Thursday, August 12, 2004

Williams gambling on Contreras to be cornerstone

Almost two weeks ago, the White Sox traded one struggling 32-year-old pitcher for another struggling 32-year-old pitcher. Esteban Loaiza, the hurler they gave up, will be a free agent at the end of the year. Jose Contreras, is signed for two more years at about $8 million per.

Sox GM Kenny Williams paid lip service to the notion that this deal will help the Sox now and in the future, so lets take a look.

The Here And Now…

Loaiza 5.01 91 1.45 152.2
Contreras 5.17 94 1.34 109.2

This includes a pair of starts for each pitcher with his new respective team. Contreras is walking more guys, but with his strikeout rate he’s making Loaiza look like Kirk Rueter. And lack of strikeouts is probably why Loaiza has given up 170 hits this year.

Loaiza and Contreras are both giving up the gopherball (allowing 26 and 23 HRs, respectively). With U.S. Cellular Field playing like Coors Field-lite, the extra walks could really hurt Contreras. But for Loaiza, letting hitters put the ball in play could be a bad idea in front of a porous Yankee defense. Their numbers going forward could be a wash.

So who is better right now? Well, there’s not really much of a difference.

The Next Two Months…

Contreras, so far, is making Kenny Williams look pretty bright. He’s won both of his starts, has a 1.93 ERA and has struck out 12 against only two walks. Loaiza, meanwhile, has been tapped for 10 runs (9 earned) in a win and a loss for the Yankees. He’s struck out eight and walked five.

The difference isn’t really in the competition either. Contreras got to feast on the Royals’ AAA team, but still managed to shut down the high-scoring Indians. Loaiza was touched for five runs by both the A’s and the Blue Jays.

Conventional analysts have mentioned that Contreras seems to feast off bad teams while getting crushed by good teams. I don’t see any evidence of that, but if there’s any truth to it, then watch out. The Sox get to see a lot of Royals and Tigers between now and the end of the season.

Loazia, for his part, has pretty much sucked against everyone since mid-June, and was every bit as inconsistent as the Cuban before that. We’ve already looked at Esteban’s numbers, so we won’t rehash it again. But Loaiza was lucky to have an ERA under 5.00.

Who makes the biggest impact for his new team is probably not an answerable question. It depends on which Contreras shows up and how much mileage is left in Loaiza’s arm. They could pitch the same and Contreras could have better numbers due to weaker competition.

Next Year And Beyond…

The money in this deal works like this: The Sox will pay Loaiza for the rest of this season and the Yankees will do the same for Contreras, with the Cuban due $8 million in 2005 and $9 million in 2006. The Yankees will kick in $1 million each year. Loaiza will be a free agent at the end of this year.

The newspapers (the Sun Times and the Tribune) reported that in free agency, Loaiza is looking for a deal that will pay him similar money to what Contreras is making. I doubt that, since he’s spent the last two months getting his ass kicked around, but let’s play along.

Who would you rather have locked in for the next two years as $7.5 million per year (the real cost to the Sox for taking Contreras)?

Well, with the K-rates being what they are (7.71/9 IP for Contreras and 5.81 for Loaiza), Contreras is probably the better bet to pitch well the next couple of years. You can factor in intangible stuff if you like, but with the notion that Contreras will pitch better out of the New York spotlight, his being reunited with his family and also getting to face weaker competition, the Cuban wins that battle, too.

But that brings us to a different question: Why would you want either of these guys for that kind of money?

Loaiza’s big 2003 season is looking more and more like a fluke. His back around his career numbers this year, but on top of that the velocity on his pitches is down. That means Loaiza could be hurt or overworked. His arm could fall off at any minute. He’s definitely not worth that money.

But with Contreras’ spotty record, it’s hard to say he’s worth it either. In just more than 180 career innings, he has a 4.43 ERA with 166 strikeouts and 77 walks. Decent, but not great. And not worth $8 million a year.

Admittedly, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. It was the White Sox scouts that thought Loaiza would be a good pickup, despite middling numbers. A cut fastball later, Esteban turned in a great season for the Sox. Contreras could be another guy that needs a change of scenery to help get adjusted to pitching in the major leagues.

Nonetheless, when you go on the word of your scouts, you’re taking a gamble. And for the Sox, this will be an expensive gamble. Not just in terms of dollars, but also in opportunity cost.
Handing over $8 million to Contreras means there’s less money in the budget to resign Magglio Ordonez, if Williams feels inclined to do so. It also means less money that could be used to sign a free agent pitcher that could potentially be better than Contreras. After all, how much more than that will Matt Clement be able to get in free agency? And he’s a guy that scouts and performance analysts can both love.

This move could signal the end of Ordonez’ run in Chicago (not necessarily a bad thing). Or it could mean Carlos Lee will find a new home in the offseason (again, not necessarily bad). But bringing Contreras onboard means Williams can’t keep all his pieces and add payroll. And depending on how tight the purse strings are this winter, he might have to dump without getting much back in return.

Williams has never been afraid to gamble. Right now he’s gambling that Contreras will be able to help the Sox stay in the pennant chase, and help the team over the next two years.

He’d better have a good idea what he’s doing by rolling the dice on this deal, because if it backfires, it could keep the Sox from contending with resurgent Tiger and Indians teams, as well as the perennially loaded Twins, for the next two years. If the Sox don’t look to contend, they’ll probably have to rebuild. And that rebuilding could start with a new GM.

Back in action

My readership of zero will be excited to know that I’m back from an extended cross-country trip. Now it’s time for updates on the Pale Hose’s fortunes. Issues I will address in the next few days.

--The Esteban Loaiza-Jose Contreras hosing with the Yankees
--Roberto F***ing Alomar?!? Again?!??
--The Sox recent skid that has left them in third place
--The Sox’ miserable offense
--Playoffs or next year?

I have some things to attend to before I can write about all of this, but things will trickle in as I examine them and put pen to paper (or my fingers to the keyboard, if you will).