LAS VEGAS-The hoopla of a massive three-way trade that had enlivened the winter meetings just hours before their conclusion was just dying down when the Mariners new general manager Jack Zduriencik looked at an old acquaintance and grinned. “How about that for a first trade?” he said. “This one might be hard to top.”
Zduriencik might make better trades as a GM, and he might make worse, but he may go an awfully long time before he helps engineer another 12-player extravaganza like the one he pulled off with the Mets and Indians late Wednesday night to end the third day of the Winter Meetings. When it was over, the Mets had strengthened a bullpen whose collapse had played a large part in their finishing one game behind the Phillies in 2008 for the second straight season in the race for the National League East title. The Mariners, coming off of last season’s 101-loss debacle, increased the depth of their roster significantly, and the Indians added a reliever with promise.
The Mets sent right-hander Aaron Heilman, outfielder Endy Chavez, left-hander Jason Vargas, and three minor leaguers (right-hander Maikel Cleto, first baseman Mike Carp, and outfielder Ezequiel Carrera) to the Mariners. The Mariners returned right-handed relievers J.J. Putz and Sean Green and outfielder Jeremy Reed to the Mets. The Indians then sent outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners for Mets’ right-handed reliever Joe Smith and the Mariners’ second baseman Luis Valbuena.
The Mets will feel the most immediate impact after also officially signing record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract as a free agent earlier Wednesday. Putz, who was the Mariners’ closer, will replace Heilman as Rodriguez’s primary set-up man, and Green will pitch in the middle innings. The Mets finished one game behind the Phillies in the NL East in both 2007 and 2008, with the bullpen taking the brunt of the blame. The Mets were 13th in the NL with a 4.27 reliever ERA last season, as they lost closer Billy Wagner to Tommy John elbow surgery for the final two months. Wagner is expected to miss all of 2009 as well.
Rodriguez will step into Wagner’s role after setting a major league record with 62 saves last season for the Angels, while finishing third in the major leagues in WXRL with a 5.635 mark behind the Phillies’ Brad Lidge (7.609) and the Yankees‘ Mariano Rivera (6.174). Putz had a -0.528 WXRL in 2008 while bothered by ribcage and elbow injuries, but he led the majors with 7.419 in 2007. Green’s WXRL was 1.020 last season.
“It’s about winning championships,” Mets GM Omar Minaya said. “To win a ring, you’ve got to sacrifice yourself. If you look at the teams that win championships, they have closers and set-up guys. A lot of times, the set-up guys are good enough to be the closers. All I keep hearing in the streets of New York when you go to get the bagels in the morning is to please address the bullpen. Well, we’ve addressed the bullpen. I cannot think of a better reliever we’d be able to sign than Francisco Rodriguez,. The stats speak for themselves, not only the record in saves but the consistency that he has shown, his drive, and his youth. We’re excited to have K-Rod join the New York Mets.”
There had been much talk about Rodriguez’s fastball slipping in recent years; his heater averaged just 91.7 mph last season (at least according to FanGraphs). However, Minaya said he is not worried that Rodriguez might be losing arm strength at the tender age of 26. “His fastball is not the same fastball that it was when he came up in 2002, but by the same token, his changeup, according to some of the hitters we talked to, was as good as any changeup in the game,” Minaya said. “I think, like anything else, he’s found a way to make adjustments because the league adjusted to him. He’s smart enough to make adjustments, and he has different weapons with which to get you out.”
The Mariners got a top-flight defensive center fielder in Gutierrez, which will enable new manager Don Wakamatsu to leave Ichiro Suzuki in right field. Gutierrez, 25, had 15 FRAA last season while primarily playing right field for the Indians, helping to offset a sub-par .255 EqA. “We think this guy can play center field exceptionally well,” Zduriencik said. “We think he’s one of the better defensive outfielders in the major leagues. He’s still young and there’s upside to him. We look forward to watching this kid play every day in center field in a big ballpark like Safeco Field, where he’s really going to have a chance to showcase his skills.”
Heilman had a team-worst -0.350 WXRL last season for the Mets, and has said repeatedly that he wanted to be traded to a team that would let him start, but Zduriencik said it is too early in the offseason to determine what his role will be in 2009. Likewise, Zduriencik wasn’t ready to commit to right-hander Brandon Morrow as Putz’s replacement as closer.
The Indians are hopeful that Smith will be part of a bullpen bridge between the starters and newly signed closer Kerry Wood. Smith, 24, had a 1.745 WXRL last season, just two years after being taken in the third round of the first-year player draft from Wright State. “He’s had an extremely fast path to the major leagues,” Indians GM Mark Shapiro said. “To get there as quickly as he did and pitch in that kind of environment, he has a good heartbeat. He’ll give us a different look [as a side-arm pitcher] and complement our guys well. I think he’ll continue to improve and develop.”
After only two trades were made during the first two days of the Winter Meetings, there were two others consummated Wednesday in addition to the Mets-Mariners-Indians mega-deal. The Tigers acquired right-handed starter Edwin Jackson from the Rays for outfielder Matt Joyce, and the Pirates sent Ronny Paulino to the Phillies for minor leaguer Jason Jaramillo in a swap of catchers.
Jackson, who threw 183
The Rays were looking for a right fielder after their surprise march to the AL pennant, and they believe that Joyce, 24, could fill the role after hitting .252/.339/.492 with a .282 EqA in 277 plate appearances as a rookie last season. The Rays will continue to look to add right-field/designated hitter types, and holdovers Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez will be in that mix. “It’s not clear yet how it’s going to play out,” Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Matt provides depth for us. We always have to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future. So while we expect this trade to impact us in 2009, we think it will also pay dividends for us down the road.”
Rookie left-hander David Price figures to fill Jackson’s spot in the rotation next season, though Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann, and Mitch Talbot will also get a chance to make a case in spring training.
Meanwhile, Paulino will battle incumbent Chris Coste for the backup job with the Phillies behind Carlos Ruiz, and Jaramillo will compete with fellow rookie Robinson Diaz to back up Ryan Doumit with the Pirates. Paulino, 27, lost his starting job to Doumit in spring training last season, hitting just .212/.277/.305 with a .212 EqA in 130 plate appearances, and then posted a translated .279 EqA in 112 at-bats with Triple-A Indianapolis. Jaramillo, 26, hit .245/.316/.346 in 425 at-bats with Triple-A Lehigh Valley with a .234 translated EqA.
As expected, Davey Johnson was named the United States manager for the 2009 World Baseball Classic which will be held in March. Johnson led Team USA to a bronze medal at the Olympics in Beijing this past summer.
Johnson compiled a 1,148-888 record in 14 major league seasons as a manager with the Mets (1984-90), Reds (1993-95), Orioles (1996-97), and Dodgers (1999-2000). His ’86 Mets won 108 regular-season games and beat the Red Sox in the World Series. Beginning in 1965, Johnson played in the major leagues for 13 seasons with the Orioles, Braves, Phillies, and Cubs. “As a former player, he understands the athletes we are going to be dealing with and what’s at stake,” USA Baseball president Paul Seiler said. “He’s also a patriot who cares about his country. He has the character, attitude, and desire to win. We’re very proud to have him as manager.”
The United States was a disappointment during the inaugural WBC in 2006, as they were upset by neighboring Canada and Mexico while failing to get past the second round of play under manager Buck Martinez. Johnson was a coach for that US team. “It’s an honor to represent your country and a thrill,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think we were ready in 2006. I don’t think anybody knew what to expect. I think the biggest thing is that a lot of the pitchers had not had enough throwing and were not prepared. I’m happy to say I think there has been a lot more talk among the players. It seems like there is much more interest coming up this year, and more of an attitude that guys want to be on that team because there is payback to do.”
Round One will consist of four pools of four teams each, with the top two finishers moving on to Round Two. Pool A (China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and Korea) will play from March 5-9 at the Tokyo Dome; Pool B (Australia, Cuba, Mexico, and South Africa) will play from March 8-12 at Estadio Foro Sol in Mexico City; Pool C (Canada, Italy, the US, and Venezuela) will play from March 7-11 at Rogers Centre in Toronto; and Pool D (Dominican Republic, The Netherlands, Panama, and Puerto Rico) will play from March 7-11 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan.
Round Two will consist of two pools of four teams each, with the top two finishers moving on to the finals. Pool One will be played from March 15-19 at Petco Park in San Diego, and Pool Two will be played from March 14-18 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. The semifinals will be held from March 21-23 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Other managers include Australia’s Jon Deeble, Chinese Taipei’s Yeh Chih-Hsien, the Dominican Republic’s Felipe Alou, Italy’s Marco Mazzieri, Japan’s Tatsunori Hara, Korea’s In-Sik Kim, Mexico’s Vinny Castilla, the Netherlands’ Rod Delmonico, Panama’s Hector Lopez, Puerto Rico’s Jose Oquendo, and Venezuela’s Luis Sojo. Canada, China, Cuba, and South Africa have yet to announce their skippers.
Nick Peters, who covered the Giants for 47 years from 1961-2007, was elected as the winner of the 2009 Spink Award on Wednesday in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and will be honored during the Hall of Fame ceremonies on July 27 in Cooperstown. Peters was the winner over Toronto’s Bob Elliott and Chicago’s Dave Van Dyck.
Peters spent the majority of his career at the Oakland Tribune and Sacramento Bee, while also working for the Berkeley Gazette and San Francisco Chronicle. “When you do something so well for so long, people kind of take you for granted,” Sacramento Bee assistant managing editor Tom Negrete said. “With Nick, you never had to worry about your reporter calling in sick, missing deadline, getting the story, being accurate. Nick loves what he does and has more passion for his job than anyone I have ever met. Nick’s secret, I believe, is that he outworks everyone.”