Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 3, 2001
BASEBALL: Nomar v. Joe D, Giambi v. Gehrig, 2001 Sox/Mets/Yanks Deals
Originally posted on Projo.com
This week we round up some semi-random observations on a few of the deadline deals and developments. . .
THE RED SOX
Let’s start with the Red Sox:
Player A is Nomar, 2001, projected from his 1998-2000 “established performance level” (((three times 2000 totals) + (two times 1999 totals) + (1998 totals))/6) over the 59 games remaining on the schedule starting with his return on Sunday.
Player B is Joe DiMaggio, 1949, the year he missed the first half of the season
(Looking over my preseason preview of the Sox reminded me of another funny thing – remember in the offseason, when they got Manny, and Jimy said he wanted to make sure to set the order for the middle of the lineup and keep it that way because it was important to the players to get used to batting in the same place every night? Has anything changed from last year’s chaos? Jimy still uses more different lineups in a week than Don Zimmer did in his entire managing career).
Nomar’s return should, mercifully, put a final end to Mike Lansing as an everyday player, anywhere – ironically, after Lansing’s first good month with the bat in years. (Am I the only one who thinks Lansing looks like the guy who plays the psychiatrist on “Law & Order”?)
The Urbina trade has all the makings of really bad Red Sox karma – stop and think a minute about picking up a guy the Yankees backed away from when he failed his physical – and he hasn’t pitched great, and there’s a chance that Ohka could become a steady third starter in Montreal. That said, it’s definitely a deal the Red Sox had to make – Ohka just wasn’t going to work the bugs out in the middle of a pennant race, and nobody among Garces, Beck and Pichardo is exactly the second coming of Mike Marshall (or even Bob Stanley) when it comes to durability. And Urbina has looked just fine every time I’ve seen him. (Fun fact: in 1998, Urbina saved 7 games against the Mets).
(A hallmark of bad organizations is imitating surface characteristics of good ones while missing the hard work of assembling talent – like when Charlie Finley tried to move the fences in Kansas City to Yankee Stadium dimensions and load up on lefthanded pitching and power, thinking that you could do those things and just magically become the Yankees. Do the Expos, in importing Ohka to join Irabu and Yoshii, think they are learning a big secret from Seattle? Will they sign Shinjo in the offseason?)
Will Rich Rundles be the Bagwell of this deal? Hey, when you trade a corner infielder who’s a year from the majors, you have a decent idea what you’re giving up. Just like the Yankees knew what they were risking in dealing an everyday shortstop for a middle reliever. When you deal a 20-year-old pitcher in A ball, you’re trading a lottery ticket. Sometimes, if the other guy hits the lottery, you look stupid. Sometimes all you did was waste a buck.
Plus, Derek Lowe has resumed his 1987 Roger McDowell impersonation. McDowell, who was a very similar type of pitcher to Lowe, averaged 69 games, 127.2 IP and a 2.93 ERA in 1985-86, and worked his arm off in the 1986 postseason (14.1 innings, including 5 scoreless innings in Game 6 of the NLCS). After hernia surgery in the spring of 1987 he came back with a 4.16 ERA, allowing 95 hits in 88.2 IP, and allowed a back-breaking homer to Terry Pendleton in September. He was only 26 but was never quite the same. Urbina may not really be closer material anymore – he didn’t look it in his Sox debut - but if Lowe is going to implode, better to have someone else to turn to.
(Yet another tangent . . . that Pendleton home run game brings to mind another controversy earlier this season: bunting to break up a no-hitter. The Mets entered that game, the first of a 3-game set, trailing the Cards by 1 game if I remember right, and Ron Darling had a no-hitter and a 3-0 lead through 6 innings. Vince Coleman dropped a bunt down the first base line – and the no-hitter was gone, and so was Darling, who tore ligaments in his thumb trying to field it and missed the rest of the season. That started the Cards’ rally that culminated in Pendleton’s ninth inning homer; they shelled Gooden the next day, and the pennant race was done. I hated Coleman for that at the time – but that’s what you do in a pennant race, and no less so just because it’s not September yet).
The Sterling Hitchcock deal was pretty cheap, and bringing in another starter made sense because the Kiesler elves (Randy Kiesler, Ted Lilly and Adrian Hernandez) are very much not ready for prime time. Lilly has shown the most promise, but pitching in a pennant race in the Bronx is a gauntlet few young starters are equipped to handle. It looks like Lilly will be the one to stay in the rotation, with Hitch bumping Kiesler, but two of those guys at once was straining the Yankee bullpen.
Not a bad deal. But remember that there’s still a risk – even considering the lack of good alternatives – in giving a job to Hitchcock. Remember, this is a guy who had a 4.69 career ERA before he got hurt, and his two good years were in San Diego, one of the NL’s best pitchers’ parks. Maybe he’ll recapture the magic of the 1998 postseason, when he was NLCS MVP, but for now, don’t expect big things. The main hope is that he can pitch just enough better than Kiesler to give the bullpen some rest.
As is their habit, the Yanks made the deals they wanted ahead of the deadline. Acquiring Mark Wohlers already looks like a mistake; the league was hitting .291 against him in Cincinnati, and he’s been awful in the Bronx. Witasick’s been slightly better, but has given up a ton of hits and still looks frighteningly like the pitcher who had ERAs above 5.50 for his first five straight seasons entering 2001. D’Angelo Jimenez went 14-for-75 in July, so the Yankees haven’t gotten bad press on this one, but if Jimenez can recapture his pre-injury form this could really wind up looking bad.
Even the acquisition of Enrique Wilson has gone badly thus far. I loved the move at the time – the Yanks got a 25-year-old middle infielder who entered this season as a lifetime .283 hitter, in exchange for next to nothing – but Wilson has been completely helpless at the plate.
I’ve reserved judgment on the Yanks thus far this year on the assumption that, as so often proves true, the team they had on the field would not be the one they took into October. But they have basically chosen to stand pat and tinker just around the edges, which means they will have to get production the rest of the way from at least 4 of O’Neill, Tino, Brosius, Justice, Knoblauch and Soriano. Several of those guys have reached back lately to past glory (and Soriano has even taken a few pitches, a sign of the value of having good influences around), and it’s always dangerous to count out a veteran team with multiple championships behind it. But is the talent level still up to par? I’ll take a closer look in the next few weeks.
The Lawton deal, from the Twins’ perspective, I don’t quite understand. On the field, 2001, this is a fairly even trade: both Lawton and Reed are productive but not quite All-Star caliber players; Lawton’s younger, but Reed’s having a better year and, as I’ve explored in past columns, he has something extra on the ball late in the season: for his career, in the regular season, he has struck out 6.28 batters per 9 innings after September 1, compared to 5.47 the rest of the year (through 2000), and in the postseason the past two years that jumped to 7.94. But this is a team that’s already got an unimpressive-looking offense (granted, they are fifth in the AL in runs and sixth in pitching) and in particular a shortage of outfielders who can hit, and trading their most reliable hitter (Lawton’s really the only guy on the team who’s established himself as a consistent offensive force for more than just this year) for another starting pitcher seems risky. The deal probably leaves the Twins with the worst hitting outfield in baseball; Hunter, Jones and Allen are even worse at the plate than the pre-Lawton Mets crew of Agbayani, Payton and Shinjo.
Maybe the Twins felt that they were better off staying in more games rather than throwing them away at the back of the rotation, but the back of the rotation can be buried in October, as anyone can remember from 1987. What this deal really means is that the Twins think that getting to the postseason is so important they are willing to sacrifice their odds of winning once they get there.
Also, Reed makes almost $8 million a year and is signed for 2 more years; that’s not big money by Mets standards, but compared to the Twins’ payroll it’s a longer term commitment than I had expected. Plus, Reed (like Lawton, but for different reasons) was extremely unhappy with the move. The Twins’ other deal, for Todd Jones, makes some sense given their need for insurance for their Russian Roulette-playing closer, LaTroy Hawkins. The “proven closer” tag is overrated; with the exception of a few guys who are just too psyched out by the pressure, nearly anyone who can pitch can learn to close games. But pitchers who have done both closing and setup work will all tell you that there is a real mental adjustment to be made, and there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s harder to adjust to closing for the first time in August in the middle of a pennant race. You can’t fault the Twins (or the Red Sox for that matter) for
Mike Lupica calls Lawton "a lefthanded Tsuyoshi Shinjo," which is like calling the late-80s Lenny Dykstra a young Joe Orsulak, or comparing Bernie Williams to Garret Anderson. Lawton may not have the name recognition, but he’s a very good hitter; as of the deal he had a better OBP than Ichiro, Jeter or Bernie, and the Mets desperately need a guy who gets on base. The Mets should use him as a leadoff man, although Valentine’s still tinkering with where to put him.
What’s odd from the Mets’ perspective is the win-now aspect: Lawton’s not old, but at 29 he’s probably got more good years behind him than ahead, and he’s only signed through next year. Baseball-reference.com lists the ten most similar players to Lawton through age 28, starting with ex-Met Kevin Bass and also including Bernard Gilkey, and the ten all had highly similar career totals at the same age.
Eight of the ten had their last good year by age 29, the two exceptions being Larry Hisle, who had 2 great seasons at 30 and 31 (driving in 119 and 115 runs) before abruptly washing out, and Jackie Jensen, who won the MVP at 30 and had his career cut short at 32 in part by a fear of airplanes.
Trading Wendell and Cook to the Phillies for Bruce Chen and Adam Walker looks like a great idea for the Mets, since Chen has a great arm and Walker’s hot start at AA suggests a guy who may be a real prospect (albeit one with a history of injuries, a familiar song for Mets pitching prospects the past decade or so).
Chris Kahrl of the Baseball Prospectus noted some weeks back that the main reason the Phillies had soured on Chen was his failure to adequately prepare for his starts by reviewing scouting reports. Ironically, the Mets just dealt to Philly their go-to guy on drilling the pitchers with advance scouting, Todd Pratt. The attitude/desire question does move Chen from “coming star” status to “talented project,” but he’s still a chance worth taking. He's a better bet than Glendon Rusch was when the Mets picked him up.
I’ll miss Wendell – this really does cut the guts out of the Mets pen in a way that can’t be replaced this season – but in the long run, young, cheap starting pitchers are worth a whole lot more than old, expensive middle relievers. And the deal does make you wonder what the Phillies got when they spent a fortune on free agent relievers in the offseason and dealt another starting pitcher (Paul Byrd) to Kansas City for Jose Santiago. Meanwhile, the starting rotation has come unglued, and so has Bowa. Oh well, when the Phillies are hoisting their 2001 wild-card-runnerup banner they will look back on this deal as a key move .
THE JERMAINE DYE DEAL
Maybe I’m giving away my conclusion in the caption, but notice how the press accounts always identify the Royals’ trades by the guy they give up, not the one they get?
This is definitely a win-now deal for Oakland; Dye could join the parade to greener pastures in the not-too-distant future if he ever starts hitting again.
But there’s good reason to play for today. Let’s do another player comparison:
Player A: Jason Giambi (2000-01)
This is yet another reason for Billy Beane to ignore the fact that his team is 20 games out of first place, swallow hard and bet the ranch on the 2001 Wild Card. Now, these weren’t Gehrig’s best years, and of course he had 13 straight seasons like this, not 2. But that’s the point: it’s a very rare thing in baseball to get a guy who can hit like Lou Gehrig in his prime in the middle of your lineup, and rarer still when it’s a guy who was just another solid hitter the first five years of his career. Even if the A’s re-sign Giambi, it’s as likely as not that he’ll go back to being just another .300/.500/.400 guy by 2002 or 2003, and Oakland will have lost a tiny window of having a guy put together back-to-back seasons in the rarefied air of Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg.
The bizarre thing about the Royals trading for Neifi Perez – who’s basically a younger version of Rey Sanchez once you get him out of Coors Field – is that it puts the lie to their argument that the Damon deal was really all about Angel Berroa, the “shorstop of the future” they got from Oakland in that trade. If you really made the deal to get a shortstop of the future, why’d you trade another outfielder for yet another young shortstop? To fill a hole for 2001 – when you’re in last place? For 2002, which you open without Dye and Damon? At last check, Berroa is hitting .269 at AA Witchita, where he’s hit 3 homers and drawn 6 walks. Oh, but he is really good at getting hit by pitches . . .