Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trade Fair: The Braves Finally Land an Ace

It’s almost New Year’s and the Atlanta Braves have been thwarted in numerous attempts to land Jake Peavy from the Padres and are left with a gaping hole in the front of their rotation. Well, that’s about to change – at least for the next five minutes – as we discuss how Braves GM Frank Wren could turn to former colleague Dayton Moore, now the Royals’ GM, and finally obtain the ace he has long coveted. The Royals, in turn, would be able to fill multiple holes of their own while freeing up salary. So, without further ado, we present the final mock trade of 2008:

The Braves trade right fielder Jeff Francoeur, shortstop Yunel Escobar, starter Jorge Campillo and minor league outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to the Royals in exchange for starter Zack Greinke and right fielder Jose Guillen.

Let’s start with the Royals. While some might find it odd that Moore would be willing to part with a 25-year-old ace, it’s important to note that Greinke has so far not been receptive to the team’s attempts to sign him long-term. That said, Moore realizes that with two years remaining until free agency Greinke’s trade value will never be higher.

The Royals would get quite a haul, highlighted by Escobar. Though Mike Aviles performed admirably last season, Escobar would represent a substantial upgrade at shortstop. He has a much stronger arm, softer hands and infinitely more range. He’s also no slouch at the plate, and at 26 he should eventually post an OPS in excess of .850 (his career mark is just shy of .800). Finally, Escobar would be an excellent fit for the small market Royals as he’s not arbitration eligible until after the 2010 season.

Though not nearly Greinke’s equal in terms of talent, Campillo would serve as an adequate and cheap replacement in the back of the Royals’ rotation. In his first full major league season in 2008, he showed the uncanny ability to change speeds and work all quadrants of the strike zone. The result was a very decent 1.24 WHIP and an ERA of 3.91, which was one-third of a run lower than the league average. Despite the fact that Campillo would be moving to the tougher league, he should still serve as a better than replacement level back-of-the-rotation starter.

Hernandez, 21, would be the Royals’ center fielder of the future, perhaps as soon as during the first half of 2010 (it’s worth mentioning that Coco Crisp’s contract calls for an $8 million club option in 2010). Though he didn’t post eye popping numbers in the pitcher friendly Carolina League last season, Hernandez generates plenty of line drives with his ultra-quick bat and should develop more power as he adds muscle to his 6’0” 175 lbs frame. He’s already a world class center fielder with blazing speed and a cannon arm.

With outfield prospects Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward also prominent in Atlanta’s future plans, the Braves’ front office has deemed Hernandez expendable in the right deal.

Including Guillen in the deal would mean addition by subtraction for Kansas City. Though his 20 home runs and ninety-seven RBI were easily tops on the club, Guillen wore out his welcome by feuding with skipper Trey Hillman for most of ’08. Moore has let it be known throughout the offseason that any club looking to acquire Greinke would have to take the malcontent Guillen as well.

Trading Guillen would save the Royals $12 million in both 2009 and 2010, thereby giving them plenty of financial latitude to pursue a veteran starter to insert in the #2 slot behind Gil Meche. Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, Oliver Perez and Ben Sheets are all intriguing names who would help soften the blow of losing Greinke.

Since the day he became Kansas City’s GM in 2006, Moore has been infatuated with the idea of obtaining Francoeur. This man-crush has continued despite Francoeur’s downward production spiral. Perhaps it’s because as Atlanta’s Director of Player Personnel, Moore had a birds-eye view of Francoeur’s vast talent and feels that at 25 the young Georgian still has plenty of time to turn around his career. At any rate, even if Francoeur’s offense doesn’t show marked improvement, he would in many ways still be an upgrade over Guillen. He boasts one of baseball’s best arms in right field, has a much better clubhouse disposition and, as someone who’s arbitration eligible for just the first time, would cost about $10 million less.

For the Braves this trade is all about Greinke. In Jair Jurrjens and new arrival Javier Vazquez, Atlanta has two pitchers capable of throwing 200+ quality innings. But, unfortunately, neither is an ace capable of matching up against the Phillies’ Cole Hamels or the Mets’ Johan Santana. Greinke, however, is.
Apparently over the psychological issues which derailed his 2006 campaign, Greinke enjoyed a coming out party last season by finishing in the A.L.’s top ten in ERA, strikeouts, strikeouts per 9 IP, and strikeouts-to-walks. His uncanny command of a mid-90’s heater, knee-buckling curveball and well above average changeup should all play up in the “lesser” of the two leagues, while his smooth motion and excellent mechanics should help prevent serious injury.

A free agent after the 2010 season, Greinke would give Atlanta a two-year window to compete; however, the fact that he hails from northern Florida could make it easier for the Braves to entice him with a long-term deal.

The Braves had about $40 million to play with this offseason, which would enable them to absorb Guillen’s weighty contract. Despite the 32-year-old’s reputation as a clubhouse cancer, he’d be a noticeable offensive upgrade over Francoeur, whose .653 OPS in 2008 was the worst mark posted by an everyday outfielder. He’s also one of the few outfielders in the game who boasts an arm which rivals Francoeur’s. Also, don’t discount the influence of Braves manager Bobby Cox, who has proven himself a master psychiatrist capable of extracting the most out of all his players – from chronic underachievers like J.D. Drew to fiery types in the Gary Sheffield mold.

Although the acquisition of Greinke would help level the playing field in the increasingly competitive N.L. East, it wouldn’t be a cure-all for Atlanta. Wren would still have to find a shortstop to replace Escobar (Jack Wilson?), a starter to back up rookie Tommy Hanson at the back-end of the Braves’ rotation and a left fielder. However, with approximately $15 million left in his pocket, Wren shouldn’t have a problem filling those holes – especially in baseball’s depressed economy.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seeing Red in Cincinnati

Reds fans should be irate if catcher Ramon Hernandez and center fielder Willy Taveras end up being the team’s marquee acquisitions this winter. With all due respect to GM Walt Jocketty, who won six division titles, two N.L. Championships and one World Series during a distinguished 13-year reign in St. Louis, Cincinnati has had one of the most disappointing offseasons in all of baseball. After being linked to talents like Pat Burrell, Jeremy Hermida and Jermaine Dye, they’ve had to settle for a beat up, overpriced, soon-to-be 33-year-old catcher in Ramon Hernandez, as well as a punch-and-judy-hitting speedster in Willy Taveras.

Let’s start with the ill-advised Taveras signing. Even if you include his injury-shortened 2007 season, in which he leveraged an aberrational .320 batting average at Coors Light to post career highs in OBP (.367) and SLG (.382), Taveras’ career OPS is a putrid .668 – a full 116 points below the league average of .784 from 2004-08. And this is supposed to be the Reds’ leadoff hitter during the next two seasons?

When examining or evaluating the Reds, it’s vital to realize that the stadium the team plays in, the Great American Ball Park, is one of the smallest in baseball. Therefore, the club doesn’t require a gazelle, like Taveras, to patrol center field and can easily sacrifice some defense by inserting either a power hitter or on-base machine there.

That said, Jocketty had multiple options at his disposal (dependent upon, of course, how much money he was willing to spend). For example, he could have gone big ticket and traded for White Sox right fielder Jermaine Dye then shifted young, power-hitting phenom Jay Bruce into center. Bruce isn’t a burner, but his above average speed and strong arm would make him at least adequate there.

Or Jocketty could have done his shopping in the bargain aisle by inking old friend Jim Edmonds. Though he’s lost several steps in the field and his bat speed isn’t what it once was, Edmonds proved last year with a .256/.369/.568 performance in 250 at bats with the Cubs that he’s far from through. And he’d likely sign for well under half the $8 million he earned in 2008.

If the Reds were to sign Edmonds, it would also have made sense for them to procure the services of Rocco Baldelli. By now, Baldelli’s muscular-related health issues, which prevent him from playing regularly in the field, are well known. However, he would only be expected to serve as a right-handed caddy to Edmonds (who hit just .161 with Chicago against southpaws last season) and would be compensated as such.

A solution to the Reds’ catching “woes” would have been even less complicated. Instead of paying $6 million in 2009 for Hernandez (the Orioles, Hernandez’ former team, are on the hook for $2 million), the club would have been better served by giving the keys to incumbent Ryan Hanigan and signing a seasoned, defense-first free agent, a la Matt Treanor or Chad Moeller, to serve as Hanigan’s backup.

Though Hanigan played just 31 games in the majors last season, he earned rave reviews for his handling of the Reds’ pitching staff and threw out nearly 35% of opposing runners attempting to steal. At the plate, he acquitted himself well by posting a .367 OBP. It’s important to note that Hanigan’s on-base skills are extraordinary for a catcher. In 176 games in Double A and Triple A in 2007-08, Hanigan posted a robust OBP of .389.

With Hanigan earning around the big league minimum and his backup less than $1 million (the Tigers, for example, are paying the recently-signed Treanor $750,000 in 2009), the Reds would have saved over $4.5 million had they not traded for Hernandez. The team then would have had that much more capital at its disposal in its ongoing search for a left fielder and more arms for the bullpen, which earlier this offseason lost the valuable Jeremy Affeldt via free agency to the Giants.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Seismic Signing

When the Yankees announced the signing of free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira Tuesday afternoon they didn’t just fill a massive hole in their lineup; they also sent shockwaves that will impact baseball from Los Angeles to Boston and many points in between. Let’s take a look at the eight teams affected most by yesterday’s signing:

Anaheim Angels – The Angels find themselves in an interesting predicament – they still have excellent run prevention, but other than injury-riddled Vladimir Guerrero the lineup lacks punch. Look for GM Tony Reagins to fortify the bullpen by signing free agent closer Brian Fuentes. Manny Ramirez would be a good fit, but Reagins quelled those rumors on Tuesday. Pat Burrell and Adam Dunn are possibilities, but does their all-or-nothing approach really fit with manager Mike Scioscia’s rabbit ball style?

Baltimore Orioles – The Orioles were kidding themselves if they thought they’d be able to out-market the Yankees, Angels and Red Sox for Teixeira’s services. With Adam Jones and Nick Markakis already established at the big league level and Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Matt Wieters almost there, look for Baltimore to kick the rebuilding into high gear with an eye on contending in 2010. That could mean standout second baseman Brian Roberts gets dangled as trade bait before then.

Boston Red Sox – With the sole object of GM Theo Epstein’s affection off the market, look for the Red Sox to make a serious run at Derek Lowe in an effort to deepen their starting rotation. While losing Teixeira to the hated Yankees stings, Boston is still in excellent shape with Kevin Youkilis at first base and former Gold Glove winner Mike Lowell at third.

Los Angeles Dodgers – With the Yankees seemingly out of the Manny Ramirez sweepstakes, the Dodgers are the only team at this point to have an ongoing dialogue with the slugger. Don’t be surprised if GM Ned Colletti smells blood and extends Manny a “modest” two-year proposal with a strict time table.

Milwaukee Brewers -- Because Teixeira's Elias rating is higher than those of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Angels now get the Yankees' first round draft pick, pushing the Brewers’ compensation pick from the first round to the second (at least 40 picks below where it would have been had the Yanks not signed Teixeira). This is no insignificant matter for a small market organization that has used the draft to its advantage in constructing a playoff-caliber team.

New York Mets – They just can’t win. Even after signing closer Francisco Rodriguez to a team-friendly contract and landing fireballing reliever J.J. Putz in a trade, the Metropolitans still can’t escape the Yankees’ shadow. And unless Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza and Darryl Strawberry suddenly discover the fountain of youth, that will likely always be the case.

Toronto Blue Jays – With a strong starting staff, shutdown bullpen and solid defense, Toronto would contend in just about any other division. However, in the dog-eat-dog world of the A.L. East they are no better than the fourth-best team. Combine that with owner Ted Rogers’ recent death and the ongoing depreciation of the Canadian dollar versus the greenback and you’ve got a possible rebuilding plan in the works.

Washington Nationals – Now that the Teixeira train has stopped in the Bronx, look for GM Jim Bowden to make a run at Dunn, a player he is intimately familiar with from his days in Cincinnati. Also, it’s not out of the realm of imagination to think that after being thwarted in their serious attempts to woo Tex back home, the Nationals might make a dramatic effort to land Ramirez.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Signing Furcal would have been Wrong Move for Wren

Rafael Furcal’s 11th hour decision to spurn the Atlanta Braves in favor of the Los Angeles Dodgers might have been the best thing to happen to Braves GM Frank Wren this offseason. A year after wasting $8 million on a homecoming for washed up Tom Glavine, Wren was ready to award Furcal with a three-year/$30 million contract to return to Atlanta.

Make no mistake, Furcal was at one time a dynamic player, arguably the best all-round shortstop in the National League. From 2003-06 he slugged over .430 and averaged nearly 35 steals a season while playing highlight reel defense. However, he turns 32 next year and is coming off microdiscectomy surgery on his lower back. Granted it’s a small sample size, but Furcal wasn’t the same player after returning to the Dodgers lineup for the playoffs. In eight postseason games he hit just .258 and made a whopping four errors.

In addition to the possibility that they would have invested a fortune in damaged goods, there’s one other major factor that would have made this an ill-fated move for the Braves – the presence of incumbent shortstop Yunel Escobar. Escobar, just 26, has emerged as an above-average defensive shortstop with plenty of upside on offense. Moreover, he’s cheap. He’ll earn near the league minimum in 2009 and isn’t arbitration eligible until after the 2010 season.

There are several schools of thought on why the Braves were willing to sign Furcal despite Escobar being firmly entrenched at shortstop. First, the club probably has designs on re-entering the Jake Peavy sweepstakes and would have dangled Escobar as the primary trading chip. While we would certainly never argue against any team acquiring a 27-year-old ace, especially one who already has a CY Young Award in his trophy case and four years of cost certainty by virtue of a long-term deal, we do have a problem with the idea of Furcal serving as Escobar’s replacement. As we indicated earlier, what proof would the Braves have had that the Furcal they signed is the same as the 2003 vintage? Assuming he isn’t (and that’s a logical assumption to make given the fact he’s six years older and fresh off of major back surgery), the $9.5 million differential between his and Escobar’s 2009 contract EXCEEDS the $9 million Peavy is owed next season. And we haven’t even mentioned the $20 million the team would have owed Furcal in 2010-11.

If Atlanta really is that intent on using Escobar as trade bait for Peavy, the club could easily find another, more suitable substitute at shortstop. For example, Wren could swing a trade with Pittsburgh for Jack Wilson, a defensive specialist whose contract guarantees him just one more year at $7.25 million. If Wilson proves to be a bust, he’s off the Braves’ books a year from now. If he plays well, the Braves obtained a potential Gold Glove winner at less than 75% of what Furcal would have cost. Either way, Wren & Co. incur a fraction of the risk versus what they would have had the Furcal deal come to fruition.

The second school of thought as to why Atlanta entertained thoughts of bringing back Furcal was presented eloquently in this column by Dave O’Brien. As O’Brien stated, Atlanta would have shifted Furcal to second base and moved Kelly Johnson to left field with the intention of creating a high-flying, acrobatic double play combination. This was a ludicrous idea. Not only has Furcal played exactly one game at second in the past six years, but Johnson is a well above average fielder (he gets to a half-ball more per game than the average N.L. second baseman) whose high octane bat puts him within the elite tier of the league’s second baseman. As a left fielder, Johnson would be merely replacement level.

It’s obvious that Frank Wren once again chose sentiment over common sense with his ill-advised strategy to sign Rafael Furcal. Fortunately for the Braves, however, Furcal’s last minute machinations left his old team standing alone at the altar. Christmas has indeed come early to Atlanta.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Trade Fair: A Swap of Fallen Angels

The Florida Marlins and Seattle Mariners have been two of the busiest teams this offseason and look to remain active for the remainder of the winter. The Marlins, as always, are in shedding mode. With 16 players eligible for arbitration following the 2008 season, club president David Samson ordered GM Michael Hill to slice and dice wherever and whenever possible. Thus far, Florida has traded away first baseman Mike Jacobs, outfielder Josh Willingham, starter Scott Olsen and reliever Kevin Gregg. The Mariners, fresh off a hugely disappointing 61-101 season and with new GM Jack Zduriencik in tow, are also looking to wheel and deal. Zduriencik just last week completed a three-team/12 player mega-deal with the Indians and Mets at the Winter Meetings and has indicated he’s got much more work ahead of him. Interestingly enough, in addition to being trigger-happy, both the Marlins and Mariners each have one glaring weakness – the Marlins covet an inexpensive catcher and the Mariners are in desperate need of a corner outfielder with pop. As a result, we propose the following trade:

- The Marlins trade outfielder Jeremy Hermida to the Mariners in exchange for catcher Jeff Clement.

This trade makes sense on so many levels. Let’s start with how it impacts the Marlins. Despite John Baker’s impressive big league debut (.299/.392/.447), the Marlins still view the 27-year-old as a backup. In Clement, Florida would be obtaining a young (25) catcher whose left-handed power bat would serve as an effective foil to right-handed Dan Uggla, Cameron Maybin, Hanley Ramirez and Jorge Cantu (provided the latter isn’t dealt in the Marlins’ ongoing purge). Though Clement’s .227/.295/.360 performance in 203 at bats with Seattle last season shows that the 2005 first rounder is far from a finished product, his 38 home runs and .853 OPS in 873 Triple A at bats are indicative of his vast offensive potential. On defense, Clement will never be mistaken for Johnny Bench; however, he has enough of an arm to stop a running game and has improved significantly at blocking balls in the dirt. Finally, Clement is cheap. He won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2010 season, which means he’ll fit nicely into Florida’s miniscule budget.

Despite Hermida’s mouth watering potential, the Marlins won’t miss him. The team’s 2002 first rounder looked like he was poised for a breakout season following a .296/.369/.501 campaign in 2007, but he missed the first week of April and never really got back on track. By September he had lost his starting job, and with Maybin ready for prime time Hermida’s prospects for 2009 appear dim. Throw in the fact that Hermida is arbitration eligible and therefore due for a significant raise, and it’s not hard to see why the Marlins have placed the former phenom on the trading block.

Given Zduriencik’s extensive scouting and player evaluation background, it’s likely that a player with Hermida’s natural ability would be welcomed with open arms in Seattle. Still just 24, Hermida flashed five-tool potential throughout his minor league career and was at times compared to talents like Larry Walker and Paul O’Neill. Perhaps all he needs, like O’Neill 15 years ago, is a change of scenery and an organization that believes in him. With Raul Ibanez having moved on to greener pastures in Philadelphia, Hermida’s lefty bat and athleticism would fit in well with Ichiro and newly-acquired Franklin Gutierrez in the Mariners’ revamped outfield.

Make no mistake, it wouldn’t be easy for Seattle to part with Clement. In fact, as recently as a year ago he was seen as the organization’s catcher of the future. However, the Mariners’ catching depth should soften the blow. Not only does Kenji Johjima still have three years and $24 million left on his contract, but Adam Moore enjoyed a banner 2008 and already boasts far better defensive skills and the ability to hit for a higher average than Clement. The organization also has Rob Johnson, 24, who has nothing left to prove in the minors after hitting .305 at Triple A in 2008.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday: Covering the Bases

In a special post-Winter Meetings edition of Covering the Bases, let’s look at the five biggest winners and losers from what happened this week in Las Vegas.

The Five Biggest Winners:

1) New York Mets – Not only did they get Francisco Rodriguez, the most prolific closer in baseball, at the bargain basement price of three years/$37 million, but they also were able to land J.J. Putz and Sean Green without giving up anyone of substance. Props go out to GM Omar Minaya, who early on recognized how oversaturated the relief pitching market was. Now if Minaya can land two more starters, the Metropolitans will be in prime position to reclaim the N.L. East title in their inaugural season at Citi Field.

2) Greg Genske – C.C. Sabathia’s agent looks like a genius after his client’s supposed fascination with going home to California prompted Yankees GM Brian Cashman to raise the team’s offer by one year and $20 million to seven-years/$161 million – the highest ever awarded to a pitcher. Let’s face it, with the Brewers five-year/$100 million proposal the only other official offer out there, Cashman & Co. were essentially bidding against themselves.

3) Detroit Tigers – After trading two minor leaguers -- one with such an extensive injury history that he’s never pitched 100 innings in a season (Guillermo Moscoso) and another who’s so green he’s never thrown a pitch in North America (Carlos Melo) – for a significant upgrade at catcher in Gerald Laird, the Tigers signed defensive whiz Adam Everett for practically nothing. As we described in detail on Tuesday, Everett may not be the second coming of Alan Trammell, but he was far more cost efficient than Jack Wilson or any of the other options on the table. Finally, though they were forced to give up an intriguing young bat in outfielder Matt Joyce, the trade for 25-year-old flamethrower Edwin Jackson goes a long way to shoring up the back end of the Tigers’ ailing starting rotation. Now all GM Dave Dombrowski must do is find a suitable closer and the wheels could be turning in Motown once again.

4) Edgar Renteria – True, he was actually signed before the start of the meetings, but we’re still in a state of disbelief that a guy who had his second-worst offensive season in a 13-year career and played shortstop like he was in slow motion was able to secure a two-year/$18.5 million deal in what is supposedly a bear market. Shame on the power-starved Giants, who would have been far better served by keeping capable youngster Emmanuel Burriss at shortstop and instead inking an offensive minded outfielder like Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu.

5) Tampa Bay Rays – Despite adding Joyce to their OF mix (and saving about $2 million in the process), Tampa Bay should be able to take advantage of the glut of OF/DH types and add a proven run producer to their improving lineup. The team has already held discussions with Abreu, Jason Giambi and Milton Bradley.

The Five Biggest Losers:

1) Francisco Rodriguez – He thought he was headed for a five-year/$75 million payday, but that was before the economy dove like one of his splitters and the closer market became oversaturated. On the bright side, he won’t even be 30 the next time he’s a free agent so he’ll most probably have at least one more opportunity to break the bank.

2) Brian Fuentes – As we saw with K-Rod, the monetary price of premier relief pitching has decreased considerably this offseason. And with the Indians and Mets out of the closer sweepstakes, Fuentes’ market has shrunk considerably. Don’t be surprised if the lefty is forced to take a much smaller-than-anticipated deal with the budget-conscious Tigers or Brewers or even return to Colorado.

3) Pittsburgh Pirates – With Rafael Furcal unable to find a taker, it’s doubtful that the Buccos will be able to unload Jack Wilson and his $7.25 million salary. According to various media reports, GM Neil Huntington was asking for an exorbitant return in exchange for the light-hitting shortstop and was unwilling to eat any portion of his salary. Now Huntington will have to eat the whole thing.

4) Manny Ramirez – Has somebody finally called Scott Boras’ bluff? With Dodgers GM Ned Colletti seemingly drawing a line in the sand and other suitors failing to emerge, it looks like Boras and Manny have backed themselves into a corner. We see one of two scenarios developing: first, Ramirez will re-sign with Los Angeles for far less (in terms of both dollars and years) than what he was originally seeking; second, the Dodgers will tell the slugger to go fly a kite, at which time he’ll field a four-year/$100 million dollar offer from Washington after the latter was rebuffed in its attempt to sign local boy Mark Teixeira.

5) Free agent outfielders – This consists of the “sub-Manny” group consisting of Abreu, Bradley, Dunn and Burrell. With supply far exceeding demand this winter, these four will be highly disappointed by both the dollar amounts and tenor of their new contracts. At the present time we see Abreu going to the Cubs, Bradley setting up shop in Tampa Bay, Dunn ending up in Washington and Burrell hitting between Jay Bruce and Joey Votto in Cincinnati.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Roar May Be Back in Detroit

The Tigers had a great start to the Winter Meetings Monday, first obtaining catcher Gerald Laird from the Texas Rangers then signing free agent shortstop Adam Everett. The price for Laird was stiff – minor league right-handers Guillermo Moscoso and Carlos Melo. Moscoso, 25, had an excellent 2008 campaign, splitting time between High A and Double A. In 86.2 innings he used a 93-94 mph fastball along with an average curve and changeup to strike out 122 hitters while posting a sterling ERA of 1.94. If Moscoso impresses his new team out of the gate, he could be in Arlington by the All Star break. However, one note of caution with Moscoso is his durability. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2005 and has never pitched 100 innings in a season. Melo, only 17, is more of a long-term project. He has yet to pitch in North America, though he already boasts a mid-90’s fastball and at 6’3” 180 pounds he projects to add even more velocity as he matures. His offspeed stuff is still a work in progress.

Laird represents a clear upgrade over Pudge Rodriguez, who by last season had regressed considerably – both offensively and defensively – since signing with the Tigers in 2004. The 29-year-old has excellent catch-and-throw skills, is adept at blocking pitches in the dirt and received high marks for his handling of the Rangers’ pitching staff. At the plate, Laird can more than hold his own, which is all he’ll need to do in Detroit’s power-packed lineup. Though he doesn’t walk much, he makes good contact and has enough power to hit 15 home runs if he plays regularly. Laird also comes with a reasonable price tag. He earned just $1.6 million last season and still has two years before he’s eligible for free agency.

In Everett, the Tigers have signed an old-school, defense-first shortstop. He won’t hit much, but that’s not what he’s being paid to do. Instead, he’ll provide far more range than Edgar Renteria did and at a fraction of the price. To put the Everett signing into proper perspective, it’s important to note that multiple sources had the Tigers on the verge of trading either Matt Joyce or Jeff Larish, two burgeoning power hitters, for Jack Wilson and his $7.25 million salary. Everett, on the other hand, will cost Detroit a base salary of just $1 million and no prospects (or draft picks, for that matter). While Wilson has been slightly better than Everett on both sides of the ball, he’s certainly no Alan Trammell. Examining both players’ lifetime stats below, it’s evident that Everett, if he can stay healthy after an injury-riddled 2008 (Tiger scouts worked him out prior to signing him and deemed him fit to play), is by far the more cost-efficient acquisition.

.246 .298 .355 .976 4.21 (Everett)
.269 .312 .375 .978 4.68 (Wilson)

While the addition of Laird and Everett will significantly improve the Tigers’ defense, even more impressive was their low monetary cost. Combined, both players will earn approximately $4 million in base pay. That’s less than half of the $9 million the club paid Renteria for his subpar 2008 season. With this savings, the Tigers will be able to pursue a first rate closer – either Kerry Wood or J.J. Putz – and continue to lay the foundation for a revival in 2009.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Don't do it, Theo

Temptation can come in many forms. To the married man, it’s the stunning blonde sitting alone in the corner of the bar. To a car thief, it’s the late model BMW idling unattended in front of a convenience store. To the female shopaholic, it’s that Gucci handbag on sale at half price. To Theo Epstein, GM of the Boston Red Sox, it’s the slugging first baseman available this Christmas for a cool $150 million.

Mark Teixeira is clearly the marquee position player up for grabs in this winter’s free agent bazaar. In fact, he’s the best hitter available since the winter of 2000-01, when Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez were offering their services to the highest bidder. A switch-hitter with both power and patience, Teixeira’s line of .290/.378/.541 since he broke into the major leagues in 2003 is the best by a first baseman not named Albert Pujols. Oh, he’s also young (only 28 on Opening Day), an excellent fielder (two Gold Gloves) and durable (he’s averaged over 150 games per season).

So, with Teixeira’s sparkling resume and the mounds of cash Boston seemingly has to spend this winter, is there any reason why Epstein should not make the two-time Silver Slugger his primary offseason objective?

Yes, there’s actually one huge reason -- Teixeira can’t pitch.

Despite Boston’s burgeoning dynasty, which includes two world championships and five postseason appearances since 2003, the organization’s post-2010 pitching outlook outside of emerging ace Jon Lester isn’t as bright as one might think. Workhorse Josh Beckett, a free agent after 2010, could follow the likes of Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and others by shunning megabuck overtures and return to his native Texas; Daisuke Matsuzaka, his 18-3 record last season notwithstanding, consistently racks up high pitch counts due to poor command and failed to make it into the sixth inning in almost half his starts; Tim Wakefield is 42; Clay Buchholz has regressed significantly and is now being dangled as trade bait; and recent free agent signee Junichi Tazawa has never thrown a pitch in North America. Put simply, the acquisition of a proven, frontline starter would bolster the Red Sox’ rotation at a crucial time and all but ensure the team’s ability to contend well into the next decade.

Fortunately, ‘tis the season for Epstein & Co. In C.C. Sabathia, Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett, Boston has three studs to choose from this winter. Sabathia is obviously the main attraction. As his work down the stretch with the Brewers exhibited, he’s a money pitcher, a guy who’s capable of putting a team on his back and changing the entire dynamic of a pennant race all by himself. Though it’s no secret that the big lefty desires to pitch close to his California home, the Red Sox could throw a wrench into his plans if they extend an offer which approaches the 6-year/$140 million proposal already put out by the Yankees. If nothing else, a decision by Boston to enter the Sabathia sweepstakes would drive up the price for the Bronx Bombers and possibly prevent them from making other major acquisitions this winter.

Lowe is intriguing for several reasons. First, he’s already had success pitching in the Beantown pressure cooker, as evidenced by his excellent 52-27 record as a starter from 2002-04 and the stingy 3.09 ERA he posted in 61 postseason innings with the Red Sox. Second, he’s durable. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2002, Lowe has never missed a turn and averaged nearly 211 innings a season.

Burnett has always been something of an enigma – he has first-rate stuff but only appears to stay healthy in the walk year of his contract. Still, given his electric arm and the success he’s enjoyed against the arch-rival Yankees (2.43 ERA in almost 80 career innings), he’d provide manager Terry Francona with the perfect right-handed foil to Lester.

The Red Sox likely don’t have enough money to sign both Teixeira and a pitcher from the Sabathia/Lowe/Burnett triumvirate; however, they’d have far less difficulty making do without Teixeira’s lumber. In Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Jason Bay and J.D. Drew, Boston has the strongest lineup in the A.L. East. And let’s not forget that Ortiz will have an entire winter to rest and rehabilitate the ailing wrist which caused him to suffer through a disappointing 2008. Nor should we neglect to mention third baseman Mike Lowell, who, after undergoing hip surgery this offseason, could very well return to his 120 RBI form from 2007.

There’s yet another player we feel compelled to bring up. That’s Boston’s first baseman of the future, Lars Anderson. Anderson, 21, breezed through High A and Double A in 2008 at a .317/.417/.517 clip and displayed a good eye as well as the ability to hit with power to all fields. While no prospect is ever a sure thing (see Burroughs, Sean), Anderson is as close as it gets. The left-handed slugger should be ready for prime time no later than 2010 and would offer the club at least replacement level production at the big league minimum of $400,000. This is in contrast to Teixeira, who would offer mouth watering numbers but at an eye popping cost. So with the Red Sox offense already a juggernaut and more help on the way, Teixeira would represent an unnecessary luxury whose exorbitant cost could prohibit the organization from addressing other areas of need. And in the bare knuckles world of the A.L. East such a serious miscalculation could have dire consequences, including the end of a golden era in Boston.
Don’t do it, Theo.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday: Covering the Bases

Lots of shortstop news this week…

· The full effect of the economic crisis was seen this week when the Yankees – the Yankees! – refused to offer arbitration to Bobby Abreu out of fear that it would result in the veteran outfielder receiving a one-year contract in the neighborhood of $16-18 million. Executives from both leagues think Abreu’s next deal will have a much lower annual value, perhaps as low as $8-10 million. That said, the Rays, who are in the market for an offensive-minded corner outfielder (preferably a right fielder), have to be paying particularly close attention to these recent developments. Don’t be surprised if the current economic malaise combined with the glut of corner outfielders on the market will continue to depress salaries, which, in turn, could cause an Abreu, Adam Dunn or Pat Burrell to fall right into Tampa’s lap.

· Multiple analysts have commented that the Padres’ trade yesterday of shortstop Khalil Greene to St. Louis would free up enough money to perhaps enable them to hang on to ace Jake Peavy (Greene is owed $6.5 million for 2009). Padres GM Kevin Towers sure hopes so because after yesterday a Peavy-to-Atlanta deal is far less likely. Not only is Greene no longer available to replace Yunel Escobar, who was long-rumored to be a component in any Padres-Braves deal, but former Braves prospect Brent Lillibridge’s inclusion in the Javier Vazquez trade takes yet another possible Escobar replacement out of the equation.

· Yesterday was not a good day for free agent Rafael Furcal, who saw his market shrink considerably. With St. Louis (Greene) and San Francisco (Edgar Renteria) both addressing their needs, Oakland is left as the only obvious landing spot for Furcal. And A’s GM Billy Beane, being the smart cookie that he is, is never one to bid against himself.

· And, finally, the Jack Wilson-to-Detroit trade rumors never made any sense. Not only is the $7.25 million Wilson is owed next year well out of the Tigers’ price range, but Wilson would have cost GM Dave Dombrowski at least one mid-level prospect (multiple sources have suggested that slugging corner infielder Jeff Larish was coveted by the Pirates). If Dombrowski continues to look externally to fill the team’s shortstop void, the name which makes the most sense is free agent Adam Everett. He’s cheap, won’t cost the team any prospects or draft picks and would likely accept a one-year deal. However, we here at Infield Chatter advocate the team shifting incumbent third baseman Brandon Inge to shortstop, moving Carlos Guillen from left field to third base and replacing Guillen with a Matt Joyce/Marcus Thames platoon. This alignment would help preserve Guillen’s back and knee while taking advantage of Inge’s range.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Giant Mistake by Sabean

Earlier this afternoon the San Francisco Giants announced that they had signed veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria to a two-year contract worth $18.5 million. This will prove to be a deal Giants GM Brian Sabean winds up regretting for years to come. Renteria is coming off a horrific season – not only was his .270/.317/.382 line the second worst of his 13-year career, but his range and arm have both diminished to the extent that he has become a defensive liability. It’s possible that Sabean has based his decision on the fact that Renteria enjoyed stellar seasons in 2006-07 with Atlanta after returning to the National League following a subpar 2005 with the Red Sox. We here at Infield Chatter, however, don’t expect history to repeat itself. Let’s not forget that Renteria played most of 2005 at 29; he’ll turn 34 in August. While we’re not accusing the five-time All Star of any foul play whatsoever, it’s become evident that thirty-somethings haven’t exactly aged gracefully since baseball enacted its strict anti-PED/amphetamine policy several years ago.

Even if Renteria does bounce back to the tune of his career .290/.347/.407 line, it’s doubtful that he alone will do much to reverse the Giants’ 72-90 record from 2008. The Giants’ primary Achilles Heel last season was not at shortstop (more on that in a minute). Instead, it was an utterly pathetic offense – an offense which hit just 94 home runs (25 percent less than the next closest team), was second-to-last in SLG and runs scored and third-to last in OBP. So, rather than wasting a fortune on a shortstop whose best days are likely far behind him, Sabean would have been much better served by taking advantage of the glut of corner outfielders on the market and signing a legitimate power threat like Pat Burrell or Adam Dunn or an on-base machine like Bobby Abreu for little more (both in dollars and in years) than what he squandered on Renteria. That would have been the most obvious way for the team’s longtime GM to steer the team back to respectability in 2009.

Ironically, if there was a bright spot in the Giants’ lineup in 2008, it was at shortstop, where promising youngster Emmanuel Burriss hit a healthy .283 in 95 games and posted a .357 OBP. The 23-year-old also showed excellent speed (13 steals) to go along with well above average range and a strong arm. Simply put, he was a far better player than Renteria. And at a pro rated salary of $390,000 he was much cheaper. The arrival of Renteria will relegate Burriss to the bench and stunt the kid’s development – not an insignificant development given that Burriss was supposed to spearhead a group of talented position prospects, including 2008 1st round pick Buster Posey, that is perhaps the best the team has assembled in decades. As a result, it turns out that the Bay might not be the only thing that’s foggy in San Francisco. So too might be the Giants’ chances in 2009. And even in 2010 and beyond.

It's a Brave New World for Vazquez

The Atlanta Braves and Chicago White Sox earlier today formally announced the completion of the winter’s second blockbuster trade. Atlanta has received veteran right-hander Javier Vazquez and lefty reliever Boone Logan in exchange for a package of four prospects, the stud among them being 22-year-old catcher Tyler Flowers.

With the winter meetings still days away and over $40 million of spare change burning a hole in his pocket, it’s obvious that Braves GM Frank Wren is just getting started. That said, it’s unfair at this juncture to evaluate this trade from Atlanta’s perspective. What we do know, however, is that despite gaudy minor league statistics and extraordinary talent, Vazquez has never enjoyed the sustained major league success so many had predicted for him when he broke into the big leagues a decade ago. He’s posted a very pedestrian 127-129 record, surrendered an average of almost 30 home runs in each of his nine full major league seasons and has regularly had his heart and ability to perform under pressure questioned on a routine basis. Still, the 32-year-old offers a precious commodity that scores of GMs, managers and pitching coaches would kill for: reliability. Since 2000, Vazquez has never made less than 32 starts or thrown under 198 innings. This is of vital importance for a team like the Braves, who in 2008 had to rely on the likes of Chuck James (9.10 ERA last season), Charlie Morton (6.15) and Jo-Jo Reyes (5.81), while the supposed Big Three of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson missed a combined 57 starts. And, finally, it has to be encouraging for the Braves that Vazquez will be returning to the National League, where in five full seasons he’s posted a very respectable 3.80 ERA. This is in contrast to the 4.54 ERA he’s delivered in four years in the American League.

So, now that we’ve established that Javier Vazquez would serve as a very effective middle-of-the rotation innings-eating starter in the N.L., it becomes imperative for the Braves to land a bonafide ace in order for this trade to be deemed a success. Jake Peavy, who Wren has been trying to wrestle away from the Padres since the end of the end of the regular season, is the ideal candidate. He’s young (27), a stud, and, by virtue of his long-term contract (guaranteed $62 million through 2012) represents cost certainty. After Peavy, there’s a substantial drop-off. Free agent Derek Lowe is reliable and clutch, but he’ll be 36 in June and has never been a true ace with the ability to miss bats at will. Fellow free agent A.J. Burnett has shut-down stuff, but he’s been a giant enigma his entire career and only risen to the occasion in his walk years.

From the White Sox perspective, the success of this transaction will primarily hinge on whether Flowers fulfills his vast potential. The 6’4” 250 pound power plant had an excellent 2008, including 12 home runs and an otherworldly 1.433 OPS in 75 at bats in the Arizona Fall League. He projects to hit at least 25 home runs a season at the big league level as well as post a solid OBP due to excellent pitch recognition. His defense, however, is another story. He has a below average arm in addition to poor receiving skills. If he can somehow improve his subpar defensive to the point where he’s at least adequate behind the dish, he’d be a noticeable upgrade over current backstop A.J. Pierzynski, whose current contract expires after 2010. Flowers was deemed redundant by the Braves, who already have three-time All Star Brian McCann locked up through 2012.

None of the three other prospects acquired by the Braves jump out at you as deal makers. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge, 25, is a decent fielder with slightly above average pop who will likely max out as a middle-of-the-field utilityman. Jon Gilmore is a 20-year-old third baseman who has put up good numbers in two years of short season ball. Some scouts project him as a Joe Crede-type performer, but he’s at least four years away and will have to improve his pitch recognition as he moves up the ladder. Santos Rodriguez, also 20, is a lanky lefty from the Dominican who throws in the mid-90’s and struck out nearly 14 batters per nine innings in 14 relief appearances the Gulf Coast League. Spotty control and poor command of his breaking pitch indicate that he’s also years away from making any kind of impact at the major league level.

Don’t be surprised if this deal is also prelude to something significantly bigger for Chicago GM Kenny Williams, who seemingly always has something up his sleeve. In trading away Nick Swisher and Vazquez, Williams has freed up nearly $17 million of salary from the White Sox 2009 payroll (Vazquez will earn $11.5 million in 2009) and shed $28.25 million in post-2009 obligations. If this is indeed the case, Hotlanta won’t be the only place the stove is simmering this offseason.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rain Delay Is Over

Hey everyone. It's been over a week since my last post and I apologize. Unfortunately, my computer crashed due to a terminally ill hard drive and I was forced to shut down the presses. Fear not, however, as I'm up and running again with a new machine and should be posting fresh columns well before the start of the Winter Meetings on Sunday. Thanks for your patience.