Monday, November 24, 2008

The Arizona Fall League (“AFL”), the more senior of Major League Baseball’s two developmental offseason leagues, concluded its season on Saturday. As promised, we’ve provided a rundown of the top 15 prospects from the six-team circuit. Just as we did in our evaluation of the Hawaii Winter League’s (“HWL”) top 10 prospects, we placed the most weight on the players’ performance this fall; however, we also took into consideration the candidates’ tools and how they projected at the big league level. To be considered for this list a player must still qualify as a rookie (less than 130 total big league at bats or under 50 total innings pitched). As such, Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes, despite an excellent showing this fall, has not qualified.

Just a note of caution, the AFL, unlike its younger cousin, is an extreme hitters’ league (composite batting average and OPS of .293 and .834, respectively). As a result, only three pitchers made the following list.

1) Tommy Hanson (RHP), 22, Atlanta Braves – Hanson pitched so well in Arizona that he made himself unavailable in trade talks and might have cost the Braves a crack at Jake Peavy. The lanky right-hander was virtually unhittable, striking out 49 in 28.2 innings while posting an otherworldly WHIP of 0.59. He has excellent command of a mid-90’s fastball, a devastating overhand curve and developing changeup. Don’t be surprised if he’s in Atlanta’s rotation on Opening Day.

2) Matt Wieters (C ), 22, Baltimore Orioles – Wieters achieved such a high position on this list largely on the strength of an outstanding regular season. The Georgia Tech alum hit .355 with a 1.055 OPS while splitting time between High A and Double A. Though Wieters proved to be a mere mortal in the AFL, posting an OPS of “only” .845, he still showcased the wonderful defensive tools, including a howitzer arm, which earned him much praise during the course of the regular season. A switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, Wieters could develop into the best hitting catcher since Mike Piazza in his prime.

3) Justin Smoak (1B), 21, Texas Rangers – Strangely enough, Smoak hails from the same hometown as Wieters (Goose Creek, SC) and is also a switch-hitter. He’s also a future superstar. With patience, power and the ability to hit with power from both sides of the plate, Smoak has already elicited plenty of Mark Teixeira comparisons in just several months as a professional. His smooth defensive play is also eerily reminiscent of the All Star first sacker. In just 51 fall at bats (he started the AFL season on the taxi squad), Smoak swatted seven extra base hits and earned ten walks.

4) Brian Matusz (LHP), 21, Baltimore Orioles – Don’t let Matusz’ 4.73 ERA this fall fool you. Instead, pay more attention to his secondary numbers – like his 4.5/1 K/BB ratio and 1.26 WHIP. Matusz’ 93 mph heater notwithstanding, his two best pitches are a knee-buckling curve ball and straight changeup. After years of futility, the thought of a Wieters - Matusz battery should give Orioles fans plenty to smile about.

5) Tyler Flowers (C ), 22, Atlanta Braves – It should tell you something about the Braves system that after Flowers’ unbelievable fall (12 home runs and a 1.433 OPS in just 75 at bats) that he’s no better than Atlanta’s third-best prospect after Hanson and outfielder Jason Heyward. Though Arizona’s thin air is at least partially responsible for Flowers’ outrageous numbers, the fact remains he’s an outstanding prospect. At 6’4” and 245 pounds, Flowers is an intimidating presence both at the plate and behind it. His offense is ahead of his defense at this point, but he has enough raw skills to mature into a sound overall receiver with an arm that could stop any running game.

6) Logan Morrison (1B), 21, Florida Marlins – Morrison is very similar to the Reds’ Yonder Alonso, who was our highest ranked prospect in the HWL. He has a sweet, left-handed swing that should generate at least 20-home run power as he matures. He’s adept at hitting to all fields and isn’t afraid to take a walk.

7) Andrew Lambo (OF-1B), 20, Los Angeles Dodgers – Though Lambo’s numbers weren’t as gaudy as most of the other hitters featured here, it’s important to remember that 2008 was only his first full professional season. Lambo fell to the 3rd round of the 2007 draft due to questions about his maturity. So far as a pro he’s dismissed those concerns while displaying a maturity beyond his years. He has a pretty left-handed stroke that can’t be taught and should hit for more power as he fills out his 6’3” frame. A natural first baseman, he’s rapidly becoming an adequate left fielder. Still, it’s his bat that will carry him to the big leagues.

8) Jason Donald (SS-3B), 24, Philadelphia Phillies – After a disappointing college career at Arizona, Donald has done nothing but hit as a professional. He posted a .307/.391/.497 line in Double A this year than exploded in Arizona to the tune of .407/.476/.747. Because Donald lacks the range of a true shortstop, he’ll likely shift over to second or third when he reaches Philadelphia. And with Chase Utley likely to miss the beginning of 2009 after hip surgery, Donald has emerged as the likely fill-in candidate.

9) Brett Wallace (3B-1B), 22, St. Louis Cardinals – Wallace’s girth has been the subject of much criticism from scouts, but no one doubts his ability to hit. He followed a .337/.427/.530 showing between Low A and Double A with a .309/.381/.585 performance in the AFL. If Wallace can handle third base, he could be a fixture in the middle of Tony LaRussa’s lineup for years to come. If not, expect him to be dangled as trade bait.

10) Julio Borbon (OF), 22, Texas Rangers – One of the most unheralded prospects in all of baseball, Borbon is a dead ringer for Johnny Damon at the same age. He has the speed to swipe 40 bases a year, the power to hit at least 10-15 dingers annually and enough of an eye to lead off. He’s also an accomplished center fielder, despite a below average arm.

11) Austin Jackson (OF), 21, New York Yankees – It will be interesting to see how Jackson develops – will his merely average speed “play up” and allow him to mature into a bona fide big league center fielder or will that lack of speed combined with pedestrian power relegate him to fourth outfielder status? Regardless, Jackson is an outstanding athlete (he was a prized Georgia Tech basketball recruit) who has made adjustments at every level and emerged as the Yankees best position prospect since Derek Jeter.

12) Chris Valaika (SS-2B), 23, Cincinnati Reds – Valaika isn’t an exceptional athlete, but has hit everywhere he’s played. This includes the AFL, where he hit .311 in 119 at bats. With the Reds’ shortstop situation as jumbled as it is, Valaika could claim the job with a strong spring training.

13) Lou Marson (C ), 22, Philadelphia Phillies – Though Marson was on the taxi squad this fall, he still showed enough in just 34 at bats to warrant a spot on this list. Marson has a short stroke which produces line drives to all fields, as well as a keen eye which has resulted in high OBPs throughout his career. Defensively, Marson is agile and has soft hands to go along with a cannon arm.

14) J.P. Arencibia (C ), 22 Toronto Blue Jays – Arencibia is the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future (perhaps as soon as 2009) and his performance in Arizona did nothing to refute this. He has excellent power for a catcher, as well as the ability to hit for a high average. He is, however, averse to taking a walk. On defense, Arencibia receives balls well and has a strong arm. The fact that he’s bi-lingual (English and Spanish) also doesn’t hurt.

15) Aaron Poreda (LHP), 22, Chicago White Sox – Like Matusz, don’t pay attention to Poreda’s AFL numbers. Instead, pay attention to his stuff and size. The 6’6” 240 pound giant throws a fastball, which tops out at 98 mph, and an improving slider. Because he doesn’t throw anything soft, Poreda’s future may be as a power reliever in the back of a major league bullpen.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday: Covering the Bases

Some observations after an unexpectedly quiet week….

Royal Mistake, Part Deux

Well, it looks like Dayton Moore is at it again. Less than three weeks after completing the Leo Nunez-for-Mike Jacobs clunker with the Marlins, the Royals GM has engaged the Red Sox in a Ramon Ramirez-for-Coco Crisp swap. This trade was a horrendous one for Kansas City, and here are three reasons why:

1) Crisp will replace David DeJesus as the Royals’ center fielder, with DeJesus shifting to left field. While Crisp is a strong defensive center fielder, he’s only a marginal upgrade over the competent DeJesus. However, DeJesus’ bat is far superior to Crisp’s, as evidenced by his sizeable edge in career OPS .782 to .740. Thus, in terms of both players’ all-round game, DeJesus has significantly more value to Kansas City in center field than Crisp.

2) In less than three weeks, Moore has considerably weakened the Royals’ bullpen by trading two key setup men in Nunez and Ramirez. Both relievers were not only effective in 2008, posting ERAs under 3.00 and WHIPs lower than 1.25, but they are also not yet arbitration eligible and therefore likely to earn just above the league minimum next season. Regardless of whether Moore looks inside or outside the system for relief help, it’s doubtful that he’ll find anyone who’s as cheap and successful as the guys he just traded away.

3) Crisp represents a substantial opportunity cost for the cash-strapped Royals. He’ll earn $5.75 million in 2009 and has a 2010 club option for $8 million – a decent deal, but by no means a steal for a solid, though not spectacular, center fielder with a career .280/.331/.409 line. Instead of tying up valuable financial resources on Crisp, Moore should have realized that his team’s primary deficiencies in 2008 were a lack of power (Kansas City was last in the A.L. with 120 homeruns) and an inability to get on base (the Royals were tied for second-to-last in the junior circuit with a .paltry 320 OBP) and addressed those issues by leaving DeJesus in center field and acquiring, through either a trade or free agent signing, an offensive-minded corner outfielder.

A Giant Signing by Sabean

The signing of free agent lefty reliever Jeremy Affeldt to a two-year/$8 million contract was a master stroke by Giants’ GM Brian Sabean. Not only is Affeldt a highly durable reliever who has appeared in nearly 150 games over the past two seasons, but his effectiveness against both left- and right-handed hitters (the latter hit .255 against him last season with just a .726 OPS) means that he could emerge as an option at closer should the unsteady Brian Wilson falter. Furthermore, the tenor of Affeldt’s contract is highly advantageous for San Francisco. Most quality relievers in recent years have been able to command three- or even four-year deals on the open market, thereby placing considerable financial stress on their teams should they regress or succumb to injury. However, the Giants’ short-term commitment to Affeldt protects the club in the event the marriage does not work out. Finally, because of Affeldt’s Type B status, this contract did not cost San Francisco a draft pick. Instead, the Cincinnati Reds, Affeldt’s former team, gain a sandwich pick in between Rounds 1 and 2 in next June’s draft.

So long, Mike

Congratulations to Mike Mussina on a wonderful 18-year major league career which saw him compile a 270-153 record and pitch in nearly 140 postseason innings. Despite the numerous accolades Moose collected during his sterling career, we salute him most for his decision to retire on his own terms following his only 20-win campaign. In an era when too many has-beens decide to hang on in an effort to pad both their bank accounts and win totals, Mussina took the high road and chose to retire in order to spend more time with his two young sons. So, with #35’s career now just a memory one of the most interesting debates this decade is about to begin – is Mike Mussina a Hall of Famer? Infield Chatter will provide its own analysis and answer to this very question in a special feature next week. Until then, have a great weekend…

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sun, Sand, Surf...and Baseball: The HWL Top 10 Prospects

Major League Baseball sponsors two offseason leagues dedicated exclusively to prospect development, the Hawaii Winter League (HWL) and the Arizona Fall League (AFL). The former features youngsters who generally have not played above A Ball, while the latter is for more advanced prospects who have reached at least Double A. With the HWL having concluded its season earlier this week, we’ll use today’s column to take a look at the circuit’s ten best prospects.

Although the players’ statistical performance this autumn is the most important criterion we’ve used to determine whether they’re worthy of mention, it’s not our only measuring stick. We’ve also taken into consideration a candidate’s tools and to what extent they’ll enable him to eventually make a meaningful contribution at the big league level. Despite the fact that the HWL is an extreme pitcher’s league (the composite batting average and OPS were just .248 and .701, respectively), only three pitchers made the list. Also, the 2008 draft class was well represented, with five of the ten players featured in this column having been selected this past June.

The AFL championship game is not scheduled until Saturday. Therefore, we’ll wait until next week to unveil our top prospect list for that circuit.

1) Yonder Alonso (1B), 21, Cincinnati Reds – Alonso, who was the seventh overall pick in June, was by far the most polished hitter in Hawaii. He not only exhibited a quick bat and the ability to go the other way, but his pitch recognition was outstanding, as evidenced by his BB/K ratio of 20/23. One area that still needs work, however, is his performance against lefties. He hit just .222 against them with 12 strikeouts in 36 at bats.

2) Jason Castro (C), 21, Houston Astros – Another first-round pick from June, Castro used the HWL to make a case for himself as the most athletic backstop in the minors. The former Stanford Cardinal showcased above average agility (despite a 6’3” frame), soft hands and a strong, accurate arm. Castro is no slouch at the plate either. He has excellent balance and generates plenty of power with a sweet, left-handed stroke.

3) Brett Hunter (RHP), 21, Oakland A’s – Don’t let the 5.59 ERA fool you. In just 9.2 innings out of the bullpen, the Pepperdine alum was lights out, striking out an astounding 18 batters while yielding just four hits. His fastball sat at 95-97 mph and occasionally hit triple digits, and his curveball was just as filthy. Hunter was wild at times, as he tried to shake off the rust that was the result of him sitting out most of the spring with an elbow injury. The A’s haven’t announced whether he’ll start or relieve as a pro. If it’s the latter, he could evolve into a Brad Lidge-style shutdown closer.

4) Buster Posey (C), 21, San Francisco Giants – If this list was based purely on offense, Posey might be sitting at the top, as his short, crisp stroke produced line drive after line drive en route to a .338 average. Posey’s defense was another story, however. He rarely showed the form which enabled him to win the Golden Spikes award while at Florida State and led the HWL in passed balls. Still, the Giants’ love his athleticism and strong arm and believe that in due time they’ll be able to iron out his rough edges.

5) Kyle Drabek (RHP), 20, Philadelphia Phillies – The son of 1990 N.L. Cy Young winner, Doug Drabek, rebounded nicely after missing most of the 2008 regular season recovering from Tommy John Surgery. His mid 90’s fastball and hammer curve enabled him to whiff 19 hitters in 20.2 innings against just four walks. He’s barely six feet tall so it’ll be interesting to see how his arm holds up as he moves through the minors.

6) Jeremy Bleich (LHP), 21, New York Yankees – The last of the 2008 draftees on this list, Bleich is a four-pitch control specialist whose fastball rarely breaks 90-91 mph. Still, the cerebral Stanford alum commands all four quadrants of the plate like a ten-year veteran and is able to generate his fair share of swings and misses. Like Hunter, Bleich missed a substantial portion of the college season because of arm problems and signed too late to log any meaningful innings during the regular season. If Bleich’s health issues are behind him, expect a rapid progression through the Yankees’ system.

7) Andrew Brackman (RHP), 22, New York Yankees – This 6’10” giant made his professional debut in Hawaii after recovering from Tommy John Surgery performed shortly after he was drafted in 2007. The velocity on Brackman’s fastball received rave reviews (he consistently worked in the mid-90), but he needs to develop better command of it. He also needs to work on the release point on his overhand curve. After posting a WHIP of 1.65 and walking 25 in 34 innings, it’s evident that Brackman will need much more minor league seasoning than the polished Bleich.

8) Ryan Kalish (OF), 20, Boston Red Sox – Kalish was still feeling the effects of the broken hamate bone he suffered in 2007, which robbed him of his power throughout all of 2008. Still, as his .446 OBP attests, he displayed outstanding pitch recognition for such a young player and was a spark plug on the bases with 12 steals in 13 attempts. An excellent athlete, Kalish can play anywhere in the outfield and has a strong, accurate arm.

9) Todd Frazier (OF-3B), 22, Cincinnati Reds – All Frazier has done since being drafted in 2007 is hit, and he continued to do that in Hawaii, where he posted a .922 OPS with 16 extra base hits in just 27 games. The Reds, however, are still undecided on his position. He was drafted out of Rutgers as a shortstop, but lacks the range to play there. He’s played some third base, but lacks the footwork to stay at the hot corner. Out guess is that he’ll wind up in left field once he gets to the majors. He has more than enough arm strength and speed for the position.

10) Michael Taylor (OF), 22, Philadelphia Phillies – Taylor’s .247/.347/.412 performance in Hawaii was disappointing compared to his regular season line of .346/.412/.557; however, the former Stanford Cardinal (sensing a pattern here?) remains a legitimate prospect. At 6’6” 250 pounds, Taylor is a mountain of a man whose overall game elicits memories of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. He can hit the ball a country mile, run like a deer and play a vintage right field. If he makes the same progress in 2009 like he made last season he could be at Citizens Bank Park sometime during the second half.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday: Covering the Bases

The Hot Stove League is starting to simmer!

  • The Cubs’ acquisition of Kevin Gregg in a trade with the Marlins means that the Kerry Wood era in Chicago has come to a close. As a result, expect young fireballer Carlos Marmol to assume the closer’s mantle from the departed Wood and Gregg to inherit Marmol’s 7th and 8th inning setup role.

  • Wood’s departure from Chicago, together with Trevor Hoffman’s seemingly inevitable exit from San Diego, further muddles the relief picture throughout baseball. There are currently four closers in the free agent market (Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Wood and Hoffman) and four more reportedly up for grabs via the trade market in Colorado’s Huston Street, Seattle’s J.J. Putz, Arizona’s Brandon Lyon and the White Sox’ Bobby Jenks. With not more than four teams – the Tigers, Mets, Indians and Cardinals – in desperate need of back-of-the-bullpen help, it’s only logical to think that the basic law of supply and demand will result in an overwhelmingly buyers’ market and ultimately cause a downward correction in the dollar amount and tenor of contracts awarded this winter. More specifically, a year ago this time it would have seemed perfectly feasible for Rodriguez to have landed a five-year/$75 million deal from someone. This year, however, he might have to settle for a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $55 million.

  • It’s gone virtually unnoticed, but in Leo Nunez (obtained from the Royals in the Mike Jacobs trade) and Jose Ceda, acquired from the Cubs in the Kevin Gregg deal, Florida has picked up a pair of young, talented right-handed relievers. Ceda is especially intriguing. He’s 6’4” and 275 pounds and combines a mid-90’s fastball with a biting slider. In 30 Double A innings last season his K/9 ratio was better than 12.5. Add Nunez and Ceda to the hard-throwing trio of Matt Lindstrom, Logan Kensing and Renyel Pinto, and it’s easy to envision the Marlins with a shutdown bullpen for years to come….assuming the perpetual South Florida fire sale ends at some point.

  • And speaking of the fire sale, it looks like outfielder Jeremy Hermida will be the next purge victim. Hermida’s talent is unmistakable – throughout his brief major league career he’s displayed the ability to hit for average and power, a cannon arm and above average speed – however, he’s never been able to translate his tools into performance. He looked like he was ready to bust out after hitting .296/.369/.501 in an injury-riddled 2007 campaign, but slipped to .249/.323/.406 in 2008 and by the end of the season wasn’t even playing everyday. The Cubs are rumored to be very interested in Hermida, but Lou Piniella has a poor track record with underachieving youngsters (see Grieve, Ben). Tampa Bay, on the other hand, would be an ideal location for Hermida. The Rays desperately seek an affordable power bat for right field and posses the young pitching that would entice the Marlins to swing a deal. They also have a manager in Joe Maddon who, in just three years, has turned around the careers of Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Matt Garza and Dioneer Navarro and could probably do the same for Hermida.

Yankees' First Move of the Offseason an Impressive One

The Yankees scored a major coup yesterday when they obtained first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher and minor league pitcher Kanekoa Texeira from the White Sox in exchange for utility infielder Wilson Betemit and minor league right-handers Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. Despite a subpar 2008 in which he hit .219/.332/.410, Swisher is a proven run producer who isn’t afraid to work the count and take a walk. Prior to last season, the switch hitter had posted a robust .828 OPS in over 1,600 career at bats dating back to 2004.

Swisher’s real value to the Yankees, however, will be the flexibility he offers them. This is of huge importance given the muddled state of their lineup. First baseman Jason Giambi will almost certainly leave as a free agent this winter, with right fielder Bobby Abreu not far behind. And few people believe that Hideki Matsui, fresh off surgery on his gimpy knee, can still play left field on a regular basis. Enter Swisher, who is more than adequate anywhere in the outfield and Gold Glove caliber at first. If the season started tomorrow, Swisher would play first base while the outfield would feature Johnny Damon in left, Brett Gardner in center and Xavier Nady in right. Matsui would serve as the DH. Should the Yankees win the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, Swisher would shift to center, where he would represent a substantial offensive upgrade over Gardner.

Swisher’s contract is another plus for the Yankees. The fact that he’s signed through 2012 at a very affordable total of $31.3 million (including a $10.25 million club option for 2012) is vital as Matsui, Damon and Nady all have contracts that expire after next season. With Austin Jackson the organization’s only outfield prospect on the immediate horizon and a weak 2010 free agent class, Swisher’s presence could become even more crucial.
Although at first blush this deal appears like a salary dump for the White Sox, it’s far, far more than that. By replacing Swisher’s $5.3 million salary with the roughly $1.5 million Betemit will earn in 2009 in his second year of arbitration eligibility, Chicago would be freeing up almost $4 million. Add this to the millions White Sox GM Kenny Williams would save by trading away starter Javier Vazquez (who’s scheduled to earn $11.5 million in 2009), and the ChiSox would be in a great financial position to fill significant holes in their lineup either by trading for Angels’ third baseman Chone Figgins or signing free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson. Williams’ recent moves are not without precedent. Think back to the winter of 2004-05 when Williams traded away slugger Carlos Lee and, much to the chagrin of fans on the South Side, received only Luis Vizcaino and Scott Podsednik in return. The consternation quickly turned to euphoria when Williams was then able to pick up A.J. Pierzynski, Tadahito Iguchi and Orlando Hernandez – all of whom played key roles when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Might lightning strike twice?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sizing up the Nationals -- Marlins Trade

Yesterday’s Nationals – Marlins trade should have taken no one by surprise. From the Nationals’ perspective, this deal was significant because the club acquired two players, left fielder Josh Willingham and starter Scott Olsen, who will represent significant upgrades at their respective positions. For the Marlins, this was nothing more than a good, old-fashioned salary dump. Bidding adieu to Willingham and Olsen, both of whom are arbitration-eligible for the first time, will cut between $4 and $5 million from the Marlins’ 2009 payroll, while only one of the three prospects Florida received, second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, is ready to contribute at the major league level. The other two youngsters, pitcher P.J. Dean and infielder Jake Smolinski, are each at least three years away. All three are considered mid-level prospects, although the 23-year-old Bonifacio has improved his plate discipline and has the speed to steal 50 bases a season.

It will be interesting to see just how much of an impact this deal has for Washington. Willingham’s .833 OPS in 2008 suggests that he’s a considerable upgrade over the Willie Harris/Willie Mo Pena left field platoon, which produced a .707 OPS. However, Willingham’s shoddy defense could force a move to first base. If that’s the case, some of Washington’s initial advantage would be negated because Willingham’s bat wouldn’t play quite as well at first base as it does in the outfield. Still, it would enable Nats’ GM Jim Bowden to dangle incumbent Nick Johnson as trade bait in an effort to enhance the team’s pitching depth. Speaking of pitching, Olsen is the real wild card in the deal. After an excellent 2006 rookie campaign in which he went 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA and WHIP of 1.30, personal problems and the loss of at least 5 MPH from his fastball caused his ERA to balloon to 5.81 and his WHIP to swell to 1.76 in 2007. Though 2008 saw Olsen’s ERA and WHIP improve to 4.20 and 1.31, respectively, his K/9 ratio fell to 5.04 (it was 8.27 in 2006) as he didn’t regain the velocity on his fastball and bite on his slider until September. If Olsen is able to stay out of trouble and maintain his stuff, this trade could end up being one of the most one-sided deals of the entire offseason. If not, it should still wind up in Washington’s favor.

Thank you.... all members of the Armed Forces who have defended this great country of ours. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Beane Gets All "A's" for Holliday Deal

By now you’ve all heard about the Athletics’ acquisition of Matt Holliday from the Rockies in exchange for outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, starter Greg Smith and reliever Huston Street. Chalk this up as yet another heist for Oakland’s diabolical genius, GM Billy Beane.

It’s obvious that the A’s gave up some legitimate talent to procure the services of Holliday, a two-time All Star. However, each of the three players Beane surrendered had his warts and will be easily replaced from within the Oakland organization. Gonzalez was by far the most talented of the bunch. For years, the 23-year-old Venezuelan has been lauded for his plus-plus throwing arm, as well as above average power and speed, but he’s also been labeled as an enigma who only rarely has been able to translate his tools into performance. Furthermore, in Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck, the latter’s injury-marred 2008 notwithstanding, the A’s have a pair of young outfielders with enough talent to compensate for the loss of Gonzalez. Smith is a finesse lefty who will never amount to more than a fourth starter. Although he did provide the A’s with nearly 200 replacement level innings at the big league minimum salary in 2008, the emergence of hotshot prospects Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and James Simmons would have rendered Smith redundant by the middle of 2009 anyway. Finally, there’s Street, who, despite his early major league success, has suffered a variety of physical ailments the past two seasons and was on the verge of being passed on Oakland’s depth chart by Joey Devine. Devine had 49 strikeouts and a microscopic ERA of 0.59 in 45 innings in 2008 and will earn slightly more than the big league minimum next season.

Much has been made about the discrepancy between Holliday’s home/road splits (1.099/.856 OPS from 2006-08), yet over the past three years the Oklahoma native has paced all National League outfielders with .329/32/113 seasonal averages while playing an excellent left field. There’s no question that Holliday’s arrival brings much-needed muscle to Oakland’s offense, which ranked last in average, slugging and on-base percentage, at a crucial time with as many as three rookies cracking the starting rotation by the middle of next season. There are plenty of questions, however, as to what Oakland’s next move (or moves) will be. With a reported $30 million to play with this offseason, Beane could go all Cashman on us by inking Rafael Furcal and Jason Giambi before the turkey’s even in the oven and try to make a run at the A.L. West next year. If the A’s do end up in contention, then Beane looks like the genius that he is. And if they falter, all he has to do is turn around and spin off Holliday at the July 31st trading deadline to the highest bidder, essentially turning Holliday into next year’s version of Mark Teixeira. Regardless, the trade for Holliday was a win-win for Oakland and has further cemented Beane’s status as the best GM in the game.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday: Covering the Bases

Happy Friday, Everyone….

  • If there was still any question as to whether the Braves would include minor league pitcher Tommy Hanson in a trade for Jake Peavy it was answered last night with a resounding “NO.” Pitching in front of Atlanta’s top brass in the Arizona Fall League (a finishing school for baseball’s top prospects), including GM Frank Wren, Hanson was simply dominant. The 6’6” right-hander used a 92-94 mph fastball in all quadrants of the strike zone, as well as a knee-buckling 12-to-6 curveball, to strikeout 11 hitters while walking just one in five innings of work. This outing was indicative of the type of autumn Hanson has had. In 18 frames in what is unanimously known as a hitter’s paradise, Hanson has yielded just one run while boasting an otherworldly 30/4 K/BB ratio. The general consensus among scouts is that the 22-year-old Hanson will be no worse than a #2 starter in the big leagues and could even match Peavy’s big league success at some point. In other words, Padres GM Kevin Towers shouldn’t even waste his time by asking for Hanson in any trade scenario with the Braves.
  • Earlier today San Diego chose to exercise Brian Giles' $9 million option over his $3 million buyout. Though Infield Chatter is a big fan of Kevin Towers, we have no choice but to question this decision. With owner John Moores putting the Padres up for sale in the wake of a contentious divorce with his ex-wife and Peavy, the face of the franchise, on the trading block as a result, it’s evident that the organization is in full rebuilding mode. So, why then, would Towers pick up the option on his soon-to-be 38-year-old right fielder? We’d understand the move if Towers had designs on trading Giles in return for prospects; however, the El Cajon native has a full no trade clause and just last summer vetoed a trade to the playoff-bound Red Sox. Who’s to say Giles wouldn’t follow suit in 2009 and leave the likely last place Padres saddled with a weighty contract?
  • In our first Trade Fair feature we proposed the Tigers shipping slugger Magglio Ordonez to Tampa Bay as part of a three-way deal that would also include the Brewers. This week it surfaced that the Phillies are one of several teams in hot pursuit of outfielder Matt Holliday. The Rockies are seemingly anxious to trade Holliday because he’s a free agent after 2009, and, like most Scott Boras clients, has no desire to sign a long-term deal before maximizing his value in the free agent market. Anyway, Holliday is an outstanding hitter (though his numbers are significantly inflated by the “Coors effect”), who would surely force the Phillies to surrender their top two prospects – catcher Lou Marson and SS Jason Donald – in any deal. This leads us to ask whether the Phillies would consider trading for Ordonez instead. For roughly the same package it would take to land Holliday, Philadelphia could acquire a player, who, despite being six years older, is a better all-round hitter and is signed for three years at a cheaper average annual salary than what Holliday would likely fetch in the open market. And as was the case in our trade proposal from last week, Detroit would happily offer to eat a portion of Ordonez' contract and ease the Phillies' financial burden. From the Tigers’ perspective, this deal is a slam dunk. Both Marson and Donald are excellent young talents who would provide extremely cheap solutions to two gapping holes in Detroit’s everyday lineup.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Free Agent Primer

This offseason features the highest quality collection of free agents in nearly a decade. With perhaps the best southpaw in all of baseball, the most dynamic run producer of this generation, and the new single season saves record holder all poised to hit the open market, the hot stove league is simmering. And we didn’t even mention Mark Teixeira! The following is one writer’s predictions of where each of the top 50 free agents will go, for how long and for how much….

1) C.C. SabathiaAngels, 6 years/$145 million – The big lefty will forego the Yankees’ 7 year/$175 million offer to stay closer to home.

2) Mark TeixeiraYankees, 7 years/$140 million – Teixeira, a resident in Scott Boras’ stable, will go to the highest bidder. And after losing out on Sabathia, the Yanks will not be outbid.

3) Manny RamirezDodgers, 3 years/$81 million – The Dodgers won’t give Ramirez, another Boras client, the long-term deal he covets. However, they will acquiesce in his desire to trail only Alex Rodriguez in terms of annual value.

4) Francisco RodriguezMets, 4 years/$60 million – The Mets, on the heels of their second straight September swoon, are desperate to shore up a leaky bullpen. With most of the $10.5 million owed next year to the injured Billy Wagner covered by insurance, affording K-Rod won’t be a problem. The single season saves leader won’t get the five-year deal he desires, but he will match Mariano Rivera’s $15 million per season.

5) Ryan DempsterCubs, 4 years/$52 million – Dempster will stay with the Cubbies after his career year. If the Braves don’t lead Jake Peavy via trade, look for them to make a strong play for the right-hander.

6) Ben SheetsAstros, 2 years/$25 million – Sheets has immense talent but has missed significant time to injury three of the last four years. Look for Roy Oswalt’s good buddy and former Olympic teammate to get a lucrative, yet short-term, offer from Houston.

7) Derek LoweYankees, 4 years/$50 million – With Sabathia in Anaheim, the Yankees will do whatever it takes to land pitching. And that includes signing the 35-year-old Lowe to a long-term deal.

8) A.J. BurnettYankees, 5 years/$70 million – The Evil Empire strikes again!

9) Pat BurrellGiants, 4 years/$50 million – Burrell will pass up the Phillies’ two-year offer for a chance to go home to California. A big mistake for the Giants, who, in an attempt to bolster their anemic offense, would essentially be signing a full-time DH.

10) Adam DunnNationals, 4 years/$48 million – Nats’ GM Jim Bowden is well-acquainted with Dunn from their time together in Cincinnati. Dunn would bring much-needed power to Washington and would probably wind up at first base.

11) Bobby AbreuYankees, 1 year/$15 million – Abreu will take the Yankees up on their arbitration offer, and the two sides will settle on a lucrative one-year deal before the hearing.

12) Brian FuentesIndians, 3 years/$36 million – The bullpen was once again Cleveland’s Achilles heel in 2008, and GM Mark Shapiro won’t let that happen again.

13) Orlando HudsonCardinals, 4 years/$40 million – Expect the Cardinals to outbid the Blue Jays for the three-time Gold Glove winner. The Mets, stuck with Luis Castillo, will make a light-hearted bid, if any.

14) Oliver PerezMets, 4 years/$52 million – The Mets, after losing out to the Yankees in the Derek Lowe sweepstakes, will give Perez and his agent (yes, Boras again) whatever they want.

15) Milton BradleyRangers, 3 years/$27 million – The temperamental Bradley will take a below-market deal to stay in Texas after finally finding a comfort zone under manager Ron Washington.

16) Raul IbanezCubs, 3 years/$35 million – With Abreu staying in New York and Kosuke Fukodome in manager Lou Piniella’s doghouse (and likely peddled at some point this winter), look for GM Jim Hendry to make a big play for Ibanez.

17) Rafael FurcalDodgers, 3 years/$36 million – Furcal jumpstarted the Dodgers’ offense before he succumbed to a back injury in May. If he’s healthy, this deal’s a bargain. If not, it’s yet another poor signing on GM Ned Colletti’s ledger.

18) Kerry WoodCubs, 2 years/$18 million – Wood wants three years, but with Carlos Marmol ready to close he’ll be lucky to get two.

19) Mike MussinaYankees, 1 year/$8 million – Despite persistent retirement rumors, Mussina’s phenomenal 2008 and the allure of Cooperstown (he’s just 30 wins shy of 300), will keep the Stanford alum in the Bronx for at least one more year.

20) Jason GiambiA’s, 1 year/$7 million – Giambi will go back to Oakland, where the power-starved A’s will welcome him with open arms.

21) Andy PettitteYankees, 1 year/$10 million – It’s either the Yankees or retirement for this class act.

22) Orlando CabreraOrioles, 3 years/$25 million – The Orioles will have to settle with Cabrera as their main offseason pickup after losing out on Teixeira, Burnett and, quite possibly, Furcal.

23) Randy JohnsonDodgers, 1 year/$5 million (plus heavy incentives) – The Diamondbacks will want to turn the page, so the former USC Trojan will return to El Lay in his quest for 300 wins.

24) Casey BlakeIndians, 2 years/$14 million – With the Andy Marte experiment a complete bust, the Tribe invites Blake back into the fold.

25) Ivan RodriguezReds, 1 year/$5 million – After wearing out his welcome in Detroit and New York, the Reds will get the future Hall of Famer at a bargain price.

26) Rocco BaldelliPhillies, 1 year/$3 million (plus heavy incentives) – If this former phenom regains his health, this could be the steal of the offseason.

27) Randy WolfAstros, 2 years/$13 million – With health issues surrounding John Maine, don’t be surprised if the Mets make a play for Wolf. The left-hander was excellent down the stretch last season.

28) John SmoltzBraves, 1 year/$5 million (with heavy incentives) – Probably the last hurrah for this warrior.

29) Trevor HoffmanPadres, 1 year/$4 million – He just keeps on ticking.

30) Jon GarlandBraves, 1 year/$6.5 million – Even if the Braves do end up landing Jake Peavy, they still will be woefully short on the pitching front. If nothing else, Garland could provide innings in bulk as he looks to enhance his value for the following offseason.

31) Freddy GarciaIndians, 1 year/$4 million (with heavy incentives) – Garcia is yet another hurler who will hope to use 2009 as a springboard to future riches.

32) Brad PennyTigers, 1 year/$5 million (with heavy incentives) – A low risk/high reward move for GM Dave Dombrowski, who knows Penny from their days with the Marlins.

33) Juan CruzTigers, 2 years/$6.5 million – The flame-throwing Cruz has just the power arm Dombrowski covets. He could wind up closing in 2009, especially if Joel Zumaya is still inconsistent or injured.

34) Jim EdmondsBraves, 1 year/$4.5 million – With CF prospect Jordan Schafer likely gone if the Braves land Peavy from the Padres, Edmonds will be needed to hold down the fort until 21-year-old Gorkys Hernandez ready.

35) Garrett AndersonAngels, 2 years/$10 million – Can you imagine him in another uniform?

36) Eric HinskeRays, 1 year/$2.5 million – Based on Hinske’s 2008 season, this could be yet another bargain for GM Andrew Friedman.

37) Jason VaritekRed Sox, 2 years/$10 million – With a dearth of catching in their system, Boston will grossly overpay for their rapidly aging captain. However, if GM Theo Epstein swings a deal for some of Texas’ catching surplus, Varitek is likely long gone.

38) Jamie MoyerPhillies, 1 year/$5 million – The ageless Moyer likely won’t get the two year deal he covets.

39) Mark KotsayRed Sox, 1 year/$3.5 million – Kotsay will stay in Beantown, where he ingratiated himself to fans and the front office with his inspired play, albeit at a much lower price.

40) Jerry Hairston Jr.Reds, 2 years/$4 million – When healthy, Hairston was the best player on the field for the Reds in 2008. He’ll play CF until prospect Drew Stubbs shows he can hit.

41) Ray DurhamMets, 1 year/$3 million – With Luis Castillo still on the books, the Mets won’t splurge for Orlando Hudson (see above), but Durham would give them a more cost effective option. Plus, he’d be a key bat off the bench.

42) Jeremy AffeldtIndians, 3 years/$10.5 million – The durable Affeldt would be a godsend for manager Eric Wedge.

43) Braden LooperRockies, 2 years/$8 million – Looper and his sinker should fair well in Coors Light and would enable the Rockies to bring their young pitching prospects, namely Jhoulys Chacin, along slowly.

44) Damaso MarteCardinals, 3 years/$10 million – Marte could conceivably close if Chris Perez experiences growing pains.

45) Mark GrudzielanekBrewers, 1 year/$3 million – A tough one to call. The Indians, if they don’t sign Blake, are a possibility, as are the Blue Jays, Cardinals, Astros and even the Mets. The bet here is that he goes to Milwaukee to light a fire under the perennially underachieving Ricke Weeks

46) David WeathersMariners, 1 year/$2.5 million – Weathers would be a safety net for a young Seattle bullpen. He could even close if J.J. Putz is traded and Brandon Morrow moves into the starting rotation, as expected.

47) Joe BeimelMets, 2 years/$5 million – Hopefully Beimel has more success in Flushing than Scott Schoeneweis.

48) Doug BrocailAstros, 1 year/$1.75 million – Brocail has no desire to pitch anywhere else.

49) Ken Griffey Jr.Mariners, 1 year/$5 million – The farewell tour begins.

50) Odalis PerezPadres, 1 year/$1.5 million – Perez could be a useful #5 starter for many teams, including the penny-pinching Padres.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Happy Election Day, Everybody.....
No posting today. Instead, I'm working on a list of the top 50 free agents and where they'll end up. It should be accessible tomorrow. In the meantime, here's a list of some interesting baseball-related sites you might like to visit:
Baseball Musings -- Excellent site for breaking news and commentary. The founder formerly hosted Baseball Tonight for ESPN.
MLB Rumors -- Fantastic site for up-to-the-minute trade rumors. If it's whispered they hear it. Seriously.
Brewerfan -- A site for everything Brewers. Patrick Ebert of Perfect Game also provides first-rate draft coverage.
The Eddie Kranepool Society -- A blog on everything Mets.
Red Reporter -- Reds news and commentary 24/7. Very pertinent during the Hot Stove season.
Detroit Tigers Weblog -- Everything you ever wanted to know about the Tigers. Again, an excellent site for the winter rumor mill.
I'll add formal links to these sites by the end of the week.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Trade Fair: A Three-way Blockbuster

The sight of leaves on the ground, jack-o-lanterns in the trash and frost on the windshield can mean only one thing – baseball’s hot stove league is finally upon us. And, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good trade rumor or two (or three, or four, or…..well, you get the picture)? So, in an effort to add some drama to our readers’ lives, we here at Infield Chatter will propose countless juicy trade scenarios this offseason. We figure we’ll start off with a doozy….

In his recent Sunday column for the Boston Globe, esteemed baseball writer Nick Cafardo suggested that the Detroit Tigers, anxious to cut a bloated payroll on the heels of a disastrous 74-88 season while filling some obvious holes, will shop slugging outfielder Magglio Ordonez. We think Cafardo’s on to something and have dreamt up a succulent three-way deal involving the Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.

The Tigers' quest for a shortstop has been well-documented, as has the Brewers' need for a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter (assuming both C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets leave this winter as free agents). In addition, the Rays, despite their magical 2008 campaign, desperately need a power bat – preferably one who can play right field -- to protect inexperienced cleanup hitter Evan Longoria. This leads us to the following proposal:

- The Tigers trade Ordonez and cash (say $6 million per year for three years) to the Rays;
- The Rays trade starter Andy Sonnanstine and minor league pitcher Jeremy Hellickson to the Brewers; and
- The Brewers trade shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Tigers.

How this trade affects Detroit:

As stated above, Detroit craves a shortstop and needs to cut payroll from $139 million, which was second to only to the Yankees in 2008. Though they would be transferring a total of $18 million to the Rays over the next three seasons, the Tigers would still be saving $33 million over that time (assuming Ordonez' 2009-10 options for $18 million p.a. kick in – a likely scenario given that Ordonez would probably have to be enticed to waive his no-trade clause). In Hardy, Detroit would be acquiring a sure-handed, cannon-armed shortstop whose park-adjusted OPS is more than .100 better than the league average in each of the last two seasons. The 26-year-old Hardy would also be a relatively inexpensive option since he’s still two year away from free agency.

How this trade affects Tampa Bay:

As we mentioned earlier, the Rays need some muscle to protect their young cleanup hitter, Evan Longoria (as we saw in the World Series, Carl Crawford and his career SLG of .435 just won’t cut it. The speedy Crawford is much better suited for the 1-or 2-hole). Although Ordonez would cost the Rays $9 million in 2009 and $12 million in 2010 and 2011 after Detroit’s subsidy, owner Stuart Sternberg should have no trouble affording this amount. It's important to realize that the Rays should receive a revenue bump in 2009 as 1st-time playoff teams commonly enjoy a spike in attendance one year after qualifying for the postseason. Ordonez would be well worth the money. A career .312 hitter who has driven in 346 runs the past three years playing half his games in the cavernous Comerica Park, Ordonez would be even a more devastating force following a move to the much cozier confines of Tropicana Field.

The Rays would indeed be giving up two quality arms in Sonnanstine and Hellickson; however, let's look at their pitching depth for a minute. They already have ultra-talented twenty-somethings Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson established at the big league level and David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and rehabbing Jacob McGee closing in quickly. In other words, as solid as Sonnanstine is, he likely won’t be missed.

How this trade affects Milwaukee:

In Sonnanstine, the Brewers would be acquiring a young, innings-eating right-hander who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2008 with a stingy WHIP of 1.29 and equally impressive K:BB ratio of nearly 3.40. Though Sonnanstine will never be mistaken for proven aces Sheets and Sabathia, he would slide nicely into the middle of a revamped Milwaukee rotation that features young guns Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra in front of him. Even more importantly, Sonnanstine is cheap. He’s not arbitration-eligible until after 2010, which means the Brewers would still have the financial wherewithal to land a Jake Peavy, Derek Lowe, or other more expensive frontline starter who could ease the burden on the youngsters.

Hellickson is a top-flight prospect. Still just 21, the Iowa native split 2008 between Single A and Double A and went 11-5 with a 2.96 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 152 innings. His secondary numbers were even more impressive – a WHIP of 1.10 and otherworldly K:BB ratio of 8.00. Hellickson would instantly become Milwaukee’s top pitching prospect and could join the starting rotation as early as the second half 2009.

The emergence of Alcides Escobar has made Hardy expendable. The 21-year-old Venezuelan is an acrobat in the field and had a breakout 2008 at the plate hitting .328/.363/.434 with 34 steals in Double A.