December 11, 2006
Winter Meetings Review
This is a little meta for a Monday morning, but I want to talk about process for a minute.
Today, I'm running my winter meetings wrap-up, a piece that was originally intended for Friday publication. That it's running today is by design, not by sloth. I was working on this stuff late Thursday night when I became disenchanted with the article, and with my analysis in general, and shelved it for a couple of days.
One of the effects of the 24-hour news cycle is the loss of the luxury of time. There's a desire to not only provide the best analysis, the most well-written articles, but to have an immediate reaction to events. This peaks in the postseason, but can affect the process of evaluating throughout the year. As the competition for eyeballs and mindshare increases, with talented people getting into this business every day, the pressure to be first does as well.
The problem is that doing things quickly and doing them well can stand in opposition to one another. Too often, the first reaction to a trade, a free-agent signing, an announcement is a knee-jerk one, a case of fitting the pieces into a pre-established formula (OBP good, long-term deals bad, teams with no chance shouldn't spend money) rather than actually getting into the details of the specific situation. Getting an opinion published was the goal, with the details of that opinion a secondary concern. Unfortunately, baseball is harder than that. You need time to get additional information, to consolidate all that info, and to reach a conclusion.
The problem of working too quickly became very clear to me last week, when I found myself rethinking my initial evaluations on any number of transactions. I mentioned my reversal on the Brian Bannister/Ambiorix Burgos trade in my chat session. I liked the Chris Carpenter extension at first, but then a look at the details turned me against it. The Ted Lilly deal seemed like a reach, but the more I thought about it, I could see the positives for the Cubs.
To some extent, this is why Christina Kahrl is so good at what she does. Christina has never succumbed to the pressure to be first, and because of that, her Transaction Analysis reflects a thoughtfulness and a depth that a lot of the more immediate analysis can never have.
Now, realistically, I can't start taking the time CK does to do what she does. That's not really my role on the team. What I can do is take the underlying lesson-the quick answer isn't always the best one-and apply it to what I do. That means getting all the details before reaching a conclusion, it means going past the immediate impressions to look carefully at the effects, it means rejecting the facile response in favor of the nuanced one, when warranted.
Like I said, a bit meta for a Monday, but germane to the issue that's always on my mind: how to be a better analyst of the game.
On to the recap of Orlando, where we had a couple of flurries of action, and some movement immediately afterwards that can be traced to the Swan and Dolphin, but on the whole, a fairly quiet week. What was missing were the big trades that were anticipated, given the number of free agents that were off the market by the time the meetings convened. Only the Phillies and White Sox swapped major leaguers, and there were a handful of minor swaps.
A number of teams were essentially invisible during the week, failing to even turn up in a rumor or three. If the Blue Jays, Angels, Marlins and Reds were in town, they kept a low profile. The Jays have essentially filled their roster, but the other three teams have significant holes and chips to trade, so it was odd to hear so little from or about them. In addition, many GMs continued the trend of keeping to their suites and not the lobby. It's more practical, and it certainly makes their lives easier, but it does add to the perception that the winter meetings aren't what they used to be.
The following lists cover moves made during the meetings and in the immediate aftermath.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies added a #3 starter with some upside in Freddy Garcia, while not giving up any elements of their 2007 team or committing to the righty beyond the upcoming season. Garcia's peripherals have slipped a bit since his 2004 peak; he throws more strikes now, allows more homers and gets more outs on balls in play, while walking fewer men and allowing more runs. It may be that the changes have enabled him to stay healthy and in a rotation; he's made at least 31 starts and thrown at least 200 innings for six straight years. His second half featured a near no-hitter, a sharply reduced home-run rate and a 3.5-to-1 K/BB. Among pitchers changing teams this winter, only Jason Schmidt is better than Garcia, so the Phillies have improved relative to the field.
What the deal also did is enable the Phillies to swap places with the White Sox in the seller's market for pitching. Thanks to the ill-considered signing of Adam Eaton, the Phils have six established starting pitchers, with Jon Lieber the most likely odd man out. The Phillies have no right fielder, half a platoon at third base and they're wishcasting behind the plate, so it's critical that they use their excess starter well.
Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, the players moving westward are C+ pitching prospects at this point. Floyd has yet to put anything together in three stints in the majors, and an extended rotation trial in 2006 didn't take. Gonzalez has some upside due to youth and stuff; Kevin Goldstein flagged him as the #9 left-handed starter in the prospect world. The White Sox had let him go a year ago in the Jim Thome deal. Both pitchers are nominally in the mix for the Sox fifth-starter slot, but neither is as good as Brandon McCarthy. The Phillies did well in trading the future for now in a division that can be taken in '07.
Los Angeles Dodgers: As they did a year ago, the Dodgers signed a premium free agent to a three-year contract, paying a bit extra in annual average value while limiting their exposure on the back end. Jason Schmidt has the best peripherals of any starter on the free-agent market this winter, Barry Zito included. For about the same amount of money the Cubs spent on Ted Lilly, and much less than the Royals spent on Gil Meche, the Dodgers got a better pitcher than either and aren't betting that he'll be effective in 2010. This is the best multi-year free-agent deal reached this offseason.
The Dodgers also strengthened their bench with the additions of Mike Lieberthal and Luis Gonzalez. Lieberthal will be an above-average backup catcher-he's got some bounceback from a lost season in him-and excellent insurance against slippage by Russell Martin. Gonzalez is a good OBP source off of the bench who can play every day for two weeks-on the off chance Nomar Garciaparra has to miss time with a nagging injury-without hurting you.
Atlanta Braves: They made just one move, but it was a good one, trading Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for Rafael Soriano. Soriano immediately becomes the best reliever in their bullpen, maybe the best reliever they've had since moving John Smoltz back to the rotation in '05. His power stuff came back with him last year, and concerns about his surgically repaired elbow have been replaced by visions of a 74/22 K/BB in 67 2/3 innings thrown with a scar.
Getting Soriano was enough to get the Braves on this list. Getting him for Horacio Ramirez gets them the #3 slot. Ramirez has been in the majors for four years, and in two of those, he's spent most of the season on the DL. Even when healthy, he's posted unimpressive peripherals (248/200 K/BB in 521 1/3 IP), and he's been going backwards after a mildly promising rookie season. Arb-eligible as a three-plus guy, he's in line to make at least $3 million in 2007, and could get more in arbitration even off of a 76-inning season. He's closer to being a non-tender candidate than being worth $3 million. The context in which Mariners' pitchers perform could give him a superficially good ERA-hell, it made Gil Meche a zillionaire-but Ramirez isn't going to be better than a bottom-rotation guy.
New York Yankees: After "losing out" on Meche and Octavio Dotel, the Yankees consoled themselves by bringing back Andy Pettitte on a one-year deal for $16 million, with a $16 million player option for 2008. As with Schmidt, the average value may seem a bit high, but there's value in shorter commitment, especially when it comes to older pitchers. Pettitte struggled with location early in 2006, leading to the worst home-run rate of his career. Once he got that under control, his work in the second half was right in line with his 2005 performance.
The catch here is the idea that Pettitte may be followed to New York by Roger Clemens, reversing the move the two pitchers made after the '03 season. The two are close friends, and the thought is that if Clemens pitches, the team that employs Pettitte will have a leg up on signing the Rocket. I think it's a bit simplistic, but the chance that Pettitte might bring company to New York actually is worth paying for. This deal is a pretty good one even if Clemens doesn't come to New York.
If they're serious about adding one more starter, the Yankees could tell Clemens to stay in Houston until May and make out on the deal. After all, they're trying to play deep into October, and Clemens has scuffled at the end of his last two full seasons. Spring training is too long by about three weeks to begin with, and it's essentially useless to the 23-year veteran who is fanatical about staying in shape. (He's signed now, but I made the same argument with respect to Barry Bonds last week. Why make him work for in March when you really need him in September? I don't think it will become commonplace, but I think offering a shortened spring training could be a perk in a limited number of free-agent negotiations.)
Meanwhile, the Red Sox didn't sign Daisuke Matsuzaka in Orlando, and seem unlikely to do so before this week's deadline. That's not a Yankee transaction, but it no doubt puts a smile on the faces of the boys on River Ave.
Kansas City Royals: I give Buster Olney credit for trying. He laid out an argument for the five-year, $55-million contract the Royals handed over to Gil Meche, and as the workings of a devil's advocate go, it's not bad. I don't think there's a whole lot of evidence that "statement" signings eventually lead to enhanced credibility in dealing with future free agents, but the idea certainly has legs within the game. Money and winning seem to be the biggest factors in winning bidding wars, not an established willingness to overpay for mediocrity.
Make no mistake about it, that's what the Royals have done. They've committed $55 million-a magic number in the history of Stupid Free Agent Tricks-to a pitcher with no track record of being anything better than a #4 starter, who's never been healthy for three straight years, who has been incredibly protected pitching in Safeco Field in front of good defenses. He didn't get better as the year went on, he's not developing in any significant way-he has never gotten back to where he was in 2000-and I'll bet dollars to donuts that when Nate Silver generates his PECOTA comps, we're going to see a lot of guys who were out of baseball at 32.
The money is actually a secondary concern. The Royals have money to burn, as do all the other teams in the game, and I don't know that I can even make the argument that throwing $11 million a year away on Gil Meche is going to negatively affect them down the road. It's having Gil Meche that's the problem. He's not even a legitimate mid-rotation starter like Ted Lilly or Vicente Padilla. He's product of his environment, and removed from it, there's a better chance that his ERA will be above 5.00 than below 4.00. That may still make him the #1 guy in Kansas City, but it doesn't make him worth that kind of money or that kind of commitment.
The Royals also tossed away a power arm in Ambiorix Burgos, acquiring some back-rotation fodder from the Mets in Brian Bannister for their trouble. I'm not a fan of Burgos, who makes way too many mistakes with his stuff to be a contributor right now, but he had 65 and 72 strikeouts in the past two seasons out of the bullpen. I'm not sure Bannister, a starter, will do better than that.
St. Louis Cardinals: Just as they were a year ago on A.J. Burnett, they were first loser in the Jason Schmidt sweepstakes, leaving them without a #2 or #3 starter and with none left on the market. If the money spent on Chris Carpenter-$65 million over five years, but more accurately a three-year, $49-million deal covering 2009-11-was a preemptive strike on complaints about a large investment in Schmidt, then the Cards were left with the worst of both worlds: no Jason Schmidt, and a massive, unnecessary commitment to Carpenter's ages 34-36 seasons without knowing how he'll get through the next two years.
I remain unconvinced that Chris Duncan can play left field for a major-league team, although I might concede that his bat could carry his glove if the team got a lot of strikeouts and had a small outfield in their home park. Does that sound like the Cardinals to you? A Duncan/Jon Lieber deal makes some sense, as Duncan could team with Shane Victorino as an offense/defense platoon in right field for the Phillies. The guy does have legitimate 35-homer, .550-SLG power, but he just doesn't fit the Cards' roster. They have to turn him into the best starting pitcher they can find, and they didn't do that last week.
It turned out to be a non-story, but for a few hours last week, wasn't the idea of Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols batting back-to-back just too delicious? That probably would have been the second-best 3-4 in baseball history, behind only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and that's with Bonds in his .260/.420/.520 decline phase.
But hey, Bonds/Aurilia will be almost as good.
Chicago White Sox: They blew their huge advantage-six starting pitchers-on Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, and they still have both Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson starting in the outfield. I have come around on Kenny Williams, who in addition to building a championship team is a pretty funny guy, but this was a clunker. Floyd and Gonzalez don't have a place on the Sox, who might actually have six guys better than the two and who have most of the rotation locked up years into the future. They'll gain $9 million in payroll flexibility, but there's no obvious way for them to spend it. I wonder if the Phillies would have thrown Pat Burrell into the deal and picked up some money.
There was a rumor last Thursday that the Sox were about to deal Jon Garland to the Astros for Willy Taveras, Taylor Buchholz and possibly Jason Hirsh. It didn't happen, and it doesn't appear that it will, but that's the kind of deal I expect from Kenny Williams these days.
Tomorrow is the deadline for tendering contracts for 2007. It's always an interesting decision day, and we'll look at some of the more challenging decisions teams face in Tuesday's column.
That's it for the baseball content, so if you prefer not to read about other stuff, stop here.
I would sooner walk home than fly out of Orlando's airport again. If you'd designed an airport as a social experiment to see how quickly you could get a brawl going, this is what it would look like. I fully expect to see promos on Bravo for a new reality show, "Arrested at the Airport!", in which perfectly normal people are driven to violent crimes by the process of getting from the curb to the gate at MCO.
Mind you, I generally fly out of LAX, which was designed by six blind Tibetan monks after a nine-day fast and a crack-smoking contest. An airport has to be really, really bad to get my attention.
I checked in at the curb Friday morning-late Thursday night, almost, given that at that same hour the three previous days, I hadn't yet gone to bed. That process, and the walk to the security lines, was disarmingly easy. I was thinking I'd get to stop and have some breakfast, check the wireless situation, load up on my Ativan, maybe even nap before boarding. It was my fault, really; the airport could sense the hubris.
There were four distinct lanes at security, and I picked the one that was furthest to the right. It wasn't moving terribly well, but the crowd seemed light, and I was optimistic. I showed by boarding pass and ID, and moved forward…into a mob. The "lines" were designed only to get you to that person checking IDs. They all fed into an undefined open area and a hairpin turn back the other way, to one lane and then an entry that led to the X-ray machines. Picture a track with defined lanes, and then those lanes disappearing at the turn and funneling everyone into one line, then reversing field immediately.
It was a nightmare. If you were in an outside "line", you naturally walked around the long way, but you eventually realized that in doing this, you had no chance to make any progress because the lines inside you would always be feeding people in "under" you. The line that appeared to be furthest left when I approached was actually the only one with a direct path, essentially a U-turn, into the main line. The rest of the lanes were basically left to fend for themselves. With no check on the flow of people-it doesn't take long to match up a boarding pass and an ID-the pool of people making the turn grew quickly. It was arguably the least efficient method you could have designed that didn't involve bear traps.
Once I figured out that we weren't in lines any longer, I was pretty aggravated. The only way to make progress was, to be blunt, to be a jackass. The flow of people out of the three inner lanes and into the turn required you to cut them off to make progress. I'm not tall-I mean, I'm tall by the standards of the few guys who do this job, but that's about it-so I kind of ducked in behind the guy in front of me and let him play blocking back. I mean, I was close enough that I probably owe him a drink or flowers or something. When we surged forward, I stayed connected as this four-wide group of people jammed into a single line, and there was contact. Some guy behind me started mouthing off at me-because, you know, I wanted to be in this situation-and we exchanged pleasantries. At 5:30 a.m., I'm not that pleasant. I wasn't real happy that the layout was causing an incredible problem, and I was less happy that the people around me couldn't identify that the layout was the problem.
Now, the survivors move into the bonus round, the room with all of the X-ray machines. Two rows of seven, exactly two of which were being used on our side. Apparently, MCO had added 30 or 40 flights since Thursday morning, and the sudden throngs of people caught TSA unawares. So we continued the slog through the lines, gazing longingly at the staggeringly expensive pieces of equipment going unused.
No, wait, it gets better. As we approach the side of the room with actual employees, one of them decides to brighten my morning. See, I was wearing a gray USC sweatshirt, and I guess this guy had gotten the rabbit ears on the TV in his mom's basement adjusted just right and was aware that USC had blown a chance to play in the national championship game.
"WHAT HAPPENED? HEY, MAN, WHAT HAPPENED?"
Picture that, but at 5:40 in the morning, in a room lit up like the surface of the sun, after being put through a December, 1967 Moscow bread line just to get to this point.
Once I realized he was talking to me, I just shrugged and smiled, but he kept after me for an answer. "WHAT HAPPENED, MAN? HEY, WHAT HAPPENED? YOU GUYS SURE BLEW THAT ONE!"
(TSA employees, and not any danger in the air, are why you shouldn't carry guns to the airport.)
OK, I'll fence: "So it's a quarter to six in the morning, you've got five machines going unused, and now you're going to give me crap?"
"Hey, man, you increase my budget and I'll be glad to open more of these."
Yeah, thanks, Captain Useless.
I got through the machine, picked up my stuff and walked off. It turns out the MCO has wireless Internet, but a really poor assortment of vendors. I had no appetite after the experience, so that was fine. I boarded the plane, was seated, mercifully, next to another nervous flier, and made it back to LA without further incident.
I find it hard to believe that TSA would take a process that is high-stress already and add elements-incredibly poor design, obnoxious employees-to exacerbate that, but perhaps we've moved past "security theatre" to "security dinner theatre," with all that term implies. In any case, the set-up at Orlando airport is more than enough to ensure that my next trip to Walt Disney World will coincide with the opening of a "Skating With the Devil" attraction.