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August 9, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Extending Utley (and Ryan Raburn)

by Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh

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American League
National League

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Signed UTIL-R Ryan Raburn to a two-year, $4.75 million extension with a $3 million team option (and $100k buyout) for 2016. [8/7]

Here are three things we thought we knew about Ryan Raburn before 2013:

1. He was a slow starter. Raburn, before this year, had an unplayable .224/.290/.396 career line before the All-Star break. After the break, he’d hit like an All-Star himself: .295/.346/.495.

2. He couldn’t hit righties. Raburn was a certified lefty-masher, batting .261/.333/.488 against southpaws, but his power and patience deserted him against righties, who’d held him to a .256/.305/.412 line.

3. He wasn’t very good at defense. Raburn has played every position but shortstop and catcher. (He made his first pitching appearance yesterday, striking out Matt Tuiasosopo on an 89-mph fastball.) But he’s not a natural in the infield (to put it kindly), which detracts from his value as a utility type.

The result was a frustratingly incomplete player who hit at certain times and against certain opponents, but not all the time against everyone. And when Raburn wasn’t hitting, he couldn’t compensate by playing a premium position well. After a particularly poor 2012 in which he was demoted to the minors twice, the Tigers released him in November rather than give him a raise via arbitration.

The Indians signed the division leaders’ leavings to a minor-league deal in January. The move has worked out well for both parties, since the three Raburn narratives have turned out not to be true, at least temporarily.

Raburn hit .320/.370/.620 in April; so much for “slow starter.” Although he’s done more damage against southpaws, he has hit .252/.341/.514 against righties, including five of his eight home runs. And while he’s still not very good at defense, he hasn’t been asked to do anything difficult. The Indians have a star second baseman in Jason Kipnis, so they’ve mostly (and wisely) used Raburn in right, where his glove is adequate.

As a corner outfielder/DH, Raburn’s bat isn’t as valuable as it once was at second or third, and since his platoon splits past tell us more than his platoon split present, his success against righties might be a mirage. But there is some real improvement here: Raburn has become more selective, swinging at only 44.1 percent of pitches, his lowest rate on record. And his O-swing rate is also down, to 21.2 percent, the 16th-lowest mark among the nearly 300 hitters who’ve seen at least 800 pitches this season. There’s also some small-sample fluke: Raburn has hit .305/.339/.746 with runners in scoring position, the kind of clutchness that endears a player to his new teammates and fans but shouldn’t influence a front office.

Seven months ago, the Indians bought low on a 31-year-old who was tarnished free talent. Now they’ve extended high on a 32-year-old whose most productive time with the team is probably behind him. As a post-prime, fringe-glove corner guy who’s historically been best suited for the short end of a platoon (and who doesn’t destroy lefties), Raburn has pretty limited utility for a utility type, and the opportunity cost of carrying him at 34 could be considerable. This isn't a steal, but the Indians have few potential replacements in the majors or the upper minors at Raburn’s position(s), and at $2.25 million for next season and $2.5 million for 2015, he doesn’t have to repeat his 2013 to justify the deal. —Ben Lindbergh

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Signed 2B-L Chase Utley to a two-year deal worth a reported $27 million guaranteed, plus health-based vesting options that could make the deal worth a total of $75 million. [8/7]

It’s tempting sometimes to process real baseball through the lessons we’ve learned in fantasy baseball, and in fantasy baseball few things are better than the excellent-or-injured player. He’s available at a discount because he’s unreliable, but when he’s on the field he’s extremely reliable. He’s a second-round talent available in the 10th round. He’s Chase Utley.

Utley is absolutely excellent. Since 2010, he has been roughly as valuable as Ian Kinsler, more valuable than Brandon Phillips. He has also played 120 fewer games than Kinsler, and 170 fewer than Phillips, because he’s been injured so much. His defense grades out as elite, even at age 34, and he has hit like Dustin Pedroia over the past four seasons, but the question is what all those injuries mean for Utley. Do they make him, as in fantasy, a bargain, or do they make him too risky?

Since 1950, there are 13 players who have done what Utley has done: Compile at least three seasons between the ages of 30 and 34 in which they produced at least 1.5 wins while playing no more than 125 games. (These parameters are designed to include Utley, but without being too exclusive: Utley has produced at least 2.9 WARP per year in each of the past four, while not (yet) topping 115 games, in ages 31-34 seasons.) The strike-shortened 1994 and 1981 seasons were excluded, and catchers were excluded because 125 games is a full season for them, and Ken Phelps was excluded because injuries weren’t the issue. Here are the 13:

Will Clark, George Brett, Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, Nick Punto, Russell Branyan, Scott Rolen, Ron Gant, Jose Canseco, Otis Nixon, Mookie Wilson, Rance Mulliniks, Fred Lynn

Let’s ignore for now that Chase Utley is miles better than Nick Punto and some of the others on this list. The question is whether these good-or-injured types stay good, stay injured, or … something else. We’ve got players of all sorts of skill sets and talent levels and one thing in common: they were good, or they were hurt, through age 34.

So how did these players do after age 34? As you’d expect from a varied group, the answers vary. Will Clark continued to be healthy or effective, and annually produced more in ages 35 and 36 than he did from ages 31 to 34. He and Ron Gant alone improved in their ages 35-36 seasons. George Brett alone played at an All-Star level after 35, while nobody performed at an MVP level. Rolen and Lynn saw their performance decrease, but they were still above-average contributors. Nixon and Canseco contributed some value but were below average. Hafner, Punto, Branyan, Wilson and Mulliniks were replacement level or worse, though all had been below average from ages 31 to 34. Youkilis is in danger of the biggest collapse, as he’s already at replacement level and he’s still only 34.

As a whole, the group lost about half of its value when it turned 35. Only three of the 13 players maintained even two-thirds of their annual value. It’s not easy to stay effective when injuries keep getting in the way; health and performance aren’t, unfortunately, independent of each other.

If Utley follows the rest of the cohort and sheds nearly half his value starting at age 35, he’ll still be close to worth his salary. Even with his regular disabled listings, he has produced about 3.5 wins per year over the past four, and he could push that figure even higher in the next two months. At around $13 million per year guaranteed, even a two-win player can sleep well at night.

Three vestings options on the back of the deal are a bit trickier to unpack, and the combination of clauses could ultimately benefit either side. There are scenarios where you can imagine that the Phillies would profit from an Utley injury, as those injuries activate club-friendly options. On the other hand, injured players aren’t nearly as easy to replace in the majors as they are in most 12-team fantasy leagues. While Utley has been shelved over the past four seasons, his replacements have hit a collective .225/.281/.307. So the Phillies would surely be happy to see him shed half of that excellent-or-injured label and watch all the options vest, on Utley’s terms. —Sam Miller

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

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