HOT-STOVE COUNTRY-WIDE

December 15, 2009

First from New England and Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe:      
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

 “JohnLackey for five years?
That’s more like it. I was beginning to worry that the Red Sox’ winter haul was going to be Marco, Boof, Fabio . . . and pray for rain.
What a great town. Just when you think the whole week is going to be devoted to Randy Being Randy (Bowser Moss has clinched the Hub’s coveted Manny
Ramirez Milk-Bone Dog Biscuit Award), the Sox jump off their bridge of mediocrity and make a play for the best free agent pitcher on the market.
The Sox still need a couple of bats. They still need one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera. But Boston’s loyal
fans should be happy that the Sox are spending money and going for Lackey. It demonstrates that the brass is still trying to compete with the Yankees, still willing to commit big dollars in the quest for a championship.
Theo Epstein had us worried last week when he delivered his unfortunate “bridge’’ speech in his Marriott suite in downtown Indianapolis. It sounded like the Sox were going to go cheap while waiting for Jose Iglesias, Ryan Kalish, Casey Kelly, and Ryan Westmoreland.
The backlash was immediate. Sox fans are in no mood to forfeit the 2010 season, standing on the “Lars Anderson’’ Bridge.
Now it looks like you won’t have to wait. Either the Sox suddenly realized that fans won’t settle for a couple of soft seasons, or they’ve been dealing close to
the vest. The bottom line is that John Henry apparently plans to stay in the money game and compete with the Yankees.
Lackey (five years, north of $80 million) is a fine start.
The big righty has a career record of 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA. He’s 6 feet 6 inches, weighs 245 and, like Josh Beckett, hails from Texas. He’s got attitude
(think Schill without the fraud factor) and he fears nothing. At the age of 23, Lackey took the ball and beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. He was the first rookie to win a seventh game since the immortal Babe Adams did it for the Pirates in 1909.
The last time we saw Lackey, he was walking off the Big A mound after smothering the Red Sox on four hits over 7 1/3 innings in a 5-0 playoff victory.
Lackey’s Game 1 win set the tone for the Angels’ sweep and amplified the Sox’ offensive woes.
His spot in the rotation gives Boston another ace and a little insurance in the event Beckett, in the final year of his contract, walks after the season. Meanwhile,  a quintet of Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz sounds pretty good. Tim Wakefield will be around for insurance.
There was more good news late yesterday when it was reported that Toronto’s Roy Halladay may wind up in Philadelphia. Good for Boston. Halladay in the National League means three or four more wins for the 2010 Red Sox.
Clearly, Theo is building next year’s Sox around pitching and defense (OK, if he really loves defense he’d have kept Alex Gonazlez, but OPS still rules in the
House of Bill James). That’s why the Sox are trying so hard to trade Mike Lowell to Texas. Lowell’s hip has made him a liability in the field. Defense is also one of the reasons the Sox are reluctant to go higher than $60 million/four years for Bay. Theo and the minions have concluded that Bay is less than average in left field and they’re scared of Bay aging badly in front of the Green Monster.
Bringing Lackey on board gives the Sox a surplus of starters. With Lackey in the rotation, it’s less risky to deal Buchholz to San Diego in a potential deal for Gonzalez. Picture the 2010 Sox with Gonzalez at first, Kevin Youkilis at third, Bay or possibly Mike Cameron in left, and a rotation of Beckett, Lester,
Lackey, Dice-K, and Wakefield and I’ll take my chances against the Yankees.
More evidence that the Sox are willing to spend comes from the reports that the locals are trying to extend Beckett’s contract and are also involved in the
expensive bidding for Cuban free agent lefty Aroldis Chapman. Chapman, 21, throws more than 100 miles per hour.
I was heartened to hear that the Yankees are interested in Chapman. Reminds me of the good old days when Theo trashed his Nicaraguan hotel room after
losing a bidding war for Cuban righty Jose Contreras. That was the episode that prompted Larry Lucchino’s “Evil Empire’’ remark.
The Sox and Yankees will open the 2010 season on Sunday night, April 4, at Fenway on national television. Meanwhile, it’s offseason Go Time and the signing of Lackey takes the Sox and their fans off the bridge to nowhere.”:

Then to LA AND Mike DiGovanna of the LA Times:       

                            
“Torii Hunter was unaware of the reports that free-agent pitcher John Lackey was on the verge of signing a five-year deal with the Boston Red Sox when a
reporter phoned him Monday morning.

“Oh man,” the Angels center fielder said. “That’s not good.”

But, Hunter pointed out, at least the Angels were still in the hunt for Toronto ace Roy Halladay, “and if we get Halladay, it would be awesome,” he said.

A few hours later, the Blue Jays reportedly agreed to a blockbuster three-team deal that would send Halladay to Philadelphia. The Phillies, in turn, would send ace left-hander Cliff Lee to Seattle.

So, not only were the Angels about to lose their top two winter targets, Lackey and Halladay, but the rotation of the division-rival Mariners, who already signed third baseman Chone Figgins away from the Angels last week, was about to get a lot better.

Was this Black Monday for the Angels, or what?

“No,” said Tim Mead, Angels vice president of communications. “We still have a pretty good group . . . and it’s only Dec. 14.”

That group — at least the offensive side of it — should receive a considerable boost with the addition of free-agent slugger Hideki Matsui, who reportedly has reached a preliminary agreement with the Angels on a one-year deal for about $6.5 million. The Associated Press and the New York Times quoted unnamed sources saying Matsui would join the Angels.

There was no official announcement Monday, but in an e-mail to The Times, Arn Tellem, the agent for Matsui, confirmed that “we are in serious discussions with the Angels. I have no further comment.” Angels General Manager Tony Reagins did not return a call.

Matsui hit .274 with 28 home runs and 90 runs batted in for the New York Yankees in 2009 and was selected World Series most valuable player after hitting .615 with three homers and eight RBIs in the six-game series win over Philadelphia.

The 35-year-old outfielder, who underwent knee surgery last winter, played all of his 142 games for the Yankees as a designated hitter, and he will probably be relegated to DH for most of the time in Anaheim.

The signing of Matsui would also signal the end to Vladimir Guerrero’s distinguished career in Anaheim. The 35-year-old slugger spent six years in the heart of the Angels’ order but was not offered arbitration after he became a free agent in November.

As for the Angels’ rotation, they still have Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir and Matt Palmer, a group that Manager Mike Scioscia
last week called “terrific, as good as any in baseball.”

But that rotation would have been a lot better with Lackey or Halladay at the front end.

Instead, it appears Lackey, who was 102-71 with a 3.81 earned-run average in 7 1/2 years in Anaheim, will join a powerful rotation that includes Josh
Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

And Halladay, an Angels trade target since July, will reportedly take his dominant right arm and 2003 AL Cy Young Award to the defending National League champion Phillies.

“We have some guys who can really hold it down,” Hunter said of the Angels’ rotation, “but we need a veteran to lead the way a bit. I still think we have a team that’s good enough to win.”

According to multiple reports, Lackey was in Boston for a physical Monday, the final step in an agreement with the Red Sox on a five-year deal for about $85 million. The team had not completed its evaluation of Lackey as of Monday evening.

The Angels pursued Lackey aggressively this winter, but they were hesitant to offer a five-year deal because of the elbow injuries that sidelined him for the first six weeks of the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

With Lackey and Halladay off the board, the Angels could pursue Atlanta Braves veteran right-hander Derek Lowe, who has three years and $45 million left on his contract, or free-agent right-handers Joel Pineiro or Ben Sheets.

Lackey’s departure comes on the heels of Figgins’ decision to spurn an Angels offer to sign a four-year, $36-million deal with the Mariners.”

Then back East again, to Philly and Bill Conlin of the Philly Daily News:         

                                           
“The carousel ridden by major league baseball’s 30 teams has something in common with the planet we all ride upon. Earth makes one full revolution around the sun in what we call a year. MLB’s merry-go-round makes one full revolution in what we call a season.
After trading a kid righthander named Ferguson Jenkins and a couple of bench players to the Cubs for established righthanders Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl, Phillies general manager John Quinn said this:
“The golden ring only comes around once a year and when you’ve got a chance to grab it, you’ve got to do anything it takes because you may never be that close again.”
You know the rest of the story. The 1966 Phillies were favored to win the National League pennant. But slumps happen. You’d think that with starters Jim Bunning, Chris Short and Jackson combining for 54 victories, Gene Mauch’s team would have breezed. But Johnny Callison, superb in 1964, drove in just 55 runs with his 612 at-bats. The pitching behind the Big 3 was dreadful. Despite a tremendous third season by Dick Allen, a .317, 40-homer, 110-RBI performance, the Phillies finished fourth in a loaded league.
But Quinn was right. When a pennant is close enough to touch, you can’t worry about taking out a high-interest loan on the future.
Today’s question, therefore, is this: Did Ruben Amaro take a gutsy reach for the golden ring yesterday when Roy Halladay and his agent showed up at the
Bank for what? Physical? Negotiation of a contract extension that would put a three-team swap in motion? Both?
Yeah, both, it turns out.
Or is this merely a further indictment of a broken economic system, where despite playing to more than 100 percent capacity of their ballpark last season, the Phillies are doing so much belt-tightening their offseason is starting to look like a NutriSystem infomercial.
When I sat down to write this column my intent was to remind Amaro, who was absolutely brilliant in his rookie season at the helm, that he is standing on the cusp of history.
No National League team since the wartime St. Louis Cardinals has won three straight pennants. The team built by Branch Rickey threepeated 1942-44. No
NL team has been to the World Series three straight seasons since then. Not even the great teams produced by the Reds, Dodgers, Pirates, Braves and
Cardinals. And as MLB expanded from the 16 teams of Stan Musial’s era and added two tiers of playoffs ahead of the World Series, it has become more and
more difficult to repeat.
Adding Halladay to the present mix would move them so close to the big Octemberfest you can almost smell the freshly thrown champagne.
I wrote, “That is why Ruben Amaro must dare to be great. No team has been better positioned for a threepeat NL pennant than the 2010 Phillies.
“That is why Amaro, who negotiated so brilliantly before the trade deadline last July to put lefthander Cliff Lee in a Phillies uniform, must now turn to the
business that went unfinished when he determined the asking price for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay was too rich in the jewels of the organization’s deep crop of outfielders and thin harvest of young pitching.”
Then the story started blowing up like the grand finale of Fireworks Night at the Bank. Accompanied by the kind of calliope music that plays when the circus is in town and the merry-go-round is whirling at full speed, making that golden ring so difficult to grab.
But not so fast . . . Is there another way we can get this done without further savaging the minor league system? Another way to acquire the Blue Jays’ great righthander without turning over a package that could include J.A. Happ or Kyle Drabek, Domonic Brown and/or Michael Taylor, minor league stolen-base king Anthony Gose? All those names had been on the list handed to Amaro last summer by deposed Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi.
How about a threesome? (Sorry, Tiger, wasn’t talking to you.)
So now it looks like my dream of a rotation with Halladay and Lee at the top is deader than golf’s TV ratings are going to be.
It appears Halladay will be the Phillies’ Opening Day pitcher if they can get him to agree to a 3-year extension rather than the 5 years he is said to desire. A 3-year extension takes him through the 2013 season, when he will be 36 years old. Three years will cost David Montgomery about $60 million. Steep but doable.
Lee, who refused to negotiate an extension and wants to be a free agent next season, will go to the Mariners for a top prospect. The Phillies will then pass the prospect and perhaps outfielder Michael Taylor or righthanded prospect Kyle Drabek to the Blue Jays. These are all names being spit out of a wildy spinning rumor mill and the whole deal is subject to revision or cancellation.
I refuse to believe it is a coincidence that Pat Gillick has been the general manager of all three teams involved in what appears to be the offseason blockbuster with many details still being worked out by teams trying to have their cake and eat it, too.
On its face, the complex transaction will make the Phillies marginally better. Halladay is an old, established firm whose always pristine ERA should be at least .50 lower in a league where pitchers have to bat and benches are not cluttered with outstanding pinch-hitters. Those guys are all in the American League. Either as DHs or platoon players. He shaves the lefthanded bias in Charlie Manuel’s rotation to two certain lefty and two righty starters, with the jury out on Jamie Moyer. And the door would appear to be open for a veteran back-ender of the Jason Marquis variety.
But it’s not the Halladay-Lee-Hamels troika of my dreams.
Look at us . . . Quibbling over which Cy Young winner goes and which one comes aboard.”

What a day! What a day! That stove was glowingly hot.

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