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November 19, 2004

Transaction Analysis

November 10-16

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS Return to Top

Exercised their $3 million option on C-R Bengie Molina for 2005; declined their $5.5 million option on RHP Ramon Ortiz for 2005. [11/15]

If $3 million seems steep to you for a pretty replaceable catcher, you're not alone. It might seem sensible in all sorts of ways: Molina isn't a bad player, he catches well, and makes just enough contact and hits for just enough power to be more valuable than the Mathenys or the Ausmuses or Blancos of this world. Plus, the third wheel from among the organization's trinity of top prospects, catcher Jeff Mathis, just saw his future take a big dent after an unfriendly introduction to Double-A pitching.

But these aren't the standards in play. The question is whether Molina is this much better than Josh Paul or brother Jose or Wil Nieves down in Triple-A, not to mention a passel of other people available for a sixth of the price or less. Consider the catching market this winter. All of the attention has been going to Jason Varitek's impending Contract of Doom (but a secure doom, where a mortgage and not having to change babysitters can generate all of that extra good clubhouse karma), and I think we can safely expect Mike Matheny to get overpaid. Skip stathead faves like Gregg Zaun or Mike Rose; odds are, if you're the Angels, you don't know about them and you won't get to them before one of the various borgsters from Team Beane has snapped them up (see below). But that still leaves you with guys like Dan Wilson or Brent Mayne or Damian Miller lying around. Not great, but probably cheaper than $3 million. You could even settle for occasionally warm bodies like Sandy Alomar or Einar Diaz--they do still have all of their limbs.

It's not a decision that gets made in an economic vacuum, however. The Angels are saving themselves in other areas. Letting Troy Percival walk now is perfect. Add in the decision to let Ramon Ortiz walk, and that's nearly $10 million from their '04 payroll they can apply towards the usual combination of raises and free agent shopping. Add in that Kevin Appier's finally off the books as well, and Troy Glaus' likely departure, and the Angels have money to play with this winter.

Say you save yourself a million, perhaps two, this year by not picking up Molina's option? You open yourself up to criticism from your pitchers (who might blame every problem on Molina's departure), the working press (always looking for an opportunity), fans... Baseball's a game operated by people with tin ears, and they'll hear it all. Assuming said ears haven't been over-boxed already, a danger in sports. So you spend the $3 million, and if that's risk-averse, it's also not a risk-averse decision that will kill you considering your payroll situation going into next year.

It's sensible of them to cut Ortiz loose, because I doubt they could have picked him up and dealt him at the price of that option. If they offer him arbitration, they could very well be screwed, since a one-year award might be more lucrative than what Ortiz could expect in a market where the going rate for fourth starters is closer to $3 million. On the other hand, considering that Ortiz is still huffy over his sixth starter status on the team, the odds of his accepting arbitration and getting a raise that would get him much more than that could be considered doubly remote.

BOSTON RED SOX Return to Top

Claimed LHP Billy Traber off of waivers from Cleveland. [11/10]

A nifty little claim, in that Traber could wind up being the bullpen's second lefty after missing all of 2004 to recuperating from having Tommy John surgery in September 2003. He's never been considered a great bet to have a long and durable career as a starter, but flip a pitcher who's had good velocity and outstanding control in the past into a bullpen role, and you've got yourself a cheap asset.

The problem is that a bullpen role might not be all that the Sox have in mind. Even if they re-sign Pedro Martinez, they've got an open slot in the rotation. It might be a bit much to ask Abe Alvarez or Brad Thomas to step into the rotation, whereas Traber has tossed 18 big league starts. But Traber will probably have to cope with the usual wildness that pitchers coming back from the procedure go through in their initial season back, and that might not look so hot in a big league rotation, on a team where expectations just went from 'Look at me, I like wearing a hair shirt' to 'I want it now.' Anyway, I think it's safe to say that the Red Sox won't settle for re-inking Pedro and claiming Traber this winter.

CLEVELAND INDIANS Return to Top

Activated 3B-R Aaron Boone, LHP Jason Stanford, RHP Kazuhito Tadano and OF-L Jody Gerut from the 60-day DL. [11/15]

KANSAS CITY ROYALS Return to Top

Signed 3B-R Chris Truby to a one-year contract. [11/11]

TEXAS RANGERS Return to Top

Re-signed RHP Doug Brocail to a one-year, $1 million contract. [11/12]

Well, if something like $3 million per year is the going rate for fourth starters, $1 million seems to be about what journeymen middle relievers are going for these days. Brocail was pretty bass-ackwards in this, his comeback season (.320/.390/.418 vs. RH hitters, and .190/.264/.266 vs. lefties), while also doing a good job of keeping the ball on the ground and with runners on base. Beyond the human interest angle, I guess those are qualities of value beyond his simple performance, but a bullpen's a great place to cut costs, and this isn't a cost-cutting move. To cough up a cool million this early in the winter for a 38-year old middle reliever seems a bit too optimistic to me.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS Return to Top

Signed RHPs Spike Lundberg, Mike Nannini, and Matt Whiteside, LHP Jesse Carlson, and UT-R Jason Alfaro to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs. [11/11]

Claimed RHP Seung Song off of waivers from the Expos. [11/13]

Outrighted Song to Syracuse. <11/16>

Song is a nifty snag off of waivers. His arm was broken by a line drive, but in what pitching he did do, his strikeout rate seemed to be bouncing back from the dip it took in 2003. It remains to be seen if he's all that coachable, but the talent is there. If he perfects his splitter, there's hope that he could turn into something more than a back-of-the-rotation guy, but if he's just an adequate starter, he's more than worth the claim. Add in that he stays in the Jays' system because he passed through waivers, and the only menace now is if he gets snagged in the Rule 5 draft, which could very well happen. Of course, Song's availability also serves as another indictment of Jim Bowden's vision for an Expos franchise that would appear to exist for no other reason than to give Bowden a stage upon which to wheel and deal.

Alfaro's a pretty good pickup too, in that he can hit well enough to stick, and he can play anywhere in the infield or outfield. As last men on the bench go, he's almost certainly more useful than the Willie Bloomquists or Wilton Guerreros of the world, which is faint praise, to be sure, but the guy is about to turn 27 without having made it yet.

CINCINNATI REDS Return to Top

Signed 1B-L A.J. Zapp to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [11/10]

Re-signed OF-R Kenny Kelly to a minor league contract; signed LHP Jeriome Robertson to a minor league contract; re-signed RHP Josh Hall to a minor league contract. [11/11]

Re-signed C-R Jason LaRue to a one-year, $3 million contract; signed LHP Randy Keisler to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [11/12]

The Reds' love-hate relationship with LaRue takes its latest turn, a happier result than, say, the nastiness of the arbitration process. Who knows, it might even put the kibosh on the routine LaRue trade rumors that seem to generate themselves. Consider that they got LaRue at the same price as Bengie Molina. They're both basically the same age, since they were born four months apart in 1974. A quick turn to the numbers:


2004      AVG/OBP/SLG VORP  EqA
LaRue  .251/.334/.431 18.4 .267
Molina .276/.313/.404 13.3 .254

Career    AVG/OBP/SLG  EqA
LaRue  .240/.319/.415 .253
Molina .269/.304/.387 .242

Other little differences? LaRue's a better deterrent against the running game, and grounds into double plays a lot less often. Although LaRue's walk rates aren't great, he's added a Biggio-like willingness to take one for the team: he's taken 66 plunkings in his four years as a regular, including 24 in '04 and 20 in '03. LaRue runs better, but that's a comparison between a wounded tree sloth and a wounded tree sloth in a tar pit.

Making a deal's harder than picking up an option, of course, so I think on some small level, relative to his peers in the industry, we can give some credit to Dan O'Brien for making a nice move.

As for the rest, I guess A.J Zapp bought the same tour package that Alan Zinter or Scott McClain got. Louisville? By choice? With Sean Casey signed for two years? Somebody's agent needs to be introduced to the men who represent Bucky Jacobsen or Cal Pickering.

FLORIDA MARLINS Return to Top

Signed RHPs Frank Castillo, Bart Miadich, Bryan Corey, and Travis Smith, 1B-L Larry Barnes, catcher Jason Hill and OF-R Mark Little to minor league contracts. [11/11]

LOS ANGELES DODGERS Return to Top

Signed OF-R Mike Edwards, C-B Mike Rose and OF-L Jon Weber to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs. [11/15]

Signed 2B-Rs Tony Schrager and Jose Flores, RHPs Ryan Rupe and Buddy Carlyle and OF-R Tydus Meadows to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs. [11/16]

If they wish it to be so, the Dodgers just got their starting catcher, or at the very least, an offensive alternative to Dave Ross who couldn't be much more different from Ross than he already is. I know, I'm probably as unreasonably enthusiastic for Mike Rose as I was for George Williams, so you can chalk this up as a blind spot if you wish.

Ross is what I always refer to as a Parent type: a big guy who can catch a little, slug a little, and basically do a nice enough job as a backup. Anything to keep yourself out of the Sandy Martinez market, donchaknow. Rose is more of a poor man's Gregg Zaun: he's willing to take a walk (115 in 710 PAs at Sacramento over the last two years), and he has enough power to keep people honest (an Isolated Power of .137 over that same stretch). And while he won't win any awards, did I mention that he can catch? Don't get too excited: Rose turned 28 at the end of August, so he's only five months younger than Ross. Basically, as potential combinations go, a Rose-Ross duo is a great early-winter setup in case none of the free agents will play for you at your price, and if nobody offers you a deal for one of their catchers that you're interested in. It's a good contingency, certainly better than re-signing Brent Mayne at a higher price.

MONTREAL EXPOS Return to Top

Signed 3B-R Vinny Castilla to a two-year, $6.2 million contract; signed SS-B Cristian Guzman to a four-year, $16.8 million contract. [11/16]

Purchased the contract of 2B-B Alejandro Machado from Harrisburg (Double-A). [11/17]

I guess we can call this the Burt Ward Effect: Boy Wonders don't age gracefully, they just get remembered for lacking the good sense to avoid wearing their underwear over their pants.

It would be hard to come up with anything positive to say about either signing, except to say how very well they illustrate that Jim Bowden's been out of the swing of things for a while, and is going to make every mistake the worst pessimist might have expected of him. You can talk about the draft picks he just blew to add two players whose best contributions will be on defense; the farm system is virtually empty, and now has that much less chance to start being re-stocked next summer. You can talk about how very little value either player will actually add at the plate, as Joe Sheehan did yesterday. From an analysis standpoint, there are no worthwhile explanations for this transparently ill-advised spending spree.

The complaints are effectively mooted by the realization that those aren't the standards in play for one particular carpetbagger turned GM. Jim Bowden needed to make some noise. Now he can bask in the congratulations of credulous and suitably impressed sportswriters who won't notice that Castilla doesn't hit outside of Coors and that Guzman doesn't hit anywhere. If anything, Bowden's situation is like the waning days of Dan Duquette in Boston or Dan Evans in L.A.: the moves aren't meant to improve the team as much as they're supposed to prove to a future employer how very serious he is about improving the team, so much so he's willing to spend other people's money badly. Can sincerity be any more naked than that?

To put it another way, let's just say that I think it's safe to say that I love the game. In my day, I've paid to watch some truly awful teams in Chicago (more happily, I got a lot of freebies to watch some truly awful teams in Chicago, but I digress). I was actively excited about seeing a lot of Nationals baseball. And now, in one day, I went from someone willing to put together a package of four seats with a few friends and associates to cover the whole season to someone who's suggesting that maybe we should settle for 30-40 games now that we're condemned to witness the fruits of such overactive moronics. My fellow D.C. baseball fans, I guess we can feel appropriately chagrined while pondering the timeless advice: be careful what you wish for. As Bowden's opening weeks demonstrate, what we have to wish for now is an expedited purchase of the team by a person with the horse sense to fire Bowden before too much more damage is done.

NEW YORK METS Return to Top

Declined their $10.2 million option on LHP Al Leiter for 2005. [11/15]

A worthwhile calculated risk, in that Jersey guy Leiter might re-sign anyway, and for a pay cut. Or he could sign with the Yankees, which would be a particularly humiliating contretemps.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES Return to Top

Released RHP Eric Junge. [11/10]

Re-signed RHP Cory Lidle to a two-year, $6.3 million contract. [11/16]

Having a four-season run where you average 30-plus starts per year can lead to a pretty sweet payday, so I think it's safe to say that the ship's come in at Casa Lidle. He did more harm than good last season according to Support-Neutral Value Added, but he got what seems to be the current industry standard for near-adequate fourth starters in spite of his brutal performance. Lidle's a guy who basically saved his season by shutting down some dead teams at season's end, including back-to-back shutouts against the hapless Brewers and Mets. The Phillies are now counting on him to be much more than a token veteran at the back end of a rotation that's really going to live or die on Randy Wolf being right, and on Gavin Floyd and/or Ryan Madson to be rotation regulars. Overpaying for Lidle when you could have gone shopping for somebody with something beyond durability as a skill was a lousy move for a Phillies team that needs to be spending as wisely as possible if it ever really wants to gun for the Braves.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES Return to Top

Agreed to terms with RHP Jose Mesa on a one-year, $2.5 million contract with a club option for 2006; agreed to terms with RHP Salomon Torres on a two-year contract. [11/11]

I guess the sophisticated defense of these moves is that the Pirates secured veteran pitching for themselves for the near-term, while potentially reaping the benefit of having Mesa available for a deal by the deadline next summer. It's plausible, except that nobody's got Mesa on their A-list, and nobody offered up anything of value last year to add his oft-thwacked offerings to their bullpen. Worse yet, I find it that much less defensible when you consider Mesa's essentially poor performance in anything beyond logging saves, or the Pirates' oft-rumored cash-strapped state. Basically, neither move does anything to help the Pirates win games, neither signing improves them, and neither player's going to bring much in exchange.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS Return to Top

Signed SS-B Omar Vizquel to a three-year, $12.25 million contract. [11/14]

I'm not as down on this deal as some of my colleagues are. I mean, it could have been worse, they could have signed Cristian Guzman for four years, or hauled in some sack of bones labeled 'Barry Larkin.' Still, the more you look, the less there is to like. Think about Vizquel, and assuming your mind's eye isn't stained with that early Mariner portion of his career, you see a guy who could run and field and hit with a bit of pop. He was a player statheads could embrace because he'll walk a little. Seems pretty good, right? It's not like we're revisiting Neifi Perez or Johnny LeMaster, right?

Unfortunately, we're talking about a guy who's been closer to mediocre than good in two of the last four years. He hit for power once in his career, two years ago; that isn't going to magically reappear in PacBell. He's not going to steal 30 bags any more, and these days, he can have years where he runs more than you'd like. He walks a little, but it looks more impressive when you look at the raw totals (61, 56, and 57 in his last three full seasons), but he's getting those across a ton of plate appearances; if he isn't hitting in the .270s, his OBP drops below league-average. Happily, his defensive skills haven't eroded so badly with age, so he's still a useful defender. But you add up what he's actually been doing lately, and that seems to be worth a lot less than $4 million per.

I could grouse about the draft pick that will be lost to the Indians, but the Giants have been pursuing a policy of avoiding having high draft picks. They want to lose the picks, apparently thinking that they can still accumulate enough talent in the later rounds to have chits worth dealing or prospects worthy of the name. Of late, that hasn't really been the case, but it's an interesting player development gambit. With a team that does a better job of picking people later on, I can see it as a stunt worth considering. I suppose making draft picks dealable would help curb the practice, particularly in a draft environment built around 'slotting.'

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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