2006 MLB Offseason: First Look

* The Washington Nationals' front office must be sweating bullets right now. The team had the biggest trade chip at the deadline in Alfonso Soriano and failed to move him for what the team so desperately needs, namely young, inexpensive talent. This offseason should see Soriano as the most sought-after hitter in free agency and it's been said that he's already turned down $70 million dollars from the organization.

To further complicate matters, the Baltimore Orioles, the team geographically closest to the Nationals, intend to make a strong bid to sign Soriano. In short, the Nationals have painted themselves into a corner. Either accede to Soriano's high salary demands or lose him for nothing — potentially to a local rival. General Manager Jim Bowden's decision to keep Soriano at the trade deadline should have only been made if he was almost certain that he could get a deal done to keep Soriano long-term. Now, with the possibility of Soriano in Baltimore, he faces the possibility that he will be reminded of this potentially franchise-killing gaffe every single day.

* The Oakland A's faced a similar choice at the deadline with Barry Zito. Unlike the Nationals, however, Oakland had a chance to compete in 2006, so trading Zito for young talent in the middle of the season could have vanquished any chance of the A's competing in 2006. Although the A's were able to make the postseason, they were unable to make too much noise once they got there and it now seems likely that they will lose their former Cy Young winner, Zito, for nothing. Although the A's, like the Nationals, are pretty bare at the minor league level, the A's might be able to handle the departure of Zito because of the arms they already have at the major league level, like Danny Haren, Rich Harden, Esteban Loaiza, and Joe Blanton.

What might be tougher to stomach for A's fans is if Zito ends up pitching for a division rival, like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the Southern part of California in the Western area of the United States on the planet Earth. It's thought that Zito prefers to stay on the West Coast. So, although teams like the Mets and Yankees might pursue him, it should surprise nobody if he instead elects to sign with a left-coast team like the Dodgers, Padres, or the aforementioned Angels. The only real surprise will be if Zito is still pitching home games for the A's next year.

* Speaking of the Angels, they are the team that looks most ready to make a major acqusition this offseason. It may be a free agent like Soriano or Zito, but it may also be through a trade. The Angels are in great position to improve their team for two reasons. First, they have prospects and young major leaguers that other teams absolutely salivate over — guys like Ervin Santana, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Brandon Wood.

To this point, GM Bill Stoneman has been pretty conservative about dealing his top-notch prospects, but with owner Arte Moreno expecting results, this might be the year that Stoneman parts with a few of his young studs to get a proven superstar like Miguel Tejada or Alex Rodriguez. Second, in addition to having the prospects that other teams would likely demand for superstar players, the Angels have an owner who does not shy away from spending money. This is a must for any team seeking to acquire guys like A-Rod, Tejada, or Soriano and Moreno has proven time and again by bringing in guys like Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon, that he's willing to spend whatever is necessary for the team to win.

* It should be an interesting offseason in Boston. Just a couple years removed from their captivating World Series victory, the Red Sox find themselves at a crossroads. Do Theo Epstein and company believe they have the core to be able to compete for another championship next year? If so, the Red Sox could be very active in trying to acquire the players they think can put them over the top. If not, the Red Sox may end up dealing players like Manny Ramirez in an effort to replenish their young talent with hopes to compete next year, but with a more realistic focus on 2008. It's not very clear-cut.

The optimists in the front office can point to an unmatched 1-2 hitting punch in Manny and David Ortiz and young pitching talent like Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen, as well as veteran pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett as reasons to build for 2007. The skeptics, however, can point to the fact that though Hansen and Delcarmen both showed flashes, neither proved that he was able to be relied upon right now. Papelbon, though fantastic as a closer, is set to be moved into the rotation next year, where he has yet to prove himself at the major league level. Schilling isn't getting any younger or better and Beckett was a bit of a disappointment. The Sox also gave away a lot of young talent to the Marlins in order to get Beckett, so they no longer have many fallback options.

Moreover, it seems that Manny being Manny is becoming more of the norm rather than the exception and he even started showing some signs of age in 2006. Finally, one of their best young talents, pitcher Jon Lester, was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and his status as a baseball player for 2007 is both unknown and secondary to his recovery right now. It seems to me that there are too many questions for the Red Sox to realistically be competitive in 2007. Therefore, taking a step back in 2007 with an eye toward 2008, as much as it might be unpopular with the fan base, is the prudent way to go.

* Remember the World Baseball Classic? If you were one of the baseball fans who watched it, you should already know about Daisuke Matsuzaka. It was Matsuzaka, a pitcher, who was Japan's most dominant player and he's now intending to travel across the pond and pitch for some fortunate major league team next year. Many scouts claim that Matsuzaka already has the ability to be an effective number one or two starter in the majors. He demonstrated this ability in the World Baseball Classic by confounding many major league hitters, some of them all-stars, with his nasty stuff. He's so highly-touted that the team that earns the right to negotiate with him has to pay $25 million dollars. Again, that's to negotiate with him.

It's been hypothesized that at least half of all of the major league teams are considering this price tag, not to mention his actual price tag which could be in excess of what Barry Zito is asking for. More than likely, most teams will ultimately have to forego this opportunity because they simply can't afford to commit so much money to an unproven commodity. This leaves the usual suspects, such as the Angels, Dodgers, Yankees, Mets, Orioles, and Mariners as the likely front-runners to acquire his services.

Out of all these teams, however, one makes more sense than the rest and that team is the Seattle Mariners. First, Seattle is owned by a Japanese company and has a good track record with attracting Japanese players, such as current Mariners Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima, as well as former Mariners Kaz Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

Second, Seattle apparently has no qualms with spending inordinate amounts of money on "risky" players. If you don't believe me, consider that just two years ago, the Mariners committed in the ballpark of a $100 million dollars to two players. One was coming off a career year that he had never previously approached (Adrian Beltre) and another that had barely played the previous season due to a pretty significant shoulder issue (Richie Sexson).

Third, Seattle is the perfect place for a Japanese player. Why? For one, there is a decent-sized Japanese population in Seattle and the city has embraced the Japanese players that have been there. On top of that, his transition might be made easier by having Ichiro and Johjima, guys who've already undergone this transition, in the clubhouse to counsel with. Furthermore, Matsuzaka is coming with a lot of hype attached to him. The Pacific Northwest is the forgotten land when it comes to the national sports media (just ask last year's Seahawks), so Matsuzaka can avoid much of the external pressure that comes with playing in a large market like New York, thereby further easing his transition.

Fourth and perhaps most importantly, Matsuzaka could be the player that takes the Mariners to the World Series for the first time in their history (don't laugh), and this should obviously be appealing to both him and the franchise. Think about this, the Mariners are already an excellent defensive team and they already have a very good bullpen. Their hitting is also very good as guys like Ichiro, Sexson, Beltre, Jose Lopez, and Raul Ibanez are key components to a lineup that has the ability to run, hit for average, and hit for power. The only real hole on the Mariners is their starting pitching.

Matsuzaka can't fix it by himself, but the Mariners are also rumored to be a front-runner for another ace, Washington state's own Jason Schmidt. Adding both Matsuzaka and Schmidt to a rotation that already boasts phenom Felix Hernandez, could give the Mariners the best 1-2-3 punch in the majors. Yes, I know Hernandez had an off-year in 2006, but let's not forget that he's only 20-years-old and was thought to be head and shoulders above guys like Francisco Liriano (sick), Jared Weaver (nasty), and Jonathan Papelbon (filthy) just one year ago.

Just a few years back, the Tigers were one of the worst teams in major league history. But they were playing for a world championship this year. The Mariners are nowhere near the level of futility that plagued the Tigers. So, with two smart moves, a World Series run is definitely within reach.

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