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December 7, 2015

Transaction Analysis

The Pelf On The Shelf

by R.J. Anderson, Rian Watt, Wilson Karaman and Christopher Crawford

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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 Mike Pelfrey to a two-year deal worth $16 million. [12/4]

Ponder this: what is Pelfrey good at? Not staying on the field—he missed most of the 2014 and 2012 campaigns; not eating innings—he hasn't topped 170 since 2011; not striking out batters—his career-high is six per nine; and certainly not posting shiny ERA—last season's 4.26 mark is the closest he's gotten to the league-average over a full season since 2010. You might say keeping the ball in the park and/or on the ground, and those are fair (and technically correct) guesses. But the top answer, it turns out, is signing widely panned two-year contracts with American League Central teams.

How does Pelfrey do it? Partially by coming cheap—not by everyday-world standards, but so far as veteran, free-agent starting pitchers go. Analysis that hinges on dollars-per-win is inherently flawed, yet if you can tolerate that method for a paragraph, then think about it this way: the Tigers are paying Pelfrey to be worth a win per season. That's doable, especially if you choose the right metric and focus only on his full-season efforts—and yes, it's a bad when multiple filters are required:

Season/Metric

BP WARP

B-Ref WAR

FG WAR

2015

0.9

1.4

2

2013

0.6

-0.3

2

2011

0.9

0.4

0.9

From that perspective, the contract is acceptable (or close enough, anyway)—so why is it so underwhelming? Because of the context surrounding the deal.

Based on the Tigers' offseason additions, it's clear that Al Avila intends to win in 2016. At the same time, Pelfrey wouldn't appear to be the best way to accomplish that goal. Most contenders fill their rotations by picking a side of the variance spectrum. Pelfrey is somewhere in the middle, and not in a good way: he marries the skill set of a boring, low-variance starter with the unreliability of a high-variance one; he is, in other words, the worst possible combination of the two—like a Michael Bay film without the action, a Gucci Mane song without the beat.

The Tigers have a number of baby starters nearing their due dates: Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Luis Cessa, and even Shane Greene and Buck Farmer. At this point, do you want them in your opening day rotation—alternatively, can you trust them over a full season? Probably not. The same is true for Pelfrey, of course, but therein is the rub: there's nothing lost long-term by running him out there; there could be for those young arms. We're so accustomed to the Dombrowski-era Tigers rushing their pitching prospects to the majors, that it's hard to fathom when they do something to safeguard against that possibility.

The catch is that Pelfrey only works as a safety net if, well, he works. Otherwise, the Tigers could be compelled to run one of their youngsters out there for 20-plus starts while Pelfrey transitions to the bullpen. As swell as plopping a ground-ball pitcher in Comerica Park and letting him sink and split the ball to his heart's content sounds, this is far from the perfect marriage for other reasons. Pelfrey, low strikeout rate and all, is more dependent on his defense than the average bear; that's a bad thing here, because the Tigers finished last season as the AL's worst defensive team on ground balls—yes, even with Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias stationed up the middle.

Perhaps Detroit has a fix in mind—might their new analytical hires lead to improved shifting?—but until they do something on that front, you can understand why folks are reacting to this signing with skepticism.

Signed C-S Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a one-year deal. [12/6]

One of the biggest bargains of the winter. Really. Because Saltalamacchia will continue to collect his salary from the Marlins, his cost to the Tigers is the big-league minimum and nothing more. That's a sweet deal for Al Avila, who needed another catcher after his son departed earlier in the winter to join the White Sox.

Forever a below-average defender, Saltalamacchia is and has always been employable due to his bat. While he suffered through odd circumstances in 2015—he was dismissed by the Marlins after nine games and later missed time due to two separate stints on the disabled list—he nonetheless finished the Diamondbacks' portion of his season with a .251/.332/.474 line over nearly 200 plate appearances in Arizona. This being Saltalamacchia, those numbers comprised a heavy blend of strikeouts, walks, and extra-base hits.

Presumably Saltalamacchia will serve as James McCann's backup, though there's always the chance he hits himself into a greater role as the season progresses. —R.J. Anderson

TEXAS RANGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Announced OF­-R Patrick Kivlehan as the player to be named later in the Leonys Martin trade. [12/2]

Kivlehan is a tougher nut to crack in terms of projection, and an interesting name to change teams as a PTBNL. After taking his first three years of college off from baseball to focus on football, he brings significantly less polish to the table than your typical 25-year-old former fourth-rounder. The football pedigree is immediately evident in a look at Kivlehan, as he presents a hard-nosed aggressiveness in his actions, particularly at the plate. His pre-pitch setup involves all the subtlety of a supercharged electron, leading into a deep load and mild bat wrap as he begins his weight transfer. He can struggle with his timing and pitch recognition, getting out ahead of his bat's long path to the zone when he does. His strong wrists and core help generate above-average bat speed, and there's enough leverage and natural strength to suggest above-average playable power as a possibility. But the approach and overall hit tool currently lag to below-average projection, likely limiting the game utility at the highest level.

On the other side of the ball the Mariners were not shy about exposing Kivlehan to all that a baseball field has to offer: dirt, grass...well, that's pretty much it, but the right-hander saw reps at all four corners this year (and even a few in center for good measure). He shows average game speed with solid pickup, but the arm strength isn't anything special and his lack of experience will shine through in his route-running at present. Still, he boasts enough athleticism that, coupled with a noted work ethic, he should be able to play himself into a passable defender at either corner.

It's a profile with limited upside, but there's a likely future for Kivlehan on a big league bench thanks to the defensive versatility and pop. —Wilson Karaman

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Jose Ramirez from the Mariners in exchange for cash considerations [12/4]

If you see Jose Ramirez on his best days, you'll see one of the best pure relief prospects in all of baseball. He'll touch the high 90's with his four-seam fastball, and if he had any clue where the pitch was going, it'd be a plus-plus pitch. His ridiculous arm speed also gives him a chance for a plus-plus change, but the pitch is rarely in the strike zone and occasionally the arm slot will give away the offering. He'll also show a fringe-average slider, one with enough tilt to miss bats even if it's—you guessed it—frequently outside of the strike zone. His delivery is a perpetual mess and he'll never throw enough strikes to be a guy you trust in the ninth inning, but there's just enough upside here to believe he could become a set-up man if you make a mechanical adjustment or ten. —Christopher Crawford

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed IF Chase Utley to a one-year, $7 million contract. [11/11]

Age, dispiritingly enough, comes to us all; so too has it come to Chase Utley. At some point in the next decade, you’re going to be able to make a summertime trip to Cooperstown and hear Utley’s name ring out over crowds of red and blue, but for now you’ll have to content yourself by watching him play out the string in Los Angeles, near his boyhood home. That’s not to say that he’ll be terrible—he’s projected for 1.5 WARP next year, and PECOTA doesn’t think he’ll be below replacement-level until 2021—but rather that it can be difficult to square the image of Chase Utley, Hall of Fame Second Baseman, with the reality of Chase Utley, Perfectly Adequate Stopgap Until Jose Peraza is Ready to Take Over.

That second version of Utley is actually a pretty solid option for the Dodgers. The terms of the deal haven’t yet been reported, but they’re unlikely to be anything close to jaw-dropping, and while Utley’s 2015 wasn’t sensational by any means, it also didn’t feature a complete skills collapse: his walk rate dropped a little, sure, and his strikeout rate rose, but a lot of his offensive weakness last year (.240 TAv) seemed to have to do with balls failing to find gaps. His BABIP dropped to .230—the lowest mark of his career—while his hard-hit percentage stayed even with 2014’s mark of 30 percent, which came in a season in which he put up a .287 TAv and 4.5 WARP. I’m not saying Utley will bounce back to that level, because getting older is hard, but there’s reason to believe that his decline won’t be dramatic.

In 2016, he should help shore up Los Angeles’s situation at second and third base, where he’ll share time with Enrique Hernandez and Justin Turner, both of whom are battling injuries (shoulder and knee, respectively). Peraza might see time at second, too, especially towards the end of the season, and Austin Barnes is a possibility there as well, although it appears the Dodgers’ front office wants him to spend time at catcher. All told, this is a solid depth deal for the Dodgers, and a nice way for Utley to finish up an great career. —Rian Watt


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
Rian Watt is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rian's other articles. You can contact Rian by clicking here
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Wilson's other articles. You can contact Wilson by clicking here
Christopher Crawford is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christopher's other articles. You can contact Christopher by clicking here

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