Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Aggressive offseason moves


Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. Some big moves the last couple of weeks, so let's get to a couple of them.

Marlins trade P Josh Beckett, 3B Mike Lowell and P Guillermo Mota to Boston for SS Hanley Ramirez and P's Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia

Certainly a big move by the Red Sox, but one they probably have to make if they have any plans of being a big competitor this year. With Curt Schilling's status still in question, and a bunch of mid-rotation guys filling out the rotation, the Sox needed to go out and get an ace pitcher. With the free agent market littered with the second tier types that Boston already had in spades, going the route of the trade was the only way they were going to get a top guy. The question is, did they get one?

Everyone knows about Beckett's huge postseason in 2003, knocking off the Cubs in the NLCS, and shutting down the Yankees in the Bronx. His regular season career has been considered a bit of a disappointment though. 2005 was the first year that the former #2 draft pick even reached double digit wins, as well as the first year he surpassed 160 innings.

Beckett, though, hasn't suffered from the usual arm problems that plague young pitchers. His problem has been with blisters on the middle finger of his pitching hand. It's certainly been a frustrating problem, but if the Red Sox can solve the problem, or pitching in the colder weather relieves it at all, then the low innings count that Beckett has logged to this point becomes a positive. His arm should be through its formulative years without the wear and tear many managers pile on their young pitchers.

So, while he has the chance to put up a lot more innings going forward, the question becomes, how good will those innings be? In 609 big league innings so far, Beckett has a 3.46 ERA. Half of those innings, though, have been logged in pitcher friendly ProPlayer Stadium--on the road, his ERA is a 3.83. Certainly a very good ERA, but not typical of an ace pitcher, and the American League is the harder pitching park. So his ERA doesn't scream "ace starter."

Looking a bit deeper into his numbers though, and there's a LOT to like about Beckett. In those 609 innings, he has 607 strikeouts, 223 walks, and 55 homers allowed. Those aren't just numbers helped by his home stadium. On the road for his career, in 282.1 innings, he has 265 strikeouts, 95 walks, and 29 homers allowed. Just about anyone will be excited about a 25 year old with a strikeout per inning, a K/BB of near 3:1, and a homer allowed about once every 10 innings. So while we can't call Beckett a slam-dunk ace, there's a ton here to like, and if the blister problem is solved, he'll likely be one of the better pitchers in the American League.

Lowell is an interesting case. He's making $18M over the next two years, a lot for a team like Florida to pay, but more than worth it for a team with deep pockets like Boston to get Beckett, who isn't free agent eligible for two more years. Lowell was pretty terrible last year. Common opinion seems to be that he was fighting nagging injuries, but whether they'll continue to nag, and how far back he'll be able to come is an open question. Still, if he can split the difference between his last two years, he'll be at least as productive at the plate as Kevin Millar, while adding top notch third base defense. The Red Sox led baseball in runs scored last year-- their problem was preventing their opponents from scoring just as many. Unfortunately, Lowell isn't a huge upgrade defensively over Bill Mueller at the hot corner. If the Sox can improve their defense at first as well, it'll be a net improvement, but the Red Sox defensive problems last year were more in the outfield than the infield.

The Red Sox added Mota late in the deal, saying they would've called off the whole thing, noting Beckett's injury problems, if the Marlins didn't include Mota. Mota's a nice reliever, but the Red Sox were foolish to make that bluff, and the Marlins did well to pick up an extra pitching prospect in the deal, and shed Mota's salary at the same time. From the Red Sox standpoint, Mota will most likely pitch better than a lot of the guys they ran in from the bullpen last year, but guys like him are always available, and it was risky to endanger getting Beckett.

While you can debate the claims of Marlins management about the need to dump salary, they did a good job getting a good haul of talent in return. Hanley Ramirez is the bigger name prospect, but Anibal Sanchez is the real gem. The 21 year old Sanchez has been tearing through the minors the past two years this year moving from Class A to AA, logging 136 IP, a 2.85 ERA 40 BB, and 158 K's. (!!!!!!) The Red Sox, for the first time in nearly 20 years, had depth to deal from in their organization, and only projected Sanchez as their third best starting prospect, behind Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon. Those are some impressive numbers though, and Sanchez projects to be a top guy. He project so well, in fact, that some have criticized the trade, saying that there is a good chance that Sanchez will be a better pitcher in three years than Beckett. While that very well may be true, it is clearly not the goal of the 2006 Red Sox to build a team to win the World Series in 2008. This is a franchise positioning itself to win this year, and every year, and it was smart to deal from what they considered to be a strength.

Hanley Ramirez has been at the top of prospect lists for years, but it has been more for his tools than his actual production. While the Red Sox have been touting him for some time, their actions spoke louder than words, when they signed Edgar Renteria to a $40M contract last offseason, and drafted Dustin Pedroia with their first pick in the 2004 draft. Pedroia moved up the ladder quickly, and will be in the mix at 2B for the Red Sox this year. Ramirez fans liken his progress to Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, while cynics see more of Donnie Sadler.

Delgado and Garcia are both relief pitchers who were considered afterthoughts in the deal, but both had quality years in 2005 in single A. They give the Marlins quality organizational depth, and a couple pitchers who could help them in 2007.

White Sox trade CF Aaron Rowand and P Doug Haigwood to Philadelphia for 1B Jim Thome

This is probably the most surprising move of the offseason so far. The White Sox, touting their team chemistry and defense in the World Series win, trade their popular CF for an aging slugger coming off a major injury.

In the first reports of the trade, it was rumored that Jose Contreras or Brandon McCarthy were going to be the one going to Philadelphia, which would've been a huge steal for the Phils. As it is though, this is one of those trades that could benefit both teams.

The Phillies take on the situation is obvious. They had a logjam at first base, with Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard and Thome, and a hole in centerfield that they tried to fill last season with Kenny Lofton. Rowand is a mediocre hitter who is unlikely to match his 2004 season again. He's a legitimate excellent defensive player, though, and with the Phillies getting plenty of offense from other positions, they can afford to use a lineup spot on a top notch defender at what is fast being recognized as the most important defensive position on the field. It's not like Rowand is a waste of an at-bat either. He fouls off a lot of pitches, and will probably put up an OPS around .750, more than enough for a fielder of his quality.

Haigwood is a 22-year old fireballer with great strikeout numbers. His control can be rocky at times, but he was absolutely lights out after his promotion to AA Birmingham. In 67 innings, he struck out 76, walked 31, and gave up zero homers on his way to a 1.77 ERA. He's a guy to keep an eye on. The White Sox needn't worry though, as they held on to McCarthy, a guy who very well could make a major league impact as soon as this year.

Everyone knows about Jim Thome. The gigantic slugger seemed to be cutting a trail to Cooperstown before he injured his right elbow, leading to a disastrous season. Suddenly, Thome went from a franchise player to a 35 year old backup.

So why would the World Series champions trade Rowand for such a high-risk guy like Thome? Well, for one, it's becoming more and more obvious that Paul Konerko is headed out of town, to one of the coasts. Konerko was the most productive hitter on the team, and not by only a little bit. A healthy Thome could match Konerko's production, even outdo it. However, the chances of Thome ever being the 40 home run hitter he was in 2004 seems unlikely. However, even having an awful season, he still managed a .360 OPB, not up to Thome's old standard, but a nice sign that his batting eye is still intact. It's not hard to imagining Thome putting 50 points back on to his batting average and having a .250/.380/.450 type-season.

The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 with great pitching and defense, and some pretty mediocre hitting--they were 9th in the AL in runs scored. With the pitching likey to drop off a bit, Kenny Williams made a tough, aggressive move that he should be commended for. It's hard to break up a World Series team, but a team can't stand pat and expect to stay competitive. Just ask the 2003 Angels. With the Indians a good bet to show improvement next year, chances are not in the White Sox favor to even repeat as division winners, never mind World Champions, but it's good to see that they are a franchise willing to take the risks necessary to try.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Transaction notes

The baseball offseason is starting to get into full swing, with some lower tier moves going on. Let's run through a few of this weeks.

The Chicago Cubs signed relief pitcher Scott Eyre to a reported 3-year, $11 million contract.

This comes two weeks after signing Ryan Dempster to a 3-year, $15 million contract. Ouch.

Let me repeat that. The Chicago Cubs are going to pay Scott Eyre and Ryan Dempster over $8 million next year, and $26 million for the next three years.

Simply. Amazing.

Ryan Dempster will be 29 next year, has reasonably good K/BB numbers for his career, and is coming off two consecutive above average seasons. Much of that 4.83 career ERA was put up as a starter for Florida and Cincinnati, so maybe he's found a home in the bullpen. But at $5 million, that's an awful steep price for 70 or so slightly above average innings. He's a good pitcher, but there are better ways to spend the money. (For example, buying Derrek Lee 5 million Junior Cheeseburgers at Wendy's).

Sadly, none of that ringing endorsement should be echoed for Eyre. He's the classic "lefty-one-out-guy." He's going to be 34 early next year and has a 4.52 career ERA. Eyre has been a solid, if unspectacular, pitcher for the Giants the last four years, but he's not a guy you go building a staff around. He's a last piece of a puzzle, rather than the first, and the kind of player that is always floating around at looking for a spring-training invite.

The Cubs are apparently very high on Rafael Furcal. Without discussing the debatable merits of Rafael Furcal as a franchise player, if the Cubs believe he is, shouldn't he be their first priority? They've now spent $8 million on replaceable parts. If a bidding war starts up for Furcal, wouldn't they rather have the extra couple million to play with to make sure they get their top guy, then worry about filling the bullpen? It's a backwards way to build a team, and it's a good way to find yourself competing with Pittsburgh for fifth place rather than St. Louis for first.

The New York Yankees signed OF Hideki Matsui to a four year contract, reportedly worth $52 million.

Matsui was considered a potential top ten free agent, but most circles agreed that a deal would be worked out. The negotiations were a bit different because Matsui had a clause in his contract that he'd be non-tendered if he wasn't signed to an extension by November 15, and therefore unable to negotiate with the Yankees until next May.

Yes, the Yankees overpaid for Matsui, but the rationale is that they can afford to pay more for their wins than other teams. Which means the issue becomes whether Matsui is going to actually bring them very many wins. He's not a great hitter, but he is a good one, and batting behind guys that get on base will get him his 100 RBI. He seems reasonably athletic and well-conditioned, which tends to lead to aging well, and he has a solid batting eye, though it's something to watch for, as he fell to 56 unintentional walks this past season, down from 86 in 2004. He doesn't strike me as the kind of player who is just going to fall off the table, so chances are he'll still be a productive player in 2009.

Reportedly, he wants to play centerfield, saying he feels more comfortable out there. He rated as an average defensive leftfielder, which comes with the asterisk that, with the sluggers teams put out in leftfield, being average doesn't take very much. He doesn't have great speed, a very good arm, he doesn't take great routes to balls-- so it's easy to understand why the Yankees would consider putting him in centerfield. The Yankees outfield defense certainly hurt them throughout the season last year, and it was made crystal clear in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Angels. With Matsui in leftfield, his flaws will remain hidden. In centerfield, there's a good chance of more of the same-- a lot of doubles in the rightcenterfield gap, and people wondering why their pitchers are putting up ERA's in the 4's and 5's.

Reports out seem to have the Yankees looking at two options for next season. The first is signing Brian Giles, and moving Matsui to center. Giles is a world class hitter, and a solid defensive player. The other option they've discussed is leaving Matsui in left, and having Bubba Crosby play center. Yep, that was the sound of baseball fans around the country chuckling at you. I'm not sure if it's blind faith or total arrogance that would make the Yankee front office think Crosby, who will be 30 next August and has a career OPS of .554, and a career VORP of -5, is a capable every day major leaguer, but either way, it's the type of move that will have them scouting the waiver-wire for someone who can deliver an OPS over .600 by early May.

Moves like that are typical of the way the Yankees have operated in recent years--take note of your star players, and figure that anyone can settle in to the second tier roles-- and are a major reason why they've watched other teams celebrating to end their season the last five years. During their run from 1996 to 2000, the Yankees had star players, but they also won because they had second tier players like Scott Brosius and Chad Curtis playing, rather than guys who would struggle to hit .200 over a major league season, like Crosby or Enrique Wilson. I'm reminded of the offseason of the A-Rod deal. When Aaron Boone went down with his knee injury, they traded for Mike Lamb, now of the Houston Astros. When the A-Rod trade went through, they simply released Lamb. Now, Lamb isn't going to be a guy to carry you to the World Series, but he is a versatile, serviceable player, who certainly helped the Houston Astros in their march to the World Series.

The point here is that there are a lot of players between the quality of Brian Giles and Bubba Crosby who are available. If they are unable to sign Giles for whatever reason, they should take a cue from what they'd have done only seven or eight years ago, and sign one of those in between players. Either that, or they should be prepared to watch the Cardinals or Indians or Athletics popping the cork next October.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The best Free Agent Available.

The best player no one talks about is now the best free agent nobody is talking about.

If you look over on, probably the best source for different angles of online commentary, they seem to have linked to Steve Phillips as their definitive list of the top free agents this offseason, he's ranked Paul Konerko first, Johnny Damon second, Rafael Furcal third, Brian Giles is ranked ninth. The only other hitter on his top ten was Hideki Matsui, who signed a four year extension with the Yankees yesterday.

Let's look at the past four years of the top available free agents, by VORP.

Konerko: 43.3, 3.2, 48.1, 56.4
Damon: 49.6, 28.4, 51.0, 49.2
Furcal: 24.2, 57.6, 38.0, 49.4
Giles: 85.4, 55.5, 50.8, 65.1

Furcal is a bit of a different situation from the other three. As a middle infielder, he's going to be on the scale that got Edgar Reneria and Orlando Cabrera overpayed last offseason. Furcal is a better player than either of these two, and the number of very good shortstops out there is always lacking. When you consider that Furcal has also been a very good defensive shortstop and is only 27 years old, he's still a pretty good buy, if not a discount, at the 4 years, $40M he's going to get.

Johnny Damon has been a good player for a number of years now, but rarely has he been a great one. He was playing some of the best baseball of his career the first half of 2005, coming off the World Series win, but the last two months were a struggle, as his shoulder was clearly bothering him both at bat and in the field. As a defensive outfielder, Damon has always been good, but his range has never among the elite group with Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Jim Edmonds, Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron. His arm is bad, and the shoulder problem only seemed to make it worse, exemplified by the night in August where Carl Crawford tagged up and scored from second base on a deep fly ball to center.

Damon's all out style of play is likely to continue to result in the nagging injuries that have plagued him throughout his career. He just turned 32 this past week, and is reportedly looking for a five year contract, that will take him until he is 36. It's pretty reasonable to assume that Damon won't be quite so fleet five years from now, and that his range in centerfield will look an awful lot like the Bernie Williams of the past three years. Damon's shoulder problems aren't going to make his throwing arm any better, either. With his limited power, he doesn't make the kind of player that would be a plus corner outfielder, the was Ken Griffey can, or Eric Davis was when he was healthy. He's more likely to follow the career path of Williams, or even Andy Van Slyke, who fell from quality player to out of the league before anybody really noticed. There's a good chance that Damon will be a quality player for the next two, maybe three years, but beyond that, I wouldn't recommend it.

Paul Konerko was the darling of this season, the offensive leader of the World Series Champions. Indeed, the White Sox success this year had a lot more to do with the bat of Konerko, and a couple of their other power hitters and their starting pitching than it did with any of the "small ball" that was so popular to talk about in the playoffs.

Signing big, unathletic, power hitting first basemen has taken a bit of heat over the last few years because of guys like Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, who it seems don't tend to age very well. In Konerko's case, this is compouned by the fact that all four of them were MUCH better hitters at age 29, all legitimate MVP candidates. Konerko's improved plate discipline is a positive sign, but he's not really the pure stud hitter that he's being made out to be. With the market bare for power hitters, and some of the highest spending teams, the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Angels, all in the market for a first baseman, Konerko figures to get a ton of money this offseason, possibly as much as 5 years, $70M+. That's a ton of money to give to a guy who isn't a stud hitter, and even if he stays healthy isn't a great bet to be putting up 40 homers for too many more years. For a team looking to win next year, he's a good guy to add, especially on a team with a weakness at first base. Just don't be surprised if that team is paying for it down the road.

Which brings us to our last free agent, and one that might actually be a bargain for some team. Brian Giles doesn't seem to get talked about much as a top tier free agent, but he should--he's the best player available, and any team with World Series aspirations should be looking to sign him. At 35 years old on opening day, Giles is up there in age, which is probably what is keeping him off the radar. However, Giles is athletic enough that, barring a freak injury, he could still be a very effective hitter for the next five years. Giles has had one season with an OBP under .400 since he became a full-timer, along with only one season where he's hit below .298. He's a very similar hitter to Edgar Martinez--great plate disciple, power to all fields. Edgar was a top hitter until he was 40 years old. Giles gives the added benefit of being a very good defensive corner outfielder, and someone who can even spot in center field from time to time. Take him out of Petco Park, and his power numbers are likely to spike again, as well. Chances are he won't hit the upper 30's, but I'd be surprised if he didn't climb to the 25-32 homer range in a more neutral park.

Playing in Pittsburgh and San Diego, not too many people seem to have noticed that Giles has been one of the most productive players of the past eight years. He got too late a start to his career to put up Hall of Fame type numbers, but at his peak, he was that level of player. At this point, he's not a game-changing star, but as a #2 hitter in a lineup with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, he may very well score 140 runs. Much of the discussion this offseason has Giles signing with the Cardinals. If he does, they're my pick for the World Series next year, regardless of what any other team does this offseason. And when you consider that whoever signs him may be able to get him at less than $10M per year, he may also be one of the few big name free agent bargains of all-time.