Missouri's Own Hemophiliac Aristocracy
A year and a half ago, the Brewers traded gigantic first baseman Richie Sexson to the Diamondbacks, and received what looked like a collection of spare parts in return. Junior Spivey, Lyle Overbay, Chris Capuano, Jorge de la Rosa: who the hell were all these guys?
When the Brewers shipped closer Danny Kolb to the Atlanta Native Americans, it looked like another case of baseball's haves picking and choosing the most delicious morsels of the have-nots — the Native Americans shed top prospect Jose Capellan in the deal, but received a proven closer with 39 saves for a moribund team in 2004. What could go wrong?
Thus far in 2005:
Lyle Overbay: .295/.432/.514, 7 HR, 28 RBI, 35 BB, 27 K
Chris Capuano: 4-4, 3.01 ERA, 56 K, 27 BB, 1.192 WHIP
Jose Capellan (AAA): 3-2, 4.74 ERA, 37 K, 23 BB, 1.581 WHIP
Danny Kolb: 1-4, 5.66 ERA, 19 K, 18 BB, 1.984 WHIP
Richie Sexson (Mariners): .250/.359/.536, 13 HR, 42 RBI, 28 BB, 55 K
The fact of the matter is this: time and time again, the Brewers and GM Doug Melvin have gotten the better of bigger-market teams. How do they do it? By managing to understand the vagaries of the trading game, casting their nets in the shallow end of the free-agent market, and not getting too attached to their homegrown starlets.
Even the trade of speedster Scott Podsednik to the White Sox for underrated slugger Carlos Lee represents a shrewd understanding of the needs of a team like Milwaukee. Podsednik may be on pace to steal a hundred bases this year, but what good does a base-stealer do a team without much of a chance of scoring runs? That Podsednik was a waiver claim, effectively costing the Brewers nothing, only adds to the remarkable nature of the deal; essentially they claimed him, let him prove himself in Miller Park, and shipped him to the highest bidder. The player they got in return is a much better fit for the Brewers' small-market needs; Lee hits between Geoff Jenkins and Overbay in a heart of the order most teams would envy. Podsednik's leadoff spot? Capably filled by Brady Clark… claimed off waivers in 2003. Kolb's closer's role? The domain of Derrick Turnbow... claimed off waivers in 2004, and putting up a much better line than Kolb, to boot.
The Brewers, at 24-27, do not look like a success story. But for a team with a $40 million payroll to sniff .500 in this day and age is unthinkable; similar charity cases like the Devil Rays and Pirates have practically given up the ghost. Although the Brewers aren't a traditional "Moneyball"-oriented team, they resemble nothing so much as the Oakland Anaerobics of five years ago. With minor league sensation Prince Fielder knocking on the door, expect the Brewers to remember Sexson, who bolted Arizona to the highest bidder, and deal Overbay, whom they won't be able to re-sign next year for the $446,000 he makes this season. In return, some big-budget chump will give up a young pitcher or corner outfielder whose value they don't quite realize, and Milwaukee, leaning on the considerable talents of ace Ben Sheets and a stable of dirt-cheap, quality who-dats in the bullpen (think Capuano or Victor Santos), will grow ever better. Contending in the loaded NL Central will be hard, but the Astros are aging quickly, the Cardinals can't win 100 games every year, and the Cubs are the Cubs. Why not the Brewers?
TMQ brings this up when thinking about the Lame Duck Monarchy of Kansas City, who named Buddy Bell as their new manager on Tuesday. Bell, who guided the Tigers and Rockies, shrieking in flames kamikaze-style, to 53-109 and 73-89 records during his respective tenures at each club's helm, is a real cringe-inducer, even if you have a taste for those pulpy true-crime novels they sell at the bus station.
"It was only then that I put the pieces together and realized that the psycho killer was our very own GM, Allard Baird," sobbed Greinke's wife, blinking back tears.
Why? Why Bell? What's the point? You imagine that Baird, prior to hiring Bell, spent the previous month or so refusing to bathe, sleeping until five in the afternoon, playing endless games of "MLB 2005" and pretending that the Royals could pick first in a notional leaguewide fantasy draft ("Why yes, I'll take Albert Pujols!"), all the while letting his phone calls go unanswered and bills unpaid. Given the stark reality of Kansas City's situation, hiring Bell is an exemplary non-move move that says, in no uncertain terms, that the Monarchy just doesn't care. (Perhaps the allure of that chateau in St. Moritz is too much for Missouri's own hemophiliac aristocracy, forever afflicted with a malformed case of noblesse oblige.) Shoving a sub-.500 caretaker whose previous managerial experience involved steering another franchise deeper into the morass of suck is like a department store selling off fixtures. Everything must go! (Expect, inexplicably, fan favorite Mike Sweeney.)
Baseball types don't like to look at the Brewers and Anaerobics and admit that smart sports sense can win out over financial restrictions in the end. Indigent GMs, faced with angry fans wondering why they've given $18 million to Eric Milton, like to blame their teams' woes on the Red Sox and Yankees, with their nine-digit payrolls and massive TV contracts. The fact of the matter is that baseball's playing ground is unfair, but baseball common sense is often inane. Payroll disparity is an unfortunate side effect of the explosion of the sport, but it's a strawman, in the end, for personnel decisions that often reflect the stupidity of conventional wisdom. Milton's downward spiral, which recalls none so much as Nicolas Cage's in "Leaving Las Vegas," if baseball bats were gigantic bottles of vodka, is no surprise to statheads and the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Eric Milton was no more likely to start pitching like anyone other than Eric Milton than a dog is to quack when you stick $18 million worth of dog food in its bowl.
The dog's agent will tell you otherwise, of course.
Stat of the Week #1
May 25: Joe Blanton, Oakland Anaerobics.
0.1 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 0 K, 1 BB, 32 pitches.
Ye gads! Blanton's start (against Tampa Bay, no less) was Paul Wilson-esque in its inauspiciousness, and provided immediate fuel to Billy Beane's detractors, who immediately claimed, with great relish, that the A's were eternally doomed for trading away two of their Big Three in the off-season. Blanton's terrible game – which raised his ERA from 5.15 to 6.55 in one-third of an unforgettable inning on the bumpy stubble of Tropicana Field – was ultimate proof of Beane's fatal error. Tim Hudson would have never done such a thing!
This evidences what TMQ would like to call the Bonderman Hypothesis. In 2003, Jeremy Bonderman, the Tigers' best pitching prospect, went 6-19 with a 5.56 ERA. Ye gads! Lost in the equation, however, is the fact that the 2003 Tigers, lest you forget, went 43-119. Bonderman was one of three Detroit starters to lose more than 17 contests that year.
Let's say you knew nothing of the context of that suicidal Comerica summer and only saw Bonderman's pitching line. Would you consider him a "top prospect"? TMQ thinks not. However, Bonderman's 2004 and early 2005 results – and remember, our Jer is still but 22 years young – reflect a maturing, developing pitcher. His WHIP and home run rate are decreasing. His strikeout rate is rising. His ERA is falling, commensurately – his team is also getting better, but independent of this, Bonderman is becoming a better pitcher, and there is little doubt among baseball cognoscenti that he will someday be a very good one.
Not all great young pitchers have the good fortune of being drafted by the Marlins or Twins. It is easy to look at the success of Johan Santana or Josh Beckett and wonder why Bonderman or Blanton can't win 20 games every year, if they're everything they're cracked up to be.
And the Anaerobics must be ninnies for trading away Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, both of whom experienced nagging, ominous injuries, for minor-league talent with no proven production, right? Better to stick with the status quo and re-sign the twain to super-sized contract extensions. It's surprising that baseball intelligentsia, who clearly have no vested interest in maintaining a payroll system that rewards starting pitchers for good branding, self-promotion, and above all the outlier walk year (cf. Jaret Wright) would criticize Oakland for trading its aces. Why would any agent, scout, announcer, bat boy, or peanut vendor worth his salt say such a thing?
The fact of the matter is this. The net haul of prospects - Dan Haren started the season as Oakland's fifth starter, Dan Meyer is on the verge of cracking the Anaerobics' rotation, and Daric Barton will slot in at catcher once Jason Kendall's ample haunches have fully warmed the plate – almost definitely exceeds the value Oakland would have gotten by giving Hudson and Mulder market rate. Judging a trade like this when its main components have underperformed (on an underperforming team, mind you!) for two whole months speaks volumes as to the guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset with which baseball still views outside-the-box baseball management. Never mind that the Anaerobics may have reloaded their roster by surrendering their most expensive chits at peak value. The Bonderman Hypothesis holds that Oakland's trades will look much better in hindsight as their young pitchers ripen, but as far as baseball is concerned, Oakland's success was an unfortunate anomaly. Never mind that Mulder and Hudson weren't merely great Oakland pitchers; they were great Oakland pitchers who happened to make a fraction as much as their contemporaries.
The baseball gods smile upon fiscal conservatism. Oakland will be back with guns blazing.
Stat of the Week #2
According to Baseball Prospectus, Oakland's five Opening Day starters rank in the bottom twenty-five of all major league starters, in terms of luck (ie. expected win-loss records vs. actual win-loss records). The only other major league team with more than two starters as unlucky as Oakland's five is Houston, with Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, and Roger Clemens.
Clemens' typically great season has resulted in a 3-3 record, courtesy of the anemic Houston bats. Perhaps the Killer B's are getting tired running up that hill in center field?
Stat of the Week #3
During six games last week in which he batted 16 for 24, Red Sox shortstop Edgar Renteria raised his batting average from .239 to .295. Renteria, who signed a free agent contract for megabuxxx and replaced fan favorite Orlando Cabrera in the process, was a pariah in Boston, roundly vilified by the hostile Red Sox media prior to the team's road trip to Toronto and New York. Upon his return to Fenway on Monday night, he was greeted with a minute-long standing ovation before he even swung a bat.
STOP ME BEFORE I BUNT AGAIN!
Cubs at Dodgers, May 31. Cubbie who-dat Michael Wuertz on the hill, game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Dodgers right fielder Jayson Werth draws a leadoff walk. Next up is slugger J.D. Drew, he of the .390 career OBP and .898 career OPS. Drew is a patient, selective left-handed hitter, known for his great ability to draw walks and get on base. Wuertz is a decent middle reliever, but allows lefties to hit him at a .300 clip. Surely, the eight innings of one-hit ball provided by Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano are for naught! Surely, the Dodgers reign triumphant - IT'S A BUNT!
Or, rather, it's two miserable attempted bunts by Drew, not normally known for his talents at sacrificing runners into scoring position. Drew eventually strikes out, Wuertz retires the side, and the Cubs go on to win.
One wonders if Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, possessed of a madness almost Atreus-like in its perversity and compulsion, has taken to collecting his urine in tiny jars in the Dodgers' dugout. He is surely managing some phantom collection of doppelgangers, unaware of pitcher/batter matchups and the actual progress of the game itself. Why not have Drew do what he does quite well, as Fire Jim Tracy asks?
TMQ suspects that Wuertz's known control problems came as a surprise to the Dodgers braintrust, although the evidence was staring at them on first base the entire duration of Drew's at-bat.
Sweet Play of the Week
On May 28, Tigers center fielder Nook Logan robbed Jay Gibbons ("nonchalantly," reports the Baltimore Sun, as though he were chewing a toothpick at the time) of a home run at Camden Yards. It was the second time this season that Logan robbed Gibbons at Camden Yards — and the third time Logan took away a homer from Orioles batters in the four games the Tigers played in Baltimore. Is there a better record of defensive poise than Logan's against Baltimore?
Sour Play of the Week
On May 27, a line drive off the bat of Colorado right fielder struck Cubs pitcher Mark Prior in the right, fracturing Prior's elbow and possibly shelving him for the remainder of the season. Of the Cubs' troika of aces, only Carlos Zambrano remains unscathed — and ominously, Zambrano ranks second in the majors in average pitches per start.
Prior's injury wasn't due to misuse or poor mechanics, but it serves to highlight a point about the Cubs' management. Dusty Baker is notorious for leaving his pitchers in way past the point where they've begun to curdle on the mound, but without high-grade arms like Prior's and Kerry Wood's, the brunt of the 120-pitch odysseys on which Baker routinely sends his pitchers must now be borne by luminaries such as Todd Wellemeyer and Jerome Williams, who was recently acquired from the Giants.
When Williams heard the news, did he begin furtively massaging his rotator cuff in advance of whatever debilitating injury will surely befall him? If worse comes to worse the Cubs can always turn to their minor league system, which, true to the Cult of Dusty, is replete with players who've spent far too long laboring in the bucolic bandboxes of the erstwhile American Association. At least Cubbie fans can rest assured that whoever Baker might pluck out of the Iowan wasteland and summon to his doom, he will be making his trip to the majors at least three or four years after he should have done so.
Cheerbabe of the Week
Or the closest thing baseball has to one, anyhow — the boobalicious Anna Benson, who recently took a journalistic turn in the New York Post. Take it away, Anna!
He always sends me one first before the game. I'll say "pectoral?" And he'll say "fine." He'll ask, "Are you in the suite or down with fans?" The luxury box offers more privacy, which I need thanks to my foul mouth. Besides, the kids know Daddy's a famous pitcher, but they have no idea why people scream and boo at him.
By the second inning, I knew how he was going to do. I could tell by his body language. I can see when he's confident. It's thrilling when he does so well, and he's so happy he got a hit — a single. I got a text message from him while he was in the dugout telling me he's [sic] excited he was.
We're going to have a good night. But first, we have some other engagements. There's a signing at the Marriott, then it's back to the hotel for dinner. Later, there's the U2 concert at the Garden. It's a great reward, but not the only reward. After the game, he ices down and does some interviews while I head to the locker room. After the game, that's when the real fun starts!
Presumably, the "other reward" implies a trip to Gray's Papaya!
TMQ, having peeked through his fingers as Kris Benson self-destructed in yet another ludicrous outing for New York/B, is moved to compose a haiku:
Ms. Benson allows
Her paramour to forget
That he can suck, too,
Though Willie Randolph
and his handling of meat
doesn't help matters.
Not-So-Obscure Minor League Player of the Week
This would be Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, who at 45, eight years removed from his last professional game, is pitching for the Brockton Rox of the Can/Am League. Boyd is no George Halas, but the Can — smoking butts between innings, wearing thick eyeglasses, and throwing pitches with names like the "yellow hammer" — is one of the game's great characters. And while the Can/Am League is among the lowest rungs of the minors — the Rox feature a catcher named Brian Jones, who is not floating face-down in a swimming pool, and a pitcher named Manny Tejada who resembles neither Manny nor Tejada — Boyd was good in his Brockton debut, allowing two runs in six innings.
Asked about his future plans, the Can reported, "I still want to play in Boston. I'll go to Pawtucket for a couple hours, and then let's go get the Yankees. The powerful Yankees. Hell, yeah."
This Week's Challenge
Loose-lipped FBI stooge W. Mark Felt was recently unmasked as the dastardly Deep Throat. In much the same way, someone — nobody's naming names — leaked pages of Barry Bonds' grand jury testimony to the media last winter. TMQ invites readers not only to speculate as to the identity of baseball's own Deep Throat, but to come up with a catchier, new-millennium moniker for the person who let personal gain and petty infighting supersede their ultimate loyalty to God, country, and BALCO.