December 31, 2007
Signed LHP Dontrelle Willis to a three-year, $29 million contract extension.
Since this effectively bought out two years of free agency for Willis as well as erasing this year's prospective arbitration case, it seems safe to say the Tigers are confident about their bet that putting Willis in front of a better defense and on a meaningful ballclub will lead to good things. While I'm sure some might be skittish about Willis' ability to keeping taking his turn after some pretty heavy workloads before his age-24 season, the length and the money aren't really cause for question. If you were going to make this bet in the first place, securing two additional years for a price a bit below market rates is entirely reasonable.
Signed LHP Ron Mahay to a two-year, $8 million contract; signed C-R Miguel Olivo to a one-year, $2 million contract; signed RHP Chin-Hui Tsao to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.
Now that's a raise. Mahay went from making $1.2 million last year to more than triple his salary? That's a definition of a weak market, but to be fair, Mahay was a pretty good choice to go out and get. Unlike a lot of situational lefties, Mahay doesn't get completely crushed by right-handed hitters; sure, they might hit for a decent average, but they don't tend to deliver a lot of power, and that makes leaving Mahay in against the odd right-handed batter-an inevitable tactical challenge for any LOOGY-a survivable in-game event. Add him to John Bale, and the Royals have a pretty handy pair of southpaws in the pen in that might wind up being one of the best in the league. They were already middle of the pack last year, but it could become the sort of unit that makes it easier for Trey Hillman to exercise a quick (and perhaps at times merciful) hook with some of his sketchier starters.
I also really like the decision to add Olivo, because he's a catcher who can shut down the running game and mash lefties a bit, or what I still refer to as the Mike Heath skill set. On his career, Olivo's hit lefties at a .291/.319/.524 clip, so last year's .295/.343/.463 wasn't anomalous. Perhaps John Buck needs a caddy who can absorb and do something with a third of the starts behind the plate, while the Royals could use one whose specific offensive skill-mashing lefty junk-gives them a reason to take Buck out of the lineup. No matter what, it's an upgrade on Jason LaRue while being a similar pickup in terms of what LaRue might have been able to deliver in a best-case scenario, with the added little bit of value in that it gives the club a native Spanish-speaking backstop.
Signed C-R Javy Lopez to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.
It would be easy to bang on this choice, but let's face it, McCann's playing time isn't really under any threat, and he bats lefty. If-just saying if Lopez shows up tanned, ready, and rested, maybe a little more nimble behind the plate, and maybe he has a little bit of sock in his bat and has some value against southpaws. He's apparently spent his year away from the game since being cut by the Rockies in camp losing bulk and regaining some snap to his throwing arm. It would be easy to write him off, and characterize this as just another prodigal son story in an industry that can't get enough of them, but there really isn't any down side to this, especially when the only alternatives to Lopez in the competition for the job of caddying for McCann are Brayan Peña and Clint Sammons. Both are nice catch-and-throw types, and I could see simply making do with Peña, but this is an understandable and interesting roll of the dice.
Adding the prize of the Japanese import market is definitely a major coup for Jim Hendry, and ideally it provides the Cubs with exactly what they needed-a second outfield regular who can give them the sort of multi-facteted contributions on offense that makes it easier to leave the third outfield slot to some sort of choice or mixing and matching of the virtues of Felix Pie, Matt Murton, and whoever else. The best thing Fukudome brings into the fold is a lefty-hitting OBP source who might get aboard at a clip in the high .300s while slugging at least in the mid-.400s. Put that in front of Alfonso Soriano and Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, and that gives you a fourth pillar in a lineup that needed exactly this sort of boost, and that kind of (presumed) offensive reliability can afford Hendry and Piniella the opportunity to explore some of their options at the other positions.
Where? Well, not just Geovany Soto behind the plate; that was already in motion from the moment the Cubs sensibly noted that Jason Kendall's bat was as dead as William Henry Harrison. But perhaps this will also open up the possibility of taking a similar chance on Ronny Cedeño at short, and also sorting out the outfield in a way that similarly creates opportunity for the third of their blue-chip prospects, Felix Pie. If Fukudome's glove really is up to playing center now and again, a platoon of Pie and Murton might even provide the kind of outlet for each player's best contributions, with Pie playing against almost all right-handers and providing speed, power, and defense, while Murton chips in against lefties when he isn't giving Alfonso Soriano an off-day. Letting the veterans carry the initial burden until the truly talented kids are established could plausibly produce a Cubs lineup that delivers all the way down from one through eight. It might involve a bumpy April, but in this division it's still only going to take an eighty-something win total to take the title, and that lineup, the one that has both the top prospects and the quality vets, could be very tough come October.
Tendered contracts to 2B-R Brandon Phillips and RHP Matt Belisle; non-tendered RHP Brad Salmon and SS-R Jerry Gil, but subsequently re-signed them to minor league deals; acquired RHP Justin James from the Blue Jays to complete the Buck Coats trade.
Signed INF-R Jose Castillo and RHP Justin Miller ($750,000) to one-year contracts.
I've been a Castillo apologist for several seasons, but if this is supposed to be the solution to the club's third base problems, either by providing them with a second baseman who allows them to move Dan Uggla to third, or to plug in Castillo at the hot corner, I don't like it. Given the organization's two-year ulcer in center field, if this is a solution-and keep in mind, they signed Castillo to a guaranteed contract. Add in the question of whether or not Hanley Ramirez should be a shortstop, and it makes for an interesting series of overlapping problems.
For the sake of argument, let's say Ramirez moves to third, accepting that center field is out of the picture now that Cameron Maybin's in the organization, and that you leave Uggla at second. The reason you go that route is because you decide you'd rather play Robert Andino at short, and that I'd understand and like, at least on some level. Andino took a step forward as a hitter in his age-23 season last year, although it might be exaggerated a bit on a first glance at his counting stats because of his 640-plus plate appearances with Albuquerque. He also still has the physical tools to play a good short. If you gave me a choice between a scenario that involves Castillo playing anywhere, or Alfredo Amezaga moving to second and Uggla to third, or scaring up some other crash-test dummy akin to the suspects thrown at the center field hole, then taking a chance on Andino might be the best-case solution.
You might ask "why not Morgan Ensberg," and I can understand where you're coming from. However, I think there's a larger problem to solve here, not a matter of maximizing the team's offensive potential, but also of providing it with a defense good enough to help the organization's innumerable young hurlers make the jump, and putting a player like Ramirez at a position he could be playing for the next good Marlins team. An all-thumbs infield of Ensberg, HanRam, and Uggla might be entertaining in the offensive half of their innings, but I guess I'm pondering the more basic question about what to do with the HanRam-Uggla combo at the keystone, since a defense might be able to afford one or the other, but both seems like one iron glove too many. There again, I'm not sure Uggla could be a good third baseman, but among Ramirez's gifts is a strong arm. It's plausible that he could go from defensive challenge to infield asset.
Acquired RHP Jose Valverde from the Diamondbacks for UT-R Chris Burke and RHPs Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez; acquired SS-R Miguel Tejada from the Orioles for OF-L Luke Scott, LHP Troy Patton, RHPs Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate, and 3B-L Mike Costanzo; signed RHP Oscar Villarreal to a two-year, $2.85 million contract with a $2 million club option for 2010; signed 1B/OF-L Darin Erstad ($1 million) and RHPs Chad Paronto ($500,000) and Jack Cassel ($400,000) to one-year contracts; claimed RHP Ryan Houston off of waivers from the Blue Jays; non-tendered SS-R Adam Everett, making him a free agent.
Add it all up, and it's a straight win-now play, and I like what I'm seeing. Let's face it, the farm system's a burned ruin, and has been for years, so there isn't really anything to build with if you wanted to rebuild. Even if there was-say, around Gutierrez or Patton or Albers or Costanzo-hey, that's gone up in smoke like a latter-day Hernán Cortez non-escape clause. Maybe it's just me, but I'm more put out by the package sent to Arizona for Valverde than the one deposited with Baltimore for Tejada. I'll admit that's because I'm more optimistic about Gutierrez's upside than over any of the pitchers sent to the Orioles, as well as recognizing that Qualls has already shown that he's among the best relievers in the league. If those two pitchers turn out better than anybody shipped out to the Orioles, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised. Nevertheless, Valverde does have the virtue of already being experienced in the art of closing while pitching in a bandbox, and he has none of the temperamental drama that came with employing Brad Lidge. The real concern is that Valverde has his problems staying healthy, but let's face it, having made this crazy bid for contention, you're already in the business of taking risks.
Then there's adding Tejada, a move I decidedly like, and even if he's moving from one park that's righty power-friendly to another, I still expect he'll pop a few extra homers after looking at his hit locations from the last couple of years-a few of his doubles in Camden are corner shots, and you put a player with his plate coverage in a park where he has an even more tantalizing target like the Crawford Boxes, and I have to think good things can result. As for the argument that you should have kept Everett to move Tejada to third, I'm not buying it. Start from the assumption that you're going to win now-which is what getting Tejada has to be all about-and you need all the runs you can score with the dregs you're going to have to rely upon on the mound. Tejada's not a great shortstop, but he's also not a complete liability, and if you give me a choice between Ty Wigginton's bat and Everett's in a lineup that's already stuck with defense-minded additions in Kaz Matsui and Michael Bourn, and I think Ed Wade made the right choice. Put it another way: Everett made $2.8 million last year. Go to arbitration with him, and the best outcome is you get that down to $2.5 million, and you're paying that to a guy who hits .229/.277/.318 everywhere that doesn't have the Crawford Boxes, or slightly worse than John McDonald has hit on his career. That's a lot to pay for a one-way player who can't even do you the good turn of running well.
Put the equation another way:
Wade's Choice Somebody Else's 2B Matsui SS Everett SS Tejada CF Pence CF Bourn 2B Burke RF Pence RF Scott
Maybe it's just me, but I can see the virtues of the left side of that exchange. You're putting Hunter Pence at a position he's better suited for. If Bourn delivers a .340 OBP-I admit, I'm an optimist in this case-this works on several levels. If there's a risk in the equation, it's the calculation that Burke's not going to pan out, but the list of second basemen who turned into squat is pretty long, and at this point, admittedly by their own commission as far as jerking him around as far as role and position, Burke's been pretty scrubby. It's not like we're even talking Brett Barberie here in terms of wasted potential.
As for the rest, I'm okay with picking up Cassel-a sinkerballer who might be better-equipped to survive Juicy Juice MonsterPark than Woody Williams-and Paronto as extra arms for a pitching staff that has almost nothing but question marks beyond ace (Roy Oswalt) and closer (Valverde). I'm a lot less excited about signing Erstad. It isn't the money that's annoying, it's the simple fact that you've signed Darin Erstad, and that's your idea of an adequate bench player. Blame injuries all you like, he's effectively been an offensive zero four of the last five years. As a hitter, he's hitting with less authority, and slowing up enough to fail to beat out grounders for base hits the way he did when he was the all-tools talent that got so many people excited. His walk rate went up a tick last year, but not so much as to suddenly make him an OBP threat. When he's healthy, he still runs well, and he can still handle center, but how often is he ever healthy? Why specifically pick Erstad, who has done so little for so long? There are better outfield reserves who have signed just in this edition of TA, but there are also still better options out there. If you're decided upon an outfield reserve who can run and field, there are other guys available who are more durable (Nook Logan), and some are better at getting on-base (like Jason Tyner). Then there are the outfield spares who might actually hit a little who should still out there, guys like John Rodriguez or Brady Clark or Ben Johnson. Luis Terrero, even. Basically, you had options, and some freedom to pick and choose. The problem with signing Darin Erstad to a guaranteed contract is that you're guaranteed to open the year with Darin Erstad, and you're almost just as certainly guaranteed to get very little in the way of production. It's not a major mistake, but a bad choice, and the sort of idiosyncratic decision that too closely resembles Wade's willing make-believe about the virtues of Doug Glanville or Marlon Anderson back in the day. There were better choices, and if the Astros are going to take this bid for contention seriously, they should have afforded themselves the opportunity to make one of them.
Tendered contracts to SS-R J.J. Hardy, RHPs Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas, and LHPs Brian Shouse and Chris Capuano; non-tendered RHP Matt Wise and OF-R Kevin Mench, making them free agents; outrighted OF-L Laynce Nix to Nashville (Triple-A); signed C-L Eric Munson to a one-year, $525,000 contract, avoiding arbitration; signed OF-R Gabe Kapler ($800,000), C-R Mike Rivera ($395,000), and RHPs Eric Gagné ($10 million) and Seth McClung ($750,000) to one-year contracts.
Try as I might, I just can't get worked up about a decision to bring in Gagné. The terms are right, but I just don't have a lot of faith that he's any more certain a quantity than Derrick Turnbow, and putting them in a pen that's now relying on David Riske, Salomon Torres, and Guillermo Mota. That's a gaggle of relievers who, to a man, have already seen their best years, and it isn't like Doug Melvin has brought them in cheaply. Tot up the charges, and the Brewers will wind up paying something like $23 million or more for bullpen help-and it's still not guaranteed to be a genuinely good bullpen, but just one that employs a number of the formerly famous. In the meantime, there's the problem with sorting out how to field an almost-adequate defensive unit, and a Kendall-sized mistake behind the plate. There are worse winters being endured somewhere, but this looks like a lot of frittering away of opportunities to own a division still looking for its master.
Signed RHP Matt Wise to a one-year, $1.2 million contract; non-tendered RHP Juan Padilla, C-S Johnny Estrada, and OF-R Ben Johnson, making them free agents.
I've probably been more than derisive enough for one off-season towards the Mets' moves at catcher, but the up-side is that they effectively exchange Guillermo Mota for Wise while saving some cash, and... well, not even that makes all that much sense. They're short Lastings Milledge, and wind up with Brian Schneider instead of Estrada, and with Wise instead of Mota, and none of it really helps make the Mets a better ballclub. The Phillies and Braves have to be thanking their stars that this is how Omar Minaya's spending his winter.
Signed OF-L Geoff Jenkins to a two-year, $13 million contract with a mutual vesting option for 2010; signed OF-R So Taguchi to a one-year, $1.05 million contract with a club option for 2009; signed RHP Chad Durbin to a one-year, $900,000 contract; agreed to terms with OF-L Chris Snelling on a one-year, $450,000 contract, avoiding arbitration; outrighted C-L Pete LaForest to Lehigh Valley (Triple-A).
On the surface, the Phillies' activities look semi-sensible. Jenkins? Hits righties, so he'll make a dandy platoon partner with Jayson Werth in right. Taguchi? A nice outfield reserve who can handle center, so he should have his uses backing up Shane Victorino. Snelling? Maybe he'll be healthy someday. I guess I'm just buying some of it, though.
Let's start with Jenkins. He'll be 33, so while he's moving from a park he liked to a park he should like even more, I see a guy who only hit .262/.326/.482 against RHPs last year being described as a perfect platoon player. That he is-if you have to use Geoff Jenkins. That's what the Brewers were reduced to after initially committing to him as a full-time player and slowly finding that he wasn't, a mistake Doug Melvin repeated with Kevin Mench, the other half of last year's Menchkins platoon. That wasn't a matter of design as much as resignation. Jenkins isn't young, and you're telling me that he's going to get better at 33 and 34? Jenkins' ability to get on base isn't great, not when he drew all of 19 unintentional walks against RHPs last year in 393 PA against them, a rate we'd be carping about if it came out of a shortstop, let alone a right fielder. Basically, if Jenkins is supposed to deliver, it'll be because he can park pitches in CBP's shallow right field power alley, and while Jenkins is many things, he's not really a pull hitter.
Then there's Taguchi, who's useful enough for what he is. But is he really any more useful than Chris Roberson or T.J. Bohn, both of whom are cluttering the 40-man roster? Not especially. Durbin? Ye gods, if the mediocre collection of hurlers in the organization can't beat Durbin out for a spot at the bottom of the rotation or the pen, how can they count themselves a real contender? Add in what's been left undone-third base, anyone?-and you're left with a team that isn't really fixing the problems it does have while digging up solutions that provide few guarantees if any.
Signed INF-R Chris Gomez to a one-year, $1 million contract.
A four-position utility infielder isn't the worst thing in the world to bring in, but it does seem a bit strange for a team that had already snagged Josh Wilson for that very purpose earlier in the offseason. It isn't the sort of thing to get worked up about one way or another, not unless the Pirates want to perpetuate Gomez's weird sometimes role with the Orioles as a platoon first baseman, something they don't really need considering Adam LaRoche hit lefties at a .299/.352/.456 clip.
Traded CF-L Jim Edmonds to the Padres for 3B-R David Freese; signed LHP Ron Flores, C-L Mark Johnson, and INF-S D'Angelo Jimenez to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs; tendered contracts to RHP Todd Wellemeyer, C-R Yadier Molina, and OF-L Rick Ankiel; non-tendered MI-S Aaron Miles, making him a free agent.
Ditching Edmonds can be looked at on two levels. The first, most simplistic, is in terms of the benefits received by dealing him-money saved, about $7 million, and Freese. Not that the kid hasn't hit a bit, but he was 24 and in the Cal League last summer, and that should temper any enthusiasm for his hitting .302/.400/.489 in a High-A league, especially a hitter-friendly league. Add in the concern that he might be able to cut it at third base, and he starts to resembling a semi-interesting passing fancy that distracts us from the real point of the deal, which was getting past Edmonds and clearing space for Colby Rasmus in center. Since the Cards are already stuck with Chris Carpenter's absence until the second half, it's sort of a marking-time sort of season as is, so opening things up for Rasmus makes sense given the absence of any real stakes for the team's immediate bid for contention. If Rasmus isn't ready, they can get by with Ryan Ludwick and Skip Schumaker, and that'll cost them a lot less than $7 million without radically affecting the quality of their offense. That's if you think Edmonds is never going to return to his down-ballot MVP form, which given what the Cards got back for him, seems safe to assume is how they looked at it. I'm inclined to agree, and if it all adds up to a better ballclub by the end of this season and heading into 2009, it should prove a solid calculation as well as a generous gesture to plausibly put Edmonds back into the playoff picture on some club before he's done.
Signed RHP Jesus Colome ($1.25 million), C-R Paul Lo Duca ($5 million), and UT-Ls Rob Mackowiak ($1.5 million) and Willie Harris ($800,000) to one-year contracts; agreed to terms with RHPs Luis Ayala, John Patterson, and Ryan Wagner, avoiding arbitration with the lot; non-tendered CF-L Nook Logan and LHP Michael O'Connor, making them free agents (but re-signing O'Connor to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI).
Redundancy is becoming a bit of a problem. Why sign both Mackowiak and Harris? It might be a little hard to squeeze the both of them onto the same roster that has Ryan Langerhans on it-what, three lefty-hitting outfielders?-but this actually is shaking into a relatively interesting collection of choices in putting the roster together. As reserve outfielders go, Mackowiak and Harris both have additional uses-Mackowiak should still be able to play third in a pinch, and Harris second. Mackowiak could have his uses as a pinch-hitter, Harris in a similar role when a pinch-hitter or plug-in on a double-switch might have to lead off an inning, as well as pinch-running. And while I'm far from excited about the prospect of seeing lots and lots of Paul Lo Duca starting anywhere for anybody, as the single-season vet who soaks up at least half of the playing time until Jesus Flores is really ready, you could do worse.