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July 3, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Of Baltimore and Bonus Slots

by Sam Miller

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Scott Feldman and PH/C-R Steve Clevenger from Chicago Cubs for RHP Pedro Strop and RHP Jake Arrieta plus International Bonus Slots 3 and 4. [7/2]

Watch a Texas Hold ‘Em player complain about getting beat on the river and you’ll probably hear somebody push back thusly: “It’s a seven-card game.” You’re not winning until the end. Consider this perspective when watching Scott Feldman, who more than most pitchers seems to use the entire at-bat—and all three balls he is granted to use as he please—to get batters out.

Feldman is effectively a strike-thrower who throws a ton of balls. Just 61 percent of his offerings have been strikes or put in play this year—only nine qualifying pitchers have a lower rate than that. He’s also near the bottom of the league for swing rates, both in and out of the zone. These should combine to form some sort of hellacious walk monster, yet Feldman has allowed only two and a half passes per nine, comfortably below the league average.

Some credit goes to his unwillingness to concede an at-bat. Once he reaches a three-ball count—which he does about 10 percent more often than the league average—his walk rate over the past three seasons is 25 percent lower than the league average. One way to do that is to groove three-ball fastballs, but Feldman apparently doesn’t do that, either. In three-ball counts in his career, Feldman has held batters to a .368 slugging percentage and a .126 isolated power, despite playing every home game in a hitter’s park. The league averages on three balls: .415 SLG, .172 ISO.

Getting outs on three-ball counts takes a lot more pitches than the typical pitch-to-contact (or even pitch-to-strikeout) approaches, and Feldman will throw a lot of pitches without going deep into games. That’s not necessarily a demerit anymore, particularly in October, when bullpens are deep and games are spaced out.

Last year’s Orioles were a flurry of moves without any suggestion that they took themselves all too seriously as a postseason team. Before they claimed Joe Saunders in late August, part-time DH Jim Thome headlined a group of Baltimore acquisitions that included Nate McLouth, Steve Pearce, Omar Quintanilla, Jamie Moyer, Miguel Tejada, and J.C. Romero. Adding Feldman isn’t adding Cliff Lee, but he is a different class of player than the Orioles were moving for at this time last year. Don’t be surprised if he’s starting Game 2 for Baltimore in the ALDS.

HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired 2B-R Ronald Torreyes from Chicago Cubs in exchange for International Bonus Slots 2 and 3. [7/2]

For a two-month period back in 2011, Torreyes was appearing on this site at least once a week, in Kevin Goldstein’s minor-league updates. What ever happened to Goldstein? Oh, that’s right. Here’s a write-up from June 2011:

Torreyes was the talk of Reds camp this spring, as even big-league manager Dusty Baker was publicly praising the 18-year-old Venezuelan's hitting ability, a rare feat for a player who entered the year with just 24 games of experience in North America after hitting .390/.468/.606 for the Reds’ Venezuelan Summer League affiliate. Expected to begin the year in a short-season league, the Reds surprised many by putting him on the Dayton roster over the weekend, where he went 4-for-8 in his first two games. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, Torreyes is hardly an imposing physical presence, but he combines excellent bat speed with fantastic hands and an instinctual feel for hard contact. Throw in plus speed and excellent defensive skills, and a player that was expected to be one of the ones to watch in the Pioneer League is going to give us much more information by being challenged at a higher level.

We had never mentioned him on the site (or in an Annual) before and we haven’t mentioned him since, as his run at .400 slowed to far-less-sexy slash lines. He’s been playing young all along, though, and if you can get past his size he’s got some performance bona fides as a contact hitter with some utility, if not an overall physical profile that’ll make any scout's palms sweat.

While we deduced from the Cubs’ actions that they considered $800,000 in slot space to be more valuable than Torreyes, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Astros believe the opposite. As Ben Badler wrote this spring, they had more slot money than they could reasonably spend in one summer, so this is spinning nothing into something.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Ramon Ramirez, assigned him to Triple-A Durham. [7/1]

Ramirez technically had three stints with the Giants—first in 2010-2011 and then this spring, when he was released toward the end of March. He re-signed a week later, but the third time was the harm. After starting the year in Triple-A and working his way back into the majors, he got six appearances, allowed eight runs, walked five, and struck out nobody.

Bunch those 29 batters faced together and it just looks like one awful start, but these types of bad runs are harder for a reliever to live down. Even in those awful six outings—and, really, you can’t get worse than Ramirez’s 10.26 FIP, unless it’s Ramirez’s 11.12 ERA—he wasn’t completely helpless, throwing 58 percent strikes with a 12 percent whiff rate, both low but not suspiciously low in a small sample.

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Pedro Strop and RHP Jake Arrieta plus International Bonus Slots 3 and 4 from Baltimore Orioles in exchange for RHP Scott Feldman and PH/C-R Steve Clevenger; assigned Arrieta to Triple-A Iowa. [7/2]

Acquired RHP Matt Guerrier from Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for RHP Carlos Marmol and International Bonus Slot 4 [7/2]

To all those wondering why the Cubs this winter were signing free agent pitchers in anticipation of what seemed like a lost season—and one in which they were relatively deep in the rotation, to boot—we get an answer. For half of Feldman’s $7 million salary, the Cubs got 1.2 WARP (which they didn’t have much use for) and an unorthodox package (which they very well might).

At the very least, they’ll probably use the international signing bonus slot that the Orioles sent them. Ben Badler at Baseball America went over the rules for these sorts of trades, which are a sort of bridge between the world we’ve always known, in which draft picks can’t be traded, and the world it seems like we’ll eventually get to some years down the road, in which they can. There are plenty of restrictions on how, when, and to what extent teams can pick up more bonus slot money, and one GM told me this spring that he didn’t expect there to be many trades—too many restrictions for them to take off.

Three trades have already included these slots, though, all three involving the Cubs. They add $388,000 from the Orioles; $785,000 from the Astros; and send $210,000 to the Dodgers. The riddle is trying to figure out what these slots are really worth. Unlike, say, draft picks, we don’t have a large body of research calculating just what a dollar spent on the international market returns. Even if we did, we would find that literature outdated by the new CBA, which limits free market tendencies and could distort signing bonuses. And even if that weren’t a problem, we would run into the problem of measuring just what expenses a team incurs in developing a 16-year-old Dominican kid; surely it’s a longer, more expensive tutelage than that of a 22-year-old pitcher from Orange County.

The Cubs have undoubtedly put some manpower into this question, and their conclusion is that $784,700 in bonus slots is more valuable than Ronald Torreyes.

In Guerrier and Strop, the Cubs get two lackluster relievers who have figured out at various points in their careers how to get outs without getting strike threes—the opposite, then, of the former closer they just sent away. Strop in particular is a Scared Straight video for people who don’t think that fluky relief performances can happen to them. His ERA was in the high-1s in early September 2012. Despite throwing hard and killing worms, he didn’t have the peripherals to support his sudden stardom, and since then he has allowed 25 runs in 30 innings.

Arrieta is perhaps the acquired player most likely to ultimately help the Cubs’ bullpen. He’s got a big fastball and was a top 100 prospect at 23, but he hasn’t shown the pitchability to get batters out a third time through the order, or the changeup to handle lefties. He's 27, past the age at which he can ask for patience. That all makes him a potential bullpen reclamation. A scout told MASN’s Roch Kubatko last month:

Arrieta maybe needs to be out of there. Maybe he could do something someplace else. I don't know what the deal is with him, but it's certainly not working. With his stuff ... He reminds me a lot of Phil Hughes. He throws so many pitches right down the middle and he gives up a zillion home runs. He's got good stuff, but his fastball is pretty straight, like Arrieta, and he gets too much of the plate and gets hammered.

The thing about pitching, and what he's got to learn about pitching, is that when you get in trouble, go softer, not harder. Arrieta goes harder. I think Arrieta, when he gets in trouble, goes a little too hard and it snowballs on him. He doesn't pitch and he loses his composure. He just panics.

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

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