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January 10, 2008 at 3:24 PM

How many players away?

So, a Lamborghini owner walks into a bar and says to the Pinto owner…ah, never mind. Let’s talk about baseball players and what it takes to make the post-season. That seems to be what drove yesterday’s marathon debate over the merits of trading Adam Jones and others to the Orioles for lefty pitcher Erik Bedard. First off, let me say how great it is to see so many new names coming on here, like Alaskan, Pete, Chip 1010, Bsstecks, John and others. Wow, you folks must be sipping coffee from the “leaded” thermos to be able to hang in there as long as you all have. Welcome back to the prolific posters, like Adam, ScottM, Oregongal and Merrill. You’ll all be happy to know the Mariners have just re-signed reliever Chris Reitsma to a minor league deal. Now, back to the post.
As I mentioned, what seems to be driving this debate is exactly how close the Mariners are to being a serious post-season contender. The pro-trade camp, which includes myself, feels Bedard could help make this squad a real contender. Those opposed to the deal feel that two years of Bedard won’t bring the team any closer to the post-season and will result in the trading away of Jones and maybe Carlos Triunfel, along with some others. I saw someone write yesterday that you can’t compare the current Mariners situation with that of the Red Sox, who, two years ago, gave away a couple of top prospects for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. The argument is that those Red Sox were only “a player or two” away from the World Series while the Mariners are not.
Interesting argument. But does it carry any weight? Let’s take a look.

First off, the Red Sox did not win the World Series the season following the Beckett trade. In fact, they did not even make the playoffs. They finished third in the AL East behind New York and Toronto. Now, I know, that injuries helped derail Boston’s season. The Red Sox truly were the second best team in the division that season before a late-August/September collapse.
That said, they were never alone in first place after July of that year. And that was in the same division as the “aging” and “washed up” New York Yankees. But let’s look at the idea that the Red Sox were only “a player or two” away from the World Series when the Beckett deal went down.
Boston’s lineup throughout 2005 featured Kevin Millar at first base, Mark Bellhorn at second, Bill Mueller at third, Edgar Renteria at shortstop, Johnny Damon in center field and Trot Nixon in right. Most of those players were holdovers from Boston’s championship run a year earlier, while Renteria had been with the finalist Cardinals. On the mound, David Wells, Matt Clement and Bronson Arroyo each made more than 30 starts. Keith Foulke was the closer, Alan Embree the situational lefty and Mike Myers and Matt Mantei there for middle relief.
I think some of you know what I am getting at.
Just two years later, when the Red Sox again hoisted their World Series trophy, none of those names were still around. We’re talking about six of the nine regulars, three of the five starting pitchers, two of the three guys in the back of the bullpen and two more relievers. In other words, 13 of the 20 non-backup personnel would ultimately change. Sounds like a team that was more than “a player or two” away from winning another title.
Sure, the Red Sox that year went out and won 95 games and made the post-season again. But they got bounced in the first round and there were some warning signs that changes were needed, one being that they had won five games more than their Pythagorean Expectation. Still, the Red Sox went out and traded top prospects Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez to the Marlins for Beckett and Lowell. Beckett’s credentials at the time, other than his post-season exploits in 2003, were not any better than Bedard’s are right now.
In the three seasons prior to the trade, Beckett’s ERA+ was:
2003 — 138
2004 — 108
2005 — 118
Bedard’s ERA+ the past three seasons has been:
2005 — 108
2006 — 121
2007 — 146
While Bedard has gotten progressively better, pitching in a tougher league, Beckett seemed to take a small step backward in the NL. Of course, this is just an ERA snapshot and both are very good pitchers, though I’d argue Bedard was better last season until his injury. Just trying to show this as an apples-to-apples comparison. Folks have every reason to believe Bedard will be just as good in Seattle as they believed Beckett would be for the Red Sox.
And the Beckett move was no slam-dunk either. There was a huge outcry in Boston over the talent being lost in dealing a future perenial all-star infielder like Ramirez. It didn’t help when Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2006 while the Red Sox did indeed fall off their win total, dipping down to 86 wins with a Pythagorean expectation of 81-81.
Do you think that, 15 months ago, anyone was lauding the Red Sox for acquiring Beckett? Were any Red Sox fans patting their GM on the back, saying it was all OK, that they knew their club was only “a player or two” away from the World Series? Of course not. Because the Red Sox had indeed been several players away from another World Seires when they made the Beckett deal. Some of that transition began in 2006, when in-house answers like Jonathan Papelbon stepped in to be the full-time closer. Kevin Youkilis became the full-time first baseman. Lowell came over in the Beckett deal and replaced Mueller at third. Coco Crisp was acquired to play center after Damon left to join the Yankees. Alex Gonzalez was brought in to play shortstop.
Curt Schilling came back from an injury-plagued 2005 and was one of only two Boston pitchers, along with Beckett, to start more than 30 games. But Beckett’s ERA+ of only 95, in his first full AL season, highlighted the risks Boston took in bringing Beckett over from the NL.
By last season, more changes to Red Sox personnel had occured. The big one was the Red Sox acquiring starter Daisuke Matsuzaka and reliever Hideki Okajima via free-agency. Another change was the addition of rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia and yet another shortstop, this time Julio Lugo. J.D. Drew was imported to play right field in place of Trot Nixon.
So, the idea that the Red Sox were a player or two away from a World Series title when the Beckett deal went down is a fallacy.
The notion that they added another World Series because of homegrown talent is also a fallacy. Yes, they added Pedroia, Youkilis and Papelbon from their farm system. But they also, between 2005 and 2007, brought in Beckett, Crisp and Lowell via trades, while adding Matsuzaka, Okajima, Drew and Lugo via free-agency. That’s a lot of money spent and talent given up.
Everything is a gamble. When the Red Sox made the Beckett deal, there was still a wholesale roster makeover yet to come before the team would qualify for the post-season. Sure, it helps to have David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez around. But that alone was not going to be enough. You still need pitching to win in the AL and the Red Sox felt they didn’t have enough. There was no budding Felix Hernandez equivalent in Boston, ready to begin his third full year, which is why the Matsuzaka deal later on was also needed.
The point of all this? There is no surefire way to build a roster. Everything in baseball is fluid and even the best of plans can change. Sometimes, you make the move and take the chance when an opportunity presents itself.
Let’s see which other World Series winners this past decade were more than a “player or two” away from a title a year before they won it all.
How about Anaheim in 2002? The 2001 team went 75-87 the year before winning 99 games and the World Series title. Were they a player or two away?
The Florida Marlins won it all in 2003. One year earlier, they were 79-83.
What about the 2005 Chicago White Sox? They went 83-79 the year before winning 99 games and the whole thing. No one thought they were “a player or two” away.
What about the 2006 Detroit Tigers, finalists in the World Series and who probably would have won it all if not for scheduling quirks in the post-season. They went 71-91 in 2005 (one less victory than the previous year), before winning 95 and nearly taking the whole thing a season later.
So, are the 88-win Mariners really that far away from post-season contention if they secure Bedard’s services? Plenty has been made about their runs for/runs against differential and that their Pythagorean expectation was more in-line with that of a 78-win team. Fair enough. Here are the Pythagorean expectations of the four World Series winners/finalists I just mentioned in the year prior to their playoff runs.
Only the White Sox, with an expected 84 wins for 2004 — the year before their title — came in higher than the Mariners did last season.
Yes, some of those teams had youth movements in place. Others, like the White Sox, made some smart trades. And no, Bedard is not guaranteed to be around Seattle for the five years Beckett will spend in Boston. But hey, one year into Beckett’s deal, plenty of folks in Boston were thinking it was for four years too long.
Bottom line? A team does not have to be a 90-game winner one season in order to make the World Series the next. Which, to me, is why using that “player or two” away argument to negate dealing for one of the better pitchers in the game is not convincing. Want to argue that Adam Jones is the second coming of Ken Griffey Jr. or Mickey Mantle? Fine. I’ll counter that you have to give up talent to get talent and grab any window you can see opening. We’ll agree to disagree.
Carlos Triunfel? Talk to me when he turns 19 and reaches Class AA ball. I don’t care how great his projections are. He’s yet to hit a home run outside of the Dominican sandlots and his value may never be higher to anyone than it is right now. Sure, he might be the next Alex Rodriguez. Or, the next Alex Cora. At his age, no one knows and that’s the beauty of the prospects speculation game. But if Triunfel is the cost of keeping Brandon Morrow and still landing Bedard, I’ll take the pitcher who already put up a pretty good rookie season in the majors ahead of an infielder who may not help this team win before 2012.
Sorry. I know that will leave some of you feeling out of sorts. But there’s a time to value your prospects and a time to use them to better the present. Not all of Seattle’s farmhands are going directly to the Hall of Fame. I can live with the names I’m seeing bandied about.
Especially since the next two years have yet to be carved out in stone. Not in the AL West. Not in the AL wild-card race. Not with a pitcher of Bedard’s abilities up-for-grabs.



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