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If you have a question, send it to askba@baseballamerica.com. Please include your full name and hometown if you'd like your letter to be considered for use in an upcoming column. Also, please understand that we can't respond to every question.

By Jim Callis

Dec. 31, 2003

I'm still waiting for that big shortstop trade. It looks like Carlos Guillen could be headed to Detroit any day now.

Happy New Year, everyone. Let's squeeze in one last Ask BA before 2004 . . .

    Since the Kazuo Matsui signing came too late for him to be considered for the Mets Top 10 Prospects list, where would you place him if given the chance. How does weighing the careers of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui affect your decision?

    Bill Springer
    Long Island, N.Y.

When the 2004 Prospect Handbook comes out, Matsui will rank atop our Mets Top 30 list, bumping lefthander Scott Kazmir down to the No. 2 slot. We had some internal debate on how high Matsui should go, and the conclusion is that he's just much more advanced and far more proven than Kazmir to not rank ahead of him.

The biggest stars to come to the United States from Japan (Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro, Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideki Matsui) have been very successful over here. There's no reason to suspect that the same won't be true of Kazuo Matsui. Hideki Irabu was a disappointment in the U.S. majors, but his .493 winning percentage almost exactly matched his .500 mark in Japan.

Here's J.J. Cooper's scouting report on Matsui that will appear in the Prospect Handbook:

He doesn't have the teen-idol quality of Ichiro Suzuki or the admiration of his entire country nation like Hideki Matsui, but Matsui always has had flair. Between his often-changing hair color, his blazing speed and his flashy glovework, the latest high-profile Japanese import arrives in the United States with nearly as much fanfare as Hideki Matsui (no relation) brought to New York a year ago. Coveted by several big league teams, he became a free agent and signed a three-year, $20.1 million contract with the Mets that included a $100,000 signing bonus and annual salaries of $5 million, $7 million and $8 million. Selected third overall in 1993 as a pitcher by the Seibu Lions, he quickly converted to shortstop and made his Japanese big league debut at age 20 two years later. The following year, he managed to learn how to switch-hit as on-the-job training in the majors. Matsui broke in as a speedy slap hitter, but blossomed into a power threat after maturing physically and training with weights. His list of awards is lengthy: seven all-star selections, four Gold Gloves, three stolen-base crowns, one Pacific League MVP award (1998). He set a PL record by playing in 1,143 consecutive games, and fans voted him Japan's best shortstop of the 20th century. Matsui raised his profile with U.S. scouts when he hit .423 against a team of U.S. major leaguers during a 2002 exhibition series. He homered from both sides of the plate in one game, going deep against Miguel Batista and Scott Schoeneweis.

Matsui has been likened to all of the best shortstops in the majors, and the best comparison may to be Rafael Furcal. Though Matsui was a 30-30 player in Japan, the Mets would view any homers as a bonus. Matsui is more likely to show off his Ichiro-type speed and is expected to bat in one of the first two spots in New York's lineup. That said, he's stronger than Ichiro and doesn't use Ichiro's slap-hitting approach. Matsui's solid on-base percentages in Japan were based more on his high batting averages than on his ability to draw walks. As his power numbers grew, so did his strikeouts, and there's some concern that he might struggle making contact in his first year in the States. There are fewer worries about his glove. One Pacific Rim scout predicted that Matsui immediately will become the best defensive shortstop in the game, while a second compared him to Omar Vizquel. The consensus is that Matsui has good range, smooth hands and a plus arm. Another scout said he worries a little about Matsui's arm strength and range, because he played shallow and was more rigid than a classic shortstop in Japan. But he's in the minority. Matsui should be one of the better shortstops in the National League, and the Mets believe he's good enough to force Jose Reyes, baseball's best young shortstop, to second base.

    As a big fan of the Reds, it gave me great pleasure to read in the last Ask BA that, among major league Rule 5 draftees, "The pitcher who has the best chance of blossoming into a major league starter is righthander David Mattox." You also go on to say that he has the best changeup in the Reds system. Is his changeup really better than Chris Reitsma's? Also, should Mattox earn/secure a job as a member of the Cincinnati rotation out of spring training next year, what sort of numbers would you expect him to put up? And where would he rank if BA were doing the Reds Top 10 Prospects right now?

    Keith A. Lake
    Columbus, Ohio

When we write that a prospect has the best tool in an organization, we're generally talking about the minor league system and not including the major league club. In this case, Mattox' changeup is better than Reitsma's and probably anyone else's on the Cincinnati staff. Mattox throws his change with the same arm speed as his fastball, and it has excellent sink.

That's his best pitch, and he also throws a 90-91 mph fastball with life. He throws both a curveball and slider, but neither is fully dependable. Josh Boyd ranked Mattox 19th on our Reds Top 30 for the Prospect Handbook. While Mattox is the best starting candidate among the Rule 5ers, he's more of a back-of-the-rotation guy. If he made 30 starts in the Cincinnati rotation this year, which is a lot to expect, I could see him going 7-11, 4.75.

    I watched John Hardy of Arizona play shortstop on Cotuit's team on Cape Cod this past summer and I was quite impressed. He made some great plays, had a lot of hustle and was a pretty good batter too. What are his major league prospects?

    Bill Starke
    Fort Atkinson, Wis.

With the exception of Wareham's Andy LaRoche (Grayson County, Texas, CC), who signed with the Dodgers late in the summer for $1 million and likely will move to second base, it was a down year for shortstops on the Cape. Hardy ranked with Chatham's Ryan Klosterman (Vanderbilt) as the best of the group after LaRoche.

The cousin of one of the game's top shortstop prospects, J.J. Hardy of the Brewers, Hardy projects as a fifth-round pick at this point. He had a subpar offensive year as an Arizona sophomore. Though he was more impressive on the Cape, hitting .268 with wood, he still didn't show much in the way of power or on-base ability.

This will be a big spring for Hardy, as scouts are on the fence as to how much he'll hit and whether he's truly a shortstop. They did love his makeup and hustle. Hardy makes plays defensively, but he's not flashy and his shortstop tools don't jump out. He can control the bat and use the whole field, but he needs to boost his offensive production significantly. As one scouting director put it after watching him at Cotuit: "If he's a shortstop, he'll have enough bat and he'll be drafted good. If he's not a shortstop, he's just another guy."

Dec. 20, 2003

While waiting to see if Baseball America nontenders me and if there's ever a final resolution to the Alex Rodriguez trade, I figured I'd update the free-agent compensation chart.

Since the last Ask BA, two Type A players (Keith Foulke from Oakland to Boston, Miguel Tejada from Oakland to Baltimore) and one Type C free agent (Eddie Perez from Milwaukee to Atlanta) have switched teams. Type A's Kevin Millwood and Gabe White accepted arbitration, while Type B Ricardo Rincon and Type C's Wilson Alvarez and John Flaherty re-signed with their 2003 clubs.

The Twins now have five picks before the start of their second round, while the Athletics have four plus an extra second-rounder as well. Here are the compensation picks as they stand right now:

First Round
22. Twins (from Mariners for Eddie Guardado)
23. Yankees (from Astros for Andy Pettitte)
24. Athletics (from Red Sox for Keith Foulke)
25. Twins (from Cubs for LaTroy Hawkins)
28. Dodgers (from Yankees for Paul Quantrill)
29. Royals (from Giants for Michael Tucker)
30. Rangers (from Braves for John Thomson)
Supplemental First Round
31. Athletics (for Foulke)
32. White Sox (for Bartolo Colon)
33. Yankees (for Pettitte)
34. Twins (for Guardado)
35. Athletics (for Miguel Tejada)
36. Twins (for Hawkins)
37. Royals (for Raul Ibanez)
38. Dodgers (for Quantrill)
39. White Sox (for Tom Gordon)
40. Blue Jays (for Kelvim Escobar)
Second Round
48. Athletics (from Orioles for Tejada)
52. White Sox (from Angels for Colon)
62. Royals (from Mariners for Ibanez)
68. White Sox (from Yankees for Gordon)
Supplemental Second Round
71. Brewers (for Eddie Perez)
Third Round
83. Blue Jays (from Angels for Escobar)

There are just five more unsigned free agents who could require compensation:

Type A: David Wells (NYY).
Type B: B.J. Surhoff (Bal).
Type C: Julio Franco (Atl), Orlando Palmeiro (StL), 
John Vander Wal (Mil).

Wells and the Yankees reportedly have agreed on a minor league deal, but it hasn't been officially announced yet. Franco, Palmeiro, Surhoff and Vander Wal all declined arbitration, giving them until Jan. 8 to resign with their 2003 teams.

    After the incredible major league Rule 5 draft results, in which five of the first six players chosen were from the Pirates organization, Pittsbugh has lost eight prospects since the end of the regular season to waiver claims or the Rule 5 draft, including their minor league players of the year in 2002 (Walter Young) and 2003 (Chris Shelton). Is the Pirates system really that deep, or is this just poor roster management and talent judgment by general manager Dave Littlefield? Which of the Rule 5 guys, if any, represent significant potential long-term losses to the organization?

    Joel Charny
    Washington, D.C.

    Are the Pirates' financial problems as bad or worse than the Brewers'? They trade Aramis Ramirez to create financial flexibility, then they protect people like Joe Beimel, Jason Boyd, Mark Corey, Humberto Cota and Mike Lincoln on their 40-man roster because they can help the team win games in 2004 while Chris Shelton, Frank Brooks, Jose Bautista et al can't. My theory is that the Bucs wanted to cut minor league payroll and pick up some cash in the Rule 5 draft. Finances are the team's No. 1 concern. I don't see that they have increased talent in the system since David Littlefield became GM. I'm getting worried that he's more of a problem than a solution to team's struggles.

    Ron Leighton
    Annandale, Va.

    The Pirates lost five players in the Rule 5 draft yet they only protected 37 players instead of the 40 they could have. Could you please explain to me the benefit of a team not protecting all 40 of the players they're allocated at the expense of losing five players like Pittsburgh did? It makes no sense to me that the Pirates didn't use those additional roster spots to protect three more players.

    Howard Perlman
    Franklin, Mich.

There were more than a few snickers at the Rule 5 draft when the Pirates lost five of the first six players taken in the major league phase. It is a tribute to their system, which is one of the best and one of the most improved in baseball. But Pittsburgh also deserves some blame for questionable judgment.

Protecting 37 players made absolutely no sense. They didn't need the extra spots to make Rule 5 additions of their own, and they don't have any imminent free-agent signings to announce. Even if they were going to wait until the nontenders flood the market to sign free agents, they could have just removed a Boyd or Cota from their roster at that point. And why they would protect Lincoln only to nontender him is just inexplicable. I don't think money was a concern, because the minor league salaries for the players involved don't amount to much and the $250,000 in Rule 5 cash isn't going to solve the Pirates' financial problems.

The best player that Pittsburgh lost is third baseman Bautista. He has a quick, powerful bat and good athleticism, though the Orioles may find it tough to keep him on their major league roster next season. However, the Pirates may not get the other four players back.

The Tigers are so woeful that they should have no trouble holding onto first baseman/catcher Shelton, who led the high Class A Carolina League in batting (.359/.478/.641) but needs a position. Speedy outfielder Rich Thompson should be able to hold down a reserve role with the Royals. Deceptive lefty Brooks' chances of sticking in the A's bullpen were a lot better before Oakland re-signed Ricardo Rincon and added Chris Hammond via trade and Arthur Rhodes via free agency. Righty Jeff Bennett's fastball jumped to 95 mph once he switched to relief in 2003, and rumors that he may have a sore shoulder mean that the Brewers might be able to stash him on the disabled list.

    Of the 20 players chosen in the major league Rule 5 draft, which ones are legitimate? Detroit did reasonably well last season with Wil Ledezma, Matt Roney and Chris Spurling. I can see them carrying Chris Shelton if he has hitting potential—how could he be worse than the guys they ran up to the plate last season—but I'm trying to get a read on the two pitchers.

    Rich Shook
    Ann Arbor, Mich.

Bautista has the best chance among the Rule 5 position players of becoming a big league regular in the future. But his chances would be enhanced if he didn't have to waste a year on a major league bench, because he never has played above high Class A and got just 188 at-bats in 2003 because he broke his hand punching a trashcan after a strikeout.

Willy Taveras (Astros from Indians) has just the type of center-field skills that Houston has sought for the last couple of years, but it's hard for a contender to give up a roster spot to a player who's not ready to hit big league pitching. Like Bautista, Taveras hasn't played above high Class A and his development will be hurt if he goes a year without getting regular at-bats.

Shelton could be this year's Jason Dubois, whom the Blue Jays drafted from the Cubs in 2002. At the time, Dubois had established his batting credentials in the lower minors but didn't wow anyone with the rest of his game. Toronto ultimately sent Dubois back to Chicago. After he hit in Double-A and tore up the Arizona Fall League, it now looks like Dubois' bat will be enough to carry him to the majors. Shelton has a similar profile and as I mentioned earlier, Detroit should have no problem keeping him.

The pitcher who has the best chance of blossoming into a major league starter is righthander David Mattox (Reds from Mets). Cincinnati will give him a chance to make its rotation immediately. Mattox has the best changeup in the Reds system and throws four pitches for strikes.

As for a future late-inning reliever, the best candidate is righty Alec Zumwalt (Devil Rays from Braves). After breaking into pro ball as an outfielder, Zumwalt has shown a 90-94 mph fastball and average slider since moving to the mound in 2002.

After taking Shelton with the first overall pick, the Tigers made two more Rule 5 selections in lefty Michael Bumatay (Rockies) and righty Lino Urdaneta (Indians). Bumatay has a breaking ball that ties up lefthanders, so he could fill a specialist role in Detroit's pen. Urdaneta, who signed with Cleveland a six-year minor league free agent after spending 2003 in the Dodgers system, has hit 98 mph in Venezuela this winter. He's still very raw, so the Tigers may wind up throwing him back.

    The Royals didn't make the playoffs last year, so they conceivably hurt their organization in the long term by trading prospects for veterans. (Though it could be argued that their success has led to them being able to sign free agents this offseason.) Could you speak as to how the group of minor leaguers they traded fared after those deals and, more important, what their potential is for the future? Did they give up any studs?

    Justin Andrew Anderson
    Fort Collins, Colo.

When the Royals refused to fall out of contention, general manager Allard Baird made five summer trades to bolster the big league roster:

Date      Traded                 To    For 
July 2    2B Alejandro Machado   Mil   RHP Curtis Leskanic
          RHP Wes Obermueller
July 6    LHP Scott Mullen       LA    SS Gookie Dawkins
          SS Victor Rodriguez
July 28   RHP Jeremy Hill        NYM   LHP Graeme Lloyd
Aug. 25   OF/1B Trey Dyson       Cle   LHP Brian Anderson
          RHP Kieran Mattison
Aug. 26   LHP Chris Tierney      SD    OF Rondell White
          RHP Brian Sanches

Kansas City's system isn't strong, nor is its budget large enough to fit any big-ticket additions, so Baird had to be creative and thrifty while trying to help his team. But rest easy, because none of the nine players he gave up look like they'll be missed. None of them did much after the trades, and none of them are going to make their team's Top 30 in the 2004 Prospect Handbook.

The two best guys in that group are probably Obermueller and Mattison, and neither has special stuff. Obermueller relies on a sinker-slider combination and command, but he'll be 27 next season and hasn't fooled big leaguers at all. He has a 2-7, 5.77 record in 14 games, while opponents have hit .310 with 13 homers in 73 innings. Mattison had a solid year in 2003 (11-6, 2.84 with a 121-37 strikeout-walk ratio in 145 innings), but at 23 he was old for Class A and he doesn't have a plus pitch.

Dec. 12, 2003

The proposed Alex Rodriguez-Manny Ramirez trade makes no sense to me from the Rangers' standpoint, even if the Red Sox kick in $5 million a year toward Ramirez' salary. Texas would save roughly $10 million annually, which isn't enough to fix its pitching staff; as good as he is, Ramirez would just add to a logjam of talented left field/first base/DH types; and the Rangers would go from having the best player in baseball at shortstop to a gaping void there.

But here's a cautionary note for the Boston perspective. The last team to pay the richest salary in baseball and win the World Series in the same year was the 1986 Mets. Those Mets were also the last such club to even make the playoffs. In the 17 seasons since, the high-spending teams have finished as high as second place just three times and combined for a .452 winning percentage, which translates into a 73-89 record:

Year   Player, Team                 Salary     W-L     Team Finish
1986   George Foster, NYM       $2,800,000   103-59    Won World Series
1987   Mike Schmidt, Phi        $2,127,333    80-82    4th in NL East
1988   Ozzie Smith, StL         $2,340,000    76-86    5th in NL East
1989   Orel Hershiser, LA       $2,766,667    77-83    4th in NL West
1990   Robin Yount, Mil         $3,200,000    74-88    6th in AL East
1991   Darryl Strawberry, LA    $3,800,000    93-69    2nd in NL East
1992   Bobby Bonilla, NYM       $6,100,000    72-90    5th in NL East
1993   Bobby Bonilla, NYM       $6,200,000    59-103   7th in NL East
1994   Bobby Bonilla, NYM       $6,300,000    55-58    3rd in NL East
1995   Cecil Fielder, Det       $9,237,500    60-84    4th in AL East
1996   Cecil Fielder, Det       $9,237,500    53-109   5th in AL East
1997   Albert Belle, CWS       $10,000,000    80-81    2nd in AL Central
1998   Gary Sheffield, Fla     $14,936,667    54-108   5th in NL East
1999   Albert Belle, Bal       $11,949,794    78-84    4th in AL East
2000   Kevin Brown, LA         $15,714,286    86-76    2nd in NL West
2001   Alex Rodriguez, Tex     $22,000,000    73-89    4th in AL West
2002   Alex Rodriguez, Tex     $22,000,000    72-90    4th in NL West
2003   Alex Rodriguez, Tex     $22,000,000    71-91    4th in NL West
Salary figures from baseball-reference.com.

Unlike the other teams on this list, the 2004 Red Sox, if they pulled off the A-Rod deal, wouldn't have been responsible for granting the highest salary in baseball. They'd just be paying it. They're also run much more intelligently than most of the clubs above. But Boston still would have to buck history to make the postseason with Rodriguez' $22 million salary next year.

    I'm just wondering about some of the foreign players recently signed: Chi-Hung Cheng (Blue Jays), Luis Soto (Red Sox) and Akinori Otsuka (Padres). Can you give a scouting report on these players? Will Otsuka be effective in the majors?

    Jon Lemoine
    Toronto

I've received several questions about Cheng, an 18-year-old Taiwanese lefthander who signed for $400,000 on Dec. 3. As part of his deal, the Blue Jays will allow him to pitch for Taiwan's 2004 Olympic team if he's selected. Cheng made four appearances at October's World Cup in Cuba, going 0-1, 5.40 as Taiwan finished fourth. He's more about pitchability than power, working with an 85-88 mph fastball and promising secondary pitches.

Soto, an 18-year-old Dominican shortstop, agreed to a $500,000 bonus on Dec. 9. He first started to attract interest when he played for Team Baseball America at October's World Wood Bat Championship in Jupiter, Fla. A switch-hitter, he's strong and physically mature for his age and has an advanced approach. He also shows good actions and a strong arm at shortstop.

Otsuka is the third player to come to the major leagues after being posted by his Japanese team. Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Ishii previously came over via the process, which allows Japanese players who haven't qualified for free agency to be sold to U.S. clubs. The Padres paid $300,000 to the Chunichi Dragons for the right to negotiate with Otsuka, then gave him a two-year contract worth a guaranteed $1.7 million on Dec. 10.

A 31-year-old righthander, Otsuka went 1-3, 2.09 with 17 saves for Chunichi this year and had 137 saves in seven seasons in Japan's majors. His best pitch is a slider that has so much action that it resembles a splitter. He also throws a low-90s fastball, a changeup and a forkball. Most Japanese players who have come to the majors have matched their success in Japan (if not quite their statistics), so Otsuka should be a good late-inning reliever for San Diego.

    With the Twins losing both Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins, what kind of draft-pick compensation will they be getting?

    Scott Wright
    Sandstone, Minn.

We continue to get a lot of free-agent compensation questions, and there have been several signings since we tackled the subject three weeks ago, so let's revisit it again. To review what I said on Nov. 21:

Free-agent compensation is determined by a statistical ranking of players at each position, based on their stats for the least two years. If a team loses a Type A free agent (in the top 30 percent at his position), it gets a supplemental first-round choice as well as the signing team's first-round (if it's not in the top 15 selections) or second-round pick (if the first-rounder is in the top 15). If a team loses a Type B free agent (in the 31-50 percent grouping at his position), it gets the signing team's first- or second-round pick (based on the same criteria mentioned for Type A free agents). If a team loses a Type C free agent (in the 51-60 percent grouping at his position), it gets a supplemental second-rounder. If a team should forfeit multiple picks for signing multiple free agents, the team losing the highest-ranked of those free agents gets the highest compensation choice.

But here's the catch: The team losing the free agent has to offer him arbitration in order to receive compensation. The deadline for doing so is Dec. 7. If a team loses a free agent before then, it will automatically offer arbitration in order to get the draft picks. But unless a highly coveted player is involved, clubs almost always wait until after Dec. 7 to sign him so they can possibly avoid having to give up draft choices. With the market coming down in the last couple of years, players often can make much more in arbitration than they will as free agents, so teams often decline to offer them that option.

As expected, teams declined to offer arbitration to most of the Type A, B and C free agents. These are the ones who have switched teams thus far:

Type A
Starting Pitchers: Bartolo Colon (CWS to Ana), Kelvim Escobar (Tor to Ana), 
Andy Pettitte (NYY to Hou).
Relief Pitchers: Tom Gordon (CWS to NYY), Eddie Guardado (Min to Sea), 
LaTroy Hawkins (Min to ChC), Paul Quantrill (LA to NYY).
Outfielders: Raul Ibanez (KC to Sea).

Type B
Starting Pitchers: John Thomson (Tex to Atl).
Outfielders: Michael Tucker (KC to SF).

As a result, these are the draft picks that have changed hands or that have been created in the supplemental first round. The Twins lead the way with five choices (theirs plus four compensation picks) before the start of the second round:

First Round
22. Twins (from Mariners for Guardado)
23. Yankees (from Astros for Pettitte)
25. Twins (from Cubs for Hawkins)
28. Dodgers (from Yankees for Quantrill)
29. Royals (from Giants for Tucker)
30. Rangers (from Braves for Thomson)
Supplemental First Round
31. White Sox (for Colon)
32. Yankees (for Pettitte)
33. Twins (for Guardado)
34. Twins (for Hawkins)
35. Royals (for Ibanez)
36. Dodgers (for Quantrill)
37. White Sox (for Gordon)
38. Blue Jays (for Escobar)
Second Round
50. White Sox (from Angels for Colon)
60. Royals (from Mariners for Ibanez)
66. White Sox (from Yankees for Gordon)
Third Round
80. Blue Jays (from Angels for Escobar)

We're not done yet, as there still are another 13 free agents who will yield compensation if they switch teams:

Type A
Starting Pitchers: Kevin Millwood (Phi), David Wells (NYY).
Relief Pitchers: Keith Foulke (Oak), Gabe White (NYY).
Shortstops: Miguel Tejada (Oak). 

Type B
Relief Pitchers: Ricardo Rincon (Oak).
Designated Hitters: B.J. Surhoff (Bal).

Type C
Starting Pitchers: Wilson Alvarez (LA).
Catchers: John Flaherty (NYY), Eddie Perez (Mil).
First Basemen: Julio Franco (Atl).
Outfielders: Orlando Palmeiro (StL), John VanderWal (Mil).

Wells and the Yankees reportedly have agreed to terms on a one-year minor league contract, but the deal hasn't been finalized yet. The Braves may file a grievance if the Yankees sign Gary Sheffield. Though Atlanta didn't offer Sheffield arbitration because it was worried he might accept. But there also are indications that he may have agreed to a deal with New York well in advance of the deadline, with an announcement delayed in order to save the Yankees a draft pick.

    How is Chris Snelling progressing in rehabbing his injured knee and what are the chances he starts the 2004 season in left field for the Mariners?

    Tom Fazzio
    Seattle

Snelling has been one of my favorite prospects since he tore up the low Class A Midwest League in 2000. I dubbed him the Australian Pete Reiser a couple of years ago in a BA chat, and he has continued to get hurt. He blew out his left knee shortly after reaching the majors in 2002, then had more problems with it this season. First he had tendinitis, and in mid-August he tore the meniscus in the knee and required additional surgery. His rehab is going well and the Mariners expect him to be at full strength for spring training.

A career .319/.396/.486 hitter in the minors, Snelling is only 22 and has a long career ahead of him if he can stay healthy. But he doesn't have a clear opening in the Seattle outfield after the Mariners gave multiyear contracts to free agent Raul Ibanez and holdover Randy Winn. Snelling might outhit one or both of them in 2005, but this year he'll start the year in Triple-A and probably won't do more in the majors than serve as a fourth outfielder.

Dec. 5, 2003

Even with our constantly updated coverage at Trade Central, trade questions keep pouring in. So let's have at them.

    The Expos traded one of the best young pitchers in baseball, Javier Vazquez, and didn't get any sure thing in return. The closest thing is Nick Johnson. He's a very good hitter when he's healthy, but he hasn't proven he can stay healthy for an entire season. At best, Juan Rivera will be an average corner outfielder, while Randy Choate at best will be a back-end-of-the-rotation filler. How did the Yankess get such a deal and why didn't another team put together a package that was superior to that? I can't believe Omar Minaya is that bad of general manager. Does not having a long-term plan cause him to be that reactive?

    Jason Robinson
    Charlotte

I haven't been a fan of Minaya's trades. I'll admit he has fewer resources to lean on than other GMs when it comes to making decisions, but he has made some awful deals. In the process of acquiring and relinquishing Bartolo Colon, he turned Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee into Rocky Biddle, Jeff Liefer and a broken-down Orlando Hernandez. Doing the same thing with Cliff Floyd, he spun Carl Pavano and Donald Levinski into Claudio Vargas and Seung Song. A lot of his minor deals have blown up: Geoff Blum for Chris Truby; Matt Herges for Guillermo Mota and Wilkin Ruan; Jason Bay for Lou Collier; Scott Strickland, Phil Seibel and Matt Watson for a whole bunch of nothing. (Before anyone e-mails, I know there were more players involved in some of those transactions, but they weren't significant.)

Even when Minaya gets a good season of Livan Hernandez and acquires him for the price of Jim Brower, he can't win. Hernandez vested his $6 million option for 2004, making the budget crunch in Montreal that much tighter.

But with the Vazquez trade, I think Minaya did as good as he could. Seriously, Jason, look at what the Red Sox gave up for Curt Schilling. There's not a Nick Johnson in that bunch, and there may not be a Juan Rivera, either. Also, by not having to go to arbitration with Vazquez, who was going to leave as a free agent next year anyway, Minaya may have cleared up enough money to re-sign Vladimir Guerrero.

The Expos system has some arms but precious few bats. Johnson is on the verge of becoming a .300/30 homer/120 walk machine, and the Yankees think they solved Johnson's injury problems when they changed his grip on the bat during the season. By putting Johnson at first base instead of Wil Cordero, and moving Brad Wilkerson to center and replacing Endy Chavez in the lineup with Rivera, Montreal significantly upgrades its offense (even moreso if the deal allows the club to retain Guerrero). Choate is more of back-end-of-the-bullpen filler, but believe me, Minaya did fine in this trade and has made several worse ones.

    With Richie Sexson becoming a Diamondback and the Brewers receiving Lyle Overbay in the deal, what is the plan for Prince Fielder now that the Brewers have an up-and-coming star at first base? Is Overbay going to be filler until Fielder is ready, possibly by 2005-06.

    Marc Hefferan
    Rochester, N.Y.

Overbay never will be a bigger star than Sexson was, and he's only two years younger than him. Most scouts see Overbay as a guy who will hit for average with 15 homers a year, a Mark Grace without the slick glove and maybe not as many walks. Overbay is just keeping first base warm until Fielder arrives at Miller Park, which likely will be for Opening Day 2006. He has a much more potent bat than Overbay and won't have any trouble moving him out of the way.

    Is Scott Hairston the reason why Arizona traded Junior Spivey? Where do you see Hairston next year and how likely is he to contribute if he starts in the majors? How does Spivey going from Arizona to Milwaukee impact Rickie Weeks' development? Which player will change positions? What is your ETA for Weeks?

    Jeff Katzin
    Toronto

    What if any impact does the Richie Sexson trade have on Scott Hairston? Does moving Junior Spivey increase Hairston's chances of being considered for Arizona's second-base job this spring? What is his timetable for the majors?

    Doug Andresko
    Whitehall, Pa.

The primary reasons the Diamondbacks traded Spivey is that they wanted to get rid of his $2,367,500 salary for 2004 and upgrade defensively at second base. Hairston is one of the better hitters in the minor leagues and he'll be a cornerstone in Arizona's lineup of the future. But the jury is still out on whether Hairston has the ability to play at second base. His tools are no better than average and his sporadic work ethic is frustrating. He might have to be a third baseman or left fielder.

That said, Hairston likely will get an opportunity to play second base in the majors. I expect that he'll start 2004 in Triple-A with Matt Kata handling second base in Arizona. Kata is more of a role player than a regular, and after his hot start he batted just .214/.270/.339 after the all-star break. If Kata doesn't get his bat going and Hairston hits like he always has, Hairston could get the job by the all-star break.

    I notice that both the Giants (Francisco Liriano) and Red Sox (Jorge de la Rosa) both traded arguably their top prospects, both lefthanders, in deals this offseason. San Francisco did so in a semiquestionable deal for A.J. Pierzynski, and Boston did so in an understandable move for Schilling. Which lefty has the higher ceiling?

    C.J. Keller
    Prattville, Ala.

Liriano has the higher ceiling, but I'd rather have de la Rosa because Liriano has pitched just nine innings since July 2002. He has been bothered by shoulder problems, though he has yet to have surgery.

Liriano, 20, is 20 months younger than de la Rosa. When he's right, Liriano throws 93-97 mph, a couple of ticks harder than de la Rosa, and his breaking ball and changeup have more upside than de la Rosa's. But a great arm isn't worth much if it can't stay healthy, so de la Rosa is a better bet for success. He also has proven himself in Double-A, while Liriano hasn't established himself beyond low Class A. Liriano probably wouldn't have ranked higher than fifth on the Giants Top 10 Prospects list, but de la Rosa was the Red Sox' best pitching prospect.

I liked the Pierzynski trade for the Giants. They get an all-star catcher at the cost of a big league reliever (Joe Nathan) and a pair of pitching prospects (Liriano, Boof Bonser) who may or may not pan out. Rumors are that the Cubs offered Juan Cruz and Todd Wellemeyer for Pierzynski, and that would have been a better deal for the Twins.

    As a Brewers fan, I have to ask about the prospects Milwaukee received for Richie Sexson. I don't see where Chris Capuano or Jorge de la Rosa would fit into Milwaukee's Top 10 Prospects list. At best you could substitute de la Rosa for Ben Hendrickson, but I like Hendrickson's long-term outlook as a starter as opposed to de la Rosa's role, which from what I read is undetermined. Maybe that's just a sign of how far the Brewers farm system has come.

    Chris Collins
    Janesville, Wis.

Chris is right. We haven't shifted de la Rosa into the Brewers Top 30 for the 2004 Prospect Handbook, but he'll fit in the 8-10 range with Hendrickson, outfielder David Krynzel and catcher Lou Palmisano. And that is a sign of how far the farm system has come. We haven't broken down all of the organizations yet, but so far I haven't seen one that has more talent than Milwaukee's.

Capuano, who will fall somewhere in the bottom half of the Top 30, isn't a blue-chip prospect. He's 25 and doesn't have an out pitch, though he has succeeded with command. He's a fifth starter/middle reliever, his seven shutout innings against the Dodgers in September notwithstanding.

    I'm wondering if John Gall is now the heir apparent for the vacant first-base job in St. Louis now that Tino Martinez has been traded to Tampa Bay. If he does win the job, how does he project as a major league hitter? His career minor league stats are nice at .303/.355/.458, but will his swing allow him to power some of those doubles over the wall for homers, like teams want to see in a first baseman?

    Dave Lilley
    Newcastle, Wash.

I think Albert Pujols is your Cardinals first baseman for the very long term. That's the best defensive position for him.

As for Gall, he's more of an extra guy than a regular, especially for a contender. He probably could hit .280 in the majors, but with just 25-30 doubles and 12-15 homers, which isn't enough for a first baseman. (Though that is roughly what the Cardinals got out of Martinez the last two years, which they somehow didn't see coming.) Gall will be 26 next season and his bat is his only real tool, but there are worse things than carving out a career as a reserve first baseman/outfielder.

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