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Signed SS-S Cesar Izturis to a two-year, $5 million contract. [12/15]
Signed LHP Mark Hendrickson to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [12/31]
Signed RHP Koji Uehara to a two-year, $10 million (base) contract. [1/13]
Acquired CF-L Felix Pie from the Cubs for LHP Garrett Olson and RHP Henry Williamson. [1/18]
If, thanks to the Rays‘ reversal of fortunes, 2008 was the year that made people think a lot more about defense as a key component in team building, I guess we can consider the additions of Pie and Izturis as reflections of Andy MacPhail’s getting the memo. Pie came pretty cheaply, and while that’s a reflection of his failure to break through in his age-22 or age-23 seasons, and with that as the standard in play, you can certainly question the Cubs’ judgment. While putting Pie in left field isn’t really a great fit for him and might be a waste of his center field-caliber glove, it’s a young player with talent getting added to an organization with far too few of those. After hitting .303/.355/.506 against right-handers in Iowa last season but only .245/.287/.362 against southpaws, the suggestion that he might platoon with Ryan Freel (until Freel combusts, again) or Lou Montanez makes sense, and it would certainly boost his rate stats as well as an EqA in the .260s if he were to play every day. There are additional benefits besides. Now Adam Jones’ days off shouldn’t involve a step down on defense, and having Pie fulfill that reserve role might also mean that there’s roster space to carry someone like Montanez. The follow-on ripples brought on by this sort of off-season splash-Luke Scott moving to relatively regular DHing, Aubrey Huff playing a lot of first base-also have something to recommend them, and given that the infield should see very little in the way of spot starts, past experience from Freel and Montanez in other infields might also spare the team from having to carry a utility infielder.
That might sound strange coming from me, since you might expect that I’d normally argue for carrying a pinch-hitter for the invariably punchless Izturis, but I see the investment in Izturis as being as much about giving the younger pitchers on the staff some reliable leather behind them. It isn’t like the club should harbor any higher ambition than a fourth-place finish should the injury-wracked Jays be cooked. Employing Izturis to start 130-150 games if he can hold up, batting him ninth, and hoping that helps the kids develop sounds like a plan on a team still far removed from being able to do much more than slowly re-gear and build towards a better tomorrow. Adding Izturis and Pie should net the club a nice margin on a defense that last year ranked 18th in Defensive Efficiency and 20th in PADE.
The additions of Uehara and Hendrickson are meant to help bring the O’s that much closer to a big-league rotation, though it’s hard to say to what extent this will pan out in terms of really improving the unit. Uehara is a prize on at least one level: a strike-throwing control fiend coming into his age-34 season, he was seen as the best of this winter’s possible Japanese imports, so you can treat this as a happy instance of the Orioles trying to mix things up and compete directly with other teams on the open market for desirable commodities, something of a break from their more desultory shopping sprees of the past. Although Uehara should be able to take his turns and rack up a few of the performance and playing-time incentives that will escalate the deal’s value to as much as $16 million, he did struggle with a hamstring injury last season. The interesting blip on his career was his All-Star turn as Yomiuri’s closer in 2007, but the addition of flame-throwing Marc Kroon for 2008 let the Giants line up Uehara behind gaijin Seth Greisinger in a rotation good enough to win the Central League last season. I’d be reluctant to sign off on ranking him any higher than Hiroki Kuroda, and given that his translated PERA as a starter in 2006 was 4.56, we’re more probably talking about a mid-rotation starter, maybe even only a solid fourth man you don’t skip.
Still, this is the Orioles, and that represents a massive upgrade on what they fielded every fifth (non-Guthrie) day last season. The question is whether or not some of the other options on hand will help at all. Hendrickson’s a utility pitcher after a fashion, but he managed only four quality starts (one blown) in 19 for the Marlins last season, and those were against the Pirates, Nationals, Padres, and Brewers-or just one against what we might call a solid big-league lineup. This isn’t a new development for the towering lefty, not after he contributed two in 15 starting assignments for the Dodgers in ’07. He’s an aspirant for fifth starterdom, and perhaps at best a patch until they can sort out whether Radhames Liz, Troy Patton, Dennis Sarfate, and/or Matt Albers is really ready to go. Like the likely addition of Danys Baez to the front five if the Cubano proves up to the challenge, Hendrickson’s possible presence in the O’s rotation is like what he provided the Fish with last season, and if things turn out as well for Baltimore as they did for Miami, he’ll be phased out as the season progresses and some of the kids do as well. It’s not the end of the world if three of four slots behind Jeremy Guthrie are initially stocked with Uehara, Hendrickson, and Baez, it just won’t be a very good unit. With that initial quartet of recovering or ready-as-they’ll-ever-be prospeects fighting health or performance, there’s a chance that the veteran temps may have to settle for middle relief tandem’d tours as bulwarks against youthful indiscretion, but eventually we’re going to get to see Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, so the situation is less dire than transitional.
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Acquired UT-R Mark DeRosa from the Cubs in for RHPs Jeff Stevens and Chris Archer and LHP John Gaub. [12/31]
Signed RHP Carl Pavano to a one-year, $1.5 million contract, with $5.3 million in performance bonuses. [1/6]
Agreed to terms with C-R Kelly Shoppach on a one-year, $1.95 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/12]
While the price for a one-year rental of DeRosa seems reasonable enough in terms of modest talents, the real question is what DeRosa’s going to be asked to do for the Tribe. If, as initially discussed, the Indians plug DeRosa in at third base and leave Asdrubal Cabrera at second and Jhonny Peralta at short, it’ll represent a decision to have all three of them play someplace besides their best positions. There comes a point where you really have to ask if exploring Peralta’s limitations at short really requires yet another season-long fact-finding mission. Cabrera could rank among the best defenders at short if moved there, and DeRosa’s an asset afield at second base, but might not be asked to man the hot corner every day. Peralta’s basic gift as a fielder, his strong arm, seems like he’d at least have his virtues at third, and with all apologies to Wes Hodges, it isn’t like the organization has a great prospect in the wings at the position. Now, admittedly, in a market that didn’t actually have any really good free-agent answers at third, DeRosa’s offensive contributions should rate well enough at the position, but if you take the offense of the three infield regulars as relatively static, fixed quantities, their defensive contributions end up being somewhat suboptimally employed, and it reflects an increasingly odd set of priorities. You won’t win any additional ballgames because Jhonny Peralta’s VORP is higher at one position than the other, but you will do yourself-and your pitching staff-a favor if you play your defenders at their best positions. Certainly, this sort of development wouldn’t represent news to Peralta-they’ve been threatening to move him off of short for a couple of years now, and you’d think that the presence of Cabrera would make it a relatively straightforward proposition. Eventually, Peralta’s going to move, and when that time comes and you put yourself in the market for a shortstop instead of a second or third baseman, you risk paying a premium for a star or taking a hit on offense settling for middling middle infielders. Getting DeRosa represents a great way of escaping that equation, and while it would probably mean the Indians’ range of choices in next winter’s Hot Stove League become limited to searching for a replacement for DeRosa at second, is that so terrible a price to pay?
As for signing Pavano, it’s an obvious gamble. The creativity in tying his salary beyond that $1.5 million threshold is entertaining enough: $100,000 for achieving 18, 20, or 22 starts and 130, 140, or 150 IP; $150,000 for 160 and 170 IP; $200,000 for reaching 24, 26, and 28 starts and pitching 180 IP; $250,000 for 30 starts and 190, 200, and 210 IP; $300,000 for 32 starts and 215 IP apiece; $350,000 apiece for his 33rd and 34th starts; $400,000 for 35 starts and 225 IP; and a cool half-million for 235 IP. Let’s face it, he’s not going to reach the back end of that deal, but let’s say the Indians get 28 starts and somewhere around 170 IP from Pavano-that adds up to a total payout of $3 million, not too shabby for a fifth starter by today’s prices. Maybe Pavano even pitches well enough to remain in the rotation once Jake Westbrook comes back in the second half; sure, that means he’d have to outperform the gaggle of lefties and/or Anthony Reyes, and we’re already well into irrational exuberance where Pavano is concerned. But it could happen, and certainly the modest outlay for tremendous risk makes some sort of sense for a club that will still initially have to pick two starters from among Reyes, Zach Jackson, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Scott Lewis.
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Agreed to terms with RHP Chad Gaudin ($2 million), LHP Neal Cotts ($1.1 million), and OF-R Reed Johnson ($3 million) on one-year contracts, avoiding arbitration. [12/12]
Signed OF-L Joey Gathright to a one-year, $800,000 contract. [12/16]
Acquired RHPs Jeff Stevens and Chris Archer and LHP John Gaub from the Indians for UT-R Mark DeRosa; signed INF-S Aaron Miles to a two-year, $4.9 million contract. [12/31]
Signed OF-S Milton Bradley to a three-year, $30 million deal; traded RHP Jason Marquis and $875,000 to the Rockies for RHP Luis Vizcaino. [1/6]
Acquired LHP Garrett Olson and RHP Hank Williamson from the Orioles for CF-L Felix Pie. [1/18]
This winter’s makeover seemed intent to address the lineup’s lean to the right and perhaps also give Lou Piniella some tactical variety on his bench. Some of it-ditching DeRosa in particular-was all about reshaping the club’s payroll to essentially make signing Bradley possible; deleting Marquis and DeRosa put $14.5 million back in the till, and adding Bradley, Gathright, Miles, and Vizcaino involved adding $16.875 million in 2009 outlays (counting Vizcaino’s 2010 buyout) to a club that already had to deal with at least a $20 million boost in pay for the players already on the roster.
Among all of these moves, there’s not really that much to feel good about beyond adding Bradley. At least notionally, guys like Miles and Gathright offer Piniella some tactical flexibility and batters who can stand to the right of the plate, but that’s a generous interpretation of both player’s virtues. Miles is an occasionally utile singles-plinking second baseman who I wouldn’t prefer to keeping Ronny Cedeño, but my mileage obviously varies from Jim Hendry’s; paying almost $5 million over two years to add a player who might at best represent an adequate platoon partner for Mike Fontenot or filler if Fontenot falters seems expensive. Gathright’s a weak bit of insurance against Kosuke Fukudome‘s potentially flopping as the left-handed half of a center-field platoon with Johnson; if the Cubs find themselves in that emergency, have to break that glass, and then really rely on Gathright as anything more than an early-game pinch-hitter or late-game pinch-runner, they’ll regret it almost as much as they do Fukudome. It seems more likely that they’ll end up wishing they still had Pie about, but with Fukudome’s contract looking unmovable, Pie might have been stuck in a part-time role he’s yet to demonstrate he could adapt to.
What you can say about the arms received in the Pie and DeRosa deals is that they’re live or, in Olson’s case, seasoned. Stevens throws moderately hard and has upper-level experience, but whether he separates himself from guys like Randy Wells or Kevin Hart remains to be seen. Gaub is particularly promising because he’s a lefty reliever with low-90s heat; Big 10 baseball fans might remember him from his days closing with the University of Minnesota. Archer’s a bit of a project: in a full season in the Sally League, he was by turns scary-good and merely scary, walking 84 and hitting 11 while slinging 18 wild pitches in 115
Which is really where we’re left: the pennies saved in swapping out DeRosa and Marquis involve several calculated risks. Marquis can almost certainly be improved upon by either Sean Marshall or Chad Gaudin, or maybe even Hill. Bradley’s responsibility is to provide the team with the mid-lineup power source who breaks up the right-handed wall of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Geovany Soto, and on paper he obviously does that. The question is whether or not the Cubs will get even 120 games out of their new, fragile-emotionally, physically, you name it, Bradley is easily busted-asset. He’s managed that only five times as a pro in his 11 years of full-season play, and just once in the last four, that while spending most of his time DHing for the Rangers last season. We’re all aware of the upside potential; everyone has been. The problem is whether that potential’s ever going to be calculated on any scale larger than a week or perhaps even a month here and there. Placing a $30 million bet that Bradley can do something he hasn’t is risky enough, but in placing it as a win-now gamble, you’re then left hoping that he’ll be available and healthy in October after the rest of the team carries the club that far. Now, maybe with a more mellow, older edition of Lou Piniella, maybe with the benefit of an effusively supportive local fan base, and maybe as someone who might be just another famous person in a club crowded with big-name stars, Bradley thrives. Maybe. And maybe he’s healthy in an October to be named later. Maybe he even gives you 120 starts in two of the three years. Yeah, I’m not holding my breath either. It’s an interesting move, and obviously one that could look brilliant in retrospect, because nobody doubts Bradley could win an MVP Award if he lasted a full season in a contender’s lineup. It could just as easily add up to an outfield where you have a lot of Fukudome/Johnson/Gathright alignments, because Soriano and Bradley are nursing various owies, and if that doesn’t sound like a division-winning formula, you can at least take solace in the fact that nobody else in the division is looking all that great after almost a full winter’s worth of activity.
Finally, among the arbitration cases, Cotts really lucked out to get this kind of offer instead of being non-tendered, while Gaudin could pan out quite nicely at the back of the rotation or be quite attractive to a team looking for a fourth starter worthy of sticking with who also provides a bit of cost certainty. In Cotts’ case, I know, lefties who throw over 90 get all the breaks, but his performance record is spotted with sporadic effectiveness at best; if this was a game of contract chicken, kudos to Cotts and his agent.
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Acquired RHP Jason Marquis and $875,000 from the Cubs for RHP Luis Vizcaino. [1/6]
In what’s basically an exchange of bum deals to notionally address two teams’ respective wish lists, it should come as no surprise that I took an entirely different meaning from the deal: would Marquis have a chance to join the hallowed ranks of pitchers who have set career highs in homers hit and allowed in the same season? This isn’t quite so notorious as 20-game losers, but like losing 20 games, it requires a certain basic level of ability to be able to stay on a staff in order to really make the most of the opportunity. Marquis’ career highs are 35 homers allowed (for the Cardinals in ’06) and two hit (last year, with the Cubs), so I like his chances if he manages to stay in the Rockies’ rotation all season. The question is whether or not Marquis can take a shot at the all-time record for the highest combined total of homers hit and allowed while generating career highs in both categories. If he did manage to allow 36 and hit three, that total of 39 would be within spitting distance (or a bad day at the ballpark) from the record-holder, Don Newcombe:
HR HR Pitcher/Season Allowed Hit Total Don Newcombe '55 35 7 42 Orlando Pena '64 40 1 41 Bill Gullickson '87 40 1 41 Bob Gibson '65 34 5 39 Luis Tiant '69 37 2 39 Art Mahaffey '62 36 2 38 Mike Hampton '01 31 7 38 Kevin Jarvis '01 37 1 38 Brandon Backe '08 36 2 38 Don Drysdale '65 30 7 37 Pete Richert '66 36 1 37 Josh Beckett '06 36 1 37
Again, it takes a certain level of skill as well as luck. Guys like Peña or Mahaffey or Jarvis show up as a product of being able to start every fifth day for bad ballclubs or merely mediocre ones; none of them were rotation regulars ever again, and for Richert, ’66 was his first and last season with more than 30 starts. Gullickson is a reflection of the perils of pitching every fifth day during the boomtasm of ’87. The fun involving Drysdale or Gibson, or Newcombe or Hampton, is that these were guys who could hit a bit as well as handle heavy workloads. Although a solid enough hitter, Marquis isn’t really of a kind with them; he’s more like Backe, a guy who can pitch because you ask him to and give you 30 starts, and hit a little bit, but much will depend on his running into a few meatballs in Denver while being just effective enough to manage something like six innings per start. That isn’t inconceivable, although it would involve Clint Hurdle ignoring the carefully structured workload that brought Marquis his modest success with the Cubs in the last two seasons. Whether that’s a situation created by the Rockies’ need for innings, a hot start by Marquis (no laughing), or just a remarkable optimism, it’s possible.
None of which speaks to whether or not getting Marquis is a genuinely good thing, but it’s entirely conceivable that he joins that list while doing at least an adequate job with his new team. I like the move well enough for the Rockies’ purposes, even accepting that the initial proposition-you’ve just traded for Jason Marquis-is normally the sort of thing that might make fans go green at the gills. The Rox rotation has its share of question marks, however: Jeff Francis will have to prove his shoulder is sound, Franklin Morales is hoping the rebound of his decent winter campaign (with 37 Ks and 13 walks in 53 IP) propels him back into the immediate picture, and Greg Smith was a good bet to go pumpkin before he was dealt to Planet Coors. Guys like Marquis and Jorge de la Rosa stand ready to step into the rotation once a few of those things don’t pan out, and while it isn’t really an exciting possibility, it gives the club some flexibility that Vizcaino certainly couldn’t.