Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Transaction Recap: Rangers, Braves, Astros, Rockies, Orioles

Rangers:

Signed RP Eric Gagne to a 1-year, $6 million contract, plus $5 million in incentives (5)

Signed CF Kenny Lofton to a 1-year, $6 million contract (5)

It's not often that a team arguably upgrades a position by spending $6 million instead of $50M. This isn't to say Lofton will be an upgrade on the 2006 version of Gary Matthews, Jr., but he shouldn't be much worse than the 2007 version.

There are rightly some concerns attached to this deal. Lofton is, after all, a 40-year-old center fielder, and the last time one of those (Steve Finley) signed a free agent deal, it didn't work out so well. Still, Lofton has always relied primarily on his abilities to make contact, run, and take walks. He's still only striking out in 10% of his at-bats, and taking a walk for every K. Given that he's still racking up steals at an age where only Rickey Henderson and Omar Vizquel have, you have to figure the speed is there. Plus, this is a one-year deal for a market-inflated $6 million, not 2/$16M. I lambasted the Finley contract from day one, but this one looks fine.

Note that the Rangers opted to go only one year, freeing their CF spot for next year's free agent class. They're rumored to be the ultimate destination for Vernon Wells, but could also opt for Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Mike Cameron, or others.

As for Gagne, it's a reasonable risk. The contract was first reported at $8 million plus incentives, but the base salary dropped to $6 million, making it significantly more reasonable.

The best comparable for this contract is actually Kerry Wood's. Though Wood is getting a significantly lower base salary, he is also not nearly as dominant as Gagne when healthy. If the Rangers get one of the game's best closers for one year and $11 million, it will be a coup, but there's also the risk they will end up with nothing on a $6 million investment.

Both of these moves would probably rate lower on another team, but the Rangers are in prime position to take the AL West away from a couple of frontrunners who don't really want it. They get a bonus for spending money at the right time--for once.

Braves:

Non-tendered 2B Marcus Giles, making him a free agent (3)

My initial reaction is that I strongly dislike this move, although the last time the Braves made a questionable decision to dump a player, Andy Marte suffered a strong drop in his prospect status the next year.

What really makes this strange is that they non-tendered Giles rather than trading him, which means they were unable to get anything of value for him in a potential deal. Giles instantly becomes the best second baseman on the market this year, and one would think there would be teams beating down the door to get him. Earlier in the offseason, I heard rumors of Jake Peavy going to Atlanta for a package centered around Giles, and it seemed to make sense for both sides. Now, the Padres are the favorites to land Giles without giving up any talent.

All that said, it seems likely that Giles will get a multi-year deal for a higher annual salary than he would have received in arbitration, which makes the move look downright foolish. However, the Braves may have access to inside information, as they might have with Marte. Perhaps they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Astros/Rockies:

Astros trade CF Willy Taveras, SP Taylor Buchholz, and SP Jason Hirsh to the Rockies for SP Jason Jennings (Astros: 2 / Rockies: 8)

An awful deal for the Astros. They may have felt pressure to replace Andy Pettitte, or they may believe they'll contend in a weak NL Central next year. Neither is a good enough excuse to deal away four years of Taveras and six years each of Buchholz and Hirsh for one year of a pitcher who's been barely above league-average for his career.

The Astros can hope that Jennings improves in his new surroundings, like Darryl Kile or Mike Hampton, but he'll need to have a very good season to have any chance to justify this trade. There is a certain value in acquiring this type of pitcher for one year and $5.5 million instead of four years and $40M, but it's not worth twelve years of decent prospects and four years of a young, capable center fielder.

The big prize for the Rockies is Taveras. At first glance, he might look like Juan Pierre v.2, but there are two significant differences: contact and defense. Taveras will strike out much more often than Pierre, creating a batting average roughly 20 points lower, but also played excellent defense in the spacious outfield in Houston, a skill that will be very helpful in the league's biggest park, Coors Field. The complete package is a league-average center fielder for four years, with room for improvement due to his age. That's a hell of a commodity, and hopefully the Rockies will mitigate his weaknesses by batting him eighth instead of first.

Buchholz has lost much of the glitter off his prospect status, but is still a young live arm. Hirsh followed up a nice 2005 in AA with a good 2006 in AAA, lowering his ERA but also suffering a drop in strikeouts combined with a spike in walks. Given the market price for starting pitching, any decent young starters have substantial value, and if just one of Buchholz and Hirsh sniffs a league-average year or two, this trade is a steal for Colorado.

Orioles:

Signed OF Jay Payton to a 2-year, $9.5 million contract (3)

Continuing the fight for third place. Remember when the Orioles signed Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez and were rumored to land Vladimir Guerrero? It suddenly seems like ages ago.

Payton is 34 and has never posted an .800 OPS outside of Coors Field, and he has severe OBP problems in particular. His defense isn't bad, and he can hit enough to avoid losing his job, but there's no point to this signing.

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