(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Decorative Lettuce (and the Power of Patience)

Decorative lettuce, you say?

A friend of mine is a fund manager, and in his job he evaluates the stocks of a variety of companies on a daily basis. Periodically, as an investor or potential investor, he meets with management teams of companies to kick the tires and ask them questions regarding their businesses. Very frequently, he listens in on public companies' quarterly earnings' calls, in which management teams announce the most recent quarter's earnings to the public. Typically, institutional investors and securities analysts populate these calls.

Years and years ago, a major airline held a conference tall to talk about its recent earnings and about its need to restructure and cut costs -- between $500 million and $750 million. The CEO began his presentation with a discussion of the decorative lettuce that was included with the meals that the airline served and how its elimination would save the airline about $1 million a year. The audience gasped, at least metaphorically (because the calls place the listeners on mute), and with whatever quick forms of communication they had in those days, got the word out to traders everywhere that this management team had some interesting priorities (the basic reaction was that the company had to cut between $500 million to $750 million a year in costs, and here they were talking about decorative lettuce). The stock sank rapidly that day and lost a significant amount of its value.

Which brings me to the Boston Red Sox. They announced a couple of deals yesterday, in which they acquired IF Tony Graffanino from AAAA Kansas City, journeyman OF Adam Hyzdu from San Diego (it's his fourth stint with Boston, and his claim to fame is that the's the guy who succeeded Ken Griffey, Jr. as the CF for Moeller High in Cincinnati), and OF Gabe Kapler, who cut short his journey in Japan to rejoin the BoSox. In addition, they let go Alan Embree, a one-time outstanding lefty reliever who had struggled mightily this year. You can read all about it here. Is this serious stuff, or is this just decorative lettuce?

Gotta respect the BoSox organization for what they did last year. But that was last year. And these moves, by any account, are small potatoes (they call into view the scene from "Crocodile Dundee", where a mugger wields a stiletto and, in trying to mug Crocodile Dundee, says "I've got a knife." To which the Aussie outdoorsman shrugs, pulls out a machete from his shirt and says, "That's not a knife. This is a knife." Memo to Theo Epstein: those aren't real serious moves. P.S.: Hope that the Boss of your Evil Empire doesn't acquire the equivalents of Mace Windu or Qui-Gon Jin before the trading deadline is over.

Which brings me to the franchise that still probably isn't sure whether it's a buyer or seller -- Philadelphia. The Phillies have played great since the All-Star break, even if they are pitching- challenged in a ballpark that had to have been designed by someone from Disney's theme parks (the theme here: "Home Run Derby"). They've played well with their big free agent signee, Jon Lieber, on the DL, with solid if inconsistent lefty Randy Wolf on the DL, with their bullpen still figuring itself out, and with Paul Bunyan, err, 1B Jim Thome, on the DL. They have plenty of excuses if they lose, but they're finding reasons to win.

Exhibit A: Ryan Howard. Howard is the 1B prospect who hit 40-plus HRs at AA and AAA last season, and was hitting about .380 at AAA this season, but found himself stuck behind Jim Thome with nowhere to go in Philadelphia, because he's not OF material. There were tons of articles about how Father Time was working against the Phillies, how they should have traded him when he was red hot last year, when his market value was at its highest, how the Phillies were simply failing to leverage on of their best assets -- the right to Howard. The jury is still out on that one, of course, but the Phillies and their fans are grateful when the injury-plagued Thome went down that the organization still had Howard. Last night, he got off to a woeful start, and he struck out the first three times he faced Dodger pitching. Showing the patience of a veteran, Howard hung in there and hit a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the tenth to give the Phillies the win.

Now, the Phillies may not have the magical mojo of the Nationals, who seem run-challenged enough that they'll fade like a rabbit in a 1,500 meter race, and they may not have the history of the Braves. But they seem better equipped right now than the Marlins, who can't piece together consistent efforts, and the Mets, who can't seem to take that big step forward. Will they be there in September? Who knows, but for Phillies' fans, it's good to even have this conversation than to start talking about the Eagles in July.

Will they make a move? As buyers? As sellers? It's hard to say. They definitely have some talent to trade, but they have to tread carefully here. They don't have the deepest organization, and trading a Cole Hamels or Gavin Floyd to rent a pitcher for a half season might prove to be a big mistake for the franchise.

Then again, for a franchise that has had a woeful amount to be excited about in its 100-plus-year history, a trade that could land a Jason Schmidt and help the Phillies finish off the Nationals and Braves down the home stretch would be very tempting.

The Phillies' fans have had years and years of decorative lettuce and other questionably appetizing meals (if you had eaten what they called pizza at The Vet, you know what I mean). Now it's time for GM Ed Wade to serve up the big bash and prove to the doubting fans once and for all that when it's time to make a move, the Phillies can.


Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Sorry to disagree, but this Phillies team is built to win between 75 and 85 games - nothing more or less. They are not one player away from going to the big show.

If I'm the Phillies' owners - and part of the problem is that they have LOTS of small ownership interests there and not a single point of action - I'm a seller in the trading deadline market. I'd have Thome and Bell and Lieberthal on the "available list". Any aspiring team that wants one of these guys need only make a sensible offer. I'd trade Wagner too, but I'd want more in return for Wagner than the other three.

If you want to feel depressed, go and check out some of the "deadline deals" that the Phils have pulled off in recent years. Let's just say that the guys they have acquired at that point in recent seasons could beat your typical team taken from a morgue - but that's about it.

9:41 AM  

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