Ramblin' Men

Continuing with yesterday's column... I thought it was interesting that USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the Giants have the inside track to sign Steve Finley, thereby making them the favorites to win the division… interesting because that signing would give the Giants the oldest starting outfield ever.  Bonds will be 41, Finley will be 40 and Marquis Grissom, who would move to right field, will be 38.  Maybe it will be fresh sea air in San Francisco or something in the players’ diet that will keep them healthy for 140+ games.  Or maybe it's their exercise regimen… who knows?  JT Snow is now 36, Vizquel is 37 and the only regular who'd be under 30 is AJ Pierzinski.  If they sign Finley, the average age of the starting position players will be 35.1.  The “team of old guys” philosophy worked for the Diamondbacks in 2001, but even they weren’t this old.  More often than not, teams like this spend as much time on the DL as they do on the field.  While he was once an elite gloveman, Finley’s range in center is now near the bottom of the league and actually worse than Grissom’s.  And there’s no question that SBC Park is a tougher place to hit for lefties than the BOB.  Frankly, as a Padre fan, I hope Nightengale is right that the Giants do have the inside track to sign Finley.  By signing him, they would not only make their outfield worse defensively and add another injury risk to an already old team, but they would also hamstring the Giants' flexibility to make additional moves.  Hopefully, Padre GM Kevin Towers won’t step in and ruin a great opportunity by outbidding San Francisco.

The rap on Armando Benitez has been that he is a terrific regular season closer, but can't handle the pressure of the postseason.  Even though he was terrific last year in Florida, he could do nothing to dispel that notion because the Marlins failed to make the postseason.  Despite this, his reputation seems to have been rehabilitated in the eyes of many observers.  The rumor is that the Braves are the most interested in his services, which would allow them to move Smoltz back to the rotation.  But is that the right move?  Smoltz was converted to closer not because he was no longer effective as a starter, but because three arm surgeries in five years warranted some sort of move to try to keep him healthy.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if Smoltz returned to starting but got injured again and the Braves streak of making the postseason ended because Benitez blew the save on the final day of the season?  The best fit for Benitez is probably the Cubs who are expected to choke every year, which would lower expectations on Benitez beyond what they would be with someone else.

After Carlos Beltran, Matt Clement might be the most important free agent on the market.  With the exception of run support and thus wins, his numbers were very similar to those of Cy Young winner Roger Clemens last year.  Plus, he’s an extreme groundball pitcher, making him suitable for any park.  The main concern is the muscle stiffness he experienced in his back and neck that sent him to the sideline in September.  A Pennsylvania native, the Phillies would be a great match for him, but he will greatly improve the postseason hopes of any team he signs with.

Since the Yankees have proved they aren’t very interested in good infield defense and that they are willing to spend obscene amounts of money on famous players, they should probably throw a mound of cash Jeff Kent’s way.  He’s below average on defense, but his glove was actually better last year than anyone the Yankees used and he’d be a huge upgrade offensively.  He talked about retiring last year, but perhaps another shot at a ring will be enough incentive for one or two more seasons.  With the Yankees' budget, that shot is an annual birthright.

There are a few pitchers I expect to stay put.  Jaret Wright, for one.  If he has bought into the hype that Leo Mazzone resurrected his career – the turnaround began in San Diego when the bullpen coach Darrell Akerfelds suggested just before he was demoted to AAA Portland that he start throwing his sinker again – then he’ll probably stay loyal to the team that gave him his chance to start again.  Kris Benson will also stay put.  The Mets gave up some decent talent to get him and he showed significant improvement once he left Pittsburgh.  The Padres want to re-sign David Wells and the only way he won’t be back is if the Yankees come calling again.  That may happen, but it’s hard to imagine that the Yanks will want another starter who’s past his prime, especially given their experience last year.  Matt Morris will probably stay in St. Louis because his 2004 season wasn’t impressive enough to elicit better offers from other teams than what he’ll get from the Cards.  Also, I doubt that Roger Clemens will pitch anywhere but Houston next year.  The reason he came out of retirement was to pitch in his hometown with his buddy Andy Pettitte.  With the Astros just missing out on the World Series, he has no incentive to go elsewhere if he chooses to pitch one more year.

Odalis Perez is intriguing because he’s just two years removed from an outstanding season and he’s still only 27.  He probably should go to a team that has a big park because his home and road splits are similar to those of Chan Ho Park before he left the confines of Chavez Ravine.  Florida is a great fit, but I’m not sure they’ll want to spend the money to get him.  Great America Ballpark played big in 2004 and the Reds could certainly use a quality starter, but they might be as reluctant to spend money as the Marlins.  One team that could use a good starter and rumored to be opening its checkbook is the Mariners.  Joel Piniero will probably be on the shelf for the first half of 2005 and Bobby Madritsch is still an unknown quantity, although I like his chances.  Jamie Moyer pitched like a guy who should be thinking about becoming a pitching coach this spring, which leaves Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche as the only “reliables” the M’s have in the rotation.  Perez has fared well in his brief interleague exposure, posting an ERA of 3.56 and Safeco is even more pitcher-friendly than Dodger Stadium. 

Other starting pitchers who could have a significant impact are Jon Lieber, Derek Lowe, Brad Radke and Kevin Millwood.  The Twins are actively seeking to retain Radke, which comes as somewhat of a surprise since they are loathe to spend money and they have several excellent candidates to fill Radke's spot with Grant Balfour, JD Durbin and the return of Joe Mays.  Scott Baker had a nice year advancing three levels, then continued to pitch well in the AFL.  The prize of the lot may end up being Jon Lieber, especially if he finds a team with an infield that can get to the ball.  His numbers this year were almost back to his 2001 levels when he won 20 games for the Cubs.  He becomes a big time sleeper if he signs on with the Marlins, Cardinals or Dodgers.  Even though Lowe was dominant against the Cardinals, his numbers in interleague play haven't been that good: 7-7 with a 4.38 ERA career.  His best success has come in Comerica Park where he has a career 2.12 ERA, but that may be as much to do with the team he's faced as the park.   However, he's also had good success against Cleveland (2.45 ERA) and the White Sox (3.45), so pitching for the Tigers might be a good fit for him.  As for Millwood, he needs to find a comfy pitcher's park where his flyball tendency doesn't cost him big innings.  Of the teams that are capable of forking over the money he'll be asking for, the Cardinals might be the best fit, especially if they let Woody Williams (who's now 38 years old) walk.

There are some outfielders who will have impacts as well.  I expect that Atlanta will do everything in their power to re-sign JD Drew.  It's still not clear whether he was just the victim of bad luck with all his injuries his first few years, or whether it was Tony LaRussa's notably erratic usage or whether he is simply injury prone.  He could be one of those players who just plays hard in contract years.  Who knows?  It will take another year to know one way or the other, but he's certainly a talent worth risking $8-12 million a year on to find out.  Moises Alou picked a good year to have a career season, especially with the market as robust as it appears early on.  He's almost 40 so whatever contract he ends up with will likely be two years or less.  From 2000-2002 he averaged only 131 games played and his defense has deteriorated to the point where he needs to consider DHing part-time.  But if his salary demands are reasonable, he could be an attractive pick-up for the Blue Jays, who can afford his defense with Rios and Wells covering most of the outfield.  They need a potent bat to replace the expected departure of Carlos Delgado.  Baltimore, if they lose out on Ordonez and Beltran, could also be a decent fit, as could Texas.  However, I don't imagine he feels ready to become a DH and he seems like a decent fit for the Dodgers.  Jermaine Dye hasn't posted big numbers since 2001 and has had a devil of a time staying healthy.  The talent is still there for a big season and unlike Juan Gonzales, he has the drive to play even when he's hurting.  It's hard to imagine some team upping his salary from last year of $11 million given his recent health, but he could be a nice bargain for a team like the White Sox who now have a gaping hole in right field.