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November 10, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

First-Strike Options

by Christina Kahrl

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Everyone's entitled to a notes column now and again; most of us are already in early high gear on the annual, so here's a speed loader for my take on the major moves that have already been consummated since the end of the regular season.

  • The Tigers re-signed Jhonny Peralta to a two-year, $11.25 million deal, after already inking Brandon Inge to a two-year, $11.5 million deal (with a 2013 option).

This might seem like a lot of the already dished-out blanditude the Tigers delivered in their ongoing bid at relevance while regearing their rotation. However, keep in mind that, as far as the market of available talent, this winter's collection of free-agent offerings on the left side of the infield makes for fairly thin fare. Dave Dombrowski understandably automatically counted the Kitties out of the pursuit of Derek Jeter and Adrian Beltre, and, especially early, you probably don't want to bid big on post-season heroes Juan Uribe or Edgar Renteria, not that the latter's participation in the ill-fated thousand-run Tigers of 2008 wouldn't already count against a renewed association. And Miguel Tejada? He's older than everybody else already mentioned.

So, between the market's scant offerings and the uncertainties over whether they could strike a deal with anyone instead of signing anybody, they renewed these two relationships. It's far from glorious, and the Tigers' lineup has issues, especially in the outfield. Ryan Raburn more than adequately replaced Magglio Ordonez, hitting .321/.372/.553 in his 246 PAs logged from the moment he got to become a regular again. While Austin Jackson seems set in center, the corners are a lot more wide-open, especially with Brennan Boesch going from fair-haired to whipping boy by hitting just .163/.237/.222 after the All-Star break. Think on that, a corner outfielder who generates two bases every nine at-bats? That didn't play in the Deadball Era, let alone now. They're going to have to sort out where to play Carlos Guillen (again), but after Raburn's excellent second half, you can at least hope that he's in the mix for fixing them up at one corner or the other.

If there's a problem, it's that this doesn't bode well for making a break from Miguel Cabrera and the Migettes, because Inge and Peralta aren't about to break out. Peralta is an infamous performance flake, achieving Oprah-like variations in a few too many dimensions for anyone investing in him to be entirely confident about the contents of the package just purchased. Last year's bounce back to a .260 True Average was an improvement, but his season-by-season variation from his age-23 season in 2005 shouldn't inspire confidence: .300 to .245 to .267 to .279 to .248 to .260. Anyone care to guess where this is going in his age-29 season?

The intent is that Peralta is going to be the everyday shortstop, and that's swell, insofar as he should be somewhere around the position average (.255 last year), but add that to weak defense, and is that really worth sewing up before the market has a say? After the big move to upgrade their infield defense in 2009 by replacing Renteria with Adam Everett and Ramon Santiago, trusting the spot to the more generally adequate Peralta doesn't exactly represent a new data point for the believers in the “defense is the new black” theory of roster makeup.

Getting angry over Inge is an equally reasonable response, but signing him as quickly as the Tigers did represents a confession that conjuring up an alternative for 2011 would be hard, while this was easy. Inge's merits remain much as they've always been: he's a quality fielder and he can bop a bit against lefties. Although that's a pretty penny to pay for that sort of adequacy, Inge didn't wind up that far below average in 2010, posting a .261 TAv to a third-base position average of .268. The problem is that the Tigers aren't going to get 2010, they're going to get the age-34 and -35 seasons of a guy for whom 2010 represents a highlight, because it was his best year since 2005.

So, if the early reacquisition of the demonstrably adequate sounds a lot like the world champion Giants' offseason before the 2010 season, what hope is there for subsequently going out and getting some serious offensive help? There are still two or three slots open, at second, DH, and perhaps an outfield corner if they avoid granting full faith in Boesch and Raburn. Guillen—if his latest knee repairs puts him back in action by Opening Day—can handle one of them, at least until he breaks again. The collection of performance dwarves employed at the keystone last season don't really represent good answers if you're looking for runs; maybe the Motor City makes sense as the next destination for Orlando Hudson, especially since this lineup's leaning pretty heavily to the right. But to find a bopper to shore up a lineup that tied for fifth last season in the AL in TAv looks like tough sledding this winter.

  • The Dodgers re-signed Ted Lilly to a three-year, $33 million deal.

In contrast, this was the sort of quick strike to retain a relatively sure thing you could respect. Lilly finished the year with a .550 SNWP, exactly the same as fellow free agent Carl Pavano, to pick an entertaining contrast, but with a much higher strikeout rate (21.2 percent to Pavano's 12.9), and with a SIERA that resembled his actual ERA, suggesting that what they saw is what they'll be paying for into the future. You might give him the left-handed compliment—apropos, no?—of being the third-best lefty on the market behind Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte, and $11 million per might seem like a lot to spend on that. But if you already expected to be out on Lee, and allowing for Pettitte's unlikely availability, Lilly was probably as close to a sure thing as the market had to offer.

What's striking is the amount and the speed with which the deal was consummated. The attendant bells and whistles—no-trade protection through 2012, a signing bonus spread out over three years and balloon payments at the back end—are hallmarks of the creativity with which the Dodgers have usually resorted to in order to make the uncertainties of the McCourts' accounting add up. That's especially interesting when you consider the questions over who will be signing the checks by the time Lilly's deal winds down, because there's already the $11.5 million the Dodgers will be paying out to non-Dodgers in both 2012 and 2013.

The other thing that's amusing to note in passing is that Lilly's much-feared loss of velocity became such a non-story during the course of the season. The man logged quality starts in 10 of his 12 outings as a Dodger, and his strikeout rate went up. Of course, his home-run rate also topped 10 percent of all fly balls, but he's been there already (in 2005 and 2008), so it isn't like we should anoint him the new Jamie Moyer just yet.

Basically, he's a strikeout/fly-out control fiend in a park that doesn't punish these things. While signing him through his age-37 season for eight figures per annum might seem like a big risk, especially to those in a rush to diagnose the beginning of the end for him every other month, letting Lilly reach the market strikes me as the potentially even larger risk. The reason? The inevitable losers on Lee will inevitably start looking around for alternatives, and if they were willing to sign the best for $20 million or more, getting in on the next-best thing for half of that starts to look fairly reasonable.

  • The Blue Jays traded future considerations (a player, cash, a lunch tab) to the Rockies for Miguel Olivo.

They then paid off Olivo's 2011 option, effectively purchasing a supplemental (or sandwich round) pick for $500,000. Think on that, when you get into arguments about draft slotting: the mere possession of that additional pick was worth a cool half-million. Now, do you really think that agents and amateurs aren't right to bridle over proposals that the next CBA hand away their freedom to negotiate, when that's the price tag on a team simply acquiring the right to make an additional early pick, of a guy not any more guaranteed to become something than anyone else at that stage of the draft? Which is not to criticize Alex Anthopolous—he may have to live with plenty of heat from MLB already for sensibly gaming the system. But getting the equivalent of a second-round talent for this kind of money is a no-brainer, even if he were handicapped by signability questions as far as who picked, beyond the already noisome rigmarole of dealing with MLB when you want to go over slot.

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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