Thursday, March 23, 2006

Baseball Preview: Reviewing the National League Off-Season Moves

We began our 2006 Baseball Preview yesterday with a review of the American League Off-Season. Today, we follow up with a review of the National League's moves.

First, a correction from yesterday. I inadvertanly listed Jeromy Burnitz as an acquisition of the Baltimore Orioles when he actually signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I apologize for the error, but Burnitz is listed with his proper team today. Now, on to the preview:

In: C Johnny Estrada, RHP Orlando Hernandez, RHP Luis Vizcaino, OF Chris Young (prospect), 2B Orlando Hudson, RHP Miguel Batista, OF Eric Byrnes, OF Jeff DaVanon
Out: RHP Lance Cormier, RHP Oscar Villareal, RHP Tim Worrell, LHP Shawn Estes, RHP Javier Vasquez, INF Alex Cintron

Summary: The D-Backs had a quiet start to the off-season, as the new front office settled in. Of course, with the plethora of prospects in the organization, you couldn't blame them for sitting back, but they did end up adding a couple of quality young players and a strong veteran presence to the major league club.

Chris Young was a nice pickup (and Byrnes a great stopgap until he’s ready), while El Duque can mentor the staff, and Vizcaino’s a great addition to the bullpen. Hudson is a Gold Glover at Second, while Batista can be a serviceable member of either the rotation or bullpen. I like the addition of Estrada as well. He was an All-Star two years ago, and is still one of the more productive Catchers in the league.

GradeB+. They got a good return on Vasquez and Glaus, while made a couple of moves to shore up the major league roster without sacrificing anything from the farm. The Josh Byrnes era in Arizona is off to a good start.

In: SS Edgar Renteria, RHP Oscar Villareal, RHP Lance Cormier, RHP Wes Obermueller, C Todd Pratt
Out: C Johnny Estrada, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, SS Rafael Furcal, 3B Andy Marte, RHP Danny Kolb, 1B Julio Franco

Summary: They traded a former all-star catcher and a reliever who had close to 40 saves in 2004 for three relievers who have ERA’s over 5. Normally, I’d rip these moves to shreds, but John Schuerholz has made enough shrewd moves over the years that I’ll defer passing judgement on these acquisitions until Memorial Day. Ditto with Edgar Renteria. I’m happy he’s out of Boston, but I’ll give him a chance to get on the field before I label him ‘over the hill’. He could very well rebound now that he’s playing in a lower-pressure atmosphere. The loss of Farnsworth should not be overlooked either. He proved last year that he can close, and while Chris Reitsma may have potential as a Closer, his presence means the Atlanta bullpen begins the season as a question mark, much like it has for the past decade and a half.

GradeC. They didn’t add any impact players, but score points for getting Boston to pick up a decent chunk of Renteria’s salary. I give them a ‘C’ mostly because John Schuerholz is in the rare stratus of Executives to whom I will always give the benefit of the doubt. (The other charter members of the club are Lou Lamoriello, Pierre Lacroix, Scott Pioli, Billy Beane, Pat Riley, and R.C. Buford). Between the losses of Furcal, Farnsworth, and Marte, they would have earned a D+ at best with anyone else as General Manager.

Chicago Cubs
In: LHP Scott Eyre, RHP Bobby Howry, OF Juan Pierre, OF John Mabry, OF Jacque Jones, RHP Wade Miller, OF Marquis Grissom (Minor-League Contract)
Out: LHP Sergio Mitre, OF Jeromy Burnitz, SS Nomar Garciaparra, OF Corey Patterson

Summary: They moved quickly to shore up the bullpen, adding Bobby Howry as the set-up man and Scott Eyre as the left-handed specialist to bridge the gap to Closer Ryan Dempster. The outfield also receives a makeover, as the once-promising Corey Patterson is shuttled out, and Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones come in. John Mabry is nice insurance in case youngster Matt Murton isn’t ready to play full-time. In Wade Miller, the Cubs add a power arm who has a history of getting injured. They already have two players who fit that description, and are far more talented than Miller is. Their names are Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

GradeB. I like the bullpen moves a lot, and Pierre should score a lot of runs hitting in front of Ramirez and Lee. I’m not completely sold on Jones, but he adds a much needed left-handed bat to the lineup. Still, I’d feel better if they had added a true left-handed slugger, and a veteran starter (who can stay healthy) to provide depth.

In: LHP Dave Williams, 2B/OF Tony Womack, RHP Bronson Arroyo, LHP Chris Hammond, RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Rick White, 1B Scott Hatteberg
Out: 1B Sean Casey, OF Wily Mo Pena

Summary: They needed to move an outfielder or first basemen, and ended up moving both. Williams is a decent pitcher, as is Bronson Arroyo, and frankly neither of them can be worse than Eric Milton. Arroyo is moving from one hitter’s park to another, but could see his numbers improve simply because he no longer faces the Designater Hitter on a regular basis.

I wonder if giving up both Casey and Pena was a mistake. This now leaves them with an outfield of Adam Dunn (who can also play First), Austin Kearns, the injury-prone Ken Griffey Jr., with Scott Hatteberg playing First. If someone gets hurt, they’re left with Utility Man Ryan Freel to provide depth. Also, while Arroyo and Williams can be good pitchers, their best served being slotted towards the back end of the rotation. The Reds needed a front of the rotation starter, and failed. Let’s face it, a rotation with Arroyo, Williams, Aaron Harang and Eric Milton isn’t scaring anyone, especially the loaded offenses in the NL Central.

GradeD+. They added some nice pieces, but cut into their Outfield depth, and didn’t add anyone who figures to make their club appreciably better.

In: C Yorvit Torrealba, RHP Jose Mesa, LHP Ray King, INF Jamey Carroll
Out: OF Larry Bigbie, 2B Aaron Miles, RHP Dan Miceli

Summary: They’ve added two veteran arms to their bullpen, but failed to add anyone of significance to the rest of their roster. New acquisition Yorvit Torrealba is penciled in as the every day Catcher, but he’s never played more than 80 games in a season, so it remains to be seen if he can hold up and be even an average performer.

If this team makes even marginal gains in the standings, it will be because of the progression of young players like Clint Barmes, Matt Holliday, Jeff Francis, and Brian Fuentes. They would have been well-served to follow the lead of the Kansas City Royals and invest in short-term, low cost veterans to mentor this group. Instead, they brought in two unproven position players and two relievers who are pushing 40.

GradeD-. With the young core of players the Rockies have, it’s not inconceivable that they could be a contender in the next couple of years; they missed a chance this off-season to help move that process along.

In: INF Pokey Reese, RHP Joe Borowski, C Miguel Olivo, 3B Wes Helms, INF Alfredo Amezaga, Prospects – 1B Mike Jacobs, LHP Sergio Mitre, SS Hanley Ramirez, and others
Out: RHP Josh Beckett, RHP Guillermo Mota, 3B Mike Lowell, 2B Luis Castillo, SS Alex Gonzales, RHP AJ Burnett, RHP Todd Jones, OF Juan Encarnacion, 1B/OF Jeff Conine, RHP Antonio Alfonseca, C Paul LoDuca, OF Juan Pierre, the few remaining fans in Miami.

Summary: Where do we start? They began the off-season looking to trim their payroll from $68 million to $55 million by opening day. They pretty much accomplished that by dumping Delgado, Beckett, and Lowell, but while everyone was still figuring out those moves, cutting payroll turned into a full-scale fire sale. They ended up trading all of their regulars except Miguel Cabrera, plus two of their top three starters, their closer, and their main setup man. They did manage to acquire a pretty good haul of prospects in return, but the major league roster is a mess. They figure to start youngsters at every position, with only Wes Helms and Miguel Olivo on the bench to provide depth and veteran leadership. The rotation is just as unproven, and the bullpen is a mixture of inexperienced youngsters and castoffs from other teams.

On the bright side, Right Fielder Jeremy Hermida and First Baseman Mike Jacobs looked good in their late-season call-ups last year.

Grade: F. I might have given them a C for the prospects they acquired in the fire sale, but the fact that they will be fielding a terrible team in 2006 and the likelihood that they’ve killed major league baseball in South Florida for good outweights it all.

In: OF Preston Wilson,
Out: RHP Roger Clemens, INF Jose Vizcaino

Summary: The Astros made it all the way to the World Series despite an anemic offense; Preston Wilson doesn’t make it any better. They better hope for continued progression from the likes of Willy Tavares and Jason Lane if they’re hoping for an offensive boost.

On the pitching front, the loss of Clemens is huge. They don’t have anyone who is remotely capable of filling the void if he doesn’t return in May, which is looking less likely. There are also questions about Brad Lidge after his shaky performance in the playoffs last year.

Grade: D. They didn’t do anything to make their club better. If Clemens returns, this goes up to a ‘C’.

Los Angeles Dodgers
In: SS Rafael Furcal, C Sandy Alomar Jr., 3B Bill Mueller, SS/Util Nomar Garciaparra, OF Kenny Lofton, RHP Brett Tomko, RHP Danys Baez, RHP Lance Carter, RHP Jae Seo, LHP Tim Hamulack
Out: RHP Darren Dreifort, INF Jose Valentin, C Paul Bako, RHP Elmer Dessens, INF Antonio Perez, OF Milton Bradley, RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Duaner Sanchez, RHP Steven Schmoll, RHP Jeff Weaver

Summary: New Manager Grady Little is hardly the only new face in Los Angeles this spring. The Dodgers added four new regulars, and a handful of new pitchers.

Rafael Furcal adds speed, defense, and hitting prowess to the top of the Dodgers lineup. Mueller is a solid addition to the infield, and will provide stability and leadership. Kenny Lofton still has some gas left in the tank, but should be used as a platoon player, as should the declining Jose Cruz Jr. Unfortunately, both young outfielders on the Dodgers’ roster, Jason Repko and Jayson Werth, failed to hit for average, leading to concern about how much they can contribute. If Nomar stays healthy, he should hit the ball well, and let’s be honest, his defense at First can’t be worse than it was at Short.

On the pitching front, Danys Baez adds even more depth to the bullpen, and has proven himself to be an able Closer; he’ll be a more than adequate replacement if Eric Gagne struggles returning from his injury. Brett Tomko and Jae Seo are nice back of the rotation guys, but don’t figure to be key players.

Grade: B. They might have overpayed, but Furcal is an all-star. While he won’t add much at the plate on in the field, Alomar is a going to be a great presence in the clubhouse, mentoring young backstop Dioner Navarro. Mueller is solid and Nomar should help, offensively at least. They also get points for not breaking up their strong farm system.

In: RHP Danny Kolb, RHP Dave Bush, OF Gabe Gross, 3B Corey Koskie
Out: RHP Wes Obermueller, 1B Lyle Overbay, 2B Junior Spivey

Summary: They failed to add anyone of consequence for Overbay, and reacquired Danny Kolb in hopes that there’s something about Milwaukee that just makes him a good pitcher. Corey Koskie is a player, and could thrive in Milwaukee.

GradeC. As much as I like Koskie, I can’t overlook the fact that they received a poor return on Overbay, and haven’t added anyone else to complement their core of young players, unless Danny Kolb returns to his 2004 form.

NY Mets
In: OF Xavier Nady, 1B Carlos Delgado, OF Tike Redman, LHP Billy Wagner, C Paul LoDuca, INF Jose Valentin, 1B Julio Franco, OF Endy Chavez, RHP Chad Bradford, RHP Duaner Sanchez, RHP Steven Schmoll, RHP Jorge Julio, RHP John Maine, RHP Jose Lima and LHP Darren Olver (Minor-League Contracts)
Out: OF Mike Cameron, 1B Mike Jacobs, INF Marlon Anderson, 2B Miguel Cairo, RHP Braden Looper, RHP Roberto Hernandez, C Mike Piazza, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, INF Jose Offerman, LHP Tim Hamulack, RHP Jae Seo, RHP Kris Benson

Summary: Where to start? The Mets were the stars of the off-season, bringing in Wagner and Delgado in high-profile moves. They added complimentary pieces like LoDuca and Nady, then rebuilt the bullpen in front of their new closer by adding Jorge Julio, Chad Bradford, and Duaner Sanchez.

A lineup featuring Beltran, Wright, Delgado, and Floyd in the 3-6 spots is lethal, especially if Jose Reyes can get on base in front of them. With the departure of Kris Benson, the aging of Tom Glavine, and Pedro Martinez’ injury concerns, the rotation looks weaker than it was last year, so they will have to hope that the rebuilt bullpen can pick up the slack.

GradeB. They’ve made some good moves, but I’m always wary of teams with this much turnover. Their defense looks to have regressed as well, which will be a concern for groundball pitchers like Tom Glavine (to say nothing of the fact that Shea is a pitcher’s park in general). Nonetheless, the addition of Delgado and Wagner earns them a pretty decent grade.

In: RHP Tom Gordon, OF Aaron Rowand, INF Abraham Nunez, LHP Arthur Rhodes, C Sal Fasano, RHP Ryan Franklin, INF Alex S. Gonzales
Out: LHP Billy Wagner, 1B Jim Thome, OF Kenny Lofton, RHP Ugueth Urbina, RHP Vicente Padilla, OF Endy Chavez, OF Jason Michaels, C Todd Pratt

Summary: They lost Wagner to the Mets, and replaced him by signing 38 year old setup man Tom Gordon to a 3 year deal. They also added Arthur Rhodes to set-up for him. They swapped Thome and got a solid Centerfielder (Rowand) in return, though their outfield depth was hurt with the losses of Lofton, Chavez, and Michaels. I like the Abraham Nunez pickup a lot; I predict that he’ll be starting ahead of David Bell by May at the very latest.

GradeC-. I would probably have given them a B for the Rowand and Nunez acquisitions, and an F for their bullpen moves, so a C- seems like a nice compromise. I have zero faith in Tom Gordon to make it through even one year of his three-year deal, and I’ve seen Arthur Rhodes blow too many important games to think he can help carry the load.

In: 1B Sean Casey, LHP Damaso Marte, RHP Roberto Hernandez, 3B Joe Randa, OF Jeromy Burnitz
Out: RHP Jose Mesa, LHP Dave Williams, LHP Mark Redman, OF Tike Redman, Util Ron Mackowiak, 1B Daryle Ward, RHP Rick White, INF Alfredo Amezaga

Summary: Sean Casey is a talented player who’s a good character as well; he’s exactly the type of player a young team like the Pirates should add. Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz are decent placeholders as well, though they could crash and burn at any moment.

Jose Mesa was a good closer in Pittsburgh, and they’re counting on youngster Mike Gonzales to fill the void. They did acquire Hernandez and Marte to add experience and depth to the bullpen, which was a good move.

Grade C+. This grade is largely because of the Casey acquisition, but also because they managed to find a taker for Mark Redman’s salary, and avoided signing any mediocre veterans to the type of long-term, high-paying contract that has been crippling their payroll (and roster) for the past ten years. If there are any Pirates fans reading this, the name Derek Bell probably jumps to mind. Maybe Pat Meares too.

St. Louis
In: OF Larry Bigbie, 2B Aaron Miles, LHP Ricardo Rincon, RHP Braden Looper, RHP Sidney Ponson, OF Juan Encarnacion, 2B Junior Spivey, C Gary Bennett, INF Deivi Cruz, RHP Jeff Nelson (Minor-League Contract)
Out: LHP Ray King, INF Abraham Nunez, OF John Mabry, OF Larry Walker (retired), RHP Cal Eldred (retired), 2B Mark Grudzielanek, OF Reggie Sanders, RHP Julian Tavarez, RHP Matt Morris

Summary: There was a lot of turnover in St. Louis this off-season, with 3 regulars and 3 key members of the pitching staff moving on. I may be in the minority, but I think they did a good job of replacing these players. The only move I question is letting Mark Grudzielanek go. I’m not sold on Aaron Miles, but he’s still young enough to come around, and Junior Spivey has a history of inconsistency.

I love the addition of Juan Encarnacion. He’s played on championship clubs, and has proven himself to be a nice complementary offensive player. He’ll take over nicely for Reggie Sanders. They’re counting on the combination of Bigbie/So Taguchi and John Rodriguez to make up for the loss of Walker, which is probably a stretch. Nonetheless, a full season of Scott Rolen and progress from the likes of Catcher Yadier Molina could help make up for it as well.

On the pitching front, they let Matt Morris and his Harrison Ford in ‘The Fugitive’ beard walk, and are hoping that reclamation project Sidney Ponson can help fill the void. I like the additions of Braden Looper and Ricardo Rincon in the bullpen. I see them as big improvements over Julian Tavarez and Ray King.

GradeB. I’m worried about them replacing Walker and Grudzelianek, but that’s it. The Cards did a good job of keeping themselves in contention. If they win 100 games, I may move Walt Jockety into my ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ club.

San Diego
In: 3B Vinny Castilla, INF Geoff Blum, OF Mike Cameron, RHP Dewon Brazelton, C Doug Mirabelli, 2B Mark Bellhorn, RHP Chris Young, OF Termell Sledge, 1B Adrian Gonzales (Prospect), RHP Doug Brocail, LHP Shawn Estes, INF Mark Bellhorn, C Mike Piazza
Out: RHP Brian Lawrence, OF Xavier Nady, 3B Sean Burroughs, 2B Mark Loretta, C Ramon Hernandez, 1B Mark Sweeney, INF Damian Jackson, 3B Joe Randa, RHP Rudy Seanez, C Robert Fick, RHP Adam Eaton, RHP Akinori Otsuka, RHP Rudy Seanez, LHP Chris Hammond, RHP Pedro Astacio

Summary: The Padres did well getting Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman to resign at a home town discount, but I’m not sure how much their other moves improve the club at all. Swapping Nady for Cameron is an upgrade, as Cameron’s defense makes him a real asset in Petco, but giving up Brian Lawrence and Mark Loretta for an aging third basemen and backup catcher are questionable moves. They won’t see much of a dropoff giving up Adam Eaton in exchange for Chris Young, but their bullpen took a real hit losing Otsuka and Seanez without bringing in any new blood. I also wonder how much Piazza and Bellhorn have left as every day players, and if prospects Adrian Gonzales and Termell Sledge will ever establish themselves in the bigs.

Grade - C+. I have a lot of questions about how effective their moves will be. Nonetheless, resigning their key players and adding Cameron is enough to earn a slightly above average grade.

San Francisco
In: RHP Tim Worrell, LHP Steve Kline, 1B Mark Sweeney, RHP Matt Morris, INF Jose Vizcaino, OF Steve Finley
Out: LHP Scott Eyre, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, 1B J.T. Snow, RHP Brett Tomko, 2B/3B Edgardo Alfonzo, OF Marquis Grissom

Summary: They replaced a couple of arms in the bullpen (Worrell, Kline), one to the starting rotation (Morris), swapped one underachieving veteran (Alfonzo) for another (Finley) and added a platoon player (Sweeney), but will otherwise take the field in 2006 with the same lineup they had in 2005 and hope that they can avoid debilitating injuries this time around. They lost Armando Benitez and Barry Bonds for extended periods of time last year, and probably would have won the weak NL West if they had had them full-time. Assuming they stay healthy, and they’re aging lineup doesn’t suddenly collapse, there’s no reason the Giants can’t win the NL West this year.

GradeC-. I like the addition of Morris, but none of the other moves make the Giants tangibly better.

In: RHP Brian Lawrence, INF Damian Jackson, 2B/OF Alfonso Soriano, INF Marlon Anderson, LHP Mike Stanton, RHP Ramon Ortiz, RHP Pedro Astacio, C Matthew LeCroy, RHP Felix Rodriguez, 1B Daryle Ward
Out: RHP Esteban Loaiza, 3B Vinny Castilla, OF Brad Wilkerson, OF Termell Sledge, OF Preston Wilson, INF Jamey Carroll, C Gary Bennett, INF Deivi Cruz

Summary: Now that Alfonso Soriano has agreed to play in the Outfield, their off-season moves are looking a lot better. He’ll provide a real boost to the offense, even playing in a pitcher’s park (RFK). Lawrence and Ortiz are decent middle of the rotation pitchers, but the Nats will still miss Esteban Loaiza. Stanton and Rodriguez add depth to the bullpen, while Anderson, LeCroy, and Jackson are depth players at best.

Grade - C. The offense is a bit better, while the rotation is a bit worse. Call it a tradeoff, and give them an average grade.

The best grades go to:
1. Arizona
2. St. Louis
3. NY Mets
4. Chicago
5. Los Angeles

The D-Backs earn a 'B+', while the other 4 earn 'B's. I ranked them from 2-5 in order of likelihood of becoming a playoff team.

While I don't believe they had as strong off-seasons as some of the American League clubs, a number of teams did do a good job of reloading and poising themselves to be contenders in 2006. We'll see how many of them deliver, and how many of them fall short again.


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