The Fall of LaTroy

When the Cubs first signed LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent in the first few days of December 2003, they were signing the most dominant eighth-inning pitchers in the game. And, through until early June, that is exactly what they got, and at a good price too. Hawkins' numbers from the start of 2002 (when he was of course with the Twins setting up Eddie Guardado) through to that June were simply formidable...

  IP H HR BB K ERA GB/FB
LaTroy Hawkins 188.1 149 12 36 162 1.91 1.21

It was only then, when Joe Borowski hit the disabled list, that Dusty Baker took the decision that changed LaTroy Hawkins' career - he moved him to closer. This at the time was a move many approved of. Those that disapprove didn't have the strongest case. Hawkins certainly struggled mightily in the role in 2001, but that neglects two points. Firstly, while Hawkins did have a disasterous 2001 as the Minnesota closer, he only earned that job by going a perfect 14-for-14 in save opportunities the year before. Secondly, Hawkins, reacting to 2001, made huge changes to his game that winter - he scrapped a high leg kick and compacted his delivery, which brought him improved control and velocity on his pitches, and he worked hard upon improving his off-speed stuff. The results of his re-invention were the numbers above, so far removed from his numbers prior to 2002 (5.78 ERA) that he may as well have been a completely different pitcher. Hawkins in 2001 wasn't just a bad closer, he was a bad pitcher. The latter was in June 2004 certainly not the case.

Leaving aside debates as to whether the best reliever on the staff should be strictly limited to the ninth with one to three run leads, Dusty's decision to try Hawkins as a closer was certainly justifiable. Where Dusty erred though was in standing by his ninth-inning man too long, when it was abundantly clear that Hawkins, for whatever reason, still couldn't handle the ninth. Instead Dusty ran him out there time and time again, and time and time again Hawkins either failed to close the door or only closed it with a squeak rather than a slam. There was a real lack of confidence and conviction to his pitching, and he seemed far more prone to leaving pitches, especially with 0-2 counts, in areas where hitters could hit them too hard...

  IP H HR BB K ERA GB/FB
LaTroy Hawkins 71.1 73 11 15 58 3.28 0.70

Those numbers, from when he first inherited the ninth through yesterday, would appear to come to the same conclusion. In particular, Hawkins allowed an increasing number of flyballs, and flyballs (especially at Wrigley) have a nasty habit of from time to time leaving the ballpark, which of course is the worst thing a pitcher can do if he's in the business of preventing runs. All the same, those numbers taken as a whole are far from bad. Charicatures of Hawkins as some sort of Alfonseca figure who was responsible for all of our bullpen's woes are far-fetched and inaccurate. Indeed, even that lesser version of Hawkins was still a comfortably above-average reliever, and the Cubs' bullpen will take a hit without him. Then again, as a result of irresponsible management on Dusty's part, overreacting and relegating Hawkins to mere mopup work, that hit had already been taken. And that, combined with the boo-birds of Wrigley, made Hawkins' situation in Chicago unnecessarily untenable. There's more than a touch of the Sosa debacle about the fall of LaTroy, only underlined by the fact the top brass was willing to eat some of his contract to ship him elsewhere.

There is a fundamental difference though between the Sosa and Hawkins trades - the level of the talent the Cubs received in return. Jerome Williams and David Aardsma represent a far better haul given what we gave up than Jerry Hairston and a retired pitcher (though, in fairness, the Orioles will be sending someone to replace Crouthers). Williams, who won't turn 24 until December, is one of the better young pitchers in the game, with pedigree as a prospect and considerable major league experience (and no small amount of success) under his belt. That is though in spite of some areas of his game upon which he needs to work, as per Baseball America...

When healthy, Williams has command of a low-90s fastball that he uses to set up a very good changeup. He has yet to find a consistent third pitch however, with both his curveball and slider lacking the depth or command to be a consistent out pitch. Williams' conditioning also has come into question.

That when "healthy" caveat is a rather large one. Williams last season suffered first from tendinitis in his throwing shoulder and later in the year required arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow. It, of course, goes without saying that shoulder and elbow injuries in one so young are most definately not a good sign. Neither has the way Williams has been throwing so far this year - his customary control deserting him and his ERA, at Triple-A no less, rocketing though the roof. How much of that is attributable to the fact his seriously ill father required liver and kidney transplants during Spring Training (Williams also lost his mother at 19) remains to be seen. The Giants did a good job of offloading Kurt Ainsworth down the stretch in 2003 just before injury completely ruined his prospect status (well, I say a good job, but actually all they got in return was Sidney Ponson for a few months!), and I'm slightly concerned that the same fate may be about to befall Williams, shedding a brighter light on his very disappointing numbers so far. It's possible the Giants know something about Williams that we're not going to like finding out for ourselves.

If that is not the case, and the Giants have traded him in good faith, I simply cannot understand this move on their part. To give up a pitcher as young, as promising and yet as experienced as Williams, not to mention the also very well thought of David Aardsma, who the Cubs can now place at the top of their collection of young, hard-throwing and promising right-sided relief prospects, all for setup man LaTroy Hawkins simply staggers me. Either Barry Bonds is a lot closer to returning than anybody might suspect, or the Giants are simply deluding themselves when it comes to their competitiveness this year. The Giants have certainly had problems with their bullpen, serious problems not helped by Armando Benitez's injury, but their relief corps still ought to be the least of their worries - their offence is unspectacular, their starting pitching besides Schmidt likewise, and their defence disappointing. Without Bonds, there is absolutely no question, in my mind at least, that they are inferior to both the Padres and Dodgers, and maybe even the Diamondbacks too. Even should Bonds return tomorrow, they'd still face an uphill struggle to make the playoffs. What use is a premium eighth-inning guy to them then even in the short term? As for the long term, their team right now is overwhelmingly old, and they simply have to get younger if they're not to fall off a cliff upon Bonds' retirement. Trading away Jerome Williams and David Aardsma for a 32-year old whose contract expires after 2006 goes entirely against that.

Does this trade for the Cubs represent a salary dump, represent giving up on the season? Certainly not. LaTroy Hawkins, though it was overwhelmingly the Cubs' (and the booing Cub fans') own fault, could probably not have continued pitching in Chicago for much longer. Even overlooking that, they still received far more for Hawkins than they could reasonably have expected - it really was an offer they couldn't refuse. Though Williams will be out of options next year, and therefore in the same boat as Angel Guzman and Sergio Mitre, needing to make the team, he at the very least makes a very useful chip in a further trade. At the very best he'll hold down a spot in a sensational Cubs' rotation for quite a while to come. That is, of course, assuming injury doesn't ravage his career first. Aardsma meanwhile has the stuff to become a closer somewhere down the line, and could be contributing in Chicago before the year is out.

The Cubs won twice yesterday, I think. First they got the better of the Giants with this trade, then of course they dispatched with the Rockies.

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Comments

Too bad for LaTroy, but I really don't blame him for these failures. No, I blame Cub management (not just Baker but Hendry as well) for their abysmal utilization of Hawkins' skills and talents.

Everyone knew what Hawkins went through in Minnesota and knew BEFORE he came over to the Cubs that he didn't have the stomach for closing. And, if no further proof was needed, Hawkins' failures at the end of last year should have made any ideas of putting him in the closer's role a moot point. Yet, the first thing the Cubs did this year was to put Hawkins in the one spot that they knew he was likely to fail... in the ninth inning!

This after comments from Hendry and Baker over the winter signaling a desire to go forth with Hawkins as closer THIS YEAR, despite all that happened previously.

Yes, Borowski was injured in Spring Training... and I know we had limited options. But if we'd tried ANYBODY ELSE in that role (Wuertz? Van Buren?), especially during spring training, I'd feel better about all the blown saves and losses because it would have indicated to me (and Cubs fans everywhere) that management acknowledges the problem and is fully aware that what was tried before didn't work... and its time to TRY SOMETHING ELSE!!!!!

Unfortunately, Cubs management, through stubborness, ignorance, arrogance or a little of all three, failed to do so and that's one of the MAJOR reasons we're staring up at the Cardinals again.

Its not the injuries that are killing us... good teams overcome them... it's the blatant ignorance and chutzpah exhibited by Cubs management... including Hendry.

Yes, Baker is screwing up royally by his mismanagement of the lineup (batting Hollandsworth over Dubois, insisting on having Patterson bat leadoff) and bullpen (trotting Hawkins out repeatedly even after it was apparent to anyone with half-a-brain that Hawkins couldn't do the job), but Hendry's role in this disaster shouldn't be overlooked either.

The bottom line is this: the Cubs aren't going anywhere as long as Hendry and Baker are in positions of authority.

A lot of what you say is right on, 4thandinches. The rap on Baker is that he tends to use everyone on his bench, no matter how lacking in skills. But what troubles me is his penchant for using people "out of position" like he did with Hawkins.

For example, almost the first thing he asked of Enrique Wilson was, "Can you catch?"

Geez.

The Corey Patterson thing is another no-brainer. CP knows that he has power and knows that he hits better later in the order. He also knows that he is in a contract year (I believe) and will be worth more on the market if he hits 35 home runs batting 6th than if he walks 100 times as a leadoff man. So it's not surprising that he's swinging away no matter where Baker sticks him and now has 10 home runs.(right on track for 30+ roundtrippers)

Patterson also saw how much the Cubs valued one of the premier leadoff men in the business, Kenny Lofton. (i.e. NOT AT ALL) So it's not surprising that Patterson didn't want the job.

oh yeah,

Corey Patterson's 2005 salary is $2.8 million.

After 14 years, a lifetime BA of .298, and a lifetime OBP of .372 Kenny Lofton's 2005 salary is $2.9 million.

Corey Patterson will be a free-agent after the 2007 season, but he will be eligible for salary arbitration after each of the next two seasons.

Kenny Lofton's salary over the four-year period 1998-2001 was $30 mil (average $7.5 mil per year) at a time when the average MLB salary was 50-80% of what it is now, so Lofton was well paid at the peak of his career. He didn't get a pay cut until he turned 35, but that's not unusual for a player whose game is speed.

Corey Patterson is what he is. He's the Cubs version of Stevie Wonder. He can't tell the difference between a ball and a strike, so like an M & M inspector who is color-blind or a sports editor who's dyslexic, Corey does the best he can trying to deal with his handicap. His answer is to avoid getting down two strikes, which means he doesn't want to take a pitch if he can avoid it. He's hackin', because if he swings he might get a hit befor he strikes out. If he guesses "ball" and decides to take a pitch, it might be a strike, and then he will be even more likely to strike out.

Patterson says he wants to hit 3rd. That's ridiculous. The 3-hole is the place in the batting order where teams place their best hitter, and that's only if their best hitter has an OBP over .350. Patterson MIGHT be a #5 hitter some day, but he will never be a #3 hitter. And he will never be a lead-off hitter, either, or (even worse still) a #2 hitter.

On the Cubs roster as it stands now, Jerry Hairston, Jr is the only legitimate lead-off hitter, and Todd Walker is the only legitimate #2 hitter. Therefore, both must play. And the only way it will work is for Hairston to play LF, and for Walker to play 2B.

Baker is on record as saying he will rotate Hairston around the outfield and infield in order to keep him in the lineup.

I think you're being too hard on Corey Patterson Arizona Phil. He's batting .274 with 10 home runs. Not bad. It's also doubtful that Corey bothered to investigate Kenny Lofton's salary history with other teams in the past.

CP is asking us to be patient with him. He really didn't spend much time in the minor leagues learning how to play the game. Let's keep him batting #6 the rest of the year and see what happens.

Most in the Giants blogging world and fanbase are a bit shellshocked by this move as well. No matter how Hawkins pitches, his help will be limited, and cannot change the fortunes of his new, .500-at-best-withou-Bonds team. Sabean doesn't need LaTroy Hawkins, he needs three LaTroy Hawkins.

Even scarier is the thought, not so hard to prove, that Sabean gives a hot-damn about the years after Bonds' departure/retirement. He will do anything, literally, to give the team what he feels is the best shot to win while Bonds is still playing there. So if anyone is familiar with any of the other Giants hot young pitching prospects and has a journeyman player that fills a weakness on the Giants roster -- stay by the phone. No prospect is untouchable.

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