The fourth week in July means the following:
1). The bombardment of back-to-school commercials, serving as a cruel reality check and a reminder that summer reading will not be accomplished through osmosis or CliffsNotes.
2). There’s roughly a month remaining in the minor league season. Where does the time go?
3). Another fast-moving July 31 trading deadline is just days away from building toward a crescendo.
This is the one time of year where baseball chatter reaches all corners of the game’s landscape. Buyers like the Red Sox and Yankees are busy putting their ducks in a row, firing offers to sellers in hopes of acquiring the part(s) needed to bolster their October pursuits. Those MLB teams on the asking end are making sure they’re not getting fleeced before either agreeing or rejecting said proposal.
The minor leagues also figure prominently as prospects become reclassified as trade bait. If a deal is going to reach the finish line, count on the farm system playing an integral role.
As general managers scramble to take advantage of the free shopping — acquiring players after July 31 can still happen, but straightforward it is not — we’ve set up this how-to guide geared toward shedding some light on what goes on during this frantic time. We’ve enlisted the services of a scout who agreed to take part under the condition of anonymity.
1. There’s no reason to fear if you’re a minor leaguer with the Red Sox or Yankees. In fact, getting traded may work to your advantage.
“Does a guy want to be traded if he comes of age in the organization that drafted him? No, but if other teams are coming to you and seeking you out as an individual … most of those guys are smart enough to realize who’s playing ahead of them at the (major-league) level. Sometimes you say ‘I’m caught in a logjam and are going to have a hard time climbing the ladder. Maybe I need to get traded,’” the scout said. “Everyone would like to build a big-league club out of your own [system], but that option doesn’t happen frequently anymore.”
2. There’s nothing wrong with walking away from the table.
“Sometimes the best trades are the ones that don’t get done. You get to the point where teams have to decide whether they want to take on salary or give up prospects that could help in the future for a rent-a-player,” said the scout. “There’s so much thought going into ‘We’ve got to do something, but how much are we willing to give up?’ The best trade is the one that works out for both teams, one that can help fill the system and one that can maintain the big-league team.”
3. The dilemma: act early or wait until as close to 4 p.m. Eastern time deadline before pulling the trigger.
“If you trade early, you may not get what you want in return, but if you trade late, there’s a desperation factor that plays in. It’s almost like a cat-and-mouse game in that you have to decide whether you want to go hard or soft,” said the scout. “For many GMs there’s desperation, but I also think there are ones who don’t tip their hand and stick to their guns.”
4. Eyeing the rival.
“I know the Red Sox and Yankees are looking at each other, wondering what the other is going to do. With J.D. Drew down, I’m sure there’s a need for (Boston) to fill that void, even if it’s a veteran presence for that position (right field). The Red Sox have enough talent in the system to make a deal. It just depends on what they want and how much they want to give up in order to fill that need,” said the scout, who has seen Pawtucket and Portland in person this season. “It would shock me more if the Yankees didn’t do anything because that’s how they roll.”
5. The one area you can always upgrade is middle relief, but at what cost?
“There’s such a need because everything has become a specialty, which makes it that much harder to trade for. You’ve got the lefthanded specialist or the wipeout seventh or eighth inning guy,” said the scout. “The asking price is high, but similar to going into a buying situation outside of the sporting world, you never really know until you ask.”
6. For rebuilding teams, it’s about getting equal return.
“The Houston Astros are having a miserable season. [Outfielder] Hunter Pence is the face of their franchise right now and to deal him means you’re giving up popularity. He’s very unorthodox and you could probably put a “how not to” video together based on how he performs, but at the end of the day he’s got the numbers and brings energy. He gives the paying customer a good show every night,” said the scout. “That’s a tough one for Houston to unload and they want to get it right and get as much as they possibly can.”
7. The endless trade proposals, as far flung as they may seem, inject life into baseball.
“I think you get people who like to stir stuff up or start a firestorm, but to a degree there’s truth in everything,” said scout. “Even if he or she follows a losing team, they are going to get their fill again and the glass might start to get a little fuller.”
A pitcher’s best friend, the catcher
In on ongoing probe to better decipher whether Ryan Lavarnway can forge himself into a serviceable defensive catcher, we asked Pawtucket native and eight-year MLB pitcher Ken Ryan to share some insight. Serving as a minor-league analyst for NESN during last Thursday’s Pawtucket-Lehigh Valley telecast, Ryan believes based on that particular game that Lavarnway has the pedigree and desire to get better.
“It may take some time, but he strikes me as someone willing to work hard. Everybody knows he can hit offensively, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for the hard work and improvements he’s made defensively,” Ryan said. “The best catchers are the ones reading the pitcher’s mind. They know exactly what the pitcher wants to throw, and that comes from knowing a staff.
“Sometimes knowing how to call a game is more important than how mobile you are back there,” Ryan added. “If a catcher can get the best he can out of his pitcher, then you don’t have to be Johnny Bench.”
Ryan feels Lavarnway is charting the same course as Mike Lieberthal, a former teammate of Ryan’s in Philadelphia whose bat was way ahead of his catching ability when he fisrt broke in. That perception was eventually discarded as Lieberthal went seven straight seasons without throwing out less than 35 percent of would-be basestealers.
“It took a lot of work away from the field for Mike, watching pitchers and learning the game,” Ryan said. “That’s exactly what Lavarnway is going to have to do in order to get better.”
Well-derserved honor for C.F.’s Hemond
As the recipient of the Buck O’Neil Award, Roland Hemond didn’t have to worry about choosing a cap for his plaque in Cooperstown. Yet there’s no doubt that the 81-year-old Central Falls native who has logged 60-plus years as a front office type embodies the spirit of the accolade presented to an individual “whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O'Neil.”
Proudly sporting his ’05 championship White Sox ring, Hemond spoke last weekend at the Hall of Fame ceremonies about how the front office has evolved from his days as an intern with the Hartford Chiefs to his present special assistant duties with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“It takes more people to get the job done. The game has grown to such proportions from the marketing to the sponsorship side,” Hemond responded. “There is a danger if you hear from too many people. A general manager is no different than a manager in that he knows which scouts are better with pitching while others are better with fielders and hitters. You listen closely and make decisions accordingly.”
Being deemed a baseball lifer has a nice ring to it says Hemond. “It’s been a great ride and I’ve enjoyed every day I’ve been in the game. There are challenges like when I was [the general manager] with Baltimore in 1988 and we lost 21 games to start the season. The next year we improved by 33 games and were in the mix for the division title until the final weekend. Regardless of where you are, you have to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get the most of out what you have to work with.”