Monday, October 24, 2005

Cold stove

The days go by slowly in winter, even moreso when the Pats, Celts and Bruins are redefining "underwhelming" (not that I blame the Pats; if any team could seriously believe they're cursed it's this year's Pats). This results in a malaise that very quickly gives way to an obsessive speculation about what deals are going to be made in the offseason. As I mentioned in my previous rant, one of the big stories will be Manny. But there are others, so many others. It's tough to focus.

The Captain Caveman story will certainly be one to watch. JD is in a strong bargaining position. He again put up good numbers in 2005 although his power figures dropped considerably from 2004. The theory that as Damon goes, so goes the Sox offense was pretty defensible this year. CF is a tough position to fill, as is the leadoff spot in the order. No matter how you slice it, Johnny is the premier free agent on the market for CF, and maybe period. The problem is, Caveypoo wants a 5 year contract, and he's well on the wrong side of 30. There is a good chance that he's a Finley-type physically who will play well into his late 30s, but there is also a good chance that one of these days he'll hit the wall too hard, at too awkward an angle, and that will be that. You hate to downgrade a player because he plays too hard, but there it is. We Bostonians remember Freddy Lynn fondly, but we didn't want him in the outfield at 35. There is really no free agent market at the position other than JD. So it looks like the Sox will be looking at Damon, or a trade, or a non-tender acquisition (for example, would they really want to try and fix Corey Patterson? In Boston?). The list of names is long, and unlikely. I have no idea who will be patrolling Fenway's center field next year. I don't think anyone does.

Now, the infield! The Sox could potentially lose every infield player save Renteria (and there are those who wouldn't mind seeing them make the sweep). This means that unless they want to start Alex Cora at 2B, something has to be done. I feel OK saying they do not want to do this.

Let's look at it positionally:

1B: I think it's safe to say the black hole known as Kevin Millar's offensive production will go away. I think it's also safe to say that John Olerud made a favorable impression and could be back at cost. Roberto Petagine put up a OPS in Pawtucket and had good at-bats for the big league club but never got into Tito's good graces, perhaps owing to his lack of clowning. Still, for those of us who believe AAA numbers are a decent predictor of MLB performance, we'd like to see him get a shot...problem being, we don't need two platoon left-handed 1Bs(although each of them could blow a hamstring getting out of the recliner). The free-agent crop is pretty thin here. Paul Konerko is the obvious cream, but his pricetag skyrocketed in the 7th last night and he seems content to stay in Chicago. There are a couple guys that could be had on the trading block, but the costs might be prohibitive. Adam Dunn would be a fantastic addition to the club, but Cincy would undoubtedly ask for every pitching prospect we have plus a testicle. That's not good. Aubrey Huff could possibly he had for an Arroyo/Shoppach combo, but the lefty thing creeps up again, as does the "worst full year yet" thing. This will be an interesting story. I'm hoping we sit tight, suck it up with Olerud and Petagine and maybe add an Eduardo Perez. Even if these guys don't play that well, they would have a three-player platoon with over 100 years on the planet - that's got to count for something.

2B: Keep Graffy. One meaningless but egregious error aside, it's difficult to think you'll improve on the package he brings to the table for the money.

3B: This is interesting. Mueller is a fantastic player and with Varitek I think the professional spine of the team. But with his knees going, and the likelihood that he'll get some strong offers in the market, the Sox may need to look to Youks to step in. He has certainly shown he's ready to get his chance. The Free Youks bandwagon will be ecstatic; I suspect that most of us, even when/if Youks succeeds, will find the departure of Mueller bittersweet. The forward thinkers have put out the theory that the Sox should go after Furcal to play SS and move Renteria to 3B. I'm not a huge fan. It's not impossible, nothing is, but Renteria appears to be a guy who doesn't adapt well to new environments, so at $10 mil a year, I'm not experimenting.

The infield x-factor is Glaus. Obviously this guy would hit extremely well at Fenway - and most other parks for that matter - when healthy. Problem being, of course, he's made of cellophane paper. He wants to play 3B but his shoulder's shot. Could the Sox pick him up and convert him to 1B? Maybe. Does he want to do that? Rumors say no. Sometimes guys come around, but other times, Jay Payton says Hi.

The Sox are fortunate right now in that they have a lot of high-level prospects in the pipeline, and these are prospects that over the next couple years need to be indoctrinated into the major league ballgame. One thing that I hope the front office takes into account is the fact that these guys need leadership in the clubhouse and on the field. That's a big reason why I'd like to have Graffanino on the squad while Pedroia gets his feet wet. It's a big reason why despite Renteria's iffy first season in Beantown I'm happy we have him. 2006 won't be a rebuilding year, not entirely, but only a fool would think it won't be a building year.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

That's just Manny being...ahhhh...traded?

Apart from the soap opera that is beginning to wind up for the Epstein contract negotiations (please understand this, if you understand nothing else about this franchise - Larry Lucchino is a cancer, and he is malignant), the biggest saga of the offseason will revolve around Manny Ramirez. Simply put the Sox owe Manny $57 Mil over the next three years. This is a lot of money by anyone's standards, with the possible exception of Furious George Steinbrenner.

On top of the spend, you've got a lot of other things going on in the fabulous world of Manny. One, he's a wierd dude. I don't understand why this bothers some people, but apparently it does. Two, he's never been confused with Charlie Hustle. I personally don't think Manny is lazy, because on occasion he'll surprise you with his effort on the field, and off the field the guy is a workhorse. I think sometimes he FORGETS to play hard. You know, he's humming a little tune, and he gets to the good part, and he sort of forgets that that grounder to deep short might be beaten out for an infield hit. Three, his defense can only be described as "white-knuckle". He plays the wall pretty well, he led the league in assists, but his, er, playmaking itself can be harrowing. A Manny error is almost always catastrophic, and brings to mind the Keystone Cops, or Three Stooges (oddly, the other left-fielder who brings to mind the Three Stooges is the Yanks' Hideki Matsui, although in his case it's due to his well-documented resemblance to utility stooge Shemp). These things, plus Manny's occasional rest day - he still plays more games than nearly every positional player on the team throughout the course of the season - drive the fans crazy and lather up the media but are not the reason he's being shopped around.

The reason Manny is being shopped around is because he's 33, getting a little longish in the tooth, and the law of diminishing returns is starting to kick in. If they deal him this year, in terms of productivity they will lose on the deal in 2006, almost certainly. They will probably lose on the deal in 2007, and might lose on the deal in 2008. At the plate, Manny PRODUCES. Not only does he put up numbers himself, he protects Papi. He makes pitchers nibble, throw more pitches. He enhances the line up. This is inarguable, but time will take it's toll, and bizarrely his contract does not at all reflect this other, equally inarguable, fact. So, Theo et al. are looking to get something back while it can still be said that Manny is near his peak years.

The Mets are likely the only taker for Manny, and most likely the Sox would get Beltran in return (although you'd have to hope for more) after his craptacular year in New York in 2005. Even with the savings on that contract - only about $2 Mil in 2006 - there is no way Beltran plus crappy free-agent signing equals Manny's offensive production next year. No way. But the Sox have another problem to solve: do they want to give $40 - $50 Million and 4-5 years to an aging caveman who ironically throws like a girl? Probably not - so they need a centerfielder.

It's not really a win-win, not really. Not for next year. The free agent market doesn't have enough quality to replicate the offense Manny brings to the table. But I'm betting that Theo can see that production coming from somewhere next year or the year after that, and he wants to have the money to go after it. So he's selling high. He's a bright guy, our Theo.

I hope we sign him soon.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Wait, they're still playing?

One of the upsides to having a job that beats you like the rented mule of a red-headed stepchild you might have acquired is that sometimes you'll get home to find great baseball being played on FOX, and it's a surprise!

Ok, so in the case of the Angels-Chisox game from Wednesday night, it turned about to be a little anti-climactic within the framework of "great baseball", but still, what a week! Last night's Houston-Redbirds game was fantastic playoff baseball: great pitching, great D, some clutch hitting (although being a statistically educated man I am aware that there is no such thing as a clutch player), and guys playing hard and getting dirty.

Would I trade anything for 4 years of Jim Edmonds, even at his advanced age? Of course I would! I'm not a total idiot. Well, that's not true, exactly, but still, you've gotta love how Edmonds plays the game, unless you're his manager or GM, in which case you're probably waiting for him to do something to end his career. So, simply put, I'm not here to make cogent arguments, I just type things at random.

On the warm stove front, the big Boston news today (or rather, non-news) is that the ownership group and Theo Epstein are pretty far apart in the salary negotiations for Theo's contract. This is beyond my limited intellect. I mean, what more could you ask this kid to do? Are they waiting for him to sign an incentive-laden contract that pays him an extra $250K if the team wins two World Series IN THE SAME YEAR? Actually, if the winner of the MLB World Series were to actually play teams from the rest of the world thereafter, I suppose this would be possible. And, in fact, appropriate (for background, mockery, see: Eddie Izzard).

But that is something that we Sox fans will obsess over until it's done; we need Theo to keep this team moving forward. In some way this will nag at us all say long, as will the question of what happens with Manny, and whether or not Clemens will go straight to hell or spend a few millenia in purgatory signing autographs for fat kids. Hot stove, it gets under your skin. Let's face it; the offseason in many ways can be more fun than the season, in the same way that dreaming about that girl in high school that you never hooked up with can be more fun than actually hooking up with some skank in college that is far less attractive, but is, um, in season, as it were. So there's that.

All things being equal, 2005 has been a good year for baseball, even for Sox fans. Not a great year, but a good, semi-satisfying holdover year. I think in ten years time many folks will look back on this year as something of a watershed season in the modern game.

For myself, I'll look back on it as the time I grew to vaguely fear Edgar Renteria. But that too shall pass (I hope; Christ, we're on the hook for $30 Mil more).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hearkening Back...

I posted the below elsewhere on August 15th, and revisiting it, I see that I was right to be concerned, and even more right to be glib and fairly silly. I am saddened to say that with the exception of the Papelbon Question, every concerning scenario worked out poorly for the Sox.

Looking at the picture above, I know what you're thinking: "What could possibly go wrong"? Well, umm, as it turns out, when two super-athletes get a head of steam going, and put all that momentum into a full-on headfirst dive that results in their skulls colliding, the middle of the road answer is that at least one of their faces basically shatters. And the other one doesn't feel so hot either.

Correlatively, you might be wondering "What's going on here - is this the Shocking Baseball Injury Blog"? I'm here to tell you no - it isn't. I pray I never have to write about such things again. But while I'm no kind of journalist, you have to admit this is news. I have been watching all kinds of sports for over 30 years, and with the possible exception of Joe Theisman's leg this is the most horrific incident I've seen. The irony here is that these are probably the only two guys in the Bigs that could have accomplished the feat on that ball. Cameron is a Gold Glove caliber positional player with better than average speed, and Beltran is a burner in CF. Maybe Crawford and Baldelli ( if they were ever healthy together) get to that ball simultaneously on speed alone, but in most cases one guy will be just a tad bit out of position, or the other guy doesn't have the wheels. Freakish.

But then, that's been the Year in Baseball. Thus far we've had two pitchers and at least two batters hurt with balls getting fired off their heads, two pretty bad collisions and then this terrible one, a guy breaking his toe kicking an inanimate object in anger, and my personal favorite - the probable Rookie Of The Year falling down his stairs carrying groceries, and breaking his collarbone. Out for the season.

Nevertheless, the game goes on, and we're getting down to the nitty-gritty. The Sox remain atop the East, but the Yankees are still in the hunt, thanks to the magnificently idiotic managing of Buck Showalter (historically I would insist that his decision-making was evidence that he was gambling against his own team, or on the take from Steinbrenner, but now I know that that would get me in trouble so I'll just say he's incompetent to a cartoonish degree). Baltimore is in utter disarray after the waggish (not often you can use this as a double-entendre and pun) Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroids, and every Oriole starter began needing them. Toronto is still the lurker in the deep, but I think with Halladay out - with freakish injury - they're not for real.

Regarding the Sox, there are a great many questions to be answered, mostly around the starting rotation. As touched upon last week, staff "ace" Matt Clement has entered the "Dark Time" - the second half of the season. Aaand, is one might expect from looking at his historicals, he sucks now. Obviously taking a rip off the back of the head doesn't do much to improve your game, but there we are.

Wells is old and fat, and probably completely insane, but right now is the most consistent guy in the rotation. Wakefield is either Brilliant, or OhMyGodNOOOOO!! Yes, these are the guys we're happy about.

Arroyo is, well, a conundrum. Coming into the season I was so high on this kid, I surprised myself. The Great (just ask him) Schilling himself said he had "balls the size of Saturn"! I mean, that is pretty high praise, bearing in mind that Saturn is a planet and all. But apparently these balls can occasionally get in the way of throwing your fastball for strikes, and this results in hitters teeing off on your junk, and basically knocking you and your giant nuts out in the 4th. But then again, sometimes the planets align, if you'll pardon me extending the metaphor, and Arroyo is lights-out. It's tough as a fan to see someone walk out there and wonder "Will I get Jekyll, or Hyde?"...(for reference, see Wakefield, Tim).

In the most interesting development of the season, "insurance policy" starter Wade Miller is taking a much-needed stint on the DL, with some recurring tightness in his total inability to strike guys out. This means that with Schilling still relegated to the bullpen (which he is using as practice to pitch during the 2006 Home Run Derby), it will be rookie Jon Papelbon getting the call from Pawtucket.

Now, nobody is more excited for rookies than I am, and by all accounts Papelbon has the make up of a big-league starter. I really hope he comes up and does well. His first start he pitched better than expected, going almost 6 innings and only giving up a couple runs while striking out 7. It's hard to expect that wil be the case for the rest of his efforts though, as he'll get scouted, and guys will start to catch up to his stuff. The question mark is: the first time he gets dinged up, how will that affect his confidence? Hopefully he's the made of the stern material guys need to be to play in Boston. We'll see shortly. In the meantime, it's fun watching the messageboard guys try to come up with a nickname for him - Arroyo's, as you might imagine, is Saturn Balls.

In an unrelated note, my softball team Chaunch beat up on the evil Cobras this weekend, scoring so many runs, and spanking them so badly, that I never even once wondered about the score. All I know is that they have a Bad Person on their team who ruins the game for everyone, and disgracing him made everyone's day. Still, since Chaunch is Love, we did it with kindness, and walk-up songs, and PBR. You see, if people could just do everything with kindness, and walk-up songs, and PBR, there would be no war, no famine, no um, work...well, you can see where I'm going, but still it's not a bad idea.

Not to be.

It's been obvious to me, and to most observers with an understanding of how the post-season tends to work, that the Red Sox and Yankees would not be gracing center stage when the 2006 World Series kicks off this October. Both teams were seriously flawed in those areas that win championships, at least as the prevailing wisdom goes - pitching and defense. In addition, both teams weren't that likeable, the Sox having lost their lovable "idiots" charm with the addition of the mercenary Wells and the somewhat inscrutable (and error-prone) Renteria as well as the loss of some of their more colorful characters, and the Yankees struggling unsuccessfully to regain the respectable professionalism of the Paul O'Neill era. The Yanks are never likeable, but you could respect that ballclub even as a Sox fan. They played baseball the right way, and comported themselves with a quality that was apparent even from a distance.

As it turns out, the current Yankees ballclub may be the most easily disliked team we'll see in some time, for a couple of reasons.

First off, the payroll. It's not just unfair, it's insulting. The real message to everyone who doesn't subscribe to YES is "we don't even have to make an attempt to play fairly with you, you're beneath us". Looking and listening around the country, there is more anti-Yankee sentiment now than I've ever seen, and I've spent 20 years trying to drum it up. The Steinbrenner mentality (read: Bush administration mentality) is that Might Makes Right. Welcome to the Dark Ages, folks!

Second, the cheating. On top of the $200-million plus dollars a year they're spending on these guys, they also feel the need to cheat. Both Giambi and Sheffield have essentially admitted to using performance enhancers, and the saddest story of all is that unless you live in a world clouded by fever dreams, it's fairly obvious Giambi is back on them. It's impossible to know all the hows and wherefores, but anyone who hits the gym in their 30s knows that the muscle doesn't pile on free'n'easy anymore, certainly not with the ability to lift anything for days afterward. For Jason to have thrown on 25 pounds of muscle in 6 months while simultaneously finding his hitting stroke, well, God just didn't build us like that. While it enrages me that the Sox coughed up the 2003 ALCS in significant part due to his two drug-enhanced HRs off Pedro, I pity him his future.

However, and this is the interesting final point, the MLB's luxury tax is actually starting to even the playing field a bit. Two years ago this same team of Yanks would have most likely entered the playoffs with a rotation that included Ben Sheets after a midseason acquisition, or at least entered 2006 with him after signing him in the offseason. The money Milwaukee received from the revenue sharing deal helped them to sign their ace to a multi-year contract. If small market teams continue to make smart decisions with their young players, the future may see them continuing to make the signings they need to compete, and limiting big-market teams' ability to win all the top-dollar players. Sure, as long as Scott Boras is alive the Yankees will get more than their fair share of the pie, but the environment appears to be tempered.

So this could, maybe, might mean future Yankee teams might be human enough that they are no longer universally hated. They may play prospects they actually developed. They may not spend twice as much on their starting rotation than several small-market teams' entire payroll. It's a good thing.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are now a couple-three years into being a big-market team but thinking like a middle-market team. They didn't realize the fruits of this modality shift in 2005 and may not in 2006, but in 2007 the landscape will most likely have shifted. If all goes well they will have 3/5 of their starting rotation populated by players they drafted and developed. The middle of the infield may be the same. They will attempt to leverage their dollars to overpay for the missing pieces in competition with the Yankees, rather than go toe to toe on spend with them at every position, which is not feasible, even with the rabid fanbase known as Red Sox Nation behind them. In the near future, it looks like Sox teams will be build on the principles of balance and constistency, and this should translate into contention with their resources. This is Theo Epstein's legacy, one which I hope he continues to build from Yawkey Way (read: please get his contract done).

Clearly, the Sox are not alone in this approach to general management. Even as we speak, the remaining 2005 playoff agenda features teams that were built with balanced spending and development and a healthy respect for playing the game the right way. Sure, the team I root for and the team I love to hate are out of it, but I'm finding myself happy enough just being able to watch great baseball. No matter which of these teams end up in the final showdown, we should be treated to an epic World Series, untainted by the spectre of animosity that has shadowed the AL East for so long.

I'm kind of looking forward to it.