Christmas Presents
December 25, 2005


Before getting started with the transaction analysis, I mentioned in the last column that I would have an announcement for Christmas, so here it is:  I will be publishing a fantasy baseball book that will be available at the end of February 2006.  It will include roughly 1000 player profiles plus articles on in-season free agent bidding strategy, pitching performance tools and other useful fantasy items.  I'll have more details regarding the release date and the cost as they become available.  I also wanted to let you know that Sam Walker's book, Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, which looks at fantasy baseball through the prism of the 2004 AL Tout Wars season, will be available at Amazon.com and brick and mortar stores everywhere in February as well. 

OK, rather than go chronologically, I'll look team by team at what they've done in the last couple of weeks.

Oakland A's
I believe Billy Beane will regret signing Esteban Loaiza, but trading for Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez should more than make up for it, especially since it only cost him Andre Ethier.  Ethier showed decent power in Double-A last year and looked pretty good in the AFL, but 23-year old prospects should do that.  The fact is he's probably not much more than a fourth outfielder.  To get a talent like Bradley, who before his injuries last year was on his way to a career year with an OPS in excess of .850 plus throw in Antonio Perez, once a top prospect and still a formidable bench player, looks incredibly lopsided.  What made the deal possible was Bradley's well-chronicled temper and struggles to reign in his emotions.  Risky, perhaps, but his fiery demeanor may be just what the A's clubhouse (which has been described as easy-going) needs.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Speaking of the Dodgers, they added some veterans who have a solid history of producing but also carry significant risk.  Kenny Lofton had a terrific year in 2005 in Philadelphia, but that was largely as a platoon player and in a park that's much more friendly to hitters.  Now he'll be asked to play everyday.  Bill Mueller is solid hitter but is a bit of a health risk and his defense has been in steep decline the past few years.  Speaking of health risk, Nomar Garciaparra was brought in to play first base, a position he's never played.  He hasn't played more than 81 games since 2003 and now he'll be learning a new position.  When he's healthy there's no question he can hit, but that first part will be the trick.  The Dodgers also signed Brett Tomko to bolster their rotation.  However he wasn't overly effective in San Francisco last year, a park that is more forgiving that Chavez Ravine so it remains to be seen how much help he'll be.  I don't know that any of these moves will advance the Dodgers out of the middle of the NL West pack.

San Francisco Giants
As for their rivals up the Coast, the Giants dealt third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo to the Angels for Steve Finley.  The trade opens up third base for Pedro Feliz.  Finley still has the legs to play center, but his bat remains a question after a pretty dismal showing last year.  He might not be more than a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement.  From the Angels side, it probably signals they don't have confidence that Dallas McPherson will ever make enough contact to make good use of his power and that uber prospect Brandon Wood isn't quite ready to jump from Double-A to a regular job in the majors.  Chone Figgins is the likely regular in center.  Regardless, neither player in the deal is likely to have much fantasy impact.

San Diego Padres
Speaking of not having much impact, the Padres signed Mark Bellhorn to play second base.  He's more insurance for Josh Barfield than anything but there's a chance he could start.  The advantage he holds over Barfield is that he draws walks and while he's not a good defensive player, Barfield hasn't been exactly golden.  Still only 31, Bellhorn is young enough to have a strong 2006, and he should certainly be motivated after hitting just .216 with 109 strikeouts in fewer than 300 at bats in Boston last year.  Bruce Bochy's record with developing young talent hasn't been overly strong but has had reasonably good success at rehabbing vets.  However, even if it all breaks right for Bellhorn the deep outfield fences at Petco are going to make it very unlikely he'll see the high side of .240 and/or 15 homers.

In addition to adding Bellhorn, the Padres traded Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka to the Rangers for Chris Young, Adrian Gonzales and Terrmel Sledge.  I'm high on Eaton, at Petco or otherwise, so giving him up along with one of the game's best set-up men was a huge deal.  However, Young did a great job in Texas, despite his flyball tendency and could be a great source for strikeouts in NL-only leagues.  Sledge isn't much as a regular but is a perfect fit as a fourth outfielder.  Gonzales could also be a big surprise.  Last year he hit 24 homers in fewer than 500 at bats split between Triple-A and the majors.  True, Petco will dampen those numbers, but he's also just 23 so he's still a long way from reaching his potential.  This deal could look very good for the Padres in two years.  As for the Rangers, a healthy Eaton gives them a potential ace and Otsuka deepens an already talented bullpen with the addition of Braden Looper and the return of Frank Francisco.

Texas Rangers
The Rangers also picked up Vicente Padilla from the Phillies in exchange for Ricardo Rodriguez.  Park factors won't figure to change their performances as both Philly and Texas are home to hitter's parks and both pitchers induce predominantly groundballs.  Both pitchers have had some difficulty living up to expectations: Rodriguez due to injuries, Padilla, due to... well, only Padilla knows.  But a change of scenery could be ust the ticket for both. 

In another intriguing move, the Rangers signed D'Angelo Jimenez to take over second base now that Alfonso Soriano is in DC.  It's interesting because both players were often compared to each other when they were coming up in the Yankees system, with Jimenez as often as Soriano being thought of as the superior player.  Jimenez has since worn out his welcome in the last three clubhouses so it'll be interesting to see how he will fare under Buck Showalter, who's not known as an overly patient manager when it comes to un-team oriented behavior.  Regardless, he'll be lucky to be half as productive - fantasy-wise - as Soriano.  However, in real baseball terms, his on base skills and defense will offset much of Soriano's power and speed so that the drop-off isn't nearly as significant.

Seattle Mariners
Keeping with the AL West, the Mariners added Carl Everett and Matt Lawton to their outfield/DH spot and Jarrod Washburn to their rotation.  The former two aren't terrible signings, but are somewhat puzzling since neither player is demonstrably better than Raul Ibanez, whom they already had.  If these two signings presage a trade where centerfielder Jeremy Reed is dealt, thus moving Ichiro to center, the outfield defense will suffer.  So it's unclear how the Mariners are better for it.  The Washburn signing has been questioned, but perhaps it's not as bad as it looks on the surface.  More of an innings-eater than a staff ace, Washburn's strikeout rate has been in decline the last three years.  However, his groundball rate has been increasing, as has his pitching efficiency, meaning with a solid infield defense he should give the M's 200+ acceptable innings.  Additionally, Safeco plays well for lefty pitchers so he could end up being a very serviceable fantasy option as well. 

Cleveland Indians
Moving to the AL Central, the Indians sought to replace the late inning competence of Bobby Howry with Steve Karsay and Danny Graves.  Both pitchers have something to prove and should be at the top of their game (or what's left of it) but with as many quality arms that the Indians have in the bullpen supporting closer Bob Wickman - David Riske, Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, Arthur Rhodes - it's curious that the Indians felt they needed two veterans.  One, I can understand, but two seems to be throwing money at a problem that doesn't exist.  One possibility is that the Indians are working on shipping one of their relievers as part of a deal to bring back a front line starter. 

Kansas City Royals
And then there are the Royals, who are in a class of their own when it comes to puzzling moves.  They went into the offseason with the intent of spending $22 million to upgrade the team.  As it turns out, they didn't seem to care very much what they got in return just as long as they got the money spent.  And in their particular case, they got very little.  It's as if they are trying to live "Brewster's Millions" in honor of Richard Pryor.  For example, they signed Scott Elarton to a two-year deal to help out in the rotation.  I guess it didn't figure in their thinking that he's one of the most prolific flyball pitchers in the game and unless they're moving the fences back behind the fountain, their ballpark is not a great place for pitchers to give up flyballs.  Just ask Jose Lima.  Or how about signing Mark Grudzialanek to play second despite having a much cheaper and potentially much more productive option in Esteban German already on the squad.  Signing Joe Mays to start probably wasn't such a good idea either.  He hasn't been effective after the third inning of his starts since 2001.  It's not all bad, however.  They did sign Paul Bako, a very capable back-up catcher, and outfielder Reggie Sanders, who unlike their other acquisitions, is actually a better player than anyone they already had at the position.  Signing Doug Mientkiewicz wasn't a bad move either in that it moves Mike Sweeney to DH permanently, improves the infield defense and, if he can stay healthy, is a decent addition to the offense. 

Minnesota Twins
The Twins haven't really done much better.  Needing a DH and a back-up catcher, the Twins opted instead to sign injury-prone Rondell White to DH, and Tony Batista to play third.  This will move Michael Cuddyer into a right field scrum for playing time with Lew Ford and Jason Kubel.  And they still have to find a back-up catcher.  A better fit, albeit likely a more expensive one, would have been Mike Piazza who could have filled both the back-up catcher and DH roles.  I'm not convinced the Batista signing was all that astute either.  True, when he gets to a ball, the batter is basically out because he very rarely makes a bad throw.  But his range is quite poor and hitting home runs is his only offensive tool.  He doesn't make contact and the last time he topped .310 on base was 1999.  That's just not going to help a team that is looking to score more runs. 

Chicago White Sox
The White Sox continue to have a strong offseason, trading away outfield prospect Chris Young plus pitchers El Duque and Luis Vizcaino to the D-backs for Javier Vazquez.  With Beurhle, Garcia, Contreras and now Vazquez, they can toy with the idea of using the over-achieving Jon Garland in trade.  Comiskey (or whatever nom du jour the ballpark there has) won't solve his gopheritis problems but he can still be effective nonetheless.

St. Louis Cardinals
After a slow start, the Cardinals have picked up steam with some strong signings.  Juan Encarnacion is a versatile offensive player, although his on base skills aren't particularly good.  However, he plays solid defense (a hallmark of recent St. Louis teams), has some pop and speed.  Speaking of which, Walt Jocketty also signed Junior Spivey, who has the best range of any Cardinal second baseman since Jose Oquendo.  Ricardo Rincon adds a second lefty to the bullpen, but the signing I like best is bringing in Sidney Ponson.  Dave Duncan was worked wonders with a number of veteran pitchers looking to rebound and the Cardinals defense can only give his pitchers confidence.  If Ponson has matured this offseason, he has the kind of talent to be a solid #2 behind Carpenter. 

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs solved their right field void by signing Jacque Jones for three years.  He wasn't the ideal choice because the team is still sorely lacking in players who get on base, but he has decent power, good speed and terrific defense.  With Jones batting behind Lee and Ramirez the line-up is beginning to take shape as very competitive in the NL Central.

New York Yankees
I suspect you've kinda been wondering where this one was: the Yankees signed Octavio Dotel, Mike Myers and yes, Johnny Damon.  The first two may or may not help their bullpen.  Myers wasn't overly impressive last year and Dotel is coming off Tommy John surgery so he might not be effective until 2007.  The Damon signing has gotten all the press and frankly, I'm sick to death of it.  Correct me if I'm wrong but the Yankees problem last year - a first round playoff exit despite spending nearly 50% more on their payroll than any other team - wasn't scoring runs; their problem was defense and having enough guys on the mound who could get people out.  How exactly does signing Johnny Damon fix that?  All this talk about Damon being such a great lead-off hitter might be a bit misleading as well.  The stat most often cited as proof is all the runs he's scored over the last three years, but would he have scored all those runs had David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek not been hitting behind him?   The fact is Damon benefited plenty from hitting in Fenway in that Boston line-up.  He'll hit in front of a similarly impressive line-up in New York, but the park is a different story.  Damon's OPS ranged between 50 and 90 points better in Fenway (on base was 30 to 50 points better) than on the road the last three years.  So yes, Damon will make the Yankees' offense better, but will it be enough to offset the three-year declines of Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams, Andy Phillips replacing Tino Martinez at first, the aging of Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina and the questionable health of Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano?   And sure, he's an upgrade over Bubba Crosby, but is he worth $13 million more per year on that team?  I just don't see it.  Here's a bit of trivia for you: of the Yankees starting line-up, only Robinson Cano and whoever their DH will be will make less than $11 million per year in 2006.  They will have more money tied up in their eight primary position players (approximately $110 million) than all but two teams (the Red Sox and the Mets) will spend on their entire payroll in 2006.

The one guy the Yanks acquired recently who I do see making a positive impact is Ron Villone.  Hard throwing lefties tend to do well in Yankee Stadium and Villone can both start and relieve.  With as many question marks they have in the starting rotation, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Villone throw 120 innings this year.  That may or may not be a good thing considering he's only had one really good half season since 1998, although it did come in the first half of last year. 

Boston Red Sox
The sports media is slamming the Red Sox for losing Damon, totally ignoring the fact that Boston upgraded their rotation with Josh Beckett and have Curt Schilling returning to health, that they upgraded their second base spot with Mark Loretta and their third base spot with their choice of promoting Kevin Youkilis or newly acquired Andy Marte or Mike Lowell.  If they trade for Jeremy Reed, next year's Red Sox are much better than last year's edition even with Alex Cora at short because their defense will be significantly better.  A Julio Lugo plus Joey Gathright deal makes them even better.  Losing Damon certainly hurt the Red Sox' psyche, but I'm not convinced it's as devastating as it's being made out in the Buster Olney-led media, especially with Loretta on board.  The real problem appears to be Larry L:ucchino, who seems to be responsible for driving both Damon and Theo Epstein out of town with his negotiating tactics.  It's common practice to start with a lowball offer, but once it's rejected it's not overly constructive to try to convince the potential client that it was a fair and reasonable offer when there's a wealth of evidence to the contrary.  Further defending the offer as if it was a federal case is both annoying and insulting, making it even less likely the client will eventually accept what is really a reasonable offer.  So yes, it's possible to kill a deal before it happens with an insulting initial offer and that is what appears to be what Lucchino did in both cases. 

In other Red Sox news, they signed John Flaherty to replace Doug Mirabelli as Varitek's back-up.  Dennis Springer appears to be the only knuckleballer he's ever caught but I'm not sure how much that tells us.  Springer wasn't effective anyway, so an ERA over 5.00 was pretty much par for the course.  They also signed Rudy Seanez  coming off his best year in the majors, setting career highs in innings pitched and strikeouts.  Switching leagues and ballparks will hurt his numbers a little and he's a bit of a health risk, but if Keith Foulke isn't 100% by spring, Seanez could see some closing opportunities. 

Atlanta Braves
Lastly, the Braves traded with the Royals and on the surface it looks like yet another bad deal for the Royals.  Atlanta sent 24-year old single-A pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez to Kansas City for outfielder Matt Diaz.   Rodriguez has had mixed results - good strikeout rate, bad ERA - since converting from an everyday player, but he does have a lively arm.  But when is the last time the Royals developed a pitcher?  Bret Saberhagen?  Kevin Appier?  They already have a couple of outstanding young pitching talents in Zack Greinke and Denny Bautista yet neither has done anything but tease with an occasional good start.  What are the chances the Royals will be able to make something of a guy with less talent?  Zero?  Diaz is at least a very good Triple-A hitter and could be a good platoon partner at first base or outfield: he's torched lefties the last two years when given a chance to play.  Outhitting Ryan Langerhans and/or Kelly Johnson for a regular job is certainly possible.

There are some other deals in the works but I'm hesitant to comment on them because a) they're haven't been officially comsummated and therefore there's still a chance they might not get done, and b) I have some Christmas sugar cookies calling my name so it's time to stop writing, watch the Grinch and A Christmas Story and enjoy the season.  I'll post another update next week before the New Year.  May your holiday be blessed with joy.  Namaste.