Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Year Thoughts

Some picked-up pieces while wondering if legal costs will force Roger Clemens out of yet another retirement in 2008. Because, you know, that 3rd new wing on his house isn't going to build itself...

I was pleased with the news of Rich "Goose" Gossage finally gaining entrance into Cooperstown with the announcement of the Hall of Fame Class of 2008 yesterday. This was long-overdue, as he helped change everything about relief pitching during the 1970s and 1980s. Without a doubt, relief pitchers that preceded his induction into the Hall of Fame, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, were also very deserving. But when Bruce Sutter was elected two years ago, with a career much shorter and less effective, everyone started asking, "What about Goose?" I remember the tail end of Goose's career, when he was still throwing steam A's and Mariners before stepping away in 1994, ending a 22-year career in which he was astoundingly strong over the first half and then very good over the final ten years or so.

The role of the closer during Gossage's peak years (1975-1985) was much different than the one-inning closers of today. Back then, a closer would come in during the 7th or 8th inning of a close game to relieve a tired-out starter, and would see the game out to its completion. (Anyone who knows me knows that I would LOVE it if this role of a closer has persisted to this day. But the increasing importance of specialists and lack of durability amongst starters has altered this forever. But that's a debate for another day). Gossage served as the fearsome closer on the 1978 Yankees (Bucky Bleeping Dent), and while his 10 relief wins and 27 saves were impressive, the most astonishing stats were the 134 1/3 innings he pitched (totally unheard of for any reliever today), 122 strikeouts, a 2.01 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. This is without question one of the all-time greatest seasons for a relief pitcher. All told, Gossage pitched 1809 innings in his career with 310 saves and a 3.01 ERA. And he's a pretty damn good guy too. Congrats to the Goose.

If I had a Hall of Fame ballot, I would have voted for Gossage, Jim Rice and Tim Raines. Jim Ed came within a scant 16 votes of making the Hall this year, and 2009 will present the 15th and final chance for Rice to be voted in on the writer's ballot. The case for Rice is simple: For about ten years, Rice was the best, most dangerous, and most feared hitter in the American League. He hit for a good average and in 1978 had one of the best individual seasons in history (46 HRs and a .970 OPS). The questions about his longevity must be put in the context of Kirby Puckett's inclusion in Cooperstown and his somewhat lacking statistics in the context of Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez's inclusion. Under current standards, Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame.

As for Raines, he gained a curiously low percentage of the vote for his first time on the ballot, making me think he probably won't get in. Unfortunately, I think Raines is a victim of the era he played in. His greatest attributes, which included getting on base, stealing bases and scoring runs, were not as important as hitting homers and driving in runs were during his peak years in the 1980s and 1990s. I liked watching "Rock" play growing up because he was an exciting, top-of-the-order presence who didn't run his mouth like Rickey Henderson. He reached base more times in his career than Tony Gwynn, and finished 5th all-time in steals. When you look at some of his most comparable players, it includes Hall of Fame old-timers like Max Carey, Fred Clarke, Harry Hooper, and Enos Slaughter that played during times when Raines' style of play was more valued. I guess Raines was born in the wrong century.

The Oakland firesale continued last week with Nick Swisher getting shipped off to the White Sox in exchange for three promising young players. I like Swish a lot; he's a versatile player, gets on base, is signed to a very reasonable contract, and plays with this innate confident swagger that often puts players with moderate talent over the top. For Kenny Williams, Swisher immediately provides leadership and a steady presence near the top of the order (if Ozzie Guillen doesn't hit Swish second on this team it'd be a huge mistake. They need someone to get on in front of Thome, Dye and Konerko. Hitting the other major newcomer, Orlando Cabrera, first makes the most sense in this scenario). Moving from a pitcher's park in Oakland to a hitter's park in Chicago could boost his home run output to the 35-40 range. I guess my problem is the White Sox have to know they can't win in 2008 with how good the Indians already are and how well the Tigers have improved themselves this winter. They gave up a lot to get Cabrera and Swisher and I just don't think it's going to be worth it. Beyond Mark Buehrle and Bobby Jenks their pitching staff is suspect at best. They will be paying for a great lineup that will not likely help the club finish higher 3rd. Two of the prospects they gave up to get Swisher, outfielder Ryan Sweeney and lefty starter Gio Gonzalez, will probably be able to play in Oakland this year. The A's will stop at nothing to finish last in 2008, but this is what Billy Beane does. Eric Chavez, Joe Blanton, Mark Kotsay, Bobby Crosby, Rich Harden, and Huston Street can also expect a change of address sooner or later.

On the trade rumor front, it seems very likely that both Brian Roberts and Erik Bedard could be on their way out of Baltimore by the end of the week. One report out of Chicago said today that Roberts to the Cubs "is almost certainly going to happen." Some of the players that could go to Baltimore include middle infielder Ronny Cedeno and starters Sean Marshall and Sean Gallagher. The Bedard trade would be a major one, with the Mariners poised to make a move. Seattle could send Adam Jones, Jeff Clement and another prospect to the O's for Bedard, and if the O's could make that third player uber-prospect Carlos Triunfel (who hit .296 between three different levels of the minors this year AT THE AGE OF 17!!!!!!!), that would qualify as the best trade of the offseason and help set up the Orioles on a fine rebuilding mission.

One last note before I go: Like everyone, I was devastated to hear about the passing of our beloved friend, Art Walker, yesterday morning. To anyone that went to Kennett in the last 12 years, Mr. Walker was an important part of everyday, reading the morning announcements and asking us to "proudly salute our flag." He came with us on dozens of football and baseball trips, and no matter the result, at the end of every season Mr. Walker would tell us how proud he was of us and our accomplishments. Mr. Walker was a big part of the reason why I became so involved with Kennett while I was a student there and even after I left. He could certainly live up to the role of a grumpy old man but deep down the number one thing he loved was the kids. I've got a million Mr. Walker stories, as I'm sure many of you that knew him also have. No one will ever replace him. I feel sad, with the recent deaths of Mr. Millen and Mr. Walker, the move to the new high school, and the departure of many older coaches and teachers, that the high school experience we had then has been physically erased and only lives within each of our memories. But those memories are so good and strong, and many of them involved Art Walker, who always seemed to be there. Now he's gone, and he'll be missed sorely. Rest in peace, Walker.

So long for now.

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