Saturday, February 21, 2009

Better Late than Never: Twins Sign Crede

It’s about time.

After sitting idle for most of the offseason, the Minnesota Twins finally addressed the most glaring hole on the team’s roster by inking former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede to an incentive-laden, one-year contract.

According to Twins official website, the deal is worth $2.5 million and includes incentives that could push the final value of the deal to $7 million. There is no doubt that if Crede, an All-Star in 2008, can stay healthy and reach those incentives he will be worth every penny.

The signing comes as a surprise to many after the Twins ended negotiations with Crede’s agent, Scott Boras, earlier this month. Boras—up to his usual tactics—kept raising his request for a base salary, going from a reasonable $5 million to $7 million, despite an apparent barren market for Crede’s services.

Never a team to get suckered into outbidding themselves—or often bidding at all—the Twins walked away.

As the Twins reported to Fort Myers this week, it seemed that a reprise of last year’s Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher platoon at third base was a lock.

On Friday night, however, talks between Boras and the Twins heated up again and a deal was struck rather quickly. Apparently sitting at home during Spring Training makes some ballplayers a little uncomfortable.

If Crede can stay healthy this season, he will fill a major need for the Twins as a power-hitting third baseman. His right-handed bat will fit nicely in the heart of the order to break-up lefties Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel.

Crede—again, if healthy—will prove equally valuable on defense as well. Throughout his career Crede has earned a reputation as an elite defender at the hot corner, something the Twins’ pitching staff will appreciate.

All of Crede’s upside is counterbalanced by his recent injury woes. Crede has had two major back surgeries in the last two seasons. He hit .248 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs last season for the White Sox. But the All-Star played sparingly in the second half because of recurring back trouble, which limited him to 47 games in 2007.

On paper this is a great signing for the Twins, with the caveat that Crede must stay healthy to have any sort of impact. If he is unable to avoid the injury bug the team is only out $2.5 million and can roll with the Harris/Buscher platoon who combined to hit .274 with 11 home runs and 96 RBIs last season.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mat Gamel: the Future is Now (or Never)

On Friday the Milwaukee Brewers announced that third baseman Bill Hall has a partial tear in his left calf and will be sidelined for four to six weeks.

Four to six weeks would cover the majority of Spring Training, putting Hall behind schedule to start the season with the big club.

Four to six weeks would also be a lot of time for the Brewers’ latest super-prospect, Mat Gamel, to impress the coaching staff and cement his position as the team’s everyday third baseman.

The left-handed hitting Gamel is a tremendous pure hitter who destroyed Double-A pitching last season, hitting .329 with 19 home runs in just over 500 at bats. To really grasp what a great season Gamel had, one needs to look at his full body of work. Gamel led the Southern League in RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits. He finished second in average, fourth in OPS and fifth in slugging.

The biggest detractor to his success will be whether or not he can improve his defense. Gamel has committed 123 errors in 360 minor league games, a number far too high to survive as a third baseman at the major league level.

If Gamel can’t improve his defense, his options become very limited. The Brewers already moved their last error-prone third baseman, Ryan Braun, to left field and have Corey Hart and Mike Cameron entrenched in the other two outfield slots. Prince Fielder, barring a trade, is locked in at first base and Rickie Weeks—if healthy—figures to get most of the starts at second base.

Gamel needs to use this spring as his coming out party to the Brewers brass if he is going to establish himself with the big club. As the Brewers proved last season when they traded Matt LaPorta to Cleveland in the CC Sabathia deal, they are not afraid to move top prospects to improve the club in the here and now.

Get ready Gamel, you’ve got four to six weeks.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Salvaging the Dodgers' Offseason

Step one: end negotiations with Manny Ramirez.

Step two: sign Orlando Hudson and before the ink has even dried on that contract, sign an outfielder with some pop, perhaps Ken Griffey or Garret Anderson.

The Dodgers’ offseason has been, for the most part, a disappointment.

For a team that was three wins away from the World Series a few short months ago it is amazing how little progress has been made to improve the team heading into 2009.

Thus far all the Dodgers have done is re-sign Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal to keep the left side of the infield intact and just last week the team brought back Randy Wolf to help round out a rotation that was depleted with the offseason losses of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux.

The biggest reason the Dodgers haven’t accomplished much is due to management’s obsession with bringing back Manny Ramirez with a “deal that makes sense.”

Sorry to break the news to the boys in the front-office, but you aren’t going to sign Manny Ramirez to any sort of deal that makes sense. The dude has already turned down a two-year $45 million deal and a one-year $25 million deal.

And when did he turn down those deals? He turned them down in a market where Bobby Abreu—he of the career .300 average—is forced to sign for $5 million plus incentives. The really scary part, Abreu’s deal was with a big market club with lots of financial resources.

The Dodgers have already blown their chance to sign an Abreu or another bopper like Adam Dunn. They’ve done nothing but alienate themselves from the rest of the free-agent market by pandering to Scott Boras and Manny Ramirez for the past three months. They’ve offered respectable deals and been turned down.

Logically, the Dodgers should have taken the hint early on and gone after Abreu or Dunn as neither was offered arbitration and were clearly both willing to sign for less money and less years, two sticking points that the Dodgers can’t get past with Manny and Boras.

Right now the remaining boppers on the market are Griffey, Anderson and Joe Crede who only makes sense if the team wants to move Blake to left field, a position Blake has never played as a pro. He has, however, played 278 games in right field with a career fielding percentage of .979 (note: Manny’s career fielding percentage: .978).

Right now the Dodgers are headed into Spring Training with a much weaker outfield than they had last season, no set starter at second base as well as a depleted bullpen. The starting rotation has some major question marks and the bench is filled with solid defensive replacements, but not much offense.

With the Giants and Diamondbacks both improving this offseason, the Dodgers will not have an easy road back to the playoffs and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It’s a Dunn Deal

It finally happened. Adam Dunn, he of the five consecutive 40-homer seasons, has found a new home in Washington DC.

Dunn reportedly signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Nationals, presumably to play first base and hit cleanup for a team that was in dire need of a legitimate power threat behind Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup.

The already crowded outfield is no place for Dunn’s lackluster defense so he’ll take over at first base, a position he has played 127 times in his career. Dunn’s fielding percentage at first (.984) is lower than incumbents Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson, however, his penchant for staying healthy and crushing the long ball makes both Young and Johnson expendable.

Dunn shouldn’t suffer too much of a drop in power production at Nationals Park as the dimensions are only slightly larger than Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati where Dunn hit 124 of his career 278 home runs.

It was reported that the Dodgers and Angels were interested in Dunn as a second-option behind Manny Ramirez and Bobby Abreu, respectively. The Angels locked up Abreu on a one-year deal today and the Dodgers are rapidly running out of Manny-alternatives now that Dunn has signed on with the Nats.

Dunn was originally seeking a long-term deal with a contender, but failed to land a job when the market was flooded with left-handed DH-types this winter. This deal does, however, make plenty of sense for Dunn long-term. He will be a free agent again at 31 when the economy figures to be improved and the market for a slugging lefty should be far more favorable.

For now, the Nationals are the big winners as they gain one of baseball’s premier power bats—at a discounted rate no less—and they can now look to thin the offensive herd they’ve acquired to add more pitching via the trade market.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Angels Adding Abreu?!

According to reports, the Los Angeles Angels are nearing a one-year deal with free-agent outfielder Bobby Abreu. If these rumors prove to be true this will be a win-win-win for all parties.

Bobby Abreu would gain a chance to join a contender and contribute immediately in much the same manner as Mark Teixeira did late last season. Abreu is a proven hitter who, despite his diminishing power, can still be a big contributor in the middle of a lineup.

A left-handed hitter, Abreu is a career .300 hitter and has a career OBP of .405. Teixiera, although six years younger, has career numbers of .290 and .378 respectively. As such, the deal also makes plenty of sense for the Angels who are looking for someone to replicate the production lost when Teixeira signed with the Yankees.

The downside to this deal is that the Angels would be adding to the surplus of outfielders with limited defensive ability and range. Currently the Angels have Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Rivera, Gary Matthews and Reggie Willits in their outfield/designated hitter cluster. Abreu would only further clog up that rotation, but could allow the Angels to move Matthews or Willits.

The third party helped out in this situation is the remainder of the free-agent class. If the Angels sign Abreu it would make remaining free agents such as Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe Crede all the more valuable to clubs in need of an impact bat as the market would lose one of the few remaining game-changers available.

Whether this deal actually goes down or not, this is definitely the type of signing that would make plenty of sense for all sides.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Top Five Under-the-Radar Signings

This offseason has been one unlike any other in recent memory. Tons of talent was available via free-agency, but most teams were in penny-pinching mode. As a result, numerous superstars and role-players remain unsigned with the countdown to Spring Training now in the single-digits.

With that fact in mind it’s time to take a look at some of the more under-the-radar signings that did happen, but aren’t getting nearly the hype they deserve.

Juan Rivera, Los Angeles Angels - three-years, $12.75-million

I’ve been very high on Rivera since his breakout campaign in 2006 where he raked a line of 23/85/.310. A broken leg coupled with the back-to-back high-priced offseason signings of Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter limited his playing time in 2007 and 2008.

Despite the abundance of outfielders on the roster last season, Rivera won over manager Mike Scioscia and stole at bats down the stretch from both Garret Anderson and Matthews. From July onward Rivera hit .274 with 12 home runs and 42 runs batted in; a very good sign that the glimpse of his potential we received in 2006 was the real deal.

Now that Anderson is out of the picture and Matthews has been reduced to a fourth outfielder/DH the path is clear for Rivera to step in as the everyday left fielder in 2009. He has incredible potential to be the power bat the Angels have long coveted and recently lost when Mark Teixeira signed with the Yankees.

If healthy and given a full-season worth of at-bats Rivera could very easily hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100+ runs batted in.

Andruw Jones, Texas Rangers - one-year, $500,000 (minor league deal)

I know…the dude is toast. To be perfectly honest, if I didn’t believe heavily in second (and third or fourth) chances, I’d feel the same way. Unfortunately, I do--in fact--believe in second (and third or fourth) chances. As such, I can’t quite give up on the belief that the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man could show up to Spring Training in shape and ready to crush.

Rumors out of Texas are that Jones has indeed slimmed down and his surgically repaired knee appears to be in good shape. If those reports prove true Jones’ next obstacle will be to regain his once infamous power stroke. Between 1998-2007, Jones hit .266 with an average of 97 runs scored, 34 home runs and 103 RBIs.

Renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo will be counted on heavily to help Jones on his quest to win the centerfield job. Jones could have a big year in Texas, especially in a lineup that surrounds him with the likes of Josh Hamilton, Hank Blalock, Chris Davis, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young.

If he can stay healthy (and fit) Jones could easily put up a big year. I’d consider a .260 average with 30-40 home runs and 100+ runs batted in to be very much in the realm of possibility for Jones given the ideal ballpark and lineup conditions he’ll be given in 2009.

Ty Wigginton, Baltimore Orioles - two-years, $6 million

Wigginton, a career .270 hitter with 110 home runs in seven seasons, is coming off a career year. The right-handed hitter split time between left field and third base with Houston last season, batting .285 with 23 home runs in just 386 at-bats. In his career he’s also put in time at second base, first base, right field and designated hitter.

Three of the Orioles’ top four power bats--Aubrey Huff, Nick Markakis and Luke Scott--bat from the left side, and Wigginton may be able to break up that block of the lineup. The acquisition of Wigginton also provides some obvious defensive flexibility for Baltimore. His ability to start at the corners in both the outfield and infield as well as second base (his natural position) could also allow the O’s to move Brian Roberts and/or Melvin Mora before season’s end.

Although no stranger to the American League East--Wigginton hit 24 home runs with a .275 batting average for Tampa Bay in 2006--it is still logical to assume Wigginton will have a period of adjustment and may struggle with consistency until the Orioles find a permanent position for him in the field.

A rough early projection for Wigginton would see him putting up a line of 20/75/.270 in 2009 while seeing significant playing time at multiple positions.

Juan Uribe, San Francisco Giants - one-year, $1 million (minor league deal)

In signing Uribe, the Giants have strengthened their odds of competing in the wide-open National League West. Uribe is coming off one of his worst professional seasons after being displaced twice in 2008 with the White Sox first losing his starting job at shortstop to Orlando Cabrera and later losing his second base job to Alexei Ramirez; eventually settling in at third base when Joe Crede went down with a back injury.

Despite a down year in 2008, Uribe can still provide the Giants with some much needed pop. He has averaged 20 homers per season from 2004-2007, but is no longer a strong defensive shortstop and the power comes with a hideous .295 career on-base percentage. As such, he figures to play a prominent bench role; although it is not completely out of line to think he could win a starting job at second base with a strong showing this spring.

Uribe hasn’t played in the NL since 2003 with the Rockies and could struggle to readjust to the ballparks and deep rotations of the NL West. Uribe, however, showed last season that he was more than capable of adjusting to change and could turn into a major contributor with the Giants in 2009.

I’d project a line (assuming he plays part-time and off the bench) of 11/36/.275 with plenty of contributions around the infield throughout the season.

Brandon Lyon, Detroit Tigers - one-year, $4.25 million

Brandon Lyon hit the market at the worst-time possible, when it was flooded with marquee closers and prices were being driven down. As the dominos started to fall it seemed that Lyon would be forced to settle for a deal as a setup man…and then the Tigers came calling.

The Tigers--who went from a World Series lock to a last place team in 2008--are working to rebuild a bullpen that was one of many glaring weaknesses in last year’s lost season. Lyon, who saved 26 games in 2008, figures the best bet to win the closer role over incumbent late-inning warriors Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya.

Lyon isn’t cut from the same mold as the usual overpowering closer. He uses a solid four-pitch repertoire that combines low to mid 90s fastball with a big curveball, slider and changeup. Occasionally he gets away from that mix and gets in trouble as he did down the stretch last year in Arizona when he lost the closer’s role.

Projecting a line for a closer is always tough, but I’ll go ahead and give it a go. I’d expect for Lyon to save close to 30 games in 2009 with an ERA around 4.00 and 50+ strikeouts.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Five Burning Questions for ‘09

The 2008 Twins weren’t expected to be competitive, let alone be in the mix to win the AL Central which had been deemed a two-team race between the Indians and Tigers long before pitchers and catchers even thought about reporting. Fast-forward one year and the Twins will be reporting to Fort Myers as a team that ended 2008 with a tough 1-0 loss to the rival White Sox in the 163rd game of the season, a one-game tie-breaker to determine the division winner.

This offseason the Twins made few moves, a stark contrast from last winter’s purging of Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva. The quiet winter, however, didn’t change the Twins’ intention of competing for a fifth division crown in eight years in 2009.

Now that the days until Spring Training are down to single-digits it’s time to take a look at the five biggest questions facing the Twins in 2009.

1) Can the rotation repeat last year’s success?

Last season the Twins rotation was one of the most impressive in all of baseball and--following the jettisoning of Livan Hernandez--one of the youngest. All five members of the projected starting rotation earned double-digit wins last season and figure to take a step forward. If, however, any member of the rotation should falter Kevin Mulvey, Phil Humber and R.A. Dickey could step in and serve a larger role.

2) Will there be enough power?

In the past three seasons Justin Morneau has hit 88 home runs. Last season all of the Twins not named Justin Morneau hit 88 home runs…combined. Needless to say the Twins are in need of another power bat. With sluggers like Adam Dunn, Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez still on the market one has to wonder if the Twins could be looking to add another slugger so Morneau doesn’t have to do the heavy-lifting all by himself for another season.

3) Who plays third-base?

The Twins never-ending black-hole at the hot corner doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. Last year’s signing of Mike Lamb proved to be a mistake as Lamb quickly played his way out of the starting lineup and eventually the league. This offseason’s failed attempt to sign Casey Blake coupled with tepid pursuits of Ty Wigginton and Joe Crede have left the Twins with the same Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon that underachieved down the stretch in 2008.

4) Who is the odd-man out?

The Twins have one of the best outfield quartets in baseball with Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span on the roster. Unfortunately, Major League rules only permit three men in the outfield. This leaves Ron Gardenhire with the tough task of trying to find enough playing time and at-bats for all four men. In signing Jason Kubel to a two-year contract to serve as the team’s DH the situation grew even more muddled. Expect a big battle in Fort Myers.

5) Who builds the bridge to Joe Nathan?

When Pat Neshek was lost early last season the Twins quickly realized they had little insurance in the middle innings. The Twins signed Luis Ayala on Saturday as a potential setup solution after unsuccessful pursuits of Brandon Lyon and Eric Gagne earlier this winter. If Ayala can regain the form he showed with the Nationals/Expos in the past he could be exactly what the Twins are looking for. In addition, the Twins will be looking for big bounce-back seasons from Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier as well as potential contributions from Boof Bonser and Humber who are both out of options.