Here are some random facts about Ben Sheets: He's 31 years old. His fastball runs like it's hung on a clothesline. He's pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title once in the last five years. He just signed with the A's for $10 million plus incentives. If the last of these seems a bit off to you given the first three, you may think you're missing something. You aren't.
The A's are a team famous for being more clever than they actually are, at least if you go by results. They've lost 259 games in the last three seasons because of dubious commitments to injury prone and lousy players, puzzling trades, and, perhaps, a general lack of creativity. Oakland general manager Billy Beane still has his admirers, but it's not clear he's above average among American League general managers*. His predilection for this sort of move shows why.
Over the last several years, a key Oakland strategy has involved trying to drain the last dregs of talent from former stars like Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Shannon Stewart, Mike Sweeney and Jason Kendall. The general idea makes sense, but there are two problems with it. One is that while some older players may be undervalued, the A's are demonstrably bad at distinguishing them from those who are just shot. The other is that such players have limited potential.
Even if he did miss all of last season with an injury, Sheets is clearly different from the players named above. He's far closer to his prime and more likely to do something special, but it's a difference of degree, and he represents all the flaws of his class. There just isn't a lot reason to think he'll do much more than he's paid for, and getting players who do that is what a really clever team does.
Over his last four seasons (2004-08), Sheets has averaged about 120 innings with a 3.45 ERA. If he does that for the A's, he'll be worth about what he's paid. If he does more than that, he'll be paid more. For him to create any real extra value he'll have to pitch like a true ace, and there's little reason to think he's physically capable of doing so. It's not a bad signing, just an uninspired one. As a broke team in a tough division, the A's need to do better than that.
Down in San Diego, the Padres made a far sharper signing this week. Unlike Sheets, Jon Garland will never start an All Star Game or have a season where he strikes out 10 men for every one he walks. He's pitched at least 190 innings eight years in a row, though, and run up a below-average ERA in just one of them. He's also just 30 and signed for about half what Sheets is guaranteed. As a nearly mortal lock to be worth about twice his $5.3 million salary, Garland is a steal. Given how durable he is and that Petco Park is the most extreme pitcher's park in the majors, he may even have more trade value than Sheets this summer.
Beane made his reputation exploiting market inefficiencies, an unfortunate bit of jargon that just means he had an eye for players who were worth more than they cost. He used statistics to find them, something you can't really do anymore. Aside from the real paste eaters, every team understands that it's better to have hitters who get on base than those who don't, and that there is some benefit to be had from evaluating defense with math.
There are still inefficiencies out there, though, and taken together these two signings hint at a big one, the hardwired human desire to hit a jackpot. Teams are more willing than they should be to bet a lot on the small chance that a player will be really great, and curiously uninterested in paying for a sure thing. That the A's are on the wrong side of this might seem a bit odd given their reputation, but then that always had less to do with how sharp they were than how dull some of their rivals were.
*I'll take Theo Epstein (Red Sox), Andrew Friedman (Rays) and Jack Zduriecnik (Mariners) certainly, and Brian Cashman (Yankees), Dave Dombrowski (Tigers) and Ken Williams (White Sox) almost certainly. One could also make a case for Jon Daniels (Rangers). This probably says more about the amount of talent in American League front offices than it does about Beane.
If you want proof that there are really fewer dull operators than there once were, just think about what a sad few months it's been for those cynics who really enjoy seeing teams do stupid things. No team has had a really horrific winter, and with little but dross left on the market, no team is likely to have one. This leaves the always pressing issue of which team has had the worst offseason a matter of judgment. Others would differ, but I see three clear candidates: The Mets, the Royals and, surprisingly, the Phillies.
The Mets' problems are obvious. While they brought on Jason Bay in a deal that even those who didn't like it would concede was at worst somewhat pointless, that was also essentially all they did, leaving them short a third of a lineup and two-fifths of a rotation. Their minor moves, such as inexplicably trading for an expensive fourth outfielder(Gary Matthews Jr.) who at this point rates as the rare no-tool player, tended toward the actively malignant. Worse, their halting semi-negotiations with various free agents and the strange feud they entered into with Carlos Beltran, their own best player, exposed a front office that seems not to actually be run by anyone, making the team an object of ridicule and scorn. All of this would be bad enough, but the team has one of the highest payrolls and perhaps the most impressive array of frontline talent in the game, making their winter a case study in how to make nothing of something. At least they have memories.
The Royals' problems are just as obvious. With little talent past the great Zack Greinke, closer Joakim Soria and a few moderately promising young hitters, it took work to bring on new players who actually made the team worse, but the Royals managed it. Given the choice between two incumbent catchers (Miguel Olivo and John Buck) with powerful bats but poor on base skills, for example, they went with neither and instead landed Jason Kendall, who has no discernible skills, is older than both and cost more than both of them put together. Their mysterious acquisition of a large quantity of third-rate White Sox players was, if anything, more baffling. Unfortunately, as the Mets have their Bay signing, the Royals now have the signing of Rick Ankiel and their winter thus can't be considered an unredeemed catastrophe. While coming off a poor, injury-marred year, Ankiel has proved he can crack 70 extra-base hits and draw 50 walks a year; when you get a 30-year-old outfielder who can do that and play the outfield decently for $3.25 million guaranteed, you win.
This leaves the Phillies. Having traded for Roy Halladay, the single best player to move this winter, they make for an odd loser. Consider, though, that as part of the Halladay trade they not only lost a lot of young talent but also Cliff Lee, who's within inches of being as good as Halladay and will make just $8 million this year. Consider too, that as their recent signing of Joe Blanton to a contract extension demonstrates, the team had the money to keep Lee for this year. With players like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley nearing the ends of their primes, the Phillies are perhaps the one team in baseball that has the most reason to play for this year, and having given up one of the five best pitchers in baseball for no evident reason, their winter has to count not just as a botch, but perhaps the worst in the game. No matter what the Mets and Royals did they weren't going to be relevant this year. The Phillies' mistake cost them what would have been the best one-two punch in baseball, and may well cost them a pennant.
Kenny Lofton made some news Wednesday when he became the latest retired player to deride his chemically enhanced rivals, proclaiming that he wasn't a cheater and expressing fond hopes that Hall of Fame voters take that into account. Lofton won't be elected even if they do, and it's a shame.
At the most basic level, Lofton has a reasonable case. He's one of 10 players to reach 2,400 hits and 600 steals. Of the others, eight are in the Hall and the ninth is Tim Raines, who should be. On top of that, he was a terrific center fielder who won four Gold Gloves and was good enough to field the position for contending teams until the end of his career. Hardly some obscure player who looks best on a stats sheet, he made six straight All-Star teams in his prime, was a key player on one of the dominant teams of his era, and was regarded as the premier leadoff man of his time. Even his later years as an itinerant, when he famously played for nine teams in six years, could be said to work in his favor -- in five of those six years, after all, he played in October.
His case gets even better if you look at it more closely. I'm a bit skeptical of metastatistics, if only because the value of a great player is in the small memories and perfect moments of joy to which he contributed, not in an integer, and dry numbers can sometimes make us forget that. Still, Sean Smith's very well-designed WAR system rates Lofton on par with players like Raines, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire, and as absurd as that might seem, it's difficult to pick the numbers apart. Smith's system credits Lofton for creating 23 wins on the bases and in the field, and while that might not be exactly right, there's no obvious reason to think it's wrong. Arbitrarily dock 10 percent of Lofton's value and he's still on par with the likes of Mike Piazza and Jeff Kent.
Say what you will about players who hold their peace about drugs until they're safely retired, but Lofton has a bit of a point. Relatively subtle skills like his went unappreciated in an era of synthetic hormones and long home runs. That's probably going to keep him from getting a fair look from the Hall electorate, and it really isn't fair.
• The Twins have such a long lived and long deserved reputation for winning with pitching, defense and place hitting that it's a shock when you realize Jim Thome, who's still a very good hitter, might be something like the sixth-best hitter on the team this year. It isn't quite a new Murderer's Row, but a lineup with Thome, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer is going to score a lot of runs this year. I don't think people generally care about this sort of thing, by the way, but Thome really is about the nicest guy in the world, and having signed a $1.5 million deal, he'll make the Twins that much harder not to root for.
• By signing Randy Winn, the Yankees continued with a quietly excellent winter. Winn, 35, might be a bit stretched at this point as a regular, but he's an average hitter, a very good baserunner and a very good defender, excellent in the outfield corners and passable in center. He's an ideal role player, and -- money and sentiment aside -- don't be at all surprised if the team gets more production out of a combination of him and Brett Gardner than they would have out of Johnny Damon, who for all his many virtues isn't much in the field and hasn't been for a long time.
• If right fielder Xavier Nady didn't exist, the Cubs would have to invent him. He makes for an ideal lefty-hammering reserve, and if he takes well to his role one can imagine both the Cubs' center and right field jobs evolving into an interesting platoon with he and new center fielder Marlon Byrd essentially splitting time while Kosuke Fukudome plays both positions, and a long career for Nady as the much-feared "professional hitter." His contract -- $3.3 million plus millions more in performance bonuses -- seems like a lot, but the Cubs are rich.