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December 8, 2009

Prospectus Today

Arbitration Ambush

by Joe Sheehan

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On a day with a news gatherer-to-news ratio approaching infinity, the most interesting stuff happened late and didn't involve anyone signing anything. Three of the 23 free agents offered arbitration by their clubs accepted by the midnight deadline, scurrying safely off the market and taking the risk that a one-year deal will look better than whatever might be available.

The most notable of these three was Rafael Soriano, who had a strong season for the Braves, spending most of it as their closer. Soriano has been effective when healthy, and he struck out 102 men in 75 2/3 innings last season while accumulating 27 saves. His poor track record of health-he missed most of 2004, 2005, and 2008 to injury-was going to hinder demand for his services even coming off the big year, however, and with a base of $6.35 million and strong basic stats, he can make good comparisons in an arbitration hearing. You can expect the names "Brad Lidge," "Kerry Wood," and "Brian Fuentes" to all be featured prominently should his case get to a hearing room. Soriano outpitched all of them last year, and has career stats that compare favorably to that group, all of whom made at least $9 million last season.

The best reason for Soriano to accept, of course, was Juan Cruz. Cruz, comparable in ability and performance record to Soriano, hit the market tied to a first-round pick that crippled demand for his services. Soriano is better than Cruz, but not by so much that the prospect of forfeiting a high draft pick to sign him wouldn't put a crimp in his holiday plans. Once the Braves offered him arbitration, they diminished his potential 2010 earnings to the point where accepting the offer was probably his best move.

This caught the Braves, who spent last week replacing Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, unawares. The team now has a wealth of relievers, with Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito already on hand, and arbitration-eligible Peter Moylan, and now Soriano too. That's maybe $23 million for four relievers on a team that is likely to keep its payroll under $110 million, maybe under $100 million, and is currently missing at least one outfielder and a first baseman. I joked the other day about the team trading Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada, which is how they handled the similarly surprising decision by Greg Maddux to accept arbitration a few years back; the Braves already needed to trade a starting pitcher, but now that need becomes a financial one, and makes it less likely they can make a good baseball deal by trading Derek Lowe. It may also affect their tender decisions-does Kelly Johnson get an offer? Does Ryan Church? Soriano's choice may have wide-ranging repercussions for a team that in its best days was a bit too conservative about money, and is far from those days.

The other two calls were simpler. Rafael Betancourt isn't as good as Soriano and would be competing with a whole bunch of pitchers who look a lot like him. I can think the world of him, but the industry has never seen him as special, and he's likely to do better through arbitration than he ever would have on the market. Similarly, Carl Pavano doesn't look much different from the Braden Looper class of free agents, and goes into the room off a full season of strike-throwing. He won't make great money, but there was no assurance he would have gotten even a major-league deal had he opted for free agency.

Of the six Type-A free agents who declined arbitration, four probably won't see their fortunes change because of it. Chone Figgins may or may not already be a Mariner, and three of the others are John Lackey, Matt Holliday, and Jason Bay. The final two, however, are taking a risk. Mike Gonzalez is the left-handed version of Soriano, fantastic when healthy but only intermittently so. He lacks the high save totals that drive up a salary, and he hits the market off a relatively low-cost season. The parallels to Cruz, who started last winter as seemingly a high-value stealth option and ended it signing a deal, barely, with the Royals, are pretty striking. I'm not sure many good teams-the bottom 15 in the first round-will be willing to give up a first-round pick for the risk he entails, and I'm not sure many bad teams will find it worth their while to spend eight million bucks on a reliever.

Gonzalez has the benefits of being left-handed and coming off a big year. Jose Valverde is a second-tier right-handed closer who had minor injuries that hampered his availability last year, has a bit of a reputation as a head case, and is older (32) than you think he is. His strikeout rate has declined for three straight seasons, and as a fly-ball pitcher, he's something of a risk to go Lidge in any subset of 50 innings. What I'm saying is that I might spend money to sign him, and I might give up a draft pick in the top 75, but I seriously doubt I would do both of those things.

Just eyeballing the market, there simply aren't many teams specifically looking for a closer, and of that group, few who seem likely to pay market rate to sign one. Valverde would be an improvement for the Orioles, Blue Jays, maybe the Rays; the Tigers, Marlins, Nationals, and Cubs could all slot him as closer. Of those teams, though, only four are competing in '10 and of those four, only the Cubs and maybe the Rays are spending money. The Rays are highly unlikely to make this kind of signing. There just aren't many places for Valverde to go. I think he, even more so than Gonzalez, may be the guy standing around on Valentine's Day wondering why no one loves him.

Christina will go into depth on all of the actual transactions from yesterday. Here are my bullet-point thoughts on the limited number of deals that were reached. I'll cover Figgins when it closes:

  • The Nationals made a completely unnecessary two-year commitment to Ivan Rodriguez, paying $5 million above the minimum salary for those two years to a player who is no longer worth even that kind of money. The idea that he might mentor Jesus Flores is silly; Flores is already a better player than Rodriguez, is good defensively, and only an injury stood in the way of his having a big year in 2009. If the Nats are capable of limiting Rodriguez to 120 at-bats a year… well, they're still wasting money, but at least it's just money. If he cuts into Flores' time, I mean even a little, they're just going backwards. This signing is a waste of resources that doesn't speak well of an organization that maybe I have to stop making excuses for.

  • The Nationals did make a decent pickup earlier in the day, acquiring Brian Bruney for what will likely be an inconsequential player to be named later. Bruney misses bats, always has, with 218 strikeouts in 221 1/3 major-league innings. He's rarely been able to throw enough strikes to stay in a high-leverage role, which is why the Yankees have made him available. The Nats have run through a few guys like this, from Joel Hanrahan to Mike MacDougal, and now it's Bruney's turn. It's not a bad play to keep trying out hard throwers who miss bats in the hopes that one of them finds his command. It worked for the Mariners last year with David Aardsma, and I suspect that it could work well for the Nats and Bruney. I like the move.

  • Brad Penny to the Cardinals just seems to fit. Penny hasn't been a strikeout pitcher since 2004 and has generally had decent ground-ball rates. Coming off a 2008 season lost to injury and a 2009 comeback in which he was about a league-average starter, he joins Dave Duncan, guru of thirtysomething pitchers at a career crossroads. Given that Penny has already had success with a down-in-the-zone approach, and at times has been a strike-thrower, he represents more raw material than Duncan usually gets to work with. He certainly looks better than, say, Joel Pineiro did when he made the trek to St. Louis. If nothing else, he'll replace Pineiro's innings at a somewhat lower level of performance, but he has some upside and is most likely going to be a three-win pitcher at a bargain price of $9 million, max. This is a strong move by the Cardinals.

  • Adam Everett re-signed with the Tigers for not much more than the minimum salary. This increases the pressure on the Tigers to get more offense from the rest of the lineup, as it commits them to Everett and Ramon Santiago, two non-hitters, at shortstop. It may not matter for 2010, as the Tigers could fall to last in the division no matter what they do.

I'm trying to stay away from doing analysis of things that haven't actually happened yet. The trend towards the serious analysis of rumors as if the events have happened strikes me as the writing of fiction. I won't do it, especially in an environment where so many more things that aren't happening are being reported than ever before. I love the Hot Stove League, but it's possible, even probable, that we've reached the saturation point for bad information reported simply because there's a need to feed the beast. To the extent that I can stay out of that cycle, I will.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Rafael Soriano,  Year Of The Injury

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