Offseason Rankings: Bottom Third

Last year, I ranked the offseason moves of all 30 baseball teams in parts one, two, three. I had so much fun reading angry e-mails from people who disagreed with me (including one Detroit fan who bet me $20 that the Tigers would have a winning season and then didn’t pay up after they went 71-91) that I decided to do it again this year.

This offseason was a particularly interesting one because in addition to all the usual free agency stuff, there were a whole bunch of trades going down. There were nearly 50 trades completed this offseason, which means that each team was involved in an average of about three trades during the offseason. That means there were a lot of players changing hands, and a lot of stuff to talk about.

So, let’s get to it. This season’s offseason rankings, from the worst job to the best.

30. Cincinnati Reds

Last year, the New York Yankees made the absolutely stupid decision to give up $2 million dollars a year for two years of service from Tony Womack. He showed them just how stupid they were by hitting .249/.276/.280 in 329 at-bats for an abysmal OPS+ of 47. Good thing for the Yankees they have a big payroll and can absorb a lost $2 million, because surely nobody would want to take Womack off their hands.

Well, maybe not so surely. The Reds decided to one-up the Yankees by not only agreeing to give Womack his $2 million, but also giving the Yankees two players (Kevin Howard and Ben Himes) for the pleasure of doing so. The fact that neither Howard nor Himes is anything to write home about is unimportant. Smart teams wouldn’t want Womack even if he paid them a million bucks to take up a spot on the roster. Giving up money and players (however uninteresting) for his services is inexcusable.

The other trade the Reds made was very perplexing, since we’ve heard for years about how important Sean Casey is to them and how reluctant they are to trade him. When they finally do decide to trade him (admittedly after a down year), all they can get is Dave Williams? They really need a 27-year-old who has 211 strikeouts and 140 walks in 335 innings that badly?

Bringing back Rich Aurilia for only $1.3 million isn’t terrible because he was solid for them last year. And giving $700,000 to Scott Hatteberg isn’t going to matter much in the grand scheme of things (although that money is just as wasted as the money spent on Womack). And signing Adam Dunn to a two-year deal with an option for a third is smart.

But overall, the Reds didn’t do enough to address their big need (pitching), and some of the acquisitions they made were just so strange that you can’t help but wonder what the Reds were thinking this winter. I guess it probably didn’t help things that the ownership and front office was in flux, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Cincinnati fans to accept what happened.

29. Kansas City Royals

The good news for Royals fans is that the Royals decided to go out and spend a little bit of money this offseason. The bad news is that they didn’t spend any of that money on anything exciting.

Let’s just take a laundry list look of the major players (such as they are) the Royals added this winter: Mark Redman (in trade), Reggie Sanders, Elmer Dessens, Mark Grudzielanek, Scott Elarton, Joe Mays, Doug Mientkiewicz, Paul Bako.

Now let’s take a look at that list again, with some numbers added in parentheses. The numbers, in order, are age, last year’s OPS+ or ERA+, and the deal they signed (or the salary remaining in Redman’s case).

Here we go: Redman (32, 87, $4 million), Sanders (38, 126, $10 million over two years), Dessens (35, 114, $3.4 million over two years), Grudzielanek (35, 92, $4 million for one year), Elarton (30, 89, $8 million over two years), Mays (30, 78, $1 million for one year), Mientkiewicz (31, 91, $1.85 million for one year), Bako (33, 81, $700,000 for one year).

So, of those seven players, only Sanders and Dessens were above-average producers last year. The septet has an average age of just over 33 and will get paid at least $30-plus million by the Royals.

And what will the Royals get for all that money? If they’re lucky, a 70-win season.

The big problem for the Royals is that they don’t have much young talent. This offseason doesn’t change that one bit. Unless the goal is simply to try to win 70 games and maybe, if everything breaks right like in 2003, have a barely winning season, it seems to me that the Royals should use most of any extra budget they have to try to revamp the farm system.

One thing they could spend money on is a better scouting department, because there’s got to be some reason that they’ve had abysmal success in the draft outside their last four first-round picks (all of which were in the top 10). Another thing they could do is get creative.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Instead of spending $30-plus million on a bunch of players who probably aren’t going to help the Royals win more than 70 games (if even that many) either of the next two years, they could take $10 or $15 million and draft players who slipped because of signability concern and then just give them first or second round money.

Let me make one last point on the Royals before moving on.

This offseason, the Marlins have been lambasted for shedding payroll and getting rid of just about every veteran player. At the same time, the Royals have spent plenty of money on adding talent. Which team would you bet is going to win more games this season?

Your first inclination may be that it will be the Royals, but the Marlins won 27 more games than Kansas City last year. The Marlins also have Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, who are easily the two best players on these two teams.

The Royals may be the better bet to win more games, but it’s certainly not a lock (or even an overwhelming likelihood), and both of these teams are going to be bad. The difference is that the Royals will be old and bad, while the Marlins will be young and bad. As a fan, I’d much rather watch a young team struggle and see how well they’re progressing over the course of the season, than watch an old team struggle and see how many of the veterans just throw in the towel in August.

28. Colorado Rockies

Since they had almost no chance of becoming a playoff team, I would have had no problem if they decided to just kind of stand pat and not do much this offseason. They’ve got some young players, and if they wanted to see how they develop before spending money on established players, that wouldn’t have been a terrible idea.

What I can’t understand is standing pat except for the addition of a couple uninteresting relievers. The Rockies traded Larry Bigbie and Aaron Miles (admittedly not terribly important players to them) for Ray King, who can be a useful pitcher for a contender but doesn’t do much for the Rockies.

Then, Colorado went out and gave $2.5 million to Jose Mesa, presumably because he’s an “established closer.” The problem is that even if you believe having an “established closer” is important, it’s certainly not important to overpay for one if you’re not going to contend for anything.

I guess I just don’t understand what Colorado’s trying to do. If they’re trying to build around their young players, why waste time on over-30 relievers? If they’re trying to make a push to have even a .500 record, why didn’t they add anything more than a couple over-30 relievers?

27. Detroit Tigers

The problem with what Detroit’s been doing the last few years is that even if their high-risk moves pay off for a year, it’s not enough for the Tigers to really contend for anything, and then they still have the players on the roster after that year, and have to hope to avoid injury or collapse for another year.

After the Tigers went 43-119 in 2003, they signed Ivan Rodriguez, an aging, injury-prone catcher, to a four-year deal. He produced a 135 OPS+ in 2004 to help Detroit to a 29-win improvement in 2004. The problem is that the big improvement still left them well below .500. The other problem is that Rodriguez couldn’t keep producing in 2005, slipping to an OPS+ of 94.

Last offseason, the Tigers signed Troy Percival to a two-year deal and Magglio Ordonez to a five-year deal. Percival was a complete bust, and Ordonez only played 82 games and only produced an OPS+ of 113. Now Percival still has a year left and probably won’t provide anything, while Ordonez has four years left and isn’t getting any younger or less risky.

This offseason, the aging and risky acquisitions were Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers. The problem with Jones is two-fold (well, three-fold if you include the fact that he’ll be 38 in April). First, while he was very good last year, he was mediocre the year before that and terrible in 2003. Second, even if he is able to match last year’s production, I’m not sure the Tigers are really just a good closer away from being really competitive.

As for Rogers, the first problem is that he’s 41 years old. The next problem is that while he posted a very nice 130 ERA+ last year, he only struck out 87 batters in 195.1 innings. The odds of him being able to sustain that kind of success with that kind of strikeout rate are not good. Combine that with the age-related risks and you have a very high risk signing.

The only reason this offseason isn’t as bad as last year’s is that neither Jones nor Rogers is as likely to completely fall apart as Percival was, and they both got two-year deals, so they’re not the long-term risk that Ordonez is. Still, it’s another high risk, low reward offseason that’s unlikely to improve the Tigers very much.

26. Houston Astros

Last year, there was probably no team I was more wrong about than the Astros. I ranked their offseason 29th after they lost Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent, and kept Craig Biggio. But instead of falling into third place or worse, as I predicted, they rode Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt into the World Series.

So, did I learn my lesson? Absolutely not.

Last year, the Astros ranked 11th in the NL in runs scored, but were successful because they allowed the fewest runs in the league.

What did they do to improve that anemic offense? Well, they signed Preston Wilson to a somewhat strange deal. Houston gave Wilson a one-year deal with a three-year option, meaning he will either get paid $4.5 million to play in Houston for one year or he will get paid $28 million to play in Houston for four years.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s probably not going to be a smart idea to exercise a 3-year option for a mediocre player with a history of injuries who will be 32 at the time, there’s the fact that signing him doesn’t really do enough to improve Houston’s offense. He’ll be better than Chris Burke (or Willy Taveras, whichever one he replaces) was last year, but that won’t be enough to even get Houston up to average on offense.

So, if the offense probably isn’t going to be significantly better, they better have made sure they kept that excellent pitching together, right? Unfortunately, they didn’t, or at least they haven’t so far.

The problem, as you probably know, is that Clemens makes things very difficult to judge. Last year, he pitched 211.1 innings and posted a 1.87 ERA. But the Astros didn’t offer him arbitration, meaning that even if he doesn’t retire or sign with a different team, he can’t return to Houston until May 1.

If Clemens does come back, even after missing the first month of the season, Houston’s prospects become a lot better. If he retires or goes elsewhere, the Astros will have to have healthy, excellent seasons from both Pettitte and Oswalt to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. And it wouldn’t hurt to have somebody on offense break out with a career year.

Other than signing Wilson to a strange deal and potentially losing Clemens, all the Astros really did was sign uninteresting reliever Trever Miller to a one-year deal with an option and sign the dreadful Brad Ausmus (who turns 37 two weeks into the season) to a two-year deal worth $7.5 million.

25. Philadelphia Phillies

The first problem this offseason for the Phillies is one that they couldn’t really do much about. It was pretty clear that Billy Wagner didn’t want to return to Philadelphia, so it was no shock that he signed with the New York Mets. However, that doesn’t mean that the Phillies aren’t going to miss the 77.2 innings and 1.51 ERA he put up last year.

The loss of Wagner meant the Phillies needed to come up with another closer, and they settled on Tom Gordon. Gordon is coming off two very good years for the Yankees, but he’s 38 years old now and the Phillies signed him for three years and a total of $18 million. That is simply not a good idea.

To further bolster the bullpen, the Phillies traded Jason Michaels, who has proven he can be an effective producer in limited time, for Kenny Lofton to free agency. They filled their hole in center field by trading Aaron Rowand (and intriguing prospects Dan Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez). That’s the best move they made this year, because it opens up first base for Ryan Howard, and while Rowand probably won’t match the .322/.392/.419 line Philly got from its center fielders last year, he is a ballhawk.

The rest of Philadelphia’s subpar offseason included trading a starting pitcher who was average last season and has been above average in the past (Vicente Padilla) for a reliever who was below average last year and doesn’t appear very promising (Ricardo Rodriguez). They also signed a mediocre infielder (Alex S. Gonzalez), a bad infielder (Abraham Nunez), a mediocre reliever (Julio Santana), a backup catcher (Sal Fasano) and a one-time wonder starting pitcher (Ryan Franklin). By signing Nunez and Gonzalez, the Phillies also wasted the compensation picks they received for losing Wagner (and they lost another pick for Gordon).

The Phillies seemed to have an opportunity this offseason to become a playoff favorite, if they could just improve in one or two of a number of spots (third base, starting rotation, bullpen). Instead, they’ve stood still at best and maybe declined if one or both of Gordon and Rhodes suffer an injury or a decline. Meanwhile, the Mets have roared past them into the favorite position.

24. Pittsburgh Pirates

I suppose it’s nice to know that some things never change. Over the last 10 seasons, the Pirates have averaged 71.2 wins with a high of 79 and a low of 62. They’ll almost certainly be right back in that range again, as they’ve made their yearly decision to overpay for veterans who won’t help them contend for anything now and certainly won’t be around whenever they decide to commit to a rebuilding effort.

Last year, they went out and acquired Redman, Matt Lawton and Benito Santiago. This year, they went out and signed Roberto Hernandez ($2.75 million), Jeromy Burnitz ($6.7 million) and Joe Randa ($4 million) and traded for Casey ($8.5 million left on his deal). To make some room on the payroll, they got the Royals to take Redman and the $4 million he’s due this year.

So the Pirates, who won 67 games a year ago, went out and added $18 million in payroll with the addition of those four players and the loss of Redman, and the best case scenario is that it makes them a few games better. The only really smart thing the Pirates did was lock up Jason Bay’s final four years of arbitration for $18.25 million. If he keeps playing the way he should, they’ll be getting a bargain at the end of that.

23. Baltimore Orioles

The first problem for the Orioles is that they lost their best reliever when B.J. Ryan signed with the Blue Jays. Baltimore had a below average 4.10 ERA from its bullpen last year, and losing Ryan’s 2.43 ERA in 70-plus innings won’t help that.

The next problem is that the free agent signings were not good. Giving Jeff Conine $1.7 million wasn’t a stroke of genius, but it wasn’t terrible either because although he’s 39 years old, he’s been at least an average hitter for the last seven seasons. He can certainly be useful.

The same probably can’t be said for Kevin Millar. He’s 34 years old and he’s coming off the worst offensive season of his career. I know he’s got a good reputation in the clubhouse, but he doesn’t hit well enough for first base and he’s not a great defender to make up for that. If he’s just a pinch-hitter/backup/fourth outfielder, that’s OK, but he figures to get a lot of time at first this year.

The big free agent signing for Baltimore was $27.5 million over four years for Ramon Hernandez. That’s a fine deal for a catcher of his ability, as he’s been a solid hitter the last three years at a position that’s low on solid hitters. The problem is that they already paid the catcher premium for Javy Lopez. Now they’re going to be paying a lot of money every day for either a backup catcher or a subpar DH, since neither of them is likely to put up an OPS+ above 110 or so (if even that high).

The trades for LaTroy Hawkins and Corey Patterson are both low risk, since the Orioles didn’t give up much (Steve Kline for Hawkins and Nate Spears and Carlos Perez for Patterson), but they’re also low reward, since neither Hawkins nor Patterson are actually any good. At least Hawkins has had a three-year stretch in which he was a good pitcher, but he wasn’t even close to that level last year.

The other piece to the offseason (trading Jorge Julio and John Maine for Kris Benson) is a solid deal because Benson can give the Orioles a lot of decent innings, while Julio is maddeningly inconsistent and Maine hasn’t been able to live up to the potential he showed a couple years ago.

But really, the only thing I could get excited about were I an Orioles fan would be the signing of Leo Mazzone as pitching coach, but I don’t think even the great Leo can make the Orioles (who were 10th with a 4.56 ERA last year) a top five pitching team with the talent they have. The best they can probably hope for is middle of the pack pitching-wise.

22. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are still the heavy favorites to win the NL Central, but they’re no longer strong candidates to win 100-plus games as they did each of the last two years, and they’re probably not the top NL contender for a World Series title, as they were each of the last two years.

It’s pretty simple to understand why these things are true, so I don’t expect this to be a controversial ranking. Sidney Ponson isn’t likely to give the Cardinals what Matt Morris gave them (although he’s significantly cheaper and maybe a better risk). Juan Encarnacion isn’t likely to give the Cardinals what Larry Walker gave them (although he’s a better health risk, and there’s not much they could have done to keep Walker). And Bigbie isn’t likely to give the Cardinals what Sanders gave them.

Having Scott Rolen back for a full season will help, but the Cardinals lost Morris, Walker, Sanders, Grudzielanek, Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred and Ray King, all of whom were either good or useful players for St. Louis last year. The incoming group of Ponson, Encarnacion, Bigbie, Braden Looper, Miles, Junior Spivey and Ricardo Rincon just doesn’t look nearly as good to me.

The good news for the Cardinals is that they still have a good team, they picked up three compensation draft picks and they didn’t sign any terrible contracts (although the three year, $15 million contract for Encarnacion and the three year, $13.5 million deal for Looper are both less than ideal).

21. Los Angeles Angels

Like with the Cardinals, this is pretty simple. Whether or not the players the Angels lost were looking for more money than they were worth, the Angels will miss them because they replaced them with players who just aren’t as good.

Last year, Jarrod Washburn had a 131 ERA+ over 177.1 innings and Paul Byrd had a 112 ERA+ in 204.1 innings. That’s a lot of above average-to-good work in the rotation. They could let Byrd go and hope that Ervin Santana can replace his pitching, although Santana only had a 90 ERA+ last year.

But to replace Washburn, they signed Jeff Weaver to a one year, $8.25 million deal. Weaver’s lured people with his potential for a while, but he’s now 29 and has been thoroughly average the last two years. There’s no reason to believe he can pitch nearly as well as Washburn did last year.

The Angels also signed Hector Carrasco, who was very effective as a reliever/starter last year, to a two year, $6 million contract. There are only two problems with him. First, he’s 36 years old, which makes him a risk. Second, his 195 ERA+ last year was miles better than anything he had done since he was 24, so it may well have been a fluke.

The other big loss was catcher Bengie Molina, who posted a very nice 110 OPS+ last year. The Angels will have to hope Jeff Mathis (who had a nice year in AAA last year but struggled in AA before that) can produce right away, because the only other option is Jose Molina, who isn’t nearly the hitter his brother is.

Other than that, all the Angels did was trade the now terrible Steve Finley for the now terrible Edgardo Alfonzo, trade fringe prospect Alexi Casilla for decent reliever J.C. Romero and trade third-string catcher Josh Paul for uninteresting prospect Travis Schlichting.

The Angels will still be a good team, but with the apparent downgrade in the rotation and the probable improvement of the A’s, they’re probably not the favorite to win the division.

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