January 30, 2003
OK folks, I'm a little more terse going through the Centrals, so a lot got left unsaid. Feel free to e-mail me and ask about the things I've overlooked, and it'll undoubtedly find its way into your inbox and maybe our mailbag too.
Signed LHP Mike Remlinger to a three-year contract; OF-L Troy O'Leary, INF-R Ramon Martinez, LHPs Shawn Estes and Mark Guthrie, and RHP Dave Veres to one-year contracts, and LHP Mike Sirotka, UT-R Charles Gipson, OF-L Tom Goodwin, C-R Keith McDonald and PH-L Lenny Harris to minor league contracts.
Traded for C-R Damian Miller (from the Diamondbacks for LHP David Noyce and OF-R Gary Johnson), C-L Paul Bako (from the Brewers for 3B-R Ryan Gripp); and 1B-R Eric Karros, 2B-R Mark Grudzielanek and cash (from the Dodgers for C-B Todd Hundley and OF-R Chad Hermansen).
Hired Dusty Baker to be their manager, even though he won't be able to insinuate his children onto Wrigley's sward.
The Cubs had what you'd modestly refer to as an active winter, where they did some things that bordered on miraculous, others that reflect a sense of pen-envy that only Ed Wade could respect, and others that make it perfectly clear that Dusty's the new sheriff in a town where the watchword is 'patronage' in every decade.
First, the December miracle. Finding anybody who would take Todd Hundley on any conditions seemed to be the most unachievable Mission Impossible imaginable. But Jim Hendry did it, although it came at a terrible price in terms of expense, roster space, and perhaps even playing time. First, the Cubs take a one-year salary hit by adding the expense of carrying both Eric Karros ($8 million, plus another million to make him go away after 2003) and Mark Grudzielanek ($5.5 million, plus another half-million to pass on the club option for 2004). The question really boils down to one of whether or not the Cubs would have been better off keeping Hermansen and cutting Hundley outright. Yes, they'd still be out just as much money as they're going to have to pay Grudz and Karros, but are Grudz and Karros worth the roster spots and the playing time?
It would be hard to come up with reasons to believe they are. For the last three years, Karros has been one of the least offensive first basemen around, and mostly-harmlessness isn't an asset at first. Grudzielanek can play an adequate second, and he's not an offensive asset at the position. Grudz doesn't have much in the way of positive experience at short or third, and he has no value as a pinch-runner. Karros might make an adequate caddy for Hee Choi, coming in to face Randy Johnson or Mike Stanton or whatever lefty bugaboo is on the mound, and maybe some spot work as a defensive replacement. You can only go so far as 'might' because he also might not adapt to a bench role, while Grudz's only real asset as a bench player would be a "get the ball in play" pinch-hitter. Otherwise, there isn't a whole lot Grudzielanek can do besides play second regularly, and he's not very good at that.
Worse yet, those two are squarely in the way of two of the Cubs' most-promising hitting prospects, Choi and second baseman Bobby Hill. While it's keen to credit Dusty Baker for his work with veteran players, you'd be hard-pressed to find two veterans less capable of being plausibly propped up in front of Choi and Hill. The Cubs were doomed to take a financial bath on the Hundley deal already, but instead of granting Wrigleyville a bit of wish fulfillment and just cutting him, they're running the risk that they've acquired two stiffs who might strike their manager's sweet tooth for aged meat.
OK, but in getting rid of Hundley and letting Joe Girardi walk and even dumping Mike Mahoney to make a clean sweep of their catchers, the Cubs are better off, right? Somewhat. Damian Miller had a nice half-season last year, and the Cubs didn't give up much to get him. He can be an adequate mid-tier catcher when things go his way, but he's also 33. So to back him, the Cubs have something sweet, right? Well, Paul Bako did post a career-high .332 OBP in 1999, and getting on base is probably his main offensive skill beyond being a catcher who bats lefty. At least they signed Keith McDonald as a minor league free agent, and he could actually do what they wish Miller might.
Well, there are the swell bullpen acquisitions--those will fix this team's problems, right? Mike Remlinger has been a superb reliever for the Braves for four years, but he'll be 37 before he throws a pitch in a game that counts. The odds of his being worth the $10 million over what they could have gotten with a little bit of scouting and performance analysis are remote. Dave Veres and Antonio Alfonseca are nice enough to have if you've got one of them, but they're also beatable, overrated, and overpriced. Mark Guthrie's a nice add, but why bring him in as well as Remlinger?
The other bit parts are the kinds of players you drag onto a team you want to win now: Lenny Harris isn't valuable, but he is a famous pinch-hitting person, and you don't build on signing a guy like him. You don't build on having Tom Goodwin or Troy O'Leary in camp. And you're probably plum out of roster space for Bobby Hill if you have Harris and ex-Giant Ramon Martinez around as your utility infielders. All of this resembles a win-now push, which you'd expect in conjunction with hauling in Baker, but the problem is that you're not helping yourself win with Dusty now by handing him these guys. The opportunity clearly exists--the Cardinals' rotation has been reduced to open tryouts, and the Astros seem to be doing plenty to lose their way. The Cubs can contend right now, but the veteran dreck is going to be part of what holds them back, all while the Cubs' stars of the near future rot on the vine.
If there's a move in the lot that I don't mind (OK, McDonald, O'Leary, Martinez, those are all solid too), it's hauling in Shawn Estes. No, he's never going to be the Estes of 1997, but Baker is familiar with his virtues and limitations, and there's something to be said for having a lefty starter to mix in with the outstanding rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano.
Traded for RHP Bartolo Colon, INF-R Jorge Nunez and cash (from the Expos and Yankees for RHPs Antonio Osuna, Rocky Biddle, Delvis Lantigua, and DH-L Jeff Liefer), RHP Billy Koch, LHP Neal Cotts and OF-R Daylan Holt (from the Athletics for RHPs Keith Foulke and Joe Valentine, C-L Mark Johnson, and cash).
You have to hand it to Kenny Williams, he may have been burned often enough that he doesn't have prints left on his fingers, but he still reaches in there to mix things up. And while there are still a few things that leave you shaking your head, there's more than enough here to impress.
First off, he managed to land Bartolo Colon. Like Todd Ritchie before him, it took dealing out of the organization's pitching depth, but unlike Ritchie, it took less to get Colon. Colon is exactly the kind of player the Sox needed. Last year, he was the 10th-best starter in the majors according to Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral data, ranking directly ahead of Mark Buehrle. None of the nine pitchers ahead of Colon changed teams this winter, so it seems pretty clear that Williams landed the best starting pitcher available this winter. Yes, counting Glavine and Millwood. On paper, that's a 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation that ranks behind only Johnson-Schilling, Martinez-Lowe, and Zito-Hudson. It also helps create more favorable match-ups for Jon Garland and Danny Wright, and leaves only the last slot in the rotation to be sorted out, depending on how Jon Rauch looks, or whether they have to grimly go back to Gary Glover again.
Less necessary was the deal with Oakland, where long-running conversations involving Mark Johnson finally turned into something. Strangely, the trade involved the Sox giving up the better closer to get the one with the more famous speed gun readings and idiosyncratic facial hair. But Jerry Manuel was cranky with the old closer after a fit of managerial pique, and noisily-professed Christian or not, Manuel apparently couldn't turn the other cheek. What the White Sox do get is another year of control with Billy Koch, since Foulke is coming into his walk year, and that's not insignificant. However, the Sox could have always signed Flash Gordon and Rick White to shore up the pen, not made the deal with Oakland, and taken a page from Boston's playbook with Lowe last year by letting Foulke go back to the rotation, hopefully to be the quality third starter they don't really have. Plus they wouldn't have exacerbated their catching problem, which brings us to the downside.
You see, there's this re-signing of Sandy Alomar Jr. Now, maybe his glacial bat speed and his papier-mâché knees are sources of inspiration, and maybe Josh Paul is the young pup who needs guidance. Maybe, but I doubt it. As pale imitations go, Alomar-Paul is virtually translucent in its mockery of the old Fisk-Karkovice dilemma. Alomar can't be much more than a backup, and Paul can't be a regular. If you split the playing time evenly, you're playing them too much. If you favor one over the other, you're playing him too much. The White Sox still need a catcher, which means Miguel Olivo should be given every opportunity to just claim the job and be done with it.
There are other little things to like, however. Taking flyers on White and Gordon give the Sox plenty of veteran relief help, and they haven't hamstrung themselves by giving either guy a multi-year deal, the way they handed one to Antonio Osuna. Taking a chance on Armando Rios could turn out well if he's healthy for any stretch. He's more than adequate as a replacement for Jeff Liefer as a lefty bat on the bench, although if the persistent Carlos Lee trade rumors ever come to pass, Rios could end up getting playing time in left. And given the general shortage of position player talent in the organization below the majors, getting Daylan Holt from Oakland as a throw-in on the Foulke/Koch deal was a decent addition.
Avoided salary arbitration with RHPs Ryan Dempster and Scott Williamson, 3B-R Aaron Boone, and C-R Jason LaRue, signing them each to one-year contracts, and RHP Danny Graves, signing him to a three-year contract.
You might almost call all of this the usual collection of madcap Jim Bowden wildness, as he makes acquisitions both fanciful and inspired. The boldest moves all look good. Getting a replacement for Barry Larkin at short was long overdue, especially since it doesn't look like Gookie Dawkins will be the eventual answer. So getting Felipe Lopez for Elmer Dessens' career year is a nice flip. Lopez comes with warts, since there were some concerns about his coachability. But he's not even 23 yet, he can play the position, and he's much more promising as a hitter than any of the Alex Gonzalezes. Ditching Todd Walker lets the Reds create playing time at third for Russell Branyan and Brandon Larson at third, with Aaron Boone moving over to second. As long as the Reds are dragging Larkin and Sean Casey around, they'll need the extra offensive oomph any way they can get it.
But beyond coming up with a near-term fix for the problem at short and tweaking the lineup, the big moves were in the rotation. Getting Danny Graves to agree to a multi-year extension is happy all-around, and he'll be following the Lowe Plan to resume his career as a starter. Paul Wilson isn't exactly what you'd call a sleeper, not around here at any rate, given how often we've gone out of our way to say good things about him, but he's a nifty low-expense pickup. That may be your front duo, after which the Reds can turn to Ryan Dempster, Chris Reitsma, and Jimmy Haynes. Should any of them falter, you've got the usual collection of cast-offs and retreads that Don Gullett might be able to breathe some life into: Pete Harnisch, Jimmy Anderson, and Jose Rijo. Felix Heredia isn't really a major addition, but he is a nice one, giving the pen a lefty who can throw hard and succeed outside the limitations of a situational role; although with Bruce Chen and Gabe White already on tap, the Reds are already pretty well stocked up as far as good lefty relief help.
Signed RHP Jason Bere, LHP Brian Anderson, OF-Rs Shane Spencer and Wendell Magee Jr. to one-year contracts, and 3B-R Casey Blake, RHP Mike Thurman, and C-Rs A.J. Hinch and Tim Laker to minor league contracts.
Avoided arbitration with OF-L Karim Garcia.
I know the Tribe is in full rebuilding mode, and they're simply filling out the likely Opening Day roster with plausible veteran fillers to stock the team for its first few months, but in general, ick. A rotation relying on Brian Anderson and Jason Bere, and possibly Dave Burba or Mike Thurman to support C.C. Sabathia… well, that's going to produce all sorts of intradivisional mayhem and some big box scores, that's for sure. There is wisdom in having a swarm of alternatives with big league experience to the young guns, Jason Davis, Brian Tallet, Cliff Lee, Billy Traber, Ricardo Rodriguez and Aaron Myette. It's a darkness of deliberate design, but it still harkens back to some of those ugly mid-'80s rotations that counted on Ken Schrom while cycling through Curt Wardle and Don Schulze.
Still, beyond what might be an Opening Day Kelly girl rotation, it hasn't been all ugly. Mark Shapiro did a nifty job of flipping Einar Diaz in a market where a few teams were looking for catching help. More than merely getting out from under Diaz's multi-year contract before it got odiously expensive (he's owed $4.65 million over the next two years, or $7.5 million if the Rangers pick up his option for 2005), he fetched the usual live arm - and Myette's a good one, with velocity enough to succeed in the pen, and enough of a repertoire to make it as a starter - and a nifty slugger in Travis Hafner. Hafner is no mere minor league masher, having hit .342/.463/.559 at Oklahoma last year (good for a .304 Equivalent Average if you translate his performance to the major leagues). He should step right into the lineup, and while he won't replace Jim Thome, he'll certainly hit well enough to more than ease the pain of Thome's departure. He should be on everybody's short list for AL Rookie of the Year candidates - at 25 going on 26, his future is now. All kidding about Burba et. al. aside, while Williams' acquisition of Colon might be the best win-now move of the winter, Shapiro's snagging Hafner from the Rangers is probably the winter's best deal in terms of results over the next five years.
Some of the other journeymen hauled in have legitimate shots at jobs. Casey Blake will have his best and probably last shot at claiming a big league job at third base. Veteran catchers A.J. Hinch and Tim Laker will compete on the off chance the Tribe decides to let Victor Martinez open the year in the minors; one of the two would then share playing time with Josh Bard, which makes for a better catching situation as a fallback than several team's first choices. Shane Spencer should make the team and get at-bats in one of the outfield corners, especially with Matt Lawton still on the mend. The primary alternatives are Alex Escobar and Karim Garcia, which should allow for some mixing and matching. Less explicable is the decision to sign up Wendell Magee, since he's cranky about not getting to play every day, and not good enough to play every day. He isn't a good center fielder, so if Milton Bradley can't handle the job, turning to Magee would only make the disappointment linger.
Re-signed RHP Julio Santana to a one-year contract.
Traded for CF-B Gene Kingsale (from the Padres for C-R Mike Rivera), LHP Adrian Burnside and two PTBNLs (from the Pirates for 1B-L Randall Simon), and RHP Gary Knotts and LHPs Rob Henkel and Nate Robertson (from the Marlins for LHP Mark Redman and RHP Jason Fuell).
Hmm, it's winters like this with teams like this that can almost explain the existence of Tony Kornheiser. I mean, who wouldn't rather talk about the guy who screwed up your valet parking last night under the guise of notional sports programming, instead of having to belabor the Tigers' continuing death-dance to ignominious irrelevance?
The slender bit of happy news is that they're taking a chance on two nifty minor league vets in Tom Evans and Ernie Young, players who could be much better fill-ins at third and in the outfield than Chris Truby and Wendell Magee Jr. were. Heck, Danny Klassen could be a semi-regular at second. A lot will depend on Alan Trammell and how he decides to run the team. If he wants Damion Easley gone, will Easley be gone? If Dean Palmer's body parts still don't have enough range of motion for him to be able to DH, do they hold on, or finally punt?
Initially, though, it looks like Tram will have some say about his roster. Gene Kingsale got picked up off of his wish list, and will get every opportunity to win the starting job in center. Although it's easy to forget about the Orioles refugee, he should still amount to more than the next Milt Cuyler, and isn't a bad choice to fulfill the team's need for a legitimate center fielder for a few years. It speaks well of Trammell that he wanted to bring him in. Unfortunately, it cost Mike Rivera to get him, and as much brave talk as there is about Brandon Inge finally amounting to something, Inge has yet to translate his physical tools into sound catching skills, and he has yet to hit at any level for any length of time. He's about to turn 26, so it isn't like he's got that much more time left to learn how to play.
The happier deal by far was the swap with the Marlins. Mark Redman is that strangest of pitchers, the perennially frustrating low-ceiling fourth starter. He could be a nifty fourth starter for a full season, or he could be Mark Redman again, but either way, the Tigers are better off for having added a trio of talented arms from the Fish. Rob Henkel's a college-experienced lefty with three years in the pros, with 2002 being his first full healthy season. He's not a power pitcher, but between his experience and his upside, he could be in the Tigers' rotation by September after splitting 2002 between Double-A and the Florida State League. Nate Robertson throws into the low 90s, and is coming off a solid season in the Eastern League (3.42 ERA in 27 starts). He's been more of a survivor and organizational soldier in his career (he was drafted in 1999), but those aren't faults, and with the Tigers, he has a chance to make it. After frustrating the Fish for a few years in the minors as a starter, Gary Knotts was moved to the pen, where it was hoped his mid-90s heat would allow him to blossom. He can still mix in a nifty curve now and again, so while he's just another live arm up to this point, he's a live, healthy arm with success at Double-A and above. All in all, the Tigers needed the breadth and depth the trio provides, and all three could pitch in Comerica this summer. While the near-term outlook isn't great, you have to credit Dave Dombrowski with knowing his old organization.
Re-signed RHP Shane Reynolds to a one-year contract.
Signed 2B-R Jeff Kent to a two-year contract with a club option for 2005, RHP Scuffy Moehler to a one-year contract, and RHP Jared Fernandez and LHPs Ken Vining and Jesus Sanchez to minor league contracts.
Jointly exercised their murder-suicide one-year option with C-R Brad Ausmus.
The Astros are taking themselves seriously, sort of. The decision to sign Jeff Kent came off as a bolt from the blue, immediately initiating arguments within BP over whether the Astros would have the best or close to the best offense in the National League. It's a short list, with the Astros projecting to be right up there with the Giants, Phillies and Cardinals, with some of us pegging the Astros ahead of the Phils and Cards, and some of us arguing vice-versa, and essentially everyone resting on the assumption that Barry Bonds and the seven dwarves will still be the league's best.
It'll certainly make for interesting viewing, along with watching Craig Biggio clank around in center or left field. Is there a record for biggest knee brace worn by an outfielder? Would Biggio steer clear of McLane's Folly out in the right-center gap, or risk his wheels? Will Biggio even be an adequate enough hitter in the outfield to earn his keep in the lineup? I have my doubts, although almost everybody would like to see him do well. But we are talking about a player who couldn't slug .450 two of the last three years hitting in jacktastic Juicy Juice Field. It's nice to claim that, freed from defensive responsibilities, he'll hit better, but he isn't being freed from them as much as he's being asked to take on new ones he might not be able to handle any better than he can play second anymore, and the man is 37. But if Jeff Bagwell can hold his breath until he turns blue to get to keep Brad Ausmus around, then it's hard to argue from reason that the Astros will act rationally.
To make room for Biggio in the outfield, they dealt Daryle Ward to the Dodgers for the kid brother of occasional shortstop Julio Lugo. Ruddy Lugo's not a half-bad arm, having been the bribe the Dodgers insisted upon to make the Grissom-White trade with the Brewers a couple of years ago. Lugo had a good partial season at Vero Beach before coming up to Double-A for a final month or so of adapting to upper-level baseball. He's an even better match for this organization than his performance would initially indicate: Lugo has good command of a curve, he throws in the low- to mid-90s, and he flirts with being six feet tall, which keeps him on the Astros' radar while taking him off of other organizations'.
Rightfully concerned about how much Carlos Hernandez or Shane Reynolds might hold up for them in 2003, hauling in Scuffy Moehler and knuckleballer Jared Fernandez makes sense. Behind Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, the Astros' rotation is essentially wide open. Ideally, Moehler, Hernandez and Reynolds would fill it out, but Hernandez's shoulder troubles and Reynolds' back both make them question marks every bit as daunting as trying to sort out what to do with Biggio. In case both can't go, they still have Kirk Saarloos, Tim Redding, and Peter Munro to turn to, with Rodrigo Rosario and Jeriome Robertson on the fringes of the picture. Although some of the sabermetrically orthodox have talked themselves into believing that Saarloos can't start, it isn't quite so cut and dried. He was dominant in the minors, he had flashes of success in the big league rotation, but he also had a bad September and an ugly June introduction. Outside of that brutal three-start initial trial, he did post an ERA of 4.70 while striking out 5.5 men per nine, which I'd consider a good place to start instead of an indictment. More troubling is trying to determine if Jimy Williams is going to find a use for Redding's blazing heat. Munro is probably the sturdiest choice, but the Astros wouldn't be one of the most interesting organizations in the game if they didn't have so much talent with high upside.
Everybody mentioned here could make it, which sort of sums up the Royals. James Baldwin or Albie Lopez could be your Opening Day starting pitcher. Mike DiFelice is expected to be Brent Mayne's platoon mate, in what might be the weakest catching situation anywhere, including Einar Diaz or the White Sox. Desi Relaford could win the job at shortstop if Angel Berroa doesn't can his convincing impression of a still-washed up Rey Quinones. But to say these things in passing is to underrate that two of the moves aren't quite so bad. Relaford's OBPs the last three years have been .351, .364, and .339, and outside of the American League's shortstop quad, that's none too shabby. He's only an adequate defender at short, but if the difference is between playing Relaford and a clearly unready Berroa, they can run with Relaford and let Berroa try and claim a career for himself in Omaha. If Berroa has a great camp, Relaford could take the job at second from Carlos Febles, or he could man third well enough if they finally find a sucker… er, taker for Joe Randa.
Similarly, Lopez deserves to be rated ahead of Baldwin in the grand scheme of things. Whereas Baldwin is starting to look done, Lopez is coming off of an injury-marred season where the Braves clearly had no use for him once Damian Moss sprang onto the scene. In his seasons as a rotation regular, he's managed to keep his ERA under 5.00. This being the Royals, that's not just a good thing, it might be their best thing.
Signed SS-R Royce Clayton to a one-year contract with a club option for 2004, C-L Cody McKay, RHPs Dave Mlicki and Todd Ritchie to one-year contracts, and C-Rs Keith Osik and Eddie Perez, OF-R Mark Smith, and RHP Chuck Smith to minor league contracts.
Traded for C-B Javier Valentin and RHP Matt Kinney (from the Twins for RHPs Matt Yeatman and Gerard Oakes), 3B-R Ryan Gripp (for C-L Paul Bako), and 3B-R Wes Helms and LHP John Foster (from the Braves for LHP Ray King).
With a slender hand and a lot of needs, I'd credit Doug Melvin with doing a decent job of nabbing a bunch of free talent to get by with for 2003. The trade with the Twins was particularly choice, because Javier Valentin should be one of the better catchers in the National League, and Matt Kinney should be able to earn a spot in the rotation over somebody as vauntless as Dave Mlicki. Heck, in hauling in Brady Clark, he's got a guy who will hit at least as well as Jeffrey Hammonds after Hammonds breaks down again.
So the good news is that they've probably got a catching duo of Valentin and Cody McKay. Valentin's knees are supposed to be sound after some trouble in years past, but his primary value to the Brewers will be offensive. McKay makes a nifty caddy after laboring in the A's organization for years: He's got a great arm, and as a hitter, he's got a decent amount of sock. In short, he's better to have around than somebody like Paul Bako.
The other two areas that were given serious attention were the rotation and the left side of the infield, with the swag being a bit more mixed. Kinney is supposed to be entirely recovered from the shoulder soreness that bumped him out of the Twins' rotation last summer. Todd Ritchie could bounce back to being an adequate third or fourth starter on a team as bad as the Brewers will be, but he could just as easily slide into the same abyss that claimed White Sox derelicts John Snyder and Jaime Navarro. Chuck Smith still has Oil Can Boyd's braggadocio and a supposedly sound shoulder. Dave Mlicki has both of his thumbs and a driver's license. It's not a great rotation in the making, but they're generally low-risk investments, with little invested. If Melvin gets good work or prospects for any of them this year, it'll be a godsend either way.
The work with the left side of the infield was a little more troubling. Acquiring fellow ex-Brave Wes Helms warmed the cockles of manager Ned Yost's heart, but if you're telling me a team is going to have Helms at third and Clayton at short, and doesn't get to use the DH or have Gary Carter behind the plate in his MVP-caliber seasons, I'll show you a team that's going to struggle to score runs.
Renegotiated their contract with UT-B Denny Hocking.
Traded for RHPs Gerard Oakes and Matt Yeatman (from the Brewers for C-B Javier Valentin and RHP Matt Kinney).
Non-tendered 1B-L David Ortiz.
I'm not going to mention all of the non-tenders this winter, but I did want to mention David Ortiz, specifically because the Twins made an active choice between two players in a situation where they felt that their economics dictated that they select one or the other. Given a one-year choice between Ortiz and Doug Mientkiewicz, they picked Mientkiewicz. Think about it: This is a team with enough depth to cover the Mississippi from St. Paul to the Yazoo and back, and they chose the semi-popular gloveman, a guy who will be 29 this year, with a career-high of 15 home runs, who couldn't slug .400 as a first baseman, over the injury-prone kid who just turned 27, belted 20 home runs in a season where he missed a month, whose lowest single-season big league slugging percentage is almost fifty points higher than the older man's career rate. Who do you keep, and why? Admittedly, the Twins should be able to go into 2004 not having to carry either since Justin Morneau should be ready. But considering they already have Matt LeCroy hanging around without a position, why would you keep Minky? Because it might be too hard to spell his name on the press release? Because you know he'll cost your opponents even less to sign in the open market than it will take them to sign Ortiz, and you want to soak up their budgetary discretion? Unbelievable. As much as the White Sox may be doing things to take care of themselves, the Twins are certainly doing their part to help make it a two-team race in the AL Central.
However, this choice was symptomatic of a broader pressure the Twins are under. The roster may have room for 40, but for the Twins, that isn't enough. Because of the need to protect talent from the Rule 5 draft, they dealt Javier Valentin and Matt Kinney just to get back two slots on the 40-man, in exchange for two live arms that didn't have to be added to the roster, and who might never amount to anything. While I like the decisions to sign NRIs Chris Gomez, Shane Andrews, and Mike Fetters, it won't be easy to fit them onto the team. Gomez has to be concerned with Rule 5 pick Jose Morban, since they can't both make a team that has Denny Hocking in the utility role. Where could Andrews fit, even if he might make a nifty platoon mate for Mientkiewicz, when they've already got an even better player in LeCroy around for that kind of role? Fetters has the best shot of sticking, in part because the Twins let Bob Wells go, leaving only LaTroy Hawkins and Tony Fiore as right-handed relievers with big league experience. However, with the three lefties (Guardado, J.C. Romero, and Johan Santana) in the pen, that leaves Fetters fighting with Kevin Frederick, Adam Johnson, Juan Rincon, and Grant Balfour. Fetters is probably favored to win the job, but if some of the others have good camps and nobody gets injured, his life gets difficult.
If there was a big, happy news story, it was inking Torii Hunter for four years. Maybe it's the Kirby effect, or maybe it was simply an acknowledgment that he's a wonderful player to watch in the field or on the bases, but Hunter has become the closest thing the Twins have to a superstar. Signing him through his 31st birthday was probably the right balance of length versus expense (in the neighborhood of $32 million), after which he'll probably cost too much for what should be the period beyond his best years. The deal may seem steep and potentially damaging to their payroll flexibility into the future, but the Twins have most of their talent either locked in for a while, or far-removed from arbitration eligibility, and they can look forward to big-ticket items like Rick Reed coming off of the balance sheet after 2003. It's a big contract to pick up, but to the credit of Terry Ryan and, yes, even the Pohlads, the Twins made a politically wise choice in simply sticking with Hunter and avoiding any criticism about their unwillingness to pay to field a contender.
Signed PH-L Matt Stairs to a one-year contract, and 3B-R Jose Fernandez, RHPs Nelson Figueroa, Mark Corey, Rolando Arrojo, and Jeff D'Amico, and LHPs Dennys Reyes and Mike Holtz to minor league contracts.
Avoided arbitration with Matt Herges and INF-B Abraham Nunez.
Claimed RHP Jim Mann off of waivers from the Astros.
A lot of sharp people in the industry say a lot of nice things about Dave Littlefield, and certainly he's taken on one of the toughest rebuilding projects around, one hardly helped by Jason Kendall's truculent descent into opinionated suckitude. But is there anything here that you'd describe as a consistent pattern of useful acquisitions, or is this just an indiscriminate open casting call? That sounds more negative than it needs to be, but the decision to trade for Matt Herges simply boggles the mind. Why clean up after the Expos made the mistake of offering arbitration in the first place? Why trade two live arms in Chris Young and Jon Searles for him? A quick glance at Michael Wolverton's Reliever Evaluation Tools will tell you Herges was one of the most overrated relievers in the game, getting bailed out by teammates and betraying them with equal aplomb. The odds that he'll be a spectacular disappointment with the Pirates are pretty good. They didn't help their organizational pitching depth by flipping Adrian Burnside either.
Beyond that sour note however, Littlefield is taking looks at all the sorts of people he probably should, on the off chance that one of them has a great four months and can be dealt at the deadline for something useful to the organization long-term. Rolando Arrojo, Jeff D'Amico, Denny Reyes, these are all ex-famous and one-time coveted pitchers who, with a few months of good work, might make nifty targets for the Dodgers or Diamondbacks or whoever. Nelson Figueroa and Brian Meadows are relatively interchangeable, so if either of them has a great camp, he can win a job in the rotation. If either or both flop, you can discard them without any regret.
I'm not too bent out of shape about Randall Simon, although his utility is open to question. As long as Craig Wilson gets 400-500 plate appearances, and Simon's playing time only comes at Kevin Young's expense, it's a minor upgrade. Matt Stairs is supposed to be in better shape, but it probably won't help his bat speed enough to make him a useful regular. Instead, he'll be a nice alternative to the Rob Mackowiaks of the world if the Pirates ever have a high-leverage pinch-hitting moment.
Avoided arbitration with OF-L J.D. Drew and Tomko.
Beyond asking whether or not the he got bull-rushed into overpaying Woody Williams by the persistent rumors that the Astros were serious, it's hard to fault Walt Jocketty for what he has done. Because there's no point in counting on Jason Simontacchi or Rick Ankiel or Garrett Stephenson, it's worth taking flyers on veteran pitchers of the type that Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa have some success with. The question is whether or not they can count on Williams to give them a full season as their No. 2 starter behind Matt Morris, because if he can't, then they're running the risk of having to count on three of the projects.
Brett Tomko is the least of the risks, and the guy with the highest upside. He's managed to frustrate most of his previous employers for his obvious intelligence, a characteristic which usually makes you a marked man inside the game. He keeps getting chances because of his equally obvious talent. The question is whether Tomko is really failing to translate his skills into performance, or if this is as good as he's going to get. It would be silly to compare Tomko to Duncan's greatest triumphs, guys like Bob Welch or Mike Moore. If anything, this may be more like Ron Darling; both are/were 30 when they joined Duncan, with the difference being that Darling had a great career up to that point, and put up one last good season in Oakland before stumbling through the rest of his career. If the Cardinals can get that one good season now, it'll firm up a rotation that needs Tomko to be a reliable No. 3 starter.
The rest of the guys are chance cards. Dustin Hermanson might be healthy, and Chris Carpenter might eventually be healthy. By some accounts, Carpenter finally wants to pitch again, and Hermanson has always wanted to. Both are being thought of as starters, to challenge Simontacchi, Stephenson, and Jimmy Journell for the last two slots in the rotation. Joey Hamilton briefly flashed promise in his first month with Don Gullett and the Reds, and then he went back to being the smacked-around disappointment we've all seen too much of. The Cardinals are initially considering Hamilton as a relief candidate, which makes some sense. He hasn't been able to get to 30 starts since 1998, and he's always had his problems getting lefty hitters out, but he's still a power groundball pitcher who should enjoy having the Cardinals infield behind him. Journeyman Al Levine will join him at the back end of the Cardinals' pen.
As for Cal Eldred, it's just amazing that he's still giving it a shot. Eldred remains one of the great should-have-beens, a big talent who had his career taken from him by a hopeless organization and a manager who treated his early years as seasons in which he could win the World Series by June. It's nice to wish that in some alternate universe, Eldred is one of the game's great stars, enjoying the promise that was taken from him. Here in this one, you just need to tip your cap to his determination to keep pitching. There is justice in his career outlasting Phil Garner's; let's hope he's pitching for somebody somewhere this year.