Winter Meetings Wrap-up
December 8, 2005

This year's winter meetings have been about as active and exciting as I can remember.  There has been so much activity that I've had to put off my other work in order to keep up.  What's happening now - all this trading - is what everyone expects at the mid-season trading deadline but never happens.  The baseball landscape is literally changing by the minute.  So without further ado, here's what's happened since yesterday:

Atlanta traded their starting catcher, Johnny Estrada, to the Diamondbacks for relievers Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal.  The move opens the door for Brian McCann to start behind the plate, as well as affording Jarrod Saltimacchia, who was impressive in the Arizona Fall League, to start positioning himself for a spot on the roster.  Cormier and Villarreal bolster the Braves weak bullpen.  Estrada gives the Diamondbacks a solid backstop, allowing Chris Snyder another year to develop.  It's somewhat common for players to begin realizing their full offensive potential after 1200-1500 at bats, so combined with moving to a friendlier ballpark and his improving eye at the plate this could be a breakout year in the power department for Estrada.

Speaking of the Braves, they still don't have a closer.  They traded their supposed closer from last year, Danny Kolb, to the Brewers for Wes Obermueller.   I'm still trying to figure out what this means in the Braves' scheme.  Is it a signal that Smoltz will be moved back to closer?  Maybe Jorge Sosa will be given a shot.  I have my doubts they will sign Braden Looper, especially since they've seen him so much.  Maybe Schuerholz is stockpiling arms to make a trade for a potential closer, or maybe he hopes to have found his guy from either Cormier or Villarreal.  What it means for Kolb is that he won't be getting any more chances to close anytime soon. 

Speaking of closers, Bob Wickman re-signed with Cleveland and Trevor Hoffman re-signed with San Diego.  The Wickman signing buys the Indians a year to groom Fernando Cabrera for the job in 2007.  If he shows he's ready sooner, they could deal Wickman at the trade deadline for other help.  Losing Hoffman wouldn't have been the worst thing that could have happened to the Padres, but the signing does make the bullpen stronger and it would have been a shame (from a PR standpoint) for the Padres' most popular pitcher to finish his illustrious career in another uniform.  That said, from a performance standpoint, I'm not convinced Hoffman will be worth a second year.  He was showing some cracks in the armor last year - in April, June and August he posted ERAs over 5.00 and lefties hit nearly .300 against him - so the end is growing near for the potential Hall of Famer.

The Padres also traded Mark Loretta to the Red Sox for catcher Doug Mirabelli.  What is it with Kevin Towers and crappy catchers?  He doled out bloated multi-year contracts to Carlos Hernandez and Wiki Gonzales, once traded real major league players for the likes of Tom Lampkin and actually used Gary Bennett as the team's primary catcher for a full season.  He had a great catcher in Ramon Hernandez, but when it came time to choose between an aging closer and a studly catcher in his peak years, he opted for the old guy.  I guess my question is which is a greater PR hit: letting a team icon go when he's past his prime or tumbling out of contention in the easiest division in baseball?  Anyway, this left him with Miguel Olivo and David Ross as his catchers for 2006.  Olivo has some talent, but still hasn't shown the kind of discipline at the plate to help offensively over the long haul.  So Towers gave up an All-Star second baseman for some other team's back-up catcher.  Except for two years - 2001 and 2004 - Mirabelli has been dreck offensively.  Once again, Towers grossly overpaid for his catching.  On the plus side, at least he didn't deal Adam Eaton (a potential #1A  starter) to Texas for Gerald Laird (another back-up) as rumored.  Josh Barfield is a possibility to replace Loretta, as is Eric Young, Geoff Blum and Bobby Hill.  Of those, only Barfield has the talent to replace Loretta but that may be a bit much to ask of a rookie. 

Speaking of Ramon Hernandez, he signed on with the Orioles.  The Baltimore pitching will improve dramatically next year and not because they now have Leo Mazzone.  It's because Javy Lopez will no longer be behind the plate.  He is one of the most predictable catchers in the game, which isn't a good thing.  He routinely cost his pitchers 10-15 pitchers per outing with poor pitch selection.  That's 10-15 more opportunities for the opposition to get lucky with a bloop or, when his pitcher makes a mistake, a blast.  Hernandez is a very smart catcher who calls a very solid game.  He's also a great fielder.  The starters will be more efficient, keeping them longer in the games, which will also keep the bullpen rested.  On the offensive side, Hernandez should have a big year as he moves to a park that favors right-handed power hitters.

Mark Redman was traded from the Pirates to the Royals for Jonah Bayliss.  Redman will help the Royals in that he will come close to 200 innings, but other than that there is very little here to get excited about from either perspective.  Also rather unexciting is the Royals' signing of Elmer Dessens for two years.  If the season began today the Royals' rotation would be Runelvys Hernandez, Mark Redman, Elmer Dessens, Zack Greinke and Bobby Madritsch (or Denny Bautista).  It's probably just me but that doesn't look like enough to push out of the AL Central cellar.  Granted, it's hard to sign quality free agents when your team stinks because no one wants to join a loser.  But when the team deals away it's best player for crummy prospects, a stinky team is usually the product.  In order for the Royals to break out of their funk, they are going to have to draft, sign and develop good players and then accept the fact that they will have to endure some truly terrible years of letting the kids play in order to get better.  Cheap free agents and quick fix managers aren't going to get the job done.

The Royals did make at least one good move, trading their first round Rule 5 pick, Fabio Castro, for Esteban German, who will take over second base at least until Buddy Bell finds an unproductive veteran to play there.  German has scads of speed and good on base skills, enough that if Bell leaves him alone he can snag 30 bases this year.

For the second year in a row, the Tigers have thrown lots of money for a closer on the decline.  Troy Percival was supposed to hold on to the job through 2006, but he didn't even last the first half of the season before an injury sidelined him.  Signing Todd Jones this winter probably isn't any better, but it will buy some more time (expensively) for the team to figure out if they have a future closer in Franklin German, Fernando Rodney or Craig Dingman.  Again, I'm not sure I get this need for an old guy to be the team closer.  Jones is 37 and had posted ERAs of 4.70, 7.08 and 4.15 before last season.  Now the Tigers are giving him two years and $11 million, despite having two guys - Rodney and Dingman - who did a pretty good job of closing out games down the stretch.  Couldn't that $11 million have been better spent trying to attract a quality starter like Millwood?  Instead, they gave Kenny Rogers $16 million over two years.  That's a lot of money for a 41-year old starter who had an ERA of 4.72 in the second half last year.  Seems to me that it would have been wiser to go hard after the 31-year old guy who led the AL in ERA last year and pay the $11-$12 million a year he wants and take a chance with the inexperienced troika of closer candidates already in the fold than to dole out $13.5 million for two guys who aren't very strong bets to be worth what they're being paid this year, much less a second year. 

Quite possibly the biggest trade this offseason has Alfonso Soriano moving to Washington in exchange for Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga.  This could end up being a great trade for both teams.  On the Nationals side, Soriano's home run production will take a hit from the switch in ballparks so he might not hit 30 homers.  But he still has enough pop that his power will still produce some nice numbers.  This also allows the team to play Ryan Church in center and use Marlon Byrd as their fourth outfielder.  And if Cristian Guzman fails to produce at short again, the Nats can always toy with the idea of moving Soriano back to the position he played in the minors, shortstop. OK, maybe not.  On the Ranger's side, Wilkerson gives them a dependable outfielder at three positions although I don't think the change will suddenly boost his home run total back over 30.  That was probably a one-year deal.  But something in the low- to mid-20s is reasonable.  More importantly, it allows the Rangers to explore trading either Kevin Mench, who has been frequently mentioned in trade rumors, and/or Laynce Nix for pitching.  Terrmel Sledge might even get a chance to prove he's more than a fourth outfielder, although I'm not optimistic he can.  Galarraga has some potential but is at least a couple years away. 

The Cardinals traded disgruntled lefty specialist Ray King to the Rockies for Larry Bigbie and Aaron Miles.  This could be a bit of a coup for the Cardinals if either Bigbie or Miles finally develop into everyday players.   Miles posted some strong seasons in the high minors before moving to Colorado.  Inexplicably, his production fell off in the thin air to the point where he was benched last year.  Bigbie showed some promise in Baltimore in 2003 and 2004, but failed to build on it last year. 

The Brewers traded Lyle Overbay to the Blue Jays for David Bush, Gabe Gross and a prospect.  Maybe I'm crazy, but I just don't see why so many people are so high on Lyle Overbay.  Don't get me wrong, he's a decent offensive player.  But basically he's Mark Grace without the defense and at 29 years old, he's not likely to get any better especially switching leagues.  David Bush should fit in nicely behind Sheets and Capuano.  Gross will start the season as the team's fourth outfielder but will have to learn to hit lefties much better (.091 last year) if he hopes to eventually claim a starting role.  Regardless, giving up a good young #3 starter like Bush and a potential outfield regular like Gross for Overbay just doesn't make sense to me.  It makes me wonder a little about what the Blue Jays are trying to do this year.  While the Ryan and Burnett signings have some upside, they are both rather risky in that neither guy has a track record.  Overbay doesn't add all that much to the team's offense and just cost the team their depth in the rotation.  Burnett has to stay healthy for these moves to work out. 

The Braves traded uber-thirdbase prospect Andy Marte for Edgar Renteria.  This is a bit of a curious move for both parties because the Braves already had Wilson Betimit ready to step in at short, and the Red Sox already had Kevin Youkilis and had just traded for Mike Lowell at third.  Marte has nothing left to prove in the minors so another year in Triple-A would be a waste.  My guess is that Lowell will now be spun to the Twins or Pirates in exchange for a reliever.  But what to do with Youkilis?  First base is a possibility but Boston always seems to find a way to have a preponderance of first basemen.  Another question is what do the Sox now do at short?  With Hanley Ramirez traded away, Alex Cora probably gets the first shot but will he hit enough to keep the job?  Considering Boston was happy with Pokey Reese there in 2004 when  he only hit .221, offense doesn't seem like a high priority.  As long as Cora's glove remains solid, the job will be his unless another deal comes along.  I don't expect Nomar to be re-signed for a bittersweet homecoming.

The White Sox traded Damaso Marte to the Pirates for Rob Mackowiak.  Mackowiak will serve primarily as Crede's insurance policy in case his back problems worsen.  Beyond that, he'll be the team's super utility player.  Moving to the AL should assure that he'll get close to as many at bats as he had last year.  Getting Marte allows the Pirates to give the closer's job to Mike Gonzales without worrying about losing a quality lefty set-up man.  It also allows them to package more of their depth of left-handed pitchers for an upgrade at third base.  No doubt the Red Sox will be in touch. 

The Rockies acquired Yorvit Torrealba for Marcos Carvajal and signed Jose Mesa to close for them.  Torrealba's quality defense immediately makes him the favorite to win the starter's job at catcher, as his bat is an upgrade, however slight, over incumbent Danny Ardoin.  Even though Brian Fuentes had no troubles with closing, it's not uncommon for a team like the Rockies to be reluctant to use a lefty as their closer because left-handers who can get both lefties and righties out are considered rare.  They prefer instead to use a right-hander to close and keep the lefty available for tough left-handers.  Look, I don't make up their rules, I just report them.  If I were the GM or manager I would just use my best reliever whenever the situation called for it and if my best guy was a lefty, then he'd be my closer.  Maybe that's why I'm not a GM or a manager.  Anyway...

While waiting to see if they could get Kevin Millwood, the Mariners re-upped Jamie Moyer for $5.5 million.  I know he's a popular player in Seattle and he had a bit of a rebound year last year, but I'm not optimistic this one will have a happy ending.  Moyer was 10-0  with a 2.95 (1.18 WHIP) ERA last year at Safeco.  Away from Seattle, he was 3-7 with a 6.11 ERA (1.67 WHIP).  Given his 2004 season, the home numbers are the ones that seem fluky and given that he's 42 years old, that money would have probably been better spent on a signing bonus or an extra year for Millwood, Matt Morris or Jeff Weaver.

A couple of bench signings to report - John Mabry signs with the Cubs, and Jose Valentin and Julio Franco signed with the Mets.  Mabry can sub in the corner positions and will provide a little power as a pinch hitter.  Valentin provides infield insurance.  Franco will serve as the team's primary pinch hitter. 

A Bit of Speculation
Several rumors tie Mike Piazza with the Twins.  That's really an ideal fit for both sides.  The Twins would get a power-hitting DH and back-up catcher.  More importantly, Piazza could mentor Joe Mauer on the aspects of his game that he excels at - handling pitchers and hitting.  Piazza would enjoy his first non-pitcher's park of his career.  Given 450-500 at bats as a DH in that park, he could end up with 25 homers easy and begin an Edgar Martinez-type second career in the AL.

Frank Thomas is still on the market and the team that should sign him, or at least the team that would benefit most is the Mariners.  The A's are the team rumored to have the most interest and after not offering arbitration to Erubial Durazo and Scott Hatteberg, they have a spot open.  But the Mariners have a long history with stud right-handed DHs and Frank Thomas fits that bill.  He gets on base, hits home runs and playing on Safeco's grass and in a division without turf should help keep him healthy.  The Mariners are just one solid starter away from having a competitive rotation.  They'll need Piniero to get straightened out and Meche to stay relatively healthy, but with Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation, a solid bullpen headed up by Guardado and the return of Rafael Soriano, a line-up that features Ichiro, Sexson, Thomas, Johjima and Beltre with some pretty good young players in Jeremy Reed and Jose Lopez could make the AL West pretty interesting.  Sure there are still some holes to fill, but that could be a pretty exciting team.  Unfortunately, the M's are rumored to be pursuing Carl Everett as their primary DH.  While he offers some position versatility and is a switch hitter, his record of performance after getting a new contract is not re-assuring.  An incentive laden one-year deal is about the only way to go with him. 

I'm going to be taking a break from writing here for a little while but that doesn't mean I'm not writing.  I hope to have a publication announcement by Christmas, so until then, Happy Holidays.