Offseason Rankings: Part Three

If you’ve read parts one and two of my offseason rankings, then you know which five teams I think had the best offseasons. Now, it’s time to reveal the order of those five teams.

Before I get to that, however, I would just like to say that the only thing I can guarantee about these rankings is that at least one of these teams will make me look really stupid for ranking them where I did, and at least one of them will make me look really smart. To find out which team does which, and how all the other teams made me look, I’ll revisit these rankings at the end of the season.

Now, on to the top five.

5. Atlanta Braves

With Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright and Paul Byrd leaving as free agents, the Braves lost 505.2 innings from their starting rotation with a 3.77 ERA. The two guys who will be new to their rotation — John Smoltz and Tim Hudson — certainly won’t be able to match the 500 innings.

However, if they can give the Braves about 400 innings — say, 220-230 from Hudson and 170-180 from Smoltz — with an ERA around 3.30 (just to pick a number), the Braves would only need to find somebody who can provide a 5.00 ERA in 100 innings to improve upon the production of the three guys who left.

So, I think the Braves will not only have a better starting rotation than last year, but also a starting rotation that is more suited to succeed in the playoffs because it will be more top-heavy.

Moving Smoltz to the rotation is a risk, but I’m inclined to believe that the Braves have more information about whether it’s likely to work than I do, and also that they wouldn’t try it if they thought the risk outweighed the reward. If he can stay mostly healthy, Smoltz will almost certainly be more valuable in the rotation than he was in the bullpen.

The big question is whether another offseason acquisition — Dan Kolb — can adequately replace Smoltz as the team’s closer. Kolb has an impressive 2.55 ERA the last two seasons, but that came in just 98.2 innings, and he only managed 21 strikeouts in 57.1 innings last year.

He has good control (15 walks last year) and keeps the ball in the park (three homers), but I think he’ll struggle if he doesn’t get the strikeout rate back up at least a little. Fortunately, he has two things going for him. One, he showed that he can strike people out in 2003 (39 in 41.1 innings), so he should be able to bounce back a little in that regard. Two, he’s going to be working with a great pitching coach in Leo Mazzone, and that should only help him.

I don’t think he’ll be as dominant a closer as Smoltz was, but I do think he’ll be able to get the job done effectively enough, and the overall pitching staff will be better with him in the bullpen and Smoltz in the rotation.

The Braves traded a lot of talent to get Kolb (Jose Capellan) and Hudson (Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz), but I think it was the smart thing for them to do. It looks even better now that they were able to sign Hudson to a four-year deal.

The other thing that changed a lot for the Braves this offseason is their outfield, where they lost J.D. Drew and added Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan. Obviously, losing Drew hurts, but Mondesi gives them a chance to recoup some of that production if he hits like he did in 2003. If he doesn’t, at least he didn’t cost them much.

I don’t think Jordan has much left in the tank, but he didn’t cost them much either. Overall, their offense will probably be a little worse, but it’s got the potential to be just as good or better if Chipper Jones and Marcus Giles are healthier and some of the young players keep improving.

Overall, the Braves lost a lot of players, but once again gave themselves a great chance to still be playing in October. And although they traded away some top prospects, they also picked up a couple draft picks by offering arbitration to Wright.

4. St. Louis Cardinals

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The Cardinals lost three position players from the team that led the National League in scoring and went to World Series last year. Those three regulars posted offensive lines of .247/.292/.348, .287/.327/.401 and .307/.349/.385.

So, while they did lose Mike Matheny, Edgar Renteria and Tony Womack to free agency, it’s not like those three made up the bulk of their offense. Letting the Yankees overpay Womack was actually very smart, because he’s not going to match his career year from last season, and Mark Grudzielanek is cheaper and likely to be better.

Renteria would have been a good player to keep, because he’s a solid hitter and a good defender. But he was highly coveted and the Red Sox paid a lot for him, so the Cardinals found a cheaper alternative in David Eckstein. Eckstein won’t be nearly as valuable as Renteria, but he may provide more value considering his cost.

The biggest question mark of the three losses is Matheny. With him gone, Yadier Molina will take over behind the plate for the Cardinals. Matheny can’t hit, but he’s regarded as an excellent defensive catcher. Molina has only received 135 at-bats in the majors, and he hasn’t shown much offense in the minors. It’s hard to imagine somebody being a worse hitter than Matheny, but if Molina isn’t a better hitter and is a worse defender, this loss could hurt St. Louis the most.

The Cardinals other big move was trading Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton for Mark Mulder. In five years or so, this trade could look absolutely brilliant or completely stupid.

If Mulder reverts to his pre-All-Star break form, Barton never develops and Haren doesn’t become a quality starter, this trade will look great for the Cardinals. If Mulder struggles the way he did in the second half of last season, Barton becomes an All-Star position player and Haren turns into an above-average starter, the Cardinals will greatly regret this deal.

I think Mulder will be good enough to help the Cardinals this year, which means they’ll be willing to deal with giving up three nice young players even if they do develop. With Mulder coming and Woody Williams going, St. Louis should have a better rotation.

In all, St. Louis did enough to keep a team that went to the World Series as a favorite to reach the playoffs again. The Cardinals didn’t lose a lot of offense, they helped their rotation and their bullpen losses (Steve Kline and Calero) shouldn’t cripple them.

3. Oakland Athletics

The A’s did not improve themselves for this year, first of all. There’s a chance they could win more games than they did last season, but it’s likely that they’ll see their win total decline for the third season in a row.

So why do I have them ranked third here? Because while closing the window on this run, they also unlocked a new window and gave themselves a chance to open it in 2006.

Barry Zito, Mulder and Hudson were obviously all very good starting pitchers for Oakland, but the A’s were not going to be able to keep all of them — and maybe not even two of them — past their current contracts.

So, rather than let them leave as free agents with just draft picks coming back of Oakland in return, Billy Beane traded them for as much as he could get right now, realizing that it would almost certainly hurt the team in the short run, but that it was the only way to have a shot at continuing to contend for a playoff spot on a regular basis in the long run.

And Beane ended up getting a pretty nice haul, especially when you consider that Mulder was by no means a sure thing at the time of the trade, having completely imploded in the second half of last season.

In exchange for their two starters, the A’s got two good starting pitching prospects, two relievers with very good stuff, a solid fourth outfielder with the potential to be a regular and a hitting machine of a prospect.

In two years, a rotation of Zito, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Haren and Meyer has a chance to be very good. Haren displayed very solid strikeout numbers in the minor leagues and has already taken some lumps in the majors, so he probably just needs to be given a chance to pitch consistently in a big league rotation. Meyer has barely pitched in the majors, but his minor-league numbers have been even better than Haren’s, with an ERA below 3.00 at every stop the last three seasons.

Calero has posted a 2.79 ERA in the majors the last two seasons, with 98 strikeouts in 83.2 innings. Cruz had a bad year with the Cubs in 2003, but rebounded with a 2.75 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 72 innings with the Braves last year.

Those two, along with Huston Street, will join Octavio Dotel in a bullpen that should be significantly better than last year’s despite losing Arthur Rhodes, Chris Hammond and Jim Mecir.

Charles Thomas hit .288/.368/.445 in 236 at-bats with the Braves last year after hitting .358/.416/.535 in Triple-A. He’s still only 26 years old, so there’s a chance he could still develop into a very nice starting outfielder, and he’s a good fourth outfielder at the very worst.

And Barton is a 19-year old who hit .313/.445/.511 with 69 walks and just 44 strikeouts in 313 at-bats at Class A last year. He may not be able to stay at catcher when he gets to the majors, but that bat of his should be useful wherever he ends up.

The other big move the A’s made this offseason was trading Rhodes and Mark Redman for Jason Kendall. With all the talented arms the A’s have, neither Rhodes nor Redman will be missed. And while Kendall’s expensive, he’s also a very good catcher, and the A’s don’t even have to pay all of his salary.

The A’s also signed Seth Etherton and Keiichi Yabu to low-risk deals, and traded for Keith Ginter, who can give them solid production at second and third base backing up Mark Ellis and Eric Chavez.

To top it all off, Beane even got two extra draft picks to work with this summer because the Brewers signed Damian Miller before the arbitration deadline.

Basically, the A’s added a ton of young and/or promising talent in an attempt to really peak again in two or three years. And if the young talent is more ready that expected, they also added some talented veterans who can help make a push for this season, but will still be around for the more likely push in 2006 or 2007.

2. Boston Red Sox

First of all, Theo Epstein once again checked the bargain bins and found a few players who didn’t cost much and could be very helpful. John Halama ($1 million) is Boston’s seventh starter and a very useful left-handed reliever, Matt Mantei ($750,000) has been a very good reliever when healthy and could end up as Boston’s second option in the bullpen behind Keith Foulke, and Wade Miller ($1.5 million) will miss at least the first month of the season but could really help the rotation when he returns.

The Red Sox also lost some big free agents (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera) and shelled out a lot of cash for some other free agents (Jason Varitek, Edgar Renteria and Matt Clement).

Some people think the Varitek and Renteria contracts ($40 million over four years for each) ruin a cost-efficient offseason for the Red Sox. However, the Red Sox are not the A’s, who have to find bargains in order to be able to compete.

The Red Sox find bargains so that they can afford players who aren’t bargains. Varitek and Renteria won’t be undervalued at those salaries, but they should both be very good players for at least the first half of their contracts. Varitek is a bit of a risk to decline and not be worth nearly that much at the end of his contract, but the Red Sox have enough resources that his signing won’t become a complete albatross.

Meanwhile, Clement was brought in with David Wells ($8 million over two years with some incentives) to replace Martinez and Lowe. Since the latter two only posted a 4.59 ERA in 399.2 innings, Clement and Wells (with some possible help from Miller) should at least be able to match that).

Also, with those losses and signings, the Red Sox netted four draft picks. They gained two each for losing Martinez, Cabrera and Lowe and lost one each for signing Renteria and Wells.

In addition to all of that, Boston made a couple of trades. The Red Sox sent Doug Mientkiewicz, who they didn’t need because they have Kevin Millar and David Ortiz, to the Mets for prospect Ian Bladergroen. They also sent Dave Roberts, who they didn’t need because they have three good starting outfielders and he hits with the same hand as two of them, to the Padres for Jay Payton (a much more complementary fourth outfielder for them), Ramon Vazquez and prospect David Pauley.

If you want to discount this ranking because I’m a Red Sox fan, that’s your business, but I don’t see how you can look at what they’ve done and conclude that didn’t have, at worst, one of the five best offseasons in baseball.

When you add everything up, the Red Sox should be about as good as last year, maybe a little better maybe a little worse, meaning they gave themselves an excellent shot at repeating as champions. In addition, they didn’t give up any prospects or players they might need in the future, they added a couple of interesting prospects, and they gave themselves a chance to stockpile talent in this summer’s draft.

No other team did as good a job of addressing both short term and long term needs.

1. New York Mets

It’s pretty simple, really. Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez were probably the two best free agents available this offseason, and the Mets got both of them. They paid a lot to get them, but all that matters is they did get them, and that will make them a lot better.

Beltran gives them the potential for a very deep offense, with good to great hitters in the top seven spots in the lineup. They need some things to happen (Jose Reyes, Cliff Floyd and Mike Piazza to be healthier than they have been, Kaz Matsui to take a step forward, etc.), but this offense could be formidable.

Martinez gives them a legitimate ace. I would have expected him to knock about half a run off last year’s 3.90 ERA even if he had stayed in Boston, because his peripheral numbers were much better than that. With the move to the National League and Shea Stadium, I’ll be surprised if his ERA’s not below 3.00.

And while people talk about how big an injury risk Martinez is, he has made 92 starts and thrown 603 innings over the last three seasons. The Mets may regret this contract in the last year or two of the deal, but they’ll get a very good pitcher this season, and maybe even a Cy Young winner.

With Martinez and Beltran in the fold, the Mets should at least improve from 71 wins and fourth place to 81 wins. At least. If things break right, they could certainly win 90-plus games and the NL East. Even if Martinez and Beltran don’t improve the team that much by themselves, they could improve the team enough and put enough fans in the stands that the team can go out and add some more help at the trading deadline.

Trading Bladergroen for Mientkiewicz was also a good move for the Mets because Bladergroen’s not a top-notch prospect, and Mientkiewicz fills a real area of need. He plays excellent defense at first base, where the Mets didn’t even have anybody who was really a natural to the position at all.

And while Mientkiewicz’s offense slumped badly last year, the Mets only got a pathetic .237/.326/.368 line from their first basemen last year. If Mientkiewicz doesn’t bounce back, he’ll at least be a big improvement on the defensive side. If he rebounds to near what he did in 2003 (.300/.393/.450), he’ll be a huge improvement both offensively and defensively.

Yes, the Mets gave too much money to Kris Benson, and no, they didn’t improve their bullpen as much as they should have. But signing the two premier free agents that they did makes a massive difference, and the trade for Mientkiewicz is very low-risk, high-reward.

The Mets were bad, uninteresting and unimportant last year, three things you can’t be in New York. This year, they could be good, they’ll definitely be interesting and they should be important right up to the end of the year.

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