INDIANAPOLIS – The uncertain economy is the ultimate party-pooper, a real spoilsport. We've all had to acknowledge it on some level. Baseball did so this week at its annual winter meetings, often a time of frenzied spending on free agents, frenetic trading of big names and feverish rumors spanning every franchise from Toronto to San Diego.
All the teams convened under one roof as usual. But it seemed too early in the offseason, as if the meetings ought to have been held off until, maybe, the week before the Super Bowl. Some time later on, when owners alarmed by declining attendance and cloudy revenue streams had a better handle on the direction of cash flow in 2010.
As it happened, too many general managers had their hands tied and coffers clamped shut. The marching orders were to remain out of sight, stay sober and above all don't let that confounded Scott Boras work his voodoo. Yep, it was a real killjoy.
Still, a few teams came out winners, others were clear losers. For most, we'll call their offseason TBD.
• New York Yankees: WINNERS Fresh off a World Series title, the Yankees notched two more victories, trading for center fielder Curtis Granderson(notes) and re-signing No. 3 starter Andy Pettitte(notes). They gave up meaningless pieces to acquire the left-handed hitting Granderson, who pulls the ball with power and could hit 35-40 homers playing at Yankee Stadium. A whopping 83 percent of his homers the last two years were to right field, according to Inside Edge.
Granderson's contract is also a bargain by Yankee standards – 10 of his teammates will make more than him next season. The acquisition means New York doesn't need to overpay Scott Boras client Johnny Damon(notes) to return and instead could go after one of the two power-hitting right-handed left fielders on the market – Matt Holliday(notes) or Jason Bay(notes).
Or the Yankees could chase top free-agent pitcher John Lackey(notes). Or sign a high-risk, high-reward starter such as Ben Sheets(notes) to a one-year deal. Or trade for Roy Halladay(notes). Or grab one of several solid relievers still on the market. More victories await.
• Arizona Diamondbacks: LOSERS Max Scherzer(notes) was supposed to be the future of their starting rotation. Daniel Schlereth(notes) was supposed to be the future of their bullpen. Yet the Diamondbacks dealt both pitchers to Detroit and acquired starters Edwin Jackson(notes) from the Tigers and Ian Kennedy(notes) from the Yankees in return. The problem? Jackson is more expensive than Scherzer because he's already in his second year of arbitration and Kennedy is something of a failed prospect.
The deal revealed the suspicions the Diamondbacks had about Scherzer's long-term health. They think he's going to break down physically. Of course, the Dodgers said the same thing about Pedro Martinez(notes) in 1993. Scherzer scoffed at the notion, telling the Arizona Republic, "The violent delivery, whatever knock you want to come up with, that's fine, I'll go out there and pitch, and I'll have success."
• Detroit Tigers: TBD Two years ago they made the big splash of the winter meetings by acquiring Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Dontrelle Willis(notes) in a blockbuster trade. They were also part of the biggest deal this week, and one reason was all the money they have tied up in Cabrera, Willis and others. The Tigers have a stack of bad contracts, forcing them to spin off two of their best and most reasonably priced players in Granderson and Jackson.
At least they got several young, potentially productive players in return, and that's why their winter meetings performance is to be determined. Scherzer should move into the starting rotation, and Schlereth is joined by another left-handed reliever, Phil Coke(notes) from the Yankees. Coke may even get a shot at the starting rotation. But the player the Tigers might be most high on is Austin Jackson(notes), a center-field prospect from the Yankees who will be given first crack at replacing Granderson.
• Tampa Bay Rays: WINNERS A poor bullpen cost the Rays dearly last season, and they began to address the need when they traded second baseman Akinori Iwamura(notes) to the Pirates for ho-hum reliever Jesse Chavez(notes) a month ago. But Thursday they flipped Chavez to the Braves for Rafael Soriano(notes), who had 27 saves in 31 chances last year and touches 100 mph on occasion.
Soriano made headlines Monday when he accepted the Braves' arbitration offer even though they'd already signed two free-agent relievers – closer Billy Wagner(notes) and set-up man Takashi Saito(notes). Unwilling to pay Soriano the estimated $7.5 million he'd be awarded in arbitration to serve in a set-up role, the Braves made the deal. Voila, the Rays have their sorely needed closer.
Tampa Bay is also a winner for (so far) resisting overtures by the Cubs to take on moody malcontent Milton Bradley(notes), even if the Cubs pay the $21 million the outfielder is owed the next two years. At least Pat Burrell(notes) doesn't go stark-raving mad. If the Rays relent and bring Bradley aboard, they immediately go from winners to losers.
• Baltimore Orioles LOSERS What gave Orioles baseball operations chief Andy MacPhail the notion that Kevin Millwood(notes) can set an exemplary example for his young pitchers? "We think it's going to have a positive cascading effect on Jeremy Guthrie(notes), Brian Matusz(notes), Brad Bergesen(notes), Chris Tillman(notes), David Hernandez(notes) and Jason Berken(notes)," MacPhail said.
This is the same Millwood that Rangers president and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan scolded a year ago for being out of shape and basically going through the motions. Yes, Millwood responded by losing weight and posting his best numbers since 2005. But whether he will be a model of professionalism to his new teammates is unknown.
Signing Adrian Beltre(notes) to play third base the next three years could salvage the offseason. Yes, Beltre would be expensive because he's a Boras client, but he is also a Gold Glove-caliber defender whose bat would show more life in Baltimore than in cavernous Safeco Field. But the Red Sox could beat the O's to Beltre.
• Texas Rangers: TBD The Rangers spun off Millwood for reliever Chris Ray(notes) and signed free agent Rich Harden(notes), risky moves because Harden and Ray both have histories of injuries. Harden has more upside than Millwood and Ray might regain his closer-worthy stuff, but both could just as easily end up on the disabled list. For what it's worth, Dennis Gilbert, who would become CEO if his ownership group is successful in purchasing the Rangers from Tom Hicks, wasn't thrilled by either move.
• Houston Astros WINNERS For a team that couldn't work a trade for Rafael Soriano, failed in its effort to re-sign LaTroy Hawkins(notes) and lost closer Jose Valverde(notes) to free agency, Houston certainly salvaged its bullpen at the winter meetings. First came a trade with the Marlins for 100-mph throwing Matt Lindstrom(notes), with the Astros parting with only three middling minor leaguers. Then came an excessive but refreshingly decisive three-year, $15 million deal for Brandon Lyon(notes). Either acquisition could become the closer, with the other serving as the eighth-inning setup reliever.
The Astros are in a penny-pinching mode, but they still finished business Thursday by signing free-agent third baseman Pedro Feliz(notes) to a one-year, $4.5 million deal, returning Geoff Blum(notes) where he belongs – in a reserve role.
• Los Angeles Dodgers: LOSERS Nobody at the winter meetings felt more frustration than Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. He has little money to spend because of the pending divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. He was told Monday he'll now report to team bean-counter Dennis Mannion instead of Frank McCourt. And to top it off, he had a terrible cold all week.
On the bright side for Colletti, he has a new five-year contract. The bad news is that it's with the Dodgers.
The worst part of McCourt's decision not to offer arbitration to pitcher Randy Wolf(notes) is that it reveals how little regard the Dodgers have for spending the time and money to continue developing homegrown talent. The Dodgers would have received two draft picks when Wolf signed a three-year deal with the Brewers, but the fact is they don't want high draft picks because it would mean spending money earmarked for the arbitration raises of three- and four-year veterans.
L.A. has made the playoffs three of the last four years primarily on the backs of a nucleus of young talent drafted and developed in-house. Yet ownership isn't committed to continuing that tradition by accumulating draft picks that would require hefty signing bonuses. The Dodgers spent less on draft bonuses than any team in baseball the last two years, and that trend likely will continue.
• Toronto Blue Jays: WINNERS Not only is Roy Halladay still a member of the Blue Jays, there weren't even many juicy trade rumors involving him this week. Nearly everyone in baseball has glowing things to say about Alex Anthopoulos, but the 32-year-old new GM doesn't have much to say to the media. Anthopoulos did reveal he is exploring three- and four-team deals and inferred that he'd like to trade Halladay as soon as possible so he can address other needs.
The most concrete offer for Halladay could be from the Angels, who are dangling starter Joe Saunders(notes), shortstop Erick Aybar(notes) and speedy outfield prospect Peter Bourjos. Halladay would prefer to go to a team that trains in Florida, but the Angels are hoping he'd soften on that stance. The Phillies, Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers are among teams that also checked in with Anthopoulos.
• Seattle Mariners: WINNERS Sure, they signed Chone Figgins(notes) to a four-year deal. Yes, they seem intent on spending additional money on Jason Bay or Beltre (in which case Figgins would play second base) or another potent bat. Yes, they are eager to sign a starting pitcher as well, even though they were outbid by the Rangers for Harden. But the best move by GM Jack Zduriencik this week was to back off the temptation to take on Milton Bradley in a trade for pitcher Carlos Silva(notes) and his bloated contract.
Exchanging the Silva headache (which means eating $25 million over the next two years) for the Bradley headache (eating $21 million plus wondering every day if he'll blow a gasket again) would not be wise. Not for a team trying to infuse a winning culture. Not for anyone, really.
• Los Angeles Angels: LOSERS This offseason could swiftly swing from humdrum to stupendous for the Angels. They could trade for Halladay, sign Bay, or do both. They could re-sign John Lackey. But their steadfast refusal to negotiate with Boras a year after the Mark Teixeira(notes) debacle is counterproductive.
Even when Boras reminded the Angels in a rare moment of détente that it would have been prudent to sign center fielder and Boras client Carlos Beltran(notes) for seven years at $120 million in 2005. Instead the Angels paid Steve Finley(notes) $6 million for one year, Gary Matthews Jr. $50 million over five years and Torii Hunter(notes) $90 million over five years. And Figgins played center in 2006.
Translation: Cough up the money and sign Holliday.
• St. Louis Cardinals: TBD Speaking of sparring with Boras, the Cardinals are doing so because they desperately want to re-sign Holliday. Normally reserved manager Tony La Russa made that clear. So, Whitey Herzog can call it "suicide." And GM John Mozeliak can throw a fit when Boras presented a contract number. And Cardinals nation can worry about having enough money to pay Albert Pujols(notes) a fat extension in two years.
This conversation won't end soon. And should Holliday sign with another team, the Cardinals will have become offseason losers because Pujols will have no protection in the lineup, and the player who might have provided it by the time Pujols hits free agency – Brett Wallace(notes) – will be debuting in 2010 with the Oakland Athletics.
Why? Because Wallace was the price for Holliday last July.