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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential: Hot Stove League Edition - 12/03/2002

The off-season dance, slow and irregular, has become a familiar refrain to major league baseball. Teams are trying to cut payroll, agents are feeling out the market, and fans are becoming restless. Still, with the winter meetings scheduled to begin on December 13, we can expect player movement to increase in the coming days and weeks. With that in mind, let’s consider the few names who have changed uniforms, along with some who might be moving along very shortly…

The Scent of Colon: The Bartolo Colon-to-the-Yankees rumors don’t mean anything until Expos general manager Omar Minaya has been given some specific budgetary limits by Major League Baseball. If MLB allows the Expos to keep their current payroll intact, Colon won’t be going anywhere, because Minaya believes that the Expos can contend for the wild card, if not the division title in what figures to be a shaky National League East… If MLB mandates a payroll reduction, Minaya will consider any and all offers for Colon, who finally emerged as a 20-game winner in 2002. So what would Colon be worth on the open trade market? If the Yankees’ initial offer of Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera is any indication, Minaya may be able to extract a treasure trove of talent in return for Colon. (According to one rumor, the Yankees are even prepared to include Orlando Hernandez in the deal, which makes one wonder when Colon became the next incarnation of Bob Feller.) The Yankees, however, appear to be overbidding in their efforts to acquire a staff anchor still in his twenties. Right now, Johnson and Rivera are slated to play regularly in 2003, which translates into giving up two potential (and inexpensive) everyday players for a pitcher who carries some disturbing baggage with his talented right arm. The 29-year-old Colon, who will turn 30 in late May, is two years older than originally thought, one of many Latin American players to fib about their ages and then find themselves caught in the act of “Tianting” (remember Luis Tiant) or “Paiging” (Satchel Paige) their birthdates. In addition, Colon can become a free agent after 2003, making his long-term future in Pinstripes an uncertainty. And even if the Yankees can re-sign Colon, the overweight right-hander’s lack of conditioning could precipitate a fast decline in his early 30s. If the Yankees aren’t careful, they could win up with the new millennium’s version of Mickey Lolich or Sid Fernandez, standout pitchers in their twenties who fell off quickly as thirtysomething heavyweights. Lolich’s last dominant season took place in 1972, when he was 31 years old. Fernandez last pitched effectively in 1993, when he was only 30. … So, if a package of Johnson and Rivera is too much of a payoff on a questionable Colon, what should the Yankees do about acquiring a quality young pitcher? They might be well-advised to offer either Johnson or Rivera (but certainly not both) and include lower-notch prospects like Erick Almonte and Marcus Thames in a package for Colon. If the Expos decline that offer, the Yankees can always turn to Montreal’s Tony Armas (who figures to come cheaper than Colon) or the Phillies (for Randy Wolf or Brandon Duckworth). In the case of the Phillies, Andy Pettitte might just be part of a deal; the Phillies have coveted the Yankees’ left-hander since the middle of the 1999 season…

Best-Selling Thome: On the surface, the Phillies’ signing of free agent slugger Jim Thome adds a much-needed middle-of-the-order to bat to supplement the potent duo of Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell. In the short term, (at least once he gets past the adjustment period of facing National League pitching), Thome will help the Phillies win four or five more games, while also putting themselves in position to trade Jeremy Giambi or Travis Lee for an outfielder, preferably one who can play center field and bat leadoff. Yet, the Phillies might have been better off taking the money they will have to pay Thome and using it to sign a free agent leadoff man like the underrated Ray Durham, playing a patient slugger like Giambi at first base, and using Lee as a part-time outfielder and defensive caddy in the late innings… Over the long haul, the Phillies will probably regret this signing. Although Thome led the American League in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), he’s already 32, has put weight on in recent years, struggled with a bad back in 2002, and has no DH fallback in case he’s plagued by nagging injuries that prevent him from playing the field. By 2006, Thome’s six-year, $87 million contract could be one of the game’s largest albatrosses…

Cracked Bell?: The word “tweener” is often used to describe a player in basketball who has the skills to play one position well, but whose lack of size mandates that he play somewhere else. The same word isn’t used very often in baseball—where height and size don’t really matter—but it fits perfectly in describing the Phillies’ other recent free agent acquisition, David Bell. The veteran infielder, who decided to leave the National League champion Giants for a four-year deal in Philadelphia, is an excellent defensive third baseman who doesn’t really hit that well for a position that usually requires 25-30 home run potential or a high on-base percentage. Ideally, Bell’s level of power would make him productive for a position like second base, a spot that he can play (he can turn the double play as well as most fulltime middle infielders), but not as effectively as the hot corner… Still, the signing of Bell isn’t a bad move. He will come a lot closer to matching the defensive brilliance of predecessor Scott Rolen than Placido Polanco did, and might enable the Phillies to use Polanco in the super-utility role that allowed him to flourish in St. Louis. Like Jim Thome, Bell is also a high-character guy (and yes, do believe in character), a hard-working, all-out type of player who should have no trouble playing for a straight-forward, in-your-face manager like Larry Bowa. And come to think of it, those positive character traits should help Bell deal with the high demands of Philadelphia’s frenetic fan base… By the way, the Phillies’ revamped infield now looks like this: Thome (1b), Marlon Anderson/Polanco (2b), Jimmy Rollins (ss), and Bell (3b)…

Remembering Lefty Mac: He was never as famous as Hall of Fame teammates like Jim Palmer or Brooks and Frank Robinson, or as popular as an everyman like Boog Powell, but Dave McNally was a crucial component to the Baltimore Orioles’ dynastic run from 1966 to 1971. McNally, who died after a five-year battle with lung cancer at the age of 60, was the Orioles’ most consistent starter—though not their most dominant—during that span of six seasons. Stylistically, he pitched like Whitey Ford and Eddie Lopat—or like Mike Flanagan and Tom Glavine in more modern times—spotting a decent fastball while fooling hitters with rolls of curve balls and change-ups…. Although McNally was one of the game’s best left-hand pitchers of the late sixties and early seventies, piling up four consecutive 20-win seasons from 1968 to 1971, he was humble about his achievements. When a reporter from Sports Collectors Digest once asked him if he had a shot to make the Hall of Fame, Mac offered an honest response: “I don’t think so. I didn’t have enough wins (184 in 14 seasons). Sandy Koufax had only 165 wins, but he was really dominating. I think a pitcher has to be in the neighborhood of 250 wins unless some rare thing went with it. I think the Hall of Fame has done a tremendous job making sure it’s not easy to get in.”… McNally’s selflessness matched his modesty. In 1975, the Expos offered him a contract paying him $125,000, which would have been one of the highest salary figures of the day. Yet, McNally refused to sign, in part because he felt the Expos had reneged on some other aspects of the deal. McNally instead played the season at a reduced salary and without a signed contract, so that he could support Andy Messersmith (who also refused to sign a contract for 1975) and help the Players Association in making a better case for free agency. After the season, arbitrator Peter Seitz awarded both McNally and Messersmith their freedom, allowing them to negotiate with any club. The decision really didn’t benefit McNally himself, since he had already decided to retire, but his conviction helped the players win an important gain in their struggle against major league owners. One year later, the players embarked upon their first season of full-fledged free agency. Let’s hope that a few of today’s stars stop to consider and remember what Dave McNally did for them.

Pirates Play Simon Sez: Most of the Sabermetric community has panned the Pirates’ recent acquisition of first baseman Randall Simon, citing his overvalued reputation and Pittsburgh’s willingness to surrender three minor league prospects. A note of caution should be inserted here, however, before trashing the Pirates’ first major move of the postseason. In trades where two of the players are publicly unknown (i.e., players to be named later), it’s virtually impossible to render an accurate and complete judgment. Of the three minor leaguers (none of whom is considered a top-flight prospect), only one name is currently known, that of Adrian Burnside, a left-hander who pitched in Double-A last season. Burnside throws hard, but his performance was poor last year, indicating that he’s at least two seasons away from major league arrival, if he ever gets there at all… In an ideal world, a journeyman like Simon should be a bench player on a good team, but in the stark reality of 30 major league clubs, there are a host of bad ones fielding first basemen far worse than the former Tiger and Brave. At his best, the 27-year-old Simon is a poor man’s version of Al Oliver—a .300 hitter with line-drive power who won’t draw a lot of walks or pile up a lot of strikeouts, but without “Scoop’s” defensive ability at first base. At his worst, Simon is another Franklin Stubbs, a lumbering free swinger who doesn’t play the field well enough to handle first base regularly or use the bat well enough to DH every day. If he falls somewhere in between, he still figures to be a useful part-time player for a contending club. In that case, the Pirates will likely be able to deal him to a contender in mid-summer and recoup a couple of mid-level prospects… In the short-term, the lefty-swinging Simon gives the Pirates a young, able-bodied platoon partner for the underachieving and declining Kevin Young, making them a bit better at a position that needs a significant upgrade. And when a team’s as bad as the Pirates have been for the better part of a decade, it needs to make improvements wherever it can…

Steady Eddie and The Kid: Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandberg headline the 17 newcomers to this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, as voted upon by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Who will receive at least 75 per cent of the vote, thus meriting election to the Hall? Predictions: look for Murray to coast into Cooperstown by earning somewhere in the 85 to 90 per cent range, with Sandberg falling short of election, somewhere in the 60 to 65 percentile; among returning names to the ballot, Gary Carter appears to have the best chance of election. “The Kid” will probably just squeeze by in the 75 to 80 per cent range…

Casey and the Spitball: The proprietors of Spitball Magazine have announced the nominees for this year’s Casey Award, given to the best baseball book of the year. The list of 10 finalists in 2002 includes Howard Bryant’s groundbreaking Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston; Jane Leavy’s bestselling biography of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy; Glenn Stout’s comprehensive, myth-shattering history of the team in Pinstripes, Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball; and Richard Tofel’s terrific tome on the 1939 Yankees, A Legend in the Making… Of the 10 books nominated, two deal with biographical subjects never before tackled in a full-length book. They are Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus, by John Theodore, and Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian, by David L. Fleitz.

Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, now available from St. Johann Press. Featuring interviews with former A’s stars like Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, Blue Moon Odom, Joe Rudi, and Gene Tenace, the book relives Oakland’s wild championship run from 1971 to 1975.

by Bruce Markusen


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