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February 23, 2012

Transaction Analysis

The Ancient DH Edition

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Chris Carpenter and a PTBNL from the Chicago Cubs for a PTBNL as compensation for allowing the Cubs to hire Theo Epstein. [2/21]

After months of waiting and wondering—or in some cases, not particularly caring—we finally know what Boston’s compensation for Theo Epstein will be. Sorry, Sox fans, it’s not Starlin Castro, Matt Garza, or Brett Jackson. The good news is that it’s not a total nobody, either. It’s the NL Central’s lesser Chris Carpenter. And that is good news, since any hopes that the Sox would score a major-league regular or a top prospect were unrealistic from the start. Theo is paid very well by baseball executive standards, and his marginal value as a general manager probably can’t hold a candle to that of a player more promising than a bullpen prospect. What’s more, the Sox didn’t have a lot of leverage—once your GM gets a more attractive offer, you either let him go or risk making the man in charge of building your team mad, which might not be the best idea.

Carpenter is a big, 26-year-old, right-handed reliever who throws really, really hard. He pitched only 9 2/3 innings for the Cubs last season, but in those innings, his fastball averaged 96.5 miles per hour, making it the 10th-fastest pitch in the majors. The list of pitchers with faster fastballs than Carpenter’s includes Jordan Walden, Daniel Bard, and Joel Hanrahan. It also includes Jeremy Jeffress and Mark Lowe. Throwing hard is a good thing, but not a guarantee.

Carpenter used to be a starter, but his secondary pitches aren’t finished products, his velocity is even more impressive in shorter outings, and he hasn’t always been healthy—he had a couple elbow surgeries, including Tommy John, in college—so the Cubs made him a full-time reliever last season. That didn’t go especially well, as he walked nearly seven batters per nine innings in Iowa and Chicago. When a hard thrower is still getting his stuff under control, an excess of walks is often the price a team pays for strikeouts. In Carpenter’s case, though, the strikeouts weren’t there—he fanned just over seven per nine across two minor-league levels and added eight more punchouts in his Cubs cameo. That’s discouraging, but he was dealing with a strained oblique that may have impaired his control, and he recovered to strike out 18 batters against only two walks in the high-offense Arizona Fall League (which, to be fair, he may have been a little old for).

According to my recently-arrived Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2012 (which ranked him 13th in the Cubs organization, compared to a 14th-place finish in Kevin Goldstein’s Top 11), Carpenter “had trouble adjusting to the routine of a reliever, and he started overthrowing and lost consistency with his mechanics.” By the end of the year, he’d reportedly settled into the relief life and tightened his slider, so he’s back on a developmental track that might lead to the late innings, assuming the Sox don’t see him as a starter.

The dueling players to be named later were included in the deal because the unusual circumstances demanded that this be a player trade. Their identities will be determined by April 15th. The Cubs still owe the Padres a prospect for raiding their front office for Jed Hoyer, but that prospect won’t be as promising as Carpenter, possibly because Hoyer's hair can't compete with Theo's.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Signed LF/DH-L Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. [2/21]
Signed 3B/DH-L Eric Chavez to a one-year, $900,000 contract (pending a physical, which we assume will take some time to perform, since you know, Eric Chavez). [2/22]

Ibanez is in New York to split DH duties with Andruw Jones. Since he’s a lefty, he’ll get the bulk of those at-bats. Technically, Ibanez can also play left field. Hold that thought while you watch this sneak preview of what Ibanez looks like playing left field in Yankee Stadium:


(H/T Jeff Sullivan)

When your regular left fielder is Brett Gardner, one of the best defenders in baseball, it’s probably in your best interest not to bench him too often in favor of… that. Ibanez has been a bad fielder for the better part of a decade, and he's coming off the worst full season of his career, one in which he was worth exactly 0.0 WARP. He bloomed late and until last season had produced consistently throughout his 30s, but even the good things that take a while to get going must come to an end, and Ibanez appears to be approaching his as he nears his 40th birthday.

In Baseball Prospectus 2012, we wrote that Ibanez’s bat is “barely good enough to fill a DH role.” That’s true, but he’s probably still capable of serving as the long half of a DH platoon. Ibanez managed a .266 TAv against right-handers last season, and he owns a .276 weighted, multi-year mark against them. For what it’s worth, his BABIP fell to .268 in 2011 after being above .300 in nine of the 10 previous seasons, while his line-drive percentage actually increased a tick. If his BABIP bounces back, a slight improvement—or at least a temporarily arrested decline—might be in the offing, especially since Ibanez will have a short porch to aim for.

It’s almost surprising when the Yankees sign someone without the potential for stardom, but not every New York player needs to be special. It’s not unreasonable to expect Ibanez to be a league-average DH if he’s handled correctly, and that won’t be the worst production $1.1 million has ever bought. If the first sign of a slump by Gardner sends Ibanez to the outfield, though, all bets are off. A happy outcome here is contingent on Joe Girardi committing to keep him either in the batter’s box or in the dugout, regardless of which arm the opposing pitcher uses to throw.

Lest Ibanez be the only increasingly limited left-handed hitter the Yankees signed this week, they also added Eric Chavez to the end of their bench, where he’ll spend most of the season in peaceful repose and protective padding. Last season’s Chavez experiment went smoothly for about a month, which was about a month longer than anyone could have expected. Through May 5th, Chavez hit .303/.410/.424 (in a tiny sample). Then he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and spent 82 days on the disabled list. After his return on July 26th, he stayed intact—or at least off the DL—but he hit just .252/.294/.339 (in another tiny sample). At this point, the real problem isn’t that Chavez can’t stay healthy. It’s that a healthy Chavez—to the extent that such an entity ever manifests itself in a major-league uniform—no longer seems like someone worth waiting for. Since 2008, he’s hit just .238/.288/.341 in 424 plate appearances, and there’s no indication that he’s about to get his 26-year-old body back.

In theory, Chavez might check some boxes for the Bombers. He hits from the left side and still plays a pretty good third base, which would make him a useful guy to keep around as a caddy for the increasingly brittle Alex Rodriguez if he could be counted on to stay in one piece in A-Rod's absence. Instead, if Rodriguez does go down, the Yankees will be stuck with an injury stack waiting to happen. According to Andrew Marchand’s report about the Chavez signing at ESPN New York, “If Rodriguez were to end up on the disabled list, the Yankees have confidence in Chavez’s ability to play every day.” If a Yankees source actually said that, he or she must have left a few words unspoken: “until he gets hurt.” Brian Cashman probably doesn’t believe Chavez is a lock to stay in the lineup any more than he believes that on Halloween Night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch he deems most sincere.

The Yankees could have used the last spot on their bench less wisely—this is the same team that once employed Enrique Wilson for three consecutive seasons. With Jones and Ibanez splitting the DH slot and Eduardo Nunez providing insurance up the middle, Chavez will rarely be called upon, and the less often he’s used, the less likely he is to become unavailable.* Still, the latter-day Chavez seems more like a candidate for a minor-league invite than a guaranteed contract guy. Merciless as it might be, why not wait and see if he makes it through March alive before making a commitment?

*When I was growing up, I liked to lounge around on a particular couch at my mother’s apartment. It was a very comfortable couch. The problem was that my mom was very concerned that the couch pillows stay unsullied by all things couch pillows typically touch, particularly human heads. I spent most of my formative years wondering what use there was in having a pillow that couldn’t provide any comfort. (That’s not all I did during my formative years. I also read a lot of science fiction.) Eric Chavez is like my mom’s couch pillows. They’re both good-looking, rarely used, and mostly for display. But thanks to my mom, the pillows are probably better preserved.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Signed DH-R Manny Ramirez to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [2/21]

Until it’s painfully clear that they can’t do the job, Hall of Fame-caliber players always get another offer.* When we last saw Manny in uniform, he went 1-for-17 without a walk or an extra-base hit for the Rays last April. But in the 9757 plate appearances before that, he hit .313/.411/.586, the kind of monolithic triple-slash line that can turn general managers into Kubrickian man-apes and buy a player a long leash during his decline phase. Plus, it’s not as if all of Manny’s successes are in the distant past—as recently as 2010, he managed a .311 TAv in 320 plate appearances despite a series of nagging injuries and a late-season swoon in Chicago. It would take a few months of flailing to convince evaluators that Manny has nothing more to offer a major-league team.

*Unless they’re Barry Bonds, they’re coming off a .339 TAv season, and they’re offering to play for the major-league minimum. That would be bad publicity.

When the Rays signed Ramirez last winter, most people thought they had little to lose. He was signed for just over $2 million, a salary he would’ve been worth if he’d hit more or less like he did in 2010 and stayed healthy for half the season. Since the season had hardly started before his second PED violation sent him into a temporary retirement to avoid a 100-game suspension, they received none of the reward from what was supposedly a low-risk deal, if you can call any multi-million contract “low-risk” when it involves the team with the second-worst attendance in baseball.

The A’s are the team with the worst attendance in baseball, but while their potential reward is lower than the Rays’ was last season, their risk is almost nonexistent. Ramirez’s money isn’t guaranteed. His initial 100-game suspension was commuted to 50 games once he was reinstated, which means that he won’t be eligible to return until after May 30th. Should he make the major-league roster, the $500K coming to him would be prorated over the season’s remaining months. It’s hard to see the downside of adding Manny from an on-field perspective aside from the move’s potential to deprive some prospects of a few spring plate appearances, and in most camps, there are usually more than enough exhibition-league at-bats to go around.

Unless Chris Carter or Brandon Allen makes the DH slot his own in April or May, Manny’s arrival on the roster would likely only displace an even lower-upside veteran like Jonny Gomes or Kila Ka’aihue. Plus, there’s always the possibility that he could hit: only 14 hitters have produced a TAv of at least .300 at age 40 or older, but Ramirez is the type of all-time talent who could join that club, and at this price, he doesn’t have to be that good to be worth playing. The A’s won’t be competitive even if he does pan out, but they could reap some small rewards at the trading deadline.

The case for making Manny off limits, Moneyball be damned (which Steven Goldman made yesterday), rests on his history of off-the-field crimes. Ramirez was formally charged with misdemeanor domestic violence last September, adding an even more unsavory episode to a record that already included two failed drug tests and an episode of player-on-traveling-secretary violence. Steven was right to consider the clubhouse implications, and that rap sheet might make Manny appear unfit to share a clubhouse with a bunch of impressionable young players. But in the murky area of clubhouse chemistry, it's probably the players’ opinions that matter most, and the A's don't seem to mind.

Let’s go to the quotes. Dallas Braden suggested that Ramirez is a “tremendous leader,” at least in the sense that he “can show these guys how to go about their business at a perennial All-Star level.” Jemile Weeks, one of Oakland’s most important young players, said that “Manny is a clubhouse guy” who’s “going to be the one keeping us relaxed.” Ramirez has reportedly been a popular teammate and a diligent worker, so as long as he doesn’t become a Canseco-esque steroid evangelist or dispense advice on the art of maintaining marital harmony with a well-timed slap, it’s hard to see the harm in employing him. If there’s one thing we learned from Josh Lueke, it’s that teams are willing to overlook a lot to gain a competitive edge. And compared to Lueke’s alleged transgressions, Manny hasn’t done much wrong.

We don’t know how good either Manny or Yoenis Cespedes will be, but we do know that they represent two compelling reasons to watch the A’s. A couple weeks ago, it would have been difficult to come up with even one. Neither player will solve the A’s attendance problems, but until the team secures a new stadium, every occupied seat helps.

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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