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Nobody Spends Like the Yankees

Mark TeixeiraNobody spends money like the New York Yankees. Lots of people have said the Red Sox are the new Yankees, but not even they can compete off the field with their arch rivals. Sure, New York had tons of contracts come off their payroll, so they had nearly $100 million to spend. They had pitching holes too, so it was easy to see them throwing as much money at CC Sabathia as it took to sign him. It wasn't even that far-fetched to see them add A.J. Burnett. But now, adding Mark Teixeira for 8 years and $180 million...come on.

Nobody spends money like the New York Yankees. The top four 2009 player salaries, in order, are as follows (signing bonus payments prior to/during the season included in totals) :
  1. Alex Rodriguez ($33 million)
  2. Mark Teixeira ($25 million)
  3. CC Sabathia ($23 million)
  4. Derek Jeter ($20 million)
What do they all have in common? They're ALL YANKEES. Granted, Manny Ramirez will likely beat out at least Jeter with wherever he signs, but even then four of the top five will be Yankees. For comparison, the Red Sox (a.k.a. "the New Yankees"), will pay their priciest player, J.D. Drew, $14 million this year. That would only be good for sixth-highest salary on the Yankees roster. Nobody spends money like the New York Yankees.

A luxury tax is never going to work with the Yankees. They have a new palace that will rake in significantly more money than their old place, and it's not like they were at a competitive disadvantage without all the new luxury suites. Even without all the new revenue, they found a way to corner the market on premium free agents, to the point that the best have to turn down millions to go anywhere else. The only reason the Yankees do not have all the best talent is thanks to intelligent drafting and signing of young ballplayers by other teams.

I would say that all these huge free agent contracts will come back to bite the Yankees, but they won't. Their last major wave of extravagant free agent spending netted guys like Jason Giambi (who had to be considered a disappointment with the huge deal he signed), and even more notably, Carl Pavano. A normal team would be crippled by signings like these, but the Yankees have way too much money to play around with, especially in their new ballpark. Their money is a resource nobody else can match, and they certainly spend it like they know that.

The empire has returned. Maybe it's not a coincidence that the Yankees seemed to lose strength as George Steinbrenner began to slow down, and that they now seem poised for a big rebound with Hank Steinbrenner and the new ballpark. Maybe it's all lucky timing, and more connected to all the contracts that came off the books this off-season. Whatever it is, the Yankees are back. I've enjoyed watching them struggle (in relative terms) with their massive payroll the last few years, but I've resigned myself to the fact that those years are probably coming to a close.

This Yankees team still won't be as good as the late '90s ones, and they are really going to struggle to build a dynasty. First of all, the late '90s Yankees were largely a product of an excellent farm system, which the Yankees don't have anymore, and won't rebuild real soon with all the picks they forfeit as they sign free agents. However, the biggest differences are the Red Sox and the Rays. Both of those teams are run way better than they were in the late '90s, and though they don't have the Yankees resources, I think they're too smart to let the Yankees run away and hide. If the Blue Jays weren't in unexpected turmoil with the death of their owner, I might include them in the conversation too.

The Yankees are not a budding dynasty, but they have re-established their empire. If baseball were all about the money, the league would be a one-team show. There is little doubt about that. Nobody spends money like the New York Yankees.

Ibanez Signs With Phillies

Raul IbanezWord broke this morning that the Philadelphia Phillies have signed Raul Ibanez to a 3 year, $30 million deal. It never looked all that likely that Raul was going to return to the Mariners, but there is still something about him officially signing elsewhere that is significant. He remains one of the classiest players in all of baseball, and it is not fun saying good bye. However, he wants a chance to win a championship, and that's an opportunity the Mariners cannot provide him right now, even as they move in a positive direction.

It is clear that Jack Zduriencik had discussions with Raul and his representatives, but how serious they were is anyone's guess. At first glance, this appears to be a huge blow the team, given the M's just lost one of the few bona fide good hitters they had. However, consider the entire player that Raul Ibanez is at this point:
  1. He is a good hitter, with a good stroke and good power. Neither is great, but both are quite good. The Mariners will miss his bat.
  2. He is 36, and will be making $10 million a year until he is 39. It is fair to speculate that Raul's offensive production may begin to decline at some point during the contract he just signed.
  3. He has never been a good fielder. In fact, he's really bad. He does not make a ton of errors, and his arm is respectable, but he has zero range. This is not as big of a deal in his new home, Citizens Bank Park (where he replaces Pat Burrell, a similarly bad fielder), but Safeco has a spacious left field. Defensively, he was always a terrible fit for the Mariners.
So while it is true that the Mariners offense took a hit today, it is important to look at the whole picture. This is a team rebuilding, so it does not make much sense to lock up players in the twilight of their primes for more than one year. This is especially true with all the money that Bill Bavasi sunk into mediocre starting pitching the last couple years that the M's still have to pay. However, even from a personnel standpoint, Jack Zduriencik has already creatively gone about replacing Raul Ibanez with the anti-Raul, Endy Chavez. Chavez can't hit worth a lick, but he is the perfect defensive fit for Safeco's left field. That's not enough to make Chavez a better player than Ibanez, but he's also $8 million cheaper.

Raul was no longer a great fit for the Mariners, and the Mariners were not a great fit for Raul at this point either. I wish him well, and hope that he does wins some championships until the M's are a force to be reckoned with again. Much like with J.J., I can't say that I am happy to see Raul leave, but I'm not mad either. More than anything, I'm relieved that he didn't sign with the Angels.

Mariners Take Three in Rule 5 Draft

10 new faces in 24 hours. Wow. To say Jack Zduriencik reshaped the roster at the Winter Meetings is an understatement. This is a new ballclub, which looks like a good idea given that the team lost 100 games. After adding seven new faces last night through the J.J. Putz trade, the Mariners added three more players through the Rule 5 Draft this morning. Here is a quick look at all of them:

Reegie Corona, INF - First of all, I did not misspell his name. It really is Reegie. Corona was the M's first Rule 5 selection (2nd overall), and so he must stay on the 25-man roster. a 22-year-old middle infielder from the Yankees organization, Corona has never played above AA. He also has shown little power and marginal hitting ability. However, Reegie has got some speed, a little plate discipline, and enough defensive ability to possible play second, short, or third. In essence, he is a cheaper, younger version of Willie Bloomquist. Corona does not look like much more than a solid reserve even at his peak, but the M's could use some middle infield depth. He has a chance to stick.

Jose Lugo, LHP - Lugo was actually selected by the Royals with pick number nine and then traded to the Mariners, but it fairly common for one team to pick on behalf of another if they have no interest in a player at that slot. So, for all intents and purposes, Lugo was picked by the Mariners. He is a lefty that will turn 25 in April and has never pitched beyond A ball. However, he has posted high strikeout numbers with an impressive ground ball rate. Lugo's stuff appears to be good, but the jump from high A to the majors is a massive one. Also, he is a little old for the leagues he has been playing in. I am not sure he will make the opening day roster.

Pat Ryan, RHP - Unlike the first two draftees, Ryan was picked in the AAA phase, so he does not have to be on the M's 25-man roster. However, he is still worth looking at. Ryan was with the Brewers, so Jack Zdurienciek undoubtedly knows him well. His strikeout numbers are quite unimpressive, especially for a reliever in his mid-20s in AA. However, his ground ball to fly ball ratio is freakishly good. Ryan clearly has good sinking stuff which more than makes up for whatever shortcomings he may have with velocity or location. Roy Corcoran and Sean Green both made it to the majors largely on the strength of a sinker, so do not underestimate this pick-up. He provides some much-needed bullpen depth at a bargain basement price.

It is going to take some time to digest all these moves. However, today is the most excited I've been about the Mariners in years. I was legitimately intrigued and excited to see what the Mariners would do in the Rule 5 draft today, and I could get used to this feeling of hope and excitement.

Putz Traded in Megadeal

J.J. PutzJack Zduriencik made his first trade as the M's GM, and it is a big three-team one between the M's, Mets, and Indians. Here are the details:

Mariners Get: 1B Mike Carp (from NYM), OF Franklin Gutierrez (from CLE), OF Endy Chavez (from NYM), OF Ezequiel Carrera (from NYM), RHP Aaron Heilman (from NYM), LHP Jason Vargas (from NYM), and RHP Mikael Clato (from NYM)

Mariners Trade: 2B Luis Valbuena (to CLE), OF Jeremy Reed (to NYM), RHP J.J. Putz (to NYM), and RHP Sean Green (to NYM)

Indians Get: 2B Luis Valbuena (from SEA) and RHP Joe Smith (from NYM)

Indians Trade: OF Franklin Gutierrez (to SEA)

Mets Get: OF Jeremy Reed (from SEA), RHP Sean Green (from SEA), RHP J.J. Putz (from SEA)

Mets Trade: 1B Mike Carp (to SEA), OF Endy Chavez (to SEA), OF Ezequiel Carrera (to SEA), RHP Aaron Heilman (to SEA), RHP Joe Smith (to SEA), LHP Jason Vargas (to SEA), RHP Mikael Clato (to SEA)

This is a big deal with lots of players switching addresses. Pretty clearly, it was mainly a deal between the Mets and Mariners, and the Indians became involved to finish the deal. So, I'll start with the Indians.

Why the Indians did the deal:
Cleveland is looking to bolster their bullpen after it took a major step backwards last year. They are finalizing a deal for Kerry Wood to be their closer (pending a physical, which definitely could derail the deal with Wood's injury history), and now they have Joe Smith to be another late-inning guy. Additionally, Smith is young, so he is under team control at a cheap price for several years. Valbuena is attractive to the Indians because it's looking more like Jhonny Peralta will move to third base in the near future, and Asdrubal Cabrera will take over shortstop. Since Josh Barfield has fallen off the map, Valbuena becomes the second baseman when he is ready. Franklin Gutierrez was a natural piece to trade since Matt LaPorta is close to ready to take over an everyday outfield spot, and the Indians already have Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and Ben Francisco. This is an all-around solid deal for Cleveland that makes a great deal of sense.

Why the Mets did the deal:
Clearly, their top priority this offseason was upgrading their bullpen. They signed K-Rod, and now they traded for Putz. He is the centerpiece of this entire deal, and it's clear that the Mets were willing to give up quite a bit to get him. They did protect some of their more highly touted prospects, but they gave up a bunch of solid players. Still, now they've got J.J. and K-Rod, and that's what made them say yes to this trade. As an added bonus/key component of the deal, Aaron Heilman is gone.

Why the Mariners did the deal:
The M's have lots of needs, and virtually all of them were addressed. Mike Carp is a possible long-term answer at first base. Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez will both help out in the outfield. A couple young prospects are in the trade, and a couple players that might make the pitching staff too. Sometimes trading one great player to plug a bunch of holes is worth it, and Zduriencik feels that is the case with this trade.

How the deal developed:
Looking at the players involved, I feel it is pretty clear how this trade developed. I'm certainly not privy to any of the conversations that actually happened, but if I am right, we just learned a bunch about the new-look Mariners front office. Here is what I think happened. Much of this comes from Geoff Baker's Mariners blog for the Seattle Times.
  1. Omar Minaya came to Jack Zduriencik to ask about J.J. Putz once he had officially signed Francisco Rodriguez. Jack says he needs an outfielder (perhaps preferably one with defense) in return. Minaya offers Aaron Heilman (since he wants to get rid of him) and Mike Carp. The M's are intrigued by the package, but say that it is not enough. They really need an outfielder.
  2. Minaya goes to Mark Shapiro and asks about Franklin Gutierrez. He says it will take a young reliever and middle-infielder. Minaya offers Joe Smith and goes back to the M's to see if they are willing to give up a middle-infielder, as well as replace Joe Smith.
  3. As luck would have it, the Mariners have Luis Valbuena and Sean Green, and they will trade both. Additionally, they like Endy Chavez, and are willing to part ways with Jeremy Reed to get him. For the M's troubles, the Mets include some additional prospects.
Like I said this is part rumors and part speculation, so it could be completely wrong. It makes some sense though, and if it is true, I am excited about Zduriencik even more. Neither Gutierrez nor Chavez provide much offense at all, but those two teamed with Ichiro are an insanely good outfield defensively. That will help the entire pitching staff more than any pitching acquisition, particularly "fly ball specialist" Jarrod Washburn. The upgrade those two provide defensively will go a very long way towards replacing Raul's production, since he was an awful defender. As an added bonus, the better numbers posted by Washburn and others may make a bunch of pitchers on the staff more attractive trade chips. This is the kind of creativity that I never saw out of Bill Bavasi.

Jack Zduriencik showed so much in this trade. He addressed so much in this one deal. I did not even touch on the talent he added to the farm system, particularly in Mike Carp. He doesn't look like a superstar in the making, but he's the young first base prospect that was never drafted under Bavasi. The 25-man roster is better today too, thanks to the killer defensive outfield the M's all of sudden have. Plus, Jack freed up some payroll. This is vision. This is creativity. This is having an encompossing organization-wide plan.

There are some concerns with the deal. First of all, it is hard to see J.J. Putz leave. Second, Aaron Heilman has no business being a starter, but he wants to be one, and he may get to be one. If Morrow is forced into the bullpen as a result, I will be quite disappointed. Still, the positives can't be ignored. Jack Zduriencik is fixing the Mariners.

Trade Worth Exploring #3

There are a couple versions of this deal. I am not sure if either are realistic, but they are worth exploring.

Brewers trade SS J.J. Hardy to the Mariners for SS Yuniesky Betancourt, SP Jarrod Washburn, RP J.J. Putz, and RP Mark Lowe

Why it makes sense for the Mariners: The Mariners need offense and defense, and they have a logjam in their pitching staff. While the loss of Putz would be noticed, Washburn and Lowe's combined 2008 production is replaceable from within, and Hardy would be a major upgrade over Betancourt.

Why it makes sense for the Brewers: With Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia hitting the free agent market (and Salomon Torres unexpectedly retiring), Milwaukee has all sorts of pitching holes. Washburn and Putz would fill a couple of them. Betancourt would be a downgrade at shortstop, but Milwaukee thinks top prospect Alcides Escobar is nearly ready for the majors anyway. If he is ready now, Betancourt could slide over to second, and Milwaukee's infield defense would be better than last year's. All of those are fairly short-term fixes though, so Mark Lowe is a piece that can stay in the organization for years to come, given that they are giving up a young shortstop that could be a Mariner for years to come.

Problems with the deal: The legitimacy of this deal is contingent on what the Brewers think of Betancourt and Lowe. Do they still think Yuni is a great fielder, and could be a decent hitter? Do they think Mark Lowe can re-gain the dominance he flashed when he first came up? If they say yes to both, this deal should be tempting. If they say no to both (as I would), they will probably look for better deals.

I'm not sure how Milwaukee would react to trade posed above. If they rejected it, I would make the follwing offer:

Brewers trade 2B Rickie Weeks and SS J.J. Hardy to the Mariners for SS Yuniesky Betancourt, SP Erik Bedard, RP J.J. Putz, OF Jeremy Reed, and RP Mark Lowe.

Why it makes sense for the Mariners: It's pretty much the same as above. The Mariners need offense and defense. Rickie Weeks could be the DH (as the M's try to move him to the outfield), and J.J. Hardy becomes the every-day shortstop. They M's also alleviate their pitching logjam with this deal.

Why it makes sense for the Brewers: If Bedard and Putz return to All-Star form, they more than offset the loss of J.J. Hardy, especially if Alcides Escobar is ready for the majors. Even if Escobar isn't ready though, Betancourt can play shortstop and utility man Bill Hall could take over at second. The bench would not be left bare thanks to Jeremy Reed, who is a decent pinch-hitting option and solid fourth outfielder.

Problems with the deal: How healthy do the Brewers think Putz and Bedard are, and how much are the Brewers thinking only about next year? This would be a risky trade with the possibility for big immediate returns. If they like Betancourt and Lowe enough as long-term options, this deal would look more attractive to them.

The Mariners should aggressively pursue a J.J. Hardy trade. If the Brewers are intrigued by J.J. Putz, Erik Bedard, and Jarrod Washburn, there may be a deal to be made. Hardy would be an upgrade offensively and defensively, and he is also under team control for a few years before he is even eligible for free agency. Beltre and Hardy would be oen of the best left diamond combos in all of baseball.

More Minor League Free Agents

Not everyone has to have been around the minors for six years to become a free agent. Here are some more players that I did not look at when I put together the first list. Once again, there probably are not any stars in this group, but the Mariners could use a bunch more talent.

9. Edgar Gonzalez, RHP - Gonzalez has spent most of the past three years in the majors with the Diamondbacks, though he has not found much success. His control has grown steadily worse over the past couple years as it appears he has grown accustomed to nibbling around the strike zone. On opening day Gonzalez will be 26 years old, so he is still rather young, and perhaps a change of scenery would help him regain some confidence.

8. Laynce Nix, OF - At this point, I think the general perception of Nix is that of a fallen prospect. However, he actually was brought up way too early. Nix has continued to steadily progress, and at this point he is a left-handed bat with power at a position the M's could use a few players. Still, his plate discipline is not all that great, he strikes out a ton, and he is yet to prove he can carry his minor league success into the majors. He is only worth the risk with a small contract - but that is all it will take to sign him.

7. Kevin Mench, OF - Mench was always underrated when he played in Texas, and he got lost in the shuffle in Milwaukee. His production definitely dropped off last year, but he is young enough to think that he may bounce back and be a decent starting option. The M's don't have an abundance of bona fide major-league ready outfield talent right now (though it looks like they've got a couple guys pretty close), so a guy like Mench is worth taking a chance on.

6. Brian Myrow, 1B - Myrow is quite old for a ballplayer that has never got a real chance in the majors (he is 32), and it is a shame that he has never got a chance. Myrow does not have prototypical power for a first baseman, but he has shown a remarkably discerning eye at the plate. Granted, the Mariners probably are not all that interested in adding an older bench player to the roster right now, but Myrow's greatest strengths are in the areas of greatest weakness on this team right now. He is a good fit for Safeco Field, and a great fit for the current roster.

5. Chad Cordero, RHP - Just a couple seasons ago, Cordero was considered one of the best closers in all of baseball. Major arm injuries have a tendency to lower a pitcher's status though. Though Cordero is still young and has a remarkable record of previous success, it is hard to say what he has to offer at this point. Cordero was already declining some before missing virtually all of this past year, and there is a good chance he is only a shadow of what he once was. However, he has never relied heavily on velocity, so maybe he can bounce back. If Cordero can prove he is healthy, teams would surely want him at the trade deadline, so a team like the Mariners might effectively pick up a free prospect by signing him, giving him a chance, and then trading him to a contender. Cordero could also be an interesting replacement for J.J. Putz, if he were to be traded.

4. Justin Germano, RHP - Germano struggled last year, both in the majors and AAA. However, he is still relatively young at 26 years old, and his past production gives reason to believe that he can bounce back. Germano would be a great guy to sign to a minor league contract as a sixth or seventh starter. If he bounces back, whoever picks him up could have a solid number four or five starter for several years.

3. Chris Shelton, 1B - Shelton made a big splash in 2006 when he got off to a torrid start with the Tigers. He had cooled off quite a bit by the all-star break that year, and nobody has paid much attention to him since. However, he still flashes good power, and the M's don't exactly have a ton of answers at first base right now anyway.

2. Wes Bankston, 1B - Bankston hasn't really posted big numbers at any point in his career. However, he has progressed somewhat steadily, and he has always flashed power potential. Since he is only 25 years old, there is reason to believe he will continue to progress. If he gets a little more discerning eye at the plate, his power will be even more noticable. Regardless, Bankston would push Bryan LaHair for the starting first base job right now, and if he progresses some he could adequately fill the position for several years.

1. Ryan Langerhans, OF - Langerhans is one of the best defensive players available in all of free agency. Also, he is patient at the plate, and brings a little power and speed to the table as well. If the Mariners signed him, they could make him the starting centerfielder, leave Ichiro right, and move Jeremy Reed to left field. All of a sudden, that outfield defensively doesn't look so bad, and it would be way better than anything they have fielded the past couple years. Langerhans is the cheapest way the Mariners ccould upgrade their entire pitching staff, which would go a long way towards replacing Raul's offensive production in a creative, extremely economic manner.

Minor league free agents do not get much publicity, but there is talent to be found. When a team is as bad as the Mariners are right now, there is no risk in taking a chance on these guys. Carlos Pena bounced around for years before things clicked for him in Tampa Bay. While Pena is the exception, there is no chance of finding a diamond in the rough unless a team goes digging.

Note on Minor League Free Agents

I'm working to double-check my list of available minor league free agents. I went off a list posted on, but that list has changed significantly in the past week. Some of the players may have signed, but I also have the feeling that some of the players I identified are not actually free agents. I may post an updated list soon.

UPDATE: The original list I looked at is only of minor league players eligible for free agency due to six years of professional experience. They should all be free agents. However, there are other minor league free agents as well, so I will be posting an additional list shortly. Click here to see the full list of six-year minor league free agents.

Minor League Free Agents

There are plenty of big names available this off-season, but the Mariners are unlikely to make any big moves. However, there are tons of minor league free agents, and given the current state of the franchise, there are several names out there that could help out. Here are nine in particular still available that could help the Mariners out:

9. Callix Crabbe, 2B - A Rule 5 draft pick of the Padres just a year ago, Crabbe did not last long in the majors before being returned. He did not produce in 2008 the same way he did in 2007, but he still showed good patience, and the ability to make contact. Furthermore, Crabbe already has some experience playing the outfield, and could develop into a versatile bench player. Also attractive is that he is still relatively young, as he will be 26 years old on opening day 2009. Crabbe could easily replace Miguel Cairo and/or Willie Bloomquist for a fraction of the price.

8. Matt Craig, 1B - Craig has split time between AA and AAA the past two seasons, but produced at a rather high level. He is also a switch-hitter, and while he does not have prototypical power for a first baseman, nobody does in the M's organization that is remotely close to ready for the majors. Craig could probably push LaHair for the starting spot right now, and he is at least as good of a prospect as LaHair heading into the future.

7. Brett Harper, 1B - Harper has one great strength: power. He also has one great weakness: strikeouts. If he had a little better plate discipline he would be higher on this list. Still, Harper produced in AAA this year, and he provides an offensive tool the M's really need (power), at a position where they desperately could use some more talent.

6. Joseph Torres, LHP - Even though the M's already have a decent bullpen, Torres is too intriguing to pass up. He has not pitched above AA, but he was simply unhittable. Torres held hitters to a .164 batting average, and struck out over a batter an inning. Though Torres is a fly ball pitcher, any problems with that would be somewhat masked by Safeco Field. Plus, his strengths have well outweighed his weaknesses so far. There is virtually no risk in signing any player to a minor-league contract, and with Torres the M's could put him in AAA and potentially end up with a quality southpaw for the bullpen for years to come.

5. Kevin Cameron, RHP - Cameron was a 2007 Rule 5 draft pick, and he did very well that year for the Padres, posting an ERA out of the bullpen under 3.00. Between a slow start and injuries this past year, his numbers don't say much either way about him. Still, Cameron's previous success and stunningly low home run rate (as in no home runs allowed the past two years) make him a bullpen arm worth signing.

4. Todd Linden, OF - A couple years ago Linden was a rather well-regarded prospect in the Giants organization. Since then, he has bounced around some, but never shown much in the majors. However, he is a switch-hitter with power, and he plays a position where the M's could use some depth. As an added bonus, he is from Edmonds, so he is local.

3. Victor Diaz, OF - The Mariners do not have to look far for a scouting report on Diaz. He spent nearly all of last season in Tacoma. He brings power to the table, though with lots of strikeouts and limited defensive ability. Still, his power has translated to the major league level in limited at-bats, and he would provide some needed offense at a needed position for the Mariners.

2. R.J. Swindle, LHP - At 25 years old, Swindle is young by minor league free agent standards. He has risen quickly through the Twins system the last couple years, but posted dominant numbers at every level. His rapid development is enticing, especially considering that he is young enough to conceivably develop even more. Swindle may be good enough now to make be a contributing member to a solid MLB bullpen, and if he continues to develop at the pace he has the last couple years, he could be quite good.

1. Jesus Guzman, 3B- Guzman is former Mariners property, but he was lost as a minor league free agent to the A's last year. He had a huge year in AA in 2008, and he is off to a fast start in the Venezualen Winter league too. Guzman has no great strength, but his skills are pretty good across the board. He will be only 24 years old at the start of the season, and he is ready for AAA. If he continues to hit the way he has the last couple years, he could develop into a starting infielder.

There rarely are any stars to be found in minor league free agency, but there are always several ballplayers who can fill out a roster just as well as a number of player who will get bigger and longer contracts. For a team looking to rebuild, they could do much worse than looking at these players for stopgaps before prospects are ready and/or more salary frees up to pursue free agents or bigger trades.

2006 15TW Update

Tim LincecumAt some point in the off-season I like to look back at the prospect lists I have made for the amateur drafts the past couple years, just to see how the players I listed are doing. Tonight I look at my first list, the one I put together in 2006. It was my first attempt to look at college baseball players, and all things considered, the list still looks okay. All of my original write-up are available here, and below are quick snapshots of how everyone is doing now:

15. Whit Robbins, 1B/OF, Twins (A) - The letter(s) in parentheses are the level the player spent the most time at in 2008. By far, Robbins' best attribute is his plate discipline, as evidenced by all his walks. However, he does not have much power, and he is a little old for the league he is in right now. Still, he repeated this league and posted an OPS about 200 points higher this year. Robbins has clearly progressed, but not enough to warrant a look in the majors any time soon.

14. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays (MLB) - 2008 American League Rookie of the Year, and arguably the face of the Rays franchise. I would say he is on track to make an impact in the majors.

13. Chad Huffman, OF, Padres (AA) - Chad is worth watching closely right now. He spent all of last season in AA, where he hit for good average and showed good plate discipline. However, he did not have much power. If Huffman develops some power, he may get an extended look in the majors soon (especially considering San Diego's current urge to purge salaries).

12. Luke Hopkins, INF, Blue Jays - I'm assuming he is out of baseball, because he has not played in two years. He never really got a chance to a play, and I'm not sure what ever happened with him.

11. Ryan Strieby, 1B, Tigers (A) - Strieby has a big, strong frame that suggests a ton of power potential. He found his power stroke in a big way, to the tune of 29 home runs despite missing the last month of the season. Strieby got especially hot at the end of the year, posting OPSs well over 1.100 in both July and limited time in August. Next year he will prove whether he has taken a big step forward, or was simply hot for a couple months.

10. Brad Lincoln, P, Pirates (A) - It is hard to be too critical of Lincoln thus far. He missed all of 2007 with an arm injury, and he just began to work his way back last season. The upcoming year will be much more indicative of Lincoln's ability than anything he did this season.

9. Steven Wright, P, Indians (AA) - Wright made the jump from A to AA with mixed results. He maintained his strikeout and ground ball rates fairly well, but he was clearly hit harder. Wright took a huge step forward this past season though, and if he takes a similar step forward in 2009 he may get called up to the majors. It was an awfully big step forward though, and it's probably too much to expect.

8. Wade LeBlanc, P, Padres (AAA) - LeBlanc had an interesting year in AAA, and his stats do not tell the whole story. He got off to a horrific start, but steadily got better as the season wore on. He got lit up as a September call-up for the Padres, but he is probably the guy that will take Jake Peavy's rotation spot once Peavy is traded. Wade's biggest downfall is that he is a fly ball pitcher, and when he's off, he tends to give up lots of home runs. He's got great stuff though, and if/when he learns to control it better, he will be a good pitcher.

7. Jon Jay, OF, Cardinals (AA) - After having a significant portion of 2007 robbed by injuries, Jay rebounded with a quality 2008. By August, he was promoted to AAA, where he kept peforming at a very high level. I expect to see him start the year in AAA, but if he hits like he did last year, a promotion to the majors may come soon.

6. Cole Gillespie, OF, Brewers (AA) - Milwaukee is loaded with prospects right now, so it easy to overlook Gillespie. He had a real nice year in AA. Part of the reason he gets so little attention is because no one skill really stands out with him, but he also has no big weaknesses. Gillespie's power numbers dropped off significantly in the second half of the season, so it will be interesting to see whether the powerful first half or the weaker second half was the exception to the norm for Cole.

5. Max Scherzer, P, Diamondbacks (MLB) - Max split his time almost evenly between AAA and the majors last year, but that will not be the case in 2009. He is going to be on Arizona's opening day roster, and he will likely be the number four starter unless the D'Backs sign someone. He's got wicked stuff, and he should establish himself as the third starter in the rotation behind Webb and Haren by the end of the year. In fact, it would not surprise me if those three are the best starting trio in the majors next year.

4. Eddie Degerman, P, Cardinals (A) - It looks like I missed on this one. Degerman is already 25, and his numbers suggest a bad case of nibbling around the plate and not getting away with it all that well. Still, his strikeout numbers and rather low home run rates suggest that he has some good stuff. Degerman needs a big year in 2009 to have a chance at the majors.

3. Craig Cooper, OF, Padres (AA) - Cooper continues to show pretty good ability to make contact, but a little more plate discipline and some more power would go a long way towards getting him to the big leagues. Without either (especially the power), Cooper looks destined to be a bench bat at best.

2. Andrew Miller, SP, Marlins (MLB) - Miller has as good of stuff as anyone in baseball, but he lacks command of it. He should learn how to control his pitches as he matures, but how much he does will determine how good he becomes. It does not help that he was rushed to the majors, but he has the potential to develop quickly because he needs just a little more command.

1. Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants (MLB) - He is the 2008 National League Cy Young award winner; I rest my case. It's hard to say Lincecum was not the best player available in this draft, though a strong case can be made for Evan Longoria.

I have learned a ton the past couple years that I hope has made me a much better evaluator of college prospects. However, especially for a first try, this list is not bad at all. I don't know of many people that though Lincecum was the best pitcher available in the 2006 draft, but to this point he has made an extremely convincing argument that he was. The hitters on this list have not failed, but the way I ranked them certainly has room for improvement. In the end though, a team drafting according to my list would have ended up with some solid ballplayers.

Trade Worth Exploring #2

Ryan ShealyMariners trade SS Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals for 1B Ryan Shealy

Why it makes sense for the Mariners: Bavasi and friends were in love with Yuni, and I was too when he first came up. However, he has shown a stunning lack of plate discipline that keeps him from becoming a very solid hitter. More troublesome is how much his defense has deteriorated though. Betancourt was horribly overrated by Bavasi and friends by the end of their tenure. He could conceivably be replaced by Tug Hulett, and Shealy would be a noticeable upgrade at first base.

Why it makes sense for the Royals: There are rumors that they are interested in Yuni Betancourt, and if they acquired him they would like shift Mike Aviles over to second base. Essentially, Betancourt would be replacing Mark Grudzielanek then. With the acquisition of Mike Jacobs, the Royals have a logjam at first base, and Shealy does not seem to fit in real well at this point.

Problems with the deal: Yuni has more pure talent than Shealy, and he plays a more premium position too. There still is a part of me that believes Betancourt could blossom into a darn good player, and all it might take is a little better player development. A Jack Zduriencik front office might provide the development that Betancourt needs. Basically, the problem is that this deal could potentially look bad for the Mariners if Betancourt develops into the type of player most thought he would be.

It is still a deal worth exploring and considering though, mostly because I am no longer sold on Yuni Betancourt as a long-term solution at shortstop. Furthermore, I believe Tug is capable of replacing Yuni's contributions the last couple seasons, and I like that Tug is much more patient at the plate. If Yuni is replacable from within the organization, and he is not a long-term solution, it makes sense to use him as a trade chip to acquire other talent that will improve the team.

Trade Worth Exploring #1

Nick SwisherI do not know how many hypothetical trades I will pose this off-season, but I will do what I can to keep track of them. Here is the first that I thought of that might be somewhat realistic:

Mariners trade OF Jeremy Reed to the White Sox for OF/1B Nick Swisher

Why it makes sense for the Mariners:
Swisher would bring two things to the Mariners that they desperately need, power and patience. He also has a strong attitude that would impact the clubhouse, and he is used to winning. Neither would hurt this team right now. I see him playing first base every day for the M's, but he could also play some outfield if needed.

Why it makes sense for the White Sox: Their GM, Kenny Williams, has already publicly stated that Swisher will not play in their outfield this season. Furthermore, first base is blocked by Paul Konerko, and DH by Jim Thome. There is no spot for Swisher on Chicago's roster. Jeremy Reed, on the other hand, is a much better fit. He is better defensively than Swisher, and would make a good fourth outfielder on the bench. Williams should still be fond of Reed since he was the one who drafted him, and the White Sox would also save significant money in the trade.

Problems with the deal: Most anyone would agree that Swisher is the better player in this trade, but why I think it might happen is because Reed fits much better in Chicago's plans, and because Swisher still has 3 years and about $21 million remaining in his deal. The Mariners could easily take on that salary, and it is not that bad of a contract. On the other hand, maybe the Mariners would prefer to gain payroll flexibility, which this deal would hamper.

I could see this deal happening. It makes some sense for both sides. I never thought a guy like Nick Swisher would be available for a rather low price, and perhaps he is not. However, Chicago seems pretty interested in trading him. I would at least propose this deal to the White Sox and see how they respond.

Zduriencik Quietly Shaping Roster

Rather clearly, Jack Zduriencik has finished evaluating the franchise and he is beginning to take action. None of his moves are big, but they could be setting the stage for more noticeable ones. Four players on the 40-man roster at the end of the season are on it no longer:
  • Yung Chi Chen, 2B: Chen was placed on waivers and claimed by the A's, so he is completely gone. He made some noise last year after hitting well in the Arizona Fall League, but most never saw him as a big prospect. He showed some ability to hit for average, but had little power potential, and he was not exceptional defensively either. I'm a little surprised Zduriencik let him go, but he likely is not a terribly big loss.
  • Joe Woerman, P: Woerman is yet to make the majors, but he had a tough year in AAA, and has mostly worked his way through the system by being solid at every level. There is a good chance he is back in Tacoma again. Woerman is exactly the kind of player that always drove me nuts with Bavasi. He is the kind of pitcher that at best is looking at being a fringe MLB player. There are plenty of pitchers like that out there, so why use a 40-man roster spot to protect him like he is a rare commoditiy?
  • Jake Woods, P: To Bavasi's credit, Woods was pretty good for one year, and he was stolen on waivers from the Angels. However, he has been pretty bad in AAA the last couple seasons, and it was clear that he had no future in this organization. He is now a minor league free agent. Once again, this was a rather obvious move, but there were times when the previous leadership did not grasp the obvious incredibly well.
  • Jared Wells, P: Wells pitched some for the Mariners last year, but he did not exactly light the world on fire in the majors, or in AAA. At best, he will bounce between the majors and minors, perhaps sticking for a few years in someone's bullpen. Like Woerman, Wells is the kind of guy that's rather easy to find in baseball, and Zduriencik understands the value of opening up roster space to potentially add guys that are not so easy to find.
These do not seem like major moves because they are not. However, these are the kind of moves that Bill Bavasi never made, and as a result we lost some guys that would help out the roster right now (Cha Seung Baek and Jorge Campillo come to mind). Bavasi's handling of the 40-man roster was atrocious, and already Zduriencik is showing better command of it. By my count, the Mariners right now have 3 open spots on their 40-man roster, which gives them plenty of flexibility. Those will likely be filled, because I am not counting the M's three free agents (Ibanez, Cairo, and Bloomquist) as part of the roster.

Flexibility is good, especially when you need to make changes. These little moves are the ones Bavasi never made. These are the ones that prevent a team from randomly cutting guys on their 25-man roster, as Bavasi had a penchant for doing. These moves show a sense of vision and thinking beyond just tomorrow. It is the kind of thinking that an effective GM does.

Front Office Takes Shape

Quietly, Jack Zduriencik has been busy at work. Amidst the big free agent and trade rumors, he has set the M's front office structure. Here are the key names and positions:
  • Carmen Fusco, Director of Pro Scouting: Fusco has been a scout for over 30 years, and most recently was working in Milwaukee as a scouting consultant (whatever that means). On Zduriencik's staff, he will be in charge of the professional scouting department. Presumably, this includes scouting of major league and minor league players, as well as perhaps the advanced scouting of upcoming opponents. This is a good fit for Fusco, and given the relative youth in the front office in many areas, it is nice to have someone with Fusco's experience.
  • Tom McNamara, Director of Amateur Scouting: McNamara is one of the two men Zduriencik was allowed to hire away from the Brewers, and this is a very logical fit for him. He has worked his way up the scouting ladder the traditional way, and this is the logical next step for him. Given McNamara's background, he will likely bring a very traditional approach to amateur scouting. That means looking at "tools" more than numbers. Even though I am a big fan of numbers, I also prefer scouting to focus on tools, because that is where a set of human eyes watching a player in person is helpful.
  • Tony Blengino, Special Assistant to the GM, Baseball Operations: This is the most interesting title of these three. Blengino was the other guy plucked from the Brewers front office, and his strength is statistical analysis. Given that, and that his title indicates that he will be a part of all baseball operations (namely draft picks, free agent signings, and trades), it seems that Blengino will essentially head up the M's sabermetric department. I am reading between the lines quite a bit here, but I hope I am right. The Mariners have never emphasized sabermetrics like this before, and the way Zduriencik has organized the front office makes a ton of sense. He has said over and over he wants to collect as much talent as possible, and to do that he wants to collect as much information as possible. By naming Blengino his special assistant, he has consolidated statistical analysis in one place organizationally, instead of spreading it out over several departments, or emphasizing it in only a few. For instance, with this set-up Zduriencik will be given both the traditional tools information about players from his scouting department, but also the statistical profile of a player from Blengino's department. With this setup, the two voices do not really compete with each other - they will both be heard clearly.
I am a fan of the way Zduriencik re-organized the front office. It is noticably different from Bavasi's set-up, and I like the changes. The structure is efficient, but also thorough. Personally are in areas where they should excel. Zduriencik did not re-invent the front office's structure, but he certainly made a system that the Mariners have never used. I much prefer this to Bavasi's structure, which seemed to me more about somehow jamming all his old baseball friends in some sort of role.

Front Office Shaking Up

Jack Zduriencik is not completely cleaning house, but he is definitely giving it a thorough scrubbing. After his initial interview, I was not sure how long it would take him to assess the state of the franchise and begin making changes. As it turns out, it is taking almost no time at all.

Word officially broke Tuesday that scouting director Bob Fontaine would not be back, and from the sounds of it he did not have much of a chance to stick around. It is unfortunate. Fontaine seems like one of the real nice guys in baseball, and he was good at his job. The M's drafts under him were significantly better than typical M's drafts the last 15 years or so. In particular, Fontaine had a keen eye for pitching. Just in 2006 the M's added Brandon Morrow, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler, and Kam Mickolio to the organization. Of course, thanks to Bill Bavasi, only Morrow remains, but that's not Fontaine's fault. It's not all that fair that Fontaine is getting cut loose, but this is how baseball works. Any organization would be wise to pick him up, and I hope he lands on his feet and succeeds somewhere.

While I am sad and disappointed to see Fontaine go, I am also inclined to trust Zduriencik when it comes to scouting and player development. His track record speaks for itself. Plus, after announcing that Fontaine was leaving, the Mariners also made some more announcements. First, Zduriencik is going to keep Bob Engle and Lee Pelekoudas around. Both are great decisions. Engle is the biggest reason the M's supplement their farm system with so much international talent, and I am very excited that it looks like Zduriencik is not all that interested in messing with the success the M's have had in that department. Meanwhile, Pelekoudas has served in a number of roles for the Mariners over the past 28 years, and his longevity has value. He knows baseball, and he knows where this organization has been, which makes figuring out where the organization is going quite a bit easier.

On top of that, two additions to the front office were announced on Tuesday. The Brewers agreed to let Zduriencik take two people from his Milwaukee staff, and he picked Tony Blengino and Tom McNamara. Blengino was Zduriencik's top assistant in Milwaukee, and is a member of SABR. In many respects, he is the kind of guy that Bavasi never seemed to strongly consider for a job in the organization. McNamara has an extensive background in scouting that even includes a stint with the Mariners front office from 1994-2000. They obviously both worked well with Zduriencik in Milwaukee, and so they should also fit well here.

Lastly, this morning it was announced that long-time Mariner Benny Looper would leave the team. He was offered a position as a scout, but it would have been a major demotion. So, he has left. One one hand it is tough to see long-time Mariners like Benny Looper leave, but on the other it is exciting to see that Jack Zduriencik is taking charge and putting his stamp on this front office, making tough decisions when he deems it necessary.

Publicly, Zduriencik says that he is not very close to finalizing the structure of the front office, but it is certainly coming into focus. Bavasi's model seemed bloated with a bunch of special assistants to the GM, which was a glorified way of hiring his baseball buddies. On top of that, there was no real room for sabermetrics (Bavasi claimed over and over the he valued statistics, but the structure of his front office certainly did not support that).

Under Jack, I expect to see a bit more streamlined front office and more emphasis put on statistical analysis. Looking at the staff right now, my best guess is that Lee Pelekoudas will be the assistant GM, Blengino the director of scouting, McNamara the assistant director of scouting, and Engle remains the head of international scouting. Pelekoudas has the experience with free agency, contract negotiations, and trade negotiations that Zduriencik does not have a ton of yet. Also, in this model, both Blengino and McNamara would receive promotions, and they have the potential to be a devastating combo. Blengino comes from a mostly business-orientated, statistical background (he last played baseball in high school), while McNamara played in the minors and has worked his way up the scouting chain the good, old-fashioned way. The two of them could potentially offer different perspectives that give abnormally complete profiles of prospects. Lastly, Engle stays where he has been awesome for many years.

At this point, the front office is more shaken up than settled, but what's coming together looks pretty good.

Press Conference Primer

The Mariners will hold a press conference this Friday at 10 AM to formally introduce Jack Zdurenciek as their new GM. It will be our first glimpse into the direction that this organization will head in under him. He has some interesting decisions to make right away. While it is highly doubtful that he will make any clear statements about particulars, his answers may indirectly give us a sense of what he will do. Here are some key things we may get a few answers to:

Manager: As Milwaukee's director of player personnel, Zduriencik did not have to worry about hiring a manager. Now he does. Jim Riggleman has been guaranteed that he will be interviewed, and I would consider it a safe bet that Ned Yost would get a look as well. Surely, Zduriencik will not give specific names, but is he looking for a proven commodity (like Buck Schowalter), or fresh blood, or is there some other factor that Zduriencik is looking for? Personally, I am hoping that he looks for a guy that knows how to work with younger players and instill a winning, team-oriented mentality.

Starting Rotation: By my count, the Mariners have six starters - Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva, Brandon Morrow, and Ryan Rowland-Smith. Who is the odd man out? Given Zduriencik's player development background, and the performances of all those pitchers last year, it could be Silva or Washburn. If either of those men are on the outside looking in, a trade may be in order. Does Zdruiencik already have an idea of what he wants to see, and will he tip his hand at all at the press conference? Hopefully, Zduriencik checks and sees if the Yankees are still interested in Washburn.

First Base: M's ownership is already on the record saying that the team will not make any major free agent signings this offseason. Presumably, that means they will not even attempt to go after Mark Teixeira. So, what does Jack Zduriencik have in mind at first base? Is the answer Lopez at first, with Tug Hulett at second? Perhaps Jeff Clement is the answer, or re-signing Raul Ibanez and putting him at first. Under Zduriencik, Ryan Braun was drafted as a shortstop, but moved to third and eventually the outfield. More notably, Matt LaPorta was drafted as a first baseman and moved to the outfield. Zduriencik is not afraid to move players to new positions, and showed more creative as a player personnel director than anyone in the M's previous front office ever demonstrated.

Josh Fields: What does Zduriencik think of the M's first-round pick? If Jack does not sign him, he gets another draft pick to play with. Surely, Zduriencik scouted Fields while in Milwaukee, so he should know Fields fairly well. I know I would like to see what Zduriencik could do with another high draft pick, so I am hoping he lets Josh Fields go.

Like I said, Zduriencik is extremely unlikely to unveil any specifics. But, he should shed some light on his philosophies. On top of that, perhaps the media will ask questions that he tries to evade or avoid. Between what he says and what he does not say, he should shed some light on what the next few months are going to look like.

Zduriencik Era Begins

Jack ZduriencikToday, the Mariners made what will be their most significant move of the off-season. With Jack Zduriencik (pronounced zur-EN-sik), the Mariners now have a permanent replacement for Bill Bavasi. After nearly five months under interim leadership, the organization officially has direction once again.

There are many reasons to be excited about Zduriencik. The first has little to do with him, but with the men who hired him. Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong have been under fire in recent years, and justifiably so, especially after the 2008 collapse we just witnessed. Armstrong in particular has been the team president for many years, and by all accounts is a fantastic person to work under. However, I wondered if the game had passed by him. He hired Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi under his watch, both GMs with significant previous experience running teams. On top of that, the managers and players the team pursued (with the exception of Bob Melvin) under those two GMs all tended to have significant experience. Rich Aurilia has experience. Scott Spiezio has been there before. Jeff Cirillo has a long track record of success. Jarrod Washburn has established himself as a major-league starter. Do these lines sound familiar?

Experience and track records are worth something, but not as much as this organization has valued it over the past five years. This became most apparent last off-season, when Carlos Silva was signed. The Mariners were stretching Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith out to be starters in winter ball, and both were having success. However, instead of trusting their own youth, they preferred the experience and proven track record of Carlos Silva, even though it came with a stiff price tag. Of course, it is easy to pick on the Silva signing after the poor season he had. But, the real point I am trying to make is that Ryan Rowland-Smith proved he can be a good starter, and Brandon Morrow flashed signs of dominance. Why didn't the organization see that last off-season?

Apparently, Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln were asking similar questions. When I saw the list of the four finalists earlier this week, I could tell that they had done some soul-searching, and legitimately had changed what they were looking for. None of them had ever been a GM before. Only two of the four (Kim Ng and Tony LaCava) even had experience as an assistant GM. Experience did not matter with this search as it has in the past.

What struck me the most though was that all of the finalists, except for Ng, had extensive backgrounds in scouting and player development. While the Mariners have never frowned on player development, they hardly have pumped out a bunch of stars the past decade. Truthfully, Pat Gillick was horrible in this regard, and Bavasi had done some good. However, he still neglected position players fairly badly, and also got a major boost from international scouting, which Bob Engle has quite a bit more to do with anyway. The renewed (or perhaps fresh) emphasis on player development from Lincoln and Armstrong also helps to explain why the organization went on record and said, even before hiring a new GM, that they would not sign a big-money free agent.

Even before today's announcement, I was feeling good about the organization's direction. The overemphasis on experience appeared to be over with. The farm system appeared to be a bigger priority than ever. Both of these are very big steps forward. Look no further than both World Series teams, the Phillies and Rays. The core of each team was built through their farm systems. The Red Sox did not rise to prominence until they developed guys like Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, and Anibal Sanchez (remember, Ramirez and Sanchez were key parts in the trade that netted Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell). Think back to the late '90s Yankees. Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera were all products of their farm system. Tino Martinez, another important piece, was acquired by parting ways with Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock - both prospects they developed. An organization with a strong farm system will field a strong team, no matter their payroll. Moreover, when teams with farm systems have money to spend, their is the potential for a dynasty.

So, getting back to Zduriencik after a long tangent, one reason I like him is because he is a guy I do not think Lincoln and Armstrong would have considered very seriously even a year ago. His hiring is a tangible sign that this organization assessed where it was at, and has actually moved in a new direction.

Ultimately, what really gets me excited about Zduriencik though is his unparalleled track record when it comes to player development. Brewers GM Doug Melvin got a contract extension largely thanks to Zduriencik, who was Milwaukee's equivalent to Bob Fontaine. Look at the team the Brewers fielded this past year. Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Bill Hall, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart are all players that Milwaukee developed in their farm system. Sure, Doug Melvin can be given some credit for shoring up the pitching staff with CC Sabathia, but who did he use to acquire the burly southpaw? That's right, prospects, namely blue-chip slugger Matt LaPorta. Of course, one reason the Brewers could make such a gutsy move is because they have other prospects like Mat Gamel, Alcides Escobar, and Cole Gillespie working their way through the system right now. There is a reason Zduriencik is the only non-GM ever to recieve the Baseball America Executive of the Year award.

It is not like all of these guys were sure-fire stars on draft day either. Many teams were concerned about Prince Fielder's weight, but not Milwaukee. Others thought they took LaPorta much too high, and nobody thought he would ever be a capable outfielder (except for Zduriencik and the Brewers, of course). In his time as a director of player development, he has shown creativity, vision, and confidence in himself, even when he goes against popular thinking. I do not know who Zduriencik plans to retain from the current Mariners staff, but I think that him at GM, Fontaine at scouting director, and Bob Engle staying VP of International Operations would make an incredible trio. Zduriencik particularly seems to have an eye for hitters, Fontaine an eye for pitchers, and Engle continues to more than supplement the system with young international talent. Just imagine a team that had drafted sluggers like Fielder and Braun, yet also drafted pitchers like Brandon Morrow and Chris Tillman, and then signed guys like Felix Hernandez and Carlos Triunfel.

Still, I have my concerns with Zduriencik. He has extremely limited experience in other important GM duties, namely trades and contract negotiations. He has to hire a manager. He has to evaluate aging players on this roster, not just up-and-coming youngsters. These are all things that he did not have to do much of (if any) in his role with the Brewers. I know that assistant GMs do get a taste for all those parts of the job, which is why I probably would have picked Tony LaCava. He comes from a strong player development background himself, and he also is an assistant GM right now. However, it is not as if Zduriencik has proven he cannot handle all the duties of GM. He has never had a chance to show what he can do it at all.

In the end, it is hard to argue that Zduriencik was not the right pick. I am excited to see what he does. I certainly am more excited about him than I ever was about Bill Bavasi. A youth movement is going to begin in earnest, and it should be real exciting once Zduriencik gets some draft picks to play with. I am certainly looking forward to the changes that he will make.

2008 World Series Preview

Navarro and PriceOctober is a crazy time of the year, and it has been much too long since I have written a new post. It is not as if their is a shortage of attention to playoff baseball in the media though. Now it is time for me to weigh in on the World Series. I doubt many had the Rays and Phillies back in April, but that is where we stand now. It is a fresh match-up, so on some level it does not feel like it has gone through the sports media meat-grinder of over-analysis quite yet (though I am sure it will have by Wednesday).

Instead of inundating with analysis, I prefer to provide some numbers to shed some light on what the series may look like. Using a version of the formula I use to project the standings throughout the year, I can project the percentage chance of all the series outcomes. Also, using my player rating formulas, I can rate each team's hitting and pitching. So here it is, the 2008 World Series by the numbers:


Philadelphia - 77
Tampa Bay - 77
The stats don't notice...that Rays center fielder B.J. Upton had a bum shoulder most of the year, and is obviously feeling much better. With two home runs in the World Series, he will have hit as many home runs in the playoffs as he did the entire regular season. The Rays offense is better right now than it appears to be on paper.

Starting Pitching
Philadelphia - 76
Tampa Bay - 78
The stats don't notice...that pitching rotations shorten in the playoffs. This probably does not impact the Rays rating all that much, but it does make a difference for the Phillies. Cole Hamels is clearly their best pitcher by far, and he is what gives the Phillies a slightly above average staff. Philly's playoff rotation is probably a little closer to the Rays one than the numbers suggest.

Relief Pitching
Philadelphia - 76
Tampa Bay - 80
The stats don't notice...that Troy Percival is not in the Rays bullpen, and the highly inexperienced David Price is. The Rays trumpet the praises of what Percival's veteran presence brought, but to be honest his contribution on the field is replacable. Price has electric stuff, and unbelievably it was him that closed out game 7 of the ALCS. Price is a wild card; he could make the Rays bullpen significantly better than the already lofty ranking indicates, or he could be a liability. It is hard to tell because he has pitched so little.

Phillies win in four - 6%
Rays win in four - 7%

Phillies win in five - 12%
Rays win in five - 14%

Phillies win in six - 15%
Rays win in six - 16%

Phillies win in seven - 15%
Rays win in seven - 16%

Phillies win the World Series - 47%
Rays win the World Series - 53%

This should be a close series. It is debatable how big of a deal playoff experience is, but it does not really matter in this series because neither team has much of it. Popular belief may be that the Rays and Phillies are built very differently on offense, but honestly they are not. While many experts will likely point to Tampa Bay's speed and how it contrasts with Philadelphia's power, both teams are patient and hit more than their share of home runs. The Rays have emphatically shown their power in the postseason, and they also hit 180 home runs in the regular season.

Pitching is what will decide this series. The Rays have young guys with incredible stuff, and they have stepped up big time (Matt Garza's line in game 7 is sick if you haven't checked it). Cole Hamels is the best pitcher on either staff, but overall the Rays still have an edge. The bullpens in particular will play a pivotal role. We have a good idea what we will get from the Phillies, but what about the Rays? Their bullpen looks completely different with David Price than it did at any point in the regular season.

The key players to watch in this series are Jamie Moyer for the Phillies and David Price for the Rays. Moyer has for the most part had a bad postseason. He is going to need to be the Jamie Moyer that showed up in the regular season, and if he is, the Phillies odds of winning this series go up significantly. Otherwise, the series could potentially be over quick. As for Price, as I said earlier, he is a total wild card. He has incredible stuff, but virtually no experience. In that regard, he is similar to Francisco Rodriguez when he first came up for the Angels.

I believe in David Price, and I believe in the numbers. I also believe we are due for a good World Series. I'll pick the Rays in seven games.

2008 Finally Over for M's

Yuniesky BetancourtFinally, the season is over for the Mariners. Ironically, it ended with a sweep of the Oakland A's. It ended with J.J. Putz striking out the side with 98 mile-an-hour heat. In short, if you had missed the first 158 games of the year, you might have thought this team was right where it was expected to be. On the other hand, if you did catch glimpses of the previous 158, this final series was a little frustrating. The Mariners "blew" their chance to get the top pick in the draft. It is as if they cannot even win at losing. I will choose to be happy that the season ended with three wins in a row, and leave it at that.

Still, above all, I am happy that the worst season in Mariners history is officially over. Sure, they have had a few years with marginally worse records, but nobody can argue that any other season has been worse. I do not even know where to start. So many posts could be dedicated to so many issues with the season, the team, and the direction of the organization. Really, this post is all about saying hooray, this miserable season no longer drones on. Here are a few fun facts to think about as the M's offseason officially kicks off. I'll call them the good, the bad, and the ugly:

  • Ryan Rowland-Smith as a starter: 12 starts, 72 IP, 73 H, 20 BB, 38 K, 10 HR, 3.50 ERA
  • Jose Lopez after the All-Star Break: .291 AVG, .323 OBP, .465 SLG, 10 HR
  • Ichiro still batted .300, got 200 hits, and 100 runs
  • Erik Bedard: Effective when pitching, but lambasted for not pitching through an injury that turned out to be very serious.
  • Yuniesky Betancourt: .277 AVG, .292 OBP, .387 SLG, .689 OPS - all lower than 2006 or 2007
  • Wladimir Balentien: .201 AVG, .250 OBP, .339 SLG, 78 strikeouts in 239 at-bats
  • Miguel Batista: 6.26 ERA, 115 IP, 135 H, 79 BB, 73 K, 19 HR
  • Carlos Silva: 6.46 ERA, 153.1 IP, 213 H, 32 BB, 69 K, 20 HR
  • Kenji Johjima: .223 AVG, .272 OBP, .330 SLG in 376 at-bats, with a 3-year, $24 million contract extension kicking in next year
  • Record under John McLaren: 25-47 (.347 winning percentage)
  • Record under Jim Riggleman: 36-54 (.400 winning percentage)
  • Team batting before the All-Star Break: .254 AVG, .312 OBP, .371 SLG
  • Team batting after the All-Star Break: .281 AVG, .326 OBP, .414 SLG
  • Team pitching before the All-Star Break: 4.28 ERA, .265 BAA, .744 OPS allowed
  • Team pitching after the All-Star Break: 5.40 ERA, .292 BAA, .842 OPS allowed
  • Richie Sexson had a higher OPS than Bryan LaHair
  • Richie Sexson finished with the fourth-most walks on the team, despite appearing in only 74 games. He finished with the fourth-most strikeouts as well.
  • Felix Hernandez led the team in ERA by default. He was the only Mariners pitcher who logged enough innings to qualify for the league ERA title.
No doubt, it was a long, weird, painful season. There is plenty to think about, both positive and negative. It is going to be a big offseason, even if the team makes minimal moves on the free agent market, or through trades. Above all, the 2008 season has finally, mercifully come to an end, and it even ended on a surprisingly bright note.

Truly, The End of An Era

Yankee StadiumEvery passionate baseball fan either loves the Yankees or hates the Yankees. There is no middle ground. I hate them. But, like most passionate baseball fans that hate the Yankees, I love hating them. I do not wish ill will (at least away from the game) on Derek Jeter, the Steinbrenners, anyone, or anything else that makes the Yankees the Yankees. It would not make sense for me to. I love hating them too much to want any of it to go away, or change in any way.

That is why Yankee lovers and haters alike have to be sad to see Yankee stadium go. It will always be part of what made the Yankees the Yankees. It was the home to so many legendary moments, teams, and players. When I think of the place, I see Josh Hamilton's home run derby barrage and Curt Schilling's bloody sock. I remember how my heart raged when Aaron Boone sent a Tim Wakefield knuckleball into the standing, sending the Yankees to yet another World Series. I also remember how my heart sunk when Jim Leyritz pushed the '95 M's to the brink of elimination in a gut-wrenching 15-inning marathon. These are the Yankee Stadium moments I vividly remember, and they almost get lost in the crowd of Yankee Stadium memories. More than anything else, that speaks to the overwhelming nature of Yankee Stadium, the very ovewhelming nature that is the source of Yankee Stadium's mystique.

I hated Yankee Stadium. I hated the mystique, especially in the playoffs. Maybe I was jealous, maybe I found it unfair. I have never stopped to think why I hated the mystique so much. What matters is that I hated it, and I loved hating it. Hating the mystique made every Yankee Stadium game so much more interesting and memorable.

I had to watch the last game in Yankee Stadium. Since I hate the Yankees, I hoped that they would lose. Yankee Stadium is defined so much by all the great Yankee triumphs, so it would have been so precious for its last memory to be of failure. Plus, a loss would have mathematically eliminated the Yankees from playoff contention, making a loss even sweeter. How ironic would it have been if the Yankees had been knocked out of playoff contention in their final game at Yankee Stadium? As a Yankee hater, I could not think of a better ending.

The game started well enough, and my excitement grew. Then, the Yankees came back with a homer from Johnny Damon that just cleared the short right field porch. Even though Johnny is on my fantasy team, I was mad. It was a cheap home run, the kind of fly ball that would have been an out in every other stadium. Once again, the Yankees were taking control of a game thanks to the stupid layout of Yankee Stadium. I was mad and frustrated. Making matters worse, Andy Pettitte settled down and Jose Molina hit a homer to extend the lead. What business did Jose Molina have hitting a big home run? It is just like the Yankees in Yankee Stadium to get unlikely contributions at crucial times. It is not fair at all. Finally, Mariano Rivera came out in the ninth and sucked the final remaining life out of the Orioles, ending their misery and mine.

Tonight felt like such a typical Yankees game. I wanted them to lose, got my hopes up, and then players stepped up and did unlikely things to give New York the lead. My smiling lips quickly gave way to furrowed brows, and inevitable disappointment set in as Rivera made his final trek to the hallowed Yankee Stadium mound. I could not help but think of all the times over the years that I was convinced Rivera was due to fail as he took that mound, and how every time he let me down by not letting down the Yankees.

Everything about Yankee Stadium's last game, from the ceremonies to the game itself, reminded me why I hate the Yankees so much. The history, the tradition, the narcissism, the entitlement, the winning - it was all there. My heart sank as Rivera buzzed through the Orioles with his cutter, and I glared as Jeter gushed about how great Yankee fans are.

At the risk of sounding like a masochist, I would not have wanted it any other way either. It would not have felt quite right if I had not been frustrated, disappointed, or perturbed at any point of Yankee Stadium's final game. I love hating the Yankees, and it was nice that everything felt like business as usual in Yankee Stadium's final game.

Yankee Stadium needed to be replaced. It was out of date. The new Yankee Stadium will be nicer in almost every way imaginable, from fan amenities to architectural detail. It looks like an ideal blend between the past and present (though at an exorbitant price, if you agree with Dennis Kucinich). Still, change means that things will be different. For the sake of Yankee haters and lovers alike, I hope things do not change that much.

Curious Firing

It was obvious that the Brewers were going all in with this year's team when they traded for CC Sabathia. Considering how well CC has done (and the standings), it also seems that the move is working out. All those good feelings disappeared Monday though. After being swept by the Phillies, Brewers GM Doug Melvin decided it was time to fire manager Ned Yost. Taking his place on an interim basis will be Dale Sveum, who had been the team's third base coach.

Playoff contenders have fired managers mid-season before. It is not the norm, but happens frequently enough that it does not seem overly peculiar. Look at the Mets this year. As horribly as Willie Randolph's firing was handled, they handled a mid-season firing the way a good team usually does. The general progression is:
  1. Team has high expectations, and manager is possibly already in a little hot water
  2. Team gets off to bad start.
  3. Manager fired as a result of bad start.
  4. Interim manager takes over and team miraculously gets better, usually in part because they were bound to improve anyway.
How does the Brewers' progression look? Something like this:
  1. Team has promising expectations
  2. Team gets off to solid start
  3. Team makes huge trade to hopefully catapult them to the next level
  4. Team subsequently goes from solid to good
  5. Team stumbles a little late in the season, but is still tied for the wild card lead
  6. Manager fired as a result of one bad series at an inopportune time
  7. Interim manager takes over and...?
This is an unfair firing if there ever was one. Ned Yost, as he was suddenly kicked out, was criticized by GM Doug Melvin for not being able to take the team to the next level. Excuse me, Doug? Before Yost was hired, the Brewers were annually losing 90-95 games. Under Yost, the team usually hovered around .500. That is a significant improvement. Moreover, the Brewers began a major youth movement under Yost, and the team has only begun to come of age the last couple seasons. Ned Yost never had the opportunity to take the team to the next level until the CC trade, and what do you know...the team did take a step forward. They are still in the thick of the playoff hunt. Yes, they did not look good in Philadelphia, but they are still tied for the Wild Card lead with last year's NL East champions!

There is no debating that the Brewers did not look good in their most recent series. But, the franchise has been climbing fairly steadily the past six years. Four days of evidence versus six years; you be the judge. Doug Melvin sided with the four days, and he may pay a heavy price. Thanks to the wild card tie with only 12 games to go, the team was already in a high-pressure situation. Now, on top of dealing with that, the players must also cope with the firing and get comfortable with Sveum's style, and the changes he promises to make. Does that sound like a recipe for success? It does not to me.

Luck plays a surprisingly large role in a stretch of just 12 games, and making the playoffs would bury a bunch of the unease and distress in the organization right now. With that in mind, the change could "work." I have never seen a team so bent on making the playoffs, or at least one person (Doug Melvin). If the Brewers do not make it, he should be fired. Maybe he should be fired even if they do. The CC trade was risky, but the Yost firing is ludicrous.

Morrow Delivers

Brandon MorrowInternally, the Mariners debated for the better part of two months whether to transition Brandon Morrow into a starter or not. The argument was simple: he is an awesome reliever, and there was no guarantee he would be even an effective starter. The argument seemed valid enough...until looking at where the M's are in the standings, and at Morrow's starting experience before reaching the big leagues. I have been a proponent of moving Morrow to the rotation since the end of last season, and I especially wanted to see it happen once the Mariners gave up on this season. There was absolutely NO reason to keep from finding out what he could do as a starter.

Even as a die-hard proponent of stretching Morrow out, I thought it would take at least three or four starts for him to show what I thought he was capable of. I was wrong. There is no doubt now. After just one start, Brandon Morrow has proven to everyone that he can start, and that he will be a member of the M's 2009 starting rotation. He is not going to go out and take no-hitters into the eighth inning every night, but the fact that he can says enough. Could a pitcher incapable of starting beat the odds and throw 106 masterful pitches like Morrow did last night? Could a pitcher incapable of starting maintain their stamina like that when they had not thrown more than 85 pitches or so in any game (majors or minors) this season?

I continue to put higher and higher expectations on Morrow, and he continues to blow me away. He looked at home as a starter. He had command, poise, control, and stamina. Going to a full windup did not bother him at all. If anything, Morrow looked more comfortable in a full windup. Though King Felix is still the unquestioned leader of the staff, I would argue that Morrow's start last night was the most significant one of the year for the M's. The starting rotation has holes, and it sure feels like one of them may have been plugged up for the next decade last night.

The Yankees are not quite what they used to be, but they still have one of the best lineups in baseball. Maybe Morrow got a little beginner's luck, but once again, the question is whether Morrow is a capable starter or not. I am a fan of taking some time to evaluate players (yet another reason I wanted the M's to transition Morrow much earlier), but the case is closed for me after last night. Brandon Morrow is a starter, and he is staying in the rotation for good. He has the potential to form a deadly 1-2 punch with Felix, and Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ryan Feierabend look like solid options behind them. This is why I was always a proponent of giving these young guys chances. Bill Bavasi never believed in his own talent, and that still boggles my mind. At least the Mariners are giving them chances now, and 2009 continues to look better and better because of it.

Young Arms Providing Hope

Ryan Rowland-SmithAs the losses mounted in the most recent losing streak, I wondered if I could find anything good to say about the Mariners these days. Sure, bad teams lose, but nobody should get blown out night after night after night. The pitching staff especially looked completely over-matched. It is one thing to be bad; it is another to not belong in the same league.

That is why the last two nights have been so refreshing. Enter Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ryan Feierabend, youngsters who took the mound and delivered fine starts on back-to-back nights. Granted, they both faced the Oakland A's, perhaps the worst offensive lineup in the American League. Still, the pitching staff was giving up 10 runs with ease on a nightly basis, so to see a couple good pitching performances against anyone was a much-needed sight for sore eyes.

There are legitimate reasons to be impressed with both starts as well. Rowland-Smith went 7 innings and threw 114 pitches, with negligible loss in velocity. Not too bad for someone still getting stretched out. Ryan Feierabend had a rough start on short rest against Minnesota, but looked much sharper on regular rest. In particular, he spotted his fastball well, and his change-up had good arm action and nice sink. He kept most everything down in the strike zone too, and so he induced more ground balls than he usually does. It would have been nice to see Ryan go a little deeper, but I will gladly take five great innings at this point.

Arms in the minor leagues are giving reasons for hope too. Brandon Morrow will be back in the majors soon, and he keeps getting stronger with each start. His most recent outing - 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 10 K, 72 pitches - was particularly promising. Chris Jakubauskas is working his way back from injury, Robert Rohrbaugh and Andrew Baldwin have both been having better outings of late, and looking more long term, 19-year-old Michale Pineda has an era hovering around 2.00 in Wisconsin.

There is reason for hope. I have had faith in the young arms for some time (as I said over and over and over last off-season), and it is nice to see some of them finally get chances this year. If I had been in charge of the Mariners last off-season, the rotation would look similar to how it does now. But, the team would also have Adam Jones in center or right field, an even deeper crop of arms in the farm system, and about $20 million less in payroll. My version of the 2008 Mariners probably would not have avoided a terrible collapse, but it sure would be in position to turn things around much faster.

MLB Draft Could Use a Cap

Buster PoseyI was going to write my own recap of yesterday's signing, but Minor League Baseball has really good one that you can check out by clicking here. All I will add is that I, like most, am surprised that all the last-minute contracts (expect Yonder Alonso's) were not Major League ones. The signing bonuses were big though, highlighted by the Posey and Alvarez deals. On the average, signing bonuses are way up this year (you can read more about the bonuses at Baseball America's draft blog if you would like), but it does not concern me as much as some. This year was loaded with college prospects, who tend to demand higher bonuses. Also, the it seems that teams preferred to pay higher bonuses to get players signed to minor league deals. Just look at Brian Matusz, the fourth pick. He agreed to a $4 million bonus with a Major League deal. On the other hand, Pedro Alvarez, Eric Hosmer, and Buster Posey - the second, third, and fifth selections, respectively - all got bonuses of at least $6 million, but signed minor league deals. More MLB contracts would have likely meant lower bonuses.

Still, the hope was that the new signing rules would keep signing bonuses from escalating, so this year is a little alarming. The suggested slot system is really starting to fall apart, because it is becoming more apparent each year that teams will completely ignore it if they want to sign a player bad enough. What I think Major League Baseball should do is look into putting a hard cap on how much money teams can use to sign their draft picks, just like the NFL has. Basically, here is how it would work: each team would get so much money to work with, based on the picks that they have. The amount would be figured out by adding up the suggested slot values for every pick the team has in the first five rounds, and adding to it some fixed sum of money that in theory could be used to sign a team's picks in rounds 6-50 (the fixed sum would be a base amount that every team gets; but each team's total would vary by the picks they have in the first five rounds).

This sort of cap system would be a great compromise. First of all, it would not penalize teams with lots of compensatory draft picks, because the system guarantees they would get more money to try to sign all their picks. Also, there is no cap on any individual draft pick, so a team would still have plenty of freedom to spend the money as they choose. Furthermore, it may even add incentive for top draft picks to sign quickly, before the team uses up a significant amount of their funds on other draft picks.

Suppose a cap system like the one I described was in place for this year's draft. I do not know the exact suggested slots for all the picks, but my estimate is that no team would have more than $8-9 million to spend on all their bonuses. Immediately, that would have forced guys like Yonder Alonso and Aaron Crow (who were both reportedly asking for $9-10 million) to lower their asking prices. In 2007, the Tigers would have faced a much tougher decision with Rick Porcello. The amount they had to pay to sign him at the 27th pick would have pretty much guaranteed they could not sign one or two of their other draft picks. Then again, perhaps under these rules, Porcello would not have asked for so much in the first place.

I do not like the strict salary scale that the NBA uses for their draft, but the current MLB set-up is probably a little too lenient. Teams should have the freedom to spend their money as they choose, but at the same time money should not govern who gets the most talented players. A cap on how much money a team can spend is a good compromise that baseball should look into.