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December 14, 2011

Transaction Analysis

A Signing and Trade in the NL Central

by Ben Lindbergh and R.J. Anderson

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Tampa Bay Rays

Acquired P-R Burke Badenhop from the Marlins for C-L Jake Jefferies. [12/12]

Andrew Friedman has made two trades this offseason. Both involved swapping a left-handed-hitting catcher for a right-handed reliever. Unlike the Josh Lueke-John Jaso trade, no one should rush to pillory Friedman for questionable judgment. Badenhop is an inoffensive middle relief option who packs an upper-80s sinker and a 58.4 percent groundball rate since 2009.

Badenhop is more than Lance Cormier redux. Over the last three seasons, he has struck out about seven batters per nine innings pitched. Compare that to his free passes, and you get a 2.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, unless you subtract the intentional passes (all 13 of them), in which case his ratio increases to 2.77. A move to the American League East can be detrimental to earned run average and component statistics alike, but Badenhop will have the benefit of a defensive upgrade. The Rays’ defense held a batting average on groundballs in play of .222 (the Marlins were at .244).

Ostensibly, the Marlins had planned to non-tender Badenhop (eligible for arbitration for the second of four times), but the return is still underwhelming. It makes you wonder how long the Marlins spent shopping Badenhop around the league before pulling the trigger. The Rays can’t complain, since they gain a decent middle reliever for next to nothing.—R.J. Anderson

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Signed 3B-R Aramis Ramirez to a three-year, $36 million contract. [12/12]
Acquired RHP Jose Veras from the Pirates for 3B-R Casey McGehee. [12/12]

With Prince Fielder an ex-Brewer, Milwaukee’s first base vacancy remains unfilled—unless, of course, you count Travis Ishikawa, whose recent addition on a minor-league deal seemed unworthy of inclusion in italics above. In the unlikely event that Ishikawa is Milwaukee’s starting first baseman in 2012, the Brewers can expect to be about 50 pounds and five wins lighter than they were last season. That probably won’t happen—the five wins part, that is, not the 50 pounds part, which is almost assured—but regardless of which not-Prince player sees the bulk of the playing time at first for the Brew Crew next season, Milwaukee has a lot of offense to make up and not much money with which to do it.

The Brewers acquired some of that missing offense while staying within the constraints of their payroll limitations by inking Aramis Ramirez and effectively promising to pay him later. Ramirez will earn only a sixth of his $36 million score next season, with the remainder backloaded over the following two seasons and $6 million of his 2014 salary deferred. K-Rod’s unexpected acceptance of the Brewers’ arbitration offer has turned Doug Melvin into that guy you know who never has the full amount he owes on him when you order food or split a cab but assures you he’ll “get you back later.” Sometimes he actually does. Melvin—or more accurately, Mark Attanasio—is good for it, of course; the real question is whether Ramirez will have been worth the cash when he finally receives it.

It’s hard to believe, with the memory of Casey McGehee’s disastrous 2011 season still so fresh, but from 2009-2010, McGehee was worth more than twice as much to the Brewers as Ramirez was to the Cubs. Aramis is unquestionably one of the best offensive third basemen of the last decade, but other aspects of his game leave much to be desired. Despite topping a .300 TAv in four separate seasons and coming no more than six points away in another three, Ramirez has surpassed the four-win mark only once since 2011. The culprits, of course, are Ramirez’ glove and legs. While his bat has been worth 150-plus runs above average over the course of his career, his glove has rated almost 80 runs below that benchmark, and his baserunning alone has cost his teams nearly four wins. As one might expect, neither his fielding nor his running has improved in recent years. Despite an offensive bounceback in 2011, Ramirez gave back a combined two wins in the field and on the bases, which left just a shade over two wins remaining.

Even Ramirez’ bat isn’t sure to survive the change of scenery intact. Since joining the Cubs in 2003, Ramirez has hit .310/.375/.552 at Wrigley Field and .278/.334/.498 everywhere else. Moving to Miller Park probably won’t affect his home run output, but it will depress his overall line, since it’s a little harder on right-handed hitters overall. (For what it’s worth, he’s hit .270/.325/.503 in 332 career plate appearances in Milwaukee.) Ramirez should give the Brewers at least three more wins in 2012 than they got from McGehee last season, but the upgrade over what McGehee produced from 2009-2010 and perhaps could produce again won’t be as sizeable as it might seem on the surface.

If Ramirez is a two-win player at this stage of his career—and given that he’ll turn 34 before the All-Star break next season, there’s little reason to expect improvement—$36 million is a fairly hefty price to pay for three seasons of his services, especially for a team that is reportedly already over budget and thus too strapped for cash to sign a real first baseman unless another club miraculously takes Rodriguez off its hands. This signing helps prop Milwaukee’s competitive window open for as long as the rest of the prominent holdovers from the 2011 playoff team remain, but if the injuries that limited Ramirez to 82 good games in 2009 and 124 bad ones in 2010 were a sign of things to come, the end of this deal could get a little ugly, in which case a move to first base could be in order to preserve Ramirez’ body and hide his glove. In that event, a little Taylor Green in the late innings could turn into a lot of Taylor Green beginning at first pitch.

Rodriguez’ decision to “settle” for a raise via arbitration forced the Brewers to part with Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins, who were quickly snapped up by the Diamondbacks and Angels, respectively. Enter Jose Veras. At 31, it’s very clear what Veras is: a hard-throwing righty who walks too many batters, allows a lot of fly balls, and posts a strikeout rate just high enough to get away with it. Veras won’t be as good next year as Hawkins was last year; then again, neither will Hawkins. Veras would be a stretch as a primary set-up man, but as the fourth righty in the bullpen pecking order behind John Axford, Rodriguez, and Kameron Loe, he’ll do. What he does give the Brewers that Hawkins and Saito didn’t is durability: the new guy accounted for almost as many innings as both of the old guys combined in 2011.—Ben Lindbergh

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Acquired 3B-R Casey McGehee from the Brewers for RHP Jose Veras. [12/12]

Only a handful of players had better cases to be the NL’s least productive player than McGehee did last season. The third baseman managed only a .221 TAv to go along with his usual subpar work with the leather, resulting in the kind of round number no player wants to see on his BP card: -1.0 WARP. His walk and strikeout rates barely budged from their levels during his productive 2009 and 2010; what changed was what happened when he hit the ball. McGehee’s BABIP plummeted to a point well below his career average, but this probably isn’t a situation where we can reflexively forecast better fortunes to come.

McGehee’s BABIP was so low at least in part because he was hitting the ball weakly and on the ground. For the second straight season, his tendency toward grounders became more pronounced; only Emilio Bonifacio, Ian Desmond, and Jason Bartlett posted groundball rates as high as McGehee’s 50.7 percent among NL players with at least 600 PA in 2011. Like Ramirez, McGehee is hardly fleet of foot—he had the worst BRR on the Brewers last season, and only Prince Fielder and George Kottaras prevented him from doing the same the season before—so  hitting the ball somewhere an infielder might snag it is exactly what he should attempt to avoid. Oddly, and maybe more encouragingly, most of McGehee’s struggles came against opposite-handed pitchers, as he posted a dramatic reverse split (.157 TAv vs. LHP, .240 vs. RHP) inconsistent with his prior performance. It’s hard to imagine that sort of split persisting.

Those caveats aside, the Pirates have the right idea here. Pittsburgh third basemen hit .224/.276/.333 last season, and Jose Veras isn’t a particularly high price to pay for anything, let alone a 29-year-old third baseman in his first year of arbitration. McGehee can spell Pedro Alvarez against lefties and serve as insurance in case the formerly heralded prospect doesn’t resume his ascent to stardom. If he does anything to reestablish his value, the Pirates can flip him after the first half for someone(s) who’ll be worth more to the franchise’s next competitive team.—Ben Lindbergh


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

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