- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Back on Dec. 11, 2001, the day the Cleveland Indians traded Roberto Alomar, Indians GM Mark Shapiro joked: "I might need a flak jacket when I get off the plane." That's how people viewed Robby Alomar back then, just 19 months ago.
The very same day, in the very same room, the GM who had just acquired Alomar, Steve Phillips, uttered these words: "Robby gives us a level of excitement and credibility -- which we needed to win over the fans." That's how people viewed Robby Alomar back then -- as Mr. Credibility.
Just 19 months ago. Boy, does this guy's world look different now, or what? In the end, he was the symbol of all the excitement and credibility that had disappeared from the Mets. In the end, he was the symbol of all the reasons Steve Phillips doesn't work in Flushing anymore.
Lots of Juan Gonzalez rumors continue to circulate (Dodgers, Diamondbacks, etc.). But there is massive skepticism that Gonzalez will ever approve any deal to go anywhere, unless he gets money or an extension out of it.
"He's a very complex, strange guy," says one baseball man. "He is an RBI guy. He does get those runs in. But he's on his own program, totally. So his market right now is not real good."
One AL scout who has known Gonzalez for years thinks he's now motivated only by money.
"I really don't think he likes to play anymore," the scout says. "The real reason he wants to stay in Texas is, he pays no state income tax there. It's all a big tax issue. When he rejected that deal to Montreal, that was all about money. He'd have gotten crushed, tax-wise, in Montreal. And it's the same situation almost anywhere else he'd go."
Robby Alomar plays for the Chicago White Sox now. And needless to say, he is the No. 1 topic in his sport this week. So let's look at all the permutations of the deal that sent him to the South Side of Chicago.
Three clubs we surveyed thought the Mets did very well in this deal, considering they had to pay $3.75 million of Alomar's remaining paychecks.
The way the Mets are figuring it, if they'd kept Alomar, let him walk after the season and then taken their two draft picks as compensation, just signing the picks would have cost close to $2.5 million. So for a million bucks and change, they get Royce Ring and Edwin Almonte, who are better-known quantities than two mysterious draftees would have been.
Almonte will probably pitch in middle relief for them at some point in the not-too-distant future. But Ring is regarded by just about everyone as surefire closer material -- and he has a chance to visit Shea Stadium pretty close to the time Armando Benitez checks out.
"Jim Duquette did his homework," says one NL executive of the Mets' interim general manager. "We like Royce Ring a lot. And we like Almonte, too. I know Ring isn't throwing like he did earlier in the year (as refelected in his 7.15 June ERA), but all I know is, he's a left-handed closer with nasty stuff. He's got a nasty breaking ball that just manhandles left-handers and right-handers."
But how good will Alomar be in Chicago? That's the question that will have the biggest impact on the pennant races.
"He could make you look real smart, or he could take you down the tubes," says one AL executive. "It all depends on how the clubhouse he goes into receives him."
A scout who covered the Mets recently says: "Maybe the bright lights (of being in a race) will pick him up. But the more I saw him, the more I thought his skills had eroded."
And one executive who has known Alomar for a decade says: "Going back with his brother is going to help him. They've had their disagreements at times. But Sandy is a guy who can get on him, and not everybody can do that with Robby."
In fact -- as Jerry Beach, Mets beat man for e-sportsny.com, points out -- nothing has motivated Robby Alomar more than the other Alomars. In 19 games as a Met against either his brother's team or his father's team, Alomar hit .377, with five homers. In his other games as a Met (and that's 203 of them), he hit only .256, with just eight homers.
But Alomar responds best to calm nurturing clubhouses. And as one AL scout observes, "the chemistry on that club he's going to is not the greatest. Contrary to public perception, Robby can be a very good person. But he can also be a very dangerous person (to team chemistry) in the wrong setting. And that's an explosive clubhouse.
"Knowing Robby, he'll be fine if they contend and play well, because that's his primary motivation. He plays to the level of the competitiveness of his team."
In retrospect, it now appears that the Indians did better in the deal that made Alomar a Met than anyone envisioned at the time.
Alex Escobar is tied for the Triple-A International League lead in home runs, is among the leaders in RBI and is finally getting his legs back -- although he still strikes out too much (90 in his first 76 games). Billy Traber has a 3.98 ERA in six big-league starts, and just shut out the Reds for seven innings last weekend. And while Matt Lawton isn't the force he used to be, he does lead the Indians in homers and RBI.
Agent Scott Boras continues to hint that he expects Kevin Millwood to get five years -- four, at the minimum -- from the Phillies or whatever other team signs him next winter. But while the Phillies remain in total no-comment mode on what kind of offer they were preparing, GMs all over the map say they would be stunned if the Phillies offered Millwood more than three years.
There are three reasons for that: 1) Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer were the only starters who even got three-year deals last winter, 2) insurance companies now won't insure pitcher contracts of longer than three years, and 3) the Phillies have too much money tied up in Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell for the next four-to-five years to hand out another contract that long to anybody.
"I don't know how it's humanly possible for them to tie up more big money going forward," says one GM. "They've got $45 million already tied up in three guys (in 2007). If you have four guys signed for that long at those dollars, you're reaching the flash point of danger. You'd basically have to play those four guys and all zero-to-three-year players to be able to afford it. But their farm system is good enough, they can probably do it."
But what many people are asking now is: Did the Indians see Alomar's fall coming?
"I never would have anticipated Robby would have that kind of collapse in performance," says Shapiro. "My impression, watching him play here, was that, until his last day as a Cleveland Indian, he was one of the best players I've ever seen."
Nevertheless, we'd all be naïve to think that Alomar's high-maintenance clubhouse persona wasn't at least some factor in the Indians' decision to trade him. They knew they needed some veterans to help stabilize their transition from one era to another, and the list of baseball people who now think they didn't want Alomar to be a role model for their young players seems to grow by the day.
Has Alomar hurt his chances of going to the Hall of Fame with his performance on baseball's most visible stage? Well, you never know. But if he retired right now, he would still be a 10-time Gold Glover and 12-time All-Star with more than 2,600 hits, 200 homers, close to 500 steals, nearly 500 doubles and a .302 career batting average. And how many other second basemen have ever matched that? How about zero.
"He's got to still be a Hall of Famer, doesn't he?" says an official of one AL team. "He's going to get 3,000 hits. So with everything else he's done, it would be hard for him not to be a Hall of Famer. But he's tainted his career now. There's no doubt about that."
Alomar also is about to head back into the free-agent market, of course. And he sure hasn't staged a real good marketing campaign the last year and a half. So it's hard to envision that even three spectacular months in Chicago can make him an $8-million player in his next deal.
"In some ways," says one executive, "he'll be next year's Kenny Lofton, because teams will be asking: 'Which player are we getting?' Are they getting a pretty good player on a real good contender? Or are they getting a negative on a bad team? Even if he plays well, there will still be some doubters."
Finally, how much better are the White Sox now, with Alomar and Carl Everett? One AL executive thinks that they're now going to win the AL Central, if only because these deals are a recognition that they'd better win now, or else.
"For one thing," the exec says, "that club needed to improve its defense up the middle, and whatever else you might think about Robby Alomar, he does that. They still have issues at shortstop and center field, no matter who plays. I'm not sure Everett is a center fielder anymore, but if you analyze their club, where else can he play?
"They're not a complete club, but they're a very compelling club. And their window is now."
White Sox GM Kenny Williams continues to say his team is built for the long haul. But he loses Bartolo Colon and Tom Gordon after this year. He has a bunch of veteran players with big paydays coming next year (Billy Koch, Mark Buehrle, Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas, Jose Valentin, Carlos Lee, Esteban Loaiza). He has traded a lot of prospects. And his most hyped young players (Joe Crede, Joe Borchard, Aaron Rowand) have been disappointing.
"So it's hard to see how they'll have the money to add anybody after this year," the exec says. "And they lose some key guys. So after this year, to me, their window closes a little bit every day."
The Braves may have the best record in the National League, but clubs that have spoken with them recently say they're quietly trying to upgrade their starting pitching. And not just a little. They've been telling other GMs they're looking for a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, if that animal is out there.
As great as the Braves have played, they've now lost games this year by scores of 20-1, 17-1 and 16-2. And their back-to-back 8-1 and 20-1 wipeouts in Florida this week may be telling us they have reason to worry.
"I don't like their pitching," says one NL scout. "(Greg) Maddux has become very human. Shane Reynolds -- the more he pitches, the more he wears down. I'm not sold on (Mike) Hampton. The only veteran starter who has pitched well is Russ Ortiz. So I think they know they're in trouble. They don't match up with the good teams, ace for ace, or even No. 2 vs. No. 2. If they make the playoffs as they're constituted now, I can't see them advancing with this pitching staff."
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are hunting for starting pitchers of just about any variety or flavor. They just checked out Mark Redman in Florida. But several clubs that have scouted Redman say that as well as he's pitched, they're worried that much of his success is due to the canyonesque Pro Player Stadium. "That's a perfect match," says one scout, "of him and that ballpark."
Even though Redman has been Florida's most consistent starter, next to Dontrelle Willis, one scout who has covered their system isn't convinced that the Marlins got the better of the deal with Detroit that brought Redman to Miami.
"Rob Henkel (5-1, 2.82 in Double-A), if he stays healthy, has got a chance to be better than Redman," the scout says. "Nate Robertson (5-6, 3.68 in Triple-A) has a history of injury, but if he stays healthy, he's got a chance to pitch in the big leagues, too. And Gary Knotts (just sent back to Triple-A Toledo) has a real good arm. He should get back there. So they'll hit on one of those three, maybe more. And if one of them does hit, they'll have somebody who's at least the equal of Redman. So if I were Detroit, I'd have done that deal also."
The big tipoff that Derrek Lee is now the favorite in The First Marlin To Get Traded derby (assuming they fall out of the race) is that Florida recently handed Miguel Cabrera a first baseman's mitt and had him start working out at first base. The Marlins have two frontline first-base prospects in the minor leagues, in Adrian Gonzalez and Jason Stokes. But they don't believe either will be ready to play in the big leagues until at least next year.
Luis Castillo is also even money to get dealt if the Marlins drop out of contention. But it hasn't escaped the attention of clubs following him that he hasn't wreaked havoc this year like he used to. In fact, he isn't even in the top 10 in the NL in stolen bases.
"He's not running as well," says one scout. "He had that hip problem at the end of last year, and he's still feeling it. He's still moving well defensively, but even there, he's not as quick as he used to be."
Now that the Phillies have heated up, they've backed off on pursuing bullpen and/or outfield reinforcements -- at least for now. For all the talk that they need to improve their bullpen, they're second in the league in bullpen ERA. And Marlon Byrd just batted .368 in June, so replacing him in center no longer seems like as big a priority, either. But stay tuned.
Maybe you see a trend here: The Mets paid just about all of Alomar's salary in order to get something decent for him. The Rangers paid virtually all of Carl Everett's salary -- and were willing to pay all of Juan Gonzalez's salary -- in order to get any kind of prospects for them. And the Yankees were able to get both Karim Garcia and Dan Miceli for an alleged "player to be named later" that isn't expected to ever be named, simply because they were willing to take those two contracts off Cleveland's ledger sheet.
So don't discount Montreal GM Omar Minaya's chances of reeling in a surprisingly big name before the deadline, assuming the Expos hang in there.
"You've got buyers out there, and you've got sellers out there," says an official of one club that has spoken with Montreal. "But the Expos aren't buying or selling. They're cutting out coupons."
After Lloyd McClendon's "go-ask-the-bleeping-players" blowup last week, following a messy Pirates loss in Montreal, we saw a new wave of speculation that McClendon's days as manager were dwindling. But GM Dave Littlefield continues to sound like a man who has no interest in firing his manager at the moment.
"The misconception here," Littlefield says, "is that, because he's on the last year of his contract, every time an issue like this pops up, everyone wants to throw it into the category of a guy who's on the last year of his contract (feeling the heat). But that's not the case. If it was, we wouldn't be in this position, with Lloyd McClendon in his last year. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Where we are is not about Lloyd McClendon. We've just got to be a lot more consistent in other areas of the game."
The other Pirates rumor that never seems to quit is Brian Giles going here, there and everywhere. The Yankees are the latest team to inquire. But Littlefield hasn't wavered in his stance on Giles, either: He needs to be blown away to deal him.
"Nothing has changed," Littlefield says. "It's the same thing in July or December, whether we're heading toward the trade deadline or the winter meetings. Brian Giles is a very attractive guy and a very good player. I need to listen if people are interested, but I'm not looking to trade him, and it's very difficult to do it. I do have to investigate what's out there. But we're trying to acquire that type of guy, not trade one."
The new wrinkles to the All-Star Game -- tying it to home-field advantage in the World Series, player voting, expanded rosters -- are an example of what can happen when the owners and players actually work together to accomplish mutual goals. But as always in this sport, the storm clouds are still floating just beyond those sunny skies.
The union continues to gather evidence to support allegations that the owners staged Collusion III with last winter's free-agent class. And sources say the union expects to decide by September whether to go full-speed-ahead on what could turn out to be the whopper of all collusion grievances.
Turns out both of those two extra All-Star roster spots on each team are going to pitchers. Dusty Baker says he's been told that of the seven players he'll be asked to add after the fan and player voting determines the first and second teams, four have to be pitchers. That means we'll now see 12-man All-Star pitching staffs instead of 10. Which Baker says he doesn't find to be much of a mystery.
"I think last year," he says of Bud Selig's favorite All-Star extravaganza, "settled that."
Phillies coaches think the event that changed their season was the June 13 brawl with Cincinnati highlighted by Mike Lieberthal's flying, open-field tackle that kept Adam Dunn from charging the mound. Through Wednesday, the Phillies were 14-3 since that game.
But Phillies players believe their pivotal moment was the June 19 comeback against John Smoltz, after Mike Hampton had no-hit them into the eighth inning.
"To get no-hit for seven innings and then come back and beat Smoltz," says Jim Thome, "that was a huge, huge win. To me, that was our turning point."
Before that game, the Phillies were playing like a team consumed by all the expectations they weren't meeting. There was nonstop talk about their disappointing offense. And they were 0-25 in games they trailed heading into the eighth inning. But that comeback seemed to lift that weight. And starting with that game, the Phillies won 10 of their next 11.
There are also baseball people who think that game took a toll on the Braves (who lost seven of their next 12).
"That Smoltz game could go down as the most significant point in both teams' seasons," says one NL scout. "That gave the Phillies an air that they could compete against anybody. And the Braves have had some ugly games since then. But to me, even a 20-1 loss is not as devastating as a loss by Smoltz."
Greg Maddux hasn't been as vocal a member of the We Hate Ques Tec Club as certain Arizona residents. But there is growing sentiment that the Ques Tec strike zone may be at least partially responsible for Maddux's struggles. His ERA is up to 4.84 (higher than Mike Maroth's). And he has given up seven runs or more four times in his first 19 starts -- compared with four times in his previous 90 starts.
"I think Ques Tec hurts what he does best," says one scout. "And that's pitch off the plate. He's throwing pitches that are balls now, that he used to get called strikes. When he has to throw his fastball over the middle of the plate, they're taking some real good swings."
Has any team, aside from the Dodgers, wasted as many great pitching performances as the Cubs? Just Kerry Wood and Mark Prior alone have made 10 starts already in which they gave up two earned runs or fewer and failed to get a win. And the whole rotation has made 20 starts like that (and 12 in which they gave up one earned run or none without winning).
"The day that (Prior) struck out 16 (Brewers) and left with the lead and didn't win the game, that was probably one of the worst feelings I ever had after a regular-season game," says Moises Alou. "I'm pulling for him to go to the All-Star Game. And if he'd won that game, he would have been 9-3, and second in the league in strikeouts and in the top five in ERA."
But even though Prior had struck out the last six hitters he faced that day, pitching coach Larry Rothschild says there were never any second thoughts about taking him out after eight innings -- and 127 pitches. It was Prior's fourth game over 120 pitches this year.
"You don't second-guess something like that, not if you have a perspective on it," Rothschild says. "Even after the seventh, we started to look at (his pitch count). For the future, and for every other reason, that was the smart move to make."
Dusty Baker has taken some heat in Chicago for allowing Wood and Prior to top 110-120 pitches regularly. They've combined for nine starts of 120 pitches-plus, 13 starts of 115-plus and 20 starts of 110-plus. But Rothschild says they've never lost sight of the big picture.
"How much pitch counts dictate health depends on the individual," he says. "We watch them. We've stayed on the five-man rotation, so we've given them extra days all the time. We're always trying to give them that extra day of rest."
Prior has made eight starts this year on more than four days' rest. Wood has made 10. All of their 120-pitch-plus games except one (by Wood) have come on days that either followed or preceded an extra day of rest.
Some people see Dontrelle Willis and think, "Vida Blue." Some people see Dontrelle Willis and think, "Fernando Valenzuela." We see Dontrelle Willis and think, "Nuke LaLoosh" -- the legendary head-swiveling left-hander from "Bull Durham." And even the Marlins aren't saying we're wrong.
"He does have a little Nuke LaLoosh in him," says Dan Jennings, the Marlins' vice president for player personnel, "except he's got better command than Nuke. I just hope he doesn't start breathing through his eyelids."
Question: Do you know me? I'm a 10-year veteran headed for my seventh straight year of double-digit wins and my seventh straight season with a winning record. I've won more than 100 games. And I have one of the 10 highest winning percentages of any active pitcher. Yet I've never made an All-Star team. Who am I?
Answer: Kirk Rueter (116-71 lifetime). Not counting Scott Erickson, Pedro Astacio and Jose Rijo -- who are all on the disabled list -- Rueter has more wins than any active pitcher who has never made an All-Star team.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
When the Mets acquired Roberto Alomar, all seemed right in New York. Instead, it was the start of a nightmare.