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Friday, November 21, 2008

Quartet One

First of all, welcome a brand-new incarnation of the Hippeaux blog, updated to incorporate a wider variety of Americana. Baseball fans, however, can rest assured that my allegiance to that sport above all others remains undeterred. So, I will bare my 'seauxl' for the first time on the topic of the 2009 free agent class. Here are, in my opinion, the top twelve available players this offseason and a subjective view of which teams might make the best fit.

1. C. C. Sabathia - SP

Although he didn't win another Cy Young, Sabathia was even more dominant this time around then he was in Cleveland a year ago. He became to first pitcher to record 10 complete games and 5 shutouts since Randy Johnson did it ten years ago (interestingly, '98 was the season the Big Unit was traded from the AL to the NL midseason). At only 28, Sabathia has already played in eight full big-league seasons and has never pitched less than 180 innings or tallied less than eleven wins. While I would find it hard to argue that he is a more valuable pitcher than Johan Santana, I think it is now safe to say that they are the only two pitchers in the discussion. The extremes ends of the Sabathia contract have already been delineated. The Brewers offering 5 yrs./$100 Million and the Yankees countering with 6 yrs./$140 Million. However, if money were the only issue, I think it is safe to say we'd already have picture of the big guy holding up pinstripes. Sabathia has thrived the past two seasons as the recognized leader of young, successful teams. Besides the much-discussed factors of wanting to remain in the NL and wanting to be closer to his home on the west coast, I think C. C. is reluctant to play third or fourth or fifth or sixth fiddle to long-time Yankees like Jeter, A-Rod, Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte. It is clear that he thrives as the workhorse and clubhouse chairperson of an underdog franchise. I'm not saying that Sabathia is a egomaniac who needs to be constantly in the limelight - if her were, obviously, New York would be the place for him - merely that he might prefer a franchise where he has more opportunity to lead.

With that in mind, recent rumors that the Giants are preparing an offer somewhere between what is on the table from Milwaukee and New York seem compelling. On the one hand, the Giants already possess a formidable rotation and would seem best served by committing their free agent dollars to the pursuit of more offense. But, you can never have too much quality starting pitching and Sabathia would be the likable, long-term replacement for Barry Bonds in a way which Barry Zito clearly failed to be and big-ticket bats like Manny Ramirez and Mark Texeira might have trouble duplicating. With Sabathia in the fold, the Giants would also have the option of trading Matt Cain or Jonathan Sanchez for that middle of the order thunder. Or, they could try to be the San Diego Padres - a hyperbolic emphasis on pitching and defense at the expense of offense - a formula which had a considerable history of success prior to this season.

2. Manny Ramirez - LF/DH

There may be only one place in the country where it is safe to say that Manny won't end up. Obviously, low-budget bottom-feeders like Pittsburgh and Kansas City would be unwise to pursue one player at the expense of filling a multitude of holes, but I could see a wide variety of GMs convincing themselves and their ownership that Manny Ramirez represents the quickest avenue to contention. They need look no further than their recent memories. He carried the Dodgers to the NLCS by batting nearly .400 with a Bonds-like OPS (1232) during the last 2+ months of the regular season, then hit over .500 in October. Only a year prior to that he carried the Red Sox to the World Series by driving in 16 runs during the ALDS and ALCS. Postseason runs are scarce, yet during his 43 playoff games with the Red Sox, Manny accumulated 38 RBI. There is really no case against such a hitter. There are logical openings for him in Seattle, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Texas, Washington, and Baltimore, where he could provide a boost for the fan base and make playoff aspirations seem legitimate. In places like Detroit, Tampa Bay, and all teams in New York, Chicago, and L.A., Manny could be the piece that turns perennial contention into championship fulfillment.

I think it will be a team from the latter group which finally pulls the trigger, becomes willing to offer four years rather than three. And, although I will not rule out of possibility of seeing Manny heading home to NYC, the best fit seem to be the Dodgers, where his eccentric personality was immediately embraced by the franchise and the community, and especially the young, talented players, many of whom probably owned a Ramirez jersey in high school. The front office will defer to Torre, who has plenty of experience dealing with prima donnas.

3. Mark Texeira - 1B

The last two seasons, Texeira has been like a freelance bodyguard. While he put up great numbers of his own after joining Atlanta in '07 and the Angels this season, he was brought on to provide protection for a superstar, Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero, respectively. I expect this pattern to continue. The Angels, obviously, would like to retain his services, as Torii Hunter is the closest thing they have to a cleanup hitter. Boston would like to fill that gaping hole behind Big Papi, because, although Youkilis, Pedroia, Bay, and Drew are all great hitters, none of them profiles with Texeira's (or Ramirez') power. The Yankees will be parting ways with Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, while the health of Posada and Matsui remains in question, so they appear to have gaping holes on either side of A-Rod in the lineup. I expect this to devolve into a New York vs. Boston bidding war, such that Texeira may get the biggest payday this offseason even though he might not be the most valuable player. If Boston wins, New York will redouble their pursuit of Ramirez or, perhaps, try to sign Adam Dunn to play first base. If New York wins, I expect Theo Epstein to look for creative trade possibilities. With Jon Lest, Dice-K, and Beckett ingrained in the rotation, he may be willing to move Clay Buchholz and/or Justin Masterson.

4. Rafael Furcal - SS

Others may disagree, but it is my contention that an excellent defensive shortstop, who can hit near .300 batting leadoff, steal bases, and walk as often as he strikes out is more valuable than a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher like A. J. Burnett or Derek Lowe. I need look no further than Billy Beane's aggressive pursuit of Furcal to know there's some truth to this. Beane is not known for his interest in expensive free agents.

Sure, we can't expect Furcal to hit like he did in April and May (before he got injured) over the course of a full season, but even while shaking off the rust during the playoffs he looked like a solid igniter. Oakland won't be the only team interested and as the price goes up, I expect Beane's eagerness to subside. Joe Torre repeatedly applauded Furcal, even while he was going through his prolonged rehabilitation, so I think it's reasonable to think he might resign with L.A.

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