It is the rumor that simply will not quit. According to new whispers emanating from the Bay Area, the A’s are once again talking to the Mets about a trade involving Barry Zito. According to the latest scuttlebutt, the Mets have offered a package of minor league outfielder Lastings Milledge, who is far and away their top prospect, and right-hander Brian Bannister, who has emerged as New York’s No. 5 starter. On the surface, that package seems a little bit slim for Oakland, which would probably want another player (Victor Diaz?) added to make it a three-man return. Besides, the timing of this rumor just doesn’t seem right. With Opening Day right around the corner, the A’s have been installed as no worse than co-favorites in the American League West (along with the Angels), with many prognosticators regarding them as the outright leader in a weak division. If that’s the case, why would Billy Beane surrender his No. 1 starter for two players who wouldn’t contribute much in ‘05, thereby sacrificing Oakland’s pre-season stand as the elite team out West?…
As Oakland’s primary challenger on the left coast, the Angels are looking to fine-tune their club. They’d like to find a platoon partner for Juan Rivera, who figures to split his time between the DH, left field, and right field slots this summer. That explains Anaheim’s interest in David Dellucci, who enjoyed a career year in 2005. Dellucci is also the kind of player that Mike Scioscia loves—a hard-nosed grinder who is versatile enough to play all three outfield spots and capable enough with the bat to serve as a DH. The Angels are reportedly offering right-hander Kevin Gregg from their excessively deep bullpen, but the Rangers will probably want more than him in return. After all, Dellucci hit 29 home runs and drew 76 walks while Gregg struggled to the tune of a 5.04 ERA in 2005…
Ah yes, we have more Craig Wilson trade rumors. One team that has expressed serious interest is the Mariners, who would use Wilson as a DH and outfielder as a way of instilling life in one of the league’s worst offensive teams. The Mariners might be willing to part with talented but oft-injured right-hander Joel Pineiro. The Pirates would have preferred making a deal with the Braves for John Thomson, but Atlanta refused the offer, and now Thomson is hurt, making Pittsburgh’s interest moot—at least for the moment.
I watched the Phillies play the Yankees last night and came away highly impressed with Philadelphia’s perennially underachieving team. The Phils, who have played well throughout the spring, have enough talent to win the National League East this summer. The Phillies’ performance—and the broadcast on the YES Network—produced the following observations:
*The Phillies may undergo a changing of the guard—or the shinguards, so to speak. Backup catcher Sal Fasano, who pounded out a home run, a single and executed an impressive throw-out of Gary Sheffield on the basepaths, could emerge as an important player at a position that has become a Philadelphia liability. With Mike Lieberthal showing his age and a disconcerting amount of wear and tear, Fasano could be doing a lot of catching for the Phillies this summer. An underappreciated player throughout his career, Fasano might finally emerge as a No. 1 receiver… Impressive play aside, Fasano’s new Fu Manchu mustache brings back memories of “Harvey’s Wallbangers," making him look like a cross between Gorman Thomas and Pete Vuckovich.
*Having already emerged as the MVP of the Grapefruit League, Ryan Howard didn’t play against the Yankees, but only because he was traveling to receive an award. Frankly, Howard deserved the night off. He’s slugging .800 and has hit 10 home runs this spring, eclipsing Richie Allen’s Phillies’ spring training record of nine home runs in 1964. If Howard approaches the kind of regular season that Allen enjoyed in 1964, he’ll emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate and just might lead the Phillies to their first postseason berth in 13 years.
*Shane Victorino will be a highly effective fourth outfielder for the Phillies, replacing the traded Jason Michaels in that role. (He could start for two other National League East contenders, specifically for the Mets in right field and the Braves in left field.) The “Flyin’ Hawaiian,” who showed extraordinarily quick hands in hitting a home run on an inside fastball, is a switch hitter with ample power, and has the speed and arm strength to play all three outfield positions. If any of Philadelphia’s starting outfielders (Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, and Bobby Abreu) fall victim to injury, the Phillies will be fairly well covered.
*It’s time for the Phillies to commit to Ryan Madson as a fulltime member of the starting rotation. The lanky right-hander, who shut out the Yankees for six and a third innings, has the talent to emerge as a high-grade No. 3 starter behind Jon Lieber and Brett Myers. Madson has a terrific curve ball and change-up, with the latter pitch making his above-average fastball seem more powerful. A rotation featuring Lieber, Myers, Madson, Cory Lidle, and possibly Gavin Floyd could put the Phillies within hand’s reach of both the Mets and the Braves.
So who says spring training doesn’t produce any trades? Well, I did just last week, but major league teams have proven me wrong this spring. Within the last week, five fairly significant transactions have been made, including three trades and two player releases. Let’s take them one by one.
*The Tigers surprisingly released Carlos Pena, who was slated to back up Chris Shelton at first base while giving Detroit another DH and pinch-hitting option. I would have thought that Pena could have brought something via trade; he has tangible power (18 home runs in 260 at-bats), decent defensive skills at first base and won’t turn 28 until May. While Pena may never become the impact player that the Detroit and Oakland organizations once touted, he is clearly capable of helping somebody at the major league level. At first glance, Pena would make sense for teams like the Orioles, where he could platoon with either Jeff Conine or Kevin Millar, or the Giants, where he could alternate with Lance Niekro. He’d also represent an upgrade for the Reds, but they’ve mysteriously decided that Scott Hatteberg is a suitable solution at first base.
*The A’s added another left-hander to their bullpen, acquiring former Yankee Brad Halsey from the D-Backs for the underachieving Juan Cruz. This is a solid deal for Billy Beane. After watching him wallow through a disastrous 2005 season, the A’s had no room for Cruz in their bullpen. Halsey, while lacking the stuff to be anything more than a No. 4 starter, doesn’t get rattled under pressure, consistently throws strikes, and does reasonably well against left-handed batters, making him a candidate for specialty work in the bullpen. With the addition of Halsey, the A’s now have two left-handers in the bullpen, giving Ken Macha some flexibility. Holdover Joe Kennedy, another National League refugee, is capable of giving Oakland long stints out of the bullpen and making spot starts, which could free up Halsey to work lefty-lefty matchups.
*The Red Sox claimed Hee-Seop Choi on waivers from the Dodgers, who were unable to swing a deal involving the favorite of former general manager Paul DePodesta. Given his relatively light salary, Choi is a good pickup for the Red Sox. Despite failing to emerge as an everyday first baseman in Los Angeles, He had a not-so-terrible OPS of .789 in 2005, making him a solid option as a platoon partner at first base and as a pinch-hitter. If Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson can teach Choi an opposite field stroke, enabling him to take advantage of The Wall, this could become a dandy pickup for Boston.
*Prior to picking up Choi, the Sox added an even more ample power threat by snatching Wily Mo Pena from the Reds for right-hander Bronson Arroyo. This deal carries some risk for 2006. It’s always chancy for a contending team to part with starting pitch depth in exchange for a player who figures to be limited to a platoon role, as Pena will be with Trot Nixon in right field. But by 2007, this could pay major dividends in Beantown, given Pena’s youth and 40-home run potential. The presence of Pena might also make it easier for the Red Sox to finally trade Manny Ramirez sometime after the 2006 season… The Pena trade also helps the Reds, who now have four potentially decent starters in right-handers Arroyo and Harang and left-handers Brandon Claussen and Dave Williams (another off-season acquisition). The revised rotation is not the second carnation of Gary Nolan, Don Gullett, and Jack Billingham, but it’s a better quartet than anything the Reds have put together since the 1990s.
*Finally, the Mariners and White Sox pulled off the least newsworthy of the deals, but it’s one that could bring Seattle some much needed power to its outfield. The M’s acquired minor league slugger Joe Borchard from the World Champion White Sox for left-handed reliever Matt Thornton, who throws hard but looks like another Brad Pennington in the making. If given a chance, Borchard could give the Mariners better production than Raul Ibanez. And with Jeremy Reed sidelined by injury, Borchard could receive his closeup sooner rather than later.
The Alfonso Soriano trade rumors will inevitably calm down now that he’s ended his selfish refusal to play left field, but there actually might be a better chance of him being traded before the end of spring training. Come again? Well, if Soriano had continued his narrow-minded stance and the Nationals had reacted by placing him on the disqualified list, his trade value would have shrunk to near zero proportions. With teams offering less than 50 cents on the dollar for Soriano, it would have been easy for Nationals GM Jim Bowden to reject such overtures. Now that Soriano has agreed to play left field every day, he can rebuild his trade value by making a smooth transition to a new position, giving Bowden a bit more leverage. The Mets are one of the teams that has inquired about Soriano; they reportedly offered Victor Diaz as part of a deal, but insisted that the Nationals take on Kaz Matsui’s contract. Bowden was unwilling to do so, killing the proposal…
The Mets may revisit the Soriano sweepstakes later this spring (especially if they’re willing to up the ante by including someone like Anderson Hernandez, who could play shortstop in Washington), but he really isn’t a perfect fit because the team has a greater need for a top-of-the-order tablesetter than a middle-of-the-order free swinger. A better and cheaper solution might be found in Boston. Not surprisingly, the Mets have been talking to the Red Sox about the expendable Tony Graffanino. Graffanino is somewhat miscast as a utility infielder; he’s basically a second baseman who can’t play short and has little experience as a third baseman. He’s more useful as an everyday player, assuming that you need someone to play the right side of the infield. The Amityville, New York native would be a nice fit at Shea, playing second base and batting second behind Jose Reyes in the Mets’ order…
Craig Wilson has become one of the favorite players of this column. Why? He’s always mentioned in trade rumors, but never actually gets traded. Wilson once again finds himself on the block, squeezed out by new Pirate acquisitions at first base (Sean Casey) and right field (Jeromy Burnitz). Given his 30-home run power and decent on-base skills, the Pirates are wasting him as only an occasional starter against left-handed pitching. And since his value figures to plummet the less he plays, it would make sense for the Pirates to trade him now—and not sometime after Opening Day. There are several teams that could use his services as a first baseman, such as the Reds (who are planning to use the aging Scott Hatteberg now that Adam Dunn has been moved back to the outfield) and the Royals (who are strangely committed to Doug Mientkiewicz). One team that has already expressed interest in Wilson is the Braves, who apparently would like to use the "Blond Bomber" as a platoon partner with Adam LaRoche. (Again, that seems like a waste of Wilson’s talents, but better to be underused for a pennant contender in Atlanta than an also-ran in Pittsburgh.) There is a stumbling block, however. The Braves are unwilling to give up right-hander John Thomson, one of the main targets of Pittsburgh’s affection.
With the World Baseball Classic almost wrapped for 2006, reviews are favorable for the first-time event. The attendance has been good, fan enthusiasm has been terrific, the level of competitive fire has been higher than the naysayers had predicted, and a number of upsets have given the tournament a March Madness feel. Here are a few other observations of the inaugural Classic:
*Every time I see Cuba wearing its all-red pajama look, I think of the similarly adorned 1975 Cleveland Indians. At any moment, I expect to see Rico Carty, Oscar Gamble, or Boog Powell popping out of the Cuban dugout ready to pinch-hit.
*Prior to the Classic, Luis Sojo seemed to be a popular figure in his native Venezuela. Less than a month later, he is now one of the most vilified men in the country. Much of the venom stemmed from Sojo’s decision to keep his godson, Robert Perez, on the team’s final roster over veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who was coming off a wonderful performance in Winter League play. The situation worsened throughout the tournament, as fans second-guessed Sojo’s every move and watched an underachieving team fail to make it to the semifinals.
*Like the Venezuelans, the U.S. team disappointed at the Classic, sporting a 3-3 record and failing to reach the semifinals. There’s plenty of blame to go around, from the players to the coaching staff. The Americans showed no patience at the plate—too often engaging in first-pitch swings for the fences—and exhibited little range on defense, allowing too many catchable balls to drop in for hits. Buck Martinez managed the tournament like a 1990s All-Star Game, showing more interest in allowing everyone to play—as if this were scholastic baseball—rather than playing all-out to win.
The failure of the U.S team brings us to our "Fan Forum" question of the week. What is the most important thing that USA Baseball can do to improve its fortunes in the next classic? Here is a checklist of possible items:
*Convince the major leagues’ best players to participate rather than bow out because of physical concerns.
*Show more patience at the plate and improve performance in the fundamentals of the game, such as the sacrifice bunt, the hit-and-run, and advancement of baserunners.
*Treat the Classic with the attitude of the postseason, rather than as a series of exhibition games.
*Change the manager and the coaching staff.
*All of the above.
Spring training is a hard time to make trades because a) most teams are looking to cut down their rosters rather than adding to them and b) everyone’s looking for pitching, but no one has any pitching—or at least quality pitching—to spare. In spite of these two golden rules of the spring, there are still conversations going on between general managers throughout Arizona and Florida. According to the hottest rumor of the spring, the Cubs are seriously weighing the possibility of trading Todd Walker to the Orioles for Luis Matos (who coincidentally has become expendable because of the acquisition of another Cub, Corey Patterson). It’s hard to believe that Cubs management has grown so disenchanted with Walker’s defensive shortcomings that they would be willing to trade his useful left-handed bat for a backup outfielder. Yet, that’s apparently what they have in mind for Matos, who would likely spell Matt Murton and/or Juan Pierre as part of Chicago’s re-made outfield scheme. As for the Orioles, their interest in Walker speaks volumes about their concerns over Brian Roberts, who is attempting to come back from major elbow surgery. It’s unfortunate that a pennant contender couldn’t find use for Walker as a quality backup infielder at three positions (second base, third base, and first base) and a valuable pinch-hitter in the late innings…
While a Walker-for-Matos deal seems likely, the same can’t be said of the wildest rumor making the rounds this spring—Alfonso Soriano to the Reds and Ken Griffey, Jr. to the Nationals. Although the Reds would be acquiring the younger player (by six full years) and therefore the greater value, this proposed trade makes little sense for either team. The Reds need pitching first and foremost in any deal involving one of their starting outfielders. Furthermore, they would have to sign the high-strung Soriano, a free agent after the season, to a long-term contract, and that might not be easy to do even with new ownership in place. As for the Nationals, they don’t figure to contend for a playoff spot out of the National League East, making the acquisition of an injury-prone, thirty-something outfielder a dubious proposition. And somehow I can’t imagine Griffey being happy with the dimensions of RFK Stadium after he nearly fainted upon first look at Safeco Field several years back with the Mariners…
Beat writers can speculate all they’d like, but the Yankees won’t be trading either Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright anytime during spring training. It’s already been decided that Pavano will start the season on the disabled list, making him undesirable to any suitor that wants to take a close look at his back and right arm. In the meantime, Wright has pitched so brutally this spring that has trade value has gone from zero to minus-60, forcing the Yankees to live with him as a bullpen castoff or convince him to go on the disabled list. Frankly, the Yankees would be better off with Clyde Wright serving as the fifth man in their rotation.
Forgive me for not doing more posting this week–but I do have an excuse.
On Friday, March 10, at 2:38 in the morning, Madeline Jan Markusen was born in Cooperstown’s Bassett Hospital. Here are Madeline’s key statistics:
*8 pounds, 14 ounces
*12 inches long
*Batting average: 1.000
Madeline and her mother, Sue, are doing well.
Have a great weekend, everyone.
It’s hard to believe, but it was only five years ago that I was sitting in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria watching Kirby Puckett, his wife, and his two children basking in the news that he had received just one day earlier–his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Puckett and his family seemed like they were on top of the world, and you might have been tempted to be jealous of Puckett if not for his wonderfully outgoing and positive personality.
Only five years later, it’s all gone. Puckett became embroiled in scandal, involving charges that he abused his wife. Not surprisingly, his marriage came to an end. His weight ballooned to 280 pounds, leaving him almost unrecognizable to those who remembered him in his athletic prime. And then on Sunday, he suffered a massive stroke, leaving his body unable to recover. Puckett died on Monday, passing away at the mere age of 45.
On top of the world one day, departed from us five years later. Things change too quickly in this world, sometimes for the worse. Far worse.
Rest in peace, Kirby.
In the days since we’ve learned that Buck O’Neil would not be included in this year’s Hall of Fame class, an emotional debate has raged over whether he merits membership in Cooperstown. Some detractors have tried to minimize O’Neil’s abilities as a player, calling him mediocre or only a little above average. There’s also been a significant hue and cry about creating a new Hall of Fame category for “contributors”—i.e, those who did not excel in any one category, but who contributed to baseball through a number of different avenues. Some have suggested that this category be created specifically to accommodate Buck O’Neil.
Well, there’s no reason to create such a category. It’s already included in the Hall’s current Rules of Election. While there aren’t formal publicized rules for the special Negro Leagues committee, there are very specific rules of election for the Veterans Committee. And since the Negro Leagues committee is a subset of the Veterans Committee—and the closest thing to the Veterans Committee—the rules apply. So let’s reference Rule 6c, which lays out the criteria by which someone can be judged a Hall of Famer:
Eligible candidates must be selected from: (C) Those whose careers entailed involvement as both players and managers/executives/umpires will be considered for their overall contribution to the game of Baseball.
Now Buck O’Neil was certainly a player and manager, and one could argue that he has also been an executive, based on his work with the Negro Leagues Museum, first as a member of the board of directors and now as the chairman of the museum. As I see it, the key words in Rule 6C are “overall contribution to the game.” Given that phrase, it seems to me that O’Neil’s work in promoting the Negro Leagues over the last 15 years can also be added to his list of contributions—and therefore his Hall of Fame resume.
I’ve also talked to Hall of Fame officials about this matter of “contributors,” as they pertain to the Veterans Committee and Negro Leagues elections, and the answer is pretty clear. Voters ARE allowed to consider the breadth of an individual’s career accomplishments in determining whether he or she is worthy of election to the Hall of Fame. This could apply to someone like Buck O’Neil (player, manager, coach, pioneer of sorts) or Joe Torre (player and manager), as the two most obvious examples. It could also apply to Billy Martin (player and manager) or Gil Hodges (also player and manager). This brings us to one of the great myths about Hall of Fame elections, that voters can vote on someone as a player or as a manager, but not as both. This is a myth that has been promoted by too many writers who should know better, or who simply don’t take the time to read the rules. Once and for all, it’s pure bunk. Simply put, voters are not required to compartmentalize candidates into separate categories of players, managers, executives, and the like. They can, but they don’t have to do it.
Given this option, as laid out by the Hall of Fame rules and Hall of Fame officials, I would consider someone’s entire career in baseball in casting a vote. That seems like the most sensible way to determine whether someone—be it Buck O’Neil or Gil Hodges—belong in the sport’s Hall of Fame.
Now if it were the players’ Hall of Fame or the managers’ Hall of Fame, that would be different. But it isn’t. Hopefully, the critics of Buck O’Neill will take note.