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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Professor Chaos Goes M.A.D.

This could be the week that determines once and for all whether the Sox GM will remain forever known as Prof. Chaos or if he will morph into Superman.  It was the week in which the Sox dumped Keith Foulke and Mark Johnson and picked up Billy Koch.  Then in what came as no surprise here, Frank Thomas decided to remain with the Sox. 

Foulke had a very bad couple of months early in the 2002 season, bad enough to lose his job as closer for the rest of the season, despite a terrific second half, mainly as a mop-up man.  The Sox, or at least Prof. Chaos and Gen. Disarray, obviously gave up on him.  So it was no surprise that he was traded. 

The surprise was that he went to the A’s for another closer, Billy Koch.  Sox fans have openly questioned Oakland GM Billy Beane’s sanity for even thinking about such a deal, let alone consummating it, at least until they explored below the surface.  There was more to this deal than met the eye. 

For one thing, the Sox throw-in was Joe Valentine, who posted phenomenal statistics this year at AA Birmingham.  Valentine could be the closer of the future for the A’s, and that could come in 2004 since Foulke becomes a free agent after the 2003 season.  So even if Foulke is a bust in Oakland, the A’s could still walk away with their closer of the future. 

So what did the Sox get in Koch?  It depends on who you listen to.  Supporters of the deal are quick to point out Koch’s 44 saves in 2002.  On the other hand, where Foulke had a decent fast ball and an amazing change-up (at least when he could control it), Koch is a “one trick pony, “ at least according to Oakland sports writer Monte Poole, who is relieved that the A’s are getting rid of Koch. 

Poole is quick to point out that Koch had a great season with Oakland except for a couple of important games against Anaheim on September 17 and against Minnesota in game 5 of the AL Division Series.  What Poole doesn’t like is the fact that Koch only has one weapon.   

“He had the blazing fastball,” writes Poole, “often getting it up around 100 mph.  After that, he had another blazing fastball.  And if you hit that, he'd try to slip a blazing fastball past you.” 

Then there was his other problem:  lack of control.  Poole describes him as “walking peril.  An adventure on every pitch.”  To put it another way, “While relief pitching is by nature a high-wire act, Koch too often took it to another level. He frequently pitched from behind in the count, and he often walked the leadoff batter, two sins of relief pitching.” 

And according to Poole, that’s exactly why Billy Beane decided to trade him.  ” Koch's lack of control irritated fans, teammates, manager Art Howe, general manager Billy Beane and owner Steve Schott.”  This could explain why Koch was traded twice in less than 365 days.  People don’t like their closers to perform a high wire act every outing. 

Couple that with Kenny Williams main selling point:  “He’s in our control for the next three years.”  This could be a good thing if Koch matures as a pitcher during that time.  On the other hand, since this is his arbitration year, most experts are expecting him to make something like $4 million a year.  That dollar amount could make this deal another disaster waiting to happen.  If Koch doesn’t live up to Sox management’s expectations for him, it could be yet another incentive for fans to stay away from the ballpark.  When a closer can’t close, teams tend to lose big-time. 

The only ace in the hole is the two players the Sox acquired who have yet to be named.  Their success or failure could end up deciding the verdict on this trade. 

The other big news of the week came late Friday when the Sox announced the signing of Frank Thomas to a one year deal that contains three additional years of mutual options.   

Although no financial details were released on Friday, both sides in the negotiations did admit that their were at least three tiers of salaries that Thomas could make.  Prof. Chaos described them as, low, moderate, and high.  At the high end, both the professor and Thomas’s agent Arn Tellem, stated that Thomas could possibly make more money than he would have in his previous deal. 

The rather bizarre part of this contract is the mutual option portion.  It goes this way.  Each year starting after the 2003 season, Thomas will first have an option on the contract at some unspecified salary figure.  This protects him in case he is a bust any given year.  All he has to do is exercise his option and the Sox are stuck with him for another year. 

On the other hand, if Thomas has a great season and decides that he’d like to test the free agency waters again, the Sox could prevent it by exercising their option.  This would be at a higher salary level than if Thomas exercises his option.  Or they could call Thomas’s bluff and let him go. 

It’s an odd set-up.  In fact the only thing I could think of that matches it is a doctrine that the United States followed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  It was called “Mutually Assured Destruction.”  The acronym for that is “MAD.”   

The acronym fits.  Like many things that come from the Sox front office, this contract could have been drawn up at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Both sides described the deal as complex.  When asked why the deal had to be so complicated, Tellem laughed and then replied, “To tell you the truth…I really don’t know.” 

However, Tellem actually answered the question earlier in his press conference when he acknowledged that The Chairman played a big role in getting this deal done.   

That explains everything.


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at nsmf@aol.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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