Belated thoughts on the Tim Lincecum signing

I was just reading Only Baseball Matters, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite baseball blogs, when I came across a February 12 post about Tim Lincecum.  I have been meaning to write something here since the San Francisco Giants resigned their two-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher to a two-year, $23 million contract last week.  Something has not sat right with me about that deal since it was announced.  What I read on OBM resonated:

First, this deal is a bargain, easily the best contract on the team. Second, it makes me wonder why the team didn’t pursue a four or five year deal in an effort to lock him up through his prime. At the end of this contract, he’ll be 28 years old, and if he performs anywhere as well as he has to this point, the Giants almost certainly won’t be able to afford him.

I have a hard time seeing how anyone benefits here.  The Giants have basically put off the debate about whether they can afford to sign Lincecum to a long-term deal for exactly one year, maybe less; expect said debate to be incessant for all of the 2011 season as Lincecum approaches free agency, assuming he plays out this new contract.  It seems it definitely would have been to San Francisco’s advantage to negotiate more years, even if it was just three instead of two.  Lincecum’s price even a year from now could jump to $20 million per season, as opposed to less than $12 million now.

While I doubt the Giants won’t be able to afford Lincecum ultimately — whatever the cost — it definitely seems like going the Costco approach and buying in bulk would have saved them money.  Then again, if said money would simply have been used on aging, crappy free agents, then maybe it’s good the Giants are taking this approach.  Perhaps they can do the same with Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey and that Ishikawa guy, if that’s what it takes to prevent the second coming of Dave Roberts.

All this being said, I think Lincecum could also have benefited by opting for a longer deal.   I think he took a smaller, shorter contract than he deserved, a paltry deal that does little to insure him if he gets injured in the next two years.  Given his unconventional, hard-throwing delivery, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if that were to happen– particularly if San Francisco finds itself in a pennant race and relying on its ace more than ever.

People may act like Lincecum is infallible, but really, much as I admire the guy and look forward to his starts, I just see another young flamethrower when all is said and done.  Baseball’s got a track record for this kind of thing, and it’s not great.  Pitching coaches can put their kids to bed at night with cautionary tales about guys like Gary Nolan, Mark Prior and even Sandy Koufax.

From my vantage point, it seems like both the Giants and Lincecum have a lot riding on this deal.  It will be interesting to see who comes out better.

On recent hot stove developments

I could have titled this post, A Winn win for New York or The Yankees are getting Randy!, but it struck me that nobody wants to read about an aging castoff from the San Francisco Giants who signed a bargain basement free agent deal to, essentially, sit on a bench in New York.  How Randy Winn is considered an upgrade over Johnny Damon is beyond me, though at $2 million, he couldn’t have come much cheaper if his agent had offered prospective teams coupons.  Then again, Winn isn’t overly terrible and it’s a minimal risk for the Yankees; therein lies the rub.

As I said, I can’t justify a full-length post on the Winn signing, though there have been enough interesting developments in the free agent world of late to allow me to cobble something together.  The Oakland A’s signed Ben Sheets to a one-year $10 million contract yesterday, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy Beane lands Damon.  Both of those moves could go a long way toward propelling the Athletics back into the playoffs, or at least above .500.  Additionally, the Minnesota Twins landed 39-year-old designated hitter Jim Thome, who has 564 career home runs, for $1.5 million.

If Thome is healthy in 2010, this could wind up being the deal of the off-season– think Frank Thomas in 2006.  Even Thome’s numbers for 2009 weren’t too terrible, with 23 home runs split between the White Sox and the Dodgers, who essentially benched him for the last month of the season after acquiring him at the end of August.  I would definitely sooner sign a guy like Thome than Rick Ankiel, who got twice as much from the Kansas City Royals.  I also think Thome is a safer bet among aging sluggers than fellow 39-year-old Jason Giambi, who just resigned with the Colorado Rockies for $1.75 million.

I continue to be amazed at the number of veterans going for $2 million or less per season this winter.  There are the occasional larger deals, like the $6 million the Baltimore Orioles probably didn’t need to give Miguel Tejada to secure his services.  For the most part, though, this recession is the gift that keeps on giving for baseball front offices.

Vlade, Texas Ranger

The Texas Rangers scored something of a coup yesterday, signing free agent Vladimir Guerrero to a one-year deal for $5 million, plus incentives, with a $1 million option buyout for a second year.  The 2004 American League Most Valuable Player was let go by the Los Angeles Angels after an injury-riddled season in 2009.  Guerrero now gets a great chance at redemption.

In my book, Guerrero is the bargain of the off-season, and I wish the A’s would have made a move for him.  True, he is about to be 35 in Dominican years, which is like 38 in the U.S. (unless he’s being honest about his age, unlike some of his countrymen, two of whom are referenced in this post.)  Regardless,  Guerrero is a potential Hall of Famer.  Baseball Reference rates him similar, as a batter, to five Cooperstown members, plus Larry Walker, who is likely to be inducted once eligible.  If I could have any outfielder from this generation to build a team around, I’d probably take Guerrero.

Guerrero also has something to prove in 2010, and his numbers suggest he hasn’t tapered off, just that he had a down, injured year in 2009. His .295 batting average marked the first full season in his career he hit below .300.  If that is an off year for him, I can’t wait to see what he does at his new home field, where he has hit .394 lifetime according to the Associated Press.  At $6 million, Guerrero certainly seems like less of a risk than Jason Bay at $66 million or Marlin Byrd at $15 million.

It’s been an interesting off-season, with deals skewing to either extreme.  There have been the overpriced bounties for Byrd and Bay as well as the typical windfall Adrian Beltre seems to get whenever he’s on the market and the staggering $82.5 million contract John Lackey got from the Boston Red Sox. My mom likes to look at houses every weekend with one of her friends; I’m pretty sure either of them could do a more responsible job, financially, as general manager of the Red Sox than Theo Epstein.  Come to think of it, my mom might make a kickass GM.  When I was growing up, she could stretch a dollar farther than anyone I know.  That just isn’t seen in large markets in baseball anymore.

Granted, there have been many bargains among this current free agent crop.  Guerrero wasn’t even the only one the Rangers got on Saturday.  They also picked up Khalil Greene, who finished second in the 2004 National League Rookie of the Year voting.  Greene has struggled with social anxiety in recent years, but at $750,000, is a minimal risk.  A number of other teams have landed veterans with one-year deals under $2 million, including Adam Everett, Troy Glaus, Kelvim Escobar and Scott Podsednik.

Podsednik got $1.75 million from the Kansas City Royals, his reward for hitting .304 in 2009 with the Chicago White Sox, where he made $500,000.  Podsednik is like the young child on a small allowance who goes from getting $0.50 each week to $0.75.  Congratulations, Scotty.  You still don’t have enough to buy the really cool toys.

A number of other quality players remain on the open market, including pitchers like Jon Garland, Erik Bedard and Ben Sheets and position players such as Randy Winn, Miguel Tejada and Hank Blalock.  I look forward to seeing how the winter winds down.

Matt Holliday is back with the Cardinals, Andre Dawson is in the Hall of Fame and everything is right with the world… I think

A lot’s happened in baseball in the past few days.  The annual Hall of Fame vote was announced, with Andre Dawson being the sole inductee for 2010, and Matt Holliday, the biggest name on the free agent market resigned with the St. Louis Cardinals.  The part of me that likes order and tranquility has been soothed.

I feared Holliday would wind up with the New York Yankees.  I figured St. Louis was the best home for him, but New York seems to be where everyone winds up these days.  Those that can’t become Yankees become Mets.  I was 50-50 that Holliday would have a buttload of money presented before him and that he wouldn’t resist.  I don’t blame professional athletes, necessarily.  I think it’s human to feel guilty walking away from an extra $20 million.  But is there really that much of a difference between $120 million and $140 million?

To his credit, Holliday made the right decision, I think.  His reward?  $120 million over seven years along with the opportunity to hit next to Albert Pujols.  His future Hall of Fame bid just got a lot stronger.

Speaking of Cooperstown, I like the decision to induct Dawson.  His numbers seem Hall-worthy (438 home runs, 314 stolen bases and 2774 hits) and more than that, Dawson seemed like a star of his era.  ESPN is reporting that there is some debate whether Dawson will wear a Montreal Expos or Chicago Cubs hat on his plaque.  The guess here is Cubs, but that’s just a guess.

Dawson should be joined next year by Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, who were each within ten votes of making it.  I’m surprised Barry Larkin only got 51% of the vote but that’s better than what a lot of eventual Hall of Famers got in their first year on the ballot.  Joe DiMaggio, for instance, received 44% of the vote in 1953, the first year after his retirement that he was on the ballot.

Special Christmas sale: Cheap free agents

A staggering 266 baseball players recently hit the free agent market, and between the sputtering economy and abundance of quality players for teams to choose from, their prospects for landing decent contracts don’t look good.  There hasn’t been a worse time in years to be a free agent coming off a marginal or injury-riddled season. Bobby Crosby recently took $1,000,000 from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Andruw Jones got $500,000 (and presumably some Denny’s coupons) from the Chicago White Sox and we should be seeing more of the same on a larger scale over the next few months.

The good news for baseball’s small market teams, like the Oakland Athletics and Florida Marlins is that they’ll be able to restock on the cheap.  Here are some of the good players who should be available well below their typical market value:

Vladimir Guerrero: News out of Anaheim is that the Angels are looking to sign Hideki Matsui, leaving their former franchise player Guerrero to look for new work.  The 2004 Most Valuable Player made $15 million last season but struggled with injuries, only managing 383 at bats and hitting 100 points below his career slugging average.  My guess is that he signs an incentive-laden one-year deal somewhere with a base in the $3-5 million range.  Billy Beane loves these sort of signings: Frank Thomas, Matt Stairs, David Justice, Mike Piazza, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jason Giambi have been down this road before.

Garrett Atkins: I hope the Giants sign this guy.  He slumped to .226 in 399 at bats last season, lost his third base job with the Colorado Rockies to Ian Stewart, and was not brought back after the season ended.  From 2005 to 2008, though, Atkins looked like a cornerstone for Colorado, hitting in the range each year of .300, with 20 home runs and 100 runs batted in.  He’s only 30, so he has plenty of time to bounce back.

Chien-Ming Wang: He may be a bit of a gamble, since he hasn’t been the same since getting injured running the bases in the middle of the 2008 season.  However, prior to that, he twice won 19 games for the New York Yankees.  Some team with a gloried tradition of garbage pitching (like perhaps the Kansas City Royals) could do worse than Wang as a fourth or fifth starter.

Rocco Baldelli: Healthy, this guy was touted by Sports Illustrated as the second-coming of Joe DiMaggio, but therein lies the rub.  Baldelli is a lock to come down injured almost every year and has had just one full season, his first in 2003 where he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting.  He’s also still young, 28 to start next season, and if he ever gets a clean bill of health, he could be something special.  It couldn’t hurt to have him on the A’s bench, at the very least.

Miguel Tejada: Quietly, he’s been one of the biggest losers in the whole steroid mess.  Jose Canseco named Tejada as a user in Juiced, he was subsequently convicted of lying to Congress, and he’s out of a job, even though the shortstop hit .313 with 199 hits and a league-leading 46 doubles for the Houston Astros last season.  At 35, he’s not going to command the near $15 million salary he earned in 2009, but he’s probably got a few more good years in him, if someone gives him a chance.  He’d be a good fit for the Detroit Tigers, where he could split time between shortstop, third base and designated hitter, depending on what happens with Magglio Ordonez.  A return to the A’s for Tejada isn’t out of the realm of possibility, either, particularly with the departure of Crosby.

Jermaine Dye: He hit .250 for the White Sox last season, which is like hitting .300 for the Yankees.  Dye has been a master at reinventing himself over the course of his long career.  He’ll bounce back somewhere next year– I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he returns to the Atlanta Braves, who chose not to resign Garret Anderson.  Dye will be 36 to start next season and probably has a few more years of outfield in him.  He’s the Moises Alou of this crop of free agents.

Attack of the mediocre pitchers

ESPN is awash in news today of several pitchers changing teams.  In the past 24 hours or so, the following transactions have materialized:

  • The Milwaukee Brewers committed $37 million to Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins, which connected with a bigger news story: Michael Jackson is alive and he’s got a new job as their free-spending general manager.  I’m looking at the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways, his overpaying-for-aging-crappy-pitchers ways.
  • Not to be outdone, the St. Louis Cardinals gave a $7.5 million one-year deal to Brad Penny, which must have been left over from the Jeff Weaver Fund, after that signing crashed and burned.
  • In probably the smartest move, thus far, of the baseball off-season, the Texas Rangers paid the Baltimore Orioles to take Kevin Millwood off their hands.
  • In a less savvy move, the Rangers are said to be looking at Rich Harden as a replacement for Millwood.  Harden has always struck me as overrated.  If he were a basketball player, he’d be Kevin Martin of the Sacramento Kings, someone with definite talent but also a lock, pretty much every year to come down injured.
  • The Cubs, for their part, are looking at J.J. Putz who’s coming off an injury-beset, disappointing year with the New York Mets.  Putz.  The name says it all.
  • Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte quieted resigned with the New York Yankees.

Such an unfettered barrage of mediocrity can boggle a sports fan’s mind.  Somewhere, there’s a Washington Nationals uniform waiting for each of these guys.

A Grander vision for the Yankees

News out of New York this evening is that the Yankees are on the verge of a three-way trade for Detroit Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson. New York will apparently have to give up little beyond a small assortment of prospects and spare parts to obtain the 28-year-old All Star. This trade couldn’t have cost the Yankees less if it had been brokered in a Wal-Mart.

Such news comes as little surprise to me, as I had long heard rumors that Granderson could matriculate to New York. And while I would sooner ingest napalm or attend a Backstreet Boys reunion concert or endure a multi-level marketing seminar than cheer the Yankees to yet another pennant, I like this move. Granderson belongs in New York– the thought of him in pinstripes just seems to make sense to me, for some reason. Together with Nick Swisher and someone like Matt Holliday, who could easily wind up a Yankee this winter as well, Granderson could help comprise the most formidable outfield in baseball.

Granderson has many reasons to look forward to the move, starting with his batting average. The Tigers’ home field, Comerica Park, boasts spacious dimensions (420 feet to center, no shorter than 330 to any fence) that I figured would be perfect for Granderson’s blend of offense, allowing ample room for him to crank 20 triples a year. Granderson always struck me as a throwback player, someone who would have been perfect in the Major League of the early twentieth century when owners deliberately had 500-foot playing fields to encourage inside the park home runs. Not so, I found.

Looking over Granderson’s career splits, he generally hit about 20 points lower at Comerica than on the road. This past year, he hit .230 there, leading to just a .249 overall batting average. The new Yankee Stadium has shorter distances to the fences, and Granderson will also be in arguably the strongest lineup in baseball (I could probably hit .330 with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira guarding me.) Expect Granderson’s batting average to improve, markedly too. The Bronx could see the second coming of Alfonso Soriano with Granderson, not that’s necessarily a reason to get ecstatic.

The benefit for the reigning World Series champion Yankees is clear. Quite simply, it looks to be a case of the rich getting richer. While the aging Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon likely get their walking papers, the Yankees solidify their outfield for the next half decade, minimum. Yankee fans get a reason to cheer. Meanwhile, all us normal folk get yet another reason to hate the team.

Halladay, would he be so nice?

Toronto Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay is poised to collect a substantial payday. Preliminary indications are that Toronto will not attempt to resign the 32-year-old free agent to-be, whose contract is up after 2010. While a big team like the Red Sox, Yankees or Mets (or maybe the Dodgers or Angels) will gladly overpay Halladay, other clubs would be wise to steer clear. Here are a few good reasons:

  1. Halladay has spent his career, thus far, in the pitcher-friendly Skydome. Signing pitchers of this sort can be risky. Exhibit A? Mike Hampton. Exhibit B? Darryl Kile. The list goes on, and not all are just guys who went to pitch for the Rockies.
  2. Although Halladay will be 33 in May, he’s still likely to command $15-20 million a season for at least five years. The successful result of signing Halladay is that he collects another Cy Young award or two, pitches his new team to the playoffs year in, year out, and strengthens his future bid for the Hall of Fame. That being said, there’s also a chance that Halladay winds up at 37 as a No. 4 starter, with an 8-12 record and 4.40 ERA on a club that’s south of .500 (this mainly could happen if he goes to the Mets.) No matter what, he’s going to be expensive.
  3. Not only will Halladay cost a lot of money, he will also cost several good players. Since Toronto still holds Halladay’s contract, the best way to get him now would be through a trade, and I can’t imagine what that will take. I was in Geneva a few years ago and saw a Ferrari dealership that required prospective buyers to already own two Ferraris and be contacted in order to purchase the new one. I have to think Toronto’s negotiating strategy for trading Halladay will be somewhat akin.
  4. The track record is uneven for older pitchers who change clubs after playing most of their career with one or two teams. For every Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens, who kicks ass and wins multiple Cy Young awards, there’s a Catfish Hunter or Jason Schmidt or Kevin Brown, who has a couple good seasons, if that, and then is done. While I’m not sure if this a trend or an isolated case-by-case thing, I would think it wiser to commit more money to scouting and drafting quality players than chasing after big ticket items like Halladay.

That being said, someone will be paying hand over fist for Halladay before the winter is out, probably even within the next few weeks, mark my words.

The senior days for Ken Griffey Jr.

Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote about the twilight of Willie Mays’ career in a 1973 column, when the future Hall of Famer was hitting .211 for the New York Mets. Murray wrote:

We all thought Willie Mays would just get younger. He was one of those touched individuals for whom time seemed to run backward. He was one of those guys in this life you smiled just thinking about him. You might have hated New York, the Giants, the rest of the team, the manager, or the owner. But you couldn’t hate Willie Mays. It was like hating a kid in a baby carriage, or Skippy, or Charlie Chaplin in his tramp costume on the lam from the cops. Willie Mays was everybody’s pal when he was in uniform and you were in the seats with a beer and a hot dog. Willie was Mr. Feelgood. Other people got old. Willie stayed 20.

By 1973, however, Mays was 42 and long-past effective. In fact, the image of him falling down in the outfield in his baggy Mets uniform, as if kidnapped from an Old-Timers game has become symbolic of the once-great athlete whose time has passed.

We see it often. Michael Jordan appeared mortal his final season, coming off the bench in a Washington Wizards uniform that never looked quite right (granted, washed up for Jordan meant averaging 20 points a game instead of 30.)  More recently, Barry Bonds found himself mercifully out of work at 43, a felony indictment keeping him from hitting below .270 for some unfortunate club. Meanwhile, Brett Favre seems to be defying the odds, mocking them almost, as he compiles big numbers for the Minnesota Vikings this fall at 40, though he could hit the geriatric stage within a year or two if he keeps playing.

The latest legend ready for pasture may be Ken Griffey Jr. The Kid turns 40 this Saturday and if he has sense, he’ll make this next season his last.

Gone are the days where Griffey averaged north of 40 home runs and played crack defense in center field for the Seattle Mariners. Signed in a sentimental move to return to the Seattle last season, Griffey hit just .214, the worst designated hitter in baseball, by far and a weak point in a Mariners lineup that must advertise for .228 hitters (I’d like to see that Craig’s List post.) I half-expected Griffey to quit quietly after this season, but he signed another one-year deal recently. He probably will not be an everyday player next year, though he does win points with the fans and among his teammates in the locker room. He’d be wise to consider coaching.

I remember a different Griffey, one I cheered for. I have family in Seattle, and a few times during my childhood, I visited the Kingdome, a veritable playground for a 20-something Griffey.  The last time I saw Griffey play, in June of 1998, he cranked multiple doubles to deep right center. He left Seattle for the Cincinnati Reds after the following season, and the rest of his career has been an injury-riddled mess. That being said, he’s still among the best of his generation.

Looking at pictures of Griffey this past season, I saw a weary, old man, not the ebullient, 25-year-old photographed under a dog pile of teammates, celebrating Seattle’s win over the New York Yankees in the 1995 divisional playoffs.

Then again, few people can stay 20.

Hello Mr. Penny, you’re in good company

Yesterday brought some good news for my San Francisco Giants: Two-time All Star pitcher Brad Penny cleared waivers Monday and is signing with the team.   The 31-year-old Penny has struggled with injuries the past two years, but won 32 games between 2006-07 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  As a Number 4 or 5 starter for the Giants, I think Penny could thrive.  At the very least, he should make an adequate fill-in for an injured Randy Johnson.

Penny is far from the first veteran pitcher rescued off the scrap heap by the Giants for the stretch run.  Off the top of my head, here are three experienced hurlers they’ve brought in July or later:

  • Steve Carlton, signed as a free agent, July 4, 1986: This one didn’t work out so great.  The Giants signed Carlton two weeks after his release from the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he’d won 241 games the preceding 15 years.  The 40-year-old Carlton went a meager 1-3 for the Giants with a 5.10 ERA and was released in early August.
  • Rick Reuschel, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, August 21, 1987: This, on the other hand, worked out brilliantly.  Reuschel went 5-3 in helping the Giants to the 1987 National League Championship Series, then went on to win 36 games the next two years and start the 1989 All-Star Game at age 40.
  • Danny Darwin, acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox, July 31, 1997: The bigger names in this trade were Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez and the Giants gave up a slew of prospects, including Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry to get them.  Nevertheless, the trade helped them to the ’97 divisional playoffs (where they promptly fell to the Florida Marlins.)  Darwin also started 25 games the following year for San Francisco at age 42.