March 19, 2004
Can Of Corn
If I read one more sports headline that's a variation of the hopelessly played out "Houston, We Have a Problem!" or "Braves New World!" I might just take a hostage. And no doubt with Rick Ankiel set to pitch again at some point this season, we'll have more "Ankiel Takes a Walk on the Wild Side!" annoyances in the offing. Anyway, no, I'm not here to waste your time kvetching about the state of the headline-writing industry...
It's been a fairly bustling off-season with more than its share of meaty trades and free-agent signings. The winter derring-do of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels have been sufficiently analyzed in other spaces and in this one, but some of the sage moves of the past few months have passed by seemingly unnoticed, with church-mouse quietness (you can only if hear it if you're pure of heart and listen oh-so closely). So today, I'm going to look at a trio of front-office decisions that haven't garnered much bandwidth, but nevertheless merit praise.
In no particular order...
Guillen's an underrated player, and the Tigers parted with nothing more than organizational chaff to get him. His is a solid offensive skill set for a shortstop, but his level of production has been masked by the park that he's toiled in for his entire major league career. Check out his translated rate stats from 2003: .308/.394/.440. That's strong production for a shortstop. Also encouraging is that Guillen's coming off the best walk rate of his career. His range afield took a hit after a serious knee injury, but he's not a poor defender by any means. In Detroit, he'll remain in a pitcher's environment, which means we'll need to continue looking beyond the surface to recognize his true value. He has some health concerns, but still figures to be a very nice acquisition for Detroit. As for what they parted with, Santiago and Gonzalez are both banjo-hitting utility infielder types who likely won't ever be more than a poor man's Nelson Liriano at the highest level.
The Marlins name Ramon Castro as their starting catcher
While this isn't yet an official decision from on high, the Fish, by most accounts, are indeed poised to give the starting catcher's job to Castro. 'Bout time.
Provided his pending legal problems are resolved, Castro will likely grace the Marlins with strong production for the position in return for a salary near the league minimum. He's already 28, so we're not on the cusp of a Hall-of-Fame career, but he should be a solidly above-average major league catcher for the next three seasons or so. Calgary of the PCL is a hitter's haven, but it doesn't explain away these numbers: .336/.393/.628, 27 homers. That's what he did in his last extended stay at the level in 2001.
The organization took a bit of a public-relations hit by cutting bait on Pudge Rodriguez, but they made the cost-effective decision because they knew they could get comparable production from Castro. Last season, Pudge hit .297/.369/.474 with the Marlins. It's not hard to envision an '04 batting line for Castro of something like .275/.335/.460 (PECOTA foresees a weighted-mean line of .245/.319/.453, though in part-time duty). Those numbers aren't as strong as Pudge's, but the net loss in runs won't be crippling, and is certainly unworthy of the outlay required to keep Pudge slathered in teal.
While there's always some question as to whether a catcher new to regular duty can handle the rigors of a full season behind the plate, the Marlins will be able to spell him with Mike Redmond, who makes quite a nifty backup and will come in handy if Castro pulls a Lo Duca-like fade as the season wears on. Either way, Florida will have a cheap and highly effective tandem at the catcher position. They were right to let Pudge take his act elsewhere.
The Braves Sign John Thomson
Pity Thomson, who, after spending the vast majority of his career on Planet Coors, had the damning imprimatur of the Rangers placed on him last season. Still, this could be a very nice fit for Atlanta.
In 217 innings last season, Thomson posted a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.78; it's the 27 homers and 234 hits that take the blame for his 4.85 ERA. His gopheritis will be helped tremendously by the change in environment. The Ballpark over the last three seasons has inflated homer rates by 17%; Turner Field, in contrast, has reduced them by 1% over that same span. Thomson has also shown slight fly-ball tendencies over his career, and having Andruw Jones' glove behind him this season should help reduce the hits he allows. And of course there's the Leo Mazzone alchemy to consider.
The strong peripheral profile, improved team defense behind him and a more accommodating playing environment add up to a strong season for Thomson. Nice move by the Braves.
While these personnel decisions don't have the import of a Vladimir Guerrero signing or a swap for Alex Rodriguez, they still embody the kind of thinking that you like to see in front offices: an understanding of player costs, positional scarcity and playing environment.