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February 12, 2009

Transaction Analysis

Price Check on Sluggers, Aisle Six

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Designated 4C-L Scott Moore for assignment. [2/10]

While Moore had a down year last season, he's not that far removed from prospectdom, having starred in Double- and Triple-A in 2006 and 2007 respectively, and given the number of teams with fuzzy third-base situations-paging Ed Wade-someone might want to ask after Moore, either as a depth-related selection, or as some sort of consolation prize to whatever unhappy suitors are left jilted by Joe Crede. While last season's .247/.321/.408 (and .246 EqA) for Norfolk was ugly, it was also a year in which he struggled through hand and knee problems; in '06 and '07 he posted Equivalent Averages in the .270s. Given that he's only entering into his age-25 season, I think it isn't improbable to consider him capable of a bounce-back campaign if he's given a fair shake.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-L Bobby Abreu to a one-year, $5 million (base) contract. [2/12]

Credit Tony Reagins and the Angels brass for taking full advantage for the way the market unfolded, because while the Phillies jumped early and it's now become obvious that they massively overpaid when forced to yield to the temptation of employing the lead-footed Raul Ibaņez in left field, the Angels join the Rays, and to some extent the Nats, in adapting to the market and paying their price for offensive help, and not the bats'. Now, sure, you may consider this an instance of letting things play out before belatedly seizing the day, where some might award Ruben Amaro Jr. points for acting speedily, but there's a reason why people say patience is a virtue. Having appropriately set their sights initially on keeping Mark Teixeira only to find that wasn't in the cards, the Angels haven't caved in to the calls to spend oodles of cash for its own sake, just because they might have been willing to spend big money for a big name. While I'm sure it would be easy to have mounded up a ton of cash and made Manny Ramirez an offer in the abstract, real teams have real-world concerns, and if the Angels decided that the challenge of putting Manny in their clubhouse might tack a little too closely to their past frustrations with Jose Guillen, can we really blame them for that?

Instead, Reagins and company took a look at how the market has unfolded, dialed down their expense to something much more affordable, and did the right thing in terms of committing to something as brief in its duration as it is fortuitous in its invention. If you don't want to spend more than $25 million for a year of Manny Ramirez and you didn't want to commit to a large multi-year obligation for any of the DH-bound corner outfielders on the market, that's just good common sense. The upshot is a perfect add-on, someone who might mean as much as a boost of at least two games in the standings, because in signing Abreu the Angels are bringing in a player who addresses the team's need for an additional OBP source while also giving them some amount of power for a lineup that's short in that department as well. If, like the man he's replacing, Garret Anderson, he's something of a near-DH on a team that already has to deal with Vladimir Guerrero's mishaps afield, that's not so terrible-as far as roster flexibility, it will be better to rotate both players through the DH slot, let Juan Rivera move from one corner to the other (or DH) as the situation warrants, and basically make sure all of them keep their outfield skills honed well enough to still be playable if any one of them breaks down.

Beyond roster flexibility, signing Abreu gives the lineup a perfect plug-in for Anderson in another way: in the second slot Anderson so frequently manned, Abreu will gift Vladi, Torii Hunter, and Howie Kendrick with plenty of RBI opportunities should he deliver anything like that .370 OBP we should expect and that PECOTA projects. That puts Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales, and Mike Napoli in a pool of likelies to handle the sixth through eighth slots, flipping around as matchups warrant... it just starts to look more and more like a lineup you can score runs with. Or, as Gary Huckabay put it first, "OBP is life." But the other key consideration is that by enlisting another claimant on DH and outfield playing time, the odds that the Angels really take this winter's talk about making Napoli more of a DH to get Jeff Mathis' weak bat in the lineup just got longer. While it might impact Napoli's hitting to some extent, as he endures the banging-up of being a backstop, it'll still translate into more runs as a team if Napoli's that much more a catcher, certainly more than giving another 300 PA to Mathis involves.*

Finally, among the right-now value they get for having added Abreu, there's also a modest amount of in-game tactical virtue which Mike Scioscia might reap from this situation, because with either or both Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr. (after he recovers from his knee injury) as outfield reserves, the bench will have a switch-hitter or two who might provide some value as pinch-hitting alternatives (for Rivera or Morales, or Mathis in those games), plus some speed-all the better to pinch-run with on a team with old men in the outfield-and fielders worth plugging in as defensive replacements for Vladi or their newly signed wall-shy scuttler.

Beyond all of that, however, there's the other factor: the Angels still have that unspent money. If Morales and/or Rivera fall flat, the Angels should have the ability to address the problem as the season permits. Certainly, in light of the Nationals' decision to sign Dunn, as much as the speculation is already over whether or not Nick Johnson might be headed west to Oakland, it might be worth the Angels' to try to pick off Nick the Stick for themselves, or simply ask after Josh Willingham for that matter. If there's one lesson this winter should have driven home, it's that keeping some cash in the till gives you opportunities, where running on ahead to achieve your master plan as fast as possible can end up costing you more than you anticipate. By signing Abreu at this price, Reagins hasn't forfeited his ability to adapt to opportunities as events warrant, leaving the question of whether or not those opportunities add up to a lineup and team strong enough to make a better run at the beasts of the AL East.

*: I know, there's some thought that Mathis having a much lower Catcher ERA than Napoli might somehow represent a skill that the Angels should employ, but it's just not so. Have we learned nothing?

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Signed LHP Brian Shouse to a one-year contract, with a club option for 2010. [2/10]

I rather like this as a little bit of bullpen help, certainly more than I usually muster up any enthusiasm for a situational lefty. That's because where Shouse has had his bit of glory (and infamy) as a primary lefty in a pen, on the Rays he's really going to be relegated to a situational role earlier than the eighth and perhaps even the seventh. That's in part thanks to the team's development of J.P. Howell as a high-leverage reliever who happens to be left-handed, so that between Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and Troy Percival (later, once he's recovered from back surgery), the Rays have plenty of quality to employ in the later frames and for multi-inning stretches, which might properly relegate Shouse to an extreme situational usage pattern that lets him do his thing showing up the odd lefty power source, and then playing duck and cover at the first sign of a right-handed hitter. Given the relative differences between Joe Maddon and Ned Yost-who effectively got fired over how he handled his pen-I like the chances of Shouse delivering an effective season that might just give bitter Brewer boosters yet another reason to gnash their teeth.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Acquired RHP Matt Bush from the Padres for a PTBNL or cash; released RHP Dirk Hayhurst. [2/10]
Signed 1B-R Kevin Millar to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI; outrighted UT-L Russ Adams to Las Vegas (Triple-A). [2/11]

Millar's reputation for utility outlasted his usefulness, but as a right-handed caddy for the similarly low-impact batting exploits of Lyle Overbay at first base, I suppose he might be playable, though it's sort of like last year's putzing around with Kevin Mench. Acquiring fading right-handed corner types of even more dubious defensive value is not going to make a huge difference, not as much as adding actual good regulars would. At least you can take some solace in the Jays grabbing a freely bobbing Bush, because he's a live arm and an interesting conversion project. Indeed, with Bush's move from position player to pitcher, he gives the organization a matched pair, because they also have Adam Loewen, heading in the opposite direction. It'll be fun to see if they wind up playing together in High-A or something this season; you can pretty much guarantee there'll be at least one story on the subject, assuming this one doesn't count. Again, given the Jays' need for talent, it's fun to see them at least being creative, because there's really no downside if either guy doesn't pan out, but if both or either turn into something, J.P. Ricciardi and his scouting staff will be appropriately credited.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed C-S Javier Valentin and INF-S Alex Cintron to minor league deals with spring training NRIs. [2/3]
Signed LHP Odalis Perez to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/5]
Signed 1B/OF-L Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract. [2/11]

Sometimes a picture (or chart) is worth a thousand words, and since I'm a bit on the long-winded side of wordy, and Joe's already chimed in with a few important tacks on the topic, let's just take a look at what this means for the Nats in terms of... well, the sort of depth you might associate with a keeper league fantasy team:


1B          RF        CF         LF
Dunn*       Kearns    Milledge   Willingham
Johnson*    Dukes     Harris*    Harris*
Willingham? Pena      Dukes      Pena
Young#?     Dunn*                Dunn*

Contracts
Player      Duration  Amount
A. Dunn       2010    $20 million
A. Kearns     2009     $8 million (plus $1 million buyout of 2010)
N. Johnson    2009     $5.5 million
Dm. Young     2009     $5 million
W.M. Pena     2009     $2 million
W. Harris     2010     $3 million
J. Willingham 2011     Arbitration Years
L. Milledge   2012     Arb-eligible for 2010
E. Dukes      2013     Arb-eligible for 2011

Just run through a litany of names, and it might seem more than a little crazy, but let's face it, there are real options here. If you posit that Willingham's a regular and Milledge is as well, the construction of a Johnson/Kearns or Johnson-Peņa lineup platoon (partially with an eye towards keeping them healthy) across first base and right field involves moving Dunn between the outfield and first, depending on the opposing starting pitcher. Put in those terms, the Nats could certainly score some runs. So, it could really boil down to ditching Kearns or Peņa before Opening Day if the Nats decide to retain Johnson. As far as the probable outcomes, nobody's going to trade for Kearns, and much has been made of Dunn, another Bowden guy, rejoining his best friend and fellow former Red, Kearns. Think the Nats have it in them to upset that happy reunion? Neither do I.

To look at this another way, just review who's under contract in 2010. No Kearns (unless they renegotiate or make the mistake of picking up their option on him), no Peņa, and no Johnson. (Let alone Dmitri Young, but that milk's so spilled it would take a lactogeologist to determine which era it hit sod in.) A year into the future, that leaves you with Dunn at first base, and the outfield we sort of associate with the Nats' better future: Milledge and Dukes and Willingham, young players under control, and young players worth keeping. The Nats' backlog isn't of quality assets they have under control for a long time into the future, it's in the beat-up former prospects of the recent past. And Dmitri Young, but as if the leather pants weren't hint enough, we have Dmitri to remind us that Jim Bowden's tastes run to the exotic.

While it would be easy to reduce this to a call between moving Kearns or moving Johnson on the fiscal level, it isn't that simple; either way, it's just a one-year sunk cost that we're talking about, and on a practical level the only things genuinely sunk so far (beyond the Nats' fortunes in the standings) have been the team's investments in roster time, at-bats, and payroll. Kearns is about as immovable from the roster as Dunn is on the field, because politics and warm fuzzies are part of the business world as much as any place else in human endeavor. While some might spin their wheels on Willie Harris' value, let's be blunt, he's a filler player being paid a filler player's salary-his future isn't a key moving part here, but his utility is to the Nats after they swap some of this small legion of talent out of town.

So, my argument is this: if you're inclined to a venti blend of indecisive lethargy and inexpensive roster cowardice, the path of least resistance would involve cutting or trading Peņa (it would also involve eating the smallest amount of money). That would be sort of the wimp-out alternative, because it wouldn't yield a whole lot in return, but that's also in recognition of the fact that, by signing Dunn, there's more at stake, because now that Dunn and Abreu are off the market, not all the teams mulling the payroll hit of adding Manny or the poor production they'd have to live with if they're serious about the likes of Garret Anderson or Ken Griffey Jr. will end up affording themselves those options. As a result, the Nationals could be in an outstanding short-term position to add talent to their farm system. With corner outfielders a-plenty, they can offer prospective trading partners right- or left-handed hitters, expensive players or ones less so, those under control for years to come, or one-season rentals, because Bowden's Spare Bat Emporium has a little bit of everything to provision needy shoppers of every shape and size. The speculation of how a walks and power-oriented player like Johnson might fit in with the A's is a natural fit, but the important thing to keep in mind is that it is not the only possible fit between suitor and the suited-if Bowden plays his cards right, he'll have a chance to search not for the biggest salary dump or the biggest name(s) to move, but for the best exchanges of talent that do the most good to the Nats' organization in the long-term that also clears out the overstock issues that will come to roost on Opening Day.

But there's the rub right there: they're on the clock, and move they must, and if Bowden fails in this as decisively as he failed in swapping out Alfonso Soriano (an example employed for the sake of argument), then falling on his sword will be the least painful of the things he should be asked to do. He'll have spent zillions of Lindner bucks to little point, because while signing Dunn is awfully keen and all in the abstract, it also isn't really going to get the Nats beyond the range of wondering if they might avoid 90 losses in '09 if everything breaks their way. Either Bowden plays the stakes and swaps soon, or his ability to run the long con and keep himself employed runs the chance of being brought to a squalid and no doubt noisy end.


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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