Saturday, January 28, 2006

Indians scalp Boston

It's hard to win every year. The Boston Red Sox haven't had a losing season since 1997, and won the World Series a mere 15 months ago. Reading their newspapers and listening to their fans though, it doesn't seem to be enough. The idea that they could possibly finish in third place one year led to radio talkshow hosts and newspaper writers ripping the team for tearing apart the ballclub, and most recently, for losing their star center fielder.

When Johnny Damon left, the Red Sox were left with a gaping hole in centerfield. They were supposedly on the verge of getting Jeremy Reed from the Mariners when the Damon signing was announced, at which point, it seems the M's upped their price. Since then, super-prospect Andy Marte's name was thrown around in every deal imaginable until yesterday, when he, catcher Kelly Shoppach, pitcher Guillermo Mota and a player to be named later were shipped to Cleveland for CF Coco Crisp, C Josh Bard and P David Riske.

While centerfield was a legitimate need for Boston, and it was filled, this trade reeks of being a panic deal. The Boston front office didn't think they could sell their team as rebuilding. How could a team with a $115M payroll be rebuilding? Of course they should be competitive every year, as the thinking seems to go.

The Red Sox will be competitive this year, and, with their resources, should continue to be competitive. As a friend said to me earlier, there's a fine line between trying to be competitive every year, and targeting a year to win. Instead of being competitive though, this team had the chance to put together a team that would be great, with Marte at the forefront and been a legit title contender from 2007 going forward.

Really, to call Marte a prospect is a bit of a misnomer. He'd have been in the majors on nearly any team by midseason last year if the Braves didn't have Chipper Jones in front of him. He hit .275/.372/.506 22 homers in 389 AAA AB's last year, while, at 21, he was also one of the younger players in the league. People scoffed that he was unproven, but minor league numbers for hitters tend to translate very well to the major league level. To boot, Marte was rated the #1 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus before the 2005 season: "Marte has that rare combination of high upside and low risk. No one else on this (top prospect) list has that."

Crisp is undoubtedly a useful outfielder, but he's a bit of a tweener. He's not a good defensive centerfielder, but his hitting stats aren't really strong enough for him to be a plus corner guy. At center, his bat will be a plus, and it's not impossible that he'll outproduce the man he's replacing in 2006, and fairly likely that he'll be the better player a couple years down the road. Still, his star potential is low, while Marte's is through the roof.

When making a trade, teams tend to deal from their strengths. Boston completely neglected that. They're an old team, with no power potential in the high minors, and an overstock of mid-rotation starters. It seems hard to believe that they wouldn't have been able to find a replacement level placeholder for a guy like David Wells or Matt Clement, to tide them over until next offseason.

Which brings us to why the trade was such a mistake for Boston. After 2006, they won't have Mike Lowell's contract on, as well as Trot Nixon's. There are always good outfielders available, and almost never very good 3B. By keeping Marte in place, they'd have had a cheap, productive player (and, possibly a cheap STAR player), who wouldn't even be eligible for a raise until 2009. When you have cheap players at key positions, you can go out and buy a Cliff Floyd, and, when you have the Red Sox pockets, you can even overpay a little for him.

Cleveland meanwhile, is smiling from ear to ear. They added a LF in the highly underrated Jason Michaels, a 30 year career backup with a lifetime .291/.380/.442 line in 808 AB's. If he can maintain close to that OBP, then he could actually be an upgrade over Crisp, who posted a career-high of .345 last year. More importantly, they can take Aaron Boone, an absolute out machine in 2005 (.299 OBP) and replace him with a young stud of a 3B in Marte.

As far as the other players are concerned, Riske is a better pitcher than Mota, though Francona's ability to handle a bullpen is an open question, and the Indians have depth in their bullpen, as well as starters who go deep into games. The catcher exchange is almost laughable. The Red Sox apparently wanted a "proven veteran" to be their backup catcher, while the Indians seem to be more interested in having someone who is a good baseball player as theirs. Shoppach's not a top prospect, but his upside is Javy Lopez before his inexplicable late career power surge. Bard's upside is that he could beat out John Flaherty for the chance to catch Tim Wakefield, and hit as high as .240 with no walks or power. That's not entirely fair, as Bard does have an excellent defensive reputation, and is a fairly capable backup as long as your starter never gets hurt. Shoppach, however, won't embarrass himself if the Indians are without Victor Martinez for an extended period, and could be leveraged into a pitcher at midseason.

All things considered, with Crisp solidifying CF, the Red Sox should win around 90 games. If Schilling and Beckett both stay healthy, and Papelbon is allowed to start, they could take the division. The Indians though, now have to be considered the favorites in the American league. They had the best run differential in the American League last year, with a young improving team that rocketed in the second half thanks largely to guys like Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore. They upgraded third base substantially, didn't take a major downgrade at any position, and many of their young players are good bets to continue improving. The AL Central is a tough division, but these guys were the class of it going in, and they're even better now.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Quick Hits

I haven't updated in quite some time, so I figured I'd throw some random notes from the last couple weeks up there.

Cincinnati Reds sign P Grant Balfour to a 1-year contract for 340,000.

Balfour is hardly front-page news, and pitching for the Reds, the impact will be minimal. It's compounded by the fact that he is likely to miss the first half of 2006 after missing all of 2005 with reconstructive elbow surgery. Still, considering the going rate for useful pitchers, finding one that is above league average for the league minimum is an inspired move. In 65 innings over his last two years, Balfour has a 4.27 ERA, pitching in one of the tougher pitchers parks out there, translating to an ERA+ of 110. He's also struck out 72 batters in that time. His record is really only tempered by control concerns (he walked 35 in those two seasons). While the sample size is small, he has a history of success in the minors as well, notably in 2003 when he had a 2.41 ERA and a 87/16 K/BB ratio at Triple A Rochester.

Balfour has an injury history, but what is the risk vs. reward here? If he can't come back, or can't pitch as well when he does, the Reds will be merely out of the league minimum salary, and it's not like giving him the innings to find out is going to cost them in the standings in a big way. If he does pitch well, it's a complete bonus, and he will still be Reds property through 2008. An inspired signing by a franchise that has a recent history of overpaying for below average talent. Also, a strange nontender by the Twins, who, as a "small-market" team need to be on the lookout the most for cheap talent.

Sammy Sosa is in discussions with the Nationals about a one-year contract.

Anyone here want to try and think of a worse fit than a declining slugger whose single remaining positive is his ability to hit baseballs out of the ballpark, and sticking him in the worst home run hitting park in the majors?

Don't be too surprised if the Nationals great luck from 2005 turns completely around and they are looking up in the standings at the Marlins this coming September. Their chances rest on the health of Nick Johnson, and how many at-bats they can give Ryan Zimmerman.

Kevin Millar signs a one-year, $2.1M contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

On the one hand, he's a slow, poor defensive first baseman who is clearly in his decline phase. On the positive, he's a guy who can still hit a fastball. His value is no longer as an everyday player, and Terry Francona's insistence on playing him every day very nearly cost the Red Sox a playoff spot. On the other hand, in a division that seems to be stocking up on fastballers, Millar has a place, if Perlozzo has some ingenuity. As part of a standard righty/lefty platoon, Millar will be useless--he historically hits righties much better than lefties. If they can platoon him with a guy who can hit the softtossers in the league, play a good defense, and run the bases acceptably well, then Millar could actually help the Orioles. Interestingly enough, that description applies to Jeff Conine, also recently signed by the Orioles. They're not going to combine to be Albert Pujols, but with the Orioles getting big offensive production from sources that other teams do not (2B and SS), they merely need to be passable at 1B. If the cards break well, Conine and Millar are more than passable.