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...
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...
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.