Free Agent Frenzy
December 1, 2005

Before we get started with this week's free agent signings, I'd like to gently remind everyone that the next time baseball's team owners start making noises about how overpaid the players are and grumbling that the game can't continue with these salaries spiraling out of control that no one held a gun to their heads when they were signing middle relievers for $4 to $6 million a year.

OK, enough soapboxing.

The A's signed Esteban Loaiza for three years.  I've learned to give Billy Beane the benefit of the doubt because just about everything he's done the last few years, even when it hasn't made sense, has seemed to work out.  For example, trading for Jay Payton last year when he already had a abundance of right-handed outfielders.  But this one might be a big mis-step.  Loaiza has never been one who could be described as overly motivated, especially when he's not playing for a new contract.  Giving him three years seems like a recipe for 450-500 innings of very mediocre performance.  Another concern here is that Loaiza had a huge road split.  At RFK last year, he had a very studly 2.86 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.  Away from those friendly confines, his ERA was 4.71 and WHIP was 1.52, very similar numbers to what he had posted in the AL the previous year.  If the A's are thinking they can trade Zito and replace him with Loaiza, they are sadly mistaken.  Anything beyond 4th or 5th starter seems overly optimistic.

The Mets finally got their closer when they signed Billy Wagner for more money than I can count.  Some worry about whether Wagner will be intimidated by the big city because of his bucolic background.  In a word, no.  This is a guy who took a liner off the noggin a few years ago and came back two weeks later to close again.  If anything undoes Wagner in New York it would be the nightlife, not the pressure.  Regardless, he's so mentally tough I doubt any external factor will affect his performance.  If you're looking for a closer who is going to put up ridiculously good numbers, Wagner is your guy.  Next year will be the first since 1999 in which he pitched his home games in a pitcher's park.  His numbers that year: 4-1, 39 saves, 1.57 ERA, 0.78 WHIP with 124 Ks in 74.2 innings.  He probably won't be reliving his uber-K days, but it's very likely we'll see the other numbers.

With the loss of Wagner, the Phillies countered by signing Tom Gordon for three years.  In the past I've been a bit of a fan of Pat Gillick, but his moves this winter have me scratching my head.  First he deals Thome for a player he already has (Rowand to "replace" Michaels"), then he signs Abraham Nunez to share third base with David Bell and then he follows that up with signing a 38-year old reliever for three years.  I think Gordon will be a decent option to close this year: he has increasingly become groundball friendly and there isn't anything in last year's numbers to indicate that he's over the hill.  But will that be true when Gordon is 40 yet still has another year on his contract?  Risky.  Signing Nunez to platoon with Bell is puzzling to say the least.  Bell struggled to hit right-handers last year so why did the Phillies sign a guy with a career .646 OPS versus right-handers to get the majority of at bats at a corner (read: power) position?  Even last year, his OPS was better against lefties (.789) and his success against right-handers wasn't that much better (.685) than his career numbers.  Maybe it's the water.

The White Sox retained the services of their first baseman, Paul Konerko.  If Thome is healthy, the Pale Hose will be a better offensive team than they were last year.  He gets on base more than last year's DH Carl Everett and his left-handed power bat makes the line-up a bit more of a match-up problem.  After several years of learning on the job, Kenny Williams seems to be developing into a pretty good GM.

Although the move has been hailed as a smart signing by the Padres, I'm not totally convinced bringing back Brian Giles was the right move.  Ben Johnson needs to be given a chance to play after putting some pretty strong numbers in Triple-A: .312/.394/.558 with 25 homers and 83 RBI in 414 ABs.  More importantly, his BB/K rate improved dramatically from 55/136 in 2004 to 51/88 last year despite advancing a level.  It's true that Giles' road numbers were much better last year (.333/.463/.545) than home (.267/..378/.417) but that doesn't really help the Padres for 81 of their 162 games.  If anything, that makes him more valuable in trade than in play.  The year before he didn't have any significant split so maybe last year's split is a sign of an overall rebound.  But that's a big "if" to pay $30 million for.  And for a 35-year old player whose primary value is his old player skills (drawing walks), there were probably better ways to spend that kind of money.  In the Padres' defense, they need guys like Giles who get on base and only Klesko and Loretta currently fit that bill for them.  Still, they've already made one mistake with Giles (trading Jason Bay and Oliver Perez to get him); I'd hate to think they compounded the mistake with another one. 

Tim Worrell re-upped with the Giants for two years at $4 million apiece.  He showed some cracks in the armor last year, but SBC ballpark should quick-fix those.  And he'll be good closer insurance in case Benitez goes down.  And there's no question the Giants needed more quality depth in their bullpen.  I guess I just balk at giving a set-up man that kind of money, especially with how commonly good one-year relief can be found in the minors or off the scrap heap.  Leo Mazzone has built his reputation almost entirely on his ability to do that and a number of teams have had great success going with the hot hand.  The Padres picked up Scott Linebrink off waivers, the Marlins got Todd Jones for a little over $1 million, the Brewers got Turnbow for major league minimum, both the Cubs and Reds paid $2 million or less for their closers last year... the list goes on.   So a $4 million set-up guy for a team that qualifies for an AARP group discount seems like a misallocation of funds. 

One other signing that got a tiny bit of ink was the Cardinals signing Dennis Tankersley.  Once a very promising starting prospect, Tankersley hasn't showed the maturity necessary to make it in the bigs.  Dave Duncan has done wonders with non-young pitchers who have had a history of underachieving, so maybe he can wake up his new pupil.  But he's going to have to restore Tankersley's confidence in his other pitches because hitters simply lay-off his superb slider and wait for the 2-0 fastball.  If he makes the team out of spring, it means that Duncan is finally getting through.  That could mean nice mid-season sleeper.  Otherwise, don't hold your breath.

The one trade that took place this week could potentially be a blockbuster for both teams. The Twins traded Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler to the Marlins for Luis Castillo.  Castillo not only gives the Twins a capable #2 hitter, but he also gives them excellent defense at second base and a infield ballast for Jason Bartlett at short.  With healthy seasons from Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau, the Twins offense will be scads better than last year's model, plenty enough to close the gap between them and the White Sox. 

From the Marlins point of view they got their next closer.  Bowyer dominated Triple-A, but struggled in the Arizona Fall League.  I saw him a couple times in Arizona and his velocity (94-97 with his fastball) was just fine.  The reason he got hit so hard was due entirely to him tipping his pitches.  When he threw his fastball, his delivery came straight over the top.  When he threw his slider, his arm angle was close to 11 o'clock.  Hitters watched his hand as it passed his head and recognized what was coming; they simply laid off his slider and pounced on the fastball.  A very simple correction to his mechanics will fix that, probably something the Marlins' scouts noted.  He'll likely start as the set-up man, but he should be getting most of their saves by 2007.