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Anaheim Angels

  • M-Vlad-P: Vladimir Guerrero showed that the Most Valuable Player Award can be won in the closing days of the season. An unbelievable hot streak in the Angels’ next-to-last series–12-for-17, two doubles, five home runs against the Rangers–helped the Angels catch the Oakland A’s and positioned them to take the division on the season’s final weekend. Guerrero’s surge separated him from the other top candidates, and was certainly the difference in earning him his first MVP award.

    It wasn’t just one good week. Guerrero played well all season long, leading the AL in VORP and earning every bit of his $14 million salary in the first year of his five-year contract with the Angels. Guerrero blew through even the most optimistic projections last season; his 90th percentile PECOTA forecast of a .338 EqA edged out the .334 he actually put up, but PECOTA didn’t foresee Guerrero playing in 156 games.

    Guerrero’s impressive stat line has interesting information beyond the big numbers. He posted his best strikeout rate since 1999 and the best strikeout-to-walk rate (IBBs aside) ever. Guerrero fit the Angels’ offensive approach to a T, swinging and missing at fewer than 10% of pitches he saw in 2004. He’s maturing as a hitter and and a baserunner (his nine net steals (SB-(2*CS)) were the highest total of his career), and while he appears to be losing speed, put up the first above-average defensive year of his career. Guerrero is likely to remain an MVP candidate throughout his stay in Anaheim, and with his back problems apparently under control, is primed to be one of the best free-agent investments ever.

  • A Bench Weapon: The new, open-checkbook Angels are pursuing virtually every free agent, and are expected to grab a shortstop and perhaps a catcher. With Dallas MacPherson expected to take over at third base, this leaves superutility man Chone Figgins back in the role for 2005. Figgins makes for good rookie insurance as well as a backup for nearly every player in an often frail lineup. Figgins should continue to be a valuable player until arbitration makes him too expensive for the role.

    Figgins and players of his ilk are “force multipliers,” to borrow a military term. Modern bullpen usage has shortened benches at the same time it’s created more pinch-hitting opportunities. Wrapping a backup outfielder and infielder into one package–especially if it’s one with pinch-runner speed–effectively opens two more slots and adds bench strength. There are other opportunities for force multiplication, be it the two-way players like Brooks Kieschnick, good hitting pitchers like Mike Hampton, or the multiple rotation of players that the Red Sox could afford in 2004. There are certainly opportunities here, so smart teams will start developing players like this in the minors.

Chicago Cubs

  • Slammin’ The Door: Slammin’ Sammy Sosa has gone from the smiling stereotype to disgruntled exile in a hurry. The Windy City breezes have blown ill for Sosa since Dusty Baker arrived two years ago. Baker’s vaunted clubhouse skills worked in 2003, getting the Snugglies past Sosa’s corked bat and curse-worn jitters and into the playoffs. Last year wasn’t so successful; the late-season collapse seemed to stand staring at Baker’s office door. Even the announcing team turned on the manager, but in typical Baker style, he deflected the attention using his Jedi Toothpick Tricks and a press corps all too willing to bite the hand that once fed them. Sosa’s iconic boombox lay shattered in front of his locker, a symbol of his sharp fall.

    A “poison pill” option in Sosa’s contract–he’d have to be paid $18 million in 2006 if he’s dealt–makes him difficult to trade, but Jim Hendry is proving that it may not be impossible. While value is certainly not the first consideration, ongoing talks with the Mets new GM, Omar Minaya, have focused on money and Cliff Floyd. With Sosa willing to negotiate on the clause, perhaps making it a vesting option or a guaranteed year at less money, and the Players Association willing to allow this, the Cubs appear willing to trade an attitude problem for an injury problem.

    How would this look on the field? Sosa is a shell of his former self, a one-dimensional slugger who has seen his performance–down 25 points a year of EqA–and playing time–at least ten games fewer each season–drop in every year since 2001. At 36, it’s asking a lot to expect these trends to stabilize, much less reverse themselves.

    Even at that, Sosa is a good bet to outplay Floyd next year. The left fielder’s back-to-back 140-game seasons in 2001 and 2002 are a distant memory; he’s averaged 111 appearances in his two years in New York, reverting to the fragile slugger he’d been his entire career. He’s a good, not great hitter–trending downward–and an indifferent outfielder–also trending downward. The difference between the two players over a full season might be a win. Of course, Floyd is no more likely to stay healthy this season than Tara Reid is to stay sober at P. Diddy’s next yacht party. The trade is a push, unless rumors that Mike Piazza could be included prove true.

  • No More Nomar? While the Cubs lust after their neighbor’s shortstop, the one they have isn’t shabby. Nomar Garciaparra may have missed time with a lingering Achilles injury and chronic wrist problems, but his numbers compare well with both Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera. This chart, courtesy of Christian Ruzich, shows pretty clearly how they stack up.
                               RENTERIA         CABRERA          GARCIAPARRA
    AGE                        29               30               31
    BORN IN                    Colombia         Colombia         U.S.A.
    EXPERIENCE                 Nine years       Eight years      Nine years
    2004 SALARY                $7.25MM          $6.0MM           $11.5MM
    PERCEPTION                 Good guy         Team player      Malingerer
    CAREER OFFENSE             .289/.346/.400   .268/.316/.409   .322/.370/.549
    CAREER HR/RBI              83/565           72/412           182/710
    CAREER BB/K                434/675          244/321          295/420
    CAREER SB/CS               237/89 (72.7%)   97/30 (76.4%)    86/29 (74.8%)
    # ALL-STAR APPEARANCES     4                0                5
    # GOLD GLOVES              2                1                0
    # WORLD SERIES RINGS       1                1                0
    2004 OFFENSE
    AVG/OBP/SLG                .287/.327/.401   .264/.306/.383   .308/.365/.477
    HR/RBI                     10/72            10/62            9/41
    BB/K                       39/78            39/54            24/30
    VALUE OVER REPLACEMENT     26.5             13.7             29.7
    EQUIVALENT AVERAGE         .255             .241             .285
    OFFENSIVE REPUTATION       Good             Eh               Fading
    2004 DEFENSE
    RUNS ABOVE AVERAGE         -12              -7               -8
    DEFENSIVE REPUTATION       Good             Very good        Challenged
    CONTRACT ESTIMATE          3Y/$25MM         2Y/$15MM         1Y/$9MM

    If Garciaparra can be convinced to stay in the Friendly Confines and to sign a one-year deal in hopes of cashing in on a healthy, productive campaign, he’d be the best of the bunch. Planning for Garciaparra’s expected absence is also the only way to explain the Cubs signing Neifi Perez, and at that it’s a lame excuse. Just how bad is Perez? According to early research by Tom Gorman, in the time he filled in for Ray Durham during the latter’s DL stint, he cost the Giants two full games in the standings. Remember, the Giants only missed the division title by three games.

  • The Achilles Heel: There’s going to be a lot of focus on Mark Prior this off-season. His injury-marred season certainly contributed to the team’s third-place finish, despite able replacement starts from a revitalized Glendon Rusch. Prior is reported to be fully healthy, and is even scheduled to conduct a pitching camp in December. Prior will not be the only one facing injury questions heading into 2005. Dusty Baker again must get a long look, pushing Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano to pitch counts that make Rany Jazayerli break out in hives.
  • Closing In: Troy Percival is gone. Armando Benitez is still on the market. Ugueth Urbina may be available in trade. Danny Kolb isn’t available, but he has a fan in Jim Hendry. Clearly the Cubs won’t head into 2005 with Joe Borowski and LaTroy Hawkins at the back end of their bullpen. Call it Keith Foulke Envy if you will. The Cubs’ long history of closers may include Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith, but their free-agent closers have always seemed to go bust quickly. Dave Smith and Mel Rojas turned big bucks into big trouble instead of big saves.

    Of course, the Cubs have a perfectly good short reliever in Hawkins, who had a year right in line with the 2002 and 2003 performances that earned him a three-year contract. Unfortunately, Hawkins is shouldering a disproportionate share of the blame for the Cubs’ September collapse. Hawkins was dinged with three blown saves in nine days down the stretch, two of them in cases where he was on the mound with two outs and no one on in the ninth. This brief stretch of misfortune has, as it does in baseball, reinforced the idea that Hawkins is perfectly capable of pitching the eighth inning, coming in with runners on base, facing the opposition’s toughest hitters…but that he cannot do the same in the ninth.

    If the Cubs are dead set on adding a closer, it will have to come from outside the organization. The team may lose Kyle Farnsworth and Kent Mercker, and the minors don’t offer much hope, unless one of the bevy of flamethrowing pitching prospects is converted the way Todd Wellemeyer was last season. Hendry isn’t alone in looking for the next Joe Nathan among the available relievers. It’s just surprising that a team that found Joe Borowski in the independent leagues isn’t looking at more non-traditional sources for saves.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Ding-Dong, The … Never Mind …: Procedural red tape is all that stands between Mark Attanasio and the Brewers. He’ll get the keys sometime before the winter meetings, at which point Bud Selig can finally say he’s not an owner and mean it.

    Who is this cat who came out of nowhere, bearing cash and a pink slip for the Priebs? Unlike most of the last few “new” owners, Attanasio has not been a minority owner of another franchise. Jeffrey Loria, John Henry and Arte Moreno all cut their teeth as minority partners before writing their own big checks. The 47-year-old Los Angeles investor already has a mentor in Tom Hicks, with whom he shares business interests. Expect Attanasio to follow the normal new owner path of profit-oriented stewardship under a thin guise of Moneyball, all the while not rocking the owners’ boat. It will be easy for the Brewers’ new ownership to look good publicly since the payroll is currently unsustainably low at $28 million.

  • Still Coming, Almost Here: The great white hope of a bad franchise is prospects on their way. The Brewers are looking in their mirror, waiting for Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and a few others to make the jump, but sometimes, objects really are closer than they may appear. A new owner will mean that Doug Melvin and Ned Yost will need to win in order to keep said new owner from bringing in his “own guys”. That mindset will give the youngsters a fighting chance to win spots in Spring Training, or at least early-season call-ups. None are blocked by significant players, and what’s pushed aside can be used to buy some spare parts like lefties in the pen or pitchers with intact labrums. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, who missed most of ’04 with a torn labrum, will likely be the first to need a permanent home in Milwaukee with Craig Counsell sent on his way, though Weeks, Fielder, and Corey Hart shouldn’t be far behind.
  • Filling the Gaps: If the new owner has some money left he’d like to spend, the Brewers won’t have to fill their roster with just rookie talent and returnees. Well, they could, but they’ll end up looking just like every other Brewers team in the last decade if that’s the plan. The team should be focused on getting something resembling a rotation behind breakout star Ben Sheets and someone to catch their pitches.

    Damian Miller, an underrated, if aging, player, seemed ready to sign at mid-week, but hasn’t yet reached an agreement with the team. Miller has established himself as an average major-league hitter with a good defensive record (above average numbers for six years running). A two-year deal would be preferable to a three-year contract for the 35-year-old, but in the short term, he would be an upgrade over the brutal combination of Chad Moeller and Gary Bennett.

    The rotation is the biggest problem. Pitching coach Mike Maddux has had a couple of nice years, getting much of the credit for Sheets’ breakout. Unfortunately, Sheets is about all he has to work with for next season. Give yourself a gold star if you can name the third-best starter on the Brewers last season after Sheets and Doug Davis. Victor Santos stayed in the rotation all year, exceeding expectations, but is a swingman rather than a mid-rotation starter. Expect Doug Melvin to make a run at plenty of second-tier free agents. Derek Lowe is the type, even if his World Series performance priced him out of Milwaukee’s tax bracket. Esteban Loaiza, or even Russ Ortiz (once he sees the market understands his shortcomings) are the type of pitcher the Brewers will likely sign.

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