20 December 2004

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

I'm 30 today.

30. There arrives with the advent of any such milestone a unique opportunity for retrospect upon one's life. Other life milestones I've seen:

17 (driving age in NJ),
18 (Selective Service),
21 (something, I forget...)
25 (lower car insurance!),
27 (the last cubic age before retirement...maybe that's just me)

...but 30 seems like a different animal. You want to be able to point to something and say, "Yeah, I did that before I was 30!" and not have people laugh at you behind your back over it. The "American Dream", according to Trivial Pursuit, is to be a millionaire by the time you're 30. Personally, my dream is to be out of debt by the time I'm 40, but I'll have to let you know how that goes. (Trivial Pursuit should probably update that question, if it's still in the box.)

Actually, I'm fairly happy with my lot in life thus far: I've got a house, a wife, a dog, a college degree and a modicum of success in my profession, having recently had an article I wrote on Scanning Acoustic Microscopy published in a significant trade journal. (The online version is members-only, but if by some odd chance you're interested, email me and I'll send you a copy.) Even my hobby makes me a few bucks on the side. Most hobbies actually cost people money, like paintball or collecting airplanes.

On the other hand, where I have five fingers and a new watch, a "Merry Birth-mas" present from my lovely wife, many of my greater dreams have yet to be realized. For example, I probably have little hope of ever being paid a living wage to write about baseball, and even less of actually playing it professionally. Therefore, I find myself still seeking vicarious joy through a bunch of total strangers, most of whom, coincidentally, are or will be millionaires by age 30: The New York Yankees.

Thankfully, if I had little cause for celebration in mid-October, the events of this offseason have brought be considerably more reason for joy, or at least hope. Let's review some of these, shall we?

* Perhaps the biggest prize, or at leas tthe most accomplished pitcher, of this season's free-agent market, was Pedro Martinez. At one time or another, various rumors had him staying with Boston, or fleeing Beantown for one of about a half-dozen different spots, including New York. New York, of course, is exactly where he wound up, except that he's wearing kinda tacky blue and orange, instead of the classic navy and white. For Yankee fans, this deal represents the best of all possible worlds: Pedro has been excellent throughout most of his career, but seems to be essentially a 6-inning pitcher who's variously described as a primadonna, a jerk, and several other things I wouldn't repeat in mixed company. In Boston, he might have experienced a resurgence that could have haunted the Yankees for years to come, especially if he beat them in the playoffs for once. As a Yankee, there was perhaps even more possibility of catastrophe, as martinez might not have experienced a resurgence in his pitching dominance, but rather in his shoulder injuries, making him a $13 million/year disaster.

But now, as a Met, even if Pedro's great, it won't likely affect the Yankees, as the Mets collectively aren't good enough to make it to the postseason, at least not yet. And if his shoulder craps out? Better yet, if only for all the "I told you so"s that Yankees fans can dole out to their cross-town rivals.

* Considering the dearth of left-handers in the Yanks' rotation in 2004, the Yankees had been considering signing 39-year old Al Leiter, who hasn't pitched in the AL since 1995, for something like $8 million bucks, possibly for two years or more. Leiter's certainly not the worst pitcher on the market, but his impressive ERAs have been helped significantly by Shea Stadium, and he hasn't exactly been the consummate workhorse throughout his career, pitching over 200 innings only once since 2000. Thankfully, the Marlins are now on the hook for that money, so he's not the Yankees' problem if he flops.

* Another lefty, and another aging ex-Yankee, David Wells signed with the Boston Red Sox. Wells was another possibility to fill the Lefty Void at Yankee Stadium, but at his age, and in his shape, he's a pretty high risk to flop as well. Amazingly, Wells somehow got the same $8 million that Leiter received from Florida, but for two years at $4 mil each. And he's two years older than Leiter is! David ought to fire his agent and hire Al's. Once again, not the Yankees' problem.

* The Yanks actually did sign Jaret Wright, who got three years and $21 million, essentially that Jon Lieber received from the Phillies. Sure, Wright's got a history of arm trouble, but so did Lieber, and he's six years younger. When you look at it that way, it's not so bad.

* New York also reeled in one of the biggest catches of the Free Agent market, ex-Fish Carl Pavano. Coming off an 18-win, 3.00 ERA season in 222 innings of work, Pavano was clearly the best bet of the market, and the Bronx Bombers got him. Also 28 years old, Pavano and Wright shave off quite a few years from the Yanks' rotation, considering that they essentially replace the 34-year old Lieber and the 59-year old Orlando "Old Duque" Hernandez, who thankfully rejected the Yanks' arbitration offer last week.

This helps the Yankees' future considerably, especially given the fact that Kevin Brown is still a Yankee, and will be 40 next year, and that 28-year old but kinda sucky Javier Vazquez is likely to be on the next plane to Los Angeles, where he will undoubtedly experience a Weaver-esque resurrection to his career, or at least his strikeout rate. Ironically, Vazquez was the Yankee rotation leader in innings pitched, wins, starts, assists, double plays and strikeouts, but they're getting rid of him. This is because he also led the team in losses (10), homers allowed (33), runs (114), earned runs (108), wild pitches (12), hit batters (11), balks (2) and partriges in pear trees (1). The other irony, and perhaps the more amusing one, is that Vazquez had roughly the same type of season as Phillies' lefty Eric Milton, as my colleagues at the Replacement Level Yankees Blog pointed out a few weeks ago, when the Yankees were actually considering trading for Milton.

Vazquez's departure is predicated upon the Dodgers' front office people getting up off their butts and submitting the paperwork for the deal that everyone already knows about, which will send Randy Johnson to the Yankees, Vazquez to the Dodgers, and half the population of Los Angeles County to Arizona, which as I understand it is where they wanted to go in the first place.

First place, however, is something the Diamondbacks will not be sniffing for a very long time. Despite spending $78 million over four years on Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz, the D-Bads are, well, bad. Really bad. Their 111-loss season in 2004 marked the worst season in the National League since 1965, and the second worst record in either league in that 40-year span. A thirdbaseman and a pitcher will not make up for that, especially if you're about to trade away a much better pitcher you already had.

That too, however, is not the Yankees' problem. The Yankees' problem is getitng this deal done so that they can go buy the best centerfielder on the free agent market, Carlos Beltran. Beltran will give them perennial All-Stars at every spot in the lineup except 2B, where rookie Andy Phillips, who hit .318 with 26 homers playing 3B for AAA Columbus last year, and apparently has hit well at virtually every level of the minors. The only other question mark in the lineup is Jason Giambi, and it seems that they can afford to carry him, if it takes a while for him to regain his form.

And so it appears that the Evil Empire is once again poised to make a run at the World Series, and to begin the long run of success that will eventually merit them the title:

Team of This Century, Too.

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14 December 2004

Bonds-Giambian Steroid Blues

Travis Nelson's take on the steroid controversy, Bob Dylan style...

Posted by Hello

Trainer’s in the basement
Mixing up my medicine
I’m in the on-deck
Thinking about the upper deck
The man in the turtleneck
Fed up, ticked off
Signed a bad contract,
Feels like he was ripped off!

Posted by Hello

Watch Ja-son,
It’s steroids he’s on!
Came into camp
Having lost himself a ton!
He better duck down the hallway,
Avoid reporters today.

The man in the Yankees cap
With the Bic pen
Wants you out of this slump,
You get to ride the bench.

Posted by Hello

Barry seems bulked up
Looks like he could shot-putt,
Talkin’ bout the ‘roids put,
Unknowingly in his butt.
Fans cheer anyway
Barry says someday
He’ll pass ‘old Double-A,
Cooperstown? On his way!

Posted by Hello

The Say Hey Kid
Don’t believe what he did.
100 walks on four throws,
Seven hundred big-blows
They say he owes
Success at 4-0
To cream & clear dose.
Indict BALCO!
You don’t need a roadmap
To know the way Union goes.

Get sick, get well
Hitting now? What the hell!
Feel well? Hard to tell
If tumor’s gone and patell-
ar tendon’s all done,
You BUM! You failed,
But no jail, too frail
Plead your case to no avail!

Posted by Hello

Look out Gi-
No more MVPs
But User? Cheater?
Acts like Saint Peter!
Seven-time repeater!
Don't need the whirlpool,
Recover with 'roids, fool!
Follow Derek Jeter,
And Asterisk* the leaders!

Ah! Thin guy, with tie,
Short sleeves, (pet peeve), press release:
New tests, no Jest!
(Or McCain will arrest!)
Please her? Please him? Not miffed?
Sorry I'm a stiff.
Twenty years of ownin’
And they turn you into Commish!

Look out Bud,
They say you're a dud!
Better meet with Don Fehr
Help the Union this year
Don’t let Orza steer
Or discussions will veer.
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better play dumb,
The ploy don’t work
Just listen to those "Bronx Cheers"!

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10 December 2004

Travis Nelson Owns the Expos?

Some time ago, I submitted an essay to a baseball website called Mudville Magazine, which was sponsoring a "You Own the Expos" contest. A contest, I might add, which I did not win. I did not place. I did not even show. Someone named "Tom Lee" did, though I'm fairly certain that this is not the same "Tommy Lee" who didn't rush out onto the field with his heretofore unknown son and attack Tom Gamboa at Comiskey Park two years ago.

I was, however apparently good enough to be listed as "Rest of the Rest", specifically, 12th out of the 16 non-placing submittals. To save you the time of scrolling down past the eleven essays that were apparently better than mine, I've simply reprinted it here. I think I'm allowed to do that. I wrote it, after all.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming today. My Name is Travis M. Nelson, and I own the Expos. I know because an online magazine gave them to me.

I expect you're wondering why I've called you here for this press conference. Things are going to start changing around here, starting today.

First of all, we're canning Frank Robinson. We did some research and discovered that our most successful manager was Jim Fanning. He has the highest winning percentage in Montreal of any manager in history and he led this team to our only playoff appearance, in 1981. True, he only managed for parts of three seasons, hasn't managed anything in 20 years and is older than dirt, but heck, it worked for the Marlins!

Secondly, it will come as no surprise to you all that we're not staying in Montreal. Quebec has gotten a bad rap as a place that doesn't appreciate baseball, but it should be noted that this team was appreciated greatly in its heyday. Unfortunately, I think that day was sometime in 1983. But after what will soon become seven consecutive seasons of bringing up the rear in NL attendance, we're gone, man. Outta here. The honeymoon, and for that matter, the marriage, is over.

We're moving to Hawaii. The place is really pretty, and unless you're dumb enough to build a baseball stadium atop a volcano, it won't ever snow. Montreal, mangez your heart out. The weather will be beautiful year-round, and the occasional volcanic eruption will help save the franchise money on "Fireworks Night."

There's already a 50,000-seat stadium in which to play, which should require only minor alterations to make it "baseball ready". Mostly I think they just need to get all the coconuts off the field. If the weather and the appeal of "Major League Baseball" don't attract enough fans, we'll just build a new stadium and pay for it with revenue sharing deductions, just like the Yankees plan to!

We're renaming the team the Oahu "U-Know-Who's", because it rhymes, sorta, and let's face it: No matter what we name the team, people are still going to think of us as the Expos for entirely too long.

Hawaii's population is about 1.25 million people, which isn't much smaller than Milwaukee, Kansas City or Cincinnati. Granted, there was a minor league team that was forced to move to Colorado Springs in the 1980's but of course now everybody's moving to Colorado Springs. They were just anticipating the trend.

Also, if we can stick around long enough, the islands will eventually grow together as the volcanoes continue erupt and create additional land. We anticipate that by the spring of the year 1,502,006, the entire state will be connected, making every game accessible by car to every Hawaiian, and for that matter, most of California, which will have split away from North America and drifted our way several hundred thousand years earlier.

Ted Williams is scheduled to throw out the opening pitch."

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08 December 2004


What the hell is happening here?

The Yankees signed free agent secondbaseman Tony Womack to a two-year, $4 million deal yesterday, the same day they signed Jaret Wright to a three year, $21 million deal. But I'll get to him later.

Tony Womack hit a respectable .307/.349/.385 last season, setting career highs in all three categories, and finally doing something to earn the "leadoff-hitter" moniker he's owned for so long. You don't necessarily need power out of a leadoff hitter who plays second base, but it's nice if you can get it. If you can't, you'd better get some other skills, like on-base percentage, defense, or prowess at stealing bases. Womack generally is good at the last of those, but even that skill is pretty limited in its usefulness if the man can't get on base more than 35% of the time. Furthermore, at the age of 35, Womack isn't very likely to improve on that ability at this point in his career. This is a guy who averaged almost 60 steals per season from 1997-2000, but hasn't stolen 30 bags in a year since then. Besides, with all those power hitters behind him in the lineup, who wants some huckleberry running back and forth at first base while Jason Giambi's trying to focus on smacking one out? Oh, I forgot: Giambi's not a power hitter anymore.

I don't know if Voros McCracken or anyone else has looked at Batting Average on balls in play ofr hitters like McCracken has for pitchers, but I found this interesting: Before 2004, Womack, for his career, hit .305 when he didn't homer (which was rare) or strike out (which is not). His 2003 season was especially poor, a career-low .257 in those situations. But last year, somehow, he hit .338(!) whenever he put the ball in play, helping to significantly boost his overall numbers, though not necessarily through any of his own "skill". Therefore, it seems likely that Womack should be expected to regress to something more like a .300 or so batting average on balls in play, perhaps even lower, as the loss of running speed he'll surely experience with age will prevent some of those infield hits to which he's become accustomed. This will bring his overall stats much closer to his career line of .274/.319/.362, and will once again make him an entirely unacceptable regular player, much less a leadoff hitter. Hopefully, with the likes of Jeff Kent and world-famous tenor Placido Polanco on the market, Womack is only expected to be a utility player/defensive replacement.

But even his defense isn't particularly impressive. Baseball Prospectus indicates that the man has only posted above average fielding runs numbers twice in his career, in 1998 and 1999, and that he's been well below average every other full season of his career. So that doesn't make a lot of sense either.

The really odd thing about this signing is that the Yankees already had an aging, journeyman secondbaseman who had an uncharacteristically good offensive season in 2004, and they let him go. And Miguel Cairo's only 30, not 35, plays better defense and doesn't rely on his speed to get on base. If they wanted a solid backup 2B, they could have kept Cairo, probably for less than $2 mil a season, and signed Kent or the Tenor to start.

"We're going in another direction," Yankees GM Brian Cashman told The Associated Press.

Yeah, Brian. Down.

The other signing I mentioned, Jaret Wright, isn't quite so bad. True, Wright's been in the majors since 1997 and still has never pitched more than the 193 innings he threw in his sophomore year of 1999. True, he sorta got clobbered in the postseason. True, he has a career ERA over 5.00. True, his shoulder has more holes in it than your local golf course. But...

A) He's still only 29.

2) He exceeded everyone's expectations last year, winning 15 games and setting a career low 3.28 ERA for the Braves.

iii) He pitched a full, healthy season and hasn't been on the DL since 2002.

So at leastt here's hope that Wright can build on his success in 2004, whereas Womack's was clearly a fluke.

I think fluke is in season now anyway.

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03 December 2004

So Much For Fiscal Responsibility

We're less than a month into the 2004-05 free agent season, with barely a dozen players signed to American teams, and already I'm irritated by how things are going. A slim buffer separates us from the alleged "market correction" we saw a few off-seasons ago, one that supposedly taught the owners not to over-spend for readily replaceable skills, not to give long term contracts to aging mediocrities, and above all, not to pay eight dollars for a warm beer.

But this offseason seems to bear little resemblance to the restrained, perhaps even collusive free-agent fishing expedition that was the winter of 2003-04. Consider:

The NY Mets re-signed free agent Kris Benson to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. Not that Benson is terrible, but "mediocre" strikes me as a rather appropriate word for him, you know? He's 30 years old, with a career ERA of 4.28 (4.59 since he missed all of 2001 after arm surgery). The 3.85 he posted in 217 innings in 2000 is looking increasingly flukey, owing to an unusually high strikeout rate for Benson. He has yet to prove that he's capable of pitching consecutive, healthy, effective seasons and yet the Mets will pay him to pitch not two, but three years, and pay him nearly eight million buck for each of those, on average. From listening to New York sports talk radio, it seems to me that the Mets ownership did this under intense pressure from fans, desperately seeking evidence that Fred Wilpon & Co. actually want to win, but I'm not sure he's worth it. Better to let someone else take the risk, because at that price, another injury to benson could severely hamper the Mets' ability to sign other players they'll need. Like a catcher.

Worse yet, Benson is "urging" the Mets to re-sign Al Leiter, who's a better pitcher than Benson probably ever will be, but is not young (39) and has pitched 200+ innings only once in the past four years. His 3.65 career ERA looks pretty good, but that's helped somewhat by his home parks (3.23 @ Shea, SkyDome and Pro Player, 4.10 everywhere else). Still, at $4-5 million for one year, he's probably worth it. At the $7 million the MArlins may reportedly give him, it's probably not.

The Washington Whatevers signed 3B Vinny "The Air Up There" Castilla to a 2-year, $6.2 million contract, which would be a great deal if the .271/35HR/131RBI line he posted playing for Colorado were anything like what he'll be able to accomplish playing in D.C. Castilla has spent the vast majority of his career in Colorado, and in the six seasons he spent playing everyday for the Rockies, he averaged .297/.343/.544 with 40 homers and 121 RBI per 162 games played. In the three seasons (2001-2003) he played elsewhere? A paltry .250/.286/.405 with only 20 homers and 84 RBI per 162 games. For his career he's hit .334 at Coors, .256 everywhere else. I realize that in today's game, three million buck a year doesn't seem so outrageous, but Washington is essentially a new franchise that needs to prove itself to a whole new fanbase if it wants to succeed, and locking yourself into a 37 year old mediocrity who will likely be a 40-year old failure by the end of his contract is NOT the best way to endear your brand name to your (hopefully) new fans.

Speaking of mediocrity, the gNats also signed SS Christian Guzman to a 4-year, $16.8 million contract. Granted, that's "only" a $4.2 mil/year average, but it's still almost seventeen million dollars spent on a replacement-level shortstop. Lee Sinins reports that Guzman has racked up the tenth-worst career RCAA level in history through age 26. Baseball Prospectus indicates that his EqA has been above .234 only once in his career, which was 2001, when he "peaked" at .269. (For reference, an average major league SS was .251 last season, or about the performance of David Eckstein.) To his credit, he finally posted an above average fielding runs number, according to Baseball Prospectus, with a +15 FRAA, the first positive number of his career, and better than "Gold Glover" Derek Jeter (+4). That still leaves him decidedly below average though, but not useless, IF he can keep up the defense, just not worth seventeen million bucks. Without the defense, well, he'd better learn to hit real soon.

Speaking (writing) of overpaid shortstops: Omar Vizquel.

Look, Omar Vizquel has had a heck of a career thus far. A solid (if overrated) defensive player and one who has learned some valuable offensive skills along the way. Bill James ranked him #61 among all shortstops through the year 2000 in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, with the caveat that a few more good years could bump him into the top 50. Well, he in fact had two of his best seasons in 2002 and 2004, so maybe he's around #50 in James's book at this point. With that said, the man is now 38 years old, which as Rob Neyer pointed out not so long ago, is old. For a shortstop, anyway. Not many shortstops still perform very well at the age of 40, which the age through which the Giants inexplicably signed him, at about $4 million per year. In this case, that $4 mil is not such an enormous amount of money...for a year. But three years? At his age? When nobody else was offering more than two?

And speaking of the Giants, they've also given a three-year deal to Armando Benitez, who is only 32 right now, but doesn't strike out as many batters as he once did, and has a worse reputation for choking than Latrell Sprewell. His deal was "only" $21.5 million for three years, again, when nobody else was offering more than two, and following a season in which he made less than half of that in Florida. John Perricone can't figure out why San Francisco continues to give out such contracts. Neither can I.

It should also be interesting to see how the steroid controversy, especially Jason Giambi's contract and recent non-steroid-enhanced performance, may affect contract language in the future.

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