July 25, 2008

Pure Insanity

I frequently keep track of the latest scuttlebutt in baseball, especially around the deadline and with the Phillies fading fast, and I keep reading about Brian Fuentes. He's a closer for the Colorado Rockies and is eminently available- for the low, low price of "a top-of-the-line prospect and a secondary player".

Let's take a look at some of Fuentes' stats just to get an idea of just how good he is:
2008: 40.0 IP, 44 apps, 17 saves, 3.15 ERA, 1.13 WHIP.
Career highs: 75.3 IP (2005), 78 apps (2005), 31 saves (2005), 2.75 ERA (2003), 1.13 WHIP (2008 so far)

All in all, Fuentes is a solid closer, probably not top 5, but definitely top 10 in the game, and absolutely would be a good deadline pickup for a contender in need of bullpen help. Fine, whatever, this sort of trade happens every year. I don't have a heck of a memory for these things but when has a good-but-not-great closer gone for a top prospect and bench help?? Not to mention that Fuentes is 32 years old and his contract expires at the end of the year. Let me see, I'm going to trade a guy with the potential to be fantastic at the major-league level and a bench/platoon guy for about 40% of a season of a very good (but not dominant) closer? I'm all for closers getting the respect they deserve and whatnot and think a closer's Hall of Fame bid should only be in comparison with their peers, but this is goddamned ridiculous. Is it that hard to find a guy who can pitch ONE INNING with a lead without fucking it up? If the Rockies get any kind of bid resembling what they're looking for, then closers have jumped the shark for me.

This offseason the Phillies picked up Brad Lidge, former All Star and still pitching decently for the Astros, and token crappy utility guy/bench guy Eric Bruntlett for Geoff Geary (decent reliever), Michael Bourn (good basestealer but nothing special) and Mike Costanzo (no idea who that is). Costanzo might've been the best prospect in the Phils' system at the time, but somehow I doubt it. Even Lidge was overvalued. I know this kind of market is totally driven by demand since pitching is such a hot commodity but there's simply no reason to pay such a high price for a rental of a relief pitcher who will pitch one, (or maybe 1.1 or even 1.2!) innings every other game. It's simply not logical.

The reason I went on this anti-closer rant is because the Phillies have been linked with this guy. I know our bullpen blows and all, but closer is not an area of need. That Lidge guy is doing pretty solid, if I remember correctly. Thus we'd be paying top dollar (think Carlos Carrasco for "top-of-the-line prospect") for half a season of a 32-year-old who wouldn't even be a closer on our team. That's insane. How many teams have won a World Series title and said afterwards, "yeah, our pickup of (Reliever X) was really what put us over the top". Now, I'm not saying that teams in need of bullpen help shouldn't have to overpay a bit, but a reliever should never be the centerpiece of a deal that sends one of your best prospects in the other direction.


There. I said it. Sounds almost blasphemous, doesn't it? After countless years of praising Beane's savvy "Moneyball" approach to running a small-market baseball team, relying on strong statistical analysis and scouting departments to find diamonds in the rough, time after time, and getting fair hauls for countless pricey stars during his tenure, it's become ingrained in us all that Billy Beane is brilliant, a genius, one of, if not THE BEST, front office executive in pro sports today. Countless articles, blog posts, and even bestsellnig books, have been written about Beane's approach to the game, his stockpiling of young assets rather than a roster with both superstars and gaping holes like many other teams.

The Oakland A's have, admittedly, had a run of success above and beyond what could be expected of a small-market team with a payroll dwarfed by that of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, division-rival Angels and their ilk. Since Beane took over in 1997, the A's have won 4 AL West titles and a wild-card berth and have appeared in an ALCS. This is certainly an impressive resume, but you might notice that the A's have neither appeared in nor won a World Series under Beane. Go ahead and complain about the financial imbalance of the major leagues, of how the big guys snatch up all the best players and the small-market teams have to scuffle for every bit of success they get.

At the end of the day though, there are still facts to contend with. Working with a payroll more miniscule even than Oakland's, the Florida Marlins have won the World Series TWICE in Beane's tenure, while the A's have not yet reached it. The NL may be weaker, but given the massive rebuilding efforts following each win and the fact that the Marlins are still very much in contention in the tough NL East despite their shocking payroll which is hovering around $20 million even after star SS Hanley Ramirez signed a lucrative $70 million extension. Clearly, the Marlins front office knows how to build winners, even if it means a few very, very lean years in between. The debate between whether sustained yet moderate success (Oakland A's) is more valuable than a boom-or-bust cycle (Florida Marlins) is a philosophical one, but the facts remain.

Despite a seemingly bottomless farm system only deepened by the recent trades of starters Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, it is not clear to me that Beane will ever have a true World Series contender on his hands. At this point, I don't even think he needs to. He is so venerated by his fanbase and by baseball fans in general who have bought into his philosophy that he could go on running this team for decades without ever winning a championship. He has certainly revolutionized the way personnel decisions are made in this game, but he will never be a winner with this philosophy. Over the years, Beane's biggest moves include trading Kenny Rogers, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Danny Haren, Nick Swisher, and the aforementioned Harden and Blanton. He also has declined to sign stars such as Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito (perhaps his best decision yet). While I am in no way trying to diminish his impressive run of moderate success over more than a decade or the countless prospects he has added to his system, I am wondering if Beane's plan has ever involved winning a World Series.

The A's are constantly in a rebuilding mode, as along with Harden and Blanton, Beane is looking to possibly move the absolutely electrifying reliever-turned-starter Justin Duchscherer and good young closer Huston Street. Oakland has once again outperformed expectations this year, as this team, predicted to be one of the worst in baseball, is over .500 after the All-Star break, though quickly falling out of contention. Given the trades this year, it is clear that Beane is not planning on contending this year, which is understandable. Once again, I don't know if he's planning to contend in any year. In order to win, sometimes you have to sacrifice the future for the present. I know I'm sounding obvious and repetitive here, but I don't think Beane has ever gotten past the temptation of tantalizing young talent to see that his team is capable of contending for a title with the addition of a few key pieces. Certainly, the A's have the wherewithal in their farm system to afford a top rental or two to give them an asset as they make the playoff push down the stretch. I'm not saying this year was the year to do that, but Beane has to pull the trigger sometime.

The Milwaukee Brewers' payroll is much bigger than the A's this year (Milwaukee: $81m, Oakland: $48m), but the A's payroll was as high as $79m last year, so it's clear they can carry a bit more weight than they choose to. While the A's are clearing their assets as per normal, the Brewers have recognized that they have a very strong young core of players geared for a playoff run and have since gone out and picked up top starter CC Sabathia and a solid veteran presence at second base in Ray Durham. The Brewers' front office, led by GM Doug Melvin, saw that this was a playoff-worthy team missing a couple pieces, and went out and sacrificed a couple of future prospects to go for broke this year. If the Brewers manage to win the World Series this year (and given how hot they've been since the Sabathia trade, I certainly wouldn't count them out), I think it's safe to say that Melvin is a better GM than Beane, because unlike Beane, his savvy rebuilding reached its end result: bringing a championship to a city that hasn't had one since the Packers in '97 and whose beloved Brewers haven't even made the playoffs in 26 years.

Beane's trade record is dazzling in many ways, but I think his constant-rebuilding act is beginning to wear thin. I'm sure A's fans are tired of being on the cusp so many times but never pulling the trigger and going for the big prize. It seems to me that the A's success has been purely coincidental, a consequence of the fact that Beane's plan is constantly cycling between acquiring young assets, letting those assets mature, and trading them at peak value for more assets. That mini-dynasty the A's had at the beginning of this decade was simply a result of Beane waiting for his players' value to peak, not any concerted effort to improve the team in the present.

The cult Beane's "Moneyball" method has created has led A's fans to not only understand, but applaud Beane's constant overhauling of the roster by shipping top talent off for the potential of youth. It has led to posts like this one, which suggests the A's should sell off their remaining trade chips for one of the best young talents in the game, an uber-prospect on the level of a Jay Bruce or even an Evan Longoria. Such a trade would help the other team shoot for a title while the A's, once again, rebuild their roster for the inevitable sell-off to come.

I've been pondering Beane's value and legacy for some time now, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point to this article as my inspiration to post my thoughts today.

July 23, 2008

Eagles Face Contract Crises At Camp

Well, it's late July again, so that means a group of grown men (many of them millionaires at that), will be arriving at Lehigh University located in Bumblefuck... oops, I mean Bethlehem, PA. Andy Reid and the coaching staff of the Eagles seem to be optimistic about the coming season, as McNabb is healthy again (so we hope), the Eagles added a stud corner in Asante Samuel and a solid LB/DE in Chris Clemons and feature a young and talented linebacking corps and rapidly improving defensive line. Many Eagles fans, myself included, eagerly await the coming season and (hopefully) a return to the playoffs.

However, it is becoming increasingly rare to see a training camp during which the focus is solely on, well, training. The Eagles, as a team with a lot of talent and a lot of recent success, have a lot of egos to take care of. Fortunately, the front office did a nice job of signing all of our draft picks, including second-rounders DeSean Jackson and Trevor Laws, ahead of training camp, but some of their most effective vets may be causing a stir at camp this year.

First, you have the case of erstwhile Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard. Sheppard, coming off a streak of brilliant play and Pro Bowl berths, got hurt last season and missed a lot of time. It isn't the first time Sheppard's gone down for a long period, and the Eagles made a big splash in free agency by signing former Patriots CB Asante Samuel, a fellow Pro Bowler and thought by many to be the most coveted free agent of this year's class. Now the Eagles face the problem (if you could call it that) of having three great corners and only two spots to put them in. Aside from Samuel and Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, another Pro Bowler, is returning once again. The Eagles tried desperately to trade Sheppard around the draft for a package of picks or a top wideout such as the Bengals' Chad Johnson or one of the Cardinals' tandem of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Now, empty-handed, the Eagles return to camp with the prospect of an unhappy Lito Sheppard on their hands. Sheppard recently fired his agent and hired Drew Rosenhaus, who the Eagles have, um, a bit of a history with (see O., T.). It's not clear whether Sheppard wants a trade, more money, more PT or just to become better friends with Rosenhaus, who really seems like a swell guy (and who I've heard makes really great shish kebabs!), but at any rate, the change of agents has definitely raised eyebrows. However, Sheppard isn't even the greatest of the Eagles' worries.

Aside from our Pro Bowl corner, the single most important player on the Eagles (sorry McNabb, but it's true), running back/wideout/fantasy stud extraordinaire Brian Westbrook, the heart and soul of our offense, is looking to get a raise. Frankly, it's hard to say he doesn't deserve one, given his brilliant stats over the past few years and his huge role in our offense. However, Westbrook doesn't want just a raise over the current, six-year, $25 million extension he signed in 2005, before he'd truly broken out, he apparently wants "LT money". By Westbrook's logic, LT (who is still indisputably better than Westbrook, but Westbrook is definitely closing the gap) signed a contract for $25 million guaranteed in 2004, so due to inflation and rising gas prices, he deserves $30 million in guaranteed bonuses four years later.

Unfortunately, the hole in Westbrook's logic is simple: when LT signed that contract 4 years ago, he was but 24 and entering his prime, whereas Westbrook is going to turn 30 this year and could start to decline in the next couple of years. Thus, not wanting to be paying big bucks to a gimpy, aging Westbrook five years from now, the Eagles are hesitant to renegotiate a contract.

Westbrook, following Sheppard's example, hired a new agent to help him through this dispute, one Todd France (the same France who managed to fleece 8 years, $80 million from the 49ers for a good, but not great Nate Clements last offseason). It seems pretty clear to me that Westbrook intends to play hardball over this, and I think given his achievements and mind-boggling stats over the past few seasons, we should give him a raise, but not quite as much as he's looking for.

IgglesBlog has an excellent piece explaining Westbrook's point of view and how we could placate his demands for a contract reneg without breaking the bank.

I really hope this gets resolved soon because the Eagles are a team with playoff aspirations but one which has some pressing questions to answer first, and the best way to do that is if we have everyone at camp, happy (as happy as you can be running two-a-days in this sweltering heat) and ready to play.

July 22, 2008

Carson Palmer - NOT a Buckeyes Fan

Carson Palmer, proudly representing his alma mater, the University of Spoiled Children, had some choice words for Buckeyes fans during an interview with LA radio station KLAC:

I don’t watch what I say. I cannot stand the Buckeyes and having to live in Ohio
and hear those people talk about their team, it drives me absolutely nuts. We
got Keith Rivers out there and we got Frostee Rucker, we finally got a couple
other ‘SC guys. It’s amazing to hear what those guys think about that university
and what they think about that football program and Tressel and all the crap I
got to put up with being back there. I just can’t wait for two years from now
when ‘SC comes to the ‘Shoe and I get to, hopefully have a home game that
weekend and I can go out there and watch us pound on them on their own turf and
kind of put all the talk to rest, because I’m really getting sick of it. I just
can’t wait for this game to get here so they can come to the Coliseum and
experience L.A. and get an old fashioned, Pac 10 butt-whooping and go back to
the Big Ten.

Jokes about the Buckeyes sucking in BCS games aside, Palmer's words were pretty, um, fiery for a professional athlete. Obviously, talking smack on the Buckeyes wasn't the best PR move when you play in the middle of Buckeye country, but I guess Palmer won't be donning the scarlet and gray anytime soon unless he loses a bet. Personally, I applaud the guy's willingness to speak out, as it's refreshing to hear a pro athlete who has a candid take on something. The tired, PR-censored, politically-correct rubbish you hear from most athletes *cough* Tom Brady *cough* Jeter *cough cough* is frankly boring and makes many of our favorite stars seem bland and cold. This way, at least I know Palmer's heart is beating (even if it bleeds USC colors).

However, I question his decision to spout off all this anti-Ohio State rhetoric on a radio station conveniently located in... hmm, Southern California! Why not go right on the air in Columbus or Cincy or Cleveland and make your opinions heard there, if you're such a big Trojans guy? That aspect seems a bit cowardly to me, but I still appreciate the spirit of his gesture if not the execution.

Now of course, under tremendous heat from his fanbase, Palmer is already backpedaling and squirming, like when the Bengals line breaks down on a blitz:
I'm a Trojan all the way, and I was talking to a Trojan audience in
California. I guess I got a little fired up, as all good fans will do.

But I really do respect the Buckeyes, and I know their fans are passionate,
too. I hope they all understand I'm just looking forward to a big game for my
school against a very tough opponent, and that it's all in the good fun of a
rivalry. You don't have a real rivalry unless both sides are great teams.

Sigh, another day, another athlete backing down from some actually ballsy comments he made. Still, this incident raises my level of respect both for Palmer and for USC fans (who I love to hate), because at least they agree that the Buckeyes suck.

July 18, 2008

Phillies Pick Up Pitcher For Playoff Push

Not quite Sabathia, is he?

The Phillies acquired righty starting pitcher Joe Blanton from the Oakland A's in exchange for three prospects: Adrian Cardenas, a contact-hitting middle infielder who is the consensus top position player in the Phillies farm system, Josh Outman, a talented and deceptive lefty who has been putting up solid stats in relief in the minors at the AA affiliate in Reading, and outfielder Matt Spencer, a fairly unheralded prospect who looks like more of a throw-in than anything else.

The Phillies were in dire need of a solid starting pitcher to help them as they push to outgun the Mets and Marlins (and possibly the Brewers and Cards in the wild-card race) for a playoff spot given the remarkably sucky play of Brett Myers, (just returning from a pretty mediocre stint in the minors) and the ever-horrible Adam Eaton (enjoying your $8 million, asshole?). Blanton has traditionally been just that, putting up a record of 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA and excellent K/BB ratio of 140/40, but has struggled significantly this year, going only 5-12 on a much improved A's team with a 4.96 ERA and underwhelming 62/35 K/BB ratio. I'm somewhat worried with how Blanton will be able to adjust to the home run haven that is Citizens Bank Park and have a feeling his first few starts will be rough. However, we needed to add a pitcher and I have more confidence in Blanton, certainly, than in Eaton or Myers, or A.J. Burnett, another pitcher the Phillies have been linked with. I'm disappointed we missed out on CC 'Don't Call Me C.C!" Sabathia and Rich "Wish My Bones Would" Harden, but considering how steep a price we paid for just Blanton, we might've had to give up too much from an already depleted farm system to get one of those aces.

One of the positives of this deal is that we do have control over Blanton until 2010, as he's still in the arbitration phase of his career, and given what a cruddy year he's had, he won't be too costly next season. However, that being said, two things bother me about this deal: we gave up our best position prospect (who might've been able to move over to third and hopefully provide our first real talent there- sorry Pedro, I love you and you've got a great glove, but you're not much of a hitter- since Scotty Rolen) and a promising, albeit overrated, pitcher, for a guy who will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be anything more than a solid No.3/No.4 starter. Basically we just added Kyle Kendrick the 2nd in this deal, which, although not bad, isn't the impact player we needed to make a deep playoff run.

I'm not sure whether this move signals that the Phillies think they can contend for a pennant or even championship this year by adding Blanton or whether they're adding pieces early before making a big splash in the free-agent market this summer. However, given that Hamels and Howard are still in arbitration with no end to contract negotiations in sight, I doubt we're going to be big players this offseason. So, the way I see it, the Phillies had every intention of adding a big-time starter to bolster their rotation during the stretch run, but because of their shallow pool of prospects and trade bait and the lack of a big market for starters due to the high number of teams still in contention, couldn't quite pull off the big move they had envisioned. I applaud the Phillies for trying but don't think we're much closer to a title than we were before the trade. Until we can add a true No. 2 starter, the Phillies, even with their big bats, aren't going very far.

NBA Musical Chairs - Part 3 of 3

In this final installment of my series on the NBA offseason, I'm going to discuss some of the biggest trades of the offseason so far:

Bucks trade Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons to Nets for Richard Jefferson:
This trade appears to be decent for both teams, as New Jersey signals it is clearly in rebuilding mode by trading one of their remaining assets (Vince Carter giving a crap half the time being the other) for a young talent with lots of potential (and a demonstrable ability to take on a team of folding chairs all by himself). Milwaukee picks up a good scorer with okay rebounding and assist numbers and adds another piece to a team looking to make a playoff run this year. However, this deal raises questions on both sides. Bobby Simmons signed an absolutely ludicrous contract and the Nets will be stuck paying for it to get a mediocre player at best. Yi Jianlian, though he'll obviously be happier to play in northern New Jersey (and Brooklyn soon, presumably) than he was in the frozen tundra of Milwaukee, has a lot left to prove that he was worth the high selection the Bucks used on him in last year's draft. Jefferson has a big ego, and Milwaukee will have to find a way to share the wall between a PG who likes to shoot (Mo Williams), an elite gunner in Michael Redd and the post presence of Andrew Bogut along with Jefferson. It will be interesting to see how this trade pans out for both teams in a couple of years.

Raptors trade T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and rights to Roy Hibbert to Pacers for Jermaine O'Neal and rights to Nathan Jawai:
Both teams were jettisoning players who no longer fit into their plans in this trade and hoping the central player they received would be able to deliver for them this year. Jermaine O'Neal still has the potential to be a top post player at his best, but he's beginning to get older and is always an injury risk. However, pairing him with Chris Bosh down low will make for a dangerous tandem for Toronto and if O'Neal pans out will be a great pickup for them. The Pacers were in the market for a point guard as Jamaal Tinsley, between his off-the-court issues and his failure to live up to his billing, has not been the player the Pacers were hoping for. Ford is a decent, if unimpressive PG, and, like O'Neal, is a constant threat to be injured. I'm not really sure what the Pacers are trying to do, between the pickups of Ford (who, although decent, is a bit pricey) and Hibbert (an NBA-ready player, but much more suited to a supporting role on a contender) and the trading away of Jerryd Bayless (who has looked very impressive in summer league play - yes I know they mean as much as the NFL preseason, if not less). I don't see this trade helping the Pacers much, but it does take O'Neal's big contract off the books, leaving them free to make bigger and better acquisitions down the line.

Nuggets trade Marcus Camby to the Clippers for the right to swap second-round picks and cash considerations:
This is the type of trade that makes me absolutely hate the financial structure of the NBA. Despite all the rules about trades having to be an even value and whatnot, the Nuggets managed to give away Camby, a fantastic defensive center and a guy who can put up absolutely ridiculous stat lines (seriously, my friends and I sometimes play this game where one person will read off all his numbers of the line and we have to try and guess what stat corresponds with which number- look up his game logs sometime!) simply to free up cap space. I like the move for the Clips, who responded to losing Elton Brand and Corey Maggette quickly by shoring up their frontcourt with a proven defender and low-post presence, which gives the Clippers a surprisingly solid starting line-up (assuming Eric Gordon pans out and can make a good impact this year), albeit little depth behind that lineup. I originally was angry at how cheaply the Nuggets gave away such a strong big man, but after reading Jim Armstrong's article on the subject, I have to say I agree. The Nuggets aren't a contender despite their star-studded lineup and won't be with this group of players. It's best to throw in the towel and start rebuilding sooner rather than later by dumping some of these big contracts so they can work with a new group of guys who will hopefully complement one another better than the chaos and chemistry problems of the past couple seasons.

Blazers trade Jarrett Jack and Brandon Rush to the Pacers for Jerryd Bayless and Ike Diogu:
Due to the fact that most of the players involved in this trade haven't logged time in the NBA, I really don't know if I can comment effectively on the ramifications of this trade, though I will say that I like Bayless a lot and if his performance in the summer league is any indication (I realize relying on summer league play is dubious- after all even Donte' Greene is doing well) he'll be a very good NBA player if he can find a role that suits him. Given that the Pacers appear to be rebuilding, I can't help but feel they're the losers of this trade. Brandon Rush had a great year at Kansas and recovered well from a major injury prior to that, but I can't see him as more than a role player in the Association. Jarrett Jack has put up some decent numbers, but he also seems like a role player, and now with the Ford trade, the Pacers have a rather crowded backcourt situation. I don't know a goddamned thing about Ike Diogu, so I'm not commenting on him.

NBA Musical Chairs - Part 2 of 3

This is the second part of my series discussing the biggest offseason moves in the NBA over the past few weeks. This section will be focused on the major re-signings, since sometimes locking up what you already have is the best way to improve.

Andrew Bogut re-signs with Bucks:
I haven't seen Bogut play much, so I can't comment on what I've seen of him, but his numbers are solid and on the rise, Bogut is a good young big, even if he falls a bit short of the expectations that come with being drafted No. 1 overall. I personally feel that a five-year extension worth up to $72.5 million (with incentives) might be a bit much, but the Bucks DID avoid giving him a max contract, and I guess a solid young big is hard to come by in this league.

Antawn Jamison re-signs with Wizards:
Jamison is an elite shooter in the NBA, especially given his size, and it was good of Washington to lock up one of their key pieces. However...

Gilbert Arenas re-signs with Wizards (max contract):
I love Gilbert Arenas, and he's the most popular man in Washington (certainly more than any of its politicians...). That said, he's coming off a major injury which forced him to sit out most of last season. Additionally, the Wizards seemed to play better without Gilbert in the lineup last season, which could be due to the fact that he tends to dominate the Wizards' offense when he's on the floor taking a huge number of shots with relatively few assists. If it is the case that Gilbert's high-scoring, shoot-first tendencies do actually hurt the team's capabilities, then I feel like signing Agent Zero to a maximum $111 million contract was a huge mistake on the part of the Wizards and will keep them trapped at this middling level for years to come.

Chris Paul re-signs with Hornets/Deron Williams re-signs with Jazz/Jose Calderon re-signs with Raptors:
I grouped all three of these signings together because in each these teams recognized the talent and poise of these excellent young point guards and made the decision to lock up these young stars with an extension to prevent them from heading to bigger markets, at least for a few years. It's good to see that none of these players signed a max contract (including Chris Paul who is easily one of the best 5 players in the league), hopefully this signals that teams are looking to be more responsible when it comes to signing their young players to multi-year deals early in their careers.

I'll be examining some of the big trades of this offseason in my next post, coming up right after this.