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December 11, 2004

Prospectus Today

The Meetings, Day One

by Joe Sheehan

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This is the third year I've attended the winter meetings, and the first time in three years that there was any action at all on the first day.

  • You don't usually get the kind of agreement on a transaction that I heard about the Russ Ortiz signing. No one I talked to likes it, and a few people were calling it the worst signing of this winter.

    I think there's room for Jaret Wright and the eventual Carl Pavano deal in that conversation, but the critics have a good point. Ortiz has been good for innings and run support in his six full seasons. His low mark in a full campaign is 91 walks, and his shaky command has been going backwards for three seasons. The Diamondbacks have committed eight million bucks a year through 2008 for a pitcher who can't get out of his own way.

    The flip side of this is that Ortiz has the kind of build that I like to see on a pitcher, a big lower body that generates power. I'm just not convinced that someone with his deteriorating control, who throws from the stretch an ungodly amount of time, can be counted on for 140 starts over four years. Add in that he's going to the first hitters' park in which he's ever played, and I think this signing does very little for the Diamondbacks' chances. I expect Ortiz to post an ERA above 4.50 as a D'back, and finish this contract in a different uniform.

    The really interesting issue is how the D'backs expect to pay Ortiz and Troy Glaus. For a franchise with a bunch of deferred money that needs to be paid, declining local interest and a history of financial instability to make huge commitments over a four-year stretch seems like a recipe for disaster. Russ and Troy better check the fine print; the Snakes may have to issue their own currency to make payroll; ready for "Diamondbucks"?

  • Another hitter signed a two-year deal, this time Steve Finley, who'll play center field for the Angels the next two years at $7 million a season. I don't have a strong opinion on the move, largely because I can't get a good read on Finley's defense in center field. Observers believe he still has good range, Clay Davenport's numbers call him below average, and Ultimate Zone Rating indicates that he covers less ground than a Twister mat.

    The thing is, Finley has to stay in center for the life of the deal. The Angels have guys on the corner sports who can't shift over--Garret Anderson not being a real center fielder brought this signing on--and have committed to Darin Erstad at first base. If Finley really has lost it in center, he may cost the Angels and their flyball staff more in the field than he can bring them at the plate. It's a high-risk deal for them.

  • The Friday signing I liked best was the Rangers' pickup of Richard Hidalgo. Texas had so much trouble getting production from their outfielders in '04, and Hidalgo still has a power bat and pretty good range in right field. His '04 was something of a lost cause, between differences with Jimy Williams and a trade to an awful park for a right-handed power hitter with problems making contact. His 129/44 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year was his worst ever, and any success he has in '05 is tied to pulling those numbers back closer to his 2-to-1 career mark.

    I think Hidalgo bounces back to a park-neutral .270/.345/.480 line, which will look closer to .290/.365/.530 in Arlington. He could have some fun raw numbers, 40 homers, maybe 125 RBI. I'm certain that, given the bounce he'll get from the park, Hidalgo will make much more money in 2006 than the $5MM he takes down in '05.

  • The Red Sox continued to tweak their favorite rivals by signing David Wells to a two-year contract, removing him from the Yankees' plans. Much was made of the Yankees not having a left-handed stater going into last year, but the Sox got just one start from a southpaw, an emergency outing by prospect Abe Alvarez.

    The Yankees not having a lefty is seen as a problem because of the park, but that's rapidly becoming received wisdom that should be tossed out. "Death Valley"--463 feet before I was born and 430 feet in my youth--isn't that deep any longer, and left-handers don't have a big advantage; the park plays as neutral for right-handed batters. The Yankees need to pursue the best pitchers they can get, regardless of handedness.

    I don't think Wells is a good match for the Sox and Fenway. He's become a tremendous control pitcher, up there with Greg Maddux and Bob Tewksbury and Bret Saberhagen among recent pitchers. But as a ball-in-play guy and a flyball pitcher, he'll be at a disadvantage pitching in front of the Monster and Manny Ramirez. I expect his home-run rate and BA allowed to jump, taking his ERA with them. He'll provide innings--he has in eight of the previous nine years--but the quality will be down.

  • The Marlins, whose bullpen was a problem last year, made a pass at addressing it by bringing in Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones. As with the Tigers' moves last winter, it's hard to get worked up about what would normally seem like overvaluing experience. The Marlins need to build a bullpen almost from the ground up, and they don't have a lot of live arms in their system with which they can play.

    Alfonseca and Jones are generic right-handed relievers good for 75 innings and an ERA somewhere between 2.50 and 5.50. No, I'm not kidding: Alfonseca had essentially the same season in '04 that he had in '03 and watched his ERA drop from 5.83 to 2.57. Jones has only finished a season in the same place he started one once since 2000, which is one more time than he's posted an ERA below 4.00 in that span.

    I think the Marlins have blown their chance to get established in Miami. Too busy chasing a new ballpark, they didn't leverage their second championship into a renewed relationship with the city and their fans. Now, they're backsliding towards .500 and worse, and likely to see the buzz generated in 2003 be gone by the middle of 2005.

Rumors of big deals and big signings are rampant. Check the Winter Meetings Diary for updates and this space for more analysis on Sunday.

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

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