Winter Meetings Report Card

added 12/21/2004 by Scott Barzilla

The off-season can be split into two parts: before December 20th and after December 20th. Why is this date important? It is the date where teams must tender contracts to their arbitration eligibles. After that date, teams see a flooded market of players and can begin to fill gaps in their roster with capable bench players and decent fill-ins. The Winter Meetings represent the last major opportunity for general managers to add significant players. Unless you’re a Scott Boras client, you are probably signed by now or at least on the verge of signing with someone.

This makes Scott Boras the biggest riverboat gambler of them all. Every team must decide by January 8th to sign the players they offered arbitration to or lose them until May 1st. Of course, a better way to say this is to say that Boras must decide by January 8th whether to make things work with the agent’s club. Yet, some of his clients don’t have that opportunity (Magglio Ordonez, Kevin Millwood, JD Drew) because his teams didn’t want to deal with them or Boras. Meanwhile, he potentially has a lot to lose for his other clients (Derek Lowe, Carlos Beltran, Jason Varitek) if he doesn’t handle negotiations just right over the next two weeks.

Coming up our my grades for the off-season so far. One thing many of you will undoubtedly notice is that the teams that the pundits say won are the teams I usually say lose. In this market of crazy money we simply cannot ignore money when making the grades. Acquiring the players is positive, but if it hamstrings you for the following season and beyond then it isn’t good in the long run.

The Winners

Oakland Athletics

This is going to be a surprise for most of you. After all, they did trade two of their three young guns for what seemed like nothing. In fact, what they got is several good young arms (Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero, and Danny Haren) and few really good looking minor league prospects. People will forget that Billy Beane was able to dump a bad contract (Arthur Rhodes) in exchange for one of the top five catchers in the game (Jason Kendall).

Meanwhile, reports were running rampant at the beginning of the off-season that he would make a run at Jeff Kent. All he did was trade for a second baseman (Keith Ginter) that will likely approach Kent’s value for a fifth of the price. So, in essence, Beane filled the holes in his lineup for a grand total of four million dollars (the difference between Kendall’s contract and Rhodes’ contract). So, Beane has dumped payroll and added depth. Will Haren, Rich Harden, and Joe Blanton eventually supplant Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder? It is a gamble, but we also know that there is two months until pitchers and catchers report.

Boston Red Sox

Maybe my bias towards “Moneyball” organizations is shining through, but I like what the defending champions have done. Of course, Theo Epstein has a lot to do as the Christmas season approaches. Jason Varitek is still unsigned, but Scott Boras wants four years guaranteed. I could bore you with details, but there is a long history of long-term contracts not working out on catchers. However, Epstein hasn’t been waiting idly by for Boras to get back to him. He has been a busy bee.

Epstein also wisely passed on Pedro Martinez’s insane demands. Instead, he brought in Matt Clement and David Wells for three and two years respectively. The money will be about half of what Martinez and Lowe get, but both pitchers were less effective (as a pair) than Clement and Wells. Also, don’t underestimate the impact of Edgar Renteria. He is superior defensively to Orlando Cabrera and a bit better than Cabrera offensively.

Atlanta Braves

Quick quiz here folks: what starting pitcher has the most win shares over the last three years? If you guessed Tim Hudson you would be right. Yet, Hudson had the least amount of his brief career (as a full-time starter) last year. Still, he is making less than five million dollars. The trade for Danny Kolb allows John Smoltz to come back to the rotation. The statement by John Schurholz that this is the best rotation the Braves have had is a bit of hyperbole, but it is the best rotation they’ve had since Tom Glavine signed with the Mets.

The Braves do have some holes to fill in the outfield (Eli Marrero and JD Drew will not be coming back), but they have some time. Schurholz has done a good job of retooling his team the last few years with the original big three (Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz) getting older.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies have only made a few moves (re-signed Cory Lidle, signed Jon Lieber, and acquired Kenny Lofton), but for the most part they have been good moving. Lieber’s money is a bit excessive, but in this day and age you have to overpay for decent starting pitching sometimes. Kenny Lofton is the best addition. He has one year on his contract and should be a decent leadoff man over that time.

Anaheim Angels

The Angels have only signed Steve Finley, but it is who they didn’t sign that makes them winners. Letting Troy Percivial go and bowing out of the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes will benefit them in the long run. They can add more pieces in the second phase of the off-season.

The Losers

New York Yankees

A wise man once said, “a fool and his money are soon parted.” The Yankees seem ready to play the fool on a yearly basis. Yes, they acquired Randy Johnson, but they spent a combined seventeen million dollars a year on Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano. The two may have combined for fifty wins over the last three seasons. The Yankees could still be big players for Carlos Beltran, but even with Beltran they will not be much better than last season for more than 200 million dollars.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners have made two signings this off-season. When signing a third baseman that has had one great season and five mediocre ones for five years and 64 million ranks as the best signing then it isn’t a good sign. Four years and fifty million for Richie Sexson is lunacy. The money seemed to grow by the week for Sexson. At first, it seemed eight million a season would be enough. Then it was ten million. Now, it is nearly thirteen million per season.

The Mariners haul is similar to the Orioles haul from last season. Bringing in Miguel Tejeda, Javier Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro was solid, but it made the Orioles an average team. Supposedly, the Orioles are involved with people like Carlos Delgado this go around. Will the Mariners have the money to commit to more players in 2006 after paying 25 million a season to Beltre and Sexson?

New York Mets

The Mets bought the lead balloon with Pedro Martinez. Rumor has it that they want Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou as well. It looks like they will be stuck with an aging Mike Piazza behind the plate as well. The club has a lot of big names, but few of them will be producing at their peak. The Kris Benson signing takes the cake. It’s hard to imagine that the club let a solid lefty go to the Marlins for the same price they spent on Benson. Their idiocy has now passed through three generations of management. There must be something in the water in Flushing.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are losers they old-fashioned way. They’ve lost their double play combination, one of their productive starters, and their regular catcher. Losing Tony Womack and Mike Matheny will probably be a blessing, but losing Edgar Renteria and Woody Williams will prove to be costly. Acquiring Mark Mulder could replace Williams, but he had a dreadful finish to his season last year. More importantly, they lost valuable depth in Kiko Calero and Danny Haren.

Now the home front

Tim Pupura went into the Winter Meetings having done nothing significant and left having done nothing significant. Of course, in this day and age that might not be all bad. The club is still waiting around on Carlos Beltran, but rumor has it that he has rejected their offer of 13.5 million dollars over six or seven years. Leave it to Boras to create a climate of negotiation where having Beltran turn down an offer actually rates as progress.

So, the Astros choice is to surrender Beltran to the Yankees or Cubs and then pick from whatever is left on the free agent scrapheap (Steve Finley and Kenny Lofton have already been plucked) or go outside of their comfort zone and offer fifteen million or more per season. The trouble is that we don’t know if even that will be enough. Purpura and the Astros have allowed Boras to play them like a violin. To make matters worse, (unlike Theo Epstein), the Astros have been waiting by the phone instead of using it to shore up other holes in their roster.

Let’s take a look at what the Astros have done. They’ve signed two players for a combined two million dollars that they could find for a little more than a fourth of that. They could have spent a little more and gotten bench players that would actually be productive. The signing of Orlando Palmeiro is particularly perplexing since the Astros could find 50 corner outfielders around baseball (AAA and the majors) that could produce at least what Palmeiro did in 2004 and before.

At this point, it is difficult to predict where the Beltran or the Clemens negotiations will go. To be perfectly fair, Purpura and the Astros say they have greased the tracks for other things, but until something is done we have to assume they are putting all their eggs in the Beltran basket. At this point, it is hard to envision this going well for the Astros. They will either overpay to keep Beltran or lose him to the Yankees or Cubs. If they lose him, they will have to wade through whatever scrap heap they can to fill centerfield. Now, there are plenty of gems to be found in the trash, but I don’t know if the new regime has earned our trust to find those gems.