Hey Big Spenders
March 4, 2007

The spring training games have begun and most roto-drafts are but a few weeks away.   Fans and fantasy owners alike are looking at the moves the teams made and are wondering where the sleeper players are going to come from.  A perceived weak field of free agents didn't stop several teams from opening up the checkbooks to give a few players some pretty hefty pay raises.  So here is one man's opinion of how well these teams spent their fan's money.

Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays signed Frank Thomas to boost their offense but the time to get on the Big Hurt's bandwagon has passed.  Last year he was motivated to prove the White Sox wrong for dumping him and had the benefit of playing on grass for most of the season.  This year, Toronto gave him two wheelbarrows full of money, the White Sox are in his rear view after missing the playoffs and he'll be playing on turf for close to 100 games as opposed to last year's sum of less than 10.  The kind of foot, ankle and leg injuries that Thomas has suffered from the last three years won't improve by playing on turf.  In fact, Thomas came away gimpy from the 3-game series in Toronto and ended up missing a week.  

But with every cloud there is a silver lining and I'm guessing the shiny in this is that Adam Lind will get pretty regular at bats.  For a team in desperate need of left-handed power (another reason the Thomas signing was puzzling) the presence of Lind, who smacked 26 homers between three levels last year, is a welcome addition.   There probably will be some affection thrown Matt Stairs' way as Thomas insurance, but he's 38 years old and showed considerable signs of skill erosion last year.  His .771 OPS mark against right-handers marked the first time he had ever been under .820.  Likewise, last year was the first time in his major league career he struck out more than twice as often as he walked.  Stairs will be a nice pinch-hitter, but the horse you want to hitch your wagon to is Lind.

The Jays are somewhat of a chic dark-horse pick to win the AL East, but their biggest issues were infield defense and depth in the rotation and I don't know that they solved either of them with their offseason acquisitions.  Royce Clayton was signed to help with the glove at shortstop, but his range has been in decline for several years and is not a significant upgrade over Russ Adams, if any.  

A healthy AJ Burnett will go a long way toward improving their rotation.  He was one of the best starters in all of baseball once he got his groove in September.  And getting a healthy Gustavo Chacin will help consume innings.  But unless Francisco Rosario, Dustin McGowan or Matt Roney settle in as reliable starters, the Jays are going to have some trouble keeping their bullpen fresh because Tomo Ohka and John Thomson are not very good answers.  

In short, it looks more like the Jays just felt a need to spend money this offseason.  But unlike last year they didn't seem to have a plan to spend it wisely.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs were another team that was quite active this offseason, acquiring Alfonso Soriano, Cliff Floyd, Mark DeRosa, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.  I understand the need to add some offense, so the Soriano and Floyd contracts make sense to me.  I don't understand signing Mark DeRosa to play second base.  DeRosa's strength is his versatility.  His defense is not what I would call that of an everyday player at any position, so to plunk him at second seems like not only a waste of his ability but also exposes his weaknesses unnecessarily.  plus the Cubs have Ryan Theriot and Eric Patterson.  Patterson is the long term answer as he has as much talent as his older brother Corey.  But he doesn't quite look ready to handle major league pitching.  Theriot, on the other hand, looks like a perfect short-term solution.  He plays good defense, hit .338 last year with an OPS over .900 when the Cubs gave him some playing time and stole 27 bases split between AAA and the majors.  Many will look at his minor league stats and think "fluke" but ever since he put the kibosh on the Cubs' experiment to become a switch-hitter, he has been a .300 hitter.  The guy can play and he knows how to win.  Hopefully, even the Cubs will be able to see that.
Floyd isn't really any worse a fielder than Matt Murton, but now the Cubs had a sub-par fielder in left and a guy learning to play center field in Soriano.  The transition to left field went pretty quickly and smoothly in RFK last year for Soriano but there will still be a learning curve.  That won't be so bad for Jason Marquis, although having DeRosa fielding grounders will not be a good combination, but for flyball pitchers like Ted Lilly, Mark Prior and Rich Hill (and increasingly Carlos Zambrano and Wade Miller) having two question marks chasing down flies is not a good thing.  Complicating matters is that Wrigley has been one of the best park in the majors for allowing homers: it's been in the top in four of the last six years and top five in three of those.  On the plus side, in the years it wasn't in the top ten it wasn't even in the top half, actually depressing home runs.  Maybe no park in baseball is as much affected by the weather (both the temperature and the wind) as Wrigley.  So if the season starts out cool or intemperate, it might present a good buying opportunity for Cubs starters.  If it's warm, however, sell, sell, sell.

San Francisco Giants
The Giants won the Barry Zito sweepstakes after failing to retain Jason Schmidt.  If there is any free agent pitcher to throw big bucks at for a long term contract, it's Barry Zito.  No starter has been more durable, and very few have been more effective over the last five or six years.  While he has not had another dominating season like he did when he won his Cy Young award, he's been consistently good.  So spending money on him made sense.  What didn't make sense is not doing anything to make the Giants' outfield more athletic.  The A's backed him up with very good outfielders - Mark Kotsay might be the most under-rated center fielder in baseball and Milton Bradley is very good when he's healthy.  The Giants, however, will be fielding Randy Winn (who is average at best), Ryan Klesko (who has always been an adventure) and Barry Bonds (who was once one of the best outfielders but for the past few years has been one of the worst).  Dave Roberts was also brought in and he will help in center, but he has never topped 130 games played in a season and only twice in his eight-year career has he topped 115 games.  That could force the Giants to rely on some fairly young inexperienced players, who might not have the talent to play everyday like Jason Ellison, Todd Linden and Fred Lewis.  So while Zito's strikeout rate will certainly go up facing pitchers each game, his other numbers might not show any improvement.

Houston Astros
The Astros also spent a ton of money to stay competitive despite the impending retirement of Roger Clemens.  They also lost out on keeping Andy Pettitte.  Trading for Jason Jennings will help offset some of the innings lost, but giving 40-year old Woody Williams a two-year deal worth $12 million looks like money down the drain.  Williams is a flyball pitcher coming from an extreme pitchers park to one of the better home run parks.  More problematic, the Astros traded the one good outfielder they had (Wily Tavares) in the Jennings deal, so the odds weigh heavily against Williams making a positive impact on the mound.  

It will help that Houston inked Carlos Lee.  The Juice Box is a great park for right-handed pull hitters like Lee.  In fact, this might be the year he tops 40 homers.  Combined with Lance Berkman and a healthy Morgan Ensberg, the Astros should field a pretty decent offense.  The addition of Mark Loretta to get on base ahead of the boppers will assure that Houston will improve on their 25th ranked showing last year in the run scoring department.  A rebound from Jason Lane or Luke Scott continuing with his remarkable production from last year should move them into the top half. And if Chris Burke can handle the center and figure out what went wrong at the plate in the second half last year, this could be one of the top three offenses in the NL.  That might not be enough to win the division, though, because unlike the last three years with Clemens and Pettitte in the fold, after Oswalt and Jennings in the rotation they have nothing but question marks.

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