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November 14, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Windy City Double Date

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Acquired INF-S Wilson Betemit and RHPs Jhonny Nunez and Jeff Marquez from the Yankees for 1B/OF-S Nick Swisher and RHP Kanekoa Texeira. [11/13]

While I can understand the Sox losing their patience and quitting on Swisher after what has to be seen as a monumentally disappointing season, it's also an instance of trading down; I don't think Kenny Williams would have taken Betemit, Nunez, and Marquez for Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos, and Ryan Sweeney a year ago, but perhaps he would. We shouldn't understate that all three players received back have immediate value to the Sox, and that the Sox system needs talent.

To go for the guys who might be billed as the small fry first, it's important to recognize that both Marquez and Nunez may well show up on the South Side next summer. Marquez is a sinker-balling fiend with good velocity and useful off-speed stuff, one who keeps the double play in order with an exceptional move to first base. (That last matters when you've got A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate.) A strained lat cost him chunks of June and August and all of July, but he was sharp enough in the Arizona Fall League to impress; it isn't implausible to suggest he'll be in the mix for the rotation from when pitchers and catchers report, battling Clayton Richard for the fifth slot in light of Jose Contreras' likely absence in 2009 as the veteran Cubano recovers from surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles tendon. Nunez has consistent low-90s heat that he whips at the plate from a three-quarters delivery. Moved from the rotation to relief work this summer by the Nats and left in the pen by the Yankees when they picked up the former Dodgers prospect in a seemingly nothing deal at the deadline, Nunez seemed to come into his own, striking out 36 against 12 walks in 33 1/3 innings after the shift, with a 1.62 ERA. That's promising, to be sure, and it's not going to surprise me to see the lanky 23-year-old Dominican pitch his way into the Sox' pen picture at some point next summer.

However, a lot of people are going to focus on Betemit vs. Swisher, and with a certain reductionism, might see Marquez as the player who makes up the difference. However much I lament the alacrity with which Williams winnowed away last winter's prize, and wish he might have gotten a better package in return, I nevertheless think the deal's better than that for the Sox, not just because of the virtues of the pitchers already described, but because I can see how Betemit gets a fresh start with a team that can use his positional flexibility to advantage, and perhaps give him the extended opportunity that he didn't have last season, between the Yankees' relatively set infield and a spattering of vision problems early (pink eye and corneal ulcers sound pretty icky, if you ask me), and hamstring problems late.

What Betemit really brings to the table is something the Sox were supposed to get out of Swisher: an ability to hit for power as a lefty, and there, Betemit's track record might prove more to Ozzie's taste, with more contact but still plenty of pop: Betemit's hit .269/.339/.460 career against right-handers. His glove work up the middle is never going to earn a gold star, but with an infield already experimenting with Alexei Ramirez at short, potentially trying out rookie Chris Getz at second, and with third baseman Josh Fields still struggling to return to favor, that's three question marks. With Betemit in the fold, the Sox can suffer an unhappy answer from one of the three and have a veteran with pop to plug in. A platoon with Fields at third suggests itself, of course, but even in that instance, if Ramirez or Getz needs a day off, I think it's better to have a utility infielder who actually plays a bit than scaring up some new Ozuna type from the depths of the bench. If Betemit hits 20 homers as a near-regular with the White Sox, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Add in the versatility and the Sox's needs in the infield, and you can definitely see how this might work for the Sox as a matter of addressing positions where they lack depth by dealing from a spot-the outfield corners-at which they had some.

To bring this back to a summation of sorts, while I'm not wild about dealing Swisher when his value was down, and accept that there's a reasonable likelihood that this deal looks bad in the shade of whatever it is that Swisher does as a Yankee, the Sox got some kind of value, and it isn't impossible to see how, by 2010, they might have a key infielder and two pitchers on the big-league staff to show in their own defense. To my fellow statheads rushing to condemn Kenny Williams, I'd suggest that this wouldn't be the first time he did something we despaired of, and that ended up turning out pretty well. With the big money committed to Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, and Jim Thome, and with Carlos Quentin back in action next season, and in the face of the evidence that Swisher can't really play center all that well, there's reason to accept the need to move Swisher now.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Declined their club option on LHP Damaso Marte. [11/6]
Re-signed LHP Damaso Marte to a three-year contract with a club option for 2012. [11/12]
Acquired 1B/OF-S Nick Swisher and RHP Kanekoa Texeira from the White Sox for INF-S Wilson Betemit and RHPs Jhonny Nunez and Jeff Marquez. [11/13]

The genius to the Swisher deal is that it's a down-market solution for an up-market franchise. Swisher's already under contract through 2011 for a little more than $21 million over those three seasons, with a 2012 option for $10.25 million that takes just a mill' to buy out. For a team that has problems to resolve at first base and/or right field as well as center field, getting a player with experience at all three positions this early in the Hot Stove season engenders all sorts of follow-on possibilities. The Yankees can look at fixes at all three problem positions, but they can afford to be flexible and pick the best two fits instead of locking in on any one option. They can still pursue Mark Teixeira to play first for them, but they can also keep Bobby Abreu informed of where they're at on that front, and that might help keep the latter's price down if he's determined to stay in pinstripes. It might even deke him into the kind of discounted, short-term deal that would really be in the Yankees' best interest, whether Tex signs with the Yankees or not. If the rumors surrounding Yankee interest in Mike Cameron are true, the major items on their winter shopping list may well be reduced to Abreu and Teixeira and one of the premium starting pitchers, starting with CC Sabathia and then going down the list. Admittedly, much of this was already in the cards, but acquiring the financial certainty and positional flexibility that Swisher brings to the table-all for a reserve infielder and mid-grade farm arms-that's just tasty.

That said, for every Yankees fan glad to see the back of Betemit, keep in mind that there are just as many White Sox fans equally glad to see Swisher in somebody else's stripes. From his earliest days with the A's, Swisher's been seen as something of an emotional player, and not in that tightly-wound Paul O'Neill sort of way. Maybe this doesn't matter in a clubhouse where the potential distactions for the media are legion, and maybe this is the sort of thing that playing on a club with a number of national stars reduces to a minimum. Big things were expected of Swisher on the South Side, and he failed to deliver. If the Yankees don't get Teixeira while waving good-bye to Jason Giambi, will any less be expected of Swisher in the Bronx? I think not. Will that have an impact? I have no idea, but the point is, few commentators, whether inside the game or out, do.

Setting that sort of thing aside, however, clearly it's a good thing to have a player with lefty pull power capable of booming for the Bombers. The new Yankee Stadium will be short down the lines, same as the old one, which plays to Swisher's strengths at the plate even better than the Cell did (whatever his disappointments on the road, Swisher did hit .247/.361/.517 in Chicago), so on a simple tools level, Swish's gifts as a hitter should play well here. As far as his other skills, Swisher's a good glove in an outfield corner, but playing him in center, while endurable if the alternative's a still-flailing Melky Cabrera, exceeds his recommended settings. His ability to play a good first base appears to be taken for granted in scouting circles, but his performance record is a bit more mixed-he's not seen as a significant asset by Dewan's Plus/Minus and Clay Davenport's fielding metrics, although he gets endorsed by Revised Zone Rating (thanks, Hardball Times).

Finally, to clean up another item, at first blush the Marte deal seems entirely affordable, averaging $4 million per year through the option year. That might seem like a lot to commit to a reliever through his age-37 season, but he's seen as one of the reliably useful situational relievers in the game. However, should he be? If there's a cautionary note to strike, it would be that the Yankees might be a premium for his recent good work; his WXRL total last season of 3.69 was a big improvement on his '07 (1.23) and '06 (-0.05) and '05 (1.15). Moreover, his performance record against lefties is far from reliable:


vs. LHBs   AVG/ OBP/ SLG
2008      .247/.326/.353
2007      .094/.227/.125
2006      .225/.300/.315
2005      .267/.389/.378

2004      .143/.259/.214
2003      .169/.241/.242
2002      .149/.237/.218

Now, before suggesting that we need to start worrying about whether or not there's a curse of Cecilio Guante or something, what Marte's relative full seasons of work against the men he's supposed to get out suggests is that he was one of the great lefty ice men, and he's still quite useful against them, but he's not gifted with the same reliable dominance he used to provide. There doesn't seem to be a relationship between these variations in value and his relying overmuch on his slider in one season or another, and his fastball's still consistently in the low 90s. We might ascribe this to the limited sampling that's inherent with situational usage patterns, and the equally natural inclination to lose something with age, and it certainly beats paying overmuch for Scott Eyre or the like, but it does make you wonder if Marte's compensation hasn't been pegged to what was his best season in years, instead of more in line with his lesser value in past seasons.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Acquired RHP Kevin Gregg from the Marlins for RHP Jose Ceda. [11/13]

It would be easy to exaggerate a response to this move, because Ceda's a hard-throwing comer who may well have helped provide an answer to this team's bullpen needs in a post-Kerry Wood universe. It might stick in the craw of Cubs fans because Gregg's someone the Marlins fished out of the back end of the market in an inspired bit of bargain-hunting before the 2007 season and is therefore almost definitively replaceable, and here the Cubs will end up paying him so much more than that because of a pending arbitration case and the perceived value of a few 'S' marks next to his name in a few boxscores. It might also give Cubs fans a case of the LaTroy Hawkins-influenced heebie-jeebies over who's closing for them, because there might be concern that Carlos Marmol might get a case of the yips if pushed into the premiere slot in the pen, but now also because some felt that Gregg had his own bout of stage fright trying to get a 30th save last season-a statistical accomplishment that he ended up not reaching.

There is considerable justice in some of these complaints, but not others. There's not a lot of reason to fear Marmol pitching the ninth. I know, that might sound a lot like what Cubs fans heard in this space about Hawkins in 2004, but until a guy gives you substantive reason to fear using him in that slot in the pen, I believe in giving talent the benefit of the doubt. Similarly Gregg's bad patch in the second half can be explained more than a bit by the bad knee that took a lot of the sap out of his season in August. While Gregg's final WXRL total for 2008 is a decisively mediocre 1.18 (good for just 85th in the majors), it's also important to note that he crested at 2.54 through August 12th before the knee potentially contributed to a trio of blown saves that brought that mark crashing down to 0.80 by the end of the month. Fredi Gonzalez spoke up in defense of Gregg at the time, noting that his closer hadn't uttered a peep to the press about the knee.

As much as we can't know much for certain when it comes to causation, I guess I'm prone to accepting this stuff at face value; it's probably aided by the fact that Gregg's performance in 2007-when he posted a 3.51 WXRL and ranked 24th in the majors-was consistent with what he'd been doing up to that point in early August last summer. It's also worth comparing that kind of productivity to what Kerry Wood did for the Cubs last season as the team's closer: a WXRL of 2.23 and Fair RA of 3.20 (to Gregg's '07 FRA of 3.50). So, generally speaking, if you want to talk about Cubs' closing and you allow for a decision to leave Marmol in the set-up role, replacing Wood with Gregg makes a certain amount of sense on a statistical level. Add in that you're a win-now club, but that you might not want to pay an injury-prone pitcher that, however far back you go together, doesn't seem inclined to give you a home-town discount in his pursuit of a multi-year deal for as much or more that you'll have Gregg signed for in 2009, and there's also an economic logic to it. On a certain level, this isn't about the Cubs' 2009 budget, it's about their 2010 budget, and if they don't improve on their two quick exits from the last two Octobers in 2009, they're going to need to shake things up.

I also think we need to give the Cubs some benefit of the doubt when it comes Marmol, the question of closing, and money. To be blunt, Marmol's more valuable to the team as a multi-inning reliever than he would be merely notching one 'S' after another; indeed, one of the cool things that a healthy Gregg does for this team is give them a multi-inning pitcher who helps the club minimize the need to carry a 12th pitcher, perhaps also minimizes the need for a premium situational lefty, and allows Lou Piniella the tactical, in-game freedom to potentially bring Marmol in even earlier.* Money also matters here-Marmol will be arbitration-eligible after 2009, when Gregg not-so-coincidentally will be eligible for free agency. That's not to accuse the Cubs of pre-emptively undermining Marmol's case by keeping him away from logging saves-far from it, I expect that if Lou Piniella decides to use Gregg to set up Marmol interchangeably or has them change roles during the course of the year, that's a decision that will be made for purely baseball reasons.

Which brings us to the pound of flesh it took to get Gregg in Wrigleyville, and it's here that I think Jim Hendry made a mistake, overpaying for an arb-eligible player from a team on a mission to pare down it's number of dates with the arbitration panel. In 2009, Ceda very easily could have been to Marmol what Marmol has been to Ryan Dempster in 2007 and Wood in '08 and now Gregg in '09. Admittedly, the Cubs' system doesn't present a ton of tantalizing talent to barter with, and perhaps they're banking on Jeff Samardzija to be the next Marmol, understandable given that they're home to his biggest believers.

*: I know, I'm wishcasting for a return to '80s-style pen usage patterns here somewhat, but anything that brings back benches with people who can hit on them and creates a richer tactical environment is going to make me a happy analyst and a happy fan.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Acquired RHP Jose Ceda from the Cubs for RHP Kevin Gregg. [11/13]

There's not a whole lot to say here, not after Kevin already did a lovely job earlier this week of summing up Ceda's virtues, and after I've touched on the lamentable necessity of spending within Lorian limits, ditching a second-tier reliever on the cusp of getting genuinely expensive has no less logic to it than ejecting Jacobs or twinning Olsen and Willingham in a dump of National dimensions. Of all the Marlins' arb-dumps these last few weeks, this one looks like the most rewarding yet. Armed with triple-digit velocity and the classic closer's complement of a power slider, Ceda's not that far off from major league-ready right now. If Matt Lindstrom's the closer of the present, he may have competition before the season's out, or someone to do for him what he did for Gregg in his first two Fishy campaigns, with apologies to Leo Nunez and the rest. Again, to Michael Hill and Larry Beinfest, not a lot else to say but nicely done.


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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