Cooperstown Confidential: The Seinfeld meetingsby Bruce Markusen
December 07, 2012
I’ve come to expect that the Winter Meetings will never be like they once were, as in 1971, when blockbuster trades relocated the likes of Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson and Gaylord Perry, or 1980, when Cardinals GM Whitey Herzog made four trades involving 23 players (including Rollie Fingers twice!). But this year’s meetings reached a new low. There was so little activity at Nashville that I’m tempted to say that this was the quietest meeting of my lifetime.
How quiet was it? There were exactly four trades, with Yunel Escobar, Ben Revere and Vance Worley representing the biggest names moved. Those players might help their new teams, but they are not close to All-Star caliber. These were hardly blockbuster swaps; they might not even be regarded as substantial in some circles.
In terms of free agent movement, a few players changed teams, principally Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, both of whom signed with the Red Sox. Again, these were not monumental signings. The two biggest prizes of the market, Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, remain unsigned, as agents and general managers continue to move at a glacial pace on negotiations.
The biggest story of the Winter Meetings might have been the news of an injury, the latest malady to affect the increasingly fragile Alex Rodriguez. And I guess that says it all; when the headline story of the meetings is an injury revelation, something is wrong.
None of this is meant to say that the Winter Meetings should be abolished. They still serve a function. The Hall of Fame makes announcements regarding its veteran committees and its Frick and Spink Award winners, the Rule 5 draft takes place, job seekers apply for positions in the industry, and general managers do at least talk about possible deals.
It used to be that general managers used the GM meetings in November to “lay groundwork” for possible deals, but it seems that most general managers now use the Winter Meetings to lay the groundwork. Furthermore, general managers and agents procrastinate on free agents, with each side trying to wait out the other. And until the big free agents are signed, teams don’t feel comfortable making trades. As a result, few deals get done during the meetings, and baseball loses out on an opportunity to steer headlines away from the NFL and the NBA at a time when so much media is absolutely dying to report some news.
The other difficulty is the lack of a trading deadline. There used to be an interleague trading deadline at the end of the Winter Meetings; if you couldn’t swing an interleague deal by then, you had to wait until spring training to make a move. In today’s set-up, there is no such deadline, which removes much of the incentive to make trades at the meetings.
Unless baseball reinstitutes such a deadline, I’m not sure what can be done to restore the Winter Meetings to some of their past glory. They used to represent a kind of second season, a time when baseball talk dominated the sports news in the middle of a cold winter. Now all they seem to do is create a bevy of rumors, most of which never come to fruition. And all of that makes me feel a little sad….
Cornering the market on the tools of ignorance
The Red Sox have taken a smart approach this offseason by stocking up on catching. With the addition of free agents Napoli and David Ross, the Sox now have four major league caliber catchers on their projected Opening Day roster. Catching is like pitching: It’s always in short supply, so there will surely be trade suitors for one of Boston’s excess receivers. And that will allow the Red Sox to address concerns in their thin pitching staff or in their transitioning outfield.
Fresh off his three-year deal with Boston, Napoli will be the starting first baseman, but will still be available to catch 20 to 30 times a year, depending on the need and the state of Boston’s offense. Either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway will project as the No. 1 catcher, with Ross, the best backup catcher in the game, serving as the primary reserve.
Red Sox GM Ben Cherington could take a conservative approach and start Lavarnway at Triple-A, with the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia remaining the starter. A more likely solution is a trade of Saltalamacchia, whose relative youth (age 27) and legitimate left-handed power make him viable in a potential deal.
Two possible landing places for Saltalamacchia are the White Sox and the Mets. The White Sox need to find a replacement for free agent A.J. Pierzynski and can offer someone like Gavin Floyd, who has never matched his 2008 peak but would still look good in the middle of Boston’s rotation. The Mets could offer the underrated Jon Niese, who would slot in behind Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, in a deal for Saltalamacchia and a minor league prospect. I could see Niese thriving as a kind of Bill Lee-type pitcher at Fenway Park…
Reliving the days of Joel Skinner
In contrast to the Red Sox’ embarrassment of catching riches, the Yankees appear positively threadbare at the position after the departure of free agent Russell Martin. Brian Cashman is fooling himself if he thinks he can cobble an acceptable catcher out of a career backup in Chris Stewart, a highly questionable talent in Francisco Cervelli (who is a plus on neither offense or defense), and prospect Austin Romine, who is simply not ready after missing most of the 2012 season with back trouble. In another year, Romine might be ready, but he is over-matched at the plate right now and needs at least a season at Triple-A Scranton.
Now that Martin has his two-year deal with the Pirates, the Yankees would be smart to pursue A.J. Pierzynski, on a one-year contract if at all possible. Pierzynski is a good left-handed hitter (a Ron Hassey/Johnny Blanchard type) who slugged over .500 last year and could be platooned with either Romine or Stewart.
Detractors point to Pierzynski as one of the most disliked players in the game. Who cares about that, as long as he helps you win? Pierzynski is the kind of guy you despise as an opponent, but appreciate when he’s on your team. At Yankee Stadium, he could put up 20 to 25 home runs in a platoon role. He can still handle the running game, too, as evidenced by his respectable rate of throwing out 26 per cent of opposing base runners. And he has been a good postseason player, which should always be a consideration with the Yankees.
There is a line of thinking that Pierzynski does not fit the Yankee mold, and that’s nonsense. The Yankees have had a “red-ass” type player like Pierzynski on many of their winning teams. I’m thinking of Billy Martin in the '50s, Lou Piniella in the '70s, Paul O’Neill in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Roger Clemens as well. There isn’t any problem with carrying one or two guys like that, as long as they produce. Pierzynski’s history indicates that he will do the same if Yankees give him a chance…
297 plus three at the Hall
With the additions of catcher/third baseman Deacon White, owner Jacob Ruppert, and umpire Hank O’Day through the Pre-Integration Committee, the Hall of Fame now has an even number of 300 elected members.
White and Ruppert are unquestionably deserving, as I wrote about in this space a month ago. White lasted 20 seasons while playing in an era that might be described as barbaric: no helmets, no catching face masks or chest protectors, and no gloves for a good portion of time. Yet, White managed to put in significant time at both catcher and third, all while maintaining a career .312 batting average, winning two batting titles, two RBI titles, and an OPS title.
As for Ruppert, he was the owner who oversaw the purchase of Babe Ruth, the building of Yankee Stadium, and the acquisition of Red Ruffing, not to mention the team’s historic run of seven world championships in two decades. He knew when to step aside, when to get involved, and how to write the checks. As an owner, that is what is required to make the Hall of Fame.
O’Day is somewhat of a surprising choice, in that he was an umpire at the turn of the century, through much of the dead ball era and beyond. How exactly do we judge an umpire from that time period? There are really no statistics or metrics by which to rate or evaluate an umpire, and there’s no one left from that era to tell us about how good or great an umpire O’Day was.
The only numbers we can rely on with regard to O’Day are 30 and 10. Thirty represents the number of seasons that he umpired in the National League; 10 represents the number of World Series that he was assigned to work. Those numbers give us some indication of O’Day’s ability. If he was good enough to last 30 years—that’s a long time for an umpire, especially one who worked in the era of two-man crews—and if he was skilled enough to merit 10 World Series selections, then he was likely pretty darn good.
As it is, there are relatively few umpires (10) in the Hall of Fame. Prior to O’Day’s election, only two had been elected (the very worthy Nestor Chylak and Doug Harvey) since 1999. So it’s not like the Hall of Fame has gone mad electing umpires left and right. I’m willing to think that O’Day is probably deserving of his distinction…
Booking on Brookens
The Tigers made a quiet move at the Winter Meetings that may foreshadow a more drastic change in the future. In restructuring their coaching staff, the Tigers moved Gene Lamont from third base coach to bench coach and switched Tom Brookens from first base to third base coach. This might be the final step in the grooming process for Brookens, whom some in the Tigers’ organization feel is the heir apparent to Jim Leyland as manager.
For those who remember Brookens from his days as the manager of the Oneonta Tigers, this comes as no surprise. The utility infielder-turned-minor league manager is so well-organized, spirited, and passionate about the game that he has long been regarded as a serious managerial prospect. He’s also paid his dues, working his way through the Tigers’ system before joining Leyland’s staff in the winter of 2009.
When Leyland decides to call it quits, Brookens will be more than ready for the challenge.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.