It’s now less than two months until pitchers and catchers report for spring training. We’ve finally gotten to the point of the offseason where teams are starting to scramble to fill the final holes on their rosters. Because the majority of the big-name free agents have already signed, the depths of the available player pool are starting to be plumbed. This makes the weeks leading up to spring training some of the most interesting to watch for diehard baseball fans.
***The Texas Rangers added another bat to their lineup by agreeing to a one-year contract with free-agent first baseman Lance Berkman. The switch-hitter will be 37 before the start of the season and played in only 32 games last year with the St. Louis Cardinals because of injuries.
Berkman will be paid $10 million, with a chance to earn an additional $1 million in incentives. If he can stay healthy, it will probably end up being a good deal for the Rangers. Berkman is the definition of a professional hitter. He takes a lot of walks and his .953 career OPS is 21st all-time in major league history. Having spent the majority of his career playing for the Houston Astros, he is used to playing in the summer heat of Texas and could thrive in the hitter-friendly confines of Arlington.
Berkman is slow and lumbering on defense, but Texas can hide and preserve him physically by giving him the majority of his at-bats as a DH. He can occasionally spell Mitch Moreland at first, but will be most effective if the Rangers take and hide his glove.
***Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of baseball, announced he is 95 percent back in his recovery from a knee injury that robbed him of most of the 2012 season. Although he is 43, there is little reason to bet against him making a full recovery and having a fantastic farewell season in 2013. Instead of declining, he has aged like fine wine, posting a combined 1.72 ERA since the start of the 2008 season. You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to root for Rivera; just a fan of baseball and good people.
***Proving that left-handed pitchers have nine lives (at least), the Chicago Cubs agreed to a minor league contract with Dontrelle Willis. Since going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA in 2005 with the Florida Marlins, it’s all been downhill for Willis. Suffering from control problems and an anxiety disorder, he has pitched for five different organizations since the start of the 2010 season. He appeared in just four minor league games in 2012 with the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, posting an 0-3 record and 8.53 ERA.
Although he has seemingly been around forever, Willis will only be 31 when he has his next birthday later this week. With Chicago being in rebuilding mode, there is little risk in taking a chance on the southpaw and seeing if he has anything left. As another player who is well-liked and respected around baseball, it would be great to see the affable Willis get his career back on track.
***The Los Angeles Dodgers continue to spend like drunken sailors, reeling in left-handed reliever J.P. Howell on a one-year deal for $2.85 million plus incentives. Howell had been with the Tampa Bay Rays since 2006 and alternated between struggling with injuries and being an effective piece in their bullpen. He had a 3.04 ERA and held left-handed hitters to a .200 batting average in 55 appearances last season. Although he has been nearly as effective against righties in his career, it’s likely that he will serve as a lefty specialist with the Dodgers.
Howell’s signing represents another move by Los Angeles that seems driven more by their limitless resources than an actual pursuit of chemistry. Their roster is populated by many highly paid (many would say overpaid) players who have a lot of baggage. Carl Crawford, Kenley Jansen, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Beckett are among those who have previous injury or behavioral issues that have the potential to derail a team. The 2013 Dodgers’ roster seems more like a Frankenstein creation that one that was put together with deliberation and care. It will be interesting to see if that approach is a winning formula.
***San Francisco Giants reliever Sergio Romo was cited for a recent disturbance at a Las Vegas airport after authorities say he refused to provide TSA agents with a proper id, which developed into an argument. The slight right-hander has been one of the most important bullpen pieces for the Giants in recent seasons, going 20-9 with a 2.20 ERA in 276 games since he began his major league career in 2008.
Romo is no stranger to bucking authority, as the t-shirt he wore in last year’s World Series celebratory parade, decrying recent immigration laws, got a lot of attention. However strange it may sound, it’s refreshing to see an MLB player getting in trouble for exercising their rights instead of being involved in crimes connected to drugs, alcohol or violence. While no distractions are good distractions, Romo is not the kind of person who is going to be a negative influence on a team.
***The Boston Red Sox were recently reported to have worked out two players who many may think are past their primes.
Outfielder Bobby Abreu did some drills in front of team officials in Venezuela, including taking grounders at first base; a position he has never played before professionally. The 17-year major league veteran has been in steady decline for several seasons, culminating in last year’s punchless .242 batting average with the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers. It’s hard to imagine the Red Sox view Abreu as anything more than depth value to bring into spring training on a minor league contract. So far, there has been no indication that they will attempt to sign him.
Boston has also scouted veteran right-handed starting pitcher Javier Vazquez in the Puerto Rican Winter League. The 36-year-old Vazquez is 165-160 with a 4.22 ERA in a 14-year major league career. He last pitched in the majors in 2011 with the Florida Marlins, going 13-11 with a 3.69 ERA and 162 strikeouts.
Vazquez’s Winter League general manager is former Boston super-sub Alex Cora, who indicated Vazquez is still impressive, hitting the low-90s with his fastball. In the past, Vazquez hasn’t been nearly as good pitching in the AL, if you compare his 4.65 ERA to his NL mark of 3.99. The Red Sox have not been reported to have made any official offer and their scouting at this point is simply doing due diligence on any possible option that could help improve their team.
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