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December 6, 2013

Transaction Analysis

The Yankees Count on Kuroda

by Ben Lindbergh, R.J. Anderson and Mike Gianella

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Ryan Webb to a two-year, $4.5 million contract. [12/6]

A minor deal, relative to Friday’s front-page free-agent signings, but one to circle. Webb, whom the Marlins deemed expendable before Monday's non-tender deadline, is a large righty equipped with a good fastball-slider combination that generates copious amounts of groundballs. He improved his performance against left-handed pitching last season, in part due to an increased emphasis on pitching inside, as pointed out by Grantland's Jonah Keri. (Over the past two seasons, Webb has nearly doubled his rate of pitches on the inside part of the plate.) If that improvement holds—and it's reasonable to think it should, at least on some level—then Webb could be in line for high-leverage work with the Orioles, though at this point in the offseason it's too early to declare him a dark horse candidate to close. —R.J. Anderson

NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $16 million contract. [12/6]

Yankees fans who had their worldviews turned upside down when they learned that they’d lost a marquee, homegrown free agent to a team from the Pacific Northwest—I know, your heart bleeds—can take some solace in the return of Kuroda, a rotation stalwart for the past two seasons. It’s presumptuous to say that the Yankees know what they’re going to get from Kuroda—he is, after all, a starting pitcher, and about to turn 39—but he’s shown a metronomic consistency since the Dodgers brought him stateside.

The right-hander has posted a walk rate between five and six percent in each of the past six seasons, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio between 3.3 and 3.6 in each of the last five. He’s so consistent that his sameness seems to extend to factors he can’t completely control: even his BABIP has barely budged. Winning teams, losing teams, National League, American League, West Coast, East Coast, pitcher’s park, hitter’s haven—nothing can disrupt Kuroda’s rhythm.

If there’s a cause for concern, it’s Kuroda’s late-season swoons in both years with the Yankees, the latter of which was much more pronounced. Kuroda posted a 6.56 ERA over his final eight starts, skipping his between-starts bullpens to try to stay sharp, and he didn’t bother making what would have been a meaningless last late-September start. His velocity and strikeout/walk rates stayed strong during that stretch, so the culprit appeared to be impaired command mixed with a bit of BABIP regression. Kuroda has topped 200 innings for three consecutive years, but if the Yankees want him to remain effective for the duration of next season, let alone a potential playoff push, they’ll have to do what they can to lighten his workload early on as he approaches age 40.

Even if Kuroda has to be handled with increasing care, he’s well worth the risk of bringing him back at little more than a cost-of-living increase. The Yankees have a good thing going here: qualifying offer or not, Kuroda likely could have commanded a multi-year deal after each of the past few seasons if he’d wanted one, but it’s been one year all the way, and the Bronx, NPB, or bust. The Yankees’ rotation still has holes (question marks, if you want to put it charitably) at the back end, but at least they won’t have to worry about filling a new one up front. —Ben Lindbergh

TEXAS RANGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed C-R J.P. Arencibia to a one-year, $1.8 million contract. [12/6]

The glass-half-empty analysis of Arencibia is easy, and begins with his bat. Arencibia had the 20th-highest swing rate among the 200-plus hitters who saw at least 1500 pitches last season. In itself, that’s not a bad thing—many of the 19 hitters ahead of him had good offensive seasons. But Arencibia’s swings weren’t wise ones: he also had the 12th-highest chase rate and the 20th-lowest contact rate. The result was a .227 on-base percentage, a number so amazingly low that it boggles the mind even if you desensitize yourself by looking at Vernon Wells’ player card first. Only one other hitter since 1887 has had a lower on-base percentage in as many plate appearances: shortstop Hal Lanier, who posted a .222 OBP in 1968, when the league average was 20 points lower.

If you need another reason to be pessimistic about Arencibia, there’s the fact that he was non-tendered. The team that took him with its first overall pick, brought him to the big leagues, and watched him there for three full seasons decided that they’d be better off with Dioner Navarro at roughly the same price. Alex Anthopoulos said some nice things about Arencibia’s personality—when he’s not complaining about Blue Jays broadcasters, he’s apparently a pretty good guy—but words are wind, and Anthopoulos’ actions indicate that he doesn’t believe a big bounceback is coming. Teams don’t tend to regret their non-tenders.

So here’s the more optimistic interpretation. Arencibia made major strides on defense last season. As I noted in July, Arencibia—a very poor pitch framer in the past—reportedly worked on his receiving skills with Blue Jays roving catching instructor Sal Fasano in June, and the change was apparent both visually and statistically. Arencibia’s framing rated 45 runs below average from 2010-12, and he dug that deficit to 50 before Fasano’s intervention. But by the end of the year, he was in the black by eight runs on the season. Arencibia has an average arm, and he led all of baseball with 13 passed balls. Put poor receiving on top of the bad bat, and he might have had a much tougher time finding a taker. Working on his defense when he did may have saved his career.

Arencibia was never a high-OBP guy, but when was putting up ISOs over .200 and accepting the occasional walk, he was worth playing. If he can reverse a two-year trend toward worse strike-zone discipline, fewer walks, and less contact and get back to what he was at the plate in 2011, his newfound receiving skills would make him a bargain as a durable backup to Geovany Soto in 2014 (and a potential first-stringer when Soto becomes a free agent). But if his plate approach degrades any further, even a Jose Molina-like glove couldn’t keep him employed. —Ben Lindbergh

Fantasy

J.P. Arencibia

This could be viewed as a step up since Arencibia was non-tendered, but I’m analyzing this based on where Arencibia was in 2013. Theoretically, Arencibia’s power is helped by the move to Arlington, but his poor contact and high whiff rates make him less of a candidate for a Texas-sized boost than a better contact hitter would be. He is still borderline in two-catcher mixed formats and is best left to AL-only leagues, even if you are desperate for the power. That average will remain a category killer. —Mike Gianella

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

Related Content:  New York Yankees,  Hiroki Kuroda

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