Cooking with Chas: A Weekly Look at What’s on the MLB Hot Stove

In the second installment of this new weekly series, I’ll be looking at some of the off-season decisions facing a couple of teams near and dear to the hearts of Clipboard readers and contributors.

Following the Rockies’ trade of Matt Holliday to Oakland, the biggest name on the hot stove trading block is, of course, the San Diego Padres’ Jake Peavy. With the Padres clearly in rebuilding mode, having recently rescinded a contract offer to all-time saves leader and San Diego lifer Trevor Hoffman, there appears to be no chance that they’ll hang onto Peavy. The Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs are the current front-runners in the Peavy sweepstakes.

Peavy apparently is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Since he has a no-trade clause, and can veto any deal, he wants to make sure that his new team doesn’t give up too much in the process. The Braves seem to be the team that is working the hardest to get a deal done, with shortstop Yunel Escobar’s name being mentioned most frequently. San Diego will be looking for more than Escobar, though, and it doesn’t seem likely that Atlanta is willing to part with the young pitching–i.e. Tommy Hanson–that the Padres want.

Chicago, on the other hand, seems to have the pitching–although they’re certain to be stubborn about the availability of Jeff Samardzija–but no position player of Escobar’s caliber. It may turn out that, if either team wants to land the biggest fish on the trade market, they may have to include a third team in the deal. Otherwise, Barry Axelrod, Peavy’s agent, may have to turn to the other teams on his short list. So, it doesn’t appear right now that there’s any certainty as to where Peavy will end up.

What does seem certain is that the Cubs are ready to place a greater emphasis on starting pitching in their off-season pursuits following yesterday’s acquisition of Kevin Gregg from the Florida Marlins. With Gregg and Carlos Marmol, the Cubs have two potential candidates for closer, and have informed Kerry Wood that they won’t be attempting to re-sign him. Look for the Cubs to be serious about bringing back Ryan Dempster, but don’t rule out the possibility that they could still acquire Peavy or pursue the relatively under-valued free agent Ben Sheets instead.

Speaking of Sheets, one comparison I’ll be keeping an eye on this off-season, and in the seasons to come, is his relative value to A.J. Burnett. Baseball executives seem to have short memories, but other than this past season, Burnett’s health is not any less suspect than Sheets’ is. Plus, I’m a big fan of strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Sheets’ career mark of 3.85 is vastly superior to Burnett’s 2.25. Also, Sheets’ career ERA+ (park/league adjusted ERA) of 116 (16% better than average) tops Burnett’s 111. If I were a GM, I would be much quicker to sign Sheets to 2-3 years at $30-40 million than I would be to pay Burnett $65-75 for 4-5 years.

Who doesn’t need pitching?

I don’t really intend to answer this question. I’m not sure if there, in fact, is an answer, but the Cleveland Indians certainly aren’t it, even after Cliff Lee’s remarkable season that landed him the AL Cy Young Award yesterday. Following Lee in the Tribe’s rotation is Fausto Carmona, whose sub-par 2008 can’t be blamed entirely on injury problems. After that, it’s a crap-shoot, with Anthony Reyes, Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey among the top candidates to hold down the fort after the departures of CC Sabathia and Paul Byrd, and with Jake Westbrook out until at least mid-season due to Tommy John surgery.

While starting pitching is certainly a need they can’t afford to overlook, the bullpen seems to be the current focus of Cleveland’s off-season plans. Jensen Lewis finished last season as the Indians’ closer and, while he’s a candidate to maintain that job, there are also rumblings about interest in free agent Trevor Hoffman and the Rockies’ Huston Street, one of the players they acquired in the Holliday deal. Despite a down year in 2008, don’t count Rafael Betancourt out of the Tribe’s bullpen plans, and Rafael Perez should be back in the mix as well.

The Indians could also use another infielder, preferably a second baseman who would allow them to move Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop and the defensively challenged Jhonny Peralta to third. Brian Roberts’ name has been mentioned in trade rumors, and his addition would also allow Grady Sizemore to be moved out of the leadoff spot, but don’t expect him to come cheaply. Colorado’s Garrett Atkins has been mentioned as a third base option as well. If neither of these deals happen, don’t be surprised to see the return of Casey Blake.

The catching position is considered to be where Cleveland has a surplus of talent. One option would be to deal Kelly Shoppach to fill one of the aforementioned needs, and stick it out with Victor Martinez as their full-time catcher. An even more ambitious move would be to trade Martinez, and possibly fill more than one of their major needs. Neither of these players will be easy to part with, especially Martinez, but this may be what it’s going to take for this team to enter 2009 with anywhere near the level of optimism they had going into 2008.

Last, but certainly not least, as far as the Cleveland Indians are concerned, is the question of what to expect from Travis Hafner in 2009. Can we expect anything approaching his 2005-06 level of performance, or is Hafner’s career on a steep decline? I promised last week that I would not use a particular dirty word in this column, so I’m not going to speculate as to why Hafner is no longer the player most of us thought he was going to be. I haven’t completely given up on him yet, so I’m going to predict that his performance will return to a level that approximates what we saw from him in 2007 (24 HR in 545 AB, .266 BA, .385 OBP).

Other Items on the Burner

Of course, you all know that Evan Longoria and Geovany Soto were named AL and NL Rookies of the Year, respectively, and that the Cy Young Awards went to Cliff Lee (AL) and Tim Lincecum (NL), all deservedly so. Also, it came as no surprise that Joe Maddon won the AL Manager of the Year Award, and there was no major controversy with the NL Award going to Lou Piniella.

A few other notable hot stove developments from late this week:

  • The Yankees are expected today to make an offer of 6 years and in the neighborhood of $140 million to CC Sabathia.
  • The Yankees acquired the versatile Moneyball-darling Nick Swisher, who achieved the dubious distinction of the lowest batting average in the majors in 2008 (among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title).
  • Randy Johnson filed for free agency, after being unable to reach a contract agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Johnson is 45, and has 295 career wins, but don’t expect him to remain unemployed.
  • Milwaukee Brewers closer Salomon Torres announced his retirement, at age 36, after recording a career high 28 saves in 2008.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

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