Whirlwind Week

added 12/10/2005 by Scott Barzilla

I hesitate sometimes between the World Series and the Winter Meetings as the best week in baseball. Both offer an analyst a ton of material to go on. Obviously, we like to focus on the hometown team here, but it's hard not to live vicariously through other teams making tons of moves. Watching the Red Sox and Mets reshape their teams on a nearly yearly basis is interesting and amusing at the same time. There are lessons to be learned every step of the way.

Of course, the Roger Clemens has everyone's attention here in town and our local columnists at the Chronicle have already weighed in. Seeing the point counterpoint was interesting to say the least. Both arguments rested on where the Astros go from here. Richard Justice felt the Astros would pocket most of the money to keep the payroll around 85 million while John Lopez felt the payroll could be expanded some to improve other areas of the team. As much as I'd like to focus on Clemens, there are a number of lessons to be learned.

Yesterday's Stars, Tomorrow's Scapegoats

Anyone remember last year when the Boston Red Sox felt they had solidified their team with Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and David Wells? It appears two of them could be gone by the end of the year (Renteria has already been dealt). Why? Renteria had a disappointing season at the plate and in the field. A big part of it could be excessive expectations, but a part of it could be the pressure of living up to a contract. Free agency hype is very circular in nature. A player gets a big pay day so therefore he 'becomes' a 'marquee' player.

Renteria was a solid shortstop somewhere below the class that included Nomar Garciaparra (at that time), Derek Jeter, and Miguel Tejada. He signs a four year 32 million dollar deal and he enters that class. Red Sox fans torched him when he wasn't that player. The mistake was in believing that if we put a player in a great situation he will suddenly become a better player. Players are who they are.

Enter Rafael Furcal. Furcal and Renteria are very similar players. They are very good at their position and excellent when you don't expect them to be great. Furcal could blend in with the Jones' and the great pitching in Atlanta. He won't blend in so quickly in L.A. where he will be making 13 million a season. It wouldn't be a huge shock to see the Dodgers shopping a disappointing Furcal this time next year. Don't even get me started on B.J. Ryan or A.J. Burnett. Value is determined in results and not in what the radar gun says. Blue Jays fans have to hope both players continue to mature.

Still sadder is the firesale from the Marlins. These are not your older brother's Marlins. Larry Beinfest has made Dave Drombowski's firesale in 1998 seem like child's play. What's sad is that while MLB is bathing in billions (in collective income) they are willing to let a market like Miami go by the wayside over about 50 million dollars. Like his predecessor, Beinfest's haul has been impressive. Wherever the Marlins end up in 2009, they will have a nice team to root for.

The end result of these deals is a theme. Most of the players that were dealt and will be dealt after the meetings were acquisitions that the original teams ended up regretting for one reason or another. Who knows, maybe there's a lesson in it for all of us.

Saying Goodbye

I choose not to blame the Astros or Roger Clemens for the breakdown this week. Simply put, the rules of arbitration were stacked up against them from the very beginning. Make no mistake, this wasn't a Beltran situation. Clemens and his agents (the Hendricks brothers) were honest about his intentions from the get go. The Astros simply couldn't afford to abide that timetable. A lot has been said about what the Astros learned from Boras and Beltran.

Ironically, I caught an interview with Boras on XM's Baseball channel (175) and enjoyed the comedic effects. Boras talked frequently about his success being about doing things the right way. When asked about the Johnny Damon negotiations he said he never reveals the contents of discussions with other teams because it allows for open dialogue. This coming from the same man who announced the Beltran deal killer was a no-trade clause (when the Mets also gave more money, but that was a coincidence). If he is so tight-lipped then why is so willing to talk about phantom offers and why are teams' offers 'leaked' to the press? Alas, there is a significant difference between an unfortunate situation and a delusional megalomaniac that really believes he's honorable.

As much as I respect Justice's opinion, I believe his thinking is off-base here. First of all, each baseball decision should be taken by itself. When you start thinking in chain reactions you risk derailing your team when there is a link in the chain. Each decision should make sense by itself first. The Clemens decision makes sense from the standpoint of a team that cannot afford to commit a large sum of money to a 43 year old pitcher that might break down. After all, when things don't work out you end up like the desperate organizations selling off their pieces for financial certainty.

For once, sentimentality didn't win out. Fans out there will compare McLane and McMullen if Clemens signs elsewhere. You can do it if you want to, but there are two numbers you must remember: 1.1 and 15.4. The first is the number Ryan really wanted from the get go while the second is the MINIMUM number Clemens would have gotten in arbitration. Inflation or no, there is a huge difference between those two numbers and that is the best possible scenario. The pitcher with the best ERA in the league could easily justify a raise. 20 million? 25 million?

Moving On

Realistically, this club can't compete for big time free agents right now. So, they have three choices from here. The choice they make will reveal a lot about what Tal Smith, Tim Purpura, and the staff want to see in the future. They could mortgage the future in a series of deals to compete again this year. There are rumors surrounding Javier Vazquez and Adam Dunn. Both players are very tempting and could be nice additions for the right price. If the club can make the deal before the end of the Winter Meetings they could go to the podium and join in on the fun.

I really like both players. Vazquez's strikeout and walk numbers are very comparable to Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. He's no Roger Clemens, but no one is at this point. He is a good number three starter that eats a ton of innings every year. Adam Dunn is a high OBP and high SLG guy. You guys know me, I can't escape a column without some numbers. If we combine OBP and Isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) we get a metric called OBIP. It is a lot more pure than OPS and shows the relative value of Adam Dunn.

                     OBP   ISO   OBIP
Manny Ramirez        388   301   689
Adam Dunn            387   293   680
Andruw Jones         347   312   659
Jason Bay            402   254   656
Jim Edmonds          385   270   655
Lance Berkman        411   231   642 
Vladimir Guerrero    391   248   639
Miguel Cabrera       385   238   623
Brian Giles          423   182   605 
Bobby Abreu          405   189   594

I would caution anyone against the use of single metrics to rate the total value of a player, but this metric is pretty telling. Still, the Astros have to ask themselves a question with either of these two players: is he the one thing between us and another pennant? In Dunn's case, we can easily foresee a scenario where he signs as a free agent after the 2006 season. So, is he worth surrendering two or three players from one additional season? Is Vazquez worth Taveras, a young pitcher, and 11 million a season for the next three years?

If the club doesn't like that direction they can go the stopgap route and try to compete for a season. There are several outfielders, mediocre pitchers, and a few infielders left on the market that can provide that stopgap. The advantage of this method is that you can bring in more than one of these guys. If the price is right this might be the best way to go. Andy Pettitte, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Brad Ausmus could be in their last season as Astros. Why not send them off in style with one more run at the brass ring?

There are more of these guys available. They can be had through free agency or trade and won't involve decimating the farm system. They include the likes of Jason LaRue, Toby Hall, Bengie Molina, Nomar Garciaparra, Reggie Sanders, Juan Encarnacion, or Rondell White. If you can get a catcher, Garciaparra, and an outfielder you could be in business. You could easily sign two of those guys and throw in a mediocre starter like Shawn Estes, Matt Morris, or Scott Elarton.

Overpaying for Mediocrity

One of my pet peeves has been overpaying for mediocrity. The Astros agreed to a two year 1.9 million deal on Orlando Palmeiro and a one year deal with Russ Springer (750K). Both are in the latter thirties and aren't exactly headed for Cooperstown. Palmeiro has a career .710 OPS and has never been an everyday player. With the likelihood of Bagwell pushing Chris Burke and Luke Scott to the bench, you have to wonder what purpose Palmeiro serves.

I've heard all of the arguments before. Rookies are unproven. Yes, that's true, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Palmeiro and Springer are low ceiling performers. Springer will likely have an ERA around 4.50. Palmeiro will produce an OPS around .700. What's the harm you ask? Well, if you combine the 650K (the difference between Palmeiro and Scott) and 450K (difference between Springer and league minimum) you can afford to sweeten the pot for a quality reliever or one of the guys mentioned above. If you don't believe me then consider the fact that Chris Hammond signed with the Padres last season for 600K after three straight sub 3.00 ERA seasons. Hammond is available by the way.

The club could still choose to play for 2007 by allowing the mediocre veterans to let them be. The next generation of arms is almost as good as the generation of arms that saw the likes of Oswalt, Miller, Redding, and Lidge. Sure, Redding and Miller were a mixed blessings at best, but what happens if the next Oswalt is ready to contribute? Oswalt was 14-3 in 2001 in a partial season. I guarantee there isn't a pitcher on the open market (we can afford) that can come close to that. Maybe Nieve or Hirsch is capable of that. Maybe in September Troy Patten will be that guy. When you sign the mediocre veteran you keep that from being a possibility.

Neither path is necessarily wrong or necessarily right. It all depends on the circumstances surrounding the decisions. Hardcore Astros fans may not be sleeping as easily as earlier in the month, but we can at least acknowledge that there are options this time around.