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December 4, 2007

Prospectus Today

Johan Fatigue

by Joe Sheehan

Leading with a personal note: Sandy, if you see this, e-mail me.

---

Monday was a very quiet day in Nashville, as just a handful of minor moves were consummated against a background of constant chatter about trade rumors involving Johan Santana. I have to confess to Johan fatigue at this point. Take your pick for reasons why, whether it's because it involves the Yankees and Red Sox, or because I've yet to see a reasonable trade for any two of the teams involved, or because I think the Twins need to focus on making a trade that actually helps them or making no deal at all.

Let me run at this from a different direction. The Twins have Santana's rights for one more year, it appears they will not be signing him, and are being hindered in their efforts to trade him by his ability to invoke his no-trade clause if the destination isn't to his liking. It's as if Santana is advancing his free agency by a year, reducing the risk he'll be exposed to by throwing another 220 innings before he gets a huge payday. It's not an unreasonable tactic by Santana, but it only works if Bill Smith and the Twins accede by making a trade in which they have limited leverage.

The tack I'd like to see Smith take is different, and admittedly aggressive. Rather than trade Santana for 80 cents on the dollar, I'd like to see them pull out of the discussions with the Yankees and Red Sox, and plan their 2008 season around getting as much out of Santana as they possibly can. Santana has, famously, never gone past 120 pitches in a start. The Twins could change that in a hurry. They could shift to a five-day rotation, or even a four-man rotation. They have no investment in Santana's future-and he none in theirs-so they can justifiably maximize his value to them in the present. I'm not advocating abuse, and not saying it would be right to start Santana 42 times, or asking him to throw 15 complete games. (Odd how those figures look like abuse these days, though…)

No, I'm saying the Twins should make it clear to Santana that if they only have one more year with him, that they play to get the most out of him in that year. There's quite a lot of ground between Santana's standard workload and the upper bound for even 21st-century starting pitchers. The Twins should show that they intend to explore that territory in an attempt to compete in the tough AL Central.

Enough Santana; I just wanted to put that idea out there.

The most notable signing so far today appears to be the Royals bringing Jose Guillen into the fold for $36 million over three years. My initial reaction was an exaggerated wince; Guillen is 32, not a star, not known as a particularly good guy, and connected peripherally to the Mitchell Commission, which should have a report out once it's finished giving O.J. a hand finding Nicole's killers.

Of course, I get in the most trouble when I let my perceptions of a player drive my reactions, rather than his established performance. Guillen's performance has actually been consistent, and consistently good. Toss out 2006, which was a season marred by injuries, and since his 2003 breakout Guillen has played in 148, 148, and 153 games, with EqAs of .282, .283, and .285. His rate stats don't look so hot because from 2005-2007 he played his home games in two of the game's three best pitchers' parks, RFK Stadium and Safeco Field. He is generally considered a good right fielder with a strong arm; Clay's system gives him -16 FRAA this year, which may or may not have something to do with Ichiro Suzuki's play in center field, but regardless, that data point is aberrant. The price, $12 million a season, is almost reasonable in this market; just to pull a name out of thin air, Guillen has outhit Gary Matthews Jr. in three of the last four seasons, and is almost certainly a better player than the man with four years and $40 million left on his deal.

So Guillen is a better player than I thought he was, a better player than I give him credit for. Does that make this a good signing for the Royals? I'm not sure what they gain by adding a low-OBP, high-SLG corner outfielder. They're already committed to Tony Pena at shortstop, and seem to like John Buck behind the plate, which starts them off with two OBP sinks in their regular lineup. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler have to develop very quickly to cancel that out, and now a player who will probably have a league-average OBP joins the middle of the order.

This signing pushes Mark Teahen to left and puts David DeJesus in center field for keeps; this marks Teahen's third position in as many years. It prevents the Royals from further experimenting with Joey Gathright in center, and while I may be the only person who still thinks he can help a team, Gathright did post a .371 OBP last year for a team that had a .322 mark in toto. It may cause a trade of either Teahen or DeJesus, probably for pitching, although neither player has obvious trade value, being more secondary-skill players than primary-skill ones.

This is, in short, a move that almost has to have a follow-up move for it to make sense. Just adding Guillen to the Royals makes them perhaps a win better, or the same bump you get by downing a couple of shots and looking at their roster again. If it means they flip a corner player for a credible starting pitcher to go with Gil Meche and Zack Greinke (no, I don't think Brian Bannister will do that again, thanks), you start to see a rotation come together. Even if that happens, the Royals' 2008 upside is .500 and third place in a division that's becoming an absolute nightmare, and I'm not sure they can get to contention while Guillen is still under contract.

The money almost doesn't matter; I hate to see a team throw $36 million away, but the Royals have more than enough money to absorb a mistake contract, and Guillen isn't likely to be a disaster. League-average players have value, and Guillen is that. I just don't know if he's the right fit for a team deep in the outfield corners and needing 90 wins to even sniff a post-season berth.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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