Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Ignorance and Bliss

Maybe we feel sorry for Bill Smith, or for ourselves. Maybe living in this god-forsaken tundra just naturally requires some sort of natural optimism, or instlls a need to justify our tortuous choices. But, whatever the reason, there sure has been an effort to justify the Johan Santana trade by comparing it to past deals for Twins stars.

In the last two days, I’ve heard about the criticism leveled at trades of Frank Viola, Chuck Knoblauch, AJ Pierzynski and Eric Milton. And I’ve heard how that was wrong, and how we all learned afterwards that the players the Twins received in return were not just fair, but ultimately favored the Twins. And I’ve heard that we should all just practice a little patience.

But I think there’s a difference in how those trades were viewed by casual fans versus how they were viewed by the wonks. And by baseball wonks, I don’t mean journalists, because some journalists are wonks and some of them aren’t. I mean the folks that study this game, and the business and the salaries and the minors and the draft. I’m talking about the geeks.

The casual fan’s reaction to those previous trades matched their reaction to the Santana trade, and it was probably best captured by Nick Coleman in Thursday’s paper.

“The Twins' best pitcher -- and one of the best in baseball -- was traded to the New York Mets for four stiffs no fifth-grader heard of before.”

(I know, I know. I shouldn’t do it. Literate bloggers should, by now, have had their fill of picking on Nick Coleman. It surpassed “easy” years ago, and cleared “cruel” soon after. But lord almighty he makes it hard to not pummel him ruthlessly. I mean, if he doesn’t want to be bullied, why is he playing with his retainer in public again? And sweet geezus Nick - you need to quit smelling your fingers. It’s like taunting tigers in the zoo. I’m begging you.)

I call Coleman’s method of judgement “The Baseball Card Method” of evaluating trades. Essentially, it advocates that teams should trade players the way kids trade baseball cards, based mostly on stats from previous years. It is based on a desire to ignore salaries, future growth, and projected stardom. It’s often practiced with a reference to “The Good ‘Ol Days”.

Maybe that’s appropriate, because it might have been legitimate for trades made thirty years ago. If so, it has long since ceased, collateral damage of a more equitable system for distributing revenue to players. Which, ironically, is something I think Nick Coleman might favor. Regardless, it allows its proponents to trash most trades a low revenue team makes.

But while those previous trades were trashed by casual fans, they weren’t trashed by the wonks. The wonks evaluate trades by different standards, using the context of payroll, or of future level development, or even with an eye on how the 20th and 21st guys on the roster might help the team next year.

I remember shortly after the Eric Milton trade, I made a small appearance on an FM station, talking about the Twins, and they asked me about the trade. I told them exactly why it was a steal for the Twins – that the Twins freed up an oppressive salary, reduced their injury risk for the next season, and got back a couple of players that might fill reserve roles. We conitnued chatting a bit more about it before the interviewer suddenly stopped and said, “Hold it. You mean you LIKE the trade?” It was like she awoke from a dream.

You see, it was a totally foreign concept, because the trade was being bashed nonstop in the traditional media and on sports talk stations. Fans were irate. Milton had been the golden child, the next big thing. He’d pitched a no-hitter for chrissakes. NOBODY liked that trade. What was Terry Ryan doing?

It was completely the opposite at TwinsGeek.com and on the baseball wonk discussion boards like DTFC. There, the reaction was bordering on jubilant. It was assumed that moving Milton’s $9 million salary was a lost cause, and that the Twins wouldn’t be able to get a warm bucket of spit in return. The Phillies were viewed as suckers – beautiful, gullible, glorious suckers – for giving us anything in return, let alone a couple of useful role players in Carlos Silva and Nick Punto.

This trade is different. I spent yesterday getting IMs and emails from wonks, and for the most part they were in the “talk me down from the ledge” vein. They have a totally different reaction to this than from the other examples. This isn’t a trade for four guys that the public doesn’t know but the wonks love. This is for four guys that the wonks KNOW, and that they know enough to not embrace them.

Which lead to a strange lament yesterday. I spent one email chain yesterday writing how miserable because I knew all these guys coming back from the Mets. For me, it’s one of the more disconcerting aspects of this deal. Usually there’s some guy included that the wonks don’t have on their lists, and often that guy has ended up being Francisco Liriano or Jason Bartlett. Seeing a relative nobody like “Alexi Casilla” coming back makes us feel like the Twins scouting department is doing their homework. Without a name like that….

Well, you feel like the Twins just plain got taken for a ride. And all the evidence that is seeping out about final offers, and Santana’s demands, and the apathy since the winter meetings seems to support that. We may want to believe that this is the same as the other trades, and that in three years we’ll be praising the Twins organization for their foresight. But the future isn’t bright just because Nick Coleman is crabby again. This time, we can't count on today's ignorance leading to tomorrow's bliss.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

The one thing thatI read that caught my attention was that we had targeted Gomez when we were shopping Romero. Perhaps this is old news, but it was the first time I heard it. If this is true I wonder if there was perhaps more thought behind this trade than what has been given credit for.

Head pleasantly in the sand,
Shannon

Anonymous said...

A word to the wonks: we're talking about the future here, and as the militant agnostics say, "I don't know and you don't either."

Anonymous said...

You seem to be arguing for some sort of prospect determinism (that because we 'know' these prospects, we can tell they're not going to amount to anything) and for the inherent unknowability of the scouting process, as Liriano, Bartlett, and Casilla have been surprises. Those seem to be contradictory points. I'm trusting that just as our scouts something in Liriano we didn't see, our scouts are seeing more in these prospects than we're seeing.

Jeff

Bryce said...

I'm just wondering when the whole thing became inevitable. When did letting Santana finish the season and take the draft picks cease to be an option?

Anonymous said...

I think we have heard the arguments but I think they bear repeating. This isnt' Viola, Knoblauch, A.J., or Milton. This is a ahould have been 3 time (and probably will be)Cy Young winner and a pitcher tha will be in the HoF. We definitely needed more. It will be interesting...I do like the fact that we will not have to face him at all in the regular season, though...

John said...

Jeff and anonymous,

It's a fair point, that the wonks have been wrong about stuff, too. I guess my point was that in the past, when casual fans and journalists trashed trades like this, the wonks could evaluate it, and even embrace them. This trade is different.

TT said...

I think we have heard the arguments but I think they bear repeating. This isnt' Viola, Knoblauch, A.J., or Milton. This is a ahould have been 3 time (and probably will be)Cy Young winner and a pitcher tha will be in the HoF.

Of course the other difference here is we are talking about a guy who has a no trade agreement and wants a long-term contract comparable to what he will get as a free agent after the end of this one season.

Like John, most of the self- proclaimed "wonks" were convinced the Twins couldn't get anything for Milton or Romero or ... I am not sure that demonstrates anything other than poor judgment.

When did letting Santana finish the season and take the draft picks cease to be an option?

I think it stopped being a real option once Silva and Hunter signed elsewhere. If it was ever a serious option at all. Using Santana as an innings eater for a year in front of a young rotation is a waste of talent.

I wonder if there was perhaps more thought behind this trade than what has been given credit for.

Y'think?! Lets be clear, the guys who made this trade know more about these players than any of the wonks or sports talk show hosts.

Its possible they overplayed their hand and got backed into a corner. Its also possible they played their hand carefully and ended up with a better package.

It would be no great surprise if Gomez turns out to be a better player than Ellsbury or if at least one of the pitchers turns out better than any offered by the Yankees and Red Sox with the exception of Hughes. And, of course, Hughes is no sure thing either.

jim said...

I don't know if the Twins left better offers on the table elsewhere or not. I do think that the Twins were trying to acqire potential impact talent regardless of position. They, perhaps, could of filled "holes" better with trades with other teams. I doubt if that is what they were after. They wanted potential impact talent, and more than one if possible.

The Twins have some depth in their minors at most positions, and perhaps quite a few people who will help a major league roster, someday. There seem to few, however, that could be called potential impact players and none of them are close to the majors. It seems as if the Mets package has some risk, but that almost any of the 4 could be a star. I think that is what the Twins were looking for. Even if they have to wait a while for that to happen.

David Wintheiser said...

Oddly enough, now that there are only two hours to go before the Mets deadline to sign Santana's extension are up, it appears that the Mets didn't have a lock-down offer for Santana when they agreed to the deal. (The real hoot? If for some reason the Mets don't sign Santana, they're said to be interested in pursuing Kyle Lohse to replace him.)

If you thought this deal was disappointing, get ready for Santana to be officially untradable if the Mets deal doesn't go through.

Bryce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DAM--DC Twins Fan said...

Maybe my head is in the sand like Shannons...I think this trade will work out better than most people.

Johan got somewhere around 150 mill over 7 years--will he win 150 games over that time?? NO!! (the leading NL east pitcher won 17 last year). The Mets overpaid!!!

Will one of the prospects work out--we will have to wait a couple of years but odds are in our favor.

The problem is that Johan had a total no-trade clause. He was only going to NY or Bos or maybe California. The Twins learned that lesson--I read that Morneau and Cuddy have limited (they can designate something like 6 teams not to be traded too--I always think of Torii not wanting to end up in Fenway.) So if Twins decide to trade Cuddyer or Mauer or Morneau--they have a choice of over 20 teams and can get a better deal.

Again, given history, trust Twins management on prospects especially if Terry Ryan had input.

DAM

Anonymous said...

Now that it's all over, what I still wonder is if Bill Smith ever could have made a better deal than the one he did. We'll probably never know; was Hughes, for example, really available for only ONE DAY before the Yankees pulled back?

Bill Smith is getting ripped and I'm not at all sure it's justified. I think he had to play this hand holding almost no cards. Maybe we got the best we could out of it.

MontanaMirage said...

Here's how this deal eventually came down. At the tail end, both the Yankees and the Red Sox withdrew their previous offers. The Yankees wouldn't even agree to a deal where Kennedy was substituted for Hughes and the Red Sox took both Ellsbury and Lester off the table. Hence, Bill Smith was forced to deal with the Mets in order to meet Santana's self imposed deadline to get a deal done. Check out this link. http://www.northjersey.com/sports/mets/Yankees_played_a_big_hand_in_allowing_the_Mets_to_complete_a_trade_for_Johan_Santana.html

MontanaMirage said...

Here's the full link to the previous post:

http://www.northjersey.com/sports/mets/Yankees_played_a_big_hand_in_allowing_the_Mets_to_complete_a_trade_for_Johan_Santana.html

MontanaMirage said...

I'll try once again.
To see the link, go to http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/pagethree.html and double click on Bob Klapisch's article.

BD said...

We're in "hindsight land" now - it's an easy game to play, but no one playing should pretend they're serious.

I don't remember many voices saying Smith should take what the Red Sox / Yankees were offering in December; I do remember "It's not enough, Smith should hold tight, he'll get better offers" ... oh, and "Don't worry about Santana's no-trade clause - he'll compromise on it."

Turns out we didn't get better offers - and, from the sound of it, Johan was pretty convincing in his "If I go to spring training with the Twins, I'm not waiving my no-trade" spiel.

I'd like someone to evaluate the options Smith had:

One year of Johan + two draft picks

vs.

The players obtained in the trade.

TT said...

A caveat, I think this deal was better than the offers on the table at the winter meetings. I think the Twins need to be prepared to take upside risks and this package has a higher upside than any of the other offers. Here on some high upside comparisons:

Guerra - Francisco Liriano
Gomez - Carlos Beltran
Humber - Bert Blyleven
Mulvey - Brad Radke

If even one of those comparisons turns out to be accurate, this was a good deal for the Twins. That is a lot better return than a couple high draft choices.

While the Twins may be competitive this year, it is extremely unlikely after the loss of Hunter and Silva. Which means Santana is doing little more than providing a veteran presence for the young pitchers.

sploorp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sploorp said...

Someone on the blogs I've been reading said, "The hype, especially out of New York and Boston, often doesn't reflect reality."

There is so much truth in that statement. You just can't ignore the New York spin machine. Hughes, Cabrera and the rest always get such a huge push from the New York press.

I live in Los Angeles. I have to hunt to find Twins news, but even out here I'm bombarded with Yankee hype. After the Dodgers and, to a much lesser extent, the Angels, everything seems to be Yankee news. Even more so than any of the other California teams. The Mets are also a New York team, but I almost never hear anything about them. Even with them leading their division for most of last year, they barely registered a blip on the Los Angeles radar.

While I don't think the hype is quite as huge in Boston, they did win the world series and that is a huge stage to perform on. Ellsbury had a good series and did well in the games leading up to it, far exceeding expectations. Lester won the final game four. We all saw it. We all watched the replays over and over. We all heard the announcers go on and on about these guys' "tools" and their "bright futures".

The New York hype and the World Series media onslaught has definitely made these guys more familiar and that tends to make them loom much larger in our minds then maybe they deserve. I would have to wonder if Hughes, Lester and the rest would be nearly as familiar or appealing if they were being offered up from someone like Toronto or The Nationals. What if they were players with little to no media hype? Same stats, but no hype. Would they still be nearly as appealing? Would we still be as misty eyed for what might have been?

Which, finally, brings me to the trade …

I must admit to being more then just a little disappointed, but then my expectations were also very high. In my mind, this trade was somehow going to be the one that filled in all the remaining holes in the current line up and help the Twins give Detroit a run for their money - not to mention give us a little extra depth down at AAA. It was going to do it all. How could it not? We were putting the best pitcher in the majors up for grabs.

I certainly thought there was a chance the Sox would cave and we would get Ellsbury AND Lester. Or maybe the Yanks would finally come to their senses and fork over Hughes, Melky AND Kennedy. Hell, I thought it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. The whole time these teams were going on and on about paying twice and luxury taxes and all the rest, I kept thinking it was all a bluff. I kept logging on to the blogs and sports news sites day after day expecting to read about the big lopsided trade that was going to make the Twins a contender.

I keep hearing all this talk about what Smith could have got, but that is just a whole lot of speculation. In hindsight, I don’t really think they had anything better on the table at any point. I mean, does anybody really truly believe a Red Sox deal was ever really out there for the taking? I don’t even think their goal was to keep the Yankees from getting him as it much as it was to keep them from getting him cheap. If the Twins ever decided to go for it, I think the Sox would have looked at the total costs and backed down. Those deals were really only ours for the taking as long as the Sox thought we would never actually take one of them.

And what about the Yankees so called offer? Was it ever really out there? All I ever read was Hanky Panky shooting off his mouth and changing his mind every other day. I never once got the sense that anybody else in that organization was ever behind it. If they were, it would have been a done deal. Names would have been swapped around and/or added until the both sides had a deal they could live with. The Twins may not have gotten Hughes and Kennedy, but something would have went down. The fact that it didn’t happen tells me that it probably was never really out there to begin with.

After that, all that was left was the Mets.

If I'm disappointed, I only have myself to blame for it. My expectations were way too high. I would have to wonder if any trade could live up to what I was hoping Smith would eventually get regardless of the team he wound up dealing with.

But a funny thing happened over the past few days that put the trade in a whole different light for me. The Mets were having problems signing the guy. After everything that went down, they still couldn’t close the deal. For a while there, it looked like a deal wasn’t going to get made at all.

A part of me was gleeful at the thought of the Twins competing in the central for another year, the other part wondered about what was going to happen once the season was over. As disappointed as I was when the trade was announced, I was suddenly faced with the prospect that we weren’t even going to get that. As gleeful as I was at the thought the Twins might be able to make another run at the division, I realized that excitement would have been tainted by endless trade speculations and rumors. And as the season drew to a close that would eventually give way to wondering how much Santana would get when he eventually left via free agency. With all that distraction, I would have to wonder if the Twins could even compete at all.

Suddenly, those four players started looking pretty good to me. I found myself rooting for Omar to give Santana whatever he wanted. Just make the thing happen. End this thing and give me and all the other Twins fans closure whether we liked it or not.

While the trade may not have the upside that I was hoping for, I don’t think it was necessarily a bad trade per say. As much as a lot of people might like to think otherwise, these are not bad players. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to believe that all four of these guys could work their way into everyday roles with the Twins at some point in the near future. In my mind that is something a bit more than taking whatever you could get. And it‘s certainly a lot more then settling for draft picks. Even if it’s unlikely they will become superstars, it’s just as unlikely any of the other names attached to this thing will either. As good as Hughes, Kennedy, Lester, Ellsbury and the rest may seem, none of them have really proven anything. The jury is still out on all of them. And that is if we could have even gotten them in the first place, which, as I have said earlier, I seriously have my doubts on.

I would have loved to see Santana play out his career as a Twin and I can’t imagine a Twins fan who wouldn’t want to see that as well. While I do believe they could have afforded it, in the end, the potential downside was just too great. It ultimately wasn’t a smart baseball move. If the Yanks and Sox with all their resources didn‘t want to take that risk, how can anybody expect the Twins to do it? Signing Santana will affect every decision the Mets make for years to come.

I think Smith has done a tremendous job since taking over as GM. Talk about trial under fire. I can’t fault him for anything that has happened so far. If blame has to be placed (and I don’t think it needs to be) it should be placed on those who didn’t lock up Santana when they had the chance. It should have never gotten this far. Even then, our only real chance at locking up Santana was if he felt any real ties to the team that stood by him and nurtured him and gave him the opportunity to become the player he has become. Clearly that was not the case. And if that wasn’t the case, then we never ever even had a prayer to begin with. Santana leaving was inevitable and it could have gone down much worse then it did.

And now that Santana has finally gone, what do we have left? We have a team with a whole lot of potential and a lot to root for. Not just two or three years down the line, but right now in 2008. We have Morneau and Cuddyer locked up long term. We have a very talented young group of starting pitchers on the verge of blossoming into something special. We also have Liriano back. The jury may still be out on how good he will actually be after such an invasive operation, but everything I’ve read so far has been positive plus. We have one of the best bullpens in the majors to help keep a lead until the end and make sure that all those young arms don’t get overused and worn down going down the stretch (I hope all the Yankee fans read that). We have an awesome corner outfielder on the verge of stardom. We have a big increase in power at 3rd and 2nd base, plus one of the best defensive shortstops in the majors. And last, but not least we have real depth. Players that can come off the bench and contribute or give extra production as a DH. And all this was accomplished while lowering the team payroll, so management will able to keep more of this team around longer then they could have otherwise. It’s also money that can be used to get a little extra help right now if need be.

The jury may still be out on Gomez, but the kid is far from what I would consider a wash. He has solid defense and speed and they say he might even develop some power eventually as well. Yes, he strikes out a lot, but plate discipline can be learned and improved on. And everything I’ve read on the subject has said that hitting is usually one of the last skills a player develops. The kid was also rushed by the Mets. He never had the chance to develop and adjust to any level before being moved on up to the next. We also have Pridie who has a bit more experience and may be even closer to an everyday job than Gomez. If neither are ready, the team can still look outside the organization for temporary help. There may still be a hole at CF, but it’s not nearly as gapping as a lot of people might perceive.

The Twins won the division four times with more holes and a lot less offense then we have now. A lot also went wrong last year to cause the team to finish where they did. Even without Hunter and Santana, this is still a team that could very well surprise a lot of people. While I admit it may be hard to imagine them challenging Detroit or Cleveland for the division, I don’t see them laying down and letting them have it either. Detroit and Cleveland won’t be able to coast their way past this team, they will have to work for every win they get. Detroit and Cleveland also don’t have the upside that this team has. Individually, their players are about as good as they will ever get. This Twins team will only get better as time passes.

I think the future of the Twins is still very bright, it’s almost too bad that Hunter and Santana won’t be around to be a part of it.

TT said...

"I think the future of the Twins is still very bright, it’s almost too bad that Hunter and Santana won’t be around to be a part of it."

Good summary.

Anonymous said...

this trade is going to work out for us in the end. johan was amazing, but AL hitters were having a lot more success against him last year (especially late in the year). he is not as dominant as he once was. switching to the NL may help him though. it is good that the twins didn't put that much money into him because i think he is coming down from him peak. if even one of these guys pans out, it will be a good trade. one year of johan and couple draft picks is a good trade if we get one decent starter out of it. what are the chances we were going to win anything this year anyway? very small. you can rip on the trade all you want, i like it.

Andrew Madison said...

The Twins future isn't as bright without Johan as it would be with him though. I don't see how anyone can say that right now. And I don't agree that signing Santana wouln't have been worth it baseball-wise. As far as him getting hurt, there's been too much emphasis put on the possibility. Even with that risk, the rewards would still have been worth it. Santana was too good to let go. He was worth overpaying. No one can tell me the Twins are, even in the future, going to be better with the players they acquired than they would have been with Santana.

But at this point, as a Twins fan you have to look forward with hope and optimism to the future, because looking at the past is too heartbreaking. It's not worth it to blame one entity, not even the system MLB operates under. Either you still love the game and your team (and I do) or you stop being a fan. So the ship will sail on, it just won't be as buoyant. It will be a while before someone as good and proven as Santana takes the mound in a Twins uniform again.

sploorp said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm going to miss the guy big time. I've seen him pitch several times both at the Dome and out here at Angel Stadium. He was really something special.

But it's also not like the Twins just let him walk either. They offered him 80 million dollars! Things Smith has said (I'm reading between the lines on some of his quotes here) has also led me to believe that the Twins were negotiating with him right up to the end. I've also read that they upped the original offer to five years. True, Zito got more total dollars because his deal was longer, but either of the Twins offers would have made him the highest paid pitcher in baseball.

As I said in my original post, the only chance Smith had of locking Santana up was if he felt any real ties to the team that stood by him and worked with him and made him the pitcher that he became. He was a rule 5 pick up. If the Twins hadn't seen something there and kept him on their roster for an entire season is spite of a 6.00+ ERA, he would have been shipped back to the Astros. Chances are he wouldn't even be in baseball today.

In the end, Santana was only out to make Santana has rich as possible. The Twins' offers were just used to up the price with the Mets.

Forget injuries and risk - nobody can predict that kind of thing. Contracts are also insured for that kind of thing (but only up to five years for a pitcher). The kind of money Santana was demanding was a tremendous burden. And that is a 100% for sure. The Yankees didn't want to take it on. Neither did the Sox. And the Mets almost weren't able to pull it off.

But now that the Mets have signed him up, they will have to live with that deal every season. It will affect every business decision they make for the next six years. That deal took them right up to the cap. If they sign any more free agents, there's a good chance they'll have to pay luxury taxes. If they don't, they almost will certainly have to start paying next year.

Once again, there is still a lot to like about this team. The future is still very bright. I also can't really say that it would be brighter with Santana, because a big part of what makes it bright for me is some of the players they got in the trade and also the fact that they are not beholden to that huge contract.