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February 10, 2009

Transaction Analysis

All the Moves

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
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Agreed to terms with C-S Jason Varitek on a one-year, $5 million contract, with a mutual option for 2010; outrighted 1B/OF-R Jeff Bailey to Pawtucket (Triple-A), but invited him to spring training as a NRI. [2/6]

Re-signing Tek has to be about the worst instance of smoking them because you've got'em after blowing it by not landing Mark Teixeira. Spending money for its own sake because you didn't spend it on things that actually help you represents, what, a bad investment on a depreciating asset that's supposed to make the Red Sox eligible for TARP assistance? Speaking as a weak-hitting veteran of a bad bank's softball team (Banzai Daiwa!), maybe the proposals to build a really bad bank will require a softball team, and then (of course) a team captain and backstop of appropriately expensive stature.

Setting aside the stupefying expense of taking another spin with what's left of the former star, admittedly the Red Sox didn't have great options behind the plate, but at least they had options. They would have been able to see if Josh Bard can bounce back from last year's disaster playing for the Padres, and if he hasn't, they would have been back to sorting between whether and how to platoon Dusty Brown and George Kottaras. I guess the real reservation I have with Varitek is that if you're going to play him to best effect-for defense as much as his flagging arm permits, and starting against lefties-that completely blocks Brown, who might be the best player of the lot. It also reproduces much of what Bard might be good for as well, since he's another switch-hitter with a better track record against southpaws; if Varitek's getting those starts, he'll superficially look better while Bard, even if he is back, will suffer for it, at least statistically.

All of which might add up to a scenario that gives Kottaras, the true lefty hitter from the lot, the inside track, because his perceived virtues as a hitter with some patience and pop against right-handers might garner him as much as 40-50 percent of the playing time behind the plate. Except Kottaras only hit .242/.345/.458 against Triple-A right-handers last season, and as he enters into his age-26 season, it's not like he's a spring chicken as prospects go. Add in that he doesn't even have Bard's defenses against the observation that he doesn't slow up the running game (there is only one Chris Young when it comes to being defensively indifferent to baserunners), and Kottaras looks less and less like a great guy to groom for the future in some sort of job-sharing arrangement with Tek.

Push comes to shove, I expect it'll play out about how you would think, where experience, expense, and name recognition inspires Boston to revert to their Opening Day 2006 alignment-Varitek and Bard-which was such a great idea the first time around that it lasted all of three weeks. Add in the questions over whether they'll have a shortstop who hits enough to hold his job, and the Red Sox lineup looks like it'll have problems that extend beyond the ones that create so many questions about the heart of the order.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Avoided arbitration with RHP Justin Verlander by agreeing to a one-year, $3.675 million deal. [2/3]
Outrighted RHP Eddie Bonine to Toledo (Triple-A). [2/4]

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Avoided arbitration with RHP Brian Bannister by agreeing to a one-year, $1.7375 million deal. [2/4]
Avoided arbitration with 4C-L Mark Teahen by agreeing to a one-year, $3.575 million deal. [2/8]

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Avoided arbitration with RHP Matt Guerrier by agreeing to one-year, $1.475 million contract. [2/5]

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Acquired OF/C-R Eric Fryer from the Brewers for LHP Chase Wright. [2/4]

Even before the Yankees signed or re-signed their assortment of famous people to front the rotation, they had a pretty broad cadre of young pitching talent to sort through, with more on the way. What that means for organizational soldier types like Wright is that you wind up something of an organizational pimple, squeezed between good stuff below and the only semi-permeable barrier of big-league freedom. Letting him ooze out of the organization as a result of bringing back Andy Pettitte was just a simple acknowledgment of Wright's lot, especially when it wasn't really an effective use of a spot on the team's 40-man for a team that already sold off a decent fifth starter in Darrell Rasner, and doesn't have rotation space for Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy.

So, credit the Yankees for getting something that doesn't have to go straight onto their 40-man for somebody they had no use for. After getting picked out of Ohio State in the 10th round of the 2007 draft, he shined bopping against Low-A competition in the Sally League last season, hitting .335/.407/.507. Given that it was his age-22 season, he wasn't especially young, and he's also not considered much of a catcher (he played left while better prospect Jonathan Lucroy was on the team), but the Yankees already have a solid set of catching prospects, so they can afford to move Fryer to an outfield corner and see whether his bat makes a case for an accelerated promotion timetable beyond this year's initial assignment to Tampa in the Florida State League. Admittedly, Fryer's going to have to make a good impression fast to have much of a shot at a career as anything more than an org soldier, but at least he has that chance, where Wright had none. Credit Brian Cashman and company for getting value when ditching Wright was something of a fait accompli.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Traded OF-R Matt Murton to the Rockies for UT-S Corey Wimberly. [2/4]

Since I've been relatively critical of Murton's non-value to the A's, I love this exchange, and not just because Wimberly feeds that old Lance Blankenship vibe any proper A's fan should be able to groove to. Not that he's really a prospect, since he's coming into his age-25 season and hasn't made the jump to Triple-A, let alone the majors, but he has a fun set of skills, getting on base (hitting .291/.370/.345 in Double-A), stealing bases (59-for-75), and splitting his time between second, short, third, and center. Wimberly's also a switch-hitter who's stronger against right-handers (hitting .296/.382/.349 against them for Tulsa). Finally, he wasn't someone who had to be added to the 40-man, so while he might be an in-season fix once the team's infield issues crop up again, they don't have to worry about who's optionable or headed for the 60-day DL just yet. While Murton's perceived value might outstrip Wimberly's upside, I've long seen that value as radically overstated and more than a little impractical in terms of his real-world uses; getting Wimberly strikes me as an effective re-use, but people still thinking the A's got full value in the Rich Harden trade are no doubt disappointed.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Claimed LHP Brian Burres off of waivers from the Orioles; designated C-R Curtis Thigpen for assignment. [2/4]
Avoided arbitration with LHP Brian Tallet by agreeing to a one-year, $1.015 million contract; claimed RHP T.J. Beam off of waivers from the Pirates; designated UT-L Russ Adams for assignment. [2/5]
Agreed to terms with RHP Shawn Camp on a one-year, $750,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/8]

One of the bittersweet benefits of having junk on your 40-man is that you don't have to endure any lasting regrets about trimming it to snag other people's junk. Burres and Beam aren't really good pitchers, but the Jays are desperate for functioning arms to help them get through this season, and Burres in the rotation and Beam in the bullpen are pretty realistic possibilities heading into camp. There's also a larger than zero chance that both men get cut during the season, because both are basic bits of organizational flotsam, but when you're left to dumpster-dives to shore up a staff, you can't be too picky when you find something with actual meat on the bone.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Signed RHP Tom Gordon to a one-year, $500,000 (base) contract. [2/6]

While Flash is now almost as famous for his fragile elbow as he used to be for his curveball a couple of decades ago, or his Stephen King-generated celebrity, I rather like this pickup. After pitching in Philly (let alone the hammer-and-tongs mayhem of the AL East), he's used to coping with a high-offense environment, he's signed a deal the value of which is directly tied to his availability (he could get as much as $2.5 million more if he's healthy all year), and since he'd already collected a $1 million buyout from the Phillies, it isn't like he's really hurting too badly to have signed a deal so barely beyond the MLB base pay rate. Add in that the Snakes don't have an established closer per se, but might actually instead sign on for the latest push to make committee-oriented closing the pen's M.O., and Gordon becomes a nice alternative to Chad Qualls, Jon Rauch, and Tony Pena that perhaps frees up Bob Melvin that much more and allows him to employ each to better effect at any point in the ballgame.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Avoided arbitration with 3B-R Garrett Atkins by agreeing to a one-year, $7.05 million contract. [2/3]
Acquired OF-R Matt Murton from the Athletics for UT-S Corey Wimberly. [2/4]

This actually seems like a great match between opportunity and player. Murton's value to most clubs is relatively limited; he's not a good outfielder, and he's not an especially good regular in a corner when he's not a tremendous power source against right-handed pitching in most environments. However, put him in Coors Field, and he has his uses, and on a Rockies team that has only one outfielder we might really consider "established" in Brad Hawpe, Murton makes a great addition. At the very least, Murton could be an excellent platoon caddy for Hawpe, though the defensive limitations of both might make this a less-than-perfect platoon, in that both halves would need a defensive replacement, instead of one of the two representing that for the other. However, the questions over who's starting in center and left are such that this might be Murton's last best shot at an everyday job.

Much depends on whether or not the club picks between Carlos Gonzalez and Ryan Spilborghs in center, or if Clint Hurdle likes what he sees and decides to run with both; here again, there's a platoon possibility of sorts between CarGo and Spilborghs, but it seems safe to anticipate that whatever Gonzalez does in camp, Spilborghs is going to get 400 PA as a relatively regular outfielder across the three slots, since he can play all three. The real questions, not just for the Rockies in general but particularly where Murton's concerned, are whether or not Gonzalez wins a job and whether or not Dexter Fowler makes a case in camp for an accelerated timetable. Both things might happen, but if CarGo and Fowler both need to go back to Colorado Springs, falling back to a lot of Murton playing left field (perhaps being spotted by Ian Stewart against tougher right-handers) is a pretty good holding position until the kids are ready. Murton might have the advantage of immediate readiness, but he'll have to hit enough to hold any share of any job, because Fowler and Gonzalez are obviously the future in two outfield slots. While Murton and Spilborghs might get to stick around as the right-handed foils for the lefty-hitting Gonzalez and Hawpe and the switch-hitting Fowler, Murton hasn't really demonstrated that he can handle an irregular, platoon-oriented role, where Spilborghs already has.

That sort of real-world consideration aside, however, that's potentially a pretty tasty combination for their outfield. The Rockies aren't a realistic bet to contend, not even in the NL West, but this sort of combination of talent might give them an outfield that makes up in general offensive value what it lacks in star power. Murton isn't a long-term fix, but as a placeholder he's a good fit, and the relative price in terms of talent surrendered was about right for their purposes, since Wimberley wasn't a great bet to push his way into the crowded infield picture, let alone win out over Eric Young Jr. as the team's eventual prospect plug-in at the keystone.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Signed LHP Randy Wolf to a one-year, $5 million contract. [2/6]

There's really not much to say than that the terms are perfect, because everyone's aware of the risks involved with employing the always-fragile Wolf, but the upside value reflected in his performance for the Astros down the stretch last season is such that it's worth it for the suddenly starter-starved Dodgers to choose him over LAIM* alternatives still on the market. While we have to preface every sentence in this segment with "if healthy," if healthy, Wolf slots into the third spot in the rotation, and thus potentially helps the club ratchet down the workload and expectations likely to be placed on Clayton Kershaw, Eric Stults, and James McDonald. Kershaw would seem like a reasonable lock, though how the team tailors his workload might create a tandem starter-like scenario with McDonald or veteran non-roster invites like Shawn Estes or Jeff Weaver. Picking a fifth starter from among Stults, journeyman Claudio Vargas, or the NRI veterans isn't fun, but it's endurable as long as you're having just one. As long as we're covering all the bases in Dodgy rotation matters, there's the non-mystery of the Jason Schmidt Limited Edition Magic 8-Ball, providing the same exciting answers year after year: "Feeling Better-ish"/"Not Quite Ready Yet"/"Ouch!"/"Shucks, that was my favorite tendon"/"Sproing!"

One of the cool things you can anticipate in-season as ever is that Will Carroll can be counted on to identify when injury stacking and the sheer workload piling up on a specific team's training staff starts impacting their ability to do effective preventive care. Ideally, Wolf won't be joining Schmidt as far as logging training-table time, but it's the obvious risk that could prove debilitating to the team in other areas. It might also earn the team some sort of honorable mention come time to hand out the 2009 Dick Martin Award, because the challenges the team's taken on are considerable, and if the team successfully manages Kershaw's workload, creates a solid role for McDonald, patches effectively with the veteran add-ons, keeps Wolf in working order, and gets something out of Schmidt... OK, it's February, and I let myself get carried away. Things will go wrong, and that makes for a massive stack of ifs, but if some number of these things go right, Joe Torre, Stan Conte, and their respective staffs will deserve a lot of credit.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Avoided arbitration with 2B-R Rickie Weeks by agreeing to a one-year, $2.45 million contract. [2/3]
Acquired LHP Chase Wright from the Yankees for OF/C-R Eric Fryer, and added him to the 40-man roster. [2/4]>

I suppose if you squint at him in the right light (or wrong, since YMMV), Wright might resemble Doug Davis back when the Brewers took their chance on him, because he has his virtues. Even so, this is more a matter of the Brewers' desperation for starting pitching help, because Wright's a fifth starter aspirant likely to take pastings in every one of the league's numerous bandboxes, and whose mediocre stuff won't help him reach much above that level of utility. Add in that it cost the Brew Crew a semi-decent prospect, and this was a pretty steep price to pay for the kind of depth you're better off not using, even when you're currently looking at a rotation that has to live with the aspirations for adequacy of David Bush or Jeff Suppan, plus Seth McClung penciled in as the fifth man. That the Brewers are in this situation reflects horribly on how their winter went; that they resorted to trading for Chase Wright, a talent of the sort who might be getting outrighted off of somebody's 40-man at the end of March, only makes matters worse.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Agreed to terms with 1B-L Ryan Howard on a three-year, $54 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/8]

That's huge money for a huge guy, but I guess I haven't signed on to the somewhat de rigueur sabermetric fashion of bashing Howard just because he is perhaps too much loved by the mainstream media. That sort of reaction formation is perhaps inevitable, but as Marc Normandin pointed out today, it isn't like Howard's without value in the non-Pujols segment of the universe, and locking him up through his age-31 season is about as far as they really should go with a player sporting his assortment of old-player skills and questionable work afield. Eliminating the headache and potential fractiousness of a couple of big-ticket arbitration cases the next two years is a modest benefit, he's well-suited to continue exploiting the benefits of bopping in CBP, and while he can be neutralized a good bit by a quality situational lefty, his career slugging against southpaws comes it at .471, which isn't something you just pull from the lineup in an era where carrying a platoon first baseman is a luxury you find afforded only in table-top leagues. That's not to say the Phillies might not be uniquely positioned to help themselves on this score by taking advantage of their previously adding Ronny Paulino-it would be pretty cool to see them plug in Chris Coste at first against the truly good lefties to give Howard the occasional break.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Signed OF-L Cliff Floyd to a one-year, $750,000 contract; designated RHP Matt Bush for assignment. [2/5]

Floyd can't really be counted on to play an outfield corner every day, but he won't be, instead slipping into a reprise of last season's role with the Rays as clubhouse eminence grise and all-around good guy and model example for younger players. However, with the questions over Kevin Kouzmanoff's shoulder (not to mention how it makes sense to deal him and get Chase Headley back to the hot corner), there should be some semi-regular spot-starting in left in Floyd's future, as well as plenty of pinch-hitting at-bats as the team's best late-game option. I don't want to make too much of negating the Giles factor in the clubhouse, but a guy like Floyd is the sort of solid citizen who can do things for younger players that pure coaches can't, and on a Pads team that can't help but treat this season as a learning exercise, that has value that far outstrips the modest amount of cash in play.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Released 2B-L Adam Kennedy unconditionally. [2/9]

Now that's decisive. The team has plenty of space on the 40-man, so this was just a clear-cut decision to say good-bye and go in the perhaps inevitable "other direction." And why not? If they're lucky, someone will pick Kennedy up and the team will recoup some small portion of his salary. While what you might see as their remaining in-house options aren't no-brainer great-Brendan Ryan's not an everyday player, and Brian Barden's probably stretched as a fielder to play second with any regularity-there is the likelihood that Jarrett Hoffpauir is about as ready as he's ever going to be, so camp should be interesting. If you're looking for an instant solution outside of the organization, however, there are still good ones available if the Cardinals decide to spend some money. They could make a late entry into the lists to take their shot at employing Orlando Hudson or see if Mark Grudzielanek would take a modest, incentive-oriented offer; either option represents an upgrade of living down the mistake of signing Kennedy in the first place. In full disclosure, at the time I was positive on the deal, but when Kennedy cratered as clearly as his top comparables suggested he might, and injuries hampered up any opportunity of his helping out much in the first year of the deal, the subsequent risks and disappointments clearly outweighed the limited benefit of extending the relationship.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Agreed to terms with LHP Scott Olsen on a one-year, $2.8 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/8]


* LAIM: League-Average Inning Munchers. It's not an insult, really, just a label to apply to the Rick Mahler types, bless the lot of them.

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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