- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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They sure seemed like great ideas -- and brilliant trades -- at the time.
They were three of baseball's biggest deals before the trading deadline. They inspired knuckleheads like us to nominate the teams that made those deals as three of the biggest "winners" of the annual deadline madness. And when you looked those trades over and thought them through, they seemed to make total sense.
Uhhhh, except for one messy little detail:
All three of those deals just happened to involve pitchers moving from the National League to the American League.
And, in the immortal words of Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel that trick never works.
OK, so it sometimes works. (Dan Haren to the Angels, in July 2010, comes to mind.) But it definitely hasn't worked this year -- not in the way the Angels, Tigers and Rangers had in mind a few weeks ago, anyway. Just check out the numbers. They aren't pretty:
Greinke (heading into his start Friday night):
• In the NL: 9-3, 3.44 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
• In the AL: 1-2, 6.19 ERA, 1.59 WHIP
• In the NL: 5-5, 2.25 ERA, 1.04 WHIP
• In the AL: 2-1, 6.04 ERA, 1.42 WHIP
• In the NL: 5-7, 3.94 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
• In the AL: 2-3, 6.33 ERA, 1.85 WHIP
Now we'll concede that, in the cases of all three of these men, their AL numbers have been compiled in small samples. And if they come up big in a crucial start or three in October, none of their current employers will care much how they pitched in August.
But we'll also say this: We've seen this major motion picture before. Many times. And so has every team in baseball.
"It's always tough to generalize because it depends on the pitcher you're acquiring," said an executive of one club who has worked for teams in both leagues. "But I think it's safe to say you can look a lot smarter taking a pitcher from the American League to the National League than the other way around."
Boy, that's for darned sure. So, why do teams continue to make themselves look dumber instead of smarter? Thanks for asking. It's a fascinating issue.
For one thing, the trading deadline is a whole different animal. As the rumors fly and the pressure mounts, it's easy for any team to get caught up in the moment and make the best trade it believes it can make in that time and place.
But that doesn't mean teams in the American League aren't well aware of the dangers involved in dealing for the wrong National League pitcher at the wrong time. In fact, it's a constant topic of conversation.
"When I fill out a report on a National League pitcher," one AL scout said, "I always put something in there about what I think may happen if he comes to the American League."
"We're very wary of that," said an official of one AL team. "We've always been wary. But you've got to look at the pitcher. A guy like Ryan Dempster made us nervous Other guys, there's no reason to be nervous. If you're talking about a Felix [Hernandez], a [Clayton] Kershaw, a [Justin] Verlander -- they could pitch anywhere. But it's that second or third group you've got to be concerned about. And it's something you have to do your best to look at."
But sometimes, it doesn't matter how hard you look. You can make the right move -- and still have it turn out wrong. Is there any better example than Zack Greinke?
"The one guy this year who has surprised me a lot is Greinke," said another exec who has worked in both leagues. "Not because the whole NL-to-AL thing is irrelevant but because he's been there. I felt like, given the success he'd already had in the American League, the fact that he'd won a Cy Young in the American League, he'd be fine. I mean, it's not like he'd never seen a DH before."
But five starts later, if you were looking for a word to describe Greinke's work as an Angel, "fine" wouldn't exactly be at the top of the list. A better word would be one Greinke used last weekend: "awful." Or "embarrassing," which he also used.
The Angels are 1-4 in games he has started. He has allowed four or more runs in four consecutive starts -- for the first time in his career. And his ERA in pitcher-friendly Anaheim, after three home starts, is 5.40 -- nearly double his home ERA in Milwaukee (2.93) over the past two seasons. In fact, Greinke has allowed nearly as many earned runs (12) in three home starts as an Angel as he had allowed all season as a Brewer (15).
"He hasn't really done anything to help them, other than maybe his first start," one scout said. "And now it's gotten in his head. And with him, you always worry that, once it's in his head, forget it. He's going out there with the weight of the world on his shoulders."
In Greinke's case, you can never be sure whether his issues have to do with the league he's pitching in, the move to a bigger market, the pressure of trying to justify a huge trade or just a midseason upheaval for a pitcher who's a comfort-zone kind of guy. But whatever it is, the league-switch factor has been an issue for many pitchers -- not just him.
We asked ESPN Stats & Information wizard Justin Havens and our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau to examine starting pitchers who have changed leagues in the past five years. They looked at all starters who pitched at least 100 innings in one league one year, then worked at least 100 in the other league the next year. Here's what they found:
• The starters who went from the American League to the National League definitely enjoyed the ride. Their ERA swan-dived from a combined 4.07 in their final AL season to 3.51 in their first full NL season.
• The journey in the other direction, meanwhile, wasn't quite that much fun. But the difference wasn't as dramatic as you might think. The pitchers' ERA in their last NL season was 4.13. But their ERA in their first full AL season rose only to 4.15.
• However, there are a couple of other mitigating factors to consider: (1) Seven of the 13 starters who exited the National League in that period were leaving two extreme hitters' parks, in Arizona and Colorado. And (2) so many AL teams are clearly reluctant to import a pitcher from the National League that nearly twice as many of the starters on this list (24) went from AL to NL as went from NL to AL (13). That's no coincidence, either.
"It definitely makes a difference when you're thinking about how to put together a team," one exec said. "Just look at a guy like A.J. Burnett. He was a complete flameout in the AL East. Then he goes to the NL Central and has success. So, in the National League, you can afford to take chances on a guy like that. In the American League, you have to be much more careful. It really changes the dynamic of building a team."
The funny thing is, if you look just at raw numbers, the difference between the leagues seems slimmer than ever. There is only a three-point gap in batting average (.256 AL, .253 NL), a two-point margin in on-base percentage (.318 AL, .320 NL), an 11-point difference in slugging (.412 AL, .401 NL) and a minuscule edge in runs per game (4.4 AL, 4.2 NL).
But as always, there's more going on here than just the numbers.
"You have to take into account that, in these American League lineups, you're not just replacing the pitcher," said one of the execs quoted earlier. "You're probably replacing him with a guy who's hitting third or fourth. And if you want to look at a team that's a great example of the difference between the leagues, look at the Angels.
"With [Albert] Pujols, [Mark] Trumbo and [Kendrys] Morales, they've got, basically, three first basemen. And they can find a spot for all of them in the lineup. You can't do that in the National League. It would be too embarrassing, defensively, to field a team like that."
And that's the portion of this story that raises an even bigger issue: Is the presence of the DH in one league but not the other creating a major imbalance in team building that goes well beyond the challenge of deciding which NL pitchers an AL team can risk trading for?
"That, to me, is the true inequity of this system," the same exec said. "When a Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols hit the market, of course they're going to sign in the American League because there's no DH spot waiting for them in the National League. So if an American League team wants to tack on an extra year or two or three, it can do that. But a National League team can't. So pretty much every slugger is going to wind up migrating to the American League."
And if practically every slugger on earth is going to end up heading for the DH league, that has all the makings of a potential crisis for this sport -- and not just for the men who have to pitch in that league, either.
It could even be the tipping point, somewhere down the road, that forces baseball to make a decision, one way or the other, on the absurdity of having two leagues in one sport that play by different sets of rules. But that's a crisis for another day.
It's just too bad for Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster and Anibal Sanchez that baseball won't be addressing it before the next time they take the mound.
Ready to Rumble
• We're hereby making this official declaration at World Rumblings and Grumblings Headquarters: We're never going to entertain another Felix Hernandez trade rumor. Ever.
More and more, the consensus across the industry is that the Mariners will sign the King, not move him. So far be it from us to argue.
"They're never trading him," one executive said emphatically. "I'm more convinced of that than ever. They've got plenty of money, so there's no chance they're trading him. He's got two years to go [before free agency]. And he loves it there. So I think they extend him this winter. That's my prediction."
• Who says you can't predict the future? Of course you can. It might not turn out to be accurate, but that doesn't mean you can't predict it. So, with that in mind, we asked two veteran scouts to predict what the future looks like for three players who have reached some sort of crossroads in their careers:
Grady Sizemore: Both scouts said they would recommend signing Sizemore if the guarantee were low enough, even though he has played in just 104 games over the past three seasons combined. AL scout: "I wouldn't invest any money. But he's just too good a player not to take a shot at." NL scout: "I've always believed that, with guys who have had success, there's a chance they could come back to it. But this guy is just too scary medically. At a low base, without tying up much money, it would be worth trying. But the percentage of certainty is so low."
Johan Santana: The hang-ups here are twofold: (A) health, and (B) the $30.5 million left on Santana's contract ($25.5 million next year, plus a $5 million buyout of his 2014 option). But, even if the Mets chomp on most of the money, Santana is a tough guy to move. NL scout: "I'd be nervous about him. It's just too hard to trust the medicals." AL scout: "Last time I saw him, in the middle of the season, he looked good. But now you've got to worry about his shoulder, his ankle and his back. When that type of stuff starts happening, it's time to back off."
Kevin Youkilis: He has revived his career to some degree in Chicago (.246 AVG/.367 OBP/.468 SLG/.835 OPS). But there was significant division on where he'll go from here. NL scout: "Since he left Boston, it's like two different guys. In Chicago, he's so clear of baggage. I'm not ready to say he can be a core piece like he used to be. But he can still be a good complementary player." AL scout: "I don't know. He's not very good at third base. And he's not a middle-of-the-order bat anymore. He's either a 2(-hole hitter) or a 6. And for me, he's probably not even a 2."
• So let's see now. The Cardinals just signed Jake Westbrook to an extension. They're ready to tackle an extension for Adam Wainwright next. So how come you've heard almost no talk about any extension for the guy who has been their best starting pitcher this season, Kyle Lohse, even though he's about to become a free agent? Um, could be because he's a Scott Boras client. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak declined comment when Rumblings asked about Lohse. But Cardinals execs have told people within the sport they're just "going to let this one play out." Translation: Free agency, here he comes.
• Bartolo Colon was tied for 11th among AL pitchers in wins above replacement when he got suspended. But, if Brett Anderson's debut was any indication of how he's going to pitch the rest of the year, the amazing A's still won't miss a beat. "He threw as good as Kershaw," one scout said. "He was awesome. He was throwing 94 [mph], with a good curveball and a changeup that was so good everyone was on their front foot. I know it was only the Twins. But he just carved them up."
• We'd like to make this point to all the folks in Washington who seem to believe it's merely a bunch of uninformed dopes who are questioning the Nationals' plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg: Some of the smartest people we know in sports question it every day -- folks who have worked in sports medicine, people who have spent a lifetime trying to preserve pitchers' health and club officials who don't do anything without studying it from every angle.
And many of those people aren't criticizing the plan to limit Strasburg's innings. They're simply wondering why the Nationals aren't having him skip a start now and then to save bullets and allow him to pitch in the postseason, when they have a rare opportunity to do something special.
"I think the Nationals are a really good team," said an ultra-thoughtful executive of one team. "But they're not the favorite to go to the World Series without Strasburg. They are the favorite with him. I know they believe they'll be back. But they've had one of those seasons where a lot of things have gone right. All their starters have been healthy. None of their top five starters have missed a start. And that doesn't happen very often.
"There are no guarantees that, next year, all those guys stay healthy no matter how they protect them. This is their magical season. They don't know that next year will be. And now that they have such a big lead, they really have the ability to do this -- to shave off enough innings now that they'll have him available to pitch later. That's the part of this I don't understand."
And he's not alone. Lots of other really intelligent people don't understand that part of this, either, even if they completely understand the Nationals' philosophy in general. Trust us on that.
• Finally, it seems so simple when you see an item like this in the transactions column: Oakland Athletics -- optioned 2B Jemile Weeks to Sacramento. But there are more ripple effects, even to a move as small as this, than you might think.
In Weeks' case, after his promising rookie season last year, he got to star in his own Chevrolet commercial during A's games. Then off he went to Sacramento. Uh-oh. So what does a team do? No problem. One observer reports that, the next day, those Chevy commercials looked a lot different because Yoenis Cespedes was starring in them.
Tweets of the Week
• No one was more intrigued by the suspension of Bartolo Colon this week than the Yankees -- and especially their late, great Boss, @Ghost of Stein:
Technically, it wasn't MLB that caught Bartolo Colon; he was busted while training to top Joey Chestnut's new gyoza eating record
— George Steinbrenner (@Ghost_of_Stein) August 22, 2012
• Meanwhile, it was no surprise that, after the Braves went to a six-man rotation this week, the most offended man on the planet (if you count dead tweeters, that is) was noted 19th-century iron man @OldHossRadbourn, who once started his team's final 27 games of the season in a row:
I can think of but one six-man rotation that worked quite well: me, me, me, me, me, me.
— Old Hoss Radbourn (@OldHossRadbourn) August 17, 2012
Headliner of the Week
Finally, this just in from the tongue-in-cheek investigative-reporting unit at sportspickle.com:
NATIONALS APPROACH STEPHEN STRASBURG ABOUT
PITCHING THE REMAINDER OF THE SEASON LEFT-HANDED
For the Angels, Rangers and Tigers, this wasn't part of the plan. Starters Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster and Anibal Sanchez are struggling with their new teams.