Tigers acquire power lefty for 'pen
April 29: Four weeks after acquiring hard-throwing lefty reliever Steve Colyer from the Dodgers, the Tigers were at it again. Detroit picked up another power bullpen lefty in Felix Sanchez from the Cubs, in exchange for 2003 minor league ERA leader Jon Connolly and a player to be named later.
Sanchez, 22, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1998. The Cubs initially tried to develop him as a starter, but converted him to relief in 2003. Pitching out of the bullpen, he works in the mid-90s and can touch 97 mph with his fastball. He also has a decent changeup, but doesn't use it enough, and his inability to come up with an effective breaking ball prompted his move from the rotation. Sanchez needs to repeat his delivery better, which would improve his slider and his command. He was off to a slow start this year at Double-A West Tenn, posting a 7.11 ERA in seven appearances. In six innings, he has given up 11 hits and four walks while striking out five.
Connolly, a 20-year-old southpaw, was a 28th-round pick out of Oneonta (N.Y.) High in 2001. Though his stuff is far from overpowering, he led the minors with a 1.41 ERA while going 16-3 at low Class A West Michigan last year. Connolly has an 83-88 mph fastball and a below-average curveball, but his plus-plus changeup and excellent command have enabled him to baffle hitters thus far. In four starts at high Class A Lakeland this April, he went 2-2, 3.68. In 22 innings, he allowed 28 hits and five walks while fanning eight. His brother Mike is a Double-A lefty in the Pirates system.
The moves clears a 40-man roster spot for Chicago, which may use the opening to recall veteran lefty Glendon Rusch from Triple-A.
Aug. 13 update: The Cubs received Triple-A lefthander Eric Eckenstahler to finish the trade.
Eckenstahler, 27, was drafted in the 32nd round out of Illinois State in 1999 and signed as a fifth-year senior draft-and-follow a year later. At 6 foot 7, he employs a deceptive motion that makes his pitches tough to pick up. His stuff is fairly ordinary, and he has a fringe average fastball and slider. He has spent all of 2004 at Triple-A Toledo, going 1-2, 5.15 in 42 appearances. He has a 45-30 strikeout-walk ratio in 44 innings, with opponents batting .317 with five homers. He got into 27 big league games with the Tigers in 2002-03, posting a 1-0 record with a 3.80 ERA. His career mark in the minors is 11-16, 4.12 with six saves in 201 contests.
Astros, A's swap interesting pitchers
April 16: A pair of intriguing right-handers who succeeded in the minors but have had trouble sticking in the majors will try to do so with new organizations. The Athletics acquired swingman Kirk Saarloos from the Astros for reliever Chad Harville.
Saarloos, 24, signed out of Cal State Fullerton as a third-round pick in 2001. He was the second player from that draft to reach the majors -- only Mark Prior made it up quicker -- making his Houston debut on June 18, 2002. Saarloos isn't a physical pitcher, standing 6-foot and possessing an 86-88 mph fastball, but he doesn't need to be. He has plenty of sink on his fastball, his slider and changeup are above-average pitches and his low three-quarters delivery is deceptive. He appeared in 53 games (21 starts) for the Astros in 2002-03, going 8-8, 5.61. In 135 innings, he had a 97-44 strikeout-walk ratio, while opponents hit .294 with 16 homers against him. He may be best suited for a long-relief role, as his big league ERA is 2.97 out of the bullpen, compared to 6.59 in the rotation. In the minors, Saarloos was simply dominating in his first three pro seasons, going 18-2, 1.98, but has gone 0-2, 15.43 in two starts for Triple-A New Orleans this April. Oakland assigned him to Triple-A Edmonton.
Harville, 26, was a second-round pick out of the University of Memphis in 1997. The Astros had targeted Harville as their possible first-round choice that June, but took Lance Berkman when he dropped to them at No. 16. Once projected as the A's closer of the future, Harville was out of options and designated for assignment on April 15 after posting a 3.38 ERA in three appearances for Oakland. He entered pro ball relying on a four-seam fastball that sat in the mid-90s, but now works more with a low-90s two-seamer that features more sink. He also uses a hard slider and a slow curveball. Injuries and ineffectiveness prevented him from finding a niche with the A's. He had rotator-cuff tendinitis in 2001 and elbow inflammation in 2002, and his career record is 1-2, 5.62 with one save in 42 big league appearances. His K-BB ratio is 35-28 in 42 innings, and opponents have hit .287 with five homers. Like Saarloos, Harville has carved up minor league hitters, going 22-15, 3.34 with 422 strikeouts in 353 innings. He'll join Houston's bullpen.
Dodgers ship Looper back to Mariners
April 13: Aaron Looper's stay with the Dodgers lasted all of nine days. Los Angeles acquired him on April 3 from the Mariners in a trade for Jolbert Cabrera, then designated him for assignment the next day when it needed a spot on the 40-man roster after dealing for Milton Bradley. On Monday, the Dodgers sent Looper back to Seattle for Double-A left-hander Glenn Bott.
Looper, a 27-year-old right-hander, was a 30th-round pick out of Westark (Ark.) CC in 1997 and signed as a draft-and-follow after a year at Indian Hills (Iowa) CC. The son of Mariners vice president for scouting and player development Benny Looper and the cousin of Mets reliever Braden Looper, Aaron made his big league debut last August and had a 5.14 ERA in six appearances. He spent most of the year at Triple-A Tacoma, going 5-2, 3.11 with five saves in 46 appearances. He had a 67-26 strikeout-walk ratio in 75 innings, while opponents hit .247 with 10 homers. The Mariners lowered his arm angle to a low-three-quarters slot in 2002, and it did wonders for the movement on Looper's fastball. He now throws a darting 88-92 mph sinker. His slider is tough on righties, who batted .193 off him in Triple-A, but he needs a better changeup to combat lefties, who batted .328. Originally slated to open 2004 at Triple-A Las Vegas, Looper never joined the 51s and instead will make his season debut with Tacoma.
Bott, 22, signed as a nondrafted free agent out of San Jacinto (Texas) JC in 2001. He's not overwhelming physically with a 6-foot, 170-pound build and an 83-88 mph fastball, but Bott has 346 strikeouts in 339 pro innings because he knows how to pitch. His fastball misses bats because it has good life and he locates it well. His best pitch is his changeup, and he also throws a slider. Bott went 7-7, 3.16 in 31 games (21 starts) at high Class A Inland Empire in 2003. In 142 innings, he had a 143-38 K-BB ratio and limited opponents to a .241 average and eight homers. He earned a no-decision in his first start of 2004 for Double-A San Antonio, giving up two runs in 4 2/3 innings. He'll be assigned to Double-A Jacksonville.
Royals acquire Huisman from Rockies
April 9: The Royals don't have much leeway with their budget, so general manager Allard Baird has had to resort to minor trades in an attempt to upgrade his big league club. He used nine minor leaguers in five deals last summer, and he was at it again on Friday, picking up Justin Huisman from the Rockies for minor leaguers Zach McClellan and Chris Fallon.
Huisman, a 24-year-old right-hander, signed as a 15th-round pick in 2000 out of the University of Mississippi, where he played with his brothers Jason (a former Angels minor league outfielder) and Josh. Justin was a two-way player for the Rebels, but has concentrated on relieving as a pro. He spent last year at Double-A Tulsa, going 7-2, 1.75 with 26 saves in 57 appearances. In 62 innings, he had a 46-7 strikeout-walk ratio and held opponents to a .234 average and one homer. Huisman, who has a 2.22 ERA in four pro seasons, baffles hitters with a high-80s sinker that drops straight down as it arrives at the plate. He also has an average slider, pinpoint control and a deceptive delivery (which does have some effort to it). The Royals likely will assign him to Triple-A Omaha, and he's a candidate for a callup later in the year. He became expendable when the Rockies removed him from their 40-man roster.
McClellan, a 25-year-old righty, was a 2000 fifth-round pick out of Indiana University. He went 8-8, 2.84 in 30 games (23 starts) in 2003 at high Class A Wilmington. He had a 100-39 K-BB ratio in 133 innings, while opponents batted .212 with six homers against him. McClellan's heart is more impressive than his stuff. He has an average 88-92 mph fastball and a quick, hard slider in the 80-84 mph range. His changeup is below average and he doesn't work on it enough. Long term, he projects more as a reliever and pitched well in that role in the Arizona Fall League last offseason, going 4-0, 2.77 in 11 games. McClellan was assigned to the Double-A Wichita roster before the trade and probably will join Tulsa.
Fallon, a 25-year-old first baseman, was a 22nd-round pick from St. John's in 2001. He's more of an organization player than a prospect, though he's a good organization player. He can hit for a decent average and draws walks, but he's a line-drive, opposite-field hitter who doesn't have enough power to project as a big league first baseman. Fallon batted .272/.386/.401 with 11 homers and 79 RBI at Wilmington last year. Sent back to high Class A to begin 2004, he went 1-for-2 with an RBI and two walks in the Blue Rocks' opener on Thursday.
Dodgers get Bradley from Indians
April 4: It took the Indians three days to find a new home for Milton Bradley, but they accomplished their goal on the eve of Opening Day. Cleveland sent Bradley to Los Angeles for minor league outfielder Franklin Gutierrez and a player to be named later.
On Wednesday, Indians manager Eric Wedge pulled Bradley from an exhibition game against the Astros because he didn't run out a pop-up. It was the latest in a series on on-field and off-field run-ins for Bradley, and it also was the final straw. Cleveland barred him from its training camp the next day and vowed to trade him. Though Bradley has a questionable and volatile makeup, at the same time his talent is indisputable. So too is the weakness of a Dodgers offense that finished last in the majors in scoring (3.54 runs per game) last year. That made him a worthwhile gamble for a club that must produce more at the plate if it's to contend in the National League West this season.
Bradley, 25, had a breakthrough season in 2003, though he was limited to 101 games by a strained right hamstring and a bone bruise in his lower back. He hit .321/.421/.501 with 10 homers, 56 RBI and 17 steals. He's a line-drive hitter with gap power and promise of more to come, and he has a knack for working walks. He has above-average speed, which makes him an asset on the bases and in center field, and he also has a strong arm. Bradley was the premier offensive talent on the Indians, but they decided he had to go even if it meant replacing him with Coco Crisp or Alex Escobar. The Dodgers have yet to determine who will move out of the starting lineup to make room for Bradley, center fielder Dave Roberts or first baseman Robin Ventura (if Shawn Green moves to first from the outfield). Bradley has a $1.73 million salary for 2004 and will be arbitration-eligible after the season.
Gutierrez, 21, had a breakthrough of his own last year. Signed out of Venezuela in 2000, he homered six times in six games to open 2003 at high Class A Vero Beach. He hit .287/.350/.524 with 24 homers, 80 RBI and 20 steals in 128 games between Vero Beach and Double-A Jacksonville. Ranked 31st on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, Gutierrez is a legitimate five-tool outfielder. His power is his most obvious skill, but he also can hit for average, steal bases, cover enough ground to play center field and throw well enough to play right. With Grady Sizemore also on hand in the Cleveland system, Gutierrez projects as the club's right fielder of the future. He's still working on hitting breaking pitches, using the whole field and showing more patience at the plate. He'll start 2004 at Double-A Akron.
Once the player to be named has been identified, we'll analyze him as well. The Indians reportedly can choose from a list of three solid prospects, and have until June 30 to make their decision.
Marlins swap Neal for Howard
April 3: The Marlins and Padres swapped a pair of young right-handers, both of whom have electric arms but haven't been able to establish themselves in the majors. Florida sent Blaine Neal to San Diego for Ben Howard.
Once considered the Marlins' closer of the future, the 25-year-old Neal has gone 3-0 with a 5.01 ERA in 54 games over parts of three big league seasons. His main weapon is a mid-90s fastball with late movement, and he also throws a tight slider. He still could use more consistency with his slider and with his command. Neal made 40 appearances for Triple-A Albuquerque last year, going 3-2, 2.33 with 21 saves. His ERA was misleading, as opponents hit .303 with one homer against him, and he had a 32-16 strikeout-walk ratio in 46 innings. He also got into 18 games with Florida, posting an 8.14 ERA. Neal had minor elbow surgery in the offseason.
Howard, also 25, was a 1997 second-round pick out of a Tennessee high school. He was the lone survivor of the February 2002 car crash that killed Padres outfielder Mike Darr and another passenger. Howard's fastball topped out at 99 mph before injuring his elbow in June 2002, and now pitches from 91-95 mph. He also uses a slider and changeup, which showed improvement last season. He doesn't repeat his delivery consistently, which can lead to difficulty throwing strikes. When he dials down his velocity to find the zone, he can get hit hard if he's not precise. Both those problems cropped up this spring, when he had a 16.20 ERA in big league camp with San Diego. Howard went 7-9, 4.55 in 22 starts with Triple-A Portland in 2003, missing a month with a left knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. He received a late-August promotion to the majors, going 1-3, 3.63 in six starts. He limited opponents to a .235 average, but a whopping 10 of their 31 hits were homers. In 35 innings, he had a 24-15 K-BB ratio. His career big league record is 1-4, 4.96 in nine games.
Mariners acquire Cabrera
April 3: With starting third baseman Scott Spiezio opening the year on the disabled list with a back injury, the Mariners wanted another option in the infield. They got one in Jolbert Cabrera, whom they acquired from the Dodgers for a pair of pitching prospects, Ryan Ketchner and Aaron Looper.
Cabrera, 31, is coming off by far the best season of his major league career. He hit .282/.332/.438 with six homers and 37 RBI in 128 games last year, seeing time at all four infield and all three outfield positions. He has some pop and above-average speed, and he's a competent defender all over the diamond. He still has to prove that his 2003 performance wasn't a fluke, as he's a .253/.303/.353 career hitter with nine homers, 98 RBI and 26 steals in 448 games. Willie Bloomquist will start at third base on Opening Day, though Cabrera should also see time at the hot corner. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $1 million contract in January, which also contains a $1.5 million option for 2005. His departure from Los Angeles means that Jose Hernandez will platoon with Alex Cora at second base.
Ketchner, who was born partially deaf and has 40 percent of his hearing, was named the USA Deaf Federation's 2003 co-athlete of the year. He's more than just a human-interest story, as he's a legitimate left-handed pitching prospect. The 21-year-old signed as a 10th-round pick out of a Florida high school in 2000. His stuff isn't overwhelming -- 85-88 mph fastball with life, ordinary slider, solid average changeup -- but his ability to locate his pitches precisely and his deceptive delivery have allowed him to succeed throughout his pro career. He led the high Class A California League in strikeouts (159 in 157 innings), strikeout-walk ratio (4.8) and shutouts (two) last year, when he was also the league's playoff MVP after working 13 scoreless innings. He went 14-7, 3.45 in 31 games (22 starts), holding opponents to a .228 average and 10 homers in the most hitter-friendly league in the minors. He'll begin this season in Double-A Jacksonville.
Looper, a 27-year-old right-hander, was a 30th-round pick out of Westark (Ark.) CC in 1997 and signed as a draft-and-follow after a year at Indian Hills (Iowa) CC. The son of Mariners vice president for scouting and player development Benny Looper and the cousin of Mets reliever Braden Looper, Aaron made his big league debut last August and had a 5.14 ERA in six appearances. He spent most of the year at Triple-A Tacoma, going 5-2, 3.11 with five saves in 46 appearances. He had a 67-26 K-BB ratio in 75 innings, while opponents hit .247 with 10 homers. The Mariners lowered his arm angle to a low-three-quarters slot in 2002, and it did wonders for the movement on Looper's fastball. He now throws a darting 88-92 mph sinker. His slider is tough on righties, who batted .193 off him in Triple-A, but he needs a better changeup to combat lefties, who batted .328. He'll open 2004 at Triple-A Las Vegas.
Dodgers deal Romano to Devil Rays
April 3: Antonio Perez once was considered the top shortstop prospect in baseball, while Jason Romano once was regarded as the premier second baseman in the minors. But neither's career has panned out as expected, and they were traded for each other. Perez went to the Dodgers, with Romano going to the Devil Rays.
Perez, 24, signed out of the Dominican Republic with the Reds in 1998. He previously has been involved in trades for Ken Griffey Jr. in February 2000 and for Randy Winn in October 2002. Wrist injuries hampered Perez in 2001 and 2002, but he was healthy and made his big league debut last year, hitting .248/.360/.345 with two homers and 12 RBI in 48 games. He also spent time at Double-A Orlando and Triple-A Durham, batting a combined .279/.377/.498 with eight homers and 30 RBI in 58 contests. Perez still has the tools to be a good player. He has above-average pop for a middle infielder, plus speed and the arm and hands to play second base or shortstop. He needs to make more contact and stay healthy to reach his potential. Perez has played most of the time at second base the last two years, but the Dodgers may give him a look at shortstop as they look to beef up their middle-infield offense. He'll begin the season in Triple-A Las Vegas.
Romano, 24, is a Tampa native who signed with the Rangers out of high school as a 1997 supplemental first-round pick. He also is no stranger to trades, having been included in deals for Todd Hollandworth in July 2002 and Luke Allen in January 2003. Once compared to Craig Biggio, Romano now is primarily an outfielder who sees occasional time in the infield. He has hit .205/.250/.252 with no homers, five RBI and eight steals in 84 big league games and 127 at-bats the last two years. He spent most of 2003 on the Los Angeles bench, and also hit .306/.336/.486 with four homers, 23 RBI and 10 steals in 57 games at Las Vegas. Romano is a scrappy, versatile player whose best tool is his speed. He has taken well to the outfield, but projects as a bench player and not as a regular because he has below-average pop and only decent on-base ability. Romano led the Dodgers in the triple-crown categories (.379-5-14), steals (five) and slugging (.724) this spring and will open the season as utilityman for the Devil Rays, but Perez has considerably more upside.
Expos acquire catcher Diaz
April 3: John Hart's tenure as Rangers general manager hasn't exactly been distinguished, and one of his worst moves came in December 2002. Hart surrendered up-and-coming slugger Travis Hafner to get Einar Diaz from the Indians in a misguided attempt to replace Ivan Rodriguez. After Diaz turned in his usual lackluster performance at the plate in 2003, Texas decided enough was enough.
The Rangers traded Diaz and minor league right-hander Justin Echols to Montreal for a pair of prospects, right-hander Chris Young and catcher Josh McKinley. Texas also will pay $2 million of Diaz' $2.5 million salary this season. Hart lavished Diaz with a four-year, $6.3 million contract when he was Cleveland's GM in 2001.
Diaz, 31, is a defensive specialist best suited to be a backup, a role he'll play in Montreal behind starter Brian Schneider. Diaz is a good receiver with a solid arm, and he ranked third in the American League last year by throwing out 31 percent of basestealers. But he simply doesn't provide enough offense. He doesn't hit for average or power, and he doesn't draw walks. Diaz batted .257/.294/.341 with four homers and 35 RBI in 101 games last year, right in line with his career totals of .259/.306/.354 with 19 homers and 174 RBI in 557 contests. He lost his starting job in Texas to rookie Gerald Laird this spring. Diaz' contact contains a club option for $3.25 million next year, but the Expos almost assuredly will buy him out for $400,000.
Young's stock has fallen since the Pirates gave him $1.65 million as a third-round pick in 2000. Young had established himself as a legitimate NBA center prospect while at Princeton, and at 6-foot-10 is one of the tallest players in professional baseball history. But he hasn't improved much since signing, and Pittsburgh traded him to get Matt Herges in December 2002. The 24-year-old Young's fastball isn't nearly as intimidating as his size, sitting at 87-93 mph. He also has an improving curveball and a changeup, but nothing in his arsenal qualifies as a plus pitch. He went 9-6, 3.11 in 23 starts between high Class A Brevard County and Double-A Harrisburg (where his ERA was 4.01) last year. In 133 innings, he had a 103-27 strikeout-walk ratio while opponents hit .221 with 12 homers. He'll begin 2004 at Double-A Frisco.
Echols, 23, was an 11th-round pick in 1999 out of a Phoenix high school. He's a finesse specialist who has missed a surprising number of bats but sometimes battles his control. He went 5-9, 3.49 in 33 games (21 starts) between high Class A Stockton and Frisco in 2003. He had a 131-69 K-BB ratio in 142 innings as opponents batted .206 with nine homers. Echols' best pitch is a tight curveball, but he'll have to improve the command of his 87-90 mph fastball to succeed at higher levels. He nibbled too much in Double-A, posting a 4.91 ERA in eight starts. He also uses a splitter as a changeup.
McKinley, 25, has yet to play in the majors since being drafted 11th overall in 1998. The Rangers first tried to acquire him last summer, when they agreed to send Juan Gonzalez to Montreal for McKinley and right-hander Seung Song, but Gonzalez vetoed the deal. Signed as a shortstop, McKinley moved to third base in 2000 and second base in 2001, then to catcher in instructional league last year. The Rangers will keep him behind the plate and probably will send him to Double-A for the third straight season. McKinley had the best season of his career while repeating that level in 2003, hitting .288/.367/.467 with 15 homers, 75 RBI and 17 steals in 126 games. He has gotten stronger and improved his pitch recognition, but he still has holes in his swing and has to prove he can repeat that performance. His arm strength should help him behind the plate, and he has a chance to become a big league utilityman if he can pull the conversion off and continue to hit.
Mets deal Cedeno to Cardinals
April 3: The Mets closed the book on one of their biggest recent blunders when they shipped Roger Cedeno to the Cardinals for journeymen Chris Widger and Wilson Delgado. Neither Widger nor Delgado may stick with New York, but the Mets were so determined to dump Cedeno that they agreed to pick up nearly $9 million of the $10 million remaining on the final two years of his contract.
New York initially was ecstatic when it signed Cedeno to a four-year, $18 million deal in December 2001. But the Mets quickly learned that Cedeno was miscast as a center fielder and leadoff hitter, quickly soured on his attitude and also saw him lose a step from his speed -- his lone plus tool. He hit .267/.320/.378 with seven homers and 37 RBI in 148 games last year, and his 14 steals (in 23 attempts) were his lowest since becoming a regular in 1999. (That year he hit .313/.396/.408 with 66 steals for the Mets, which may explain why they were so hot to sign him as a free agent after subsequently dealing him to the Astros.) Cedeno, 29, does take advantage of his speed by employing a ground-ball approach at the plate, but he isn't patient enough to get on base at an acceptable rate. Defensively, he's a liability because he takes poor routes on fly balls, though his arm is a tick above average. St. Louis values Cedeno as an insurance policy for its starting outfield, which includes Ray Lankford (who didn't play last year) and the oft-injured Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders.
Widger, 32, initially was placed on the Mets' big league roster but is expected to be assigned to Triple-A. If that happens, he can ask to be granted free agency. He's a garden-variety backup catcher whose best tool is his power. He batted .235/.279/.324 with no homers and 14 RBI in 44 games for St. Louis last year and is a career .242/.299/.403 hitter with 50 homers and 202 RBI in 532 contests. He's adequate behind the plate.
Delgado, 31, got into 62 games as a utility infielder with the Cardinals and Angels last year, hitting .228/.293/.252 with no homers and seven RBI. He has no particular strength and won't play a major role, if any, on the Mets. A career .238/.297/.291 hitter with three homers and 30 RBI in 412 big league at-bats over 211 games, he'll open 2004 at Triple-A Norfolk.