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.