Diamond Deliberations: Some 2009 'What Ifs' for the Average Fan

Will NortonCorrespondent IJune 23, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 15: Tim Wakefield #49 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Oakland Athletics during a Major League Baseball game on April 15, 2009 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

It's almost July. That means we have almost three months of MLB highlights, wins, losses, and data at our disposal. From this we can draw conclusions, project outcomes, and try to figure out the Rubik's Cube that is the 2009 baseball season.

Some may find this exercise pointless seeing as how three months and more 90 games of baseball remain. Well, if NBC can find substance and an audience while airing the abomination that is "I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here," then nothing—I mean NOTHING—is pointless.

Here are some what-if scenarios that got me thinking as we approach the dog days of summer and the onslaught of pennant races:

1.   What if the World Baseball Classic did not exist? Would we be seeing a different baseball landscape in 2009?

I’m inclined to say yes, and I feel that a few specific teams and players have been adversely affected by that particular nonsensical March exhibition.

Red Sox, for one, surely have felt the wrath of the Classic. Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia both suffered injuries while playing for Team USA, and two-time WBC MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka now looks like a Double-A pitcher trying to sweat out innings late in September.

Dice-K has been a certifiable disaster for Boston this year thanks to his lofty salary and corresponding dead arm—the latter of which is directly related to the WBC. Matsuzaka geared it up a bit too early for the love and pride of his homeland, and because of that the Red Sox are looking at a financial investment that’s about as healthy as downtown L.A. after a major sports championship.

Lacking command of any kind and the zip of his heater, Dice-K is on the DL for the second time this year, a stint that manager Terry Francona described as “much more than a two-week deal." Super.

You may ask, “What’s 14.2 innings in March? Wouldn’t Matsuzaka have thrown those innings in spring training anyway?” You’re missing the point.

The WBC has a sentimental, nationalistic pull that prevents teams from protecting, conditioning, and—at times—limiting the early work load of their stars. Quite simply, the games mean more and the athletes exert themselves further than they would in Florida or Arizona.

You can’t tell me Houston wanted Roy Oswalt throwing three times for Team USA in early March, or that the Reds are particularly happy that their prize gem Edinson Volquez—last year’s NL All-Star starter coming off his first season of 200-plus major-league innings—has had a litany of arm and back injuries. Those have perhaps stemmed from an early acceleration into meaningful games.

And it’s not just hurlers who have fallen victim to the Classic. Hitters face a different problem altogether, as Chipper Jones articulated back in March: “Just way too many days off… You’re not getting the work in that you should. You’re getting reps, but you’re not getting the at-bats that you need.”

Quite simply, Major League Baseball is losing assets and devaluing the quality of its product, especially early in the season, during years in which the WBC is played. They either need to scrap the exhibition entirely or restructure it like the NHL does with the Olympics (occurring mid-season).


2.   What if Atlanta hadn’t overpaid like a naïve teenager trying desperately to acquire booze from a homeless man when they gave the Rangers four high-quality prospects for two half-seasons of Mark Teixeira?

Let’s go back to that deal in 2007, shall we? The Braves were anxious not to lose their grip on the NL East, a division that had been owned by the Tomahawk Chop for over a decade. They were in contention but desperately needed power and a lefty specialist.

Enter Texas. And enter they did.

The Rangers somehow convinced Atlanta to swap their first-, second-, fourth-, and 18th-ranked prospects (in what was as strong a development system as any in baseball at the time) for Big Tex and Ron Mahay. Those prospects were Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz. Yikes.

What’s more baffling is the abandonment Atlanta demonstrated in terms of a philosophical approach. They always built from the ground up during their title years. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Javier Lopez, Andruw Jones: all homegrown talent that served as the foundation for dominance.

The braves had to know they were not in a position to sign a big Scott Boras client when he was up for monster money following the ’08 season.

So why deal a centerpiece catcher and feel safe with Brian McCann? Could they afford to part with a legitimate cornerstone shortstop because they had Yunel Escobar? And why give up two talented arms for a guy who was essentially a rent-a-player?

Two years later, Texas is reaping the rewards, while Teixeira got his big deal in New York and Mahay moved on to pitch solidly for Kansas City. Salty and Elvis are big reasons why Texas sits in first place behind an explosive offense and improved defense. Harrison has shown marked potential this year, and Nolan Ryan loves his mentality and bull-dog approach.

The No. 18 prospect in the 2007 Atlanta farm system (according to Baseball America) is perhaps the brightest gem of all. Feliz has been compared to a young Pedro Martinez, an arm much like what we saw last year with Volquez.

Coming off a simply dominant 2008, Feliz has struggled a bit with command this year. Still, given his K/9 rates, his four-pitch repertoire, and the fact that he’s just 21, the Rangers have plenty to look forward to down the road.

This is yet another example of desperation netting the Rangers some Texas-sized returns (see Gagne, Eric, Boston, 2007).

3.   What if the Cubs had paid significantly less money for Bobby Abreu or Adam Dunn, or equal money for Raul Ibanez, instead of signing Milton Bradley?

This is a heart-breaker for Cubs fans. I sat beneath the press box for Uncle Milty’s Wrigley debut, which came via a pinch-hit appearance in the seventh because he was hurt, of course. He strode to the plate against the rival Cardinals with the Cubs trailing by two and the bases loaded with one out.

Ball one. Ball two. Ball three. Sitting in the catbird seat.

Strike one looking. Strike two looking. Strike three looking on a questionable inside slider.

Bradley turns, screams some choice words to the ump, and gets the ol' heave-ho while simultaneously making borderline contact with the ump—contact that would net him a suspension in the weeks to come. Six pitches, six takes, one big strikeout, one petulant temper tantrum, and an image that will last a lifetime.

It’s been that kind of year for Bradley. The mega-talented, enigmatic outfielder has battled inconsistency, controversy, and injuries all year. Here we sit on June 23, and the $30 million man has 16 RBI and is on pace to see less than 400 at-bats.

I know hindsight is 20-20, but what were the Cubs thinking? They were desperate for a lefty; I get that. They wanted a fiery leader; I sort of get that. As we saw with Atlanta, however, desperation will do bad things to you.

Fiery personalities rarely come without a certain degree of volatility and inconsistency. Dunn, Abreu, and Ibanez were all upgrades on the left side, and all of them brought less baggage and injury history than Bradley, a guy who has never survived a whole year in the NL away from the designated hitter spot.

And what’s more, Abreu and Dunn signed one-year deals ranging from $5-$10 million per annum. Ibanez got similar money to Bradley but has been the NL MVP thus far and is on pace for 54 home runs and 144 RBIs.

What if the Cubs hadn’t overpaid early in the offseason for their coveted left-handed bat? The on-base-percentage-friendly Abreu would have enhanced their run production. The big bopping Donkey would have mashed at Wrigley. The quiet and underappreciated Ibanez would, needless to say, have changed the landscape of the NL Central drastically.

The North Side boys swung and missed on this one, and because of it the Cubs' offense just doesn’t add up this year.

4.   What if Joe Maddon stepped outside of the norm and, much like with his All-Star coaching appointments of Seattle’s Don Wakamatsu and Kansas City’s Trey Hillman, wrote in Boston’s Tim Wakefield for his first ever All-Star appearance?

Hear me out on this one.

Wakey has been around longer than hangovers. The guy is a pure baseball vet, a player Boston fans appreciate but don’t quite cherish entirely, and a legitimate professional.

And in case you think this would be a total charity move that ignored actual on-field production, consider these statistics:

  • Wakefield is 19 wins away from passing Cy Young and Roger Clemens as No. 1 on Boston's all-time career wins list. Yes, you read that correctly. If he stays healthy for 2009 and 2010 and is given the ball every fifth day, he will be the winningest pitcher for one of the most storied, successful organizations in baseball history.
  • In 2009, Wakefield has posted above-average numbers regardless of his age and knuckleball specialty. Dan Haren, Chad Billingsley, and Josh Johnson lead the majors with 13 quality starts (six innings or more, three runs or less). Wakefield has a very respectable nine, while his nine wins are second in baseball, trailing Doc Halladay and Kevin Slowey, who have 10 apiece.
  • While not as spectacular or talented as Josh Beckett or Jon Lester, Wakefield has actually been the rock of Boston’s dynamite staff to this point. Beckett and Lester had atrocious starts to the year, Matsuzaka has been a disaster, and Brad Penny was a five-inning depiction of mediocrity earlier in the year. Wake has held it all together.
  • Only two active pitchers have 130 or more career wins but have never been elected to participate in an All-Star game: Jeff Suppan and Wakefield.

What if the 43-year-old class act could soak in the All-Star festivities from field level and be able to claim he was once an all-star caliber player in the eyes of his competitors?

What if indeed.