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October 31, 2011

Transaction Analysis Blog

Option Day Craziness

by R.J. Anderson

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Boston Red Sox
Exercised a 2012 club option on SS-R Marco Scutaro. [10/30]

Ben Cherington’s next hard decision as Boston general manager will be his first. Picking up Scutaro’s $6 million option comes close to no-brainer territory. Scutaro provides league-average offense thanks to a contact-heavy approach while defending capably at shortstop. Those characteristics would have made him the best alternative to Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes on the free agent market; instead, he will return for a third season in Boston. Factor in the warts that Boston’s other shortstop options sport—Jed Lowrie is fragile and Jose Iglesias’s lacking offense could use another season in the minors—and keeping Scutaro in tow is the right call.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Detroit Tigers
Exercised a 2012 club option on RHP Jose Valverde. [10/28]

Valverde set a new career-high in inning pitched by recording one more out than he previously had. Along the way, he finished 70 games and turned 49 saves chances into 49 saves. Mock Valverde’s idiosyncrasies—the glasses, potbelly, or eccentric post-save celebrations—and the save statistic all you want, but just understand that the Tigers would have had a difficult time justifying any decision other than to exercise his $9 million option. Such is the price for having a seemingly elite closer.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Atlanta Braves
Declined a 2012 club option on OF-L Nate McLouth. [10/30]
Exercised a 2012 club option on 4C-L Eric Hinske. [10/31]

Few things have gone right for McLouth since moving from Pittsburgh to Atlanta. A collection of maladies—ranging from a concussion to a sports hernia—has plagued McLouth over the past two seasons, zapping him of his power. When McLouth is right, he takes walks, hits for pop, and can steal some bases. The problem is McLouth has rarely been right recently, giving Atlanta little reason to exercise his nearly $11 million option. They opted to pay him the $1.25 million buyout instead, making him a free agent. You have to think some tem will take a chance on McLouth in free agency as a potential high-upside signing.

Atlanta did choose to keep one left-handed batter on option day in Hinske. Besides the nice left-handed bat of the bench, Hinske can fake it at each of the corner positions and receives high marks for his clubhouse demeanor and tattoo creativity. At $1.5 million, it was hard to see the Braves finding a better fit on the free agent market.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Chicago Cubs
3B-R Aramis Ramirez declined a 2012 option. [10/31]
RHP Ryan Dempster exercised a 2012 option. [10/30]

Meet the most desirable free agent third baseman. Ramirez rebounded from a down 2010 by hitting .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs. Offensive consistency is going to get Ramirez handsomely paid and he has two notable nuggets going his way: 1) since 2002, Ramirez has hit at least 25 home runs in each season except for an injury-shortened 2009; 2) Ramirez has posted an on-base percentage above .350 in seven of his eight full seasons with the Cubs (the exception being 2009 again). Ramirez isn’t as gifted with the glove, but some team is going to give him multiple years and shove him at the hot corner, if only to enjoy the offensive fireworks.

While Ramirez leaves, Dempster will return. He pitched better than his 4.80 earned run average suggests, but would not receive an offer exceeding the $14 million he now has coming his way. Partially to blame for the bloated earned run average is a defense that finished with the third-worst park-adjusted defensive efficiency in the National League. Is it any wonder why Dempster finished with the highest batting average on balls in play of his career in a 100-plus inning season?

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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San Diego Padres
Declined 2012 club options on RHP Chad Qualls, RHP Aaron Harang, and 1B-L Brad Hawpe. [10/30]

Hoping to build on a surprising 2010 season last winter, the Padres cobbled together a few middling free agents to make up for Adrian Gonzalez’s departure. What made the signings interesting was the creative financing employed in order to circumvent a restrictive budget. Whereas most multi-year deals call for incremental increases in dollars, the Padres deals were backloaded with modest buyout values to provide some incentive to the players who were signing up to become trade bait. Alas, the worst-case scenario hit, as Qualls, Harang, and Hawpe combined for a negative Wins Above Replacement score and ended the season with San Diego, whose record worsened by 19 losses. As such, the Padres had the choice to bring the three back for $17 million or cut their losses and pay $3 million in buyouts—a figure cheaper than the cheapest option, valued at $5 million to Harang. To put it simply, there were extinct animals with higher likelihoods of suiting up for the Padres in 2012 than these three.

The two pitchers in question should have no trouble finding future employment. Teams in spacious ballparks pursuing a backend starter should give Harang a look. Bud Black’s handling of Harang provided a sharp contrast to the bloodletting Harang experienced under Dusty Baker. Not once did Harang top 115 pitches in a game, and his pitches per start average finished at fewer than 100 for the first time since 2004. Harang still has prevalent home run issues that popped up even while in PETCO, but the real key to his rejuvenation is the Padres defense that finished second in park-adjusted defensive efficiency and anchored his batting average on balls in play to a four-year low. Like Harang, Qualls suffers from bouts of gopheritis. When right, Qualls hold obese groundball rates while missing bats. For whatever reason, Qualls’s strikeout rates dipped, and he finished his Padres’ tenure as a below replacement level reliever. Still, a team in need of some middle relief help can do worse than gamble on a bounce back for the once solid late-game reliever.  

Hawpe proved to be the biggest disappointment.  Sometimes low-risk signings do not yield value, and Hawpe is proof. In theory, an undiagnosed broken rib in 2010 made sense as the goat for Hawpe’s offensive ineptitude. Also in theory, moving Hawpe from the corner outfield to first base should have made his defensive woes tolerable. In practice, Hawpe failed to hit again, and his defense became unbearable by association. If not for a track record of road-hitting during his Colorado days, one would be tempted to finger Hawpe as a Coors-aided mirage. The reality is that something about Hawpe—whether it be mental, physical, or mechanical—changed after the 2010 season, and whatever team can turn his inner clock will land themselves an affordable left-handed power bat. If no team is up for the challenge, then baseball will lose a great middle name in Bonte.


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

Related Content:  Brad Hawpe,  2012 Free Agent Signings

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