Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hot Stove Kiss

The Rangers quietly filled their gaping hole at first base last week by acquiring left-handed slugger, Ben Broussard, from the Mariners for a minor-league infielder and right-handed castaway, Chris Shelton, from the Tigers for a minor-league outfielder. This is the makings of a pretty potent platoon. The Rangers pick up two former top prospects, both of whom have fallen from favor. Broussard came up in the Cleveland organization and was once considered by many to be the left-handed equivalent of Travis Hafner. Hafner clearly got the better of that comparison and the presence of Ryan Garko and Victor Martinez made Broussard expendable. The Indians traded him to the Mariners for another former hot prospect, Shin-Soo Choo, in the middle of 2006, at the time Broussard was hitting .321 with an 880 OPS. Broussard disappointed the Mariners, struggling in the second-half of '06, then hitting only seven dingers in 240 AB in '07. Still, Broussard has shown promise when given regular playing time, including an 806 career OPS against right-handed pitching. In Texas' ballpark, he could be this year's Carlos Pena. Chris Shelton, similarly, started like gangbusters in 2006. He had ten homers by the end of April and an 856 OPS at the All-Star break, but the league caught up to him, his OPS dropped to 596 in the second half, and the Tigers replaced him with Sean Casey. The 27-year-old Shelton spent all of 2007 at AAA. While he is unlikely to display enormous power, he has consistently improved his pitch selection, resulting in a .380 OBP in the minors last season. Shelton is also an excellent defender, whereas Broussard is quite mediocre, perhaps even better suited for DH. Giving up next to nothing, the Rangers have acquired two players who may be primed for breakout campaigns in '08. The franchise admitted to itself that no amount of free agent spending was going to assure their competitiveness for next year, so they found reasonably-priced alternatives (including the one-year deal for Milton Bradley) who could become cornerstones for the next several seasons.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Redemption Songs?

No matter how many times George Mitchell pleads that it should be otherwise, his report will be considered the critical document of the steroid era. It will be a key reference for any baseball historian trying to make sense of the drama, on and off the field, of the game's millennial years. Even as he was saying it, you knew as he knew, there was no way the media was going to treat Mitchell's report as merely a synecdochical glimpse into the breadth of abuse by players, and irresponsible oversight by coaches, management, and baseball officials, during the nineties and early aughts. They were going to treat it as the Word, passed down from on high, as to who was juicing and who wasn't. Every major media outlet has reduced the 409-page document to a list of players mentioned within, many utterly without regard for the context in which the players name is being brought up.

When you actually read the document you realize that the quality of evidence varies enormously between players like Larry Bigbie and David Segui, both of whom admit using steroids, and players like Brian Roberts and Jack Cust, both of whom are implicated only by off-hand conversations they had with Bigbie. Most of the named players, including almost all of the big names (Clemens, Pettitte, Tejada, Gagne, Lo Duca, Brown, etc.) are faced with evidence that falls somewhere between these two extremes, often including testimony by Kurt Radomski and Brian McNamee, former dealers, corroborated by some form of paper trail or corresponding testimony. By strange coincidence, it seems that Mitchell's most thorough, detailed accounts are reserved for higher profile players, especially Clemens, whose abuse is outlined for nearly ten pages, about seven more than any other player.

There are many interesting storylines to follow in the wake of the Mitchell Report, probably none more sweet than the public "indictments" of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, long-characterized as golden-boys of the Caucasian work ethic. However, one story likely to be overlooked during the immediate fallout by media frantically concerned with the names in the report, is the story of the names that are conspicuously absent, including Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Gonzalez, and Brady Anderson (all of whom have been the victims of steroid speculation in the past). And some names which are present, like Bonds and McGwire, gain at least a partial redemption because no substantial new evidence is brought against them (some of the current evidence may even be called into question).

Undoubtedly, many reputations may be saved, at least in part, by the coincidence that the feds only managed to discover and utilize three major sources: BALCO, Radomski, and Signature Pharmacy (source for the Florida rejuvenation centers). Although Mitchell didn't highlight this striking inadequacy, it seems safe to say that he suggests at several places in the report and in his comments during yesterday's press conference that these three sources represent only a fraction of the supply lines available to major league players during the height of the steroid craze preceding the introduction of testing in 2002. It is this shortfall which has prompted baseball writers like Buster Olney and Drew Sharp, both Hall of Fame voters, to argue that no player from this era is free of suspicion, you have to be willing to enshrine all of them (including Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, etc.) or none of them (including Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Jeter, Biggio, etc.).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hot Stove Kisses & Curses

It has been, as predicted, a very exciting offseason. Besides a few mega-signings (A-Rod first and foremost), there has been a plethora of blockbuster trades, deals involving heaping handfuls of talent and certifiable superstars. It may not be over yet, with the Twins still shopping Johan Santana and several players fates - Joe Nathan, Joe Blanton, A. J. Burnett, and Erik Bedard, to name a few - possibly intertwined with that of the two-time Cy Young winner. Not to mention, of course, that by April guys like Mike Cameron, Carlos Silva, Livan Hernandez, Kyle Lohse, and Corey Patterson will definitely have found their way onto somebody's roster. The White Sox will have to decide what to do with Joe Crede. The Red Sox will have to decide what to do with Coco Crisp. The Cardinals will have to decide what to do with Scott Rolen. And, the Padres will need to put somebody in left, the Phillies will need to put somebody in center, the Rockies will need to play somebody at second, and the Astros and Mariners will have to have a couple somebodies (a.k.a. warm bodies) to trot out to the mound at the end of the week. Much could happen between now and then, however, we can assume that the majority of deals have been done and we know that the majority of impact free agents have been signed, so, as of yet, of the active franchises, here are the biggest winners and losers, in my opinion, and, perhaps most interesting, those teams for whom it will take at least a season to decide.


Chicago Cubs - prospects for Jacque Jones, Craig Monroe, Will Ohman, and Omar Infante; free agents Kosuke Fukudome and Kerry Wood

Chicago White Sox - Orlando Cabrera and Carlos Quentin for Jon Garland and prospect; free agents Scott Linebrink and Juan Uribe

Milwaukee Brewers - Guillermo Mota for Johnny Estrada; free agents Eric Gagne, David Riske, and Jason Kendall

Washington Nationals - Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes for Ryan Church, Brian Schneider, and prospect; free agent Paul Lo Duca

Minnesota Twins - Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Craig Monroe, and Jason Pridie for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and prospects; free agent Adam Everett

Boston Red Sox - free agents Mike Lowell and Mike Timlin

Detroit Tigers - Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis, and Jacque Jones for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Jair Jurrjens, Omar Infante, and five prospects; free agent Kenny Rogers


San Francisco Giants - free agent Aaron Rowand

Colorado Rockies - free agent Luis Vizcaino and Yorbit Torrealba

Atlanta Braves - Jair Jurrjens, Josh Anderson, and prospects for Edgar Renteria and prospects; free agent Tom Glavine

Houston Astros - Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde for Luke Scott, Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and five prospects; free agent Kaz Matsui


Arizona Diamondbacks - Dan Haren, Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and prospects for Jose Valverde, Carlos Gonzalez, and prospects

Monday, December 10, 2007

The New Moneyball Icon (Part 2): The Case for K-Lo

One of Billy Beane's significant contributions, elaborated in Moneyball, to the current baseball climate was his high estimation for the value of youth or, perhaps more accurately, his low estimation for the value of experience. Beane, and many a GM in his stead, contends that league-average (or worse) players are nearly always readily available at the minor-league level (assuming you know how to draft and evaluate). These players come cheaply, therefore there is never any reason to sign a mediocre veteran who cost five or six times as much for similar production. While a manager like Dusty Baker, who believes strongly in the value of experience, filled his bench in 2002 with players like Shawon Dunston, Tom Goodwin, Ramon Martinez, and Marvin Bernard, costing the Giants upwards of $7 Million, Beane's Athletics utilized guys like Jeremy Giambi, Olmedo Saenz, Adam Piatt, and Frank Menechino, all from within their own organization, for less than half the price.

The unfortunate result of Beane's realization is that now teams are often overprotective of even their second-tier prospects and wary of any player over the age of 35, even the supremely talented. In 2006, Beane's signing of Frank Thomas signaled his observation of this backlash and resulted in the A's getting an MVP-caliber season and a playoff berth on the back of a player making very near the league-minimum. While Thomas is the hyperbolic extreme of the new Moneyball icon, there are other players who have been consistently overlooked for the same reasons that Thomas was overlooked in 2006.

There is a glut of centerfielders on the market this offseason, as I've discussed previously. Already we have seen somewhat outlandish deals for Torii Hunter (5 yrs./$90 Mil.) and Milton Bradley (1 yr./$10 Mil.), and a quasi-reasonable deal for Andruw Jones (2 yrs./$36 Mil.). Expect to see more craziness when somebody gets around to signing Aaron Rowand. Even as the bigger names have gotten signed, their are still many alternatives available, as one would presume that guys like Juan Pierre and Gary Matthews Jr. may be looking to relocate after being replaced, and second-tier free agents like Corey Patterson haven't even made it onto the rumor mill yet. One of those second-tier guys is Kenny Lofton.

Lofton's recent career reads like an absurd satire. After completing a four-year contract with the Indians (the team with which he will always be associated) in 2001, Lofton was presumed to be at the tail-end of his career. He had posted declining numbers in AVG, OBP, SLG, Runs, and Stolen Bases in each of the last three seasons with Cleveland. He was a 34-year-old ex-speedster who had spent significant time on the DL and no longer played the kind of defense that had netted him four straight Gold Gloves from '93-'96. In 2002, the Indians parted way with Lofton to make room for Milton Bradley, a promising prospect they had acquired from Montreal the year before. Lofton signed with divisional rival, the Chicago White Sox, for $1,025,000, approximated 1/8th of what Cleveland had paid him in '01. While Bradley hit .249 and spent half the season on the disabled list, Lofton had his healthiest season in years, scored 98 runs, mustered a 764 OPS, and finished the season as the lead-off hitter on the NL Champion Giants, batting .290 with seven runs scored and three stolen bases in the World Series.

In 2003, instead of resigning their late-season catalyst, the Giants opted to go with a very similar player, Marquis Grissom, who they signed to a three-year deal worth about $6.75 Million. Lofton once again signed for $1,025,000, this time with the Pirates. He was again traded at the deadline, this time to the Cubs, and again sparked a late-season run which landed the Cubs a few infamous outs from the World Series.

Grissom: .300 AVG, 790 OPS, 82 R, 79 RBI, 11 SB, 56 XBH
Lofton: .296 AVG, 802 OPS, 97 R, 46 RBI, 30 SB, 52 XBH

While Grissom and Lofton could hardly have had more similar value, the key here is that this was by far the most productive year of Grissom's contract, the Giants suffering through the final years of his career in '04 and '05.

Meanwhile Lofton played for two more teams during that span. He signed a new one-year $3.1 Million deal in 2004, this time with the Yankees. He struggled to play half the year, again showing signs of age (at 37), though he did have a good showing in the ALCS against Boston. It seemed surely, Lofton's run, at least as a starter, was over.

In 2005, while the Yankees handed centerfield chores back to Bernie Williams, Lofton signed on in Philadelphia as part of a platoon with Jason Michaels. Despite getting fewer plate appearances, Lofton outperformed the expensive Williams by a long shot:

Williams: .249 AVG, 688 OPS, 53 R, 64 RBI, 1 SB, 32 XBH, $12,357,143
Lofton: .335 AVG, 812 OPS, 67 R, 36 RBI, 22 SB, 22 XBH, $3,100,000

Despite his apparent resurrection, the Phillies decided not to resign Lofton, instead acquiring Aaron Rowand in the Jim Thome deal with the White Sox. Lofton signed with the Dodgers. Here were their lines at the end of '06:

Rowand: .262 AVG, 746 OPS, 59 R, 47 RBI, 10 SB, 39 XBH, $3,250,000
Lofton: .301 AVG, 763 OPS, 79 R, 41 RBI, 32 SB, 30 XBH, $3,800,000

Lofton slotted nicely between Rafeal Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra at the top of the Dodger lineup and was no small part of their run to the playoffs. However, they elected to sign Juan Pierre to a $42 Million deal during the offseason and Lofton, now 40, signed a one-year deal with Texas for $6 Mil., eventually getting traded to another playoff contender, his good ole Indians. Pierre's measly OBP may have contributed to the season-long slumps of Furcal and Garciaparra, while Lofton once again refused to show signs of significant decline:

Pierre: .293 AVG, 684 OPS, 96 R, 41 RBI, 64 SB, 32 XBH, $7,500,000
Lofton: .296 AVG, 781 OPS, 86 R, 38 RBI, 23 SB, 38 XBH, $6,000,000

In the six seasons since Lofton began being seen as a one-and-done rent-a-player, only once has he been outperformed by his (usually more expensive) replacement. Only once has he posted an OBP below .350. Only once has he missed playing in October. And, only once has the team that let him get away returned to the postseason the following year. It is almost like Lofton has had two careers. From his rookie year in 1992 until 2001, his salary inched up towards its $8 Million peak. Then it dropped down again in 2002 and inched up to another peak at $6 Million in '07, as teams slowly came to the realization that players of Lofton's talent continued to perform at a high level deep into their thirties. It would seem counterintuitive to predict that K-Lo will get less than that this coming year. If Jose Guillen is worth $12 Mil./year, he must certainly be worth six.

Oddly enough, the greatest players of the '90s have become the greatest deals of the late aughts. Thomas, Lofton, and Greg Maddux have already undergone that transformation. Perhaps Bonds, Piazza, and Griffey are soon to follow, along with Giles, Helton, and Smoltz. Or, perhaps, the market will swing back the other way and aging legends will make the big bucks way past their primes (as it used to be). But, at the very least, the Indians should know, it's a very dangerous proposition to let K-Lo go.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The New Moneyball Icon

A few years back, in 2003, Micheal Lewis published a book called Moneyball which became synonymous with a new approach to baseball strategy at the general managing level. The subject of Moneyball was, specifically, Oakland GM Billy Beane, generally considered the mastermind behind this new approach, though he would likely give due credit to the many sabermetricians, like Bill James and Rob Neyer, and modern baseball geniuses, like John Schuerholz and Tony LaRussa, who have in some way or another participated in revising the way a baseball roster is viewed during the past decade.

It is accurate to say, as many have, that Moneyball preaches an increased allegiance to statistical analysis as a way of evaluating individual players and the teams that they play for. Standing alone, naturally, this is a gross oversimplification of Beane's philosophy, but it is undeniable that Moneyball helped popularize statistics like OBP, OPS, and WHIP, and that it was due, at least in part, to said statistics that Beane pursued players like Scott Hatteburg, Erubiel Durazo, Nick Swisher, Chad Bradford, and Mark Ellis. None of these players are superstars (though perhaps Swisher is on the cusp), but they have all been inexpensive contributors in the Athletics franchise, which has gone 901-718 (.557) since Beane took over the reigns in 1998. He has led them to five playoff appearance, and posted the franchise only back-to-back 100-win seasons since 1931. 2007 was the first year a Beane team finished under .500 since his first year as GM. All this despite the fact that Oakland has never had a payroll higher than $80 Million or 16th best in the major leagues. When they won 100 games in '01 and '02, their payrolls were 29th and 28th, respectively.

Several of Beane's proteges have moved on to GM jobs of their own. Most notably, current Blue Jays GM J. P. Riccardi, who figures prominently in Moneyball. Many successful GMs, from both big and small markets, have adapted Moneyball tactics to fit there needs, including Theo Epstein in Boston, Kevin Towers in San Diego, and Walt Jocketty in St. Louis. They are both Beane disciples and innovators in their own right.

The simplest way to describe the Moneyball strategy when it comes to acquiring players via trades and free agency, is to say that it targets players who are "slightly damaged." That is, there is something about them that is going to raise the eyebrows of potential suitors, whether it is age, a weight problem, a weak throwing arm, a reckless temper, a history of injuries, an awkward delivery, a tendency to strike out, a defensive liability, a bad platoon split, or just plain slowness. Ideally, such a player also has a strength which is likely to go overlooked: discipline at the plate, reliability, endurance, bat control, or a good platoon split.

Here are a few examples:

Prior to the 2003 season, Beane masterminded a four-team trade, acquiring Erubiel Durazo from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Athletics gave up the only player in the deal who never reached the majors, a relief pitcher named Jason Arnold. Durazo was slow, fat, and apparently unable to hit left-handed pitching, which is why he'd never been a full-time starter in Arizona. During his next two seasons in Oakland, playing everyday as the designated hitter, he hit 43 HR, scored 172 runs, and drove in 165 more. He even received a few votes for MVP in 2004. In 2003 he actually hit lefties better than righties. Over the course of those two seasons the Athletics paid Durazo a total of just over $3 Million. As a comparison, the Yankees paid Jason Giambi, a former Athletic, approximately $24 Million in '03-'04. He hit 53 HR, scored 130 runs, and drove in 147 RBI.

Between 2004 and 2005, Beane dealt two of his "Big Three" starting pitcher, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. For Mulder, he received Dan Haren, Daric Barton, and Kiko Calero from St. Louis. The Cardinals saw Haren as, at best, a back-end of the rotation starter, they were concerned about his lack of intensity on the mound and his tendency to give up the long ball. During the 2004 season they had even converted him into a reliever. Beane immediately inserted the 24-year-old into his rotation. Haren pitched upward of 200 innings in each of the next three seasons, going 43-34. Calero has been a valuable middle reliever, and Barton is likely to start next season as Oakland's first baseman. Meanwhile, Mulder has gone 22-18 in three injury-plagued seasons in St. Louis, while earning around $18 Million. Oakland has paid the trio of Haren, Barton, and Calero somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 Million.

In 2006, the Athletics signed Frank Thomas, the future hall-of-famer who'd watched from the disabled list as the White Sox, the team he'd spent 15 seasons with, won the World Series in 2005 and decided they no longer needed him. He was 38, coming off back-to-back injury plagued seasons. Beane signed him to be the A's DH for a measly $500,000, one sixteenth of what Thomas made from Chicago the year previous. He finished 2006 with 39 HR, 114 RBI, and a 925 OPS. He was fourth in the running for the MVP and led the Athletics to the playoffs, while the White Sox fell short on a return trip. Thomas' replacement, Jim Thome, was roughly his statistical equal, but he cost Chicago 28 times more money.

One might argue that Beane deftness in deals like these (as well as many others) inspired other GMs to take chances on guys like Carlos Pena (can't hit lefties), Dmitri Young (old, fat, tempermental), Josh Hamilton (addicted to meth), and Cris Carpenter (injury-prone).

This offseason we are seeing the backlash. There is no shortage of "slightly damaged" players
Mike Cameron is facing a suspension, coming of an injury and took a small step backward offensively and defensively in 2007. Andruw Jones just had the worst offensive season since his rookie year, appears a little pudgy, and isn't even considered an option by the team he's spent his entire career with. Bartolo Colon hasn't pitched more than 100 innings since he won the Cy Young in '05, he'll turn 35 in May, and weighs well over 250 lbs., regardless of what the media guide says. Barry Bonds, Milton Bradley, Jose Guillen, Eric Gagne, Carlos Silva, Jason Jennings: all come with serious risks. And yet, at least in these opening weeks of the Hot Stove season, few of these players seem resigned to taking a contract that, either in value or duration, compensates for such shortcomings. The somewhat understandable position of baseball agents has become, in the wake of Moneyball, that merely being an established major league player in your late twenties or early thirties means you're entitled to a big payday, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. This may appear to some as indicative of greed and stubbornness on the part of the players and their representation (and there may be some truth to that), but it is also true that the game generally and each individual team is more profitable than it has ever been. The benefits of supportive fans and diversified revenue streams should not be passed on only to the owners and players the caliber of A-Rod, Carlos Zambrano, and Ichiro, but to all the players, particularly those who have paid their dues, as Cameron, Jones, Colon, et al definitely have.

A few years ago, coming off a brutal injury and three straight season of declining productivity, Jermaine Dye, a power-hitting outfielder in his prime, took a two-year deal (with an optional third year) for under $10 Million. Dye turned in two solid, relatively healthy seasons for the White Sox (including an MVP-caliber campaign in '06) and was rewarded with an extension worth more than double the money. This would seem an appropriate template for Andruw Jones. The dollar values would be considerably higher, but the idea would be the same. Take a short term deal, re-establish himself, and then get an even bigger contract when he's 33 or 34. His agent, the ubiquitous Scott Boras, continues to quote Jones' expectations as somewhere between Torii Hunter (5 yr./$90 Mil.) and Vernon Wells (7 yr./$126 Mil.). I think it is almost certain that they will at least get a four or five year deal worth upwards of $15 Million per season. Cameron will likely end up in the range of Gary Matthews Jr. (5 yr./$50 Mil.) and Juan Pierre (5 yr./$44 Mil.), though maybe for less years.

As the market adapts, GMs will have to reconsider their Moneyball tactics. With less players taking short-term deals, there is a much higher price on reliability, even if it is merely reliable mediocrity (witness Jeff Suppan (4 yr./$42 Mil.), Jason Marquis (3 yr./$21 Mil.), and A. J. Pierzynski (3 yr./$18 Mil.)). Likewise, as we have already seen this offseason, we will probably be seeing more trades that have long-term repercussions for both clubs. There will be fewer deadline blockbusters and one-year rent-a-players. If you're giving up three or four top prospects for a Johan Santana, Miguel Cabrera, or Mark Texeira, you intend to sign them to a five or six year extension.

Although there is no guaranteeing that Beane will be at the forefront of the next trend, watch carefully what he does this offseason. He may be on the verge of blowing up his team, a la the Florida Marlins, beginning a full-scale, multiple season rebuilding process of the type that has been generally unpopular during the Moneyball era. If he trades away Joe Blanton and Dan Haren, as rumored, it will definitely be unconventional. Pitching is regarded as a rare commodity, so frontline starters almost never get traded in the middle of their contracts. Both Haren and Blanton have three years left before free agency at prices well below their market value. Beane can reasonable ask for packages equivalent to those being offered for Santana, Jon Garland, etc., because Haren and Blanton will be significantly cheaper investments. If Haren and Blanton get traded, I expect there could be a wholesale auction, with Rich Harden, Huston Street, Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson, Mark Kotsay, and Nick Swisher all on the block. Beane will be looking for prospects around which to build his new suburban stadium.

So, who is the next Moneyball icon? The player who presents a moderate risk, with a sizable potential for reward? Later this week I'll outline a few free agents (or soon-to-be free agents) that fit the profile.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Depth Chart II: Johan Santana Edition

By resigning Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling the Red Sox drew a line in the sand. (I don't know, maybe winning the World Series had something to do with it as well.) They are the team to beat, not only in their own division, but in the whole American League. Every significant contributor from the 2007 Championship team has been signed for 2008, except Mike Timlin. Timlin is a valuable bullpen arm, even at age 42, but if the Red Sox decide to part ways with him permanently, it won't leave a gaping hole. Not in a bullpen that includes Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmon, Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, Brendon Donnelly, and Julian Tavarez. Timlin might even be seen as superfluous, with Craig Hansen, Kyle Snyder, and Devern Hansack also ready for the bigs.

As that list of relief arms suggests, not only has Boston filled the 2008 roster, they have an abundance in almost every area. Assuming Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzake, and Curt Schilling are certain members of the rotation, that leaves two spots for the quartet of Clay Bucholz, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, and Kason Gabbard. Although they picked up his option, it isn't unlikely that 17-game-winner Wakefield may be headed back to the bullpen as a swingman and long reliever. Also, since Jacoby Ellsbury took over the starting job in centerfield during the playoffs, Coco Crisp is currently the most over-qualified fourth outfielder in baseball, joined by Brandon Moss, a young left-handed power hitter who fits the Boston mold and, at 24, after smacking 59 extra base hits in 500 AAA at-bats in 2007, appears ready for his shot in the show. The only real question mark for the Red Sox is whether they can depend on Julio Lugo as the shortstop after he abysmal showing, offensively and defensively, during the first year of his contract. Thankfully, if he starts '08 the way he started '07, they won't have to put up with it for long. Prospect Jed Lowrie was the Red Sox' Minor League Player of the Year in '07, posting an 896 OPS between AA and AAA, and sluggling above .500 at each level. Unless they deal him to Minnesota as part of a package for Johan Santana, I expect Lowrie to supplant Lugo (or, possibly, Pedroia, if he suffers a sophomore slump) sometime during the 2008 season.

While there is always a case to be made for adding a pitcher of Santana's ilk, by doing so the Red Sox would be significantly sacrificing their depth chart. Any deal would almost certainly include at least one of their young pitching studs, possibly more, and two players from the cheap, young quartet of Ellsbury, Lowrie, Pedroia, and Crisp. (ESPN is reporting the package as Lester, Crisp, and Lowrie.) A rotation featuring Santana, Beckett, Schilling, and Dice-K would be something to marvel at, but it would cost Boston the ability to compensate for injuries to position players. For a team that employs many mid-to-late-thirties veterans, selling off youth is a serious risk.

Ditto for the Yankees. According to the Times, they have officially made an offer to the Twins (an offer which does not include Joba Chamberlain). I would bet that it is comprised of some configuration of Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Shelley Duncan, Eric Duncan, and Wilson Betemit. Again, alongside Chamberlain and Chen-Ming Wang, Santana would headline a very imposing rotation. But, he would be among the first to attest that there is a sizable difference between having Melky Cabrera as your everyday centerfielder or Johnny Damon. The Yankees have finally stockpiled enough quality prospects to prevent them from having to overpay for half a dozen free agents every winter. It would be a mistake to mortgage that surplus for another veteran whose demands will likely exceed $150 Million. They were younger and more defensively sound in the Bronx during the second half of 2008. It seemed to work.

Which brings us, naturally, to the Minnesota Twins. As an organization they have been, throughout the reign of Terry Ryan, vigilant in retaining players which provide depth, especially for their pitching staff. I don't expect that to change drastically as Ryan makes way for protege, Bill Smith. The Twins seem ready for action this offseason, prepared to part ways with three high-profile players: Torii Hunter, Johan Santana, and Joe Nathan. It remains to be seen whether Santana and Nathan will get dealt. But, it appears to be a legitimate possibility, as the Yankees and Red Sox have already publicized offers. Whatever happens, don't mistake Minnesota's willingness to part with a few stars as the beginning of a long rebuilding process. Popular superstars, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, have two and three years left on their contracts, respectively, so the Twins will be looking to make a serious run at a championship sometime in the next two years. Such a run will mean supplanting Cleveland and Detroit atop the AL Central, neither of whom show signs of impending decline. As such, the Twins realize that they must be willing to sacrifice domination at a few positions for solidity throughout the roster.

Going into the offseason, Minnesota had glaring question marks at second base, third base, left field, center field, and designated hitter. With the two trades they've already made, acquiring Craig Monroe from the Cubs and trading Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to the Devil Rays for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris, they addressed a couple of those positions. They could afford to trade Garza because they assume that Francisco Liriano will be recovered in time to replace him in the rotation on opening day. If the season were to start tomorrow, it seems likely that Monroe would be the everyday leftfielder and Young would play center, while Harris would replace Bartlett at short. Offensively, I expect that Young will be the equal of Torii Hunter as soon as 2009. However, while he has great speed and a strong arm, he is much better suited to right than center, which is convenient since Micheal Cuddyer, the Twins' reigning rightfielder, is much better suited to left or DH. Similarly, while Brendan Harris is at least as good with the bat as Jason Bartlett, he is defensively better suited for second or third, rather than shortstop. Craig Monroe is a career .304 hitter at the Metrodome, and has an 814 career OPS against lefthanders. He is a very decent defensive leftfielder. I imagine the Twins see him as the righthanded side of a platoon with Jason Kubel, with the ability to spell their other outfielders and hit off the bench.

I would guess that the depth chart in Bill Smith's office looks something like this:

C - Mauer
1B - Morneau
2B - Harris
3B - ?
SS - ?
LF - Kubel/Monroe
CF - ?
RF - Young
DH - Cuddyer

SP - Santana (?), Liriano, Bonser, Baker, Slowey, Perkins (?)
RP - Nathan (?), Neshek, Rincon, Guerrier, Crain, Reyes

IF - Casilla, Punto, Redmond
OF - Tyner

The Twins have some flexibility in the infield. Harris showed considerable offensive promise as a rookie in '07, hitting .286 with a 777 OPS and 12 HR and 59 RBI in 137 games with Tampa Bay, while playing respectable defense at second and thrid. Alexi Casilla struggled at the plate and in the field after replacing Luis Castillo at the end of 2007. But, he did steal eleven bases in twelve attempts, and his minor league numbers suggest he could develop into a solid lead-off hitter who plays mediocre defense at second or short. Punto provides outstanding defense at all three infield positions, but had the worst OPS of any major-leaguer in 2007, by a long shot (Punto: 562, Kendall (2nd Worst): 610). The Twins would definitely benefit most from adding a shortstop, but if none were available (for the right price), they could settle for solid offensive contributor who plays second or third.

Any package for Santana needs to include, at the minimum, a young, but major-league ready starting pitcher, a strong defensive centerfielder, and a promising infielder. Both Boston and New York have the first two pieces: Lester and Crisp from the Red Sox, Hughes and Cabrera from the Yankees. Hughes and Lester are essentially a draw in terms of quality. And, while Cabrera is probably the superior value compared to Crisp, Lowrie is likely to be the difference. He would be a Rookie of the Year candidate playing a critical position. The best the Yankees can offer is Wilson Betemit, who hasn't shown the ability to play short in the big leagues and has been an inconsistent hitter with stints in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, all by the age of 25. Betemit could still turn into the superstar he was once predicted to be, but New York's best chance of beating out Boston in the Santana sweepstakes is to sweeten the offer with one of the Duncans, who could fit into the Twins' LF/DH mix. But, as I suggested earlier, a 4-for-1 swap does serious damage to a Yankees' depth.

Perhaps other teams will join the fray as the winter meetings get underway. Only a few can cobble together the pieces that would be required (including the $150 Million to sign Santana long term). The Mets are certainly interested, but by dealing Lastings Milledge to Washington, the let go of one of their best bargaining chips. They still have a couple of solid outfield prospects in Ben Johnson and Carlos Gomez. They've got major-league ready starters in Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey (though neither is the equal of Hughes and Lester). And they have a young switch-hitting middle infielder named Anderson Hernandez. But, while the pieces are there, they would have to improve upon them in some way to beat out the Red Sox and Yankees. Would they be willing to part with John Maine?

The Dodgers, who have not been mentioned in Santana discussions, may be the darkhorse candidate. They have an abundance of young big-leaguers. Matt Kemp and Delwyn Young (Delmon's brother) can both play center field. Andy LaRoche, Tony Abreu, and Chin-Lung Hu are promising infielders (Hu is a shortstop). And, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Hong-Chih Kuo are major-league ready starters. Los Angeles appears ready to deal some of their youth because they are log-jammed at several positions, but their most desperate need is a power bat. But if they fail to reel in Miguel Cabrera, they may turn their attentions elsewhere.

If Bill Smith does deal Santana, it is likely that Joe Nathan will follow, with Pat Neshek or Juan Rincon taking over closing duties in Minnesota. With Nathan as the centerpiece, Smith could craft a package to pursue a veteran like Scott Rolen (a third part would be necessary) or Miguel Tejada. Or, he could fleece a team desperate for a closer (Mikwaukee? Texas?) for several prospects and important role players.

By Opening Day 2008, I expect the Minnesota Twins will be completely redesigned. They have relied on pitching and defense in recent years. By no means do I expect them to forget the importance of either, but they will be supporting their young, promising rotation with a deep, potent lineup. Even now, the core of Mauer, Cuddyer, Morneau, and Young is nothing to scoff at. In 2009 it may be considered as good or better than the impressive quartets in Cleveland and Detroit.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Depth Chart

It's very early in the offseason to be evaluating the prospects of next year's teams. Despite the weakness of the free agent class, almost every franchise will sign a contributer before the beginning of next season. And, with the potential availability of such superstars as Johan Santana, Miguel Cabrera, and Miguel Tejada, there are likely to be numerous trades as well.

But, despite the likelihood of roster fluctuation well into 2008, some teams are clearly in better shape than others. As I discussed prior to last season, I believe that success over the course of the grueling major-league season is less about the quality of the opening day lineup and rotation, and more about a franchise's preponderance of practical replacements when those players suffer from injuries or unexpectedly poor production.

I'm not saying that teams which lack depth never make it to the postseason. Often they do, but it usually requires a tremendous run of good luck. The White Sox had it when they had four starters pitch upward of 200 innings in 2005. The Giants had it when they had five players 34 and older play 140 games or more in 2002, plus a 37-year-old Catcher who made 126 starts. And, Colorado had it this year when they won 21 of 22 in late September and early October, facing elimination on a daily basis. Teams like these make it thanks to tremendous play and consistently good breaks. Teams with depth can make it in spite of the breaks.

Based on their depth, I predicted that Detroit and Cleveland would be the two best teams in the majors in 2007. While neither proved to be the equal to the Red Sox, both were among the best teams in the AL, Cleveland finishing one win short of the World Series and Detroit winning 88 games, the best record any club falling short of the playoffs. They were able to succeed to they extent that they did largely because of their depth.

The bullpen which had been the strength of Detroit's AL Championship team in '06 was decimated by injuries to flame-throwing middle-relievers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney. Certainly, those two are irreplaceable, unless you've got the capability of acquiring Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge midseason. However, Jim Leyland was able to look to the trio of Bobby Seay, Tim Byrdak, and Zach Miner to soften the blow. Between them, they threw 145 innings, accumulated 27 holds, and a 2.86 ERA. They solidified a bullpen that was almost exactly league-average:

Detroit Bullpen: 4.37 ERA, 26 W, 44 SV, 515 IP, 736 vOPS
AL Average Bullpen: 4.30 ERA, 24 W, 40 SV. 493 IP, 732 vOPS

Ask Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox or Sam Perlozzo, formerly of the Orioles, if they would have been happy with a league-average bullpen? Each of them suffered from a similar rash of injuries to their relief corps in 'o7, and finished with bullpen ERAs of 5.47 and 5.71 respectively.

In Cleveland, it was depth which saved their rotation. Their Opening Day rotation was C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, and Paul Byrd. Only Sabathia and Byrd made more than 25 starts. Westbrook missed much of the first half with an injury, and Sowers and Lee struggled so mightily that they were both demoted to AAA for significant portions of the season, neither making more than 16 big-league starts, and both finished with ERAs above 6.00. Luckily for the Indians, they had Fausto Carmona waiting for just such an opportunity. He joined the rotation in the middle of April, lost his first two appearances, and then with 19-6 the rest of the way, finishing 4th in Cy Young voting. They also got a modestly impressive late-season run from Aaron Laffey, who went 4-2 with a 4.56 ERA in nine starts. They were never even tempted to promote their 22-year-old future-stud, Adam Miller. Despite 29 dismal starts from Lee and Sowers, Cleveland had a league-leading 4.19 Starter's ERA.

Although I didn't think they'd be the equal of Cleveland and Detroit, Boston also entered 2007 with an impressive depth chart. It proved critical for them when Curt Schilling and Jon Lester were vacant from the rotation for extended spells, and when Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew made somewhat predictable trips to the D.L. Jacoby Ellsbury is the most obvious example, with his 926 OPS in September and his 949 OPS in October. But, former Rookie of the Year, Eric Hinske, pounded out 21 extra-base hits and a respectable 714 OPS in limited playing time, fielded three different position admirably, and, most importantly, hit .286 with a 933 OPS in games that he filled in for Manny Ramirez in left field.

Depth is not something which can be accumulated in a single offseason, which is why it is one factor that can be realistically evaluated in November. Look at your team. How many critical holes do they have to fill? Do they have any reasonable options available within the organization? Does the loss of any one player cripple the lineup or rotation? Perhaps, more importantly, look up and down the division. How many significant question marks do your competitors have to address by comparison. Before the Hot Stove League get really rolling at the winter meeting, I hope to address which teams come to Orlando with significant advantages thanks to depth within their own systems. Some of them are predictable. Others might surprise you.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Where'd have all the Cubbies gone?

In two weeks, the Chicago Cubs have gone from having an excess of veteran outfielders to a shortage. When the regular season ended, the Cubs forty-man roster included Alfonso Soriano, Jacque Jones, Cliff Floyd, Craig Monroe, and Daryle Ward, all over the age of 30. In the last week, however, they declined Floyd's option for 2008, dealt Jones (a former Twin) to the Tigers, and Monroe (a former Tiger) to the Twins. Obviously Soriano isn't going anywhere and Chicago picked up an option on Ward, who performed quite admirably as a pinch-hitter/utilityman in 2007. But Ward is not a everyday player, so we must assume that either the Cubs are ready to entrust outfield duties to Sam Fuld and Felix Pie, or they are gearing up to make some sort of free agent splash. What the Cubs need is a productive left-handed bat (Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez provide an abundance of right-handed power). The only premier left-handed hitting outfielder on the market this offseason is Kosuke Fukudome. Steve Stone has been predicting the Cubs interest in Fukudome for several weeks. It appears they are setting themselves up to make a run on him.

This makes sense for several reasons besides its potential effects on Lou Pinella's lineup. Forbes ranks the Cubs as the fifth most valuable franchise in baseball. Of those top five, they are the only team which hasn't tried their luck with the Japanese market. The Yankees (Hideki Matsui), Mets (Kazuo Matsui), Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzake), and Dodgers (Takashi Saito, Hideo Nomo) have all made major Japanese acquisitions. And, for all but the Mets, the payoffs have been positive, both on the field and in the marketing department. If they can attract Fukudome, it will open up new revenue streams, which can't hurt the impending sale of the team by the Tribune Company. Following Boston's lead (not a bad idea), they may attempt to import a pair of Japanese stars. Hiroki Kuroda could fit into the back-end of the Cubs rotation (where Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall remain question marks) and provide a friendly face to aid Fukudome's transition process. Another option might be signing one of the two Japanese free agents who are already acclimated to the American game, Kazuo Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi. Unfortunately, both are middle-infielders, and might shy away from splitting time with Mark DeRosa, Ryan Theriot, and Omar Infante.

Although he is likely to be very expensive, I expect the Cubs to make a concerted run on Fukudome. If for no other reason than that the other left-handed outfielders on the market leave much to be desired. Milton Bradley could be a real deal. He's a switch-hitter who hit above .300 from both sides of the plate in '07, with a high OBP, low strikeout rate, and good range in the outfield, but his history of injuries and surliness might be a little too reminiscent of Cliff Floyd for Jim Hendry's taste. Nonetheless, a full season of Bradley is likely as good or better than any other outfielder on the market, including Fukudome, Torii Hunter, and Andruw Jones. The catch is that Bradley has only played one full season in his career, in 2004.

Beyond Bradley, the options are truly limited: Geoff Jenkins, Brad Wilkerson, and Kenny Lofton. I explained in the second part of my Center Field Shuffle post why I thought Lofton was a good fit, but only as part of a center field conglomeration with Fuld and Pie. Wilkerson and Jenkins don't match well, because although they provide left-handed power and decent defense (especially Jenkins), they both strike out at alarming rates. The one argument for Wilkerson is that although he was utterly terrible in Texas, the last time he was a member of an NL franchise, the Nationals/Expos, he had four straight seasons with an OBP above .350 (three above .370).

If Fukudome falls through, Hendry will likely explore some trade options to acquire a left-handed bat. The problem here is that Chicago doesn't have a lot of tradeable commodities. They have a glut of middle infielders (DeRosa, Theriot, Infante, Mike Fontenot, Ronny Cedeno, and top-prospect Eric Patterson), of which only DeRosa and Patterson probably have significant value. They have some depth in the bullpen with Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, and Bobby Howry all closer-ready, and Scott Eyre, Kevin Hart, and Micheal Wuertz valuable arms, but I would rather frame that as strength than excess.

What they also have is Matt Murton. Matt Murton is a high-average and OBP guy, who could develop decent power given the chance to play everyday (think Micheal Cuddyer). He plays a mean left field, but really struggled in right last season, and has absolutely no place in center. He is also a right-handed bat, of which the Cubs have plenty. At 26-years-old, the former first-round pick still has plenty of upside and several years of arbitration. He could make a lot of sense for a team on the mend, looking to get younger (Oakland or Baltimore) or building from within (Washington or Kansas City). Murton probably won't bring a solid veteran left-handed bat by himself, but he could fit into a three-way trade or bring pieces which make the Cubs more willing to deal what they have. Even if they succeed in bring Fukudome to the north side, I don't expect to see Murton in Chicago next year. They have Fuld, Pie, and Angel Pagan to fulfill the fourth and fifth outfielder roles. All are better defenders, as young as Murton, and possess nearly as much offensive upside.

Sophomore Slump?!?!

Ryan Braun - 3B - Milwaukee Brewers (2007 Rookie of the Year)

There is one, and perhaps only one, reason to predict that Braun might take a step backwards in his second season. That reason goes by the name of Jeff Francoeur. In 2005 Francoeur was called up to the major leagues midseason and immediately started pounding National League pitchers. In his first 200 at-bats he slugged a dozen homers, drove in 39 runs, and racked up a 957 OPS. Like Braun, Francoeur was treated during the offseason as though he was one of the league's premier hitters. In 2006, however, he hit only .260 and managed only a 742 OPS, despite 29 HR and 103 RBI, because opposing pitcher exploited his refusal to draw a walk. He struck out 132 times and had a Pedro Feliz-like .293 OBP in '06.

Braun also likes to hack. He drew only 29 walks and struck out 112 times in 113 games this past season. However, unlike Francoeur, who puts the ball in play on the first two pitches nearly half the time, Braun has shown a lot more ability to work the count. He had 23 extra-base hits with two strikes in '07 (more than Manny Ramirez). Also, unlike Francoeur, he continued to hit even after the league had become familiar with his free-swinging ways. While Francoeur suffered a dramatic decline his third and fourth months in the league (695 & 601 OPS, respectively), Braun kept his OPS above 900 in August and September, driving in and scoring more runs in September than in any month previous to it.

So Far, So Good

In a somewhat unusual feat of good judgment, the sportswriters have made three excellent selections for the major 2007 awards thusfar. Only Dustin Pedroia was an easy choice, as AL Rookie of the Year. Pedroia led all qualifying AL Rookies in Average, Slugging, OPS, Doubles, and Runs Scored. He was second in Hits and OBP, and fifth in RBI. Pedroia's case is certainly somewhat aided by his postseason performance and his position in one of the league's best lineups, but there are glaring holes in the campaigns of all the other logical candidates. Delmon Young led AL Rookies in RBI with 93 and Josh Field led in Home Runs with 23, but both struggled with the strikezone, accumulating over 125 strikeouts apiece and OBPs under .320. That said, I bet Boston would trade Pedroia straight up for either one of them, in a heartbeat.

It seemed likely, when Colorado advanced to the postseason and then to the World Series, especially, that their lauded shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, was inevitably boosting his Rookie of the Year chances. Thankfully, Ryan Braun's gaudy regular season numbers were too much to overlook. Here's how the two broke down:

Tulowitski: .291/.359/.479 104R 177H 24HR 99RBI 7SB

Braun: .324/.370/.634 91R 146H 34HR 97RBI 15SB

Tulowitzki hangs with Braun in the counting stats because he had two more months in the majors. If we extrapolate Braun's stats to match Tulowitski's plate appearances, he would have approximately 120 R, 45 HR, 130 RBI, and 20 SB. In other words, he'd be running a step ahead of Holliday, Fielder, and Rollins in the MVP race.

While I'm sympathetic to the opinion that Tulowitski's excellent defense at a critical position (compared to Braun's sub-par defense at third base) helps his cause, I think Braun's counterargument is that he hit third in Milwaukee's lineup from the moment he reached the bigs. While Tulowitski's slumps were chastened by the fact that he hit in front or behind that quartet of Holliday, Helton, Atkins, and Hawpe, it was Braun who was the picture of consistency in Milwaukee. Along with Prince Fielder he compensated for the up-and-down performances of J. J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Bill Hall, and Rickie Weeks, by churning out an OPS above 900 in every full month after he arrived.

It was also a tough choice between C. C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett. Sabathia would surely be willing to trade his hardware for Beckett's World Series ring. Unfortunately, that is sort of what it came down to. Sabathia made four more starts and pitched forty more innings than Beckett during the regular season, perhaps his fatigue contributed to his lackluster playoff performances against Boston. However, he carried his team down the stretch, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA in August and September. Beckett didn't exactly coast, going 7-2 with a 3.01 ERA, but he did take one less turn in the final two months, pitch twelve fewer innings, and delivered 59 fewer pitches. He also was allotted five days rest before each of his last three regular season starts. Very likely two more quality starts could have made the difference for Beckett as a Cy Young candidate, but it also may have prevented him from racking up four wins and 35 Ks in 30 innings in October.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Center Field Shuffle (Part 2)

This week we take a look at the NL:

Philadelphia Phillies

The recent trade for Brad Lidge reveals a great deal about the Phillies offseason plans. By sending Michael Bourn and Mike Costanzo to the Astros, Philadelphia unloaded their two best in-house candidates for the offensive openings in center and at third base. They also resigned J. C. Romero to bolster the revamped bullpen and allow Brett Myers to move back to the starting rotation. Although they still need to answer some questions at the back end of the rotation, I expect the Phillies will turn their immediate attention to either resigning Aaron Rowand, or acquiring a top-flight third baseman. Beyond A-Rod, who Philadelphia is unlikely to attract, possible matches could be Mike Lowell, Joe Crede, Chad Tracy, or Pedro Feliz. If the Phillies aren't willing to outbid the Rangers and White Sox for Rowand, expect them to pursue cheaper alternatives like Mike Cameron, Kenny Lofton, or Corey Patterson. Patterson, especially, might make a good fit in Philadelphia. He has the defensive talent to patrol the space separating club-footed Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino, and the depth of the Phillies lineup with take the pressure off of him offensively, possibly priming him for a breakout campaign. Another possibility might be moving Victorino to center and signing a corner outfielder like Geoff Jenkins or Jose Guillen.

Second Choice: Milton Bradley

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs also showed their hands a little by sending Jacque Jones to Detroit after giving them a very productive second half in center. Both Sam Fuld and Felix Pie appear to be on the verge of contributing at the major-league level. Both are excellent defensively, but may require more development at the plate. The Cubs definitely have more important holes to fill in right field and the rotation, but they might be a good candidate for a stop-gap option like Kenny Lofton. Lofton came to Chicago for the final third of the season in 2003 and put on one of the best performances of his career, batting .327, pounding twenty extra-base hits, and stealing twelve bases in 56 games. His speed, his left-handedness, his .372 career OBP, and his ability to put the ball in play all play well to the Cubs needs.

Second Choice: Fuld & Pie

San Francisco Giants

The Giants will undoubtedly make a concerted run for A-Rod. If they fall short, they may resort to desperate measures. With Barry Bonds leaving and Barry Zito coming off the worst season of his career, they Giants are without a bonafide star. What they should do, barring the acquisition of Rodriquez, is hang tight and see what develops from their promising rotation and the mid-level prospects Kevin Frandsen, Dan Ortmeier, Fred Lewis, and Rajai Davis. However, Brian Sabean may be tempted to overpay for marquee player with drawing power, like Andruw Jones or Torii Hunter, neither of whom can single-handedly carry an offense the way Bonds and A-Rod do. Signing a centerfielder would force them to bench Davis, and take playing time away from Lewis, both of whom have shown promise when given the opportunity to play everyday. The Giants best option is to give Davis, Lewis, Ortmeier, and Dave Roberts chances in center and left, while attempting to draw a strong player in the infield, like Miguel Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, or Hank Blalock.

Second Choice: Andruw Jones

San Diego Padres

I wouldn't be surprised if the Padres chose to bring back both Mike Cameron and Milton Bradley, both of whom would probably agree to stay for slightly under their market price. However, Andruw Jones also make a great deal of sense in San Diego, especially if he's willing to sign a short-term deal - one or two years - to bring up his value after an extremely sub-par 2007 season. San Diego's interest is raised by Jones spectacular numbers at the supremely pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Jones has .394/.477/.964 splits with 9 homers in fifteen games at Petco during his career, including .545/.615/1.000 in '07. Sounds like exactly the right place to jump-start Jones' hitting, and San Diego could definitely benefit from an influx of power and protection for Adrian Gonzalez.

Second Choice: Mike Cameron

Atlanta Braves

I believe that the Braves will regret letting go of Andruw, but I can understand how they might've become frustrated with his in poor performance this season. After coming back up to his career norms in July and August, Jones had quite possibly his worst month in September, when the Braves were trying to make their playoff push. His defense will definitely be missed, but his range has been declining consistently since 2001. Still, the only comparable defensive centerfielder on the market this season is Torii Hunter, who is more of a risky acquisition than Jones. Mike Cameron is similarly a premier defender on the decline, but he could provide compensation for Jones' power and he should come at a reduced price because of his age, injuries, and suspension problems, leaving the Braves with extra money to spend on their rotation and resigning Mark Texeira.

Second Choice: Aaron Rowand

St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, Washington Nationals

Although the Nationals have been rumored to be wooing Jones, none of these teams are likely to make a big investment this offseason. Nonetheless, they all have question marks in center. Nook Logan plays spectacular defense in Washington and can steal bases, but his 649 OPS is a pretty accurate representation of his offensive potential. Jim Edmonds is desperately in need of the Ken Griffey Jr. treatment to protect his knees and back, but unless Colby Rasmus proves himself ready for the bigs during spring training, the Cardinals will be stuck playing So Taguchi everyday. Pittsburgh is waiting for Andrew McCutcheon, who they're hyping at the best Pirate prospect since Barry Bonds. Nate McLouth can hit, but doesn't field. Nyjer Morgan can field, but his hitting is in question (he did go .299/.359/.430 during his 100 AB trial this past September). They will probably fight for the spot until McCutcheon arrives in late 2008. The Marlins will test Alejandro De Aza and Todd Linden as replacements for Alfredo Amezega, who has great range, but at age 30 hasn't yet had an OPS over 700. While none of these teams are likely to be active on the free agent market, all of them have tradeable commodities. Some of them might chase expendable mid-level centerfielders like Coco Crisp, Dave Roberts, Willy Taveras, and Juan Pierre.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

I can't believe I'm saying this...

...but your team needs to take a chance on Jeff Weaver.

I know he looks like an unbelievable douchebag, he's played on seven teams in the last six years, and he began last season by going 0-6 with a 14.32 ERA, a run of previously unparalleled ineptitude to begin a season.

However, while his haircuts and his gold chains do suggest that he's something of a moron, there doesn't seem to be any reason to believe that he is a clubhouse cancer.

For a veteran free agent pitcher, he will come cheap. The last two seasons he signed one-year contracts for around $8.25 Million, and he could be willing to sign for less in 2008. When you consider that many expect Carlos Silva to get four years and $40 Million, Weaver begins to look like a bargain. Silva has won 47 games over the last four seasons. Weaver: 42.

Most importantly, however, for teams looking to rebuild their rotations in a year when the free agent class of starters is extraordinarily weak, Weaver represents a pitcher who could provide stretches of greatness. From June 9th to August 23rd, a string of 14 starts, during which the Mariners were still in the thick of the pennant race, Weaver went 6-4 with a 3.38 ERA . Not only that, but he pitched two shutouts during that span and pitched into the 8th six times. Silva pitched into the 8th only five times all season. And, of course, there was Weaver's outstanding postseason performance with the Cardinals in 2006, when he had a 2.43 ERA in 30 innings and a 7.00 K/BB in two World Series outings.

They will undoubtedly be maligned by some of their own fans when they do it, but a team with aspirations to contend will take a chance on Weaver in '08. The perfect fit is somebody with an outstanding pitching coach and a relatively big ballpark, as well as a reason to resort to desperate measures with their rotation. Sounds like Atlanta to me. Bobby Cox and his staff have a history of resurrecting the careers of veteran cast-offs and, of course, the legendary Leo Mazzone is currently unemployed. He might end up back in his old stomping grounds.

Weaver could also return to St. Louis, where he had considerable success working under La Russa and Dave Duncan. The Cardinals will need to assemble a rotation behind Adam Wainwright (with Cris Carpenter likely out for all of '08) and currently they have nothing but spare parts and lots of question marks (Mark Mulder, Anthony Reyes, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro, etc.). This has been Duncan's specialty in the past, but he needs a few more pieces to choose from.

Expect Weaver to return to the NL, in any case, where he has a career winning record. Some other possibilities include Milwaukee, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Arizona.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Center Field Shuffle

A-Rod's decision to file for free agency will undoubtedly buoy the drama of the 2007-2008 offseason. I predict that his super-agent, Scott Boras, will prolong their decision until at least the holidays. As a result, the other marquee free agents - Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Mike Lowell (if he doesn't resign with the Red Sox), etc. - won't begin seriously negotiating with potential employers until early next year. The logic behind this is simple. No matter how much of Scott Boras is smoke and mirrors, other agents will figure that whoever loses out on A-Rod, from amongst the likely suitors there will be somebody who is then wiling to pay more for their client(s). Unfortunately, this means teams like the Giants and Dodgers, for whom A-Rod might actually make sense, might end up chasing a guy like Jones out of desperation, even though he really doesn't make sense.

Once A-Rod signs, the winter dance craze among MLB GMs is going to be the Center Field Shuffle. Besides Jones and Hunter, there are a litany of solid centerfielders available this offseason. Mike Cameron, Aaron Rowand, Milton Bradley, Kenny Lofton, and Corey Patterson are all free agents. Additionally, Coco Crisp, Boston's gold-glove-caliber switch-hitting speedster lost his position to Jacoby Ellsbury during the playoffs and will undoubtedly be used by the Red Sox as part of a trade package to replace Curt Schilling or Mike Lowell. Tampa Bay could be shopping Rocco Baldelli and/or Carl Crawford as well.

One might think that this glut of players on the market in one position would drive prices down, but quite the opposite might turn out to be true. No less than fourteen teams enter the offseason with serious questions about who will be captaining their outfields come 2008. The center field scene has undergone a considerable renovation in the last couple of seasons. Marquee names and perennial gold-glovers like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds have reached the point in their careers where they can no long cover the real estate, forcing moves to right field. Because of the shortage of talent at this critical position, teams have resorted to converting infielders and corner outfielder, with varying degrees of success. Bill Hall, B. J. Upton, Jacque Jones, Alfonso Soriano, and Ichiro Suzuki all became centerfielders by necessity. Only nineteen players started more than 90 games in center in 2007 (the lowest since 2000). Compare that to the other key defensive positions; 28 players started at least 90 games at shortstop, 25 at second base, and 27 at catcher. Many teams will be looking to the 2007 class of centerfielders to improve themselves, both defensively and offensively.

Let's start in the AL:

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox haven't had any stability in center field since Aaron Rowand left after their World Series championship in 2005. Since then five players have gotten 38 or more starts. The Sox have two young players who are more than adequate defensively, Brian Anderson and Jerry Owens, but neither showed a glimmer of offensive ability during extended big league tryouts in 2006 and 2007. Chicago will undoubtedly sign one of the free agents. Look for them to make a serious run on Hunter. They've been on the wrong end of his highlight reel more than their fair share as a rival to Minnesota in the AL Central, so they no how well he plays at Cellular Field (828 OPS for his career) and how well he brings balls back in a cozy confines. Hunter's bat fits perfectly into the White Sox lineup behind Konerko, Thome, and Dye. Despite his career year in 2007, competitive teams should not expect him to be better than their fourth or fifth best hitter.

Second Choice: Aaron Rowand

Minnesota Twins

With the breakdown in discussions earlier this week and the impending free agency of Johan Santana (then Morneau, then Mauer), it seems safe to say that Torii Hunter won't be returning to the Twins. We can speculate on an on about where Hunter might end up, but the more important question for Minnesota's fans is who will replace him, considering that the franchise will is unlikely to shill out for other free agents as well. Hunter has played center in Minnesota for nine season and won six gold gloves. Those are some tough turf shoes to fill. I don't think the Twins have any intention of filling them. Look for Minnesota to publicize the spring training competition between Denard Span, Darnell McDonald, and Jason Tyner. Tyner is a thirty-year-old journeyman utility outfielder most famous for beginning his career by going 1,220 at-bats without a homer. Darnell McDonald has spent a decade in the minor leagues, but is still only 29, and has shown dramatic improvements in the last couple seasons. He has outstanding speed, modest power, and decent plate discipline. Bet on him to be the Opening Day starter. Span has the most upside, at age 23. He's a slap-hitting speedster who could develop modest power. But his .267 average and 678 OPS at AAA in 2007 don't bode well for him being ready for the show.

Second Choice: Kenny Lofton

Texas Rangers

Marlon Byrd was a welcome surprise during an otherwise disappointing season in Dallas in 2007. When the Rangers dealt Kenny Lofton to the Indians in late July, Byrd was batting .358 with a .928 OPS. He was handed the starting center field job. Unfortunately, Marlon Byrd is not a centerfielder. Not only did he play poor defense during the season's final two months, his offensive numbers suffered as well. He hit only .266 with a 721 OPS after Lofton was traded. It seems likely that Byrd will assume a corner spot in '08, while the Rangers attempt acquire a true centerfielder. They will certainly make an offer to Torii Hunter. But even if they are willing to pay more than the White Sox, Braves, or Twins, their cause may be hurt by their inability to make the playoffs. If Hunter signs elsewhere, expect John Hicks to become enamored with Aaron Rowand, a gritty hustler coming off a career year. Even if they do overpay, Rowand could be a good match for Texas. The ballpark will suit him both offensively and defensively. He's been to the playoffs twice in the last three seasons, winning a ring in '05 with the White Sox. He could provide a much-needed spark in the Rangers clubhouse.

Second Choice: Corey Patterson

Oakland Athletics

Mark Kotsay is an outstanding, underrated defensive outfielder, but his offensive production has declined dramatically every season since his first year in Oakland (2004) and he's missed extensive time to injuries almost every season. Nick Swisher is an excellent rightfielder, but in center he is average at best. Oakland will likely give Chris Denorfia a shot in 2008 as well. Denorfia, acquired from Cincinnati for reliever Marcus MacBeth, hasn't been given a fair shot in the big leagues yet. His minor-league stats suggest he should hit for a high average, draw quite a few walks, and will probably develop moderate power (15-20 HR). As such, he fits perfectly into the Oakland lineup as Kotsay's replacement, assuming he can hold his own defensively. Nonetheless, don't be surprised if Billy Beane deals one of his top starters, Haren or Blanton, to Boston for Coco Crisp and a couple of pitching prospects.

Second Choice: Coco Crisp

Baltimore Orioles

It seems unlikely that Baltimore will renew Corey Patterson's contract. He showed signs in 2006 that he might again be on the verge of realizing his always incredible potential, but took another step backward again in 2007. Undoubtedly there will be a GM, manager, or hitting coach somewhere who will believe that they can make Corey into a late-blooming superstar, but the Orioles have had their chance. That said, while the Orioles may have the desire and even the funds to chase a premier free agent like Hunter or Jones, they have been labeled one of the most undesirable franchises in baseball because of their pushy, overzealous owner and their propensity for firing managers and racking up steroid allegations. In order to get somebody to take a chance on them, they're going to have to take a chance as well. One option would be Mike Cameron, an outstanding defender with good power coming off of an injury and a stimulant suspension. However, I think Baltimore should go as high-risk high-reward as possible. After all, there are three teams with significant advantages over them in their division. And nobody says high-risk high-reward quite like Milton Bradley.

Second Choice: Mike Cameron

Monday, October 29, 2007

5 Things I Learned From the 2007 Series

- Regular season broadcasters really aren't that bad.

I often find myself growing frustrated by the inanities of color commentators like Bob Brenly (Cubs) and Rex Hudler (Angels), but I yearn for them when faced with the prospect of watching several games in a row with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. I often find myself wondering if they even pay any attention to the regular season. I know that they are catering to an audience that may only watch baseball in October, but doesn't that make it all the more important that they provide a rich context for what makes the World Series worth watching. I don't expect anybody to be Vin Scully, but based on their broadcast, it's hard to tell if they do any preparation at all. When they do bring up a tidbit of moderate interest, like Manny Ramirez' average with two strikes or Troy Tulowitzki's likely Rookie of the Year candidacy, we get pounded with it at-bat after at-bat, night after night. Baseball is a game of nuance and almost hypnotic attention of detail. The broadcast should help bring that to life for both the baseball novice and the fanatic. Buck only sounds enthusiastic when he's making an ill-timed plug for one of their sponsors. Fox's broadcasters are neanderthals. If Fox wants to raise World Series ratings, I would start with something that they can change, instead of complaining about the prevalence of land-locked franchises in the playoffs. I was pleasantly surprised by the TBS broadcast team during the Division Series and the NLCS. Maybe that's an indication of a welcome change on the horizon.

- Dice-K needs to make some adjustments...and so do the Red Sox.

I was disappointed that Francona elected to remove Dice-K with one out in the sixth in Game 3. He had yet to give up a run, he had only allowed three hits and three walks, and Boston had a six-run lead! However, I did suffer through several of his late-season starts in which everything appeared to going smoothly before he suddenly got lit-up in the middle innings, so I can imagine what Francona was thinking.

I would argue that Dice-K's rookie year has been a success. Perhaps he has not fully lived up to the phenomenal expectations, but he pitched 200 innings, won 16 games, and was among the league leaders in strikeouts. And, there is no reason to believe that next year won't be even better. He is a smart pitcher and a fearsome competitor. I don't think he would've elected to join the MLB if he didn't think it was going to be a challenge. What is critical, I think, is that the Red Sox also make some changes to accomodate his idiosyncratic style and routines. I'm no saying they should be letting him throw 200 pitch bullpen sessions, but maybe they should let him get up to 120 more often. That is what his arm is used to, after all.

- Something really is wrong with the National League.

See previous post.

- Todd Helton deserves all those Gold Gloves, and another one in 2007.

Much has been made of the Rockies defense, and justifiably so. As the postseason wore on, announcers, particularly Buck and McCarver, became more and more enamored with the play of Colorado shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki. Again, justifiably so. However, what often got overlooked, was that the Rockies record-setting team fielding percentage could not have been achieved without Todd Helton. Sure, Helton has the typical lumbering physique of an aging first basemen. His range is not what it used to be. But, he is extraordinarily agile, his footwork is remarkable, and he has an amazing knack for reeling in wayward throws, whether they're in the dirt, over his head, or well off the bag. I think Tulowitzki and third baseman Garrett Atkins are pretty good glove men and they have extremely strong arms, but neither is particularly accurate. They don't have to be.

- Manny Ramirez is underrated.

It's strange to make such a remark about the fourth highest-paid player in the league, who is the clean-up hitter for one the best publicized teams in all of sports, but it's true. Sure, Manny has his adventures in left field, but he also turns in his fair share of web gems, especially when he's playing at home. His throw to cut down Kenny Lofton in a critical situation during Game 7 of the ALCS is a perfect example. Buck and McCarver don't like that his intentionally knocks off his helmet when he's on the basepaths or lingers to admire his atmospheric home runs. We're never going to confuse him with David Eckstein, but Manny doesn't exactly dog it either. His antics, which I can't help but find endearing for the most part, and the increasingly epic persona of David Ortiz, overshadow the fact that Manny Ramirez may be the best pure hitter in baseball right now. He works the count. He has power to all fields. He walks as often as he strikes out. He murders lefties and righties, even the best in the game. He hits situationally. You never see him swinging for the fences in an RBI situation, even though he often ends up clearing them nonetheless. And, of course, he's money when it counts most. In his four postseasons since joining the Sox, Manny is batting .321 with a 980 OPS and 38 RBIs in 43 games.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What's wrong with the National League?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ready to pronounce the Rockies dead just because they got pummeled in Game 1. It was a game they were destined to lose. That much-discussed eight day reprieve was the inevitable end of their magical streak. Not only that, they had to fight off the cobwebs in the inhospitable Fenway Park against the hottest postseason pitcher since Bob Gibson. Regardless of the magic, I don't think anybody would've picked Colorado to win Game 1. However, the drubbing the Red Sox gave their Ace, Jeff Francis, was certainly cause for concern.

Colorado's Game 2 starter, Ubaldo Jimenez, has enough talent to be competitive against anybody, so long as he is effectively wild. But, after that, the Rockies counter Dice-K and Jon Lester with the pedestrian Josh Fogg and the rehabilitating Aaron Cook, neither of whom can be expected to perform better, or even as well as, Francis. I don't believe the Rockies' bats will remain quiet, especially once the series moves back to Coors Field, but the always potent Boston lineup is truly running on all cylinders. Even disappointing free agent signees J. D. Drew and Julio Lugo have gotten involved in the last several Red Sox victories. If Jimenez loses Thursday, I fear another World Series sweep may be imminent.

If it unfolds as I'm suggesting, or even if Colorado extends it to five games, we will start the offseason with more discussion of the growing divide between the quality of teams (and players) in the American and National leagues. While the NL's disadvantage in the Fall Classic hasn't been that remarkable (they've been represented by five of the twelve champions between 1995 and 2006), they have lost eleven consecutive All-Star games and have been trounced in interleague play each of the last three seasons. In 2007, all four playoff franchises from the AL won more games than the best team in the NL.

Not long ago any discussion of the most valuable players in baseball was focused in the National League, where Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, and Vladimir Guerrero all resided as of 2000. Now Sheffield, Sosa, and Guerrero have defected, with Bonds and Griffey likely soon to follow, and the same discussion revolves around A-Rod and a couple of players from the Red Sox. Five of the six highest-paid players in 2007 were American Leaguers.

Although we have been taught by Billy Beane (or, maybe more accurately, Terry Ryan) that building a team is about more than money, it is telling that the NL has only three of the top ten payrolls in Major League Baseball, and six of the bottom seven. It seems strange then that ten teams in the senior circuit had attendance figures over $2.7 Million, compared to only four in the AL. Notoriously, the Chicago Cubs have sold out Wrigley Field regardless of the quality of team on the field or the amount of the Tribune Company's commitment. In recent years, while the Cubs have spent more, other NL franchises have learned to milk their traditions.

The Atlanta Braves spent nearly $20 Million less in 2007 than they did in 2002, even though the average major league player's salary has gone up half a million dollars during that time. The Braves '07 payroll was their lowest since 2000. To put that in perspective: in 2000, the Yankees only spent $93 Million, less than half what they did in '07. The Braves have not exactly been keeping up with the Joneses.

Similarly, the Giants, Cardinals, and Pirates, all among the oldest and most storied franchises in the National League, have authorized only fractional increases (or even decreases) in their payrolls over the last fives seasons. Conversely, the elder statesmen of the AL - the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Orioles, Athletics, and Tigers - have all raised their payrolls by $20 Million or more over the same span. All told, the American League pays more than 52% of all player salaries in baseball, despite the fact that they have two fewer franchises!

If the explanation for the difference between the leagues isn't money, what is the explanation? Is it that the DH rule allows the American League to retain great players longer? It is true that guys like Frank Thomas and Jim Thome continue to contribute to contenders into their forties. It is also true that David Ortiz, Sheffield, and Guerrero got many more at-bats this season, despite nagging injuries, than they would've if they were required to play the field everyday. In the '70s and '80s, when the Designated Hitter first came into play, teams usually filled the role with the equivalent of a top pinch-hitter, a guy who was at best the sixth or seventh best hitter on the team, or, occasionally, a veteran with considerably diminished skills. In 2007, more than half American League teams regularly batted their DH in the middle-of-the-order, third or fourth, employing him explicitly for the purpose of anchoring their lineup. One must wonder whether Ortiz or Travis Hafner would've had careers in the era before the DH was invented. Or, whether Thomas and Thome could've built convincing cases for the Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, this is hardly an acceptable explanation for the difference between the leagues. After all, the National League faired just fine during the '90s, when teams were beginning to understand the DH and excellent hitters like Edgar Martinez, Paul Moliter, Albert Belle, Harold Baines, and Jose Canseco were exploiting it to improve their contracts and prolong their careers.

Do quality free agent pitchers prefer the AL because they don't have to bat? Their may be some truth to the theory that power pitchers like Clemens and Beckett can pitch inside more comfortably in the AL because they don't have to fear retribution when they step into the batter's box. Additionally, some veteran pitchers - say a Curt Schilling or a David Wells - may feel that staying off of the basepaths and away from the lumber keeps them from humiliating themselves, hurting their teams, or spending time on the DL. But, then again, just as many pitchers prefer the NL, either because the like to hit (Livan Hernandez, Carlos Zambrano, etc.), they are comfortable with the NL style (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, etc.), or they hope to revitalize their careers by facing weaker lineups (Barry Zito, Ted Lilly, etc.).

I am the first to agree that teams should be focusing on drafting and developing their own players, and showing prudence on the free-agent market. However, the lesson to be learned from teams like Oakland, Minnesota, and Cleveland is not that you have to spend like those teams to play like those teams. National League teams seem prone to using the success of small-market franchises as an excuse for excessive frugality.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The World Series is next week! But who cares?!? Let's talk about the Yankees.

The Indians and Red Sox have reached the winner-takes-all moment in a series which featured, among other things, a seven run 11th-inning explosion, back-to-back-to-back homers, and the 35th stolen base of a postseason career. All are historic firsts.

The Rockies have won 21 of their last 22, including seven straight in the playoffs. They're headed to their first World Series.

But, naturally, most of the baseball headlines are concerned with the Yankees off-season plans. Will A-Rod opt-out? Will Joe Torre still be welcome in the Bronx? What part will Hank and Hal Steinbrenner's reclusive younger brother, Huck, have in the day-to-day baseball operations of the franchise? Does Jorge Posada look more like David Schwimmer or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?

Well, I have nothing more to say about the postseason at present, except that I'm enjoying it more and more the further it moves inland, so I may as well hop on the bandwagon. Obviously, I've got no insider information (despite my close relationship with Don Mattingly's second cousin). As one of the many Yankee-haters who will be watching the headlines of the next several weeks maniacally anticipating the worst fate for all things pinstriped, the best I can offer is what I hope will happen.

Brian Cashman & the Steinbrenners, the barbershop quartet auditioning for the next season of The Next Great American Band, will finish their secretive rehearsals in Florida and, unwilling to go back on George's word, fail to offer Joe Torre a reasonable contract, perhaps belittling his accomplishments during a widely-publicized press conference. You know, "He hasn't really proved himself in this millenium."

Against the recommendation of Cashman and others, the Steinbrenners will replace Torre with current bench coach, Don Mattingly, assuming that this offer of moderate stability will prevent an all-out desertion by the potential free-agent class that includes Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez will, predictably, opt-out and end up on the West Coast, probably in San Francisco. Mariano Rivera will follow, perhaps even joining the same team.

At this point, probably around December, the Stooges will begin to get anxious, as it dawns on them that they may actually end up with a worse team in 2008 than they had in '07, and one without an experienced manager or a confident clubhouse to help them overcome their annual spring slump. Hank and Hal don't want to give their father yet another reason to call them losers. They pick up the option on Bobby Abreu. They convince Pettitte to hang on for another year. And, in order to prevent Posada from defecting to the Mets, they offer him way more money than he's worth, something in the neighborhood of three years and $35 Million. (Cashman starts having Javy Lopez nightmares.)

Still, even with three dynastic (a.k.a., old and overrated) pieces of the puzzle in place (Posada, Pettitte, Jeter), the roster seems to have gaping holes in it. The Red Sox have lost next to nothing as they shore up their rotation with Clay Bucholz and Dontrelle Willis (in return for Coco Crisp and a prospect). Suddenly, as desperation fuels fantasy, members of the weak free-agent class begin to look tempting. The heroes of yesteryear, men who have haunted them in postseasons past: Schilling, Rogers, Lofton, Piazza, Glavine, Colon, Jones. Who could possibly replace A-Rod? Maybe, with rested knees and a revitalized lineup around him, maybe Barry Bonds? Who could possibly replace Rivera? Maybe Eric Gagne? Who could possible replace Roger Clemens? Well, maybe the Rocket has another year in him after all? They sign player after player on whim after whim, regardless of price, priority, or position. Melky Cabrera is once-again relegated to reserve duty. Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes are forced to fight over the one remaining spot in the rotation (Joba Chamberlain is, as Hank promised, inserted as the fourth starter). Out of necessity, Johnny Damon learns to play third base. As usual, the bullpen gets overlooked.

The season starts well. The Steinbrenner boys strut around the yard, the Yankees are still atop the division at the end of May. But, the tide turns. Leads are blown, repeatedly. Injuries plague key players. They stumble into the All-Star break around .500. Still, they say, "better than last year."

Chamberlain loses it in the second half, overworked and under-prepared. Posada's average dives toward .250. One after another, players land on the D.L. Without Torre's steady hand, the cookie crumbles. Even Jeter begins to look anxious at the plate. He argues with umpires, drops double play balls. Yankees fans wonder aloud, "Didn't he use to have more range on his right?" Only Robinson Cano lives up to expectations, exceeds them even. He smiles and, beginning to look more and more like Alfonso Soriano (if Soriano could really play second base), contemplates his looming free agency.

At the end of the year, the Yankees make a grand push. They finish above .500 for the 16th consecutive season. The Red Sox win the division. The Blue Jays finish second. Mattingly is summarily dismissed, like many great Yankee players before him (Martin, Pinella, Berra, Michael), he failed to live up to the Steinbrenner conception of managerial greatness. Torre, having taken a year off to work as an ESPN commentator (ala Pinella and Dusty Baker), is offered $8 Million to return. Instead he takes a job in St. Louis, as La Russa's bench coach.


That's what I hope will happen and, no matter what your loyalty, I think you'll agree that it isn't an entirely absurd prediction. The much more difficult question is, what should happen?

Even in the best of circumstance, with nobody looking over his shoulder and only moderate expectation, Cashman would have a hell of a lot of work to do this offseason. He has three potential holes in his everyday lineup (first base, third base, catcher), as well as a clusterfuck at designated hitter (Damon, Giambi, Duncan). He is probably looking at three rookies (or, practically rookies) in the starting rotation (Chamberlain, Hughes, Kennedy) and only one reliable arm in the bullpen (Vizcaino). And, like I said before, his fiercest rival in the division (the team with the best record in baseball in 2007) only loses one contributer (Schilling).

It won't happen, but the Yankees should commit to rebuilding, with or without Torre. Unlike teams like Pittsburgh or Kansas City, this would probably only take them a year, during which they would still be respectable. This would mean letting Posada, Rivera, Clemens, and Rodriguez go. Cabrera, Duncan, Betemit, Kennedy, and Hughes would all be expected to take on everyday roles. Perhaps they acquire underrated, lower-tier guys to shore up first base (somebody like Adam LaRoche), catcher (maybe Micheal Barrett), and closer (say Borowski or Dotel).

At the end of 2008 they will be relieved of their huge contractual commitments to Giambi, Abreu, and Mike Mussina. There will be a much stronger free agent class, probably including marquee guys like Johan Santana, C. C. Sabathia, Mark Texeira, and Vladimir Guerrero. Most importantly, perhaps, they will have a better sense of what they need. Are Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain all dependable starters? Can either Duncan or Betemit be valuable day in and day out? Do they have any other valuable prospects on the horizon?

The next Yankees dynasty is not far off, will they have the patience to wait for its arrival? Or will they compromise it in order to win 90 games next year?