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December 7, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Mets Build a Bullpen Overnight

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

NEW YORK METS
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Traded OF-S Angel Pagan for OF-S Andres Torres and RHP Ramon Ramirez.
Signed RHP Jon Rauch to a one-year, $3.5 million deal.
Signed RHP Frank Francisco to a two-year, $12 million deal.

We know you wanted Jose Reyes, Mets fans, but how about accepting this bullpen gift basket instead?

It’s hard to say which would more difficult for the fan base to stomach: staying idle after the division-rival Marlins stole Reyes and lobbed decade-spanning offers at Albert Pujols, or making a flurry of moves for players who aren’t even close to the superstar class. They’ll have to settle for the latter, as the Mets swapped their center fielder for a replacement with more team control and rebuilt their relief corps in the course of one night.

The fireballing Francisco is the best of the new bullpen trio, and since he’s also the highest-paid, he’s almost certain to get the bulk of the saves. The righty typically racks up a lot of strikeouts with a few too many walks. His overall numbers from last season don’t tell the whole tale; he missed all of spring training with a pectoral strain and was rushed back into action, in part because his setup partner Rauch wasn’t up to his late-inning tasks. Finally back to full strength, he came alive in the second half, recording a 1.37 ERA with a 6.0 K:BB ratio in 26 1/3 innings. Francisco isn’t durable—he’s topped 60 innings just once—and he’s prone to bouts of ineffectiveness and emotional displays. However, he should be thrilled to escape from the home run havens in which he’s spent his entire career to this point, and he won’t make Mets fans miss K-Rod (or Bobby Parnell). Given the sums and contract lengths commanded by brand names like Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell on the closer market this winter, Francisco seems like a steal.

Ramirez’s modest peripherals don’t seem to support the impressive ERAs he’s recorded in environments as inhospitable to pitchers as Coors Field and Fenway Park; with a career FIP half a run higher than his career ERA and a lifetime .269 BABIP, the righty has always seemed to outperform them. Since his 364 1/3 career innings have been spread out over six seasons, that performance might seem more sustainable than it would in the case of a starter who did the same thing over 18 months. We shouldn’t let the timeframe deceive us, but Ramirez’s batted-ball profile does seem to support that sort of hit prevention; his career infield fly percentage is on par with Jered Weaver’s, which suggests that he’s adept at inducing the kind of weak contact that often results in outs.

Like a bird (or a Jersey Shore cast member) who puffs himself up to appear more attractive to potential mates, Rauch’s stature makes him seem like something more than he is. Given his stuff and statistics, it’s unlikely that he would’ve earned even the smattering of saves that he has if he stood, say, 6'3'' instead of 6'10''. You’d think that downward plane would at least get him groundballs, but in fact, the opposite is true; only eight other pitchers with at least 50 frames induced flies at a higher rate than he did last season, and his velocity has declined for three straight years. In the Citi Field we’ve known so far, that kind of frequent flying would be an asset. While we may not know how the park will play with the fences moved in, it probably won’t be a place where power goes to die. That’s bad news for Rauch, who might stand to vulture a few saves from the inconsistent and injury-prone Francisco but otherwise seems unlikely even to replicate the solid but unspectacular work he did for Washington a few years ago.

To some extent, any money the Mets spend on relievers is payroll down the drain, in that it’s not going to produce a winner either now or in three seasons, when all of them likely will have moved on. Still, there’s something to be said for a little fan service, especially for teams who’ve given their fans as hard a time as the Mets have over the past few years. The bullpen has been a source of frustration in Flushing for several seasons; in 2011, the Mets had the second-highest relief FRA in the league (4.81), as well as the fourth-most blown saves, a far less sophisticated statistic but one that might be just as likely

With the Mets’ new bullpen by numbers in place, some of the more excitable elements of last year’s unit will be relegated to less prominent roles, and while the team may generate fewer leads to protect without Reyes at the top of their lineup, it should do a better job of holding on to the ones that it has. Without the financial wherewithal to bring in a truly roster-sustaining free agent, Sandy Alderson was placed in the unenviable position of saying, “Let them eat saves,” but perhaps the greater late-inning stability will prevent a fan uprising that might have led to further front office upheaval.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Traded OF-S Andres Torres and RHP Ramon Ramirez for OF-S Angel Pagan.

Brian Sabean’s search for a center fielder this offseason has gone something like Goldilocks’ search for a comfortable bed. Melky Cabrera’s range was too limited, and Carlos Beltran’s asking price wasn’t limited enough, but this center fielder was just right.

Pagan and Torres are similar players: speedy switch-hitters with little power who had standout campaigns in 2010 but fell on harder times last season. The difference is that Pagan’s bat didn’t fall as far, and since he’s nearly 3 ½ years younger, he’s the better bet to rebound. Torres is the superior center fielder, but the gap probably isn’t that wide—Pagan is prone to conspicuous mistakes, leading all center fielders with 10 errors last season, but those obvious gaffes overshadow the good work he does—and it should shrink with Torres’ advancing age. What’s more, San Francisco’s staff induced grounders at the fifth-highest rate in the majors last season, which should help minimize the impact of any defensive shortfall. The downside to Pagan is that he’ll reach free agency sooner, since he’s accumulated more service time, but until then, the Giants will have themselves a significantly better bat who puts the ball in play more often and has the higher batting averages to show for it. Both players are likely to lead off for their respective teams, and both are excellent baserunners capable of contributing the better part of a win on the basepaths in a single season, if BRR is to be believed.

The inclusion of Ramirez, who’s entering his final season before free agency, more or less makes up for the difference between them. Though he did good work for San Francisco, he was the fourth righty reliever on the Giants’ depth chart, which means that the loss of his innings won’t be too acute. In addition, increasing arbitration costs would have made an already-expensive bullpen prohibitively pricey.

On its own merits, the move makes sense for the Giants, if only because it means more offense and less Melky up the middle. However, it’s as notable for what it means they won’t do as it is for what they did. With Pagan in the fold, it seems probable that the Giants will go with a Cabrera/Pagan/Nate Schierholtz outfield alignment, which, while not awful defensively, promises to be distinctly San Franciscan at the plate. That means we may be in for another year of Brandon Belt on the bench or bouncing between the Bay and Fresno, since the youngster figures to have as difficult a time passing Aubrey Huff on Bruce Bochy’s personal depth chart as he did last season.

It also means that we almost certainly won’t see Carlos Beltran in a Giants uniform next season. As a Sabean-friendly veteran who had already experienced success with the team and would have required only a short-term commitment, Beltran seemed like the perfect solution to the team’s offensive woes, but for whatever reason, it looks like it wasn’t meant to be. If—okay, when—the 2012 Giants’ lineup struggles to score runs, fans will start to see Beltran’s phantom bat everywhere, especially in the roughly $15 million that the cash-strapped team will be devoting to Pagan and two lefty relievers it brought back this winter, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez.


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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