Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Trade Pedro Now

I adore watching Pedro Martinez pitch. Or at least I did. I am quite certain that I'll be telling my kids -- or, with any luck, someone else's -- about how delicious Pedro was in '99 and '00. There was this feeling in those years that the games weren't really contests. He could spot a 95-96 mph fastball (some people say 98 -- not true, but a nice thought) with sharp, elusive movement; throw a very respectable curve (something that has become dominant only in the last few years); or toss a change-up so deceptive and darting that video game makers still have no idea what to call it. (The cutter he now leans on, especially with men on base, is essentially a post-injury addition.) Oh, and he could throw all of the pitches for strikes. Wherever and whenever he wanted. Pedro had the best change in the game, one of the best fastballs, and he could throw both of them with complete precision and control in any count. And just when you thought you'd guessed him right, he'd spin a tight little curve on the outside corner and you'd be toast. It looked like heaven on a baseball field. When Pedro was throwing like that, the offense didn't exist. He was the Globetrotters, and the rest of baseball were the Generals. It was just that unfair. And then, sadly, he got hurt.

First there were the oblique problems that lead to the unbelievable Game 5 bullpen appearance in Cleveland. After that, mild hamstring troubles. Then, finally, there was the big one - A Sore Shoulder. Most specifically, a light fraying in Pedro's rotator cuff. Is that bad? No one could really say. Some people argued that anything in the area was a major problem; others suggested that with proper rest Martinez could be back to normal soon enough. It sounded nice, and we all wanted to believe, so we did. Pedro took an early season break, rested up over the winter and returned. He pitched well (Pedro has not had an ERA over 2.4 in SEVEN years) and even after the injury has consistently been a Cy Young candidate. Much has been made about Martinez' conversion from a thrower to a pitcher, that he now uses guile and trickery where he once preferred gas and bravado. I'm not sure how true that is, as he always seemed pretty adept at creating confused swings, but the point is clear. Since his injury, Pedro has certainly made the overpowering fastball less and less a cornerstone of his game plan. So that is how we arrived at the 2003 postseason. Martinez, while clearly not his '99 self, turned in another outstanding season that, were it not for bad run support and an even worse bullpen, would have mad him a favorite for the Cy. In September he looked particularly dominant, posting an ERA of 0.81 in 33 innings. That's 80% of one run. In an ENTIRE game. Martinez was throwing with ease and confidence and many an analyst suggested that the Sox just might ride his right arm all the way this year. But those of us who have watched closely, who have missed nary a start from #45, knew it wouldn't be that easy.

Pedro, you see, is pitching scared. Yes, he's a warrior; yes, he loves a battle; and yes, he probably would drill a dead Yankee outfielder in the ass, but he's still afraid. Martinez begins every game now with a cautious feeling out of what he has. He sticks with an 86-88 mph fastball for as long as possible and mixes in heavy doses of offspeed pitches. If the score remains close as the innings progress, he will revert to more of a bulldog style of four seem heat up in the zone, and it is often effective. Many times though, his attack-by-conservation has already yielded 2-3 runs, and the Sox are behind the eight ball. He does not get hit hard, not often anyway, but he allows himself little margin for error. A bleeder here and a blooper there and Pedro is in trouble. And the difference is now, he seems unwilling to pitch himself out of it. In the Golden Era, Martinez would look at runners on 2nd and 3rd, chuckle at the rarity of the occurrence, then blow the hitter away without a thought. But he won't do that anymore, not with a shoulder that may or may not be one fastball away from snapping in two. So instead, Pedro busts inside with cutters and hopes for a ground ball or pop up. And hey, we're not talking about Frank Tanana here. That cutter is a mighty tough pitch, and Pedro usually gets what he's looking for. But that's the distinction: usually. In '99 and '00, Pedro ALWAYS got what he was looking for. Now he seems more interested in saving his energy and pocketing his strength than he does in silencing the opponent. Early in a game he simply will not reach back for more juice because he's worried that it might be the last time he does. And while in most cases that is entirely justified and completely understandable, it's not worth a paycheck of 17 million dollars. That's why the Red Sox have to say goodbye.

Pedro's performance in the postseason was all the Sox can reasonably expect from him now: 2 good starts against Oakland, 1 lousy one against NY, and 1 great one against NY (thanks Grady). That's a lot to get from a pitcher, and it's on par with most #1 starters. But it's not superb. It's not Hall of Fame stuff. It's not something you can ride all the way to the World Series, so how can you continue to pay him like it is? He's now a #1, not a 1 in a million. Martinez demanded his extension be picked up early, and, for no apparent reason, the Red Sox acquiesced. After this season he is a free agent and the bidding will likely start high and end higher. With Boston having so many other players up for contract they will be unable to break the bank to keep Pedro around, so now is the time to deal. Assuming you can find someone to take on such a contract (see Mike Hampton), you could probably get a fair amount in return. Combine that with the free agents you would now be able afford (say, Bartolo Colon and Luis Castillo?), and you have quite a package. But that's not really the point. The point is that Pedro is no longer Superman, and the Red Sox can ill afford to pay him like he is. The man changed the way we all think about pitching, but he created an image even he can't live up to. A small tweak in the shoulder has stopped Pedro from being the great equalizer, and I think he knows it. Hopefully, Theo does too.