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December 15, 2011

Transaction Analysis

In with the New

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed C-R Kelly Shoppach to a one-year, $1.35 million contract. [12/13]
Signed IF-S Nick Punto to a two-year, $3 million contract. [12/14]

BP alum Marc Normandin summed up the Shoppach move nicely:

The Red Sox are getting a new backup catcher who can throw out some runners, hit for a bit of power, and will strike out often. Essentially, Boston is getting Jason Varitek, but eight years younger, and with an arm that still works behind the plate.

I don’t have much to add to that and to R.J. Anderson’s insightful November TA entry on Shoppach, who carries roughly average framing abilities in his backstop’s bag of tricks, except to say that any Sox fans who may be upset about a perceived lack of loyalty, sentimentality, or respect for the outgoing team captain on the front office’s part are putting their feelings for a particular player first to the detriment of the franchise. No athlete is bigger than the team he plays for, and players far more accomplished than Varitek have been cast aside to make way for younger, more productive replacements when the proper time has come. Remember him fondly. Hire him as a coach or, if you must, a special assistant to the GM. Bring him back for Old-Timers’ Day and let him pose for pictures next to Johnny Pesky. But when you have an opportunity to improve on the field by cutting him loose, you take it. Otherwise, those same sentimental fans might wake up several months later and wonder whether they might have enjoyed a playoff appearance more than a farewell tour by a player whose best days were behind him.

No sooner had the Sox sent Jed Lowrie to the Astros than they brought home a rebound utility guy, Nick Punto. The snickers that follow most mentions of his name stem from his time as a starter in Minnesota, a role he wasn’t quite cut out for. As a utility man, he’s not punchline material, however gritty he might be. He’s fairly patient at the plate and makes decent contact, but he doesn’t have Lowrie’s bat. However, he won’t be making much more than Lowrie would have after arbitration, he has a less worrisome medical record, and he boasts a much better glove. The difference between Punto and most of the other scrappy, offensively-inept infielders who ply their trade at multiple positions is that Punto can play those positions well. He boasts a 10.7 career FRAA at shortstop, the most difficult position on the diamond, and he also acquits himself well on the corners and in the outfield, which should largely be Mike Aviles’ domain.

Don’t put too much stock—and by “too much,” I mean “any”—in Punto’s .290 TAv from last season; the Sox can expect to get something about 60 points below that from him over the next two years. They can also expect to get a total of two home runs over the life of the contract, since Punto has hit one—and only one—in five of the last six seasons. (He exploded for two in 2008.) Still, in an offseason that’s seen lucrative contracts signed by utility guys in Arizona and Los Angeles, the Sox may have snagged the best of the lot at a reasonable price.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Signed OF-R Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract. [12/14]

Meet the Twins’ new left fielder, almost the same as the Twins’ old right fielder. Willingham is eerily similar to Michael Cuddyer; both players are defensively-challenged corner outfielders and right-handed hitters who’ll turn 33 shortly before Opening Day. Cuddyer has the more winning smile, but it’s hard to quantify the effect of that on the kind of winning teams ultimately care about. Aside from the smiling, Willingham does everything Cuddyer does, but a little more. He walks a little more often, strikes out a little more often, and hits for a little more power. He doesn't play a little more than Cuddyer—he's averaged only 121 games over the past four seasons thanks to an array of nagging injuries—but like Rafael Furcal (see below), he makes more of the time he does spend on the field. That makes him both the better player and—since rumor had it the Twins were talking to Cuddyer about a $24 million package before deciding to make a change—the better deal, though his medical history might make Twins fans skittish after the team's injury-plagued 2011.

Willingham was reportedly talking to the Rockies before he signed with Minnesota, and given his history, it’s a little disappointing that we won’t get to see what he’d do in a more favorable offensive environment. After playing for the Marlins, the Nationals, and the A’s in three parks that ranged from unkind to downright hostile to right-handed power, he’s earned a taste of baseball at altitude. He won’t get it in Minneapolis, but Target Field won’t present the same challenge to his home-run stroke that the Coliseum did (though his 29 dingers last season were actually a career high), so the change in venue should counteract whatever detrimental effect aging and additional mileage on the odometer might have on his stat line.

In 2011, the Twins tied the Mariners at .248 with the AL’s lowest TAv, so they could use an additional offensive boost even after adding Ryan Doumit and Jamey Carroll to the mix. Cudder (sadly) was the Twins’ most productive hitter, nearly doubling the VORP of their second-most valuable bat (even more sadly, Alexi Casilla), so replacing him with the rich man’s Cuddyer doesn’t do that much to make them better in a relative sense. Willingham’s fielding won’t help the team’s perpetually contact-prone pitchers, though at least the Twins won’t be tempted to try him in the infield as they were with Cuddyer. If his output at the plate continues to be impressively consistent, he should more than earn his keep regardless of his shortcomings elsewhere, but as always, Minnesota’s offensive fortunes will hinge on the health and performance of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Signed RHP Takashi Saito to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. [12/12]

Kevin Towers’ bullpen tinkering continues. In his first offseason as Arizona’s GM, Towers signed J.J. Putz, traded for David Hernandez, and picked up Joe Paterson in the Rule 5 draft. The new arms helped transform the pen from one of the worst ever into one that ranked right in the middle of the major-league pack. As the architect of far superior pens in San Diego, Towers hasn’t rested on his laurels after taking the Snakes to the NLDS. He added Craig Breslow to the bullpen mix in last week’s Trevor Cahill trade, and now he’s signed Saito.

Towers obviously prefers to sign former closers off the scrap pile (or at least as-is) to handle the D-Backs’ late-inning duties rather than import a stopper at the peak of his performance and earning potential. The strategy worked in 2011, as Putz’s arm held together for most of the season, but it’s not without its risks. Putz and Saito are relievers with warts, chief among them a conspicuous lack of durability. Saito spent much of last season on the 60-day DL with a hamstring strain, and he hasn’t pitched 60 innings in a season since 2007. A 35-year-old closer with a history of elbow problems and a 42-year-old set-up man with his own injury issues sounds like a formula for a bullpen breakdown, or at least a heavy workload for Hernandez.

When Saito has been on the mound, he’s been excellent almost without exception. Among pitchers with at least 300 innings of work over the past six seasons, only Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan have lower ERAs than Saito’s 2.18. With age-36-41 seasons like those, one wonders what kind of major-league career Saito might have had if he’d come to America earlier. The only question Arizona is interested in, though, is whether he’ll hold up through age 42. After recording the lowest innings pitched total, strikeout rate, and velocity of his career in 2011, his prospects aren’t particularly good, but given what $1 million gets you on the relief market these days—stay tuned for the rest of this TA—$1.75 million isn’t an overpay for a pitcher of his pedigree.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Signed LHP Dontrelle Willis to a one-year, $1 million contract. [12/12]

The lure of the lefty with the runner-up Cy Young finish on his resume never fades. On the heels of a 5.00-ERA season that was actually his best performance in several years, Willis has found yet another perpetual optimist/rube interested in securing his services. This time, though, you don’t have to be the sort of person who always thinks Lucy is about to let Charlie Brown kick the football to believe he might succeed. Willis would have had a hard enough time cracking the Phillies’ stacked rotation in his younger, better days, and he’d have no chance of doing so now. Fortunately, he won’t have to, since the Phillies will be trying him as a reliever.

The Willis bullpen conversion has been a long time in coming—so long, in fact, that you might wonder what the hold-up was. Maybe teams were slow to give up on a guy with his former success before he hit 30, or maybe Dontrelle was slow to embrace a less remunerative and glamorous role. Whatever the reason, the switch was long overdue. Most of his struggles have come against righties, who had a .285 TAv against him last year and have tattooed him to the tune of a .296 weighted, multi-year mark. In stark contrast to those numbers, Willis held lefties to a .149 TAv in 60 plate appearances in 2011 and boasts a .191 weighted, multi-year TAv against them. That’s lefty specialist territory.

Compare Willis’ 2011 and multi-year performance against lefties to that of the pitchers who faced the highest percentage of southpaws in at least 20 innings last season:

Name

% 2011 PA vs. LHBP

2011

Multi

Randy Choate

72

.155

.178

Trever Miller

67

.292

.236

Tim Byrdak

65

.248

.241

Sergio Escalona

64

.234

.235

Boone Logan

64

.293

.264

Joe Paterson

61

.226

.226

Scott Elbert

54

.191

.208

George Sherrill

54

.226

.213

Josh Spence

54

.204

.204

Bill Bray

52

.221

.219

Dontrelle Willis

18

.149

.191

When it comes to retiring lefties, Dontrelle Willis takes LOOGYs’ lunch money. The low percentage of lefties he faced suggests that teams were stacking their lineups with righties against him, so it probably follows that the lefties who did stay in to face him were better than average. Not only that, but Willis recorded these numbers as a starter; the other pitchers on the list enjoyed all the benefits of pitching in short bursts. Despite that, Dontrelle still dominated same-handed hitters to a degree unmatched by anyone but Randy Choate. If his act doesn’t catch on in the bullpen, there’s nowhere for him to go but back to the minors. (He did bat .387 last year, but he's probably not pinch-hitter material.) However, there’s every reason to think this role change will put the D-Train back on the tracks, even if those tracks no longer lead to the same superstardom he once enjoyed. Willis is making a smart career choice—assuming he had a choice—by swallowing his pride, and the Phillies are just as smart to attempt to establish their own lefty specialist rather than pay a premium for someone else’s.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed RHP Guillermo Mota to a one-year, $1 million contract. [12/14]

Before I say anything else, let’s take a moment to appreciate Guillermo Mota’s 2003 campaign as a Dodger:

G

IP

ERA

FIP

WARP

76

105

1.97

2.73

1.9

 

That was, of course, the season in which Eric Gagne won his Cy Young Award, so Mota was overshadowed in his own bullpen. Still, that stat line made Mota the 12th-most-valuable reliever in baseball despite his one measly save. He wasn’t a control specialist, a strikeout artist, or an extreme ground-baller, but all aspects of his game came together well enough to produce a valuable package over 100-plus frames.

That was then, this is now. Hey, Mota isn’t the only thing that was getting better reviews in 2003; so were the economy and the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. And just like Jack Sparrow and the US credit rating, he’s still limping along in a less successful form.

Shortly after sending fellow righty reliever Ramon Ramirez to the Mets, the Giants brought back Mota to absorb some low-leverage work. Mota is still capable of eating innings, but now he reconstitutes them into a bland, league-average-looking paste. He’s not suitable for set-up duty, but someone has to be the mop-up man, and a million dollars doesn’t buy what it did in 2003.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed Rafael Furcal to a two-year, $14 million contract. [12/10]

The Pujols fund had to be spent somewhere, lest it sit around in Bill DeWitt’s bank account collecting interest and reminding the Cardinals of what was and what might have been. Forget long-term contracts—short-term contracts are risky propositions where Furcal is concerned. Only once in the last four seasons has Furcal played in as many as 100 games. He’s made five separate trips to the DL over that span, spending 268 days on the sidelines. Two of those DL stints (and 69 of those days lost) came last season, when he suffered a thumb fracture and an oblique strain. And yet:

Most Valuable Shortstops, 2008-2011

Name

G

PA

WARP

WARP/600 PA

Hanley Ramirez

538

2349

17.0

4.3

Jose Reyes

454

2118

15.5

4.4

Troy Tulowitzki

517

2184

14.9

4.1

Yunel Escobar

545

2348

14.2

3.6

Marco Scutaro

552

2412

14.0

3.5

Rafael Furcal

370

1641

11.5

4.2

J.J. Hardy

491

2036

11.4

3.4

Alexei Ramirez

462

1916

11.2

3.5

Erick Aybar

516

2125

11.0

3.1

Jason Bartlett

539

2211

10.6

2.9

Furcal has been the sixth-best shortstop in baseball over the past four seasons despite playing roughly four-fifths as many games as Jose Reyes, the next-least-durable player in the top 10. (And you thought Reyes had problems staying healthy.) On a per-plate-appearance basis, only Reyes and Hanley Ramirez have been more productive. (Troy Tulowitzki also would have surpassed him if FRAA had regarded his fielding more favorably.) Furcal doesn’t have the bat that those guys do, but he’s an excellent fielder and baserunner—in fact, his 51.7 career BRR is the 35th-highest mark in our database, ranking behind only Juan Pierre, Johnny Damon, and Ichiro Suzuki among active players.

Furcal turned 34 in October, and players don’t typically become more resistant to injuries as they age. He’s not likely to stay on the field for the duration of his two-year deal, but as his past few seasons have demonstrated, he doesn’t have to in order for the Cards to get their money’s worth. His play between injuries should be worth both the $7 million per season and the occasional extended exposure to Tyler Greene.


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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