Offseason Rankings: Top Third

If you haven’t already, go back and see who the bottom 10 and middle 10 teams were. Then come on back and read about the final 10 teams.

15. Texas Rangers

No, that’s not a typo. The more I look at things, the less I understand why I put the Rangers in this group. So even though this is supposed to be the top third, I’m putting Texas at No. 15. You can go back to the middle 10 and move teams 11-15 up one spot each.

Basically, the Rangers made one move that will help, one that might help, one that won’t help, and one that should help now, but will likely hurt before it’s all said and done.

The move that helps is obviously the trade for Brad Wilkerson. The Rangers got rid of Alfonso Soriano and the $10 million contract that he was about to get in arbitration, and they picked up Wilkerson (a player who’s likely to hit just as well as Soriano, if not better, and only costs $4 million), as well as Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga.

The other upsides to this deal, aside from saving money and adding a couple players, are that Wilkerson is under the control of the Rangers for two seasons, compared to just one for Soriano, and that they need him in the outfield more than they needed Soriano in the infield. The Rangers have 23-year-old middle infielder Ian Kinsler, who looks like he’s ready to play in the majors, but they got awful production from center and right field last year.

Running out Wilkerson and Kinsler should be a better combination for Texas than Soriano and whichever crummy outfielder Wilkerson replaces.

Unfortunately, rather than building on that good trade, the Rangers went out and made a bad trade, sending Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez and Sledge to San Diego for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and Billy Killian. Young is a better, younger and cheaper pitcher than Eaton, Gonzalez is a promising prospect at first base and Sledge is a useful fourth outfielder. In exchange for downgrading at starting pitcher and giving up two useful hitters, the Rangers basically only received a reliever who was nowhere near as good his second season as he was in his first.

The other trade Texas made was pretty solid, sending Ricardo Rodriguez to Philadelphia for Vicente Padilla. Padilla has posted a 96 ERA+ each of the last two years, while struggling with injuries, but he was an above average pitcher the two seasons before that and is still only 28 years old. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is a soon-to-be 28-year-old reliever with 104 strikeouts and 75 walks in 206.2 career innings.

On the whole, Texas should come out ahead on the final tally when you look at the three trades they made. But then there was their big free agent signing. For some reason, the Rangers decided it would be a good idea to give a 5-year, $60 million contract to Kevin Millwood.

Giving contracts that long and with that much money involved to pitchers is generally not a great idea. Giving said contract to a pitcher who turned 31 over the offseason is definitely not a good idea. Giving that contract to a pitcher that age who has only had three good seasons in eight years is most decidedly a bad idea.

Millwood should give the Rangers about 200 innings in three or four of those five seasons. And he should provide at least average numbers, with the potential for a couple really good years. But he’s not an ace or even a pitcher you can count on to be a real asset every year. If you’re going to hand out that kind of dough, shouldn’t you at least be able to sleep easy knowing that you’ve got a good pitcher ready to go as long as he’s healthy?

Will Millwood help the Rangers this season? Probably. Will he prove to be a good value over the course of his contract? I highly doubt it.

9. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks made a 26-game improvement, going from 51 wins to 77 last year, but they still didn’t have enough to really make a serious run at a World Series. What they did have was a whole bunch of good prospects, led by the trio of Carlos Quentin, Conor Jackson and Stephen Drew. The moves they made this offseason gave them a better chance to really be a contender when those three are in their primes.

First, they traded Troy Glaus (and Sergio Santos) to the Blue Jays for Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista. That did a few things for them. First, it gave them an excellent defender at a position they don’t really have a great prospect in Hudson. Batista also gives them another pitcher who can help out either in the bullpen or the rotation. And getting rid of Glaus freed up some payroll to sign last year’s No. 1 pick, Justin Upton, who may be better than any of the other prospects they’ve got.

The other big trade they made was dealing Javier Vazquez, who had asked to be traded. Despite everybody in baseball knowing that, they were able to get Orlando Hernandez, Luis Vizcaino and Chris Young from the White Sox for him. The key to the deal is Young, a 22-year-old outfielder, who posted a .922 OPS in Class AA last year, and an .870 OPS in Class A the year before. But the other nice thing is that if Hernandez and Vizcaino pitch well, they can be traded to contenders in June or July for something else.

I don’t like Arizona’s trade of Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal for Johnny Estrada as much, but it probably won’t hurt them. Cormier doesn’t look like much, but Villarreal seems like he could be interesting,and Estrada’s out-of-nowhere 2004 looks even more like a fluke after his 72 OPS+ last season.

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With players like Eric Byrnes ($2.25 million for one year), Jeff Davanon ($525,000 for one year) and Craig Counsell keeping seats warm for the prospects, the Diamondbacks probably won’t contend for much this year. But the moves they’ve made should give them a chance to be really good starting in 2007 or 2008.

8. Toronto Blue Jays

I’m sure I’ll get all sorts of complaints from Blue Jays fans for this one, but I don’t see how I can put them any higher than this. T oronto overpaid (by a lot) for two pitchers (A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan), traded for two players who might not even make their team any better (Glaus and Lyle Overbay), and gave away a useful player for nothing (Corey Koskie) . Of course, they also lucked out and got a good catcher for a very reasonable one-year deal (Bengie Molina).

If Millwood isn’t worth $60 million over five years, then Burnett isn’t worth $55 million over five years. Burnett’s 29 years old, has a serious injury history, and he doesn’t have a single season as good as Millwood’s third-best season. He does have good “stuff” and lots of “upside,” but I have trouble believing he’ll become much better than he already is.

But at least Burnett will give the Blue Jays 200-plus innings when he’s healthy. Ryan got $47 million over five seasons, and he’s only going to give Toronto 400 total innings (at most) in that time if he stays healthy. And even though he’s only been a closer for two years, he’s not a young guy, as he just turned 30 over the winter.

You want to know what a reliever who’s worth $50 million over five years looks like? How about 354 1/3 innings, a 1.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 333 strikeouts against just 71 walks and 214 saves in 239 chances (89.5 percent success rate). So if Ryan can just match what Mariano Rivera did the last five seasons, he’ll be worth the contract he just signed.

Having Burnett and Ryan absolutely makes Toronto a better team—if they’re both as good and healthy as they have been the last two seasons. But even then they won’t be worth their deals unless they also stay healthy for the next five years and don’t lose any effectiveness as they move toward their mid-30s.

Even giving Roy Halladay a 3-year, $40 million extension is risky. The Blue Jays now have 5-year, big money commitments to three pitchers. It might work out, but pitchers are very fragile creatures, so Toronto’s playing with fire with this trio of deals.

Then there are Toronto’s trades, which basically amount to swapping Hudson, Koskie, Batista and David Bush for Glaus and Overbay. Offensively, they’re only losing 907 at-bats from Hudson, Koskie and Gabe Gross, while they’re probably hoping for 1,100-1,200 at-bats from Glaus and Overbay. That means they’ll have to cut into the at-bats they gave Shea Hillenbrand, Eric Hinske, Frank Catalanotto or Reed Johnson, especially if they’re planning on giving Aaron Hill more than the 361 at-bats he got last year.

Defensively, Glaus replaces Koskie and Hill replaces Hudson, which greatly weakens the defense. Koskie and Hudson are both among the best defenders at their position, while Glaus is one of the worst third basemen and Hill doesn’t have enough time at second to really know how good he is.

And while Glaus is a legitimately good hitter, Overbay is more of a question. He posted a .962 OPS before the All-Star break in 2004, but has had a sub-.800 OPS since. So Glaus and Overbay are likely to be better offensively than Hudson and Koskie were, but the series of transactions weaken the defense and there’s also the fact that Glaus is an injury risk and Overbay probably isn’t as good as people think.

Of course, in those deals they’re also losing two solid pitchers (Batista and Bush), a useful outfielder (Gross) and an interesting pitching prospect (Zach Jackson).

Signing Molina to a one-year, $5 million deal is something you can’t argue with, because he could be a huge improvement on the .668 OPS Toronto got from its catchers last year (he had a .782 OPS last year), and even if he isn’t, he doesn’t cost much and he certainly won’t be worse.

All in all, Toronto will be better than a year ago, but the team has a lot of risk on it, and I’m not sure they accomplished much with all of their trades.

7. New York Mets

Like the Blue Jays, the Mets are obviously an improved team this offseason, but at what cost? The Mets seem to have the best talent in the NL East (and maybe the entire NL) this year, but they emptied their farm system and are now an old, expensive and somewhat injury-prone ballclub.

Billy Wagner will definitely help the Mets as long as he stays healthy, but four years and $43 million is a ridiculous contract to give a relief pitcher, especially one who’s 34 years old and has lost significant time to injury in two of the last six seasons. Other than signing Julio Franco to a 2-year, $2.2 million deal, Wagner was really the only foray into free agency for the Mets. Everything else came via trades.

New York made two trades with the Marlins, giving up five players (Yusmeiro Petit, Mike Jacobs, Grant Psomas, Gaby Hernandez and Dante Brinkley), and cash for Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca. Delgado is obviously the kind of big bat the Mets needed at first base last year (when they got an abysmal .693 OPS from the position), but Lo Duca hasn’t been a particularly good hitter since that fluke performance in 2001,and he’s not likely to improve now that he’s about to turn 34.

So while Delgado will be a mammoth improvement at first base, Lo Duca could well provide a lower OPS than what the Mets got from the position last year (.758).

While I think the Lo Duca trade could end up looking bad, the Mets made another trade that is unquestionably bad. They may have needed to trade Mike Cameron and he may not have been at his peak value, but there’s no way Xavier Nady should be the best they can get in return. Nady is just a fourth outfielder while Cameron is potentially a gold glove center fielder who can also hit.

The Mets also made two trades that killed the depth of their starting rotation, sending Kris Benson to Baltimore for Jorge Julio, and John Maine and trading Jae Seo (and Tim Hamulack) to the Dodgers for Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll. That leaves them with just five starters with any kind of big-league experience (Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Victor Zambrano and Aaron Heilman) and several of them are old and/or injury-prone.

If they have any injuries in the rotation (and they will), they will be relying on Maine or Brian Bannister or some mystery starter to provide innings. And the relievers they got in those deals (Julio and Sanchez) are far from sure things. Julio has been maddeningly inconsistent in his career, and Sanchez has only pitched two full seasons, posting a decent 3.56 ERA in 162 innings the last two years.

6. Cleveland Indians

The Indians had the kind of offseason that allows them to compete for a spot in the playoffs this year while also giving them a chance to be very good in a year or two.

Let’s start with the rotation, where the Indians lost Millwood and Scott Elarton to free agency. Those two combined for a 3.71 ERA in 373.2 innings, which is very good. It was also very unlikely to happen again, because Millwood had shaved two full runs off his ERA from the season before.

The Indians replaced them with Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson, who combined to post a 4.15 ERA in 414.1 innings last year. That’s obviously not as good as what Millwood and Elarton did last year, but it’s entirely possible that the Byrd/Johnson duo will be as good as or better than the Millwood/Elarton duo.

In addition to the fact that Byrd/Johnson may be just as good as Millwood/Elarton this year, they will also cost a lot less. Byrd got $14.25 million over two years with an $8 million option and Johnson got $4 million for one year, while Millwood received the aforementioned monster contract. Then there’s also the fact that the Indians picked up an extra draft pick in the process of losing Millwood and Elarton and signing Byrd.

The Indians did suffer some losses in the bullpen, losing Bobby Howry, David Riske and Arthur Rhodes and gaining only Guillermo Mota. But they also still have solid relievers in Bob Wickman, Rafael Betancourt and Scott Sauerbeck, as well as intriguing youngsters like Kazuhito Tadano and Fernando Cabrera.

Then there was the big trade, sending Coco Crisp (and Riske and Josh Bard) to Boston for Andy Marte (and Mota and Kelly Shoppach). Losing Crisp will hurt some, because he was very good both offensively and defensively last year, but the Indians were able to offset that somewhat by trading Rhodes for Jason Michaels, who has the ability to be a solid hitter in at least a part-time role.

And in Marte, the Indians got one of the 10 or 15 best prospects in baseball right now. With Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez already on the team, Marte gives the Indians potential (or actual) stars at five positions. The Indians probably would have been a better team this season with Crisp, but they’ll still be good without him and they’ve set themselves up very well for the future by adding Marte (not to mention locking up Peralta’s arbitration years for $13 million and getting a $7 million option on his first year of free agency).

5. Chicago White Sox

The thing I like about the White Sox offseason is that they didn’t decide to just play it safe, keep the team that won the World Series the same and hope to catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row. The front office probably realized that while they had a good team last year, they also had some things break right for them without which they might not have even made the playoffs.

Rather than relying on those things to happen again, they decided to take some chances and see if they can become an even better team and one that’s less reliant on good fortune. Basically, their offseason comes down to hoping for rebound years from Javier Vazquez and Jim Thome, and relying on Brian Anderson to be ready to play center field.

Thome was obviously terrible last year, but he had 10 consecutive years before that with production ranging from good to MVP-caliber. He could easily become the best hitter on this team if he’s healthy and back in form. To get him, the White Sox gave up Aaron Rowand, Dan Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez (and got some cash back).

They were able to give up Rowand (an excellent defensive center fielder) because they think Anderson’s ready. Anderson is 24 years old and spent last season hitting .295/.360/.469 in Triple-A before a cup of coffee in Chicago. If he can top the .270/.329/.407 line that Rowand put up and play solid defense, then the White Sox essentially got Thome for a couple of nice left-handed pitching prospects.

Vazquez is an even better risk because he showed some signs of bouncing back from his 2004 disaster with the Yankees last year, and they only gave up one prospect (Young) to get him, in addition to decent reliever Vizcaino and continuously injured starter Hernandez. Vazquez gives the White Sox five pitchers who are capable of throwing 200 innings of above average baseball, with Brandon McCarthy waiting in the wings.

Other than that, the White Sox gave Paul Konerko $60 million for five years. That’s too much, but they almost had to keep him because he was easily the best hitter on a team that wasn’t very good offensively. They also gave reasonable three-year deals to Jon Garland ($29 million) and A.J. Pierzynski ($15 million), and traded Damaso Marte for useful utility player Rob Mackowiak.

After this offseason, the White Sox could realistically either win the World Series again or not even make the playoffs. Either way, I like the fact that they were aggressive in trying to defend their title. You don’t get many chances to win back-to-back championships.

4. Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox had a tumultuous offseason between losing Johnny Damon to the Yankees and losing (and then re-signing) Theo Epstein as GM, but it was ultimately a very good offseason.

The first big move they made was to trade four prospects (Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez,Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia) to the Marlins for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Mota. Of those prospects, Sanchez is probably the only one with the potential to be a really good player, although Ramirez could still get there if he figures out how to use all of his tools.

Beckett, of course, is a huge boon to the Red Sox rotation. Boston only had one pitcher throw at least 90 innings last year with an above average ERA (Tim Wakefield had a 106 ERA+ in 225.1 innings). Beckett had a 119 ERA+ last year, and it was his third straight season with an ERA+ of at least 108, and he’s only 25 years old. There are some injury concerns, but he definitely has the potential to be the best pitcher in Boston’s rotation.

Lowell is a likely downgrade from Bill Mueller at third base for the Red Sox, but he could actually be just as good if he regains some of the production he displayed from 2002-2004.

Next, the Red Sox traded Doug Mirabelli for Mark Loretta, who is one injury-plagued season removed from a 136 OPS+ (and a 120 OPS+ the year before that). Even last year Loretta posted a 96 OPS+, and he should be an excellent second baseman for the Red Sox this year.

The other big piece of Boston’s offseason is several moves in one. They lost Johnny Damon to free agency, traded Edgar Renteria for Andy Marte, shipped Marte, Mota and Kelly Shoppach to the Indians for Crisp, Riske, and Bard, and signed Alex Gonzalez.

Crisp should be a perfectly adequate replacement offensively for Damon, since he had a higher OPS+ last year and is six years younger. He’s also been an excellent defender in left field, so he should be at least average in center. Gonzalez is not a good hitter, but neither was Renteria last year. Gonzalez is also a better fielder, and should be able to hold the position down just fine until Dustin Pedroia is ready to take over.

Other than that, the Red Sox got Bronson Arroyo to sign a nice 3-year deal ($11.25 million), added some bullpen depth with Rudy Seanez (one year, $2.1 million) and Julian Tavarez (two years, $6.7 million), signed J.T. Snow to back up (hopefully) Kevin Youkilis at first base and gave a minor-league deal to Dustan Mohr, who could platoon nicely with Trot Nixon in right field.

And in addition to likely upgrading the team without giving a crazy, long-term deal to anybody, the Red Sox added four picks in this summer’s draft.

3. Oakland Athletics

The A’s made enough moves last offseason and had few enough free agents this offseason that they probably could have just stood pat and still been the favorites to win the AL West entering this season. Instead, the A’s went out and made three moves that give them an even better shot at winning the division and getting back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The first move was a 3-year, $21.375 million deal for Esteban Loaiza. That may seem like a lot of money for a team like the A’s to hand out, but considering that Loaiza is likely to be at least average (if not better than that), and is a good bet to throw 200 innings, it’s a good value. It might seem unnecessary, since the A’s already had five starting pitchers, but Joe Blanton and/or Kirk Saarloos won’t match last year’s production, if you look at the strikeouts rates from last year.

The A’s also traded Andre Ethier for Milton Bradley (and Antonio Perez), and signed Frank Thomas to a one-year, $500,000 deal. Those moves both also help to bolster Oakland’s depth without much risk. Ethier’s a solid outfield prospect, but Bradley’s already a solid major-league outfielder who’s in the prime of his career. And Thomas is obviously a big injury risk, but he only cost half a million dollars. Even Perez gives the A’s another nice backup on the infield, as he had a .759 OPS in 259 at-bats last year.

Basically, the A’s were already a good team and they added three players who have the potential to be anywhere from good to really good, but the A’s aren’t reliant on any of them to be productive at all.

They now have six or seven capable starting pitchers, meaning they can survive an injury or a decline season and/or have a pitcher available to trade at the deadline.

They also have three players who can man center field while providing average or better offense, and four other players to man the corner outfield spots/first base/DH, so they can definitely survive injuries to outfielders.

After their moves this offseason, the only real concerns for the A’s will be injuries to Eric Chavez, Mark Ellis, Bobby Crosby and Rich Harden. Anybody else they can probably do without, even for an extended period of time.

2. New York Yankees

Really, the Yankees just didn’t do anything wrong this offseason. They may have overspent in a couple places, but they can afford it. And every player they added can help them.

The big move was obviously the signing of Johnny Damon for $52 million over four years. That’s a lot of money, and it will carry him through his age 35 season, which is always a risk, but it will be worth it for at least the first two years. Last year, the Yankees got a .629 OPS and terrible defense at center field. Even if Damon declines both offensively and defensively, he will be a huge upgrade for the Yankees.

The other big-money move was a 3-year, $17 million deal for Kyle Farnsworth. I don’t think Farnsworth’s an ideal reliever for the Yankees, and I certainly don’t think that’s ideal money for him (especially since the man he’s replacing, Tom Gordon, got three years and $18 million), but he can help the team and the team can afford him. Farnsworth was excellent last year (198 ERA+) and he was well above average two of the previous four years. He’s also 8.5 years younger than Gordon, so he’s less risky to hand a three-year deal to.

The Yankees also made two trades, somehow getting the Reds to take Tony Womack off their hands (for Kevin Howard and Ben Himes) in one, and getting Ron Villone for Ben Julianel in the other.

The Yankees then signed Miguel Cairo to a one-year, $1 million deal, so they upgraded the quality of their backup second baseman while at the same time downgrading the amount they’re paying for him (and picking up a couple fringe players at the same time).

Villone has been above average each of the last three years, and considering how many question marks there are in New York’s rotation, it’s a good thing for them to have another pitcher who they could plug in for a start or two if necessary.

They also gave two years and $2.4 million to Mike Myers, who could help them get lefties out, and one year, and $2 million to Octavio Dotel, who could be a nice addition later this summer if his rehab goes well. And they gave Bernie Williams $1.5 million for one year, which is a nice deal for sentimental purposes, and maybe he’ll bounce back from his first sub-100 OPS+ since 1993.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers did two important things this offseason. First, they acquired enough players that they are now a legitimate contender (if not the favorite) to win the NL West. Second, they didn’t sign anybody to such a long deal that he’s going to block their excellent prospects. The Dodgers have probably the best farm system in baseball right now, and they can still plug any of their guys in pretty much as soon as they’re ready.

The biggest move the Dodgers made was signing Rafael Furcal to a three-year, $39 million deal. The deal is a good one because he’s a huge upgrade from Cesar Izturis, they’re getting his age 28-30 seasons and he’s not blocking Joel Guzman (who’s moving to the outfield) or Chin-Lung Hu (who won’t be ready for at least three years even if he develops).

The Dodgers also gave Mueller $9.5 million over two years. Mueller should definitely be able to help Los Angeles improve upon the .722 OPS it got from third base last year, and either Andy LaRoche or Blake DeWitt should be ready to take over third base when Mueller’s contract runs out (or if he gets hurt in 2007).

In another move, Los Angeles gave $6 million to Nomar Garciaparra for one year, and will have him play first base. Garciaparra’s not going to get back to the production level he had in 1998-2000, but if he’s healthy, he could be the good hitter he was in 2002-03. If not, the Dodgers still have Hee Seop Choi to play first base.

The Dodgers had to trade Bradley because of his issues while he was with the team, but he only gave them 283 at-bats last year, so that’s not a huge loss. Ethier, the outfield prospect they received, could be ready to help this year, and the Dodgers also gave Kenny Lofton $3.85 million to take some at-bats in center field.

The Dodgers lost Jeff Weaver to free agency, but they have several options to replace the 4.22 ERA he posted in 224 innings last year. The first is Brett Tomko, who they signed to a two-year, $8.7 million contract. The second is Seo, who they acquired along with Hamulack for Sanchez and Schmoll. And the third and fourth are Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton, either of whom may be ready for the major league rotation at some point this season.

The final piece to the puzzle for Los Angeles is the trade of Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany for Danys Baez and Lance Carter. This is probably the worst player move they made this offseason, because Tiffany’s a nice prospect and Jackson still has the potential to be useful. But Baez is a quality reliever and can help the Dodgers, especially if Eric Gagne gets hurt again this season.

Really, the only thing that made me consider not giving the Dodgers the top spot was the fact that they hired Grady Little to be their manager. He’s going to drive Dodgers fans crazy, but even he couldn’t prevent two talented Red Sox teams from winning 188 games.

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