The White Sox shored up one black hole from 2007 Thursday while watching another remain unfilled when the big fish swam away to Los Angeles.
With the signing of former Padre and Brewer reliever Scott Linebrink to a 4-year, $19 million contract, the Sox hope to enjoy a few 8th innings in 2008 that don't involve Mike Macdougal walking two batters on eight pitches. (The deal will become official after Linebrink passes a physical.)
Now, Linebrink is by no means one of the "premier" set up men in baseball. Nor is he probably worth a lengthy four-year contract, a risky move for any relief pitcher.
But the message here was clear: the Sox were desperate, with a capital 'D,' for some bullpen help and were willing to overpay to get it. Last year's "untested power arm accumulation" strategy worked out about as well as a Rolling Stones concert with Hell's Angels as security.
So enter the 31-year-old Linebrink, owner of a lifetime 3.21 ERA, to add some veteran presence to the 'pen. In 2005 Linebrink was as dependable as they come for the Padres, sporting a glittering 1.83 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 73 appearances, anchoring one of the best bullpens in all of baseball and reaching the playoffs for the first of two consecutive years.
But in 2007 the league started to catch up to Linebrink, who has neither an overpowering fastball nor an eye-popping breaking ball, and by the time the he got to Milwaukee in July he contributed more to the Cubs playoff push than the Brewers'.
The most alarming stat, from the Sox perspective, is his ever-increasing HR rate. He allowed 12 home runs in 2007, after yielding just 13 long balls in total during the previous two years combined. And that was pitching in cavernous Petco Park-imagine how many dingers he might allow facing tougher American League hitters in the launching pad that is the Cell!
Despite his ballooning ERA and fly ball tendencies, Linebrink is a good addition to a Sox bullpen starving for someone who can throw strikes (his career K:BB rate is more than 2 to 1). The Sox bullpen is still probably one piece away from being competitive, but it is a lot better today than it was yesterday.
The outfield situation, on the other hand, became direr when free agent centerfielder Torii Hunter signed an insane 5-year, $90 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The same Angels that shelled out $50 million for Gary Matthews Jr. last winter.
Now there's a chance the Dodgers, who signed centerfielder Juan Pierre for $45 million last year, follow through on their front runner status and sign Aaron Rowand to a monster contract of his own. That would add up to about $260 million-worth of centerfielders scooped up by the city of Los Angeles over the past year!
While that makes them look foolish, it doesn't do the Sox any favors. Torii Hunter at $18 million/year, especially a few years into that contract, is laughable, and the Sox definitely dodged a bullet there. But if they don't shell out the big bucks for Rowand, who is also dependable but overrated with regards to his market value, who will be the big centerfield splash?
The Red Sox' Coco Crisp, the Angels' Reggie Willits, the Ray's Rocco Baldelli and the Dodgers' Delwyn Young are all qualified to play centerfield and lead off. None are big splashes. Then there's still the Rays' duo: Carl Crawford and BJ Upton. They won't come cheap but, considering the contracts mediocre veterans are receiving, it would be worth the Sox' while to give up a lot in a trade to acquire Crawford or Upton.
If the Sox could score one "cheap" outfielder and one Ray, they'd add a huge speed contingent to a line up sorely lacking in that department.