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December 20, 2012

Rumor Roundup

Thursday, December 20

by Daniel Rathman

Relievers have been flying off the shelves in recent days, with Mike Adams joining the Phillies and Jose Veras heading to the Astros, among other moves. The dwindling free-agent choices have led some teams to turn to the trade market, where one closer has quickly become a hot commodity. Today’s Roundup begins with a look at those talks, and also includes notes on some quadragenarian (or close to it) outfielders.

Trade interest in Joel Hanrahan heating up
The aforementioned closer is Hanrahan, who recorded 36 saves in 40 tries last season despite a significant rise in his FIP (2.15 in 2011, 4.49 in 2012). According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is actively fielding calls from the Dodgers and Red Sox, with other teams potentially lurking on the periphery. ESPN’s Jayson Stark mentioned the Tigers as a possible fit, but Heyman’s colleague, Danny Knobler, has since debunked that theory, an indication that Detroit is prepared to move forward with rookie Bruce Rondon.

The 31-year-old Hanrahan forewent arbitration in January, instead agreeing to a $4.1 million salary, but he turned in his worst effort from a peripherals standpoint since his major-league debut in 2007. After allowing only one home run in 68 2/3 innings in 2011, Hanrahan served up eight in 59 2/3 frames last year. Though he saw an uptick in his strikeout rate, to 26.4 percent in 2012 from 22.3 percent the previous season, his walk rate exploded, going from 5.8 percent to 14.2 percent over the same span. If that sounds worrisome, well, it is: Among qualifying relievers, only Carlos Marmol issued free passes to a higher percentage (18.2) of the batters that he faced.

What happened? There are several items of note—some pedestrian, the others quite unusual—and all are evident in the tables below from his Brooks Baseball card.

From the two tables above, if you trust the precision of the data, Hanrahan experienced a 1-2 mph drop in the velocity of his fastball, and the increase in his slider velocity served to significantly decrease the gap between the two pitches. He also leaned more on the breaking ball in 2012, by eight percentage points of his overall mix, perhaps because of that decline in his heater. 

These two tables indicate that, in addition to losing a bit of velocity, Hanrahan also struggled to control his fastball, with nearly three percent more of his four-seamers resulting in balls. If you play around with his Pitcher Profile, you’ll find that the source of that increase was an inability to spot the pitch on the left-hand corner of the zone (from the catcher’s perspective). Hanrahan also induced fewer ground balls with his fastball, a change that contributed to the eight-fold increase in his home-run rate from 2011. And the diminished effectiveness of Hanrahan’s heater was his undoing in 3-2 counts; of the 35 batters that saw a payoff pitch, 16 walked and only three struck out, compared to a 7-to-7 K:BB over 29 full-count plate appearances in 2011.

The increased slider usage—while helping to boost his strikeout total, with a 3.41 percentage point hike in whiffs—was also partially responsible for Hanrahan’s bloated walk rate. Of the 254 breaking pitches that he threw in 2012, only 11 resulted in called strikes, which means that even though opposing hitters swung at the majority of his sliders, more than two of every five still resulted in a ball. In 2011, opposing batters offered four percentage points less often, but more than twice as many of the sliders that they took crossed the plate. And that’s how, fueled by an eight-percentage-point increase in usage, the pitch became a double-edged sword.

The Dodgers, Red Sox, and any other teams phoning Huntington about Hanrahan are counting on some reversion in those numbers. More specifically, they are hoping for a return to his 97-98 mph fastball days and a 2011-like distribution of slider results. For what it’s worth, our own John Perrotto heard from fellow Pirates reliever Jared Hughes that Hanrahan has spent the offseason shedding pounds and is in “outstanding” shape. Only time will tell whether the improved conditioning will help Hanrahan to rediscover his 2010-2011 form, so his suitors would need to accept a $6.9 million gamble (based on Matt Swartz’s arbitration estimates at MLB Trade Rumors) for a one-year rental.

Huntington is said to be asking the GMs who stay on the line for a starting pitcher to round out his rotation, which currently consists of A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Wandy Rodriguez, and Jeff Locke, with Kyle McPherson representing a “Factor on the Farm.” As Heyman noted, the Dodgers can spare either Aaron Harang ($7 million) or Chris Capuano ($6 million), and—though this may matter little to Ned Colletti—sending back either of those veterans would make the deal cost-neutral. The Red Sox, who need rotation depth as much as the Bucs, would likely be forced to part with a prospect. And the Tigers, if Dave Dombrowski has second thoughts about Rondon, could eventually dangle Rick Porcello, though Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review heard that a one-for-one barter is out of the question.

With Ichiro Suzuki re-signed, Yankees seeking two more bats
The negotiations took longer than expected, but there was never much doubt that Ichiro would return to the Bronx, and the formality became a reality yesterday afternoon. Now, New York Daily News beat writer Mark Feinsand believes that general manager Brian Cashman is shifting his attention to fourth-outfielder and designated-hitter candidates, with a couple of additions expected before spring training.

On the DH front, Feinsand mentioned that Raul Ibanez could return, and George A. King III of the New York Post confirmed that talks are in progress between Cashman and the 40-year-old who produced some magical moments in October. Given the Yankees’ looming payroll constraints, a one-year hitch with Ibanez—who is serviceable as the left-handed member of a platoon, thanks to Yankee Stadium’s short porch—is a logical solution.

The search for a right-handed-hitting outfielder, for which Feinsand floated Scott Hairston as a possibility, is more complicated. The role is important, because all three of manager Joe Girardi’s starting outfielders bat from the left side, and because whoever nabs the gig could also earn opportunities to spell Ibanez against southpaws, but the suddenly frugal Cashman has plenty of competitors.

Hairston remains on good terms with his most recent employer, the Mets, who might be interested in bringing him back. Vernon Wells could be an option, if the Angels agreed to “eat almost all” of the $42 million he's owed over the next two years, but the Yankees aren’t alone there, either. Hence, even though the current market is not quite as “aggressive on every level” as it was during the Winter Meetings, Cashman may continue to bide his time.

Bobby Abreu hoping for another major-league job
Finally, Heyman—who was busy throughout the day on Wednesday—found time to catch up with Abreu, who is playing for Leones Del Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League. The 38-year-old outfielder is just 2-for-14 through four games, but he’s hoping to show enough to earn another stint in the majors—or two, or three.

After looking anemic in a minimal role for the Angels, Abreu held his own in Chavez Ravine, compiling a .361 on-base percentage and a .264 TAv. Abreu’s range in the outfield has eroded, but he still offers a good arm, and his plate discipline makes him a palatable reserve. If he stays healthy and flashes some of his long-lost tools for Caracas, at least one team should come calling with a minor-league deal and a chance to land a roster spot out of camp. 

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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