This has been the earliest start to an offseason that I can remember. The biggest news in the two weeks following the World Series usually consists of free-agent filings and option pickups or drops, making early November the perfect time to recharge after a busy October. Well, we’ve had plenty of that activity, to be sure-some surprises, even-but with the memory of Tigers‘ pitchers throwing balls all over the place still fresh in our minds, there have also been three trades and one major free-agent signing.

It’s like watching Albert Pujols get off to one of his .380/.510/.925 starts in the first couple of weeks of the season. You know he can’t really keep that kind of pace, but you wonder what the year might be like if he did. Maybe this is going to be the kind of offseason that people write books about, like the winters of 1981-82 or 2000-01. Maybe all the money in the game and all the teams with a chance to contend in 2007 and all the new rules will combine to make for a winter that keeps seamheads buzzing and draws the attention of casual fans, setting up a new level of popularity for MLB.

That’s all a long way off. Today and tomorrow, we get caught up on the activity, as I slide back into action.

The most active team to date is the Yankees, who made two of the three trades while also presumably submitting a very high bid for the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka. The two deals put the Yankees in the odd position of jettisoning salary in exchange for prospects, something they haven’t done very much of in a decade. The first deal, sending Gary Sheffield to Detroit for three pitching prospects, looks like a good idea. As we saw late in the season, having Sheffield around with the current Yankee roster makes for an awkward fit. Either he or Jason Giambi is forced to play first base, and while Giambi is poor, Sheffield is even worse over there.

I’d advocated picking up Sheffield’s $13-million option because having a good player on a one-year deal is virtually never a bad idea. I was in favor of keeping him around because of the age of the Yankees’ outfield/DH/1B group; it seemed likely that at nearly every point, someone from the Hideki Matsui/Bobby Abreu/Giambi/Sheffield mix would be unavailable, making the congestion a problem that solves itself. The problem with that is that Abreu has been very durable and Matsui, prior to breaking his wrist in May, had never missed an MLB game. Their respective ages may make them more prone to injuries, but there’s no guarantee that there would be room on the outfield corners for Sheffield, and he’s no kind of first baseman. Given the unlikelihood that Sheffield would have been satisfied with part-time play in a contract year, there was considerable potential for unrest. As it was, he was displeased that the Yankees even picked up his option.

The other concern is that we don’t know what kind of player Sheffield will be. He got off to a good start in April, but the wrist injury quickly turned him into a poor hitter, and he didn’t show much in limited time after his return. He’s 38 years old and coming off a wrist injury, perhaps the worst kind for a power hitter, especially one like Sheffield who has made a career with his bat speed. It’s possible that he’s no longer a .315/.390/.530 guy, rather a .280/.360/.440 one, with limited defensive value. I’m certain that we have very little idea of what to expect from Sheffield in 2007, and that the range of possible outcomes here is wide.

The thing is, he might be a good fit for the Tigers even at the lower end of the scale. Even while winning the AL pennant, the Tigers had serious OBP issues and an imbalanced lineup heavy on power and light on walks. Even when he hasn’t had big power years, Sheffield has been a disciplined hitter good for a lot of walks and a high OBP. He fixes what ails the Tigers, who desperately needed an OBP guy in the middle of the lineup. Even if the bat speed is diminished and the power with it, Sheffield should make the Tigers a better team in ’07 as compared to Craig Monroe or Marcus Thames.

The problem with the deal isn’t just the price paid in talent-Humberto Sanchez is a good pitching prospect, such as those are, and Kevin Goldstein speaks well of the other two arms-but the extension Sheffield required as part of the deal. All of the caveats about Sheffield’s 2007 performance apply doubly to the following years, years in which the Tigers are now paying him a total of $28 million. With no discount, would the Tigers have been better off pursuing a free agent for three years and $41 million, perhaps someone younger and with less risk attached? There’s no guarantee that they could bring in someone like J.D. Drew-who didn’t actually become a free agent until this deal was done-but was it worth trying to do so? Was the risk that Sheffield wouldn’t be available worth taking?

It’s a fascinating trade, akin to what Kenny Williams did last year in boldly addressing the White Sox‘ similar problems by adding Jim Thome when the player was coming off his worst season. The Tigers dealt from strength, arms, and patched a weakness, OBP, while sending the important message that they’re not going to fall in love with the roster that won just because it won. The Yankees cleared a roster logjam, freed up some money and avoided a potential distraction in an unhappy Sheffield, while adding depth to their farm system. There’s risk involved, but it looks like a good deal for both teams.

The Yankees followed up the Sheffield deal over the weekend by sending Jaret Wright to Baltimore for it doesn’t really matter because it closes the book on Wright. One of a number of pitchers signed to ill-advised, ill-considered free-agent deals two years ago, Wright was alternately injured and ineffective for the Yankees. Getting Chria Britton, a decent arm who could be the next Scott Proctor, and saving a few million in the process is a good deal.

It has to be mentioned that Wright, by being dealt to the Orioles, is being reunited with Leo Mazzone. It was under Mazzone in Atlanta that Wright had his only good year since 1998, 170-odd innings that earned him a three-year, $21-million contract. There’s optimism that Mazzone will have a similar effect in 2007. I don’t think it’s a bad gamble at all for the Orioles, but I strongly recommend that they work out some kind of deal for Wright in 2008 now, something that protects them against getting one year of good pitching and then losing him to the market. I’d try and extend Wright for $5-6 million or so, in the hopes that he pitches well under Mazzone and makes that a bargain. They should give themselves some upside.

The non-Yankee trade was a bit of a head-scratcher, as the Padres dealt Josh Barfield to the Indians in exchange for Kevin Kouzmanoff and Andrew Brown. Barfield might have won the NL Rookie of the Year in another season, and he won’t be arbitration-eligible until after 2008. He’s not polished defensively and he doesn’t walk, but at 24, he has room to improve and his .143 isolated power while playing half his games in Petco Park is a nice feature for a second baseman. Money wasn’t a problem, an excess of talent at the position-the Padres have no other second basemen-wasn’t a problem, and the offer wasn’t too good to be refused.

Kevin Towers has talked up Kouzmanoff as a possible starting third baseman in 2007 for the Pads, but I don’t see it. He’s a big guy who’s had some back problems, and he’s the type of hitter who could just be killed by that park, with its massive left-center gap. He might hit .250/.320/.410 with nine homers in an average year, and you’re not playing him for his defense. Brown might end up the opposite; he’s not a great prospect, but the park could allow him to throw 70 innings with a 2.75 ERA because he never gives up a homer.

There’s a rumored second trade on the way, one that would send Scott Linebrink to the Braves for Marcus Giles, but I don’t think that salvages the deal. Giles is 29 now and unlikely to repeat his 2003 or 2005 seasons, even if he stays healthy. He’s a better fit for Petco than Kouzmanoff is, which isn’t saying a whole lot. The difference between a 29-year-old Giles at $6 million and a 24-year-old Barfield at $400,000 doesn’t clearly favor the former, if it does at all, and Linebrink is more valuable than Kouzmanoff.

The Indians turned two guys they didn’t have a lot of use for-remember, Andy Marte is in Kouzmanoff’s way-into one they will. Barfield has some developing to do on both sides of the ball, but you’re getting a league-average second baseman with some upside for less than a million bucks for 2007 and 2008 combined. I’m far from his biggest fan, and this deal blocks Hector Luna and possibly the best defensive shortstop the Indians have in Asdrubal Cabrera, so I’m not thrilled. Still, Mark Shapiro adds another small win to his ledger. When the Indians bounce back from the consolidation year to win 92 games next year, it’ll be in part because of all those small wins.

The three trades blew the usual filing and options news off the table, but there was one very interesting wrinkle in all those matters. J.D. Drew, whose five-year, $55-million contract with the Dodgers included an out clause, exercised that clause to become a free agent, passing up the remaining three years and $33 million on his deal to see what he could get on the market. The decisions was something of a no-brainer. Drew becomes arguably the best outfielder in this pool, maybe even the best position player, and with the top end of this market looking like 5/80 or so, he’s unquestionably going to do better than 3/33. He’s coming off his first 100-RBI season, which will play well in some quarters, and while he’s not the most popular guy in the game, his left-handed power, high OBP and good defense will make him a very desirable commodity. I fully expect Drew to be one of the winter’s better signings.

The Dodgers’ Ned Colletti reacted as if Drew had rejected the Dodgers, rather than making the kind of business decision anyone would make. By opting out, Drew will likely earn himself an addition $20-$30 million of guaranteed money. The real lesson here is that these kinds of clauses are terrible ones to include; if you make a good signing, where the player retains his value or becomes a bargain, you’ll lose him. Meanwhile, you’ll be stuck with your mistakes. Paul DePodesta did a lot of good things while with the Dodgers-really, Bill, he did-but this was not one of them.

The Dodgers may be enamored of their young talent, but they head into the offseason with no real center fielder and a huge OBP hole blown in the middle of the lineup. If Drew’s decision makes them more likely to re-sign Nomar Garciaparra to a multi-year deal, that’s even more damaging.

The other notable option decision was the Padres’ not picking up Mike Piazza‘s option, this for $8 million. Piazza was a terrific late signing by the Padres last winter, a big reason why they repeated as NL West champions. The Padres worked out a three-catcher rotation with Josh Bard (and his career year) and Rob Bowen that enabled them to get the most from Piazza’s bat and keep his aging legs healthy, while having better defensively players in the game when they needed to. The Padres appear to believe that Bard’s 100-point spike in BA reflects development; it’s much more likely that he’s a backup catcher who peaked, and at 29, will revert to his empty .250 BA and good defense.

For $8 million-a pittance in this market-the Pads could have hedged against this likelihood. Piazza, even with his lousy throwing arm, is enough of a contributor to warrant a one-year deal at those stakes. Picking up his option would have at least given the Padres a critical trade chip. The Yankees made the exact same decision with a much riskier player and got Humberto Sanchez for their troubles. This was a clear mistake by Towers and the Pads’ braintrust, who are not off to a good start this winter.

As I get ready to post this at about noon Pacific, it appears we may have a winner in the Matsuzaka sweepstakes. There’ll be an announcement later today, and I’ll be back tomorrow with more on that, as well as the Aramis Ramirez signing and whatever else bubbles up over the next day.

Thank you for reading

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