Little hype, but big impact
The Marlins' acquisition of Hee Seop Choi is among the more unheralded pickups of the past offseason.
Sometimes, the most important moves in the winter take place so far below the radar screen, you need to read the transactions column with a magnifying glass to find them. Here are five acquisitions no one talked about at the time that have had a major impact on the first six weeks of the season:
Once the Marlins' deal to send Lee to Baltimore fell through, they turned their attention to the Cubs. Which led them to Choi -- simply because, if Lee was going to occupy first in Chicago, "that made a lot of sense," says Florida GM Larry Beinfest.
"We thought he could step right in for us at first base," Beinfest says. "He was a fit for us financially. And he was a left-handed bat -- and we're not exactly long on left-handed bats."
Many people were skeptical that Choi would ever be more than a platoon player who teased the world with his power. Now, nine Choi homers later, people are revising their opinions on the fly.
"I couldn't have been any more wrong on that guy," says one NL executive. "His power is incredible. But I never thought he'd be this good a hitter. He covers the plate better than I thought he would. And he's not intimidated. I thought he'd give in to the better pitchers. He hasn't done that."
When Choi arrived in Florida, hitting coach Bill Robinson took a look at his crouch and told him: "Son, I can teach you how to hit, but I can't teach you how to be tall. If you're big, you want to stay tall." So they adjusted Choi's stance to make him more upright. The whole league is seeing the results.
On one hand, Choi has outhomered Lee, 9-4. And only Barry Bonds and Adam Dunn have better NL home run ratios than Choi's (one every 10.2 at-bats). On the other hand, he was also 4 for his last 32 through Thursday. And his nine-homer, zero-double ratio tells you he can succumb to uppercut fever at times.
But Marlins manager Jack McKeon keeps telling him, "Relax. It's your job." And why wouldn't it be? At this point, the only NL first baseman with more homers is Jim Thome.
The Twins would love to tell you they knew Carlos Silva would be 5-0 right now, that he would have more wins than the entire Royals rotation, that he would have a lower ERA than anybody in the Yankees, A's or Phillies rotation.
But to be honest, says GM Terry Ryan, "we didn't even know if he could start."
Apparently he can. Silva spent the past two years in the Phillies' bullpen. But he always wanted to start. The Phillies were mulling giving him that chance before they included Silva in the Eric Milton deal -- and when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called his former teammate, Larry Bowa, after the trade, Bowa told him exactly that. Now the Twins are reaping the rewards.
Silva has learned to cut his bat-devouring two-seamer in on left-handed hitters, has added a slurve and has "pounded strikes," Ryan says. And the Twins' heavy Venezuelan clubhouse population has allowed him to ease right in. But that doesn't mean anybody saw this coming.
In fact, Arizona turned down an offer of the same Phillies package (Silva, Nick Punto and a prospect) for Schilling. Then the Twins said yes because they needed to lop Milton's $9 million salary off their payroll. So who knew Silva would turn out to be their leading winner?
"Hey, I'll let you know in September or October," Ryan laughs. "Let's hold off (on the congratulations) right now. But so far, so good. I'll say that."
Technically, this is Reese's second tour of duty with the Red Sox. Except the first one lasted about a day and a half three offseasons ago -- when the Red Sox traded for him, made a quick stab at signing him, then nontendered him when he said no.
But that was three GMs ago for the Red Sox. And two long DL stints ago for Pokey. So when the Red Sox went looking last winter for a second-base defensive upgrade, they scarfed up Reese for a mere $1 million. Little did they know that a few months later, he would be leading all American League shortstops in defensive zone rating -- thanks to Nomar Garciaparra's pesky Achilles tendon.
"We signed him to play second, with the hope that he would be spectacular defensively, and that he could move over to short every once in a while to give Nomar a rest," says manager Terry Francona. "But with Nomar out, he has been unbelievable. He's all over the place. And he has a great feel for the game."
Reese is no Nomar offensively (.245 BA, .286 OBP). But that's not why he's there. He was brought in to make this team better up the middle. And he can do that from any side of the bag they point him to. Given that Carlos Febles is the Red Sox's Triple-A shortstop, it's scary to think where they would be if they hadn't signed Reese.
"That," Francona says, "is not fun to think about."
That was the Padres, who -- on the recommendation of assistant GM Randy Smith -- offered Otsuka's old team, the Chunichi Dragons, a whopping $350,000 for his rights. And, amazingly, they took it.
The Padres then signed him for two years, $1.7 million -- about the same salary Matsui will have collected by Memorial Day. And Otsuka hasn't just been their best setup man. He might have been everybody's best setup man.
His ERA: 1.00. Opposition batting average: .131. Baserunners allowed all season: 12 (in 18 innings). Consecutive scoreless appearances: 14. Consecutive outings with a strikeout: 15. Inherited runners scored: zero (out of four). First batters reaching base: 2 (of 17). Opposing righthanded hitters: 3 for 28 (.107), with 12 strikeouts. Get the idea?
"He's been a savior," says GM Kevin Towers. "Especially with (Rod) Beck missing so much time (with personal issues). I don't know what we would have done or where we'd be without this guy."
Talk about stumbling upon greatness by accident ... neither Towers nor Smith had ever even seen Otsuka pitch in person when they signed him. But they watched video, surveyed a bunch of people (including Ichiro) and took a shot. Now, even they can't claim this was a stroke of genius.
"To be totally honest," Towers chuckles, "we got lucky. Pure and simple, we got lucky."
After a season in which their shortstops hit .220, with 23 extra-base hits all season, the Tigers knew they needed to upgrade last winter. But let's just say Guillen wasn't the main man on their master plan.
Plan A was Miguel Tejada. (He said: No thanks.) Plan B was Rich Aurilia. (He had the Pacific Time Zone on his mind.) So it wasn't even until it became clear that Aurilia was signing in Seattle that the Tigers turned their attention to Guillen.
Guillen, 28, wasn't even the most heralded guy named Guillen to change teams over the winter. (Jose wins that honor.) But it's now apparent that after all those years of frustrating the Mariners with a succession of eclectic injuries (pelvis, hip, leg) and illness (tuberculosis), people had forgotten just how talented a player this guy is.
"We did our homework," says Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski. "And actually, we heard a lot of good things about him. All his injuries were unusual. ... But after five years with an organization where he wasn't always in a position to play, day-in and day-out, I don't think it's surprising that they were interested in making a change."
So the Tigers got him for two young infielders (Ramon Santiago and prospect Juan Gonzalez). And they're not complaining. Through Thursday, Guillen was hitting .331. He was leading all AL shortstops in on-base percentage (.415). And he handled 123 chances this year before he committed an error.
So he's just as big a reason for the Tigers' march to respectability as Pudge Rodriguez or Rondell White. Which just goes to show there are sometimes worse things in life and baseball than getting stuck with Plan C.