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December 10, 2009

Prospectus Today

Wheeling and Dealing in Indy

by Joe Sheehan

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The Texas Rangers made as much news yesterday as they have in any offseason since they signed Alex Rodriguez back in 2000. Just one of their moves is official, but it looks as if they've made at least one substantial upgrade as they keep pace with the Mariners in chasing the Angels.

The Rangers' one move in the bag is a dump of Kevin Millwood, sent to the Orioles along with a check for $3 million in exchange for Chris Ray. There was a time when acquiring Chris Ray would have been a baseball move, but that time has passed. The AL abused him in his return from surgery last season, allowing eight homers-and 56 other knocks-in 42 2/3 innings. He's a relief pitcher, so there's always a chance that he'll bounce back and string together 130 good innings, but in that he's no different from 30 other guys. He's here so that it's a trade and not a straight sale of Millwood.

This is purely a cash grab by the Rangers, who save $8 million on Millwood's deal. I'm not convinced that this was such a good idea for them; they're not so loaded in 2010 starting pitching that they could afford to just give away a starter who's generally been good at taking the ball when it's been his turn: 125 starts in the four seasons under his current five-year contract, and while the ERAs have been high, the peripherals have been acceptable; until this year, he was pitching in front of some terrible defenses. Millwood at $8 million for one year is a solid pickup for the Orioles, who get an innings guy to anchor the rotation as they bring along a number of good young starting pitchers who will require some careful handling, and they do so without giving up talent or committing past '10.

For the Rangers, the $8 million was critical. Jon Daniels seems to have to make improvements while keeping the payroll neutral relative to last season. The money saved in this deal is apparently earmarked for Rich Harden, who is rumored to be close to signing with the team for about that much money for one season. To move from Millwood to Harden for the same amount of money would be something of a coup, likely improving the team's upside and base performance expectation-Harden is much, much better on a per-inning basis-while increasing the downside risk-Harden has thrown 162 innings once in his MLB career. The deal reported last night had Harden signing a one-year deal for $7-8 million. If that really is the deal, 29 teams should have been in on Harden, because it's a great deal for any team. We'll see if the details hold up.

Finally, the Rangers appear set to trade Max Ramirez for Mike Lowell and all the money necessary to pay Lowell. This doesn't make much sense; even noting Ramirez lousy, injury-plagued season, he has value as a prospect with strong hitting skills and some potential ability to catch. Less value than he did a year ago, to be sure, but still… value. Mike Lowell doesn't, especially to the Rangers, who have a third baseman, Michael Young, who plays 97 percent of the available innings. For the Rangers, Lowell is a right-handed 1B/DH, and the "first base" part of the proposition is pushing it-his experience there consists of four games in Triple-A in 1998. The standard for being a bat, only a bat, is very high, and I'm not sure Lowell, who may now be the slowest player in baseball, meets it. This is one of those deals that sounds good, "Hey, a free Mike Lowell," but when you look at the specifics, it doesn't work for the team involved. The Rangers are giving up all of Ramirez's potential, diminished though it may be, for the kind of player, a right-handed DH, that exists for free throughout the industry. It's a waste of a resource in Ramirez. I might compare the move to the Dodgers' acquisition of Casey Blake in that the team's refusal or inability to take on salary forced them to give up a good prospect. I do not-have never-understood the administration of baseball teams on a penny-wise, pound-foolish basis.

Teams other than the Rangers got active yesterday, most notably the Brewers, who signed Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins to bolster their staff. Neither deal is unreasonable-I'm genuinely surprised that Wolf came in under $10 million per season, and Hawkins has been fairly productive in a decade as a reliever-but there's an air of desperation here, as the Brewers scramble to assemble a pitching staff worthy of their offense. This is what they were going to have to do, but signing midrange thirtysomething pitchers coming off some of their best seasons is usually a disastrous approach. Wolf is risky; as a lefty who works up in the zone, the second he loses a little velocity, he's going to see his ERA go up two runs. The Brewers may be working with a short time horizon here; if they're not contending come late July, I could see them mailing off Prince Fielder and anything else other than Ryan Braun and starting over.

The Yankees reached an agreement with Andy Pettitte on a one-year deal, and since I haven't had a chance to make this point this offseason, I'll do so now: you can never make a bad one-year deal with a good player. The risk with free-agent contracts is always in the need to guarantee money for performance three, four years down the road, and we just can't do that well enough to justify the investments. With a one-year deal, you can be pretty sure not only of what you're getting, but how to value that expected performance. Pettitte will once again be the Yankees' third starter, league-average or a bit better, providing balance to a heavily right-handed staff and stability in a situation when the starters behind him are in question. There's probably some value, as with Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, in retaining a popular player associated with the team's success as well. If any team can pay for that goodwill, it's the Yankees. It's not clear that Pettitte would have played for any other team.

The Astros replaced Jose Valverde by trading for Matt Lindstrom. Something doesn't match up with the big right-hander, who throws 96 mph on average but who strikes out just 7.5 men per nine innings, while walking nearly four. A reliever with his stuff should be harder to hit, but Lindstrom hasn't been, getting by prior to 2009 on his ability to keep the ball in the park. This is the kind of move that seems to make sense for the Astros, not giving up much for a power/ground-ball reliever with closer upside, but something doesn't click in Lindstrom's track record. I don't know if this move will work or not; I like the idea of it, but I'm just not sure if a 30-year-old Matt Lindstrom is of any value.

Trading for Lindstrom is positively inspired compared to giving Brandon Lyon a three-year contract, however. We used to joke, when he was in Philadelphia, about Ed Wade's middle-reliever fetish. It hadn't shown up in Houston, but when it did, it was a doozy. In eight major-league seasons, Lyon has three ERAs under 4.00. He's been a good pitcher three times in his entire career; the Astros are giving him a contract for as many years as he's been good in his life. The Astros have no catcher, third baseman, shortstop, or third through fifth starters, but have $15 million to commit to Brandon Lyon for three seasons. This is pretty self-destructive behavior. The Astros aren't good enough to win in the short term, and making an investment in middle relief is the very image of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Lyon isn't a bad pitcher, a durable middleman whose command keeps improving; he's just a pointless acquisition for the Astros.

That wraps up Wednesday's moves. I'll have a fairly long wrap piece that covers whatever happens Thursday plus some stuff-like Chone Figgins, that I never got to-in the aftermath of the Meetings.

It figures, you know… the first one I miss since 2001, and they're the most active Winter Meetings in memory. Maybe they can pay me to stay away from Orlando next year.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Matt Lindstrom,  The Who

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