Matthews, Pierre signings are not money well spent
The Dodgers and Angels sort of got what they needed Wednesday, and if that’s all they can say after committing $44 million over five years to Juan Pierre and $50 million over five years to Gary Matthews Jr., respectively, there’s a lot wrong with this picture.
The money being thrown at baseball free agents is insane.
So, with power hitters commanding exorbitant salaries, and the Chicago Cubs grabbing Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez for a combined $211 million -- enough to suggest that the Cubs’ parent, Tribune Co., is printing money on the same presses as the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers it owns -- the Dodgers settled for speed and the Angels went for pitching and defense.
Those strategies can work, to an extent. But neither team has addressed its key needs and may not be able to fill those holes well enough to become a World Series contender.
The Dodgers, desperate for punch after J.D. Drew opted out of a guaranteed $33-million contract and took away his team-leading 20 home runs and 100 runs batted in, had to re-sign productive but brittle Nomar Garciaparra.
But Pierre and shortstop Rafael Furcal figure to get on base often enough for Garciaparra to drive them in. Furcal hit .300 last season and reached base 270 times, eighth in the National League. Pierre led the NL with 204 hits for the Cubs and has 1,182 hits since 2001, second only to Ichiro Suzuki.
Pierre doesn’t walk much, 32 times last season in a league-leading 699 at-bats, but he struck out only once every 18.4 at-bats, best in the NL. He has averaged 53 stolen bases over the last six seasons and has played all 162 games in each of the last four seasons.
General Manager Ned Colletti said Pierre’s batting skills and speed made him “a perfect catalyst for our lineup.” It also helps that Pierre is considered a character player, a good spirit in the clubhouse. Those are, unquestionably, positives.
Yes, his arm is below average. And his power is nonexistent, meaning that the Dodgers will have to dumpster-dive into a depleted free-agent market or swing a trade to get back to last season’s production levels. They had the NL’s top team batting average but were next to last in home runs. Pierre won’t change that. He’s Kenny Lofton, only 10 years younger.
The real rub is that the deal is for five years, about four years longer than Matt Kemp should need to mature and make an impact.
The San Francisco Giants were pursuing Pierre but wouldn’t go beyond four years. Colletti was willing to offer a five-year deal, even though it’s a risky proposition to give a long contract to a 29-year-old whose game is based on speed. When that speed fades, Pierre might not be able to do much.
At least Barry Bonds doesn’t loom on the Dodgers’ horizon. Colletti has said he has no interest in Bonds, and amen to that. The Dodgers don’t need the sideshow that Bonds has become.
For the Angels, who coveted Soriano and Ramirez, the question was whether they should overpay Drew or overpay Matthews, there being few legitimate center fielders available.
Matthews turned 32 late last season while reaching career-best marks with Texas at .313 with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs. He’s a good defensive player with a strong arm, and he tied six-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter of Minnesota for the American League lead among center fielders with eight assists.
Angels General Manager Bill Stoneman was acutely aware that his team’s defense had gone from the league’s best in 2005 to the worst in 2006, “and defense is so important, especially if you’re pitching-based.”
He improved the bullpen by adding right-handed reliever Justin Speier earlier in the week and said Matthews’ defensive abilities would make him a great friend to the pitching staff.
“He didn’t win the Gold Glove, but he could have,” Stoneman said. “You always want to be strong up the middle. In [Orlando] Cabrera, we’re really good at short. Adam Kennedy won’t be at second anymore, but Howie Kendrick will be there, and our catching is strong.”
Stoneman also said that Matthews could contribute offensively.
“Sure, he’s not a 40-home run guy or a 100-RBI guy, but he did hit the ball out of the park quite a few times,” Stoneman said.
“I think he’s heading toward an upside. Different players find their ultimate levels at different times.
“I spent many years in Montreal, which acquired Otis Nixon. He had always been a good outfielder and ran well, but he didn’t hit well. While he was with the Expos, he figured it out. He must have been 30, 31 and he went on to have a very productive career.”
Matthews doesn’t give the Angels the big bat they need in the middle of the lineup to protect Vladimir Guerrero. Stoneman said that with the Cubs having signed Ramirez and Soriano, the talent level “falls off a bit.” That leaves the option of trading for help, a route Stoneman has been reluctant to take. He may have to, if the alternative is another non-playoff finish.
Stoneman was philosophical about the ongoing free-agent spending spree.
“The bankers and investment advisors are going to hit the jackpot,” he said.
Neither the Dodgers nor the Angels can say the same.