Thursday, December 8, 2011

Free agent purchases not a guarantee to victory, but Miami likely now more interesting than Chicago ball clubs

Seeing long-time Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle join the Miami Marlins along with several other ballplayers in recent days can’t help but remind me of the California Angels of three-plus decades ago.

I’m speaking specifically of the Angels of the mid- to late-1970s, when long-time owner Gene Autry got fed up with the perpetual mediocrity he was putting on the field.

HE TRIED TO use the same free agency that the New York Yankees used to bolster their ball clubs of that era to bring in star ballplayers – believing that athletic talent would translate into championships galore for the team that represents the suburbs of Los Angeles.

I remember that first winter of 1976-77, when the Angels went out and gave “big money” (for that era) contracts to infielder Bobby Grich and outfielders Don Baylor and Joe Rudi.

Future years saw them acquire expensive talent such as future Hall of Fame members Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson, along with Lyman Bostock (who might have become a star had it not been for that unfortunate evening in Gary, Ind., in 1978 – R.I.P.)

They had interesting ball clubs back then, and had a nucleus that resulted in playoff appearances in 1979, 1982 and 1986.

BUT BY THE time the Angels actually won an American League championship and World Series title in 2002, NONE of those ballplayers had a thing to do with it. Even Gene Autry was gone from the scene – although I recall widow Jackie being at the ballpark as though she was channeling the Singing Cowboy’s aura.

My point in bringing any of this up is to say that ball clubs that actually manage to win something usually go beyond just ratcheting up a collection of ballplayers who run up the “best” statistics at their respective position.

Buehrle, relief pitcher Heath Bell of the San Diego Padres and shortstop Jose Reyes of the New York Mets may not be enough of a boost to bring a National League championship to Miami – not even if they also manage to lure Prince Fielder away from the Milwaukee Brewers with the promise of a “big money” contract.

It could turn out to be an overly-costly ($198 million committed in salary thus far) mess on the field and at the ticket booth – particularly if the Marlins do not wind up drawing the significantly-higher crowds to their games that they will need to generate the gate receipts that will cover these expenses.

ALTHOUGH I STAND by my previously-written thought that new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has a better chance of getting to a World Series before either Chicago ball club does so.

In fact, I’m getting my chuckles from the memory of all the anonymous Internet posters who took their pot-shots at Guillen when he departed the Chicago White Sox back in late September.

I recall some people specifically stating that Guillen’s leaving Chicago increased the chances that Buehrle would stay with the White Sox. After all, their convoluted logic went, Guillen’s “screwy” managerial style and strategy had hurt Buehrle as a pitcher in recent years. Buehrle would be glad to be rid of him. 

So what does Mark do? He winds up voluntarily picking the Marlins (reportedly over offers from the Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers) and ensuring that he and Ozzie will be a duo for the next four seasons (that is the length of the contracts both men have with the Miami ball club).

I WONDER IF in the White Sox’ front office on Wednesday, the thought of an Ozzie/Buehrle pairing hurts even more than if Buehrle had taken seriously those suggestions that the Chicago Cubs were interested in acquiring him.

Although Cubs fans will get to see the duo next season at Wrigley Field July 17-19. Will Buehrle beat the Cubs again, while Guillen bad-mouths the run-down conditions of the 98-year-old stadium?

Those moments could be the “highlights,” so to speak, of the 2012 season in Chicago.

While I’m not convinced that the Marlins have bought themselves a championship, I do believe it will be a more interesting baseball experience next season in Miami than it will be on either side of Chicago.

NO MATTER HOW much the Cubs want to talk themselves up as “major players” in trying to acquire the big stars who are now available, any serious rebuilding effort is going to take years. Theo Epstein is a success if the Cubs win anything before 2020.

And as for the White Sox, the loss of Buehrle (perhaps they believe they replaced him by acquiring pitcher Nestor Molina from the Toronto Blue Jays) convinces me all the more that this will be a roughly .500 ball club for the next few season.

Not incredibly awful. But not championship caliber either. And now, we don’t even have Ozzie’s mouth to keep things interesting.

In fact, I can think of only one potential move that would thoroughly inflict the pain on the Chicago baseball scene – if the Marlins were literally to work out a deal to take pitcher Carlos Zambrano off of the Cubs’ hands.

YOU KNOW THEY want to dump him.

But what if the next Miami Marlins championship team were to be led by a pitching staff featuring ex-Chicago hurlers Buehrle and Zambrano?

Admit it! That would be so in character for Chicago baseball.


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