National League West—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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San Francisco Giants

The Giants have taken pitching and defense to the extreme with an outfield that can catch the ball with anyone, can run and has almost no power production. Predictably Melky Cabrera has slowed down from his early-season pace and the Giants’ middle infield can neither hit nor field all that well. They need a bat in the middle of the infield at either second or short. I don’t believe in rumors that pop up out of nowhere, but if the Phillies are willing to concede the season, want to free up money to keep Cole Hamels and will take Brandon Crawford in exchange for him, Jimmy Rollins is from the Bay Area.

Would the Diamondbacks trade Justin Upton or Stephen Drew to a divisional rival? It depends on whether they truly think they’re still contenders. From the way they’re acting, it doesn’t appear as if they do.

Jed Lowrie would’ve been a nice addition, but he’s hurt.

The Giants don’t need much bullpen help, but GM Brian Sabean might get some anyway with a Brandon League-type arm.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Does this make any sense? The Dodgers are said to be heavy buyers and the Brewers are considering selling but the Brewers are 3 games behind the Dodgers in the loss column. The Dodgers were 42-25 on June 17th and 5 games up in their division. Since then, they’ve gone 7-19 since and are 3 games back.

But Ned Colletti is a buyer and he’s been validated in his strategy in the past. He’s willing to give up young players to get a veteran to help him win now. It sounds as if new ownership has given him the nod to go for it.

They need a starting pitcher and have been pursuing Ryan Dempster and checking in on every other available name like Zack Greinke, Hamels and whoever else. They need arms for the bullpen too, specifically a lefty like Joe Thatcher or Jose Mijares. Offensively, a first baseman who can hit the ball out of the park would significantly upgrade the offense and if the Twins are willing to eat some of his remaining contract, I’d pursue Justin Morneau. If he gets traded, I think it will be to the Dodgers.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Are they selling? Are they buying? Are they changing on the fly? Most importantly, is Kevin Towers still a “genius” as he was ridiculously called last season when the Diamondbacks won a surprising NL West title with a lot of luck?

The Diamondbacks starting pitching is a problem. Ian Kennedy won 21 games last season and is now 7-8. The big difference? Luck. His BAbip was .274 in 2011 and this season it’s .330. Daniel Hudson is out for the year with Tommy John surgery; Joe Saunders just came off the disabled list; Trevor Bauer was sent to the minors. If they’re trading Upton and intend on contending this season, they have to get a legitimate starting pitcher in the deal, one who can help them now.

Upton is so out there in trade talks that I’d like to know why the D-Backs are so desperate to trade him. He’s signed and an MVP-talent. What’s the problem?

Stephen Drew is also available. Unless they get a shortstop in return, I hope D-Backs’ fans enjoy watching Willie Bloomquist do whatever it is Willie Bloomquist does.

I don’t know what’s going on over there. I don’t know what they’re doing or what their intentions are and wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they don’t know either.

San Diego Padres

Sell, sell, sell.

The new talk is that they might keep Carlos Quentin and try to sign him, which is ridiculous. Quentin’s getting traded and they’d better do it sooner rather than later before he gets hurt again.

Chase Headley’s name is bouncing around but he’s under team control and plays a position that is hard to fill at third base. If they trade him, they’ll want 2-3 legitimate prospects.

Their bullpen is where teams are sniffing around. Thatcher is a lefty specialist that few are aware of, but is nasty. Huston Street is a hot name, but I prefer Luke Gregerson—he’s cheaper and better.

Nothing is off the table in San Diego and they’re going to be very busy as a potential kingmaker at the deadline.

Colorado Rockies

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I actually picked this team to win the NL West.

It’s a disaster and they not only have to decide what they’re doing with their players, but whether GM Dan O’Dowd is going to keep his job. If they’re making a change in the front office, does it make any sense to let the outgoing GM make important deals of veteran players and leave a potential mess for the next guy?

They’re said to want a lot of relievers Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle, both are valuable and useful for contenders. Jason Giambi would help either an NL team as a pinch hitter or an AL team as an occasional DH. Marco Scutaro is versatile all over the infield and can still hit and get on base. O’Dowd has said he’d listen on Dexter Fowler, but ownership should nix that idea. They’re going to trade Jeremy Guthrie somewhere and probably not get anywhere close to what they surrendered to get him—Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. That’s if they get anything at all.

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Surprise Buyers—American League

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Let’s look at some teams that are unexpectedly hovering around contention, what they need and who they should pursue.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles could use a starting pitcher and a bat (or two). One of the bats has to be able to play the outfield competently.

Dan Duquette is looking pretty smart for his under-the-radar off-season maneuvers getting Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom and Wei-Yin Chen. He’s not going to gut the system for a big name should one come available, nor should he.

Ryan Dempster is the type of middling pitcher they should pursue. Matt Garza can be had. Cole Hamels isn’t worth the cost for a rental unless they know they’re going to sign him.

Jim Thome has been mentioned as a DH option and he’d provide an offensive boost on the field and would be a stabilizing, quietly strong veteran leader off the field.

Carlos Lee is available from the Astros; if the Cubs are willing to give them Alfonso Soriano for a moderate prospect and pay his salary, the change to a club in the pennant race could really wake up his bat—and he’s been hitting homers lately anyway.

Carlos Quentin is on the block from the Padres.

Chicago White Sox

It was supposed to be a bridge year for the White Sox with a new manager, Robin Ventura and an altered configuration and strategy. But they’ve taken advantage of a mediocre AL Central and are in first place.

They could use a starting pitcher and if they’re still hovering around the top of the division and Wild Card at the deadline, GM Ken Williams is going to go for a big name—that means Hamels or Garza.

For the bullpen they could pursue Huston Street (who I’m not a fan of), Brett Myers, Brandon League or Grant Balfour.

Cleveland Indians

It’s time to forget about Grady Sizemore and to not expect any long term health from Travis Hafner when he returns.

They need a bat that can play centerfield.

Shane Victorino is a pending free agent and the Phillies are soon going to be teetering on holding out for the return of their stars or accepting that this isn’t their season and moving forward for 2013.

Chase Headley would be an upgrade over journeyman Jack Hannahan at third base; he can also play the outfield and first base.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster at first base. I wouldn’t give up much to get Carlos Lee, but I’d take him.

The Indians’ starting pitching isn’t impressive statistically, but there’s enough there to wait without overspending on an outsider.

They could use a bullpen arm or two and should check with the Padres on Street and the Rockies on bringing Rafael Betancourt back to Cleveland.

Kansas City Royals

What’s with all this talk of the Royals selling? They’re 5 ½ games out of first place.

Ravaged by injuries to their starting rotation, they need arms. They have the prospects to do something major like bringing Zack Greinke back. They have the money to sign him long term.

On the surface, they could use a power bat but they just got Salvador Perez back and there’s reason to believe that they have enough pop if Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer start hitting the ball out of the park.

I wouldn’t go too crazy trying to win now, but I’d explore what’s out there to improve in the short and long terms.

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Off Season Losers In Retrospect

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Several days ago I listed the off season winners in retrospect discussing teams and the moves they made this past winter. Now it’s time for the losers.

New York Yankees

Acquired: Michael Pineda, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Jose Campos

Subtracted: Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi

The YES Network website still hasn’t mentioned Jose Campos since he got hurt. For that matter, nor have they mentioned Manny Banuelos’s recent injury. Maybe they haven’t been informed yet. Yeah. That’s it.

The trade of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos is an absolute and utter disaster—a fireable offense for GM Brian Cashman.

Kuroda’s been good and unlucky.

Pettitte’s unexpected return has been a bolt from the blue and Ibanez has contributed the power I expected.

It’s fine to talk about them “having” to get rid of Burnett, but they’re paying him; they got low minor leaguers for him; he’s pitching well for the Pirates; and the players the Yankees got haven’t played yet in 2012. Had Pettitte not returned I guarantee there would be people now lamenting the loss of Burnett.

Guarantee.

Boston Red Sox

Acquired: GM Ben Cherington, Manager Bobby Valentine, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Mark Melancon, Nick Punto

Subtracted: GM Theo Epstein, Manager Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek

It’s only when you look at the list above all at once do you realize how rancid an off-season the Red Sox had. Never mind the exchange of GMs/managers. Had he stayed, Epstein probably would’ve had better success fending off the advancing power grab of Larry Lucchino but it would’ve taken a Herculean effort for Epstein to prevent the mediocrity that the Red Sox have become.

I’m sick of seeing Francona complaining about how he was treated in Boston. If it weren’t for the Red Sox, the hot chicks to whom he’s sending candid photos of himself wouldn’t know who he is; not to mention would he not have two World Series rings and respect as a “great” manager—which he’s not.

Bailey got hurt as Reddick is on his way to making the All Star team and has been the Athletics’ best player. Melancon is back in the minor leagues; Shoppach is on the trade block; Ross was playing well before he got hurt; Punto is Punto.

No one’s saying they should’ve overpaid to keep Papelbon, but giving Scutaro away for a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen made no sense.

Detroit Tigers

Acquired: Prince Fielder, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Collin Balester

Subtracted: Wilson Betemit, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya

Fielder and Cabrera are doing their jobs at the plate and more. The porous defense created by the signing of Fielder and shifting of Cabrera to third base hasn’t been as catastrophic as expected. That’s unless the pitching staff has it in their heads that they have to strike out more hitters or pitch differently to prevent balls from being hit to the right or left sides of the infield—highly unlikely.

The Tigers are 5 games under .500 because their pitching has been bad. The off-season isn’t a failure because of the signing of Fielder, but 5 games under .500 wasn’t what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he paid all that money to sign a huge bat like Fielder to replace Victor Martinez and team him with Cabrera.

Minnesota Twins

Acquired: GM Terry Ryan, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Jason Marquis, Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya

Subtracted: GM Bill Smith, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey

Terry Ryan was supposed to come back into the GM’s chair and start doing things the “Twins’ Way”. Well, that “way” is no longer working. The reason that vaunted “way” worked in the past was because they had talent on the roster and a club that was built for how Ron Gardenhire managed.

That’s no longer the case.

Marquis was released. Carroll hasn’t hit. Willingham’s been fantastic. The Zumaya signing was worth a shot I suppose, but he got hurt again. What he needs now is a friend—a real friend—to tell him that it’s over and he should retire before he damages himself permanently.

Maybe that’s what the Twins need too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Acquired: GM Jerry Dipoto, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins

Subtracted: GM Tony Reagins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood

Pujols has started hitting and the Angels will rise and fall on what he does, but the uncharacteristic decision on the part of the Angels to depart from the template they’ve adhered to for a decade has led to this disconnect between GM Dipoto, manager Mike Scioscia and the club.

Scioscia’s hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired against Scioscia’s wishes. They never took serious steps to bolster the bullpen and had too many players for too few lineup spots.

Owner Arte Moreno made maneuvers that were not team-related, but related to the TV deal he wanted to secure. And he did.

They did business like the 1980s Yankees and they’ve been playing and behaving like the 1980s Yankees. The one thing that will save them is the thing that was lacking in the 1980s: the Wild Cards.

Cincinnati Reds

Acquired: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Ryan Ludwick

Subtracted: Ramon Hernandez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Francisco Cordero

The Reds are in first place and playing well no thanks to Latos (he’s been horrific); Madson (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Ludwick (.205/.290/.402 slash line with 6 homers in a homer-friendly home park).

It’s not as if they needed Alonso with Joey Votto ensconced at first base. They have a young catcher in Devin Mesoraco so they didn’t really need Grandal. And Volquez has been consistently inconsistent and injured since his great rookie year with the Reds.

But the winter moves are what’s relevant here and if they’d held onto the players they traded for Latos (and I’m not retrospectively ripping the deal since I thought it was good for both sides), they could’ve gotten mid-season help rather than an in-season nightmare.

Milwaukee Brewers

Acquired: Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Norichika Aoki, Jose Veras, Brooks Conrad

Subtracted: Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee

Ramirez is starting to hit and will hit put up numbers by the end of the season. We’ll never know whether the improved defense and pop from Alex Gonzalez and a full season from Mat Gamel would’ve made up for the loss of Fielder because both blew out their knees within days of each other.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. They did the best they could under their financial and practical circumstances.

St. Louis Cardinals

Acquired: Manager Mike Matheny, Carlos Beltran, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist

Subtracted: Manager Tony LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto.

So wait…now that the Cardinals are at .500 and freefalling it’s been miraculously discovered that the transition from a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach combination to a manager who’s never managed before anywhere wasn’t going to go as smoothly as it did when they got off to a hot start?

That replacing Pujols wasn’t as simple as signing Beltran and moving the now-injured 36-year-old Lance Berkman to first base?

Shocking.

Colorado Rockies

Acquired: Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Colvin, Jamie Moyer

Subtracted: Chris Iannetta, Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith

The starting pitching has killed them.

They loaded up on starters, but it hasn’t been enough as Drew Pomeranz got hurt and they gave Moyer 10 starts. It hasn’t helped that Hammel has been very good for the Orioles while Guthrie has been terrible for the Rockies.

Cuddyer has been everything advertised. Scutaro and Hernandez haven’t.

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Off Season Winners In Retrospect

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Let’s look at the teams whose off-season moves are paying off so far in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Acquired:  Jose Molina, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Fernando Rodney

Subtracted: Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, Casey Kotchman, Juan Cruz, John Jaso

The Rays did what the Rays always do. They cut out the players that were getting too expensive or had been signed as a short-term veteran stopgaps and replaced them with youngsters or other veteran stopgaps.

Molina hasn’t hit; Pena is doing what Pena does with a low batting average, good on base percentage and power; Rodney has been brilliant. None of the players they dispatched—Damon, Shoppach, Kotchman, Cruz, Jaso—have been missed or are doing much with their new teams.

Baltimore Orioles

Acquired: GM Dan Duquette, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Matt Lindstrom, Wilson Betemit

Subtracted: GM Andy MacPhail, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles have played over their heads but Dan Duquette got rid of Guthrie and acquired Hammel and Lindstrom who are under team control and have pitched well. Chen has been very good.

Chicago White Sox

Acquired: Manager Robin Ventura, Kosuke Fukudome

Subtracted: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre

Getting rid of the volcanic and tiresome personality of Guillen and replacing it with the laid back Ventura has been exactly what the White Sox needed. They cleared salary by getting rid of veterans Buehrle, Quentin and Pierre. They’re not as good as they look right now, but the AL Central is wide open and they have enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. They underachieved horribly in recent years under Guillen and are overachieving now under Ventura.

Texas Rangers

Acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan

Subtracted: C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver, Endy Chavez, Matt Treanor

Darvish has been as brilliant as I expected. Nathan is having a good season. They haven’t missed Wilson on or off the field.

Seattle Mariners

Acquired: Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso

Subtracted: Michael Pineda, Josh Lueke, David Aardsma, Jose Campos

For Michael Pineda (disabled list), Jose Campos (hot prospect and on the disabled list), the Mariners got a top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero who’s still finding his way and showing flashes of immense power and a young starting pitcher who’s also learning his craft in the big leagues in Noesi. They got rid of the troublesome Lueke for Jaso who’s been contributing big hits of late.

Oakland Athletics

Acquired: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Bartolo Colon, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Seth Smith, Kila Ka’aihue, Manny Ramirez

Subtracted: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney

Reddick has 14 home runs and is heading for the All Star Game. Cespedes was a silly signing for a team like the A’s, but there’s no denying his talent. We’ll see what Manny does and the young pitchers Millone and Parker are high-end arms.

Washington Nationals

Acquired: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Perry, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lidge

Subtracted: Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Jonny Gomes

Gonzalez has been terrific across the board and might deserve to start the All Star Game. Jackson has been consistent despite not accumulating wins.

Miami Marlins

Acquired: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle

Subtracted: Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop

Zambrano showed up in shape, has kept his temper in check and is showing why the Cubs gave him that contract in the first place (the majority of which they’re paying for him to pitch for the Marlins). Reyes is getting hot and Buehrle is a leader off the field and innings-eater on it. Bell’s been a disaster, but it pitching better lately.

Guillen was hired to draw attention and he did so negatively when he started trouble almost immediately with his idiotic comments praising Fidel Castro. Jeffrey Loria is under investigation for the stadium deal and looked silly using Muhammad Ali as a human shield to protect himself from getting booed at the regular season opener of the new stadium, but apart from Bell they’re getting what they paid for for the most part.

San Francisco Giants

Acquired: Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Clay Hensley, Gregor Blanco

Subtracted: Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Sanchez, Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross

Cabrera’s not going to maintain this pace, but he’s still a good player and they got him for Sanchez who’s been hurt and had worn out his welcome with the Giants. Pagan is batting .314 with 10 stolen bases and has contributed several big hits to go along with his usual array of space cadet maneuvers. Blanco and Hensley have been solid, cheap pickups off the scrapheap.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Acquired: Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Craig Breslow

Subtracted: Micah Owings, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, Jarrod Parker

The Diamondbacks are struggling because they’re not getting the same above-and-beyond performances from the players that carried them to a stunning division title in 2011. That doesn’t diminish the work that Cahill, Kubel and Breslow have done. If the Diamondbacks don’t right the ship, it won’t be because of the players they acquired over the winter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Acquired: Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Matt Treanor

Subtracted: Jon Garland, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla

Capuano is pitching about 20 miles over his head; Hairston is hitting about 20 miles over his head; Ellis and Harang are respected, under-the-radar veterans.

The Dodgers didn’t spend a lot of money this past winter, but are getting far more than they paid for.

Off season losers and incompletes will be in forthcoming postings.

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American League Fantasy Sleepers

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These names jumped out at me as I’m working on my book. (See the sidebar. Available soon.)

B.J. Upton, CF—Tampa Bay Rays

Upton is probably one of the most aggravating players in all of baseball to fans, teammates and everyone else. So talented that he can do anything—-anything—on the field, his motivation and hustle are contingent on the day and his mood.

But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and wants to get paid. Expect a big power/stolen base season and a return to the high on base numbers from 2007-2008.

Carlos Villanueva, RHP—Toronto Blue Jays

He won’t cost anything and was under-the-radar impressive when the Blue Jays put him in the starting rotation last season.

They have starting pitching, but with Kyle Drabek a question to make the team and the limits still being placed on Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow, Villanueva is a veteran they could count on as a starter they don’t have to limit.

As a starter, he was able to use all of his pitches including a changeup. Strangely, he gets his secondary pitches over the plate consistently, but not his fastball.

Jim Johnson, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles haven’t specifically said what they’re doing with Johnson. They’ve implied that he’s staying in the bullpen, but the acquisition of Matt Lindstrom frees them to make Johnson a starter where he could be very effective.

Either way, he’s not a “name” closer or guaranteed starter who’d be overly in demand.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Detroit Tigers

As the Tigers proved with Rick Porcello, they don’t let a pitcher’s inexperience dissuade them from sticking him in the rotation.

Turner has far better stuff than Porcello—a good fastball and wicked hard curve. He throws multiple variations on his fastball, has great control and is poised and polished.

Adam Dunn, DH—Chicago White Sox

I have trouble buying that a veteran who hit 40 home runs annually and wasn’t a PED case suddenly lost it all at once.

The not-so-witty line, “Dunn is Done” is a cheap shot and inaccurate.

He was terrible last season to be sure, but he was also unlucky (a .240 BAbip vs a career number of .292).

Dunn still walked 75 times and in comparison to his absurd .159 average, a .292 OBP is pretty good.

The combination of the new league; the expectations and pressure from a big contract; and a raving maniac manager in Ozzie Guillen put Dunn out of his comfort zone. A year in with the White Sox and a more relaxed and understanding manager, Robin Ventura, along with the diminished team-wide expectations will let Dunn be himself—a gentle giant who walks a lot and hits home runs.

Hisanori Takahashi, LHP—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels were kicking the tires on Francisco Cordero and Ryan Madson and it wasn’t to be a set-up man.

If Jordan Walden is suffering from shellshock after the way his massive gack against the Athletics late in the season essentially eliminated the Angels from contention, they might have to pull him from the closer’s role sooner rather than later.

Manager Mike Scioscia is loyal to his players and doesn’t make changes like this until he absolutely has to, but the Angels can’t afford to mess around with the money they spent this off-season and the competition they’re facing for a playoff spot.

Takahashi can do anything—start, set-up, close—and is fearless.

Worst case, if your league counts “holds”, he’ll accumulate those for you.

Fautino De Los Santos, RHP—Oakland Athletics

Don’t ask me what the A’s are planning this year because as the trades of their starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes signing prove, they’re flinging stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Although Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are on the roster, they might be willing to look at a younger, inexperienced closer at some point. Fuentes is hot and cold and Balfour has never been a full time closer.

De Los Santos has an upper-90s fastball and as the season rolls on, it’s likely that both Fuentes and Balfour will be traded. They’ll need someone to rack up the saves and De Los Santos is as good a choice as any.

Kila Ka’aihue, 1B—Oakland Athletics

His minor league on base/power numbers are absurd and the A’s first base situation is muddled at best.

The Royals kindasorta gave Ka’aihue a chance for the first month of 2011, but abandoned him when he got off to a bad start. The A’s have nothing to lose by playing him for at least the first half of the season and, if nothing else, he’ll walk and get on base.

Hector Noesi, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Noesi doesn’t give up a lot of home runs and has good control. These attributes will be magnified pitching in the big ballpark in Seattle and with the Mariners good defense. He also strikes out around a hitter per inning, so that all adds up to a good statistical season if you’re not counting wins.

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Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom Makes Sense

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It was approximately a year ago when it was reported that the Phillies had inquired with the Rangers about Michael Young.

No one seemed to understand why.

Young had $48 million remaining on his contract and a no-trade clause; the Phillies had a star second baseman in Chase Utley, a star first baseman Ryan Howard; a former MVP and team leader shortstop Jimmy Rollins; and a third baseman, Placido Polanco, with two years remaining on his contract and coming off a season in which he batted .298 and played excellent defense at third base.

What did they need Young for? Why would they take such a heavy contract when their budget was already at or near its max?

No one knew, so everyone tried to come up with a reason.

I postulated that the Phillies were either going to use Young as a roving utilityman who’d get 450-500 at bats playing all over the field or they were doing their due diligence to see what the asking price was on a good, available player.

As it turned out, the explanation came when spring training started and it was revealed the Utley’s knee tendinitis could, potentially, have kept him out for the whole season. Plus Polanco had an elbow issue and other assorted injuries that threatened to keep him out for significant stretches.

Young would’ve been playing and playing regularly all season for the Phillies.

There was a logical explanation that was far simpler than anyone realized.

Now we’re seeing similar quizzical wonderment as to why the Orioles traded righty starter Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for another righty starter Jason Hammel and hard-throwing righty reliever Matt Lindstrom.

The analysis is wide-ranging and mostly critical of the Orioles for making this move.

But it’s an even trade.

Guthrie is a free agent at the end of the season, has posted 200+ innings in the last four seasons and is a pretty good pitcher with a solid ground ball/fly ball rate that allowed him to survive pitching in the AL East and his home games at Camden Yards—he should do well in Colorado. The Rockies are contenders who could use an innings-eating starter with a slightly better history in all aspects than Hammel.

Hammel is inconsistent, but also has a good ground ball/fly ball rate, is a viable replacement for Guthrie and won’t be a free agent for two years. Lindstom has struggled with the home run ball, but is a former closer with a fastball that can reach the upper 90s; he doesn’t strike out many hitters, but he’s always around the plate and is not a free agent until after 2013.

In response to the criticism, Orioles’ GM Dan Duquette said that they hadn’t received any offers of high-end young talent—what most of the critics suggested the Orioles should’ve gotten for Guthrie—and that this was the best offer he had.

Could he have waited until mid-season to see if a team panicked and offered too much for Guthrie?

What are the odds of that really? It’s Jeremy Guthrie. What were they going to get? A mid-range prospect? Maybe? Instead, they got two big league arms that give them versatility and they have them for two full years.

Some have said that the Orioles should’ve traded Guthrie at mid-season 2011. Well, Duquette wasn’t the GM then, so what would they like him to do? Build a time machine? Compound a perceived mistake made by the prior regime by doing nothing when an offer he deemed acceptable came his way?

There are ancillary shifts that could be made also. With Lindstrom, they could install him as the closer and place Jim Johnson in the starting rotation where he has the repertoire to be successful. So in exchange for Guthrie, they got Hammel—as good as Guthrie and someone who will give 180 innings; they got Lindstrom; and possibly the ability to move Johnson into a more valuable spot in the rotation.

Those who would criticize the concept of Lindstrom closing are the same stat people who say that the closer is essentially irrelevant and anyone can rack up the saves since the general rule of thumb for all teams that enter the ninth inning with a lead is that even the worst closers will convert the vast majority (95% or so) of the saves, so the concept of overpaying for a closer or having someone who has the capability of starting as the closer is a self-defeating endeavor.

Which is it?

Here’s the hard truth: the Orioles will be lucky to avoid losing 100 games this year in that division, so anything they can do to get multiple players for someone who was a short-term Oriole to begin with is a smart move.

The Rockies are contenders in the NL West and they’ve accumulated a stable of starting pitchers to choose from. Guthrie, in the short term, will help them more than Hammel or Lindstrom would have.

The Orioles traded an okay pitcher for two other okay pitchers that could set the stage for other maneuvers. The Rockies got an innings-eating starter who’ll be motivated to pitch well in his free agent year.

It’s nothing to ridicule and is a positive move for both sides.

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Quality Moves, Under the Radar

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While the Marlins and Angels have garnered the headlines with their spending sprees; the Nationals by their overreaching trade for Gio Gonzalez; the Red Sox with their front office and off-field controversies; and Billy Beane for being Billy Beane and therefore worthy of attention just because, two teams have made drastic improvements amid questions, criticisms, ridicule and camouflage.

The Rockies and Indians are poised to leap into serious contention in 2012 because of said acquisitions and they’ve done it relatively cheaply and without fanfare.

Still needing help with their starting pitching, the Rockies are one of the suitors for the underrated and mean Hiroki Kuroda; if they get him, I’ll like their off-season all the more.

Here are the Rockies moves so far:

Signed OF/1B Michael Cuddyer to a 3-year, $31.5 million contract.

I went into detail about the match between Cuddyer and the Rockies in an earlier posting. In short, his defense in right field won’t be an issue because of the Rockies pitching staff’s penchant for getting ground balls; his hitting will improve markedly playing in Coors Field; and he might see substantial time at first base with the recent injury history of Todd Helton. He’s a better player than Seth Smith and will hit and hit for power.

Traded RHP Huston Street to the Padres for minor league lefty Nick Schmidt.

The Rockies sent $500,000 to the Padres (for Street’s 2013 buyout) and cleared the rest of his $7.5 million salary.

Street was not reliable as a closer, gave up too many hits and homers and was expensive; the Rockies dumped him and his paycheck and have Rafael Betancourt to close and Matt Lindstrom to back him up.

Schmidt is 25 and still in A ball. This was a money spin for an organizational warm body and it was a smart thing to do.

Traded C Chris Iannetta to the Angels for RHP Tyler Chatwood; signed C Ramon Hernandez to a 2-year, $6.4 million contract.

Iannetta has pop and gets on base, but he was never able to put a stranglehold on the everyday catching job; Chatwood was one of the Angels top pitching prospects who had an up-and-down season in Anaheim. He’s a ground ball pitcher who should do well in Colorado.

Hernandez is fine with being a part-timer, has power and throws well. He’ll be a perfect tutor to young prospect Wilin Rosario.

Traded INF Ty Wigginton to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash; signed 3B/1B/OF Casey Blake to a 1-year, $2 million contract.

Wigginton was a fiery player and hit a few homers, but he’s terrible defensively and limited offensively. They’re paying $2 million of his $4 million salary and signed Blake to a 1-year contract for $2 million—basically they traded Wigginton for Blake and it’s a great trade…if Blake is healthy.

Blake missed most of the 2011 season with multiple injuries and required neck surgery.

His health is the key. He’s versatile and is a good fielder; he has power; and Blake is plainly and simply a professional baseball player who goes unnoticed but is a key component to a winning team—the other players, coaches and managers will tell you how good a player a healthy Blake is.

If they add a Kuroda or Roy Oswalt to go along with the package they got last summer for Ubaldo Jimenez, it equates to a strong top-to-bottom club that has repaired the holes that caused their underwhelming 2011 record of 73-89.

The Indians have done the following:

Acquired RHP Derek Lowe from the Braves for minor league LHP Chris Jones and $10 million.

There’s no defending Lowe’s performance for the Braves, but the Indians got an innings-eater and will only pay $5 million of his $15 million salary. When a durable sinkerballer like Lowe is pitching so poorly, the issue is generally mechanical; if the Indians can fix whatever was preventing him from getting the proper movement on his pitches, he can again be effective; perhaps he just needed a change-of-scenery.

Either way, you can’t go wrong for $5 million. With Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona and Josh Tomlin, the Indians have a formidable rotation backed up by a strong bullpen.

Re-signed CF Grady Sizemore to a 1-year, $5 million contract after declining his option.

Sizemore was a budding star before microfracture surgery derailed him; he’s worked very hard to come back and it took Carlos Beltran (whom the Indians pursued but lost to the Cardinals) a full season to return to relative normalcy after a bone bruise. Although Beltran didn’t need microfracture surgery, the injuries and recovery times are similar. If Sizemore can be 75-80% of what he was, he’s a bargain.

The Indians finished ninth in the American League in runs scored and are looking for another bat, but with full seasons from Jason Kipnis and Shin-Soo Choo along with some semblance of production from first base (they need to sign someone, perhaps Derrek Lee) and Travis Hafner, they’ll score enough to contend in the winnable AL Central.

The Rockies and Indians need to be watched closely in 2012 because they’re legitimate playoff threats without having spent $300 million as the Angels did or hoodwinking their local government to get a new ballpark as the Marlins did.

They did it with under-the-radar acquisitions, bold and clever.

And they’re going to pay off.

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I’ll be a guest tomorrow with former MLB player Les Norman on his baseball show Breakin’ the Norm on the ESPN affiliate 810 WHB in Kansas City. I’ll link the appearance and post it here.

Spread the word!

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Cuddyer’s Defense Won’t Hurt the Rockies

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As they complain about his poor defense and criticize his signing, many are missing the point with Michael Cuddyer and the Rockies.

His shaky glove is the most contentious and debated aspect in the Rockies 3-year contract (for $31.5 million) with Cuddyer, but several factors are being ignored.

Cuddyer may be a poor defensive outfielder, but the idea that the Rockies made a mistake in signing him based on his defense is stat person’s lament disguised as fiscal and practical sanity; it’s ignoring the Rockies strategy and personnel.

Because the National League doesn’t have a DH and they don’t have anywhere to hide him, Cuddyer’s glove is a perceived problem; but the constant references to how many runs he cost the Twins over the years is a misplaced extrapolation of “if this, then that” without considering what the Rockies do and how many balls are going to be hit to him to begin with.

The Twins pitchers generally allow more ground balls than fly balls; in 2011 they surrendered 1762 fly balls vs 2082 ground balls.

The Rockies had a 2011 difference of 1541/2061 fly balls to ground balls.

That was before the Rockies brought in new starting pitchers whose stuff is conducive to coaxing ground balls.

It’s done by design.

The Twins ratios were similar every year that Cuddyer played right field regularly and accrued the poor defensive metrics that have led to the implication that he’s a pending disaster for his new team in right field—that his defense won’t be mitigated enough by his power bat to make him an intelligent signing.

It’s nonsense.

In general, during Cuddyer’s years in right field, the Twins had 200-300 more ground balls to fly balls; going back to 2008, the Rockies have had 500-700 more ground balls than fly balls.

That’s a big difference.

The Twins were a contact-based pitching team; the Rockies are a contact-based pitching team—but the type of contact is important. The Rockies get more ground balls than the Twins; this makes Cuddyer’s glove in right field less imperative.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, how can the porous defense of Cuddyer cost the Rockies runs if the ball isn’t hit to him?

He’s in the big leagues because he can hit and he’ll hit with the Rockies; the best thing to do with a player who’s limited defensively is to hide him where he’ll do the least amount of damage. For the Rockies and Cuddyer, that means right field.

As a direct result of playing their home games in a park that begets a lot of home runs, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd has filled his pitching staff with arms that throw sinkers and get ground balls.

Their prospective starters for 2012 are all this type of pitcher.

Jhoulys Chacin gets twice as many ground balls as fly balls.

Jorge De La Rosa—ground ball pitcher; Tyler Chatwood—ground ball pitcher; Drew Pomeranz—ground ball pitcher; Jason Hammel—ground ball pitcher.

Their relievers are the same way. Matt Lindstrom and Matt Belisle get ground balls; Rafael Betancourt allows more fly balls than grounders, but he also strikes well over a batter-per-inning.

Their infield defense is led by the still-solid first baseman Todd Helton and the superlative shortstop with a howitzer arm Troy Tulowitzki; second base and shortstop are unsettled, but they’re not going to compromise the infield defense because of the strategy they employ with their pitchers.

The Rockies want their pitchers to throw strikes and get ground balls. And they do.

Because of the reliance on contact-based pitchers and trusting the infield defense, does it matter if they have Cuddyer in right field? Is he going to hurt the team that much considering there’s such a disparity in hit trajectory?

Cuddyer in Colorado will hit for an .800 OPS and he’ll pop at least 20-30 homers—maybe more.

The Rockies biggest issue in 2011 was a lack of depth in the starting rotation. With the young arms they’ve accumulated in trades of Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Iannetta, they’ve addressed that.

Cuddyer has played the outfield, third base, second base and first base with the Twins, but it would be silly to call him a utility player; he’s not good defensively—it’s true—but he’s passable at first base and can be placed in right field without panic.

He can hit; that’s why the Rockies signed him; that’s what he’ll do.

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The Marlins Sign a Name—Heath Bell

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If any team exemplifies the ability to find someone (anyone) to accumulate the save stat and do a reasonable job as the closer it’s the Florida Marlins.

The Marlins signed Heath Bell to a 3-year, $27 million deal with a vesting option for a fourth year at $9 million; this is more about getting a “name” and “personality” to drum up fan interest than acquiring someone whom they can trust as their ninth inning man for a club that clearly has designs on contending.

To be clearer, the Marlins have an intent on looking like they’re trying to contend.

So it was that they made offers to Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and made a great show in hosting C.J. Wilson.

What the offers were and whether they’re truly competitive enough to snag any of those players is a matter of leaks, ignorant guesswork and storytelling.

The Marlins traded for a feisty and successful “name” manager as well when they acquired Ozzie Guillen from the White Sox.

They’re doing a lot of stuff.

Bell will be at least serviceable as the Marlins closer and probably good. $27 million over 3-years isn’t a ridiculous amount of money, but if the Marlins were still running the team as they did under Jeffrey Loria in the days of saving money and collecting revenue sharing fees while putting forth the pretense of being broke and desperate for a new (publicly financed) stadium, under no circumstances would they have paid Bell.

And that’s the point.

On an annual basis, the Marlins closer was dynamic and interchangeable with a bunch of journeyman names that changed (in more ways than one considering the situation of Leo Nunez AKA Juan Oviedo) and were decent at an affordable price.

Braden Looper, Ugueth Urbina, Armando Benitez, Todd Jones, Joe Borowski, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom, Oviedo—all were the Marlins nominal closer at times. Some were very good; some were mediocre; some were bad. But all accrued saves for a team that was on the cusp of contention for much of that time and they did it cheaply. Would the Marlins have had a better chance to make the playoffs had they been trotting Mariano Rivera to the mound to the blistering tune of “Enter Sandman”? They might’ve won a few more games and it might’ve made a difference, but Bell is not Rivera.

This is something the stat people don’t understand when they say “anyone” can get the saves. It’s true, but not accurate in full context.

The 2008 Phillies could’ve found someone to be the closer, but that closer wouldn’t have been as great as Brad Lidge was in the regular season or the playoffs and with them teetering on missing the playoffs entirely, they might not have made it at all without Lidge.

Rivera’s aura says that the game is essentially over upon his arrival; his ice cold ruthlessness behind a pacifist smile and post-season calm provides the Yankees with a not-so-secret weapon; the biggest difference between themselves and their closest competitors during their dynasty was Rivera.

The Phillies could’ve kept Ryan Madson to be the closer and saved a few dollars rather than paying Jonathan Papelbon, but with the way they’re currently built around starting pitching, it made no sense to risk blowing games or overuse those starters because of an untrustworthy closer. Their window to win in within the next 3-4 years and they needed someone with a post-season pedigree and the known ability to handle a high-pressure atmosphere like Philadelphia.

That’s aptly describes Papelbon.

With the Marlins, they have so many other holes to fill that Bell is a nice bauble to acquire; he’ll generate some headlines and send a signal to the rest of baseball and the free agent market that they’re not putting on a show to garner attention, but are legitimately improving. They could’ve done it in a different, cheaper way, but it’s not about Bell and Bell alone—it’s about several things including public relations, media exposure, selling tickets and that aforementioned message to the other free agents to say, “hey look, we’re not doing this just so people talk about us.”

Whether it works and they lure free agents to Florida is another matter; and if they’re going to do that and get Reyes, Wilson, Prince Fielder, Mark Buehrle, Pujols or any combination of the group, they’ll have to write them a check substantially higher than the $27 million they just handed Bell.

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