Deadline Fatigue

Before I get back to the business of baseball, I’d like to thank everybody who responded to Monday’s post. Whether it’s my New York-area pals who’ve had the chance to meet Andra or just well-wishing readers offering a tip of the cap, it does mean a lot to me.

In the past week, the only thing that’s even come close to wiping the smile off of my face — a week that includes attendance at Tuesday night’s Yankee drubbing, where the pitching staff weren’t the only ones getting bombed — has been the infernal Connecticut traffic we faced on our way up to Northampton, MA on Friday. Lord help me, you’d think a state that had nothing to offer but an asphalt conduit between New York and Massachusetts could get something right, but Connecticut fails at even that lowly task, sort of like Felix Heredia in his one-batter-per-day regimen.

Thanks as well to everyone who entered my trading-deadline contest. Including emailed entries, 22 people responded, most of them offering names that weren’t ridiculous, if not necessarily enticing (Jeff Conine? Arthur Rhodes?). Two names came up twice, those of disAstros second baseman Jeff Kent and L’s — I mean M’s — closer Eddie Guardado. Alas, Brian Cashman and company surprised us all with one name that wasn’t on anybody’s entry, that of Esteban Loaiza, to whom we”ll return shortly. Given that nobody claimed the prize I offered, that there’s anticipated to be a fair amount of post-deadline trading as August 31 nears, and that a certain incompetent lefty still dwells in the Yankee pen, I’m going to keep the contest open until the end of the month. If you’ve already entered, consider your entry still valid unless you revise it. If you haven’t entered, you still can, either via email or a comment window.

By now nearly everybody else has weighed in on the plethora of deadline deals which came down, so I won’t go too overboard in adding my two cents. But with deals that affect not only the two teams dear to me but also their chief rivals, I can’t let it all pass unnoticed.

First, to the Yankees. I would have loved, loved, LOVED to see Randy Johnson in pinstripes for whatever protein-like goo the Yanks could have scraped out of their farm system. Robinson Cano? Too gooey — take him. Dioner Navarro? Not gooey enough — take him too. Eric Duncan? Ain’t ever gonna play third for the Yanks in this lifetime — take him. Having put in some 30 hours in July evaluating the Yankees’ track record in dealing prospects, I feel reasonably assured that whatever they could have given up wouldn’t have made much difference even a few years down the road. Randy Johnson, on the other hand, is a difference-maker, a pitcher perfectly capable of carrying a team to a World Championship.

But he’s not coming to the party, and perhaps it’s just as well. The Arizona Diamondbacks apparently weren’t dumb enough to fall for the low-grade prospects the Yanks were offering, a reaction which should serve as something of a wake-up call for the organization. It’s all well and good to cultivate resources which have market value to others — this is a FARM system, after all — but quality control is sorely needed. The Yanks must draft better (they haven’t had a first-round pick make an impact in the majors since Eric Milton in 1996, and that wasn’t even in pinstripes), and they must balance their penchant for signing Type A free agents — the kind who require compensation in the form of a first-round draft pick — with a habit of in-season pickups of other people’s Type A free agents if only so they can watch them leave at the end of the year. VoilĂ  — no unsightly talent drain!

The trade of Jose Contreras for Loaiza is a mild upgrade at worst and a significant one at best. No, Loazia will never be confused with the Big Unit, especially not with a 6.04 ERA over the past two months. But what he will do is eat innings, something the Yankee staff has sorely needed in he wake of their musical rookie/cast-off starter program. Contreras, like Hideki Irabu and Jeff Weaver before him, was an incredibly frustrating enigma who neither Joe Torre nor Mel Stottlemyre had a hope of solving. While wishing the man nothing but the best — the combination of culture shock and separation from one’s family is as unenviable as any you might encounter while making $8 million a year — I’m incredibly relieved that I will never, EVER have to get behind his pitching again. He made the Granny Goodens the Yanks have cycled through seem like Dr. K by comparison, and I would rather eat dung beetles fresh off the manure pile than watch Contreras fiddle and filibuster with men on base.

On the subject of the Big Unit, I’m far more disappointed that he didn’t get traded to the Dodgers than to the Yankees. As best I can tell from the various reports I read, Surly McMullet apparently dragged his feet too long to suit the Snakes, first declining to waive his no-trade clause for a deal to L.A., then agreeing, only to have the Diamondbacks decide not to accommodate him. Whether that was to punish his intractability or to avoid sending him to a division rival is unclear, but amid all the verbage, one snippet does stand out. It’s from Selena “Yellow Fever” Roberts of the New York Times, so it probably isn’t worth the paper it was printed on, but nevertheless:

In the past week, that Seattle episode was apparently the seed of a warning shot during a conversation between Johnson’s agent, Barry Meister, and Arizona General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr., according to an article that appeared Tuesday in The Star-Ledger of Newark.

“If you don’t trade him to the Yankees, you’re going to have one unhappy player,” Meister reportedly said.

“And how would I tell the difference?” Garagiola Jr. responded.

If it’s true that the Diamondbacks decided not to trade Johnson only to punish him, then they’ve created every bit the headache for themselves that the Red Sox did with Nomar Garciaparra, dissolving their leverage and setting the stage for an ugly war of words come winter.

And speaking of Nomar… wow, what a barbecue. In the grand tradition of Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn, the Sox front office ran off yet another superstar before his time and made like Ramiro Mendoza coming out of the bullpen to clean up the problem. The slugging shortstop’s Achilles heel may have been the Achilles heel of the team, so to speak, but to emerge from that three-way deal with anything less than a starter suitable to replace Derek Lowe — Matt “Pubic Beard” Clement was the name tossed around — is nothing short of Wild Card suicide. Orlando Cabrera? Doug Mientkiewicz? The Sox entered the weekend 7.5 games behind the Yanks, not to mention a game down in the Wild Card race. At this writing they’ve fallen a game further in the AL East, lost their favorite punching bag (Contreras was 0-5 with a 13.50 ERA in 20 innings against the Sox, including the postseason) and seen the narrow talent gap between the two teams widen considerably.

What’s more, the “He Said, She Said” game that’s going on between their exiled star and the front office has gone to DefCon-4. While from where I sit the Sox’s fragile equilibrium of unhappiness is a beautiful thing, I can’t help but feel as though this is the first sign that the Henry/Lucchino/Epstein management group is running out of rope. Baseball Prospectus’ Chris Kahrl put it best:

Let’s not beat around the bush: For the second year in the row, Theo Epstein has caved in to the mob. Hordes of bleating extras culled from the sets of Cheers or Bob Newhart or from the pages of The Shadow Over Innsmouth really ought to be ignored, but not here. Maybe Nomar started it, maybe the guys with the pitchforks and torches did, but after last year’s capitulation over bullpen management and this year’s craven trade-down to give the ballclub the appearance of owning some leather, I think it’s safe to say that concerns that Boston was going to mount a challenge to the Yankees were wildly overanticipated. If the fans had wanted leather, the Sox would have been better off hosting Bondage and Dominance Night at the ballpark.

…The question these pickups inspire is whether or not the Red Sox are really going to be able to keep up in the Wild Card chase in a season already choking on the Yankees’ dust. To me, it looks like these deals put them behind whichever two teams don’t win the AL West. Although I doubt that failing to make the playoffs would derail the putative sabermetric magic kingdom, if it’s followed by a slow start next year, and given the already-demonstrated willingness to submit to mob rule, the Red Sox’s competitiveness might be nothing more than a latter-day resurrection of those ’30s Red Sox teams, laden with All-Stars and ambition and a whole lot of nothin’.

Back in November, Nomar was thought to be worth trading for Magglio Ordonez. Now the best the Sox can get for him is two glove men whose bats have termites. I’ll let the Sox fans who read this blog tell me what they think of that one.

Turning to the Dodgers, my head is going one way and my heart the other. The wholesale changes they’ve wrought, trading catcher Paul Lo Duca, setup man Guillermo Mota, outfielders Dave Roberts and Juan Encarnacion and prospects in three deals, turning over one-fifth of their roster, certainly would have been easier to swallow with Randy Johnson taking the ball every fifth day. Lo Duca was one of my favorite players and widely known as the team’s “Heart and Soul,” but I can clearly see his limitations — he’s 32, his offensive value is almost completely tied to batting average (.288 career) rather than power (.431) or an ability to get on base (.344), and he has shown an overwhelming tendency over his career to wear down over the course of the season:

               AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

Pre All-Star .313 .368 .471 .840
Post All-Star .256 .313 .379 .692

Roberts was another favorite, a jackrabbit type who got on base at a so-so clip (.343 prior to the trade) and stole bases extremely well (33/34), the type of player who has more value in L.A.’s low-scoring environment than in most other places. But he’s 32 as well, and it’s very clear that he’s not going to wake up tomorrow and morph into the second coming of Rickey Henderson.

Mota was yet another favorite, a hard-throwing, intimidating, reliable setup man who had really only put it together in the past year and a half. But this year his strikeout rate has fallen, his walk rate has nearly doubled, and the Dodgers have been riding him fairly hard (as BP points out, over the last two years, Mota’s pitched 168 innings, more than any setup man in the game.

For all of that, those three players were at the peak of their trade value but about to get a whole lot more expensive (via arbitration or free-agency) and what they brought back in return gives the Dodgers more flexibility to build the team GM Paul DePodesta’s way. Additionally, trading Encarnacion, a crapfest of a hitter with his .235/.290/.415 “bat,” his balky shoulder, and his 2-year, $8 mil contract is addition by subtraction. I’m not 100% sold on new first baseman Hee Seop Choi — his platoon differential is 300 points of OPS, .915 vs. righties, .608 vs. leftie — but he’s a very promising player who could be the cornerstone of the infield for a few years. Finley has postive value both offensively and defensively, though not as much as he used to. He’s also got a certain tactical value just in keeping him from the other N.L. West contenders. Starter Brad Penny is a very solid addition to a rotation that has been making do with the smoke and mirrors of Jose Freakin’ Lima, Wilson Alvarez, Kaz Ishii (more BB than K) and Jeff Weaver.

It’s difficult, because the guys traded, especially Lo Duca, are the some of the ones who really kept me going during the darkness of the latter-day Fox years. But I have a lot of trust in DePodesta’s vision, not only as it pertains to the short-term goal of making a playoff run in 2004 but also the long-term goal of building a team that can dominate the division. This team may not only win the West this year, but may really become something special once that vision is allowed to play out.

Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts has, as you might guess, had some great coverage of these Dodger doings. Jon asks the questions, “Would you rather try to win with a true-blue Dodger, even if your chances of winning might be less than if you acquire outsiders? … Will a pennant or World Series title be as sweet without Lo Duca?” (Manager Jim Tracy answered that question by taking over Lo Duca’s uniform number in his honor.)

While there’s so much more to talk about with these deadline acquisitions, I’ll cut off this epic post except to mention one more item. Jon Weisman’s also got a post-deadline pickup for his team — a son born on Wednesday. Congrats to you and your wife, Jon!

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