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January 13, 2011

Transaction Analysis

AL Central Moves, Picking Up a Penny, and More

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Agreed to terms with INF-R Alberto Callaspo on a one-year, $2 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/11]
Agreed to terms with C-R Jeff Mathis on a one-year, $1.7 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/12]

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Jesse Crain to a three-year, $13 million contract. [12/20]
Signed LHP Will Ohman to a two-year, $4 million contract. [1/10]

Last year's Sox pen was decidedly mediocre relative to the rest of the majors, ranking 15th in ARP, 16th in FRA, and 20th in WXRL. Some teams would treat that as cause for satisfaction, but not the Sox, since unpredictability is taken as a given when it comes to relievers.*

Turnover was already going to happen, starting with their decision to let Bobby Jenks go away to Fenway--not without some avoidable drama, of course, because this is Team Ozzie after all. That came after ditching the last year of the regrettable Scott Linebrink's deal on the Braves, along with most of the cash needed to pay him.

Then there's the uncertainty of who's going to do what. Matt Thornton is possibly lined up to get an overdue promotion to save-generating bullpen hero, generously timed with his walk year if it happens. On the other hand, fast-rising 2010 draft phenom Chris Sale is headed either back toward a starter's career or toward a shot at competing with Thornton for closing. Both are lefties, yet neither is a situational guy.

So you could see how there were a couple of bullpen needs: for a reliable right-handed set-up man, and for a situational lefty. At first blush, you might think that Kenny Williams got both, at least in terms of reputations earned over time. Except in both cases, they're reputations that have needed a lot of time, with long absences and that nagging inconstancy being the equally frequent features.

Like Linebrink before him, Crain has solid cred as a set-up asset, having ranked among baseball's top 50 relievers last year. However, that was also his first good year in three since his comeback from shredding both his rotator cuff and his labrum, and his first really good season since his big (strikeout-less) 2005 that should have started setting off alarm bells about his long-term health.

You can easily identify some of the reasons why you might be a Crain buyer, for a year, perhaps two. Last year, he was stronger in the second half, giving up a baserunner and getting a strikeout per inning in 33 2/3 IP. He was throwing in the mid-90s, a live weapon that has lovely separation from a slider that he uses to shred lefty bats. All to the good... so you give him a three-year guaranteed deal? For a fly ball-oriented reliever? Did the Linebrink experience, $19 million and four years later with a similarly fly-dependent set-up ace, teach them so little? And this sort of commitment, to a guy with this kind of track record for sporadic effectiveness plus a career-altering injury?

Then there's Will Ohman, oh so effective against his fellow lefties, and so often injured, having lost major chunks of career to elbow and later shoulder problems (including occurrences of both in 2009). His career mark against his fellow southpaws is a lovely .208/.298/.348, with a decent 27 percent strikeout rate. And like Crain, he's very much a fly-ball guy, which coming into the homer-happy Cell isn't good news, no matter how carefully Ozzie sets up his matchups. But you know how this is going to go: Ohman's faced Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau a combined total of seven times, and he'll probably quadruple that this season, and the chances that an awful lot of each team's season will ride on the outcome of those at-bats is interesting to consider in January.

In both cases, the thing to keep in mind is that the Sox do have a built-in advantage, in terms of evaluation of health-related risk and the ability to get value out of players other people see as fragile: trainer Herm Schneider and his staff. The Sox freely acknowledge their willingness to accept some risk as a result. But even so, between the length of each commitment, the track records for injury, and fly-ball rates that are sure to lead to a few more surrendered souvenirs for both, it's hard to get excited about either addition.

*: I'd use the tired metaphor that relief pitching is as easy to nail down as jello, except that I had a friend in college who could whip up jello so thick that it wouldn't melt at room temperature, thanks to the immense amount of Knox gelatin he'd mix in. It was definitely hard enough to nail down, if you were so inclined. So perhaps we can use Big Jon's infamous jello as a metaphor for Crain and Ohman, as thickening agents, to stiffen up the relief corps, you see? On the other hand, this jello would burn if you set a match to it, much like Bobby Jenks. Must have been all the grain alcohol--in the jello. In the jello! Work with me, people!

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-R Austin Kearns to a one-year, $1.3 million contract. [12/20]
Outrighted RHP Justin Germano to Columbus (Triple-A). [12/23]
Acquired RHP Joe Martinez from the Pirates for future considerations. [1/4]
Designated 1B/LF-L Jordan Brown for assignment. [1/6]

It may not seem like there are a lot of reasons to be excited about a decision to bring Kearns back, because after a .427 BABIP in the season's first two months, there was really nowhere to go but down. However, both of the leading combatants for the job in left field, Michael Brantley and Nick Weglarz, both bat lefty, as does Grady Sizemore, as well as Shin-Soo Choo, not to mention DH Travis Hafner. So you can sort of see how he fits, and a willingness to be here has to count for something. Who knows, maybe they can trade him to the Yankees down the stretch again, and maybe this time Joe Girardi will actually use him in his very first post-season ballgame.

As for the trade with the Pirates, this is a lovely development for Martinez. While he was only ever a fifth-man type in any rotation's battle, the Tribe is one of the few teams that could use almost anyone to man their weak rotation, and probably will have to. You may remember his getting his skull fractured by a Mike Cameron liner in just his second game as a pro in 2009, and his gutty battle back that same season. Now as then, he's a finesse righty with a nice sinker, and he'll never be more than back-staff filler, but you can hope he catches a break.

DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Brad Penny to a one-year, $3 million (base) contract. [1/11]
Agreed to terms with UT-R Ryan Raburn on a two-year, $3.4 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/12]

The fascination with Brad Penny's fleeting associations with success have a lot to do with the otherwise mysterious expectation that someday he just has to finally get back in gear. After all, the dude's got a neck thicker around than his head--that has to be good, doesn't it? But however much like a workhorse Penny might appear, he isn't one, and hasn't been since his back-to-back 16-win seasons for the Dodgers in 2006-07. His strikeout rate crashed below league average in 2007, never to return, and it's perhaps reflective of how few defenses can be articulated in his favor that you have to offer up the fact he was hurt in two of the three years since. He's reliably poor at holding baserunners, which should make for some interesting days at the ballpark when Victor Martinez forms the other half of the Tigers' battery.

Let's give Penny some benefit of the doubt--coming back to the DH league, presumably healthy, he has to be better than the man he's replacing, the reliably ill-starred Armando Galarraga, right? Well... in Penny's last healthy-ish campaign, 2009, he posted a .474 SNWP, which is, yes, worse than Galarraga's .481 from 2010.

I shouldn't harsh on the decision too much, because it's less about boxing out Galarraga than it is an acknowledgment of two things. First, that Penny is here because this is a rotation that was already betting on a lot of happy outcomes of varying likelihood: on Max Scherzer holding up as he cruises toward his first 900-batter season, on Phil Coke pulling a C.J. Wilson and making a completely clean jump into a rotation job, and on Rick Porcello developing some useful off-speed pitch to keeps hitters from sitting on an otherwise unvarying diet of sinkers. Not everyone gets to see all their rotation plans come to fruition as magically as the Rangers did last season. And second? There just isn't that much starting pitching left in play, so throwing a big pile of pennies at one of their own wasn't just one of the best things left to them, it was one of the only things.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Outrighted 2B-R Joaquin Arias and INF-S Lance Zawadzki to Omaha (Triple-A). [12/22]

MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Traded SS-R J.J. Hardy and INF-R Brendan Harris to the Orioles for RHPs Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey. [12/9]
Traded C-S Jose Morales to the Rockies for LHP Paul Bargas. [12/16]
Signed MI-S Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a three-year, $9 million contract, with a $4 million option for 2014 ($250,000 buyout). [12/17]

So the Twins finally got into the Japanese imports market, buying first the right to negotiate with Nishioka and then working out a fairly low-cost contract for a batting champ who plays short, as well as a player coming over while he's still just getting into the middle of his career.

What can we expect? Nishioka's stroke has been described as slappy, but watch enough video and you see a guy who hits to all fields while using an exaggerated slow leg kick. That's led to an expectation that he's not going to deliver a ton of pop; Japanese leaguers see their power generally take a hit in the larger stateside stadia. Kosuke Fukudome went from someone who could mash 30 or more taters in the NPB's shorter, 144-game schedule to someone who couldn't manage half as many stateside in a hitter's park. Also, the Twins' first spin in Target Field suggested that the place is a pitcher's park, which shouldn't help him much.

However, it's worth noting that Chiba Lotte's home park, Chiba Marine Stadium, is also a pitcher-friendly environment, with park factors bouncing around the 94 to 97 range (where 100 is average). Let's start out by keeping Nishioka's full performance record in mind, and then take a look at Clay Davenport's translation of his full NPB career:

Year

Age

Team

AB

R

HR

RBI

SB

CS

BA

OBP

SLG

TAv

TR

2003

18

Chiba

9

3

0

1

0

0

.333

.455

.444

.321

2

2004

19

Chiba

215

27

4

29

6

0

.237

.281

.349

.224

20

2005

20

Chiba

450

70

2

44

30

8

.256

.299

.371

.241

49

2006

21

Chiba

430

55

3

27

24

14

.260

.330

.358

.247

51

2007

22

Chiba

493

78

3

43

21

12

.286

.358

.385

.264

67

2008

23

Chiba

476

74

10

46

14

10

.282

.338

.422

.262

63

2009

24

Chiba

459

67

11

39

20

9

.248

.343

.392

.262

63

2010

25

Chiba

603

116

9

57

16

13

.327

.402

.459

.297

103

Looking at that, two things really stand out. First, that it's important to remember that he came up and started playing in the Japanese majors at a really very young age, and second, that for as much concern there is that his 2010 batting title was the product of a 100-point spike in his BABIP, keep in mind he's also just heading into the traditional peak range for performance. His walk rate has improved as he matured, and there's enough pop to suggest he won't just be a slower Luis Castillo (the one Twins fans might remember charitably, not that guy on the Mets).

Although considered strong-armed by Japanese-league standards, the expectation all along has been that he's going to be the latest NPB shortstop better suited for second base, pretty much like Kazuo Matsui, a Gold Glove-winning shortstop in Japan who simply couldn't cut it at short once he got stateside.

Basically, that looks like it should add up to a better ballplayer than Matsui at the plate, and similarly valuable afield. Given his performance record, he might turn out to be a roughly average hitter for a second baseman with a TAv in the .260s, assuming last year's breakout wasn't a major step forward. Even without that breakout, that's a solid ballplayer to tack onto a weak market for up-the-middle players, so the Twins deserve credit for reaching outside the talent pool to get one.

The down side is that this does definitely put them in the uncomfortable position of challenging Alexi Casilla with a return to shortstop, a position he manned sporadically (and never regularly) in the minors on his way up, to indifferent result, but his arm has always been good enough for the position. Perhaps a lot of work in spring training and reliable reps will help, but it's worth noting he's playing second base in winter ball.

Is there a fall-back position from this middle-infield combo? Sadly, not really. From the 40-man, Matt Tolbert is probably the first option, Trevor Plouffe the alternative, and both might stick around on what figures to be an infamously bad bench if they join Drew Butera and Jason Repko. Minor-league veteran Chase Lambin is among the non-roster invites, but he didn't play short last year, and he hasn't played there much since 2007; the more interesting thing to note about Lambin is that he played with Nishioka in Japan in 2009. But reviewing that lot, it wouldn't be surprising at all if the Twins' utility infielder of the future is just waiting to be designated for assignment by his current employer.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Kyle Farnsworth to a one-year, $3.25 million contract, with a club option for 2012. [1/12]

Long before Kyle Farnsworth appeared in the major leagues, when I thought of the name "Farnsworth," I would think of a man asked to do something he couldn't do, and who nevertheless tried: the ill-fated Elon J. Farnsworth, commander of the second-most ill-advised charge of the Battle of Gettysburg.

With that ominous precedent in mind, once 1999 came around and we had two more Farnsworths, Kyle and Futurama's Professor Farnsworth, we should not have been surprised by the outcomes. The good Professor's long since been canceled, living in re-runs, while Kyle merely re-runs a cycle of success, heightened expectations, and jacktastic spasms of failure.

Now sure, as with all the other Farnsworths, Kyle has ability, and used carefully you can get value from him, as last year's nice little low-leverage success showed. But start shelling out top dollar and pressing him into key roles, and you see him get shelled. Perhaps that's the real Farnsworth Paradox: why do people keep paying top dollar for guaranteed disappointment?

If ever there was a reliever designed to foil interpretive metrics that rely on strikeout rates to anticipate future goodness, it's Farnsworth, but perhaps we should instead be designing a metric that takes actual run prevention out of the equation, and just tied likely salary to strikeouts. Maybe that would help treat us to an explanation about how the new market inefficiency is... Kyle Farnsworth?

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Agreed to terms with C-S Koyie Hill on a one-year, $850,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/12]

COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Agreed to terms with OF-L Carlos Gonzalez on a seven-year, $80 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/11]
Agreed to terms with RHP Matt Belisle on a one-year, $2.35 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/12]

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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