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January 27, 2011

Transaction Analysis

I Want Wandy

by Christina Kahrl

IN THIS ISSUE

National League

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Agreed to terms with C-L Miguel Montero on a one-year contract, avoiding arbitration; outrighted RHP Daniel Stange to Reno (Triple-A). [1/26]

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Agreed to terms with LHP Wandy Rodriguez on a three-year, $31.5 million deal, with a $13 million club option for 2014 ($2.5 million buyout), avoiding arbitration. [1/25]

Voltaire says: When it is a question of money, everyone is of the same religion. (1760)

The great French philosopher and civil libertarian wrote as much the day after Christmas, to a lady of his acquaintance, which seems appropriate, because Wandy Rodriguez clearly got his dose of this particular insight later than the day of gifts, even if it has to come in Astros' double-knits. Face it, if the Astros put this under your tree, would you say no? Not a chance; walking in that man's cleats, you'd probably name your firstborn Eduardo (Wade) Rodriguez, or perhaps Draytonio.

But in terms of what the Astros are paying for, it's one of the most underreported in-season rallies of the 2010 season. Rodriguez wasn't just a little bit good in his last 18 starts, he was incredible, notching 16 quality starts, giving up 2.7 runs per nine, with 126 strikeouts in 119 2/3 IP, walking just 32 unintentionally, and he held opposing hitters to .203/.268/.326. The in-season spike in his K-rate was reflected in a career-high swinging-strike percentage. He also notched just an 8-2 record for his efforts, but happily neither a paucity of decisions or his season-opening string of disasters were held against him. Because remember, all of that came after a spectacularly ugly first 14 starts; he was giving up seven runs per nine, while striking out a pedestrian six per, and looking like a great bet to make a run at 20 losses.

What changed? Early-season struggles with his curve were particularly rough, but once he had that ironed out, he started generating more called strikes and more swinging strikes. Since he's effectively a three-pitch starter, mostly relying on lefty-standard sub-90 velocity and his yakker, and really only mixing in a few changeups for effect, whether you considered the curve his bread or his butter, without it he was toast. Maybe having a new pitching coach in Brad Arnsberg required a breaking-in period, but his subsequent hot streak was incredible. His final-season SIERA was 3.63, balanced against his actual 4.38 RA/9, and that came after his 2009 breakout (which generated a 3.50 SIERA).

Make what you will of his in-season split, but the Astros obviously feel it's the shape of things to come. The ride between his peaks and valleys might make him a hard horse to ride, but he has yet to endure a major arm injury, and his strikeout rate has been parked north of 20 percent four years running, no easy feat for a guy who will never light up the gun. If he's something like the Astros' riff on a Ted Lilly theme, with the expectation that he can keep doing this deeper into his 30s, you can't blame them for hoping so, and Lilly didn't get his strikeout rate over 20 percent and keep it there despite low-velo offerings until he turned 30. (And Lilly has been doing it forever since then, despite the mortified weeping of velo nellies.)

Paying the already thirtysomething starter to a deal with an AAV in the eight-figure range, when he has managed a lone 200-inning campaign in his career, has to be taken as more than a matter of compensation--it's an unqualified endorsement. Finding his like on the open market seems unlikely enough, but if the ride's over and he's ready to cruise into a full season more like that final stretch, he'll be one of the game's biggest bargains.

NEW YORK METS
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Signed OF-R Scott Hairston to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. [1/20]
Designated RHP Tobi Stoner and CF-L Jason Pridie for assignment. [1/21]
Outrighted RHP Tobi Stoner and CF-L Jason Pridie to Buffalo (Triple-A). [1/25]

Voltaire says: Nothing is so common as to imitate one's enemies, and to use their weapons. (1770)

Finding a guy right for a reserve role that doesn't involve ignoring him after a nice spring training usually isn't such a struggle, but so much of last year's Mets mess was beneath the dignity of a pardon, their odd initial choices for who could do what being the least of them. Trading for Gary Matthews Jr.? Jeff Francoeur in an everyday job? Mike Jacobs, Opening Day starter?

The new regime has inherited the benefits of some of the eventual corrections, since you can bet that Ike Davis and Josh Thole will play every day, and perhaps a recuperated Danny Murphy will at long last not have to suffer the indignity of having his bat stuck at positions where he doesn't help a lineup. (Instead, we'll have to see if it's his glove doing harm, but that's life as a latter-day Keith Miller type, moving around the diamond and the lineup card in search of a home.)

So, for years the Braves have had platoon weapons, with Matt Diaz the most reliable among them, generally getting used to good effect as a part-time player, hurting lefties and playing a corner well, and may get much the same out of Joe Mather. The Phillies have been using Ben Francisco in generally the same Diaz-ly way, not perpetuating the Indians' mistake by asking him to be an everyday player, and they've enjoyed the benefit of their good sense. The Nats summoned up Mike Morse out of life's discard pile from the bat-blind Mariners, and have a valuable bench righty weapon to show for it. The Marlins, in their penury, have Wes Helms for these sorts of chores, letting their appetites define them.

And the Mets? Well, after Fernando Tatis tore up his shoulder, they were sort of out of ideas about what to do about having a right-handed thunderstick on the bench. They brought Mike Hessman as an avowal that they'd noticed the need, but Jerry Manuel spent most of the last 10 weeks ignoring him. With new management on the scene, Sandy Alderson's crew hasn't spent this winter revamping the franchise as much as evaluating it, but this is one oversight they've attempted to correct by inking Scott Hairston.

It's hard to really get excited about this; the next Lyle Mouton he ain't, but Hairston delivered on some element of his former prospect status with a nice late-20s boomlet by getting somewhat more selective, and enjoying a flurry of homers that spiked with a HR/fly-ball rate of nearly 14 percent in 2008, followed by easily expected regression since. He has been execrable against right-handed pitching over the course of his career, delivering a .227/.288/.402 line with a 24 percent strikeout rate. In short, he's an all-or-nothing pinch-hitter with platoon value, not the worst thing to have around.

The data on his fielding is mixed; Colin's nFRAA suggests adequacy in two of the last three years in center, as well as general utility in left, but he was awful in 2009; that's echoed by Total Zone, and Plus/Minus is all over the map. Maybe that puts him in front of Nick Evans in the fight for a bench job, because the batsmanship alone may not be enough. Happily--for Hairston--his price tag may guarantee his victory, but maybe the new brass will make a mildly expensive example of him if he doesn't clinch the job by making a good impression.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Agreed to terms with 1B/3B-R Jorge Cantu on a one-year contract, pending a physical. [1/26]

Voltaire says: ... the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. (1756)

Well, we know what Cantu is not. While he has plenty of experience knocking around the hot corner, he's not much of a third baseman--his 2009 and 2010 seasons rate among the worst from any defender at third from the last three years, in Edwin Encarnacion territory per nFRAA, a sentiment echoed by Total Zone and Plus/Minus. Unfortunately, other than first base, that might be the only thing you can do with him; charitable comments refer to his ability to play second, but that's like also noting he could pitch in blowouts if you asked him to--he hasn't played at second base for any serious amount of time in the majors since 2006, with a total of 13 defensive innings at the keystone in the four years since.

As a result, beyond pinch-hitting duties, he's really set up for employment at first base and third, and perhaps the outfield corners because such things are done at the end of ballgames lost big or won bigger. And in this, you might see value, because both of the Pads' regulars at first and third are much more dangerous from the left side of the plate. Brad Hawpe has a 130-point OPS differential between righties and lefties, and most of that that was with the benefit of Coors keeping him from looking even worse; Chase Headley's split is narrower at 103 points, but an overall line of .240/.301/.354 is hard to stomach, even with Petco helping keep the man down.

So, easy enough, there are platoon possibilities. Except that Cantu doesn't really hit lefties any better than righties--he's at .275/.319/.444 against the right-handed, .272/.323/.451 against the wrong. In his defense (since he offers so little of his own), that does not mean that he's useless in a platoon role; if anything, it makes him more useful than the Scott Hairston types, because he generally isn't going to crumple at the plate as soon as the defense gets that southpaw off the bump.

Except there is the last item of concern, which is whether Cantu can do any of these things any more, and thus be neither an infielder, a platoon asset, or a useful bench player. Consider: his power last year dipped to a .136 ISO, which is pretty poor for a guy who makes his living with his bat. His unintentional walk rate, never a strong point, was down to 4.3 percent last year. His power outage isn't really a surprise, because it repeats his earlier-career pattern when he was frustrating the then-Devil Rays: he delivered a 9.6 HR/FB rate in his 2005 breakout, it dropped the next year, and in the third he was outbound from the organization. Swapping leagues to stay when he finally landed with the Marlins, his Fishy debut involved a 10.2 percent HR/FB rate in '08. Then we saw that plummet to 5.9 percent in '09, and in his third year, he was--yes indeedy--headed out of the organization as it dropped further still, to 5.5 percent. It's the sort of pattern that makes me anticipate that he'll have a nice two-season career for Quintana Roo in the Mexican League, and get traded to Korea in the third.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Agreed to terms with OF-S Andres Torres on a one-year, $2.2 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/22]
Signed RHP Marc Kroon to a minor-league contract with a spring-training NRI. [1/24]

Voltaire says: The secret of being a bore is to tell everything. (1738)

And you know that I aim to please. The man is taking his shot at being a Giant on both sides of the Pacific, leaving Yomiuri in his past to see if his high-90s heat will fly in the majors. Like Spinal Tap, the man was big in Japan--no, huge--but success and saves, sushi and sake, did not quench his taste for home-cooked glory.

Marc Kroon, Marc Kroon, pumps gas from dawn 'til noon
Bound for Nippon and back stateside again
Such was ever meant to be his doom.

Kroon began his life as a pro as a second-rounder picked by the Mets organization. That was in 1991. As a wild live arm from the Bronx, what could be better? He put in three seasons in the organization, wearing out catchers and backstops and umps with his attempts at strike-throwing form; he was a teenage pro with high-90s heat, and wilder than a Helsinki rave. And then, instead of marking time as he might make his way back home to debut in the Big Apple, perhaps, perhaps someday, he was traded somewhat pointlessly by ex-Pads GM Joe McIlvaine in December of '93, to the Padres for Frank Seminara. This was immediately after the organization's total-systems 1993 debacle, or what we might fondly remember as the brief, ugly age of Al Harazin, so panic was the order of the day. Kroon was just 20 years old, a third-year pro struggling to throw strikes in the Sally League.

In the Padres organization, he was given him a couple of years to still try and make it as a starter. He even got as far as Double-A in 1995, when he was all of 22. And he didn't suck, not even a little, striking out 123 in 115 1/3 IP, although he did throw 16 wild pitches and walked 60 guys. It also got him to the major leagues, for a single July series against the Astros; in his debut he had a bad day, and then a good day, and then he went away.

However, people knew the gun readings, saw the walks and the strikeouts, and decided that here was a closer-to-be, that being the fashion of the day. So Kroon spent the next two years closing, first for a division-winning Memphis team in Double-A, then for an awful Vegas club in Triple-A, all while doing the things that you'd expect--striking people out or walking them (with 109 strikeouts and 50 bases on balls in 98 1/3 IP), notching saves, and getting a few splashes of java in 1997. At long last, he made the major-league team coming out of camp in 1998, and was with the Padres--for a week. And then he got traded, again, this time to the Reds for Buddy Carlyle. Unfazed, he had two nice games for them, so far so good... only to surrender the last six runs in a 14-0 loss to the Mets. The Reds under Jim Bowden weren't very good at handling disappointment, so that got Kroon sent to Indianapolis, and but for one brief call-back, it would be almost six years before he'd see the majors again.

Not that he wasn't busy in the meantime. Bouncing from the Reds to the Mariners to the Dodgers to the Angels to the Rockies, he got to spend most of June with the Rox, and that was it, back to Colorado Springs, do not get claimed on waivers. You're 31 years old and you still have your rookie status. And 168 saves in the minor leagues. That might be worth a free Bud in Durham. Maybe.

So Kroon chucked the stateside dream, and went over, signing with the Yokohama BayStars. Once he was in Japan, he was dynamite, notching 177 saves in six seasons, and striking out 417 batters in 305 1/3 IP. When he jumped from the BayStars to the Yomiuri Giants in 2008, he was the man who moved Koji Uehara off his perch as the defending pennant-winning club's closer. The Giants repeated, and again in 2009, winning the Japan Series title in the latter. His website, http://www.kroon161.com/ refers to the fact that he hit what we'd call triple-digit velocity, even here, in our defiance of the metric system--the 161 refers to his velocity in kilometers per hour, equivalent to 100 mph, which he had been clocked at earlier in his career.

So he comes back stateside with an already-lovely career, still throwing in the high 90s, but with something left to prove. Even after reportedly already making the equivalent of $13 million in Japan, he's hoping for something simple: to pitch in front of his children. That's as he's coming up on his 38th birthday, with two decades in the game behind him, and the man is still dreaming. Forgive me for favoring sap over snark, but that's more than a little wonderful.

His chances of actually making this country's Giants aren't great--absent any injuries to anyone among the pen's front six, he'll have both Guillermo Mota and Dan Runzler to beat out. But that may be less the point than that he'll have the opportunity to use camp as an audition for 30 teams, in the hope someone skips the birth certificate, listens to him pop the glove, and takes a devil-may-care chance on the man.

Regardless, there's something sort of compelling about seeing if a man with 345 saves everywhere but the major leagues show up in the Cactus League this spring. With the retirements of both Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner, that tally is second only to that of some guy named Mo, which has to rate somewhere on the needlessly fun factoid scale. As much as I'm not supposed to have a rooting interest, how can you help it? Here's hoping Kroon gets a chance at notching one in The Show. It won't undo a career's worth of weird oversights and random transactions, but it doesn't have to. It'll just be that last reminder that he was good enough, then as now.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed UT-R Jerry Hairston Jr. to a one-year, $2 million (base) contract; released RHP J.D. Martin. [1/19]
Signed RHP Todd Coffey to a one-year, $1.35 million contract; designated RHP Shairon Martis for assignment. [1/24]

Voltaire says: Paradise is where I am. (1736)

It's late January, so better the Nats than nowhere, no? Hairston has chosen a good landing spot for himself, in that his major rival for a roster spot is the Attorney General, and Alberto Gonzalez is meant to be taken no more seriously now than ever, and with a middle infield stocked with a pair of youngsters in Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, he should be in regular rotation for at-bats as a spot-starter, injury-replacement regular, and early-inning pinch-hitter.

As for the decision to go get a cup of Coffey, as I wrote a month ago, he was an interesting value-minded pickup. Underrated by RA9 as a result of his ghastly 6.20 mark, keep in mind he just had his share of ill fortune pitching for a pointless Brewers ballclub, but he managed to post a 3.94 SIERA. He also notched a respectable 20.4 strikeout rate. At this late stage of the market, he ought to be useful, although it should also be pointed out he needed the gig more than the Nats need his help to finish in fifth place. However, as a useful spear-carrier in the pen, he might give Mike Rizzo the kind of big-league depth that might make possible/affordable a deadline deal that sends Sean Burnett or Tyler Clippard away for a prospect.

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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