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April 2, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Even More Extensions

by R.J. Anderson


IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed SS-S Asdrubal Cabrera to a two-year extension effective starting in 2013 worth $16.5 million. [4/1]

Cabrera entered the 2011 season with 18 home runs over his first 1,610 major-league plate appearances. He added 25 homers to his career tally during the season, surprising even his most ardent supporters. Impressive home run total aside, Cabrera’s power production wasn’t too far out of line. Excluding an uncharacteristic 2010 season, 31 percent of Cabrera’s hits from 2007-2009 went for extra bases. His rate did increase to 36 percent in 2011, but that’s a less jarring jump than from six home runs (his previous best) to 25. Is it a case where doubles turn into home runs? Maybe not, as Derek Carty wrote:

Asdrubal Cabrera had one of the most surprising seasons among all players last season, but his power was largely a mirage. He was physically stronger, at least a little bit, but talent evaluators believe he’s a guy with more gap power than home-run power. He’ll hit plenty of doubles, but he’s only reliable for, at most, 15 homers; PECOTA agrees. Even with a power drop-off, Cabrera contributes to five categories, but leaguemates who place undue emphasis on his anomalous 2011 will likely drive his price up.

If right, an additional handful of home runs over what everyone has come to expect from Cabrera could be huge. Add in decent, not great batting average and on-base percentages, and defense that Mark Shapiro admits isn’t good, and Cabrera’s upside might be that of a three-win player. Given the state of the shortstop position, Cabrera is closer to the top than the bottom of the totem pole. Consider it a win for Cleveland to net one of Cabrera’s free-agent years in addition to locking in a cost for his final arbitration-eligible season. 

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed OF-L Alex Gordon to a four-year contract extension worth $37.5 million with a player option for 2016 worth $12.5 million.  [3/30]

Kansas City drafted Gordon second overall in 2005, behind Justin Upton and ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, and Troy Tulowitzki. Entering the 2011 season,  Gordon had produced 4.9 Wins Above Replacement in four years, while each of the Zimmerman-Braun-Tulowitzki trio had bettered that in at least one single season.  Gordon seemed more like a role player than a franchise player, but that changed in 2011.  Gordon posted career highs in every conceivable category in 2011, and finished with a higher WARP than any of the aforementioned three.

Gordon is Dayton Moore’s third extension of the offseason and the first in which the timing won’t be questioned. Had the two sides not reached an agreement, Gordon would have entered his penultimate season before free agency. The extension now entrenches Gordon in Kansas City’s plans for an additional two seasons they didn’t have before. Invariably, there will be complaints about the fifth year being a player option. Such clauses are often viewed as no-win situations for the team because a productive player will rarely opt in, and an unproductive player will rarely opt out. The unanswerable question is what concessions the player’s side made in order to secure that player option—perhaps a lower annual average, or an additional year of control otherwise unprocurable.

Whatever the case, Gordon will attempt to build on his breakout season in 2012. Few statistical indicators suggest that Gordon’s performance is sustainable. His .358 batting average on balls in play is a giant red balloon, but it isn’t that simple. Gordon changed his swing prior to the 2011 season, and writing off his increased success on balls in play is ignoring his gained power. A career-high .200 Isolated Power (as opposed to his previous high of .172) gives credence to the idea that Gordon’s new swing allowed him to make better contact, if not necessarily more contact. That doesn’t mean Gordon is likely to hit as well next season, just that he could retain some of his newfound offense.

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Livan Hernandez to a one-year major-league deal worth $750 thousand guaranteed. [3/30]

Acquired 3B-L Juan Francisco from the Reds for RHP J.J. Hoover. [4/1]

The Astros’ signing of Hernandez earlier in the offseason seemed sensible. Hernandez would give the Astros a dependable arm, capable of taking the mound every fifth day and tossing six decent innings, all the while keeping a spot warm for a marinating youngster. It was a brilliant move, a masterstroke even, brimming with ingenuity. So sagacious that Houston released Hernandez a day before the initial transaction’s two-month anniversary.

Hernandez has been around a while. He knows how baseball goes, and he went from being unemployed to being signed by Atlanta quicker than a flash. Had somebody surveyed baseball folks about which team was least likely to add a starter before opening day, the Braves might have led the voting as recently as a few weeks ago.  What changed? Neither Randall Delgado nor Julio Teheran, the two pups competing for the final rotation slot, impressed enough to erase concerns about unpreparedness. Adding Hernandez, then, as a spot-starter and long reliever, is akin to taking out an implosion-insurance policy.

Oh sure, snicker away. Hernandez is a slowballing, thin-margin-living, unsexy son-of-a-gun who appears to be an inch from disaster every time out. Alas, Hernandez danced with Mother Nature at prom and showed her a good-enough time to avoid her wrath to date. Over the past three seasons, Hernandez has recorded a quality start in 59 percent of his attempts. Phooey, says you, that doesn’t sound too good. But Hernandez’ rate ties him with such pitchers as Gio Gonzalez, Joel Pineiro, Trevor Cahill, Clay Buchholz, Chad Billingsley, and Johnny Cueto.

More goes into evaluating pitchers than quality-start percentage, just as more goes into evaluating pitchers than velocity or age or any one variable. If history repeats its older self, Hernandez can be a fine back-of-the-rotation starter (if it comes to that). If history repeats its more recent self, expect a sensible signing of Hernandez to end with his release by June.

If Hernandez’ job is to serve as implosion insurance, then Francisco’s job is to serve as insurance in case Chipper Jones misses significant time. Francisco won’t turn 25 until late-June, but he lacked options and the Reds favored the more versatile Todd Frazier. Rare is it that a single word can define a player’s offensive and defensive games. For Francisco, “power” does the trick. Francisco’s lone plate approach is to hit the ball as hard as possible. Good things happen when he makes contact, but such a mindset leads to myriad empty swings. In the field, Francisco’s arm strength convinces teams to ignore his range woes. Some would say Francisco lacks craft, and others would say he lacks the ability to hit left-handed pitching—making a platoon a must. One thing Francisco does not lack is a unique look:

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP J.J. Hoover from the Braves for 3B-L Juan Francisco. [4/1]

The Reds could have done worse for Francisco than getting Hoover. Atlanta transitioned Hoover to the bullpen last season in an effort to speed up his arrival date, as well as hide his weaknesses. While Hoover is well built and packs the attitude and tempo you like seeing from a starting pitcher, his command and lack of a true out pitch left him with a limited ceiling. In the bullpen, Hoover’s low-90s fastball and breaking ball can carry him into a set-up role.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed LHP Cory Luebke to a contract worth a guaranteed $12 million with club options for the 2016 and 2017 seasons that could make the deal worth $27.75 million. [3/30]

No teams have been more aggressive at locking up young talent this spring than the Royals and Padres. Hours after Dayton Moore agreed to terms with Alex Gordon’s representative, Josh Byrnes scored an equalizer by extending Luebke and securing a free-agency year.

Luebke is an athletic southpaw fresh off a 46-appearance, 17-start season. As Tom Krasovic tells it, the Padres decided Luebke would benefit from spending time in the majors in a relief role—similar to what Bud Black did during his playing days. Injuries shredded the Padres rotation during the season and Luebke had to join the starting five. Usually, a reliever going to the rotation will see his numbers worsen. Not Luebke, not last season. His strikeout rate remained static (at 9.9 punch-outs per nine innings), his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved, and his earned run average increased by only 0.08 runs.

While Luebke’s stock has improved, he still profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. He commands his four pitches well, relying upon a low-90s fastball and a slider to do most of his work. Pitching in PETCO Park and—last season, at least—in front of defenders that recorded the second-best park-adjusted defensive efficiency in the league would make any pitcher’s numbers look better. But if the injury bug stays away, expect Luebke to make good on this extension. 

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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