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December 6, 2009

Prospectus Today

NL Shopping Lists

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm not going to be in Indianapolis-with Kevin, Will, John, and Christina on-site, think of my absence as the Secretary of Agriculture being assigned to skip the State of the Union, to assure continuity of government should disaster strike. That doesn't mean I'm not as geeked for the Winter Meetings as any fan is. I'm not sure we'll get much in the way of transaction action, but the anticipation of movement makes for a fun four days.

Here's a thumbnail preview of each team's situation as they fly into Indy, in rough order of current ranking as I see them, with the NL today, and the AL tomorrow. I'll have columns all week wrapping up each day's action and Unfiltereds (and Tweets: @joe_sheehan) as events warrant.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Placido Polanco signing fills their only open lineup spot, for better or worse. Asking a 34-year-old whose batting skills are in decline to move to a position that requires more bat and more quickness than his old one is… peculiar, and making a three-year commitment to the idea is just silly. This is basically the David Bell contract, with a better public image and less chance of success. Offering arbitration to Pedro Feliz would have been a better idea than giving Polanco this contract was.

Now the Phillies turn to their pitching staff. They should not trade Cole Hamels, and all indications are that they won't. They have four good starters in Cliff Lee, Hamels, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Happ, and having let Brett Myers walk away, will likely look for third-tier candidates to fill the fifth and sixth slots. That also applies to their bullpen, where they've been linked to a mix of names including Brandon Lyon, J.J. Putz, and John Smoltz. With so much money committed to Brad Lidge, the Phillies are looking for inexpensive solutions to what was a vexing problem for them all year long.

There probably aren't any surprises looming. The Phillies weren't looking to trade Michael Taylor, Kyle Drabek, or Domonic Brown when they were chasing a repeat title, so they're less likely to deal any of them now. Look for a quiet week.

Atlanta Braves: In effect, they replaced two relievers who are great when healthy but often unavailable with two relievers who are great when healthy but often unavailable, and managed to saved money in the process. Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito are Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, at least as far as the broad strokes of categorizing relievers are concerned. Both miss bats, both get out lefties and righties, and both could throw anywhere from 15 to 65 innings. For a team pinching pennies, it was a pretty good risk to sign both-although the chance that Rafael Soriano will accept arbitration could gum up the works. Maybe they'll trade Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada again.

Saving money in the bullpen will only be meaningful, however, if the Braves spend it on their outfield. They have about one and a half major-league outfielders, and that's granting full status for Nate McLouth, whose bona fides I've repeatedly questioned. Even if you see Jason Heyward in Atlanta by midseason, their $79 million payroll (plus Matt Diaz' arbitration award) leaves a need for a bat to upgrade an offense that single-handedly kept the league's best rotation out of the postseason. Is this the mystery team taking Milton Bradley off the Cubs' hands? Probably not, but that's the kind of guy-a moderately-expensive player who brings more bat than glove-they need to add. Marlon Byrd, one popular name, is exactly the kind of no-upside player they should be avoiding. Mike Cameron is a bit better, but still not enough given the team's needs They have to find someone who can bat second or fifth and put up a .310 EqA. That means trading for Adam Dunn or perhaps Brad Hawpe, because they're not spending for Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, and the rest of outfielders, save perhaps Johnny Damon at an Abreu-esque price, don't fit.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers' current state didn't allow them to make incredibly obvious arbitration offers to Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf, so it doesn't seem likely that they'll have much to add to the week's proceedings. I certainly don't think they have the wherewithal to overpay for Roy Halladay, or even to deal for Dan Uggla. The Dodgers need at least one starting pitcher and possibly as many as three, behind Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and Hiroki Kuroda, plus a second baseman given Blake DeWitt's so-so year at Albuquerque. Me, I'd move Rafael Furcal to second base and let Chin-Ling Hu play short while we wait to see if Ivan DeJesus Jr. can make a comeback. In any case, look for a quiet week from the Dodger contingent. At least the part of it not in court.

St. Louis Cardinals: Similar to the Braves, the Cardinals in 2009 were a strong rotation dragged down by a lineup not worthy of it. Having Albert Pujols masked some of that deficiency, as did roosting in the NL Central, but this is a team that has to look to add hitters. Given the scar that is their third-base slot, as well as the exodus of multiple outfielders, they have flexibility. The primary issue is whether they can commit big, long-term dollars to a top-tier free agent such as Chone Figgins (the best fit), Matt Holliday, or Jason Bay when they have the Chris Carpenter contract, when they have to pay Adam Wainwright and when, two years out, they'll have to re-sign the best player in baseball. The upcoming Pujols negotiations loom over everything the Cardinals do or don't do, with the Catch-22 being that they have to spend to put a roster around him to make him want to re-sign, but the money they used in doing so could make re-signing him painful, if not impossible.

Working against the Cardinals is that they don't have a top-tier farm system, which will make it hard for them to add a middle-of-the-order bat via trade. I'm not sure I can recommend that they, or any team, meet Matt Holliday's price, because he's a good-not-great player heading into his decline phase. I'm not sure, though, that if they pass on that option they can backfill third base and left field, when at least one of those players needs to be able to bat in the top five lineup spots. Remember, the Cardinals had tremendous run prevention in 2009, numbers that are almost sure to regress, so they have got to put a better offense on the field than they did to prevent a massive step backwards. That may not be possible given the constraints of their payroll, their future budgeting and the available options. Few teams face a more challenging offseason.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have made most of their changes from within over the past few years. That's likely to change this week. They'd like to move Brad Hawpe, who makes $7.5 million in 2010 and who may not have a place to play with Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, and Seth Smith comprising the likely starting outfield. Trading Hawpe for a comparable infielder would make sense, but one natural fit-to the Marlins for Dan Uggla-is hampered by the Marlins' penury. Another idea is to acquire Kelly Johnson at a low point in his value; the Braves seem set to go with Martin Prado at second base, and as mentioned they need an outfielder. The Rockies are expecting Jeff Francis back next year, but could nonetheless use a mid-rotation starter, the kind that Hawpe matches up with in a trade. Perhaps the best idea is to deal Hawpe to a team deep in live arms, helping bolster a staff that has become very reliant on pitch-to-contact types.

San Francisco Giants: They're in the same situation in which they've been since they elected to not re-sign Barry Bonds, needing at least two hitters to replace him. Pablo Sandoval is the only above-average hitter they have, and while Buster Posey should falsify that statement next year, relying on the rookie catcher to be your second-best hitter isn't good planning. While acknowledging the bounce-back seasons of Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito, it's an indictment of Brian Sabean that next year the Giants will pay those two, Edgar Renteria, and Freddy Sanchez $48 million, well more than half the payroll. That's awful. There doesn't seem to be a path out of it, either; the pending arbitration award for Tim Lincecum will freeze their purse strings, and short of a long-rumored Jonathan Sanchez trade, there's not much here to move. Given the wasted money over the past three offseasons, there's little reason to think a trip to Indianapolis will make anything better.

New York Mets: If there's one team in baseball that may be justified in taking an extremely short-term outlook in this market, it's the Mets. The front office is playing for its life, the team is playing in a new park in a big market, and its championship-caliber core doesn't have much more time together. The team has a couple of large holes that can be repaired in this weak market, notably corner outfield and starting rotation. In general, this is the wrong year to get crazy with a checkbook; in the specific case of the Mets and Omar Minaya, going after John Lackey and Matt Holliday may well be worth it. There's an element of moral hazard here, of course-the success of the 2010 Mets is probably more important to Minaya and Jerry Manuel than it is to anyone else-but remember that this team isn't as bad as its 2009 record. Adding a couple of good players to the core here could quickly put the Mets back in the discussion in an NL East that has become very, very tough.

Setting aside the big moves, the Mets should make a run at Nick Johnson, who's a much more valuable player than is perceived to be. His OBP would be very valuable in front of Carlos Beltran and David Wright, and in a world where the alternative is Daniel Murphy, Johnson looks like Derrek Lee.

Frankly, the Mets are fascinating right now. They could truly go in almost any direction, from the plan above to making minor moves to blowing up by trading one of their best players to things we can't even fathom. They are one of the key teams to watch this week, along with the Blue Jays (because of Roy Halladay), Rangers (because they have so many tradable prospects) and Cubs (because they're just always entertaining).

Arizona Diamondbacks: The D'backs have a sneaky-good roster, with an offensive core loaded with players either entering or right at their peaks, and a one-two punch of Dan Haren and Max Scherzer that will keep runs off the board. Even after picking up Brandon Webb's option, they owe just $40 million for next year, plus what should be a couple of significant arb raises to Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, and Miguel Montero. They should have room to spend to work on the bullpen, the first base/left field hole, and possibly a starter to replace Doug Davis' innings. The NL West has four good teams but no great ones, and with the talent the Snakes have, they should spend their time and money trying to change that conclusion.

Chicago Cubs: The fear for Cubs fans is that even having changed hands, their team won't be able to do much. The lack of spending authority a year ago meant that they had to deal Mark DeRosa to sign Milton Bradley, a move that was overrated in its significance, but indicative of a paralysis that kept the team from attacking problems. Now, you see the Cubs failing to offer Rich Harden arbitration, seemingly unable to trade Bradley, loaded with extremely large salaries to players who, while good, don't seem to comprise a championship core. Like the Mets, they will be better in 2010 than they were in '09, because so many things went wrong last year, but it's not clear that "better" is necessarily enough without some kind of substantial improvement to the top of the lineup, to the team OBP, to the bullpen. The Cubs don't need to sign or trade for stars, but they need to have a better offseason with respect to roster spots eight through 25 than Hendry has had the last few years, starting this week.

Florida Marlins: Believe whoever's numbers you want to believe, but the one thing we should all be able to agree on is that based on the bare minimums of revenue that an MLB team gets from the central fund, the Marlins can afford all their players. They don't have to trade Dan Uggla, and if in doing so they make a deal that makes the current roster worse, I'd like everyone to reflect on the $360 million in public money this franchise is sucking from the public coffers for a new ballpark, the disgusting way it has treated its fan base for a decade, and the fact that they'll be replacing Uggla with a player who was probably the worst regular in baseball last year in Emilio Bonifacio. The Marlins remain a blight on the MLB landscape, and if you think that's too harsh, I invite you to watch their moves this week and in the weeks that follow. Let's see them work on their team's OBP issues, their list to the right side, their defense, and behave like a contender rather than an entity that exists solely to keep an even number of teams in the NL.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers are in an awkward spot, with a combination in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun that matches up with any two players in the game, but perhaps not enough team around them to get much past .500. The Brewers keep producing third-base prospects who can't play third base, leaving them crowded on the left edge of the defensive spectrum. They would like to trade Corey Hart and Mat Gamel, but neither is anywhere near his peak trade value, so the pitching they would bring back wouldn't make enough of a difference. It may be that the only way for them to break out of the 78-84 win range is to trade Fielder; Braun is untouchable and no other move will make enough of a difference to the roster in the long term. This is a team whose rotation behind Yovani Gallardo is simply bad; they need at least two average-plus starters, and I'm not sure how else you get them.

Cincinnati Reds: It's not clear whether they're looking to trade a starter because they want to rebuild or they just don't want to pay for both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. The Reds are another team that has put resources into strange places, such as offense-killing leadoff hitters, closers, and aging, injury-prone third basemen. It should be easier to get excited about a team that starts with a league-average rotation, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips. The ideal Reds week would include trades of Francisco Cordero and Arroyo, not for financial reasons but to add a major-league shortstop and center fielder. With that unlikely, not enough money for an all-in play and no plan for a rebuild, Walt Jocketty will at least lose some weight working the treadmill.

San Diego Padres: The Padres have to trade Adrian Gonzalez. They already undersold Jake Peavy, getting less for him than they might have at just about any other point in the righty's career. The talent around Gonzalez might be good enough for an accidental .500 season at some point, but that's about the upside. The combination of Gonzalez's talent, age, and contract make him one of the most attractive trade candidates in memory, the kind of player who could bring back three or four players who some day play in postseason games for the Padres. People didn't come to Padre games with Gonzalez, so the argument that dealing him would damage attendance isn't valid. Padre fans will come back when the Padres are good, and that day will come sooner by trading Gonzalez.

The trick, though, is to be aggressive about it. Jed Hoyer has to identify teams that have room at first base and the kinds of prospects that could make a difference. Would the Rangers trade Justin Smoak, Julio Borbon, and Martin Perez? Maybe not, but that's the kind of deal he should be looking for, picking his targets himself rather than waiting for the phone to ring. The nice thing about having Gonzalez is not having to worry about a trade partner's payroll; you can focus on prospects rather than money, and you can trade with most any team. Hoyer's first task is arguably his most important, and whether it happens this week or next month, it has to happen. It's the only path back for the Padres.

Houston Astros: We're pretty close to what's been coming for a while, which is a top-to-bottom rebuilding of the Astros that takes about four years. The core of this team is well past its prime now, and the supporting cast wasn't good enough even when that core was great. That's not what's going to happen this week-the Astros will look to improve their infield and bullpen and make yet another quixotic run at the postseason-but it's coming, possibly as soon as next summer. The farm system, not terribly productive, is going to be fallow after it coughs up Jason Castro (a better player than I've given him credit for). They could spend some money-Adrian Beltre is actually a pretty good fit for them-but it's all finger-in-the-dike stuff at this point. Next year's meetings, when they have to think about trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, will be much more interesting.

Washington Nationals: It's important to remember that the Nationals are still feeling the effects of years of being owned by MLB. You don't recover from being a ward of the state, run without anyone deeply invested in the success of the team on or off the field, for some time. They don't have the talent base to contend, and they're just starting to develop a farm system, so all they can do is make constant marginal improvements. It would be good to see them trade Adam Dunn, a great hitter on a fantastic contract who should return a good price in prospects. Dunn would be an impact player for a dozen teams, and not just ones in the AL who can use him at DH.

Pittsburgh Pirates: If the Nationals are recovering from neglect, the Pirates are doing so from self-abuse. The new administration, led by Neal Huntington, has made slow, steady improvements to the organization, exchanging present for future at every step of the way. There's not much left to deal, perhaps a Zack Duke or a Paul Maholm, low-upside starters who would have value to contenders needing mid-rotation innings guys. Look for the Pirates to troll the low end of the market, major-league free agents at low cost, non-tenders, minor-league free agents, relying on their ability to evalute players better than the other guys do to add value to their roster and, down the road, chips to be used in trade.

Tomorrow, I'll turn to the American League…

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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