As snow falls, baseball's in the air

Some things to remember: Jim Thome's worth the money, the Phillies haven't won anything yet, and the Cubs and White Sox are still the Cubs and White Sox.

By King Kaufman
Published December 7, 2002 12:25AM (EST)

The offseason is one of the best times to be a baseball fan -- the season is another good one -- because you can chew over important issues such as whether Alex Rodriguez would be a better guy to have on your team than Carl Hubbell without having to keep up with the daily grind of games. Nothing can ruin your pet theory that the local nine ought to trade for Joe Shlabotnik faster than finding out that Shlabotnik tore his Achilles tendon running out a grounder last night.

The hot-stove league has been at a rapid boil this week because of the complicated yet thoroughly uninteresting rules that govern the business side of the game, which make Saturday a deadline for a variety of things, most notably for teams to offer arbitration to or release their arbitration-eligible players. I would explain what that means for those who don't know, but I can't type while sleeping. (Actually, I can, but I don't want to.) Suffice it to say that by the time the football games come on this Sunday you'll know whether Roger Clemens will be a Yankee and Ivan Rodriguez will be a Ranger next year.

The big news this week is that the previously penurious Philadelphia Phillies have been spending like a sailor on shore leave, a sailor who has spent the last few years pocketing revenue-sharing proceeds that he was entitled to because he'd run his business so badly that he was among the lowest-revenue sailors despite living in the largest one-sailor market, if I may stretch the simile a bit.

Despite having had exactly two winning seasons since the Reagan administration -- the second Reagan administration, to be fair -- the Phillies were immediately anointed favorites by many typists to win the National League East next year after they signed Jim Thome, the big prize among this year's free agents. Thome, a first baseman who's spent his entire career with the Cleveland Indians, is one of the game's best sluggers, and his signing offers a lesson in why star players really are worth all the money they're paid, in his case $85 million over six years.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that between Monday afternoon, when rumors that Thome was ready to sign with Philadelphia began to leak out, through Wednesday, the day after the team confirmed the story, the Phillies had sold about 1,200 season tickets. Normally, the club said, it handles about 40 requests for season tickets per day in the offseason, though it's not clear that that means it sells 40 season tickets per day.

But let's say the Phillies do sell 40 tickets a day, so that's 100 in two and a half days, and we'll call it 1,100 extra season tickets sold from Monday afternoon through Wednesday. In 2001, the Phillies pulled in an average of $17 for each ticket sold, according to an analysis last year by Doug Pappas on Baseball Prospectus. Assuming the same figure for 2003 -- which would be conservative -- that's about $1.5 million that Thome has made for the Phillies already.

He hasn't swung a bat yet, hasn't won a single game for them. The Phillies' record is no better than it was on Sunday. Official Jim Thome merchandise hasn't begun selling. The exciting, winning Phillies haven't become a stadium-packing phenomenon the way they were in 1993, their last pennant-winning year, when they drew 3.1 million people. (Last year they drew 1.6 million.)

And yet, after two and a half days, the Phillies have already made back almost 2 percent of Thome's contract. Two and a half days! There are still more than 2,000 days left on that contract. If, this season, the Phillies get halfway back to that old 3.1 million attendance figure, at an average of $17 a ticket, they'll have made an extra $12.75 million before anybody's parked their car or bought a bobble-head doll.

Thome will average a little over $14 million a year on his contract, though of course he doesn't really cost the Phillies that much because they'd have to pay someone else to play first base if they weren't paying him. The average salary was $2.3 million last year, so Thome really costs the Phils a little under $12 million over an average player. And that average salary will rise by the end of his contract. It's not hard to see that Thome's worth the money.

But that doesn't mean I'm ready to hand them next year's division title. They are still the Phillies after all. A few days before signing Thome, they signed former Giants third baseman David Bell to a four-year, $17 million deal that rivals the Gadsden Purchase for overspending. Maybe they just wanted to test their checkbook before signing Thome, see if it still works.

You still have to get people out, though, and even with Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla, the Phillies staff doesn't inspire quite the same fear their new Thome-rrific lineup does. They were in the running for Tom Glavine, the longtime Braves lefty, but he agreed to sign with the Mets Thursday.

And the Phillies still have a manager, Larry Bowa, who's an intense screamer, the kind of guy who tends not to have long runs of success. They overachieved in 2001, going 86-76, and regressed to about the right level (80-81) last year. Thome will make them better. But the players, who can't stand Bowa, have to get through the year without killing him.

The other big deals of the week involved the Chicago teams. The Cubs traded Todd Hundley, who used to be a power-hitting catcher, and a player to be named later to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Eric Karros, who used to be a power-hitting first baseman, Mark Grudzielanek, a second baseman of minimal value except as a test for copy editors (that first e is tricky), and some money. The White Sox traded closers with the Oakland A's, exchanging Keith Foulke for Billy Koch, with some prospects/backups thrown in on both sides and the Sox giving the A's some cash.

The Dodgers-Cubs deal -- an exchange of mostly useless, aging talent -- had a lot of folks scratching their heads. What happened was that each team bought some flexibility. The Dodgers can take the money they were going to pay to Karros and Grudzielanek in one year and pay it to Hundley over two years, which frees up some cash this year to let them go after a free agent, maybe Cliff Floyd. The Cubs get some veteran insurance in case first base prospect Hee Seop Choi or second base prospect Bobby Hill busts. Unless they can flip their two new guys in rumored trades that might bring in Expos second baseman Jose Vidro or Rockies closer Jose Jimenez, although you'd think that if Karros and Grudzielanek could fetch talent like that, the Dodgers wouldn't have let them go for a broken-down catcher.

The player to be named later, by the way, turns out to be Chad Hermansen, an outfielder who has not shown, in 174 games over four seasons, that he can hit big-league pitching with any authority. To give you an idea of his value, he was traded last summer from the Pirates to the Cubs for Darren Lewis, who decided that all things considered he'd rather not be in Pittsburgh and promptly retired -- and it wasn't at all clear that the Cubs got the better of the deal.

In the Foulke-Koch trade, the A's got out of having to go through the arbitration process with Koch, which will send his salary through the roof, and they got a guy who, despite a misleadingly high earned-run average last year, is a better pitcher than Koch. The Sox will end up having to overpay Koch because he picks up a lot of saves, the second most meaningless statistic in American sports (after hockey assists), and saves impress arbitrators. Foulke will be a free agent after next season, so the A's will have their choice of whether they want to pay him a lot.

It's important to remember, when evaluating deals involving the Chicago teams, that you don't get to be the Cubs and White Sox by making shrewd trades.

Oh, and about whether it would be better to have A-Rod or King Carl? Take Rodriguez. Even if Hubbell were alive, he'd be almost 100 years old.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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