M's Aggressively Pursuing Kuroda

Hiroki KurodaListen to Bill Bavasi talk for any longer than 15 seconds, and he will mention that the Mariners need starting pitching at least once, if not two or three times, in that span. After watching Jeff Weaver (63) and Horacio Ramirez (55) trot to the mound for a whole season, it would be hard to find anyone who would disagree with him. Both Ryan Rowland-Smith (71) and Brandon Morrow (75) are being sent to winter ball to stretch out and get some starting experience, and in addition to that duo the M's have Cha Seung Baek (73) and Ryan Feierabend (64) as in-house candidates. The group of potential replacements is not overwhelming, but it is not as if Weaver and Ho-Ram were either.

Apparently, the in-house options do not satisfy Bavasi, and he has set his eyes on the best Japanese pitcher available this year, Hiroki Kuroda (72). According to scouting reports, Kuroda primarily features a fastball that goes into the mid-90s and a sharp, biting slider that some believe is even better than Dice-K's. On top of that, Kuroda has a long track record of success in Japan, and overall the general consensus is that he translates into a number three starter in the major leagues. Bavasi must believe that Kuroda is easily the best free agent starter available, because he traveled to Japan with John McLaren this week to meet face to face and negotiate with him. Though several teams have expressed interest in Kuroda, the Mariners should have an edge because he says he wants to play on the west coast, and in particular likes the idea of having Kenji Johjima catching him. At this point there seems to be a high level of mutual interest between the two, and I would expect to see Kuroda officially sign with the Mariners in the next week or two. It is generally believed he will receive a contract worth at least $10 million annually for a minimum of four years.

I think the Mariners are on the verge of overpaying for another mediocre starter. I like Kuroda, but he is not quite as good as most believe. He is at the top of this year's free agent pitching crop, but all that says is that he is as good as Carlos Silva (75) and Kyle Lohse (73). Looking at Kuroda's Japanese numbers, he was nowhere near as good as Daisuke Matsuzaka (85), or even as good as some less successful Japanese players, namely Kei Igawa (64), Kazuhisa Ishii, and Hideki Irabu. I am not opposed to signing Kuroda, because he would be a solid addition to the Mariners rotation. However, I am opposed for signing him to a 4 year, $40 million deal. He is worth about $5 million annually in my estimation, and given that he is 32 years old, I would not offer him much beyond 3 years, $15 million. Simply put, I doubt the Mariners crossed the Pacific Ocean for a guy they think is worth 3 years, $15 million.

Clearly, Bavasi is scared to have two unproven starters in the 2008 rotation. However, there is reason to believe that the M's already have guys that can get the job done, or at least get the job done as well as anyone available on the free agent market. Since the Mariners have shown little interest in Silva or Lohse, I get the feeling that they understand that neither would improve the team. So, they must see Hiroki Kuroda as something much better, like a number three starter at worst with the chance to be a number two. Bavasi has overestimated pitchers in the past (look no further than Washburn and Batista), and it looks like he is well on his way to doing that again.

Angels Making News

Torii HunterI am not a fan of the Angels, but I cannot accuse them of resting on their laurels. Despite being a new GM taking over a team that had a very successful 2007 campaign, Tony Reagins has made a couple surprising moves that have re-shaped the Angels' roster. To start with, he traded away Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera (79) to the White Sox for starting pitcher Jon Garland (78). Cabrera was a key piece to the top of the Angels order, as well as the anchor of the infield defense, and in return the Angels received a decent number three starter, who will likely be the fourth starter on their strong staff. This is a great deal for the White Sox, but I probably would not have done it if I were in charge of the Angels. Garland's contract is bigger than Cabrera's, and I do not think he improves their staff much, since it was already strong. However, Maicer Izuris (79) could replace Cabrera surprisingly well if given the chance, so it is hardly a bad trade.

However, the Angels made a much bigger splash late Wednesday night when they signed Torii Hunter (81) to a 5-year, $90 million deal. This is the reported value, and if it is correct the deal is ludicrous. My pay projector had Hunter valued at $9.3 million per season in this market, which suggests a 5-year contract for him should have been worth a total of around $46.5 million. Admittedly, my ranking system does not account for defense, and Hunter's is spectacular, so paying more than my projection is well within reason. However, there is no way Hunter's defense is worth an extra $43.5 million. Torii Hunter ended up with a deal as big as Ichiro's, and I'll take Ichiro any day. This deal apparently fell into place after only about a day of negotiations, and I can see why. There's no way Torii Hunter is worth $18 million a year, and I am sure Torii (or at least his agent) knows that.

What makes the Hunter deal even more perplexing to me is that it does not improve the Angels very much. Hunter will be the new starting center fielder, and Garret Anderson (81), Vladimir Guerrero (91), and Gary Matthews Jr. (75) will slide around the corner outfield slots and DH. Without a doubt, Torii is a noticable upgrade over Matthews, both offensively and defensively, but where does Reggie Willits (79) fit in now? I cannot believe that the Angels are not in love with Willits. He slaps the ball all over the ballpark with virtually no power, and then steals bases at will. He is only 26 years old too, 6 years younger than Hunter. Reggie was almost as good of an offensive player as Torii last year; does it not seem plausible that he could be as good as Hunter this year, or maybe even better?

As a Mariners fan, it is unnerving watching the Angels sign one of the best free agents available to a massive contract, but really they are not that much better of a team today than they were a week ago. They clearly have a surplus of outfielders now, and given how aggressive Reagins has been in the offseason thus far, I doubt the Angels are done. I still think they have their eyes on Miguel Cabrera (88). With the addition of Hunter, Willits is expendable, and with the additon of Garland, guys like Joe Saunders (72) and Nick Adenhart (58/83) should be easier to part with as well. If I were the Angels, I would offer Erick Aybar, Reggie Willits, and Nick Adenhart to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and see what they would say. All of those guys are young, Aybar could immediately replace Cabrera, Willits could immediately fill their gaping hole in center field, and Adenhart is considered one of the brighter pitching prospects in the game (though I'm not quite as sold on him as most are). If that's not enough, I would switch in Maicer Izturis for Aybar, and would be willing to add Ervin Santana (67) if needed.

I really hope that my theoretical trade between the Angels and Marlins does not happen, because all of a sudden the Angels would be monsters. Their lineup would look something like this (at least if I put it together):
  1. Chone Figgins
  2. Howie Kendrick
  3. Vladimir Guerrero
  4. Miguel Cabrera
  5. Casey Kotchman
  6. Torii Hunter
  7. Garret Anderson
  8. Gary Matthews Jr.
  9. Mike Napoli
That would be one of the best lineups in baseball. There is good power, speed, and average throughout, with two superstars in the middle. It is not far-fetched that all of the top six in that lineup could be all-stars. If that was not enough, here is their starting staff:
  1. John Lackey
  2. Kelvim Escobar
  3. Jered Weaver
  4. Jon Garland
  5. Joe Saunders
Their bullpen would be awfully strong too, with Justin Speier, Scot Shields, and Francisco Rodriguez anchoring the final couple innings. All in all, the Angels are pretty good right now, but it is frightening how close they may be to domination. The theoretical trade with the Marlins is not outlandish, and it looks like Reagins has the guts and tenacity needed to make such a deal. For now, I think the Angels have spent a bunch of money unnecessarily for a marginal gain. But, they have set themselves up to make an epic deal that could catapult them to World Series favorite.

Early Returns on Free Agency

After taking a look at some of the early trades this off-season, it is time to take a look at some of the early free agent deals, including a few that are yet to be finalized, but appear to be pretty close. Given MLB's record revenue and scarcity of big-time free agents, it seemed reasonable to expect that mediocre players could get way bigger contracts than they should. However, teams to this point seem to be spending their money relatively wisely. All projected values use my pay calculator, which takes and projects an expected cash value based on my hitter and pitcher rating formulas:

  • It pays to be a Yankee, quite literally. The first to re-sign was Jorge Posada, to the tune of 4 years, $52 million. This deal is going to look horrible, perhaps as early as next year, but Posada's 2007 season should have been worth $15.1 million a year on the open market according to my projection formula. So, in theory, he should have received a 4 year, $60.4 million contract at the least. Given how strongly free agent deals are usually tied to performance in the most recently completed year, this is not as terrible of a deal as I expected.
  • It pays to be a Yankee, the sequel. Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract rather unceremoniously (to say the least), but he got his money in the end. Exact financial terms have not been disclosed, but the deal sounds like it will be in the neighborhood of 10 years, $275 million, with major bonuses if/when A-Rod gets career milestones. My projector said A-Rod should get about $20 million a year on the open market, but his case is special. First of all, he was already making $27 million a year (thanks to the horribly irrational deal the Rangers gave him in 2001), and given that he just wrapped up one of the greatest seasons in history, it was highly unlikely his salary would drop. Second, Scott Boras is correct, A-Rod is making history, and that history translates into increased revenue for a team. So, it is justifiable to go beyond $20 million for him. Boras is lucky that the Yankees were willing to listen when A-Rod contacted them though, because I don't think any other team would have gone beyond $20 million to get him. Still, I do think opting out was the right option. Scott Boras is a very shrewd man, and he realized that A-Rod's income potential now, at 32 years old coming off a historic season in which he became the youngest player to reach 500 career home runs and received his second MVP award in the last four years, is greater than it would be if he had hit free agency at 35 after completing the final three years on his old deal. The way Boras opted out of the deal probably cost A-Rod a good chunk of cash, but I still think he is ending up with more than if he had played out his old deal. The bottom line is I don't think Boras bumbled these negotiations as badly as people think he did.
  • It pays to be a Yankee, III. It's only fitting that free agency in the Big Apple can be told in the context of a trilogy. All signs are that Mariano Rivera will sign a 3 year, $45 million contract to stay in pinstripes. From a competitive standpoint, this deal makes the least sense of the three. Rivera is still good, but he's clearly on the back side of his career. His performance last year was worth "only" around $10.7 million on the open market, and on top of that the Yankees have a more than capable replacement in Joba Chamberlain, who will earn the major league minimum. However, Rivera is a Yankee icon, and that probably is worth the $4.3 million per year or so that they overpaid to keep him around, especially considering that they have the money to burn. Rivera will likely go down in history as the greatest closer of all-time, and the market value projector does not account for that.
  • Speaking of living legends, Tom Glavine is returning to the Braves after four years with the Mets. He got a 1 year, $8 million contract, which is well above the $4.4 million he was worth. However, like Rivera, there are major extenuating circumstances. First off, Glavine's 303 career wins are worth something, and the chance for him to retire as a Brave has great sentimental value for both him and the organization. There is no way Glavine's 2008 performance will justify the money, but there are other factors that do justify this move.
  • There are practical deals happening on the market too, with no sentimental strings attached. Luis Castillo signed a 4 year, $25 million deal with the Mets. He was worth about $8.5 million a year according to last year's performance, so this is a very good deal for New York. Furthermore, word is today that Mike Lowell is close to re-signing with the Red Sox for three years, $37.5 million. This is great news for the free agent market, because I had his value estimated at $12.2 million a year, which means a 3-year deal for him should have been worth about $36.6 million. Lowell was expected to be one of the most sought free agents, which could have driven his market value up considerably. Since he appears to have received a very fair market price, it seems plausible that others will sign fair deals.
  • Here are my estimated values for some notable free agents yet to sign: Torii Hunter $9.3 million/year, Aaron Rowand $10.9 million/year, Andruw Jones $5.2 million/year, Francisco Cordero $14.6 million/year, Kyle Lohse $5.7 million/year, Carlos Silva $6.2 million/year, Hiroki Kuroda $5 million/year. I expect Hunter, Jones, Lohse, and Kuroda to get more money, and Cordero to get quite a bit less, but we will see.
Last year it seemed like teams were happy to throw their money around with reckless abandon, especially for any breathing body that could pitch (3 years, $19 million for Danys Baez, enough said). However, rationality seems to be predominant in this market.

Early Off-Season Trade Analysis

It is no secret that this year's free agent class has few tantalizing options, and the best proof of that is the number of trades that have already been completed this off-season. Weaker free agent classes are actually a good sign for baseball, because it means most teams have the ability to sign and retain their premier players (either that or they are like the Marlins, who have been smart enough to trade stars they can't keep for premier talents; see the Josh Beckett deal where they netted Hanley Ramirez). It is nice to see a number of old-fashioned baseball deals shaping this off-season. Here is a look at all of them to this point:

  • Tigers acquire SS Edgar Rentaria (85) from the Braves for SP Jair Jurrjens (60/86) and OF Gorkys Hernandez (32/80) - Atlanta needs starting pitching, and had a surplus at shortstop with Rentaria and the up-and-coming Yunel Escobar (79/83). Detroit had a hole to fill at first, but smartly decided to put Carlos Guillen there full-time and look for a shortstop, dangling their surplus of starting pitching as bait. This is a classic example of a trade where two teams' weaknesses and strengths matched up nicely. The Braves think Jurrjens can compete for a starting spot next season, but I think he's still one year away. Gorkys Hernandez can fly, but he's still awful raw. Rentaria is a steal for the Tigers, though if Jurrjens reaches his potential this deal will not look bad for the Braves either. Much depends on Escobar too, who I'm not completely sold on yet.
  • Phillies acquire RP Brad Lidge (79) and INF Eric Bruntlett (68) from the Astros for OF Michael Bourn (79), RP Geoff Geary (62), and 3B Mike Costanzo (55/78) - Philadelphia was looking for a closer so that they could move Brett Myers back into the starting rotation. Houston was looking for a center fielder so that they could move Hunter Pence to right field. This seems to be a fairly even swap, though I do think Bruntlett is a very solid reserve infielder, and I wonder who Houston has in mind at closer. Looking for one on the free agent market would make sense.
  • Tigers acquire OF Jacque Jones (75) from the Cubs for INF Omar Infante (70) - Detroit had a glaring hole in left field, and Chicago has been trying to dump Jones for some time. Jones is not a great player, but he is serviceable and makes the Tigers a better team. Infante gives the Cubs added versatility, and at 25 years old it is not out of the question that he could develop further into a borderline starter. Between this deal and the Rentaria one, Detroit is clearly the most improved team thus far in the off-season.
  • Twins acquire OF Craig Monroe (63) from the Cubs for a player to be named later - It was clear the Twins needed to add some punch to their lineup, and they are hoping that Monroe can bounce back and provide it. I think he will bounce back some, but how much? He has a ton of power in his bat, but still he has only been a decent player at best his entire career. Monroe won't make the Twins worse, especially at such a low price, but I wonder if he improves their team.
  • Astros acquire RP Oscar Villareal (71) from the Braves for OF Josh Anderson (63/74) - I still wonder who Houston's closer will be, but kudos to them for upgrading their bullpen at the cost of a fringe prospect with no clear path to the majors in the Astros system. On the other hand, I'm concerned about the Braves' offense. They do have Mark Teixeira, but word is Anderson will compete for the starting center field job, and they have now handed the reigns over at shortstop to Yunel Escobar. Both are offensive downgrades, and the Braves did not exactly light up the scoreboard last year. Based on Atlanta's two trades this off-season, their new GM Doug Wren loves speed. Like Gorkys Hernandez, Anderson can fly, but do little else.
Free agents are beginning to sign, but I think that trades will continue to make the most noise this off-season. At some point the White Sox are going to have to trade either Joe Crede of Josh Fields, and the Dodgers could package some of their prospects for an impact player like Miguel Cabrera. Who knows, maybe the M's could find a taker for Richie Sexson.

Mariners 2008 Offseason

Wladimir BalentienWith the Red Sox emphatically concluding 2007, the baseball offseason is upon us. The attention thus far has been on the Yankees, and rightly so with the departures of Joe Torre and Alex Rodriguez. At some point, a blog post may have to be dedicated to the Yankees, and free agency in general (my hitter and pitcher rating formula pages both have updated pay projectors, for anyone interested in seeing what free agents should be asking for). However, it would not be right to start with any team other than the Mariners.

The M's had two major shortcomings last year, one obvious and one not quite so obvious. The easy one to spot was the starting pitching, specifically the complete lack of a number five starter the entire year. However, it was not all the pitching's fault. The whole pitching staff was not helped out by the M's other major shortcoming, an outfield defense that featured the fielding equivalent of statues in left and right field. It is tempting to look at the 2007 Mariners and want to keep the team together, and just add a key piece or two in free agency. If the M's were able to do that, a 90-win season would seem well within reach. However, adding to this team is not the right thing to do. To start with, the pieces the M's need are not available in free agency, especially when it comes to pitchers. However, even if there were attractive free agents available, the wise thing for the Mariners to do would be to stand pat.

Starting with the everyday players, the only starter that may be lost in free agency is Jose Guillen. Granted, his offense will be difficult to replace from within the organization, but he also had very limited range in right field. In addition, Richie Sexson did not exactly have a sterling year offensively or defensively at first base. Ultimately, I think the Mariners' lineup will be just as good, if not better, if they move Raul Ibanez to first base, and start Adam Jones in left field, and Wladimir Balentien in right. This should provide noticeable defensive upgrades in left and right field, and perhaps even at first base. On top of that, it is plausible that Jones and Balentien's combined offensive production could rival Sexson and Guillen's combined production. However, given the defensive improvement, they have room to struggle offensively without making the team a worse one than it was last year. Also, by not signing Guillen, the team would save roughly $8 million dollars.

Like the everyday lineup, the pitching staff will be losing only one key member as well, Jeff Weaver. Though Weaver improved drastically after his epically terrible first month, he still was not worth $8.35 million. Unfortunately, Weaver was far from the worst pitcher on the staff either, thanks to Ho-Ram's lackluster performance. It may seem tempting to plug the holes with veteran starters like Josh Fogg, and though a move like that would improve the Mariners, it is not the best one for the team. Instead, they should promote from within here as well. Personally, I would let Weaver go and boot Ramirez out of the rotation, leaving two starting slots open. I would give Brandon Morrow one of them, and then have Cha Seung Baek and Ryan Rowland-Smith compete for the final one in spring training, with the loser being a long reliever out of the bullpen. It may seem very risky relying on such green, unproven players in two starting slots, but it has to be kept in mind that they are replacing Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez, who did not set the highest of standards in 2007. There will be days where the two youngsters look bad, but there will also be days where they look great, and in the end the youngsters would be an upgrade. As an added bonus, the Mariners would save $8.35 million.

Honestly, I would consider it a successful offseason if the Mariners do absolutely nothing, and fill all their holes from within. It would save them around $16 million, and they likely would not field a worse team in 2008 than they did in 2007. If the M's keep that salary space open, and then let Richie Sexson go once his contract expires at the end of next year, they will have about $30 million to spend in 2009, which should be more than enough money to go after Johan Santana if he becomes a free agent. Imagine an M's team full of youngsters that all have a year of major league experience under the belt, and a starting staff that could feature two legitimate aces, plus an up-and-coming Brandon Morrow. Honestly, that trio would have a chance to reach the level of Mulder/Hudson/Zito, and Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine, which would be scary with a young offense that could feature 4 20-homer hitters in Adrian Beltre, Adam Jones, Wladimir Balentien, and Jeff Clement.

If the Mariners do nothing this offseason, they likely won't be a strong playoff contender in 2008. However, they will be quite young, pretty good, and gain the financial flexibility to explore adding a guy like Johan Santana, who in 2009 could be the piece that takes them from a playoff contender to a championship contender. Hopefully the Mariners recognize all the benefits of steering clear of the free agent market this offseason. Based on the moves they have already made, as well as rumors floating around, I believe that they do.