Friday, December 17, 2010

What Is the Hot Stove Smoking?

I like to think that I'm a well-informed baseball fan. I'm quite familiar with the Hot Stove, I keep tabs on Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings, and I'm also an avid watcher of the transaction ticker when the trade deadline rolls around in the summer. However, this winter I've been shocked three times. Shocked as in I've found myself muttering 'what in the hell?' and 'where did that deal come from?' on three occasions. In order of their occurrence, they are:

1. Jayson Werth's 7-year, $126 million deal
2. Cliff Lee signing with the Philadelphia Phillies
3. Kerry Wood's return to the Cubs

Going into this year's Winter Meetings in Florida, I fully anticipated Cliff Lee being the big story. I assumed that the biggest free agent contract penned would fall to either Adrian Gonzalez or Carl Crawford. Now, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford ended up signing with the Boston Red Sox, something I am sure irritates many Yankees fans therefore making many anti-Yankee fans very happy. The reason I mention these deals is because I think they both play into what happened with Jayson Werth.

The Jayson Werth deal

Long before the Phillies ended their season it was pretty obvious that they wouldn't be signing a deal with Werth. His service in the Philly outfield was apparently not worth a huge amount to them and Werth's name became a big one on the free agent market. Jayson Werth, though a power hitter with speed on the bases and an able fielder, is 31 years old. A long term deal for a speedy outfielder isn't necessarily the most wise move. Why? Jayson Werth has maybe 2-3 seasons before he is past his prime. Given how long it took Werth to come into his prime, I tend to think it will come sooner rather than later. So, making the only logical conclusion I could come up with, I assumed that Werth would make the move to the American League, assuring that once past his prime and no longer an asset in the outfield, he could become a designated hitter. Boy was I wrong!

The Nationals, a team that has made very few moves in the last few seasons that amounted to much, swooped in and scooped up Jayson Werth for a ridiculous 7-year, $126 million deal. When the deal was announced, you probably could hear my jaw hitting the ground. $126 million? Are you kidding me?! I'd heard the rumors that Atlanta was interested and I shrugged them off given that Jayson Werth and his stinkin' Phillies have been walloping the Braves for years, especially since 2005. I'd also heard the rumors that the Nats were interested, but I brushed those off as well thinking that the Nats biggest moves of late have been in the draft given how terrible they've played since returning to the capital city (the worst team in the league gets the first choice in the draft, therefore the Nats have scored Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in the last two drafts). I really thought the power players on the market (i.e. the Red Sox, Yankees or even National League Mets) would sign Werth. Never in a million years would I have thought the Nats would put $126 million on the table for anyone, much less an outfielder soon to age and inevitably not be worthy of a 7-year deal. Like I said, jaw-dropping.

Once the Jayson Werth deal was done, the only person more happy than Werth or arguably, his uber agent Scott Boras, was Carl Crawford. Crawford, easily the more desired and more able of the two outfielders as well as 3 years younger than Werth, would suddenly be able to negotiate a hefty 9-digit deal with the team of his choosing. And he did--to the tune of $142 million over 7 years.

The Cliff Lee deal

This was easily the most bizarre trade. Why? It seemed fairly certain that the choices were down to New York and Texas. The Yankees have the money to offer the elite players whatever they're asking and then Texas, no longer inhibited by their bankruptcy situation, was not only Cliff Lee's most recent team, but the team closest to his Arkansas home. Not so fast.

Let's rewind a bit... Remember how Cliff Lee got to Texas in the first place? He'd been traded from the Indians to the Phillies in the 2009 season. The Cy Young winner went to Philly, pitched some amazing baseball in the post season and then when it was all over, the Phillies decided they didn't have the money to keep him around (sounds an awful lot like what happened with Jayson Werth, now that I think about it). The Mariners, in their wisdom, snatched him off the market and planned their return to glory around him. Well, it didn't work out, mostly because we're talking about the Seattle Mariners! Not to be down on the Mariners, but something about buying Cliff Lee and Milton Bradley in the same off-season never made any sense. Add to that the odd departure of Ken Griffey, Jr. and it wasn't a recipe for success. Moving on. Once the Mariners season fell apart and everyone knew that they weren't going to be returning to anything resembling glory, as the summer trade deadline approached, the Texas Rangers made a successful bid for Cliff Lee. All of this because the Phillies didn't think they had the money to keep him.

Now, it would be a mistake not to mention that when the Phillies parted ways with Lee, they turned around and bought perhaps the most dominant pitcher in the game today--Roy Halladay. They didn't have the money for easily the #2 pitcher in the game, but they did for the #1. Then, to top it off, when the trade deadline of 2010 rolled around, they made a successful bid for Roy Oswalt. Not enough money for Lee, huh? Right.

Out of nowhere, when everyone was awaiting a decision for Lee--both the Rangers and the Yankees thinking their proposed deals were the superior and ultimately likely to be agreed to by Lee--an announcement comes that Cliff Lee has come to an agreement with...wait for it...the Philadelphia Phillies!

Keith Olbermann, a baseball mind if there ever was one, titled a post "Off A Cliff" and this was before the Yankees lost out on Cliff Lee. Once the announcement was made that Lee had signed with Philly, Olbermann was left scratching his head about the logic in the Yankees' front office. It isn't even that he didn't sign with the big bucks Bronx Bombers or that he abandoned a scenario that worked for him in Texas, it's that it is Philly. Philly, the team that didn't want to spend the money on him to keep him, but had no problem shelling out the money for Halladay and Oswalt. Philly, for crying out loud.

It wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention how bad the Cliff Lee deal is for the National League East and therefore my Braves. A four-man rotation in Philly will now include 4 of the best pitchers in the game. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Cole Hamels. When Hamels is your weakest starting pitcher, you're not going to lose too many games due to your starting pitching staff. The pressure will now fall on Philly's bullpen and the teams in the National League East who will be facing this monstrosity of a pitching staff. Maybe this is payback--the Braves did dominate the N.L. East for years with a pitching staff that included Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine and John Smoltz. It could make for a helluva long season in Atlanta.

What remains a bit unknown in the Cliff Lee deal is this: Why Philly? Not only did he take less money to go to Philly than he would have with the Yanks or Rangers, the distance from home is much more than Texas would have been. His wife didn't like the weather in Dallas where it's hot. How does she feel about snow? And, if his wife didn't like the traffic in Dallas, good luck to her in Philly where they not only have cut throat drivers, but a cut throat towing industry.

The Cliff Lee trade, though expected to be the headliner at the Winter Meetings, turns out to be the strangest trade of the off-season.

The Kerry Wood deal

Today the Cubs have announced that they've arrived at a one-year deal with reliever Kerry Wood. Yes, that Kerry Wood. What in god's name are they thinking?!

Look, I understand that a Cubs fan has a love/hate relationship with his/her team. I also understand that the Cubs have made some stupid moves, but seriously, Kerry Wood? Did they suddenly forget that agony that Kerry Wood brought to the team when he was there the first time around?

From 1995 to 2008, Kerry Wood's name was synonymous with Cubs' heartbreak. His inability to stay healthy as a starting pitcher is precisely why Kerry Wood is now a reliever. Let's review why Kerry Wood's name was synonymous with heartbreak. In 1998, Wood missed the last month of the season with an elbow problem. In 1999, Wood had Tommy John surgery that required the usual year-long recovery. When he did return to the mound in 2000, he was nothing like the fireballer that came up with the Cubs. In 2004, Wood missed at least two months with a strained triceps. In August of 2005, Wood had surgery on his knee (an injury caused by falling out of a hot tub)and missed the remainder of the season. When Wood returned in late-May of 2006, he started having shoulder problems and by June was on the disabled list, eventually missing the rest of the season with a torn rotator cuff. Finally, in 2007 the Cubs sent Wood to the bullpen. But Wood never really made much of an impact in the bullpen because beginning in Spring Training he was experiencing elbow pain. He was sent down to the minors after yet another stint on the d.l. and didn't return to the majors until that August. When 2008 rolled around, Wood had a superb season out of the bullpen, that is until he got a blister on his finger and went to the d.l. again. Not surprisingly, unless you count the surprise of how long the Cubs held on to him, the Cubs announced they would not be re-signing Wood and he ended up with the Indians.

If you're a Cubs fan (first, you have my sympathy), you need no reminder of what happened to Kerry Wood while in a Cubs uniform. He went from being the most talked about pitcher in the game, the guy with the natural talent and the ability to become the greatest pitcher of his generation, to being the perennial bench warmer. Cubs fans need no reminder, but does the front office in Chicago? Apparently so.

Maybe Kerry Wood turned down better offers to return to the Cubs because he felt he owed it to the Cubs to return and be a productive pitcher out of the bullpen. They only offered him a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Whatever Kerry Wood's intentions are, you better believe that beginning today every fan of the Cubbies is holding their breath once again when it comes to Kerry Wood. And, Cubs fans don't need to pass out from all the breath holding they'll be doing not only with Wood out of the bullpen, but their erratic closer Carlos Marmol and sometimes-starter, sometimes Gatorade machine bashing reliever Carlos Zambrano. Wood may take the mound with the ability and dominance he showed last season with the Yankees, but history is history and every Cubs fan is all too familiar with the other side of the coin.

Kerry Wood could turn out to be a disaster for the Cubs not once, but twice.

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