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December 22, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Cutting Costs, Padding Payrolls

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-L Endy Chavez to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [12/18]

I almost let that video stand on its own, since it explains why Endy still has a career.* At 34, he might not have the range or ups he showed in that clip, but catches like that mint perennial fourth outfielders. Still, it’s not quite a lifetime appointment; when Endy’s speed goes, he won’t be much use as a ballhawk, and his ground-ball stroke will be a recipe for easy outs. Among AL players with at least 250 plate appearances last season, only Vladimir Guerrero walked less frequently, so he won’t offer much at the plate when he’s no longer slapping base hits. Still, as long as the Orioles aren’t expecting a repeat of his career-high .278 TAv for the Rangers last season, they’ll be pleased with Chavez's play as a short-term platoon partner for Nolan Reimold and an occasional fill-in for Adam Jones, especially with the pain of playing Felix Pie still fresh.

*Though in retrospect, what’s more incredible: the catch, or the fact that Joe Buck actually sounded a little excited about it?

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Signed IF-R Yuniesky Betancourt to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/20]

Betancourt’s return to Kansas City may have set the all-time transaction record for its ratio of online snark to on-field impact. Yes, it’s a little hard to believe that a team that watched Yuni up close for years—and paid him $2 million to play for someone else last season—would want anything more to do with him, but Betancourt won’t be back under the same circumstances that once made him every Royals writer’s arch-nemesis. With Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Betancourt will be limited to sporadic appearances as the team’s utility guy, mostly at second and third. That’s a role in which he can’t do much damage, and it’s not as if the other players given comparable jobs this winter have been shining beacons of baseball virtue.

Still, when the best way to put a positive spin on an acquisition is to point out that he won’t play much, there might have been a better man for the job. Betancourt hasn’t played third base as a pro, and his second-base experience amounts to 10 games in 2005 split between Seattle and Tacoma. True, someone with the physical tools to play shortstop (however poorly) should be able to handle the less demanding infield positions with aplomb, but not necessarily right out of the box. Different positions require different footwork and routes to the ball, and while some players might be capable of making those adjustments in a single trip to spring training, Betancourt has never been known as one of the league’s harder workers. What’s more, Betancourt’s bat will fall further below the positional baseline when he’s not at short. While he won’t make many plate appearances if all goes as planned, there is some danger that Betancourt could metastasize. If Johnny Giavotella’s August and September struggles persist, Betancourt could find himself in a more regular role, and he’ll always be an injury away from a starting job.

I asked Kevin Goldstein if anyone in the Royals’ system could be Yuniesky Betancourt right now for the major-league minimum. He said he didn’t think so. There are, of course, 29 other organizations, and one of them has to have a replacement-level infielder who could qualify as freely available talent. (Come to think of it, how much better is Betancourt than Chris Getz?) Two million dollars (plus playing time incentives) isn’t a huge sum by baseball standards, but it’s not insignificant, especially since the Royals paid their whole team less than $40 million last season and will need all the cash they can get to lock up their young core and surround it with a veteran supporting cast. Like my mom always says—and I do mean always—it makes sense to control the expenses you can control, since there are so many others you can’t see coming. Bringing Betancourt back seems like an expense that could have been controlled, but as Sam Miller pointed out, the Royals had the last laugh about some of the moves that fanned the Hot Stove’s flames last winter. Maybe they have another upset in them.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Signed OF-L Jason Kubel to a two-year, $15 million contract with a $7.5 million option for 2014. [12/20]

Put yourself in the Diamondbacks’ place. Arizona surprised everyone in 2011 by winning the NL West one season after bringing up the rear, but there were plenty of cracks in the first-place façade. In fact, it might be more accurate to say there was some façade in the cracks, since the Diamondbacks didn’t excel in any particular area. Though they boasted the NL’s second-best record, they didn’t finish among the circuit’s top five teams in any important category save for baserunning (third-best in BRR). They were the sixth-best team defensively. Their starters ranked seventh-best in FRA; their relievers ranked fifth. Chase Field masked their offensive shortcomings to some extent, but their .256 TAv placed sixth in the senior circuit.

The Diamondbacks were better across the board than they were in 2010, but that’s still an awful lot of fifth, sixth, and seventh for a team that finished first. So how did the D-Backs do so well? They went 28-16 in one-run contests, which helped them exceed their third-order record by over 10 games. According to our Adjusted Standings, if every team in the NL had played to its projected record, the Dodgers would’ve gone to the NLDS, and the Giants would’ve finished one game behind Arizona instead of eight.

Few playoff teams can afford to stand pat after a successful season, and that goes double for the Diamondbacks, who might have been in for an outsized correction after a season in which a number of breaks went their way. (They also enjoyed unusually good health.) Arizona recently acquired Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow in an attempt to shore up its staff, but the offense still looked like it could use some improvement. The lineup lacked gaping holes, but the most obvious position to target might have been third base, where Ryan Roberts batted .239 after April (albeit with decent power and patience). Left field, where Gerardo Parra amassed 3.2 WARP—the third-highest total on the team—in just 493 plate appearances last season, might have been among the least obvious at which to look for an upgrade. Yet that’s just what the Diamondbacks did, displacing Parra by inking Jason Kubel to a two-year deal.

Before we discuss what the Snakes can expect from Kubel, let’s take a look at what was and what might have been. Here’s the director’s cut of my Parra profile for the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2012:

Just as it seemed that Parra’s top-prospect past would come to fourth-outfielder fruition, he put it all together, becoming one of the brightest spots on a team with little star power. Much of his value stemmed from his fielding. While he might be stretched in center field, both advanced metrics and Gold Glove voters agree that he’s a standout in left: Parra posted the highest FRAA of any outfielder in the majors (and the third-highest at any position) en route to taking home the hardware. He’s not all about range, either—Parra showed a strong arm as well, tying Carlos Gonzalez (a player to whom he was often compared as a prospect) for the NL lead with 12 outfield assists.

Parra’s offensive skills improved to the point that he’s not solely reliant upon his defense to make him an everyday player, as improved plate discipline translated into gains in his walk rate and isolated power that put him right in line with the average NL left fielder. As if determined to demonstrate that there were no weak points to his game, he also stole 15 bases in 16 attempts. As he enters his age-25 season, he still has room to grow, but he’s already one of the NL’s most underappreciated players. That tendency to give him too little credit extends to his own manager, who platooned him with Collin Cowgill down the stretch despite his contributions beyond the batter’s box and reverse splits in the past two seasons.

When a team does something I don’t understand, my inclination is to wonder what I’m missing, not what the team is missing. Whatever the move is, chances are I couldn’t match the collective brainpower of the people who made it, even if they didn’t have better data at their disposal, put much more time into evaluating it, and have much more at stake in its outcome—which they did. This is a move that makes me wonder what I’m missing.

Only once has Kubel accumulated more WARP in a season than Parra did last year, and it took him almost 100 more plate appearances. With the exception of that 2009 season, Kubel has never been an above-average player. He has a decent bat (which should yield more power in Phoenix), but it’s not better than average in an outfield corner, and his fielding and baserunning both leave much to be desired. A sprained left foot cost Kubel all of June, most of July, and half of September last season, but when he was on the field, he was his usual unspectacular self. He owns a 34-point multi-year TAv platoon split, which leaves him vulnerable to southpaws; the gap between Parra’s performance against righties and lefties is a measly four points. Parra is a pre-arb player who’s just entering his prime; Kubel will be making $8 million a year if you distribute the cost of his 2014 buyout over the guaranteed seasons of the deal, and he’s already exiting his. Now Parra is relegated to fourth-outfielder duty, while Kubel can expect the bulk of the playing time.

Worse still, the difference between the two players’ defensive abilities might be felt disproportionately by the Diamondbacks. Take a look at another excerpt from BP2012 that has some bearing on the move:

It's important to note that the Diamondbacks feature a fly-ball staff; 30.1 percent of their batted balls allowed were hit in the air last season, the highest rate in baseball. Although Wade Miley is capable of getting ground balls, none of Arizona's up-and-coming arms is a budding Brad Ziegler in the grounder department, so that percentage might not see a substantial change. In one sense, that tendency works against the Snakes, since fly balls travel farther in Arizona’s dry air; Chase Field’s home run factor ranks sixth-highest among major-league parks. But the danger is diminished somewhat by an outfield that features three players capable of playing center field in Young, Parra, and Upton. Thanks to that trio’s efforts in tracking down balls that might have found gaps or corners on teams with less rangy players in the pastures, the Diamondbacks allowed the third-lowest park-adjusted slugging percentage on balls in play in the NL last season.

Kubel and Parra are both left-handed, which means the pair can’t be platooned. What's more, Parra’s defense won't help the Diamondbacks much if his sporadic starts come at the expense of Young or Upton, so he’ll be wasted on Arizona's bench. Maybe the D-Backs don’t think Parra is a proven performer. Or perhaps this is a prelude to another transaction, though in that case, you’d have to wonder what benching him in favor of Kubel does to his trade value. Regardless of their reasons, it's hard for an outsider to see how this move makes them better, either now or in the future. The Snakes can be commended for not resting on their laurels this offseason, but some moves are better left unmade.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Signed 3B-R Casey Blake to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/21]

With the exception of his beard, everything about Casey Blake is boring. He was drafted in the seventh round. Yawn. He’s from Iowa, a state that’s interesting only for the first week of January. From 2003 to 2010, he hit between 17 and 28 homers each season—usually much closer to 17 than 28. He didn’t become a regular till he turned 29, possibly because the three teams he played for before then forgot he was there. The fact that he was once traded for Carlos Santana is more memorable than anything he’s done on the field. His career batting average is .264, and his career OBP is .336. If he were any more unremarkable, we’d stop comparing players to league average and start comparing them to Casey Blake. Blake is so boring that I microslept several times while writing this paragraph, and you probably won’t stick around to see what I said about Mike Cameron because that TPS report you’re not doing started to sound more interesting as soon as you saw his name.

Here’s the thing, though—most players wish they could be as boring as Casey Blake. Blake is, after all, average, which is considerably better than below average, which is what a lot of players are. You could do a lot worse than a team full of players with careers comparable to Blake’s. You could also do a lot better, but not for $2 million apiece. The Rockies added Blake for the same amount Kansas City gave Yuniesky Betancourt, who’s infinitely more interesting as a player but not for reasons that are likely to help the Royals. With their four most-used third basemen from last season—Ty Wigginton, Ian Stewart, Jose Lopez, and Kevin Kouzmanoff—out of the picture, the Rockies needed someone to tide them over until Nolan Arenado arrives. Jordan Pacheco’s .278/.343/.377 line for Colorado Springs doesn’t inspire much confidence. Nor does D.J. LeMahieu’s .286/.328/.366 for Iowa. (See? Told you Iowa was boring.) Chris Nelson might have been the best of the team’s previous unattractive options, but Blake is a suitable stopgap with a more-than-suitable salary.

The only risk here stems from the fact that Blake was banged up last season, generating 10 separate 2011 entries in our injury database. Three of those entries were for 15-day DL stints—one for lower back inflammation, and the other two for a staph infection in his elbow and a pinched nerve in his neck, both of which led to surgery. The deal is contingent on Blake’s passing a physical, though even if he does, the 38-year-old might not stay intact for long. One would hope that Blake’s body allows him to keep proving that being boring can be interesting to teams, if only for the “Blake Street Bomber” pun possibilities. The catch is that in order for a pun to appear in a headline about Casey Blake, Casey Blake would have to make headlines.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed OF-R Mike Cameron to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [12/21]

It looked like Cameron was at the end of the line after being designated for assignment by the Red Sox and released by the Marlins—ostensibly over a verbal altercation with a flight attendant—over a 2 ½-month period late last season. At age 38, and with two seasons of ineffective play and injury issues behind him, he appeared to be facing forced retirement, and retrospective appreciations of his largely overlooked body of work began to pop up across the internet.

As those posts pointed out, a number of factors have conspired to keep Cameron’s Q Score low. He hits for low averages and strikes out a lot, which doesn’t endear him to old-school fans. From 2000-2007, a period that contained much of his prime, Cameron played in Safeco Field, Shea Stadium, and Petco Park, three of the least favorable offensive environments in baseball. Finally, much of his value is tied up in defense, which hasn’t always garnered the proper appreciation. With a few more FRAA, Cameron could pass Gary Pettis and Jim Busby to claim one of the 10 highest fielding value figures among center fielders since 1950.

We shouldn’t overstate his case for greatness: Cameron won’t be a strong Hall of Fame candidate unless he plays like Barry Bonds from ages 39-42. Here’s how he stacks up against the Hall of Fame center-field baseline, with JAWS figures fresh off the spreadsheet courtesy of Jay Jaffe:

 

Career WARP

Peak WARP

JAWS

HoF Center Fielders

66.2

40.9

53.6

Mike Cameron

43.6

30.0

36.8

For comparison’s sake, Bernie Williams, who’s eligible for induction this winter, was worth roughly 10 more wins than Cameron (though he was worth about 10 fewer wins in the field). Williams has a weak case, so Cameron might not make it to a second ballot. Still, that’s quite a career value for a player with one All-Star appearance and a batting average below .250.

After all the encomiums he received from an army of bloggers armed with park factors and fielding runs, you’d think Cameron might have had the good grace to ride off into the sunset. Instead, he insisted on saying “I’m not dead.” He’ll attempt to catch on in Washington, where he could platoon in center with Roger Bernadina or be a fourth or fifth outfielder and bat off the bench if Jayson Werth moves to center to make way for Bryce Harper. He’s known as a good mentor and leader (as long as the clubhouse is clear of flight attendants), still has some pop, and might have a bit of a bounceback in him after recording an extremely low BABIP in Boston; he managed a league-average TAv with the Marlins, which would make his bat more than palatable if he can still handle center. He’ll make $1 million (plus incentives) if he makes the team.

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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