Let’s Make a Deal

Christmas is coming early for the 2006 free agent class. With general managers gathered to do a little holiday shopping at the winter meetings in Orlando, a number of players have already cashed in on this year’s free-agent frenzy.

The N.L. West is finally starting to make some noise with the Dodgers letting Greg Maddux move South to San Diego for a one-year $10 million deal and replacing him with 33 year old former San Fran ace, Jason Schmidt with a three year $47 million contract. This looks like a decent move for the Dodgers who seem to be turning over half their roster this offseason. Adding Schmidt to the fold won’t generate the headlines that the now-dead rumor of a blockbuster deal for Manny Ramirez would have but trading disgruntled Brad Penny for a bat appears much more likely at this point. Schmidt has had a few arm problems in the past and is probably far removed from putting up the kind of numbers that made him a Cy Young contender in 2003 and 2004 but 200 IP, 15 wins and 180 K’s seems well within his reach. The thing is, while Maddux can’t overpower hitters like Schmidt, he will likely match him in wins and innings pitched at $7 million less this season but in the mediocre N.L. West, Schmidt could be a difference maker.

Padres fans have to love this move. Sure, $10 million is a little steep, but not outrageous considering this market. Maddux definitely looked reinvigorated after moving West last season and playing half his games in pitcher friendly Petco Park will probably only improve his numbers. This is a great move for the Padres. Maddux will share his wealth of knowledge with San Diego’s young staff and help them take the next step as Kenny Rogers did for the Tigers last season.

On the East Coast, the Red Sox continue to be a major player this offseason inking both J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo for 5 years and $70 million and 4 years and $36 million, respectively. No one doubts Drew’s ability to swing the stick but questions about his desire and injury history have dogged him his entire career. Bitter fans in Philly, St. Louis, Atlanta, LA here’s your chance to say your peace. Under the microscope in Boston definitely seems like an odd choice for Drew even with the big payday. Without a strong start, the boo birds will be out early and often in Beantown.

Lugo will replace defensive wizard and automatic out Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and likely hit leadoff in a lineup that could rival the Yankees with Manny seemingly off the market and Drew, at least on paper an offensive upgrade over Trot Nixon. How will these moves affect the race in the hyper-competitive A.L. East? If nothing else, the Sox have proven to everyone that the Yanks are no longer the only Evil Empire on the block.

Orioles Joining Arms Race

With former Tigers lefty specialist Jamie Walker and righty Danys Baez already in the fold for the next three years, the Orioles are also now said to be close to signing Scott Williamson along with submariner Chad Bradford.  The quartet will cost the O’s about $12 million next season.

After being shut out on a number of big name free agents over the past few years, perhaps the O’s brass is taking a new approach.  Bolstering the bullpen will not make the front page splash that signing a Zito or Schmidt would but it may be the quickest and most cost effective way to improve the team for next season. 

The O’s also hope to have John Parish return healthy after missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery, giving them five reliable arms in front of Chris Ray.  Unless they plan to have the shaky Baez close games, it seems very unlikely that the O’s will move Ray unless it’s part of a major multi-player deal.  Considering Peter Angelos’s track record of putting the kibosh on any blockbuster trades, that seems like a longshot.   

After making a deal with the Yankees to acquire Jaret Wright at $3 million for next season, the Orioles appear to have the makings of a solid rotation.  Erik Bedard emerged last season as a legitimate frontline starter and if Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen can harness their impressive potential under pitching guru Leo Mazzone, the O’s will no longer be a doormat in the AL East. 

They remain in the market for a slugger to man left field or first base and there are still lingering questions about the happiness of Miguel Tejada but this team looks to finally be headed in the right direction.  A strong bullpen in front of Chris Ray will ease the pressure on the O’s young rotation and should set the stage for a major improvement in 2007.

Eight years $135 million, how bout that?

The money being thrown around this offseason is getting crazier every day.  The Cubs are reportedly are going to give Alfornso Soriano $135 million for eight years.  I’m not sure what other offers were out there but I have to wonder if the Cubs were bidding against themselves here.   Soriano did put up a career year in 2006, putting up 46 homers, 41 SB and an OPS of .911.  He also agreed to play the outfield for the Nationals and repeatedly stated his desire to remain in Washington, turning around what was once a so-so clubhouse reputation. 

Does this move make the Cubs an immediate contender with the parts they have returning?  Adding Soriano at the top of the lineup with Lee and Ramirez in the middle will provide a big boost to last year’s anemic offense.  At thirty years old, you have to wonder about the wisdom of giving Soriano an eight year contract.  No doubt, he should make the biggest impact of any free agent on the market but at $17 million a season, is it really worth it?  Cubs ownership has a history of pinching pennies.  With Pinella’s arrival, they seem eager to shed that lable, maybe a little over eager from my perspective.  This is a team that lost 96 games last year.  For all the acquisitions they’ve made this season, you still have a rotation full of question marks outside of Carlos Zambrano.  Maybe this gets them in Wild Card contention next year but much more needs to be done before considering them a legitimate contender. 

Matsuzaka Madness

The Red Sox $51 million bid for Japanese Ace Daisuke Matsuzaka is the most controversial free agent move since A-Rod became the $252 million man for the Texas Rangers after the 2000 season. The Red Sox winning bid does not include the cost of signing Matsuzaka to an actual contract. Most around baseball expect Matsuzaka to sign a contract in the neighborhood of $48 million for four years, bringing the grand total to just under $100 million for four years. By now, you know all the facts, the 26-year old Matsuzaka throws a commanding mid-nineties fastball with three quality off-speed pitches and if you believe the hype, a “gyroball,” a mythical pitch designed by Japanese scientists. For his part, Matsuzaka denies the gyroball reports but considering the hype, he may need to get working on it.

The Sox motivation for this move has already been debated ad-nauseum. Some even believe the Sox put in the high bid just to keep him away from the Yankees and that they won’t even sign him within the 30-day negotiating window. Such insanity should be ignored, even with Scott Boras negotiating the contract it will get done. What we’re left with is the idea that the Sox actually made the move for baseball reasons, a difficult pill to swallow for Red Sox and Yankee drama loving columnists.

From a baseball perspective let’s take a look at the numbers. Over the last four seasons, Matsuzaka has averaged 15 wins, 182 innings pitched, 192 K’s and 47 BB’s with a 2.55 ERA. Translating those stats to Major League Baseball is obviously guess work at best. But for the sake of argument, let’s say he puts up comparable numbers, 17 wins, 200 IP, 180 K’s and 60 BB’s with an ERA of 2.80, a legitimate ace by today’s standards. Is that really worth $25 million a season? To put that in perspective, 27 year-old Johan Santana will make $25 million over the next two seasons and his four year averages including a half season out of the bullpen are 17 wins, 213 IP, 230 K’s and 48 BB’s with a 2.83 ERA. Of course, that’s assuming Matsuzaka will stay healthy and immediately adjust to Major League hitters and ballparks, let alone the insufferable pressure of a Boston fan-base that is expecting the second coming of Roger Clemens in his prime.

Does this move leapfrog Boston past the Blue Jays, White Sox, Athletics, Tigers, Twins and Yankees-all teams that finished last season with a better record than the Red Sox? Seems pretty unlikely especially when you consider that Matsuzaka isn’t an everyday player. In fact, he’s used to working as part of a six man rotation, something else that seems to have been lost translation for the Red Sox brass.   

Here’s looking forward to the $50 million matchup between A-Rod and Matsuzaka.  Gyroball anyone?

Sheff Fires Up Hot Stove

Tigers Make Move to Win Now or Yankees Deal Aging Power Hitter for Pitching Prospects

Which is the more surprising headline?  Dealing top pitching talent Humberto Sanchez along with two other highly regarded prospects in Kevin Whelan and Anthony Clagget signals the beginning of a new era in Motown.  While the Tigers have made a number of big free agent acquisitions in the past few years, those moves were largely made to bring the team back to respectability after more than a decade of futility.  Detroit’s young rotation emerged this year, earlier than most around baseball expected with the help of Jim Leyland’s staff and Kenny Rogers veteran savvy.  And while their fielding mistakes were well-chronicled in the World Series, the lack of production from  Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez and Placido Polanco left them zero margin for error.  In adding Sheffield, the Tigers gain a disciplined middle of the lineup force who averages around 30 homers and 110 RBI.  On the flip side, three years and more than $40 million for an ornery 38 year old who played 40 games last year seems like a definite risk.  But look for Jim Leyland to manage his personality masterfully and for a motivated Sheffield to come up big with the new pressure of expectations in Detroit.

For the Yankees, this is a move that had to be made.  With Bobby Abreu in the fold, Sheffield was unwilling to move to first base and as we’ve seen in the past, not shy about sharing his displeasure.  Considering their lack of leverage, this has to be considered a great deal for the Yankees.  Sanchez is a top flight prospect who started this year’s Futures Game with a mid 90’s fastball and big league slider.  A history of minor arm problems and weight issues make him a little bit of a gamble, but the payoff could be huge.  He could be a legitimate front of the rotation starter; at worst he’s a great arm out the pen.  Whelan and Clagget both project as solid middle relievers, with Whelan possibly a closer down the road. 

In the final analysis, this deal looks like a winner for both teams.  The Yankees add much needed depth to their farm system and possibly gain a young arm to pair with the promising Phillip Hughes to anchor the future of their starting rotation.  Even without Sheffield, the 2007 Yankees lineup will likely be the most formidable in baseball. 

The Tigers significantly upgrade their 2007 Opening Day lineup and add flexibility to move either Marcus Thames or Craig Monroe as part of a major deal to add a first baseman.  And with a stable of promising young arms in the minors led by 2006 draft gem Ryan Miller, the Tigers rotation looks secure for years to come.