Now that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has come to an end and teams will finally have to decide by Monday whether to offer arbitration to their own free agents, we should start to see some activity on the hot stove front by later in the week. Finally. One veteran pitcher who might not be offered arbitration is Andy Pettitte, who made $16 million last year and actually might be in line for an increase despite a poor year in the Bronx. (You have to love arbitration–if you’re the players, that is!) The Yankees would like to bring Pettitte back, but only at a cut from his exorbitant $16 million rate–an understandable desire in my opinion. One would think that Pettitte, who embarrassed himself with his involvement with HGH, would gladly accept a modest paycut after an off year in order to stay with a team he likes, but like so many other Yankees, he seems unwilling to accept any kind of a discount. If that’s truly his attitude, it may be time for the Yankees to say, “Good riddance.”
As free agents try to maximize every last dollar, teams continue to talk trade. One of the more intriguing conversations has involved the Reds and White Sox. In need of both a right fielder and a right-handed power hitter, the Reds would like to add Jermaine Dye. So far, they’ve been willing to offer Homer Bailey and scraps, but that doesn’t appear to be enough from Chicago’s perspective. In some ways, Dye makes sense for the Reds, but he’s also 35 years old and probably not enough of a difference maker for a team trying to make up a 16-game gap in last year’s wild card race. If I were the Reds, I’d be very careful how much I surrender for an aging Dye.
Finally, the Cubs are trying to include the Orioles as the third team as part of their on-again, off-again Jake Peavy discussions with the Padres. The Cubs would be willing to send Felix Pie to Baltimore for Garrett Olson, who would then be re-routed to San Diego. I’m not sure that I completely understand Baltimore’s interest in Pie, who has been a standout minor leaguer but has looked lost at the plate in various major league trials. Pie strikes out too much, doesn’t walk enough, and has shown little big league power. His No. 1 talent, his defensive play in center field, would also be wasted in Baltimore, since the O’s already have Adam Jones pegged to play the position for the next six to ten years. At this point, Pie is clearly a project–and one that might be a better fit for a team more desperately in search of a young center fielder.
Aurelio Rodriguez–Topps Company–1981 (No. 34)
Although his name can be found right below that of the already-legendary Alex Rodriguez in books like Total Baseball, he has been mostly forgotten since his playing days ended in 1983. That’s more than a bit sad, partly because the original “A-Rod” left such a distinct impression on me–first as an opposing player and then during a late-career turn with the Yankees.
Aurelio Rodriguez couldn’t hit like today’s more well-known “A-Rod,” but he was one of the most graceful defensive third basemen of the 1970s. Rodriguez had the range of a shortstop and the throwing arm of a right fielder; along with his smooth hands, those skills combined to form a delightful package at the hot corner. In fact, I’ve never seen an infielder with a stronger arm than Aurelio. (A list of such arms would have to include recent infielders like Shawon Dunston and Travis Fryman or current-day players like Rafael Furcal and Troy Tulowitzki. All terrific arms, but all a notch below that of Rodriguez. ) That cannon-like right arm, which Ernie Harwell often described as a “howitzer,” made him a treat to watch during his many stops with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Padres, Tigers, Washington Senators, and Angels.
A product of Cananea, Mexico, Rodriguez struggled with English during his early major league career with the Angels. As Rodriguez once said without bitterness, he knew only three words of English during his first ten days with California. “Ham and eggs” became a frequent refrain, resulting in a less-than-balanced diet for the young Rodriguez.
Always a terrific defender at the hot corner, Rodriguez failed to develop offensively with the Angels–a problem that persisted throughout his career. He resisted repeated attempts by his managers and coaches to hit outside pitches toward the opposite field, stubbornly trying to pull the ball and hit home runs. Rodriguez was also the consummate free swinger, never one to take to pitches and work out walks. And I’ve heard at least one former front official with the Tigers describe Rodriguez as a player who simply didn’t work as hard as he should have.
Although Rodriguez never became the star that the Angels once predicted, he did enjoy a solid career, especially with the Tigers. With his rifle arm and silky soft hands, Rodriguez cemented the left side of the infield for the Tigers and would have won more than one Gold Glove if not for the presence of a fellow named Brooks Robinson. How good was Rodriguez in the field? Of all the third basemen I watched throughout the seventies, only two were better defenders: Brooksie and the Yankees’ own Graig Nettles. In a decade that overflowed with slick-and-smooth fielders like Buddy Bell, Darrell Evans, Doug “The Rooster” Rader, and Mike Schmidt, that should be taken as lofty praise indeed.
Rodriguez won only one Gold Glove during his 17-year career, that coming in 1976, mostly because he had the misfortune of playing at the same time as the two acrobats named Robinson and Nettles. “Brooksie” and “Puff” became far more famous–primarily because they could hit and launch the ball with power–and were better defensively at third, but not by much. If Rodriguez had ever developed into more than a mediocre hitter with only occasional power, he might have collected a few more Gold Gloves during his dynamic years in Detroit.
In addition to the legacy he left behind for his fielding abilities, Rodriguez will also be remembered for his involvement in two intriguing episodes of baseball history–one rather trivial and the other a bit more consequential. In 1969, the Topps Company issued Rodriguez’ rookie card. Or so it seemed. The picture on the front of the card did not actually depict Rodriguez, but rather the Angels’ youthful batboy, a young man named Leonard Garcia, who happened to be wearing Aurelio’s uniform. I’ve heard two theories behind this incident, which left Rodriguez with perhaps the oddest rookie card in Topps history. According to one story, it was a simple mix-up, caused by the similarities in appearance between Garcia and Rodriguez and exacerbated by Rodriguez’ limited abilities with speaking English. The other theory is more interesting: Rodriguez intentionally substituted Garcia for the photograph session, as a way of playing a practical joke on the people from Topps.
In 1971, Rodriguez found himself in the spotlight again when the Senators included him in a monstrous trade package that they used to acquire 1968 Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain from the Tigers. Although McLain was the headliner in the deal, the Tigers would emerge as the clear winner of the trade. Rodriguez and slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman, two of the players acquired by Detroit, would form an impenetrable left side of the infield, helping the Tigers to the American League East title in 1972. He would also become popular with Detroit fans, in part because of a nice, easygoing personality. Rodriguez would remain in the Motor City for the rest of the decade, eventually overseeing the arrival of two promising fellow infielders, Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker.
Rodriguez would play nine seasons in Detroit before being sold to the Padres during the winter of 1979. In August of 1980, with the Yankees concerned about an aging Nettles become increasingly vulnerable to left-handed pitching, GM Gene Michael sent cash to the Padres for Rodriguez. He ended up doing nothing offensively for the Yankees down the stretch, batting a mere .220 with a slugging percentage of .323. With his career slope on a downhill path and now reduced to reserve status, Rodriguez returned to the Yankees in a limited role in 1981, the year of the Topps card shown above. Playing almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, Rodriguez made the most of his opportunities. Though he came to bat only 52 times, he batted .346 with a slugging percentage of an even .500. (I know about small sample sizes, but such numbers were simply unheard of for the offensively challenged Rodriguez.) He continued his monstrous hitting in the World Series, where he batted .417 against Dodger pitching, with five hits and a walk in 12 at-bats. His offensive performance would become obscured amidst the disappointment of four straight losses to Dodger Blue (and amidst the hubbub of George Steinbrenner’s alleged fight with two Dodger fans in an elevator), but Rodriguez couldn’t be blamed for the team’s shortfall. If only the Yankees had won the Series, then Aurelio might have been remembered as yet another October hero.
So how did the Yankees reward Rodriguez for his robust hitting in 1981? They traded him, of course, sending him to the Blue Jays for an obscure minor leaguer named Mike Lebo. And just that quickly, his days as a Yankee came to an end.
Most Yankee fans probably forgot about Rodriguez until picking up a newspaper in the fall of 2000. That’s when they would have seen the obituary. On a Saturday afternoon in September, the 52-year-old Rodriguez and a 35-year-old woman were walking on a Detroit sidewalk when the driver of a nearby car suffered a stroke, resulting in his vehicle jumping the curb and running into them. The bizarre accident killed Rodriguez, who was visiting Detroit because he was scheduled to appear at a card show the next day, along with another former Tiger and Yankee, Tom Brookens. At his funeral in Mexico a few days later, thousands of fans and friends attended the service of the likeable Rodriguez, including the Mexican president.
Sadly, Rodriguez never received a last chance to reminisce with those fans, or Tiger fans, many of whom enjoyed watching him play third base with such flair and finesse. Those fans, like this Yankee fan, would have let Aurelio know that he really was not forgotten after all.
When your name is John Mayberry, Jr., you’re almost destined to disappoint. Those fans who are old enough to recall the legacy of your father expect you to be a left-handed hitting first baseman with tape-measure power, which is difficult to do when you’re a right-handed hitting corner outfielder with a mix of modest power and a dash of speed. And then, after you’ve been taken in the first round of the draft and you don’t develop into a major league regular by your fourth professional season, you’ve been labeled, fairly or not, a full-sized flop.
The obstacles listed above have all been encountered by the younger Mayberry, the six-foot-six, 230-pound son son of the former star slugger with the Royals and Blue Jays. In 2007, Mayberry, Jr. hit 30 home runs as a minor leaguer with the Rangers, but his on-base skills and defensive play left the organization wanting. In 2008, Mayberry’s home run production fell off by ten, though he did spend most of the season experiencing his first taste of Triple-A ball. With his power waning, his on-base percentage a lackluster .316, and his outfield skills mandating some late-season experimentation at first base, the Rangers gave up on Mayberry last week. They traded him to the Phillies in exchange for minor league center fielder Greg Golson.
There’s little doubt that Mayberry’s career has reached a crossroads. Forget about becoming an elite slugger like his father, he might not even make the major leagues at all, a disappointing state of affairs from a first round draft choice carrying a name of baseball royalty. Yet, the trade can only benefit the younger Mayberry. In leaving a franchise that held such high expectations for him, the 24-year-old Mayberry will enjoy a fresh start with an organization celebrating a world title. Heck, there might even be an opening in the Phillies’ outfield, considering that Pat “The Bat” Burrell appears ready to depart as a free agent. If the Phillies don’t spend big money on a potential replacement (like Raul Ibanez), they might go to spring training with Greg Dobbs leading a low-cost platoon in left field. If Mayberry has a big spring at the expense of Triple-A pitchers and half-hearted veteran hurlers, he could convince the Phillies to use him as part of a split with Dobbs. All of this is a longshot, yes, but it’s not out of the question considering the volatility of major league rosters and the overweighted value given to Grapefruit League performances.
Is Mayberry ready to contribute at the major league level? Probably not. His swing is too long, he lacks patience at the plate, and he’s still trying to find a niche defensively. But there is talent here. When Mayberry’s right, he has legitimate power–not like his father, but enough to justify him playing at first base or a corner outfield spot. He has shown enough speed to steal ten bases a season, so he’s not just a station-to-station baserunner. He also has that major league pedigree, which manifests itself in both physical talent and the invaluable advice that can come from a big league dad.
And perhaps, just perhaps, a change of scenery to a good team in need of outfielders will be just the jump start that John Mayberry’s Jr.’s career requires.
Tim Foli–Topps Company–1984 (No. 38 T)
Just last week, the minor league Syracuse Chiefs announced that Tim Foli would serve as the team’s manager in 2009. Foli has been the Nationals’ Triple-A manager for three of the last four seasons, but this will be his first here in central New York, with Syracuse now acting as the home of Washington’s top affiliate.
If you remember Tim Foli as a Yankee (as seen in this 1984 Topps traded card), give yourself a pat on the back; you are a true Yankee diehard. Considering that Foli spent all of one undistinguished summer in pinstripes, and that his one season here coincided with a down time in franchise history, your memory of Foli shows your sharpness when it comes to all things Yankees.
During the 1983 winter meetings, the Yankees announced that they had acquired Foli from the California Angels at the expense of a minor league reliever named Curt Kaufman and some cash. Foli was coming off an unspectacular season in which he had hit .252 with two home runs. The move made little sense, considering the crowd that the Yankees had already assembled at shortstop: veteran Roy Smalley, top prospect Bobby Meacham, and former top prospect Andre Robertson. I’m not sure why the Yankees thought Foli was better than any of the present alternatives. He couldn’t hit nearly as well as Smalley, didn’t have the range or speed of Meacham, and lacked Robertson’s defensive reputation.
Foli started the 1984 season as the Yankees’ regular shortstop, but soon found himself in a platoon with Meacham, before giving way to a utility role. By the end of the season, Foli had played in only 61 games, hitting .252 for the third consecutive season. (What are the chances of such sustained mediocrity?) After the season, the Yankees packaged him with Steve Kemp, sending them both to the Pirates in the deal that brought Jay Buhner to the organization. Just like that, Foli’s unremarkable tenure in the Bronx had come to a decisive but anticlimactic end.
But don’t think for a moment that Tim Foli was an unmemorable player. Quite the contrary. Always choking high up on the bat, Foli was a remarkably good bunter who regularly led the National League in laying down sacrifices. He was one of the most recognizable players of his era, with that large, arched mustache and those oversized wire-frame glasses. He had a personality to match his looks, kindly described as “strong” by some, less diplomatically as “overbearing” by others. Foli also became known by the nickname of “Crazy Horse.” Foli earned the moniker for not-so-flattering reasons–specifically a ferocious temper that put him at odds with umpires, opponents, and even teammates.
Critics of Foli claimed that he sometimes grated on teammates because of his tendency to tell others how to play the game. It was a habit that older players, in particular, resented in Foli. Shortly after making his major-league debut for the Mets in 1971, he tangled with teammate Ed Kranepool, the team’s elder statesman. Foli became upset with Kranepool when the first baseman decided not to throw the ball to him during routine infield warm-ups. At the end of the half-inning, a fuming Foli confronted Kranepool in the dugout. Outweighed by at least 25 pounds, Foli lost the fight–badly. The bout, which lasted all of 30 seconds, ended when Kranepool decked Foli.
The following spring, Foli became involved in a nasty confrontation with a member of the Mets’ coaching staff. The dispute centered on a misunderstanding over the allocation of hockey tickets. Foli exchanged angry shouts with coach Joe Pignatano and then received a reprimand from manager Gil Hodges. Shortly after the exchange with Pignatano, the Mets traded him to the Montreal Expos.
With the Expos, Foli blossomed into an excellent defensive shortstop, but eventually encountered problems with teammates and club authority figures. During a tumultuous 1976 season, Foli openly defied managers Karl Kuehl and Charlie Fox. He went so far as to curse out Kuehl in full view of his teammates and even called a press conference where he questioned Kuehl’s credibility as a major-league manager. Shortly thereafter, the Expos fired Kuehl and replaced him with Fox. And then, on the final day of the season, Foli embarrassed Fox by refusing to sit in the dugout. Upset that Montreal sportswriters had not voted him the team’s player of the year award, a petulant Foli sulked in the stands at Wrigley Field. The following season, he departed the Expos, in part because of a feud with his new double-play partner, Dave Cash.
Expelled from the Expos, Foli encountered more deep-seeded trouble as a member of the Giants. Some of his Giants teammates, noting his fits of anger and high-strung ways, called him “Rubber Room” behind his back. Not surprisingly, the Giants sold him after only one season, returning him to his original team, the Mets.
Foli saved his most vitriolic anger for opposing players and umpires. He became a legendary bench jockey, riding opponents at every opportunity, at a time when such dugout dialogue had begun to dwindle because of the increasing unity of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Intensely competitive, perhaps to a dangerous extreme, Foli particularly disliked umpires. If he felt that an umpire had wronged him early in the game, even over a relatively meaningless ball or strike call, he carried a grudge until the final out, regardless of the circumstances or the score. Not surprisingly, he received three-game suspensions in back-to-back seasons, one for arguing and another for making physical contact with an umpire. He later carried on a celebrated feud with veteran umpire Paul Runge. Relations between Foli and some umpires reached such volatile extremes that a few impartial observers thought the veteran shortstop received the short end of many close calls.
With his hair-trigger temper bouncing him from team to team, including a relatively successful stint with the Expos, Foli finally found an ideal home in the late 1970s. In the spring of 1979, the Mets traded him to the Pirates, where he prospered under the upbeat guidance of manager Chuck Tanner. Surrounded by Tanner and a group of free-spirited, laid-back teammates, he began to relax and prosper, hitting a career-best .288 for the Bucs in 1979. He helped the Pirates win the National League East and then hit an eye-opening .333 in the World Series, as the Bucs captured the World Championship with a dramatic comeback against the Orioles.
By the early 1980s, Foli claimed that he had calmed his temper, in part because of his renewed faith in the Christian religion. “Everything used to get to me, but then I changed my priorities,” he told the Arizona Republic in 1983. “Jesus Christ became the lord of my life. Baseball is still important to me, but it’s not the only thing I have now.”
Showing some tendency toward mellowing, Foli became involved in fewer incidents. Still, the old fires raged from time to time, even after his playing days. As a coach with the Brewers, he continued his habit of bench-jockeying opposing players. On one occasion, he so infuriated Don Baylor that the strapping slugger had to be restrained from physically attacking Foli during a game.
In the year 2000, Foli joined the coaching staff of the Reds. His tenure would turn out to be eventful and tumultuous, perhaps most notably for a physical confrontation with fellow Reds coach Ron Oester. Much like his scrap with Ed Kranepool years earlier, Foli came out on the short end against Oester, requiring stitches after the fight.
For perhaps one last time, Crazy Horse had reemerged.
In the age of the internet and all-sports radio, we unfortunately have to accept more ”false alarms” than ever before. It seems there is always some media outlet “breaking” the story of a trade or a free agent signing, only to have the deal denied by everyone involved, from the anxious agent to the ever cautious general manager. Another example of this apparently happened on Monday afternoon, when WFAN Radio in New York reported that the Giants had signed free agent Edgar Renteria to a two-year contract worth $18 million dollars. Within hours of the report, Renteria’s agent had denied the story, saying that talks between him and the Giants were continuing, but nowhere near the point of fruition.
If we give WFAN the benefit of the doubt on the accuracy of this report, it’s natural to ask the following question: why in the world would the Giants sign Renteria to such a deal? He’s now 33, no longer a plus as a hitter either in terms of power or on-base skills, and has become a below-average defensive shortstop. Among other shortcomings, he can no longer make the throw from deep in the hole, a necessity for most shortstops. Renteria doesn’t figure to make the Giants a contender in 2009; given their many offensive holes, they’re probably one or two seasons away–at the least–from contending with the likes of the Dodgers and the D-Backs in the NL West. Signing Renteria, a player in serious decline, for a rebuilding team makes little to no sense. I don’t get it…
While Renteria’s fate remains unresolved, we can say with far more certainty that Don Baylor, one of my old-time favorite ballplayers, has returned to the coaching sidelines as a hitting instructor. “Groove,” who last coached for the Mariners in 2005, will end his two-year layoff by returning to the Rockies, where he once served as the franchise’s inaugural manager. Baylor received his share of criticism for his managerial work in Colorado and Chicago, but few have doubted the leadership, presence, and general baseball smarts he brings to the coaching community. As just one example of Baylor’s fine work, Groove once served as a batting coach with the Braves, where he was credited with greatly improving Chipper Jones’ performance from the right side of the plate. Now that he’s back in the Rocky Mountains, Baylor will have a chance to work with prodigies like Garrett Atkins, TroyTulowitzki, and Brad Hawpe, and possibly uber-prospect Ian Stewart.
Baylor was one of five new coaches the Rockies added on Monday. The group includes former Brave and Cardinal Brian Jordan, ex-Oriole second baseman Rich Dauer, and former Dodgers and Pirates skipper Jim Tracy, who will act as the bench coach. With Baylor and Tracy now on the staff, the Rockies have two potential successors to Clint Hurdle, should they endure another disappointing summer in 2009…
Speaking of former players, dozens of ex-major leaguers, Negro Leaguers, and lifelong friends attended a special remembrance of the late Mickey Vernon on Saturday at Widener University in the Philadelphia area. For over two hours, those in attendance watched a stream of video clips and live personal accounts of the beloved Vernon, who passed away in the fall after suffering a stroke. The event sounded less like a sad eulogy and more like an uplifting celebration of Vernon, who was considered one of the game’s great gentlemen, a truly affable man whose list of friends vastly outnumbered his 90 years. Although he won’t be around to provide his own humble reaction, Mickey stands perhaps his best chance of election to the Hall of Fame next month. He is one of a handful of pre-World War II players being considered by the Hall’s Veterans Committee on December 8.
We’ll be crossing our fingers for you that day, Mickey.
We’re just about ten days into the free agent season, but very little has been cooking in terms of actual signed contracts. Oh, there have been plenty of trades, including deals involving Matt Holliday, Nick “Son of Steve” Swisher, and Coco Crisp, which have already altered the lineup configurations of several teams. But on the free agent front, only one player of significance has changed teams (the underrated Jeremy Affeldt, who left the Reds for the Land of the Giants) and only one has re-signed with his 2008 club (Ryan Dempster, back to the Cubs).
So what’s the holdup? In one sense, this is nothing new. In the early years of free agents, big name players tended to sign more quickly, often before Thanksgiving and almost always before Christmas. In more recent years, the premier free agents have bided their time, so that they can shop their wares on nationwide tours, lift their egos as they’re being courted, and ratchet up the bidding to a war-like state. And with agents like Scott Boras, who is never in a hurry to get his headline names signed and sealed, the process becomes even more protracted.
Yet, there may be other factors at work this year that could end up bringing the process to a turtle-like halt. With the national economy in a seemingly constant state of peril, few teams (other than the Yankees) want to start throwing out contract offers like frisbees, at the risk of being untimely and insensitive. Then there is the ever-growing presence of Sabermetrically inclined and financially aware general managers, who want to be as cost-efficient as possible in signing new players to lucrative new deals. At one time, baseball’s general manager class was filled with wheeler dealers like Whitey Herzog, Clyde King, Joe McIlvaine, and Syd Thrift, who thought of baseball first–and finances a distant second. (They let their owners worry about that.) Today’s GMs, for better or worse, are more aware of economics, and are more apt to be cautious when it comes to doling out huge offers at the start of the free agent season. Whereas GMs used to prefer moving quickly during the hot stove season, many now prefer to take their time in the hopes (often failed) of bringing the market down to a more restrained level.
Given these realities, the week of Thanksgiving could be another quiet one on the free agent front. The elite free agent in this market, CC “California Coast” Sabathia, seems to be in no rush to sign a contract for 2009 and beyond. (Only in baseball could a guy leave unanswered an offer for six years and $140 million dollars!) As a result, most other free agent starters may wait for him to set the bar. And then there is Mark Teixeira, the elite position player in this year’s crop. Tex says he wants to sign before Christmas, but that’s not a great concession considering that the holiday is still five weeks away.
So, with the give-and-take of free agency in a holding pattern and the big names not feeling pressed for time, don’t be surprised if the current waiting game waits just a little bit longer.
So who should the Mets attempt to target first and foremost, Brian Fuentes or Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez? On the surface, the Mets’ dilemma regarding their closer situation seems simple to answer. Rodriguez will be only 27 in 2009, has far more dominant stuff, and is coming off a record-setting season for saves. In contrast, Fuentes is already 33, relies on less impressive finesse and deception, and has never saved more than 31 games in a season.
Not so fast. Durability, future success, and contract terms must all be factored into the equation for the Mets. That’s where things become more complicated. K-Rod, though he is still in his twenties and features a crackling overhand slider, brings some concerns with him. He has such an extremely demanding pitching motion–one of the most painful I’ve ever seen, even more so than Kevin Appier’s–that you have to wonder how long his arm can hold up. His velocity already fell from 95 to 91 miles per hour in 2008, a stunning drop for a pitcher just entering into his physical prime. If Rodriguez loses just a bit more off his fastball, hitters may be able to sit on the curve ball, making him more vulnerable in his ninth inning role.
In contrast, Fuentes uses a slinging sidearm motion that puts little stress on his arm or body. Generally speaking, sidearmers are among the most durable of relief pitchers, with histories that tend to avoid major surgeries and lengthy stints on the disabled list. Even though he’s well past his 30th birthday, Fuentes has lost little of his natural stuff and movement. With that easy-does-it-delivery, it looks like he could succeed well into his late thirties.
Then there is the factor of money and years. Rodriguez, regarded as the elite closer on the market, will command the largest deal, both in terms of money and years. He and his agent have indicated that he wants a five-year deal, with an average salary in the range of $14 or $15 million a year. There is little chance of K-Rod taking anything less than a four- year deal. Given that Billy Wagner suffered a major injury before the fourth year of his contract, and is now useless over the final year of that deal, the Mets have reasons to be concerned.
Fuentes does not have the bargaining power of K-Rod. Given his age and lack of dominant year-to-year numbers, he will probably settle for a deal in the three-year range. His average salary, while it figures to be close to K-Rod’s, will probably fall short. The Mets may find those terms more palatable. If they can save a few million on Fuentes’ deal, they may be able to funnel some of that savings toward an upgrade in left field, or a right-handed reliever who can support their lefty-centric pen.
Make no mistake about it; this is not an easy call to make. The mainstream media, and perhaps most fans, will push for the more glamorous name of K-Rod in the effort to remedy the Mets’ bullpen malaise. But the best answer may lie in Fuentes, once a full examination of both closers has been completed.
At the very moment the Hall of Fame announced that the annual Hall of Fame Game would cease to exist, speculation abounded as to what might replace the cherished tradition. The guesswork ended on Monday afternoon, when the Hall announced the introduction of the first Hall of Fame Classic, set to take place on June 21 of next year. The Classic will be a legends game, or an old-timers game (whichever terminology you prefer), pitting retired American League stars against former National League standouts. The Sunday afternoon game will cap off an entire Father’s Day weekend of special events, giving Cooperstown an unofficial start to its summer tourist season.
Given the state of both the local and national economies, this is flat-out wonderful news for the community of Cooperstown–and for fans who live within driving distance of the Hall of Fame. Frankly, this is something that the Hall of Fame should have done years ago; the cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game gave Hall officials the final push they needed to make an annual old-timers game a reality here in central New York.
So what’s to like about the Hall of Fame Classic? Well, just about everything. Let’s run down the list of favorable items:
a) A brief look at history says that an old-timers game will go over well in Cooperstown. In 1989, the Hall of Fame held an old-timers game to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Hall’s birth. The game, which was well attended and publicized, proved a smashing success. Since moving to Cooperstown in 1996, I’ve yet to hear a single member of the community voice any complaints about that game.
b) As pointed out at the Monday afternoon press conference, of the 30 players expected to participate, efforts will be made to bring in as many former players as possible with connections to the New York and Boston markets. The Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox are all avidly followed in upstate New York. Smartly, this old-timers game will reflect that regional interest.
c) The Hall of Fame Classic will be a joint production between the Hall of Fame and the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association (MLBPAA). Founded in the early 1980s, the MLBPAA has vast experience in putting on youth clinics, charity golf tournaments, and old-timers games, all of which will comprise Hall of Fame Classic Weekend. Headed up by Hall of Fame Brooks Robinson and CEO Dan Foster, the MLBPAA knows what it’s doing when it comes to staging profitable and fan-friendly events throughout the country.
d) Throughout the Hall of Fame Classic, at least a few of the 30 retired players will be signing autographs free of charge for those fans who have bought tickets to the game. This will be a refreshing change from recent Hall of Fame games, since most of the current day players didn’t want to come here in the first place and generally did little to acknowledge the fans during their brief stays at Doubleday Field. Those concerns won’t be problems for the retired players, who will receive stipends for participating and will be contributing to a cause that helps out their alumni brethren.
e) In recent years, the staging of Hall of Fame Weekend, relegated to the last weekend in July, has come too late to help some local businesses. Now with the addition of Hall of Fame Classic Weekend, there will be bookends to the critical summer season: the Classic to start the season, and Induction Weekend to help it wind down.
In terms of drawbacks to the Classic, I can think of only one, and this consists of nitpicking more than anything else. Only four Hall of Famers will participate in the game, with the rest of the players being either recently retired and/or secondary stars. In an ideal world, six to eight Hall of Famers would have been nice. But again, this is a relatively minor point.
So in the end, with the bad comes the good. We lost the Hall of Fame Game, a beloved tradition since 1940. But we gained an annual old-timers game, an event that will likely become just as popular here in a place where the history of the game is loved just as much as the game itself.
When Brian Cashman shows a willingness to break out of his conservative shell, he is capable of making some very good trades. He did exactly that on Thursday, when he stole switch-hitting Nick Swisher from the White Sox for a dubious package of enigmatic infielder Wilson Betemit and two questionable pitching prospects, Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. (Do you remember when guys used to spell thier name as “Johnny?” Whatever happened to that tradition?) Swisher gives the Yankees three major attributes: power, patience at the plate, and versatility. These are three qualities that the Yankee roster desperately needs after a disappointing season that saw the team rank among the bottom half of the American League in runs scored.
In making this deal with the White Sox, Cashman has provided a classic example of swiping a player when his value is down. Just a year ago, Swisher was the best player on the Oakland A’s and a shining example of Billy Beane’s Moneyball concepts. Since Swisher is only 28 years old, I’d say he is likely to bounce back from a season that saw him bat .219 for Chicago. Bad luck, as much as anything, seems to have played a role in his low batting average. If he plays every day for the Yankees, he is fully capable of hitting 30 home runs and drawing 100 walks, and those are numbers that can help any team. His versatility will also provide some assistance. The Yankees indicate that Swisher will be their regular first baseman, but he is also a plus defender in either left or right field, and capable of playing some center field in a backup capacity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Swisher split his time in 2009 between right field and first base. He could platoon with Xavier Nady in right, and then switch to first base on days when a left-hander starts for the opposition. That’s exactly the kind of flexibility the Yankees have lacked in recent years because of the presence of too many DH types like Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui.
Clearly, the White Sox sold way too low on Swisher, but they could potentially benefit from the deal if Betemit blossoms on the South Side. Betemit is one of those players who looks attractive to a contending team as a utility infielder because of his live bat and versatility, but he needs regular at-bats to keep his long swing in tune. He would also help himself by dropping about ten pounds; his weight was a constant concern for the Yankees. (He might also benefit from giving up switch-hitting, since he often looks helpless from the right side.) I still think that Betemit could develop into a .270 hitter with 20 home run power and decent on-base skills. The White Sox would be smart to make Betemit their starting third baseman, or at least platoon him with Josh Fields. Otherwise, they’ll be disappointed with Betemit as a sporadic backup player.
With the trade of Swisher, along with the Matt Holliday deal and the trade that sent Kevin Gregg to the Cubs for top prospect Jose Ceda, we’ve seen three deals within the span of three days. And just think, the free agent signing period hasn’t even begun until today (Friday). If the early signs are any indication, this may turn out to be one of the busiest Hot Stove sessions we’ve seen in decades.
In an age when there are few wheeler-dealer types among major league general managers, Billy Beane is the closest thing we’ll ever find to an old throwback like Charlie Finley. Thankfully, Beane comes without the personality problems that made Finley reviled among the other owners and the rest of the baseball establishment. But just like Finley, Beane will make trades at any time, whether it’s dealing veterans for kids, like he did over the summer in trading Rich Harden and Joe Blanton to the Cubs and Phillies, respectively. Just a few months later, he’s on the verge of trading kids for veterans, with a swap of three players to the Rockies for Matt Holliday pending only the passing of physicals for the players involved.
In acquiring Holliday, a legitimate star, Beane is sending a clear message to the Angels and the rest of the American League West: The A’s can win a weak division in 2009. Beane understands that the Mariners are putrid, the Rangers are still rebuilding, and the Angels could be on the downhill slide once they lose free agents Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez. Holliday by himself won’t be enough to slice the gap between the A’s and Angels, but he is an excellent first step in that direction. Holliday is an all-purpose offensive player who hits for average and power, draws walks, and runs the bases well. For a team that desperately needs an offensive infusion, there are few players who can help as much as Holliday. There’s a perception that Holliday is a one-dimensional slugger, but he’s a smart baserunner who managed to steal 28 bases this season. He won’t steal that many again in 2009, but it’s reasonable to think he’ll steal 15 to 20 bases, making him a threat to go 30-20 in the power-speed department. As an outfielder, Holliday’s probably below average, but isn’t such a liability that he makes you cringe the way that Manny Ramirez and Bobby Abreu do. He’ll also find the outfield at McAfee Coliseum easier to play than that of Coors Field.
If Beane can supplement his apparent pickup of Holliday with several other shrewd acquisitions, the A’s will have a chance to make a run at the Angels next summer. Beane still needs a new left side of the infield; along those lines, he will make a hard charge at free agent Rafael Furcal, who could double as Oakland’s new leadoff man. He would also be smart to stop counting on a comeback from the always-injured Eric Chavez, and instead consider free agent third basemen like Casey Blake and Joe Crede. In giving up Carlos Gonzalez as part of the return package for Holliday, he’ll need to find a new center fielder, perhaps someone like Melky Cabrera (trade) or Jim Edmonds (free agency). The A’s could then add Jason Giambi as a free agent, giving them a DH who walks and hits home runs the way that the A’s once did during the height of their Moneyball frenzy.
So there’s still a lot of work to do if Beane is indeed hellbent on trying to make the playoffs in 2009. But with Holliday soon to be in place batting fourth and playing left field for the new-look A’s, Beane has managed to complete his first major hurdle of the off season.