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December 5, 2012

Rumor Roundup

Wednesday, December 5

by Daniel Rathman

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Day two of the Winter Meetings was quieter than day one, but it still featured two notable signings—Dan Haren to the Nationals, Shane Victorino to the Red Sox—and two late-evening trades, which sent Yunel Escobar across the state of Florida for infield prospect Derek Dietrich and Wilton Lopez from Houston to Denver (with a PTBNL) for Alex White and minor-league righty Alex Gillingham. Today’s Roundup begins with the implications of Boston’s second three-year, $39 million addition in as many days.

With Victorino in tow, Red Sox could explore Jacoby Ellsbury trade
When general manager Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on the aforementioned Victorino deal, he effectively chose the switch-hitting former Dodger over Cody Ross, who enjoyed a career year on Yawkey Way in 2012, and Nick Swisher, who maintained a string of 3.0-4.0 WARP outputs in the Bronx. One plausible reason for that choice, and for Cherington’s urgency in getting Victorino signed, is the 32-year-old’s ability to handle center field.

With B.J. Upton and Angel Pagan off the table, the only big-ticket center fielders available as of Tuesday morning were Victorino and Michael Bourn, whose market remains relatively cool, possibly because of an exorbitant price tag. Ross can play up the middle in a pinch, but he lacks the range to handle the assignment full-time, and Josh Hamilton’s glove work is similarly deficient. If Cherington wanted a speedy outfielder with a history of 3.0+ WARP performance, then Victorino may have been his cheapest or least-risky free-agent option.

And if that indeed was the rationale behind the $39 million commitment to a player coming off of arguably his worst-ever full major-league season, then there are two explanations for the move. The less intriguing one is that Cherington simply wanted a rangy defensive player to roam Fenway Park’s spacious right field, a sentiment that manager John Farrell expressed on Tuesday. The more intriguing one is that Cherington sought to “lay the groundwork” for a trade involving Ellsbury—as other teams’ insiders told ESPN’s Buster Olney last night—without rushing top prospect Jackie Bradley, a factor that R.J. Anderson mentioned in the afore-linked Transaction Analysis.

Boston Globe beat writer Pete Abraham corroborated Olney’s report, and noted that Cherington could try to package Ellsbury with one of his extra catchers in order to reel in a starting pitcher. Such a move would clear an outfield spot for Ross or Swisher, but it would also make an already righty-heavy lineup even more vulnerable to opposing northpaws. If the season started today, the Red Sox would field a roster with only three left-handed hitters: Ellsbury, David Ortiz, and Ryan Kalish, who is a bounce-back candidate with a chance to earn a reserve-outfielder job, but hardly a proven commodity. The list of switch-hitters—which includes Daniel Nava, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Victorino—does little to allay that concern, because Nava is, at best, a fourth outfielder, Saltalamacchia is the most likely catcher to be traded, and Victorino is considerably less potent from the left side of the plate, having logged a .235 TAv versus righties in 2012.

That weakness has fueled Cherington’s interest in former Yankees infielder Eric Chavez, which WEEI’s Alex Speier detailed here. Chavez turns 35 on Friday, but he produced 1.6 WARP while filling in for Alex Rodriguez last season, and he could spell Will Middlebrooks and Mike Napoli at the corner infield spots in Boston. Unfortunately, Chavez’s versatility and left-handed bat also appeal to general manager Brian Cashman, who is at least as desperate to keep him around because of Rodriguez’s hip woes as Cherington is to sign him to balance his lineup.

On top of the unbalanced-lineup problem, Cherington may not be the lone seller in the center-fielder trade market, and he must also contend with the precedent set by the Denard Span-for-Alex Meyer barter struck by the Nationals and Twins last week. Dexter Fowler’s name has surfaced in the Opryland lobby—though ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick believes that Colorado’s asking price will ensure that he stays planted in Coors Field—and FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi hinted that the Twins could further gut their outfield by moving Ben Revere. Ellsbury’s 7.5 WARP upside is greater than those of Fowler and Revere, but he can become a free agent after the 2013 season and has a worrisome injury track record, two cons that could result in a discord between Cherington’s asking price and the offers he receives.

The Victorino signing could be the first piece of the “groundwork” that Olney’s sources described, but there are plenty of remaining hurdles for Cherington to clear before he can feel comfortable using Ellsbury to acquire a starting pitcher. And, for that reason, free agents such as Ross, Swisher, and Hamilton—whose back-burner status with Boston could decrease their agents’ leverage in negotiations with other teams—might be inclined to wait for an indication of the Red Sox’ outfield plans.

Diamondbacks getting creative in search of a shortstop
Arizona’s top off-season priority is no secret: shortstop. The internal candidates to start in Stephen Drew’s former stomping grounds are Cliff Pennington, Willie Bloomquist, and John McDonald, and all three of them can barely hit enough to serve as utility men. The team’s top prospect at the position, Chris Owings, is a 20-year-old who posted a 668 OPS in his first tour of Double-A, and who likely needs two more years of seasoning to improve his approach at the plate.

Not surprisingly, whenever another general manager dials Kevin Towers’ number to ask about his outfielders and pitchers, Towers demands Andrelton Simmons, Asdrubal Cabrera, or Jurickson Profar. So far, the answer has invariably been “no dice,” but as Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan tweeted on Tuesday, Towers is undeterred by the spate of rejections, and is now concocting various three- and four-way scenarios that would serve as a means to his desired end. Olney verified Passan’s report, noting that one of those blockbusters, which would bring Cabrera to Phoenix, has been tabled for the time being.

On the outfield front, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal heard that Towers is more likely to ship Jason Kubel out of the desert than Justin Upton, even though the left-handed slugger’s trade value is considerably lower than the righty’s. BP’s own Jason Churchill, on the other hand, believes that Upton eventually will be dealt to the Rangers, and Morosi reported that three other teams checked in with Towers yesterday, as the free-agent outfield market continued to unfold. On the pitching side, Rosenthal named the usual suspects: Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs.

Want Jeff Keppinger? Pony up $12 million over three years
Finally, one of the most popular free agents on the rumor mill this week named his asking price on Tuesday. As the headline says, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, teams looking to add Keppinger to their infield mix should prepare to shell out $4 million annually through 2015.

On the surface, that request might seem outlandish, but the 32-year-old Keppinger is not all that different from the 37-year-old Marco Scutaro, who re-upped with the Giants on a three-year, $20 million hitch late last night. Scutaro’s .362/.385/.473 tear following a late-July trade that sent him from the Rockies to the Giants, which he maintained into October to earn National League Championship Series MVP honors, contributed to his raise, but setting that hot streak aside, Keppinger may actually be his equal.

Keppinger performed below replacement level in 2011, but his slump that year may have been the result of a foot injury that he suffered the previous October, resulting in surgery the following January, and forcing him to the disabled list for the first 50 games. In 2010, Keppinger produced 2.7 WARP for the Astros—a total inflated by a +9.4 FRAA that stands in contrast to his mediocre career fielding numbers—and in 2012, he delivered a .325/.367/.439 triple-slash line for the Rays, good for 2.2 WARP despite a -1.4 FRAA. Scutaro, meanwhile, was a 3.0 WARP contributor for the Red Sox in 2010, a 1.9-win player in 2011, and a 2.6-win player in 2012, with that last total bloated by a +8.0 FRAA outlier amassed over 95 games with Colorado. Scutaro may have more upside, but he is also declining, while Keppinger is coming off of his best offensive season to date.

Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin tweeted on Tuesday morning, when Keppinger’s asking price was believed to be $8 million over two years, that the Rays were no longer in the bidding, and it’s safe to assume that tacking on an extra year won’t lure them back in. The Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Yankees have previously been tied to Keppinger, and both Heyman and Passan see New York as his most likely landing spot, with Cashman stepping up in the wake of the Rodriguez news. Of course, the three-year commitment could be a deal breaker for the suddenly frugal Yankees, unless they view Keppinger as an everyday player going forward. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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