Cubs & O's Swap Problems

02.4.2005 | Tim Marchman | Sports

From The New York Sun

It’s a rare baseball trade that manages to hurt both teams more than it helps them. In the vast majority of deals, either both teams receive something that will help them more than what they’re giving up, or one team is profiting at the other’s expense.

So what to make of the deal between the Chicago Cubs and the Baltimore Orioles that will send beleaguered slugger Sammy Sosa to the American League in exchange for second baseman/left fielder Jerry Hairston Jr., two minor league non-prospects, and around $7 million cash?

The motivations on both sides are clear. The Cubs wish to rid themselves of what had become an all-encompassing distraction; the Orioles wish to add a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the hopes that he’ll help them sell tickets and make over a dull, uninspired image. Neither team is wrongly motivated here, but this trade doesn’t even address the problems they seem to hope it will solve.

Let’s start with the team that comes out better in the deal, the Orioles. The main problem for the Orioles is that they’re looking at Sosa not for what he is, nor even for what he was, but what they mistakenly think he was. Sosa was never a truly great ballplayer, save for his 2001 campaign.

Despite the gaudy home run totals that marked his prime, Sosa’s was a consistent All-Star rather than a consistent MVP candidate. His limits in the field and on the base paths, combined with small flaws in his offensive game such as a propensity for the double play, reduced his value considerably. In 1998, for instance, he was arguably less valuable than John Olerud despite hitting three times as many home runs - adjusted for park effects, Sosa’s OPS was 60% above league average compared to Olerud’s 63%, and he was a liability in the field while Olerud was a fine glove at first.

Nowadays, with his skills and durability in decline, Sosa is about as valuable as Cliff Floyd or Geoff Jenkins - fully capable of contributing to a championship team, but incapable of being the centerpiece of that team.

That’s fine for the Orioles, who are building their team around a real star, Miguel Tejada. But what they seem not to realize is that Sosa’s inflated reputation as a player is matched by his inflated reputation as a draw and personality.

Sosa, along with Mark McGwire, is often given credit for helping to salve the wounds of the 1994-95 players’ strike with his dramatic pursuit of Roger Maris’s single-season home run record in 1998. There’s some truth in that, but Sosa’s appeal cannot compare to that of Cal Ripken Jr., whose genuine likeability and fundamental play seemed to reflect traditional values, even through the decline of his skills.

Unlike Ripken, Sosa comes off as a calculating, self-obsessed phony, whose shtick works while he’s belting 55 home runs but seems rather contrived when he isn’t. You can take this trade as proof.

The Cubs, a contending team, just dug a big hole in their lineup to get rid of him, mainly because of public ire at a seemingly endless series of incidents that painted him as a selfish buffoon. Whether corking his bat, spending a month on the DL after a sneeze, or storming out of the clubhouse minutes into the last game of a heartbreaking 2004 season, Sosa has spent the last two years working his way out of the graces of the famously loyal Chicago fans.

There’s no reason to think the Orioles are getting anything less than a decent right fielder in this deal, but there is evidence that they think they’re getting an ambassador who will help them stir an apathetic fan base. One can only wish them good luck with that. Sosa likely will make a difference on the field - the 35 home runs he hit in 2004 are more than half the 55 that Baltimore’s outfield managed in its entirety last season - but he’s not going to push the team into a playoff spot, and he’s declining rapidly.

However little sense this trade may make for the Orioles, it makes far less sense for the Cubs. It’s no mystery why they made this deal. Like the firing of longtime announcers Chip Caray and Steve Stone, who were critical of the team as it choked away a playoff spot down the stretch, this move was made partially to placate the incompetent manager Dusty Baker as well as the notoriously stolid suits at the Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs and frowns on anything that might damage the team’s cuddly image.

On none of these accounts is the move even coherent. Baker’s propensity to overwork his young starters while refusing to use young position players is what cost the Cubs the pennant the last two years; he should be in no position to dictate personnel moves. Meanwhile, the Tribune Company scalps tickets to Cubs games; how clubhouse conflicts could harm their image is something of a mystery.

Sosa may have skipped out on the team’s last game last year; he may have turned up his radio too loud in the clubhouse; he may be an overrated player. He’s nonetheless worth more than Hairston Jr., two prospects who wouldn’t rank among the 15 best in the team’s system, and cash that the big-market Cubs don’t need.

More crucially, he’s quite a lot better than Jeromy Burnitz, Magglio Ordonez, or just about anyone else the Cubs look likely to stick in right field.

The difference between Sosa and someone like Burnitz is likely to be in the area of four wins this year, and that’s too much to give up when you’re competing in a division that produced both of last year’s NLCS participants. That, and not the feelings of a poor manager like Dusty Baker or an anonymous suit on Michigan Avenue, should be the primary concern of a contending team’s executives.

It’s been 97 years since the Cubs won a World Series; this move brings them that much closer to 98.

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