Hot stove league … so far

With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, here’s a quick and dirty recap of the good, bad and ugly in the baseball off-season so far.

The Good

  • I guess I should start off with the very, very good. Ryne Sandberg was just barely elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with only six votes more than the minimum number he needed to make the cut. Ryno is still my all-time favorite ballplayer. As a kid, I admired his low-key, no-nonsense approach to the game and how he never let his ups and downs at the plate get in the way of top-notch defense at second base (nine straight Gold Gloves, highest-ever .989 fielding percentage). I only wish I had the same attributes as a journalist that he displayed as a ballplayer. I’m not sure how many other professional athletes I could say that for. Let’s hope that Ryno’s temperamental opposite, Ron “heart on his sleeve” Santo, makes the Veteran’s Committee cut in March. Odds are against it, however.
  • Nomah! It’s a good deal because it’s relatively low-risk and Garciaparra will have to prove to the baseball market that he can play a full season after last year’s injury-hobbled season. It’s always good to have a guy going into a free-agent year (e.g., Moises Alou’s 2004) and this is especially so in Garciaparra’s case.
  • The two Todds: Gladly, Walker and Hollandsworth are returning to the Cubs. Walker deserved to be the everyday starting second baseman last year based on his performance early in the season while Grudzielanek was injured. At the very least, he deserved to start against righties. Instead, he mostly sat on the bench and got cold. Now he should be starting nearly every day and hopefully will bat leadoff. Hollandsworth did a great job in Sosa’s stead after The Big Sneeze but then suffered a season-ending leg nerve injury himself. Hollandsworth is good enough to be an average left-fielder and a great pinch hitter/super-sub. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
  • The Cubs’ signing of backup catcher Henry Blanco is a great deal because of addition by subtraction, though some might disagree. Ideally, a backup catcher is as good or better defensively than the first-stringer and hits from the opposite side of the plate. Paul Bako was, nominally, a left-hander but was worthless at the plate and not much better behind it. This meant that every time Bako started in place of Michael Barrett the Cubs got worse offensively and defensively. Blanco can’t hit either, but he can throw runners out and block pitches, meaning he can sub for Barrett late in games and give him some rest and boost the defense. This is a good deal that I believe will lead to Barrett having an even better year than he did in 2004.
  • Carlos Beltran’s decision to sign with the Mets weakens one of their Central Division rivals, the Astros, greatly, as it now seems less likely that Clemens will re-sign with a team he views as a noncontender for a National League pennant. It’s a double blow for them, and while Beltran would have looked great roaming center in Wrigley, his contract would have badly hobbled the Cubs’ flexibility until 2012. Think about it this way: Beltran will have to be great for seven years for the deal not to be a loser. That’s highly unlikely.
  • The Mets’ signing of Pedro Martinez (another foolhardy move that may pay off now but serve as a cause for regret soon enough) means the Red Sox dodged a bullet. They almost overpaid for a pitcher whose torn labrum could mean disaster any day and whose numbers have fallen precipitously in the last two to three years.
  • Meanwhile, the BoSox made two very good acquisitions in Matt Clement,who should finally win some games backed by an offense that knows how to score, and Wade Miller (another blow for the Astros). The Cubs may miss Clement, but starting pitching was not a big need.
  • Arguably, the Red Sox paid too much for too long for catcher and Jason “Heart and Soul” Varitek, but it’s not an obviously bad deal right now and seems to have been the one sentimental signing that was necessary in light of the ’04 championship team.
  • The biggest plus was the Red Sox’s signing of Edgar Renteria. I’m glad the Cubs didn’t shill out that kind of dough for a shortstop, but Renteria’s still young — 29 — and like every other right-hander should benefit from the Green Monster. An already amazing offense just got that much better without any loss on the defensive end. The Cards’ offense probably won’t be hurt too much, but this is definitely a loss that will hurt them and thereby help the Cubs.

The Bad

  • The fact that yet another future Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson, has fenagled a trade to the evil, evil Yankees is surely bad news, but I think that it may turn out poorly for the Bronx Bombers. The Yanks are now obligated to a 41-year-old pitcher with no cartilage in his left knee for another three years. Could he be the difference against the lefty-dominated Red Sox lineup? Sure. But he could just as easily fall apart, and fast. Let’s hope for the latter.
  • The Cubs missed out on J.D. Drew, who wound up signing with the Dodgers. Drew’s can hit for power, average and gets on base. He’d have been a wonderful replacement for Moises Alou in left field, although his injury-riddled past might have been a concern for the Cubs, who apparently made very little effort to pursue him. Whether this was because they felt they needed to trade Sosa first, were holding tight for Beltran, or just didn’t like Drew’s asking price is unclear. I think it’s a shame. Not an irrevocable mistake, but a shame nonetheless.
  •  The Cubs have not yet attained a closer. True, there wasn’t much out there, but I think Armando Benitez, snatched by the Giants, was worth pursuing. Yes, Benitez has had his ups and downs, but he also has not had and ERA over 4.00 since 1995 and has 244 career saves. In his worst year, Benitez blew eight saves. LaTroy Hawkins last year blew nine, and is clearly better as a setup man. That leaves the closer spot up for grabs, with an erratic Kyle Farnsworth and rehab jobs Joe Borowski and Ryan Dempster as the main contenders. Yikes. Given that the Cubs’ offense may not see the big upgrade fans were hoping for, how they do may come down again to their record in one-run games. In 2003, their record was outstanding; in 2004, terrible. This is where a reliable closer makes a difference. And as of now, the Cubs don’t have one. One may develop, but this is a big disappointment.
  • The Cardinals’ traded for starting pitcher Mark Mulder. After losing Woody Williams and Renteria, the Cards were in desperate need of a pick-me-up and Mulder seems to have done the trick. Cubs fans can only hope that his 4.43 ERA of last year was a sign of things to come and not just a bump in the road.
  • In spite of all the talk and the rumors, the Sammy Sosa situation is still unresolved. There’s still time for a trade to happen, but the Cubs ought to be prepared (as GM Jim Hendry has said repeatedly) to have Sosa in right field come April. If a trade that makes the Cubs better in 2005 comes along, the Cubs should do it. The fundamental problem, however, is that Sosa — to judge from the last two years — is not worth what he will get in 2005 and will get in 2006 under a trade scenario with an automatically vesting option. It’s hard to find buyers for vastly overpaid players and get value in return. This is not at all aided by the Cubs’ perplexing decision to engage in a public-relations offensive against Sosa after Sammy’s early departure during the last game of the season. Yes, it was a bone-headed move on Sosa’s part, but I don’t think it merited demonizing him publicly or fining him almost $85,000. That, I think, only made it harder to trade Sosa and will certainly make it harder for the Cubs to win with Sosa in 2005. Could the Cubs get a lot more value for the $18 million Sosa will get next year? Sure. But not now, not via trade. Sosa’s still perfectly capable of hitting 40 home runs and a .900 OPS. Like Garciaparra, he’ll be moving into a free-agent year, as the Cubs most definitely would buy out his 2006 option. Was Sosa any less cancerous in the clubhouse in 2003 than he was in 2004? Same Sammy, different results. The key question is whether Sosa can have another very good season. Yes, he can. If Hendry & Co. can’t make a good deal, we’ll have to hope Sosa has one.

The Ugly

  • I’ll get to that later. This post is long enough as it is.