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December 3, 2012

Rumor Roundup

Monday, December 3

by Daniel Rathman

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The Winter Meetings get underway today at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, where several members of the BP staff are keeping tabs on all of the latest happenings, from the transactions wire to the hotel bar. Here are the most salient rumors from the past weekend, which should set the stage for an exciting few days to come:

Phillies emerging as favorites for Angel Pagan
Braves general manager Frank Wren preempted his center fielder-needy counterparts by signing B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract last week. In doing so, Wren set a precedent for the outfield market and officially showed Michael Bourn the door, creating a variety of scenarios for the three big names (excluding Josh Hamilton) still searching for homes.

If the volume of rumors surrounding players is any indication of the order in which they will sign, then Pagan appears to be next in line. The leadoff man for the World Series champion Giants, Pagan (31) is older than Bourn (29) but younger than Shane Victorino (32), and he enjoyed the best 2012 campaign of the trio. After avoiding arbitration with a $4.85 million agreement last spring, Pagan produced 4.7 WARP, contributing on both sides of the ball (.290 TAv, +10.9 FRAA), and taking full advantage of Triples’ Alley at AT&T Park to lead the National League with 15 three-baggers.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Pagan figures to be rewarded with a four-year hitch this offseason, with at least two teams—the Giants and Phillies—already expressing a willingness to buy his services through the 2016 season. But if Pagan is not amenable to granting San Francisco a discount, then the current landscape suggests that he should begin looking for real estate in Philadelphia.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean opted not to extend Pagan a qualifying offer earlier this offseason, a decision that implied that in the team’s view, the potential to obtain a high draft pick was not worth the risk of being saddled with a $13.3 million invoice for 2013. Thus, unless you think that Sabean might openly admit a tactical mistake, it stands to reason that the average annual value of the Giants’ four-year offer is below $13.3 million. In fact, it may be well below, given that Pagan would turn 35 before he hits the market again, and that his injury history is littered with fractures and strains of virtually every body part you can name.

FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal detailed the Phillies’ pursuit of Pagan in a column last week, and he initially reported the four-year framework, before Olney added that both the Giants and the Phillies were operating under it. Although other teams, such as the Reds, could enter the bidding (or may have already), Ruben Amaro seems to be in the driver’s seat, and he will almost certainly touch base with Pagan’s representatives from the Octagon sports agency in Nashville. If he is able to seal the deal, then Sabean may be forced to scramble.

Where does that leave the Giants? Perhaps with Victorino.
The Giants’ center field options would narrow to Bourn and Victorino, and both are generally deemed to be higher-risk players than Pagan and Upton. Indeed, as Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller discussed on their Upton podcast last week, risk aversion may have played a role in Wren’s decision to strike first. The good news for Sabean, though, is that the Giants could also slide their incumbent left fielder, Gregor Blanco, to center, thereby expanding their list of candidates to include the deeper corner-outfield market and trade possibilities such as Michael Morse. For now, as San Francisco Chronicle columnist John Shea tweeted last night, Victorino is Sabean’s leading fallback plan; Shea does not believe that San Francisco is in on Bourn.

Update (6:15 p.m. ET): Well, scratch all of that — the Giants have reportedly reached a four-year, $40 million deal with Pagan. 

Sean Burnett drawing interest from Cardinals… but what does he want?
The Giants thinned the free-agent crop of left-handed relievers by retaining Jeremy Affeldt on a three-year, $18 million pact during the second week of November. With Affeldt gone, Burnett’s agent, Jim Munsey, can credibly claim that he represents the best bullpen southpaw available.

Although the 30-year-old Burnett was exposed at times by right-handed batters, who amassed a .298/.347/.420 triple-slash line against him, last season, he proved a terror to opposing lefties, fanning 28 of the 95 he faced and issuing only one walk.

As the Pitch Outcomes table above, from Burnett’s Brooks Baseball card, shows, he essentially employs a two-pitch mix against his fellow southpaws. The sinker, which he tends to throw in on the hands, is nearly impossible to lift. The slider, which often darts down and off the outside corner, generates a swing-and-miss on more than one-fifth of its uses. And, with that tandem, Burnett limited lefties to a .195 TAv.

But an equally crucial component of Burnett’s success in 2012 was an improved walk rate. When Burnett was shipped from the Pirates to the Nationals (with Nyjer Morgan) in exchange for Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge, he was a relatively erratic pitcher with shaky command. A year later, in 2010, Burnett broke out with a career-best 1.3 WARP effort, cutting his FIP by nearly two full runs. And after regressing in 2011, he bounced back in 2012 with a career-low 5.0 percent walk rate—down from 8.7 percent in 2011 and 11.8 percent in 2009, the year of the aforementioned trade—and a career-high 23.9 percent strikeout rate (a tick better than his 23.8 percent showing in 2010). Burnett is still prone to the occasional meltdown—half of his regular-season walk total last year (12) came in three of his 70 appearances, and he poured fuel on the fire in Game Two of the National League Division Series—but teams that believe in his 2010 and 2012 may value his upside and forgive his inconsistent past.

The Cardinals, per MLB.com’s Nationals beat writer, William Ladson, are one such team, and Ladson also heard that Burnett is seeking a four-year deal. If that demand seems outlandish, especially in a market where an increasing number of teams are exhibiting awareness of reliever volatility—well, it is. And Munsey, who spoke with Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore not long after Ladson’s report, flatly denied that he is pushing teams to commit to Burnett through 2016, calling the rumors “crazy.”

If Munsey, in spite of his denial, is actually waiting for a four-year offer, then he’ll be waiting for a while. Teams have no shortage of shorter-term possibilities—including Randy Choate and Burnett’s former teammate, Michael Gonzalez, who are capable of filling the same role—with a lower ceiling but a longer track record of success. Conversely, if the four-year buzz is as outlandish as it seems, then Burnett’s market should heat up this week, with the Cardinals representing just one of many possible fits.

Cubs likely to shop Alfonso Soriano this week
Meanwhile, on the trade front, a player who has been the subject of rumors throughout the last few years might finally see one of them come to fruition. Soriano, who is entering the seventh season of his eight-year, $136 million deal with the Cubs and has full no-trade rights, showed signs of life in 2012, logging 2.4 WARP, his best total since 2008. Part of that resurgence was driven by Soriano’s +7.9 FRAA, which is out of line with his negative defensive ratings in 2010-2011, but even if that mark is inflated, the 36-year-old did plenty to attract interest.

With Josh Hamilton representing the only outfielder on the free-agent market with 30-homer potential, general managers looking to add a jolt to the middle of their order could schedule meetings with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer this week to discuss acquiring Soriano. According to Jon Morosi of FOX Sports, the Phillies are one such team—and given that the Red Sox shelled out $10 million over two years for Jonny Gomes, there are likely to be others.  

The $36 million remaining on Soriano’s contract will undoubtedly be an obstacle in negotiations, and the caliber of talent Epstein can ask for in return will depend on the proportion of that salary that he is willing to carry. With Chicago’s competitive window still at least a year or two away, Epstein would do well to sell high on Soriano, and to shoulder as much of the financial burden as is necessary to land a useful piece for the future. 

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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