Friday, October 20, 2006

this is the plan?

the world series hasn't even begun yet, dear reader, and mid-november is still three weeks away -- but this page nonetheless had to shake its head at this article in today's tribune.

The Cubs must come up with an extension for Ramirez within 14 days after the end of the World Series, which begins Saturday, or risk losing him to free agency.

Hendry is confident Ramirez will stay, and because there's plenty of time to meet the mid-November deadline, it's too early to panic. On the other hand, the longer negotiations go on, the more likely it is Ramirez will use his considerable leverage to squeeze every last Benjamin out of the Cubs.

Although the Cubs can't force him to sign at their price, they can, and already have, let him know they have a contingency plan in case he decides to leave.

"It's like dominoes," one Cubs source said. "If you lose a bat like that, and you don't put a bat nearly as good [in place] of him, then you're going to get some offense from a couple of different places."

much as this page has previously feared, that plan is typically disastrous and unlikely.

One of those dominoes could be at shortstop, and no, it's not Alex Rodriguez. Industry sources say Hendry once again will explore the possibility of trading for Baltimore's Miguel Tejada, who has three years and $38 million remaining on his six-year, $72 million contract, including a $12 million salary in 2007 and $13 million the two following years.

Tejada may be back on the market, although it certainly would take more than Prior to land him this time. Carlos Zambrano is considered an untouchable, but when asked to name his untouchables this week, Hendry mentioned only Derrek Lee.

tejada has been the object of cubbie dreaming since they originally failed to land him following the 2003 season. tejada was then going to be just 28 in 2004, and offered an unusual mix of power and fielding competency at his position. baltimore signed him to a six-year, $72mm blockbuster that has since turned out to be a reasonably good deal for the hapless orioles. tejada is still owed $12mm for 2007 and $13mm for each of 2008 and 2009; and a sort of mutual antipathy has set in between the restless tejada, who has freely criticized management, and ownership.

tejada, now 31, is still an excellent player by any measure. his vorp production of 65.1 in 2004 and 62.9 in 2005 was exceeded by 2006's 66.4 -- a year in which he hit .330, slugged .498, hit 24 homers and drove in 100 for a terrible team. he would, if obtained, be the best player on the club and probably remain so through 2009 even if normal age-related deterioration sets in.

but he'd also be replacing the current best hitter on the club in ramirez, who himself has averaged 46.2 vorp over the last three seasons -- presenting then a direct expected advantage of some 15-20 offensive runs over replacement -- and who is two years younger than tejada. consider too that tejada would likely be replacing cesar izturis at shortstop -- a player with a proven capacity to post negative vorp -- and the availability of scott moore, who is perhaps less at detriment at third than izturis is at shortstop, and the move overall is likely to help the cubs offensively in the short term.

but these are the key qualifiers -- "offensively" and "short term". the longer term consequences largely hinge upon who would have to be dealt to obtain tejada, and that package is not insignificant no matter how motivated the counterparty in the deal.

last december, this page saw fit to ridicule the flights of fancy being undertaken by the delusionally hopeful with regards to tejada and others. at that time, the dreamed-of price was mark prior -- not only for tejada but erik bedard as well -- and the cubs had already committed prohibitive amounts to payroll.

one wonders what the cubs could package that would constitute an overwhelming offer. this page has already considered the dessicated higher levels of the cub farm system. a deal consisting of single-a talent has utterly no chance of prying loose a first-tier star with four remaining contract years. and what players from the major league roster would baltimore consider in trade for tejada? players like derrek lee and aramis ramirez are going to free agency at the end of 2006; chances are that they together would not be sufficient to land tejada.

in the end, there are really only two players in the entire cub organization around whom some kind of deal for tejada could be built: mark prior or carlos zambrano. both are young, fantastically talented, and still short of free agency, which would allow baltimore potentially to craft a long-term deal for them (a precondition, it is here imagined, for any deal to actually take place).

the situation this time around has changed somewhat. the cubs, without ramirez's obligation on the books, would have plenty of room to afford tejada even without a significant overall payroll expansion.

lee of course later signed a monstrous contract extension; his recovery from a forearm injury is in any case likely to rule him out of any deal with the traditionally-injury-paranoid oriole ownership. prior is perhaps permanently damaged goods and going nowhere.

in truth, it seems to this writer that only two components of the cubs system could anchor a deal for tejada -- carlos zambrano or rich hill.

zambrano is an excellent pitcher, of course, and could be a responsible straight-up trade candidate. but he is now approaching free agency after 2007; and the cubs could not hope to make such a deal rational -- in giving up zambrano and ramirez, replacing them with tejada and a free agent pitcher such as jason schmidt, the cubs would have gotten much older, essentially no better and considerably more expensive.

no, if there is going to be a deal for tejada, it will in every likelihood center on rich hill and at least one other prospect from the cub farm system -- and unless that prospect is donald veal or perhaps felix pie, chances are the deal would be for hill and two prospects.

consider, then, the cubs backup plan to failing to close a deal with ramirez: spend slightly less money (to the tune of $2mm or so), but sell the most promising pitcher to emerge from the cub farm since mark prior and at least one other probable major league contributor -- both being controlled contracts for the next five years at least. whatever gains in value of replacement are realized in going from ramirez to tejada are immediately tossed out the window even in the short term by sacrificing what is currently the second-best starting pitcher on the team and more. moreover, the damage to the club over a five-year window is probably significant.

plan c looks just as awful.

If the Cubs can't get Tejada and opt for defensive-minded shortstop Cesar Izturis, the offensive upgrade would have to be in the outfield. New manager Lou Piniella doesn't want a power-hitting outfielder who's also a butcher on defense.

San Diego has a $7 million option on center fielder Mike Cameron, who was a catalyst on Piniella's teams in Seattle. Cameron had career highs in doubles (34) and triples (nine) and drove in 49 runs after the All-Star break. He also has a strong arm and great range. Cameron turns 34 in January, and the Padres are likely to pick up his option.

Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, who led the American League with 58 steals and hit .348 with runners in scoring position in 2006, has $9.25 million due him over the next two years, with club options for 2009 and 2010. The Cubs would have to come up with a significant package of prospects to pry him loose.

Another alternative is Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, who led the AL in hits (224) and scored 110 runs. He receives $11 million in 2007 in the final year of his contract. Suzuki loves Seattle, but may be tired of receiving more attention in Japan than he does in the United States, playing on a West Coast team with no national following.

this does not constitute a plan any more than a noose constitutes a plan. cameron is coming off a brilliant 2006, but is 34 and has been in a slow but steady decline since his heyday between 1999 and 2001 and usually posts a vorp in the neighborhood of matt murton. the young crawford is a lovely idea but will take as much in talent to get as tejada and never offer anything like the kind of production either tejada or ramirez can. and ichiro, an excellent fielder and very competent hitter who could as easily play center as either corner, is nonetheless typically a 35-40 vorp player who will be 33, makes $11mm a year and will be a free agent at the end of the season.

if this is truly the backup planning, dear reader, it is utterly unconscionable for hendry not to already be hip-deep in negotiations with ramirez. it would seem that the next three weeks virtually must produce a deal with ramirez if the cubs really hope to be materially better in 2007 than they were in 2006.

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