WTNYApril 01, 2005
Spring Cleaning
By Bryan Smith

Every year with the end of Spring Training comes considerable uncertainty, as teams are forced to show their hands with respect to their 25-man roster. Second guessing sends General Managers to their cell phone, and each season, we see an abundance of movement.

Lost velocity sends a pitcher to the minors. A bad sample size puts a hitter on the waiver wire. A lack of options gets a player dealt. Rule 5 picks are kept, put on the DL, offered back and traded for. Besides the trade deadline and the Winter Meetings, these days are among the busiest for a Major League front office.

This season is no exception, and while we have not seen any huge deals, some familiar names have been passing hands. Today I want to look at the deals of this week, and their implications on the 25-man roster. In addition to that, it also appears each choice from the Rule 5 pick has his immediate future now decided, so we can look at that.

To me, the most surprising news of the week was Baltimore jumping ship on former top prospect Matt Riley. The combination of control problems, make-up issues and lost velocity did not go together well for the Orioles, who look like they will instead give their fifth starter spot to Rick Bauer. They landed Ramon Nivar, a former hot-shot prospect that looks like he could carve a nice superutility career together.

In Riley, the Rangers got a bit of a project, and one they cannot send down to the minors (no options). Expect Orel Hershiser to tackle this hard in the next few weeks, working on getting Riley's velocity back in the mid-90s and sharpening his control. Hershiser has done well in Texas, turning some average players into useful ones, like Ryan Drese. Riley comes with as much potential as anyone Orel has worked with, and I would not bet against him here.

The most well known player in the news lately is Byung-Hyun Kim, the once-closer of the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. The Red Sox, who admitted a mistake in making him a ten million dollar investment, traded the right-hander to the Colorado Rockies. Theo Epstein has been quite busy this spring, securing a slew of bullpen arms that made Kim expendable.

First was Blaine Neal, who the team traded for on March 22 in exchange for Adam Hyzdu. Neal was originally traded from the Marlins to the Padres when he could not become accustomed to Major League pitching. Since 1999, Neal has a 2.30 ERA in more than 250 minor league innings, so the potential for a dominant reliever is there.

Siding with a veteran arm rather than Neal for the last reliever spot, Epstein re-acquired southpaw submarine pitcher Mike Myers this week. In Cardinals camp this spring, the leftie killer cost the Red Sox two minor league players: Carlos De La Cruz and Kevin Ool. Cruz showed a weak bat in short-season ball, so his name may as well be omitted. Similarly, Ool's struggles as a LOOGY in the Sally League indicate cash may have been the better route for the Cardinals.

Finally, I should mention that the Red Sox acquired both Charles Johnson and Chris Narveson from the Rockies for Kim. Johnson found himself on the free agent market within hours of the deal, meaning Narveson was the key to the deal. Peter Gammons had reported the Red Sox turned down a trade that would have involved Jason Young, instead choosing the left-handed Narveson.

Not blessed with fantastic stuff, Narveson has a career of good minor league numbers. In five seasons since the Cardinals made him a second-round pick, Narveson has more than 500 innings with a 3.32 ERA. Good peripheral numbers include a H/9 under nine, a HR/9 under one, and a K/9 of 7.75. The southpaw will move up to the International League this year, but is still four or five back on the organizational depth chart.

This is not a big loss for the Rockies, since they did not have him before trading Larry Walker last season. Instead they land Kim, who will give the team an option in middle relief. Chin-Hui Tsao, who was earlier designated as a closer, will begin the season on the DL, forcing Clint Hurdle to consider different ninth inning options. If Tsao's stint on the DL is longer than expected, and Kim flourishes in Coors, expect him to be closing in the NL West again soon. They also lose Charles Johnson, a sunk cost of their own.

As for Johnson, it appears the former All-Star will cap a very busy Spring Training for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Chuck Lamar, who went into Spring Training not giving Lou Piniella a large bench, has spent the month of March building considerable depth. This began when the club signed speedster Alex Sanchez following Danny Bautista's decision to retire. It now appears Sanchez will start the year in centerfield, likely batting second until Rocco Baldelli returns.

Bautista also left an open spot in right field, and though the Devil Rays were not willing to give Matt Diaz or Jonny Gomes a chance, they did claim Mike Restovich off waivers on Thursday. While the former two are just as talented as Restovich, all three would be better options for Tampa than trotting Aubrey Huff or Eduardo Perez out there. Restovich has an OPS better than .800 in more than 100 big league at-bats, and should be given every chance to succeed in Tropicana Field.

Tampa's camp also willed Robbie Alomar into retiring, giving Jorge Cantu the everyday job he deserved and opening a utility infielder spot. Rather than give veteran Shane Halter the spot, Chuck Lamar dealt Jorge Sosa to the Braves for Nick Green on Thursday. Sosa was not going to make the team, and Nick Green impressed Brave management during Marcus Giles' injury last year. He won't be a world beater by any means -- Jorge Cantu should hardly lose any at-bats -- but there are far worse utility infielders out there.

As a quick break from the Devil Ray acquisitions, let me compliment John Scheurholz on another good move. Sosa has a lot of upside in my opinion, and could be the Juan Cruz of 2005 under Leo Mazzone. His strikeout numbers are very high, and with a bit of improved control, he'll be a key to the weakened Brave bullpen.

To return to the Devil Rays, finally, there is Johnson. Toby Hall is still supposed to be the starter, though I expect the two to split duties behind the plate during the year. It is amazing to me while the contending-hopeful Seattle Mariners have a bench of Dan Wilson, Scott Spiezio, Willie Bloomquist and Abraham Nunez, the Devil Rays will pinch-hit with Johnson, Perez, Green and Josh Phelps.

Speaking of Nunez, he is the newest Mariner after the club claimed him off waivers from the Royals. Seattle was split between Greg Dobbs and Ramon Santiago for their final lineup choice, though neither really fulfilled the lack of outfield depth problem. Dave Cameron is not too excited by the move, given Bautista's lack of substantial offensive success. Bill Bavasi had the chance at numerous better options over the last six months, but Shin-Soo Choo will make Nunez' stay a short one.

Abraham leaves Kansas City after losing the right field job that Allard Baird all but handed him. The club has been impressed by minor league veteran Emil Brown all spring, and gave the guy a job despite his 400-plus at-bats with a sub-600 OPS. This bad decision is alright given their choice of Calvin Pickering over Ken Harvey, which should have been a lay-up.

Another lay-up in KC is keeping Andy Sisco, the big southpaw they were lucky enough to steal in the Rule 5 draft. Sisco impressed the team while throwing three hitless innings in his spring debut, guaranteeing him spot an April job. A recent injury made it look like he would begin the season on the DL, but Rotoworld reports that Sisco will start on the 25-man roster anyways.

The other Cub chosen in the Rule 5, Luke Hagerty, was returned this week from the Florida Marlins. A Spring Training injury limited the exposure he was hoping to get, and instead he's headed to one of the Cubs minor league destinations. Hagerty has tons of potential, but has been hurt with an arm injury since leaving Ball State University.

Florida's other team, the aforementioned Devil Rays, returned first overall Angel Garcia to the Minnesota Twins. Garcia's ERA ended in the double-digits this spring, assuring Minnesota he would be returned. Conversely, the Twins gave back their choice, southpaw Ryan Rowland-Smith, to the Mariners. I thought Smith might get kept, but it looks like he'll instead be in the Texas League this year.

Who will be kept, contrary to past belief, is new Dodger reliever D.J. Houlton. His K/BB ratio in the minor leagues is nearly 4/1, his strikeout ratio is nearly 9.00. Never has Houlton met a level he's struggled at, and I think he will succeed in the Majors too. Dodger Stadium is a good place to do it, too.

So who would have guessed that Adam Stern, chosen by the world champs, would not be returned by Opening Day? I, for one, but it looks like Stern will begin on the Red Sox 25-man roster. By abusing the rules, the Red Sox will then send Stern to Pawtucket on a "rehab assignment," before making a decision on Stern some time in May.

Two other sabermetrically-minded clubs were forced into interesting decisions with Rule 5 picks. Oakland decided not to keep their choice, Tyler Johnson, when he struggled badly in camp. I saw him throw a good curveball in Arizona, so the Cardinals might not be losing much if they keep him rather than Mike Myers. Los Angeles, besides keeping Houlton, decided not to retain Shane Victorino from the Phillies. Can't be good for a guys confidence when a team from the third largest market in America won't pay $25,000 for ya.

There is no question that the Rockies are in the right mind to be finding cheap talent in the Rule 5 draft. The problem is, that cheap talent should not be on the mound. Given the ease for hitters to succeed in that park, choosing the likes of Adam Stern and Tony Blanco are in the best interest of the team. Not smart, in my mind, is drafting pitchers. Allowing thousand dollar gambles to throw on the toughest mound in baseball is simply not in the best interest of the Rockies and the likes of Marcos Carvajal and Matt Merricks. The former is going to contend for that closer spot, while Merricks will be on the 60-day DL with a shoulder injury.

The route the Rockies should have gone, is the one the Washington Nationals took. While their selections were not the best, it looks like both Tony Blanco and Ty Godwin will remain in the organization. Blanco will be kept after hitting well over .300, and even made noise for getting some at-bats at third. The Nationals traded for the rights of Godwin, sending the Blue Jays a short-season player in return.

Whew, that's a lot of wheeling and dealing. All in a month's work for these front offices, who have prepared us well for what should be one great season.


I want to point out the Cubs preview I did for the Hardball Times. Given their five question format, I looked at how much losing Sosa's bat will help, how many runs the Cubs will score, problems in the rotation and the bullpen, and a little wins prediction at the end. As much as I don't approve of the Cliff Bartosh trade from this week, I still got 'em in my playoffs. Hope springs eternal.