|Tuesday, January 21
Updated: March 13, 4:43 PM ET
Thome tops among offseason moves
By Gary Huckabay and Jonah Keri
Special to ESPN.com
There's an annual ritual in the offseason when it comes to player personnel. Fans' negative feelings tend to die off immediately after the postseason, no matter how bad the previous season was. They start scrutinizing the moves their team makes to improve for the upcoming season.
Too often, the mainstream media covers this activity without much regard for the actual impact of the trades and signings clubs make. They disregard the quality of the players involved or the actual expected impact of the moves. Any movement is seen as positive; standing pat is perceived as some sort of dereliction of duty on the part of the GM.
Acquisitions are always nice -- more players means more choices -- but it's not just who you got, it's who they'll replace. Acquiring Rey Ordonez in a trade is certainly a move, but is it one that actually improves the club? Outside of beer leagues or Triple-A, probably not. A high number of transactions doesn't imply an improved club. So what are the most significant acquisitions of the offseason? What teams really have improved?
First base for the Phillies was something of a black hole last year, most often named Travis Lee. His .725 OPS was a major reason for Philadelphia's failure to ever really get into the hunt for the postseason, and the Phillies were in desperate need of an upgrade to have a shot at catching the Braves in 2003.
Upgrade they did. New first baseman Jim Thome is a Hall-of-Fame bound bomber who hasn't seen an OPS under .900 since the Republicans took hold of the House of Representatives in 1994, when he posted a pedestrian .882 OPS -- more than 100 points higher than Lee's best season. The contract was expensive, and Thome may end up being a pretty serious problem toward the end of the deal, but for the next three years, that lineup troika of Bobby Abreu-Pat Burrell-Thome, in whatever order, is going to cause a lot of night sweats around the league.
Financial pressures make for some strange decisions. Atlanta GM John Schuerholz's failure to explore the available market for Millwood resulted in his most improved division rival getting even better, for the bargain basement price of Estrada. Brandon Duckworth, although promising, had a miserable year for the Phillies, allowing more scoring than Cher during Fleet Week.
Twenty-nine starts with an ERA near five and a half is a prescription for a fade from contention, and that's just what the Phillies did. Duckworth's terrific strikeout rate bodes well for future success though, and we'd still like to see the Phillies give him a shot at the fifth starter's job over Joe Roa. Or at the very least have Duckworth fill in for Brett Myers at times, to ensure Myers doesn't blow out his young arm.
In the meantime, the acquisition of Millwood gives the Phillies an anchor for a consistent and formidable rotation, to go along with an improved and potent offense. If Millwood can stay healthy and approach his 3.24 ERA of 2002, the Phillies should probably be considered the favorites in the division. That's not a sure thing -- Millwood's had injury problems, and his ERA's been north of 4.00 as often as not. But his peripheral numbers (strikeout rate) look good enough to predict a successful 2003.
Last year, the Yankees fixed their outfield problem by acquiring Rondell White to play left field. Unfortunately, White was hampered by nagging injuries and was ineffective, which wasn't particularly surprising given his history. This year, undaunted by a new and punitive Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees went out and bought themselves an outstanding outfielder -- Japanese Import Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui.
There are those who question whether or not Matsui's power game will translate from the smaller parks of Japan to the states. Even if it doesn't, he'll likely be an improvement over Spencer and White, both of whom put up OPSs short of .700, playing what should be a position where a team gets an offensive boost. Matsui's defense is well-regarded, and he does everything an offensive player is supposed to do -- hit for average, hit for power, draw walks -- plus he even runs pretty well.
Don't lump us with those who think he's going to fade in the U.S. The Baseball Prospectus forecast for Matsui this season is for a .284/.414/.569 season. It's fairly unlikely The Boss will be calling him a "fat, pussy toad."
It's not precisely clear what will end up happening in Houston once the season starts, nagging injuries occur, and defensive alignments need adjusting. Kent could end up playing primarily at second base or third base, and either would be a nice change for the Astros. Blum's .807 OPS wasn't the end of the world, but in the hitting-friendly environment of the Field Formerly Known as Enron, it's not something that's going to help a team in a close division, either.
Kent's going to keep the Astros from having to fill a position with role players. He's an underrated offensive player, banging out 158 extra-base hits in a very hostile hitting environment over the past two seasons. Moving from one of the worst hitters' parks in baseball to one of the best should give a nice boost to his raw stats. More importantly, moving into one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, and replacing the production of guys like Vizcaino should give Houston a boost in the standings, and might be enough to push them into the postseason.
Giants GM Brian Sabean is indeed "not an idiot." He's picked up two of the best free agents on the market -- two guys that can play middle infield, hit for average and power, and most importantly get on base, probably in front of Barry Bonds. Ray Durham's among the most durable players in the game, and he continues his run of playing in absolutely miserable hitters' parks, a fact that's played a large part in his not getting the attention he deserves. Durham's as consistently healthy as he is effective, playing at least 150 games in each of the last seven seasons, with an OPS above .800, in pitchers' parks, for each of the last five years. That's a rare, outstanding combination for a middle infielder.
It's cheating compared to the other four, but let's add in the acquisition of Edgardo Alfonzo, the National League's version of Durham. He's been hit by back injuries in the past -- effectively wiping out his batting stroke during the 2001 season -- but he's been given a clean bill of health, and he's a very comparable player to Durham, but two years younger, and with less speed.
The Baseball Prospectus forecasts for the Giants' new duo:
Losing Kent is bad, but having a couple of guys around who can credibly play middle infield, and hit better than league average will be huge in the NL West this season. Both players also have a significant chance to leave those forecasts -- and potentially the NL West -- in the dust.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.