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November 28, 2007
Transaction Analysis Special
Chicago White Sox
Oops. In itself, the deal with the Angels isn't a bad thing, it's just that it doesn't fit in very well with the initial decision to keep Juan Uribe for $4.5 million, and there's the irony that the exchange might have also encouraged the Halos to upgrade on Gary Matthews Jr. and go get the center fielder Kenny Williams so clearly wanted for his own club.
Lamenting the money that's now effectively wasted on Uribe aside, though, as a direct one-for-one, this isn't a bad trade for the Sox, since it's one year of Cabrera for one of Garland. Cabrera's an obvious offensive upgrade, and probably a defensive one as well, and it will be interesting to see if he's the sort of hitter who can exploit the Cell's short corners. A lot of his doubles in Angel Stadium were hit into the left field corner; if he maintains that, he should deliver some extra souvenirs.
As far as the rotation, here again I think Williams drew a reasonable conclusion-that Jon Garland isn't going to be the difference maker in fielding a competitive club. They're still leading off with Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez. Nobody's willing to take a chance on Jose Contreras, so the challenge is to fix him, again, and if anybody has experience there, it's the Sox and pitching coach Don Cooper, the folks who turned the big Cuban around in the first place. They're left hoping that John Danks and Gavin Floyd pan out, fast, but you can also invest some hope that maybe next spring is the one where Charlie Haeger starts channeling Charlie Hough, or that very different prospects like Gio Gonzalez, Jack Egbert, and/or Lance Broadway pan out. Obviously, the Sox could use a veteran journeyman to bring in as insurance against too many kids and Contreras falling victim to an uncorrectable error. There's still enough to choose from in that bin, whether it's filler like Livan Hernandez or Kyle Lohse, or guys bouncing back from injury (Kris Benson, Jason Jennings, maybe even a return engagement with Bartolo Colon). The worst choices would involve names like 'Trachsel' or Weaver the Elder, but it shouldn't come to that.
So the real problem is that the team doesn't have a center fielder, but at least it now has a shortstop. I wouldn't bang on Kenny Williams too much as far as his having a march stolen on him by Tony Reagins and the Angels. If there's one area of the market that still has good stock, it's center field, and it doesn't have to involve a monster deal with Aaron Rowand. Andruw Jones or Mike Cameron would fill the bill, especially if the money was right. If Williams decides to play for lower stakes I think the irony of seeing Corey Patterson on the South Side would be delicious; it might even finally engender some real hatred for the Sox among Cubs fans, finally leading to some two-way animosity in town.
The problem is that if the Sox see themselves as having a dividend because they didn't get Hunter, spending it on Linebrink is exactly where you don't want to go. While he hasn't gone pumpkin and still should have value, he's just not the set-up star from San Diego from three or four years ago, and taking him out of Petco, and then putting him into the tougher league in a tougher park? That's a formula for bitter disappointment. While the desire to fix the club's pen is appropriate, and Linebrink should still be at least an adequate set-up man for Bobby Jenks, this is a pretty big commitment to a guy who's already lost something, and who seems likely to lose still more to a change in competitive environments from one that could forgive the occasional mistake to one that usually doesn't.
Stocking up on bit players might be the only thing most teams can do in this market, so I guess we can credit Ed Wade for rummaging around at the bottom of the barrel. Because of his lack of range, Blum's not an especially attractive alternative to Adam Everett at short, but if Chris Burke fails to make progress, he may well end up playing an awful lot of second base for this team. In general, a switch-hitting infield reserve has his uses, so while Blum's not tremendously better than a minor league journeyman, the money's insignificant, and the uncertainty about the roster's eventual makeup makes him a bit of a space-saver.
As for the pitching add-ons, Villarreal is a decent enough utility pitcher on a staff with more than a little uncertainty as far as who's doing what, and as a guy who's especially effective against right-handers in recent years, he's an extremely worthwhile pickup for a team that has a short porch in left field to worry about. Brocail would seem like a bit of a reach for what they're paying him after his weak work in 2005 and 2004, but his comeback campaign with the Pads this past season saw him return to being a useful middle reliever. My problem is that he's a bit of a strange fit for the Astros-when he's at his best, he's fooling lefties with his off-speed stuff, and he'll need to be hidden away from some of the right-handed power the other teams in the division can turn to. Still, we're not talking major money, and if it becomes a case where Cecil Cooper demonstrates some ability to match Villarreal and Brocail to relief roles in which they can succeed, it'll be cash well spent.
Wow, this Reagins guy isn't shy. The Garland deal is a nice swap-out, in that it exploits one area of depth-infield talent-to permit a worthwhile hedge in their rotation. Garland isn't a star pitcher, but dropped into the fourth slot behind John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, and Jered Weaver, he doesn't need to be. This in turn creates another nice problem-who's your fifth starter, Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana? If Santana looks like he's bouncing back from a bad season in the spring, you can shop him for value should another need arise, but maybe a team decides to take a chance in the meantime; Reagins can afford to talk about it.
In Cabrera's place at short, they can go straight to basepaths commando Erick Aybar to see if the former top prospect is going to be something special, or just the new Alfredo Griffin. If they decide that's not to their taste, they can fall back to Maicer Izturis, and maybe even keep Brandon Wood at short for another year in case they want to leave that option open and go for a player as dissimilar from Aybar as you might imagine. Aybar's speed and contact-hitting is attractive to a club that values those things, and defensively, he remains talented and toolsy. If those things come together, they might have a nifty player, but if they don't, they can make a pretty quick change without endangering their shot at another division title.
Then there's the Hunter deal, daring because you might have thought the Angels already had a long-term fix in center. It's impressive to see the Angels continue to flex their financial muscle, certainly, something they should be doing if they want to mount a better challenge to the other titans in the league. Hunter seems likely to wind up in right while also playing some center; maybe Matthews plays some left on days that Garret Anderson sits, while Vladimir Guerrerro sees more of his days spent at DH. This isn't a bad place to get to, as the larger risks here are ones already taken-banking on Anderson and Matthews. The real challenge is whether you'd pay Hunter this kind of money to play right, which is not quite so exciting, because for me, the answer in the abstract is an easy "no." Effectively, I'd like this deal a lot more if it presaged a trade involving Matthews, but that's not possible, or at least would be very difficult and involve lots of negotiation, because Little Sarge has a full no-trade clause that runs through 2009. Relative to the position, Hunter's not a great hitter for a right fielder-the Equivalent Average for all right fielders last year was .272, while Hunter's season clocks in at .279. That's not bad, but it's basically the definition of mediocrity, and I don't think we expect Hunter to deliver at this level year after year into his thirties through 2012. In terms of additional value, Hunter should be a defensive asset and he runs well, but that's still not quite what I'd want to spend $18 million per year on, not if it was my call. However, keep in mind what adding Hunter does-it solves the club's DH problem by giving them a quartet of outfielders who can slug, so no more Shea Hillenbrand-style "solutions." Add getting full seasons in 2008 from Howie Kendrick and Chone Figgins to the net effect of adding Hunter and elevating Aybar to solve their broken DH situation and replace Cabrera, respectively, and you should see an improved Angels offense. The only player they should anticipate seeing lose any significant ground on his 2007 season would be Anderson, and that's after he delivered his best year since 2003.
The other notable ripple coming off of Reagins' splash into the free agent market is that the Hunter deal probably makes Reggie Willits trade bait instead of a glorified fifth outfielder; if Reagins is as smart as he seems, that'll happen before the season starts. (Pity poor Kenny Williams only this-it would have been nifty if he could have gotten Willits somehow in the Garland exchange, but since he shouldn't feel burned, that's still achievable in some new, smaller deal.)
These are not the moves of an aspiring division winner. Estrada's performance dropped of from what they were hoping for, so they change gears and bring in... Kendall? That's trading down, and paying handsomely to do so. It took less than two months for the National League (and the Cubs) to figure out that Kendall's every bit as cooked as he looked at the end of his days in Oakland, but if the Brewers want to pay more than four million for a weak-armed backstop having more and more trouble cleanly receiving pitches, figuring that at least he's still got that rep as one of the game's tough guys, I can only wonder what they'd pay Mickey Rourke. As thin as the options are at catcher on the market, this is a bad deal, even if it doesn't vest, and especially if he earns his incentives, because they're all tied to playing time, which means more money for more Kendall. Ditching Estrada to add Mota only makes it worse-Estrada's not a star, but he wasn't fungible, and Mota is.
Talk about an early reason to give thanks... Choate was given a guaranteed contract, and went straight onto the 40-man roster. Since he spent the year in Tucson, this was more than a slightly happy development for the journeyman. Don't get me wrong, he may well prove adequate for the role of second lefty in a big league pen, but carrying that on your 40-man over the winter isn't something that's really necessary.
What value there is here is dependent on what you think you're getting when you acquire something with the label 'Craig Monroe' attached to it. Did you pick up a right-handed platoon masher with some value as a defender in either outfield corner? That then is a nice little holiday pickup, the sort of thing you can feel good about within a wider panoply of moves; Monroe could make for an especially handy platoon partner for Jason Kubel. However, with Monroe's eligibility for arbitration and the relatively high starting point of his $4.8 million 2007 salary, he'll be an expensive bit part. From his public comments, general manager Bill Smith seems to understand that Monroe is little more than that, while delegating the responsibility for what Monroe's role might be to manager Ron Gardenhire. That strikes me as a bit silly-Smith has to sort out whether he wants to pay that sort of player at least $3.84 million via arbitration (employing the maximum paycut of offering Monroe 80 percent of last season's salary), or work out a deal that provides Monroe security before getting to the day they have to decide to tender or non-tender him. There's room for negotiation, but the Twins shouldn't pay out almost $4 million for a spare part, and if they settle for something like a Jason Tyner/Monroe platoon in center, that isn't exactly going to help the club clamber back into contention.
New York Mets
Some people are already crying wolf, noting that Omar Minaya's acquiring more Latin talent, but it was ever thus, and if it involves good Latin talent, why should we care? In the case of the catchers, he's lined up a solid pair of productive non-stars, either of whom can provide value at the position if the other breaks down. Even if they take a hit in arbitration with Estrada, they're not going to really be spending that much more than they did when they were carrying Paul Lo Duca on the payroll, and they're going to get better offensive results from a Ramonny Castrada platoon behind the plate. Admittedly, Estrada had his problems with the running game in Milwaukee, but I suspect that will be less of a problem with the Mets than it was with one of the more dysfunctional defensive teams around.
However, even setting aside the race rants, the Castillo deal's a bit harder to accept. Looking at the free agent market makes it a little easier-David Eckstein's the best middle infield alternative, and he'd probably cost less than six million per for less than four years. Otherwise, there's what, going back to Kaz Matsui? I think not, not when he hit like Kaz Matsui when he wasn't getting the advantage of calling Coors Field home; he's still the same player the Mets discarded, with cause. And I can understand some reasonable skepticism that Ruben Gotay's going to hit .295/.351/.421 on demand, nice as that would be. So you're basically stuck with a proposition-Eckstein, making a deal, Castillo, or the unknown. Eckstein represents a nice, possibly-cheaper option; that's the road not taken.
Which brings us to the problems with this deal: the money, the length of the deal, and what they think they have in Castillo. Defensively, he never adapted to turf in Minnesota, but his subsequent play in the field with the Mets did nothing to inspire confidence; use any metric-FRAA, Dave Pinto's PMR, Revised Zone Rating, whatever-and there's not a lot that suggests that Castillo's an asset. Maybe he's adequate, and maybe he's worse than that, and that isn't going to get better as he gets older. He's no longer the guy who can steal 50 bases for you; if you're lucky he'll average close to 20 per season over the life of the deal. We can safely say that his slugging is a non-factor.
What does that leave, then, besides supply and demand as a justification? To give credit where it may or may not be due, the value here really boils down to Castillo's ability to get on base. Here again, his ability to deliver has been in decline, but if Castillo delivers OBPs in the .350-.360 range over the life of the contract, the Mets will have reason to believe they did good. He underperformed what was projected for him before the 2007 season, but even so, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation. Is that worth six million bucks per year for four years? I don't see why not, especially with that sort of OBP being bankable as runs scored when you put it in front of the lineup's core talent.
Keep in mind, the Mets took a pair of rolls of the dice with Jose Valentin, and it paid off once, and burned them the second time. After that, you can understand if, looking at this free agent market, and calculating the likelihood of swinging a deal for a "name" second baseman, Omar decided to punt on the whole exercise and go for a player whose core contributions seem somewhat stable. If that meant forgoing the opportunity to see if a guy like Gotay has some more surprises in store, that's an understandable bit of risk-avoidance for a team that should be focused on delivering a decisive victory in the division in 2008.
A pretty straightforward arbitration eligibility-minded dump-off of a fun yet very replaceable player, made easier still because the club has Donnie Murphy and Jack Hannahan providing a nice righty/lefty tandem of infield reserves. Murphy's not a great shortstop, but neither was Scooter, so I don't see this as a handicap; the A's bet is still that Bobby Crosby pans out, and if that doesn't work, there's no meaningful difference between having Scutaro or Murphy to plug into the lineup in his place. Godfrey's a semi-interesting arm, a 2006 late-round pick who made his pro debut in the Midwest League this year after impressing the Jays with his work in the Cape Cod League. He's a guy who gets ground-ball outs and spins a nice curve, and maybe that turns into something, and maybe we never hear of him again.
Pat Gillick digs up another one of his former Mariner farmhands? Not exactly shocking, but I do like the move as a potential low-end fix to their outfield problem now that Aaron Rowand's gone. Say they move right fielder Shane Victorino to center; his bat profiles better there in the first place, and he's got the glove for it. Jayson Werth's a productive bat, but like Snelling, he has his past problems with durability to live down. So why not have Snelling and Werth in a job-share of sorts? Not a straight platoon, because I'd expect Snelling to break down on the heavy side of that kind of arrangement until he proves that he won't, but a nice split where both of them get 300 PA or so, both contribute OBP and power, and perhaps both of them make it through the year uninjured.
That's a better solution than spending tons of money on some of the dreck in the market, certainly, and allows the Phillies to instead throw money at their other notable problems, like third base or the pitching staff. Admittedly, this is investing a foolish amount of hope that Snelling can stay healthy, but I like what it might represent. Certainly, as a practical matter it wouldn't be a bad thing if they could also get someone like Corey Patterson cheaply, as long as they still had the freedom to try and swing a deal for an expensive and unwanted third baseman-Joe Crede? Morgan Ensberg?-or pick up somebody on the low end of the market, like Mike Lamb.
This was simply the logical upshot of Dave Littlefield's inability to deal Jack Wilson last summer. Play him regularly, and I think you could get something not unlike his usual regular-play payoff-good defense at short, .260/.300/.330, and an Equivalent Average in the .220s. Not much, to be sure, but that's about the level that guys like McDonald or Tony Pena Jr. aspire to (and reach), and they're seen as assets by their clubs.
Certainly, these are interesting times when it comes to how people see-and stock-the shortstop position. As counter-examples like Jhonny Peralta or Brendan Harris or Stephen Drew suggest, some teams have been willing to take a hit on defense, while teams like the Jays and the Royals have obviously placed a premium on defense. I don't think we can elevate this to competing paradigms-picking from among "the new Jeters" as opposed to "the new Belangers"-because this is really a matter of teams plugging holes with readily-available low-end solutions. The Indians aren't wild about Peralta's glovework and know that there's a problem, one they've worked on fixing. The Rays thought Ben Zobrist was their shortstop, and he flubbed his shot last year; Harris and later Josh Wilson were patches. The Jays sort of drifted into relying on McDonald in the same way the Cubs drifted into using Ryan Theriot; both teams would rather have somebody better. Only Dayton Moore made Pena part of his initial grand design, in part because he was familiar with him from the Braves organization.
It makes for an interesting group of solutions for the teams that don't have star shortstops, and it's fun that there have been such wildly divergent fixes. It's interesting that some teams have been willing to take their lumps on defense because they decide that a guy like Harris is close enough to good enough; it certainly contributed to the Rays' little shop of defensive horrors, something that probably won't be repeated, but there again, people said the same thing about David Eckstein when he was initially moved to short by the Angels.
Wags might point out that LaRue fulfills the unspoken rule that the Cardinals must employ a veteran backup reserve for Yadier Molina behind the plate who is unlikely to outhit their starting catcher. However, LaRue is still a good receiver and catch-and-throw guy, and you can always hope that a move to the weaker league will bring his bat back to life, perhaps even up to Gary Bennett standards.
Mad Dog and Kevin Towers struck their agreement weeks back, but getting the hard copy inked took time. Maddux is no dummy, recognizing that he's going to be able to wind down his career in a park that forgives an old man his limitations. I wonder about how cool it might be to be a young pitcher and a Padre. Skippering the club, you've got Bud Black, a great pitching coach in the past, and the club's pitching coach, Darren Balsley, also has a good rep. Darrell Akerfelds, the bullpen coach, had a nice run working with farmhands in the organization in the late '90s before getting his current job in 2002. And then there's Maddux, a guy credited with having a positive impact on younger teammates from all the way back when he was a Cub and had never been anything but. I don't think that's coincidental with seeing someone like Justin Germano break through.
Toronto Blue Jays
Scaring up Billy Beane's leavings seems to be a Jays habit going back to the earliest early days of J.P. Ricciardi's reign as general manager, and hey, with the Canadian dollar doing so well, trading for guys on the cusp of arbitration probably doesn't have the same built-in deterrent that it used to. It's nice to see Scooter get the payday, certainly, since he very nearly didn't have a career. Coming up in the Indians organization with Roberto Alomar ahead of him made him trade bait thrown into the Wickman package of 2000, and although he was initially behind Ronnie Belliard there, the Brewers wasted time on Eric Young instead of turning to Scutaro (ah, the storied days of Dean and Wendy), which said how much the Brewers were invested in him. It wasn't a surprise that he subsequently drifted onto waivers, where the Mets snagged him-marooning him behind Robbie Alomar again. When the Mets even preferred Joe McEwing to Scooter, that prefigured his next trip to the wire, where the A's snagged him. Scutaro isn't really a defensive asset at second, short, or third, but he'll provide adequacy afield in (ideally) small doses.
The thing that's fun about Scutaro is that he also has the benefit of an outsized rep as a clutch hitter. That's not really reflected in his career stats (thank you as ever to Sean Forman and the B-Ref crew), but I think this is where we get caught in the distinction between performance and expectation, and the question of whether or not clutch is a skill, or just an adjective. Speaking as a fan, any time that Scutaro did something in a tight game, I considered that pretty clutch, but that's because Scooter's a fun scrub, not somebody I'd say "now we've got them-ducks on the pond, and Scooter's up. Take that, Mariano Rivera."