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July 17, 2014

Painting the Black

The Stealth Steals

by R.J. Anderson

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Although we've published more than 100 Transaction Analysis columns since November, the reality is not every signing or waiver claim gets covered. Most of those missed transactions amount to nothing, but a few result in larger impacts than expected. Here are five uncovered moves that yielded good returns during the first half, along with what we would have written if we had covered them at the time, and what we should have written if we'd focused on exactly the right details.

Chris Coghlan

The stats: .275/.355/.477 in 171 PA

The likelihood: Closest PECOTA percentile: > 90th

The move: Signed to a minor-league contract by the Cubs in January.

What we would have said: Coghlan, the 2009 Rookie of the Year, hasn't been a productive player since his sophomore campaign. What he has done is prove that he's neither durable nor an infielder, which leaves him as an unreliable extra outfielder. It doesn't help that Coghlan's power numbers have declined—his ISO over the past two seasons is .080—while his strikeout rate spiked in 2013, meaning there's not a ton to like about his offensive profile. Yes, Coghlan won an award five years ago, but so did Jim Tracy; something else they have in common: neither belongs on a big-league roster.

What we should have said: Coghlan hasn't done much in the past few years, but there are reasons to think he could improve. To wit, he's missed considerable time due to injuries, spending more than 50 days on the shelf in three of the past four seasons. In addition to health, another thing Coghlan has lacked is a consistent position, as he's shifted from left to center field, and from center to a super-sub role. The former is more important than the latter, but also tougher to influence. If the Cubs can help keep Coghlan on the field—and that's admittedly no small task—they might see him return to his decent average and on-base skill ways. Who knows, he might hit for some power, too.

Zach Duke

The stats: 1.18 ERA/1.76 FIP in 38 IP

The likelihood: Closest PECOTA percentile: > 90th

The move: Signed to a minor-league deal by the Brewers in January.

What we would have said: As good as Doug Melvin is at finding cheap relief arms, Duke appears beyond salvage. He hasn't posted an ERA better than 4.50 over a full season since 2009, and last year's moves—to a lower arm slot and to the bullpen—didn't help. The few positives that remain in Duke's game are his strike-throwing ways and experience across multiple roles; both fine traits, no doubt, though neither is enough to make him worth carrying on the big-league roster. He's good organizational depth, just don't let the name value deceive you into thinking he's anything more than that anymore.

What we should have said: As good as Doug Melvin is at finding cheap relief arms, Duke appears like a safe bet to outperform his projections. While Duke has changed his arm slot and role, his control remains as good as ever. If he can find a way to miss more bats, or at least barrels, he could find new life in short relief. How could Duke go about doing that? It's hard to say for sure, since pitch usage is all about the interplay, but maybe an increase in curveballs would help keep batters honest.

J.D. Martinez

The stats: .346/.380/.654 in 205 PA

The likelihood: Closest PECOTA percentile: > 90th

The move: Signed to a minor-league contract by the Tigers in March.

What we would have said: Martinez was, not too long ago, a celebrated prospect in the Astros system. He accomplished more by debuting in 2011 than the average 20th-round pick does in a career, and scouts thought his bat could carry his star higher, perhaps all the way to a career as a second-division starter. Yet Martinez's bat failed to translate to the majors. That sub-par offensive production left him without a carrying tool, and the Astros with no choice but to move on. Now Martinez has signed, in what could be a misstep, with an organization that has more talent than the Astros; after all, if he had trouble latching onto the Houston roster, then what chance does he have in Detroit? We have enough reason to believe Martinez can perform in the minors without seeing him rake in Toledo all summer; what we need instead is evidence of his ability to hit in the majors, and that is unlikely to be found this year.

What we should have said: There is hope for Martinez if he can fix his mechanics. As is, he brings his back elbow above his shoulder during his load, which lengthens his swing and limits his quality of contact. If Martinez is willing to overhaul his stroke, then perhaps some of his past offensive potential can resurface. The good news is the expectations are low with Detroit. Martinez can spend time in the minors, tinkering and figuring out what works best, then head to the majors when called upon and play his role. It's not like anyone will expect him to outhit Miguel Cabrera.

Collin McHugh

The stats: 3.28 ERA/3.56 FIP in 82 IP

The likelihood: Closest PECOTA percentile: > 90th

The move: Claimed off waivers from the Rockies in December.

What we would have said: Nothing to see here. McHugh has underwhelmed in short stints with the Mets and Rockies, and features the same finesse profile—good control of so-so stuff—that has doomed many arms to a career riding buses. Given that this is the Astros, it's possible that McHugh sees extended time in the majors next season. If so, keep Houston fans in your prayers.

What we should have said: If there are two things McHugh does, it's throw strikes and change speeds. Though you wouldn't know it based on his previous big-league starts, sometimes that combination can lead to short-term success. Those who squint during McHugh's starts will be reminded of Ian Kennedy, thanks to his beard and mannerisms. It could be worse, Astros fans—it could be Jerome Williams.

Steve Pearce

The stats: .316/.383/.567 in 209 PA

The likelihood: Closest PECOTA percentile: > 90th

The move: Designated for assignment (later re-signed to a minor-league deal) by the Orioles in April.

What we would have said: Pearce is a useful, if one-dimensional bench player. His lone marketable attribute is his ability to hit left-handed pitching; otherwise, there's little depth to his game. He did hit righties better than usual in 2013, but the sample was so small and uncharacteristic that it's hard to take it seriously. The Orioles, with Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young in hand, don't need Pearce anymore; there are plenty of other teams that do.

What we should have said: Not only is Pearce going to triple his career-high in home runs, he's going to hit well against righties and set a new career-high in plate appearances. Oh, and he'll do this before the All-Star Game. Just kidding. Even baseball has its limits.

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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