TRICKS OF THE TRADE
How do you restore a once-proud franchise? Glad you asked.
By Steve Phillips
The Reds haven't made the playoffs in 13 years, and a slow start this season cost GM Wayne Krivsky his job. So how can new boss Walt Jocketty build a new Big Red Machine?
Baseball Tonight analyst and former Mets GM Steve Phillips has a few ideas.
1. TRADE JUNIOR Yes, Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the few reasons to visit Great American Ball Park, but it's time to make the tough decisions. Griffey is signed only through this year, with a club option for 2009. As a 10-and-five player, he can veto any deal, but Chicago is a popular destination, so call White Sox GM Ken Williams, who's tried to get Griffey in the past, and ask for Josh Fields or Carlos Quentin. The Sox have a shot, and Griffey would be huge in Chi-Town. Then call up top prospect Jay Bruce, and put him in center for the next 10 years.
2. DUNN DEAL Use Adam Dunn's power as a chip to get pitchers. The Reds have a limited budget and an even smaller ballpark, so they must deal for arms and develop them. Dunn is in the last year of his deal, so maximize the return by giving an interested team a 72-hour window to negotiate an extension. Go to the Giants, who need offense to replace Barry Bonds, and ask for Matt Cain. Go to Toronto and request a package that includes Adam Lind and Dustin McGowan or Shawn Marcum. Call Cleveland, which is desperate for bats, and ask for Cliff Lee and one of these three: OF Franklin Gutiérrez and lefties Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey.
3. BYE, BYE BRONSON In 2006, Bronson Arroyo was a great acquisition by Krivsky, but at age 31, and after throwing 656µ innings the previous three years, he's not the same pitcher. Get what you can, and get out from under his contract, because financial flexibility is critical for a small-market franchise. There are plenty of teams dying for starting pitching: Texas, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee and Baltimore come to mind. After trading Arroyo, bring up Homer Bailey, and give him the ball every fifth day. Scouts think he can be special; let's see if they're right.
4. CALL HANK Have owner Bob Castellini ring Hank Steinbrenner and tell him you've got a way to move Joba Chamberlain into the Yankees' rotation. Offer Jared Burton, who's whiffing hitters in bunches, and Jeremy Affeldt for Phil Hughes. Sell Burton as Chamberlain's eighth-inning replacement and Affeldt as the situational lefty the Yanks lack. Throw in Arroyo if they want. Make it an owners deal. Castellini and Hank will love it; GM Brian Cashman will hate it. The bottom line is that Aaron Harang, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Vólquez and Hughes would give Cincy four very different looks.
5. SHORT CUT The Reds have a tough decision when Álex González returns from his left-knee injury in a few weeks, because Jeff Keppinger has proved he can play shortstop every day. What to do? Trade utility man Ryan Freel to the Dodgers for Scott Proctor. LA can use a supersub, and Proctor can pitch the eighth inning if Burton is traded. Then Keppinger stays put and González becomes a defensive specialist—one with a lot of value if another club loses its starting shortstop.
Free agent starters are a bad investment GMs can't seem to resist.
By Jerry Crasnick
April was a bad month month for starting pitchers with big bank accounts. When Pedro Martínez wasn't limping off the field with a sore hammy, Mike Hampton was making another trip to the DL with a strained pectoral muscle. The Pirates, meanwhile, finally released Matt Morris and his 9.67 ERA. And then there was Barry Zito, whose mystifyingly poor performance is giving the Giants buyer's remorse over his $126M deal, which runs through 2013. Six starts into the season, he was exiled to the bullpen, presumably for mop-up duty.
MLB execs lament long-term contracts for pitchers as a rule, but they can't resist handing them out. Chalk it up to supply and demand, or the pressure to win. Whatever the reason, the feel-good aura of signing a big-ticket pitcher rarely lasts. "With most of these deals, you're filling a short-term need with a long-term commitment," says Phillies GM Pat Gillick. "Problem is, the club assumes all the risk."
While it's true that lengthy contracts for position players can also be disastrous (did somebody say Mo Vaughn?), and even three-year deals for pitchers can go awry (that means you, Jason Schmidt and Jaret Wright), commitments of five years or longer to hurlers tend to elicit the worst results, mainly due to injury and attrition. Hampton, Denny Neagle, Chan Ho Park and Darren Dreifort are Exhibits A through D, and Zito is well on his way to joining them.
The Jays committed $102M in 2005 on five-year deals for starter A.J. Burnett and closer B.J. Ryan. Burnett pitched well in the first two seasons but has struggled with injuries. Ryan saved 38 games in 2006, then blew out his elbow last spring. Still, Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi has no regrets. "If you can get three or four good years out of a five-year deal," he says, "you're doing pretty good."
Tell that to Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, whose $172M investment in Hampton and Neagle in 2000 serves as a cautionary tale. Eight years later, those contracts seem likea bad dream. "We were trying to cut corners and do anything we could to win, without having the infrastructure in place to do that," O'Dowd says. "Those deals were doomed to fail from the day the ink dried."
History suggests more will be coming.
By Tim Kurkjian
When George Sherrill moved out of his spring-training home in March, he wrote a thank-you note to his Florida real estate agent, who told him it was the first one she'd ever received. But Sherrill's sense of gratitude isn't that surprising when you consider where he came from.
The 31-year-old Orioles closer spent nearly five summers in the independent leagues, enduring 14-hour bus trips between places like Winnipeg and Joliet, Ill. "The seats on the bus were iron," Sherrill says. All that time, the Memphis native held out hope that a major league organization would take a chance on a chubby lefty with average stuff.
Undrafted out of Austin Peay in 1999, Sherrill finally got his chance in 2003, after dropping 25 pounds at the urging of his Winnipeg Goldeyes manager, former Astros skipper Hal Lanier. Down to 220, Sherrill was able to add a couple of miles per hour to his fastball, and his 1.13 ERA in the Northern League got him noticed by a few major league scouts. He signed with the Mariners in July 2003 and was assigned to Double-A. "I hated school," Sherrill says. "I worked at UPS one summer and hated that, too. I loved baseball, so I never gave up."
With his deceptive, short-arm delivery, Sherrill reached the bigs in 2004. After posting a 2.36 ERA for Seattle last season, he was sent to Baltimore in the five-player package for Erik Bédard. Baltimore boss Andy MacPhail says he knew all along he wanted Sherrill as his closer, and the former Goldeye converted 11 of his first 12 save chances. "He's fearless," says Orioles manager Dave Trembley.
Note to George: No need to send your skipper a thank-you note. The saves are enough.
HEAD FOR THE GAME
By Tim Kurkjian
The Cubs spent all winter looking to deal for a top-of-the-order bat, be it Brian Roberts, Coco Crisp or Marlon Byrd. Then on the morning of Easter Sunday, "while I was eating a waffle," says Reed Johnson, the Blue Jays released the outfielder in a cost-cutting move.
Immediately after clearing waivers, Johnson flew from Florida to Arizona on his own dime and signed with the Cubs. "I had other offers when Toronto let me go, but when the Cubs called, that was it," he says. "I love baseball history, and the history of the Cubs is so deep. You have no idea how happy I am."
The Cubs are equally happy. Without having to give up any talent, they got a guy who can hit anywhere in the lineup and play all three outfield positions. That allows more time for centerfielder Félix Pie (below right, celebrating a win with Johnson) to develop. "I played center at Cal State-Fullerton," Johnson says. "Our rightfielder was Aaron Rowand [now a Gold Glove centerfielder]." The 31-year-old Johnson was mostly a leftfielder with Toronto, but he has played a solid center for the Cubs. On April 25, at Nationals Park, he made the Web Gem of the Year so far: a phenomenal catch while diving into the wall in left center. "At Wrigley Field, they might have had to call timeout to find his head in the vines," Lou Piniella said after the game.
Entering this season, the righthanded Johnson was a .307 career hitter vs. lefties and ranked second in MLB with 80 HBPs over the past five seasons. He batted just .236 last year, partly because he underwent back surgery on April 17. He returned to the lineup in July, an astonishingly quick recovery and in keeping with his rep as one of the toughest guys in the game.
Two years ago, on his drive to Florida for spring training, Johnson and his wife, Taryn, stopped in Royston, Ga., because Reed wanted to visit the burial place of baseball's all-time tough guy, Ty Cobb. "I read where he once had to have his wisdom teeth out," Johnson says. "There was no novocaine, so they just yanked them. He played that night and got two hits."
A day after Johnson launched his body into the wall in Washington, he was right back in the lineup. He got two hits.