Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
The Cold Stove
2008-11-22 17:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's as I feared: the Rockies are once again complete nonentities in the trade-rumor reports and free-agent signing buzz columns on the national websites. It's not that Colorado plans to stand pat after trading their franchise player for a platoon outfielder, a fifth starter whose ERA at Coors may well top 7.00 (the "Chacon Line"), and a damaged-goods closer that they have no intention of keeping. It's just that the various baseball reporting sources out there assume, correctly, that nobody cares what the Rockies are planning. Their roster is essentially a toolbox for the teams that count to pick and choose parts from at whim.

Normally at this time of year there would be a lot of hot air regarding the postseason awards selections, but aside from the Gold Gloves (which are a travesty) the selectors basically got it right this season. It was gutsy, and uncharacteristic, of the voters to pick the actual best pitcher and player in the NL to win the Cy Young and MVP. The AL Cy Young was too obvious to miss, and the Managers of the Year were pretty obvious choices as well (although Chicago fans wish Lou Piniella's playoff preparations were taken into account during the polling). The only award you could really call a reach was Dustin Pedroia's AL MVP nod; Pedroia clearly wasn't the best offensive player in the league nor the one most valuable to his team. He was third in the league in position-player VORP, though, and nobody wants to see A-Rod win any more awards. I feel bad for Carlos Quentin, who probably would have won had he not missed the last month of the season with an injury. As far as the murky definition of MVP goes, he would have been my pick -- the White Sox would have been a completely different team without his contributions.

I saw a few items out there linking the Rockies and the Reds as possible trade partners, which stands to reason. Colorado needs pitching, desperately, and Cincinnati doesn't have any to spare. It does say that they're kicking the tires on Willy Taveras and Yorvit Torrealba in addition to the eminently available Garrett Atkins. I would frankly trade Atkins for nothing just for the opportunity to never have to watch Willy Taveras play again, but this isn't the NBA. If Dan O'Dowd could move Torrealba, who slumped and was passed by on the depth chart by Chris Iannetta, for anything of use that would be a coup. There's always teams looking to overpay for mediocre catching for some reason, even though there must be 800 catchers in the minor leagues capable of hitting .220 and playing decent defense at the big-league level.

I'm really annoyed by Colorado's decision to ask for Huston Street instead of a third prospect in the Matt Holliday deal. A bird in the hand (or, as the case may be, a mid-minors starting prospect with a swing-and-miss pitch) is worth two in the bush, and as some of you may have observed, the market for "proven closers" is grossly overcrowded this offseason. Brian Fuentes is out there, obviously, and so are Kerry Wood, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Gagne, Brandon Lyon, Jason Isringhausen, Jorge Julio... quite possibly more players than there are teams out there who don't have a 9th-inning man already and feel compelled to pay through the nose for one. This is why Billy Beane is smarter than your GM and totally deserves his own video game. He took a player he didn't need and didn't want to pay for and made him the Rockies' problem. Rather than parting with any prospects that Oakland really wanted to keep, he sent Dan O'Dowd two guys who aren't going to get any better and one guy whose rapidly diminishing value is further flattened by the glut of free agents out there at his position this year. But maybe Trader Dan can flip Street and Willy T to the Reds for hundreds of thousands of remaindered copies of Pete Rose's tell-all and the exhumed corpses of all of Marge Schott's pet dogs.

There is no perfect economic system for modern pro sport, or if there isn't it hasn't been hit upon yet. The NFL has that thorny issue with its unproven rookies making way more guaranteed money than experienced veterans. The NHL still hasn't reconciled its salary scale with its revenues, leading to a bunch of teams hovering near bankruptcy and an increasing number of European players figuring they might as well go back to the Old World so they can be heckled in more familiar languages. The top-flight pro soccer leagues in Europe are all top-heavy, with three or four dominant clubs and sixteen just hoping to avoid relegation. But even as I'm whining about the Rockies and their disinterest in spending money in an environment where the best-capitalized clubs are always going to have two or three times as much cash to throw around, I'm observing the state of affairs in the NBA and thinking that maybe it's a blessing that MLB hasn't worked out a salary cap yet.

The Knicks traded their two top scorers on the same day this week. This is a team that has been ghastly for almost ten years, and with a new coach committed only to playing the guys who would work hard, they were starting to play a lot better this year. And yet the deals getting rid of Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph were widely received in New York as masterstrokes. It's not the players they're getting back. Al Harrington is a headcase and one of the few players in the league even less disciplined than Crawford when it comes to jacking up stupid, low-percentage bombs. Tim Thomas was the laziest man in Los Angeles County, coming damn near close to making him the laziest in the world. Now he'll compete for the title of laziest man in Manhattan. Cuttino Mobley is a nice player, but he's an aging, undersized shooting guard. Guards don't post up much in Mike D'Antoni's offense so playing for the Knicks might well neutralize Mobley's chief skill.

But analysis like that is completely beside the point in the cap-crazy world of the NBA. None of those players' per-game averages matter in the least. The only math that counts is how much money in expiring salaries they carry. New York is punting, openly and apparently with full fan approval, on this season and the next so that they might have the chance to sign LeBron James in 2010. Well, what if he stays in Cleveland? Then what do the Knicks do? Overpay Chris Bosh? No way Amare Stoudemire leaves Phoenix or Dirk Nowitzki leaves Dallas. The rules are set up so that the incumbent team can give their free agents more money and more years. And what kind of core are the Knicks going to have in 2010? Sure, you can look at the Celtics and say being able to add Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen took them from worst to first. But Paul Pierce was already there, and so were useful rotation players like Leon Powe, Kendrick Perkins, and Rajon Rondo. Is LeBron really going to want to play in New York so bad that he'll suit up every night with Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, and Chris Duhon?

No, the NBA is set up so that you have to draft your superstars, which is why it's so nice to watch the Bulls play these days even though they're terrible. Derrick Rose is so good. I have a mad man-crush. The way he goes down the lane crashing into guys without having his trajectory or his control of the ball affected in the least is impressive, particularly for a guy who's probably six-one and a half. His jump shot is way better than I remember it being in the NCAA tournament and he's a beast on the fast break. His fourth quarter last night against Golden State was scintillating -- he was scoring on drives, from the foul line, on pull-up jumpers, on catch-and-shoot threes. It's too bad he plays on the same team as Larry Hughes, because all of the joy you get from watching Rose play the game gets sucked right out when Hughes comes in. Between the blowout loss to Portland and the win in Golden State, I didn't see Hughes ever once look at a teammate after receiving the ball on offense. His eyes lock right on the basket like the white whale. Thankfully Rose is getting about twice as many minutes as Hughes so the Bulls are two-thirds fun to watch.

Coming back around to baseball, I think the NBA's lesson for our game is that unintended consequences abound when you start tinkering with payroll caps. In a way, there's something positive about how in the NBA a super-rich team has to take big risks and take its lumps for a few years in order to position itself best to take advantage of its resources. If there was a hard cap in the MLB, the Yankees would be even more screwed than the Knicks, with the incredibly high dollar amount of worthless or near-worthless free agent contracts they've handed out in the last five years. But things have sort of corrected themselves. When was the last time the Yankees won the World Series? It's been a while. And, I think everyone but the most passionate Yankee-hater would admit, it's best for baseball for the Yankees to be in the playoffs most years, so long as they don't win every year. And that's exactly what's happened, as New York's spendthrift contracts have held them back just enough so that we've seen some knockout races in the AL East. Which is great. I don't think anyone's advocating that every team in baseball should spend the exact same amount on their major-league rosters each year. The problem I have is with teams like Pittsburgh and the Rockies using the lack of a salary cap as an excuse to not spend money at all. It's ridiculous to say you can't compete with a $60 million payroll when the Rays just went to the Series with a $40 million one.

The dirty secret: The owners of poor teams don't want a salary cap. Not in the slightest. That might compel them to invest the eight-figure revenue sharing checks they get every year in their product on the field instead of pocketing it. You, the taxpayers, built them billion-dollar stadiums so they could have the right to charge you thirty bucks a ticket and eight dollars a beer to watch AAA players.

I hate you, Rockies ownership.

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