Oddsmakers, fans, and legions of experts declared the Detroit Tigers favorites to win the World Series after they pulled off an eight-player deal at the 2007 winter meetings in which they acquired Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.
Well, it didn't turn out that way.
In fact, the Tigers' best acquisition turned out to be Armando Galarraga (13-7, 3.73), obtained from the Texas Rangers last February, and not Willis, who spent most of the season in the minors after an injury, as well as a poor performance in eight games (0-2, 9.38 ERA).
Cabrera also got off to a slow start, changed positions (from third base to first), and finished strong, but by that time the Tigers' hopes were shattered. They finished last.
The Tigers are a reminder that sometimes the big splashes don't add up. They were hoodwinked on a deal for Edgar Renteria in which they gave up promising righthanded starter Jair Jurrjens, who went 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA over 188 1/3 innings for the Braves. Kenny Rogers got old. Jeremy Bonderman got hurt. Nate Robertson and Justin Verlander were disappointing, and the team eventually traded a declining Pudge Rodriguez to the Yankees.
A year later at the winter meetings, the Yankees and the Mets made the biggest moves in their respective leagues. Two days after the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to a seven-year, $161 million deal, they agreed to terms with A.J. Burnett on a five-year, $82.5 million deal. It's likely that Derek Lowe and possibly a big-name hitter such as Mark Teixeira or Manny Ramírez are still Yankee targets. The Mets got two top relievers - season save record-holder Francisco Rodriguez, signing him to a three-year, $37 million deal, and J.J. Putz in a trade with the Mariners.
The Mets got the biggest name on the pitching market last season - Johan Santana - and still didn't make the playoffs. The Diamondbacks swung that huge Dan Haren deal with Oakland. No playoffs for them, either.
Are the Yankees with Sabathia and Burnett and the Mets with K-Rod and Putz now considered the favorites, or are they primed for Tiger-like falls?
"The one difference is that the Yankees are loading up on pitching while the Tigers did get Dontrelle, [but] there were still questions about their bullpen and their starting rotation," said one National League executive. "If the Yankees get another guy [Burnett], re-sign Andy Pettitte on top of Sabathia, I'll take my chance that they might be the best team in the American League."
The Mets are thinking that K-Rod, who didn't get the five-year offers he was seeking because of fears his fastball is declining, is their savior with Billy Wagner out for the season after Tommy John surgery. Putz has been up and down because of a sore elbow and there are questions whether he'll be effective as a setup man rather than a closer.
In response to the K-Rod situation, Mets general manager Omar Minaya said, "Yeah, we did look at the fastball . . . [it] was up in September. His fastball is not the same fastball as he had in 2002, but the hitters we've talked to say his changeup is as good as there is in the game. He's been smart enough to make adjustments and he now has different weapons to get you out."
The Yankees should be loaded in the bullpen, loaded in the rotation (after another move or two), and have one of the game's best players in Alex Rodriguez. But they also have a catcher (Jorge Posada) who has to show he can throw again; a second baseman (Robinson Cano) with all the talent in the world who has to produce like it; an aging left fielder (Johnny Damon); a shortstop (Derek Jeter) who doesn't have great range; and an offense that probably needs a little more thump (though they're close to trading for Mike Cameron to be their center fielder).
Minaya still needs a starting pitcher and could re-sign lefthander Oliver Perez or Lowe, and needs a left fielder (could Pat Burrell or even Ramírez be reentering their sights?).
Tigers manager Jim Leyland knows the feeling that comes with failed expectations. He took last season hard. He thought he had a great team entering spring training, but the Tigers turned out to be a dog. They became the highest-paid team ($130 million) to finish last.
What went wrong?
"I don't go back like that," said Leyland. "I don't chew on yesterday's breakfast. I didn't talk about 2006 going into 2007. That's history. We've been through this a thousand times. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. We didn't do a good enough job. Our organization last year was just the opposite of 2006. We had a bad year, which was a surprise.
"We need to get that confidence and professional swagger back, and I think we lost that last year. I think we were asking some people to do things they weren't capable of doing, and I think that's very unfair. We had too many times last year when we didn't hold leads, we let leads get away, and I've always said that's the most discouraging thing that can happen to your ball club, that it just tears your heart out. We got to within four games, and all of a sudden we started losing games from the sixth inning on, lead after lead, and if we would have held half of those, we'd have been in the hunt close to the end. But we didn't."
It was clear that the Yankes and Mets lost their swagger, as well. But both Yankees GM Brian Cashman and Minaya have been proactive. Now we'll see if their teams can avoid being the 2008 Tigers.
La Russa gives ex-players A's
A few questions for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa:
Could you talk about this year's Hall of Fame ballot?
TL: "This steroid issue, right, that's a matter of integrity. That's one way to describe it, right? Well, it occurred to me that I've never spoken much about it at all, but [Mark McGwire] did something that screams integrity. How many guys do we know who had a contract in his hand for $15 million [a year] over two years and he walked away from it because he didn't feel he could play to that level. That, to me, there's a certain integrity for the sport, for self-respect, for everything. I'm just saying that [the fact] he walked away from that money has been underpublicized and underdiscussed. I have not discussed it and I think it's a hellacious sign of the type of person he is."
TL: "Rickey was a part of just about every competition I was in. So the 10 years from 1979 to 1989 going against him and then watching him with us [Oakland] for that four- or five-year period, he was the most dangerous player of his generation. That includes all the great sluggers and Hall of Famers. I also add, because I think this is important, I think there's a certain perception of being a troublemaker and not a good teammate, and there were times - Rickey took care of himself and there were times Rickey went against the manager or what the organization thought was good for the team, and he and I had a couple of issues about that. But the point is he was one of the best teammates of any superstar you're going to find. He wasn't one of those guys who was arrogant or separated himself."
Was Rickey the most dominant postseason player you had?
TL: "He was dominant. He was the one guy you didn't want to face. He was a marked man. We all tried to stop him and he still succeeded. He still stole a base, got on base, tiny little strike zone. He'd hit it, walk, steal second."
Valentine loves Tazawa signing
Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine said the Red Sox did a great job recruiting Junichi Tazawa and feels the 22-year-old righthander has a chance to develop into a very good major league starter.
"He certainly needs some seasoning," said Valentine. "I would probably start him in A-ball and allow him to have success at that level before moving him up, but that's just my opinion based on the times I've seen him and where I believe he's at. But the Red Sox did all the right things in luring him to their side."
Valentine said Tazawa is typical of many Japanese pitchers in that his velocity is not the biggest factor in his success.
"It's movement, location, setting up hitters," said Valentine. "That's always been more important than velocity anyway, and I think this kid commands really well. Like any young pitcher, he'll have to prove he can pitch at every level he goes and make adjustments as he goes along, just like anyone else."
Valentine was aware of the hard feelings the Tazawa signing created in Japan, as the Sox signed one of the country's top amateur players in an unprecedented move. It was a wake-up call that the Japanese must now find ways to keep their talent at home. There was discussion of the possibility of Japan pulling out of the World Baseball Classic over the Tazawa signing, but cooler heads prevailed.
Apropos of nothing
1. Too bad the Diamondbacks signed Felipe Lopez, nullifying an Eric Byrnes-for-Julio Lugo deal; 2. Thumbs up on the new Red Sox unis; 3. An informal poll of agents and front-office people at the winter meetings thought the Red Sox, by a 95 percent to 5 percent margin, got the better of Dustin Pedroia's six-year, $40.5 million deal; 4. Isn't it a bad idea for any player to wear a "C" on his jersey?
A quick look at some names that came up at the winter meetings:
1. Kris Benson, righthanded pitcher - The former Pirate, Met, and Oriole visited Las Vegas in hopes of getting a few teams interested in his services. Benson has missed the last two seasons recovering from shoulder surgery. "I'm 34 years old, but I feel like I can still pitch and I can help a team's rotation," said Benson. "There are still a lot of teams out there that don't have their rotations set. I just want the chance to be the pitcher I was before I went through all of this."
2. Matt Clement, righthanded pitcher - He's ready to resume his career after missing the last 2 1/2 seasons with shoulder woes. Toronto will bring Clement in as a spring training invitee.
3. John Smoltz, righthanded pitcher - It's surprising he is considering teams other than Atlanta for the final year or two of his career. One of the major reasons Smoltz would love Boston is pitching coach John Farrell. Smoltz knows Farrell's reputation, and also loves the atmosphere of Fenway. As a fifth starter, Smoltz could also be a strong influence on Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. The Sox are looking at his medical reports and studying the side session video distributed to teams late last week.
4. Mark Mulder, lefthanded pitcher - Mulder, 31, who is 103-60, seems to have gotten over the hump from the shoulder injury that has limited him to six starts the last two seasons and 23 over the last three. "He's ready to go for any team right out of the chute," said his agent, Gregg Clifton. There had been some talk that teams would have to wait until May or June. "Not true," said Clifton.
5. Nick Punto, infielder - Punto stayed at the winter meetings all week and his persistence paid off with a new two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Twins. Punto had a strong market as a utilityman, but in staying with Minnesota he will ensure that he's the team's starting shortstop. He's also a great chemistry guy.
6. Jake Peavy, righthanded pitcher - We wrote here a few weeks ago that the Angels would get involved with Peavy, and they tried to start up talks with the Padres late last week. Peavy also may have performed the greatest hidden-person trick. According to two people who think they saw him at the Bellagio, Peavy was present during Greg Maddux's retirement announcement, but he hid behind the big blue curtain on the stage.
7. Casey Kelly, Red Sox first-round draft pick - Lots of talk by scouts and agents who watched him play at Sarasota (Fla.) High. Said one former major league player turned agent, "This kid is a phenomenal athlete. He can make it as a shortstop and he could make it as a pitcher. What I would do is have him play the infield for three years to see how he does. If he doesn't take to it, then convert him to pitcher." However, the Sox are making him a pitcher for now. According to his agent, Joe Sambito, the Sox' plan is to have him pitch 100 innings and then let him play shortstop. Asked about Kelly's stuff, Sambito, who was a reliever on Boston's 1986 World Series team, said, "He throws 92-94 with tremendous control, an excellent 12-6 curveball."
8. Dennis Gilbert, special adviser to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf - Gilbert was once one of the biggest agents in the game - Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, George Brett, Rickey Henderson, Bret Saberhagen, and Curt Schilling were among a huge stable of well-known clients. In addition to Gilbert's White Sox business he's involved with the Professional Scouts Foundation, which helps scouts who have fallen on hard times. Dennis Gilbert Field in Los Angeles was built to help the RBI Program, which is devoted to promoting baseball among inner-city kids.
9. Johnny Damon, Yankees left fielder - Damon admitted he's now better suited to play left because "I've lost a step over the years in the game and now I'm probably only an average center fielder."
10. Bill Fischer, former Red Sox pitching coach - Still the Royals' minor league pitching coordinator, Fischer, who was Roger Clemens's pitching coach with the Sox, was given the Roland Hemond Award for his work in scouting and player development, at the annual scouts dinner at the winter meetings. He said of Clemens, "What a shame it had to end for him that way."
From the Bill Chuck files: Tuffy Rhodes will most likely play another season for the Orix Buffaloes after hitting .277 with 40 home runs and a league-leading 118 RBIs. It would be Rhodes's 13th season in Japanese baseball, breaking the mark for a foreigner. At 40, he would be the second-oldest American to play in Japan behind 42-year-old George Altman. In 1994, Rhodes became the first National League player to hit three home runs on Opening Day, going deep thrice off Dwight Gooden at Wrigley Field . . . Also, CC Sabathia is 2-4 against the Red Sox with a 3.91 ERA . . . Happy 39th birthday, Scott Hatteberg, and happy 59th, Bill Buckner.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.