Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Try A Little Tenderness 

While we've all been waiting for something final (be it yay or nay) on the A-Rod/Man . . . I mean Johnson/Vazquez trade, a couple of important deadlines have come and gone.

The first was Sunday's deadline for players offered arbitration from their 2004 teams to accept or decline the offer. Only three players in all of baseball accepted their team's offer (Roger Clemens - Astros, Placido Polanco - Phillies, and Ron Villone - Mariners), thus binding them to those teams for the 2005 season. The Yankees had offered arbitration to just three players, two of whom (Orlando Hernandez and Ruben Sierra) declined and remain unsigned (Jon Lieber, who signed a three-year deal with the Phillies back on Dec. 8, was the third). The Yankees will now have only until January 8 (two weeks from Saturday) to resign either player or lose rights to them for the 2005 season. By that same token, the Astros have the same 17-day span in which to sign Carlos Beltran. With the Dodgers reportedly close to signing J.D. Drew, Beltran may be forced to choose between Houston and New York by that date. So circle January 8 on your calendar in red ink.

The second deadline was Monday's for teams to tender contracts to players without deals for 2005 (primarily players not yet eligible for free-agency, but up for arbitration). The Yankees only had one such player, Tanyon Sturtze, whom they have offered a contract for 2005. Sturtze was signed to a minor league deal this past season and will likely come cheap coming off a season in which he posted a 5.47 ERA. With the Yankee pitching staff already well stocked (at this writing Mussina, Brown, Vazquez, Pavano and Wright in the rotation, Rivera, Gordon, Quantrill, Felix Rodriguez, and Stanton in the bullpen with Steve Karsay and Brad Halsey looming), one would expect Sturtze to have to prove that the effective cutter he displayed in September is still in his arsenal in order to crack the Yankee's 25-man, which, if everyone else is healthy, would still seem like a long shot.

Speaking of the Yankees' pitching staff, the one thing they're still missing is a proven LOOGY. As I wrote when they traded for him, Mike Stanton, the only lefty on the staff, more often than not has a reverse split. I would love for the Yankees to use Brad Halsey (or even Alex Graman if he can pull it off) in that role, but 1) I don't see that happening and 2) assuming either will succeed in the role is a big chance for a win-now team to take. Unfortunately, Steve Kline, the best LOOGY on the market this offeason just signed with the Orioles for $5.5 million over two years. Had the Yankees signed Kline to the same deal, he would have been the lowest paid man in their pen (barring Sturtze or a rookie such as Halsey). Put Kline right next to Placido Polanco on your list of Easy, Obvious and Inexpensive Moves the Yankees Failed to Make that Would Have Significantly Improved the Team.

Speaking of Polanco, you no doubt noticed his name above as one of the three players who accepted arbitration. Polanco blames the Phillies arbitration offer (and the resulting draft picks added to his price tag) for the lack of interest in him on the open market. What this tells us is that there weren't any other suitors driving up Polanco's price, making the Yankees' decision to go with Tony Womack (To NY? Wo, Mack!) all the more troublesome. Speaking of Womack, his 2-year, $4-million deal became official yesterday. Wo is me.

Ah, but there remains a way out. Among the players non-tendered on Monday were Dodgers' second baseman Alex Cora and Angels' shortstop David Eckstein, either of whom would be an improvement on Womack (which almost goes without saying), as would still-unsigned free agent Mark Grudzielanek. Consider the following career stats:

Womack: .274/.319/.362 (.234) 95 Rate at 2B (max 90 over past four years)
Cora: .246/.314/.351 (.229) 107 Rate at 2B
Eckstein: .276/.347/.353 (.244) 101 Rate at SS
Grudzielanek: .287/.330/.389 (.246) 98 Rate at 2B

Grudzielanek moved to second in 2000 and after a slow adjustment period hasn't had a Rate below 100 since 2001.

Eckstein, a natural second baseman playing out of position, is the best on-base man of the bunch (he gets plunked with regularity and, as Steve Goldman pointed out to me, drew 80+ walks per season in the minors before joining the free swinging Angels). He's also a useful basestealer and would likely resemble the 2000-edition of Chuck Knoblauch (in stature and production, though hopefully without the throwing yips) in pinstripes.

Cora's skills at the plate are a harder sell. The upside: He posted strong numbers in 2002 (.291/.371/.434 - .275 in 258 ABs) and 2004 (.264/.364/.380 - .259). The later, which exceed Tony Womack's career-best 2004 (.307/.349/.385 - .253), came while platooning with Jose Hernandez, despite the fact that lefty-hitting Cora has historically fared better against lefty pitching. The downside: his 100 points of isolated discipline in 2004 were helped by an inordinate number of hit-by-pitches (18 compared to a previous career high of 10) and intentional walks (10), the later resulting from hitting in the eighth spot, in front of the pitcher. That being said, his 2002 performance seems to suggest that there's something legitimate going on in his 2004 numbers. Seems worth a risk for his glove if the other option is a sure-thing flop at the plate and in the field such as Womack.

That I'm day-dreaming of Alex Cora and David Eckstein should clue you in to just how miserable a ballplayer Tony Womack really is, but if it doesn't here's . . .

A Brief History of Tony Womack

After earning a bachelor's degree in sports management from North Carolina's Guilford College, Virginia native Anthony Darrell Womack was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates 202nd overall in the 7th round of the 1991 amateur draft. After two unspectacular years of A-ball, Womack jumped from double-A straight to the majors for a September call-up in 1993 during which he served as a pinch-runner and shortstop, going 2 for 24. After a miserable season in triple-A in 1994 he got an even shallower cup of coffee: five games split between short and second (4 for 12).

Womack spent all of 1995 in the minors, split between double and triple-A and between being unspectacular and flat-out bad. In 1996, at age-26, Womack finally managed to put together a half-decent season above A-ball with a .298/.339/.385 (.249) line in 506 at-bats at triple-A Calgary in the Pacific Coast League (and yes, this was easily his best season at the plate to this point). That bought him a third cup of Joe, this time split between pinch-running, second and centerfield (with one game in right). Womack again hit .333 (10 for 30) with his first major league extra-base hits (three doubles, one triple). At this point his career line in the majors was .242/.359/.318 (.241) in 82 plate appearances with four steals in as many tries.

That November, Pittsburgh sent their starting second baseman, Carlos Garcia, to the Blue Jays in a deal that netted a 19-year-old A-baller named Craig Wilson, clearing the position for Womack. Tony responded with a .279/.326/.375 (.240) line in 641 ABs and a dismal 87 Rate in the field. He did, however, lead the league with 60 stolen bases (at a 90 percent success rate), a stat that is the only possible explanation (along with a weak field) for his selection to that year's NL All-Star team. The next year Womack again lead the league in stolen bases (58 at 88 percent) while his Rate soared to 111, 21 points better than his second best single-season Rate as a second baseman. In August he set a major league record by avoiding grounding into a double play in his 918th consecutive at-bat. His GPA, meanwhile, dropped to .233.

Having acquired LSU star Warren Morris from the Rangers for Esteban Loaiza the previous July, the Pirates dumped the arbitration-eligible Womack on the Diamondbacks just before spring training 1999, netting minor leaguers Jason Boyd and Paul Weichard in the deal.

In Arizona, Womack shifted to right field, where his speed helped him post another outstanding 111 Rate and lead the league in steals for the third straight year (72 at 85 percent) while his bat picked up a tad for a career-high .242 GPA. Making the postseason for the first time, Womack reached base just twice (a single and a triple) in 18 trips as the Diamondbacks lost the ALDS to the Mets in four games.

In 2000, after signing a four-year, $17-million contract with Arizona, the now 30-year-old Womack shifted to shortstop for less of the same: a .234 GPA that subsisted largely on a league-leading 14 triples, 45 steals at 80 percent, and a poor 92 Rate in the field. 2001 was a near repeat of '00 with fewer triples and steals. The postseason, however, saw Womack ignite the D-backs, twice coming up with key hits. First in the NLDS, with the score tied at one and a man on second in the bottom of the ninth of a tied Game 5, Womack singled home the series-winning run to cap a .294/.400/.353 performance. Then in the World Series, with the Diamondback's trailing by one with one out in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 with men on first and second and Mariano Rivera on the mound, Womack doubled home the tying run as Arizona rallied to win the series. 2002 saw Womack back to his usual tricks, but with a mere 70 percent success rate on the bases.

In 2003 Arizona's budget was shrinking, forcing the team into a youth movement that had no room for the 33-year-old Womack, who was earning $6 million in the final year of his contract. In June, Womack hit the disabled list with a knee strain and on July 18, the day he was activated, the Diamondbacks dumped him on the Rockies for a 23-year-old A-ball pitcher named Mike Watson. One month later the Rockies dealt Womack, who didn't hit a lick in Colorado, to the Cubs for hard-throwing AA righty Emmanuel Ramirez and cash. Just a few days after joining the Cubs, Womack injured his right elbow sliding into home. Shifting back to second base, Womack played through the injury, but failed to find what little batting stroke he had ever had, finishing the 2003 season with an aggregate .189 GPA. Womack underwent Tommy John surgery in October.

Setting a new standard for TJ recovery in position players, Womack signed a minor league with the Red Sox in January and participated in spring training, though the Red Sox refused to let him play the field for fear of what the throws would do to his elbow. On March 21, the Sox traded him to the Cardinals for career minor leaguer Matt Duff. Four days later, Womack began playing the field and, despite some stiffness in April, not only stayed healthy, but had a career year at the plate, hitting .307/.349/.385 (.253), and stealing 26 bases (at 84 percent) as the Cardinals starting second baseman. The honeymoon was short, however, as Womack's postseason was marred by poor hitting (.214/.241/.268 - .175), lower back spasms, and a hard grounder off his collarbone as his Cardinals eventually lost the World Series to the Red Sox team that dealt him in spring training.

posted by Cliff at 1:28 PM

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