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Sunday, December 17, 2006
Updated: December 18, 11:31 AM ET
Blue Jays shopping Rios

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.

• Looks like Omar Minaya will get together with Barry Zito in the week ahead, as Ken Davidoff writes.

• The Pirates are pursuing a pitcher from Japan, writes Dejan Kovacevic, and meanwhile, they haven't had much recent contact with the agent for Jeff Suppan.

Bill James says Pat Burrell is an underrated hitter, as Todd Zolecki writes.

Bernie Williams' future with the Yankees may depend entirely on whether Melky Cabrera is traded, writes George King, and there could be a market for Randy Johnson.

Larry Lucchino is back at quarterback for the Red Sox, writes Mike Lupica, and Theo Epstein is no longer the boy wonder.

• Gordon Edes tells the story of Craig Shipley and his personal Holy Grail, Daisuke Matsuzaka. The day that Matsuzaka first stepped foot in Boston, Michael Silverman writes, was the 10-year anniversary of the day that Roger Clemens officially left the Red Sox. And Dec. 14, the day that Matsuzaka signed, is the birthday of Bill Buckner, writes Kevin Kernan.

• The Red Sox must find a closer, writes Tony Massarotti. By the way: Heard that the Red Sox have no plans to pursue Clemens when he becomes available.

Rick Dempsey is headed into broadcasting.

• The bargains are scarce for the Marlins, writes Dave Hyde. Here's the thing: The Marlins could sign an expensive reliever. They have the money to do it, the payroll flexibility to do it. They choose not to; they pocket the cash received from Major League Baseball. That is their prerogative, just as it is the prerogative of fans in South Florida to ignore them.

• The White Sox have traded for another lefty with upside, Andy Sisco, and GM Kenny Williams hinted that there will be another move to come. I wonder if they're the front-runners to sign Joel Pineiro, who is coveted by many teams as a reliever. We'll see.

• The Cubs won't let Ted Lilly have No. 31, the number worn by Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux, but they will let Jason Marquis wear No. 21, the number worn by Sammy Sosa, as Dave van Dyck writes.

• There are some examples of teams with excess starting pitching, writes Nick Cafardo.

Kenny Lofton is a man on the move, writes Murray Chass.

• Bill Madden did not vote for Mark McGwire on his Hall of Fame ballot, but did vote for Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven, among others.

Bernie Miklasz did vote for McGwire, and has come to think of his decision as something of a protest vote.

He writes at the end of his piece, "If a voting member of the BBWAA chose to glorify McGwire in 1998, then they're being phonies if they condemn him now, because we had strong steroid suspicions in '98.

"My 'Yes' for McGwire is also a vote against blatant hypocrisy."

• The Twins have passed on the big-money deals or multi-prospect trades, writes Joe Christensen.

Wayne Krivsky is firmly in charge of the Reds, writes John Fay, and there has been friction in the front office.

• The Brewers haven't created a buzz this offseason, but intend to make a serious run at Jeff Suppan, as Tom Haudricourt writes.

• The Cardinals believe Braden Looper can be a starter, as Derrick Goold writes.

Doug Brocail is coming back, against all odds, as old pal Bill Center writes.

• The Tigers will soon have a money decision to make about Carlos Guillen, writes Jon Paul Morosi. Joel Zumaya could be headed to the rotation, writes Drew Sharp.

• The Royals got Ross Gload for a reliever, writes Sam Mellinger.

• Sources tell T.J. Quinn that Bud Selig is seething over Barry Bonds' contract.

Jeff Bagwell's clubhouse presence will be missed, writes Richard Justice. Bagwell ranks with legends, and anybody who doesn't vote for him for the Hall of Fame is dumb, writes John Lopez.

• OK, it's not baseball, but this might rank among the 10 most bizarre stories you've ever read.

Cecil Travis passed away Saturday; only war kept him out of the Hall of Fame, Bob Feller asserts.

• Nicholls State was no match for us; the NCAA tournament selection committee will note this victory when they sit in a closed room in March.

From the readers

On the Hall of Fame voting:

Writers aren't going to vote for Mark McGwire yet will for McGriff and Bagwell and Frank Thomas? That reeks of hypocrisy. How do we know they weren't on something? They are all bigger than average men who hit home runs. Who's to say they weren't on something? Why is McGwire made to stand out? I never saw Mac fail a drug test. Writers can get all high and mighty but they have to be consistent and every player who played from 1980-2002 must be held accountable. Even the Madduxes and Glavines and Gwynns and Ripkens.

-- Dilso, N.Y.

On Vernon Wells and his contract:

Regarding your blogging on Vernon Wells's original offer and saying he wouldn't take it: Can you please post a blog saying "I was wrong"?

-- Fraser, NYC

Fraser: I don't mind saying when I'm wrong, but in this case, I was not wrong. I never wrote Wells was not going to take the $136 million deal, and in fact, on Thursday, I wrote that I thought he would take the offer. Go back and check the archives, if you'd like.

On the Red Sox rotation:

What is the best solution to the Red Sox closer issue? The starting rotation looks strong, but the lack of a reliable closer could be haunting.

-- Mike, East Bethel Road, Vt.

Mike: I think they should go into spring training with Mike Timlin penciled in as the closer and assume that something more palatable will come along, through competition, through injury, through trade. I think Timlin could be OK -- not great, but decent enough -- so long as Terry Francona uses him the way Bruce Bochy used Trevor Hoffman in San Diego, limiting only to save situations, and for only one inning at a time. Put it this way: I'd bet that whoever is the Red Sox closer on April 1 will not be the closer on Sept. 30. It will be a developing situation.

On El Duque's age:

You and Mike from KC need to check your facts. El Duque is 37. His birthday is Oct. 11, 1969. You work at, come on.

-- Leland, Philly

Leland: His year of birth, as listed through Major League Baseball, is incorrect. Documents in a court issue revealed that he was born in 1965, as first reported by the Miami Herald years ago, and this coincides with his listed age in international tournaments from the late 1980s. And, to repeat, pick up a copy of Steve Fainaru's fine book Duke of Havana, and within that he tells the story of how Hernandez and fellow defectors burned their legal documents after departing from Cuba.