With all my work on the Hall of Fame reports, I've neglected the past couple weeks' worth of transactions. And so:
- The biggest news (money-wise) is that the Phillies signed second baseman Chase Utley to a giant contract extension: 7 years/$85 million. That works out to about $12 million AAV (average annual value). Is Chase Utley worth $12 million/year right now? Absolutely. Any second baseman who can hit like Utley (career 290/362/509) is worth that much. Okay. But what about seven years?
I have pretty serious misgivings about giving Utley a seven-year deal. Utley is 29 years old, meaning that the deal will run through his age 35 season. 35 isn't too bad, but it's a lot for someone with Utley's special talents.
Utley is a fine hitter, but I would question whether he can remain a second baseman through age 35. Utley isn't much afield, and while he's not bad, he very well could be in five or six years. This is especially problematic since the contract is heavily backloaded. Utley gets $15 million each of the last 4 years of the deal. Will Utley be worth $15 million three years from now? Five years? I think a lot of it hinges on him staying at second base. If he stays at second base and hits like that, then it's easier to swallow. But if he ends up shifting to the outfield or first base, the value of his offense plummets well below the $15 million threshhold.
I am admittedly a skeptic about any long-term contract, but I think that baseball history encourages such skepticism. Utley does play a key defensive position, making him a better choice for such a contract, but as I said, he's not that great and may move before the contract is up.
Utley's contract will undoubtedly be a bargain in the next three years, when he makes less than he would probably get in arbitration. The contract also solidifies the position for the future and has the ancillary effect of giving the Philly fans something to get excited about. But will the bargain of having Utley in the next three years weigh out against the extremely high risk of paying a player $15 million for four straight years (after they've turned 30)? I don't think so.
I love Chase Utley and think he's a fine player. I think he's got a hell of a career ahead of him, and I think that signing him to a long-term deal was a good move by the Phillies. But I'm not a big fan of the terms at all. If the Phillies hadn't made the deal, they still would have kept Utley for a couple more years and let him go make money with another team after he turns 30. Tough though that would be, it may be preferable to rolling the dice on 2010-2013 with such high figures.
- The Randy Johnson deal has been finalized, with the Yankees getting reliever Luis Vizcaino and three low-level prospects while saving a good chunk of money on Johnson's contract. Granted, they may turn around and throw that money at Roger Clemens (and early indications are that they will make a run at him), but for now at least, they're showing a surprising amount of thrift. The chief complaint about this trade is that the Yankees sent an A-list pitcher to a team with one of the best farm systems in baseball, and didn't even get one notable prospect in return. I personally would rather pick up more money on Johnson's deal and get a Dustin Nippert or such. But we'll see what the Yanks' next move is.
- The Braves traded first baseman Adam LaRoche and a prospect to the Pirates for reliever Mike Gonzalez and shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge.
At first glance, this isn't a very good trade for the Braves. The Braves already have Bob Wickman and Rafael Soriano, and I really don't think that the 7th inning is worth giving up a decent, cheap major league first baseman. LaRoche was about to become more expensive, so I can understand the deal, but it doesn't make the 2007 team any better, especially since there's no one else to play first. The Braves did sign Craig Wilson to a free-agent deal, and he's a good hitter, but not as good as LaRoche. Moving Chipper Jones to first would be a grand idea . . . but then you've got a hole at third base, and you're no better off than you were.
The saving grace of this deal -- the part that may make it a win in the long-term -- is Lillibridge. He's considered to be a strong prospect at short and could do the Braves a lot of good as Edgar Renteria's eventual replacement.
- David Wells is coming back to the Padres. The Pads signed Wells to a one-year deal worth $3 mil., with another $4 million possible in performance bonuses. That's not much money, and it shouldn't hurt the team much unless Wells comes down with another case of gout.
- The Giants signed Russ Ortiz, who first reached stardom with the team in the early 90's. The problem isn't Ortiz's contract, which is for a mere $380,000, but the fact that the Giants are wasting a roster spot on such a hopeless pitcher. But then it is the Giants.
- The Reds traded for Oakland reliever Kirk Saarloss today, in exchange for minor leaguer David Shafer. Both teams will also receive a PTBNL. I know the Reds are desperate for starters and innings, but Saarloos has one of the worst K ratios in all of baseball and is not exactly the missing piece to a great team.
The Reds also signed Mark Bellhorn to a minor league deal, with a invitation to Spring Training. I don't know that Bellhorn will make the team, seeing as there's nowhere for him to play.
- The Blue Jays signed first baseman Lyle Overbay to a 4-year, $24 million contract extension. I'm not a big fan of this deal, even though it is a reasonable price for an above-average hitter. My problem is that Overbay is a first baseman/DH, and the Blue Jays are already flush with that type. As he gets older, he's going to deteriorate and become more limited, taking up roster space with his contract that could be better filled by others.
I guess my problem is that you don't want to give 4 years to someone who's about to become easily replaceable (Overbay turns 30 in January). If you're going to tie someone down and clog up your roster, you'd rather have a good hitter at a key defensive position (Vernon Wells), or at least someone who's a better hitter than Overbay (Troy Glaus). In fact, it wouldn't have been a bad idea to phase out Overbay and eventually give the first base job to Glaus, who's no wizard at third base anyway.
The Blue Jays are tying their hands by committing so much money to so many players and if (when) their plan doesn't work, they're going to be very limited in their options. The Vernon Wells deal is different; I disagree with it, but I understand it in the context of their plan. The Overbay deal I don't get at all. He's a good hitter, but he's not so irreplaceable that you want to give him a 4-year deal, not with Troy Glaus and Adam Lind possibly relocating to first in the future.
Thank God the Jays have the DH.
- The Mariners signed closer J.J. Putz to a 3-year contract extension worth $13.1 million, with a club option for a fourth year at $8.6 million. This really isn't a bad deal at all for a legitimate fireballer coming off a dominant year as closer. Putz's contract is back-loaded, with his salary maxing out at $5 mil. in its third year. That's reasonable for an average major league closer, and Putz has all of the ability to remain dominant. Plus, the relatively short nature of the deal is good; Putz seems young, but will actually be turning 30 in February.
- The Indians signed former Red Sox Trot Nixon to a one-year, $3 million deal. Nixon, a lefty, could form an effective platoon with Casey Blake in right field, unless Blake ends up at first base. If he does, Nixon will likely inherit the full-time right field position. This is a good deal for Cleveland; Nixon may be brittle, but he's still a good hitter, and they may have to replace quality with quantity in the corner outfield spots. Also, if everything goes well and everyone plays well, one of the five outfielders will get traded (most likely Blake).
- The Cardinals re-signed Mark Mulder to a 2-year deal worth $13 million. The deal includes escalators based on games started, as well as an $11 million club option for 2009.
This isn't a bad deal, and the Cardinals are certainly one of the few teams desperate enough to take a flier on such an unpredictable free agent. It should also be said that the Cards have, in Dave Duncan, someone who has a good track record with veteran reclamation projects.
But I don't think Mark Mulder has much left. His deterioration is more than just a one-year blip, it's a steady fall that began nearly three years ago. The Cards aren't on the hook for a lot of money here, and I know they didn't have many other options, but I honestly think Jeff Weaver would have been a better investment.
- The Blue Jays signed a one-year deal with Tomo Ohka, giving them a pretty reliable LAIM to help solidify the back of their rotation. It's a good move for the Jays, who've had a rocky off-season.
- I consider Omar Minaya to be one of the sharper GMs out there. I don't always agree with his moves, but he seems to know what he's doing, and he rarely makes a big mistake. That's why I'm so thoroughly mystified as to why the Mets would sign uninspiring relief pitcher Scott Schoeneweis to a 3-year deal for $10.8 million.
Was there some secret bidding war over Schoeneweis that I missed? Because I can't understand why Omar wants him for three years. He's 33 years old and is coming off a 2006 where he threw 51.2 combined innings between Toronto and Cincinnati with a 24:29 BB:K ratio and a 4.88 ERA. That's the line of a fringe relief pitcher if I ever saw one. Schoeneweis did have a good year with Toronto in 2005, posting a 3.32 ERA in 57 innings, but that's just one of two seasons in his career where his ERA has been above-average (2003 was the other).
Schoeneweis used to be a starter, so that could partly explain this deal. But since 2002, he's been used mostly as a LOOGY. He's been among the league leaders in appearances these past couple years despite pitching a combined 108.2 IP from 2005-6.
Scott Schoeneweis isn't a bad pitcher to have on your team. But he's an awful choice to sign to a 3-year deal at the age of 33.
- The Colorado Rockies ponied up to the Baltimore Orioles and traded for Rodrigo Lopez. They didn't give up much -- two b-level prospects -- and in exchange got somebody who is at least durable. Lopez is a guy who makes his starts and isn't a bad choice as a 5th starter on a team with several young arms. The only trouble may be Lopez's groundball rate (less than 50% most years, not ideal for Coors).
- In a low-level move, the Nationals signed Jerome Williams to a 1-year deal and Brandon Claussen to a minor league contract. The Nationals' pitching staff may suck next year, but at least it will do so cheaply and efficiently (as compared to the Royals, certainly). There's no point in spending a lot of money on free agents when you're not contenders in any sort of reality. I have to admit that I mostly like what Jim Bowden has done this off-season.
- In an odd move, relief pitcher Jeff Nelson signed a minor league contract with the Yankees with an invitation to Spring Training -- and immediately retired. Apparently, Jeff was really keen to end his career as a Yankee. The front office must really like him to indulge him this much.
- Former Reds coach Vern Ruhle passed away after battling cancer for most of 2006. The former big league pitcher was the pitching coach in Cincinnati before being diagnosed and forced to step down. He was 55.
All the pieces are starting to fall into place, as pitchers and catchers are due to report in just a matter of weeks. Hopefully the weather's much nicer in Arizona and Florida than it is along the Ohio River.
RIP Bam Bam