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December 27, 2007
Transaction of the Day
Making Waves in the Wests
Signed RHP Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract.
The challenge for the Mariners this winter was to find that starting pitcher who could help pick up King Felix and provide a rotation strong enough to mount a real challenge to the Angels. It says something about their standards that they're instead congratulating themselves on getting someone they think could be as handy as Miguel Batista. However, on some level, I like the signing Silva, but on the face of it, and when you dig down a bit. He's still the extreme strike-thrower and grounder-dependent starter that he's always been. While he was the 20th-best starter in the AL last season in terms of SNLVAR, that risks overstating what he does for a club, which is munch innings well enough, and deliver winnable ballgames (including 20 quality starts in 33 last season). The negatives are that while he's going from one pitcher's park to another, leaving turf behind won't really help him, and Safeco's a slightly more homer-prone park than the Hump Dome. I guess the element of the pickup that I like is the idea that Silva might be exactly the sort of starter to give the Angels fits in head-to-head matchups. He can attack that lineup where it lives-contact-and he stifles the running game effectively. I'm not filled with a lot of faith that the Mariners can win the AL West, but I do think there will be moments where Silva makes things interesting. The money's steep, especially when Silva's margin for success is based on his ability to throw that sinker forever, but this was a lousy market for pitching. The real kill-shot move would have been to deal for Johan Santana-not try to sign Kuroda, which wouldn't have substantially improved the Mariners' fortunes-but Bill Bavasi is understandably skittish about dealing too many of his best prospects from a club whose long-term shot at the Angels depends on those prospects. Not that a one-year challenge with Santana in hand wouldn't have been fun, and made the AL balance of power even more interesting than it already is, but the dare of being able to re-sign Santana would be tough to take. I think we can respect Bill Bavasi for making a sober and perhaps sobering choice here.
As deals go, it's hard to know what to make of this pickup. The Rangers need pitching, but heck, they need a lot of things, so dealing one of their best pitching prospects isn't the end of the world. The problem is how much we can believe in Hamilton, even setting aside his past. After his breakout in the first half last season, he barely played in the second, starting only 20 games because of injuries. He hit five homers in those games-impressive-off of Bobby Howry, Greg Aquino, Anthony Reyes, Lance Cormier, and Buddy Carlyle, or Bobby Howry and four pretty fringy guys. We can skip making too much of that-of course people hit more homers off of bad pitchers than good ones. But it got me to thinking, and looking around a bit. So I saw that it's also really interesting that Hamilton was especially effective against junkers, mashing finesse pitchers at a .675 SLG clip, and for 12 of his 17 homers. That's what a peek at B-Ref can tell you, but it got me to thinking a bit more. Then this year's Acta Handbook provides the equally interesting info that Hamilton ranked fourth in the NL in "OPS versus Sliders." Then, thanks to Dan Fox's handy-dandy BIP Chart-try it, Mikey, you'll like it, it really isn't bad for you-I can tell you that Hamilton was an extreme opposite-field hitter when he got the ball in the air, pulling only 15.4 percent of the fly balls he put into play.
I'm not a scout, but it would be interesting to see what major league advance scouts who followed the Reds would have to say about this, or what they captured in their evaluations of Hamilton. That's certainly a weird bunch of facts, which suggest to me that Hamilton's not catching up to fastballs, but that he is muscling the stuff that he can catch up to. Watching him several times last season certainly didn't help me see that; when he played I saw feats of strength, and was as impressed as everyone else. A true specialist-a scout-would lend color to this interesting collection of observable data.
So, what does this mean for the Rangers? Certainly, hitting in the Gap helped Hamilton put pitches out of the yard; he slugged .617 at home, and .497 on the road. Both good marks, but a big split. While Texas is a fine place for lefties to hit for power, that's hitting to right field, where the corner and the power alleys are both closer than they are in left. Hamilton's a singular enough strange talent that maybe this all means he'll get better when he learns to catch up to fastballs and take them for a ride; maybe it also means that he's got a slider-speed bat and will get eaten up once he goes through the league another time or two. With Hamilton, I don't think we can say for sure, because there's so much about his history that defies easy explanation or anticipation.
At the very least, on the surface of it GM Jon Daniels has added an immensely gifted player who looks like he can hit right-handers and play a fine center. The risk taken is about as large as might be conceivable in a deal of prospect for prospect. Hamilton's gifts have been the stuff of legend for years, but there's an equally frightening amount of pumpkin potential. We've been nominating deals for "the one that made/broke/saved/killed Jon Daniels" for a couple of years now, and this fits comfortably with the Soriano and Teixeira swaps on that list. The possibility is that in Hamilton he gets the MVP candidate who might erase ready memories of the other two. For a pitcher, even one as talented as Volquez, that seems like a fun risk to have taken. The Rangers aren't going anywhere immediately anyways, and if Hamilton works out, his best years will cost the Rangers next to nothing to enjoy.
Acquired RHPs Dan Haren and Connor Robertson from the Athletics for LHPs Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland, and Greg Smith, 1B-R Chris Carter, OF-R Aaron Cunningham, and OF-L Carlos Gonzalez; acquired RHP Billy Buckner from the Royals for UT-S Alberto Callaspo; acquired RHPs Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez and 2B/OF-R Chris Burke from the Astros for RHP Jose Valverde.
With longer reflection, I begin to wonder if this deal isn't too clever by half. Not that the D'backs didn't get that starting pitcher to put behind Brandon Webb and let them put Randy Johnson in the "happy thoughts" bin, but are we absolutely sure that the D'backs got the best player in the deal? Maybe they did, but as Marc Normandin has already noted, this isn't going to be a simple matter of Haren moving back to the easier league-he's going from a park that helped him to a park that really doesn't, especially given his standard bass-ackward career splits as a forkball/fastball righty. However, on the plus side, he should have the benefit of a slightly better outfield and generally better defense to help him out, and that plus the absence of DHs should help him stay right around his same contribution, maybe just shy of the top ten in the NL in SNLVAR, but pretty close, and certainly worthy as the staff's No. 1A behind Webb. Better yet, he's already under contract for less than $6 million per through 2010, which is the real reason why he was worth this relative bonanza of young talent; there isn't a better value to be found on the mound in this winter's Hot Stove League. Say that Johnson's good for starting some chunk of the season, and that's a nasty front three to draw in a post-season series, and it isn't like Doug Davis and Micah Owings aren't a nifty pair. That's potentially the best rotation in the league, and certainly the best in the division on paper.
Crimping my enthusiasm was the decision to deal Valverde, in that I'm not given to betting that all of the Snakes' relievers will repeat their nifty 2007 seasons next year. Still, whether Qualls or Tony Peņa get the saves, those two plus Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz, Doug Slaten, and perhaps Dustin Nippert should make for a solid unit. Still, I'm not exactly wild about the trade with the Astros, although I'm being hard on GM Josh Byrnes-he got value that will make him look good over time, but it just seems like he should have been able to get more for a closer. Still, the market is what the market does. On the most basic level, you're exchanging three years of control with Qualls for two years of Valverde, which isn't too far from a push in terms of real value. Remember, Qualls ranked among the twenty best relievers in 2007, although like Haren he's consistently backwards, and in Phoenix, that's a bad thing. It certainly might make Bob Melvin's life a little interesting.
The least worthwhile part was the token position player. Burke's effectively a replacement-level filler at the keystone, and is not an improvement upon what Callaspo would have given them as the team's starting second baseman in 2008 (presumably after Orlando Hudson departs as a free agent). The throw-in worth wanting is Gutierrez, not Burke, and the young Venezuelan comes at hitters hard with heat consistently in the 90s and a power curve. Although he was in Round Rock's rotation and successful (4.15 ERA, less than a hit per inning, 6.2 K/9), the thought that he'll be better suited for relief work probably didn't lose anything to his struggles in the fifth inning (25 runs allowed in 24 2/3 IP) or his problems throwing from the stretch. He's one of those peek-a-boo guys, in that his Bastille Day birthday hides his age behind standard stathead convention of using July 1 as a cutoff; he'll turn 25 next summer, so he's not especially young, but he is quite talented, and provides the Snakes with a quality arm that should more than make up the difference between Valverde's perceived value as a capital-c "Closer" and Qualls' status as a quality set-up man.
I don't have much to say about Robertson and Buckner-both are filler guys in a system that needed some upper-level reinforcement in the wake of the Haren deal. You can look forward to their joining Gutierrez in Tucson for much of next summer, with Robertson having the greater likelihood of helping the parent club as an extra sinker-balling reliever in case somebody breaks down, while Buckner has to take a place in line behind Edgar Gonzalez (although his lack of options might get him moved in March) and Yusmeiro Petit.
Signed RHP Aaron Cook to a four-year, $30 million contract through 2011 with a mutual $11 million option for 2012; signed RHP Luis Vizcaino to a two-year, $7.5 million contract with a $4 million club option for 2010; signed RHP Kip Wells ($3.1 million) and LHP Mark Redman ($1 million) to one-year contracts.
There's a lot of risk here, and not just because it involves sentences with concepts like "pitching," "money," and "Denver." The million spent on Redman is money wasted, but I guess if you want to think about this as simply as possible, I'd take Vizcaino over LaTroy Hawkins (the man he's replacing), and if you put a gun to my head, Wells over Josh Fogg at the end of the rotation can be endured. Admittedly, Wells was one of "my" guys that I kept expecting more from than he ever seems to deliver, so consider yourself warned; I guess I could see him as a starter who could be Fogg-like in terms of having a good career record against the non-Dodger division rivals, and similarly modestly successful if used with a quick hook. Even so, he's going from a park that kept fly balls in the yard to Denver, so this could end as messily as Bryn Smith's career did, just less hirsutely so. Still, chances are that Redman and Wells become little more than statistical grease stains by June really should limit the concerns there to what it says about Dan O'Dowd's shopping habits and the money that can't be used on better things. To throw another $4.1 million away just makes me wonder why the Rockies aren't instead saving themselves the change and moving more aggressively on minor league vets no less likely to struggle pitching at Coors, and much more willing to do so for a fraction of the cost.
The moves that should have a more positive impact on the club's fortunes are the commitments to Vizcaino and Cook. Here, credit O'Dowd with doing a solid job of converting the leverage of Cook's last year before free agency eligibility into a multi-year below-market contract for a guy with a solid track record of pitching well at altitude. Despite his past challenges in terms of health, his arm's relatively sound.
Vizcaino's a rubber-armed reliever and slightly more valuable than his straight stats might lead you believe-remember, Joe Torre ordered up 11 freebies, so he actually walked fewer than four guys per nine, not great, but better than what he's saddled with on his totals line. He rated as the 28th-best reliever in the AL last season, considerably better than what Hawkins delivered for the Rockies last season. The danger is that he's a fly-ball pitcher when he isn't getting his outs at home plate, and a little prone to leaving a mistake over the plate (as opposed to inside; he doesn't get pulled with a lot of authority). Certainly, moving from a bad defensive Yankees club to the Rockies will help matters, but the danger is that Vizcaino might start nibbling when he sees that a fastball over the plate puts squigglies on the scoreboard. It's a worthwhile risk.
Importing Kuroda might be the case of catching the kind of Carp you want to keep (he pitched for Hiroshima, so you can make a Blinky joke if you're not squeamish). Although he'll be 33, as Mike Plugh noted in November, he has a nice power assortment and might give us further opportunities to see the shuuto thrown in the major leagues. The price is a bit steep for someone who might only be around a fourth starter in the majors, but after last season's rotation shenanigans with Wolfs and Jumbos and Hendricksons and Tomkos, and with Jason Schmidt's availability in doubt, you can understand Ned Colletti's desire to get something done, and skip having to ponder the virtues of someone like Kyle Lohse.
The other move of note is getting Andruw to yet another big-ticket short-term deal. While we bash on Colletti for a lot of things, he has been relatively good at taking this sort of chance, and it's a reasonable way to spend when you've got a fully-stocked farm system you don't want to scatter to the winds and a win-now agenda. Dodgers fans just wish he'd been similarly smart with Juan Pierre, and it's here that signing Jones creates that additional problem-what do you do with the monster mistake of the 2007 Hot Stove League? Already near-useless as a regular in center, Pierre's a disaster in the making for what he'll do to an offense in left. Ideally, Colletti will manage something semi-clever, like making Pierre a White Sock or a Marlin for the next four years, however much money eaten it takes to make it so, but the danger is that any gains the Dodgers make offensively by buying Jones after a down year will get handed back by playing Pierre in a corner while benching either Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp. You would think that an aggressive push to win the division and playing Pierre would be mutually exclusive, but after failing to learn that lesson last year, apparently Colletti needs another dose of the sledgehammer of certainty to convince himself he made a monumental error of judgment.
Finally, while it's sort of neat to see Bennett wind up with his eighth team in eight years, he's not an asset. Not that the Dodgers weren't already dead in case something bad happens to Russell Martin, but when an entirely punchless defensive specialist gets so week-armed with age that even the Cardinals lose interest, it's a bad sign.
Signed RHP Jake Peavy to a five-year, $66 million contract extension with a $22 million club option for 2013; acquired CF-L Jim Edmonds and $1 million from the Cardinals for 3B-R David Freese; signed LHP Randy Wolf ($4.75 million), 2B-R Tadahito Iguchi ($3.85 million), and RHP Mark Prior ($1 million) to one-year contracts; agreed to terms with C-R Michael Barrett on a one-year, $3.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration; signed LHPs Shawn Estes and Glendon Rusch, 1B-L Robert Fick, OF-S Jeff DaVanon to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs; non-tendered RHP Jack Cassel, LHP Ryan Ketchner, 3B-R Morgan Ensberg, and OF-R Jason Lane.
As usual, Kevin Towers has been busy, and I guess this is a collection of moves that helps keep the Padres' shot at contention going, but it's hard to work up that much enthusiasm. Edmonds will be 38, and he's several seasons removed from his days of belonging on anybody's MVP ballot. His range in center isn't just not what it was, it's well into "not good enough" territory, so while it didn't cost much (besides money) to get him, he seems a great bet to join Brian Giles on the list of yesteryear's heroes hoping to contribute enough OBP to keep themselves in the lineup. Add them to Scott Hairston, and you have one moderately effective platoon and a gimpy injury-prone center fielder; that doesn't quite get it done. Presumably, Kevin Kouzmanoff will wind up moving to left should Chase Headley prove he's ready to take over at third, which finally fully stock the outfield. As for finishing up the lineup, plugging Iguchi in at second is a solid enough filler move, regardless of how well Matt Antonelli's winter move to center field pans out.
On the pitching side of things, Wolf and Prior and Towers have all made sensible choices-if you're damaged goods and you want to mount a comeback, Petco's the place to be, not just because of the park, but also because of the opportunity to work with Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley. Behind Peavy and Greg Maddux and Chris Young, you can see this adding up to a solid rotation with some upside potential. It could also give you Peavy, Maddux, and guys bouncing on and off the DL, but the Pads are used to that. Justin Germano might seem to be squeezed out if we're simply counting heads, but the Pads have already said he'll have to fend off challenges from guys like Estes, Clay Hensley, even Wil Ledezma. I wouldn't worry too much if I were him; after all, with this lot, how often will everybody be simultaneously healthy? Prior probably won't pitch in the majors until late May, and from there we'll just have to wait and see whether he earns some, none, or all of the $4.5 million in incentives attached to the deal.
As for the big-ticket item on the bill, Peavy's latest deal overruns the terms of his last extension, tearing up the incentive-driven escalators for 2008 and 2009 and guaranteeing them for a mere $14 million while tacking on at least $52 million (through 2012, with the the 2013 option bought out) and perhaps as much as $70 million (if they pick up the option). To put the deal in a divisional context, if the Pads pick up that option, at the end of the season, Barry Zito will finally be on the cusp of becoming an ex-Giant, with an option for $18 million for 2014 that will cost Brian Sabean's heir $7 million to avoid. It's not a fair comparison-Zito was a free agent, Peavy's only selling his freedom to forgo the opportunity, and Peavy's three years younger, but he's also only slightly more than a year behind in service time. From 2007-13, Peavy maximum expense will have cost the Pads slightly more than $90 million to Zito's minimum cost of $126 million. Given that Peavy's one of the league's best, this seems like a happy deal to have struck between player and team, so more power to the both of them.
Finally, among the little stuff, while some of my colleagues no doubt like the moves, I don't see a lot of value in Fick and DaVanon, so if there's credit to be given, it's that Towers didn't ink them to major league deals. DaVanon's 34 and not really playable in center, and if it wasn't for the benefits of playing in Phoenix in '06, he'd be coming off a third straight not-so-hot season. He might make a nice fourth outfielder, emphasis on might. Fick's about to turn 34, and while his utility as an emergency catcher and willingness to give pinch-hitting his best shot are admirable, he's roster filler if you've got a great lineup, and the Pads don't. Of the NRI guys, the one I like is Rusch, but part of that is simple sympathy for a guy on the comeback trail.
If you thought things were going to get better in San Francisco, guess again. The veteran hand they dealt themselves is still their lot, although swapping out Barry Bonds for Rowand gives the pitching staff the double break of replacing Dave Roberts in center with Rowand and Bonds with Roberts in left. Since the only real point to playing the 2008 season will be to let Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum do their things, building a better defense isn't such a terrible bit of off-season work. Maybe by signing Rowand through 2012, and in light of their having Barry Zito signed through 2014, they plan on pre-printing their media guide covers for the next several years, a linkage that works for me because I expect them to be almost as rudely disappointed by Rowand's hitting outside of Philadelphia as they were with Zito away from Oakland. Still, his road rates in 2007 were still pretty tasty for a center fielder (.299/.368/.475), so it isn't like they signed Juan Pierre. The chances that Rowand lasts the full five years while playing every day seem pretty slight to me-we're far beyond the misfortunes of Pete Reiser's or Fred Lynn's careers, but Jim Edmonds just arrived in the division-but with most of the geezers coming off the books by 2009, I guess Brian Sabean just had to have a veteran hitter to pretend to build around beyond that date. What I don't get is Rowand's decision, since it involves paying California taxes and leaving playoff-picture relevance for the balance of his career, but as he's already 30, we can at least acknowledge that he did choose a lovely place to play out the balance of his useful career.
There's still the problem with sorting out who starts at the infield corners-Dan Ortmeier at first base, and Rich Aurilia at third? No, really?-but basically, the Giants are where they were, a veteran lineup without a single prospect worth developing, with the difference being that the 2008 unit's Bonds-less. If you're buying season tickets, try to get the package that lets you only see Matt Cain's and Tim Lincecum's starts, because the rest really boils down to a mix of PCL and always-exciting SPBA action. That's not an insult in my book-or more properly, Peter Golenbock's-because the Senior League was sort of fun, but it's not what most people are willing to pay big-league prices for. For the curious, the only likely lineup regulars for the 2008 Giants who don't qualify for the Senior Circuit's age-35 cutoff (32 for catchers) would be Randy Winn (barely) and Ortmeier. Avoiding any disqualifications at first base wouldn't be that easy-Sean Casey isn't old enough, even if he's done enough, but Tony Clark would work. Here's hoping they have the courage to go for it, and see if they can get a waiver on Winn.