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April 5, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Getting Caught Up Before Opening Day

by R.J. Anderson

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired C-R Chris Stewart from the Giants for RHP George Kontos. [4/4]

Stewart is your garden-variety backup backstop. He can’t hit, but he makes up for it by being a good receiver and marksman, having gunned down 39 percent of prospective thieves. The Yankees had to choose between Stewart and his inverse, the poor-fielding Francisco Cervelli, and went with Stewart. There isn’t anything wrong with that—New York would score runs if they let Jay Jaffe don the tools of ignorance—so the outrage over this acquisition should be limited or sardonic in nature.

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Chad Durbin. [4/3]

For the second time in a week, Atlanta dipped into the free-agent market to add a veteran pitcher. Durbin will join Livan Hernandez in the Braves bullpen as Anthony Varvaro heads to the disabled list. Here is what I wrote when the Nationals added Durbin:

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.

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Claimed UTL-L Luis Valbuena off waivers from the Blue Jays. [4/4]

Valbuena is perpetually on the fringe. He reached Triple-A as a 22-year-old and has hit .304/.387/.468 in the 900-plus plate appearances since, but his lack of options is the real reason he gets to enjoy this year’s Opening Day festivities. Valbuena has yet to show that he can hit major-league pitching in more than 800 major-league plate appearances. The Cubs are going to give it a go, in part because they don’t have clearly better alternatives. Maybe things will click for Valbuena. If not, the only audible noise will be another chance circling the drain.

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Claimed RHP Alfredo Simon off waivers from the Orioles. [4/3]

Throwing hard has its benefits—like never-ending lines of willing employers and dates—just ask Simon. The Reds are the sixth organization of Simon’s career and their waiver claim represents the eighth time he has changed teams. Why do teams keep giving him chances? Because, despite Simon being used mostly as a starter last season, his fastball averaged 94 mph and touched 97.

Simon will soon turn 31 and that, along with his lack of options, makes his status as a project problematic. Usually the bad teams are the ones taking flyers, but the Reds have a spot to spare, at least in the interim, as injuries have claimed Ryan Madson and the start of Nick Masset and Jordan Smith’s seasons. Dusty Baker will still have Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo at his disposal, and the Reds moved Aroldis Chapman back into the pen, giving them another weapon. That leaves Simon in a middle-relief role at best, and mopping up innings with Sam LeCure at worst. If Simon shows a flash between now and the time the Reds need a roster spot, he can hang around. If not, the Reds can bail without much lost. They wouldn’t be the first to do so, and they won’t be the last.

NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed LHP Jonathon Niese to a five-year contract extension worth $25.5 million with two club options that could make the deal worth $46 million. [4/4]

The Mets were paying attention when I picked Niese to have a breakout season:

Now 25, Niese is nearing the age where he needs to make good on his promise, or otherwise be labeled a fourth starter for good. Niese, a big lefty with the stuff to pitch inside to righties and get ground balls, improved on his peripherals in 2011 but saw his earned run average worsen. Assuming Niese’s abdominal strain doesn’t become an issue again, this could be the season he posts an earned run average better than the league average.

Whether a breakout is coming or not, the Mets felt comfortable enough with Niese to commit to a lengthy extension. The easy, yet apt, comparison to make here is to Derek Holland. Holland, like Niese, is a young southpaw with a similar number of starts who signed a five-year extension worth $28 million not too long ago. It isn’t a perfect comparison because Holland pitches in a tougher environment and has more perceived upside, but the numbers between the two are similar enough to think that the Mets may have used Holland’s deal as a template:

Measure

Niese

Holland

GS

64

63

QS%

50%

40%

ERA

4.39

4.73

SO/BB

2.56

2.34

WARP

4

2.9

New York stands to gain up to three additional years of control of Niese, making this an extension that could bolster his trade value as much as anything. For the time being, the Mets would be thrilled to see Niese make them—and me—look a little more prescient than we are.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP George Kontos for C-R Chris Stewart. [4/4]

Originally a fifth-round pick from Northwestern University, Kontos is a survivor of Tommy John surgery and the Rule 5 draft alike. He made his major-league debut last September, appearing in seven games, and his future is in the bullpen. A low-90s fastball and slider could be enough for Kontos to become a middle-relief option, but he struggles with left-handed batters and lacks the stuff to handle the late innings.

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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