As soon as I began to re-think previous statements about the Cincinnati Reds impending collapse; and watched in wonderment as they continued to hang onto their Wild Card lead; and openly questioned if I had been wrong and that the Reds may manage to make the playoffs—-POOF!!—they collapsed. So, predictions about teams and their futures should be taken with a grain of salt regardless of the source. With that said, there are certain facts that teams should not ignore even if they manage to find a way to make the playoffs despite having glaring holes. Those facts are that this season is an anomaly; where parity has taken hold in the National League and that they still have holes that they desperately need to fill. My prime example in this assessment is the Philadelphia Phillies.
General Manager Pat Gillick essentially threw a white flag up on this season when he dealt Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees; and David Bell to the Brewers. But, with the league as weak as it is and the number of wins that are going to be needed for the Wild Card being as low as it is, the Phillies parlayed a sudden hot streak into a (realistic) belief that they will be able to sneak their way into the playoffs. And with the rest of the league (other than the Mets) being as equally matched in ineptitude as it is, any team that makes the playoffs can realistically believe that with a little luck they can find themselves in the World Series. That being said, this offseason, the Phillies are still going to need to address gaping holes on their roster.
They need a catcher because no matter how well Chris Coste has played and how heartwarming a story his is, it is only a matter of time before the real reason that he spent all those years in the minors becomes apparent. The longer a player is around, the more likely it is for him to be exposed. Players who get 300 at bats and hit 15 or so homers and bat .290 are often mentioned by fans as players who should get a chance to play every day, but front office people, managers and coaches know why these players only get a limited number of at bats; they place those players in situations to take best advantage of their strengths while camouflaging their weaknesses.
They need a third baseman, a right fielder, two reliable starting pitchers, bullpen help and a replacement closer because Tom Gordon tires with too much work, and they need to find a taker for Pat Burrell (who might benefit from a move back to first base, which is his natural position; or a move to the American League where he can DH, his more natural position). They are an extremely flawed team that needs a massive re-tooling; not just one or two players to turn things around. Gillick began to clean up the mess earlier this season, but he saw an opportunity to steal a playoff spot in a weak league. He was right to do that. But fans of the Phillies (and Marlins; and Reds; and everyone else) should be realistic in looking at a team’s weaknesses before believing that a late season playoff run in a parity-laden league means that their team is on the right track for consistent contention, because it doesn’t.
With all the controversy surrounding Carl Pavano as to what really happened and whether or not he was truly injured in a car accident or in some other way, it shines the light on the roulette wheel that big money free agency truly is. Even though there are probably voices in the wind claiming that the Yankees signing of Pavano was a mistake, I don’t remember anyone decrying the move when it was made. Pavano was coming off two injury free seasons, had pitched very well in the 2003 postseason and was supposed to be entering his prime. I’m the last one to defend the Yankees, but how could they possibly have known that they were getting the equivalent of a talented, but glass-jawed, heartless boxer, who clearly wishes he were somewhere other than here in New York and with the Yankees?
Sure, there is probably some level of embarrassment in the dark recesses of Pavano’s psyche because he is receiving such a hefty paycheck and has done nothing since signing; and now the whispers and eye rolls that were present in the clubhouse before are now overt and attributable derogatory quotes from leaders of the Yankees championship years from Joe Torre on down to Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. Paul O’Neill must be ready to retch at the mere mention of Pavano. But while it is a cautionary tale for teams pursuing big name free agents, it isn’t as though the Yankees were the only team prepared to make the same mistake on Pavano. The Tigers, Mariners and Red Sox all had substantial offers on the table for the pitcher. Now, those teams are breathing a sigh of relief because they "lost" to the Yankees.
The bottom line about free agents who don’t have a long history of productivity (by long I mean at least four of five seasons), is that they are still a roll of the dice; and bringing players into high pressure atmospheres is even more of a gamble. There’s a major difference between playing in Montreal and Florida, where the interest is minimal, and in New York where the glare can be overwhelming. A pitcher signing a contract the likes of that which Pavano signed is going to be expected to arrive and pitch like the superstar he is supposed to be.
For all the naysayers who were lambasting the Mets for signing Pedro Martinez to a four year deal when no other teams were (supposdly) willing to guarantee a fourth year, they should take a look at the situation now. Pedro, despite his fragility, has changed the culture of the Mets with his enthusiasm, pitching knowledge and reputation. The "experts" in the media, who must have advanced medical degrees to go along with their sports "knowledge" all claimed that Pedro wasn’t going to be healthy for the entirety of the four year contract and they point to his various injuries this season. The reality is that the Mets are using slight aches and pains that Pedro would more than likely pitch through if a playoff spot was in question as a reason to rest their ace and allow him to save his bullets for the postseason. The signing of Pedro signified that the Mets were serious about a rapid improvement. And look at what’s happened since then. One big name after another has been willing to come to the Mets because of what is being built. They’re about to break ground on a new stadium and they have a 15 game lead in their division. Teams want to come to the Mets now; they’re no longer a laughingstock. That is the value that can be extracted from intelligent free agent signings and that value isn’t always restricted to on-field performance.
Performing due diligence on prospective acquisitions is only part of the equation when signing free agents or trading for players. The players intestinal fortitude and ability to handle things off the field are almost as important. The Mets brought in Roberto Alomar expecting the same player he had been for the first fourteen years of his career; they were roundly applauded but instead they got a player whose skills and desire disappeared almost immediately. The Yankees were credited for signing Carl Pavano, and his career in pinstripes has been nothing short of a disaster of Whitson-like proportions.
Even if there are numerous reasons to believe a player will be a success, free agency has been and always will be a significant gamble. Whatever their philosophies, teams will continue to make mistakes; whether their theories of building teams are stat driven or scouting driven, they should always have in the back of their minds that the player that is signing on the bottom line may just turn into another version of Carl Pavano and sentence them to being the butt of jokes and having to waste significant dollars for nothing.
ESPN is reporting that the Red Sox are shopping David Wells around to pitching-short contenders. They’re mentioning possible destinations as the "Mets, Twins, Diamondbacks, Padres, Dodgers, Phillies, Cardinals, A’s and the Reds"; I might even add Florida to the list if they believe they have a legitimate shot at the Wild Card over the last month. I cannot see the Diamondbacks bringing in Wells after all the bad blood that happened when he had a handshake agreement with Jerry Colangelo to sign with the D’Backs and then turned around and signed with the Yankees, even though it’s an entirely new regime. Nor do I think the Mets are going to be interested in bringing in a handful like David Wells because: A) they don’t really need him; and B) bringing in someone like Wells might upset the positive clubhouse that Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph are trying to build, even though it would only be for September and the postseason.
As for the other teams, the most likely spots I see for Wells are the Padres, Reds or the Cardinals and if I had to bet, I’d bet on the Cards. Wells has mentioned the possibility of retirement at the end of the season, but that is something he’s done for the past five seasons. If someone offers him a decent contract to pitch next season, expect to see David Wells doing his thing on the mound (pulling on his jersey, grabbing at his crotch, etc.) and off the mound (getting into trouble with his mouth and bar hopping) next season. And he has, for the most part, been a dependable post-season performer who would positively influence other members of a pitching staff on how to pitch in the postseason.
I find myself in an odd situation in which I am trying to defend one of my favorite targets in Carl Pavano. The injuries in which he has extended his stay on the disabled list have been in most cases, questionable; and his body language and performance when he was supposedly healthy in the first half of 2005 was horrendous; but now the Yankees are finally showing anger at his lack of veracity over an auto accident two weeks ago in which he fractured two ribs and tried to pitch through the pain.
There is no question that Pavano has been lacking in fortitude since signing that big contract. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that he wishes he had signed somewhere other than a high-pressure, demanding organization and city than that of the Yankees and New York; but now that the whispers in the clubhouse are becoming out and out shouts and the front office and manager are openly questioning the desire of the pitcher, it may be time to take a step back and realize that he may be truly trying to return to silence those that are (with justification) making snide comments about Pavano and live up to the lofty expectations that come with being a big ticket free agent signee in New York. Pitching with an injury and in obvious pain is not the way to return from a long stretch of inactivity. Injuries in car accidents can take days and weeks to manifest themselves; they can shake up the entire body and one may not realize that something is wrong for weeks; and Pavano is seemingly trying very hard to get back.
The Yankees anger at Pavano for withholding the injury may be a step in the direction of fining him or even trying to get the contract voided. Teams were unable to void the contracts of accused and positively tested steroid users, so I wouldn’t expect that the Yankees are going to be able to weasel out from one cent that is owed to Carl Pavano.
The best case scenario for the Yankees would be for Pavano to return in September and pitch a few effective games and then in the off season send him to another team for an equally bad contract. It’s clear that Pavano doesn’t want to pitch in New York and New York has had their fill of Pavano. Maybe Billy Beane would like to roll the dice on Pavano rebounding and send the hideous contract to which he signed Esteban Loaiza to the Yankees. Maybe the Padres would like to shed Chan Ho Park’s contract (if he’s healthy) and would hope that a warmer climate and more laid back venue would be more agreeable to Pavano. Maybe the Phillies would be willing to swap Pat Burrell and his absurd paycheck to the Yankees in the hopes that a return to the National League would benefit Pavano. This marriage has not worked and now that Pavano is being called out publicly, there is no way it is going to end well. There are options for both sides and perhaps it’s time to start exploring them more seriously for the benefit of everyone involved.
It’s an irony of Shakespearean proportions that the true heart and soul of the Red Sox, David Ortiz, is having tests and is out indefinitely due to an irregular heartbeat. With all due respect to Jason Varitek, I think Ortiz is the true leader of that team with his combination of strong, calm leadership in the clubhouse and performance on the field. Varitek may be the vocal one, but Ortiz is the one that picks the team up on his back and carries them. That may be part of the problem.
With the front office whittling away while the team sinks; with injuries depleting the roster; and with Ortiz standing up for his teammates and taking the brunt of the entire disaster into which the season is rapidly descending; the stress may be a major contributing factor to his current health woes. Ortiz may care too much; and this exacerbates the egregious detachment that the front office has shown in standing by as the team slides into the abyss. If they fall out of the race completely, it won’t be due to a lack of heart on the part of David Ortiz—physically or emotionally—-it will be because of a lack of foresight in the Red Sox front office and selfishness of some of Ortiz’s teammates.
While there has been open snickering about Carl Pavano’s newest injury (pain in his rib cage), the news that he possibly suffered a fractured rib in a car accident on August 15th is grounds to feel sympathy for Pavano and not hold him up as the object of scorn. Injuries from car accidents are strange things; occasionally the pain doesn’t start until a much later time and simply "not feeling right" is a symptom of something that is drastically wrong. I know of whence I speak in this type of incident. So, for all the Yankees who are rolling their eyes (with extreme justification) at the phantom named Carl Pavano eating up a chunk of Yankees payroll, if he was injured in a car accident it is a simple case of bad luck and not the basis for a whole new round of ridicule.
I don’t know whether Manny Ramirez is really feeling pain in his knee or is simply throwing a hissy fit over something that no one else seems to be aware of; but Manny’s complaints are symptomatic of a series of problems in Boston that are more than a series of injuries.
A team with a veteran core like that of the Red Sox can spiral downward very quickly and it has more to do with the mood in the clubhouse than it does diminishing skills. It must have become tiresome for players like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Tim Wakefield, Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek to hear the front office go on and on ad nauseam about how this was supposed to be a "transition" year for the team and imply that they weren’t expected to win. For players who have grown accustomed to not only making the playoffs, but for the front office to be aggressive in dealing with other teams to fill obvious holes, it must have been tantamount to a slap in the face to see Theo Epstein sit by quietly as the Yankees wheeled and dealed at the trading deadline while the Red Sox did nothing.
To diminish a team, that as recently as July, was being called the best team in baseball; that gave the best team in the National League, the Mets, a brutal beating in a three game sweep; and was rolling along in first place; to one in "transition", must have sent reverberations through the Red Sox clubhouse that signified to the veterans how cold hearted and statistically grounded their front office truly was.
It is the manager’s job to eliminate complacency and abandonment of team goals. If someone with a strong hand were in the manager’s office in Boston, he may have been able to pilot the team out of the downward spiral in which it is now engaged. A strong handed manager would find out if Manny were injured or simply throwing a tantrum. Terry Francona is not that man. The players see which way the wind is blowing in Boston and it is an ill-wind. With a few days before the last day to acquire players in time to be eligible for the post-season, we’ll know whether Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino have any faith in this current group of players. If they again sit on their hands, then it could become so hideous in Boston that the team ends up with only 84 or 85 wins.
If that happens, I would expect Terry Francona to take the fall. It could be seen as unfair, but I really don’t give Francona much credit for the wins in Boston, so logically he shouldn’t be given the blame for the losses; but it’s easy to fire a manager who doesn’t appear to do much of anything and doesn’t appear to be very well respected in the clubhouse. Sure he’s liked; but that isn’t the same as being respected. Epstein will hire another "yes" man to sit in the manager’s dugout; who’ll be happy to have the job and go along for the ride as Epstein continues running the team as he wishes. And as this type of atmosphere continues to fester, the Red Sox had better be prepared to overpay for the free agents that they want to sign, because it costs extra for a player to willingly come to an increasingly poisonous atmosphere. And that is exactly what the same clubhouse that won America’s hearts with their group of "idiots" is becoming, thanks to the hubris of the Red Sox front office.