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February 17, 2004

Transaction Analysis

February 13-16, 2004

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS Return to Top

Signed C-R Bobby Estalella to a minor league contract, with a spring training NRI, and re-signed 3B/1B-R Shea Hillenbrand to a one-year, $2.6 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/14]

Yes, Hillenbrand is one of our regular whipping boys hereabouts, but a one-year deal seems about right. No need to go through the hammer and tongs routine of convincing three shaved apes in a room that you're right and the other guy's wrong, and then try to kiss and make up. This way, if it makes sense to re-sign Hillenbrand after 2004, there's no bad blood. Theoretically, one of their promising young third basemen will be ready at that point, but both Chad Tracy and Brian Barden have a lot yet to prove before they can really be considered primo, big league-ready prospects.

If you remember Estalella signing with the Tigers just a short while ago, you're understandably confused. A similar situation happened with A.J. Hinch, who some people believe signed with the Blue Jays, while others are sure that he signed with the Phillies. Since he's an ex-Athletic, you could understand the J.P. nostalgia factor, except that the Jays have denied signing him. Similarly, nobody's said boo about who Estalella actually belongs to, but this is one of those happy products of a game run by a collection of people in MLB's offices whose charge, not merely their intent, is to obscure what happens in terms of transactions. This is not at all like the situation where several beat writers got excited about Jeff D'Amico--the other Jeff D'Amico--signing as a minor league free agent, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that the worthwhile if injury-prone titan in the Brewers rotation had somehow become available. That was an understandle bit of journalistic error. These are just flat-out incorrect reports.

In short, it's an important reminder that the wires aren't always right, MLB.com doesn't report everything or everything correctly, the direct feed that goes to the 30 teams to report the transactions that have actually occurred is not a publicly available resource, and clubs and their personnel operate under the threat of substantial fines should they ever give access to that feed to unauthorized personnel. So if incorrect dope gets produced, that's my problem and yours, but apparently not the industry's. For all of the purported centralizing efficiency that supposedly is getting done by the game's New York offices, keep that tidbit in mind.

BOSTON RED SOX Return to Top

Let everyone know that RHP John Burkett announced his retirement.

For all of the shrieking involved with injustice or Big Apple evil, let's not forget one little bit of addition by subtraction. John Burkett was done and pitched like it last year. As cool as it might be to add Curt Schilling, it's important to remember that the man he's replacing was effectively worthless in the postseason, and worth little during the regular season.

Normally, I try to say something about people on their way out who have the strength to admit it and move on. But beyond a workmanlike ability to grind out thirty-plus starts per year if asked, a good goatee, and some really bad hitting, Burkett is as close as you get to nondescript these days. In absolute terms he wasn't particularly good, and despite the one twenty-win season (man, that Bonds guy was handy), he really crafted a career that was a monument to fourth starters everywhere. It doesn't sound glamorous and it isn't, but everybody needs one, the pay's good, and there's no shame in being good at that. I'm sure someone will miss him, in the same way that I miss Walt Terrell.

CINCINNATI REDS Return to Top

Signed RHP Sean Bergman to a minor league contract. [2/14]

You can take the Cincinnati out of Jim Bowden, but not the Bowdenesque sensibilities out of Cincy. In terms of fitful comebackery, why not dig up Mario Soto while we're at it? Bergman posted a 4.69 ERA in Albuquerque, which sounds good, but this wasn't your daddy's Dukes--today's Isotopes operate in today's more pitcher-friendly PCL. He still gave up more than a hit per inning, more than 5.2 runs per nine IP when you count unearned runs, and he's Sean Bergman, sometime fifth starter aspiring for a team hoping that one of these sorts of aspirants grows into something more, like a temporary fourth starter. What can you say? In the Queen City, they dream big.

MINNESOTA TWINS Return to Top

Won their arbitration case with LHP Johan Santana, so they will pay him $1.6 million rather than the $2.45 million he was asking for. [2/14]

Hopefully, this won't create any ill will, but Santana was probably handicapped by the way that the club has used him, instead of being rewarded for his current and future value to the club. Since it seems likely that the money saved is going to be plowed into Doug Mientkiewicz, if they also managed to irk Santana, you can consider this little victory one of the most rapidly evaporating "dividends" since the unicornical Peace dividend.

NEW YORK YANKEES Return to Top

Traded 2B-R Alfonso Soriano and a PTBNL for SS-R Alex Rodriguez and $67 million.

As brilliant, no-brainer moves go, this is supposed to do all sorts of things for the Yankees, but it winds up doing fewer things than you think. In itself, getting A-Rod is supposed to get the Yankees to a thousand runs scored, but I wouldn't bet on it. They're an old team in a pitcher's park, and the core of the lineup--Giambi, Posada, Williams, and Jeter--is more likely to keep slipping than regain lost ground. The Yankees already sort of understood this, landing Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton, but overall, I wouldn't bet on their outscoring the Red Sox.

This deal should improve the Yankees defensively, but it won't, because they're seemingly intent on leaving Jeter at short and moving A-Rod to third. So whatever gains they could have made in the field will be limited to replacing Soriano with somebody like Miguel Cairo or Homer Bush, people who can be average second sackers and still give the Yankees their best leather at the key since Pat Kelly's heyday. But Jeter remains a terrible liability, and Kenny Lofton is an awful center fielder, so a lot of the weakness up the middle is going to remain a problem unless and until A-Rod takes over at short.

This deal is supposed to demonstrate that the new economic system is as broken as the last one was, but if anything, it shows how canny the Yankees can be in terms of debt management. They're saving themselves Aaron Boone's salary, and they won't have to spend the money that was potentially going to be flushed on Drew Henson, and that added up to nearly $18 million back in the company coffers, all courtesy of current events. Add in the Rangers' $67 million, and A-Rod's cost to the Yankees drops down to something like $94 million over seven years, or under $13.5 million per. Would you spend that for A-Rod? I certainly would, and I don't even feel any sting over not winning the World Series in any of the last three seasons. (That failure undoubtedly has some hyperventilating stathead rushing to make a comparison to the '50s Dodgers, but let's avoid that particularly tedious rush to judgment.) Indeed, I think if any GM had an opportunity to get A-Rod at that price tag, and he had a shot at winning, he'd take that chance. Where the Yankees may win out by simply being the Yankees is that not many teams had that opportunity at this time of year, but it's important to note that they needed these sorts of contingent savings to be able to afford this deal. The Yankees seem to be hitting their own ceiling.

Which brings us to the more basic matter, which is whether this clinched anything. Impressed as I am with Boston's offseason, with the Blue Jays' acquisition of a pitching staff, and with the Orioles' accumulation of a pretty respectable assemblage, you're still looking at a much stronger AL East, so with the unbalanced schedule, the Yankees haven't exactly had the opportunity to improve in the absence of competition. When you consider the problems with the aging offensive stars, the questions on the pitching staff, and the still-weak defense, there's no reason to ink in the Yankees for 100+ wins: a lot of things still have to go their way. Obviously, acquiring A-Rod makes that easier, especially since it's easier to find a useful second baseman nowadays than it is a third baseman; when the Yankees pick up somebody like David Eckstein or Roberto Alomar or Craig Counsell or Junior Spivey in July, don't act surprised. But they'll have to get around to that.

Beyond this year, of course, they'll have A-Rod for the bulk of his remaining greatness. They're going to need it. Giambi doesn't like he'll provide good value for the $76 million he's due 2005-2008, and Jeter's $118 million for 2005-2010 doesn't look like it's bought the Yankees any extra win certainty, not when they had to afford themselves A-Rod and Sheffield.

All of these cautionary notes aside, it's a brilliant and bold move, even allowing for the fact that only they could make it. If A-Rod plays short, it could be even better still. But at the end of the day, the Yankees have still needed some healthy doses of luck to advance in the playoffs as far as they have, and they're still not so strong as to not still need that plus a whole lot of age-defying goodness. If anything, it's going to be a fun season, so check your foregone conclusions at the door.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS Return to Top

Re-signed RHP Chad Bradford to a one-year, $965,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/14]

Interesting. Where once Jeff Tam could get a multi-year deal, both Bradford and the A's settled for less than a million. I can understand Oakland's lack of flexibility as a crimp to any ideas of giving their best right-handed reliever two or three guaranteed years, especially with the potential expenditures of next winter looming, but I'm a bit surprised that Bradford settled so easily.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES Return to Top

Signed 1B/OF-L Orlando Merced to a minor league contract, with a spring training NRI. [2/14]

As an A's fan, I take some strange solace that Wayne Gross got his last big league plate appearance in an Oakland uniform. But more than a mercy invite, keep in mind that the Pirates are short enough in lefty bats for bench roles that they have to take Rob Mackowiak seriously. Merced will have to contend with Daryle Ward and Andy Abad for a reserve role that should involve lots of pinch-hitting. Since he's one of the last links to the winning ways of the old Leyland Bucs, he has a little something extra going for him.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES Return to Top

Re-signed INF-R Placido Polanco to a one-year, $3.95 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/14]

Sometimes, value is set by short-term need. The Phillies don't want to go hunting, so they're happier spending four million bucks on Placido Polanco. To be fair, he does give them the added benefit on the roster of having a starter at second who could move over to short if something terrible happened to Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley's about as ready as he has to be, so in terms of depth, the middle infield is set, and without having to spend serious money on the bench, at least not in this instance. Compared to blowing cash on Doug Glanville, this isn't all that wasteful.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS Return to Top

Signed 1B/OF-L John Mabry and LHP Doug Creek to minor league contracts, with spring training NRIs. [2/14]

John Mabry might seem like a nostalgia signing, but consider the competition for the job at first base: ex-gaijinSteve Cox, minor league vet turned Tiger refugee Kevin Witt, and maybe notional prospect John Gall. In that circumstance, why not haul in John Mabry? I can't remember if I offered to eat something inedible, like a hat or Brussels sprouts or an overpriced Wolfgang Puck shiitake-laced piece of plate frippery, because back when the Cardinals had Mabry starting at first, if you had told me he could start for them in 2004, I undoubtedly snorted some caustic challenge of that sort. Let's face it, he was a lousy regular back in that day, and he'd be a lousy regular now, but when the competition is this thin, a little bit of history with the manager can't hurt. On a slightly less ambitious level, among the potential outfield reserves, he's got a little more sock than So Taguchi or Kerry Robinson, but then that's why Ray Lankford and Greg Vaughn have been given last chances.

Slightly less explicable is the surprise you might have, wondering why they signed Doug Creek when he won't be able to pitch in the big leagues until the second half, if then. Just keep in mind that these people valued Jeff Fassero last year, and traded for Ray King this winter, so of course they got Creek up off of his gurney to sign a contract right-handed. They're going to have Pedro Borbon in camp as well. If LaRussa obsesses his way into simply having to have a third lefty in the pen, you have to like Randy Flores' chances.

TEXAS RANGERS Return to Top

Traded SS-R Alex Rodriguez and $67 million to the Yankees for 2B-R Alfonso Soriano and a PTBNL. [2/16]

So let's see, what is it that the Rangers get out of all this? Alfonso Soriano, and a PTBNL out of their farm system, a someone who we can pretty much guarantee that the Yankees won't miss, and the Rangers get to pay for the privilege? And they expect to spend the money well, after what John Hart has done in the past? There's been plenty of focus on how upset people are in New England over this news, and that's understandable: parochial self-important self-absorption seems to be the law of the land in a corridor that runs from Boston to Washington, D.C. Outside the nattering nabobs corridor, back in Texas, people should just be plain ol' pissed off, and not at A-Rod. The Rangers did the right thing originally in signing him. The responsibility for their failure to execute from that point forward lies with John Hart first and foremost, because Hart was charged with achieving at least some sense of direction, and in this, he's failed. The Rangers have spent enough to win now, but they didn't. The Rangers made room for or acquired a few younger players, but not many, and not enough to fuel a successful youth movement that makes you think three years from now they'll be hard to beat. They're as rooted in the cellar of their division as the Tigers and Devil Rays should be in theirs. Moving A-Rod doesn't change that.

The claim is that there's another shoe to be dropped, that the Rangers have acquired much-vaunted "payroll flexibility." That's Clinton-speak for running up a white flag while putting a brave face on expensive humiliation. In moving him, they're presumably daring themselves to spend money, but not this year. It's too late to shop this winter, so they'll have looking forward to John Hart's farewell and the atmospherics that will provide when they can claim to reinvent the club on Grady Fuson's watch, and then hand this "payroll flexibility" to Fuson as part of his opportunity to fix the whole shebang in no time. Except at that point, the tax breaks of early ownership will be a memory, attendance will only have gone down, and whatever hoopla that might be generated from another fourth out of four finish isn't going to generate plentiful local revenue monies. In short, the Rangers have to lock themselves into a serious, multi-year rebuild, and while they have talent in the system and talent on the big league roster, nothing and nobody who will be up soon is going to turn people's minds from the memory of the failed promise of the A-Rod era, or what might more appropriately labeled John Hart's last snow job.

Part of the problem is an appreciation of what they've gotten, as well as that "payroll flexibility." Alfonso Soriano is described as a rising star, and part of that is correct: Soriano is a star, but he's already risen. At 26, he may not rise much higher. Even hitting in Texas's cozy confines, with the boost to his power numbers that should come with that, he's not a lineup linchpin of A-Rod's caliber. The problem with Soriano are his obvious weaknesses, and what they portend for his future.

First, there's the question of his plate discipline, or total lack thereof. Although he's a terribly impatient hitter, you could be optimistic, and note that some players pick it up with age. The most notable recent example is Sammy Sosa, who some people might compare Soriano to, for their power and speed and high average hitting for right-handed hitters. Before his Age 27 season, Sosa's single-season high in unintentional walks was 32, while Soriano's current career high is 31. Sosa's later development, as well as his later improvement in taking pitches, has been remarkable, so it's asking a lot to expect Soriano to simply duplicate it. If Soriano is going to be an important part of the next good Rangers team, though, he almost has to turn out that well.

If he doesn't, though, you start to mull those comparisons to Juan Samuel (it's a notion I get hung up on, perhaps too easily), and that brings us to Soriano's other major problem, which is his glovework. To be generous, he's a poor second baseman, and his leaden play at the key is sure to exasperate Buck Showalter and the pitching staff in short order. But if he doesn't play second, what else is he for? While he's athletic on the bases, he's remarkably flat-footed in the field. His inability to leave his feet doesn't bode well for a move to the outfield. Third base should belong to Hank Blalock for years to come, and first is crowded. So assuming he has to move off of second in another couple of years, you're looking at a young DH, and while that's not the end of the world, it's a lot less valuable than what the Rangers thought they're getting. Add in the inflationary pressures of arbitration and service time before we even get around to seeing if they'll give him a multi-year deal, and Soriano can be every bit the financial liability that A-Rod was considered to be.

Bostonians can complain all they want, but they've had practice and they're good at it, and the Red Sox still have a say in their own destiny. In contrast, the Rangers don't have a say in theis, and the pity is that nobody's getting as angry about it as they should. Like so many other ill-fated franchises purchased by excited zillionaires, the Rangers have moved into that ugly stretch best labeled the 'discarded toy' phase of team history. Comparisons to the Bob Short years would be premature, but things only seem to be getting worse.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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