Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 23, 2000
BASEBALL: Sammy Sosa For Trot Nixon?
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
This column is a companion piece to Sports Guy's feature on in-season trades from last Friday. My own take on such trades is that you usually make the Mike Boddicker and Doyle Alexander trades to push for a division title -- even though they both sounded pretty dumb around 1996, when John Smoltz was the Cy Young, Brady Anderson hit 50 homers, and Curt Schilling was emerging as a dominant power pitcher.
As a Mets fan in the 1980s, I used to be more down on dealing prospects because prospects are a cheap, renewable resource; use them as the Indians and Braves did in the mid-90s (Chipper, Thome, Manny, Javy, Millwood, Colon) and you can basically replace an aging contender with a younger one without missing a beat. The alternative, I thought at the time, was the 80s Yankees: forever bringing in Winfields and Griffeys and Hendersons and Don Baylors and Jack Clarks, shipping out young pitchers like Doug Drabek, Bob Tewksbury and Jose Rijo and forever mired in second place until they gradually sunk back into the cellar.
Experience has changed that view. First of all, I watched almost every Mets prospect of the past 6 years (other than Alfonzo) be destroyed by injury, often at the AA or AAA level. (Cue up the theme music, to the tune of the Go-Gos “Vacation”: “Jay Payton on the disabled list! Jay Payton needs to have surgery!”) I was less upset when the Mets made the Hampton trade (giving up two potential stars for a free agent pitcher and an outfielder who might or might not have one last good year left), because who knows whether Octavio Dotel can stay healthy?
Today’s high-offense environment -- in which pitchers throw more pitches per inning to increasingly-selective, ibcreasingly-powerful hitters -- has made it more difficult to break in talented young pitchers without injury or horrific ineffectiveness (Jeff Suppan anyone?). And the increase in homers has extended the productive phase of power hitters’ careers into their thirties. As a result, trading young arms and injury-prone outfield prospects for established stars is a more sensible gamble than it was ten years ago. If I was the Yankees, I’d even have to consider dealing Nick Johnson, who looks for all the world like a young Jeff Bagwell and has even drawn comparisons to Lou Gehrig, because Johnson has never been healthy for a full season and may never be (ditto the Mets and Alex Escobar).
As Mets fans learned after 1990 and Mariners fans may see after 2000, even teams with a core of young talent can see their window of opportunity close in a hurry for many reasons. True fans would rather live with the championship and the consequences than spend years afterwards wondering “what if we’d added one more bat...”
There are still three exceptions:
--1. As the Cubs have learned in the ugly aftermath of 1998, it's not worth it to load up on expensive and rapidly declining veterans just to win a wild card race when you have no chance of advancing in the playoffs. You sell the future for the star pitcher who can help you win it all; you do not sell the future for Larry Andersen when you expect to get clobbered by the Bash Brothers in the ALCS.
--2. You don’t make these deals if you can’t afford to pay the guys you trade for. The Expos couldn’t re-sign Mark Langston in 1989, so they looked like idiots for giving up on Randy Johnson in the years before he was arbitration-eligible. Ditto the Astros for acquiring Johnson. Re-sign him, and the Astros would have had a second shot at the brass ring.
--3. If your core talent is all young and improving and you think you can pay them to stay put, I would still prefer to plan long-range (the current A’s come to mind here, though less of the production on that team comes from the youngsters than you think). Smoltz-for-Alexander made sense for an aging Tiger team in its next-to-last year as a contender in 1987; it would not have been a good deal had the Tigers been going for it in 1980, with Whitaker/Trammell/Gibson/Morris/Parrish all young and improving. At that point you focus on building a superior team because it increases your odds at winning it all at least once. That's the primary goal.
But such teams are rare. The current Red Sox are almost entirely built on key contributors 30 and under, but the team is still critically dependent on Pedro, Nomar and Carl Everett... and Pedro and Everett are unlikely to stay where they are for too many more years.
Now, I’ve underestimated Pedro’s durability and capacity for improvement before. When the Sox traded for him, I expected him to be a Saberhagen/Guidry type, a guy who goes 22-6, 2.20 ERA one year and 7-9, 4.10 and two months on the DL the next. Even so, there are limits to how long anyone can stay this dominant -- if he keeps up his current pace and Randy Johnson doesn’t, he will eclispse Walter Johnson’s 1913 as the most dominant pitching season ever, which already puts him in a class of one -- and limits how many years a relatively undersized power pitcher can go deep into games and deep into the playoffs without any visible wear and tear.
(Tuesday Pedro threw 117 pitches while nursing an injury, and we remember the risks he ran in contorting himself to pitch in pain in Game 5 against the Indians. You can only do that so many times before it catches up to you, as it did with Dizzy Dean. As for Everett, his offense this season is way ahead of even the last two, and do not forget that he is 29 years old and has never topped 470 at bats in a season due to injuries.)
Bottom line: the Sox have horses now that they may not have in two years. It’s worth rolling the dice a bit to bring in some help. Also, maybe things have changed since I left Boston four years ago, but it wasn’t so long ago that most Red Sox fans would have given their right arm for a guy who could bring a World Championship to Fenway – but not Trot Nixon?
So, the Sox should make a blockbuster deal, if the right one is available. So should the Mets, who are built around thirtysomething veterans, including a catcher with a high odometer and a free agent No. 1 starter. And so should the Yankees, who are long in the tooth but always a threat to hoist another of their $#!#$@!% pennants. As for the Braves and Indians, they have different needs and are both battling age in key areas; the Indians increasingly look like their window may already have closed.
But is the right deal trading for Sammy Sosa?
Clearly, Sosa would help each of the New York teams in 2000 and 2001; he's far better than anyone in the Mets’ outfield, and easily better than the Yankee OF/DHs except for Bernie. Both teams could pay him and both teams have enough prospects to make it happen.
As for the Red Sox, Sosa is also a better player than Trot Nixon -- even with Nixon’s improvement this year, Sosa has 20 homers and 64 RBI this season, while Nixon has 22 and 90 in his career. Sosa’s slugging percentage is 100 points higher, his on base percentage 25 points higher (if you are wondering, both players are bucking their career trends by hitting much better on the road than at home this season). Nixon looks better in the field, and the numbers back that up: he has no errors this year to Sammy’s 5, and his range factor (the number of plays he makes per 9 innings in the field, the best measure of defensive effectiveness) is 2.25 to Sammy’s 2.02. But that’s not a big enough difference to offset Sosa’s advantage with the bat. And the fact that Nixon will probably be better two years from now is irrelevant to this season’s hunt; remember, if the White Sox had won the World Series with George Bell, they wouldn’t be embarrassed now about trading Sosa for him.
The key things you need to remember about trades: What are the available alternatives, what other holes do you need to fill with your available trade bait, and who else is on the market? Obviously there are other players on the block and everyone is keeping one eye on the free agent crop due up in the fall; it wouldn't make sense to raoe your farm system for Gonzalez when you could just sign him after the season.
The wild card in all this is Baltimore. Have you ever been in a rotisserie baseball league with a guy who can really improve his team by trading, and he is sitting on a whole bunch of the most marketable players in the league, the guys everyone wants... and he still won’t make a deal? The Orioles are that guy. They won’t win anything this year and they keep getting worse. Their roster is a Who's Who of veterans who would help any contender in a pennant race: Mussina, Belle, Erickson, DeShields, Brady, Surhoff, Clark, Bordick, Timlin, maybe Baines. Wouldn’t the Yankees kill for Delino DeShields right now? And who couldn't use Erickson? According to Peter Gammons, Erickson probably needs to be dealt in the next 2 weeks, before he becomes a 10-and-5 man July 5. But there they sit, and nobody knows if they are even answering the phone.
If we assume that the O’s would be in the market, of course, Mussina and Belle would have to be part of the equation. Mussina and Brad Radke are the top starters available, although the Cubs and Phillies have some people who might be helpful. As for Belle, he and Juan Gonzalez are both better hitters than Sosa, and amazingly -- (given that Sammy was a good centerfielder not so many years ago -- they're more reliable now in the field. Belle appears to be warming up to one of his famous rest-of-the-year hot streaks. He and Sosa have an advantage in being virtually indestructable, while Gonzalez gets hurt a lot. Belle and Gonzalez may also be less of a distraction, in their own way; they are harder guys to get along with than the gregarious Sosa, but they are also both happy to be left alone to just play the game.
More to the point, Gonzalez is clearly on the market, probably coming cheaper than Sosa (since the Tigers are facing getting nothing for him, plus they are run by an imbecile who can be persuaded to deal for guys who just sort of look like good players) and there’s no need to pay him to stick around next year (we will forget for the moment how he hits against the Yankees in October).
The long-range hazard with Sammy is this: you tie up a bunch of money in him and in three years, he's Jose Canseco and has 4 years at $17 million per to go. If you're the Yanks, that adds to the hassle of paying Jeter (who sure deserves more $$ than the Slammer), and if you're the Mets, you are saving every penny to make sure that you can either sign A-Rod or force the Braves to spend so much to sign him that they have to convert CNN to pay per view and charge rates for AOL that would make Exxon blush.
The real reason the Sox should blanch at giving up Trot Nixon is that they still have bigger problems: a cavity in left field and a shortage of dependable starting pitchers. Upgrading from Darren Lewis to a reputable left fielder (unless Troy O’Leary can stage a second-half revival) is far more important than replacing a productive Nixon with a major star. Beyond San Pedro de Fenway, the rest of the Sox starting rotation is guys who might need to be replaced by the end of this season, let alone next.
If I'm Dan Duquette, I would make the Sosa deal if you could do it for prospects, even if it meant coughing up an awful lot of them, but losing Nixon would wipe out a lot of the short-term value. That’s why Gonzalez is the guy the Sox should go after: the Tigers may be more willing than the Cubs to accept a package of over-hyped Asian pitching prospects and Dernell Stenson. Unfortunately, Steve Lomasney or Hatteberg won’t entice the Tigers, since they already are overloaded with catching prospects.
The Mets and Yanks could also use some pitching help, which may deter them from . The Mets will only need their 4 good starters in the playoffs, but in a tough wild card hunt they have to stop experimenting with disastrous visits to Bobby Jones University every five days. The Yankees are discovering what made “thirtysomething” so depressing after a couple of years.
So, everyone could use Sammy – but suddenly he looks a lot like a guy who’s staying put. My predictions...
* The O’s will stand pat, maybe trading only Surhoff to Boston and Erickson to the Mets or to one of the NL West contenders.
* The Yankees will get Juan Gonzalez, and give up on Sosa. The Indians will get Curt Schilling. Gonzalez will be a success and Schilling a failure.
* If Brad Radke gets traded he will go to Oakland.
* Atlanta will add a pitcher, maybe Andy Ashby, and will end up exiling John Rocker.
* And that would leave Sosa going to the Mets, the Diamondbacks – or staying home.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION