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December 3, 2012

Transaction Analysis

All the Loney People, Where Do They All Belong?

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed 1B-L James Loney to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/3]

Combine the batting average of Carlos Pena with the power of Casey Kotchman and you get James Loney, reportedly the Rays’ new first baseman. Okay, the first part isn’t fair—Loney makes much more contact than Pena, and it took a career-low BABIP for the .282 lifetime hitter to finish under .250 last season. The power part is, though, and even though Loney is durable—he’s never been on the DL, at times to the Dodgers’ detriment) and plays good defense, a rebound in his BABIP would leave him well short of the offensive standard at his position.

Loney isn’t totally helpless against righties, and maybe the Rays plan to platoon him, but even after adding up all the points in his favor, it’s hard to see how he makes Tampa Bay better (except in the sense that the team didn’t have a first baseman before). In late September, Sam Miller and I discussed what we’d pay Loney and concluded that he might be in for a minor-league deal. A guaranteed $2 million deal seems somewhat rich for the Rays.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Signed C-R Geovany Soto to a one-year contract. [12/3]

When Texas non-tendered Soto on Friday, he became one of the best catchers on a catching-thin market. He made the market more rich only briefly, though, since the Rangers re-signed him on Sunday. The terms of the deal haven’t been reported, but presumably Soto will make less than he would have in arbitration after earning $4.3 million in 2012. (Arbitration: where everyone gets a raise!) Soto has an acceptable arm, doesn’t let many balls get by him, and is a decent framer—he rated roughly 11 runs above average as a receiver last season and has been in the black in each of the past five seasons. What makes him most interesting is that he once was a fine hitter, and while that “once” was a while ago, that’s still more than most catchers can say. Soto’s offensive decline is mysterious, but it might have something to do with the fact that he’s spent time on the DL in each of the last four seasons and suffered shoulder problems that required surgery late in the 2010 season. It’s not unrealistic to expect a bounceback to league-average level next season, though anything more than that is on the optimistic side.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Signed RHP Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year, $9.5 million contract with a vesting option for 2015. [12/1]

When Japanese infielders make the move to the majors, they have to adjust to playing fewer games on artificial turf. When Japanese starters make the move to the majors, they have to adjust to a different throwing schedule, with less rest between starts. But when Japanese relievers make the move to the majors, they’re playing essentially the same game they’re used to, only with better batters. Maybe that’s why the list of Japanese-born relievers who’ve succeeded in the U.S. is so long, running from Shigetoshi Hasegawa to Kazuhiro Sasaki to Akinori Otsuka to Takashi Saito to Hideki Okajima to Koji Uehara.

Okay, so six names isn’t that long a list. Still, if Dan Evansscouting experience and the statistics of past relief transplants are to be believed, there’s something to the idea that relief pitchers make the smoothest transitions. The Cubs hope Fujikawa will make that list a little longer after signing him for the next two seasons (with a vesting option for either $5.5 million or $6 million based on games finished). The right-hander has been one of the best closers in NPB for over a decade, recording a 1.77 career ERA and striking out 12 batters per nine innings over 12 seasons. You can see what he’s done for the Hanshin Tigers over the last six seasons at Baseball-Reference: there hasn’t been much erosion in his rates, though he has pitched fewer innings as he’s grown older. (He suffered an adductor strain last season.)

Fujikawa, who stands an even six feet and became a full-time member of the bullpen after a shoulder injury in 2004, was at one time known for having one of Japan’s best fastballs, but his stuff also seems to have made some concessions to age. According to NPB Tracker, his heater averaged only 91 miles per hour in 2012, though he still threw it nearly 70 percent of the time and it reportedly has plenty of “hop” thanks to its spin. He also throws a forkball (an endangered species in the majors) and a curve, though he hasn’t used the curve often in recent years. Two scouts quoted by Jason Coskrey in a September article in The Japan Times suggested that he can be a quality late-inning option with the potential to close. Evans believes he’ll be a “standout reliever immediately.”

If those reports are proven correct, the Cubs will have landed an effective arm at an affordable rate and given themselves the freedom to pursue a trade of Carlos Marmol. Expect something closer to Saito than Ryota Igarashi.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Acquired RHP Burke Badenhop for OF-R Raul Mondesi Jr. [12/3]

When you’re finished feeling old—Raul Mondesi’s son plays professional baseball? Make that multiple sons?—you might wonder why the Rays gave away an effective reliever for a 20-year-old who hasn’t played full-season ball or generated much prospect buzz. It’s not as inexplicable as it seems. For one thing, the Rays’ scouts might have seen something they liked in Mondesi, who’s prone to missing home plate. But even if Mondesi—like his old man, an under-six-foot right fielder with an arm and some pop—never amounts to much, Badenhop is a super two who’s eligible for his third year of arbitration this winter, and after a solid season in 2012, he’s primed to improve upon his $1.075 million salary from last season. He’s also a right-handed reliever who can barely break 90 miles per hour, making him one of baseball’s most disposable commodities. As a slider thrower with a low arm slot, he’s susceptible to left-handed hitters. And with the Rays, multiple factors made him look less replaceable than he was.

Badenhop is a groundball pitcher, and the Rays had one of the best infield defenses in the majors last season, allowing the seventh-lowest batting average on grounders (.228). The Brewers allowed a .258 average on groundballs, the second highest in baseball, so the transition might subtract something from Badenhop’s stats.

Here’s something else worth noting: Badenhop relies heavily on called strikes. From 2008-12, Badenhop had the fourth-highest percentage of looking strikes and the fourth-highest percentage of looking strikeouts among any pitcher who faced at least 1,000 batters. Almost 34 percent of his strikes were called, compared to the major-league average of just over 28 percent, and over 41 percent of his strikeouts were called, compared to the major-league average of almost 25 percent.

So why is that interesting, provided you’re interested in obscure baseball stats? The more dependent you are on getting calls, as opposed to missing bats, the more you stand to benefit from working with a good framing catcher (presumably). In Jose Molina, Badenhop was working with the best. Badenhop missed fewer bats than ever last season; maybe he was trying to pitch to contact, knowing he had a good defense behind him. He was helped by a career-low walk rate in which Molina might have played a part. Fortunately for Badenhop, he’ll be working with another good framing catcher in Jonathan Lucroy next season.

Of course, he doesn’t have to be just as good away from Tampa in 2013 as he was in 2012 to make this a deal worth doing for Milwaukee. With the Rays, Badenhop was just another low-leverage arm, but he’ll be an asset for the Brewers, who are attempting to rebuild a historically bad bullpen.

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

Related Content:  James Loney,  Geovany Soto,  Kyuji Fujikawa

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