A Surprising Winner This Off-Season: The Oakland A’s

As the Hot Stove League season winds down and gives way to the annual rebirth that is spring training, writers start to assess who the winners and losers were in the off-season. I’m not going to do that, but if I were to, I think I’d be putting a team in the winner’s column with a bullet that most others would rank as losers. That team is the Oakland Athletics.

But wait, you say, the A’s traded their best pitcher and their best position player for a bunch of guys we’ve never heard of. How can that be a win for the A’s? It can be and it was, but to understand it, you have to step back and do a sober analysis of A's GM Billy Beanewhere the A’s were at the end of 2007.

Coming off their first ever playoff victory in 2006, the ’07 A’s rolled the dice with a lot of iffy and unhealthy players and it came up snake eyes, a 76-86 record, a third place finish and the first losing season for the franchise since 1998. In and of itself, that’s no reason to panic. Teams have down years where the injury bug and a few problems dog them down.

But this team had no future. Several players who were supposed to form the core of the A’s franchise for years had faltered. Eric Chavez’s back problems have led to spiraling production three years in a row and it doesn’t look like he is physically capable of being the player he once promised to be, or even once was. Rich Harden had the best stuff of any pitcher the A’s have developed in recent years, but after three years of constant injury, it is clear he cannot be relied on. Bobby Crosby has proven not only to be unhealthy, but also not to be anywhere near the player, offensively or defensively, that the A”s thought he would be when they let Miguel Tejada walk.

Couple those things with several poor drafts which left the A’s once-envied minor league system with only a few prospects who had any sort of major-league future, and you start to see what Billy Beane saw. Sure, with guys like Nick Swisher, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Huston Street, Travis Buck and Daric Barton they had the core of a decent team, and a few shrewd moves and lucky breaks could put them on the outside track for wild card contention for a few years.

But the simple fact was they had no chance to put together a team that was a legitimate contender within the next few years. Most GMs would flail about, finding a few players to plug in who could help boost the team above .500. And, if the A’s played in the National League, where the best teams are not nearly as good as the best of the AL, Beane might have done that. But if he had, that would have been because he would have had sufficient resources to field a team that could have challenged the best in the league. Continue reading “A Surprising Winner This Off-Season: The Oakland A’s”

Joba Rules, But Remember A Guy Phil?

Eli Manning may not have been the only New York sports figure to have found himself in the post-season of 2007. In a less dramatic and certainly less impactful way, it’s just possible that Yankee pitcher Philip Hughes did so as well.

I’ve found it interesting to see the change in the view of Hughes since Joba Chamberlain hit the scene. Hughes was once regarded by some as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. He didn’t make the immediate impact Chamberlain did, and now it’s Chamberlain who is the next big thing.

That may not be such a bad thing. In Spring Training last year, Hughes seemed to be feeling the pressure and pitched poorly. This resulted in his starting the year back in the minors. When he was called up in late April, he pitched two games before getting hurt and staying out until August. In his second May start, he pitched 6 1/3 innings of no-hit ball, striking out six and walking three before leaving with a hamstring injury.

When Hughes returned it took a while for him to find his legs again. But in September, he appeared to right the ship and made it on to the Yankees’ post-season roster. It was here that we finally saw again what we had seen in that second start, as he looked every bit as advertised against Cleveland. In two relief appearances in the ALDS, Hughes tossed 5 2/3 innings, surrendering one run on a solo homer, striking out six and not walking a batter. If this was his arrival, we’ll know it soon enough of course.

I think I’m higher on Hughes than most. But what strikes me is how many of those writing in sports media and the blogosphere have revised their view of Hughes.Continue reading “Joba Rules, But Remember A Guy Phil?”

Moments, Glorious Moments

I am an analyst by profession, and I bring that into my sports fandom. Analysis of baseball and football is a major part of how I follow, study and think about the games. In the baseball realm, I’m inclined toward what people called statistical analysis, Bill James, Baseball Prospectus and the like. Football, despite the efforts of people like the good folks at Football Outsiders, is not given to such quantification (a limitation the guys at FO are still struggling to get some perspective on), but even there, serious thought, challenging conventional wisdom and, yes, even some limited number crunching, is part of what I do as a fan.

That stuff is fun. It helps my understanding and appreciation of the games. But in the end, it’s the heart that is the center of sports fandom. There are moments in sports that explain why I get so emotionally attached to the games, why I growl in frustration when Kyle Farnsworth is brought into a tight situation and blows a lead, why I pound the table when Amani Toomer drops a key third down pass that hits him square in the chest. There are magical moments that make it all worthwhile.

Sometimes, those moments can come even when it’s not my team. Kirk Gibson’s game-winning homerun off of Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was one of those. The gimpy slugger, forced to generate the power in his swing just from his arms, wins the game against the best reliever of his era. That’s a moment for poetry, not analysis. And it’s the beauty of baseball. Analysis can capture the value of a player’s season or career. But in a given moment, in one at-bat, or one play from scrimmage, anything can happen.

Of course, it’s better when it’s your team overcoming obstacles and long odds. But those moments can also be created by mediocre players. The 1978 season saw a near-miraculous comeback by the Yankees, overcoming a 14-game deficit to a very good Boston Red Sox team. But when all of that seemed like it might be for naught, it was weak-hitting Bucky Dent who creamed a three-run homer off Mike Torrez to bring the proper flourish to the Yankees’ season.

But moments are at their sweetest when your team is the underdog. The ’78 Yankees were a great team and the defending world champions. For the most part, even the greatest moments are somewhat dampened for Yankee fans. The Bronx Bombers are the greatest dynasty in sports. When they win, it is merely a promise fulfilled. It is when your team is clearly the inferior one, but wins anyway that sports find their potential for their greatest moments.Continue reading “Moments, Glorious Moments”

Santana Deal Reflects a New Market

You know, probably the best thing about teams wising up and locking away their desirable players before they hit the open market in free agency is that it’s truly brought the Hot Stove League back.

In recent years, the blockbuster trade seemed to be facing extinction, and the off-season was filled with tales not of bargaining to find the swap that would make the headlines, but of budgets and contract negotiations. The off-season of 2007-08 turned that around.

In this off-season, big names were moved via trade. Those names included Miguel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Johan Santana, Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Miguel Tejada, Scott Rolen, Troy Glaus and Jim Edmonds. Top prospects like Delmon Young, Adam Jones, and Cameron Maybin also found new homes. That’s a lot of movement of big time players.

Perhaps the most interesting saga of all of these was the Johan Santana deal. The talks about Santana dragged on for months, and for a long time it seemed that the Yankees and Red Sox were the only two serious suitors.

Yet in the end, it was the Mets that came out with him, and for a package that was clearly inferior to that which their respective teams got for Haren and Bedard, the other two top-tier starters who were traded.Continue reading “Santana Deal Reflects a New Market”

No Substance to Allegations Against Clemens

In one way, the Roger Clemens PED controversy has outstripped even Barry Bonds. That is in the amount of ugly bulls**t being strewn around it.

Once the Mitchell Report (man I hate that name) hit, there was no doubt Clemens would be in the center of a maelstrom. He was the only really big name in it, other than those who were already deeply implicated in the steroid scandal, like Bonds.

Since then, both Clemens’ and his accuser, Brian McNamee’s legal teams have turned the whole thing into a traveling circus, featuring the clowns in the House Oversight Committee, who apparently think that with the country’s economy collapsing,

American troops getting killed for no good reason in Iraq and a presidential campaign underway they have nothing better to do than determine whether Clemens or McNamee is telling the truth.

After a 60 Minutes appearance and a completely surreal press conference by Clemens did nothing to dissuade an almost universal consensus in the media that he was guilty, Clemens’ team issued a 45-page report purporting to show, via statistics, that Clemens was not guilty.

It didn’t work, and it never had a shot to.

Clemens did, in fact, have an amazing renaissance at an advanced age, one that is nearly unprecedented in baseball history. Showing that other pitchers have performed exceptionally well into their forties doesn’t really address that. But it’s a public relations war, and phony statistics are the theme of the day. There is no shortage of such on the anti-Clemens side, not by a long shot, as we’ll examine shortly.

So I can forgive Clemens this brazen attempt at manipulation. What really amazes me is the certainty with which most of the media is framing Clemens’ “guilt.” All the articles are about why Clemens is lying, how he can’t be believed, how he should just come clean.Continue reading “No Substance to Allegations Against Clemens”