It's March, so it's once again time to get out the glove oil and rubber bands, clean off or buy new spikes, remember where the lucky batting gloves went, and wonder if you're too fat to play softball.
It's also time to wonder if your favorite player will stay on your favorite team throughout the entire season.
Because of the finances of professional sports, keeping superstar players in smaller markets is harder than ever. This reality drives some small-market teams to unload stars entering their prime in exchange for older players simply because of the boatload of prospects returning in the transaction.
San Diego sends first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Clayton Richard to Chicago for first baseman Derrek Lee, minor league third baseman Josh Vitters, shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, minor league pitcher Jay Jackson, and cash.
Why Would the Padres Make This Deal?
Well, the Padres wouldn't be happy about Lee making $13 million in 2010 (Gonzalez will make $4.5 million), but that's why the Cubs would send cash back in the deal. Lee is coming off a fantastic season (.306 AVG 35 HR 111 RBI) that saw him bounce back from a mediocre 2008 campaign.
Offensively and defensively, Lee and Gonzalez are fairly similar players. Both are middle-of-the-order guys with good pop and excellent gloves. So for both teams, the statistical production at first base would be comparable in this exchange.
What's most important to San Diego is that they would be receiving back a bounty of good, young prospects and a first baseman with just one year left on his deal.
It might take a miracle for Gonzalez to stay in San Diego after this season. He'll turn 28 in early May and is entering the prime of his career. Throw in that he's a left-handed-hitting defensive stud, and the Padres could do more for the future of their organization by dealing him than trying to negotiate an extension right now.
If the Cubs were willing to send back one of their top positional prospects in Vitters, the Padres could get an eventual replacement at first (or third) base. Vitters is still very raw and has an electric swing. The only problem with that electricity is that it's on all the time; Vitters' stats appear to indicate that he's allergic to walking.
Vitters hits sexy, big fly balls...Hak-Ju Lee is another story. He's still a baby (19), but some analysts have considered him a strong enough shortstop to possibly push the Cubs' top prospect, Starlin Castro, to second base at some point. While most analysts doubt that, even the mentioning of the youngster in the conversation at shortstop for the Cubs shows the respect he's earned in a brief minor league career.
Jackson has been a solid starter in the Cubs' minors for some time and might be ready for his shot at the majors soon. The exchange of Jackson for Richard does little more than set the arbitration clock back further for the Padres.
Why Would the Cubs Make This Deal?
Because they would get one full season to negotiate a long-term extension with Gonzalez. And yes, it's that simple.
Lee is going to be 35 in September, making him seven years older than Gonzalez. As we've already discussed, the offensive and defensive skills of the two first basemen are similar enough that neither team would feel much of a fall-off in 2010. However, the fact that Gonzalez bats left-handed should make him especially attractive to Jim Hendry, a general manager that has made nearly a dozen mistakes trying to find the right lefty to bat before/after Aramis Ramirez.
Gonzalez would help fans forget Jeromy Burnitz, Jacque Jones, Kosuke Fukudome, Milton Bradley, Jim Edmonds, and every other lefty that's been churned and burned through the home dugout at Wrigley in the last decade.
With Lee's $13 million coming off the books after this season, the Cubs would be able to turn that salary freedom into an extension for a good, younger first baseman.
Moving Jackson for Richard would add a major-league ready, left-handed pitcher to either the back end of the Cubs rotation or, more importantly, the bullpen. As the Cubs' staff stands now, only Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Marshall, and John Grabow will be available lefties on Opening Day (Ted Lilly is still rehabbing).
If manager Lou Piniella wanted to bump one of these guys to the rotation, the bullpen would need an arm; I'm among those that would argue it already needs two.
This is a deal that would bolster the Cubs' immediate major league roster for the next few years. It would also enhance the Padres' organizational depth and give them some strong prospects to build around moving forward.
The biggest reason this deal wouldn't happen is the Cubs' new ownership. Tom Ricketts has said he wants to build the organizational depth from the bottom up, so unloading a few of the team's top prospects for an established major league veteran that's going to cost the team over $10 million per year to keep in nine months isn't likely part of that plan.
However, getting younger at first base (Gonzalez) at the expense of a kid that strikes out too much (Vitters), one that has a better prospect at the same position (Lee), and swapping a young arm that probably needs one more year (Jackson) for one that's ready for the majors now (Richard) might be something Ricketts would grant permission to pursue.