Where are they going?

This is one of my favorite times of the year.  The winter leagues are just getting under way and the hot stove is heating up.  It's the time of year when every fan plays GM, spending ridiculous amounts of imaginary cash to make their favorite teams better.  Unfortunately, only the Yankees have that luxury in reality and this year, they are limited by the number of guaranteed contracts they are tied to and the absence of legitimate talent in their farm system to trade.  So this year's hot stove should be one of the more interesting in recent memory because we really don't have any idea where players will end up or how much they will be paid.

I was surprised that the Tigers signed Troy Percival to a two-year contract to be their closer.  I wasn't surprised that they signed a guy to close, even though they have Ugueth Urbina; just surprised that it was Percival they signed because he's pretty much the same closer as Urbina - a guy who was once dominant, but has lost velocity in the last year or two, getting by now on guts and guile.  Even if they trade Urbina, why would a team pay $4 million more per year for the same productivity?  Curious.

I wasn't surprised by Jim Bowden signing Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman for the new Washington team, henceforth to be referred to as the Nationals until they change the name officially.  The Castilla signing tells me that they will likely go with the same stadium configuration they used for the spring exhibition games rather than the original configuration of RFK.  Five times since the Senators left, most recently in 1999, spring training games were played at RFK to see what kind of support a DC team might get.  Because the stadium was used by other franchises - the Redskins originally, then the United - they erected a 24-foot mini-Green Monster in left field so they wouldn't have to move the field level bleacher seats in that part of the stadium.  This wall was only 260' away from home plate, a chip shot for a right-handed pull hitter like Castilla.  The original configuration of RFK was similar to Busch Stadium with deep power alleys and an outfield wall 330' down the line.  So for lefty power hitters, it won't be such a great place to hit.  But for Castilla, it could be just like Coors.

I also understand why Jim Bowden signed Cristian Guzman.  True, he doesn't look like much, but he's only 26 years old and he's better than average on defense.  He was among the league leaders in turning double plays despite playing behind three prolific flyball starting pitchers - Radke, Santana and Lohse.  As for his offense, his age may be the most significant factor to look at.   Twenty shortstops in history had as many extra base hits at age 26 as Guzman.  It's a pretty distinguished list as you might imagine with ARod, Jeter, Garciaparra, Alan Trammell, Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Miguel Tejada and a handful of other Hall of Fame talents.  Only 6 of that list had as many stolen bases as Guzman has.   I'm not saying Guzzy is destined for the Hall, but I will say that at his age he still has potential to become a much better offensive player.  Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera are better all around players, but what are the chances that they would agree to $4 million per year?  Would the moderate increase in offense be worth the additional salary, which if rumors are to be believed might be as much as twice what Guzman signed for?  And would that increase in offense be enough to offset what can now be spent on another starting pitcher or outfielder?   Remember, they still don't have an owner and there's no way to increase the budget further until they do.  It may not look like much, but signing Guzman was probably a smart play. 

The Giants signing Omar Vizquel to a similar deal might not be.  He's 37-years old, a year removed from knee surgery and the Giants gave him a three-year deal.  What are the chances that he will be worth what he's getting paid in a year or two?  Unless he starts drinking from the same fountain that Bonds does, it's unlikely he will get better than he is now and very likely he will get worse, possibly much worse.  Given the park factors, it's possible he could be much worse offensively this year.  Will he worse than Deivi Cruz and Neifi Perez?  Probably not.  But will he be much of an upgrade?  Quite possibly no.  That money might have been more wisely spent for talent in the bullpen. 

The Phillies re-signing Cory Lidle wasn't a bad play.  The price was right - about $3 million per year - and he gets enough groundballs that he can survive the homer horror for pitchers that the Phillies play in.  For the past 4 years he's averaged a little over 195 innings per season so as long as they bring in someone to replace the presumably departing Eric Milton for the front of the rotation, it's a good move.

Speaking of Milton, there probably isn't any team in more desperate need of his services than the Yankees.  They need a lefty flyball pitcher because Yankee Stadium is gold for lefty pitchers and the Yankees infield defense is pretty lame.  Yes, Jeter won the Gold Glove award and yes, it's a travesty.  Miguel Tejada was a much more deserving candidate, but unfortunately he wasn't the beneficiary of so many easy groundballs backing up Jon Lieber and Kevin Brown as Jeter was.  With Jeter, Jason Giambi and Miguel Cairo (who had the second worst zone rating of any regular second baseman in the majors) playing regularly, the Yankee starters need to get as many flyballs as they can, regardless if they get Carlos Beltran or not.  

Conventional wisdom says that Beltran will end up a Yankee.  But the Yankees already have Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton, neither of whom are able to play center field very well anymore.  Jason Giambi will likely get many of the at bats at DH which means that both Williams and Lofton will be sitting quite a bit more than they are accustomed to.  Even with the handsome salaries they make, that won't silence their chirping to get into the line-up.  In addition, Beltran is asking for a 10-year contract.  Will the Yankees be willing to offer him that, given that they gave a similar deal to Giambi when they persuaded him to leave Oakland and now they are stuck paying over $80 million over the next 4 years for a player who may not be major league average at his position?  There are other teams with just as much to gain by signing Beltran, teams with no viable center fielder and not much in the pipeline, and have shown a willingness to spend in the right situation.  Maybe Baltimore steps up and makes a tempting offer.  Four teams in the NL: Chicago, San Diego, Houston and Philadelphia seem capable and willing.  Who knows.  The Yankees should be the obvious favorite because they have the cash to spend, but because their contract situation would become even more unwieldy if they meet his demands, it's not a slam dunk.  My guess is that he ends up playing for the Cubs and they move Patterson to left field.

Magglio Ordonez and Troy Glaus are interesting plays who won't get a contract commensurate with their ability because of their recent injuries, so they could look like huge bargains by this time next year.  Ordonez is playing in the winter leagues and Glaus didn't look bad in September after missing almost half the season.  Both guys could benefit greatly from getting a few ABs as a DH, but I don't believe either is confined to signing in the AL.  The Padres are rumored to be open to trading Sean Burroughs and if they do, could be big players for either Glaus or Adrian Beltre.  The Red Sox are also rumored to be players for Glaus, but with Mueller and Youkilis already at third, I just don't see it.  The White Sox appeared to have lost patience with Joe Crede and are willing to dole out cash but Glaus doesn't do anything to correct a line-up that is perceived to be too right-handed.  Corey Koskie is their guy, I bet.  The most likely destination for Glaus is probably LA if they don't re-sign Beltre.  If they do, my guess is that Glaus winds up in Detroit where they've already shown that they are willing to overpay for players. 

As for Ordonez, I wouldn't be surprised to see Atlanta let all their free agents except Drew go, trade Andruw Jones and then use the money they have left to sign Ordonez.  I don't think that's necessarily a good plan because they would dearly miss Jones' defense and it's still not clear whether Drew can stay healthy consistently even playing center field.  But that seems like something John Schuerholz would do, especially with Capellan and Cruz available for the rotation and John Smoltz making more noises about returning there.  Baltimore is rumored to be the big AL player for his services and the Mets the front-runners in the NL, but if the Mets are able to trade for Sammy Sosa, I doubt they'd pursue Ordonez too.  My guess is that he ends up in Baltimore and the O's trade Jerry Hairston and some combination of  Bigbie, Matos or Gibbons with one of their young arms for a front line starting pitcher. 

Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson are interesting plays.  Both are coming off injuries that left some question about their ability to produce.  Delgado will likely bounce back, Sexson likely won't at least not until 2006.  Shoulder injuries like the one Sexson had can wreak havoc on a power hitter and it may take a while to fully recover.  Ryan Klesko is a good example.  He had similar surgery last year and did not start really driving the ball until September.  I expect him to rebound fully next year for the Padres.  Talk in Baltimore is they'd like to have Sexson which I just don't get.  They need a catcher who can catch, some offense in the outfield and starting pitching.  They also need to stop throwing money away on their bullpen - like $2 million a year for Jason Grimsley - but that's for another day.  Obviously the Diamondbacks would like to have him back, but with Randy Johnson likely on the move and the team unable to overpay for anyone until they get from under all the deferred contracts they gave out to win in 2001, there's no way they'll get him to return.  Most of the teams that could use Sexson can't afford what he'll be asking for, so I expect that Seattle will get him at a home town discount as he's from Portland, Oregon.  As for Delgado, the Marlins make a decent fit, but they haven't shown much willingness to give big contracts.  Anaheim had the worst OPS in the majors from their first basemen last year and Arte Moreno isn't shy about spending money.  If they deal Jose Guillen as expected, they can move Erstad back to center, Anderson back to left and sign Delgado for a year or two at first.  Of course, with Casey Kotchman ready to step in, why would they?  But if they deal for Randy Johnson, Kotchman might be the guy they send to Arizona, in which case they'd need a first baseman.  Since they will likely be without Glaus and Guillen, they may need Delgado's bat to take a lot of the pressure off Guerrero and Anderson.

I expect that the Red Sox will sign Carl Pavano.  That seems to be where he wants to be and they seem very interested.  I also expect they will work something out to keep Varitek in Boston.  I know Varitek (read: Scott Boras) is asking for the moon in his negotiation with the team, but no single player was more responsible for the Red Sox success last year.  That may sound crazy but know this: the wallpaper on the Red Sox team laptops last year was a picture of Varitek getting into his infamous scuffle with ARod.  The pitchers praised him universally and he was one of the more productive offensive players at his position in the league.  None of the available catchers are in his class.  I also don't think a 5-year deal is an extreme risk with him.  He's only played 832 major league games which is only about half as many as Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza and at least one season's worth of games less than Jorge Posada, Javy Lopez, Mike Lieberthal and Jason Kendall.   Of the elite veteran catchers, he's had the least wear and tear and is therefore the most likely to survive a longer contract with his value in tact.  The Red Sox simply have to sign him if they hope to repeat. 

Given their need for quality starting pitching and their depth of bullpen, I'm kind of surprised that the Dodgers aren't going after Pedro.  He appears to be sincere when he says he wants to stay in Boston, but his negotiations with the Yankees tells me that he's slightly more interested in big money and I don't think he's going to get that in Boston.  Which leaves LA or possibly the White Sox as big markets who need starters and can afford a 6-inning starter.  I just can't see him signing in Chicago - I don't know why, but I can't see him wearing black - which leaves LA as the other likely alternative.  OK, that was lame.  But that's all I can come up with right now.  Maybe if Anaheim can't trade for Johnson, they'll give Pedro what he wants. 

Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera are hot commodities.  This is probably the first time in history that the starting shortstops from both participants in the World Series will be gone the following year.  It's certainly the first time there was a question whether or not they'd be back.  Lots of teams need shortstops so I expect that both guys will get what they are asking for.  Anaheim, both Chicago teams, St. Louis, Boston and Texas - assuming they are going to trade Alfonso Soriano and move Mike Young back to second - are in the market and capable of satisfying their demands.  Boston and Texas both have super shortstop prospects that should be ready soon so they might be reluctant to give the years that are being asked.  I think the White Sox will be satisfied with Juan Uribe at short as he showed better range than Valentin last year.  Which leaves Anaheim, the Cubs and St. Louis.  Anaheim could move Eckstein to second while Kennedy recovers from his knee surgery, but what about after that?  Is either guy moveable in trade?  Who knows.  The Angels and Cubs have the most money to spend of the three, but if the Cubs are able to sign Beltran, then the Cardinals will step in: Renteria to the Angels, Cabrera to the Cards. 

And Nomar?  Because of his recent injury history, it's extremely unlikely he'll get more than a one-year deal.  And because so many bridges appeared to be burned in Boston, it's unlikely he'll make it back to Beantown.  Which makes Texas a very interesting match.  I don't know if it will happen, but the possible irony of ARod being first traded to Boston with Nomar getting the boot only to have the deal negated, then ARod getting dealt to New York but being moved from shortstop to accomodate an inferior player, only to have Nomar end up in Texas playing shortstop would be just too perfect. 

When all is said and done, I probably won't get many of these right.  Of course, if the GMs really knew what was best for their team (wink, wink)...  Regardless, I'll continue to play amateur GM over the next couple of days with the remaining big free agents and speculate how teams could improve themselves with the players that are available.