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November 13, 2012

Rumor Roundup

Tuesday, November 13

by Daniel Rathman

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Giants general manager Brian Sabean kicked off his mission to retain the free-agent contributors to his team’s World Series championship run by inking Jeremy Affeldt to a three-year deal worth about $18 million. Apart from that and a slew of minor-league signings, two of which sent former Pirates righty Daniel McCutchen to the Orioles and ex-Indians outfielder Aaron Cunningham to the Rangers, there wasn’t much to write home about on Monday. Fortunately, today’s first rumor suggests that the action could resume in short order:

Tigers leading the race for Torii Hunter
When teams publicly drop out of the running for a free agent, their white flags often signal that the player is about to settle on a new home. The Dodgers, who are seemingly in on everybody, moved on from Hunter on Monday night, according to ESPN Los Angeles’ Mark Saxon, and that report jibes with CBS Sports’ Danny Knobler’s sense that the former Angel is nearing a deal

Knobler mentioned the Rangers and Tigers as possible fits for the veteran right fielder in his morning blog post, and multiple reports later in the day—including the afore-linked tweet from ESPN’s Jim Bowden—zeroed-in on Detroit. As Knobler wrote, the fit makes plenty of sense for both sides, giving Hunter a chance to play for another contender—in this case, the defending American League champions—and offering the Tigers a significant upgrade over Quintin Berry, whose feckless bat was a liability in the two-hole of manager Jim Leyland’s lineup throughout the World Series. 

The 37-year-old Hunter is coming off of a five-year, $90 million contract consummated with the Halos around Thanksgiving of 2007, and unlike many high-priced free agents, he actually lived up to the $18 million average annual value by delivering 16.1 WARP over the life of the deal. One of the most durable veterans on the free-agent market, Hunter made only one trip to the disabled list in his five years in Anaheim—missing 32 games with a strained groin in 2009—and his clean medical history should allay some of the concerns about his age.

On the other hand, despite logging a .313/.365/.451 triple-slash line over 584 plate appearances last season, Hunter did show some signs of imminent decline. The right-handed hitter’s career-best batting average was largely a product of his .389 BABIP, the highest mark in the junior circuit in 2012 and 53 points better than Hunter’s previous career high of .336, which he set way back in 2000. That bloated BABIP masked a worrisome erosion of Hunter’s plate-discipline skills, which contributed to his posting a 6.5 percent walk rate (his lowest since 2007) and 22.6 percent strikeout clip (his highest in any full major-league season).

One source of that decline becomes evident from a year-by-year glance at Hunter’s hitter profile:

The graphic above is Hunter’s TAv by pitch location from the 2009 season, and it shows relatively strong, across-the-board plate coverage, with only one notable hole, in the lower-outside extreme of the zone. (Hunter’s 2010 profile tells a similar story.) Now, compare that his 2012 output by location:

Hunter continued to punish pitches in the lower two-thirds of the zone, but he struggled with letter-high offerings, inside and outside—albeit with an 11-plate-appearance outlier off the outer boundary. (This trend might actually have begun in 2011.)

The sample sizes reflected by the TAv totals in those graphics may be too small to draw a definitive conclusion, but if Hunter can no longer handle upstairs pitches, that’s a hole major-league hurlers will be able to exploit. And although a two-year commitment won’t carry much risk for the Tigers, or whichever team ultimately invests in Hunter this offseason, expectations ought to be tempered.

A .262/.336/.429-hitting Hunter still produced 2.2 WARP for the Angels in 2011, and it’s possible that the sudden drop in his walk rate—and, perhaps, the surge in his BABIP—was a result of hitting directly in front of Albert Pujols. If that’s the case, though, Hunter should expect to see a similarly strike-heavy approach in Detroit, where he would slide in ahead of Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder, and again be forced to earn his way aboard.

After one year in Oakland, Jonny Gomes could land in Baltimore
Signed to a one-year, $1 million deal on Jan. 26, just a couple of weeks before the A’s were due to report to Arizona for spring training, Gomes was arguably last winter’s biggest bargain, contributing 2.2 WARP in 99 games for the American League West champions. The 31-year-old won’t come as cheaply this time around, but he is nonetheless a prime target for another 2012 Cinderella squad—namely, the Orioles.

ESPN’s Buster Olney reported on Monday that the A’s backed away from talks of a two-year hitch with Gomes after acquiring Chris Young, a considerably more versatile outfielder, from the Diamondbacks earlier this offseason. That opened the door for O’s general manager Dan Duquette to step in, and FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal confirmed Baltimore’s interest last night.

A right-handed hitter with a severe platoon split (.336 TAv against southpaws, .259 versus righties in 2012), Gomes is best utilized in a part-time role, and he spent most of last season in a timeshare with the lefty-swinging Seth Smith. Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter could replicate that situation by platooning Gomes with Chris Davis, who played right field down the stretch and in the 2012 playoffs, but is likely to resume designated hitter duties once both Nolan Reimold (neck) and Nick Markakis (thumb) are healthy.

Michael Pineda on the mend, could return to majors in 2013
If the Yankees are able to re-sign both Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, their rotation for next season will essentially be set. But, as the adage goes, you can never have too much pitching—and manager Joe Girardi certainly wouldn’t mind having a 6-foot-7 flamethrower at his disposal come summertime.

Pineda—who came over from the Mariners in a January blockbuster that has so far produced little more than a headache for both parties involved—was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder after suffering a significant velocity drop in spring training and has yet to appear in an official game for the Yankees. General manager Brian Cashman said last month that the 23-year-old Pineda is “off [the] radar for now,” but Olney tweeted on Monday that the righty is “making progress” while working through a throwing program.

Assuming a setback-free recovery, Pineda could be ready to return to the majors by June, but only time will tell just how much of his power arsenal will remain intact after surgery. If all goes well, Pineda could serve as insurance for either the rotation or bullpen, potentially enabling Cashman to avoid dealing away prospects for reinforcements at the trade deadline.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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