December 16, 2005
2005 Leadoff Hitters Player OBP Rnk Player P/PA Rnk Derek Jeter .391 1 Brad Wilkerson 4.21 1 Brian Roberts .384 2 Craig Counsell 4.06 2 Brady Clark .372 3 David Eckstein 4.01 3 Johnny Damon .367 4 Scott Podsednik 3.90 4 David Eckstein .364 5 Chone Figgins 3.86 5 ... ... Juan Pierre .322 15 Juan Pierre 3.68 11Pierre will certainly be an improvement over Corey Patterson, but that's not really setting the bar too high. Nevertheless, Pierre automatically becomes the most seasoned Cub outfielder. Matt Murton looks to get the starting nod in left field, but the only other outfielders on the 40-man are the all-but-exiled Corey Patterson, the not-yet-ready Felix Pie, and Jerry Hairston (now with an outfielder's glove!). John Mabry is also a replacement level option here.
Will any of these players be the Cubs' starting right fielder? Bleacher bums certainly hope not. Now that the Cubs have lost out in the Milton Bradley sweepstakes, Hendry and Co. are looking at free agent options. Not wanting to block Pie, who authored a .304/.349/.554 line for the Southern League runner-up Diamond Jaxx, the Cubs are not looking to sign anyone to a long-term deal. This basically crosses Johnny Damon off the wish list, and nobody else. Here's how some of the other free agent outfielders stacked up in '05:
Player VORP Kenny Lofton 33.0 Rondell White 30.0 Juan Encarnacion 28.3 Reggie Sanders 27.5 Preston Wilson 24.5 Jeff Conine 21.0 Jacque Jones 17.7 Jeromy Burnitz 17.5 Matt Lawton 17.5Interestingly enough, Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Lawton were both Cubs last year and have since been discarded. While the Cubs were smart to decline the $7 million club option on Burnitz, they are not likely to do much better on the free agent market. The player listed most often in recent days has been Jacque Jones, a player who would essentially be reinventing the wheel. Looking at the trade market, the Brewers might like to be free of their financial commitment to Geoff Jenkins or Carlos Lee. The same is probably true of Arizona's Shawn Green, and then there is also the rumor that wouldn't go away in Dallas--Bobby Abreu. Aubrey Huff has been involved in his fair share of rumors as well, though his production dropped notably in '05.
Let's take a look at what the Cubs lineup will look like next season:
2006 C Barrett 1B Lee 2B Walker 3B Ramirez SS Perez LF Murton CF Pierre RF ?There is not a great deal of change here, an offense that is neither terrible or good. Despite his shortcomings, Pierre is an upgrade in center, and should Murton continue to build on the end of his 2005, he will certainly be an upgrade in left. Though the Cubs do not figure to get a superstar to man right, it should not be hard to find someone that can replicate Burnitz' '05 production. A full season of Ronny Cedeno should spare the Cubs from a full season of Jose Macias.
On the other hand Derrek Lee can not be expected to produce like he did last year either, Nomar Garciaparra has left the building, and the 2005 version of the Cubs featured a pitcher as its 7th best hitter. While the gap between St. Louis and Chicago was not as great as it appeared last year--their L3 difference was a mere 5.8 games compared to the 21 games it was in reality--the changes the Cubs have made on offense look to be incremental at best. Barring some kind of unforeseen surprise, the Cubs look to be treading water offensively, which does not bode well for their chances in '06. The Cubs look to be in the unfortunate position of waiting around for the Astros and Cardinals to get worse, while simultaneously hoping that the Brewers don't improve, as they roll perilously closer to celebrating the dubious milestone of 100 years without a World Series triumph.
The Pirates' off-season has settled into a near-bulimic binge-and-purge rhythm, so far.
The Pirates emptied their stomachs of all their outgoing free agents (Brian Meadows, Jose Mesa, Daryle Ward, and Rick White), offering none of them arbitration. They disgorged infielders Bobby Hill and Ty Wigginton, only getting a 23 year-old A ball righthander in exchange for Hill. Their Opening Day center fielder this past season, Tike Redman, was banished in exchange for a fistful of dollars. The other Redman, lefthanded starter Mark--whom the Pirates refused to sell off when he was riding high in the first half of 2005--was dealt to the Royals in exchange for a couple of relief prospects. Outfielder Michael Restovich? Waived. Utilityman extraordinaire Rob Mackowiak? A White Sock, and in exchange the Bucs re-acquire reliever-non-grata Damaso Marte.
That's a quarter of the 2005 40-man roster, gone, with only one major league player (two, if you count Rule 5 pick Victor Santos) to show for it. Marte's a worthwhile player, although the Pirates already had a younger version of him in Mike Gonzalez. Marte's acquisition means John Grabow descends to the not-quite-coveted "third lefty in the bullpen" status, barring another move.
To go with all that purging, the Pirates have treated themselves to a few high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, with promises of more to come. For the past three years Roberto Hernandez has been in the pile of fungible relievers, making less than a million dollars per year, and being worth less than four runs over replacement player, combined, over those three years (by VORP). Just less than 70 good innings with the Mets--his .2590 WXRL placed him in the same neighborhood as Aaron Heilman or Julian Tavarez--and Hernandez is worth just under three million dollars for the 2005 season. That's a lot to spend on a 41 year-old.
But Hernandez is just a hastily inhaled bag of Cheetos compared to the box of Krispy Kremes that is Sean Casey. Pittsburgh native Casey has been brought in, ostensibly to give big Bradley Eldred time to grow into the job at first base. Since some believe that Eldred is a latter-day Drew Henson, a competent placeholder could be key for getting any production out of the position.
Like many players who have earned the "overrated" label, there's a tendency to overstate the case against the Mayor. Casey's career OBP is .371, which is quite respectable, if somewhat inflated by good hitting environments in Cincinnati. Since OBP is life, and the Pirates didn't get on base terribly well in 2005 (their .322 OBP was 12th in the NL, and only three points out of last place), every baserunner they can get counts.
Still, this is the only dimension in which Casey helps the club. He's got no power, for a first baseman. In the past three years, playing his home games in the Great American Bandbox, Casey only went yard 47 times, and posted a slugging percentage of .456. By way of comparison, the average National League first baseman slugged .482 in 2005. With the leather, he will not make anyone forget Sid Bream, or maybe not even Kevin Young. And he's not a bargain, coming at the cost of a decent young pitcher (Dave Williams) and $7.5 million-the portion of Casey's salary that the Bucs are reportedly picking up.
The good news is that the Pirates have been purging from depth, if not particularly quality. Wigginton and Hill covered some of the same bases as Freddy Sanchez, and speedy lefty slap-hitter Tike Redman possessed much the same skill set as Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth. Dave Williams and Mark Redman are, at best, the third and fourth best lefthanded starters on the team.
With reportedly $13-16 million set aside for more binging, the Pirates have a hole to fill at third base. Their most interesting target, switch-hitter Bill Mueller, was pulled out from under them by the L.A. Dodgers. Unless they can land Nomar Garciaparra to play the hot corner, the next name on the free agent depth chart at third is Joe Randa, which is nowhere near as exciting.
But excitement is somewhat beside the point here. Littlefield apparently believes that his ballclub is at the stage where it needs to be supplemented with some veteran talent to rise to the next level. Based on recent research by Nate Silver, we'd have to disagree with that assessment, since the benefits of going from a 67 win team to a 77 win team aren't likely to make a big difference to Pittsburgh's bottom line.
But as long as the Bucs have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of veterans, the key is that these complementary players need to remain completely disposable. If Casey isn't a good first baseman, and if he's overpaid, then the upside is that he's only overpaid for one season. It is likewise with Hernandez. It's a principle we have to hope Dave Littlefield doesn't forget in the acquisitions reportedly to come.