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December 13, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Inspecting Morse

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

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Reportedly agreed to sign RHP Joba Chamberlain to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. [12/12]

“On the mound, the future looks outstanding,” Kevin Goldstein wrote toward the end of the Yankees’ Top Ten list in January of 2007. “Their bounty of young pitching is the envy of baseball,” he added after the next November’s rankings, whose under-25 talent list Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain topped. A lot can change in six seasons; these days, the Yankees and young pitching are no longer mentioned in the same sentence, unless it’s to point out how little they have. With Hughes heading to the Twins and Chamberlain departing for Detroit, we can officially close the book on the two phenoms’ first 12 combined years of service time, and the results aren’t anything to envy: a total of 15.2 WARP. Cue the sad trombone sound.

There’s no need to write an epitaph for the pitchers Hughes and Chamberlain were supposed to be; we’ve been doing that ever since it became clear that some combination of injuries, makeup, and mishandling had turned them into more ordinary arms. Their new teams’ expectations aren’t as high as New York's once were: Hughes just has to pitch like a league-average starter to make Minnesota look smart, while Chamberlain has to succeed as a setup man to be a bargain for Detroit.

Chamberlain, who recently turned 28 and whose four-seamer still averages over 95 mph, went for the same price as Paul Konerko and an about to be 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins because he hasn’t been effective for a full season out of the bullpen since 2010, when his low strand rate and high BABIP hid strong peripherals. The waistless right-hander is coming off the worst performance season of his career, after missing most of the two before that thanks to Tommy John surgery and a trampoline-induced ankle injury. His two-walk, three-run Opening Day outing set the tone for the season, and he was a mess after missing most of May with an oblique strain, working almost exclusively in low-leverage opportunities. Only four relievers threw at least 40 innings and allowed walks more often; only five had a higher homer rate.

Chamberlain used his slider more often last season than he had since his dominant 2007 debut, but because his command was off, the pitch didn’t get nearly as many swings as it had in the past.

When the slider did draw a swing, it yielded a whiff 42.6 percent of the time—still a solid rate, but a far cry from the heady days of 2007-8.

In 2007, Chamberlain’s slider made him unhittable with two strikes. But last season, hitters did much better against him with two strikes than they did against the league (in italics).

OPS Allowed with Two Strikes, 2007 and 2013

Year

After 0-2

After 1-2

After 2-2

2007

.318 (.474)

.120 (.541)

.364 (.633)

2013

.683 (.454)

.660 (.507)

.699 (.597)

Detroit has to hope that Chamberlain stays healthy, and that being further removed from his surgeries helps bring back his command and control. One tactic that might be worth a try for the Tigers: shifting Chamberlain closer to the first-base side of the rubber. As Tommy Rancel recently suggested, moving on the mound would save the slider from having to cross the width of the dish en route to its intended target down and away to right-handed hitters. If Chamberlain regains the ability to put the pitch where he wants it, it won’t matter where it starts out, but as long as he’s struggling to spot it, inching toward first might prevent some sliders from ending up over the plate, and over the fence. Then again, he’s already standing closer to the first-base side than he was during his most successful seasons. Regardless of where he is on the rubber, leaving New York for Detroit will make for a more significant change of scenery, which can't hurt.

If the Tigers are indeed done making deals, as this tweet issued prior to the news of Chamberlain’s signing suggests, then their bullpen—which will have lost Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras to other teams, and Drew Smyly to the rotation—still looks a little shaky. The uncertainty at the back end of last year’s unit obscured what was, on the whole, a fairly effective relief corps, and the newly signed Joe Nathan should nail down the ninth. But losing last season’s two best bullpen pieces means that the Tigers will have to build a bridge to Nathan with a walk-prone Rondon-Chamberlain-Alburquerque-Coke combo. If the Prince Fielder and Doug Fister trades were any indication, Dave Dombrowski has been working with some financial constraints this winter, and he's managed to bring the bullpen warm bodies without breaking the bank. However, those savings will come at the cost of occasional middle-inning anxiety. —Ben Lindbergh

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-R Justin Ruggiano from the Marlins for OF-L Brian Bogusevic. [12/12]

A classic tit-for-tat trade. The Cubs had too many left-handed outfielders, the Marlins not enough, so they got together and swapped one for the other. Ruggiano is athletic enough to play across the outfield, and strong enough to provide above-average power production. Unfortunately, those positives are undercut by a weakness against offspeed pitches, limiting him to fourth-outfielder status. The Cubs could use Ruggiano in a center-field platoon alongside Ryan Sweeney, depending on how the rest of the winter plays out, with the chance to trade him at the deadline for a little something. —R.J. Anderson

Fantasy

Justin Ruggiano

Ruggiano offers an enticing speed/power combination for fantasy owners, but this assumes that he's playing. Moving to Wrigley hampers the chances of an everyday job, and a platoon with Nate Schierholtz is the best case scenario. Ruggiano is a fine fifth outfielder in NL-only, and maybe the move to a part-time role will keep his batting average from hurting your team, but his upside just became a little more limited. —Mike Gianella

MIAMI MARLINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-L Brian Bogusevic from the Cubs for OF-R Justin Ruggiano. [12/12]

Assuming the Marlins enter the season with Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Jake Marisnick or Marcell Ozuna in the outfield, then playing time another right-handed outfielder figured to be spare. (After all, it's not like Miami is going to platoon Yelich.) That left Ruggiano with little to no role on the 2014 Marlins. You can understand Dan Jennings' decision to swap outfielders then, with an eye on a better fit and a better price tag. Bogusevic has been a decent hitter against right-handed pitching throughout his career, and should be able to give each of the youngsters a breather now and again. —R.J. Anderson

Fantasy

Brian Bogusevic

Yes, it's possible that Bogusevic claims the starting center field job and builds on his decent 2013 campaign (small sample size) in 2014. However, it's more likely that Bogusevic is simply a placeholder for Jake Marisnick or Marcel Ozuna, with Marisnick the most likely candidate to benefit. Bogusevic could be a sneaky 20/10 HR/SB candidate if he is the starter, but it won't take much for one of the Marlins aforementioned prospects take over the role. —Mike Gianella

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Signed RHP Roberto Hernandez to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million. [12/12]

You just knew a savvy team would sign Hernandez and benefit when his ERA aligned with his xFIP in 2014. Yet if someone's faith in regression will be rewarded, it won't be a team normally considered savvy; instead it'll be the oft-derided Phillies. Analytically, Hernandez is an extreme ground-ball pitcher with a good strikeout-to-walk ratio and an inflated home run rate. It doesn't take a quant to understand what the Phillies see in Hernandez: He's a big, physical righty with a heavy, low-to-mid-90s sinker—which he likes throwing at lefties' hips, with the pitch running back over the plate, a la Greg Maddux—and two good secondary offerings. Were it not for erratic command and perceived focus issues, Hernandez could be a capable back-end starter.

But those are neither small nor easily correctable issues. So, while the Phillies can work with Hernandez on his mechanics, pitch usage, and focus, the Rays did the same thing last season without his ERA falling in line. Alas, there are other issues at play. Even ignoring the shift in ballpark, the Phillies' infield defense allowed a .260 batting average on groundballs last season, as opposed to the Rays' .234 mark. The best-case scenario here is akin to what Henderson Alvarez did last season, when he allowed a homer every 51 innings after allowing one every six innings the season before.

On the flip side, there's Kevin Jarvis, who allowed home runs in more than a quarter of his outfield fly-balls in 2000 and 2001. The good news for Jarvis? He secured a three-year deal after the season, due in part to his team-leading 12 wins. Hernandez is unlikely to enjoy the same fate if he stinks in 2014. —R.J. Anderson

Fantasy

Roberto Hernandez

In Ruben Amaro’s own words, this was a “bottom-of-the-rotation signing," so right off the bat we’ve eliminated interest in Hernandez from all but the deepest of leagues. While he was occasionally useful last year, compiling a 4.89 ERA in 151 innings, that the Rays could not fix what ailed him is a concern. That he’s moving from the Trop to Citizen’s Bank Park is another mark on the negative side of the ledger. Some may harbor some hope, thanks to Hernandez’s 3.60 xFIP, but that seems more like a fluke than anything compared to his recent seasons, and his FIP has been ugly all along. What he does do well is generate ground balls, and while that will aid him in surviving CBP, his command woes, which led to an unseemly 21 percent HR/FB rate last year, will likely be his undoing. He’s barely fit for the back end of Philadelphia’s rotation which means you can safely ignore him in your own. —Craig Goldstein

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-R Michael Morse to a one-year deal worth $6 million. [12/12]

No matter how many times I watch Jeremy Guthrie pitch, I never expect him to throw as hard as he does due to his size and strikeout rates. The same applies to Mike Morse. No matter how often I view his stats, I never reconcile his brutish appearance with the fact that he's hit 30 home runs in a season just once. But, because of health and defensive woes, that is the case. Morse's 30-homer effort came in 2011 and doubles as the only season in his pro career, which stretches back to 2001, in that he recorded 500 plate appearances. It would seem then that Morse would benefit more from the DH than most players.

Yet Morse will not be a DH in 2014, at least not most days. Rather, he'll be a left fielder for a team that plays in a spacious field. It's an awkward fit that seems derived from the allure of power. While no one can blame the Giants for wanting more power—especially if there is something to the idea that teams underperform without it—the problem with Morse is reliability. He's as strong as an ox and can leave most parks from pole to pole, he's impossible to pencil in for more than a few hundred plate appearances each season.

The good news for San Francisco is they have depth to cover for the inevitable Morse injury. Gregor Blanco is a capable fourth outfielder, and Brian Sabean tends to find a useful piece each winter on a minor-league deal. And you never know, maybe Morse gets that second 30-homer season next year. —R.J. Anderson

Fantasy

Michael Morse

There is a good chance that Morse is the starter in left field for the Giants, but it isn't realistic to except him to be the same hitter he was back in 2011, and the Giants' home park doesn't help Morse at all. In a best case scenario, Morse gets off to a hot start, runs away with the job, and swats 25 home runs. However, a 15-HR campaign as a quasi-platoon hitter is likely a more realistic scenario. Morse is worth a flier in deeper mixed leagues, but it's likely he won't work out.

Gregor Blanco

It didn't seem realistic that Blanco was going to open the season as the Giants everyday left fielder, but now it's obvious that he won't. Blanco offers a little speed, but outside of NL-only formats he won't have a lot of value if Morse stays healthy. —Mike Gianella

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

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