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News from the Hot Stove League

Temperatures in the Bay Area have finally dipped into the 30s, giving local baseball fans a reason to gather in the kitchen for news from the Hot Stove League. In the interest of generating more reader comments, I’ve started a blog for this column. You can find it at: <a href=""></a>; I’ll post some brief commentary on that site every few days and try to respond to your comments. Without further ado, let’s catch up on the latest transactions for our local teams:

First, the Oakland Athletics. The A’s have been relatively quiet so far this offseason. The best news is that they finally got rid of Jermaine Dye’s huge contract. Signed in another era, Dye got paid $10 million a year for three injury-riddled years where he never approached the heights he reached in Kansas City. This gives the A’s a lot of wiggle room this year, and they could go after a free agent or two.

The biggest move was the acquisition of Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jason Kendall. The Pirates were trying to ditch Kendall’s yoke of a contract for over a year, with no takers. The A’s used the opportunity to dump two unwanted pitchers, Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes, on the Bucs and also let last year’s catcher, Damian Miller, walk to the Milwaukee Brewers for $3 million a year. Pittsburgh also paid the A’s a net $5 million to cover part of Kendall’s contract.

Sounds complicated. What’s the end result? In 2005, the deal makes the A’s better with only a marginal increase in payroll. How? Redman and Rhodes were mediocre in 2004, and get replaced by rookies Joe Blanton and Huston Street, each making the major league minimum. Savings so far: about $7.5 million. Kendall replaces Miller, saving another $3 million, but Kendall’s contract plus a payment to the Pirates costs the A’s $11 million. After it’s all said and done, the A’s are out less than a million dollars, and they’ve upgraded their catching, their rotation and their bullpen. Not bad for a couple days work.

Now for the San Francisco Giants. The big news is that the Giants finally landed a top relief pitcher in Armando Benitez. Benitez redeemed himself with a strong 2004 for the Florida Marlins after being relegated to a lesser role with the Yankees and Mariners for half of 2003. He’s lost a bit off his fastball, striking out 8 batters per 9 innings, down from nearly 15 in 1999. On the positive side, he re-located his control, and walked half as many batters as he did in 2003. Through the miracles of deferred compensation, Benitez’s 3-year $21.5 million contract pays him $4.1 million in 2005, and pays his bonus through 2009.

The other big Giants signing was free agent shortstop Omar Vizquel. Vizquel’s contract will also pay him into the next presidential administration, while he’ll be on the roster until he turns 40 in 2007. Vizquel is clearly an upgrade over the Deivi Cruz/Cody Ransom that had Giants fans lamenting the loss of Neifi Perez. But he’s also 38 years old, with declining speed and range, and he has a short, albeit significant injury history. In 2005, at the very least, he will make the Giants a better team. There is a dark side to the Vizquel deal – because he was signed so early, the Giants forfeited their 2005 First Round draft pick. This was intentional – they did the same with their 2004 pick. It won’t hurt them for the next few years, so maybe Brian Sabean plans to quit after Barry retires. I don’t know. But woe is the sports team that gives away the best young players it can get its hands on.

There were a few housekeeping notes: the Giants re-signed their own free agents – Marquis Grissom, Deivi Cruz, J.T. Snow and Brett Tomko. They also bought out the option on Jason Christiansen’s contract. On their own, the Grissom, Cruz and Snow deals could make sense, but in conjunction with other moves, they don’t. Retaining Snow along with Edgardo Alfonzo and Pedro Feliz gives the Giants three corner infielders, one of whom will have to be traded. Cruz is coming off a career hitting year (.752 OPS vs .682 career) and with Vizquel’s signing, the Giants now have two backup shortstops. And Grissom, at age 38, is just getting slower while the Giants look for a better centerfielder and collect Michael Tucker, Dustan Mohr and Todd Linden in right field. The net result is that the Giants have too many guys on the roster. A.J. Pierzynski will be the first to go, but Mohr, Linden and Feliz are too good to languish on the bench. The Giants would love to be rid of Edgardo Alfonzo, but the $18 million remaining on his contract makes that all but impossible without subsidizing the deal.

The Tomko and Christiansen deals, on the other hand, were almost no-brainers. Christiansen complained very publicly about his lack of playing time in September, but when you get down to it, he made $7 million for pitching 67 innings with an ERA over 5.00. No, it’s not quite T-Long territory, but it’s close. Tomko, on the other hand, was worth a one-year, $2.5 million gamble. He was 6-6 with a 5.11 ERA on Aug. 21. Then he went to see a Psychologist in Los Angeles. From then on, he posted a 1.44 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. Let’s put it this way: we would have seen a lot more of the Giants farm system this year had it not been for Tomko. Will he return to the form that gave him a career 4.53 ERA? The upside is worth the risk.

In all, the Giants are 2 or 3 wins better than they were last year. The pitching staff, hopefully with a full year of Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry, is improved. The bullpen is much better, with Benitez as the stopper, Jim Brower, Scott Eyre and Matt Herges in suitable roles, and young pitchers David Aardsma, Kevin Correia, Brad Hennessey and Jesse Foppert competing for the last few spots. Team defense will improve slightly with the addition of Vizquel and Yorvit Torrealba taking over full-time behind the plate. But hitting is still a question mark. If you exclude Torrealba, the average age in the field is 36. Injuries and slow feet will take their toll, and J.T. Snow won’t repeat his .958 OPS.

Right now, with a healthy Barry Bonds, the Giants are good enough to win the Wild Card, if not the division. But this is Barry’s second-last year, and the Wild Card isn’t good enough. To make a run at the World Series, the Giants still need to upgrade the hitting at one position, with center and right field the best candidates. Unfortunately, budget constraints are preventing them from signing the best free agents, and the nearly bare farm system won’t draw much interest around the league. Wouldn’t it be nice to un-sign Grissom, Snow and Cruz and get that $6 million back?