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December 12, 2005
Meetings Wrap-Up, AL
I thought this would be one article.
Then again, I also thought Kevin Jones was worth a first-round pick.
AL today, NL tomorrow.
Baltimore Orioles: They upgraded in the bullpen from Steve Kline to LaTroy Hawkins, and signed Ramon Hernandez to a four-year deal. I'm not a big fan of the latter move; Hernandez is a good player, but not an impact guy, not someone who can bat in the middle of the lineup, and not a big upgrade on Javy Lopez or the Orioles' DH slot for 2006. He's getting paid for being a five-win guy at his peak, and I don't think he can sustain that from ages 30-33.
Miguel Tejada's perception that the team isn't going to be able to compete--pretty good call, Miggy--led him to request a trade. Trading Tejada, who is signed to a reasonable deal for four more years, would have to be the start of a rebuilding process for the Orioles. It's hard to see how they can compete in the AL East as currently constructed, and dealing one of the best players in the game--even for, as rumored, Manny Ramirez--wouldn't change that. They should hold onto him and see if adding Leo Mazzone saves them 70 or more runs in 2006, enough to drive a wild-card push. If nothing else, they'll be profitable.
Boston Red Sox: Made the steal of the meetings by picking up Mark Loretta for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, a deal that still has many people shaking their heads. Loretta doesn't have to be the All-Star hitter he was in '04 (.335/.391/.495) to make this deal worthwhile for the Sox, who have an assortment of infielders they can mix and match. If he's a credible replacement for Tony Graffanino, they'll be fine.
Of course, the big news was the trade of Edgar Renteria for Andy Marte. The Sox, disappointed by Renteria--whose 2003 performance looks more and more like an anomaly--assumed $8 million (plus committed to the 2009 buyout of $3 million) of the remaining money on the shortstop's contract so they could acquire BP's 2005 #1 prospect. The Braves' commitment to Chipper Jones and their flood of young outfielders had made Marte available. The Sox can have him start the season at Triple-A (he hit .275/.372/.506 in the International League last year) and have him ready to take over at third base come midseason.
While some people are concerned that the Sox lack a shortstop, I see a team with three or four guys who can cover the position on a team that doesn't see a ton of ground balls. Loretta and Alex Cora both have experience there, prospect Dustin Pedroia has played there, and even Marte might have the skills to play there some. It's not the 1986 Mets messing around with Kevin Mitchell, to be sure. Add in Kevin Youkilis and you have a flexible infield that will provide more than a little OBP.
The Sox also made what I thought was one of two notable picks in the major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft, snagging reliever Jamie Vermilyea from the Blue Jays' system. Vermilyea is a groundball-throwing reliever who struggled in his first exposure to Triple-A last year, and was squeezed out in the Jays' roster crunch. He could be a middle-innings contributor for the Sox, a contrast to the strikeout guys at the back of the pen.
Oh, and there were rumors that Manny Ramirez would be traded. Honest.
New York Yankees: The Yankees were very quiet, almost too quiet for a team with a huge hole in center field. They dumped the second year of Tony Womack's contract on the Reds for two C prospects. They offered three free agents arbitration, all apparently with the understanding that they will not accept. The big news was the offer to Bernie Williams, who it appears will be back with the team in 2007.
As a Yankee fan, and as a Bernie Williams fan, this makes me happy. For all the talk about the greatness of Derek Jeter, those 1996-2000 teams were Williams' teams, both on and off the field. He inherited the mantle of classy Yankee star from Don Mattingly in a line stretching back through Willie Randolph and Roy White. His Hall of Fame case would be clearer if not for the way in which he was jerked around early in his career, and if he can add to his counting stats over the next couple of seasons, reach 2500 hits (he has 2218) and 300 HR (275), maybe the argument will be easier to make.
Mostly, it would have been weird to see him in another uniform, It's not like he's a charity case, either: a switch-hitter who can play average-minus defense on the corners and post a .350 OBP is worth a roster spot, especially if he's not blocking better players. If the Yankees reach an agreement with Williams, they will have helped the '06 team.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Expected to be busy, the Devil Rays made almost no news during the week, unable to move any of their three big names: Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo and Danys Baez, nor did they do anything to adjust the organizational imbalance between offense and pitching. They did swap failed prospects with the Padres, sending Dewon Brazelton west for Sean Burroughs, who adds to their clutch of infielders, then moved the other solid snag of the Rule 5 draft, Steven Andrade out of the Jays' system, to the Pads to complete the deal.
Good things are happening in Tampa Bay, and while that doesn't mean the 2006--or even 2007--Devil Rays are going to win anything, it does mean that there's a plan and smart people in place executing that plan.
Toronto Blue Jays: Aside from the well-covered A.J. Burnett signing, the Jays moved some depth to the Brewers for Lyle Overbay. I liked the deal at first, given the Jays' need for OBP, but the more I look at it, the less impressed I am. Overbay isn't clearly a big-time hitter: he's never posted a .300 EqA and isn't young enough (29) to project growth from. The Blue Jays didn't give up anything they were going to use in '06, largely because they have an inexplicable aversion to two of the players, David Bush and Gabe Gross, they dealt away, but I wonder how much better this trade really makes them in 2006. Would making Gross the DH--he hit .297/.380/.438 at Syracuse last year, and will be 26 in '06--have provided an offensive upgrade, saved money and allowed them to either use Bush or put him into another deal?
Like I said, my first reaction was positive, and I do think the Jays gave up two players who they weren't going to use, but the values don't hold up when you look deeper.
As the meetings ended the Jays were still trying to address their offense. They'll need at least one more hitter to make a push in this division. The '06 season is critical for them, and they'd be well served to break the bank, the farm system and anything else within reach to make it happen immediately.
Chicago White Sox: As expected, a quiet week. They did a good job of getting value for a player who wasn't going to be allowed to contribute, dealing Damaso Marte for Rob Mackowiak. Mackowiak is a good little bench player who's had to play far too much for some lousy Pirates teams. He's a good lefty power source for a right-handed squad, and he can play five or six positions credibly, and can play second base if the first three choices get hurt.
Frank Thomas' White Sox career came to an end during the meetings. I wonder if Chicago baseball fans realize just how great a player he was.
Cleveland Indians: The Paul Byrd signing occurred at the outset of the meetings, giving them a boost in the middle of the rotation. One of the keys to the Indians' strong season was a terrific health record; they used just six starters all year long, and their top five all made at least 30 starts apiece. Byrd nominally replaces Kevin Millwood, but they might have done that with Jason Davis or Fausto Carmona. Signing Byrd allows them to have depth if fortune isn't quite so kind in 2006.
Detroit Tigers: Under the radar all week--just the way they like it--the Tigers got busy Thursday by signing Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones to multi-year deals. I can't say I like either investment; the Tigers may need to improve their pitching staff, but signing old pitchers with mediocre track records isn't the way to do it.
Both pitchers are of a type: aging veterans with well-established records of performance that oscillate around average, some years better, some worse. Both have been fairly durable, and both had 2005 seasons that were the best or nearly the best of their career. Rogers' season was disrupted by a controversial incident with a cameraman and a subsequent suspension. Jones had no such problems, inheriting the Marlins' closer role and riding it to 40 saves. Last year was just the second in five in which he hadn't been traded during the season.
The lesson of Jones, however, isn't that Todd Jones is a $5 million pitcher. The lesson is that there are lots of guys out there with comparable skill sets who can throw 75 great innings in any one season. You don't reward the most recent guy to go under 2.00 for his great performance; you find the next guy for a million bucks, be that Jim Mecir or Shigetoshi Hasegawa or Felix Rodriguez. Jones, apart from this last 75 innings in a great pitchers' park with a very good defense behind him, looks like all those guys; he just happened to have his 75 good innings last year, and his track record indicates that he'll revert to being the 4.00 ERA pitcher he's been for his previous 500-odd innings.
Rogers is essentially the same story, a veteran pitcher who hit the market coming off of a low ERA season. Rogers' peripherals have been unimpressive for a while, but he does a terrific job with the running game, gets double plays and pickoffs and fields his position well. He's not quite a Tommy John-class pitcher--he gives up a few too many homers--but he gets invited to their keggers. At 41, though, and riding that knife edge, you have to wonder how much longer he can stay in the league.
The problem lies in part with the pitchers themselves, as I can't imagine the two will be worth a combined $13 million next year, but it also lies in part with the process. The Tigers are being reactive here, signing and paying guys based on their past performance when that's out of line with realistic expectations for the future. In the absolute best-case scenario, Rogers and Jones combine for maybe 275 above-average innings, worth about the $13 million, maybe a bit more. That's the upside, which means there's little chance the Tigers can make a lot of money on these deals. There's also a very good chance--the two are 41 and 38 years old, of course--that at least one, maybe both, puts up a 7.92 ERA and is never heard from again.
You can't win with signings like this, you can only hold ground. You win by getting those 275 innings for $1.3 million, not $13 million, and investing the other $12 million in star-caliber players. I think the Tigers have some good things going for them, but these two signings show that they still haven't fully committed to a plan that wins a championship.
It's absolutely hilarious that they lost two of their minor-league free-agent signings, Victor Santos and Seth Etherton, in the Rule 5 draft. Watching the Royals is really like watching the last season of "Moonlighting," where Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong got more storylines than Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, and you kept watching, first out of loyalty, then sympathy, then horror.
And then it was over.
Minnesota Twins: Virtually invisible all week, they made a Rule 5 pick and dumped J.C. Romero. They offered arbitration to Jacque Jones, a good decision I wasn't sure they would make out of fear of getting dinged for the money.
Anaheim Angels: Lost Bengie Molina by not offering him arbitration, and added their first real lefty reliever in years by trading for Romero. The Angels still need at least one hitter, but can't get Manny Ramirez unless they give up Ervin Santana, and that's not likely to happen, especially since they've already lost Byrd and Jarrod Washburn this winter. Playing Casey Kotchman next year will help, just not enough to give them an above-average offense.
I mentioned this in chat the other day, and will again here: the Angels and Mike Piazza are a good match. Piazza would be the third-best hitter in the lineup behind Kotchman and Vladimir Guerrero, even in his decline phase, and they can do some interesting things by carrying three catchers--which Mike Scioscia does, anyway--and using Piazza at DH sometimes.
Oakland Athletics: The pursuit of Frank Thomas continued, but little else was happening for the A's, who have most of their 2006 roster in place already. Thomas would give them an OBP boost and a RH power boost, assuming the Big Hurt was a little less so in '06.
Billy Beane is in the catbird seat with Barry Zito. The A's have such a strong rotation that they could deal Zito, replace him with any number of in-house options and not really miss a beat. As it is, their #5 starter in 2005, Kirk Saarloos, has been bumped by free-agent signing Esteban Loaiza. The market has placed an enormous value on pitching, and Zito would be the best left-hander on the block, maybe the best overall pitcher, if Beane were to place him there.
Beane could also keep Zito, the only left-hander in the A's rotation, but when you consider how much pitching he has relative to his hitting, as well as Zito's salary and free-agent status after '06, a trade, if not an imminent one, seems likely. Zito's value certainly won't go down as the season gets closer.
The A's declined to offer arbitration to Scott Hatteberg, whose two-year contract extension came to a close. He hit .265/.349/.384 from 2003-05, had negative defensive value in each season (per Clay's numbers: -12, -13 and -5 FRAA) and posted a grand total of 3.9 WARP. He made $5 million the last two years, thanks to a contract he signed in 2003. I think Billy Beane is a terrific GM, but this wasn't one of his better moves.
Seattle Mariners: Rumored to be chasing one big starter, the Mariners seem likely to end up on the hook for a very big commitment to a pitcher in his thirties with his best days behind him. They have an odd roster right now, with a core of decent-to-good veterans surrounded by a bunch of young players who can't hit. I'm not sure how you move from where they are to contention, but I'm reasonably sure you can't get there in one off-season, or with one big signing. Passing on the free agents and aiming for 2007 should be the play.
Texas Rangers: Jon Daniels made a terrific pickup Wednesday night, acquiring the underrated Brad Wilkerson for the overrated Alfonso Soriano. Ian Kinsler, who might be better than Soriano right now, steps in at second base no later than midseason, while Wilkerson provides OBP and at least doubles power--probably more a year removed from his troublesome shoulder.
I've been told that Daniels is getting hammered for this deal in the local media, which is to be understood. Soriano's skills are obvious, and his failings veiled, the opposite of the player Wilkerson is. If your GM makes one deal like this a year, you're well ahead of the game, and that the local media doesn't like the trade is an indictment of their skills, not Daniels'.
My personal Rangers highlight in Dallas was getting invited to Jamey Newberg's event last Monday night. Jamey's Newberg Report is the single best source for information on the Rangers' prospects, and there's no other team with a person like him covering the minor-league system independently.
Four of the Rangers' top prospects showed up to take questions: Thomas Diamond, Michael Schlact, Johnny Whittleman and Steven Rowe. I missed the first hour or so, but while I was there, the players went beyond the Nuke LaLoosh answers and got well into the interesting aspects of their careers to date, their skill sets and what they expect from themselves. Schlact, in particular, showed a dexterity with the media that belies his age. It's Newberg's credibility that enabled him to attract that kind of panel and get that kind of response from the participants.
For more on these four, and the rest of the players Daniels might be moving for pitching this winter, check out the bound edition of the Newberg Report, which includes a complete chronicle of the Rangers' '05 season and reports on virtually every relevant player in the team's system. The book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the Rangers; quite frankly, if there were 30 Jamey Newbergs, a lot of publications would be in trouble.