Tejada or Chavez? Phelps or Wells? It doesn't matter, since they're all replaceable -- right?

Monday, February 10 2003 @ 04:55 AM EST

Contributed by: Anonymous

Once again, I’ve been inspired to write a full-length response to a comment here on Batter’s Box. Ah, intertextuality. Where would Shakespeare have been without it? Anyway, here’s the quote, from BB regular Jurgen Maas:

But the lesson, again, is—nobody is irreplaceable. Other clubs need to take this to heart.

This comment was inspired by the notion the A’s would keep Eric Chavez over Miguel Tejada. I suspect they won’t keep either, and money won’t be the only reason. Part of the decision will be driven by what Jurgen said: we’re all replaceable.

Of course, other than making money being the central issue, baseball has little or no resemblance to an ordinary business. It’s true we’re all replaceable, but that should not please anyone; it doesn’t have to be like that in the “real world.” The good news, I suppose, is that, if we “slump” in real life because of age or injury, we will—hopefully—not be discarded right away. For instance, when you’re 37 and coming off an arm injury, you’re not likely to be released from your job, unless you work in a manual labor position, in which case you’ll get workers comp, and of course in the event you do work in such a position, you’ll be hoping for an arm injury or hyperobesity so you can sit around all day in a muu muu poking a computer with a broom or obtaining a drinking bird to do your job for you.

Regardless of the differences between running a baseball team and running an accounting firm, there’s something to be said for continuity. How much is unclear. We’ve seen the Red Sox, Mets, Rangers, Dodgers, Cubs and others try the rotisserie approach to building a team, and they have, for the most part, failed miserably. Meanwhile, teams like the Yankees, A’s, Indians and, to a lesser extent, the Braves have had the same core for years, and they’ve succeeded where the other teams have failed. The Yankees are an exception, obviously, because of their free-agent clout, the last two seasons in particular, but there remains much home-grown talent on their squad. On the other hand, the Giants haven’t developed much talent on their own, and they’ve made the playoffs a number of years, often plugging in spare parts to fill out not only the 24th and 25th roster slots, but also, in some cases, the lead-off and #5 spots in the batting order, and even their high-end rotation slots. Barry Bonds is responsible for much of their success, duh, but not all of it.

Yes, the A’s were able to win 103 games last year without Jason Giambi, but that only proves how great Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito are. Simply put, they won’t sign Tejada unless the deal is right for them, and no agent in the world will allow the deal to be right for the A’s; it’s not right or wrong, it just is. So Tejada will bolt, they’ll stick Freddie Bynum or Mark Ellis or whoever over there, they’ll use the two draft picks to get some college pitchers, who they will trade mid-way through the 2004 season for a hitter or two, and, assuming things go well, will stroll into the playoffs hoping Mulder, Hudson and Zito can throw shutouts. And if Chavez does learn to be more patient at the plate, he’ll be a superstar, one of the top 10 or 15 players in baseball, and there’s no way they’ll be able to sign him if that happens. I don’t see Chavez having Bonds-type potential, but Jason Giambi-type potential? If he walks more, yes. In any event, the odds are low they’ll be able to keep Chavez even if he maintains his current status of “very good.” In the next few years the A’s will also lose at least one of their aces, most likely Hudson, since he has the most ML time. They may lose two, or all three, and, while Rich Harden has put up some impressive minor-league numbers, we all know how unreliable young pitchers are. Much has been made of the luck factor in player development and scouting; while I believe luck can only explain so much, the odds seem stacked against the A’s having another pitcher work out in the near future the way Hudson, Mulder, and Zito have. I’m not counting on Ted Lilly or Aaron Harang, and, since the A’s are smarter than I am, neither are they.

Ah, but the A’s will bounce back, the pundits say. They did it last year after they lost Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen; they’ll do it this year after losing Jeremy Giambi, Jon Mabry, Ray Durham, Cory Lidle, and Billy Koch; and they’ll do it again in future years when they lose Tejada, Chavez, Hudson, et al. Me, I’m not so sure. Many people point to how the Mariners won 116 games without Griffey, A-Rod or Randy Johnson, and that is indeed a worthy accomplishment. All it tells me is that the Mariners got lucky. They were obviously a good team, but last year’s 93 wins is a better reflection of just how good. Given the relative paucity of minor-league prospects, I think the Mariners are in for a long period of decline, and they will eventually have to part with Freddy Garcia, Mike Cameron and others to save payroll and re-stock the system. The A’s are different than the Mariners in that they have Billy Beane; in the coming years, we will see just how brilliant he is.

The one constant in Seattle, however, was Lou Piniella. This year will tell us much about the effects modern major league managers have on their teams, with Piniella and Dusty Baker switching teams, and with Felipe Alou coming back. All three of those guys turned their respective franchises around, but it wasn’t like they were starting over: Alou had Vlad and Pedro and Larry Walker, et al; Piniella had the aforementioned threesome, Edgar Martinez and Jeff Fassero, among others; and Baker had Bonds—a nice starting point to build any team around—Jeff Kent, and Will Clark, to name a few. The situation in Chicago is not as rosy, but Baker takes over a Cubs team that has Sammy Sosa, albeit a declining one, and starting pitching that is, arguably, as good as the A’s. It is not ridiculous to say that Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano will not rival Hudson, Mulder and Zito in the 2004 season—if not the 2003 season. And Alou takes over a Giants team that did not stand pat. They have improved their offense, despite the loss of Kent; their success rests with their starting pitching, as we have discussed on this board. Piniella, on the other hand, faces real challenges. If he can coax 80 wins out of the Devil Rays, for me the debate is over: the 2001 Mariners won all those games because of Sweet Lou.

Of course, that M’s team wasn’t the D-Rays; there were some tremendous players: Bret Boone, Cameron, Ichiro, Garcia, John Olerud, Jamie Moyer, Kaz Sasaki, and Martinez. And they had role players—Mark McLemore, David Bell, Stan Javier, Dan Wilson—who also played hard and helped the team. Nonetheless, the nagging question remains: How did that team win 116 games? Well, for starters, they outscored their opponents 927-627. That helps. Other than that, the usual breed of theories have been postured: Boone, Ichiro and Paul Abbott, among others, enjoyed career years; the M’s played like a “team”; they had “guts." Whatever. Nobody really knows. Ask a different question, however. If you could, somehow, have presented the Mariners with the following two choices before the start of the 2001 season:

Option A: 116 guaranteed wins.

Option B: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez instead of their various replacements. This is tricky because we don’t know if the Mariners would have signed Ichiro, among others, but you get the idea.

Obviously the goal is to win, so Option A would seem the easy answer. But saying the Mariners were better without their three superstars is specious—yes, they won more games, but were they truly better? Sure, you can say, “But the Mariners only won 79 games in 1999 and 76 games in 1998. Of course they were better.” Nonetheless, to imply the Mariners wouldn’t want any of them back is not merely specious. It is an outright lie. The Mariners miss Johnson, Griffey, and A-rod, no matter how successful or mediocre their teams have been without one of them, two of them, or all three of them. Similarly, the A’s miss Giambi and will miss Tejada, Chavez, Hudson, Mulder, Zito, et al more than they are willing to admit. Again, the Beane factor makes me less inclined to forecast a decline similar to what the Mariners face. It’s impossible to know.

Eventually, the Blue Jays will arrive at the same place as the A’s: they will have to decide among Josh Phelps, Roy Halladay, Orlando Hudson, Eric Hinske, Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells and others. Good luck, J.P. The decision will be that much more difficult if the Jays win a title in the coming years, a real possibility if they can secure one or two dependable starters. So when one, a few, or all of the above players depart, money will be used, legitimately, as the reason. But another reason is important, too: the idea we’re all replaceable. For me, that’s not very comforting in terms of the real world; it would be nice to be considered invaluable. The reality is, quite simply, outside of our families, none of us are. In baseball, it is a central tenet in the A’s philosophy—and, therefore, a central tenet for the new Blue Jays. Is it good or bad? Who knows? It is simply the truth. And as Camus says, "The truth is neither good nor bad; it is merely the truth."