Thursday, December 07, 2006

News bits

The end of the Winter Meetings has seen a good deal of action, almost entirely on the free agent front. All of the deals that nearly happened (Astros getting Jon Garland, Brewers getting Jon Lieber, etc.) far outnumbered the one trade that took place on the final day of the meetings (the Braves fleece the Mariners). Down to business:

  • Barry Bonds returns to the Giants for a 1 year, $16 million deal. I'm surprised that Bonds got this much, since the Giants were the only team actively bidding for him. A couple of teams had kicked the tires on Bonds (supposedly the Cardinals), but I don't know of any other offers made for him. So the Giants are once again making 2007 do-or-die, pinning their hopes (and a possible $20 million, with incentives) to Mr. Bonds.
    Honestly, though, they didn't have much choice. The Giants backed themselves into this corner a couple years ago, and Bonds was the only option still out there capable of putting big runs up on the board. Not only do the Giants need him, but this will make things a lot more comfortable if/when Bonds passes Hank Aaron's record. San Francisco will be more receptive than any other city by far to the milestone, and Bonds should know that.
    Bottom line, this was a necessary deal for the Giants, and it's a good thing for them that they made it. I'm just surprised it cost them so much.
  • Andy Pettitte will be going back to the Yankees for a 1 year, $16 million. No, I don't think that Andy Pettitte is as valuable as Barry Bonds. But the $16 million was likely a trade-off for keeping the contract to one year. The Yankees, remember haven't spent any money yet this off-season. They've exercised admirable restraint, and so they've got the money to spend on Pettitte. The Yanks need some stability for their starting rotation until prospect Phillip Hughes is ready, and I guess they're ready to pay for it.
    I haven't found out yet who it was that wanted it to be a 1-year deal, the Yanks or Pettitte. Pettitte was supposedly considering retirement this offseason, so he may just want a 1-year commitment. It's also possible that the Yankees don't want to make a long-term commitment to a pitcher who turns 35 next year when they've got the phenom Hughes on the rise.
    It should be noted that Pettitte has a player option for 2008, which is also for $16 million. So if Pettitte wants to play another year, it will be the Yankees on the hook for a rather exorbitant amount.
  • Whither Roger Clemens? That's the subtext of any deal for Pettitte. Reports are that if Clemens does play in 2007, it will most likely be with Pettitte, i.e. with the Yankees. This is good news for New York, who could always use a potential ace in the second half of the season. They can also pay the price.
    I've also heard that if the Red Sox fail to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka (which is starting to look more and more likely), they might aggressively target Clemens. This would not only fill their hole in the starting rotation, but help mollify the angry mobs at Fenway.
  • Whither the Astros? I've heard from several places that Pettitte was willing to take just $14 million to stay in Houston, but that the Astros wouldn't budge from their offer of $12 million.
    The Astros look really bad now, having lost out on a big-time pitcher for $2 million (which you can find in owner Drayton McLane's couch cushions). It's also bad news, because the Astros need starting pitching much more than the Yankees do. The Astros have been contenders on and off for more than ten years now, but their roster of talent is thinning out, which is why they doled out $100 million of desperation money to Carlos Lee. Understandable, but this is also a starting rotation that currently consists of Roy Oswalt and his Merry Men. The Astros only have one established starting pitcher behind Oswalt, and that's a risky old fellow named Woody Williams. They needed Pettitte bad, and now they're going to have to look for help elsewhere.
    The Astros were rumored to be near a deal for White Sox starter Jon Garland involving Willy Taveras and one of their pitching prospects (Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz), but that fell through at the last minute. In my opinion, it's damn lucky for the Astros that it did. Not that Taveras is any big loss, but there's absolutely no reason to trade out a young pitcher with the promise of Hirsh (or even Buchholz) for an overrated, expensive Jon Garland. The Astros would be much better off suffering through Hirsh and Buchholz's growing pains than paying $22 million for 2 years of LAIM.
    But GM Tim Purpura is most likely going to aggressively hunt for veteran starting pitching, now that he's lost Pettitte. This puts the Astros in a bind, since they're already a team on the way down and can't afford to lose any of the few prospects they have.
    Jayson Stark of suggested that the Astros may have felt pressure not to go whole hog on Pettitte after spending so much on Carlos Lee. The MLB is apparently not too thrilled with that contract. Really Mr. Selig, if you're angry about salary inflation, don't get mad at Drayton McLane and Carlos Lee. Talk to the Colletti-Pierre connection.
  • Ted Lilly has signed with the Cubs for 4 years and $40 mil. Lilly is a prime example of salary inflation at work. His contract isn't nearly as bad as that given to Adam Eaton, but while it's not a total loss, it's still a potential blunder. Lilly doesn't have the advantage of being very good (career 4.56 ERA, ERA+ of 99) or very durable (0 seasons of 200 IP; only 3 seasons of more than 130).
    But you could do a lot worse. Lilly will have the advantage of moving from the AL East to the NL Central, which will knock half a run off his ERA at least. He's just going to be 31 next year, so 4 years isn't too dreadful. And he's perfectly capable of giving you above-average work, just not with great staying power. My guess is that while the Cubs may end up regretting the contract, Lilly will probably give them one or two good years. And with a starting rotation pretty bare behind Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs need that.
  • If Ted Lilly's contract is understandable, Gil Meche's contract isn't. It's easily the worst contract given to a pitcher this off-season and even rivals the Double-Uglies of Matthews, Jr. & Pierre.
    The Royals will be paying Meche for $55 million for 5 years. Even in context, this is absurd; Gil Meche isn't nearly as good as Ted Lilly or Jason Schmidt, and yet he's getting a longer commitment for more overall money than either man. Meche is pretty much the AL's answer to Adam Eaton, except getting paid more than twice as much.
    Meche, spending his entire career in a pitcher's park, hasn't had a better-than-average ERA since 2000. He was barely average in 2003 and 2006, and even then he didn't throw 200 innings (he's never topped 186.2). Sandwiched between that were two pretty awful seasons in 2004 and 2005 (5.01 ERA, 5.09 ERA). Meche did set a new career high in strikeouts last year with 156; he also set a career high in walks (84). Three times he's allowed more than 20 HR in a season (he allowed 30 overall in '03), despite never throwing many innings and enjoying the spacious confines of Safeco Field.
    Meche is a pretty bad pitcher with little room to improve. And he's been given a huge contract from perhaps the one team in baseball that can least afford it.
    I've heard two main defenses of the Meche deal. One is that, at age 28, Meche is one of the youngest pitchers on the free agent market. But youth is irrelevant if it doesn't also equal quality. Meche's youth indicates that he won't start deteriorating for a while yet. Which is great, because he doesn't have much room to deteriorate.
    The other defense is that the Royals are trying to spend money to lure free agents to the club. Kansas City isn't a very attractive destination for free agents, and the Royals are trying to solve this problem with money.
    Bad idea.
    A lot of parallels have been drawn with the Tigers, who went out and spent a lot of money after losing 119 games and ended up winning the pennant. Bad comparison. The Tigers overpaid yes -- but they overpaid on good players like Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. If the Royals had overpaid to bring in Jason Schmidt or even Ted Lilly, this would have been more understandable. But there is no realistic way to justify giving a lot of money to a marginal player.
    The next few years will see the Royals trying desperately to justify Meche's deal. Just wait: if Meche gets off to a good start this year, even if only for a month, everyone will say that the deal is turning out well for the Royals. But I'm not a big fan of looking for silver linings where they don't exist. The Royals just spent more than last year's entire payroll ($47.3 million) to get a player that could be replaced by half a dozen Triple-A pitchers. Not only did they get a poor player, they spent more money to get him than other teams spent to get infinitely better pitchers such as Schmidt and even Lilly.
    There is no positive way to spin this deal. That's not to say that Meche won't have a good year or maybe even two -- but the Royals just can't justify committing this much money to such a player. They may think they're seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but that's not a tunnel; it's a hole.
  • The White Sox traded Freddy Garcia the Phillies for Gavin Floyd & Gio Gonzalez. This works out fairly well for both clubs; Garcia was expensive and easily replaceable by Brandon McCarthy. The Phillies need starting pitching desperately (preferably those that can keep the ball on the ground) and are probably getting a bargain in Garcia, who's only under contract for one more year.
    The Phillies didn't have to give up a whole lot for him. That's partially because of the one-year commitment, but also because Garcia is coming off a bad year with some troubling peripherals. But I think that Garcia -- who's been pretty reliable throughout his career in terms of both quality and productivity -- is a good pickup for Philadelphia.
    Gavin Floyd is a top-shelf talent who hasn't yet turned that into major league production. It was starting to look like Floyd was never going to get big league hitters out in Philadelphia. But he's young yet (24 next year) and not a bad guy to take a chance on. Gonzalez is a good pitching prospect that the White Sox actually developed themselves; they sent him to Philadelphia last year in the Aaron Rowand deal, and are now getting him back. The acquisition of two pitching prospects may make someone else expendable, as evidenced by GM Kenny Williams' attempts to trade Jon Garland to Houston.
    My only problem with this deal is that I wonder if the White Sox couldn't have gotten more for Garcia. This deal hurts them in the short run, but not as much as people have said; the difference between Garcia's performance next year and that of Brandon McCarthy isn't likely to be too far apart, and the long-term advantages were worth making the trade. But I wonder if Williams couldn't have gotten more for a legitimate #2 pitcher (or #3, if you're skeptical) in a market like this. But I don't know; maybe this was the best he could get.
  • Luis Gonzalez signed a 1-year deal with the Dodgers for $7 million to take over as their left fielder. Now Gonzalez isn't the player he once was, but he's still pretty productive, as evidenced by his 52 doubles and .352 OBP last year. It's not a lot of money, really. And it would be a great deal for a team that really needed a left fielder.
    But the Dodgers don't need a left fielder. They especially don't need a left fielder with very little defensive value who throws a baseball like it's a shot put. They've already got, in Matt Kemp, a young prospect who looks perfectly capable of ascending to the major leagues -- and for the minimum salary, no less.
    This is another example of GM Ned Colletti's neglect (or ignorance) of his young talent. He's already closed off first base to prospect James Loney by acquiring Nomar Garciaparra; it's debatable whether Garciaparra will hit better than Loney in the short term, without even considering the long term problems of blocking him. He's done the same thing in left field with Gonzalez, although thankfully it's just a 1-year commitment. Still, every step forward looks like Colletti wants to turn this team into the Giants, and that's a very bad thing.
    Luckily, the team shouldn't suffer too much in the short run. Both Nomar and Gonzo are still productive enough, and the sweet Jason Schmidt deal will keep the team contenders. The only real clunker of a contract was the abomination handed out to Juan Pierre. But the long-term implications of Colletti's actions are troubling. Especially when all of the Dodgers' top young talent is rumored to be on the trading block, especially since these free agent deals are rendering them obsolete.
  • The Braves traded Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for reliever Rafael Soriano. It was rumored that the Braves were shopping first baseman Adam LaRoche for relief pitching help, but that didn't pan out. Instead, the Braves were able to trade their injury-plagued, non-strikeout-getting #5 starter for one of the best arms in the AL.
    Wha' happen'?
    I guess John Schuerholz just happened in on Mariners GM Bill Bavasi when he was in a particularly gullible mood. Soriano has had some injury problems of his own, it's true, and missed the last part of 2006 after getting hit in the head by a line drive. But while there are some questions about his future, they're more than outweighed by his high upside. Soriano has an electric arm and has produced great relief work for the M's in recent years. Soriano's career ERA (2.89) is 50% better than the league average, even adjusting for his friendly ballpark. And in 171 career innings, he's struck out 177 batters against just 53 walks and 16 HR.
    If there's anything but a ready-made closer here, I don't see what it is.
    Even considering Soriano's injury problems, Bavasi has to get back something better than Horacio Ramirez. The Mariners need starting pitchers, yes, but they don't need to replace Gil Meche with his younger, National League counterpart who strikes out no one (less than 1 K every 2 innings, which is unacceptable in the big leagues, unless you're a freak like Chien-Ming Wang).
    The Braves were entering the season with nearly-retired 38-year old Bob Wickman as closer. And while Wickman might retain that title for a few months, there's no question who their closer of the future is. The Braves just made their future a good deal brighter and didn't have to give up their first baseman for it. Gnarly.
  • Matt Stairs has reportedly agreed to a 1 year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. I haven't confirmed a dollar amount. Stairs is still a useful hitter, especially as a lefty on a team filled with righties. He's also 39, slower than molasses in January, and a defensive impossibility.
    Did the Jays really need another one of these?
  • The Giants resigned third baseman Pedro Feliz for a 1-year, $5 million deal. Remember when I said how much trouble the Giants were in if Rich Aurilia was their starting third baseman? Feliz is worse. Feliz isn't bad defensively and does have some power (22 HR last year). But he's also got a career OBP of .288 and a BB:K ratio that would do Dave Kingman proud (33:112 last year). He's going to be 32 and isn't really significantly better than Tony Batista.
    I know I've wondered in this space whether the Giants can get any worse. But I'd like to clarify something for GM Brian Sabean:
  • The Padres are hoping that Todd Walker will accept arbitration and fill their hole at second base. Walker's glove isn't made; it's smelted. But he's the best offensive solution to second base on the market, and he's a much better idea than giving any sort of multi-year deal to Ronnie Belliard (as the Padres were rumored to be considering). Rumors had the Padres pursuing Braves 2B Marcus Giles via a trade, which would have been great, but you can't always get what you want. The Padres are also trying to talk David Wells out of retirement. It's better than nothing, I guess, but really, how much does Wells have left?

With the Winter Meetings over, it looks like things will be quiet for a time. We'll soon find out who's accepted arbitration from their teams, and we'll also find out who's getting tendered a contract. There could be some interesting names set free, but probably no one more desirable than Kevin Mench.
I should also mention the Rule 5 draft, which took place at the Winter Meetings. The Rule 5 draft enables a team to draft players not on a major league team's 40-man roster. It's a chance for players lost in the minor leagues to get a chance with a new team. The team gets the player for one year and has to keep him one level above where he was drafted (I believe). At the end of the year, the team can either return the player to the old organization or pay a fee to keep him.
One big change in the new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) extended by one year the number of years a player is exempt from the Rule 5 draft. The draft only includes players with a certain number of years in the minor leagues. It was originally intended not just as a way for teams to look for bargains, but as an avenue for talented players to escape if a team had kept them trapped in the minors (all those Yankee first base prospects from 1925-1938 can identify). Unfortunately, the change in the CBA allows teams to keep players longer, making the Rule 5 draft much less interesting. Most of the players taken were long-shot prospects with only outside chances of contributing.

There's plenty more to come though, as these players are (as of now) still on the market:

Barry Zito, Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Miguel Batista, Trot Nixon, Cliff Floyd, Jeff Suppan, Mark Loretta, Keith Foulke, Kenny Lofton and many, many more.

We can also look forward to the public fireworks as the deadline for signing Daisuke Matsuzaka nears. It may be an ugly way to enjoy oneself, but then I'm not always proud of my glee.


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