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[February 18th] -- Someone needs to explain this to me. Ronnie Belliard, who has been one of baseball's most productive offensive second baseman the last four years, signed a minor league contract with the Nationals that will pay him $750,000 if he makes the team out of spring training. These kinds of contracts are usually reserved for players who, after a solid major league career, has had two or three off-years. Sammy Sosa and his contract with the Rangers immediately comes to mind.

But that's not Ronnie Belliard. Playing for both the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals last year, Belliard hit a combined .272-13-67, very similar to 2005's .282-17-78. Over the past four years, he's averaged .280-13-67. No, his game isn't perfect. He has rather poor career on-base percentage, he has a bit of an attitude, he's not always in the greatest of shape and some of his teammates have described him as guy who doesn't always hustle.

But nothing in that synopsis indicates why a guy goes from making $4 million a year and winning a World Series ring to groveling for a minor league contract from one of the worst teams in the National League.

Maybe the extortion case scared off his suitors, primarily the San Diego Padres. Reports surfaced earlier this month that Belliard, a married man with two children, got a woman pregnant in the St. Louis area. A relative of the girl, either the father or an uncle, demanded $150,000 or they would take his affair public. Could this revelation, plus his cocky attitude, have scared away the rest of the teams?


Belliard was an 8th round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1994. He progressed through Milwaukee's minor league system over the next four years, joining the big club for good in 1999, when he was named the Brewers player of the year. Though he joined the Brewers in the middle of May, he nonetheless finished the year at the top (or near the top) in virtually every rookie offensive category. He had a poor 2002 season, however, and was non-tendered by the Brewers after hitting just .211. He was signed by the Rockies to a minor league contract and became the first non-roster player to garner a starting roster spot on Opening Day. He played well, batting .277-8-50. He signed with the Indians the following year as a free agent.

He played well the next two seasons, averaging .283-14-74 in 2004 and 2005. He was traded to the Cardinals in 2006 for infielder Hector Luna. Luna was a platoon player for St. Louis and Tony LaRussa wanted an everyday player at second for the stretch drive. The Indians acquired Luna to add to their bench depth. Belliard starred in the 2006 NLDS, batting .462 with two RBI's.

There were grumblings out of St. Louis that Belliard was an "offensive" player, that his defensive had hurt the Cardinals in several key games down the stretch. That is strange because most scouting reports describe Belliard as an "above average" second baseman. John Dewan's "The Fielding Bible" listed him as the 3rd best defensive second baseman, tied with Mark Grudzelaniek and Orlando Hudson. Said Dewan, "He is especially good at making plays to his right and has a good arm." Reverend Redbird called Belliard "a big upgrade at turning two" for the Cardinals last year. He plays a very deep second, perhaps as deep as anyone in the league, something he learned from Mets' coach Sandy Alomar Sr. Last season, Belliard averaged an error every 10.5 games, certainly an acceptable number for second baseman.

Why didn't the Indians keep Belliard and sign him to a long-term contract? Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer said, "Belliard played well enough to keep the job, but not well enough to get a multiyear deal going into spring training at age 31 ... Trading him now says they were not going to keep him later."

Offensively, Belliard is a line-drive hitter with plenty of gap power. A right handed batter, Belliard has batted .292 against lefties since 2003 while hitting .273 versus righties. Both are good numbers, allowing Belliard the opportunity to play against all pitchers; Manny Acta won't need to protect him. His batting average is seventeen points higher at home over the past four years. 19% of his balls in play are line drives, 46% are ground balls and 35% are fly balls, similar numbers to former National Jose Vidro (LD:22%, GB:46%, FB:32%). He tends to start of the season slowly, and finishes poorly - he's averaged .242 the last month of the season since 2003.

This is what Jim Bowden says about the signing: "I think there is no doubt second base is [Belliard's] best position, and he can also play first base," general manager Jim Bowden said. "[He has] a good bat. It gives us protection in the middle, flexibility in the middle, depth. It gives us a piece like last year. With Daryle Ward, Marlon Anderson and Royce Clayton, we were able to trade [them] at some point later in the year to get Jhonny Nunez, Luis Atilano and Ryan Wagner. We got three young arms [by] having that depth."

It would seem, then, that Belliard is going to be a Marlon Anderson type of bench player, playing first, second and third as well as providing a potent bat of the bench. Come trade deadline time, he'll likely follow Anderson and Daryle Ward as trade-bait for prospects.

It's a great signing. Basically, the Nationals traded Jose Vidro and $4 million dollars of his salary and received in return Emiliano Fruto, Chris Snelling and Ronnie Belliard (because he cost the team nothing and can replace Vidro on the roster). There is little question that - today anyway - Belliard is as good a hitter as Vidro and could easily hit .280-14-65 for the Nationals if given he opportunity to play every day. The only way that would happen, however, is if Cristian Guzman blows up at short, forcing Felipe Lopez to return to his original position.

Will it happen? It's doubtful. Bowden doesn't want to bench, or cut, his first free agent signing as GM of the Nationals, and I don't think that he has any value in a trade. Plus, the team still owes Guzman $8 million over the next two seasons. That said, the Nationals will be able to get better quality prospects if Belliard plays semi-regularly.

It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Andy Dunn Says "See-ya:" Bob Boone said on Sunday that he accepted the resignation of Andy Dunn, the team's director of player development. Said Boone on Dunn's departure, "I respect Andy and we'll move forward and build the best player development program in baseball."

He didn't say that Dunn's decision took him by surprise, or that he'd be missed, or that he attempted to talk him out of it. Does it seem as strange to you as it does to me that the guy who heads the team's player development would quit a couple of days after the start of spring training? It sounds more like there was a "difference of opinion" and someone had to go, and it wasn't going to be Bob Boone or Jim Bowden.

I agree about the Belliard thing. I think he will be traded and could possibly bring a even better prospect in return.
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The firing or resignation of farm director Andy Dunn and the firing of three of his top assistants is an alarming development for a team that is betting the future almost entirely on its farm system. For this to happen right at the beginning of spring training is also a curious development. Even more curious is that you are about the only blogger who has even mentioned this latest upheaval.
Since Belliard is basically a clone of Vidro at this point, you can say the trade was:

Fruto and Snelling for $7.3 mil in saved salary.
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