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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Hot Stove League Edition #6 - 01/22/2003

Passing The Guilt

When in doubt, blame Commissioner Bud Selig; that has become the unofficial rallying cry of the internet’s “Bud Bashers.” It has also become the fashionable excuse in absolving Montreal Expos general manager Omar Minaya of all responsibility in the end game of the disastrous Bartolo Colon trade. Apologists for Minaya (who IS a bright executive) claim that he did the best he could in acquiring Orlando Hernandez, question-mark outfielder-first baseman Jeff Liefer, and middling reliever Rocky Biddle for the 20-game winner. After all, Major League Baseball publicly dictated that Minaya lower his team’s payroll, a fact that all other general managers used in lowballing Minaya on Colon trade offers. That’s a nice theory, but it has nothing to do with the reality of the December winter meetings, where Minaya had about 15 teams clamoring to acquire Colon. That large group of suitors included the New York Yankees, who were willing to trade Hernandez and first baseman Nick “The Stick” Johnson (who carries far more value than a package of Liefer and Biddle) for Colon. Rather than make that sensible deal, Minaya took a greedy turn and asked the Yankees to pay all of Hernandez’ salary, in addition to throwing in outfielder Juan Rivera and another prospect. Predictably, the Yankees turned down such a massive request; sensing that Minaya’s asking price had reached ludicrous proportions, New York decided to move in other pitching directions… Rather than take the Yankees’ deal, Minaya decided to operate under the theory that a player’s trade value will always go up during the offseason. That’s simply not the case, not when one asks other general managers to overpay so much in potential trades that they become angry and lose interest—and not when reports of Colon’s expanding beltline started to hit Canada and the states… If Minaya had struck immediately in December instead of trying to overplay his hand, he could have solved his first base problem with a long-term solution like Johnson, who has the potential to hit .320 with 25 home runs and 120 walks as an everyday player. Instead, he settled for Liefer, who might hit more home runs than “The Stick,” but lacks the plate discipline, batting eye, and ability to hit to all fields featured by Johnson… As for Biddle, he’s a soon-to-be 27-year-old throw-in, a right-hander who registers good readings on the radar gun, but has had little success in the major leagues… Here’s the bottom line on Minaya’s six-month dance with Colon. He surrendered far more to the Cleveland Indians (three prospects in middle infielder Brandon Phillips, outfielder Grady Sizemore, and left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee) in acquiring Colon than he received in return from the Yankees and Chicago White Sox (two pseudo-prospects plus “El Duque”). Considering that Colon became a 20-game winner in the interim, that kind of trade depreciation simply should not have happened.

No More El Duque

The Yankees’ decision to trade Hernandez was as much motivated by Joe Torre’s player preference as it was by George Steinbrenner’s decision to shed some salary from what has become of a behemoth of a payroll. Hernandez’ unwillingness to communicate with the Yankee manager and coaches about his physical well-being, coupled with his reluctance to pitch out of the bullpen, pushed Torre to the boiling point. Hernandez probably sealed his fate in mid-season of 2002, when he told the Yankees only hours before gametime that he didn’t feel well enough to make his scheduled start. As a result, Torre had to pitch Roger Clemens on short rest—with ineffective results—since there was no time to recall a starter from Triple-A Columbus… Will the Yankees miss Hernandez? His departure will probably have little effect on the team during the regular season, what with the presence of six potential starters and right-handers Antonio Osuna, Steve Karsay, and Mariano Rivera available to Torre out of the bullpen. Yet, the playoffs might be a different story. “El Duque” was one of the Yankees’ four best and most consistent post-season pitchers over the last five years, along with Rivera, David Wells, and Mike Stanton (another off-season departure). As much as the Yankees like Osuna (who throws harder than Ramiro Mendoza and struck out about a batter per inning), he is injury-prone, and as much as they lavish praise on recent Cuban signing Jose Contreras (who has all the physical talents), he has never pitched in a major league post-season game.

January Passings

Baseball lost one of its more colorful non-playing personalities—and one of its most charitable people—earlier this month when former major league umpire Durwood Merrill died several days after suffering a major heart attack. While Merrill was no more than a mediocre umpire between the lines, he was one of the giants in character away from the field. Every Christmas, Merrill spent hours distributing food to the poor in his native Texarkana. For Merrill, it wasn’t just about writing out a check quickly to make himself feel good; it was about spending one-on-one time, and lots of it, with people far less privileged than himself… Too often, standout sportswriters leave this world with nary a mention of their contributions to baseball. One such writer was Cincinnati scribe Earl Lawson, a 35-year veteran of covering the Reds and the Hall of Fame’s 1985 J. G. Taylor Spink Award winner, who died from cancer earlier this month at the age of 79. “Earl was from the no ‘BS’ era of reporting,” says SABR member Stuart Hodesh. “He would tell it like it is in his columns and hold nothing back. Earl would put players on the spot, get the information, and then write the article. Many times Earl added his opinion and then went ‘toe to toe’ with a player.” … Today’s media, both mainstream and sabermetric, need more writers like Lawson. Too few of today’s baseball writers are willing to stand up to those bullies among players who try to intimidate them for daring to express negative opinions… Coincidentally, this year’s winner of the Spink Award is also from Ohio and also has extensive experience covering the Reds. He is Dayton sportswriter Hal McCoy, who will be honored during Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown on July 27.

Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is now available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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