Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Does anyone here speak English? Or ancient Greek?

Go ahead and put me on the DL with a severely bruised ego.
News today re: the tenders, non-tenders and love-me tenders.
  • First of all, the Baltimore Orioles signed free agent Jay Payton to a 2-year contract for $9.5 million. The report was that the Orioles had finally found their right-handed hitting outfielder. Well, that's half-true; Payton is right-handed. But I'm not so sure about the whole "hitter" thing.
    The Orioles scored 768 runs last year, only 12 more than the last-place Mariners. You would think that, coming into this off-season, the team would try to target some positions that are ripe for improvement. Catcher, Second Base, Shortstop, Third Base, and DH are filled with free agents (or guys under long-term deals). Corey Patterson is set in center, as is Nick Markakis in right. That leaves first base and left field.
    The Orioles punted one opportunity when they signed Kevin Millar to play first base. But Millar should at least hit enough to survive, and he only got a 1-year deal. But Payton, who walks, talks, and quacks like a fourth outfielder, got a 2-year deal. 34-year-old Payton hit 296/325/418 last year, which isn't in any way adequate for a starting left fielder. Payton's contract isn't for much money, so they would be able to move him to a backup role if an upgrade came along. But are the Orioles even aware that they need an upgrade? And how long will they keep Payton starting in left until they realize it?
  • But the big news of today was a trade: the Rockies traded Jason Jennings and reliever Miguel Asencio to Houston for center fielder Willy Taveras and pitching prospects Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz.
    I remarked before that it's a good thing for the Astros that they didn't give up Hirsh, Buchholz, and Taveras to get a pitcher as average (and expensive) as Jon Garland. And yet they've given up just that to get Jennings, who is much cheaper, but whose track record isn't nearly as strong. In fact, Jennings has every appearance of being a LAIM. And although he made a strong showing in 2006, there was little to be happy about from 2002-2005, even when you take Coors Field into account. Add in the fact that Jennings is a free agent after this season (I'm pretty sure), and the Astros have taken a big hit in their long-term plans for a very questionable return on the short term.
    Is it possible that I'm not giving Jennings enough credit? He did pitch quite well in 2006, posting a 3.78 ERA in a tough run environment, setting a career high in innings pitched and strikeouts (212 and 142, respectively). Is it just Coors Field that makes Jennings look bad? Partly. His career ERA on the road is a respectable 4.37, compared to 5.19 at Coors. He has a higher walk rate on the road, but his strikeout rate is also higher. His road K rate is about 6.16 per 9 innings, which is about average.
    So who is Jason Jennings? He's a 28-year-old with good durability who has an average K rate, an above-average walk rate, and is pretty good at limiting home runs, especially given his environment.
    That's a quality guy to have around. He's probably never going to be an All-Star, but that depends on your point of view. The pre-2006 Jennings looked to be much more of a low-end LAIM. But in 2006, Jennings took a noticeable step forward. Is this a step forward for good, or just a career year? Are his numbers, even his road numbers, better than Coors makes them look? That's a tough question.
    However, the point here isn't to question how good Jason Jennings is, it's to ask whether or not the Astros should have made the trade. So is Jennings (and Asencio, the raw throw-in) worth giving up your two top pitching prospects and your starting center fielder?
    I don't think so. Hirsh was the pride of the Houston system. He's shown good control and poise in the minors, arriving in the majors last year for a 9-start engagement. Hirsh pitched quite well last year in Double-A (2.87 ERA, 165 K, 42 BB and 12 HR in 172.1 IP) and continued that in Triple-A this year. He had trouble in Houston, posting a 6.04 ERA thanks in part to 11 HR allowed in 44.2 IP. This could be a problem for Hirsh; he allowed few homers in the minors, but once in Houston his fly-ball tendencies (32% while an Astro) caught up with him. Unfortunately for Hirsh, he's going to Colorado.
    If the deal were Jennings-for-Hirsh straight up, I could understand the Astros' take. Hirsh struggled in the majors, and while it would be premature to condemn him to a career of ineffectiveness, it is possible that he's not the right fit for Houston. Trading him in for a more proven commodity like Jennings would be understandable, although it would be a big risk to give up on Hirsh so quickly.
    The problem is that the Astros -- a team that really needs pitching depth -- actually sacrificed their pitching depth in this deal. Trading away two starting pitching prospects, both of whom have already reached the majors, for one starting pitcher, is hard to understand -- especially when the pitcher you're getting isn't an All-Star at all.
    The other pitcher in the deal, Taylor Buchholz, isn't nearly as promising as Hirsh. Buchholz hasn't had a quality season since 2003 in Double-A. Since then, his K rate has degenerated to unimpressive levels, and he allows far too many walks and home runs to compensate. Buchholz made 19 starts with Houston last year, posting a 5.89 ERA and showing off all of the marginal peripherlas he'd shown in the minors. At age 25, there's little reason to expect much from Buchholz, especially since he's going to a ballpark that will exacerbate his problems.
    Willy Taveras may be an overrated player, but he's still got his high points. He sports as empty a batting average as you'll find (career 284/329/340 hitter), and also steals bases (68/88 in the majors), but not enough to help much. His biggest strength is defense. Taveras looks like a heck of a center fielder out there, and the numbers back up that claim. Taveras is 33 Fielding Runs Above Average in his two full major league seasons, which is phenomenal. If the Astros weren't already stocked with punchless glove men, Taveras might be worth keeping as a cheap alternative.

    So: is it worth giving up Hirsh, Buchholz, and Taveras to get Jennings?
    I don't think so. I think Jennings is underrated, and should look better in Houston. The problem will be that he's just under the Astros control for a year, and if they do sign a long-term contract, they be well-told to do it later in the season to see how Jennings takes to the Juice Box.
    Hirsh may have his issues as a pitcher (he's also going to be 25), but he's the best the Astros have. He's cheap and is, in my mind, worth the risk. In my mind, you'd have to give up Hirsh for a pitcher who was demonstrably better. And it's hard to make that case for Jennings, especially in the long term.
    Buchholz doesn't have a lot of upside, but even a fifth starter would be valuable to Houston if he could eat up some innings.
    And while Taveras isn't any sort of complete player, it's hard to believe that the Astros will be a better team without him. They don't have any clear-cut successor on hand, unless they're planning on rushing Hunter Pence right into the starting job (which is possible). If they don't go with Pence, then they'll probably have to go with Chris Burke, which leaves the deteriorating Craig Biggio all alone at second base. Again, more evidence that this move isn't going to do Houston any favors in the short term.
    On the other hand, I kind of like this deal for Colorado. Hirsh may not profile like the best fit for Coors Field, but he does have good control, and any sort of pitching prospect is good news for Colorado. My personal opinion is that they should have kept Jennings, but if they were going to trade him, it's nice to get a valuable pitching prospect and a filler-type young starting pitcher and a new center fielder. Taveras should be more helpful to the Rockies than he was to the Astros. The Rockies look, long-term, like a team that should have a well-balanced offensive attack. Unlike the Astros, they can afford to waste a lineup spot on a glove man, especially if he's a fantastic center fielder roaming one of the widest outfields in baseball.
    The final decision on this trade will have to wait until we see how Jennings is outside of the Denver Bizarro World. But right now, it looks like the Astros gave up a little too much to get not enough in return.
  • Several players were not tendered contracts by the deadline, making them free agents. They were mostly marginal players, but some of them were useful guys who could help out a team, such as Aaron Guiel, Victor Zambrano, Brandon Claussen, Chris Reitsma, and Jayson Werth. But only one former All-Star got non-tendered, and it came as a big surprise to me, along with many others.
    The Braves non-tendered Marcus Giles, making him a free agent.
    Giles is far, far more useful than any other player non-tendered. He'll be 29 next year, and is a good-fielding second baseman who hits far above average for the position. Now, it's doubtful that Giles will retain the near-MVP form he showed in 2003 (316/390/526), but there's got to be a market out there for a good-hitting second baseman (career .279 EQA) with a good glove that borders on Gold Glove quality.
    Giles is coming off of a very dismal 2006, where he hit just 262/341/387. Is this perhaps a sign of something worse, and is that why Schuerholz couldn't get a good trade for him? It's possible. Giles' deterioration is partly power-based (he only hit 32 doubles and 11 HR last year), but it was mainly due to a near-30 point drop in his batting average. A his peak, Giles hit over .300, but his average has gone down every year since 2003, and it's possible that this indicates a decrease in bat speed. I watch Braves games more than any team besides the Reds, and while I'm no scout, Giles hasn't seemed as sharp at the plate as he used to. That may just be me rationalizing the stats. But the lack of interest around baseball seems to indicate that there are suspicions surrounding Giles.
    It's really hard to believe that Schuerholz couldn't get something for Giles. He was rumored to be going to San Diego, but that deal never worked out. He may end up there yet. But there are other teams that could use a good second baseman, among them the Mets, Nats (if they can pry away Vidro), Padres, and the Blue Jays, among others.
  • It's being reported that the Rangers have reached a 1-year, $6 million contract with Eric Gagne.
    I have mixed feelings about this contract. It's less money than Gagne was rumored to be offered, so it's a much better deal for someone as high-risk as he is. And it's not a lot of money to pay a closer.
    My problem is that the Rangers don't seem to be focused on spending their money in the right places. They already had a closer, in Akinori Otsuka. Otsuka isn't the most reliable closer in the league, but then it seems to me that the Rangers have more pressing issues than giving themselves redundancy in the bullpen. Their starting outfield was Catalanotto/Wilkerson/Nelson Cruz before they signed Kenny Lofton recently. Even with Lofton, their offense isn't as potent as it would seem, and their starting pitching staff is still unimpressive. Even assuming the best-case scenario for Millwood and Padilla, the Rangers still have three spots in their rotation to fill, preferably with people not named Jon Koronka.
    Step 1 is to Identify the Problem. Buying the Player is Step 5 or 6, and you shouldn't jump that far until you've carefully looked at Step 1.
  • Miguel Batista is reportedly close to signing a free agent deal for 3 years and $24 million (or $27 million, depending upon who you ask). Those numbers look oddly like contracts that were being signed last season, before the big salary inflation. Batista is basically a LAIM at this point in his career, although there are some troubling signs in his performance over the past few years. His walk rates and strikeout rates have gone in the wrong directions since his career year in 2003. Now, Batista has never had good numbers in that regard, so it's not automatically a reason to suspect his performance. But he's turning 35 next February and is coming off a year of a 4.58 ERA and a 84:110 BB:K ratio in 206.1 IP. He's not the kind of pitcher I would want to sign to this kind of contract, but considering the circumstances, it's not the worst deal of the offseason by any means. The most important thing here is that the Mariners limited themselves to just 3 years. 2 years would have been better, but that's probably wishful thinking.
    But the real trouble here isn't the contract, it's the team that signed it. The Mariners really aren't in any position to sign a risky contract. They're a team that needs to build up a strong foundation of some reliable players before they start going out and speculating. The problem is that the Mariners' downside is still last place by a good margin, and the signing of Batista commits a lot of money without significant changing that. The Mariners need more reliable players and safer contracts; they don't need any more Adrian Beltres.
    If the Yankees had signed this contract, I wouldn't be so negative. The Yankees aren't looking for one pitcher to save them, and they're also fiscally capable of absorbing the loss. But the Mariners are neither of these things. Batista doesn't strongly increase their upside, but he does increase the risk of another season of sunk costs and bad contracts.
    A lot of this is probably rooted in the Mariners' desperation. The M's were criticized for not being active at the Winter Meetings. And there's no better setup for a bad contract than when a GM is pressured to do something. GM Bill Bavasi is especially anxious, considered by many to be on the hot seat this year. And with the team struggling despite having made serious commitments to Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, and Jarrod Washburn, Bavasi is about to become the fall guy. And for the most part, that's probably justified.
  • Jeff Bagwell is expected to officially announce his retirement this week. I've always been a fan of Bagwell's and never thought he got enough credit for his hitting, especially his 368/451/750 1994.
    But the whispers are starting, and unfortunately, they're probably justified. Bagwell is one player who -- although there's never been any sort of evidence presented against him -- has been strongly suspected of steroid use. We're put in a very unfortunate position when considering Bagwell and the players of his era. On one hand, it's patently unfair to condemn something for suspicions as groundless as these. On the other hand, it would be irresponsible to be naive about the matter and wait for some "smoking gun" that we'll never find.

I'll be back later with my look ahead at the Angels. Only four teams to go!

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