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December 14, 2003

Prospectus Today

The Action Heats Up

by Joe Sheehan

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New Orleans (BP) - Action picked up on the third day of the winter meetings, with a couple of interesting trades and more of the game's upper-middle class finding new homes, removing themselves from a tight labor market.

The most interesting story, to my mind, was Mike Cameron's. Late Friday, it appeared that the Padres were in good shape to sign him. By Saturday evening, there was word that the A's had moved to the front of the pack, having beaten the Padres' offer. By early Sunday, though, Cameron was a Met, accepting a three-year deal for $7 million per, the highest average value that had been attached to Cameron's name, and it wasn't close.

There was a round of "not about the money" talk after the deal. The Mets' players helped recruit Cameron, and the center fielder's Atlanta roots were played up. Maybe those things came into play, but the fact is, no one else was offering Cameron seven million bucks a year. He did well for himself in a market with lots of outfielders and more on the way.

Cameron becomes the Mets' best defensive center fielder since...well, he might be the best in their history. The Mets have employed both Richie Ashburn and Willie Mays, but both well after their primes. Cameron is an upgrade over the Roger Cedeno/Timo Perez class, and like Kazuo Matsui, makes the team better. As much as I don't think the Mets needed to be dipping into the mid-tier free agent market and making upgrades that didn't have a huge impact, they have picked off two guys who fill needs (calling second base a need, in this case) while upgrading a pretty lousy defense. They're 8-10 wins better through their transactions, at least, and that's about as good as you can do in an off-season.

From a projection standpoint, whatever bounce Cameron could have been expected to pick up by leaving Safeco Field--where he just couldn't hit--is mitigated by his new home park. You can expect his home/road split to still be significant, and his strikeouts to hold steady and perhaps even increase playing half his games in Shea Stadium.

The other big signing of the day was by the Red Sox, who added Keith Foulke to a crowded bullpen with a three-year, $21 million contract. It's interesting that less than a year after committing to a non-closercentric bullpen, but doing so without the right personnel, the Sox now have three of the top candidates for a 1970s-style relief ace role on their roster in Foulke, Scott Williamson (a trade candidate) and Byung-Hyun Kim (assuming he isn't non-tendered). Foulke has shown the ability to throw multiple innings at a time and has carried a high workload out of the bullpen during his best years.

Will the Sox now be able to implement the relief-ace bullpen? I don't think so. It appears that Foulke is going to be a capital-C closer, with perhaps 20% more innings and eighth-inning appearances. I would be surprised if he made any game-critical appearances in the seventh inning, pitched much with the Red Sox trailing by a run to keep them close, or was used in tie games before a save situation had been rendered impossible (at home, ninth inning or later). Those situations, once the province of the best reliever in the bullpen, now fall to support staff, as the best reliever is held back for save situations. While Foulke is qualified to handle a bigger, broader workload, the likelihood is that he'll fall into a recognizable pattern. He'll be a very good pitcher and a big asset for the Sox; he just won't be as valuable as he could be.

Some trades were consummated. As we were coming out of the trade show (held in a different space than the meetings themselves), Will Carroll and I were told about the J.D. Drew deal, confirming yet again that the way to make things happen at the Marriott is to stay away from it. My initial reaction to the deal, told to me with the words "a minor leaguer," was that Walt Jocketty had made a serious mistake. While I liked the deal a bit more after finding out it was Adam Wainwright going west--Wainwright immediately becomes the Cards' top prospect--I still think the Braves did very well for themselves, trading from depth in arms to acquire a high-upside outfielder who has hit well when he's been healthy.

Will makes an interesting point about Drew: Corner outfield spots are actually harder on his knee than center field is. Drew has problems when he has to pull up short in the corner; in center field, he gets to run full-tilt without the short stops that come up when playing right or left field. Drew certainly isn't going to unseat Andruw Jones as the Braves' center fielder, so everyone will have to hope that his knee allows him to play 140 or more games (something he's never done, with 135 games in 2000 and 2002 being his high). If he does, he'll replace a big chunk of what the Braves lost in Gary Sheffield.

It won't get many headlines, but the three-way trade that the Blue Jays, Rockies, and Devil Rays pulled off late last night was an interesting baseball deal. The Jays got Justin Speier, the Rockies Joe Kennedy and the D-Rays received Mark Hendrickson. It's a gamble by the Rockies, who give up the most established value in the deal and get back the highest-risk player. Kennedy hasn't developed since his middling 2001 campaign, shoulder problems have knocked his velocity way down, and as someone who doesn't miss a lot of bats (about five strikeouts per game the past two years), he doesn't seem suited for Coors Field. Speier will get the bulk of the saves for the Jays, freeing Aquilino Lopez for two-inning outings earlier in the game. Hendrickson doesn't have Kennedy's stuff, but he does have about a year's less service time, which made him attractive to the Rays.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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