Saturday, November 24, 2007

Late innings

The Fox column is on hiatus until pitchers and catchers head south, yet I've still got baseball on the brain, so let's chase some headlines . . .

The Red Sox re-sign Mike Lowell to a three-year, $37.5 million contract: I realize I'm late to the party on this . . . but c'mon, what's not to like? Great deal for the ball club, and a nice raise for the admirable third baseman as well, a classic win-win situation. I'm skeptical that Lowell will ever duplicate his sensational '07 season, but then, I was skeptical he would hit in the second half for the first time in his career, and all he did was win the World Series MVP award, so it wouldn't be the first time he made me look like a boob. And even if Lowell does fall off to somewhere slightly below his career norms offensively - say, if his numbers average something like .275-17-80 over the next three seasons - he'll still be well worth the sticker price, if only for his dependable defense and, yes, steadying influence in the clubhouse. Sometimes I'm suspicious that the recognition a player gets for his leadership often runs parallel to his level of cooperation with the media, but I think in the bilingual Lowell's case it's a legitimately valuable attribute. I'm glad he's still on our side, and with him and the Big Schill sticking around, it's nice to have a drama-free offseason and a chance to root for essentially the same core group next season. (By the way, isn't it just strange seeing Lowell in a Yankees uniform on that baseball card? It reminds of how disconcerting it was to open a pack of baseball cards and find this when I was 10 years old. I can't imagine the were serious about bringing their former farmhand back to play first base, though it would have been comical in this sense: Lowell would have been the second Yankee infielder in recent seasons to switch positions in order to avoid puncturing the massive ego of an inferior defender at the same position. Right, Captain?

The Angels sign Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract: I like Hunter a lot. He's charismatic and fun on the field and off, one of the most engaging interviews in any sport and a player whose passion for the game shines through in his play. He has 59 homers and 205 RBIs the past two seasons, and he's probably good for 25 homers and 90 or so RBIs a year into his mid-30s. And while all the homer-heisting "Web Gems" he made at the Metrodome probably caused him to get more credit for his defense than he deserves - should the Twins somehow acquire Covelli Crisp, he'd be an upgrade with the leather, despite what the Gold Glove voters say - Hunter remains a top-notch center fielder, even at age 32. But - and there's always a "but" around here, isn't there? - Angels rookie GM Tony Reagins is making a mistake if he thinks Hunter is the guy who's going to make life easier for Vlad Guerrero. With a .271 career average and a .324 on-base percentage, he's more suited as a No. 5 or No. 6 hitter rather than as a lineup anchor for a team with championship aspirations; to put it another way, his most similar career comparisons are Carl Everett and Preston Wilson. Zoinks, Scooby. Now, if the Angels should land Marlins enigma Miguel Cabrera - who I'd love to someday see in Boston despite his Body By Nutty Bar - then give Reagins a pat on the back and praise him for remaking the feeble Anaheim lineup (remember Maicer Izturis, No. 5 hitter?), because a heart of the order of Guerrero-Cabrera-Hunter makes them the favorite in the AL. But Hunter alone? Not enough.

The Twins reportedly offer ace Johan Santana an $80 million extension: If that's not a cue for the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, and a half-dozen or so other teams to get their trade proposals into Billy Smith, pronto, I don't know what is. If Santana goes to free agency after next season, he'll make twice that, easily; hell, the offer is $47 million less than what the Giants gave a declining Barry Zito last offseason. So I guess the real question for the TATB readership is this: Would you give up, say, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and another legitimate prospect such as Jed Lowrie, to bring the two-time Cy Young winner to Boston? The hunch here is that Theo Epstein, who is prideful about his "player development machine" and greatly values having low-priced, high-ceiling talent on the big-league roster, would be extremely reluctant to pay such a price, unless there's a concern about Buchholz that we're not aware of. I'm also curious if the Sox suspect, as I do, that Santana showed subtle signs of decline last season at age 28 - after all, his ERA (3.35) was the highest it's been since 2001, his ERA+ of 130 was his worst since '02, and inexplicably, he allowed a league-high 33 homers. Sure, it's fun to daydream of a Santana-Beckett 1-2 punch. But given the enormous cost - not so much in terms of salary but in terms of talent going to Minnesota - I imagine he'll end up in New York or L.A. instead. Besides, hasn't Boston plundered enough star power from the Twin Cities already?

The White Sox sign reliever Scott Linebrink to a four-year, $19 million deal: White Sox GM Kenny Williams is beginning to make me wonder if Chicago's 2005 World Championship was a happy accident. We all adore Orlando Cabrera around here, and White Sox fans will as well, but it made little sense to trade Jon Garland, a durable 28-year-old starting pitcher with 46 wins the past three seasons and a career ERA+ of 106, for a 33-year-old shortstop who had a subpar OPS+ of 95 in what at first glance looks like a very productive season (.301-8-86). I'm not saying Cabrera won't be a quality player for the White Sox - watching him play steady and occasionally spectacular shortstop every day might be enough for White Sox fans to be okay with the deal. It's just that I think Williams dramatically underestimated what he could fetch for Garland during an offseason in which the mediocre likes of Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse are expected to sign for $8-to-$10 million per season. Chances are he could have got a heftier ransom than merely Cabrera for Garland, but at least an argument can be made for the White Sox' side in this case. There's is no logical explanation why Williams threw all that loot at Linebrink, a 30-year-old setup man who had a WHIP of 1.50 with the Brewers last season after he was dealt from San Diego. It was telling that Padres GM Kevin Towers, who knows a thing or two about putting together a pitching staff, swapped Linebrink for three prospects last July despite the fact that San Diego was in the midst of a playoff race; the Padres clearly believed that Linebrink's best days were behind him, and I'm fairly certain that Williams is the sole dissenter from that opinion right now. I realize Chicago's bullpen was flammable last season. Linebrink will do little to prevent the White Sox' late innings from going up in flames again.

David Eckstein is reportedly asking for "Lugo money," i.e. a three- or four-year deal at around $9 million per season: Yes, I understand his Everyman appeal. Yes, I know he's the patron saint of every undersized Little Leaguer and gritty, gutty, scrappy, dirt-doggy wannabe who somehow never quite was. Yes, I know he runs out every walk (all 24 of them last year) like a miniature albino Pete Rose. Yes, I know he looks so darned adorable when he dresses up like an elf, even if he really yearns to be a dentist. But the reality, at least to anyone who can assess baseball players objectively and without sentiment, is that David Eckstein . . . well, to put it bluntly, he stinks. To a clear-eyed analyst, his flaws are equally obvious on the field and on the stat sheet. He catapults the ball rather than throwing it. His range is sub-Jeterian. His career OPS+ is 89, with a mediocre best of 101. In 2006, he had 21 extra-base hits and 23 RBIs in 500 at-bats, and he wasn't much more productive last year. He is not an average baseball player; he is an aging one (he's 32), and an increasingly injury-prone one (117 games last year, 123 in '06), and by every single statistical measure, a relentlessly ineffective one. And yet I have no doubt that some ill-prepared sucker of a general manager surely will be come close to his asking price for no apparent reason other than the little fella hustles, and that dupes some people into thinking he's actually useful. So pay attention, because this is probably the only time you're going to read these words on this site: I'd much rather have Julio Lugo.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

I give him all the credit in the world. Me, I would have gone by "Ricky" and saved myself the lifelong hassle.

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Quick programming note: Barring unforeseen circumstances, such as yours truly snapping a tibia or two after falling off a rickety wooden ladder while following orders to clean out the gutters this morning, I'll be back tonight to live blog the Pats-Eagles game, so be sure to stop by for A.J. Feeley's public humiliation in real time.

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