Friday, November 12, 2010
Executives chime in on offseason topics
By Jerry Crasnick
Major League Baseball's general managers will gather in Orlando, Fla., beginning late Monday for their annual meetings. This is typically a time for teams to lay the groundwork for trades and free-agent signings, and for Scott Boras to deliver his first soliloquy on the robust state of industry finances.
The meetings will have a slightly different tone this year. All 30 general managers will attend, but their assistants and other team personnel will stay home, putting a limit on dialogue between clubs and reducing face time with agents (not to mention lobby banter with reporters). MLB is combining the GMs' session with the quarterly owners meetings, so the focus will be more on big-picture industry topics -- from instant replay to an expanded playoff system to the new labor agreement -- than on hot stove issues.
In anticipation of the meetings, ESPN.com polled 17 general managers, assistant GMs, personnel people and scouts on eight high-profile questions that will make news this offseason. The executives all spoke on the condition of anonymity. Here are the results of the survey:
Responses: New York Yankees 11; Texas Rangers 5; Los Angeles Angels 1. The lowest deal mentioned: Five years and $75 million. The highest was a CC Sabathia special of seven years, $161 million.
From all accounts, Lee enjoyed his time in Arlington, Texas and bonded with his new teammates. And now they'll be lobbying him hard to return. As Rangers third baseman Michael Young told reporters after the World Series, "It goes without saying we want him here. We want him pitching Opening Day for the Rangers next year. That's obvious."
Those positive October vibes aren't the only factor working in the Rangers' favor. Texas has no state income tax. The Rangers are poised to win for several years because of a deep farm system, a lucrative new TV deal and so-so competition in the AL West. You can board a puddle jumper from Lee's home in Arkansas and land in Dallas in barely more than an hour. Mike Maddux is a terrific pitching coach; club president Nolan Ryan is a tough person to say "no" to; and new owner Chuck Greenberg is such a down-to-earth guy that he played table tennis with Lee and other players in the clubhouse during the postseason.
Baseball people who expect Lee to remain a Ranger also believe that Texas is more suited to the pitcher's understated, down-home personality. So the 11 New York votes here tell you a lot about the industrywide perception that when the Yankees want a player and are willing to focus all their energies and massive Stein-bucks on one particular target, they're an unstoppable force.
"When push comes to shove, the Yankees can give him the most money, and they need him the most," said a National League assistant GM.
Responses: Crawford 12; Werth 5.
Crawford turned 29 in August. He is a four-time All Star and won his first Gold Glove this week. He has led the American League in triples four times and has stolen 400 bases over the past eight seasons, and he established single-season highs in 2010 with 19 home runs, 90 RBIs, 110 runs and a .495 slugging percentage.
"Between running balls down in left field and stealing bases, he can make more of a difference with his legs," said an American League personnel man. "I like the speed element he brings."
Werth, 31, is 21 months older than Crawford. He led the National League with 46 doubles this year, logged an OPS of .921, struck out 147 times and finished tied for third in the majors with 4.37 pitches per plate appearance. He also has shown he can handle the pressure of a high-intensity market in Philadephia.
As several respondents pointed out, this is largely a question of which commodity you value. If you're looking for a speed guy and a disrupter to hit near the top of the order, Crawford is your man. If you want a middle-of-the-order run producer, your club will gravitate more to Werth.
Crawford backers point out that he and Evan Longoria were the focal points of the Tampa offense while Werth had the luxury of sliding into a star-studded lineup led by Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in Philadelphia. Werth also has benefited from playing in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, and everybody knows what the move from Philadelphia to San Francisco did to Aaron Rowand's production.
"I think there's some concern this might be 'Jason Bay II' if you buy the guy and plug him in and ask him to carry your lineup," one NL scout said. Conversely, Werth could be a comfortable fit alongside Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia & Co. at Fenway Park. "The Red Sox are really doing their homework on him," said a National League front-office man.
Two pluses for Werth: The startling lack of right-handed power out there, plus his ability to play both right field and center. Boras has already made it clear that versatility will be part of his Werth sales pitch this winter.
Responses: Yes 4; No 12. One participant said it's "50/50."
Greinke is signed for $27 million over the next two years, so his salary isn't a major obstacle for contenders with an interest. But he has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block deals to 15 suitors, and that hinders general manager Dayton Moore's mobility a bit.
So here's the question: Does Moore move Greinke now, reduce the big league payroll and stockpile young talent, or hang on to him in hopes he'll be the front-of-the-rotation leader when Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow, John Lamb and Kansas City's other elite pitching prospects are ready to make a major contribution for the big club? Or does Moore simply wait and move Greinke in a year?
One team official familiar with the Royals' thinking says it's going to take a "Mark Teixeira-like" trade for Moore to pull the trigger. That's a reference to the 2007 deal that sent Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and two other prospects from Atlanta to Texas.
"Dayton has to win the deal if it's going to happen," the official said.
Greinke is a possible Plan B for the Yankees if they lose out on Cliff Lee, but his social-anxiety issues make executives wary about whether he can handle a high-pressure market such as New York. It's also worth noting that Greinke has never had another season close to his 2009 Cy Young year, when he struck out 242 hitters and posted an ERA of 2.16. He has never received a Cy Young vote or finished with an ERA below 3.47 in any other season.
"I don't think they'll find the king's ransom they will want at a time when his stock is the lowest it has been in recent years," said an NL scouting director. "He seems more like a deadline deal than a winter deal once he is performing better. Texas makes a lot of sense if they lose out on Lee, but I don't see them emptying their farm system."
Responses: Fielder 8; Gonzalez 7; Neither one 2.
This is a tough one to gauge. Gonzalez has put up better numbers than Fielder while playing in a terrible hitter's park. He's a better defender, and even though he's 28 years old to Fielder's 26, teams regard him as a better long-term bet because of concerns about Fielder's body type. That's why agent John Boggs will be looking for a Mark Teixeira-caliber deal (as in, eight years and $180 million) when Gonzalez hits the open market next November.
Gonzalez's $6.2 million salary in 2011 could work in two ways. Teams might be motivated to give up more for him because he's so affordable. On the other hand, the Padres could decide to keep him, see how things transpire and reassess the situation at the trade deadline in July. The Padres won 90 games and finished two games behind San Francisco in the NL West, so it's a hard sell for them to punt on the 2011 season in November or December.
"I don't see Adrian getting moved during the offseason, strictly because of the fact that they were so close to reaching the postseason and it's going to be a tough pill to swallow for that fan base to see him leave before they even make a run for it in the last year of his deal," one AL scout said.
Three reasons the Brewers might have a hard time trading Fielder: (1) A lot of teams see him as a DH; (2) he could make $15 million-plus through salary arbitration; and (3) he has Boras for an agent, which means he'll be seeking the mother lode when he becomes a free agent next winter. "I think the Brewers are going to be disappointed when they see the market out there for him," one NL executive said.
Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik and scouting director Tom McNamara were in Milwaukee when the Brewers drafted Fielder in 2002, and the Mariners are in desperate need of power, so look for Seattle to be mentioned prominently if Fielder trade speculation does heat up this winter.
As one survey respondent pointed out, the trade market for Gonzalez and Fielder could be undercut by the deep free-agent crop this winter. Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Derrek Lee, Adam LaRoche, Lyle Overbay, Aubrey Huff, Russell Branyan and Lance Berkman aren't as attractive as Gonzalez or Fielder, but they'll cost a lot less money and won't require a team to decimate its farm system.
Responses: Thome 5; Guerrero 4; Ramirez 4; Berkman 3; Matsui 1.
Guerrero should have easily laid claim to this designation after hitting .300 with 29 homers and 115 RBIs for the Rangers. He gave his Hall of Fame aspirations a boost, and his peers gave him the Players Choice Award as AL Comeback Player of the Year. "He's still able to reach pitches that are unhittable for some people," one NL scouting director said.
Then Vlad batted .220 with no homers in 59 postseason at-bats, reviving the perception that his game doesn't translate to October, when No. 5 starters and mediocre relievers aren't part of the equation. That unfortunate World Series cameo in right field in San Francisco also reinforced the perception that he has no business picking up a glove except in dire emergencies.
Thome slugged an amazing .627 in 276 at-bats with Minnesota this past season. He's beloved in the clubhouse, and he needs only 11 more homers to join the 600 club. Twins GM Bill Smith recently said the team is interested in re-signing Thome, and it's hard to imagine the two sides not finding a way to reunite.
Berkman's ability to switch hit should enhance his appeal, but his OPS from the right side has dipped from .803 to .710 to .517 the past three seasons. Still, he's the youngest player in this group at age 34, and he's such a solid professional and positive clubhouse presence that someone will take a shot on him as a bounce-back candidate. Sources say the Oakland A's have interest in him as a potential DH.
Ramirez received a surprising amount of support given his 2009 PED suspension, his unceremonious departure from the Dodgers and his lack of impact as a late-season pickup in Chicago.
"I think there's still something there," said a pro scouting director for an AL team. "If he's got enough incentive, he can still hit."
Responses: Westbrook 4.5.; Kuroda 4.5; Pavano 2.5; De La Rosa 2.5; Garland 1. Two executives opted for none of the above. "I don't like any of them on a multiyear deal," one NL assistant GM said.
Baseball people can't recall an offseason in which the top starter was so far above and beyond the other pitchers on the market. Once you get past Cliff Lee, all the other names can be thrown in a hat.
Pavano clearly had the best season among these other candidates. He went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA in 221 innings with Minnesota and, in the words of one NL exec, "battled his tail off" in his division series start against the Yankees. But Pavano's disastrous, four-year, $40 million deal with New York leaves teams reluctant to make a long-term commitment, and more than one executive said it would be in his best interests to stay in Minnesota, where he has responded well to the clubhouse culture and strike-throwing environment.
Ultimately, Westbrook wins points as the safest bet. He logged his fourth career 200-inning season in 2010 and pitched well down the stretch for St. Louis. That Tommy John surgery in 2008 is a distant memory.
The consensus is that Kuroda and De La Rosa have the best stuff on this list. "They could be No. 3s in a good club's rotation," one NL scout said. "The rest of these guys are all 4s and 5s." But Kuroda turns 36 in February, and De La Rosa's closest statistical comparables on Baseball-Reference.com are Allen Watson, Claudio Vargas and Jeff Robinson. He is 29 years old and has surpassed 130 innings only once in his career.
"He has the most upside -- and also the most risk," one NL general manager said.
Responses: Webb 6; Francis 5; Young 4. None 2. "I don't think any one of them come back" one AL general manager said.
Bedard is officially off the map now that injuries have limited him to 164 innings pitched since the 2007 season. The other three pitchers all spent last season trying to rehab from shoulder injuries with limited success.
Webb received the most support even though he didn't pitch an inning in 2010 and reportedly clocked in at 81-83 mph on the radar gun in the instructional league. Executives and scouts liked his pedigree and the predictability of his sinkerball if he can regain the strength in his shoulder.
Francis wins points for "pitchability" and left-handedness. He turns 30 in January, and his fastball barely dented 86 mph even when he was winning 17 games in 2007. If Bruce Chen can lead the Royals with 12 victories at age 33, there'll always be a place for crafty southpaws in baseball.
One NL scout was particularly high on Young, who made three encouraging starts for San Diego in September. "Guys just don't get good swings against him," the scout said. "They think they can hit him, and the next thing they know, they're sitting in the dugout."
All three pitchers probably will have to settle for deals with relatively low base salaries and lots of incentives, preferably with National League clubs. The same goes for Javier Vazquez, whose mysterious drop in velocity contributed to his flameout with the Yankees this past season.
"Vazquez may end up being the best deal of all, for one year and short money to an NL team," one AL assistant GM said.
Responses: Most observers think that if Jeter went on the open market as a 36-year-old shortstop coming off a .270 season, he would be looking at a two-year contract for somewhere between $11 million and $16 million. The consensus is that the Yankees will sign him for three years at a total cost of $50 million to $60 million.
|Cliff Lee was 3-2 with a 2.78 ERA in five starts in the 2010 postseason.|
Most observers agree with agent Casey Close's recent declaration to AOL Fanhouse's Ed Price that "Derek's impact on the sport's most valuable franchise cannot be overstated." Jeter brings a certain cachet, credibility and goodwill to the Yankees organization that can't be measured in numbers.
"He's just an average player now, but his makeup and leadership skills make him a very crucial part of that club," one NL scout said. "He handles that clubhouse and, for a superstar, the guy is zero maintenance."
The problem: Jeter's skills are clearly waning, and the Yankees have nowhere else to put him. Robinson Cano is the team's best all-around player at second base, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are tied up to long-term deals at the corner infield spots, and no one really knows whether Jeter can make the transition to the outfield. "The worst thing you can do is twist a star player's arm to change positions and risk embarrassing him because he doesn't play the position well," said an AL baseball operations person.
Things got testy with Barry Larkin in Cincinnati and Ozzie Smith in St. Louis when their careers were winding down, and baseball people think it's imperative for Jeter and Close to be reasonable and not back the Yankees too far into a corner. At some point, the Jeter-Yankees union has to end.
"He's been the face of that franchise for a long time, and done a lot special things there," one AL official said. "But the team has treated him right for a long time, too. You have to hope the player and the agent have enough respect for the organization to understand that it works both ways."
|Derek Jeter hit .270 in 2010, his worst batting average for a full season in his career.|
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.