Commentary

Identifying major holes teams need to fill

Originally Published: November 28, 2008
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It is great fun this time of year to rework lineups, starting rotations and bullpens after a trade or a free-agent signing. It is just as interesting to determine how teams will fill holes that are left from those trades and signings.

Here are several teams, and the holes they need to fill.

Yankees

The impact of Mike Mussina's retirement cannot be understated. He won 20 games in 2008, becoming the first pitcher to retire off a 20-win season since Sandy Koufax. Mussina also threw 200 1/3 innings. How will they replace him? The Yankees have offered CC Sabathia a six-year deal for approximately $140 million. That likely will not be topped by any team -- a Dodgers source said the team can't go that high, but the Angels appear willing to at least come close -- but the Yankees are concerned that the process hasn't rapidly progressed in the past two weeks. Still, the Yankees will not rest until they've addressed their starting pitching.

In addition to Sabathia, the Yankees would like to sign either A.J. Burnett or Derek Lowe. If they can't sign Sabathia, a club source confirmed, they will pursue free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira as well as either Burnett or Lowe. They also have great expectations in 2009 for pitcher Phil Hughes, who was 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA last year. Hughes is healthy now, and threw the ball well in the Arizona Fall League.

Rockies

The trade of left fielder Matt Holliday to the A's was not greeted warmly in Denver. Holliday is a tremendous player, and it will be impossible to replace him immediately. But for now, the bulk of the left field playing time for the Rockies could go to Carlos Gonzalez, who was acquired in the Oakland deal along with pitchers Greg Smith and Huston Street.

Gonzalez, 23, was one of the Diamondbacks' top prospects, but was sent to Oakland in December 2007 in the Dan Haren deal. Gonzalez can really throw, and he can really play center field, but he didn't hit in Oakland: he batted .242 (.212 after the All-Star break) with 13 walks and 81 strikeouts in 302 at-bats. The left-handed hitting Gonzalez hit .188 off left-handers, which means a platoon is likely. Right-handed hitting Ryan Spilborghs will get at-bats in left.

Still, an A's source said Gonzalez will hit in the big leagues, he just didn't hit in 2008 because he's so young, and he was playing in the majors for the first time.

Angels

It's not over yet, but there's a better than average chance the Angels will lose closer Francisco Rodriguez to free agency. Replacing his single-season record 62 saves will be impossible.

Scot Shields, who had a 2.70 ERA last year, can close -- he has 20 career saves. There also is Jose Arredondo, 24, who went 10-2 with a 1.62 ERA and allowed only 42 hits in 61 innings last season. But he has never saved a game in the big leagues. His stuff is terrific -- "It's nearly as good as K-Rod's right now,'' said one AL general manager -- but there's more to closing than having stuff. K-Rod's strength was that he was always there. His work habits (lots of flat-ground throwing) were a big reason why he was available whenever needed. Only once all year did Rodriguez tell manager Mike Scioscia he needed a day off.

Padres

Following last year's abysmal season, the Padres are unloading, as they should. They let go Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader. Hoffman's stuff obviously isn't what it was, but he still saved 30 games in 2008. He also averaged a strikeout per inning, walking nine and allowing 38 hits in 45 1/3 innings.

He likely will be replaced by Heath Bell, 31, who has been one of Hoffman's set-up men the past few years. His stuff is good -- "It's better than Hoffman's now,'' said one scout -- and his numbers are decent: He has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning in his career, and the past two years, the league has hit .185 and .229 against him. Bell, who has two career saves -- 552 fewer than Hoffman -- should be an adequate replacement.

Soon, the Padres probably will be looking for another starting pitcher to replace Jake Peavy, who is expected to be traded sometime this offseason.

A's

The trade of Street to Colorado will be felt in the Oakland bullpen, but perhaps not in save situations; Street's last save came on July 27. He was replaced as the closer the last two months of the '08 season by side-arming right-hander Brad Ziegler, who set a major league record for most innings (39) at the start of a career without allowing a run. He finished with a 1.06 ERA and 11 saves.

Fellow righty Joey Devine will share the ninth inning with Ziegler. Devine had a 0.59 ERA, allowed only 23 hits and struck out 49 in 45 2/3 innings last season.

Brewers

The Brewers had the third-best starters' ERA (3.86) in the major leagues last year, but they are certain to lose their two best starters, Sabathia and Ben Sheets, to free agency.

It will help that Yovani Gallardo, who missed most of the 2008 season, will be healthy. "Of all the young pitchers in baseball,'' one GM said at the time of Gallardo's knee injury in April, "I think Gallardo is the best. They will really miss him.'' Gallardo essentially becomes the ace of the staff, unless the Brewers use the money they had allotted for Sabathia to buy another free-agent pitcher.

Manny Parra, who won 10 games last year, but none after Aug. 20, needs to bounce back from a second half in which he went 2-6 with a 5.32 ERA. The Brewers have hope for Seth McClung, who, as a reliever in September and October, posted a 0.98 ERA. Still, it will be impossible to replace Milwaukee's top two starting pitchers.

Blue Jays

"They have the best pitching in our league,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. Toronto led the major leagues in starters' ERA at 3.72, but the Blue Jays lost Burnett, their No. 2 starter, to free agency (and chances are, he will go to one of the Blue Jays' competitors in the American League East: New York or Boston), and they have injury issues that will extend into 2009.

Shaun Marcum will miss the 2009 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Dustin McGowan (great stuff, great athlete, draws comparisons to a young John Smoltz) likely won't be ready for Opening Day because he underwent surgery on his right shoulder in late July, and might be out as long as the first two months of the season. Casey Janssen, who missed all of 2008 after also having surgery on his right shoulder, will likely return as a starter (he started for part of the 2006 season and was an effective reliever in '07), but he's not guaranteed to be ready for Opening Day. The Jays need some help with their rotation, but it doesn't appear that they'll be big players in free agency until they see if the economy improves.

Diamondbacks

Arizona's two biggest holes have been created by the certain departures of second baseman Orlando Hudson and outfielder/first baseman Adam Dunn.

The D-backs have targeted free agent Ramon Vazquez as a possible replacement for Hudson, but there's no way he can replace Hudson's defense. Still, Vazquez hit .290 and slugged .430 for Texas in 2008. He likely will need a platoon partner; Arizona has discussed signing Damion Easley or Mark Loretta. The left field/first base situation isn't clear. Left fielder Eric Byrnes missed most of last year with a hamstring injury, but he wasn't hitting before he got hurt, and he hasn't hit since signing his first long-term deal in 2007. The D-backs would be happy if they could trade Byrnes and the two years and $20 million left on his contract, but that is highly unlikely.

Conor Jackson will probably be the first baseman to start 2009, but he can also play left field. Ideally, to replace Dunn and maybe Byrnes, the D-backs would love to sign free-agent outfielder Raul Ibanez because they badly need another left-handed hitter. But the competition for Ibanez is fierce, and the Diamondbacks have very little money to spend.

With few funds available, and little immediate help in the farm system, the D-backs also have to fill the holes left by Randy Johnson, closer Brandon Lyon and set-up man Juan Cruz -- all of whom appear to be gone. Arizona had only $3 million to pay Johnson, who made $16 million last year and was willing to cut his '08 salary in half to stay. Lyon is expected to be replaced by Chad Qualls. Tony Pena and Jon Rauch will have to be a lot better in order to replace Cruz. And through all this, the D-backs also need to find a left-handed reliever.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.