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I’m fond of saying, “Writing is a muscle,” and I honestly have no idea whether that’s something I made up or read somewhere. I’ve found it to be true, though. Like any muscle, it has to be used to be strengthened; the more you write, the better a writer you become. Don’t use the muscle–don’t write–and it atrophies quickly, leaving the muscle weak and making it harder to crank out interesting words.

I’ve managed to let the latter happen. With just one column since the World Series as my focus shifts to Baseball Prospectus 2005, I’ve struggled every time I’ve sat down to write for this space. And with each day that I don’t write, it got a little bit harder to do so. It’s a vicious cycle.

For better or worse, I’ll break that cycle today, and get back to my regular off-season schedule. I think this is going to be a wildly interesting off-season, with a glut of free agents at just a handful of positions, a champion that has every reason to be aggressive about not bringing back some of their postseason heroes, and a Yankee franchise that has boxed itself into a corner and has nothing left to defend itself with but cash.

  • The Giants signed the first major league free agent of the off-season, inking Omar Vizquel to a three-year, $12.25-million contract. Given the depth in the shortstop market, the deal seems excessive to me, both in terms of length and average annual value. Vizquel is no longer a superior defender, despite his Gold Glove reputation, and while he has posted .272 EqAs in two of the last three seasons, it’s very likely that his production will decline precipitously at ages 38 through 40.

    The signing itself bothers me less than the timing does. As they did last year with Michael Tucker, the Giants intentionally gave up their next first-round draft pick by nabbing a free agent before his team could pass on offering arbitration. The Giants have said that they don’t feel the financial investment in #1 picks is worth the return, a position that reflects their poor job of talent evaluation as much as it does the economics of the draft. Removing yourself from the first round in multiple seasons is a terrible idea, especially when you’re doing so to acquire major-league players of such marginal value.

    The Giants look like a successful team. They contend in every season, fill Pac Bell Park, have a pennant and a couple of division titles in this century. But in reality, they’ve become a .425 team that gets dragged over .500 and into contention on the strength of one player, the guy who should win his seventh MVP award today. It’s one thing to patch around a championship-caliber core with free agents and extend a run of contention, but a big part of doing that is to patch from within. The Giants, because they draft so poorly, haven’t been able to support their roster with low-cost replacements. Punting the first round makes that problem worse, and makes it more likely that the Giants will continue to waste the greatest individual peak in baseball history.

  • The Pirates re-signed a couple members of their bullpen, getting Jose Mesa for $2.5 million in 2005 and Salomon Torres for two years and $2.6 million. I’m not a fan, especially of the Mesa pickup. His 3.25 ERA this year isn’t all that good for a short reliever, and he had peripherals to match: 37 strikeouts and 20 walks in 69 1/3 innings. He does keep the ball in the park, which is what keeps the ERA reasonable.

    Torres looks a bit better, but his 2004 performance was way out of line with the rest of his career, and he’s still not that far removed from being out of baseball.

    I think that you build strong bullpens not by overvaluing the guys you picked up on the cheap who had a good year for you, but by being willing to cut them loose and find the next guy. The chance that Mesa returns positive value for his $2.5 million is lower than the chance that he falls apart and allows 85 hits in 65 innings. Signing Torres for two years commits you to him even if he shows that he’s ’04 season was a fluke, and the Pirates have gotten just a tiny bit better about sunk costs. With these two signings, the Pirates have essentially paid for past performance, rather than made a good investment in the future.

    You might recall that the Pirates mangled their 40-man roster selection last winter, doing such a poor job of evaluating their own talent that they watched teams select their players with five of the first six picks in the Rule 5 draft. Having committed 40-man spots to Mesa and Torres, it will be interesting to see if they make comparable mistakes this year.

  • A couple of weeks ago, I did a radio interview in which I was asked about Sammy Sosa, whose season with the Cubs ended in a controversial manner. At the time, I said that the problems likely stemmed from frustration; the Cubs, remember, had a playoff berth all but wrapped up with ten days to go before collapsing down the stretch. I figured time, and Sosa’s untradable contract, would heal the wounds.

    Maybe it will, but Jim Hendry doesn’t seem to want to wait to find out. He seems willing to do a dump deal with Sosa, with the Cubs willing to assume much of the right fielder’s $17 million salary for ’05 or take back bad contracts to match it. What’s surprising is that Sosa seems eager to help out by working to void his ’06 option year, which is worth $18 million and becomes guaranteed upon a trade.

    The difference, from the standpoint of the MLBPA, between this concession and the Alex Rodriguez negotiations of last winter is that Sosa is giving up an option, rather than guaranteed money. The value of that option is basically the $4-million buyout, because the Cubs won’t be exercising it, and no team will trade for it. Four million bucks isn’t hard to trade off, certainly less than $18MM or the $50MM or more the Red Sox and Rangers were asking Rodriguez to give back last winter.

    On the field, Sosa is an aging slugger with declining value aside from his power. He can still be a good #2 or #3 bat in the lineup, likely to hit .280/.350/.500 or so, maybe even higher. Off the field…I would say that Sosa is the same guy all the time, and the success of the team determines how he gets handled by management and treated by the media. Loud music and a loose approach to time and a happy-go-lucky attitude play better when the guys around you are playing well, and not so well when, say, you lose a bunch of games to sub-.500 teams to blow your season.

    There is a lot of this throughout baseball. Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez come immediately to mind as players who were labeled as problem children, attitude cases, but who magically were rehabilitated once the team had success. It’s another example of the weakness of “intangibles” arguments; they’re almost entirely based on what makes the best story at the time. Ivan Rodriguez went from a guy in Texas who all the pitchers supposedly hated to the “leader” of a World Series winner. That’s entirely a media creation.

    Sosa should be traded or acquired based on his skills as a baseball player and the on-field and financial merits of the trade. If Hendry moves him because the last week of the Cubs’ season was an embarrassment for everyone involved, it’s yet another mistake by a team that has been going backwards for a little over a year, and shows no signs of stopping.

Back Wednesday…

Thank you for reading

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