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January 17, 2008

Transaction Analysis

No lieben for Lieber?

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
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Re-signed C-R Doug Mirabelli to a one-year, $550,000 contract.

When you're on top of the world, your fetishes become flamboyant and idiosyncratic. Only later, when you're on the way down, are they seen as grubby predilections.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Signed LHP Nate Robertson to a three-year, $21.25 million contract.

Not a bad risk as these things go. Robertson's drop-off last season seemed to be directly related to a spike in his hits allowed, and that's on the defense as much as anybody. Not that Miguel Cabrera at third and Edgar Renteria at short will make matters massively better in 2008, but he'll be getting a lot more run support, and if Renteria's simply adequate at short, I'd expect to see Robertson improve. This might seem like a lot to pay for a pitcher who's sort of their fifth man, but the Tigers' rotation is one where that sort of distinction doesn't matter much. They've got Justin Verlander up front, and then four guys you'd like to have. Admittedly, Kenny Rogers, Dontrelle Willis, and Jeremy Bonderman all involve some element of risk-all could and should enjoy much better 2008 seasons, but all of them could also continue to frustrate people inside the game and out. In contrast, Robertson's a relatively known quantity who should fill the bill for the length of time that he's been inked to.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Agreed to terms with OF-R Marlon Byrd on a one-year, $1.8 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

Sort of like Mr. Goldman, I like to play comparison games of my own with contemporary and historical players, comps that don't really have anything to do with PECOTA's more rigorous sensibilities. Byrd's had an interesting career of sorts, and I guess I ponder his lot and think of Harry "Suitcase" Simpson. Like Simpson, Byrd can play, and he had a short stint as a prospect before he wound up being a filler guy on bad ballclubs. That's not a knock on either of them-they were both good enough to play in the absence of better alternatives-and it's nice to see Byrd score a payday, especially after enduring the standard-issue tender mercies of thousands of disappointed Philadelphians. However, it's also worth noting that last season's breakout was the product of some pretty unusual spikes in his BABIP and his line-drive rate-if you don't believe me, go get Dan Fox's cool BIP Chart tool, it's the freebie that keeps on giving-which suggests that Byrd's going to see his numbers drop pretty steeply. He'll still be useful enough, but he's essentially irrelevant to the organization achieving a better Rangers ballclub at some point in the future.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Signed RHP Jon Lieber to a one-year, $3.5 million contract.

To be blunt, I'm not really wild about this decision. If the Cubs were going to spend money on a starting pitcher, that's not a bad idea in itself, nor is signing Lieber to a one-year deal for this kind of money, not in the abstract. The real problem is that they would have been so much better off inking somebody with at least the potential to be decisively better than both Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall, so that they might instead wind up with a happy answer to who's the fourth man in an October rotation. Instead, they've got Lieber, who gives them a third body to contend with Marquis and Marshall for the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation, without automatically outclassing either of them. Lieber's supposed to be healthy, and who knows, maybe that even lasts into April, so there's a good chance that Marshall loses his spot, at least until Lieber breaks down. The happy way of looking at this is that the Cubs will have solid depth, and they can leave the worrying about October for six months from now.

If there's an element I don't like, it's almost like signing Lieber is a bit of keepaway lest he signed with one of the other dwarves in the division, and thus, as moves go, it's not too dissimilar from last fall's ill-considered pickup of Steve Trachsel. That sort of pretzel logic might also note that Lieber's exactly the sort of right-hander who might cause problems for a Cubs lineup that leans pretty heavily to the right, but in fairness, so do the Brewers, and pitching in front of the Crawford Boxes is another in-division problem it's worth worrying about.

The other benefits? Well, having Lieber around for however long should mean that Sean Gallagher should be able to avoid getting shuttled back and forth across the cornfields between Wrigleyville and Des Moines. The other wrinkle is that I hope that this squelches the flirtation with making Ryan Dempster a starting pitcher. Brave talk that he was once an All-Star and a 15-game winner is just that, without mentioning that those feats were also on the other side of Dempster's hurting his shoulder. To give Jim Hendry some benefit of the doubt, there's nothing wrong with taking a look to see-who knows, maybe Dempster is the new Neil Allen, wahoo!-because if Dempster's able to provide some flexibility, that's a happy thing. However, he might also have some value in trade going into the last year of his contract, although even there, holding onto Dempster until a couple of weeks into the regular season might make sense, until Lou Piniella decides he can rely on Kerry Wood as a closer, and Wood shows the ability to snap back physically from one outing to the next.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Signed LHP Mark Hendrickson to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

History usually isn't very kind to placeholders, but in the same way that I always joked about compendiums of player bios that didn't achieve any great notoriety (when I dreamed of publishing a book called They Also Played), there's something to be said for employing a guy who will, if nothing else, take the ball when asked. With all of the drama and doubt about who's going to be able to pitch, how well, and how enthusiastically, having an extra experienced body can't hurt a team that really has to be focused on simply fielding a full team. With both Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez out of the picture for the time being, anything that involves not having to repeat last summer's rush job on Rick VandenHurk might represent a moral victory of sorts. It's not worth trading Dioner Navarro for, of course, but some general managers move in mysterious ways.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Claudio Vargas on a one-year, $3.6 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

You have to hope this isn't money they'll be spending on their third-string fifth starter. Vargas' utility as the guy on the very bottom of a rotation is all well and good, but the Brewers have a number of better options, and the hope here is that Doug Melvin will be able to deal Vargas to some suitably needy team once they're absolutely convinced that Yovani Gallardo and Carlos Villanueva are locked in. As is, should Chris Capuano be ready to go by late February (lest we forget, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in October), he'll re-enter the picture, and it isn't like David Bush and Jeff Suppan are chopped liver. It's a nice problem to have, but one which I would hope is resolved by the Brewers putting Vargas in somebody else's rotation by Opening Day.


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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