 1.9 .367 2002 556 88 144 3.9 6.3 1.6 .329 98-02 3005 368 807 3.7 8.2 2.2 2003 517 53 143 3.6 9.8 2.7 .299 2004 478 52 133 3.6 9.2 2.6 .277 03-04 995 105 276 3.6 9.5 2.6
Sosa became Sammy! when he learned not only to take walks, but to put himself into hitters’ counts. Remember, plate discipline doesn’t just show up in your OBP column. He’s gotten away from that the past two seasons, returning to old habits. His strikeout rate has remained consistent. It’s what he does in those other plate appearances–is he getting ahead or behind in the count?–that has been the difference.
So for Sosa, it’s a very simply equation: return to the successful approach of 1998-2002, in which patience at the plate paid off in fame, fortune, adulation and runs, or continue to be the undisciplined hacker of the last two years.
I think we’ll see a bounceback from Sosa. He’s not going to have his 2001 season again, and offensive levels, age and playing time make 60 home runs a non-starter, but a return to the .300-.310 EqA level, with 35-40 bombs, are within his reach. He’ll outplay Burnitz by two or three wins at least, and his .375-.390 OBP will be a big boost for the Orioles’ offense.