December 2005

The Winter Meetings–Day Three

The first two days of the winter meetings have been stunningly quiet. Let’s hope that Day Three produces at least a few moves, maybe even a blockbuster of the three-team variety…

The proposed three-way trade involving the Red Sox, Devil Rays, and the Braves looks like a win-win-win situation for all parties. The Red Sox would add some much-needed speed to their everyday lineup in Julio Lugo, the Devil Rays would find themselves a third baseman of the future in Andy Marte, and the Braves would replace Rafael Furcal with a competent shortstop in Edgar Renteria. Two years ago, nobody in his right mind would have traded Renteria for Lugo, but the rumored trade indicates how high Lugo’s stock has risen and how much Renteria’s has fallen. Right now, the two 30-year-old shortstops seem pretty evenly matched, though Lugo’s career appears headed in the better direction…

Neither Kris Benson nor Anna Benson want any part of Kansas City, but if you believe the rumors, they may not have a choice. The Mets have had serious talks with the Royals about trading Benson for relief pitching. The Mets want both All-Star right-hander Mike MacDougal and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt (which would be a steal for New York), but the Royals are understandably balking at giving up both. They’d prefer to give up Affeldt along with a lesser pitcher for the 31-year-old Benson…

The Rangers clearly want to deal Alfonso Soriano, but they have no intention of trading him on the cheap just to avoid having to pay a high salary through arbitration. The Rangers want right-hander Jonathan Broxton to highlight a package of two or three players coming from the Dodgers, and might even demand that prized right-hander Chad Billingsley or left-hander Chuck Tiffany be included. If the deal happens, the Dodgers have no intention of switching Soriano to another position; they would use Soriano at second base and slide incumbent Jeff Kent over to first, giving their infield a completely remodeled look…

With several teams bidding to trade for his services, the Marlins were able to acquire a larger package for Juan Pierre than they did for Luis Castillo. While Castillo netted them only two minor league pitchers, Pierre brought the Marlins pitcher Sergio Mitre and two minor league prospects—pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Renyel Pinto. A left-hander from Venezuela, Pinto was rated as one of the Cubs’ top 10 prospects last season… Though Pierre is better suited to bat lower in the order, he will immediately become the Cubs’ new leadoff man—and does figure to fare better than the tablesetting pretenders they trotted out in 2005. It remains to be seen who will surround Pierre in Chicago’s new-look outfield; young Matt Murton is the frontrunner for left field, while right field could be manned by anyone from Aubrey Huff to Kevin Mench, who both remain available on the trading front… Prior to being traded to the Cubs, Pierre drew heavy interest from the Rangers. Texas’ desire to add Pierre is puzzling, given that the Rangers already have two veterans capable of playing center field in Gary Matthews, Jr. and David Dellucci. The Rangers were believed to be offering another yet another center fielder, Laynce Nix, along with one or two minor leaguers for Pierre…

The Padres could be active during the next couple of days, though it’s questionable whether they’d actually be making the right moves. They’re close to signing free agent left-hander Kenny Rogers (despite his assault against a cameraman and his second-half tailspin) and have talked to the Red Sox about acquiring catcher Doug Mirabelli for second baseman Mark Loretta. That would be an outright steal for the Red Sox, who would be picking up an above-average middle infielder for a career backup catcher…

Could it be that Jeff Nelson is headed back to New York for a third stint with the Yankees? That’s apparently how desperate the Yankees are in their search for middle relief. Nelson has also talked to the Mets about a one-year contract for 2006… The Yankees have also had serious talks with veteran right-hander Rick White, who is contemplating offers from both New York and Boston…

Overshadowed by all of the trade and free agent talk in Dallas comes the news that two longtime standouts, Rickey Henderson and John Olerud, have decided to retire. Always a classy performer and person, Olerud became a key component for some very good Blue Jays, Mets, and Mariners teams over his career. Henderson, while not always classy, was always entertaining and is a certified, no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer. He was also the most talented leadoff man the game has ever seen. Both players will be missed.

The Winter Meetings–Day Two

As one of the game’s true wheelers and dealers, Billy Beane appears very serious about trading Barry Zito, Oakland’s onetime Cy Young Award winner. Beane continues to talk to the Dodgers about a package featuring Milton Bradley, who doesn’t figure to be tendered a contract by LA later this month. The A’s would receive lots more than just Bradley in the deal; the Dodgers would likely part with two of their top prospects, including right-handed pitcher Chad Billingsley, who reaches 97 miles per hour on his fastball. Switch-hitting catcher Dioner Navarro and/or right-hander Edwin Jackson might also become part of the package… On a lesser scale (and probably more realistically), the Dodgers may trade Bradley to the A’s for two pitching prospects, Kirk Saarloos and Mario Ramos. Now it’s unclear how Bradley would fit into Oakland’s crowded outfield. The A’s already have Jay Payton in left, Mark Kotsay in center, and Nick Swisher in right. The DH slot is an option, but the A’s would first have to clear our incumbent Erubiel Durazo

While the A’s shop Zito, the Phillies seem just as committed to the idea of trading their own star, Bobby Abreu. Pat Gillick has talked to Beane about swapping Abreu for Zito in an old-fashioned, straight-up, one-for-one blockbuster. (If Abreu were a right-handed hitter, he’d be a perfect fit for the A’s.) Gillick has also talked to the Cubs, asking for Mark Prior in return, and wasn’t given an immediate rejection. Such a deal would be a major risk for the Phillies since Prior has spent time on the disabled list in each of his three full major league seasons. There could also be a major obstacle to any deal involving Abreu. The Home Run Derby champion has a no-trade clause, something that the Phillies have yet to broach with their All-Star right fielder… In the meantime, the Phillies are continuing to shop Jason Michaels, in the event that they don’t trade Abreu. The Yankees remain interested in Michaels, as do the Pirates, who could offer left-hander Mark Redman in return…

If this were 1999, he would have been the most coveted of all the free agents, not Johnny Damon, or Rafael Furcal, or Paul Konerko, or A.J. Burnett. As one of the so-called “Holy Trinity” of shortstops, he would have received a five-year contract in the $60 to $70 million range. But in 2005, after two years that have been nearly ruined by injuries, Nomar Garciaparra has been reduced to the “honorable mention” category on the free agent list. Still, that doesn’t mean that the former Red Sox star will have to beg for an invitation to spring training in 2006. About a half-dozen teams have shown interest in Garciaparra, only not as a shortstop. The Indians would like to make Garciaparra their regular right fielder, replacing Casey Blake. The Yankees are pursuing Garciaparra as a kind of “superutilityman” who would play every day, but at different positions, rotating between first base, second base, and the outfield while backing up Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez at shortstop and third base. One factor that could work in the Yankees’ favor is the identity of Nomar’s agent, Arn Tellem, who has a good working relationship with George Steinbrenner…

The Mariners haven’t been mentioned in many trade rumors, but they’re seemingly involved in just about every free agent rumor. The M’s are hotly pursuing three players—outfielder Jacque Jones and pitchers Kevin Millwood and Matt Morris. According to an MLB.com report, the Mariners have offered Millwood a four-year deal worth $44 million…Jones is also being pursued by the two Missouri teams, the Royals and Cardinals…

The Cubs and the Devil Rays could be contemplating a multi-player deal. Chicago has interested in at least three Tampa Bay players—Julio Lugo, Aubrey Huff, and Joey Gathright—who are all available. Lugo could play both second base and shortstop, while Huff and Gathright would fill in two of the Cubs’ outfield vacancies. The Devil Rays would love to pry loose the Cubs’ top pitching prospect, left-hander Rich Hill, but would likely have to settle for a package featuring other young players, including pitchers Sergio Mitre and Jerome Williams…

The Brewers don’t seem anxious to trade Lyle Overbay, but they’ll gladly listen to offers. The Red Sox have shown interest, dangling right-hander Matt Clement, but they’d probably need to kick in another player to get the deal done. The Pirates, desperate for hitting, also like Overbay and can offer a package of young pitchers, including left-hander John Grabow

The Mets have quietly reached an agreement with Mark Grudzielanek to become their second baseman, but they are waiting until Thursday to officially announce the signing (in the hope that they won’t have to give up compensatory draft picks). The former Cub and Cardinal will replace the disappointing Kaz Matsui on the middle infield and will likely become the Mets’ No 2 hitter in the batting order behind leadoff man Jose Reyes. With Grudzielanek close to being in the fold, the Mets have dropped their interest in making a trade for the Dodgers’ Jeff Kent… So where will Matsui end up? The Mets have no interest in him becoming the game’s highest paid utility man; they’ll probably have to eat more than half of his $8 million salary as they try to dump him on a team desperate for middle infield help.

The Winter Meetings–Day One

It’s one of my favorite times of the baseball season, along with spring training and the postseason. No games are being played, but the outcomes of future games are being shaped at baseball’s annual winter meetings. For the first time in years, we could be looking at a busy week of trading, given the lack of quality free agents in this winter’s market. So, with all of baseball’s general managers gathered in Dallas, let the rumors begin.

The Manny Ramirez sweepstakes now appear to involve three teams. As always, the Mets and Angels remain interested, but the Rangers have entered the fray as latecomers, reportedly offering Alfonso Soriano in either a straight-up deal or as the headliner in a two or three-player package. A trade for Soriano might work; the Red Sox have a vacancy at second base, what with Tony Graffanino shopping himself on the free agent market. If the Red Sox do trade Ramirez without getting an outfielder in return, they’ll probably make a harder push to re-sign Johnny Damon, who doesn’t figure to make a commitment until January as part of Scott Boras’ usual delay game. Right now, the only certainty in the Red Sox’ outfield is Trot Nixon, who will continue to man right field, while the other slots remain up for grabs… Despite their heavy spending on Billy Wagner and Carlos Delgado, the Mets are still interested in adding Ramirez’ contract to their puffed up payroll. The Mets, however, have made it clear that they won’t give up top prospect Lastings Milledge; if the Red Sox insist on the Roberto Clemente play-a-like, the Mets will consider it a deal-breaker. The Mets would also like to keep Aaron Heilman out of a possible trade, first trying to devise other packages that could include Anderson Hernandez, Victor Diaz, Xavier Nady, and Jae Seo. Cliff Floyd could also become part of a return parcel for Ramirez, but only if the left-handed slugger agrees to waive his no-trade clause…

The Diamondbacks will almost certainly trade Javier Vasquez this week; one rumor has him headed to Washington for multi-skilled outfielder Brad Wilkerson. The D-Backs are not as certain to deal Troy Glaus, but they may consider a deal that would send the power-hitting third baseman to the Red Sox for a package headlined by Bronson Arroyo. Glaus would play first base in Beantown, with the newly acquired Mike Lowell set to bring his Gold Glove defense to third base at Fenway Park…

In many ways, catching will be the name of the game at the winter meetings in Dallas. With the Marlins’ Paul Lo Duca already relocated to the Mets, expect at least three other frontline catchers to switch teams during the week in Dallas. Free agents Ramon Hernandez and Bengie Molina will end their free agent runs by signing new three-year deals. In Molina’s case, he might be heading back to the Angels, even though there are some in the organization who would like to turn the reins over to brother Jose Molina and touted rookie Jeff Mathis. As for Hernandez, it’s less likely that he’ll return to his 2005 team (the Padres); he might end up signing a lucrative new deal with a club like the Diamondbacks. The other big name catcher to exchange uniforms? That would be Johnny Estrada, who the Braves seem committed to trading, in part because they think his 2004 performance may have been a fluke. Several teams are interested in the switch-hitting receiver, including the Angels, Orioles, and Padres… Two other headline catchers could be moving, although the possibilities are only slight. The Tigers would love to trade Pudge Rodriguez, but they don’t seem to feel that backup Vance Wilson can step into the everyday role. They’re also reluctant to move Brandon Inge back to catcher now that he’s become so adept at playing the hot corner. In the meantime, The Yankees appear to have backed off earlier winter plans to trade Jorge Posada, but if they receive an offer that tempts them (either a center fielder or a reliever), they could deal the veteran switch-hitter and make a late run at either Molina or Hernandez. Unlike some other high-profile free agents, Hernandez and Molina seem to have few qualms about playing in New York…

The Mets hope to land a new second baseman by the time the winter meetings end. Their top two choices are free agent Mark Grudzielanek, who could double as their new leadoff man, and trade possibility Jeff Kent, who is being shopped by the retooling Dodgers and their aggressive new general manager, Ned Colletti. Kent’s first go-round with the Mets didn’t win over many fans or teammates, but his right-handed power bat would fit nicely into the fifth slot in New York’s order, right behind the newly acquired Delgado…

Yankee GM Brian Brian Cashman doesn’t seem optimistic that he’ll be able to land a center fielder during the winter meetings, reinforcing earlier speculation that Bubba Crosby might occupy center field in 2006. I still find it hard to believe that the Yankees can’t come up with someone better than a 29-year-old minor league veteran who may not have enough stick or durability to last a full season in center field. There are still numerous center field candidates available in trades, including the Marlins’ Juan Pierre, the Phillies’ Jason Michaels, or the Rangers’ Gary Matthews, Jr. (who would be a perfect fit, in my opinion). And then there’s always the free agent market, which could offer up a potential candidate in Juan Encarnacion, who’s played mostly right field during his career. The Yankees liked Encarnacion enough to make a serious trade offer to the Marlins during the regular season; some of New York’s scouts believe that the athletic outfielder can make a successful transition to center field…

One player that both the Yankees and Mets share interest in is free agent reliever Octavio Dotel. A product of the Mets’ organization, the 32-year-old Dotel would have no trouble acclimating to New York; the question remains his surgically repaired elbow, which will probably not be ready for game action until the middle of the 2006 season …

The Friday Night Rumor Mill

Here’s one of the things that’s nice about doing a rumor-based feature like this: there are always a bevy of center fielder-to-the-Yankees stories to fill out a few paragraphs of type space. With that in mind, let’s kick off this weekend’s worth of rumors with a series of speculation that could ultimately produce the successor to Mickey Mantle, Mickey Rivers, Roberto Kelly, and Bernie Williams in Yankee Stadium’s outer pasture… Looking to unload a player who could make $5 million in arbitration, the Marlins have offered Juan Pierre to New York for a package of reliever Scott Proctor and minor league starter Sean Henn. (Don’t believe the talk that the Marlins have demanded either of the Yankees’ top prospects, pitcher Philip Hughes or third baseman Eric Duncan.) The Yankees didn’t reject the asking price of Henn and Proctor; they consider it a fair return package for Pierre, but just aren’t sure if the slumping speedster, whose on-base percentage fell to .326 this year, is the answer to their center field quandaries. Scouting reports on Pierre indicate that he’s declined as both a hitter and fielder, but then again, he’s only 28, and would rate as a major improvement defensively over Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, and Tony Womack. In many ways, Pierre looks like a carbon copy of the aforementioned Mickey Rivers; he’s a free-swinging singles hitter who can steal bases, covers lots of ground in center field but takes erratic routes to the ball, and can’t throw much better than Roy White. The Yankees will probably explore other options, but they consider Pierre a fallback possibility… The Yankees would prefer to trade for Philadelphia’s Jason Michaels, but Pat Gillick provided a lesson in why more trades aren’t made in today’s game. In exchange for his part-time outfielder, Gillick asked for Chien Ming-Wang, a proposal that surely tested Brian Cashman’s gag reflex. If Gillick would settle for either Carl Pavano or Aaron Small, then a deal might get done. The Yankees might also be willing to substitute Shawn Chacon for either Small or Pavano, but only if the Phillies throw in another player or two (bullpen help and/or a prospect) to the mix… The Yankees have also talked to the Angels, who are offering the ancient Steve Finley, but the Yankees prefer Darin Erstad, who they feel can make an easy transition back to center field. A onetime Gold Glove outfielder who’s wasted at first base, Erstad’s toughness and hard-nosed approach to the game would make him a good fit in Joe Torre’s clubhouse… In the meantime, the Yankees showed smarts by steadfastly refusing to give in to Tom Gordon’s request for a three-year contract, which he finally received from the bullpen-starved Phillies. Given Gordon’s age (38), history of a tender arm, and his frequent blowups in the postseason, he’s a bad gamble on a three-year deal. The Yankees will gladly take a draft pick as compensation for "Flash."…

With Gordon and Kyle Farnsworth seemingly off the market, several teams have begun to concentrate efforts on Trevor Hoffman. (Hey, if Gordon is worth a three-year deal, does a future Hall of Famer like Hoffman, who’s also 38, merit a four-year deal?) The Orioles, Indians, and Tigers (all of whom liked Gordon) have all shown interest in the changeup specialist. The Braves have not, instead exploring the possibility of signing Todd Jones, who would come much more cheaply than Hoffman…

The Red Sox haven’t shown much interest in any of the available closers, but they’ve quietly done a good job of stockpiling arms for their middle relief corps. The Sox did well in convincing the Marlins to include Guillermo Mota in the Josh Beckett deal and then acquired minor league stalwart Jermaine Van Buren for the always nebulous player to be named later. Though not highly regarded by scouts, Van Buren has done nothing but get people out since the Cubs moved him from starter to reliever at the beginning of the 2004 season…

Though they now insist they won’t be trading Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners are clearly in the market for some veteran starting pitching. They’ve talked to the Yankees about Carl Pavano, who the Yankees seem strangely reticent to trade. They’re also emerging as one the leading suitors for free agent Matt Morris, a onetime ace who now seems like filler material toward the back-end of a rotation…

The Mets came close to dealing Kris Benson to the Orioles for fallen relief ace Jorge Julio, but now Omar Minaya is having second thoughts. The Mets’ general manager has fielded calls from several other teams for Benson, indicating that the 30-year-old right-hander could fetch more than a struggling middle reliever on the trade market. Ultimately, Minaya would like to clear out the underachieving Benson and the $15 million owed him over the next two season (freeing up some money to take on the salary of a Manny Ramirez or a Barry Zito in the trade market), but he’d be smart to extract as much as he can in a market where mediocre starters are clearly worth more than slumping relievers… Second base remains a high priority for the Mets, who would live to find a middle infielder who can simultaneously fill the role of leadoff man. One player who could be acquired cheaply is free agent D’Angelo Jimenez, who certainly has leadoff skills but is a risky defender who brings baggage of attitude and a poor work ethic. A more expensive solution would be a trade for the Devil Rays’ Julio Lugo, who has the kind of range and speed that the Mets love, but who doesn’t reach base often enough to qualify as a leadoff hitter… The Mets could also expand a Lugo deal to include catcher Toby Hall (which would negate a potential signing of either Bengie Molina or Ramon Hernandez), but they’ve already made it clear they won’t part with Aaron Heilman in such a deal. They’d prefer to deal infield prospect Anderson Hernandez and spare starter Jae Seo, whose production outweighs his reputation… The best solution for the Mets’ second base woes can be found in Florida, where the Marlins are shopping Luis Castillo as heavily as Pierre and catcher Paul LoDuca. Castillo would be a perfect fit for the Mets; though he’s lost much of his speed, he’s an above-average defender, skilled at working the count and drawing walks, and has World Championship experience. The Mets will face competition from the Twins, who are panting at the opportunity to acquire Castillo. The Twins have a deeper farm system, which may enable them to package two good pitching prospects in a deal for the switch-hitting Castillo…

The Padres’ re-signing of Brian Giles indicates that they might not be jumping ship on the 2006 season after all. An outfield of prospect Ben Johnson in left, Mike Cameron in center, and Giles in right could be one of the better trios in the National League. Reduced to a backup role, Dave Roberts becomes trade bait once again—and could be sent back to Boston as part of a package for David Wells. Given their depth in the bullpen, the Padres don’t seem too worried about their ability to replace Trevor Hoffman, but they’d be wise to take a serious run at re-signing Ramon Hernandez, one of the game’s most underrated catchers…

The Team That Changed Baseball

Here’s some exciting news on a personal front. I’ve just signed a contract with Westholme Publishing (www.westholmepublishing.com) to publish my newest book, The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, which will be released in May of 2006. The publication of the book, which has been in the works since the mid-1990s, will coincide with the 35th anniversary of that Pirates team, which pulled off one of the great upsets in World Series history by defeating the Baltimore Orioles that fall.

In addition to their successful World Series legacy, the 1971 Pirates are noteworthy for several other reasons:

1) They featured three Hall of Famers in Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Willie Stargell. Clemente and Stargell started for the Bucs in right field and left field, respectively, while Mazeroski served as a backup to Dave Cash, the man who had replaced him at second base.

2) In an event that has received relatively little publicity, the ’71 Pirates made social history by fielding the first all-black lineup in the major leagues. That historic lineup, which featured the likes of Clemente, Stargell, Cash, Manny Sanguillen, and Al Oliver, took to the field on September 1, 1971 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

3) With half of the roster consisting of minority players, the ’71 Pirates became the first fully integrated World Championship team in major league history. This is one of the main premises of the book, an argument that I try to sustain by comparing the Pirates to all of the World Championship teams that preceded them, dating back to 1947.

My thanks go out to Bruce Franklin, the publisher of Westholme, for his enthusiastic commitment to this project.

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