Blue Jay shop holiday sale for Rios posted: Sunday, December 17, 2006
The week before Christmas is usually a slow time for general managers. Almost all of the best free agents have signed, some teams have made trades, and the final roster tweaking, for most teams, is left for January, after the holidays.
But this year, the market continues to percolate, strongly. "It's like we're having a second winter meetings," said one GM.
The most interesting name on the market now, numerous executives said Saturday, is that of Toronto right fielder Alex Rios, a rising star who was on the verge of a breakthrough season last year when he went down with a staph infection. The word among rival executives is that now that the Blue Jays have locked up Vernon Wells, they are shopping Rios in their quest to land a No. 4 starter for their rotation. "He's a pretty good player to have out there right now," said an NL executive.
Rios, 25, batted .302 with 17 homers and 82 RBI in 128 games last season, hitting for power for the first time and demonstrating that he could turn out to be a star. Rios hit .362 in April, .360 in May, but had only 14 at-bats in July after coming down with the infection. He returned to the lineup on July 28 and batted .198 in August, before finishing well -- Rios hit .333 in 66 at-bats in September, but with one home run.
What could make him particularly attractive for interested teams is that he is four years away from becoming eligible for free agency, and he's already had success and had a lot of experience.
He could possibly be a fit with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who may put right-hander Brad Penny on the market. But Penny would be expensive in the Jays' world -- his salary will be $7.5 million in 2007 and $8.5 million in 2008 -- and he's been hurt a lot in his career, managing 30 starts in three of his seven seasons. Jon Lieber is available, but the Phillies don't have enough to offer beyond the veteran righty.
The Jays would probably be more interested in swapping Rios for a starting pitcher for less service time -- someone like Oakland's 26-year-old Joe Blanton, who racked up 395.2 innings and 28 victories in his first two seasons as a big-league starter. But Oakland needs Blanton, and conversations between the Athletics and Jays over a Rios-Blanton trade match ended quickly.
An intriguing possibility would be a Mets-Jays swap for Rios. The Mets were ready to swoop in and make a pitch for Wells if his negotiations fell apart, and threads of those conversations might be picked up in a Rios deal. As Barry Zito and his agent know, the Mets don't have much in the way of established, front line starting pitching, but they do have depth in young, inexperienced starters, like Aaron Heilman.
Rios makes sense for the Mets because he would help make an older team younger; he'd be another right-handed hitter who could help balance a lineup that leans left; the Mets have one-year obligations on Moises Alou and Shawn Green, and Rios could supplant Green in 2007 and effectively be a middle-of-the-order hitter in the seasons that followed.
If the Jays like Heilman as a starting pitcher, there would be a natural match, but interestingly, Heilman may be effectively devalued by the fact that the Mets have clearly been reluctant to use him as a starting pitcher. "The Mets need starting pitching," said one rival executive, "but they won't put him in the rotation. So what does that tell you? If the Mets don't look at him as a starter, then any team looking to trade for him might feel the same way."
The Mets and Jays kicked around the possibility of a Lastings Milledge-Heilman deal for Wells, according to one scout familiar with the conversations. A deal of Rios-and-something else for Heilman and Milledge might be a framework for a trade. Or maybe the Jays could ask for one of the Mets' young pitchers, either Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber, or perhaps John Maine or Oliver Perez. It all depends on how the Jays would evaluate each of those young pitchers.
But the Jays are relatively deep in outfielders now, with Rios, Wells locked in at center field, Reed Johnson in one corner and Adam Lind an option in left field; Lind had a strong September, batting .367. "[Toronto's] best option for upgrading their pitching staff is to trade Rios," said an AL official. "He's got market value; you can get something good for him."
The Pirates are talking about a possible deal of Mike Gonzalez with the Yankees; Melky Cabrera would be involved. There are concerns about the condition of Gonzalez's pitching elbow, after he was unavailable for the last 5½ weeks, and he walked 31 in 54 innings last season.
But Gonzalez has excellent stuff, and nobody seems to do serious damage against him. Gonzalez allowed just one home run and six doubles last year: left-handed batters had a .256 slugging percentage, with a .163 average. Right-handed hitters? A .260 slugging percentage.
He sometimes will have long innings, throwing a lot of pitches and putting runners on base with walks. But numbers from last season show he is pretty efficient: Mark Simon of ESPN Research asked the Elias Sports Bureau about how often Gonzalez generated 1-2-3 innings, and Gonzalez, compared to other closers with at least 20 saves, fared pretty well. Here's the list, highest to lowest, of the percentages of 1-2-3 innings:
PCT INN 1-2-3 Pitcher SV
.470 68.1 32 Nathan, Joe, Min. 36
.455 68.1 31 Papelbon, Jonathan, Bos. 35
.413 70.2 29 Street, Huston, Oak. 37
.410 78.1 32 Putz, J.J., Sea. 36
.410 78.1 32 Saito, Takashi, LA-N 24
.391 64.0 25 Jones, Todd, Det. 37
.389 54.0 21 Gonzalez, Mike, Pit. 24
.364 66.0 24 Ray, Chris, Bal. 33
.361 69.2 25 Borowski, Joe, Fla. 36
.349 63.0 22 Hoffman, Trevor, S.D. 46
.347 72.1 25 Wagner, Billy, NY-N 40
.338 59.1 20 Gordon, Tom, Phi. 34
.338 59.2 20 Otsuka, Akinori, Tex. 32
.333 75.0 25 Lidge, Brad, Hou. 32
.333 75.0 25 Rivera, Mariano, NY-A 34
.333 72.1 24 Ryan, B.J., Tor. 38
.328 73.1 24 Cordero, Chad, Was. 29
.301 73.0 22 Rodriguez, Francisco, LA-A 47
.293 75.1 22 Cordero, Francisco, Tex.-Mil. 22
.280 75.0 21 Dempster, Ryan, ChiN 24
Cabrera has quickly developed into a very nice player, a guy who matured greatly as a hitter last season and will continue to progress. If any team trades for Cabrera, at age 22, they're getting a guy who could be at the outset of an unspectacular but very solid 15-year big league career. The Pirates and Yankees have had trouble making trades in the past; we'll see if they get something worked out here.