Monthly archives: December 2007
Happy Old Year
I couldn't bring myself to write much of anything while I was in Chicago for the holidays. I don't like travel, gatherings, fuzzy sweaters, alcohol, organized religion, the exchange of gifts, or treasured childhood memories -- in short, I really can't stand Christmas. Compounding my general grinchness with the grotesque nightmare that is attempting air travel in or out of Denver in the winter, I've decided from now on I'm staying alone in my apartment for all major holidays. Except perhaps a side trip to Whoville to steal presents, kick puppies, and poison the supply of roast beast.
I'm sure it doesn't come as a surprise to any of my loyal readers that I'm a grumpy individual at Christmastime or any time else, but I want to give you proper context for the one shining moment in a "vacation" that was mostly concerned with back pain and amassing debt. On Christmas morn, as has been the tradition in my family since I entered into it, my sisters and I scamper dutifully down the stairs in our parents' house to find each of our present hauls arranged on different chairs in the living room. This used to be such a singular occasion that none of us would sleep the night before, and nowadays a few of us have to be prised with coffee to even get out of bed before noon. Especially me. We're adult kids now, and there's no mystery attached to Santa Claus. Starting when we were teenagers our wish lists began to get very specific. By high school we were just throwing items into the cart at Best Buy while our mother stood by with the credit card. In recent years more often than not we have to go out ourselves to buy whatever it is we want, then return it with an invoice to our parents. Most of the magic has long since dissipated.
I didn't have anything particular that I needed this year, so I let my mother surprise me for once. Usually I ask for a new stringed instrument, but my progress at mastering the banjo has been slower than expected and I've recently discovered that due to my huge electric bass calluses I can no longer play a standard-sized mandolin. So I got downstairs on Christmas morn and for the first time in years I genuinely experienced some holiday spirit, because my parents had gotten me this enormous limited-edition print of the Rockies celebrating their win in Game 4 of the NLCS. There was Manny Corpas, Yorvit Torrealba, and Brian Fuentes, all looking like kids as if Santa himself had parallel-parked his sleigh out front and burst in announcing there'd been an accounting mistake and he had more presents for everybody.
So, while you're all out celebrating another arbitrary calendar page this evening, try not to forget as I did that this was a pretty special year in Colorado. We won't soon see its like again. Unless....
That Old Outraged Feeling
I still feel the Rockies are in pretty good shape for next year, considering that what ended up being a 90-win team had two massive power sinks in the lineup (at least one of which will now be gone) and didn't have its first-choice pitching rotation assembled at any time (unless you count Aaron Cook's sad little World Series start). Arizona and Los Angeles have made some moves, but both teams were rather considerably fundamentally worse than Colorado last year, and it would not be at all unreasonable to anticipate some growth on the part of the Rockies' young players, which is almost all of them. I anticipate that some of you are now saying to yourselves, "But, the D-Backs and Dodgers have young players too." That is true. However, the Dodgers have organizational issues -- they don't want to win with the players they have, for some reason -- and Arizona's young players, as a group, didn't play as well as the Rockies' did last year. And of course there's always the Padres, who are supposed to be too old to count, but they still have more pitching than Colorado does and were the "true" second-place team in the NL West last season. We'll write more about the competition in the division when Spring Training is closer on the horizon, but one thing I think all of us who are fans of any team in the NL West can agree upon -- nobody needs to worry about the Giants being good any time soon. Like, the next decade soon.
Anyway, I'm not here today to write about the competition. I'm worried about a franchise that only had three obvious needs going into this offseason only fully addressing one of them, barely trying for another, and completely ignoring/denying the third big necessity. If you watched the team last year, you know what I'm talking about -- Colorado could really use a deeper bullpen, they have a gap at second base left by the departure of Kazuo Matsui, and they have a yawning chasm in center field. I'm not the only person who feels this way -- remember, Willy Taveras was benched for the last two games of the World Series. That's pretty harsh treatment for a guy who was your everyday centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the whole season. Taveras might have been benched more because his sore hamstring kept him from being 100% effective than because Clint Hurdle finally realized as I did long ago that Taveras is a pathetic, grotesque excuse for an everyday major leaguer, but I think that kind of makes my point for me. If a guy completely relies on his speed, and absolutely nothing else, to make him a passable major-league ballplayer, isn't every year you spend with the guy on your payroll past his 25th birthday another turn at Russian roulette? Even if there's no trade market for Willy T the Rockies are being beyond foolish in not bringing a veteran or two into camp to nip at his heels; I'm having no part of another Steve Finley comeback but it looks like Mike Cameron doesn't have a lot of options and there are plenty of teams with centerfielders to trade. If Willy is starting on Opening Day, then Dan O'Dowd was asleep at the switch for the easiest offseason he's ever faced. After years of having question marks all over the field, the Rockies have a pretty credible core assembled at last -- not putting the few last pieces in place to allow that core its best chance at sustained postseason success is a worse crime than keeping the team so crummy for so long in the first place.
Willy Taveras is a losing player. The Rockies want to be a winning team. Make him go away, please, if only to the bench.
Arizona Gets Better
I wasn't at all prepared today to write a big post on the Mitchell report, although I had a lot of ideas organized for it. Now comes the news that the Arizona Diamondbacks, defending NL West champions, have added Oakland starter Danny Haren for a package of prospects. That's something I have to address, too, since the D-Backs are the Rockies' primary competition in the division next year (sorry, Dodger fans).
Is Arizona in denial about how much of a fluke last season was for their team? The Diamondbacks put fewer runners on base than any other team in the National League, and yet they advanced all the way to the NLCS. You'd think for a team that bats a platoon outfielder #3, the acquisition of a threatening hitter would be the primary offseason goal. However, I think Arizona GM Josh Byrnes has made maybe the best move that was out there for his team this offseason. Arizona has both a raftful of exciting minor leaguers and an everyday lineup already packed with homegrown, arbitration-controlled talent. There's every reason to believe that their offense will be a lot better in 2008, and while their overall pitching was very strong last season, after Brandon Webb they were awful short in dominator types. Now they're much better built for the playoffs, assuming they're lucky enough to get back. Even if their offense didn't so heavily feature young players like Chris Young and Stephen Drew who are almost guaranteed to perform better in '08, the cost to the team of adding one excellent pitcher is way lower than it would be to rehaul an entire offense. If there's one thing they've learned about baseball in Phoenix (besides how to not sell out home playoff games), it's that two ace starters and average everything else is enough to win a World Series.
Missing "Our Guy for Your Guy"
For whatever reason blockbuster trades never entered much into the culture of the NHL or the NFL; basketball's current financial model has assured that in any given trade there will be four or five teams involved and some nine of the fourteen or more names changing rosters will not have played any more for their prior organization than they will for their new one. So for transaction hounds everywhere, there's only baseball left... and the days of the position-for-position, comparable player-for-comparable player "challenge trade" are mostly long behind us. Now the relevant statistics whenever a player under contract changes teams aren't his RBI's and average or ERA and saves, but rather the years remaining on his current deal, the dollars per year, and whether there's incentives, options, or trade-limiting clauses involved. MLB hasn't quite gotten to the NBA phase where there's at least one player if not a couple of players on every roster whose only value is tied up in a soon-to-expire contract, but hang on a few years here and watch what happens.
I thought for a while that writing about LaTroy Hawkins' signing with New York was something that could be dealt with in a mere addendum to an earlier post. Then I changed my mind and started thinking that maybe there was a larger lesson to be drawn from the whole story -- the Yankees got Hawkins for $3.75 million, which was the exact amount in 2008 salary that Colorado would have paid the righthander had they exercised the team option in the free-agent deal they gave LaTroy before the 2007 season began. In order to decline that option, the Rockies had to pay Hawkins a $200,000 bonus. They had every intention of bringing Hawkins back, but for a team like Colorado, the numbers to the right of the decimal point matter -- for a team like the Yankees, who will pay Carl Pavano $11 million to either not play or play minor league ball in 2008, it's not even worth calling the brain trust in Tampa to double-check over such an amount. Colorado had a good idea that Hawkins' value for 2007 wouldn't be more than $4 million, they took a measured risk in assuming they could decline the option and get him back for the same figure he made in 2007 ($3.25m), and even with the option save... let's see, $300,000. If you're the GM of the Rockies and you have a chance to save three hundred thousand bucks, or a couple million as will be the case with Kazuo Matsui and whomever replaces him at second, you have to take it.
This small point about the Hawkins deal, I realize, comes around to a larger point about the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis deal of a few days ago that I think I missed making when I first glossed over that deal. Why wasn't that trade a slam-dunk for Detroit, as most sources have declared without even thinking deeply? Well, not to compare the quality of Miguel Tejada, a player deep into his decline phase with both steroid and attitude yellow flags about him, to Miguel Cabrera, who's a stud (and I never said he wasn't), but look what the Astros just gave up for Tejada (basically nothing) in comparison to what the Tigers gave up for Cabrera (two star minor leaguers, guys whose names even folks like me who completely disregard the minor leagues knew off the top of their heads). Yeah, the Orioles held on to Tejada for too long. Yes, Houston will look even dumber than they already do if the shortstop is one of the star named names in the Mitchell Report, which is to be released tomorrow. But... Tejada is a former MVP and a valuable player who's only 31 and gets paid less than many players he's demonstrably better than. Not a single one of the five guys Baltimore got in the trade will ever be an everyday position player or a legitimate rotation member for a competitive team.
No one should be surprised that the Twins haven't dealt Johan Santana yet, and might not at all. No one should be outraged that the Angels and Dodgers haven't made massive trades to this point, despite the fact that they have lots of prospects and money to spend (and therefore, in the minds of many old-line columnists out there, they must trade those prospects and must spend that money, because they can). The fact is that making a trade isn't just about thinking your roster would be better off without this handful of players and with this other handful there in their places instead; it's about all these scary terms that belong in business schools and not baseball fields: cost certainty, payroll flexibility, marginal utility. You can't add a star without being willing to pay superstar money, now, later, and quite possibly for years after said star's retirement. And you can't add a superstar without the okay of your insurance guys, your marketing guys, the league office, the local papers, Nike, Scott Boras, and Tony Kornheiser.
How many teams are there even left that can deal with this hassle? Not many. And while it's not being as clearly reported as it could be, as a result of the huge array of costs that come handcuffed to any trade that brings in more salary than it sends out, the degree to which this offseason has really become a buyers' market is clear. The Marlins were such motivated sellers that they gave Detroit Dontrelle Willis for practically nothing (the part of the deal which I really don't like -- Willis could be disastrous for a Tigers team whose pitching strength has been in freefall since midseason, 2006). If there had been some team that wanted to give up a prospect for Willis, as opposed to mostly just take his salary and give Florida some warm bodies in return, Cabrera could have been had in that deal too. Likewise, the Orioles couldn't get anything for Tejada anywhere, and they finally tried to save face with a deal that has quantity of return going for it if nothing else.
Since this list of teams that can first make the trade, and then go into a meeting with an agent to talk extension without being laughed at or ignored, is so tiny, we're seeing a lot more gamesmanship and a lot less action than we're used to this offseason. If this was supposed to be such a great atmosphere for trades -- well, what happened to all of them? Denny Bautista for Jose Capellan really get your engine going? The Red Sox and the Yankees both want Santana a good deal, but what they really want -- what stalks their very nightmares -- is for the other team to not get him. The Orioles can't get a reasonable market going for Erik Bedard because their stupid, evil owner won't let Boston and New York -- the two teams you always want in on the bidding, no matter what -- in on the bidding.
This is why I think the Tigers gave up too much to get Cabrera. Who were they really bidding against? Boston and the Yankees have third basemen. If the Angels really wanted him, they would have had him. Ditto the Dodgers. Detroit could have waited until midseason, given Willis a chance to show he could get things back on track, and maybe made the same deal only hanging on to one or the other of Miller and Maybin and perhaps one of the other dudes as well. Also, acquiring a guy at midseason, there's less pressure to sign him to an extension immediately, so the Tigers could have gotten a free chance to see how Cabrera responded to their conditioning suggestions for half a season. As it is now, they might feel the need to lock him up this moment to justify/guarantee the trade, and bad things might come of that.
So maybe the Tigers' deal for Willis/Cabrera wasn't great, wasn't them maximizing their assets, and we'll see how that plays out in the next few years. If they win it all this year or next, obviously, all is forgiven. However, I don't think they will... I think Cleveland and Boston and the Yankees and Anaheim are all still better, and Detroit has sacrificed all of its flexibility going forward for the next few years. They have to win with the guys they have now. The other AL powers I listed all have the capability to retool, whether it's because of deeper farm systems, larger pocketbooks, or both.
Hey, you know who's really, really dumb? Whomever is calling the shots in Houston these days. You're not a playoff team! Stop signing guys like Carlos Lee to medium-term deals and trading for guys like Tejada! You're going to suck for three or four years no matter what you do, so take your medicine and deal with it. If nothing else, you can sell tickets by having Roger Clemens come back multiple times in the next few seasons to pitch to his various K-named progeny.
Carroll Out; Iguchi In?
In a move there have been low-level rumors about for days, Dan O'Dowd and the Rockies shipped utilityman Jamey Carroll to the Indians for a PTBNL. Caroll's role in 2006 with a 76-win Rockies team was everyday second baseman; with a 90-win team in 2007, he was a sub. That's a pretty accurate assessment of his value -- on a contending team, he's a backup. It might seem like a bad idea to be shedding middle infielders at this point in time considering that Kazuo Matsui just signed with Houston, but the line on this trade from the beginning has been that with the money saved on Carroll, who wished to be given an opportunity to start elsewhere, O'Dowd will pursue former White Sox infielder Tadahito Iguchi.
If I am reading the tea leaves correctly, the Rockies will end up signing Iguchi for less per year and fewer guaranteed seasons than the Astros did Matsui, who got a 3-year, $16.5 million contract. Although Colorado will be bidding against the team with whom Iguchi completed last year, the Phillies, they have a few advantages. Iguchi wants to play closer to the west coast, which Denver certainly is more so than Philadelphia, and he may not wish to move away from second base -- the Phillies and several of the other teams connected to Tadahito like him as a third baseman. More concretely, the Rockies have an edge over the Phillies because specific language in Iguchi's contract required him to be released 15 days after the World Series if he hadn't re-signed by then (presumably a provision in the player's original deal with Chicago designed to allow him an easy return to playing in Japan were life in the big leagues not to pan out). It's possible the league could waive the rule that keeps free agents from re-signing with a team that nontendered them the previous winter until May 15th, but it's also possible that they won't. If O'Dowd gets Iguchi for two years, and any less than $5.5 million per (Iguchi made $3.5m in 2007), he'll have strengthened the position and saved money. Iguchi is twice the hitter that Matsui is, and is better than half as good defensively.
LaTroy Hawkins looks to return to the Rockies within the next few days, as Colorado has agreed to give the veteran reliever a raise for 2008. With players like Hawkins, one-year deals are all that's called for and that's all apparently that the Rockies are willing to give. In a league that's exploding with ill-considered big-money signings, even in places like Kansas City and Milwaukee, it's nice to see the old home team sticking to such a rational and measured plan.
Update: The Yankees apparently have agreed to sign Hawkins for $3.75 million, which was the value of his option for this season that Colorado earlier declined. LaTroy undeniably pitched well for the Rockies in their stretch run, but I'm still relieved to see him go -- my memory of Hawkins with the Rockies is always going to be the lead he blew on Opening Day 2007. And my overall memory of him will be the unique rude noise my father always made whenever the Cubs sent him into a game.
The Forest for the Trees
I was going to write a post today about how it's ridiculous that Bud Selig is trying to flex his commissioner powers by punishing guys who aren't rich or smart enough to buy the new kinds of performing-enhancing drugs that they haven't invented tests for all while the free-agent and trade market continues to funnel all of the marquee players in the sport to the same five teams and three cities. Will it be fifteen years from now that MLB starts to deal with its massive competitive imbalance problems, since it's taken about that long to deal with the steroid problem that started becoming an epidemic back when I was in elementary school?
But at the same time, I realized there might be some cognitive dissonance between what I think is happening in baseball, which I love, and what I think is happening in the NFL, which I increasingly detest. I think that the quality of play in the NFL is as low as it has been since before the AFL-NFL merger and it is quickly headed towards the point where even the degenerate gamblers will have to admit this. The salary cap and massive mismanagement on the part of nearly every franchise has led to a league where there are three good teams -- Colts, Steelers, Patriots -- and at least 20 utterly wretched ones. Football is a really difficult game to coach and learn, and since players don't stay with their teams for more than two or three years at a time, the quality of offensive line play, receiver route-running, and the sophistication of defensive schemes has gotten to the point where you'll see better fundamental football in the Madden videogame than you ever will on a real NFL field. Not to mention the unlimited substitution rule and a massive, almost completely league-unacknowledged rash of human grown hormone abuse has created a class of human-cartoon offensive and defensive lineman who hardly resemble men, let alone athletes, and who are mostly incapable of two bursts of four-second activity a minute apart without immediately staggering off the field so a nearly-as-huge backup can lumber on in their place for third down. This is a dreadful league; there have been about three watchable games this entire season and the playoffs at most will offer two more.
But the NFL is doing better than it ever has. Apparently fans like watching beefed-up superteams zip through the regular season meeting as much resistance as the Nazis did in Poland, and all the more so when they're big-city or historically significant franchises. The league has succeeded where MLB has failed in creating fans who like the league first and their team second... with a huge assist from fantasy and gambling. As a fan of a small-market baseball team it hurts me to admit this, but maybe baseball will be better off with five or six megateams and a bunch of also-rans. It certainly didn't hurt the game's popularity in the 50's (Dodgers, Giants, Yankees) or the 70's (A's, Reds, Orioles, Yankees again).
Is that good for fans in Pittsburgh, Denver, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay? Nope, it sucks. But if you've been a baseball fan in one of those towns for the last couple years, you already know how much the lords of the game care about you: Not one least little bit. Their priority is to maximize short-term television ratings. With the star-laden Boston, New York, and Detroit teams that will play every weekend on Fox next season, maybe they will. Good for them, I guess.
How did the steroid problem get so out of control? Well, I don't have the facts drawn as clearly in my mind as some others might since in 1987 I was convinced Jody Davis was the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, but I suspect that a large part of the owners' long-term absent-mindedness on the topic stemmed from the collusion mess -- and then, of course, as has been more widely reported, the desire to win fans' loyalties back in the wake of the 1994 strike. But performance-enhancing drugs were becoming an issue well before Joe Carter ended the last wild card-free postseason.
So, in a roundabout way, we're now seeing the same thing happen again. The owners are insisting there is no need for a salary cap and the revenue-sharing system "works" even though soulless, bean-counting owners in Pittsburgh and Florida are clearly exploiting a broken system for all it's worth. Why? Because a salary cap would depress payroll growth, and the players' union has already done all the compromising that it's going to do this decade on the steroid issue.
I'm reminded of the efforts the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is futilely making to keep college students from illegally downloading their records. The RIAA can't possibly catch every person file-sharing in the country, so they're running a scapegoating and intimidation campaign against the weakest and easiest-to-catch "violators" of their absurd, outdated distribution system. If the major record labels could face facts and start working in this century's reality instead of the last one, they could probably find new ways of creating profit or at the very least better incentives for people to buy their old products -- priority service for concert tickets, added DVD content, access to downloadable bonus tracks, really rad packaging like Tool's records always have, whatever -- and baseball is no different. The owners are fighting a battle they've already lost because they didn't deal with it when the time was ripe; they were too busy fighting back all of the other brushfires their pathologically reactionary attitude had allowed to spread unchecked in the years before.
Baseball management didn't deal with the reserve clause when they had the chance to in the sixties, and it came back to haunt them in the seventies. They didn't set up a fair and transparent system for free agency in the seventies, and it nearly killed the game in the eighties. They didn't wake up to the steroid menace in the eighties, and... well, you see where I am going with this. Baseball has been fifteen years out of sync with the rest of the country ever since it took them about that long to realize that a lot of the people in the United States live west of the Mississippi. (As Bill James notes with increasing smugness in the decade-by-decade summaries of the Historical Baseball Abstract, until 1958 the western border of Major League America was defined by the state of Missouri.)
What's really sad is that the one shining example of a case where baseball was ahead of the curve is the last and best argument for the game's faded primacy in American sport. His name was Jackie Robinson, and he played for the Dodgers, who just made a pretty good deal in signing Andruw Jones. That was the other thing I wanted to mention today.
Minor Deals... and a Blockbuster
When I started writing this, it was going to be a brief post to note two Rockies-related transactions that really weren't worthy of all that much discussion: Kazuo Matsui signed with Houston, which was a little surpising in that I didn't really hear much connecting the Astros with Matsui before the deal was announced, but not particularly surprising on a larger scale since the Rockies have been behaving since the moment the World Series ended as if there was no chance of them getting back their second baseman. Kazuo got 3 years, $16.5 million from Houston, who are -- and I don't think there's a lot of debate about this at the moment -- one of the worst-run franchises in the National League. Matsui's VORP was 16.9 last year, just a hair ahead of Ryan Spilborghs for sixth among hitters on the team in the category. And Spilborghs had almost exactly two-thirds the number of at-bats that Matsui did. Kazuo was a contributor for the Rockies last season, but $5.5 million per season is too much for his skills. The Astros will find themselves with the same buyers' remorse the Mets did when they first brought Matsui over from Japan.
We've talked a lot about Dan O'Dowd's ability to generate bullpen talent by rubbing two sticks together; so let's not dismiss the Denny Bautista-for-Jose Capellan trade as mere roster-fiddling. Capellan was a guy that many prospect guides touted highly, at least around the time of the Dan Kolb trade between Atlanta and Milwaukee that made Capellan a Brewer. He's never gotten it done in a meaningful fashion at the major-league level, but he's young yet and Bautista was clearly not Coors Field material in his handful of inflammatory relief appearances last season. O'Dowd as quoted by Jayson Stark on the ESPN winter meetings blog: "Relievers are like the stock market. Hopefully, we'll hit on this one."
There are also some rumors flying around out there about a Brian Fuentes trade, and some are claiming Colorado tried to flip Clint Barmes for Houston's Chris Burke (a classic offense for defense trade, only Barmes' offense was awful last season too) only to be rebuffed. I can't get too excited about any of this manuevering, not when the real teams are talking about Johan Santana deals.
So I would be done now, except word just came down from the research department that Detroit has sent every significant prospect in its system to Florida for Dontrelle Willis, who has a famous name but hasn't been good in more than two years, and Miguel Cabrera, who is one (forthcoming) massive contract extension away from gaining another fifty pounds and getting the first of several knee injuries that will render him into this decade's version of Mo Vaughn. I openly loathe Detroit's team, their manager, and their stupid ownership, and I hope very much that my initial reaction to this trade (so much for the Tigers for another five to ten years) is the correct one. No matter how big the extensions they give Willis and Cabrera, the Bobby Higginson deal is safe as the dumbest in Detroit history... but we'll see if this dumb move cripples them for longer. Could be!
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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