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December 15, 2005

Prospectus Today

Meetings Wrap-Up, NL

by Joe Sheehan

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The long-delayed wrap-up of the week that was in Dallas, for teams in the NL.

I sincerely hope that when my career gets evaluated, my 2005 season looks more like Roger Clemens' 1993 than, say, Pat Hentgen's 1997.

Atlanta Braves: They spent the early part of the week adding arms in the bullpen, largely by moving arb-eligible players they didn't want to keep. Danny Kolb and Johnny Estrada out, Wes Obermueller, Lance Cormier and Oscar Villareal in. For a team whose season ended with a 2005 draft pick on the mound, there's probably some value in adding pitching depth, but only Cormier, of this group, has even minor upside.

The Braves then made one of the biggest moves of the week, trading top prospect Andy Marte to the Red Sox for shortstop Edgar Renteria and eight million bucks. The trade filled the shortstop hole left when Rafael Furcal signed with the Dodgers for $13 million a year. Renteria was a disappointment to the Sox in the first year of a four-year, $40-million contract; he made a career-high 30 errors, which caught people's attention, but his performance was a career-worst in many categories, including WARP (1.8). It was a reality-check season for people like me who had come to think of Renteria as a top-tier star. He now looks more like a good player who peaked at 26 (4.9 WARP) and 27 (8.7 WARP) rather than a challenger for All-Star slots.

The deal has generated a lot of criticism of the Braves; it's rare that any of the game's best prospects are traded, and rarer still to see them go in a one-for-one offseason deal. When you consider the circumstances, however, you can understand the move. The organization had committed to Chipper Jones at third base, and with a glut of corner outfielders and first basemen lying around, moving Marte would just add to the logjam. More critically, having blocked the younger player, it was important to trade him before he lost value. The Reds, just to name one example, didn't do this with Austin Kearns and now find themselves with an ongoing problem and a player who doesn't have half the trade value he did three seasons ago. The Braves aligned their talent with this deal, and if the value aspects don't entirely match up, they are a better team from 2006-08 for having made it, if only because Renteria will help them more than Marte would have.

Underneath all of this is the fact that John Schuerholz has a nearly impeccable record when it comes to trading Braves prospects. As Jay Jaffe pointed out last summer, he hasn't let too many useful players get away in his 16-year tenure with the team. Whispers persist about the condition of Marte's right elbow, with speculation that he needs surgery. Even if he's completely healthy, you have to look at Schuerholz's record and wonder what he might know that the Sox don't. He's earned that kind of consideration.

Worth mentioning: the Braves signed Todd Pratt to a one-year deal while down in Dallas. Pratt and Brian McCann should be, dollar for dollar, the most productive catching tandem in baseball next year.

Florida Marlins: They opened the week by trading yet another contract, sending Paul Lo Duca to the Mets for Gaby Hernandez, a teenaged pitcher who performed well in low-A ball in '05. They added three more arms by moving Juan Pierre to the Cubs on Tuesday, a deal that may end up being the best of the four rebuilding trades they made this offseason. Sergio Mitre and Ricky Nolasco may be back-end guys right now, while Pinto, the most highly-regarded of the group, is a two-pitch guy who may project better as a set-up man. It's a solid package for the Fish, who should end up with two or three major-league pitchers from the volume of arms they've accumulated this offseason.

Thursday morning, the Marlins picked up Dan Uggla from the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft, which wouldn't be notable except that Uggla probably became the Marlins' second baseman at that point. One of the top hitters in the Southern League in '05, Uggla followed up the performance by playing well in the Arizona Fall League. He's never played above Double-A, has needed an adjustment period everywhere he's been, and is no kind of glove man at second. I seriously doubt he'll successfully hold the Marlins' second-base job next year.

New York Mets: They snagged another Marlin early in the week, adding Lo Duca to handle catching duties. He's overrated and overpaid due to his propensity for front-loading his production, which has enabled him to make three straight All-Star teams. He hits for a higher batting average than does Ramon Castro, but Castro does most everything else better. There's certainly not $5 million worth of difference between the two, but that's about the gap between their 2006 salaries.

The Mets also made the highly entertaining move of signing 47-year-old Julio Franco to a two-year contract. Jokes aside, though, Franco has been a productive hitter off the bench for five years in Atlanta, hitting righties and lefties and performing well as a pinch-hitter. He's light-years better than anything the Mets had on their 2005 bench, probably their best reserve bat since the days of Matt Franco and Benny Agbayani. He's shown no decline as he approaches 50, making him a better risk than many of the more celebrated free agents this winter. Nice pickup.

Philadelphia Phillies: Aside from the odd Bobby Abreu rumors, the Phillies were quiet during the week. Jason Michaels rumors, more realistic ones, were everywhere, as the Phillies try to get pitching for their fourth outfielder, a player who could start for more than half the teams in baseball. The Phillies are largely set, looking mainly to add a pitcher or two, but what they need is a front-line starter rather than a mid-rotation guy, and those are difficult to find.

Washington Nationals: Jim Bowden loves his tools guys, and he got one of the game's most famous ones by dealing away Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga for Alfonso Soriano. What he didn't do, however, is make his team better. Soriano's power and speed made him a star, and everything else about his game is problematic. He doesn't hit for average or draw walks, and he's been getting worse at those things: his walk rate and OBP have slipped in consecutive seasons. His defense, never good, has regressed to "among the worst" status, which is just one reason why Bowden wants to play him in the outfield, a move Soriano immediately protested.

It's not often that a team flat out makes itself worse in a trade, but that's what the Nationals have done here. Wilkerson is a better player than Soriano, has been the better player for two years running, and that's with nagging injuries throughout 2005. The raw-stats gap between the two is an illusion created by the difference in their home parks--Ameriquest Field being one of the best hitters' parks in baseball, RFK Stadium among the worst. Moreover, Wilkerson does the things that Soriano doesn't: he walks and he plays average defense. He'll cost less than Soriano in 2006 as well, as Soriano's "sexy" numbers lead to a huge arbitration award.

I've written in the past that the way to succeed in the trade market is to leverage the gap between a player's perceived value and his actual value. In dealing Soriano for Wilkerson and some stocking stuffers, Jon Daniels has provided one of the best examples of doing so in recent memory. Jim Bowden acquired the flash, but he gave up the substance, and made the Nationals a bit worse in the exchange. That's a bad deal.

Chicago Cubs: One of the Cubs' critical holes last year was their lack of OBP in the top two lineup spots, a deficit that prevented them from getting the most from a very good power core. They tried to address that by sending three young pitchers to the Marlins for Juan Pierre. Pierre had an off year in '05, batting .276 with a .326 OBP, both career lows. He had a slight uptick in his strikeout rate, but not enough to explain a 50-point drop in his batting average. Just 28, he should rebound in 2006, although perhaps not to the .320s, because he's moving to a home park with a much smaller outfield, one that should make it harder for him to slap his singles. Regardless, he'll be an upgrade on the Cubs' '05 leadoff hitters, a collection that combined for a .299 OBP in 2005.

Cincinnati Reds: Dan O'Brien quietly made one of the stronger moves of the meetings, jettisoning popular-but-unproductive first baseman Sean Casey and getting a decent innings guy in return. Casey had just one adequate year in the last four, and at $8 million a season, was an albatross for the Reds. Getting anything back for him would have been sufficient, but in picking up Dave Williams, O'Brien solidified the back end of his rotation with a 27-year-old lefty two years past losing a season to shoulder surgery. He's still getting his stamina back, which helps to explain his fading badly down the stretch. Still, for a team loaded with corner men and short on pitching, Casey for Williams is a steal.

Houston Astros: The decision on Roger Clemens--they declined to offer him arbitration--dominated their week. I don't envy Tim Purpura, who was forced to choose between severing ties with a local hero and or being held hostage for another offseason. With the likelihood that Clemens would make $25 million or more through arbitration, it would have been impossible for Purpura to make any moves while waiting for the right-hander to decide on playing in '06. After last offseason, when a similar scenario prevented the Astros from upgrading their offense, I can understand Purpura's desire to reach a conclusion quickly and move on to other matters.

This may all work out for the Astros in the end. Clemens can re-sign with the Astros come May 1, and he may do just that after participating in the World Baseball Classic.

Milwaukee Brewers: Doug Melvin got a good return for Lyle Overbay, adding a mid-rotation starter in David Bush and a comparable, younger, cheaper hitter in Gabe Gross, as well as southpaw prospect Zach Jackson. With Prince Fielder showing himself ready to play down the stretch of last season, Overbay, like the Phillies' Jim Thome, had to be moved to create space for a younger hitter. Melvin did well in getting a package for him that upgrades the roster for 2006 with inexpensive production.

Overbay is probably overrated. He's already 29, and it may well be that his .301/.385/.478 line at age 27 two years ago will be his peak. He draws walks, hits doubles and flashes a good glove, but those are all things that make you good, not great, at first base. Kudos to Melvin for taking the two cheap seasons and moving Overbay on before his salary exceeds his production.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Dan O'Brien's good decision is David Littlefield's bad one, as the Pirate GM blocks a prospect, spends money and doesn't improve his team by acquiring Sean Casey from the Reds. Casey may be a local boy and a popular player, but he's a below-average first baseman, and all the popularity in the world isn't going to change what drives attendance: winning. Casey doesn't push the Pirates closer to contention, and he costs them money better spent on players who actually could do so. It's just another example of what separates the franchises moving forward from the ones just spinning their wheels. The Pirates need to start over behind their crop of young starters, and trades like the one for Casey just delay the inevitable rebuilding.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals were at the center of big rumors all week, with news that they had signed this free agent or traded for that star a constant in the background. In the end, all they did was make some minor free-agent signings to bolster their bench--Deivi Cruz and Gary Bennett--and one solid, if low-profile trade, swapping lefty specialist Ray King to the Rockies for Aaron Miles and Larry Bigbie.

That deal was another good example of leveraging value. King is an effective reliever, but no different from a dozen other guys you can find to pitch to Adam Dunn in the seventh inning. The Cards had broken Randy Flores into the specialist role late in '05, and his success made King and his contract expendable. Bigbie and Miles, both disappointments for the Rockies, have little star potential. Bigbie is a .280/.350/.430 bat who plays good defense in the corners, while Miles is a sixth infielder whose contact approach at the plate may make him an effective pinch-hitter with runners on base, but who is unlikely to hit enough to hold a regular job. Together, they add to the Cardinals' depth and provide options at positions that currently lack obvious starters, and the cost for them was minimal.

Arizona Diamondbacks: They shopped Javier Vazquez all week, but didn't move him until yesterday (more on that deal tomorrow). Their focus seemed to be on a package of one top-tier arm and a center-field prospect, a concession to their lack of one, despite a bevy of hitters in the system.

They did complete one minor deal I liked, picking up Johnny Estrada from the Braves for some relief arms. Estrada should be an upgrade for the Snakes, who have struggled to get production from the catcher's spot since Damian Miller left, and if that doesn't sound like a high standard to you, then it gives you an idea of what they've been getting by with. Estrada, a switch-hitter with some doubles power and a decent arm, isn't likely to be very expensive coming off of a disappointing '05 season.

Colorado Rockies: It's not entirely clear to me what a team with little chance to contend in 2006 is going to do with a lefty specialist, but that's what the Rockies picked up last week. If there's any team in baseball that doesn't need a 70-appearance, 50-inning guy, it's the one that plays in Coors Field and is projected to win 65 games. The Rockies shouldn't be using a roster spot on a guy like Ray King, shouldn't be paying nearly two million dollars for him and certainly shouldn't be giving up two players to acquire him. Aaron Miles and Larry Bigbie aren't going to be missed by a team lousy with adquate middle infielders and corner outfielders; it's just that sending them both away for a piece that doesn't fit is a waste.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers made the Rafael Furcal signing official. As I mentioned last week, I really like the pickup, as much for the structure of the contract--more money over fewer years--as its impact on the Dodgers.

I got a lot of negative feedback on that claim, so perhaps I should expound on it. I don't know that I can argue that a three-year, $39-million contract makes more sense than a four-year, $40-million deal. As a number of readers mentioned, if you like the first, the second is essentially that deal and a $1 million salary for the fourth year, which should be a deal you'd make with any free agent worth signing. That's an extreme example, where the team pays maximum price for the luxury of a shorter commitment, and as such, is probably not viable. If you use the Renteria contract as a gauge, you can't see Furcal's deal as a bargain.

There is definitely a sweet spot, however, where a portion of the money that would be assigned to a fourth year is spread amongst the first three, yielding a higher average annual salary but a lower total value, and limiting the commitment to three years. The attrition rates of ballplayers and their inherent unpredictability, as well as the negative impact of an eight-figure salary attached to a poor player, lead me to believe that this tradeoff point is higher than most people think it is, if not the 90% of fourth-year money implied by the Furcal contract, at least somewhere north of 50%. There's more value in avoiding that dead year at the end of a deal than in the marginal N million dollars extra you pay in each season prior to it, at least for teams with reasonable capitalization and cash flow.

I can see where, as an industry, baseball would discourage this practice. After all, it's annual salaries that become the comparison point in negotiations, be they with pre-arbitration players, arb cases or other free agents, and this kind of approach would tend to drive those figures up. Then again, what hurts teams more? Extra money paid out to productive players, or the back ends of ludicrious four- five- and six-year deals that drag down a roster and a payroll?

I'm not sure exactly where this sweet spot lies. I'm actually fairly sure it's a moving target based a team's cash flow and risk tolerance, as well as a player's risk profile. If Furcal's contract is an extreme example of the principle, and not economically sound, I can accept that, but I think the approach--fewer years, higher AAV--is sensible given the difficulty of projecting player performance beyond a short time horizon.

San Diego Padres: The Mark Loretta-for-Doug Mirabelli trade is still baffling. If the Padres had a second-base prospect whose talent or performance demanded he play, it would be one thing, but Josh Barfield isn't that guy. Barfield's .310/.370/.450 line at Triple-A Portland isn't terribly impressive, and his strikeout rate (one every 5.5 PAs) is still high enough to cause concern. Mirabelli is a good backup catcher with power, a useful player to have around, just not someone worth trading an everyday second baseman for. The deal is a considerable net loss for the Padres, and exposes them to a lot of risk at second base in '06.

Credit has to be given for the acquistion of Steven Andrade, the last piece of the Sean Burroughs-for-Dewon Brazelton trade. Andrade has been effective at nearly every stop in his minor-league career, including a ridiculous 2005 in which he allowed 23 hits in 50 1/3 innings for the Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. He's one of two Rule 5 picks (the other being Jamie Vermilyea) who I expect to have an impact in the majors in 2005. Getting Andrade alone would have made the trade of Burroughs worth it.

San Francisco Giants: Quietly searched for a pitcher all week, a pursuit that carried into the next, when they signed Matt Morris. They added Steve Kline to replace the departed Scott Eyre, trading away LaTroy Hawkins to so do. The Giants have a lot of right-handed relief, so they'll likely not miss Hawkins, but as with Ray King, trading to acquire a lefty specialist is a bit silly when there are guys like this for the asking in the free-talent market.

The Giants' best move of the meetings was signing Mark Sweeney to a two-year deal. Sweeney, an underrated source of lefty pop, could step into J.T. Snow's first-base slot and be an upgrade over the popular, but suboptimal, ex-Giant.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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