In the week when Keith Foulke was making up his mind between Oakland and Boston, Yankees GM Brian Cashman made one of the most significant pre-emptive strikes of the offseason. Cashman knew that the fallback plan for both his rivals was Tom Gordon, so he put the heat on Gordon to get him signed before the Foulke loser could move.
Octavio Dotel was shaky in his Oakland debut.
Not only has Gordon turned out to be one of the game's most dominant setup men and one of the Yankees' most valuable players, but it left Oakland with the alternative of Arthur Rhodes. When Billy Beane traded third baseman Mark Teahen and pitcher Mike Wood to get Octavio Dotel, the bullpen led by Rhodes and other A's relievers had kept them from getting any momentum. "I thought Billy made a mistake on Rhodes in the first place," says another AL GM, "but give him credit -- he admitted that mistake and moved right on."
On the Saturday that Dotel made his A's debut, blew a four-run ninth inning lead yet still came out with the victory, Texas, Oakland, Anaheim, Minnesota, Chicago and Boston were all within 2½ games of one another in the race for the three postseason slots to try to keep the Yankees out of the World Series. With Tim Hudson, Rich Harden and Eric Chavez all sidelined with varied injuries and the depth of good teams at the top of the league so strong, no one knows whether or not the Dotel trade will put Oakland in the playoffs for the fifth straight season. "It was a move we had to make," says Beane, just as Gerry Hunsicker knew that he had to take the calculated gamble of dealing Dotel and catcher John Buck for a very talented summer rental in Carlos Beltran.
"Gerry deserves the credit," says Beane. "After it had gone dead, he called me (Thursday morning) and said, 'let's revisit this deal and get it done. It makes sense for all of us.' " So some money got laundered and moved around and it was done.
Allard Baird had determined a week earlier that he had to move on from Beltran and the 2004 disappointment and begin re-designing the Royals for 2005. So he prioritized his third base shopping list. At the tip was David Wright of the Mets. Jim Duquette informed him Wright was untradeable. "When I saw Teahen in Sacramento," he says, "I really liked what I saw. I think he's going to hit, eventually hit for power and defend. I think he's got a chance to be a special player."
Those who are deathly afraid of "Moneyball" will hate to hear that one of the 2002 Moneyball draftees got Oakland a top closer thanks to a general manager (Baird) who is first and foremost a scout, but that's the way it all works. Baird focused first on Teahen, then wanted a catcher, so for a week that's where all the focus lay. The Royals were not enamored with Oakland's Double-A catcher John Baker, so the catcher had to come from a third source.
Beane tried the Dodgers, for reliever Guillermo Mota and catcher Koyie Hill. Didn't work. Baird tried to work in the Red Sox, who lusted for Beltran. While the Royals liked catcher Kelly Shoppach and third baseman Kevin Youkilis, Baird was intent on Teahen, which meant that to make the deal, Oakland would have to accept Scott Williamson for Teahen. The A's did not consider Williamson a closer, especially after shoulder problems during the season; and the Red Sox would trade two of the three for a rental, but not all three (Beane did want Youkilis, not only to fill while Chavez is out, but as a keeper whose value would be clearer next season). Then, when the Houston deal accelerated, Oakland stalled the process by refusing to include 21-year old reliever Jairo Garcia (0.30 ERA, 16 H, 49/2 K/BB at Class A before being moved to Midland) in the trade.
Because George Steinbrenner was so concerned about the Red Sox acquiring Beltran, Cashman had to keep his hand in the fire, although he preferred monitoring the pitching market. Kansas City wouldn't accept infielder Robinson Cano to go with catcher Dioner Navarro. The only way their three-way deal would have worked was to trade Navarro and Gordon, which the Yankees refused to do, so late Wednesday night Baird told the Yankees that if the Astros and Dodgers three-way deals were indeed dead, then Beltran was headed to Boston for Shoppach and Youkilis.
Hunsicker saved the Dotel deal. Theo Epstein, meanwhile, was disappointed. "I still believe our package was better than what they received," said one Boston official. "But we'll move on." Part of the disappointment lay in the fact that at the time of the trade the Red Sox were playing dysfunctionally, and since their April sweep of the Yankees at Yankee Stadium were 10 games behind the team with an ownership that built an obsessive marketing campaign. For the time being, the Red Sox are looking at first-base possibilities other than Mike Sweeney, whose contract they cannot take on, at least for now; and that could change, depending on a pitching staff that should be built for October, if they get there.
So, now that Dotel is done, who's next? "With only five or six teams out of it before this week, the market seemed thin," says one GM. "But the market is very fluid. ... The Astros got Beltran, and lost a couple of games. This was a great shot by Houston to get back into it with the Cubs and Cardinals, but if a month from now they're still struggling, he could be back on the market."
There has been a presumption that Freddy Garcia was the lone bear in the pitching market before being traded to the White Sox. But the fluid market has other possibilities. The Braves, who are under .500, could move free agent Russ Ortiz if things don't improve as they get healthy. John Schuerholz is reportedly already trying to get out from under the last three years of Andruw Jones' contract, with rumors in Chicago of an Jones-Magglio Ordonez discussion (and, yes, J.D. Drew is a free agent). After a dreadful week, Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta now wonders if he'll be a buyer or a seller, and if he is the latter, might have to consider deadline deals for free agents Adrian Beltre and Odalis Perez, or outfielder Dave Roberts, who'd be a terrific acquisition for a contender. All along, it had been assumed that the Dodgers would move next month on Carlos Delgado -- who may be talked out of his no-trade cluase by his close friend Shawn Green -- but if the Dodgers aren't in it, why bother?
Montreal may have to take offers on Tony Armas Jr. as well as Orlando Cabrera, if he proves he is as healthy as he appeared Thursday. Omar Minaya had inquiries on Brad Wilkerson, and refused to talk, figuring he wants every possible good player in Washington next season. Pittsburgh will trade Kris Benson, who has thrown the ball very well his last two starts. If something unforeseen happened and the Padres fell out of it, they would see what kind of bidding war they could get for David Wells, a proven October player who might pitch his behind off to beat the Yankees. Detroit has not sought discussions on Mike Maroth and Ugueth Urbina (and reportedly turned down Gil Meche for Brandon Inge trade), but that could change. The Blue Jays say they will not deal Miguel Batista or Ted Lilly, for now. Infielders that are free agents? Placido Polanco and Juan Castro.
"There are going to be bats," says one GM, "like Matt Stairs, Frank Catalanotto, Delgado, Danny Bautista." Sure, the Padres would love Steve Finley to waive his no-trade and come to San Diego. Boston has inquired on Catalanotto, now on the disabled list; when the Jays were trying to move Catalanotto to Florida last August, the deal fell through when Boston blocked Catalanotto by putting in a waiver claim.
This may turn out to be more interesting than last season.
What makes a successful closer
One of Oakland's original thoughts was to make Harden the closer and put Joe Blanton in the rotation, but the feeling in the organization is that Harden is still a work in progress and his one-bad-inning syndrome is a function of his erratic command. It's easy to say go find a closer, but look at the Twins: they tried to re-sign Eddie Guardado, tried to sign Urbina and handed the job to Joe Nathan -- whom they acquired to take LaTroy Hawkins' place in the eighth inning. Presto. Nathan is a monster who keeps getting better and makes the Twins increasingly difficult to beat the remainder of the season.
Incidentally, Glavine, with 258 wins, has passed Bob Gibson, Ted Lyons and Carl Hubbell on the all-time list. If he wins 20 this season, he will also pass Bob Feller, Jim Palmer and Burleigh Grimes as he walks on to Cooperstown.
A quick poll of pitching people shows Nathan fulfills all the requisites in a closer. They are:
1. The ability to command the fastball on the outside corner, particularly down.
2. The ability to repeat both command and stuff, two and three days in a row.
3. Some kind of swing-and-miss pitch, which Nathan is developing with his slider. Tom Gordon's cutter is that kind of pitch. The aberration is Milwaukee's Danny Kolb, with his 21-8 save-strikeout ratio. Kolb is a ground ball machine (4.07 GB/FB), and Doug Melvin says, "his ball moves so much that he gets a lot of ugly swings." Some might think that 21-for-22 in save situations is something to watch because he doesn't get strikeouts.
4. Heart. No fear of the ninth inning.
The notion of closer by committee was based on having your best power pitcher available at the most important point in the game. If Gordon or a 1996 Mariano Rivera or Felix Rodriguez is your best and you have the Troy Percival or John Wetteland at the end, that's the real committee.
The midseason myth?
Do we make too much of these deals? If a combination of Garcia, Ortiz, Wells, Perez and Benson were to be traded to contenders, indeed they might make a difference. But check this:
Question. How many times has a starter picked up in season helped his team win the World Series?
Answer. Tom Zachary was picked up on waivers from the Washington Senators in August, 1928 by the New York Yankees. In October of that year, he won a start for the Yankees in the World Series.
Since then only one pitcher has been traded in season to a World Series winner and also won a World Series start for his new team. That was Mike Torrez, who was traded to the Yankees from Oakland on April 27th, 1977. He went on to win two games of the 1977 Series including a complete-game clincher in Game 6. Oakland was 11-7 at the time of the trade.
(Courtesy of Robert Tresca, Newton, Mass.)
The fact remains that Jeff Suppan was the big pitching item of last season's trading deadline, and he was dropped off Boston's playoff roster. There have been midseason trades that made significant differences in pennant races: Mike Boddicker (1988), David Cone (1992 and 1995), Randy Johnson (1998), Jason Isringhausen (1998), Jason Schmidt (1991); the 1999 deal for Curt Schilling panned out with a world championship two years later. Some deals for veteran players have altered races, like Fred McGriff off the San Diego fire sale of '93, Jermaine Dye (1999), David Justice (2000), Ray Durham (2002), Shannon Stewart (2003); the Cardinals deal for Scott Rolen in 2002 was a Philadelphia exit thing rather than a deadline deal, although it was a great trade for Walt Jocketty. Sometimes a team like the White Sox does the right thing, as they did in 2003 when they got Carl Everett, Roberto Alomar, Scott Schoeneweis and Scott Sullivan, and things don't work.
And sometimes the prospects really turn out to be players, like Jeff Bagwell, Michael Young, Brad Penny, Jack Wilson (for Jason Christianson), Preston Wilson, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Tony Armas, Melvin Mora, Jeremy Bonderman and the 2002 Cleveland heist (see below), while sometimes the prospects have to move again before they develop, like Schmidt and Jeff Kent.
The four teams that tried to re-stock last season were the Rangers, Mets, Orioles and Pirates, while the Reds were essentially trying to pare payroll. The Rangers got Adrian Gonzalez and Frankie Francisco (whom the White Sox had acquired from Boston for Bobby Howry) and believe they will get eventual help from LHP Ryan Snare, RHP Josh Rupe, RHP Ricardo Rodriguez and OF Will Smith. The Mets think Victor Diaz can hit (position unknown), and like the potential arms of Kole Strayhorn, Joselo Diaz and Royce Ring, with potential the operative word. The Pirates thus far have gotten little out of Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez, but are hopeful on Oliver Perez's extraordinary arm and Jason Bay's bat. Baltimore was disappointed that Kurt Ainsworth got hurt, then moved Denny Bautista for Jason Grimsley.
Check the accompanying box and see what the A's got for Mark McGwire, then appreciate that three years later they began a four-year postseason run.