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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential—Hot Stove League Edition #2 - 12-11-2002

It’s winter meetings time in baseball. Will it be the usual snooze fest, with writers forced to make up phony trade rumors while agents try to hold teams hostage on the free agent market? Or might this be the year that a host of BIG TRADES actually happen? Given the current trade winds blowing, maybe there’s some hope for a little bit of winter excitement.

Alfonzo And The A’s: Perhaps the biggest mistake among all the non-arbitration free agent decisions was made by the Mets, who opted not to offer arbitration to Edgardo Alfonzo. Over the last two years, a clear and disturbing dynamic has emerged within the Mets lineup. When Alfonzo was healthy enough to play, Mike Piazza’s hitting thrived. When Alfonzo was hurt (usually with back problems), Piazza’s hitting suffered badly. Now the Mets are left without a third baseman, a position that can often be problematic to fill… Where will the underrated Alfonzo end up? The two favorites appear to be Boston and Oakland, both sabermetrically inclined organizations who appreciate Alfonzo’s ability to get on base, not to mention his defensive skills and versatility. The Red Sox make perfect sense since they’re looking for an upgrade at second base, where Rey Sanchez played last season. The A’s are not as clear a choice, given that they already have Gold Glover Eric Chavez at third base and promising Mark Ellis at second base. It’s possible that the A’s are hedging their bets regarding the future of Miguel Tejada, who can become a free agent after the 2003 season. If the A’s can’t re-sign Tejada, they could play Alfonzo at second and move Ellis to shortstop. Still, Alfonzo figures to be expensive, especially for a budget-conscious team like the A’s. He wants at least $8 million a season on a two-year deal… The Cubs are another possible destination for Alfonzo; it seems like the Cubs have been looking for a top-notch third baseman since the days of “The Penguin,” Ron Cey…

Expos Exodus: Now that Omar Minaya has been given a $40 million payroll to work with in 2003, he knows he will have to trade one or two of his high-priced players (AKA the “Firesale Five”) during the mid-December winter meetings: second baseman Jose Vidro, third baseman Fernando Tatis, right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, and pitchers Bartolo Colon or Javier Vazquez. In an ideal world, Minaya would like to clear about $14 million in salaries by packaging Colon (scheduled to make about $8 million) with Tatis (set to make over $6 million), since the former can become a free agent after one season and the latter has become a contractual albatross at the hot corner. Some teams, like the Yankees, would prefer Vazquez over Colon since he’s three years younger, makes $2 million less, and can’t become a free agent in 2003. Would the Yankees be willing to take on Tatis, especially now that Robin Ventura has been re-signed? Possibly, but only if the Expos accept Raul Mondesi and the $7 million that the Yankees owe him for the upcoming season. A right-handed hitter who was once an up-and-coming star with the Cardinals—remember when he hit two grand slams in one inning?—Tatis could platoon with Ventura. (For more on Ventura and the Yankees’ plans for him in 2003, look below.)… Of the big contracts held by the Firesale Five, the Expos are least interested in dealing Guerrero or Vidro. Like Colon, Guerrero can become a free agent after the 2003 season, but he is a rare talent, one of the top five players in the game, and the closest thing the Expos have to a potential drawing card for their home games in Puerto Rico. As for Vidro, he is scheduled to make $5 million next season, which makes him relatively underpaid given his offensive production at a middle infield position. Still, if the Expos are to give up either Vidro or Guerrero, they will have to be overwhelmed with a package of top-notch prospects who are light years away from arbitration.

Ventura Back In the Vault: The Yankees made all concerned parties happy last week when they re-signed Robin Ventura to a one-year contract worth $5 million. George Steinbrenner saved nearly $3.5 million on the price of Ventura’s 2002 contract, all the while pleasing Yankee manager Joe Torre and most veteran Yankee players. With his dedicated work ethic and team-first approach, Ventura emerged as one of Torre’s favorite players last season, while quickly gaining the respect of more established Yankee veterans… Now that Ventura has signed, the Yankees need to find a competent right-handed hitter to platoon with him—someone better than Ron Coomer, that is. Although Ventura homered eight times in 101 at-bats against southpaws, he batted a mere .218 with an on-base percentage of only .310 against left-handers in 2002. (Oddly, Ventura compiled a higher slugging percentage against lefties than he did right-handers; perhaps he sacrificed batting average in not choosing to sacrifice power, but then again, Ventura did look awfully bad against any left-hander with a decent breaking pitch.) Erick Almonte could have put himself in position to fill the role of platoon third baseman, but had a terrible year at Triple-A Columbus and will be facing an uphill struggle in trying to impress the Yankee brass in the spring… With Ventura in tow, the Yankees would like to add a right-handed hitting third baseman who can fill a backup role. One possibility is Todd Zeile, who loved playing for Joe Torre during their days with the Cardinals. Zeile could back up both Ventura and Jason Giambi, while serving as a pinch-hitter and occasional DH. Another name being dropped is that of Chris Stynes, who was recently released by the Cubs, and might make utilityman Enrique Wilson expendable… Prior to the signing of Ventura, the Yankees had given some thought to making an offer to free agent third baseman Tyler Houston. That likely won’t happen now because Houston bats left-handed, like Ventura, and probably wants to join a team where he can play every day.

More From The Rumor Mill: Now that we all know that Ivan Rodriguez won’t be returning to the Rangers, the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles have become the favored destinations for the man once regarded as the game’s best catcher since Johnny Bench. Due to injuries, Rodriguez’ reputation has taken several hits to the face mask, but don’t be surprised if “Pudge” has a huge season playing in either Wrigley Field or Camden Yards. The fact that he’s missed a lot of games over the last three years (176 to be exact) may actually help the 31-year-old Rodriguez, who was overused by the Rangers during the early part of his career. If nothing else, Rodriguez will be able to escape the oppressive heat of Texas, where it’s hotter at night than it is on most days in Chicago and just about anytime in Baltimore. Rodriguez has also been working out like a fiend in his native Puerto Rico, determined to erase memories of the last three pain-filled seasons… So why aren’t the Mets expressing interest in I-Rod? A two-word answer: Mo Vaughn. The Mets feel they have no chance of dealing him, at least without picking up most of his overpriced contract. If Vaughn were not a factor, Rodriguez would have looked good working the plate at Shea Stadium, with Mike Piazza moving to first base, where he belongs at this critical stage of his career… The Yankees might look to replace Ramiro Mendoza (to whom they mysteriously did not offer salary arbitration) with side-arming right-hander Steve Reed, who was not offered arbitration by the cross-town Mets. Another intriguing possibility for the Yankees is former Phillies right-hander Ben (No Relation to Mariano) Rivera, who dominated hitters in the Mexican League last season and earned a surprising berth on New York’s 40-man roster… Speaking of the Phillies, they are very much interested in signing Mendoza, who could fill a variety of roles on Larry Bowa’s staff and might be the eventual successor to the elderly Jose Mesa as closer. The Phillies should be cautioned, however. As noted by writer and researcher Joe Dimino on Baseball Primer, the sinkerballing Mendoza pitches poorly on artificial turf, where he has compiled a career ERA of 5.42 (as compared to 3.84 ERA on grass). The Phillies still have one more year to play on the fabricated field at Veterans Stadium before moving into a new ballpark with a traditional grass and dirt surface… A better fit for Mendoza would be the A’s or the Pirates, who do play on grass. The Bucs tried to acquire “El Brujo” three years ago as part of a deal for Jason Schmidt… As part of their continuing effort to reduce payroll, the Yankees have offered overpaid left-hander Sterling Hitchcock and cash to Cincinnati for fellow southpaw Gabe White. The deal fell through over the weekend, but still has a chance of being resurrected during the winter meetings, which begin on December 13.

More On McNally:Two days after Dave McNally died from lung cancer at the age of 60, ESPN Classic aired the highlight film of the 1969 World Series between the “Miracle Mets” and McNally’s Baltimore Orioles. McNally pitched the first and fifth games of that Series, picking up the Orioles’ only victory in Game One. The film revived memories of McNally’s smooth but unusual delivery, in which he dipped his head and shoulders toward first base before sliding his body forward and releasing the ball toward home plate… McNally is the fourth member of the 1970 World Champion Orioles (one of the most underrated great teams in history) to pass away. The first three were first baseman-outfielder Roger Freed, who died from heart disease at the age of 49 in 1996, utilityman Chico Salmon, who passed away in 2000 (age 59), and slick-fielding shortstop Mark “The Blade” Belanger, who died in 1998 (age 54). Like McNally, Belanger succumbed to the effects of lung cancer…The recent writings of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) members Maxwell Kates and Stew Thornley reveal some intriguing precedents to the actions of McNally, who played the 1975 season under an unsigned, renewed contract (along with Andy Messersmith) as part of the players’ efforts to gain free agency. In 1973, two years before McNally and Messersmith took their courageous stand, four players reported to the Chicago White Sox’ training camp under renewed contracts; the group included veteran second baseman Mike Andrews, third baseman Ed Spiezio (the father of Anaheim Angels World Series hero Scott Spiezio), onetime bonus baby Rick Reichardt, and starting pitcher Stan Bahnsen. Bahnsen eventually signed a contract for the 1973 season, but the other three soon earned their releases, in all likelihood because of their efforts to buck the system. If the Players Association had been as strong in 1973 as it is today, the White Sox likely would have faced a grievance—and the players probably would have gained some form of restitution, if not complete reinstatement of their jobs… Speaking of SABR, the organization recently did the right thing in naming John Zajc (pronounced ZITES) as its fulltime executive director. In the aftermath of the controversial ouster of George Case III (the son of the former major leaguer). Zajc had been occupying the position on an interim basis. A hard worker who steers clear of the limelight, Zajc has been a loyal employee of SABR since 1990. For years, Zajc served as the right-hand man to former SABR director Morris Eckhouse, another hard worker who also carved out his own impressive legacy within the organization. Zajc will officially begin his new job on January 1.

Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, now available from St. Johann Press. The book can now be special ordered at 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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