The Winter Meetings
December 7, 2005

The winter meetings have been pretty active this year, with some interesting transactions taking place.  In no particular order, here's what I have so far:

If any team can afford to pay $6 million for a middle reliever it's the Yankees.  And getting an arm as impressive as Farnsworth's is certainly a coup for them.  What I don't get is why Farnsworth would fumble away all his leverage to become a set-up man.  Last year he proved he could close, both in Detroit and Atlanta.  He's not gonna close for the Yanks.  Given what BJ Ryan got from Toronto, he could have held out for a bigger payday.  Ryan only had slightly more closing experience and got nearly $10 million a year.  There was the concern that Farnsworth doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to be a full-time closer, but is being the closer in someplace like Detroit any less stressful than being the set-up guy for a legend who has an eternal get out of jail free card in New York?  Ask Juan Acevedo or Paul Quantrill or Jeff Nelson how forgiving the New York media can be after a blown lead.  If Farnsworth succeeds early, he'll be glad he came to New York because he'll have a good shot to play in the postseason every year.  But if he struggles, he'll soon wish he had signed somewhere, anywhere else.

Let's assume for a second that Hector Carrasco finally figured it out last year.  His arm has always drawn raves; he just could never seem to reign it in.  But supposing that the light went on last year and what we saw - 88 innings of 2.04 ERA, 1.10 WHIP pitching - is the real deal.  Two aspects of his performance that would suggest it might be real are his K/BB ratio, which was the second best of his career, and his G/F ratio which was the lowest of his career.  It could be that his repertoire is better suited to pitching up in the zone, inducing flyballs rather than groundballs.  In a big park with athletic outfielders, that's not a bad way to go, especially if he's not afraid to pitch to contact instead of nibbling.  Make the hitter hit his way on and force him to crush it to get it out.  That's what Carrasco did.  What we don't know is whether a) the lesson was learned too late (he is 36 years old), and/or b) he will continue to have confidence in the gameplan in a park that's slightly more hitter friendly.  It's an interesting gamble on the Angels' part, especially considering that he'll have to be good for two more years.

There has been some mention about the ownership situation in Washington preventing the Nats from going after some of the big name free agent starters, but I don't see it as being a huge impediment this year.  As long as RFK can turn Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco into $5 million starters, the Nats can pretty much go bottom fishing for starters and feel pretty confident that they'll get quality innings.  I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of Jose Lima, Pedro Astacio, Scott Elarton, Jason Johnson, Ramon Ortiz and/or Brett Tomko signed for a couple million a year contracts and be just as serviceable as Loaiza was.  Elarton, Tomko and Lima seem especially well suited due to their flyball tendencies.  This will be the Nationals' advantage over other teams in that they will be able to sign cheap pitchers and RFK will make them look pretty decent.  They still need another stud at the top of the rotation if they hope to make any playoff noise, but really their most urgent need is for an outfield bopper.  Perhaps they could package some of their spare parts (Terrmel Sledge?  Marlon Byrd?  Ryan Church?) for Milton Bradley, who plays pretty good defense and was in the midst of a breakout season when his season ended with injury.  If Frank Robinson can turn Jose Guillen into a model citizen (or at least close to one) surely he can do the same with Bradley. 

There is one transaction the Nationals could make that would improve their offense by at least 25% and wouldn't cost them much more than the major league minimum salary: they should hire a new medical staff.   The team lost more days to the DL than any team in baseball.  No Washington player appeared in more than 150 games and only four appeared in as many as 140.  You can blame Cristian Guzman all you want for the failings of the offense, but when a team has as many guys on the DL for as long as they had them last year, there's simply no way they can compete over a 6-month season.  Here's my question: if there are enough quality doctors in DC to have kept Strom Thurmond alive for 2000 years, why can't they find someone who can keep Nick Johnson in the line-up for 150 games?  I'm pretty sure some of those guys are available.

Not sure why the A's are interested in trading Zito.  Sure he's eligible to make more money after the upcoming season, but he is the only starting pitcher in baseball to make every start since 2001.  That's about as close to Brakeman Jack Taylor as it gets in the 21st century.  Since 2001, he's made 174 starts.  Behind him are Greg Maddux (172), Livan Hernandez (170), Mark Buerhle (169), Tom Glavine (169).  Any of those guys other than Zito win a Cy Young award during that span?  No?  Of the starters who have had at least 150 starts since 2001 (average 30 per season), only Randy Johnson, Tim Hudson and Roger Clemens have posted an ERA lower than Zito's over that span.  So not only is he the most dependable starter in baseball, but he's also been one of the best.  That doesn't sound easily replaceable to me.  This is the kind of pitcher, especially since he'll ne only 28 this year, that you sign to a three- or four-year deal before he becomes a free agent. 

However, the A's did trade for a reasonably good pitcher who has yet to match his minor league numbers, but under the right circumstances could emerge as a nice sleeper.  The Blue Jays became the second organization to give up on Chad Gaudin, following in the Devil Rays footsteps.  That's not exactly a glowing endorsement.  Gaudin features an excellent slider and a decent fastball, but has not yet mastered a change-up that would allow him to see batters two, three and four times per game.  I guess what amazes me about him getting shipped off again is that he's only 23 years old.  Eventually, some team is going to figure out a change-up grip for him and when they do they'll have a nice #3 starter. 

In other Bay area news, the Giants shipped off LaTroy Hawkins to the Orioles in exchange for Steve Kline.  Hawkins bounced back after a slow first half; Kline never really got out of the gate in Baltimore.  More alarming is that Kline failed to get lefties out last year - they hit .317 with 5 homers in just 24 innings.  On the plus side, he was somewhat effective against right-handers so it could have been just a bad run of luck.  His numbers will be helped by the change of ballparks.  As for Hawkins, he'll either set-up Chris Ray or whichever lackluster free-agent closer the Orioles are currently considering until Chris Ray is ready.

The Reds cleared their apparent log-jam by dealing Sean Casey to the Pirates for Dave Williams.  I'm not sure I see what all the hubbub is about with Williams; he hasn't had a strong full-season performance since he was a 21-year old in Single-A.  That was six years ago.  More puzzling is the fact that last year he posted a G/F ratio of 0.90 and has a career rate of 1.05.  Don't the Reds realize that means he's a flyball pitcher and that they just traded their most popular player for a poor man's Eric Milton?  Congrats to Pirates GM Dave Littlefield for adding a potent left-handed bat to a line-up that was overly right-handed.  Casey's numbers last year don't look great, but he's just a year removed from a season in which he hit 70 extra base hits. 

The Cubs have now done their part to help the Marlins cut costs by trading prospects for centerfielder and leadoff man Juan Pierre.  They'll still need to find some help in the outfield unless Corey Patterson has a new outlook on life.  Now that they finally have someone who can lead off, the pressure will be off Patterson to focus on getting on base.  Without that burden, maybe he will finally take to instruction that can help him realize his considerable potential.  Although he's been written off as a non-entity in most media circles, Matt Murton should do fine in left field as long as Dusty Baker doesn't have another terminal bout of veteran-itis.  Pierre's range isn't as good as the general perception.  In fact, only Pierre had a worse range factor than Patterson among major league regular centerfielders last year.  Murton's range also ranks low, so the Cubs will still have some problems running flyballs down.  But adding Pierre was the right choice for bolstering their sagging offense. 

The Mets have again taken advantage of the Marlin's largesse and dealt prospects for catcher Paul LoDuca.  Well, that's how it looks on the surface.  But the reality is that Paul LoDuca, at least from the numbers, doesn't appear to be much of an upgrade over Mike Piazza.  Sure, he hit for a higher average (.283 vs .251) and posted a higher on base (.334 vs .326) , but Piazza's much higher slugging percentage (.452 vs. 380) offsets that completely.  On defense, it also appears to be a wash as LoDuca has nearly the same catcher's ERA as Piazza (3.80 vs 3.89) and neither one is even average at throwing out baserunners (21% vs 11%).  Even then, LoDuca's advantage is offset by Piazza's surehandedness; he committed only 2 errors last year as opposed to LoDuca's 8.  So basically the Mets gave the Marlins prospects for a guy they already had. 

The Padres finally found a taker for Sean Burroughs: the Devil Rays.  In return, the Devil Rays finally found a taker for Dewan Brazelton.  Frankly, I think the Padres are taking the bigger risk here as Brazelton has never been dominant at any level; at least Burroughs showed potential in the minors.  However, neither is likely for immediate stardom.  The change in parks will help Brazelton some, but Tampa wasn't exactly a hitter's paradise.  A bigger factor in his success will be not having to face the DH.  However, that won't matter too much if he keep walking hitters at his current rate.  Burroughs will probably benefit from playing on turf; his line drive swing will turn more of those singles into doubles on the faster surface. 

I was somewhat surprised by the Dodgers' aggressiveness in bringing Rafael Furcal into the fold, especially since Cesar Izturis is a better gloveman at short.  True, they needed someone to play there while he recovers from arm surgery, but signing a guy for three years when you only need him for three months sorta seems like overkill.  The plan is that Jeff Kent will move to first and Izturis will move to second when he's ready to return.  This may indicate a couple of things: 1) they have little or no confidence in either Hee Seop Choi or James Loney to develop at as starting first basemen, and 2) they don't think Izturis is a viable long term regular, probably because of his low on base percentage.  They're probably right in both cases.. 

The Indians signed Paul Byrd for a couple of years, a move predicated on the likely loss of free agent Kevin Millwood.  Byrd should fit well in the Indians' scheme.  Cleveland was one of the toughest parks in the AL for hitters and especially tough on flyballs which plays to Byrd's strengths: his G/F ratio last year was 0.89, still below his career average of 0.93.  The Tribe has an athletic outfield to chase balls down and Byrd's right-handed offspeed repertoire offers a different look from the left-handed power arms of Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia and Jake Westbook's sinkers.  By no means will he replace Millwood, but he should provide enough quality that the difference can be made up by the continuing maturity of Lee and Sabathia.

The biggest coup this week has to be Deivi Cruz and Gary Bennett signing with the Cardinals.  OK, so maybe it was the second biggest.  To be honest, I haven't been impressed with either, even as bench parts.  I watched Cruz up close for a season in Baltimore and for part of a season last year, and Bennett last year in Washington and frankly, I'm not sure they offer much on offense or defense.  I guess we can chalk up these signings to veteran leadership.  Cruz' range at second rates about average and at short a little below average.  His offense would have to rate pretty low although he had some success against lefties in limited exposure.  Coming into last year Bennett had the reputation of being a good defensive catcher but I didn't see it.  His rate of allowing passed balls was one of the highest in baseball and the National's staff wasn't exactly overloaded with guys who have electric stuff.  His percentage of throwing out opposing base stealers was also well below average.  It could be that both of these guys are overflowing with intangibles, but the numbers say they aren't much better than a good number of career minor leaguers.

Of course the biggest deal this week was AJ Burnett signing with the Blue Jays.  Toronto met his demand for 5-years at $55 million, and took the added risk of giving him an out-clause after three years if he didn't like the situation.  There was an interesting graphic on Baseball Tonight about Burnett, comparing his signing to that of Darren Dreifort back in 2000.  Both pitchers were 28 years old, had signed 5-year deals for $55 million and both had come off 12-win seasons.  There were a couple of other similarities as well, but there were also a few significant differences that weren't mentioned.  The most obvious is that Dreifort was already a Dodger; Burnett will not only be changing teams but also leagues which may or may not help him.  Most of the hitters he'll be facing haven't seen him much so they'll have to adjust as much as he will; that could work in his favor.  The AL East has the DH and fewer pitcher friendly ballparks than the NL East so that will probably work against him.  But he's an extreme groundball pitcher (2.42 groundballs for every flyball last year) so that might not be as great a consideration.  Along those same lines, the year before Dreifort signed he had allowed 31 homers, and 20 the season before that.  Burnett allowed just 12 last year and hasn't allowed more than that since 2001.  There's little debate the Jays took a big risk and if Burnett ends up like Dreifort, their dreams of competing against the Red Sox and Yankees are pretty much shot.  They simply don't have the money to swallow a contract like that and find an equally expensive replacement the way the Yankees and Red Sox can and do.  But if he can stay healthy, he might be enough to push the Jays into contention if one of the others slip up.