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A helping hand

Elite shortstops to benefit from strange moves by Giants, Expos

Posted: Friday November 19, 2004 6:29PM; Updated: Monday November 22, 2004 11:31AM
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Belatedly, I've realized the journalistic consequences of my decision to remain abstinent for a winter of sports, one of which is the void that swallows all attempts to write for a space such as this. But the plan is working, thus far. The closest I've come to caving: Championship Poker at the Plaza on Fox Sports Net (in which, at last glance, Daniel Negreanu was wearing a silly hockey sweater and running over the table, getting into pots with hands like 7-5 suited and flopping open-end straight draws).

I feel this remains borderline-acceptable, both because poker isn't really a sport, and because Fox isn't really a television channel. I also went to the elegant buffet dinner at the Meadowlands (thanks, Gabe) and even made 50 bucks when a Mike Gill-Mark Shuman shipper from Lone Star got home at 5-to-1, but, well, horse racing is the addiction I want to keep. Like all the recovery programs say, though, no more backsliding. You're a puff away from a pack a day; or in my case, watching the second quarter of Bucks-Hornets. (And is there anything more depressing, in its futile, silent way, than the second quarter of an NBA game?)

Absent the playing of live sports, I'm left with going to shows (check out The States, y'all) and the MLB hot stove, which has been a-bubble. My thoughts:

• The Giants (three years and $12.3 million for Omar Vizquel) and Expos (four years and $16.8 million for Cristian Guzman) have, with two quizzical contracts, fattened the wallets of Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra and Edgar Renteria, free-agent shortstops all, who can now use those deals as reference points for their own. Vizquel is a useful hitter, based on his .353 on-base percentage last season, and he remains above-average defensively, making him a thunderous upgrade from incumbent Deivi Cruz. But Vizquel seems much more likely to regress offensively than to duplicate last season, he will be 40 in the final year of this deal, and continues not to hit for power.

Guzman represents an even stranger bird, a player whose on-base percentage flutters consistently in the low .300s, whose speed has dropped off dramatically (a 20-triple, 28-stolen base man in 2000, Guzman legged out only four triples and swiped 10 bags last season), doesn't figure to learn plate discipline, ever, will miss some 20 games to injury, and consumes a big chunk of cash for a club of limited means. No, Maicer Izturis wasn't the answer at shortstop for the Expos, but Guzman, and new third baseman Vinny Castilla (two years, $6.2 million), long exposed as the myth of Coors Field, have a solid chance of hitting .260 with, a .320 on-base percentage and say, 20 home runs between them. Gross.

Troy Percival's two year, $12.2 million deal with Detroit inspired the gut reaction that the Tigers had overpaid for a closer who had been eclipsed on his former club by Francisco Rodriguez, the easy choice to finish for Anaheim next season, but this deal seems defensible. First, Detroit's bullpen was dreadful last season, a 4.91 ERA (13th in the A.L.), 6.6 strikeouts, 4.0 walks and 1.3 home runs per nine, all last in the league. Patching it was a priority for GM Dave Dombrowski. Though Percival is in decline, and his career-low 6.0 strikeouts per nine in '04 constitutes a worrisome development, he's still an upgrade over anybody in that pen, including Ugueth Urbina, a paradigm closer-in-name, who's under contract for $4.5 million. Detroit papers are floating the suggestion that Urbina be traded, and I can't disagree, because his perceived value to a team without a closer far exceeds his pay, but if he stays, Detroit actually has a reasonable back end in Percival, Urbina and Jamie Walker. More important, though, signing Percival (like signing Pudge Rodriguez last winter) is a very positive P.R. move for a team still battling the stigma of '03.

Picking up an All-Star pitcher indicates seriousness to fans and enhances the attractiveness of the situation to future free agents. True, Percival will throw only 50 innings, but it's important for Tigers fans to maintain the perception that ownership cares about success. Plus, closers are fungible, and I can easily see Percival flipped in the summer of '05 to, say, the White Sox, who will be five games out but still laboring under the illusion of contention.

Pedro Martinez's tete-a-tete with George Steinbrenner made for delicious headlines in the New York tabs ("Sugar Daddy" was a common leitmotif), but it's a charade, one that serves both parties simply because it irks Boston. The Yankees aren't interested in topping the Red Sox's two-year, $25.5 million offer.

• If the Diamondbacks trade Randy Johnson, Wally Backman can take cold comfort in the fact that his first MLB manager's job did not go like Alan Trammell's.

All right, this week, the battle to remain celibate continues, though I'm pretty concerned about Thanksgiving, and the hand-in-glove fit between cranberries, stuffing and footy, a tryptophan coma inducing glassy-eyed contemplation of the late Cowboys game. I'll keep you posted.