When I was in high school, I wasn’t exactly a hot ticket. I mean, I was tall and a guitarist (I still am both of those things, incidentally)…aaaand that was about all I had going for me in terms of landing the proverbial hot chicks.
I had braces until halfway through my junior year. I took all AP classes, and spent a lot of time doing homework. While my high school’s social hierarchy was based largely on how much money your parents gave you to spend, my parents never really had a tremendous amount of money, and not a whole lot of that trickled down to me for my own personal entertainment.
Let’s put it this way: being in marching band in high school is bad enough, being drum major for two years just about kills any chance you have of dating hot girls. And just to make sure I was consigned to the social underbelly of the school, I played clarinet and did three years of academic challenge.
What I learned from this experience is the value of buying low and selling high.
My overwhelming nerdiness and lack of panache (somehow I managed to be smart and funny without being charming) limited my dating options tremendously. As a result, I wound up doing what most small-market baseball teams do when they find themselves priced out of the targets they really want—I lowered my standards. So instead of chasing the Roy Halladays of the world, I had to try to work out a trade for the 15-year-old female equivalent of Brian Bannister. This worked out for me about as well as it did for the Royals: a bunch of ugly relationships, jeering, and embarrassment. Ask Paul, or Blockie, Friend of the Blog and Sometime Fantasy Sports Antagonist.* There are a few that I still haven’t lived down.
*On a related note, I knocked Blockie, Friend of the Blog and Sometime Fantasy Sports Antagonist, out of both of our fantasy football playoffs this year. Neener Neener Neener.
After a time, however, I realized that there were attractive and engaging girls out there who might not have been out of my league—I was just looking in all the wrong places.
What I realized was that you could find yourself a good-looking girlfriend—sometimes better than the “popular” people—if you found a hot girl who happened, for instance, to take AP science classes, or had sacrificed whatever chance she might have had at being popular to do indoor color guard.
As an aside, I realized my sophomore year of high school that the color guard in my marching band existed to provide a pool of good-looking girls for the drummers and saxophonists. The next year, I traded my clarinet for a saxophone.
The pinnacle of my buy-low-sell-high mentality happened when a girl I was in wind ensemble with did one of those classic “I-just-turned-16-and-started-caring-about-my-appearance” transformations. She went from being somewhat…well…motherly to quite attractive almost overnight. She dropped about 25 pounds, ditched her classes, cut her hair and started wearing tight pants. And I noticed before anyone else did, and suddenly, for the first time, I found myself taking a girl out and not wanting to cover my head with a paper bag. I never quite managed to land a free agent of her caliber again. And Kate, the Long-Suffering Girlfriend, has had me pretty much locked down for the past 4 years, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be readopting my buy-low-sell-high strategy in the future.
And here’s how this relates to baseball. The whole idea of Moneyball was to pay less for players than they were worth, both in terms of salary and resources (monetary and personnel) necessary to acquire them. The girls I tried to date in high school were likewise undervalued—if they had better self-confidence, it’s likely I would not have dated anyone at all. I know that’s demeaning and sexist, but it’s the truth. So by taking the Moneyball approach to dating, I was able to still get dates for dances without ever landing the Albert Pujols of my high school social life (And yes, there is such a girl, and no, her self-esteem wasn’t low enough to date me).
The Phillies are maxed out on payroll, as has been made painfully obvious by the Cliff Lee trade. It doesn’t matter if you believe management, because in this case, perception is reality.
Here’s a secret. Particularly in sports without a salary cap, it’s very rare to make money while you own a professional team. Salaries in sports like baseball and soccer are just too high. Even the meager contributions that owners make toward building stadia are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Here’s how you make money. If you’re lucky, you get a ridiculous TV deal like the one the Yankees have, or like the one in the NFL. If not, the only way you really make money is by selling the team. I know that sounds absurd, given that even the poorest major league teams still make hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but after taxes, payroll, operating expenses, and stadium depreciation, even the stingiest major league teams spend just as much.
For instance, George Steinbrenner (who used to be one of Woody Hayes’ assistants at Ohio State—who knew?) and a group of investors that included notorious car designer John DeLorean bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for about $10 million. That, by the way, has to be the most interesting ownership group in history, certainly in American sports.
Today, Forbes values the team at a shade over $1 billion, and I bet they’d get more than that for the team if they decided to sell. That’s 100 times more valuable than when Steinbrenner bought the team. That’s how these rich people make money.
So if the Phillies brass says they’re not going to spend any more money, we have no choice to accept it. It doesn’t mean that the team’s complete, however.
Two deals happened over Christmas that really cemented the Phillies’ status as a chaser for the World Series. First, the Yankees traded a mediocre outfielder for Javier Vazquez, who, it can be argued, has been one of the top 10 pitchers of this past decade. He is, after all, one of only two pitchers to strike out 2,000 men in the 2000s. And he’ll be the No. 4 starter for the Yankees next year.
Also the Red Sox bagged Adrian Beltre, who will play a Gold Glove third base and probably drive in 80 runs or more at the bottom of the Boston order. If they wind up trading for Adrian Gonzalez, as they are rumored to do, there’s no telling how good the Bosox can be.
So even if the Phillies make it back to the World Series, which I think there’s about a 50/50 chance they’ll do, they’ll most likely have to beat one of the AL East giants four times out of seven, which, given the Vazquez trade and Beltre signing, doesn’t look that great a bet.
So the Phillies need someone who can come in and be an impact player, and they need him on the cheap. With the lineup more or less set, the Phillies can use a No. 5 starter and some bats off the bench. The only way you get an impact player on the cheap as a free agent is if he’s flawed somehow. It’s a strategy that has worked for the Phillies throughout their run of division titles because they’ve gotten lucky with this type of pickup. They got Shane Victorino for free because he couldn’t hit. Matt Stairs was too fat to play the field. Jayson Werth couldn’t hit right-handed pitching or stay healthy. Jamie Moyer was too old. Brad Lidge had gone nuts. Pedro Martinez had lost his fastball. All of these players made significant contributions toward one or both of the Phillies’ pennant runs in the past two seasons. Let’s get some more.
RHP Ben Sheets—One thing I never really realized was how good Ben Sheets was in 2004. Paul would love this season, because it’s as damning an indictment as any I’ve seen of won-loss records as an indicator of pitcher effectiveness. Even the relatively unsophisticated stats were stellar. Sheets had 264 strikeouts, a 2.70 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP, and he did this over 237 innings. But then you look at his 8.25 K/BB and his 2.65 FIP. Most impressive, though, is that his 2004 season was good for 8 wins above replacement. EIGHT! Since 2003, there have only been six seasons that good by pitchers, and three of them came this year (Zack Grienke, Justin Verlander, and Tim Lincecum, in case you were curious). And Sheets went 12-14.
I know that after they opened up Sheets’ right elbow in late 2008 and found out it was made of spaghetti, we most likely won’t get that pitcher in 2009. But we’re not asking for an ace, or even a No. 2.We just need him to be better than Kyle Kendrick or Jamie Moyer, and if either of them is significantly better than replacement-level this season, I’d be shocked. Interestingly enough, while Sheets’ curveball, worth 14.8 runs above average in 2004, dropped to about average in 2008, his last season, his fastball was worth 5 1/2 runs more in about 40 fewer innings. I think he’ll still have decent stuff when he gets back.
If the Phillies drop $3 million or $4 million on Sheets, and get 100 innings of better-than-average ball out of him, I consider that to be a bargain. I don’t know if he can be had for that, and I know he wants to pitch for Texas, but would he turn down the opportunity to pitch with Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay and have this team behind him? I dunno. I think Ruben Amaro should take another page from my high school dating philosophy–call and ask, because the worst they can say is no.
RHP Chad Bradford–Speaking of the Moneyball approach, Bradford, the knuckle-dragging reliever, was one of the stars of that book, and an appropraite target for a team looking to get good relief help on the cheap. One of the most astounding things to me about baseball is the life cycle of a relief pitcher. It seems like there have been ten times more flash-in-the-pan relief aces than there have been guys who were consistently good for 10 years or more, even if they never got to the level of a 2002 Robb Nen. More likely, they’re amazing for a couple years, then flame out. Some come and go, like Brad Lidge. But guys like Jesse Orosco, who put together careers of 15 years of effective relief work, seem like they only come along once in a generation, making Mariano Rivera, who’s been a dominant reliever for 15 years, all the more remarkable. Bradford’s been just consistently good.
Bradford is the perfect storm for an undervalued player: he’s 35, doesn’t throw hard (his fastball hasn’t averaged above 80 miles an hour since 2005), has a weird delivery, is coming off injury (back pain limited him to 10 1/3 IP in 2009). He’s also thinking about retiring. So why not ask Bradford, who’s never been even to an LCS in a 12-year career with six teams, if he’d like to come to spring training? The one thing the Phillies lacked last year was a reliable reliever, and if he’s healthy and motivated, Bradford can be exactly that.
INF Khalil Greene—For me, the biggest offseason concern for the Phillies was not the bullpen, because I think Lidge/Madson will bounce back some, and I’m optimistic about Scott Mathieson. Neither was it Cole Hamels, whom I’m penciling in for 18 wins and 160 strikeouts, and close to 200 innings pitched. No, it was how to keep Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley–both recently stepping over to the wrong side of 30–from wearing down over 162 games without having to put Eric Bruntlett in the lineup. Now, I realize that, Ding-Dong, the Bruntlett’s dead, but this Juan Castro character isn’t a whole lot better.
Greene’s an odd case. He started off as the Padres’ biggest position player prospect, and put up roughly 3-win seasons in 3 of his first 4 years. Then, he’s been below replacement level since 2008 with very little warning. He only played 77 games for St. Louis last year (hitting .200 with 6 home runs) before going on the DL for social anxiety disorder.
Now I realize that putting a guy with social anxiety disorder–particularly social anxiety disorder bad enough to end his season–in Philly sounds like a terrible idea. But he’s got enough of a reputation as being injury-prone (he’s played more than 122 games just twice in his six-year career) and a head case that his value’s going to be waaaay down. We could get him for a pittance, and there are several advantages to having Khalil Greene on your team.
First and foremost is his bat. Yes, he’s a career .245 hitter, but he walks enough and hits for a fair turn of power, so his OPS is usually around league average. He’s a solid enough right-handed bat off the bench that you can use him to pinch-hit in the late innings. Second, he plays shortsop and third base, so when you get him those 250 garbage-time at-bats, you can use him to spell Rollins and Polanco directly, or put him at third and move Polanco to second to spell Utley. When was the last time the Phillies had a backup infielder who doubled as a right-handed power bat.
My favorite Khalil Greene story: when he was coming up with the Padres, an African-American-focused magazine wanted to do a feature on young black athletes of the future. When they called him for an interview, Greene had to explain that he’s a white dude with flowing blonde hair.
Greene is also probably the second-most famous member of the Bahá’í Faith, behind The Office star Rainn Wilson (if Dizzy Gillespie were alive, he’d beat both of them, but he’s not, so he can shut up).
So I hope that the Phillies will continue to take my Scrap Heap Digest advice. At least that way the dating hell I went through as a youth won’t have been in vain.
Any other suggestions (any takers for Chien-Ming Wang) are, of course, welcome in the comments, particularly if you think I’m crazy for wanting Khalil Greene.