Buttercup

May, 23, 2003
5/23/03
6:37
AM PT

Jody Reed never walked off the field with his head bowed in shame, bearing the crushing disappointment of a Dodger crowd robbed of glory.

But Reed deserves a place right beside Mickey Owen, Ralph Branca, Terry Forster and Tom Niedenfuer in the Dodger Chamber of Horrors. The sickening cringe engendered by the memory of Forster serving up Joe Morgan's home run in 1982 or Niedenfuer tossing Jack Clark's in 1985 is every bit as applicable if you truly understand the mischief of Jody Reed. The difference with Reed is that his catastrophe came not in the hothouse mania of October but the cool epilogue of November.

Branca cost the Dodgers a pennant. Owen cost them a World Series.

Reed cost the Dodgers Pedro Martinez. No, he wasn't traded for Martinez. He cost them Martinez, as simply and horribly as a slow roller through the legs with the title on the line.

"Get Used to Disappointment"

A 5-foot-9, 165-pound second baseman who came up with Boston in 1987, Reed was an accomplished fielder and a capable hitter, with a career batting average of .270 and three seasons of more than 40 doubles. Playing in Fenway Park boosted those mainstream stats, but even using more sophisticated metrics, Reed was better than average in his first three full seasons, with OPS+ marks of 110, 113 and 109 (100 being average), followed by a 99 in his fourth season, 1991.

The decline in Reed's offensive value sharpened in 1992, the year he turned 30. His OPS+ fell to 75. Thanks to his fielding, though, Reed remained an above-average second baseman. He was no all-around great like Roberto Alomar or Lou Whitaker, but he was what he was: in the good sense, a second baseman second class.

Meanwhile, class was completely out for the Dodgers in '92. Oh, 86 consecutive seasons without finishing in last place was easy enough, but 87 was apparently too much to ask. Having come with a game of winning the National League West in 1991, the Dodgers cratered the following season, falling to 63-99.

The Dodgers had started the campaign 9-13, three games behind San Diego, when a jury acquitted four policemen in the beating of Rodney King on April 29. Following four days of postponements, the Dodgers lost seven of nine. They rallied to 23-23 in May, then buried themselves in last place for good with a 10-game losing streak in June. They finished 35 games behind Atlanta.

Things could have been worse on the mound, which featured two stalwarts - Orel Hershiser and Ramon Martinez - along with Tom Candiotti, Kevin Gross and Bob Ojeda. Pedro Astacio came up from the minors and threw four shutouts in 11 starts, finishing with an ERA of 1.98. No Dodger starter had an ERA over 4.00. None had a winning record, either.

That was because in the process of a wardrobe change with the on-field lineup, the Dodgers were caught undressed. Mike Scioscia finished his final full season with an OPS of .548 and EQA of .230. Jose Offerman finished his first full season with an EQA of .261 and 42 errors. Classmate Dave Hansen had an OPS of .585 and an EQA of .231 as the regular third baseman. Intended saviors-in-the-outfield Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry combined for only 119 games. First baseman Eric Karros won the Rookie of the Year award, but his 20 home runs and 30 doubles masked other deficiencies - his EQA was .271. Only 35-year-old centerfielder Brett Butler posted an EQA over .300 or an OPS over .800.

At second base, the Dodgers platooned Lenny Harris and Mike Sharperson. Harris' EQA was .253 and his OPS+ was 79. Sharperson batted .300 with 21 doubles, representing the National League's worst team in the All-Star game. Including Eric Young and Juan Samuel, Dodger second basemen complemented Offerman's 42 errors with 32 of their own.

As 1993 approached, the Dodgers were in such a dismal state that just about anyone could represent an improvement. General manager Fred Claire deemed Tim Wallach, 35 years old and coming off a .223, nine-homer season in 150 games in Montreal, a better option at third base than Hansen.

By that token, picking up Reed was a stroke of brilliance. Reed came to the Dodgers in an expansion-draft-day trade with the new Colorado Rockies on November 17, 1992. (The Rockies had drafted Reed from the Red Sox that same day.) Reed's bat was a growing question mark, but when your outfit has made a slovenly 174 errors, a touch of Reed is a respectable accoutrement.

"As You Wish"

All in all, the results weren't bad in 1993. True, the Dodgers started out 8-15 in April, and never got within five games of first place for the rest of the year, landing in fourth, 23 games behind red-hot Atlanta. However, the team showed an 18-game improvement, finishing with a .500 record of 81-81, and had the psychic thrill of eliminating the Giants from playoff contention on the final day of the season with a slam-bang 12-1 victory.

On the mound, Astacio, Candiotti and Ramon Martinez were all above average. Continuing his recovery from arm troubles, Hershiser was slightly below average but better than the year before. Strikeouts from Hershiser and Ramon were dropping, but only Gross (5.22 DERA, or defense-adjusted ERA, per Baseball Prospectus) was already real trouble.

And then, somewhat hidden in a bullpen that featured a gimpy Todd Worrell and future Dodger Stadium quizmaster Jim Gott, there was Ramon's little brother, a 164-pound 21-year-old named Pedro.

Pedro Martinez is the fair maiden of our tragedy. In his rookie season, he went 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 107 innings. Because he has the same last name as one 1993 teammate and the same first name as another, it's hard to know whether to refer to him as Pedro or Martinez. Perhaps we would do just as well to call him Buttercup, the sought-after prize of The Princess Bride.

Don't get caught up in gender issues. It's just a device.

Of the 83 games Buttercup pitched in the minor leagues, he started 76 - including all 62 in his last three seasons. His career minor-league ERA was 3.001, including 26 starts at hitters' delight Albuquerque.

In October 1992, Dr. Frank Jobe performed the same surgery on Buttercup as he had on Orel Hershiser 2 1/2 years before. However, Buttercup's operation was on his non-throwing shoulder, and he was healthy all of '93.

For now, the Dodgers had the starting rotation covered, so there was ample time to nurture Buttercup in relief. But for a team on the rise, with Gross, Candiotti and Hershiser all over 33 years old, Buttercup's time would come.

Following the 1993 season, Claire still had greater concerns with his starting lineup. The Dodgers continued to have trouble filling the outfield spots on either side of Butler, who himself slumped to a .284 EQA. Strawberry's Dodger career ended amid what may have been the pinnacle of his erratic behavior. He had 14 hits in his final season with the team. Davis, another seemingly lost cause, had been traded to Detroit on August 31. Cory Snyder was passable, with a .265 EQA, but declining.

Wallach (.224 EQA) was awful at third. Karros (.248 EQA) slumped at first. Offerman (.260 EQA, 30 errors) was stagnant.

And yet, a single season had made a positive difference. Rookie of the Year Mike Piazza was a monster, posting a .317 EQA. Hansen, still only 24, had a .970 OPS and .345 EQA in 105 at-bats. And three prospects were ready to try to solve the problems in the outfield: Billy Ashley, Henry Rodriguez and Raul Mondesi.

It was a confusing time to consider changes to the team. On the one hand, realignment following the 1993 season had created a third division in each league, moving first-place Atlanta and third-place Houston out of the National League West. There was only one team to beat now: the Giants.

On the other hand, that Giant team had gone 103-59 in '93.

And to give one even greater pause, a new Basic Agreement between owners and the players' union had to be negotiated in 1994. Each previous negotiation period had been plagued by a players' strike or owners' lockout - seven in all.

The strikes and lockouts always ended in enough time to finish the season - even in 1981, when 50 days were lost. Still, the 1993 offseason was a risky time to go for broke. With a bright, young core in an uncertain atmosphere, this was very arguably a time to be patient.

All of which made resigning Jody Reed, who had stabilized the Dodger infield in 1993 by making only five errors in 132 games, while also stemming the decline in his own offensive production by posting a .252 EQA, a very reasonable option for Claire.

There were a couple of in-house candidates to replace Reed, but none with the talent of a Mondesi or Piazza. Eddie Pye had batted .329 in Albuquerque, but made 12 errors in 82 games at second base. Rafael Bournigal, a good-fielding shortstop who could have easily made the defensive switch to second, had gone 9 for 18 for the Dodgers in a short trial, but had batted only .277 in Albuquerque.

There were free agents - most notably Robby Thompson, who had a wonderful season with San Francisco, with an EQA of .305. Perhaps there was no better way to make up ground on the Giants than to grab one of their key players. However, as the best second baseman in the National League in 1993 - someone who could field competently to go with his top-notch hitting, Thompson was going to be costly.

Consider the Dodgers' seven other projected regulars besides Reed heading into 1994. Four - Piazza, Karros, Offerman and either Rodriguez or Ashley - were offensive players first. Butler was about even, his ability to catch the ball impacted by his inability to throw it. Up-and-coming Mondesi was a five-tool player, while Tim Wallach, it appeared, was quickly running down to no tools.

On this team, if any kind of a solution could be found at third base, Reed would not need to bat higher than eighth in the order.

The Dodgers made an offer to Reed. Three years, $7.8 million.

Maybe it was too much. Reed would be 34 by the end of the contract - how long would his fielding be good enough to compensate for his hitting? But with few other options available, Reed was a good choice in a rebuilding phase. The Dodgers could afford to be that generous.

"Inconceivable!"

The contract offer was the easy ground ball to Jody Reed. Instead of fielding it, Reed took some time to think about it.

What?

Yeah. Reed took some time to think about it.

It couldn't have been the money, could it? In 1993, Reed earned $2.5 million, the fifth-highest salary for a second baseman in baseball, behind Ryne Sandberg (33 years old, $5.975 million), Roberto Alomar (25, $4.933 million), Lou Whitaker (36, $3.433 million) and Craig Biggio (27, $3.05 million).

Scott Fletcher, Reed's replacement in Boston, had an WARP (wins over replacement level) of 7.5 and earned $825,000. Mark Lemke, who had a WARP of 6.1 for Atlanta, earned $550,000. Certainly, one could argue these men were underpaid. Just as one could argue that Reed was overpaid in 1993, and about to be overpaid even more.

Instead, Reed took some time to think about it.

Months later, Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times tried to determine why Reed hesitated to accept the Dodger offer. Reed's answers do not reconcile easily, if at all.

On the one hand:

Reed said his summer in L.A. was "an absolute pleasure."

"I had my fun and did my job." he said. "The fans were great, the media was great.

"I felt that I not only developed a player-manager respect with Tom Lasorda, but I enjoyed being around him. I also felt the team made big improvement.

"In no way, shape or form was I thinking it wouldn't work out for the future there."

On the other hand:

"People who put money as their top priority will say I was stupid," Reed said. "The same people will say I'm lying when I say that money isn't my top priority.

"There were personal issues I tried to work out with the Dodgers. I had no problem with the offer if it wasn't for those issues. I was uncomfortable with them, but I don't want to get into what they were."

According to these comments, Reed's delay was neither an issue of money nor an issue of happiness. As far as he was concerned, the Dodgers were offering him both. What was it, then?

Was it fear? Unnamed sources told Newhan that "Reed, as the pivot man on double plays, had some concerns for his safety on late feeds from Offerman, but how any of that played into contract talks, if it did at all, is unclear."

Or was it really the money? This is what Claire told Newhan:

"There was nothing of a personal or confidential nature involved," Claire said. "There's nothing complicated or complex about it. What we were offering and they were asking was never close.

"It's that simple. We weren't in the same ballpark."

When you come right down to it, you might find a way to explain how Owen let that game-ending strike three from High Casey go by him in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, for a passed ball that allowed the Yankees to come back and win. Maybe it was a bad pitch - maybe a spitball. Maybe Casey was the real goat of that story, and maybe Offerman was the real goat of this one.

In the end, the ball was Owen's to block. And the contract was Reed's to sign. And neither did. Reed let it all roll right past him.

And in both cases, the Dodgers came unglued.

"The Fire Swamp"

Meet the new dilemma, same as the old dilemma. Fred Claire had solved his second base problem once, but now he had to do it again. How would he?

According to the Times, Claire checked in with Robby Thompson's agent. Whatever Thompson was demanding from the Dodgers, however, was too much. Thompson resigned with the Giants at $11.625 million for three years (an average of $3.875 million per year), plus a fourth-year option for $3.375 million.

Arguably, Claire could have shot the moon for Thompson, but budgets were different back then. Only five Dodgers - Hershiser, Strawberry, Butler, Candiotti and Wallach - earned more than $3 million per season. The highest-paid player on the Dodgers, Hershiser, earned $4,333,333.

Claire had other options. In fact, he would later choose one of them. He inked a minor-league contract with Jeff Treadway, a second baseman with Cleveland whose presence had been rendered unnecessary by the emergence of Carlos Baerga. Treadway, 30 in 1993, had an inconsistent career at the plate, but was coming off a year where he batted .303 in 97 games with an OPS+ of 102. However, he also made 10 errors, which represented a huge step backward defensively for the Dodgers.

Claire also had the option to wait.

Baseball has rarely had a shortage of owners who would pay a player more than one could fathom. Claire later told Newhan that after Thompson signed with the Giants, "Jody's agent called and said that defined the market." Scary thought.

But it would have been a fairly safe hunch to imagine that no one was going to offer Reed more in the 1993 offseason than the Dodgers did. Theirs was a remarkable offer to begin with.

And if it truly wasn't about the money, then surely, surely Reed would realize that Offermanitis, or whatever was plaguing him, was no reason to turn down the contract of his life.

Time was on Claire's side, not Reed's. But then Claire compounded Reed's mistake.

He got on the phone again.

"I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!"

In the fall of 1993, Delino DeShields had all the makings of a franchise second baseman. If he wasn't the be-all and end-all, he was at least the be-all.

DeShields reached the majors at the age of 21, and in his first four seasons, from 1990-1993, his on-base percentage never dipped below .347. His worst OPS+ was 94 and he twice reached 116.

He also showed improvement in other areas. He stole 42 bases in 1990, but was successful only 65 percent of the time. By 1993, he stole 43 bases, and was safe more than eight times out of 10.

From 1991 to 1993, he reduced his errors from 27 to 18 to 11.

DeShields was no secret. In '93, he finished second in the National League All-Star balloting for second basemen behind Sandberg. DeShields was a good second baseman, apparently on the precipice of greatness at age 24. He was due for a raise from his 1993 salary of $1,537,500, but a raise that would only move him into Reed's salary neighborhood.

For Claire, there was only one issue. DeShields was not a free agent. But with Reed off contemplating the unknowable, DeShields became a temptation, one that Claire was willing to give into - with Buttercup.

Pedro Martinez, the Dodgers' brilliant young pitcher, was trade bait for Claire.

Given the uncertainty of competing in 1994, the urgency to sacrifice Buttercup to fill the second-base position seems unnecessary. But even though no one really wants to think about this now, it's not as if you could not make the case for the trade at the time. The Dodger pitching staff was by no means too good to keep Martinez, but it was still in decent shape for the time being. Meanwhile, second base was vacant.

Additionally, for all his promise, Buttercup was less proven than DeShields. And he was a pitcher - more likely to flame out. Perhaps even more likely than other pitchers.

In 1999, with the Dodgers still haunted by the decision, Newhan talked to Jobe, who operated on Buttercup, about the decision to make the pitcher available.

"I don't think I said get rid of him," Jobe said, talking about the situation for the first time. "I'd never say that, but the circumstances kind of spoke for themselves. His shoulder had come out once, and once an injury of that type occurs, you can't say it won't reoccur. He had kind of a delicate stature to start with and there were already questions about his stamina. It's a judgment call, but you had to kind of wonder, 'Golly, is this kid going to break down?' "

Amid all the uncertainty, Fred Claire could have waited to find out. He should have waited.

Instead, the announcement came on November 19, 1993. Delino DeShields was coming. Pedro Martinez was gone.

Said Claire to the Times: "I mean, we didn't stop trying to sign Jody until we made the trade, but we were never close."

He had given Reed less than a week. Not much time - but plenty for an error can come back to haunt you.

Claire went on to tell the Times: "I have a great deal of respect for Jody Reed. ... He played hard for us and he played well. As far as the negotiations, we had put forth our offer very early, before Jody really declared free agency. If he had said yes to our offer, we would not have traded for a second baseman."

A surprised Reed told the Times that he had no idea the clock was ticking.

"I mean, the only thing I don't understand about the year in L.A. was the thinking of the one guy (Claire), but he makes the calls and I'm not the first to question them. All I know is that I followed the filing rules and suddenly became a villain. What did I do?"

Playing by the rules isn't enough, though. You have to make the right plays. Reed didn't.

"The irony is that the process left us with one of the best young second baseman in baseball, if not the best," Claire said.

Ah, irony.

"Mawage"

Before his first Spring Training game with the Dodgers, DeShields suffered a fractured cheekbone. In April, he missed four games after a collision with Mondesi. In May, a collision with Cubs catcher Rick Wilkins left DeShields with finger injuries that put him on the disabled list for nearly a month.

He played in 89 games, batting .250 with 15 extra base hits. He walked once more than he struck out, but his OPS+ declined from 102 to 85.

Meanwhile, Buttercup became an above-average starting pitcher over the next three seasons. And then, he became perhaps the most dominating pitcher in the game. His career ERA of 2.62 through 2002 is nearly two full runs lower than the league average ERA in that time. He has averaged 10.56 strikeouts per game. In 1,892 1/3 career innings, he has allowed 1.01 baserunners (not counting hit batters) per inning.

In March 1994, Jody Reed settled for one-year, $350,000 deal with Milwaukee, plus incentives, that if he reached them all (which he didn't) would have gotten him a maximum of $1 million.

Reed had three Reed-like seasons - below average hitting with above-average fielding. He retired after spending the 1997 season as a part-timer with Detroit. Over his final three seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com, he made a total of $2,875,000, or about what he would have made in 1994 alone had he accepted the Dodgers offer.

This tale, of course, is not about whether Jody Reed made enough money to live off of. It is simply about dreadful mistakes that cost the Dodgers.

Jody Reed booted nearly $8 million. Fred Claire booted Pedro Martinez. Both looked around and thought they had a better play to make. You can see the rationalization, so tantalizing. But what blindness. Neither saw that the correct play was right in front of them. And sometimes, all it takes to triumph is to make the simplest of plays.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend. Dodger Thoughts will return Wednesday, May 28.


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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
14 1.86 174 145
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .312
HRA. Gonzalez 17
RBIA. Gonzalez 83
RD. Gordon 69
OPSY. Puig .909
ERAC. Kershaw 1.86
SOC. Kershaw 174