Sunday, July 30, 2006

Trade Deadline Pt. 2

Let's have a good look at the AL teams and see if we can determine a few certainties. The Tigers are in for sure, but everything else looks murky. The Red Sox are leading the East, but only by a hair, over the Yankees. The AL West is still a 4-team race, although I decline to include Seattle as a serious contender. But, other than the Tigers, you have 8 teams in the AL fighting for three playoff spots.
Even if we get a good idea of who's going to win the East and the West, we've still got 5 teams with a decent shot at the Wild Card. Right now, however, it's a dead heat between the Yankees, Twins, and White Sox. Realistically, I think there's a 75-80% chance that one of those three teams wins the Wild Card. It's possible that the Yankees could surge and win the East, which would just mean that the Red Sox would be fighting off the Twins and Chi-towners for the last playoff spot.
Regardless of how you look at it, there are going to be some close, hot races come September. And unlike the NL, most of the teams involved are very good, and there will be so damn fine baseball teams going home in October. (Records are through July 29)
New York Yankees (1.5 GB in East; 0.5 GB in the Wild Card)
Good news: The Yanks are right in the thick of it, despite injuries that have limited their offense and the fact that they still have little or no pitching depth. So it's good news for Yankee fans that the Bombers are right at the top of the heap and are primed to get even better in the coming weeks. The latest news from ESPN's Jayson Stark is that the Yanks have all but finished a deal for Philadelphia's Bobby Abreu. This would be a blockbuster trade for New York and a HUGE upgrade in their outfield. A lot has been said about Abreu's lack of power this year, but his tremendous patience (.427 OBP this year; career .412) still makes him a very valualbe player, and odds are that the power will come back. Abreu is getting older (32 this year) and more expensive, but the Yankees are one of the few teams that can afford him.
Another thing to consider is that Hideki Matsui will be back in a matter of weeks. This will give the Yankees a full, potent offensive outfield for the first time since May (Matsui, Damon, Abreu). Combine that with a killer infield, a still-potent catcher, and Gary Sheffield as DH (if he makes it back in time), and the Yankees could have the best offense in baseball by the end of the year.
The other aspect of the Abreu deal would send Philadelphia starter Cory Lidle to the Bronx. Lidle is the perfect example of a "league-average innings-muncher," or LAIM. He's not that great (4.74 ERA, 4.54 career), but his peripherals aren't too shabby, and he shouldn't give up nearly as many homers in Yankee Stadium. He's not great, but then he's a far sight better than Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small, and Sidney Ponson. He's also reliable, durable, and relatively cheap. He's not the best in the world, but the Yanks weren't going to get anybody better on the trade market.
Considering that the Yankees have been almost exactly as good as the Red Sox so far, this could make them not just Wild Card contenders but possible challengers for the division title. While the Red Sox are a strong team, too, they may not be able to survive a Yankee onslaught in August and September.
Bad News: The Yankees are still old, and their pitching staff is still troublesome. There are no guarantees that the Yankees will continue to pitch as well as they have so far. Jaret Wright can't be relied upon, and Scott Proctor is as overworked as any reliever in baseball. Mike Mussina has been brilliant thus far, but is he really free from the injuries and inconsistency that have plagued him the last couple years?
Conclusion: The Yankees make the playoffs -- somehow.

Boston Red Sox (Lead AL East by 1.5 games)
Good news: The Red Sox have held on this long. Their pitching staff is still a work in progress, but their season has been literally saved by not only rookie closer Jon Papelbon, but a whole group of young starters that has emerged to give them quality starts. Curt Schilling has been a godsend (but can he stay healthy?), and Tim Wakefield has been reliable as ever, although he's currently on the DL. After that, it's been a mess. Josh Beckett has struggled mightily (4.76 ERA, which no one notices thanks to his 13-5 record), Matt Clement is in the midst of a meltdown, David Wells has been walking wounded, and trade acquisition Jason Johnson (6.35 ERA) hasn't exactly stopped the bleeding. However, the good news is that the Sox have gotten quality work from Jon Lester (3.49 ERA in 10 starts) and keep trying different pitchers in the #5 spot. Once Wells returns and Wakefield comes back from the DL, the Sox might just have a rotation solid enough to get them into October.
Bad news: All of the above is a big "if." And I didn't even mention the offense.
The Sox have holes at second base, shortstop, center field, and catcher. The fact that these holes are already filled by underperforming veterans (Mark Loretta, Coco Crisp, Jason Varitek, et al) makes them much harder to fill. The Sox can live with Loretta's production and hope that Crisp rebounds. There's nothing they can do with Varitek, but they could explore shortstop solutions. Alex Gonzalez ain't cutting it. Don't be surprised if Theo Epstein does something to shore up his offense -- even if it means working "creatively."
Conclusion: It's their race to lose, but considering the teams they're up against and the fragile nature of their roster, they may do just that.

Toronto Blue Jays (6 GB in East; 5 GB in Wild Card)
The Jays aren't really contenders; I don't see them moving past the Yankees and Red Sox, or the White Sox and Twins. But they're there, not a huge distance away, and so they at least merit discussion, although they're not a serious part of the discussion.
Good news: The Jays have gotten unprecedented production from their old underachievers. The biggest example would be the outfield: former disappointments Vernon Wells and Alexis Rios (currently on the DL) have had superstar-caliber years, and the left field platoon of Frank Catalanotto & Reed Johnson has been dynamite. Roy Halladay is healthy, Ted Lilly doesn't suck, and B.J. Ryan is mowing them down.
Bad news: Other than Ryan, the free agents haven't exactly been "difference-makers." Glaus and Overbay have been quite good (368/549/262 and 362/499/302, respectively), but haven't pushed the team into contention. A.J. Burnett has been constantly injured (big surprise) and Bengie Molina left his bat in LA (316/406/277).
Sure, they haven't been awful, but I don't think they're quite what Mr. Ricciardi had in mind. Despite Halladay, their pitching staff is patchy at best, and I seriously doubt Alexis Rios is this good.
Conclusion: A pretty expensive step forward.

Chicago White Sox (8.5 GB in Central, 0.5 games ahead in Wild Card)
Good news: The White Sox have a proactive GM who has the money and the know-how to swing some high-impact deadline deals. Their offense is a pretty big improvement over last year's club, thanks to career years from Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye and the unexpected return to dominance by Jim Thome.
Bad news: The AL Central race is all but over, and now all the Sox can do is throw themselves into the 3-team Wild Card race with gusto.
I expected that the starting rotation wouldn't be able to match the brilliant 2005 they managed. But I really didn't think that they would all, with the exception of Jose Contreras, take a big step back. Their starters' ERA has increased by nearly a full run. There's not a whole lot Kenny Williams can do about it, except try and trade away one of the more expensive ones (preferably Vazquez) and slot Brandon McCarthy into the #5 hole. A player like Vazquez could bring back a pretty good hitter; the Sox's biggest hole is in center field. Any ideas, Kenny?
Conclusion: If the pitching staff can't get it turned around, the Sox miss the playoffs.

Minnesota Twins (10.5 GB in Central, 2 GB in Wild Card)
Good news: The Twins have been such a surprise thus far that their season has to be considered a success, even if they miss the playoffs. They have very few expectations surrounding them, whereas the White Sox are seen to be on the brink of disaster.
The Twins have a duo of dominant starting pitchers that could very well prove to be historic. If Francisco Liriano stays healthy, then it won't be a stretch at all to compare him and teammate Johan Santana to Koufax/Drysdale or Johnson/Schilling. The Twins have the two best pitchers in the American League on their staff. They've also still got a pretty darn good bullpen, anchored by unsung hero Joe Nathan.
The best news is that the Twins are starting to hit better. Don't get me wrong -- they've still got a lot of holes to fill in that lineup, but they've come along way since last year. But with that pitching staff, you don't really need a ton of offense.
Joe Mauer has been absolutely sensational and Justin Morneau has finally reached his potential as a slugger. Add in solid work from Michael Cuddyer and Nick Punto, and you're left with a less-than-awful lineup.
Bad news: The back end of the rotation has collapsed like a flan in the cupboard. Carlos Silva, Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse -- all of them have been total crap. The Twins could really use somebody else behind Santana and Liriano to create some depth.
They also need a new shortstop, a new outfielder or two, a new DH, and maybe a third baseman. Considering how well they've done without these things (and with a terrible year from 2B Luis Castillo), just one pickup to fill these holes would put them right at the top of the Wild Card list. However, GM Terry Ryan is notoriously conservative and reluctant to trade prospects. Can he strike while the iron is hot and cement a postseason berth for this team?
Conclusion: Twins make it a very close race, but come just short. They'll be back next year -- thereby making the AL Central a dynamite division.

Oakland Athletics (0.5 games up in AL West)
Good news: The A's have been underachieving all year long to a huge extent. The fact that they're still in the race at this point means that they have plenty of time to recover and take over the AL West. They've got a dynamic duo at the front of the rotation in Dan Haren and Barry Zito, and Huston Street appears to be back on track as closer. Frank Thomas is healthy and hitting, and Milton Bradley is healthy, although we'll see how healthy.
Bad news: The A's have a truly abysmal offense, possibly the worst in the AL. They're at the bottom of the league in production by the infield, including catcher Jason Kendall, with the only bright spot being 3B Eric Chavez. Their outfield, with the exception of Nick Swisher, has been a similar disappointment, with Bradley injured and Mark Kotsay struggling. There's always the possibility that some of these players will bounce back -- Chavez, Bobby Crosby, and Bradley being the most likely -- but there are no guarantees. And even that may be too late.
Not only that, but the A's vaunted rotation depth has deserted them. It doesn't look like ace Rich Harden will be back this year, and it doesn't look like the A's want Esteban Loaiza back (6.72 ERA). I thought the Loaiza signing looked like a really bad move, and boy it was even worse than that. And with Harden and Joe Blanton unable to pick up the slack, the A's are left with a less-than-dominant pitching staff. And they're going to need a dominant pitching staff to win with that offense.
Conclusion: I still think they're the best team in that division, but I'm doubting that they will win.

Los Angeles Angels (0.5 GB in West; 8.5 GB in Wild Card)
Good news: The Angels have the best starting rotation in the West, and maybe the best in baseball. John Lackey is an ace; Jered Weaver pitches like one; Ervin Santana is a fine young pitcher, and Kelvim Escobar is a capable fourth man. And all of this is with de facto "ace" Bartolo Colon injured and struggling. If they can get Colon back, look out. Because if this rotation aligns with their fine bullpen (K-Rod and Shields are still golden), the Angels don't need to hit much to win.
Bad news: Yeah, but they have to hit something. Chone Figgins has turned back into a pumpkin, and Garret Anderson appears to be nearing retirement, and he's only 34! The Angels have gotten nothing from the right side of their infield, and only marginally better production from the left (Orlando Cabrera isn't all that great). The Angels have been saved by the rejuvenation of Tim Salmon, the return to form of Vladimir Guerrero, and the call-up of catcher Vince Napoli. It's true that there are many more good young players in the Angel system ready to contribute in the majors. The bad news is that it may be too late to save this year.
Conclusion: Their pitching is excellent, and I think their hitting will improve. If GM Stoneman can acquire a bat at the deadline (Hint: MIGUEL TEJADA), then they're certainly favorites.

Texas Rangers (3 GB in West; 11 GB in Wild Card)
Like the Angels, it's the AL West title or nothing for Texas.
Good news: The Rangers have gotten much better pitching this year. Despite trading away capable Chris Young, the Rangers have gotten surprisingly good production from starters such as Vicente Padilla and Kevin Millwood. Sure, their back 3 are pretty poor, but at least they're durable and better than awful; that's an improvement for the Rangers. They'll also soon be getting Adam Eaton back from injury; Eaton has somehow gotten the reputation of an above-average pitcher, but he should at least solidify the back end of the rotation. Credit also goes to a surprisingly good bullpen, anchored by Akinori Otsuka.
More good news was forthcoming yesterday, when the Rangers traded away relatively little to get Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz. Cruz is a big help in the fourth outfielder slot, and Lee is a huge upgrade over Kevin Mench. The Rangers may not be done dealing, and another good trade could send them over the top in this tough division. If the Tigers are this year's #1 surprise, the Rangers have to come in second.
Bad news: I said the pitching was relatively good; I didn't say it was good. Even by Ameriquest Field standards, the Rangers haven't been doing a good job preventing runs. They're going to need all the offensive firepower they can get. And while the Lee trade certainly helps, we have to point out that the Ranger infield is a big step worse than it was last year. The exception would be Michael Young, but Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock especially need to do a better job producing.
Conclusion: Respectable finish, but no postseason.

You may wonder why I didn't include the Mariners. I didn't include them because they're in last place in the AL West and nowhere near the Wild Card. Yes, they're only 3.5 games out in the West; but while every other team in the West is likely to get better over the enxt few months, the Mariners really aren't, trades or no trades. I could see them passing one of these teams; I could not see them passing all three. Good season, but no postseason; sorry.
As far as the Tigers go, they're dominating all of baseball. I wish I could explain it, but I can't, at least not entirely. Their offense is mostly legit, and is one of the best in the league; top 5, easily. It's their ability to prevent runs that has been tops in the AL by a few miles. This is thanks to a solid defense and a dynamite pitching staff. I don't think Nate Robertson is for real, although that doesn't mean he'll stop pitching like he is. I swear Kenny Rogers is going to get old someday, but I guess it won't be this year. After that, you've got Bonderman, who is very good, and Verlander, who is uber-good. I honestly can't believe I'm saying this, but I think the Tigers are the favorites to win the World Series. The AL postseason will certainly be interesting, but if I had to guess, I'd put my money on a Tigers/Mets series. Not a longshot, I know. But either way, one team would come out with some major redemption.
And I have to say that although I don't often talk a lot about managers or give them as much credit as others do, I have to acknowledge the presence of Jim Leyland as a positive influence in Detroit. The success of the Tigers is so unfathomable, and Leyland's track record so impressive, that there's really no other conclusion to come to.

I'll update after the trade deadline is over, outlining all the major deals and going into more detail. I already mentioned the Abreu trade, but a few other nuggets: word is that Soriano will definitely be traded as soon as Jim Bowden lowers his asking price; I've heard the Twins and Tigers mentioned, which is a scary thought. Miguel Tejada will likely be traded, unless the impotent Baltimore ownership is unable to process the paperwork in time. He would be a big help to a lot of teams, from Houston to Anaheim.

Peace out . . .

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Trade Deadline

As the trade deadline approaches, there are many teams caught on the fence as to whether or not they should buy or sell. At the end of play July 26, there were seven NL teams within 6 games of the Wild Card-leading Reds. Three more teams are within 8 games, meaning that the only two NL teams safely out of the running are the Cubs and Pirates. Who else can we eliminate from the picture?
Everyone in the NL West is still a contender, although the Rockies (6.5 games back) and Dodgers (7.5 back) are falling dangerously out of the race. I'm tempted to dismiss the Rockies, although they have gotten fine pitching this year. The Dodgers are, on paper, the best team in the division, but it hasn't helped them much thus far. If they don't stop their current slide (1-13 in their last 14), they will most definitely be out of the running.
I'll eliminate the Nationals and the Marlins from contention. Neither team is challenging the Mets in the East; the Nats are 8 games out in the WC race, and the Marlins are 6 out -- with 7 teams in front of them. Neither club has the ability or the front-office wherewithal to make a move at the trade deadline, and neither should they. Both should look to the future and trade away any unnecessary parts. In the latter regard, the Marlins already have, and the Nats most certainly will. I'm also going to lump the Phillies into this category; they're not likely to get any better than they are (6.5 back in the WC race), and already appear to be shopping their players around.
This leaves 11 teams more or less in the NL postseason race -- and that's being very generous to LA, Colorado, and Milwaukee. Of the three division leaders -- New York, St. Louis, and San Diego as of now -- are any of them assured of a postseason spot?
The Mets definitely are. They lead the NL East by 11.5 games over Atlanta. Yes, meltdowns have happened before, but it would take a historic meltdon for the Mets to miss the postseason. I would also say that the Cardinals are a good bet for a postseason shot. Yes, they're "only" 5.5 games up on Cincinnati, but the Reds are a worse team since the Kearns trade, and not likely to get better. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have one of the best traders in the league at GM in Walt Jocketty, not to mention a very good history of producing when they need to. So I'll mark down the Mets and Cardinals as shoo-ins. No such luck for San Diego (2.5 game lead), as a stiff wind could send them down to 3rd or 4th place.
So, in effect, we have 5 teams not good enough to make the playoffs this year, and 2 teams that are pretty much already in, leaving 9 teams on the cusp. Let's discuss these "on the cusp" teams and talk about what trades have been talked about, what trades should be talked about, and an ideal game plan for these hopefuls over the coming week.
Atlanta Braves (11.5 GB in the East; 4.5 GB in the WC)
Thanks to an offensive explosion in July, the Braves have put themselves back into the Wild Card conversation. They're now just 4 games under .500 (48-52), and in 4th place in the WC chase. Any talks of trading away John Smoltz or Andruw Jones have since fallen by the wayside as the Braves look to make another miracle.
Good news: The Braves have a very canny GM, the bargaining chips to get an impact player, and the minor league depth to help replace some losses.
Bad news: The Braves are just too far out of contention. Even if they were to secure a major upgrade somewhere, that wouldn't mean much over 2 months of play. Also, most of the talent available on the trade market is in bats; there is very little out there in terms of pitching, which makes it a seller's market for hurlers. Offense is not Atlanta's problem; pitching is the problem, pitching times 10. The Braves now lead the NL in runs scored with 535, so Alfonso Soriano isn't what they're looking for.
The Braves' problem is their 507 runs allowed, ranking them 11th of 16 NL teams. Their only productive starter has been John Smoltz, and their bullpen is a shambles. They did make a trade to secure Bob Wickman, but since Wickman isn't actually that great anymore (3.77 ERA notwithstanding), it's not enough to turn the ship around. If the Braves want to win 90 games (an estimate of what it would take to win the WC), they would have to finish the season 42-20. In other words, they'd have to find some way to turn their average team into a dominant one. And that just ain't happenin'.
Conclusion: Throw in the towel, Mr. Schuerholz, the run is over. Trade off whom you can.

Cincinnati Reds (5.5 GB in the Central; Leading Wild Card by 1.5 games)
Good news: Since the Reds are leading the Wild Card, they're in the position of just having to maintain what they've done so far. They've got a 53-48 record so far, and they're on pace for an 85-77 record. The worst record EVER by a Wild Card-winner was an 88-74 mark by the '96 Orioles. So if the Reds do win the Wild Card this year, it will simply be by default.
Bad news: This is assuming that the Reds will play as good in the second half as they did in the first. And given the general quality of their pitching, not to mention the awful Kearns trade, that's unlikely. But even if the Reds do finish 85-77, it's quite likely that some team will put together a hot second half and pass them up. I'm inclined to believe that. So many of these teams have been mediocre, that there must be one of them able to put together a hot second half. And I doubt it will be the Reds.
Conclusion: Enjoy it while you can, boys. Your chances weren't that great, and your GM ain't doing you any favors.
Houston Astros (10.5 GB in Central; 5 GB in Wild Card)
Good news: It looks more and more like the Astros could be the surprise NL Wild Card once again. They've got a solid foundation of pitching (although they need Andy Pettitte and Brad Lidge to return to form), meaning that their top priority is hitting, an item which is quite available on the open market. With Bagwell retiring, Biggio soon to follow, and Clemens and Pettite right behind them, the Astros have the ability to add some payroll, even if it's a long-term commitment. I've heard talks about the Astros acquiring Miguel Tejada; this would be a great move, as it doesn't look like Adam Everett is ever going to hit like a big-leaguer (excellent defender though he is). Any impact bat acquired for the outfield would be a major upgrade over the likes of Preston Wilson, Willy Taveras, and Jason Lane. And, as I said before, the Wild Card race is wide open to anyone who can muster 90 wins (or less, perhaps).
Bad news: The Astros may not have the ability to add big money, such as a Bobby Abreu-type contract, given how much they're ponying up to Roger Clemens. And even if they can, they might have a hard time cinching the deal with their bare farm system. Also, even if they were able to get one impact player, that still might not be enough to shore up a truly woeful offense. And, as I said before, this is all contingent on the pitching staff -- namely Pettite and Lidge, as well as Brandon Backe and the middle relievers -- holding up their end of the bargain.
Conclusion: If they can get some offensive help, they just might be the favorites.
Milwaukee Brewers (11 GB in Central, 5.5 GB in the Wild Card race)
Good news: They've got an excellent offense and the young prospects to make trading easier and replacing departed players feasible. They're also getting back Ben Sheets from injury (Tomo Ohka recently made a solid return from the DL), which is great news for their starting rotation.
Bad news: Their pitching is terrible, and it may be too late to save it, Sheets notwithstanding. Chris Capuano has been excellent, and Ohka is a solid #3, so if they get Sheets back (and healthy), they'll at least have a solid front three. But that leaves two more rotation spots and an awful bullpen to fix.
It also just might be too late. Yes, they're just 5.5 out of the Wild Card race, but there are 5 teams in front of them, one team tied with them, and 3 teams a mere game behind them. It's very tough odds that the Brewers will come out of that group on top.
Conclusion: What I hope (and what I imagine will happen) is that the Brewers decide they aren't in it, and plan for next year. This is a tough decision, especially on the PR front, but there is no pressure for the Brewers to contend this year, and it would be a hopeless waste to sacrifice the future for such an unlikely present. I have faith that GM Doug Melvin will come to a similar conclusion.

NL West
San Diego Padres (2.5 game lead in the NL West)
Good News: The Padres have a lead (bare though it is), and have been there before, just last year. They've got a GM who is willing (and financially able) to make an impact trade.
Bad news: Most people may not realize that good though the Padre pitching staff is, it's not quite as good as Petco makes it look. But top priority should, indeed, be upon the offense. The entire infield has been disappointing, with second and third base especially open for an upgrade. The trouble with picking any winner in the NL West is that the five teams are all so close that even Nostradamus would have a hard time making a good guess.
Conclusion: They're probably the favorites in the West -- at least for now.
San Francisco Giants (3 GB in the West; 2 GB in the Wild Card)
Good news: The Giants are closer than most anybody else, and they're still in the race for both postseason spots. They've got a GM who isn't afraid to trade and has certainly never blinked at taking on a high-paid old geezer to help in the short run. Barry Bonds seems to be heating up a bit, and the team has already made a decent trade, acquiring Shea Hillenbrand to fill the 1B hole.
Bad news: Their problem is pitching, and the market is bare. This is the main reason why I resist calling the Giants the favorites in the West. Jason Schmidt has been very good, and the team is hoping that Noah Lowry has some more second-half miracles in his sack, but the truth is that it will take more than that to turn around a woeful staff.
Conclusion: Giants miss the playoffs by a hair -- for the third straight year. Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt file for free agency, and GM Brian Sabean is officially on the hot seat.
Arizona Diamondbacks (2.5 GB in the West; 1.5 GB in the Wild Card)
Good news: The Diamondbacks have the best young among all the teams mentioned here, meaning they could offer top-notch packages to acquire their free agents. They could also even trade away some of their own high-priced talent to free up money (Shawn Green, Luis Gonzalez, Eric Byrnes, Craig Counsell) and replace them with rookies who could match or even exceed their production.
Bad news: Same as above: the D-Backs need pitching, and help is not forthcoming. Most of their young prospects are position players. Not only that, but Arizona's pitching problems couldn't just be solved by one pitcher; it would take more. Hitting-wise, their main weakness is their infield, which is tough, since most of the hitters available are corner-outfielder types.
Conclusion: Don't bet the farm away (not that I think GM Josh Byrnes will). They'll come close and be a in a better position to contend next year than most of their division-mates.
Colorado Rockies (6.5 GB in the West; 5.5 GB in the WC)
Good news: I don't know if enough attention has been paid to the amazing transformation undergone by the Rockies this year. They have allowed just 457, the least in all of the National League. Think twice about what I just said and how unbelievably unlikely it sounds. It's like finding out that George Bush had an 85% approval rating among African-Americans; it's just not POSSIBLE. Counter that with the fact that the Rockies have scored just 466 runs, 14th of 16 NL teams.
Bad news: This means that not only are their pitchers much better than they seem -- thanks too Coors Field -- but their hitters are even worse. The Rockies have gotten good production from Todd Helton, Garret Atkins, Matt Holliday, and that's it. The Rockies aren't in any position to acquire players via trades (nor should they), and they're another team that's unlikely to perform as well in the second half.
Conclusion: No postseason appearance, but a great leap forward for the franchise.
Los Angeles Dodgers: (7.5 GB in the West; 6.5 GB in the WC)
Good news: The Dodgers are,on paper, the best team in the NL West.
Bad news: The games aren't played on paper, and for whatever reason -- injuries, mostly -- the Dodgers don't really have a prayer to make the postseason.
Conclusion: Check Chavez Ravine for any disgruntled spirits.

Of course, all of the above should be viewed in context of my previous blog; that although a good trade-deadline acquisition can help the team, their impact is overrated, and therefore GMs should be reluctant to give up top prospects to complete them.
Not only am I the one making this argument. Rob Neyer made it on, Steve Treder made it over at The Hardball Times, and Baseball Prospectus writer Dayn Perry made it in his fine book Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think). It's also been a constant topic of discussion for former Baseball Prospectus writer and current columnist Keith Law. So, ha ha! My colleagues (and I use that term with trepidation) agree with me!

I'll be back tomorrow to discuss the American League, although it's thankfully a shorter discussion. There are many similarities; the Tigers, like the Mets are coasting into the postseason, and the Western division is a mess with no certain outcomes. However, in the AL, the list of Wild Card contenders is much shorter -- three or four. Although that won't stop it from being a thrilling race; as of July 26, there were 3 AL teams within 1/2 game of the Wild Card lead.

Later, kiddies. Say no to drugs, and apparently to Harold Reynolds as well . . .

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fire Jim Hendry

There's been a lot of talk recently about the state of the Chicago Cubs. And rightfully so, because the Cubs are 37-57, 5th place in the NL Central and 16 games back. They're 3.5 games ahead of the Pirates, but according to the Pythagorean W-L totals, the Pirates (pW-pL: 42-55) are fundamentally a better team than the Cubs (38-56 pW-pL). In fact, the Cubs' 38-56 Pythagorean record is the worst in the NL. Only the Devil Rays and Royals are worse in the AL.
What's the problem? The problem is that the Cubs have only scored 386 runs. They are dead last in all of baseball in that regard. The next-worst team is the Washington Nationals, who have scored 434 runs (although the Nationals play in a tougher hitter's ballpark than the Cubs). The Cubs' pitching isn't all that bad; their 4.69 ERA is 10th out of 16 NL teams, and they actually lead the league in strikeouts, with 701. Their defense efficiency of .708 is tied for 2nd-best in the league. So while their defense is fine and their pitching is at least average, their hitting is abysmal. Which is why they're a hopeless team on pace to post a 63-99 record this year.
Many articles have appeared in newspapers across the country demanding the firing of Dusty Baker. And I agree; Dusty must go. Not only is Dusty's use (and abuse) of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood a big factor in their injury troubles, Dusty has also proven to be clueless when assembling a lineup. Dusty selects a lineup based on hunches and bizarre opinions, which often leads to ruin. The presence of Neifi Perez, Tony Womack and Jose Macias have shown Dusty's poor understanding of how runs are actually scored. So Dusty should go.
I don't think that Dusty is the only one that should get the boot. While many people have called for Dusty's ouster, very few have spoken out against Cubs GM Jim Hendry. So I'm going to take this opportunity to argue why I think Jim Hendry should be fired as GM of the Cubs; this move is just as important -- if not moreso -- than the Baker dismissal.
Let's start by taking a look back at Hendry's tenure with the Cubs. Let's look at the problems he faced and the decisions he made, and see if there weren't any better options facing him. And if Hendry continually ignores the good choices and makes the bad ones, then that's a pretty good argument for his dismissal.
Hendry took over the GM position from Andy MacPhail after the 2002 season; the same point when the club hired Baker as manager. Hendry inherited a team talented team that had just finished a 67-95 season. The lineup included superstar slugger Sammy Sosa, slumping but valuable outfielder Moises Alou, still-potent first baseman Fred McGriff, surprise slugger Mark Bellhorn and young center field prospect Corey Patterson. Despite these quality players, though, the team managed to score just 706 runs, 11th-best in the NL.
The Cubs also had some top-notch pitchers. Kerry Wood was coming off a 12-11 season where he managed a good 3.66 ERA along with 217 K in just 213.2 IP. He was backed up by Matt Clement, obtained from the Marlins in a trade, who managed a 3.60 ERA with 215 K in 205 IP. Veteran Jon Lieber contributed just 141 IP, but they were strong ones: 3.70 ERA, 12:87 BB:K ratio.
But the real story of the Cub rotation was the promotion of star prospect Mark Prior. Prior exceeded all expectations by managing a strong 3.32 ERA in 19 starts, posting a brilliant 38:147 BB:K ratio in 116.2 innings of work. Another star on the horizon was 21-year-old Carlos Zambrano, who managed a 3.66 ERA and 93 K in 108.1 IP. So the Cubs had, going into 2003, quite possibly the best starting rotation in baseball.
The bullpen was much more problematic. Closer Antonio Alfonseca (who came over from Florida in the Clement deal) struggled through the season, posting an ERA of an even 4.00 with just 19 saves and 9 blown saves, a dreadful ratio. Backup Joe Borowski pitched well (2.73 ERA), as did young long reliever Juan Cruz (3.98 ERA in 97.1 IP). But the 'pen was seriously hampered by Jeff Fassero (6.18 ERA) and Kyle Farnsworth (7.33).

YEAR 1: 2003 (88-74)
Hendry allowed pitcher Jon Lieber and first baseman Fred McGriff walk away as free agents. In the case of Lieber, it was a wise move; Hendry had several younger (and cheaper) options for the rotation. It was a similar deal with McGriff, just turned 39 years old, whom the Cubs felt could be replaced by prospect Hee Seop Choi and trade acquisition Eric Karros.
The Karros trade was completed in December, and turned out to be a godsend for the team. The Cubs got Karros and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. These two were fairly high-priced veterans, but they still had some good baseball left in them. In return, the Cubs surrendered catcher Todd Hundley (a huge salary drain at this point in his career) and nondescript reliever Chad Hermansen. The trade would help set the left side of the Chicago infield and also cleared Hundley's salary off the books.
To replace Hundley, the Cubs traded away two minors leaguers to get Arizona backstop Damian Miller. Miller wasn't much of a hitter, but had gained a good reputation for handling pitchers out in Arizona, having caught both Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. And at $2.7 million, he was fairly cheap.
Hendry also looked to fill some holes by signing a few low-level free agents. He signed reliever Mike Remlinger - fresh off an excellent season in Atlanta -- to a pretty expensive deal, at least by middle relief standards. He also signed veteran Shawn Estes for $3 million to serve as a possible 5th starter and insurance policy. He signed veteran closer Rod Beck to a contract, but Beck never made the majors and was released before June.
Other notable signings: outfield base stealer -- and otherwise talentless player -- Tom Goodwin; reliever Dave Veres; and pinch hitter Lenny Harris. Hendry seemed to favor the veterans a bit too much, perhaps, but he had secured a temporary first baseman (Karros would be a free agent after the year), a solid second baseman, and a solid catcher. He also made the wise decision to pass on re-signing McGriff and Lieber, and even managed to dump Todd Hundley's salary. So the first off-season went rather well for Hendry.
The season got off to a pretty good start for the Cubs. They were right in the thick of the NL Central race, although it was already clear that it would be a close race, with Houston, Chicago, and St. Louis all contenders. As the season went on, no one was able to take a commanding lead, and the Cubs eventually found themselves in first place.
On June 20th (with the Cubs in 1st by 1/2 game), Hendry traded the suddenly punchless Mark Bellhorn to the Rockies for strikeout master Jose Hernandez. Hernandez wouldn't prove to be much of a solution, and the Cubs would eventually send him on to the Pirates. Third base was the one big hole in the Chicago lineup.
With the trade deadline approaching, the Cubs were hanging on for dear life in the NL Central race. As of July 23, they had fallen into 3rd place, 5.5 games behind the streaking Houston Astros and 1.5 games behind St. Louis. Something had to be done. They had one of the league's best pitching staffs, but their offense was far behind that of Houston and St Louis.
It was at this point that Hendry went into action: he completed a trade with Pittsburgh that sent away Hernandez, a minor leaguer and failed prospect Bobby Hill in exchange for Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and cash. It would prove to be one of Hendry's best trades.
Ramirez was a defensively indifferent third baseman who had shown flashes of offensive brilliance. At the time of the trade, Ramirez was 25 years old and had started the season 280/330/448 for Pittsburgh. After the trade, Ramirez hit a disappointing 259/314/491, but that was better production than the Cubs had been getting from the hot corner. And it proved to be a good deal in the long run, as Ramirez has taken up residence as one of the league's best-hitting third basemen, finally solving a problem that had plagued Chicago since Ron Santo's retirement.
The trade acquisition who actually did the most to help the Cubs in 2003 was Kenny Lofton. An ugly injury had sidelined CF Corey Patterson, and the Cubs had tried several solutions (including Tom Goodwin) with little to show for it. Hendry pegged Lofton to fill the hole in center, and Lofton did just that. After the trade, Lofton hit an excellent 327/381/471, better even than Patterson had managed. It was, all in all, a great trade for Hendry. It served his purposes in the short run by filling the team's holes, and even proved good in the long run, since the team gave up little in return and was able to secure Ramirez as their third baseman of the future.
Hendry showed his overactive acquisition gland by acquiring Randall Simon and Tony Womack via waivers in August. At the time of the Simon trade, the Cubs had climbed back to within 1/2 game of the Astros, and Cubs fans (and reporters) were getting very excited at the chance to reach the postseason. Neither Simon nor Womack contributed much at all to the team, but at least neither was that expensive, nor did they require giving up any top prospects.
As August moved into September, the team was (mostly) out of Hendry's hands. On September 1, the Astros and Cardinals were tied for first place, with the Cubs 1.5 games out. Two weeks later, the Cardinals had plummeted out of the race and were 5 games back, whereas the Cubs were hanging in there at just 1.5 games behind Houston. Finally, on September 22, the Cubs tied the Astros for the division lead. The lead went back and forth, until September 27. The day began with Houston 1/2 game out. But the Cubs swept a double-header from Pittsburgh, and Houston lost to Milwaukee, meaning the Cubs had clinched the NL Central.
The tally at the end of the season wasn't overwhelming; an 88-74 record just 1 game ahead of Houston. But getting into October baseball was a milestone for the Cubs. And with their dominant pitching, it looked like they might stand a chance.
Hopes were raised when the Cubs knocked off Atlanta in a 5-games NLDS. It was the first postseason series the Cubs had won since 1908. They got off to a 3-1 lead over the Florida Marlins, but ended up blowing the series in dramatic fashion.
In any case, the season had to be considered an overall success. The young pitchers had succeeded brilliantly, and Hendry had helped cobble together an adequate lineup to get the team to 88 wins. With money to spend in upgrading the roster and the prospects of seeing their young team get even better, the Cubs went into 2004 looking to improve even further.
YEAR 2: 2004
Players lost to free agency after 2003 included: Kenny Lofton, Eric Karros, Randall Simon, Antonio Alfonseca and Shawn Estes. It wasn't such a big loss; Alfonseca and Simon were bare contributors, and Estes had turned out to be a big dud in the rotation (5.73 ERA in 28 starts). Lofton and Karros were still valuable, but the Cubs felt they could replace them with a healthy Corey Patterson and prospect Hee Seop Choi.
Then, the Cubs decided to sign as many free agents as humanly possible.
The biggest signing was the inking of Greg Maddux to a 3-year $24 million contract. It was a great publicity move, bringing Maddux back to the team he was drafted by. But good thought Maddux was, some wondered if he would be earning his $9 million in 2006, at the age of 40.
The Cubs also made noise by signing LaTroy Hawkins to serve as their closer. Hawkins had been a mainstay of the Minnesota bullpen for years, but hadn't seen great success as a closer. The Cubs were willing to try, and ended up paying Hawkins $7.5 million for 2 years before trading him to San Francisco.
Other notables: the Cubs re-signed useful 2B Mark Grudzielanek and backup outfielder Tom Goodwin; they got another 2B in Todd Walker (whose defensive limitations would imply a platoon with Grudz); another backup outfielder in Todd Hollandsworth; reliever Kent Mercker; vanilla starter Jamey Wright, and infield backup Damian Jackson. They also nabbed former Marlin Ryan Dempster, despite the fact that they knew going in that injuries would limit Dempster to very little work in 2004.
Not content with this fleet of free agents, Hendry also sought to add money the old-fashioned way; through trades. The biggest was the one that nabbed Derrek Lee from the Marlins for Hee Seop Choi. Lee, a Gold Glove winner, was an underrated hitter and proved to be a very worthwhile acquisition in the years to come. The Cubs also traded away catcher Damian Miller -- whose bat had been weaker than advertised -- to Oakland for Michael Barrett, a better hitter whose weakness was defense.
On the face of it, the Cubs had added a good deal of payroll, but it still hadn't changed the fact that they were a team with a dominant pitching staff and a potent lineup. Many picked them as favorites to repeat in the NL Central.
Hendry's first major trades were meant to give the Cubs something else at shortstop besides the utterly disappointing Alex Gonzalez. Rey Ordonez and Ricky Gutierrez were "veterans," yes, but they were also past their prime defensively and just plain awful hitters in the first place.
On July 31, it was clear that the Cubs were not going to repeat in the NL Central. That's because the Cardinals got off to a 66-37 start and were in the midst of a rampage through the NL to 105 wins. And when the day opened, the Cubs were 2 games behind San Diego for the Wild Card race.
What had gone wrong? Injuries, first and foremost. Prior and Wood, who many thought would be the next Koufax and Drysdale, both suffered injuries that not only hampered their quality, but also held them to a combined 259 innings, nearly half the total the team wanted. Glendon Rusch was able to pick up some of the slack (3.47 ERA in 16 starts), but rookie Sergio Mitre failed in his bid to be the 5th starter (6.62 ERA in 9 starts). It also must be said that Greg Maddux was no longer pitching like Greg Maddux; the ace's ERA was 4.02, better than the league average, but not what the Cubs had paid for.
Offensively, the biggest problem was the hole at shortstop that Hendry kept trying to fill with weak-hitting glove men. It also didn't help that Corey Patterson wasn't progressing at the plate (266/320/452), and that a series of bizarre injuries limited superstar Sammy Sosa to a very un-Sosa-like 253/332/517 hitting line.
But on July 31, Hendry's top priority was filling the hole at shortstop. So he took part in a daring 4-team trade with Boston, Minnesota, and Montreal. The Cubs sent off spare parts Brendan Harris, Alex Gonzalez, and Francis Beltran to the Expos (thank you, MLB partisans). In return, they got Nomar Garciaparra from the Red Sox (as well as outfield prospect Matt Murton).
Nomar was a huge name, and it was a huge trade for the Cubs. They gave up very little and were able to get a star shortstop. But there were question marks surrounding Garciaparra, who had been severely limited by injuries in 2004. He only got in 43 games for the Cubs, but he did hit an impressive 297/364/455.
Hendry further sought to help the team with more waiver-wire deals for spare parts. The acquisition of Neifi Perez did nothing, although Dusty Baker soon developed an unnatural attraction to the completely useless hitter.
The Cubs hung right in the Wild Card race, and on September 1, they were just 1 game behind San Francisco and 1 game ahead of San Diego. Then, something funny happened; from out of nowhere, the Houston Astros burst into the Wild Card picture. While most people were taking bets on either the Cubs or the Giants, the Astros suddenly appeared, and on September 10, they were tied for the lead with San Francisco, just percentage points ahead of Chicago. The race stayed tight; 10 days later, the Giants led the WC by 1/2 game ahead of Chicago, who were 1/2 game ahead of Houston. When September ended, the Cubs were just 1 game behind the Astros and Giants, who were tied for the WC lead.
A loss to the Braves on October 1 dropped them to 2 games back, and another loss to Atlanta the next day eliminated them from the Wild Card chase altogether. A victory on the last day of the season was small consolation; they were 3 games back of the Astros and 2 behind the Giants.
After being considered favorites for the Wild Card for much of the season and even holding the lead for so long, it was a heartbreaking fall when the Cubs blew the lead and missed the postseason. The most immediate fallout came on the season's final day. Sammy Sosa left the game early -- Sosa claimed he stayed later, until garage security cameras proved otherwise -- and his teammates took their revenge on Sosa's giant stereo. It could have been Kerry Wood, or Todd Walker, or Kent Mercker -- but the only thing we know for sure is that Sosa's teammates, tired of the Superstar double standard the team set for him, vented their frustration on his huge noisemaker.
More fallout was to come in the offseason, with the most significant piece involving Sosa himself.
YEAR 3: 2005
The 2005 season could be subtitled: Mistakes were made. Jim Hendry's first season as GM went fairly well, and you could at least excuse most of his missteps. It was in 2005, though, that things began to trend from "understandable" to "he did what?".
After the 2004 season, Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Walker, Moises Alou, Mark Grudzielanek, Todd Hollandsworth, and Kent Mercker were granted free agency. This was mostly good news. Hollandsworth and Mercker were easily replaceable parts; and while Alou was still a potent hitter, he was also 38 years old and not quite worth the risk of a top-notch salary. Grudzielanek was still valuable, but not desperately so, and the Cubs filled the 2B hole by re-signing Todd Walker.
After much hemming and hawing, Garciaparra signed a 1-year deal to return to the Cubs for a little over $8 million. It was a fair amount of money, but it was also a 1-year deal, and so risk was limited to 2005. The Cubs didn't see many other options to fill their hole at shortstop, so Hendry decided to gamble on Nomar.
So going into the 2004-5 offseason, Hendry's top priorities were this: a shortstop (which he did, signing Nomar), a corner outfielder (not to mention a 4th outfielder to spot Sosa), and some bullpen help. Perhaps most importantly, Hendry needed to add one or two starters to serve as Plan B in case Prior, Wood, or both lost significant time to injury.
The latter problem Hendry signed by re-signing Glendon Rusch. This was a mistake. Rusch had pitched quite well for the Cubs in 2004, filling in for the Wood/Prior injuries with a 3.47 ERA and a 33:90 BB:K ratio in 16 starts. Therefore, Hendry re-signed him for $2 million. What Hendry should have realized was that the 2004 Glendon Rusch was not the real Glendon Rusch. Rusch presently sports a 4.88 career ERA, and was coming off a 2003 where his ERA was 6.42 in 19 starts with Milwaukee. Rusch simply wasn't as good as he pitched in 2004, but Hendry made the "1-Year Mistake" that so many general managers make. The 1-Year Mistake is when a GM rewards a player based on 1 year of play, ignoring all prior years of contradictory play. In future, this will likely be known as the "Adrian Beltre Mistake." Luckily, all it cost Hendry was $2 million and the mistaken impression that he'd solved his starting pitching problem.
Hendry then went on to make another one of his trademark mistakes, although (to be fair) it's a mistake common to GMs with too much money. Hendry spent too much free agent money on overpaid veteran role players. Instead of focusing on his core problems, Hendry was handing out $1.2 million to Henry Blanco and $900,000 to Todd Hollandsworth. He also signed the non-productive Chad Fox and the ever-injured Scott Williamson to help in the bullpen, but to be fair, the two combined made barely $1 million, although they did take up roster space.
Big news was made on February 2, when Hendry traded the embattled Sosa to Baltimore for Jerry Hairston, Jr. Hendry ended up sending along enough cash to cover most of Sosa's 2005 salary, but he made the decision that it would be better to save a little money and have Jerry Hairston than to pay all of Sosa's salary. This move, at least, worked out well. Although Hairston hit terribly with the Cubs in 2005 (261/336/368), he at least did better than Sosa, who hit 221/295/376 in just 380 ABs in Baltimore.
The problem was, though, that Hendry now had to find a way to replace both Alou and Sosa in the lineup. The Cubs had lost a big chunk of offense in the offseason. Hendry took steps toward solving that problem by signing Jeromy Burnitz to a 1-year $4.5 million contract. Considering Burnitz's past, it was a risky deal, even though the money involved wasn't significant. And although Burnitz wasn't awful in Chicago, his 24 HR were countered by a .258 batting average and a .322 OBP, unacceptable from a corner outfielder in Chicago.
But solving the bullpen problems was one of Hendry's stated off-season goals. I must say (off the subject though it may be) that every GM goes into the offseason talking about improving their bullpen. Every ballplayer succeeds and fails. And, in the scheme of things, relief pitchers are much less important than starting pitchers and everyday hitters. However, a relief pitcher's failures are much more dramatic than that of any other player. Fans (and reporters) remember blown saves, and they smolder in their heads for days after. So many GMs seek to calm the rage of fans and reporters by spending far more money on the bullpen than is warranted. Such is the case with Hendry, who has spent a great percentage of his free agent budget on relievers, often to the detriment of the rotation and the lineup (with 2006 the most obvious example).
Keeping this in mind, it was an odd move when, on February 9, Hendry traded reliever Kyle Farnsworth to the Tigers for relief prospect Roberto Novoa and two minor leaguers. It's true that Farnsworth was getting a pretty big raise in arbitration money and was one year away from free agency, but it's odd that a GM would trade away a potential solution to your problem sitting right out there on the bench. Farnsworth was mercurial, yes, and no one knew how he would perform in 2006. And so it was with great regret that Hendry saw Farnsworth put together the best season of his career with Detroit (and then with Atlanta, after a trade).
The season did not get off to a promising start for Chicago, with Mark Prior on the DL and Kerry Wood soon to follow. With those two gone and Glendon Rusch turning into a pumpkin (4.52 ERA), Hendry traded expensive closer LaTroy Hawkins to San Francisco for starter Jerome Williams. Hawkins hadn't actually pitched too poorly in Chicago, but he did have a penchant for blowing saves. While it may have been worthwhile to keep him around in middle relief, Hendry decided to send him away (the blown saves having made Hawkins decidedly unpopular in Wrigleyville). Williams was a fading prospect with San Francisco, but did help support the Cub rotation when he arrived (3.91 ERA in 17 starts after the trade).
Injuries compounded injuries when Nomar Garciaparra went down early in the year. He would miss most of the season before returning, although he did manage a decent 283/320/452 hitting line in his 230 ABs. he was replaced by Neifi Perez. Perez hit well upon being given the starting job, causing Dusty Baker to fall victim to the "1-Year Mistake" and actually convince himself that Perez had suddenly become a good hitter. Sure, as the season wore on, old Neifi reared his ugly head (he finished with an eyesore 274/298/383 batting line), but that reality didn't penetrate Dusty's noggin. But to be fair, Hendry is the one who signed Perez and didn't go out to get another option for Dusty (not that Dusty would have used him).
With Hawkins gone, the Cubs decided to get creative and make Ryan Dempster, a former starting pitcher returning from a long injury, their closer. It turned out to be a good choice; whereas Dempster may have been more valuable as a starter, he may not have ended up pitching as well as he did, posting 3.13 ERA with 89 strike0uts in 92 innings(!).
In the absence of Wood and Prior, who was making all of those starts? Carlos Zambrano -- who has somehow managed to avoid any ill effects from Dusty Baker's abuse of his right arm -- managed a 3.26 ERA in 223.1 strong innings, striking out 202. Zambrano was an ace and a godsend.
Unf0rtunately, the rotation suffered from a lack of depth. As mentioned earlier, Glendon Rusch wasn't able to stop the bleeding. Greg Maddux (4.24 ERA) was no longer pitching like Greg Maddux, but more like a league-average innings eater with a bigger salary. Jerome Williams, the trade acquisition, did pitch well. But other than that, who did the Cubs try?
They tried prospect Sergio Mitre (5.37 ERA in 7 starts), prospect Rich Hill (9.13 ERA in 4 starts) and prospect Jon Koronka (7.47 ERA in 3 starts). Other than that, the Cubs could only hope that Prior and Wood would get healthy. Prior, upon his return, managed a respectable 3.67 ERA in 166.2 inings of work. But Wood only threw 66 innings (4.23 ERA), as a May injury proved to be season-ending.
In the lineup, there were two surprise developents. One was the ascencion of Derrek Lee from All-Star to Mega-Star. Lee had a career year for the ages, hitting 335/418/662 and almost single-handedly keeping the Cubs in contention. It was not a sign of things to come -- Lee's career averages are 276/363/501 -- but it was a fine year from an underappreciated player. A player who, it must be noted, Jim Hendry had the foresight to trade for and (eventually) sign to a contract extension.
On the other hand, there was the very unfortunate case of Corey Patterson. Patterson was a 5-tool prospect who unfortunately never became much of a baseball player. Patterson had weaknesses -- strikeouts, mostly -- but had still managed to be a fairly valuable player. In 2003, Patterson hit 298/329/511 before regressing a bit in 2004 to 266/320/452. Still, those weren't bad numbers for a good defensive center fielder and a fine base stealer. Dusty Baker's mistake was in thinking that Patterson should bat leadoff, because of his base-stealing. Baker's baseball wisdom apparently hadn't progressed past the Dark Ages, and Corey predictably struggled (with the boos of Cub fans descending upon him -- not Dusty).
But 2005 was a new low: Patterson was hitting 215/254/348 before his demotion to the minor leagues. It's unclear what made him suddenly become a terrible hitter (and the least popular man in Chicago). But it effectively ended his career as a Cub.
So although Hendry was getting fine production from Derrek Lee, Todd Walker, Michael Barrett, and Aramis Ramirez in the lineup (as well as Carlos Zambrano and a decent bullpen) -- he had some pretty big problems to fill. He tried to find someone to fill the outfield holes, but neither Jody Gerut nor Matt Lawton were the answer to his problems.
As the trade deadline neared, an unfortunate reality loomed: the Cubs weren't contenders. The Cardinals were once again running away with the NL Central, and even the Wild Card was only a remote possibility. Hendry traded off Hollandsworth and Lawton before packing it in for the season. The Cubs finished 79-83, a thorough disappointment for a team thought by many to be favorites for the Wild Card.
Thoughts turned to 2006. And it was in the 2005-6 offseason that Jim Hendry, in my opinion, earned his pink slip.
YEAR 4: 2006
Jim Hendry had some big problems going into the 2006 season. He was the GM of a very, very rich club that had dramatically underperformed expectations for two years running, for starters. But he also had a lot of holes to fill on his roster, and even the coffers of the Chicago Tribune seemed unlikely to be able to fill the Cubs' needs.
First and foremost, the Cubs needed an outfield. Hendry had proven unable to replace the contribution of Sosa & Alou, and it was imperative to secure the services of outfielders who could hit. As it stood in the offseason, the most likely starting outfield for the Cubs was Matt Murton/Corey Patterson/Jerry Hairston (Burnitz had been lost to free agency). While Murton was a good prospect taken from Boston in the Nomar deal, the Patterson/Hairston duo looked underwhelming to say the least. The Cubs threw in the towel on Patterson when they traded him to the Orioles for two low-level prospects. That meant that the Cub outfield was, as it stood, one of the worst in baseball, and it was up to Hendry to find some upgrades.
Hendry also needed a shortstop. I give the man far too much credit to think that he actually wanted to see Neifi Perez as the everyday shortstop (I give no such credit to Dusty). The Cubs were set in the rest of the infield: Derrek Lee at first, Todd Walker at second, Aramis Ramirez at third, and Michael Barrett behind the plate.
Oh, and how about that rotation? Both Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were scheduled to return for 2006, but the odds that both would make it through the season unscathed were astronomical. Hendry would need to overpack his starting rotation in order to account for the inevitable injury to one or both. He could pencil in Carlos Zambrano as his #1 starter, and Greg Maddux as his #4, although Maddux was only getting older, and less likely to earn his salary. For the #5 spot, Hendry had Jerome Williams as well as prospects Sergio Mitre and Rich Hill. The odds were good that one of the three could hold down the job, but it still put the club in hot water if/when the injuries hit.
The bullpen was in a state of relative stasis. Dempster was no great closer, but he was good enough for the time being, especially considering the more pressing needs the team faced. Will Ohman and Michael Wuertz had done good work for the team in 2005, and the future was promising for young Roberto Novoa. Considering that Scott Williamson was expected back from injury, the bullpen was at least in stable condition. Some support would be good, but it was not top priority; more attention should be given to adding depth to the starting rotation and especially to securing the outfield.
It was thus with some surprise that Hendry deemed the bullpen his top priority and proceeded to foist money upon it. Amazingly, the team decided to give a 3-year, $11 million contract to Scott Eyre. It's arguable that any middle reliver deserves such money, especially from a team that could better dispose of it elsewhere. Eyre was coming off a season where he posted a 2.63 ERA in San Francisco; but then the season before, his ERA was 4.10. Eyre would be 33 years old in 2005 and was by no means a dependable source of quality innings. So to drop $11 million on him was ludicrous.
But Hendry then compounded his ludicrosity by signing middle reliever Bobby Howry to a 3-year, $12 million deal. It's not as if middle relievers in baseball were regular getting this kind of money; Hendry was breaking boundaries by committing his team to near-historic contracts to middle relievers who weren't even all that great. Spending that money on a relief ace is one thing; but Howry could hardly be deemed one. He was, like Eyre, a good middle reliever, with a relatively solid track record -- much better even than Eyre's. But middle relievers are a notoriously volatile investment -- especially for those well over 30 (Howry soon turns 33 himself).
The keystone of my argument, though, isn't about how good Eyre and Howry are. I do mean to point out that they are less than great and much older than anyone you'd want to sign for 3 years, but that's really immaterial. Even if both Howry and Eyre matched the production of their greatest seasons, the deals would not be worthwhile. $11 or 12 million paid to any middle reliever is a tough thing to justify. Especially -- especially for a team with much more pressing needs. Middle relief comes much lower on the totem pole than a starting outfield and a starting rotation. General Managers, Jim Hendry included, often have a tough time grasping this. Or, if they do grasp it, they are unwilling to stand up to the fans and reporters and admit it.
But Hendry, of course, wasn't done. As for the outfield problem, Hendry started by trading for Florida CF Juan Pierre. This move was lauded all over baseball -- mainly because of Pierre's basestealing abilities, his high average, and his ability to "energize the lineup." First of all, if Juan Pierre's presence can actually cause his teammates to suddenly acquire better hitting abilities, I'll eat my hat; secondly, while Pierre does steal a lot of bases and hit for a high average (.305 career), there are other things to consider. Pierre's career batting line coming into 2006 was 305/355/375. While that isn't bad, it's not exactly great. Even 57 stolen bases (Pierre's 2005 total in Florida) aren't even remotely as valuable as people think they are. Pierre is a poor defensive center fielder, so that's not in his favor. But when he hits for a high average, he can be pretty valuable.
But here are the two big reasons against Hendry's trade: 1)Pierre is approaching free agency, and thus the Cubs won't be assured of his services in the long run, and 2) Pierre was coming off a suspiciously poor season in Florida. In 2005, Pierre hit 276/326/354, which is just rotten, even in that ballpark and with the 57 steals. Is it just an off year? Hard to tell. Pierre's just 28 years old, so he's fairly young yet. But 3 of his 6 seasons in the majors were spent at Coors Field, so it's just hard to tell for sure what kind of hitter he really is.
Was it a bad decision by Hendry? I'll admit that Hendry was dealing from desperation, but Juan Pierre isn't that much of an improvement over Corey Patterson, not so much as people think. His skills are vastly overrated, he's coming off a very poor year at the plate, and he's approaching free agency. I believe strongly that there was a better center fielder to be had, for far less money ($5.75 million). And consider that the Cubs had to give up Sergio Mitre and good pitching prospect Ricky Nolasco to get him from Florida. Conclusion? Bad trade. Either Hendry gave in to the pressure and made the trade everyone expected him to make (which isn't the sign of a good GM), or he doesn't have enough baseball intelligence to see through Pierre's limitations (ditto).
To fill their hole in right field, the Cubs signed free agent Jacque Jones to a 3-year, $16 million deal. Let's talk about Jacque Jones: he's another tremendously overvalued player (the Cubs seem to find them often). Jones is a power hitter with terrible plate discipline. This results in a low OBP, since his batting average isn't very good either. He's not bad defensively, but that's a relatively insignificant trait for a corner outfielder. He's a poor base stealer. Sound attractive to you?
Jones had two seasons -- 2002 and 2003 -- where he hit over .300, and thus was able to gain some value. Then he had two season -- 2004 and 2005 -- where hit much less than .300. Let's look up close:
2002: 300/341/511, 27 HR
2003: 304/333/464, 16 HR
2004: 254/315/427, 24 HR
2005: 249/319/438, 23 HR
Jones is 31 years old. Me being a sensible person, I sense a player who's on the decline. And since he wasn't really that good in the first place (especially for a left fielder in the American League playing half his games in the MetroDome), he doesn't sound like a prime choice to shore up my offense. Jones is basically a 20-homer guy with hitting abilities that are otherwise below-average, considering his status as a corner outfielder and his circumstances. There are dozens of guys like that in baseball, but the Cubs found the only one who was overrated enough to earn a $16 million contract. And Jim Hendry signed said contract.
At shortstop, the Cubs had the novel solution of turning to a prospect, Ronny Cedeno. This was quite a surprise, especially given Dusty Baker's bizarre, self-defeating fetish for veterans. I'm surprised that Dusty didn't have a clause written into his contract guaranteeing 200 ABs for Neifi Perez. Cedeno is a good prospect, especially in terms of defense. But Baseball Prospectus 2006 expresses doubts about his chances of developing into a big-league hitter; they say that he is likely to "struggle for a year or two before settling in as a genuinely useful hitter in the big leagues." The decision to make Cedeno the starting shortstop isn't a bad one at all for a team concerned primarily with the future; but it's puzzling coming from a team that has otherwise auctioned off the future for the here and now. While Cedeno may be the best long-term solution at shorstop, he is not helpful to Hendry's desire to contend this year.
And what did the Cubs do to the starting rotation? The Cubs . . . did . . . nothing. This could be the most damning charge against Hendry, even moreso than the wasted millions thrown at Eyre and Howry. In 2005, Hendry was burned by not having competent backups for Prior and Wood. In 2006, Hendry made the exact same mistake. It's even less forgiveable this year; Prior and Wood are even more injury-prone, as proven by yet another year of injury. The young pitchers aren't quite ready to fill in for them, and two of the contenders went to Florida in the Pierre deal. Carlos Zambrano is one of the most abused pitchers in the majors, a candidate for a debilitating arm injury any day now. Greg Maddux is getting very old. Jim Hendry had to have a Plan B for when Prior and Wood went down. But he did not.
What has been the result? I mentioned it some at the beginning of the article. Not only is the Cub offense in tatters, but the Cub pitching has predictably suffered from a lack of depth. The Cubs are one of the worst teams in all of baseball, a horrific fall for a team that seemed headed for a bright future after 2003. Some have blamed part of this season's struggles on an injury to Derrek Lee. And yes, it's true that the injury has hurt the Cubs, although Lee can hardly be expected to hit like Albert Pujols every year. Not only that, but the Cubs compounded their troubles by trading Jerry Hairston, Jr. to the Rangers to get first baseman Phil Nevin. The Rangers did send along some cash to cover part of Nevin's $10 million+ salary. But while Nevin is still a decent hitter, he was not worth the effort by far.
So what is my final analysis of Jim Hendry? I think that Hendry, as a General Manager, does not respond well to pressure and panics. I think this is illustrated by the rather good job he did at the beginning of his tenure, degenerating to a disastrous 2006 season that has left the franchise in tatters.
The Cubs can ask themselves a simple question: Are they better now than they were 4 years ago? The answer is, most definitely, no. All of that failure isn't attributable to Hendry, of course. Dusty Baker carries his share, if not the lion's share. The multitude of injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior may have happened anyway; and not all of Wood's career came under Dusty's watch. But the fact remains that Baker's manhandling of the two prize pitching prospects has not only severely damaged their careers, but nearly torpedoed the team as well. Baker has every appearance of a total incompetent, whereas Hendry at least seems a competent fellow, at least when not under pressure. And while I can't imagine how intense those pressures may be, I have to lay a major fault at the feet of Jim Hendry.
The Cub franchise is at a crossroads; they need to start tearing down and build for the long haul. They were in a prime position to establish a consistent winner 4 years ago, but that was then. The time has come for a new approach to baseball in Chicago. The first to go should be Dusty Baker, I agree. But the second to go, unfortunately, is Jim Hendry.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

1998 Expansion Pt. 2

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have set new standards for mismanagement and incompetence in the game of baseball. You have to go back to pre-World War II (the Browns, the Phillies, etc.)to find franchises that were mismanaged so spectacularly for so long. It's more shameful that this mismanagement took place in the modern era; it took place in the most competitive environment in baseball history. So, to put it another way, the Devil Rays failed miserably in the era in baseball history in which it was the hardest to be a miserable failure. While most teams are able to bounce back from ineptitude, not so the Devil Rays. The sad part is that because the D-Rays have no history or established fanbase (unlike the Pirates or Royals, for example), no one really cares.
Most of the blame for the franchise's incompetence can be laid at the feet of two men: former owner Vince Naimoli and former GM Chuck LaMar. Both men held their position from the franchise's inception through the 2005 season, after which Naimoli was forced out as owner and LaMar was subsequently fired. Despite the presence of new ownership and a seemingly competent new GM (Andrew Friedman), it's a huge uphill climb for the franchise, out of the gutters of history and towards respectability in perhaps the toughest division in the game.
Naimoli was the man behind the group that finally brought big-league baseball to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. The area had served as the "other woman" for disgruntled franchises for years; any team threatening to leave town would cite Tampa as its possible destination, with several teams even going a long way towards consummating the deal. But it would always turn out to be so much lip service, as teams such as the White Sox, Mariners, A's and Giants all ended up back where they started. Tampa Bay was stuck with nothing, until finally awarded a franchise in the AL as part of the 1998 expansion.
The franchise (not surprisingly) got off to a rough start. After hiring Florida pitching coach Larry Rotschild as manager, the Rays went on to make a surprisingly weak showing in the expansion draft. While the Diamondbacks were at least able to make off with some quality parts for their franchise, it was the D-Rays that ended up with the over-hyped, over-rated and under-achieving players (for the most part). Their first pick (the first pick in the expansion draft) was young Marlins pitcher Tony Saunders, who had just made a name for himself as part of the 1997 World Championship team. Saunders wasn't a bad pitching prospect, but he was far from being the most valuable player available in the draft. The team's next pick (4th overall) was Quinton McCracken, whose only talent was as a base stealer, and even then, not a very good one. (Through 2005, McCracken was a 276/337/375 career hitter in 954 games with just 87 stolen bases). The Rays ended up with many other underwhelming talents, such as Miguel Cairo, Esteban Yan, Mike DiFelice, Bubba Trammell, and Brian Boehringer. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, were able to grab Brian Anderson, Jeff Suppan, Karim Garcia, Cory Lidle, Tony Batista, Omar Daal, David Dellucci, Damian Miller, Joe Randa, Russ Springer, and several others. It may be the best example of one team beating another at an expansion draft.
The Rays were able to nab two pretty valuable players in the draft. Their third pick (6th overall) was Astros prospect Bobby Abreu. The Astros failed to protect the 23-year-old multi-talented prospect, and the Rays wisely nabbed him. They then turned around and completed perhaps the worst trade in franchise history, sending Abreu to the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker. The Rays' rationale was fairly simple: they needed a shortstop. This failed to explain why: a) they felt that their only way to solve that problem was to trade away a man who would eventually become one of the best all-around players in the game and b) they targeted perhaps the worst shortstop in baseball. It's unforgivable that the Rays would trade away Abreu; it's depressing that they would do it for so little in return. Stocker was a bad hitter and indifferent defender who hit 208/282/312 in the Rays' first season; Abreu was, through 2005, a career 303/411/512 hitter with 190 career homers, 241 career stolen bases, and a Gold Glove (undeserved though it was).
The Rays nearly matched that by trading away Dmitri Young, the second-best player they got in the draft. Young was a 24-year-old prospect coming off his first full season. He hit 310/364/481 as a member of the Reds and looked like a solid outfield prospect (which he was). The Rays took him in the draft . . . and then traded him right back to Cincinnati for utility outfielder Mike Kelly , who hit 240/295/401 in 279 ABs with the Rays in 1998 before getting released the following year. The Rays even traded away serviceable pitching prospect Jason Johnson to Baltimore for two players you never heard of.
The only player taken in the expansion draft who would contribute significantly to the Rays for any length of time was outfielder Randy Winn. Winn was a young outfield prospect in the Marlins system that the Rays took with the 58th overall draft pick. It took Winn a while to get established in the majors, but after hitting a dismal 273/339/401 with the club in 128 games in 2001, he broke out with a 298/360/461 performance in 2002. He would be the club's representative at that year's All-Star Game. But, with his arbitration salary rising and free agency looming, the club traded him to the Mariners for Antonio Perez and the "rights" to negotiate a contract with manager Lou Pineilla.
But the real splash the club made in the preseason was on the free agent market. Despite having no one on the team who could realistically support him in the lineup, the Rays bought Tampa native Fred McGriff from the Braves, primarily as a hometown gate attraction (the team's personnel moves would often be motivated by this dubious desire). They also signed washed-up third baseman Wade Boggs, also for gate appeal -- especially since Boggs was chasing down 3,000 career hits. The team's purely cosmetic moves included a series of uniforms known as the "rainbow uniforms," uniforms that looked less like baseball uniforms and more like mood rings.
Other than McGriff, only two other players on the team were making more than $2 million. They were both free agent pitchers: starter Wilson Alvarez and reliever Roberto Hernandez. The Rays paid Alvarez $9 million over his two years spent there, during which Alvarez posted above-average ERAs, despite averaging barely 150 innings per year. After 1999, Alvarez left the majors and didn't return to the team until 2002. For 2000 and 2001, the Rays paid Alvarez $9 million a year -- for 0 innings of work. He only got $8 million in 2002, when he posted a 5.28 ERA in 75 innings of work.
The other big-free agent was established closer Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez had gained fame as the White Sox closer on the team's 1993 AL West Champion team. On the verge of free agency, however, the White Sox traded him to the Giants at the 1997 trade deadline. Hernandez pitched well in both places, notching an ERA of 2.45 overall with 31 SV and 82 K in 80.2 IP. The club saw fit to reward him with a 5-year contract that paid him about $28 million. Hernandez pitched well for them -- posting above-average ERAs each year he played for them -- but they soon realized the folly of spending such a large chunk of your budget on a closer who doesn't have many games to actually close. They traded him to Kansas City after three years.
The inaugural Rays were a bad team -- 63-99, last in the AL East -- but not as bad as you may think. They did sport the AL's worst offense by far (3.83 runs/game, whereas every other AL team scored more than 4.4 R/G) but they had a surprisingly potent pitching staff. Their team ERA of 4.35 was 4th-best in the league, and their .699 defensive efficiency (measure of team defense) was 3rd in the league. This resulted in 751 runs allowed; only the Yankees and Red Sox allowed fewer.
It wasn't just a surprise that an expansion team had fielded such a good pitching staff (probably the best ever for a first-year expansion team), it was a surprise that the Devil Rays did it with an otherwise unimpressive group of hurlers. The team's best starter was Rolando Arrojo, a 30-year-old signed out of Cuba in 1997. Arrojo's 14-12 W-L record reflected poor run support; his 3.56 ERA and 65:152 BB:K ratio in 202 IP reflected a good pitcher. Not only did the Rays get Saunders' one good season (4.12 ERA) and above-average work from Alvarez, they got surprisingly adequate work out of a group of no-names filling out the back of the rotation and managed to cobble together a genuinely good bullpen. Behind Hernandez were useful pitchers such as Jim Mecir (3.11), Albie Lopez (2.60), Esteban Yan (3.86) and Rick White (3.80). So while the offense was (other than McGriff) an abject failure, there were signs that maybe this wasn't going to be such a bad team after all.
The team carried that vague sense of optimism into 1999, signing free agents Jose Canseco and Bobby Witt. The Canseco signing was a success (279/369/563), but Witt was a dud (5.84 ERA in 15 starts), and the rest of the pitching staff regressed. Arrojo and Saunders proved to be one-year wonders, and no one on the pitching staff was able to replace them. The team allowed 5.64 R/G in 1999, second-worst in the league. Their 4.77 runs scored/game was a slight improvement, but only enough to move the team up to a 69-93 finish (still in last). On the plus side, Boggs got hit #3000 on August 7, then retired after the season.
The real "story" of the 1999 season, though, was Jim Morris. Morris' life was seemingly written by Hollywood screenwriters, and indeed, it would eventually be adapted into a Disney film called The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid. Morris was a 35-year-old high school baseball coach who bet his team that if they won the big game, he would try out for the majors. They did, and he did, but the surprising thing was that he actually made the team. Granted, it was the Devil Rays, but Morris' stuff was indeed deemed major-league ready, and he even managed to strike out the first batter he saw. He ended the year with a 5.79 ERA in just 4.2 innings of work which, while not good, at least proved that he was at least able to survive in the majors. After throwing 10.1 good innings in 2000, Morris left the majors. It was a great story for the team, which needed some sort of good news with a roster that showed no life.
Having not enjoyed great success in the amateur draft, LaMar and Naimoli did what every other desperate front office does -- they signed a big free agent. They convinced themselves that what the team needed was an impact bat, so they signed free agent Greg Vaughn and traded for third baseman Vinny Castilla. Vaughn hit well (254/365/499), but he alone wasn't enough to salvage the lineup, of course, whereas Castilla was a terrible failure -- his OBP orbited an abysmal .250 in one and a half seasons with the team before mercifully being traded to Houston.
The pitching staff was atrocious once again, with only some uncharacteristically good pitching from Albie Lopez and Bryan Rekar keeping the team from utter disaster. Steve Trachsel, another free agent signed before the season, got off to a decent start -- so the Rays traded him to Toronto for the immortal Brent Abernathy.
LaMar seemed inept at handling a ballclub, and Naimoli was displaying a complete disregard for his team's fortunes (both on the field and on the books), even when compared to other MLB owners. While Naimoli was, in the early years at least, willing to spend some money on free agents, it was almost never spent wisely; and when it was, it was just a drop in the bucket when it came to reversing the tide of awfulness.
When it comes to blaming managers versus blaming the front office, the simple question is: who has the power to fire whom? So naturally skipper Larry Rotschild was canned after the 69-92 2000 season. He was replaced by former Royals skipper Hal McRae. There were even some allegations of financial misconduct made against Naimoli by some of the other stockholders; Naimoli dismissed the allegations, but he was replaced as team CEO.
With the 2001 version of the team treading water, management looked to get rid of its big contracts. After releasing the terrible Castilla, the team set its sights on McGriff and Vaughn. McGriff was dispatched to the Cubs in July for a pittance -- Manny Aybar and Jason Smith -- that was clearly meant to disguise the good ol' "salary dump." Vaughn proved much harder to trade, as his contributions at the plate didn't come close to matching his $8 million+ salary. With his performance plummeting, the club finally just released him in the spring of 2003. DH Canseco went off to the Yankees via a waiver-wire deal in August.
The worst deal of all, though, was the 3-team deal that saw closer Hernandez go to Kansas City. As part of the deal, the Royals got Hernandez from T.B. as well as Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch from Oakland. Oakland got Cory Lidle from the Rays as well as Johnny Damon and Mark Ellis from K.C. All the Rays got was former Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve, who stopped hitting as soon as he set foot on Tropicana Field. This is why teams stopped joining in on 3-team deals with Billy Beane.
With the roster now manned entirely by cheap no-names, the Rays suffered their first 100-loss season, an even 62-100. The club reached its lowest point in 2002, when the no-names fizzled to a 55-106 record. After the season, the volatile McRae got the boot, replaced by Seattle manager Lou Pineilla. Pineilla's reputation as a great manager finally brought some optimism to the area, although many wondered how the equally volatile skipper would handle a young, losing team with a miniscule payroll.
As far as the aforementioned "young talent" goes, the Rays were finally seeing some of it reach the majors, the result of several years of high draft picks. In 2002, future star Carl Crawford took over the everyday left fielder's job. Although he only hit 259/290/371, Crawford would have a breakout year in 2004, hitting 296/331/450. Crawford's diverse list of talents coupled with his high batting averages covered the fact that he was a corner outfielder who most certainly wasn't hitting like one (289/320/421 career hitter), base-stealing aside. The Rays recently signed him to a long-term contract extension, not a good sign of things to come, especially when the franchise has so many younger, cheaper options in the minors.
Also popping up in 2002 was Aubrey Huff. Huff's defensive liabilities meant he would spend most of his Tampa Bay career as a DH, but Huff was (and still is, so far at least) the best hitter developed by the team. Huff went on a 3-year tear from 2002-2004 of hitting about .300, posting an OBP of about .360, and averaging nearly 30 HRs a year. But after a big slump in 2005 (261/321/428) and a slow start to 2006, the club traded the soon-to-be free agent to Houston for some prospects.
After the disappointing 2002, ownership again made the manager the scapegoat, and McRae was gone. This time, though, the front office had big plans for his replacement. Lou Pineilla had expressed frustration with his situation in Seattle, intimating that he would like to move back east, closer to his home. It was first thought that he would be heading to the Mets, but it turned out that the Devil Rays, very close to Pineilla's Florida home, landed the star skipper. It was hoped that the combination of Pineilla and the young blood coming up from the minors would be enough to get the team out of last place.
2003 was a success only in the W-L sense. The team went 63-99, a slight improvement over 2002 that at least avoided another 100-loss season. More good news emerged from the farm system in the persona of center fielder Rocco Baldelli. Despite the fact that Baldelli, now 24, has only played 2 full seasons (for a 285/326/425 career hitting line) the combination of his "scrappiness" and versatility made him seem like a superstar in Tampa Bay. The club committed itself to Baldelli, even though the native Rhode Islander missed all of 2005 and part of 2006 due to injuries.
The other key acquisition for the lineup was shortstop Julio Lugo, obtained from the Astros after allegations of spousal abuse in Houston. Whatever Lugo's legal status, he proved a good enough hitter for his position (276/340/400 career), stealing a few bases along the way and providing fine defense at short. Lugo is perhaps the most underrated shortstop in the game, as his $3.25 million 2005 salary might suggest. Lugo will likely be traded away as he approaches free agency and the Rays try to turn prospect B.J. Upton into a shortstop (more on that later).
On the pitching side of the equation, the Rays were basically awful; the only solid contributions they got were from hurlers like Victor Zambrano, Tanyon Sturtze, Jeremi Gonzalez and Joe Kennedy; poor pitchers who happened to have one or two good seasons with the team. The bullpen, while not really awful, was usually a work in progress with players quickly revolving in and out.
In 2004, the team decided to look for some modest free agents to supplement the team. Some of them turned out well (Tino Martinez, 262/362/461; Jose Cruz, Jr., 242/333/433). They even signed free agent closer Danys Baez to a contract. Baez would give the team a decent enough closer, until being traded to Los Angeles prior to the 2006 season. Other than Baez, however, the pitching staff was the same group of non-contributors; the team's 5.23 runs allowed/game was better than only Cleveland and Kansas City. However, the Rays got some good luck and some unexpected contributions that resulted in a 70-91 record, a franchise-best. They also managed another first: 2004 was the first season in which the D-Rays did not finish last. They finished 4th, 3 games ahead of Toronto.
Modest success though it was, the team expected to take another step forward in 2005, especially with top minor league prospects such as B.J. Upton and Delmon Young getting closer and closer to the majors. Instead, the team tumbled back into last place, at 67-95. The lineup was an all-around disappointment, with Lugo, Crawford, and rookie Jonny Gomes (282/372/534) the only major contributors. There was also the ascension of talented second baseman Jorge Cantu (286/311/497), but Cantu's power (28 HR, 117 RBI) was countered by his woeful plate discipline (19:83 BB:K ratio).
Conspicuous by his absence was top prospect B.J. Upton. Upton was massacring AAA pitchers, and although he was barely 21 years old, he was clearly ready for the majors. The problem was that Upton was, nominally a shortstop. But Upton's defense at the position was beyond dreadful. Instead of simply shifting him to a different position and getting his potent bat in the lineup, the Rays insisted (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that Upton could become a shortstop, even hiring Ozzie Smith to work with him on his defense. Upton's poor defense early in 2006 just bears out the notion that he is not a major league shortstop. If the Rays hadn't painted themselves into a corner by signing the vastly inferior Crawford and Baldelli to long-term contracts, they could simply shift Upton to the outfield and be done with it. Suspicions rose when the team chose not to bring Upton to the majors as part of their September call-ups. This despite the fact that he was the best major-league ready prospect they had. Upton accused the team of keeping him in the minor leagues to avoid starting the clock on his arbitration status. The team denied it, but the general consensus -- especially among those familiar with Vince Naimoli -- is that Upton was exactly right.
Strong though the minors were in hitting prospects, there was little help on the horizon for the pitching staff. The Rays helped themselves by pulling off the best trade in franchise history. As the 2004 trade deadline approached, the New York Mets were on the fringes of the playoff race. Instead of accepting the fact that they weren't October material, the Mets made several awful trades that lost them valuable prospects and did nothing for them in 2004. The worst of which was the trade that sent New York's top pitching prospect, Scott Kazmir, to Tampa Bay in exchange for Victor Zambrano. It was a stupid trade to end all stupid trades. Not only was Kazmir a brilliant young pitcher, Zambrano was a decidedly un-brilliant 29-year-old coming off back-to-back seasons of allowing more than 100 walks. True to form, Zambrano was a failure in New York, while Kazmir took over as the ace of the Tampa Bay staff (although it's not like anyone else was challenging him for that title).
Kazmir struggled in his brief 2004 stint with the team, but broke out in 2005 with a fine season: 3.77 ERA, 186 IP, and 174 K against just 12 HR allowed. The only troubling aspect was his 100 walks allowed. But so far in 2006, Kazmir has not only matched his 2005 quality, he has done so with a sharply reduced walk rate.
It was becoming clear that in spite of the promising players in the farm system, the front office was not able to put together a winner and wasn't even able to fully exploit the talent they had. Owner Ebenezer Naimoli in particular was more interested in saving as much money as possible, quality be damned. Pineilla made it clear that he was on his way out, and 2005 would prove to be his last season with the club.
But those weren't the only changes on the horizon. Pressures against owner Naimoli had been growing for years, especially since he refused to fire the obviously unqualified Chuck LaMar from his GM post. The overthrow was finally completed in the 2005 offseason, with Stuart Sternberg replacing Naimoli as managing partner of the team. Sternberg, showing a keen grasp of what was wrong with the team, fired GM LaMar and hired young Andrew Friedman as his replacement. Not only that, but Sternberg hired former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker to act as a sort of co-GM/advisor to Friedman. He sought to combine Friedman's youthful spirit and business acumen with the veteran Hunsicker's baseball sense. Whatever the result of this arrangement will be, it's a far cry better than the Naimoli/LaMar duo.
Friedman said all of the right things upon his hiring; without specifically insulting LaMar or Naimoli, he spoke of the shameful past the team had suffered through and a desire to perform more than a cursory overhaul of the team. He also announced that parking at Tropicana Field would be free the following season and even looked into the possibility of changing the team's name.
The Rays decided against a familiar name in their managerial search, hiring longtime Angels coach Joe Maddon to take the helm in 2006. Maddon was very well respected in the Angels organization and also showed an open mind when it came to solving the team's big problems.
The Rays have several quality young players in the majors, and several more on the way in the minors. But the front office has a terrifically difficult job ahead of them, especially when it comes to building a competitive pitching staff behind Kazmir. Hopefully they will resist the temptation to look for a quick fix and keep good on their promise to solidify the franchise from the ground up. It won't be an easy job, but luckily for them, expectations are low. If they could manage a winning season, or simply a season with less than 90 losses, it would be a pretty significant accomplishment. The bar has been set so low that Sternberg, Friedman, and Hunsicker can only improve upon the team's horrific past.