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November 7, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The First Free Agent Signings of the Fall

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

National League

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Signed free agent LF-R Juan Rivera. [11/3]

What baffles me about this move isn’t that the Dodgers re-signed Juan Rivera, but that the Dodgers re-signed Juan Rivera for $4.5 million (technically $4 million with a $500,000 buyout of his 2013 team option, which brings the total to $4.5 million in guaranteed cash). Granted, the Dodgers found out last season what can happen when you have a hole in left field, and they have every reason to want to avoid reliving that PTSD-inducing experience. During the first half of 2010, the Dodgers tried to fill their left field void with a motley crew composed of Tony Gwynn, Jr., Marcus Thames, Xavier Paul, Jamie Hoffmann, Jerry Sands, Jay Gibbons, Trent Oeltjen, and—Scully save us—Eugenio Velez, who went 0-for-37 on the year. That group combined for a .232 TAv through July 10th, which ranked 26th in the majors. The team was 41-51 and 11 games behind the division-leading Giants by then, but in light of their acute need, it didn’t come as a complete shock that they reached for Rivera.

Rivera departed Anaheim for Toronto last January in the “You mean you’re taking Vernon Wells’ contract, and you’re giving us something back?” trade and found himself on the move again at the All-Star break, leaving for Los Angeles in exchange for “player to be named later or cash,” which suggests that the negotiations went something like this:

Ned Colletti: So we could really use a left fielder and I was thinking maybe we could work something out for Juan Rivera—
Alex Anthopoulous: Okay.
Ned Colletti: —because seriously we’re playing this guy my scouts told me was going to look like Tony Gwynn out there but honestly I don’t think they know what they’re talking about since he can’t hit at all so it would be great if we could plug Juan in there—
Alex Anthopoulos: You got it.
Ned Colletti: —and we have this top prospect named Trayvon who I’m damn sure going to find a way to trade for someone so it might as well be—wait, what?
Alex Anthopoulos: I said you could have him.
Ned Colletti: Oh. Okay. So, what were you thinking, because like—
Alex Anthopoulos: /checks watch
Ned Colletti: —everyone warned me about trading with you and I didn’t want to end up giving you Ethier or anything, so—
Alex Anthopoulos: How about a player to be named later or cash?
Ned Colletti: Sweet! That’s it?
Alex Anthopoulos: Well, yeah. I mean, he’s Juan Rivera.
Ned Colletti: I know! So would you prefer the cash or the PTBNL?
Alex Anthopoulos: Surprise me.

Compared to what went before him, Rivera probably looked a lot like Manny Ramirez in Don Mattingly’s eyes, but the reality was a lot less exciting. The average NL left fielder posted an OPS of 748 last season. Rivera managed only a 740 mark in Los Angeles, which—given that his OPS is an almost-identical 743 over his last four seasons—is about the best the Dodgers can hope for from the right-handed hitter, who’ll turn 34 next July. He’s always been weak against same-handed pitchers, and his work in the field does nothing to make up for his offensive inadequacies–that he’s spent significant time as a designated hitter and first baseman over the past two seasons should give you some idea of the state of his outfield skills—so the total package is that of a player who can’t be counted on to be worth more than a win. Does that sound like something that can’t be had for less than $4.5 million to anyone but LA?

Last week, R.J. Anderson observed that Chien-Ming Wang’s $4 million deal (plus incentives) was way out of line with the make-good contracts awarded to injury-prone starters during the 2010-2011 offseason. Rivera’s contract appears to be inflated by a similar amount compared to last winter’s comparable corner outfielders, such as Reed Johnson ($900,000), Marcus Thames ($1 million, and from LA, no less), Andruw Jones ($1.5 million), Matt Diaz ($2.125 million), and Jeff Francoeur ($2.5 million).

Are Wang and Rivera isolated outliers who happened to ink their deals early, or are we seeing the opening salvoes of a market gone mad? The next few weeks should tell us whether teams have dismissed concerns about the economy and decided en masse to pay more per win. If not, it will be too late for the Dodgers to get Frank McCourt’s money back. While that isn’t something that will cost their fans much sleep in itself, the knowledge that their team—despite ostensibly being on a limited budget—probably paid more than twice as much as it had to for a role player instead of using the cash to procure an experienced catcher or another useful commodity could keep them tossing and turning till spring training.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Signed free agent 1B-L Jim Thome. [11/5]

To see the outpouring of emotion Thome’s return to Philadelphia has engendered among Phillies fans, who normally aren’t known for developing warm, fuzzy feelings toward players, one would think that he’d come up with the team and spent the better part of his career there, not a mere three seasons in his early-to-mid-thirties, one of which was injury-ravaged and unproductive. Such is the extent of the goodwill generated by his 2003 signing and subsequent play at an important time for the Phillies franchise, as well as the extent of the fondness felt for Thome by nearly everyone who follows the game, from those who’ve had the pleasure of watching him hit to those who know nothing about him but what countless media types have told them, namely that he’s every bit the kind-hearted Paul Bunyan type he appears to be from afar.

As he prepares for another reunion with a former team in what could be the final act of his Hall of Fame career, Thome is more than the diminished shadow of his former self that many greats become as they approach the end, excelling only in the memories of the people who saw them play in their primes. The erstwhile DH might be on his last legs, but he still possesses plenty of lumber, posting a combined .304 TAv for the Twins and Indians last season and more than holding his own against lefties, who’ve given him considerable trouble at times. That kind of bat can always find work, regardless of how poorly-rounded the rest of the package might be.

Though he’s still quite productive at the plate, Thome can’t be described as a good fit for any NL team at this stage of his career. Suffice it to say that mobility is not his middle name (actually, it’s Howard). He hasn’t appeared in the field since starting a single game at first for the White Sox in 2007, even in a brief 2009 tour of duty with the Dodgers during which he was hampered by plantar fasciitis, and he hasn’t spent significant time wearing any kind of glove but the batting variety since his last stint in Philly. If the White Sox and Twins had thought him capable of playing first without hurting himself or his team, they would have had him do that rather than forfeit his bat during interleague play. They never did, and it’s unlikely that the Phillies are any more optimistic about the odds of his filling in at first than his former teams were.

The Phillies were rumored to have interest in Thome last season, which made a lot of sense given that they were burdened with the likes of Ross Gload on the bench and briefly flirted with the idea of trying Jack Cust in the left-handed power pinch-hitter role. That’s probably the part he’ll play this year, as well as serving as DH during the team’s nine interleague road games, which means that this is one of those moves that figures to make only a marginal impact for the first several months of the season but could have an outsized effect on the conclusion of a pennant race or the playoffs. Thome almost certainly would have returned to the Phillies for one more shot at a World Series ring even had Ryan Howard not torn his Achilles' tendon on the final play of the year, so this isn't a one-to-one replacement. Thome won’t be expected to make more than the occasional spot start at first, though it is appealing to think of Howard—whose arrival spelled the end of Thome's last stretch in Philly—being matched blow-for-blow by a 41-year-old just as the younger slugger’s preposterous mega-extension kicks in.

Thome was worth 1.5 WARP last season, but even if he avoids a precipitous decline, something all players who last as long as he has are susceptible to, he’s unlikely to make over 300 plate appearances again. Still, since he’ll be appearing often at crucial junctures late in games, each of his swings will count. With any luck, we’ll see a few that look like this.


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

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