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December 8, 2010

Winter Meetings

First-Base Boppery

by Christina Kahrl

With the Cubs signing Carlos Pena and the White Sox landing Paul Konerko, the number of teams looking for first-base help and the number of realistic first-base options has obviously dwindled. I'll write a little bit more about both deals for tomorrow, but there are a couple of obvious takeaways.

For the Cubs, Pena provides the lineup with another lefty bat, but without shifting the old wall of right-handed power down a gear. That's because he's essentially taking at-bats from the still-here Kosuke Fukudome, so it doesn't change the expected balance--they'll have Fukudome on the bench, with Tyler Colvin and Pena providing lefty power, and Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovany Soto from the right. If you look at the counting stats alone, you might add Marlon Byrd to that mix, but he's such a non-factor for power against right-handers that he barely outslugged Starlin Castro against them, with just a .389 SLG to Castro's .372. However, having Byrd and a platoon masher like Jeff Baker around (to spot at first or second or right field) does make for enough southpaw-smoking thunder that Pena might be protected from his career-long struggle against lefties (.218/.314/.436). It isn't quite the '50s Dodgers and their right-ward lean that covered for Duke Snider, but it's broadly similar. Essentially, what signing Pena delivers is a change in the shape of the production they can expect from the lefties on hand, giving them a more certain slugger than Colvin while giving the team a quality defender a lot like the one they had in Derrek Lee before last year's trade with Atlanta.

For the Sox, this is the latest gambit in their quest to be a win-now team. They feel they've identified a division-winning pattern, which has been guiding their planning the last several seasons. I wouldn't go so far as to say that keeping Konerko and signing Dunn makes for an overcompensation gesture after last season's bitter disappointment, but as I wrote this morning, they've got a significant amount of likely regression to anticipate in the lineup. Happily, if the Twins don't shore up their rotation, the likelihood of a divisional flaglet  flying on the South Side doesn't look too shabby.

The interesting problem now is for the teams that don't really have a good answer for who's on first yet. The Orioles come up a lot in this kind of conversation, but so should the Padres, Diamondbacks, Nationals, and Rays. Then there are the teams that really ought to be shopping around and considering if they're truly set, a category in which I'd number the Indians because of Matt LaPorta's repeated disappointments, and the Mariners if they want a fall-back option in case they're caught with a case of there being no fire where there's Smoak.

Adam LaRoche seems to be the available first-base free agent getting the most buzz, but this morning Kevin and I were ping-ponging a shared conviction that Derrek Lee is the guy who might be massively undervalued at the moment. He played through injury last season, but he's healed up, and he rebounded with the Braves down the stretch. Like Pena (or Adrian Gonzalez) he's an excellent defender, and he's kept himself in shape. As a Californian, he might be happy to take what he can get from the Padres, but interested parties might do well to move sooner rather than later before the needy start picking up on the shortage of quality alternatives left in the pool. Whoever's left standing after this round of musical chairs ends gets left employing Lyle Overbay and then hiding from the angry mobs still keeping their pitch forks sharp after last season's travesty with Garrett Atkins.

---

Other odds and ends:

  • Jack Cust got his next deal, signing with the Mariners for $2.5 million, and yet again, freedom provided him with the opportunity to take a pay cut. Free agency is not a guarantee of a raise, where salary arbitration is, but Cust was caught--again--in a market that borders on monopsony when it comes to some positions and a certain range of interchangeable talent. The Mariners belatedly admitted that Milton Bradley isn't really a reliable Plan A, but committed only so much money to the new Plan A. (Bradley becomes Plan B, assuming Jack Zduriencik doesn't throw him under the same bus he backed over Don Wakamatsu as the speed bump/scapegoat for the spectacular failure of last season's master plan. It's a nice little move for the Mariners, assuming they're going to be comfortable getting walks and flagging power--Cust will be 32 next year, after all. Career-wise, he's more past-tense than KPAST (Ken Phelps All-Star Team). Meanwhile, the Mariners, briefly the heroes of the over-flogged "defense is really important now more than ever" thesis, are asserting that Bradley will play a whole lot in the outfield, and that he can play center. Bradley's defense before the world court will be that he was only following orders.
  • What's more cringe-worthy, Frenchy signing with the Royals in a job opportunity he should be leasing from them for their non-discriminating sense of value, or the Brewers' signing up Wil Nieves? Nieves is one of the worst-hitting backup catchers in history, which is why I'd actually nominate him. How can you turn to a guy with a .227/.273/.297 career line (and a .207 TAv) when he's not even remotely a viable fall-back option in case Jonathan Lucroy falters? This isn't just a vote of confidence, it's the depth-decision equivalent of Cortes scuttling (not burning) his ships and heading inland. It shouldn't be at all surprising if the exercise leaves the Brewers feeling sunk by June, but the equally outlandish part of the proposition that merits additional comment is the suggestion that the absence of options suggested this inspired solution. With Henry Blanco, Gerald Laird, Matt Treanor, and Miguel Olivo out there, this wasn't about languages or about preference, it was about cost if you want the Brewers for thinking it through, and less charitable qualities if you don't.
  • Seeing Jeff Francoeur sign with the Royals is just the latest laugher in an increasingly pathetic echo of the original KC/MLB relationship, one of thrall and master, with the Braves holding the leash and tossing the scraps. It's worse, of course: Arnold Johnson was a planted artifact from the Yankees armed with a responsibility to his Bronxian business partners to reduce the A's, an independent franchise, to abject servitude. Compared to that kind of inside job and syndicalist ownership, Dayton Moore's outfit is just a legitimate, flat-out failure. People might bash the Marlins as holding tank for service time disguised as a competitive ballclub, but an indignity isn't merely an acknowledgement that the Royals need outfielders more than Mars needs women, it's another proof of an absolute lack of imagination when it comes to solving the problem.
  • Matt Diaz's signing with the Pirates for two years and slightly more than $4 million seems like an eminently sensible cash grab, with the likelihood that he'll get dealt in July to a team that wouldn't give him that contract now. It was great tactics from him and/or his representation. He's not giving up on relevance, just visiting a way station with a desperate need to do something to justify its place at the grownups' table.

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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