Tagged: Hot Stove

A Smattering of Intelligence–Ibanez, Cameron, Burnett, and The Vets Committee

With the Winter Meetings now behind us, the shaking and moving of baseball’s off season has just begun. The Yankees’ signing of CC Sabathia and the Mets’ acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez have now cleared the way for a flurry of other trades and signings to take place in the next two weeks before the Christmas holiday. One of those moves was finalized Friday morning, when the Phillies signed free agent left fielder Raul Ibanez to replace Pat “The Bat” Burrell. The Phillies’ decision is questionable on a couple of fronts. In signing Ibanez, the world champs have added yet another left-handed bat to a lineup that already tilts heavily from the southpaw side. They’ve also committed three years to a 36-year-old player, and with Ryan Howard already occupying first base, the Phils have nowhere else to put Ibanez if his already horrid defensive play in the outfield becomes any worse. All in all, it’s a high risk move for the Phillies, who might have been better off trying to construct an inexpensive platoon of Greg Dobbs and free agent bargain Juan Rivera…

The Yankees and Brewers remain close to a swap of Melky Cabrera for Mike Cameron, but the two sides are continuing to haggle over the minor league pitcher that New York will throw into the pot. From the Brewers’ perspective, they need that pitcher to be a prospect of some value (and no, not someone like Kei Igawa) because right now Cabrera is a pale imitation of Cameron, who brings an intriguing package of power (25 homers), speed (17 stolen bases), and skilled defense to the table. There are some scouts who believe that Cabrera will never become more than a No. 4 outfielder, which isn’t enough of a return for a quality player and high character guy like Cameron. There’s also been talk that the Yankees might be able to squeeze Bill Hall out of the Brew Crew; he’d be a valuable backup infielder/outfielder and possible platoon partner for Robinson Cano at second base, if Cano continues to disappoint the NY brass…

I have to confess that I can’t fathom why the Yankees and Braves have engaged in a bidding war for free agent A.J. Burnett. They’ve both offered him five-year deals, which is shocking given his frequent injuries and his age (32). And now comes word that Burnett may not want to sign the Braves because he doesn’t want the “burden” of being considered the staff ace. Great, a team is going to pay a guy upward of $80 million, but he doesn’t have the guts to want to take on the role of being the No. 1 guy and leader of the staff. It’s just another reason why I’d stay far, far away from a longterm commitment to Burnett…

Finally, some Hall of Fame officials are privately embarrassed by the Hall of Famers’ fourth consecutive “shutout” on the Veterans Committee ballot. The Hall of Fame thought they had fixed the process by narrowing the number of names on the final ballot to ten, but they didn’t anticipate that some Hall of Famers would become so stingy with their votes, some to the point of submitting blank ballots. (Others have been deceptive in who they’re voting for, claiming that they’ll vote for candidate X, but then failing to check his name on their official ballot.) Now the Hall of Fame is left in a quandary: how to change the process again without resorting to the public embarrassment of actually taking the vote away from the Hall of Famers. One way or another, something will have to change, because continued shutouts by the Hall of Famers are making a mockery of the Veterans Committee’s original intent and purpose.

Winter Meetings–Day Three Wrapup

Hey, who invited Whitey Herzog to the party?

After a slow start, activity has picked up considerably at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. First, there was the news that the Yankees had reached agreement with CC Sabathia on a $160 million contract (an agreement that actually took place in San Francisco) and now we have a three-team, nine-player blockbuster involving the Mariners, Indians, and the Mets. The headliner in the deal, J.J. Putz, will be heading to New York to serve as Francisco’s Rodriguez setup man, completing a whirlwind 48-hour remake of the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen. Here are the final destinations of all the players involved:

*Mets: receive Putz, outfielder Jeremy Reed and reliever Sean Green

*Mariners: receive minor league first baseman Mike Carp, outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, and right-hander Aaron Heilman

*Indians: receive right-hander Joe Smith and minor league second baseman Luis Valbuena

My thoughts on the deal? The Mets gave up a large quantity of players to acquire essentially Putz (since Reed and Green don’t have much value), but didn’t have to part with any of their top-tier prospects, so it’s a good gamble for Omar Minaya. Given Putz’ relative youth and live arm, he is a needed addition for a Mets’ bullpen that struggled as much in the seventh and eighth innings as it did in the ninth. Heilman was never going to succeed in the bullpen because of his desire to start, while Chavez was always going to be relegated to a fourth outfield spot. The hard part for the Mets was giving up Smith, a competent reliever, and Carp, who might have been the heir apparent to Carlos Delgado.

The Mariners, who have holes throughout their roster, may be plugging all of their newcomers into prominent roles immediately. Heilman will move into the rotation, Chavez and Gutierrez could become starting outfielders (or at least platoon partners), and Carp could be the Opening Day first baseman or DH. If Heilman can develop as a starter and Carp becomes a productive platoon player, then this deal could work for Seattle…

Sabathia’s deal with the Yankees is interesting on several fronts. From a monetary standpoint, it’s the richest deal ever given a pitcher. It’s also a classic case of the Yankees bidding against themselves, which is not exactly the textbook way to conduct business. From a baseball standpoint, it gives the Yankees their first legitimate No. 1 starter since Roger Clemens’ peak days in pinstripes. Sabathia also becomes the best left-hander the Yankees have had since the prime of Ron Guidry, which happened only about 25 years ago…

The Yankees have also made offers to both A.J. Burnett (five years) and Derek Lowe (four years and $66 million). If Brian Cashman is lucky, the injury-prone Burnett will turn down the deal and Lowe will accept, giving the Yankees an excellent No. 2 starter for their revamped rotation. If both Burnett and Lowe accept Yankee offers, then Andy Pettitte’s career in pinstripes will likely have come to an end…

One other Yankee rumor. They continue to talk to the Cardinals about Rick Ankiel, who would fill a major hole in center field. St. Louis is said to like Ian Kennedy as part of a package, which could also include Melky Cabrera and perhaps one other player (Chris Britton?)…

Finally, one other minor trade did get done on Wednesday. The Phillies acquired backup catcher Ronny Paulino from the Pirates in exchange for a minor leaguer, fueling speculation that the world champions will send Chris Coste to the Cubs as part of a deal for Mark DeRosa. The Phillies like DeRosa as a temporary fill-in for the injured Chase Utley and a possible fulltime candidate to replace Pat “The Bat” Burrell in left field.

Winter Meetings–Day Two Wrapup

Following and studying the Winter Meetings for the last 20-plus years has taught me a couple of lessons: always be skeptical of rumors involving four-team trades and forget about rumors of big-name free agents signing with bad teams just because they happen to play near their “hometowns.” With those principles in mind, let’s look at Day Two of the meetings:

*The Cubs say that the much-rumored four-way trade involving San Diego’s Jake Peavy is “not close” to being completed. Given today’s complicated contracts, it’s tough enough for teams to make conventional two-way deals. Three and especially four-way trades have become a near impossibility. So don’t hold your breath on the Peavy four-team deal allegedly involving the Phillies and Orioles…

*Reports continue to circulate that the Nationals will make a huge offer to free agent Mark Teixeira in hopes of capitalizing on his hailing from the Beltway region. Why in the world would Tex sign with a lowly team like the Nats, who are still two or three years away from contention, when he can expect similar big money offers from the Angels, Red Sox, and possibly the Yankees? It’s nice for Washington to dream, but this sounds about as realistic as talk of Maury Wills making the Hall of Fame…

*It appears that money does talk after all. Hours after it appeared that CC Sabathia would spurn the Yankees to talk turkey with the San Francisco Giants, the Yankees have reportedly signed the massive left-hander to a seven-year deal worth $160 million. If so, the Yankees actually bid against themselves. Although no other team came close to matching the Yankees’ initial offer of six years and $140 million, the Yankees decided to throw in another season and another $20 million to sweeten the deal. Amazing…

*The Mets aren’t done with the free agent market, even after signing Francisco Rodriguez to a relative bargain contract of three years and $37 million. The Mets are very much interested in Raul Ibanez, so much so that they are prepared to make him a lucrative two-year offer. Ibanez would play left field, with Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy assuming utility roles at the new Citi Field. One note of caution with Ibanez: he is a brutal left fielder, perhaps the worst I’ve seen since the days of Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. At some point, the Mets would be well advised to think about moving Ibanez to first base and trading Carlos Delgado, whose questionable presence in the Mets’ clubhouse has become a cause for concern…

*One trade did take place on Tuesday, with the Orioles sending Ramon Hernandez to the Reds for Ryan Freel and a couple of low-level minor leaguers. Given the state of catching in the major leagues, I like this deal for the Reds. Hernandez, despite some decline in his game, is still a legitimate No. 1 receiver and will benefit from a change of scenery, leaving the sad sack O’s for a Reds team that may be able to contend in the NL Central in 2009…

*Finally, here’s a smattering of rumors from the second day in Las Vegas. The Indians are close to signing Kerry Wood to a two-year deal to be their closer… The A’s appear to be close to signing Jason Giambi to a contract, probably a one-year deal with an option for a second… The Cubs are making a serious run at free agent Milton Bradley, who would become their right fielder and help balance the righty-heavy lineup that Lou Piniella puts out in Chicago… The Astros continue to dangle expensive shortstop Miguel Tejada, with his original team, the A’s, among the other interested parties… And the Cardinals have let it be known that they will consider offers for center fielder Rick Ankiel, who hit 25 home runs last season, but happens to be a Scott Boras client who is only one year removed from free agency.

Will The Hot Stove Heat Up This Week?

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has come to an end and teams will finally have to decide by Monday whether to offer arbitration to their own free agents, we should start to see some activity on the hot stove front by later in the week. Finally. One veteran pitcher who might not be offered arbitration is Andy Pettitte, who made $16 million last year and actually might be in line for an increase despite a poor year in the Bronx. (You have to love arbitration–if you’re the players, that is!) The Yankees would like to bring Pettitte back, but only at a cut from his exorbitant $16 million rate–an understandable desire in my opinion. One would think that Pettitte, who embarrassed himself with his involvement with HGH, would gladly accept a modest paycut after an off year in order to stay with a team he likes, but like so many other Yankees, he seems unwilling to accept any kind of a discount. If that’s truly his attitude, it may be time for the Yankees to say, “Good riddance.”

As free agents try to maximize every last dollar, teams continue to talk trade. One of the more intriguing conversations has involved the Reds and White Sox. In need of both a right fielder and a right-handed power hitter, the Reds would like to add Jermaine Dye. So far, they’ve been willing to offer Homer Bailey and scraps, but that doesn’t appear to be enough from Chicago’s perspective. In some ways, Dye makes sense for the Reds, but he’s also 35 years old and probably not enough of a difference maker for a team trying to make up a 16-game gap in last year’s wild card race. If I were the Reds, I’d be very careful how much I surrender for an aging Dye.

Finally, the Cubs are trying to include the Orioles as the third team as part of their on-again, off-again Jake Peavy discussions with the Padres. The Cubs would be willing to send Felix Pie to Baltimore for Garrett Olson, who would then be re-routed to San Diego. I’m not sure that I completely understand Baltimore’s interest in Pie, who has been a standout minor leaguer but has looked lost at the plate in various major league trials. Pie strikes out too much, doesn’t walk enough, and has shown little big league power. His No. 1 talent, his defensive play in center field, would also be wasted in Baltimore, since the O’s already have Adam Jones pegged to play the position for the next six to ten years. At this point, Pie is clearly a project–and one that might be a better fit for a team more desperately in search of a young center fielder.

 

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Renteria, Groove, and Mickey

In the age of the internet and all-sports radio, we unfortunately have to accept more “false alarms” than ever before. It seems there is always some media outlet “breaking” the story of a trade or a free agent signing, only to have the deal denied by everyone involved, from the anxious agent to the ever cautious general manager. Another example of this apparently happened on Monday afternoon, when WFAN Radio in New York reported that the Giants had signed free agent Edgar Renteria to a two-year contract worth $18 million dollars. Within hours of the report, Renteria’s agent had denied the story, saying that talks between him and the Giants were continuing, but nowhere near the point of fruition.

If we give WFAN the benefit of the doubt on the accuracy of this report, it’s natural to ask the following question: why in the world would the Giants sign Renteria to such a deal? He’s now 33, no longer a plus as a hitter either in terms of power or on-base skills, and has become a below-average defensive shortstop. Among other shortcomings, he can no longer make the throw from deep in the hole, a necessity for most shortstops. Renteria doesn’t figure to make the Giants a contender in 2009; given their many offensive holes, they’re probably one or two seasons away–at the least–from contending with the likes of the Dodgers and the D-Backs in the NL West. Signing Renteria, a player in serious decline, for a rebuilding team makes little to no sense. I don’t get it…

While Renteria’s fate remains unresolved, we can say with far more certainty that Don Baylor, one of my old-time favorite ballplayers, has returned to the coaching sidelines as a hitting instructor. “Groove,” who last coached for the Mariners in 2005, will end his two-year layoff by returning to the Rockies, where he once served as the franchise’s inaugural manager. Baylor received his share of criticism for his managerial work in Colorado and Chicago, but few have doubted the leadership, presence, and general baseball smarts he brings to the coaching community. As just one example of Baylor’s fine work, Groove once served as a batting coach with the Braves, where he was credited with greatly improving Chipper Jones’ performance from the right side of the plate. Now that he’s back in the Rocky Mountains, Baylor will have a chance to work with prodigies like Garrett Atkins, TroyTulowitzki, and Brad Hawpe, and possibly uber-prospect Ian Stewart.

Baylor was one of five new coaches the Rockies added on Monday. The group includes former Brave and Cardinal Brian Jordan, ex-Oriole second baseman Rich Dauer, and former Dodgers and Pirates skipper Jim Tracy, who will act as the bench coach. With Baylor and Tracy now on the staff, the Rockies have two potential successors to Clint Hurdle, should they endure another disappointing summer in 2009…

Speaking of former players, dozens of ex-major leaguers, Negro Leaguers, and lifelong friends attended a special remembrance of the late Mickey Vernon on Saturday at Widener University in the Philadelphia area. For over two hours, those in attendance watched a stream of video clips and live personal accounts of the beloved Vernon, who passed away in the fall after suffering a stroke. The event sounded less like a sad eulogy and more like an uplifting celebration of Vernon, who was considered one of the game’s great gentlemen, a truly affable man whose list of friends vastly outnumbered his 90 years. Although he won’t be around to provide his own humble reaction, Mickey stands perhaps his best chance of election to the Hall of Fame next month. He is one of a handful of pre-World War II players being considered by the Hall’s Veterans Committee on December 8.

We’ll be crossing our fingers for you that day, Mickey.

 

The Free Agent Hot Stove Ain’t Hot Right Now

We’re just about ten days into the free agent season, but very little has been cooking in terms of actual signed contracts. Oh, there have been plenty of trades, including deals involving Matt Holliday, Nick “Son of Steve” Swisher, and Coco Crisp, which have already altered the lineup configurations of several teams. But on the free agent front, only one player of significance has changed teams (the underrated Jeremy Affeldt, who left the Reds for the Land of the Giants) and only one has re-signed with his 2008 club (Ryan Dempster, back to the Cubs).

So what’s the holdup? In one sense, this is nothing new. In the early years of free agents, big name players tended to sign more quickly, often before Thanksgiving and almost always before Christmas. In more recent years, the premier free agents have bided their time, so that they can shop their wares on nationwide tours, lift their egos as they’re being courted, and ratchet up the bidding to a war-like state. And with agents like Scott Boras, who is never in a hurry to get his headline names signed and sealed, the process becomes even more protracted.

Yet, there may be other factors at work this year that could end up bringing the process to a turtle-like halt. With the national economy in a seemingly constant state of peril, few teams (other than the Yankees) want to start throwing out contract offers like frisbees, at the risk of being untimely and insensitive. Then there is the ever-growing presence of Sabermetrically inclined and financially aware general managers, who want to be as cost-efficient as possible in signing new players to lucrative new deals. At one time, baseball’s general manager class was filled with wheeler dealers like Whitey Herzog, Clyde King, Joe McIlvaine, and Syd Thrift, who thought of baseball first–and finances a distant second. (They let their owners worry about that.) Today’s GMs, for better or worse, are more aware of economics, and are more apt to be cautious when it comes to doling out huge offers at the start of the free agent season. Whereas GMs used to prefer moving quickly during the hot stove season, many now prefer to take their time in the hopes (often failed) of bringing the market down to a more restrained level.

Given these realities, the week of Thanksgiving could be another quiet one on the free agent front. The elite free agent in this market, CC “California Coast” Sabathia, seems to be in no rush to sign a contract for 2009 and beyond. (Only in baseball could a guy leave unanswered an offer for six years and $140 million dollars!) As a result, most other free agent starters may wait for him to set the bar. And then there is Mark Teixeira, the elite position player in this year’s crop. Tex says he wants to sign before Christmas, but that’s not a great concession considering that the holiday is still five weeks away.

So, with the give-and-take of free agency in a holding pattern and the big names not feeling pressed for time, don’t be surprised if the current waiting game waits just a little bit longer.    

Fuentes or K-Rod?

So who should the Mets attempt to target first and foremost, Brian Fuentes or Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez? On the surface, the Mets’ dilemma regarding their closer situation seems simple to answer. Rodriguez will be only 27 in 2009, has far more dominant stuff, and is coming off a record-setting season for saves. In contrast, Fuentes is already 33, relies on less impressive finesse and deception, and has never saved more than 31 games in a season.

 

Not so fast. Durability, future success, and contract terms must all be factored into the equation for the Mets. That’s where things become more complicated. K-Rod, though he is still in his twenties and features a crackling overhand slider, brings some concerns with him. He has such an extremely demanding pitching motion–one of the most painful I’ve ever seen, even more so than Kevin Appier’s–that you have to wonder how long his arm can hold up. His velocity already fell from 95 to 91 miles per hour in 2008, a stunning drop for a pitcher just entering into his physical prime. If Rodriguez loses just a bit more off his fastball, hitters may be able to sit on the curve ball, making him more vulnerable in his ninth inning role.

 

In contrast, Fuentes uses a slinging sidearm motion that puts little stress on his arm or body. Generally speaking, sidearmers are among the most durable of relief pitchers, with histories that tend to avoid major surgeries and lengthy stints on the disabled list. Even though he’s well past his 30th birthday, Fuentes has lost little of his natural stuff and movement. With that easy-does-it-delivery, it looks like he could succeed well into his late thirties.

 

Then there is the factor of money and years. Rodriguez, regarded as the elite closer on the market, will command the largest deal, both in terms of money and years. He and his agent have indicated that he wants a five-year deal, with an average salary in the range of $14 or $15 million a year. There is little chance of K-Rod taking anything less than a four- year deal. Given that Billy Wagner suffered a major injury before the fourth year of his contract, and is now useless over the final year of that deal, the Mets have reasons to be concerned.

 

Fuentes does not have the bargaining power of K-Rod. Given his age and lack of dominant year-to-year numbers, he will probably settle for a deal in the three-year range. His average salary, while it figures to be close to K-Rod’s, will probably fall short. The Mets may find those terms more palatable. If they can save a few million on Fuentes’ deal, they may be able to funnel some of that savings toward an upgrade in left field, or a right-handed reliever who can support their lefty-centric pen.

 

Make no mistake about it; this is not an easy call to make. The mainstream media, and perhaps most fans, will push for the more glamorous name of K-Rod in the effort to remedy the Mets’ bullpen malaise. But the best answer may lie in Fuentes, once a full examination of both closers has been completed.