Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Manny Trade

Thursday, Major League Baseball's non-waiver trading deadline, reminded me a lot of July 31 2004. On that day, the Red Sox, who had been fighting literally and figuratively with the Yankees but who were also scuffling below expactations, were widely believed to be trying to deal Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar, a Boston icon (and, though it is easy to forget now, a seeming certain first-ballot Hall of Famer)was discontented. Perhaps to make a point he sat out of an important game in a series against the Yankees with a dubious injury. The injury was plausible, however, inasmuch as 2004 marked what would prove to be the turning point in Nomar's now injury-riddled career. As the trade deadline arrived and passed that day, many Sox fans were relieved when there was no news about Nomar.

Moments later the bombshell came across the wires: Nomar had been traded to the Cubs in a four-team deal. The Sox received what at the time was the seemingly underwhelming pair of Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. To add to the perplexing nature of the deal, the Sox also gave up a prized prospect, Matt Murton. It seemed at the time that wunderkind General manager Theo Epstein had been fleeced. Epstein talked about needing to upgrade Nomar's defense (which had declined precipitously) but that seemed like rationalization.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to last Thursday. The situation with Manny Ramirez had clearly gone beyond the point of repair. Manny had begun a vanishing act all too familiar to Red Sox fans. In 2006 he effectively boycotted the last six weeks of the season, a season that began promisingly but then fell apart due to injuries but also to Manny's petulence. When he started sitting out games this season, claiming amorphous injuries that the medical staff could not identify, and when the whispering from the clubhouse indicated that Manny Being Manny had crossed the tipping point from cute to harmful, Epstein knew it was time to go.

Like in 2004 the 4:00 (est) trade deadline passed with seemingly no movement. Manny appeared set to remain with the Red Sox. Then the news came down: Manny had been traded in a three-team deal to the Dodgers. The Sox would also give up Craig Hansen and Brandon Moss. For two young players and the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation the Red Sox would get Jason Bay, a fine player who had wallowed in obscurity for the execrable Pirates.

It did not take long for the chattering classes to have at it. Theo had been fleeced! You find a way to live with a guy like Manny with his production! And perhaps most galingly, the Red Sox were now done for the year! No way could they compete with the Tampa Bay Rays (!?) and Yankees for the American League East.

This palaver is silly. For one thing, while Jason Bay may not be Manny, he is almost inarguably more reliable than Manny if Manny chooses not to play or not to put forth the necessary effort. We become blinded by the names of superstars, and yet the raw numbers indicate that Bay's production is comparable to Manny's this year. The Red Sox offense is solid, despite some frustrations of late (with Manny), and the reality is that the team's biggest weakness, the bullpen bridge to Papelbon, is far more significant than any offensive worries. Bay is not only going to be fine in Boston, the Red Sox are going to be fine, and may flourish, with him plugging that spot. (And although defense and baserunning are overrated, Bay is a substantial upgrade over Manny in those areas.) Furthermore, even if the Sox survived this season with Manny there was zero chance that they were going to exercise the club's $20 million option. Given that reality, and with Bay signed through 2009, the question became, or should have become, not just whether two months of Manny (who may simply choose not to play or not to run out a ground ball single) was better than two months of Bay, but whether two months of Manny was better than two months plus one full season, cost-controlled, of Bay.

Emotionally, however, the feeling is quite different. In what amounts to a bizarre coinsidence, weeks ago I had planned to be at Friday night's Dodgers game against the Diamondbacks. I was already thrilled to be going to a game with huge playoff implications. Suddenly I would be at Manny's first game. I loved Manny. I was one of those who believed that Theo Epstein and Tito Francona had brilliantly dealt with Manny being Manny. But I also knew that things had gotten out of hand, that management's tricks no longer could counteract Manny's increasing tendency to play the saboteur, and that it was time to get value for him. So I wondered what my recation would be when Manny debuted in a Dodgers uniform on Friday night.

The answer is that I could not help myself. I wanted to see Manny do well. I was bummed to see him in a Dodgers uniform. I cheered him.

I loved the Manny era in Boston. A lot of people have placed a bit too much emphasis on his 2004 World Series MVP -- realistically that probably should have gone to Keith Foulke, and in any case, Manny hardly placed the team on his shoulders in that relatively easy four-game sweep. But the reality is that Manny was an essential member of the team that nbot only brought the Red Sox two titles, but who also carried them through a long period of sustained excellence, even in those years when they did not win it all. Manny was a blast to watch, the sort of guy who causes even casual fans to stop what they are doing to watch his at-bats. Yes, I resented the coasting and the me-first attitude of the last few weeks. But that did not overwhelm the nearly eight years of excellence he brought us.

In the end I felt sad. Breaking up is hard to do.

So go well, Manny. Earn that $100 million contract you want so dearly. Make LA fans fall in love with you. Carry them to the National League West title (not exactly the American League East, mind you). Make more Manny Moments in Chavez Ravine. Thanks for (almost) everything.

And Jason Bay, welcome to Boston. It is a small sample size so far, but in five games you've acquitted yourself well and vindicated Theo yet again. The fans have embraced you. And you are in the midst of a pennant race in the city where pennant races mean the most, which must be something to behold after those years in the wilderness in Pittsburgh. If the best analogy for the last few days is this same timeframe in 2004, I think we can live with that. 2004 turned out pretty well for us, after all.


GoodLiberal said...

A great post, which I agree with entirely- Manny is a Boston legend, but he's 36 and can't play forever. Buy at the bottom of the market and sell at the top- it takes nerves of steel, but it is how traders make their money.

P.S. It is Craig Hansen, no?

dcat said...

GoodLib --
Thanks. Yeah, of course, it's Craig -- obviously I had Jason Bay on the brain.
I'd like to see them get on a little roll. Losing as they have to Chicago this weekend has been frustrating. Four game series always seem to end in 2-2 splits, so hopefully they'll pull it out tomorrow and get on a roll.


Slicer said...

A kaiser roll, maybe.