The Pitching Conundrum

Before the offseason started, if you had told me that mediocrities like Eric Milton and Kris Benson would be getting deals over the $20M mark, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s what has been happening. Ever since the Mets overpaid Benson, the remaining starters have been demanding at least that much, to this point have been getting it. I think we’re seeing a return to the spendthrift days of 2000 and 2001, when the middle class of free agents got very lucrative deals. Unfortunately this leaves the Indians, who didn’t have that much to spend in the first place, out in the cold. Here’s a couple points that I hope separates the overreactions from the rationality:

-Shapiro screwed up on Jon Lieber. I don’t know why Lieber decided to go to Philadelphia (maybe the schools were better), but the Indians dropped the ball by not being aggressive enough with him. If they had made their best offer and he decided to go elsewhere, that’s fine. But when Shapiro complained about Lieber’s agent not calling him back, that struck me as very odd. Chris Antonetti, who apparently was handling the Lieber negotiations, said in yesterday’s PD that “We anticipated getting a chance to make a final offer,” Antonetti said. “We made a significant three-year offer and expressed there was flexibility in it.” Given that the Phillies eventually landed Lieber for $7M/year, the final offer should have at least made Lieber’s decision more difficult. But now we’ll never know.

-It makes no sense to overspend on lesser pitching just because you missed out on your main target. That’s hard to swallow, but you can’t throw money at Kevin Millwood or Odalis Perez just to say you signed a pitcher to big deal. I think whoever signs either of these pitchers will regret the contract in two or three years. I’d rather go after David Wells on a one-year deal than give Millwood a three-year contract. Wells, for all his baggage (literally and figuratively) is still a good pitcher, and would be a nice fit as the #3 pitcher.

-Be willing to make a trade. There are some possibilities on the trade market, with Tim Hudson the biggest jewel. I’d be willing to deal Ronnie Belliard, Jake Westbrook, and a prospect for Tim Hudson. Westbrook has probably had his best season as a pitcher, and one of Oakland’s needs this season is a second baseman. The monetary aspects would still work out, and the Indians could then go after a lesser free agent pitcher to fill out the rotation. The Astros now are also in need of a second baseman, after Jeff Kent signed with the Dodgers. Wade Miller has been given a clean bill of health, but he’s a free agent after this season, so he may be pried loose for the right deal. Shapiro has said that he’d rather not explore the trade route just yet, but I think a trade may be a much easier way to get a good pitcher right now. The Indians have a ton of trading chips at their disposal, and if the free agent market doesn’t work out (and it’s looking that way), they may have to go this route. I’m of the opinion that you keep your best, and trade the rest. The Indians shouldn’t be trading guys like Miller or Aubrey, but if trading Jake Dittler can help you get Tim Hudson, you have to least think about it.

-Above all, make the right move, not the most visible move. As I’ve said before, all I care is that Shapiro make the best move he can with the resources he has. It’s not really his fault that the payroll is so low. As much as we wish Dolan to be out-spending Arte Moreno and George Steinbrenner, it isn’t happening. By my understanding, the Indians have about $7M to spend on free agents this winter; Shapiro’s job is to maximize the value of the $7M, and that means getting the best player(s) he can with it.

After thinking about the Lawton-for-Rhodes deal for a couple days, I’m beginning to sour on it. Yeah, the Indians save about $3M this year, but (a) Lawton is the better player right now and (b) who knows if the savings will be spent. If the Pirates want to throw in Josh Fogg along with Rhodes, that might make it more interesting, but for now I’d take a hardline stance on Lawton. With a weak free agent outfield class, perhaps the teams who lose out on JD Drew or Carlos Beltran may be willing to eat Lawton’s entire salary. If the Twins decide to keep Jacque Jones, it may make Lawton even more attractive.

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