- Plugging a Hole: With shortstop Jose Valentin opting for free agency, the White Sox are left with a hole on the left side of the infield. Fortunately, shortstop happens to be one of the more well-stocked positions in the free-agent market.
- Orlando Cabrera (.264/.305/.383): Famously acquired for Nomar Garciaparra at the trade deadline, largely for his defense, Cabrera failed to build on a solid season in 2003, struggling mightily with the bat and in the field. He’s never posted good OBPs, and his back problems have limited his range in the field. Three years ago he would have been quite a catch; now, he’s mediocre at best, replacement level at worst. The Sox would be well advised to stay away.
- Nomar Garciaparra (.308/.364/.477): Garciaparra appeared to find new life with the White Sox’s cross-town neighbors after the July deal. When healthy, he continues to show good pop and a solid batting average complimented by enough walks to keep his OBP a respectable distance above it. His defense, however, is horrendous, and with a staff that has a slightly higher than league average GB/FB ratio, that is a concern. Garciaparra’s health is the main issue, so a one-year, incentive-laden contract with an option would work best here.
- Craig Counsell (.241/.330/.315): The Anti-Garciaparra, Counsell proved himself an excellent defensive shortstop this season, but his batting average was well south of acceptable for the second year in a row. He keeps his OBP decent with a healthy number of walks, but Counsell’s bat leaves much to be desired. Maybe a short-term deal on the cheap, but most likely this would not be a great option.
- Rich Aurilia (.246/.309/.353): Yuck. Aurilia’s 2001 season is starting to take on Brady Anderson-like qualities as he continues to struggle with both the bat and the glove. Though he played well in limited duty with San Diego, Aurilia should not be regarded as an option.
- Edgar Renteria (.287/.324/.401): The Cardinals’ shortstop had a good 2002, an amazing 2003, and a disappointing 2004. There’s not much power to be found from Renteria or much in the way of defense, but he gets on base, which is more than can be said of a lot of players out there. He’s looking for a longer-term deal than he deserves, so unless the Sox can sign him to a short-term contract, they’ll probably end up overpaying.
- Pokey Reese (.221/.265/.303): Reese got by on his defensive reputation for as long as he could before finally settling into the one-year contract, late-inning replacement role. The Red Sox did what they could with him and, had it not been for Reese’s injuries, looked to be working things out between him and Mark Bellhorn pretty well. He doesn’t have the bat to be an everyday player, but he still flashes a great glove and wouldn’t be a bad idea as that aforementioned one-year contract, late-inning replacement player.
- Jose Valentin (.216/.287/.473): Valentin’s batting average slipped for the fifth year in a row and, despite hitting 30 home runs, he finished just behind Cristian Guzman on the BP VORP lists. At 35, Valentin is either leaning out over the precipice or already free falling behind it, depending on how you look at things. A one-year contract is the most that the White Sox should offer.
- Juan Uribe (.283/.327/.506): Wait a minute, what about this guy? Uribe had a solid year as the White Sox second baseman, but he came up as a shortstop and filled in for Valentin when he was injured. He’s only been in the league for four seasons, so he’s still in just his second arbitration year, making him a cheap commodity. The White Sox would likely be best served by sliding Uribe to the other side of second and letting him prove that 2004 was a real step forward.
The White Sox’s main issue is not that they need a shortstop, but that they need a longer-term solution at short than is available in the market. With the possible exception of Renteria, none of these players fits the profile of a player whom a smart team would sign to a long-term contract. There was some hope that Robert Valido, a fourth-round pick in 2003, could be ready in a couple of years, but he had a tough time at Kannapolis this year and is no longer a realistic option. So for now the Sox should either slide Uribe over and see what they’ve got in-house or pick a name out of a hat for a one-year contract. It’s not an easy choice.
- Stepping In: With the departure of Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes in the Jason Kendall deal, the spotlight has been turned on two Oakland prospects the organization is betting can step onto the big stage. It’s the same old refrain in Oakland. Last year it was Bobby Crosby; now it’s Huston Street and Joe Blanton.
We covered Street’s performance in depth last time. Now it’s Blanton’s turn. The A’s top pick in the 2002 draft (aka “The Moneyball Draft”), the big right-hander was very impressive in 2003, his first full professional season. Blanton dominated the Midwest League with a 144/19 K/BB ratio in 133 innings, then after a late call-up to Double-A Midland, continued to throw strikes, posting a 30/7 ratio in 35 2/3 frames to go with a shiny 1.26 ERA. This year, spent at Triple-A Sacramaento, was more of a struggle for him. Blanton scuffled early, but improved as the season went on, showing the polished repertoire of pitches one would expect from a pitcher drafted out of college.
Blanton certainly looks ready to step in and contribute to the club, but he won’t be an immediate star. Expecting him to be anywhere close to Rich Harden next year would be like expecting the Yankees to start cutting payroll. Blanton doesn’t have the same natural stuff that Harden features, instead working with an 88-91 mph fastball and good breaking pitches. Blanton’s shown that he can handle the jump from Double- to Triple-A, a gap that sinks more than its fair share of prospect ships, and the chances that he performs at least as well as Redman last year are good.
- The Other Giles: After Blanton, the A’s don’t have much in the way of starting pitching prospects, which is why rumors about the A’s looking to send one of the Big Three to Atlanta for Marcus Giles don’t seem to make much sense on the surface. If Oakland does move another member of the rotation, the replacement options would be limited to Justin Duchscherer, Kirk Saarloos, or perhaps another player acquired in a trade.
Duchscherer performed admirably in the long-relief role last season after a dominant season in Sacramento in 2003, but he’ll be 27 next season and has never spent a full season in a major-league rotation. That’s not to say that he can’t do it, but having two question marks in the rotation with very little backing up the inevitable injury is not a situation in which the A’s usually put themselves. Saarloos–acquired last year for Chad Harville–had a few spot starts when Tim Hudson went down mid-season, but his career so far is less impressive than Duchscherer’s. He’d have to perform very well in spring training to have a shot at the job, if it’s available.
Mark Ellis is expected back healthy for spring training, ready to reclaim the starting second base job. One of the AL’s best rookies in 2002, Ellis floundered in 2003 before spending last year on the DL with a dislocated shoulder and labrum problems. Expecting something along the lines of 10-15 VORP with significant injury concerns is probably about right for him.
Giles, however, accumulated 35.9 VORP last year, a season in which he had just 434 plate appearances, the result of his second major collision with another player in two seasons. If he’d played a full season, Giles would have been the third best second baseman in the majors behind Jeff Kent and Mark Loretta. He’s been in the majors for less than four seasons, leaving whatever club owns his contract with exclusive rights to him through 2007.
Swapping one of the Big Three for a healthy Giles could net the A’s about 35-40 runs at second base, an offensive gain of two to three wins over Ellis. However, removing one of their star pitchers would likely cost them anywhere from 10 to 50 runs in the rotation, depending on who is traded and how everyone performs next year. It would be a big gamble, but considering that at least one of the Big Three will be gone after 2005 anyway (the A’s cannot afford to sign Hudson and pick up the options on both Mark Mulder and Barry Zito for 2006), it’s the kind of preemptive move that would better answer the second-base question while allowing the A’s to focus their efforts on the two remaining members of the Big Three.
- Chasing Utley: With Placido Polanco having departed via free agency, the Phillies happily turn to second-base solution Chase Utley. Drafted out of UCLA in 2002, Utley is too old and has seen too much time hanging around Philadelphia to be considered a real prospect, but he should make for a respectable player if given steady playing time instead of the sporadic duty he’s seen thus far. Utley’s professional career over the past four years looks like this:
Team Year Level AB AVG OBP SLG ISO BB_R Clearwater 2001 High A 467 .257 .328 .422 .165 7.34 Scranton-WB 2002 Triple-A 464 .263 .355 .461 .198 9.02 Scranton-WB 2003 Triple-A 431 .323 .395 .517 .194 8.69 Philadelphia 2003 Majors 134 .239 .325 .373 .138 7.59 Scranton-WB 2004 Triple-A 123 .285 .368 .512 .227 12.77 Philadelphia 2004 Majors 267 .266 .308 .468 .202 5.32
Utley has proven that he can hit Triple-A pitching, but so far he hasn’t been given a chance to prove he can hit in the majors. While most players tend to gain power as they age, Utley has shown consistent power at every level throughout the minors. While he struggled with commanding the strike zone in the majors this year, he still hit an impressive 13 home runs in partial playing time and his walk rate, while not outstanding, has been consistent and respectable. He should put up similar numbers to those of Polanco in 2004, but with a little more power and a little less OBP. At a fraction of Polanco’s cost, Utley should be a more than adequate replacement.
- Reunited and It Feels So Good: Looking for some insurance in center after Marlon Byrd‘s struggles last year, the Phillies decided to send reliever Felix Rodriguez to the Yankees for ageless wonder Kenny Lofton, simultaneously reuniting Lofton with former manager Charlie Manuel and freeing up center field for the Yanks’ inevitable pursuit of Carlos Beltran. From the Philly perspective, however, Lofton provides a solid if unspectacular alternative in case Byrd can’t recover from a season in which he was last in the majors in VORP for center fielders (just edging out teammate Doug Glanville). The $3.1MM remaining on Lofton’s contract comes out just about even with the $3.15MM player option Rodriguez exercised after the Phillies declined the team portion of the dual option. Throw in the $1.5MM that the Yankees sent Lofton south with as a sweetener, and the deal is profitable for the Phillies.
With a deep bullpen, the Phillies were more than happy to ship deadline pickup Rodriguez out of town for a little help in center field. Even replacing the two players who carried the load from last year with a replacement-level player would have added nearly two wins to the club. If Byrd can regain some of his form from 2003, that’s an added bonus, but for now, Ed Wade and company have sent a spare part up to New York in exchange for some important insurance for the one major weakness in the 2004 offense.