What’s Werth Worth: Nats Makes Big, If Expensive, Free Agent Splash.

Jayson Werth is good, but is he $127 million good? The Nats seem to think so.

In a move that every general manager except Bill Bavasi (who tweeted that the deal was “just about right”) found utterly baffling, the Washington Nationals signed free agent right-fielder Jayson Werth to a 7-year, $126 million dollar (for those mathematically challenged readers, that’s $18 million per year) contract.

Yes the Nationals have to overspend on free agents because they’ve long been a doormat in the NL East, and yes Jayson Werth is one of the top five players on the market this offseason, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30 and more likely to contend for the WWE Heavyweight Title Belt than an MVP at the tail-end of the contract.

Werth is coming off back-to-back solid seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies (the first two full seasons of his career) in which he averaged 31 HR’s, 92 RBI’s, 17 SB’s and 102 runs (leading to a WAR of 5.2, 8th best in the NL, in 2010). The lanky outfielder is a classic 5-tool player whose combination of power, speed and defense makes him one of the most well-rounded players in the league. No one doubts Werth’s talent, and he’s certainly an upgrade over the Roger Bernadina/Jason Maxwell combo in right field, but he’ll be 32 in May and scouts worry that Werth’s best days may already be behind him. That’s not to say he won’t be productive the next few seasons (though Philadelphia is a hitter friendly park whereas Nationals Park is closer to neutral) but how will he produce in 2015, 2016 or 2017 (assuming the Mayans are wrong) when he’s in his late 30’s and still making $18 million a year?

It’s understandable that the Nationals wanted to make a move to appease their fan base after another dreadful season in 2010 but this contract could be a major albatross for the organization in a few years when Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg develop and the team is ready to challenge for the division. It’s not quite Richie Sexson bad, but Werth’s contract isn’t far off, and it doesn’t make the team much more competitive than they were in 2010.

All the deal really accomplishes is adding to the National(s) deficit. How fitting…

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Stephen Strasburg Nothing Short of Scintillating in Major League Debut.

Strasburg dazzled America in his MLB debut.

Finally there’s something worth watching in Washington besides the Baltimore Orioles C-Span.   

In one of the most anticipated debuts in major league history, Nationals’ rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg dominated the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates in route to a 5-2 Washington win.   

The 21-year-old flamethrower struck out 14 Pirates in seven innings (the second most ever in a major league debut) including the last seven batters he faced. Strasburg allowed two runs on four hits, and perhaps most impressive, didn’t walk a single batter.   

Strasburg kept the Pirates guessing all night with a combination of high 90’s fastballs and knee buckling curveballs, showing that he could shutdown major league lineups (albeit, a bad one) as easily as the minor league lineups he subdued during his short Double and Triple-A stints.   

Even with their new pitching stud in tow the Nationals won’t likely be able to contend in a competitive NL East. Still, Strasburg brings a spark to a franchise that has been a punching bag since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005. With young players like Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond entrenched in the major league lineup, and the recent selection of super prospect Bryce Harper, the Nationals are building a core of players that will allow them to contend for a division title in the next 3-4 years.  

It might just be one start, but Strasburg’s debut could indicate a changing of the guard in the NL East, and his electrifying presence brings hope to a franchise and city that are badly in need.  

And to think, the Mariners could have drafted Strasburg if they had just lost one more game in 2007 (they finished with 101 losses, the Nationals had 102). Of course, when you’ve got Ian Snell and Ryan Rowland-Smith, would the team even have room for him in the starting rotation?  

Slaps forehead…

Ryan Howard Makes More Money Than You: Is He Worth $125 Million Dollars?

Ryan Howard won't have to settle for $5 dollar footlongs with his massive new contract.

No, he doesn’t work for Goldman-Sachs, but Ryan Howard is still making a killing in the down economy. The Phillies star slugger signed a 5 year/$125 million dollar contract yesterday to stay in Philadelphia through 2016. The contract also includes a $23 million dollar club option for 2017 which would push the total value of the deal to nearly $150 million–making him the second highest paid player in baseball per season behind only Alex Rodriguez.  

Though Howard got a late start to his career (he didn’t reach the majors until age 25 with Jim Thome at first in Philadelphia), the burly lefty has done nothing but hit since, averaging 49.5 home runs and 143 RBI’s over the past four seasons. Howard captured the NL MVP in 2006 on the strength of a .313-58 HR-149 campaign, and while his average has dipped since that year, he has proven to be one of the most consistent power producers in all of baseball.  

The Phillies were eager to keep the face of their franchise in red pinstripes even though he wasn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season, perhaps fueled by an offseason rumor that the team had considered trading Howard to the Cardinals for Albert Pujols. Both Philadelphia and St. Louis denied that any trade talks had occurred, but the Phillies needed to prove they were committed to Howard, and did so by making him a very rich man. Is the big first baseman worth $25 million a year?  

Yes and no.  

There’s no denying that Howard is one of the best run producers in the game, and the signing is a good PR move because he’s a fan favorite, but Howard is certainly not without his flaws in the field and at the plate. The 6-4, 255 lbs. Howard has worked hard to become a passable first baseman, but is still below average at the position and would be better suited as a designated hitter in the American League. There are also concerns that his weight will become an issue in the latter stage of the contract as Howard will be 36 when the deal runs out. He has worked hard to stay in game shape, including losing 25 pounds during the offseason, but historically players of his size and skill set don’t age well. 

What the Phillies are really paying Howard for are his charismatic personality, moonshot home runs and clutch RBI’s—all of which mask some glaring weaknesses at the plate. Howard has averaged 191 strikeouts in his four full seasons and hasn’t posted an OPS over 1.000 since his MVP season of 2006. He is a .225 career hitter against left-handed pitchers and hasn’t shown the ability to improve in that area (only .200 so far in 2010). When the home runs stop flying off the bat, and they will, Howard’s contract will look like an albatross for Philadelphia. 

Were the Phillies smart to sign Howard to a new contract? Yes. Were the Phillies smart to sign Howard to a five-year/$125 million dollar contract? No. 

In other news, the St. Louis Cardinals are holding a combination bake and yard sale this weekend to help raise money for the ever-growing Albert Pujols free agent contract…

Baseball’s Top Five Breakout Stars for ’10

Gutierrez won't be able to hide out in the fog of Seattle much longer.

Besides “free Krispy Kremes” and “Ken Griffey Junior”, no three words in the English language are more exciting to me than “pitchers and catchers”. When I hear that magical combination of words I know that Spring Training has arrived and another season of baseball is on the horizon. With each new year a fresh crop of stars emerge and make their mark on the game, elevating themselves from good players to great players. Just like Jessica Simpson on the last stages of her “In This Skin” tour, the following players are poised for a major breakout.  

1) Franklin Gutierrez: In the eyes of most Mariners fans Gutierrez already had his breakout season—though no one outside of Seattle or the sabermetric community seemed to notice that in 2009. With a retooled roster that doesn’t include Carlos Silva (that’s one of my last shots at El Guapo, I promise) the M’s are a serious contender in the AL West and, if the team can stay in the playoff hunt late into the season, the best defensive centerfielder in baseball will finally receive the credit he deserves (or at least a Gold Glove). The affectionately named “Guti” made significant improvements at the plate last season, and if he continues to mature as a hitter, has the chance to become a legitimate 5-tool star. Don’t be surprised if Gutierrez goes for a line similar to .300-25 HR-90 RBI’s-20 SB’s in 2010…it is the Mariners year after all.  

2) Madison Bumgarner: You can laugh at his last name all you want (and his first name while you’re at it), but it won’t change the fact that Madison Bumgarner is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. In two ridiculous minor league seasons, Bumgarner has posted a combined 27-5 record with a 1.65 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a nearly five-to-one strike-to-walk ratio. I don’t care if you’re playing in the Soda Pop Valley League…those numbers are hard to ignore. If Bumgarner can replicate his success in the minors for a Giants’ pitching staff that already includes Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, San Francisco would become a very dangerous team in the wide open NL West.  

Will McCutchen become the best pirate since Captain Cook in 2010?

3) Andrew McCutchen: Hidden in the baseball wasteland that is Pittsburgh, McCutchen enjoyed a terrific rookie season, proving once and for all that the Pirates can occasionally do something right (although let’s be honest, A-Mac will be traded in two years). The former first-round draft pick finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting and put together a solid season at the plate (.286-12-54) and on the basepaths (22/27 in stolen bases). The young right-hander exhibited good patience at the dish and has the potential to become a 30-30 player for the next decade in Pittsburgh (or New York). It might seem like baby steps, but players like McCutchen are a step in the right direction for the Pirates…give ’em another 10 years and they’ll be right back in the thick of it (the middle of the NL Central that is). 

4) Matt Weiters: Sure “Orange Jesus” didn’t quite save the Orioles as they walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (aka the AL East) last year, but that just means he’s in no danger of a sophomore slump in 2010. One of the most hyped prospects in recent memory, Weiters got off to a slow start in 2009 (.259 pre-All Star batting average) but finished the year with a flourish (.301) and he will be counted on to lead a group of young talented Baltimore hurlers that includes Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and David Hernandez (each of whom could have made this list themselves). Weiters should be one of the top three catchers in the AL in 2010, and it won’t be long before he’s challenging Joe Mauer for batting titles and MVP’s.  

Bailey and the Reds are looking to make some noise in the NL Central this season.

5) Homer Bailey: The number seven overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey has been anything but a homerun in his short major league career, though his finish to last season showed why the Reds thought so highly of him. The hard-throwing Bailey went 4-1 in September, with a 2.08 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 innings (numbers eerily similar to Zack Grienke’s last five starts of 2008–and we all know what he did the next year). Bailey will combine with Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez and eventually Aroldis Chapman to form one of the best young rotations in baseball, and should turn quite a few heads in 2010. The Cincinnati Reds will be one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball next season due in no small part to the emergence of Bailey. Expect Homer to win 13-15 games with a sub-4.00 ERA and about 150 K’s.

Is the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl Berth a Harbringer of What’s to Come in Baseball this Season?

Sorry Nationals' fans, not even Drew Brees' magic touch can get you to the World Series in 2010 (or '11, '12, ad infinitum).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, watching Jersey Shore 24/7 or hanging out with Tiger Woods in a “Sex Rehab” center in Mississippi, you probably know by now that the New Orleans Saints will be playing the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on February 7th. Moreover, with all the hype and news coverage that comes with a game of such magnitude, you probably also know that this will be the first Super Bowl appearance ever for the New Orleans franchise (who no longer can be called the “Aint’s”). That leaves only four teams in the NFL that have never been to the big game; the Detroit Lions (shocker), Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. So, does the Saints magical run to the big game give hope to fans of long-suffering baseball teams as it does to the above football teams, or is it simply another painful reminder of how little they’ve accomplished in their pitiful existences?       

Entering their 39th season, the Rangers still have not made a World Series appearance.

Heading into the 2010 Major League Baseball season there are only three teams that have never reached a World Series; the Washington Nationals (including their time in Montreal), the Texas Rangers and, of course, my beloved Seattle Mariners. That’s right, even the four expansion teams created in the last 17 years (Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays) have all made World Series appearances, with the Marlins winning twice and the Diamondbacks once. How frustrating is that if you’re a Nationals, Rangers or Mariners fan? Heck, I’d assume those teams are even more embarrassed than that guy in Viagra commercials who tries to work up the courage to talk to his doctor about ED (though his real problem might not be ED, but the fact that his reflection talks to him).  The Montreal/Washington franchise has been in existence since 1969, the Texas Rangers since 1972 and the Seattle Mariners havecompeted in Major League Baseball since 1977 (these dates do not include the two separate Washington Senator franchises that spawned the Montreal and Texas teams). Even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally, but these teams somehow have not been able to reach a World Series in over 30 years of existence. Will that change in 2010?      

Now, before I go any further into depth about the three teams, let’s eliminate the Nationals from the conversation all together, because let’s face it—it’s going to take a lot more than a miracle for Washington to make the World Series next year (or ever for that case). They’re just like the little engine that could, except they can’t (also see: Royals, Kansas City and Pirates, Pittsburgh).      

The addition of Cliff Lee makes the Mariners a serious threat to capture the AL West this year.

The Mariners and Rangers, on the other hand, both had strong offseasons that could put them in contention to make a deep run in the playoffs in 2010. Texas had a solid 2009 season with the emergence of young pitchers like Scott Feldman and Matt Harrison and added a talented hurler in Rich Harden to their roster to complement an offense led by Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young. The Mariners were one of the biggest surprises in all of baseball last year, finishing 85-77, and reloaded their roster this offseason with Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley and 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. The two teams will have their work cut out for them in an increasingly difficult AL West, but it’s not hard to believe that either Texas or Seattle could capture the division. Of course, having never reached a World Series, neither Texas or Seattle has a particularly strong postseason track record. Which one has the best chance to break through this year?     

The Rangers have been one of the sorriest organizations in baseball over the past 40 years (but no one’s blaming George Bush). Not only have they never reached a World Series, but the franchise has also never even won a single playoff series. Texas didn’t reach the postseason for the first time until 1996 and have a lifetime 1-9 record (all against the Yankees) in the playoffs. Quite simply, they stink.     

Expect plenty more dog-piles from the M's in 2010. The magic is back in Seattle.

Seattle had a similarly putrid start as a franchise, failing to post a winning record until 1991 and not making their first postseason appearance until 1995 (but what an appearance it was). However, whereas the Rangers have never won a playoff series, the Mariners have made three trips to the ALCS, falling to the Indians in 1995 and the Yankees in 2000 and 2001. Seattle’s overall record in the postseason is a respectable 15-19 (.440 winning percentage) which compares favorably to the New Orleans Saints 4-6 postseason record (.400 winning percentage). Like the Saints, the Mariners have enjoyed a modicum of postseason success, yet have been unable to get over the hump and reach their sport’s biggest stage. That is, until 2010 rolled around.  

The stars have aligned for Sodo Mojo in 2010. Bet it all on the Mariners to reach the World Series for the first time this season…my logic is infallible.

The Sun Never Sets on the Yankee Empire: New York Trades for SP Javier Vazquez.

Will Vazquez's second go-round in pinstripes end better?

After the Cliff Lee-Roy Halladay megadeal and Boston’s signings of Jon Lackey and Mike Cameron, the New York Yankees were relegated to the back-page of baseball’s offseason news. Well, that was short-lived. In a move made to bolster a rotation that dropped off significantly after C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettite last year, the Yankees sent outfielder Melky Cabrera and two pitching prospects to the Atlanta Braves for Javier Vazquez and lefty reliever Boone Logan.  

Vazquez, who pitched for New York in 2004, is coming off the best season of his career after finishing 4th in the National League Cy Young Award voting. Vazquez is eligible for free agency after the season, and the Braves had a surplus of starting pitching that made him expendable, especially considering the $11.5 million he was due to make in 2010. Arguably the most underrated pitched in the N.L. last year, Vazquez compiled a 15-10 record to go along with a 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts. While it’s unrealistic to expect him to pitch that well next season, Vazquez is still going to be the best fourth starter in any rotation in baseball, and will allow the Yankees to shift either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen. New York proved last season that it’s possible to win a World Series with a three-man rotation, but the addition of Vazquez is worth at least a few wins in the regular season and that’s something that can’t be overlooked with the Red Sox continuing to wheel and deal in free agency.  

The Yankees are hoping that Javier Vasquez enjoys more success than in his first tour of duty with the team in 2004, a season in which he struggled with injuries (14-10, 4.91 ERA) and ultimately ended with him allowing two home runs to Johnny Damon in the 7th game of the ALCS, giving Boston all the momentum they would need to complete their epic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit. Vazquez has been less than stellar in his limited postseason appearances (1-1, 10.34 ERA in four games) and his manager with the White Sox, Ozzie Guillen, famously stated that Vazquez wasn’t a big game pitcher. Obviously the Yankees are familiar with Vazquez’s track record but this move was made for the 162-game regular season, not the playoffs, as the team will likely lean heavily on their big three (Sabathia, Burnett, Pettite) in October once again. 

The Braves hope that "The Milkman" will help them challenge the Phils in the NL East.

The Braves acquired a talented switch-hitting outfielder in Melky Cabrera with this deal, and also shed nearly $9 million from their payroll, money which can be used to go after a corner infielder (hello Troy Glaus). The 25-year-old Cabrera performed well last season for the Yankees (.274-13 HR’s-68 RBI’s-10 SB’s) but never quite lived up to his potential and didn’t seem to be a part of the team’s long-term plans. Still, he’s a cheap and solid option for Atlanta’s outfield, and there is some optimism that he can continue to improve. The Braves also received two young pitchers from New York, lefty Mike Dunn and hard throwing right-hander Arodys Vizcaino. Dunn is a solid reliever who could fill the role of the departed Boone Logan, and Vizcaino showed promise as a 19-year-old last season, registering a 2.13 ERA and striking out 52 in 42 1/3 innings. With a rotation that includes Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, Atlanta could afford to part with Vazquez and the team got a good haul in return. 

Another day and another domino falls in what has become one of the most exciting offseasons in recent memory. If the Red Sox felt content after signing Lackey and Cameron last week, they don’t anymore, as New York filled out their rotation with a quality arm and continue to look like the team to beat in 2010. Atlanta adds a solid bat to their outfield and free up cash to pursue another player as they try to build a team capable of challenging the Phillies for NL East supremacy. With plenty of quality free agents still available (Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Johnny Damon) the hot stove will continue to sizzle and make these cold winter months a little more bearable. 

Baseball: the gift that keeps on giving.

Breaking News: Blockbuster Trade Sends Roy Halladay to Philadelphia; Cliff Lee to Seattle; Prospects to Toronto.

The star of last year's postseason, Cliff Lee is heading to Seattle after today's mega deal.

In the biggest surprise of the offseason thus far the Mariners, Phillies and Blue Jays have laid the groundwork for a stunning deal that would send Roy Halladay to Philadelphia, Cliff Lee to Seattle and prospects from both teams to Toronto. The Phillies actively pursued Halladay at last season’s trade deadline, but reached an impasse with Toronto regarding which players the Blue Jays would receive in compensation, and the deal was never completed. Philadelphia eventually worked out a trade with Cleveland to acquire Lee who was instrumental in guiding the Phillies to their second straight World Series-berth. Toronto has been shopping Halladay since his agent released a statement asking for a deal before Spring Training with New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia listed as possible trade destinations. The Mariners have been an active player all offseason, with the team linked to numerous free-agents, and the signing of third baseman Chone Figgins. If this deal is finalized, it will have major ramifications for all three teams, and could dramatically alter the power structure of both the AL West and NL East.

In this trade, the Mariners gain a certified staff ace to pair with Felix Hernandez, giving Seattle one of the most potent 1-2 combinations in baseball. The move also strongly indicates that GM Jack Zdurinciek is looking to build a team capable of not only winning the division, but also a World Series title. Seattle led the AL in numerous pitching categories last year, but needed to bolster their rotation with the departures of Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn. Enter Cliff Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young award winner, who went a combined 14-13 with a 3.22 ERA and 181 strikeouts between Cleveland and Philadelphia. The 31-year-old lefty was even more impressive in the postseason, going 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA, including a 2-0 mark against the Yankees in the World Series. The Mariners still have work to do offensively in order to have dreams of a pennant, but this move certainly makes them an early favorite to capture the AL West.

The Phillies hope Roy Halladay is the right player to lead them to a third straight World Series.

The Phillies finally acquired the pitcher they had long coveted in this deal and are likely to negotiate a long-term contract with Halladay in the next few days or weeks (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 years/$100 million dollars). Halladay continued his run as one of the game’s best pitchers in 2009, posting a 17-10 record with a 2.79 ERA and 208 strikeouts. The 32-year-old right hander is baseball’s most durable and consistent starting pitcher, having topped 220 innings in each of the past four seasons. Already the favorite to capture the NL East in 2010, this move solidifies the Phillies as a perennial contender in the National League. Lee was outstanding for Philadelphia last-season but the team was having trouble working out a long-term contract with the lefty, and decided to pursue Halladay as their frontline starter moving forward. Barring any significant injuries next season, this move gives the Phillies a strong shot at another trip to the World Series in 2010.

Toronto really had no choice except to trade Roy Halladay as their star pitcher planned to leave via free agency after the season. The Blue Jays will receive a package of top prospects from both the Mariners and Phillies, but it has not yet been announced which players are involved in the deal (early reports indicate that Seattle’s Phillipe Aumont and Philadelphia’s Travis d’Arnaud are headed to the Blue Jays). Toronto has a solid young core of position players (Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Travis Snider) and starting pitchers (Ricky Romero, Dustin McGowan, Brad Mills), and this trade will allow them to stockpile talent for a run at the division in a few years. As with all trades involving prospects it won’t be clear for a couple of seasons whether Toronto received a fair haul for Halladay, but the team’s hands were tied in this particular situation, and they made the move that they believed will give the Blue Jays the best shot to win in the near future.

It’s not often that a sport’s offseason is more exciting than the actual play on the field, but that’s been the case for baseball in 2009. Another blockbuster deal has two teams eyeing a World Series trophy and the other hoping it can overcome the loss of its franchise player. The Mariners and Phillies both made major strides with today’s trade, now how will the rest of baseball respond?