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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 1, 2023 1:53 pm PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Quicksand is everywhere in the world of baseball.

Knowing where not to step is the job of the director of baseball operations, chief baseball officer, and general manager.

They continue to fail miserably, for the most part, throughout baseball and they continue to fool ownership, which is the biggest issue in the game today. Another player sold as a potential star of the future was swallowed up by baseball this week when the crumbling Red Sox quit on Jeter Downs, the central piece in the unloading of Mookie Betts to the Dodgers by Chaim Bloom on Feb. 10, 2020.

What a disaster that deal was for the Red Sox.

Take a bow owners John Henry and Tom Werner, you sure picked a winner in Bloom – who holds the title of Chief Baseball Officer for the Red Sox. Bloom has a degree from Yale in Latin Classics, so there’s that.

The Story finds the Jeter Downs story fascinating on many levels.

There is the constant theme of building for the future, the Number One sold item by the snake oil salesmen in charge of so many teams; and once again, that’s on you owners for putting these people in charge and buying their BS.

When Chaim Bloom was hired away from the Rays – and so many in the media applauded that hire – the Rays owned a $49 million payroll (and made it to the postseason); while the Red Sox owned the highest payroll at the time at $187 million.

The Red Sox owners thought they were getting a bargain.

At the time, I asked one of the owners of the Rays about losing Bloom and he wasn’t concerned, saying what he called a “Google administrator” or two would be hired to take Bloom’s place.

Interesting comment, don’t you think?

Bloom was in charge when the Red Sox unloaded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers and received infielder Jeter Downs, outfielder Alex Verdugo, and catcher Connor Wong in return. Here were the Red Sox dealing a proven superstar for potential. You can never miss on those deals.

The Red Sox were getting their own Jeter the infielder; but unfortunately for them, not a Derek Jeter-type player. They did miss on that deal.

To get to the heart of this matter, and AMBS always tries to get to the heart of the matter, help was asked for in order to evaluate the trade. These Chief Baseball Officers would do well to lean on people smarter than them in baseball matters, to offer them guidance. And that is what I did, and I don’t even have a degree in Latin Classics from Yale, I just have a degree in American Literature from Ramapo College in New Jersey.

But I do have some street smarts, so I asked a top talent evaluator what the issue was with Jeter Downs and why he was DFA’d. In a nutshell, the talent evaluator, whom I don’t think has a degree in Latin Classics either, broke it down for me in easy to understand terms.

But I do think this Talent Evaluator has a well-earned degree in Baseball Classics.

You can’t just fall in love with tools, you have to understand the game, the entire makeup of the player and where the tools fit and you have to continue to get better as a player.

Jeter Downs #20 of the Boston Red Sox blows a bubble on his way back to the dugout after striking out during the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park on July 24, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

That’s pretty important in my book and owners, it should be pretty important in your book – but I understand completely how you can be dazzled in interviews by those who can repeat all the buzz words and terms you love so much. Might want to start evaluating street smarts as well as other categories.

Anyway, here is what the Talent Evaluator told me about Jeter Downs – and I believe it’s a brilliant breakdown and I would recommend that former Padres owner Tom Werner (which is what he was when I first met him) understand what was said by the scout.

“I would say he is a tool chest, who never knew how to play,’’ the evaluator began.

That’s fascinating. Tell me more.

“All the tools were in there but it never translated.’’

Baseball is so much more than a game of tools, no matter how much they try to impress you with the talk about tools and the newly developed baseball combine that is supposed to change scouting; but this is not the NFL. There has to be baseball talent too, and a feel for the game.

“The Nationals just DFA’d Lucius Fox, a kid from the Bahamas, the same thing,’’ the scout said. “You saw him at a young age, you go, these are the kinds of athletes you like to see in the game. But they never figure out how to play. You can’t steal first base.’’

Lucius Fox vomits

Washington Nationals shortstop Lucius Fox (26) has to leave the game in the first inning after throwing up against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park April 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Washington Nationals lost the series and the game 12-3 against the San Francisco Giants. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

No you can’t. If you look at the numbers of Jeter Downs they are startling. He couldn’t hit in the minors – or the majors – with a 14-game small sample size last year with the Red Sox where, if nothing else, at least he was consistent at the age of 23; batting .154 vs. right-handers and .154 vs. left-handers. The last two years at AAA Worcester he hit .191 and .197.

Downs was a lifetime .240 hitter overall in his five minor league seasons.

Fox, also a middle infielder, had a 10-game look in 2022 at the age of 24 for the Nationals and hit .080. Over six minor league seasons he is a .244 hitter.

Here’s hoping Jeter Downs and Lucius Fox figure out how to play with all those tools in their toolbox. But one thing is certain, no one is trading a superstar for any deals that include Jeter Downs. Chaim Bloom made that mistake and it will never happen again.

At least not with Jeter Downs. Yet the mistake will be made over and over again with players with different names. Hotshot Chiefs of Baseball Operations will make these deals and all the Prospect Watchers will get excited and most of those prospects will not pan out. Too much can go wrong.

I remember when the Yankees made that deal for Clint Frazier with a team that used to be called the Indians and Brian Cashman was raving about Frazier’s “legendary bat speed.’’

The Yankees considered him “Can’t Miss Clint.” Well, he missed.

Soon after the deal was made I called a scout I knew from that Cleveland organization and he raised some red flags to me that turned out to be pretty accurate. But the Yankees and Cashman fell in love with the tools and the legendary bat speed, and I guess they did not get the same intel I got.

It happens. Baseball is a difficult sport in which to project the future – that’s why scouts are so important – even though so many Chief Baseball Officers and the like are relying more and more on measurements instead of true scouting. That’s on them; and anyone who’s been reading me at BallNine knows this is an axe I have been grinding for years.

Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom speaks as Masataka Yoshida #7 of the Boston Red Sox is introduced during a press conference announcing his contract agreement with the Boston Red Sox on December 15, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Hey, I have nothing against Latin Classics but I’m glad I read the American Classics, which in a way, a long time ago, gave me the benefit of those writers’ hard-learned American street smarts. How did I wind up an American Literature major?

Well, I like to read; and I had a phenomenal adjunct professor in Peter Carry, who was a big-time Sports Illustrated editor back in 1976. He taught a journalism course I took, and said don’t major in journalism because everything you learn with that major can be learned in six weeks on the job. Get your degree in something else. He was right. I took American Literature, worked at the college paper and eventually became co-editor of the paper, figured out how to have some fun while doing that job, and a connection I made there got me in for an interview with the Hudson Dispatch – and thus I was working in “journalism’’ the day after graduation as an assistant sports editor.

The point is you learn as you go, and the same goes for Chief Baseball Officers.

Unless they are too smart to learn. And that happens a lot. That’s why there are so many bad teams out there now and yet somehow these people keep their jobs or get new jobs. The first clue that Jeter Downs may have been overrated because of tools was that he was a first round draft pick of the Reds in 2017. Nick Krall was assistant GM that season and took over as GM in 2018. After the 2020 season Krall was elevated to president of baseball operations.

In 2016 the Reds, owned by Bob Castellini and run into the ground, were 68-94. Showing consistency, they were 68-94 the next season. They had slippage in 2017, and dropped to 67-95. In 2019 they were 75-87. In the short 2020 season they were 31-29, but that season was a joke all around. They finally managed a full season over .500 in 2021 with an 83-79 mark, but lowered the payroll and dropped to a pathetic 62-100 in 2022.

Bad to worse is their motto, even though Krall has the standard vision of “long-term and sustainable approach.’’

General manager Nick Krall speaks after David Bell was introduced as the new manager for the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on October 22, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Of course, Krall was an intern for the 2001 Moneyball A’s so that speaks for itself: he must be pretty much a baseball genius. In defense of Krall, he has worked his way up the ladder with the Reds after arriving in 2003 – and clueless owners make the job more difficult. Certainly the ownership in Boston now is hurting the Red Sox as well, with their belt tightening.

This is a production business.

“You want to give that athleticism a chance to figure it out,’’ the talent evaluator told The Story. “But after a certain point when they can’t figure it out, you got to move on.’’

The Red Sox moved on from Downs. Alex Verdugo has been underwhelming.

“That deal was not a good deal,’’ the scout said.

You can’t just fall in love with tools, you have to understand the game, the entire makeup of the player and where the tools fit and you have to continue to get better as a player. That’s the challenge.

Here’s the real deal.

“When you have baseball people they teach the tools how to play but when you have people who are nothing more than ‘measurables’ people, they measure physicality but they don’t know how to play, so you have guys that fail more.’’

That is happening more and more throughout baseball.

Technology is a good thing but it is not the most important thing. Some players may not be able to get the whole picture and then it is on them; but too often in baseball now it is numbers, measurables over teaching. Players also are rushed to such a degree there is not the proper time to learn.

Jeter Downs will get another chance somewhere as will Lucius Fox.  Downs has already been with the Reds, Dodgers, and Red Sox, one small market and two big market teams (although one is acting like a small market team since it has four World Series titles in the bank since 2004). Downs was let go so the Red Sox could add Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida as the AL East last-place Sox re-tool.

Jeter Downs #20 of the Boston Red Sox fouls off a bunt attempt on a high pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning at Fenway Park on July 23, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

As I said, Downs and Fox will get another shot. Tools will get you back in the door and sometimes it pays the freight even though a player hasn’t done much with those tools.

Which brings us to The Story’s free agent signing of the week.

The Twins, who constantly amaze, signed Joey Gallo to a one-year, free agent deal. Again falling in love with tools and not the reality of what kind of hitter he has become through the years.

Just as a refresher, Gallo hit .159 with the Yankees last year over 82 games and then got hot with the Dodgers and hit .162 over 44 games. For the season he hit .160, 56 hits in 126 games, 56 walks, and 163 Ks. Over his eight-year career he is a lifetime .199 hitter with 177 home runs and 1048 strikeouts over 752 games with a .325 on-base percentage and somehow that captivates the Nerds.

That gets you $11 million for 2023 after making $10.2 million in 2022 when even his on-base percentage dipped to .280. Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey is betting the new anti-shift rules help Gallo. But if you strike out it doesn’t matter if the defense has a shift on or not.

The Twins have had a rough go of it the last two years under Falvey’s leadership posting a 78-84 mark after adding Carlos Correa last year, and now Correa has moved on to a lifetime deal with the Giants. In 2021 the Twins were 73-89. Even for the woeful AL Central, that’s bad.

“Where are we in baseball?’’ the talent evaluator asked, trying to digest the Gallo tools-over-production contract.

Great question. I’d say, a lot of teams are sinking in quicksand.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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