SportsProf

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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Fear of Fleecing

The ominpresence of the media in baseball (and many other parts of public life) does have its (perhaps unintended) effects. General managers like to make striking trades in baseball, trades that involve more than the free agent signing of Roberto Hernandez or trading a 27 year-old AA player for Shawn Estes. They want to spring that one position player who can help ignite their sometimes-moribund lineup, or they want to acquire that craft thirty-six year-old lefty starter who can go about seven every now and then (and hopefully every fifth day) to tantalize the opposition, which otherwise is used to a diet of flamethrowing righties.

They also want to demonstrate to the manager, coaching staff and guys on the team that they have done everything in their power to improve their lineup and to add some gas in the tank. Bring over a marquis name who can start a fire, and perhaps the rest of the team will feed off the acquisition. It's happened before.

What's also happened is that some of the players traded to get that spark plug, or, that one guy who will help put you over the top because he's that extra reliever, have turned out to be almost surefire Hall of Famers. Years ago the BoSox needed some help in the bullpen and traded a AA first basemen for now-Phillies broadcaster, then set-up man, Larry Andersen. You all know his name -- Jeff Bagwell. (Andersen didn't pan out the way the BoSox wanted to). Years before that, the Detroit Tigers traded a single A pitcher to Atlanta for starting pitcher Doyle Alexander, and Alexander helped march the Tigers to a division title by going something like 9-0 down the stretch. That trade did work out well at the time. The Class A pitcher's name was John Smoltz.

This morning we all woke up and found out that the biggest news was that the Orioles and Rockies swapped mediocre outfielders (Larry Bigbie for Eric Byrnes) and that the Yankees acquired Shawn Chacon to help fortify a bullpen that is very iffy before the eighth inning. The proposed blockbuster that would send four prospects to the D-Rays, Manny Ramirez to the Mets and Mike Cameron and Aubrey Huff to the Red Sox has hit a snag (as reported on ESPN).

Complicating the fact is that certain teams don't know whether to be buyers or sellers. Take Philadelphia, for example. The Phillies, going into last night, were tied for last in the NL East, but only 6 games out of first. Their pitching staff has been riddled with injuries, their best pitching prospects are too hurt (Cole Hamels) or too confused (Gavin Floyd) to help now, and they could use a starter. Or perhaps two. Their "franchise" player, Jim Thome, has been on the DL for a while, and their best player, OF Bobby Abreu, has been in an awful slump since winning the All-Star weekend's HR contest in Secretariat-like fashion. They have some live bats in the lineup (Chase Utley immediately comes to mind), but it isn't the same without a healthy Thome.

And they have the hottest commodity out there, a pitcher who was voted in this past week's SI as having the best fastball in the game, closer Billy Wagner. The Red Sox and White Sox would get into a dramatic bidding war for his services, and the Phillies could re-load for next year, get Thome healthy (assuming he's still in the picture), get Randy Wolf healthy and Jon Lieber and Vicente Padilla fully straightened out and have a nice-looking team for '06, especially because they could add perhaps three prospects to the mix in a Wagner trade (although the reports I've read have indicated that the Phillies were asking "too much" for Wagner). Still, it's tempting.

But then there's the overall credibility problem. Any franchise would feel the heat if they threw in the towel and traded their closer, one of the game's best, when they're only 6 games out on August 1 (the ChiSox did that about 10 years ago when they traded about six players to the Giants when they were only 3 1/2 games or so out of first). The Phillies would especially feel it, because their credibility is so low with the fans anyway (the front office's credibility, that is) for a whole host of reasons I've written about before and won't repeat at this time. Trade Wagner, trade Thome even (were there to be any takers, and that's doubtful because of his contract and because he's hurt), and you're sending a message that you're rebuilding, and that could make it harder to sign attractive free agents, many of whom, you'd think, would want to join a contender. Then again, some AL team might want Thome (and you can unload a portion of his salary), and Wagner is a free agent after this year and has hinted that he wants to be on a contender. Tempting to trade them, isn't it?

What do you do?

Ed Wade, the Phillies' GM, hasn't been shy about making trades our about signing free agents. To his credit (in the sense that he hasn't always sat still), he's made some bold moves, but they've almost always occurred in the off-season. During the season, he hasn't done much to help his club during his seven-year tenure, usually making small moves, with his biggest one last year being the addition of career journeyman C Kelly Stinnett. The big trades that were made during the season in the past -- unloading Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen -- were unmitigated disasters. The Phillies' top prospects -- 1B Ryan Howard and pitchers Hamels and Floyd -- are being treated with such reverence that they might be held onto for too long (that's a much better argument in Howard's case than for the two hurlers). The team needs something other than the passage of time to get everyone healthy. Will they have the guts to go out and get it?

Sure, big contracts and the luxury tax have made the matter more complicated, but what's confounding is that almost every major league team save about four or five is in the hunt as of this date, and there has been almost no movement. The GMs are not stupid people, that's for sure, and most have to know the flaws of their teams. They need help to get away from the pack or to get ahead in the wild-card hunt, and they know it.

But they're still not making deals. Perhaps it's because there are so many "contenders" as it were that it's become a hotter market for sellers anywhere other than in residential real estate in New York City. Correspondingly, if so many teams believe they're in the hunt, they won't be willing to make a trade that ultimately could weaken their squad.

In other words, some of these contenders are hanging on by a thread.

And, to boot, they're afraid of being fleeced in their desperation to deliver a playoff team.

The ghost of Larry Andersen is a alive and well.

And the pennants races will be something to behold, wars of attrition more than thoroughbreds leaving opponents in the dust. Reports from the trainers' rooms will get top attention, as more pitchers and position players will be asked to wave the bloody sock made famous by Curt Schilling, rub on some liniment (or have cadaver skin sewn to their ankles to keep balky tendons in place), show up in the bullpen after going eight innings two days earlier or play with a hamstring so battered that one lunge for a ball in the gap could require surgery.

Which means, if you're a Cardinals' fan, you have to like your chances (I'd same the same about the White Sox, but with Frank Thomas gone for the year, it's a different team).

And, if you're almost everyone else, get out your good luck charms and make offerings to the baseball gods.

Because it appears as of this morning that your home team's GM will have very little to offer you.

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