Most of my segments on ESPNews HotList consist of me talking about current events or expanding on some of my recent columns. I hadn’t written much since last Wednesday, though, so producer Michael Epstein made a suggestion that I liked so much I’m stealing it for today’s column, too: midwinter report cards.
The bulk of the offseason wheeling and dealing is behind us. There may yet be some trades, and there are a fair number of minor free agents available, but the headline-grabbing is pretty much done for now. Of Keith Law’s Top 40 Free Agents (“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for anything on a high shelf!”), just six remain unsigned, and just two of the top 20: Roger Clemens and Barry Zito.
So this is a good time to take stock of which teams have done the most to help themselves, and which, well, haven’t.
Chicago Cubs: It’s reasonable to expect that the back ends of the three big contracts they committed to may have downside. It’s just as reasonable to believe that the Cubs are as improved today as compared to the end of the season as any team in the game. Alfonso Soriano, even regressing from 2006, should be an upgrade on Juan Pierre. The open question is how he will be in center field, but his offensive edge on Pierre should carry the day. (One thing I haven’t seen discussed is the idea of moving Jacque Jones to center; Jones has been an above-average corner outfielder for some time, and he doesn’t have a right fielder’s arm.)
Keeping Aramis Ramirez for what now looks like a perfectly reasonable salary, and bringing in Ted Lilly to bolster the middle of the staff, all make the 2007 Cubs better. There may be hell to pay down the road, but right now, this looks like a team that will challenge the Cardinals‘ supremacy in the NL Central.
Detroit Tigers: The trade for Gary Sheffield was perhaps the best example of a team matching an acquisition to need. The Tigers had major OBP issues last season, and even an aging Sheffield will be good for a team-leading mark. I suspect that his impact on the team’s overall run scoring will be greater than we can model. Adding an OBP guy to a high-SLG, low-OBP lineup should have a larger effect than adding it to a more balanced lineup.
Signing Jeremy Bonderman to a four-year deal that buys out two years of free agency is a bit risky-four-year deals for pitchers always are. With that said, the current market for pitching is so skewed that locking up good ones before they get to market-Jason Marquis, three years, $20 million-is worth some risk.
New York Yankees: Kei Igawa isn’t the certainty the Daisuke Matsuzaka is, which is why he’s a relative bargain. His peak seasons in Japan compare well to Dice-K’s, though, and he’ll add to what is now a deep Yankee rotation. The other two Yankee pitching signings-Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina-rank among the top bargains of the winter, with two-year commitments, max, and reasonable money. Mussina’s deal is actually a wild bargain.
All of these deals mean that Philip Hughes will be allowed to develop, rather than being rushed. The Yankees still need a first baseman-not this one (Dec. 19)–and have four months to solve that problem.
Colorado Rockies; For one year of a league-average starter, they got a replacement in Jason Hirsh and a terrific defensive center fielder with some offensive upside in Willy Taveras. This was just a great baseball trade, the Rockies taking advantage of the Astros’ desire for certainty in the rotation, and worth a lot of wins over the next few years, and it may even make them better in the short term. The difference between Jason Hirsh and Jason Jennings in 2007 is much less than is perceived.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies added a good mid-rotation guy for very little 2006 cost, in what is one of the best trades of the offseason. By getting Freddy Garcia for two pitchers who weren’t part of their ’07 plans, the Phillies also now have an extra starter to deal for the outfielder, preferably left-handed, they need.
What the Phillies haven’t done is just as significant. Pat Burrell may be the scourge of the the Delaware, but he’s now on a two-year, $28-million deal, and the perception of his performance is far, far, shy of what its actual value. Pat Gillick may find that the deal he doesn’t make may be his best one, because Burrell’s OBP and power are sorely needed on a Phillies team that may be a bit shy of offense at four positions even with him.
Boston Red Sox: This is a qualified “nice.” The Red Sox would have been at the top of the list, having added the top pitcher and second-best hitter on the market, but the recent questions about J.D. Drew‘s shoulder throw the latter into question. Even with reduced power, Drew is an asset with his OBP, defense and doubles. He just may not be a 5/70 guy. The Sox also missed out on both Eric Gagne and Octavio Dotel, either of whom would have been a terrific low-cost, high-reward bullpen option.
Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles have been getting terrible production from the corners. The solution to that is not to sign Jay Payton, a perpetually inadequate corner outfielder. His defense won’t even help them as much as it might, as this projects to be a high-strikeout staff. The O’s needed to find offense this winter, and they haven’t. Look for more of the same in 2007.
Kansas City Royals: The Gil Meche contract is eight kinds of awful, too much money for a pitcher who hasn’t even been as good as his track record suggests, who doesn’t provide innings and who ties up money better spent in any other way. That alone qualified the Royals. However, the Andy Sisco/Ross Gload trade makes no sense for them, even if they wanted to dump Sisco and his, shall we say, interesting approach to baseball. The Royals have enough corner guys to fill two starting lineups. Even if Gload is one of the good ones, why add him and put another barrier in front of Justin Huber or Alex Gordon or Billy Butler? It’s a waste of a roster spot.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners have made the two worst trades of the winter, dealing away good, cheap talent for older, more expensive mediocrity. Acquiring Horacio Ramirez makes little sense in any world, and moving Rafael Soriano-the Ms second-best reliever-to do so is the opposite of productive. Dealing two low-cost players with upside in Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto for Jose Vidro is even sillier. Vidro doesn’t hit enough to be a DH; he’s not even as good a hitter as Snelling, and while you can make the argument that Snelling’s constant injuries make him unreliable, “durability” isn’t something you want to rest Vidro’s case on.
Houston Astros: They overpaid in talent for an innings guy in Jennings who isn’t likely to be that much better than the pitcher they put in the deal. They overpaid in money for a good, not great, bat in Carlos Lee. Neither of these moves addressed the team’s main problem: three non-hitters in the lineup, plus the pitcher. You can’t win that way.
The loss of Taveras is going to be felt. Lee doesn’t cover much ground-and will cover less with time-and there’s a ridiculous amount of real estate, plus a hill, and I think a moat and alligators, in left-center and center field at the Houston park. They’re going to miss the guy who saved all those runs.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The signing of Jason Schmidt covers a lot of ills, just not all of them. No matter what you think of J.D. Drew, replacing him with Juan Pierre is a setback. Re-signing Nomar Garciaparra creates a logjam that could result in the worst player of Garciaparra, James Loney and Wilson Betemit getting the most playing time at the highest price point. Losing Eric Gagne is understandable, but it ends what was a very entertaining era at Dodger Stadium. It never felt so much like a ballpark as when he was coming into a game.