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December 7, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Winter Meetings Preview

by John Perrotto

As has been well-documented, the free-agent market has been extremely slow to develop; to date only 11 of the 171 players who filed for free agency have signed contracts. There is no word yet if Donald Fehr has asked Congress for a bailout.

It's already been quite the offseason for trades however, and we haven't even reached the Winter Meetings yet. Among the notable names who have been dealt since the Phillies put the finishing touches on their World Series victory are Matt Holliday, Nick Swisher, Javier Vazquez, Coco Crisp, Huston Street, Khalil Greene, Mike Jacobs, Scott Olsen, Josh Willingham, Kevin Gregg, and Greg Smith.

With the Winter Meetings beginning on Monday in Las Vegas, there is likely to be more player movement this week, and most executives and agents expect to see some of the bigger-name free agents begin to come off of the shelves during the four-day affair, along with the possibility of more trades being consummated.

Here is a team-by-team look at how the 30 clubs shape up at this point of the offseason, and what might be on their wish lists as they descend upon Las Vegas:

  • Diamondbacks: A second baseman to replace Orlando Hudson tops their priority list, and they may settle on a platoon of free-agents Damion Easley and Ramon Vazquez; they feel free-agent Mark Loretta and the Cardinals' Adam Kennedy are too expensive. They'll make outfielder Eric Byrnes available, choosing to stay with Conor Jackson in left and Chad Tracy at first base, but with two years and $22 million left on Byrnes' contract and coming off of a bad season shortened by a torn hamstring, he could be tough to deal. Catcher Miguel Montero could also be traded now that Chris Snyder has entrenched himself as a regular behind the plate.

  • Braves: They took a big step toward bolstering their rotation by acquiring Vazquez from the White Sox this past week, and are now pursuing A.J. Burnett as a free agent, offering him a four-year contract with a vesting option for a fifth season that could make the deal worth at least $75 million. Derek Lowe is another free-agent starter possibility. They also would like to add a power-hitting corner outfielder, and have talked to the Cardinals about Ryan Ludwick, and the White Sox about Jermaine Dye.

  • Orioles: While this is an organization in rebuilding mode, they continue to pursue two big-time free agents with Maryland ties: Burnett, who lives in Monkton, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, who grew up in Severna Park. The Birds are considered longshots to land either player, and most likely will settle for signing a couple of pitchers, perhaps one of the available Japanese free agents (such as Kenshin Kawakami or Koji Uehara), along with a lower-tier major leaguer to round out a rotation that is wide open behind Jeremy Guthrie. A defense-oriented shortstop, a la free agent Cesar Izturis, is another priority. "The Human Trade Rumor," second baseman Brian Roberts figures to attract plenty of trade offers, and he could finally be moved.

  • Red Sox: Teixeira is their top target, and if he is signed, Kevin Youkilis would be moved from first base to third, creating the awkward situation in spring training of showcasing popular third baseman Mike Lowell for trade as he comes back from hip surgery. They are also in on Burnett and Lowe, but won't overpay, as Justin Masterson is ready to be moved from the bullpen to the rotation following the off-season acquisitions of relievers Ramon Ramirez and Wes Littleton. They also have starting pitching depth with Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa in the system. They are looking for a young catcher, regardless of whether or not veteran Jason Varitek re-signs, along with a fourth outfielder and utility infielder. They would love to unload shortstop Julio Lugo, who has two years and $18 million left on his contract.

  • Cubs: They struck quickly once the offseason began, re-signing Ryan Dempster for the rotation, telling closer Kerry Wood he would not be re-signed, and trading for Gregg to join Jeff Samardzija as the primary set-up men for newly minted closer Carlos Marmol. They are still trying to trade for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy, despite already having five solid or better starters. A left-handed-hitting right fielder is also a possibility, and they are interested in free agents Raul Ibanez and Bobby Abreu, as well as the Royals' Mark Teahen and David DeJesus. They also figure to talk to the Orioles about Roberts; second baseman Mark DeRosa could be shifted to right field. Trading for Peavy would enable them to include a starter, possibly either Jason Marquis or Rich Harden, in a trade. Adding a right fielder would move disappointing Koskue Fukudome into a center-field platoon with Reed Johnson.

  • White Sox: They are cutting payroll and trying to become younger and more athletic following up on their surprise American League Central championship, and likely are not done dealing after shipping out Swisher and Vazquez. Dye could be the next to go, and there are persistent rumors that he is headed to the Reds for underachieving pitcher Homer Bailey and a couple of prospects. They have decided not to re-sign third baseman Joe Crede or shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Instead, they will move second baseman Alexei Ramirez to shortstop, play rookie Chris Getz at second, and have a spring-training competition between Josh Fields and 19-year-old Cuban sensation Dayan Viciedo at third base. Center field has been a revolving door in the three years since Aaron Rowand was traded, and they are more likely to find a stopgap rather than give more playing time to in-house options Brian Anderson, DeWayne Wise, or Jerry Owens. Shoring up the bullpen is also on the to-do list.

  • Reds: A left-handed reliever to go with Bill Bray is needed after Jeremy Affeldt quickly signed with the Giants as a free agent and Kent Mercker retired. They would also like to add a veteran catcher to share time with or back up rookie Ryan Hanigan. Dye seems to be their primary target in an attempt to add a corner outfielder with power. In addition to Bailey, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion is available.

  • Indians: Their extensive shopping list has a closer up top, and includes a starting pitcher, a third baseman, and a left fielder with power. While Jensen Lewis showed promise in the closer's role late last season, the Indians want a more experienced ninth-inning pitcher. With Jake Westbrook recovering from Tommy John surgery and likely out until the All-Star break, the rotation is thin beyond Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. Andy Marte proved that he is not the answer at third base after Casey Blake was traded in July, and David Dellucci has provided minimal production in left field.

  • Rockies: They would rather avoid going through salary arbitration with center fielder Willy Taveras, who is at the top of the list of players they need to move, and instead want to play Ryan Spilborghs in center, possibly re-signing Scott Podsednik to platoon with him. The White Sox, Yankees, and Marlins have all inquired about Taveras. The current plan is for Ian Stewart to fill Holliday's spot in left field, but they could be in the market for a corner outfielder if third baseman Garrett Atkins is traded and Stewart is left at his natural position at the hot corner. Atkins' name has been linked in talks with the Twins, Angels, and White Sox, but they want a large return for Atkins because he is also their insurance at first base should Todd Helton be slow to recover from back surgery. Adding at least one left-handed reliever and a starting pitcher are priorities. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba is also very much available.

  • Tigers: They need a catcher, a shortstop, and bullpen help, but have no money to fill those holes, as the payroll is maxed out. For shortstop, they have pursued the Pirates' Jack Wilson without success, and may instead go for a free agent, either Adam Everett or Alex Cora. Texas' Gerald Laird is their top catching target, though they also have interest in Montero and free-agent Gregg Zaun. They are also trying to trade for Mariners closer J.J. Putz, and are eyeing a number of free-agent relievers, including Trevor Hoffman, David Weathers, and left-handers Arthur Rhodes, Joe Beimel, and Darren Oliver.

  • Marlins: They have already shed such arbitration-eligible players as Jacobs, Gregg, Willingham, and Olsen, and they're willing to go further by dealing catcher Matt Treanor and third baseman Jorge Cantu. They feel Cantu is expendable, and that slugger Dallas McPherson or speedster Emilio Bonifacio could man third, though McPherson might also challenge prospect Gaby Sanchez to replace Jacobs at first base. Right fielder Jeremy Hermida's name has been prominent in trade rumors, but it appears he is staying. There is a need for a right-handed-hitting catcher to platoon with John Baker, and they would love to sign free-agent Ivan Rodriguez if he is willing to accept a reduced role and a lower salary.

  • Astros: The priority is re-signing left-hander Randy Wolf for the rotation, but they must clear payroll space to do so, which is why third baseman Ty Wigginton and closer Jose Valverde are on the trading block. Other holes to fill are backup catcher and utility infielder, and they would still like to add more starting pitching beyond lefty Mike Hampton, who was signed as a free agent this past week.

  • Royals: They have completed much of their shopping by trading for Crisp to play center field and Jacobs to play first base. However, they need to find right-handed relief pitching to replace those who were traded (Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez). They would like to add a veteran shortstop so that Mike Aviles could be switched to second base. They also wish to trade Teahen rather than to go through arbitration with him, but he would stay if they move first baseman Billy Butler or DeJesus in a bigger deal. Right fielder Jose Guillen is available, and there have been whispers that right-hander Zack Greinke could be had with an overwhelming offer.

  • Angels: Re-signing Teixeira is the first order of business. They would also like to pursue free agency's biggest prize, left-hander CC Sabathia, but only if they can't bring back Teixeira; both won't fit onto the payroll. Should Teixeira leave, the search for a power hitter will begin, with free-agent outfielders Manny Ramirez, Pat Burrell, and Adam Dunn all under consideration. They are also trying to bring back outfielder Juan Rivera and Oliver, who both filed for free agency. Closer Francisco Rodriguez, starter Jon Garland, and left fielder Garret Anderson would only be welcomed back on club-friendly contracts.

  • Dodgers: The top two targets are Sabathia and Ramirez, who had a great finish to 2008 for the Dodgers after being acquired from the Red Sox on July 31. Unfortunately, they can only afford only one or the other, since they also need to acquire either a second or third baseman-Blake DeWitt can fill one of those spots-and perhaps also a shortstop, since Rafael Furcal isn't likely to re-sign. Outfielder Juan Pierre is there for the taking, but has three years and $28.5 million left on his contract.

  • Brewers: Their entire offseason is on hold until Sabathia decides to stay or move on, and owner Mark Attanasio is ready to increase his original five-year, $100 million offer. Ben Sheets is also a free agent, so finding at least one starting pitcher is likely to become a priority. Late-game relief help is also needed following Salomon Torres' retirement. Center fielder Mike Cameron is expected to be used as trade bait for pitching, though shortstop J.J. Hardy, the subject of plenty of trade speculation, will probably stay put.

  • Twins: They could use bullpen help and upgrades at every infield position except first base, but they would also be satisfied to come back in 2009 with the same roster that lost a one-game playoff to the White Sox for the AL Central title. Talks with Blake have broken down, and they will not try to go the trade route, with their top targets being the Mariners' Adrian Beltre and Atkins to replace the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon at third base. They have also expressed interest in Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar as an upgrade over incumbents Harris and Matt Tolbert. They are willing to trade starting pitching, and while they would prefer to deal Boof Bonser or Philip Humber, they would consider parting with Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, or Nick Blackburn in the right deal. There is also an excess of starting outfielders, and Delmon Young could be dealt.

  • Mets: Their primary need is a dependable closer, and they would love to land K-Rod, but only if he would settle for a three-year contract. If not, then their sights will be set on two other free agents, Brian Fuentes and Wood. They have determined that Lowe is out of their price range, and are instead trying to re-sign left-hander Oliver Perez to bolster the rotation, with Garland and a trade for the Rays' Andy Sonnanstine representing fallback options. They want to add to the bullpen beyond closer, and have talked to the Rockies about acquiring Huston Street as a set-up man. A new left fielder is also on their wish list, and they have interest in Ibanez.

  • Yankees: They're waiting to see if Sabathia accepts their six-year, $140 million offer before proceeding. They would also like to sign Lowe and Burnett, and if failing to add rotation help they'll target Teixeira and Ramirez and simply try to outscore everyone in 2009. If that ends up being their tack, then someone from their group of corner outfielders (Johnny Damon, Xavier Nady, and Swisher) will be used to trade for a starter. They also have interest in upgrading defensively in center field, and have pursued Taveras and Cameron.

  • Athletics: They made a surprise strike by acquiring Holliday, though their efforts to sign Furcal as a free agent have apparently fallen through. They're reportedly trying to lure left-hander Randy Johnson back to his native Northern California and bring designated hitter/first baseman Jason Giambi back to his professional baseball roots as free agents, while also considering a trade for Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson, the pride of McClatchy High School in Sacramento.

  • Phillies: New GM Ruben Amaro Jr. wants to continue to bolster the pitching staff. After becoming impatient in their attempts to re-sign left-hander Jamie Moyer, they have made Lowe their primary focus. Regardless of public statements to the contrary, they have no desire to re-sign Burrell. While they have interest in signing Ibanez as a possible replacement in left field, they are more likely to add someone to platoon with a holdover such as Greg Dobbs, Geoff Jenkins, or Matt Stairs.

  • Pirates: Topping their wish list are young players with upside, followed by more young players with upside, as they try to continue their latest rebuilding project. Wilson has drawn interest from the Tigers, Dodgers, Orioles, and Twins; also available are first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, left-handed reliever John Grabow, and catcher Ronny Paulino. They would really like a young left-handed hitter with power and pitching of all types, which is why they are willing to take a flyer on free-agent local boy Matt Clement, who is making a comeback from shoulder surgery that has kept him off of a major league mound since 2006.

  • Cardinals: They've already made over their infield by trading for Greene to play shortstop, and are now trying to trade Kennedy while finding someone to replace him with at second. They've also signed Trever Miller as a free agent, and want to add a second veteran left-handed reliever, with Rhodes being one of their top targets. Their search for starting pitching lessened this week when it was determined that Chris Carpenter should be ready for the start of the season after undergoing a nerve conduction test on his right shoulder.

  • Padres: With their charge to cut the payroll somewhere in the $30 million range because of owner John Moores' divorce, Greene has already been shed, and Peavy is being shopped heavily. While it appears they've parted ways with all-time saves leader and franchise icon Hoffman, those close to the situation say to never say never. They also want to upgrade their young talent inventory, particularly starting pitchers and middle infielders, along with a veteran catcher to share time with Nick Hundley.

  • Giants: They have already filled two needs by signing Affeldt, Bob Howry, and shortstop Edgar Renteria as free agents. Ideally, they would acquire a young corner infielder with major pop, but they aren't willing to pay the price being demanded: one of their young frontline starting pitchers, Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.

  • Mariners: New GM Jack Zduriencik has plenty of holes to fill, including left field, center field, and designated hitter, while free-agent signee Russ Branyan might not be the full-time answer they are looking for at first base. They are more likely to try to fill needs through trades, with Beltre and Putz as their main chips, while also making available a trio of overpaid starting pitchers in left-hander Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, and Carlos Silva.

  • Rays: They are looking to add a couple of hitters to fill holes in right field and at designated hitter, and among the free-agent targets are Giambi, Burrell, and Rivera, while they have also inquired about dealing for Hermida. They have many young trading chips, including Sonnanstine and fellow starting pitchers Edwin Jackson and Jeff Niemann, shortstop Reid Brignac, and outfielder Justin Ruggiano.

  • Rangers: They have catching in quantity, something that many clubs desire. They are willing to trade at least one and possibly two catchers for young pitching, dealing from a group made up of Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Max Ramirez, and Taylor Teagarden. Corner infielder Hank Blalock can also be had, and veteran starting pitchers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla are available if someone wants to take on a large salary.

  • Blue Jays: They are trying to re-sign Burnett, though losing ground on that front every day. If they can't retain Burnett, interim club president Paul Beeston says that they will likely stick that money back into their pockets, despite having a rotation at present that thins out quickly after Roy Halladay with Jesse Litsch, David Purcey, and Scott Richmond.

  • Nationals: After filling two holes by acquiring Olsen for the rotation and Willingham for left field, their primary goal is to find a first baseman. Teixeira is who they want, though he seems out of their price range, and they already have Johnson and Dmitri Young under contract. This is a logical landing spot for Dunn, a favorite of GM Jim Bowden.

---

The Winter Meetings end with the Rule 5 draft on Thursday. While few players selected ever become the next Roberto Clemente or Josh Hamilton or Joakim Soria, it is still interesting to see who gets selected. Here is a look at a dozen players not protected on 40-man rosters last month who could hear their names called:

  1. Pirates left-hander Kyle Bloom: After five undistinguished seasons in the minor leagues, the 25-year-old was old for the competition in Hawaii Winter Baseball, but opened some eyes by posting a 1.50 ERA in 30 innings. That followed a lackluster 2008 regular season at Double-A Altoona, during which he had a 4.19 ERA in 109 2/3 innings with 103 hits allowed, 52 walks, and 93 strikeouts, translating to a 5.85 DERA.

  2. Indians first baseman Jordan Brown: He had a so-so season at Triple-A Buffalo, hitting .281/.337/.417 in 458 plate appearances with a translated EqA of .258, but Brown was the Most Valuable Player in the High-A Carolina League in 2006 and the Double-A Eastern League in 2007.

  3. Astros outfielder Mitch Einertson: He hit a less-than-inspiring .262/.313/.427 in 412 at-bats for Double-A Corpus Christi for a .222 EqA. Even so, he's 22 years old, and won MVP awards in the Rookie-level Appalachian League in 2004 and the High-A Carolina League in 2007

  4. Yankees right-hander Alan Horne: After undergoing shoulder surgery in August, he won't be able to help much, if at all, in 2009. However, the 25-year-old was considered a top prospect before being injured.

  5. Yankees left-hander Kei Igawa: He has been a bust since the Yankees spent $46 million to bring him over from Japan in the 2006-07 offseason, paying a $26 million posting fee to the Hanshin Tigers, and then giving him a five-year, $20 million contract. Igawa has just 0.1 WARP3 in two major league seasons, but he did have a 3.45 ERA in 156 1/3 innings for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year with 141 hits allowed, 45 walks, and 117 strikeouts for a 4.79 DERA. He is 28 and a lefty, so someone might take on the final three years and $12 million on his contract.

  6. Astros outfielder Eli Iorg: He has no plate discipline, and hit .268/.308/.407 at Corpus Christi last season for a sickly .186 EqA. Iorg, 25, looks the part of a power hitter at 6'4", 215 pounds, and was a sandwich-round draft pick in 2005 from Tennessee, which could get him drafted again here.

  7. Indians left-hander Chuck Lofgren: He was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game a year ago, but had a disastrous 2008 at Double-A Akron, posting a 5.99 ERA in 85 2/3 innings with 93 hits allowed, 52 walks, and 72 strikeouts for a 7.48 DERA. He then had a 32.14 ERA and 18 walks in seven innings in the Arizona Fall League. He is just 22 though, and some team likely feels it can solve his control problems.

  8. Blue Jays first baseman/outfielder Adam Loewen: His career as a major league pitcher with the Orioles ended last season because of chronic elbow problems, and the Canadian is now trying to make the conversion to hitter in a new organization. It would be quite the gamble to take Loewen, but there is always a chance that someone views him as Rick Ankiel II.

  9. Rays right-hander Chris Mason: He was considered a solid prospect before posting a 6.21 ERA in 108 2/3 innings with Triple-A Durham last season, with 144 hits allowed, 41 walks, and 90 strikeouts for a 7.46 DERA. He is 24 years old and was named the Most Outstanding Pitcher in the Southern League in 2007, which means someone is likely to take a chance on him.

  10. Angels right-hander Darren O'Day: He made the Angels as a non-roster player out of spring training last season, then had a 4.57 ERA and 0.035 WXRL in 43 1/3 innings with 49 hits allowed, 14 walks, and 29 strikeouts in his first crack at the major leagues. The 26-year-old also posted a 3.27 ERA in 33 innings at Triple-A Salt Lake with 29 hits allowed, seven walks, and 30 strikeouts for a 3.55 DERA.

  11. Pirates outfielder/first baseman Jamie Romak: He's the most intriguing hitting prospect available; he is 23 years old, and belted a combined 25 home runs in 462 plate appearances last season with High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona. Romak posted a .279/.360/.552 line in 325 PA for a .253EqA with Lynchburg, and hit .208/312/.433 in 137 PA with Altoona for a .231 EqA.

  12. Cubs left-hander Donnie Veal: Once considered untouchable, he was left off of the 40-man roster after having a 4.52 ERA in 149 2/3 innings with Double-A Tennessee last season, with 150 hits allowed, 81 walks, and 123 strikeouts for a 6.39 DERA. Still, 24-year-old hard-throwing lefties are always popular Rule 5 selections.

---

Another Winter Meetings highlight arrives on Monday when the two Hall of Fame Veterans Committees announce their selections for the Class of 2009. One committee consists all living Hall of Famers, and has voted on post-1943 players, while another committee of 12 former writers, executives, and Hall of Fame players are voting on pre-1943 players. Electors can vote for up to four players, and candidates must have at least 75 percent of the vote to gain induction.

The players on the post-1943 ballot are Dick Allen, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Al Oliver, Vada Pinson, Ron Santo, Luis Tiant, Joe Torre, and Maury Wills. The players on the pre-1943 ballot are Bill Dahlen, Wes Farrell, Joe Gordon, Sherry Magee, Carl Mays, Allie Reynolds, Vern Stephens, Mickey Vernon, Bucky Walters, and Deacon White.

Santo and Torre appear most likely to be elected, since both are still active in the game and are well-liked figures; Santo as the color commentator on Cubs' radio broadcasts, and Torre as the Dodgers' manager. Hodges and Reynolds also figure to have a lot of support; Hodges played in seven World Series from 1947-59 as a first baseman with the Dodgers and also managed the 1969 Mets to an improbable victory in the Fall Classic, while Reynolds compiled a 7-2 record and 2.79 ERA in 15 World Series starts for the Yankees from 1947-53.

---

The Red Sox did not break any rules by signing Tazawa, the touted amateur right-hander from Japan, as a free agent this past week, but many in Japan believe that the Red Sox broke the spirit of a gentleman's agreement by which major league clubs are not supposed to sign amateur players from that nation.

Nippon Pro Baseball issued a press release sharply critical of the American teams that showed interest in Tazawa, including the Rangers, who offered more money than the three-year, $3.3 million major league deal he signed with the Red Sox. NPB said their actions were "truly regrettable," but GM Theo Epstein said that the Red Sox did nothing wrong. He also pointed out that approximately 50 amateurs from Japan have signed with MLB organizations in the past. Only two of those players have reached the major leagues, right-handers Mac Suzuki and Kaz Tadano. Suzuki had 6.4 WARP3 in seven seasons with the Mariners, Royals, Rockies, and Brewers between 1996-2002, while Tadano had 1.0 WARP3 in parts of the 2004 and 2005 seasons with the Indians.

"To me this is a story about Junichi wanting to challenge himself at the highest level of baseball," Epstein said. "He had that desire. He expressed his desire. We wanted to provide that opportunity."

Tazawa asked that professional teams in his native country not draft him after he pitched for Nippon Oil ENEOS in the Japan Industrial League, and they granted his wish. "The reason I came directly to the US is I wanted to try to play here," Tazawa said. "I wanted to challenge myself to do more in the United States."

MLB Executive Vice President for Labor and Human Resources Rob Manfred told Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald that the Red Sox did nothing wrong by signing Tazawa. "I know the Japanese are upset," Manfred said. "They are good business partners of ours and whenever a good business partner is upset, we're concerned about it. Having said that, it was 100 percent clear that there is no such thing as a gentleman's agreement with respect to signing their amateur players, and there never was."

John Perrotto will be covering the Winter Meetings beginning Monday in Las Vegas. Be sure to check Unfiltered throughout the meetings for his updates.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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