29 January 2005

Play It Again, Sammy

Didn't see that one coming.

The Baltimore Orioles have reportedly agreed to a trade that will bring erstwhile Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa to Camden Yards, in exchange for Jerry Hairston Jr. and two minor leaguers, reportedly 2B Mike Fontenot and pitcher David Crouthers.

This was, as you may be aware, the Trade That Should Never Have Happened. Sosa's agent, when signing his last contract, had made sure that Sammy would remain with the Cubs throughout his career. A clause in his contract, which for the Cubs was guaranteed for $17 million in 2005, meant that if he were traded, an option for $18 million in 2006 became guaranteed, and that an option for $19 million in 2007 would be added, with a $4.5 million buyout. Faced with the daunting proposal of paying no less than $39.5 million for two years of an outfielder in his late 30's, with a bad attitude, who'd hit only .253 in the preceeding season, only a fool would make such a trade.

So Sammy, it would seem, despite his difficulties with Cubs management, would remain firmly planted in right field at Wrigley. But then, like Cleavon Little riding into town on a Gucci saddle, here comes Orioles' owner Peter Angelos to save the day. Angelos, that great humanitarian, picked up poor, old Sammy Sosa from the dust in which he lay, cleaned him up a little, and brought him into the fold at Camden Yard. Oh, and for his philanthropy, Sosa rewarded him by voiding the last year of his contract, and the Cubs rewarded him by picking up $10 million of the $17 million he's due in 2005. I guess altruism is rewarded once in a while after all.

Of course, under those circumstances, only a fool wouldn't make such a trade, especially when the asking price is only a 2B/OF for whom you have no room, whose career OPS barely crests 700 and who's about to become a free agent and therefore become expensive. Oh, and a couple of prospects. Obviously, the prospects will make the difference here, right?

Wrong. Prospect #1 is Mike Fontenot, a AAA 2B who's 25 and through three levels of the Orioles' minor league system has essentially hit like Adam Kennedy, roughly .280 with 10 homers, 50 walks and 100 strikeouts. Except that when Kennedy was in the minors, he was a better hitter than Fontenot, and now Kennedy has peaked out at "mediocre".

The other prospect (#B, if you're keeping track) is David Crouthers, who posted a 5.03 ERA at AA Bowie last year, despite being 24, AKA Old For His League, and despite the fact that it was his second tour of duty at that level. Not good signs, either. The problem, apparently, was that he surrendered 23 homers in 140 innings last season, after giving up only 9 in his previous three years combined. Whether that was a fluke or a harbinger of sucking remains to be seen, but it's clear that Crouthers is far from a sure-thing.

Lee Sinins reports that Orioles closer Jorge Julio and Cubs setup man Kyle Farnsworth may also be involved in the deal, but there's been no confirmation on those possibilities yet.

For the Orioles, this acquisition hardly compensates for the fact that they were able to lure exactly ZERO big-name free agents to Baltimore this offseason. Last year they brought in Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmiero and Miguel Tejada, and managed to improve seven games on their 2003 record, their best since 1999. But they still have almost no pitching to speak of, and no hope of competing with either the Yankees or the Red Sox, much less both. Nevertheless, Slammin' Sammy did still slam 35 of them last year, and the O's lineup looks formidable, so at least they'll be fun to watch half of the time.

Despite his downside, Sosa does still have a huge upside, and given that the Cubs were willing to pay more than half his 2005 salary, that Sosa was willing to surrender any future guaranteed money (not sure if he surrenders the buyout clauses as well), and that Baltimore didn't need to give up very much, it was well worth the risk. Unfortunately, Eric(k)s Bedard and DuBose, Daniel Cabrera and Sidney Ponson aren't going to make anyone in Baltimore forget Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar, so the Orioles are going to need something like a miracle (actually, three or four of them) if they're going to make another leap in the standings, to say, second place.

The Cubs, on the other hand, seem to have shot themselves in their collective foot. Sosa may have been trouble, but he was also their marquee star and the team's best outfielder after Moises Alou left for San Francisco. Rob Neyer detailed how poor the Cubs' outfield may be this year. Following this trade, they've got Corey Patterson in CF, possibly Hairston in right, though he belongs at 2B, given his decidedly "lightweight" bat, and some combination of Todd Hollandsworth and rookies Dave Kelton and Jason DuBois in left.

What Rob did not mention, however, is that Patterson's still only 25, and that his 2004 season was an improvement upon his last full year, if only a slight improvement. If you look at their numbers side-by-side, Patterson's age 25 season compares favorably to Alfonso Soriano's 2001. Soriano's 28 now and still has never walked 45 times in a season, as Patterson did last year, so Corey may be making bigger strides next year.

The other thing Rob didn't mention is that rookie Jason DuBois was a legitimate MVP contender in the Pacific Coast League last year, hitting .316/.389/.630, with 31 homers in fewer than 400 at-bats. His walk rate isn't anything to write home about, but he's got youth and power, so that's something. And besides, if the Cubs can use that seven million they saved on Whinin' Slammin' Sammy to get Magglio Ordonez, and Ordonez doesn't break down again, the Cubs are still a favorite to contend in the NL in 2005. Those are a few big "if"s, but we already know for sure that Houston is going to have a heck of a time competing in the NL Central after losing Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and Wade Miller to free agency, and 20% of Lance Berkman's season to injury. So maybe it was worth the risk for the Cubs, too.

But can you imagine the dislike between Sosa and Cubs management? Can you imagine hating your employer enough that you would give up about $25 million just to get away from them? Can you imagine disliking an employee so much that you'd pay them $10 million to work for someone else? Personally, I hate to see a team pay a player $10 million a year to play for another team, unless the team he'll be playing for is mine, but we all knew that the relationship between Sosa and Chicago was over, and that there would need to be huge concessions to get him out of town, and we're not talking about hot dogs here. Actually, maybe we are.

Of course, Sosa's hot-dogging was much more acceptable when he was a team player and a legitimate, perennial MVP candidate. The Cubs know that even if he bounced back and had a sneeze-free season in '05, the headaches he would cause would disrupt one of their only chances at exorcising thier own Curse. We'll see if he can once again
carry a team on his back, or if the pressure (and the Press) will once again sour a relationship with a team and a town. Good luck, Sammy.

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