The quest for respectability

Just as some teams seem to battle for division titles year after year, another subset of teams is doing the opposite. These teams are scratching and crawling, trying to escape the division cellar.

With pitchers and catchers due to report to spring training in two weeks, now seems to the time to see how these perennial bottom feeders have shaped their 2008 rosters in their latest attempt to stay out of last place.

The criteria in identifying “key” gains and losses were quite simple. To be classified as a gain, a player has to be on his team’s 40-man roster and have a positive Win Share total for 2007. To qualify as a loss, he must have logged time on his former team’s 25-man roster last season and earned at least one Win Share.

On to the teams…

Kansas City Royals

Key Gains: Jose Guillen (20 WS) Miguel Olivo (8 WS), Ron Mahay (7 WS)

Key Losses: Emil Brown (8 WS), David Riske (8 WS), Mike Sweeney (5 WS), Odalis Perez (4 WS), Reggie Sanders (3 WS)

Net: +7 WS

In the past 13 years, the Royals have finished above .500 exactly once—when they won 83 games in 2003. Since then, they’ve averaged 100 losses a season and finished in last place in the AL Central four consecutive years.

From a weak free agent class, the Royals signed a solid hitter in Jose Guillen. Guillen, who hit .290/.353/.460 last summer in Seattle, serves to fill the black hole that has been the Royals corner outfield situation. Since 2001, Aaron Guiel, Terrence Long, Abraham Nunez and recent fugitive Chuck Knoblauch all have logged significant time in the Kansas City outfield. Although Brown did better than the aforementioned in Kansas City over his three years, his production tumbled to .257/.300/.347 last season. The Royals were looking for an offensive upgrade to kick start an anemic offense that finished last in the league in slugging and figure to get a bump from Guillen.

Olivo is a John Buck doppelganger who posted the lowest OBP (.262!) among regulars last season. Defensively, Olivo does better than Buck at throwing out base stealers, but is worse than Buck at handling challenging pitchers. He will likely begin the season as the No. 2 catcher and will see more playing time when Buck enters one of his dry spells.

Mahay gives the Royals three left-handed pitchers in the bullpen and Brett Tomko can be used as either a starter or reliever. They will be joined by Yasuhiko Yabuta from the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League. Yabuta’s strikeout rate has dropped from about 8.7 K/9 IP to 6.5 K/9 IP his last three seasons. He will become the team’s primary set-up man.

What’s notable about the losses is they were all veteran players who had bloated contracts, given their contributions. Combined, those four made more than $27 million last season—or about $1.36 million per Win Share. Shedding these contracts gives the Royals the payroll flexibility needed to sign a decent free agent or, even better, a young player, to a long term deal.

Meanwhile, the Royals are waiting for their current crop of young talent (Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar) to develop while plugging their most egregious holes through free agency. It worked last season with the signing of Gil Meche, and the Royals are hoping that by adding a bat like Guillen’s, they will further close the gap in the Central.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Key Gains: Chris Gomez (3 WS), Josh Wilson (3 WS)

Key Losses: Shawn Chacon (7 WS), Josh Phelps (4 WS), Cesar Izturis (3 WS), Jose Castillo (2 WS), Salomon Torres (2 WS)

Net: -11 WS

With a 15-year streak of sub-.500 finishes (one year shy of the major league record), there’s a lot of work to be done in Pittsburgh. Yet new GM Neal Huntington has been slow to change the roster of the team that finished 2007 with the National League’s worst record.

Instead of signing free agents or making trades, the Pirates will bank on the improvement of their youngsters, particularly their starting rotation. Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell give Pittsburgh a pair of young pitchers who can give the club 32 starts and more thanb 200 innings. They anchor the rotation and the team is hoping Paul Maholm and Zach Duke can follow their lead and hold down the back.

In 16 starts from the beginning of June through the end of August, Maholm had a 3.69 ERA, so the Pirates are confident he’ll develop into a solid No. 3 starter. Duke, on the other hand, hasn’t had a similar stretch since he broke into the league with a 1.81 ERA over his first 80 innings. Last season, opposition hitters punished him with a .359 average and a whopping .941 OPS. He’ll slot in as the fifth starter behind Matt Morris.

Obviously, none of the losses will hurt, although Phelps would have been a solid power option off the bench. The Pirates already are loaded from the right side and Phelps was eligible for a pay raise through arbitration, so it was likely an easy decision to let him go. They’ll replace his bat with Steve Pearce. who was the Pirates’ minor league player of the year in 2007 as Phelps heads to St. Louis to back up some guy named Pujols.

Josh Wilson will serve as a backup middle infielder, effectively replacing the tandem of Izturis and Castillo. Most of their Win Shares came from defense, and Wilson is a capable glove man in his own right. It’s a seemingly small move, but it’s a smart one where Pittsburgh replaces two similar players with one.

Such little turnover means most positions already are accounted for heading into the spring. Only center field, where Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan and Chris Duffy will all battle for the starting role is open for competition. The winner bats leadoff.

The bullpen appears to be wide open. The Pirates are trying to cobble together an inexpensive (and untested) relief corps. If they bring back free agent Chacon to be a part of that, the Pirates will have returned their top 17 players according to Win Shares. On a team that won 72 games last year, the lack of movement is interesting, and has caused at least one Pirate to question the status quo offseason.

That means the pressure is building on a young starting rotation along with Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay to bounce back from subpar years.

None of this exactly inspires confidence. The Pirates look to be headed to a major league record-tying 16th consecutive losing season.

Tampa Bay Rays

Key Gains: Jason Bartlett (16 WS), Cliff Floyd (8 WS), Troy Percival (5 WS), Matt Garza (5 WS)

Key Losses: Delmon Young (16 WS), Brendan Harris (13 WS), Greg Norton (4 WS), Elijah Dukes (2 WS)

Net: -1 WS

Things are changing in Tampa: The team has a new name, plans for a new stadium and an aggressive approach in handling its personnel.

The Rays caught everyone’s attention at the end of November with the swap of Young and Harris for Garza and Bartlett. Young will be missed, but this is a move that appears to benefit the Rays, giving them a young, live arm to slot into the rotation behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields. Garza rocketed through the Twins system, but his inexperience has shown at the highest level. He has thrown just 133 big-league innings over two seasons and has allowed a ton of base runners—203. He’ll need to improve his control (he allowed only 2.5 BB/9 IP in the minors compared to 3.7 BB/9 IP in the majors) if he’s to be a successful mid-rotation starter. With the Rays having given up Young, the stakes are high.

By replacing Harris with Bartlett, the Rays gain some defensive traction up the middle. Last season, Bartlett had a Range Factor of 4.67 at shortstop, slightly better than the league average of 4.47. Offensively, it gets a bit tighter. With Marcel projecting a .344 OBP for Bartlett against a .342 OBP for Harris, it could be a wash offensively. Although Bartlett will hit for more power, Harris will make more contact.

Percival missed almost two years of action with a forearm injury before returning to throw 40 innings last season for the Cardinals. He pitched well enough (1.80 ERA, 8.1 K/9 IP) in a variety of roles that he was able to parlay his success into a chance to pitch the ninth inning for the Rays. If anything, it gives Tampa a “proven closer” at the back of the bullpen, something the Rays have never had (or needed.)

Floyd gives the Rays some flexibility: He will split his time between the outfield and as DH. He’ll provide cover in the annual Rocco Baldelli Injury Derby and gives the Rays added insurance in case Baldelli decides to bolt the club to play goalkeeper for Celtic.

The pieces are slowly coming together in Tampa. Losing a player of Young’s caliber will undoubtedly hurt in the short term, but the Rays system is stocked with several prospects (hello, Evan Longoria!) ready to contribute at the big league level. And thanks to a rebuilding project in Baltimore, this is their year to top 72 wins and pull out of the cellar.

Washington Nationals

Key Gains: Willie Harris (9 WS), Paul Lo Duca (8 WS), Johnny Estrada (7 WS), Aaron Boone (7 WS), Lastings Milledge (6 WS), Elijah Dukes (2 WS), Tyler Clippard (1 WS)

Key Losses: Ryan Church (19 WS), Brian Schneider (11 WS), Nook Logan (7 WS), DeAngelo Jimenez (4 WS), Tony Batista (2 WS), Micah Bowie (2 WS)

Net: -5 WS

While the Pirates have been slow to make changes, the Nationals are rapidly turning over their roster. The Team Formerly Known As The Expos has had three seasons at .500 or better since 1996, while finishing in last place four times.

The Nats caught everyone’s attention this winter by adding a pair of young outfielders. In Milledge, they get a gifted hitter who has hit .257/.326/.446 in 350 big league at bats spread over two seasons. He has All-Star potential, but he also has the potential to make some bad decisions. The bottom line is, it’s a great deal for the Nationals, who got him on the cheap. Milledge will begin the year as the starting center fielder. The front office hopes lower expectations and pressure will help him flourish.

Dukes is the wild card: He has a ton of potential, but is he going to squander it because of his off-the-field problems? At least with Milledge in center and Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena in the corners, Dukes won’t be under any kind of pressure to produce, although he could stick on the team as a fourth outfielder.

With Schneider packaged in the Milledge deal, the Nationals were in desperate need of a catcher and the tandem of Lo Duca and Estrada will provide cover. The Estrada signing was in the works even before the Nats learned Lo Duca would miss time with a partial tear in his medial meniscus. The switch-hitting Estrada historically has hit better from the left side (.283/.328/.412 vs. RHP against .269/.295/.387 vs. LHP) so he could platoon with the right-handed hitting Lo Duca. It gives the Nationals a solid tandem behind the plate.

One other thing to like about the Estrada signing: Before non-tendering the catcher, the Mets tried to include him in the Milledge deal. Had the Nationals accepted, he would have cost them at least $4 million. Instead, they get him at around a 70 percent discount. Smart move.

Harris and Boone are on board merely as inexpensive back-ups. The Nats are thin at the Triple-A level, but stocked in the low minors, so a couple of veterans on the roster (even if they aren’t productive) isn’t really doing any harm.

Unfortunately, the Nats were unable to address their most pressing need: the lack of quality starting pitching. Last year, injuries and performance issues meant the Nationals had 13 different pitchers start and only three of them (Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann and Mike Bacsik) started more than 20 games. But they think the problem can be solved internally.

Going into spring, the rotation is set with Chico and Bergmann joined by John Patterson, John Lannan and Joel Hanrahan. With Patterson as the lone veteran, it’s a rotation that’s even younger than the one in Pittsburgh. Although Patterson claims to be healthy, the Nationals undoubtedly will proceed with caution considering he’s been hampered by forearm problems since 2006 and has thrown more than 100 innings in a season only once.

With the Marlins in full-blown rebuilding mode, the Nationals are safely out of the basement, but they still have a way to go before they can challenge the elite teams of the East. With some young talent already in the majors and some more on the way, they have the beginnings of a solid base.

It’s not surprising that three of the teams in this exercise posted net losses in Win Shares while changing their roster. Of the teams discussed, only the Royals were aggressive in free agency while the Nats and Rays looked to improve through trades. No matter how they shape their roster during the offseason, all four ultimately will rely on their youth to develop and lead the way into contention.

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