Steven Goldman of the YES Network is a talented writer who can turn a phrase and has an in-depth knowledge of American history, though I can do without his irrelevant political leanings. Unfortunately, when it comes to common baseball sense, he is wrong too often, from his obsession with Joe Torre’s age to his claim that the Yankees didn’t have a good backup catcher behind Thurman Munson (hey, what about Cliff Johnson and Johnny Ellis?) And when it involves the Yankees’ roster, Goldman is the ultimate prophet of gloom, except when it comes to defending the struggles of Alex Rodriguez.
In his most recent column at YES, Goldman did a comparison of the offenses of the Yankees and the Red Sox, and determined that Boston actually has the advantage. This makes for good copy, in that it runs counter to what most of the media establishment is writing about the Yankees and the Red Sox. Yet, Goldman’s analysis on this subject is flawed on several counts.
*Goldman bases most of his analysis on the PECOTA projection system espoused by Baseball Prospectus (BP)—and this is a large part of the problem. PECOTA might be more accurate than a high-powered microscope, but it has little credibility with a number of internet writers because Prospectus absolutely refuses to explain the criteria and methods used in determining the PECOTA formula. All other Sabermetric prediction systems reveal their formulas, but not BP. Their attitude on PECOTA has always been, "Trust us, it works." Sorry, that doesn’t fly in an era of analysis and insight. Without an explanation of what makes PECOTA tick, it earns about as much credibility as Jeanne Dixon’s old astrological predictions.
*According to Goldman, the Yankees rate advantages offensively at only third base, shortstop, and second base. Curiously, Goldman doesn’t seem to believe that the Yankees are better at catcher or center field, despite the fact that Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon were eminently more productive in 2006 than Jason Varitek and the injury-riddled Coco Crisp, respectively. Maybe Varitek will bounce back at age 35, and then again maybe he’ll be so close to retirement by mid-season that rookie George Kottaras will have to start. As for Crisp, I think he’ll be a much better player in 2007, but even at his peak, he’s never had an on-base percentage above .345. Damon hasn’t had an OBP that low since 2003. As for power, Crisp has put together slugging percentages below .400 three times in five years. Damon has had sub-.400 slugging percentages three times in 12 seasons. Sorry, but I’ll take Damon.
*According to the article’s rankings, J.D. Drew will have a better season than Bobby Abreu in right field. This is highly debatable, given Drew’s tendency to miss 30 or 40 games at a clip every other season. Some of Drew’s games-played totals are frightful: 104, 109, 100, 72. As for Abreu, he’s never played fewer than 151 games since becoming a regular. Conservatively, I’d call right field a draw, with Abreu’s ability to stay healthy giving the Yankees the far more comfortable posture.
*Much of Goldman’s gloom and doom is based on the decided advantage that the Red Sox have at first base, with Kevin Youkilis over Doug Mientkiewicz. Now, I was against the Mientkiewicz signing as much as anyone, but I have serious doubts that he will stay healthy enough to serve as much of a drag on the offense. He’s only managed to play 178 games the last two seasons, for an average of 89 games. If that’s the case again in 2007, either Andy Phillips or Josh Phelps will pick up additional at-bats, and either of those is capable of improving on Minty’s skimpy numbers. And then there’s always the possibility of adding reinforcements. Let’s remember that it’s easier to find mid-season help at first base than just about any other position. So while the first base situation is a concern right now, it may not be a lasting one.
*As part of his evaluation, Goldman takes into account the team’s benches—and that’s a good thing to do. With Wily Mo Pena, the Red Sox have an advantage, a power hitter in reserve, something the Yankees are lacking. However, in rating the team’s backup catchers, Goldman lists Raul Chavez. Well, I’ve got news for you. Of the three main candidates to back up Posada, Chavez has the least chance of making the team, behind Wil Nieves and Todd Pratt. Now I don’t think much of either Nieves or Pratt either, but it’s a bit disingenuous to list Chavez, by far the worst of the three hitters here, in this evaluation. Goldman’s seems to be doing this only to enhance his thesis that the Red Sox have the better offense—and that’s misleading.
While I think the Red Sox have a very good offense, I see little evidence that their offense stacks up as well as New York’s. Frankly, the Yankees’ offense is the least of their concerns right now, well behind that of starting pitching and defensive range in the field. If this Yankees lineup isn’t good enough to win the American League East, then maybe it will be time to bring in an offensive coordinator. Lack of offensive talent, for sure, is not the problem.
Art Fowler was not a household name. He was a vagabond relief pitcher and a journeyman pitching coach, and none of his accomplishments in either category will ever be associated with Cooperstown.
Yet, Fowler was a Hall of Fame character. Fowler, who died on Monday at the age of 84, lived a life of legend and controversy. Here are just a few items that made Art Fowler one of a kind:
*Fowler and his brother, Jesse, both pitched in the major leagues, but not at the same time–not by a longshot. Jesse debuted in the majors in 1924, while Art did not make his first appearance until he was age 31 in 1954. That was a separation of nearly 30 years, by far a record for two brothers in the major leagues. Even though he was already in his thirties, Fowler stuck around long enough to earn a World Championship ring with the 1959 Dodgers before pitching for the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961.
*To the surprise of no one who knew him well, Fowler hated physical conditioning, particularly running. “If running is so important, Jesse Owens would be a twenty-game winner,” Fowler told a reporter in 1957. “And the only reason I don’t like to run is that it makes me tired.”
*Fowler is best remembered for filling a memorable role as Billy Martin’s designated pitching coach/drinking buddy. (My father used to refer to Fowler as “drinking buddy” so often that I thought it should have been his actual title.) Their relationship began in 1969 for the Denver Bears of the American Association. Martin decided to make use of the 45-year-old Fowler, who was still an active pitcher on the staff, as his pitching coach. The relationship soon turned into a friendship. Fowler worked for Martin during almost every one of his managerial stops in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, New York, and Oakland. Critics of Fowler called him nothing more than Martin’s crony, while supporters pointed out that Fowler generally developed good relationships with his pitchers. For what it’s worth, Fowler was the Yankees’ pitching coach for both of their World Championship teams in 1977 and ’78.
* According to many of his former pitchers, a typical Fowler visit to the mound would involve the following words of wisdom. “I don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but whatever it is, it’s sure [ticking] Billy off!”
*Known for his off-the-field visits to bars, Fowler developed a well-deserved reputation for enjoying cocktails of various sorts. During his years as the Tigers’ pitching coach, Fowler became good friends with first baseman Norm Cash. Sharing a similar sense of humor, the pitching coach and first baseman spent hours together away from the ballpark, especially at local taverns. They were sometimes joined by Martin, who was no stranger to the drinking scene himself.
*Because of his relationship with Martin, Fowler became a controversial figure. This is perhaps best illustrated by a 2003 feature that ESPN produced on former rookie sensation David Clyde, who had made his debut for the Rangers 30 years earlier under the watchful eye of both Martin and Fowler. Martin didn’t like the left-hander, in part because he didn’t like pitchers and didn’t like rookies, two mortal sins committed by Clyde. Martin also didn’t appreciate the fact that Clyde lost nine straight decisions after starting the 1974 season at 3-and-0. At one point, Martin didn’t pitch Clyde for 31 consecutive days. During one interview segment on ESPN, Fowler supported Martin’s general evaluation of Clyde, claiming that the youngster was vastly overrated, unable to throw his fastball much harder than in the mid-eighties. Fowler also trashed the quality of Clyde’s competition in high school, kiddingly suggesting that the left-hander had piled up an impressive set of statistics pitching against “girls.” Fowler’s recollections of Clyde, however, differ significantly from those of Tom Grieve, a former Rangers’ outfielder who was Clyde’s Texas teammate from 1973 to 1975. According to Grieve, Fowler raved about Clyde’s talents at the time, saying that he had the potential to be a 25-game winner once he harnessed his control. Grieve’s sentiments were echoed by Fowler’s public comments about Clyde in 1974. “When his fastball is moving like it was tonight,” Fowler told Randy Galloway of The Sporting News after a game in 1974, “and with the velocity he had tonight, he didn’t need [his] curveball.” That doesn’t sound like the description of a pitcher lacking a good major league fastball.
Perhaps Art changed his mind after 30 years. Or maybe Art just liked to exaggerate. It was just another quirk of an uncommon baseball man named Art Fowler.
A pair of pastime passings, the Todd Helton trade rumors, and some Hall of Fame news make the headlines in this week’s Bunts and Boots…
Two men who never played the game professionally but still managed to have an impact have died over the past few days. One was Bing Devine, who died on Saturday at the age of 90. Devine, who served as the Cardinals’ general manager over two different stints and first ran the Redbirds from 1958 to 1964, is best remembered for engineering the heist of a trade that brought Lou Brock to St. Louis, but that only tells us part of the story. Devine essentially assembled the Cardinals’ teams that won World Championship in 1964 and 1967, and his later tenure as GM of the Mets laid the groundwork for New York’s first World Championship in 1969. In addition to Brock, Devine swung trades for key Cardinal mainstays like shortstop **** Groat and first baseman Bill White, who helped the team win it all in 1964, along with second baseman Julian Javier and center fielder Curt Flood, who were instrumental to both title teams during the 1960s.
Somewhat oddly, Devine’s first tenure in St. Louis ended in the middle of the 1964 season, prior to the Cardinals actually winning the World Series. With St. Louis buried in the National League standings and looking like also-rans, owner August Busch fired Devine in August on the advice of special assistant Branch Rickey. So Devine was not on hand to enjoy the rewards of a late-season surge and an historic collapse by the Phillies, which allowed St. Louis to win the pennant before pulling off a World Series victory against the Yankees. Still, Devine received a great deal of credit from the St. Louis press for putting together the framework of the Cardinals’ championship club, which included the mid-season deal that extracted Brock from the Cubs for pitchers Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemons.
After Bob Howsam and Stan Musial took turns as Cardinal general managers, Devine returned to his old stomping grounds in 1968, just in time to see St. Louis through to its third National League pennant in five seasons. During his interim tenure away from St. Louis, Devine had bided his time well as president of the Mets. With Devine playing a large role in the front office, the Mets drafted or signed young talents like Amos Otis, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver, and executed trades for Tommie Agee, Al Weis, and Ron Taylor, laying the seeds for the "Miracle Mets" season of 1969.
Once he returned to St. Louis, Devine would remain with the Cardinals through the 1978 season. Although the team would fail to make the postseason in the 1970s, his second tenure in St. Louis produced such homegrown talents as Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Garry Templeton, Bob Forsch, and Al Hrabosky. While Devine is best known for his St. Louis years, his well-rounded front office resume also included stints with the Astros, Expos, Phillies, and Giants, with whom he held a variety of front office and scouting posts…
During his days in New York, Devine crossed paths with a veteran baseball writer named Jack Lang. A beat writer for the Mets from their inaugural season in 1962 through 1988, Lang died on Thursday at the age of 86. Lang became synonymous with the Mets—and the Hall of Fame. As the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Lang became entrusted with the joyful duty of informing Hall of Fame candidates that they had been elected to Cooperstown. From 1967 to 1994, Lang placed congratulatory calls to 44 elected players, ranging from Red Ruffing in ’67 to Steve Carlton in ‘94. In 1986, Lang received his own "call to the Hall," when he earned the Hall of Fame’s Spink Award for outstanding baseball writing.
Lang also earned a reputation as a gentleman among writers; he was nicknamed "Captain Jack" in part because of his willingness to organize charter flights for fellow writers during the World Series. He also coordinated the annual Baseball Writers Dinner in New York City, a highly popular event that coincidentally took place on Sunday…
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Red Sox and Rockies have made some progress in trade talks centered around Todd Helton. The Rockies initiated the talks; they’re interested in ridding themselves of at least part of the $90 million owed Helton over the balance of his contract. I’m a bit surprised that the Red Sox have shown that much interest in Helton. He will turn 34 this August and is coming off two seasons of decline in which his slugging percentage has fallen from .620 to .476, which have coincided with Coors Field becoming less of an offensive ballpark. The addition of Helton would do nothing to address the Red Sox’ bullpen problems and would only make their defense worse with the rumored subtraction of Mike Lowell. This is one big money deal to which the Red Sox should just say no…
It won’t become official for awhile, but the Hall of Fame has selected broadcasting expert (and fellow MLB blogger) Curt Smith as the keynote speaker for this year’s annual baseball symposium in June. Smith has written a number of books, including Voices of the Game, an authoritative piece on the history of baseball broadcasting. Smith is an excellent choice for the Symposium; he’s one of the best public speakers among the writing set.
It hasn’t received the publicity of Sammy Sosa’s comeback attempt, but another retired veteran wants to return to the major league scene after an even longer absence than Sosa. He is Jim Leyritz, the former Yankee backup and postseason hero who currently serves as an afternoon co-host with Vinny Micucci on MLB Radio. "The King" hasn’t played in the majors since 2000, and hasn’t played professionally since a short tenure in Mexico in 2003, but he has kept himself in good shape and wants to latch onto a spot as a backup catcher. Normally, I’m leery of such comebacks, but given the state of backup catching in the game today—and it is putrid—I think Leyritz could help several teams in that capacity. Privately, the Yankees have already said they’re not interested, which is disappointing to Leyritz in part because of his strong relationship with another once-and-future Yankee, Andy Pettitte. (Frankly, the Yankees are being foolish on this front. Leyritz would be preferable to the current rogue’s gallery of Wil Nieves, Raul Chavez, and Todd Pratt. And it would cost the Yankees little to give Leyritz an invite to spring training.)
Still, several other teams have needs for a veteran backup with some pop in his bat. In the American League alone, the Mariners, Rangers, Devil Rays, and Blue Jays could all use serious upgrades as insurance against prolonged injuries to the likes of Kenji Jojima, Gerald Laird, Dioner Navarro, and Gregg Zaun, respectively. In the National League, the Braves, Astros, Marlins, Phillies, Nationals, and Padres all have some uncertainty in the area of backup catcher. While it’s unclear whether Leyritz can make a complete and successful comeback, I think it’s likely that at least one of those teams will give him a spring training invite as a non-roster player. Leyritz’ versatility (he can play first or third, as well), above-average power, and his pedigree as a strong postseason competitor will land him an invite—somewhere.
On a personal note, I’ll always root for Leyritz. More than a decade ago, my wife Sue met him at the now defunct Yankee Fan Fest in New York City. Although a staunch Red Sox fan, Sue came away with rave reviews for both Leyritz and Jim Abbott as the nicest players on the Yankees. Sue praised both for being remarkably friendly and gracious with the fans in attendance. To this day, I can mention both of those Yankee names in the house without drawing a scowl in return. The mention of Bucky Dent, however, remains strictly forbidden…
Staying with the subject of former Yankees, Jeff Weaver appears ready to sign with the Mariners on either a one or two-year deal at a rate of $8 million per season. That’s not bad for a pitcher who was nearly released in mid-season. The signing of Weaver will rank as another blow to the Pirates, who had hoped to add the 2006 postseason stud to a rotation that is talented, but painfully young…
The Padres apparently aren’t convinced that Terrmel Sledge is the answer to their left field and leadoff questions after the loss of free agent Dave Roberts. They’ve been talking to the Phillies about a deal that would bring Aaron Rowand to southern California in exchange for some relief pitching, possibly centered around Scott Linebrink. From San Diego’s perspective, the deal is a bit puzzling since they already have a similar player to Rowand in Mike Cameron, which means that one of the two would be wasted in left field. The deal would make more sense for Philadelphia. The Phillies need set-up relief in the worst way and have a capable replacement for Rowand in Shane Victorino, who fits better as a center fielder than as a corner outfielder. In the meantime, the Phillies continue to shop Jon Lieber as part of their quest for bullpen help, but so far to no avail.
Last weekend, veteran New York Daily News baseball writer Bill Madden authored a particularly astute column about the underrated monetary value of managers in today’s game. Madden made the point that the "Moneyball" philosophy severely underrates the importance of managers, who end up making less money than some backup catchers, utility infielders, and situational relievers. I couldn’t agree more.
Let’s face facts: managing in the major leagues has never been more difficult than it is today. With the plethora of media outlets covering teams and placing increased demands on the schedules their schedules, managers have never worked as many hours as they currently do. Then there’s the stress of having to deal with the massive egos that are created by today’s multi-million dollar structure. In addition, managers are facing increased scrutiny from both the media and fans through rigid pitch counts, which not only make decisions on pulling starters more difficult, but also make management of the bullpen that much more difficult. Given these responsibilities, it’s unconscionable that nearly half of the managers in the game made less than $1 million last year.
Thankfully, the Mets finally saw fit to remove Willie Randolph’s $700,000 from the six-figure club by giving him a huge raise and extension that will pay him about $1.8 million over each of the next three seasons. It’s a just reward for a man who has overseen a 26-game improvement in two seasons, all while handling an undermanned starting staff and extracting maximum effort from his players in an era when too many performers take too many nights off. The impact of someone like Randolph should set an example for other general managers who shortsightedly view their field managers as little more than inconsequential caretakers.
Every once in awhile, I’ll receive an e-mail asking me, "What’s your next book, and when is it coming out?" Well, here’s the latest. I have two books scheduled for release this spring, one that’s brand new and one’s that’s a bit of a revision. Late last year, I put the finishing touches on a book about unusual and colorful characters in baseball history, people like Bo Belinsky, Charlie Finley, Jimmy Piersall, Casey Stengel, and Bill Veeck. The exact title of the book, which is being published by The Lyons Press, is still being determined, but there should be some news on that front shortly. For what it’s worth, it’s the most enjoyable book I’ve ever worked on, in large part because of the humorous and weird stories that I uncovered about the game’s oddball characters. The other book is an updated version of my 2005 release, Tales From The Mets Dugout, which features a new chapter on the 2006 Mets and their ride to Game Seven of the National League Championship Series. Sports Publishing will be releasing the updated book in May.
And that’s all the news that’s fit to print.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be spotlighting various candidates listed on this year’s Veterans Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. Let’s begin the series by taking a look at someone who has traditionally received strong support for the Hall, but has always fallen short.
My recent declaration of support for Gil Hodges as a Hall of Famer has drawn some unfavorable feedback. One internet writer went so far as to call Hodges a "terrible" selection to the Hall of Fame. Well, in my mind, "terrible" is not only too strong a word, it’s completely inaccurate in assessing Hodges’ worth as a potential Hall of Famer—and perhaps shows a lack of understanding of the Hall of Fame election. It’s worth pointing out that Veterans Committee candidates should be considered on the basis of their entire career in baseball, rather than what they did in one particular area. Now, I wouldn’t vote for Hodges based strictly on his playing, or strictly on his managing. But the entirety of his career is a different story. The combination of Hodges’ performance as a player (accomplished power hitter, seven straight 100-RBI seasons, excellent defender at first base, team leader) and as a manager (his stunning revival of the Mets in the late sixties) makes him a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.
The combination of Hodges’ accomplishments as a player and manager are sufficient for him to receive my vote. Still, he also gets additional credit for scoring highly in the areas of character, integrity, and sportsmanship. Players who played for him with the Mets, from Tom Seaver on down, absolutely revered him. Taken on the whole, that’s not only not a "terrible" selection, but it’s a selection that would bring a considerable helping of class and dignity to the Hall of Fame.
The fate of a longtime star, the death of two baseball figures, and some Hall of Fame news headline today’s edition of Bunts and Boots…
With spring training scheduled to begin in less than a month, the future of Bernie Williams remains unknown. The Yankees can’t seem to decide whether to bring him back for a final season or sever ties completely, thereby freeing him emotionally to begin talks with other clubs. So why are the Yankees being so indecisive? On the one hand, Williams can still hit left-handed pitching, making him an option as a platoon player and pinch-hitter. On the other hand, he can’t play the outfield with any level of competence anymore, and doesn’t play any other positions, making it difficult to carry him in an age when too many roster spots are occupied by extra pitchers. Given this quandary, I think the Yankees should offer Williams an invitation to spring training, with explicit instructions to learn how to play first base. Williams would be given every opportunity to make the team, but with no guarantees. That would give the Yankees more time to see how the roster shakes out, to determine whether first basemen Andy Phillips or Josh Phelps can hit left-handed pitching, and to wait for any injuries that might develop. At the same time, Williams would have the opportunity to play, keep himself in shape, and potentially open the eyes of opposing scouts. If the Yankees decide that Williams doesn’t fit, they can offer him the option of retiring or letting him leave to find employment with another team…
Former Reds pitching coach Vern Ruhle lost his battle with cancer on Saturday night. He was 55 years old. A sinker-slider pitcher with the Tigers, Astros, Indians, and Angels, Ruhle had moderate success during his 13-year playing career, including an excellent 1980 season in which he won 12 of 16 decisions and posted a career-best ERA of 2.37. Ruhle also started two League Championship Series for the Astros, one in 1980 and another in 1981. Ruhle also enjoyed some prominence as a pitching coach, working for the Mets, Astros, Phillies, and Reds in that capacity before a diagnosis of multiple myeloma forced him to take a leave of absence. Ruhle was oft-criticized during his tenure in Philadelphia, but I always felt he was a thinking-man’s pitching coach who extracted good results from his pitchers in New York and Houston…
A non-playing baseball man died earlier on Saturday. Lowell Reidenbaugh, a longtime editor at The Sporting News, passed away at the age of 87. Reidenbaugh was the managing editor of the publication from 1958 to 1979, during which time The Sporting News was known as the "Bible of Baseball." Under the leadership of Reidenbaugh, who was known for being hard working and knowledgeable, The Sporting News always emphasized baseball, and that was fine by me. Unfortunately, since the sale of the paper from the Spink family, the publication has degraded into a sort of weekly edition of the USA Today sports section, with generally bland writing and far less emphasis on baseball than it has ever had. Without question, the guidance of people like Reidenbaugh has been severely missed at the once-great newspaper…
Finally, I saw that Hall of Famer Juan Marichal voiced his support for electing Mark McGwire to the Hall of Fame. I like Marichal, and respect his opinion, but the impulsive part of my personality wants to scream, "Never mind about McGwire!" The Hall of Famers need to concentrate on getting Charlie Finley, Curt Flood, Joe Gordon, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Ron Santo, **** Williams, SOMEBODY into the Hall with this February’s Veterans Committee election. There are simply too many worthy candidates on the players and composite ballots for no one to earn election on February 27. Once someone is elected, I’ll start listening to what individual Hall of Famers have to say about the January election.
It continues to be a good winter for the Indians, who haven’t made huge headlines but did acquire a future star in Josh Barfield and have signed useful role players to manageable contracts. First, they brought in David Dellucci to platoon in left field with Jason Michaels; now they’ve signed former Red Sox flychaser Trot Nixon, who will add to Cleveland’s depth, outfield defense, and ability to hit right-handed pitching. Some Indians fans are wondering about Nixon’s impact on Shin-Soo Choo, who also hammers right-handed pitchers. One of the two, Nixon or Choo, will end up platooning with Casey Blake in right field while the other could end up spending some serious time at first base. Then there’s always the possibility of trading Choo for more bullpen help. Either way, the Indians have done well in adding a solid platoon player and creating depth, which is always a positive "problem" to have…
Another team having a good winter is the Braves, who fortified their bullpen this week with the addition of Mike Gonzalez and then signed Craig Wilson to a bargain basement $2 million contract. This will give the Braves some flexibility; they can platoon Wilson with Scott Thorman at first base, or use the "Blond Bomber" in a left-field platoon with Ryan Langerhans. And then there’s always the option of playing Chipper Jones some at first base, which would create an opportunity for Willy Aybar to move in at third base. That alignment would give the Braves better infield defense, which is a concern after the losses of Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche…
The chances of the Mets making a major deal for pitching before the start of spring training grow slimmer by the day. The reason? The price for decent starting pitching has just become too high. The A’s recently told the Mets they could have Joe Blanton, but only in exchange for Lastings Milledge, Aaron Heilman, and a pitching prospect. Oh is that all? One would have thought Joe Blanton was the second coming of Ken Holtzman. I’m stunned that Billy Beane didn’t ask for Carlos Gomez or Fernando Martinez to be thrown into the package, too…
Just how thinned out has the free agent pitching market become? Well, the top starters now appear to be Brian Lawrence and Ramon Ortiz, who have become the subjects of small bidding wars among small market teams. Despite an ERA over 5.00, Ortiz appears headed to Minnesota on a $3 million deal, while Lawrence will end up in Colorado, Seattle, or San Diego after not pitching at all last season. What an enthralling bidding war that has been!…
Whispers out of Houston indicate that the Astros could shop third baseman Morgan Ensberg in a continuing quest for pitching. Although Ensberg suffered a down year in ’06, he has the kind of patience and power that teams love at the hot corner. There are a number of teams that could use help at third base, including the Pirates, Angels, and Twins. All three of those teams have young pitching that could entice the Astros…
Finally, Elijah Dukes’ recent arrest for marijuana possession has not completely eroded his trade value. Teams continue to talk to the Devil Rays about Dukes, perhaps because they believe they might be able to acquire the multiply talented outfielder at a bargain rate. The Devil Rays, however, aren’t willing to give a significant discount. That’s about the only way that I would touch Dukes; he’s been arrested six times and suspended several other times by the Devil Rays’ organization. At some point, Dukes needs to make a major change in his lifestyle. If not, teams should have the courage to realize that he’s just not worth that level of trouble.
We had heard rumors for so long that I was convinced it would never happen. In this case, persistence paid off, as the Pirates finally completed the trade that brings them slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche and minor league outfielder Jamie Romak from the Braves for lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez and minor league shortstop Brent Lillibridge This is a very good trade for the Pirates, who desperately needed a left-handed power hitter to complement the right-handed hitting Jason Bay in the middle of the order. They’re getting a good, young hitter and solid fielder in the 27-year-old LaRoche (who hit 32 home runs and slugged .561 in a breakout 2006), while giving up something that is extraneous and irrelevant for most sub-.500 teams—a closer.
I’ve heard some Pirate observers criticize the trade, based largely on the contention that LaRoche is no more than a platoon player who struggles badly against left-handed pitching. This criticism is flawed on two counts. First, LaRoche remains a developing young hitter who may still improve against left-handed pitching. It’s not like he’s a thirtysomething slugger who has no chance of solving southpaws. Let’s give him a couple of years before we brand him as another Oscar Gamble or John Lowenstein. (Both were fine players, but were platoon performers rather than everyday players.) Second, and this is the more important point, LaRoche’s current problems against lefties don’t figure to be particular pertinent for the Pirates. After all, what teams in the National League Central have the quantity or caliber of left-handed starting pitching that will shackle LaRoche? The defending champion Cardinals have only Mark Mulder, who won’t be available until at least June or July. The Astros lost Andy Pettitte, leaving them with potentially an all-righty rotation, unless Wandy Rodriguez wins the No. 5 spot in the rotation. The Reds don’t have a certified left-hander in the rotation, unless you count the awful Eric Milton. The Cubs have only Ted Lilly, at least until Rich Hill makes some progress. And the Brewers have traded away one of their left-handers, Doug Davis, leaving them with only Chris Capuano from the left side. Given the scarcity of good left-handed pitching in the division—and throughout the league for that matter—LaRoche’s left-handedness just shouldn’t become that great of an issue.
One other point on LaRoche. Contrary to what has been written at some other blogs, Willie Stargell was not the last All-Star caliber first baseman to play for the Pirates prior to LaRoche’s arrival. That would actually be Jason Thompson, who had a monster season for the Bucs in 1982 (when he slugged .511 and reached base at a .391 clip) and a decent season in 1983 (18 home runs and 99 walks) before falling off the map.
The Pirates are just hoping that LaRoche will have more long-term success than Thompson, who aged very quickly in Pittsburgh after a Hall of Fame start to his career in Detroit.