National League

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Signed C-R Henry Blanco to a one-year, $1 million contract, with a mutual $1.15 million option for 2012 ($250,000 buyout); signed 1B/OF-R Xavier Nady to a one-year, $1.75 million contract; released PH-R Rusty Ryal; designated RHP Roque Mercedes for assignment. [12/17]
Noted the loss of RHP Roque Mercedes to the Brewers on a waiver claim. [12/21]

To give credit where it’s due, Kevin Towers is accumulating the very conventional odds and ends, some of which the roster really did need. Signing a good-throwing, righty-batting caddy for Miguel Montero behind the plate was worth crossing off the ‘to do’ list, and getting Blanco at this price might seem like the perfect short-term solution. Blanco is still a fine catch-and-throw guy, and while last year’s meltdown against lefties (.167/.213/.238) suggests that, heading into his age-39 season, he’s losing his one consistent area of value as a hitter over the course of his career, that was also a product of just 47 plate appearances.

Signing Xavier Nady can be seen as an even greater necessity, because between Gerardo Parra in left field and Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda at first base, the Snakes have a collection of non-established alternatives. But after Nady’s flop with the Cubs as he cruises into his age-32 campaign, is he really that much of an alternative? Allen may well be a Reno-inflated piece of prospect puffery, while Miranda is the latest disappointing Cuban import, an aging platoon DH who might bop in a hitter’s park, and who might not. But in each case, the Snakes would be better off finding out. The NL West is not at stake, not as far as this team is concerned.

Consider who really stands to gain the most. For the D’backs, if things go the way they might like best, Parra and Allen establish themselves, and Nady serves as a useful platoon player, spotting for both here and there; modest ambition, modest payoff. For Nady, though, the potential payoff is huge: with a collection of uncertain kids knocking around ahead of him, and a relatively new skipper and GM on-site, he could slip into a full-time job as the plausible veteran player who marks time and resembles a useful asset. It’s a possibility that does the Snakes very little good, while giving yet another well-traveled mediocrity a shot at producing the baseball equivalent of costume jewelry in Phoenix-gaudy hitting stats in a hitter’s park. He’s getting a bench player’s wages, but the upside risk for him is that he’ll wind up with a shot at earn twice or three times as much, thanks to the venue, low standards, and a weak roster.

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Acquired 2B/3B-R Jose Lopez from the Mariners for RHP Chaz Roe. [12/2]
Re-signed LHP Jorge De La Rosa to a two-year, $19.5 million contract with an $11 million player option for 2013 ($1 million buyout), which would trigger a riding $11 million club option for 2014. [12/3]
Signed INF-R Ty Wiggington to a two-year, $7.5 million contract, with a $4 million club option for 2013 ($500,000 buyout). [12/15]
Traded LHP Paul Bargas to the Twins to acquire C-S Jose Morales. [12/16]
Traded RHP Jonnathan Aristil and LHP Wes Musick to the Astros for RHP Matt Lindstrom. [12/23]

Dan O’Dowd has managed to keep a fairly low profile as far as his winter activity, but when you look at what has been achieved, we ought to credit the man with a series of reasonable solutions that ought to provide another strong challenge in the division. For the best bet so far as to who’s going to unseat the Giants, it’s to be found on the other side of the Rockies, not among their rivals in California. By banking on what was on hand for star power, O’Dowd acquired depth… everywhere, or everywhere but the outfield, where they’re already overstocked.

Take the rotation fix. Perhaps their first major concern this winter was locking up De La Rosa, because he has been a key rotation contributor since getting stolen from the Royals for a merely nice reliever, Ramon Ramirez. (Even in the deals where the Royals get something of value back, they manage to make sure it’s less than they gave up.) The pricing may seem extraordinary, but it was a weak market for starting pitching, and De La Rosa has been remarkably effective in his three years in Denver, with his last two campaigns ranking among the 20 best starter seasons in franchise history. (Admittedly, that’s a left-handed compliment for the lefty, considering the full span of franchise history runs less than 20 years.) Between a strikeout rate over 20 percent, last year’s promising spike in his ground-ball rate, and the fact that last year’s injury wasn’t a major joint problem, but a broken finger, he’s as close as a sure thing as Rockie pitching has ever had going for it when talking about the several billion human beings not named Ubaldo Jimenez.

With De La Rosa signed, if Jhoulys Chacin continues to blossom and Aaron Cook bounces back, that’s a nice supporting trio behind Jimenez, making for a group that compares well with the 2009 breakthrough ballclub that won with one of deepest rotations in the game. Depth beyond that quartet shouldn’t be an issue, either. Beyond Jason Hammel in the last slot, they’ll have the benefit of snagging live-armed Felipe Paulino from the Astros for Clint Barmes; maybe I’m still too much of a believer, but he has De La Rosa-level potential to surprise people. And then there’s Esmil Rogers, Sam Deduno, and Christian Friedrich, all worth tossing into the mix as well.

Retaining De La Rosa was achieved with a minimum of fuss, and nestling the third-year player option to trigger the fourth-year club option ought to make this a winner for the Rockies-it’s fairly unlikely De La Rosa is going to turn into somebody worth even more than his current ~$10 million on the open market, so you figure he’s a lock to exercise the option, but the club is nevertheless in the position to buy him out or acquire the right to re-up with him for one more year at roughly that price.

In getting Lindstrom, here again, O’Dowd acquired depth, but it’s considerably less exciting. The deal has more to do with the fact that Huston Street is always going to have his critics in the scouting community for not being a “true closer” because of his stuff. More fundamentally, beyond that sort of snobbery is the fact that he’s broken down in two of his six seasons. Getting two years of control over Lindstrom isn’t a cheap risk, since he’ll be arbitration-eligible in each, and his flop with the Astros involved all of the negatives we’ve come to expect: an alarming ability to blow close games, yet another injury, and not being missed during his absence. And for someone who impresses radar guns and velo ho’s, his strikeout rate was around league-average for a third straight year, which is actually fairly lousy for a reliever, let alone a closer. Happily, it didn’t take much that they’ll miss to take the chance, and perhaps the Rockies see something they think they can fix or use, a la Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, or Jose Contreras. If not, there’s always the option of non-tendering him after the first season to avoid needless expense.

In contrast, the piling on of infield depth was a nice bit of upgrading from the old cast and crew. Where before there were bit players like a used-up Melvin Mora or Barmes the Glovely or Jeff Baker‘ platoon mashery, instead O’Dowd has added a pair of players who could be useful regulars in their own right in trading for Lopez and signing Wigginton. What’s implicit with this pair of actions is that the Rockies’ infield should be less settled than in years past; now, with the pieces in play, Jim Tracy should be free to rotate people around at the three non-Tulo slots, making for a stronger bench, better depth, and a wee bit of injury-proofing.

Acquiring Lopez in his walk year, his age-27 season to boot, and when his value was at its lowest already constituted a nice little upside-minded pickup. When, like Lindstrom, all it took was organizational depth, the price was anything but wrong. Whether you consider him your sweet-fielding third baseman or an adequate glove around the keystone, he makes for a nice moving part: likely starting at second, but available if Ian Stewart stumbles. If you’re hoping for a return to a TAv in the .270s from Lopez, between his age and his performance record you have cause, but remember that plugging him in isn’t the surest of sure things. Hitting at altitude should do wonders for him, but he’s trying to come back from his second season in five stumbling down into the .220 range in TAv. If there’s a nagging concern, it’s that he’s an impatient hacker who already makes a ton of contact, so he doesn’t seem likely to benefit all that much from the lower strikeout rates you find in Denver; instead, he’ll be hoping that his high-fly hackery gets that extra bit of distance to hit grass instead of gloves. It’s a risk well worth taking, especially as an antidote to way too much Barmes the last couple of years.

Similarly, Wigginton would normally make a bad bet to repeat last year’s nice little comeback campaign, especially when you consider that he hit just .231/.293/.346 after mashing 12 homers in the first five weeks of the season. Undermining his season’s final tallies was a particularly bad year against lefties (137 points of OPS lower), but his work versus righties was consistent with his career performance (743 in 2010, 755 career). Here again, put him at altitude, and you ought to get value, and asking him to spot for two lefty-batting corners, and you have someone who might give Todd Helton plenty of increasingly necessary rest days, plus provide additional insurance against Stewart’s capacity to frustrate expectations.

Finally, getting Morales was another nice add-on. He’ll never be a great regular, but as a decent receiver who throws well enough, he’s already a fine probie for the International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops. Then, you add in that he’s a contact hitter who switch-hits, walks a wee bit, with modest sock, and he makes a perfect complementary player to Chris Iannetta, who doesn’t hit for average, but chips in power and patience and sound receiving skills.

All told, O’Dowd expended organization jetsam and cash, and wound up with a fairly decent collection of add-ons. It wasn’t a very sexy front half of the Hot Stove, absent of any big names as it was, but it might amount to enough good stuff and upgrades to help the team ride out the inevitable breakdowns that seem to strike every season.

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Re-signed LHP Ted Lilly to a three-year, $33 million contract. [10/19]
Purchased the contract of OF-R Jamie Hoffman from Albuquerque (Triple-A). [11/5]
Re-signed RHP Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $12 million contract. [11/15]
Purchased the contracts of RHP Luis Vasquez and C-S Hector Gimenez. [11/19]
Signed RHP Jon Garland to a one-year, $5 million contract, with a club option for 2012. [11/26]
Signed INF-R Juan Uribe to a three-year, $21 million contract; traded MI-R Ryan Theriot to the Cardinals for RHP Blake Hawksworth. [11/30]
Signed C-R Rod Barajas to a one-year, $3.25 million contract. [12/3]
Re-signed RHP Vicente Padilla to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/9]
Signed OF-L Tony Gwynn Jr. to a one-year, $675,000 contract. [12/11]
Signed C-S Dioner Navarro to a one-year, $1 million contract. [12/14]
Signed RHP Matt Guerrier to a three-year, $12 million contract. [12/16]
Designated LHP Brent Leach for assignment. [12/21]
Traded MI-R Chin-lung Hu to the Mets for LHP Michael Antonini. [12/27]

Taking a step back instead of going blow-by-blow, you can look at what the Dodgers have done and see much to like. Sure, they overpaid for Uribe, but that’s neither the first or last time Colletti put a premium on landing the player he decided he had to have, and preferring Uribe to Theriot is a defensible bit of lineup design, especially when the Dodgers insist on carrying James Loney‘s low-powered stick at first base. Dumping Hu for an organizational lefty might leave you worrying about what they’ll do the next time Rafael Furcal breaks down, but early on Ivan DeJesus Jr. is as ready as he’s ever going to be, and Uribe can move over to short while DeJesus mans second. But the further we get into 2011, the more likely it is that Dee Gordon pushes his way into the picture. This is Furcal’s walk year, which is perhaps just as well, since he’s a decade removed from spending any significant amount of playing time at second base.

Then look at what they did behind the plate in ditching the increasingly frustrating Russell Martin. Having moved away from the one-man solution, they reached for variety, for less total expense, although it doesn’t add up to much value. First, they locked up Barajas, one of this winter’s innumerable right-handed low-OBP sluggers, for what seemed like roughly the market rate. Barajas is perhaps only good for a TAv in the .240s, but strand him in the eighth slot, his power is just scary enough to invite a bunch of intentional walks. He consistently avoids hitting into double plays, because he’s such an extreme fly-ball hitter while not striking out all that much. They also took a cheap, unlikely risk with Navarro, on the off chance he bounces back to where he was in 2008, instead of flops as badly as he has in his other four seasons. And if one or both don’t pan out, there’s still A.J. Ellis to ignore, so at least they’ll have depth enough to avoid that embarrassing phone call to Brad Ausmus or Steve Yeager or whoever. At least it isn’t like they’re boxed in: if Navarro gives them cause to play him, it isn’t like Barajas is Johnny Bench; if Navarro and Barajas both struggle, there’s no long-term commitment to keep them planted in place should they finally wise up and give Ellis the break he’s long deserved as the poor man’s Mike Redmond.

But it’s in the rotation where Colletti has really outdone himself, because for all the attention devoted to the Phillies’ front four, the Dodgers might have the best front six. Going so far as to line up a half-dozen worthies is reasonable enough when you figure somebody’s going to break down at some point. It’s possible that they’ll reach Opening Day with nobody hurt, at which point they’ll learn how much of a crab Padilla can be-which, if the Rangers are to be believed, is fairly clawsome. I already dealt with the Lilly deal almost six weeks ago, but in each case the Dodgers made an interesting choice to pay for durability, quality, or both. Lilly is both good and fairly durable, so he got the expensive long-term deal. Kuroda is even better, but lost a big chunk of 2009, so he gets the expensive short-term deal. Garland is merely competent but durable, so he gets less, and the second season is contingent. Padilla is… well, he’s arguably underrated, but he has to settle for losing this particular popularity contest until somebody else gets hurt.

But consider the lot of them tabulartastically (and here’s the source data, while we’re at it):

Kershaw 32 204.1 .281 8.5% 25.0% 1.5% 6.8 .592 3.22 3.47
Billingsley 31 191.2 .311 7.6% 20.9% 1.0% 5.2 .551 3.85 3.73
Kuroda 31 196.1 .291 4.3% 19.6% 1.9% 5.0 .539 3.99 3.57
Lilly 30 193.2 .255 5.1% 21.2% 4.1% 4.7 .550 3.86 3.67
Garland 33 200 .270 9.3% 16.3% 2.4% 4.6 .521 3.87 4.45
Padilla 16 95 .258 5.1% 21.6% 3.6% 2.0 .509 4.36 3.54

That’s a pretty sweet half-dozen to work with, obviously. Add in the way in which Padilla’s deal really only starts to get expensive if they have to use him, and it makes for an exceptionally effective balance of insurance and expense. It’s enough good stuff to run up against the Giants and Rockies, but the problem is still that lineup, still short of a start-worthy left fielder on top of carrying offensive empties at first base and catcher. If this team’s going to matter, Don Mattingly‘s rookie season skippering this club can’t involve any mismanagement of that staff, because there’s little else to lean on.

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Signed RHP Aaron Harang to a one-year, $4 million contract with a mutual 2012 option. [12/6]
Signed RHP Dustin Moseley to a one-year, $900,000 contract. [12/13]
Received UT-L Eric Patterson as the PTBNL in the Adrian Gonzalez trade. [12/16]

Acquired SS-R Jason Bartlett from the Rays for RHPs Adam Russell and Brandon Gomes, LHP Cesar Ramos, and MI-L Cole Figueroa. [12/17]
Signed 2B-L Orlando Hudson to a two-year, $9.5 million contract, with an $8 million club option for 2013 ($2 million buyout). [12/20]
Acquired C-R Rob Johnson from the Mariners for future considerations. [12/21]

Leave it to the Padres to reach for every bargain, and wind up with a better-than-expected ballclub as a result. Some of Jed Hoyer’s propositions were fairly obvious, but relied on depth and a return from injury of one former top prospect: in the wake of the Adrian Gonzalez deal with Boston, sending Kyle Blanks to first base makes good sense, leaving the outfield corners free for Ryan Ludwick and Will Venable, and perhaps also the well-traveled Eric Patterson.

The particularly impressive feat has been the up-the-middle makeover, because all that took to achieve beyond a few thousand cell-phone minutes was money the Pads were in a position to spend, five replaceable relievers of varying levels of utility and readiness, and an old High-A second baseman. Scraping together your leavings and throwing them at people usually gets taken as mildly insulting; in most zoos, it guarantees that nobody comes to your cage to visit. But Hoyer scraped these piles of people together and landed a slightly worn, pre-owned blue-chip center-field prospect (Cameron Maybin), and then one season of Bartlett, and finally capping the action by giving Hudson more certainty than he’s enjoyed in years. As a result, they should boast a solid defense without sacrificing offense at any of the positions; while the Pads’ lineup lacks star power, it should get offense through all eight slots. Adding Bartlett also gives them the additional benefit of letting Hoyer send Everth Cabrera back to Triple-A, where the former Rule 5 pick would get to log his first full season in the minors above A-ball. That might put him in better position to come back to stay in 2012, while conveniently stopping his service-time clock in the meantime.

Nabbing Harang to be this season’s most likely retreaded hero propped up by Petco was a canny choice, perhaps even better than getting Garland last time around because he was more recently a good pitcher, whiffing better than 20 percent of batters in 2009. Harang’s SIERA for his injury-marred 2010 was 4.44, almost a run and a half lower than his actual RA/9 (5.72). Moving from the homer-happy Gap, second-best home-run park in the league, to the circuit’s toughest place to go yard is almost perfect karma. The real question is whether he’d also be the perfect Chris Young replacement, and not in a good way: Harang is a huge man coming off his third straight incomplete campaign, this latest one ruined by back problems. So while Harang might have more upside possibilities than Garland, he’s also an obvious injury risk. Since the Pads rotation only has two locked-in starters (Mat Latos and Clayton Richard), it’s a risk worth running at this price, but it’s that lack of certainty about anything beyond that front pair that explains why they’d blow almost a million on Moseley as swing filler.

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Signed 1B/OF-L Aubrey Huff to two-year, $20 million contract, with a $10 million club option for 2013 ($2 million buyout). [11/23]
Signed INF-R Miguel Tejada to a one-year, $6.5 million contract. [12/2]
Signed LF-R Pat Burrell to a one-year, $1 million contract. [12/3]

As with the A’s yesterday, I got into the Giants’ off-season execution at some length last week. Other than finding somebody to add to their shortstop mix, there isn’t a lot else left to do.

Thank you for reading

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Thanks for the article Christina! The NL West looks to remain fiercely competitive in 2011, although I personally hope this is the season the Rockies put it all together.

Off-topic: Did anyone else catch MLB Network's broadcast of Bing Crosby's tape of 1960 World Series Game 7? It was easily one of the most entertaining things I've seen all year, and truly lives up to its legendary reputation. There were so many amazing/weird plays in that game that I didn't even know about (e.g. 0 batters struck out in that game). Definitely a feather in the cap for MLBN (and the Crosby estate!).
When is good ol' Hank White going to stop catching and start managing?
Yep, a lot of fun to read as always. I've been really impressed by the quiet way that Dan O'Dowd has put together a pretty good team again, and am already looking forward to getting a stomach ache from watching Jim Tracy do bizarre things with it, like making Wigginton the center fielder or something. Once more the NL West looks to be immensely competitive, minus a D-Back or two. I'd hoped the trade of Adrian G would make San Diego irrelevant, but I do think that Hoyer made some okay moves, and, of course, those pitchers are still there. Curses!
Aye, put it together and it should be a good fourth-place team at the very least. Maybe that helps sell tickets in the wake of the AGonz deal, as far as establishing and retaining faith, but we'll see.
Great article as always. I was just hoping you could finish this sentence from paragraph 2 for me, "Parra's track record for..." Thanks!
The tagline that showed up on my RSS feed for this article said, "Catching up with the quartet racing to catch the world champs." Probably should have said, "Catching up with the quartet racing to catch the World Series Champions."
San Diego will be irrelevant. Unless Kyle Blanks whacks 25 homers, Harang makes 25 starts, and the bullpen hardly regresses at all. More likely none of the 3 happen than all do.
Last year the Padres players combined for something like 40 WAR. Without making any bold predictions about players having breakouts or career years and providing some regression. I can get them to about 38.5 WAR (before the Hawpe signing). I'm not going to predict they will have 90 wins again, but to write them off this early would be foolish.

FWIW, I'm assuming that the injured Blanks gets 0 WAR in that.
I'm typically the last with any kind words for Colletti's regime, but I share the admiration for his rotation-building this winter...though the poker player in me wonders whether all of the NL West's GMs, in loading up on pitching, are missing the same trick of adding an impact bat to shake up the "all arms all the time" calculus of the division.