Monday, August 08, 2005

Something for nothing, get your arms for free


I don't reread or readily recall Bill James' old Baseball Abstracts so that I can quote them like Pauline epistles or commit to memory the 450 different versions of (King?) James' runs created measurement. Likewise, I don't cite James' work as a bludgeoning debate trump card or to evoke halos of eternal truth. Rather, I believe James' old books are most worthwhile for imagination and entertainment and, relevant to this post, helpful observations on how the Grand Game is played and evaluated.

Consider, for instance, this passage (with commentary by blogger Rich Lederer)from the '88 Abstract, in which James discussed the Seattle Mariners, who were giving away talent for little or no gain:


James compares his days in the military when “generals were in the habit of thinking of manpower as a free resource” to the Seattle Mariners, who “treat talent as if it were a free resource.” At the time, the Mariners had a streak of 11 consecutive losing seasons — the longest since the Kansas City A’s run of ineptitude ended in 1967 — and it was James’ belief that it was “due to the organization’s failure to perceive a simple reality: that young men who can play baseball are precious to baseball teams. You shouldn’t give one away unless you also acquire one.”

It is fitting, then, that recent moves by the Washington Nationals jogged my memory of this passage.

To recap, here is what Jim Bowden has wrought in a matter of days:

---> Recalled outfielder Matt Cepicky from New Orleans; pitcher Sunny Kim did not slip through waivers and was claimed by the Colorado Rockies.
---> Designated Cepicky for assignment; recalled outfielder Brandon Watson from New Orleans.

In the process, the Nats lost Kim for nothing and could, conceivably, lose Cepicky (though that pill is not as hard to swallow), perhaps for nothing as well. That's a good bit of nothing.

Now, if you were to write an apologia for Bodes, you could approach this from any number of ways:

a) Who cares? These guys stink.
b) We'll grant you that Kim's okay, but this team needs offense, not pitching. So bye-bye.
c) Oh, come on! Cepicky's not worth much, and if Watson were coming up anyway, Kim would still be gone. You're putting form ahead of substance.
d) Mr. Boswell, what are we gonna do about this MASN/Comcast thing?


---> Argument a), I'll get to in a moment.

---> Argument b), while containing more than a mere nugget of truth (how can you win without scoring any runs?), is too simplistic for my taste. As such, my response to this one will incorporate by reference my forthcoming response to the first one.

---> Argument c), I'll concede, is rather compelling; it's related to the fairly well-founded belief, I think, that transaction analysis-type considerations are flawed by a tempest-in-a-teapot tendency of overblowing who's the 25th man on a roster or who's the last reliever in the bullpen, and somesuch. (I'd link to the actual Transaction Analysis column at Baseball Prospectus, but that's all premium content.) And, like I indicated, there's some truth in that, I believe; it's easy to get in a huff over transaction procedure, because it's one area that doesn't require scouting- or inside baseball-experience to comprehend. Still, even if you do reduce the transactions down to Kim-for-Watson, it's possible that the trade-off needn't have been either-or on such a literal level; Bodes' statements to the contrary, I'm guessing there's a decent chance that bum-winged Jose Guillen, whose MRI has a one-way ticket punched to James Andrews' Birmingham sports medicine lair, might end up being put on the disabled list, thus opening a spot for the much-hyped Watson.

---> As for Argument d), I'd recommend a trap-door, a mildewy pit, and the Rancor.

What I'm working to, if you couldn't tell, is some angst over giving away Sunny Kim for free. It's becoming a pattern, you know. Earlier in the season, the Nats gave away Claudio Vargas, also for free. (Much as I might like, I'm not going to kick Bodes in the teeth over Vargas' recent success. I can't in good faith. At any rate, my objection is on principle, not results---facially, not as-applied.) I'd surmise that had James written the essay above nearly two decades later, he'd write it about the 2005 Washington Nationals.

Vargas

In 2003, at the age of 25, Vargas pitched 114 innings to the tune of a 115 ERA+. Last season, hampered by injury, Vargas tossed 118 innings for an admittedly quite poor 79 ERA+. He got off to a late and wretched start for the Nats this season and, just prior to his 27th birthday, was shipped to Arizona. For nothing.

Has there ever been a pitcher who, before his 27th birthday, logged at least 100 big league innings in back-to-back seasons and was let go by his team for literally nothing? I don't know the answer to that, so let's just say it's a rhetorical question. If I were to venture a guess, though, I'd suspect it was because the past pitcher(s) had suffered an injury and couldn't pitch at all. That is not the case with Vargas, though.

Kim

Last season, at age 26, Kim pitched 135 innings for the Expos. That was second on the staff (well behind ¡LIVAN! , of course). They were rather mediocre innings all told, and Kim doesn't have "STARDOM" imprinted on the bill of his cap, but he has to be worth something. The Rockies acquired him for nothing. Perhaps he rooms on road trips with Zach Day (see below).

In Vargas and Kim, Jim Bowden let go of two guys who are now 27 years old and who combined to throw about 250 innings last season---and he let them go for nothing, combined. I'm fairly confident that the combination of age, innings, and return are fairly unprecedented in modern baseball. To top it off, Bowden didn't even need to let go of Vargas; as Chris noted intrepidly at the time, the guy still had minor league options, for crying out loud!

So, if you want to play the "Who cares about pitching?---this team needs hitting!" card, fine. Just realize that the Nats literally gave away two pretty young pitchers, who were lapped up almost instantly. What does that tell you?

And, not to further this rant beyond its score, but the Nats gave up Zach Day, a guy with tangible trade value, for an unimpressive rent-a-slugger who has worlds of trouble chasing fly balls and---if Bodes is to be believe regarding Guillen's health---will soon be looking at fourth outfielder status. (I'm not even going to mention the Ohka-for-Spivey trade, which seems fair, since I gave it my blessing at the time. Even if I were inclined to excoriate it now---and the thought is tempting---I'd defer to those better qualified on the subject.)

Well, that's enough for that. None of these guys is, as the saying goes, headed to Cooperstown without paying admission. Of course, that's a ridiculously high standard by which to judge transactions. Vargas and Kim and Day and Spivey (and Cepicky and J.J. Davis, too, though I won't lament their departures) are all gone; the only guy received in return who is likely to return next season is Ryan Drese, who was acquired collaterally.


______________

As I've noted before, one happy byproduct of the Nats' arrival is that my hometown newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has rediscovered that a big league baseball season is more than an occasional thing. In past seasons, the T-D's coverage of the Braves and the Orioles was seasonal---by which I mean Opening Day and pennant races, with infrequent mid-summer check-ins. There's been somewhat more coverage of the A-Braves, both because they've been much better for the past decade or so and, of course, because they are the parent team of our minor league club. (In fact, the A-Braves literally "own" the R-Braves.)

While Braves' fans whined at the outset of the season that "Richmond is still Braves' Country," I figured that the Nats would only expand the T-D's MLB coverage, not cut into the Braves beat. And that has indeed been the case, though I had no idea the extent to which that prediction would come true. Whereas the sports section would incorporate an infrequent column on major league matters (and, more often than not, a "Sunday Punch" column on some hypocritical aspect of MLB), nowadays baseball columns are exceedingly common. The Nats, to my delight, get a lot of play in the Richmond paper (thanks, I think, to the childhood memories of a couple of columnists), but the Braves also receive more columnist attention. I think the attention devoted to the O's is similar to the past, though recent events have pushed them into the forefront again.

Like I said, MORE BASEBALL = GOOD THING.

Today, John Markon (who is pretty up on the National Pastime, I perceive) takes a look at the team's chemistry problems. (Chicken-egg comments regarding "team chemistry" can be saved for another post.) Despite the increased baseball devotion in Richmond, let's just say there's nothing like following the big leaguers every single day. From Markon's column:


"Relationships change during the season, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse," Robinson said. "What we had in the first half was close to ideal. If you hit a patch like we've had, you're going to have some outbreaks of 'whatever.'"
In the Nats' case, "whatever" could be your basic clubhouse division between hitters and pitchers, probably inevitable on a team that's last in the major leagues in home runs and runs scored.

Markon provides us an interesting and reasonable thought, of course, but it's probably off-the-mark just the same. Instead, we now know that two outfielders have been feuding.

Aw heck, maybe the pitchers and hitters are feuding at each other, too, come to think of it. Several grievances can be articulated during 104 minute, closed-door team meetings, I'm sure.

Man, I've got to think of something positive for the next post . . .

Comments:
Nice post, Basil, and it reminds me of a question I was thinking about over the weekend: Is the market for baseball talent efficient? It seems to me to be unequivocally yes, as James pointed out, and as we see other teams quickly snap up our discards, as you point out. In other words, there are no pockets of players who could succeed in the majors who no one has identified. And even if there were, Bodes certainly wouldn't find them!
 
As a Reds fan, just be prepared for anything with Bowden.
 
It's an interesting question, DM. I suppose one could argue that it might not have been unequivocally in the recent past -- why else would Roberto Petagine (and his secondary average ilk) inspire such passion?

I agree that Bodes isn't going to expose any inefficiency, though!
 
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