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March 8, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Thornton's Payday and a Future Full of Zaun Time

by Christina Kahrl

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Agreed to terms with LHP Matt Thornton on a two-year, $11 million contract extension for 2012-13, with a $6 million club option for 2014 ($1 million buyout). [3/6]

That may be Thornton's just deserts after years of good work, and that may be cheap-side closer money, but if it's either or both, it's a good investment for the seasons to come. Consider his rank among the best of the best over the last three years (2008-10):

Hurler
IP (Relief)
FRA
WXRL
ARP
Mariano Rivera 197 1.82 15.9 71.8
Hong-Chih Kuo 159.1 1.33 8.8 58.7
Carlos Marmol 239 2.68 14.7 58.6
Matt Thornton 200.1 2.55 10.3 58.4
Joakim Soria 186 2.09 17.0 55.8
Grant Balfour 181 2.58 7.3 53.8
Ramon Ramirez 210.2 2.76 5.5 53.4
Joe Nathan 136.1 1.71 10.0 49.0
Craig Breslow 191.1 2.61 3.9 48.5
Andrew Bailey 132.1 1.84 6.7 46.4
Heath Bell 217.2 2.70 12.5 45.3
Brian Wilson 209.1 2.97 13.3 44.7

In short, that's a fairly interesting group, sorted by top ARP, which as I noted last week, is about runs prevented, not about leverage or wins "guaranteed," as it were. Which takes nothing from Mariano's greatness, and obviously repeats the greatness of familiar names like Wilson and Bell, as well as provides a reminder of the fact that, even pitching just two years out of the last three, even counting stats don't discount the value of what Joe Nathan has had on tap. Changing to WXRL gets names like Ryan Franklin, Brian Fuentes, Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Soriano, and Francisco Rodriguez into the mix, but either way you slice it, that figures to be a nasty pair of bullpens in the Bay Area.

What's interesting about this list is that you have a great case for both Thornton and for Kuo as far as who might be the best lefty reliever in the game today, but since Thornton is durable and Kuo isn't, you can see why the man in Bridgeport got the payday. For this kind of money, the implication is that he probably will also get the shot at the glory stat associated with the payday; maybe the talk about Sergio Santos means something, and maybe Chris Sale's holding pattern until after they know whether Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson will be South Side in 2012 is worth noting. The Sox have pitching talent, but Thornton is the best sure thing they have going for them. If they let him accumulate saves while he's set up by Sale and Santos in 2011, that's reasonable. If they let him "merely" be a well-compensated set-up man, that's also OK. The key element is that they've eliminated any concern over whether they have him handy, and while you can wonder about whether they opted out of next winter's stopperocalypse early, given that they're not paying an eight-figure sum per annum, they're not just getting value, they kept costs under control to get the game's best lefty reliever locked up for the near term.

Getting Thornton nailed down was just the latest good news from camp, as the Sox are sorting through a number of possibilities, most of them happy. Jake Peavy pitched on Friday against the Angels without enduring any setbacks, either in the game or with any subsequent stiffening up. Peavy commented afterwards about changing back to his old Padres-era delivery, stating "I spent eight years healthy with those mechanics and doing some good things in the game." Well, sure, great, that guy is exactly who Kenny Williams traded for—and except for those trips to the DL with elbow issues in both 2004 and 2008, as well as the shoulder soreness that earned him some time off in September in 2005, that part about being healthy for eight years has a nice dose of truthiness going for it.

Lastly, taking a look at Dayan Viciedo in the outfield corners might seem like a fool's errand if you focus on the Cuban'ss soft-bodied past—can he chug around well enough in right or left if he's too slow-footed to handle snap reactions at the hot corner? Actually, why not? In terms of organizational memory, it's worth remembering that the White Sox had a similar challenge a dozen years ago with a heavy-footed kid in his early 20s from one of the less-common Latin product lines: Carlos Lee, proud product of Panama.

Is the similarity that strong? While Lee doesn't rate close to the top of the Cubano's comparables, his career arc isn't that dissimilar. Like Viciedo, Lee was an everyday third baseman in the minors, in Lee's case as late as his age-22 season in Double-A Birmingham, back in 1998. Viciedo was at that level in 2009, but two years younger and playing in his first season stateside. While Viciedo may not seen as being on the same level as an offensive prospect that El Caballo was then, it's also sort of interesting to note that Viciedo is projected to deliver a .165 ISO and a .246 TAv now that he's turning 22, while Lee produced a .170 ISO and a .252 TAv as a 23-year-old rookie in '99.

A right-handed power bat on the bench for use at all four corners and DH would not be the worst fit in the world for the White Sox roster, especially with the Sox looking to replace Andruw Jones in the outfield playing-time rotation. Indeed, having Mark Teahen and Viciedo available to fill in at those five lineup slots would give Ozzie Guillen considerable flexibility, although whether that's with Brent Morel on the roster represents a critical wrinkle. Whatever else, it won't hurt to have a viable alternative if Carlos Quentin breaks down again, for stretches of any duration, although if Viciedo earns his keep, that won't do Lastings Milledge any favors, but Milledge wasn't the recipient of a $10 million organizational investment, and a big-league contract no less.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Announced the release of C-S Gregg Zaun, coincident with his decision to retire. [3/7]

Long a sabermetric favorite, Zaun was proof positive of the proposition that all good things come to an end. And the guy had one of the best player sites around, complete with Foreigner on Z-tunes? Well, what's not to like?

I guess my issue is that one of my primary objections over this entire proceeding is framing this conversation around the notion of the "Practically Perfect Backup Catcher." It was a label I never really bought, and if I were Zaun, I wouldn't have. He was better than that, and to label him as such was a sabermetric conceit—or worse yet, a fantasy label—that gave his value as a player short shrift. Zaun may have finished his career with a .255 True Average, but he hadn't done worse than that since 2002-03. As catcher production was getting better in the last five years, Zaun was part of the reason why, in part because he wasn't being relegated to a reserve role any more. It had taken longer than he deserved, but just like Alan Ashby before him, Zaun wound up being one of the unheralded value catchers of his generation by enjoying a better thirtysomething career than he'd had to endure in his 20s, as the Jays had the good sense to give Zaun 300 or more at-bats where less clued-in operations like the Royals or Astros or Marlins seemed slightly mystified by what they had: an honest-to-goodness catcher who contributed on offense while throwing out enough baserunners to earn his keep on the other side of the ledger.

Now, with his retirement because of a shoulder that no longer works quite the way it should, the Pads are left without anything resembling the so-called "Practically Perfect Backup Catcher." Bud Black will be left picking from among the punchless Rob Johnson, oft-injured Guillermo Quiroz, and (perhaps notionally) journeyman Kyle Phillips, although the former Twins and Jays farmhand hasn't caught regularly since 2005. I figure there's at least a 50 percent chance that Nick Hundley's caddy isn't in the organization.


Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Dayan Viciedo,  Gregg Zaun

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