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January 30, 2009

Transaction Analysis

NL East Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Non-tendered LHP Chuck James. [12/12]
Signed 4C-S Greg Norton to a one-year, $800,000 contract. [12/19]
Signed RHP Kenshin Kawakami to a three-year, $23 million contract. [1/13]
Signed RHP Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60 million contract; outrighted LHP Francisley Bueno to Gwinnett (Triple-A). [1/15]
Signed RHP Mike Gonzalez ($3.45 million) and OF-R Matt Diaz ($1.2375 million) to one-year contracts, avoiding arbitration with both. [1/19]

While Omar's bullpen makeover got a lot of early-winter attention for the cannonball run it represented into the pool of prospective relief solutions, let's not sell Frank Wren short for what he's achieved this offseason in putting together a rotation that his club might plausibly contend with. Lowe at this price is a bargain, especially relative to the kind of money that was thrown at A.J. Burnett or has been rumored to be going to people like Ben Sheets or Oliver Perez. Keeping him in the DH-less league for his age-36 through age-39 seasons is a reasonable investment for a guy who's taken on a fifth of his team's starts seven years in a row, his skill set has proven to be equally durable, and while the Braves' infield defense leaves something to be desired, ground balls are high-percentage outcomes that Lowe should deliver with the reliability for which he's justly famous. As Clay Davenport noted about Kawakami, he may not be a great pitcher, but he stands a pretty good chance of being a solid rotation regular. Add in the previous trade Wren made* to bring in Javier Vazquez, and you've got a unit with Lowe up front, Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens lined up behind him, and Kawakami and retread discovery Jorge Campillo at the back end of the rotation. While that isn't a great unit, it's a competitive one that might actually do more than well enough to lift the Braves back into contention for the first time in years, and add some meaning and color to the tail end of Chipper Jones's career, as well as to the front ends of those of Brian McCann or Yunel Escobar.

Obviously, much remains to be resolved-the entire outfield is a blur of question marks where nobody should be considered a reliable option, and Casey Kotchman needs to get his career in order as well. The bench has its virtues-Norton's a playable pinch-hitter and reserve bit for all four corners, but shouldn't be stretched into anything more than that, while Omar Infante, Martin Prado, and Dave Ross all have their uses. But as far as major feats achieved this winter, while much of it really was a matter of money, conjuring up a rotation is a feat worthy of note, and when you add in finally getting the benefit of a full season from Gonzalez in the pen, the pitching staff at least has some promise. Even there, though, we'll have to see whether Bobby Cox can pick the balance of a pen from among the rest of the supporting cast; what was once one of his signature virtues as a manager has been a little more open to question in recent years, as the unit's disintegrated into a profusion of big innings punctuated by a mounting tally of intentional walks.

*: On the 204th anniversary of Napoleon's self-coronation, for those of you who fancy knowing such things. Vive l'empereur.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Non-tendered C-R Matt Treanor. [12/10]
Non-tendered RHP Joe Nelson. [12/12]
Signed RHP Josh Johnson to a one-year, $1.4 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [12/19]
Signed RHP Scott Proctor to a one-year, $750,000 contract. [1/6]
Signed RHP Logan Kensing to a one-year, $660,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/7]

This might come across as somewhat harsh in Treanor's case, since the guy had to get patched up in October to repair a hernia that exacerbated his hip problem, but why bother with arbitration with a career-long backup backstop? Good marks for citizenship and ethic and his work with the staff aside, other people do those things well too, and they don't come with the danger that some panel's going to hand out a seven-figure contract to a player replaceable at a fraction of that. Maybe the Fish have catching issues-how much hope and faith do you feel like investing in John Baker?-but they had one even had they held onto Treanor. We'll see if Baker repeats last year's good work, and Mike Rabelo should be back from injury as well.

Similarly, I was a bit skeptical about the necessity of going to arbitration with the immortal Joe Nelson, a changeup artist a year removed from shoulder surgery and a few seasons removed from having a season anywhere as useful as last season's. The lesson of the market with second-tier relievers (or lower) is that it's a bit silly to get overly worked up over the virtues of any one of them in particular. As with Treanor, you can find a thirtysomething looking for a break for less than Nelson was going to get from an arbitration panel, and perhaps get every bit the guarantee of good work that Nelson might provide.

Enter Proctor, who is the actual item of concern, because where I'd make the argument that you can find cheaper journeymen just as likely to give you a good year as Nelson, Proctor's one of the few whose body of recent work leaves so much to be desired that I'd take at face value the assertion that he's one of the few relievers on a 40-man roster we can be certain will do less well than Joe Nelson. Happily, the minor amount of expense to bring in a token veteran to round out the pen is in the range that the Fish can afford, and with as many young, live-armed fireballers as they'll be looking at in the pen this spring, there's not even necessarily all that much danger that Proctor's going to get that much more than a garbage-time role.

NEW YORK METS
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Acquired RHP Connor Robertson from the Diamondbacks for LHP Scott Schoeneweis; non-tendered RHP Ambiorix Burgos and 2B-R Argenis Reyes. [12/12]
Signed RHP Tim Redding to a one-year, $2.25 million contract. [1/12]
Re-signed 2B-R Argenis Reyes to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [1/15]
Signed INF-L Alex Cora to a one-year, $2 million contract; signed RHP Freddy Garcia to a split minor league contract worth $1.5 million (base) if he makes the 40-man roster, and gave him a spring training NRI. [1/22]
Agreed to terms with RHP John Maine on a one-year, $2.6 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/30]

With the major news coming early when Omar Minaya addressed his bullpen's issues by first landing K-Rod via free agency and then helping to pull off the three-way deal that added J.J. Putz to the pen, he's been a bit more understated in addressing a lop-sided rotation potentially bedeviled by additional concerns over whether or not Maine will be able to give them a front three worthy of the name as he bounces back from shoulder surgery. Notionally, getting Oliver Perez back will help resolve this somewhat, but one of the operating assumptions in the proposition is that Mike Pelfrey's going to be able to keep doing what he just did. We'll have to see, but bringing Perez back would make some measure of sense, because while taking flyers on Redding and Garcia to give them a broader menu of options might help, that goes only so far. Redding's not really a good starter as much as he's someone who will take the ball every fifth day; with a Support-Neutral Lineup-Adjusted Value Added rate (or SNLVA_R) almost precisely dialed in at "adequate" (he was at .50014). That has a lot of value in a world where dealing with the only occasional availability of better talents is a fact of life as far as staff management, but a reliable fifth starter isn't exactly the same thing as a foundation for success. Still, despite merely modest peripheral numbers, Redding did that well while facing the 20th-toughest slate of opposing hitters in the aggregate by OPS among all pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched. That's unlikely to be repeated-getting to see the Nationals instead of pitching for them will certainly help, let alone swapping them out for the Mets' lineup-so you can invest a reasonable amount of confidence that Redding will be able to live up to the expectation of giving the Mets 30-plus starts and enough winnable ballgames to make the money more than worth it.

In contrast, Chief Garcia's sort of an interesting balance of upside risk at a price most teams should envy. A split contract essentially costs them nothing if he shows them nothing in camp, but if he's capable of delivering something now another six months removed from his shoulder surgery, there's the possibility that he might actually earn a solid chunk of the more than $6.5 million in incentives he could earn if he's able to contribute at the big-league level. It's not a solution for a rotation that probably still needs one more arm, but it's a roll of the dice well worth taking, and a credit to Minaya for winning out in the bidding on these kinds of flexible terms.

As for the odds and ends, getting Schoeneweis' contract off the books rids the roster of a seriously limited situational lefty, and getting the $2 million back by making him a Snake while still paying $1.6 million of his salary lets them afford Redding-easily a worthwhile exchange and a good bit of money management, before even getting into how easy it should be to replace Schoeneweis if the Mets decide to add a second situational lefty to the pen to supplement Pedro Feliciano's efforts. Getting Robertson as well just cinches it as a worthwhile move, because he could be a serviceable reliever at the back end of the pen should they decide to make room for him. As for putting Cora on their bench, that's a nifty bit of bringing in someone you can spot for either of the everyday players on the left side of the infield while subtly slipping somebody onto the bench capable of filching a good number of starts from Luis Castillo at the keystone.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Acquired C-R Ronny Paulino from the Pirates for C-S Jason Jaramillo. [12/10]
Non-tendered RHP Scott Mathieson, then re-signed him to a minor league contract. [12/12]
Re-signed LHP Jamie Moyer to a two-year contract. [12/15]
Signed LF-R Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million deal. [12/16]
Signed RHP Chan Ho Park to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. [1/6]
Signed 4C-L Greg Dobbs to a two-year, $2.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/16]
Signed LHP Cole Hamels to a three-year, $20.5 million contract. [1/18]
Signed RHP Ryan Madson to a three-year, $12 million contract and CF-S Shane Victorino ($3.125 million) and RHP Joe Blanton ($5.475 million) to one-year deals, avoiding arbitration. [1/20]
Signed RHP Chad Durbin to a one-year, $1.635 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/21]
Signed OF-R Jayson Werth to a two-year, $10 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/22]

It's important to separate how much of this is a matter of the things that new GM Ruben Amaro Jr. inherited from a World Series-winning ballclub-like deciding to re-up with the ageless Jamie Moyer at a reasonable rate relative to market pay scales for a durable starter-against the facets he's elected to weave into the design. The initial returns certainly aren't flattering, because deciding to sign up an aging DH type like Ibañez early in the winter looks very much like a rookie mistake. Here we are, seven weeks later, and the market still has better options knocking around like Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, and Bobby Abreu. Admittedly, his Manny-ness is almost certainly out of the club's financial reach, while Philadelphia's probably not going to ever act out a prodigal son tale with Abreu, but Dunn would have provided the club with a better balance of OBP and power in a park where baserunners get plated more easily than elsewhere. Add in some consideration of the better options who have subsequently signed for less-not least Pat Burrell's deal to play for the Rays-and you have to elevate Iba˜ez to a signature elective choice who seems very likely to leave Amaro making apologies in the future, whatever else he does in the months and years to come.

Then there's Park, a pitcher who has only lately reacquired a reputation for utility, and someone who Amaro's brought in to take seriously as a rotation option. Have we forgotten the contract that set Texas aflame for years so soon? Park is still that pitcher, even after a decent little season for the Dodgers in something of a swing role-the performance that got him even this contract. Saying he can start isn't a guarantee that he can, not when he ran out of gas last season, and even then, starting him comes with deciding that you can just turn a blind eye to his still-profound limitations as a right-handed pitcher who can't get lefties out. Last season's .301/.399/.464 against all left-handed batters-not some subset of good ones-wasn't unusual, not when his career mark is .271/.369/.450. Put that in a bandbox like CBC, and he can be the kind of starter who makes every lefty batter with some lift in his swing into Ryan Howard for a day. Wasn't this already the problem with Kyle Kendrick, and why he wound up out of the rotation down the stretch last season? Failing to recognize or remember that, you then spend $2.5 million (or more, if you really explore this route and let Park get into his incentive clauses for playing time) to wind up back in the same place all over again? That's not to say that Park might not have his uses as a spot starter against certain righty-heavy lineups, and as a long reliever most of the rest of the time, but that's asking Charlie Manuel to instigate a paradigm shift in how people manage their rotations, and whatever the many's many merits as a manager, that strikes me as very unlikely. So, the Phillies spend a bunch of money on Park; like spending a bunch of money on Blanton, they're about to remind themselves that how far they go has everything to do with how the front of the rotation does and the lineup delivers, with best-case scenarios involving these winter investments doing no harm. Good luck with that.

If there's a place for Phillies fans to take some solace, it's the trade for Paulino. Not that the sulky and bulky former Buc is the second coming of Johnny Bench, but he can be a good receiver, he's had his moments at the plate, and for a team that has to balance Carlos Ruiz's failure last season against Chris Coste's limitations as a receiver, he makes for an interesting alternative. Some flags might fly forever, but that doesn't mean the organization has to wed itself to Ruiz to the bitter end, and while Jaramillo was perhaps also worthy of some consideration, the Phillies are right to put the near-term possibility that Paulino might help them right now ahead of any exploration of Jaramillo's virtues. That's because the team has Lou Marson on the way up, with Travis D'Arnaud further down the chain; whatever his future holds, Jaramillo didn't really have one with the Phillies.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Released RHP Jesus Colome, but subsequently re-signed him to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [12/10]
Agreed to terms with OF-L Willie Harris on a two-year, $3 million contract; non-tendered RHP Tim Redding. [12/12]
Signed RHP Daniel Cabrera to a one-year, $2.6 million contact. [12/29]

While Cabrera's more talented in terms of what he can do in front of a speed gun than your usual Jim Bowden retreading attempt, he lacks even the sporadic effectiveness that made Esteban Loaiza or Jimmy Haynes or even Ryan Drese appealing in that market segment defined by !"gun-to-my-head, sure, I'll give him a shot." While you can hope that Cabrera's going to be able to reverse his fortunes by moving to the easier league and away from the beasts of the AL East, how much easier, really, is life going to be pitching in the unbalanced schedule against the four better ballclubs of the NL East? Ditching the DH or no, life does not get easier when you're left picking between four good opposing lineups with few holes among your divisional opponents. As bad as last season's numbers are, the basic back-of-the-baseball-card numbers don't give the depths of the horror justice: sure, the man walked 10.4 percent of all hitters he faced last season, but he also almost won the triple crown of the less-recognized Nolan Ryan suite of unhappy pitching stats, leading the major leagues in hit batsmen with 18, finishing two back of the MLB leader in wild pitches (but leading the AL with 15), and tied for third in stolen bases allowed while witnessing 27 of 31 attempts succeed. That's extra baserunners and extra bases that make a bad pitcher worse.

We can argue over whether those represent symptoms or betray a more basic inability, certainly. After all, whether we're talking Ryan or Rick Vaughn, you can endure the goofy statistical feats as long as the guy's getting people out at home plate, and Cabrera simply hasn't of late. Add in the problems that Eric Seidman identified in today's article about Cabrera's extreme difficulty getting swing-and-miss outcomes that goes with his losing the ability to throw breaking stuff consistently or well, and as talented as Cabrera has been, there comes a point where you have to ask the guy to stop bonking about already and just deliver. Increasingly, that's looking more and more unlikely for Cabrera, so while the money's relatively modest (even if it really took "outbidding the Mets and Pirates," and what does that say about those team's needs?), the outcome's not really all that promising, and if he does deliver, where does that leave you? Either throwing much more money at an inconsistent commodity for a subsequent extension, or if he's really pitched so well as, say, Oliver Perez, that he's in the territory of your being able to safely offer him arbitration en route to his departure for considerably more money than you probably should pay. Even then, given this organization's management practices, where does an additional pick-assuming Cabrera even earns that sort of status, perhaps no sure thing after his recent suckitude-leave a Nationals franchise that screwed up getting top pick Aaron Crow under contract last summer? Those sorts of considerations might encourage you to think that Bowden might instead enter into this relationship gunning to simply stock his rotation and potentially flip Cabrera at the deadline for goodies if the wild man settles down, but how much faith can you really place in Bowden being able to swing that when he's come up short on deadline day the last few seasons?

Where I was initially willing to be generous and see Bowden as an aggressive mover and shaker perched atop a player development program that had done pretty well at keeping the system stocked, his long-term investments in players like Austin Kearns and Cristian Guzman (or Dmitri Young) and more speaks ill of his judgment as far as big-league talent, and the farm system's track record for generating talent is getting worse on his watch instead of better. When you get bad at the big and little things, and you're left with trying to hang your hat on minor success stories like getting some good work out of a guy like Harris, you really need to ask whether the real problem was the decision to retread Bowden when no other team was likely to ever make the attempt after his long track record of decline and failure in Cincinnati.


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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