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December 18, 2009

Transaction Action

Godzilla, Pierre, and the Beantown Duo

by Christina Kahrl

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Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed CF-R Mike Cameron to a two-year, $15.5 million contract; signed RHP John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. [12/16]

There's not a lot to say here that isn't a case of belaboring the obvious. Lackey was this winter's best free-agent rotation regular, and signing him for essentially the same deal that A.J. Burnett got last winter makes for an easy victory of the checkbook. I'd argue it's a significantly better deal, which you can blame on Red Sox genius, sunspot activity, or the state of the economy. Consider Lackey's four seasons before signing the deal against Burnett's four before he chucked the Blue Jays and donned pinstripes:

      Lackey              Burnett
Year Age  GS  SNWP   Year Age  GS  SNWP
2009  30  27  .540   2008  31  34  .541
2008  29  24  .571   2007  30  25  .559
2007  28  33  .595   2006  29  21  .527
2006  27  33  .550   2005  28  32  .522

So, to line these things up, Lackey's younger and his performance record's better, but not having a big contract year helps lowers him to Burnett's standard. Burnett followed up his deal by giving the Yankees a full, healthy season and a .530 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, nice enough if a bit dear, and to go back to the contrast, yet another year worse than anything Lackey's done in the four years running up to his journy to the Fens. I don't think we call anything involving $82.5 million a bargain, but if you wanted to pick the guy to give that deal to, Lackey's a significantly better selection. If this were an Olympic event, the judges give Theo Epstein the points over Brian Cashman, even the Russian judge, because without even noting things like inflation, Theo got the better player earlier in his career at the "same" price. Of course, happily this is baseball, not the Olympics, so we can credit Theo for striking a good deal, and see if a rotation manned by Jon Lester with Lackey, Josh Beckett, and two of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz, and Tim Wakefield will do the trick as far as keeping up with the world champs. It's certainly a better assemblage that last season's exercise in pitching a Penny and hoping that where there was Smoltz, there's fire.

Who's going to be chasing flies in the middle pasture behind that unit? That's the present puzzler for the Red Sox now that they have Cameron at a reasonable price. Cameron said the correct, polite things on the subject at the press conference announcing his new status as a Sock-why mix things up, when you're tasked with being diplomatic at a PR event? But the Sox are already having internal discussions, and perhaps, like the overreaction to "Dustin Pedroia wants to play shortstop!" non-story, they'll moot how to spin this, in-house and out.

It's well that they should. Jacoby Ellsbury's circle-the-wagons approach to center-field play is good for all sorts of fun if you're not invested in the outcome-that's one laager that makes fans reach for ballpark lager at any price. Against that, you have the older man, the better fielder, and the ugly memory of Cameron's collision with his Mets teammate, center fielder Carlos Beltran, on August 11, 2005 while playing right. That ended Cameron's season, and it was the last big-league ballgame Cameron played in an outfield corner, which is why it was notable he agreeably, publicly expressed a willingness to go to left. Against that, you have Ellsbury's youth, statistical ineptitude in center, a people's choice award for his ability to create excitement, and a ton of experience in right and left field in the far-off, distant days of 2008.

Yeah, this is really a tough call. Assuming they don't just bundle Ellsbury off to sunny San Diego to achieve that long-awaited acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez, let's have fun over the next several months, watching to see if they make the wrong choice come Opening Day. I'd credit Epstein for anticipating the nonsense, since he commented about Cameron's willingness to do whatever it took to join the team, including play anywhere. Later, when Cameron's in center and Ellsbury in San Diego or left, everyone will remember that everyone said such thoughtful, team-oriented things in December, and that what's happened is what's best for the team, and didn't they handle that well, and doesn't that speak well of everyone. Of course they did, and of course it does.

To turn back to the really good player the Sox signed to play center field for them next season, you know what you're getting, given his relative reliability. He'll walk about 10 to 12 percent of the time, provide .200 points of ISO, add less speed on the bases than you might remember from his youth (he cost the Brewers almost a run across two seasons), contribute an EqA around .280, provide a WARP value between three and four in both years of the deal.

And play a very nice center field. But you knew that.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired OF-L Juan Pierre and $10.5 million from the Dodgers for two PTBNL. [12/15]
Sent RHPs Jon Link and John Ely to the Dodgers to complete the Pierre trade. [12/18]

I'm not excited about this move, but who could be? It means the lineup's set with Alex Rios moving back to right field, where his bat's less of an asset, so instead of adding another corner outfielder, the Sox have to settle for Pierre's bat in the lineup, not a formula for scoring more runs, not unless the alternatives are limited to Jerry Owens, Jerry Reinsdorf, and some Jerry who just fell out of a Heinkel 111 pulling into Midway. However, jumping without a chute and hoping they land softly is pretty much the way the White Sox have to play it, given that whatever payroll flexibility they had for 2010 got invested in adding Rios and Jake Peavy last summer.

Perhaps this was Ozzie Guillen's white (Sox) whale-that one speed guy at the top of the order who lets him indulge his passion for "Ozzieball," getting elaborately tactical and effusing over the virtues of toothy river fish and the great virtue of a limitless capacity to annoy. Pierre's good for that, just perhaps not entirely in the way intended. I expect he'll get to steal bases, yes. To give the Sox the benefit of the doubt, Pierre's limited time in center field last season shouldn't obscure the fact that he had been a plus afield in his previous couple of years there as a regular. So they got speed and defense, two ingredients that got talked about a lot in 2005, one of which actually helped them, the defense, as they finished first in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, against their ranking 11th in team baserunning, and 19th in Equivalent Stolen-Base Runs.

What adding Pierre might also mean by way of comparison to that 2005 club is that they're basically wiping out any need to be cute, because whatever they do with the DH slot, this is looking more and more like a set lineup of eight position-playing regulars, health permitting. Pierre's .283 EqA marking the odd exception to a long stretch of .250-something marks, it seems safe to expect that .250-something, not good, but we're talking about an organization that accepted production at that level from Scott Podsednik as an everyday leadoff man in 2005. Podzilla wasn't even the worst regular, because they won with a plus defender at short in Juan Uribe (.243 EqA) while stomaching a bad season from A.J. Pierzynski (.245).

In contrast, this team has a better pair of hitters up the middle, an equivalent placeholder at third (replacing Joe Crede with Mark Teahen), Konerko and Pierzynski still in place (enduring and gamely fighting the inevitable loss to Father Time), and a proposition that an outfield of Pierre, Rios, and Carlos Quentin ought to be better than Aaron Rowand, Jermaine Dye, and Podzilla. It's not as crazy as it sounds. Rowand's EqA then wasn't any better than we should expect Pierre's to be soon, and we've seen what a healthy Quentin can do. It isn't necessarily my idea of how to build a lineup, and it probably isn't yours either, but within the organzation's frame of reference, and with the team's shot already relying on Rios and the addition of Peavy to a quality quartet int he rotation, it isn't outlandish.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed DH-L Hideki Matsui to a one-year, $6.5 million contract. [12/16]

No differently than last year's spin with Bobby Abreu, this is an outstanding move. The market's full of lefty DH types, so the winners among them will be the ones who land with the right needy team with money to spend on them. Having let Vladimir Guerrero ascend into Angels history, the Halos could afford to make a worthwhile offer, and Matsui was willing to take the gig. NuYankee's elaborate reputation as an extreme homer haven aside, Godzilla actually hit better in the other venues he played in last season, with a .197 ISO in the Bronx against .281 on the road. He's also a stronger hitter against lefties than most of his unemployed colleagues, so he's an everyday DH as long as he's healthy enough to play. Aside from that injury-plagued '08, he's managed an Equivalent Average of .290 or higher in five of the six years since his rookie campaign. You could change the year from '08 to '09 and say the same of Vladi's last six seasons, of course, but between the WHYDL factor* and the low price, you can understand the decision to forgo offering a one-year deal to Guerrero.

The other key was the plug-out/plug-in element as far as the Angels' lineup balance: losing Chone Figgins from the lineup and probably replacing him with Brandon Wood next season means the Angels were now going to be getting right-handed power from third base, in addition to what they get from Juan Rivera in left, Torii Hunter in center, and Mike Napoli behind the plate. Having re-upped Bobby Abreu, they were set for a lefty bat in right field, but not a lot of power, making a decision to go for Matsui that much more understandable. I'm probably as guilty as anyone for getting enthusiastic over what's shaping up as the most exciting winter in Mariners history, but the Angels aren't going to just roll over and play dead, and adding Matsui at these terms helps their lineup more certainly than the inimitable Mr. Bradley's going to help the M's.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHPs Scott Strickland and Matt Peterson and INF-Rs Brian Barden and Donnie Murphy to minor-league contracts. [12/14]
Signed RHP Clay Hensley to a minor-league contract. [12/15]

Oh, look, a Scott Strickland sighting. His last effective season was 2002, but sort of like Chad Fox, he generates news without actually doing anything newsworthy. It would be easy to call this the perfect ballplayer for the Paris Hilton generation, but in fairness the Strickland, he's got the scars to prove there's no lack of effort involved. He gave a good account for himself as an Isotope last year, saving 32 of 34 opportunities for Albuquerque while posting a 57/21 K/UBB ratio in 48 1/3 IP. Going to Miami on the theory that what works for Brendan Donnelly or Kiko Calero must be an option for him as well seems like an eminently sensible bit of placement by his agent, and interest from the club. I'm less hopeful for Clay Hensley, although the short right-hander had a great spin with New Orleans last summer after getting dropped by the Astros organization, suppressing extra-base hits and keeping the ball on the ground.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded OF-L Juan Pierre and $10.5 million to the White Sox for two PTBNL. [12/15]
Received RHPs Jon Link and John Ely from the White Sox to complete the Pierre trade. [12/18]

This wasn't simply a case of doing the White Sox what the South Siders saw as a favor, in that the Dodgers did get out from under some of what they owe Pierre ($8 million), reducing their expense for Ned Colletti's past mistake by sending the Sox $7 million in 2010, and another $3.5 million in 2011. Still, we shouldn't get too worked up here. Ely's an interesting pitcher, a guy whose fastball touched the mid-90s but usually comes in slower, supplementing it with an effective changeup and a true 12-to-6 bender. He's really more of a finesse type than that sounds, but it's conceivable that he'd wind up as a useful fourth or fifth starter in a major-league rotation. His numbers at Birmingham might encourage you to hope for more: 2.82 ERA, 7.2 K/9 against 2.9 walks in 27 starts and 156 1/3 IP. However, put the unearned runs in, and you wind up with a RA/9 mark of 3.62, take into account Birmingham's a nice place to pitch, and you wind up with a 5.41 QERA. Considering he gave up just two homers in all of his first four innings combined (108 IP), and seven in the subsequent 48 1/3, durability might be an issue, so a future in middle-relief work becomes a possibility. Who knows, maybe adding Ely adds back a million here or there back to the till, money they won't have to spend on Brian Bruney in December 2011. Book that, Dano? Sure, if it helps the Dodgers avoid another one of those regrettable reunions Joe Torre seems stuck on.

Link's an easy guy to root for, a reliever with an active interest in pitching who might have his uses as a situational right-hander, having held Triple-A righties to .217/.277/.318 while striking them out in 32 percent of all PAs. He's a sinker/slider guy without more than low-90s velocity, but the slider's considered a good pitch. He's the one they have to put onto the 40-man roster and he'll be heading into his age-26 season, so he's not a wee kiddo, nor do they get to use Pierre's roster spot to some other purpose.

However, by moving Pierre off of the bench, the Dodgers do more than just get money back, they also create a spot for an outfield reserve who might fit more neatly into their needs. Say, a right-handed batter who could spot-start against lefties for Andre Ethier? Ideally, one who could also play center, which might mean this is Jason Repko's latest big break-OK, his latest big break that doesn't involve bones or soft tissue. Of course, they could also buy better on the market, but the club's seeming divorce-inspired passivity probably discourages such activities.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Clint Everts to a one-year contract. [12/16]
Signed RHP Ryota Igarashi to a two-year, $3 million contract. [12/17]

I don't know if we should credit Omar Minaya with being creative or just doing something off-beat because he's trying to mix things up, and Japan's given the organization its share of the employable enough. Igarashi's going to be 31 next spring, but his last two years since a 2007 TJS have been relatively effective, as he's posted translated DERAs of 3.76 and 4.45 and translated strikeout rates of 6.2 and 7.5 K/9. He's reportedly got a power assortment, relying on a fastball and splitter to get those Ks, but it'll be interesting to see how well that works against big-league hitters coming from a 5'11" frame. The money isn't much in the grand scheme of things, of course, but after the the disastrous attempts to come across by the Marines' Yasuhiko Yabuta and Masa Kobayashi to come over from Chiba Lotte in 2007, it's interesting to note teams' renewed willingness to take another bite at that apple.

Addendum: Everts' deal was for a major-league contract, putting him onto the 40-man.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHPs Joel Peralta and Logan Kensing and C-R Jamie Burke to minor-league contracts. [12/15]

Burke and Kensing are already intimately familiar with the Nationals experience. It seems unlikely that Burke's got a prayer of spending much time with the team, what with their having indulged themselves in the pricey Pudge experience, but I expect a large part of his role is to wind up as an experienced big-league backup backstop they'll employ at Syracuse to work with their more promising prospects. The new guy is Peralta, a situational right-hander whose limited assortment didn't go over so well in Denver. He might stick, but given his ineffectiveness against lefties (they're at .281/.356/.560 against him, career), it'll depend greatly on what extra bits Jim Riggleman decides to retain among his last three relievers at the back end of the pen. If he decides to take a page from the Manny Acta playbook and winds up with a small squad of situational playthings but few reliable relievers, Peralta fits in perfectly. If he wants to spend two roster spots on an extreme situational right-hander and (presumably) an extreme situational lefty, Peralta will do his best. If he's asked to do more than that, however, they'll both come to grief. Not that it'll affect the standings, mind you, but people pay to watch this stuff.

*: What Have You Done Lately?

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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