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March 8, 2010

Transaction Action

Strikes and Slips

by Christina Kahrl

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MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Nick Blackburn to a four-year, $14 million contract with an $8 million club option for 2014. [3/7]

The money for four years, three of which would have involved arbitration-driven raises, may not seem like much, but I'd be genuinely surprised if Blackburn earns that option and this deal goes any further than 2013. That's not the same as saying the club won't give him money come 2014 if he's still healthy; maybe Target Field-fueled riches and intervening success will lead to petit Pohlad munificence with their most mediocre strike-throwing types. But Blackburn's not especially young, having already turned 28, so he's under contract through his age-31 season, with the option covering him through 32. Even for a Twins pitch-to-contact pitcher, he's way down on fooling any people some of the time scale, with an equivalent strikeout rate of 3.8 K/9. Non-shockingly, that contributes to a unhappy SIERA interpretations and projections, which inch up towards 5.00 as far as evaluating 2009 or projecting 2010. However, an infield with Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy will of course help him immediately, although he's not a ground ball-generating machine. As a defense-dependent hurler, he may also be especially influenced by whichever turn Target takes as an offensive environment, which strikes me as potentially more positive, since the one thing we can be sure of is that the park will be decidedly colder for at least two months of every season, and that tends to mean bad things for hitters. Even then, I'm dubious about his winding up as an asset that far into the future, even if he manages to stay healthy. Not every pitcher of this type ages like fine wine or Brad Radke.

Instead, what should be taken as more significant is how this represents the latest instance of the younger Pohlads investing in the ballclub. Amortized over four years, the $14 million isn't a huge stake, but it does make for yet another nifty instance of the club choosing payroll discretion over arbitration-case combat. Beyond the big and obvious good ideas like giving Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau or even Michael Cuddyer lots of money, whether it's the little multi-year commitment to Brendan Harris, modest one-year investments in veterans like Hudson, or offering Carl Pavano arbitration, these very obviously aren't their daddy's Twins.


TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Joaquin Benoit to a minor-league contract. [2/15]

This one managed to slip beneath my radar, but it's a sensible enough move, since a best-case scenario where he makes the club and earns all of his incentives would come with a thoroughly affordable $1.25 million deal. Benoit's already well down the road to whatever recovery he's going to make from surgery to repair a rotator cuff tear, having gotten back into rehab action late last summer. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he's already pitching in game action, although as Will Carroll notes, "Guys coming back from cuff tears are very hit or miss. The Rays have a better-than-average record with rehab cases, a good medical staff, and [Dr. James] Andrews on their side." As good as Benoit was as the Rangers' best set-up man in 2007, that wasn't especially recent, but the upside that's implicit in the Rays' willingness to take a spin with him should place Benoit on the list of potential winter bargains if, like Grant Balfour or J.P. Howell, things suddenly together for him in St. Petersburg.

As things stand, the headliners in the pen should still be Rafael Soriano, Balfour, Howell, and Dan Wheeler, leaving two or three slots for Benoit, situational lefty Randy Choate, middle-innings sponge Lance Cormier, well-traveled cult hero and minor-league veteran Dale Thayer, and perhaps one of the losers in the fight for the fifth starter's slot. Cormier's the guy out of options, which might put him on the block by the end of spring training if they decide they'd rather keep Andy Sonnanstine or someone else as their middle reliever; with a field this crowded, we should see the Rays making roster management-related moves, just as they had to last spring.


TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Scott Richmond on the 60-day DL; claimed RHP Casey Fien off waivers from the Red Sox. [3/4]

Well, whatever was true of Fien's virtues as a potential back-end bullpen asset for Boston is just as true for him north of the border. Here again, credit Alex Anthopolous for doing what a GM in this position has to do: the Jays don't have an exceptional assemblage of talent, and you can adding Fien in March to a lengthening list of low-investment off-season add-ons like getting Zechry Zinicola in December, Merkin Valdez in January, Dana Eveland in February. It's this sort of mass acquisition from the mucky end of the talent pool that a cynic might compare to a good amount of dreck the Pirates acquired in Neal Huntington's slo-mo tear-down of a crummy team, or contrast with the spectacular additions the Orioles realized from shipping out some of their veterans after similar non-achievement. But in fairness to Anthopolous, this has been the lower end of an aggressive attempt to add talent; he's also been playing for higher stakes and taking some understandable risks, first in the four-way trade that put Doc Halladay in Philly, and later in the deal with the Mariners that might give Brandon Morrow the fresh start on his career he so obviously needed. It isn't going to add up overnight to a good team, but these are symptoms of a club that isn't going to settle for being locked into a cycle of permanent, decaying irrelevance.

With as much pitching talent as has been added, there's an interesting coincidence of adding Fien as they disabled Richmond with a shoulder impingement that just wasn't going away. Richmond's an easy-to-root-for guy, because as an indy league veteran, he had already far outperformed any expectations, but he's also very much the kind of pitcher you hope to graduate from having to rely upon. Pitchers whose ceiling only reaches up to "fourth starter, for a little bit" aren't exactly building blocks, nor are they bargaining chips. It was nice that they got some value from Richmond, and it'll be great if they find a way to employ him once his shoulder is sound; situational righty seems very much in his wheelhouse, but even then, he was a bit of a cookie monster last season, allowing 10 homers in 231 PAs.


COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 1B-R Brad Eldred to a minor-league contract. [3/7]

Now this is a fun signing, although you have to gear down your palate from high end or big league to fare from off the beaten path. This doesn't matter a jot for the Rockies; Eldred's almost certainly no more important to the team than Ryan Shealy ever could have been. No, what's fun about this is the potential for Meyeresque ginormity, and we're talking Joey, folks, not the obvious alternative. Eldred's still an enormous hulk-smash style slugger without a lot of patience, as he's struck out in a quarter of his plate appearances. He's also had trouble staying healthy, which might not seem that surprising for a man of his size—naturally, no less—listed at 290 pounds while standing 6-foot-5, but it has actually been a series of broken bones in his hand (including a thumb which cost him most of 2006) and wrist issues that have plagued him.

But put him at altitude, and you'll see his strikeout rate drop some, which means more balls in play, which means additional scoreboard mayhem—that's still as important a factor for evaluating who gets an extra benefit from playing on Planet Coors, with guys like Dante Bichette and Preston Wilson being the most extreme examples. That same factor holds true just a little bit down the road along I-25 in Colorado Springs, and while Eldred has nearly 1500 Triple-A plate appearances in the International League, he'll now be giving the PCL a shot, with the additional benefit of playing in a tremendous hitters' park in a circuit with more than a few of them. Eldred's heading into his age-29 season, and there's no reason to expect greatness or even a brief return to the big leagues, but the chances of his entertaining fans of the Sky Sox seems very good. Could he take a tilt at Joey Meyer's great feat of hitting the longest measured professional home run ever? Well, I say, if not him, who?


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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