RCS Sidelines

December 10, 2010 12:26 PM

MLB Offseason Heats Up: the 2010 Winter Meetings

MLB Winter Meetings Logo.JPGWith the winter meetings coming to a close, now is a time to reflect on the front office activity that came from the sport's annual yuletide congregation. Myriad transactions - including both free agent signings and blockbuster trades - mean that multiple marquee players are changing teams and, in so doing, are drastically altering the existing balance of power. Though Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre remain unsigned, the entire major league landscape, especially that of the American and National League's East divisions, has seen a significant shift in prominent power bats, with the Washington Nationals and Boston Red Sox leading the charge.

Nats Let Dunn Walk, Acquire Werth

The Nationals have provided a buzz of activity in the nation's capital. Their first move was one of inaction; rather than match the offer, the Nats let free agent first baseman Adam Dunn sign with the White Sox. Evidently Chicago's four-year, $56 million contract was too rich for Washington's blood, and rightfully so. Not only is Dunn at best an average first baseman, but also large sluggers - particularly lefties - are prone to precipitous offensive regression in their later years. Moreover, because Dunn was a Class A free agent, the Nationals will receive the White Sox's 2011 first round pick (23rd overall) plus a sandwich pick as compensation for Dunn's departure.

By itself, that could easily be a net plus for the Nationals. With Stephen Strasburg's arm injury and Bryce Harper's youth, Washington appears to be at least a few years away from competing in the deep and talented NL East. Those two high drafts picks, coupled with their rapidly improving farm system, could place the Nationals within striking distance of the division crown in the not too distant future.

With that in mind, the Nationals' next move was relatively puzzling. To replace Dunn's bat, the Nationals signed Jayson Werth - formerly of the division rival Philadelphia Phillies - for $126 million over seven years. While Werth plays a different position, he is an adequate replacement for Dunn offensively and should greatly improve the Nationals' team defense from right field.

That being said, Werth does create some issues with Washington's existing personnel. Aside from the fact that Werth's contract appears to greatly exceed his market value, the Nats suddenly find themselves with a very crowded outfield. Roger Bernadina, Nyjer Morgan, and Josh Willingham all return as incumbent starters, to say nothing of backups Justin Maxwell and Mike Morse. Werth will clearly command right field from Opening Day, more than likely mandating the departure of either Willingham or Morgan.

Relocation for Willingham would hurt the team's power, while Morgan's absence would weaken Washington's defense. The other problem created by Werth is that now the middle of the Nationals' batting order is overwhelmingly right-handed. Whereas Dunn provided an able balance to Ryan Zimmerman's right-handed bat, Werth also hits from the right side. This could create problems when facing any of the NL East's many talented right-handed pitchers, including Roy Halladay, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Roy Oswalt, and Mike Pelfrey, among others. Unless the Nationals move to add a left-handed bat, they could have issues against right-handers. Since Dunn's departure leaves first base empty, perhaps the team is looking to sign or trade for a left-handed hitter to fill that gap and address their lineup imbalances.

Gonzalez Leaves West Coast for Boston, Crawford Joins Red Sox Nation

After months of speculation, Adrian Gonzalez is finally a member of the Boston Red Sox. Though Gonzalez cost the Red Sox three of their top prospects (pitcher Casey Kelley, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and outfielder Reymond Fuentes), the three-time All-Star, formerly of the San Diego Padres, brings his .298 average, 31 home runs, and 101 RBIs east. His potent left-handed bat should add power to a Boston offense that, even with injuries to many of its best hitters, still finished second in the league in runs scored, while the two-time Gold Glove Award winner should also
improve the Red Sox's defense.

Gonzalez, like Werth, creates a serious overcrowding issue, though his is manifest in the infield. If the Sox re-sign third baseman Adrian Beltre, star first baseman Kevin Youkilis and Gonzalez would seem mutually exclusive. If Boston chooses to let Beltre leave, not only do they lose his .321 average, 28 home runs, and 102 RBIs, but also his stellar defense at third base. Thus, while Gonzalez appears to be a good acquisition - and batting from the left side of the plate is extremely valuable - upon closer examination it certainly looks far closer to a wash as Gonzalez seems likely to merely replace, rather than drastically outstrip, the overall production of Beltre.

Then, on Thursday morning, reports surfaced confirming another significant addition to the Red Sox's lineup: career Tampa Bay Ray Carl Crawford will be joining Gonzalez in Boston. For $142 million, the Red Sox secured seven years of Crawford's five-tool abilities. This addition allows Boston to play Jacoby Ellsbury in his natural centerfield, while Crawford would fill the gap in left and both Mike Cameron and the emerging Ryan Kalish could come off the bench as valuable reserves. Crawford greatly increases Boston's team speed, adds balance to their lineup, and brings gold glove caliber defense to their outfield. His presence - combined with the acquisition of Gonzalez - places even more pressure on the Yankees to sign Cliff Lee and could immediately change the balance of power in the AL East.

Reynolds Lands in Baltimore

In a smaller story, the Baltimore Orioles sent relievers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio to Arizona in exchange for third baseman Mark Reynolds. While relief pitching is not exceedingly difficult to come by, this move is also somewhat surprising. The Orioles' acquisition of Reynolds would seem to indicate a lack of faith in Josh Bell, the former Dodgers' prospect who came to Baltimore in the George Sherrill trade; however, Reynolds' value may be overstated. Although the former Diamondback has hit 121 home runs in his four-year career, he also has a staggering 767 strikeouts in that same timeframe, leading the league three times and fanning an MLB record 223 times in 2009. Baltimore, which found itself in the bottom ten in the league in strikeouts in 2010, should not expect to remain there, as Reynolds' considerable power and equally significant lack of bat control suggest and may engender an individualistic all-or-nothing approach.

Berkman Trades Pinstripes for Redbirds

On Saturday, December 4, former Astros' star Lance Berkman signed a one-year, $8 million offer with St. Louis. By landing Berkman, the Cardinals added an aging but talented switch hitter who posted a .368 on base percentage in 122 games between Houston and New York last year.
Berkman's arrival creates a potential problem for the Cardinals. At this point in his career, and with his history of knee injuries, Berkman is limited defensively and should probably play first base exclusively. The issue with this, obviously, is the presence of Albert Pujols, arguably the best player in the game. There are a few conceivable explanations for this overlap? Is it possible that Pujols's nagging elbow injuries have become more serious? Would the Cardinals actually consider not re-signing their franchise player (regardless of the cost)?
What seems most likely is that Berkman plays left field. Matt Holliday, though no defensive wiz, is healthier and more mobile than the newest Cardinal, meaning Jon Jay will probably be relegated to, at best, the role of fourth outfielder, while Holliday moves to right. Berkman, having spent 11 full seasons with the Astros, is exceedingly familiar with the NL Central and, assuming he can stay healthy and play a serviceable left field, he should be a positive addition for NL
Central runner-up.

Looking Forward

These are just some of the noteworthy transactions that took place during the high-stakes game of musical chairs that was the 2010 winter meetings. Some chose to stay home (Paul Konerko re-signed with the White Sox for $37.5 million over three years; Jay Bruce chose to stay in Cincinnati for six years, $51 million) while still others relocated (Carlos Pena opted to sign with the Cubs for one year and $10 million). Yet the biggest story remains unresolved: Cliff Lee has yet to choose a team. With countless suitors throwing the proverbial farm at the ace lefthander (the Yankees and Rangers have reportedly offered up to seven years and approaching $25 million annually), it's safe to say that the dealings at Disney's Swan and Dolphin resort were merely a precursor to what will be an exciting and hotly contested 2011 season.

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