Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Once again, it’s below 10 degrees outside the Little House between the Mountains and the Prairie.  There’s a thick, frozen 4 inch snowcap covering the ground.  And once it warms up at the end of the week, and the snow disappears over next weekend, we face world of mud.  Slippery, lithe, shoe-sucking mud, probably through much of next week.

I love it here.

But, if ever there were a time to fire up the hot stove (Amy is known widely as The Firestarter) and turn our fingers towards the hardball, glove, or mitt, towards baseball.

Baseball’s “Hot Stove League” period between the end of the World Series and the opening of training camps in Florida and Arizona is the perfect season for mankind’s most universal vice: judging other people.  Because, the months teams aren’t playing, is when they are signing and cutting and trading players, and the trades, and the players involved become perfect subjects, or targets, for judgment.

Baseball judgments, if they are done in what baseballers love to call “the right way,” are very different from those catered to by tabloid TV news, reality shows, and radio talk shows.  They only rarely veer into moral judgment, and they do not invite hatred.

Anguish, anger, disappointment?  Yes, trades do provoke those dark emotions, but baseball fans only hate teams.  Players are only judged on their performances.  But come a trade or free agent contract signing, and the questions are unavoidable:  What’s he worth?  Who got the better deal?

With most of the power players in baseball management gathered together in Florida for Winter Meetings this week, trading is in high gear, and so is judging.

Order in the Court! (The monkey wants to speak.)

Today, the California Angels traded a 27 year old, but fully-crednetialed power hitter, Mark Trumbo for 2 young (25 and 22), still very unfinished pitchers, the lefthanded Hector Santiago from the Chicago White Sox and 22 YO lefthander Tyler Skaggs from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who sent a recently-prized 25 YO centerfielder, Adam Eaton to Chicago.  The Diamondbacks are still owed 2 yet-to-be-named players (of lesser importance, almost certainly) even though their acquisition, Trumbo, has by far the highest established value of the bunch.

In each of his 3 seasons in Anaheim, Trumbo hit more than 30 home runs, in a spacious, (favors the) “pitchers' park.”  In the thin air of Arizona, he is very likely to hit even more.  He strikes out a lot, “has holes in his swing,” and in 2013, his batting average was a wretched .235.  I predict he will do much better than that over the next 10 years, during which he will hit between 350 and 400 homers and knock in more than 1000 runs.  Furthermore, I’m betting, in the National League, his average will come up (not very far, .250-.265 seems to be his range), and his patience will improve and with it, his walks, on base percentage and overall value. 

Statistics say he’s a better defensive player than he looks (and who are you gonna believe, Ultimate Zone Rating Plus or your own lying eyes?).  Like a lot of large, lumbering guys, who look like Klumsy Klutz, Trumbo may have softer, quicker, and surer hands than you’d suppose.  His undeniable lack of foot speed may be compensated for by the 2 speedy defense-first outfielders the D-Backs will run out to his left, A. J. Pollack and Gerardo Parra (a favorite of mine).  Arizona fans should be very happy about this deal, even before they open their still-to-be-identified 2-player bonus package.

What makes this trade so interesting, and susceptible only to very provisional assessment, is that all 3 of the players put in motion by Trumbo are expected to take their careers a quantum leap up in the next year or two.  If they do, fans on the south sides of both Chicago and California should also be glad. 

For the White Sox it was in effect a simple swap of Santiago, who surprised them by following a good 2012 in the bullpen, with a better 2013, mostly as a regular starter, for Eaton, whom they plan to make their regular centerfielder for the foreseeable future.  Eaton was supposed to be that for Arizona starting last April, but he got hurt, missed more than half the season, and performed unremarkably in 66 games.  Essentially, the less-touted Pollack made him expendable.  The Sox plan on Eaton leading off or batting second, stealing a lot of bases, hitting for a high average and anchoring the outfield defense.  It’s the high average I have my doubts about.  If Eaton is gonna hit above .270 he’s gonna have to prove it to me.  In my judgment, he’s a solid major-leaguer, but a starter only for a second-division club.  A team that sees itself as a contender will want to do better.

Hector Santiago?  I think the Angels got a steal.  He’s only 25 but looks maturish on the hill, with good but not great stuff, but good command that will get better.  I’m saying Hector will be a fixture in the Angels’ rotation, probably their #3 starter behind the outstanding Jered Weaver and C J Wilson for a good many years.

The last player from the pile is 22 year old Tyler Skaggs, very highly-rated prospect who flopped in his first chance at the major leagues.  The Angels hope he’s their fifth starter this year, or next year sure.  If he is, he and and Santiago will be even more valuable than Trumbo, making the Angels the ultimate winners in this exchange of human flesh.  If Skaggs turns out to be just overrated, or if Santiago doesn’t prove to be a dependable plus, fans will be loudly ruing the day “those idiots” let Mark Trumbo leave town.

The day’s other trade involved a pitcher, Brett Anderson, who has looked great in the major leagues, but has been hurt and ineffective for the last 2 years and Drew Pomerantz, a guy who liked super-great in college, but not so much as a pro.  Anderson seems the better bet, so give the judgment here to the Colorado Rockies who got him, against Pomerantz’ new team, the Oakland A’s.  There was a third pitcher involved but he hasn’t even looked good in the low minors.  My guess on Chris Jensen, who joins the A’s, (they also get $2 million to balance the perceived value of Anderson) is that you are hearing of him here last.  If Anderson returns to form, a better than reasonable possibility, his acquisition will be a great bargain.  If Pomerantz makes people remember why he was once a very high draft choice, I’ll be happily surprised.

Earlier this week, there were several interesting changes of address.  Via free agency, the New York Yankees added the Boston Red Sox star centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and the St Louis Cardinals aging rightfielder Carlos Beltran and subtracted their perennial All Star second baseman Robinson Cano, who left for Seattle, and their former home run hitting outfielder Curtis Granderson, who moved across town to the Mets.

They Yankees' excuse for letting Cano, an OK defender who is one of the 5 best hitters in the game, leave was that he cost too much.  The richest team in baseball let the more modestly marketed Mariners give Cano $240 million over 10 years.  They were also radically outbid for Granderson, a fine defender, and by all reports an even finer person who transformed himself from a high average hitter to an all-or-nothing home run hitter, before injuries ruined his last 2 years.  The Mets will pay him $60 million over 4 years.

On a per annum basis, that’s just what the Yanks will pay Beltran, but for just 2 years.  Beltran, who is 4 years older than Granderson and has creaky knees, will play less on, and cover less of, the field than the new Met, but he will likely outhit him.  But both men are good fits, -- Beltran is another widely-renowned good fellow, -- for their teams.

The Yanks and their supporters make much of the fact that the excellent Ellsbury’s contract is for almost $90 million less than Cano’s.  But that’s for 3 fewer years.  On an annual basis, the contracts are close, Ellsbury’s just over $2 million a year cheaper.  But here’s what I’m saying, in the Designated Hitter league, the Mariners will get more value from Cano over the course of his contract than the Yanks will with Ellsbury, who has been somewhat prone to injury, and whose game is predicated on foot speed, a much more perishable attribute than Cano’s hand speed and power.    

Final (for today) judgment:  Although their Beltran-Ellsbury-Brett Gardner outfield will be much better than last year’s (remember Granderson was out injured), but without Cano, their infield and their batting order are a mess.  Even though the Yankees also signed the Atlanta Braves fine catcher Brian McCann, likely the best at his position the Yankees have had since the late Thurman Munson, without further free agent spending, they flat out DO NOT SCARE ME.

The Mets only scare the mirror, but I think (and hope) Curtis Granderson will prove a great success.  But he’s going to have to reconstruct his swing back to what it was when he played (successfully) in Detroit, going for hits to all fields, and eschewing his Yankee Stadium, short-porch-in-right, pull with power technique.  I bet he can do it, and still hit a few homers.  I’m gonna guesstimate he hits .275, with 20-25 HRs, and fills his slot cleaning up behind David Wright.

As for Seattle’s big investment, it’s a shot in the arm for fans who are used to seeing stars leave Seattle (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr and Alex Rodriguez to name just 3 superstars). But for it to work, Cano has to “buy into” the Pacific Northwest.  It’s a long way from the Dominican Republic, and it’s hard to know how much fun he’s going to have there, but Seattle’s other mega-millions star, pitcher “King” Felix Hernandez has thrived equally distant from his homeland Venezuela.

But the team needs so much more.  Some Yankees whispered that Cano wasn’t always “focused,” and that was playing for a good team under the hot lights of New York and its demanding, baseball-mad Dominican population; so doubters say, tucked away in Washington state, with a lesser team, Cano might pack it in early.  I doubt it.  This 30 year old could be a lock for the Hall of Fame by the time he’s 40 and his contract is fulfilled.  That prospect alone should keep him pumping, but it’s up to the Mariners’ front office to keep him primed with big-time colleagues.

UPDATE:  The team took a stab at it, a week after signing Cano, they hired on free-agent Corey Hart from the Milwaukee Brewers, and traded a very promising young relief pitcher Carter Capps to Miami for Logan Morrison.  

Hart is coming for a season and a half lost to injury, so no one knows how much of his former self he'll be. He sometimes looked like a consistent power hitter, a pillar of the Brewers' lineup when they were a contending team.  Morrison has had one pretty decent year, but he, too, has been hampered for more than a year by a series of injuries.  Like Hart, he has a lot of admirers.

Here's the problem: Hart, Morrison, and the Mariner's incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak are all more or less, the same guy.  Good but not outstanding hitters who are not even considered average on defense.  All are most comfortable at 1B, although Hart (before his knees went bad) and Morrison have also played in the outfield.  Smoak who has improved, steadily if painfully slowly, probably has the greatest potential of the 3 and will likely stay where he is, starting most days at first base, with perhaps more days off to be the designated hitter.  Hart and Morrison, it is hoped, will share left field and designated hitting, and add protection for Cano in the batting order.

Baseball babble is so much fun (at least for the babbler) that I threaten to inflict more of this on (at least you’re voluntary) readers, but for now, just one more thought: the Trumbo trade opens a spot with the Angeles for one of my favorite players, the former Washington National, Michael Morse.

One place where baseball judgment veers towards moralizing is when a player is downgraded for being “injury-prone.”  It’s not enough to consider this bad luck, for some fans, it’s as if the player chose to malinger.  Mikey Mo has suffered a series of injuries to his hands and legs, that crimped his 2012 season in Washington, and washed out a terrible 2013 spent not playing in Seattle and Baltimore.  Before that, for a blessed year and half, this guy was one of the most feared sluggers in the National League, and one of the most adored “goofballs” of the Nats clubhouse.

I believe, and so do two of the most astute judges of baseball I know, the identically wonderful Hellinger twins, Duke and Stash, that the feared guy is who Michael Morse really is.  He’s an unsigned free agent.  He’ll have to take a relatively low-cost, probably one-year contract to prove his misfortunes are over, but sharing leftfield and designated hitter duties with Josh Hamilton for the Angels is a perfect slot for him, and would reunite him with Rick Eckstein, the hitting coach under whom his latent stardom blossomed in DC.

Angels, Morse, make me happy by getting together, and even better, confirming my judgment.

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