The winter meetings got off to a rousing start Monday when ... Gerald Laird got traded from the Texas Rangers to the Detroit Tigers. OK, so it doesn't have quite the same pull as CC Sabathia or Manny Ramirez finding a new home, but hey, don't laugh at Laird, as he will play a role in plenty of fantasy baseball leagues in 2009.
Laird likely will be dismissed by many for his career .255 batting average and failure to reach double-digit home runs at any time in his career, which he's spent mostly as a backup with Texas. But he could be one of those emerging catcher bats ready to do a Kelly Shoppach and stun us all. Consider that Laird has never really gotten a chance at full-time duty before but should be Jim Leyland's opening day backstop and be in line for at least 450 plate appearances. Judging by his numbers in parts of six seasons, he wasn't a guy who feasted solely on lefty pitchers nor relied on a significant edge in his home ballpark. Laird has showed potential for power against right-handed pitching and had a higher on base percentage plus slugging percentage in road games for the past three seasons.
Detroit isn't a hitters' haven, but given the likely uptick in playing time, we should see Laird reach double digits in home runs, possibly flirt with 15 or so. As it was, while sharing time behind the plate with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and others, Laird finished No. 16 on ESPN's Player Rater at catcher, thanks to a good-for-the-position .276 batting average. The Rangers thought enough of his bat to let him play 10 innings at third base and accrue 16 at-bats at designated hitter. A power surge could loom ahead, and Laird might end up on a number of fantasy sleeper lists. I wouldn't rank him in the top 10 at catcher quite yet, but he's not far off, and if you're in a league with two active catchers, you'd have to consider him at some point late in the season. He might not be far from the top 10, sort of a Chris Snyder or A.J. Pierzynski type.
As for how this will affect the Tigers, the pitching prospects going to Arlington are not likely to make an immediate impact, as Carlos Melo is 17 years old, and Guillermo Moscoso spent his 2008 season in the low minors. Brandon Inge probably thought he had a chance at the starting catcher job, but he would be better served batting ninth and playing third base, with Carlos Guillen set to take over in left field. Laird is regarded as a fine handler of pitchers, and before the 2008 season he had done a good job throwing out opposing base stealers. I wouldn't upgrade Tigers pitchers just yet, but hey, Inge is a very good defensive third baseman, which might help more.
The Rangers had a wealth of catching depth to start with and might be in a position to make more deals. Saltalamacchia reportedly has been linked to the Boston Red Sox. Fantasy owners might be giving up on the former Atlanta Braves prospect, but he's only 23. Max Ramirez has a powerful right-handed bat after destroying Double-A Frisco with a 1.096 OPS, making some think he's the next Geovany Soto. But he likely is ticketed for first base or designated hitter. Taylor Teagarden is the catcher of the future but needs to hit in the spring to win the starting job. At this point, all three current Rangers catchers should be on the fantasy radar, but none is a lock to outproduce Laird in 2009.
As for what else has happened at the winter meetings on Monday, as of this writing, Todd Coffey is back with the Milwaukee Brewers organization. There is no current closer in place to save games for Yovani Gallardo, but let me tell you, Coffey isn't the answer. I'll set the over/under on his 2009 save total at one ... then take the under. The Brewers will sign a free agent to replace the retiring Salomon Torres.