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Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.
Leave it me to insert my size-12 foot squarely into my mouth. Just a few hours after complaining of a lack of trades (or even trade rumors) this spring, major league teams executed three deals on Friday. None of the trades were blockbusters, but they all included players who could potentially make Opening Day rosters. Two of the deals involved the same player, catcher Ronny Paulino, who was first traded by the Phillies to the Giants for lefty reliever Jack Taschner before being peddled to the Marlins for a minor league right-hander. In the other trade of the day, A’s general manager Billy Beane, always one to ditch convention, acquired catcher Curtis Thigpen from the Blue Jays for a player to be named later. And with all of that, the A’s, Marlins, Phillies, and Giants showed just little I know about changing trends.
Paulino’s situation is particularly interesting. While it’s been fairly common for players to move to two different teams as part of a three-way deal, I can’t remember a player being involved in two separate trades on the same day. Paulino has now been traded three times in the span of four months, dating back to the wintertime deal that saw the Phillies acquire him from the Pirates. At one point, the Phillies envisioned him as their backup catcher to Carlos Ruiz, but Paulino hit terribly this spring while piling up too many strikeouts and too little contact. The Phillies claim that they had no problems with Paulino’s weight or work ethic–which were major issues during his years in Pittsburgh–but I have to wonder if Philly is just being polite here. Whatever the case, Paulino will now serve as Florida’s No. 2 catcher, a backup to young John Baker.
In the meantime, let’s wait and see if Friday’s dealing leads to a few more trades between now and Opening Day, now just over a week away. As for any more predictions, I’ll stay out of that business for now.
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In all my years following baseball closely–a state of mind
that dates back to the mid-1970s–I can’t ever recall a spring training so
devoid of trade rumors as this one. There seems to be so few actual trade
discussion going on between general managers that even the rumors have dried
up, even the ones that are made up by those of us with usually creative minds.
In reality, this year’s quiet spring is simply a continuation of what we’ve
seen in recent years. There have been very few spring trades of substance over
the last decade. The last major spring deal I can remember involved the Reds
and Red Sox, who swapped Wily Mo Pena for Bronson Arroyo back in 2006. And even
that, while a significant trade, was hardly a blockbuster.
So why has the spring become such a dead time for dealing? I think a few
causes, each interrelated to the other, are at the root of this trend.
*Major league teams, more so than ever, have become conscious of dealing with
budgets. Budgets are set during the winter, allowing for the signing of free
agents and a significant trade or two for each team. By the time spring
training starts, teams simply do not want to increase the levels of their
budgets. Even if a talented veteran player becomes available, it becomes
problematic because of the expense of bringing in an expensive contract past
*The numbers game has become a bigger factor. By the middle of spring training, teams
are looking to cut down their rosters, as part of the master objective to pare
down to the 25-man limit by Opening Day. With most teams looking to reduce
rather than increase their roster numbers, it becomes more difficult to make
trades, especially involving players who are out of minor league options. If
you are going to trade for a veteran player, you have to be sure that he
represents an upgrade over the existing player at that position–and you have
to be certain you will have room for him on your 25-man roster.
*Teams, more than ever before, believe that they can find cheaper solutions to
their talent problems by relying on their minor league prospects. I’ve heard at
least three general managers or managers make the following statement this
spring: “We believe the answer to Problem X is right here in camp.”
This refrain has become so common that it’s almost become cliche. Sometimes, I
think the general managers are deluding themselves when they make this kind of
remark. A minor league player currently in camp might provide a cheaper answer
to a problem, but he might not necessarily provide a good answer…
One of the few players who has been mentioned in various rumor mills is Melky Cabrera. The Yankees’ onetime center fielder of the future has
drawn interest from the White Sox, a scenario that speaks volumes about Chicago’s center field
quagmire. Brian Anderson, Jerry Owens, and Dewayne Wise all have questionable
resumes and have failed to advance their causes through slapdash spring
performances. The White Sox like Cabrera’s defense and throwing skills, but I
have to wonder how much they would offer for a player who was an offensive nonentity
for most of 2008. If the ChiSox were willing to fork over a young catcher or a
third baseman, the Yankees might have to
take the bait. The power and bat speed displayed by Austin Jackson this spring,
along with Brett Gardner’s rejuvenated swing, have the Yankees thinking better about
their center field depth, thereby making Cabrera more expendable. By trading
Cabrera, who is out of options, the Yankees could also open up a roster spot
for another infielder or a third catcher…
The Washington Nationals, amidst an already turbulent spring, are facing another quandary created by departed GM Jim Bowden. It seems that Bowden made a handshake deal with first baseman Dmitri Young over the winter, guaranteeing the veteran a spot on the Opening Day roster. But Young is overweight and generally out of shape, and happens to play a position where the Nats are already heavily stocked with Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn. Simply put, the Nationals don’t need Young, whose presence would create flexibility problems on a roster that is already lacking in talent. So what should the Nationals do? Given that Bowden departed because of his alleged involvement in skimming bonuses from Dominican players, I think the Nats are well within their rights to tell Young that his handshake deal departed when Bowden departed.
One of these days, someone will give Matt Murton 500 at-bats and reap the benefits of 30 home runs and a slugging percentage near .500. The Rockies have become the latest team presented with such a chance, after acquiring Murton from the A’s for speedy minor league infielder Aaron Weberly. This could be a perfect fit for Murton. He’ll have a chance to compete for the everyday left field job, with the prospect of playing half of his games at Coors Field. I hope that Murton receives that opportunity soon, because he’s already 27 and probably mentally worn by the lack of regular playing time in both Oakland and Chicago. If the Rockies are smart, they’ll put Murton in left, keep Ryan Spilborghs in center, and watch the two young outfielders put up huge power numbers. As for their defensive abilities, well that’s another story, but the Rockies have to do something to make up for the loss of Matt Holliday and the decline of Todd Helton…
In the meantime, the Yankees and Brewers made a smaller trade on Wednesday, with New York sending left-hander Chase Wright to Milwaukee for minor league catcher-outfielder Eric Fryer. This deal makes good sense for both organizations. Wright had become frozen out by the Yankees’ depth of pitching prospects, but he’s a tough kid who’s done nothing but win since that infamous game in which he gave up four consecutive home runs to the Red Sox. Furthermore, left-handers tend to be late bloomers, at the age of 26, Wright could blossom at the back end of Milwaukee’s rotation.
The Yankees also did well here. They have so many pitching prospects, but need help everywhere else in the system, including catcher and outfield, the two positions that Fryer plays. Fryer has offensive skills; he led the Sally League in both on-base percentage and OPS and could move up to Double-A ball this summer…
Finally, I was saddened to see that Baseball Toaster (www.baseballtoaster.com) has closed its doors. The writers at the Toaster have not made exactly clear the reasons for shutting down the site, but the recent loss of the popular “Bronx Banter” followed by this week’s departure of “Dodger Thoughts” apparently motivated the decision. Whatever the reasoning, it’s really too bad because the site’s format made it extremely readable and the quality of the writing made it an enjoyable experience.
Did the Mets overpay in giving Oliver Perez a three-year contract worth $36 million? Absolutely. I would have gone no higher than $30 million over three years. Do the Mets need a pitcher like Perez to make a run at the Phillies? Yes, because a starting rotation that features Tim Redding as the No. 4 starter and Freddy Garcia as the No. 5 simply would have carried too much risk. Now the Mets can slot Perez in at No. 4, and allow veterans Redding and Garcia to battle young left-hander Jonathan Niese for the fifth spot. So do the Mets now have enough to make themselves the favorites over the Phillies in the NL East? The answer to that question is no.
The Mets are still one hitter short of the Phillies. They have offensive question marks at three positions (catcher, second base, and left field) and concerns in right field (where Ryan Church will be trying to come back from serious concussion problems). Right now, the Mets are relying too heavily on four offensive players–Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran. If one of those four comes down with a significant injury, or if Delgado starts to show his age, they will have trouble being one of the elite offensive clubs in the National League. Even with all four healthy and productive, their lineup lacks a quality No. 2 hitter and balance at the bottom of the order. Omar Minaya needs to address this situation, whether it’s on the high end with Manny Ramirez, something in the middle with Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu, or something at the bargain end in Ty Wigginton. Otherwise, the Mets look like a second-place team to me…
The value of baseball players can be as volatile as the stock market. A year ago, Cubs left-hander Rich Hill was a desirable commodity, coming off an 11-win season in which he struck nearly one batter per inning and kept his ERA under 4.00. Now he’s been traded off low, sent to the Orioles for a player to be named later, which doesn’t figure to be much more than a B or C-level prospect.
So what happened to Hill? He tried the patience of Lou Piniella by falling behind in counts and walking too many batters, which is just about the surest way to make “Sweet Lou” sour. (The other way is to schedule Piniella’s Cubs in the Hall of Fame Game.) Hill, though, figures to be a good risk for the Orioles. He won’t turn 29 until March, still has good stuff, and might benefit from having a more patient manager in Dave Tremblay. This looks like a sensible and potentially profitable move for the O’s…
Coming on the heels of the passing of former reliever Frank Williams, who died as a homeless alcoholic in January, it looks like we have another sad story involving a former major leaguer. Craig Stimac, a burly catcher who played briefly for the Padres in 1980 and 1981, died on either January 15 or 16 in Italy, possibly from a suicide. Details are sketchy regarding the passing of Stimac, who became somewhat of an Italian League legend in the late 1980s before remaining in the country as a businessman. Like Williams, Stimac was a young man who had apparently fallen on hard times. Stimac was 54.
There has never been a time in baseball history when players have been less willing to switch positions. This past week, Michael Young put up an enormous fuss when the Rangers told him they wanted to move him to third base to make room for top prospect Elvis Andrus. Young became so upset that he asked the Rangers to trade him.
A few days ago, Young did an about-face. He said he would willingly move to third base. What’s that saying about “better late than never?” Well, good for Young that he finally came to his senses, even if his initial reaction was that of a spoiled child.
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but doesn’t it seem like no player today is willing to switch positions without making a federal production about it? Just consider the Alfonso Soriano debacle a few years back with the Nationals, when Frank Robinson practically had to plant Soriano in left field. Players have become more rigid, more territorial about the positions they play, to the point that they throw logic and team considerations to the wolves. Young’s defenders will point to the Gold Glove he won this year for playing shortstop; scouts, talent evaluators, and Sabermetricians alike will tell you that Young’s Gold Glove was undeserving, that he won it more on his offensive reputation, along with the lack of high-grade defensive shortstops in the American League. They will also tell you that the Rangers’ poor infield defense was one of the team’s many problems in 2008.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think that it’s wise for teams to first approach a player about the possibility of playing a new position rather than merely issue an edict from above. But if the move makes logical sense–and there’s nothing inherently illogical about sliding a shortstop over to third base, given the similarities of the two positions–and gives the chance the team to better itself defensively, then the club has every right to make the move. It’s not as if the Rangers asked Young to make some kind of radical switch, like becoming a catcher or a pitcher. That would be both illogical and unreasonable.
Due to this inflexible attitude toward playing different positions, players have become less versatile today. That’s unfortunate because the athletes of today are better and more highly trained then previous generations of major leaguers and therefore more capable of making the switch from one position to another. And with teams carrying more and more pitchers on their rosters these days, position players are required to be more versatile to cover all eight defensive slots in the field.
Simply put, players need to be more willing to do what the team needs in switching up positions. Sometimes that involves admitting that advancing age has changed their ability to play a certain position, just as it did with Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, and Cal Ripken in past years. Heck, if Hall of Fame shortstops like Banks, Yount, and Ripken could switch positions (to first base, center field, and third base respectively) then anybody should be willing to try doing so for the betterment of the team. The team–and the entire game–would be better off…
Continuing a recent infatuation with young Cubs center fielders, the Orioles acquired Felix Pie from Chicago over the weekend, sending major league lefty Garrett Olson and Class-A right-hander Henry Williamson to the Windy City. Will Pie end up like Corey Patterson, another disappointing Cubs outfield prospect who failed to develop in Baltimore? Possibly, but Pie is faster, potentially the better defender, and won’t turn 24 until next month. If Pie ends up left field, the Orioles will have one of the better defensive outfields in the American League, with the athletic Adam Jones manning center and the strong-armed Nick Markakis in right field. The Orioles will then have to find a spot for sweet-swinging Luke Scott, who played left field last year, but could see time as both a DH and first baseman.
I suppose this deal is further worth the risk for the O’s given how badly Olson pitched last year. Olson, 25, needed to get away from Camden Yards and the power-packed American League East; he’ll also have a chance to work with an accomplished pitching coach in Larry Rothschild. Both of those factors should help him lower his 6.65 ERA from last summer. The acquisition of Olson might also put the Cubs in a better position to reopen trade talks with the Padres about Jake Peavy. The Padres like Olson a lot and consider him a major piece to a potential package for their Cy Young-caliber right-hander…
Last week’s election of Rickey Henderson and Big Jim Rice to the Hall of Fame figures to give the village of Cooperstown a boost in tourism this summer, especially when compared with the meager turnout for the 2008 induction. Fewer than 10,000 fans visited Cooperstown for the induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams, despite Gossage’s obvious connection to the Yankees. This year’s induction attendance could double last year’s total–and not because of Henderson’s superstar presence. Given the distance between Cooperstown and Oakland, the team with which Rickey is most associated, it’s likely that few A’s fans will make the trek to Cooperstown. There will be a much larger contingent of Red Sox faithful in town for the long-awaited induction of Rice, who played his entire career in Beantown. Boston is a mere four hours away from Cooperstown; the Hall of Fame is already a convenient destination for members of Red Sox Nation, and that will only intensify during the Summer of Rice.
Hey, who invited Whitey Herzog to the party?
After a slow start, activity has picked up considerably at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. First, there was the news that the Yankees had reached agreement with CC Sabathia on a $160 million contract (an agreement that actually took place in San Francisco) and now we have a three-team, nine-player blockbuster involving the Mariners, Indians, and the Mets. The headliner in the deal, J.J. Putz, will be heading to New York to serve as Francisco’s Rodriguez setup man, completing a whirlwind 48-hour remake of the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen. Here are the final destinations of all the players involved:
*Mets: receive Putz, outfielder Jeremy Reed and reliever Sean Green
*Mariners: receive minor league first baseman Mike Carp, outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, and right-hander Aaron Heilman
*Indians: receive right-hander Joe Smith and minor league second baseman Luis Valbuena
My thoughts on the deal? The Mets gave up a large quantity of players to acquire essentially Putz (since Reed and Green don’t have much value), but didn’t have to part with any of their top-tier prospects, so it’s a good gamble for Omar Minaya. Given Putz’ relative youth and live arm, he is a needed addition for a Mets’ bullpen that struggled as much in the seventh and eighth innings as it did in the ninth. Heilman was never going to succeed in the bullpen because of his desire to start, while Chavez was always going to be relegated to a fourth outfield spot. The hard part for the Mets was giving up Smith, a competent reliever, and Carp, who might have been the heir apparent to Carlos Delgado.
The Mariners, who have holes throughout their roster, may be plugging all of their newcomers into prominent roles immediately. Heilman will move into the rotation, Chavez and Gutierrez could become starting outfielders (or at least platoon partners), and Carp could be the Opening Day first baseman or DH. If Heilman can develop as a starter and Carp becomes a productive platoon player, then this deal could work for Seattle…
Sabathia’s deal with the Yankees is interesting on several fronts. From a monetary standpoint, it’s the richest deal ever given a pitcher. It’s also a classic case of the Yankees bidding against themselves, which is not exactly the textbook way to conduct business. From a baseball standpoint, it gives the Yankees their first legitimate No. 1 starter since Roger Clemens’ peak days in pinstripes. Sabathia also becomes the best left-hander the Yankees have had since the prime of Ron Guidry, which happened only about 25 years ago…
The Yankees have also made offers to both A.J. Burnett (five years) and Derek Lowe (four years and $66 million). If Brian Cashman is lucky, the injury-prone Burnett will turn down the deal and Lowe will accept, giving the Yankees an excellent No. 2 starter for their revamped rotation. If both Burnett and Lowe accept Yankee offers, then Andy Pettitte’s career in pinstripes will likely have come to an end…
One other Yankee rumor. They continue to talk to the Cardinals about Rick Ankiel, who would fill a major hole in center field. St. Louis is said to like Ian Kennedy as part of a package, which could also include Melky Cabrera and perhaps one other player (Chris Britton?)…
Finally, one other minor trade did get done on Wednesday. The Phillies acquired backup catcher Ronny Paulino from the Pirates in exchange for a minor leaguer, fueling speculation that the world champions will send Chris Coste to the Cubs as part of a deal for Mark DeRosa. The Phillies like DeRosa as a temporary fill-in for the injured Chase Utley and a possible fulltime candidate to replace Pat “The Bat” Burrell in left field.