A note to Major League Baseball teams: Please bring back the winter meetings blockbuster trade. Ah, how we long for the days of classic swaps like Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff -- which on Saturday actually reached its 19-year anniversary. (Can you believe that happened nearly 20 years ago? Wow. I'm old.)
Unfortunately, none of the moves at this year's event was nearly as captivating. Oh, sure, the Curtis Granderson trade was exciting -- especially in that it was a rare three-team trade -- but for the most part the 2009 winter meetings were a dud. We had St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan landing his next reclamation project (Brad Penny), Houston Astros general manager Ed Wade again loading up on so-so relievers (Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom), and the Pittsburgh Pirates setting up perhaps the most compelling spring training battle in history (shortstop -- newly acquired Bobby Crosby versus Ronny Cedeno).
But leave it to us fantasy owners to extract even the tiniest nuggets from a list of transactions that might not have caught the eye of the casual baseball fan. Even the minor moves matter to us, so regardless of whether big names like Jason Bay, Roy Halladay and Matt Holliday, or lesser ones like Chone Figgins, Granderson and Rich Harden were the ones making the headlines, we're every bit as captivated.
So, with the winter meetings now behind us, let's take a look at the five individual players most helped and hurt by the week's dealings. You can also find the entire list of the event's transactions with quick fantasy spins at column's end.
Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers: I'm not convinced the New York Yankees would have given him a legitimate chance to crack the Opening Day lineup, but in Detroit, Jackson should be a better-than-50/50 bet to do it, not only because of a dearth of alternatives in center field but also because the Tigers should want to show their fan base they got a good return from the team they gave Granderson to. The Tigers apparently believe they're getting the next Granderson, except that Jackson had nowhere near the power Granderson did in the minors. He also struck out way too often (once per 4.53 plate appearances) and hit for practically no power (one homer per 126 at-bats) as a 22-year-old in Triple-A ball in 2009, which hints he'll need a lengthy adjustment period in the majors. So why is Jackson "helped," you might ask? Simple as this: The Yankees would never have had the patience to chance a .250 batting average from Jackson, but the Tigers sure might. And if he's at all capable of approaching his .288 career minor league average or the 33 stolen bases he averaged per 150 minor league games, he's going to have AL-only value. Jackson is a much more interesting spring sleeper on his new team.
Jose Lopez, 2B, Seattle Mariners: He was the Mariners' No. 3 hitter on 87 occasions in 2009, including in each of their final 59 games, and he managed 42 doubles and 25 home runs, very healthy numbers for a hitter who calls Safeco Field his home. Lopez is a hacker -- he has averaged one walk per 26.82 plate appearances for his career -- but there's nothing wrong with that when your job is to drive in runs as a No. 3 (or 4 if a Jason Bay-type is signed) hitter. If newly signed Chone Figgins indeed bats second, the Mariners go from having a .297 on-base percentage from their No. 2 hitters in 2009 (second-worst in baseball) to a durable player with a .363 career mark in that spot. I'll let you do the math. One more note: If a Bay were signed and slotted fourth behind Lopez, it might mean more fastballs for Lopez, who has historically been a good fastball hitter.
Leo Nunez, RP, Florida Marlins: Increased job security was what he earned this week, as the Marlins shipped Matt Lindstrom to the Astros, who as they always do this time of year load up on a fresh set of overrated relievers. Not that Nunez's keeper-league (or prospective 2010) owners were petrified Lindstrom might steal his job, but with Lindstrom gone there really isn't any viable candidate to threaten Nunez. That's good news, because Nunez did seem to fade down the stretch, with a 5.56 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in September. Overall, though, he converted 24 of 28 save chances with a 4.11 ERA and 1.23 WHIP from June 29 through season's end, so he's looking like a safe second-tier (top-20) closer.
Brad Penny, SP, St. Louis Cardinals: Duncan is a pitching magician, having extracted remarkable fantasy seasons out of Ryan Franklin, Kyle Lohse, Joel Pineiro, Jeff Suppan and Todd Wellemeyer, and that's just in the past five seasons alone. So why can't Duncan revive the career of Penny, who arguably has more raw talent than any of those five? The biggest knock on Penny has been inconsistency; he's the kind of guy who can string together three All-Star-caliber months and collapse for the other three (and not necessarily in that order, just think "three good, three bad"). If I've got any problem with putting Penny in this group, it's that it borders on the obvious. It's just as likely every fantasy baseball owner on the planet expects "Duncan Magic" with Penny, in which his price tag will inflate too high.
Rafael Soriano, RP, Tampa Bay Rays: Considering the early reports had teams like the Yankees and Boston Red Sox interested in Soriano, it seemed he was every bit as likely to settle for a set-up role this winter. Heck, when he accepted the Atlanta Braves' arbitration offer, he was effectively telling them he was fine working the eighth inning for them in front of Billy Wagner. That's why Soriano's trade to the Rays is a welcome surprise, because that's one place where he's not only almost assured of the closer role, but he'll be on a team that wins games. He's about as much of an injury risk as any pitcher can be, but when he's on, he's on -- as evidenced by his 12.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in 2009.
Curtis Granderson, OF, Yankees: If I had a "five I can't decide about" category, that'd be where Granderson belongs, but I'm bordering on thinking the deal is hurting him more than helping, and it's mostly from a "square-peg, round-hole" angle, not to mention his perceived draft price. People tend to think of Granderson as a certain 20/20 candidate with 30-plus homer upside, but I'd call 30 homers a heck of a lot more likely than 20 steals. Remember, in two of the past four years, he has been held to 12 steals or fewer, and as the Yankees' No. 2 hitter he won't get the green light frequently. He'll also almost assuredly take aim at the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, hitting fly balls on close to 50 percent of his batted balls as he did in 2009, in which case he might be a 30-homer hitter with another .249 batting average. This is a guy I'd love as a No. 5/6 hitter -- a .260-30 homers-100 RBIs-20 steals-90 runs season would not at all shock me in that role, and that stat line might be his asking price on Draft Day. As a No. 2 hitter? He might go .260-30-70-12-100.
J.P. Howell, RP, Rays: Obviously if the aforementioned Soriano is the Rays' new closer, that drops Howell back into a set-up role, which actually is more appropriate for him. He's a skilled option facing both right- and left-handed hitters, and seemed to wear down under the pressure of closing late in 2009, posting a 5.82 ERA, walking 16 batters in 17 innings and converting only six of nine save chances after Aug. 1. As a set-up man, Howell can be deployed in any game situation, maximizing his win-vulturing potential. He'll also be a must-have handcuff for Soriano owners. But let's face it, fantasy value among relievers is all about saves, saves, saves, and Howell is no longer going to get them regularly.
Mike MacDougal, RP, Washington Nationals: As with Howell, MacDougal no longer has a straight path to the closer's role, not with Brian Bruney now in town. Not to say Bruney is a trustworthy, durable ninth-inning option for any team, but shortly after his acquisition, rumors began to swirl that the ex-Yankee would get a chance at the job, not to mention whispers popped up that MacDougal might be a non-tender candidate. I didn't put Bruney in the "helped" category for a reason: If he's actually the closer, he'd probably rank 30th among pitchers who project in that role. But I did put MacDougal in the "hurt" column, because if he's let go, he stands little-to-no chance at a closer's job elsewhere, not having walked (38) more hitters than he struck out (34) in 2009. Heck, if he's still the Nationals' closer and I was doing the same rankings, he'd probably also rank 30th.
Jesus Flores, C, Nationals: If the purpose of bringing Ivan Rodriguez in was to help ease the Nationals young pitchers' transition to the majors -- especially Stephen Strasburg's -- that's great, but it's not at all a good thing for Flores. Rodriguez was signed as what was described as a "backup," but once-a-week backups can't be expected to make substantial impacts on pitching staffs. Rodriguez might steal two or three starts per week, which would be awful for Flores, a .311 hitter in 26 games before succumbing to shoulder surgery last season. Flores was a fantasy sleeper before Rodriguez's arrival; now he has lost a bit of luster.
Randy Wolf, SP, Milwaukee Brewers: Count me among those who believe Wolf has little chance at repeating 2009's 3.23 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, the latter a personal best. He fattened up his numbers by facing the light-hitting lineups of the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, not to mention capitalizing upon calling one of the most pitcher-friendly environments at home. Not that the National League Central is chock-full of loaded lineups, but Miller Park isn't the pitcher's heaven that Dodger Stadium is, plus the Brewers are simply not as good a team as the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wolf finished 18th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater, but I'd argue he's not even a top-50 consideration for 2010. Wherever you draft him, it'll probably be two rounds too early.
The full rundown
All of the winter meetings' major transactions (Dec. 7-10), including a brief, one-sentence write-up of the most significant fantasy implications:
• The Baltimore Orioles acquired SP Kevin Millwood from the Texas Rangers in exchange for RP Chris Ray and SP/RP Ben Snyder. You'd think Millwood would benefit from escaping Rangers Ballpark, but he actually had a 3.17 ERA in 15 starts there in 2009; he's a matchups consideration but in the division with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, there might not be quite so many.
• The Red Sox acquired SP/RP Boof Bonser from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for a player to be named later. Bonser will be lucky to crack the Opening Day roster, and if he does, it'll be as a long reliever.
• The Tigers re-signed SS Adam Everett to a one-year, $1.55 million contract. He's all glove and no bat, meaning the people most pleased by the news will be owners of noted ground-baller Rick Porcello.
• The Astros acquired RP Matt Lindstrom from the Marlins in exchange for SP Robert Bono, SS Luis Bryan and 3B Jorge Jimenez. Regardless of my comments above (in the Nunez write-up), Lindstrom might actually have a chance to close in Houston, considering Brandon Lyon is his primary competition.
• The Astros signed 3B Pedro Feliz to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. He had a sub-.700 OPS away from Citizens Bank Park in each of the past two seasons, meaning he's an NL-only corner infielder at best.
• The Astros signed RP Brandon Lyon to a three-year, $15 million contract (pending a physical). The money almost dictates that he has to be the closer on Opening Day, but his .229 BABIP and 80.8-percent strand rate in 2009 say he has almost no chance at repeating his 2.86 ERA and 1.11 WHIP.
• The Brewers signed SP Randy Wolf to a three-year, $29.75 million contract with an option for 2013 (pending a physical). He cashed in upon his contract-year status, and in addition to my concerns outlined above, Wolf has averaged only 19 starts the past five seasons, so he's a health risk too.
• The Brewers signed RP LaTroy Hawkins to a two-year, $7.5 million contract. He's a more useful ERA/WHIP helper than NL-only owners think, but his primary value might be as a handcuff to 42-year-old closer Trevor Hoffman.
• In a three-team trade, the Yankees acquired OF Curtis Granderson, the Diamondbacks got SPs Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, and the Tigers received SP Max Scherzer, OF Austin Jackson and RPs Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth. You can read my full fantasy spin on the three-team trade here.
• The Yankees re-signed SP Andy Pettitte to a one-year, $11.75 million contract. As cut-and-dry as it gets; Pettitte is about as predictable a 14-win, 4.20-ERA pitcher as they come, and there's matchups value in that.
• The Pirates signed 1B/3B Bobby Crosby to a one-year, $1 million contract. I'm not kidding that Crosby will battle Ronny Cedeno for the starting shortstop job; I suppose owners in deep NL-only leagues will need to track it.
• The Cardinals signed SP Brad Penny to a one-year, $7.5 million contract. Joel Pineiro entered 2009 with a 4.55 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 2.06 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in his career, and then registered 3.49/1.14/3.89 numbers in a career year. Just saying.
• The Mariners signed 3B Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract with a $9 million option for 2014. You can read my full fantasy spin on the Figgins signing here.
• The Rays acquired RP Rafael Soriano from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for RP Jesse Chavez; Soriano had previously accepted the Braves' salary arbitration offer. You can read my full fantasy spin on the Soriano trade here.
• The Rangers signed SP Rich Harden to a one-year, $6.5 million contract with an $11 million mutual option for 2011. Fantasy owners might sweat the league change or the move to hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, but Harden is the type of pitcher least likely to be impacted; he's a hard thrower (10.7 strikeouts per nine the past four seasons) and should get a boost in win potential.
• The Nationals acquired RP Brian Bruney from the Yankees in exchange for OF Jamie Hoffmann. Bruney has pitched fewer than 40 innings in three of the past four seasons, but when he's healthy he's on, with a 3.25 ERA in those years.
• The Nationals signed C Ivan Rodriguez to a two-year, $6 million contract (pending a physical). If he's a backup, he's no longer a fantasy consideration, having batted .269 the past three seasons combined.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.