By SEAN RAPOSA
July 22, 2008
The Friday night lights were ablaze as I exited Angels Stadium to a chorus of fireworks. The home team had just beaten up the defending champs 11-3 (they subsequently completed a three-game sweep on Sunday). It was a statement win, to be sure, and the energy emanating from the Halo faithful was palpable. As I prepared to spin the wheel of death and jump on the 5-South freeway, two thoughts lingered.
First, this team is really, really good. No one wants to pin the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as World Series favorites, but I’m not sure why. They own baseball’s best record, their pitching depth is unmatched and their hard-nosed, fundamentally sound style of play championed by manager Mike Scioscia is infinitely enjoyable to watch. I presume this reluctance to jump on the Angels bandwagon has a lot to do with their recent postseason ineptness against these same Boston Red Sox, who could be blocking their path to a title yet again in 2008.
The other lasting image from the slaughtering that served as my inspiration for this week’s column was Torii Hunter‘s presence in Disney Red. Each year millions of dollars are tossed at the game’s free agents, and last winter Hunter took home the biggest haul when he scored a five-year, $90 million deal. He was brought to Anaheim to provide some much overdue protection for Vladimir Guerrero and add an element of veteran leadership to a relatively young squad. To date, the move looks brilliant. So it got me to thinking: Who are the anti-Toriis who would leave the Guinness guys speechless, and shouldn’t I bash them a little since My Five has been a love-fest for eight weeks? The answers: There are plenty to choose from, and absolutely. Let the roast begin.
No. 5: Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians
The window for winning a championship can close so quickly, and without warning. One minute all the stars seem to be aligning, and the next they’re simply gone. This might be happening in Cleveland right now on two fronts. We all have seen Jay Z’s very public courtship of LeBron James. If the King leaves town in 2010 without winning a title for the Cavaliers, that franchise will be done, period. Now the Indians, who were just one win away from the World Series last year, are reeling. They are 12 games behind the White Sox and they basically cashed in this season by trading ace CC Sabathia. How did this happen?
Look no further than our honoree for a scapegoat. Hafner was a beast from 2004 to 2006, posting a league-best or runner-up OPS all three years. He combined for 103 dingers, drove in 334 runs and became the centerpiece and cleanup hitter for the Central Division powerhouse. Then, last July, Hafner got paid. Not sure what he bought with the proceeds from his new four-year, $52 million contract, but it sure wasn’t hitting lessons. He struggled to finish 2007 with a .266 batting average and .451 slugging percentage - 208 points below his 2006 total. Then he bottomed-out with a .181 showing in the postseason.
This year it has only gotten worse. The designated hitter was doing no hitting at all, batting .217 and clubbing a mere four homers, before pulling a Rodney Dangerfield and claiming, “my arm … it’s broken.” Now Hafner is spending time with renowned specialist Dr. James Andrews, also known as the sports angel of death. It was well known that the Indians did not intend to re-sign Sabathia following the season, but without this punchless donk on the payroll maybe things would have been different. D’oh!
No. 4: Dontrelle Willis, Detroit Tigers
It tears me up to see my main man Willis here today. I would have much rather taken pot shots at a scrub like Brett Myers, who deserves mention after being sent to the minors and putting up a stink about wanting to be a reliever against his team’s will. Oh yeah, and he’s paid like a king. In return for their 8.6 million smack-a-roos this year the Phils have gotten a 3-9 record and a 5.84 ERA out of him. Unfortunately, however, Willis still takes the cake.
In this wacky baseball world we live in, Myers still has some trade value and the Phillies are one year closer to paying him off than the Tigers are with Willis. Detroit’s decision to lock him up with a three-year, $29 million deal after completing the trade that also brought Miguel Cabrera to Motown seems borderline corrupt at this point. The kid who won 22 games at the age of 23 and wowed us all with his contortionist delivery is long gone. The 2003 National League Rookie of the Year and 2005 N.L. Cy Young runner-up is now pitching in the minor leagues! It can be a humbling game, and it’s a shame that this has happened to such a great ambassador for baseball. Hopefully he can retool his approach and come back strong. The 10.32 ERA and 2.47 WHIP he’s working on in 2008 would be a gruesome blemish to his resume.
No. 3: Jason Schmidt, Los Angeles Dodgers
If you blinked, you may have missed the Schmidt era in the city of Angels. Since signing a monster three-year, $47 million deal before the 2007 season, Scmidt has made a measly six starts and produced but one victory. The injury problems continue as he suffers setback after setback with his arm. Just think, if he never throws again - which certainly looks possible - he would have the joy of telling people he got paid 50 million bucks to win one baseball game. The sick thing is, you know if he can come back to throw and get a win or two in September 2009, some team will give him a cool million to chase the dream again the next year. Ah, to be a pro athlete, aye?
What hurts the most is the Dodgers aren’t that far away from being a legitimate contender, but Schmidt’s no-show created a giant hole in their rotation. Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda and young fireballer Chad Billingsley could rival just about any two-through-five starters in the league. Los Angeles has a myriad of promising talent on the offensive side of the ball, too, with Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. The team has a great bullpen with two viable options at the back end and a tremendously successful manager in Joe Torre. All that’s missing is an ace, and you’d like to think $15 million a year could get one, silly rabbit. All in all, this deal could go down as one of the worst ever.
No. 2: Andruw Jones, Los Angeles Dodgers
The N.L. West is wide open, and some baseball people think the Dodgers have a shot. Despite being two games under .500 they currently sit atop the pathetic division, but I’m going out on a limb and saying if you have two of the top three biggest financial blunders from My Five on your team you aren’t winning anything. Jones joins his teammate Schmidt on this dubious list. He’d like to thank his agent, his agent, God, his family, his agent and the LA brass for apparently not watching baseball in 2007.
The 10-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All-Star is an interesting study. For years he was talked about in trade rumors as someone who could possibly be moving out of Atlanta. Had that happened, the acquiring team most likely would’ve wanted to lock up the game’s greatest center fielder (perception-wise) to a mega long-term deal. Only the trade never happened, and when it came time for Jones’ contract season in 2007 he bit the big one. He batted .222, slugged a career-worst .413 and posted 138 whiffs. This, of course, warranted a two-year, $36 million deal, to which the Dodgers obliged even though they already had a logjam at the outfield position. In true karmic justice, Jones has rewarded their stupidity with a - get ready for this line - .161 batting average, .266 OBP and a .246 slugging percentage! My money is on Billy Crystal being able to best that performance.
No. 1: Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants
You knew this was coming. I mean, come on - $126 million! And this is only the second year of a seven-year deal! Do you realize how funny it’s going to be in a couple years when Zito is touring Seattle bars with his acoustic and getting paid $20 million by the Giants? The decline in Zito’s skills that corresponded with his payday was alarming, and I have no doubt that his will go down as the worst contract ever. He posted career-worsts in innings pitched, ERA and strikeouts last year after moving to the easier National League. So far in 2008 he’s bounced back nicely with a 4-12 record, 5.62 ERA and 1.79 WHIP. That sound you hear is Giants GM Brian Sabean banging his head into a wall.
The funny thing is that unlike most “worst contract ever” types, Zito is healthy and actually shows up to the hill and takes the ball. This is definitely not a good thing. The Giants would be better served having him sell picture ops for 10 bucks to hoards of teenage girls or trading for Bronson Arroyo and forming a dynamic musical duet. I know at least one person who likes Zito just the way he is: Mike Hampton.
If it’s any consolation to the guys named today, had I made a similar list a year ago it may have included J.D. Drew. It’s a funny game, that baseball.
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting Rotations, The Power Alleys, MLB’s Best Bullpens, The Table Setters, Young Guns, Burgeoning Bats, Favorite first-half storylines, X-Factors.