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April 12, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Second Acts for Second Basemen

by R.J. Anderson

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed C-S Carlos Santana to a five-year contract extension worth $21 million guaranteed with a club option for the 2017 season. [4/10]

Cost certainty is nice, but the real prize here is that Cleveland gets to keep Santana’s bat in the lineup for an added season. Since 2009, Santana’s True Average is comparable to the likes of Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Dustin Pedroia, and Chase Utley. In other words, Santana isn’t your average backstop when it comes to hitting. Not only that, but Santana brings the lumber from both sides of the plate, albeit as a tougher out from the right side. That isn’t to minimize what Santana does behind the dish—profiles as a poor receiver and fielder, a capable marksman, and a good goalie—just to empower where his real value lies.

Similarly, Cleveland isn’t spitting at Santana’s defense when they put him at first base or give him a day at designated hitter. What they are doing is toying around with ways to keep a great hitter in the lineup. Unlike Yadier Molina, who has to catch to add value, Santana can hang at less demanding positions and not hurt the Indians lineup. There is a downside to that strategy, as Santana playing another position involves having the backup catcher bat, but there could be health benefits, too. Having Santana, now 26, catch 100 games instead of 140 might keep his legs and bat fresher. Or maybe it won’t. But the Indians’ rotation of Santana through the three positions did lead to 658 plate appearances last season, 105 more than any other player who caught in at least half of their games.

One could get persnickety and ask why Cleveland only secured one extra year of control, but this looks like a deal worth feeling good about for both sides. 

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Activated 1B-L Daric Barton from the 15-day disabled list. [4/9]

Designated 1B-L Brandon Allen for assignment. [4/9]

Are Allen’s beastly Triple-A numbers nothing more than an illustration of the differences between the majors and the minors? It would be criminal to see Allen’s fantastic raw power go to waste, but equally redoubtable contact woes—particularly against breaking pitches—leave him on the outside looking for organization number four. The chic comparison to make in cases like these is to Carlos Peña. A former A’s first baseman himself, Peña has mastered the art of surviving as a three-true-outcomes hitter. The difference is this: as often as Peña strikes out (and he has finished top-five in his league in five seasons), Allen strikes out even more often. Allen has fanned in almost 36 percent of his major-league plate appearances, compared to Pena’s 26 percent. Even Pena’s seasonal high of 32 percent—the only time he has ever fanned in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances—doesn’t stack up to Allen’s rate.

Yet, even with all that stated you should still expect another team to grab hold of him, due to the upside involved. The biggest obstacle is that Allen lacks options, so a team that wants to work with him on shortening his swing or fine-tuning his pitch recognition will have to do it over the course of a major-league season. That isn’t easy for the team or the player, but an organization in need of power off the bench or an upside play at first base could be excused for giving Allen a go.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Re-signed 2B-R Ian Kinsler to a five-year contract extension worth $70 million with an option for 2018 that includes a $5 million buyout. [4/10]

Kinsler came to the Rangers as a 17th-round selection out of Arizona State University. With this new extension in hand, Kinsler isn’t scheduled to leave the Rangers until he hits his mid-30s—and even then, who can be sure. Finding a gem like Kinsler in the draft might be easier than finding a flaw in Kinsler’s game. He hits well, fields well, and runs well. The only things to nitpick are a colorful injury history and the knowledge that second basemen have shown to age poorly. The amusing bit being that Kinsler might not be a second baseman for much longer.

Texas is in the enviable position of having four third basemen and shortstops that could play in the majors within the next two or three seasons. Right now, Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus stock those positions, but third-base prospect Mike Olt and precocious shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar are close enough to the majors where you can start daydreaming about potential lineups. The Rangers have three realistic choices: 1) trade someone; 2) keep the prospects down for as long as possible; or 3) move a player (or players) around the diamond. Invariably, Kinsler’s name pops up when discussing who should move to another spot, and invariably it involves him moving to left field.

Whether such speculation comes to fruition or not, the Rangers obviously buy into Kinsler’s body and that means they should—and did—buy into the player.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Optioned RHP Joel Carreño to Triple-A Las Vegas. [4/9]

Selected the contract of LHP Aaron Laffey from Triple-A Las Vegas. [4/9]

Logistics! Carreño started the Jays’ third game of the season, tossing six so-so innings against the Indians, then found himself heading back to Triple-A. Toronto didn’t grow sour on Carreño over one start. What they did instead was take advantage of a quirky schedule. The Jays will not need a fifth starter again until April 21. By then, Carreño’s mandatory 10-day minimum in Triple-A will be over, but he might not be the one getting the call, as Jesse Litsch and Dustin McGowan will see their disabled-list stays expire by then.

In the interim, the Jays will employ Laffey, who started Las Vegas’ opener, out of the bullpen. Look for him to appear in low-leverage. 

CINCINNATI REDS
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Re-signed 2B-R Brandon Phillips to a six-year contract extension worth $72.5 million. [4/10]

Who knew Cincinnati had this kind of money to spend? Just a week ago, Walt Jocketty seemingly killed any hope of a Phillips extension by re-signing Joey Votto. But you know what they say about assumptions, and here we are.

Phillips’ value starts with his bat. He hits better than the league-average second baseman, combining average with decent power and okay on-base skills. Phillips is an asset on the basepaths—though his stolen-base rates aren’t good evidence of it—as he takes the extra base more than half the time, and has throughout his Reds career. Defensively is where things get murky. Phillips’ reputation places him among the game’s elite defenders, and it’s possible that he is, but finding harmony among the defensive metrics is impossible.

The same concerns that apply to Kinsler’s aging apply to Phillips. There is a difference, however, and that is Phillips’ history of durability. With only one DL trip to speak of, and more than 140 games played in each season since 2006, Phillips looks like one of the safer bets for 600-plus plate appearances on an annual basis. Of course, one traumatic injury could change all of that, and betting on a soon-to-be 31-year-old to retain similar production for the next five seasons is a silly gamble, albeit one worth making in certain circumstances.

While it isn’t clear that Jocketty will do a somersault in five years—partially because it isn’t clear that Jocketty can do one now—you have to applaud the Reds’ commitment to making a run here and now. The Reds are trying to bring a pennant home within the next three-to-five years. Given shaky early-season attendance tallies, they might not have a choice.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Claimed CF-R Justin Maxwell off waivers from the Yankees. [4/8]

Optioned RHP Fernando Abad to Triple-A Oklahoma. [4/9]

Talent accumulation should be a priority for teams in total-rebuild mode. Houston is such a team, and the plucking of Maxwell off waivers suggests they are looking to amass live bodies with potential. Maxwell’s power-and-speed blend make him a tantalizing athlete, but injuries have kept him from ascending prospect lists. The weirdest thing about Maxwell’s recent booboos is how they all seem isolated to his arms. He has dealt with a shoulder injury, Tommy John surgery, and wrist and thumb ailments over the past few seasons. Maxwell’s tendency to wind up on the disabled list can wear on a team, and so the Astros are his third organization since February 2011.

If Maxwell can stay healthy, you wonder if he could produce something closer to his Triple-A career line (.295/.361/.451) than his major-league offering (.205/.322/.395). Houston would settle for having a solid fourth outfielder, though Maxwell set the bar high by hitting a home run on a two-strike hanger from Chad Durbin in his first plate appearance with Houston.

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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