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February 5, 2010

Transaction Action

AL Moves

by Christina Kahrl

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Outrighted RHP Dennis Sarfate to Norfolk (Triple-A). [2/3]

The procedural note here is that the Orioles have yet to officially officialize the Mark Hendrickson deal, so there's still another body to boot off of the 40-man roster. Sarfate's passing through waivers unscathed represents an unsurprising development, but it's also a reflection of both the timing (everyone's just about full-up on their 40s) and the quality of Orioles system talent. We'll see who gets squeezed once the O's slow-walking the Hendrickson deal comes to its inevitable bureaucratic denouement.


DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to terms with RHP Justin Verlander on a five-year, $80 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/4]

Obvious good usually doesn't need to be explained in much depth, but the interesting element of this contract is that it's a great example of a team and a player benefiting from and accommodating their respective positions. This is the third deal Verlander and his agents at Milchin & Pieper have ever had to negotiate. As the second overall choice in the 2004 draft, he held out for and got a major-league deal in 2004, which netted him an initial minimum of $4.45 million split between a signing bonus ($3.15 million) and minor-league compensation that would only get him $1.3 million. By 2006, the minor-league provision was moot: He was in the majors to stay, which kicked his compensation up to $4.4 million through 2008 and made him arb-eligible for 2009. Last year's arb-dodge came in the form of a $3.675 million deal, or to put it another way, they'd paid the $3.15 million to land him, and $4.975 million to have him in their rotation for his first four years as a pro. That's still a steal relative to his production, of course; as the old version of MORP forecasted, his value for 2009 alone was $8.45 million.

The new deal's where Verlander goes from amply (under)paid to rich. Unsurprisingly, it's back-loaded, as he goes from making $6.75 million in 2010 to $12.75 million in 2011 to $20 million in 2012-14, or after the point when the current turkey contracts have come off of the books. The cool aspect of this commitment is the way in which it flies in the face of a fourth estate spin: this year's Tigers aren't a pointless suicide run for the last, overpaid leftovers of the 2006 pennant-winners, they're a more pointed last throw to buy time, and a bridge to a still-competitive future in the game's low-standards division, a future that rests on Verlander and Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer in the rotation. Miguel Cabrera is the anchor of the offense, which isn't a shabby place to start. The 2011 commitments to Carlos Guillen and Jose Valverde give them a crust of veterandom in the pen and the lineup respectively, but there's talent on the way in-system to shore up both units. The developments of Alex Avila and Scott Sizemore, Austin Jackson and Casper Wells, and Brennan Boesch and Ryan Strieby and Wilkin Ramirez will help determine how many veteran position players get retained beyond 2010, while Joel Zumaya, Daniel Schlereth, and Ryan Perry provide Valverde a broad field of potential successors and immediate helpmates to preserve leads.

The real question from pitch-count nellies concerned about Verlander's workload is whether or not he's at risk for melting down, because Jim Leyland's worked him hard by contemporary standards. It's a worthwhile point: Verlander's 982 batters faced last season led the American League, and was just five batters behind Roy Halladay's league-leading total in 2008. Verlander's tally would have led the AL in batters faced in 2005-07, coming in ahead of Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito, and CC Sabathia, none of whom subsequently broke down; indeed, Buehrle had just finished his second straight season of league-leading batters faced tallies, doing so at the age of 25 and 26. He's still standing. It was also his age-26 season, beyond the point normally identified as the really risky window, and facing fewer than a thousand batters in a season is not a particularly high total in historical terms. Cal Eldred faced 1087 batters in 1993 as a 25-year-old, making 36 starts; that broke him. Verlander was older, threw fewer pitches, and faced fewer batters per start. Verlander's workload isn't remarkably heavy, it's just contemporaneously league-leading, an important distinction now that we're well into the age of carefully managed workloads, a trend that even Jim Leyland's respecting, relative to his past.


LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Travis Chick, OF-Ls Cory Aldridge and Michael Ryan, and SS-R Gary Patchett to minor-league contracts. [2/3]

MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 2B-S Orlando Hudson to a one-year, $5 million contract. [2/4]

No incentives, no base, this was it, $5 million, one year, and congratulations, Mr. Hudson, you're a Twin.* That's great for the Twins, of course, because it involves adding a three-win improvement at the plate alone over alternatives like Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla; the defense might be more of a push, but Hudson's a quality defender, so adding hardly involved making any kind of compromise of a defense that's critical to the success of a pitching staff that generates lots of balls in play. The Twins are already the early favorites in the AL Central, in another pre-season predicted spread where everyone, even the Royals, are within 10 games of first place, so a three-win addition at this late date is much more valuable here than it might be in other places, other divisions, or other leagues.

It comes with benefits and hazards beyond that, of course. Hudson's reputation for being something less than durable might come back to haunt the Twins, but for a one-year investment, that's worth risking, and with Punto pushed into a reserve role on Ron Gardenhire's aggressively employed bench, there's plenty of flexibility when it comes to giving Hudson days off as a potential injury prophylactic. Add in that Punto's a fine second baseman with pinch-running utility, and the Twins can afford to make in-game switches to avoid letting the odd lefty power reliever smoke Hudson in a key situation (Matt Thornton, for example), at least if Gardenhire so chooses. We don't know how Target Field will play (beyond "cold"), so it's hard to decide how much this will impact Hudson's production, but he should walk in eight or nine percent of his PAs, and provide an ISO around .120-.130. Even if he hits "only" .270 or .280, that's a useful player and an obvious upgrade.

The other ripple effects are that Hudson wipes out Casilla's immediate future, which isn't really a major consideration given Casilla's modest upside. To some extent, he simplifies their third-base options to some combination of Brendan Harris and Punto (now completely back in his proper role as a utility infielder), and perhaps eventually Danny Valencia pushes his way into that mix once he improves enough at the plate to make that a reasonable proposition. Matt Tolbert's role might be properly be in Triple-A, because pinch-bunters don't have a ton of value, even with the Twins.

*: Danny DeVito accessory not included.


SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to terms with 1B-L Casey Kotchman to a one-year, $3.5175 million contract, avoiding arbitration; outrighted 1B/3B-R Tommy Everidge to Tacoma (Triple-A). [2/3]

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Claimed RHP Mike Ekstrom off waivers from the Padres; signed C-R Alvin Colina and LHP Heath Phillips to minor-league contracts. [2/3]

I'm genuinely surprised that the Rays have the roster space to claim and retain an organizational strike-throwing type like Ekstrom. But after last spring's crunch, they're actually a bit short, because they were at 37, and while the 16 pitchers they had rostered stack up pretty nicely in terms of an assemblage of talent against anybody else's top 16, that's an abbreviated head count by today's standard. But consider their options:

You can add Ekstrom to the rostered relief options pile, but the picture's a bit cloudy for him: He's the owner of a nice slider and he does a good job of hitting the bottom half of the strike zone, but his sinking fastball's nothing special as a swing-and-miss offering. Five of the relief guys seem set, with Thayer and Choate having to pitch their ways onto the team, and the pre-set three-way fight for the fifth starter can only have one winner from among Hellickson, Sonnanstine, and Davis, with the odds being good that at least one of the losers might wind up in the pen.

Whether they do or don't, however, what the Rays could use simply as a matter of roster logistics was a shuttle slinger, a guy you can move back and forth between Durham and the Trop without being overly worried over whether or not you might lose him for ten days after a demotion, and whose work patterns your less concerned about than those of prospects like Davis or Hellickson, or any or the major contributors in the pen too, for that matter. Ekstrom's lined up to be one of the four pitchers likely to rotate through the last spot on the staff in the never-ending churn driven by last night's ballgame, somebody's skipped start, or a temporary injury-related absence that doesn't require a DL move.

Essentially, grabbing Ekstrom's a symbol of present-day roster usage. The point isn't that he's all that desirable in himself, it's that he's useful exactly because he's fungible and has options and isn't entirely horrendous. The 25-man roster, being little more than a transient logistical expression these days, is really a 21- or 23-man roster where, absent major injuries, players have some job security that keeps them out of Triple-A; the other two to four spots are a de facto taxi squad, where a combination of proximity and a willingness to spend peanuts keeps the matter of who's on the roster in any given game or for any given week in constant doubt. Whether or not he graduates to the relative job security of someone like Cormier is moderately interesting, but if he does, he'll be replaced on the back end of the roster by someone else like him, someone you can yo-yo between Durham and The Show and possibly even outright off of the 40-man without really missing him. As contradictory as it might seem, Ekstrom's grab-worthy because he's disposable.

It's because of those nagging facts of use that I find any suggestions about how swell it would be to expand rosters to 26 or 27 men a bit silly: it might add an element of job security for about a player per team, but it would just extend the churn in the last several slots while exacerbating the problem of bottomless bullpens, hyperspecialization, and the late-game tedium of three or four warm-ups in the seventh and eighth innings. Is preserving that really the objective? Because those days have been here for more than a decade now, and they're not about to go away, whether rosters expand or not.


TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Kevin Gregg to a one-year, $2.75 million contract with club options for 2011 ($4.5 million) or 2011-12 ($8.75 million). [2/5]

This seems like a bad idea, especially after Gregg repeated the late-season fade that ruined his 2008 season season WXRL tally. At least in 2008 it was tied to a knee injury he tried to pitch through, as his skipper, Fredi Gonzalez, tried to get him to a second 30-save season as a Fish. Last year, Gregg had another ugly trio of August blown saves and took three losses the Cubs could ill afford, only this time it was without a knee injury to provide a causal explanation. Through July, 2009, Gregg had amassed 2.009 WXRL for the Cubs; then August happened, and he "contributed" -1.561 WXRL to wipe out most of the initial good work. In that same August stretch, he allowed five homers and seemingly lost an ability to fool right-handed batters; September didn't go any better (-0.056 WXRL), so his year finished on an entirely bad note, again.

All of which suggests a couple of things to me. First, the back end of the deal might look nice if you're Gregg and really think it's something you can secure by dint of effort this season, but it doesn't really amount to much because none of it is guaranteed. Second, even operating under the assumption that Gregg's got a couple of good months in him at the front end of the season, no matter how good they are, there isn't really that much reason to suspect he'll fetch much in trade come July 31, not after that pair of disastrous late-season fades. Less plausible still is the suggestion that he might bring draft picks to the talent-hungry Blue Jays if his options aren't picked up, yet they somehow decided to offer arbitration. Consider the implications, which strain credulity: If Gregg's offered arbitration after 2010, yet fails to pitch well enough to encourage the Jays to pick up either option package, he'd be nuts to reject the offer. That, or heartily sick of pitching in Canada, but he'd be faced with making as much or less as he did this winter to come back south of the border. I doubt that Gregg's representation missed what happened in the last couple of winters to relievers in general, let alone what happened to his client as far as taking a pay cut as a free agent after being due for an arbitration-generated raise that got him traded between 2008 and 2009.

In the meantime, he's a Jay for 2010, and that's really where I think the focus should be. As a closer, he's filler, a guy who has done the job but is nobody's idea of a great choice, and someone who if left in the role initially lets the Jays use Jason Frasor and Scott Downs in their more usual set-up roles. It would be fun if the Jays elect to use the irrelevance of their season as something that liberates them to conduct a field experiment with closing by committee, but that's a hard sale to make to players. ("It's science!") They might subtly wind up there as a matter of letting everyone get cracks at save opportunities after nobody "wins" the job battle for the role in spring training, of course.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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