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July 19, 2007

Transaction of the Day

Extensions and Kendall

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Signed LHP Mark Buehrle to a four-year, $56 million contract extension. [7/8]

I suppose there's something gratifying about how the Sox are the team of action in town, the ones with the can-do spirit that lets them say "go for it!" and damn the consequences, the beancounters, the corporate weenies, the Cubs...

Oops. That didn't take so long, did it? There is the interesting contrast to be drawn here, between the White Sox, bejeweled from their '05 exploits, the doers who, if you want to paint with a really insanely broad brush, might seem to be more representative of the Chicago of Algren and Terkel, of the city that works, of Bridgeport and Daleys and the city that doesn't work quite so well after all. But all of that also comes with a certain South Side mean streak, and one talon in that mind set's arsenal is... not envy, not exactly, but a certain desire to not simply keep up with the Joneses, but to make sure the Joneses understand that they're number two with a bullet, and if they so much as contest the point, they'll get that mousekiller in the eye.

I may totally off base, but I think part of what's involved with the decision to amply over-reward Mark Buehrle for what he's been is to draw an important distinction between the Sox and the Cubs. The Sox were winners, the Cubs aren't winners, the Sox are taking care of one of their heroes, and the Cubs, what are they doing with Carlos Zambrano? Sitting on their hands in typical Cubby corporate limbo. So let's show them.

That's the glib, gut-level reaction to the signing, and I think there are other basic, market-specific factors involved. Buehrle has been seen as the reliable workhorse for more than six years now, the opposite of guys like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in every way--a southpaw, durable, with a record of success in the postseason, someone who has never been burdened with the adjectives associated with all-time greatness or once-in-a-generation talent by scouts. Where Prior was turned on for not being what was expected, Buehrle's been lionized for being the high achiever, the one who strives. He's just a doer, and that goes over well, probably anywhere, but especially on the South Side.

Second-guessing the atmospherics aside, however, does this make sense? At $14 million per annum, I think the answer really should be a clear "no," especially when you take a look at his MORP over on his PECOTA card's valuation segment, which pegs Buehrle's value for the next four years around $8 million. However, keep in mind that the replacement level for MORP is set at a more historically-minded level, and isn't an absolutely perfect reflection of contemporary market behavior.

Beyond that, here are two reasons why I wouldn't wring my hands over the expense for the franchise's sake. First, it's worth remembering we just witnessed a winter silly season where Ted Lilly's making $10 million per for the next four years, Jeff Suppan's making more than $10 million for the next four or five years, Gil Meche got $11 million per year for five years, and Barry Zito got $18 million. I know, this might seem like I'm using a "who's the shortest mental midget in a duel of wits?" argument, but to be fair to the GMs, this is the market, what Buehrle's being paid isn't unreasonable by the standards of the present. Zito's deal is the only really delivering genuine heartache, as well it should, for its length (seven years) and amount.

The second thing I think it's worth noting to Buehrle's worthiness is his list of comparable pitchers. Between Jim Kaat circa 1967 and Jerry Reuss circa 1977, Buehrle has two highly comparable pitchers at the age of 28 who were as durable subsequently as they had been up this point of their careers. The next most-comparable lefties involve a less happy trio--Ken Holtzman '74 (two good years left in the tank), Jim Abbott '95 (none), and Greg Swindell '93 (none as a starter from that point, but with a brief multi-year run as a successful reliever, starting with the Twins in '97, yet to come). Now, that's a mixed bag, and I worry more about the relevance of the Abbott and Swindell examples--given the more similar period for offense they pitched in--than I take serious comfort from Kaat and Reuss.

Nevertheless, those factors are interesting and support Ken Williams' decision, and there are other reasons to feel good about this. If the combination of the White Sox' exceptional rotation management and Herm Schneider's training staff can keep Buehrle in full operating order, I think there's even reason to see this as a deal where Buehrle could wind up a solid investment.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Signed DH-L Travis Hafner to a four-year, $57 million contract extension through 2012, with a $13 million club option for 2013. [7/12]

I don't just dislike this move, I really dislike this move. It's not just that Hafner is already 30, or that he's posting his lowest slugging percentage in five-ish seasons as a regular, and a hundred points below his career slugging average. It's that he was already under contract through 2008, and that the Indians therefore already had him tied up for plenty of time in which to determine whether or not this is just a hiccup, or part of an understandable decline phase from a big, heavy DH with classic old-player's skills. His recently rally since switching over to the cleanup slot, flip-flopping with Victor Martinez, has him slugging a little over .500 in a little more than 20 games--a small sample, and still way off of his usual slugging exploits.

I think we can understand some of the reasons why you might think it makes sense. David Ortiz was one of his top PECOTA comparables before the season, and he doesn't seem to be losing much to age, but there again, Papi's pretty remarkable. To Hafner's credit, he's also completely dispensed with the concern that he's a platoon hitter, having improved from slugging .345 against big-league lefties in 2003 to .500 in 2005 and .658 in 2006. Hafner's projected value over the life of the contract suggests that the Indians have a bargain on their hands, but that's also based on the expectation that he'd be slugging in the high .500s for years to come.

On the most basic level, I worry that not only was this move premature, it was made because of some idea that Pronk's struggles were the product of concern over his future since talks about his extension were suspended in mid-April. That's a pretty expensive piece of psychiatry, and if it instead turns out to be the case that Hafner's just a hitter who had a late start, an outstanding peak, and a quick drop-off, he wouldn't be the first or last. Maybe--and only maybe--can we think this somehow gets some extra measure of buy-in with C.C. Sabathia and his free agency eligibility; like Hafner was, Sabathia's due to be able to test the market after the 2008 season. But there again, why not keep your powder dry, see what Hafner gives you this summer, and put Sabathia's extension to the head of the queue?

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Acquired C-S Rob Bowen and LHP Jerry Blevins from the Cubs for C-R Jason Kendall and cash; designated RHP Colby Lewis for assignment; recalled LHP Dallas Braden from Sacramento (Triple-A); activated RHP Connor Robertson from the 15-day DL, and optioned him to Sacramento. [7/16]

It isn't very often that you can call a flat-out dump a complete and utter victory as deals go, but Kendall's been that bad, and to describe this deal in terms of just talent exchanged or money involved is neither here nor there. What Billy Beane gained for his ballclub was buying back the playing time that was being wasted on letting Kendall play out the string of his large contract, and investing it in Kurt Suzuki, the catcher of the very near future who now gets to be the catcher of the present. Any amount of money saved is digging something back out of an already sunk cost, with the added benefit that the A's will get to give Suzuki a full trial to see if they've got their catcher, and/or if they need to go shopping over the winter for a veteran caddy who might step into a job-sharing arrangement.

In Kendall's place, Suzuki's a nimble receiver with a strong arm, and at 23, he should have enough growth potential with the bat to make a solid semi-regular, or sort of Brad Ausmus with the cape, the endorsement deal, and the contract with Mephistopheles signed in blood. In short, a useful player, but perhaps not a great one. PECOTA's not willing to gin him up to a .400 SLG between now and 2011, so as things stand now, he's a talented complementary player, but not somebody a lineup can count on or should employ above the eighth slot. As far as the token veteran spear carrier and card-carrying member of the IBBB (or International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops), Bowen's an adequate reserve, but Suzuki's limitations certainly suggest that the A's would be well-advised to find that dreamy, totally unavailable, and perhaps barely extant lefty-hitting backup with defensive limitations but a little bit of pop. Say, Greg Myers, except that his model seems to have been phased out of late.

The other throw-in on the deal garners something more than just a playing time buy-back for the A's. He's a towering, storky lefty, six-and-a-half feet tall, and throws a hard sinking fastball while sometimes getting up into the mid-90s. He'll turn 24 in September, but he's already up in Double-A, and in 53 innings between the Florida State and Southern Leagues, he'd struck out 69 while walking just 13 and allowing a lone homer. If that makes you think he's sort of another Jay Marshall type, you might not be all wrong, and it certainly makes more sense to grow your own situational lefties than pay a premium for the ones Scott Boras tells you are organic down at Whole Foods.

Big picture, turning to someone like Suzuki is neither good nor bad, but his limited upside just puts the focus back on the A's "name" talents to become premium hitters, and the track record there is more than a little spotty. Bobby Crosby hasn't panned out as some of us--myself included--expected, Eric Chavez hasn't become Barry Bonds at third base as much as the new Graig Nettles, and that leaves you with the hope that Nick Swisher just keeps on keeping on while Daric Barton and Travis Buck blossom into stars.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Signed OF-L Ichiro Suzuki to a five-year, $90 million contract extension; optioned LHP Ryan Feierabend to Tacoma (Triple-A); recalled LHP Jake Woods from Triple-A Tacoma. [7/14]
Optioned LHP Jake Woods to Tacoma; activated LHP Horacio Ramirez from the 15-day DL. [7/15]

So, Bill Bavasi contributes to the downfall of Western Civilization, and some Lorian (by marriage, handshake, or company-issued polo shirt) decides to freak out about it, and people in Seattle are dancing in the streets. I don't see anything wrong with that at all. Say what you want about the bad actor interpretation of this--and I'll stick with something like, "All we need is one more Wayne Garland contract, and the game is doomed, doomed I say!"--but I do think we have to make allowances that there are special factors in play. Ichiro is clearly the franchise's signature player at this point, and it's a signature totally unlike anyone else's because of his brand of hitting, outfield play, and baserunning. That's not anything resembling a sabermetric argument, but if you consider Suzuki the centerpiece of an entertainment industry franchise, you can add signing him to this year's happy run at relevance as a great way to arrest a five-year slide in ticket sales and try to get total attendance back up over three million this year and next.

There aren't many players where I think you have to concede that while he may or may not be all that great, losing him presents a massive setback to the club's visibility. The question here isn't whether or not Ichiro's going to be worth the money on the basis of his performance on the field--I think that's an easily-dismissed notion. Instead, I think we need to get into asking whether the Mariners could have lost Ichiro and spent that money on any combination of players this next winter, setting aside any reasonable cynicism over who Bavasi would pick, and whether they wouldn't have taken a serious hit at the box office no matter who they signed if he wasn't Ichiro. They then get to spend $17 million of next year's budget on some combination of Kosuke Fukudome and... well, you won't get Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron. Or Hunter and Eric Byrnes? Probably not. Fukudome and Corey Patterson, maybe? You might be able to get the two of them for $17 million or so total per year. Is that going to boost attendance, or is losing Suzuki going to be one of those things that just turns people off? If you lose attendance, how long before you start claiming that poor attendance is why you can't afford to keep some of your more important players? It's not hard to put yourself on this entropic, ever-deepening slide. Just ask the Pirates.

So, while normally I'd contend that this year's contention might be plenty to put people in next year's seats, but say they fail and fell out of the race by the beginning of August--not too unlike last year--and then lose Ichiro. Given that the Mariners have had some misfortunes on the free agent market, I'm not sure the Mariners can be seen as losing even more traction than they have in recent years. How many seats can you expect to sell pitching Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro to the caffeinated masses in Rainier's shadow? As a result, I'm glad he's going to remain a Mariner. It's good for baseball, good for Seattle baseball fans, apparently affordable, and if it convinces those Yankee hirelings to sell the Marlins, we might consider that just gravy.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Designated C-S Rob Bowen for assignment; recalled RHP Billy Petrick from Iowa (Triple-A); acquired C-R Jason Kendall and cash from the A's for C-S Rob Bowen and LHP Jerry Blevins. [7/16]
Optioned C-R Geovany Soto to Iowa. [7/17]

It's going to take an awful lot of faith in Jason Kendall's toughness and competitiveness and leadership and all the rest of the nicely, neatly, entirely unquantifiable list of virtues he no doubt possesses to make this pickup anything more than a really bad idea for the Cubs. Even after swigging enough Kool-Aid to get anybody's buy-in on that, you have to hope that Kendall has something left in the tank. Not just enough to just play and be better than Rob Bowen--no certain thing, that--and something more than what might be an understandably expected improvement upon his feeble .226/.261/.281 line with the A's by switching over to the weaker league. Anyone who thinks Kendall is heating up because he hit a rare homer recently can sit down and swallow Kendall's pathetic .221/.243/.309 line from the last four weeks.

So, you need for him to step back towards the useful-enough player he was in 2006, and not simply settle for the awful player he was in 2005--which would be improvement. Even then, he's a menace on offense because he's not simply a weak batter who takes you out of innings, he's a weak batter who takes you out of innings faster than most because of his remarkable ability to generate tappers to the shortstop tailor-made for twin killings. Kendall ranked in the top ten in baseball last year, and while he's not providing extra hurt to his own team at the same clip this year, he's always going to be a threat. Put him in the eighth slot of the Cubs order--or worse yet, the seventh--and I worry you'll wind up with that many more innings that wind up with the pitcher leading off. That's not always a bad thing; the obvious opportunity for a double-switch during the inning after Kendall squelches a rally might come up, but that demands that Lou Piniella become a more aggressive in-game tactician than seems to be his wont.

The real tragedy here is that the Cubs' "solution" to their catcher situation seems to mirror their similar blow-torch style attempt to cauterize their running sore in center field. Rather than actually fix things, rather than take inspiration from the Brewers' enduring faith in their own young talent and go head to head with Milwaukee by employing a pair of extremely promising youngsters in Felix Pie and Geovany Soto as the regulars at positions where the Cubs have no better options, Jim Hendry and company have instead decided to just keep picking at their scab in center, and go out and add one of the worst regular players in baseball to irreparably damage their situation behind the plate.

There is still the possibility of a patch, in that getting Kendall doesn't preclude playing Soto. I could certainly understand picking up Kendall if you wanted him to share the job with Soto down the stretch, creating a decent enough tandem of a washed-up veteran and a promising rookie to fulfill your catching needs; that's exactly what I've been hoping the A's would do with Kendall and their own prospect at catcher, Kurt Suzuki. But that obviously isn't the plan--instead, it's to keep Koyie Hill as the caddy who can't offer anything that Kendall doesn't already do badly enough by himself. That can be fixed later on in the season, of course, but when this is the decision made as far as trying to fix the club's catcher situation, when anything, even just handing the job to Henry Blanco at the end of the month, would have been better than this.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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