August 01, 2005

Sometimes You Break Down the Trading Deadline, and Sometimes It Breaks You Down

Today's Musical Selection: "I Hear You Knocking (But You Can't Come In)" by Joe Walsh

Regular readers of my old blog (hello, both of you!) may recall that one of my traditions was to do a unique, one-of-a-kind analysis of baseball's trading-deadline deals. My theory, then as now, was that there are hundreds of sites you can visit to get a traditional analysis of these trades, using such outdated metrics as "statistics" and "observable reality." But only here can you garner the unique perspective of someone who may or may not have been dropped on his head as a child, who goes beyond the "facts" to ferret out the true significance of these late-season moves. For those who have missed my previous award-winning analyses, here are my entries from 2004 and 2003.

But there's something different about this year, something that made it stand out from '04 and '03. Specifically, nobody did anything worth writing about. It's like high school boys bragging about their conquests. Remember how in high school, all the guys would get together in the locker room and brag about how they were sleeping with that beautiful blond cheerleader, or the raven-haired exchange student, or the leggy redhead from homeroom? And you sat there wondering why all your friends were landing these really attractive women, and you kept spending your Saturday nights at home with the TV? Maybe you even pretended to be keeping time with a pretty girl of your own, just to keep up with the Joneses. Of course, at some point down the road (maybe in college, maybe at the reunion), it occurred to you that all your friends were also lying, and that there was a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. The 2005 MLB trading deadline was thus a trip down Memory Lane for a lot of us. Alas, that was its only redeeming quality.

Every year, after analyzing the deals that really matter, I always included a fairly insignificant trade and summed it up with a throwaway line like, "The real significance of this deal is... oh, wait, there isn't any. No one cares about this deal." A humorous, if original, little punchline. The problem is that this year, every single deal was that way. Not one deal quickened the pulse of anyone in the game. It's as if every GM's cell-phone battery went dead around lunchtime on Sunday, and while they were all scrambling to find a landline, the deadline came and went, and all the real deals died a-borning.

I found myself feeling sorry for ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew. Ever try to do a Trading Deadline Special with no trades of significance to talk about? That's awkward television for you. It reminded me of Sara Moulton's old "Cooking Live" show on the Food Network. I'm not sure what Food Network executive thought that the rambling, gaffe-prone Moulton would be a good fit for live television, but this is beside the point.

On one memorable episode, Sara was doing a special on canning, and she was to have a special guest expert on the subject. Only the guest got stuck in traffic or something and didn't show up until 5 minutes before the end of the hour-long show. This left Sara, who admitted she knew nothing about canning, with an awful lot of dead air to fill. Which she did, in her inimitable fashion, by yammering about her family and pretending to demonstrate canning techniques, with the frequent disclaimer "I don't really know how this works." Worse yet, this was a call-in show, so she was bombarded with canning questions that, of course, she couldn't answer. It was the most excruciating hour of television I've ever seen, until yesterday. I think by the end of the Trading Deadline special, Karl Ravech and Peter Gammons were playing tiddlywinks on the desk. It was that kind of day.

Now, of course, I have my own trading-deadline piece to write. Who's sorry now? My analytical skills will be taxed as never before, as I struggle to wring some meaning and coherence out of this giant anti-climax. (Sounds like my love life. But I digress.) Nonetheless, I'm a professional, so I'll give it my best shot. Onward, if you dare...

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CHICAGO (NL) acquires OF Matt Lawton and a six-pack of Iron City from PITTSBURGH for OF Jody Gerut and two day passes on the El

All the talking heads pretty much agree that this was the biggest deal of the weekend. Yes, this deal was the biggest deal from the weekend. And I'm supposed to find something clever to say about it, and the half-dozen other deals of equal or lesser caliber that went down. Gulp.

Well, no one said this would be easy. Let's press on.

What I find really interesting about this deal is... wait, that's too strong. What I find notable about this deal is... well, that's still overstating it. The only thing remotely worth mentioning about this deal is the alarmingness willingness of pennant-contending teams to swap unfulfilled potential for proven mediocrity. Lawton is a nothing-special kind of guy, an outfielder with a decent glove, a decent bat and a better-than-decent batting eye, the sort of guy you don't really want unless you find yourself without one. Gerut is a potentially nifty player who blew out his knee last year and hasn't been very good since. (And I'll remind you, this is considered the biggest trade of the weekend. Shudder.)

This is the danger of being a big-market club on the fringes of a pennant race. Not that Gerut is guaranteed to become wonderful, but he might be, and once the Cubs miss the playoffs (as everyone, probably including the Cubs front office, knows they will), they'll be stuck with a slightly-above-average player on the downside of his career who is making $7.75 million a year. The late Bill Veeck said that it wasn't the high price of stardom that annoyed him so much as the high price of mediocrity. This deal would have Veeck banging his head on his deck until his forehead bled.

But if you're the Cubs, and you're GM Jim Hendry, what do you do? If you stand pat and miss the playoffs, you'll be crucified for not making that deal that would have pushed you over the top. (Never mind that that deal, unless it was for Curt Schilling and Alex Rodriguez, didn't exist.) At least if you make a deal, you get credit for trying, even if the end result is a team with a bleaker future than it had before. Because of big-market fan myopia, you're actually better off making the team worse chasing a pipe-dream hope of a playoff spot. This is the annual lesson usually provided by the New York Mets. (The Mets themselves stood pat at the deadline, though not for a lack of trying to make a bad, short-sighted deal.)

This is why, on reflection, I'm actually glad the Nationals had a quiet weekend. We may well miss the playoffs, but at least we will not have dealt away such prospects as we have in doing so. As for you Cubs fans out there... well, that 100-year World Series drought is in sight. Only a few more seasons now. Embrace your destiny!

CHICAGO (AL) acquires 3B Geoff Blum from SAN DIEGO for minor-league P Ryan Meaux and a mayor to be named later

Told you the Lawton-Gerut swap was the biggest deal of the weekend. You thought I was kidding, didn't you? Well, this trade makes Lawton-for-Gerut look like Harvey-Kuenn-for-Rocky-Colavito. (Note to all readers under 50: Look it up.) Blum is pretty much the definition of "utility player": he plays a lot of positions, but he doesn't play any of them especially well. The one constant of Blum's career has been that, if he's getting a lot of playing time for your team, you can tell your team is going nowhere. (Among the other stops on Blum's illustrious resume: Montreal, Tampa Bay, and a completely inexplicable two-season stint in Houston, where he served as a prime example of why the Astros never seem to do anything with all that talent they have.)

This may seem like a segue into my above argument about big-market teams trading current mediocrity for unfulfilled potential, but applying the "potential" tag to Ryan Meaux is a tremendous stretch. Meaux is a 26-year-old pitcher in AA. He's no longer a "prospect." He's not even a "suspect." Let's put this in perspective: A player who's playing AA ball at, say, age 19 or 20 has a good chance to be an All-Star in four years. A player in AA ball at age 21 or 22 has a good chance to be a major-league regular in four years. A player in AA ball at age 26 has a good chance to be 30 in four years.

Functionally, this trade is the equivalent of two people swapping the lint they dug out of the bottom of their pockets. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation between White Sox GM Kenny Williams and Padres GM Kevin Towers that led to this blockbuster. I imagine it went something like this:

TOWERS: Hi, Ken. How's it hanging?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I got problems. The Chicago media's killiung me becaus eI haven't made a deal. And I've got this guy Ryan Meaux. He's 26 and he's stuck in AA ball.
TOWERS: Why don't you cut him?
WILLIAMS: I promised his parents I'd keep him around. His father saved my life when we were kids. He's a nice kid and all, but...
TOWERS: Ouch, that's rough.
WILLIAMS: How's life down by the ocean?
TOWERS: It's not a bowl of cherries, I'll tell you. My team can't buy a win, my knees are killing me, my golf game's gone to hell, and I've got Geoff Blum at third base. We're doomed.
WILLIAMS: Geoff Blum? That Geoff Blum? How'd you wind up with him?
TOWERS: Well, I went out to a club with his agent, and I think he slipped something in my drink.
TOWERS: Hey, I've got an idea. Why don't I give you Blum?
WILLIAMS: Give me Blum? Are you crazy? Every team that signs Blum goes straight down the commode. It'll ruin our postseason chances.
TOWERS: Be serious... you're the Chicago White Sox. Your postseason chances are already ruined.
WILLIAMS: Fair point.
TOWERS: So we'll give you Blum, and we'll take that Curly kid off your hands.
WILLIAMS: Meaux. Ryan Meaux.
TOWERS: Whatever. Point is, you can tell the press you made a deal, and I'll have The Curse of Geoff Blum off my back. Is it a deal?
WILLIAMS: I guess.
WILLIAMS: Let us never speak of this again.

Trading-deadline deals... they're FAN-tastic!

BOSTON acquires OF Jose Cruz, Jr. from ARIZONA for minor-league IF Kenny Perez and minor-league P Kyle Bono

Sigh. Cruz is another charter member of the Didn't-You-Used-To-Be-Someone? Club, a guy who traded for years on a famous name (his dad was a big-league infielder) and the always-popular "unfulfilled potential" tag. At some point, though, you can't make it on "unfulfilled potential" anymore, and by the age of 31, that point has long since passed. Nowadays, he's a journeyman outfielder who plays just well enough at contract time to delude some GM into believing that he's a quality major-leaguer, and in between knocks back cocktails with Tony Armas Jr. and Pete Rose Jr. in the MLB wing of the Lucky Sperm Club.

The fact that the Red Sox, a team that supposedly has the potential to go to the World Series, would consider Cruz a worthwhile pickup tells you all you need to know about this year's trading-deadline climate. Yeehaw!

Kyle Bono is not, as far as I know, related to either Sonny Bono or the guy from U2. This exhausts the supply of interesting things I have to say about either of the players Arizona received in this deal.

ATLANTA acquires RP Kyle Farnsworth from DETROIT in exchance for Ps Roman Colon and Zack Miner

This is why I hate Atlanta. Ever wonder how they could manage to win their division for something like 15 seasons running? (Sorry, Expos fans, 1994 doesn't count.) This is exactly why. Every year, they spend the first half treading water, playing .500-ish ball and prompting baseball columnists to drag their "Are the Braves Finally Done?" columns out of the mothballs. Then, just when they've finally gotten us all to believe that, at long last, it's not their year, they get red-hot. They start surging to the front, usually arriving there somewhere around the trading deadline.

And as the trading deadline approaches, Atlanta GM John Schuerholz plays possum, giving every indication that he plans not to make any deals. Don't want to mess with the chemistry, right? And then the smoke clears, and everyone realizes that, while no one was looking, Schuerholz made an appropriately minor deal that, nonetheless, provides that final piece the Braves need to clinch the division. And he did it again.

It's bad enough that the Braves are winning with a roster full of kids that even I have never heard of (Pete Orr? Kelly Johnson? Brian McCann? Jeff Francoeur?!). It's worse that they just swept my Nationals in a season-defining three-game series. Now, they've gone and patched the one hole they had. Kyle Farnsworth may never have become the star the Cubs thought he would be, and he may be prone to fits of temper, but he does throw 100 MPH, and he is having an excellent season.

When Farnsworth settles in and becomes a lockdown eighth-inning guy and occasional closer and helps the Braves win the division by 10 games, everyone will say, "How did they pick him up?" Even though the Braves do this year in and year out, we keep acting like it's a complete shock. After 15 years of consistent excellence, isn't it time to stop letting Schuerholz and the Braves sneak up on us like this?

And yes, I'm especially bitter about this because we share a division. It's not fair having to compete against a team that rich and that smart. You know, Atlanta is actually west of Pittsburgh, and therefore should, on a strictly geographic basis, be placed in the NL Central. I'm just saying.

ARIZONA acquires RP Buddy Groom from NEW YORK (AL) in exchange for a jockstrap to be named later

This trade shows why it's never a good idea to run your mouth around the trading deadline. Buddy Groom pitched last year in Baltimore, where he pitched more than a pitcher of his age and ability has any right to expect. And as if that wasn't enough, this year Groom wound up with the Yankees, and again pitched more than a broken-down washout really deserves. Eventually, though, the Yankees found someone who, in their opinion, could actually pitch, and designated Groom for assignment. Now, another man might have reflected on his good fortune, to have been paid handsomely for a number of seasons to play a child's game, and accepted his departure peacefully.

Not Buddy Groom. He proceeded to take his last few moments in the spotlight to rip the Yankees and manger Joe Torre, and the Orioles and manager Lee Mazzilli. "I wouldn't encourage anybody else to come here thinking you are going to get an opportunity because unless you are one of Joe's boys you are not going to get much of a shot," Groom said. Now, one might venture to suggest that someone who's compiled a 4.91 ERA in 24 games has gotten all the shots his performance would merit, and then some. But Buddy Groom knows when an injustice has been visited upon him, even when the rest of us don't see it.

As a reward for popping up, the Yankees dumped Groom off on the Diamondbacks, so now Buddy can strap on the proud purple pinstripes (or whatever uniform the D'Backs are wearing this week) and join his new team in its quest to become the first team to win a division with a 75-87 record. I understand that the Yankees first tried to send Buddy to the Devil Rays, but the Devil Rays insisted on receiving $2 million and three top prospects before they were willing to take Groom.

This, by the way, is the same Buddy Groom who spent the 2004 Orioles D.C. FanFest bitching about the fact that the team sat him down at a table in the sun. Which pretty much confirms in my mind the fact that Buddy Groom is a total jackass. This latest outburst didn't change my opinion. My advice to Buddy Groom: If you're 40 years old, and your given name is "Wedsel," and you're being paid a six-figure salary to throw a baseball, shut the hell up.

SAN DIEGO acquires SP Chan Ho Park from TEXAS for 1B/OF Phil Nevin

And the trading reaches a new low. Good trades are apples for apples. In this trade, both the apples are rotten. And not good rotten, like they've fermented into hard cider. No, these apples are mottled black and brown, with worms crawling through them, moldering in the weeds and waiting for an unuspecting person to step on them and wind up with nasty brown apple goop all over their pants.

If the Blum-Meaux trade was an exchange of non-entities, this is worse. This is like trading herpes for chlamydia: either way, it's just as painful and uncomfortable, but the variety might be a welcome change.

What are the Padres thinking? Is Nevin that horrible? Granted, he's a power hitter with no power, and he's another one of those jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none utility guys. (Sort of a deluxe version of Geoff Blum.) For this, he's making $9.5 million a year. If he can cash his paycheck with a straight face, he's a better man than I. Also, he's reportedly a bit of a sulker when he's not playing, which is pretty often, since he's not very good.

The Padres were so desperate to unload him that they tried to send him to Baltimore for Sidney Ponson, a fat head case who's even more grotesquely overpaid than Nevin. (Not sure why this was considered progress, but so be it.) But Nevin vetoed the deal, because he just loves San Diego so much. (Note to the Padres front office: Nevin has a no-trade clause to eight teams. By my count, that leaves 21 teams to whom they could send Nevin without needing his approval. And yet, three times in the past few seasons, the Padres attempted to send Nevin to teams on his no-trade list: Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Baltimore. He vetoed them all. Is there anyone with a brain working for the Padres?)

Finally, with the trading deadline approaching and the Padres growing ever more desperate, they finally found Texas, and Chan Ho Park, who might be described as a poor man's Ponson. Incredibly, the Padres managed to find one of two pitchers even more overpaid than Ponson. (Kevin Brown is the other; I'm not sure how the Padres managed not to acquire him too.) Park is 32, he's making $15 million a year, and he's compiled a record that could be described as "replacement-level," if by "replacement-level" you mean "replacing him with some guy pulled at random out of the upper deck." The Padres and Rangers probably each have a dozen guys in their farm system who could pitch better than Park. Nolan Ryan could pitch better than Park, and he's pushing 60.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make it: What in God's name are the Padres thinking? How is it possible that, until yesterday, the Padres were in first place in the NL West despite apparently being run by one of the people in those Vonage commercials? How does Towers keep his job? My mind reels.

BALTIMORE acquires OF Eric Byrnes from COLORADO for OF Larry Bigbie

At first, my only thought on this trade was that it pretty much defines "tit for tat." Then I paused. "Wait," I said to myself, "didn't the Rockies just get Byrnes, like, two weeks ago?" And indeed they did, from Oakland in the Joe Kennedy deal.

What could possibly have happened to sour the Rockies on Byrnes in two weeks, I wondered? Did the Rockies suddenly decide that Byrnes wasn't the right person to lead their pennant drive? (I mean, sure, they're 37-67 right now, but that puts them in the thick of the race in the NL West.) Did Byrnes sleep with the general manager's daughter? Does the Rockies owner have a Bigbie fetish? Or, as I've so long suspected, does the Rockies front office make all its personnel decisions with a Ouija board?

As it turns out, the truth is more prosaic. The Rockies didn't really want Larry Bigbie. (Surprise, surprise.) They traded to Byrnes to get Bigbie so that they could ship Bigbie to Boston, in exchange for hot catching prospect Kelly Shoppach. Only the problem was, Boston couldn't trade Shoppach, because they were planning to send Shoppach to Tampa Bay in the same trade that would have sent Manny Ramirez to Mets, only that trade fell apart when Carly found out Sonny was still sleeping with Alexis while they were supposedly trying to cure Lucky of his amnesia and reunite him with Liz. Or something. (Sorry, sometimes I get the trading deadline and the plot from "General Hospital" mixed up.)

All this simply goes to prove that the deals that didn't happen this weekend were far more interesting than anything that did happen. And now my head hurts, so let's move on.

SAN FRANCISCO acquires OF Randy Winn from SEATTLE in exchange for C Yorvit Torrealba and minor-league P Jesse Foppert

I could use this space to ponder on the fact that it seems like the hottest commodity at the trading deadline was unexceptional replacement-level journeyman outfielder. Or I could point out that Jesse Foppert is another charter member of the Didn't-You-Used-To-Be-Somebody? Club. (He was supposed to be one of the Giants' best pitching prospects before he blew out his arm.)

But I'm rapidly running out of steam, and I still have a couple more trades to deal with here, so I'll just say this: Kudos to Seattle. Because when you have the opportunity to acquire a player named "Yorvit Torrealba"... well, you can't pass up that opportunity. It doesn't matter if he can play or not. The baseball gods will look favorably on Seattle for this deal.

FLORIDA gets RP Ron Villone from SEATTLE for minor leaguers blah, blah, blah

I can't even pretend I care about this deal. Let's just move on.

TAMPA BAY acquires Nothing from NOWHERE in exchange for Nobody and no cash considerations

(Note to the reader: This is usually the spot where I take a free shot at the Seattle Mariners for once again failing to improve their team when it counts, on their way to yet another postseason failure. Well, seeing as Seattle made not one but two - TWO! - trades this weekend, and also considering that they're about as likely to make the postseason as the St. Louis Browns, I'm laying off them this year. Tampa Bay, you're my new pinata! Come on down!)

Everyone who's ever played in a fantasy league has come across the Hoarder. There's always one guy in every league who acts like this. Usually he anchors himself in the cellar about two weeks into the season and stays there. For a month or two, he's good for easy punchline, but as you start getting into June and July, the jokes get stale and you start thinking about liberating some of his better players. His team's going nowhere, but he's got a Jake Peavy or a Miguel Tejada that could help out a contender.

But he won't make a deal. Even when his season is clearly dead in June, he's convinced that he's going to mount a miracle run and get back in it. When July and August roll around and even he has to admit that maybe Tony Clark isn't going to be the 70-home-run hitter he imagined, he's still determined to hold you hostage and turn his season around with one deal. You want Peavy? Only if you're offering Mark Mulder and Gary Sheffield. You want Tejada? No problem. Just send him Scott Rolen, David Ortiz and Livan Hernandez. It's like trying to negotiate a toy store with a small child. ("Okay, Johnny, I'll buy you one toy. Do you want the Hot Wheels Super-Smokin' Triple Loop of Terror, the Lego model of the Hubble Space Telescope or the Testosterone Tommy action figure?" "All of 'em." "You can only have one." "Okay, I'll have one of each.")

In the grand scheme of things, the Hoarder doesn't matter much. Sure, he's a drag on the league, and he can be awfully annoying if he's holding onto a player you could really use. But in the end, if he pays his $100, what's the harm? It's almost like a charitable donation.

Running a fantasy team this way is one thing. But when you operate an honest--to-God, more-or-less-major-league franchise this way, you have to wonder. You wouldn't think that Vince Naimoli was in the charitable-donation business (the Greg Vaughn contract aside). You'd think that anyone who ran his business the way the Hoarder runs his fantasy team would soon find himself looking for dinner in the dumpster behind the Pizza Hut. But no, despite being completely incompetent at his job, Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar continues to cash obscenely large paychecks on a regular basis.

Hey there, recent college grads! Are you struggling to find a job? Starting to suspect that four years of art history wasn't the lucrative career path you'd imagined? Resigning yourself to a lifetime of saying, "Extra whipped cream on your latte, sir?" Are you beginning to lose hope, to think that you'll never be qualified for a real job in today's competitive economic climate?

Well, have no fear! Chuck LaMar isn't remotely qualified to hold a job in a major-league organization above peanut vendor, and yet he draws a six-figure salary! He's an inspiration to young, unqualified strivers everywhere. Not so inspiring for the baseball fans of Tampa Bay, but the five of them will figure out a better way to spend their summers eventually.

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Well, there you have it! Much ado about nothing. I must say, with more than a touch of pride, that this column is much more long-winded than I would have imagined possible with such a pathetic crop of trades. Victory is mine!

Posted by Mediocre Fred at August 1, 2005 11:12 AM | TrackBack
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