Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blockbuster Deals, Bold And Risky

  • "Now and for the future..."

I hate to keep harping on that ridiculous Theo Epstein comment of being concerned with "now and the future" as he fiddled while Rome burned at mid-season 2006, but it exemplified the way GMs (sometimes meekly) try to explain away inaction by way of verbal gymnastics.

For those of you who don't remember, the Red Sox were rolling along at mid-season 2006 looking like they were on a collision course for a 20-year rematch with the Mets in the World Series when fate struck both sides before they could meet their ends of the bargain. The Mets lost Duaner Sanchez (and the World Series) to a car accident in which Sanchez's shoulder and career were destroyed; and the Red Sox fell into third place in the AL East because of injuries; shortness in the starting rotation; an imbalanced lineup; and the usual Manny Ramirez controversies.

After the season, Epstein's financial constraints were mystically removed as building "for the future" included flinging money at J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo and Daisuke Matsuzaka. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that as long as the perpetrators admit what it is----checkbook retooling.

While the presentation was somewhat condescending and self-serving, there of course was an argument for what Epstein was saying even though the claim of organizational poverty was similar to the maudlin whimpering of the bailed out financial giants who found it appropriate to take government cash while still organizing and attending luxurious junkets for their overpaid and unproductive executives.

In refraining from making any big money deals to bolster his sagging club in 2006 with the likes of Bobby Abreu, Epstein saved the money to go after Drew, Lugo and Matsuzaka. Drew worked out well enough. The other two, not so much; but the signing of Matsuzaka added an imperative ingredient to the Red Sox in recent years----Hideki Okajima, so the sequence of events worked out well even if the initial intent didn't.

The Red Sox rebounded to win the World Series in 2007. has a front page story from their Baseball Tonight Clubhouse discussing a hired gun who's going to be up for auction, the Mariners' Cliff Lee. Two mirror images of Lee----pitchers at the top of their game, toiling for non-contenders and heading for free agency are mentioned in the piece----Randy Johnson and David Cone.

In 1998, the Astros traded for Johnson to make a title run. Johnson had been struggling with the Mariners and wanted out; on July 31st, the Astros sent Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama to the Mariners to get Johnson knowing the slim chance of keeping him for more than the rest of the season.

Considering that the Astros got a blazing 10-1 finish from Johnson and won 102 games, the deal worked for the regular season; but they got bounced in the playoffs by the Padres in the first round; Johnson was offered a lucrative contract to stay with the Astros, but instead chose to pitch in Arizona and left for the Diamondbacks.

The Mariners rebuilt their club with lightning speed as Garcia became a workhorse; Guillen was a solid contributor; and Halama had some use. The Mariners were back in the playoffs two years later in large part because of that trade.

The Blue Jays acquired Cone from the Mets in late August of 1992 as the Mets, floundering after championship expectations, were worried that: A) Cone's contract demands would be too expensive; B) his heavy use would result in a physical breakdown; and C) the pitcher's hard-partying ways were bad news waiting to happen.

Cone was an integral part of the Blue Jays first World Series win and departed for his hometown Royals after the season----he won a Cy Young Award in 1994 and was traded back to the Blue Jays in a salary dump in 1995 and was later being traded to the Yankees. The players the Blue Jays traded to get Cone from the Mets----Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson----were extremely talented, but Thompson never fulfilled massive potential in any area aside from his mouth; and Kent took five years and two more address changes to become a star.

For the Mets, the trade simply didn't work as Cone pitched brilliantly for almost another decade in helping the Yankees win four World Series.

In each case, it was well worth it to make the trades even if they were only rentals.

Cliff Lee appears determined to experience free agency and, unlike Johnson and Cone, there don't seem to be any tugs of the heartstrings pulling him in one direction or another. He wants to get paid; and he wants to win. With that in mind, teams wouldn't be taking as big a risk as the Astros and Blue Jays did in making their bold decisions to get Johnson and Cone respectively. Lee's agenda is clear and if the team acquiring him pays him, he's likely to stay.

There's a roll of the dice in making blockbuster moves to go for it now; in the case of the Blue Jays, it worked; in the case of the Astros, it didn't. But retrospectively, you can't question it, because they got what they were expecting when they brought in the short-term assassins. Sometimes it works perfectly; sometimes it doesn't; but you can't say it wasn't a calculated decision.

One of the reasons that I was so perplexed at the Red Sox decision in last year's ALDS loss to walk Torii Hunter in the ninth inning of game 3 to pitch to Vladimir Guerrero had nothing to do with stats; it had to do with Guerrero's penchant for the dramatic that is approaching a Reggie Jackson-level of histrionics.

The Rangers and Angels are battling for first place in the AL West and Guerrero has been a one-man wrecking crew in the first two games of the series the teams are playing (they've split); Guerrero has gone 6 for 8 with 3 homers; a double; and 8 RBI. This isn't a "revenge" scenario against the team that dumped him, but with Guerrero raising his game for circumstances just like this.

At age 35, Guerrero has had an MVP-caliber year with the Rangers in part due to demolishing the ball at the friendly confines of Rangers Ballpark; and in part due to the awakening that sometimes comes with a change-of-scenery.

It's that inner aura that Reggie had; that Lenny Dykstra had; that Dave Henderson had allowing them to come through on the big stage when the spotlight shines brightest. That, more than anything, was why I never would've walked Hunter in the playoffs last year to pitch to Guerrero. Guerrero's current batting average against Jonathan Papelbon in .091; Hunter is at .429 in 7 career at bats.

It doesn't matter.

There are times to look at the players and their personalities and ignore obvious statistics. To this day I believe that had Red Sox manager Terry Francona pitched to Hunter, Papelbon would've blown a high 98 mph fastball right by him. He chose to antagonize Guerrero with the game on the line and Guerrero made him pay.

That's the type of player Vladimir Guerrero is, cool under fire; fearless and determined; somehow he gets the job done.

  • Viewer Mail 7.1.2010:

RMiller writes RE Paul DePodesta:

DePodesta did do that bad a job; in fact, he was a horrific GM who wrecked a team on the verge of a title run. >>
That little tidbit is perhaps "common sportswriter wisdom" but hardly up to the standards of one who considers himself a knowledgable baseball blogger.
As a long-standing Dodger fan, your oversimplification just misses the mark. If "wrecking a team" is referring to the infamous LoDuca trade in 2004, clearly that didn't "wreck" the Dodgers ability to win the NL West that year. The Finley trade made nearly the same time recouped and then some the meager production loss from proven 2nd half fader, LoDuca. In fact both LoDuca and Mota were so horrible in Sept that they may well have cost LA the NL West had they been kept. Granted, LA got little value from the Florida guys that year but the loss of LoDuca was the most over-estimated media-created myth in some time.
I am not one who believed in DePodesta's alleged "genius", nor lamented his firing as a great injustice. He didn't have the communication skills to be a good GM.
But he wasn't "horrific" and he didn't "wreck" anything in LA except himself. His key acquisitions in '05 (Kent, Lowe, Penny, Drew) helped the Dodgers win NL West in 2006 and Lowe remained on to help win in '08 also. He made some bad moves in '05 also, but some of it was due to a budget cut of nearly $ 20 mil v. 2004 season because the owner was running on a thin cash margin.

I have to admire the deftness with which you cherrypick your argument to defend aspects of DePodesta's tenure while admitting he did a bad job.

The case that I continually make against DePodesta (as a retort to those that still promote him as a potential GM) has little to do with one individual move, but the entirety of what he did as Dodgers GM.

The Paul LoDuca trade was a bad one not because of the questionable aspect of LoDuca's leadership in the clubhouse and that the maneuver was such a stunning bolt from the blue to the clubhouse from manager Jim Tracy on down, but that they: traded LoDuca; traded Guillermo Mota who was the best set-up man in baseball for a dominating bullpen; and got back literally nothing that helped the team for the rest of 2004 in Brad Penny, Hee-Seop Choi and Bill Murphy. It was as if he dumped LoDuca, Mota and Juan Encarnacion just because he could; because it was a solid statistical decision. In practical terms, it was a nightmare.

While it's never been confirmed or denied, the Penny trade was meant to be a precursor to get Randy Johnson from the Diamondbacks before Johnson had agreed to come to Los Angeles; Penny was presumably a suitable consolation prize if the Johnson trade didn't pan out----but Penny got hurt after one start and didn't pitch for the rest of the season.

You're right about Mota pitching poorly for the Marlins after the trade; but Mota had been absolutely fantastic for the Dodgers from 2003 all the way up until the trade. You can't say that he would've pitched as badly for the Dodgers as he did for the Marlins. He was comfortable with the Dodgers as Eric Gagne's set-up man and that bullpen was the stuff that wins championships.

So what you had was a team that was 60-42 and in first place by 3 1/2 games at the time of the deal, and went 33-27 the rest of the way. They had their bullpen demolished (with Darren Dreifort anointed to replace Mota----he was terrible and got hurt); a shortened starting rotation with no Penny and no Johnson; and a scotch-taped together team that was barely able to hold on to make the playoffs.

Some of DePodesta's acquisitions did work out. Jeff Kent, Derek Lowe, Milton Bradley and Penny had value; but the tone-deafness in detonating a team that had grown up together under manager Jim Tracy; trusted each other and was playing excellent baseball is the main failure of the stat zombie method of building a team in general and DePodesta in particular.

Being a good GM also has a touch and feel quality to it; it's more than looking at the statistics of one player vs another; judging that a good starter is better than a good reliever (an arguable premise); or doing something gutsy and drastic even if it's unpopular. That trade unraveled the 2004-2005 Dodgers.

Firing Tracy----one of the best strategists in baseball and popular with the players----after 2005 was absurd; and the proffered reason to "get someone on the same page" is identical to saying, "I want someone who'll do what he's told".

His drafts were rotten with only Blake DeWitt and Cory Wade (average players at best) contributing to the Dodgers in the years after their selections.

It's interesting that you bring up payroll when the main reason DePodesta was hired was due to the role he played in Moneyball; that he was supposed to be able to find players who were undervalued and inexpensive. The Dodgers payroll in 2004 was $89 million; in 2005 it was $83 million. In comparison, the team with which DePodesta was supposedly the stat-wielding consigliere to Billy Beane's ruthless boss----the Athletics----had payrolls of $59 million in 2004; and $55 million in 2005. DePodesta couldn't function with $30 million more available as Dodgers GM?

You bring up his absence of communication skills, but you fail to add in that he couldn't see past the numbers on his laptop; with that factored in, you understand the true genesis of his horrific tenure as Dodgers GM----the 20-month reign of terror that I prefer to call The DePodesta Disaster. 2010BaseballGuideCover.gif

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Jeff said...

I was living in L.A. during the DePodesta disaster.

Generally speaking, he wasn't liked by the public. I seem to remember talk radio hosts lambasting him for his "moneyball" mishaps.

For the reasons you state in your retort, he did wreck what was a pretty good thing at the time... and to top it off, in the public eye he was a smarmy, pedantic prude.

Still is I imagine.

She-Fan said...

The resurgence of Vlad has been interesting. He was looking so done in Anaheim and now he's on a tear. Yes, the ballpark in Arlington is hitter friendly, but I think you're right about the change of scenery and the need to get out of a rut. The guy has always been dangerous but now he's downright scary.

Gabriel said...

Vlad has always been a reliable player. I have always liked him, and it never ceases to amaze me how well he plays the game. I remember the first time I saw him get a base hit off a ball in dirt, and thinking "man, he's awesome!".

On another note, how do you like the Angels' chances with Stone-Cold Killer Cliff Lee? They have played well recently, but I feel they could use his services.

Joe said...

How can you hold Brad Penny getting hurt against Depodesta though? You said they got nothing, but they did get something, and that was Penny. Unfortunately he got hurt though.

Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

Smarmy! I love that word. LoDuca? L.A.? Trade? Bad Move!

As much as I would like to, I don't think the Mets should be (then or now) criticized for not trying to sigh VLADDY-G. Hind-sight is always 20/20 vision. The Angels took a chance and it paid off. At the time the Mets couldn't afford to get burned again. I only throw that out there cause Vlad is the topic.
...Just sayin'. But Vlad's career numbers should start to get a different conversation about him started. It's amazing how under-rated he's remained all these years.

Lenny Dykstra ~ Can't help but love of my favorites. But has he completely lost his mind? Now he's basically calling himself and Canseco the pioneers of steroids?! That was a pretty stark confession by him. Not that it wasn't met with a "DUH!" from me. I liked that little skinny kid Davey Johnson wanted to trade so badly. It's a good thing for him the image of 1986 NLCS game 3 never changes.