Best decisions of the past year (cont.)
16. Andy Pettitte's decision to return for one more year
The Yankee's lefty has been one of the league's best pitchers again, and appears all but certain to become the first pitcher ever to pitch in 16 seasons without even one losing campaign. Now 8-2 with a 2.47 ERA, he has enhanced the Yankees' chances and possibly also his Hall of Fame chances -- but those may depend upon his willingness to return for a couple more years. While yet another return doesn't seem probable now, it has seemed like he's been retiring for years now. And he hasn't.
17. The Braves' re-signing of Tim Hudson
It seems like a couple of the Braves' high-profile moves haven't necessarily worked big for either side (the trades to acquire Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera, to name two). But the Braves obviously have done a lot right lately. This was one of their best calls. Hudson, who was signed to a $27-million, three-year extension in November even though he'd made just seven starts since late July of 2008, is back to being one of the best pitchers in baseball.
18. The Red Sox call to go for pitching and defense
Some might say the opposite, that they haven't bought the type of run prevention they bargained for. However, look at it this way: Their offense apparently was plenty good enough. In fact, they lead the league in runs scored. So why devote their efforts to finding more hitters? They did the right thing, and they are right there in the AL East race because of it, tied with the Rays just one game behind the Yankees.
19. The Twins' decision to build a new outdoor ballpark
Of course, this decision wasn't made this year. But this is the year when it went into effect, and Target Field has opened to rave reviews and has helped increase their revenue $40 to $50 million. In the past, they've had to rely on superior hustle on the field and scouting off it. But this year they were able to sign reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer to a $180-million contract, expand their payroll past that of even the Dodgers to $95 million and provide hope for even more to come.
20. The Phillies' trade for Roy Halladay
No one can argue with this move, as they got an anchor to their iffy rotation and quickly signed him to a pretty reasonable $60-million, three year deal. Halladay has met lofty expectations, at the very least, by pitching superbly, with an 8-6 record that includes a perfect game, and a 2.43 ERA. The reason this isn't higher on the list was their simultaneous decision to send Cliff Lee to Seattle for prospects to replenish the system after prospects had been dealt to Toronto to get Halladay. It's easy to say it in hindsight now, but if they needed the money for Lee's $9-million salary, they would have been better off letting go of Joe Blanton, who was instead signed to a superfluous $24-million, three-year deal. While Blanton had no trade value and they would have been left without the three prospects they received from Seattle, the general belief is they would have been better off with a dynamic one-two punch of Halladay and Lee and three fewer prospects.
Even before the Mariners won three straight games this weekend to move within 13 games of first in the AL West, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said by phone, "This division is not out of line yet. We're back a long way. But all of a sudden, we (win) six of seven, we have Lee and Felix Hernandez, we get (Erik) Bedard and (Doug) Fister coming back. We have to see in the next couple weeks.''
Still, it looks like a major long shot to keep Lee past the deadline considering the Mariners their divisional deficit, even after their recent hot streak. But Zduriencik doesn't seem tempted yet.
"People are calling,'' he said. "I have to listen. But I have to give us a chance.''
Over the offseason, the Mariners incorporated a very logical strategy of building the team around pitching and defense, but their offense has been too abominable to compete, with several players -- including Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman -- well below their career norms.
Eventually, their battle looks extremely uphill. And Lee would be, by far, the prime pitcher on the free-agent market considering his recent performance, his postseason resume, no history of arm trouble and a desirable, expiring contract that pays him $9 million for 2010. The Yankees look like a favorite to sign Lee in the winter considering: 1) their vast wealth, 2) the potential loss of free agent Javier Vazquez and possibly Pettitte from the rotation, 3) their general admiration for Lee and 4) the Lee connections of CC Sabathia (a former teammate in Cleveland) and A.J. Burnett (he and Lee have the same agent), but it's difficult to predict who'll get him now considering the $4-$5 million he'll be owed could be afforded by most contending teams.
The Mariners are thought to have some extra interest in a catcher, which could give the edge to the Twins (Wilson Ramos) or Yankees (Austin Romine, Jesus Montero and Francisco Cervelli). But the Yankees don't appear to have an overwhelming need for a top-of-the-rotation starter, but will make a call, just in case they like Seattle's asking price. The Dodgers, Rangers, Twins, Angels and Mets are among other possible contenders for Lee.
Every executive interviewed said they believe Lee will be merely a rental, and that he'll wait to sign as a free agent, no matter where he goes. Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, said that decision will be made on a "case by case basis.'' But Braunecker is the same agent who negotiated two monster free-agent deals for Burnett, isn't squeamish about negotiations and barely blinked at the Phillies' offer, which is believed to have been for more than $50 million over three years. Of course, that number will probably be no more than half Lee's asking price as a free agent.
Power prodigy Bryce Harper, whom the Nationals took two weeks ago with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, will surely seek a record signing bonus, according to a competing NL executive. While the number $12 million is floating in baseball circles, Harper will be aiming quite a bit higher, according to several sources. While Strasburg set a record last year at $15.067 million, he has been a major bargain, and that reality could play into the negotiations even though they are vastly different players of different backgrounds and ages.
There seems to be a smidgen more uncertainty here than there was with Strasburg since Harper is only 17, but one NL scout, referencing the scout's scale that ranks players from 2-8 on various abilities, said, "You just don't see a 17-year-old with 7 or 8 power.'' In fact, there's a lot of awe among scouts about Harper's talents (the aforementioned power is almost off the charts his arm strength is said to be superb as well).
Harper is programmed to be a pro, so it's hard to see him not signing. But he is only 17 and has time.
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