Monday, June 12, 2006

“Hey, you never know.”

by Twins Geek

In 2004, Sam Walker, the sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, was invited to join one of the premier fantasy baseball leagues in America. He decided to use his access to players, GMs and scouts to try and win the league, and wrote about the year in the book Fantasyland. Among other stories, he talks in amusing detail about his efforts to influence “his team”, including trying to alter Jacque Jones’ approach at the plate or get Doug Mientkiewicz traded to the Pirates.

His team’s year was at a critical point when he received a trade offer for his player David Ortiz where he would receive Alfonso Soriano. Unsure, he asked Ortiz his opinion.

Ortiz starts to laugh. He thinks this is funny. “Depenze on wha you need,” he says.
“Well, I’m OK with home runs, but I need some stolen bases.”
“Well, den, dare you go.”
“So you think it’s a good deal?”
“Thadda be great.”

”So I should do it…”
Ortiz smiles mischeviously.
“Thass up to you.”
“You’re not planning on stealing a bunch of bases all of a sudden, are you?”
“Hey, you never know.”

Walker makes the trade and, of course, Ortiz goes on “murderous baseball-mashing rampage.” After a game in which Ortiz nearly hits for the cycle, Walker marches up to him in a fit of moral outrage.

The moment [Ortiz] sees the anguished look on my face, he begins to laugh even harder, his giant shoulders heaving like hydraulic pumps.
“Dude, you shodana leezen to me, becoze I’m abow to get hot. Theens are abow to get UGLY.”
“But Papi, you’ve gotta cool off sometime…”
Ortiz has stopped smiling. He puffs up his chest, plants a finger between his pectorals, and booms out one final piece of advice.

Twins fans know how Sam Walker feels. For a franchise that has long searched for a legitimate power threat in the middle of the lineup, and for an offense that is struggling to score runs (especially in the clutch) this is more than just painful. It's easy to criticize the Twins for letting Ortiz slip away, but I find that most of the time, that criticism comes from people with short memories. Because in 2002, Twins fans didn't have a big problem with releasing Ortiz.

It’s easy to forget exactly how disappointing Ortiz had been in his three years with the Twins. He had raced through the minors and was nabbed in a trade for Dave Hollins, but hadn't shown any real signs of improvement from 1999 through 2002 despite having 1100 major league at-bats. He constantly fought injuries. People openly doubted his age, with him even addressing it publicly in newspaper interviews. And in 2002, he quit hitting left-handers, hitting just .203 with a 637 OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentage). He had turned into an unhealthy Jacque Jones, only without the glove.

Though Ortiz was the designated hitter, the most legitimate criticism is that the Twins had essentially chosen Doug Mientkiewicz over Ortiz. After all, Ortiz could have played first base. Both could hit left-handed. Ortiz looked like the better hitter, while Mientkiewicz looked like the better fielder.

But this also ignores some history. Up to that point, Mientkiewicz had been pretty healthy, while Ortiz had never had more than 415 at-bats in any of his three years. Also, Mientkiewicz was going to cost the Twins about a million dollars less than Ortiz.

For the most part, the rest of the major leagues also disregarded Ortiz. The Twins couldn't trade him for a bucket of warm spit at the General Manager's meetings that year, as the market was flush with corner infielders. He didn't sign with another team until a month after the Twins released him. His salary for 2003 was $250,000 less than the Twins had paid him the year before Even with the Red Sox, he was slated for the least playing time of the sluggers they had brought in, behind legends like Kevin Millar and Jeremy Giambi.

We also forget that the Twins were trying to find some at-bats for some young players. Matt LeCroy is often mentioned, but the Twins were also trying to find room for some young studs named Bobby Kielty and Michael Cuddyer. All three of those names generated legitimate excitement for Twins fans in 2002. LeCroy and Cuddyer had been pasting the ball in AAA, and Kielty was hitting at least as well as Ortiz.

At the time, it made sense, because Ortiz was just Ortiz, not Big Papi. The decision to release him was the kind of decision that a small market team, committed to developing young talent, needs to make all the time. Sometimes, those moves work out.

And sometimes, theens get UGLY.


Anonymous said...

What's also forgotten too often is that every other team in MLB, including the Red Sox, passed on Ortiz at the price the Twins would have had to pay. To the extent letting David Ortiz go was a blunder, it was shared by 28 teams.

fents said...

and most of the players the twins have traded/released/disavowed have not gone on to burn them in any way. sure ortiz has in a big way but part of that may be due to the coaching staff here and part of it may be due to him changing some habits after getting cut. he's certainly figured out the injury thing. this can't all be blamed on the twins. it may have never happened here. i know the statistical analysis is sketchy at best when it comes to "protection" in a lineup but i would think that hitting anywhere near ManRam has to do wonders for your opportunities as well. big papi wasn't gonna get that sort of protection in MN.

Boof said...

Great post. A lot of people forget that Ortiz wasn't a great hitter with the Twins.

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