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The Gauntlet or the Towel?
2004-08-02 12:30
by Mike Carminati

You probably don't think that I can force this towel down your throat. But trust me, I can. All the way. Except I'd hold onto this one little bit at the end. When your stomach starts to digest it, I pull it out. Taking your stomach lining with it. For most people it would take about a week to die. It's very painful.

—Jack "Don't Call Me Hank" Bauer in "24"

A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have

—Douglas "Babe" Adams, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

Felix: I'm going to the studio to pick up the gauntlet he threw down.

Murray the Cop: You're so tidy.

—"The Oddibe McDowell Couple"

Yet, if the pupil be of a texture to bear it, the best university that can be recommended to a man of ideas is the gauntlet of the mobs.

Ralph "Garr" Waldo Emerson

Marlon Byrd…

Felix Rodriguez…

Todd Jones…

Add it all up and it spells Wold Series glory, baby!

I had already set my expectations to an all-time low, and yet the Phils failed to reach even them. There's no other way to see it than that the Phils threw in the towel. They are now in the midst of a 1-6 road trip and are now five and one-half games behind the Braves. They are also five games out of the wild card hunt with three teams ahead of them.

Yes, they filled one need by adding two warm bodies to a bullpen that had lost long reliever and staff leader Ryan Madson (with a team best 21.2 VORP) and the newly fragile closer Bill Wagner.

Jones is the personification of the replacement-level, right-handed middle reliever. Rodriguez had been one of the best setup men in the game with the Giants around 2000-01. However, his strikeouts and, thereby, his effectiveness have dropped severely since. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio is at a career low (6.25), more than four strikeouts per game behind his career high (10.47 in 2000). If adding these two less than stellar pen man allows the Phils to use staff albatross Roberto Horrendous (team worst –6.8 VORP) and the even worse Geoff Geary less often, then it is a major plus.

Expect Horrendous to be given fewer innings after telling the press that he's since a more uptight clubhouse. Incompetence on the mound is meaningless to Bowa, but rundown his organization and you're out. (Witness this from last year's pariah Tyler Houston.)

However, the Phils have had three gapping holes, large enough for Bobby Cox to drive a busload of stiffs through. They are, in no particular order, center fielder, leadoff hitter, and starting pitcher. Two of them were due to Marlon Byrd's sophomore slump. If you've forgotten, Byrd, the center fielder and leadoff hitter, had started off slowly and was dropped in the order in favor of Jimmy Rollins, who then had worse ratios. Manager Larry Bowa then conducted a psychological experiment on Byrd, pinch-hitting for him, moving him up and down the order on a whim, and spot-starting the likes of Doug Glanville in his stead. All of this was done allegedly for Byrd's sake, as if he would be seeing better pitches batting right in front of the pitcher.

So what did the Phils do? They traded Ricky Ledee, the best option that they had in center, to bring in Rodriguez. That would be fine if they had been able to nab Steve Finley or Kenny Lofton, but they didn't. So what did they do instead? They promoted Marlon Byrd and ostensibly gave him his starting center field job, if not the leadoff hitter role.

Yes, Byrd should have been able to keep the job since day one. However, his trip to Triple-A was far from a resounding success. In 37 games and 152 at-bats, he batted .263 with a .309 OBP, .388 slugging percentage, and .697 OPS. He had 2 homers, 13 runs scored, 17 RBI, 2 stolen bases and three caught stealing. The two homers, the Phils are likely to point out, are in the last week.

So what has Byrd done in the minors that merit another trial? If he was not the right man to start in center a month and a half ago, why is he now? That is, unless the Phils admit that they made a mistake and have been perpetuating it over the last seven weeks. Or if they had given up on 2004 and are getting him ready for 2005.

The Phils will point out that they pursued other options, but there are a few things of interest to note. First, Finley was had by the Dodgers in exchange for some marginal prospects. The Lofton-for-Polanco deal should have been a layup since the Yankees need a second baseman and Lofton has been used sparingly in center (38 games). Besides, a couple of days after Byrd was sent down, the Astros acquired arguably the best center fielder in the game in Carlos Beltran.

As far as starting pitching, the Phils have been without Vincente Padilla for over two months. The spot devolved to journeyman Paul Abbott, who's been worse than replacement level (-5.5 VORP, second worst on the team). Aside from Eric Milton, the rest of the rotation has had extremely disappointing seasons due to a fierce combination of ineffectiveness (Myers and Millwood) and injury (Byrd and Padilla).

While the trade deadline plum, Randy Johnson, stayed put in Arizona, Kris Benson, who was the second-best flavor of the season, was dealt to the Mets for, basically, their future. I'm not saying that a perennial number-three starter (Benson) deserved as much from the Phils. However, where were they when Freddy Garcia went to the White Sox over a month ago?

So the towel was thrown. The Phils could surge back and win the division—I have no confidence in Atlanta. Anything could happen, but they certainly did nothing to improve their postseason odds. The also seemed to lose Wagner who is a free agent at the end of the year and has been floating balloons like, "What they do as the trading deadline gets closer will weigh as part of my decision."

The Phils weren't the worst participant in the trade deadline sweepstakes. It seems more than ever that teams are picking the wrong sides when they choose to throw in the towel or pick up the gauntlet. While the Phils curiously opted for the "towel", the Mets even more curiously picked the "gauntlet".

The Mets filled their biggest need, to fill in the rotation between Leiter, Glavine, and Trachsel with Benson and Zambrano. However, in order to do that they gave up three pitching prospects including highly touted Scott Kazmir and their erstwhile starting third baseman Ty Wigginton, who had no future with the organization. Kazmir is a good bet to be a bust like the vast majority of New York media-inspired prospects, but he was their best pitching prospect and Zambrano is no better than a number three starter. And the Mets are closer to the Expos than they are to the NL East lead or the wild card spot. It's an odd move for a team promoting their youth (Reyes, Wright). The Mets were obviously the biggest losers of the deadline.

The Marlins didn't do much better. They acquired a decent starting catcher (something that they needed since they foolishly let Pudge Rodriguez walk) who is 32 years old in LoDuca, a very good setup man in Mota (I guess Koch hasn't worked out), a marginal starting pitcher in Valdez, a superfluous right fielder that they gave up on last year in Encarnacion, and a relief pitcher who can't really pitch but strikes out a lot of guys in Seanez. Oh and Jayson Stark's undying love expressed in this homage to pre-Beaneball player evaluations.

What the Marlins gave up was a decent young first baseman (Choi), who had cooled since his hot start but was far more than the platoon player that Stark describes him as being and a good young arm (Penny) who is sure to turn into a monster in Dodgers Stadium. The Marlins are a .500 team that would 41-51 were it not for their 11-1 dominance of the Phils. Florida is also just 7-9 since the break despite a four-game sweep of Philadelphia. They are a longshot at best for the division or wild card spots.

The Dodgers moves can be viewed as daring to unwise depending on your point of view. Stark picked them as the biggest losers of the trading season, which is as good as omen as you can probably get. The did make changes at basically five positions, including the entire outfield. Finley takes over in center, an upgrade. Bradley replaces the useless Encarnacion in right, a major upgrade. Young Werth had already replaced Dave Roberts, whom they traded at the deadline, potentially a very big upgrade. Choi is a curious pickup given that struggling incumbent Shawn Green is also left-handed and has one year left on his huge contract. Green may move back to right field and Bradley to left with Werth spot starting. And LoDuca was at worst serviceable and his replacement, Dave Ross, is largely untried although newly acquired Brent Mayne mitigates the risk. They also failed to pull off a deal to bring Charles Johnson to LA. Losing Mota and Martin may be risky as well, but the Dodgers probably felt (rightly) that they had the depth and that adding Penny outweighs the minuses (though Dreifort's efforts in the first post-Mota game won't help instill confidence).

Overall, I think the Dodgers were attempting to pull off a Beane-like redesign of the team for the postseason and for the future. I view it as a success on both counts, especially the future. Now, they'll have to play 'em to see if that assessment holds true.

Oh, I should have mentioned the Red Sox in the biggest losers. They gave up arguably their best player and one-time franchise player in Nomah (who'll have to go back to his other ridiculous name of Nomar henceforth). Yes, they got a competent replacement in Cabrera, who hit a home run in his first game as a Red Sock so therefore, will be considered one of their own by the fans. The Red Sox basically bowed to fan and media pressure to cure their two "biggest problems". Garciaparra has been seen as a non-team player and a liability since not playing due to injury in the 5-4 loss to the Yankees a month ago (the game in which Derek Jeter dove in the stands apparently to attack Billy Crystal) and drawing the ire of the Red Sox Nation. The rail to ride him out of town was ready and waiting; the Sox management at least made sure they got a competent shortstop in the deal.

The other embarrassment for the Red Sox has been their defense epitomized by David Ortiz's immaculate glove in the Yankees series. So bring in Doug Mientkiewicz, a stellar defensive first baseman though light hitter, and move Ortiz to his natural position of DH.

Well, that's all good and well. But Theo fiddled while the red Sox rotation burned. While Pedro Martinez could see his first ERA over 4.00 for his career (currently 4.07), the Sox plan to keep a rotation that is people by the highly iffy Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield and the downright awful Derrek Lowe. Schilling has been great, but if Martinez continues to pitch like he did in July (5.45 despite a 3-1 record), they will have problems in the playoffs if they even make it there.

Some will point to the Yankees—Stark did—as losers in the trade wars. However, they did get the runner-up in the Cy Young vote last year for a player whose pitching and contract were a liability. Loaiza has been far from stellar this year and is reminding us more each day that 2003 was just a Stev Stone-esque career year. But the Yankees could no longer wait for the Irabu-esque Contreras to blossom. Loaiza was the better of two evils.

The Twins will be questioned because they didn't get Benson and did let their unofficial team mascot, Mientkiewicz, go. But he was already superfluous with youngster Justin Morneau already surpassing him. Then again, they are five games up on the White Sox, who picked up Contreras, a 32-year-old still with a potential tag for their 2003 #1 starter, have apparently lost their two best hitters (Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez) for the season, and just came out of a seven-game losing streak.

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