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January 26, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Napoli, oh Napoli

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Agreed to terms with RHP Kevin Slowey on a one-year, $2.7 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/25]
Claim LHP Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals; designated RHP Rob Delaney for assignment. [1/26]

NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-R Andruw Jones to a one-year, $2 million contract. [1/20]

Swapping Jones into the Marcus Thames role makes for a modest enough upgrade, although he isn't a good outfielder, considering his -2.9 RAA mark via Colin Wyers' nFRAA, with similarly uncharitable evaluations via Total Zone. The real benefits are almost identical to Thames, albeit with more walks and fewer strikeouts. Even if he's leaving the Cell's righty-coddling corners, NuYankee is almost as generous to right-handed power, so even with with the change in venue, he ought to mash. Jones is still death on lefties (producing a .302 ISO against them last season), he's playable against right-handers, and he isn't visibly awful-looking afield. Slotting him in as the righty power source who can spot for Jorge Posada at DH, or Brett Gardner or Nick Swisher in the outfield corners--or by extension, Mark Teixeira, with Swisher or Posada moving to first base. In general, it's a better use of a roster spot than Thames.

Beyond those pragmatic considerations, it's amusing to note that while Jones has been around forever, he's only seven months older than Thames, so it isn't as if the already gray Yankees got all that much longer in the tooth. Less happily, while #25 is not one of the Bombers' innumerable retired numbers, it's already on Mark Teixeira's back, so Jones will have to wear something else for the first time in his career. That, or pony up some Dodger dollars to buy it away from Tex, and with $3.2 million of those coming in every year through 2014, maybe he'll splurge. Given the breadth of the McCourts' expenses, it won't be the silliest thing they wind up paying for.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Traded RHP Clay Mortensen to the Rockies for RHP Ethan Hollingsworth; signed 3B-R Andy LaRoche to a minor-league contract with a non-roster invite to spring training. [1/24]
Avoided arbitration with LHP Craig Breslow by agreeing on a one-year, $1.4 million deal. [1/25]

Roster pressures force ticky-tack trades like this often enough, but Hollingsworth is a third-year pro, so as a matter of getting a swapped-in body for Mortensen as the price of losing the latter because of a full-to-the-brim 40-man, it's a benefit that will last the A's a single season of Hollingsworth before he has to be added or exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Happily, while he wasn't close to the top of the Rockies' pitching-thick prospect pool, he's a useful enough arm. A fourth-rounder in 2008 out of Western Michigan, he's heading into his age-24 season and will have to pitch or die at Double-A. Like Mortensen, he has good breaking stuff, and like Mortensen, he's not an especially hard-throwing right-hander. Repeating High-A, he generated a nice-looking 153/34 K/UBB ratio in 160 1/3 IP, but counting unearned runs, he was surrendering 5.2 R/9 in the hitter-friendly Cal League. He may only wind up as an organizational innings-eater, but something's better than nothing.

Less happily, if you're keeping score on how that Matt Holliday trade is turning out for Oakland, it's well on its way toward turning out to be almost as spectacularly unproductive as the Rich Harden deal in terms of talent received. Mortensen's been ditched. The major component of the deal, Brett Wallace, was converted into Michael Taylor, which looked brilliant at the time, but that was before Taylor tanked badly in Sacramento.*

The other pieces received from the Rockies? There's lefty-batting outfielder Shane Peterson, who hit .265/.354/.367 in Midland while playing a whole lot of first base instead of the outfield corners. While he was just 22 years old, what's the plan here, to populate the system with the Ryan Sweeney experience so that even fans of the affiliates lose sight of what a power-position bopper is supposed to look like?

*: Given the A's recent fortunes with outfielder prospects, bet on disappointment and frustrating leading to Taylor getting dealt after 2011 and becoming an All-Star--the trick is figuring out, with which team? How about a buck bet on the Orioles? It's as if there's an inverse relationship between how long an outfield prospect acquired by the A's is with them, and how well he turns out. How about we name that the Sweeney Rule?

TEXAS RANGERS
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Traded RHP Frank Francisco and cash to the Blue Jays for C/1B-R Mike Napoli. [1/25]

Credit Jon Daniels for making an impact move after the point when you might have thought he was done for the winter. There isn't a lot to add to what I had to say on Monday about Napoli's virtues, but putting him in the reliably hitter-friendly Ballpark just reconfirms he should be fine in terms of being able to continue cranking for power. Dealing from depth in terms of swapping out the most fragile of good late-game arms to get two years of a good-hitting catcher is handy enough.

What I wouldn't do is say Napoli is the outright everyday catcher. Looking at the Rangers' roster, they may choose to spot Napoli at first base and DH, just as the Angels had. Considering that Napoli has only nabbed 19.5 of stolen-base attempts during the course of his career--that's his caught-stealing percentage, without crediting him for baserunners picked off by his pitchers--that's just as well. If Michael Young ends up getting spotted in a Mark DeRosa-like superutility role when he isn't DHing, there should be a few DH at-bats to go around. There's also the value of employing Napoli at first base for Mitch Moreland on his days off. In the big picture, this should mean the Rangers have 11 regulars in the lineup, with Napoli and Torrealba splitting time behind the plate, and David Murphy sponging up the spot starts in the outfield and also getting a few DH at-bats.

As a result, you can see where the new fuel for trading Young comes from, but I'm a little skeptical. There's the challenge of finding a partner--not the Angels, obviously, although it might be cute if Tony Reagins managed a delayed three-party transaction to get him to avenge himself on Napoli's speedy return to the AL West. And it has to be someone with money and a willingness to spend it on Young, given the $48 million he's due the next three years; barring that, it depends on Daniels' ability to get a chunk of the deal eaten. All doable propositions, but not exactly easy.

My thought is that the Rangers aren't that well set, that trading Young for its own sake makes that much sense. The move would also expose them to a bad break or two in the infield, and since Ian Kinsler has made at least one trip to the DL in each of his five seasons in The Show, that risk isn't easily ignored. For a slick-fielding defensive stud at the keystone, Andres Blanco makes a great bench player, and no more than that. Having Young as a starting option if Adrian Beltre or Elvis Andrus land on the DL beyond their inevitable rest days, and as their second baseman when (not if) Kinsler gets shelved next makes for a lineup better set up to survive the inevitable wear and tear any roster endures. At the least, trading Young would best be followed by a decision to re-sign Vladimir Guerrero, because let's face it, Murphy isn't that good, he's just worth keeping in the mix.

What adding Napoli probably does is scupper the bids of one or two of the kids to crack the roster. Blanco seems a likely winner for one bench job as a defensive replacement--for Kinsler or for Young--and if Napoli is in the mix for at-bats at DH and first base beyond splitting starting chores behind the plate, there's an argument for carrying Matt Treanor as the third catcher. Murphy is the only outfield reserve on paper, but this should mean that Young will see time in the corners.

All in all, keeping 11 batters in fairly steady playing time isn't that much of a logistical feat, so carrying a pair of experienced pine-time players like Blanco and Treanor at up-the-middle positions to round out the roster strikes me as a well-balanced group of 13. Of course, that leaves Taylor Teagarden--to anticipate the question, he has one option left--plus Chris Davis and Craig Gentry all stranded in Round Rock. That's probably what's best for each of them, especially if Davis is going to reclaim his top prospect status.

As for the bullpen without Francisco, that makes for a more complicated picture. Neftali Feliz still has his pair of veteran lefties in Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes to set him up, plus ROOGY Darren O'Day. From there, things get interesting, with two well-stocked groups of talent to choose from. First, there's the small horde of arms squeezed from the rotation to choose from: Matt Harrison, Scott Feldman, Michael Kirkman, Omar Beltre, and potentially Alexi Ogando. But there's also a few reliever-only options to choose from, from Japanese import Yoshi Tateyama to hard-throwing Pedro Strop and their fascination with Mariners castoff Mark Lowe. In that crowd, non-roster invites like Yhency Brazoban and Seth McClung won't have it easy. As good as Francisco has been, he's also been hard to count on health-wise, and it isn't like they don't have alternatives.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Traded C/1B-R Mike Napoli to the Rangers for RHP Frank Francisco and cash; designated LHP Rommie Lewis for assignment. [1/25]

Just like that, the threat to J.P. Arencibia's bid for regular playing time goes away, which is fine, in that the Blue Jays did something else to address that bullpen issue I touched on last week. And while this might seem a speedy flip, adding Francisco to a bullpen that already added Octavio Dotel's situational value and Jon Rauch's brand of utility makes for a thoroughly well-stocked pen.

Francisco deserves to be remembered as the critical missing man from the Rangers' relief corps last October, when back issues shut him down before he could take his place on the national stage as the team's key set-up man, handing off leads to Neftali Feliz. If Francisco gets his shot at closing with the Jays, it's an opportunity he deserves, albeit similarly ill-fated. No matter how many saves he might rack up as the Jays' latest temp at closer, if he heads for free agency after 2011, it will be just in time to join that already overstocked market of closers, or what we might call the stopperocalypse.

If there's a downside to the move, it's that Francisco is only under club control for one more season, where Napoli will be for two, a disappointing fact, but for the bean-counter's observation that it'll mean saving even more money, and Francisco will cost less than Napoli in 2011 besides. Since the Jays did end up having to kick in $5 million to the Angels to make Vernon Wells extra-palatable, there's nothing wrong with being a little cost-conscious while simultaneously completing the bullpen overhaul and making space for their top position-playing prospect.

Which is why adding Francisco might be a great opportunity for both parties to strike a multi-year agreement now, providing him with security that has nothing to do with whether he winds up closing, and without any concern over getting stiffed in next winter's market. Counting against that would be Francisco's spotty health record, as he's had to be shelved on the DL in both 2009 (for 53 total days on three different DL stints) and 2010 (for the last 65 days). Which might make him a more agreeable mark for something in a multi-year flavor, albeit an obviously risky investment.

In terms of performance alone, though, he has been worth it of late. Last year, his 27 percent strikeout rate was just short of the top 20 among MLB relievers with 40 or more innings pitched, and he just missed in 2009 as well. With consistent low-90s heat and a changeup he uses effectively as a chase pitch, he's not just pumping gas. If there's a problem, it's the number of fastballs he leaves up in the zone, but it isn't like pitching in Texas has helped him any. The Rogers Centre won't either, but the other way to look at this is that Francisco is familiar with tough environments and has proven capable of surviving them.

An easy suggestion would be that he might profit from a change of scenery, but I'd mute those somewhat. Setting aside whatever the division of responsibilities between new skipper John Farrell and pitching coach Bruce Walton might be, the Rangers' Mike Maddux has a well-earned rep for being among the game's best coaches around. Maybe Farrell and/or Walton see something that might help with the homer problem, and maybe it's just a function of tough parks and inevitable risk.

Beyond the obvious ripple effect in terms of how this returns the Jays to the status quo ante behind the plate, the other roster effect is that this will create a particular roster crunch in the pen. Just counting the bodies, beyond Rauch, Dotel, Francisco, and Frasor, there's Carlos Villanueva, Shawn Camp, Josh Roenicke, and Casey Janssen from the right side, plus David Purcey, Jesse Carlson, and Brad Mills to choose from for southpaw support. Cramming a dozen reasonable candidates for work into seven jobs should make for an interesting camp. In terms of one possible upshot, if you thought you were done with Frasor-related trade rumors, you can bet they'll start smoldering again by mid-March if everyone's still healthy, especially since Frasor is also condemned to free agency next winter.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Agreed to terms with RHP Jason Hammel on a two-year contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/22]
Acquired RHP Clay Mortensen from the Athletics for RHP Ethan Hollingsworth; designated RHP Sam Deduno for assignment. [1/24]

Credit O'Dowd with a worthwhile depth-minded snag, because while Mortensen isn't going to set the world--or even Colorado Springs--afire, he's immediately a worthwhile addition to a rotation picture that has to count on a healthy Aaron Cook to get to a full five. Beyond Cook, Felipe Paulino may or may not be bullpen-bound, and Esmil Rogers took repeated beatings in his rotation spins. That they've bumped the slow-developing Deduno also isn't a major surprise, given how much time he lost last season to elbow issues of his own. Down the chain, Greg Reynolds lost time to elbow woes as well, and especially in the first half they may not want to rush up Cory Riordan, Bruce Billings, or Christian Friedrich Barbarossa (or Barbarosa, if you're so inclined).

That's the near-term picture, though, because there's still plenty of speculation that Mortensen could be useful in a middle-relief role because of a tasty sinker/slider mix. Sticking with the complimentary side of things: Mortensen's rate of ground-ball outs to caught flies in Sacramento was an impressive 1.9, so for a back-end rotation candidate for the Rockies, he'll fit into the club's recent mania for pitchers who keep the infielders busy. He induced 20 double plays, and he keeps the deuce in order, having only let seven of 14 stolen-base attempts succeed. The slider's especially sharp, and helped him keep left-handed batters in check in Triple-A, limiting them to .225/.292/.369.

The not-so-exciting? Unless Mortensen does pick up a few ticks on his fastball with a move to the pen, his velocity is very pedestrian, there are complaints about inconsistency with his delivery and his changeup, and he tends to run out of gas after the fourth inning, giving up 45 runs in 61 1/3 IP while seeing his strikeout rate drop from 7.0 K/9 to 4.5 K/9. Which is why you can still foresee an eventual move to the pen, with the question being whether the Rox like what they see in camp so much they do so sooner, to give them a multi-inning long reliever.


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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Transaction Analysis: ... (01/25)
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