Thursday, January 28, 2010

Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers...

The clock is ticking ever closer to the 2010 season, with pitchers and catchers set to report to Florida and Arizona in about three weeks. But like last winter, there are plenty of bargains for teams yet to fill out their big league rosters. In fact, you could probably field a halfway decent club using the cream of the remaining crop.

Take, for instance, Jim Thome. The Twins signed the lefty DH for a song, committing just $1.5 million plus incentives for 2010. Thome can't play the field anymore but his .881 OPS against RH pitching in '09 will surely come in handy in the close AL Central. Adding Thome's pop could wind up being the difference at minimal cost to Minnesota.

The difference makers are still out there. Let's take a look at a few of them:

Hank Blalock: The lefty-hitting corner infielder will play somewhere other than Arlington for the first time in his career this year. At 29, Blalock may no longer be serviceable in the field but can still hit, knocking 25 homers in 462 plate appearances in '09. The problem: Blalock struck out 108 times compared to 26 walks with a career-low .277 OBP. The Orioles had been linked to Blalock throughout the winter before they signed Miguel Tejada last week. Some team willing to take a chance on his power can probably get Blalock for a Thome-like contract.

Ryan Garko: After trading for Garko for the stretch run last summer, it seemed odd for the Giants to non-tender him, considering he's only 29 and hit 21 homers in '07. But then I looked at his splits: his '09 OPS against lefties (.870) was over 150 points higher than against righties (.713). Garko offers some versatility with the ability to play corner outfield in addition to first base (although his catching days are far behind him). The Rangers have emerged as a possible suitor, but it's hard to imagine them blocking Justin Smoak in any fashion. Garko might make sense for an NL team in need of a righty power bench bat.

Orlando Hudson: Why can't the O-Dog get any love? Last winter he was forced to wait until February 22 to sign a one-year deal with the Dodgers, and it's looking like he might have to wait nearly as long this time. It's especially inexplicable this time around because Hudson's coming off an All-Star, Gold Glove season during which he played 149 games. Rest assured that if the Mets weren't tied down to Luis Castillo's contract he'd be gearing up for a season in Queens right now. Unfortunately, it looks like his last best option is Washington. Poor O-Dog!

Felipe Lopez: A solid pickup for the Brewers in July, Lopez made the transition to full-time second baseman in '09 with strong results (7.6 UZR/150). In addition, he was fifth in the NL in hits (187) and ninth in average (.310). His .810 OPS was the second-highest of his career (.838 in '05, his best season). Yet as February nears, he doesn't have a job. If Hudson doesn't sign with the Nats, a return engagement there for Lopez appears likely. Or he could go back to the Cardinals, where he spent half the '08 season. Whichever team gets him will likely be tickled pink to have him at a discount.

Orlando Cabrera: Perhaps Cabrera is best suited for the bench at this point in his career. Sure, he's undeniably durable, playing in under 153 games just once since '01, but Cabrera's .705 OPS the last two years isn't exactly spectacular and he took a huge step back in the field in '09 with a -13.7 UZR/150. Regardless, your team is likely to be better for having Cabrera than not because of his ebullient personality and tremendous leadership qualities. Since joining the Red Sox in '04, his teams have only missed the playoffs once, and that was an 89-win '06 Angels crew. The Reds really like Cabrera, so for a couple million he might have a new home there.

Joe Crede: If not for three back surgeries the last three years, Crede would likely be one of the top-paid third basemen in baseball. He's long been one of the most defensively under-appreciated players at his position, and still hit 32 homers between two half-seasons in '09-'10. The experiment didn't really work out last year in Minnesota, and with the Orioles plugging their corner infield holes, the options are limited for Crede. The Cardinals might need a third baseman, but money is an issue for them. If he's willing to play for less than his '09 $2.5 million salary, something might get done there.

Johnny Damon: The most perplexing of all the names on this list. Damon put up stellar '09 numbers, albeit ones aided by playing his home games in a park tailor-made for lefty hitters. Still, 24 homers, 107 runs and an .854 OPS are nothing to scoff at. His defense dropped off in '09, but he's by no means a liability out there yet. So is it really possible Damon, who hoped to continue earning $13 million per year, might have to settle for as little as $2 million for '10? The A's appear to have the upper hand right now. If you ask me, the team that really screwed the pooch when it comes to Damon is Kansas City. If they hadn't stupidly thrown money at Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, Damon, a Kansas native, would have been a perfect fit. You mean to tell me the fans wouldn't have loved to see Damon back? Who cares if he sucks in the outfield; are the Royals going anywhere? A real missed opportunity.

Jermaine Dye: It's hard to find a worse defensive player in baseball than Dye, at least if advanced metrics tell us anything. His UZR/150 each of the last four years: -21.5, -21.5, -21.4 and -24.5. This winter of heightened emphasis on defense was a horrible time for Dye to hit the free agent market, and that's why he finds himself jobless. It also doesn't help that his offense has fluctuated significantly over the last few seasons. The number of teams interested in Dye continues to dwindle. He can still hit, so at the very least a team will be happy securing his power for their bench.

The pitching crop is more thin at this point, with Erik Bedard the only remaining potential top-tier starter. If healthy, Noah Lowry, Mark Mulder and Jarrod Washburn could also pay significant dividends for frugal teams.

It will be interesting to see if any of these players I've highlighted wind up pushing a team over the threshold into the playoffs, or even contribute to a World Champion.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tackling the Sox Offseason

The Red Sox always do a fantastic job stealing headlines away from Boston teams that actually play in the winter. While the Patriots prepare for a playoff tilt with Baltimore, the Celtics keep winning despite missing come key pieces, and the Bruins experience a hangover from the glorious Winter Classic, the myriad moves Theo Epstein and company have made to reshape the Red Sox for a new decade are on seemingly everyone's lips.

I've liked, to varying degrees, every move the club has made this winter. I'll go in depth shortly, but they've added a top-of-the-rotation starter, vastly improved team defense (especially on the left side of the infield), shored up the bench with useful pieces who can play everyday if needed, gotten younger, assured themselves of four picks between the 20th and 53rd choices in the June draft, signed only one player to a guaranteed deal longer than two years and did not dip into the farm system to address any of these needs. They set a goal to improve run prevention and defensive efficiency, and they've followed through on it. During a winter with a depressed free agent market, the Red Sox have done extremely well.

Apparently, lots of people don't share with my feelings. On Wednesday, I drove down to Boston for a Passion Pit concert and listened in to Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti's radio show on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Maybe it's because I'm stuck in my little cocoon in northern New Hampshire, but I had no idea the Red Sox offseason has been so loathed by so many.

I wasn't necessarily surprised by the sour feelings of the hosts; Felger was melting down while Massarotti was a bit more measured in his distaste. That's surprising because it's been more than a year and Mazz still isn't over the failed Mark Teixeira signing, and he couldn't resist tossing in a barb on that while I was listening.

Felger accused the Red Sox of not being truthful about their offseason mission (which is hilarious coming from a guy who's primarily covered the Patriots, surely the most forthcoming of organizations in sports) and being unwilling to spend big money on the bat he feels this offense sorely needs.

He also made the following claim, which would be more astonishing if it wasn't so hysterical: the Red Sox need give out more risky, long-term, bad contracts (yes, he actually endorsed "bad contracts") because they have the financial muscle to do so. I want to analyze this statement in more detail, but I'm afraid it would cause the bursting of multiple blood vessels in my brain. Instead, I'll just say that same philosophy has worked out beautifully for the Mets and leave it at that.

The callers for the Felgie and Mazz "Let's Rip Everyone Whether They Deserve It or Not Power Hour sponsored by Schlitz Beer" were mostly in agreement with the hosts, bitching as usual about the high cost of a potentially disappointing team, its affect on ticket prices, the lack of the one big hitter, how they haven't addressed a bullpen that's now awful because they blew one game in the playoffs, and plenty of other stuff I've blocked out of my memory.

Am I missing something here? All the sound and fury about not spending big money signifies nothing to me. Every argument against the spendthrift Sox of '09-'10 leaves out the John Lackey signing, and I don't recall a time when $82.5 million wasn't big money in baseball.

Lackey coming aboard caught me by surprise, and I think it caught the Red Sox by surprise too. He's had some injuries and some trouble in Fenway Park, but at worst he's an ultra-competitive no. 2 starter who wants to ball in a big game. The Red Sox signed this winter's best free agent starter to a market value contract and solidified a rotation that should rank amongst the finest in baseball in '10. Lackey also protects the Red Sox in case Josh Beckett flees via free agency after this season.

To me, the Lackey signing was unassailable, except that five years may wind up being excessive for a 31-year-old with an injury history. (The Sox even protected themselves here with an unprecedented "conditional" league-minimum option for 2015 if he misses "significant time" due to a preexisting elbow injury. Epstein is always thinking. He's like Omar Minaya in reverse.)

Announced at the same time was the Mike Cameron signing. Cameron's been a premiere defensive outfielder his entire career, and Epstein & Co. decided Lackey would be their "big money" move and went on the cheap to replace Jason Bay. Although no one could consider Cameron offensively superior to Bay right now, the not-overwhelming difference in their OPS over the last three years (Bay: .855, Cameron: .786) tells me Cameron's excellent defense will help make up the difference.

I would not have minded the Red Sox keeping Bay. Unfortunately, all of his value comes from his bat, as he's been abhorrently awful statistically in left field with UZR/150s of -11.4, -18.2 and -11.2 in the last three years. Bay's deal with the Mets should keep him in Queens for five seasons, but after three I'll be shocked if he's still patrolling the cavernous left field terrain of Citi Field.

It took a couple weeks for this to be confirmed by the team, but Cameron will be the Red Sox center fielder in '10 with Jacoby Ellsbury shifting to left field. It won't be a permanent move for Ellsbury's career, and his bizarre -18.3 UZR/150 in '09 isn't indicative of the kind of defender he'll become. But with Cameron's defensive toolkit (Felgie made fun of Francona's assertion that Cameron is better suited to play center because of his "long strides," as if that's somehow worthy of ridicule), it didn't make much sense to stick him in left field. Now the Red Sox can sport a starting outfield with three center fielders.

Also, I can't take anyone seriously who claims Ellsbury's offensive game doesn't work for a left fielder. What the hell difference does it make? Because he's playing left that means he can't be a leadoff hitter? Ever hear of this guy? Yikes.

Already armed with the best free agent shortstop available on the market in Marco Scutaro, Epstein set his sights on the best third baseman available. He got his man, Adrian Beltre, whose signing became official Thursday evening. The contract for Beltre is a dandy, one of the best by any team this offseason.

Scott Boras went into the winter expecting a four-year contract for Beltre north of $10 million annually. It didn't happen, especially since his client missed over 50 games due to injury last year and posted a .683 OPS when he was playing. Still, a few teams came in with multi-year offers, including the A's.

The deal he wound up signing for Beltre with Boston was fantastic for so many reasons. First, the one-year commitment at $9 million is exactly the kind of move the Red Sox love. The $5 million player option for '11 is low enough that Beltre will probably decline it. But, there's an escalator clause that bumps the option up to $10 million if he reaches 640 PAs this year. That might be enough to keep him, and if Beltre hits that PA plateau, the Sox will probably want him back anyway.

When healthy, Beltre has proven himself to be one of the best defensive players of his generation. Check out this gushing Dave Cameron post on FanGraphs about him, and this YouTube clip that somehow hasn't been taken down yet. (UPDATE: It's gone.) Seems hard to say this is a bad move, no? Minimal commitment, spectacular defense, potential for strong offense in Fenway; I'm not seeing the downside.

Mike Lowell is still on the Red Sox for now, but he clearly represents what the team used to be. Despite the trade of Casey Kotchman to the Mariners for Bill Hall, the Sox will continue to try and unload Lowell before the season starts. I expect that to happen, as long as Lowell can prove himself healthy in spring training. Perhaps a team will take a chance beforehand.

Hall provides a versatile backup on the left side of the infield and could be the fifth outfielder behind Jeremy Hermida, too. The Sox are only on the hook for $1.25 million of his $8.4 million '10 salary. He hit 35 homers four years ago and Epstein's always liked him. Hall is one of those guys I always expected would end up in Boston, and here he is.

So outside of finding a new home for Lowell, it appears the Red Sox will go into the season with what they have. The starting lineup will be comprised of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Martinez, Youkilis, Ortiz, Drew, Beltre, Cameron and Scutaro. Only Beltre had an OBP in '09 lower than the AL average of .331. Everyone can hit double-digit homers, but no one is likely to hit much more than 30. Will everything work out? Maybe not. But to assume in January this team will stink offensively is at the very least shortsighted.

If the offense does lag, the farm system is still well-stocked because of these moves and they could add that impact bat during the season when the cost won't be so high. But this wasn't the right offseason to add tons of offense. Next winter will be different. With over $50 million coming off the books, and Epstein not showing much effort to keep Martinez from hitting free agency, I firmly believe Boston will be going hard for Joe Mauer next winter.

How's that for an impact bat?

But the Red Sox have done the right thing this winter. Instead of tying themselves down in a bad market to those "bad contracts" Mike Felger so craves, they're trying to stay ahead of the curve by taking the undervalued run prevention route.

Go back and watch that Beltre video again. On nearly every play, Beltre kept those scorchers or dribblers from becoming base hits that could eventually become runs. This isn't rocket science, folks. It's how you play winning baseball, and that's what the Red Sox are going for.

Maybe they aren't doing what many Sox fans want. But no one will remember the bickering of these winter headlines if the Red Sox are holding the hardware in October.