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May 5, 2014

Transaction Analysis

For Whom the Bell Tolls

by R.J. Anderson

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Joel Hanrahan to a one-year deal worth $1 million with $3 million in incentives. [5/2]

A fine low-risk deal. Hanrahan entered last season owning some of the more impressive stats in the game over the previous two seasons. He then blew two of his four save chances and tore his UCL. Whoops. How Hanrahan's stuff returns is anyone's guess—at least until he's back in action in about a month or so—but he doesn't need his upper-90s fastball and goofy slider to come back in whole to pitch effectively out of the bullpen. Should all go well, Hanrahan ought to be in line for a better payday this winter, which makes his situation equatable to Brian Wilson's last year.

Houston Astros

Signed LHP Tony Sipp to a one-year deal worth $700 thousand at most. [5/2]

Sipp never found his footing with the Diamondbacks after coming over in the three-team Trevor Bauer trade. He spent this spring with the Padres, and even reported to the minors for a brief stay. Now Sipp is back in the majors, as the Astros need healthy arms. Despite stellar strikeout rates, Sipp does not have great stuff. He relies on deception and wile, with the former stemming from his unorthodox delivery. One thing to watch for with Sipp is his walk rate; he's had control issues in the recent past, yet threw a lot of strikes during his time in the minors. In all likelihood it's just a small-sample fluke against inferior competition, but if he continues to find the zone he could return to effectiveness.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Designated RHP Heath Bell for assignment; recalled RHP Nathan Karns from Triple-A Durham. [5/4]

The Rays acquired Bell as part of a three-team trade that landed them Ryan Hanigan, so the deal wasn't a total bust. Bell struggled with his command to the point where he was relegated to a glorified mop-up role. Joe Maddon used the portly righty on back-to-back days three times in the past two weeks, including over the weekend, when he had him throw 71 pitches. Yet Bell was only second in the bullpen in innings pitched, trailing Josh Lueke, who somehow remains employed despite equally poor command (and that's to ignore the non-baseball reasons for disliking him).

Karns was also added via trade during the offseason. He has a good fastball-breaking ball combination and should add length to an overused bullpen.

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Agreed to a three-year extension with 3B-R Chris Johnson worth $23.5 million guaranteed with a club option worth $10 million. [5/2]

Just when it looked like the Braves' extension frenzy had passed, Frank Wren completed the most surprising deal of the bunch. Johnson, put simply, is unlike the other players Atlanta signed to long-term pacts; he's not young, homegrown, nor likely to improve. The heart of the transaction remains true to the others, however, as the Braves traded security for cost certainty at a discount.

Whether Johnson is a player who deserves to feel secure is debatable. Once considered a throw-in to the Justin Upton trade, the 29-year-old third baseman played well last season, authoring his third above-average offensive campaign in four tries. Johnson is an aggressive swinger who strikes out a good deal more than he walks. His power is usually reserved for doubles down the lines, though he can and will leave the park 10-to-15 times a year. Johnson's average then has to buoy his offensive production, and while his eagerness to use the opposite field helps, that remains a tricky proposition. Meanwhile, his strong arm is the nicest thing about his otherwise below-average defense.

While paying Johnson seven figures seems like an undesirable proposition, Wren, who has proven to be a quality GM during his time in Atlanta, had his reasons for this deal. Rising costs aside, consider how Johnson offers the exact production that arbitrators value more than teams. He ranks 13th in True Average among third basemen since 2012, but he also ranks fourth in average and sixth in doubles and hits. The latter means more to the arbitrators.

Another angle is how the Braves lack a true alternative. Perhaps Edward Salcedo recovers from a slow start and becomes the monster many thought he could. For now, that's all prayer. Kyle Kubitza might be useful, but he's yet to pass the Double-A test. Then there's Victor Caratini, last June's third-round pick, who continues to split time at catcher and third base. An obvious external solution doesn't exist, either. Not unless the Braves were willing to throw serious bucks at Chase Headley or Pablo Sandoval this winter; both of whom have some questions to answer anyway.

In the end Wren chose Johnson for what amounts to a few slight raises. Take Johnson's 2014 salary (about $5 million) and add $2 million in subsequent winters; there's $16 of the $23.5 million right there. Is locking in Johnson's first free-agent year and potentially securing his second worth $7.5 million? Maybe not, but that's only a million more than Juan Uribe received in AAV in December. Johnson doesn't have to be Chipper Jones to make this okay.

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

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