Hot stove league: Ugly edition

Only days after saying that the Cubs’ differences with Sammy Sosa were not irreconcilable, general manager Jim Hendry made a trade that only a man convinced of Sosa’s outright cancerousness would make.

I wrote previously that the Cubs should only deal “if it makes sense in terms of both the talent received in return and the financial impact.” Well this deal certainly does not qualify on either count. “It just don’t add up,” as Gaius Marius has written.

The financial impact is a little bit murky, but it appears the Cubs will save $16 million on the $25 million owed to Sosa next season. and take on Jerry Hairston Jr.‘s $1.88 million in return. Hairston is a nice little player. He can play second base and the outfield, has some speed and knows how to get on base. That said, he does not even come close to making this trade worthwhile. The less said of the two middling prospects the Cubs got from the Orioles the better.

The Cubs went into the offseason with one hole in the outfield caused by their correct decision not to re-sign the ancient and sure-to-decline Moises Alou. They rightly refused to take on the risky, long-term contracts that Carlos Beltran and J.D. Drew represented. Though I coveted both, the surest way to cripple a franchise’s ability to compete is a large, bad contract. Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy correctly tagged the offseason spending as the product of a “binge mentality.” So the Cubs sat by and refused to take part in the insanity.

But now they’ve created another huge hole in the outfield, and I don’t think it had to be this way. Yes, Sosa was wrong to overreact to Dusty Baker’s recommendation that the right fielder show up in “tip-top shape mentally and physically” in 2005 by walking out on the Cubs in the final game of the year, and he was stupid to lie about it. However, the Cubs worsened the matter exponentially by publicly embarassing Sosa and revealing that he lied.

Sosa struck back with more stupidity, saying the Cubs were trying to make him the fall guy for the team’s disappointing finish and arguing that Baker’s moving him down in the lineup was a sign of disrespect. Yes, Sosa is an overly sensitive, self-involved superstar who believes he ought to play under a different set of rules. But guess what? He earned it. No, he hasn’t been a superstar-caliber player since 2002, and yes he’s overpaid.

No matter how bad Sosa’s private relations with Baker and the rest of the team may have been, those beefs were more or less private. All the Cubs had to do was put up with Sosa for one more year and then move on. Sosa will not be worth $25 million next year. But Hairston and whomever else the Cubs sign won’t be worth the $16.5 million the team is giving away. By demonizing Sosa in the offseason the Cubs put themselves in a no-win position, as evidenced by the chorus of boos Sosa’s image got on a video screen at the Cubs convention.

It’s one thing for relations to be tense in the clubhouse. Ultimately, these men are professionals. Sosa would have had a lot riding on having a comeback year in 2005, as it’s the final year of his contract. And baseball is the kind of sport where, more often than not, a ballplayer’s personal stat-hunting doesn’t really interfere with the team’s success. Sosa wasn’t paid the big bucks to move runners along, after all.

It’s quite another for the fan base to hate the team’s highest-paid player. Sosa would have had a lot of fence-mending to do, which I think he eventually would have done but struck him as such an unpalatable prospect that he waived the $18 million, one-year extension that would have automatically vested with a trade in order to make the Orioles deal workable. Sosa wants more than anything else to be loved, and the Cubs set out to make him despised. And they succeeded, if you want to call this success.

Not only did this make a Sosa return in 2005 a huge distraction, but it gave other teams the upper hand in trade negotiations. The Cubs put themselves over a barrel for a man whose diminished numbers and injury troubles already made him a tough sell. I think Hendry and the Cubs were surprised at the lack of interest in Sosa, and by how crazy the offseason contracts have been. I think if they had known how things were going to turn out, they’d have handled the Sosa matter privately.

Now, it appears the Cubs will replace Sosa in right field with … Jeromy Burnitz, a deal Christain Ruzich has called a “slow-motion train wreck.” Hopefully this is only a one-year deal but it appears to be a two-year deal, the second year being a mutual option (meaning either party can choose to stay put) for a total of $11.5 million. If the Cubs are incredibly lucky, the 36-year-old whiff king Burnitz will match Sosa’s production from last year. That doesn’t seem likely, however. Meanwhile, the holes in left field and at closer are still gaping.

All of that said, I’m not terribly pessimistic about the upcoming season. The Astros lost quite a bit of offense in Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent, not to mention pitching in Wade Miller. The Cardinals lost Edgar Renteria and Tony Womack (who isn’t a good player, but had a good year) and they are simply unlikely to repeat last year’s 105-win season. Not with their mediocre starting pitching.

As for the Cubs, we’d do well to remember that they came very close to making the postseason last year and would have made it if a few things had gone differently. Wood and Prior were both injured for about half the season and never really gelled. The Cubs’ true offensive star, Aramis Ramirez, missed almost 17 games and was hobbled with a groin injury for half the year. Three cornerstones of the team were out for significant periods of time. Things should be different this year.

And as Jayson Stark points out, Hairston may surprise as a leadoff man, which the Cubs lacked all of last year. Here’s a tentative lineup:

R – Jerry Hairston Jr. – LF
L – Todd Walker – 2B
R – Nomar Garciaparra – SS
R – Aramis Ramirez – 3B
R – Derrek Lee – 1B
L – Jeromy Burnitz – RF
L – Corey Patterson – CF
R – Michael Barrett – C

Though having Burnitz and Patterson batting back-to-back strikes me as a tailor-made way to kill rallies, the key word to keep in mind is tentative. Not just because we don’t know how Hairston will fare as leadoff man, but because Hendry’s probably hoping the starting pitching will keep the Cubs in contention until the trading deadline. Then he’ll re-examine the situation. Corner outfielders and closers, if necessary, can be had and will be available from teams that have fallen out of the race and are looking to shed salary.

This is certainly better than panicking and handing the questionable Magglio Ordonez a crazy, five-year contract. The Cubs — unlike their competitor for Ordonez, Detroit — don’t need to sign big names to bring fans to the park. They’ve got that part taken care of. They just need to carefully put together the pieces that can make the team competitive for a long time to come. …

Last thoughts on Sosa: I was never a huge fan of Sosa’s. Aside from the oft-cited complaints that he never hit the cutoff man and struck out too much, there was something desperate about him that turned me off. He was like a little kid yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! Look what I can do!” Some people have reacted to this by decrying Sosa as a phony; a hog for the limelight. But I don’t think he even has a phony bone in his body, which is what makes his attitude all the more alarming.

I’ve always preferred the quiet approach of all-time favorite Cubs like Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson. They played the game the best they could, put their team first, and knew they couldn’t control the other things.

It’s hard for me to associate Sosa with many great emotional highs, because it seems he struck out five times in the clutch for every time he did come through. Like Kerry Wood as a pitcher, I always found it very aggravating to watch him. For every moment of glory came five or 10 of ignominy.

That said, the one moment I’ll always cherish came in the first game of the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Marlins. The Cubs trailed by two in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a man on when Sosa hit a game-tying home run off a hanger from Ugueth Urbina. I was in a Springfield, Ill., hotel room — alone. I jumped up and down and bounced all around, yelling and screaming like a maniac. Damn my hotel neighbors. It was a moment of unalloyed joy.

And to make it perfectly fitting, the Cubs of course went on to lose the game and the series.