Thursday, February 2, 2012

Hot Stove Winners, 2011-2012

Most of the big names are off the board and the ones remaining on the market—Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson—aren’t going to change the landscape much, if at all.

Let’s look at the hot stove winners for this winter.

New York Yankees

This isn’t a matter of the Yankees opening their checkbook and buying stuff as it usually is when they’re considered the “big winners” of the off-season. This winter was dedicated to keeping CC Sabathia and bolstering their starting rotation—which they did.

The Yankees essentially held serve and got more assured production with the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda than the scrambling they did and luck they enjoyed last year when Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon surpassed any logical expectations.

They’ve also been helped by the Red Sox evident disarray; the Blue Jays failing to acquire any veteran lineup or starting pitching help; the financial constraints that continually bound the Rays; and the Orioles being the Orioles.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers helped their starting rotation in two ways. One, they signed Joe Nathan to take over as closer and are shifting Neftali Feliz into being a starter. Two, they won the bidding for Yu Darvish.

Some will point to the loss of C.J. Wilson and the above moves as canceling each other out. The case can even be made that because the Angels signed Wilson, the Rangers wind up as net losers because of Wilson’s departure for a division rival.

The money they spent on Darvish in comparison to what it would’ve cost to keep Wilson or sign Jackson or Kuroda is a viable argument of having overpayed, but Wilson is 31 and Darvish 25. With Darvish, they get a more talented pitcher and the ancillary benefit of worldwide marketing possibilities because of his Iranian/Japanese heritage, looks and personality.

I think Darvish is going to be a superstar.

Los Angeles Angels

Long term consequences aside for having to pay Albert Pujols $59 million past his 40th birthday, they signed the best hitter of this generation and immediately launched themselves to the top of the talent scale. Simultaneously, they supplemented their strength in the starting rotation by signing Wilson.

They also acquired a catcher with pop in Chris Iannetta and hired a more competent GM when they replaced Tony Reagins with Jerry DiPoto.

Miami Marlins

They wanted a proven, name manager to draw buzz heading into their new ballpark and traded for Ozzie Guillen.

They needed starting pitching and signed Mark Buehrle and acquired Carlos Zambrano.

They needed a closer and signed Heath Bell.

And they wanted to bring in an offensive force to strengthen both shortstop and third base offensively and defensively and signed Jose Reyes, shifting Hanley Ramirez to third base.

The big questions are whether or not petulant owner Jeffrey Loria, meddling team president David Samson, Guillen, Zambrano and an unhappy Ramirez light the fuse of this powder keg and if the fans decide to show up to watch after the initial novelties.

On paper in February, they look good.

Cincinnati Reds

Giving up a chunk of their minor league system to get Mat Latos is risky, but he fills the need at the top of their starting rotation.

Ryan Madson’s market crashed and the Reds got him for one year; they traded for a solid lefty reliever in Sean Marshall and signed Ryan Ludwick, who will benefit from being a background player and hitting in a friendlier home park.

Colorado Rockies

Michael Cuddyer will have a big offensive year in right field and can play first base if/when Todd Helton gets hurt.

Replacing the shaky Huston Street with the cheaper and better Rafael Betancourt is a step up. Getting Tyler Chatwood for Iannetta and signing Ramon Hernandez to replace Iannetta is a dual gain. They signed the underrated Casey Blake to play third and traded a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen to get Marco Scutaro, immediately solving their problem at second base.

San Diego Padres

Yonder Alonso is a power bat and Rookie of the Year candidate at first base. Yasmani Grandal is a top catching prospect and Edinson Volquez is good if he’s healthy and will benefit from pitching in the cavernous Petco Park and having a deep bullpen supporting him.

They gave up Latos to get the above package, but it’s an even trade for both sides for short and long term needs.

Street is just as good as the departed free agent Bell and maintains the bullpen hierarchy with Luke Gregerson as the set-up man and Street closing.

Carlos Quentin will be looking to have a big year as he heads for free agency and the Padres acquired him for two minor league pitchers who’d fallen out of favor with the organization.

Josh Byrnes is a category above Jed Hoyer as GM.

The hot stove losers and clubs that made lateral maneuvers will be discussed in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Saga of Scott Kazmir

Drafted, disciplined, traded, lionized, traded, released, finished.

The saga of Scott Kazmir is summed up neatly with that order of words.

With the news in this Jayson Stark piece on ESPN that his fastball is puttering in at 84-85 mph, he might be better-suited to begin throwing sidearm and marketing himself as a lefty specialist.

Because he was such a high-profile player and representative of so many different things—a questioned draft pick and trade; a falling star; trading a name player sooner rather than later; an attitude problem—it’s easily lost that Kazmir, with his draft status and subsequent salaries in mind, has been mostly a bust.

The Mets drafted Kazmir in 2002 and it wouldn’t have been as noteworthy had the process not been detailed in Moneyball. The Mets were going to draft Nick Swisher if Kazmir wasn’t available—and they didn’t think he would be—but he was and they took him.

In the minors, Kazmir had a reputation for swaggering arrogance and off-field mishaps. It drew the ire of the Mets’ influential veterans Al Leiter and John Franco when, in the team’s weight room, Kazmir changed their radio station and they told him to change it back.

Mets’ pitching czar Rick Peterson advocated the ill-fated trade the Mets made for Victor Zambrano in July of 2004 not because of disciplinary issues, but because of the cold, hard data that Peterson relies on in judging his charges. Zambrano would help immediately and Peterson felt that he could repair his mechanics and make him more effective; Kazmir was small, had a stressful motion and wouldn’t be a durable rotation linchpin for at least another 2-3 years and only that for a short period of time.

The Devil Rays acquired him while still being run by Chuck LaMar and brought him to the big leagues later that season. Opposing hitters were impressed and writers eagerly used the array of power stuff displayed by Kazmir to hammer the Mets decisionmakers for trading him. It was that Mets regime’s flashpoint and death knell. Zambrano went on the disabled list after three starts and the Mets came apart leading to the demotion of GM Jim Duquette in favor of Omar Minaya and the firing of manager Art Howe.

Peterson survived the purge.

Kazmir was impressive over parts of the next five seasons with his best and most durable year coming in 2007 with the rebuilding Rays. He struck out 239 hitters in 32 starts and made the All Star team. But there were warning signs. He had elbow and shoulder woes and, under the pretense of financial constraints and falling from playoff contention in August of 2009, the Rays made him available via trade.

The Angels came calling and dealt three prospects for Kazmir and the $20 million+ remaining on his contract.

In reality, the Rays saw that Kazmir was declining and an injury waiting to happen, so they dumped him and his salary and got some useful pieces in Sean Rodriguez and two minor leaguers in exchange.

Kazmir had a mysterious “back injury” in 2011 that was more likely a face-saving gesture from the Angels to let him try and straighten himself out while not enduring the embarrassment of a former All-Star being sent to the minors. While trying to come back, he got pounded in 5 minor league starts and the Angels released him.

After his release, teams considered Kazmir, but no one signed him.

As much as the Mets are rightfully criticized for that trade, it turned out that the mistake wasn’t dealing him, but what they dealt him for. Following that season, there was every possibility that they could’ve centered Kazmir around a deal for Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or inquired about Ben Sheets. Instead, they got Zambrano; Zambrano got hurt; and there was a regime change in Flushing.

Kazmir is about done now. The next step is either have a surgery that he may or may not need to “fix” a problem that doesn’t exist and “prove” that he’s on the comeback trail and will again have that velocity and movement that made him such a coveted prospect to begin with.

My advice to Kazmir is, as I said earlier, become a sidearming lefty specialist. He’ll always have a job and might even be effective in that role.

But will his ego be able to handle it? Unless he’s remarkably stupid and wasteful, he has enough money to live the rest of his life, so it comes down to whether or not he wants to continue playing baseball.

It won’t be as an All-Star starter because that pitcher, along with the one who’s immortalized in print and perception for the right and wrong reasons, is gone forever.