Offseason Rankings: Middle Third

I began my look at the offseason moves of all 30 teams last week by ranking the bottom 10 teams. Today, I’m going to look at the next 10, and we’ll get to the top 10 next week.

So, without further ado, let’s start with team No. 20.

20. Washington Nationals

The Nationals made one of the worst trades of this offseason when they shipped Brad Wilkerson (a 28-year-old who makes about $4 million) along with two other players (Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga) for Alfonso Soriano (a 30-year-old who makes $10 million).

Looking just at Wilkerson and Soriano, you could probably make an argument for wanting either one. Soriano was excellent in 2002-03 with the Yankees, but he had a 98 OPS+ that came with a bad OBP in 2004 and was only a little better last year (110 OPS+). Wilkerson has also been very good two of the last four seasons, with the worst one coming last year (104 OPS+ with a .351 OBP).

Both players have a career OPS+ of 111, but Wilkerson’s value is mostly a good OBP and Soriano’s value comes from his power and speed. The other advantage Soriano has is that he can play second base, where his offense is more valuable.

The problem is that he can’t play second base in Washington, because the Nationals have Jose Vidro. So he has to play the outfield. Except that he doesn’t want to. So the Nationals gave up a good player to get a player who may not be any better offensively but is a year and a half older, doesn’t want to play the position he’s going to have to play, and costs $6 million more. And they also threw in two other players (although neither is particularly interesting) for Texas.

Oh, I almost forgot. Not only is Wilkerson cheaper than Soriano, he also would have been under Washington’s control for one more year than Soriano will be.

The only reason Washington doesn’t rank lower than this is that they also made a good trade, pawning Vinny Castilla off on San Diego for Brian Lawrence. Castilla is a 38-year-old third baseman who is probably about done after hitting .253/.319/.403 last year. Lawrence is a 29-year-old pitcher who is coming off a bad season, but who had been about average for three years before that.

The bad news for the Nationals is that even their good trade has been blown up, because now Lawrence is out for the season, which means the Nationals could have accomplished the same objective just by cutting Castilla. The objective, of course, is to open up a spot for Ryan Zimmerman, a stud third base prospect who should be ready for the majors sometime this season.

Other than that, the Nationals didn’t do much. They gave Brian Schneider a 4-year, $16 million extension, which is fine for a catcher of his ability. They also gave $2.5 million to Ramon Ortiz (a decent risk for a pitcher who could be average), and they gave Marlon Anderson $1.85 million for two years, which is pretty pointless.

In smaller deals, they picked up Matthew LeCroy (solid pinch-hitter/backup first baseman/backup catcher), Michael Tucker (bad extra outfielder), Robert Fick (eh), Felix Rodriguez (could be a useful reliever) and Mike Stanton (another potentially useful reliever). Those five cost a total of $4.1 million, which seems fine for what they’re likely to provide (maybe a little high, but not much). And any of them are cheap enough to cut if they tank.

19. Chicago Cubs

The first problem this offseason for the Cubs is that they gave two-year deals to two of the players who weren’t good for them last year. Glendon Rusch got $6 million over two years despite the fact that he’s had one good season, one decent season and six bad seasons in his career. Now that he’s 31, he’s not likely to have a second good season.

Even worse is the $5 million they’ll be spending on Neifi Perez the next two years. Perez is 32 years old and has never had an OPS+ above 85. In fact, last year’s OPS+ of 77 was the second-highest of his career. The only hope for Cubs fans is that Dusty Baker finally realizes that Perez isn’t any good, which basically means there’s no hope for Cubs fans.

The three-year, $16 million deal for Jacque Jones isn’t what you’d call good, but it could work out for the Cubs if (and this is a big if) they don’t start him against left-handed pitchers. The last three years, Jones has a .658 OPS against lefties and an .807 OPS against righties. If they platoon him (say with Marquis Grissom, who they signed to a minor-league deal and who was terrible last year but has a .926 OPS against lefties the last three years, or with Michael Restovich, who they also signed to a minor-league deal), right field could be a very solid position for them. If not, then this will almost certainly look like a bad contract.

Giving $12 million over three years to Bobby Howry is a little risky because he’s had several injury problems, but he’s also posted a 166 ERA+ each of the last two years, so he’ll be a good value at that price if he can stay off the DL. The two-year, $7 million deal for Scott Eyre isn’t as good because Eyre is a year and a half older than Howry, has only been really good the last year instead of the last two, and also received a $4 million player option that he’ll certainly exercise if he stinks.

Other than that, the Cubs signed John Mabry and Wade Miller to low-risk (and probably low-reward) deals, and they made a couple trades.

In the first one, they dumped enigmatic center fielder Corey Patterson (who at 26 years old has a much dimmer future than he had when he was 23) for hardly anything (Nate Spears and Carlos Perez). In the other one, they traded a 25-year-old with the potential to be a number five starter (Sergio Mitre) and a couple interesting 23-year-old pitchers (Ricky Nolasco and Renyel Pinto) for Juan Pierre, who isn’t as good as people think he is.

If Pierre hits at least .300, steals 45-60 bases at a 75-80 percent success rate and plays good defense, he’ll be an asset for Chicago. If he doesn’t do all three of those, he probably won’t be.

So, to summarize, if the Cubs platoon Jones, avoid playing Perez, keep Howry healthy and get optimal production from Pierre, this could actually end up being a good offseason. But that’s a lot of ifs that have to go their way.

18. Florida Marlins

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by suggesting that the Marlins actually had a good offseason, but I don’t think they did terribly.

There are two things to keep in mind about the Marlins. First, they were only barely better than .500 (83-79) last year. Second, they don’t have much money to work with, because apparently nobody in Miami likes baseball. So, they weren’t going to be able to maintain the $65 million payroll they had last year, and they were barely above average with that payroll anyway.

Given that they had to cut at least some payroll and were likely to not be able to put together a winning team, they had two choices. They could blow the whole thing up and try to get enough good prospects to put together a good, cheap team in a few years. Or they could get rid of some salary but keep some veteran players in an attempt to win 75 games.

Florida decided to go with the former option. Not only did the Marlins let A.J. Burnett, Todd Jones, Alex Gonzalez, Jeff Conine and Antonio Alfonseca leave via free agency (which probably wouldn’t have hurt too badly), they also traded away Carlos Delgado, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota and Ron Villone.

That pretty much guarantees the Marlins are going to lose around 100 games (give or take a handful). And that’s what the mainstream media has mainly been focusing on, but the Marlins didn’t just give all those players away for nothing.

In return, they got Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, Harvey Garcia, Mitre, Ricky Nolasco, Pinto, Mike Jacobs, Yusmeiro Petit, Grant Psomas, Travis Bowyer, Scott Tyler, Gaby Hernandez, Dante Brinkley and Ben Julianel.

Sanchez, Petit and Ramirez are the cream of that group of players. Sanchez is a 22-year-old pitcher who pitched in High-A and Double-A last year, compiling 148 strikeouts and 40 walks in 136 innings. Petit is a 21-year-old pitcher who dominated Double-A with a 2.91 ERA, 130 strikeouts and 18 walks in 117.2 innings last year. And Ramirez is a 22-year-old shortstop who posted a .720 OPS in Double-A last year and has long wowed scouts with his tools.

Baseball America has ranked Ramirez as the 30th-best prospect in baseball, Sanchez at No. 40 and Petit at No. 69. They go along well with the top prospects Florida already had like Jeremy Hermida, Scott Olsen, Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad.

Along with those three blue-chippers (of whom the Marlins would probably be happy to get a star, a regular and a utility player or decent reliever), they also got a bunch of interesting pieces.

Delgado and Garcia are both soon-to-be 22-year-olds who had some success in Low-A ball last year after struggling there in 2004. Nolasco and Pinto are both 23-year-olds who have been quite good in Double-A but have struggled in Triple-A over the last two seasons. Bowyer is a 24-year-old reliever who strikes out a lot of guys but walks too many, and Tyler is a 23-year-old starter who does the same. And Hernandez isn’t even 20 years old yet but has already had a very successful run at Low-A before struggling in High-A.

Mitre’s not really a prospect, but he could become something useful (either a No. 5 starter or a long reliever). Jacobs probably isn’t a prospect any more either, but he’s shown the ability to really hit well in Double-A and briefly in the majors. And he’s only 25, so he’ll still be cheap and in his prime when the Marlins are ready to start competing again.

Basically, Florida lost a bunch of players who are either on the wrong side of 30 (Delgado, Castillo, Lo Duca, Lowell), overrated (Pierre, Burnett) or both, and got a long list of players who could help them put together another good team in 2008 or 2009. It’s not going to be fun in 2006 or 2007, but at least Florida fans have something to look forward to on the horizon, unlike fans of the Royals, Rockies, Tigers, Pirates, Reds and Devil Rays.

17. Atlanta Braves

Since I wrote way too much about the Marlins, I’ll try to keep this one shorter. Basically, there were two big problems for the Braves. The first is that they lost longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who has received a great deal of credit for Atlanta’s ability to keep winning division titles long past the point when it seemed like the streak should have ended.

The other problem is that the Braves downgraded their shortstop from Rafael Furcal (a 28-year-old with OPS+ marks of 109, 96 and 100 the last three years) to Edgar Renteria (a 30-year-old who was at 90 and 91 the last two years after posting a 131 OPS+ in 2003 that now looks like a fluke). And for the privilege of making this downgrade (and saving some money), the Braves parted with Andy Marte, one of the best prospects in all of baseball.

Other than that, the Braves traded Johnny Estrada (a catcher with one good year and one bad year who the Braves don’t particularly need with Brian McCann around) for Oscar Villarreal and Lance Cormier (two young relievers who could be useful but don’t seem particularly special), and they traded Dan Kolb back to the Brewers after a disastrous season, getting the very uninteresting Wes Obermueller in return.

So, in total, the Braves lost a tremendous pitching coach, downgraded at shortstop, lost a tremendous prospect and made a couple trades that probably won’t amount to much. The only good thing for them is that they added three picks in the next draft.

16. San Francisco Giants

The Giants didn’t seem to do much more than tread water this offseason. They traded two of their problems (Edgardo Alfonzo and LaTroy Hawkins) for two of somebody else’s problems (Steve Finley and Steve Kline), which doesn’t seem particularly helpful to me.

Then they let Brett Tomko (who had ERA+ marks of 110 and 92 the last two years and could have been re-signed fairly cheaply) leave and they replaced him with Matt Morris (who had ERA+ marks of 104 and 89 the last two years and cost them $27 million over three years).

Obviously, Morris’ above average year was last year while Tomko’s was in 2004, and Morris has a better reputation than Tomko. But Morris built his reputation as a good pitcher from 1997-2001, and he doesn’t seem to be quite as good at this point of his career. Maybe he’s likely to be better than Tomko this year, but he’s not likely to be $4 million better and he’s certainly not a better risk at $27 million over three years than Tomko would have been at $9 or $10 million over two.

Now, I’m not saying Tomko is a player the Giants really should have been looking to keep. But if they were going to get rid of him, why bring in somebody else with big question marks about his ability to provide above average innings?

Other than that, the Giants gave a 2-year, $1.8 million deal to Mark Sweeney (who could be a nice pinch-hitter/fourth outfielder), a 2-year, $4 million deal to Tim Worrell (seems like too much for an aging, mediocre reliever) and a 1-year, $1.25 million deal to Jose Vizcaino (a complete waste of money).

15. Tampa Bay Devil Rays

\The Devil Rays finally traded away Danys Baez, a player for whom they have no real use since they’re not close to contending yet, packaging him with Lance Carter for Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany.

Jackson certainly isn’t the prospect he was two years ago at this time, but he’s still only 22 years old and has the potential to become a contributor. Tiffany’s only 21 years old, but has some issues. He gets a ton of strikeouts, but he also gives up too many walks and home runs.

All in all, it’s a solid trade for the Devil Rays because they gave up a good reliever who they would have lost in free agency at the end of the season and a mediocre (at best) reliever in exchange for two young pitchers who could really help out down the road.

Tampa Bay also made a challenge trade of sorts, giving up failed pitching prospect Dewon Brazelton for failed third base prospect Sean Burroughs. Burroughs seems to be the more likely of the two to recover some value, since he was at least an above average major league performer at one time. But it’s unlikely that either of them will ever reach the potential people thought they had.

Other than that, Tampa Bay only made some stopgap signings, giving two-year, $1.5 million deals to relievers Dan Miceli and Shinji Mori, and one-year, sub-$700,000 deals to Ty Wigginton and Chad Harville. None of those deals are going to have much of an impact one way or another, nor will the trade of Travis Schlichting for backup catcher Josh Paul.

14. Seattle Mariners

The big move for Seattle was a 4-year, $37 million contract for Jarrod Washburn. That’s obviously a risky deal for a 31-year-old pitcher who’s been limited to about 325 innings the last two years, but at least Washburn is a quality pitcher.

He posted a 131 ERA+ last year, the fourth time in the last six years his ERA+ was above 125. The two other years, he was right around league average. So while he doesn’t strike many people out and he doesn’t really seem like he should be that good, he’s a good bet to give you 175-200 innings of at least league average pitching, and probably better.

For a team that only had one pitcher throw at least 100 innings and post an ERA+ above 85 (Jamie Moyer’s 101 in 200 innings), the presence of Washburn along with a full season of Felix Hernandez should make a huge difference. Moyer, by the way, got $5.5 million to stay with the Mariners, which is fine if he can be about average again.

The Mariners also gave Carl Everett $4 million, which doesn’t seem very smart because Everett hasn’t been even decent at the plate the last two years and he has no defensive value. And while giving Raul Ibanez a 2-year, $11 million extension through 2008 isn’t a terrible idea, they probably could have waited until after this season to make sure he was still a productive hitter.

The Mariners also signed Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima to a 3-year, $16.5 million deal. There are two big questions here. First, how will his very impressive .330/.399/.593, 338/.432/.655 and .309/.381/.557 batting lines from the last three years in Japan translate to the majors? Second, how will his unfamiliarity with English affect him dealing with the Seattle pitching staff?

Whatever the answers to those questions are, it seems very likely that Johjima will be a big help, since Seattle was not only dead last in the AL with a .566 OPS from its catchers last year, it was nearly 90 points behind the No. 13 team (Tampa Bay at .654).

13. San Diego Padres

It was a strange offseason for the Padres. They made two trades that seemed very smart, two that seemed very dumb and two that seemed very useless.

The smart trades were giving up Xavier Nady (whose upside seems to be that of a fourth outfielder) for Mike Cameron (whose upside is that of a gold glove center fielder with 30-homer power) and trading Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and Billy Killian for Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez and Terrmel Sledge.

Young is a 26-year-old with a career ERA+ of 106, while Eaton is a 28-year-old whose best ERA+ the last five years is 97. Otsuka was a fantastic reliever his first year in the majors, but not nearly as good last year. Sledge, meanwhile, seems like he has at least as much potential as an outfielder as Nady, while Gonzalez has struggled during his time in the majors but excelled in the minors at first base. Throw in the fact that Eaton and Otsuka are free agents at the end of the season while Young and Gonzalez are under San Diego’s control for several more seasons, and it’s a very nice deal.

Not so nice was San Diego’s trades of Mark Loretta for Doug Mirabelli and Brian Lawrence for Vinny Castilla. The latter trade doesn’t seem as bad now because although Castilla’s not going to hit, Lawrence is now out for the season. The former trade is simply inexcusable though. There’s just no reason to trade an All-Star level second baseman (even one who’s 34 years old and coming off an injury-plagued season) for a backup catcher. I don’t care if Josh Barfield is ready for the majors or not, you’ve got to be able to get more than Mirabelli in exchange for Loretta.

The pointless trades are the swap of Burroughs for Brazelton, and the deal that sends Clayton Hamilton to Pittsburgh for Bobby Hill.

Of course, the best thing the Padres probably did all winter was to re-sign Brian Giles to a 3-year, $30 million deal. While lesser players were signing longer deals for bigger money, the Padres got a good value and a shorter commitment for a player whose OPS+ has only dipped below 145 once in the last seven seasons. They also gave two years and $13.5 million to Trevor Hoffman. And while I worry about the risk of giving that much to a pitcher as old as Hoffman, he did pitch fairly effectively last year.

Other than that the Padres gave one-year or minor-league deals to Mike Piazza, Geoff Blum, Eric Young, Doug Brocail, Todd Greene, Shawn Estes, Alan Embree, Mark Bellhorn and Jack Cust. Piazza’s the only one of the bunch who got more than $1.1 million, and at $2 million plus an option, he’s a very low-risk, high-reward proposition.

12. Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers probably should have tried to trade Lyle Overbay for something useful last July, because pretty much everybody knew they were giving his job to Prince Fielder this year. Still, Milwaukee was able to get a decent fourth or fifth starter (Dave Bush) and a potentially useful outfielder (Gabe Gross) in exchange for Overbay (the Blue Jays and Brewers also swapped uninteresting 23-year-old pitchers in the deal).

The real steal of the winter for the Brewers was the other trade they made with Toronto, when they got Corey Koskie for a 25-year-old pitcher who has yet to progress past Double-A (Brian Wolfe). Koskie definitely has injury problems, but he can provide some offense when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, even if he’s healthy he probably won’t be an upgrade over what the Brewers had at third base last year, because Milwaukee’s third base combination of Jeff Cirillo, Russell Branyan, Wes Helms and Bill Hall somehow managed to put up an .878 OPS.

Still, acquiring Koskie for nothing is nice, and getting two players you can use for one you can’t is also nice. There’s also nothing wrong with the 2-year, $1.7 million deal they gave Matt Wise. And while brining back Dan Kolb seems pointless, they didn’t give up much to get him, so it’s a low-risk acquisition. If he still stinks, they can just cut him.

11. Minnesota Twins

Minnesota’s motley crew of second baseman (mostly Nick Punto and Luis Rivas) hit .256/.320/.345 last year. Luis Castillo hit .301/.391/.374 last year. That is a pretty big upgrade, and the biggest reason the Twins are this high.

They fixed the biggest problem spot on their team, and all they had to give up were a couple somewhat interesting pitching prospects in Bowyer and Tyler.

The other good move the Twins made was picking up Rondell White for $3.25 million. White gets hurt a lot, but he can hit when he plays, and he should help the Twins improve upon the .722 OPS they got out of the DH slot last year.

Unfortunately, the Twins also made some mistakes. One was letting go of LeCroy, a solid hitter who is useful as a pinch-hitter and a backup in a few places. The big one, however, was signing Tony Batista.

Now, they only gave him $1.25 million, so if they realize he can’t play and cut him in spring training, it won’t hurt them too badly. They can just slide Michael Cuddyer back to third and go with an outfield of Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart and Lew Ford until Jason Kubel is ready to replace Ford. If, however, they actually let Batista rack up 500 at-bats this season, it will almost certainly be a disaster.

I guess I’m banking on the Twins waking up and not giving Batista more than 150 at-bats (at the most) this season. If he does get more than that, then this ranking is probably too high.

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