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October 8, 2008

On the Beat

Early Off-season Planning

by John Perrotto

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The Angels and Cubs spent six months building the best regular-season records in their respective leagues. Now, they will watch the rest of the postseason at home in front of their flat screens after both were knocked out of the League Division Series.

That the Angels bowed to the Red Sox in four games in the American League following the first 100-win season in franchise history was disappointing, but it was also not totally unexpected. The Angels had a tough first-round draw in the Red Sox, who won 95 regular-season games to take the wild card, and have two World Series wins in the previous four years.

The Cubs' loss was more painful, and that goes beyond their being swept despite having won 97 games to lead the National League. This season marked the 100th anniversary of the Cubs last World Series win, and their fans seemed convinced that the Cubs were destined to be the latest franchise to break a long championship drought in this decade, joining the Red Sox, who ended an 86-year wait in 2004, and the White Sox, who put to rest 88 years of frustration in 2005.

Alas, the Cubs lost three straight to the Dodgers, a year after meeting the same fate against the Diamondbacks in the NLDS. "We were expecting more when we left spring training," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said after the final game of the series. "We played well all summer and won our division convincingly. We thought we would go farther in the postseason and it's very disappointing, to say the least. I'm in the role of congratulator again, and that wasn't what I was looking for." The Cubs' players also seemed shocked that their season ended so quickly. "This team is better than this," second baseman/right fielder Mark DeRosa said. "A team that wins 97 games shouldn't get swept, it should do better than this."

The nature of the postseason is fickle; the best team doesn't always win.Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot seems to understand that better than most players. "We won our division, the expectations are to win the World Series, like they are every year," Theriot said. "We didn't do that this year. We won our division two years in a row, and next year we do it again, hopefully, and see where we go. There's no perfect formula. There's no rhyme or reason to what happened this year. But there's always next year."

They have been saying that on the North Side of Chicago for a century now, but the Cubs again figure to be a strong contender in 2009 and are expected to re-sign their three key free agents-right-hander Ryan Dempster, closer Kerry Wood, and center fielder Jim Edmonds. Beyond that, the only real need is a good left-handed reliever to work the late innings in concert with right-hander Carlos Marmol to set up Wood. In addition to these moves, left fielder Alfonso Soriano believes that general manager Jim Hendry should consider shaking up the roster after two quick post-season exits. "We're a very good team for 162 games, but we don't do anything after that," Soriano said. "That's the difference. We're not put together for the playoffs."

Perhaps the same could be said for the Angels, who have won the AL West four of the last five seasons but have gone 5-15 in post-season play since beating the Giants in 2002 in the franchise's lone World Series appearance. "We've got a lot of guys who are frustrated," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after losing to the Red Sox in the ALDS for the third time in four seasons. "I can't tell you how proud I am of the way the guys played over the whole summer, though, and it's unfortunate how this series turned out." Count right-hander John Lackey among the frustrated. "We lost to a team that's not as good as we are," Lackey said.

The Angels figure to have a much more eventful winter than the Cubs; two of their marquee players, closer Francisco Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Teixeira, are eligible for free agency and will command huge contracts on the open market. Rodriguez has spent his entire career in the Angels' organization after being signed as an amateur free agent from Venezuela. "This has been my family for 10 years," Rodriguez said. "I would love to stay here, no doubt about it." However, if Rodriguez is indeed looking for a five-year, $75 million contract after setting the major league record with 62 saves this season, then the Angels are likely to pass and instead hand the closer's job to rookie right-hander Jose Arrendondo.

Teixeira, acquired last July in a deal with the Braves, will almost certainly command an eight-figure deal, and the Angels figure to be in the middle of the bidding war. Teixeira is amenable to staying. "I wasn't even thinking about Anaheim until I was traded here," Teixeira said. "It's an amazing organization. I have tremendous respect for the organization, from [owner] Arte Moreno to the last guy on the bench. It's definitely going to give me something to think about."

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Left-hander CC Sabathia steadfastly refused to talk about his impending free agency throughout the season, but after the Brewers were eliminated by the Phillies in four games in the NLDS, he finally gave some insight into what he's been thinking as he heads toward what will likely be the richest contract ever for a pitcher, possibly exceeding the six-year, $137.5 million deal that the Mets gave left-hander Johan Santana last winter after acquiring him from the Twins. While Sabathia wouldn't divulge what direction he is leaning, he did say that he would like to come to terms on a contract expeditiously once teams can begin negotiating with him next month. "All that would be is stress to have it drag on through the winter," Sabathia said. "We'll see what happens, but I can guarantee you I won't be flying around and going to different cities. I've pretty much been to every city. I've got a lot of friends around the league. Teams are going to have to come to me."

The Brewers certainly plan to come to Sabathia, though they seem to be a long shot to land the lefty. Sabathia said he would not close the door, and hinted that he would consider giving owner Mark Attanasio a bit of a hometown discount. "I had spent my whole career with the Indians, so I was nervous about coming into a new clubhouse, a new environment, and not really knowing what to expect, but this was great," Sabathia said. "This is the ideal environment. A young, talented team, a great clubhouse, guys get along and have fun. I've really enjoyed my time here. That was my thing, even in Cleveland-I want to have fun. I want to be around people I enjoy because you're around them eight months a year. That will all factor in."

Meanwhile, right-hander Ben Sheets is also likely to leave the Brewers as a free agent. Sheets, who missed the NLDS with a torn flexor mass near his right elbow that will not require surgery, had been the Brewers' ace since he came to the major leagues in 2001 until they traded for Sabathia. "I really haven't spent one ounce of my energy thinking about that," Sheets said of his impending free agency. "I don't know what [the Brewers] are doing. That's their business. It's not for me to worry about."

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The White Sox were expected to be also-rans this year, so losing to the Rays in the ALDS might represent a moral victory of sorts. They won the AL Central by beating the Indians in the final regularly-scheduled game of the season and then defeating the Tigers in a makeup game necessitated by a rainout, before nipping the Twins 1-0 in a one-game playoff for the division title.

"At the start of the season, none of the seers, none of you guys thought we would be here," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I remember reading the newspapers in April, some of the most vicious things I've ever read were in the newspapers in April. 'How can they go to the well with [John] Danks and [Gavin] Floyd?' But [general manager] Kenny Williams knew how important they would be, he went after them and he got them. The Cuban [second baseman Alexei Ramirez] was great. [Manager Ozzie Guillen] did a fabulous job. There's nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, we should be proud."

Williams, though, wants to remodel his roster and make it somewhat younger and more athletic after the White Sox scored a higher percentage of runs on home runs than any team in the major leagues this year. "We all know that I've got to probably do a better job of getting some players in here who can do some little things," Williams said.

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With the Angels and Cubs making early exits, expect the cries to become louder for MLB to increase the length of the Division Series from five games to seven. However, commissioner Bud Selig shot down that idea this past weekend while attending the Brewers-Phillies NLDS games in his hometown of Milwaukee. "We're going to play until October 31," Selig said, referring to the scheduled date for a possible Game Seven of the World Series. "Next year, because we're starting a week later [because of the World Baseball Classic], we're going into early November, which I'm not thrilled about. I've said to the clubs at every [owners'] meeting, 'if you want to go to seven games then we've got to cut some games off the regular season.' There's never been a vote called. End of discussion."

Selig threw out the first pitch before Game Three of the Brewers-Phillies series, the first post-season game played in Milwaukee since 1982. Selig admitted he had a hard time keeping his objectivity during the game since he grew up in Milwaukee. He bought the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy court just before the start of the 1970 season, moved them to his native city, and then kept the franchise in the family before selling it to Attanasio prior to the 2005 season. "It was a wonderful day for Milwaukee and Wisconsin, an emotional day for a lot of people," Selig said. "It was emotional just having people come up to me. I kept telling people I'm supposed to be neutral, but it was a thrill for me to walk into [Miller Park] for a post-season game."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling, eligible for free agency after missing this season because of shoulder surgery, says he would consider coming back next year and pitching in the second half for a contender. ... Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina is still on the fence about retiring, though those close to the situation believe he won't be back in 2009. ... White Sox center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. dismissed talk that he might retire, and said he would prefer to re-sign with Chicago. ... The Twins are willing to trade left fielder Delmon Young following the emergence of rookie outfielder Denard Span this season.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs are talking to general manager Jim Hendry about a long-term contract extension. ... The Cubs will make another run at Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts after spending most of last offseason trying to trade for him. The Orioles, though, will first try to sign Roberts to a contract extension. ... If the Padres do decide to trade right-hander Jake Peavy in the offseason, the Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox will be at the head of the line of suitors. ... The Dodgers are leaning on starting rookie left-hander Clayton Kershaw instead of Greg Maddux to start Game Four of the NLCS against the Phillies, and are likely to use Jonathan Broxton rather than Takashi Saito as the closer. ... Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez's asking price is expected to be $85 million for five years on the free-agent market. ... The Reds won't re-sign center fielder Corey Patterson, but they will make a pitch to re-sign reliever David Weathers. They also have interest in catcher Josh Bard, recently released by the Padres, to replace backup Paul Bako, who won't be re-signed.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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