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

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