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November 21, 2007
Transaction Analysis Special
Early Big Game Hunting
Today's TA is going to have to deal with some pretty major developments with what will be, for me at least, unusual brevity, and we'll also break format to do so, updating the column during the course of the day. With that in mind, let's take a look at the big moves from the last week or so that have either given their fans cause to give thanks, or another reason to hope that surrendering themselves to tryptophan's sweet embrace can let them sleep off their disapointment.
So, they bring Glavine back for that last go-round, and as several of my colleagues and I have warned, the feel-good move isn't necessarily going to provide them with that extra starting pitcher this team needs. Handicapped as they are with having to observe a perfunctory faith that Mike Hampton will also be back and useful, the Braves rotation is basically lined up: John Smoltz and Tim Hudson up front, Glavine and Chuck James lineup up behind them in the third and fourth slots, with a possibly healthy Mike Hampton bringing up the rear. Buddy Carlyle's around for early-season veteran insurance (and can obviously be the instant plug-in if Hampton provides yet another disappointment of one sort or another), with Jair Jurrjens and Jo-Jo Reyes representing an excellent pair of eventual high-upside solutions should the Braves not contend and if any of the vets break down. (Even if he wasn't going to be spending much of 2008 rehabbing from elbow surgery, Anthony Lerew's got to work himself back into the organization's favor.)
Admittedly, that's not a bad spread on paper. Glavine should be a lot better than his last three starts as a Met could lead you to conclude; so awful were they that his season ERA went from 3.88 to 4.45; you might normally expect only relievers to allow 17 percent of their season's runs allowed total in three appearances. However, as that stretch and other spans of ineffectiveness in his Mets incarnation reflect, he's not nearly the machine that Braves fans might remember. I guess the doubt I harbor is born of my expectation that Hampton's no sure thing to be any good even if he is fully-functional in-season for the first time since April or May 2005, but having Carlyle, Jurrjens, and Reyes as alternatives beats paying market rates for somebody to be Julian Tavarez (or worse).
Off-loading Villarreal was a reflection of how crowded the field is getting in-house as far as quality relief options; Anderson's nothing more than an aspiring fifth outfield type more likely to entertain the good people in Richmond than provide the club with any real value. Rafael Soriano and Pete Moylan both seem to have earned their right to retain high-leverage roles next spring. From down on the farm, they have both Jose Ascanio and Manny Acosta well on their way towards establishing themselves. They have interesting science experiments with still-obscure power arms like Royce Ring and Phil Stockman, and added Chris Resop on a waiver claim to add to that category. They might take see either Tyler Yates or Joey Devine turn the corner. And all of this is without touching on the fact that Mike Gonzalez should be back in action in their pen by June, assuming all's well with his rehab from a Tommy John procedure on his elbow. Basically, they're in great shape, so if Frank Wren decides to continue to observe one of John Schuerholz's most frequently successful roster solutions and stick with a bunch of "nobodies" in the bullpen, they won't be disappointed.
Don't look at me-my pre-2007 season comment that Mike Lowell was going to regress is that really big bit of egg on my face that I don't think a belt-sander will get off after he put up what may well have been the best year of his career. Even so, I think the comparisons of this deal to the one Jason Varitek received after the 2004 championship are appropriate-it's a hero's reward, not a package built around a realistic expectation that he'll just keep having this sort of season year after year.
Even if I've been burned, I'm unbowed-a lot of Lowell's value is tied to three assets: his batting average (as a proxy for his ability to make consistent contact with authority), his durability, and his defense. The defense and durability seem to be the sorts of things that even if they decline, should still be virtues by the third year of the deal, when he'll be 36. Batting average makes for a pretty difficult quantity to rely upon, however, and to do my best Marc Normandin impression, a lot of this was tied to a spike in his batting average on balls in play. Relative to the offensive environment of 2007, his power slipped a notch last season; what happens if that continues and his average and OBP drop only the 40 points back to his 2006 level? If Mike Lowell hits "only" .280/.335/.450, is he worth his annual compensation of $12 million per year? Given the dearth of third basemen on the market, the relatively short contract, and allowing for whatever benefits come from promoting in-house amity in your relationships with your better players, that's not an unreasonable position.
My concern is the danger that Lowell's at an age where dropping "only" back to his 2006 levels involves the risk that he can drop a lot farther than that. By the time they find out, I suspect any window on moving Kevin Youkilis back across the diamond will have shut, but this might suggest a different destination for Jed Lowrie than moving from short to second. And that's assuming Lowrie can handle the hot corner, either in terms of first-step quickness or arm strength, and that his bat will play at the position. Wishcasting that he can do it isn't unreasonable, but the outcome would by no means be certain.
The real question for me is to wonder whether or not Lowell's telegraphed readiness to stay in Boston potentially triggered the quickly-rediscovered willingness of A-Rod and the Yankees to resolve matters, in light of the relatively small field of prospective bidders who might afford Rodriguez's services. Take Boston out of the field of potential suitors, and who's left? The Angels? The Dodgers? Sean/Puffy/Puff Daddy/P.Diddy/Diddy/Doodly/Do Combs' softball team? (And you thought the Steinbrenners might be hard to work for.)
Our own Mike Plugh already did a nifty job of talking about Kobayashi's virtues as a power reliever, so credit the Indians for moving quickly to address those nagging questions about how much any team should rely on Joe Borowski as its closer. The cost isn't prohibitive, and if Kobayashi's already 33, as long as he's dialing heat in the high 90s and throws that slider past people, he could prove to be as inspired a pickup as Takashi Saito has proved to be for the Dodgers.
New York Yankees
For all of the talk and rumor-mongering, none of the big four free agents from among Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada have actually signed anything. We do know that A-Rod and the human skeleton both seem overwhelmingly likely to stay in their roles as the team's third baseman and closer. However, I'll stick with my rule of waiting for a fact to become exactly that, with the additional understanding that where any scenario with variables including multiple Steinbrenners, A-Rod, and the pursuit of happiness is concerned, you might reasonably harbor some reasonable doubt. Keeping A-Rod will obviously be a good thing in a market that offers no viable alternative, and paying Rivera $15 million per for the three years will be an expensive thank-you for an obviously exceptional career. But once these become official, we can talk about them with a few facts to bring to the discussion, as well as a better understanding of what the expense may mean for the attempts to keep the other two.