Rivals in Exile: Deadlineby Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken
August 02, 2004
Ben Jacobs: Well, Friday was a good day to be a Yankees fan, wasn't it? First, Kevin Brown finally returned from his various ailments and pitched a very solid 6 1/3 innings against the Orioles. Brown hasn't been right since April, but if he's healthy in the post-season, he and Javier Vazquez would give the Yankees about as good a 1-2 punch as anybody else has.
Second, Jason Giambi finally found out what's been bothering him this season, and it seems to be good news. From all indications, Giambi's benign tumor will be treated and he'll be back on the field sooner than a lot of people were expecting. It remains to be seen whether the productive Giambi will return, but it's good news for the Yankees that his problem is not more serious.
Finally, it's good news for Yankees fans that it was the other New York team overpaying greatly to get two mediocre starting pitchers. What would you have done, for example, if the Yankees had traded Dioner Navarro, Robinson Cano, Eric Duncan and Brad Halsey for the likes of Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson?
I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have any furniture left in your apartment if that happened, but that's essentially what the Mets did. Except that Scott Kazmir, at least, is much better than any prospect the Yankees could have given away.
Of course, the Yankees needed some good news Friday because Jose Contreras took another two steps backward on Thursday. It's to the point now where anything Contreras is able to give the Yankees as a starting pitcher in the playoffs would be a bonus and a surprise.
I seem to remember telling you during one of our many unpublished conversations before the season that the reason Contreras' numbers were so impressive last year is that a large percentage of his innings came against Detroit and Tampa Bay and he dominated them. You assured me that Contreras simply has a problem with Boston and would be great against everybody else.
Well, not counting the playoffs, he now has almost a full season's worth of innings under his belt and the results are interesting. In 15.1 innings against Boston, he has a 16.43 ERA, 2.74 WHIP, 16 strikeouts, 14 walks and six homers. In 48.1 innings against Tampa Bay and Detroit, he has a 1.49 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 38 strikeouts, 14 walks and one homer. And in 103 innings against everybody else, he has a 4.37 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 100 strikeouts, 44 walks and 19 homers.
Now, those numbers against everybody besides Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit aren't bad, but they're not great either. And performances like the one he had against Baltimore show just how easy it is for him to fall apart against a team that's not weak offensively (and I know Detroit and Tampa Bay are both better than they were last year).
Luckily for me, Friday was also a good day to be a Red Sox fan. Bronson Arroyo recovered from his bad start against the Yankees to finish July with four quality starts in five trips to the mound. Even with that start against the Yankees, Arroyo had a 2.83 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 36 strikeouts and five walks in 35 innings in July.
If he keeps pitching well, he could give the Red Sox three very nice starters for the playoffs, sending Derek Lowe to the bullpen and allowing Tim Wakefield to take up the swingman position he filled so nicely last year (except for one pitch).
Also, the Red Sox broke out the big bats again and have now scored at least seven runs in five of their last six games. The only team with more runs scored than the Red Sox (569) is Cleveland (574), and Boston leads the majors in runs per game (5.63).
And of course, Boston also didn't trade away half of their top prospects for two pitchers who might be better than average, but really aren't very exciting. I like to see my team try to improve myself as much as anybody and I know the Red Sox have areas where they could get better. But when I look around the majors, I don't really see much available that is a big enough improvement to make me want to give away players who could really help in the future.
So, by the time 4 p.m. Saturday rolls around, I hope one of two things has happened. One, the Red Sox haven't made any major trades. Or two, they've found a way to absolutely fleece somebody.
Larry Mahnken: Ben? Ben? You still alive, Ben?
Well, if you are, my condolences on the abduction and replacement of Theo Epstein with an alien imposter. Trading Nomar is understandable. Trading him for a shortstop who's career OPS is 200 points lower than Nomar's while playing in a hitter's park and who's current OPS is only 28 points higher than Enrique Wilson's, and also a first baseman who, while good with the glove, has never had an OPS better than Nomar's worst OPS -- again, while playing in a hitter's park, well, that's slightly less than understandable.
The acquisition of Dave Roberts later on in the day wasn't a bad one, since with Nixon out indefinitely, they could use another outfielder, and Roberts should put up much better numbers outside of Chavez Ravine. Their defense is better, but... well, they've got a shot at the Wild Card still, but the pennant's gonna be tough. Oh yeah, they traded away a great prospect in Matt Murton, too. Bummer of a day.
Esteban Loaiza isn't much of a grab for the Yankees, he would have been worthy of the Cy Young Award last season, but this season is, well, Esteban Loaiza again. He's better than he used to be, and moving from US Cellular Field to Yankee Stadium should help somewhat, but what the Yankees really did was relieve themselves in a headache in Contreras.
Contreras still has it in him to be a great pitcher, he's got the stuff, he's got the skill, but he just needs the confidence to use it. He may never become anything, and until then, all you'll get are hints of what he might be, the random great start, with more common horrible starts. And you never know which guy you're gonna get every night.
Loaiza is at least consistent. Rarely great, rarely horrible, he's just okay. That's great for a fourth starter, and if the Yankees can get an effective Brown and Mussina down the stretch, then they've done very well for themselves here. Now all they need is a lefty reliever, and that shouldn't be too tough to find passing through waivers, especially as more teams drop out of contention in the next couple of weeks. And even if they don't get that guy, as long as Joe Torre doesn't go to The Run Fairy with the tying run on and Carlos Delgado up anymore, they're doing okay.
Compared to the other trades being made this weekend, Loaiza for Contreras was a steal for the Yankees. But Nomar for cow chips still looks like a crap trade.
BJ: I'm still alive, but I'm not happy. Forget about the quality of the trade for now, I'm simply pissed off because Nomar's my favorite player.
I knew the Red Sox weren't going to be able to re-sign him this offseason, but I had let myself hope that I would get to watch him play in Boston through August and September and, hopefully, October. Nothing had happened when I left my computer at 3, so I didn't know what exactly what he was referring to when my best friend called my cell phone to ask what I thought of the trade.
When he told me the Red Sox had traded Nomar -- and only gotten Cabrera and Mientkiewicz in return! -- I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. Why can't the favorite sons of Red Sox Nation spend a happy career in Boston? It's not enough we don't win any World Series, but we're not allowed to keep our favorite players either?
As if to hammer home the point that my favorite player no longer played for my favorite team, when I got home tonight I found out that my favorite team had lost to my girlfriend's favorite team (the Twins). And her favorite player (Jacque Jones) hit the winning home run.
I could make myself accept the early departure of Nomar when I thought his return meant the arrival of Alex Rodriguez. And I would have been able to handle Nomar getting traded if Randy Johnson came to town in his place. But losing Nomar and only getting a shortstop with a .643 OPS and a first baseman with a .707 OPS?
That's enough to drive a man to drink. And then, I found out later that Nomar wasn't even enough to pry away those excellent hitters. As you mentioned, the Red Sox had to give up Matt Murton as well.
To avoid breaking stuff after finding out that my favorite team made a seemingly crappy trade that sent my favorite player out of town, I had to start looking for positives. Here's what I came up with:
1) Chemistry. I don't believe it makes a big difference, but Nomar was increasingly sulky this season and he didn't seem to have the joy for baseball that had helped make him my favorite player. With him gone, maybe the team will become united and go on a tear.
2) Defense. There's no doubt that Boston's defense is better now. Looking at a variety of different statistics, it seems clear that Cabrera was significantly better defensively than Nomar before this year, and Nomar's defense seems to have been hindered by his injury.
And Mientkiewicz is one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball. He's a big improvement over Millar, who's merely average, and David Ortiz, who's not even that good. On days when they use Mientkiewicz at first, Pokey Reese at second, Cabrera at short and Mark Bellhorn at third, the Red Sox might have the best infield defense in baseball.
3) Offensive optimism. Cabrera's clearly not even close to the hitter Nomar is, but he's better than what he's done this year. I think he got so fed up with the situation in Montreal that he just gave up. Now, that's not a good thing, but it's better than accepting that he's going to have an OBP below .300.
Mientkiewicz's hitting has been terrible this year, especially for a first baseman. Two of the previous three seasons, however, he had an OBP above .385 and a SLG of at least .450. When he does that, his defense makes him one of the better first basemen around. Hopefully, he can get his bat going in Boston and at least be better offensively than Gabe Kapler.
4) The future. If the Red Sox re-sign Cabrera, then having him and Mientkiewicz for next season is better than getting two draft picks as compensation for losing Nomar. Both of them are still at an age where they shouldn't be declining and if they perform close to their career bests, they're both valuable players. I'm just going to ignore the fact that they're still without Murton.
So, that's what I've got. I know a lot of it's just grasping at straws, but I'd like to see you deal with the Yankees doing something like this. Even with Saturday's awfulness, I think the Red Sox are a playoff favorite and a World Series contender.
After all, as much as I like Nomar, he's only played 38 games this year and the Red Sox are still leading the league in runs per game. Cabrera should at least be better than the guys who were filling in for Nomar (Reese, Cesar Crespo and Ricky Gutierrez) in the other 64 games.
LM: Hearing what I've been hearing in the past couple of days, that Garciaparra is going to need some time off during the next two months, I think this trade does the opposite of what people said it was intended to do: rather than make them more likely to win in the playoffs, it makes them more likely to make the playoffs, but less likely to win, because without Nomar for much of the stretch drive, they were, as you pointed out, going to have to use very poor players at shortstop. At least now they have a guy who will be there every day.
But in the playoffs, I'd rather have a healthy Nomar. What the heck are people thinking when they said the Red Sox couldn't win in the postseason with the team as it was constructed: this is a team that's won 8 of 13 from the Yankees, and 3 of 4 series. They could beat the Yankees just fine.
It appears that maybe Boston's front office is having a crisis of faith, unable to accept that their below-pythagorean expectations record is likely the result of bad luck more than anything else, unwilling to stay the course, and taking a major risk to hopefully correct things. If Cabrera and Mientkiewicz hit down the stretch like they did last season, then the Red Sox win this trade, big time, but that's very unlikely to happen. I think if Boston was where they are in the Wild Card chase, but only three or four behind the Yankees, they wouldn't have made this trade. The loss of the division, I think, made them take this risk.
As for the Yankees, they've done well to not shoot themselves in the foot. Many have called them losers this past weekend because they didn't get Randy Johnson, but they didn't need him as much as people think -- they need a healthy and effective Mussina and Brown far more -- and there is a distinct positive coming from this failure: a clear signal to the Yankees to stop letting their farm system go to waste trying to get someone they don't really need. Sure, that's a lesson they should have learned in the 80's, and appeared to learn under Gene Michael's reign, but it needed relearning. Maybe now they'll have a farm system.
BJ: Well, the more I've read and thought about the trade, the better I feel about it. I still trust Epstein and the front office, and I think they know a lot more about the situation than I do.
If they feel that Garciaparra wasn't going to be able to play even 75 percent of the remaining games this season, that would have made it tougher to make the playoffs. If they also feel, as Peter Gammons suggested, that Garciaparra is the worst defensive shortstop in baseball right now because of his heel, then that offsets his bat a lot.
To save myself from getting angry or anything, I'm content to wish Nomar the best in Chicago and also say that this deal makes sense for Boston. Is it the ideal trade? No, but the Red Sox weren't in the ideal situation.
Other teams know Nomar's still hurt and they know he's unhappy in Boston and he's a free agent at the end of the season. If the Red Sox felt they would be hard-pressed to make the playoffs with him (or without him much of the time, as the case may have been), then they were backed into a bit of a corner.
I'm ready to say that Boston should be happy about this weekend. The Red Sox improved a big weakness (defense) and got rid of a player who really didn't seem to want to be there. Also, Randy Johnson stayed in Arizona.
You mentioned that the Yankees didn't need Johnson, but he sure would have made them scarier. What worried me more, however, was that he might go to the Angels. The Angels and Rangers are both fine teams, but neither one really frightens me in the wild card race. With Johnson, the Angels would have terrified me.
Now, the Red Sox just need to go on a run. Starting tonight, 20 of their next 26 games are against teams with losing records. And the other six are against a team (the White Sox) that just snapped a seven-game losing streak. I'd like to see the Red Sox win 18 of these games and take control of the wild card race.
If they do that, nobody will be worrying about the loss of Nomar anymore, at least not until the playoffs arrive.
Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are staff writers for The Hardball Times. Ben can be contacted here, Larry can be contacted here.