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Sosa, so far

Now that a month has passed since the Sammy Sosa trade, a few thoughts:

The Sammy Show: Baltimore

The January 30 article here discussing the trade has attracted by far the most comments of any article on this site since we converted to the weblog format last year. That response includes three comments from me and four from a trollish Chicago fan, but also several reactions from first-time posters, including a Dominican Sosa fan.

The wide-ranging response illustrates how much of a lightning rod for public opinion Sosa is, and not just for Chicagoans and Baltimoreans. He has the kind of outsize personality that inspires adoration when things are going well (e.g., 1998-2002) and ridicule when things go badly (e.g., after the corked-bat misstep of 2003). In Latin-American circles, Sosa remains a folk hero, his star tarnished only slightly by the events of the last two years. Even more than the Orioles' best player, Miguel Tejada, Sosa is an internationally recognized name and face. Sosa's arrival has people thinking and talking about the Orioles again, and that counts for something.

Sosa has enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts since joining Baltimore. Among Oriole fans, the response to the trade has been mostly positive, if guardedly so. The Orioles' 2005 ticket sales reportedly got a major boost the week the trade was announced. Local and national media stories about Sosa's change of address have been cropping up regularly over the past month.

Sosa has already held two press conferences since joining the Orioles: one on the day the trade was made official (February 3) and another on the day he reported to camp (February 23). (The audio and video for the press conferences can be streamed from the Orioles' official site, although the audio level for the second conference was set too low, making it largely unintelligible.) During those question-and-answer sessions, Sosa said all the right things: he sidestepped reporters' attempts to goad him into badmouthing his former team, and he expressed unmistakable excitement about joining the Orioles. He sounded willing to cede the spotlight (or part of it, anyway) to Tejada, who he acknowledged is the leader of the team. If early signs are an indicator of things to come, Sosa should give the Orioles an enhanced media presence in 2005, no matter what he does on the field.

The response hasn't been all positive. Many, if not most, Cubs fans thought it was time for Sosa to leave the Windy City after his act wore thin last year. According to an unscientific survey done on the Chicago Tribune's web site, 76% of respondents thought that the Cubs were a better team without him. But Chicagoans' individual reactions were fractured; some had hoped for a more amenable parting with their longtime icon, or at least a better return in trade, and instead criticized manager Dusty Baker or GM Jim Hendry. A few Chicago-area reporters said that Sosa's personality had long irritated them, but that it only became an issue when his performance dropped.

Despite wanting to start his Baltimore career with a clean slate, Sosa has not given up all of his old habits, and the dogged media won't allow him to forget his past. Notably, Sun columnist Peter Schmuck's mention of Sosa's request to have a limousine transport him from his hotel to his physical exam in Baltimore evoked derisive comments from Chicagoans about Sosa's diva-esque lifestyle. And toward the end of Sosa's first Oriole press conference (18:22), a reporter half-jokingly asked if someone in Chicago owed Sosa a boom box (his previous one was allegedly wrecked at the end of last season by an unnamed, Whitney Houston-hating teammate). Sosa's reply (“No, because I have a new one here”) brought on a new round of jeers—and fears. Fortunately, Oriole skipper Lee Mazzilli quelled any possibility that Sosa's musical tastes would become a distraction by re-affirming his policy of no clubhouse music before games. Looks like Sosa will have to get an iPod if he wants a pregame salsa fix. But Mazzilli has no problem with postgame music, particularly when the Orioles win, so expect lo-fi, bass-heavy Latin beats to be blasting in plenitude this year.

A reaccounting of the deal

With the benefit of a month's hindsight, the Sosa trade looks better than it did originally. Had the Orioles not acquired Sosa, they would have faced a host of unappealing alternatives to improve their outfield situation. Magglio Ordóñez was the most attractive free-agent outfielder left on the market, and the O's would have been played for fools had they matched the exorbitant $75 million contract Scott Boras wangled from the Tigers. Ordóñez is a fine hitter when healthy, but his thorny knee condition stirs memories of another White Sox outfielder who became a full-time designated hitter around age 30 due to knee injuries: Harold Baines.

After Ordóñez the pickings were slim. Jeromy Burnitz, whom the Cubs signed to replace Sosa, had superficially good 2004 numbers playing half his games in Coors Field, and at $5 million he was cheap. But his track record over the last three years is erratic, and he would not have been a good fit for Baltimore's lineup because he bats left-handed. The only other available outfielder of note was over-the-hill Ray Lankford, who is still unsigned and may retire. In acquiring Sosa at a reasonable price, the O's probably made the most of a bad situation.

Also, it cannot be ignored that the Orioles played this winter's free-agent market with a hand tied behind their back. With the Nationals moving in next door, and given the incomplete status of negotiations with Major League Baseball to compensate Baltimore for the expected market hit, the Orioles had little idea whether their future revenues would be able to support another expensive, long-term contract. So top-shelf free agents such as Carlos Beltrán were basically off the table from the start because of the years and dollars involved.

The Orioles then came up empty in the competition for other major free agents, but not for lack of trying. After being stymied by homeward-bound Carl Pavano and Richie Sexson, who both refused competitive offers from Baltimore to return to their native regions, the O's bid as high as rationally possible for Carlos Delgado before he opted to sign with the Florida Marlins for a few million dollars more. Indeed, I find little to criticize in those free-agent misses. Back in January I wrote, “If Baltimore finds itself in a position where it must guarantee Sexson-like dollars to secure Delgado's services, it should shift its focus elsewhere.” Sure enough, the O's went up to a Sexson-esque level for Delgado (four years and $48 million was reported as their final offer) before drawing the line and returning to trade discussions, whereupon they discovered that the Cubs' asking price for Sosa had dropped considerably. In Sosa, the Orioles found a relatively affordable stopgap for 2005 and retained the ability to navigate the market more confidently once their financial situation becomes clearer.

In my original article, I was probably too harsh on the Orioles when I described Sosa as no more than “a salve for the open wound on the face of the team.” Yes, the Baltimore franchise has lost a great deal of luster since the mid-1990s, mostly because of self-inflicted injuries. Furthermore, the O's remain relegated to third-fiddle status in the AL East, and their growth prospects are stunted because of the rise of the neighboring Nationals. But this team has far more star power than it did two years ago, and its trajectory is rising—more slowly than most fans would prefer, but rising nevertheless. In fact, the Orioles have an excellent chance of registering a win total in the mid-eighties this year, and with some luck and a few judicious moves they could be serious playoff contenders in '06. That makes them better than at least half of the teams out there. Things could be, and have been, a lot worse.

Back to the future

One disturbing trend I noted with Sosa a month ago was the nosedive his numbers have taken in the last two seasons. Yet if you believe the statheads, it is likely that Sosa's decline will slow, if not reverse itself, this year. Most of the 2005 statistical projections I've seen for Sosa estimate that his batting numbers will stay at or above his 2004 rates, placing his OPS in the .850-.900 range. (Keep in mind that those projections assumed he would remain a Cub, so they should be adjusted downward slightly.) I still think those numbers sound a bit optimistic, but such production is hardly out of the question—36 is getting up there for a baseball player, but it's not ancient.

The difficulty in predicting the trajectory of an aging superstar such as Sosa is that superstars are by nature exceptional and thus have few close historical peers. Scoot over to Sosa's profile on Baseball-Reference.com, and you'll see that his five most similar players through age 35 are Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, and Barry Bonds. That's a great list, but consider that the best match for Sosa statistically, Mantle, only registered a score of 838, which is not all that close. Author Bill James, discussing the similarity scores method in Whatever Happened To The Hall Of Fame?, described scores in the 800-849 range as “somewhat similar.” (Other ranges: 750-799 is “vaguely similar,” 850-899 “essentially similar,” 900-949 “truly similar,” and 950 and up “unusually similar.”) Virtually all mathematical projection systems leverage the power of historical player data to come up with their yearly estimates. Since there are so few comparable data points for Sosa, those statistical projections have to be taken with several grains of salt.

Anyway, performance is not the biggest concern about Sosa going forward; the thing to watch is his health, which has slipped in the last two years. Little has been revealed about the results of Sosa's physical exam in Baltimore, so it's hard to speculate on his potential for injury. Despite all the press attention Sosa has received since the trade, apparently no one in the media has gotten any detailed information from Sosa or the Orioles about his health. There may be doctor-patient privacy issues in play, but nowadays we hear reports on professional athletes' injuries so regularly that it seems odd that we haven't heard more in Sosa's case.

Some people (not the Orioles) have broached the possibility of signing Sosa to an extension. If I were the Orioles, I would not even consider extending Sosa's contract unless he rebounds in a major way this year. And even if he does bounce back, I would only extend him for one year at a time, maybe with a club option year attached. Why? His age and health make him too big of a risk for the dollars he's likely to demand. One of these years, Sosa's body is going to fail him, and I don't want the Orioles to be left hanging on to him when it happens. Remember, Brady Anderson was just 37 and had a year left on his contract when the wheels came off his game in 2001.

Fool me once

On the topic of bad extensions, can any Oriole fan forget the star-crossed Glenn Davis trade of January 1991? One rarely mentioned part of that story is that after a freakish nerve injury ruined Davis's first season in Baltimore, the Orioles compounded their error by re-signing Davis to a two-year extension worth nearly $7 million, which was quite a spillage of cash in those days. The re-signing came just before he was to go on the open market that fall, and it was completed only after the Orioles had heard several doctors give optimistic prognoses for Davis continuing his baseball career.

But Davis's health never fully recovered, turning the Orioles' good-faith gamble into a debacle. In total, the Orioles paid Davis nearly $10 million over three years for what amounted to slightly over one season's worth of subpar production. And unlike the Albert Belle situation of a decade later, the Orioles received very few insurance dollars to defray Davis's salary; in 1993 they got about $600,000 from a disability policy for Davis—about 15% of his $3.7 million take in a year in which he played just 30 games in the majors.

Trading for Davis was not as silly as it now seems. At the time of the trade he was an elite, 30-year-old first baseman, and no one then could have predicted that his career would fall apart soon afterward. Indeed, a certain Washington columnist called it “the best trade for the Orioles since they got Frank Robinson.”

However, giving Davis a lucrative two-year contract before he had proven his healthiness was less defensible. By bringing Davis back for two more years, the Orioles were trying to make up for what had been a lost trade; it was an attempt to save face. But in the end, they only succeeded in giving themselves more headaches.

In the same way, the Orioles made a sensible move to acquire Sosa, but they shouldn't feel obliged to keep him any longer than his health and performance warrant.

Touch and go?

One reader, commenting on the January 30 Sosa article, suggested that Sosa, as an impending free agent, would be a good candidate to peddle to a contender in midseason should the Orioles fall from contention. That could be a profitable strategy for the Orioles, who as I wrote earlier are probably a year or two away from becoming a serious playoff threat. If they can find a team willing to deal a top prospect that is close to the majors, then they probably should pull the trigger.

But it's not likely to unfold that easily. If Sosa is going to be worth that much in a trade, then he's going to have to be productive in the first half of 2005. And if he is productive, his Oriole teammates are capable enough that Baltimore could easily find itself within shouting distance of a playoff spot in June and July. That would make it hard to publicly justify dealing Sosa away, even in a swap that favors the long-term health of the ballclub.

A midseason trade of Sosa would make unequivocal sense under two conditions: (1) if he returns to All-Star form in the first half of '05, and (2) if the rest of the team regresses significantly in the same time frame. But that set of circumstances is improbable. More likely, he will slow down and his teammates will improve this year. So be prepared, for better or for worse, for a full season of the Sammy circus.

Comments (3)

Hey, nice job on reporting. I am one long time Cub fan who will miss Sammy. Because of my Tolerant Christian background and Italian American, joyous love of fellow human's and because I by nature, education and family devleopment and long time understanding of what makes corporations like the Chicago Trib function, i trust little in anything they have to say and less what "reporters" say about athletes, I really don't care about people's personality quirks, personal lives, drug or sexual identity. Sammy, whatever his personal quirks were was/are; lively ball, corked bat, and steroids aside, is the BABE Ruth of his era. So I am even going to subscribe to the MLB package at DISH to watch the Orioles, who have a potent looking lineup, regardless of their pitching. The Cubs after their treatment of ther SS twins, Sammy and Steve Stone (What do they have against folks whose intials are SS?), I cancelled my seasons ticket order. So God bless Sammy and Baltimore, I hope the guy hits 75 homers this season.

Tim Gasser:

Mentioning the Glenn Davis episode was a painful reminder. While I agreed at the time of the trade that it was overall a good one, I remember commenting that they gave too much when they threw in a young pitcher with less than a year's major league service. Pete Harnish and Steve Finley were two quality players to give up, but why oh why did they have to surrender Curt Schilling.

Of course none of it would have had to happen if it wasn't for what I consider the darkest day in Oriole history. The single biggest mistake the team has ever made was the complete lack of respect shown to Eddie Murray that led to his being traded. I remember fans calling in to radio shows complaining about is slow recovery and his disappointing performance. As a native of Washington's Maryland suburbs, that was the point I lost all respect for Baltimore fans. How they could so soon forget what Eddie Murray contributed to the team and how much he meant was mind blowing. The only question was who were the bigger morons, the fans or team management.


Sorry for the delayed response. Prof. Bagnolo, I'm sure the Orioles (and your satellite provider) will be glad to have you in the fold. Baltimore's starting pitching may be a letdown compared to what the Cubs' firearms have accomplished over the past few years, but the Orioles' offense will probably keep them entertaining and competitive this year, and Sammy is still and always will be Sammy. (Sorry if that sounds a little too much like the Gloria Patri.)

I wish that Steve Stone had arrived in the trade, too; he's fondly remembered locally for his out-of-nowhere 1980 Cy Young season, and from what I hear I think he would have been a good addition to the Birds' broadcasts. (When watching the O's, you may want to tune in to the opposing team's television feed if you have the choice; in my opinion Baltimore's TV announcers are squawky and often tiresome.)

Tim, I don't think it was so much the fans that prompted the Orioles to trade Murray in '88, but the management and its poor decisions. Some initial blame can be placed on the late Edward Bennett Williams, who publicly criticized Murray during his disappointing, injury-marred '86 season. Williams missed the larger problem, which was that the organization as a whole was in decline. The rest of the '86 team was old and not very talented (aside from Ripken), and the farm system had eroded to the point where it was producing few noteworthy prospects, particularly on the pitching side. Murray's injury made him a convenient target, but he was made to be a scapegoat, drawing attention away from the failures of the team as a whole. He was quite productive and healthy in '87 and '88, and the Orioles still stunk. Earl Weaver saw what the team was in for in '86 and smartly got out when he could.

I am chagrined to acknowledge that the Davis trade has gone down as one of the worst in baseball history. It's fairly easy to say that now. But how many people thought at the time that Harnisch, Finley, and Schilling would all turn into All-Stars? If I remember rightly, back then Harnisch was considered the best prospect in the transaction, and indeed he was the first to taste big-league success. Meanwhile, Finley was a good defensive outfielder with no pop, and Schilling was an erratic youngster who had alternated between starting and relieving. Given the opportunity, I think most teams would make that trade.

The most questionable aspect of the deal, as I see it, was that the Orioles already had a decent group of first basemen and designated hitters on hand. On-base machine Randy Milligan was just 28, and slick-fielding David Seguí was 24 and had hit .336 at Triple-A Rochester. DH was stocked with Sam Horn and Mickey Tettleton, although Tettleton would depart a day after the Davis trade. What the Orioles really needed was a hard-hitting outfielder. They tried to move Milligan to left field the following spring, but he just didn't have the skills to cut it there. And they signed Dewey Evans, but at age 39 his best days were well behind him.

Incidentally, while the Orioles didn't know what they had in Finley and Schilling, neither did the Astros. Houston used Schilling exclusively as a reliever in 1991 before trading him to Philly in '92 for Jason Grimsley. He then returned to starting and won 14 games for the Phillies that year. Finley had four solid but unspectacular seasons in Houston, then was shipped to San Diego as part of a 12-player deal. His power didn't fully emerge until 1996. So to this day I don't completely fault the O's for the trade, as much as I hate to recall what happened afterward.


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