December 17, 2004
The AL West Takes the Stage
Here's my question: why have MLB front offices attend the winter meetings? If anything, it seems like the preponderance of press and hangers-on just makes it harder, not easier, to get things done. Maybe a third of the teams might well have stayed at home for all the time they spent outside their suites, and the ones who did venture outside mostly milled about for the last three days watching the talk/action ratio go through the roof.
Next year, I'm going to skip the meetings, sleep for four days, and be rested and ready to go when the real action begins.
The busiest week in some time continued yesterday with one big trade and one big signing. The Braves made a huge rotation upgrade by picking up Tim Hudson from the A's in exchange for Moe, Larry and Curly. OK, the deal is a bit better than that, but it's a big win for Atlanta, which added a top-tier starter for a reliever, a prospect, and a spare part. For a team that was staring into 2004 with a bunch of #4 starters and the great unknown of John Smoltz in the rotation, this trade re-establishes them as the team to beat in the NL East.
The A's get the guy who was rumored to be heading their way over the weekend, Dan Meyer. Meyer is comparable to the A's Big Three, a quick-to-the-majors college pitcher who's polished and ready to go less than three years out of the draft. The left-hander has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1, and has allowed just 24 home runs in more than 350 professional innings. He's not a big upside guy, with a fastball in the low 90s and command of a slider and change-up.
Meyer showed enough degradation in his skill set at Triple-A--highest home-run rate and worst K/BB ratio of his career--to make the idea of sending him to Sacramento in April a good one. Like Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, Meyer can make his A's debut later in the year, a move that will not only assure his readiness but likely save the team some money down the road.
The upside in the deal for the A's comes in the form of Juan Cruz, a power arm who has been protected from overwork thanks to some problems when used as a starter. Cruz, 24, throws hard and features a ridiculous slider. I think he's the kind of player who can be used for 90 or more high-leverage relief innings, getting up to nine outs at a clip. It's an open question whether any organization has room for that kind of pitcher any longer. At the least, Cruz will be the strikeout reliever the A's have sorely lacked in the seventh and eighth innings.
The Braves also sent Charles Thomas to the A's in the deal. Thomas was a nice surprise for Atlanta last year, but he's far from accomplished. His .368 OBP was inflated by nine intentional walks; he drew just a dozen free passes on his own in more than 250 plate appearances. He might be a Wayne Kirby/Thomas Howard kind of fifth outfielder, but no better than that.
The package the A's received for Hudson is light enough that it's worth wondering what Billy Beane is doing. It could be that the A's think this is the best they can do for Hudson, who will be a free agent after 2005 and who struggled down the stretch in '04. It may be that they want to clear some payroll--this deal saves them about $5 million--to add a free-agent hitter on a corner. It may be that they see more in Meyer and Cruz than most do, and believe they'll win this deal in the long term. Certainly, Cruz has the kind of arm the A's haven't developed themselves in a while, and they have some rotation depth from which they can replace Hudson's starts, if not his performance.
It may also be that they undersold their best pitcher.
The A's move wasn't even the biggest news coming out of the AL West on Thursday. The Mariners, coming off a questionable outlay for Richie Sexson, added Adrian Beltre to the fold for five years and $64 million.
The argument for the deal is that when Troy Glaus and Sexson and Edgar Renteria are getting what they got, paying $13 million a year for a 26-year-old third baseman who just hit 48 bombs as a Dodger is a good idea. I spent a good chunk of Thursday talking about this signing, and despite the convictions of those around me that the deal is a bargain in this market, I'm not convinced that it's going to work out well for the Mariners.
Beltre is being paid as if his 2004 performance represents a new established level; I don't think that's a realistic assessment. While not minimizing what he did, there was no change in his walk rate, not much change in his strike-zone judgment, and he continued to show a loss of speed. He's 26, but he has already lost almost all of the speed he came into the league with. What he did last year was add 40 singles and 25 home runs to what he normally does. I don't think all of that is real; I expect him to level off at around .290/.340/.490, a line that will look a bit worse thanks to Safeco Field. If his defensive improvement is real, he can be a five-win player over the life of the deal.
There's almost no way that this contract isn't going to end up disappointing Mariners fans. The Mariners are paying Beltre to have '04 over and over again, and that's not going to happen. Park factors will make his numbers look even worse, adding to the perception of failure. Come 2007 and 2008, the Mariners will be paying $27 million a year to two corner infielders, which is a hard way to build a team unless you're George Steinbrenner. Unless they can develop a lot of inexpensive talent at premium positions, the Mariners will have a hard time assembling a complete team.
Beltre has been overvalued based on one big year at the right time, and the Mariners find themselves stuck with the winner's curse. Given the competition in the division, I would be surprised if Beltre made the postseason as a Mariner, or finished out his contract in the Pacific Northwest.