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January 6, 2009

Transaction of the Day

Pat Burrell

by Christina Kahrl

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TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LF-R Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16 million deal. [1/5]

To be blunt, it would be hard to find a more perfect signing this winter-length, value, lineup balance, even warm-fuzzy considerations like a Florida resident coming home or the more pragmatic matter of taking a dubious defender and bringing him over to the DH league for a team that has an open DH slot-and there's really no kink to this deal that shouldn't leave you impressed.

First, there's the length and value. Inking Burrell to a two-year deal to acquire his age-32 and age-33 seasons is a significantly different proposition than investing in Adam Dunn or Raul Ibaņez or Jason Giambi or Milton Bradley, similarly DH-like types that the Rays considered; guys who can play at playing a position but probably shouldn't. If you look at Burrell's basic physical assets-age, athleticism, and durability-he comes out ahead of each of those three on at least two counts. Dunn and Bradley are the two who are younger, but even in this market you weren't going to get either of them for just two years, or at any length at $8 million per annum. The Phillies have already misjudged the market and overpaid for Ibaņez. Giambi for a one-year deal might have been interesting, but let's face it, his track record for health was spotty, and headed into his age-39 season, why take that risk? Burrell's played through various nicks over the years, really only losing significant playing time in August of 2004, when a bum wrist forced him to the DL. You might notice that he's hit for plenty of pop since, so this wasn't an owie of the Brent Gates career-killing variety. We can all fret over whether or not Burrell's occasional foot problems might be exacerbated to a greater degree playing on the Trop's carpet, but what can I say, we live in an imperfect world.

Then there's the question of what he'll deliver in terms of performance. Even with the league change, expecting 90-100 walks seems reasonable enough, and his power shouldn't evaporate as a matter of his departing Citizens Bandbox, although his career clip of .517 there is a far sight better than his .473 career mark everywhere else. Even so, you might reasonably expect something like 30 homers if he gives you 600 plate appearances. Those are the things that the Rays are banking on, and if they get them these next two seasons, they'll score this a success.

There's also the question of how and where Burrell snaps into the lineup. As a near-everyday DH, sure, but he also presents Joe Maddon with an alternative to the lefty-hitting Carl Crawford in left. So, as a sometime outfielder he should provide some value, especially if there are stints where Crawford might substitute for B.J. Upton in center (whether for normal rest days for Upton, or because of injuries). The more interesting dilemma is going to be how Maddon sets up his lineups with two very TTO-type plodders in it in Burrell and Carlos Peņa: Will he separate them? Or, because of their power and handedness, will he make Peņa the cream filling between Burrell and Evan Longoria? Will even that block of 30-homer guys get broken up by Upton, if you take Upton's October as the preview of season-long cannonades to come?

For the sake of argument, let's assume that Akinori Iwamura and Crawford are set up top, and that Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett are going to be batting eighth and ninth more often than not. That leaves you with the third through seventh slots to stock, with two thunderfooted base-to-base guys in Burrell and Peņa. You're not going to get a ton of hits as a percentage of their total contributions-maybe 20 percent or so of Burrell's PA, and 21-22 percent of Peņa's. Guys like Upton and Longoria can and will deliver significantly higher numbers of base hits in their playing time, something on the order of 24 or 25 percent of their total PAs. Put Burrell third and leave Peņa in the cleanup slot, and you end up risking a few manufactured-run innings to gun for a few big innings that help get Longoria and Upton some elevated RBI opportunities.

On the other hand, if Maddon leaves Upton third because he's a blossoming star and gives you a front three that can run as well as gun, I wonder if having Peņa, Burrell, and the similarly TTO-oriented Matt Joyce* wrapped around Longoria in the fourth through seventh slots won't lead to a slightly inefficient offense, where the Rays score fewer runs on the year than you'd think given their season's tally of run components (hits, extra-base hits, walks, hit batsmen, steals, and the rest). Bat a bunch of guys who don't get balls in play very often as a percentage of their total playing time-hits as a function of PAs, so not PAs, and certainly not BABIP-and that gets us into the territory where the A's so often seemed to find themselves when they had an offense. It shouldn't make a massive difference in individual games over the season's six-month march, but if the Rays wind up running negative on their third-order wins, with a record slightly worse than you'd expect because they score fewer runs than you expect, I wouldn't be surprised. The flip side of the proposition is that Burrell grounds into very few double plays, and while some of that was batting in a Phillies lineup where other people run exceptionally well, it'll be interesting to see in a relatively quick Rays lineup that is already pretty good at avoiding hitting into the deuce. (On the other hand, the Rays did pretty poorly in a lot of the other components that go with speed and execution on the bases-getting Carl Crawford for a full season will help some, but it looks like the Rays ought to focus on some extended base-running drills in camp.)

All in all, this looks like a winning move. It should give the lineup the pop that patches like Cliff Floyd couldn't, and it provides a right-handed power source to balance against the addition of Joyce for more lefty sock, giving the Rays a nice group of power that'll run that much deeper into the order. It didn't cost them all that much, and it wasn't something they had to commit to for any longer than makes sense for the thirtysomething set. In short, it's an outstanding hook-up of team needs and player skills.

*: I know it's polite to talk about the "open competition" in right field between Joyce, Gabe Gross, Justin Ruggiano, Fernando Perez, maybe a re-inked Rocco Baldelli should they go that route, and a partridge from a pear tree to be discovered later, but let's be serious about the likely outcome of that fight. Talking up Perez is just standard-issue fanthead steals-mongering; he's a nifty aspiring reserve type on this team, and would make a nice starter in center for several second-division teams, but his offensive production's well shy of what most teams expect and get from their right fielders, and he barely showed up at the position after his debut for that very reason. Baldelli (should he be re-signed) and Ruggiano are looking at something that might be bigger than a strict platoon role, but I wouldn't envision either winning the job barring a Joyce disaster on the scale of Exiles this spring. Although the notional incumbent, Gross didn't contribute much in the way of power, and had some scary-bad moments in the outfield-it's best if he's seen as the insurance policy in case Joyce has an awful camp, and perhaps someone who gets dealt before Opening Day when Joyce doesn't. So why call this a competition? Because it's January and it's too early to start squelching ambitions, especially when you're a team in charge of so many guys' competing ambitions, so why rush that facts-of-life talk before the convenient fiction of camp performance spells things out for those concerned?


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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