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November 8, 2013

One Move

American League Central

by Ben Carsley

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Our whirlwind tour of the “One Move” series continues with the AL Central: a division with three legitimate contenders and two teams better left playing for 2016.

Fortunately, that dichotomy provides us with ample opportunity to explore a wide variety of strategies. Some of these teams should spend now. Others should sell, sell, sell.

All of them, of course, should listen to me. Comments are welcome as always!

Chicago White Sox: Make everyone available
The White Sox appeared to be on the path to rebuilding last season, selling off Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and others in the midst of a 63-win year. The 2013 campaign saw Chicago finish 29th in runs scored, 27th in OPS, 19th in ERA, and 16th in bullpen FIP. Aside from Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, there aren’t a ton of bright spots here.

The White Sox can’t delude themselves into thinking they can contend in 2014. Alexei Ramirez, Alejandro De Aza, and perhaps Avisail Garcia and Jose Dariel Abreu are their only decent everyday players. They have sunk costs in Adam Dunn and John Danks, and holes at catcher, second base, third base, and in the rotation. This exercise has underscored for me just how difficult Rich Hahn’s job is, as the White Sox’ farm system isn’t generally viewed as one with players ready to contribute to the MLB roster in short order.

As such, Chicago would be better off selling everything and anything that could get them back on a path to contention in a few years. Ramirez is a prime target to be moved, and could fetch a decent haul as a 2-3 WARP shortstops with two (potentially three) years of team control left on his deal. Addison Reed would be a wise player to sell high on, as teams remain determined to overpay for saves. Gordon Beckham should be sold to the first taker. Even Sale shouldn’t be considered untouchable, and could single-handedly give Chicago’s rebuilding efforts a big boost thanks to the package he could command.

Hahn’s signing of Abreu to a six-year deal suggests he may have other plans in mind, but Chicago doesn’t have many prospects left with which to wheel and deal, and this team has too many holes for a massive spending spree to fix. Starting from scratch, no matter how painful, is the best move here.

Cleveland Indians: Re-sign Scott Kazmir
The Indians are in a pretty good position headed into 2014. Their core offensive talent is intact, they have some promising young arms coming up through the system, and their bullpen contains a few quality arms, though it’s probably the club’s weak point right now. That being said, Cleveland stands to lose both Ubaldo Jimenez and Kazmir from its rotation, which will put a serious dent into a staff that finished 15th in team ERA a season ago.

Bringing Jimenez back would be most beneficial for a club that lacks a true no. 1 starter, but he’s likely to price himself out of the Indians’ range. Assuming that Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Masahiro Tanaka would also be out of reach, it becomes most practical for Cleveland to bring back Kazmir, who they seemingly resurrected from the dead in 2013.

Mariano Rivera won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award thanks to respect for his career and due credit for recovering from an injury at an old age, but there probably wasn’t anyone more deserving than Kazmir. This is a man who hadn’t produced more than 2.0 WARP since 2008, and who didn’t pitch at all in 2012. He responded by earning 2.4 WARP in 158 innings last season, and is probably in line for a two-year deal this offseason.

Kazmir isn’t the safest bet among free agents to be productive again, but the Indians also don’t have a ton of money to spend after splurging on Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher last offseason. If they do decide to open up the checkbooks, landing one of the better pitchers in this FA crop should serve to make the Indians serious contenders. If not, taking a gamble on Kazmir is a good idea as they wait for Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer to fully come into their own.

Detroit Tigers: Fix the bullpen
The Tigers finished 24th in bullpen ERA in 2013. This comes one year after the bullpen (along with defense) was generally considered Detroit’s’ biggest weakness, yet the Tigers finished 11th in bullpen ERA in 2012. That bullpen could lose its best performer and closer in Joaquin Benoit, as well as Jose Veras, for whom the Tigers somewhat mysteriously declined a $4 million option for 2014. That leaves Drew Smyly and Al Alburqurque as Detroit’s best relievers, and others like Phil Coke, Jose Alvarez, Bruce Rondon, and Evan Reed possibly contributing as well.

For a team with legitimate expectations to contend, that’s nowhere near good enough. Spending money on free agent relievers is a terrifying proposition, but the Tigers need would appear to need at least two- and possibly more – arms to add to the back of their bullpen. It’s often best to diversify when it comes to bullpen arms. Landing a premiere name like Joe Nathan or Grant Balfour is tempting, but in reality, signing two or three pitchers for what one “closer” will land is often a smarter path to follow.

To that end, Detroit should focus on signing at least two out of a group including Joe Smith, Jason Frasor, Jesse Crain, Javier Lopez, and Manny Parra, as well as perhaps taking a flier on a comeback candidate such as Joel Hanrahan or Joba Chamberlain. Maybe a happy compromise would see Detroit resigning Benoit, then signing one of the names above as well as a lesser option such as Matt Albers or Pat Neshek. Regardless of which strategy Detroit takes, they should be aiming to add 120-150 innings of effective relief to a bullpen that sorely needs it, while perhaps still leaving them enough money to resign Omar Infante or replace him with a Mark Ellis-like option.

Kansas City Royals: Trade Billy Butler for a good, young starter
This is a team with a good young nucleus that can certainly compete for a playoff spot next year thanks to a strong offensive core and an outstanding bullpen. The rotation, though, is a different story. There’s James Shields, who is quite good. What follows is a collection of players who are either oft-injured, inexperienced or just not very good.

What the Royals should really do is resign Ervin Santana or sign Ubaldo Jimenez, which would give Kansas City around 400 innings of stability atop a rotation that’s otherwise in flux. That’s extraordinarily unlikely to happen, given their payroll situation, but the rest of the market doesn’t offer exactly what they need. Players like Bronson Arroyo and Bartolo Colon offer the ability to eat innings, but without upside. Players like Josh Johnson and Phil Hughes offer upside, but can also fall apart and may be too expensive.

With that in mind, the Royals’ best option is to trade for a starter, and their best means for acquiring such a starter is through trading Billy Butler. He’s a fan favorite and was the lone bright spot for a poor Royals team for many years, but in reality he’s a 2-3 WARP player best served staying out of the field. The Royals will survive without him. Teams like the Mariners could use a player like Butler, although their recent QO to Kendrys Morales makes that somewhat unlikely. The Orioles, Pirates, Giants, and Brewers make some sense as well, but none of those teams is well equipped to trade pitchers at a time like this.

Instead, the perfect landing spot for a team like Butler is Oakland, which has a bevy of young pitchers and could largely play Butler at DH. A swap of Butler and, say, Dan Straily and some monetary relief would work for both teams, and could provide Kansas City with roughly a two-win pitcher for next to nothing for the next several years. It’s not a sexy trade, and the Athletics would certainly appear to win based on name value, but it’s one from which both teams could benefit.

Minnesota Twins: Sign Josh Johnson and/or Phil Hughes
While the Royals should be steering away form the likes of Johnson and Hughes as they fill out their rotation, opting for a mix of safety and upside instead, the Twins should be taking the exact opposite approach. Expensive middle of the rotation types like, Ricky Nolasco, should be used as complimentary pieces. BOTR types like Arroyo and Jason Hammel, who just eat innings, are available every year, and there’s no point in Minnesota wasting funds on them now.

But players like Johnson or Hughes are excellent risks for a rebuilding team. If they perform up to their previous abilities, they can be dealt midseason for hefty packages, or even made QOs to net draft picks. Lesser comeback candidates like Shawn Marcum, Scott Baker, Gavin Floyd, and Colby Lewis would be decent buys as well.

Minnesota could be a decent market for those looking to reestablish value as well, as what they lack in competitiveness they make up for in a favorable home ballpark for pitchers. And with Kyle Gibson the only pitcher in the Twins rotation with a real future in the organization, any reclamation project would be assured of a long leash in the rotation, too.

The Twins might not be as far away from contention as they initially appear. A young nucleus of Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks, Gibson, Josmil Pinto, and Brian Dozier is in place, and there’s plenty of help on the way in the likes of Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, and others. It’s going to take another year or two, though, and there’s little point in Minnesota dolling out any significant contracts now.

Ben Carsley 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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