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February 2, 2012
Middle Reliever Mania
Earlier in the offseason, the Orioles acquired Taylor Teagarden as a potential backup to Matt Wieters. With a few weeks remaining until camps open, it looks like the O’s have added a better option on a minor league deal. Paulino should be limited in his exposure to righties as much as possible (his multi-year True Average is .280 against southpaws, .217 versus righties) but profiles as a good receiver and tends to gun down between a quarter and a third of attempted base-thieves. That makes for a solid package and one that should cause Buck Showalter fewer headaches than Teagarden’s bat-free approach.
Meanwhile, Neshek has not been right since undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2008. The weirdest thing about Neshek since his return is the difference in performance between the majors and minors. In 33 2/3 innings in the majors, Neshek has fanned 29 and walked 30. In 67 2/3 innings in the minors, Neshek has 40 strikeouts and 25 walks. Is he the high-strikeout/high-walk pitcher or the low-strikeout/low-walk pitcher? Hopefully he pitches like the good parts of both heading forward, because baseball is more fun with his wacky delivery present.
Signed 1B-L Dan Johnson to a minor-league deal. [2/1]
Johnson’s proficiency in delivering the big hit made him a legend in St. Petersburg, but all those big home runs only bought infamy, never eternity. And so, at season’s end, the Rays outrighted Johnson from their 40-man roster, and he elected to become a free agent.
The Minnesota native brings a patient, bordering on passive approach to the plate. Johnson can offer some pop when healthy too, though he battled with a wrist injury last season. Add in that Johnson has played third base and the corner outfield in the past, and maybe he sneaks onto the roster as a utility player slash professional pinch-hitter; although, it would not be too surprising if Johnson spends his summer in Charlotte.
Cleveland marks Canzler’s third organization since 2010. After signing with the Rays as a minor-league free agent, Canzler spent most of his season in Durham and did not disappoint. He hit .314/.401/.530, won the International League Most Valuable Player award, and earned a reputation for being an upstanding citizen. Canzler got the call to the majors in September and even recorded his first big-league hit.
The Rays had to like something in Canzler’s game to sign him in the first place, and he had plenty of options and cost-controlled years remaining. So why did Tampa Bay pull the plug on Canzler after one successful season? Ostensibly, due to the translatability concerns surrounding Canzler’s skill set. He lacks athleticism, which limits him defensively to first base and perhaps spot-start duty in the outfield. Canzler’s defensive ineptitude puts the burden on his bat, which is good and fine until you hear that his bat speed and approach are questionable. There is no guarantee that Canzler is anything more than a Quad-A slugger, and that the Rays, who are as [insert your adjectives of choice for smart and open-minded) as any organization out there, were willing to move on is something to ponder.
The only way to find out if Canzler can hit major-league pitching for sure is to let him try. Alas, the Indians have Travis Hafner, Shelley Duncan, and Matt LaPorta hanging around and still have to figure out whether they want to add another first baseman or use Carlos Santana there more often. Cleveland made a run at Carlos Pena, offering him more money than the Rays even, and should they feel the itch again, they could plunge into the free-agent market and ink one of the stragglers, thus sentencing Canzler to another summer in the International League (albeit upping his chances to add another piece of hardware to his collection).
Wheeler is another former Ray trying to make it onto the Cleveland roster. When healthy, Wheeler is a situational righty—one that can provide support in the middle innings but is best when kept away from left-handed batters.
Signed UTL-B Carlos Guillen to a minor-league deal. [2/1]
Back in the day, Guillen came to Seattle as part of the Randy Johnson trade, only to leave years later when the Mariners traded him for Ramon Santiago. Now, at age 36 and after blossoming with Detroit, Guillen returns to Seattle with eyes on a bench spot.
The past few years have not been kind to Guillen’s bat (his hitting against lefties has been shameful the past two seasons) nor his body (he hasn’t missed fewer than 30 days due to injuries since 2007). The latter trend seems unlikely to stop now, and that means Guillen is a below-average player without the stability you would like to see with lowered standards. It might not matter, though, as Guillen could break camp with Seattle, provided the Mariners are comfortable rolling with four outfielders instead of five.
Hernandez is an easy target for fat jokes, but he’s also a more valuable pitcher than you may think. Since 2009, Hernandez has averaged six innings per start while also seeing 59 percent of his attempts recorded as quality outings. Granted, Hernandez will not win a strikeout or earned run average title, and asking him to anchor your rotation is just another fat joke, but there is goodness here. Mike Fast once wrote this about Hernandez’s strategy:
Fast may be with the Astros (the Fastros?) now, but it doesn’t take someone of his intelligence to see what Hernandez can offer to Houston. Soaking up 170-plus innings on a bad ballclub while the youngsters mature on the farm is a thankless task… and a task that Hernandez has performed before and will perform again. Hernandez is going to help the Astros win more games than a random replacement level starter would—making a downed season more tolerable—and could bring back something small in a deadline deal. Low-cost, low-risk, low-upside, but it makes sense and it works.
Duke is another candidate to eat innings in place of the youth and one that knows the lay of the National League Central land well. Duke also knows how to get groundballs, but things are dicey after that. He is better versus lefties—just not to the point where he makes sense as a lefty specialist. Further, left elbow and hand issues have marred his durability in recent years. Whether Duke opens the season in Houston or spends time on the farm might depend on whether Wandy Rodriguez is dealt by Opening Day.
Qualls once belonged in the discussion concerning the game’s most underrated reliever. The time since has caused his strikeout rate, and thereby his stock, to plummet. After fanning 23.7 percent of the batters he faced in 2008, Qualls’s strikeout rate has decayed in each subsequent season and finished at 14.1 percent last year. He still gets groundballs, but losing the alluring combination of groundballs and strikeouts, as well as struggling against lefties, leaves him as a middle reliever rather than a set-up man or closer.
Even if you forgive Qualls’s messy final act in Arizona and focus instead on his time in Tampa Bay and San Diego—two of the friendlier environments known to pitchers—he still has enough blemishes to cause concern. In a hair more than 95 innings, Qualls allowed 4.25 runs per nine innings pitched. Compare that to the league-average starting pitcher, who last season allowed 4.44 runs per nine innings, and you have a reliever who allows close to as many runs as an average starter on a rate basis. Any middle reliever who does that over the long haul is not one worthy of employment, but Qualls will be employed, and the Phillies will attempt to fix his mechanics, his slider, or whatever it is that has befallen the once proud.
Pierre’s speed and contact abilities make him an intriguing situational option for Charlie Manuel to employ. Because of that combination, expect Pierre to land on the Phillies’ bench and for his streak of recording 700-plus plate appearances in a season to end at two.
Signed RHP Juan Cruz to a minor-league deal. [2/1]
Another winter brings another Cruz another minor-league deal. Last offseason, Cruz’s settling made sense. He was coming off a season shortened by right shoulder surgery, and teams wanted him to prove he was healthy. Signing a minor-league deal with Pittsburgh feels more like an acceptance that the league no longer considers him a sure thing; Cruz is an aging middle reliever on the downside of his career.
Still, Cruz’s package is entertaining for fans and infuriating for managers. His stuff is lively enough to miss bats and the plate alike. When batters do put Cruz’s pitches into play, they usually wind up in the air. Cruz continues to run a reverse split over the past few seasons, making him the rare right-handed reliever who seems to enjoy facing lefties more than he does facing righties.
The Pirates have an interesting mixture of older, non-roster invitees and younger, unproven arms vying for the few available bullpen spots, so Cruz is not necessarily a sure thing to make the opening day roster. Assign that last part to a macro, because it could come in handy next winter too.
Hensley will have to prove his worth in spring training, but as long as the Giants keep him in the bullpen (as if he would crack their rotation) they should be okay:
After four so-so seasons with the Padres, Hensley resurfaced in 2010 with the Marlins to the tune of 75 innings and a 193 adjusted-earned run average. Hensley fell back to earth in 2011, posting a 76 ERA+ in 67 2/3 innings, but the raw numbers lie a little. Most of Hensley’s struggles came during his nine starts. During his 28 games as a reliever, Hensley managed a better ERA (3.51 versus 6.21), strikeout rate (seven per nine innings rather than 5.6), and strikeout-to-walk rate (1.67 versus 1.44) than he did as a starter. Here’s a guess: Hensley’s next team will move him to the bullpen permanently
Theriot is the right manager away from being a useful bench player. Miscast as an everyday starter, Theriot hits lefties, is flexible defensively, and knows his way around the bases. Cubs, Dodgers, and Cardinals fans are gasping at that last line, but hold on just a second. Over their careers, Theriot has taken the extra base more often than Ben Zobrist. The difference is that Zobrist has made 16 outs on the basepaths over his six-season career, and Theriot has made 18 outs on the basepaths since 2009.
If Bruce Bochy can use Theriot against mostly lefties and help him to stay on the right side of the line between aggressiveness and being thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop, then the Giants should have a functional utility infielder.
Signed RHP Chad Durbin to a minor-league deal. [2/1]
Everything that could go wrong for Durbin did during his one year in Cleveland. Durbin is about as volatile as a reliever can come, with his FIP bouncing from 3.74 in 2008 to 5.09 in 2009 to 3.99 in 2010 to 4.89 in 2011. Someone who buys into the gambler’s fallacy would place money on Durbin bouncing back in 2012, and perhaps a return to the National League East will help facilitate that.
More helpful would be for Durbin to generate double plays at his recent career rate (14 percent from 2008-2010 instead of the three percent in 2011), and for his batting average on balls in play to recede to normal levels (.287 from 2008-2010) instead of the .341 figure it sat at in 2011. Whether that happens or not, the Nationals have done a nice job (with Jeff Fulchino and now Durbin) of acquiring relievers on minor-league deals who can serve as depth.