01/19/11 11:00 AM EST
Replacing stars isn't an easy task
Rays, Nats, Rangers among teams that could fare well
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
When the Rangers dealt Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees after the 2003 season, they quickly found a new standout shortstop in Michael Young, who switched from second base to accommodate Alfonso Soriano, who came from New York in the trade. On the other hand, the Indians are still trying to shore up their rotation after trading CC Sabathia in 2008 and Cliff Lee in '09, as the club has ranked no better than 25th in starting-pitcher ERA in each of the past two seasons.
Yet again this offseason, an assortment of high-impact players -- from front-line starters to lights-out closers; home-run mashers to base-stealing fiends -- switched clubs for a variety of reasons, only to be replaced by less-heralded players. Some departed via free agency, either because they were swayed by larger sums or simply desired change. Others were dealt, as a result of becoming expendable or their former clubs having no real choice.
Either way, the organizations they left suddenly had a hole in what was once a position of strength. And while some teams appear to have recovered admirably, others are apparently still seeking solutions.
Here are 10 such situations from this offseason, listed in order of best 2011 replacements.
Out: SP Matt Garza
In: SP Jeremy Hellickson
The Rays were that rare team that could afford to trade a young, talented starting pitcher like Garza. The reason for that was the supremely talented Hellickson, who is Major League ready but didn't have a solidified spot in the rotation until Garza was dealt to the Cubs. The 23-year-old right-hander has great control (2.1 walks per nine innings in his Minor League career), command of three pitches and the ability to dominate big league hitters -- something he proved while going 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four 2010 starts. The Rays dealt Garza, but it doesn't look like their problems this season will come via the rotation -- not with David Price, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and James Shields also in the mix. The bullpen, however, is a different story (more on that later).
Out: 1B Adam Dunn
In: 1B Adam LaRoche
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo vastly overpaid to obtain the services of Jayson Werth, but he countered with one of the savviest moves of the offseason by signing LaRoche. Because while LaRoche may not duplicate the offensive production of departed free agent Adam Dunn, he is a legit middle-of-the-order threat -- and to simply say he's better than Dunn defensively is an understatement. From 2005-10, LaRoche put up a .340 on-base percentage with 148 homers and 524 RBIs. It's not the .380 on-base percentage, 236 homers and 607 RBIs Dunn sported in that span, but it's not far off. And LaRoche's deal (two years, $16 million plus a mutual option) is far more cost-efficient than Dunn's with the White Sox (four years, $56 million). The Nats did a nice job finding a new first baseman.
Out: SP Cliff Lee
In: SP C.J. Wilson
There's a reason the Rangers went all-out in their efforts to retain Lee: Their rotation without him is shaky, even if virtually every member pitches at the surprising level of last year's World Series run. But all the money in the world, of course, wasn't enough to keep Lee away from Philadelphia. So now Wilson steps in to be the ace of the Rangers staff, which will also include new addition Brandon Webb, if he is healthy. Wilson proved last year that he could make the transition from reliever to starter in a big way, going 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 204 innings. But can the 30-year-old left-hander duplicate that success, and is he the type of guy who can anchor a championship-contender's rotation? That remains to be seen.
Out: OF Carl Crawford
In: OF Desmond Jennings (if not now, eventually)
It looks like Spring Training will resolve the Rays' left-field situation, with Jennings, Matt Joyce and long-time Minor Leaguer Justin Ruggiano seemingly competing for the job in Port Charlotte, Fla. But make no mistake: Jennings is Crawford's heir apparent, if for no reason other than their similarities. The question is whether Jennings will live up to his full potential. If the 2010 season is any indication, concern is warranted. Jennings went into the year as the No. 1-ranked Rays prospect by Baseball America, but performed rather underwhelmingly, batting .278 in Triple-A and going 4-for-21 as a September callup. But, like Crawford, Jennings boasts blazing speed, has the ability to drive the ball and is impressive defensively. The Crawford-like tools are there. And perhaps one mediocre season is too small a sample size for a 24-year-old this promising.
Out: OF Jayson Werth
In: OF Domonic Brown and/or Ben Francisco
Like the Rays, the Phillies have an uncertain situation with regard to their new corner-outfield void. And like the Rays, the Phillies have a talented prospect in waiting. Brown is beaming with talent but loaded with questions following a poor 2010 season and an awful showing in the Dominican Winter League. The biggest problem with Werth leaving is that manager Charlie Manuel no longer has a much-needed right-handed slugger to protect lefties Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. ... Or does he? That brings us to the 29-year-old Francisco, who will seemingly be given every chance to win the starting right-field job despite being an average-at-best performer through four big league seasons (.263 batting average and 39 homers in 360 games). Perhaps a better solution is to platoon him with the lefty-hitting Brown. But doesn't Brown need to play every day to fully develop? And what about John Mayberry and Ross Gload? Plenty is still left to be decided.
Out: 2B Dan Uggla
In: 2B/3B Omar Infante
The Marlins were right not to give Uggla the contract he desired, even if the Braves went ahead and essentially gave him just that, signing him to a five-year, $62 million deal. Could the Marlins have received more than Infante and lefty reliever Mike Dunn in an Uggla trade if they had waited longer? Perhaps. But though the Marlins will miss Uggla's bat, they'll be fine without him and didn't have to take on a big contract. Infante isn't as big a name as Uggla, but he hit .321 as a full-time player last year, is better defensively and helps the Marlins shift their approach in a direction they've wanted -- less reliance on power, more reliance on defense and good situational hitting. Is he as big an impact player as Uggla? Of course not. Was it the Marlins' preference to keep Uggla in a perfect world? Sure. But they'll survive.
Out: 1B Adrian Gonzalez
In: 1B Brad Hawpe
As Hawpe said upon agreeing to a one-year, $3 million contract with the Padres earlier this month: "I'm not replacing Adrian Gonzalez. He's a heck of a first baseman. I'm just going to go out and do my thing." The Padres know they won't get Gonzalez-like production from Hawpe. They just hope "my thing" more closely resembles what Hawpe did as an everyday player for Colorado from 2006-09 -- bat .288 while averaging 25 homers and 93 RBIs per season -- and not what he did while playing in 103 games with the Rockies and Rays last year -- hit .245 with nine homers. Replacing a supreme talent like Gonzalez from the outside is impossible when you're cutting costs like the Padres, but Hawpe could end up being one of the offseason's biggest bargains if he gets back on track.
Team: Red Sox
Out: C Victor Martinez
In: C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
The Red Sox didn't re-sign their 2010 catcher, but they sure did a nice job reallocating that money (see: Crawford and Gonzalez). Even with Martinez now in Detroit, the Red Sox boast arguably the best lineup in baseball. But there are questions behind the plate, where Saltalamacchia is expected to take on an everyday role. The 25-year-old switch-hitter was considered a great hitting prospect when the Braves drafted him in the first round eight years ago. But Saltalamacchia, who will share at least some of his catching duties with grizzly veteran Jason Varitek, has yet to prove that -- at least at the big league level. His throwing yips are apparently behind him, his surgically repaired thumb has healed, he has the opportunity to play every day, and his current club doesn't need much from him. If Saltalamacchia is ever going to live up to expectations, now is the time.
Out: CL Rafael Soriano
The most worrisome aspect to Tampa Bay's retooling efforts is the bullpen. Rays relievers were fantastic last year, putting up the fourth-lowest ERA in the big leagues. But gone are fantastic setup man Joaquin Benoit and lights-out closer Soriano. And one month away from Spring Training, the Rays are still looking for someone to pitch the ninth. The last area small-market teams usually address financially is the bullpen, mainly because a reliever's year-to-year productivity is often a crapshoot and, a lot of the time, sudden breakouts come out of nowhere (like Benoit and Soriano in 2010). Since Soriano became too pricey and signed with the Yankees, the Rays will hope for another diamond-in-the-rough closer. But at this point in the offseason, that department is extremely thin if not non-existent via free agency. And the only in-house candidate with recent closing experience, J.P. Howell, isn't expected back from shoulder surgery until about late May. Not good.
Out: SP Zack Greinke
We'd be using the term "ace" rather loosely if we pinned that designation to anyone currently on the Royals' starting staff. Kansas City has some great upper-level prospects -- including nice arms -- and could be a very talented team in the near future. But the loss of a superstar -- in this case Greinke, who was traded to the Brewers in December -- won't help the Royals' cause in 2011. Combine what each potential member of their rotation -- Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro, Jeff Francis, Sean O'Sullivan and Bruce Chen -- did as a starter in 2010, and you'll understand why: they went 37-45 with a 4.89 ERA. The Royals are hoping Hochevar could become a leading man, but the 27-year-old right-hander has a 5.71 ERA in 65 games (64 starts) over the past three years. So, is it too early to contemplate John Lamb and Mike Montgomery?
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.