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July 24, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Centerpiece of the Franchise

by R.J. Anderson and Nick J. Faleris

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Acquired RHP Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers for INF-L Nick Delmonico. [7/23]

If the 2012 Orioles taught us anything, it's that a stellar bullpen can sometimes overcome a shaky rotation. It requires a few things to be true—the rotation can't be so bad as to give away games, and the offense must be potent enough to overcome some early-inning shortcomings—but it can be done. This year's Orioles have failed to replicate that late-inning success, in part because both units have performed worse as wholes*.

*It's worth noting that the Orioles' bullpen numbers are skewered by some poor performances, notably Pedro Strop's messy work. Several relievers have pitched as well or better than they did last season, meaning their team rank doesn't tell of the actual talent level.

Dan Duquette is unwilling to go quietly, so he's made two small moves in recent weeks. First he added Scott Feldman to bolster the back of his rotation. Now he's grabbed Rodriguez from the Brewers, ostensibly with an eye on using him as one of his late-inning relievers. Rodriguez has taken a weird path to this point. He was unemployed until mid-April, spent another few weeks in the minors, and then—upon joining the big-league club—ascended to the closer's role before he could find a suitable apartment. What looked like a cheap milestone grab—Rodriguez needed six saves to reach 300 for his career—instead appears to be a transparent attempt to increase his marketability.

Whether the ploy worked or not is unknown. Rodriguez did show in 25 innings that he can still contribute in the majors. His fastball sits in the low 90s and he uses two secondary offerings, a changeup and curveball, to keep hitters honest. The changeup is worth watching in particular, since he's willing to use it as an out pitch against right-handers. While Rodriguez is unlikely to keep his ERA this shiny moving forward, he does set off a chain reaction in the O's bullpen. His arrival means Buck Showalter can use Rodriguez, Darren O'Day, or Tommy Hunter in the sixth inning if needed; it also bumps a lesser reliever from the totem pole.

Adding Rodriguez won't be the flashiest move of the deadline, but it will improve the Orioles. R.J. Anderson

BOSTON RED SOX
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Reportedly agreed to a seven-year extension with 2B-R Dustin Pedroia worth approximately $100 million that begins in 2015. [7/23]

Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano will be connected until they retire. Both debuted within a two-year span—Cano in 2005, Pedroia in 2006—as second basemen on large-market postseason staples, and enjoyed early success—Cano finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2005, Pedroia won the award in 2007. Tuesday's news that Pedroia would sign a long-term extension ensured another similarity, as both will enter the 2014 season with nine-figure contracts in place.

There are preexisting lines of demarcation between the two players. Cano is 10 months older with a cleaner health record while Pedroia has the quicker wit. The big difference is the perception of their talent levels and playing styles. Cano is talented to the point of boredom; he makes plays look easy, too easy at times. A snap of his wrist can generate the force necessary to complete a throw to first base on plays where a lesser player would need to contort his body or arm to achieve the same result. Cano is smooth and cool. Pedroia is short, which is synonymous with gritty and untalented; an assertion as inaccurate as they come: Pedroia is the rare all-around batter capable of hitting for average, drawing walks, and generating a surprising amount of pop (relative to his size) without striking out often.

Those perceived differences will bubble again in the coming months. Pedroia's extension transitioned from rumor to completion stage in a week's time. Cano's pending free agency appears to have no end in sight, and has entailed a representation change—to Jay Z's agency, no less—causing consternation from Yankees fans worried about the team's luxury tax-averse ways. Invariably some hackneyed columnist will write about how Pedroia's actions demonstrate his team-first attitude, while Cano is all about the money—and just wait until a fan eats his hat because of Cano, then all bets are off.

Beneath the silly generalizing there is a valid point: Cano's contract will make Pedroia's extension look better than it is. There are a few obvious reasons why Cano will and should earn more money on his next deal. After all, Cano is a free agent at season's end. Pedroia would not have qualified until winter 2014 at the earliest, and the Red Sox held a club option for 2015. Beyond logistics, advanced metrics suggest Cano may be the superior player. Cano owns a six-point edge in career True Average while accumulating more plate appearances. The resident fielding metric of choice likes Cano a lot more, gifting him a sizable lead in Wins Above Replacement Player. In a vacuum, picking Cano over Pedroia is a defensible decision.

But the Red Sox were not picking between the two players, and if they were, they may have chosen Pedroia anyway. Pedroia's comment in Baseball Prospectus 2013 stated, "When he's on the field, Pedroia is the centerpiece of the franchise." That remains true today. Boston has embraced Pedroia—his personality, his monomaniacal work habits, and his inner-drive to improve and win—traits required of any player signing a long-term deal. As such, Ben Cherington is willing to overlook the opportunity cost involved in handing out a nine-figure contract.

Realistically, the alternative cost might not be as great as it seems anyway. In addition to Pedroia the Red Sox have two players due guaranteed money beyond the 2014 season: Shane Victorino (through 2015) and Clay Buchholz (through 2015 with club options for 2016 and 2017). Boston's farm system is teeming with quality, cheap labor, creating more budget room, though they won't need it to re-sign another player to a long-term deal worth market value. Even if this deal goes sour, it seems unlikely to hamstring Boston from making additional moves. Of course not being a toxic doesn't necessarily mean the deal is without warts.

There are some questions worth asking about Pedroia's long-term viability. Nate Silver's past work on aging curves indicates second basemen age poorly, perhaps for some obvious reasons—the players aren't athletic enough to play shortstop or third base, nor offensively gifted enough to play first base. Perhaps that's partially why Pedroia is the 43rd player to sign a $100 million deal but the first second baseman. Pedroia's injury history is also worrisome. Although he's made just three trips to the disabled list over his career, he's played through various other ailments. Last year he fractured a finger during the season's final week and continued to play, even with the Red Sox eliminated from postseason contention. On the flip side, Pedroia's hardheaded nature makes him the perfect player to gamble on; the perfect player to promote as the organization’s face, as he's apt to continue working hard regardless of the payday.

By signing this extension Pedroia has ensured the Cano comparisons will continue. In time Cano will sign a fatter contract. It'll be well-earned, but expect Pedroia to use it as a motivational tool, and others to use it as a symbol of everything that separates two of the best second basemen in baseball. —R.J. Anderson

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Acquired INF-L Nick Delmonico from the Orioles for RHP Francisco Rodriguez. [7/23]

A potential late- to supplemental-first round selection entering his senior year at Farragut High School (Knoxville, TN), Delmonico suffered through an underwhelming spring leading up to the 2011 draft, accented by a nagging back injury. As a result, the Georgia commit dropped all the way to the sixth round where the Orioles grabbed him with the 185th overall pick and inked him for just over $1.5 million (late-first round money). Detractors saw a high school catcher who lacked the arm strength and lower-half quickness to stick behind the plate long term, and a fringe-5/5 hit/power projection that could land him as a tweener at the hot corner or first base. Baltimore saw an advanced approach coming out of a pro body with bloodlines (his father is a seasoned college coach and his brother a minor leaguer), and enough athleticism to fit somewhere on the dirt.

155 games into his pro career, Delmonico continues to draw mixed reviews. He immediately shifted out from behind the plate in his first full season—2012—splitting time between second base and first base. The second base experiment did not last long, however, and 2013 has seen a further shift down the defensive spectrum with Delmonico playing two out of every three games at third, while otherwise splitting his time between DH and first base. His average arm strength is borderline for the left side, and while he is generally a solid athlete he has not seen enough growth in his lower-half agility to make the five spot a likely long-term home.

That means Delmonico’s value will be almost exclusively tied to his bat. The good news is that he has carried his advanced approach over to the pro ranks, showing solid on-base skills and generally excelling at pitch identification. The swing, however, can get hitchy on the backside, leading to length and inconsistent barrel delivery. The result is too many ill-struck balls, inconsistent plate coverage, and a tendency to commit too early (which can negate the utility of his pitch-ID and tracking). When he does square one up, he can put a charge into it, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can get his swing to where the benefits of his approach and raw strength can be fully tapped into.

Also worth noting are his periodic trips to the disabled list, costing him much needed reps over parts of the last season and a half. As he continues to climb the ladder, Delmonico will face arms capable of exploiting his holes, making the next 15 months a particularly important developmental span. The ceiling is an everyday corner infielder capable of hitting out of the six spot for average or better power and around a .250-260 average. The gulf between that and his present profile, however, remains large. —Nick J. Faleris

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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