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Monday, November 15, 2010

Where have all the sluggers gone? (Hot Stove Preview)

I'm going to assume that early reports that Hiroki Kuroda has signed a one-year, $12 Million contract to stay with the Dodgers are true.  If so, I think it's safe to say he gave them a home-town discount.  Kuroda was arguably the second-best starting pitcher on the market this winter.  With the exception of missing some time in 2009, Koruda has been extremely steady in the Dodger rotation over the last three seasons, posting a 3.60 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.  FanGraphs estimated his worth this past season at around $17 Million.  Even though he is 35, he probably could've sought at least two or three years at $8-$10 Million per, considering his recent performance and the relative sparsity of free agent pitchers this offseason.  Consider, as a comparable, that Randy Wolf got three years, $30 Million last season from Milwaukee.  

Wrapping up Koruda for less money than he made the last two seasons represents a minor coup for Ned Colletti, who will likely be cash-strapped again this winter, as the McCourt divorce doesn't seem anywhere near resolution.  The Dodgers are coming off a very disappointing season, but at least they have some stability in the rotation with Kuroda, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, and Clayton Kershaw.  Colletti can concentrate solely on finding a middle-of-the-order presence to pair with Andre Ethier.  Considering his financial limitations, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he looks long and hard at potential trade targets like Prince Fielder, Carlos Beltran, and Dan Uggla.  Los Angeles possesses a notoriously deep farm system, though Colletti is unlikely to mortgage his top talents unless he believes it will bring the kind of bat (like Fielder) who makes the Dodgers immediate favorites in the NL West.

Here's my first look at some of the other names you're likely to hear a lot in the next month...

Premium Free Agents:

1. Cliff Lee (Starting Pitcher)

Top Suitors: New York Yankees, Texas Rangers

In the last fifteen months, Cliff Lee has sure made up for all those years he spent being underrated in Cleveland.  Some went so far as to call him the best postseason pitcher in history after two straight impressive Octobers with the Phillies and Rangers.  Now he's primed to chase his friend and former teammate's mark for the largest average annual value in a multiyear contract for a starting pitcher.  Since he's already in his thirties, teams may be reluctant to give Lee more than five years, but they may very well offer close to $25 Million per season.  Also, although Lee is a talent any team would be interested in, several of the deepest pocketbooks this winter - Boston, Seattle, Detroit, etc. - aren't likely to chase pitching, which means it could come down to a bidding war between the Yankees and Rangers.

Hippeaux's Prediction: New York Yankees (6 Yrs./$140 Million)

2. Carl Crawford (Left Field)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox 

Crawford is in the pleasant position of being clearly the best hitter among a relatively thin class in the offseason following a severe league-wide offensive backslide.  Crawford is the perfect player for team preparing to compete in a "pitcher's era."  Not only is he a .300 hitter with decent power, but he is also an excellent baserunner and basestealer who is probably the best defender in the sport at his position.  He's not yet thirty, but Crawford has already played nine full seasons, and only once did he fail to top 140 games.  And, as if that weren't enough, he's reputed for his intangibles as well: a clubhouse leader in Tampa with a tireless work ethic and the charisma to illicit the same from his teammates.  The bidding will be steep.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Boston Red Sox (7 Yrs./$130 Million)

3. Jayson Werth (Right Field)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals

Crawford may be "The Perfect Storm," but Werth is hardly short on tools.  He's got power, speed, discipline, range, and an excellent throwing arm.  He's also coming off easily the best year of his career and will be 32 in May of next year.  There is reason to be cautious.  We may have just witnessed his peak.  That isn't to say that he won't be fairly productive for several more years, but the team that chooses to give him a nine-figure contract could soon find themselves with an Soriano-sized albatross.  And who, besides the Cubs, has a penchant for such signings?

Hippeaux's Prediction: San Francisco Giants (6 Yrs./$100 Million)

4. Adrian Beltre (Third Base)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians

Beltre has his best season since 2004 and was a legitimate candidate for the AL MVP, which made Theo Epstein look like a bit a genius for signing him to a one-year, $9 Million deal.  However, it may have served to make him even more of an enigma.  Was his relatively modest production during his five years in Seattle really just a product of the ballpark?  Is it possible he's one of those players who only steps it up during contract years?  Was he inspired by playing for a contender (just as he did in '04)?  There's no easy answer to these questions, which makes it hard to ante up for the 2010 Beltre (worth over $28 Million according to FanGraphs), when you may end up with the 2009 Beltre (worth less than $12 Million).  Somebody will gamble, but not for more than three years.  

Hippeaux's Prediction: Chicago White Sox (3 Yrs./$45 Million)

5. Adam Dunn (First Base/DH)

Top Suitors: Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals

Never has a player with five consecutive forty-homer season garnered so little interest as Adam Dunn did in 2009.  His pathetic outfield defense and his massive strikeout totals scared all the contenders away, forcing Dunn to accept a two-year, $20 Million deal with the Nationals, even though he was a 29-year-old slugger.  I would say, the hate was too great.  Dunn has since moved to first base and, in all likelihood, is headed to DH at some point in the near future.  All the while he's continued to hit moonshots.  76 of them during his two years in Washington.  Only Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder had more.  With power numbers falling around in the league, teams might have a little more patience for Dunn's limitations this offseason.  The Big Donkey is not without his charms.  He's basically unbreakable, having never missed more than ten games, since 2003.  And he has a career OBP of .381, which is better than Mark Teixeira ($181 Million) or Ryan Howard ($125 Million), among others.

As a little sidenote, with 354 homers entering the 2011 season, Dunn may be the first "untainted" player to reach the 500 HR plateau and not gain entrance to the Hall of Fame.  Dunn has never been connected to steroids, though he played through the tailend of that "era," and his utter consistency in the power department has discouraged those who are otherwise prone to aimless speculation.  However, he's only garnered MVP consideration twice (perhaps this year is the third?) and has never finished with more than four points (1%).  He's been named to just one All-Star team (2002).  He hasn't been awarded any noteworthy hardware.  And, despite his consistently stellar power numbers, he's never led the league in anything except walks (once) and strikeouts (thrice).  For me, it's hard to sell him as one of the best players in the history of the game.  But barring catastrophe, he's almost sure to join the 500 HR club sometime in the next five years (he'll probably be its 27th member).  That will make him a very hard case for Hall of Fame voters.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Texas Rangers (3 Yrs./$36 Million)

6. Victor Martinez (Catcher/First Base)

Top Suitors: Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets

Matt Klaasen of Beyond the Box Score (among other things) recently released his Catcher Defense Rankings for the 2010 season.  To nobody's great surprise, V-Mart ranked near the bottom (#114 of 120, to be exact).  Being "better than Jorge Posada" may not be enough for Martinez's next employer, but V-Mart's value on the free agent market is much higher when tied to his ability to produce well above the standards for backstops.  To be fair, there are some things that Klassen's rankings cannot account for.  By all reports, V-Mart is a great field general, clubhouse leader, and game-caller.  Those things were certainly enough to keep marquee hitters like Posada, Jason Varitek, and Gary Carter behind the plate long after they stopped excelling at blocking balls and controlling the running game.  That said, I think it's in the best interests of V-Mart's next team to have a contingency plan, so I expect he won't be headed anywhere that has a long-range commitment at 1B and/or DH.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Detroit Tigers (4 Yrs./$50 Million)

7. Aubrey Huff (First Base/Outfield)

Top Suitors: San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Atlanta Braves

I'm a serious Huff fan.  I even went so far as to make his case for NL MVP this year.  But even I have to be a little wary of a 34-year-old with a history of back and knee injuries coming off a career year.  Huff looked fantastic in 2010.  He came to camp in great shape and showed no ill effects following his derailed '09 campaign.  He even played better than average defense at multiple positions and stole seven bases, the second highest total of his career.  Huff, who, to be honest, has been perennially underpaid, will cite these accomplishments and his playoff heroics while lobbying for the biggest contract of his career.  (His 3 Yr./$20 Million contract with Baltimore wasn't exactly a megadeal.)  So long as the buyer doesn't go much beyond that, I can't fault them.  The potential reward well outweighs the risk.

Hippeaux's Prediction: San Francisco Giants (3 Yrs./$25 Million)

8. Paul Konerko (First Base)

Top Suitors: Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals


Like Huff, Konerko is coming off the best year in his long, very solid career, the last dozen seasons of which have been spent in Chicago.  He's a year older than Huff and has made about $50 Million more over the course of his career so far.  I see little reason for him to look for a change of scenery and the White Sox don't exactly have a stable of young sluggers waiting in the wings.  Konerko may even give the ChiSox a moderate hometown discount, especially if they're willing to work in some incentives and/or mutual option years.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Chicago White Sox (3 Yrs./$30 Million + mutual option)

9. Carl Pavano (Starting Pitcher)

Top Suitors: Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs

Note that it's a steep drop between the top starting pitchers on the market this winter, which only improves Cliff Lee's bargaining position.  I rate Pavano slightly ahead of Kuroda, de la Rosa, Jake Westbrook, and Javier Vazquez, but it's a really close call.  All have substantial risk with moderate upside.  Four things are working against all these guys.  1.) The really big-market clubs have their hearts set on Cliff Lee, Zach Greinke, or hitters.  2.) Many mid-market franchises are running scared because of the obvious fiscal danger of signing middling free agent pitchers to lengthy contracts (see Suppan, Jeff; Silva, Carlos; etc.).  3.) Coming off "the year of the pitcher," fewer teams than usual are feeling pressed to make major changes in their rotations.  4.) Everybody and their mother has realized the importance of "young pitching," so teams are finding it easier to sell their fan bases on rookies like Jeremy Hellickson, Mike Minor, Kyle Drabek, and Brad Lincoln.

Having been one of those middling starters who got dramatically overpaid several year back, Pavano's probably not cursing the situation quite so much as his younger peers.

Hippeaux's Prediction: St. Louis Cardinals (3 Yrs./$25 Million)

10. Jorge de la Rosa (Starting Pitcher)

Top Suitors: Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners

Jorge de la Rosa won't yet be 30 on Opening Day, which can be said of very, very few of the pitchers on the market this winter.  It's also very possible that we haven't yet seen the best of him.  His WHIP and his ERA have improved in each of the last four seasons, while his strikeout and walk rates have remained steady.  Also, he's been pitching in the very unfriendly confines of Coors Field.  One could certainly see how a desperate GM could talk himself into a lengthy, Gil Meche-type deal for southpaw.

On the other hand, de la Rosa has missed a lot of time.  He's managed 30+ starts only once, in '09.  He's had several stretches of brilliance, including the final six weeks of this year, but he's never been able to perform at that level for a whole season.  Maybe he never will.  If Jorge really wants to maximize his earnings in the long-term, he should probably take a one-year deal and prove he's the pitcher he looked like in August and September.  If he did that, he'd probably be looking at $40-$50 Million in the winter of 2011.  In not, he'll probably be setting for around $7 Million a year for the next three or four seasons.

Hippeaux's Prediction: Chicago Cubs (4 Yrs./$35 Million) Just because I fully expect Jim Hendry to do something stupid this winter and it might as well be this.

Later in the week I'll take a look at the primary trade targets...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, it looks like you nailed the V-Mart signing right on the head. Good luck with the rest.