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December 10, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Moving and Shaking

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Outrighted RHP Fredy Deza and C-R Guillermo Quiroz to Norfolk (Triple-A). [12/8]
Acquired UT-R Ryan Freel, 1B-R Brandon Waring, and 2B-R Justin Turner from the Reds in exchange for C-R Ramon Hernandez and cash. [12/9]
Reportedly came to terms with SS-S Cesar Izturis on a two-year, ~$6 million deal. [12/10]

I'm wondering if I'm supposed to break my own fingers typing what I have in mind, but I sort of like how things are shaping up for the Orioles and their effort to more closely resemble a baseball team than Brian Roberts and Robertettes. I think getting Freel communicates that Roberts is staying put-if Mark DeRosa was going to be headed thisaways in a deal with the Cubs, Freel kind of replaces that, providing them with a player who can help out at second or third or the outfield, albeit while providing a bit more speed and OBP if a lot less power. If this really does kill off the Roberts rumors until the deadline, so much the better-nothing wrong with having a signature player who happens to be the league's best, and as much as I like prospects like Felix Pie or Ronny Cedeno, if you really want to shop Roberts, better to shop for something else and something better.

Trading for Freel seems straightforward enough-he'll end up giving this team what it had when Melvin Mora was more than just a third baseman, he's not especially expensive, and given the likelihood that the pitching-hungry O's will go with 12 pitchers, a bit of positional flexibility will matter. Similarly, it helps to have an everyday shortstop worthy of the name, because it means you aren't futzing around with a half-dozen people at a position over the course of a season. While Izturis isn't a great player, he's an entirely adequate player and an occasionally excellent defender, a significant improvement on last year's revolving door of slick-fielding nobodies and former near-miss almost-prospects. He won't propel the Orioles to great things, but he isn't supposed to-he's supposed to give the pitching staff somebody at shortstop who won't have to be briefed on the signs every few weeks. If this ends up helping Chris Tillman or Radhames Liz blossom into a confident, quality starter in the next two years, it's worth the money spent.

The nice touch was getting some prospects, even if neither are good prospects, in the deal. That's not meant as a back-handed slap at Warner or particularly Turner, but the Orioles' farm system is thin enough that even Grade C prospects have value. Turner's probably the classic gamer type, a player whose baseball instincts win hearts and minds among scouts, and whose production and quick advancement to Double-A should get similar support among statheads. He finished the year swinging a hot bat, he's a good second baseman, and he has a decent enough blend of patience and pop that, even heading into his age-24 season next year, he might translate into a solid placeholder at the keystone for somebody sometime in the next five or six years. If the O's do deal Roberts, they could do worse than getting by with the former Cal State Fullerton star, certainly. Waring's a bit more raw, but having washed out as an overtall third baseman, we're talking a first baseman headed into the Carolina League in his age-23 season, and he's going to have to take a step forward as a slugger to really pan out as anything more than an organizational type of player. It's not inconceivable, but it would necessarily have to involve improving upon his striking out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances.

The really exciting development, however, is what this means behind the plate, because with Quiroz scooted aside and Hernandez sent away with few regrets, it's obvious that we're at the dawning of the age of Matt Wieters. Put that on a team which might have Roberts and a real shortstop and Adam Jones up the middle, and damn straight it looks like a baseball team, one that might actually give Orioles fans something to feel good about, because it will at long last be a team that's fun to watch. It won't instantly gift them with pitching to make the game's tighter, but will at least translate into a better product on the field, and better still, one worth investing your hopes, cares, and dollars in.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Signed RHP John Van Benschoten to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [12/5]

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Reportedly came to terms on a seven-year, $161 million contract with LHP CC Sabathia. [12/10]

It's automatically understandable that a power lefty pitching within Yankee Stadium's dimensions is always going to be something of an organizational imperative, even if we can't be entirely sure that everything will be as it was in terms of how balls in play act in the new park. It's automatically understandable as well that the Yankees are, by their own lights at least, supposed to be the team that winds up on top when it comes to heaping untold wealth to ink the best free agent in any given winter. Given the uneven distribution of local revenue money within the industry, these are things we can probably take for granted. In the broad, perhaps geological overview of the game's history, it takes real villains to make matters otherwise-Hal Chase, say, or CBS, or the madness of King George in the '80s-to really throw these certain truths off the rails. To his credit, Brewers GM Doug Melvin played his hand boldly; his early throw-down of a nine-figure offer was inspired, and perhaps as happy an indicator of a sense of the value of rational expense in the pursuit of excellence as has ever been seen in Milwaukee. Even so, seeing Sabathia wind up a Yankee is something which I think we all accepted, as fans or historians, writers or analysts.

While the question of Sabathia's unprecedented dimensions and what that might mean for his durability cause concern over any deal beyond the standard, cautious, sane three-year contracts most above-average pitchers might have to make do with these days, I guess I take the historical view; twenty years ago, people were saying David Wells wouldn't last, and that Randy Johnson kid was a freak show you should catch before he disappeared into legend. What is new or unprecedented inspires caution because of its newness, and while Sabathia's the first pitcher with his blend of gifts and girth, he's not necessarily the last. People are bigger in this century than they were in the last, or the one before that, perhaps ad infinitum going back to the start of the Dark Ages.* By its nature pitching is the game's great unpredictable quantity, and it seems odd that we might quail in the face of something unprecedented in terms of its hugeness in terms of what it took (and, with a nod to team tailors, will take) to suit Sabathia up in Bomber duds. Put a huge talent in the nation's media center, and what won't we get from that? If he lasts, it's a thing of beauty, a great player on the game's biggest stage. (A great African-American player at that-this is the sort of high-profile move that might help Project RBI, or at least I hope so.)

A key provision of the deal is that on some level, it's a three-year deal with a provisional big back end, as Sabathia can enjoy the first three years and $69 million, and then have the option to opt out of the final four years and $92 million. This seems like an extremely reasonable state of affairs-say the Yankees falter in these next three seasons, and Sabathia decides he'd rather take his chances someplace else? As much as this is being framed with concern over whether or not Sabathia might be California dreamin' after three years living in canyon country in the Big Apple, I think this should instead be seen as a mutual bet, the team on the player, and the player on the opportunity. If he gets hurt and you have to eat a big chunk of change down the line, you weren't going to escape that risk regardless; there's no way the option would be anything other than a player option. If the Yankees aren't looking very contender-y three years out, Sabathia can dust off and head for fame and fortune elsewhere, while the team can shrug off a huge amount of debt and instead look for ways to employ that capital to re-gear and give contention the next, best shot.

Consider the contracts already on board. After 2011, they'll be at a pretty interesting point. The big-ticket deals for Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui run out after 2009. The current contracts of both Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter expire after 2010-will they still be monuments made flesh on the diamond, and re-signed for big money? Or will they be nearing Bernie Williams-like excusals from further action? Chien-Ming Wang might have left via free agency by then. Jorge Posada's deal runs out after 2011. So does Brian Cashman's. As sharp as Cashman has been in steering the good ship Yankee in a much more competitive environment, will he line up the right help to keep the famous people famous, and to score enough runs to keep Sabathia and Wang happy? While the suggestion that these things might come to an end might not be popular to anticipate, the game adapted to Braves-free Octobers easily enough-nothing is forever. I know, in the heady times of talking about the move into the ATM with foul poles, such talk might seem pessimistic, but I think both the organization and the player are right to hedge their bets, because it isn't like the Red Sox or Rays are about to go away, and as the Blue Jays know only too well, geography can define destiny, and while that isn't entirely fair, that's life in the AL East.

Which brings us back to the simple fact that having Sabathia set for three seasons is a great bet, and an absolutely worthwhile risk to take on if you want to win in baseball's best division, regardless of whether the deal's segmented or not. Is it a gamble? Of course it is, but if the Yankees get seven years of good work, or even three or four of great work and some less so, it will have been worth it. With Wang lined up as an extremely different kind of rotation regular, and with the gaggle of young talent lined up behind them, they've got a good front end on a staff already operating with the benefit of better depth in the pen. If the bet was on Sabathia's being a unique talent who might make all the difference over Mark Teixeira being a great first baseman over seven years (for the sake of argument), I'll take the pitcher in this instance, acknowledging that finding a first baseman who can help you score runs is easier than the Yankees have made it for themselves in recent seasons. If they make the right kind of move to fix their problems as far as adding a bat or two-at first and in center field in particular-then this could add up to short-term contention and a strong pylon to build a pitching staff upon, and an appropriate use of scads of cash for a team that really has no business doing other than spending it.

*: If anyone studied this, it might have been Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a historian whose taste in research subjects has been as broad as a Sabathia game jersey, but to my knowledge, he hasn't, leaving me to make a lazy guess that your average inhabitant of the Roman world had better nutrition than your average survivor of the barbarian invasions, no differently than the average Native American towered over the conquistadors and explorers. With civilizations as with CC Sabathia, it helps to have a broad, muscular, and stable platform that lets you guarantee speedy delivery on staples for success, like grains or fastballs.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Signed C-R Joel Galarraga and RHP Jerome Williams to a minor league contracts with spring training NRIs. [12/9]

An interesting pair. Williams' career went off the rails with shoulder problems, weight problems, and perhaps most fundamentally performance problems, but the former Giants prospect managed to come back and do some good work for Las Vegas at the tail end of 2008 (including a 21/6 K/UBB ratio in 26 IP), and he's pitching with sporadic effectiveness in the Mexican Winter League. It can't hurt to take a look, at the very least. Galarraga's interesting as well, a stick-thin catcher-he's listed at six feet and 154 pounds-out of Cuba who's spent the last couple of years in the Mexican League, this past as the regular for the Petroleros de Minatitlan. He threw out 49 percent of opposing basestealers last year while also hitting, and hit .318/.416/.440. Drawing 52 unintentionals in 439 PA is promising, but he's obviously not someone with a power stroke, and at 27, he's not a developing youngster, but between his potential value against the running game, the patience, an obvious facility with Spanish, and a peak translation of .256, that sounds like a pretty interesting candidate for backup backstop to complement Kurt Suzuki at some point in the very near future.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Outrighted RHPs R.A. Dickey and Sean White to Tacoma (Triple-A). [12/5]

The agony here is that, as a semi/sorta/kinda knuckleballer, Dickey's part of a shrinking minority within the game, and won't we all miss them when they're gone? To which I agree, it's great to have knuckleballers knocking around, but the enthusiasm for and modest celebrity awarded to Dickey in the face of repeated beatings sort of defies a reasonable person's capacity to accept. I know, it's all about the absence of a bit of connective tissue, and sure, it's remarkable-and been remarked upon already, so please, let's turn the page. If you're a flutterball fanatic, better that you take a few deep breaths and keep waiting for things to go Charlie Zink's way in Boston, or Chuck Haeger's in San Diego, and continue to treasure Tim Wakefield as a national treasure in the meantime. As for the Mariners, here's looking forward to seeing what Jack Zduriencik does with the roster space in tomorrow's Rule 5 draft.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Dealt UT-R Ryan Freel, 1B-R Brandon Waring, and 2B-R Justin Turner to the Orioles in exchange for C-R Ramon Hernandez and cash. [12/9]

I'll admit, my feelings about Ramon Hernandez are complicated. I still remember and glory in the memory of his game-winning, bases-loaded sac-bunt single in the 12th inning to win Game One of the 2003 ALDS. (A pity about the series' outcome, I know, the bad guys won.) So to see him get a new lease on life in one of the game's great bandboxes... well, I'm sort of glad, actually. He can hit for power and this is a park that makes everybody, even Felipe Lopez, look like a power hitter. For the Reds, this wasn't cheap: the Orioles are only kicking in around $2 million towards Hernandez's $8 million salary, and buying out his 2010 option will be another $1 million spent, but considering that Freel was going to cost them $4 million, it's money better spent than that was, basically $3 million to bring in a veteran catcher who can handle two-thirds of the season and give you some offense. Ryan Hanigan's believers might be a bit worked up, but admit that your man's already 28-he's not a prospect, he's a guy who deserves and should enjoy a Mike Redmond-like career as a worthy backup backstop of the kind that you aren't afraid to play. In the DH-less league, this adds up to a lineup slot that isn't just Bako-free, it's actually going to be able to provide at least league-average offense at a position where getting it is easier said than done when you don't have one of the stars on hand. In short, this was a nifty move, one where the Reds shouldn't regret getting out of their obligation to Freel, the additional salary taken on, or the middling prospects surrendered. Credit Walt Jocketty with a relatively cheap win-now move, with the question really being whether or not he'll have a win-now team once camps open.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Claimed RHP Jeff Fulchino off of waivers from the Royals. [12/8]

Astros fans looking for some hulkster to feed their need to root for the Charlie Kerfeld types might have found an appetizer of sorts, in that Fulchino's nothing if not huge, and throws little besides heat. No word yet on whether or not he has a similarly goofy taste in t-shirts, but until he gets something with better wiggle in it to fool people with, there's not a lot of reason to suspect that Fulchino's going to make it something you should worry about.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Signed 4C-R Casey Blake to a three-year, $16.25 million contract, with a $6 million club option (or $1.25 million buyout) for 2012. [12/9]

Now that was pretty easy, and given the relative benefits of investing this kind of commitment in Blake and, say, throwing the money away on a Jack Wilson rental, the relative benefits here seem obvious. I'm not even all that concerned about the stumbling block this erects in front of top prospects like Josh Bell and Pedro Baez, given that both are a few years away from really coming into the big-league picture, and given Blake's convenient positional flexibility. If, by 2011, the Dodgers have Bell ready to take over the hot corner, and have to sort out getting Blake enough at-bats between third, spotting for James Loney against lefties, and stomping around in left, that sounds a lot like one of those nice problems that good teams with depth relish and employ to advantage.

Beyond that, Blake's has been something of an improbable and pretty interesting career, if only because he didn't get fair or full consideration from the Blue Jays (who drafted him in the seventh round in '96 after a college career as a hitting machine at Wichita State) or the Twins (around the same time they were deciding that David Ortiz couldn't help them either) or Orioles in his first seven years as a pro. It took the Indians to take a chance on him in 2003, at which point he was pushing 30, making him something of a latter-day Hank Sauer or a rich man's Olmedo Saenz, a guy who ends up having a better career in his thirties when most people's are winding down. Blake could always hit, making some contact but not tons, hitting for some power but not tons, getting on base quite a bit but not so much that he'd get us statheads frothing for him, in short, someone who's mere goodness at several things instead of obvious greatness at any of them helped get him overlooked repeatedly. Staying in the weaker league's a good idea, and certainly his playability at all four corners can make him a bit of a treat for a National League skipper should Joe Torre decide to spice things up a bit and get funky with his double switches. That Blake hung on to garner this kind of payday is a nice tribute to a lot of people-former Blue Jays scouts or latter-day Indians execs foremost among them-but perhaps most of all to him. Not that his career was in danger, but a segue to a few years in Japan or picking the wrong organization to sign with after 2002 could have made all the difference.

The real question is how much this represents a commitment to Blake DeWitt as a second baseman and to Chin-Lung Hu and Ivan DeJesus Jr. at short, but here again, I see that as a nice problem to have. If DeWitt's conversion doesn't take, and August rolls around and the Dodgers are playing Hu and DeJesus, or mixing in Tony Abreu at second, does that really sound so terrible? Not when Jack Wilson's the alternative, certainly, although that's obviously a weak-sister argument as lazy comparisons go.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Re-signed 1B/3B-L Mike Lamb to a one-year contract. [12/9]

Technically, the Brewers are only on the hook for the $400,000 minimum, with the balance of his $3 million salary being paid out of Carl Pohlad's coffers. (The historically minded among you might remember the tradition of financial assistance flowing from the Twin Cities to the Brewers' balance sheets, but to be fair, that was an ownership group ago.) Setting aside the extremely modest financial considerations, retaining Lamb makes all sorts of sense, whatever his limitations as a third baseman. Part of this because he's an interesting sort of bench player, a lefty bat who can play at either corner with plenty of experience pinch-hitting. He has his limitations-he can get overpowered by harder throwers, which really makes him more of an early-game pinch-hitter (avoiding high-velocity relievers) and a spot-starter you really have to pick your spots with, as opposed to merely plugging him into a platoon or using him as a late-game bench weapon. Scout and identify those handicaps, and play him to his strengths, and you could still get good work from him. He really had the misfortune of having a bad first month as a Twin, and as happens too often in these situations, he didn't get hot enough long enough to inspire confidence the next bad patch he ran through, which ended up snowballing on him to the point that he wasn't getting the regular playing time to work his way out of his stone-cold start, miring him in a rut so deep that even the penny-wise Twins decided to hang the expense and chuck yet another Plan A as their bid for a title got dicey. I don't mean to criticize the decision-ditching Lamb was better than leaving him to char in a pit in a clubhouse corner TBNL-but it strikes me that this was yet another haphazard solution to the club's lineup problems that didn't work out, and for a team as penurious as the Twins and as cautious about shopping for any kind of outside help, affording these sorts of mistakes costs them more than bigger turkeys do in other markets, of any size.

NEW YORK METS
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Reportedly came to terms with RHP Francisco Rodriguez on a three-year, $37 million contract, plus an option for 2012. [12/9]

We'll see what the conditions and costs associated with the option are, but all in all, I have to reign in my natural contrarianism and agree with my colleagues that this is a nice little deal as such things go, and a lovely first step towards fielding a quality bullpen in Citi Field. The real problem isn't just having a ninth-inning guy to accumulate those keen statistical footnotes (GF, for example) en route to victory, of course. Given K-Rod's limitations as a closer of the most contemporary, one-inning sort, what the Mets still need to do is round out their pen, not simply settle for the big name and attendant press conference. That means following up on what Joe suggested last week, and making a point of going and getting Juan Cruz as well-Cruz, and not signing Trevor Hoffman or Brandon Lyon, not somebody famous, not necessarily someone hugely expensive. Make it Cruz, or maybe someone who comes free through non-tendering. Maybe even take a chance on Fernando Cabrera while you're at it-just because you're one of the 'have' franchises doesn't mean you can't take a page from the 'have not' playbook. While I still count myself among the very few who think you might get good work out of Aaron Heilman, I can also accept that he's both somebody you can't count on, and someone who might need the proverbial change of scenery. But whatever else, don't settle-this is a team that didn't accomplish doodlysquat last year or the year before. Just because the Phillies had you for lunch two years running doesn't mean they can't be had, and what's been killing the Mets these last few years has been an inattention to the details while doing the big, noisy things that people remember.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Signed RHP Brian Slocum to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [12/8]


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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