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|BOSTON RED SOX
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Re-signed C-R Doug Mirabelli to a two-year, $3 million contract. [11/29]
It won’t get a lot of play, but if you’re thinking in terms of the expense for a backup catcher, this resembles a mistake. Spending seven large on a guy who hasn’t topped 200 at-bats in four years? You might jump to the conclusion that this is an overly generous reward for someone associated with last season’s Curse-slaying, or overpaying a catcher willing to cope with the miseries of catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckler.
Well, don’t. Don’t jump, and don’t think in those terms. Not yet, pending whether or not the Sox really do re-sign Jason Varitek. Mirabelli’s had to wear the “great backup” tag for a while, but for that we can blame his having to share the Giants’ job with Bobby Estalella in 2000 after having stalled behind the famed Brent Mayne-Scott Servais platoon of ’99. Mirabelli’s always been able to hit, so this could very well represent his big opportunity, as the Red Sox let Jason wander off to cash somebody else’s checks.
It’s a risk, of course, considering Mirabelli just turned 34, but look at the catching market beyond Varitek: Dan Wilson? Mike Matheny? You don’t want to wind up counting on those guys, not for major money. The guy the Sox are smart enough to want who would make a great complement to Mirabelli is Gregg Zaun, and it’ll be interesting to see if they go that route, or nab a lefty-hitting catcher (Paul Bako or the ubiquitous Mayne) to serve as a backup. At any rate, my point is this: signing Mirabelli for big money is a solid hedge against losing Varitek when they don’t pay him the eight-figure-per multi-year deal he has his heart set on. But if they cave and sign Varitek, Mirabelli becomes a particularly expensive luxury, and one they can ill afford if those are their first deals on the free agent market this winter.
|CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Signed LHP Kevin Walker to a one-year, $525,000 contract. [11/24]
Walker’s four years removed from his breakthrough in 2000, but last season, he demonstrated that his arm was healthy, tossing 69.1 IP in Freno’s Moundsman Charnel House & Grill after losing out on what looked to be a chance to stick with the Giants. In a Sox pen already equipped with lefties Damaso Marte in the high-leverage innings, and Neal Cotts working long relief, Walker should be able to get a clean shot at an honest-to-goodness situational role. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s about what he’s good for. It does seem a bit odd to give him a guaranteed deal right now, but that just means the Sox have an awful lot of faith in someone to be their situational lefty despite not having pitched a full season in the bigs in four years. You can either call that a canny ability to interpret minor league data, or an easy faith that this is their guy, or a bit of both.
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The commitment is to Floppy as their big closer, emphasis on “big.” That term also comes to mind considering the risk, since there’s no guarantee that Wickman’s elbow can handle a full season even in just the Eck-style ninth-inning-only role. But for the investment ($2.75 million), relative to what the Tigers and the Giants are throwing at Troy Percival and Armando Benitez, it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, the problem with the Indians’ bullpen was less their need for a closer than their need for anybody to do good deeds with inherited runners and take care of the middle innings. Wickman’s being re-upped doesn’t fix that, but “finding” a closer so cheaply on the market doesn’t hurt their efforts to figure out what to do with the rest of the pen. Maybe they’ll be okay with Bobby Howry and Raffy Betancourt setting up, with Scott Sauerbeck and Matt Miller in situational roles. It couldn’t be all bad if Sauerback and Howry are 100%, and now that Miller seems primed to be a nifty Steve Reed impersonator. Why not?
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Signed C-R Mike Redmond to a two-year, $1.8 million contract. [11/24]
Signed INF-R Glenn Williams to a minor league contract. [11/30]
Small market, my eye. The Twins already made the clever “small market” move by nabbing Corky Miller off of waivers nearly two months ago. If Joe Mauer’s healthy, there’s their backup catcher right there, and if Mauer isn’t healthy, alternating between Miller and Matt LeCroy wouldn’t have been so terrible. Some people haven’t given up on Rob Bowen, for that matter. Yet now the Twins have five guys on the 40-man to catch, and Redmond’s making notable money for a job he will not do any better than any of the other alternatives. Like the Juan Castro signing, this move reflects a certain mindset: the Twins aren’t really in the business of trying to win the American League, instead focusing on bits of roster spackle to ice that division championship they’ve taken for granted the last three years. The rest of the division ought to feel insulted, but when their big moves involve being stuck with Carl Everett or wildly overpaying Troy Percival, you can sort of understand where the Twins’ contempt for their immediate competition comes from.
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I think it’s important to note what this deal’s basic motivation is, which is an exchange of expensive mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, acquiring Kendall for two lefties who’d become about as desirable to possess as a Creed album makes for a pretty nice swap for a team that needed a catcher. Kendall’s coming off of a good season behind the plate, even. But keep in mind, he will be 31, he hasn’t hit for noteworthy power since the Clinton presidency, and if he isn’t hitting in the .300s, the OBP that’s his primary offensive virtue won’t be flirting with .400, it’ll be down around .350. That’s not such a bad thing to have, a durable catcher with a good OBP. You could even argue that perhaps he’ll provide more power once he’s away from the power-deflating pasturage of PNC Park. Maybe, as an A’s fan, I still feel a bit put out that Johnny Damon didn’t do all that well for the Green and Gold, so I refuse to get my hopes too wildly up. But it’s just as obviously a good deal, one well worth risking.
Deleting Redman and Rhodes also makes room for pitchers with promise within the organization, which is perhaps more classically Billy Beane’s sort of move than just stalking big game he can occasionally or briefly afford. For the rotation, Joe Blanton should get first look, while Jairo Garcia and Huston Street get one more spot to potentially slip into.
It’s easy to say Beane got himself off the hook here, since he had reason to regret signing both Redman and Rhodes. But he’s also had reason to regret signing Scott Hatteberg or Terrence Long to multi-year deals; he found a taker for Long, as he indeed seems able to find a buyer for the back-ends of all sorts of odious deals. There’s an artistry to it, of course, but it depends on the existence of marks to be taken. Even with some of the GMs who’ve been recycled of late, that isn’t so easy to do when you’re known and feared (or respected, or resented). On that level, getting Kendall’s that much more impressive, but keep in mind, the Pirates aren’t your ordinary desperately-overstretched team. Like Beane’s exploitation of the Royals’ implosion during the tail end of the Age of Herk and the opening of Allard Baird’s career, it helps to have a desperately bad team looking to shed salary.
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Signed C-R Robert Machado to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [11/30]
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Re-signed RHP Paul Wilson to a two-year, $8.2 million contract, with a club option for 2007. [11/30]
I can see this as a need-driven signing, but there are echoes of this deal that make me think this is like the team’s unfortunate tendency to re-commit to Pete Harnisch not so very long ago. Yes, Wilson has been useful relative to the team’s alternatives the last two years. Yes, he’s not irreparably broken by his run-in with Dallas Green’s Shred-O-Matic Decision Tree of Manly Machismo. But it’s also worth noting he wasn’t really that great last year, or the year before. He was useful, yes, and in a world that’s paying Brian Anderson $6.5 million over a couple of seasons to be pretty awful, I think we can all accept the case that Wilson’s worth this sort of price on the open market. My question is whether you can contend in the NL Central when you can afford one “name” pitcher, and the name you’ve got is Paul Wilson at this sort of price. It’s up to Dan O’Brien to conjure up a bit more than this if the Reds want to keep up with the front three in the division.
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Signed PH-L Lenny Harris to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [11/30]
Now there was a desperate concern, re-upping a mostly-harmless, positionless player pursuing the tarnished glory of adding to his pinch-hit record. Consider Lenny’s record as a pinch-hitter in recent years, relative to his pinch-hitting peers across all of baseball:
Harris MLB Year AVG/OBP/SLG AVG/OBP/SLG ----------------------------------- 2000 .268/.300/.304 .232/.322/.349 2001 .256/.307/.329 .220/.305/.351 2002 .306/.363/.403 .225/.301/.343 2003 .200/.283/.200 .227/.300/.340 2004 .218/.259/.345 .230/.309/.357
Remember, Harris doesn’t really have any defensive value, so the benefit of having him is pretty much summed up right there. Basically, that’s a guy who’s been a notably better than average pinch-hitter once in five years. He was better than average at getting a single once in a while in 2000 and 2001, but he hasn’t been able to do even that in the last two years. So a guy you keep at your price because he’s a solid citizen and a roster gimmick, right? Wrong. Harris was making $1.1 million per year in 2000-2002, $800,000 in ’03, and finally down to $400,000 last season. For a guy who isn’t notably good at his specialty, and serves no other purpose. Yes, we can blame Joe Garagiola, Jr., Steve Phillips, and Dean Taylor for most of the damage, but that’s just silly.
As much as it is a meaningless signing in terms of helping the team, fortunately and sensibly enough, it doesn’t impact the 40-man during the Hot Stove League.
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Well, this much is certain: Damian Miller’s no Gary Bennett, and Lou Palmisano is still a long, long way away from being an Opening Day starter for the Brewers. So on that level, even if Miller never sees another season like 2004 again–and he won’t–this is better than alternating between Bennett and Chad Moeller, sure. But for a team that will not contend in 2005 with allegations of massive financial problems, is this really the sort of luxury item they should be spending on? I know, he’s from Wisconsin, and the Brewers pitch themselves as a regional franchise, but how many citizens of Eau Claire or Prarie du Chien are going to blow the weekend on a trip to Milwaukee, just because, heavens to betsy, look ma, they gots Damian Miller!
At 35, Miller might make all sorts of sense for a contender that needs someone to fill in at the position for a year; last year, that’s what he was in Oakland for. But to haul him into Milwaukee for this sort of change really calls into question the notion that the Brew Crew’s straits are really all that desperate straits, or, should their financial predicament be just another bit of hamfisted Seligian legerdemain, an obvious cry for help: “Hi, Shop-a-holics Anonymous? I have a problem with impulse buys, help me.” It’s great for Miller, hitting in the park that bears his name, he’ll probably get to be a pop culture icon in addition to enjoying the benefits of the park’s cozy dimensions at the plate.
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Acquired OF-R J.J. Davis from the Pirates for OF-R Antonio Sucre. [11/24]
Signed C-R Gary Bennett, to a one-year contract. [11/29]
There’s a scene in To Live and Die in L.A. where Willem DaFoe lets us know exactly what he thinks of West African art before finishing off a colleague who’s managed to disappoint him. If you don’t know that scene, I think we have to apply that sentiment regarding yet another unfortunate acquisition by Jim Bowden: his taste is in his… well, wait, Jonah will no doubt remind me that this is a family site, so we’ll just judge the pickup as consistent with some previously demonstrated craptastic standards.
Now, admittedly, Gary Bennett isn’t the worst backup catcher around. He might even represent an improvement on Einar Diaz, although that sort of represents one of those equally epic, qualitative distinctions between the abilities of Eternia’s second tier of heroes. On a team with a starting catcher who hits lefty, Bennett mashed lefties as recently as 2002, but that was in Coors, and there’s nothing in the intervening seasons to make you think he’ll be good for it ever again. As his DT card suggests, his defensive reputation is massively overstated, and he’s been consistently inadequate at controlling the running game. And while he’s been consistently touted as a good guy to have around, nobody’s felt that way about him so much that they’d want to retain him for consecutive seasons. Now, admittedly, that could be a market efficiently deciding that Bennett’s not worth the raise that keeping him might entail. But it also isn’t an endorsement of his backstop leadership value at a time when people get all fuzzy about Henry Blanco or Mike Matheny or even Mike Redmond. If ever, Bennett had an opportunity to be useful, but in the late ’90s, which isn’t so recent any more.
Of course, for one-year deals, there are better alternatives still on the market. Todd Pratt or Kelly Stinnett or Todd Greene can all hit a little, and it isn’t like Brian Schneider’s all that great at the plate. As expenses go, overpaying for a backup catcher of no obvious merit might not be a major setback, but it is an indicator that the Nationals have a GM on hand more interested in making moves for their own sake than doing much to improve the team, now or into the future.
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Acquired OF-R Antonio Sucre from the Nationals for OF-R J.J. Davis. [11/24]
I think we’re at the point where we have to interpret the Pirates with the understanding that, like the Huizenganated Marlins of the last ’90s, they’re a team that seems desperate to cut expenses any way possible. As callous as it might seem, Kendall was a catcher in an organization whose farm system is truly rich in two things: catchers, and lefty pitching. Everybody likes lefty pitching, but the Pirates shouldn’t want to swap what they’ve got down on the farm, not unless it brings them a quality prospect for the left side of the infield. Few could afford to swing a deal for Kendall, so if the Pirates wanted to cut payroll and create an eventual outlet for guys like J.R. House or Ryan Doumit or Ronny Paulino, Dave Littlefield didn’t have a huge range of choices from which to select. So he takes a not-so-good deal, with the opportunity to save some money, and the hope that Redman and Rhodes are bits more easily dealt in trades that might actually help towards an eventually good Pirates team. I’m not an enthusiastic subscriber to this interpretation of events, and I can wishcast that the Pirates should have shopped for better offers, but on a certain level, I’m willing to give Littlefield a similar benefit of the doubt that I think we all had to give Dave Dombrowski in 1998. It’s up to Littlefield to convert, in the same way that you have to hope he flips Jose Mesa for the first decent offer. It certainly worked with the Giles deal, but flipping a guy with Mesa’s flaky performance record or expensive adequacies like Redman or Rhodes won’t be easy.
|SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Signed LHP Dennys Reyes to a one-year, $550,000 contract. [11/29]
I’m no doubt unreasonably enthusiastic about this move, but that’s because I’ve always liked Reyes, and as a swing lefty of Mexican descent moving into a market that happily embraced Fernando! in his sunset years (Valenzuela did win his last 23 games as a Pad), this seems like a happy contretemps. He’s not a situational lefty, of course, and never really was, relying as he does on a scroogie (like Fernando!). But as a long reliever and spot starter, he’s a nifty large mass to carry around as your ninth or tenth pitcher on the staff.
|SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed RHP Armando Benitez to a three-year, $21 million contract. [11/30]
Having Armando Benitez is not a bad thing, and he’s a more certain quantity than Robb Nen or Dustin Hermanson, to be sure. Unfortunately, spending this sort of money doesn’t give the Giants a shortstop or a starting outfielder or a better rotation, it gives them a closer, probably the last thing this team needed if it’s going to give Barry Bonds another October hurrah. I’d rather have lumped the money given to Omar Vizquel and Benitez to do some high-end shopping on the shortstops market. I don’t know if signing Edgar Renteria or Nomar Garciaparra would have made it impossible, but signing Vizquel and Benitez at the prices they’ve paid may well preclude getting a starting pitcher they need, or an upgrade in the outfield for insurance against Marquis Grissom’s age and Michael Tucker’s inveterate mediocrity.
Maybe this is just another way to kick this around, but consider that the entire National League had a Save+Hold success rate of 83.6% last year (that’s using the useful definition of Holds, as sorted out by Baseball Info Solutions in this year’s outstanding Bill James Handbook. Benitez, in an insanely great year, converted 92.1% of his save opportunities; on his career, he’s done his job in terms of Save+Hold rate at a 88.3% clip. So yes, he’s good at that sort of thing, as well as overpowering in that classic closer’s way that everybody wants…well, except for Joe Torre. He was arguably the surest sure thing as closers go in this winter’s market. But will that extra bit of ninth-inning certainty compensate for Kirk Rueter’s decay, or an outfield that has to start Grissom and Tucker regularly?
|ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Neither was worth retaining on the 40-man, since either can be pretty easily replaced from among the legions of second basemen and right-handed swingmen in the minor league free agent pool. Simontacchi gave the Cards value a couple of years ago, but so did Steve Mura once upon a time. No reason to get all sentimental.
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